Thursday, February 27, 2014

“But it wasn't any use. Nobody came.”: The Enterprise Incident # 5

Connected to the Preserver interface device, Spock relives an encounter with his father on Vulcan where they both exhibit a manner of tension over Spock's decision to stay in Starfleet instead of returning to work at the Vulcan Science Academy. In the present, Kirk, McCoy and Scotty monitor the experiment from one of the Enterprise's science labs. After Arex detects a massive random energy spike centered around the device and McCoy warns him that Spock's central nervous system is about to collapse as a result, Kirk has the interface destroyed and beamed out into space, but not before Spock was able to determine that it was the Preservers who constructed the galactic barrier (a ribbon of energy at the boundary of the Milky Way galaxy that was the focus of a number of Original Series episodes). While he wasn't able to determine the exact purpose, Spock believes the Preservers intended it to protect the younger peoples of the galaxy, and that they hoped one day it would no longer be necessary.

</The Galactic Barrier evokes a number of episodes, but perhaps the most telling are “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and “Beyond the Farthest Star”, the first episodes of both the Original Series and the Animated Series. In the former episode, crossing the barrier caused Gary Mitchell and Elizabeth Dehner to suddenly transform into Godlike beings who, drunk on their newfound power, immediately set about trying to crush the entire universe beneath them. While it wasn't mentioned in the latter episode, recall that a key aspect of the reading we afforded “Beyond the Farthest Star” was that the Enterprise crew, and thus Star Trek, had grown to a point where it could leave the galaxy behind and begin the next stage of its journey. In other words, leaving the galaxy can be seen as a sign of a particular wisdom and maturity, but also a source of great power that is inconceivably dangerous and destructive if misused, a reading reinforced by the presence of Ayelbourne at the last Preserver outpost./>

Determining the location of the last Preserver outpost, Kirk has the Enterprise race to try and beat Kor to it. However, as soon as they arrive, Kirk, Spock and Arex are whisked away to a chamber bathed in soft white light by Ayelbourne, the elder Organian who played a pivotal role in forcing the Klingons and the Federation to sign the Treaty of Organia in “Errand of Mercy”. Kirk and Spock are furious that Ayelbourne refused to show himself earlier, but Ayelbourne counters that his people have decided their intervention in the affairs of the galactic empires has done more harm then good. The Organians, he reveals, are one of a handful of peoples who are tasked with preserving the knowledge and memory of the Elder Races, infinitely old cultures from the dawn of time, of whom the Preservers are one, who left behind relics that, it was hoped, could be of use to the younger civilizations were they to reach specific points in their development. However, the discovery of the Preserver outposts by the Klingons and the Federation in the midst of a prelude to a galaxy-spanning war has forced the Organians' hand, as this is proof to them that the universe as it exists now is simply not ready for such things, and furthermore, that it's hopeless and counterproductive for the Organians to try and guide it any longer.

</This scene is a complete inversion of one of the most bog-standard Star Trek story structures and, at first glance, a rejection of one of the founding core tenets of the franchise's philosophy: Instead of the Enterprise crew charismatically out-debating some hyper-advanced Godlike alien to show how humanity and all its imperfect foils is preferable to immortality and Godhood, Kirk's “debate” with Ayelbourne is a complete slaughterfest, and its abundantly clear we're meant to side with Ayelbourne. Indeed, this is almost a complete 180 from “How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth”, where the point was that while humanity was still growing, it had outgrown its primordial phase. And while this has happened once before (and under Fontana, natch), there's a darker side to having the Godlike being win this time: Like Q, Ayelbourne sees humanity as beyond redemption, but this time there's no chance for humanity to defend itself. Totally frustrated and fed up, Ayelebourne  washes his hands of the entire galaxy and essentially says “It's up to you from now on. I'm outta here”./>

This is, at first glance, something of a problematic scene. One could almost read a Foundation-esque attitude towards cultural development in the way Ayelbourne describes the Organians and the Preservers: That there's a Modernistic, teleological path of evolution all societies go on and it's the responsibility of older, more advanced cultures to help younger, less advanced cultures reach the predetermined designated checkpoints. D.C. Fontana was certainly around during the Golden Age of science fiction and thus these themes would not be entirely unfamiliar to her. However, there are two ways in which I find this scene interesting: Firstly, it's an inversion of the most stock and irredeemable Roddenberry Original Series plot: The Federation waltzes into a so-called “primitive”, “backwards” culture, wrecks shit, and then puts them on the “proper” path of cultural development whether they like it or not. Here, Fontana has Ayelbourne use the Federation's own language of entitlement and privilege against it, and it's wonderful to see Kirk bluster and sputter ineffectually against it with not one ounce of his signature charisma coming to his aid. It also gives us two utterly fantastic exchanges:

“You consider potentially saving the lives of millions of Federation citizens a burden?”

“Yes I do. And we consider it your burden, as we have grown weary of watching you toil with your fruitless conflicts and plots against one another.”

Which to me reads as just about the loveliest up-yours to my least favourite mode of Star Trek storytelling ever, (and is much appreciated, given how much the rest of this series has invoked the Dominion War) and the concise-yet-biting

“We did not seek war with the Klingons!”

“Nor did you pursue peace, Captain.”

</Secondly though, there's something that can be made of the fact that the Organians are keepers of ancient knowledge. Throughout the Animated Series, we talked about how one thing that Star Trek has the ability to do is reconceptualise the archetype of the shaman for a science fiction setting. The point of shamanism is, as we've discussed before, to seek advice and guidance from the world of spirits, gods and ancestors to improve the quality of life in our world while also sharing the experience of living in the mortal plane with beings who aren't able to. If so much of the Animated Series was about teasing the potential for Star Trek to embrace shamanism as a worldview, “The Enterprise Experiment” shows Fontana perhaps changing her views, and has the Organians smack Kirk down for his hubris in presuming he was wise and disciplined enough to be a shaman. On the other hand, Ayelbourne does say that Arex's people, the Edosians, may have a role to play in guiding humanity in the future, so maybe the Animated Series wasn't a total wash-out after all./>

In a sense it's cathartic, at least for someone like me who never did quite *get* the big deal about the Original Series to see Kirk and Spock so roundly curb-stomped by Ayelbourne. Fontana lovingly and leisurely extends this scene for about two thirds of the book, lingering on every single moment where Ayelbourne calls out the crew on their hubris, pretentiousness, petulance, warmongering and self-absorption. Fontana is finally giving the soapbox to people echoing my fundamental problems with this era of Star Trek, and I'm not going to pretend it isn't a little validating and affirmational. On the other hand, this is a bloody cynical story and the ramifications it holds are a bit up in the air. For the first time in the entire history of the franchise, the ultimate relevance and worth of Star Trek seem in doubt. Even during the darkest, most miserable days of the Dominion War, there was at least a sliver of hope that Star Trek maybe meant more than this (even though the particular notion Ron Moore and Ira Behr had of what Star Trek meant was arguably the wrong one). With “The Enterprise Experiment” Fontana, like Ayelbourne, seems ready to give up on Star Trek for good, and that's a rather heartbreaking position for debatably the franchise's leading luminary to adopt in 2008.

</The killing blow comes near the end of this scene, where Fontana goes out of her way to show even William Shatner isn't enough anymore. Kirk's trademark wit and rhetoric, traits of his so beloved by generations of Original Series fans, won't help him anymore: As he's done throughout this series, Kirk spends a lot of this issue spouting off hackneyed and cliched quotes from Old Dead White Guys, making him sound embarrassingly trite and middlebrow: A devastating critique to level against Star Trek. This is the dark side of Kirk's much-celebrated improvisational skills: Kirk's gone from being a skilled Poker player who can bluff his way out of anything to a bullshitter who gets promptly called on his bullshit by absolutely everyone, from the Romulan Commander to Spock, to McCoy and finally, to Ayelbourne. While Kirk and William Shatner both used to revel in their artifice, now artifice is revealed as the hollow and vapid simulacrum of meaning an impotent has-been is desperately hoping will allow him to duck out of responsibility. It's a truly gutting moment, and I don't even consider myself a fan./>

We end, I suppose, where we began, with the Romulan Commander. After Ayelbourne appears to all the major galactic powers condemning them for their inherent violence before departing this plane for good (and a skirmish breaks out between the Klothos and the Enterprise), we see a clandestine meeting between the Romulan Commander, her Subcommander and a Klingon delegation led by Kor and Koloth on a neutral planet where, OK, let's just cut the pretense and flat-out call her our heroine, warily accepts a proposal to ally her people with the Klingons in the interest of pooling their resources to defend themselves against the rising threat of the the Federation, which puts everyone in grave danger. It is soon revealed, however, that this meeting was set up by Admiral Nogura, who we saw bantering with the Subcommander last issue. Before we depart, we see the Commander wonder whom she should fear the most of her two new allies. She never comes up with an answer, and neither do we. The future of the Federation, and of Star Trek, is now in serious doubt.

