Thursday, February 26, 2015

“...the most offending soul alive”: Sins of the Father

What “The Enemy” was for the Romulans, “Sins of the Father” is for the Klingons.

This episode is frequently held up as an important turning point for the series and rightly so, as it defines a lot about what Star Trek: The Next Generation (and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine too, for that matter) is going to look like going forward. But “Sins of the Father” is also the kind of episode that's exceedingly difficult for me to write about as it's been extensively analysed and historicized by just about every major publication to cover the franchise. This is the kind of episode I hate because it leaves me with perishingly little new erudition to add to the glut of discourse that already exists. Yes, yes, this episode sets in stone pretty much everything we think of when we think of Worf and the Klingons, yes it's a strong character piece and yes it's a major step in the development of more explicit serialization in episodic Star Trek. Yes, the award-winning set design and matte paintings are all gobsmackingly good. And yes, it sets up “Redemption”, about which I have a lot to say, but I'll save for the fifth season. That's all true to be sure, but it's also blindingly and bluntly obvious to the point I don't even think it's really worth taking the time to talk about.

But then what is there left to say about an episode like “Sins of the Father”? I could be my usual grouchy self and dispel some myths about the backstage stuff: This episode is frequently touted as being the moment where real characterization, serialization and world building was introduced to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Which would be true except for the minor fact it does none of those things. Maybe it's just me and my judgment is clouded by over 25 years of familiarity with this show, but I haven't had a hard time piecing down who people like Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Geordi or Data (or, much as I hate him, Wesley) are so far. The only characters who did seem to lack a bit of detail were Doctor Crusher (who got better) and Tasha Yar (who isn't around anymore to complain and thus doesn't matter anyway). So then the argument goes this is the first time a so-called “second tier” character like Worf got a large-scale story arc all to themselves, which would be a fine argument if you chose to conveniently ignore “Heart of Glory” and “The Emissary”. Yes, those particular story threads weren't ever fully developed on after those episodes, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't have been had the creative teams that worked on them stuck around for longer than one season apiece.

Then there's the argument that “Sins of the Father” was the first episode to introduce serialized, arc-based storytelling to Star Trek and that this was manifestly a Good Idea. I'm going to leave aside the second half of that argument for now: I have some pretty strong feelings on it, but this isn't the time for me to rant about them (for now, all I'll say is once again take a gander at Dirty Pair). Regardless, the fact is this statement is plainly ridiculous-The Star Trek film series was nothing if not an attempt to revive the film serial narrative structure and the whole deal with the Borg has been pretty damn obviously a long-term story arc (albeit something of a clumsy one due to production issues). This gets at a confusion that seems to exist over what people think Michael Piller did as opposed to what he actually did: Piller didn't shift the focus of Star Trek away from voyaging, planets-of-the-week and utopian idealism to character interiority, he showed people how character interiority could be used to further and emphasize utopian idealism. If you think I'm talking nonsense, go rewatch the story he wrote to kick off the supposedly conflict-ridden, character focused station show that everyone thinks deconstructs the concept of the voyaging starship. It'll be an education, I assure you.

No, “Sins of the Father” isn't a Michael Piller story. What it is instead, plainly, is a very, very Ronald D. Moore story. Which makes sense, as it came about due to Moore becoming the go-to Klingon and Romulan guy. Piller knew Moore was a rabid Original Series fan and asked him to draft up a memo about what he thought Klingon and Romulan society was like and what the defining aspects of their culture were. And so, when a bunch of stories started coming in about Worf and the Klingon homeworld, Moore was given the task of stringing them together. What happens as a result is that Ron Moore's idea of what the Klingons are like becomes codified as the official one, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself inasmuch as *somebody's* idea of what the Klingons are like had to become the official one at some point, but Moore's conception of them does belie his positionality as a Star Trek fan in ways that are not always entirely flattering.

The Klingons of “Sins of the Father” are all proud, pseudo-Vikings obsessed with honour only as it pertains to death and Glorious Combat. They're ruled by a High Council of grizzled old warriors, and yet there's a lot of corruption in the ranks and cloak-and-dagger politics going on to keep the Empire's old skeletons firmly closeted. And that's all well and good, except for the fact it's, all things considered, kinda boring, especially when compared with what John Meredyth Lucas would have come up with had “Kitumba” been made (seriously, Maurice Hurley-I will never understand why of all the Star Trek Phase II stories you could have gone with you picked “The Child” and “Devil's Due” instead of the clearly superior “Kitumba” and “Practice in Waking”). This is all standard issue dark, complicated realpolitiking and dark, complicated realpolitiking that our characters have a personal investment in is visibly a hallmark of Moore's even at this early stage in his career.

And the thing about this, as well as that aforementioned fascination with serialization, is that they're both *also* hallmarks of Nerd Culture. Obviously mainstream audience can enjoy story arcs (Miami Vice had a number of ones that were well-regarded, don't forget) but only Nerds give a shit enough about their fictional worlds to want to get deeply invested in ridiculously dense and complicated unfolding narratives about empire building and galactic politics. And the problem with *that* is Star Trek: The Next Generation starting to court Nerd Culture is an *incredibly dangerous* move for it to be making, especially given what's going to happen in just a few months. The blunt reality of the matter is, Wesley Crusher aside, Star Trek: The Next Generation is a *mainstream hit*, not a cult one and the people in charge of the Star Trek brand (albeit with the major exception of Michael Piller himself) aren't used to that and don't know how to deal with it. This is, if you recall, the exact same out-of-touch lack of understanding of where the audience is that made Star Trek V: The Final Frontier such a hot mess. This is gravely concerning, as Star Trek: The Next Generation is never going to stop getting consecutively more and more popular.

Thankfully we know that Star Trek will continue to enjoy its admittedly unprecedented mainstream success for the time being in spite of missteps like this, at least as long as Michael Piller sticks around. Perhaps a more interesting topic of discussion then is what, if anything, the portrayal of the Klingons here and how they're compared to the Federation and the Enterprise crew can teach us about what the show's conception of its utopianism at this point in time. After all, this is the version of the Klingons (and Worf) that sticks with us for time immemorial, defining almost every single story to feature them from now on. Unfortunately, apart from a rather minor and frankly kind of facile reading that this story reinforces how Worf's true home is the Enterprise and that our people once again have the moral high ground and are the role models to emulate, I can't find anything more to parse out of this. Which of course makes sense, as Ron Moore famously does not give a toss about utopianism.

In regards to “Sins of the Father”, Even Michael Dorn acknowledges it as marking a turning point for Worf. And yet he remains guarded, saying
“There was a lot more involved in it than the writers realized. Things that have to do with Klingon loyalty and honor. They didn't give it its due. You look at Worf in a different light, and I've played him in a different light since that episode. This is not something they have come up with. I'm doing this on my own. Hey, it's their fault. They wrote it. So now, I'm going to carry on with it.”
I think I'll let that speak for itself.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

“Reproductive futurism”: The Offspring

“The Offspring” sees us introduced to another new face who will become a reoccurring figure on Star Trek: The Next Generation and beyond. Not, perhaps controversially, Data's daughter Lal, but the story's writer René Echevarria. Like Ron Moore, Echevarria is another success story of the open submissions policy, discovered on the back of his spec script (this one) and then asked to come out to join the writing staff by Michael Piller. It just takes a little bit longer with Echevarria, who doesn't come on full time until next year, despite having one more submission this season.

Indeed it's a something of a miracle he managed to last even that long, considering he's another in a long line of writers who, by his own admission, waltzed into the writer's room convinced he was going to teach them how to write Star Trek because he was a die-hard Original Series fan unreasonably upset at Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ira Behr jokingly recalls his first impression of his future collaborator being that of a “pretentious” New Yorker whose only experience was in theatre. But, once aboard, Echevarria stays with Star Trek for the next decade, penning some of the franchise's best and most memorable stories.

It's somewhat endearing then to learn that his debut story is as much the result of early career jitters as it is his obvious talent: In regards to “The Offspring”, Echevarria recalls how Michael Piller openly called it the single best spec script he'd ever seen in his career to that point, but he was disappointed in the revised version enough to do an uncredited rewrite on it with Gene Roddenberry and the outgoing Melinda Snodgrass. The behind-the-scenes story is especially interesting here, as it reveals a lot about Michael Piller's philosophy as it pertained to Star Trek: Piller recalls that his big issue with “The Offspring” as originally conceived was that it was all about Lal, her journey and her interiority, and since one of Piller's big rules is that every story had to be fundamentally about the regulars in some way, it needed to be rewritten to be primarily about Data and his experiences with parenthood.

