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.


  1. One good thing about TNG having become an established piece of pop culture is that we can understand the role of Lwaxana as a recurring character with her associated comedy tropes without having to sit through the mediocre episodes if we don't want to. Because when I watch an episode with my girlfriend on a lazy evening, how my Star Trek is consumed today, I look up which one I should see with reference to Wikipedia and you.

    So many people are media and trope literate that we can get the subtle recurring jokes of the character with some research to guide us. It isn't quite the same as having watched the whole thing sequentially, but when you don't have that kind of time, it schools you on what to anticipate so the divergences still intrigue you.

  2. One of the continually interesting things about the consumption and interaction with art is the ways in which our individual experiences with different books, plays, shows, etc. all impact the way we perceive and interpret new works--in a way we're all our own psychochronographers, travelling the history of a work through our own beaten paths and outlooks.

    All of which is a rather pretentious way of saying that when I saw this episode, the first thing I thought of was a musical. My background and passion has always been musical theatre, and there exists a particular one called Chess, about a championship during the Cold War between an American and Soviet player, where the main thrust of the plot centers around the Soviet player defecting from the Soviet Union after falling in love with the American's second. Complications ensue, and the Russians try a number of tactics to get him to come back, including sending a relative over to guilt him of his decision, and the show ends with him choosing to return to his country for the safety of his friends and his own personal wellbeing.

    Of course, the likelihood of the show having ever influenced a single writer on the show is absolutely nil, seeing as the musical ran exactly two months on Broadway and was never much of a critical or mainstream success, but I think it suggests some interesting parallels, and at least when I watched the episode, it had me thinking less of euthanasia and more of defections and their consequences. There's a part of me that might even try to argue it as an intentional allegory, were it not for the fact that this is 1991 and the Soviet Union is in the middle of falling apart (also, as you say, this is TNG and not the Original Series).

    Anyways, fantastic essay as always on one of my favorite episodes. I must confess it took me a long while to warm to Lwaxana, but this one made me outright fall in love with her character and helped me realize the possibilities her character offered when not reduced to the tripe of stuff like "Menage a Troi". This is a lovely, nuanced take on an similarly lovely, nuanced episode. Great stuff.

    1. Chess might not be as obscure as you think, though. It's what gave us the Murray Head song "One Night in Bangkok"

    2. Yeah, plus "I Know Him So Well", which was #1 in the British charts for a while (actually those two were I believe the last hit songs to originate from a stage musical, though I may be wrong on that). From what I know the show is huge in Sweden and the album at least is popular in the UK, but it's always been a lesser-known work in the states (particularly the Broadway version, which is the one with the closer parallels to "Half a Life").

  3. I really appreciated the earnestness that came with this episode being such an organic outgrowth of previous "Annual" episodes. We saw a similar subversion of expectations a few episodes ago with The Nth Degree, where it becomes clear with the Data's Day/Wounded Reboot that they'll no longer be content to use these Annual guests to further their stock origins. Well, except Q, sadly.

    This episode is notable for other reasons, too, of course. The truly excellent guest casting of David Ogden Stiers, as well as the short but totally promising casting of Michelle Forbes (I'm pretty eager to get into the time period when we've got the whole damn gang - Michelle Forbes, Colm Meaney, Rosalind Chao, Woopi Goldberg, and Denise Crosby all showing up in episodes), as well as the Kalon makeup, which is essentially the first appearance of (retroactively) the Trill.

    And while I know they used euthanasia for their hot button argument, but what this episode really always felt about to me was Retirement. Retirement is an interesting phenomenon - it's a very privileged entitlement. For instance, in my working class poor family it's practically unheard of. And in that way, forced retirement almost does seem like slow death - this is after all, a century (or was) where individuals (typically male, though by TNG time obviously female too) were really defining themselves by their work. Rendered irrelevancy makes it absolutely appropriate that it's Lwaxana, from the Old Generation, and Timicin dealing with this - and it's also entirely appropriate that Jean-Luc ironically can't get too deep into it - because as we continue to learn, through various means and motives, he's not a member of that Generation, even though he's from the in-between where he could've gone either way.

    Lastly I'll just say that for as much as this is Lwaxana's episode, it's a surprisingly good ensemble piece. Even as she owns the episode, there's no character that doesn't get something worthwhile to do. Oh, and her cheeky odd motherly nudge that Deanna could stand to get laid more seemed pretty ironic, too, for a telepath.

    1. Lovely piece: I've nothing to add!

      "(I'm pretty eager to get into the time period when we've got the whole damn gang - Michelle Forbes, Colm Meaney, Rosalind Chao, Woopi Goldberg, and Denise Crosby all showing up in episodes)"

      Well, everyone except Diana Muldaur and Suzie Plakson, sadly.

  4. I don't have too much more to add that hasn't been said above, especially by K.Jones - but what a beautiful story and Majel Barrett and David Ogden Stiers are amazing in this. Great storytelling and really using the framework of the series well for the kind of stories that can be explored.