I of course feel there's something worth salvaging about Star Trek, otherwise I wouldn't still be doing this project. But I very much empathize with D.C. Fontana in that I see it as a constant uphill battle to keep the franchise's more problematic tendencies in check. And, after over forty years with Star Trek, and forty years of never getting her vision ever really taken seriously, I can understand how Star Trek: Year Four and “The Enterprise Experiment” may well have been the last straw for her. But, just as the Organians departed this plane because they felt it was time for the galaxy to look after itself, maybe we can say the same about the departure of D.C. Fontana. With the leading architect of Star Trek potentially signing off for good, perhaps its time to follow Ayelbourne's advice and take our destiny into our own hands.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

“Dream not of today.”: The Enterprise Incident # 4

</I am now convinced I am being haunted by Margaret Armen. I keep running into her just after I think I'm finally rid of having to square away her influence for good. All that said, she has indeed cropped up once more so it's time to look at her work yet again. I have to say, invoking Margaret Armen in any capacity other then “vehemently trying to pretend her scripts didn't happen” is always going to seem a bit suspect to me. Nevertheless, she was one of the most seasoned and experienced writers of the period of Star Trek history, and considering she contributed almost as many stories to the Animated Series as she did to the Original Series it would seem D.C. Fontana was considerably more enamoured of her work than I am./>

Beneath the surface of Loren 5, Kirk and the Enterprise away team discover what Sanderson and his team had found while mining for Dilithium and what Kor's crew was after: A sprawling underground city that seems ancient and deserted, and yet built around scientific and technological concepts far beyond the comprehension of any of the major galactic powers. As they search the site for clues, Kirk and Spock eventually locate what is likely to be the source of the city's power and import: A gigantic Preserver obelisk, much like the one that stripped Kirk of his memory back in “The Paradise Syndrome”. Oh dear.

</The best way to approach this, or at least the only way I can think of that's not horrible and soul-crushing, is to presume Fontana saw something in Armen's work that I don't, and that this is why she brought her back time and time again and why she gave her a nod in this story along frankly far more deserving candidates like Gene Coon and Nicholas Meyer. Armen was, of course, the only other regular female writer on either the Original Series or the Animated Series. This didn't have to be the case: Both shows had very promising talent in people like Joyce Muskat, Joyce Perry, Jean Lisette Aroeste, Shari Lewis and Judy Burns who were, for whatever reason, never asked to come back despite many of the absolute best and most beloved episodes of either show being their work. And that's not getting into the rabidly loyal and obscenely talented people in the fanfiction community, any of whom Fontana could have cherry-picked for the Animated Series in a heartbeat at any time. But be that as it may, the only significant female voice we get on “official”, “canon” Star Trek apart from D.C. Fontana until the 1980s is Margaret Armen./>

I know “The Enterprise Experiment” is a massive bit of fanwank, but of all the people whose work Fontana could have pulled from, I'm at a complete loss to explain why one of them had to be Margaret Armen, a writer whose track record on Star Trek can charitably called “disastrous”. I've never understood why “The Paradise Syndrome” was considered such a beloved episode of the Original Series (well, actually I do, but I try to pretend I don't to preserve my enthusiasm for this franchise and project, not to mention my faith in humanity in general): One could, I suppose, read the Kirk/Miramanee love story as an early version of the much more famous, and, for all its other faults, frankly better, manifestation of this kind of story in Carol and David Marcus in the Original Series movies. But that's being *incredibly* generous, because everything else about “The Paradise Syndrome” was an almost note-for-note demonstration of how *not* to make television (or any other work of fiction for that matter): It was sloppy, ponderously paced and just terribly written on every level, with egregiously amateurish writing mistakes in basically every single scene. And, oh yeah, it was unimaginably racist and sexist.

</It would be something of a gross oversimplification to say that only female writers are interested in characters and motivations. But there is a particular tendency towards nuance in this regard that is at least more associated with women writers, and given the reputation “The Paradise Syndrome” has amongst fandom it's possible this is what Fontana likes about Armen's writing. Certainly it can't be a coincidence that this of all episodes gets referenced in a story about Kirk trying to figure out what his family is. And, as if to drive the point home, the very next scene shows us McCoy's own questions about family, brought upon by Kirk's mood of late and his own recent brief reunion with his estranged daughter Joanna.../>

Thankfully, we don't have a lot of time to ruminate on this before we cut back to the Enterprise where McCoy is treating the casualties from the skirmish with the Klingons on the surface last issue. As he's doing this, he goes into a flashback of his own and internally monologues to himself about his estranged daughter Joanna, whom he last saw when he took leave to see her graduate Starfleet Academy as a medical officer of her own. Joanna McCoy is, of course, someone Fontana had been chomping at the bit to address basically forever, and, perhaps understandably, this scene is formidable and one of the best moments in the series. Both Leonard and Joanna are sorry they never got to spend a lot of time together while Joanna was growing up because Leonard's duty kept him away from his family all the time. Eventually, Leonard's distance caused Joanna's mother to divorce him, and the family hasn't spoken in years. But, nobody holds any grievances, because they all understand and empathize with each other. As Joanna says of her family

“Look, dad, I don't blame you. I gave up on that long ago. I understand your passion...It's mine too. We were always proud of you, but we missed you.”

And of her mother and herself

“She moved on...And so did I. But that doesn't mean I don't love you.”

And here's the point where it becomes blatantly obvious that there's no way “The Enterprise Incident”, like the rest of Star Trek: Year Four, could ever have been done on the Original Series. Because this is D.C. Fontana the master penning an absolutely perfect Star Trek scene that effortlessly demonstrates what the utopianism of Star Trek is really all about. Star Trek isn't trying to show us that the Federation is some Platonic ideal form of government, it's trying to show that it's possible for humans from all walks of life and all positionalities to overcome hardship and deal with conflict in a constructive manner, and always with love and understanding. And that story was simply impossible to tell on the Original Series, because it requires a wisdom and maturity Star Trek only got much later on in life.

</It's somewhat deliciously satisfying to finally see Joanna McCoy. Fontana has been trying to get this story told for so long, and to have it show up in this form in Star Trek: Year Four of all places seems like a perfect kind of poetic justice. And Fontana runs with it, giving us a truly heartfelt and moving scene depicted in lovingly meticulous detail that simply relishes in the moment. And, just to go that little step beyond, Fontana reveals that the source of Leonard McCoy's estrangement from Joanna McCoy was due to his lengthy positioning to Dramia II, as depicted in “The Albatross”, and has them heal that rift by having Leonard visit Joanna in time to see her graduate from Starfleet Academy as a medical officer of her own and giving her the medal he was awarded for his efforts. As Leonard says, it belongs to a healer, (actually, what he really says is, somewhat wonderfully, “I'm a healer, not a seeker of fame”), and this is what both he and Joanna share in common: They're both healers. It's what allows them to heal their own emotional wounds./>

This is a scene about empathy and human emotion, both of others and of ourselves. It's showing us how important it is to acknowledge our emotions and where they come from. This doesn't mean we don't still feel them, but it's reminding us how recognising this will help us to better understand each other and, ultimately, lead to peace and material social progress. And that is, fundamentally, a Star Trek: The Next Generation theme or actually, to be even more accurate, a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine one. But furthermore, it's not like D.C. Fontana didn't want to go in this direction from the beginning (after all, where does all of this come from originally but from Spock?): Look again at “The Enterprise Incident” and “Joanna”, both of which were gutted reprehensibly before they made it to screen. Fontana would never have been able to tell this story on the Original Series because she would never have been allowed to. And, as much as this kind of nuance requires Michael Piller, it also requires Star Trek to respect D.C. Fontana, respect itself, and, honestly, to respect its feminine voice.

</But as great as this one moment is, we're quickly reminded there's more to this story. We meet up again with the Romulan Subcommander, in Federation custody after his botched attempt to capture the phased Enterprise with a shuttlecraft and one strike force. Meeting up with an as-yet-unnamed Starfleet flag officer, the Subcommander engages in some touchy diplomatic back-and-forth, once again praising Starfleet's cunning and tactics as strong, admirable Romulan qualities. Back on the Klothos, Kor is irritated that progress on the Preserver interface device his team lifted from the Loren 5 archaeological site hasn't been swifter. While on Loren 5 itself, Kirk and Spock discover the absence of said device. This leads to possibly the most shocking scene in the series so far: Needing information at all costs, Kirk has Arex use his telepathy to forcibly probe the mind of a Klingon prisoner they captured, leading to this chilling exchange between Arex and Scotty:

“This may cause him some discomfort”

“His discomfort is the least of my woes. Proceed.”/>

If that had been it, that would have been enough, but we're swiftly reminded that the galaxy is still teetering on the brink of war. We get a tense scene between the captured Romulan Subcommander and a Starfleet flag officer where they praise each other's calculating, tactical resolve, a scene where an annoyed Kor threatens his crew if they can't figure out how to work the Preserver interface they lifted from Loren 5 and, most shocking of all, a scene where Kirk sanctions Arex's use of coerced mind probing to extract information from a Klingon prisoner. This is chillingly reminiscent of Mirror Spock's mind rape of McCoy in “Mirror, Mirror” (tellingly, another episode that came out of D.C. Fontana's interest in darker moral concerns). When we last talked about that story, I mentioned that the point of the mirror universe as I saw it was not to have a fun sci-fi romp where our heroes fought off against their evil twins, but rather a cautionary tale about a path the Federation could go down with very little effort. Now it would seem those concerns are starting to prove justified.

