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.


  1. My take on it was that I liked how it showcased Worf a lot from that point of view, but also from his recent history. He's been forced to disavow his seeking out of his heritage, so he'll turn back into his adoptive nation full-tilt, as well as echoing all the way back to Heart of Glory, because that Klingon dude was pretty explicitly saying the same kinds of things they were.

    Enterprise good, Federation bad. Yeah, we know.

    So Worf's usage, and Picard's speech at the end. Do they make the whole episode good? No, to be honest one of the dilemmas I have with a courtroom episode is that they're drearily boring affairs. This courtroom drama is inferior to the ethical highground of Measure of a Man, and inferior-er still than Menagerie, which was a two-parter rehasing an unseen pilot and still had a level of action, tension and anticipation, mystery, characters doing things.

    But this does mark another of the increasingly odd episodes where for instance, when I catch my sci-fi weened, now basically neoconservative (I've never been certain that these things are mutually exclusive, but that's a story for another fathers/sons episode, probably) father watching it, and I see him nodding in agreement with Picard because he gets the allegory, I can't for the life of me understand how he views current events. Which means that to me at least, slightly dreary except for a couple high notes, there's at least a degree of relevancy still to be had from this one.

    But if it's about any specific aspect, it's not so much the obvious McCarthy parallels, it's about legacy. Nora Satie's legacy, and how blinding that can be, to worship something, the way she worships everything from her father to her flag.

    Skepticism and Cynicism are old rivals.

  2. One of the things I found interesting about this episode and the one that comes later -- "Below Decks"? -- is that we as regular viewers see and empathize with the main characters in their adventures. But when those adventures are extracted and held up out of context in a courtroom situation or from the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern characters, then what we had agreed to see looks very different.

    It also reminds me a bit of the different ways shows like MASH would trot out different ways of telling a story, trying to find new perspectives from which to see the characters.

    (And of course, I write this having seen this episode only once on its first run. Such is internet commentary.)

  3. "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."

    Yep as you say there are whole swathes of other darker not exactly secrets going on where the Federation and Starfleet have behaved abominably towards other races.

    1. I will admit though as a teen I loved it the first time as it was pretty gripping in a way. But now it feels like a fake facade on a pretty dull building.

  4. This is right on. I never felt this episode was as challenging as it gets credit for, but I couldn't quite put into words what was wrong with it. An insightful critique.

    I liked this one when I first saw it, but I'm always gobsmacked to see it cited as an important, progressive episode much more often than "The Wounded," (or at least it seems that way). As you say, it's pretty weak tea in comparison to that one.