Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ship's Log, Supplemental: Gene Roddenberry

On October 24, 1991 Gene Roddenberry passed away.

It may seem strange to grant him an entire chapter in this book. Roddenberry has, after all been an undeniable presence since the very beginning of Star Trek, and no small amount of digital ink has been spilled on my part, or on the part of others, trying to piece together precisely who he was and what his contributions to Star Trek really were. I'm not going to do this every time a major creative figure exits our story permanently, but given the stature Roddenberry had, and to some extent still has, and the synchronicity of his death happening almost exactly parallel with Star Trek's 25th Anniversary, there's no way this was going to be seen as anything other than a massive event even among a 24-month year marked by massive events. There's only one other primary creative figure in all Star Trek who casts a remotely comparable shadow over the series' heart and soul to the one Gene Roddenberry does: He'll get his due when his own time comes (in fact he's in many ways *more* deserving of tribute than Roddenberry, a true unsung hero), but right now this is something that needs to be properly addressed for good.

From the beginning of Vaka Rangi, I have been exceedingly and harshly critical of Gene Roddenberry. I did not, I want to make eminently clear, start this project with a chip on my shoulder and an ax to grind. This was supposed to be a voyage of peace and understanding. And I went out of my way to be as even-handed about him as I possibly could in my inaugural essay on “The Cage”: That episode is, without question, Star Trek as Gene Roddenberry saw it. It's the purest, most distilled version of his original vision for what the series should be, and even though he had a ton of help cleaning it up and making it presentable from Bob Justman and Herb Solow, that remains plainly on display in the finished product. But the other thing about “The Cage” is that, unfortunately, it is fucking terrible. So that's also where things start to go wrong for both Gene Roddenberry and Vaka Rangi.

The period of the original Star Trek Gene Roddenberry was the showrunner for, from “The Corbomite Maneuver” through “Dagger of the Mind”, does not inspire confidence (with the extremely notable exception of “Balance of Terror”). Nor does the fact Roddenberry thought, for whatever reason, that “Mudd's Women” and “The Omega Glory” would have been suitable pilots for Star Trek. Once I started to actually dig into the behind-the-scenes history of Star Trek and actually cast a critical lens upon it, I discovered two things. One, I wish I had never thought to do that because the whole thing is way over my head and way too dangerous for me to me to even conceive of messing around with. And two, in the accounts from people who were closest to him, Gene Roddenberry comes across as a positively unlikeable person. Far from the singularly gifted visionary accepted history continues to paint him as to this day, those who worked with Roddenberry on the Original Series seemed to think he was an attention-hungry, domineering, misogynistic, thoroughly talentless hack and a pathological liar. And, well, the quality and content of the scripts that bear his name do little to refute that assertion.

It was at this point I realised my project was going to need to be way more contrarian and negative then I had ever feared. With the first volume I did set out to try and dispel some myths about Star Trek and get at the heart of what it really was...But as the true terrible reality of what that was going to entail began to sink in, it left me with mental scars I still bear to this day. I think Vaka Rangi lost something at that point, and you can probably track the exact moment in my writing when the full extent of what I'm in for and what I'm going to have to do hits me. Because there was no way I was going to let stuff like this go unchallenged.

The litany of Gene Roddenberry's faults should be fairly well documented by now. I myself have, at times, taken what could be construed as a kind of perverse cathartic glee in pointing them out. We all know how most of what was good about the Original Star Trek came from D.C. Fontana, Paul Schneider, Gene Coon, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and John Meredyth Lucas. Roddenberry's behaviour in the context of things like “Assignment: Earth”, both the abortive TV show and the Star Trek episode it became, are obvious and inexcusable. Add to this the fact that he was, even very late in life, an alcoholic and a womanizer who compulsively cheated on Majel Barrett and was perpetually stoned (no, really) and tried to lure people to his inner circle on the basis of his status, Star Trek's success and nude Beverly Hills pool parties...And one slowly begins to behold a picture of a man who doesn't exactly seem to deserve the status in pop culture history he still enjoys.

But as I've tried to make clear over the years, this is not a contrarian blog. I don't want to be down on absolutely every aspect of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry included. I'm firmly convinced there is true goodness in what Star Trek became, and I still remember those principles of Vaka Rangi I set out fresh-faced with years ago. I'm still looking for ways to bring them back somehow. And so I'd like to remind us all that when we think of Gene Roddenberry, though his vices must be addressed (maybe even brought to centre stage), we must also remember the side of him, also undeniable, that did really seem to understand what Star Trek had come to mean. Here was a man who once said “there is no more profound way in which people could express what Star Trek has meant to them than by creating their own very personal Star Trek things”.

In spite of what fans today think, Star Trek grew far beyond Gene Roddenberry. And I think this is something Gene Roddenberry himself was acutely aware of, especially as he neared the end of his life. While his initial pitch and writer's guide for Star Trek: The Next Generation is as much an endurance test in excruciating unreadability as anything else he penned, from the beginning he was steadfast in his belief that the utopianism he saw in the show was something worth fighting for. He wrote the better future fans of the Original Series saw in it and came to love into Star Trek: The Next Generation diegetically, and that might be the most important part of his legacy. Yes, this caused undo strain on the various creative teams deep in the trenches of the show's material reality (though this current one seemed to have a far more amiable relationship with him by the end), but for the first time in Star Trek's history failure was on them, not Gene Roddenberry. Because this time Gene Roddenberry was right. Utopia is worth fighting for.

A case could be made, and has, that the reason Roddenberry was so unwavering (some would say fanatical) on this issue was that because, as he came to grips with his own looming mortality, he wanted to see a world free of strife and conflict he knew he was never going to see in this life. Also, he was very probably literally losing his mind, growing actually senile and delirious all throughout his three year association with Star Trek: The Next Generation leading to his stroke and eventual death, which would sadly explain a great deal. But I'd like to think it might also have been because he had genuinely had his worldview changed, if ever so slightly, from his experiences with Star Trek fandom. He knew what Star Trek meant to people and could come to stand for, even if it wasn't the Star Trek he actually created. Gene Roddenberry learned from his own creation its most fundamental lesson and became a better person because of it. Maybe not an entirely good person, but a better one than he had been.

Maybe Gene Roddenberry's most important message can be divined from his final acts. Though he gave his blessing to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, telling Rick Berman and Michael Piller he wanted to hear more about it, he must have known that conversation was never going to happen and that he would never live to see the show. But he must have also known that the new show could not have been in better hands. As was Star Trek on the whole, because Star Trek now belongs to everybody. And as he himself had stated just a few years earlier in 1988 (as quoted by Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365)
“I would hope that there are bright young people growing up over time who will bring to [Star Trek] levels and areas that were beyond me. And I won't feel jealous of that at all...It'll go on without any of us, and get better and better and better. That really is the human condition-to improve.”

Sunday, June 28, 2015

“A sense of duty was my one intention”: The Game

Oh, hell no. Fuck this. Fuck everything about this.

It's never a good day when Wesley Goddamn Crusher shows up. Doubly so when he stars in a horrid piece of youth-hating reactionary drivel. It's bad enough he's back in insufferable early first season “Wesley Saves The Day by Out-Thinking the Ship Full of Trained Scientific Professionals” mode without the show then putting him in a plot reminiscent of a Bush-era After School Special.

“The Game” is about a bunch of aliens trying to hook the Enterprise crew on an addictive video game that's really a mind control device in disguise in order to spearhead an invasion of the Federation. And in 1991, at the height of Sonic the Hedgehog mania and the dawn of the fourth console generation, there's really only one fucking way to read that. Even though we've not quite arrived at the defining video game moral panic of the 1990s set in motion by Mortal Kombat and Doom, there was still mounting concern over the industry's rapid rise to prominence throughout the Long 1980s and “video game addiction” was certainly starting to become a popular buzzword and the hip new way for moral guardians to clutch their rosary beads and fret about the poisoning of the youth. And with this episode, Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show that had a not-insignificant level of clout with kids, is throwing its lot right in with them.

Although he makes overtures to Invasion of the Body Snatchers too, even writer Brannon Braga explicitly confirms this is what this episode is about. And of course it is. Literally, what else could it be about? And while video game addiction is an actual thing (in fact, it's probably way more of a thing now then it was in 1991), I do not want to hear the hyperconservative Long 1990s take on this issue ever again, and *certainly* not from Brannon fucking “I now write 24 and that awful fucking reboot of Cosmos” Braga. Don't get me wrong, the man's terribly underrated as a creator and has his talents (and we'll get to them in another season or so), but he doesn't make a convincing case for himself at all in his debut outing as a staff writer. Seriously, when your story makes Codename: Sailor V look progressive by contrast, something has gone irreparably off the rails somewhere along the way.

Ashley Judd is in this episode. She is good. That's all I have to say about that.