</This would be bad enough in lieu of “Mirror, Mirror”, which was already deeply concerned about the Federation's darker predilections, but what's so jaw-droppingly disturbing about this scene is that this is *Arex* and *Scotty*: Two everyman characters voiced by the universally beloved James Doohan. Arex in particular stems from the *Animated Series*, ostensibly D.C. Fontana's attempt to *correct* the inherent problems of the Original Series. To see him administrating essentially state-sponsored rape and torture is *appalling*. To have this come right after that pitch-perfect scene between Leonard and Joanna is a massive tone shift, but it also makes a terrifying amount of sense in the context of Fontana's worldview and everything else “The Enterprise Incident” is doing. This is D.C. Fontana showing us that the absolute best of Star Trek, or at the very least this incarnation of it, are simply inseparable from the absolute worst of it. Even the Animated Series, via Arex, isn't beyond reproach: OG Star Trek is fatally flawed, and this is what happens when writers approach it unexamined with slavish fealty and reverence./>

Just when we thought it couldn't possibly get any more uncomfortable, Fontana throws us the absolute capstone. In order to reach Kor and lay down an ultimatum, Kirk and Spock pretend to be captured by a Klingon patrol...And have Sulu disguise himself as a Klingon so he can sneak into Kor's base and capture the Preserver interface. Uh, wow. In case it wasn't clear how absolutely horrifying that is, let me lay it out for you. Remember, the Klingons have always been associated with questionable race politics, and the primary Klingon in this story is Kor, whom John Colicos explicitly modeled on Genghis Khan, and who he portrayed in brownface and a Fu Manchu moustache. In other words, by Star Trek logic, Sulu is the best person to go undercover as a Klingon because he's the Asian one. YIKES. Now, in a somewhat hasty effort to spare Fontana, recall that, while she's never said as much, she always seems to have seen the Klingons as somewhat crap villains: She never found them as interesting as the Romulans, hated the name and stressed a number of times that Gene Coon created them as generic antagonists for “Errand of Mercy”. So, far from committing a race fail of her own, it's very easy to read this as the latest in a line of slowly escalating moments that serve to point out each and every little thing wrong with the original Star Trek.

</Even so, I'm not sure I can ever look at the Original Series or the Animated Series the same way again thanks to this. Next issue we get to find out if the galaxy will become consumed by war, but no matter what happens there D.C. Fontana has already fired an opening shot of her own. There's no more dangerous traitor then a former patriot./>

To Be Concluded...

Sunday, February 23, 2014

“Confessions of a King”: The Enterprise Experiment # 3

Commander Kor is not happy. He sits soliloquizing on the bridge of his battlecruiser reflecting on his humiliating defeat the the hands of the Organians and the Federation three years ago, a defeat which brought shame and dishonour upon his house. Decoding a message from Starfleet Command about a rich Dilithium deposit and mysterious and ancient archaeological ruins discovered on Loren 5, Kor sees this as the perfect opportunity to test the resolve of the Organians and the Federation both and moves to launch a full-scale invasion of the mining colony.

</As if the brutal fistfight between Captain Kirk and a Klingon on the cover of this month's Star Trek: Year Four-The Enterprise Incident wasn't a tip-off, the Klingons are back because of course the Klingons are back. In particular Kor, and in particular the pacifism debates from “Errand of Mercy” and “Day of the Dove”. But even so, what little we see of Kor in this issue is indicative of a minor, yet significant, reconstruction effort Fontana seems to have pulled. He's behaviour is naturally very much more in keeping with the post-“Heart of Glory” or “A Matter of Honor” Klingons (or I suppose it'd be more accurate to say post-“Blood Oath” as Kor himself was featured so prominently in that one) rather than the Original Series Klingons, though do recall “Day of the Dove” proper had laid a lot of this groundwork already. But what's more interesting to me is Kor's desire to test the resolve of the Organians and the Federation:/>

Of all the Klingon characters to bring back from the Original Series, Kor seems like the best choice for the story Fontana seems to want to tell. “The Enterprise Experiment” is very much going down the road of problematizing Star Trek's fixation, or perceived fixation, on valour and militarism, and that sort of critique takes us right back to “Errand of Mercy”. From the perspective of the Organians, who will likely go on to play extremely significant roles in the resolution of this story, Kirk and Kor were effectively representing the same viewpoints. Unlike as was the case with both Romulan Commanders though, we're *not* meant to feel sympathetic to the captains in “Errand of Mercy”: These were not ordinary people who were victims of time and circumstance, these were people who committed reprehensible acts in the name of their respective empires and forced a third party to intervene and put an end to their warlike predilections. Bringing Kor back here is in fact significant, and reinforces the positive light the Romulan Commander was cast in last time.

</This is very much the kind of thing warriors do to people they consider equals, or people who they wish to see if they can consider equals. Kor is issuing a warrior's challenge to Kirk (he hasn't met Kirk yet in the story, but we all know that's who he's thinking of) and the Organians to see if they can earn the right to be called worthy adversaries. The problem is, of course, that Kor has an entire empire at his behest and is willing to plunge the galaxy into open warfare for his displays of honour, camaraderie and bravado. And of course Kirk and Kor are equals of a sort-They both have an undying loyalty to their ship and their crew, as we saw in “The Time Trap” and this theme reoccurs here as we cut from Kor's ruminating to Kirk's conflicted emotions about Carol and David. When McCoy urges him to take some extra time to gather his thoughts, Kirk responds that “men like us don't have families”, right before he admits to us via a (lengthy) internal monologue that the Enterprise is his family./>

After this, we cut back to the Enterprise's side of the story. As the ship finishes being repaired from the events of last issue, Kirk and McCoy are having a discussion about Kirk's preoccupation of late. McCoy urges Kirk to take some time off to gather himself, but Kirk brushes him off and we don't have a lot of time to worry about this as the word gets out about Kor's attack on Loren 5 and the conspicuous absence of the Organians. Arriving in the Lorenian system just in time to witness the destruction of a monitoring station, the Enterprise moves to the planet itself, where they discover one of the lead miners, Sanderson, under attack from a Klingon patrol presumably in search of something they discovered beneath the planet's surface. Even as the galaxy races towards war, however, Kirk's thoughts still turn to the self-doubt speaking to Carol and David, as he begins to wonder if he's chosen the right path in life.

</Invoking “The Time Trap” raises an interesting point, however. In that story, it was very obvious that, in spite of their shared bull-headedness, the Enterprise crew remained redeemable while that of the Klothos wasn't, as Kor attempted to sabotage and destroy the Enterprise even after it was revealed they would be forced to work together to escape Elysia. This gave at least an indication that the Enterprise crew was capable of growth and realised the importance of peace as an ideal, which made them better than the Klingons, who perhaps weren't quite at that point yet. Here, though, Fontana no longer seems sure that's the case: Spock correctly points out that the development of an advanced cloaking device is straightforwardly an act of aggression on the part of the Federation, and that this essentially makes them, in the eyes of the Klingons and the Romulans, the greatest threat in the galaxy. Kirk protests that the experiment was meant to be a deterrent, to which McCoy bluntly responds that this particular assumption very obviously “hasn't panned out”./>

Kirk also worries that a potential galactic war would bring about the one thing he fears the most: That Starfleet's mission will stop being about exploration and become purely a military endeavour. This is somewhat ironic, considering that Captain Kirk as a character was very obviously created to be a soldier from the beginning and the actual Original Series took great care to point this out on a number of occasions. Certainly by the end of the show's run that had begun to change, perhaps as an indication that Kirk had indeed grown more worldly and wise through his travels, but implying this is something he holds as a fundamental truth is a bit of clever sleight-of-hand: It may well be now, but it certainly wasn't always the case. What's more revealing, and very much in keeping with how Kirk actually acted on the show, is his fear at losing control and the power to shape his own destiny, underlying his concerns about the war, the Organians and Carol and David.

</As much as this ties into, clarifies and expands upon themes Fontana tried to work with in the Original Series, this does seem somewhat strange coming in the wake of the Animated Series and it's tough to read this kind of juxtaposition as anything other than Fontana changing her tune somewhat on the value of Star Trek. Even Kirk expresses concern here that Starfleet may cease to be service built around exploration and diplomacy and become a full-on military wing of the Federation, even as he himself is partially responsible for pushing it in that direction. If neither the Organians nor James Kirk can stop the galaxy's march to war, where does that leave the values and ideals they're supposed to stand in for? Between capitulating to the fanwank id complex of Nerd Culture and digging up Star Trek's dirty past in a series designed to revive and celebrate it, it almost seems as if Fontana is trying to close down the franchise for good. But Star Trek: Year Four was never about reviving Star Trek, was it? No, it was about bringing Star Trek to an end, and now that at least makes a kind of sense. I only wish there had been another way./>

To Be Continued...

Thursday, February 20, 2014

“Is that what we have become?” The Enterprise Experiment # 2

We open on a flashback explaining how the Romulan Commander managed to escape “processing” in “The Enterprise Incident”. It seems she was involved in some form of prisoner exchange that was part of negotiations between the Federation and the Romulan Star Empire. Sarek makes a brief appearance, expressing hope that the Romulans and the Vulcans would come to some sort of understanding given their shared lineage, but doubtful given the Romulans' capacity for deception. Back in the present day of this story, the Commander remarks that it's a appropriate she would find Kirk attempting to test a Federation cloaking device based on the one he stole from her.

