Sunday, May 31, 2015

Myriad Universes: The Lesson

“The Lesson” is a story that could never have been made on the TV series. This is highly unusual to say, because, with the exception of a particularly lavish holodeck environment, the entire story takes place on the Enterprise and there's not a single “effects shot” apart from the exterior view of the ship in the first panel. Normally, one would expect the comic book to tell stories that were too complex or expensive to film, but this is an extraordinarily intimate and low-stakes story the existence of which reveals some odd truths about how curiously inverted the roles of the two main series have become by now.

“The Lesson” is also perfect Star Trek: The Next Generation, standing shoulder to shoulder with “The Wounded” as something utterly and incomparably definitive.

It's not so much a story as it is an interlocking series of vignettes all centred around the concept of learning and growth. Beverly confesses to Deanna that it's her birthday today and she's depressed not because anybody forgot, but because she thinks shes getting older and feels past her prime. Commander Riker is giving a guest lecture to the Enterprise school about the American Revolution and how it could have been prevented (a subject he did his master's thesis on) and caution's Wesley (who's still aboard at this point in time and attending the school) that he won't let personal feelings get in the way in an academic environment. Worf reads a letter from Jeremy Aster, who confides in him his uncertainty about pursuing his crush because there's another boy who he thinks he doesn't stand a chance against. Geordi and Miles O'Brien are sitting in ten forward talking about unique celebrities from around the galaxy who live outrageous lives they'd like to emulate, and they rope Data in to get a third perspective.

As a present to Beverly, Deanna prescribes her a “special” unorthodox treatment on the holodeck where they traverse a rugged and breathtakingly beautiful amalgam alien landscape as they hike through dense forests, cross waterfalls and scale mountains. Though she complains all the way, at the top Beverly is taken aback by the view and remembers that age is just a state of mind. Wesley catches Will in a factual slip-up and corrects him in front of the class, which embarrasses him, but Will thanks him afterwards saying that if he wasn't going to give Wes any special treatment, he shouldn't have expected any in return and confesses he should have prepared better. Meanwhile, as he observes Geordi and Miles' conversation and, after he's prompted for his opinion on which celebrity he'd most like to be, Data says he wouldn't like to be anyone other than who he is and wouldn't want to live anywhere apart from the Enterprise.

It is deeply, deeply ironic that this story exists here in May 1991, directly contemporaneous with garbage like “The Host” and “In Theory”. For all the writing staff may whine about wanting to do smaller, more intimate stories that just focus on the drama and the characters without having to worry about the allegedly extraneous and superficial science fiction elements, the show itself is *extremely* reticent about doing an episode that doesn't have an action story as at least a B-plot. Hell, even “Data's Day” had to go out with a third-rate, phoned in Romulan espionage thriller side-story because Rick Berman and Michael Piller thought Star Trek: The Next Generation's audience would go blind with rage if they were exposed to an episode that didn't have shooty phasers, realpolitiking or stuntmen punching each other. That's not touching on the fact that when the production team *does* allow itself to do stories just about people and their relationship, they tend to royally screw it up by writing everyone as offensively rote, stock, robotic and stereotypical character archetypes.

With “The Lesson” though, we get a story that literally is nothing but people talking to each other from start to finish, it's an absolute masterpiece and it's from the *comic book adaptation*. Y'know, the medium that's supposed to be juvenile and aimed at a much younger demographic that we would expect to require a lot more lurid and grotesque action. That's not to say though that there's no spectacle whatsoever in “The Lesson”: As a matter of fact, I hold this story up as a masterclass in how to do nuanced character-focused exploration in genre fiction. We've established that action sci-fi does by definition necessitate some kind of action, but we've also established that Star Trek: The Next Generation is not action sci-fi, a truth that, if nothing else, “The Lesson” proves beyond a shadow of a doubt. But it still is science fiction more generally, not to mention the fact it's still visual media so we do need something to look at.

What “The Lesson” does is shift where the sci-fi spectacle should go. Instead of being the main conceit of the plot, the sci-fi imagery is implicit within the setting (the Enterprise, a starship in a utopian future inhabited by the sorts of people who would act the way the characters in “The Lesson” do) and, more overtly, in Deanna's holodeck simulation. It's as wonderfully, beguilingly fantastical an environment as Star Trek has ever given us, with all kinds of beautifully xeno scenery and exotic flora and fauna, most of which only show up briefly and that Deanna only ever addresses casually in passing. Already this is a breath of fresh air and a gentle reminder of the sorts of things the comic can do that the TV show can't (a great deal of the show's location sets, even holodeck ones, tend to suspiciously resemble either Planet Hell, Malibu or the C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant), but actually I'm also reminded as I read this story now of the forest of Nolandia on Ookbar from Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia.

Anything that reminds me of Dirty Pair, especially that movie, is a very good thing just on principle, but like in Dirty Pair, the forest in “The Lesson” serves as an imaginative and powerfully evocative backdrop for the characters, story and themes, which actually manages to enhance and highlight those concepts. This is what a really good sci-fi-fantasy setting can do: It's not the core idea of the whole work, or at least it doesn't have to be, but it's a world that operates by the logic and aesthetics the story is trying to look at and is thus an extension and manifestation of it (just to gush about Affair of Nolandia a bit more as I don't get to do it enough, that movie is really, really good at this because that's how Nolandia functions *diegetically*). So no, genre fiction concepts and good dramatic storytelling need not be diametrically opposed; a talented writer can use one to greatly enhance the other, demonstrating how they're in essence the same thing. This is, of course, a very Long 1980s way of thinking: The idea that you could tell a story through images and the emotions they evoke alone.

Apart from Pablo Marcos' art hitting new heights, I'm additionally really happy to see Michael Jan Friedman's characterization of the Enterprise crew continue to develop and mature. His Deanna Troi remains utterly singular and unique, which really shines through and helps “The Lesson” considering she plays such an important role. Friedman's Deanna exudes an elegant, yet mischievous, sense of knowing confidence that's also oddly dissonant and alien at times, though not at all in a way that makes her off-putting. If I were to quibble I'd say it doesn't really match Marina Sirtis' portrayal, but, than again, Marina Sirtis is constantly rubbing up against Deanna Troi anyway, isn't she? And regardless, it seems unfair considering what top sorts everyone is in this month, especially Will and Beverly. The only other place I could think the criticise might be the Geordi, Data and Miles C-plot which I always seem to forget about for some reason. But in hindsight, it fits way better than I used to think it did: Obviously Data would want to reinforce how at home he feels on the Enterprise, because the Enterprise is a place where “The Lesson” can happen and he can sense that.

“The Lesson” is masterclass work and essential reading: An utterly flawless execution of Star Trek: The Next Generation's children's television for adults, except in a comic book. In every way, it should serve as a wake-up-call and, er, lesson, for the TV show to heed more often. This is pretty much where the comic book line just officially drops the mic: We already knew it was capable of standing toe-to-toe with its older sibling and that there are things only it can do, but now it's completely blown by it. With very good reason was this chosen as the third story to be reprinted in The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a trade paperback omnibus of choice stories from DC's comic line with input from no less than Jeri Taylor. In a time when Star Trek: The Next Generation is freshly reinventing itself across the board, this is the exact kind of thing we need to be seeing a lot more of going forward to fully get is the redemption we deserve.

As if sensing this looming and exciting zeitgeist, “The Lesson” soon reveals itself as merely the beginning: This marks the start of what may well be the comic line's single greatest and most auspicious year in print.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

“If you believe in peace, act peacefully. If you believe in love, act lovingly.” Redemption

We always knew it was coming.

The point of convergence where it all leads back to. Perhaps not the greatest moment, but the defining one. In the end, it all comes back to redemption. We will redeem. We will be redeemed.

This is the cliffhanger season finale that looms the largest in my memory. Not my favourite...I think “Time's Arrow” and “Descent” are probably better, and I have fonder and more vivid memories of them both. I was told, of course, that I was supposed to like “The Best of Both Worlds”, and “The Best of Both Worlds” is certainly very good at what it does. But this is the one that exerts the greatest gravity over the mental landscape of mine Star Trek: The Next Generation belongs to.

The first image that strikes me is, as is always the case with Star Trek: The Next Generation, that of a starship. It's the image that defines “Redemption” for me: That of the Enterprise being escorted by the Bortas, the first, and archetypal, Klingon Attack Cruiser. To me, this is simply one of the most iconic designs of the series, occupies a primal, fundamental spot in my memories and is one of those images that defines what Star Trek means to me. The Attack Cruiser was designed by Rick Sternbach, and while it's far from his first or last design for the series, it's one of his signatures. It showcases a lineage from the old Klingon Battlecruisers of yore as well as taking some cues from Federation aesthetics (intentionally, according to Sternbach, to demonstrate the sharing and exchange of ideas brought about by the alliance).