I suppose I'd better provide some background context to all this for those reading who didn't live through more video game hardware cycles than they'd care to admit or spend way too much of their free time in a Sisyphean endeavour to write about the industry positively and productively. The transformation of video games as both a medium and an industry over the course of the Long 1980s is an interesting one (Well, to me it is at any rate): To start out with, and I know how hard this is to believe looking at them today, but video games actually started out as a pastime for active social adults. The earliest arcade cabinets were placed in bars alongside pinball machines and were intended for short bursts of electronic entertainment. The Atari 2600, the most successful of the alums from the first two generations of home video game consoles, was expressly marketed towards adults (one memorably embarrassing interview with Atari ended with an exec making a statement that the reason they made more games then consoles to play them on was because they figured people would want a second copy for their ski lodge).

That changed when, for a myriad of complex factors including, but not limited to, a series of cataclysmically boneheaded business decisions, Atari folded in 1983. Because they had a near-monopolistic hold on the industry (while they had competitors, none of them were every really viable as such), Atari took all of home console video gaming with it. When Nintendo, who had found wild success with video games in Japan, tried to break into the US market two years later, they were cautioned that the US didn't actually have a video game industry anymore and that they would have to take a different approach. So they positioned their Family Computer system as a hot new children's toy, with prominent and highly publicized demo kiosks in places like Toys R Us, and renamed it the Nintendo Entertainment System for its North American release. The gambit paid off though, and Nintendo effectively took over Western pop culture and ruled over it from about 1985-1992.

(If you couldn't tell from the implications of Nintendo's behaviour, the Japanese video game industry was, and still is, extremely different from its counterpart in the US, and the same is true for Europe as well, actually. Neither region had a “video game industry crash” like the US did, for one, but that's not the only reason. Doing a full cultural comparison about why the three major video game industries are so wildly disparate from each other is beyond the scope of this essay, but basically each market associates video games with different things: Video games are linked in Europe to computer hobbyism and bricolage couture, in Japan to lifestyle and fashion and in the US, thanks to what Nintendo pulled there in 1985, to children's toys. Nowadays though the US industry seems to prefer to draw its biggest comparisons to Hollywood and the Cannes Film Festival, but that's another rant.)

So what you end up with, at least in the United States, is a situation where an entire multi-billion dollar industry has been poised as something needing always to be in the interests of “the children”. And in 1991, you had the unfortunate synchronicity of the industry needing a generational hardware shift while being intensely scrutinized by an audience who had no idea how the industry worked or why generational shifts are a necessity. I, uh, should probably explain that too, huh? Alright, so home console hardware runs on a five-year cycle, and every time that cycle comes up manufacturers basically *need* to release a new machine. This isn't because they're evil and greedy and want us to throw out perfectly good computers to buy something new and shiny, or at least it isn't just because of that (and anyway, a true video game connoisseur never parts with hardware-They know that each and every console is special, unique and historically important and offers experiences no other console will ever be able to).

The real reason console manufacturers do this is because of the mess Atari made of the US market in 1983. If there had been other viable competitors to pick up the slack and inherit Atari's audience when the 2600 wore out its welcome and went belly-up, the industry wouldn't have collapsed. Indeed, if Atari had managed to release *viable successor* to the 2600 themselves, they wouldn't have had that problem (they made halfhearted attempts at this with the Atari 5200 and the Atari 7800, but have *you* ever heard of the Atari 5200 and the Atari 7800?). Because of that, console manufacturers began to reason that each machine has about five years of life and goodwill in it before it starts to feel long in the tooth. At that point, they release a new console that is closer in spec to what the newer personal computers have to offer so the industry and the medium will, hopefully, continue to grow and evolve. And this is reasoning that still holds true to this day.

In 1991, we were at the transition point from the third console generation to the fourth. SEGA had thrown its hat in the ring early in 1989 with the Mega Drive (known in the US as the Genesis) and was making quite a lot of waves, especially with the aforementioned Sonic the Hedgehog, which released in 1991 and promptly proceeded to take over the world. Nintendo followed suit the same year with the Super Famicom, A.K.A. the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The problem was that with the new video game industry the NES had created, the average consumer didn't know what was going on. As far as they were concerned, Nintendo were trying to brainwash and fleece kids by making their parents buy a frivolous and unnecessary upgrade to a machine they'd already bought. And then there were the think pieces. Good Prophets were there ever think pieces.

Funny you don't hear that sort of talk anymore these days about all those Apple products, which, unlike video game consoles, *actually are* made with planned obsolescence in mind.

So this is the climate “The Game” is coming into, and it's every bit as ignorant and paranoid as all the rest of the public discourse about video games at the time. I'm not even going to dignify its stabs at critiquing “video game addiction” with a real response, because it basically doesn't. It is true that a certain kind of arcade game template does feed on addiction cycles: The idea is, after all, to get players hooked so they'll keep pumping fistful after fistful of quarters into the cabinet, and a strong case could be made that this is where video game difficulty comes from. And don't get me started on exploitative “free-to-play” mobile apps, browser games and massively-multiplayer online role playing games that encourage gold farming, though none of those are things Brannon Braga could have been aware of in 1991. Hell, I doubt he was aware of actual home console games of the time.

There is a criticism to be made about that sort of thing, as well as the mindset it preys on. But “The Game” absolutely doesn't do that. If you want an actually intelligent and thoughtful examination of compulsive gaming and how addiction cycles can be used as a form of social control, I cannot recommend Haruka Takachiho's “And So, Nobody's Doing It Anymore”, which is Episode 5 of Original Dirty Pair, highly enough. Check it out. It's brilliant, it's hilarious and it has Mughi cosplaying an off-brand Super Mario.

Not this. This is shit.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

“It's all gone wrong”: Disaster

Well, the obvious joke to make is that the title is incredibly fitting.

But aside from being facile, that would also be a bit unfair. This episode isn't a complete hangar fire: It's got a cool setup and a few memorably defining moments for Captain Picard. A Star Trek: The Next Generation genre romp send-up of disaster movies had a lot of potential, even if it is still the sort of thing the Dirty Pair TV show could do way more intelligently in its sleep on an off day. There's a discussion to be had about how challenging this series is finding it to do just plain “fun” episodes every once in awhile, both due to external fan pressure to be “serious” and due to the fact that, frankly, I think this creative team is pretty poor at comedy (which is almost criminal considering the cast are comic geniuses). That's not the discussion for today though, because that's not the main problem. There are, however a *lot* of things conceptually wrong with “Disaster” on a number of different levels, and the combined weight of them all sadly scuttles it.

Let's talk about the good first. Captain Picard's scenes where he's stuck in the turbolift with a group of little kids are genuinely heartfelt and touching. It should be said the subplot is not quite as originally conceived: Ron Moore (who didn't write the story, but liked the idea and adapted it into a teleplay) said he had them stranded in the turbolift because he actually wanted it to be raining. Moore had been reading about the hangar where NASA built the Saturn V rockets, which were so tall that clouds would actually form in them and start raining. Moore thought that the Enterprise turbolifts were of comparable height and that, with no power, it might start to rain in there too and that lightning might arc across the metal siding. Unfortunately, doing live water special effects on set is a logistical nightmare, so that part of Moore's treatment had to get cut.

But even though the segment isn't as dramatic and impressive as it could have been, it's still an unquestioned highlight. You would think, the way the episode is set up to put the crew in situations they're uncomfortable with so we can watch them fail (more on that later) and Picard's famously known dislike of children, that it's going to end up a comedic runaround of forced awkwardness, and there is a little of that. But what there's a lot *more* of is Picard slowly coming to respect, understand and actually *like* these kids. Patrick Stewart can't help but play gentle and supportive, and it's impossible not to smile at the sweetness of Marissa becoming the new “Number One” or Patterson becoming “executive officer in charge of radishes”. For a show that we're trying to claim works by children's television logic on at least some level, it's nice to get a kind of diegetic nod to that here.

There are some other nice bits here too. Commander Riker carrying Data's head around is obviously a laugh riot, but what struck me more was Geordi and Beverly's subplot. Namely, that it's bloody fantastic, and you honestly have to wonder why the show hasn't thrown these two together before. René Echevarria can talk all he wants about not knowing what Geordi and Beverly would have to talk about to each other, but the evidence is clearly against him because they make a terrific team here. And why wouldn't they? Geordi is the chief engineer and in a fair and just world, Doctor Crusher would be the Enterprise's science officer, because when she's used to her potential that's the role she effectively plays anyway. Putting them together nets you no less then Star Trek: The Next Generation's scientific power couple, and this kind of thriller plot is practically custom tailored for them. Actually, a good 70% of Data's plot responsibilities on this series as whole, especially vis a vis interacting with Geordi, could just as easily be handled by Doctor Crusher.

