Tuesday, November 17, 2015
“42 Decks Of Sheer Adventure!”: Starship Mine
This is also something *only* Star Trek: The Next Generation could do, at least in 1993. That's not to say the cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine couldn't have handled a brief like this or that the setting would have precluded it, but the writing staff on that show has something of a problem handling action without it coming across as unreconstructed, bloodthirsty and grimdark and that's ultimately what's going to end up killing the series. That didn't have to happen, of course, but circumstances will eventually dictate that's what the final obituary will read. But that's thankfully not for a good while yet. By contrast, Star Trek: The Next Generation has long since become keenly aware of its status and place in history, and a lot of careful thought went into ensuring that, while undeniably fun, “Starship Mine” never crossed the line into becoming a mindless run-and-gun military fantasy. And in fact, this story ends up being one of the most intriguingly provocative out of a year that's been so stellar already.
Much of this is due to writer Morgan Grendel and Michael Piller. Grendel hates the moniker "Die Hard on the Enterprise" fans tend to appellate “Starship Mine” with (even though come on, it self-evidently is. Grendel even pitched it to Piller as exactly that) and prefers to read it as a story about how Captain Picard loves the Enterprise more than anything else and is willing to go to any lengths to protect it, citing the old naval “the captain goes down with the ship” trope. This is a problematic (and ahistorical) narrative device, but that Grendel invokes it here reveals some interesting things. Even (well, especially) divorced from the naval symbolism I like this idea because it shows how Captain Picard is someone who lives and breathes the spirit of voyaging so much he can't conceive of ever doing anything else.
I particularly like the scene at the end of the teaser where he's alone on the bridge, the last person on the ship before the “cleaning crew” comes aboard. He dawdles and takes his time, and Patrick Stewart's expressions and body language sell the emotions of the moment. He's in no rush to beam down to the starbase and takes no particular joy in being away from the Enterprise-None of the crew do. The Enterprise is their home and where they belong and they're never going to be truly happy if they're apart from it: They're always going to act a bit restless and awkward, always going to be a fish out of water without someplace to go and discoveries to be made, just as the crew are at Commander Hutchinson's reception. That to me is the more interesting takeaway from this theme: Travellers will always be more at ease forming communities and families with other travellers. They don't belong at a starbase any more than they belong in the bloviating world of Starfleet's good ol' boys club.
Unless of course that starbase is Deep Space 9. But that's another story.
But what's especially interesting is seeing this coming from Morgan Grendel, whose previous submission, “The Inner Light” comes the closest in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation to forcing Captain Picard to slow down and adopt a more conventional and heteronormative lifestyle. In other words, killing him. And it's even more curious right here, as the very next TNG story is explicitly a sequel to “The Inner Light” that tries to address this, and generally makes a big mess of itself and everything else. I'd say this implies the common reading of “The Inner Light” goes contrary to what Grendel's original intent was had he not gone and written “The Outer Light” two decades later. But I'll save the rest of my missive on that little issue for next week: The main point here is that “Starship Mine” is a vivid and clear portrait of what drives and inspires our heroes, and it's important we get a story like that every now and again, because it can be easy to forget.
Michael Piller's influence on “Starship Mine” isn't as obvious, but it's just as important. Piller was deeply concerned that an action show such as this would come across as too violent, so he was very conscious throughout the rewrite process of toning it down where possible, and where it wasn't, ensuring that the violence was never something the audience could take visceral and voyeuristic pleasure in. In the last volume I made the point that during the Long 1980s there are basically only two ways of doing action sci-fi (or action genre fiction more broadly) acceptably: You either, as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind does, depict the action as a grotesque and horrific spectacle or, as Dirty Pair does, play it up as medium-aware camp performative kayfabe. Star Trek: The Next Generation has savvily been able to more or less sidestep the matter entirely up to now, but here it has to address the issue head on. And curiously enough, in spite of its deep-rooted and multilayered performativity and the fannish obsession it has with Dirty Pair, when up against the wall it plays things much closer to the Nausicaä side of the spectrum.
(Although I guess a Captain Picard-centric story that follows the Nausicaä model for action sci-fi is probably quite fitting. It certainly makes up for “Tapestry”.)
The tone is set when Devor taunts Picard that he won't kill him because he's Starfleet, to which the captain responds “I guess you're right”. And throughout the rest of the episode while there are plenty of chases and fistfights, Captain Picard never escalates things, striving to outmanoeuvre and disarm Kelsey's lackeys and adamantly refusing to kill them. As they do end up getting picked off, Jean-Luc visibly views each death as a tragic loss, culminating in him looking genuinely saddened and grief-stricken when Kelsey's ship explodes at the end of the climax. And this is no mere “there should have been another way” platitudes either: Piller's point is manifestly that these people are not cut out to be killers and there's no place for death and killing aboard the starship Enterprise (and furthermore that this is a *good* thing), yet another thing that sets them apart from their alleged colleagues in the rest of Starfleet. It's one of the most openly utopian bits the show has done since the first season, but it's handled with the grace and elegance we could only expect from a veteran craftsman like Michael Piller.
