Thursday, July 30, 2015

“Policy of Truth”: The First Duty

Shout-out to Ray Walston, My Favorite Non-Terran Humanoid Solid.
In the mid-1980s there was a cartoon show called The Get-Along Gang. It was about a group of happy preteen anthropomorphic animals living in a storybook world called Green Meadows and, as you could probably tell from the title, was about the various and sundry ways teamwork and friendship will solve all of life's problems. Each character had some egregious and crippling flaw that would be unflappably counteracted by working together with their friends.

If you were willing to be unkind to The Get-Along Gang, you might say it typified the concept that “The Complainer Is Always Wrong” in children's media. That did certainly seem to be the worrying underlying implication of a lot of the show's morals, and you could probably trace an entire counter-revolutionary movement in children's television after the fact solely dedicated to moving as far away from The Get-Along Gang as was possible to get. It also probably didn't help matters that the show was the product of a greeting card company. Not that anyone had anything much to worry about anyway, as Disney kicked off the Renaissance Age not two years later. But my point is that The Get-Along Gang was a very specific kind of children's television: First and foremost it was prescriptive: That is, it existed more or less just to talk down to kids and tell them how to act, how to behave and how to think.

In the past, you might have noticed I have a specific opinion of how I think teaching should work. My conception of how the teacher-student relationship should operate is derived from Paulo Freire's famous (some would say infamous) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he argues that students and teachers are both equal participants in the creation of knowledge, and that teachers should be willing to learn as much from their students as their students learn from them. The kind of teaching that The Get-Along Gang tried to do is the kind that Freire calls “the banking model”, because it treats students as “empty receptacles into which knowledge is deposited”, much as one might do with a piggybank. This “banking model” is the exact model of education Freire is positing his pedagogy in opposition to, because the banking model's attitude to students is the exact same one that colonizers take to the colonized.

So the thing about “The First Duty” is that, like The Get-Along Gang before it, it's adopting a hierarchical banking model approach to moralizing. It's clearly a story about the importance of always telling the truth and is obviously aimed at the sorts of young people who were expected to project onto and identify with Wesley Crusher (whether or not they actually did is beside the point and a question I think we've more than settled by this point). Michael Piller, then a parent of teenagers himself, has explicitly said he thought this episode was important as it teaches a lesson he'd want his own kids to learn, and even swayed a (perhaps understandably) sceptical Rick Berman by saying kids who were involved with drugs or crime might find its message meaningful. Seems like this is the new model for Wesley episodes as his last guest spot in “The Game” similarly smacked of after-school specials.

The problem with this approach, apart from the fact it's insulting and patronizing, is that this is also the exact opposite conceptualization of how to talk to children and what children's television should be from that of something like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood or Reading Rainbow. And *that* means its precisely the wrong kind of children's television for Star Trek: The Next Generation to be emulating. But that, I actually think, is fairly self-evident and self-explanatory. Obvious, almost. “The First Duty” is clearly an insult to the intelligence and yet another in a long line of bungled stories about Wesley Crusher (though I guess you could make the case it shows how Wesley can't get away with everything anymore and that his actions have consequences now, which I suppose is valid). But that's not interesting or important to me anymore. What is interesting to me, and where I think the real story this week lies, is in the path this script took from pitch to screen.