Then, sadly, there's the bad. Which is everything else. Firstly, Worf's plot with Keiko O'Brien is unwatchable, I don't care how iconic it is in the fandom. Keiko is once again a stock sitcom wife archetype in an embarrassingly stereotypical and sexist giving birth story. One imagines that had it been Miles instead of Worf she'd be saying something along the lines of “You did this to me!”. Worf is no better, mind: He may not be a trained midwife, but I have a hard time believing someone of his age and experience would be entirely clueless as to how this process works. If Keiko is the stereotypical sitcom wife, than Worf is the stereotypical sitcom husband: Comically baffled by the strange and mysterious workings of the female body. Ugh.

Then there's the bridge crisis story, and that's where things *really* start to go wrong for “Disaster”. The implicit point for this whole episode is to put the crew in situations they're uncomfortable with so we can watch them screw up and fall on their face. There's that Ron Moore cynicism and mean-spirtedness again, but that's a given at this point. Most of this episode actually hedges against this rather well: Most notably in that Riker and Data work together all the time and Geordi and Beverly turn out to make an absolutely killer team. And Patrick Stewart turns a bit that could have gone a different way entirely into a really touching and resonant character moment among an ensemble vignette. But the skeleton crew on the bridge do not get this luxury, and Deanna gets it the worst: Continuing our theme of “let's shit on Deanna Troi”, the ship's counselor is depicted as being haplessly and woefully incompetent in a command situation, her feeble feminine mind apparently incapable of handling things like hard science and being forced to make stressful decisions. This would lead Marina Sirits to angrily fume and openly wonder if Troi slept through the command classes at Starfleet Academy.

The obvious mud-slinging and sexism aside, Deanna's not the only one who gets badly shafted here. So does Ro Laren who, in her first regular appearance, takes it upon herself to whine and complain and just be an insubordinate pain in everyone's ass. It's strange, as in “Ensign Ro” she was pushing Mary Sue territory, but here she basically exists to be wrong and make Troi look underestimated. Had this been another character, like Christopher Hobson from “Redemption II”, Logan from “The Arsenal of Freedom” or the conspiracy theory nut from “Night Terrors”, and had Deanna herself not been given the humiliation conga this *might* have worked, but as it stands “Disaster” manages the impressively dubious (and clumsy) feat of assassinating two major female characters with one sleight while trying to develop them both, one of whom is a brand new addition.

Michael Piller himself actually spoke out about this issue, but was apparently shot down. Of Ro's plot here, he says
“We gave her the role of the disbeliever who had nowhere to go but lose in the end because she didn't believe Troi. I think, as I wrote in a memo, it would have been much better if she'd been around a year with some victories before we threw her right into that situation to look rather foolish. And I didn't like the moment where she had to come back and say, which was almost the same arc as that character [sic: Hobson] in the opening [sic: “Redemption II”] who apologized to Data, 'Gee, you were right, Counselor and I was wrong, and I respect you.' To me, after Troi made the right decision in a crisis, Ro's character, and I'm not sure if anybody would agree with me on this, would have said, 'You still could have killed us and I still think I was right and you're just lucky it came out this way.' That's the way I would have ended it with her. The bridge sequence was my least favorite part of the show because it seemed very predictable to me.”
Well, *I* agree with Micheal Piller, at least this time. As much as I don't like to have the crew fighting with each other (there are other ways Ro could have been made “edgy” apart from the rote and facile one), that is how her character would have responded given what we've seen of her thus far.

The other little added level of irony is that, no matter how you look at it, Ro is actually right, and furthermore, she probably should have been the one in command. Even Moore himself points out in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 that Deanna technically shouldn't have been next in the chain of command because she's a medical officer, pointing out how we never saw Doctor McCoy in command on the Original Series even though he outranked Sulu (Doctor Crusher is, as we will eventually learn, an exception, as she's both a medical officer *and* a command officer, as well as the Enterprise's designated night shift captain). Given Miles O'Brien is a chief petty officer, Ro is the next highest ranking officer in that scenario so, realistically speaking, command should fall to her. The writers bent the rules for dramatic effect, and everyone turned out worse off for it.

The only positive I can tease out of Ro's portrayal in this episode is that here begins the somewhat delightful trend of making her the Enterprise's resident deadpan snarker. Though it has a whiff of 90s-ness about it, the part suits her well. And I did chuckle at her exchange with Miles and Deanna:
Miles: “If it falls to 15%, the field will collapse and we'll have a containment breach.”
Deanna: “Which means?”
Laren: “Which means the ship will explode.”
It frustrates me that this part of the episode is as bad as it is, because there's actually a lot to like here. In a lot of ways “Disaster” really is showing how seasoned and comfortable Star Trek: The Next Generation has become, but only to a point. A lot of the same provincial mistakes and assumptions this creative team have making over the past year are still plainly evident, and this is becoming a real concern for me going forward. Something to remember about this team is that, apart from the producers, everyone on staff is extremely young, no older than their late-20s. None of them have had professional writing experience before Star Trek, and you have to wonder how much of what's going on is due to inexperience and a general lack of worldliness. But there's an undeniable abundance of raw talent too, and we can only hope that will win out in the end.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

“Heart of Ice”: Silicon Avatar

Time for another of our semi-regular “Everyone else hates this story but I like it” essays!

“Silicon Avatar” is an episode that, to my knowledge, does not have a terribly good reputation. To be fair, I don't get the sense it truly is outright hated; it's more like nobody really talks about this one all that much. Though that said, Brent Spiner doesn't like this outing, and Michael Piller said he was disappointed with the execution. I can't see the criticism myself: I'd hesitate to call “Silicon Avatar” a classic, but it's an incredibly solid effort and another very good “model average”. That is, this is the kind of story Star Trek: The Next Generation should be shooting for on a week-to-week basis. It works, and it doesn't horrifically betray the show's core values in any way. Which is kind of refreshing: We don't seem to get a lot of these in Star Trek.

But maybe that's telling. “Silicon Avatar” is, obviously, Moby-Dick in Star Trek again. What's notable about this is that it's the only time Star Trek will ever actually *succeed* in adapting Moby-Dick apart from the first, which was, of course “The Doomsday Machine”. The reason these two episodes work while “Obsession”, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek First Contact don't is because it makes Captain Ahab a guest character who comes to the Enterprise to work through their issues instead of saddling one of the main characters with this story. Also, they're not infuriatingly pretentious and don't feel the need to shove their perceived cleverness and self-absorbed middlebrow intellectualism down our throats every five minutes. And (if you can stretch your memories all the way back to the first book), just like “Silicon Avatar”, “The Doomsday Machine” was an exceptional episode that really shouldn't have been: It was the story that should have characterized the second season of the Original Series on balance.

It also probably says something, however, that “Silicon Avatar” is seen as middling and marks an important distinction between the Original Series in its second season and Star Trek: The Next Generation in its fifth. And what it says is that this is already shaping up to be one hell of a year: Yeah, last episode was something of a misfire and so's the next one (and the one after that, actually) but these are aberrations. From here on out all the way until 1994, Star Trek will pretty much be jumping from peak to peak.

Another mark of the maturity Star Trek: The Next Generation can and should bring to a story like this shows in the way Doctor Ahab Marr is depicted. This is a genuinely tragic character whose fall from grace here packs a true emotional punch. Jeri Taylor, who wrote the teleplay, felt that this was a very important story to tell and threw herself into the writing process so much she found it mentally distressing. Of Marr, Taylor says
“I wanted to do it because I felt – being a mother and a woman – I could identify with what would have to be the worst kind of loss anyone could ever suffer, which would be the death of a child. I was really able to tap into those feelings and tell a story about a woman whose vendetta over the loss of her son ruined her.”
The show has had great success hoisting the dramatic crux of its stories onto guest stars before (c.f. “Half a Life” last year), and really Star Trek itself always has (thinking back to this story's obvious antecedent in “The Doomsday Machine”). With “Silicon Avatar” though, Star Trek's diegetic and extradiegtic utopianism are in sync in a way it never was on the Original Series. Hell, even Star Trek: The Next Generation struggles with this.

The other angle is, of course, the utopian one. Namely that while the world of Star Trek is an idealistic one and while the Enterprise crew may be role models and teachers, the ship is still an enclave and sanctuary within its diegetic universe and it can't save everyone all the time. The crew go out of their way to help Marr move beyond her grief and self-loathing over her son's death and her hatred of the Crystalline Entity, and Marr even is able to shed her distrust of Data and form a close bond with him. But even that's not enough, and it's her very relationship with Data that sends up warning flares to us-Clearly, she's projecting onto him and is trying to visualize him as a replacement for Renny. So when she betrays them all in the climax by killing the Entity just when they had opened a line of communication with it, this hurts even more and stuns the crew into silence. The death of the Crystalline Entity remains one of the most memorable and tragic moments in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation for me.

