Tuesday, September 30, 2014

“1, 2, 3, I see...”: Hide and Q

"Yep. Looks like a soundstage to me, Commander."
A lot of times on television shows, particularly very expensive and VFX heavy science fiction shows such as this one, certain concessions must be made to financing. Sometimes you're forced to shoot an entire episode on pre-existing sets or re-use old special effects shots in order to make the cut that week on time and on budget. Star Trek of the Long 1980s tends to be pretty good at this: Just recently, Star Trek: The Next Generation used a bottle show brief as an opportunity to turn “Lonely Among Us” into a minor classic, and six years later Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, facing a similar mandate, will take “Duet” and turn it into an unmitigated classic.

And then there's “Hide and Q”.

I won't say “Hide and Q” only exists to re-use the effect for Q's force field from “Encounter at Farpoint”, but I will say it's odd how a character who carries such weight and gravity suddenly reappears only ten episodes after his debut in a story that seems to be little more than a pointless (and far inferior) retread of his previous appearance. Because it's really difficult to make the case that this isn't what “Hide and Q” is: Q shows up, captures the Enterprise and puts the crew through a series of tests in order to determine whether or not humans are worthy of being a spacefaring civilization. The reason given for why Q is back is apparently because his people, while no longer worried humanity is a threat to itself and others, might now progress to such a level that their power might come to rival that of their own, and would like to test to see if humans are responsible enough to wield such abilities. But this amounts to little more than a diegetic explanation of the symbolic power Q already had: Q was already a manner of god and the issue at stake was *always* whether Star Trek: The Next Generation was deserving of that title and honour. That's what it means to be a utopian ideal: You become a role model and idol others try to take into themselves.

Furthermore, this not only adds nothing to Q's symbolic power, it actually does measurable harm to his efficacy as a character. Although Q was always going to be a reoccurring foil for the crew, from this point onwards, there are going to be two kinds of stories that feature him: The first kind are stories like “Encounter at Farpoint” that actually recognise the potential metatextual challenge Q can offer the series that force Star Trek to prove it's capable of living up to the ideals it claims to embody, and furthermore, that those ideals are ones worth holding on to. The second, and regrettably far more common, type of story is the one where Q becomes, in the words of John de Lancie himself, Captain Picard's (or Sisko's, or Janeway's, but that's another couple of books) “wacky sitcom uncle” who happens to be omnipotent. And while “Hide and Q” isn't quite in that camp just yet (we'll have to wait until the third season for the transition to officially take place), it does cheapen Q as a character and opens the door for that to happen down the road.

The damning scene is at the end, where Q is forcibly called back by his people for his petulant interference in humanity's affairs. It leaves just an awful taste in the mouth: If there was ever any hope Q would become something other than a second-rate pallet swap of Trelane from “The Squire of Gothos”, it's gone now. The best redemptive reading I could come up with is that this is the moment where Star Trek: The Next Generation proves its own worthiness as a utopian ideal by mantling its own god in the manner we would do to it, as mirrored in Riker's brief obtaining of Q powers. The idea perhaps being that if Star Trek: The Next Generation is to be a god, it will be an egalitarian god of the people that will have no such need for displays of authoritarian power structures or the fetishization of the Western test drive.

There is, at least, one truly good scene in the ready room that could support this where Q chides Picard for “not knowing [his] own library”, asking if he truly believes Hamlet's speech describes the kind of beings humans are, to which Picard says he hopes humans might someday become that way. And while that one scene does reaffirm the show's commitment to self-improvement, the problem at hand remains that Star Trek: The Next Generation still doesn't have the right to that kind of power or presumptuousness yet. There have been good episodes so far, yes, but most of them have had their share of rocky and questionable aspects and the residual stench of “The Naked Now”, “Code of Honor” and “Justice” still lingers. It's going to take a lot more to make us forget about all of that. This trial is far, far from over: Star Trek: The Next Generation hasn't been given a not guilty verdict, it's been placed on probation.

Pretty much everything else that goes wrong with “Hide and Q” can be chalked up to production tribulations, namely the fact Marina Sirtis wasn't available this week. In fact, possibly the only good thing “Hide and Q” provides is definitive proof of how crucial Sirtis really was to this show: As much fuss as has been made about Deanna Troi's supposed vestigial role in the first season, the moment she's not there things go completely to hell. There's a handwavy explanation for why Troi's not around painfully obviously tacked onto the teaser, her absence drives a noticeable wrench into the proceedings and just throws everyone's dynamic totally out of whack. Troi initially had a lot of lines in the original script, and Marina's unavailability necessitated they either get cut or shifted onto other characters, so we get a few people once again acting blatantly out of character. The person this affects the most severely is, naturally, Tasha Yar, who gets the brunt of Troi's scenes and lines.

I'm not sure how much of Tasha's part here was supposed to be hers and how much was Deanna's, but I'm going to speculate the more-than-a-little uncomfortable scene where she emotionally lashes out at Q, gets sent to the penalty box and then bursts into tears to get comforted by Captain Picard was probably intended for Troi. This was 'round about the time the writers decided Tasha was too hard to write for and it was better to have her do nothing at all than risk derailing the show by trying to cater to her, so I'd be reasonably willing to bet the first draft had her down on the planet playing kick-the-can with Worf and the pig dudes. And anyway, the scene just makes more sense with Troi: I mean it doesn't work a whole lot better, but you could at least see how someone could think a person who spends all her time dealing with other people's emotions might have problems working through her own.

The fact that the writer seemed to think Deanna and Tasha were interchangeable touches on a few other truths, however. Firstly, and most obviously, it's a sign that Star Trek: The Next Generation's staff writers really don't know what the hell they're doing and ten weeks in have no better handle on their characters than they did in pre-production, a supposition that is duly backed up by the fact the entire production team walks out by the end of the season. But secondly, it's another indication of where Denise Crosby's talents really lay. Because she and Patrick Stewart really do make that scene work-I mean, Crosby's absolutely no longer playing the part she was given, she hasn't been since “The Naked Now”, but that kind of tender, flustered emotion is right up her alley. And Stewart plays off of her quite well, making the scene as sweet to see acted out as it is cringe-inducing on paper.

Tasha also gets one other decent scene, once again with Geordi. LeVar Burton is one of the few people this week who gets to play someone we recognise, and it's hard not to smile when Q!Riker gives him his sight back long enough to see the bridge and his friends and to tell Tasha “you're even more beautiful than I had imagined”. That scene was written for Tasha, and I shall carry on believing that no matter what any of you tell me. It's a *lovely* extension of the romance that's been blossoming between their characters over the past nine weeks, a line that it actually makes sense for Geordi to say and is entirely in keeping with the character established in “Encounter at Farpoint”. Maddeningly, Denise once again throws the scene, completely failing to react to LeVar or even visibly emote: Given everyone else in this cast is so intensely and delightfully visual, it's so frustrating to see her continually drop the ball like this.

And that's about as much as I have to say about “Hide and Q”. Like the scene with Geordi and Tasha, it's aggravating to see Star Trek: The Next Generation stumble forward, consistently handicapping itself as much as it is actually coming into its own.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

“...vibrations that have been left behind in space and time.”: The Battle

It's beyond a cliche to say that history repeats itself. In fact, I'm not sure it's ever been the case where that hasn't been beyond a cliche. The phrase is usually invoked when someone wants to make a sweeping generalization about human shortsightedness or failing to learn from the past.

In Star Trek, the past tends to be spoken of as something we must move beyond. Indeed, that's the central thesis of “The Battle”, and the episode gives us two contrasting perspectives for how this manifests in people. In one corner we have DaiMon Bok, who has spent the last nine years obsessed with his son's accidental death and with coming up with a way to punish Captain Picard for it because he can't move on and needs someone to blame for his grief. In the other we have Captain Picard himself who, while touched to be able to return to the USS Stargazer, also frequently makes it clear that this is something from his past that must remain there. The torture he undergoes at the hands of Bok's thought-maker is simply a metaphor for how dangerous it is to “live in the past”, how it can consume a person and keep them from moving forward. And here again is that theme of progressing, of going forth: What I have always taken from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and how I choose to read this theme as it appears here and elsewhere in the Star Trek franchise, is one of continually growing *as a person*. Of constantly striving to be learn a little bit every day, and always striving to improve oneself as a human being. Of never settling or becoming complacent.

