Sunday, January 12, 2014

“Though all men be equally frail before the world...”: The Jihad
Oh, had I a golden thread/And needle so fine/I'd weave a magic strand/Of rainbow design
This episode was written by Stephen Kandel, better known for the Harry Mudd trilogy and, would you believe it, it turns out he did have a good Star Trek story to tell after all. More than good, in fact: “The Jihad” is properly excellent and closes out the Animated Series' first season on one of the show's high notes.

Kandell had been a regular writer on Mission: Impossible during the original era of Star Trek, and that's sort of what this episode feels like a little bit: A Mission: Impossible story. Kirk and Spock are called to a summit held by the Vedala, the oldest known spacefaring civilization. The Vedala have assembled a crack team of specialists from around the galaxy to partake in a top-secret mission to prevent an interstellar war. Aside from Kirk and Spock, there's Lara, a ranger and tracker from a planet where humans remained hunter-gatherers, Sord, a reptilian warrior, Em/3/Green, a nervous lockpicking expert who resembles a kind of insect (and voiced by Dave Gerrold no less: Gerrold has something of a habit for getting people to write him into Star Trek episodes) and Tcharr, hereditary prince of the birdlike Skorr, who is the primary reason for the team-up.

The Vedala have gathered the team together to track down The Soul of the Skorr, an ancient artefact that literally holds the soul of the Skorr's great prophet Alar, who was made immortal upon death by being bound into an energy web and whose life force keeps peace among his disciples and their descendents. The Soul has gone missing, and Tcharr fears that should word of its theft become public, the Skorr will return to their warlike roots and declare a holy war on the galaxy. Thankfully, the Vedala have traced it to the “Mad Planet”, a lifeless rock constantly tearing itself to pieces due to constant earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, blizzards, tsunamis and gravity shifts. On the way, the task force will have to contend with the harsh unforgiving and ever-changing landscape of the Mad Planet while learning to trust and respect each other in order to work together as a team.

There is so much going on right from the outset here it's difficult to keep track of. “The Jihad” is simply overstuffed with fascinating ideas and concepts it's hard for me to even figure out where to begin, and I couldn't be happier: This is a picture perfect example of taking the potential of science fiction television, and in particular animated science fiction television, resolutely rising to the challenge and just running with it. I've never seen a Star Trek episode quite like this one before and I'm actually not sure I'm going to see another like it again. I suppose a good place to start would be the team itself: This is a truly creative and inspired bit of creature design. For the first time in awhile, it feels like the Animated Series team is really taking full advantage of their medium and showing us visuals they really couldn't have pulled off through live action. More to the point, each individual member has a defined and memorable personality, which is something Star Trek has been a bit changeable with in the past. It perhaps helps there's a larger voice cast than normal: Though Dave Gerrold and James Doohan are predictably good, the standout for me is Jane Webb as both the Vedala and Lara, both of which are charming and charismatic characters.

Actually, it's Lara who was the real standout for me. She's someone utterly unlike basically anyone else in the entirety of Star Trek-In many ways she reminds me of Doctor Who's Leela, except much, much more effective. Lara is an indigenous hunter and tracker who eschews the technoscientific world of the Federation to live solely through her instincts and her ability to read the land. Nevertheless, her and her people have still obviously managed to develop spaceflight and Lara herself is just as cosmopolitan, knowledgeable and essential as everyone else on the team.

This is so incredibly utopian it's practically more Vaka Rangi than Vaka Rangi: A non-Western, non-Modern hunter-gatherer society that holds women in esteem, maintains their connection to the land and the skills that allowed them to foster that connection all the while cherry-picking the things from more Western societies that suit their lifestyle but that don't put it at risk of extinction that's now out among the stars in equal standing with the vast, sprawling galactic empires? I mean that's just absolutely perfect. It's exactly what Star Trek needs: Proof positive there are ways for humans to live in peace and dignity in its world without becoming subsumed by the more problematic aspects of the Federation. In Lara we see Star Trek's idealistic dream of living out among the stars on a journey of self-improvement mixed with the equally idealistic, though often neglected, hope that traditional indigenous knowledge and ways of life can live on too. It's the final disconnect between Modernist Neo-Imperialism and space travel story, demonstrating once and for all that Star Trek doesn't need to be western to be utopian.

As for Lara herself, there's a wonderful little story thread between her and Kirk throughout the episode: For Lara's people, it's not customary to obfuscate one's feelings and desires, especially when it comes to romance and friendship, and Lara makes it perfectly, blatantly clear to Kirk that she finds him attractive and that she'd like to use their brief time together to “make green memories”. However Kirk gently and politely rejects her advances, saying he has too many “green memories” of his own, but they eventually grow to respect one another and become close allies nevertheless. Not only is this a clever subversion (and inversion!) of a lot of the stereotypes of Kirk from the Original Series, it's a fantastic little series of character moments and it propels Lara to the forefront of Star Trek's female characters, at least in this phase of its history. I mean at what other point before the early 1990s or so are you going to find someone like this, a woman who is not only an unabashed equal but who is this blunt and forward to boot? It's great to see, and Webb and William Shatner knock it out of the park, which is tough to do when you're not in the same recording studio as the person you're supposed to be reacting to.

