Thursday, December 4, 2014

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”: The Outrageous Okona

The Agony Booth famously called “The Outrageous Okona” one of Star Trek's single worst hours, almost “And The Children Shall Lead” bad, in fact. Like most things involving The Agony Booth, I disagree pretty strongly with that assessment. I can't understand why this episode has the reputation it does: It's not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but there's nothing unfathomably offensive here either.

(Well...actually I *do* know where the majority of the criticism comes from, but I want to avoid talking about that for a bit.)

“The Outrageous Okona” has a rather unique origin as far as Star Trek episodes go. Instead of being built around somebody pitching a central concept or idea, it hinges on one character. The titular Captain Okona is explicitly a thinly veiled stand-in for a real person, namely his actor, William O. “Billy” Campbell. Campbell had actually auditioned for the role of Commander Riker and almost got the part, were it not for a last-minute intervention from Paramount higher-up John Pike, who felt Jonathan Frakes was more commanding and that Campbell didn't have an onscreen presence that would compel viewers to “follow [him] into battle”. But the production team apparently still had affection for Campbell, and this episode feels very much like their attempt to show the audience how he would have interacted with the rest of the main cast. Okona is certainly written as the dashing, roguish, womanizing romantic lead Commander Riker has the reputation for being, particularly, and admittedly excruciatingly, near the beginning (and yet also note how Riker is in many ways depicted as Okona's foil here: Indeed, in spite of his reputation, Riker actually does vanishingly little of this sort of thing anywhere on Star Trek: The Next Generation).

But the part of Okona that comes most directly from Campbell is his wanderlust. Okona's entire character is built around never settling down and always feeling compelled to travel from place to place and Campbell himself is much the same way: When offered a role on Ira Behr's The 4400, Campbell flatly said he'd accept, but only if the show could accommodate his schedule, for he was planning to sail around the world soon after the show was set to begin production. As a result, Behr had his character temporarily killed off while Campbell was on his journey, and brought him back once he returned to the United States. It seems very much as if Star Trek: The Next Generation was trying to pay tribute to the actor through his character here, and it's a textbook example of how real life is far more wondrous and exciting than anything anyone can consciously invent, and how actors as so frequently so much more interesting and fascinating people than the characters they become famous for portraying.

Campbell-as-Okona is the limit case for Star Trek: The Next Generation's actor-driven form of characterization and character development: We've already seen this cast bring their roles to life by infusing them with so much of their own personalities and interests, and this is only going to continue as the show enters its next phase of life over the course of the coming year. But with Okona, we have a character who not only would have been forgettably stock without his actor, he actually *wouldn't exist* without him, because the only reason he *does* exist is for the actor to come aboard the Enterprise and more-or-less play himself, or at least a romanticized, tropish version of himself. You can also see this logic at play in the B-story, where the character of “The Comic”, who tries to teach Data about humour, similarly exists just to have Joe Piscopo essentially playing Joe Piscopo in a Holodeck nightclub, to the point the writers encouraged him to improvise most of his dialog and lines.

Of course with the spotlight deliberately on Campbell for the majority of the episode, this does push the regulars to the sidelines a bit. There are several critiques and concerns to be raised in response to that setup, some of them sensible, others less so. Fundamentally, I'm not against regulars existing within the margins of their own story: Series like Dirty Pair can and do build their entire narratives around that and work wonders with it (...most of the time). So long as the main characters *contribute* something to the story and interact with the guest star in a way that mutually transforms them both in some way (which is in fact the case, at least in the general sense with Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Data, Guinan and even Wesley here), I think this can work fine. And indeed, with a show like this, it's a solidly reasonable storytelling framework to fall back upon.

Where “The Outrageous Okona” does slip up a bit in my view is not that this is largely Okona's story, it's that Okona's story isn't exactly what it should be. It simply doesn't make any sense for the Enterprise crew (and of all people Wesley) to be the representatives of stagnation and complacency to contrast with Okona's unflappable and incurable wanderlust. The whole idea of never staying in one place too long, always moving and always looking for new experiences is built into the soul of anyone who lives on that ship: It's the whole reason they *do* live on that ship (we're almost explicitly told as much in “The Neutral Zone” for goodness’s sake) and that's arguably the whole point of the entire damn Star Trek franchise. It feels more than a little puzzling and out of character for Wesley to say “It would be difficult for me to be leaving all the time. I'd miss my friends, the people I love. I guess leaving's gotten easy for you”, not only on the context of what we know ultimately happens to him, but just being the character he is even at this stage. Sure, the crew more or less stays the same aboard her, but still, “leaving all the time” is all the Enterprise *does*.

But that's not why “The Outrageous Okona” is hated, is it? No, it's because Captain Okona is apparently a “Mary Sue”, at least according to The Agony Booth. Oh dear. I'll save repeating my opinions on the whole debate over the “Mary Sue” archetype (I did, after all write a whole essay on it), but suffice to say that's a particularly charged accusation you'd better be able to support. Because even if a character does superficially meet the criteria of a Mary Sue, that doesn't *necessarily* mean it's a poor character: It's not the individual components that go into making a Mary Sue that are to be avoided, it's the way they're handled, in conjunction with the overall quality of the story's writing in general, that can lead to problems. Fundamentally, a Mary Sue has to be *so* talented and hypercompetent that the regular crew are rendered superfluous or portrayed in a negative light by comparison which...isn't at all what happens with Captain Okona (and is what happened with Carson D. Carson, to stave off the inevitable objection).

