Tuesday, December 30, 2014

“Oh Yupa! I don't want to go to war!”: Samaritan Snare

There's a joke I read in Cracked magazine once that stuck with me and that I enjoy paraphrasing. It was in an article about no-budget knockoff animated films and is along the lines of “the most good these movies could ever do is inspiring a baby to pursue a life of filmmaking through helping them realise they could actually have done better themselves”. Though it's describing an undeniably more negative form of inspiration arguably tied to a certain egoism, the joke definitely touches on a real phenomenon. Sometimes art sparks our creativity not because we resonate with its message and sentiment so much as we are incensed at its structural incompetence.

It's become a common story in fan circles that “Samaritan Snare” is a textbook example of this, as it upset writers Dennis Russell Bailey, David Bischoff and Lisa Putnam White so much in its opening moments that it drove them to write “Tin Man” a year later in a deliberate attempt to show a production team they considered to be wholly and completely incompetent how “proper” Star Trek should be written. In a now somewhat infamous interview, Bailey absolutely rails against this episode, calling it an “idiot plot” relying on the assumption both the crew and the audience are completely stupid and nitpicking pretty much every major action the characters take throughout the entire story, basically using it as an excuse to trash Star Trek: The Next Generation by comparing it unfavourably to the Original Series. Here's the thing though. Aside from being a textbook example itself of the reality that whiny, obsessive, nostalgia-driven fan discourse that gets irrationally angry at every single plot hole has existed since the birth of genre fiction and conceding that “Tin Man” is in fact bloody brilliant (and momentarily setting aside the fact the show's production team in its third season was *completely different* from the one in its second and that Bailey et al are blaming Michael Piller's crew for the alleged sins of their predecessors), Bailey's argument blatantly ignores several crucial details about what “Samaritan Snare” was trying to say.

No, this is not the show's finest hour. I absolutely grant that. But its problems are generally distinct from the so-called Idiot Plot: As Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann point out in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, there really is only one idiot here, and that's Commander Riker. And there is something of a redemptive reading to be had here, as Riker dropping the ball in regards to the Pakled situation was not written into the story out of ignorance or incompetence (in life, it's generally a good idea to assume your interlocutor is in possession of the same mental faculties as yourself, and isn't Star Trek supposed to be teaching us empathy?), but rather in an attempt to show that, in spite of rapidly rising in fame and accolades, as first officer, Riker is still young and perhaps not quite ready for prime time yet. The implication is that, had be been in this situation instead, Captain Picard wouldn't have made the same mistakes Riker did. The very diegetic questions Worf and Troi raise against Riker's judgment that Bailey rages about in his piece and seems to think are indications of sloppy writing are there quite clearly to telegraph that Riker is obviously making the wrong calls and is going to be putting Geordi and the ship in serious danger.

The problem is not with the plot itself, which is about a trap you could imagine a fresh-faced, bullish and perhaps overconfident XO character to fall into, but that it's actually out of character for Riker to be making those kinds of mistakes in the first place. Although, like everyone else aboard, he travels aboard the Enterprise to learn and grow, *also* like everyone else aboard, he wouldn't be there in the first place if he wasn't already at a certain level of intellectual and emotional maturity such that he can serve as an ideal and role model himself. And like as we talked about in “The Icarus Factor”, Riker isn't macho or competitive: Telling a story about this kind of mistake isn't wrong, but that's not the kind of mistake Riker would make. “Samaritan Snare”s big problem isn't in having its characters make catastrophic mistakes they have to learn from-That's just a standard dramatic trope, after all. It's problem is forgetting that you can't actually *do* this on Star Trek: The Next Generation because that sort of plot is incompatible with the show's unique setting. That's not to say the show can't do character development, as you can't rightly have a show about learning and personal growth if nobody does either of those, but it has to be handled a certain way. Which, it must be said, “Samaritan Snare” doesn't do.

