Tuesday, January 7, 2014

“We must not let it happen again.” The Slaver Weapon

Take note: This is what a sci-fi planet should look like.
Like so many other stories like it, “The Slaver Weapon” is a not-actually-terribly-good episode that still manages to set in motion events that will change everything we thought we knew about the world of Star Trek and call into question the franchise's closest-held tenets and ideals.

It has an interesting pedigree though. We've heard a few hints and clues about the Kzinti and some hostilities with them before, but this is the first time we've actually seen them: An aggressive race of catlike people who have persistently attacked settlements, who make war to eat those they defeat in battle and who are so misogynistic they've literally bred intelligence out of their women. They are a frighteningly unlikable adversary for this series, and if they don't sound like typical Star Trek villains that's probably because they're not, in point of fact, from Star Trek at all. The Kzinti actually hail from the self-contained Known Universe, encompassing the collected work of noted science fiction author Larry Niven, and this episode is actually a straight translation of his short story “The Soft Weapon” for Star Trek. The reason it's here is because D.C. Fontana was a huge fan of Niven's and personally requested he contribute something for the Animated Series. The two approached Gene Roddenberry with the idea, and while it was thought many of Niven's pitches were too violent for the show, Roddenberry eventually suggested adapting “The Soft Weapon”.

As a result there's not a whole lot to say about the episode as aired, because it straightforwardly, literally *is* “The Soft Weapon”, only with the names changed. An interesting consequence of this is that the episode features exclusively Sulu, Uhura and Spock in starring roles, standing in for the original story's protagonists (a human couple and a vegetarian alien scientists named Nessus), and thus none of the other regulars appear. This sadly doesn't help the episode much though, because while it's nice to see Sulu and Uhura get really meaty roles again, it's painfully clear “The Soft Weapon” had a rather blatant Pulp structure, so we get to see many riveting scenes of our heroes getting captured by Kzinti pirates, escaping said Kzinti pirates and being recaptured about ten seconds later. And of course, the female character has to be abducted and held for ransom.

There are, however, two main aspects of this episode that remain quite provocative. The first is, of course, the Kzinti: Despite being canon expatriates, the fact remains having a concept as shocking as the Kzinti here does change the game rather decisively for Star Trek. Trying to weld established Star Trek mythos with Niven's Known Universe has some really bizarre consequences that, thanks to a happy accident, wind up adding a lot more nuance to our franchise. The biggest bomb comes about when you try and reconcile the supposedly pacifistic and utopian Federation with the nasty history of the Earth-Kzin Wars: The implication of this episode then becomes that at some point prior to the foundation of the modern Federation, Earth and its allies were engaged in a series of horrific and consecutive wars where they absolutely decimated the Kzinti armies.

The decisive moment comes at the Treaty of Sirius, where Earth demanded harsh concessions from the Kzinti, forcing them to completely demilitarize and give the nascent Federation total unhindered access to Kzinti space. I have little sympathy for the warlike, misogynistic Kzinti (who were, of course, always the aggressors), but the sheer scale of the repercussions Earth called for at the Treaty simply sounds vicious, and it reminds me altogether too well of, say, the quick scapegoating of Germany following World War I. In Niven's original work, he further puts this into “natural selection” terms, explaining how the instinctively confrontational Kzinti died out due to their own belligerence, thus allowing the “more evolved” humans to thrive and the more progressive Kzinti to eventually adapt. It doesn't take a whole lot to twist that into imperialistic propaganda and apologia for Social Darwinism, and this is an unthinkably serious accusation to level at the Federation.

But not, in retrospect, an altogether unexpected one. We've always maintained that the Federation is far from a perfect, ideal model of government, despite the increasingly universalist rhetoric of the franchise that is slowly but surely beginning to dangerously conflate Star Trek's idealism with that of the Federation. It's not a huge leap of logic to extrapolate this back and figure the Federation probably had some kind of an imperialistic past or that a desire for empire might not in some way be built into the core of how it operates. Indeed, when next we see the Kzinti in Star Trek the Federation is put explicitly on the same level as any number of other wide-reaching galactic empires. It becomes but one massive military power among many others.

I'm also reminded of something Robert Hewitt Wolfe said in regards to the episode “Crossover” on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

"Empires aren't usually brutal unless there's a reason. There are usually external or internal pressures that cause them to be that way.”

There's more to this quote and Wolfe frames it in a way that's not totally unproblematic, but we'll deal with that in 1994. What I want to focus on here is the idea that empires arise out of a *need* to be brutal. The fear of the unknown, or rather of uncertainty and fungibility, a fear of the idea things can entropically change outside of your control (and a further belief that you are *entitled* to exert that control) and a panicky desire to maintain order has been a driving force of authoritarianism since time immemorial. The true horror of the Earth-Kzin wars is that it opens the possibility that this kind of fear and paranoia might actually be the defining belief upon which the entire Federation was founded.

Think about it. The Kzinti, despite how despicable they can be, are basically complete rubbish. As Beowulf Schaeffer says in Niven's story “Grendel”, “The Kzinti aren't really a threat. They'll always attack before they're ready". Not to mention the fact they lost every single conflict they ever had with Earth hilariously decisively. They're not a threat, they're a joke. It's Earth, and by extension the proto-Federation, who commit the worst atrocities during the Kzin Wars via the Treaty of Sirius thanks to their need to assert their dominance and growing military might and influence. This becomes the new Original Sin of the Federation: Despite all its rosy utopian rhetoric, it has roots in the same old ugly empire building Westerners are so depressingly good at. Oh sure, later writers will shy away from this, try to correct it and posit other origins for the Federation, but the damage has been done. This never goes away. This is a part of the Federation and Star Trek from here on out.