There were several different drafts of this story penned, and just as many differing opinions on which one was the better story to tell. To the point, actually, that this story caused a sizable row in the writers' room. In Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, Naren Shankar talks about his original inspiration for “The First Duty”:
“My first credit was 'The First Duty', which Ron [Moore] and I wrote together. Ron had been in ROTC in college and we were both into military history. We wanted to do a show set at Starfleet Academy and pick up where Wesley was with his life. Our focus was the notion of choosing between your friends and your duty. And the script caused a fair amount of tension between us and Michael Piller.”
Moore elabourates by saying
“Naren and I took the position that Wesley shouldn't be ratting out his friends. He should go down with them. And Michael took this parental position: 'As the father of teenagers, I can tell you that it's just wrong, and telling the truth is more important than anything else.' But we felt that your word to your friends is more important on some levels than your obligation to the rules. Naren and I weren't that far removed from being that age in college, and being in those kinds of circumstances. Wesley had given his word to hold the secret about what they had done and what led to this kid's death. He had to stand by that with his buddies. But Michael felt that sent a bad message, and that telling the truth is what Star Trek is about.”
Piller responds with his side of the story in the Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion.
“I thought he should choose the truth, and Ron thought he couldn't go back on his friends. Ultimately I gave the order to go with the truth – that's what I'd want my kids to do – but I think it shows how much we can get into these characters when we find ourselves debating the points they're arguing.”
In a later chat on AOL, Moore clarifies his position and tries to show how the story he and Shankar wanted to tell wasn't as ethically reprehensible as perhaps Piller thought it was, and their perspectives weren't in truth irreconcilable. Finally, he posits that in his and Shankar's version, Wesley would still end up with the moral high ground:
“In the aired version of events, Wesley steps forward even though the court of inquiry is about to let them all off the hook. In so doing, Wes commits an act of moral courage by standing up for the truth and being punished when to remain silent would've allowed him to go scot free. Now, let's assume the circumstances had been constructed so that the Nova Squadron was going to be kicked out of the Academy by the court if they kept silent about what really happened. Say that the team had made a decision not to finger the one among them who came up with the idea on the 'we all hang together' philosophy. In that scenario, Wesley coming forward to tell the truth is suddenly an act of moral cowardice because it appears that he's only trying to save his own skin at the expense of one of his teammates. 
If that had been the story (which is more or less what Naren and I were advocating) then Picard's impassioned speech to Wesley about the morality of coming forward to tell the truth is suddenly a scene where the Captain tries to convince a young man not to throw away his own career in order to protect one of his friends. In the end, Locarno (the true culprit) comes forward on his own in order to save the rest of the team. As you can see, it's a very different kind of tale even though the essential 'plot' is relatively unchanged. 
...Both stories are valid and interesting, but I prefered the story about a young man willing to stand with his friends rather than a morality tale about telling the truth. Don't get me wrong – I like 'The First Duty,' and I think it works pretty well just as it is, I just wanted to tell a different story.”
Meanwhile, Rick Berman was still pretty sour on the whole thing, especially on an earlier draft where Nova Squadron's crime was apparently even more reprehensible:
“I found that unacceptable. Wesley is Wesley. He is one of our characters and heroes and he's capable of lapses in judgement, capable of making decisions on an emotional basis as opposed to thinking them out, but not capable of some of the more severe things that were suggested. And not capable of overt cover-up, lying to Starfleet Academy officials. So we basically tempered it down, still keeping it believable and the crime that was serious and would result in a punishment.”
I'm kind of with Berman here, to be honest.

But that aside, the real story of “The First Duty” and its true moral centre lies in what the story of “The First Duty”should really have been. That's the big philosophical question this week: What do you think would have been the better story? More to the point, what do you think would have been the more appropriate and fitting story? Which of these drafts, if any, truly embodies what Star Trek: The Next Generation should be about?

Maybe it all depends on your perspective.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

“The sensation you are doing something you have done before”: Cause and Effect

It's almost the hardest to write about the stories that are my very favourites. Doubly so when they're so consummately made. How many ways can I say “Cause and Effect” is a work of genius without sounding like I'm just pointlessly gushing? How much can I go into my personal connection with stories like this without regressing to the point of being an utterly, hopelessly, self-indulgent bore? And yet this is a turning point: Whenever Star Trek: The Next Generation is mentioned in passing or I'm casually reminded of it in my day-to-day existence, this is one of the stories I think about. This, and the kinds of stories “Cause and Effect” sets the stage for.

Is it “iconic”, either in the fandom or television history more generally? Not exactly, or at least not the the extent of something like “The Best of Both Worlds”, “Unification” or “Unification II” (although many fans do consider “Cause and Effect” to be a classic too). Is it sweepingly moving, emotional and dramatic? No, not really. It's not “Transfigurations”, “Darmok” or “The Inner Light”. Indeed, like “Power Play” before it, you might, at first glace, even get the impression “Cause and Effect” is a little too “clever” for its own good: A little too fixated on its science fiction concept to do much of anything else. This is certainly the criticism that's often laid at the feet of Brannon Braga, a writer known for increasingly clever and complex science fiction inspired stories. But also like “Power Play”, this is not your typical masturbatory Hard SF story that doesn't care about narrative technique, and there's way more going on here then this reading would afford.

Although it was certainly a concern in the writers' room. Even though Braga himself is rightly keen on this episode, he talks about how much of a gamble an episode this experimental and unorthodox was at the time (and would gently like to remind us that “Cause and Effect” was made *before* Groundhog Day, which famously also dealt with a causal time loop). Producer Herb Wright pointed out how a viewer's first “temptation” upon witnessing something like this might be to “jam the button on the remote”. Rick Berman was even afraid audiences might think there was something wrong with their TV set or the broadcast feed, or worse, think this episode was a clip show. So he instructed the director to make sure every iteration of the loop looked and played out ever-so-slightly differently to assure them it wasn't and to keep them guessing. That director happened to be Jonathan Frakes, who, upon first getting Braga's script, initially thought the writers were trying to pull one over on him.