But the Klingon Attack Cruiser also demonstrates a fastidiousness that's uniquely Sternbach's: While Andy Probert's starship work tended to be defined by clean, organic elegance, Sternbach's is absolutely loaded up with meticulously thought-out little details-There's every manner of nook, cranny and panel all over the ship, each of which look like they're there for a purpose and are doing something important. Indeed, there's probably a technical manual somewhere that tells you precisely what they all do. It's a dedication to go above and beyond and a pride in getting all of those details right that's as much a hallmark of Star Trek creative and fan spaces as it is of anime communities, and it's here that Rick Sternbach's real heritage starts to shine through. The Klingon Attack Cruiser is actually far more reminiscent of 1980s sci-fi anime mecha designs than it is of the US Navy- and Golden Age Hard SF-inspired designs that characterized Star Trek's earlier years, or even of Andy Probert's unique flavour of artistry. One could very easily imagine it fitting in just as well in Macross or in Dirty Pair as it does here.

Among the first wave of Playmates' Star Trek: The Next Generation line was a series of model starships that lit up and played sounds when you pressed some buttons on them. My first starship toys were these, and the first three I ever got were the Enterprise, the Romulan Warbird and the Klingon Attack Cruiser. It was from that moment that these three ships, and the communities who sailed on them, became synonymous with Star Trek for me: The Klingons, the Romulans and the Enterprise. Playmates didn't really tell you a whole lot about what these ships were or how they worked beyond some captivating and colourful space art on the boxes, but that was all you needed.

There was no Ferengi Marauder, but I always considered that one the honourary fourth musketeer because of the hazier memories evoked in me by some of the older PR stills dating to the first season I had laying around in some of my reference books. After all, it was a Ferengi action figure (based, I believe, on Armin Shimerman's Letek from “The Last Outpost”) who was the second piece of Star Trek merchandise I ever got, so clearly the Ferengi were an indelible part of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Later on, I got Galoob's Micro Machines Star Trek expansions, which had all of them and came with more detailed descriptions of the ships and some basic technical specifications. They also included lists of specific episodes in which they featured prominently, and for the Klingon Attack Cruiser, the episode Galoob picked was naturally “Redemption”.

And indeed it's not just the Attack Cruiser, because we know through hindsight that this two-parter in fact features each of the big three ships (and their associated crews) in one capacity or another by the end. It's a delightfully grandiose and bombastic bit of realpolitiking and intrigue featuring all three powers in a galactic staredown match. It also helps that, following “Legacy” and “The Wounded”, “Redemption” commits so much intriguing backstory to the imagined past: Captain Picard being chosen as Gowron's Arbiter of Succession, that Worf killed Duras as a point of vengeance for his unjust discommendation and the idea he has a son back on Earth who is destined to follow the same path he did. Watching it this time, I was struck by how much “Redemption” actually reminded me of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, with a lot of dramatic pontificating about honour, treachery, political insurrections and mobilizing for war, almost like epic poetry. When you're young, this is the kind of thing you find really deep and captivating, and I'm sure that contributed to why this one sticks in my memory to the extent it does.

The Klingon Civil War is something I remember much more vividly than it actually plays out onscreen. My memory is that of a breathtaking spectacle of cunning military strategy and dramatic shootouts in the depths of space. In practice, we get a couple old Bird-of-Prey models flitting around Gowron's Attack Cruiser interspersed with stock footage from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and “Yesterday's Enterprise”. Today I sort of laugh at the slight bombast and pretension of the whole thing, but it's ever so fun to watch again. It's the Klingon characters themselves who I think really make it work: The way Robert O'Reilly, Michael Dorn and Tony Todd play their parts they totally sell the gravity of the situation, implied silliness and all. It's the first and last time the Klingons can really work this way, before they fully devolve into irrelevant, if occasionally adorable, self-parody.

This is also of course a Ron Moore script, Moore now firmly established as the go-to Klingon and Romulan guy. Thankfully, we get him in “world building mode” instead of “angrily slagging off the Enterprise crew mode” or “being misogynistic mode”, though he does have this to say about Worf:
“It was fun to write things for Worf. He was the one guy in a Starfleet uniform who could do bad things. He could beat people up! He could get upset! He could have problems!”
So there's that. Which is pretty much completely wrongheaded inside out from top to bottom, but I'm not going to push the issue. And I'd also be remiss not to mention the Duras Sisters, who at the time I just saw as another group of iconic reoccurring members of the Enterprise crew's Rogues Gallery, but nowadays strike me as being pretty clearly stock sexist Femme Fatale, Empress Dowager stereotypes. Which is more than a little unpleasant, to say the least.

Director Cliff Bole talks about how the season finale is always the hardest episode of the filming block to shoot, because everyone is burned out and exhausted and can't wait to get to summer vacation. And that's how covering them is starting to feel a bit like for me, especially in the wake of what's got to be the single most tumultuous season in the show's history. I can't wait to put it behind me and move on to other things. Yet at the same time, the monolithic presence that is “Redemption” reminds me that this is a story that belongs as much to the future as it does to the present: The bridge that links the old version of the show to the new one. “Redemption” was planned as the third season finale but pushed ahead to the fourth due to the emergency that necessitated “The Best of Both Worlds”, and there's no other point in the show's history that I could ever imagine “Redemption” belonging to. Not just to Worf's family honour does that title apply.

And as if to reassure us that the show is in fact aware of what this moment signifies and the responsibilities it now has to take on, its final scene cuts to Denise Crosby stepping out of the shadows, and then the fade out.

Tasha Yar is back.

To Be Continued

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

“Men Who Hate Women”: In Theory

Oh no, not again.

I have to filet another Star Trek: The Next Generation sacred cow tonight. I hate doing this. But this one's time is long, long overdue, 'cause “In Theory” is bad. Really bad. How bad? Well, in terms of gender, this is right down there in the same league as “Reunion”.

I'll let writer Ronald D. Moore explain himself in his own words.
“I loved the notion of Data involved with a woman who fell in love with him because it was sort of a callback to when The Original Series was on. There were so many women who were in love with Spock. So much of Leonard Nimoy's fan mail was from women, women who were falling in love with this remote, inaccessible character with the idea that 'I could touch his heart-I could get to Spock like no one else.' I was fascinated by that aspect of fandom. So I thought, well, what if we did that with Data and there was a woman who fell in love with a man who literally doesn't have a heart, who could not give her something emotional. I wanted to see that relationship crash on the rocks. I wanted to see the moment when she realizes that he really can't give back to her what she wants.”
The mean-spirited cynicism is self-evident. It always is with Moore. Like his compatriot Ira Steven Behr, that's a signature of his. But the sheer, stupefying extent to which Moore is off the mark here is so galling I don't even have the words to properly convey it, and what it reveals about how much Star Trek creators truly understand their fanbase and the history of their own damn show is absolutely frightening. Moore has essentially penned a 45-minute up-yours to the heart and soul of Star Trek and science fiction fandom and delivered one of the most inexcusably and hurtfully misogynistic sentiments this side of his precious Original Series. Jenna D'Sora is every single bro-ish stereotype of “clingy bitches” rolled into one: She's vapid, shallow, air-headed and programatically dedicated to a man who doesn't care about her in the face of all sense and reason. She's even “on the rebound”. And she, and by extension this entire fucking episode, exists for no other reason than to bully and ostracize Star Trek's original and most loyal fans.

That Moore's conception of Star Trek fandom (I refuse to use the phrase “female fandom” because in the 1960s and 1970s women were the only fans of any consequence Star Trek fucking had) is blindingly ahistorical goes without saying. Those women who Moore would be so quick to belittle and infantilize were the young people of the 1960s that Star Trek inspired and who worked hard to make sure it had enough episodes to become syndicated, thus guaranteeing it a legacy and a life beyond its pathetic initial network run on NBC. And, once it did become syndicated, these were the people who continued to watch it in reruns and kept a fandom community alive a decade after Star Trek was canceled. These were the people who welcomed in a new generation of fans (who were also women) who got their first taste of the world of the starship Enterprise in syndication. It was Paula Smith, not Gene Roddenberry, who ran Star Trek in the 1970s. Yes, there probably were female fans who sent love letters to Leonard Nimoy, but to imply that the only reason these people watched and wrote about Star Trek was because they were flighty teenage girls who all had unrealistic crushes on Spock is so beyond insulting I'm not even going to dignify that assertion with a real response.

What Moore has done here is play right into a sentiment that, while nascent in 1991, will soon begin to linger and fester until it grows into one of the most dangerous reactionary movements of today. This is the exact line of thinking that paves the way for the male supremacist and patriarchal fundamentalist Nerd Culture, which would in turn give way to things like the Men's Rights movement, the Sad Puppies and GamerGate: Affluent, privileged, upper middle-class straight cisgender white men who feel persecuted and oppressed because they like electronics and science fiction and don't know how to behave in public properly. That's not to say Moore himself is like this, but he does unfortunately write from a perspective that's easy to be appropriated by this rhetoric: Moore's biggest credentials, and this is something he himself would validate, were of being a big Original Star Trek nerd. His biggest writing credits on the show are on episodes that explicitly deal with the Original Series, or that contribute to world-building involving concepts inherited from them. And I'm sorry, there's a culture of privilege, insularity and entitlement that kind of obsessively fannish dedication encourages and is connected to.

