Thursday, January 1, 2015
“You Can Go Your Own Way”: Up The Long Ladder, Manhunt
I'll say this for “Up The Long Ladder”, though: It's impressive that Melinda Snodgrass is credited with penning both one of the absolute best episodes in the series (“The Measure of a Man”) and one of the absolute worst (well, this). Knowing who the author is, it is worth attempting to come up with at least some defense of “Up The Long Ladder”, because science fiction fans are all too eager to poke holes in stories written by women. And there are very noble roots in its conception: Snodgrass meant for it to be an overt attack on anti-immigrant sentiments in general and the United States immigration policy in particular. Snodgrass wanted to convey how immigration policies are deliberately designed to make the process as difficult as possible for no other reasons than straightforward xenophobia. There's also a laudably overt slam against the pro-life movement (how deliberate it was seems to be a matter of contention, though Snodgrass is explicitly on the record as being pro-choice) where Commander Riker immediately destroys the clones of himself and Doctor Pulaski, declaring that the cloning was done without his permission and that he has the right to control his own body. The major issue being, of course, neither theme is particularly prevalent in the episode as aired.
There are three major criticisms of “Up The Long Ladder”. the first is for the aforementioned pro-choice statement, which we can safely disregard as not worth paying any sort of attention to, and the second is the accusation that Captain Picard was wrong because he violated the Prime Directive, which I'm likewise going to ignore. The third is the only one that's really worth engaging with, and that's the fairly inarguable contention that the Bringloidi are racist and stereotypical depictions of Irish people. The backstory does seem to be a bit more complex than in “Code of Honor”, however: Instead of being the result of employing actual racists, the missteps here seem to be more the result of sloppy and rushed rewrites. Maurice Hurley is Irish himself, and it was actually he who suggested to Snodgrass making the displaced colonists the descendents of Irish immigrants and was largely responsible for their characterization in the final script. I also haven't heard about Colm Meaney raising any objections here, and it's a matter of historical fact that Meaney did at least once step in and request script alterations when he felt the depiction of Irish people was not up to Star Trek standards. This doesn’t necessarily defend the aired product, naturally, but, like pretty much everything about the second season, there might be something to be said for the fact the production team didn't want things to turn out as badly as they did.
(I will add one major issue of my own: I've always been particularly put off by the scenes with Riker and Brenna.)
The one part of “Up The Long Ladder” I do quite like and always have, however, is the subplot with Worf and Doctor Pulaski. The Klingon Tea Ceremony Worf shares with Pulaski in sickbay as thanks for preserving his honour and dignity after being stricken down by what amounts to measles is such a lovely character moment for the both of them, and it definitively establishes what Doctor Pulaski's role on the Enterprise is. Given her relationship with Worf here, with Riker in “The Icarus Factor” and with Troi at numerous points in the season, Doctor Pulaski is in some ways a reclaimed mother figure for the crew, especially given the casting of Diana Muldaur. And yet she's not quite that either, because she never quite becomes their elder, which is appropriate considering the Enterprise is largely a ship of peers.
The wisdom, experience and perspective Doctor Pulaski imparts is truly unique amongst the Star Trek: The Next Generation pantheon, which in many ways really does mark her as the show's definitive chief medical officer character, at least as typified by DeForest Kelley in the original Star Trek. Once she comes back, and in particular near the series' zenith, Doctor Crusher reveals herself to be a brilliant life scientist and a capable, commanding leader, swiftly becoming an away team and bridge staff regular. But that's a very different role than the compassionate, yet professional behavioural psychology of Diana Muldaur's Doctor Pulaski: If anything, rather than demonstrating one doctor to be better than the other, what this season reveals to us is that there really was room enough on the Enterprise for both to coexist equally and harmoniously.
Even here though, the unending problems of the second season are apparent: The Tea Ceremony scene contradicts Pulaski's behaviour in “The Icarus Factor” and arguably even in “A Matter Of Honor”, and this feels less like character development and more like basic inconsistent characterization. Furthermore, as good as it is, this scene has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the plot and functions just as well in complete contextual isolation from the rest of the episode, if not more so. Even “The Icarus Factor”, as rocky and uneven as that story was, at least managed to maintain some sense of thematic consistency: Both the A- and B-plots had at least something to do with the concept of family and where one makes it. I mean there's a rough unifying statement you could make about tolerance and understanding of other cultures, but that's too nebulous to be even worth expanding upon in my opinion.
A scattershot and dissociative approach to vignette storytelling also seriously compromises “Manhunt”, whose most immediate problem is that it feels like it was written just to loosely string together vaguely conceptualized comic bits related to Lwaxana Troi's return (because it was). Now, there's nothing wrong with doing an episode that's largely comedic in tone, but the comedy here simply isn't good: Most of the “jokes” Lwaxana brings are straightforwardly and unabashedly recycled from “Haven” (Mr. Homn, the suitcase, and so on), or worse, based on poking fun at Lwaxana's libido. Lwaxana brings absolutely none of the intriguing symbolism that characterized her debut to this episode, and her being a middle-aged woman with a healthy sexual appetite is portrayed as being something that's comically revolting, leaving all the men of the ship running in terror. Especially considering the show has a female story editor again, it's deeply concerning this show has done three episodes in rather close succession that have such egregiously sexist elements in them.
The Holodeck stuff is similarly half-baked, very obviously just being there for the sake of being there with no even subconscious attempt to engage with any sort of metafictional fun. It's plainly only there to set up the joke of Lwaxana hitting on a holographic character, which director Rob Bowman even pretty much outright *confirmed*. The equally empty Antedean dignitary plot, however, is at least supposed to be a Shaggy Dog story and does actually manage to be funny (and it's neat to see Mick Fleetwood there), I just only wish it could have backed up a better A-plot.
(Also fun to note: "Manhunt" was the first Star Trek: The Next Generation credit for makeup designer Allan Apone, who helped create the look of the Antedeans. His previous job? Miami Vice.)
The biggest problem both “Up The Long Ladder” and “Manhunt” have is not that they're just vignettes, in fact they're not even that: They're just collections of random and half-thought out ideas being thrown at the wall by a production team that's clearly running on empty. And you can't entirely blame them either: With the now-ridiculous writer's guild strike putting any and every attempt at progress on ice, it's become a Herculean effort simply to get any television made week to week at all. As it is, the episode count for this season was cut down in part because of the strike, and also due to the ongoing budget trouble the show's had since last year. The only remotely interesting thing in either episode, frankly (apart from the Tea Ceremony), is Commander Riker's statement in “Up The Long Ladder” that the Mariposa hails from the 22nd Century, a tumultuous time that not many records of which are known to survive (and that among the ships that served during that period there was apparently an SS Tomobiki and an SS Urusei Yatsura). Just knowing the historiography of the Star Trek chronology to this point, and indeed knowing what will eventually become of it, that one line has in hindsight proven to be hauntingly prescient and resonant.
It's not all that surprising, for a number of reasons, that these episode would come so soon after the introduction of the Borg.