Thursday, September 19, 2013

“When the wayfarer whistles in the dark...”: The Omega Glory

"I'll see two and two."

It's bad.

What more do you want me to say? It's terrible. Everyone knows it's terrible. You don't need me to tell you that. The plot is literally nothing more then capture and escape sequence after capture and escape sequence liberally peppered with intolerably drawn out and boring fight scenes in between. It is so chest-thumpingly, simperingly jingoistic it practically loops back around to parody (at least William Shatner is playing it that way). It is racist on some kind of transcendental level, depicting the Yangs as noble savages while portraying the supposedly technologically-advanced Cohms as identical, mute, smiling Chinese stereotypes and it even has Kirk literally call them yellow. It is the picture-perfect case study of the ugly racism, sexism and unreconstructed United States neo-imperialism that always lurks just below the surface of Star Trek, threatening to eclipse everything that makes the franchise actually worthwhile. It was also one of the leading contenders, along with “Mudd's Women”, to be the second pilot. Bob Justman was so appalled by the script Gene Roddenberry turned in, he drafted a multi-page memo savaging it; railing into it from every possible angle before throwing it away at the last second and delivering a few comments in person because he thought he was being too brutal. A shame he didn't save it: I'dve loved to reprint it. Not that this phased Roddenberry in the slightest: He was was so proud of his work on this one he personally submitted it to be considered for an Emmy Award.

I'm not going to go into a lengthy critique of “The Omega Glory” to point out what's wrong with it. It's far easier (and more accurate) to just say “everything” and that it commits an unforgivable sin simply by existing. No-I'm much more interested in the question of “why now?” and looking at how Star Trek, which had been on such a terrific streak since “The Immunity Syndrome”, suddenly turned out a story so irredeemably awful even Trekkers can't defend it, and this is a group of fans so loyal and dedicated they'll make apologies for “The Enemy Within” and “Who Mourns for Adonais?”. Tell someone unfamiliar with Star Trek that this episode and “Patterns of Force” are from the same season, let alone the same series, and they'll laugh in your face. That this was produced directly after “The Ultimate Computer” is unthinkable. But there are, sadly, easily discernible reasons that explain “The Omega Glory”, and it's also depressingly telling that this episode, along with “Spock's Brain”, are the ones that stick out to fans as the bad ones amongst five years of television that are about half excellent and half intolerant, bigoted garbage if we're being charitable. There's also the matter of Gene Roddenberry: For all intents and purposes this is his final significant contribution to the Original Series. He's behind “Assignment: Earth” next week of course, but there's a lot going on there that's not to do with him. He's got two credits in the third season, which are also terrible, but they're also both joint scripts. As far as a story that comes directly out of Roddenberry's own positionality and beliefs, however, this is pretty much it.

This is quite a lot to tackle and digest, so let's take it one thing at a time. Let's begin with the obvious question: Why does “The Omega Glory” even exist in the first place? Last time it threatened to show itself, in 1965, it was quickly and aggressively rejected by the studio and the network, both of whom quite rightly realised it was a catastrophic pace of shit and would make for possibly the worst television pilot ever (discuss among yourselves whether “The Omega Glory” or “Mudd's Women” being the pilot would actually have been worse for either the future of Star Trek or the world's peace of mind). Why are we seeing it materialize three years later when Star Trek not only went to series, but has proven its capable of doing far more? Even with all my qualifiers and all that does bring the show circa 1968 down sometimes, this is quite frankly a story that doesn't actually belong here. The simple answer is that Gene Roddenberry wanted it here: Although concrete historical details are, as always, sketchy, the gist of it seems to be that Star Trek was either once again out of scripts or, given the prevailing feeling throughout the set that the show was going to be canceled after the year was up, Roddenberry just really wanted to get this story made before the shooting block finished because he liked it that much. So, we get a destructively retrograde and irreparably broken and bigoted script going into production because the show either needed it or its creator was an overbearing, dominating control freak. Possibly both.