And it's not just Jenna D'Sora and the female fans she was created to caricature: “In Theory” smears all women. We're right back into the territory of “The Dauphin” and “Elaan of Troyius”, with various characters bemoaning how confusing, erratic and illogical women are. We've got Geordi hemming and hawing about whether or not D'Sora really is on the rebound, and Captain Picard happily telling Data he'll “pass along any advice” on women to him “as soon as [he has] any”. And then Worf telling Data that Klingons “conquer what they desire”, but warning Data that, as her superior, he doesn't want Jenna “mistreated”, as if Worf were Jenna's daddy and she was his baby girl. The whole production has a sickeningly warped, stereotypical and tropish conception of femininity and gender roles-Even down to the whole idea that Jenna uniquely “needs” “something emotional”. Devastatingly, this is the precise sort of thing we would expect someone influenced by a proto-Nerd Culture to write.

But what might even be the most insulting thing of all about “In Theory” is that it's hailed as a classic. And it's not even because of the misogyny, which would be sad, if predictable. The thing is this isn't even a story about Jenna D'Sora, not even in a kind of reactionary, anti-Mary Sue sense. This is read as a Data story, and hailed as a beloved classic because of how it supposedly furthers his exploration of humanity. Even Patrick Stewart, who makes his directorial debut here and is someone who should really, really know better, reads it this way. That in itself is pretty awful as it renders Jenna's pain subservient to Data's Epic Journey, just like the show did before with Tasha Yar: The show itself hides its blatantly ugly misogyny under the guise of a comparatively more tame variation of sexist narrative structure.

But even if you do read “In Theory” as a Data episode, it can only be seen as a terrible, terrible Data episode! Here, Data is depicted as being cartoonishly inept and self-centred when it comes to understanding women and romance: Indeed, the whole point of “In Theory” is to portray him as literally heartless. But that's not at all the kind of person Data is-In “Data's Day”, he was very serious about the idea of potentially pursuing not just any romantic relationship, but a committed, monogamous one. And the very first thing he said was that he believed he had a lot to offer his prospective partner: He was thinking of other people first and foremost, not himself. What's happened here is that Data is being written as the kind of innocent, hapless man strung along by the whims of fickle womanhood Nerd Culture people like to paint themselves as. And that's not who Data is. If you're not swayed that “In Theory” is a wretched episode on the virtue of its blatant misogyny, at least grant it's bad because it assassinates Data's character.

“In Theory” is very possibly the most archetypically Nerd Culture episode in all of Star Trek. Not just because the story itself is openly misogynistic, but because everything about it is built around pushing women aside. Ignoring and dismissing their perspectives and their positionalities. It's a production so insular, selfish, thoughtless and uncaring that it thinks it has the right to take a young woman's story about her painful feelings and make it all about a man. Data takes Jenna's story away from her just like Ron Moore wants to take Star Trek fandom away from the women who built and nurtured it. Because this is what Nerds do. This is what men do. Take things away from women and try to pretend that the women never had them to begin with and that they're inherently undeserving of them anyway. This is what truly defines Nerd Culture, not fanwank. This isn't just what patriarchy looks like, this is what male fundamentalism looks like. And it's productions like these and attitudes like the ones articulated by people like those in Ron Moore's place that has allowed this all to happen.

Can we please now finally stop catering to it?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

“I've never seen a rainbow”: Galaxy's Child, Identity Crisis, The Mind's Eye

Poor Geordi La Forge.

I have no idea what it is about the Starship Enterprise's chief engineer, but absolutely nobody seems comfortable with writing for him or even has any real idea who he is. Michael Piller's big contribution to fleshing out Geordi's character was turning him into an insecure mechanophile who didn't know how to act around women, Ira Steven Behr thinks he should be eaten by Klingons and even René Echevarria mentioned he had no idea what Geordi and Beverly Crusher would have to talk about to each other as an example of how hard he found it to write for the Star Trek: The Next Generation characters. Only Deanna Troi elicits a comparable level of writer's block and despair amongst Star Trek creator types, and even she's had “Night Terrors” and bits of “Half a Life” by this point.

So it really is fitting one member of this trio is entitled “Identity Crisis”, because that's what it feels like Geordi is going through. And not just him, but Star Trek: The Next Generation too-Recall that while we've seen some strong stuff in the past few weeks, we're still very early on in the show's Mark II phase and it's still finding its footing to some extent. That process won't be complete until we enter the summer hiatus. But as for poor Geordi, it really does feel like the creative team has absolutely no idea what to do with him here: Instead of looking at the role he plays on the Enterprise and his relationships with the other members of the crew, the episode invents backstory for him, is primarily interested in creating the person he used to be instead of who he is now and tries to tell a story in the past tense (unlike what the show did with Captain Picard in “The Battle” where the Stargazer backstory was firmly in the past, here the Victory stuff has real material bearing on the plot). Also, it turns Geordi into a 1980s version of the aliens from Raumpatrouille Orion.

The other episodes in this set aren't especially better. “The Mind's Eye” is the most obviously offensive, being a rote, boring “Shocking Betrayal!” Manchurian Candidate ripoff. It's an unimaginative and stock “Let's Do” plot well beyond the point at which we should have learned that these don't work, and the treatment of Geordi is absolutely horrific: Let's take his visor, which was designed to facilitate an empowering portrayal of blind people, and turn it into a security risk by treating it like a computer in a thriller movie you can hack and make it do whatever you want. On top of that, it renders Geordi subservient to the by this point entirely and unnecessarily overblown Worf/Mogh/Duras discommendation story arc. The one bit of partial credit I suppose I could give this episode is that Commander Sela is in it, but she really doesn't need to be in this episode. Well I mean this episode doesn't need to exist, but my point is there is no reason to put another chapter of the Big Damn Klingon story here, especially given “Redemption” is in two bloody weeks. As much as it's nice to hear Denise Crosby back for her annual guest spot, Sela could've waited just a couple more episodes.

Ironically given Crosby's presence in “The Mind's Eye”, “Galaxy's Child” and “Identity Crisis” also both further the trend of depicting Geordi as a fumbling mess when it comes to women and romance. In “Identity Crisis”, he seems to have a good thing going with Susanna Leijten, but the creative team felt that Geordi needed a “break” from romance given his “failed” relationship with Leah Brahms. Which brings me, unfortunately, to “Galaxy's Child”, which is, of course, an utter debacle. I don't think I really need to explain why this one is so shitty, it's pretty self-evident: It utterly misses the point of “Booby Trap” (or at least, the best possible reading of “Booby Trap”) in favour of just saying “Hey, wouldn't it be fun if the real Doctor Brahms showed up and it turns out she was married, and a total ice queen to boot? Wouldn't that make Geordi look like such a complete fool? Wouldn't that be great? Let's do it. Fuck yeah, conflict!”.

Apart from the obvious mean-spiritedness and lazy sequel-baiting, “Galaxy's Child” actually works directly against the precious character development this creative team seems to value so highly. The story arc of Geordi being uncomfortable around women, such as it was, got satisfyingly resolved in “Transfigurations” when Geordi was spiritually healed by his encounter with John Doe. But because we can never have a happy ending in serialized fiction because that would mean we might actually have to get somewhat creative and put actual effort into our writing, we'll undo all of that in a lazy retcon to wring some more delicious conflict out of the premise, no matter how strangled, incredulous or hackish it plays out and no matter how much it insults the audience's intelligence. So poor Geordi ends up lonely again, and humiliated to boot because apparently we didn't do enough spitefully dumping on the Enterprise crew last season.

(Also, while we'll talk more about Crosby-as-Sela in her official debut, another consequence of her showing up here against the backdrop of all of this is that she serves to remind us that no matter how pathetic the show has been making Geordi out to seem here, there was once a time where he looked poised to get a really sweet, loving and stable romantic relationship with someone. Thankfully, as is the case with many things in the wake of “The Wounded”, even Geordi's relationship with Tasha gets rebooted and reincarnated next season, and it's even more adorable this time around. But unfortunately as is also the case with many things, it's a thread introduced and explored in one episode and then dropped, never to be seen again.)

Annoyingly, “Galaxy's Child” is also an episode I remember quite well. I very distinctly recall the scenes of Geordi and Dr. Brahms tersely hunched over computer monitors and that Junior lifeform clinging to the hull of the Enterprise. The concept of the ship serving as a surrogate mother is an interesting one in its own right: Gene Roddenberry always held the Enterprise was a character unto herself, and it's a contention that certainly influences my reading of the show. Indeed, this is the part of “Galaxy's Child” that does properly follow on from “Booby Trap”, not the Geordi and Doctor Brahms stuff. It was “Booby Trap” that finally, explicitly established that the Enterprise has a consciousness who can manifest in different avatars, and now that this is out there, it gives us the ability to play with different ways of exploring how she can function as a character. The idea that the Enterprise can play the role of a mother figure, however temporarily, is an intriguingly multi-layered one, but it will take the show another three years to fully flesh out the ramifications of that.

