A journey across the open ocean, far beyond the stars and to the furthest depths of the human heart.
Tuesday, December 30, 2014
“Oh Yupa! I don't want to go to war!”: Samaritan Snare
It's become a common story in fan circles that “Samaritan Snare” is a textbook example of this, as it upset writers Dennis Russell Bailey, David Bischoff and Lisa Putnam White so much in its opening moments that it drove them to write “Tin Man” a year later in a deliberate attempt to show a production team they considered to be wholly and completely incompetent how “proper” Star Trek should be written. In a now somewhat infamous interview, Bailey absolutely rails against this episode, calling it an “idiot plot” relying on the assumption both the crew and the audience are completely stupid and nitpicking pretty much every major action the characters take throughout the entire story, basically using it as an excuse to trash Star Trek: The Next Generation by comparing it unfavourably to the Original Series. Here's the thing though. Aside from being a textbook example itself of the reality that whiny, obsessive, nostalgia-driven fan discourse that gets irrationally angry at every single plot hole has existed since the birth of genre fiction and conceding that “Tin Man” is in fact bloody brilliant (and momentarily setting aside the fact the show's production team in its third season was *completely different* from the one in its second and that Bailey et al are blaming Michael Piller's crew for the alleged sins of their predecessors), Bailey's argument blatantly ignores several crucial details about what “Samaritan Snare” was trying to say.
No, this is not the show's finest hour. I absolutely grant that. But its problems are generally distinct from the so-called Idiot Plot: As Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann point out in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, there really is only one idiot here, and that's Commander Riker. And there is something of a redemptive reading to be had here, as Riker dropping the ball in regards to the Pakled situation was not written into the story out of ignorance or incompetence (in life, it's generally a good idea to assume your interlocutor is in possession of the same mental faculties as yourself, and isn't Star Trek supposed to be teaching us empathy?), but rather in an attempt to show that, in spite of rapidly rising in fame and accolades, as first officer, Riker is still young and perhaps not quite ready for prime time yet. The implication is that, had be been in this situation instead, Captain Picard wouldn't have made the same mistakes Riker did. The very diegetic questions Worf and Troi raise against Riker's judgment that Bailey rages about in his piece and seems to think are indications of sloppy writing are there quite clearly to telegraph that Riker is obviously making the wrong calls and is going to be putting Geordi and the ship in serious danger.
The problem is not with the plot itself, which is about a trap you could imagine a fresh-faced, bullish and perhaps overconfident XO character to fall into, but that it's actually out of character for Riker to be making those kinds of mistakes in the first place. Although, like everyone else aboard, he travels aboard the Enterprise to learn and grow, *also* like everyone else aboard, he wouldn't be there in the first place if he wasn't already at a certain level of intellectual and emotional maturity such that he can serve as an ideal and role model himself. And like as we talked about in “The Icarus Factor”, Riker isn't macho or competitive: Telling a story about this kind of mistake isn't wrong, but that's not the kind of mistake Riker would make. “Samaritan Snare”s big problem isn't in having its characters make catastrophic mistakes they have to learn from-That's just a standard dramatic trope, after all. It's problem is forgetting that you can't actually *do* this on Star Trek: The Next Generation because that sort of plot is incompatible with the show's unique setting. That's not to say the show can't do character development, as you can't rightly have a show about learning and personal growth if nobody does either of those, but it has to be handled a certain way. Which, it must be said, “Samaritan Snare” doesn't do.
(Another thing Bailey refuses to grant Maurice Hurley and Melinda Snodgrass is the small matter of the writer's strike. He prefers to lay all the blame on one target, seemingly completely oblivious as to how hellishly unworkable this show was this season purely due to external factors far beyond the control of anyone in the writer's room.)
There are other problems with “Samaritan Snare”: The Pakleds alone bring with them a whole host of unfortunate implications, the most glaringly obvious being a particularly nasty case of science fiction race essentialism. Compounding the fact that he's acting out of character in the first place, having Riker so sneeringly dismissive of an entire species the show wants him to write off as being stupid and subnormal...I mean, ouch. I'm a strong critic of the accusation Star Trek: The Next Generation acted elitist and superior, but there's not a whole lot of other readings for that scene. But none of this is what I actually want to talk about here. What I'm far more interested in is what we learn about Captain Picard's backstory. Picard is out of character too, it must be said: He really should have patched things up with Doctor Pulaski by this point and if “Q Who” didn't paint him as arrogant necessarily, this episode sure does. It's a throwback to the plot of “Time Squared” where everything goes wrong because Picard thinks the whole ship revolves around him, which he shouldn't and normally doesn't.
I'm speaking of course of Picard receiving an artificial heart transplant as a result of getting stabbed in a bar fight with a group of alien bruisers. If we read Picard as someone who may have lived through the “Old Generation”, which his status as an established “Starfleet legend” would seem to imply, then this is telling. Though he may have coexisted with them, Picard is not of them (if he was, he wouldn't be on this show), and this means he's meant to travel and grow, thus modeling himself into an ideal. The crass bull-headedness of the Old Generation doesn't get you anywhere anymore (and notice how this is also a deconstruction of the Original Series' incessant testosterone-laden, consequence-free brawling), but more importantly, his artificial heart becomes a metaphor for his enlightenment by fiery trial. Picard's near-mortal injury has allowed him to become diegtically augmented in some form, which returns the show to the transhumanist themes it examined at the opposite end of the season, albeit far more subtly this time. Sometimes in order to become a better person we have to endure experiences that seem catastrophically tragic in the moment.
And in one of the most shocking and transformative moments in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it's revealed the person who almost killed Captain Picard was Princess Nausicaä.
Of course the aliens who are mentioned offhand in this episode were not named after a character from Homer's Odyssey. They were named after *the* Nausicaä: Hayao Miyazaki's guardian spirit, the angelic warrior-shaman at the heart of his sprawling and incomparable Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. This is one of the most powerful invocations Star Trek: The Next Generation has ever cast and it's absolutely stunning that the show would pit her *against* Captain Picard. This is, on the surface, even more damning than anything the Borg could have ever done: What kind of heartless, thoughtless, vile brute deliberately goes after someone like Nausicaä? It's practically a miracle Picard survived at all: Nausicaä will fight tooth and claw to uphold peace and the harmony of nature at any cost, up to and including that of her own life. Under absolutely no circumstance can anything redemptive or positive be discerned about *anyone* who would oppose Nausicaä on the basis of her values, and though she is loath to start fights, she is very, very good at ending them and won't hesitate to strike with the full force of a planet enraged.
But...That's not what this is about. “Samaritan Snare” doesn't put Captain Picard in opposition to Nausicaä, it's claiming the two characters, or really, the two ideals, exist in a delicate symbiotic relationship that manifests in the form of ritual combat. Both Nausicaä and Captain Picard are some kind of shaman, and shamans exist in both the divine and material realms. They're also both travellers, which is in many ways the same kind of thing. But shamans are part divine because they wear the stylized masks of the spirits in an attempt to convey their message through performative storytelling, which means divine rituals can play out and re-enact themselves each time a story is told. And because time is not what we think it is, this can spiral out to reach into the past-future and future-past: In her stories, Nausicaä has a fellow traveller named Lord Yupa: He's often called her mentor, but it's far more accurate to say he's a special person to her by virtue of being a kindred spirit whose presence guides her to take action: The reality of their relationship is that Yupa learns far more from Nausicaä than she ever does from him because her role is manifestly *not* to go through character development (as Miyazaki says, she doesn't change, we just get to know her better).
There's a scene early in both the manga and film versions of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind where Nausicaä is enraged by the actions of the Touromekian soldiers (offending the forest by breaking sacred taboo in the manga and killing her father in the movie) and flies into a blind rage, utterly slaughtering the entire deployment before Yupa steps in to separate the combatants, taking a blow from Nausicaä's sword and being wounded in the process. This is not, it should be stressed, necessarily Nausicaä's fault: By this point it had already been established she speaks for the land and operates on a higher level of morality than what ordinary humans understand. In this scene, Nausicaä is the avatar of the natural order and the cosmic godhead's revenge against retrograde forces of toxicity. But as a shaman, she also must speak for ordinary humans, and Yupa's intervention is what clears the stage so that Nausicaä can demonstrate this other side of herself. The reason I bring all of this up is that when Disney produced its English language dub of the movie in 2005, it cast Patrick Stewart as Lord Yupa, thus, intentionally or not, firmly re-establishing Star Trek: The Next Generation's symbolic connection to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
Just as The Little Mermaid and the Disney Renaissance could not have happened without Hayao Miyazaki and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a truth Disney chose to honour by casting Jodi Benson in that same dub, Star Trek: The Next Generation revealed its own true heritage by invoking Nausicaä herself in the show's official canon, and Nausicaä in turn sealed the partnership by allowing their ritual battle to play out once again through Patrick Stewart. And so Nausicaä cuts out Captain Picard's heart so that he might transcend the counterproductive and destructive tendencies his relationship to Star Trek shackles him with to become a far greater ideal, and Captain Picard retells the story in her honour by symbolically falling on her sword once more so that her own greatness might be revealed to us. And so the cycle begins anew.