Naturally they weren't, and Frakes immediately rose to the challenge and then some. I'd actually go so far as to cite “Cause and Effect” as Frakes' defining moment as a director, because what he pulls off here is nothing short of a technical masterpiece. We don't talk about directors anywhere near enough in television discourse, and it's episodes like this that demonstrate the unique artistry they can bring to the medium, and on such short notice. While the loop repeats itself several times and the sequence of events plays out ever-so-slightly differently each time, a lot of the major scenes (the captain's log entry, parts of the poker game and the final disaster most notably) have identical lines of dialog with the actors delivering identical intonations. And while some of the scenes were re-recorded, some of them weren't. So what Frakes does is do one set of takes, but films every shot from five separate angles at once. It's something the average viewer isn't necessarily going to notice unless they're actively looking for it, but this means each and every loop just *feels* a little different each time.

(This is a trick the VFX department picks up on in a very cheeky and clever way too: You might have noticed each time the Enterprise blows up, it looks a little different. That's because there were actually four different kitbash models built for each time the explosion was going to happen, and again, each one is shot from a different angle. And notice how in the final sequence, the one where the crew break themselves out of the loop, the captain's log entry is delivered over a different flyby of the four-foot model from all the previous loops, foreshadowing to us that the crew is going to succeed this time.)

It helps of course that Jonathan Frakes and the VFX team both have such a stellar script to work from. Brannon Braga's scripts are not known for their heavy-handed introspection because that's not what he's good at, but he doesn't need to be. “Cause and Effect” shines for different reasons. It's firstoff an absolutely killer techno-thriller mystery, opening with and ending every act on what Braga has correctly called the “ultimate teaser and cliffhanger”. Even if you know going in that the crew is stuck in a causal time loop, that doesn't diminish at all the profound surrealist joy you get of watching the same series of events repeat themselves and following along as each successive iteration of the crew tries to think themselves out of their predicament, slowly learning more and more each time. There's also the extremely subtle, yet undeniable, hints even in the first loop we get to see play out that something feels a bit off to the crew: Gates McFadden and Jonathan Frakes in particular deserve special praise for so expertly delivering them through visual and body language cues so naturalistic you'd miss them if you blinked wrong. It's as strong a testament to how otherwordly talented this acting troupe is.

Along those lines, I also love how the perspective viewpoint character changes slightly at certain points between the acts, roughly from Beverly (and how appropriate is it that she be the one who drives so much of the plot here and pieces together so much of the mystery herself?) to Jean-Luc to Data to Geordi (who can, naturally, literally see the counterfactual). There are a number of scenes with compliments during which we see what one character was doing during a point in time we've just spent with another, like how in one act we see Beverly calling Jean-Luc in the middle of the night to talk about her insomnia, but in the next act we see Jean-Luc reading in his room before being paged by Beverly. Or how in the climax we don't get to see the final time Beverly's glass breaks, but we can hear it over Geordi's comm badge.

And yet it's crucial to point out how, as fascinating and captivating as the mystery might be, that's not all “Cause and Effect” is about. In fact apart from that, and discounting for the moment the fact the Enterprise blows up four times, this is a story of quiet and cozy intimacy the likes of which gives “Data's Day” a run for its money. Actually, I daresay it handily beats it on those grounds: As of this writing I'm having a hard time remembering another story that's this low-stakes and gets us this close to the daily lives of our heroes, apart from perhaps “Timescape” (another episode I consider an unmitigated masterpiece and that, not coincidentally, bears a striking number of similarities with “Cause and Effect”). The poker game has always been one of my favourite motifs in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and this episode is practically all about it. Jean-Luc reading his book alone or talking about insomnia and late-night thoughts with Beverly over tea is unforgettable. I could complain about wishing to see more of Laren apart from her broken record moments on the bridge or how it might have been nice to see Miles and Keiko O'Brien have a scene or two to themselves, but the episode is so jam-packed with perfectly wonderful fluff in amongst its ambitious sci-fi trappings it could well have been just too much to squeeze in.