I both agree and disagree with this. While obviously I think it's important to have the characters you actually get to see every week be involved in the action to some degree, I also think it's important to not swing too far to the other side with this and remember that the regulars are ultimately ideals, and a big strength of Star Trek: The Next Generation to date has been its ability to help its guest characters solve their problems and grow in a healthy and constructive way. On the other hand, it's both noteworthy and praiseworthy that neither Piller, nor Snodgrass nor Roddenberry put their names on the finished product: As Ron Moore would later recall, the attitude was always that the because the writing staff had far more power and money than the freelancers (not to mention better job security), it would be unbecoming to take their credit and residuals as well. So while there was constant rewriting going on backstage, something that remains true even when the show's production begins to find some measure of stability, the staff would never, ever take credit for it. And, in a particularly succinct case of what goes around coming around, René Echevarria would end up doing plenty of uncredited rewrites of his own once he joined the team proper.

As for “The Offspring” itself...Well, it's another one of those inimitably ineffable Third Season episodes that are held up by almost everyone as being a classic and a masterpiece and a defining episode in the evolution of the show. Both Michael Dorn and Michael Piller name it among their favourite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes while Jonathan Frakes somewhat boldly declares it the greatest science fiction television episode ever written (though, as we'll discuss later on, he may be paying tongue-in-cheek lip service to ulterior motives here), and their sentiments seem to be shared almost universally by cast members, critics and writers alike. And going into this I was all but prepared to agree with them, at least in theory if not to the same degree of exaltation. But then I read about Melinda Snodgrass' contribution and what she thought of it. In stark contrast to the glowing praise everyone else gives this story, she says she felt “The Offspring” was
“...fairly obvious and tired and stupid and I didn't want to do it. I did a page one rewrite and Michael did another rewrite. It had a lot to do with 'The Measure Of A Man', which I don't think we needed to do again so soon.”
And, as much as I like René Echevarria and his later work and as many moments of undeniable brilliance as there are here...Yeah, Snodgrass is right. It *is* very close to “The Measure of a Man”, and not especially in a good way. It goes over a lot of the same ground as that episode did in regards to Data's rights as a sentient being, and indeed, it's only *because* of Piller's demands that this story be about Data that it *does* feel so repetitive in this way. This fairly quickly stops being a story about Lal and her personal journey of self-discovery and becomes about Data's legal rights of custody and the Federation once again refusing to treat androids as sentient persons. Admiral Haftel may as well be Bruce Maddox, just less cartoonishly evil (his climactic scene where he tears up at Lal's death once he starts to see his own daughter in her really is touching).

More problematically, this is a really, really sour outing for Captain Picard. I don't know whose idea it was to put Picard in the position of a taciturn contrarian, but it was a catastrophically poor idea that ruins the entire story for me. Picard was indignant that Starfleet would treat Data as property in “The Measure of a Man”, and yet he spends way, way too much of “The Offspring” treating Lal essentially the same way. He even outright tells Deanna not to think of Lal as Data's child or a person in her own right because there's no way a “five-foot android with heuristic learning systems and the strength of ten men could be called a child”. To me, this is not just appallingly out of character, but it also makes no sense as Picard has spent the better part of three years with Data and even went up against the might of the Federation legal system to prove that a “five-foot android with heuristic learning systems and the strength of ten men” was entitled to agency and personhood. It astonishes me that absolutely no-one paused their glowing praise of “The Offspring” long enough to have noticed this rather egregiously terminal flaw that not only goes against what the series had previously established about Captain Picard's character, but actually goes so far as to cast him in opposition to its very stated core values.

I suppose a case could be made that Picard has always been more stolid and set in his ways than other members of the Enterprise crew. Indeed, the extended edition of “The Measure of a Man” even paints him as taking awhile to come around to realising precisely what is wrong with Data submitting to Maddox's request because he's just old and reactionary enough to have some difficulty affording Data the same respect he does the rest of the crew. But I don't like that, not at all! I can't have anyone in the main cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation fail to live up to the ideals they're supposed to stand for, and certainly not Captain Picard of all people. That goes completely contrary to the way I read and have always read this show and its entire functional status as a work of utopian fiction. Once you start doing that, you set off on a path towards generic scripted drama pathos there's no way back from.

In spite of its flaws being altogether too numerous and worrying for me to afford it classic status, there are once again some truly outstanding moments in isolation here. Hallie Todd steals the show as Lal from beginning to end, making her journey of emotions and experiences every bit as tragically endearing as it needs to be to distract us from the fact this story isn't actually about her. There's a somewhat infamous story about the Ten Forward scene where Lal is talking to Guinan about love that Whoopi Goldberg demanded her line be changed from “when a man and a woman are in love” to “when two people are in love” that would be wonderful if true, but I can only find it attributed to one not-entirely-reliable source. What is certain though is that this episode simply knocks its grasp on gender completely out of the park elsewhere: It's nothing short of triumphant to hear Data say that he wants his (then-androgynous) child to choose their own gender through research and self-reflection and it's lovely to hear Deanna say “Congratulations Data, it's a girl!” when Lal decides to be female after careful study of all the galaxy's genders in the holodeck. I actually can't think of a single moment in media that handles this topic better.

As terrific as that all is, perhaps the biggest legacy of “The Offspring” is what it meant for Jonathan Frakes, who makes his directorial debut with this episode. Jonathan had been wanting to try his hand a directing for awhile, partly because it interested him and partly because he was bored of killing time when he wasn't needed on set. After approaching Rick Berman with his somewhat unorthodox request, getting his go-ahead and spending hundreds of hours shadowing the show's regular directors, Berman gave him “The Offspring” as his first gig. And it's already obvious Frakes is going to be one of the show's best assets behind the camera as much as he already is one of its best assets in front of it: The image of Data and Lal holding hands and the way that shot was framed have stuck with me ever since and comprise my most vivid memories of this episode. Apparently he impressed Berman too, who put him into the show's pool of regular rotating directors. Jonathan Frakes would go on to helm countless episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek Voyager, along with both Star Trek First Contact and Star Trek Insurrection, paving the way for his castmates to break out into directing too. Frakes remains a well-known, respected and in-demand director in Hollywood to this day.

So maybe it's Star Trek: The Next Generation's offspring, not Data's, who makes up the real story here.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

“Dreams Reoccurring”:Yesterday's Enterprise

A volley of canon-fire and the future we had anticipated disappears in a cloud of cosmic dust.

A vision of my past life stands before me, its sparkling azure hue as vibrant and as clear as I always remember it to be. Memories wash over me as I'm reminded of the person I was and the way I saw things before. Hope for a future that never came, but perhaps should have.

My past, present and future exist at once together because time is not what we think it is. The grand cycle of the cosmos turns over once again and we find ourselves once more where it all began. We exist and we live. It's not linear, but we live. We are defined by the power of the moment that can last both a brief instant and for all eternity at the same time. To remove or deny those moments is to deny identity, for it is through living in these moments that we learn who we are.

Symbols have meaning and power, but it won't always be the same for every person in every context. I can try to explain the things I've seen to you, but language is merely a tool and there's only so much of a discrete confluence that a tool can stand in for. But I try anyway. You may not have seen the same thing, as I, but I'll wear a simulacrum of what I saw and put on a performance for you. And the fact remains you still saw something.

Memories of a time and place take on lives and identities of their own long after the moment of congress has faded away. Some call it a cheating distortion of reality, but reality is made every day through the act of people muddling by trying to read it. Seeing you again in this moment is like seeing you for the first time because our timelines diverged after you went away: The reality where we stayed together seems so very different from the one that I've forgotten.

A dream means something.

Is it bad that when I remember you, and even when I look at you now, I don't see you for the way you were, but for the way I imagined you to be? That's disingenuous I know-It's certainly not relationship material, that sort of thinking. And yet neither are we: We never had the sort of relationship that would have required us to intimately know and trust one another, did we? It was always a matter of perspective; of me projecting things based on what I saw and what I felt. That's the thing about heroes: We never see them for the people they really are, at least not all the time. We see them for the ideals and the qualities we figure they stand for and that we want to take into ourselves. And the act of meditation transforms spirit and shaman both. All I can say to you is that I've tried to to live my life according to the values I thought were yours. If you had been there longer maybe that would have been easier for all of us, but maybe it wouldn't have made one ounce of difference either way.

This is not my time-space. I don't belong here; forced to fight an aimless war so old nobody remembers who the combatants are anymore. Seeing you again reminds me of things that used to make me happy and help me envision the stars. It makes me think a future with you in it, where you had stayed, would have been preferable to unrest and unhappiness that preoccupies us today. But it's oftentimes so easy for us to look back and think things would be better had one or two simple little things been different. And yet so often it seems our lived experiences pale in comparison to the futures and worlds we imagine. That's the cliche, so there must be some truth to it.

But imagination is a very real thing.

These days we're constantly at war with our own insecurities. Where we used to sublimate the world with our dreams, we now feel compelled to measure ourselves up against the depth and breadth of the entire universe and tear ourselves down in our sense of inadequacy. A devastatingly pointless war fought with God Canons, Death Drives and pragmatism for two long, insufferable decades. Seeing you here in this time reminds me how often I'd wonder if things would have been different had you been there with us at the crucial moment. You were gone before any of it had even gotten started, of course-How could you have known? How could one person be expected to shoulder the conscious soul of the entire universe? I wouldn't dare to expect so much of anyone.