</We open with another pointless continuity reference. Sarek's presence at the exchange is obviously intended to foreshadow “Unification”, and as a result cheapens it by removing Spock's personal desire to see the Vulcans and the Romulans reunited, and thus his primary motivation. Attributing this to Sarek not only diminishes Spock by attributing his character's defining aspiration in the latter half of his life to “following in his father's footsteps”, it also makes no sense because that dream was very much meant to come from Spock *himself*: It's his own life experiences and view of the Romulans that grants him this positionality, and it's this that allows him to take on a totally unsanctioned mission. Furthermore, Sarek's comment about the Romulans' capacity for “paranoia and trickery” is entirely out of line, and I'd've expected D.C. Fontana of all people to catch that: The Romulans were far from paranoid and devious under her tenure./>

From there we get what is frankly an utterly brilliant scene as Kirk and the Commander trade barbs across subspace. Kirk complains she's violating the treaty agreement, she counters by saying she's no more in violation than he was when he crossed the Neutral Zone, provoked attack and stole her cloaking device. The Commander then requests Kirk surrender or she'll destroy the Enterprise and Kirk tries to bluff her by saying there's an entire armada cloaked behind him ready to strike if she makes a move. The Commander immediately calls him by casually stating that this is an obvious lie because her ship intercepted the distress beacon Scotty and Arex had sent out in the last issue in hopes of letting Kirk and Spock know of their condition and, oh yeah, Kirk left the shuttlebay hangar doors open. This results in an exchange so utterly golden it could only come from D.C. Fontana:

</What is brilliant though is how Fontana handles the Commander and her crew. As soon as we return to the present day, the story quite boldly gives the moral high ground to the Romulans, and more than once in succession: The Commander rightfully points out that Kirk is in no position to complain about her violating treaty and that none of his signature poker bluff diplomacy is going to work on her this time. What's also really intriguing is the thematic progression between the first few pages: We begin with Sarek's comment about inherent Romulan duplicity, and then the story goes on to show the Federation, and not just the Federation, but our supposed *heroes*, acting incredibly duplicitous and untrustworthy. It doubles down on the moral ambiguity the aired version of “The Enterprise Incident” was only allowed to hint at and ends up painting Kirk in a genuinely unlikeable light./>

“No Romulan will set foot on my ship...Except as a prisoner”

“Your pride will destroy all of your crew.”

“My crew knows the risk of serving on a starship. And our duty comes first...Commander.”

“Very well, captain. Then we shall speed your departure from this life.”

When the Bird-of-Prey's disruptors predictably pass through the phased Enterprise, the Commander demands Kirk tell her what from of trickery he's pulled this time, and Kirk responds with a genuinely nasty line about how “That's a Federation secret. And I have a tendency to keep the ones entrusted to me”.

</I love this line and the scene that comes after it./>

Meanwhile on the bridge of the Bird-of-Prey, the Subcommander from “The Enterprise Incident” requests permission to take a shuttle to the Enterprise, stating that it's not only the only way to get access to the ship, but an opportunity to prove his valour and gallantry for his people. The Commander quite reasonably asks him if he's trying to win the people's collective heart...Or hers.

</What we have then is an implicit comparison with Kirk's bull-headed and foolishly programmatic sense of duty and loyalty with the rash impulsiveness of the Subcommander, who’s not only acting out of some misguided sense of patriotism, but also from a teenage boy's attitude of what will get girls to pay attention to him. Fontana's taken the initial idea about the Romulans and humans being essentially the same people from “Balance of Terror” to the logical limit here: They have the exact same flawed stubbornness and hotheadedness and it'll prove to be the downfall of them both. Once again, the most reasonable, sympathetic person is the Romulan Commander: As a Romulan and a woman who's seen this all happen before in her declining empire, she may just be wiser and more admirable than we are. />

From here on out, the book is a solid action story as Kirk and the slowly de-phased crew first try to keep the Romulans from boarding, then preventing the Romulans from giving chase. This leads to some fun setpieces where the shuttle crash into the hangar causes the gravity to go out, thus naturally leading to a zero-G phaser fight, and Kirk and Sulu piloting the Enterprise *through* a quasar while phased to give the Commander the slip (naturally, she confides to her centurion that this is what any savvy tactician would have done and has a battlecruiser waiting on the other end of the star to catch them). And while these are fun and precisely the sort of thing only Year Four could do, this isn't such good news for Kirk: Absolutely none of his signature tricks (or, to be more precise, none of his signature tricks *beloved by a certain strain of Star trek fandom*) are working here. He's outmoved and outgunned at every opportunity and just manages to warp away at the last second.

</Granted, this story was written in the wake of the obscenely dark Dominion War arc and Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica, and this story could be read as a reaction to those stories and an attempt to deconstruct the Original Series in the wake of them. But remember D.C. Fontana always had an eye on the grey area, and in truth, there's nothing about “The Enterprise Experiment” so far that's tonally incongruous with “The Enterprise Incident”, or rather, tonally incongruous with what we know the original version of “The Enterprise Incident” to be. It's almost as if Fontana, faced with the prospect of writing a fanwanky story for a fanwanky tie-in series to a dead franchise, decided she might as well use the opportunity to convey the message she originally wanted to and in the process meticulously pick apart everything else the more militaristically-inclined Trekkers loved about the show: She's taken aim at the heart of Gene Roddenberry's vision of the Original Series and dealt it a crippling blow./>

In the denouement, as the Enterprise undergoes repairs at starbase Deep Space K-12, Kirk and Scotty discuss the fate of the cloaking device in the engine room, and remark on how they'll be glad to see the back of it and how bad it would be if it fell into the wrong hands. Kirk leaves the job in the capable hands of a team of engineers from a little-seen engineering section: Section 31...

</At first the obvious Section 31 reference made me really upset: Here's another random bit of Star Trek minutiae Fontana felt the need to squeeze into this already pornographically fanwanky story. But in hindsight it does sort of make sense: If Section 31 were the ones responsible for, say, suppressing knowledge about Kirk's experiment and letting the experimental cloaking device fall into Romulan hands again, that would handily explain away “The Next Phase”. It wouldn't be *necessary* in the slightest, but it would at least make *sense* when taken alongside the new status quo this story creates. In addition, the invocation of Section 31 invites further comparisons with the Dominion War arc, which “The Enterprise Experiment” is growing increasingly similar to (and of course, it was D.C. Fontana who was always on the vanguard of that kind of interpretation of Star Trek anyway, and in particular with “The Enterprise Incident”. In fact, this stuff is probably *more* valid when taken in the context of the Original Series than it was on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Scratch that-it *absolutely* is./>

To Be Continued...

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

“Persistence of Memory”: The Enterprise Experiment # 1

It's such a perfect idea one wonders why it wasn't done sooner. D.C. Fontana was the script editor for the lion's share of the Original Series and had worked on the show since the beginning. She penned a number of the most popular and best-received episodes of the show and played a large part in shaping Star Trek into the form we now recognise. Even without taking into account reprising her role for the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, contributing to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with Peter Allan Fields and writing three video games, Fontana is simply a no-brainier to handle Star Trek: Year Four: It's obvious, really-excepting the deceased Gene Coon, she's without question the heir apparent to carry on the mantle of the Original Series.

</Although not D.C. Fontana's first Star Trek work since The Animated Series, “The Enterprise Experiment”, a five-issue miniseries from 2008 that was a part of IDW's Star Trek: Year Four line of titles, is at least the first to explicitly interact with this era of Star Trek's history. For this project, Fontana reunites with her longtime collaborator Derek Chester, a comic book and video game writer otherwise known for his work on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and with whom she also worked on Star Trek Bridge Commander, Star Trek: Legacy, and Star Trek: Tactical Assault. />

“The Enterprise Experiment”, as you can probably guess, picks up in the aftermath of the third season episode “The Enterprise Incident”, where Kirk engages in diplomatic subterfuge to steal the Romulans' prototypical cloaking device. Kirk and Spock are adrift in a shuttlecraft, trying to locate the Enterprise, which has cloaked itself using said device as part of an experiment to test its functionality as a potential asset on Federation starships. The cloaking device the Enterprise is using is a variation of the original Romulan design cooked up by Starfleet Intelligence and has, hypothetically, alleviated all the problems the Romulans had with its predecessor. However, it soon becomes apparent that not quite all of the bugs have been worked out, as the Enterprise fails to respond to Kirk and Spock's hails. Presuming something has gone wrong, Spock opens the shuttlebay hangar doors with what basically amounts to a garage door opener (which is pretty funny) and the shuttle returns to the ship on its own. Climbing aboard, however, Kirk and Spock find it seemingly abandoned, with not a single crewmember in sight.

