Sunday, April 12, 2015
“I'm not human”: Suddenly Human
The biggest and most important new face of the year, however, we get to meet now. Jeri Taylor, who will go on to be co-executive producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation and co-creator of Star Trek Voyager, joins the team with this episode at the recommendation of outgoing producer Lee Sheldon (the Michael Wagner of the fourth season). Taylor herself freely admits she knew absolutely nothing about Star Trek before she was asked to come in and clean up “Suddenly Human”, though she was a veteran of television drama and, between this episode and her first proper submission she went back and watched basically every bit of filmed Star Trek ever produced to prepare herself for the gig. Perhaps as a result, “Suddenly Human” feels conceptually a bit like a a brand-new show trying to find its footing and to parse out what works and what doesn't. It's elevated, of course, by the by-now seasoned cast and crew who throw together a thoroughly solid and competent outing, albeit one that's also somewhat middling and unremarkable.
The uncertain nature of “Suddenly Human” manifests most clearly when you try and piece out what sort of story it actually is. How do you choose to read it? Is this a Captain Picard story about forcing him to come to terms with his dislike of children so that he can adopt the role of a father figure? This is the reading that seems to stem most directly from the show's new post-“Best of Both Worlds”, post-“Family” mandate for “inner conflict”. And this is also, it should be stated, a manifestly different sort of conflict then the show has been playing with in the recent past, although it's still one that's very much complimentary. When, for example, Ron Moore and Ira Steven Behr like to lather on the conflict, they tend to prefer making people argue and fight one another, or putting them in situations that call their judgment into question, thus making characters we thought we knew seem dangerous and unpredictable. It's a very proto-90s grimdark approach to conflict, which makes sense given Ira Behr will go on to become one of the pre-eminent architects of 90s grimdark on television.
What we seem to be more interested in now, however, at least for the moment, is forcing characters to confront their inner demons, preferably over and over again for our amusement because actually having them heal and move beyond them isn't good drama apparently. Which brings us to the Captain Picard reading which, if you couldn't guess, I'm not especially fond of. Just because a person doesn't like a certain thing or has a particular holdup about a specific issue doesn't necessarily mean it's a vice or that they should be forced to confront those things for our amusement. Chekhov's Gun is not a principle that underlines normal, real-life human relationships and interactions. Some people just don't get on well with kids and aren't cut out for the parent role, and we should respect those sorts of decisions: It's none of our business, after all. Captain Picard not being great with kids isn't a personal failing of his, and isn't it kind of heteronormative and reproductive futurist to assume that it is? Not to mention that as someone who is similarly childless by design, it kind of strikes a personal nerve with me.
Maybe it's not about Captain Picard then Maybe it's about Jono, and how he's an irresponsible adolescent who needs a strong father figure to sort him out. Well...that's no less reactionary, first off, especially given Jono displays some sort of stereotypically punk cues in his fashion and general attitude. Star Trek: The Next Generation once again comes across as ridiculously, hopelessly old and behind the times if that's the case. Jeri Taylor says that she was inspired to write the story's climax, where Jono stabs Captain Picard hoping to be executed such that he wouldn't have to choose which family to go to, based on her experiences raising teenage sons of her own. So that's certainly valid and believable, knowing how impulsive and quick to anger teenage males can be. But that's really not enough to make it a palatable reading of “Suddenly Human” either.
Then there's the reading Michael Piller endorses, and that Rick Berman also backs up: That this episode is actually about culture clashes and adoption and someone who was raised in an environment vastly different from the one they were born in, and how they become more like their adoptive environment than their birth one. Now that's a pitch that has a lot of storytelling potential and that I can get behind, although it must be said “Suddenly Human” is kind of awful at conveying that. It's pretty obvious Jono is more Talarian than human right from the start, and that the Enterprise crew requires basically the episode's entire runtime to figure that out makes them look like blithering idiots. Special demerits have to go to Worf, Deanna Troi and Doctor Crusher, all of whom spout positively intolerable reactionary garbage all throughout the episode all about either how Jono must reconnect with the culture of his birth because that's more right and natural or how Picard must “muddle through” just like a real father does. And anyway, why would you watch this when four years later Star Trek: Deep Space Nine will cover the same themes with a lot more nuance, maturity and sophistication and in a far more fitting context with “Cardassians”?
But there is one more level at which to read “Suddenly Human”, and while it doesn't exactly redeem the episode, it does give us a clue at what might be in store for the future of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This episode is, ultimately, about a human rejecting the human lifestyle of the 24th Century. Now I'm not a supporter of the theory that Star Trek: The Next Generation was ever about the inherent superiority of its advanced humans over other cultures, though I will grant that it's a particular misreading invited by certain episodes, particularly from early on in the show's run (such as “The Last Outpost” for example). But even there, I would argue the point was the self-evident superiority of a post-scarcity society that values equality and self-improvement over one that doesn't. But those aren't specifically human traits in Star Trek, but hallmarks of the universe itself: Those descriptors could apply just as easily to the Romulans or the Cardassians.
Regardless of whether or not this was ever a textual theme (and I'm inclined to believe it never was), it's something Star Trek: The Next Generation ought to clear up for anyone who might be confused, and that's what “Suddenly Human” does, more or less effectively. Jono feels out of place in human society, and while he's not 100% Talarian either, he's more Talarian than human and feels much more comfortable with them. This could even, if you were inclined, explain why the Enterprise crew is so off-key this week: One could say they're blinded by their human bias and aren't considering Jono's feelings, and, as arbiters of Starfleet and the Federation, need to be shown the human way is not the only valid way of doing things. But I don't like that reading either, because it equates the Enterprise with Starfleet and ignores the fact that the whole point of them is to show how they embody the ideals Starfleet claims to hold better than Starfleet themselves do.
“Suddenly Human” is a bit of a clumsy, inelegant affair. It's grappling with some interesting themes, but it's not handling them as well as later episodes will, or in fact as well as previous episodes have. My reaction to it has always been one of dull annoyance: This was an episode I would catch quite a lot during TNN's (and later G4's) reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Whenever it would come on, I would remark “oh, I don't think I remember this one” because I kept forgetting the title. Then, as soon as I realised which episode it actually was, my attitude immediately shifted to “Oh ugh, this is this one”. For a time, and even as I went into this essay, I was under the impression the seventh season “Bloodlines” was a sequel to this. When I looked it up, it turned out it's not: “Bloodlines” is a completely different story about trying to trick Captain Picard into becoming a parent. So “Suddenly Human” doesn't even have that going for it. There's nothing it does that isn't done better somewhere else, and is barely competent enough on its own rights to keep you entertained by its own merits. Which is, sadly, going to be something of a recurring theme this year.