People often ask me what I would go back and change if I had the power to. I tell them I think that's a question as dangerous as it is pointless.

No, one person cannot change the course of history. Not even a whole crew of people, even if they were in the exact right place at the exact right time and no matter how much the gaze of providence shines down on them. The tide of history cannot be bent to the Will of one person or any group of one persons because it is the shape and form of all of us thinking, feeling and acting at once. History is the remembrance of moments guided by the zeitgeist of the cosmic soul. What is meant to be will be so long as each of us and all of us find our own way and travel it every reoccurring moment. Don't fight it; don't make me fight it.

The challenge is: How do we get back, not to the way things were, but the way we used to want things to be? We fight each other because we've left our dreams behind in our shortsighted and childish belief that dreams are things we must grow out of. Barring anything to fight for, we fight because we don't know any other way to communicate with each other. War, it would seem, is preferable to loneliness and silence because at least in war you're doing it with other people. The reason why we might want to revisit a past life is not to relive it, for its value is not in the mundane lived experiences (at least, not in the ones that have failed to infuse themselves into the greater tapestries of our souls) but in those lessons we took from the accumulated moments on the whole. Details are unimportant and will fade away, but the images, emotions and energy they stirred in us last forever. Tap once more into those feelings: What are they trying to say to you? What sorts of things do you hear?

You might not always be here, but you'll always come back. The tide will inevitably and unfailingly roll back once more and the wheel of the year will turn 'round another cycle. Please don't worry about us two: You've helped us set our course well, and we can always evoke our memories of you when the time comes. The details of this encounter will eventually fade away, like they always have and like they always will. But what's important, I think I've learned, is to hold on to the feeling and the memory of the moment, because that's the only way we can know ourselves, each other, and the universe. No matter what happens, or what has happened, we'll be OK. You helped us realise we're guided in our lives and in our actions. Our place and our destinies really are in the stars, and that will carry us through. The two of us together, we make summertime from autumn here, always.

You can't live in regret if you live your life to the best and to the fullest in each moment. All we get is one moment at a time, and only a sparse handful of contextual associations with which to act in it. You do the best that could be asked of you under the circumstances with what you had and what you know. That's all that anyone could ever have asked of you.

There's a universe within us each time we breathe. Think back on that and smile.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

“That's not how I remember it!”: A Matter of Perspective

Possibly the single most iconic shot of the season.
One common story structure going forward from here is what's been described by numerous writing staff as, essentially “Let's Do X”, where X is some non-Star Trek work of fiction that the show can bang out a more-or-less straightforward translation of with minimal edits needed to translate the story to a science fiction setting. Arguably the most prominent example we've seen so far could be called “Let's Do Moby-Dick”, as the Original Series did that an astonishing three times over the course of its existence, the first two impressively even being in the same filming block, and the rest of the franchise promptly decided that wasn't overkill enough and did it three more times.

But that's not exactly what I'm talking about here: Nicholas Meyer (and a fair few Original Series creative figures, if we're being brutally honest) leaned on Moby-Dick (and Paradise Lost, King Lear, A Tale of Two Cities as well as about a billion other things plucked from the reading list of a high school English class) because he pretentiously thought it made him and his work look intellectual and cultured. When Michael Piller's creative team and its descendents do an adaptation, it's largely due to equal parts money and time saving concerns (it's much easier to take a script from pitch to screen in a week if all you have to do is take a familiar archetype and plug in the names of your characters) and a desire to pay homage to an existing work that they've found inspirational, formative, or just that they thought would handily fit the narrative and ethical sensibilities of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in a pinch.

We've already seen the team do something like this already with “The Hunted”, which is quite obviously “Let's Do First Blood”-Even though it was a freelance submission, it was something that went through a (somewhat infamous) rewrite process. What we see this week is basically that but more so: The genesis of “A Matter of Perspective” is quite easy to identify as “Let's Do Rashōmon”, and because this is another story the entire creative team worked together doing rewrites on, it belies a particularly knowing cinephile's touch about it that befits the source material. Rashōmon is a 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa based on a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa about a samurai and his wife who meet a bandit travelling on a road. A series of events transpires, and then the samurai winds up dead. The bandit, the samurai's wife and even the dead samurai himself (via a psychic medium) each come forward in turn to explain how the murder happened and, baffilingly, each claim sole responsibility for it. The film follows a commoner, a woodcutter and a priest sitting beneath the titular Rashōmon city gate in Kyoto, today known as Rajōmon, attempting to piece together precisely what happened as each story flatly contradicts each of the other ones. The climax of the film features a succession of bombshell revelations as it's revealed there's one more eyewitness...and *his* account turns out to be even more sensational.

So, in “A Matter of Perspective” we have the holodeck being pressed into service to recreate the three, then four, contradictory eyewitness testimonies about a murder. In this version of the story, Doctor Apgar is the samurai (although Tayna provides his testimony as the medium), Manua is the wife, Commander Riker is the bandit, and the Enterprise itself is the surprise reveal witness. The first major difference is that Riker insists he's innocent (because he is, of course) and the episode plays out as a courtroom drama instead of a story about a group of bystanders trying to piece things together. Although I'm ecstatic Star Trek: The Next Generation has decided to seriously engage with Japanese cinema, it must be said this was a pretty obvious pick. The film version of Rashōmon was the movie that broke Akira Kurosawa, and Japanese cinema in general, onto the international stage and won Kurosawa an honourary academy award (this was before the Oscars had a category for non-US films and Rashōmon is credited with being one of the films that convinced the academy to create a foreign film category) and is probably one of the most ubiquitous examples of Japanese filmmaking this side of Godzilla.

But that's not to say it's become a hackneyed story: I remember always being really intrigued by the way this episode played with the way that different people, through their different life experiences and perspectives, essentially really can create their own realities in a sense. It toys with notions of subjectivity in a way the original film didn't and couldn't, because another major departure the Star Trek: The Next Generation team takes from Rashōmon is that in Kurosawa's film the big conceit is that everyone is *lying*: Each witness tries to make themselves the main character of the story through portraying themselves in the most heinous and deplorable ways they know how through wild exaggerations and misleading information to the point it leaves the other characters aghast. Rashōmon is ultimately a film about how Kurosawa felt the corruption, imperialism and modernization of the Shōwa era was poisoning and eating away at the heart of Japanese society such that a once-great culture had decayed to a shell of its former self. It's an incredibly cynical, practically nihilistic, prognosis for early modern Japan.

“A Matter of Perspective” isn't, mainly. It uses the Rashōmon structure to explore how different people can see what is ostensibly the same situation in wildly different ways. There are some genuinely interesting moments on display too where you almost get the sense the creative team is poking around the question of whether there even really is an objective truth or reality or it's all entirely subjective, before ending with an easy, though more or less satisfying, conclusion that everyone sees a portion of the whole truth coloured by their own experiences (it's the “blind men feeling about an elephant” argument). One major problem I have with this approach though is that it leaves ambiguous precisely what went down between Riker and Manua. I mean I know why that's there, obviously: It's dramatic and raises questions about the integrity of one of our regulars and that gives us the Almighty Conflict. But I don't like that. I simply can't stomach, let alone picture, there ever being the slightest possibility that Riker could behave in the manner the Tanugans accuse him of behaving. That flat-out undermines just about every ethical premise this show stands for. There's an alternate reading of that particular bit of conflicting information that posits Manua was confused by differing social norms, but there's really not enough material to build a case for that reading in my opinion.

Speaking of Japanese media, being one of the first “Let's Do...” stories, “A Matter of Perspective” serves as a handy point of comparison with Dirty Pair, particularly in regards to how it and Star Trek: The Next Generation approached adapting other works. Because both do it all the time, and both do it in significantly different ways. Notably, Dirty Pair takes a far more mix-and-match, anarchic and transformative approach then Star Trek does. If you look at stories like “Hire Us! Beautiful Bodyguards are a Better Deal”, also a Kurosawa riff, it throws Yojimbo into a blender with Hollywood Spaghetti westerns and 1980s cyberpunk aesthetics to make a commentary on how US democracy and Soviet Stalinism are in truth two sides of toxic and self-destructive capitalist modernity, and how both have been playing Japan like a putz. Then there's “Dig Here, Meow Meow. Happiness Comes at the End” which is a delightfully scathing gonzo sci-fi reinterpretation of the adventure serial revival that came in the wake of the Indiana Jones movies. Star Trek by contrast, both here and in most of the times it does this kind of brief in the future, is content with a basic plug-it-in, fill-in-the-blanks type of approach: “A Matter of Perspective” really is just Rashōmon with the character names changed and a few key details tweaked, just like “The Hunted” really was just First Blood on Angosia.

