Thursday, January 30, 2014

“Only the beginning”: How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth

"''How Sharper' was a dream piece of work, we had artistic integrity all the way through,' Wise notes. 'All experiences should be so good.'"

Although there's one more episode to go according to the official episode list, “How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth” can in some ways be seen as the series finale of Star Trek: The Animated Series, and really, the first phase of the Star Trek franchise. It's a return one last time to the realm of the magickal, a conscious and deliberate claim that Star Trek is an extension of indigenous spirituality (or at least should be), and, somewhat incredibly, is “Who Mourns for Adonais?” done properly, written as a tribute to and eulogy of Gene Coon. It's also the solitary Emmy Award win of the entire Star Trek franchise.

After a mysterious probe visited the founding homeworlds of the Federation and attempted to contact them before randomly exploding, the Enterprise is following its trail back to what it hopes will be its source, where it discovers a gigantic starship that suddenly, before everyone's eyes adopts the visage of a ferocious-looking feathered lizard. Helmsman Dawson Walking Bear, a student of indigenous cultures, in particular Native American and Mesoamerican, immediately recognises the creature before them as Kukulkan: An ancient Mayan deity associated with the Vision Serpent, the symbolic embodiment of the gateway to the spirit world, and the intermediary between mortals and their ancestors and gods (serpents being very important in Mayan spirituality anyway, oftentimes seen as the vessels the moon and stars use to travel across the heavens). Kukulkan is saddened that humanity seems to have forgotten him, but, because Walking Bear remembered, he wonders if the Enterprise crew can do what he claims their ancestors failed to, and transports him, Kirk, McCoy and Scotty to his ship.

The crewmembers materialize in a large, empty room that morphs into a gigantic city modeled off of Maya, Aztec and ancient Chinese design. Walking Bear points out that Kukulkan is said to have asked his followers to build him a city and that, once they had, he would return (a trait which, according to my cursory research, is actually more similar to the tales of the K'iche Mayan feathered serpent Q'uq'umatz). Kirk figures the city must be a kind of signal, that Kukulkan must have appeared to many different peoples, and, since each culture only focused on one piece of the iconography, none of them built the city exactly right. However, they might be able to figure it out now together. Naturally, they succeed and Kukulkan appears before the landing party. Kukulkan claims that he's upset by the ceaseless violence of human history and fears all the work he's done to to help humanity has been for naught. It now falls to Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Walking Bear to convince the serpent god that humanity's capacity for self-improvement demonstrate that his faith was not ill-placed, but also that the time has come for humans to learn their own lessons by themselves, because a parent cannot keep a child forever.

My enthusiasm belies the fact that this one is obviously really good and it comes so, so close to being just about everything I want out of Star Trek. The concept is just about perfect, and a masterstroke as is. The iconography and animation? “How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth” has been one of those episodes that's haunted me for decades. Finally being able to see it was breathtaking. And, just as Kukulkan's faith in humanity was restored by the crew of the Enterprise, so was my faith in Star Trek reaffirmed by learning about the backstory for this episode. The episode's writer, Russell Bates, happened to be a Native American himself, a Kiowa, and D.C. Fontana immediately sought him out because she explicitly wanted a science fiction story from a Native American perspective.

Bates was paired with Robert Wise, an animator who would go on to write for a number of shows from the Renaissance Age of Animation, such as Jem, Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers and Batman: The Animated Series. And, although it's not well-known, Wise also was a major architect for the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series, and is largely responsible for giving the four turtles the distinctive and iconic personalities now strongly associated with them. Fontana hoped that together the two creators would bounce ideas off of each other and come up with something vivid and memorable that really took advantage of animation as a medium. And, while the end result is most certainly that, here's also where things start to go a bit downhill for this episode. Maddeningly, as brilliant as it is, there are one or two conceptual things about “How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth” that don't sit quite right with me.

Firstly, while the story was supposed to be about Native American mythology, the primary character is Kukulkan, who is quite blatantly a Mesoamerican deity and that's not *exactly* the same thing. According to Wise, Kukulkan's role was originally supposed to be filled by a Thunderbird, which *is* part of Native American mythology, but the decision was made to change it to the feathered serpent because Mayan culture would be more colourful to depict and, well, more recognisable to a Western audience. I'm not sure how I feel about this: Considering the whole point was to do a Native American science fiction story, shifting the focus to the Mayans feels like cheating, although Bates does say his people share some ancestry with the Mayans (I'm finding that hard to corroborate, but I'm not about to presume I know more about Bates' people and heritage than he does).

Then there's the other big problem. This is quite clearly a von Däniken-inspired story again, with all the requisite racist, colonialist baggage that goes along with him, and this time he's specifically name-checked by Wise so there can be no mistake. Wise said he and Bates decided to do a story built around Chariots of the Gods?...because it was about science fiction and ancient people and the book was popular at the time. Which, you know, I can't fault their business sense, but that's the banality of evil, isn't it? Isn't that how hegemony reasserts itself? Little things people do because it's expected, or “that's just the way things are” or...because it sells well? Come on. I expect a little better of Star Trek by now. Though, to their credit, Bates and Wise, in particular Bates, do try to pull a formidable reconstruction effort on von Däniken and end up sidestepping a sizable portion, but not all, of his more problematic connotations. Of the von Däniken-esque structure, Bates says (emphasis his)

"I always had been outraged that Europeans said the vast cities in Central and South America could not have been built by the 'savages'. They had to have had help: the Egyptians, or the Chinese, or the Phoenicians, or even the Atlanteans came, taught the poor Indians how to build their civilization, and that's how it all happened. Horse breath! So, the story about Kukulkan became that Kukulkan visited ALL races of mankind, taught them his knowledge, and then departed. Now the story said that NOBODY on Earth invented a damned thing! They all got their knowledge from somebody else!”

and while that is an admirable way of approaching this kind of brief, it still doesn't quite work. For one thing, Bates and Wise only mention the Maya, the Aztecs, the Chinese and, briefly, the Egyptians: The script never mentions any Western cultures. This could be read a couple different ways, but none of them are totally unproblematic.

On the one hand this is bad because it obviously implies that the West is the only human culture that didn't need outside help and sprung up of its own volition. On the other hand, if the episode *did* show us Western motifs in Kukulkan's city we might have been stuck with the “Requiem for Methuselah” problem and ended up attributing all of human history to one person. At least it would be a feathered lizard god this time instead of an Old White Dude, but still. My personal take (and it's not quite a watertight defense, but it's the best reading I could come up with) is that because Kukulkan is altogether more benevolent than Apollo, and also far more straightforwardly a deity and path towards enlightenment, the episode is telling us that Westernism is fundamentally disconnected from spiritual truths and magickal ways of knowing, and thus an ultimately nihilistic, dead-end worldview. Which is, to be fair, a perfectly fair and accurate statement.

Another thing worth mentioning about this is that in having each culture fixate on one specific aspect of the city, the episode positions itself firmly within an extremely Platonic conception of external transcendent Truth. This is the “blind-men-feeling-about-an-elephant” motif, where everyone understands a piece of the grand, discrete, complete Truth, but never the entirety of it. Being Platonic, and thus Western, this is also a model I'm not especially enamoured of and is also not necessarily the conception of metaphysics the ancient Maya had. I tend to be drawn more to the idea of “truths” rather than “Truth”: Lower-case-t truths do exist, but they come into being due to the interaction of many different human and nonhuman factors. I feel assuming there's a monolithic, objective “Truth” that is only revealed to us a little at a time presumes a Greco-European and pop Christian view of things I'm trying to exorcise from at least my personal vernacular and rhetoric.

In the comments under the post on “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, on which this episode is explicitly and heavily based, Adam Riggio said that, if you can look past the horrific rape apologia (which I can't) the way to go about redeeming that episode would be to read it as Star Trek's Hail Mary grab for mythic cultural relevance. In destroying the Golden Apollonian Male ideal central to Western myth and Western mysticism, Star Trek has not only slain its gods but supplanted them, a reading endorsed by the status the franchise has in pop culture now. I think this argument, with a few tweaks, is actually far more applicable to “How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth”: This time though, the Enterprise isn't killing its gods, because it recognises Kukulkan is a kindly and helpful spirit, albeit one who's a bit overbearing and overprotective. We once again get the metaphor of humanity as children, which will continue to be a major theme that will see us out of the 1970s. But, unlike in “Bem”, here the show acknowledges that the children are growing up and continuing to learn, which is a kind of reiteration of Kirk's defense of humanity in “The Magicks of Megas-Tu”.

In fact, we could even go so far as to read this episode as declaring that the Enterprise crew is on the way to becoming gods themselves: They speak to Kukulkan as equals, while they spoke to Apollo as enemy combatants. We're no longer petulantly declaring we have no need of gods, instead we now understand that gods and spirits have many things to teach us. However, any good teacher knows that they don't know everything and there will always be more to learn, and this is what the Enterprise crew now know themselves, and what they remind Kukulkan of. The ideal teacher-student relationship is a symbiotic one: Teachers should learn as much from their students as the students do from their teachers, and indeed, the gods and spirits have as much to learn from us as we do from them. This is the true shaman's trick, much as we saw in “The Time Trap”. And this is what we would all do well to remember, as McCoy and Kirk helpfully point out by reciting the King Lear quote from which this episode takes its title:

"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."