But there is another reading of this, a reading that is, from my perspective, altogether less savoury, yet one that's not quite reducible out of the larger conceptual framework of Star Trek this series does inherit. And that's the notion of progress, and history itself, as teleology. The idea that one must go forward for this is the right and natural way to go, or indeed the *only* way to go, and that this will ultimately get us to the best possible ending point. “Boldly going forward because we can't find reverse”, as it were. What this does is impose a hierarchical, modernist master narrative over the theme, and this is more than a little disturbing considering the technofetishism that does surround Star Trek, and that's only going to increase as Star Trek: The Next Generation goes on. The franchise has had gravely concerning run-ins with Modernization Theory and managerial progressive thought at times, and those are not so easily forgotten, especially at the comparatively young state of our new show at this time. It's the self-absorbed, manifest destiny style of futurism that has dogged the entire genre of Western science fiction since its earliest days, and Star Trek: The Next Generation will have to grapple with it one way or another. It doesn't have a choice, as, merely by being Star Trek it becomes saddled with the franchise's undeniable (albeit tenuous) connection to Golden Age Hard SF.

I hasten to add I don't think this is something any of Star Trek's creative figures actually subscribe to, at least not any of its current (1987) creative figures. When Star Trek's writers, designers, artists and producers talk about the franchise's utopian dream, I really do think they're sincere and actually mean what they say. With the possible exception of certain Nerd Culture, engineering and technoscience subgroups within its fandom, people who are genuinely invested in Star Trek as a shared cultural myth understand that its role is not to predict the future, but provide a fantasy world that imagines a better life for us in the present. They know that the series has a frankly unique opportunity to look at people's emotions and concerns and provide ways for us to explore them in a healthy, positive and constructive way. Even Gene Roddenberry himself was by this point well aware of what Star Trek really was, what it stood for and what it meant to people, and a big part of the reason he was as controlling as he was here was only because he was keenly aware of the responsibility Star Trek: The Next Generation had. That he wasn't amazing at managing all of that and had (many, many) personal vices of his own is a separate issue: The important thing is that he understood and he cared.

This is why one of the factions of Trekker culture I absolutely cannot stand and have no time for are those who accuse Star Trek: The Next Generation of being a boring, whitewashed conflict-free gated community and maintain what the show ought to have been doing is pointing out how corrupt and decadent the world of Star Trek really is and deconstructing its “so-called utopia”. There are a great many moral, ethical and conceptual issues with the Federation and Starfleet (I of all people am certainly not averse to pointing that out), and while first of all the show does not get nearly enough credit for acknowledging and problematizing this to the extent it does (in fact we're coming up on a big episode that does just that), more relevantly, that's not Star Trek: The Next Generation's *job*, or at least not the extent of it. Rather, what this show does is, through a series of role models and ideals, give us the language of symbols we need to work through issues in our own day-to-day lives. No, the world of Star Trek is never something that's going to actually come to be, but that's not the point: The point is it's a place we can visit and take lessons and ideas back home from. Star Trek: The Next Generation doesn't “ignore” conflict, it's trying to help us deal with conflict in a more positive and healthful way.

But a compulsion to move beyond the past, or at least learn from it lest we be doomed to repeat it, requires one to subscribe to a very specific set of axioms and beliefs. I've spoken at times of temporal perception around the world, and it's perhaps worth returning to that here. The idea of a discrete past, present and future is not a universal one, rather, it's (generally speaking, but not uniquely) a Western innovation with its own quirks and eccentricities that shape how those claiming such a heritage tend to perceive things. There is a case to be made it's a more harmful way of looking at things too, as recent studies contrasting “unitense” languages (like English) with “monotense” languages (like German, Mandarin and Japanese), show the latter to be overwhelmingly happier and both physically and mentally healthier. The idea being, one supposes, that people who more consciously deliberate over a future are also more likely to see it as something faraway they need not worry about. By contrast, people who don't preoccupy themselves with such things, or, as many indigenous people do, see time as a cyclical and ever-evolving present, are more likely to take action to improve their lives and the world around them in the moment.

And even if you do hold onto the idea of a past, as either something to be avoided or looked back upon with nostalgic sadness, you must ask yourself the question: In either case, is the past something to be moved beyond and forgotten? I submit a convincing case could be made that it's not. We all vividly remember our childhoods or other such formative and meaningful moments in our lives, rose-tinted and distorted as those memories may oftentimes be, and those times all had a hand in shaping the people we became. Indeed, in the last Ferengi episode, Commander Riker told Portal how he doesn't begrudge the Ferengi their beliefs because to do so would be to deny their past, and Riker can hardly “hate the people” that humans “used to be”. This is why it upsets me when I hear wistful thought experiments like “if you could go back and change anything about your past knowing what you know know, what would you change?”: Because I couldn't change anything, for fear of dramatically altering the person I am now, and the person I am now is someone I'm proud of, because they're confident and assured in their identity and always strives to learn and grow.

But in a more esoteric sense, I find that memories of that past can oftentimes prove invaluable in the present, to use a starkly Western linguistic form for the moment. Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Long 1980s are long in my past, and yet they are both still things that I treasure and are absolutely fundamental to the positionalities I now hold, and I'm not ashamed to admit that. There are many things from this period I miss and that I think the world could stand to re-learn, and many events from it I constantly look back on and re-evaluate in my mind. The very act of doing what I'm doing with this project, revisiting an old television show from long ago and far away that used to mean one thing to me and now means something else, is in a very material sense proving that the past lives on in some sense. I think as we grow older, we cannot but help to reflect on things in an attempt to understand ourselves a little better, and you can define yourself anywhere along those axes that you like, either in opposition or in solidarity. But we mustn't ever abandon the past or our memory not because history will repeat itself if we do (it will anyway, that's how time works), but because we can't cut loose such an important part of what makes us who we are.

What about you? What are some of the memories that help you understand the truth about yourself?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

“For in her dark she brings the mystic star”: Lonely Among Us

The Star Trek: The Next Generation toy line I was most familiar with was done by Playmates in the early 1990s. But they weren't the first to get the license to make tie-ins to the show: The first company to get the job was Galoob who, early in the first season, put out a line of 3-inch toys (savvily designed to compliment the popular Kenner and Star Wars toys of the time) along with accessories based on Star Trek: The Next Generation. We're still a little ways off from looking at the line in detail, but for our immediate purposes it's worth mentioning the first figures Galoob released based on characters not among the main crew were of the Anticans and the Selay from “Lonely Among Us”.

Part of the reason why the Anticans and the Selay got action figures that early is surely because they were likely the only new extraterrestrial characters created for Star Trek: The Next Generation apart from Q Galoob would have had access to when they were prepping designs. But I personally think it may have been at least partly because the Anticans and the Selay are genuinely well-done and memorable creatures. Makeup artist Michael Westmore credits them as his favourites among the characters he designed for the first season, in spite of a few of the Selay masks being a bit too rigid to be able to properly emote. And it really is entirely due to Westmore's work: Culturally speaking, neither group is “something to write home about”, as Data would say-They basically exist to hate each other and serve as suspects when the cloud starts wrecking shit in the ship's internal systems. The show's not quite gotten to the point where it can portray an entirely alien culture with conviction and nuance. What is interesting about the diplomacy part of the story is how it's used as another showcase for the show's progressive post-scarcity utopianism. In this case, the crew's unfamiliarity with disputes over territory, resources and religion (and memorably “economic policy”, as Captain Picard points out) are contrasted with the latent mutual hostility between the Anticans and the Selay. We also learn from Riker that humans no longer need to domesticate animals for food (the word he uses is “enslave”, which is wonderfully loaded).

But even though the script paints them as entirely forgettable and one-note, the Anticans and the Selay still stick in my mind. They're among the most iconic images and signifiers of this part of the show for me: Later on in the year, the show will throw out some truly questionable material on the aesthetics front, but this time the imagery and mood is more than enough to carry the story. Aside from the delegates themselves, there's also the cloud tank trick that were used to create the Beta Renner being and the straight-out-of-Star Wars lightning bolt effects (clearly, ILM were showing off). Whenever I think of season one, I immediately think of the Anticans and the Selay, and indeed this episode on the whole.

