Friday, October 31, 2014

Ship's Log, Supplemental Bonus: “Oh, don't even go to the first season!”

Was what LeVar Burton once said in an interview with the now-defunct Star Trek Magazine when the DVD box sets for Star Trek: The Next Generation started being released. Even cast members, when prompted in fan environments, will tow mainline fandom's party line and cringe on cue at the prospect of the series' supposedly irredeemable first season. And while I grant there are issues to be found in this year's crop of episodes, there are issues to be found in *all* of Star Trek: The Next Generation's seven seasons and I'm still resolute in my belief the first year is unfairly singled out for blame. No, it's not what we've come to expect from Star Trek: The Next Generation and yes, it's a bit awkward in places, but Jonathan Frakes is correct to point out this was a year where the show took risks it wouldn't take later on. And, love her or hate her, this is your only opportunity to see Tasha Yar as a crewmember.
So these are my picks for the absolute best of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Year One. Not every episode is a masterpiece, but each one is far better than its reputation would have you believe and well worth a look during any journey through the show's mythos.
  1. “Encounter at Farpoint”
  2. “Haven”
  3. “Where No One Has Gone Before”
  4. “The Last Outpost”
  5. “Lonely Among Us”
  6. “The Battle”
  7. “Too Short a Season”
  8. “The Big Goodbye”
  9. “11001001”
  10. “Home Soil”
  11. “Coming of Age”
  12. “Heart of Glory”
  13. “The Arsenal of Freedom”
  14. “Symbiosis”
  15. “We'll Always Have Paris”
  16. “Conspiracy”
  17. “The Neutral Zone”
Addendum: If this is your first visit to Star Trek: The Next Generation, I have to begrudgingly throw in “Datalore” as well. It's not good, but the events it sets in motion come back to play an important part in later story arcs. But even without it, I look at this list and still see a pretty formidable success-failure ratio. I'm recommending roughly the same amount of episodes from Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1 as I would from the entirety of the Dirty Pair TV series-While this season doesn't have anywhere near the same number of unmitigated masterpieces as that one did, that's pretty high praise coming from me.
Speaking of...
Since we're compiling enumerated episode lists anyway and since I never officially did one for this show, here are my picks for the very best episodes from the Dirty Pair TV series, for the five DP fans who actually follow this site. While as of this writing I'm still going with Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia as my absolute favourite Dirty Pair story overall, the first two novels are a must-read if you can find them and Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is probably worth a look at least once, they're not included here (nor is any Classic DP material I've yet to cover) as I'm strictly focusing on the 1985 anime TV series today. With that in mind, I highly recommend...
  1. “How to Kill a Computer”
  2. “Go Ahead, Fall in Love! Love is Russian Roulette”
  3. “The Chase Smells Like Cheesecake and Death”
  4. “Criados' Heartbeat”
  5. “Lots of Danger, Lots of Decoys”
  6. “Love is Everything. Risk Your Life to Elope!!”
  7. “Gotta Do It! Love is What Makes a Woman Explode”
  8. “Hire Us! Beautiful Bodyguards are a Better Deal”
  9. “Hah Hah Hah, Dresses and Men Should Always Be Brand New”
  10. “What's This?! My Supple Skin is a Mess”
  11. “Dig Here, Meow Meow. Happiness Comes at the End”
  12. “An Unjustified Lover's Grudge. Let Me Love You Without Revenge”
  13. “No Way! 463 People Disappeared?!”
  14. “We Did It! 463 People Found!”
  15. “Something's Amiss...?! Our Elegant Revenge”

Thursday, October 30, 2014

“Even when all the worlds have frozen or exploded”: The Neutral Zone

Let's address the obvious things first. Yes, “The Neutral Zone” rehashes key elements from both “Space Seed” and “Balance of Terror”. Yes, the Romulans as depicted in this episode bear no relation whatsoever to the way they were portrayed in the Original Series, in essence throwing all the interesting commentary and contrast they bring with them out an airlock. Yes, those bases were indeed meant to be destroyed as part of a story arc to introduce the Borg that gets promptly forgotten about as soon as this episode airs. And yes, the motivations of the main cast are seriously wonky and out of character such that characterization of people like Picard and Riker waffles back and forth bafflingly from scene to scene. This is all self-evident and indisputable. There, is, however, a pretty simple explanation for all of it that can't just be laid at the creative team.

If you guessed it's the Writer's Guild strike, well, good for you! You're getting good at this. I'm afraid you don't win anything, though.

“The Neutral Zone” is basically a first draft spec script. The reason it is a first draft spec script is because it was the only thing the team had lying around to put into production to close out the year, and essentially nobody was allowed to actually revise it so it would, you know, make sense and be coherent. Every single fault the finished product has can straightforwardly be pinned on this, and to single out “The Neutral Zone” in particular for blame seems a bit unfair to me, not only given how sketchy things are going to get next year, but also due to the altogether reasonable defense that, through such gems as “The Naked Now”, “Code of Honor”, “Angel One” and “Skin of Evil”, this team has demonstrated itself to be perfectly capable of screwing up *without* an industry-wide Writer's Guild strike to slow them down further. But also because, in spite of everything, “The Neutral Zone” really does work and contributes quite a lot to the unfolding text of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Romulans are, of course, a problem. After D.C. Fontana and others spent the better part (and I mean that quite emphatically in several senses) of the Original Series trying to make them a social parallel of the Federation, in some sense a people more cultured and sophisticated than us, “The Neutral Zone” basically undoes all of that in one fell swoop by making them an entire species of Dick Dastardlys. This does not, it should be noted, doom the Star Trek: The Next Generation Romulans for good: Future stories set in this continuity will make impressive strides with them and redeem this early tactical blunder by essentially depicting them as a fractured and splintered figurehead empire in decline...which actually *does* build off some themes from the Original Series, though they're back to mustache-twirling by the Dominion War. But the fact does remain they certainly don't work all that well *here*. Well, when I say that I of course mean except for the Romulan Warbird, which is predictably a breathtaking, awe-inspiring masterpiece of design and one of my favourite bits of Star Trek: The Next Generation iconography.

This is the third of Andy Probert's three starship designs for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it's every bit as lovely and powerful as the Ferengi Marauder and the Enterprise itself. On this ship I'm struck by the contrasting vertical and horizontal elements: That forward section always brought to my mind a mesmerizingly alien stylized tower of sorts, and I love how it's mirrored by the “tail feathers” at the back. I find myself once again captivated by all the little windows that project such an awesome sense of scale onto the ship, and once again I have to speculate what it looks like on the inside. For some reason I get a very grungy, utilitarian feel from Romulan technology and design, perhaps appropriately akin to old-style Soviet engineering. If the Bird-of-Prey was like a submarine, the Warbird reminds me of Soviet nuclear icebreakers, and I can imagine that “tail feather” section comprised of dingy engine rooms and oxidized maintenance decks. So there you have the three great Probert starships: The Enterprise is a research vessel with all the accommodations of a futuristic night club, the Ferengi Marauder is a floating Manhattan high-rise and the Romulan Warbird is the NS Арктика writ large.

Perhaps unexpectedly, it's the B-plot (or C-plot I guess if you still want to count the Borg stuff) of “The Neutral Zone” that's the most interesting. With Clare, Sonny and Offenhouse, we get our first, and potentially still strongest, commentary on Star Trek: The Next Generation's relationship with the present day. This is the episode that most solidifies the show's commitment to post-scarcity themes: The 24th Century is described numerous times, and in great detail, as being a time when material wants and needs no longer exist, all debilitating diseases have been accounted for, people can literally be brought back from the dead (unless they're Tasha Yar, natch) money (and therefore capitalism) has been abandoned as youthful shortsightedness and, tacitly, every person is free to pursue their own calling without fear of oppression and reproach.We also get the first concrete date in Star Trek history: 2364, from which the entirety of canon Star Trek chronology is derived. Indeed before this, the understanding was that Star Trek: The Next Generation took place in the very early 24th Century, perhaps not as far removed from the 23rd Century of the Original Series story as we had assumed.

This is a series of bombshell revelations. The chronology stuff alone is worth an essay unto itself, but my readers are likely most interested in the post-scarcity concepts. What we get with “The Neutral Zone” is Star Trek: The Next Generation's first defining stab at its diegetic utopianism, and it's very clearly making the argument this is the sort of environment we should be striving for. Not necessarily in the grandiose politicizing sense: The show has long since divorced its ideological utopianism from its world-building, even if Gene Roddenberry hasn't, and its problematization of the Federation is only just beginning. Also interesting to note is that even though “The Neutral Zone” cribs some key plot points from “Space Seed”, it's also expressly distinct from it in a number of important respects. Namely, while the show pays lip service to the established history of the Star Trek universe circa the 1980s and 1990s here, Sonny, Clare and Offenhouse are very clearly meant to be people like us. People from the *real* 1980s and 1990s, not the pretend Star Trek one with the Eugenics Wars and all that. And though the show is skeptical of us across the board, it does provide three contrasting representative viewpoints for us.