Returning to the music metaphor, Dirty Pair plays narrative like a DJ in a club, sampling different soundbites from different sources and remixing them into something new. Star Trek plays it much more like a cover song or tribute band, keeping their takes fairly close to the original source material while adding a few obligatory twists of their own. Now there's nothing particularly wrong with either approach, both are perfectly valid ways of making good music, but one is certainly more ambitious and experimental. And it must be said Dirty Pair's approach does allow it to keep its hands on the pulse of the current zeitgeist, and that does make it far more current and relevant in this particular regard. Additionally, Star Trek's approach, being one more of recitation and reiteration, is also one that marks it far more clearly as an outgrowth of Nerd Culture (or, well, still proto-Nerd Culture at this point in history) who tend to be *all about* obsessive, meticulous recreations of things done as tribute to their inspirations. Look at people who recreate classic games like Super Mario Bros. down to the last detail in modern games like Minecraft, LittleBigPlanet or M.U.G.E.N., for example. And this does make sense, as we're starting to enter the era where Star Trek fans (or, rather, Star Trek fans of a specific generation) by in large hold the creative reins.

I don't have a sense of what the consensus opinion on “A Matter of Perspective” is among fans or other audiences, but I do know it was controversial among the writing staff. It was apparently really difficult to get all the disparate elements to tie neatly together at the end and was something of a nightmare for Cliff Bole, the director. Science adviser David Krieger had to get so involved in the writing process to ensure the rule in the series bible that stated the holodeck couldn't create anything dangerous was upheld that he got a radiation phenomenon named after him. Ron Moore and Ira Behr say this is the worst episode of the season by far (which is funny for me to think about considering both “The Price” and “Deja Q” exist), if not the worst of any story they ever worked on, which strikes me as a hyperbolic assertion worthy of the characters in the original Rashōmon. As usual, Michael Piller takes a more degreed assessment of things, saying it's a wonderful mystery plot (and he should know, as he worked on plenty of mystery shows) but it didn't really translate well to film for some reason. In particular, Piller blames the casting, saying everything would have clicked with the audience immediately if Manua had been played by Lana Turner, and I have to wonder what he meant by that because there are a number of ways you could interpret that statement and not all of them are unproblematic.

But it does get me thinking that Rashōmon is a particularly apt way to view the history of Star Trek itself. Doing research on the production history of this franchise has proved to be a task of impossibly Byzantine complexity: It seems like every single person's account of what actually happened in those studios and writers' rooms almost spitefully contradicts that of somebody else, especially when it comes to the Original Series, the movies and early Star Trek: The Next Generation. Maybe, like the Krieger waves in this episode, the real answer is that everybody has their own little piece of the truth. But really, what strikes me as more important than any of this is how different people's perspectives and positionalities have shaped the way they view Star Trek itself, and how Star Trek changes through the act of reading it. Mythology, like reality, is created through the act of trying to imagine and map it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

“The sensation you are doing something you have done before”: Deja Q

A lovely effects shot and an apt visual allegory.
When Star Trek: The Next Generation goes wrong, it's almost never due to incompetence or sloppiness (“The Price” would seem to be an exception). It's almost always due to creative decisions that, while they may have seemed like good ideas in the moment (or were the only option on the table), in hindsight turn out to have been particularly ill-advised and regrettable.

And boy does it ever go wrong here.

There are bad creative calls, and then there are crushingly poor ones that manage to cripple the show's entire ethos, dynamic and sensibilities. That's what we're looking at today. “Deja Q” is an episode that finally takes the metatextual voice of the universe who challenges us to justify our utopias, reminding us to constantly better ourselves and never settle for complacency in the process, and turns him into a complete mockery. Yes “Hide and Q” had already done serious damage to Q's efficacy, but “Q Who” had managed to make significant inroads for the better in restoring a lot of that while also going some way towards restoring his original edge. “Deja Q” undoes all of that in one fell swoop by stripping Q of his powers to tell a hackneyed, hackish story about sacrifices and “inner humanity”. “Deja Q” is unquestionably near the top of the list of episodes I most dreaded having to cover, and it remains one of my least favourite episodes in the entire franchise. This is Star Trek: The Next Generation at its absolute most cloyingly unwatchable, from its sappy milquetoast humanism to its unbearably forced, tuneless, shockingly out-of-touch cornball “zaniness” and its dangerously slipshod grasp of utopianism.

The fact that this is the exact same story that we saw in DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation miniseries three years ago is concerning enough without the fact the licensed comic book tie-in, while histrionic and fluffy, actually handles the brief with far more nuance, tact and maturity than the offering from the professional group of television veterans. At least I can point to a definitive reason for why this episode turned out the way it did, as opposed to the inexplicable clusterfuck of “The Price”: Simply put, Gene Roddenberry was wrong. The original draft for this episode, according to Michael Piller, would have had Q pulling an elabourate feint on the Enterprise crew, *pretending* to have lost his powers to get himself onto the ship and acclimated with the crew so he could prove his worth to them during an imaginary standoff with the Klingons. The point of the story was going to be that Q was trying to show the crew why they needed him and the kinds of talents and skills he could contribute to their betterment, with or without his powers. It was a really cool sounding pitch, and would have built nicely off of the themes of “Q Who”, where Q was, at least on some level, trying to get the Enterprise crew to trust him.

This though feels like someone looked at “Q Who” and said “Hey, you know how Q said he'd even give up his powers to join the crew? Why don't we literally do that? And then make it a comedy so we can have John de Lancie grovel at Whoopi Goldberg's feet?”. The fact that this wasn't actually the story's impetus is precious little reassurance, especially knowing that a great many pitches from here on are going to go exactly that way.

What actually happened was that Gene Roddenberry took the staff aside and said that the story should really be about what happens when someone who has everything loses it all and discovers his “true humanity”. Instead of pointing out how that's completely not at all what the story was about, for some reason, this was the episode they decided to capitulate to Roddenberry on instead of taking a stand, rather than listening to the actually good advice he'd been giving them throughout the season already. I won't go too far with this because there's two other episodes this season where Roddenberry makes even worse calls than this, but I have to question the reasoning here. Roddenberry *created* Q; he of all people should have known where the strength of his narrative role lay. If you kick him to the curb and turn him into a laughingstock, there's no way you can effectively reclaim that power if you want to tap it again later on. That Q does have one or two more episodes left where he actually does work well is a testament to how bloody commanding John de Lancie is and the miracles some of the show's writers could weave, considering Q doesn't escape for lack of the team trying to essentially ruin him as a character.

What this gets at is a difference of opinion as to who exactly Q is and what he's supposed to do. In the context of this episode, the outgoing Melinda Snodgrass said that she feels Q is basically like Loki, a trickster god who only exists to cause chaos and mischief. She contrasts her view with that of Maurice Hurley, who thought that Q's job was to guide and teach the crew. The current team, meanwhile, seems to have no real opinion on the matter, which is a problem. Obviously I'm more inclined to side with Hurley's camp (and it's surprising to hear that Gene Roddenberry, who was very close to Hurley and also, you know, wrote Q's scenes in “Encounter at Farpoint”, doesn't seem to be), but the thing is that no matter which version of Q you pick you can't have both. You *need* to make a decision one way or the other, and Star Trek never really does.

I happen to think Q works best as a voice of morality above and beyond what we can comprehend as humans, but regardless of whether or not you agree with me you'll never be satisfied with Q as a character because no matter which flavour of him you like, 50% of the rest of the time he's going to piss you off. From my perspective, this is incredibly frustrating because it means that since Q is basically completely untrustworthy and ineffective he can't actually do the stuff I like the most about his character with enough frequency. I basically only have “Encounter at Farpoint”, “Tapestry” and “All Good Things...”, along with bits of “Q Who” and, if I'm remembering correctly, “True Q”. This means that it's really hard to formulate some argument about Q as a utopian divine agent because half the text is never going to be able to support that (probably more if you want to open this up to Q's appearances in non-Next Generation stories, but one step at a time, here). And, as I said in the context of “Hide and Q”, Q-as-Loki doesn't get me what I want to say about the character.

The one bit of this episode I do quite like is Corbin Bernsen as the second Q, who goes by Q2 in the script. I've always really, really liked his energy and presence: He seems like such an easygoing, casual, likable guy. I'd like to hang out with this Q. But I think I would have preferred it even more if the other Q was played by John de Lancie too, because it would really play up the concept of Q as this incomprehensible omni-entity that would have left enough ambiguity to salvage the reading of him I'm partial to as well. Once again, the comic book did it better.

But this is important, because it means my prevailing memories of and positionality of Star Trek: The Next Generation as it pertains to Q is one of frustration, indecision and lack of closure. As much as I love John de Lancie and I love the idea of his character, I can't honestly say he was able to make as much of an impact on the unfolding text of Star Trek: The Next Generation as he should have. As iconic and beloved as he may be and as much as I love him, Q frankly Just Doesn't Work all that well.