Speaking of, I do think there's maybe a slight logical and thematic hiccup on this frequency in regards to Commander Riker. Obviously he's set up as the counterpoint to Doctor Marr here-He's lost someone close to him thanks to the Entity too, and while he agrees it's dangerous and the crew should be prepared to do whatever it takes, he doesn't specifically want to hunt it down and kill it. Problem is, I don't think this point is made quite as clearly as I think it needed to be, and I'm of course thinking of the ready room scene. Captain Picard questions whether Will is being biased by personal feelings in his judgment and Will...doesn't really have a comeback. I don't think he is, but the script doesn't really give him the opportunity to prove it. He needed a line somewhere where he clarified his position a bit better, something like “I agree we should attempt to communicate with the Entity, but I think we should keep in mind we're dealing with a very dangerous creature here with the proven capability to inflect death and destruction at an inconceivable level. I think we need to proceed with extreme caution”. Certainly, Will is just as shocked and hurt by Marr's betrayal at the end as everyone else.

Because that's straightforwardly the correct mindset to approach this situation with, and it was the intended meaning of that subplot according to director Cliff Bole. Responding to the argument articulated by Doctor Marr (and apparently a good deal of fans) that Captain Picard's plan was “wildly optimistic”, Bole said
“It's not, if you can control the fact it won't happen again, and I think Picard made it clear that he wouldn't destroy anything until it was explored. And it did finally show that it had another side, and I think that's what he was saying. It can be characterized with modern society's attitude, 'Let's make sure we're not making any mistakes,' knowing full well they can handle it if they were wrong.”
(I'll also point out that, the fridging of Carmen aside, my other issue with Will's plot here is that he's back in Space Age Sex Tourist mode, which for me stings a bit coming so soon after “Thin Ice”.)

But even taking all those quibbles and complaints into account, “Silicon Avatar” is a damn fine outing as far as I'm concerned. If this is going to be the average quality going forward, which it is, we're in remarkable shape indeed.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

“Deep and Confused”: Ensign Ro

Three words, heard only in hushed whispers. Deep Space Nine.

It would of course be unfair to say that Ro Laren and her namesake episode only exist to set up the forthcoming fourth Star Trek series. Star Trek can and will get that cynical, and it is true that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was well into pre-production by this point. It had a name and a setting-a space station adrift near the formerly occupied planet of Bajor, a planet whose people and history are introduced here. It would probably be more accurate, however, to say that Bajor and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were ideas developed concurrently. And while certainly the possibility was always there that Ro might get spun off as the lead of the new show, “Ensign Ro” itself is no backdoor pilot: This story, and its titular character, absolutely belong to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and with Michelle Forbes now officially onboard, the Enterprise family is finally complete (or, at least as complete as it's going to get on television at any rate).

Before we move on though, it may be worth it to take a little time to talk about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as it's the more or less open secret that will be swirling around the Paramount lot for the next year or so. In 1991, then studio executive Brandon Tartikoff, whom savvy readers will remember as the former NBC exec who is credited with pitching the concept of Miami Vice (it wasn't him, but rather Anthony Yerkovich, though Tartikoff was involved in the initial production) approached Rick Berman and Michael Piller with the idea of doing a new Star Trek. The impetus was, simply put, that Star Trek: The Next Generation was a $25 million-a-year cash cow that couldn't run forever. Paramount hoped to effectively double their profit margins by having two Star Trek shows airing simultaneously, and the idea was that this new show would run alongside The Next Generation for several years (the exact number is never given in official histories, but it seems reasonable to assume it would have been another five seasons) and, when its older sibling finally went off the air, the Star Trek mantle would then fall to it.

As calculated as the move may have been, this did not dissuade Berman and Piller from pouring their heart and soul into the project. They strove very hard to come up with a show that would both thematically compliment Star Trek: The Next Generation and allow it to do things creatively they currently couldn't do, or had a hard time doing (including, naturally, the Almighty Conflict, but that's a rant for another night). Pretty much immediately the decision was made that the new show basically had to have a stationary setting, because it wouldn't be right to have two suspiciously similar shows about voyaging starships happening at the same time. That setting would need to be a space station too, as marooning the new cast on a planet would be a bit boring. A space station would also allow the show to explore the concepts of multiculturalism, diversity and community building as it would essentially be a city in space.

Around about the time the name Star Trek: Deep Space Nine began to stick, the idea was hatched to build the show around Bajor, a damaged world in the process of transition following decades of oppression and displacement that had just recently been introduced in this episode. Bajor would help bring to the show themes of healing and rebirth which are, as Michael Piller would stress, truly “Star Trek themes”. He and Rick Berman sat down with Gene Roddenberry one day to discuss all this with him, and explained that if the original Star Trek was a “Wagon Train to the Stars”, then Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would be a “Fort Laramie in Space”, a kind of science-fiction frontier town (neither of these descriptions are remotely true or accurate, but that's beside the point). Roddenberry reportedly said that he thought it was a “wonderful idea” and that they'd have to “talk much more about it” sometime. Unfortunately, that sometime never came.

(Trekkers, of course, were none too keen on the idea: Even Ron Moore and Naren Shankar, barred by Paramount regulations from knowing more than the bare minimum about the project, would joke to each other about about being confused as to whether the new crew were “going to wait for adventure to come to them”. But that's a story for Another Time.)

It is entirely fitting that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine should exist here, in Star Trek's 25th Anniversary year. A year which in truth is more like two years and lasts well into the waning quarter of 1992. Time has become freed from the shackles of illusory linearity and past, present and future are free to coexist together as one.

Which is just as well because, unfortunately, being oversignified is just about all “Ensign Ro” itself has going for it. It's saved solely by virtue of how astonishingly good Michelle Forbes is and how quickly she acquits herself to the cast dynamic. From the very outset there are problems here as Ro is clearly intended to “shake up” the supposedly stolid Enterprise crew by adding the precious conflict (Rick Berman even admits as such, stopping just short of calling the regulars boring and dull). This more than anything else is the part of the episode that anticipates Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, where Berman and Piller will start out positively tying themselves in knots trying to find ways for the crew to yell and scream and hate each other (delightfully, the show itself will flatly resist them at every turn from the outset). It's once again a very juvenile, third season conception of how dramatic conflict in narrative works and it does the Enterprise crew no favours . In fact, I don't think they've ever been made to look as bad or as hypocritical as they are in this episode, except perhaps in those movies we don't talk about.

Captain Picard is the epitome of the authoritarian military taskmaster and is shockingly unlikeable all throughout, being just awful to Ro. The scene where he briefs her in the ready room still stands out to me this day as quite possibly the single moment I despise the most in the entirety of Star Trek: The Next Generation for the tone he takes alone, and that's before you get at the very justified criticism that is frequently raised against it: Namely, in all the thousands of cultures the Enterprise is in touch with, not to mention the extensive diversity of human society itself, nobody ever once met somebody who put their family name first? That's inexcusable, plain and simple. And then the business with the earring. Ro can't wear it, yet Worf can wear his ceremonial sash, Captain Picard can wear his suede vest and Deanna Troi can strut around in scoop-neck space pyjamas? What the hell? Then there's the whole can of worms with Commander Riker, which I don't even want to get into yet. Even Guinan very blatantly invades Ro's privacy.

Ro is the only sympathetic and competent  character in the entire piece, and while she is going to become a main character by mid-year, remember right now Michelle Forbes technically still a guest star. Astonishingly, Berman and Piller's own character has done the very thing they're so quick to criticise up-and-coming freelancers for doing: Upstage the regulars.

There's a plot point about a corrupt Starfleet admiral secretly conspiring with the Cardassians against the Bajorans, but it's too little too late and nowhere near as toothy a critique of Starfleet as what this show has done before. It's certainly not enough to undo the character assiasination of the Enterprise crew. We're all well aware by now of the obvious ax this creative team has to grind with the characters, setting and philosophical framework of Star Trek: The Next Generation. You've made your point, many times in fact. It's now gotten old, tiresome and obnoxious. Grow up, shut up or ship out. We know you're capable of better than this.

I mean there is of course Bajor and the Cardassian occupation, which is obviously a stroke of genius. Bringing the Cardassians back cements their status as the new rival faction, and the Bajorans' painful history of them is a perfect allegory for oppression and displacement of all kinds: The Bajorans do not stand in for any one marginalized ethnic group (nor were they ever intended to), but parallels can be drawn to the consequences of countless imperialistic and despotic occupiers throughout history working to silence the voices of others and remove their agency. This strength of concept is what gives Star Trek: Deep Space Nine such a profound and timely setup right out of the gate, as this combined with its stationary setting allows it to seriously examine the effects of post-colonialism and globalization on a grand sci-fi-fantasy scale.

But I'm getting carried away with myself.