</The upshot to this is, of course, that it is deeply and bitterly ironic that D.C. Fontana ends up writing for a series set during the same time period as her *own* Star Trek series that everyone seems ready to forget actually happened. IDW editorial in particular twists the knife rather egregiously, whether intentionally or not, in their interview with Fontana that preceded this series: Every other question they ask for her thoughts on the “canonicity” of the Animated Series, leading to an especially revealing exchange where she lays into the character of Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, saying that it annoyed her because it flatly contradicted the backstory she personally established for Spock in “Yesteryear” (namely that he was an only child) capping it off with the equal parts wry and loaded statement “Apparently it's not canon if I write it”./>

It turns out, however, that the crew isn't gone but “out of phase”: After getting hit with a bolt of energy while trying to disconnect the cloaking device from the ship's engines, Spock is able to make contact with the partially-phased Lieutenant Arex, who tells of Scotty's own attempt to shut the device down, leading to the crew's discovery that the cloak has actually permeated the hull of the Enterprise itself, along with all the other matter on the ship. Although Scotty and Arex were able to reconfigure the transporter (much as Scotty had done to retrieve Kirk when he was phased in “The Tholian Web”,) they both phased out before the final adjustments could be made. While Spock and Arex try to finish the job, Kirk notices the ship has automatically gone to proximity alert and goes to the bridge in case he has to move the Enterprise out of harm's way. After struggling to regain control of the viewscreen, helm and engines, Kirk discovers that the approaching object is a Romulan Bird-of-Prey, commanded by *that* Romulan Commander (no, not that one-he's dead. The other one. From the episode this story is a sequel to).

</Perhaps as a consequence, this story is the single fanwankiest Star Trek story I have ever read: Aside from “The Enterprise Incident”, this book manages to name-check “The City on the Edge of Forever” (via a photo of the Guardian of Forever, though, knowing Fontana and her agenda this is more likely a reference to “Yesteryear”), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (gratuitous references to Carol and David Marcus), “The Tholian Web”, “Spectre of the Gun”, and arguably even Michael Jan Friedman's Star Trek: The Next Generation story “Whoever Fights Monsters”, although that may just be due to Nietzsche being an overwhelmingly over- and misquoted person in general, or perhaps me kinda wishing I was reading that instead of this. The biggest reference is, of course, to another Star Trek: The Next Generation episode: “The Next Phase”, for which this story is largely a whole plot lift, except inverted. This yields something of a problem, however: If the original Enterprise crew had experience with the phasing caused by Romulan cloaking devices, why was the latter Enterprise crew so surprised to encounter it again? Furthermore, why didn't the Romulans work that little kink out in the intervening *78 years*?/>

This issue does a lot of what's probably expected of it to do. It sets up the general premise of the miniseries, which, given this is a serial as opposed to the standalone episodes of the main Year Four line, this is probably a good thing. It also makes a lot of references to a bunch of other Star Trek stories: The plot, aside from being a sequel to Fontana's earlier work, is largely an inversion of “The Next Phase” from Star Trek: The Next Generation. This makes sense though, as it still follows on from “The Enterprise Incident” and is a logical end result of Starfleet mucking about with cloaking devices. It all fits very neatly within established Star Trek “canon” and “continuity” which is, lets face it, what anyone picking up a book like this is going to be looking for in the first place. And furthermore, this is very much in keeping with what we know of Fontana's approach to writing: While it lacks the sweeping, galactic scale of Star Trek: Legacy and Star Trek: Tactical Assault, it's a return to the cumulative style of character development that we saw in stories like “Journey to Babel”. Furthermore, this series sees the welcome return of the storied Star Trek comic artistic team Terry Pallot and Gordon Purcell, which means this series is lovely to look at as well.

</I would say this seems puzzlingly out-of-character for D.C. Fontana, except I don't actually think it is. There's of course her propensity for cumulative, referential character development that we talked about in regards to “Journey to Babel” and “Yesteryear” we could point to, but I think what's actually going on here is Fontana very clearly writing for her audience, and knowing precisely what that audience is and what it wants. Unlike her television work or even her video game work, something like Star Trek: Year Four for IDW is aimed at a *painfully* niche readership made up pretty much exclusively of male Nerd Culture fans. And pure, unbridled fanwank is exactly the sort of thing Nerds want to see in a Star Trek story. IDW's own editorial department gave the game away in their interview, acting breathlessly entranced by the concept of canon and canonicity. Had Fontana made her comic debut in the 1990s, we might have gotten a very different story, but instead she made it in 2008 and she wrote what a 2008 fanbase wants to read. And, while nobody does fanwank better than D.C. Fontana, it's profoundly disheartening to see that's all she thinks Star Trek is good for now./>

To Be Continued...

Sunday, February 16, 2014

“Mars ain't the kind of place to raise a kid.”: Year Four # 6

This isn't quite the end of Star Trek: Year Four: There's a follow-up series that went out under this banner and, of course, IDW's later “Year Five” series Star Trek: Final Mission (which are, spoiler alert, next on the docket), but this issue does mark the end of the initial run of the project. This means it somewhat begs to be read as a “season finale”, and what this does is cause us to wonder right from the outset which side of Year Four's instincts this story is going to fall on.

As we've discussed previously, this series exists at an odd juncture between trying to fill a gap in the history of Star Trek and doing Original Series-style Star Trek for 2007 and 2008, and it's been on the whole a bit changeable on both fronts. Way back in the post on “Operation -- Annihilate!” I mentioned that the season finale it as we now conceptualize it didn't really exist at this point in the history of television. Most finales were, if not simply average episodes of the series, “big” episodes that were only subtly larger in scope or stakes than the norm, brought upon just as often by the production team feeling energized about going out on a high note than the writers consciously writing vastness into the script. And we can see this in Star Trek itself: Of its three season finales, only “Assignment: Earth” actually feels like anything remotely resembling a finale, and that doesn't really count. Then we go back to “The Omega Glory”...Which we really don't want to read as a finale. Actually in that season, it seems far more fitting to call “Bread and Circuses” a finale as there's a sense of closure about it and it's the last story Gene Coon worked on as a regular member of the creative team.

So, were issue six to be some grand, sweeping modern-style epic of a finale, that wouldn't be at all keeping with the tone of the original Star Trek circa 1969-1970. And, thankfully, it's not: We get a parting glimpse of the Enterprise warping away to its next mission that implies this chapter has come to a close, but more adventures are in store, and the rest of the book is pretty run-of-the-mill Star Trek: Year Four. This means, of course, that the story is nothing special: The Enterprise is investigating the disappearance of the starship Pasteur, last reported in the vicinity of the Gobi system. Beaming down to the third planet, Kirk, McCoy, a redshirt and Lieutenant O'Hara, the sister of the Pasteur's missing captain, find themselves suddenly transported to the decontamination chamber of a gigantic warehouse operated by a robot named Avatar (who seriously looks like a Star Trek version of Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons) who guards over and ships the planet's valuable merchandise.

After the redshirt goes the way of all redshirts, the landing party discovers the merchandise in question are genetically engineered infants artificially created from the genetic material of many different alien species, the end result of the native population's fertility experiments and now all that remains of their people. So, a brief scuffle ensues, O'Hara rescues a baby who has the same mismatched eyes her brother had and Avatar is shot by her “daughter” Adan, who randomly appears out of nowhere in the middle of the climax with no buildup or introduction, (it seems Avatar was “curious about the merchandise's potential”) when she tries to kill Kirk for interfering (there goes that Prime Directive thing again: Really one wonders why the Federation even bothers at this point). Spock arrives just in time, having been monitoring the situation from the Enterprise after growing suspicious when Kirk failed to check in and deducing he'd probably been captured and bails everyone out. Deciding her people now finally have a legacy of sorts, Avatar collapses and dies, but tells Kirk to take Adan and the infants with him, while O'Hara decides to settle on Pacifica to raise the child she found as her own.

Perhaps predictably, we once again have another puree of Star Trek tropes and motifs. There's a tragic extraterrestrial fighting to preserve the legacy of her people which is reminiscent of a lot of different things, though “That Which Survives” seems to be the one that most immediately comes to mind, even more so considering Avatar's mechanical nature. There's a dispute that starts off ideological and ends up physical and, somewhat gallingly, a Babies Ever After ending celebrating the potential and hope symbolized by children. Although that said this still manages to work better than the most egregious moments of the TV show that inspired this series: That this story would glorify youth for the sake of youth is a significant step above the far, *far* too numerous stories in the Original Series about how misguided and dangerous young people are, and while this has problems of its own (this probably isn't the place to get into reproductive futurism) it never does *quite* cross the line into an embrace of heteronormativity and “biology” a la “The Apple” (though it comes close at times). Finally, I would complain a lot more about O'Hara if A. She wasn't a woman of colour and B. There weren't other female characters to contrast her with: Uhura is enough at this point, but we also get Avatar and Adan, even though the latter is only in the story very briefly.

(That said it is more than a little creepy she's projecting her dead brother onto the child she adopts: That's all kinds of messed up and requires more of an analysis than I'm prepared to give.)

It's also possible to read this as as a kind of “issue” story. By this I mean that it was probably written as a response to and take on a particular contemporary political topic, and not an issue of a comic book series, though it is in fact that as well. The issue in question is likely that of “designer babies”: The possibility or trend of extremely wealthy people using sophisticated prenatal technology to determine specific traits about their children before birth and using this foreknowledge to “custom design” their ideal baby. This is, of course, horrible, because it removes the voice and agency of the children themselves, who should be allowed to make their own decisions about their own lives. Furthermore, it's not a huge leap from that to full-on eugenics, and indeed arguments have been made that this is just eugenics with a different name.