And furthermore, I tend to be *extremely* wary of allegations of Mary Sue-ness within Star Trek fandom *in particular*: It seems to me (male Nerd) Trekkers have been nursing a perceived wound to their pride and masculinity since the 1970s when it was revealed that Star Trek's early fans were mostly women and had built and entire subculture around writing, oftentimes highly homoerotic, Star Trek fanfic. In a (largely subconscious) effort to stamp out any traces of non-patriarchal thinking within Star Trek fandom, Nerds developed a knee-jerk reaction to self-criticize within their own ranks and within the show itself by throwing around the label “Mary Sue” at anything remotely suspect in an attempt to use the fanfic writer's own tools to silence any potential dissent. Whatever good the Mary Sue concept might have originally done, the fact is it's been appropriated by reactionary hegemonic forces and is nowadays used almost exclusively to shut down women, so that bears remembering any time such issues come up.

We must, of course, talk about Guinan! The story of how Whoopi Goldberg joined the cast is pretty well-known; she had admired Nichelle Nichols on the original Star Trek and personally asked if there was “some small part” she could play when she learned Denise Crosby had left. As it so happened, the team was looking for a new cast member to play the bartender of Ten Forward anyway, and Goldberg was a perfect fit. Marina Sirtis recalls that when she heard about Guinan, while she was thrilled to have Whoopi Goldberg join the show, she was concerned that Guinan would render Counselor Troi redundant. With the utmost of respect to Sirtis, who is is quick to add that it soon became apparent to her they would be filling different niches...Yeah, that's essentially what happens. Guinan is pretty much the final nail in the coffin of Deanna Troi's characterization as originally conceived, and now begins the nearly four year saga of Star Trek: The Next Generation really not knowing what to do with Troi and why Sirtis ends up playing alien invaders almost more than she does her own character.

Goldberg herself is brilliant, of course: She and Guinan are definitely iconic members of the Enterprise crew for me, and with them both finally aboard Star Trek: The Next Generation takes one step closer to being all the show I remember it to be. She doesn't have a huge role in this episode, but she is the obvious person for Data to talk to about his desire to learn about humour. Speaking of Data, he has an interesting part to play here-“The Outrageous Okona” may be the first Data story as we'd recognise the concept, as it shows him undertaking an at-times humourous, yet poignant, desire to explore human experiences beyond his comprehension. Yet at the same time it's still rooted to Data's original characterization: Far from being emotionless, Data is truly saddened that he can't experience humour at a more than intellectual level, and very clearly yearns to be able to. Like so much about this season, Data's B-plot is somewhere in between two different interpretations for how his character could go.

So in spite of its reputation, “The Outrageous Okona” is to me actually a pretty landmark episode. The actual narrative isn't really anything to write home about, but that's sadly going to be the norm rather than the exception for the rest of this season. But even so, it lays a lot of groundwork for the direction the series will eventually take. And yet I can't help but keep thinking about how atypical and out-of-character the crew's opinion on voyaging is here: Maybe the fact this episode brings back the person who could have been Commander Riker, a potential road not taken to an abandoned future, at a time when the show itself seems to have forgotten its fundamental premise is more telling than people might want to admit.


  1. I think what it basically comes down to is whether you find Okona to be a charming rogue or a self-centered, arrogant ass. I fall firmly into the latter camp, which makes this episode endlessly painful. It's not anywhere near as bad as the one-two punch of The Naked Now and (*shudder*) Code of Honor, but it renders the episode extremely difficult to watch and makes the entire crew seem like terrible judges of character, which I think is probably where the "Mary Sue" allegations are coming from. (Or not, it's such an endlessly mutable term as to be basically meaningless.)

    Also, none of the jokes in the Data plot are actually funny. Sorry, but I have to agree with the fan consensus on this one, albeit for different reasons: it's a stinker.

  2. I love how Riker is used as a foil for Okona - almost as he's describing Okona's style to Wesley he's explaining that you don't have to take that lonely road - you can have your cake and eat it too, if you can become self-aware enough to know just where you want to be in life.

    But that's the thing about a foil - we see the twinkle in Riker's eye all the time and we know he's not so different from Okona - but he certainly reads as more mature. More self-aware. More centered. More interested in other people than himself. It's an important distinction - they are essentially the same archetypal character, but their primary motivations are polar opposite. Cavalier versus gallant. Charismatic versus genuine. Friendly versus a true friend.

    Riker, and particularly Frakes himself, really sells it as using Okona's presence as something of a teaching moment for Wesley, and the rest as well fall under this banner. It's a surprisingly good Picard episode. It furthers the continuing best-friendship between Worf and Riker in small but significant ways.

    And Guinan, yes Guinan. Part and parcel of the great regard I hold for TNG and DS9 is not just their superiority in concept, originality and well-roundedness but because of the emphasis on social gathering places, and bartenders in particular. Two of the great bartenders in all of fiction, actually. (Off-hand, it's kind of funny to think of Goldberg taking a role that's essentially a Sam Malone-type role during this time period as well.)

    Anyway, Guinan is so essential to this show not just for introducing a character who is essentially an "Immortal" (every fictional universe tends to feature a few of these archetypes), but Goldberg is so vital in every scene and brings everything home just right. Sometimes there's a perfect role, a perfect bit of casting for a niche that maybe nobody realized needed filling. This was an instance of that.

    The Comic stuff to me is unwatchably bad, though. It didn't even play that well for me as a kid where broader goofy comedy might have worked.

  3. I didn't mind this when I watched it last - a lot of the time I am going to be going on memory with these episodes, as it has been some time since I saw them.

    It is odd the way that Okona is set up against the crew of the Enterprise, I didn't get it at the time. Maybe it was a device used to try to embed the feeling in the audience of the Enterprise crew's sense of permanence?

    I have to admit, I did enjoy the humour stuff with Data , as I generally loved witnessing his journey of discovery even when he met obstacles.