I really am just tempted to keep talking about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine here because apart from setting it up, bringing Michelle Forbes into the family and the future knowledge that Ro Laren is going to get much better material soon, I honestly can't recommend this at all. It's one of the fifth season's rare low points, and it's just a shame it's such a crucial episode for continuity and world building purposes, let alone the fact it comes in the wake of a story that can make a serious case for itself as being the single greatest in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both Ro Laren and Michelle Forbes are way too good to get this as their debut episode. Frankly, *everyone* is too good for this. It's a waste of the talents and chemistry of every involved party.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

“We are all stories”: Darmok

Shaka, when the walls fell.

We have time again before the solar tide turns. What would you like to hear? I'll tell you the oldest story I know. Two women, alone on a beach, around a fire.

And then it began again. Leah walked with starlight. She makes her rounds across the sky every night, just as she always has, and you can see her if you gaze into the heart of the galaxy. Captain Picard came to her and asked if he might walk as she did, and the two set off together telling each other stories. Captain Picard asked Leah “Please tell me about the stars”. But Leah spoke in the language of dreams and memory, not of tongues, and couldn't rightly answer Captain Picard's question to his satisfaction. But Geordi La Forge, a wise and clever man who could see beyond into The Way Things Make Themselves Appear, understood Leah and spoke words to represent the things she had dreamed. “It's like the stories we were told long, long ago,” Geordi would say. “The stars are our ancestors, and they've seen all these things before. We turn to them and become them in order to live our lives, for they have lived them before us”.

Geordi could see that appearances were not deceiving and that facsimile was not trickery. He knew that wisdom lay within learning to love the beauty of the show, but these were thoughts that troubled Data, son of data. “I do not understand, Geordi. My programming indicates that there is Truth, certitude, and that there is then Illusion, unreality. I shall endeavour to Change My Own Name to compensate”. “That's Bynar comfort, D. The truth is in the telling: It's all how you look at it”. “But, if I observe a thing, does that not indicate that the thing does in fact tangibly exist?” “Exactly”. That was the story of how Data learned to create reality. There's more to the story, but that's for Another Time. You probably want to hear more about our stars.

This is the story as I know it, you have to understand. Every storyteller has their own being-becoming, and this is mine. But I don't think you mind. A long time ago, when the world felt new again, we looked to the stars to guide our course. We were one in those times and lived waking dreams that played out into infinity in all directions. If you look up at the stars tonight, maybe you can feel yourself reconnecting with a part of you and I that exists in another timespace. Can you? Invoke not just your memory, but your memory of existing as a memory. Do you remember that we used to talk through the energy of the visions we beheld? Can we couple once more with that which we used to see, and The Way We Used To Be Seen? This are the questions Captain Picard wanted The Answer to. Geordi and Leah consulted for awhile, but the best they could come up with was the story of somebody else.

Leah pointed to two stars in the sky around them. Geordi said that these were his favourite stars, because they were angels of Love, and that they were named Kei and Yuri. Data, son of data, dutifully pointed out that the myth corresponds to a binary star system in the Sagittarius sector. Long ago Kei and Yuri were great wise women and warriors who knew Love and Thought, and they too looked into the night sky. One day, Kei and Yuri travelled to a dream world where they found the Cosmic Egg, which had five names. Wearing their First Masks, Kei and Yuri adopted the Cosmic Egg as their own, and as it hatched it brought forth from within transcendent source energy, which was theirs. I Am We Are All One in this moment.

From then on and from before, Kei and Yuri too walked among the stars, together forever in a world that was theirs. This story was ours too, explained Geordi, because when we look to the stars we see our own true selves whom we also Love. Those who came before are also those who we are being-becoming within the realm of lucid memory. At least, this is how the story always goes. Which it does, because the story will begin again after the last end. To know our memories is to know ourselves is to know the world we bring forth from ourselves. The truth lies in the telling. This one is called “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”. What does that mean? “Darmok and Jalad...They left together”.

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel. Kei and Yuri at Chakra. Vaka Rangi on the Ocean. Leah and Geordi in the night sky. Kei and Yuri, alone on a beach, around a fire.

Look there-Can you see it? Two stars shining bright in the sky. Do you remember? I can't seem to forget myself. We're together in this moment-I want to become this way forever. Let's go back to the house of stars.

Shaka, when the walls fell.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

“If you want to change the world, change yourself.”: Redemption II

Last time on Star Trek: The Next Generation...
“The point of convergence where it all leads back to. Perhaps not the greatest moment, but the defining one. In the end, it all comes back to redemption. We will redeem. We will be redeemed...”  
“The first image that strikes me is, as is always the case with Star Trek: The Next Generation, that of a starship. It's the image that defines “Redemption” for me: That of the Enterprise being escorted by the Bortas, the first, and archetypal, Klingon Attack Cruiser...” 
“The Klingon Civil War is something I remember much more vividly than it actually plays out onscreen. My memory is that of a breathtaking spectacle of cunning military strategy and dramatic shootouts in the depths of space. In practice, we get a couple old Bird-of-Prey models flitting around Gowron's Attack Cruiser interspersed with stock footage from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and 'Yesterday's Enterprise'. Today I sort of laugh at the slight bombast and pretension of the whole thing, but it's ever so fun to watch again. It's the Klingon characters themselves who I think really make it work: The way Robert O'Reilly, Michael Dorn and Tony Todd play their parts they totally sell the gravity of the situation, implied silliness and all. It's the first and last time the Klingons can really work this way, before they fully devolve into irrelevant, if occasionally adorable, self-parody. 
This is also of course a Ron Moore script, Moore now firmly established as the go-to Klingon and Romulan guy. Thankfully, we get him in 'world building mode' instead of 'angrily slagging off the Enterprise crew mode' or 'being misogynistic mode'...” 
“And as if to reassure us that the show is in fact aware of what this moment signifies and the responsibilities it now has to take on, its final scene cuts to Denise Crosby stepping out of the shadows, and then the fade out.
Tasha Yar is back.”
And now, the conclusion...

So to start off, can we just talk about the new intro credits for a bit? I've already mentioned they're very possibly my favourite memory of the show, so I tend to notice when they change, even if only slightly. That microsecond stutter in the starfield where Wil Wheaton's portion of the credits were hastily cut out following his departure in “Final Mission” that used to happen in the latter half of last year seems to have been fixed over the break, so it flows more seamlessly now. But more importantly, the logo now materializes through a video tunnel effect instead of swooping in from opposite ends of the screen. This somehow manages to accomplish what many had deemed impossible-Making the show look *even more* 80s than it already did. I love it, but not as much as I love the swooping. No explanation seems to have ever been given for the change, which only lasts for the duration of this season, before the intro sequence settles on its final form in Season 6: A hybrid using the cleaner editing of this sequence with the logo from seasons 1-4. Therefore, I posit that it was a special one-time change to celebrate Star Trek's 25th Anniversary, of which Star Trek: The Next Generation will be the master of ceremonies.

Right then, Commander Sela.

She is, quite naturally, the main attraction here. Also apparently something of a deeply baffling character for a lot of people: Of “Yesterday's Enterprise”, the episode which lays the groundwork for Denise Crosby's triumphant face-heel turn here, Jonathan Frakes memorably says “To this day I do not understand 'Yesterday's Enterprise'. I do not know what the fuck happened in that episode”. Meanwhile Michael Dorn, ostensibly the star of tonight's episode in question, said this on the recent Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 5 Blu-ray box set: “I don't understand the Sela thing, I don't understand 'Yesterday's Enterprise'...I don't understand any of it.”

And truth be known Commander Sela cannot be called Star Trek: The Next Generation's most elegant bit of narrative, brilliant though she may be, and she walks a somewhat strangled path to the screen. For those of you reading who might be as confused about this admittedly messy bit of time travel chicanery as Jonathan Frakes and Michael Dorn above, here's basically what the show says happened to get us to where we are now. In the episode “Yesterday's Enterprise” from the third season, the immediate predecessor to Captain Picard's ship travelled 24 years into the future through a temporal rift. Because this Enterprise, officially the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-C, was supposed to have been destroyed protecting a Klingon outpost in the Narendra system from a Romulan attack fleet, its failure to do so causes an alternate timeline to be created where the Klingons declared war on the Federation, feeling that they had been betrayed and left to die.

In this alternate timeline, Tasha Yar did not die at Vagra II and continued to serve as the tactical officer of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D, which in this version of events is a front-line battlecruiser. Although Alternate!Picard wants to keep the old Enterprise to help turn the tide of the war, Guinan, who because of her special powers is uniquely sensitive to timespace and is aware the current timeline is improper, convinces him to send it back to fulfill its destiny and restore the timeline. Alternate!Tasha, having learned from Guinan that she is dead in the “correct” timeline and that she died an empty, meaningless death, elects to go back in time with the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-C to give it the best possible chance of success an the chance to die a hero's death. Also, because she had fallen in love with one of the ship's officers, one Lieutenant Castillo, who unfortunately bears no relation to Edward James Olmos' character on Miami Vice.

