Sunday, October 25, 2015
“Missing Persons”: Aquiel
It's even really easy, even at this early point in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's history, to see how this story would have translated. Imagine Aquiel being one of the Bajoran technical staff, let's say. Maybe even a nationalist and former resistance member, to play up her allegedly spotty past. The somewhat questionable usage of the Klingons as red herring adversaries being filled instead by the Cardassians, perhaps the crew of a “supply ship” being run in “good faith” in the interest of “joint Cardassian and Federation relations”. There's Sisko and Kira caught in the middle of a potential diplomatic incident neither of them are prepared to deal with. Former ambassador Dax plays confidant to them both. Picture Julian Bashir in Geordi's position, taking on the case out of his brash exuberance and desire to make not just a difference, but a grandiose, heroic difference and becoming predictably smitten with his subject. Put Odo in Commander Riker's place, grudgingly taking Julian on as “deputy”, cautioning him on his overt investment and maybe clashing with him over interpretations of the evidence. Complicated, naturally, by the ultimate revelation that the killer was a shape shifter; itself potential foreshadowing to “Vortex”.
This probably would never have happened because Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had literally just done a murder investigation the week before, even if a bizarre call on the part of a Paramount higher-up sent “Past Prologue” out ahead of “A Man Alone” in spite of the latter episode featuring all of the exposition one would normally expect to see in the first regular episode of a TV show. Although that said, this thought experiment does highlight some important differences between Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: The Next Generation, or at least differences in the assumptions about how the two series operate held by their respective creative teams. Because “Aquiel” is a different sort of murder mystery plot than “A Man Alone” and has a very different reputation. While I feel “A Man Alone” is underrated and understudied, it's still held up as a solid first step for Deep Space Nine while “Aquiel” holds a standing in mainline fandom opinion just slightly above “Code of Honor”.
Now I find this terribly interesting, but I'll return to the question of “Aquiel”'s actual quality a little later on. Right now, I want to focus on the comparisons and contrasts a little bit more, because they are important. While “A Man Alone” was tacitly about Odo's self-imposed isolation and the hijinks we can get up to doing a murder mystery on a space station, that was in practice just one of a great many disparate story threads and subplots that episode introduced or examined. As far as the mystery itself was concerned, Odo was really the only suspect for the majority of the story (that was, in fact, the point) and the clone business could almost be seen as a deus ex machina saving throw. By contrast, while “Aquiel” has its own sci-fi shenanigans (she's actually alive and not the victim but a suspect and there's some colony creature going around contaminating the evidence and crime scene), it's way more focused on the actual investigation and how the different characters react to it and plays out as far more of a straightforward whodunnit structure.
(“Aquiel” was, by the team's own admission, effectively conceived as a Let's Do of the 1944 film noir movie Laura, where a detective is investigating the murder of a young woman, falls in love with her, and than discovers she's actually alive. And Laura got away without any technobabble embellishments.)
Over the course of the story, we're introduced to a raft of suspects, each with their own plausible motivations: First Rocha, then Aquiel herself, and finally the sexist loose cannon Klingon commander whose name escapes me. And also like a traditional whodunnit, or at least a particular well done one, all the clues are there for the audience to find and piece together to solve the mystery themselves should they be savvy enough to notice them. Little things that nevertheless demonstrate an impeccable attention to detail: One of Aquiel's logs shows her reacting to a loud noise off camera made by something that seems to be threatening her. Captain Picard and Commander Riker note that Rocha was a “model officer”, which doesn't match Aquiel's description of a violent and controlling man. When she meets Geordi for the first time, Aquiel points out that Maura chewing up his shoes is uncharacteristically aggressive for the dog. She does that again during the climax right before it's revealed “Maura” is really the colony creature in disguise. And Doctor Crusher mentions in passing how a theoretical colony creature might get hostile and violent when it was looking to change form.
So the big difference between these two murder mysteries is actually not, as some might be tempted to suggest, Star Trek: The Next Generation's inability to properly characterize and reliance on incomprehensible technobabble coming up against Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's focus on strong character development and conflict. “Aquiel” is just as character focused as “A Man Alone”, being intended as the start of a possible romantic relationship for Geordi (I'll deal with the potential effectiveness of that later). Instead, the difference is one of scale and in how much emphasis is given to procedural form. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine gives us snapshots of life in a space metropolis: It has a huge and diverse cast of characters from all sorts of different backgrounds all with their own lives and their own agendas. Star Trek: The Next Generation is more about our core group of friends-It's got a much smaller-scale and more intimate feel to it. I'm not saying one is better than the other (actually the opposite: I think they're necessary compliments of each other), but they are different and require different approaches to writing.