This ties into the other intriguing concept Star Trek inherits from the Known Universe via “The Slaver Weapon”: The titular weapon itself. In both stories, an Earth team has recovered an ancient stasis box dating from what amounts to The Old Universe, when they're abducted by the Kzinti. Apparently there once was an infinitely old race that existed billions of years ago who conquered the entire universe and enslaved every other sentient species (in Star Trek they're the Slavers, while in the Known Universe they're called the Thrint). Although no traces of their civilization still exist, they did leave behind these boxes which contain assorted artefacts preserved by a stasis field and which, through modern reverse engineering, have provided the basis for basically all technology as it exists today. The box Spock/Nessus found that he and his friends are fighting with the Kzinti over contained a weapon used by a Slaver/Thrint spy that can transform into many different forms, one of which has the power to instantaneously convert planet-sized pieces of matter into energy.

This is almost a bleaker revelation than the Kzin Wars. Literally the entire contemporary society of the Star Trek universe is modeling itself after an oppressive and genocidal race of actual monsters (we get to see an image that's largely assumed to be a Slaver/Thrint, and it looks like a giant saurian) not only technoscientifically but socially: The Federation and the Kzinti would go to war again over such a device-The Kzinti already proved they would be willing to kill and die to posses it, and after it predictably self-destructs at the end, Spock attempts to console Sulu, who is saddened that he won't be able to bring the device to a museum, by saying it would never have wound up in a museum anyway. This might well be the darkest ending we've seen yet on Star Trek: The Enterprise crew get to remain noble, but there is now overwhelming evidence that they might be the only scrupulous and upstanding people in a a universe built entirely around hatred, conflict and a desire to oppress and subjugate others. This is paradoxically the least Star Trek story we've ever seen, but, terrifyingly, it's absolutely in keeping with the way the show works.

Although the plot is less than compelling, the historical significance of “The Slaver Weapon” alone makes it worth a look. This is the starting point of a new approach to Star Trek: Not quite another reboot or reconceptualization, but a secondary thread that haunts the margins of the franchise popping up every now and again to remind us that we can hold to our utopian fantasies about the show as much as we like, but we'll never quite be able to distill this out of it. This is Star Trek's Dark Side, and the only way to confront your Dark Side is to accept that it exists, if not embrace it.


  1. One problem with the adaptation is that while the Kzinti's not taking Nessus seriously as a threat makes sense (given the notoriously cowardly nature of Nessus's species), transferring Nessus's role to Spock means that the Kzinti have to fail to take him seriously as a threat on the grounds that ... he's a vegetarian. I mean, even the Knzinti aren't that dumb.

    Incidentally, while I'm a big fan of Niven's Known universe series, I always found the Kzinti to be the least interesting part of it.

    in Star Trek they're the Slavers, while in the Known Universe they're called the Thrint

    They're called the Slavers in the Known Universe too. "Thrintun" is the technical term for them, but "Slavers" is the colloquial term.

    Although no traces of their civilization still exist

    Not true in Niven's works; a number of Slavers have survived into the Known Space era. See World of Ptavvs, "The Handicapped," and "The Asteroid Queen."

  2. Incidentally, in the original story the weapon belongs not to the Slavers but to the group that was leading the rebellion against the Slavers -- the Tnuctipun. I wonder why that was changed for TAS.

  3. A wonderful post again. I'm glad this theme, the Dark Side of the Federation and Star Trek itself, crops up so clearly so early in the history of the franchise. I'm mostly familiar with it through the realpolitiking that the Enterprise was roped into with Cardassia over the last two seasons. Deep Space Nine, of course, plays with these ideas throughout its run. I particularly love the late-series plot arcs in DS9 revolving around Section 31, and thinking about the similarities and contrasts with the Obsidian Order. In many ways, the Cardassians, and later the Dominion in a different manner, perform a diegetic function as the dark side of Star Trek, the enemy that forces them to turn against their ideals.

    And part of what I consider a central flaw of Voyager was that they so rarely confronted a genuine challenge to their ideals. It's why probably my favourite Voyager episode was the two-parter Equinox.

    1. Voyager was particularly maddening in that respect because they were in such a natural position to explore those challenges. Here we have a Federation crew and a Maquis crew -- two groups, both largely sympathetic, but with different ideals, different rules, different command structures, different attitudes to authority, all sorts of clashing values -- forced to work together on one ship. There they had the potential for a lot of interesting stories. Instead, with the exception of the first couple of episodes they essentially treated the ship as a Federation ship run on Federation lines.

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    3. I am re-watching Voyager all the way through with my partner and yes it is maddening how often they dodge those juicy areas of conflict, agree with below - big missed opportunities.

      The one thing that often annoys me is the Federation and how it describes itself, or more how each time we come across those who have opted out of the Federation are described as misguided mavericks or fools. I find that quite sad, being a foolish maverick myself but still living within society.

  4. Voyager is overburdened with missed opportunities.

    The joint Federation/Bajoran ... and local galactic civilian ... nature of DS9 as well as the static nature of a mostly fixed Station was the ideal location for these contrasts, anyway. So no stone left unturned in that series. I always assumed Voyager had the tougher act to follow because it would be treading on topics DS9 made very explicit.