“Lonely Among Us” is not terribly captivating from a narrative standpoint. It's a bottle show of the sort the show is going to find much better and much more effective ways of handling later on, and the plot is standard-issue science fiction fluff. There's some delegates, a murder mystery, and a weird alien thing that takes over people's brains. But all that said it's worth commenting on how well-executed and professionally the show handles the brief here: Nobody can be argued to be phoning it in here, it's a very capable ensemble story for the time with every major character getting something important to contribute, nobody gets talked over, shouted down or ignored, which was frustrating to watch in some earlier scripts, and there are some very memorable performances on display. Brent Spiner is so obvious it's not even really worth mentioning: It's his first opportunity to do his Sherlock Holmes routine that will go on to be so important to Data's character in the future, and he predictably leaps into the role with flamboyant gusto. But I mean, seven episodes in and it's already clear we can expect no less from Spiner. LeVar Burton gets some nice cracks, Colm Meaney is back, Michael Dorn gets something to do and Marina Sirtis, Patrick Stewart and Gates McFadden all get a chance to show sides of their range they weren't able to before.

But for me the highlights of the week are Denise Crosby and Jonathan Frakes, who between them basically have to run the ship when their crewmembers star acting erratic and the delegates start eating each other. Denise Crosby play Tasha visibly harried and exasperated by the goings-on and her inability to keep them in order. Her understated performance works in her favour this time, and her subtle irritation at life in general actually allows her to steal the comic relief role from Spiner's mugging: She's a delight to watch here. This is also the beginning of Crosby's genial rapport with Jonathan Frakes, as their characters spend a lot of time troubleshooting together. As for Frakes, gets to play Riker commanding and competent for really the first time, and the scene where he conspires in secret with Geordi, Doctor Crusher and Data to relieve Captain Picard of duty is a frankly stunning example of how well this cast understands and gels with one another even at this comparatively early stage: The actors play off of each other wonderfully and you can sense the genuine, heartfelt concern and trepidation in their voices and body language.

The cast had long since become fast friends, of course: Everyone has their own story of how they met each other the first day filming “Encounter at Farpoint” and immediately felt a deep and powerful connection with each other and how they quickly became best friends and remain so to this day. Doug Drexler tells Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann In Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 how the bridge set was like a “futuristic night club”, with bowling, slam poetry sessions, impersonations, wrestling matches, singing and dancing and copious amounts of general screwing around. It's extremely rare not just in Star Trek, not just in television, but in any kind of production or life in general, to get that level of camaraderie and friendship. It sounds like an absolutely magical time, and reminds me of the few times I would travel to camps or workshop seminars and meet people who shared my interests and positionalities and with whom I too felt an immediate and intense kinship. The only difference is that I eventually fell out of communication with all of my friends, but these actors all remain soulmates. Star Trek: The Next Generation and its cast were both truly blessed.

But the one production-level factoid about “Lonely Among Us” that really seals it as an iconic story for me is the cinematography. It's uniquely dark, which I simply love. There are entire sections of the set blacked out at a time, and the scenes with Riker, Tasha and the delegates all feature a lot of moody light and shadowplay. To me, this is the definitive look of Star Trek: The Next Generation's inaugural year, and why this episode is always at the forefront of my mind when I think about it. While later seasons are maligned (unfairly, I might add, go watch the restorations), for being too brightly lit and looking washed out, it is true that the ambient light gets turned up a bit when Marvin Rush takes over from Edward R. Brown as director of photography in the third season. This means that the show's earliest years, in particular this one, have an unmistakeably distinctive moody and filmic (but not cinematic) look about them, and this episode is a masterclass example of that. Which is, bluntly all it needs. Between the Anticans, the Selay and the cinematography, “Lonely Among Us” has far more to offer that's worth remembering apart from its rather passable plot. If it's mediocre, it's mediocre in a very Long 1980s way, and that's not a bad thing, because images and emotions are more powerful than words anyway. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation is still intractably evocative and still looks like absolutely nothing else, and that's all that matters.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

“City of prose and fantasy”: The Last Outpost

For a brief period of time when I was younger my family owned a small local toy store. Apart from my more cosmopolitan cousins, visiting their store was one of the only ways I had to keep abreast of the developments in pop culture, or at least the segment they catered to.

Because they were set up as vendors, this got my parents invites to the annual Toy Fair in New York City every year they owned the business. On a couple of occasions I accompanied them on their business trips, and oftentimes they were my only opportunity to be exposed to a genuine world city. One one occasion I recall quite distinctly, we went to go visit the flagship store for international toy retail giant FAO Scwarz on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Just like everything else in New York, FAO Schwarz was mostly known for very high-end, luxury things, in particular their life-sized stuffed animals, which they likely at least partially got from German toy manufacturer Steiff, whose products they also carried (and was also probably one of the reasons my parents went there, because their store carried them too).

My memories of FAO Schwarz are twofold. Firstly, I remember making a beeline for the video game and cartoon show tie-in action figures. We didn't have anything on a remotely comparable scale back home, and this was potentially my one opportunity to get physical representations of some of my favourite characters. But secondly, I was struck by how enormous, grand and lavish it all felt: In hindsight this is at least a little understandable, considering it was the flagship store of a major brand on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, but I still remember marveling at how upscale and aristocratic it felt. FAO Schwarz seemed to be one of the most New York places we went in New York, if that makes any sense at all; it had every ounce of the archetypical gold-rimmed, art deco feeling that characterizes Manhattan, and it radiated that from every corner. It was at once exciting, but also more than a little intimidating. I guess in hindsight, my visit to that toy store in Manhattan embodied for me all the excess and decadence that capitalism naturally leads to, in spite of the nice things it can also make for us.

I think Andy Probert's work on Star Trek: The Next Generation is criminally overlooked. His fellow designers practically worship him, deservedly and understandably so, but I'm not sure it's as recognised outside of those small and select circles as it really ought to be. His three starship designs in particular are genuine works of art, and look like absolutely nothing else. I've already talked a bit about the Enterprise, though I could talk about the Enterprise basically forever, but “The Last Outpost” gives us the second of the three: The Ferengi Marauder. What strikes me the most about this ship is the thickness of that inner ring, how there are so many tiny windows, and how they all face outward towards us. I find myself mesmerized by windows on starships: I think they can give us a truly awe-inspiring sense of scale that, at least for me, really fires the imagination. Every time I look at one of these ships, especially Probert's designs, I find myself dreaming about everyday goings-on onboard, watching them from a distance. An entire thriving community of individuals, who seem so small because they're so far from us, living and working together in this floating city that seems to have a personality of itself, dwarfed again by the vastness of space it's adrift in.

Looking at those windows on the Ferengi Marauder, I can't help but be reminded of skyscraper office buildings in big cities on Earth. Maybe that's at least part of the reason why when I imagine life on a Ferengi Marauder, I always visualize the interior looking a lot like FAO Schwarz's flagship store on Fifth Avenue. I can't recall offhand if we ever get a look inside a Ferengi starship (if memory serves me there might be a brief glimpse coming up a few episodes from now in “The Battle”), but I don't care and I hope we never do: More often then not when Star Trek: The Next Generation tries to depict an extraterrestrial culture through design, I tend to be very disappointed. I usually prefer my imaginary version much better and find it far more evocative. Perhaps it's on some level appropriate then that one of my first Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation action figures was a Ferengi based on their appearance in “The Last Outpost”.

The Ferengi are, of course, meant to represent unchecked capitalistic greed; the absolute worst aspects of late-20th Century Western society magnified and caricatured to dangerous extremes. Even their name, “Ferengi”, originates from an Arabic term for “foreigner” that's come refer to Westerners most typically in modern colloquial parlance. In this episode they even carry energy whips, a futuristic sci-fi update of the age old symbol of the oppressor and slave owner (and yes, while I know slavery did not originate with the West, they're the ones who made it a booming and lucrative global industry). I suspect the Ferengi would show a lot of art deco influences in their architecture and design, with copious flaunting of conspicuous consumption as a demonstration of the power, status and privilege it symbolizes and that they have managed to accrue through their capitalistic practices. There would be a lot of marble flooring, golden pillars, towering ceilings adorned with faux-classical art, neo-Gothic touches and busy offices looking out into space (all the more fitting, reminiscent as it is of those archetypical “dedicated” office workers we're always told to look up to who neglect their families and their lives to keep long hours at their job into the night). A Ferengi starship would look like a high-rise Manhattan brokerage firm.

The Ferengi were introduced in this episode to be Star Trek: The Next Generation's reoccurring antagonists. This is a pivotal moment in the development of the series, as it's the first time it comes out and clearly states the things it's opposed to, and regardless of your feelings about this episode or the Ferengi more generally, it must be admitted this is a brazen move. Star Trek: The Next Generation is consciously, deliberately taking absolutely everything idolized by the Neoconservative segment of the Long 1980s, twisting it into grotesque caricature and firmly, confidently declaring that this is unacceptable and is something humanity must put behind it if it ever wants to progress.