This is the episode where Brannon Braga truly arrives in full as a creative force and is the archetypal example of the signature style that will define so much of the rest of his career and Star Trek: The Next Generation in general. “Cause and Effect” isn't just a sci-fi thriller mystery or a slice of life tale-It's both at the same time and it weaves its two halves together flawlessly. More than anything else, this is what I remember Star Trek: The Next Generation feeling and acting like, and this is the point where it finally becomes the show's standard operating procedure. In fact, not only does “Cause and Effect” bring this all into focus, I daresay I might even go so far as to call it the show's definitive story.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

“Born This Way”: The Outcast

Oh dear.

So remember back in the “The Host” essay when we were talking about clumsy, confused, poorly handled episodes that kind of make a big mess of gender and sexuality? I said there were three big ones that, due to their relentless terribleness or just general incompetence, singlehandedly saddle Star Trek: The Next Generation with a reputation for heteronormativity and homophobia, no matter how many admirable strides it manages to make elsewhere. The first was “Blood and Fire” (and by extension “The Naked Now”) and the second was “The Host”. “The Outcast” is the third.

Buckle in tightly, kids.

“The Outcast” is a story about a planet (of hats, natch) where there is no concept of gender. They view “dividing people into two genders” to be a retrograde and “primitive” notion and consider themselves more “enlightened” as a result (and Holy Goddamn Shit that's a can of worms I'm not even going to go anywhere remotely near the ballpark of). Commander Riker gets involved (in more than one way) with one of their scientists, an individual named Soren. During their time with the Enterprise crew, Soren learns more about the human notion of gender and it influences culture, society and behaviour, especially when it comes to romance. Soren takes to Doctor Crusher in particular, viewing her as a model female because of her more traditionally femme aesthetic, and ultimately confesses to harbouring long-held strong feelings of being female too. Because identifying as either male or female is punishable by death in their society, Soren has explored her feminine side by engaging in romantic relationships with men in secret. Eventually, Riker and Captain Picard violate the Prime Directive again by criticising the gender laws and negotiating for Soren's clemency.

It would be eminently understandable if, given the rough plot synopsis above, you would be considerably taken aback to learn what the creative team actually meant for this episode to be about. You see, the real doozy is when you find out that Rick Berman and writer Jeri Taylor considered “The Outcast” to be a strong “Issues” story about homosexuality and homophobic prejudice. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, Rick Berman said
“We thought we had made a very positive statement about sexual prejudice in a distinctively Star Trek way, but we still got letters from those who thought it was just our way of 'washing our hands' of the homosexual situation.”
While in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, Jeri Taylor said
“'The Outcast' allowed us to explore the issue of sexual intolerance in a unique, offbeat way. I identify with the disenfranchised and the powerless of our world. So I really wanted to make a statement for tolerance, broad-mindedness and acceptance for those who are disenfranchised.”
And it's at this point the wincing and cringing commences, because I don't think there's a single episode where the creative team is more ignorant, ill-informed, off-target and off-the-mark about anything than they are in this one. You would be entirely forgiven if, as a new viewer lacking in this context, you were to be flabbergasted by how utterly out-there and out-of-touch Berman and Taylor sound in the above quotes, as the actual extant text of “The Outcast” has essentially zero things to do with homosexuality or homophobia. The persecution Soren faces, first of all, is very explicitly about her gender identity, not her sexual orientation (more on that later), and furthermore actually seems to conflate the two through a deeply heteronormative lens.

There is simply no getting around the fact that Soren only begins to act on her feelings of dysphoria and take a stand against her oppression after she goes through a relationship with a straight white cis man. I know some homosexual people figure that part of themselves out as the result of an initial crush or romantic encounter, but it's incredibly insulting and reductive to do a story like this implying that this is the only way that can happen. Likewise, it's also a big issue that there are no secret men in J'naii society who are romantically involved with other men, or secret women involved with other women. In the episode about homosexuality. As is the fact that Star Trek: The Next Generation put Will Riker in a straight romantic relationship with a character coded as gay played by a woman.

Rick Berman said that last one was due to business reasons, that “...having Riker engaged in passionate kisses with a male actor might have been a little unpalatable to viewers”. But isn't that the exact sort of close-minded bigotry and intolerance Berman claims this episode exists to combat? That's cowardly, plain and simple: Your convictions and ethical positions are hollow and meaningless if you're not prepared to stand by them and put your money where your mouth is when it really counts, and flipping off overly pragmatic and pandering studio executives or narrow-minded nerdboy audiences is precisely when it really counts. Star Trek is in a unique and powerful position among large-scale Soda Pop Art things to critique society and show a path forward, and it's nothing short of squandering and irresponsible to not take full advantage of that. And it should be noted that Jonathan Frakes himself has publicly gone on the record to call this decision out numerous times, as well as the one to cast female actors as *all* the J'naii characters.

