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.


  1. I actually remember this story quite well; I'd say it's the earliest TNG episode that I remember clearly from my first experience of watching as a child, aside from Farpoint itself. What I remember (at all, really) is the story of Riker coming to understand the responsibilities and burdens of having these powers.

    Thinking on it now, there's a better way to have done it. Q has a curious dual nature in the show. He acts as the meta-textual judge, which is your preferred interpretation here, and which we saw most clearly in Farpoint (and in All Good Things). Yet this position is also that of an authority: he evaluates whether TNG lives up to a particular standard and judges it accordingly. The watchful eye of an authority can't sustain genuine growth. Any development one makes will ultimately become motivated by fear of the authoritative judge.

    Q also operates as a trickster god for the world of Star Trek. The episode is flawed in that it blurs these facets of his character in a single narrative; they can't really function at the same time because the trickster can never be an authority. A trickster is continually in conflict with authority, as when the Continuum recalls him at the end of Hide and Q. The relationship of Q with authority will wax and wane through rebellion and allegiance throughout the rest of his tenure in the franchise. Certainly not every Q episode is a winner, but there's more to the trickster aspect of the character than simply being Picard's wacky demigod uncle.

    The best Q stories use his nature as a trickster to progress the characters, humanity, the Federation, and Star Trek. Q can provoke and prod change without fear.

    An additional wrinkle is that All Good Things implies that Q visits the Enterprise out of strict temporal order, which retcons the narrative his appearances create with a serious degree of uncertainty.

    1. A Hide and Q that focussed on his relationship with Picard and Riker, and played Q more explicitly as a subversive character. Riker always has something of a mischievous streak, and suddenly being gifted with Q powers would appeal to that part of him. Picard would develop a kind of advisor/father relationship as Riker deals with the test Q has put to him.

    2. The authority question as it pertains to gods is one I'm continually grappling with.

      The conception of divinity I've been increasingly utilizing here is not derived from traditional theism. Clearly, if you were to follow that train of thought to its logical conclusion, you're left with gods who, well, pass judgment as part of an authoritarian power structure, and that's obviously anathema to my philosophy here.

      But gods need not be thought of that way. This is why, following this blog's transcendent rebirth at the feet of Kei and Yuri, I lean so heavily on the Shaktist conception of the god as iṣṭa-devatā, a divine (utopian) ideal that each individual practitioner takes into herself based on her experience and understanding of the sublime. That and the Alan Moore idea that gods can be shaped by mythopoeic mortal forces of place, time and memory. Therein lies a solid allegory for how Star Trek: The Next Generation works and how we ought respond to utopianism, I think.

      As this pertains to Q, I'm left with the problem that he does, in fact, act like a prosecutor and a judge, and the trickster archetype doesn't quite get me what I'm trying to say. I tried to hedge against that in "Encounter at Farpoint" by equating Q with the audience, thus having the challenge coming from the bottom-up rather than the top-down, which also doubled as an inversion of standard Star Trek operating procedure.

      I'm not sure yet that's as clear and effective a redemptive reading as I'd hoped it would be.

    3. In this case, the problem might be that Q never concretely displays himself in those terms. It's a situation where Josh Marsfelder in 2014 is more advanced spiritually than the TNG production team in 1986/7. In the iconography itself, Q appears either as an authoritative god pronouncing judgments, or as a trickster. Both Western models, both existing as a dichotomy: the authoritative god exists to maintain a universally valid morality; the trickster exists to destabilize authority's morality in the name of a higher good. The god of utopia would progress beyond the ultimately wholly negative activity of the trickster, actually expressing the higher good in the context of the current moment and world.

      The utopian god would be what Q is trying to become through his acts of rebellion.

    4. "It's a situation where Josh Marsfelder in 2014 is more advanced spiritually than the TNG production team in 1986/7."

      Yes, but you see this has never stopped me before :-)

  2. I don't see the two as mutually exclusive. In fact, I can't really think of a higher authority than tricksterism - the eschewing of formal authorities and godhead figures is a pertinent part of original Star Trek ideal and is evidenced everywhere and in every way, as the Enterprise grapples with cosmic despots, Earthborn despots ... or corrupt or incompetent admiralty. But that's digressing a fair bit from the point.

    The point is that in a universe of entropy, a rigid thought-structure makes it impossible to become freed from the real to the point where you might reach a Traveler-esque blending of thought, matter and energy. The very nature of the Q being a "Continuum" implies this heavily, as it eschews the very notion of linear progression, whether that be thought-patterns created in linear time, ascension through linear ranks, travel from Point A to Point B on a line, or even the evolution of species prior to that ascension.