After all that, maybe it's fitting that we go out on a wildly ambitious and terribly exciting, if somewhat flawed, episode. “How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth” may not be the perfect, definitive episode of Star Trek and it may not even be as conceptually tight as something like “The Jihad”, “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” or “Beyond the Farthest Star”. But it doesn't have to be. This is a story all about how Star Trek is continually striving to better itself, and how much of a strength it can be when humanity does so too. It's proof the show is now firmly on the right track and is committed to always trying to be better than it used to be. D.C. Fontana and her team have left Star Trek in a much better, much stronger and much healthier place then her predecessors on the Original Series did.

The weird, ropey show that was chronically behind its time and never seemed to know what it wanted to be finally has a purpose and a legacy and, at this rate, might just turn into something that lasts the ages.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

“Yes, I've read a poem. Try not to faint.”: Albatross

"'The Star Trek fan who hasn't discovered the Animated Series is really missing out", Wise declares."

In their unauthorized Star Trek episode guide Beyond the Final Frontier, Lance Parkin and Mark Jones said that the story for this episode would have been a great concept to explore on one of the live-action series and bemoaned the fact it was done on a cartoon show.

So naturally the first thing I'm going to do is continue to complain about how undervalued animation is as a form of creative expression. Because Parkin and Jones' argument makes zero sense to me. There is nothing about “Albatross” that could have been done better on the Original Series. The emotional core of the episode hinges on Spock and McCoy, and while both Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley can be visual actors at times, especially Nimoy, visual acting skills are not expressly needed for the kind of story this is. Actually, this episode serves as a great reminder of how multitalented and versatile this cast really is: Nimoy and Kelley convey all the emotion they need to through their voices alone, evidence they're just as strong in the recording booth as they are on stage. Furthermore, neither Kelley nor Nimoy are anywhere near as visual as William Shatner, who delivers yet another memorable marquee performance here. If William Shatner of all people can make the transition to animation effortlessly and painlessly, really all arguments about animation as an inferior medium are invalid.

Furthermore, declaring that it's a shame an episode like this wasn't done on the Original Series does a major disservice to D.C. Fontana, the Animated Series creative team and all the good work they've done over the past two years. This is flatly a tighter, stronger and more thematically and ethically coherent show now than it was in the 1960s. In fact, far from being the mini-classic Parkin and Jones seem to think it is, I'm of the mind “Albatross” is another of this season's mediocre outings. But the fact this, a character piece about the crew's loyalty to McCoy and righteous anger at a mishandling of justice, can now be called middling should be seen as incredibly telling. On the Original Series, we were regularly getting fed absolute garbage like “Mudd's Women”, “The Apple”, “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, “The Omega Glory”, “Elaan of Troyius”, “The Enemy Within” and “The Savage Curtain”. On the Animated Series, we haven't seen anything come remotely close to those cratering lows with the exception of Margaret Armen's stuff, which is a special case and frankly to be expected. The fact this episode even exists is testament alone to what the Animated Series has been able to accomplish.

I suppose it'd help if I explained a bit about what “Albatross” is about. Basically, on a diplomatic mission to the planet Dramia, the Enterprise crew is shocked to see Doctor McCoy arrested on charges of committing mass genocide via a plague he allegedly brought to the second planet in the system nineteen years ago. With McCoy in jail, a furious Kirk takes the Enterprise and the rest of the crew to Dramia II to conduct an independent investigation in search of evidence proving the CMO's innocence. That's essentially it, and that gets at the root of the problem with this episode. We're back in “Court Martial” territory, if only in general narrative structure, and while we're thankfully spared the lengthy, bombastic courtroom drama and are instead mercifully granted a minor space adventure instead, the same general problems apply. Namely, we know McCoy is innocent, and it's even more apparent here than in “Court Martial”. You don't go five seasons with the same cast of characters and suddenly have one of them turn into a genocidal tyrant, unless the creative team is completely blitheringly incompetent.

Now, the problem here isn't that this is some failure of the episode to build up sufficient tension, it's that this entire type of story is fundamentally unworkable. No matter how hard you try, you simply cannot build an entire episode around the possibility one of the show's major characters is secretly a killer or some other kind of awful person. Narrative logic is going to make protagonists immediately and irreversibly sympathetic simply by virtue of them being protagonists. The other option, and I mean the *only* other option, is to base your show around a straight-up villain protagonist, which requires an altogether more deft handle on storytelling craft. The best the kind of story both “Albatross” and “Court Martial” are can hope for is to make its central mystery about why our hero is wrongfully accused, what might have happened to cause the third party to think this way and how we can fix it.

And neither episode really gets it right: The earlier story tried to paper the whole thing over with a whole bunch of manly legal drama swagger and just wound up looking silly and pointless and this one has the Enterprise pop off to Dramia II to find the real source of the plague, which turns out to be a deadly space aurora which, while certainly unique, still isn't terribly inspiring (although this does lead towards a decent climax where Spock, the only one not afflicted, gets to break McCoy out of jail so he can cure the plague and prove his own innocence to everyone). I just really have a problem with any story that arbitrarily puts the protagonists' morality in question unless moral ambiguity is built into the premise of the show, which it's fundamentally not at this stage in Star Trek's history. Indeed, I'd go so far as to claim this kind of plot has worked precisely once in the entire history of Trek, and that success was due in part to the timing of when the episode was made and the fact it was penned by two bloody brilliant writers.

What's actually the most interesting thing about this episode to me, aside from the acting (the puckish delight Shatner imbues Kirk as he manipulates the spy the Dramian government sent after the Enterprise into stowing away, thus invalidating his claim to legal authority, is particularly delightful) is the aurora, and, more to the point, the idea of an aurora in space. Now, before I get yelled at by physics nerds or Richard Dawkins acolytes, I am well aware having a spaceborn aurora is scientifically inaccurate and that they're in truth caused by the interaction of charged magnetic particles in the thermospheres of planets. I also don't care.

Visually and symbolically, aurorae are phenomena of the heavens, and ancient peoples in the far north and far south have historically seen them as belonging to the domain of the sky. Inuit tradition holds that the aurorae are alternately souls of ancestors or animals, a dangerous force that would decapitate you if you whistled at it, or spirit guides for hunting and healing. While I couldn't find any Sami traditions concerning aurorae, the earliest Norse account hypothesizes that they might have something to do with sun flares, or giant fires that surround the ocean, or even the stored energy of the glaciers themselves. In Australia, amongst the Gunai and Ngarrindjeri peoples of Victoria and South Australia, respectively, the aurorae were otherworldly bushfires or the campfires of spirits, while indigenous peoples in Queensland saw them as the medium through which spirits communicated with those of us in the mortal world, somewhat similarly to the Inuit.

Irritatingly, “Albatross” doesn't seem to pick up on any of these indigenous interpretations of aurorae in the heavens. However, what the episode's conception of them does seem the most similar to is, curiously, historical Western astronomical beliefs. Tycho Brahe was said to be of the opinion aurorae cause disease by emitting sulfuric vapour, which is not altogether removed from what happens here. Although the actual mechanism by which it infects the Dramians and then the Enterprise crew isn't really explained, the aurora is very clearly the source of the ailment du jour, which would seem to put this episode somewhat in Brahe's tradition. What I find interesting about this is that it positions Star Trek in some sense into the history of astronomy, or to be more precise, the symbolism and rhetoric of historical astronomy. It's still too Western for my personal tastes, but it is intriguing to think about given the way science fiction of this period is growing increasingly invested with the idea of genre trappings and its own setting and motifs. We can now talk about the history of how people have perceived and interacted with the natural world and how that's shaped our art and philosophies, because of course it has.

But unfortunately I can't really recommend the episode at hand. This is all fascinating and gives us a lot of material to work with in the future, but the actual twenty minutes you can call up onscreen isn't the Animated Series' finest moment, though there are a few charming bits here and there. But again, the fact I can say that about an episode with no discernibly massive problems and that something this solid and effective can be called mediocre really tells the whole story here. It concisely drives home just what D.C. Fontana and her team were able to accomplish with the Animated Series, and that's something worth reminding as we approach its final curtain call.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

"National Tapioca Pudding Day": The Practical Joker

And this would be the point you should run away screaming.
“The Practical Joker” was the Animated Series episode I most dreaded having to watch, even before knowing about Margaret Armen's submissions. And, while the actual episode isn't anywhere near as dreadful as I feared it was going to be, it's still concerning as it marks the point where The Animated Series treads the closest to becoming the one thing that would simply torpedo its legacy: Children's television.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with children's television. When it's working properly, there's an elegance to children's television that can make it fundamentally more sophisticated and effective than “adult” fiction because it doesn't shy away from being idealistic or taking a stand. Indeed, my very favourite television shows were, in fact, designed with children predominantly in mind or at least operated according to a logic that children would find recognisable. But not the kind of children's television I'm talking about here.

Before I go any further I should probably get the plot synopsis out of the way. While taking a break from a geological survey mission, the Enterprise is randomly attacked by a fleet of Romulan battlecruisers. After seeking refuge in an electrically-charged space cloud, a series of strange occurrences starts to befall the crew. All the cups and silverware are replaced with trick ones, Spock's science station scanner is replaced with one that has black ink on the eyepieces and the replicators start shooting food out at anyone who tries to use them. Finally, in a woefully iconic moment, Kirk storms onto the bridge and fumes about how someone stole his uniform from the laundry chute and replaced it with one that has “Kirk is a Jerk” emblazoned on the back in bold lettering. After taking turns blaming each other, the crew soon realizes that their practical joker is the Enterprise computer itself, which is suffering from an electronic nervous breakdown as a result of the charged storm the ship passed through. The crew must now work against the clock to interpret and outmanoeuvre the ship's erratic behaviour before it outwits everyone by plunging them into the Neutral Zone.

