Sunday, June 21, 2015
“Deep and Confused”: Ensign Ro
It would of course be unfair to say that Ro Laren and her namesake episode only exist to set up the forthcoming fourth Star Trek series. Star Trek can and will get that cynical, and it is true that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was well into pre-production by this point. It had a name and a setting-a space station adrift near the formerly occupied planet of Bajor, a planet whose people and history are introduced here. It would probably be more accurate, however, to say that Bajor and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were ideas developed concurrently. And while certainly the possibility was always there that Ro might get spun off as the lead of the new show, “Ensign Ro” itself is no backdoor pilot: This story, and its titular character, absolutely belong to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and with Michelle Forbes now officially onboard, the Enterprise family is finally complete (or, at least as complete as it's going to get on television at any rate).
Before we move on though, it may be worth it to take a little time to talk about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as it's the more or less open secret that will be swirling around the Paramount lot for the next year or so. In 1991, then studio executive Brandon Tartikoff, whom savvy readers will remember as the former NBC exec who is credited with pitching the concept of Miami Vice (it wasn't him, but rather Anthony Yerkovich, though Tartikoff was involved in the initial production) approached Rick Berman and Michael Piller with the idea of doing a new Star Trek. The impetus was, simply put, that Star Trek: The Next Generation was a $25 million-a-year cash cow that couldn't run forever. Paramount hoped to effectively double their profit margins by having two Star Trek shows airing simultaneously, and the idea was that this new show would run alongside The Next Generation for several years (the exact number is never given in official histories, but it seems reasonable to assume it would have been another five seasons) and, when its older sibling finally went off the air, the Star Trek mantle would then fall to it.
As calculated as the move may have been, this did not dissuade Berman and Piller from pouring their heart and soul into the project. They strove very hard to come up with a show that would both thematically compliment Star Trek: The Next Generation and allow it to do things creatively they currently couldn't do, or had a hard time doing (including, naturally, the Almighty Conflict, but that's a rant for another night). Pretty much immediately the decision was made that the new show basically had to have a stationary setting, because it wouldn't be right to have two suspiciously similar shows about voyaging starships happening at the same time. That setting would need to be a space station too, as marooning the new cast on a planet would be a bit boring. A space station would also allow the show to explore the concepts of multiculturalism, diversity and community building as it would essentially be a city in space.
Around about the time the name Star Trek: Deep Space Nine began to stick, the idea was hatched to build the show around Bajor, a damaged world in the process of transition following decades of oppression and displacement that had just recently been introduced in this episode. Bajor would help bring to the show themes of healing and rebirth which are, as Michael Piller would stress, truly “Star Trek themes”. He and Rick Berman sat down with Gene Roddenberry one day to discuss all this with him, and explained that if the original Star Trek was a “Wagon Train to the Stars”, then Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would be a “Fort Laramie in Space”, a kind of science-fiction frontier town (neither of these descriptions are remotely true or accurate, but that's beside the point). Roddenberry reportedly said that he thought it was a “wonderful idea” and that they'd have to “talk much more about it” sometime. Unfortunately, that sometime never came.
(Trekkers, of course, were none too keen on the idea: Even Ron Moore and Naren Shankar, barred by Paramount regulations from knowing more than the bare minimum about the project, would joke to each other about about being confused as to whether the new crew were “going to wait for adventure to come to them”. But that's a story for Another Time.)
It is entirely fitting that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine should exist here, in Star Trek's 25th Anniversary year. A year which in truth is more like two years and lasts well into the waning quarter of 1992. Time has become freed from the shackles of illusory linearity and past, present and future are free to coexist together as one.
Which is just as well because, unfortunately, being oversignified is just about all “Ensign Ro” itself has going for it. It's saved solely by virtue of how astonishingly good Michelle Forbes is and how quickly she acquits herself to the cast dynamic. From the very outset there are problems here as Ro is clearly intended to “shake up” the supposedly stolid Enterprise crew by adding the precious conflict (Rick Berman even admits as such, stopping just short of calling the regulars boring and dull). This more than anything else is the part of the episode that anticipates Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, where Berman and Piller will start out positively tying themselves in knots trying to find ways for the crew to yell and scream and hate each other (delightfully, the show itself will flatly resist them at every turn from the outset). It's once again a very juvenile, third season conception of how dramatic conflict in narrative works and it does the Enterprise crew no favours . In fact, I don't think they've ever been made to look as bad or as hypocritical as they are in this episode, except perhaps in those movies we don't talk about.
Captain Picard is the epitome of the authoritarian military taskmaster and is shockingly unlikeable all throughout, being just awful to Ro. The scene where he briefs her in the ready room still stands out to me this day as quite possibly the single moment I despise the most in the entirety of Star Trek: The Next Generation for the tone he takes alone, and that's before you get at the very justified criticism that is frequently raised against it: Namely, in all the thousands of cultures the Enterprise is in touch with, not to mention the extensive diversity of human society itself, nobody ever once met somebody who put their family name first? That's inexcusable, plain and simple. And then the business with the earring. Ro can't wear it, yet Worf can wear his ceremonial sash, Captain Picard can wear his suede vest and Deanna Troi can strut around in scoop-neck space pyjamas? What the hell? Then there's the whole can of worms with Commander Riker, which I don't even want to get into yet. Even Guinan very blatantly invades Ro's privacy.
Ro is the only sympathetic and competent character in the entire piece, and while she is going to become a main character by mid-year, remember right now Michelle Forbes technically still a guest star. Astonishingly, Berman and Piller's own character has done the very thing they're so quick to criticise up-and-coming freelancers for doing: Upstage the regulars.
There's a plot point about a corrupt Starfleet admiral secretly conspiring with the Cardassians against the Bajorans, but it's too little too late and nowhere near as toothy a critique of Starfleet as what this show has done before. It's certainly not enough to undo the character assiasination of the Enterprise crew. We're all well aware by now of the obvious ax this creative team has to grind with the characters, setting and philosophical framework of Star Trek: The Next Generation. You've made your point, many times in fact. It's now gotten old, tiresome and obnoxious. Grow up, shut up or ship out. We know you're capable of better than this.
I mean there is of course Bajor and the Cardassian occupation, which is obviously a stroke of genius. Bringing the Cardassians back cements their status as the new rival faction, and the Bajorans' painful history of them is a perfect allegory for oppression and displacement of all kinds: The Bajorans do not stand in for any one marginalized ethnic group (nor were they ever intended to), but parallels can be drawn to the consequences of countless imperialistic and despotic occupiers throughout history working to silence the voices of others and remove their agency. This strength of concept is what gives Star Trek: Deep Space Nine such a profound and timely setup right out of the gate, as this combined with its stationary setting allows it to seriously examine the effects of post-colonialism and globalization on a grand sci-fi-fantasy scale.
But I'm getting carried away with myself.
I really am just tempted to keep talking about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine here because apart from setting it up, bringing Michelle Forbes into the family and the future knowledge that Ro Laren is going to get much better material soon, I honestly can't recommend this at all. It's one of the fifth season's rare low points, and it's just a shame it's such a crucial episode for continuity and world building purposes, let alone the fact it comes in the wake of a story that can make a serious case for itself as being the single greatest in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both Ro Laren and Michelle Forbes are way too good to get this as their debut episode. Frankly, *everyone* is too good for this. It's a waste of the talents and chemistry of every involved party.