Sunday, April 19, 2015
“To Absent Friends”: Legacy
You would think the moment where Star Trek: The Next Generation finally outlasts Star Trek would be a special occasion and cause for celebration. And yet “Legacy”, a morose, funereal affair that follows on thematically from “Remember Me” in taking a long, hard look at feelings of loss and the contemplation of that which we've left behind, is anything but. Surprisingly for a show that was supposedly more popular than it had ever been before, Star Trek: The Next Generation, for the first time, seems to feel apathetic, directionless and depressive.
Whose legacy are we looking at here? Is it Star Trek's? Apart from a requisite and hyper-obscure in-joke in the teaser about Camus II and archaeology, there's nothing really about the Original Series here. Is it Star Trek: The Next Generation's? Isn't that a little premature?
There is someone on everyone's mind tonight. Of course, that person is Tasha Yar. Her absence weighs heavily both diegetically and extradiegetically: Star Trek: The Next Generation's long, dark season of discontent and introspection has finally forced it to come to terms with its biggest and greatest failure. The universe has long changed since the trauma of “Skin of Evil” and it's going to change again, dramatically, in the not-too-distant future. But this doesn't mean the ghosts from our past have entirely dissipated, and in order for that new universe to come to pass the show will have to somehow square away its remaining baggage and try to divinate some good from it. If we're all about “facing our inner demons” now, it's only fair that we should tackle the biggest one of all head on.
I'm not entirely convinced “Legacy” does that, though. It's a definite theme to be sure, it's certainly about this need on some level, and it's telling Star Trek: The Next Generation is aware of this. But Michael Piller says that if you were to strip away all the backstory about Tasha, you'd be left with a perfectly serviceable, though middling, story about extracting Federation personnel from a crisis situation, akin to something like “The High Ground”. And he's right: Far from engaging with the spectre of Tasha Yar one-on-one, “Legacy” uses her as window dressing to doll up a filler episode. Which, as much of a kick to the gut as that is, is probably actually more fitting. Piller does say that it's a very good drama, because it hinges on the betrayal of an innocent (Data), which is always a gripping trope. Once again, Tasha's story and positionality is rendered a subservient subset of Data's. Just as it always has been.
Even “Turnabout Intruder” had the courtesy to at least be a fascinatingly hot mess of confused gender roles.
But Michael Piller speaks the literal truth. The man knew his drama, possibly better than anybody else. And “Legacy” is in fact a good drama. But being a good drama does not make it good Star Trek: The Next Generation: That is not, and has never been, sufficient. And while Piller may not always explicitly voice these truths, he is aware of them on a subconscious level because he's been guided to be here and fix things because Star Trek: The Next Generation needs him, and he needs it. We all need each other. This season is swiftly becoming the limit case of the creative team's conflict-for-conflict's sake writing style: We've got all the drama and conflict in the world, and it's not enough, because it's never been enough. Greater forces are in play, and the wheels of history are finally moving on the series. This interim reality cannot stand much longer, and it's time for us to start piecing together what the next one is going to look like.
Who is Ishara Yar? More to the point, who is Tasha Yar? Strictly speaking, she is negative space, and she can only be defined by who she is not and who people wish her to be. Data, and the crew more generally, claim to see Tasha in her sister, but they're really seeing neither. Who they're actually seeing is the ideals they projected onto Tasha and that they remember as hers. I don't think I ever saw “Legacy” growing up, but it definitely played a part in fleshing out the person I imagined Tasha Yar to be. I found Captain Picard's anecdote about knowing he wanted Tasha for his next command the moment she risked her life navigating a minefield particularly powerful, and it's always stuck with me ever since. I could almost see this incredibly brave and selfless person with a resolve of iron he was describing as if she was standing right in front of me. This was the person who I remember, and who the Enterprise crew mourns.
But Tasha Yar was never any of those things. The first season's creative team was skittish about putting a woman in an action role so they relegated her to filling Uhura's old job of playing switchboard operator. And because she was so cripplingly miscast, Denise Crosby was excruciatingly uncomfortable in Tasha's boots all year, although she put in a truly admirable herculean effort because she was well aware of the important role model she was tasked with providing. Denise even asked last year's team to giver her a chance to redeem her character and give her a proper sendoff, and that culminated in the epic, universe-warping “Yesterday's Enterprise”. An episode that, if nothing else, was about extradiegetically reconceptualizing Tasha Yar. We can't have negative continuity because the whiny fans will kill us, so we'll do the next best thing. An in-universe reboot that makes it so this Tasha will be the one people will remember.
But it still doesn't take. Tasha still dies, she just gets a sappy and cliched heroic sacrifice to go out by instead of a horrifically crass and insensitive one. That's still a failure state. The goal here should be to welcome Tasha back into the Enterprise crew *and to actually make her work*, because they desperately need her, and she needs them too. So Tasha's “Legacy”, such as it is, becomes to stand in for everything Star Trek: The Next Generation lost and cannot get back in this form. In the episode, the crew essentially use Ishara as a placeholder for Tasha and can't see her for who she really is. But that's actually who she is: Ishara was never anything more than a facsimile and stand-in for Tasha, because this episode is supposed to be about Tasha and goes back to her homeworld in an attempt to give her the backstory she never had. So when the Enterprise crew looks upon Ishara and sees the ideals they saw in Tasha, they're actually, on a metatextual level, looking upon Tasha and seeing the ideals they, and we, projected onto her. Ideals she wasn't allowed to live up to. And thus the episode really does live up to its name, because Tasha Yar's “Legacy” is one of tragedy and wasted potential.
But it's also about revisionist history.
We've already had “Yesterday's Enterprise” trying to give us a revised, definitive Tasha Yar. And “Legacy” goes even further: While the former episode was still held back by certain material constraints, the Tasha Yar we hear about here exists fully within the negative space. All we know about her is what Captain Picard and the others tell us about her, and their anecdotes are coloured by their own aspirations and sense of regret. They're performing a story that's a metaphor for the extradiegetic hole within Star Trek: The Next Generation. And this Tasha Yar sounds like a wonderful person. I would very much have liked to have had the chance to meet her and get to know her. Perhaps the memory cheats, but perhaps it can also reshape the past into new worlds and new realities.
What Star Trek: The Next Generation is beginning to do here is, effectively, rewrite its own history by creating new memories. A fictional world is nothing more and nothing less than what we believe it to be, so the simplest and most effective way to change things for the better is just to start believing it's something else. Ever so slowly, the new reality is taking form, and it's doing so by surreptitiously inserting itself bit by bit into the old one and taking its place. Tasha Yar is a creature of imagination at a diegetic level, and I can very clearly imagine how strong and how inspirational she must be. She's returned to the ethereal, amorphous and infinitely malleable realm of image and memory, inhabiting the hazy past of our deepest thoughts that wasn't necessarily the material past, but more the landscape of emotions that the past evoked in us.
I remember Tasha Yar. A tenacious woman of integrity and zeal so completely full of life. A warrior, a worker, a philosopher, a lover, a sister, a comrade and a friend. I remember her. And I won't forget her.