Thursday, April 7, 2016
“Two Cheeseburgers”: Paradise
I've had my philosophical disagreements with this show this season, but at least those were on episodes that were basically well-constructed and where there was room for a nuanced discussion about different interpretations. “Paradise” is just hot garbage and the first Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode since “Invasive Procedures” I simply can't defend or come up with any interesting tangential topics to venture forth into. It's a directionless parable about cultism and the relationship the Star Trek universe has with its technology that can't make its mind up about what it wants its actual point to be and plays out as a hideously boring rehash of “The Apple” from the Original Series and “The Masterpiece Society” from the fifth season. No amount of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Magazine's lovely purple prose or Block and Erdmann's praise for how how Commander Sisko “radiates” defiance in their Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion is ever going to upsell me on this story or convince me it's anything other than some alien looking crap-on-a-stick.
I said I didn't have any tangents to go off of here, but, now that I've said that, I actually think I do. It's not a major theme in this story purely because of the fact the episode can't take a stand one way or the other, but “Paradise” remains another example of a worryingly Luddite motif that's been creeping into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine this season and that will become more of a problem on the next series. Apart from Alixis' tyrannical anti-tech cult in this story, there's also stuff like Major Kira's disparaging remark to Dax in “The Siege” that Starfleet officers have forgotten how to use their “natural instincts” because of their reliance on technology (and before anyone comments, we're absolutely meant to sympathize with Kira here: This is from her Big Damn Hero making scene and that Dax comes across as well as she does is purely due to Terry Farrell). There seems to be the beginning of an idea that Star Trek (really Star Trek: The Next Generation, as all Star Trek from now in is going to be in some way a reaction to Star Trek: The Next Generation) is too overly sanitized and technologized, and that this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed and that the show needs to be taken to task for.
This is the brainchild of Ira Steven Behr, who has gone on the record numerous times stating his open disdain for technobabble, his belief that it's a dramatic crutch that hinders actual storytelling and that he “tried very hard to take the tech out of DS9”. But let's unpack this concern a bit. First of all, let's remember what the actual point of technobabble in Star Trek really is-In truth, it serves two primary purposes. The first, and most important, is to make the crew seem competent. All that tech speak isn't necessarily supposed to make explicit sense from a real-world vantage point (Prophets know there are enough butthurt physicists who would *love* to talk your ear off about how much it doesn't), but that's not the point. The point is it makes sense to the characters onscreen, and that they can manoeuvre their way through it as deftly as it does makes them come across as professional, knowledgeable, quick-thinking inhabitants of a science fiction story.
The second purpose of technobabble, and arguably the more potentially troubling one when viewed from a certain perspective, is to appease Star Trek fans. See, Star Trek fans (and most Star Trek creators, in fact, as most Star Trek creators were once Star Trek fans) are very anal in regards to continuity, and by this I don't just mean fanwank: All nerds are anal about fanwank. In this context, I mean that Star Trek fans very much like things to be continuous. So, when a world-building fact is mentioned as part of a throwaway bit of dialog, it's very important to Star Trek fans that this fact is in keeping with what had previously been established about the Star Trek universe. For example, it doesn't actually matter to Star Trek fans what a tachyon is or whether or not what the show says tachyons are has anything to do with what tachyons actually are in the real world, just so long as the way tachyons are presented within the show remains consistent. This, to Star Trek fans, gives the show's universe a veneer of believability and realism they find lacking in other genre fiction stories. So lengthy conversations between characters about technobabble explanations to the plots-of-the-week are also there to reassure fans that, whatever is going on in this episode, it's still completely and safely in keeping with the technobabble prior episodes established.
(This is the real reason fans pitched a fit over Enterprise and its depiction of heretofore unknown voyages of a starship Enterprise in the 22nd Century whose design was explicitly inspired by a model they'd already seen: Because they didn't feel it was continuous with what the constructed universe had established earlier.)