Star Trek taking this on is interesting because it of course has its own very sticky history with eugenics: After all, “Space Seed”, one of the most beloved episodes of the actual Original Series, was tacitly about how bad eugenics were and how they plunged Earth into its last global conflict, but the crew didn't hide their admiration for Khan's manliness, charisma and accomplishments. The show has frustratingly shied away from actually taking a firm stand against eugenics, perhaps because it at least subconsciously recognises that a Master Race of enlightened despots might actually be what the Federation fantasizes about when it's all alone. So in that light this story is reparative and serves a much-needed role: It has Kirk and McCoy come out and describe what Avatar is doing as slavery as she's literally selling entire generations of life-forms into forced servitude to their buyers from birth. On the other hand, this happens in one panel and the story doesn't really give itself enough room to fully develop these ideas and come up with a decisive position to take, which means this isn't quite as effective as it could have been.

Year Four has actually had this problem a lot, and I think it's because these are not only comic stories, but comic stories that are even comparatively short for the medium. It has just enough time to introduce a topic and get a few words out about it before it needs to wrap everything up, and it has to balance that with expositing the larger plot. However, I think that says more about the creative team than it does the medium: Issue four didn't have any of these problems at all, it was absolutely flawless and was just as long in page length as any of the other issues in this series were. Maybe if we didn't have to squeeze in so many fight scenes and kill off so many redshirts so McCoy could say “He's dead, Jim” we might have had more room to explore issues like this with actual depth and nuance.

I also want to briefly note the art this week: It's handled by Trek comic veteran Gordon Purcell, who worked on many of the great classic Star Trek comics from the 1990s, and let me tell you he makes a *world* of difference. It was folly for a project like this not to bring someone like him onboard from the very beginning. Purcell alone elevates this story considerably, though it's once again not an especially *terrible* outing for the series. But he also caps off what's really worth talking about with this story, and that's sort of the problem. Issue four aside, Year Four has been a surprisingly tepid and safe return for Star Trek. I appreciate the fact it's managed to avoid bottoming out *quite* as often as its source material did, but it never really seemed to make much of an effort to improve upon it either, and that's always going to be the fundamental problem with any kind of project with this pedigree.

Thankfully what we get next time looks a sight more intriguing.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

“The future is now, thanks to SCIENCE!”: Year Four # 5

It is said our visions of the future tell us the most about the present. In the case of Star Trek, the futurism it imagines is oftentimes most revealing about what the loudest voice in its fandom currently is.

The Enterprise is overseeing a large-scale deep space particle acceleration experiment using a gigantic collider made up of twin space stations. The goal is to scale up similar experiments done by twentieth century physicists in an attempt to create quark-gluon plasma, a kind of primordial matter that existed at the birth of the universe, the theory being this would give them a unique insight into what the universe looked like at the dawn of time. While Spock oversees the experiment on the stations, Chekov takes his place at the Enterprise science station while his own relief officer Arex (that orange three-armed extraterrestrial we first saw in issue 1) expresses concern the experiment could have disastrous side-effects. Kirk dismisses Arex's worries, stating that taking risks in the name of furthering science is what their mission is all about. However, Arex's concerns prove to have merit as no sooner does Spock initiate the acceleration then the ship is hit by a bolt of energy as the plasma forms a singularity and engulfs the stations, taking Spock with them. It now falls to acting science officer Chekov and the rest of the bridge crew to find a way to salvage the experiment, rescue Spock and also themselves, as the Enterprise becomes trapped in the black hole too.

This book is, plot-wise, probably about as banal and uninteresting as Star Trek: Year Four has been since its first issue. It essentially boils down to yet another “lengths the crew will go to to save one of their own” bit of loyalty and camaraderie, which for me sort of feels like character development-by-numbers: I know this is a signature type of Star Trek story, but by this point it's feeling pretty worn and rote to me. We know Chekov is going to pull through, we know Spock is going to have some snarky quip ready when he beams back so it seems like he's ungrateful and we know Kirk and McCoy are going to angst and snap at each other in the meantime. Again though, like we said with the debut story, generic is still preferable to godawful. It's a testament to the average level of quality Year Four has been able to reach that a kind of character drama driven plot like this seems like filler whereas it felt like a welcome change of pace in something like “The Immunity Syndrome”. Without knowing what next month's finale is going to be like and the wild extremes of issues three and four perhaps notwithstanding, Year Four has done a more-than-acceptable job of coming up with a kind of “baseline Star Trek”, which is something worth taking note of.

(And indeed, part of the reason issue four was able to work as well as it did is because it relied on the audience having some kind of understanding about what a “generic” Star Trek episode is supposed to look like.)

What strikes me about this issue the most is that the character drama plot notwithstanding, the actual story here seems to be mostly about the particle acceleration, and that's quite telling. There's a lot of buildup to the actual physics experiment, with lingering beauty shots of the reaction, close-ups of the characters' faces in awe at the beauty and majesty of the whole thing and a bunch of “Return to Tomorrow”-style speeches about how “risk is our business” and “that's what we're out here for”, to the point the actual stuff about rescuing Spock feels rushed and tacked on. Which is curious as, by and large, that's actually *not* “what we're out here for”. The Enterprise's mission is one of exploration, and largely of the stellar cartography and astroanthropological kind (hence the whole Seeking Out New Life and New Civilizations bit). Of course astrophysics is a part of this and necessary for the crew to function in the environment they work in, but particle physics isn't technically their domain.

That's not to say there aren't conceivably parts of Starfleet or Federation science that do work on those things, but I imagine they'd be largely clustered around stationary dedicated scientific research labs, not things hoisted onto starship crews. The job of a starship, as I understand it, is to work something like a combination of ethnographer, cartographer, diplomat and old-style natural scientist, travelling about in search of discourse and exchange of knowledge. Yes, I prefer to read starship travel as wayfinding (hence the whole "Vaka Rangi" business) and yes, there can be imperialism connotations to be concerned about with that setup, but I think Star Trek on the whole has proven to be at least somewhat capable at resisting those impulses. The point is, what a starship isn't is a giant floating physics lab.

(I'm not going to comment on the accuracy of the actual physics in this story mainly because I'm not at all qualified to do so, but the cursory research I did do leads me to believe “quark-gluon plasma” is indeed a thing that exists, or at least a thing that is theorized to exist, and not something the creative team made up to sound sciencey.)

The fact of the matter is that even though Gene Roddenberry wanted the original Star Trek to be “believable”, doing stories overtly about or built around scientific concepts was manifestly not something that interested him: He was pretty clearly far more invested in the action and blunt moralizing. And, with the debatable exception of Star Trek Voyager, all the other incarnations of the franchise have followed suit: While Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine eschewed the blunt moralizing of the original series, those shows were pretty clearly still about things other than Hard sci-fi futurism (and before someone comments, recall the technobabble on The Next Generation was there mainly to paper over plot convenience and flesh out the show's world, and Brannon Braga's work was something else entirely). But while Star Trek hasn't traditionally been the domain of that kind of blunt technologism textually, a very large, or at least very vocal, segment of its fanbase most certainly is, and it's the segment of the fanbase that's certainly the most visible as of 2007.

Perhaps because the franchise has traditionally been so good at using its imaginary technology as world building such that things like the official Technical Manuals can exist, Star Trek has always been much embraced by certain divisions within the technoscience sector, namely among (male) physics, engineering and computer Nerds. This is clear even as far back as “Save Star Trek!”, as so many of the places protesting the loudest to keep the original series on the air, or at least the ones that got the most media coverage, were in fact big universities known for their technoscience research and connections (and of course it certainly didn't help that this was the demographic NBC most publicly tried to court at the time). For a number of reasons, it's tended to be people from this segment of the fanbase that's most successfully made the transition to professional creator and most certainly by the late-2000s it would have been the version of fandom most heavily and popularly associated with Star Trek.

So in 2007, we get a story ostensibly set during the Original Series in love with the wonder of Western-style cosmology and particle physics even though this flatly would never have been made in 1970. This is practically Star Trek for the Pale Blue Dotians, and even though that's not a worldview I subscribe to, I can certainly see how it would find appeal within in Star Trek. No, the problem I have, which isn't, to be honest, entirely fair to bring up in the context of Star Trek: Year Four, especially after last issue, is when this type of fandom monopolizes the discourse, which it quite obviously has on numerous occasions throughout the history of the franchise. Surely the point of something like this series is that Star Trek can and should continue on without becoming restricted or beholden to one specific medium, worldview or interpretation (well, within reason I mean)? So, when I get a story where Kirk gets all starry-eyed over every Physics Nerd's dream particle accelerator while proudly declaring this is what the Enterprise is for it does rub me the wrong way a bit.