Which brings me to the real problem with “The Omega Glory”: Its writer. If there was ever conclusive, damning evidence of the harm Gene Roddenberry's presence did to Star Trek, this was it. He's lucky this time that the show was on unstable enough ground there was little risk “The Omega Glory” was going to get Star Trek *more* canceled, but that's the absolute best that can be said of it. Let's be absolutely honest with ourselves here. Everything that's gone wrong with Star Trek over the past five years can almost without exception be directly traced back to Gene Roddenberry. This is going to continue to be the case for many, many years: Every criticism you can level at any other incarnation of Star Trek Roddenberry lived through can be safely and automatically laid at his feet with little risk of being unfair or fingering the wrong person. Star Trek is the rare work of fiction that only works when its original creator is kept as far away from it as is physically possible, to the point I'm having a hard time coming up with a remotely comparable situation (George Lucas is a popular punching bag these days, but I think the faults of Star Wars are as much to do with fans suddenly taking a more nuanced and critical look at their franchise). Roddenberry is something different: As a writer and showrunner he is a provably regular toxic and destructive force, and the fact he's the one who sticks around the longest out of Star Trek's first generation of architects is unbelievably frustrating.

But while “The Omega Glory” is infamous, it remains bad in the same ways Roddenberry's other scripts have been. Show someone this episode without context, then show them “The Cage”, “Mudd's Women”, “Charlie X” and “A Private Little War” and I'd wager they'd be hard pressed to make a case “The Omega Glory” is especially worse then any of those episodes. Just don't expect this person to talk to you again, for they will likely hate you for the rest of your life for forcing them to sit through them. On the other hand though, it must be possible to make such a case as so many people universally agree this is one of the Original Series' worst hours. This reveals some very distasteful things about Star Trek fandom, however (though perhaps not as many as their similar pillorying of “Spock's Brain”. Not that “Spock's Brain” is any good, I hasten to add, but the reasons it's criticized tend to speak more of the people doing the criticizing then of the actual episode). If this is the worst, then why isn't there more honest problematizing of Gene Roddenberry's ethics and conception of Star Trek? This is all him, after all. Why does “The Omega Glory” become the riffer's darling while “A Private Little War” becomes at the very least a respected, average episode, if not a classic?

Part of it is most likely William Shatner, who delivers another scenery devouring performance (indeed, his climactic “WE the PEOPLE” speech is the stuff of legends). And I mean Shatner may be easy to make fun of as he has a tendency to play the most obviously insane thing on camera, but look: I'm never going to have any sympathy for people who attack Shatner's acting style for being overly campy, especially when he only cranks up the pork dial when he's beyond bored with and insulted by the material he's given. Did you honestly expect him to gamely take something like “The Omega Glory” remotely seriously, especially when as far as he's concerned he's been given his two-week notice and will be out of a job in a few days? Of course not. “The Omega Glory” is a disaster, and guess what? “The Gamesters of Triskelion” was too. Shatner's the most enjoyable thing about either one of those turkeys.

Furthermore, there's a motif we're going to have to start talking about in the very near future about how William Shatner uses a lot of theatrical humour in his performances. It's not quite as noticeable in Captain Kirk at the moment, though it will eventually be and it's an important part of Shatner's worldview and approach to acting. Think back a moment to something even as comparatively distant as “Where No Man Has Gone Before”: There Shatner said the biggest problem with Star Trek was that it took itself too seriously and would never be successful if it continued to do that. He was right, and on a number of different levels, but the thing I want to emphasize in the context of situations like this is that Shatner very rarely, if ever, actually, plays a character whom we're meant to take at face value: That's in fact the whole reason he's able to turn Kirk into a drag action hero. For him, it's the recursive and multiplex performance of human experience that might be the most important thing about life, and this can be taken as a kind of joke. So yes, Shatner is very, very funny here. But if it's a joke, it's a cosmic one and it might just be on us.