And wouldn't you know it, where does Captain Picard go to get treated by Doctor Pulaski on Starbase 515? A hospital that features none other than a “Kei/Yuri Therapy Unit”. I have a suspicion the joke here is supposed to be that anyone who survives an encounter with the “Dirty Pair” needs therapy, but I think we all know the real truth is that it's Kei and Yuri themselves who dispense the therapy. It might not look like it at the time, the singularity looks like the apocalypse from below, but wherever and whenever the Lovely Angels happen to show up, things always happen for the better. Even if we can't notice it at the time.
Sunday, December 28, 2014
“There's a terrible hatred hiding inside of me. I won't be able to control it anymore.”: Q Who
The only reason, for example, the Borg look the way they do is because it would have been too expensive to make them insectoid as Maurice Hurley originally imagined them, thus severing this episode's link to “Coming of Age”/“Conspiracy”. Furthermore, the writer's guild strike prevented anyone from penning a proper follow-up to “The Neutral Zone” (not to mention the fact “Angel One” sucked), so the original intent of making the Romulans Red Herring antagonists who have been wrongfooted by the Borg's unspeakable ruthlessness is similarly abandoned. There is an attempt to tie it back together in the most forgettable of throwaway lines where Worf describes the planet they come across as bearing the exact same signs as the outposts destroyed along the Neutral Zone, but if you managed to catch that you deserve some kind of medal. It's a longshot to get people to pick up on that something like that *today*, when everyone marathons TV on Netflix for days on end let alone in 1989 when home video was impractical and you're asking people to remember what happened in one episode from one night over ten months ago.
That's not to say the team didn't try their best under the circumstances to make “Q Who” work: They did, it does, and it shows. The team adapted, which is something of a theme for tonight. “Q Who” is a story about Star Trek: The Next Generation trying to reconstruct itself; it doesn't quite yet know what it's going to eventually become, but it knows it has to be something other than what it is now. Every actor in play here seems aware things are more than a little off, and they scramble to compensate and adjust in an effort to make something a bit more tonally resonant. As usual, the key is that each character here is consciously playing some sort of role, but what's crucial and different this time is that they're also consciously ad-libbing and playing understudy to each other in an attempt to salvage a performance that's gone off the rails. Q is the most obvious case: He quite clearly wants to go back to the way he was in “Encounter at Farpoint”, as is right and proper, but because Star Trek: The Next Generation doesn't allow itself negative or otherwise fungible continuity he can't ignore “Hide and Q”. So he consolidates his two contradictory characterizations into a new one of his own design: And thus, “Q Who” sees the birth of Q-the-Trickster-God.
Guinan too slips into a number of different roles as it becomes necessary: She's already all but supplanted Deanna Troi in the role of adviser and confidant (which will necessitate Troi's own functional shift later in the series), and here she also takes up the reins that Q was forced to leave behind as a result of “Hide and Q”. Oh sure, diegetically Guinan is supposed to be a bitter rival of Q's, but that would also make a degree of sense if we put ourselves in her place and try to find a way to explain this subtle shift textually. Critically, Guinan *agrees* with Q's damning assessment of humanity's hubris: It's most clear during the conference scene where she keeps pleading with the staff to, well, basically not do everything they go about doing, but it's also evident in the final denouement in Ten-Forward. Revealingly, Whoopi Goldberg plays Guinan the same way she does in “The Measure of a Man”: She prompts Patrick Stewart/Captain Picard to explain why he thinks Q “did the right thing for the wrong reasons”, tacitly challenging the assertion that he didn't. Like her legendary “that seems a bit harsh” line, her rhetoric and her actual feelings very clearly do not sync up. Guinan is a master of psychology and debate; her words are not what she's actually trying to convey.
Even Captain Picard, who seems to be the one once again on trial here, is not straightforwardly playing the role he's supposed to-Rather, he's carefully, dexterously weaving different narrative functions in an attempt to emphasize and highlight specific, critically important themes. This is not a story about Picard or the Enterprise crew more generally being arrogant and needing to swallow their pride, it's a story *about* arrogance and blinkered thinking that the crew put on a play to call attention to. What are the common examples cited about Picard's “arrogance” here? That he stopped to explore the uncharted Delta Quadrant he'd just been flung into instead of retreating at Guinan and Q's request? The he allowed Commander Riker to take his team over to the Borg Cube? Isn't “tucking tale” and turning back precisely the thing that Q was mocking him for? Is not trying to learn and take risks precisely what the Enterprise is supposed to be out here doing in the first place at a textual level?
As for turning down Q's initial request to join the crew, it seems pretty clear that Picard wasn't being smug, he was being skeptical. He doesn't trust Q, and has every diegetic right not to trust him because Q has by this point been forced to abdicate the moral high ground he had in “Encounter at Farpoint”. Compare how quickly Picard capitulates to Q's accusations in that episode once the evidence of history is stacked against him to the haughty tone he takes with him in “Hide and Q” (or indeed the first volume of the DC comic series). Q being forcibly transmuted is yet another example, albeit a particularly big one, of the tumult and unrest Star Trek: The Next Generation has been thrown into. No-one's quite sure where they stand anymore at this point, and everyone's just trying to get their bearings, regroup, and decide the next step to take.
One way to look at what's happening here is as a combination stage production and piece of classical philosophical fiction, as befits the backgrounds of all our esteemed players: Characters are not necessarily behaving in a manner that befits their own interiority, they're deliberately inserting themselves into particular roles on various sides of a debate that they've noticed are vacant and need to be filled pronto to salvage the work's effectiveness. And yet crucially, as performers they also make it clear to us this is what they're doing, which, with its overt performativity, calls attention to the shared artifice we've mutually agreed to concede for the time being, while at the same time reminding us of the (now-secondary) pre-existing reality of Star Trek: The Next Generation. With none of the regular roles *really* being handled comfortably or effectively, the cast doubles up, shuffles things around and re-orders the production into something a little more coherent. Q becomes the challenger and instigator, Picard his formal rebuttal and Guinan the moral conscience. As for the Borg...The Borg are the topic at hand, an undeniably, irreducible reality that everyone regonises as something that must be acknowledged and discussed.
The Borg are, as is explicitly stated several times in this episode, something the Federation was not yet meant to deal with. They are from the Federation's future in numerous respects: Most obviously, they are a “future enemy”, but they are also quite literally the Federation's future. A monoloithic hive-mind that lumbers around blindly absorbing anything it comes into contact with is exactly what Western, modern democratic federalist capitalism is destined to become. Capitalism worships efficiency and democracy touts egalitarianism, and there is *nothing* more efficient or egalitarian than the Borg. They are evolutionary survivors to the Nth degree because they can adapt to anything and everything you throw at them will simply be compensated for and added to the collective whole. The Borg are not evil, they don't even have a specific motivation or desire one way or another-They simply *are* and *do*. The Borg are the ideological concept of the banality of evil given shape and form. Even their catchphrase is the most blase, nonchalant, matter-of-factual statement ever:
This isn't a command or a declaration or a pompous, evil speech, it's a casual, almost resigned, admission of truism. The Borg don't care who you are, what you do or what you think, they just exist simply for the sake of existing and perpetuating that existence...Regardless of whatever consequences that might come from the way they go about ensuring it.We are the Borg.Lower your shields and surrender your ships.We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.Prepare to be boarded.Resistance is futile.
Star Trek must, by its very definition, square off against the Borg because so much of Star Trek is wedded to the Federation. And they're the same damn thing, just in different evolutionary forms. But the pressing question here is whether Star Trek: The Next Generation must be the one to carry this burden. Does Star Trek: The Next Generation deserve to be the one to face down the methodical-yet-relentless march of the Borg Modernity? No. No it doesn't. Like Guinan says, it's far too early: The Borg are an enemy for the future, but also, this was supposed to be a golden age for Star Trek. History, in spite of what the textbooks tell you, is not teleological. It's entirely possible for societies to regress on themselves at certain times. That will happen to Star Trek someday, but, in spite of everything that's happened in the past twelve months or so, the age we are in now is not one of regression, it's one of material progress. The Enterprise is a place of constructive sanctuary apart from the retrograde ideals of the Federation. Star Trek: The Next Generation does not deserve to face the Borg because Star Trek: The Next Generation is not arrogant and imperialistic.
Even Q says he was impressed by and proud of Picard asking for his help. And Picard is not embarrassed by the position he's been placed in or too prideful to admit when he needs support, he simply knows what he has to say and says it. As Q says, a lesser man would have been humiliated to say those words.
