Thursday, May 1, 2014

Myriad Universes: The Wristwatch Plantation

The Wristwatch Plantation
My initial plan here was to follow up both iterations of Star Trek Phase II with a look at the Star Trek comic strip that ran in US newspapers from 1979 to 1983. There are a number of reasons why I wanted to do this, chief among them was that, given its time frame, it would have given me a very nice “third season” of Phase II, putting that show on about equal footing with the Original Series in terms of episode count (or at least episodes *worth* counting) and neatly providing a gap between the first Star Trek movie (which wasn't actually a movie) and the next two (which were).

Also though, I was really intrigued to learn that, for the majority of its existence, the strip was handled by none other than Sharman DiVono, a television and animation veteran who, along with creator Mark Evanier, was the head writer and co-showrunner of Garfield and Friends, which happens to be one of my favourite television shows of all time. I was genuinely excited by the prospect of a Star Trek overseen by DiVono, and I fully expected to see and be delighted by how she'd apply her wry postmodern humour to the Star Trek universe. But, once I started to prep for this section by reading a few of the strip's story arcs, I quickly discovered they weren't actually anything to write home about. They all seemed like quite bog standard and uninspiring pulp action serials set in the Star Trek setting, nothing I had come to expect of DiVono's work on Garfield was present and, most worrying of all, the first two arcs were beginning to give “Savage Syndrome” a run for its money in terms of offensive depictions of teleological evolution and “primitivism”. Maybe I can blame that on DiVono's co-writers.

So, because I was nearing the end of my patience as it was (in hindsight, it was a bad sign that I couldn't come up with anything terribly interesting to say about the actually quite solid and enjoyable “World Enough and Time” and “Enemy: Starfleet”, I decided to scrap that plan, and none of you *really* want to read about mediocre tie-in comics for another month any more than I want to write about them. But, there was one arc I knew I had to cover regardless of what I did with the rest of the strip, because between January and July, 1982, DiVono teamed up with Larry Niven to give us an epic, sprawling return to the Kzinti and the Known Universe with “The Wristwatch Plantation”. Perhaps predictably, judging by how “The Slaver Weapon” turned out, this is just as much of a pulp serial as the rest of the strip's arcs were, but this is a good one.

But before I leap into the story, I want to take a little time to talk about the strip itself, as this is probably the only time we're going to engage with it and there are several noteworthy things about it apart from DiVono herself and the rather changeable quality: First of all, I was very, very impressed with Ron Harris' artwork: Star Trek looks extremely good for a newspaper comic strip, with detailed. accurate representations of the Phase II-era Enterprise, its crew, and memorable, evocative spacescapes and backgrounds. There are times this strip looks just as good as the best full-fledged Star Trek comic books and graphic novels, especially from this period. I know the comic pages are not what they used to be, but I have to admit being genuinely surprised with how nice this looks. Also, while I decried the pulpy structure earlier, I know a lot of that comes from my own dislike of the genre: Most of these stories are totally serviceable (the earliest ones notwithstanding), they're just very, very much of a different time and style of storytelling, although I will say by 1982 this kind of pulp sci-fi was definitely old hat.

And “The Wristwatch Plantation” is a genuinely enjoyable serial: Reading it is almost nostalgic in a sense-There's a kind of quaintness about it that's hard not to like. Upon reflection, Star Trek was always going to be well suited to this kind of structure: It was, of course, originally inspired at least in part by old film serials, which is part of why “The Cage” felt so dated even in 1964. But here DiVono and Niven outdo even Gene Roddenberry in terms of pulpiness and everything just *works*: Newspaper strips lend themselves well to serialization anyway, and having Admiral Kirk do his Captain's Log spiel at the top of every strip to recap the story so far just adds to the tone and is actually really effective-Not only is it a good idea in principle, it's also a good idea done well, and I don't always get to say that about Star Trek, even (hell, especially) on television.

(Not only that, but the interjection of excerpts from the “Starfleet Life Sciences Reference Manual” and “Starfleet Spaceflight Manual” in the Sunday strips to provide tiny little bits of world-building is positively delightful.)

As is befitting its genre, “The Wristwatch Plantation” plays out very, very serialized: The plot starts off at one thing and then grows denser and more complex as more and more new elements are introduced until there are a plethora of different plots and stories all happening at once until DiVono and Niven collapse everything together into a resolution that ties it all up at the end. The plot is not confusing to follow, everything makes sense and fits together, but it is convoluted enough to render summarising it pointless: It really is easier to read it yourself, which I do recommend (or you could skim Memory Alpha's *extensive* play-by-play here), but the basics are these: The Enterprise is escorting a delegation of Bebebebeque scientists and engineers to investigate a colony they established on the planet Mimit fifteen years ago, but that hasn't been heard from since.

The Bebebebeque, or Beeks, as they're colloquially known (and that I'll refer to them as for the rest of this piece because come on) are a species of small insect-like beings renowned for their ability to miniaturize complex machinery who buzz around on little warp sleds. Despite this being the most adorable thing ever, this freaks out a lot of the crew, who aren't used to dealing with such small creatures, while the Beeks are likewise unnerved by working with giant humans. Onboard is a xenoanthropologist (or “alienologist” as this story refers to him as) named Mernat, who is simultaneously monitoring Starfleet-Beek relations and clandestinely inspecting the Enterprise for illegal drugs, as he suspects there are crewmembers aboard heading a major drug smuggling ring involving the narcotic Theep, which causes his people, the Ferreth, to go into a blind rage upon exposure. While that's happening, a Kzinti warship modestly named the Giant Killer appears looking to pick a fight with the Enterprise. The Giant Killer is armed with a whole bunch of very scary and very illegal weaponry that the crew is anxious to test out on their old enemies in the Federation.