Then there's the just straight-up overt sexism. I have no idea what possessed Taylor to turn Worf into such a flaming misogynist in this story, but boy is he ever, complaining about “women's games” featuring “wild cards” and loudly proclaiming on several occasions that heteronormativity is the right and natural way of things. All this apparently from the same guy who “appreciates strong women”. I know Ron Moore turned Klingon society into an explicitly patriarchal one where women are second-class citizens and Worf apparently seemed to have a sitcom level understanding of women in a couple episodes, but those are the issues of other people, and one would have thought Taylor would have understood Worf's unique position as an expatriot better. Doctor Crusher barely avoids falling into this too, as her discussion with Soren teeters dangerously on the brink of declaring that stereotypical western signifiers of masculinity and femininity are the sole arbiter of gender. Thankfully, the script gives her a line where she “can't recall” a time when men and women weren't considered equal, and Gates McFadden gives her usual exquisite touch to hedge against any infelicities.

I guess at least in Worf's case you could make the, admittedly stretched beyond recognition, argument that this is his way of dealing with his confusion and embarrassment over potentially developing feelings for Deanna, because he's a big dumb man who's too prideful to come out and admit that, especially to himself. Maybe that's what happened in "Ethics" too. But while that may be something one or two people on staff may have been able to relate to, that's not how I like to read Worf and contradicts his behaviour as recent as last week's episode. Speaking of weird things involving Deanna, there's also that odd scene where Will asks her permission to get involved with another woman, as if he was still involved with her. I mean, he never has before. Neither has she, for that matter. Granted it would be a nice scene if, say, Will and Deanna were in a polyamourous relationship but, as I keep pointing out, they aren't supposed to in any kind of a romantic relationship at this point, let alone a poly one.

Now after all that, you might be surprised to hear me say there is one way you could read this story that would turn its entire legacy 180 degrees. This redemptive reading does, however, require one to completely ignore everything absolutely everyone has ever said about “The Outcast”. Although it may well be a shockingly poor story about homosexuality and homophobia, by either divine providence, sheer dumb incompetence or some combination of the two, you can actually read it very convincingly as a halfway decent story about being transgender. Because that's really what Soren is: She's known she was female since she was very young, had to explore her identity her own way with no guidance, help or support in absolute secret and knows if this ever got out her life would be in extreme danger. Ironically, through their appalling ignorance about what it means to be homosexual, Rick Berman and Jeri Taylor have, completely accidentally, pegged what it's like to be transgender pretty much bang on. Even more ironically, should you choose to read it this way, “The Outcast” goes from a washout to being even more admirably progressive than it was trying to be in the first place.

This is hard to do though, especially given Soren's big speech at the end:
“I am female. I was born that way. I have had those feelings, those longings, all of my life. It is not unnatural. I am not sick because I feel this way. I do not need to be helped. I do not need to be cured. What I need, and what all of those who are like me need, is your understanding. And your compassion. We have not injured you in any way. And yet we are scorned and attacked. And all because we are different. What we do is no different from what you do. We talk and laugh. We complain about work. And we wonder about growing old. We talk about our families and we worry about the future. And we cry with each other when things seem hopeless. All of the loving things that you do with each other - that is what we do. And for that we are called misfits, and deviants and criminals. What right do you have to punish us? What right do you have to change us? What makes you think you can dictate how people love each other?”
It's a lovely sentiment, to be sure, and the first few lines back up our redemptive transgender reading pretty strongly. But then it quickly swerves back into the obvious intentionality sphere, as the second half of that speech couldn't be more about homosexuality and homophobia if it literally came right out and said it was. And again, not at all to take away from that intent: It's obviously correct and something certain kinds of people are still grappling with to this day. But it makes my job more difficult and frustrating given how poor everything else about this episode is.

(Indeed the only other thing noteworthy about “The Outcast” is that it's also famous for introducing the life-size model of the Type 6 shuttlecraft that will be used throughout the rest of the series. It's not the first time we've seen the ship itself, which debuted in “Darmok”, but this is the first time we got to see the full set for the little craft. Galoob had a Type 6 miniature as part of its Micro Machines starships line and described it “as seen in the episode 'The Outcast'”. Although Galoob's model was very appropriately named the Berman, the actual shuttle in this episode is the Magellan. The Berman shows up *next* week. Either way, the Type 6 is an iconic ship for me regardless of “The Outcast”, and got two miniature playset vehicles based on it from Playmates.)