But Star Trek: The Next Generation bears the Star Trek name, and its constant production troubles mean its ideals are not taking root as fast as they should be. So it takes the bullet. Captain Picard takes responsibility for the mistakes of the Federation and Star Trek: The Next Generation takes responsibility for the past and future mistakes of Star Trek just as Geordi took responsibility for the mistakes of Sonya Gomez. Once again, Captain Picard and his crew have to stand trial for the crimes of humanity.
(Speaking of Sonya Gomez, absolutely nothing about her works whatsoever. Intended to be yet another major new cast addition, as sure a sign as any of a show that's gotten dangerously self-conscious, she was meant to bring some “slapstick charm” to “lighten up” the show's atmosphere. In practice, she comes across as the production team thinking they hadn't done enough to dismiss and belittle women in “The Dauphin”.)
It's perhaps too early to tell if this sacrifice was made in vain or not. It is certainly concerning that the Borg become immediately popular precisely because they are antagonists who can't be reasoned with. It does sometimes feel unpleasantly as if Star Trek fans feel comfortable with the Borg because they can be shot at with impunity and a free conscience. Leaving aside for the moment the even more disturbing sorts of fans who actually *root* for the Borg and think they're *cool*, it's as if those very imperialistic tendencies they would pledge to oppose in the Borg are what gives them the zeal to fight them with the righteous fervor they do. And it's a matter of record that Q's speeches here about corners of the galaxy breeding unfathomably wonderful and dangerous things has, frighteningly, been used to justify doubling down on Star Trek's in-built militarism and xenophobia.
But like I said, the Federation isn't too different from the Borg. And neither are we.
Thursday, December 25, 2014
“Shut up, Wesley!”: The Dauphin, Pen Pals
Part of the original justification for adding a child character to Star Trek: The Next Generation was to show how regular teenagers could come to terms with regular teenage issues in a utopian setting such as this. The idea was that in this place and at this time, teenagers' perspectives would be valued and respected as much as those of any other person, and they would be able to resolve their inner conflicts in ways kids don't always have the opportunity to do in the real world. It's a nice conceit, and you can see how it would be in theory easy to weave this theme in as a manifestation of the show's children's television for adults motif.
And then there's Wesley Crusher. And episodes like these.
Both of these episodes deal in some way with developing Wesley as a character and both of them fail pretty conclusively at it. To be fair to “The Dauphin” and “Pen Pals”, there isn't really a whole lot for them to actually go off of to begin with: Of all the Star Trek: The Next Generation characters, and with the utmost of respect to Wil Wheaton who consistently and gamely does the best he can with often unworkable material, Wesley Crusher is the one who has the most seriously and egregiously fatal conceptual flaws, and this makes it *extremely* hard to get behind anything he's involved in. “Pen Pals” isn't even expressly about him; his plot only comprises the B-story of an episode that is largely about Data. Problem is, Data himself has picked up Wesley's slack from the first season to become badly overexposed himself this year, and his story ultimately boils down to another Prime Directive runaround which means it sucks by default. Frankly, the fact that the Prime Directive has gotten us to a point where it would condone us leaving an innocent and adorable little alien girl to die on a planet that is literally exploding should tell us all we need to know about how cartoonishly evil, simplistic and impractical it is as a philosophical worldview.
The only thing remotely of interest in regards to the A-story of “Pen Pals” is Captain Picard's objection to helping Sarjenka's people, that the destruction of her planet and civilization might be part of a larger “cosmic plan” the Enterprise is not meant to be a part of. This is obviously intriguing considering the ethical foundation of Dirty Pair and all the Dirty Pair references that have been showing up in Star Trek: The Next Generation lately. Typically when Kei and Yuri inadvertently bring about the destruction of a planet, it's because something had marked its people very early on in the story as dangerously self-destructive, toxic or reactionary. It's also not usually the case that the girls' investigations end in a 100% fatality rating: More often than not there's a remnant that survives as a reminder to the readers that their mission is a positive and constructive one in spite of what it looks like, and that those who survive will probably end up with a better life than they started with. When the universe *does* have Kei and Yuri Kill 'Em All, there's usually a very good reason, like how the warring factions of “Hire Us! Beautiful Bodyguards are a Better Deal” and Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture were a threat to themselves and others, or how the prison station in “Prison Uprising. We Hate People with Grudges!” was a monument to Panopticism.
So the question becomes, did the Dremans do something that was somehow *that bad* to warrant being doomed to be wiped off the galaxy? We certainly never get any indication of that anywhere in the episode, and furthermore this kind of plot becomes exponentially more worrying when taken out of Dirty Pair (where extraterrestrial life doesn't exist, or if it does it's so beyond our comprehension such that it's practically indescribable and ineffable, so we're only dealing with humanity in the general) and placed in Star Trek, where we're talking about entire species and ethnicities, and that's not touching on the latent militarism and imperialism that still haunts Star Trek. Maybe that's why Captain Picard eventually does allow the Enterprise to help. Perhaps we could say Sarjenka and Data were meant to find each other just as the Enterprise was in the system conducting geological surveys precisely such that it would be in a position to help her and her people. That's certainly a nicer twist on the plot that would be befitting of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Funnily enough, “Pen Pals” is the first episode in awhile that doesn't have an explicit Dirty Pair reference I was able to spot.
(It's also worth briefly noting the choice of characters here: Melinda Snodgrass campaigned for Data to be the one to talk to Sarjenka, because his literal-mindedness as an android gives him a childlike veneer that works nicely with the story's themes.)
So with that all said let's talk about Wesley Crusher. In “Pen Pals”, he takes his first command as the leader of the survey team that studies Drema IV and must face such crushing command decisions as how to react to his science officer questioning him and daring to point out how his positionality might mean there are some things he's not as informed about as others. But, as Commander Riker so helpfully points out, Wesley is in charge just like Captain Picard, and since nobody questions the captain’s authority (I guess we'll forget about “Lonely Among Us” and “Time Squared” for the moment) nobody should question Wesley's either. And, sure enough, the remarkable, brilliant and wonderful boy makes the crucial discovery that saves Sarjenka and her people.
This actually ties nicely in with “The Dauphin”, which was a similarly solipsistic yarn about how uniquely tortured and special Wesley Crusher is. It was supposed to be a love story about awkward teenage feelings and emotions but, seemingly in a dogged attempt to sidestep every single one of its core themes and values, Star Trek: The Next Generation forces us to watch Wesley going on about *his* pain and *his* confusion in a rote recitation of every single godawful young adult story about teenage boys that has ever been written since the dawn of time. The plot is basically “Elaan of Troyius” without the racism, as it features a beguiling young woman duty- and honour-bound to bring peace between two warring factions who tragically has no time for love from our sincere and eager Nice Guy.
Though it may not be as catastrophically and disgustingly racist, as “Elaan of Troyius”, “The Dauphin” keeps every ounce of its insufferable sexism, as its entire plot can be succinctly summed up as “bitches be cray-cray”: In no short order, we have Commander Riker flippantly pointing out how someone like Salia won't “have time” for Wesley (career women-such ice queens, amiright?), Salia giving stereotypical tsundere “hot and cold” “mixed signals”, Wesley actually bemoaning how confusing girls are and this gem of dialog between him and Worf:
So that can pretty much fuck all the way off."No. Men do not roar. Women roar...and they hurl heavy objects...and claw at you...""What does the man do?""He reads love poetry. He ducks a lot.”
In the end, of course, Wesley shows up all of his inept peers and elders by simply visiting Salia's room and talking to her, because of course he does. And that, right there, sums up the problem with Wesley Crusher so neatly: He's cishet male privilege given form. Both of these episodes in one respect or another deal with Wesley being reassured of his natural, God-given authority because he's either male, he's in a position of power or because he's a Nerd (as if there was actually a meaningful difference between those things anyway). If there's every any conflict, it's *always* brought upon him by *other people*, all of whom are some manner of scary, different, confusing or less competent than he is. All Wesley Crusher ever has to worry about is the haters and the little people who keep bothering him and cramping his style. And what's up with that? After all, he didn't do anything to them, right?
For real, fuck this. Fuck him. Fuck these episodes. This is the exact wrong kind of “children's television” Star Trek: The Next Generation ought to be trying to mould itself as and is precisely the reason why I can't stand Wesley Crusher.
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
“Loser Sons”: The Icarus Factor
That's not to say there haven't been a huge amount of exposure for the would-be triumvirate though: Picard and Data have both essentially worn out their quota for the entire year already, and Riker isn't far behind with this episode. Although that said “The Icarus Factor” is straightforwardly the sort of thing that Star Trek: The Next Generation ought to be really good at: At its heart, it's an interlocking series of vignettes about Riker, his father, Doctor Pulaski, Troi, Worf, O'Brien, Data, Geordi and Wesley, and this is pretty much the ideal structure for this show to handle character pieces because it takes a slice of shipboard life and shows how all these different characters react to a given situation and the kinds of relationships they have with each other.
Unfortunately, “The Icarus Factor” is also something of a hot mess.
