Thursday, January 8, 2015
“All their greatest hits, together at last”: Shades of Gray
Lieutenant Commander Data, played by Brent Spiner, is an android built by “unknown aliens” who left him with the combined memories of their people before they vanished. Data was found by a Federation research team who reactivated him, and promptly asked for a position in Starfleet, seeing humanity as an ideal form to strive for. He got one once it was determined he was both alive and sentient, which was a moment of great pride for Data. Although he is superior to humans in every respect (memory capacity, physical strength and endurance, etc.) he steadfastly holds onto an “impossible dream” of becoming human. Primarily a comic actor and performer (one of his most notable pre-Star Trek roles was a reoccurring role on Night Court), Brent Spiner was under the impression Data was Star Trek: The Next Generation's comic relief, and made a point to play him that way every chance he got.
Though it may not be as catastrophically and disgustingly racist, as “Elaan of Troyius”, “The Dauphin” keeps every ounce of its insufferable sexism, as its entire plot can be succinctly summed up as “bitches be cray-cray”: In no short order, we have Commander Riker flippantly pointing out how someone like Salia won't “have time” for Wesley (career women-such ice queens, amiright?), Salia giving stereotypical tsundere “hot and cold” “mixed signals”, Wesley actually bemoaning how confusing girls are and this gem of dialog between him and Worf:
Notice how O'Brien, who is an many ways the lynchpin character here if for no other reason than he spans both plots, gives a succinct, yet stirring, speech about being able to choose your friends and co-workers, but not your family. And notice how, in both cases, the story is resolved by an acknowledgment that the Enterprise is home: Worf discovers who his true family is when they re-create the Klingon rite of ascension on the holodeck and Riker decides to turn down the promotion to stay with his fellow travellers.
This episode, from beginning to end, is an aesthetic car fire. The Edosians look like William Ware Theiss didn't know what a 1980s was and tried to design something “hip” and “trendy” based on already dated Olivia Newton John music videos and half-overheard watercooler grumblings from his co-workers about “the kids these days”. The set doesn't help matters at all, and looks just as cringe-inducingly gauche as everything else about this episode does. The fact that it's actually a real place, the C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in the San Fernando Valley, is just even more deeply unfortunate.
And, fittingly, the Holodeck returns in this episode to play a crucial part in the Bynars' plan. We have Minuet, a sentient, hyper-aware programmed being who exists in multiple worlds at once, and the interlink between the Holodeck and the rest of the Enterprise facilitates the Bynars being able to backup their history.
...“Angel One” is another in a long line of ham-fisted TOS-style allegories that handles feminism with the same care and nuance Dave Gerrold gave homosexuality in “Blood and Fire”...
(I will add one major issue of my own: I've always been particularly put off by the scenes with Riker and Brenna.)
I feel like I shouldn't spend the entire essay talking about Tasha Yar because the episode itself doesn't do her that dignity. She dies with all the grace and honour of an Original Series redshirt a third of the way in and, aside from a bizarre and pointless ship tease with Worf near the beginning, all she gets in this episode is an “emotional” goodbye scene at her funeral where she gets to act weirdly out of character to pretty much everyone in holographic form and that's *it*. Apparently the writers thought the death of a major character was of lesser import than watching Captain Picard debate a sentient oil slick about Sadism 101 on a sound stage.
If you're watching the Star Trek: The Next Generation version, though I don't know why you would be, things are a bit different, and predictably worse. That version pulls the Avengers # 200 trick of having the child and the father be the same person, and has him declare that he wanted to learn what it meant to be human, so he made himself experience “the most human experience of all”, being born, which is frankly bullshit. The original script was bad enough: Of Irska, Ilia/Icel comes right out and says “I was her first womb”, as if that's all she is, a womb, but this version makes it all about Ian. Troi's already been raped, which is fundamentally dehumanizing as is, but now Ian has the nerve to come in and push her even further to the margins of this story. It's taking the silencing and domination inherent in rape culture and writing that back into storytelling structure.
When Picard first speaks to Krogan on the Enterprise viewscreen, the bridge of the Klingon ship looks like it's inside a furnace, with so much visible heat radiating it's impossible to make out anything but the captain, an effect I thought made the Klingons look menacing and imposing in a way they never really do. This is helped by View-Master rendering the main viewer as sprawling and overwhelmingly dominant in a way the show itself hasn't since “The Last Outpost”: Once again, it makes things seem really vast and immersive.
(Also note how this episode gives us Star Trek: The Next Generation's first proper Original Series-style doofy fight scene. In pushing Starfleet back to its reactionary roots and doubling down on them, the Borg-id forces Star Trek to relive the demons of its past.)
The relationship between the Ornarians and the Brekkians does not map onto to that of street junkies and their dealers. Most drug dealers tend to get into that line of work out of necessity, hocking illegal substances as a part-time job to help make ends meet because dealing drugs actually pays better than most entry-level or minimum wage occupations. A lot of younger drug dealers these days do so because the legal job market outright has no place for them, or they need extra income to pay for things like college tuition, which is an actual criminal racketeering operation. In fact, far from the stereotypical dealer who goes around using “peer pressure” to “bully” upstanding little Johnnies to take drugs, it's usually the dealers who constantly have to worry about being assaulted and harassed by their customers. The clientele comes to them, not the other way around. Unless you're watching Miami Vice, which, as I've pointed out, is a special case, drug dealers do not live opulent lifestyles on the back of hooking their customers into a self-destructive cycle of addiction.