And that's probably how the narrative is going to go from now on, honestly.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

“We don't negotiate with terrorists”: The High Ground

A sizable portion of Star Trek fans would, if you polled them, likely state that the franchise's biggest strength is in its ability to do so-called “social commentary” on the issues of today in a futuristic science fiction setting. When they say this, what they're referring to is the interpretation of Star Trek that I've somewhat flippantly chosen to call “Roddenberry's Fables”. This is the kind of story where our crew beams down someplace, encounters an alien civilization that either operates under a structure or is facing a situation that very closely mirrors a social debate in the real world. Back in the Original Series, this usually took the form of quite literally punching the moral of the week (typically Gene Roddenberry’s Opinion on something) into the guest cast, but with the advent of Star Trek: The Next Generation. we've by and large been more interested in helping our one-off characters work through their problems in a constructive way.

How interesting it is than that the one time the creative team did explicitly decide to Say Something Important about a major social issue of their time is largely considered to be a disaster.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann compare “The High Ground” to “The Hunted”, by saying both involve a dangerous, violent man whom the Enterprise crew nevertheless find some manner of sympathy for, but point out that “The High Ground” was far more controversial, being banned in several countries for varying lengths of time. What they're too polite to say is that of fucking course “The High Ground” was more controversial, because it deals with terrorists and openly, diegetically draws comparisons to several real-world terrorist campaigns. It's a brazen move to be sure, and the show comes dangerously close to endorsing violent uprising as a valid form of material social change, even while it justifiably tries to stay ambivalent about the ethical underpinnings of it. Where things go wrong, naturally, is that the script ends up a little *too* ambivalent and, apart from making the dramatic crux of the plot hinge on yet another kidnapping of a female main character, basically just ends up reciting a bunch of vague platitudes about terrorism and violence that don't actually *say* anything. As Michael Piller says:
“Another show that I wasn't particularly happy with. We set out to do a show about terrorists. What was the statement we made about terrorism in the show? Was it the point where the boy puts down the gun and says, 'Maybe the end of terrorism is when the first child puts down his gun?' It was effective in the context of that show, but is certainly not a statement that provides any great revelation. You must be prepared to say something new about social issues.”
While Ron Moore puts it more bluntly when he calls it
“an abomination. It's our one terrorist show. We didn't have anything interesting to say about terrorism except that it's bad and Beverly gets kidnapped - ho hum. They take her down to the caves and we get to have nice, big preachy speeches about terrorism and freedom, fighting and security forces versus society. It's a very unsatisfying episode and the staff wasn't really happy with it.”
The pitch sounds interesting on paper at least: “The High Ground” is another offering from Melinda Snodgrass, who wanted to do a story featuring an analog for the United States Revolution with Picard and the Enterprise slowly realising they're on the “wrong” side: Snodgrass wanted to put Picard in the General Cornwallis role with the Romulans as the French before the Enterprise crew suddenly figured it out during the climax and switched sides accordingly. And Snodgrass very probably could have pulled it off, just going by the level of ethical nuance she afforded Picard in “The Measure of a Man” and the better parts of “Up the Long Ladder”. So what went wrong?

Rewrites, mainly. Someone, somewhere along the line, decided that the story would be better if the analogy was shifted from the United States in 1776 to Northern Ireland in 1989. At which point, the entire narrative took several drastic steps backward (probably so as not to seemingly come out in outright support of the IRA which, regardless of your personal political take on the issue, we can all agree would likely not have flown especially well on primetime US television in 1990). Given that the writing staff seems to outright hate “The High Ground”, I'm going to hazard a guess and presume Gene Roddenberry was the one who called for the revision (although I grant it could have been Rick Berman too), because it sounds like something he would do. I can see the reasoning: Roddenberry likely had it in his head that Star Trek should be in the position of Saying Important Things about social issues, like we said above. Having learned his lesson over the past twenty years or so, he no longer feels like he must proselytize his White Male Opinions from on high, but rather recognises that people like Star Trek when it's being timely and relevant. And Roddenberry is just idealistic and blinkered enough to think Star Trek: The Next Generation could get away with doing the IRA on primetime television.

The problem is of course that it can't. Not without obfuscating the issue with a lot of vague finger-wagging and unsatisfying platitudes, and even *that* got the show banned. Although it must said there are moments here were it does genuinely try, for what it's worth. One of the bravest and best bits of dialog in the episode, in the series to date, really, is during the scene where Data is asking Picard about the merits of terrorism. It goes like this:
“Sir, I am finding it difficult to understand many aspects of Ansata conduct. Much of their behavioral norm would be defined by my programme as unnecessary and unacceptable.” 
“By my programme as well, Data.” 
“But if that is so, Captain, why are their methods so often successful? I have been reviewing the history of armed rebellion and it appears that terrorism is an effective way to promote political change.” 
“Yes, it can be, but I have never subscribed to the theory that political power flows from the barrel of a gun.” 
“Yet there are numerous examples where it was successful. The independence of the Mexican State from Spain, the Irish Unification of 2024, and the Kensey Rebellion.” 
“Yes, I am aware of them.” 
“Then would it be accurate to say that terrorism is acceptable when all options for peaceful settlement have been foreclosed?” 
“Data, these are questions that mankind has been struggling with throughout history. Your confusion is only human.”
This takes serious chutzpah to lay out for a number of reasons, not the least of which is positing a unification of Ireland thanks *directly to* the actions of the IRA years before Ireland did in fact get a manner of independence. The show deserves massive props for not only having the gall to come out and say this, but putting the entire matter about as eloquently, aptly and succinctly as it can be put. The rest of the episode may be trite and insulting, but this one scene almost redeems the whole production, and goes down in history as one of the series' finest moments even without it.

Aside from uncertainties over armed rebellion, one thing that's interesting about “The High Ground” is that it's functionally the first “Doctor Crusher Story” in the series. Gates McFadden was all too often shafted in the first season, and we won't even go into what happened in the second. Michael Piller did the best he could to reintroduce her in “Evolution”, but that was still primarily a “Wesley Story” (to its great detriment). Since then she's had a number of moments to shine this season, but hasn't actually had a story that's in large part about her character until now. And this is doubly interesting because this is a Melinda Snodgrass script, who you'll recall hasn't actually ever really written for Doctor Crusher: Sure, she gave her a small part in “The Ensigns of Command”, but her lines there could just have easily been delivered by Diana Muldaur's Doctor Pulaski, which makes sense as Pulaski is the CMO character Snodgrass would actually have been most familiar with. And that's interesting, because, the subplot with Wesley aside, this episode almost does feel more like a Pulaski story.

Remember one thing we've been establishing over the course of the third season (and even as far back as the first, looking at “Home Soil”) is that Doctor Crusher actually works best as a life sciences officer, where she gets the chance to sink her teeth into some juicy scientific mystery that she can investigate and piece together. Gates McFadden plainly loves this, and she sells Beverly's innate scientific expertise gleefully and effortlessly: She adores playing a professional scientist. But “The High Ground” is a story about a “Doctor Without Borders” as it were; a healer who is dedicated to healing the sick and injured on any side of a conflict, even if she doesn't quite agree the conflict is a just one. This dogged, stubborn refusal to ignore a patient in need, even if it means acting irrationally or impulsively, is a character trait that can be traced directly back to Doctor Pulaski (and really Doctor McCoy if we're being honest)-It's not really Doctor Crusher’s forte as a character, even if she is technically the ship's chief medical officer.

But this is a thread that's *also* being worked into her character over the course of the season by other writers: Look at how Doctor Crusher acts in “Who Watches The Watchers” and “The Enemy” for a stark contrast to what I'm describing and advocating here, or the way she acts in, say “The Vengeance Factor”. Whether this is the lingering influence of Diana Muldaur or just the various writers once again forgetting they're writing for Star Trek: The Next Generation and not the Original Series and probably ought to broaden their character templates a bit is debatable, but what I want to emphasize for the moment is how kind of schizoid this ends up making Doctor Crusher seem: Obviously a nuanced, multidimensional character ought to have several sides and facets to her personality, but for a show like this to work each person does need to fill a specific role and represent a specific set of ideals, and this sort of thing will only serve to confuse and muddy the waters in the long run.

The final thing to talk about here is that “The High Ground” is Melinda Snodgrass' final contribution to Star Trek: The Next Generation, resigning from both her position as story editor and staff writer after this fiasco. I'm not surprised she was disappointed in the final product, but I hear the real reason was that she didn't get on with Michael Piller and had massive creative differences with the policy changes he instated. In particular, she took umbrage to the list of beginning writer's tips he passed around, taking it personally as an attack on her abilities as a writer. I'm not prepared to speculate any further except to say that Hollywood is a town and an industry that runs on ego and wonder how much different or better the original draft of this episode might have been.