Clare stands for uncertainty in the face of massive change and upheaval. She shuts down once she begins to process how everything she knew about her world and how it worked no longer applies, but she's helped in coming to terms with that by Deanna. Offenhouse meanwhile is deliberately a reactionary, and thinks he can force the 24th Century to conform to his Will and his belief systems. Naturally, he's a high-powered business magnate concerned with stocks and investments who uses terms like “upwardly mobile” and is obsessed by power. But he's not shown to be an out-and-out villain either, as is demonstrated in the scene on the bridge during the climax where he calls Tebok's bluff. He does have talents that are still valid, he just needs to come to understand he has to remove them from the blinkered and toxic context he's used to viewing them through. And tellingly it's Sonny, the musician, who doesn't have any sort of trouble at all adjusting to his new life. Artists are a kind of shaman for modern ages, and they're frequently the sorts of people most readily able to accept new realities and new ways of thinking. Sonny goes with the flow, as he says as much.

The biggest and most common objection to the Star Trek: The Next Generation model of post-scarcity as it manifests here is a standard Marxist emphasis on material cycles of production. If, the argument goes (and I'm simplifying considerably here), the 24th Century is a purely post-scarcity environment where material needs no longer exist, then why does anybody work? What's the point of the Enterprise boldly going out to study and make contact with new people and new ways of thought if they're not being paid? What motivates them? Why doesn't everyone just sit around on Earth like futuristic lotus-eaters lounging by the food replicators? Bemusingly, to me at least, this is essentially the same question Offenhouse levels at Captain Picard when he asks “What's the challenge?”. Picard has a ready-made response that speaks volumes about where this show is trying to place its idealism, but also about how little fans actually pay attention to their favourite show's philosophy:
“The challenge, Mister Offenhouse, is to improve yourself. To enrich yourself. Enjoy it.”
Why does the Enterprise crew do what they do? Quite simply, because they want to. Because they need to. Because they have an unquenchable thirst to travel, to explore, to learn and to grow. To become better people day after day. Wanderlust is a formative and irreducible part of their being. There may well be people content to stay put on Earth and revel in the lifestyle the 24th Century affords them (the series bible even specifies as much), but those people aren't on the Enterprise. Granted, this doesn't explain why Starfleet works according to antiquated Earth military structure, but that's the fault of Gene Roddenberry and has been a problem with Star Trek since 1964 and isn't something we can level purely at the current creative team.

A year into its journey, does Star Trek: The Next Generation have the right to play Q like this? Perhaps, perhaps not. As touching and inspiring as Captain Picard's final speech about the need to “go forward” and how there's “still so much to learn” may be, I still can't help but cast my eyes above him, sense the conspicuous absence at the tactical console and feel that Captain Picard might just be getting ahead of himself and taking things a bit too much in stride. But maybe “The Neutral Zone” is in some way an evocation of its own themes: Star Trek: The Next Generation is far from perfect, and it knows this. But it's in a better position now than it was when it began last September, and it also knows all it can do is keep striving to grow along the way.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

“Trust no one. Question Everything.”: Conspiracy

Rightly regarded as a high-water mark for the first season, “Conspiracy” is praised and fondly remembered by a certain kind of Star Trek fan for its unexpected gore-filled climax straight out of a splatterhouse horror flick or one of the Alien movies, and by less frightening Star Trek fans for its shocking perversion of the heretofore untouchable Starfleet Command. Of course it's not really. It was, as is so often the case with this sort of thing, just aliens after all. And yet even so, “Conspiracy” does push the envelope noticeably for Star Trek: The Next Generation, even if its overall impact is arguably more muted than it perhaps could have been.

The idea of something rotten afoot in the hallowed halls of the supposedly incorruptible Starfleet Command should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following this season with any degree of care or nuance. The seed was planted arguably as early as as “Too Short a Season”, where Admiral Mark Jameson's flawless execution of Starfleet's hero archetype plunged an entire planet into a four decade long world war. Then we had this episode's direct antecedent, “Coming of Age”, where Admiral Quinn and Dexter Remmick interrogated the Enterprise crew under concerns something very big and very grave was about to happen that would “threaten the very core of Federation society”. Both of those episodes were, in one respect or another, about showing how the Enterprise was very likely the last bastion of progressive hope and idealism in an increasingly hostile and uncaring universe, and that's not even touching on the direct diegetic and extradiegetic challenges to its ethics and values the show's seen elsewhere from characters like Q, the Ferengi, the Tkon Empire, the Microbrain and even, debatably, Lwaxana Troi. If Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season has been about bringing Star Trek back for the Long 1980s, it's also been about forcing it to prove it deserves to exist in the Long 1980s.

And “Conspiracy” is the moment where this all comes to a head...or at least, it should have been. Because while it does build on these themes and neatly, satisfyingly wrap up the story arc introduced in “Coming of Age”, it doesn't exactly do so in the way writer Tracy Tormé had hoped it would. The original plan was to reveal the Conspiracy to be just that: An actual conspiracy orchestrated by Starfleet Command's higher-ups to instate martial law across known space and rule the Federation as a military junta. It would have been the deliciously perfect logical end result of Starfleet's thinly veiled militarism: It doesn't take much for someone surrounded by that kind of rhetoric and ideology to suddenly decide the world would be better off with them in charge. Couple that with the troublesome Philosopher King overtones Starfleet and the Federation have always had, and you get a recipe for a truly terrifying mixture of imperialism and grandiose self-entitlement.

Predictably, Gene Roddenberry threw a fit about this. In spite of his strides, he simply would not and could not back down from his belief that the Federation (in both small-f and Captial-F forms) was the Platonic Ideal form of government (how ironic). And this is maybe Roddenberry’s fatal flaw as both a writer and a person: His positionality granted him a reverence for both the nuts-and-bolts of military procedure and of pulp science fiction, and he was frequently too self-absorbed and arrogant to realise that simply would not gel with the utopian idealism he rightly came to respect and value in Star Trek, and would not let anyone tell him otherwise. His further conflation of Star Trek's idealism (really, the idealism of the Enterprise and her crew) with the idealism of the Federation and its world-building minutiae, a fallacy shared by the overwhelming majority of his fans, reveals the problem with science fiction and larger genre fiction writ large: Roddenberry thought the details and trappings were more important than the ideas (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he thought they were one and the same), and that's what blinded him to how much he hamstrung and held back Star Trek in spite of his noble intentions.

So, with his original idea a total no-go, Tormé went with his next choice. Make the conspiracy the work of alien spies. In particular, make it the work of the Borg as a prelude to invasion.

Yes, the weird neural parasite bug things were actually supposed to be the foot-soldiers of the Borg. Didn't expect to see the Borg this early? You should have-The Borg were an idea the Star Trek: The Next Generation creative team had been working on since the beginning, or at the very least since the dailies for “The Last Outpost” came through and everyone realised the Ferengi might not make for the most popular of antagonists. And in hindsight it seems chillingly obvious this was meant to be the Borg: The bugs are first of all, well, bugs (OK insects. There's a difference). They “assimilate” human hosts, they seem to exist in a kind of hive mind, always speaking in terms of “we” and “us” and even have a “queen”, although that wouldn't be part of the Borg mythos until Star Trek First Contact. But more importantly, as the queen declares in full-on Evil Genius mode through the body of Dexter Remmick during the episode's climax, their intentions are merely to “seek peaceful coexistence”.

Because the Borg are, as we shall discuss far more in the future, in truth the Federation's dark mirror. Everything they claim to stand for and treasure most dearly taken to their most chillingly logical endpoint. The Borg are not merely what the Federation *could* become, they are what the Federation *will* become: An unthinking, blinkered, self-absorbed, monolithic collective of zombified capitalists bringing peace to the universe through banal economic and political neo-imperialism, just like the country it was modeled after. “We only seek peaceful coexistence!” they will implore, and they will be correct in their minds, for what, they ask, is more peaceful than voluntary subservience to a benevolent authority, such as a Philosopher King, a capitalist plutocracy or hegemonic modernity? The only price for utopia is your freedom of non-compliance and any remnants of heterogeneity in the world.

(Also note how this episode gives us Star Trek: The Next Generation's first proper Original Series-style doofy fight scene. In pushing Starfleet back to its reactionary roots and doubling down on them, the Borg-id forces Star Trek to relive the demons of its past.)

I'm not sure why the link to the Borg here was eventually dropped, though it probably had to do with the Writer's Guild strike. Considering the Star Trek: The Next Generation creative team was in turmoil as it was, this on top of it all couldn't have helped. “The Neutral Zone” was already in production, and that episode was supposed to be the start of the Borg story arc-The bases bordering the titular zone were intended to have been wiped out by them; the villains were never meant to be the Romulans. But, with Roddenberry's insistence that the plot chronicled in “Coming of Age”/”Conspiracy” come from external forces instead of internal ones, that retconed this story arc to be about the Borg too. Considering the team was light on scripts (meaning *they actually, literally had no scripts*) there was no way to scrap or rewrite “The Neutral Zone” at this late a date, so Star Trek: The Next Generation was left with a pretty egregious continuity snarl: Two flagrantly contradictory introduction stories for the Borg that came one after another. Even someone as loose and flighty about continuity as I am has to admit that's really not the sort of thing the show could have let slide.