So it's dumb, but inoffensively so. In fact, it's actually somewhat clever as it starts out leading us to believe it's going to be a rote and banal children's television story about a practical joker who will eventually get their comeuppance and learn a lesson about playing hurtful jokes on people before turning into a basic Star Trek techno-puzzle about a computer going out of control. In essence, the episode has played a practical joke on us through subverting expectations, but it's not really an especially good one as neither type of story is something terribly easy to get excited about. Now, the basic concept of the back half of the episode, that of the Enterprise gaining sentience and leaving clues for its crew to figure out, is actually pretty interesting and it's a testament to their shared skill as writers that Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky eventually do this story for Star Trek: The Next Generation and manage to make it something other than an unwatchably cringe-worthy disaster. But that story is not this one, and while there are significantly worse ways to kill twenty minutes, I'd be hard pressed to call “The Practical Joker” a highlight of the series. There are a few funny lines and moments, but nothing that struck me as especially memorable.

The other notable thing about this episode is that it introduces the Holodeck. It's called the rec room here, but it's self evidently what we'd now call a Holodeck: A room the crew can go to on their off hours to relax in any one of its pre-programmed virtual reality environments. Gene Roddenberry had actually wanted to introduce the Holodeck in the third season of the Original Series, but budget cuts and his own stepping back from day-to-day duties meant he didn't get to put it into an episode until the Animated Series. And, given we now have the Holodeck, we of course also now have the Holodeck malfunction: In this case the Enterprise plays a joke on McCoy, Sulu and Uhura by locking them in, laying a pit trap for them and then cycling through all the different programmes until settling on a whiteout in an arctic tundra and putting them at risk for exposure. And, although the Holodeck works best when it's used to explore themes of artifice, metafiction and genre mashup and while we'll have to wait for its reappearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation before we get there, the first appearance of such an iconic part of the franchise is definitely worth paying attention to.

Now, having exhausted basically all the erudition I can derive from this episode, I want to focus more on the direction it seemed to be going before it pulled a bait-and-switch and why that had me worried for quite awhile. Of course, what I'm referring to is the tendency to associate animation exclusively with children's television, and not only children's television in general, but cheap, disposable and mindless children's television. At some point in its history, most typically pegged at the moment when Hanna-Barbera figured out how to make filler Saturday Morning programming cost effectively and efficiently, cartoons began to be seen as kid's stuff not worthy of serious consideration.

Soon, creators themselves began to internalize this negative reputation and started talking down to their audience, resulting in a vast majority of animation becoming insufferably and unwatchably patronizing, either because it was obvious throwaway work nobody put any thought into or because it was irritatingly and smugly didactic in its attempt to “teach a lesson”. It eventually got to the point that James “Shamus” Culhane, a veteran animator and director who worked on the legendary Woody Woodpecker short “The Barber of Seville” (named one of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of All Time by animation historian Jerry Beck) along with numerous Disney Animated Canon movies, flat-out said nobody should make cartoons with children primarily or exclusively in mind as they will inevitably be cripplingly paternalistic.

With the success of shows like The Simpsons, South Park and the output of Pixar in more recent years this attitude no longer seems to be quite as widely accepted as it once was, but I still see it quite a lot. Even in my own experience writing about animation this crops up quite frequently: I get the most snarky and bemused reactions and do the worst traffic numbers whenever I talk about cartoons or children's television (the exceptions being if I talk about something ubiquitous like the Disney Animated Canon or get picked up on a fluke by a huge community blog). Even trying to get people to accept that something as self-evidently culturally and historically significant as Scooby-Doo probably warrants analysis is an uphill battle. This very blog, in fact, has suffered somewhat: My readership figures and comment threads tapered off significantly following the switch from the Original Series to the Animated Series. And, while I did expect this and can't chalk the whole thing up to me covering a cartoon show, I also find it hard to believe that's not a factor either.

And this is noticeable in the production of the Animated Series itself. There's the fact it aired on Saturday Mornings for one thing, but also look at how D.C. Fontana herself felt compelled to defend “Yesteryear” on the basis that it supposedly “taught a valuable lesson to children” and not on the basis of it being, you know, possibly the single greatest character study in the history of Star Trek to date. "The Magicks of Megas-Tu", debatably the high water mark of the entire series, was almost never made because the network was afraid it that it would cause children to believe God didn't exist, and Fontana had to come up with some strangled argument about how Lucian's status as the Devil implicitly proved God existed as well to convince them to let it go through. Also look at the very obvious science lessons shoehorned into “One Of Our Planets Is Missing” and “The Terratin Incident” that in both cases jarred pretty horribly with the rest of their respective stories. While this might not be a guiding concern for those running the show, it very much seems like something that at least had to be on their minds somewhat.

And now maybe it becomes clear why an episode about a practical joker going around playing pranks on the Enterprise crew would make me nervous. Because there's no way in hell an episode with this kind of premise would ever have been made on one of the live action shows. And for the first time in the history of the Animated Series that's not a good thing. The sentient starship stuff, yeah: I previously mentioned Braga and Menosky and they do make it work, and they're far from the only ones to. The Holodeck stuff? I mean, come on, do I need to even say it? Of course Star Trek comes back to that. But the pranks? Absolutely not. That kind of a setup is the exclusive domain of the absolute dregs of the print-and-forget children's animation industry, and that's sobering. So, even though “The Practical Joker” isn't actually that kind of story, the fact it gets close enough so as to tease us with the possibility it might be is sincerely troubling.

It may be a joke, but I'm not laughing.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

“Is green, yes.”: Bem

This out-of-context screencap is more entertaining than the whole episode.
“Bem” is the final “official” contribution to Star Trek by Dave Gerrold, though his presence and influence is going to be felt on the franchise for years to come (most notably during the first third of Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season, when he was on staff). From what I gather, it seems to have the reputation for being one of the better remembered and most admired episodes of The Animated Series, although Gerrold and D.C. Fontana do seem to go back and forth a bit on what their actual takeaway on it was.

So naturally I don't think it works in the slightest.

The story concerns the Enterprise taking on an attache by the name of Ari bn Bem, representing the planet Pandro. Bem is acting as an independent observer judging the Enterprise crew to determine whether or not the Federation is worthy of establishing formal diplomatic relations with his people. Though he sat out the previous six missions, Bem insists on being allowed to accompany the landing party on a dangerous reconnaissance mission to investigate uncontacted aboriginal people on Delta Theta III. Beaming down, it soon becomes apparent that Bem has ulterior motives, as he clandestinely replaces Kirk and Spock's phasers and communicators with forgeries and then runs off, getting captured by the natives in the process. Pursuing Bem, Kirk and Spock end up captured themselves, where Bem reveals to them that, as a colony organism, he could have divided into discrete parts and escaped at any time, but allowed himself to be captured to firstly study the native population from within, but also to see how Kirk and Spock would respond, disapproving of their repeated attempts to resolve the situation with force.

OK. I have quite a few issues with this setup already, and that's the briefest summary I could manage. First of all, as someone with a background in anthropology this entire premise rankles me. The ethics of “uncontacted” cultures is a sticky proposition to begin with, and the ever-present headache that is Star Trek's Prime Directive makes it worse. There's always a kind of paternalism (and, frankly, racism) present in the assumption that indigenous peoples, especially indigenous peoples who are “uncontacted”, are some kind of living time capsule from humanity's prehistory. You can't tell anything objectively about human history (well, you can't really tell anything objectively, but that's another matter entirely), and certainly not through ethnography. All that gets you is a not-always-clear outsider's perspective of how a culture operates *in the present day*. Furthermore, it's more than a little patronizing and naive to assume that all so-called “uncontacted” people are too childlike and stupid to at least guess some kind of an outside world exists.

None of this is helped by every single person in the episode acting like a complete idiot. Kirk and Spock are in full-on colonialist mode here again, stressing the importance of this mission to “classify” the aboriginal people of Delta Theta III, like the good Lamarckists they are. Spock even throws out pointedly ridiculous descriptors like “late primitivism” as if he's some kind of imperial anthropologist from back when formal colonial empires were a thing and institutionalized racism and modernist teleology were the guiding philosophies of the day (I mean, even more than they are now). Thankfully they're both called out on this bullshit by Bem and one other character who we'll talk about later, but none of it takes, frankly, especially when Bem acts colossally stupidly himself. At no point in the history of anthropology has it been considered a standard part of participant observation to charge headlong into your contact village and let yourself get captured and thrown into a stereotypical bamboo cage straight out of old fashioned adventure stories. Somehow I don't recall reading that in Bronislaw Malinowski's handbook.

Actually let's talk some more about Bem. He is, in fact, named after precisely what you think he's named after. And no, he isn't one. “BEM”, for the uninitiated, is a cheeky acronym for the stock science fiction concept of the Bug-Eyed Monster. Gerrold originally pitched this story as a sort of joke about how fun it might be to see an actual BEM in Star Trek...but he's also said that Bem himself was never intended to actually *be* a BEM, so I have no idea what Gerrold's point actually was. It's also worth noting that, given the way he acts in the actual episode, were Gerrold a woman, Bem would absolutely have been declared a Mary Sue at this point. He's a character who we've never seen before immediately made honourary commander and who, despite his deceptive machinations, goes on to lecture Kirk and Spock about their smug sense of entitlement and dangerously irresponsible reliance on technology and firepower.