But as interesting as that all may be, it doesn't make up for the rest of what “Galaxy's Child”, as well as these other two episodes, do to Geordi. Unsettlingly, this show seems to have gotten quite good at character assassination over the past two years. And this is as upsetting to me as it is confusing: While Tasha Yar may have been the character I projected onto and while Captain Picard and Commander Riker may have been the characters who were the most enjoyable for me to watch, my *favourite* person on Star Trek: The Next Generation was always Geordi. And the reason he was is the same reason why, to me, he should be the *easiest* person on the show to write for: More than anyone else on the Enterprise, Geordi overtly *is* his actor, and his actor is LeVar Burton. In fact Geordi was *so* explicitly written with LeVar in mind that he was originally going to be the ship's schoolteacher.

People who write for Geordi, and for Star Trek: The Next Generation more generally, need to watch more Reading Rainbow. Because if they did, they'd see precisely who Geordi La Forge is and what Star Trek: The Next Generation is supposed to be about. Geordi is the show's heart and soul and his job is to embody the joys of learning, discovery and growth. That's why he's the chief engineer and why he works so closely with the Enterprise herself. It's why his relationship with Data works the way it does. If Star Trek: The Next Generation is children's television for adults, which I think it is, it needs a children's television personality. That's who Geordi La Forge is, because that's who LeVar Burton is.

While Roots was where he got his start and was obviously something that came from a personal place, it's the version of himself LeVar Burton plays on Reading Rainbow that's his *truest* self. Star Trek: The Next Generation is about helping us realise the truest selves that exist in all of us, and it's the height of negligence not to offer that same opportunity to Geordi La Forge.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

“When you think you love someone, you love them”: The Host

For some reason I've always taken “Half a Life” and “The Host” together: The two well-remembered big dramatic doomed love stories from the back of the fourth season brought to you by the letter H. They're also the two episodes I was the most apathetic about revisiting from this filming block, as I didn't have especially fond memories of the pair. I was completely mistaken in the case of “Half a Life”, which I now consider to be a definite highlight of the fourth season.

It turns out that if I had any reservations about this diptych at all, it was entirely thanks to “The Host”. This is another one that I'm afraid I can't redeem in the slightest.

In the history of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there are three infamous scripts whose clumsy handling of gender and sexuality, along with their general ineptitude, are directly responsible for saddling the series with a reputation of heteronormativity and homophobia. The first was the titanic piece of shit that was “Blood and Fire”: Although the show was able to dodge that particular bullet, so cavernous was the yawning expanse of its suckitude that it somehow managed to bend reality such that it makes Star Trek: The Next Generation look homophobic in every potential universe regardless of whether or not it physically exists in them. The third is a deeply unfortunate car crash of an episode we'll look at next season that at least has a strangled redemptive reading you can tease out of it. The second is “The Host”, and this time the show has no goddamn excuse.

This isn't to say the initial concept isn't worthwhile or influential. The Trill of course go on to be a major, major species in the Star Trek universe (though for a number of reasons they eventually end up having nothing to do with the way Ambassador Odan is depicted here) and they open up a genuinely compelling set of storytelling possibilities. However, that's all due to what Terry Farrell and Jadzia Dax establish on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine-The rhetorical logic behind Ambassador Odan's role in this episode is surprisingly prosaic and unambitious. The point of the Trill in “The Host” is to set up a very stock and boring moral about how “it's what's on the inside that counts”. The person Doctor Crusher is in love with is the symbiote, not the hunky guy it lives in. The idea being, as director Marvin Rush explained it, “if your beloved turned into a cockroach, could you love a cockroach?”

Which makes it all the more inexplicable that, in what is quite possibly the single most ethically bankrupt and ill-fitting conclusion in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Host” ends by having Beverly break off the relationship with Odan's next host, a woman, because it's “too complicated”. There is, of course, the obvious homophobia. Rush and the writing staff vehemently deny that they were intending to pass judgment on homosexuality and that this wasn't even a place they were meaning to go and that the episode isn't about that.

Bullshit. It is.

Now, I believe Rush when he says it wasn't intentional, but that doesn't change anything for me. No, it may not be purposefully homophobic, but it is absolutely ignorant and careless and demonstrates a profound lack of foresight and self-awareness. It's the same sort of blinkered, insular attitude that made it so nobody thought to ask stage combat instructors Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis to pitch in with the stage combat of “Qpid”. No, it may not be actively malicious, but these latent, unspoken biases and prejudices are actually even worse, because they're so culturally ingrained they're taken for granted. But even beyond that, this ending makes no sense because it actually does not logically follow from what the rest of the narrative is trying to say: It literally undermines the episode's explicitly stated moral. If the whole bleeding plot is supposed to be about how love transcends certain external signifiers, than why the hell would you end with a scene that completely undercuts that?

If I didn't know better, I'd say the ending was deliberately changed by someone who specifically wanted to ensure that no non cis, heterosexual and monogamous relationships made it onto the series.

And furthermore, this is pretty much character assassination for Beverly, who comes across as incredibly shallow. Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann play it up like this is some failing of hers, some failing of Star Trek: The Next Generation where it was unable to truly live up to Gene Roddenberry's utopian vision that was corrected later on by far more successful and effective versions of Star Trek.


If this is a failing of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it's only of the material forces involved in the production of this particular television show in 1991. Certainly not of the ideals the show stands for, and certainly not for our Beverly Crusher. And also certainly not of Gene Roddenberry's “utiopian vision”, whatever we might decide that is: Block and Erdmann cite a somewhat wishy quote of Roddenberry's from 1976 about humanity reaching some level of ill-defined “maturity”, but I guarantee GLBTQA+ issues were the farthest thing from Roddenberry's mind, especially in bloody 1976. These are the sorts things other people had to bring to his attention, not issues Star Trek was conceived in 1964 to address. I'd be surprised if Roddenberry even knew GLBTQA+ people *existed* prior to the late 1980s.

(And furthermore, I think it's an absolute laugh riot Block and Erdmann tout the Dominion War era for being such a bastion of GLBTQA+ representation considering what that show did to Elim Garak and Julian Bashir's relationship. One of my favourite descriptions of that show came when a Stargate guidebook of mine gave it the derisive, and not at all undeserved, nickname of Star Trek: Macho Straight Guys In Ships Blowing Shit Up.)

There's a story arc in the comic series that tries to make up for this by having Odan meet up with Doctor Crusher again and needing to work together to avert a crisis on a colony planet. It tries to explain away the ending of “The Host” as a personal failing on the part of Doctor Crusher that she eventually learns to move beyond, but as talented as Michael Jan Friedman is, even he can't redeem what a mess the show makes of itself here. “The Host” is the perfect antithesis to “Half a Life” because it shows us exactly why you can't do this kind of story with one of the regulars: Had it been like “Half a Life” and involved some guest character, well, it still would have been unpleasant but there would have been a tacit diegetic criticism in play because the characters wouldn't have been part of the Enterprise crew, who are supposed to be beyond this. You simply can't have characters embody ideals who then go on to betray those very ideals.

(And Prophets I didn't even begin to talk about how creepy, weird and gross it is that Odan spends a not-insignificant portion of the episode in Commander Riker's body, where the romance continues more or less unabated. What an uncomfortable violation of the pre-existing trust and relationship those characters had.)

“The Host” is a disaster, plain and simple. It's not saying anything really provocative or worth hearing, which makes it all the more bewildering just how royally the show screws the pooch on this one. You don't need to see it to enjoy Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Jadzia Dax, and in fact watching it will likely just confuse you going forward. There's nothing here worth seeing to recommend. We're nearing the end of a uniquely messy season, and the show is in a bad groove once again. Sadly, we've got two more weeks of this before we can finally, mercifully, put it all behind us.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

“Every man has to die”: Half a Life

Lwaxana Troi is a very deceptive character. But she always has been: From the moment when she first walks off of the transporter pad onto the Enterprise, she's defined as someone who superficially appears to be a stock programmatic, broad-strokes comedy character but who in truth hides many hidden depths. “Haven” sees her mercurially flitting about the newborn Star Trek: The Next Generation with obfuscating performativity, her true goal to teach the new show something fundamental it will need to succeed in life.

In the years since, Lwaxana has been reduced down to more of a basic comic relief character, much to her detriment (though there were some strides made towards dialing this back last year). But now with “Half a Life”, when Star Trek: The Next Generation is new again, Mrs. Troi is finally allowed to return to the roots of her character's role once more. But the universe is different now, and things aren't quite the same anymore.

“Half a Life” is often seen as being a statement about forced euthanasia. This is because Star Trek fan discourse is ruled unquestionably and unfalteringly by Original Series fans, and Original Series fans think Star Trek must always be “social commentary” about “issues”. By this, they of course mean they want the show to take some vaguely relevant hot-button, yet safe, current topic and opine boisterously about it with the main characters serving as the creator's mouthpiece loudly proclaiming the Right and Just course of action. It should be as read that “Half a Life” is not, in fact, about forced euthanasia. That people seem to think it is at least lets us know they did actually watch the episode as it is in fact a plot point, even if it does worryingly call into question Trekkies' grasp of metaphor and rhetorical devices.