This *should* be a relatively simple A/B plot structure with both halves of the narrative demonstrating the themes of family and where you make your home. Riker is (justifiably) estranged from his father because of his behaviour when he was a child while at the same time contemplating a promotion that would take him away from the Enterprise. Kyle (and actually Captain Picard, for that matter) acts as if Will is going to accept even before he's made a decision precisely because it would put him in charge of a dangerous mission and they assume that he, like his father, can't resist a challenge. Meanwhile, Worf is feeling lonely and isolated because he's missing an important Klingon rite of passage meant to be shared with family, and he has no Klingon family to speak of and doesn't think his friends on the Enterprise will understand. There's even a bit of overlap when Worf asks to join Riker on his new assignment because the high risk would give them an opportunity to die in glorious battle together, and Worf considers Riker a comrade.
Notice how O'Brien, who is an many ways the lynchpin character here if for no other reason than he spans both plots, gives a succinct, yet stirring, speech about being able to choose your friends and co-workers, but not your family. And notice how, in both cases, the story is resolved by an acknowledgment that the Enterprise is home: Worf discovers who his true family is when they re-create the Klingon rite of ascension on the holodeck and Riker decides to turn down the promotion to stay with his fellow travellers.
The problem is that nobody is behaving the way they're supposed to and there are logic holes big enough to drive a truck through that are strewn about everywhere. The story is trying to show how Riker is different from his father; that he forges authentic and meaningful personal connections that last while his father smooth-talks everyone he meets. And furthermore, that Will does not chase challenge just for the egoistic satisfaction of competition and proving himself-that he's a far wiser and more seasoned person than that. Will is genuine, while Kyle hides behind a veneer of charisma to distract us from the fact the only way he knows how to interact with people is to compete with them. Will's also supposedly better at conflict resolution, which makes sense as he lives on the Enterprise: He apologises to Doctor Pulaski for intruding on her personal life when Kyle has never apologised for anything in his life. And yet at the same time it tries to make Will out to be as bullishly and indelicately male as Kyle: The script has Doctor Pulaski tell him to “jettison [his] personal baggage” and there's that completely inexplicable scene in the observation lounge where Deanna gives an unwatchably to-the-note sitcom “Silly-men-can't-live-with-'em-can't-live-without-'em” grump.
Don't get me wrong, there are *plenty* of reasons to criticize and laugh at masculinity, but reiterating stock “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” sitcom cliches is the absolute wrong way to go about doing that. And furthermore, what does any of this tell us about who Will Riker actually is? That he's a bastion of utopian maturity except when he isn't? That he's moved beyond the shallow macho posturing of his father except when he hasn't? Hardly. Will Riker isn't Jim Kirk (or even Will Decker), except in the absolute most superficial sorts of comparisons that predate “Encounter at Farpoint”. Certainly not now when his backstory is more fleshed out and he's got his now-explicit Alaskan heritage and that whole North Woodsman aesthetic going for him (that I do admit I kinda dig) and we shouldn't be expecting him to embody the same kind of “masculine virtues” Kirk did (or was supposed to at least, considering William Shatner takes one look at a phrase like “masculine virtues” and laughs his ass off). Let's leave that back in the 1960s, shall we? That's not for us. It's for people like, well Kyle Riker.
(I suppose that's one reason why the Anbo-jyutsu ring that's the site of Kyle's defeat and Will's personal epiphany is adorned with the sacred marks “Kei” and “Yuri”. Although in this case the more appropriate ones might be “Lum” and “Ataru” and “Urusei Yatsura”, the series from which they hail: Urusei Yatsura is about farcical cosmic bad luck that happens to programatically idiotic men and the offbeat, quirky, and oftentimes equally idiotic, women who put up with them.)
But the bigger problems for me are in the Worf half of the plot. Geordi, for one, acts *completely* out of character, hypocritically claiming his ego isn't at stake while fuming at the Strafleet team going over his work and arrogantly brushing aside Wesley and Data's concerns about Worf. He should be the first person to notice something is troubling Worf or, if not, he should be the one who reaches out to him by organising the celebration on the holodeck. It feels like Geordi is being cack-handedly shoved out of his proper role in order to put Wesley back in his insufferable “I know you better than you do and can fix anything” first season characterization that, following a season of tiring and repetitive overexposure, Data is now perilously close to sharing with him.
While Doctor Pulaski is generally excellent in the Riker plot, she's out of sorts in the Worf one because of her reticence about Klingon culture: No, “Up The Long Ladder” hasn't aired yet, but Pulaski has already shown herself to be at least somewhat familiar with Klingon customs in “A Matter Of Honor”, so there's no reason for her to act so squeamish here. The only person who's remotely on point here aside from O'Brien is Captain Picard, because Patrick Stewart so jubilantly sells Picard's glee at Riker's upcoming promotion: Clearly, Picard doesn't like thinking of Riker as a subordinate and is not only proud of him, but giddy at the prospect of having an official excuse to treat him as an equal.
(Then there's the small matter of Worf asking to join Riker on the Drake. The point of the scene is to emphasize the danger of the mission Will would be taking on by having Worf insist on accompanying him to protect him. Only problem is this scene happens before it's revealed how dangerous the Drake's mission is going to be. Oops. I'm not really one for plot nitpicking, but this sort of oversight does torpedo the episode's logistical coherence and effectiveness some.)
“The Icarus Factor” is an episode I've been harsher on than was probably strictly necessary. It's got some important character moments and has one or two nice scenes, but it's structurally and conceptually a sloppy mess, and that's concerning as it's yet one more example of Star Trek: The Next Generation ineffectually trying to redefine itself. That it's another mediocre episode in a run of mediocre stories from a mediocre season is telling inasmuch as it shows us quite clearly what the new mediocre looks like...and yet Star Trek: The Next Generation is supposed to be at least in part about constant self-improvement. It's imperative that it *never* settle for mediocrity precisely *because* it needs to be always striving to to improve itself. And once again, it's not being allowed to.
Sunday, December 21, 2014
“Dead Alive”: Time Squared
This might be partially because the central conceit of this episode, a causal time loop, reoccurs again a few seasons later in “Cause and Effect”, which is one of my very favourite episodes in the series. Not that the actual plot of “Time Squared” is any sort of precursor or that “Cause and Effect” is derivative; what happens here is far more oblique and mysterious than the time loop from the later story. It's a bit more accurate to say that what we see here is an example of a branching dimension, and Troi even says as much at one point during the episode. One way to read this would be to roughly compare it with an actual physics theory called the “many-worlds interpretation”, which, put general, states that when witnessing the spin state of an electron, there are two possible observations: One where the electron is observed to have a positive spin “up” and one where it's observed to have a negative spin “down”. Well, the many-worlds interpretation states that for every individual instance where the particle is observed to spin “up”, there is another world where, for that same instance, the particle is observed to spin “down”, and vice versa. This is frequently extrapolated to the level of physical actions by humans on the macroscopic scale in the pop discourse.
So in “Time Squared”, we have two possible worlds: One where Captain Picard leaves the ship in the shuttlepod in an attempt to save the Enterprise from the energy entity and one where he doesn't. What would appear to be happening is a temporary intersection between these two universes, and the dilemma the crew faces is that they know from the log tapes that Picard's attempt to save the ship in the “leave the Enterprise” universe proves to be futile, but they can't figure out what the other observational state is. And here's where Star Trek: The Next Generation shows itself to be better than other science fiction, because not only does it not stop here (it would be perfectly acceptable, after all, for a Hard SF work to make a big deal just about doing a story built around the many-worlds interpretation, leaving it at that and waiting for us to tell it how clever it's being), but this gimmick isn't even the real point of the episode: Instead, it's a narrative device to tell a story about Captain Picard.
The reason Picard is so freaked out at seeing his alternate dimension counterpart is because they are in fact so very explicitly the same person, and the only thing that sets them apart is how they acted in one crucial moment. Our Picard cannot accept the idea that he would abandon his ship and his crew in their time of need, and yet he has to because there exists a world where he did precisely that. Of course, as the timelines start to sync up it does go a ways to redeeming him when it becomes clear he only did it because he thought it was in the crew's best interest and the only way to save them. And yet that in itself is revealing and where the alternate Picard made such a critical mistake: His assumption was that the entity saw the Enterprise as a living thing with himself as its brain and wanted to absorb him...And how freaking presumptuous is that? Even when Picard is trying to make a selfless act, he still does it in such a way that he makes it all about himself. He even tries to make a big dramatic heroic sacrifice that plays right in to the notion of him being this romantic and tragic leading man: The mistake is in forgetting Star Trek: The Next Generation is an ensemble, and you can see this revelation shakes Picard to his core when he stands alone in the observation lounge at the end of the episode.