The scene where Letek and his away team react with horror at the fact that Tasha is allowed to work alongside her male crewmates as an equal, and even *wears clothes*, is actually brilliant: Letek's objection ticks all of the misogynistic pseudo-feminist boxes-He bemoans how Earth women are “forced” to work and wear clothes, arguing that the Ferengi prohibition of such things is a more noble and respectful treatment of women. Just think about how many male chauvanists have tried to keep women from holding the same positions of men while phrasing it as if they're concerned about their well-being or consider women in some sense too special to do that sort of thing, or how many “Strong Female Characters” (in the Kate Beaton sense) refer to bras as “unnatural restraints”. It's a dead-on satire of patriarchal gender norms and assumptions in contemporary Western culture.

A lot of people didn't like the way the Ferengi were depicted here, but I'm personally not as bothered by it for a couple of reasons. One argument is that they're designed to be racist stereotypes of Jewish people which, while provably untrue, is at least easy to understand how someone could come to that reading. Less defensible for me is the common argument that they're too silly and not as threatening as a reoccurring antagonist would need to be. I'm not at all convinced by this for two reasons: One, Mike Gomez's DaiMon Tarr is fine, coming across as suitably larger than life if you're into that. So's Armin Shimerman's Letek, who's delightfully slimy and menacing whenever he gets to take to lead in a scene. But more to the point, I don't think it's ever a requirement that antagonists be scary and threatening, and that the Ferengi aren't here is supposed to mean something. Remember capitalism, especially the kind of high-powered, ruthlessly focused capitalism that the 1980s Neoconservartives love, is inherently patriarchal and masculinist.

There's a severe male power fantasy involved with anyone who plays that game long enough to accrue any kind of status, and I speak from experience here as I've had dealings with a lot of these people both through cultural anthropology work and my own life. What Star Trek: The Next Generation is trying to do here is strip all that away from capitalism, to depict it as selfishly juvenile and shortsighted as it really is. That's why the Ferengi are all short and jump around trying to ineffectually worm their way out of everything. To me, that's a perfectly valid, and indeed laudable, thing for this show to be doing: “The Last Outpost” marks the point where Star Trek: The Next Generation finally puts its money where its mouth is and takes a stand against something. Now I will grant the show gets carried away with this: Apart from Gomez and Shimerman, the Ferengi guest cast does overact some and their incessant gurning and mugging borders on the insufferable. I could see that crossing the line into the mean-spirited for some, and, as Shimerman points out, they were directed to “jump up and down like crazed gerbils”. But the underlying idea, a group of antagonists who are a joke instead of a menace, isn't by definition a bad one.

The Ferengi will undergo a substantial overhaul and reimagining from here, especially on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But oftentimes I fear the Ferengi became *too* sympathetic: Ira Behr is famously fond of them, and he's on record saying they're more real, human and likable than the humans on Star Trek. I think that kind of thinking is both dangerous and reactionary. While there are some great things that can be and will be done with Quark as a character, turning the Ferengi into just another quirky and lovable Star Trek race effaces the very real, very progressive and very anti-authoritarian message they were designed with in mind. And doing that is nothing more than yet another way hegemonic capitalism defangs, nullifies and extinguishes any threat to its entrenchment and authority.

If we allow it to keep doing that, we'd be forsaking our gods, our dreams and our futures.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

“To Boldly Go” Where No One Has Gone Before

All utopias are, at their most basic levels, ideas. Regardless of whether or not people have felt the need to take physical action to translate it into the material realm, the idea remains and is ultimately what's important.

The blurb for “Where No One Has Gone Before” describes the plot as “A warp drive experiment transports the Enterprise to a region of space where thought becomes reality”. Except, that's not true, is it? On multiple levels. Kosiniski's experiments are nothing but, as he does nothing except unwittingly take credit for the work The Traveler surreptitiously does and there's no actual theory to test here as it's all common knowledge to him. But more relevantly, it's The Traveler's contention that there's really no difference between time, space and thought. It's merely the *acknowledgment* of such that allows the Enterprise to do the seemingly impossible things it does in this story. M33, that is, Messier 33, is a real place: It's a spiral galaxy that's the third largest in our local group, after the Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way. There's no evidence that, if you were able to go there, it would appear any different than our own galaxy does, yet alone the indescribably beautiful psychedelic mindscape Rob Legato dreamed up for this episode. The reason it looks the way it does is because The Traveler helped the Enterprise attain a higher state of consciousness in order to comprehend reality. The world and the dream are one.

And it's a captivating dream to be sure. There are a handful of images from the first season that are truly iconic, transcending the episodes they were apart of to become larger signifiers for the series on the whole. The M33 of “Where No One Has Gone Before” is one of them, the second of the year for me (the first being Q's crackling energy net from “Encounter at Farpoint”). And yet while a few of them will take on lives of their own such that the stories they hail from seem middling and forgettable by comparison, these first two are equally as powerful as those episode they represent. Much of what I remember about Star Trek: The Next Generation is intensely surreal and abstract, especially in later seasons that deal quite explicitly with darkly psychological and speculative elements. In spite of Star Trek having a reputation for being “realistic” and the archetypical materialist Hard SF action series, The Next Generation's sojourns into the staunchly immaterial are just as real and important to me, despite this aspect of the show constantly being glossed over. Of course, they are real, because there's no difference between the spiritual world and the physical one and nothing exists which is not divine.

And “Where No One Has Gone Before” is the first time in the series I start to get that same feeling. Apart from the shots of the galaxy itself, the show's cinematography and visual effects perfectly capture how the Enterprise's own history plays out upon it. This time, the images that manifest themselves are all aspects of specific characters' pasts and personalities, as one would expect from a script this early in the show's run. The particular favourite of mine is when Tasha and Worf start talking about their pets from their homeworlds, only to see visions of them appear before them on the bridge. Tasha's in particular is memorable and well-done for what it is: While she's still portrayed as far more vulnerable than what I'd like, it's a nice touch to have Geordi comfort her at the end, a sweet extension of the relationship they've been building over the past few episodes. Perhaps even more evocative for me though is Picard stepping out of the turbolift to see the expanse of deep space before him: It's right up there with the best moments of surrealism from later years in my opinion. The episode itself is still a little rough around the edges (and we'll talk a bit about how), but nevertheless, this is the moment where Star Trek: The Next Generation finally becomes the show I remember.

There is of course Wesley Crusher, who I suppose I must talk about. He is, admittedly, the weak link in the production (and once again I'll stress *Wesley*, not Wil Wheaton) and most of the criticisms that get leveled at him here are more or less valid. Yes, it stretches credulity that Captain Picard and Commander Riker would be so cruel and dismissive of him, and it's pretty dumb how the teenage boy outsmarts and outhinks an entire ship of highly trained scientists, especially when the ruse is this bloody obvious. Picard's uncomfortableness around children has snowballed to full-bore cartoonishly irrational hatred, and he ends up looking rather bad across the board here. I do love how Riker conveniently happens to never be looking at The Traveler whenever he phase-shifts, though: That's pretty funny. But all that said, the team is genuinely trying to make something out of the fundamentally unworkable brief they have in Wesley, and they go with the most tenable track with him they possibly could here. And that's turning him into a Doctor Who companion.

The Traveler seems straightforwardly like an analogue for The Doctor, and The Traveler might well be an even more powerful figure as he diegetically recognises the link between thought and reality. He's a visitor from someplace far outside the narrative, and is immediately taken in by the potential he sees in Wesley, whom he treats as his young protege. He even tells Picard Wesley is a special person destined for great things, and the way he describes it sounds genuinely tantalizing: Apparently, Wesley is ahead of his time, understanding a latent spiritual power that's beyond even the humans of the 24th Century. This really must be seen as a continuation and echo of the themes of “Haven”, and this would put Wesley in the same category of people like Wyatt and Ariana. The only reason Wesley doesn't run off with The Traveler to explore time and space (...yet) is because he's a regular (although it is on some level worrying that the team seems to be turning to Adric from the Eric Saward era for inspiration here, though I guess they didn't have much of a choice).