Of course it's terrifying to set an arbitrary date at which a person has outlived their usefulness and should be disposed of, but that's not what the debate here is really about: What this story offers instead are two contrasting positions on aging and parents' relationships to their children. Doctor Timicin, and by extension his people, believe that it's tragic to watch people deteriorate and lose their faculties and feel its the duty of society to not allow this to happen and to prevent children from having to set aside their own lives to take care of their elders. Lwaxana Troi, meanwhile, believes that life goes on well into seniority, that a person should live their lives to the fullest for themselves and that it is the duty of children to pay their parents back for raising them by looking after them in old age.

It's a powerful and deeply complex philosophical debate to be having and, ironically considering “Half a Life” tends to get read as a Roddenberry's Fables style Original Series plot, is the kind of thing only Star Trek: The Next Generation can really do. Indeed, the very structure of “Half a Life” precludes it from operating the way the Original Series fans want it to-The key here is that it's Lwaxana Troi who's having this debate with Timicin, *not* a member of the Enterprise crew. Indeed, the Enterprise crew, even Deanna, play a very minor background role in this episode. This allows us in the audience to remove ourselves somewhat from the debate at hand: Lwaxana is someone we recognise and like, but she's not a regular and thus doesn't travel with us. She's a member of the Enterprise's extended family, not its immediate family, and this means she's not a real part of the community. If it had been a member of the regular cast debating Timicin, we'd immediately sympathize with their side of the things and it would render the story a straw man argument. But because it's two guest characters, and particularly because it's Lwaxana, we're able to be far more critical of her perspective, even if we understand why she holds it.

Because the thing about Lwaxana is not only does she come from outside, she comes from the past. And not the memories that play over our consciousness and guide us in the everyday, but from the real, material and messy past that memory tends to obfuscate. Lwaxana is part of the Old Generation, because Majel Barrett's presence cannot possibly help but evoke it. This serves to remind us that even though she makes some impassioned points well worth hearing, she's still set in a way of life that's not entirely conducive to the way the world is anymore. We know, for example, her own daughter is a driven, nomadic career woman with no intentions of getting married or settling down.

And this is especially important to take note of, considering this is the first real episode to genuinely deal with who Lwaxana Troi is and the narrative role she plays since “Haven”. There, she showed up to give the new show her blessing and set it straight, a move that was necessary given the climate of the time when there was still a lot of skepticism about Star Trek: The Next Generation and it was just coming off of “The Naked Now” and “Code of Honor”. But even though it's rebooted itself, Star Trek: The Next Generation is now established and confidant in the way it presents itself. Lwaxana tries to come in straighten things out again, but this time it's her who's lost her footing a bit. This time, it's the Enterprise who has to heal Lwaxana. And even though Deanna and her friends can never set their lives aside to dedicate themselves exclusively to their elders like Lwaxana wants (but doesn't need), they still respect them, know when they're hurting and want to help where they can.

(This, incidentally, also makes “Half a Life” a far better commentary on aging and loss than “Sarek” because it manages to liken the Original Series and its stature to a mentality that's past its time without counterproductively also fannishly referencing and reiterating it. We care about Lwaxana and want to help her, but we also know she can be insufferably overbearing and needs to let us be our own individuals.)

This all of course leads into that brilliant sequence of exchanges between Deanna and Lwaxana that's hands-down Majel Barrett's best acting showcase to date. Deanna extends the same empathy and courtesy to her mother she does to everyone else she works with and counsels and helps her move through her confusion and pain to become even stronger than she was before. Unsurprisingly, future Mrs. Troi episode won't be afraid to throw Barrett more overtly dramatic material that looks deeper at who she is as a character and allow her to be even more honest and open with her extended family. Just as she left her mark on the crew, visiting with them has left its mark on her. Majel Barrett has at last taken the final step to coming into her own as an actor, and it's beyond fitting that it's this Enterprise who has helped her to do that.

(Indeed I'd say this is the best second Lwaxana Troi episode to watch after “Haven” hands down, were it not for the fact so much of “Half a Life” seems to rely on our familiarity with her as someone who pops by every year. Not only does it build off of the slightly more ambitious take on her character from “Ménage à Troi” and its associated themes, but the little jokes like the brilliant “My mother is onboard” and Captain Picard peeking nervously out of the turbolift sort of require us to be well acquainted with her.That's not to say “Half a Life” isn't leagues better than “Manhunt” and “Ménage à Troi”, of course, or that you shouldn't skip them if you have the opportunity to.)

There's a lot of other great stuff in “Half a Life” that makes it such a killer production. My memory of the fourth season tends to undersell this one as another boring Prime Directive runaround, but it's not. Actually, this might be the one episode in the history of Star Trek that uses the Prime Directive in an effective way: Here it's basically code for being empathetic and understanding (and respecting) that different people have different ways of living their lives and it's not our place to judge them for that, which is a lesson that's incredibly important for Lwaxana Troi of all people to learn. David Ogden Stiers is of course brilliant, and he's an incredibly warm and dignified presence. And then there's Michelle Forbes, just barely there in a cameo, but managing to utterly capture how much the Resolution means to her people. Even when in the same room as David Ogden Stiers and Majel Barrett, Michelle Forbes just makes off with the entire scene, leaving us with possibly the most memorably dramatic and powerful moment in an episode made up entirely of such moments. Little wonder we'll be seeing a lot more of her very soon.

Frankly, the only real criticism I can level at this episode is that we didn't see it about three years ago.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

“Crucible”: The Drumhead

It's these marquee episodes that always cause me the most trouble. I know very well what I'm expected to say, and that casts a shadow that looms very large over the whole writing process. I always end up driving myself half mad trying to say something that's not completely dumbly obvious.

So here were are again with another universally acclaimed masterpiece; acclaimed for reasons that are plainly on record in every single reference book on the show you can find. And I think it's utterly overrated tat.

First of all, “The Drumhead” is a courtroom drama, which I hate on principle. So every single argument against this genre I made in my essay on “The Measure of a Man” in the second season is just as valid here. But there's an additional wrinkle this time. When reviewing Babylon 5 for TARDIS Eruditorum, Phil Sandifer pointed out that as the limit case for the Golden Age Hard SF style of writing, the fatal flaw of J. Michael Straczynski's magnum opus is that it remains a space opera about Great White Men being historic. It is, to crib a phrase of his, “the most preposterously middle class thing ever filmed” (Phil actually doesn't use that phrase to describe Babylon 5, but, and this is speaking as someone who watched and enjoyed the show, it fits). We'll return to to Babylon 5 at the other end of the book, but the reason I bring it up now, or rather Phil's take on it, is specifically because of this passage, which I shall quote in its entirety:
“Babylon 5’s heart is in the right place, but it simply can’t get past its creator’s privilege. It’s telling that Babylon 5’s idea of the most horrifying thing imaginable consists of witch hunts, brutal interrogations, and propaganda. Put another way, it’s clear that Straczynski thinks the absolute worst thing to happen in America in the twentieth century was the McCarthy era. Which, yes, that sucked royally, but it’s also the most privileged answer imaginable. And yet it makes total sense within Straczynski’s larger worldview. Straczynski is following almost directly from Heinlein, and is thus absolutely in love with individual liberty and self-identity as the greatest principles imaginable. So his nightmare scenario are things that make a man deny who he is, and his idea of virtue is that 'never start a fight but always finish one' sort of steadfastness.”
This right here? This is the problem with “The Drumhead” in a nutshell.

This is an episode explicitly about “witch hunts” and McCarthyism and says absolutely nothing more beyond “it could happen here”. This is super problematic for two big reasons. The first is the same one that dooms Babylon 5: To have a nightmare about the McCarthy-era United States is to have the most detached and privileged sort of nightmare imaginable. It takes a particularly severe case of blinders to hold that up as the worst thing ever perpetuated by a country built on the back of neo-imperialism, genocide and the enslavement of entire ethnic groups. A corollary here is that this is something Star Trek: The Next Generation should be way beyond: It's not indebted to the Robert A. Heinlein tradition in the way Babylon 5 is because its Hard SF roots are far too distant and removed.

Aside from the issues this story inherits just by invoking a dated and reactionary literary genre, there's a larger concern involved with the fact “The Drumhead” is constantly cited as the moment Star Trek: The Next Generation started to look at its world with a critical eye and stopped pretending it was a flawless and perfect utopia. First of all, this is just flat-out wrong: Star Trek: The Next Generation was problematizing the basic underpinnings of its universe in its first bloody episode, and “Too Short a Season” came ten weeks after that. The argument Star Trek: The Next Generation was ever acritical is bullshit, plain and simple. In fact, I actually think “The Drumhead” is a step backwards in this regard: The Federation's deep, dark secret is that it's not immune to McCarthyist rhetoric? Tame, tame, tame. This is the same bloodthirsty organisation that manipulated the Kzinti into ceding territory as part of their early expansionist phase, is ready to instate martial law at the drop of a hat and was just a few weeks ago picking off Cardassian civilians like they were in a shooting gallery.

(Though speaking of the early Federation, it is entirely possible in my view to read Norah Satie's actions in this episode as an extension of some deep-seated fears and tensions that have existed on Earth for centuries. We know, for example, that not only did the Federation expand by cheating the Kzinti, but it was initially set into motion against the backdrop of a splintered geopolitical climate defined by the actions of the human fundamentalist Terra Prime terrorist organisation. Just as the United States cannot hide from the slavery and genocide in its national identity, the Federation cannot hide from the in-built xenophobia and neo-imperialism at its heart. Such things continue to manifest themselves even hundreds of years after the fact.)