So for awhile it seems like the script is making “Bem” out to be another criticism of Star Trek's authoritarian and imperialist tendencies by showing how the titular character has a better philosophy towards exploring and meeting people (even though he actually doesn't), but the problem is any story like this made in the wake of “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” that doesn't acknowledge humanity's drive towards constant self-improvement is, in my opinion, flatly outdated. Thankfully the episode does try to address this but it doesn't seem to be thanks to Gerrold. Gene Roddenberry took a particular interest in this episode and made a ton of edits and alterations to it and, unbelievably, he's the one who seemed to recognise the majority of its problems and made the biggest effort to alleviate them.

But before we can get too excited, it turns out Roddenberry doesn't really know what to do with this pitch either and his additions don't really help. Roddenberry felt that it would be a good idea if the Enterprise crew met God on Delta Theta III, and had Gerrold add such a character to come in and but both Kirk and Bem in their places. Starting here Roddenberry starts to develop a fascination with the concept of God or some other kind of transcendent Truth, and this will eventually culminate in his big overblown treatise on the matter in 1979. And although this never *quite* works out for him (although I do submit a portion of this might be my own hesitation about this kind of Greco-European conception of the divine and objective reality), the depiction of it in “Bem” is prototypical and ill-defined even by Roddenberry's standards.

See it turns out God, who is apparently Nichelle Nichols, is upset at the Federation and the Pandronians interfering on Delta Theta III. And here's where this episode really goes to pieces for me: Roddenberry, or perhaps Gerrold, adds in an underlying motif about testing. The Enterprise crew are testing the Delta Thetans to find out what taxonomical classification of people they are. Bem claims to be testing the Federation, via Starfleet, by observing how they react to certain situations and God, meanwhile, resents the hubris in either of them thinking they have the right to test and classify anything. It's at this point any possibility of this being a critique of Star Trek’s narrative logic and ethics goes out the window, because Bem breaks down and says he's failed his own test by underestimating Kirk and acting foolishly by violating his orders and going against Starfleet regulation, which is obviously more enlightened then he gave it credit for. Maybe Bem then is Gerrold's criticism of the Mary Sue, which would be even more troubling as this would mean Gerrold is saying what's most valuable about Star Trek is its well-founded rigid authoritarian chain of command.

Now I don't want to totally single out Gerrold for blame here. He's a demonstrably good writer, albeit one who has a frustrating tendency to try and punch above his weight class before he's really prepared to. And a lot of the things that make Gerrold's pitches so entertaining are on display here, most notably the comic timing. Furthermore, both he and D.C. Fontana have said on occasion that this isn't a story either of them are terribly proud of. But even so, this one flatly does not work: “Bem” is Gerrold's most troubling submission yet (though unfortunately not the most troubling of his we're going to look at) and there's an even larger issue at play here: It's all that testing.

Unlike previous such characters, and indeed future ones, the God in this story is very much someone we're supposed to defer to. She's a wise and benevolent God, pointing out to the now-suicidal Bem that punishment is only necessary when someone is incapable of learning. Coming from her, this is both a reinforcement and an endorsement of authority. But what really bothers me is, as Spock points out, the God in this story is very clearly a tester too: She's testing the Delta Thetans (to whom she refers to as children in need of guidance, thus once again invoking the racist notion that indigenous people are quaint, primitive and childlike) and using their planet as a large-scale laboratory on social evolution. She's doing the exact thing she found abhorrent when Kirk and Spock attempted it. But she has the right, because she's God and thus a legitimate higher power.

This is, of course, a very Christian, and thus Western, conception of divinity. But what marks it as such is not merely the crass authoritarianism, but also the notion that God is some kind of arch-manipulator, putting out tests to put her experimental subjects through to see if they pass muster. Avital Ronell has a great book called The Test Drive which equates the ubiquity of scientific-style tests in Western Modernity with Freud's Drive Theory. Westerners are thus compelled to test ourselves and each other, and this seeps into all aspects of Western thought, discourse and pop consciousness.

One of the things Ronell's book grew out of, for example, was her analysis of the rhetoric surrounding the First Gulf War, and in particular how it was promised to be “bloodless” and “safe”, and how this paralleled with the then-contemporary AIDS panic. In essence, the war was the US' attempt to test itself for AIDS, and to reassure itself that its test came back negative and, implicitly, that it wasn't gay. The test then is what we use to legitimize all aspects of our lives, not just our approach to scientific research, but love, war, and, as I think Roddenberry and Gerrold show here, our own sense of self-worth. It's a powerful, if not the primary, force in both normalization and marginalization. It's how we determine what's acceptable and what isn't.

So, if the only way anything can be considered serious and worthy of consideration is if it passes a test, it's not that much of a stretch to see the entirety of existence as one great science experiment with an almighty God, or some other objective force (such as Reason, Nature or The Universe. This is another area in which Western Science and Western Religion show themselves to really be born of the same underlying mentality), as the only truly legitimate authority by which we can measure ourselves against. We are all, as Kirk and Spock say in the denouement, merely children hoping to pass muster.

Thankfully, for me at least, the Western version of transcendentalism isn't the only one that exists. But that's all I'm going to say about this topic for now.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

“...strictly neutral in this matter as you well know...”: The Pirates of Orion

"...I thought we weren't playing cowboys anymore."
“The Pirates of Orion” is one of the best character pieces in the Animated Series and builds nicely on established Star Trek lore without feeling either slavish or repetitive, but most of all it fits neatly into the pattern we've been crafting for the franchise over the past few posts.

The Enterprise is en route to a dedication ceremony on Deneb V while recovering from an outbreak of choriocytosis, a particularly virulent respiratory disease that prevents red blood cells from transporting oxygen. Just when the crew thinks the plague is under control, Spock suddenly collapses on the bridge. After rushing him to sickbay, McCoy informs Kirk that Vulcan physiology is similar enough to that of humans to make him susceptible, but different enough that it becomes far more serious, and that Spock will die in three days unless the crew can get their hands on some strobolin, the only known antidote. Realising the nearest source of the vaccine is four days away from the Enterprise's position, Kirk calls the starship Potemkin and freighter Huron for help in forming a brigade line. However, on its way to the Enterprise, the Huron is attacked by the titular Orion pirates, acting outside the declared neutrality of their government, who hijack the ship and steal its cargo. It now falls to Kirk to track down the Orions and reclaim the cargo without provoking a diplomatic incident.

This isn't the first time we've seen the Orion Syndicate since “Journey to Babel”, but it's the first time we've seen it focused on to this extent. Even so, however, “The Pirates of Orion” keeps its space opera overtones and world building somewhat in check: The Orions act in a manner totally consistent with their previous appearance, down to the mention of how any Orion ship is duty-bound to self-destruct and its crew commit suicide should their mission fail in such a way that it puts their government's neutrality at risk. Just like in “Journey to Babel” though, and decidedly unlike some of their later appearances, infodumps about Orion society are not actually the focal point of the entire episode. Though the space adventure stuff isn't quite less important than the character drama here as they're at least about equal, there's still an appreciable balance between the two. Furthermore, this episode firmly establishes the Orion Syndicate as one of the proper, top tier antagonists for the Federation and the Enterprise crew, so when they reappear a few years later in Star Fleet Battles and when the video game based on that universe gets named after them, it's all but expected.

Which is all good, because “The Pirates of Orion” itself is neither the most original, creative or inspiring space pirate story ever told. I was consistently hoping throughout this episode that Kirk would be forced into negotiations with the Orions to get the vaccine and that we'd eventually get to see Kirk break treaty and regulations to save Spock's life. And while that *sorta* happens, it's nowhere near as interesting as it could have been in my opinion. The Orions get a pretty stock story: They callously hijack a freighter transporting much-needed medicine, and are stubbornly unwilling to hand it over for just long enough to fill out the episode.

What I wanted to see was the Enterprise deliberately *seek out* the Orion Syndicate as it was the only way they could get the medicine in a pinch, and for Kirk to give some speech about how it doesn't matter who's selling it and where it's coming from if the transaction saves lives. This could even be used as a kind of minor criticism of the pharmaceutical industry, as holding life-saving treatments hostage in exchange for capitalistic profit is tantamount to piracy, and at least the Orions are honest about what they do (indeed, McCoy even gets a great little line where he's frustrated that doctors are only as good as their drugs). Instead, we get a generic space adventure with some pirates and, while that's not terrible, it's considerably less effective than what I was hoping for.

Generic space adventures are often the hardest type of episode for me to write about. I don't dislike them, and in fact I can get really into one that's especially well-done (though truth be known I do tend to prefer the ones that use their space adventure trappings to disguise something a bit more clever). But there's not often a ton to actually say about them, and they tend to succeed or fail based on how clever the premise is and what kinds of intriguing images the creative team can come up with. And “The Pirates of Orion” is pretty solid as far as these sorts of things go: The Orion ship itself is imposing and cool-looking, the exploding asteroid belt the two starships take refuge in is delightfully mental and amazingly looks like a bunch of jawbreakers floating in space and seeing a Federation starship that's not Constitution-Class is yet another little thing that helps make the world of Star Trek feel more alive.