“Yesterday's Enterprise” came about in part because Denise Crosby was looking for some way to come back to Star Trek: The Next Generation as she missed working with her best friends and had been impressed with the new direction the show had been taking under its subsequent creative teams. After it aired and reflecting on how enjoyable it had been to work on, she began thinking about ways for her to come back again somehow, and maybe to become an annually reoccurring guest star like John de Lancie, Majel Barrett and Dwight Schultz. What Crosby eventually came up with was the idea that Tasha and Castillo had a daughter who had been raised completely Romulan, and that this character, named Commander Sela, would come back to challenge Captain Picard and the crew of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D in the restored timeline. She actually drafted up a spec script and pitched the idea to Ron Moore, who promptly, in his own words “rolled [his] eyes” and sat on it for the majority of the fourth season.

So yes, this means the B-plot to “Redemption II”, and a large portion of the backstory for all the overblown Klingon Civil War nonsense we've been dealing with for almost two years now, was actually written by Denise Crosby. At least the central idea was hers.

Moore changed his mind when drafting up this two-parter and the episodes leading up to it, as he knew he needed the Romulans to have some actual investment in the plot instead of just dispensing programmatic shiftiness on demand, so he dug up Denise Crosby's old pitch, punched it up and wrote it into “Redemption II”. One thing Moore did change from Crosby's original pitch was making Sela half-Romulan, the product of a forced marriage between Alternate!Tasha and a lecherous Romulan general, to which she agreed in exchange for the lives of survivors from the destruction of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-C. Logistically, Moore claims, it wouldn't make sense that Tasha and Castillo would have had time to conceive Sela. You may or may not find this worth taking note of depending on your personal feelings regarding the Duras Sisters and Jenna D'Sora.

So there's quite a lot to discuss here. The first of which is, Holy Shit is Commander Sela ever goddamn amazing. Seriously. She's always been one of my absolute favourite characters since I first began watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, even from before I started projecting onto Tasha Yar. And every time I get up to “Redemption II” I worry I'm going to be disappointed, because I'm always at least a little disappointed seeing Denise Crosby play Tasha, even in “Yesterday's Enterprise”. But the gulf between Crosby as Tasha and Crosby as Sela is like night and day: As Tasha, you always get the sense she's uncomfortable with her material and how to approach it because she was so badly miscast while at the same time immediately aware from the outset of the magnitude of her responsibility as a role model (though I do seem to recall her finally nailing it in “All Good Things...”).

But with Sela, a character of her own creation, Denise Crosby really comes into her own: She's an absolutely imperious presence, easily standing toe-to-toe with Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard. We've gotten hints that Stewart and Crosby have good chemistry together before, but this is really the first opportunity we get to see how strong that chemistry really is and how well Crosby could have acquitted herself to the cast dynamic had she been given a chance. Furthermore, the effort she put into creating Sela is plainly on display, as it's very easy to see how she's a person Denise Crosby has really taken the time to get inside the mindset of and has zealously taken to inhabiting. The result is the first proper “antagonist” Star Trek: The Next Generation has probably ever had, in the sense of a fully realised and sympathetic character who can stand on equal footing with the protagonists. And “Redemption II” gives Sela plenty of opportunities to demonstrate this: My favourite parts of this episode are the back-and-forth strategizing between Captain Picard and Commander Riker and Sela and her first officer, particularly when Sela correctly guesses Picard's feint and responds with one of her own.

Another reason Sela is such a strong character is her backstory and motivation. The time travel nonsense handily obfuscates the true reason she offers such a serious challenge to the material existence of this version of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is that she understands the show's nature as performative philosophical fiction. This is something that only Q, Guinan and the bridge crew (especially Captain Picard) have ever shown to be capable of before, and even Q and Guinan haven't been doing a whole lot of that in the years since “Q Who”. But here, just like them, Sela understands the relationships between the various roles in the text and metatext and can manipulate them to shake up the status quo.

The in-universe explanation for Sela as “the half-Romulan daughter of Tasha Yar from a negated alternate timeline” may well be completely ludicrous, but it still links her in some way to the counterfactual and Tasha Yar. There are other ways history could have gone, and Sela is here to remind us of this fact once again. From her very first appearance she invokes Tasha, and thus she stands in for her in the metafictional artifice: This isn't some petty Romulan higher-up fucking around with the Klingon Empire and the Enterprise for shits and giggles, this is a battle-hardened Tasha Yar furious at her betrayal by the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series roaring back from the narrative ether to take her revenge by showing us just how much we lost by cutting her out of our lives.

Before Sela beams aboard the Enterprise, Guinan joins Captain Picard in the observation lounge and begins to explain to him, and the audience, what happened in “Yesterday's Enterprise”, but doesn't seem to really want to commit to the story. She tells Jean-Luc that “everything that's happened is [his] fault”, which diegetically makes no sense because if it's anybody's “fault” it's the fault of the alternate Captain Picard from the timeline that no longer exists, or the alternate Tasha, or even Guinan herself since she's the one who convinced the Captain to send them all back in the first place. (Ron Moore is, it should be said, profoundly disinterested in keeping the technical details of his sci-fi narrative straight here: He waffles a lot on how much Guinan should remember from the alternate timeline and just generally seems to want to pretend this part of the story doesn't exist, to its detriment).

And yet the fact that it is Guinan delivering these lines should give us a clue as to what's truly going on here, because it was Guinan's actions that signaled to us in “Q Who” that a bottom-up narrative restructuring was happening and that we should read it as a performance about the show's material and ethical struggles. And between her and Sela, it doesn't take Captain Picard long to recognise that he's in “Encounter at Farpoint” and “Q Who” mode again, and immediately knows what's happening. And ever the honourable and selfless performance artist, he takes the fall yet again. Just as Worf willingly became the scapegoat for the High Council in order to protect the Empire, so does Captain Picard once more take responsibility for the failures and misdeeds of Star Trek by facing the wrath of Commander Sela himself.

The rest of “Redemption II” sadly is nowhere near as interesting to talk about. The Klingons are now completely and utterly laughable Space Viking stereotypes or Tolkien Dwarves (they even knock their heads together) and are pretty much ruined as a culture, although it is worth pointing out that we do get to see the first light-skinned Klingon here in Kurn's rival. The Duras Sisters are unwatchably bad, even worse then they were in Part 1. Any scene with them in it is basically pantomime. Data's story in the C-plot is quite good, but there's not a whole lot to comment on there apart from it being a good character study of who he is and his style of command (namely, carefully observing a situation and responding with an emulation of a command style he think his crew will respect).

What is worth remarking on is the entire body of the work in toto: It's frequently commented on that “Redemption II” could have easily been three different episodes, and while that's true, what's really fascinating is that it doesn't feel busy or confused at all as a result of this. It's actually a really strong testament to how professional and workmanlike this team has gotten and how well they finally seem to understand Star Trek: The Next Generation's style of narrative. The fact that each one of these plots could have merited episodes unto themselves but *didn't* is crucial-We're expected to be able to recognise how this series operates as naturally and instinctively as the crew do so we can read the plots basically through shorthand.

If I were to nitpick I would say that sadly it's the Sela plot that suffers the most from this approach, which is unfortunate, though understandable, given Ron Moore's reticence towards and lack of comfort with it. Moore never does quite manage to make the link to “Yesterday's Enterprise” effectively, and there's one particularly baffling scene near the climax: In what would have otherwise been the only highlight of that excruciating seduction scene with Worf, Sela videophones the Duras Sisters and orders them to withdraw and leave the rest to her, barking “Face it Lursa! You've failed!”. Thing is, Worf was in the room the whole time and can plainly see what's going on, and he's given absolutely nothing to do but stand around staring dumbly at the monitor! Now bear in mind Worf had never seen Commander Sela before so you'd think he'd have at least a *little* reaction to seeing that the Romulan mastermind behind the Klingon Civil War looks uncannily like his former comrade, but no. Even Michael Dorn can't seem to be bothered to play off of Denise Crosby.

But that is, as I said, nitpicking of an episode I otherwise absolutely adore. Is it silly? Oh my yes-Ron Moore has now cemented himself as the purveyor of silly, self-indulgent realpolitiking things, and this is certainly up there. But it's a lot more than that thanks to Denise Crosby-We redeem ourselves in the eyes of others by striving to change and improve ourselves, and to make up for our past transgressions. Star Trek: The Next Generation brought Tasha Yar back, and even though she's not exactly in the same form we remember, that still speaks volumes. This episode lives up to its name by telling a story about Star Trek's own redemption, which of course can only be attained by bringing back Tasha and reaffirming its commitment to utopian conflict resolution. And more than that this is just fun: I had a blast here, which is a damn sight more than I can say about the last three seasons of this show.