The problem with this is that it leaves Star Trek: The Next Generation in a deeply unstable position. It's supposed to be the utopia people escape to, not run away from. These are supposed to be the people we look up to and aspire to be, the gods we identify with and take into ourselves. Just last year, Gillian Taylor was hitching a ride with Admiral Kirk to escape to Star Trek, and now we have The Traveler telling us Wesley Crusher is too good for Star Trek and setting him on a path to leave it behind. This comes a week after Lwaxana Troi showed everyone on the Enterprise up, and four weeks after the show imploded in on itself with “The Naked Now”. One becomes skeptical that Star Trek: The Next Generation is actually sustainable as a utopia, which recall is, disquietingly, the very thing Q charged it with proving. Furthermore, as much as Wesley's gifts are supposed to be transcendent, they manifest in very materialistic, technofetishistic ways: In hindsight, Nerd Culture was probably far from the ideal group of people we should have been entrusting our spiritual health and well-being to, though perhaps some of this was a holdover from the days where the hippies were very strongly associated with the emerging personal computer movement, even if by 1987 that was no longer the case.

But then again, maybe it's telling that The Traveler conveys his magick through propulsion, that is, the science of going forward. Star Trek: The Next Generation is nothing if not committed to constantly improving itself, understanding that sublimating the mundane is the ultimate form of enlightenment and liberation. And the core idea remains: A utopia is something to aspire to, and dreaming about it makes it real, literally and metaphorically. Ideas and symbols gain their power when we collectively project it onto them, and Alan Moore gives us the concept of the Ideaspace, a shared divinity in which beliefs and fiction are real. Because they are: Our understanding of the world is limited to our perception of it, and we dream it together. If we're going to do that, let's endeavour to make it a utopia we can worship as one among many...dreaming as one.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

“...no less than the journeywork of stars”: Haven

And I knew you would be this brave.
Humans claim to always be in search of truths, yet all too often we blind ourselves and refuse to accept the ones we find. I am increasingly of the belief we overcomplicate our lives, not just in a material sense, but in a spiritual and philosophical sense. To go back, look back, to remember things we may have once known intuitively but have since forgotten...This is not sacrifice, but gaining an understanding of who we are and what's truly important. And sometimes we need our routine disrupted to remind ourselves of that. If the universe seems to be trying to tell you something, perhaps you might listen: We all find our own paths in time.

The issue at stake for Deanna Troi and Wyatt Miller, and indeed of Star Trek: The Next Generation on the whole, is one of destiny. In Westernism, we tend to think that our entire lives, our past, present and future in the common parlance, are either entirely up to chance and individual will or, conversely, planned out for us in advance, spelled out to the letter. An arranged marriage can than be seen as a metaphor for this in microcosm: The young couple's lives are planned out for them by forces entirely beyond their control and they have no say in the matter, seemingly bound by fate. And the show itself is caught up in this, threatened with the loss of a major character four episodes in. Given the washout of “The Naked Now” and “Code of Honor”, it does seem worryingly as if Star Trek: The Next Geeration is in the process of rapid implosion. Even Captain Picard seems to sense this, opening the episode apparently preoccupied, musing as to whether the titular Haven will provide some much-needed, yet “all too brief”, reprieve for him and his crew.

This subtle awareness seems to permeate much of this episode, almost as if Star Trek: The Next Generation is in some way aware of its recent transgressions and its desperate need to move onward and upward as quickly and as dramatically as possible. And “Haven” is in many ways the exact story this show needed to do now: It's the first episode since “Encouter at Farpoint” that unquestionably exists in its own world and doesn't make sweeping, obvious callbacks to the Original Series. If “Haven” does resemble any Original Series high water mark it might arguably be “Journey to Babel”, both being character studies about one of the regulars who has a strained relationship with their parents set against the backdrop of a diplomatic incident. But unlike its immediate predecessors, if it does, it's only on the level of basic storytelling structure, not a whole plot reference. And “Haven” goes above and beyond anything “Journey to Babel” ever did, by weaving all of its subplots together into an elegant demonstration of cosmic synchronicity. Indeed, it's this very synchronicity that's “Haven”'s trump card and key to its ultimate success.

But all in time. Another way “Haven” might be accused of plagiarizing the Original Series is by virtue of its guest star: Majel Barrett, who makes her debut as the inimitable Lwaxana Troi, Heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed and Deanna's irrepressible and overbearing mother. But far from being an obvious attempt to cash in on her popularity from the Original Series, Barrett's character and acting here are so overwhelmingly distinct from, and frankly better than, anything she's ever done before any memory of Nurse Chapel or Number One is washed away the second Lwaxana Troi walks onstage. This is Barrett's definitive role now and forever, and it's as clear here as it ever will be again. Which makes sense, as Gene Roddenberry apparently joked with her that he found her perfect role, and she didn't even have to act. One gets the sense Barrett always had this side to her just waiting to be let out: If you read the original script for “In Thy Image”, Doctor Chapel acts much the same way Lwaxana does here-Completely different from either Nurse Chapel or Number One (or for that matter any of the characters she played on the Animated Series, which was roughly all of them), but very, very much Majel Barrett herself.

(And indeed another major Star Trek star is born here too: Armin Shimerman, who will play many of the Ferengi antagonists on Star Trek: The Next Generation before being cast as Quark on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is the Betazed Gift Box that stuns Tasha and horrifies Troi in the teaser. So Star Trek's past, present and future really do all coexist here together.)

It's Lwaxana who reveals the true nature and extent of “Haven”'s influence, because another myth about her is that she doesn't come into her own until very late in the series. This is plainly not the case: Lwaxana leaps onto the Enterprise fully formed, and its her presence that makes this episode as great as it is., Lwaaxana, and the wedding plot she brings with her, forces the episode into becoming a character piece, and forces Star Trek: The Next Generation to demonstrate what its approach to this kind of brief is going to be. Unlike “Journey to Babel”, which used its overarching plot largely as window dressing for its character drama, “Haven” weaves them all into one: Not only is the diplomatic situation equally as important as the love triangle Deanna finds herself in and Wyatt's uncertainty as to where his destiny lies, they are in fact one in the same. The world and the story are one with the characters' emotions, and they exist to explore and accentuate each other. Which is the only way it could possibly be, because the universe is as we all make it to be, provided we recognise it's guiding us to find our calling and become better people through doing so.

Which is exactly what happens in “Haven”. A wonderfully synchronous series of events transpires that helps Deanna Troi, Wyatt Miller and Ariana discover their calling. Oh yes, Ariana. Who first of all is basically my archetypical 1980s style icon, and one of the flat-out most memorable and iconic things about this phase of Star Trek: The Next Generation for me. Just as the episode's setting seems to be entwined with its story, so does Ariana intertwine with and evoke a world of her own. She's helped tremendously by her actor Danitza Kingsley, who has a haunting, unearthly and utterly unforgettable presence. Like all good style icons, Kingsley knows the power of the subtlest glance or expression and conveys volumes without uttering a world. Like all great works of 1980s visual media, Star Trek: The Next Generation has learned the power of images and emotions. Ariana and Wyatt, who have known each other since children despite having never met, are brought together through straightforward synchromysticism, because they are quite simply meant to be together. And though there are hints Lwaxana may have set this all up, in truth she's as much guided as everyone else.

Where Lwaxana is different is because she's inherently open and honest with herself as much as with everyone else. She allows herself to far more freely “go with the flow” of things, tavelling the universe's natural contours without overthinking things. She was tracked down by the Millers, who reminded them of the bonding ceremony, and both happened to be on Haven when the Enterprise showed up. Which happened to show up at roughly the same time Ariana and the Tarelians did. She thought her daughter was going to be married, but it turns out her destiny, just like Wyatt and Ariana's, was different. But Lwaxana can take this all in stride, because her perspective has granted her at least some familiarity with how the universe works. And this is why she's the one who gets to explicitly state the metaphysical and spiritual truth that underlines Star Trek: The Next Generation. As Lwaxana tells Wyatt
“All life...all consciousness, is indissolvably bound together. Indeed, it's all part of the same thing.”
which is the foundational tenet of animism. We are individuals, yes, but individuals who also exist as part of a larger community. I am we are all one. There is no divide between the spiritual life and the material one, between Earth and the dream; there is nothing that is not sacred, and enlightenment will come for us all when we begin to sublimate reality instead of trying to escape it. This is a truth that will guide both Star Trek: The Next Generation's philosophical post-scarcity as well as its larger utopianism, because it's only through understanding and respecting our shared existence that we can even arrive at such a utopia to begin with. And yet it remains so frustratingly out of reach for so many people, because, as Lwaxana also says, “it's too simple for some humans to comprehend”. And it's not just Lwaxana either-These are lessons Star Trek: The Next Generation must inherit from its spiritual teachers: Nausicaä, Kei and Yuri.