(Indeed it's the Huron that captured my interest the easiest here: The first half of the episode splits its time evenly between them and the Enterprise, and we start to get to know Captain O'Shea and his bridge crew. Barring Kirk seeking out the Orion Syndicate, I was hoping we'd at least get to see some swashbuckling action scenes of O'Shea defending his ship from a boarding party, but no, the attack happens completely off-camera).

But all this doesn't take into account what a strong character piece this episode is. If not, perhaps, for the plot (Kirk and McCoy racing against time to save Spock's life as a demonstration of how close the three friends are is not a *totally* fresh concept), definitely for the dialog and acting. Kirk and McCoy get a lot of scenes together where they confess how much Spock means to them, which is nice given this kind of story and really humanizes the two in a way that Star Trek at this stage doesn't always *quite* manage to do as often as it could. But William Shatner and DeForest Kelley are the real standouts here, delivering some of their best performances in the Animated Series yet. Actually, the performances they turn in here are a return to kind of gritty, matter-of-fact frankness and gravity we really haven't seen from these two since quite early on in the Original Series: It reminds me a lot of McCoy's “And in all of that, perhaps more, only one of each of us” speech in “Balance of Terror” and his “Why don't you ask Jim Kirk?” line in “The Ultimate Computer”, which is very much appreciated.

And aside from Kirk and McCoy, the rest of the cast gets handled quite well too. Much like in “Beyond the Farthest Star”, or perhaps even “The Jihad”, each member of the crew has a dedicated role to play and they all contribute something to saving Spock and resolving the diplomatic crisis with the Orions. Kirk, McCoy, Uhura and Scotty beam over to the Huron once they figure out something's gone wrong, and they use their combined skillsets to piece together what happened. Scotty investigates the engine room and the hold, McCoy examines the crew and Uhura goes over the ship's logs and record tapes. Meanwhile, Arex takes over the science station on the bridge in Spock's absence, much as his predecessor Chekov used to do in the Original Series, and the Enterprise itself is left in Sulu's capable hands.

But as perfectly solid as “The Pirates of Orion” is, the real thing that makes it worthy of note is its writer, Howard Weinstein. Weinstein will go on to contribute a number of stories to the various and sundry Star Trek comics, but this is is first effort and when he wrote it he was only 19, making this his actual, very first published work as a writer. And it's a damn promising debut, especially given the fact he submitted it to D.C. Fontana pretty much out of the blue and got it accepted largely without incident. Even Gene Roddenberry said this was one of the best debut scripts he'd ever read. This is endlessly fascinating to me, especially against the backdrop of all this stuff about fan culture and writing we've been talking about lately: There's this huge feeling amongst the fandom that Star Trek is something dead and buried and only being kept alive through zines, and here's some random kid submitting a totally unsolicited script to what I remind you is the current, official version of the franchise and he gets it produced as a cracking season premier.

I don't really have a larger point here except to reflect on the irony of not just that story itself, but the fact this isn't anywhere near the last time something like this is going to happen.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Myriad Universes: Alan Dean Foster and Ballantine Star Trek

What's the most immediately interesting about Alan Dean Foster's Star Trek Logs novelizations of the Animated Series for Ballantine Books from my perspective is how neatly they fit into Star Trek's own evolving and shifting position in culture during this period.

When we talked about James Blish, I mentioned that the choice of having him novelize the Original Series was indicative of Star Trek's at-the-time tentative connection to Golden Age science fiction. While his novelizations seemed marketed to the Hard SF crowd (and certainly looked the part), there was always a lingering uncertainty that this was what Star Trek really was and that these were the sort of people it should be exclusively marketed towards. This was embodied in Blish himself though his paradoxical and counterintuitive connection with the sci-fi writers' group the Futurians, who bizarrely seemed to think they could bring about a Trotskyist revolution by going through Pfizer and Boeing. Blish and the Futurians, like Star Trek itself, were compelled equally by both extremely right-wing and extremely left-wing forces.

Alan Dean Foster however, is a different breed of writer altogether. In fact, it could be argued he stands right at the precipice of the point where New Age science fiction, Forteana and fantasy meld into the blockbuster giant of a genre we're familiar with today. Foster's major sci-fi work, and probably what got him the gig in the first place, is the Humanx Collective, a constructed, self-contained universe of stories about a progressive representative democracy encompassing multiple planetary civilizations of which humanity is a member, so I wonder where we've heard that before. The primary difference between the Humanx Collective and the Federation, however, is that the former body is in many ways defined by its two founding members, humanity and the Thranx, an insectoid people, and this relationship is a symbiotic one. As a result, there's a lot more cultural diffusion in Foster's stories than in Star Trek, and this allows for a depiction of how cultures morph and grow over time as they interact with each other.

Foster's also something of a message writer, and a lot of his stories have a very strong environmentalist bent to them. Unlike someone like Gene Roddenberry though (or André Franquin for that matter), Foster doesn't tend to have his protagonists come sailing in to tell all the Bad Polluters what they're doing wrong, but instead demonstrates how a lack of respect for nature will ultimately lead to the undoing of any people who foolishly make the mistake of selfishly exploiting their environment. Apart from just being a message I can't find any fault with, this also puts Foster very firmly into the tradition and concerns of the environmental age, which is quite fitting for 1974 and 1975. What's also great about Foster's staunch environmentalism is how it demonstrates so effortlessly that science fiction, and in particular science fiction about space travel, can remain relevant without relying on being propaganda for massive state-sponsored displays of Cold War imperialism. It's a closing argument for our “Space Oddity” concern that our stories of space travel are doomed to become relics of the 1950s.

But the bits of Foster's oeuvre that most interest me are the ones that actually haven't happened yet from our current vantage point, but which in my view prove far more revealing. First is his Spellsinger series from the 1980s and 1990s, which concern a pop musician who is also a wizard, and who discovers this when he is transported into a fantasy world where music is actual, literal magic and lyrics are spells and incantations. This is...well...Without bringing up cosmic fugues, codas, spore dreams or symphonic radial madness and going off on a gigantic tangent about stuff that really isn't related to Star Trek (but which really deserves a book all unto itself), let's just say this interests me greatly. For the moment, you can go back and read what I wrote about Space Ritual and “Once Upon A Planet” if you're tempted to try and transcend the Grey Maybe.

Secondly though, and perhaps most shockingly of all, at least for me, is the fact Foster ghost-wrote the novelization of the original Star Wars and is, in fact, largely responsible for the vast majority of what's considered canon about that universe's history, chronology, technology, cultures and planets, a fact which he has rather classily likened to being a contractor for a Frank Lloyd Wright house. We're still a ways off from discussing Star Wars in any significant way, but for our purposes right now it's worth pointing out that it suffers from an even more severe case of Singular Creator Deification than Star Trek. It's well known now, of course, that huge swaths of what's most beloved about that franchise come not from George Lucas himself, but from a widely disparate group of writers, directors, producers, artists and designers, but it's always surprising to learn *just how much* of Star Wars is due to people who barely got any credit and recognition at all.

Star Wars is also well-known for being the first, or at least the first large-scale and well-known, fusion of science fiction and fantasy tropes and motifs. As such, it's fitting that Alan Dean Foster be the one to novelize it and flesh out its world, because Foster is the first writer we've looked at to explicitly link the two genres. Previous writers we've seen, like Robert Bloch, Joyce Muskat and Stephen Kandel, have hinted at doing something like this, but it's Foster who really breaks the doors down and embraces this shared aesthetic as an overt goal. Likewise, connecting him to Star Trek at this point in time also does well to reassure us that in spite of the pretensions of it and a specific subset of its fanbase, Star Trek is not, and never really was, purely Hard SF. It's yet more evidence that even now, when Star Trek is arguably as cult as it's ever going to be, that this is an idea that has both mutability and staying power and is going to be around for awhile to come.

As for Foster's novelizations themselves, there's one other interesting thing they do that is perhaps the most obviously prescient of anything: While the Animated Series is purely episodic, with the exception of a few sequels to Original Series stories and that mention of the Kzinti in “The Infinite Vulcan”, Foster turns the show into a self-contained serial, linking his first six books together and then turning his back four into a self-contained prequel to his own original Star Trek novel. Furthermore, Foster elaborates and expands on a lot of concepts the show only touched on, such as positing that M'Ress' people, the Caitians, share a common ancestor with the Kzinti and even giving M'Ress her own extensive backstory: According to a lengthy recount in the novelization of “The Ambergris Element”, M'Ress had previously served aboard the USS Hood, where she singlehandedly saved the ship from a Kzinti attack after the entire bridge crew was slaughtered by stalling the pirates long enough to call for help, which basically means Foster's M'Ress is the only remotely positive thing ever to be associated with “The Ambergris Element”.

M'Ress is a good example of the virtues of Foster's approach to novelization. She's a likable and memorable, yet really underdefined and underdeveloped character on the show who's also somewhat let down by Majel Barrett playing a really unconvincing cat woman. But Foster has a lot more time and space, not to mention freedom, to explore these sorts of concepts so someone like M'Ress really shines under him. In fact, I'm going to posit that he's one of the primary reasons she's remained such an iconic and beloved character from this era of Star Trek, going on to appear in numerous spin-off comics and tie-in novels.