It truly is heartwarming to see this from Piller. It's hard to believe this is the same person who was actively stirring up grimdark conflict back in the third season and signed off on Robert Hewitt Wolfe, Peter Alan Fields and Ira Steven Behr trying to turn Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a show he envisioned as being about healing and rebirth, into a show about unpleasant people screaming at each other. It really does say to me that Piller has genuinely learned and grown and become a better writer though his experiences with Star Trek, and I think that's wonderful. I mean I wish it'd happened about three and a half years sooner, but I'm not complaining. And not to get spiteful, but it's also worth noting Ron Moore has gone on the record saying this was a point of friction between him and Piller, because he saw himself as they guy always saying, in his own words, “Kill more, kill more!”. Piller shut him down this time.
Ethics of violent TV spectacle aside, what also interests me about “Starship Mine” is its unorthodox, and laudable, political themes. A brief like Let's Do Die Hard seems like it'd be one of the simplest and most rote of these types of briefs you could get, and you could imagine how it could run the risk of turning reactionary. Doing a straightforward anti-terrorism bit where the terrorist antagonists were generic cannon fodder bad guys is poor work in any era, would have looked really weird next to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and its former terrorist lead and would have looked especially horrible in the early 21st century. But crucially that's not what “Starship Mine” does. The big twist, of course, is when Kelsey boldly declares she and her crew aren't terrorists at all, but in fact covert weapons dealers who profit from war. She's a Merchant of Death, a more charismatic and less pervy Mazoho from “Red Eyes are the Sign of Hell”, happily letting armies slaughter each other in perpetuity and in fact encouraging it because it lines her pockets.
It's really the perfect eleventh hour reveal for this kind of story because it writes the episode's extradiegetic critique of violent spectacle back into the text: Capitalism and all its beneficiaries perpetuate death and destruction of human lives and well-being in the name of profit. There's honour among thieves. Even terrorists have a sense of camaraderie. But there's none in Kelsey's crew, and none among capitalists. No one is too close to be betrayed, nothing is too sacred such that it would be above appropriation and assimilation. Star Trek: The Next Generation hasn't been allowed to be quite this radical in awhile, and it bears its teeth here just to remind us that yes, it does indeed most certainly still have them. We get the sense the show is finally pushing back against the boundaries of its material existence, finally aware of the oppression its medium forces onto it. But in that most Star Trek: The Next Generation of themes, we still forgive. As much as we fight our oppressors, who hold out hope in their humanity. The hope that everyone has the potential to leave the system and embark on their own journey of self-discovery: Captain Picard respects Kelsey as an equal and a brilliant leader, and mourns her when she's gone. Her tragedy is hers and hers alone.
The rest of “Starship Mine” is every bit as demonstrative of Star Trek's creative peak as its story. The characterization is peerless, the acting and writing breathing in perfect sync. I could quibble about Geordi being unconscious for most of the action and Worf being a no-show, but we saw a lot of Worf in “Birthright” and pretty much everyone gets a moment to shine in the pleasantly lengthy teaser and opening act. Deanna Troi is the immediate highlight: Her running up to Captain Picard to fill him in about some mundane personnel matters on deck 7 is instantly memorable and endearing precisely because this is something we never see Deanna doing. This is the first time we've seen her doing a job on the Enterprise and taking an active role in the crew that's not just being their psychologist. The irony is, of course, that this is always what she was supposed to do in the first place.
Commander Riker and Doctor Crusher are pitch perfect, and so actually is Data. This is the first time Brent Spiner's knack for impressions is treated as something Data just casually does instead of something the script jumps through hoops to justify him indulging it, and it's a perfect fit for his character. Brent Spiner always saw Data as the comic relief character, and here's the final synthesis of that with the narrative role Data has always had. That's the tone of “Starship Mine” in a nutshell: The actors are so visibly comfortable in their parts and that just absolutely sings. I love the little exchange where Captain Picard tries to come up with an excuse to go back to the Enterprise with that convoluted bit about the saddle, and I *love* the way Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis and LeVar Burton play their characters' reactions: The four of them radiate such a comfortable familiarity with each other that the cast has always had, but the characters haven't always been allowed to express. Or at least, that was never written into the show before now. But what a delightful thing to see.
And what a perfect way to sum up the whole show. Love is always more fun to watch then pain. Always.