Thursday, March 31, 2016

“Wuthering Heights”: Sub Rosa

“Sub Rosa” is a fucking triumph, and I'm not at all ashamed to say so.

One of the most reviled entries in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation and a frequent sight on various “Worst Star Trek Episodes Of All Time” lists, like most stories in its class the reaction to “Sub Rosa” says more about the fandom at large than it does about its own textual quality. As is usually the case with these types of episodes, I enjoy “Sub Rosa” considerably more than the kinds of people who typically critique and review Star Trek episodes, but this time I have a bit more of a chip on my shoulder than I normally do for this sort of thing because the split in fandom is *so* blatant and explicitly defined the contrast couldn't be drawn any clearer. If you're looking for a microcosm of the schism in genre fiction circles that led to the rise of master narratives, you actually can't find a better example than “Sub Rosa”.

Men hate it. Women love it. That's what it comes down to, plain and simple, and that's what it has always come down to. That has always been the line drawn in the sand. It's as true for “Sub Rosa” itself as it is for every other controversy or debate we've talked about in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the entire history of genre fiction writ large. Where you stand on issues like this has always been and will always be determined by where you stand on the patriarchy/feminism binary.

Displaying a seasoned wisdom and savvy that only comes after making a career of spending years of their life immersed in the genre fiction mire, this is something that, for the very first time, the creative team has actually come out and admitted. They saw it back when this episode was made and commented on it then. And it even manifested in the actual production: The majority of the male creative figures were at best cautious about doing this story and at worst outright opposed to doing it sight unseen, while the entire female staff was very enthusiastic about it and showered Brannon Braga with constant praise and affection for his work on the teleplay. It is literally physically impossible for the network gap (which exists everywhere in society and has existed as long as agriculture and the division of labour have existed, but which is significantly magnified and exaggerated in genre fiction circles) to be defined any clearer.

Braga himself puts it succinctly when he says “I've come to notice that whenever you infuse a show with sexual themes, some of these fans seem to short-circuit”. I think that sort of speaks volumes.

Of course, just because some women of a certain social class, occupation and predilection liked “Sub Rosa” does not mean “Sub Rosa” was enjoyed by all women across all circles of society did, or that it's by definition good for feminism (although I would posit the fact the show was inundated with letters from grateful women who saw the episode, loved and, and thanked the creative team for finally writing to their interests likely says something). “Sub Rosa” is, of course, a Gothic romance, a genre not entirely without its unfortunate implications. I mean, this is explicitly what it's doing, down to the period trappings that Captain Picard even notes look like they're ripped straight from pop culture memory of the Scottish highlands. However, “Sub Rosa” is also an abjectly brilliant Gothic romance in the fact that it's actually exploring some of the underlying assumptions the genre makes (or in particular, the assumptions a certain kind of fan of Gothic romance bodice-rippers tend to make) and casting a critical eye on them. And in doing so, crucially, it offers a utopian path forward through them.

The biggest clue is Ronin himself, the textbook “tall, dark and mysterious stranger” archetype with an inner tumult (who may or may not also be a vampire, ghost, werewolf or vampire ghost werewolf) who always ends up the dreamy paramour in this kind of story by coming into the heroine's life as if carried in on a storm and proceeding to sweep her off her feet and take her breath away by being equal parts romantic and forcefully dominant to the point of being controlling and abusive. And he's the villain for precisely those selfsame character traits. While it's an inaccurate overgeneralization that Gothic romances always portray characters like this as admirable, romantic and heroic and glorifying their relationships with the heroine as charmed instead of abusive (as relationships like this tend to be in real life), that's a criticism that does get levelled at the genre for some very good reasons, namely that this is the way they're read by a not-insignificant part of their fanbase and that they do lend themselves to be read this way in a nonzero number of instances.

But stories get misread all the time by all kinds of fans, so it's unfair to Gothic romance and its female readership (not to mention incredibly sexist) to single them out here. And “Sub Rosa” doesn't: Though it portrays Ronin as a bad man and his relationship with Beverly to be dangerous and harmful to her (this is incidentally the explanation for one of the most particularly hated aspects of the story, the idea that Beverly, a trained scientist, would throw her career away because of her new mysterious paramour: The episode is trying to depict this as her behaving confused and erratic, because that's how people like Ronin control the women they prey on. Also note how Beverly breaks free of his control by remembering her scientific training, and thus her individual agency), it doesn't out-and-out vilify him either, portraying it as a tragic thing that someone so otherwise romantic and charming let himself be consumed by his negative impulses to the point he inflicted them on his lovers. Beverly does note at the end that Ronin made her grandmother very happy, and it's clear he made her happy too, at least to some extent. So as much as “Sub Rosa” deconstructs the Gothic romance narrative, on some level it also redeems it by adding in a new level of melancholy.