This kind of overt serialization and eye towards world-building is blatantly unheard of in genre television in the 1970s, except for maybe a few tentative experiments in that direction, but it makes a lot of sense given Foster's novelist background and what he did with Star Wars. Much of George Lucas' work, not to mention Steven Spielberg's as well, is heavily indebted to pulp action serials which, along with Golden Age Hard SF, is a genre that Star Trek draws on as well. And, for better or for worse, in hindsight Foster's approach did rather turn out to be a strong indication of the way science fiction eventually developed. We're thankfully a ways off from when world building and serialization completely mire Star Trek and television in general, but a little bit of this is certainly OK and, in the case of Foster's Star Trek Logs, quite welcome.

This is another feature that distinguishes Foster from Blish: While Blish was slavishly loyal to the original scripts (or as loyal as he could be given he was often working from early drafts), Foster is not above expanding upon and enhancing the source material in ways the TV show was unable to do, but that he was given the long-form nature of his medium. This eye towards building upon, tweaking and improvement puts him in good company with the fanfic writers we've been looking at recently, and is quite possibly one of the primary dividing lines between two different approaches to genre fandom.

The other thing I like about these books is how they're advertised: The first few books overtly play up the notion that Star Trek is back and that The Animated Series is the proper, official continuation of the story. Even the fact that there's a line of novelizations at all, just like the Original Series had, does a lot to legitimize the current show in my opinion. Even though the idea that The Animated Series shouldn't be treated as canon comes largely from one angry guy ranting and raving in the late 1980s, even now there is, as we saw when we looked at the fanfic writers, a kind of sense that Star Trek is a marginal, half-forgotten thing at this point. The Animated Series still gets overlooked when compared to its more illustrious predecessor. But Alan Dean Foster is making a concerted effort here to argue for the show's merit and value and that it makes equally valid contributions to the evolving franchise and should be given respect and attention. Just as D.C. Fontana is trying her hardest to redeem Star Trek and move it forward (as are people like Paula Smith, if we're honest), Alan Dean Foster is trying to redeem the Animated Series itself and demonstrate how Star Trek can build off it itself to continue to grow.

And that sounds just about right to me.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ship's Log, Supplemental: A Fragment Out of Time

Slash fiction is a thread that's been with us for quite some time already, and it's been with Star Trek arguably since as early as “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. Although certain hardcore fans might not like to admit it, it is unquestionably one of the franchise's most defining and signature motifs: Although slash has existed for pretty much as long as people have been telling stories, the current manifestation of it, the interaction it has with late-20th and early-21st century fan culture, and thus the way it is commonly conceptualized today, can be directly traced back to Star Trek.

There are any number of possible opportunities to discuss slash over the course of the franchise's history, but the one that seems to most appropriate is here, with the first documented piece of Star Trek-inspired slash fiction, Diane Marchant's “A Fragment Out of Time” (Page 1, Page 2), dating to 1974. Marchant submitted it to one of the first (and at the time only) Star Trek zines targeted expressly towards adults, a publication somewhat wonderfully titled Grup. Given the zine's comparatively small audience and interviews she's given after the fact, Marchant never expected it to be the bombshell it ended up becoming.

However I think she really needn't be ashamed, because the piece itself is, perhaps contrary to what one might expect, really quite tame and laudably well-written, describing a night of passionate lovemaking between two parties of whom great care is taken to speak in vagaries (though an accompanying illustration, not to mention the fact it was published in a Star Trek zine, sort of makes it obvious who the two paramours are supposed to be). And “lovemaking” really is the proper term: Marchant is very clearly interested in the intimacy and tenderness shared by her protagonists, and the gentle, poetic tone that permeates the entire piece reflects this. Honestly, as far as slash fiction goes, or really erotica in general, you could do considerably worse for yourself than this.

Like so much fanfiction of its era, Marchant wrote “A Fragment Our of Time” largely as an experiment. However, she also always maintained that she didn't come up with the idea of shipping Kirk and Spock herself, she was merely responding to what she felt was blatant subtext in the original Star Trek and that everyone who watched the show recognised and acknowledged to one degree or another, regardless of whether or not they actually admitted it. Marchant was adamant that the only thing she contributed to the history of Star Trek and the broader fan culture was the first work that was bold enough to put it into words, and I'm more than reasonably convinced she was right.

There was, of course, (and still is, to some extent) some manner of controversy over this opinion. The popular consensus for what happened next (I mean as much as there can be consensus about something as understudied and undervalued as fanfiction) is that “A Fragment Out of Time” caused a great schism amongst Star Trek fans and a firestorm of a debate about how proper the fic itself was and whether Marchant's argument was convincing or not. It would be altogether too easy for me to draw the line between, well, not necessarily fanboys and fangirls, but let's say patriarchal proto-nerd culture and feminist fandom, but it's not quite as simple as that. Remember the vast majority of the invested parties here are still women, including some of Marchant's staunchest critics, like one Connie Faddis, who penned an extremely negative review of “A Fragment Out of Time” and who would go on to be a pioneering figure in the Kirk/Spock scene herself.

But perhaps the most damning evidence that slash fiction didn't cause a huge rift in Star Trek fandom circa 1974 or emerge with the uncomfortable connotations it maybe has nowadays comes from our friend Paula Smith. When questioned about her views on erotic Star Trek stories (or if you prefer straight-up Star Trek pornography) at a convention, Smith gave this sparkling reply (emphasis hers):

“I agree that ST pornography is a lousy thing -- it is so badly written. In search for titillating themes, good or even credible characterization is ignored, and plots degenerate to the simplest push-push gimmickry. A lousy Get-Together story is worse than a lousy Mary-Sue story, because the reader doesn't expect a Mary-Sue necessarily to be any good. If it is uneven, juvenile, or just plain silly, that is typical, and the reader is not disappointed. But when a reader takes up a story on an adult theme, she expects an adult treatment, or ought to. A simpering, or brutal treatment of sex is evil in a most fundamental sense, because such trivializes and degrades our greatest humanity -- love. But sex, and sexuality, per se are not dirty and disgusting.”

Furthermore, when asked specifically about slash during her tenure as editor of the zine S and H when it was at its absolute peak as a debate topic, Smith responded, at once guarded, cheekily and triumphantly

“Some folks are hobbits: they need to be aware there are wider vistas than that of Bag End. Some are wizards: they must take care not to strike and blast as forcibly as they feel like, because there is always some fuzz-footed clown out there just itching to swipe yer Ring. The most useful thing anyone can learn is when to shut up. Like now.”

which I think is just hilarious, as she has documented Starsky and Hutch BDSM slash fanfic to her name.

So if slash is something Star Trek fandom at large circa 1974 seems on-the-whole comfortable with and the only real new ground Marchant is breaking is putting everyone's unspoken assumptions into textual form, the question then becomes, what was it about the original Star Trek that made it so easy for widespread and near-universal slashing to happen to the point a significant majority of fans seemingly took it for granted? We briefly talked about this back in the post on “And The Children Shall Lead”, but, to elaborate, Star Trek in general, though particularly the original series, exists at a unique junction of events and factors that make the evolution of slash an almost predictably logical outcome in retrospect. We've discussed at length one of the primary reasons why, which is that Star Trek was, even amongst the notoriously puritanical climate of US television, heavily sexually repressed and confused.

Gene Roddenberry never did quite manage to get a handle on how to handle writing women and approaching gender roles, even though he does get considerably better at it come Star Trek: The Next Generation. The closest he's gotten so far has been “Turnabout Intruder”, which was still ludicrously problematic and the fact it worked to the extent it did when it did was primarily due to William Shatner and Sandra Smith. Her employing Margaret Armen aside, D.C. Fontana gets it, though she prefers to demonstrate her feminism in far more subtle ways that work within the framework Star Trek already established for itself.

And yet Star Trek has proven to be wildly popular with women-So much so that literally none of the fan literature and history I've been able to dig up about this era even mentions the fact that men probably watched the show too, unless you count the most likely at-least-partially staged “Save Star Trek!” campaign and its strong technoscience undertones. This is self-evidently because, at least on the surface, Star Trek claims to envision a world where differences between genders no longer matter. That alone is an incredibly powerful declaration, and, in my opinion, may be the single most important thing about the entire franchise.

But even aside from its embrace of feminism (as tentative and clunky as it may often be), Star Trek has always been quite sexy and sexual, and I don't mean because the women wore miniskirts in the 1960s and 1970s and there are a lot of one-off alien ladies. Spock is simply way too easy to read this way, I mean “Amok Time” alone practically demands it. He's a very sexually repressed and conflicted character, and whether or not Roddenberry meant for his inner struggle between logic and sensuality to be a metaphor for that, it works too well to ignore (although it's also worth remembering D.C. Fontana has attempted to correct this not once, but twice: First in “Journey to Babel” and then, more blatantly and effectively, in “Yesteryear”). Either way, because of this conflict and repression, it's especially easy to see Spock as in some sense a closeted character, as the closet is all about keeping up appearances that are really a facade to disguise the way you truly view yourself.