As much as this might redeem, however, I still don't think even that's quite enough to salvage this one. Let's be perfectly honest: Even in the kindest of lights, this is no “Love is Everything. Risk Your Life to Elope!”. It doesn't even come anywhere near the same county, let alone the same ballpark. Even if you do grant the transgender reading, you've still got the script conflating sexual orientation with gender identity, and it's still an enormous problem that Soren only starts to act after falling for Will Riker. Actually, it's even more of a crippling problem in this case, because a person's internal sense of gender has even less to do with romantic relationships than their sexual identity does. You could argue that this kind of sloppy handling of gender and sexuality might have been fair and progressive for 1992 and that I should be kinder to Star Trek: The Next Generation for dipping its feet in waters we're only beginning to fully understand now, but I maintain that it's telling Star Trek: The Next Generation is still finding itself outclassed by the now seven year old Dirty Pair TV show.

I mean if we've learned nothing in almost a decade, well...

Thursday, July 23, 2015

“An Introductory Reader”: Ethics

There was an urban legend going around awhile back about an entire intro class failing due to rampant, universal plagiarism, the kicker being the reveal that it was an ethics class. I've also heard a variant where criminals were getting caught illegally profiting off of resold ethics textbooks. That's sort of what I was thinking about as I was working through this episode.

“Ethics” is, to my knowledge, considered a highlight of the fifth season. In Starlog's episode guide from the mid-1990s (which for the longest time was my primary insight into what conventional wisdom on any of these stories was) there was a little Starfleet emblem next to the title of this episode, an indication that this was one of the editors' personal recommendations. Longtime readers of my guides will have doubtlessly picked up on my thoughts about this already: Typically when I go into this sort of background before I actually start analysing things it's a sign that I disagree with it just about entirely. Well, I'm certainly not about to go against type now. I've tried to like this episode, many times, in fact. But I just can't get passed the fact that the fundamental, well, ethical stand the story seems to be taking just seems so fundamentally wrongheaded. Not to mention how there's some cratering characterization problems on display.

So I mean first of all, Worf gets paralyzed in the most humiliating way imaginable. He's “distracted” because he was too busy thinking about losing to Deanna in poker? Seriously? That's not a tragedy, that's a black comedy farce, which would be one thing if that set the tone for the rest of the episode, but it doesn't. And Worf is embarrassed about losing to Deanna in a game of skill and bluffing where she clearly played more strongly? That doesn't strike me as the way an honour-bound warrior would react to losing to a worthy or superior opponent and sounds uncomfortably like Worf is just sexist (and given how he's the favourite of the writing staff, particularly Ron Moore, that's an avenue I'd rather not go down).

This naturally leads into the episode's big “ethical” dilemma, and its big “ethical” screw-up. At least the subplot between Worf, Deanna, Alexander and Will (we'll...come back to Will) basically amounts to an examination of paraplegia and the right to die. And Star Trek: The Next Generation handles both with all the trademark nuance it displayed in such classics as “Blood and Fire”, “Angel One” and “Violations”. I can't actually think of a way this could have landed more spectacularly wrong had it been deliberately trying to: First of all equating disability with something like, say, total brain death is basically appalling from any angle you care to mention and completely goes against the moral of “The Masterpiece Society” from just a few weeks back. Even if you grant the analogy and buy this is a right to die situation, which I very much do not advise you do, the central philosophical standpoint here still doesn't work, what with every other character yelling and screaming about how cowardly and shameful assisted suicide is, especially when it's apparently a sacred tenet of Klingon society. It's like everyone on the Enterprise temporarily forgot their empathy and cultural tolerance.

Will is portrayed the worst in this regard by far, and his depiction in this episode is nothing short of outright contemptible. He angrily goes on and on to Worf, lecturing him about how offensive and distasteful the practice of Hegh'bat is. Setting aside for the moment the fact that this is flagrantly imperialist for a white cis straight male to come in and tell someone who's not that how to live their life and how that runs completely fucking contrary to the values the Enterprise crew are supposed to espouse (and that's a pretty big thing to set aside), this story would also have Will take away Worf's choice in a right to death situation (again, if you grant that this is what this is, which I will solely for the sake of argument because “Ethics” becomes utterly incoherent otherwise), and Will has absolutely zero right to do that. I mean, I guess he technically has the right to complain and throw a hissy fit and refuse to help, but he's still prolonging suffering either way. And then his solution is to pass the buck to Alexander, effectively distilling his entire argument down to “think of the children”. Yuck.