“Skin of Evil” isn't even all that good. I know I'm trodding on a lot of Trekkie toes here by saying this, but I don't care. It's not. I'm not quite alone on this: Jonathan Frakes famously hates this episode, for obvious reasons, though he has softened his position in recent years likely because he knows he'd get pilloried by Trekkies if he didn't. But Jonathan Frakes is also on record calling this episode flatly “absurd”, and he's on point here too. “Skin of Evil” isn't some highbrow commentary on the meaninglessness of death and war, it's sensationalism pure and simple to get people talking about the series and how edgy” and “risky” it is, and that's *before* you get to the sentient pile of shit. Even Vasquez got to die cracking one-liners and sacrificing herself so that Ripley could live and to prevent the Aliens from gaining the high ground. Tasha gets splashed with Metamucil and falls down. At the very least you could say “Skin of Evil” is supposed to be refutation of the Original Series' body count, but that's really a stretch because the show pointedly kills off the one character who, at this point in the show's history, nobody was ever going to miss. It could only have been safer if they killed off Worf or Wesley Crusher. Nobody cared about Tasha Yar.
The Ferengi are, of course, meant to represent unchecked capitalistic greed; the absolute worst aspects of late-20th Century Western society magnified and caricatured to dangerous extremes. Even their name, “Ferengi”, originates from an Arabic term for “foreigner” that's come refer to Westerners most typically in modern colloquial parlance. In this episode they even carry energy whips, a futuristic sci-fi update of the age old symbol of the oppressor and slave owner (and yes, while I know slavery did not originate with the West, they're the ones who made it a booming and lucrative global industry). I suspect the Ferengi would show a lot of art deco influences in their architecture and design, with copious flaunting of conspicuous consumption as a demonstration of the power, status and privilege it symbolizes and that they have managed to accrue through their capitalistic practices. There would be a lot of marble flooring, golden pillars, towering ceilings adorned with faux-classical art, neo-Gothic touches and busy offices looking out into space (all the more fitting, reminiscent as it is of those archetypical “dedicated” office workers we're always told to look up to who neglect their families and their lives to keep long hours at their job into the night). A Ferengi starship would look like a high-rise Manhattan brokerage firm.
This specific kind of transhumanism is, predictably, very grounded in technofetishim and materialism. The most recognisable manifestation of this in the contemporary political climate is likely the Church of the Singularity, a Silicon Valley-based faith that professes the rapid increased in digital computer technology over the past thirty or forty years is evidence of a looming “machine singularity”, where either our computers will become self-aware or will end up absorbing humanity somehow (a common version is the belief that humans will soon be able to upload our consciousnesses onto the Internet). It's the logical end result of the existentialist, positivist, materialist, technoscience-dominated flavour of Westernism that's come into vogue over the past few decades: When humans are reduced down to machines and , shortsightedness dictates that we can improve on the inherent randomness of nature with our Will through our evolved, superior deft mechanical touch.
With that in mind, you might wonder if Captain Picard, Commander Riker and Tasha Yar are acting out of character for the rest of the episode given how quick they are to distrust Worf. Riker I will say seems a bit off (he's unusually grouchy on the freighter when Geordi and Picard are talking), but Patrick Stewart, as usual, seems to push back against any problematic bits we might have expected Picard to get saddled with, and I'm sure any of that sort of thing can be explained by the tumultuous production history this story went through. As for Tasha, well, I'd say she was acting out of character if I thought she actually had a character to be acting out of in the first place. Sadly, Denise Crosby really has been reduced to just spouting random bits of exposition as the plot demands by this point. She does get two more good episodes coming up, but no surprises that one of them is her farewell performance. And speaking of foreshadowing, we get another hint about trouble brewing with the Romulans in the Neutral Zone here. In fact, “Heart of Glory” works so well as the start of that story arc it basically effaces “Angel One” completely, not that anyone was going to miss it. Certainly Picard's “Now there's a name we haven't heard in a long while” makes no sense otherwise.
Because the Borg are, as we shall discuss far more in the future, in truth the Federation's dark mirror. Everything they claim to stand for and treasure most dearly taken to their most chillingly logical endpoint. The Borg are not merely what the Federation *could* become, they are what the Federation *will* become: An unthinking, blinkered, self-absorbed, monolithic collective of zombified capitalists bringing peace to the universe through banal economic and political neo-imperialism, just like the country it was modeled after. “We only seek peaceful coexistence!” they will implore, and they will be correct in their minds, for what, they ask, is more peaceful than voluntary subservience to a benevolent authority, such as a Philosopher King, a capitalist plutocracy or hegemonic modernity? The only price for utopia is your freedom of non-compliance and any remnants of heterogeneity in the world.