Then there's Kirk, or perhaps I should say William Shatner. Kirk as written, at least early on, is flatly not terribly interesting. He's a generic leading man. But Shatner, being firstly an extremely talented theatre actor and secondly someone who immediately recognised how overstuffed and pretentious Roddenberry had made Star Trek, from the very beginning set about trying to knock the show down a few pegs and get it to loosen up. So Shatner deliberately overacts, playing Kirk not at all straight, but as a kind of subtly exaggerated caricature. Subtly exaggerated caricature, or in other words “playing a role and getting it ever-so-slightly-wrong”, is also something that is sometimes associated with gay male culture because, as best I understand it, calling attention to one's own artifice was something that, at least at one time, could be used as a kind of secret language with which members of an underground and oppressed culture could communicate with each other (in fact, the connection between gay male culture and theatrical performativity may even be where get “straight” a synonym for heterosexual).

Now this is not at all to suggest Shatner or Nimoy were playing their characters gay per se (although if I recall correctly there was a point I think in the third season of the original series where both actors have gone on record basically admitting they started to do precisely this and were stunned it took people decades to figure it out. I mean it sure is hard to read at least “And The Children Shall Lead”, “Spock's Brain” and “Turnabout Intruder” any other way), it's just that the way Nimoy wound up conceiving of Spock and the way Shatner played Kirk ended up paralleling very nicely with things that were also considered part of gay male culture at one point. That aside, another reason it became so easy to ship Kirk and Spock was because, well, they were really the only characters who were allowed to express their emotions to one another.

The primary reason for this was network standards and practices. Ostensibly the leading man, Kirk wasn't allowed to actually become emotionally intimate with any women (even Janice Rand, who was originally supposed to be Kirk's closest confidant) as there could be absolutely no implication of anything untoward going on off-camera, because this was still an era where sex was still largely seen as obscene by at least the people paying the salaries of the cast and crew. This is the real reason Kirk had to be “married to the ship and the job”, although some of that may have come from Roddenberry too (though I doubt too much of it, given his relationship with Majel Barrett). This is also why so many of the female guest stars seemed disposable and interchangeable because, well, they were. This meant that if the show wanted to have any actual character moments in between the stupid fight scenes, they had to be between the supposedly very heterosexual and virile close friends. Of course, given the way Nimoy and Shatner played their characters, this was not entirely successful in dissuading assumptions about the crew getting busy with each other in their off-hours.

So we have two characters who are built out of theatrical tropes that were also associated with at least a part of gay male culture at one point and the only people they can be emotional, honest and intimate with is each other. Kirk said she was closer to Spock than anyone else in the universe in “Turnabout Intruder” for a reason, because, from a narrative standpoint, that's literally, actually the case. That's the exact logic the show works by. I mean, you do the math: How do you think fans were going to read that? Believe it or not, they tend to be a rather savvy bunch. Savvier, I daresay, then studio and network executives. But that said, there's another side to this: In spite of all the overtures we can make to gay male culture, slash fiction remains if not the exclusive domain of, at least very strongly associated with, straight women.

It is an unspoken, though widely held, belief in the pop consciousness that straight women are overwhelmingly interested in gay male erotica. That's not to say gay men don't indulge in it themselves, but so do straight women, and enthusiastically so. And the thing about a lot of slash, including “A Fragment Out of Time”, is that it is, counterintuitively, actually very strongly heteronormative, or at least heterosexual and heteroerotc. There was a Tumblr post making the rounds awhile back as of this writing that summarised the phenomenon quite well: The author made the point that the vast majority of the most famous and beloved slash pairings consisted of a light-haired, gregarious, outgoing “badass” character and a quieter, more reserved dark-haired character who frequently plays the support role to his partner. Most recently, you can see this manifest in Dean Winchester and Castiel in Supernatural and Merlin and Arthur in the 2005 BBC Merlin, and in fact it seems to have become so ubiquitous it seems to have been a deliberate casting choice on the part of the latter show specifically to encourage the slashers. Others, like Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss' Sherlock and Weda's The Hobbit trilogy, seem to invert and play with this archetype for a variety of reasons. The author then goes on to trace this trend all the way back to what's seen as the pioneering, archetypical slash pairing: Kirk and Spock.

Now, this makes going back and re-reading “A Fragment Out of Time” interesting, because Kirk is very clearly portrayed as the dominant, “masculine” sexual partner, and Spock the submissive, “feminine” one, as it's his reactions that are depicted in the most flowery and voyeuristic detail. Even if you extrapolate this out to non-sexual slash, this pattern holds: There always tends to be an energetic “masculine” half of the pairing and a reserved, demure, supportive, “feminine” half. The whole idea of dominant and submissive power structures in sexual relationships, and the further conflation of this with “male” and “female” poles is extremely heteronormative. Yes, Western society is *so* patriarchal and misogynistic that even a power structure this heteronormative is paradoxically only acceptable if it's shown being acted out by two gay men because it conveniently cuts the bothersome woman out of the picture.

Now this is not to say that slash isn't just as much about storytelling as it is sexuality: After a point, it just starts to make strong narrative sense to ship Kirk and Spock given a lot of the textual evidence on display and the inarguably talented writing pool in the K/S scene were right to point that out in my view. Even Marchant herself recognised this. But I do think a portion of the appeal of slash, at least as far as I can tell, lies within the very traditionally and stereotypical Western heterosexual (albeit traditionally stereotypically Western heterosexual female) fantasy of one person coming in and, through doting support, rehabilitating and healing another, or at least being swept up by a powerful masculine force. It's the exact same reason Twilight was so wildly successful, as this is precisely the way Bella and Edward's relationship worked. Slash isn't so much GLBTQ detournement as much as it is detournement by straight cis women who are trying to find ways to be emotionally validated in an overwhelmingly patriarchal culture whose media artefacts have an unsettling tendency to pretend they don't exist.

This is not, of course, to dismiss slash as necessarily retrograde. I think it serves a very important purpose and as long as Westernism continues to hold such backwards and convoluted attitudes towards gender and sexuality, and so long as Westernism continues to be the dominant intellectual framework for popular discourse, stuff like slash is bound to crop up. I'm just not entirely convinced it's quite as radically queer as I sometimes see it made out to be. It's just like what we learned in “Amok Time”: Everyone has a sexual side (even if for some that sexual side is “null and void”), and trying to pretend it doesn't exist is unhealthy and counterproductive. It's going to manifest somewhere in some form. And we live in a culture where any sexuality other than that of the stereotypically virile heterosexual cis male dom is considered shocking and forced underground. Maybe it's best, and fitting, for us to learn from and share with each other and use our shared marginal positionalities to recognise this.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Ship's Log, Supplemental: A Trekkie's Tale

Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky! It's Lieutenant Mary Sue!
Oh boy, here we go. Yes, my friends, the time has finally come.

“A Trekkie's Tale” needs no introduction. A notoriously vicious bit of satire attacking a particular trend within Star Trek fanfiction, the story is infamous for introducing the world to the hated Mary Sue. It took no more than five brief paragraphs to completely tear Star Trek fandom asunder and, as a result, “A Trekkie's Tale” has transcended fan circles to become ubiquitous in the larger pop consciousness such that it's had a truly transformative, profound, and arguably profoundly negative, effect on the way we look at genre fiction even to this day. A case could be (and has been) made that the introduction of the Mary Sue archetype is one of the largest and most sweeping acts of reactionary silencing tactics in the history of genre fandom.

And yet “A Trekkie's Tale” itself is misread and misunderstood by pretty much everyone.

First, some background for those perhaps less familiar with what this is than others. “A Trekkie's Tale” is a piece of satirical fanfiction published in 1973 and featuring a character named Lieutenant Mary Sue who is the youngest, most beautiful and most talented officer in the entirety of Starfleet. On her first day on the Enterprise, Lieutenant Mary Sue outperforms everyone else on the ship, causes Kirk to instantly fall in love with her at first sight, outwits Spock with logic (that is never fully explained) and singlehandedly saves the ship, the crew and the Federation at least twice before tragically dying randomly at the end of the story to be mourned by everyone and essentially turned into a modern-day saint. Lieutenant Mary Sue, and “A Trekkie's Tale” more generally, is fairly transparently an attack on a certain kind of Star Trek fanfiction, and is most often read as a parody of (usually female) writers who create author avatar characters as wish fulfillment, thus sidelining the original cast and narrative in the process. In the years since the initial publication of “A Trekkie's Tale”, the term “Mary Sue” has become a stock character archetype and nowadays gets tossed around rather carelessly, most typically as a knee-jerk reaction from insecure male fans to the concept of “strong female character I don't like and who makes me uncomfortable with my masculinity.”

What's the most interesting thing about the Mary Sue archetype to me, however, is how uniquely Star Trek a concept it really is. Star Trek fandom has, in my opinion, a very peculiar fascination with an *extremely* specific sort of fantasy: It's an almost omnipresent dream amongst Star Trek fans of all ages, generations and genders to be captain of their own starship, command their own crew and, essentially, to be the star of their own Star Trek spinoff. This goes totally contrary to the stereotypical conception of the obsessive fan, which would be someone fantasizing about the characters or the actors, either in a romantic or sexual way or just a desire to meet them in person. But that's not what Lieutenant Mary Sue does (indeed, the fact Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the others are largely incidental to her story is the whole point of it) and it's not what Star Trek fans seem to want either: Instead, they want their own personal slice of the Star Trek universe to themselves and they want it to revolve around them, or at least to explore it on their terms. It's the entire point of things like the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas or the video games Star Trek Starship Creator, Star Trek Bridge Commander and Star Trek Online.