Wonderfully, it's Doctor Pulaski who realises this. She immediately recognises what's troubling Picard and worries he might get so panicked and despondent she'll have to relieve him of command, and flatly warns Troi she won't hesitate to do so if she feels she has to. This is an interesting bit for how it provides yet another example of how the actors often give very counterintuitive readings and performances that directly contrast with what the written intent would seem to be: This is a Maurice Hurley script, and he seems to want to give the moral high ground to Troi here, having her sputter indignantly at Pulaski's doubts about Picard's mental and emotional state. But both Marina Sirtis and Diana Muldaur seem keenly aware that the far more effective way to deliver that scene would be to give it to Pulaski, and that's just what they do. Sirtis plays Troi taken aback and wrongfooted, trying to retain a facade of haughtiness while scrambling to tell Pulaski off: In a way, Troi comes across almost as arrogant and self-assured as Picard. Muldaur, meanwhile, remains calm, collected, remorseful and understanding-I adore how she tries to play the voice of reason and dejectedly sighs and shakes her head when Troi storms out of sickbay. The body language of both actors is out of this world, and, combining that with their delivery, they just knock the whole scene out of the park.
(In fact, given this and the pre-existing metatextual relationship we know the two characters have with each other, I'm inclined to read this scene as another instance where Troi's shipboard counselor role is showing signs of being deprecated.)
This theme of forcing the Enterprise crew to confront their own hubris isn't all that surprising once you learn the original draft of “Time Squared” had Q behind everything and that this episode was meant to be a lead-in to “Q, Who?”. Hurley says Gene Roddenberry prevented the team from using Q two stories in a row for whatever reason and that this hurts the final product-I'm not so sure about that, as I think the episode works well enough on its own, but I can see how adding Q would have reinforced its central concept a little bit more. But the question that merits raising here is whether Star Trek: The Next Generation *in particular* needs to be knocked down a few pegs the way this episode, “Q, Who?” and debatably “The Measure of a Man” (if you're inclined to read that episode that way) would seem to imply it does. It's not like the show is in an amazingly healthy state right now: Given the writers' guild strike and the calibre of stuff it's been tossing out this year, it's really not in a position to be boastful about much of anything. And it's certainly not the case that Star Trek: The Next Generation behaves with the same ham-fisted didacticism as its predecessor: It's proven that many times over by now.
And yet the threat is still there. The very last episode to air before “Time Squared” was “The Royale”, which was nothing if not an unapologetically retrograde throwback to the Original Series. And this wasn't the first time this show has done that, hell, it wasn't even the first time the show had done that *this season*. One gets the sense something is in badly need of being shaken up, regardless of whether or not it's even Star Trek: The Next Generation's fault that this needs to happen. It may someday turn out to be the case that the show will need to take the fall for things it didn't even do and isn't responsible for, and that's an eventuality we should be ready for. Whether it deserves to or not, Star Trek: The Next Generation has to face the prospect of answering for all of Star Trek's previous (and sometimes future) sins, which is why the spectre of Q looms over affairs even now. My Captain Picard doesn't have this on his conscience, but a reality exists where Captain Picard does, and that's not something I can completely ignore.
And this is maybe why “Time Squared”, while quite a good episode that works significantly towards building a thematic consistency in a lame duck season of television, only gave me a fleeting glimpse of that intangible ideal of mine. There are days where I really hate writing about visual media.
Thursday, December 18, 2014
“You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave”: The Royale
“The Royale” is another episode that nobody in particular is especially fond of and that I frequently see gracing any number of “Worst Of” lists. One is certainly not enthused by looking at its production history: Originally pitched for very early in the first season, it sat ignored in the slush pile of unused scripts until necessity required its exhumation in the second. It was also the subject of yet another one of writer Tracy Tormé's trademark spats with then-producer Maurice Hurley, and apparently it was the straw that broke the camel's back too, as the dispute finally led Tormé to walk off of Star Trek: The Next Generation at the end of the year.
Tormé claims his original pitch hinged far more heavily on surrealist imagery and symbolism. His primary influence while writing it was The Prisoner, and he wanted to bring the same kind of abstract and multi-tiered psychedelia that characterized that show to Star Trek: The Next Generation. And you can see at least some of that in the finished product, with the eery revolving door afloat in nothingness, to the guests who act in bizarrely programmatic ways and the way the hotel itself operates. Apparently Hurley objected to this as well as the very prominent role the astronaut character was going to have, the former for vague and unspecified reasons (which is troublingly something of a hallmark of Hurley's tenure) and the latter because he felt it wasn't good for the show to have big guest stars and couldn't afford it even if it was. This, of course, does little to explain Billy Campbell and Howie Seago showing up earlier in the season. Another thing it doesn't explain is why Patrick McGoohan was tapped to appear for three minutes in “The Schizoid Man” when offering him the part of the then-living Colonel Richey here seems like the most dumbly obvious idea in the universe. Sadly, another hallmark of the Maurice Hurley era has been its pathological aversion to sense.
Given its origins then, its unsurprising that “The Royale” feels so much like an Original Series episode: Like “The Naked Now”, “Code of Honor”, “Blood and Fire”, "Justice", "Angel One" and "When The Bough Breaks", this feels straightforwardly like the creative team cherry-picked some narrative structures and devices from the old show, shuffled them around a bit and changed the names. Unlike those episodes, however, “The Royale” as aired is actually surprisingly serviceable in spite of itself: It doesn't feel like a reiteration of the abjectly terrible aspects of the Original Series or an embarrassingly tepid attempt to ape its better ones, it actually feels like something the Original Series could have done and done quite well. It's got the campy, performative fun of episodes like “A Piece of the Action” blended with the haunting and disquieting surrealism of something like “The Empath”. Granting both that the episode as aired is not what Tormé wanted it to be and that, like so much of this season, it was thrown together at the last minute just to get something on the air that week, it does seem as if “The Royale” is coming perilously close to standing among the very best of the Original Series just from that brief alone.
But that's the problem, of course. What worked for Star Trek isn't going to work for Star Trek: The Next Generation, so that damns “The Royale” before it even gets going. As intriguing as it sounds and as fun as the central mystery and period trappings can get at times, the fact remains we should be well beyond this kind of story if for no other reason that this show doesn't have William Shatner and William Shatner was so crucial to making this kind of plot work in the first place. Sure, the Next Generation cast are brilliant performers in their own right, but their talents aren't in the same areas Shatner's were and they have their own set of creative needs that need to be met and accommodated for. And what's been so frustrating about all of this show's middling moments to date has been its stubbornly steadfast refusal to do precisely that: Whether because the creative team didn't yet know better (as was the case last year), were actually physically prevented from doing better (as is the case this season) or couldn't overcome their Nerdy, fanboyish nostalgia-driven impulses (as will be the case on an irritating number of occasions during the latter third or so of the series' run), the sad truth is the production realities of Star Trek: The Next Generation do not have the best interests of Star Trek: The Next Generation at heart.
And yet there really is a lot of metafictional fun to be had here: You've obviously got the away team grooving on the setting and doing the standard “A Piece of the Action” narrative intruder stuff, which is always good for at least a couple of laughs. But what's more interesting to me is that the book the Thetans have decided to crib from is explicitly described quite frequently throughout the episode as being an awful pulp detective story famously loaded with “stock cliches” and “one dimensional characters” who lack any form of development. So much so, in fact, that Colonel Richey considered it a living hell and death to be a welcome relief from the unceasing torment of existence. This, at least, is something the show couldn't have done with the holodeck: One assumes that if a program started going poorly for the crew they could just change it. No, to fully comment on and learn from particularly bad writing, you do kind of need to be trapped in it. Which is, come to think of it, something Star Trek has an undeniably storied history of.
In this context it does start to seem appropriate in a somewhat roundabout way that “The Royale” air during a time when Star Trek: The Next Generation, struggling just to keep itself on the air week to week, must resort to making episodes out of material that can charitably be called a retread of 1960s-style television science fiction. The danger is, after all, that the away team will be trapped in the stock and cliched world of the Hotel Royale forever, and it's not too much of an intellectual leap to go from that to drafting a sweeping commentary about the state of the series and what its relationship with its predecessor is at this point in time. “The Royale” may be good Original Series-style Star Trek, but that's not good enough anymore. Even fans, who usually aren't wont to admit this sort of thing, must subconsciously have been aware the sell-by date for this kind of story was long passed by 1989 given the reaction it seems to have garnered. Sure, they'll chalk it up the things like the writer's guild strike or the three season rule or general ineptitude, but the underlying truth all of this obfuscates is that, even now, the Star Trek: The Next Generation creative team has gotten *so* good it can toss out a story that would traditionally have been considered a classic as a middling filler episode.
The danger here is that Star Trek: The Next Generation will be doomed to live out the rest of its days restricted by the limitations of its predecessor.