Then there's the subplot with Toby Russell, which is all manner of fucked up for its own reasons. We're clearly meant to side with Doctor Crusher (also badly out of sorts this week), who lambasts Russell's experimental techniques for selfishly putting her research ahead of patients' lives. Well I'm no surgeon, so feel free to correct me on this, but I was generally under the assumption that experimental surgeries were done things in very rare and specific circumstances. Again, I'm not a medical practitioner, but I would gather that the field of medicine wouldn't ever be able to grow and evolve if doctors weren't allowed to take these kinds of risks if there isn't any other option. Which it kinda looks like there wasn't in this case: Worf wanted to die already, so it could only have been a win-win from his perspective: Either he makes a miraculous recovery or dies with honour, and considering we were just talking about patient's rights, it seems like Russell is actually occupying a more defensible position than Beverly here. Even Captain Picard seems to tacitly agree, not just on this but in terms of cultural relativity: He's the only person this week who appears to be talking sense.

(Incidentally, for some reason I keep associating Toby Russel with Doctor Pulaski. It's not that I'm conflating them, I've always known full well they're two different characters, that this is a fifth season episode and Kate was only in the second. Although, I suppose I could be doing something similar to that subconsciously as I can weirdly see Beverly and Kate having this kind of debate for some reason. Maybe it's because both Toby Russell and Doctor Pulaski wear those same surgery scrubs in this episode and “Samaritan Snare”, respectively.)

The one other big thing worth talking about in regards to “Ethics” is how it sets up a major portion of the rest of the show: Like “Power Play”, “Ethics” begins to lay the groundwork for a new romantic pairing Star Trek: The Next Generation will start exploring-Worf and Deanna Troi. It's not a particularly new one, there's been evidence you could cite dating back to the third season, but this is the point where it starts to become more clear that this is where these two characters are in fact going to end up. A lot of people blame Jeri Taylor for pulling the Worf/Troi ship out of thin air late in the seventh season in an last-ditch effort to grasp at straws, but it's plainly not: Deanna has obviously become a part of Worf and Alexander's extended family, perhaps partially because of how she helped them along in “New Ground”, but mostly because of this story, where she serves as a go-between support for both of them. And Worf even asks Deanna to raise Alexander should he die, and she even accepts. And unlike Geordi and Laren, whose relationship is never brought up again, Worf and Deanna remain more-or-less together 'till the end (although they're still hurt, as everything is, by the circumstances of said end).

But I'm getting ahead of myself again. These are all threads to discuss at far greater length in future episodes, and none of them really require putting yourself through the rest of “Ethics” to see them.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

“Demon War”: Power Play

OK, OK, we'll cut to the chase. No-one is pretending “Power Play” is anything other than a rollicking action show. There's really not a whole lot more under the surface here than that. But damn is it ever a good one. Michael Piller seemed to think this was a hollow, empty and effectively mediocre outing, but even if it's not as openly provocative as Star Trek: The Next Generation can get on its best days, that doesn't mean there isn't a whole lot to love in “Power Play”.

The first obvious thing to say about it is that it's plainly an actor showcase episode, and it's very probably the best damn actor showcase episode this show ever does. It takes three of the best talents out of an already preternaturally talented cast, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner and Colm Meaney (and with the utmost respect to the other actors, all of whom I deeply adore, they are) and just lets them run completely wild for 45 minutes: Because of them (as well as the episode's ample direction that works seamlessly with them), this never for one moment stops being positively gripping. Marina Sirtis is obviously the biggest draw here, and this is the moment she's finally, at long, long last, allowed to come into her own and show us what she's truly capable of. Now she finally has the chance to play the imperious hardass she's always wanted to, and she absolutely owns and relishes every ounce and every second of it. As much as Marina Sirtis will say she appreciated and respected Deanna Troi's empathy as a virtue and as an acting challenge, there's just no way she's not having a total blast here. We're frankly sorry when it's all over.

Colm Meaney gets to show off his range a little differently. His character starts off more of the muscle of the team and he's perfectly capable of playing a hardened hired thug archetype, but the scripts give him these little moments where Miles' personality starts to reassert itself a bit, possibly because it's his technical know-how that's crucial to the convicts' plot. This I suppose makes him probably the most interesting of the three from a character development standpoint, and Meaney's good at working his material so the little flashes of Miles come across as warped, twisted distortions rather than moments of actual sympathy: Even though he may superficially appear to have more dimensions than his co-conspirators, he's still very much a hardened heel and we're meant to never lose site of that. Brent Spiner, meanwhile, is just absolutely fucking terrifying: He's back in his element playing a psychopath, but this is still a true challenge for him, as he has to make sure his character here isn't too reminiscent of Lore (something Spiner often admits and comments on when talking about this episode). Of course, he succeeds well beyond the point of comfort.