Like “We'll Always Have Paris” before it, “Conspiracy” is an episode I really, really wish Tasha Yar had stuck around for, except even more so in this case as this is a story almost custom-tailored for her. She would have been forced to come face-to-face with corruption at the highest echelons of a world she had adopted as her own, a would she'd hoped (and was promised) would be free of such things. Indeed, it may have actually worked even better with the strangely warped version of her character Gene Roddenberry outlined in his writer's guide: A person who “worships” Starfleet and what it stands for as the antithesis of what she knew growing up. Someone like that would have been left absolutely aghast at “Conspiracy”, dreadfully, possibly irreparably, hurt by the way her adoptive community betrayed her. But perhaps even more resolute and driven now, seeing the good in people like her own friends, Captain Picard and Commander Riker, and how her real family, the Enterprise family, stood firm in the face of such a disaster quietly showing by example that they're better than all of that.

But who am I kidding. Knowing this team, Tasha would have taken Geordi's place when Riker called for security in the guest quarters, gotten tossed through the automatic doors by Worm!Quinn and then promptly done fuck all else for the rest of the episode. Maybe not even that, because it's unseemly to have women fighting or doing action stunts on this show, you see.

Speaking of, “Conspiracy” does have a few weird structural annoyances: I don't like how the entire plot centres around Picard, Riker and Data, especially considering Beverly has a personal stake in the proceedings too (though she *does* get two scenes of unqualified awesomeness when she phaser-fries Worm!Quinn and orchestrates Riker's double agent trick-That horror movie false jump-scare with her and Will is really clever). And I *really* don't like how Picard tells us through his log entries that he's informed the bridge crew about the conspiracy. Nowadays we'd expect to see that acted out as part of a senior staff briefing scene in the observation lounge. Why on Earth would you shunt that to the commercial break negative space? That's a perfect opportunity to reinforce the themes about where you make your family by showing us the trust and respect Captain Picard has in his crew. Not doing that does sort of the opposite, not to mention giving the impression the show doesn't respect the audience either.

There is one more thing. My episode guide that keeps track of such matters informs me the topographical map of Dytallix B Data and Commander Riker look at in this episode is a very crude line drawing of Kei and Yuri. I personally can't really make it out, though if you squint at a freeze-frame on your Blu-ray long enough you can kinda, sorta see the girls (Kei would be on the left and upside down, if you imagine her as being drawn in a surreal, Koji Morimoto-esque fashion and Yuri would be I guess in profile on the right?), and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they really are there. It may not be the best invocation of Dirty Pair in Star Trek: The Next Generation (there are a few proper doozies coming up), but their spectral presence here is still meaningful.

The Lovely Angels come back to the Enterprise at the moment when not only are the show's own ethics on shaky ground, but its continued existence, in effect its future, are in serious doubt. Remember, Gene Roddenberry is a constant mixed blessing, “Skin of Evil” wasn't too long ago and the Writer's Guild strike is a fact of life for the time being. Even though the show had become a ratings and popular success by the end of the year and there was no longer the lingering concern Star Trek: The Next Generation wouldn't see out 1988 (which was a very real potentiality when it began), there was still the question of what *kind* of show this would end up as, and if it would ever be able to struggle out from under its own weight to say something positive, constructive and relevant. So Kei and Yuri appear, manifesting as the point of congress where Star Trek: The Next Generation becomes forced to re-examine itself and what it really stands for, and set it on a path to finally break traumatically, yet necessarily, from its troubled roots.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

“A Night on Pegos Minor”: We'll Always Have Paris

Most people tend to remember “We'll Always Have Paris” as the episode where Michelle Phillips guest starred in an odd bit of celebrity casting (this being the second documented connection to the Phillips family and The Mamas and the Papas in Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season). I remember it as the first episode where Tasha Yar wasn't on the Enterprise.

There is, of course, a bit more to it than either of those interpretations might lead you to believe. Not much, I'll grant, but some. “We'll Always Have Paris” is essentially Star Trek: The Next Generation doing Casablanca, with Captain Picard as Humphrey Bogart, Michelle Phillips as Ingrid Bergman and a great big fuck-off mad science experiment with time distortion in place of World War II and Nazis. This is all, of course, fairly standard operating procedure for the show at this point: The Manheim Effect, which causes one specific point in time to repeat itself, is rather transparently supposed to be a metaphor for Jenice meeting Captain Picard again and the latter's subsequent re-examination of his past life choices. In this regard, it doesn't bring much new to the table in terms of maturation themes then the likes of, say “The Battle”, “Too Short a Season”, “Coming of Age” or “Heart of Glory”. It does, however, handle romantic relationships a hell of a lot better than “The Naked Now” did.

What I love about this episode is how emotionally honest everyone is, especially Captain Picard. There was room here for the character to be played very gruff and uncomfortable, as if he's unwilling to own his past mistakes (“Enough of this self-indulgence!” springs immediately to mind for me here), but Patrick Stewart, as usual, plays against this, and infuses his lines with a delicate balance of remorse, nostalgia, affection and acceptance. But due to the script's stronger moments and the actors' considerable skill (Michelle Phillips is, perhaps surprisingly, quite good as well), “We'll Always Have Paris” comes across as a very emotionally mature story about two adults coming to terms with their past lives and past selves. In that sense, while it doesn't particularly *add* anything to the themes Star Trek: The Next Generation has been working with over the course of the past year, it does very clearly build upon them. It's a story the Original Series not only wouldn't do, but was flatly incapable of doing, and its another sign that in spite of its occasional missteps, Star Trek: The Next Generation genuinely has transformed Star Trek into something newer, fresher and better in its inaugural season.

There's a lot of subtler moments outside of Patrick Stewart's and Michelle Phillips' turns that make this clear as well. The fact that we *can* so casually and dismissively say the sci-fi plot and the human story are meant to be allegories for one another means we've reached the point where we can take that for granted, and that's extremely telling. Star Trek: The Next Generation doesn't do dumb pulp action tales or self-indulgent, self-absorbed Golden Age Hard SF logic puzzle plots: It compares its outer space setting with its inner space heart and shows them to be the same thing. It's a very quiet, yet noticeable, statement of purpose that was definitely needed coming in the wake of the most tumultuous section of a very tumultuous year. In that respect, I love how Captain Picard can call up a setting clearly similar to, but not the same as, his infamous date with Jenice on the Holodeck, and the Holodeck itself seems to know what he needs and provide him with a situation where he can, in some way, make peace with his memories. The Holodeck is basically role-playing with him and helping him work out his feelings through art, and I think that's rather lovely.

(Also a great deal of fun is when Picard, Riker and Data run into their alternate universe counterparts in the turbolift. But that also just makes me miss Tasha Yar again, because I try to imagine how she'd flippantly react to running into another one of her. I'm still hurt she was cut down just as she was starting to come into her own as a character.)

As good as this all is though, this does raise a concerning motif about Star Trek: The Next Generation that begins here and becomes a reoccurring issue throughout the rest of the series. That is, I don't think this show is prepared to handle romance all that well. Every time it does, I find it to either feel very forced, stilted or off-putting in one way or another. I've mentioned my dislike of the Picard/Beverly ship before, and there's some of that here too. However, I will say Gates McFadden reacts brilliantly here as usual with one of her most memorably hilarious exchanges:
Troi: "Are you all right?"
Bev: "Why wouldn't I be? I've got one of the medical wonders of the galaxy dying in my sick bay!"
Troi: "That's not what I meant."
Bev: "I don't think I want to talk about what I think you mean.”
For real, any story that does not let Gates McFadden play Doctor Crusher as essentially a comedy character is missing out on a huge opportunity.

But there are other aspects to this episode's, and this show's, handling of romance that bug me. One, putting Patrick Stewart in anything resembling a romantic male lead part is a rather tragic and disturbing misreading of his considerable talents. This episode gets a pass because it's about a past relationship from his youth, but once we get further into the series things get dicier. But it's not just Patrick Stewart: I am phenomenally uncomfortable seeing this cast and these characters engaged in romance and/or sexuality. For me, it's a bit like listening to your relatives going on about their sex lives. That's simply not the kind of relationship I have with these people and I have *no* interest in allowing it to become that kind of a relationship. I'm all for these characters having active love lives well into middle age and seniority, but, as with much about this show, I prefer a slightly different tack then the scripted drama norm. And really, we ought to be well beyond the point where we're dealing with girls-of-the-week. Again, this episode skirts by (barely), but it doesn't exactly set a great precedent.

(Oh and apparently the writers wanted Captain Picard to “do the wild thing” with Jenice during a commercial break at some point during the episode. Patrick Stewart was quite vehemently opposed to this idea.)

There's also the small matter that the infamous 1988 Writer's Guild strike broke out midway through production of this story, and it quite clearly shows. The strike would drag on for an obscene season and a half, and is going to utterly cripple the remainder of Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season and the entirety of its second. In the case of “We'll Always Have Paris”, the strike impeded revision of the script such that it had to go out before the ending was finalized. So, if this story feels like nothing is really accomplished and it doesn't really have an ending, that's because it doesn't. Which is a shame, because there are a number of interesting paths it could have gone down: Doctor Manheim could have escaped into another dimension, calling back to themes the show dealt with at the opposite end of the season about transcendent states and the nature of reality, leaving Jenice to start a new life, possibly aboard the Enterprise, to explore the concept of travelling in her own way. After all, Manheim did tell Captain Picard (in his own moment of making peace with his past), that he's not done well by Jenice and that he feels she deserves better. To be fair, Michelle Phillips likely wouldn't have signed on as a regular, but there are some fun and tantalizing ideas here to think about.