But of course, Richey bears no ill will to the Thetans; they did their best, after all, and were just trying to create a story he would be comfortable living in. Perhaps if they had access to other works of Earth literature, they could have improved their own writing style. Many beginning writers suffer from a limited reference pool, and sometimes all it takes to help a new writer is to broader their horizons. We see it time and time again in Star Trek fandom, with so many self-described Trekkers not knowing much of the world outside of their favourite TV franchise. A TV franchise that, let's not forget, itself has roots in the exact same dime-store pulp fluff that constitutes novels like Hotel Royale. We can see it even as far back as, say “A Trekkie's Tale”. Because what is the Mary Sue archetype except a collection of forgivable beginning writer's mistakes? And what did Paula Smith want but to help guide the writers under her tutelage to move beyond them? If Star Trek: The Next Generation must internalize things from Star Trek's prehistory, perhaps it says all that needs saying that it's chosen to internalize this.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
“Nothing Lasts Forever”: Contagion
It's not that “Contagion” is any less the product of the season's incredibly troubled production history, but this is the first time the show has been able to fully rise above it and put out something triumphant in spite of it. Indeed, Beth Woods, one half of the brainchild behind this episode, was literally the creative team's tech support: She ran a personal computer store near the Paramount lot D.C. Fontana and Dave Gerrold liked to patronize, and they turned Gene Roddenberry onto her place when he was looking to buy his first computer. Woods even taught him how to use it, and Roddenberry later asked her to set up a computer system for the Star Trek: The Next Generation creative team. Roddenberry even invited Woods to submit a story of her own after learning she was a struggling writer herself (and also probably because they had no scripts), so she teamed up with comic writer Steve Gerber to pen "Contagion".
So it probably makes sense that Woods and Gerber's episode would deal prominently with computer technology and hinge on an alien computer virus. As cliche as that probably sounds today, this sort of plot was still sort of a new thing to US audiences even as late as 1989. Furthermore, Star Trek: The Next Generation is one of the very few shows that can actually do a techno thriller, which “Contagion” definitely is, without coming across as banal. There are a couple reasons for this, the first likely being the show's high-tech setting and focus on exploration gives it license to freely poke around mysterious areas of space and hyper advanced technology without being constrained too much by real world computer science. But the second is the sheer earnestness of the cast and crew that puts heart and soul into anything: None of Star Trek: The Next Generation's techno thrillers look terribly exciting or innovative on paper, but in almost every single case the stories in question turn out to be incredibly memorable and captivating because of their unbridled imagination and creativity and the raw power and talent of the cast. And “Contagion” is the first time this all comes together for them, with a guest cast as passionate as the main one and a simple, yet incredibly gripping, central premise that helps bring it all together.
There's no one thing that makes this episode as memorable and effective as it is, it's simply that the combination of all the little individual factors that go into it make the whole a lot greater than the sum of its parts. All of the regulars seem to be doing exactly the sort of thing it feels right for them to be doing, from Worf's loyalty to Riker and Troi looking out for the crew and handling delicate negotiations with Commander Taris, to Geordi's race against time to solve the mystery of Iconian programming and even Data's blatant, yet charming “New Powers As The Plot Demands” 133t skillz. Diana Muldaur isn't in the episode very much, but the one scene she does get is one of her absolute best in the series as Doctor Pulaski fumes at sickbay crashing around her while teaching her hapless nurses how to make a splint, all with her signature sparkle. This is also the episode that introduces Captain Picard's interest in archeology, which is one of the most important developments for his character on the show, because its his first concrete step away from the militarism of Gene Roddenberry towards a more textually overt embrace of the scientific curiosity that really always should have been part of him from the beginning.
(This is even a good episode for Wesley, who, for probably the first time in the entire show, starts to demonstrate why having a child character is the kind of thing we might actually *want*: Although long displaced in this role by Data, who is a far more effective child analog for the children's television for adults Star Trek: The Next Generation has become, the scene where Wesley asks Picard about his interest in archeology, and turning to him for guidance after being shell-shocked by the destruction of the Yamato, is actually quite touching.)
“Contagion” is the second and final appearance of the Enterprise's sister ship the Yamato, and its destruction here brings with it some interesting symbolism. The ship is named after the flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy that fought in the Pacific theatre of World War II and was the largest, most advanced and powerful battleship ever built. This is more than a little problematic: The original Yamato was possibly the most brazen and undeniable example of imperialistic aspiration and bravado given material form, and represents a time when Japan placed all of its national pride into blatantly racist and colonialist expansionist fever dreams. Imperial Japan's actions during and leading up to World War II are still a touchy subject amongst those who live in the island country to this day. While on the one hand no one can argue Japan isn't a vastly different place now, there is a certain eagerness amongst all post-colonial powers to put their past behind them too quickly and attempt to forget and ignore the misdeeds and injustices that make up the foundation of any nation-state. This is as true of Japan as it is anywhere else, and this has the tendency to *enrage* a certain type of creative person.
Though I deliberately avoided talking about it in this project, there is most certainly a right-wing militaristic branch of Japanese science fiction. The most notable example of this genre is, funnily enough, a series called Space Battleship Yamato, which chronicles the adventures of a(n all-male) crew of heroic space explorers who retrieve the sunken wreck of the original Yamato and turn it into a starship with the intent of seeking out the home planet of an alien race who has promised to give humanity the technology it needs to restore Earth after it's bombed into a radioactive wasteland. The series very obviously taps into Japan's postwar identity crisis and tries to evoke a distorted sense of nostalgic patriotism by projecting Japan's hopes for a future onto a former symbol of national pride tied *very explicitly* to a feeling of the righteousness and justness of empire.
Though considered a classic and a landmark both in anime and Japanese science ficiton in general, Space Battleship Yamato was not received with open arms by everyone. One of its more prominent earlier detractors was none other than Hayao Miyazaki, who made his feelings on the show and the implications that went along with it pretty clear by making the last vestige of the doomed and irresponsible Old Universe of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind a bombed-out hulk that Nausicaä's friends and family seek terrified shelter in as Princess Kushana's forces bear down upon them with the last God Warrior in tow. A pathetic wreck that is pretty blatantly meant to be that of the Space Battleship Yamato. Two years later, the satirical anime movie Project A-ko features the Space Battleship Yamato as the *figurehead* of an implausibly and unnecessarily gigantic starship belonging to the navy of the Alpha Cygnans, an extraterrestrial civilization who come to Earth to locate their missing princess after sixteen years of searching, and who accidentally help spark a planetary war and vaporize much of Japan due to their general incompetence.
And “Contagion” has the Federation making the exact same mistake: The Galaxy-class is supposed to represent the very best qualities of human ingenuity, creativity and curiosity-Geordi even calls it something like “the pinnacle of human achievement”. And Starfleet has gone and named one of them after a terrifying weapon of war; a horrific testament to the evils of colonialism and imperialism. No matter how many superficial overtures it makes, paying tribute to nonwestern cultures, even showing people of colour as captains, the Federation is still unmistakeably and disturbingly a product of the oppressive authoritarianism it claims to have long since moved beyond. After all, not three episodes ago it was seriously considering bringing back *slavery*. Which is why, awful as it may seem, the Yamato has to die. It carries with it the weight of far too much painful and unpalatable history that simply does not belong amongst the idealism of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
And the mysterious Iconians know this. We can speculate as to their true nature and motives, and there's a fruitful discussion to be had about whether you side with Worf or Captain Picard here. I'm more inclined to side with the latter: Were the Iconians truly examples of a life post-singularity? Their ability to travel free from the shackles of mortal space would seem to indicate this, though, on the other hand, they did seem to wed this to a very technophillic structure that would seem to work against this. At the very least, we can assume they were likely some form of aspirational Glorified Body who represent a kind of stepping-stone point to the next level. And, true to form, the Iconian artefact in this episode bears some very familiar inscriptions: Namely, “Totoro”, “Gundam”, “Kei”, “Yuri” and “Dirty Pair”.
It's fitting that the Iconians would evoke not only the Lovely Angels (as well as the Gundam series, another franchise the girls' parent company Studio Neu was involved in), but My Neighbor Totoro, one of Hayao Miyazaki's most famous films. We have the Glorified warrior-shamans who are committed to ushering in humanity's new age through fire as well as Miyazaki the arch-animist and enemy of imperialism the world over (not to mention the Space Battleship Yamato). Diegetically we never learn the intent behind the Iconian computer virus, but extradiegetically it couldn't be more clear to me. It was placed there specifically (though perhaps not deliberately) for the Yamato to find and for the Enterprise and the Haakona to study. The Yamato was fated to die at Iconia, but the other two ships have a greater work that guides them.
Why was the Enterprise redeemable and not the Yamato? Because even though they were sister ships and superficially comrades and friends, the Enterprise remains distant from and better than Starfleet and the Federation. She and her crew are on their way to becoming divine ideals, while the Yamato was the unwitting product of the Federation's reactionary and depraved underbelly. Recall that the Enterprise's chief engineer is Geordi La Forge, who, if no-one else, is there to guide the Enterprise and her crew to do great things (Riker even implies, somewhat flippantly, other chief engineers might not be cut of the same cloth as Geordi). Similarly the Haakona is Romulan, and the Romulans, even here, are still tacitly reflections of us: They may have lost their way a bit and the tables may have turned by this point in regards to who is a better version of who, but they still have a bright future ahead of them and are spared the cleansing fire. Indeed, while Donald Varley may have feared the Iconian technology falling into Romulan hands, I'd be far more concerned if the *Federation* got their hands on it.