Furthermore, there's yet another great scene with Lara near the climax, where it's revealed someone on the team is trying to sabotage the mission from within and kill off their teammates. For awhile I was really worried the traitor would be Lara, as she's set up to be such a bold, aggressive and determined character. But no, it's one of the other characters, and it's Lara, along with Kirk and Spock, who helps rally those who remain loyal to the Vedala to recapture the Soul of the Skorr and bring everyone back home alive.

I guess I owe Stephen Kandel an apology: Freed from Harry Mudd and Gene Roddenberry it would seem he's more than capable of writing an admirable female hero, because “The Jihad” gives us two: Lara, of course, but the Vedala star-mystic as well who summons the team and gives them guidance on their journey through her powers of foresight and telekinesis.

Speaking of which this episode is dripping with magick. It's almost as magickal as “The Magicks of Megas-Tu”. The Vedala are plainly psychic and use straight-up astral projection to help discern the location of the Soul and also seem to have mastery over telepathy, teleporation and telekinesis. And, just like in “The Magicks of Megas-Tu”, this is given no other explanation other than that it self-evidently exists. This isn't “mental science”, it's magic plain and simple. However, this is not what we'd think of as straightforward high fantasy either, though it might appear to be this at first glance. What's really interesting about the trappings of “The Jihad” is that this is all happening against the background of what remains a science fiction setting: While the Vedala may not practice “mental science” the way Isaac Asimov might have conceived of it, what they do is demonstrate the mundane reality of magick within the Star Trek universe. The magick of the Vedala exists alongside all the other ways of knowing in the galaxy and is treated as just as valid a worldview as any other. Indeed perhaps it might be even more highly valued as the Vedala are considered the oldest and most revered civilization in the galaxy and their word carries considerable clout on the interstellar stage.

Then there's the Mad Planet, which seems to operate according to a distinctly magickal logic.The whole world feels alive, which is even more fitting considering the inclusion of Lara, as many indigenous hunter-gatherer societies also understand their connection to the land through animism. But more to the point the Mad Planet feels not just alive, but also angry and tormented: It's the personification of the challenge the team must undertake to recover the Soul of Skorr, and that also gives the title “The Jihad” a secondary meaning. See, in actual Muslim spirituality, “jihad” means “struggle” (this is, in fact, literally what the word translates out to), and the Qur’an mentions two different kinds of jihads. One is the version that's most familiar to a 21st century audience, that is, a righteous struggle against one's enemies (though crucially this is most traditionally seen as a revolutionary act done to overthrow oppressors, not a holy crusade against nonbelievers for death and glory). However the second, and more important, meaning is that of an inner personal struggle to overcome challenge on an everyday basis. It's a challenge to remain true to your ideals and beliefs each and every day. So not only will the Skorr launch the holy war kind of jihad if the Soul isn't brought back, but the team themselves are undergoing a kind of jihad on the Mad Planet to work together and respect one another, thus living up to their own ideals.

Which brings us back to the Soul of Skorr itself, which is this message given form and, as a result, it's ultimate magick spell. On first glace it looks straightforwardly pop Christian, much like the life force receptacles from “Return to Tomorrow”, but it's actually more arcane than that: Tcharr says it's the result of binding Alar's soul to the mortal plain, but there's no mention of some technobabble explanation for extracting life energies or whatever that would prompt a Cartesian reading. No, in practice the Soul serves a very different purpose. Alar was a beloved prophet who inspired the Skorr to leave their warlike past behind them and the Skorr made him a cultural hero and strove to follow his example ever since. Knowing this, it makes that name extremely telling. The Soul of Skorr is just that: The collective hopes, dreams and ideals of a people projected onto a sacred totem, thus giving them immortal life and power. This touches on the heart of magick, which is the appropriation and manipulation of symbols and the belief that symbols have power and agency unto themselves, because belief itself grants them. No wonder the disappearance of the Soul would put the Skorr on a retrograde path and plunge the galaxy into war, because without ideals people become cynical and, even worse, apathetic. And that's also why a multicultural team of equals culled from all ways of life and all knowledge networks is needed to get it back.

Which means “The Jihad” is, put simply, perfect Star Trek. It's a story about idealism and cultural signifiers and the role they play in our lives. It's utopian not in the didactic, authoritarian way the franchise gets a bad name for these days, but because it looks frankly at the concept of ideals, why they're important and how people challenge themselves to try and live up to them. This is not a story about the enlightened space navy going around reorganizing societies, it's a story about how all people all over the universe try to better themselves, and how magickal it is when they succeed. And on top of that, it's bloody gorgeous to look at. It's absolutely everything Star Trek is good at wrapped up in a neat little gift basket.

Even across the span of decades, I think I can still hear D.C. Fontana dropping the mic.


  1. and I finally get wher Warcraft nicked the Naaru from, A'dal is the spitting image of Alar

  2. Fantastic entry. Love the highlighting of Lara.