But that aside, “We'll Always Have Paris” is decent and solidly enjoyable in its own right, which is more than I can say about a lot of the episodes submarined by the Writer's Guild strike. I also have to give special praise to Rod Loomis, who plays Doctor Manheim as the most gloriously bug-eyed and deranged B-movie mad scientist imaginable and who my sister and have affectionately nicknamed “Doctor Crazy-Eyes”. He elevates every single scene he's in and makes an already solid production all the more enjoyable. He goes above and beyond, determined to have fun even when circumstances are against him, which means he's done right by the Enterprise if no-one else.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

“Share and Enjoy”: The Arsenal of Freedom

“The Arsenal of Freedom” is without question near the top of my list of highlights for Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season and I'll never understand why nobody seems to talk about it. This isn't just good with qualifiers, which is how you can describe a decent segment of this year if you were inclined to be uncharitable, it's genuinely *great*. It's a flagrantly experimental story that's one of the first clear departures from the Original Series template Star Trek: The Next Generation is saddled with and is, in retrospect, probably the definitive example of the kind of risks the series only took in its inaugural year. Everything about this episode is demonstrative of a show that's creatively energized, bold, confident and self-assured.

Funny thing then that “The Arsenal of Freedom” was also the subject of one of the biggest, ugliest creative disputes of its early years. The debate in question apparently stemmed from the scene where Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher fall into the underground control room. In the original script, Picard was to have been injured and Beverly would have to tend to him, confessing her feelings for him in the process. Writer Robert Lewin wanted it to be an extension of the romantic subplot that supposedly underwrites their characters, but Gene Roddenberry wasn't enthusiastic about the idea so the roles were switched and the dramatic moments were toned down by Maurice Hurley, who handled the final script. As a general rule, Hurley was always fiercely loyal to Roddenberry as a producer and always kept in lock-step with whatever he thought he wanted. This spat resulted in Lewin leaving the show, and is sometimes cited as evidence of Roddenberry’s (and Star Trek: The Next Generation's) frustrating lack of interest in conflict and character development.

And it's a bullshit argument.

While it's true Roddenberry was not terribly interested in character drama (he was far more intrigued by ideas and concepts as both a writer and producer, sometimes to his benefit, other times to his disadvantage), there are several reasons why Roddenberry might not have approved of Lewin's first draft. First of all, Beverly's action would have been flagrantly a Hippocratic Oath violation, which is my first issue with it, but also the scene as originally written was simply put cornball and not Star Trek: The Next Generation. People always mistake this show's pioneering work in utopian conflict resolution for a *lack* of conflict because they lack the media literacy necessary to understand there's a difference (not even getting into the fact you can perfectly well have plot without any sort of conflict at all), this is what makes Star Trek: The Next Generation so incredibly difficult to write for and I think that's what happened here.

 Because the subplot as Hurley rewrote it is lovely: There isn't a passionate, bombastic, angst-ridden declaration of love between Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher, no, but instead we get several wonderful scenes of two characters forced together through an emergency who keep themselves going by talking and getting to know each other a little better. It's not voyeuristic or melodramatically cinematic, but it makes these people feel likeable, amiable, relatable and *alive*. And I think that's better. There's something to be said here for subtext: A whole lot of information about character interactions and backgrounds can be delivered through mediums that aren't plot or dialog and can quietly do their thing for the audience without making themselves the focal point of the story. Kei and Yuri's relationship, for example, is conveyed purely through the way the girls act around each other. We don't need an entire episode to infodump about that; that would just slow them down and annoy them. You can have occasional drabbles and vignettes that explore this sort of thing in more detail, but that really is the best place for this kind of material. Stories purely about character interiority don't really work in settings like Dirty Pair and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I prefer both series when they avoid it.

(There's also the small matter that Roddenberry obviously wrote Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher's “romance” as a joke. I'm going to come right out and say this kinda torpedoes this ship for me from the beginning, again without touching on the uncomfortable age gap between Patrick Stewart and Gates McFadden. Future creative teams will try heroically to make it work, but none of them succeed as far as I'm concerned.)

 But Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher are only one third of “The Arsenal of Freedom”, and the rest of the episode is every bit as delightful and it all comes together in a really impressive package. This is quite simply the very best ensemble show the series has done yet: Every single character has a major part to play and each of their actors leaps right at the opportunity and deliver what might be their most memorable performances of the year. You have, of course, Beverly and Picard underground, but on Minos' surface, you have Tasha Yar, Commander Riker and Data trying to solve the mystery of the Erselrope wars all while trying to outmanoeuvre and out-think the deadly Echo Papa 607. Their banter is top-notch, especially between Tasha and Riker: Denise Crosby and Jonathan Frakes have by now settled into their rapport and quick-witted repartee that's so memorable and iconic to them during this period. Denise in particular is an absolute joy to watch: She has more material to work with here than I think she's *ever* had before, and Tasha Yar for the first time truly feels like a competent colleague and lively friend. She's sparkly, snarky and delightful: This is her best episode yet by far.

And on the Enterprise is, of course, Geordi, left in command to face down a relentless enemy they can't see and can't hit. I can't say this is the moment LeVar Burton comes into his own (that was the opening shot of Reading Rainbow in 1983 and he's just been patiently waiting for the rest of us to catch up ever since), but he has a staggering amount of room to play here and he unarguably steals the show with an absolutely rousing and triumphant performance. In fact, he's so good the only concern I could raise is that it's difficult to believe someone this mesmerizingly commanding is supposed to be a *junior* officer. And the rest of the remaining bridge crew is outstanding too: Michael Dorn builds off of Worf's development last time by effortlessly selling his frustration with Echo Papa 607, sounding a lot more like the character we remember. And Marina Sirits is as good as ever, Troi getting to diegetically reinforce what we already knew: That Geordi is an inspirational friend and mentor to his crewmates; the heart and soul of the Enterprise. Frankly, it's now only a matter of time before he makes his way up in the world.

But that scene works on more than one level, because it allows Geordi to vocalize his own emotions an uncertainties. And LeVar knocks it out of the park: As a children's educator, he intimately understands the value of communication, openness and sincerity, and he uses his scene with Marina as an opportunity to convey that to us. Geordi knows he has the ship's collective spirit looking up to him, but he also knows his own feelings are important and that Deanna is the person to talk to about that. And Marina is, as always, very knowing, supportive and reassuring. In fact, it's such a lovely moment I find it a bit jarring when we don't see Deanna again after that, especially since Gene Roddenberry gave her a spot on the battle bridge in “Encounter at Farpoint”. You would think she'd want to stay by Geordi's side to make sure he has all the support he needs during the final battle. Personally, I'd like to think she was indeed on the stardrive section keeping a watch over the rest of the skeleton crew.

As great as the individual subplots and performances are, it's the overarching plot that most clearly demonstrates how bold and energized the show is now. Because “The Arsenal of Freedom” is basically Star Trek: The Next Generation doing The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The central conceit, a society so built around an arms deal bubble they wind up vaporizing themselves with their own product, is nothing special (there's even a Star Trek Phase II story with a similar idea), but the execution is right out of Douglas Adams: What glimpses we get of Minos reveal a society not only organised around gun running, but exaggerated to such an extent they can broadcast interplanetary weapon system infomercials complete with holographic late-night TV salespeople. Minos is the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation if they dealt in weapons of mass destruction. And the way the Enterprise crew reacts to the salesman (played with pitch-perfect schmaltz by Vincent Schiavelli) is a brilliant mix of horror, bewilderment and bemusement.

 “The Arsenal of Freedom” isn't quite batting at Adams' madcap levels yet, of course: It's considerably more straightforward than anything in Hitchhiker's Guide or Dirk Gently. But it needs to be seen as what it self evidently was supposed to be: A first attempt. A test of the waters to see if this is the sort of story Star Trek: The Next Generation can and should do. And the answer is a resounding yes on all counts-The only real negative thing you can say about this episode is that neither the show nor the franchise ever really picks up this thread again, when it absolutely could have and with flying colours. As it stands, there is simply no other point in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Star Trek on the whole, where one could expect to see a Douglas Adams-esque sardonic skewering of the military-industrial complex and runaway extreme capitalism. And that's as much a shame as it is a testament to Star Trek: The Next Generation's unique and beguiling first season.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

“But I still hear the call of the blood”: Heart of Glory

Like most of the first season, “Heart of Glory” is a moment notably effaced in the standard historical record. It is, quite obviously, designed to be the first big Worf and Klingons episode. According to fans, the first big Worf and Klingons episode is “A Matter of Honor” from next year, which is curious, considering that episode is far more about Commander Riker. It's especially frustrating for me in this regard, because not only is “Heart of Glory” itself very good, it's also the episode I always saw as ushering in the part of the first season that (with one notable exception) starts to get really consistently confident and adventurous.

