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.


  1. I've often thought that a lot of narrative texts would benefit from being reduced to a one sentence summary and then rewritten from the ground up by someone who knows nothing else about them.

    1. I did a similar rewrite in my head with the old Davison Doctor Who story Arc of Infinity in the comment threads of its TARDIS Eruditorum essay. Although I have a pretty sketchy memory for most of the Doctor Who I've seen in my childhood, I'm certain that I've never seen Arc of Infinity. My first exposure to Doctor Who came in my early childhood, when the Canadian children's cable TV station YTV first started, and filled some of its programming with British family sci-fi like Doctor Who.

      At the time, I don't think I could appreciate the generally flawed Davison stories. I would have suffered from the same immature reactions to the Davison regeneration as most of the emotionally stunted fans: I thought he was dull because he was less the centre of attention than Tom Baker, and couldn't perceive the subtle aspects of his performance. I at least had the more reasonable excuse that I was five.

      So I tuned out for most of the Davison era on its Canadian rebroadcast in the early 1990s, and missed most of the Saward era. "Well, I'll tune into a random episode and see if Doctor Who is any better," I'd say. And I'd hit Terminus part 3 or Timelash. And I'd just change the channel, then come back when the McCoy episodes started again.

      I'm actually thinking of taking that new story, removing all the Doctor Who elements, and turning it into an ecologically mystical sci-fi theatrical play.

  2. But about Star Trek.

    I don't think I've watched the episode since its initial broadcast. My experience of it was very interesting. I watched the show like a 4 year old at the time (largely because I was 4 years old), sitting cross-legged in front of the TV, ever since it first came out with Farpoint. But it was really only my childhood persistence that I was watching new Star Trek. I barely even knew was Star Trek was at the time, but I knew from whatever culture I had managed to absorb that it was some kind of magical epic story of our culture, and that if it was being made again, I should watch it. I don't even think analogies are useful, as I wouldn't have known anything to allude to at the time. I only knew that Star Trek was an amazing, powerful story, and that I had to take part.

    And as I watched this story, I was confused. I couldn't quite put my finger on why, because I was 4 years old and didn't know what racism was. I could only see that this story seemed so stupid and useless, that it was weird and strange, but not in a good way. It unsettled me, but not in a way that I would have wanted to be unsettled, the way those creepy Doctor Who stories with the anti-matter man and the evil brain and the zombie vampires from the future unsettled me. I'm not sure if there's a word to describe what I felt, but I remember a combination of disappointment, non-directional disgust, and boredom.

    I think this is why I've avoided revisiting TNG Season One, preferring to dip into the Netflix catalogue with the best episodes of Seasons Two through Four, before we get to the more radically cynical stories of the later years. I remember Geordi and Worf being wasted, none of the women having anything worthwhile to do, Riker coming off as more boyish than Wesley, and Wesley being fucking insufferable. And the costuming for the guest characters that embody the most offensive of 80s aesthetics. The only first season stories I think I could revisit are Farpoint, and anything involving Data doing cool things.

    Yet at age 4, I kept watching. It was almost as though I knew there was more than this.

  3. I've now rewatched the entirety of TNG enough times that the clunkers are tolerable, not because they're better than garbage, but because it's hard for me to enjoy the good long runs and great episodes without the context of where they fall and what came before them. Often times episodes I barely remember (few) or hated for immature reasons featured really exquisite character beats - you'd get some junior officer interaction in the subplots, between characters who didn't always get to interact with one another (think of things like Worf and Pulaski bonding over tea).
    However, the tendency with "getting through" these bad episodes is that I let them run, then do something else - read or write or whatever and just let it be Star Trek background noise. So I haven't ever actually watched Code of Honor with a critical eye before. So yesterday, I did.
    It's pretty unforgivably bad. There are almost no character moments or subplots with the unbelievably minor exception of "Riker stayed on the ship, ran things competently." But as I watched knowing how deserved this thing's reputation was, I was also stricken that it was a bit of a missed opportunity. Within the skeleton plot, which I hadn't quite put my finger on as an Amok Time retread, so thanks, I thought that this "TOS" type storyline was hardly a bad style of story to retread. We saw the epic failure of Naked Now retreading a bad TOS episode, a retread of Amok Time could have been epic - if the aliens were allowed to be aliens. Allegory doesn't really work if it's not allegorical, and progressive ideals fall dead in the face of walking back a few decades and having it staring your idealistic actors in the face. I couldn't help thinking as bad as it was that somehow properly alien aliens would've made this pretty memorable for a first season episode. You know, if they were visiting like, the Gorn, and a lizard-man kidnapped Tasha.

    1. "However, the tendency with "getting through" these bad episodes is that I let them run, then do something else - read or write or whatever and just let it be Star Trek background noise."

      That's exactly how I "watched" the episode "Justice" last night!

  4. Ha! I finally found new copies of Wil Wheaton's reviews/recollections: "Oh good! We're going to be racist and sexist in this one!"

    I'm not familiar with the behind-the-scenes stuff, but according to Wikipedia, the casting was also down to director Russ Mayberry. It's not clear whether he was fired for the racist casting, racist behaviour, or both:
    I imagine it was too late to undo the mess at that point.

    Writer Katharyn Powers redid the story for "Emancipation" in Stargate SG-1, also the third episode:
    This time with Mongols. And it also comes across rather poorly:
    Well, like TNG, SG1 gets better.

  5. I do want to take a moment to compliment the early bit in the episode where Data talks about counting coup, and refers to French as a dead language, thereby angering Picard. Glorious comedy.

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