The reason Star Trek: The Next Generation stumbled so much in its previous two episodes was because it was spending too much time overthinking and obsessing over its identity it wasn't able to find its path to its Great Work. It needed to awaken into its true self, and it needed to meet someone like Lwaxana to inspire it to do that. And the universe made that happen, just as it guided Wyatt and Ariana to find each other, because Star Trek: The Next Generation is fundamentally good and will help bring about material cosmic progress. Utopias and idealism are only worthwhile if they have some tangible effect on the world, but thankfully the power of fiction is that its through stories and imagination that we can best see how the world of ideas and the world of matter are one in the same. “Haven” is the next logical step after “Encounter at Farpoint”: We've come to acknowledge and love the god within all of us, and the sacredness that connects us all can give life to the dreams that will change the world.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

“A bon entendeur ne faut qu'un parole.”: Code of Honor

It's so bad.
Would you believe it actually gets worse?

Let's square away the obvious right away. “Code of Honor” is catastrophically, disgustingly and inexcusably racist. I don't think anyone disputes that. Jonathan Frakes describes it bluntly as a “racist piece of shit”, and his castmates emphatically agree: Michael Dorn calls it “the worst episode of Star Trek ever filmed” while Brent Spiner muses that “It was the third episode so it was fortuitous that we did our worst that early on and it never got quite that bad again”. Somewhere along the way, somebody, most likely an assistant casting director or wardrobe designer, made the absolutely unthinkable decision to make the Ligonians an entire culture of space Africans, when they had never once been specified as such in the original script, and on top of that has them kidnap a white woman. Story editor Tracy Tormé points out the obvious, saying “Code of Honor” features a “1940s tribal Africa” depiction of Africans. Even Gene Roddenberry, a man not always known for his enlightened and progressive view of nonwestern, nonwhite societies, fired the director halfway through filming for being racist to the cast, although he was apparently fine with the rest of the episode.

The bottom line is nobody important wanted this episode to happen, and indeed *everyone* important was trying desperately to ensure that it didn't happen. So let's take it as read that “Code of Honor” is utterly abominable at a conceptual level, try to forgive the people we'll be spending the next seven years with (because it really wasn't their fault) and take a look at everything else that sucks about this repulsive train wreck. The first thing we notice after stripping away the most obvious hideousness is that the plot is basically an apathetic retread of “Amok Time”, with a member of the Enterprise forced to fight in ritual combat, with the clandestine administration of a neurosuppressor agent to one of the combatants a key part of the battle. Not only does it eschew absolutely all of the complex sexual and world-building themes of “Amok Time” in lieu of fantastically shitty and racist ones, as Wil Wheaton points out, “Code of Honor” aired the week after “The Naked Now”...Which was another twelfth-rate rehash of an Original Series episode. Not exactly the message the all-new Star Trek striving to stand apart from its iconic forebearer wants to be sending three weeks into its run.

But for me the worst part of all of this is that this is an episode I once actively sought out and looked forward to seeing. Let me, uh, try to explain: I was badly, badly mislead by Starlog magazine in this case, and I don't think I've quite gotten over that even now. “Code of Honor” was not an episode I saw when I was first introduced to Star Trek: The Next Generation. I didn't watch it when originally aired, or even during the syndicated reruns various networks would often run in later years. It just never happened to come up when I was watching (thankfully). I first learned about its existence a few years after the series went off the air during a period when I was still interested enough in Star Trek to want to fill in any gaps I noticed I had. I had a Starlog-published episode guide that was my first physical reference for every Star Trek: The Next Generation episode and was an invaluable resource for me until I got the Internet. It was this book that helped me reacquaint myself with the show's earliest years, which, apart from a handful of vividly memorable moments I barely remembered, and in particular a character I seemed to have completely forgotten: Tasha Yar.

Rediscovering Tasha's existence marked a turning point in my relationship with Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I was kicking myself for not having remembered her. Jadzia Dax and Kira Nerys from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had long since established themselves as two of my absolute favourite characters in the entire franchise for being tough, whip-smart and hyper-competent women who overtly and flamboyantly rejected traditional gender roles and stereotypes. I looked up to them tremendously, especially Dax, and I was ecstatic to discover that someone who looked to be the same type of character existed on Star Trek: The Next Generation too, as that show meant even more to me. Tasha was described as just the most fascinating and badass character, what with her backstory as the survivor of a failed Federation colony, her no-nonsense approach to running security on the Enterprise and tough, commanding personality Starlog described as “hot blooded”.

The magazine editors made Tasha Yar out to seem like just *the coolest* person imaginable: She even seemed to like the same sort of chic short, straight and layered hairstyle that was in vogue at the time the show was airing (you can see Chynna Phillips rocking it in the music video to “Hold On”) and that I personally had always admired and thought looked really pretty. The PR still they used for “Skin of Evil” has her defiantly out front, heroically putting herself between Armus and the rest of the away team, which is a scene I don't even think happens in the actual episode. I was already feeling more than a little nostalgic, and naturally I couldn't wait to go back and find out more about who was surely going to be my new favourite Star Trek character. According to what I could gather from Starlog, her big episode, apart from “Skin of Evil” (which I refused to watch just on principle) was “Code of Honor”.

Let me try and articulate the way the magazine described this episode. I'm doing this from memory because I don't have the actual book with me (I mean I'm sure it's somewhere in the house, I just don't know where offhand. I don't throw anything away, certainly not something like this), so bear with me, and anyway I think this approach is appropriate given my relationship with Star Trek: The Next Generation over the years. Starlog's synopsis went something like this: “Tasha Yar must engage an honour-bound warrior queen in ritualistic combat to secure desperately needed vaccine for a plague-ravaged planet”. Now, I don't know about any of you, but to me that setup sounded awesome. That one sentence conjured up for me images of tense, high-stakes negotiations with a stubborn, yet principled society with very high standards for whom they associate with. I was imagining Tasha passionately debating these people, for the bulk of the episode before heroically agreeing to the queen's stipulations during the climax, as dedicated to risking her life for others as she is honoured to be considered the Enterprise's finest warrior (I mean she had to be, right? the queen wouldn't have chosen her otherwise).

Of course Tasha was the best character to handle this plot. Apart from being the toughest, strongest, most badass character on the ship, her background gave her a deep understanding of both the moral imperative to help the plague victims as quickly as possible, but to also respect and honour the sacred traditions of the Ligonians. I'd always thought Tasha would embody the balance between a weathered, street-honed, hard-knocks style of working class morality with the cosmopolitan philosophy of 24th Century Starfleet. After all, she brings a unique perspective to the table, but she's still security chief of the Starship Enterprise, and she has that post for a reason. Maybe that would be another level to the “honour” theme of this episode: Tasha honours her post, her heritage, her values, the Ligonians and her duty to the mission all at the same time. At this point I was beyond excited to see “Code of Honor”, so I made a special trip to my local video store to rent their copy and discover a whole new way to love my favourite show.

And then I actually watched it. And my reaction was about what you'd expect it would be.

Basically nothing I thought was going to happen happened. Not only is Tasha not in charge of the negotiations, she barely does anything until she gets kidnapped (yes, kidnapped) by the Ligonian chief so he can forcibly marry her. Absolutely everybody else makes decisions for her, the only reason she fights a warrior queen (who is neither a warrior nor a queen) is because the show was paranoid about letting their *female action hero* actually fight people apart from other women, Denise Crosby was, well, Denise Crosby, and just, like, all of the racism. If you look up “racism” in the dictionary, there's no text or examples for any of the definitions, just gifsets from “Code of Honor”.

My god what a shitshow. The only thing I remember, my having blocked out as much of this episode from my memory as I was physically capable of doing, was the scene where Geordi brings Tasha the spiky glove thing. I thought the three or four seconds they talked to each other was kind of nice, especially considering how close they had been in “The Naked Now”. Geordi was concerned about her and Tasha was brave. I thought that was sweet. Then Picard stared out a window for a bit before the show faded to commercial, because everything's gotta be about him all the time. In hindsight, the experience of actually renting “Code of Honor” from the video store might have been part of the reason why I didn't watch Star Trek: The Next Generation again until 2000.