So, despite how much the fans will talk up Star Trek's commitment to strong character development, it seems that when the cards are down they're ultimately going to default to projecting themselves onto the show. To me this is very interesting and unusual, if for no other reason than it doesn't match up with my own personal history of Star Trek fandom at all. This was never a fantasy that ever would have crossed my mind for a moment: What I always liked about Star Trek was its sense of wonder and exploration, the familial atmosphere the crew shared with each other and the characters themselves. I admired Jadzia Dax and Tasha Yar, saw them as role models and wanted to be like them, so a lot of my experience with Star Trek consists of looking up to people like that and trying to learn from them to better myself, and to, in a sense, take a little bit of them into me. From my perspective, that's as fundamentally, purely Star Trek as it gets, but it seems like my emotions aren't shared by fandom at large in this case.

But the other thing that defines my experience with Star Trek is wanting to write my own version of it, and for that there is a precedent. Here's where the other half of “A Trekkie's Tale” comes into play and, for my money, it's the more interesting half. So, if we're going to get anything remotely near an understanding of what these five little paragraphs actually are and how they fit into the history of Star Trek (as opposed to merely the way people have responded and interpreted them), we need to establish some simulacrum of context. By this point in the mid-1970s, Star Trek fandom was largely clustered around a series of fan-published and distributed zines. In the 1960s, the fan culture around the show, despite how loyal and vocal it had been, was still largely a disperse mainstream phenomenon. By the 1970s with the Original Series in syndication and hardly anyone watching the Animated Series (or at least hardly anyone seemingly willing to write and talk about it), Star Trek fandom was now very definitively a niche thing, with the first proper Star Trek convention (that is, separate from larger science fiction conventions) taking place in 1972.

As such, the 1970s Star Trek fandom comprised mainly two different factions: Middle-aged women who had been general science fiction fans in the 1950s and 1960s and remembered when Star Trek first started and the scene people like Bjo Trimble belonged to (and that Gene Roddenberry overtly tried to court), and younger college-aged women who were just getting exposed to the show through syndicated reruns. Both groups were very much interested in writing their own Star Trek stories, and there was such a surplus of them the zines had trouble keeping track of them all. So a situation arose where fans would be inspired by zines and cons to write, thus necessitating the need for more zines and cons so the cycle continued to self-perpetuate in perpetuity for awhile.

Back then, there was a stronger link between science fiction fans and science fiction writers than we might think would be the case today, perhaps a holdover from the days of the Golden Age conventions where readers and writers commingled and the dividing line between was quite blurry. It was not an unheard of scenario even as late as 1973 for science fiction authors to get their start writing for zines, and the fan culture sort of acted as an unofficial pipeline to more professional gigs. The problem was, of course, there was nowhere to go if you were writing about Star Trek, because the famous live-action show had been off the air for half a decade and, once again, nobody cared about the animated reboot. So you'd frequently get a lot of writers contributing a lot of really excellent, professional grade Star Trek stories as fanfic to zines because there was nothing else to do with them. Because of this, the fans introduced a kind of loose structure of their own, with zine editors oftentimes acting as a kind of surrogate script editor. One of the most prolific and influential of these semipro writers and editors was Paula Smith who, as it so happens, wrote the story we're talking about today.

Yes, shocking as it may seem, the person responsible for giving us the insecure femmephobic fan's favourite trump card is, in fact, a woman. It's at this point I'm probably expected to pull a Margaret Armen and take Smith to task for internalized misogyny issues, but I'm not going to because I actually don't think that's what's going on here. Like all works of satire (including Gulliver's Travels), “A Trekkie's Tale” has been badly, badly misinterpreted by generations of clueless readers who don't seem to get the joke. In fact, an even better point of comparison might be Upton Sinclair's The Jungle: Intended as a condemnation of wage slavery of migrant workers in the United States, which is helpfully and blatantly compared with the literal enslavement of Africans by that same country, history has largely proven itself to be the domain of white male middle class authoritarians by comprehensively missing the point and using it as a call-to-arms against lax heath code regulations in the meat packing industry. I feel something similar happened to Paula Smith.

The key to figuring out what I think Smith is actually saying here is to keep in mind her status as a kind of D.C. Fontana for fan culture. She was responsible for vetting hundreds upon hundreds of Star Trek fanfics and giving an innumerable amount of writers tips on how to hone their craft (actually, it was from interviews with her that I gleaned the majority of the historical information I use in this post). Indeed, one of the most classic, foundational maxims of fanfic, Langsam's Law, comes largely from her. It states that (in Smith's words)
“There is a special caveat for writing media-based fiction. Don't make an established character do or say something out of line with his established character, of if you must, give good, solid reasons why."

which is frankly just good writing advice in general as far as I'm concerned. This touches on the other side of the 1970s zine culture, which was that because Star Trek was off the air, and regardless as to whether or not they knew about the Animated Series, the fans sort of saw themselves as penning if not the official continuation of it, at least one semi-proper, semi-authorized version of it. So it would kind of make sense that these people would take good care to make sure their stories could plausibly have been Star Trek episodes themselves had the show not been canceled.

And this is the nut of “A Trekkie's Tale”, because what Smith is lampooning with Lieutenant Mary Sue is not women daring to write Star Trek fanfic, or introducing new female characters, or introducing female author avatar characters or even introducing new female characters who go on to be love interests for canon characters. What Smith is lampooning is bad writing in general. As many good editors often are, Smith was a prolific writer herself, penning countless fics (debatably literally so, since she used a different pseudonym practically every single time she wrote something, making her work a headache to track down today) for not just Star Trek, but also Starsky and Hutch, Harry and Johnny, The Professionals and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. She had written enough and been around the scene enough to know what worked and what didn't, and “A Trekkie's Tale” is her way of compiling and caricaturing the most egregious and problematic trends she noticed in an attempt to show new writers “Here: This is what not to do”.

And if we divert our attention momentarily from Mary Sue herself, who is indeed admittedly a veritable perfect storm of painful amateur writing mistakes exaggerated beyond infinity, it becomes obvious she's not the only thing we're supposed to pay attention to. The fic's dialog is stilted, repetitive and awkward, plot developments happen out of thin air, there's no sense of internal coherence or consistency, a general feeling the whole thing was banged out in a terrible rush and even the tense keeps jumping back and forth between past, present and future. Even the title “A Trekkie's Tale” itself is a dead giveaway, eschewing completely any and all pretenses that this is going to be anything remotely resembling a straightforward or recgonisable Star Trek story because, their obvious boundless energy and enthusiasm notwithstanding, this is something the writer has clearly put next to no effort into (not, it must be stressed, that this is entirely their fault, however: They're clearly too young and/or inexperienced to know any better). As the saying goes, it takes talent and skill to craft something this memorably awful.

So, while Smith did hold up the Mary Sue archetype as something to be avoided, unlike successive people who have appropriated the concept, she recognised it for what it was: One type of mistake among many that beginning writers have a tendency to make but that can be expunged through experience, guidance and support. But as noble as Smith's intentions with “A Trekkie's Tale” might have been, and I do think they were noble, the question remains: Has the story actually done what it was supposed to do and had a net positive effect on fandom such that it's help blossoming writers, fanfic or otherwise, to learn and develop their skills? Of that I'm not so sure, because the Mary Sue as it exists today is a terribly problematic concept loaded up with toxic connotations and, as is well known, a favourite silencing technique of the patriarchal hegemony. Decades of reactionary reappropriation have twisted and distorted the Mary Sue archetype into a misogynistic weapon.

It's an altogether too common story to hear female writers, even professional ones, confess that they consciously avoid having too many female characters in their cast or writing their women too strong or too independent out of a very serious and legitimate fear they'll be scorned and attacked for writing “Mary Sue stories” and will never be respected or recognised as proper writers (or even worse, have their careers completely destroyed outright) as a result. Anybody can write a character like Lieutenant Mary Sue, and such a character can be of any gender. But the “Mary Sue” archetype has become exclusively female and that's a problem. That does retroactively harm the original work and make me wonder whether the actual satire was ever all that clear to begin with. Because of that, I'm uncertain that Smith's original five paragraphs can now be taken apart from the tangible, material and very negative effect they had on female fans and writers, as riotously funny as those five paragraphs might be (and they are riotously funny: Phrases like "Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky”, “Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood” and “beautiful youth and youthful beauty” crack me up every single time).

But regardless of the quality of the actual story, let's make sure we don't damn the author as well. Good writers have bad days. We all do. The most important thing about Paula Smith is that she always kept trying no matter what: She wrote an incalculable number of stories, oftentimes just on a dare or as an attempt to do an experiment or proof-of-concept for just herself. Like anyone, she missed her target just as much, if not more, than she hit it. That's only called being a writer, after all. Because she was involved in zines and conventions to the extent she was and ran so much (and kept so much running), I'd call her showrunner of her own underground version of Star Trek. Hell, given the staggering scope of her fanfic resume even beyond Trek, Smith should probably be seen as someone just as seasoned as the most experienced TV writers and producers of her day. So, even if she did strike out with “A Trekkie's Tale”, it's ultimately one minor bump on the very long and winding path of a career that spans literally decades and frankly puts most professional writers to shame.

Paula Smith never gave up, never stopped trying to challenge and better herself and never let anyone stop her from writing what she loved. And I think that's the lesson she'd like her readers to take with them most of all.

Paula Smith keeps the Enterprise running at warp speed.