    There's no greater judge than ever-changing chaos, because it's the one constant in the universe.

    But I agree that from a storytelling point of view there's a disparate gap between the efficacy of the types of Q stories and I think it's very much a tonal disconnect. The link between trickster iconography and human progression is never connected, and so the episodes exist on two sides of a bipolar exchange, which is "Serious Q" versus "Comical Q".

    De Lancie can obviously do "comedic but menacing" so having the episode itself be somewhat comical is unnecessary and gutting. (See: His one appearance on DS9)

    But that reading belies the episode's actual faults - part of it is that Q as a recurring role is something that needs to be codified in a "Season Arc" and mid-season isn't necessarily the most dramatic place to bring him back. And part of it is that this episode's premise is pretty bad. They did "Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely" in Shatner's pilot episode, they did Trickster God likes Napoleonic Human Warfare in Season 1 of TOS. Nothing here feels new, and therefore none of it in any way acts as proof for the necessity of TNG's existence. And there's another problem that nagged at me, too - Riker's defining character trait later on, but that has roots as early as Farpoint, is that he's easygoing, communicative, empathetic - he talks to people like it's second nature, he's excellent at poker table bluffs, negotiation, he's everyone's best friend. His "choices" for what wishes his friends would wish granted are so far off the mark as to be unbelievable for his character to have contemplated.

    The actors are certainly still finding their voices and characters, ten episodes in, but it is pleasant to see them ease into the roles. Crosby and Stewart were excellent ... as was that little bit of Worf hype when Data remarked at how far he'd traversed and his future bromance Riker and friend Geordi were astonished.

  3. What the Crosby-Stewart here scene proves is that Crosby would have been dynamite as Troi. Yes, her face-acting isn't the greatest, but that actually makes sense for Troi--Crosby would have brought to her a sort of dissonant serenity that made her a little bit more alien, occasionally cracking into emotional scenes like the one here to keep her human.

    (And of course we KNOW Sirtis could have handled playing a warrior with a tormented past thanks to a little show called Gargoyles. I look forward to your inevitable entry on THAT.)

    Once again swapping Crosby and Sirtis is revealed as a serious contender for the worst of Roddenberry's many, many bad calls in his career.

  4. "As this pertains to Q, I'm left with the problem that he does, in fact, act like a prosecutor and a judge, and the trickster archetype doesn't quite get me what I'm trying to say."

    I can see both sides of the comments from you and Adam Josh and really enjoyed your comments too K. Jones.

    I do have a feeling of sympathy (I do admit to bias here as I admire the Trickster archetype deeply!) with the idea of Q as a Trickster, maybe not exactly as a Trickster God, but one who is *playing* at being a God (and not doing it very well, really) and as we see in Farpoint as a Judge. So he Judges TNG - but gradually we do see over time him moving towards judging his own kind and trying to turn the tables with them. I do admit that this is me placing my own thesis onto the show and really there is a terrible of inconsistency in the Q stories - but in general I still have real affection for even the poor ones, I guess it's the playfulness of him I love, as anything that sticks its tongue out at Star Fleet I enjoy.

    1. It's an interesting redemptive reading to be sure, taking advantage of the show's trend towards character development-based stories as it goes along. I think the ultimate problem is, as both you and K point out, there's an irreconcilable tonal disconnect in the way Q is handled from story to story and this makes it ultimately impossible to come up with a unifying theory for how he works and what he's supposed to symbolize on anything other than an extreme case-by-case basis.

      One thing that did quite stick with me in your comment is the idea of playing at a role, and how that can be used to question the power structures one is surrounded by. It is, of course, a somewhat Dirty Pair approach to performativity, but it actually also ties into that solution to the Starfleet problem I hinted I'd been working on in my response to your comment under the Doctor Who post...

    2. Cheers Josh. Yeah there are certainly problems with the consistency in the writing as Q is presented - I would *so* love (!) a unified approach in his stories so his character could match my ideals. That's what we hope for with such characters that touch the flame of inspiration (or Awen in the Old Welsh) in us.

      i am very intrigued by the response you make about *playing* can be the tool that assists the questioning of power structures. That idea is pretty much central to all of my work and forms the bedrock to the ideas that inform my practice. I very much look forwards to hearing and discovering how performativity influences the Starfleet problem. Excited... !