We've finally arrived in full now. All eyes will be on Star Trek: The Next Generation this year, and at no other point in its history has it ever deserved it more.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Myriad Universes: Thin Ice

How well do we really know Commander William Riker?

Conventional fan wisdom certainly seems to think it knows him pretty well. He's the dashing rogue, the adventurous away team leader, the Casanova space age sex tourist. He's Star Trek: The Next Generation's version of Captain Kirk, and he does all the things we loved seeing Captain Kirk do in the Original Series. Though if this is the reading afforded to him by conventional fandom it must be a relatively recent one: Round about the time Enterprise and the final Next Generation movies were being made, Riker was seen as one half of a double act with Deanna Troi and calling them anything other than lovers fated by destiny to be together forever was unthinkable. And when I was growing up with Star Trek, Riker was joked about and dismissed as the pointless guy who skulks around the bridge barking “Shields up, Red Alert!” once an episode.

None of these, I would submit, manage to adequately convey who Will Riker really is. Obviously Will isn't useless, so I'm not even going to address that one. The Kirk stuff...Just isn't true. Not even remotely. yeah, there was probably a little bit of that very early on in the show when the lineage to Will Decker and Star Trek Phase II was the clearest (maybe in episodes like “Justice” and “Angel One”), but any trace of that was gone by mid-season. The only episode I can clearly think of where this is explicitly a theme is “Up the Long Ladder”. Maybe some hints of it in later stories like “The Vengeance Factor” and “First Contact” if you want to argue them that way, but “First Contact” at least strikes me as pretty clearly a subversion of the Captain McGoldenPants trope. As for his relationship with Deanna...I'll actually come back to that a little later on.

“Thin Ice”, DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation Annual for 1991 (not to mention the final reprint in 1994's The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation), is a very Riker centric story. It is, actually, precisely the sort of thing that we would call a “Riker Story” were this a TV show episode and what we might imagine Michael Piller's team would be highly supportive of. But the TV creative team has had a very tough time getting a grasp on precisely who its characters are and it's just now starting to figure this out: On a good day, we might get something like “Sins of the Father” and “Redemption” for Worf or “Data's Day” for Data, but we're just as likely to get “The Loss” or absolutely anything involving Geordi La Forge on an off day. Also, the TV team thinks “Remember Me” and “Night Terrors” are rubbish and praises “Final Mission” to high heaven, so that doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Michael Jan Friedman, by contrast, has always had a far more reliably comfortable grasp on his characters. With “Thin Ice” he goes back to what is in many ways the ur-Will episode, “The Icarus Factor”, and what he does for him here feels like a far more natural evolution of the character we know and recognise. Now “The Icarus Factor” was a troublesome episode, let's not forget, though mostly in terms of structural mechanics stuff, and given this was a second season episode and that the second season happened to coincide with a crippling Writers Guild strike that pretty much shut all of Hollywood down for a year, some of that can be forgiven.

Thankfully “Thin Ice” doesn't come anywhere near directly invoking “The Icarus Factor” (not because the episode is especially bad, but because, quite frankly, fuck fanwank. Although Friedman did seem to like it enough to give Will's dad Kyle a cameo in The Star Lost and pen a sequel to “The Icarus Factor” in a few years' time) the kernel Friedman takes from the earlier story is the idea that Will doesn't like taking a lot of unnecessary risks. And thus, we set up the fundamental philosophical debate between him and Captain Lyrinda Halk of the USS Marco Polo, a genuine daring rogue always willing to take a chance for the good of her people and the mission, and maybe to show off a bit too. Lyrinda is also, it turns out, Will's Unlucky Childhood Friend from Alaska.

Having known each other since they were kids, the two of them grew up together and were often at odds over their contrasting personalities. Lyrinda was always more outgoing, brazen and extroverted, while Will was more cautious and introverted (honestly, I think she overwhelmed him a bit). They even went to Starfleet Academy together, though they had a falling out when Lyrinda, while under Will's command in a training simulation, took it upon herself to beam aboard a starship trapped in an asteroid field and pilot it clear of danger herself, in spite of Will's plan to slowly edge it to safety from afar. They didn't see each other again until they met on shore leave when he was stationed on the Hood and she was on the Fearless. It was here Lyrinda finally confessed her long-held feelings to Will, feelings he had been completely oblivious to before. She admitted she had tried to give up on him after the Starfleet Academy incident, rationalizing that they were two different sorts of people, but never fully could.

Yet even though she still tracked him down in Alaska and it seemed like Will had finally begun to reciprocate, Lyrinda stopped the affair from going any further because she thought being involved with a fellow officer would be impractical: Either one of them would have to settle for not being captain, or they'd always be worrying about each other in a distance relationship. This was the last time the two of them had spoken to one another until the Enterprise picked up a distress signal from the Marco Polo, under her command, crippled by a relentless squadron of robotic defense drones left behind by a mysteriously vanished people with technology far beyond that of the Federation. As his crew works feverishly to save not only the Marco Polo but themselves as well from the returning drone ships, Will shares with us his memories of Lyrinda through flashback.

“Thin Ice” is already an incredibly intimate and moving story on the surface level and once again strikes a perfect balance between (proper) character interiority and science fiction, but its real brilliance lies in how Friedman expertly takes advantage of narrative subtext. It's what goes only implied that's every bit as riveting and heartwarming as what's told to us: There is, for example, a blink-and-you'll-miss it reveal just for the minutiae geeks that Lyrinda and Data must know each other even though they don't interact in the story proper: After having graduated the Academy with top honours and before she was posted to the Fearless, Lyrinda had served with distinction on the Trieste. This means she and Data are actually former comrades as that was his post prior to the Enterprise and they would have been serving on it at the same time. Through this, and building on Lyrinda's textual relationship with Will, Friedman is able to subtly position Lyrinda as a heretofore unseen, yet legitimate, member of the Enterprise family.

Which is just about as masterful an exploitation of Star Trek fan's eye for continuity as exists, and it makes Lyrinda Halk the final form of Friedman's trademark narrative device. Yes, she's a canon foreigner, but the way she's so deftly woven into the fabric of Star Trek: The Next Generation's tapestry here she's by the end of the story completely inextricable from it. She's so, so much more than the one-off character she becomes and deserves so much more of a legacy than that. Katherine Pulaski, Guinan, Doctor Selar, Alyssa Ogawa, Keiko O'Brien and Ro Laren weren't aboard from the start either, but you can't think of the starship Enterprise now without them. And yes, I'm putting Captain Lyrinda Halk in that same category.

(“Thin Ice” also sees a major turning point in the style of the comic book line: Pablo Marcos is replaced on art duties this time by Matt Haley, Carlos Garzon, Juliana Ferriter and Bob Pinaha: Together they craft an altogether far more photorealistic, yet still artful and evocative, look for this story that nicely compliments its romantic and intimate atmosphere.)

And there's more here than just the bait for continuity hounds. There's also the fact, which hadn't occurred to me until I re-read this story in chronological sequence, that this is coming either alongside or in the wake of The Star Lost. Which gives an entirely different weight to certain lines of dialog, especially near the start. Early on Deanna Troi tries to caution Captain Picard about letting Will lead the away team to save the Marco Polo given his personal stake in the mission. But not only does Jean-Luc permit it, he also asks Will to dig up all the information on the sector he can, something Data could have done impartially and instantaneously. Why? Captain Picard tells Deanna, and us, “I think he's earned it, don't you?”. Out of context it's a nice acknowledgment of how decorated Will already is on the Enterprise, but in the context of where this story actually falls, this comes *right after* The Star Lost...A story where Will and the rest of the crew aboard the Albert Einstein were flung to the other end of the galaxy and that he was comatose for about 95% of.

So he's “earned” this mission not just in a diegetic sense given his history to date or what he went through in The Star Lost, but also an *extradiegetic* one because the character of Will Riker was *barely in* The Star Lost, which was a story mostly about Jean-Luc, Deanna, Worf, Selar, Wesley and Nigata. So, we were about due for a Riker Story (and indeed if you can cast your mind all the way back to “The Lesson”, you'll recall Will walked out of that one with a bit of egg on his face. Here he gets a meaty dramatic plot to sink his teeth into and look heroic in as well as a passionate and adorable love story). And in one more nod to The Star Lost, Captain Picard tells Deanna, in regards to his odd orders concerning Will, “you're not the only one who can empathize”, which is an elegantly understated callback and coda to the respective story arcs of those two characters in the recently concluded serial.