I think Captain Picard maybe agrees with me, and that's why he has the tricorder and the command centre destroyed. He likely picked up on what the Iconians already knew, that the universe right now just isn't ready to function on that level quite yet. But it's well on its way, as the Enterprise proved here. And yet even so, there's a lot of important and careful work to be done, because the Enterprise and the Yamato were still so frighteningly close (indeed, it's unsettling to see such familiar and recognisable stock footage of the beautiful Galaxy-class utilised this way).
But even if there is, I think the lesson here is that the future is probably in the best of hands.
Sunday, December 14, 2014
“If you prick me, do I not...leak?”: The Measure of a Man
This though is one that's never quite sat entirely comfortably with me. It is unquestionably a triumphant statement of purpose from Melinda Snodgrass (in fact it's so good it landed her the position of story editor for the remainder of this season and the first half of the next) and definitely bears more of the hallmarks of an “iconic” episode than anything else we've seen this season (and arguably will see, apart from the inescapable “Q, Who?”), but there have always been niggling questions and concerns Ive had with “The Measure of a Man” that I've never been able to fully put to rest. And unfortunately, I have to say this latest rewatch did little to change my mind.
There are two main ways of going about looking at this episode depending on who you think the main character is. Classical fan logic slants Data into this role, as it's his rights that are at stake and so much of the story hinges on his personal experiences and sense of self-awareness. From Data's perspective, this would put “The Measure of a Man” squarely into the territory of “Elementary, Dear Data” and its Hard SF “what manner is a non-human?” A-plot to the point it almost feels like a bit of a reiteration. Indeed, this isn't even the first time Star Trek: The Next Generation has tackled these issues: Back in the “Home Soil” post I even threw it in with a whole series of other episodes overtly looking at the rights and sentience of artificial intelligences. There's nothing strictly new to be talked about there. “The Measure of a Man” similarly follows in the footsteps of a number of episodes this season examining who and what Data in particular is: The aforementioned “Elementary, Dear Data”, as well as “The Outrageous Okona” and “The Schizoid Man”. Not to mention any of the season's earliest scenes featuring Doctor Pulaski.
The thing about giving the lead to Data here though, as intuitive as it may seem, is that the entire dramatic weight of the episode is a foregone conclusion. Nobody watching Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989 needed the show to diegetically state Data is a person or even needed to see an in-universe assessment of that. We travel with Data and can gather everything we need to know about his personhood from narrative subtext. That's not to say it's a bad thing when a story's resolution lacks any sort of suspense, I think people place far too much emphasis on things like surprise, twists and plot originality anyway. But what it does mean is that the appeal of “The Measure of a Man” was never going to be in what, if anything, it revealed to us about who Data was, but rather in how the story's other characters react to him.
In this regard, a beneficial way to read “The Measure of a Man”, and the way Melinda Snodgrass herself intended, is as a Captain Picard story. As Snodgrass says, the episode is about determining a man's character and Data himself explicitly says he's not a man. This doesn't mean he's not an individual, even the hearing eventually does rule as such, but it's not about determining the kind of person Data is as much as it is determining the kind of person Captain Picard is. Because while none of us in the audience need convincing that Data is a person, it would seem the Federation do. But this is something we should actually expect: To paraphrase K. Jones' analysis of Doctor Pulaski under the “Where Silence Has Lease” post, they come from outside. We all know who and what Data is because we travel with the Enterprise every week, but the Enterprise is in truth an outlier in the world of Starfleet, not the gatekeeper of its values and ethics: We can't expect Starfleet officers who don't live and work on the Enterprise to share that community's same morals and ideals. So, when faced with a situation that directly puts him and his ship in conflict with the institutionalized system they ostensibly work for, Picard is forced to take a stand, as he knows his actions will not only have consequences for his friends, but will reflect the sort of person he wants to be.
Which is why the key moment is the scene in Ten Forward where Picard is talking to Guinan about the hearing. In one of those serendipitous collusions of genius writing and genius casting, Guinan subtly points out to Picard that what Maddox has planned for Data, essentially using him as a prototype for an army of service androids who would be assigned to every starship, is tantamount to slavery. And that's why Picard uses the otherwise anthropologically unacceptable term “race” in his defense: He's deliberately using a loaded and deprecated term to demonstrate how Starfleet's own behaviour in this matter has been inexcusably retrograde and would put the Federation firmly back into the master's throne it's always so perilously close to. There's a lot of nice speeches and some neat stuff about philosophy of mind, the self and personal identity theory that the show laudably doesn't screw up, and I'm sure Adam Riggio will have a lot to say about this (oh look, he already does). Phillipa Louvois even correctly says “This case has dealt with metaphysics, with issues best left to saints and philosophers. I'm neither competent nor qualified to answer those”, but she's derailing the conversation. The issue is, and always has been, “a truth that we have obscured behind a comfortable euphemism”.
And that's why my biggest problem with “The Measure of a Man” is that it's played as a courtroom drama. Just for the record, I loathe courtroom dramas on general principle: I tend to find them pompously overblown things that obfuscate and misrepresent legal jurisprudence to a frankly dangerous and irresponsible degree simply to artificially inflate drama. And that's precisely what “The Measure of a Man” does. One thing I've never been able to get beyond is the story's treatment of Commander Riker: To the best of my knowledge and based on what research I've done (meaning I wrote a friend of mine who is a former law student and asked him), there is absolutely no legal precedent for Riker to be pressed into prosecuting the case here. I've always suspected that was more than a little fishy, and I think this twist really damages the finished product. It brings the entire tone of the episode down to high school logic and debate class and reduces Riker's character to vacuous, unnecessary angst. There is absolutely no reason for Riker to be prosecuting Data and Picard against his will except drama for drama's sake, and if there's one trend in narrative media I absolutely hate it's drama for drama's sake.
Furthermore, the episode misuses the term “summary judgment” when “default judgment” would probably be a more preferable descriptor for what Louvois threatens to do, it's never explained why Maddox can't represent himself or seek his own council and the entire case as built should probably have been thrown out due to the *extremely blatant* conflict of interest on *everyone's* part. Now, I'm not a lawyer while Melinda Snodgrass actually is, so I certainly wouldn't presume to challenge her on legalese, but even *I* noticed things were a bit suspect here, and Snodgrass' law degree certainly doesn't preclude the producers taking her submission and monkeying around with it to make it less accurate but more dramatic. Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann even flat out say in the entry on this episode in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 that after they read her pitch and asked her to come to Los Angeles, the producers “made the necessary changes” to “The Measure of a Man” to turn it into a filmable draft.
And the fact of the matter is that all of this actually gets in the way of me enjoying the good philosophical stuff and touching character bits. All I can think about is how little sense this trial makes and how unfair and phony it all feels. And there's a larger issue at play here too: Just as Guinan pointed out to Picard, all this emphasis on grandiose highbrow metaphysics only serves to distract us from the reality that what this is ultimately about is the ruling class assuming the right to profit off of and exploit an oppressed class of “disposable people”. This isn't about personal identity theory, it's about depersonalization, and how those in power will always default to enslavement in the name of efficiency. In hindsight it's obvious why the Federation wouldn't recognise Data as sentient and try to strip away his personhood in the name of replicating his value as a unit of labour: The Federation wants to mass-produce Data, which is only logical, as the Federation is built on the foundation of Western capitalism and Western capitalism is built on the foundation of slavery. What capitalistic entity wouldn't leap at the opportunity to create an entire race of disposable workers at a negligible upfront investment cost?
(By the way, according to the scene where Riker shows Data's arm to the court, Data's construct apparently contains a Nausicaan valve, a Totoro interface and a Kei/Yuri submodule. Which is all the more reason why its so important that Picard's defense sets a precedent and helps bring about a genuine societal sea change.)
This is why “The Measure of a Man” is so revealing for Captain Picard. He's angry because he's being forced to legally defend something that should be self-evident. We shouldn't need laws to tell us how to be decent fucking human beings, and Picard is rightfully outraged that the Federation apparently does. And this is yet another problem I have with this episode, because, particularly through the character of Louvois, it seems to be *glorifying* the process of legal jurisprudence as a form of material social progress, which is just about the most appallingly backwards concept I think I've come across in this show since “Code of Honor”. Never at any point in the history of the world has any good ever come of oppressed groups asking for compromise and concessions from the ruling classes, and that includes the legal system. Progress has only ever been achieved through people living their lives in accordance with their ideals and great work, or through taking their destinies by force from the hands of the people keeping it from them. There are no compromises, there is only capitulation.