This is the uncomfortable thing about slagging off “The Omega Glory”: So many times when it's done, it's done on account of how campy and silly it is, not how godawfully reactionary it is. If we're going to call “The Omega Glory” the worst of Star Trek, and I'm certainly not opposed to that, we have to do it for the right reasons. No, the problem is not the camp. The problem is not William Shatner overacting. The problem is Gene Roddenberry, and if we're going to throw this one out we really ought to seriously consider doing the same for everything else he wrote and everything Star Trek inherits from him. The argument also works the other way, though: The disaster of this week really reflects poorly on Roddenberry and Roddenberry alone, if for no other reason than everyone else was desperately trying to keep this from happening and trying to use “The Omega Glory” as fodder for dismissing almost fifty years of Star Trek is equally as foolhardy. Star Trek is better than this: We know it is, because it's already proven it can be better than this just in these past few weeks. “The Omega Glory” is evidence the show's themes and ethics need to continue to evolve, not that the whole thing needs to be scrapped and binned.

I bring this up because I'm thinking of one scholar in particular who has became rather infamous for arguing pretty much exactly this, such that he's frequently wheeled out as one of the stock responses to “The Omega Glory”'s racism (he's even cited on Memory Alpha, which should tell you precisely how maligned this story actually is). In his book Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future, film studies professor Daniel Leonard Bernardi states

"'The Omega Glory' is not, however, a counter-hegemonic episode. In fact, the episode not only reveals an unwillingness to be critical of the hegemony of racist representations, but also systematically participates in the stereotyping of Asians. As the story progresses, the Yangs are constructed as noble savages; their cause to annihilate the Comms is established as justified. The Comms, on the other hand, are constructed as brutal and oppressive; their drive to suppress the Yangs is established as totalitarian. This more hegemonic articulation of race is made evident when Kirk and Spock realize the extent to which the Yangs and Comms parallel Earth's civilizations. In this light, the Yangs are no longer savages, but noble warriors fighting for a just and honorable cause. They want to regain the land they lost in a war with the Asiatics."

Bernardi then goes on to cite “The Omega Glory” as a prime example of how white privilege and hegemony are intrinsic to Star Trek and irreducible from it, and that the oft-touted utopia the franchise espouses is merely an extrapolation of white, middle-class, Western values that reinforces and celebrates contemporary social stratification. And look, I'm not going to pretend Star Trek is perfect here. I definitely agree it has hegemony problems that can be directly traced to its hyper-Western origins. I was making this argument as recently as “Return to Tomorrow” and just go back and see how nasty I was in the first season if you need a refresher on how much I tolerate normalized oppression.

But here's the thing. I choose to read Star Trek as an idea that's transcended its origins to become something greater. As much as I tear into the franchise, and I'm far from through doing that, I do think its overall impact and legacy on Western pop culture and global society has been a net positive one, and it has the potential to do even more good today thanks to the form it's metamorphosed into. And I think Bernardi is dead wrong to use “The Omega Glory” as a trump card, and in doing so it makes him no better than the Trekkers he's attacking. If you take this episode as some kind of Original Sin for the franchise that marks it for life, you're essentially equating the entirety of Star Trek with the positonality and flaws of Gene Roddenberry, and in doing that, you're falling into what I consider to be one of the most dangerous fallacies of reading any kind of work of fiction: The idea that one creator is a singular, godlike being from which creative works spring fully-formed in the manner of Athena and who is solely and consciously responsible for everything about said work.

Readers who know me from my other blogs will understand I approach media studies from a pseudo-Lacanian approach I've derived from the writings by people like Shoshana Felman and Avital Ronell. I believe writers do not will their work into existence out of nothingness but rather, as Ronell puts it, act as “secretaries of the phantom” who take dictation from an intangible ether and can only hope the words on paper are a crude facsimile of the particular truth they have taken into themselves. Writers are drug addicts, and writing is death. One does not “write”. One is possessed by “writing”. Similarly, one does not simply “read” from what I gather from Felman: The act of reading is comprised of the interaction of three separate, though linked, spheres from which meaning is generated: The text, the author's positionality and the reader's positionality (for the one person who will catch this, this is not Death of the Author or New Criticism either. This is different). Because of this, I very strongly believe the idea of authorship as is commonly used in literary criticism and especially film studies is a patriarchal construct that, like all elements of patriarchy, must be destroyed. “Author”, “Authorship” and “Authority” all share the same root, after all.