This is not a story about Klingons, at least not entirely and not to the extent any of the Ron Moore penned stuff will be. Nor is it some angst-ridden character story about Worf where he's forced to decide where his loyalties lie. There is never any doubt Worf will remain loyal to the Enterprise: In fact, the entire episode hinges on setting up a double feint where Captain Picard, Commander Riker and Tasha Yar (and, metatextually, us) all begin to doubt and mistrust Worf's intentions with Klingon reactionaries aboard only to feel really ashamed at the end when Worf delivers a stirring speech about how true honour and glory lies with doing battle with your inner demons and trying to become a better person. It's a bang-on perfect Star Trek: The Next Generation brief, which is all the more astonishing considering it was bounced around between four different writers like a hot potato. “Heart of Glory” is in truth a deeply touching commentary on empathy, personal journeys and where you make your home, and as good as some of the future Worf episodes are going to be, there's an undeniable and irreducible idealistic maturity to this episode that gets lost under every single successive creative team to handle him and his people.

In some respects then “Heart of Glory” is another Original Series/Phase II revist, in this case John Meredyth Lucas' “Kitumba”. That episode concerned a top-secret mission to the Klingon home world where the Enterprise crew had to stop a civil war that would have put all of local space at risk, all the while learning that while Klingon culture is very different to ours, it's still manifestly a culture of its own that we must respect. D.C. Fontana worked on this script briefly, and she at least was surely aware of “Kitumba”, having been on Phase II's staff as well. When viewed this way, “Heart of Glory” does seem to be a bit after its time, considering the Klingons are manifestly supposed to be our allies now and thus “Kitumba”'s central punch no longer quite seeming to deliver or by necessary. However, “Heart of Glory” does hedge against this by going out of its way to paint Korris and his crew as reactionary fundamentalists obsessed with returning to an imagined past Golden Age of glory and honour. And that's an important message to deliver, especially at the time this aired when the world was on the cusp of becoming far more networked and right after a major incident of counter-revolutionary fervor: Once again, the spectre of the Neoconservative revolution and the Iran-Contra scandal, so fundamentally intertwined, looms large.

Incidentally, my memories of “Heart of Glory” led me to assume at first Korris and his crew were actually from Kirk's time and had been trapped in temporal stasis before being discovered and awakened by the Enterprise. It's probably the use of that re-edited shot of the Battle Cruiser from Star Trek: The Motion Picture that got me thinking that. But it's still an interesting idea to examine from an iconographic perspective: You could read “Heart of Glory” as a commentary on the politics of the Original Series through two contrasting sets of Klingons. Perhaps it's comparing reactionary counter-revolutionaries to the sorts of fan who can't accept the Original Series is a thing of the past and Star Trek: The Next Generation is the new reality. And on top of that, it's depicting the simplistic ideology such people glorify as counterproductive, misguided, retrograde and dangerous.

But an episode such as this would have been effective at any time, and especially at this point in Star Trek: The Next Generation's internal episode structure. Fittingly, considering it follows “Coming of Age”, “Heart of Glory” is about establishing the Enterprise as Worf's proper home. Yes, we get a lot of his backstory introduced here: The Khitomer massacre, being raised by an adoptive human family, how of him and his adoptive brother he was the one who stayed in Starfleet Academy. And yes, later production teams will extrapolate mightily from this, delivering the convincing illusion it was part of some clever foreshadowing for a new story arc instead of what it actually was, which is something Maurice Hurley made up off the top of his head in a panic one weekend because he had two days to deliver the script for next week's show.

The point of that scene is ostensibly to point out how Worf is a perpetual outsider who will never really quite fit in anywhere, and certainly that's the reading that takes and goes on to define his character in the eyes of subsequent writers and fans. But I don't think that's what's actually going on here: Worf never denies he's a Klingon; he never once renounces his heritage or claims to not understand the things other Klingons do (Korris tries to manipulate him into thinking that, but it's clear Worf isn't going to fall for it). But what Worf is trying to prove, at times to himself as much as to his compatriots, is that he's a different breed of Klingon. He's a Klingon who sees honour not in glorious battle per se (though he does enjoy it every once in awhile), but in meeting the challenge to better himself each and every day. Worf sees honour in doing honourable deeds and acting out of loyalty: He takes the role of warrior metaphorically, not literally. And *that* is a very Star Trek: The Next Generation worldview to come to and why he belongs on the Enterprise, because it's on the Enterprise where he can live amongst the people who truly are his comrades and peers. It matters not to Worf if they're Klingon or human, what matters is only that they're travellers.

(Ironically, it's not the Klingons as they'll develop over the course of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the later Dominion War that Worf is most similar to here, but rather the Klingons of “Judgment”. Yes, it takes almost all of Star Trek's revival era for the Klingons to start to work again.)

And this is perhaps why the episode opens with that otherwise puzzling and lengthy segment about Geordi's interlink device, a wonderful machine that allows the Enterprise crew to basically literally see through Geordi's eyes. I mean, the allegory pretty much explains itself, doesn't it? Captain Picard even gets that truly lovely line where he tells us “Now I'm beginning to understand him”. On one level, Geordi is simply sharing his positionality with us in one of the most profoundly loaded ways imaginable. but also, Geordi is himself very special in terms of the narrative: He sees *everything*, so he's already a character about whom we could say has a more enlightened view of things from the start. So, by sharing with us what he sees the way he sees it, we're not just gaining understanding of Geordi's perspective, but of a multitude of perspectives. And naturally this is Geordi, LeVar Burton, the children's educator. A person whose entire life, diegetically and extradiegetically, involves teaching us about the world and helping us to open our eyes and see it in new ways. And people wonder why I call him the heart and soul of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

With that in mind, you might wonder if Captain Picard, Commander Riker and Tasha Yar are acting out of character for the rest of the episode given how quick they are to distrust Worf. Riker I will say seems a bit off (he's unusually grouchy on the freighter when Geordi and Picard are talking), but Patrick Stewart, as usual, seems to push back against any problematic bits we might have expected Picard to get saddled with, and I'm sure any of that sort of thing can be explained by the tumultuous production history this story went through. As for Tasha, well, I'd say she was acting out of character if I thought she actually had a character to be acting out of in the first place. Sadly, Denise Crosby really has been reduced to just spouting random bits of exposition as the plot demands by this point. She does get two more good episodes coming up, but no surprises that one of them is her farewell performance. And speaking of foreshadowing, we get another hint about trouble brewing with the Romulans in the Neutral Zone here. In fact, “Heart of Glory” works so well as the start of that story arc it basically effaces “Angel One” completely, not that anyone was going to miss it. Certainly Picard's “Now there's a name we haven't heard in a long while” makes no sense otherwise.

“Heart of Glory *works*. It's *good*. As has clearly become the norm for this season, it's dreadfully underrated largely because it's not the sort of thing fans expect to see when they turn on Star Trek: The Next Generation. This doesn't mean it's bad, in fact, I daresay it does some things that the rest of the franchise frustratingly forgot how to do (and does them *well*, to boot), much to its detriment.

Again, much like this season on the whole.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

“We'll be grandmas by then...”: Coming of Age

Despite its reputation and admittedly rocky week-to-week quality, there's a remarkable thematic cohesion to Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season, perhaps even more so than in later years. Reoccurring motifs are emphasized and re-examined with dutiful regularity, episodes are clearly designed to build off of one another and there are quite a few attempts at introducing both long and short term story arcs. Granted they're not always successful, but the intent is there and should be acknowledged.

“Coming of Age” is a solid example of this, and also serves as a functional microcosm of the show as it exists at this point in time. Most notably, the story arc it tries to put into place actually sticks here, unlike in “Angel One” where it gets forgotten, reintroduced at the last second in the season finale, and then hastily abandoned again. Obviously, we know the big Conspiracy with Starfleet Command that has Admiral Quinn and Dexter Remmick all paranoid is going to pay off at the end of the year in an episode I'm currently forgetting the title of. That's worth dealing with then, though I will point out now that the story arc as envisioned and the story arc as realised were not exactly one and the same. But even as a standalone work, “Coming of Age” is quite structurally well-done, with two distinct subplots and a metaplot that all revolve around the theme of maturing and reaching new stages in one's life. The first one involves Wesley Crusher so we're going to avoid talking about it more than necessary (though I'll give a nod to the Benzite, another one of my favourite Star Trek: The Next Generation creature designs, even if the one I remember is Menden from “A Matter of Honor”, not Mordock here), but the one about Captain Picard contemplating accepting a promotion and leaving the Enterprise is really quite lovely.

In some ways, this is a rejection of Kirk being promoted to admiral in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But let’s stop and think about that for a minute: First of all, even in 1988 it took guts to stand up to Wrath of Khan, already firmly entrenched in fan consciousness as “The Bestest Most Perfect Star Trek Ever” (though younger audiences who weren't libertarian worshipers of Robert A. Heinlein might have posited Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home instead). Quinn even suggest Picard go teach new academy recruits, just like Kirk did. More to the point though, a fairly recent and common redemptive reading of Khan I've seen goes out of its way to talk up and romanticize the idea of Star Trek characters growing old and settling down, citing both Kirk's promotion and the fact not only Khan, but David and Carol Marcus coming back into his life as examples of how the narrative is in support of this.

Several things bother me about this reading, however: First of all, the only guiding thematic impetus behind Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was “kill off Star Trek as comprehensibly and permanently as possible”, and any incidental nuance just came from Nicholas Meyer wanting to tell a a solid aging story while he was at it. Secondly though, growing old and settling down are very un-Star Trek themes, and, as much as I do chew into Meyer, this is the point he's making and he's right to in this case. Star Trek is about *never stopping* learning and travelling. It's about making a commitment to always strive for self-improvement and growth throughout life. That's why we're on a ship that we'll soon learn doesn't even have a home port (actually, in the episode that concludes the story arc introduced here): The journey and the voyage must never come to an end, because it's through journeying and voyaging that we learn more about ourselves and others. Growing old and settling down are the antithesis of these very important truths: They're the symptoms of resignation and complacency, and if there's *anything* Star Trek has taught us, it's *never* to give up or become complacent.

