Thursday, May 14, 2015
“Yoikes and Away!”: Qpid
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.