Going beyond the boundaries of the actual book, there is, I feel, an interesting symbolic thread to explore in the fact the big threat in this story is a black hole caused by an attempt to look back at the beginning of the universe. You could, I suppose, read Western cosmology as the ultimate mythogeneaosophy, or at least, the big budget blockbuster version of it: Straining ever harder to look back at the dawn of things to find out where we all came from in the hopes that will shed light on how we live our lives today. Then we have Star Trek: Year Four itself, a project so consciously invested in looking backward in on itself in an attempt to make sense of a discordant past and present. Considering Star Trek is so often seen to be about going forward, these seem to, at least on the surface, be somewhat incompatible goals. Maybe this is why Kirk's physics experiment almost literally swallows up the entire narrative.

But then again it's not at all too much of a claim to say we have things to learn from our ancestors.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

“It's showtime!”: Year Four # 4

If any television show were to take four months to get off the ground, chances are likely that it wouldn't see out its first season. That is an unacceptably long time to force an audience to wait for something to actually get good.

Thankfully for absolutely everyone, Star Trek: Year Four is not a television show.

On a mission of cultural exchange to Viden, a planetary society organised entirely around television under the tyrannical rule of two competing monolithic networks, Kirk is suddenly thrust into the global spotlight after a public altercation with a network executive who shot and killed an eighteen-year-old actor in cold blood when he tried to to quit the sitcom he was starring in. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are arrested by Viden authorities (but not until after their faces are plastered all over the news, as the anchors sensationalize the incident to garner ratings) and try to effect escape, but instead wind up on The Doctor Marv Show, a daytime talk show ostensibly about solving people's personal problems where the host seems more interested in drumming up gossip he can use as a bit of cross-promotion with the tabloids. Because of their new celebrity status, the only way the crew can return to the Enterprise is to sign a legally binding contract selling one of the networks, the Trilateral Broadcasting Company, a TV show starring themselves, where either beach of contract or low ratings is an offense punishable by death.

This is one of those stories that gets me so excited I can't even think straight. It is utter, utter genius on every single level: The conception, the visual symbolism in the framing of scenes, the general execution, the writing, the ramifications it holds for and the impact it has on the larger Star Trek franchise and universe-It's all absolutely brilliant. Even the artwork takes a noticeable uptick in quality from what we've come to expect from Year Four. The art here looks considerably more realistic and representationalist than what's been the norm for this series and, perhaps fittingly for a book about television that's part of a series that wants to be read as the lost fourth season for a TV show, there are a lot of moments in this story that feel like what we would call creative editing and cinematography were this an actual TV episode, but for which I can't think of an appropriate sequential art analog. The best for me comes right after Kirk, Spock and McCoy find themselves on The Doctor Marv Show, where the titular TV doctor says “...And we're going to find out what these three friends like about each other and what drives them crazy-Right after this.” and the action immediately cuts to a different scene starting at the top of the next page. It's a masterful bit of layout and I can totally see it leading into an actual commercial break on the show.

Television logic is ubiquitous throughout this story. The first half of the book is a delightful parade of shows-within-shows: We start out with a straightforward and typical Star Trek plot as the landing party arrives on a planet whose monoculture is built around one gimmick, Kirk gets in trouble by defying the planet's customs and authority and then gets himself and the rest of the party tossed in the clink. Then we get a stock capture-and-escape scenario that's right out of “Bread and Circuses” or “Patterns of Force” as McCoy tries to get the guard to let him and Kirk out by tricking him into thinking Kirk is sick and needs medical attention. But of course, Viden is a society based on television, so they rightfully recognise this as “the oldest trick in the book” and the guard doesn't fall for it. He does, however, ask Kirk for his autograph, foolishly putting himself close to Spock, who manages to take him out with a Vulcan Nerve Pinch. As Kirk steals the guard's uniform, McCoy jokes that “...they must not have Vulcans on Viden or [they'd] know that's the oldest trick in the book”...

...And his suspicions are immediately proven correct when it suddenly becomes apparent they haven't actually escaped and the whole thing was staged to give the Videns some scripted reality drama as Kirk, Spock and McCoy promptly find themselves on the set of The Doctor Marv Show, leading to that fantastic “cut”. It's at this point the book gets really interesting, though because it seems the reason the Trilateral Broadcasting Company wants the landing party to sell them a TV show is because their rival network is running its own science fiction show, a “derivative” series called Eden 3 about people from different species living on a space station trying to work together and they're hoping Kirk and his crew can come up with a better concept so Trilateral will have a competing product that will give them an edge in ratings.

Now, Eden 3 is pretty obviously and transparently a shot at Babylon 5, but it's far from a cheap one and this proves to be extremely telling and important later on. But before that let's talk a bit about what Kirk attempts first, because it's amazing. Kirk has the whole crew beam down and casts them in a variety show, where each person comes onstage to perform a different signature act, leading to delightful scenes where Spock plays music by harmonizing water glasses, Sulu recreates the chasing-people-shirtless-while-brandishing-a-sword scene from “The Naked Time” and someone who to me looks a lot like Kevin Thomas Riley juggles colourful balls. There's even an absolutely perfect send-up of McCoy's “I'm a doctor, not a magician!” line as he says this storming offstage dressed as a literal stage magician with a top hat and tuxedo and everything while Nurse Chapel, who's playing his assistant, chases after him in a pink Vegas Showgirl outfit.

See, what Kirk has done is respond to Viden's recursive artifice of television with a recursive artifice of his own, and this is his most meticulous and dizzyingly meta act to date: He's fighting television with its own primordial heart, namely, Vaudeville. But this isn't “Star Trek does Vaudeville” the way “I, Mudd” too often was, this is Kirk and his crew *playing the role* of Vaudevillians: In other words, they're performers playing the role of performers. Wonderfully, this still turns out to be too expensive for the network (which was of course Kirk's plan from the outset: Present them with an offer that, while costly, would be far more dangerous *not* to accept for fear the other side might get it instead), but Kirk has one more idea. And here's where this book goes from already brilliant to being one of the greatest Star Trek stories ever. Because Kirk's idea is to install cameras on the Enterprise to make a reality show about life aboard a starship, and the Videns find this *boring*. So much so that, two weeks in the ratings are in the toilet, the audience is complaining that nothing's happening and Kirk's show is facing cancellation, which of course would mean the destruction of the Enterprise and the death of everyone aboard (this time by bombs installed in the cameras that can be remotely detonated by the network executives, which is all kinds of perfect).

This is a flawless scene to cap off a flawless book for a lot of different reasons. Firstly, this is a multilayered and nuanced exploration and critique of reality TV as a genre. “Reality TV” is a bit of a misleading catch-all term, as there are a lot of different genres of shows that fall under that banner. Just roughly, and off the top of my head, there are elimination competition shows (which already come in two different flavours, generally based on whether the elimination is handled by a judging panel or the audience itself), there are shows that might better be described as mini docudramas that wear their artifice on their sleeve and tell stories that come out of everyday life, but just have the contrast turned up, and then there are “scripted” reality shows.

I always found the title a bit laughable (as if other reality shows are *less* scripted), but either way these are the most problematic of the lot to me because their entire genre hinges on fooling the audience into thinking manufactured drama is reality. There's no pretense that the other kinds of so-called reality shows are in any way representative; the audience goes into them knowing the narrative structures they operate by and are expected to. But “scripted” reality shows give the impression everything is raw and uncut and what the audience sees onscreen is an accurate reflection of the everyday lives of the reality stars, when in, erm, reality, nothing could be further from the truth. And these do measurable and demonstrable harm I feel because, like the representationalist cinematic spectacle filmmaking style that spawned them, scripted reality shows reinforce the false assumption that the world works according to recognisable narrative tropes, and when that feedback loop gets back around to how people treat each other outside of television, bad things tend to happen. So this is what Kirk is rejecting with his Enterprise reality show when he says:

“I'm sorry we haven't run into a Klingon battlecruiser...But this is real life on a Federation Starship. You can't expect us to manufacture drama on this budget.”

But there's yet another layer to this scene, and that line in particular, and it means a great deal to me because it's also very much about Star Trek, and is in fact a triumphant declaration of something almost unique to this franchise and one of the things that makes it worth saving. As I mentioned way back when we talked about it, the thing about Babylon 5 is that it was the United Nations in Space. It was an extension of the Hard sci-fi Space Opera that was one of the defining styles of the Golden Age (or at least Golden Age in the US) into the 1990s and was a big, epic myth arc about war and politics and patriotism and people in the halls of power doing other highly weighty and privileged things. And the reason it came up wanting when compared to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or at least Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as originally conceived, was because DS9 was supposed to be about ordinary people from all walks of life interacting in the working-class neighbourhood of a city in space. There is a chasmic gap between those two ideas.

And, the largest complaint leveled against Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in its first two seasons was that it was boring and was like “watching unedited security cam footage”. This was also one of the primary factors involved in the decision to introduce the Dominion, the Defiant, Worf and that long, drawn out grimungritty War Arc that defined the back half of the show, and we all know how *that* turned out. But here, Kirk is agreeing with me: Ordinary life doesn't have exaggerated angst and 'splosions in it, but it's still valuable and worth examining. And *this*, ultimately, is what Kirk is defending, because a true “reality show” would be exactly what he creates: An unfiltered look at how people live. And sci-fi is really the genre for fiction writers to do this in, because the fantastic setting allows people to examine things about day-to-day life that would be difficult to do in a contemporary setting without risking misrepresenting people and worldviews the authors aren't intimately familiar with, not to mention any of the worrying voyeurism and privacy concerns such a setup in real life would raise.