The sad reality about Melinda Snodgrass is that talented as she is, all of her Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes are incredibly rocky (yes, even “The Measure of a Man”). From the unfortunate implications of the Bringloidi fumbling in “Up the Long Ladder” to the uninspiring “The Ensigns of Command” to the shallow melodrama of “The Measure of a Man” and, well, this, there's always a gem of a good idea sullied by botched execution and callous drama somewhere. I *want* to like all of them, but I always find it hard to completely tolerate any of them. But damn if Melinda Snodgrass didn't leave us with some killer moments: That exchange between Data and Picard in this episode I highlighted and that gut-punching “you're talking about slavery” reveal in “The Measure of a Man” are undeniable classics that simply define both Star Trek: The Next Generation's attitude and its ideology. Perhaps that should be her legacy, and it would be a legacy well earned if so: Each of our lives is merely a succession of present moments, and one of the greatest assets of art is its ability to get us to remember and explore how those moments feel and what they mean to us.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

“Don't push it or I'll give you a war you won't believe”: The Hunted

“Welcome aboard. Now rewrite act three for me and have it on my desk by this evening.”

That's how Ira Steven Behr was welcomed to Star Trek: The Next Generation by Michael Piller on his first day as producer and staff writer. That gives you an idea of what this show's behind-the-scenes climate was like during the third season: Behr recalls how even though he was a veteran writer and producer, this was like no other show he'd ever worked on before. Everyone was frantically writing and rewriting stories, absolutely nothing was ready to go, and it stayed like that for the entire year. The insane workload eventually burned Behr out so badly that he walked away from Star Trek after only one season, and only came back to the franchise at Michael Piller's personal request four years later when he and Rick Berman were drafting up what would become Star Trek: The Next Generation's sister show. We'll talk more about Behr and his influence once we get to the fist story he actually wrote himself (as opposed to ones he did an uncredited rewrite of at the eleventh hour to get them into a marginally filmable state), but that script that Behr rewrote the third act of on his first day happens to be this one: “The Hunted”.

“The Hunted” is perishingly easy to explain. It is straightforwardly First Blood on the Starship Enterprise and, in spite of its positively ridiculous production history, it works and is a solidly watchable hour of television. There are moments in which it reveals its functionality as a work, and, frustratingly, when it does it's at its most Original Series-esque: Even that third act Ira Behr worked on is one big chase through a bunch of pre-existing sets with a lot of flying fisticuffs and choreographed doofy fight scenes (Which isn't altogether surprising as Behr, for a number of reasons, was never entirely comfortable with Star Trek: The Next Generation, being much more familiar with the Original Series). That's not to say it's entirely without merit, as the gambit our John Rambo analog, Roga Danar, pulls off is truly laudable in its cleverness and sophistication, even if he does kinda end up making the Enterprise crew (save Worf) look like a bunch of idiots in the process. Also memorable to me are the scenes where Danar is clomping around the Jeffries Tubes trying to misdirect the crew: The sets are some of the best interior designs of the year, exuding a palpable sense of being a sprawling, labyrinthine maze of corridors. Furthermore, Marvin Rush's use of subtle red mood lighting really sets the tone for these scenes and also happens to look really cool. Actor Jeff McCarthy's presence and swagger compliment this splendidly; he really sells the tension and walks around like he owns the place.

Which leaves examining the wisdom of doing First Blood on Star Trek: The Next Generation in the first place, which there is, even if it's not entirely intuitive. Although later eclipsed by the blockbuster Sylvester Stallone franchise they spawned, the original book and movie both tell the story of displaced Vietnam veteran John Rambo who returns home only to find he's no longer welcome in his country. Constantly harassed by a thuggish police force and shunned by his peers, Rambo eventually runs off into the wilderness and snaps back into “Vietnam mode”, launching a manhunt against his tormenters by treating them like enemy combatants in a war. What makes First Blood so effective is that, the one-man war action climax aside, Rambo's experience is almost note-for-note the same as pretty much every real-life returning Vietnam veteran, who came back from an unethical, unjustified and piss-poorly managed war to face the brunt of the blame by an uncaring government, a disgruntled populace and a radical left that was neither coherent nor effective enough to seize the discourse of the time.

Readers of this blog will undoubtedly, and correctly, leap to condemn any act of imperialism and warmaking as inherently oppressive and destructive to freedom, egalitarianism and quality of life. I would sympathize and agree. But it's our responsibility as the new radical left in an era where once again the counterculture has atrophied to the point of irrelevance to not make the same mistakes as our forebearers in the 1970s did-The operational parameters of the corporate-state war machine were not the same in 1973 as they were in 2003 or the way they are now, for that matter. While certainly no-one would, or should, take up the mantle of “Support the troops, not the war” after that philosophy was appropriated and turned into a propaganda catchphrase by the George W. Bush administration, we always have to remember that when we talk about soldiers in the Vietnam conflict we're almost universally talking about people who had absolutely no desire to go over and fight a war, but who had no choice in the matter because they were drafted. These were people coercively taken and forced to become weapons of war by a paranoid and sadistic US government, which is why the mental and chemical “reprogramming” of Roga Danar in “The Hunted” is such an apt metaphor. These people were literally used and thrown out like the tools of capitalism they were.

And the radical left of the 1960s and 1970s utterly failed to pick up on this or react to it in any remotely constructive large-scale manner: The discourse of the time was dominated by the Hippies, the Yippies and the Situationalists and their self-indulgent psychedelic street theatre performance art pieces that they did an abjectly shitty job of explaining to everyone else who wasn't them. Yes, protest the war and stand against imperialism and oppression, but for the love of God understand and clearly explain what those things are and why and how they're so destructive. Material social progress by and large comes from people opting out of a decaying system until it collapses and a better one can spring in its place. Change comes through education and winning hearts and minds (and sometimes large-scale populist uprising), not from one miniscule and statistically irrelevant subculture flipping off the world and running away to live in a commune somewhere. We lead by example, we don't yell and scream incomprehensible slogans at people who don't care about or understand us anyway.

I know this as well as I can know anything, because it's exactly what happened in my family. My father was drafted for service in Vietnam and came home to shoulder the blame for the whole ordeal. His experience with the childish and counterproductive radical left of the time soured him on any form of activist leftism from that point onward, and that made life difficult once my own political leanings started to become apparent. To this day my father has immense difficulties trusting anyone, a habit my mother's own unique neuroses have simply compounded. The two of them moved to Vermont to hide from the rest of the world and surround themselves in an echo chamber. This is how right-wing fundamentalists are born. The radical left of the Long 1960s failed about as decisively and catastrophically as anything is capable of failing, as with the election of Richard Nixon, the subsequent conservative counter-revolution and stories like that of my father's, it can be not unconvincingly argued its biggest material legacy was bringing about the exact polar opposite of what its stated intentions were.

But this is the 1980s. A new generation has stepped up to bat. The Enterprise crew is rightly horrified at what the Angsosians have done to their soldiers, but they also demonstrate boundless patience and empathy when faced with an angry, bitter and confused man who only ever wanted to live a normal and fulfilling life. It's particularly a fine showcase for Deanna, who convinces Danar that even he is worthy of happiness and a future and Data, who delivers one simple, yet powerful line: “My programming can be overwritten. Yours cannot?”. This is also another strong episode for furthering the show's theme of placing the Enterprise and the Federation in conflict: Picard sides with Danar, but his hands are tied by the Federation, who would have him turn Danar over dispassionately and emotionlessly to uphold their treaty with Angosia. Instead, he gets by on a technicality: The Enterprise reminds Danar a better life is possible, than gives him a fight for survival through its corridors because that's the only way he knows to communicate. And in the end, the crew has facilitated an armed populist uprising against a stolid hegemonic authority without actually getting themselves in trouble with the Federation: As Picard says, he's seen all he needs for his report and he's returned their prisoner to boot.

The beginning of empathy comes through understanding the perspective of others, even if we don't always agree with the descisions it leads them to make. And on top of that, this episode gives us yet another of Star Trek: The Next Generation's iconic quotes when Captain Picard sadly observes “'A matter of internal security'. The age-old cry of the oppressor”.

Apart from First Blood, this episode also puts me in mind of the Original Dirty Pair episode “Red Eyes are the Sign of Hell”, in which Kei and Yuri investigate the inexplicably renewed hostilities of a group of rebels fighting a decades-long civil war, but who were on the verge of signing a peace treaty. It's eventually revealed the increased tension is the work of a series of unprovoked and incredibly brutal attacks on both sides by a third party, an elite group of super-soldiers who, like Danar, were forcibly taken from their home worlds and reprogrammed to be killing machines. The soldiers are being remotely controlled by, of course, a hyper-capitalist arms dealer from atop his solar system sized star fleet who profits from endless war. But Original Dirty Pair took the theme one step further, by slaughtering the entire guest cast violently and senselessly. With each death, Kei and Yuri become visibly more shaken and disturbed until they finally adopt the mask of the Destroyer Goddess and smite the arms dealer's entire fleet *by hand*. The point being, of course, that there can be no winners in this kind of situation, because such a situation only exists to poison and to hurt.

