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.


  1. “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.”

    Josh, I've been trying to think of an excuse to give you this blog post I'm about to link to, and now you've given it to me:

    Having said that, an excellent series of posts, enough to make me want to seek this out for myself. I'm also beginning to get very curious on how your take on TMP is going to shape up as we draw nearer to it, so I eagerly await the future.

    I also take it you're not a big fan of the Dominion War, and while I've always enjoyed it, it really does feel at times as though Star Trek has been hijacked by some other show (or narrative) it really has no business being.

    1. Thanks for the link. That's a very long and thoughtful post and I unfortunately disagree with a lot of it, but I want to save the majority of my analysis of 1980s and 1990s Star Trek for when the rest of this blog's narrative catches up with that point in history,

      Just in brief, I'll come right out and say the post-scarcity aspect of TNG-era Star Trek is not a theme that I'm personally terribly interested in and don't plan to explore all that deeply, largely because I lack the economics chops to properly talk about it: I highly recommend folks who are interested in that side of the franchise to check out Kevin Carson's blog Tea, Early Grey, Hot, linked to the side: He'll give you a much more thorough analysis of that stuff than I ever could.

      As for the warmaking stuff, my two cents is simply this: War can exist in the 24th century because hatred, bigotry, fear and authority still exist in the 24th century. As advanced as humans have become, those particular vices still seem to stick around, and that's all people need to come to blows.

      But in spite of that, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine also posit a world where empathy and an examination (and understanding) of one's own positionality are far more common virtues than they are today, and that's just about enough for me. Regular readers know that drama, at least the Western variety, is not something that does a whole lot for me either as a reader or a critic, so the alleged lack of it in 1980s Star Trek doesn't bother me in the slightest (even though I think that blanket generalization is a bit unfair to begin with).

      And no, if it wasn't clear by now the Dominion War arc is probably one of my least favourite phases of Star Trek history. Apologies in advance to anyone who was hoping for a glowing re-conceptualization of it from me. This is not to say some of the questions it raised about and problematization of Star Trek's fundamental ethos weren't necessary, I just think DS9 was absolutely the wrong place to indulge in that kind of self-critique. IMO the showrunners approached it from completely the wrong angle, it permanently and irreparably derailed a show I otherwise adored and I still feel Moore and Behr went too far to the opposite extreme, such that it's possible they may have temporarily forgotten what makes Star Trek valuable and worthwhile.

      But the basic questions the Dominion War arc raised still needed to be asked. Actually, I'd recommend anyone who wants to see that kind of deconstruction of Star Trek pick up this series instead: I think it gets at all the same truths, but examines them in a far more appropriate context. After all, Star Trek is never this overtly militaristic or technologistic again.

    2. I thought it was a rather interesting way of thinking about it, but I see your point. I'm actually really looking forward to see how you'll handle TNG's early years, which are long overdue for the rehabilitation I know they merit (even if I'm not entirely sure how I'd personally go about it). I think The Dominion War is a really interesting setting for a story, but I can definitely sympathize with the idea that Trek was not necessarily the place to do it (I would even hazard a guess Moore himself realized this and reimagined Battlestar Galactica for that very purpose).

      "After all, Star Trek is never this overtly militaristic or technologistic again."

      Technologistic, no, definitely not. Militaristic, well...let's just say Into Darkness wasn't exactly a damning critique of Western militarism. Or a good Trek film. Or a good anything, really :P In fact, for all The Dominion War may have derailed Trek/DS9 for a couple of years, it's still got nothing on the reboot.

    3. "I would even hazard a guess Moore himself realized this and reimagined Battlestar Galactica for that very purpose."

      The more I think about it the more I'm inclined to believe something like this happened. One of the strangest things about the past decade or so in science fiction for me has been trying to reconcile my utter distaste for the Dominion War with my fannish delight in Moore's Battlestar Galactica. I *do* think Moore is a talented writer and has some interesting and important things to say. It may just have been, ultimately, that Star Trek wasn't his franchise (which is bizarre, given how much of an unabashed Trekker he is).

      "Technologistic, no, definitely not. Militaristic, well...let's just say Into Darkness wasn't exactly a damning critique of Western militarism. Or a good Trek film. Or a good anything, really."

      I had momentarily forgotten about Star Trek Into Darkness, and I was happy. Now you've reminded me of its existence and I am no longer happy.