As it pertains to this episode, “Aquiel” definitely feels more procedural than “A Man Alone”. But that's OK, because Star Trek: The Next Generation always has to in a sense be sort of procedural as “competency porn” (I still wish I could come up with a better phrase for that style that sounds less like a pejorative) is a major aspect of how the show operates. We watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, or at least we should, to see the Enterprise crew get along with each other and work together to jointly solve a problem or make a discovery. And “Aquiel” is actually a really good showcase for that: Geordi gets to do some work that's not just technical but involves healing somebody and piecing together a story. Will gets to look out for his friends, and Bev gets to play forensic investigator.
If it's not obvious by now, I actually really liked “Aquiel”. Frankly, I don't understand the flack this story gets from fans, because as far as I'm concerned there's literally nothing wrong with it. The big complaint from the writing staff at least seems to be that this was too tech-heavy; that there was too much jargon to follow and that they had to jump through too many hoops to explain why the tricorder and ship's scanners couldn't have solved the mystery immediately. But I didn't find that to be the case whatsoever: I instantly picked up the different clues and plot beats and had no trouble following the sci-fi stuff at all. Granted I've seen this one before, but not in over a decade, and while I knew going in that Aquiel was alive and innocent I couldn't remember anything else about the plot. I didn't have any problems with it, and honestly I think the creative team is giving their fans way too little credit. Especially if they think they're all hardcore sci-fi nerds, which they're not anyway, as we've long ago established. But even if they were...I mean, you think you're writing exclusively to old-school Trekker dudes and you think this is going to confuse them? Give me a break.
And even back then I remember liking this story a lot and not understanding why it had such a poor reputation. This is perfectly serviceable and functional Star Trek: The Next Generation of the sort that, in my earliest memories, is what I remember this show being like on average: A team of likable and iconic scientists doing what they do best and working together to figure something out. Even the low camera angle during the scenes were Bev is working in sickbay were powerfully evocative to me, because that's how I always remember seeing her: At that angle, looking up at her fiddling with a tricorder and talking technobabble with her research assistants and lab techs. It's no different from the jargon used as flavour speech in police procedurals or medical dramas. All we need is the lighting to be a lot darker, a consequence of having my living room lights off at night or my crap 1980s tube TV, or perhaps both.
If I were to muster one criticism of “Aquiel”, it would be the romance subplot itself. Parts of it feel a bit too reminiscent of “Booby Trap” and Geordi seems to have been wheeled in once again purely because the team thought “something needed to be done” with him. But it's far and away the best deliberate Geordi showcase since “Booby Trap” purely because it eases off of him and lets him do his thing. Apparently the impetus to do this story came about because Jeri Taylor felt guilty that with the O'Briens gone from the Enterprise the show was implying that the 24th century was for single people and long term romantic relationships wouldn't survive...Which kind of makes no sense. Last time I checked, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine takes place in the 24th century too. And as far as I can tell, there's something *really* interesting going on over there with Ben Sisko and Jadzia Dax.
I mean even if you were to limit your case study to the Enterprise (which *also* makes no sense as the whole point of having two shows running concurrently is to demonstrate how the universe is rich and vast and bigger than one show can portray, but whatever), it seems to me the far more interesting tack to take is to tell stories about asexual and aromantic people (which is how I read Captain Picard and Data, and, actually, Odo too) or swingers (which is kind of how I see Will and Deanna). But obviously that wasn't going to fly in 1993, so Taylor decides to try an introduce a new long term relationship between Geordi and Aquiel. Of course the shipper in me kind of wants to grouse that they didn't do this with Geordi and Ro Laren as an incidental B-plot to some other episode, especially as this is now three times in the same season the team has totally dropped the ball on a potentially really interesting development for Laren they absolutely could have run with, but I'll concede I'm the only person on the planet who ships them. But even though the Geordi/Aquiel thing doesn't go anywhere, I can't fault the execution in the narrative itself, and maybe that just means Geordi is polyamorous too. It works in the context of the story just fine.
In fact, that's almost the most important thing to take away from “Aquiel”. It works. It's enjoyable television and not offensively terrible. And I've reached a point with Star Trek where that's enough to get my recommendation.