After all that, there are at least two positive things I can say about “Code of Honor”. Firstly, it's a terrible, inconceivably offensive Star Trek episode that actually has that reputation. The Original Series had an uncomfortable amount of episodes that were at the very least broadly similar to the calamity this one turned out to be, but everyone has selective memory when it comes to the Original Series, so that part of the show gets conveniently forgotten. That “Code of Honor” gets (rightfully) pilloried to the extent it does is a sign Star Trek is indeed being held to much higher standards now. And secondly, “Code of Honor” is without question the single worst episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it only gets better from here. But the flipside of that is that audiences' very first impressions of this show were of the two worst, most reprehensible stories in the entire series coming one after another right out of the gate.

Frankly, that there was even a show around to actually get better after this is a goddamn miracle.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

“It was only a kiss/It was only a kiss” The Naked Now

In space, no-one can hear you scream.
Bob Justman once said he felt the original “Naked Time” should have been the premier episode of Star Trek. Given Justman was on staff as a producer, perhaps that's why “The Naked Now” went out as the second, but first regular, episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This does not make that decision any less catastrophic.

It is not, I stress, simply that “The Naked Now” is a shitty remake. It unquestionably is a shitty remake, the shittiest, in fact, but there were underlying problems with the structure it inherits that the original still had in droves and this one merely doubles down on them. The absolute best you reading you could pull out of “The Naked Time” is that it was probably a bad idea to drive a starship while space drunk (although it's hilarious when it happens) and the worst is that confronting your emotions is distracting to the point of self-destructive and everyone should man up and bottle those emotions away somewhere because they interfere with duty. Let me address this as bluntly and succinctly as possible: I have witnessed firsthand what happens when people try to deny their feelings and hide their emotions from others because they're ashamed of them. That can be utterly devastating to a person's mind and mental health. Furthermore, this is Star Trek: The Next Generation. The entire point of the show is to demonstrate how humans can deal with their emotions in an idealistically healthy and fulfilling way. There is essentially no brief more contrary to the series' foundational thesis statement than this.

There's also the matter of leading off the series with an episode that is unabashedly a remake of an original Star Trek episode, complete with Picard and Data looking up Kirk's logs from the first episode to come up with a solution to their own problem. Gene Roddenberry wanted no overlap between the two Star Trek shows *whatsoever*, feeling, rightly, I might add, that Star Trek: The Next Generation needed to prove itself and stand on its own. Obviously, he was voted down in this case by his Star Trek fan producers who wanted to throw in continuity references to the Original Series whenever possible in lieu of actually telling a story. Perhaps the idea was that skeptical OG Trekkers would appreciate the nods to the old show, in much the same way the main viewscreen has running lights deliberately reminiscent of the ones on the set from the Original Series. But that's the fundamental mistake: The existence of “The Naked Now” is proof positive Paramount is misjudging and misunderstanding who its target demographic is, which isn't obsessive Star Trek nerds, but mainstream audiences for whom The Next Generation is their very first Star Trek who are being introduced to the franchise's concepts and ideals for the first time. And anyway, serious Trekkers would just look at something like this and use it as further evidence the new show is a pale imitation of the “real” Star Trek. Under absolutely no condition does this episode look like a good idea.

It's worth looking once more at the episode “The Naked Now” replaced, which apparently was the infamous “Blood and Fire”. Written by Dave Gerrold during preproduction, it was rejected by “certain unnamed studio executives” who allegedly reacted badly to its positive portrayal of homosexual characters, but (if the version Gerrold adapted for James Cawley's Star Trek Phase II is any indication) probably also because it was a ghastly piece of shit. What normally happened on Star Trek: The Next Generation is that production was so rushed and so down-to-the-wire every week, any given mediocre-to-poor episode can be, if not forgiven, at least explained, with the likely reality that the alternative was even worse. So, is “Blood and Fire” demonstrably worse than “The Naked Now”? Well, whatever its other vices (and there are many), “Blood and Fire” *did* feature two sympathetic gay male characters, despite being uncomfortably reminiscent of some white bread sitcom bringing in a token black character to reach the “urban” demographic. As for “The Naked Now”...Well...

In the book Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek, John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins lament Tasha Yar's sex scene with Data in this episode, arguing that the show took the two most androgynous and genderfluid characters on the Enterprise and “straightened them out” by forcing them into a heterosexual relationship. And, well, yeah, that's pretty much what happens. I recently came across a very interesting alternate reading of the scene in Troi's quarters on Tumblr as of this writing that posits Tasha as a nonbinary person struggling with femininity. The poster supposes that Tasha always wanted to wear dresses and act feminine, but didn't think she was “allowed to” because of her gender identity, but Troi showed her it was OK to like those things no matter how she identified. It's a sweet idea and I wish I could accept it as a redemptive reading...But that doesn't fit the character Tasha Yar was originally written as at all.

That's not how Vasquez would have acted: She was a very assertive character completely comfortable with the way she presented herself. To give Tasha this kind of scene is the show saying that it's in some sense “wrong” for her to act nontraditionally feminine and that she has some sort of hangup about it. Combine this with the fact the “Naked Time” brief supposedly exists to gives the audience a look at the main characters' innermost thoughts and desires, and, far from promoting a nonbinary or genderfluid reading of Tasha as a character, it seems disturbingly like the show is painting those very things as character flaws for Tasha to overcome. Then there's the sex scene itself, in addition to the numerous earlier scenes of Tasha flirting with other (exclusively male) crewmembers. This is possibly one of my least favourite moments in the entire series as it not only briefly turns Data into a glorified sexbot, it is literally the only thing apart from her death that Trekkers like to remember about Tasha Yar. In other words, this wonderfully groundbreaking and subversive character has finally been reduced down to “that redshirt broad Data slept with that one time”. *One episode in* and Star Trek: The Next Generation has both assassinated its most promising character and set feminism back thirty years in one fell swoop.

(Data fans were really happy though. Not only does he get laid, but Brent Spiner is this episode's highlight by far, getting every opportunity to show off the pratfalls and comic timing he's so good at. I'm sure Trekkers found that a more than acceptable trade for ruining Tasha Yar before the show even got started.)

Tasha Yar, or rather Denise Crosby, does get one good moment in this episode though, and, predictably, it goes consistently overlooked. It's the scene in the observation lounge where Tasha goes looking for Geordi, who's just been infected by the plot device. Crosby and LeVar Burton share a genuinely touching moment here where Geordi begs Tasha for a vague and unspecified sort of “help”, while she comforts him. It's out of character for both of them (for one thing Geordi is upset that he can't see like other humans, when just last episode he was telling Doctor Crusher he wouldn't give up his enhanced vision for anything), but the way LeVar delivers the lines it feels like Geordi is looking up to Tasha because he sees some inner strength in her he admires. It's a wonderful little bit that someone far more talented than the people who let “The Naked Now” go out could have done something with, and it does more to define Tasha Yar as a character than anything Denise Crosby actually gets to do on the show, or for that matter ever will. Crosby, for her part, frustratingly fails to pick up on this, or rather fails to pick up on it in the way *Tasha* would have. She plays her reaction very gentle, nurturing and reassuring...Which is precisely the sort of thing I would expect to see from *Troi*. This episode gives us the final, conclusive proof that Gene Roddenberry should never have switched Denise Crosby and Marina Siritis' roles.

Speaking of Marina Sirtis, she's every bit as hammy here as she gets accused of being in “Encounter at Farpoint”, in particular the absolutely and unintentionally hilarious scene where Troi professes to Riker "Wouldn't you rather be alone with me? With me in your mind?". It's bad. She's just completely checked out of everything, and I don't blame her given the material she had to work with. Jonathan Frakes was apparently seething with rage the entire week and says he was “totally ashamed” by what he did (though I will say I appreciate Riker using what is clearly a sonic screwdriver to open a sealed door on the Tsiolkovsky). Poor Gates McFadden, in the segment that won her the role of Doctor Crusher by being a “funny” bit, just ends up forced to awkwardly shuffle through the most spectacularly unsexy and unromantic ship tease imaginable with (the much, much older!) Patrick Stewart. And then there's Wil Wheaton, whose Wesley Crusher ends up having to fill the role Kevin Thomas Riley played in the original “Naked Time” and about whom I'd rather say as little as possible. Suffice to say Wesley is by this point well on his way towards earning the infamous reputation he'll accrue as of the end of the series.