(Speaking of oppressed groups, this episode isn't amazing for women. In spite of being likeably crusty, Phillipa Louvois is yet another in a long line of characters largely defined by being one of Captain Picard's Old Flames. For someone who's “not a family man” Picard sure does seem to have a lot of exes bouncing around the galaxy. Deanna Troi is once again a no-show, except in a scene cut from the final episode, and while Doctor Pulaski is great at the inaugural poker game, which I wanted to say more about before I got annoyed and carried away, she had an even better scene bidding good-bye to Data at the party that was cut as well. And don't get me going on Tasha Yar, who is now straightforwardly only valued because she had sex with Data that one time.)
So is all of this enough to throw out “The Measure of a Man” altogether? I mean probably not; there's still a lot of enjoyable material here that definitely earns the classic status. But the work on the whole has a lot more that I find problematic and questionable, and I'm concerned that so many people, perhaps going out of their way to try and find classic episodes, are willing to give all that a pass. I'm forced to wonder about the kinds of things fans are willing to overlook in media such as this if it means they get to gush about it without a guilty conscience.
Especially when so many of those things seem to be important to the sorts of people traditionally deemed “disposable”.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
“The extraordinary world of 3D”: A Matter Of Honor
I have a fascination with stereoscopic 3D as a creative medium. I know in film, TV and video games it is, or at least was, cool to complain about 3D being a pointless and expensive gimmick that just makes things look fake, but I find most of those sorts of arguments to be made out of ignorance about how the process works or how our brains process images. Done properly, stereoscopic 3D has the unique capability to remove the crutch of artifice while counterintuitively adding an entirely new level of immersion at the same time.
As a kid I loved the View-Master line of toy 3D film reels. If you don't remember them, they were these miniature plastic reels that had tiny strips of film inside divided into pairs that were slightly offset. If you put them into a special View-Master viewer (that kind of looked like a clunky pair of binoculars) and held them up to the light, the effect was that you could scroll through a slideshow of 3D images. I was always really, really impressed with the 3D effect of View-Masters: Once you put those on, it was immediate and noticeable, and the reels always seemed to have a vibrant and lush colour scheme that just made everything pop even more. My favourites were always the ones based on live-action and animated television shows: Because you were looking at raw, actual film, View-Master gave you a look at your favourite shows that was strikingly different from anything you could see on TV unless you had a really expensive and high-end set, and even then it wasn't quite the same.
“A Matter Of Honor” was the only Star Trek: The Next Generation episode to be adapted for View-Master, and yes, of course I had it. This means that, while my recollection of the second season as it originally aired is hazy at best, this episode is permanently burned into my memory because I looked at those View-Master reels *constantly*. I have an innate understanding of this episode's beats, highlights and pacing at a very deep-seated level, because the View-Master adaptation dutifully cataloged every single scene, which I promptly memorized because I thought this thing looked bloody *gorgeous* and would click through it over and over again. So, even though I've only actually watched “A Matter Of Honor” maybe a couple of times, I likely know it better than any other episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Which actually proved to be surprisingly off-putting for me this time, as it turns out there are subtle, yet very noticeable, differences between the episode as aired and the episode as rendered in 1980s consumer-grade stereoscopic 3D.
The first thing I noticed was that the effects shots used in the View-Master version of “A Matter Of Honor” are completely different. The TV episode, like a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation did, understandably relies mostly on reused stock footage for exterior shots of the Enterprise with new footage being filmed whenever it was supposed to interact with the Pagh. The View-Master release, by contrast, features entirely unique and original effects shots I haven't seen used anywhere else outside of these reels, and they're universally stunning. The opening shot of the Enterprise used here is actually one of my very favourites of all time: The scale of the shot combined with the 3D effect gives it an almost cinematic look that's unmatched elsewhere in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Surprisingly, though pleasantly so, the View-Master effects maintain Andy Probert's intended colour scheme of the 6-foot studio model that was never translated to screen. It's a little known fact that the Enterprise was never supposed to be the gleaming gun-metal or battleship grey it appears to us as on TV: It's actually meant to be a cool mixture of duck egg and sky blue, which was the paint scheme on all the original filming models. Due to the harsh studio lights used during production this never showed up too well on the series as aired, though if you look closely at the stock flybys or the footage from the first two seasons as restored on the recent Blu-ray releases, you can see the occasional blue highlight along the margins of the shot where the lights weren't as concentrated. By contrast, the View-Master footage not only picks up on this, it actually emphasizes it *further*, meaning on these reels the Enterprise appears clad in a profoundly striking coat of dazzling, brilliant azure adrift against the backdrop of the vastness of space.
(In fact, one of my biggest disappointments in the history of my association with Star Trek: The Next Generation was rediscovering upon the show's return to TNN that the Enterprise never actually looked like this on TV.)
And it's not just the Enterprise itself: Any effects shot is either unique to this version or, in the case of scenes that have direct analogues on the filmed episode, are either taken from angles we don't normally see or are entirely new and different composites. The phaser range scene actually shows the targets leaving a visible “star trail” effect that gives the impression they're three-dimensional objects swirling around Captain Picard and Commander Riker in a kind of light show vortex, as opposed to just being blinking lights flashing off and on on the back wall. When Picard first speaks to Krogan on the Enterprise viewscreen, the bridge of the Klingon ship looks like it's inside a furnace, with so much visible heat radiating it's impossible to make out anything but the captain, an effect I thought made the Klingons look menacing and imposing in a way they never really do. This is helped by View-Master rendering the main viewer as sprawling and overwhelmingly dominant in a way the show itself hasn't since “The Last Outpost”: Once again, it makes things seem really vast and immersive.
One aspect of “A Matter Of Honor” that always stood out to me, probably more than he should have, was Mendon. For some reason I found the Benzite really memorable, maybe because he plays something of a major role in the story and his design isn't something that's necessarily easy to forget. Because “Coming of Age” was an episode I didn't regularly watch I never made the connection that Mendon was transparently an excuse to recycle an existing head mold: I always found him to be one of the most distinctive and iconic bits of this season, and because I never saw a ton of episodes from *this* year at the time either, I always wondered why he never came back for a guest spot. One strike against the View-Master version of “A Matter of Honor” I have to call, unfortunately, is its omission of another vital Dirty Pair reference: When Mendon first sees the holes developing on the Enterprise and the Pagh, his science station indicates it's running “Operation Kei” and “Operation Yuri”. Perhaps understandably, a static shot of a computer console was probably not high on the list of shots View-Master was interested in recreating.
While some scenes seem to be alternate takes of existing effects shots, there are others that intriguingly don't seem to come from “A Matter Of Honor” *at all*: There's a scene of the command staff standing dramatically on the bridge in the beginning that I don't think happens in the episode, and the Enterprise and the Pagh are shown to be in orbit of (and strikingly dwarfed by) a Jupiter-like gas giant in the denouement that I don't recall ever being mentioned in the script. But even more stunningly, there are even *entire character moments* that *only* happen in the View-Master version, the most memorable of which is a scene between Doctor Pulaski and Deanna Troi...The latter of whom isn't even *in* “A Matter Of Honor”. The caption doesn't say much, it just has Troi asking Pulaski if she thinks “Riker will be OK with the Klingons”. But it's an important bit regardless-Back when I first got these reels an unmentionable number of years ago and didn't remember much about the second season, I assumed Pulaski was actually Lwaxana Troi, because I didn't recognise her at first. It just seemed fitting to me for Troi to express her concerns about Riker to her mom.
...Which, in a way, she did.
One thing that's always struck me about Doctor Pulaski is how she seemed to very quickly assert herself as a surrogate mother figure for the crew. For Riker most obviously, as we'll see in “The Icarus Factor”, but for Worf too, given the Klingon Tea Ceremony from “Up The Long Ladder”. And, if we take absolutely nothing else from the Star Trek: The Next Generation version of “The Child” (which is advisable), the very least we can say is that Doctor Pulaski was fiercely protective of Deanna and her condition in that episode. Furthermore, if we do connect her on some metafictional level to “The Old Generation”, which is sort of unavoidable given the blatant Doctor McCoy comparisons and Diana Muldaur's casting, this allows us to take her character in some interesting directions. It just makes perfect sense to me to have Pulaski be the person Troi would turn to if she was worried about something like this.
It's because of moments like these that I have to confess I think I've been surprisingly spoiled by the View-Master version of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Like so much about my history with this show, “A Matter Of Honor” has always been an irreducibly, vividly iconic story for me...And yet rewatching it I find it's the version of the story from the plastic 3D film reel toy I remember, not the actual televised story. For me it's best encapsulated in those breathtakingly stunning exterior shots of the Enterprise, popping out me as much thanks to the stereoscopic 3D as it does because it's awash in brilliant sky blue that contrasts with a blazing orange gas giant and the twinkling of starlight. Maybe it's just my nostalgic fondness, but I think there's something special about this reel: Star Trek: The Next Generation simply never looks like this again at any time or at any place else. It doesn't look like a TV show here; it looks far more like bold, vibrant world we can peer into and observe every now and again.
And perhaps for a show that so often did try to be a safe place we can visit and explore both inner and outer space together for the duration of our stay, that's the way it should be.
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