(Another thing Bailey refuses to grant Maurice Hurley and Melinda Snodgrass is the small matter of the writer's strike. He prefers to lay all the blame on one target, seemingly completely oblivious as to how hellishly unworkable this show was this season purely due to external factors far beyond the control of anyone in the writer's room.)

There are other problems with “Samaritan Snare”: The Pakleds alone bring with them a whole host of unfortunate implications, the most glaringly obvious being a particularly nasty case of science fiction race essentialism. Compounding the fact that he's acting out of character in the first place, having Riker so sneeringly dismissive of an entire species the show wants him to write off as being stupid and subnormal...I mean, ouch. I'm a strong critic of the accusation Star Trek: The Next Generation acted elitist and superior, but there's not a whole lot of other readings for that scene. But none of this is what I actually want to talk about here. What I'm far more interested in is what we learn about Captain Picard's backstory. Picard is out of character too, it must be said: He really should have patched things up with Doctor Pulaski by this point and if “Q Who” didn't paint him as arrogant necessarily, this episode sure does. It's a throwback to the plot of “Time Squared” where everything goes wrong because Picard thinks the whole ship revolves around him, which he shouldn't and normally doesn't.

I'm speaking of course of Picard receiving an artificial heart transplant as a result of getting stabbed in a bar fight with a group of alien bruisers. If we read Picard as someone who may have lived through the “Old Generation”, which his status as an established “Starfleet legend” would seem to imply, then this is telling. Though he may have coexisted with them, Picard is not of them (if he was, he wouldn't be on this show), and this means he's meant to travel and grow, thus modeling himself into an ideal. The crass bull-headedness of the Old Generation doesn't get you anywhere anymore (and notice how this is also a deconstruction of the Original Series' incessant testosterone-laden, consequence-free brawling), but more importantly, his artificial heart becomes a metaphor for his enlightenment by fiery trial. Picard's near-mortal injury has allowed him to become diegtically augmented in some form, which returns the show to the transhumanist themes it examined at the opposite end of the season, albeit far more subtly this time. Sometimes in order to become a better person we have to endure experiences that seem catastrophically tragic in the moment.

And in one of the most shocking and transformative moments in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it's revealed the person who almost killed Captain Picard was Princess Nausicaä.

Of course the aliens who are mentioned offhand in this episode were not named after a character from Homer's Odyssey. They were named after *the* Nausicaä: Hayao Miyazaki's guardian spirit, the angelic warrior-shaman at the heart of his sprawling and incomparable Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. This is one of the most powerful invocations Star Trek: The Next Generation has ever cast and it's absolutely stunning that the show would pit her *against* Captain Picard. This is, on the surface, even more damning than anything the Borg could have ever done: What kind of heartless, thoughtless, vile brute deliberately goes after someone like Nausicaä? It's practically a miracle Picard survived at all: Nausicaä will fight tooth and claw to uphold peace and the harmony of nature at any cost, up to and including that of her own life. Under absolutely no circumstance can anything redemptive or positive be discerned about *anyone* who would oppose Nausicaä on the basis of her values, and though she is loath to start fights, she is very, very good at ending them and won't hesitate to strike with the full force of a planet enraged.

But...That's not what this is about. “Samaritan Snare” doesn't put Captain Picard in opposition to Nausicaä, it's claiming the two characters, or really, the two ideals, exist in a delicate symbiotic relationship that manifests in the form of ritual combat. Both Nausicaä and Captain Picard are some kind of shaman, and shamans exist in both the divine and material realms. They're also both travellers, which is in many ways the same kind of thing. But shamans are part divine because they wear the stylized masks of the spirits in an attempt to convey their message through performative storytelling, which means divine rituals can play out and re-enact themselves each time a story is told. And because time is not what we think it is, this can spiral out to reach into the past-future and future-past: In her stories, Nausicaä has a fellow traveller named Lord Yupa: He's often called her mentor, but it's far more accurate to say he's a special person to her by virtue of being a kindred spirit whose presence guides her to take action: The reality of their relationship is that Yupa learns far more from Nausicaä than she ever does from him because her role is manifestly *not* to go through character development (as Miyazaki says, she doesn't change, we just get to know her better).

