Tuesday, December 16, 2014

“Nothing Lasts Forever”: Contagion

At long last, Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season gives us its first inarguable, unqualified masterpiece.

It's not that “Contagion” is any less the product of the season's incredibly troubled production history, but this is the first time the show has been able to fully rise above it and put out something triumphant in spite of it. Indeed, Beth Woods, one half of the brainchild behind this episode, was literally the creative team's tech support: She ran a personal computer store near the Paramount lot D.C. Fontana and Dave Gerrold liked to patronize, and they turned Gene Roddenberry onto her place when he was looking to buy his first computer. Woods even taught him how to use it, and Roddenberry later asked her to set up a computer system for the Star Trek: The Next Generation creative team. Roddenberry even invited Woods to submit a story of her own after learning she was a struggling writer herself (and also probably because they had no scripts), so she teamed up with comic writer Steve Gerber to pen "Contagion".

So it probably makes sense that Woods and Gerber's episode would deal prominently with computer technology and hinge on an alien computer virus. As cliche as that probably sounds today, this sort of plot was still sort of a new thing to US audiences even as late as 1989. Furthermore, Star Trek: The Next Generation is one of the very few shows that can actually do a techno thriller, which “Contagion” definitely is, without coming across as banal. There are a couple reasons for this, the first likely being the show's high-tech setting and focus on exploration gives it license to freely poke around mysterious areas of space and hyper advanced technology without being constrained too much by real world computer science. But the second is the sheer earnestness of the cast and crew that puts heart and soul into anything: None of Star Trek: The Next Generation's techno thrillers look terribly exciting or innovative on paper, but in almost every single case the stories in question turn out to be incredibly memorable and captivating because of their unbridled imagination and creativity and the raw power and talent of the cast. And “Contagion” is the first time this all comes together for them, with a guest cast as passionate as the main one and a simple, yet incredibly gripping, central premise that helps bring it all together.

There's no one thing that makes this episode as memorable and effective as it is, it's simply that the combination of all the little individual factors that go into it make the whole a lot greater than the sum of its parts. All of the regulars seem to be doing exactly the sort of thing it feels right for them to be doing, from Worf's loyalty to Riker and Troi looking out for the crew and handling delicate negotiations with Commander Taris, to Geordi's race against time to solve the mystery of Iconian programming and even Data's blatant, yet charming “New Powers As The Plot Demands” 133t skillz. Diana Muldaur isn't in the episode very much, but the one scene she does get is one of her absolute best in the series as Doctor Pulaski fumes at sickbay crashing around her while teaching her hapless nurses how to make a splint, all with her signature sparkle. This is also the episode that introduces Captain Picard's interest in archeology, which is one of the most important developments for his character on the show, because its his first concrete step away from the militarism of Gene Roddenberry towards a more textually overt embrace of the scientific curiosity that really always should have been part of him from the beginning.

(This is even a good episode for Wesley, who, for probably the first time in the entire show, starts to demonstrate why having a child character is the kind of thing we might actually *want*: Although long displaced in this role by Data, who is a far more effective child analog for the children's television for adults Star Trek: The Next Generation has become, the scene where Wesley asks Picard about his interest in archeology, and turning to him for guidance after being shell-shocked by the destruction of the Yamato, is actually quite touching.)

“Contagion” is the second and final appearance of the Enterprise's sister ship the Yamato, and its destruction here brings with it some interesting symbolism. The ship is named after the flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy that fought in the Pacific theatre of World War II and was the largest, most advanced and powerful battleship ever built. This is more than a little problematic: The original Yamato was possibly the most brazen and undeniable example of imperialistic aspiration and bravado given material form, and represents a time when Japan placed all of its national pride into blatantly racist and colonialist expansionist fever dreams. Imperial Japan's actions during and leading up to World War II are still a touchy subject amongst those who live in the island country to this day. While on the one hand no one can argue Japan isn't a vastly different place now, there is a certain eagerness amongst all post-colonial powers to put their past behind them too quickly and attempt to forget and ignore the misdeeds and injustices that make up the foundation of any nation-state. This is as true of Japan as it is anywhere else, and this has the tendency to *enrage* a certain type of creative person.

Though I deliberately avoided talking about it in this project, there is most certainly a right-wing militaristic branch of Japanese science fiction. The most notable example of this genre is, funnily enough, a series called Space Battleship Yamato, which chronicles the adventures of a(n all-male) crew of heroic space explorers who retrieve the sunken wreck of the original Yamato and turn it into a starship with the intent of seeking out the home planet of an alien race who has promised to give humanity the technology it needs to restore Earth after it's bombed into a radioactive wasteland. The series very obviously taps into Japan's postwar identity crisis and tries to evoke a distorted sense of nostalgic patriotism by projecting Japan's hopes for a future onto a former symbol of national pride tied *very explicitly* to a feeling of the righteousness and justness of empire.

Though considered a classic and a landmark both in anime and Japanese science ficiton in general, Space Battleship Yamato was not received with open arms by everyone. One of its more prominent earlier detractors was none other than Hayao Miyazaki, who made his feelings on the show and the implications that went along with it pretty clear by making the last vestige of the doomed and irresponsible Old Universe of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind a bombed-out hulk that Nausicaä's friends and family seek terrified shelter in as Princess Kushana's forces bear down upon them with the last God Warrior in tow. A pathetic wreck that is pretty blatantly meant to be that of the Space Battleship Yamato. Two years later, the satirical anime movie Project A-ko features the Space Battleship Yamato as the *figurehead* of an implausibly and unnecessarily gigantic starship belonging to the navy of the Alpha Cygnans, an extraterrestrial civilization who come to Earth to locate their missing princess after sixteen years of searching, and who accidentally help spark a planetary war and vaporize much of Japan due to their general incompetence.