The other major conceptual issue with “The Drumhead” is that the entire conceit here is built around a deconstructive attack on utopianism. My usual issues with the cynicism of this type of brief aside, this story also seems to curiously misplace where the utopianism is supposed to go. Ironically, just like the fans, the creative team associates Star Trek's idealism with the Federation's state-sponsored ideology, and they're manifestly not the same thing at all. The post-scarcity utopia in the Star Trek universe is the Star Trek universe itself, and it's dangerous to conflate that with one galactic neo-imperial power for any number of very good reasons. So what we've essentially got here is a tag-team of the absolute worst impulses of two different primary creative figures: Just like Ira Steven Behr, “The Drumhead” thinks Star Trek: The Next Generation's utopian idealism is for losers and babies and that the show is no better than the rest of us proles, and, just like Gene Roddenberry, it thinks that utopian idealism comes from the political structure of the Federation. So it's either a critique of the show or a critique of the show's fans, but either way it's troublingly insular and sells its own parent show criminally short.

That's not to say there aren't some killer moments here, there definitely are: Captain Picard's climactic exchange with an Admiral Norah Satie teetering on the brink of sanity is understandably one of the most iconic moments of the year and the production itself is top-notch. It's also a savvy move to have Worf almost swept up in the furor: Not because he's weak-willed or blinkered or that the Enterprise crew is just as corruptible as Starfleet Command, but because of the kind of person Worf is. In some ways he's very much like an expatriot or a convert living in human society, and some of the most fervently nationalistic sentiments throughout history have come from people just like that. Worf is also a warrior who considers it an honour to serve and protect his charge. So naturally, one could imagine how he'd be the first person to impulsively leap to the defense of his adopted country, no matter how dangerously ill-founded and paranoid the perceived threat really is. But the thing about that is a handful of iconic moments have never been enough to salvage an entire text from a critical reading standpoint, and the rest of the plot here is a pointlessly boring and retrograde time-filler, no matter how well-done it is.

“The Drumhead” also marks Ron Jones' final credit as Star Trek: The Next Generation's primary composer. Apparently he was fired and there was a big to-do about him potentially being involved in an altercation with Rick Berman and Peter Lauritson. Jones is lionized in fandom today for being unarguably the greatest Star Trek composer of the revival era, though I wonder how much of that is due to the post-Enterprise trend of demonizing Rick Berman for absolutely everything (and note how nobody talks about Lauritson's role in the affair), but I'm not interested in backstage drama. What I'd rather like to talk about is how the music of Star Trek: The Next Generation should actually sound.

Jones is a talented artist, obviously, but I was honestly never a fan of the “film soundtracks for television” approach he took to the show. It always felt to me like he was going for a very old fashioned, sweeping Golden Age of Hollywood sound, and to me that's the wrong tack to take. For one, it sounds badly, badly demode in the Long 1980s where complex, ethereal synth pads, spacey electronica and 4X4 beats are the soundtrack to the collective zeitgeist. Frankly as far as I'm concerned, if *any* work of Long 1980s aesthetics deserved that sound, it was Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Ron Jones could never deliver on that. This isn't his fault necessarily, nor is it a comment on his particular skills and abilities as "Golden Age Film Soundtrack" was the vibe he was asked to go for, but it does make the show feel creakier and more out of time than it really needs to in my opinion. As derided as they may be by fans, I think the composers taking up the reins starting next week, Dennis McCarthy and Jay Chattaway, work in a style that's a far better fit for Star Trek: The Next Generation than what we've been hearing so far.

The final thing to remember about “The Drumhead” is that it's a bottle show. It was done in an attempt to save money because the team didn't want to do another clip show. By those standards, its pretty good and is a testament to how seriously the show takes treating its audience with respect and not insulting their intelligence. But as an unmitigated classic? Absolutely not. It's a worrying sign of Star Trek feeling the need to grasp onto the most conventionally “dramatic” stories in order to legitimize itself. As if Star Trek wasn't good enough on its own.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

“Yoikes and Away!”: Qpid

It's absolutely inane. Let's just dispense with that straight away.

Much like last year's Q episode, “Qpid” (ugh) completely casts aside Q's original symbolism as an extradiegetic challenge to the ethical underpinnings of Star Trek: The Next Generation in lieu using him as a vehicle to set up a pointlessly safe comedic runaround. It's depressingly cynical, a Robin Hood romp done only to capitalize on Robin Hood's popularity at the time, and yet another teeth-gnashingly sexist outing to boot: Q's assessment of Vash aside, one of the bitterest ironies in the history of the series is that Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis were the only members of the crew trained in fencing and stage combat (in fact, they're instructors themselves), and not only were they the only people *not* to partake in stage combat in the one episode where those talents would have come in handy, nobody, not even for just a moment, ever once thought to consult them when teaching the rest of the cast. To add insult to injury, it's Ira Steven Behr's only post-Season 3 contribution to Star Trek: The Next Generation and is a sequel to his own “Captain's Holiday”, an episode the man practically disowns.

(And indeed even here, Behr's grimdark sensibilities and deep-rooted bitterness show through: The much-vaunted mandolin scene, which I detest, by the way, was meant as another jab at Star Trek: The Next Generation's utopianism. Behr sympathized with Worf, whom he imagined being a bloodthirsty warrior stuck in a world he found insufferable “lying awake at night thinking 'Can't they just let me kill Geordi?'”. Geordi being a character whom Behr found “sweet” but “kind of underused” and unacceptably lacking in a “dark side”. Behr figures Geordi is the kind of person the Klingons “devour”.)

Lest you think I'm an entirely humourless curmudegon, I hasten to add I've nothing against genre romps, even though I tend to like my romps handled with a bit more nuance and sophistication than, well, this. The Star Trek: The Next Generation cast is famously fond of romps: It's another manifestation of their inherent performativity. They get a huge kick out of spicing up old stock tropes and scenarios by bringing in their own unique sense of bravado, and in the hands of a production team who knew better how to respond to and play off of this there's a lot of potential for some really clever metacommentary on fiction and narrative styles.

But this is what I think the holodeck is for: It's a crossroads of storytelling where the Enterprise crew can dynamically interact with fictional worlds, transforming them and each other for the better. The holodeck also serves as a diegetic reinforcement of the show's themes of performativity and role-playing, a knowing artifice in-universe acting as a microcosm of how they work on the whole. Having Q come in, wave his hands around and turn everything into a Robin Hood story seems a bit of a waste of his character, and a less-than-satisfying bit of metafiction than what the holodeck was already capable of.

Behr's instincts are, however, sound. As much as I fundamentally disagree with him on many different levels, he's a savvy writer (sometimes in spite of himself), and he manages to elevate “Qpid” from the ranks of total irrelevance, if only just. Namely, the choice of the Robin Hood setting, in spite of the more obvious commercial reasons that inspired it, is actually a reasonably solid folk story to toss the characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation into. The original pitch, which Behr was called in to clean up at Michael Piller's request, apparently would have set the story in a Camelot pastiche, but Behr didn't feel this would provide very many opportunities to say terribly interesting things. And he's right, if not for the reasons he thinks he is: Behr says he made the switch because Michael Piller was a fan of Errol Flynn, and while that might be the case, this has the unintended side effect of equating the Enterprise crew with one of the most famous groups of romantic outlaw heroes in all of history.

Deeply ironically considering Behr is a creator who sees the Enterprise crew as the hatefully elite establishment, his final script for Star Trek: The Next Generation sets them as unabashedly anti-establishment figures. It's fun to contrast this then with the Original Series crew, who were often likened, albeit tacitly, with the ahistorical United States cowboy myth. Critics of Star Trek: The Next Generation love to point to how “renegade” and “maverick” Kirk and company were when compared to Picard's family, but we learned from “The Wounded” what a real Starfleet “maverick” would look like. Unlike the John Wayne archetype that Gene Roddenberry apparently thinks Captain Picard is who roams around doing whatever and whoever he wants answering to nobody, Robin Hood is a character who is staunchly on the side of justice for the oppressed underclasses in populist perception. He and his Merry Men, a travelling band, no less, stand up to fight evil authoritarians with wit and guile, bringing about a better world for all.

But also like Star Trek: The Next Generation, there are blind spots in Robin Hood's philosophy. There's the glossing over of the historical fact that King Richard the Lionhearted got his name because he thought he had been given a God-granted mission to kill absolutely every Muslim everywhere in existence so thus probably wasn't a “good and virtuous king”, unless you have an extremely frightening conception of what constitutes good and virtuous. There's also the fact King John was merely blisteringly incompetent, not evil and Machiavellian, a historical truth Robin Hood glosses over in the need to create clear-cut Good Guys and Bad Guys. But this also overlooks the reality of what Robin Hood actually is: Much like oral history, it's a folk tale that originates out of a fluid, living interaction with the past meant to help send a message in the present. Robin Hood is a genre and setting whose meaning countless authors have reinterpreted in their own ways: It's precisely the sort of thing Star Trek could become if we allow it to evolve in that direction.

