Sunday, December 7, 2014

“Posthuman Blues”: The Schizoid Man, Unnatural Selection

For a run of episodes that inspired the phrase “growing the beard”, a troubling portion of Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season has been pretty dreadfully uninspiring so far.

These two episodes hinge entirely on hard SF concepts the show has already worked into the ground, despite how early in the year we are. They both prominently feature Data, or matters pertaining to Data, and I can't actually talk about this in any sort of detail lest I risk “The Measure of a Man” post ending up being about 200 words because the show is going to come back to them *yet again* in that episode. They are both mediocre retreads on every level, this time not just of the original Star Trek (c.f. “Unnatural Selection”) but of Star Trek: The Next Generation *itself*. Even more obnoxiously, I can already foresee this being far from the only set of episodes I'm going to have to address in this manner this season.

One thing that unites “The Schizoid Man” and “Unnatural Selection” thematically is their shared exploration into posthuman speculation about humanity's future. In “The Schizoid Man”, Ira Graves wants to transplant his consciousness into an android, namely Data, so that he might live on after his body's biological death, while the scientists in “Unnatural Selection” hoped they might get to decide humanity's future forms through their genetically engineered children. Both schemes are definitely of the techno-futurist, Machine Singularity type of transhumanism, and Star Trek: The Next Generation comes down pretty decisively critically of this in both cases. Or, well, it *tries* to, at least: In “The Schizoid Man”, this is basically an excuse plot for Brent Spiner to play a psychopath again, and if you remove the (creepy) details about Graves and his (creepy) fixation on his assistant, what you're basically left with is another banal Evil Twin story. Yes, “The Schizoid Man” is just “Datalore” again (or perhaps it's a gender-swapped “Turnabout Intruder”). Meanwhile,“Unnatural Selection” being basically a plagiarized knock-off of “The Deadly Years” means its moral about transhumanism essentially amounts to “don't try to strongarm evolution with technoscience or you'll evoke the plot of a shitty Original Star Trek episode”.

I really don't have anything to add here that I haven't already talked about in regards to posthumanism in other blog posts. We've looked at this theme a billion times already, and these episodes bring nothing to the table that hasn't already been addressed in the context of Dirty Pair, whose deft blending of science fiction, mythology and spirituality Star Trek: The Next Generation eminently lacks at this point in its history, and even in the context of Star Trek: The Next Generation *itself* (go re-watch “11001001” or “Home Soil” for a far more nuanced handling of these issues). Although that said, while nothing here is a patch on “We're Not Afraid of Divine Judgment. It's Like Magic?!”, which is probably the definitive statement on posthumanism, Dirty Pair is an interesting point of comparison here for a number of reasons: Firstly, because after Ira Graves uploads himself to the Enterprise computer at the end of “The Schizoid Man”, he prints out several equations that contain the variables “Kei” and “Yuri” and something called a DP (Angle). But secondly, the scientists' plan in “Unnatural Selection” is quite similar to that of Professor Wattsman in Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture.

Both Wattsman and Kingsley are obsessed with circumventing the process of natural selection through deliberate intent. Wattsman thinks the Sadingas had it figured out, which is why he's dedicated his life to working out ways to augment their achievements through his own mastery of genetic and digital technology. Kingsley, for her part, thinks the key to all of this is hypercharging the human body's immune system and has symbolically made children the testbed of her experiments. Both, predictably, go horribly wrong in one way or another: Wattsman creates an army of ravenous monsters that can only live for a few moments before they disintegrate (but not before they tear Agarna to pieces, natch) while the super-resistant antibodies in Kingsley's kids make “The Deadly Years” happen.

