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.


  1. Replies
    1. I appreciate your thoughtful and erudite comment. Surely, writing 6000+ words a week on Star Trek does not excuse me such a grievous and unforgivable error. No matter, of course, that spellcheck does not recognise "Starfleet" as is or the fact I need to revise *all* of these essays anyway.

  2. "unthinking, blinkered, self-absorbed, monolithic collective of zombified capitalists"

    If we've learned at least one thing about 24th Century humanity and the Federation, it's that they absolutely find capitalism repulsive. So this bit doesn't make any sense.

    1. It's a consequence of the paradox/catch-22 Star Trek: The Next Generation faces. Yes, these are the ideals the 24th Century is supposed to represent. But those ideals are still wedded to a series of world-building concepts that come straightforwardly from militaristic science fiction and are completely incompatible with them. Gene Roddenberry's commitment to the United States-esque Federation puts him at odds with the utopian ideals his show is trying to convey elsewhere.

      You can't have true generative freedom the way Star Trek wants under the model of government it glorifies. Western capitalism's ultimate destiny is the Borg, and Star Trek will have to come to terms with that if it wants to continue.

  3. I wonder if there's something to be said for the coming to terms with that we've seen out of a lot of the non-canon, but "near" canon post-24th Century stories from the books or video-games.

    It seems to me that in almost all of them you get a sort of specific kind of shuffling that's not randomly selected based on writers' favorites - but typically what we see is the incorporation of an enemy - The Romulans. Rather than let them stand as their own unique culture, they always seem to be the potential ultimate endgame of "Federation Diplomacy". Peace treaties developing into curt friendship developing into straight up Reunification. But bringing in the Romulans would only really dramatically speed up the timeline for Federation Borgification, wouldn't it? Certainly the whole UFP would become "much more Starfleet" - much more militaristic in its operations.

    Conversely a lot of post-DS9/VOY writing balances "alliances with old enemies" with "schism at the heart of the Federation". It's the novel series that has the huge crux of Andorian secession from the Federation Charter, right? The equivalent and opposite of the Vulcans, with their emotional high ground rather than a logical one ... you could almost map the counterforces of stifling restraint versus unbridled passion onto the soul of the Federation's war with itself.

    Consumption and seeking out new resources and spreading your influence across the galaxy is logical. But is it ethical? That's the question Q asked, too.

  4. Yes hand's down I would have so preferred now to see the episode play out as having the conspiracy be about Starfleet Command seeking more control, rather than an alien threat. As a kid I was very surprised by the story - oh and how Tasha would have worked here is she'd been given the chance!