In a more material sense, “Qpid” is a bit concerning because it's another sequel to something the show did last season. Serialized or arc-based storytelling is one thing, but I do think it's somewhat noteworthy to point out just how many of this type of story we've seen so far this year: I can grant that the creative team were probably proud of the work they'd managed in the third season and wanted to follow up on that, but it's frustrating to see how on the one hand they seem to be having a hard time coming up with genuinely *new* stories and on the other the direction they've chosen to go in building upon the old ones is stultifyingly dull and boring. Let's bring Vash back and put her and Picard in a love triangle. Let's throw some more unnecessary wrinkles into the House of Duras story to stall for time. Let's randomly name-drop Commander Bruce Maddox in “Data's Day” for no particular reason other than we can. Let's bring in the “real” Leah Brahms and make Geordi look like an idiot. Let's touch base with Barclay and give him a plot to steal the spotlight from the regulars (and I even *liked* “The Nth Degree”, but still).

What it's worryingly beginning to look like is that Star Trek: The Next Generation has once again creatively stalled a bit. As chaotic as the third season was and as much philosophical beef as I may personally have with it, it was at least prolific and thematically and tonally consistent. Now though, we seem to be content just to cautiously pick away at concepts we've already introduced and have explored to some degree already. We're still not quite hitting a baseline average where the show is consistently firing on all cylinders and challenging us on a weekly basis. And it's incredibly aggravating, because all the pieces are right there: It just takes someone perceptive enough to realise this and put them together. If this show wants to continue, and to continue to earn the populist clout it has, it needs a dramatic shake-up. Something is going to have to change pretty soon.

Vaka Rangi: Two Year Anniversary

The Dirty Pair, by Alan Gutierrez

My entire past year can be summarised in just one phrase.
Dirty Pair.
It was almost exactly a year ago today that I began my week-long miniseries on the history of professional wrestling to lead into my essay on The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair that would introduce Kei and Yuri and change the shape of this project forever. It was an intentionally cheeky move, I admit, and I took great pleasure in watching you all try and guess where on Earth I was going with that tangent. I enjoy making unpredictable moves like that and keeping my audience on their toes: Not only is it fun for me, but it keeps the project fresh and is a way of offering a subtle reminder that Vaka Rangi is meant to be far from another standard-issue history of Star Trek narrative.
But of course Dirty Pair was never an out-of-the blue, 90-degree turn for this project. Even though I've only been a fan of the series myself for the past three years or so, I've known about its existence, and its shared history with Star Trek, for decades. I've been dying to look at Dirty Pair from a Star Trek perspective, and vice verce, ever since I learned what huge geeky fans of the show Rick Sternbach and Mike Okuda were. The Long 1980s are an age where truths are conveyed through aesthetics, images and emotions, science fiction is a genre primarily about ideas and possibilities, anime is a medium particularly well suited to broadening the imagination through cinematography, and the fact that it was the two design illustrators who were the most profoundly affected brings it all back full circle.
The fact Dirty Pair turned out to be one of the single greatest and most personally meaningful bits of narrative fiction I've ever experienced in my life is really just icing on the cake.
Even though Dirty Pair was always going to be a part of Vaka Rangi in some form or another, I didn't originally mean for it become so pronounced that it would end up standing on equal footing with Star Trek: The Next Generation. When I first started, I figured I'd give Kei and Yuri a Sensor Scan post, maybe a few-One for each broad category of the Classic Series. Then when I started to actually watch it for research, I immediately realised the series was way, way too good to be relegated to the between-season errata: This was actually leagues better than the stuff I was actually treating as my case study. At that point I knew it would have to be one of the major pillars of Vaka Rangi Volume 3-The book I spent almost the entirety of this past year writing. Even then though I wasn't planning to serialize it on the blog: The decision to cover Dirty Pair episode by episode and bit by bit was made at literally the last possible moment when the traffic hits were coming in on the Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair essay and after I discovered the whole series was on YouTube and Hulu freely and legally thanks to Manga Entertainment.
I should mention that this all came at an uncannily appropriate time for me. As exciting as the past year has been from a creative perspective, in my personal life it's been defined by incredibly intense upheaval, trauma and turmoil. It's been Dirty Pair, and the Singularity Archetype I read onto it, that's helped me through much of the turbulence of the past 10 or 11 months. Because we know that while the Singularity looks like the apocalypse from below, it always signifies a change that is positive and uplifting for the universe on the whole. And we know that Kei and Yuri always leave a situation better than they found it, no matter the incidental destruction they leave in their wake. That's only partially why Dirty Pair has become so important to me (a lot of it is also due to its aesthetic imagery, how I relate to Kei and the ideals I project onto her relationship with Yuri), but it's the part of my connection to the series that's seemed to speak the loudest to me of late.
And yet it also worries me. Others have likened Kei and Yuri to the Tarot cards of Death and The Tower, which are themes I didn't expand on a lot personally but did acknowledge. And it's almost scary how much I see those themes manifesting around me: I sometimes fear that as long as I stay a devotee of the Lovely Angels, I'll keep invoking those destructive themes into my own life. But I can't stay away, precisely because of how much Dirty Pair has come to signify for me. So here we are a year onward, and Dirty Pair has inspired its own spin-off blog, looking at themes of emotion, energy, memory and forgotten futures. Right now, it's just a glorified mood room and place to host specific writing experiments of mine, but in the very near future it's going to serve as the home for a Dirty Pair themed project I've been planning on the side for over a year. I hope with it I can weave benevolent, constructive vibes and summer thoughts.
If you remember my anniversary post from last year (or go back through the archives to find it), you might recall I posted a rough outline for the various planned Vaka Rangi volumes, and that book three was supposed to have *three* pillars. One was obviously Star Trek: The Next Generation (or rather the first three seasons of it) and the second was soon to be revealed as Dirty Pair. But the third was actually going to be Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: I initially had plans to do serialized coverage of the entire manga series chapter by chapter, and that plan was in place as late as my not-review of the movie that following June. Back then I said it was my favourite movie of all time, and I think I still stand by that...But Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is a work I constantly have a hard time conceptualizing and articulating my relationship with, as is probably evidenced by the fact it's the one time I just flat out gave up and confessed it was impossible for me to write about.
It's one of those things I sort of forget precisely how important it is to me until I see it again, and then I feel awful for forgetting it. Even though I brought in a frankly ridiculous amount of metafictional, metaphysical, mystical and spiritualist themes into my reading of Dirty Pair, what Kei and Yuri represent for me has always been clear as day. As oversignified as Dirty Pair as a series is, I always find writing about it to be basically effortless-The work is already done for me because Kei and Yuri have so explicitly spelled exactly who they are and what they're about at every single level. All you have to do is pay attention and look for it. Nausicaä though is very different: I can't explain everything I see in it unless I just sit down and relate my entire life story, everything I've ever done (and why) and everything that's ever been important to me. I mean I do that to some extent on Vaka Rangi as is, but properly writing about Nausicaä would require getting even more autobiographical than I already tend to get here.
So that's part of the reason I scrapped the plan to do serialized coverage of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The rest of it is because it would have just made an already busy book even more overstuffed and because as much as I like it and as important as it may be to me (and as similarly influential on Star Trek: The Next Generation as it was), there's really not a whole lot in the way of the kind of utopianism Vaka Rangi is primarily interested in to be found there: That is, the motif of the voyaging starship. There is very much a case that could be stretched that Nausicaä is a traveller and people grow from their experiences with meeting her, but it's a slightly different setup than exists in the kinds of Star Trek I like, or even Dirty Pair for that matter (though the spiritual metaphors are similar). I wound up being able to say most of what I wanted to say about Nausicaä's link to Star Trek: The Next Generation in the essay on “Samaritan Snare”, and the rest I'm hoping to hit in “Tapestry”.
I of course have to talk about Star Trek: The Next Generation. The fact that we're finally in it means Vaka Rangi is right in the midst of what is without question the single most important historical period it's ever going to look at. For me, Star Trek is what existed between September of 1987 and May of 1994, and my personal story with the franchise does not meaningfully extend beyond those dates. I of course did the Original Series, the Animated Series and Star Trek Phase II and I'm obviously going to get to Star Trek Voyager and Enterprise, the latter of which will probably be when I get the most brazenly experimental I'm ever going to with this project, but they're ultimately background material for the true heart and soul of Vaka Rangi, which is where we're at right now. And yet this is also the very reason I can't talk a lot about Star Trek: The Next Generation here: Unlike Dirty Pair and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, this is something whose material artefacts I'm still actively thinking about and working through in the moment. The story of Star Trek: The Next Generation as it pertains to Vaka Rangi is far from over, in fact, in many ways it's only now beginning.
Strangely, even though I've been looking forward to this portion of the project since before I began it, it's also proven to be one of the most challenging sections I've done yet. There have been moments, most notably early in the first season, where I was uncertain about just how I should approach writing about Star Trek: The Next Generation, because its something that's really most meaningful to me in terms of aesthetics, memory and personal experience. I can do a rote pro-and-con analysis of each episode in my sleep, but that doesn't seem right to me and I feel it misses a lot of the fundamental truths about my history with the show I hope to convey. This was also not helped at all by my rediscovery of just how much of a slog I've always felt years 2-4 were.
Then there's the first season, which has always been the most ethereal and intangible for me; a set of ideals, images and vivid half-remembrances that exist well above and beyond anything the physical show ever did. In many ways that makes up the truest Star Trek: The Next Generation for me, and as tough to get a grasp on as it is I think I may have touched on it once or twice. Most notably, my essays on “Encounter at Farpoint” and “The Battle” spring immediately to mind as being ones I'm to date still the most proud of and that best encapsulate my thoughts and feelings about what Star Trek: The Next Generation has meant to me. Maybe “Yesterday's Enterprise” as well, which there was absolutely no way I could cover in any fashion resembling straightforwardly prosaic.
But now with Volume 4, we're well and truly reached the pinnacle of Star Trek's impact on me. Years 5-7 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where I basically think the show was pretty much firing on all cylinders regularly and consistently for three years straight, with its definitive cast and crew and most iconic set of stories. The tail end of season 4, which sets that up. What I consider to be *my* Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the purest demonstration of its purpose and potential: Its first two seasons (excluding “The Jem'Hadar”, which is thematically part of the third season, and a different show, even if it's not chronologically). The comic adaptations of both shows. The 25th Anniversary celebrations, the video games and the Playmates toy lines. Volume 4 is definitely going to be the most packed and Star Trek-heavy of the books, so some of you will appreciate that I'm sure. I'm really excited for this phase of the project, but also a bit intimidated: As has always been the case with Star Trek: The Next Generation I worry my words and their scope won't be enough to properly convey and do justice to my positionality.
(And really, as I intend to argue, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as originally conceived should really be read as the same show, or at the very least compliments or sisters.)
And oh yes speaking of books, I hope that by this time next year you will be able to have your very own physical copies of Vaka Rangi, just in time for Star Trek's 50th Anniversary. It's obviously the first volume that's the most important to get out as that's the one that deals with the Original Series and Animated Series, but I plan to get all the books out as soon as they're ready and not worry too much about setting exact schedules. Volume 2 will take the longest to revise as that book turned out unsatisfyingly short for me and I'm adding in an entire new section (as I'm not interested in keeping a ton of secrets where this is concerned anymore, I'll just flat out tell you all it's going to be on Super Dimension Fortress Macross). Each volume is also going to come replete with a slew of new, revised and extra content to hopefully make it worth your while to double-dip. This also means I'm going to be looking for designers and visual artists who might be interested in doing some cover art sometime in the next 12-18 months, so if you are one or know one who might be a good fit, please keep that in mind.
But lastly I want to extend a sincere thank you to everyone who's supported this project and who tunes in three times a week to see what I've come up with. I will never stop being stunned and amazed that people are actually interested in my extremely personal history with a long-forgotten old TV show and want to read what I have to say about it. Engaging with you all has been the most rewarding experience I've ever had as a writer, and I remember that each and every day.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