The obvious problem with this level of analysis is that if you fixate on continuity to the point it becomes of paramount importance to you, you are rather blinding yourself to, you know, everything else a story is trying to tell you. And in fact, one of the upcoming series is going to take this concern so far it's going to completely disappear up inside itself as a result. That does hurt storytelling, and that might be what Ira Steven Behr was concerned about, but I'd argue technobabble works just fine in Star Trek: The Next Generation-there's enough else going on it's easy enough to follow the flavour, tone and direction of a conversation even if you don't quite grasp the literal meaning of some of the terms they throw around. We might not know exactly what they're talking about, but the important part is that it's clear they do and that their expertise is going to get them out of whatever jam they've found themselves in (although I'd even maintain Star Trek: The Next Generation is actually quite good at making its technobabble make sense to non-Star Trek nerds). To flip this into a general critique of any and all technology, however, especially in a science fiction show, strikes me as a bit too extreme, and potentially dangerous.
The point of science fiction, in my view, is to tell stories about a modern world from a more generalized and abstract position of metaphor. And modernity is defined by high technology: Once you strip that out of science fiction, there's basically no point in it being a science fiction story anymore and you might as well just be doing a contemporary police procedural or didactic theatre routine. I mean, why even beat around the bush and cloak yourself in any sort of metaphor at all at that point? Just as easy to write a scathing polemic to your local newspaper about how you're Very Unhappy about The Way Things Are Right Now. Furthermore, I have something of a problem with the idea that the Star Trek universe in general would be better without its high technology: From a post-scarcity perspective it is, after all, the replicator that has allowed for a lot of the utopianism of this universe. There's no need to work to manufacture anything: All our labour is now automated by computers, there's no need to manufacture any goods or work to support a ruling class overseeing a structural hierarchy. We should, at least in theory, be doing things purely because we love them and want to do them. Certainly Alixis' idea of going back to a society that revolves around agriculture seems like a horrifically terrible idea.
(I'd also like to point out the interesting choice of regulars to get drafted into indentured servitude by a cult of neo-agrarians: A black man and an Irish man.)
Even extending this criticism beyond Star Trek and science fiction raises more problems. How do you define technology? Machines? Automation? Technology is really nothing more than a human idea reified through praxis and materialism. Do we also want to give up things like language, art and tools? As soon as animals figured out how to use their environment to make life easier for themselves, be it chimpanzees using sticks to get at ants, termites building elabourate tower-mounds out of mud and spit or paleolithic humans fashioning rocks and bone into arrowheads they were using technology. If your argument is that technology causes us to lose touch with our “natural instincts” and stop living in harmony with the natural world, I'd like to see you posit that to a prairie dog. Except you can't, because that would require verbal communication, and verbal communication requires language. There's no clear line to be drawn separating a world with technology in it from a hypothetical Golden Age where we all lived in union with untouched Wilderness-That's an indefensible fallacy. Humans and the rest of nature have always changed and shaped each other for as long as humans have existed, the only difference is in the particular characteristics and sustainability of the relationship at any given point in time.
It's fairly easy, in my opinion, to explain why Star Trek: Deep Space Nine falls into this trap. It's because ultimately, fear over unchecked capital-T Technology (read “automation” and “mechanization”) and humanity's supposed reliance therein is a very 1960s concern, and thus a very Original Series concern. And this creative team are some of the loudest, brashest Original Series fanboys we've yet seen, especially Behr. In spite of everything, Star Trek: The Next Generation really has managed to craft a kind of postmodern technological utopia for itself, and that's something a hardcore OG Original Series fan is likely going to chafe against. You'll notice that, as mind-bogglingly shitty as some of its episodes can occasionally get, Star Trek: The Next Generation is *very rarely* mediocre in the sense of just presenting a warmed over, prettified Original Series story anymore, and that's exactly what “Paradise” is. This is the kind of thing that could only happen on this side of the lot, and while this show will be able to keep these impulses in check as it closes out its run, this is something future Star Trek is going to have a far worse time with.
Also, the prison box is really goddamn stupid.