And “Contagion” has the Federation making the exact same mistake: The Galaxy-class is supposed to represent the very best qualities of human ingenuity, creativity and curiosity-Geordi even calls it something like “the pinnacle of human achievement”. And Starfleet has gone and named one of them after a terrifying weapon of war; a horrific testament to the evils of colonialism and imperialism. No matter how many superficial overtures it makes, paying tribute to nonwestern cultures, even showing people of colour as captains, the Federation is still unmistakeably and disturbingly a product of the oppressive authoritarianism it claims to have long since moved beyond. After all, not three episodes ago it was seriously considering bringing back *slavery*. Which is why, awful as it may seem, the Yamato has to die. It carries with it the weight of far too much painful and unpalatable history that simply does not belong amongst the idealism of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

And the mysterious Iconians know this. We can speculate as to their true nature and motives, and there's a fruitful discussion to be had about whether you side with Worf or Captain Picard here. I'm more inclined to side with the latter: Were the Iconians truly examples of a life post-singularity? Their ability to travel free from the shackles of mortal space would seem to indicate this, though, on the other hand, they did seem to wed this to a very technophillic structure that would seem to work against this. At the very least, we can assume they were likely some form of aspirational Glorified Body who represent a kind of stepping-stone point to the next level. And, true to form, the Iconian artefact in this episode bears some very familiar inscriptions: Namely, “Totoro”, “Gundam”, “Kei”, “Yuri” and “Dirty Pair”.

It's fitting that the Iconians would evoke not only the Lovely Angels (as well as the Gundam series, another franchise the girls' parent company Studio Neu was involved in), but My Neighbor Totoro, one of Hayao Miyazaki's most famous films. We have the Glorified warrior-shamans who are committed to ushering in humanity's new age through fire as well as Miyazaki the arch-animist and enemy of imperialism the world over (not to mention the Space Battleship Yamato). Diegetically we never learn the intent behind the Iconian computer virus, but extradiegetically it couldn't be more clear to me. It was placed there specifically (though perhaps not deliberately) for the Yamato to find and for the Enterprise and the Haakona to study. The Yamato was fated to die at Iconia, but the other two ships have a greater work that guides them.

Why was the Enterprise redeemable and not the Yamato? Because even though they were sister ships and superficially comrades and friends, the Enterprise remains distant from and better than Starfleet and the Federation. She and her crew are on their way to becoming divine ideals, while the Yamato was the unwitting product of the Federation's reactionary and depraved underbelly. Recall that the Enterprise's chief engineer is Geordi La Forge, who, if no-one else, is there to guide the Enterprise and her crew to do great things (Riker even implies, somewhat flippantly, other chief engineers might not be cut of the same cloth as Geordi). Similarly the Haakona is Romulan, and the Romulans, even here, are still tacitly reflections of us: They may have lost their way a bit and the tables may have turned by this point in regards to who is a better version of who, but they still have a bright future ahead of them and are spared the cleansing fire. Indeed, while Donald Varley may have feared the Iconian technology falling into Romulan hands, I'd be far more concerned if the *Federation* got their hands on it.

I think Captain Picard maybe agrees with me, and that's why he has the tricorder and the command centre destroyed. He likely picked up on what the Iconians already knew, that the universe right now just isn't ready to function on that level quite yet. But it's well on its way, as the Enterprise proved here. And yet even so, there's a lot of important and careful work to be done, because the Enterprise and the Yamato were still so frighteningly close (indeed, it's unsettling to see such familiar and recognisable stock footage of the beautiful Galaxy-class utilised this way).

But even if there is, I think the lesson here is that the future is probably in the best of hands.


  1. I always found it compelling -- and even moreso now in light of this article -- that they spend a part of this episode speculating on the possibility that what destroyed the Yamato was that there is just some fatal design flaw that has secretly doomed the Galaxy Class. Which is a kind of lovely rejection of the common fan-perception of the TNG federation as a utopia: perhaps, in fact, we've all been doomed from the start and this whole thing is fatally flawed.

    In light of which, it's kind of beautifully fitting that the solution to the iconian "virus" is to stop what you're doing, turn everything off, then start over from scratch.

  2. I deeply, deeply love this episode. Great writeup.

  3. There is a fatal flaw, of course - in the heart of militarism in Starfleet, even if its as innocuous as "the best naval tradition". Even Wesley's discussion with Picard reflects on the Iconian shift from militarism to ... something else.

    I'm pleased as I re-watch this that the Romulans far resemble their TOS incarnation, as much as I'm pleased that this is a spec script, and that there's real tension here, right down to the synth riff as they watch the Yamato disintegrate, or how the camera in the Romulan command bridge makes it look like the two rooms mirror right across from one another, like somebody just modularly linked the two bridges.

    This episode clearly captured some imaginations, as the Iconians become one of the most prevalent recurring motifs in fan and expanded fiction, as well as recurring in a pretty strong episode of DS9.

  4. The thing I'm absolutely fascinated by as I've read your recent essays ~Josh are the occurrences of the hidden examples of Kei & Yuri appearing (as well as the other references you mention this time) within stories. I had absolutely no idea! My Neighbour Totoro is absolutely one of my favourite works too.

    When I do a re watch it will be with fresh eyes...

    Thanks again for a great article, sorry I've not got much more to add but my memory of this story is limited.