“For The Great Mouse Ancestors”: The Nth Degree

Here's another episode I never caught during Star Trek: The Next Generation's original run. In fact, I kind of went out of my way to avoid “The Nth Degree” because I always thought it sounded completely ridiculous, a suspicion not helped by the fact it's always represented in magazines and reference books by stills of the final effects shot; that of the Cytherian ambassador. An effects shot which calls to mind descriptors such as “amazing” and “incredible”, except not in their original unironic contexts. So the other night, I actually sat down to watch this episode critically for the first time.

It's actually not bad. But I was right about the effects shot.

“The Nth Degree” is in a lot of ways a response to the third season. There's Barclay back, of course, but it's also another “Let's Do” episode, much like “A Matter of Perspective”. In both cases, the tack the show takes this time around is a little bit more nuanced and appreciable than it was last year. We'll talk about Reg later, but the story we're “paying tribute” to this time is the award-winning science fiction short story Flowers for Algernon, about a janitor who undergoes a special treatment to rapidly raise his IQ, but it doesn't take. We've actually already looked at Flowers for Algernon once before, in the context of the Dirty Pair TV episode “The Little Dictator! Let Sleeping Top Secrets Lie”, which was likewise an “homage” to the original story. The thing about the Dirty Pair episode though is that it was, charitably speaking, a gigantic shitshow, with excruciating forced wackiness, horrible characterization of Kei and Yuri, casual racism and a plot so overblown and dense it forgot to actually be about anything.

“The Nth Degree”, thankfully, isn't, and from a plot perspective this is largely due to how it approaches its source material. “The Little Dictator! Let Sleeping Top Secrets Lie” tried to show how anyone who undergoes the same kind of procedure Charlie does in the original story would naturally try to take over the world, believing themselves to be superior to others (as Yuri memorably puts it, “Listen. All intelligent beings eventually grow tired of taking orders from idiots.”), but it ultimately gets lost in its own central conceit of having a fascist regime ruled by a clan of hyper-intelligent mice before it can actually take the ethical stand it needs to, which should have been a commentary on the privilege of education and the elitism that so frequently accompanies it. The show almost gets there, but I had to bring in Avital Ronell's reconceptualization of stupidity eighteen years ahead of time to redeem it enough to make its own point.

“The Nth Degree”, by contrast, drops all of the troubling connotations that would go along with a fixation on intelligence quotients to hone in on a different angle. It uses the Flowers for Algernon plot to explore what happens when a person undergoes a life-changing, transcendent experience...and then what happens to them afterward. This ties in tightly with very uniquely Star Trek: The Next Generation themes, in particular how we learn and grow through the experience of travelling and voyaging as part of a community. So Barclay is almost the perfect character for this setup, seeing as how overcoming anxiety and neurosis is such a part of who he is. And Dwight Schultz is unarguably brilliant here, pretty much stealing the show from everybody else hands down. And that takes a lot when you're dealing with this cast. But I was focused on him all throughout-The way Schultz portrays Barclay's “bad acting” through impossibly great acting is a masterclass of recursive performativity (and how cool is it that it's alongside Gates MacFadden's Doctor Crusher and her diegetic theatre?) and the way he conveys his steadily growing confidence and understanding is absolutely mesmerizing.

It should be said, however, that neither “The Nth Degree” nor “The Little Dictator! Let Sleeping Top Secrets Lie” truly engages completely with Flowers for Algernon. One of the major cruxes of the original story was the way people treat and act around neuroatypical people, or at least that was the idea. Trying to equate Barclay with Charlie in this regard strikes me as inadvisable, so it's a good thing “The Nth Degree” doesn't exactly do that. Instead, it tries to use the idea of greatly enhanced intellect as a metaphor for shamanic experiences: Barclay understands things nobody else can and tries to convey what he's learned to his friends and colleagues, with mixed degrees of success. There's a risk that in doing this here the story will put him above the rest of the Enterprise crew, and truth be known it is something of an inelegant affair: The rest of the crew alternates between being scared, suspicious or holding the idiot ball.

The most egregious scene is probably when Captain Picard freaks out when Barclay finds a way to bend space-time with his mind to instantaneously transport the Enterprise anywhere in the universe, even though The Traveller has already proven that this is possible, although a case could be made Barclay didn't do a good job explaining himself and what he was attempting to do. This reveals another angle we can approach this theme with, which ties into what the text itself seems to want to be about: The whole thing about shamanic experiences is that they're only the first step. The trick is how to incorporate them into your day-to-day life to sublimate our material existence in the physical world. Sometimes it takes us our entire lives to come to terms with this, and Deanna says as much in the denouement. This is something that comes naturally to the Enterprise, and while maybe it hadn't to Barclay before now, he's been healed by it and the point of his character has become to convey this on a textual, diegetic level. It's another recursive performance; a play-within-a-play that sheds greater light on how Star Trek: The Next Generation works, and it's very fitting that Dwight Schultz be the one to convey that.

The original Flowers for Algernon only looked at this in a fleeting, more prosaic sense. What Star Trek: The Next Generation brings to the table is a greater awareness of spiritual thought and its connection to the mind-expanding experience of travel. It's a far better way to engage with a pre-existing text than the stock “Let's Do”-type stories the show might toss out in its weaker moments. Meanwhile, the Dirty Pair episode got hung up on totalitarian mouse cabals, so it's telling progress that we now have an episode like “The Nth Degree”.

And actually, this is a far better way to introduce yourself to Reg Barclay than “Hollow Pursuits”, and given what an important character he's going to become over the coming few seasons, this is as good an introduction to him as exists. In spite of being an ostensible sequel and in spite of how much the writing staff talks up “Hollow Pursuits”, you don't need to see that episode at all to get into this one. It's a perfect example of how Star Trek: The Next Generation ought to work: Acknowledging the past every once in awhile, but never slavishly reiterating it or allowing itself to be subservient to it. Although that said, it is worth noting how many sequels we've seen this year, and we're about to hit the most cringe-inducing part of that trend. Funny thing for a show that supposedly prides itself on “not doing sequels”.

But even so, “The Nth Degree” itself definitely gets my recommendation.