Film studies, really thanks to the movie industry and their reaction to being dismissed by literary critics in the 1920s about how motion pictures could never be art because they lack a Singular Creator, have latched onto the idea of the director or producer as Author and Visionary. And, as films have now become the dominant form of creative expression, film studies culture has permeated Western discourse on a profound and intimate level. Look at how video games and television shows are praised if they manage to successfully emulate movies, and how contemporary fan lingo calls a statement made by a creator about their work “The Word of God”. Look at how there are wildly popular Internet review shows made by fans that explicitly crib their critique from film studies. It's a Frankensteinian blend of white cis male middle class pop Christian Modernist Western tropes, and it's just as rampant in academia and critique as it is everywhere else. So, by this line of thought Gene Roddenberry is the Godlike Author to whom all of Star Trek can be traced back. Star Trek is Gene Roddenberry and Gene Roddenberry is Star Trek. You may recognise this as the exact same language the most rabid Trekkers use, and I'm going to be just as opposed to that line of thought cropping up in media studies as I would be at its manifestations in fandom and the work itself.

Let's put aside for the moment the fact that all language like this does is prove how the film critics and the fans are shouting at each other from the same cultural perspective. Let's put aside for the moment the fact critiques like Bernardi's reinforce Roddenberry's frankly insultingly oppressive and disrespectful (and blatantly deliberate) carjacking of Star Trek's legacy and the pop culture discourse about it such that he successful managed to position himself as the figurehead for the entire phenomenon, manufacturing what can reasonably be described as a significant cult of personality around himself while going out of his way to downplay, marginalise and erase the contributions of every single person he ever worked with that helped make Star Trek a part of our shared cultural heritage. Let's just go back to the origins of this project. When I was thinking about starting a critical history of Star Trek, most of my friends, family and colleagues were extremely supportive and encouraged me to go ahead with the endeavour, citing my long personal connection to the franchise and my...unique and unorthodox...reading of it. But there were also some people who made sure to let me know they thought I was taking on a pointless exercise. Star Trek has been done to death in media studies, they told me. Nobody has anything interesting or productive to add to the discourse about Star Trek. Oh, you're doing a Star Trek book? Well, you obviously haven't read the literature. It's been done.

Were I someone with less confidence and lower self-esteem (read: Were I less stubborn and belligerent) that probably would have been it and Vaka Rangi wouldn't exist. But instead, I recognised this as the silencing tactic of the patriarchal authority that it was. I know my enemy well enough by this point I can spot his movements, no matter how subtle. Hegemony takes many forms, including that of those who claim to be fighting it. Star Trek discourse is built on a multitude of people sharing their voices and experiences with one of the few things about contemporary Westernism that could convincingly be argued is a shared mythology. And the same is true for the television show itself: Just as there is no one single Universal Authority on Star Trek criticism there similarly isn't one for Star Trek. No one person gets to definitively claim once and for all what Star Trek is, no matter which side of the camera or TV screen they're on, for that way lies death, and Star Trek is about life.

The true horror of “The Omega Glory” is that it was almost the last episode of Star Trek, and the threat that it might become that remains very real to this day. Let's try to keep in mind what the consequences would be if we were to let it.


  1. So I'm very interested to see what you have to say about Spock's Brain when we come around to that one.

    I, at least, am one other Star Trek fan who's counted the Omega Glory as pretty racist, and the cheese liberally applied throughout as the cast and crew's attempt to make it non-horrifying.

    Your approach to literary criticism is quite intriguing as well. You and Phil Sandifer both have introduced me to new ways of reading texts, which I was never exposed to as a student. However, my own graduate background is in philosophy, and I never did a literary studies course beyond the second-year level (another casualty of hiring mediocre per-course professors to teach lower-level courses is that they lose a lot of good students like me to other disciplines). Are these other approaches to reading standard issues in graduate programs in literary theory? Or are you an eccentric in this area as well?

    1. What's funny to me is I never took a literary studies course either. My specialization was, and still is, in Anthropology and Social Studies of Knowledge.

      So I suppose in that regard I'm pretty unorthodox. What was great about the programme I took is that we strove very hard to be inclusive and multidisciplinary; to take the best approaches we could find from sociology, history, cultural studies, media studies, philosophy, social justice activism, art and creative writing and apply them to the issue of studying technoscience, but more broadly studying how positionalities interact in Western and Non-Western societies.