There's a scene early in both the manga and film versions of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind where Nausicaä is enraged by the actions of the Touromekian soldiers (offending the forest by breaking sacred taboo in the manga and killing her father in the movie) and flies into a blind rage, utterly slaughtering the entire deployment before Yupa steps in to separate the combatants, taking a blow from Nausicaä's sword and being wounded in the process. This is not, it should be stressed, necessarily Nausicaä's fault: By this point it had already been established she speaks for the land and operates on a higher level of morality than what ordinary humans understand. In this scene, Nausicaä is the avatar of the natural order and the cosmic godhead's revenge against retrograde forces of toxicity. But as a shaman, she also must speak for ordinary humans, and Yupa's intervention is what clears the stage so that Nausicaä can demonstrate this other side of herself. The reason I bring all of this up is that when Disney produced its English language dub of the movie in 2005, it cast Patrick Stewart as Lord Yupa, thus, intentionally or not, firmly re-establishing Star Trek: The Next Generation's symbolic connection to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Just as The Little Mermaid and the Disney Renaissance could not have happened without Hayao Miyazaki and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a truth Disney chose to honour by casting Jodi Benson in that same dub, Star Trek: The Next Generation revealed its own true heritage by invoking Nausicaä herself in the show's official canon, and Nausicaä in turn sealed the partnership by allowing their ritual battle to play out once again through Patrick Stewart. And so Nausicaä cuts out Captain Picard's heart so that he might transcend the counterproductive and destructive tendencies his relationship to Star Trek shackles him with to become a far greater ideal, and Captain Picard retells the story in her honour by symbolically falling on her sword once more so that her own greatness might be revealed to us. And so the cycle begins anew.

And wouldn't you know it, where does Captain Picard go to get treated by Doctor Pulaski on Starbase 515? A hospital that features none other than a “Kei/Yuri Therapy Unit”. I have a suspicion the joke here is supposed to be that anyone who survives an encounter with the “Dirty Pair” needs therapy, but I think we all know the real truth is that it's Kei and Yuri themselves who dispense the therapy. It might not look like it at the time, the singularity looks like the apocalypse from below, but wherever and whenever the Lovely Angels happen to show up, things always happen for the better. Even if we can't notice it at the time.


  1. Great reading of B-plot - but this episode still remains the one that almost made me give up re-watching TNG a few years back. That scene - that damn scene when Riker, after exchanging two sentences with a single guy on a single starship, dismisses HIS WHOLE SPECIES as being "a little slow" - followed by Data who says "their" language skills might be poorly developed - followed by no other than Troi who, in a later scene, confirms that the Enterprise crew now considers the whole Pakled species to be, well, mentally retarded -- that was probably the most offensive thing ever done on this show.

    Now, I can understand how "Code of Honor" touches the feelings of Afro-Americans - but that episode failed to resonate anything offensive to someone who lives in a mono-racial culture, where "people of color" are still something fairly exotic (greetings from Serbia btw! :) ) But having worked with autistic and "intelectualy challenged" children for some years, I was immediately offended by "Samaritan Snare". Too bad - B-plot, especially when keeping Nausicaa in mind, does open something new for Picard. Riker, however, was almost permanently damaged in my eyes after this..

  2. As awful as this episode's A plot is, the story of Picard's artificial heart is worthwhile if only because it set the stage for the genuinely transformative episode (and I consider it one of my favourite late TNG stories) Tapestry. It's an old story trope, but it's executed extremely well, and includes several ethical twists that can be quite mind-bending when you think about them.

  3. This episode is a terrific example of the value of negative or selective continuity. Burl's criticisms are of course entirely valid, but I still, for obvious reasons, enjoy looking at the implications of the B-plot.

