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.


  1. It's funny too, that the giant Geordi problems only arise when they choose to spotlight him as an individual. As part of an ensemble, or a Data story, or a Barclay story, or an O'Brien story, Geordi's function is both obvious and effortless. So it always felt like in addition to just nerfing him into a harmless awkward nerd trope, they were also trying to give Geordi an "inner life" or interiority that just doesn't make sense. Of course he already has an inner life but as an extroverted educator, his inner and outer lives, his introspection and extrospection, are united.

    It only occurred to me reading this cluster article that I totally skipped Galaxy's Child. And it was an unconscious skip, too - I've rewatched critically every other episode this season, except for Devil's Due, which was a conscious choice.

    Identity Crisis I watched and enjoyed, though not uncritically. It has a nostalgia for me because I thought both the practical effect of the "creature" mutation was gorgeous even when I was a kid, but also the whole way Geordi treated the mystery as an engineering problem and the sheer terror I felt when I saw that extra shadow for the first time. That said, an old mystery of a previous ship's landing party episode like that doesn't feel like a "Geordi Story". It feels very Picardy, mildly Rikery, and particularly Beverlyish. (We'll get loads of "Riker's Past Comes Back" in the future, though.) It also is deceptively foreshadowing - because if you'd asked me before I started critically studying TNG, I'd swear that Identity Crisis was a sixth or seventh season episode.

    So we get to Mind's Eye, and I don't know what to think. Manchurian Candidate was obvious. Backdoor "myth arc" episode leading into Redemption was obvious. It's also almost obligatorily TOS in nature - this is an episode where Data could easily be Spock, Picard Kirk, and Geordi is in a predicament that even feels a little like the rare occasions where they ran Scotty through the grinder. Bones would've served the Counselor function. The rest - scheming Romulans and Klingon governors, comes with ease.

    It's funny for me to think of what is absolutely an attempt at a "myth arc" episode feeling awfully like "filler", but there you have it. Manufactured plot contrivance is feeling more and more like the hallmark of the Romulans, and I suppose we'll get into it later, but is writ pretty large just by the hows and whys of the existence of Commander Sela.

    1. The Romulan approach to politics and espionage seems to take "manufactured plot contrivance" as their mission statement. You can always depend on the Romulans for overly elaborate subversive scheming that has seemingly no concrete purpose other than demonstrating their power to mess around with their neighbours, like most espionage, really.

  2. If we took it (or frankly, the TNG writers room took it) as that it's all been a purposeful "fuck the Enterprise" job by Commander Sela all along, I believe the concept would've played well, actually. But that coming from a guy who thought Tasha should have been double-agent Sela all along.

  3. I continue to maintain that Denise Crosby's idea of what to do with Sela is the obviously correct one: reveal an elderly Tasha is still alive, have her *utterly* dismantle Sela's latest scheme, leading to Sela having a breakdown, then Tasha takes her in and helps her back to health.

    I think I've mentioned before that young me didn't entirely *get* that Geordi on Star Trek and LeVar Burton on Reading Rainbow weren't actually the same person, so I very much like your argument that they effectively are.

  4. As a British kid I had never seen Reading Rainbow and unfortunately was hoodwinked by the bas writing for Geordi's character. Having seen some Reading Rainbow and through my time with you blog Josh, thankfully I have a much better perspective on him now and he did deserve better stories.

    "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."

    This is the reason Galaxy's Child touched me (not the human plot), as I love it when the show touches the more cosmic realms.

  5. Having just watched Galaxy's Child... wow. Geordi should totally have lost his job or at the very least been investigated for his continued and unwanted harrassment of Dr. Brahms culminating in her discovery of the sexy hologram of herself. I suppose you could say it shows how a 'nice guy' could easily turn all stalkery (which is a good message for the nerd audience!), but then no, Leah has to apologise to Geordi in the end. Astonishing.