And frankly, I'd take a narrative like this, flaws and misinterpretations all, over yet another angst-ridden monologue about grimdark and manpain any day. At least Gothic romance has something comparatively intelligent and meaningful to teach us about sexuality and loneliness. “Sub Rosa” is the perfect, and necessary, counterpoint the ghastly awfulness of “The Pegasus” and “Homeward”. I'd infinitely prefer to have another twelve episodes just like this than one single, solitary more outing like “Rightful Heir”.

The genre trappings aren't the only thing that mark “Sub Rosa” as being a story specifically targeted to women and women's concerns. Gates MacFadden is an absolute starlet in this production and obviously gets a ton of great material, but so does Marina Sirtis. In fact, this has always been one of my all-time favourite Deanna Troi stories because of how proactive and compassionate she is here (not to mention the amount of screen time she gets). This is another episode that really plays to the strengths of both character and actor, with Marina getting to play Deanna as a psychologist, scientific investigator and close confidant all at once whose deep concern for her friend's happiness and well-being overlaps with her desire to get to the bottom of the weird mystery on the planet's surface that seems to have made its way to the Enterprise. And as we've sadly seen too many times before, any story that features two women talking to each other for too long about their own lives and concerns without feeling each other up or being interrupted by an action scene or rumination on the burden of command makes the sci-fi crowd uncomfortable.

“Sub Rosa” is also just an absolutely gorgeous production in general. The production crew really went out of their way to lovingly bring to life a to-the-note Gothic romance setting for this episode (it's even diegetically referred to as an artificial construct). The set trappings are as pitch-perfect as the narrative beats and Jonathan Frakes, back in the director's chair, knocks it out of the park again by bringing it all together. I absolutely adore how at one point the Enterprise *actually starts filling up with fakey Gothic spooky fog* and *Data* of all people is stuck trying to figure out why. Not only is the show making strides to be inclusive and being respectful and intelligent about it, it's managing to have a blast doing it too. And that's the balance Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine really needs to be striving for, especially at this point in its life. For the first time in absolutely ages, this is reminding me of the show that once tried to do a Douglas Adams story without help from Douglas Adams just to see if it could.

The reason that Star Trek never works when it takes itself and its own pretenses too seriously is that Star Trek, at a fundamental level, is ridiculous and unsustainable. It's military science fiction that, because of its commitment to utopianism, can only ever work when it's not being militaristic or exploring military themes. It's scripted drama that can't be dramatic, at least not in an Aristotelian sense. Star Trek is a walking paradox. The way forward for Star Trek: The Next Generation is to embrace its own contradictions, acknowledge it with a campy little wink and a smile and let its hair down. There's a multiverse of infinite possibility open to us, and in at least one of them Star Trek has to respect women.


  1. Well.... I love a good redemptive reading, but I would argue that in addition to 'men hating it', you can add to that column 'anyone who's Scottish, partly Scottish or has ever been to Scotland or heard a Scottish accent'. :) For me (my mum's Scottish and I lived in Scotland for years) it's like the 'trying to listen to Daphne in Frasier' syndrome.

    I get your point about Picard's 'pastiche' observations though. Does this make Sub Rosa akin to one of the original series 'roman/gangster planet' outings? It's just that here we're doing a gothic melodrama ('female') genre rather than a period adventure ('male') genre?

    1. Yes.

      That was the argument I was trying to hedge against with my observation that Captain Picard points out the planet's artificiality: This isn't Scotland or even anywhere near a remotely realistic recreation of Scotland: Its the Spooky Dark and Spooky Setting of a Gothic romance bodice-ripper brought to life with a sign that says "Welcome to Scotland" written in crayon.

  2. This episode also aired in the context of The Witching Hour, the first book in Anne Rice's "Mayfair Witches" cycle, and Ronin struck me as a fairly close counterpart of Rowan Mayfair's demon-lover Lasher. In other words, "Sub Rosa" is a genre collision of the sort that Phil Sandifer has often pointed out Doctor Who doing (the sort, indeed, that he considers it to be based on). Because Ronin is the interloper, and because the narrative is on Beverly's side (but I repeat myself), he ultimately has to fail where Lasher succeeded.

  3. Beautiful story.

    I'm Scottish and I love it! I don't mind in any way at all that this is a cartoon image of Scotland as we have established that all versions of stories are possible, and we know that this isn't set in Scotland or on Earth anyway.

    Good points about the Anne Rice books and Lasher above.

    Genre collision - Star Trek at it's best.