I'm not sure how I feel about Star Trek: The Next Generation positing a far more hopeful outcome. On the one hand, its job is to show us utopian solutions to problems, so that's only to be expected. But I can't help but feel that when it comes to war and imperialism, the only real solution is Kei and Yuri's: To bring forth our inner Kāli and just burn everything to the ground, because death brings rebirth and moves the cycle of time. Once that's done, we can rebuild our lives around the principles espoused by the other Mahavidyas, those of empathy, love and divine protection. This also unfortunately dates Star Trek: The Next Generation somewhat: As I said above, the military industrial complex doesn't work the same way it did during the Vietnam conflict anymore, which means this episode's moral, while a good one for the time, is somewhat ironically stuck there.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

“And love, having no geography, knows no boundaries”:The Defector

The worst parts of “The Defector” are what it inherits from “The Enemy”.

I mean that very sincerely in a number of different ways. This is another story dealing explicitly with Romulan culture and politics in an era of heightened tension with the Federation, and while it's a more than decent one of those, it is hamstrung by its attempts to wed its continuity to “The Enemy”. What this does is reveal both how much of “The Enemy” actually really was a misfire, but also the dangers of relying too much on continuity in the first place as, you know, simply ignoring “The Enemy” wasn't an option here (both in terms of common sense, as we've just done another Romulan runaround two weeks ago that I suspect most people are fonder of than I am and also because that's never something this team, who much prefer to link new episodes back to old ones if the opportunity to do so presents itself than not, ever would have done).

So the Romulans are once again generically and programmatically shifty, manipulative backstabbers scheming to stir the pot just because they can. Even Commander Tomalak is back to puff out his chest and rattle his sabre at us, though don't get too used to him-Dude barely shows up again after this. And yet apart from that there's a lot of good stuff here, most notably in the character of Admiral Jarok himself, who immediately engenders our sympathy: His rank and the things we can extrapolate he did with it aside, here's someone who's been “on the ground”, so to speak, and understands firsthand the full consequences and repercussions of the Romulan Star Empire's retrograde and destructive neo-imperialism. He's the first real clue we get that Romulus isn't a monoculture and that the cartoonishly bloodthirsty jingoism of Andreas Katsulas' Tomalak does not speak for every Romulan. In fact, the folly of reducing an entire people down to crass generalizations is something of a theme, with Jarok needing to learn to trust the Enterprise crew and set-aside the in-built prejudices he's internalized from living in such a xenophobic climate. And how great is it that this all comes together in one of the single most beautiful bits of lore-building in the show to date, when Jarok poetically reminisces to Data about the Valley of Chula, which is later brought to life on the holodeck through a breathtaking bit of set design from the art department?

The only concern I might raise is that Jarok becomes so sympathetic through all of this (I dare you not to get choked up when he starts talking about his daughter to Captain Picard) he actually runs the risk of upstaging the Enterprise crew at various points, which is something Michael Piller of all people should have caught. This episode does not portray the crew in the most flattering of lights, lining them up to get punched down by Jarok though having their first instinct to be to strip the scout ship (although do note how the episode pulls the genius sleight-of-hand of having Tomalak force Jarok to eat his words during the climax when he promises to do the same thing to the Enterprise: What was that about Jarok was saying about humans being inherently shortsighted, and what were we saying about the Romulan Star Empire and the Federation being the same thing?) and taking so frustratingly long to listen to what he has to say and take him seriously. I'm not sure if it's standard procedure in this sort of situation to interrogate the defector the way Riker and Troi do here, but Good Lord does that scene make them out to seem like just awful human beings.

The rest of the crew don't fare a whole lot better: It's particularly bad when Data starts talking about “typical Romulan ploys”, doubly so because not only is it species essentialist, isn't *Deanna* (who gets a whopping one line again, by the way) supposed to be the expert on extraterrestrial cultures? Doctor Crusher is once again left without a ton to do, though Gates McFadden owns every scene she's in, Jarok comes perilously close to outright vilifying Worf (who at least gets to reclaim some badass points during the climax with the Klingon Birds-of-Prey). The only characters who seem remotely on level are (apart from those few awkward lines near the beginning) Data, who gets some nice moments, Picard, who you get the sense was written far more stern and taciturn and that Patrick Stewart bent over backward to take the edge off of his lines, and, thankfully Geordi: It's Geordi who's the first to trust that Jarok isn't a plant and that, while his information may or may not be strictly speaking accurate, he must have done what he did for a reason and that he's here on good faith.

“The Defector” is Ron Moore's sophomore submission to Star Trek, so it's no surprise that it would have a rather more cynical and nihilistic attitude towards galactic politics than might otherwise be typical. Here we get a prototypical example of one of Moore's old standbys, equating the Federation with some other superficially nefarious group (typically with him its the Dominion, the Cardassians or the Borg, the latter of which is at least appropriate). This is ultimately just a simplified version of the kind of story D.C. Fontana has already made a name for herself telling, but the more concerning aspect this time is that Moore isn't writing for the Original Series (his apparently reoccurring belief that he is will in fact turn out to be one of his biggest drawbacks as a creative figure); he's writing for Star Trek: The Next Generation, which means it's absolutely imperative that he never lose sight of the utopian idealism and how to use it, and I frequently fear he does just that. In his blanket condemnation of the Federation, which I wholeheartedly support, by the way, Moore has to somehow spare the Enterprise crew, and I don't think he ever learns that he needs to do that or how to do it if he did.

But really the most notable thing about “The Defector” is a visual change. Another thing that's new with the third season is the Enterprise itself. Over the course of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there were three official filming models made. The first was a six-foot prop that was originally intended to be the main model and was the closest to Andy Probert's original breathtaking design. This ship was used all throughout the first and second season, and can be seen in all the stock flyby footage reused across all seven seasons. Then there was a two-foot model used mainly for distance shots (you can see it in the docking scene from “11001001”, one of the stock “going to warp” sequences and in various similarly blocked scenes), and finally there was a four-foot model built especially for the third season by Mike Okuda and used to represent the Enterprise almost exclusively from then onward. The reason for the change was that the six-foot model was, well, six feet and really ungainly to work with, and the VFX team were desperate for a more manageable prop that would make their lives easier.

Debuting in this episode, the four-foot model has a unique look unto itself that's somewhat difficult to put into words; it's much stockier and more compact than the original model, and it doesn't have quite the same organic elegance in its curves and ovals. I don't like it as much as I do the six-foot model, and yet it's so ubiquitous it practically defines the look-and-feel of the Michael Piller era for me. It also helps that essentially all of the merchandise based on the Enterprise with very few exceptions is based on the four-foot model, so I definitely have a nostalgic fondness for the thing. If you got PR stills of the six-foot model and four-foot models, I would feel two very, very different sets of emotions and memories wash over me depending on which one you showed me, the same as if you presented me with still photos of the cast dating to the first season and the sixth or seventh season. Somehow, my mind files it all under Star Trek: The Next Generation...and yet also maybe not. It's as if two mutually contradictory thought-spaces are competing to exist in the same place at the same time.

We can talk about Ron Moore's story, but for me it will always be the aesthetics of Mike Okuda and Illusion Arts that are the most important thing here. Music, imagery and emotion are the parts of Star Trek: The Next Generation that always last with me long after the episode stops rolling. Perhaps worth mentioning then that while Ron Moore came up with the pitch for “The Defector”, the script itself was actually worked on by the entire creative team on staff at the time, and even Patrick Stewart, who came up with the Henry V framing device after the team realised they couldn't use Sherlock Holmes anymore. This leads to one of Stewart's best moments of understated genius in the show when he doubles up as Captain Picard and Michael Williams, revealing his Shakespearean theatre heritage and, in turn, his flair for working class sensibilities.

But it's Michael Piller's signature here that's particularly unmistakeable: Jarok's heartbreaking soliloquies in Ten Forward and the ready room are almost blatantly Piller's, and the way the themes of Patrick Stewart's Henry V framing device get written back into the rest of the story display the handiwork of a master craftsman the likes of which could only come from him: As he himself put it,
“There's a scene where Picard and Data are talking about how the crew is holding up, and then Picard says a line or two that echoes the play. Then, in the confrontation with the Romulans, there are suggestions of Henry V in Picard's stance, bravery and decisions, and what the argument is about. If you are a musician, as I am, it is a trick that you throw into arrangements to echo other songs and play on a melody that reminds you of something else. I was very proud of that.”
And proud he should be, because that's brilliant. I also love how the surprise Klingon reveal is so cleverly built to: Picard summons Worf to the ready room in one scene for reasons we don't learn at the time, and this is followed up a little later by a blink-and-you'll-miss-it throwaway line about a message from the Bortas, and then finally that wonderful flourish at the end when a whole Klingon fleet decloaks behind the Enterprise. That entire plot only comes together from fleeting arrangements that come back in force for the grand finale. And I don't think he ever made the connection, but in talking about “The Defector” elsewhere, Piller even said this episode is something of an “echo” of “The Enemy” from two weeks back, and reading that just completely opened my eyes to a whole new world of things you can do with writing. Michael Piller was a writer who thought like a musician, and that reveals so much about why he was so perceptive and intuitive as a creator.