And as much of a Riker Story as this may be, we really can't forget Captain Halk in our assessment either, whose story this is as much as it is Will's. “Thin Ice” is nothing if not if not a treatise on how paralleled these two really are, and this is a theme woven into every fiber of the narrative body here. The opening moments set up the tacit implication that Lyrinda made captain first because she's more aggressive and more of a risk-taker, and yet there is also the fact Will has numerous times turned down promotion to remain first officer of the Enterprise because he knows that's where he belongs. But “Thin Ice” also raises the possibility that he may also be doing this to prove to himself, if not Lyrinda, that he is indeed the person who would be willing to make that compromise. That he doesn't need to be captain. That career advancement and competition isn't everything to him, just like he tried to articulate in “The Icarus Factor”. And perhaps it's the case that Will might just know, deep down, that Lyrinda is more cut out for the captain's chair than he is.

But even though Will and Lyrinda talk about how contrasting their personalities are, we always get the sense that the two of them are probably more similar than they let on and more similar than they frequently like to think they are. In the Alaska scene, it's Will who does savvily point out that Lyrinda seems to be the one unwilling to take a risk, while later on in the Enterprise sickbay Lyrinda confesses to Captain Picard that she's afraid she “took one risk too many” in taking on the robot fleet, and praising Jean-Luc's first officer for being “by the book”. Funnily enough, at the same time, it's Commander Riker who reassures the crew of the Marco Polo that their captain will be fine because of her unshakable tenacity, resolve and strength of will. And indeed, he's only able to get them and his away team to safety in the end by making a pretty big gamble.

It would be wrong to say that Will Riker and Lyrinda Halk “complete” each other because they are both utterly whole individuals (and I personally think that's an incredibly dangerous sort of rhetoric to use anyway), but you could say that they compliment one another and I think the way in which they do makes their relationship, for me at least, one of the most memorable and mesmerizing in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation. If I were to ship Commander Riker with somebody, there's no question in my mind that it would be Captain Halk. The thing about Deanna Troi is that her love story with Will is and always has been a part of their shared past-It ended (amicably, it should be stressed: At least at this point nobody is trying to sell it that their relationship “failed” in some way) and they moved on to different stages of their lives. Because of Star Trek: The Next Generation's utopianism, they can reshape themselves as close friends and confidants. They remain empathically linked and still probably know each other better than almost anyone else, they're just not romantic lovers.

(In fact “Thin Ice” even gives Deanna a scene that implicitly points this out: As she's browsing Captain Halk's biography and service record she talks to us about what a tragedy it would be to lose her, not just because Halk is a skilled and valued captain, but because she's also a hell of a lady. Deanna is clearly impressed, sees how Will could have bonded with her and approves.)

But while Will's relationship with Deanna may have ended, his relationship with Lyrinda halted. It was interrupted and came to an abrupt stop, and there's a big difference between those things. There was no closure for either of them, and you just know he and Deanna worked these sorts of things out a very long time ago. But Lyrinda disappeared from Will's life, came back, and then just as quickly left again. Now though the Enterprise has given them a reunion, and it seems like they might have a chance for a new start. And even though we continue to trek forward, our past remains with us. It will always be a formative part of who we are, shaping us as people through experience and forever guiding us through memory. Accepting and coming to terms with it helps us do the same for ourselves.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Myriad Universes: The Star Lost Part 5: Homecoming

It's not an epic conclusion to The Star Lost, nor is it an unexpected one. The ship works. Wesley figures out how to pilot it. Worf and Darios bring everyone home, even the “hostiles”. There's a heartfelt reunion, and the family is “once again whole”. There is, you could argue, a teeny bit of playing for time and space as the ship travels so fast the crew ends up in Klingon territory, unable to communicate their intent and with their engines about to overload. Of course, the Enterprise happens to be the nearest Federation starship and is called in to investigate at the request of the Klingon High Command. But this is a serial, and serials end up getting stretched. It's fine. It works.

But as we've been learning over the past few months, it's not the plot itself, epic or otherwise, that's what's important here. In fact, The Star Lost seems to tacitly play against our assumption that it is-“Homecoming” opens up with the destruction of Lanatos by comet impact. Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher console the Lanatosian governor, who's still sore about their decision to bring along the Skriiti instead of the Lanatosian monuments. Beverly says that “Planets are balls of mud – things. They can be replaced. When a person is gone, he's gone forever”. And it's here I might start to disagree a little bit with the story's broad-strokes ethics. I get the sentiment Friedman is trying to go for, but from an animist perspective that's simply an indefensible argument. Land, and “land” can come in many different forms, has life energy and we are all bound to it in some way. You could argue the book tries to hedge against this with the governor's rebuttal, but he's a racist and not at all sympathetic.

It's not a huge issue and I'm surely nitpicking, but it's not something my perspective allows me to let slide.

That aside, what's interesting to me is that in any given TV episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, that scene on the bridge with Jean-Luc, Beverly and the Lanatosian governor would have been the *conclusion* to the story; the denouement. Here though, it's just the lead-in and the meat of “Homecoming” is still to come (of course it is, as the Lanatosian stuff is and always has been a secondary story thread). That says something about not just the scope of the story we've been watching unfold for the past few months, but also where its heart is. One thing I really love about this issue from this point is where it places its little cliffhanger beats: As soon as the Lanatosian mess is resolved, Deanna Troi politely reminds Captain Picard to promote Data and Burke, the relief tactical officer who has been covering for Worf since the disappearance of the Albert Einstein. He's interrupted when he tries to do this by the reveal of the plot twist with the Klingons and this is addressed at several points during the story. And each time when it happens, the action cuts back to the Einstein crew.

In other words, the tense race against time to the conclusion isn't to save Lanatos, to get to the alien ship before the Klingons make a preemptive strike or even to save it from self-destruction. It's to get Worf and Commander Riker back on the Enterprise before Captain Picard is forced to promote Data and Burke.

“Homecoming” is a special extended length issue, and it uses that time wisely to further emphasize how the Einstein story and the Lanatosian story are reflections of each other, and also gives all the characters more time to express their feelings. Deanna, who has spent the majority of this series providing support for everyone else, finally gets to confide in the Skriiti, who sense her loneliness. There's a wonderful scene where they say that they can sense a “sadness inside” and Deanna, immediately assuming they're referring to themselves, attempts to counsel them. But they respond that it's not in them, but in her. There's more of Captain Picard dealing with his guilt and moving beyond it, which becomes the key to the climactic reunion. And rushing back to the Alpha Quadrant at top speed, Wesley and Nigata deepen their relationship as they work together to bring everyone home safely. And this time, she gets to provide emotional support to him as he develops doubts about his ability to pilot the alien spacecraft. It's the single healthiest and most positive relationship Wesley Crusher has ever had with anyone.

Even Doctor Selar gets a meaty role, serving as Worf's “Number One” on the team and proving herself to be more than capable of filling the Beverly Crusher, Science Officer and Katherine Pulaski, Chief Medical Officer roles both for its dynamic.

That said we also do get more straightforward and physical action this time than is often the case for the comic line: A good deal of the first few acts is Worf, Wesley, Nigata and and Darios punching and shooting their way through wave after wave of Romulan and Ferengi mooks in their attempt to escape the starship construct. It's eminently reminiscent of the very earliest Star Trek: The Next Generation comics from 1987 when Tasha Yar was slicing and dicing her way through a bunch of giant robot mechs, and perhaps even all the way further back to Aliens. It's silly, but endearingly so. This does get subverted later on though, as Worf and Darios remind each other that the best course of action is not to leave anyone behind, even those who would position themselves as their enemies. And anyway, this has always been a part of the comics after all, and it is deserving to see a little of that here. It's more than earned it.

Because the other thing about “Homecoming” is that this is DC's contribution to Star Trek's 25th Anniversary, a singularly auspicious celebration that was in many ways a kind of annus mirablis for the franchise. This is the one year where Star Trek's past, present and future potential all coexisted simultaneously for one magical confluence. We'll address the TV series' contribution in time, of course, and the year was also marked by such events as the launch of the Playmates toy line and one of the best, most influential Star Trek video games ever made. And behind the scenes, Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Gene Roddenberry and Brandon Tartikoff were secretly planning something unprecedented. But here in the land of four colour pulp magazines, we get a special confluence of our own-Michael Jan Friedman and Pablo Marcos have stepped up tot he plate showing they're more than capable of standing alongside the very best of the best their Hollywood counterparts can offer without sacrificing any of the little nuances and eccentricities that make their medium special.

It's very fitting that The Star Lost be the story from this series most heavily associated with the 25th Anniversary, and that it should make a reappearance in 1993. This is a story whose images, atmosphere and iconography have haunted me ever since, and it's one whose material worth and merit absolutely lives up to those memories. There's a dreamlike and timeless quality here that seems to have tapped into the collective zeitgeist: We exist here in Star Trek: The Next Generation's victory lap, in overtime for the Long 1980s. There's a blossoming sense of ecstasy and confidence that seems poised to take over the world. Somehow, someway, against all odds, we've made it. Let's give in to the energy and go for one more round. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation is about to pull a hat trick.