(Worthy of mention here is that like the Kzinti, the Beeks are also the original creations of Larry Niven, though they originate from his Draco Tavern series instead of the Known Universe the Kzinti come from, so this is just another example of Niven integrating his universe even further with that of Star Trek.)

Naturally, of the most interest to me was what insight, if any, this story can give about the Earth/Kzin Wars. And, while “The Wristwatch Plantation” lacks the punch that “The Slaver Weapon” packed simply by virtue of being the first to examine the issue, it also lacks the unpalatable cynicism and militarism that in my opinion characterizes Star Fleet Battles: The Kzinti aren't much more than two-dimensional bloodthirsty tyrants with an axe to grind against the Federation, but then again they were probably never going to be anything else: The key is always how the Federation itself is depicted in this kind of story, and while it isn't bad here it doesn't quite go as far as I would have liked it to. Tellingly, and suspiciously, Kirk mentions a “Starfleet Colonial Operations” a number of times throughout the story, and we even get an intel briefing from them in one of the Sunday strips. As far as I'm concerned, the mere existence of anything called a “Department of Colonial Operations” is enough to justify quite a large amount of the disdain, resentment and volatility the Kzinti might happen to throw the Federation's way.

More interestingly, this is the first Star Trek story I think I've seen to portray the Enterprise crew itself in a less than unambiguously positive light. While all our regular characters remain noble and sympathetic (as are, actually, the Beeks), which is as it should be, there's a lot going on outside of their control that's less than savoury. There's the drug smuggling ring for one, which I actually had a problem with: The smugglers are little more than a second set of antagonists and are just portrayed as generically greedy, slimy and unscrupulous: You'll not be getting a nuanced and even-handed look at the societal realities that lead to drug trades (or the drugs themselves, for that matter) here, that's for sure. It's borderline excusable as by the story's internal narrative logic this is clearly meant to be telegraphed as an example of “Starfleet Officers Doing Bad Things” and nothing else is intended to be implied by it so it kinda works, but I'm still less than satisfied with it.

A better example is the reaction of the non-regular crew to the Beeks, which seems to provoke in them a kind of frazzled space madness with very obvious xenophobic overtones that McCoy dubs (ugh) Bebebebequephobia. One of the most memorable scenes in the story occurs when a huge brawl breaks out in the rec room after one officer declares with disgust that he “...doesn't want to sit with 'bugs'”, leading another to indignantly defend the Beeks, who are his friends. The brawl soon takes over the whole rec room to the point not even the senior staff can put a stop to it because no-one can even hear them. It would be considered a bold move *today* to portray Starfleet officers so belligerent, bigoted and intolerant, let alone doing this with crewmembers of the *Enterprise* in *1982*. If such reactionary individuals can make it onboard the most prestigious and beloved ship in the fleet, it really starts to make the Federation's lovely rhetoric about idealism, equality and tolerance look a bit hollow and hypocritical, which is extremely fitting for such a Western institution. Frankly, if I were in the Kzinti's place, I'd be pissed about now too.

(This also leads to a genuinely funny bit where Kirk stares, weary, exasperated and knowing, out the actual comic panel at us while the brawlers, having calmed down, try to explain themselves. The speech bubbles catch only meaningless, out-of-context fragments and everyone is trying to cover their asses and talk at once. I guess this is more similar to Garfield than I initially gave it credit for.)

What I've taken away from Larry Niven's interaction with Star Trek is that, under him, we see a universe that's not de facto idealistic; in fact it may well be precisely the opposite of that, with big empires flexing their muscles and posturing to each other at the expense of ordinary people (the Kziniti's super-secret super-weapon in this story is *actually called* the Hamstringer) who get caught in the machinery. And yet idealistic Star Trek remains because people like Admiral Kirk and his crew exist: Good people who strive for, if not perfection, constant self-improvement in an imperfect world. Utopia exists then because people want it to exist and strive to make it so by staying true to themselves and their ideals. And I guess I just can't figure out why it's taken this long and a medium and writing team not even associated with televised Star Trek to come right out and state this very simple, very Star Trek truth.

1 comment:

  1. "And yet idealistic Star Trek remains because people like Admiral Kirk and his crew exist: Good people who strive for, if not perfection, constant self-improvement in an imperfect world."

    That for me is just the most perfect summation of where Utopia can can be found, or as the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa describes it, Shambhala in his book on the Sacred Path of the Warrior, the ideal that we somehow remember, that we strive for and that we can see just out of the corner of our eyes.

    He says:"The idea of a warrior is based on a sense of fundamental fearlessness. There is no reason why you should be a coward. It’s as simple as that. You are not being a warrior because a state of war exists in your country. We are not trying to win against the egohood people. We are not trying to fight with them. You are being a warrior because you are a warrior. If someone asks you, “Are you twenty-one years old?” you say, “Yes, I am.” They don’t ask you why you are twenty-one years old or how you have done this. You would have no answer for that. You are just twenty-one. Warriorship is a basic sense of unshakeability. It’s a sense of immovability and self-existing dignity rather than that you are trying to fight with something else."

    Sounds almost like Kirk to me.