All of these plans, including Ira Graves' in “The Schizoid Man”, operate under the premise that humanity is somehow distinct from the rest of nature, and that bodies are like computers and machines that can be easily and effortlessly tweaked, adjusted and upgraded. Indeed, the organic is seen as a bothersome problem nature annoyingly saddled us with through random chance, and the idea is that it's our job as sentient rational actors to overcome it. This is, if you can't already tell, the exact kind of Scientistic, positivist, existentialist-atheist technofetishistic (and tacitly capitalist) Church of the Singularity rhetoric we've been finding so much fault with of late. This is particularly telling in “Unnatural Selection”, both from the title itself (corny as it may be) and in the method by which the disease attacks its victims: If we might read allergies as the human body's unneeded reaction to aspects of the natural world (after all, they can sometimes come about thanks to a lack of healthy exposure to allergens and bacteria), than what happens here is that writ large: A weaponized, virulent anti-allergy where the immune system actively goes out and attacks the environment itself. The message here is clear: If humans try to deny their connection to nature, there will be disastrous consequences for both themselves and the rest of the cosmos. They may even have to watch “The Deadly Years”.

The evolutionary singularity will come someday, perhaps sooner than we anticipate, but when it does it will come through deepening our understanding of our connectedness with each other and the natural world, not through denying and trying to reject it.

I guess the other big thing to talk about with these episodes is the characters. “The Schizoid Man” is supposed to be about Data, but it really isn't because he's barely in the damn thing. Sure, Brent Spiner has the spotlight, but he's not actually playing Data. There's an obligatory speech about Graves denying Data's personhood and impeding his liberty and right to exist, but again, we're going to be talking about this a *lot* come “The Measure of a Man” (indeed, as infrequently as I agree with Maurice Hurley, his description of this episode as “science fiction bullshit” is definitely one moment in which he merits applause). And, considering “The Measure of a Man” was an out-of-the-blue pitch, this isn't really thematic consistency like we saw last year; this feels much more like simple self-plagiarism and repetitive unoriginality. Oh and by the way, you can make whatever you want out of Ira Graves being written with Patrick McGoohan in mind.

“Unnatural Selection”, meanwhile is obviously supposed to be the big Doctor Pulaski episode, but it didn't really need to be, as adding a couple of sentences to “Elementary, Dear Data” would have served pretty much the same purpose without necessitating doing this story and thus saving the team one more script slot. Furthermore, I think “Unnatural Selection” actually *hurts* Pulaski by making the comparisons to Bones McCoy all the more unavoidable, and on top of that giving her a weird ship tease moment with Captain Picard, because apparently we can't have any women on this show who don't have a creepy infatuation with Captain Picard (I blame Gene Roddenberry for this primarily).

There are a few other nice character bits here: “Unnatural Selection” again is the first episode where Miles O'Brien gets a name, rank and position and is the first time Colm Meaney is promoted to the opening credits, so it's definitely noteworthy for that. And there's some nice scenes with O'Brien and the rest of the crew, in particular Captain Picard and Commander Riker. Diana Muldaur too is predictably excellent, and this is the first time she properly feels like a regular and a member of the ship's family. But we've come to *expect* this sort of thing from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and as I've often said before, nice character moments alone are simply not enough for something like this. In a work of narrative-driven, spectacle-focused visual media, you have *got* to have more than that. And that's the real problem here: Neither “The Schizoid Man” nor “Unnatural Selection” have anything going for them apart from that, and skimping on ideas and imagination at this point is really going to show.


  1. Oh and by the way, you can make whatever you want out of Ira Graves being written with Patrick McGoohan in mind.

    I'm guessing "Very subtle joke at the end about him being changed from a (free) man to a series of zeroes and ones."

    Unnatural Selection is mostly noteworthy only in retrospect as "That one time that, inexplicably, no one had any qualms about human genetic engineering"

  2. Your comments about The Measure of a Man reveal some of what I think is incredibly important to understanding the flaws of TNG Season Two, taken as a whole. The Measure of a Man and The Schizoid Man ostensibly deal with the same basic concepts: whether an artificial form of life (implying any non-human forms of life) can develop a way of being that compels humans to accord it the same respect as we intuitively hold other humans deserve. The Schizoid Man did it very clumsily and stupidly; The Measure of a Man was a nuanced drama of ideas, and one of the best stories of TNG as far as I'm concerned.