    And just as "Samaritan Snare" lays the groundwork for "Tapestry", this post allows me to lay the groundwork for my essay on "Tapestry".

  4. "And in one of the most shocking and transformative moments in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it's revealed the person who almost killed Captain Picard was Princess Nausicaä."

    I was genuinely blown away when I read this in the essay Josh - thank you for such a revelation! I had no idea at all about these thematic links. I already thought that the plot with Picard receiving an artificial heart was truly amazing, touching, trans-human and transformative as Adam states above.

    *This* is why I read this blog Josh as I had in no way picked up these connections when I watched the show ever - so thank you again.

  5. As an interesting angle to the the "she doesn't change, we just get to know her better", you might be interested to watch episode 155 of the red jacket Lupin the 3rd series ("Farewell, Beloved Lupin"), if you haven't seen it. It was directed by Hayao Miyazaki under the pseudonym of Teruki Tsutomu, and is easily one of the best in the series.

    The episode is almost a test run for Nausicaä, featuring a young girl trying her best to avoid conflict, outwit a defense contractor, and stop Japan from entering another horrible war. Maki, the young girl who pretty much supplants Lupin as protagonist in the episode, looks almost exactly like Clarice from Cagliostro , and Nausicaä herself (with the same voice actress, Sumi Shimamoto, to boot!), and displays all the compassion, empathy, and desire from peace we'll see later on in Miyazaki's work.

    Miyazaki got to know her very well, it seems. She just wore a different mask this time, just like all the different masks worn by different characters throughout the episode itself.

    1. I was familiar with the Nausicaä-Maki connection because I learned about Miyazaki's work on Lupin during my research, but I haven't seen the actual episode in question yet. I really should, considering how important this is starting to become to my work and interests both here and elsewhere.

      One of the things that strikes me as so profound about Nausicaä, and Kei and Yuri too, is precisely what you say here: That they become almost these guardian spirits who reappear time and time again wearing slightly different contextual guises to specific people. Miyazaki absolutely viewed Nausicaä this way (which is why I'm so stunned by and deeply respectful of his stance on her today, like how he's openly supportive of Hideki Anno doing a story with her) and Kei and Yuri have become so essential a part of the anime medium you see them crop up *everywhere* under different names: Any time you see a pair of girlfriends, one who has red hair (or just lighter hair) and is more tomboyish and one who has blue hair and is more demure, that's them or someone responding to them, even if they're not cognizant that's actually what they're doing.

      Haruka Takachiho, Sunrise and Studio Nue have even made overtures to explicitly acknowledge this: Takachiho has said many times the strength of Kei and Yuri is that you can tell stories about them in any kind of setting or genre, and several years back there were even a couple radio series that recast the Angels in wildly disparate times, places and roles, like investigative specialists assisting the FBI solving mysteries along Route 66 in the mid-20th Century, or as ninja-in-training in 1791.

    2. "One of the things that strikes me as so profound about Nausicaä, and Kei and Yuri too, is precisely what you say here: That they become almost these guardian spirits who reappear time and time again wearing slightly different contextual guises to specific people."

      In a lot of ways that idea, which is beautiful, makes me think of Michael Moorcock's concept of The Eternal Champion. An entity, a being, a force that exists across time, space and dimensions that exists to bring balance to the multiverse.

    3. ...And The Eternal Champion would also be the canonical name of the first protagonist of The Elder Scrolls series, which is a series where protagonists *are literally that* and function that way *diegetically*.

  6. That's very cool, thanks! Not being a computer gamer I had no idea - how wonderful! Cosmic concepts such as The Eternal Champion or Kei & Yuri break out of their home media and come to life in a vast array of extended mediums don't they? That's what we are seeing with all of Kei & Yuri's subtle appearances in Trek - it naturally has to happen though, as such cosmic beings cannot be contained by even the laws of texts and conventional narrative.