But as I've said before, “growing up” and “growing old” are not synonyms. This is why this episode is called “Coming of Age”, and why teenage Wesley Crusher is the other side of the narrative coin. Captain Picard knows that to accept promotion would mean accepting stasis, and as an explorer at heart that's not something he can support (and isn't it interesting that Picard seems to equate Starfleet Command with toxic stasis?). But the word choice in both the script and Patrick Stewart's delivery is very careful and particular: There's a lot of talk about “where he belongs” and “what his path” is, and never about growing out of the Enterprise and leaving it behind. As part of his constant growth and maturation, Captain Picard has come to the conclusion that where he really belongs is the Enterprise: Here is where his true home is. This is also why the Enterprise has room for families, because it allows those people who want to start a family as part of their personal journey to do that while still travelling the stars. It's a new kind of bottom-up, egalitarian domesticity that is but one path available to people who live on the Enterprise: Voyaging helps us understand a sense of recursive cosmic community, connecting us with each other as well as with the universe as we travel the stars together.

There's a somewhat famous quote by Arthur Ransome that's always inspired me and that I think is particularly appropriate here an within the context of Star Trek: The Next Generation in general:
“Houses, are but badly built boats so firmly aground that you cannot think of moving them. They are definitely inferior things, belonging to the vegetable not the animal world, rooted and stationary, incapable of gay transition. I admit, doubtfully, as exceptions, snail-shells and caravans. The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting-place.”
It goes without saying that this is a sentiment that resonates particularly near and dear to my heart. Aside from that though, it's one I think Captain Picard would probably agree with to some extent as well. Because this is what's so special about the Enterprise: It's both a house and a boat. It's a place you can call home that neither sacrifices a sense of familial community nor the restless urge to wander and grow. It's a house that travels with you, and that you travel with. In fact, note the only criticism Remmick can come up with of Picard's leadership is that his crew is “too familial” (and how telling it is that Starfleet Command would take issue with that). And, to head off the obvious objection, the universe of Star Trek: The Next Generation is not one that looks down upon people who do choose to stay in one place, as we'll eventually see with Benjamin Sisko the builder and healer, for whom travel and voyaging means slightly different things. But as much as Sisko's place my be Deep Space 9, Picard's really is without question the Enterprise, and I can find no fault with that.

But another reason I can't see “Coming of Age” as a commentary on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is because I still like to think of Star Trek: The Next Generation existing in its own universe and continuity separate from the Original Series, as Gene Roddenberry had originally intended it to be. I mean yes the show has pretty much shot that reading to pieces several times already, what with Klingons and Romulans playing major roles and all of “The Naked Now” (even this episode is not immune: One of Wesley's colleagues is obviously a Vulcan). But I like to avoid flamboyant fanwank in my own work as much as I do in the shows themselves, so what can we glean from “Coming of Age” about Star Trek: The Next Generation's own interiority? I think what this story is really about, by virtue of its recursive themes and motifs, is about the series starting to mature into its own person. Like we saw with Admiral Jameson in “Too Short a Season”, as much as Star Trek: The Next Generation is, well, the new generation, it's also unafraid to be marked by age, experience and wisdom. It's a show that embraces all these things and fuses them perfectly to the restless wanderlust of youth. And that, perhaps above all else, is where its utopia truly comes from.

Another one of my favourite quotes drives this home, this time from Gary D. Christenson of TV Guide not long after the conclusion of Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season in July, 1988:
Star Trek depicted us in reckless youth, with a Starship captain who tamed space as vigorously as we laid claim to the future...Star Trek: The Next Generation reveals the child grown-a little more polished, but also more complacent. And if there's a bit of gray and a wrinkle or two, so much the better.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

“When all its sands are diamond sparks”: Home Soil

It's interesting that “Home Soil” is such an overlooked episode, given the fact various Star Trek: The Next Generation creative teams essentially remake it at least three times over the course of the series' run. Its central theme, a debate over whether or not computer technology can develop sentience and self-awareness and should be considered life, leading eventually to a climax that Starfleet and the Federation in general walk away from with egg on their faces, reoccurs as the guiding thesis behind “The Measure of a Man” and “Evolution” and as the B-plot to “The Quality of Life”. Each of these episodes is much better received and remembered than “Home Soil” but, with the exception of “The Measure of a Man” (which has the added benefit of being a high-stakes drama about Data), they're all basically reiterations of it.

I've never had a problem with “Home Soil” personally and, of the four episodes, it's actually the one I'm likely to turn on most frequently. While good, “The Measure of a Man” has too much pathos for my particular casual viewing tastes, “Evolution” is a stumbling, rushed, mediocre debut for Michael Piller that doesn't really showcase all of his talents in the best light and is about Wesley Crusher, and while I do quite like “The Quality of Life”, the tech mystery plot about Data and the Exocomps is manifestly not my main attraction to it. This though is a jaunty space adventure with a decent central mystery, some lovely set design and matte work, some fun banter and rapport from the regular cast and another opportunity for the Enterprise to set itself apart from the rest of Starfleet. It's also the natural episode to follow “11001001”, as Star Trek: The Next Generation's interest in technoscientific transhumanism and machine singularities seems to still be lingering: After all, our mysterious alien is *literally* a collective computer consciousness. More importantly, there remains the faintest trace of our Lovely Angels' divine light, as “Home Soil”, just like its predecessor, maintains an ethereal and ephemeral link to Dirty Pair. Namely, to The Dirty Pair Strike Again.

I really doubt any of the production staffers this week had read the book (I mean Mike Okuda might have, but not necessarily, as there are plenty of fans of the Sunrise animes who have never read Haruka Takachiho's novels), but it's interesting to compare and contrast the plots of both stories: There's considerably more overlap than you might assume at first glance. Both “Home Soil” and The Dirty Pair Strike Again concern erratic goings-on at a mining colony and a suspicious number of deaths that increasingly seem to be less than accidental. Kei and Yuri/the Enterprise crew get called in to investigate, things get personal once they themselves start to be targeted by the unseen assailants, and our heroes stumble upon a vast conspiracy that has engulfed the entire planet. It's soon revealed that the miners discovered something beneath the planet's surface (in both cases, an entirely unknown, nonhuman collective consciousness) and immediately set about covering it up for selfish reasons: In Star Trek: The Next Generation, as part of an attempt to cut corners and meet quota in a pseudocapitalist system of production, and in Dirty Pair as an underhanded power-grab by an incestuous corporate-state ruling class in an attempt to centralize authority at the expense of the people's spiritual growth.

“Home Soil” isn't a note-for-note recitation of The Dirty Pair Strike Again, obviously. For one thing, it's an incredibly reductive and simplified version of the story, with absolutely none of Dirty Pair's trademark ruminations syncretic spirituality. Where Kei and Yuri got to sublimate their existence through futuristic space tantra, the Enterprise crew gets to call out Starfleet for betraying its ideals and committing genocide against the “New Life” it claims to be looking to make peaceful contact with. This isn't any less worthwhile or meaningful a goal, of course (if anything, it's the sort of thing Starfleet and the Federation need to hear more often), but it is a far more gritty and sociological of one. And while this isn't a step back for the show, it does see it in something of a holding pattern for the moment: Episodes like “Haven”, “Where No One Has Gone Before” and “The Big Goodbye” clearly demonstrate it's capable of going the distance in this regard, though perhaps it's not quite comfortable going to the next level yet.

Still, it's a far better position to be in then it was just a few weeks ago with “Angel One” (momentarily ignoring the fact it slips back on itself briefly coming up with “When The Bough Breaks”), and the fact Dirty Pair still seems to hang over the proceedings even here is going to prove somewhat prophetic given “Home Soil” is redone so many times. But that's for later-What's important to take note of now is that even though Star Trek: The Next Generation isn't straightforwardly aping the Lovely Angels with this outing, the fact is the comparisons can still be made. And that's evidence of two things: One, the invocation of “The Big Goodbye” is permanent and we *really can't* ignore Kei and Yuri whilst talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation anymore, but also that the show is starting to appear reminiscent of things other than the Original Series. This is sort of a crucial step forward: There are a number of episodes making up the back half of this season that, while maybe not necessarily immediately recognisable as what we might think of as Star Trek: The Next Generation, are also not immediately recognisable as Star Trek, and that's kind of important to take note of.

Jonathan Frakes has often said that, in spite of its missteps, the first season was the most experimental and adventurous season the show ever did. And I think I see what he means: Increasingly free of the spectre of Kirk, Spock and McCoy (helped, I'm sure, by accruing surprisingly stellar ratings), Star Trek: The Next Generation starts playing around with the boundaries of its format to see what it can and can't do. Not every experiment has been or is going to be a success, that's the nature of experimentation, after all, but that the show is bold enough here to give some of these things a try really is commendable. There's a sense of avante garde playfulness to some of these episodes that it would have been nice to see a little bit more frequently in the character-driven Michael Piller era and psychologically mind-bending Jeri Taylor era. I'd hesitate to say Star Trek: The Next Generation was ever safe, but it's certainly more safe and less radical than it could have been. The ship has sailed on that: Too many disastrous decisions were made in pre-production for the show as it exists to truly live up to its full potential. But equally, the show knows it doesn't have to be as rote as it maybe has been in the past, and “Home Soil” is the first inkling of this changing status quo.