But the Videns are right too: Everyday life doesn't make good television, and it's not what people tune in week-to-week to see. What TV audiences want is a lot of conflict and character drama, and preferably very angsty interpersonal conflict and character drama that falls neatly into instinctively recognisable patterns of tropish writing (the same standards apply to your typical Nerd Culture genre fiction fan, but with the addition of the aforementioned 'splosions. And maybe some passive scantily clad waif-thin martial artist women getting rescued by the grizzled hero, who would preferably be very muscular, have stubble and speak entirely in snarky witticisms). So it really looks like, despite his best efforts, Kirk's show will be canceled by the network and he'll die with his ship and crew. But the Enterprise crew is prepared for this as well. Like Kirk says, “No-one threatens my ship. Not even the president of the network”. Scotty manages to disarm and remove all the camera-bombs, Kirk shuts down the uplink to Viden and the Enterprise can continue its journey unhindered. Not even cancellation is a threat to Star Trek now, because in this moment Star Trek transcends and rejects television.

At this point I don't care if this story could have been done in 1970 or not (and given some of the postmodernist tricks it relies on and how much it's indebted to early 21st Century television a case could be made it couldn't have) and nor do I even care how good or bad the rest of Year Four is. This is a story that needed to be told regardless of era, and it could only be told on the Original Series, and, really, only on Year Four. Certainly in terms of performativity this story belongs to this crew: While both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had their own kind of performativity, neither of them had *William Shatner's* kind performativity, and that's what really makes this story: It's the next logical step from “Bread and Circuses” (hell, it's “Bread and Circuses” done *right*), “A Piece of the Action” and “Spectre of the Gun”: This is a story about Star Trek going beyond playing with its own artifice and performativity and taking on television itself.

But more importantly, this is a story about extending a friendly hand from the beginning of Star Trek's history to its legacy via the present. This isn't just a defense of Star Trek or an explanation of why Star Trek is debatably better than Babylon 5: It's a defense, and acceptance, of my Star Trek. And, because of that, it's a defense and acceptance of all Star *Treks*. It's a rejection of the concept of the definitive Star Trek coming at a time when we're not too far away from J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzmann making a firm claim about what the definitive Star Trek should be. Only the Original Series could do this because only the Original Series has the cultural capital and gravity to do so. And only Year Four could tell this story, because only Year Four has the hindsight and positionality to pull it off.

And before we go, we get one last parting shot: An upstart Viden screenwriter tosses a script onto the desk of Trilateral's president, hoping to pitch his new science fiction show. The name? “Starfleet Academy”. Recall that in 2007 there was still the widespread belief that oft-rumoured reboot movie would be about Kirk and Spock at the Academy: Not only will Star Trek live on without television, it'll live on independently of whatever new Soda Pop Art gets made *in its name*. Star Trek is, by this point, simply too ubiquitous and alive to be beholden and subservient to the forces of late-stage capitalistic media production. Because this is an idea too good to let die or allow to be commandeered by one party. It's a neverending faith in peace and optimism that belongs to both everyone and no-one.

Forget being better than Babylon 5 or scripted reality shows. Star Trek is better than television.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

“ET phone home!”: Year Four # 3

There's reconstructionist, there's nostalgic, and then there's just plain retrograde. Guess which one we're talking about this time.

While investigating the sudden radio silence from colony PH-11, the Enterprise landing party discovers every human inhabitant dead. However before they died, Spock points out the colonists had discovered an alien pod and Chekov notes their communication room had been destroyed before they went as well. Back on the ship, McCoy examines one of the deceased colonists and reveals he died of severe head trauma, as if his brain had been bombarded with too much information to process at one time. Kirk is called to the bridge, but discovers the ship has changed course as per an order everyone claims he gave, but he did not. Spock summons security to the bridge, claiming Kirk has been infected with a virus found on the planet, and has him arrested and brought to sickbay.

As he restrains Kirk to the operating table, McCoy orders Nurse Chapel to sedate Kirk, but, secretly agreeing with the captain, she slips him a scalpel instead. There's then a brief fight scene as Kirk and Chapel try to regain control of the Enterprise, but it doesn't last long and eventually they too become afflicted as it's revealed the “virus” is actually a colony organism called the Ur who just wanted to return to their home planet, for some reason needed humanoid hosts in order to do this and would rather posses an entire starship than try to actually reach out and communicate with anybody first. Meanwhile, any hope we might have had to see some feminist redemption following on the heels of “Turnabout Intruder” by having Nurse Chapel save the day from a menacing alien invasion are swiftly dashed by teasing us with what could have been her defining character moment on the entire series and then shunting her back offstage the moment she starts to exhibit too much agency.

Yikes. This one isn't quite Margaret Armen bad, but the fact she's the first Original Series writer who came to mind whose work this story most reminds me of is a somewhat uncomfortable prospect. Before we even get into the premise, which I take massive issue with, let's briefly note the basic writing structure, and namely how the plot and logic holes are absolutely gigantic. The whole concept of the Ur is simply dropped on us in the last few panels in the clunkiest of twist reveals, it's never really explained how they actually work (my best guess is that they somehow travel or communicate through sound waves as the afflicted crew members are shown humming in unison and the colonists destroyed their radios, but nobody actually comes out and *says* that), nor is it ever made clear why the Enterprise crew survived and the PH-11 colonists died, save for a token hand-wave about “their minds not being ready”, which is confusing at best and demeaning at worst.

Then there's the actual story. Far from feeling like something that could have been a fourth season episode, this feels like a first season pitch. A bad one. The impact of the story hinges on the Ur being not malicious alien invaders, but actually misunderstood travellers, and the “misunderstood extraterrestrial” angle was one that would have been tired even in 1969. Much as I dislike “The Corbomite Maneuver”, even *that* had a better setup then this as the cod-Cold War tensions of the majority of the episode are undone when Kirk and Balok manage to peacefully open a discourse with each other. Balok didn't brainwash the crew, hijack the Enterprise, drive it around for a bit and then apologise and make it all better because it was the only way he could communicate. And that's not even getting at episodes like “The Devil in the Dark”, which handle this brief so well it really never needs to be brought up again.

For this to come anywhere near the vicinity of working, what probably needed to happen was for the Ur to impose some other effect on the crew instead of mind-wiping them. That's violation and an invasion of privacy no matter which way you look at it and because of that there's no way for me to read the Ur as sympathetic. One idea might have been to have the Ur be a race of Lilliputian-like characters whom the crew can't see normally. Maybe the Ur have no choice but to shrink the Enterprise crew to get their attention. Even better would have been to have the Ur be some gigantic oversoul that is so physically vast by our standards it's not aware of the danger it's putting people in. The Enterprise crew would then have to find some way to communicate on its level: Maybe Spock could use his Vulcan telepathy to reach out to it, perhaps enhanced with Uhura's communications systems. In either case, what we'd then have is a story about how differences in perspective inhibit discourse and how that can be overcome through understanding, instead of a confusing, broken plot that ends up excusing mind rape.

The Ur's status as a hive-mind is somewhat interesting. There's the inevitable comparison to the Borg to make, of course, and at the very least depicting such an entity as peaceful as it's temporarily “assimilating” the Enterprise crew is somewhat problematic. As long as we're on first season stories, “Return of the Archons” also comes to mind with its firm condemnation of perceived groupthink and blind deference to a communal “body”. I don't think this is ultimately as much of a problem, though, as Star Trek was notorious for shifting its political and ethical stance depending on who the writer was that week, so seeing something in the fourth season contradicting something from the first season is a non-issue. A larger concern for me would be to read this as some kind of defense of communal living, mostly because I don't think that reading really holds. There's simply not enough about the Ur's motivation explained to us aside from them being Good Guys who want to get home.

I suppose I could make something of the name “Ur”. The obvious connection to make would be with the Sumerian city state of that name located near the mouth of the Euphrates river. This city named Nanna, the joint Sumerian and Akkadian deity of the moon, as its patron, which I suppose is at least superficially fitting of an extraterrestrial hive-mind if you look at it a certain way. Many scholars equate this city with the Biblical location of Ur Kasdim that appears in the Book of Genesis, which is where Abraham is said to have been born. “ur-” is also, however, a Germanic prefix meaning “proto-” or “original”, derived from the proto-Indo-European “*ud-”. So we could maybe say we have an ancient proto-intelligence that may or may not be also connected to the Abrahamic tradition taking control of the Enterprise to return to its point of origin, to its Genesis. This at least could be read as a somewhat plausible foreshadowing of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and maybe even Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which is a perfectly reasonable thing for something like Star Trek: Year Four to do.

But in the end while this reading seems to fit and is the best I could come up with, it's still operating from a perspective that's not really a primary interest of mine for this project, and really, even if this book did manage to successfully bridge the gap between the Original Series and the film series, the story it tells really isn't worth the effort. I can certainly see ways this could have worked, but it just doesn't for me. As a piece of reparative continuity it's too hazy and unfocused and, more seriously, as a supposed episode of the Original Series it completely fails to launch. The only remotely positive thing about this one is that we finally get to learn the name of that cool cat lady communciations officer.