    (The Measure of a Man also provides an answer to your question in last week's post about Guinan rendering Troi's shipboard role redundant. Troi is an emotional and psychological advisor; Guinan is the Enterprise's philosophical advisor.)

    But The Measure of a Man was an entirely unplanned pitch, improvised into a troubled production. The production was so troubled because for almost the entire year, a writers' strike crippled the creative capacities of the show. What TNG could potentially have become from its template in Season One crashed and burned in this chaos. Instead, the show was built anew from concepts that survived the tumult of Season Two and informed the renaissance period of Seasons Three and Four. The creative potential of the show was badly damaged by the material conditions of its production. I get the feeling that this analysis is probably coming anyway, but I wanted to shout about it right now.

  3. You know, I like both episodes. But I agree they're very run-of-the-mill in spite of their place in the context of production being important in the growth of a few characters via small character moments, and good actors. For instance, in BOTH of these episodes Diana Muldaur gets to record "Chief Medical Officer's Logs" instead of the usual Picard voiceover, and makes a strong case for being a supreme candidate as the leading role in a "Star Trek: Medical Frigate" spin-off.

    There's also great subversive moments - like Pulaski's "supreme confidence" in Doctor Selar, which feels like a small nod and counter-argument to her being a Bones McCoy knock-off, as if to say "skepticism about Data's personhood is not the same thing as abject anti-Vulcan bigotry encroaching into a professional rivalry." Of course, that episode also features the debut of the inimitable Susie Plakson, who instantly feels like she's been there all along as one of the crew. As notable as she is as Keylehr, she's more interesting as a stoic Vulcan dealing with a human whose chauvinistic tendencies are such politically incorrect throwbacks to 200 years earlier that he has to basically live in isolation. I'd be far more interested had a female Vulcan stuck around ... and hell, if Worf had a romantic relationship with a female Vulcan ... than the relationship he gets thrown into later. I'll not forget to mention that using W. Morgan Shepard is always memorable (I was delighted for instance when he turned up in Doctor Who the year before last.)

    So we have well-trodden ground, and by-the-numbers episodes. They are padding. But they are also steps in the road. Solidly performed, with good emphasis on much of the ensemble cast, well-built stock TNG. With actual funny humor (I can't believe for a second Marina Sirtis was faking it when she burst into laughter before running out of Data's quarters) and at least the very interesting premise of "A scientist with an ego comes to terms with his own mortality ... in Data's body."

    And all through Graves' musing about the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz is some of the most blatantly obvious pointed proof and intimation that Data is already "human". The whole line about whining about wanting to be human only not noticing that he already was one. My skepticism about A.I. itself aside, there's no doubt in my mind that Data, the character, is human already.

    That's the thing about a lack of humanity ... even humans wonder if they are or aren't. Data's facial expressions - his actual reactions to things - may only be learned behaviors that he imitates to blend more smoothly with actual humans, but then, aren't all of our responses learned behaviors as well? Don't many of us struggle with a perceived lack of emotions and wonder "how we should be feeling about something?" And isn't that itself a feeling?

    That's the dilemma I would have with ever finding Data to be a "favorite character". It's the illusion of a complex quandary when he's a quite simple concept to grasp. (Of course it's how other characters deal with it that makes his part of the ensemble a worthwhile concept.)

    The criticism of the transhumanist themes that you mentioned seemed really, really blatant to me as I watched these two episodes tonight. Not bad, not even heavy-handed, but nobody would have to dig very far to uncover the moral of the story, which explains how tropishly, predictably events played out. It's the kind of sci-fi that practically writes itself. But I'm pleased that we're just about to my favorite two episodes in the entire TNG series.

  4. "Meanwhile,“Unnatural Selection” being basically a plagiarized knock-off of “The Deadly Years”"

    Yeah I found these quite derivative episodes. Unnatural Selection did stick in my mind, but mainly as a reflection of The Deadly Years.

    Not much else to say except that I *love* O'Brien!