When we're talking about material progress on a social scale, normal measurements of time don't apply. Wherever Kei and Yuri are invoked, things don't immediately get better for everyone. In fact, in the immediate aftermath, things seem to get a lot worse. But this is merely the observer effect trick of the singularity in place once again: A spark has been lit somewhere, and the universe has righted itself. Things will get better, in time.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

11100011 10000010 10110001 11100011 10000010 10100100 00100000 11100011 10000011 10100110 11100011 10000011 10101010: 11001001

A common theme in much science fiction, we've dealt with the subject of both transhumanism and posthumanism rather extensively already. In Star Trek, this has traditionally manifested in the multitude of non-corporial entities, godlike beings and androids that tend to show up. The Original Series was notoriously ambivalent on the subject, for as much as 1960s Gene Roddenberry hated the idea of machines replacing people, he also seemed somewhat fascinated by the notion that humans might become hyper evolved beings of pure thought, in essence, ideal rational actors. 1980s Gene Roddenberry, along with his contemporaries, have a very different viewpoint: First of all, there's Data, who, while he doesn't yet carry all of the symbolism he's eventually going to, is already an indication Star Trek: The Next Generation might be toying with a novel conception of humanity.

But also 'round about the 1980s, transhumanism came to be associated in the pop discourse first and foremost with a very specific set of beliefs, typically involving augmenting or replacing bits of materialistic human life with mechanical, robotic and digital components. The rise of the personal computer allowed for a general ossification of the definition of cyborg, and the belief humanity's future lay in becoming more and more intertwined with computer technology. The Borg are commonly read as a critique of this notion, a very simplistic and reductive pop Frankensteinianism that wrings its hands over unchecked material technoscience. But, as we will eventually discuss, this is not what the Borg actually are and, for various reasons, Star Trek: The Next Generation has a far more complex and nuanced relationship with the transhuman than this interpretation would lead you to believe.

This is, however, what “11001001” looks at with the characters of the Bynars, an entire species that has evolved in such close proximity to computers that their thoughts have become indistinguishable to binary code. Well, partially, because the episode is obviously not a critique of them: The crew is incredibly sympathetic to the Bynars all throughout, and Jonathan Frakes was so enamoured of them he wishes they'd stayed on as regular characters. And the way they're realised is rather charming, with each half of a “base pair” acting as a kind of gate and decisions being made through relaying thought-bits between them. Even the joke explanation they give for why they stole the Enterprise at the end of the episode, “you might have said no”, ties into this: As entities of pure logic on a life-or-death mission, they could not accept any potential failure state, so they engineered a situation where that would be impossible. It's a perfectly delightful conception of digital transhumanist philosophy as it popularly exists as of the Long 1980s.

This specific kind of transhumanism is, predictably, very grounded in technofetishim and materialism. The most recognisable manifestation of this in the contemporary political climate is likely the Church of the Singularity, a Silicon Valley-based faith that professes the rapid increased in digital computer technology over the past thirty or forty years is evidence of a looming “machine singularity”, where either our computers will become self-aware or will end up absorbing humanity somehow (a common version is the belief that humans will soon be able to upload our consciousnesses onto the Internet). It's the logical end result of the existentialist, positivist, materialist, technoscience-dominated flavour of Westernism that's come into vogue over the past few decades: When humans are reduced down to machines and , shortsightedness dictates that we can improve on the inherent randomness of nature with our Will through our evolved, superior deft mechanical touch.

There are a considerable number of concerns regarding the Church of the Singularity. Most obviously, by being an outgrowth of Nerd Culture it by default comes out of an inherent and extremely patriarchal superiority complex, and then there's the matter of so much of it being driven by corporatist technocrats with an already heated interest in selling you the latest digital status symbols. Most actual scientists will be quick to tell you that nothing the Church of the Singularity espouses is remotely scientifically feasible, and most of it rests on fooling you into thinking computers are much more sophisticated and intelligent than they actually are. But more to the point, it's completely repugnant to the worldview I'm increasingly interested in: This kind of rote materialism is not only anathema to any kind of animist or spiritual understanding, by reducing human existence down to the level of what amount to tools, it also denies humanity itself. Thankfully, this is not the only kind of transhumanism, and this is not the only kind of singularity.

Throughout genre fiction there is, and has always been, a strong predilection to what can be and has been described as a “singularity archetype”: A kind of poorly-translated vision of what humanity's future might look like. Star Trek itself has already given us a few, such as the aforementioned hyper-evolved beings of pure thought, comparatively crude as they might be by the standards we're now holding ourselves to. But the best one the franchise has given us by far has been The Traveller: A person who instinctively understands the connection between space, time and thought. There is a further link between us and these things that the spirits understand, even if they only exist sometimes in the realm of pataphor and allegory. There is a desire to return to this understanding; to reclaim our identification with our spiritual selves, and it's a desire I frequently map onto the relationship we as readers and writers have with idealism and utopianism. Now is not the time or place for this discussion, but this drive is but one manifestation of our yearning to reclaim what we call a Glorified Body. And there *is* a place for technology here, as it can help us construct a rough approximation of what that reclamation and rejoining feels like. Remember, Star Trek: The Next Generation manifestly does not say the Bynars are evil-They help the Enterprise and have their own role to play in its journey of self-discovery and self-actualization.

The hands-down best example of singularity fiction I can think of unquestionably has to be Dirty Pair, with Kei and Yuri perhaps even acting as a kind of Glorified Body themselves. It's they who demonstrate most clearly a functional median between these two forms of transhumanism: Kei and Yuri are “The Lovely Angels”, because they are divine avatars who represent both valuable and beloved ideals as well as serve as the vessel by which the universe brings about necessary progressive change on a cosmic scale. It is said the singularity is marked by oftentimes catastrophic and traumatic immediate change, and looks like the apocalypse to the unenlightened. But Kei and Yuri are also Angels because they play the role of Angels, diegetic metaphors. But the girls are also supposed to posses material bodies genetically engineered to be perfect; recursive metaphor, if not outright pataphor, for the Glorified Body. And, being a story, Dirty Pair is already a performative allegory for the spiritual and social growth humanity has before it.

And, fittingly, the Holodeck returns in this episode to play a crucial part in the Bynars' plan. We have Minuet, a sentient, hyper-aware programmed being who exists in multiple worlds at once, and the interlink between the Holodeck and the rest of the Enterprise facilitates the Bynars being able to backup their history. In fact, “11001001” was originally meant to air before “The Big Goodbye”, with the malfunction in the latter story going to be attributed to the Bynars' enhancements here. Perhaps a consequence of this blurring of the boundaries between realms can also account for the memorable turns from the regulars: Data and Geordi both take critical further steps to the characterization they'll become famous for, Worf is starting to become more pronounced and developed and even Tasha Yar gets to do some things we might expect to see a character with her backstory and personality do.

Reading “11001001” in this context gives me a newfound appreciation for the shot of the Enterprise approaching Starbase 47. Perhaps counterintuitively, it's one of my favourite images from Star Trek: The Next Generation, despite obviously being a reuse of a shot from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. But I've always felt it looked so much better here: Crisper, more organic, and more darkly evocative. Perhaps this then is a metaphor in itself, for Star Trek: The Next Generation is finally starting to show signs it might just transcend the Original Series, because it understands a set of spiritual truths its predecessor never could.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

“Fallacies and falsehoods there were from time immemorial”: Justice, Angel One, When The Bough Breaks

Traditions are only worth holding onto if they make sense.

Today marks a turning point for Vaka Rangi, at least in terms of its structure. With Star Trek: The Next Generation, we've entered the longest and most monolithic stretch of the entire Star Trek franchise. There is no point between 1987 and 2005 where Star Trek is not airing new episodes in some form or another, and this makes analysing and historicizing it the way I've been approaching it up 'till now unfeasibly difficult in any reasonable amount of time. Especially considering the fact that, to be brutally honest, not every episode of Star Trek from here on out is a historical milestone, and not every one really needs to be treated as such. Actually, I don't even consider that to be true of the Original Series, but you could at least craft a somewhat compelling argument that this might have been true in this instance. For these shows, however, three of which were comprised of seven seasons of thirty episodes each and one of which was comprised of four, it's really not plausible for me to tackle them episode by episode and expect to be done with all of this before Vaka Rangi itself becomes a historical relic.

So from now on, I'm going to start looking at whole sections of a season together in one essay instead of one at a time. I'll group the episodes together around a central theme that I think characterizes each of them and, instead of going into elabourate detail for all of them, I'll pull examples that support my thesis from each of them. Not every post will be like this; there are still a fair few episodes that I think warrant posts all to themselves, but this is going to become a regular feature from here on out. In particular, I simply can't conceive of any other way to sanely cover the byzantine complexity of the Dominion War's stubborn fixation on serialization *while also* writing about Star Trek Voyager at the same time. Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1 is the first moment I think the time is right to approach the critique this way because there's a noticeable chunk of the year that's quite frankly completely superfluous, mediocre and eminently passable. And, er, I'm afraid it's this one. It wouldn't feel right for me to skip over these episodes entirely, but there's simply no way I can squeeze 1.5-2,000 words out of any of them, and I don't want to waste your time with an entire day's post that's just like 500 words or so.