There's nothing that works on our brains or our memories like music, and nothing more quintessentially Long 1980s than music, energy, passion and imagery resonating together to transcend to a higher state of consciousness. What Michael Piller has figured out how to do is, in a sense, write the postmodern cinematography of the Long 1980s back into *writing itself*. Which is why Star Trek: The Next Generation is such a perfect fit for Piller and why it needs him as much as he needs it.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

“That would take us in the wrong direction”: The Vengeance Factor

Another episode that tends to go curiously underappreciated during the otherwise fan-favourite third season, “The Vengeance Factor” has always been one of the most memorable episodes of the year for me, and this time for good reasons. It's partially because this is another episode I saw quite a lot of and have very fond memories of, but also because I happen to think it's fantastic.

It starts out with what is, for my money, one of the most unforgettable opening sequences in the series: Commander Riker, Doctor Crusher, Worf and Data make up an away team beaming down to an imposingly alien looking planetary settlement. There's a palpable sense of mystery and foreboding perfectly accentuated by the terrifically eery green stage lighting as the team picks through the rubble of the bombed-out research centre. There's no Captain's Log to provide blase exposition, just a cold open with the team already on a head-start to a situation they know more about than we do. “The Vengeance Factor”'s opening moments really are a design triumph: That matte painting actually has a famous pedigree, as it's the same one used in the science fiction classic The Forbidden Planet. Mike Okuda had wanted to use it in Star Trek: The Next Generation for a long time, and when he finally got the opportunity, he rented the physical piece for this episode. And the research centre really feels like it's been built around that painting: The set design matches it so perfectly and so seamlessly it's a shock to learn they don't come from the same place.

From this point “The Vengeance Factor” doesn't let up on the visual front, but like all good Star Trek: The Next Generation episode it's got a solid story to tell as well. One perhaps gets a little worried early on upon learning we're going to be dealing with a group of displaced people who've become nomads forced to plunder remote settlements to get vital supplies: This is an area of politics Star Trek is historically shaky on, and while this episode maybe doesn't go quite as far as we'd really like, it does manage to take a stand that's admirably not a reactionary default. The Enterprise crew, especially Captain Picard, are the most overtly sympathetic to the Gatherers' plight and are in the position of constantly reminding the Sovereign to keep her decades of bitterness over the conflict between the two factions in check by reminding her that were she in their place she'd be demanding the same things (there's even a terrific bit of 1980s design on display when we first meet the Gatherers, who apparently reside in world of fantastic postmodern cyberpunk urban decay and who resemble a cross between 1980s chain gang street punks and Mad Max-esque road warriors-I absolutely love it).

Then there's Commander Riker's plot, which is lovely. The episode plays an interesting sort of skip when it comes to diegtic information: At first, the characters know far more about the situation than we do, but, as soon as we move the action to Gamma Hromi II, they suddenly start to know far less as it's revealed to us in one shot how Yuta is an assassin whose actions will work against peace talks and that she kills using some kind of biotech interface. We'll leave the details and motives of her killings for Doctor Crusher to figure out, but the point is we learn the story's big “twist” fairly early on, thus leaving us free to pay more attention to the character story. Which is, of course, Riker's interest in and culture clash with Yuta and their inevitable tragic falling out.

(It's worth mentioning just how good this episode is for Doctor Crusher, in fact, which is as good for her as “The Enemy” was bad for Deanna Troi: She's in the thick of things from the very beginning, working hand-on-hand with Riker to solve the mystery of the murder plot threatening the Acamarian treaty. In fact, it's her unmatched expertise at scientific deduction, a side of Bev we haven't seen much of since “Home Soil”, that provides the key to ousting Yuta's plot. This episode is an important step forward in defining what Doctor Crusher's role on the team actually is: While Doctor Pulaski may have been a better surgeon and healer, Doctor Crusher is an unparalleled biologist and scientific investigator.)

Will's position here is tremendously admirable: What he's espousing tends to get bandied about rather crassly as “free will” and “individuality”, but what he's really advocating is something a bit more nuanced than that. What Will values is self respect so far is it allows a person to pursue their true callings in life and egalitarianism such that everyone has the opportunity to do the same.

It's a very anarchist-friendly message, and, returning to the plot with the Gatherers, it's Will's elegance and energy here that sets the tone that allows the peace talks to happen. Picard's great at mediating, of course (and note how Patrick Stewart plays this here: Picard's clearly a talented mediator only inasmuch as that's the mission he has in front of him at the moment and he's doing it to the best of his abilities. One gets the sense he's a much more comfortable explorer), but it's Riker who voices the soul of the story here. We might wonder if it's ultimately a good idea for the Gatherers to re-acclimate to Acamarian society: After all, it's not inherently a bad thing that they're nomads, and it sounds as like the deal would have them become subject to rule by whatever statist governing authority resides on Acamaria, and that *is* a bad thing as far as I'm concerned. But look again at the one group of people the Gatherers trust almost immediately: The Enterprise crew, who live in a world of neverending voyage and where replicators can cater to your every need or desire. Brull wants a better life for his people, and maybe we're supposed to wonder whether he'll get that by signing the deal with the Acamarian Sovereign.

The one weak link is, of course, Wesley Crusher. He's the *only* character in the *entire production* who is nothing but contemptuous to the Gatherers, looking down his nose and sneering at them from the moment they come aboard the Enterprise. Sure, Brull was a bit short with him on the bridge, but, as we later learn, that was more due to pleasant surprise at the opportunities life onboard the Enterprise offers to people his age. Opportunities that Brull's own children, also Wesley's age, have been denied. And yet even then, Wesley never relents in his condescension: You can simply *feel* the elitist, privileged, classist disgust in his voice when Brull tries to talk to him in Ten Forward, disgust Wil Wheaton sells alarmingly well. It feels like a corner has finally turned for Wesley Crusher here: It feels like Wheaton has finally decided that if his character is going to be written as a insufferably smug asshole, he'll play him as an insufferably smug asshole. And Wheaton is way, way too good of an actor for this to be watchable or palatable. Really, it would be best for everyone involved if he made his way off the ship as quickly as possible now.

Returning to Yuta for a moment, the climactic scene with her and Riker, while memorable, also gives us another glimpse at the difference between this production team and the preceding ones. Yuta shows Riker she's incapable of changing and casting aside her subservience to her programmed mission. She gives into her role as basically a biological weapon, forcing Riker to kill her. In previous seasons, a character like Yuta might have been considered redeemable: The story might have shown her as having grown from her experience with Commander Riker's idealism and become a better person as a result, deciding to spare Chorgan of her own volition. Indeed, Gene Roddenberry himself was opposed to Yuta dying, but he was out of town the week of production so the creative team literally snuck the scene into the show while he wasn't looking. So now, in this season, Yuta fails and must die because that's tragic and tragedy breeds conflict, which is now valued above just about everything else, even utopian idealism. And it's only going to get worse from here.

Marvin Rush is back in top form this week after his somewhat less-than-captivating efforts last time. He once again uses a lot of shadow and vivid contrast, which I happen to think always looks good on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Particularly outstanding highlights for me are that final scene on Chorgan's ship, any shot in Ten Forward or Riker's quarters, the battle on Gamma Hromi II, which Rush lights to perfectly compliment the awesome dystopian 1980s chain gang vibe that scene's got going for it and, of course, the opening scene in the bombed out Forbidden Planet base. The special effects team also pull out some cool party pieces, with some great viewscreen shots and some really memorable one-off set and starship design. I also want to take special note of the six-foot Enterprise model, which has been looking particularly nice the past few weeks (especially here and in “Booby Trap”), especially as this is the last time we're going to see any non-stock footage shots of it. I love the way it's been so darkly lit (oxymoronic, I know) this season: Because the exterior studio lights on the hull have been turned down, it sort of blends into the starfield behind it with only its running lights, deflector dish and windows standing out from the vastness of outer space. It's a unique look I wish we got to see more of.

“The Vengeance Factor” is definitely a standout for me: It's an episode of firsts and lasts, which in many ways makes it an archetypical story for the third season. Given that I've tended to stumble across it so frequently, I'd call it one of the easiest to revisit from this year's crop of episodes too. I like it even more now that it looks as good as it always could have: It was never this striking when I was watching it through several generations of shitty 1980s VHS decay. And in a decade when images hold such power and weight, that's almost the most important thing of all.