So, is “The Naked Now” markedly better then “Blood and Fire”, or at least less awful? Purely in terms of gender roles, absolutely not. As bad as “Blood and Fire” was, it wasn't *deliberately* retrograde, homophobic, transphobic or triumphantly heteronormative, and “The Naked Now” is all of those things. It may have been the “safer” choice for the second episode purely due to what a spectacular mess “Blood and Fire” was, but “safer” usually equates to “reactionary” and “hegemonic”, and this is no exception. It's a betrayal of almost everything Star Trek: The Next Generation stands for right out of the gate, an insult to the intelligence of everyone who watched it and a complete waste of the time and talent of everyone who worked on it, not just Denise Crosby. But really, both episodes are indicative of the frustrating reality that, right now, Star Trek: The Next Generation doesn't seem to be passing Q's test. In a world where “Love is Everything. Risk Your Life to Elope!!” exists, both “Blood and Fire” and “The Naked Now” are completely unacceptable.

My memories of this episode are of darkness, coldness and isolation. I remember most vividly the blacked out, silent and frozen Tsiolkovsky: It was eery to see the bright, warm and inviting world that had just been created for the Enterprise (as both ships seem to share a design lineage) turned upside down like that. One the one hand it feels like the mood the episode establishes in the first act could have been used to help create a kind of Star Trek: The Next Generation version of the imposing claustrophobia and loneliness that defined the first Alien. But, given what “The Naked Now” represents everywhere else, it seems much more fitting to read it as a visual metaphor for the show's betrayal, rejection and inversion of its own ethical principles and promises. In the entire history of my experience with television, I can't think of a worse or more ill-advised second episode than this.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ship's Log, Supplemental: Star Trek: The Next Generation: Encounter At Farpoint (Original TV Soundtrack)

I didn't own a lot of music when I was younger. CDs were expensive, vinyl records moreso, both were hard to find where I live at the time and we didn't really have much to play them on anyway. Any music I did have was strictly on audio cassette, and one of the most life-changing moments for me came when my aunt bought me a Sony Walkman so I could actually listen to my own music wherever I wanted.

Naturally, an album of music from Star Trek: The Next Generation got one of my scarce tape deck slots. There were a lot of soundtracks released for the series, but the one I had was the very first-Dennis McCarthy's score for “Encounter at Farpoint”. Trekkers may disagree, but McCarthy is for me the iconic and quintessential Star Trek composer, with what's probably my absolute favourite piece of music and score in the entire franchise to his name. We're not talking about either right now, but we are looking at his first Star Trek work and one that holds a great deal of meaning for me personally.

I'm not ashamed to admit one of my favourite genres of music is film, television and video game soundtracks, especially theme songs. I admire how musicians can create songs that are designed to be equal parts short, catchy, memorable and deeply evocative. I can put on a good soundtrack and be instantly reminded of what I love about the actual work so much without being burdened with the infelicities that sometimes accompany the works themselves: It's like a version of the work with the contrast dial turned up, and I'll frequently put a soundtrack on in the background if I'm trying to cultivate a specific mood surrounding its parent work, like if I'm trying to write about it or something.

Dennis McCarthy's score to “Encounter at Farpoint” is very solid: It is, I have said, not my favourite of his scores, though there are one or two pieces that stand out for me, but it is quite good. Indeed, it's probably the best kind of soundtrack for the background music style of listening. It should probably say something that this has never been an album I listen to in its entirety very frequently-Not that it's bad, but rather, that “Encounter at Farpoint” itself is so good I typically prefer to just go watch that. Although that said, I do have memories of putting this on during a road trip to Boston once and it making the other passengers quite happy. The real draw of this album for me has always been two things: Firstly, the sleeve art, which is one of the most evocative and meaningful images ever associated with Star Trek for me. The shot of the Enterprise in particular is my absolute favourite. Second, the theme song, which is, ironically enough, the one part of the soundtrack McCarthy *didn't* do.

When I was younger I adored this song; it was probably one of my favourite pieces of music ever for a very long time and seemed to embody everything I saw in and loved about Star Trek: The Next Generation. The pounding, rhythmic beat sounded so triumphant and energetic and the “Space...The Final Frontier” section sounded ethereal, haunting and mesmerizing. I would listen to it over and over again (a very hard thing to do in the late '80s and early '90s when all you have is a tape deck and a rewind button: I have never once taken for granted my iPod's face controls and repeat functionality and give thanks to Apple for that every time I turn it on), which is a habit I still have today. I tend to like listening to one single song for an extended period of time instead of full albums because of how the cyclical melodies invoke a droning, zen-like state of mind after awhile (but only when I'm by myself: Another thing I'm eternally grateful for are earbuds). I guess that's what raising myself on Kraftwerk-inspired electronica and acid house Hi-NRG trance did to me.

Although the pilot and Season 1 versions of the intro credits sequence are not the ones that hold the most meaning to me, this rendition of the the title theme itself may be my favourite. Although there's an even better remix of “Space...The Final Frontier” to come later, the rendition of the title theme itself may be the best in the series in my opinion. After Denise Crosby and Wil Wheaton left, the entire sequence was shortened to accommodate their absence in the credits by omitting the second refrain of the song's opening beats. I've always felt this version of the song feels, well, artificially truncated. To me it sounds awkwardly as if the song has skipped its own beat somewhere, which indeed it has, and it's always bugged me. But the version we get on this album is the full, uncut original recording, so even though I by far prefer the later intro sequence overall, if I'm going to listen to an audio recording of the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme song, this is the one I reach for. Not only is it complete, it does tend to win out in terms of nostalgia as this is the version I've always had a physical copy of.

But of course, the song used as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation wasn't actually written for Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's a very lightly retooled version of Jerry Goldsmith's theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I remember when I first discovered that, and feeling so deeply crestfallen and disappointed (recall I saw The Next Generation before anything else): I was watching the first Star Trek movie with my family and was stunned to hear that ever familiar song announcing Captain Kirk flying into Starfleet Command. At first I couldn't accept it, and for the longest time afterward I still associated Goldsmith's song primarily with Star Trek: The Next Generation, not Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It never sounded right to be used as often in Gene Roddenberry's magnum opus as it is. But nowadays, especially after being exposed to the full spectrum of Star Trek music, my opinions have turned 180 degrees.

I now feel The Next Generation was hurt by recycling Goldsmith's piece because this means the series doesn't really have its own signature song, which all other Star Trek works do, love them or hate them (we'll get to “Faith of the Heart” someday). It may not sound like much, but in an era where so much can be conveyed through sound and vision alone, things like theme songs are important. And furthermore it certainly couldn't have helped a skeptical contingent of hardcore Trekkers at the time already suspicious of a Star Trek with no Kirk, Spock and McCoy to tune into “Encounter at Farpoint” on first transmission and hear not just the old theme song from Star Trek: The Motion Picture but Alexander Courage's old “Space...The Final Frontier” piece from the Original Series (incidentally, I personally feel the reverse is true for that song: It now *absolutely* belongs to Star Trek: The Next Generation in my mind and it feels weird to hear it used on the older show). I could see it being one more thing people like that could use to argue Star Trek: The Next Generation was permanently in the Original Series' shadow and to justify endlessly comparing it to and connecting it with its predecessor. So sadly, I simply can't enjoy this song at quite the same level I used to be able to because of that.

And this does confuse me some, as there was an alternative. There was, in fact, a unique theme song specifically written for Star Trek: The Next Generation. I don't know much of the background for this song; I presume Dennis McCarthy wrote it because it's on this album as a bonus track and he's credited for it in the metadata, but apart from that I've been able to find out next to nothing about it. I happen to like it: It's been described as sounding like John Williams' theme for the Superman movies, and I can definitely hear the similarities. Maybe that's why the creative team decided not to go with it, but I actually prefer it when compared to the one they went with nowadays. It's just as upbeat and rousing, but it has the benefit of not being derivative of anything else. And, most importantly, “Space...The Final Frontier” leads just as effortlessly into it as it does into the official theme. Although ultimately, I have to reassert a point I made in an earlier post and say the Star Trek: The Next Generation remix of the Reading Rainbow theme should have been the official theme song.

(Just in case it turns out the composers do actually talk about this during their roundtable discussion on the Season 5 Blu-ray box set special features, I'll just throw out the temporary defense that I haven't watched that yet as of this writing and will have to revise accordingly later. Although I'm sure someone will let me know in the comments.)

And I suppose that's a solid description of this soundtrack: It's an album I treasured when I was younger whose luster may have faded in my mind a bit over the years, but that still holds a special place in my heart. Much like Star Trek: The Next Generation itself.


 Here's a fan re-edit of the "Encounter at Farpoint" intro sequence with the unused theme song.