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.


  1. See, I can't watch this without factoring in shallowness and not just on the narrative level but also in the development of what it even is to be a symbiotic species like a Trill, because that means to the worm, there is literally a race of disposable people out there who line up to host him and essentially wipe out their own memories and for all intents and purposes, existence.

    Obviously the episode is flawed, and frankly the only part I found really compelling was that it gave Frakes something interesting to do by effectively playing another character in those negotiations. And it is an example of another episode where the B-Plot was totally interesting. Possible moon war because of one moon's greedy energy usage? How is that not relevant?

    But it pulls the rug out from under that in so many ill-thought ways.

    If Odan is in command of Riker's body, and uses it for sex, how is that not rape? Because Riker's a generally sexually liberated guy? Afraid not, bad writers. Because Riker had a latent attraction to Beverly too? Afraid not, bad writers. Because you needed a story beat that lets Riker have sex with yet another member of the crew? I'm not sure which is worse because by the end of this show there won't be a female crewmember in the core cast he hasn't slept with except for Tasha. The fact of the matter is, Riker sacrificing his body and mind, even temporarily, to save the life of a rare species (and save diplomatic relations) does not give Odan license to use Riker's body for whatever the fuck he wants.

    Unlike proper Trill, because I don't think we can reasonably retroactively even refer to this episode's species as a Trill at this point, Odan is effectively one of those noncorporeal entities from TOS that just takes over the body of one of the crew. Sure there's proper blood and guts surgery involved to make it so, rather than technicolor brain beams, but the morality is the same.

    So now Beverly's complicit in Riker's rape, too. And Troi pushed her into it. (And granted, that goes miles toward confirming a lot of my suspicions about the kind of psychic kink that Troi and Riker go for, but come on - that stuff is supposed to remain subtextual!)

    1. I never quite understood the full extent of the symbiont-host relationship. IT always bothered me that the host personalities seemed to be, essentially, extinguished by the joining, but the show was never entirely clear about it. That's a pretty horrifying thing, and I'm not so sure that they ever fully grappled with that implication.

    2. I mean DS9 pretty much tackles that head-on in their first season - what it means to be a symbiotic or dual-person, and everything from the emotional to the legal status of it. But the DS9 Trill are again, basically a wholly different thing than what Odan is here.

  2. "“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."

    Yep bullshit, bullshit episode too, and bullshit on Roddenberry's supposed 'utiopian vision' - it still really bugs me deeply how that whole idea has been retroactively created, thus wiping out all the great work done by others.

  3. I think you've missed the wood for the trees with this one for 'The Host'. I mean yes, the ending should be brought up, but I don't think it's homophobic to have a hetrosexual character not wish to get into a homosexual relationship. I mean yes it torpedoes the episode's theme about 'love being what's on the inside that counts' and Dr Crusher's excuse is complete rubbish (and would have worked the same as with a new male host which if that was the actual reason they were going for, they should have done) but I don't think anyone should ever criticise a person for NOT being bisexual!

    Obviously the question arises that since it is fiction, the writers could have easily chosen to make Dr Crusher bisexual, but that's another argument entirely. It's probably more relevant to trans issues, to be honest. Is it wrong for someone in a relationship to break off that relationship if their partner transitions to a different gender and they feel no attraction to that gender? I... don't know. It's probably worth more than a minute's screentime at least!

    The real massive red-flag issue I had with this episode is that Riker surrenders his bodily autonomy to Odan to enable him to i) survive long enough to get a new perminant host and ii) broker a peace treaty, and Odan immediately starts abusing Riker's body by hitting on Dr Crusher, and Dr Crusher responds (egged on by Troi!!) by reciprocating. I guess in Star Trek land, rape is fine if it's Riker being raped? No-one in the crew seems at the least bit concerned at this frankly shocking behaviour (and in 'Man of the People' the crew straight-up kill an ambassador involved in similar peace negotiations for violating Troi's bodily autonomy (the fact in that episode they treat those occurences as comedy, ugh, and only go after the ambassador when it's clear Troi is dying makes you wonder if everyone would have been happy leaving Troi a sex-crazed lunatic if she wasn't in mortal peril, by the evidence of this episode the answer is 'yes')

  4. So, thread necromancy and all, but I was just watching a video by Diamanda Hagan where she proposed that Picard's manhood (in a purely physical sense) was permanently lost when he became Locutus, and it got me thinking about this episode.

    Am I right in thinking Beverly Crusher the literally only character in all of Star Trek for whom we know from direct evidence that lack of a particular set of genitals is an absolute dealbreaker? I mean, sure, we know the general preference of lots of people, but I don't think there's ever been another scene where someone outright turns a proposition down on account of gender.

    1. That... is a hell of a thread necromancy.

      Surely Star Fleet medical could have easily given Picard his Picard back???

    2. The weird thing is, that is the only hole (snicker) I could come up with in the theory. (Turns out Q directly says that the Borg are genderless way back when they introduced them.)