It's not that any of these episodes are reprehensibly terrible; there's nothing in any of them quite as ghastly as “The Naked Now” or “Code of Honor” (although “Justice” and “Angel One” have moments that push it). What they all are, however, is rote and forgettable, and in a very particular way. I have a distinct suspicion that when people malign the first season, it's probably this crop of episodes they're thinking of, and I've personally skipped over these episodes so many times during my past revisits of this year I actually barley remember them. I know there's a lot of vitriol leveled at the earlier episodes too, and while I do grant they have their issues, I think the majority of the criticism of stories like “Where No One Has Gone Before”, “The Last Outpost” and “Lonely Among Us” is misplaced and unfounded and mostly stems from frustrated confusion that the show under Gene Roddenberry, Maurice Hurley and D.C. Fontana isn't what it's going to be under Michael Piller or Jeri Taylor. And yeah, “Hide and Q” and “Datalore” were both pretty excruciating, and don't get me going on “The Naked Now” and “Code of Honor” again. However, “Encounter at Farpoint”, “Haven”, “Too Short A Season” and “The Big Goodbye” were all magnificent and nobody can convince me otherwise.

These three episodes we're looking at today though...I pretty much concede every single criticism of them that's ever been made. They're all boring and work in very questionable ways, if at all, and more than anything else feel like the show is going through the motions. And disappointingly, “going through the motions” for the Star Trek: The Next Generation production team midway through its first season is apparently “halfheartedly reiterating the Original Series”. “Justice” is a bog standard Prime Directive story, which means it sucks by default without even getting into its worriesome situational politics, “Angel One” is another in a long line of ham-fisted TOS-style allegories that handles feminism with the same care and nuance Dave Gerrold gave homosexuality in “Blood and Fire” and “When The Bough Breaks” is basically a less-interesting “Wink of an Eye”. Every single one of these stories would have felt right at home on Captain Kirk's bridge, and not a single one needs the resources and potential of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It almost feels like the team honestly didn't care what they were making, dug up a bunch of old scripts and did a find-replace on all the names. You know, just like how they'll literally do that exact thing about eight months from now.

(I am, of course, well aware of the extenuating circumstances that led to exhuming “The Child”. This does not change the fact it was a somewhat ill-advised move, or assuage concerns that the production team thinks Star Trek Phase II and Star Trek: The Next Generation are interchangeable.)

I mean honestly, you'd think by now they would have figured things out: It's an oft-repeated and misleading myth, stemming from this show actually (we'll talk more about it once Michael Piller comes aboard) that any television series needs between one to three seasons to figure itself out before it settles into a groove. This is, bluntly put, both a presumptuous and false belief held only by people who have no experience with or understanding of TV that's not Star Trek. A television show is lucky if it lives long enough to get a second season, let alone three. The only reason Star Trek has historically had room to drag its feet is because it was made for syndication and doesn't have the same expectations hoisted onto it. There are plenty of shows that aren't Star Trek that storm right out of the gate confident in their own identity and proudly making their presence known (Dirty Pair, Miami Vice...) and even some that *are* Star Trek (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's first two seasons are quite honestly shamefully undervalued). Not everything has the luxury of a guaranteed episode count to slack off with.

One aspect of this that is true, however, is the fact that Star Trek *is* incredibly difficult to write for. It's unlike any other television show not because, as is often claimed, it's VFX-heavy science fiction, but because not only does it not play by the same rulebook as every other scripted drama on the air, it's not even playing the same game. Standard rules about plot, character development and conflict simply *do not apply* to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and that confounds people who aren't used to it. Not only that, but people who *are* versed in Star Trek have their own set of problems, namely they're so entrenched in their comfort zones and standard ways of approaching things (especially if they came up through or were fans of the Original Series, both of which is true of the current production team) they can't quite wrap their head around the fact it's not 1967 anymore. In the case of all of these parties, the default reaction to being confounded by Star Trek: The Next Generation is “do what the Original Series did”. And that gives you stories like these.

By virtue of inheriting the Original Series' narrative structure, these three episodes also inherit its ethical problems, because the Original Series wasn't always (read “was hardly ever”) the forward-thinking shows people like to think it was. And, like clockwork, each of these three episodes has at least one major cratering ethical failing: While not as stupefyingly abhorrent as “Are Unheard Memories Sweet?”, it's nearest Original Series/Phase II analog, “Angel One” attempts to Say Something Important about feminism by imagining a planet where men are held as slaves by a ruling class of dominatrices and asking its male viewers how they would like it if they had to live like that. While it's thankfully at least on the correct side of the issue this time, “Angel One” almost comically fails as social commentary because it doesn't realise its embarrassingly simple act of turnabout completely neglects to address the underlying social mores and power structures that dictate why women and women in particular, are treated as a hated underclass on contemporary Earth. Furthermore, it's sad how the show seems to think it needs to go to all this trouble when it already depicts a feminist and progressive world *by default*. The crew are obviously meant to be sympathetic, and they're trying mightily to prove to us they're ideals worth invoking. This just feels, redundant, unnecessary and as if the show is trying too hard.

“Justice” and “When The Bough Breaks”, meanwhile, both essentially drift around aimlessly and without a purpose, aside from the aforementioned Prime Directive hand-wringing, so all the same critiques I leveled against things like “The Return of the Archons” and “The Apple” still apply. I'm not going to reiterate my steadfast rejection of the Prime Directive every single time we get another episode about it: It simply doesn't work because there is no conception of reality where it would be possible to hold onto it from an anthropological perspective, and that's before getting at the rather loaded and reactionary subtexts that underwrite this kind of story. “Justice” at least has been read as a critique of unattainable, conventional “fit” standards of beauty and the oppression and stigma this forces onto those who don't conform, but I don't really buy that argument because A. the Enterprise crew are all supposed to be at the peak of physical health and fitness, B., Edo as depicted is pretty indistinguishable from any number of “close-minded” Original Series planetary societies that just follow rules and orders blindly and without question and C. I don't see anything wrong with advocating being as healthy and active as you can be within your means and as is appropriate to your specific body type. “Conventional standards of beauty” and “fitness” are not the same thing; in fact, the former tends to preclude the latter.

As is often the case with Star Trek: The Next Generation, at least at this point in time, the most noteworthy things on display here are visual aesthetics and hints at hidden stories that could have been told. In that regard, “Angel One” has a bizarre, half-baked C-plot about Romulan mobilization near the Neutral Zone that's supposed to set in motion a story arc, but it's entirely superfluous, it's dealt with far better in the episode “The Neutral Zone” and you miss absolutely nothing by waiting until then. I like how Geordi gets to command the Enterprise and Tasha gets to lead the away team, but that's all handled better in “The Arsenal of Freedom” and it really should have been Beverly in the captain's chair here instead. The matte painting and set from this episode, meanwhile, are definitely a step up for the show, and they both go on to be re-used with success in future episodes. Also, the central computer core from “When The Bough Breaks” is one of the most striking and memorable images from the first season, and the process of bringing the shot to life was covered in LeVar Burton's Star Trek: The Next Generation Reading Rainbow episode. As for “Justice”...well...

Look. As you've probably ascertained by now, I'm very forgiving of the visual style of this series. I *love* the Enterprise sets, the lighting, the Okudagrams, Andy Probert's elegant organic curves, everything. I love the uniforms, though I prefer the two-piece suit variants we start seeing in the third season, because just looking at those spandex jumpsuits makes my back hurt knowing what havoc they wreaked with the actors' spinal columns. I mentioned in the “Haven” essay how much I adore Ariana, her style, and how Danitza Kingsley could convey so much with just a look. Even her people's ship was fairly evocative. But “Justice” is where I finally draw the line. This episode, from beginning to end, is an aesthetic car fire. The Edosians look like William Ware Theiss didn't know what a 1980s was and tried to design something “hip” and “trendy” based on already dated Olivia Newton John music videos and half-overheard watercooler grumblings from his co-workers about “the kids these days”. The set doesn't help matters at all, and looks just as cringe-inducingly gauche as everything else about this episode does. The fact that it's actually a real place, the C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in the San Fernando Valley, is just even more deeply unfortunate.

In the end, I can't decide what's worse: A bunch of out-of-touch TV veterans from the 1960s trying to be relevant and contemporary or simply not even bothering. “Angel One” and “When The Bough Breaks” feel like retrograde throwbacks, but “Justice” looks like your dad trying to breakdance in a suit and tie. It's not awkwardly dated because it's of the 1980s, that's just it: It's not of the 1980s. It's some old person's idea of what the 1980s were about. The real works of the period are the ones that transcend themselves to reach metafictional nirvana and can never look out of place because they were never trying to fit in to begin with. No matter which angle they were approached from, not a single one of “Justice”, “Angel One” or “When The Bough Breaks” should be here. They're all the work of burned out talent who have lost their game and who are unable to recapture their moment in the sun. They're a clear a sign as any that Star Trek: The Next Generation needs to clean house if it wants to have a legacy worth talking about.