      In many ways this is just what postmodern anthropology, Social Studies of Knowledge and Science and Technology Studies are, but even by that standard my department was made up of radical extremists. The fact we were dismissed by our university on one end and the more orthodox parts of our discipline on the other (a discipline that is already treated with a good amount of suspicion) has been an enduring touchy subject for me.

      And I'm one of the most renegade of the people that came out of my programme, which is I guess as concise an articulation of my own positionality as there is.

  2. I dislike literal Parallel Earths when they're not in Parallel Universes, almost as much as I dislike "too human" aliens. Miri is the next worst culprit, a literal Space Earth, but early Trek and budgeted sci-fi was riddled with human-aliens. I love "near-human". I do. Vulco-Romulanoids (they never looked right after TOS ended and the ditched the yellow-tinged, green-blooded makeup and allowed for pink faces) ... Klingons (the more werewolf feral, the better). Alien and eerie or brutal and bestial but recognizable, and basically filling the same roles as vampires or werewolves in the last 100 years of Pop Culture, or Faeries, Elves or Dwarves of fantasy of history, or equivalent angelic or beast-man archetypes of other cultures.

    But direct parallels are an affront to my admittedly incredibly loose standards for sci-fi budgetary needs. Modern Star Trek curtailed it by walking the line of prosthetic foreheads (I'm a great lover of prosthetic masquery, so even Gorns stick in my memory as gorgeous while Parallel Humans feel lazy).

    This is the worst example of that. If you want to do post-Apocalypse Earth where the Cold War ignited and the world became twisted and weird, do a Multiverse skip. If you want to be Jingoist, tie it to Kirk's nation of origin and the actual emotional toll of seeing a parallel Iowa, glowing with radiation ... Scott seeing a parallel Britain scorched ... Uhura seeing South Africa blasted, Sulu seeing the ruined temples of Old San Francisco, Chekov Russia, and on down the line. Even Spock would be moved at the imagery.

    Moving beyond the might-have-beens, never-weres and trying to ignore altogether the seriously endemic problems already highlighted ... I actual like Woodward returning as Captain Tracey, a new wrinkle in the "Bad Starship Captain" trope ... a new type of anti-Kirk ... completely psychotic ... without getting too deep in the weird synchronicity with Star Trek: Insurrection ... that film really needed Ronald Tracey to be transferred from here, there. Not some bureaucratic Admiral pulling strings ... a proper anti-Captain, gone psycho from a slaughtered crew, and stirring up with space pirates to stripmine their own homeworld.

    1. Everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads.

  3. Hey Josh - Thanks for being so 'stubborn and belligerent' and finding the drive to carry on with your work in the face of patriarchs.

    In a lot of ways my writing voice as a teen was stifled by the school I attended, my voice didn't 'fit'. I later discovered that the teacher involved had been pulled up on underage sex charges with a pupil - which was terrible to happen and at the same time undermined any of the last vestiges of faith I had in the patriarchal structures of control around me.

    Found my narrative voice through my own weird art, improvisational drama and professional storytelling. Nicely, in recent years I have found again my love of writing - that part took a while though!

    1. Thanks for the support!

      I suppose all of us who end up on paths like this have moments when we realise systems of power and oppression for what they are. For me it was a lengthy series of events that put me in opposition to "The Way Things Are". Well, I eventually figured out I don't at all like "The Way Things Are" and that there has to be more to life.

  4. Absolutely - so glad to support voices such as yourself, Jack and Phil. It can take time, that path of realising our own particular form of opposition and developing the tools to express it. I agree there is always more to life than "The Way Things Are" - or as folk say here where I live in the Borders of Scotland "it's aye bin" (or "it has always been this way, and always will be"). My love for Star Trek and Doctor Who is based on the fact that for me both shows are indeed about championing life.

    1. I definitely agree. And while my love of Star Trek is frequently built around what it *could* be and what I *wish* it was instead of what it actually is, even that still comes out of the appreciation for love the franchise demonstrates.