As much as this is unquestionably Sirtis, Spiner and Meaney's hour, the rest of the cast do get some important bits. This is another really strong ensemble piece with everyone working together to avert the crisis in ten forward, with Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Doctor Crusher, Worf, Geordi and Laren all contributing something of value. Hearteningly I'm finding it trivial and unnecessary to point that out: Even less than a year ago it was something of a rare treat to see everyone in the main cast given such equal and even-handed treatment, but this year it's become the norm to such an extent it's not even noteworthy to mention anymore, and that's wonderful to see (one of the best ensemble pieces is coming in just a few weeks, in fact). Keiko O'Brien once again gets stuck with a pretty stock and stereotypical wife role, but Rosalind Chao sells it with perfect conviction as always. But among the remainder, I actually have to say my favourite scenes are part of the brief subplot Geordi and Laren share as they try to set up the technobabble pain drill force field thing to ensnare the convicts in the rafters, although some of you might not be terribly surprised to hear me say that.

I unabashedly, unapologetically ship Geordi and Laren, and while I'll plead my case more in the obvious episode, I argue “Power Play” gives us the first little hints of where that relationship is about to go (and where it should have gone). It's not much, of course, but the few exchanges they did have definitely got me to take notice: I love that they're on the same wavelength about the plan from the beginning, with her suggesting a plasma pulse and him immediately picking up on that and thinking of an engineering solution for the delivery device-This sets Laren up as someone who understands lateral thinking and the Enterprise's inner workings (which are basically the same thing anyway) just as well as Geordi. I also love how they gripe to each other in the access shafts about starship designers' conceptions of “easy access”, and I love how Geordi is the first one to comfort Laren as she slowly grows more frustrated with the constant setbacks and failures that she's clearly internalizing and blaming herself for.

LeVar Burton and Michelle Forbes have instant chemistry with each other that's quite frankly above and beyond anything Forbes has with anyone else in the cast (except perhaps Whoopi Goldberg), including Jonathan Frakes. I also feel it's the perfect extension and realisation of the roles both their characters always should have been playing, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Then there is the fascinating potential hinted at with the jat'yIn and the false backstory given by the entity possessing Deanna's body. I know it turns out to be a ruse, but it's an incredibly intriguing one nonetheless: The concept of consciousness living on as part of the latent energy fields and magnetosphere of a planet is tantalizing to say the least. It's an overtly, openly animist way of conceptualizing reality that Star Trek: The Next Generation hasn't really done before (at least not since “Haven”) and this might be the boldest and most spiritually out-there Star Trek *itself* has ever been, except for maybe some odd bits of interesting stuff in the 1970s. And even the final “reveal” about what the entities are doesn't totally discount this: They still exist as a part of the ionic storm. You can read this as a more-or-less straightforward (if rote) demonic possession story, but it might be more rewarding to think in terms of aggressively territorial nature spirits here instead, especially given “Deanna's” last line: “I warn you, Picard, not to pass our way again”.

What this all adds up to is something that is, by my count, yet another high-water mark. No, it's not as overtly “deep” and “serious” as some other stories, but “Power Play” remains deceptively intelligent in its own way. It's quite frankly an insult and a dismissal to call this middling: If nothing else, it's some of the most intense and supercharged fun you can have with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

“I can't seem to forget”: Conundrum

Well it's an interesting one indeed.

“Conundrum” is first off incredibly deceptive. On paper it sounds for all the world like one of the most stock things Star Trek: The Next Generation has ever done and a prime example of a show running on empty: I mean come on, really? An amnesia story? For real? But in truth this is yet another fifth season highlight and a prime example of how the show has never been stronger than it is now. The first clue is that this isn't actually your typical amnesia story,which would have involved either a mysterious hero wandering into an unfamiliar setting where we have to learn about their past alongside them or a tragic accident where the supporting cast has to try and jog the memory of the amnesiac protagonist in a forced, strangled attempt to wring hollow drama out of the show's premise.

Star Trek: The Next Generation can't do either of those plots, not just for the eminently sensible reason that they're both dumb and hackneyed ideas, but also because its narrative structure would preclude that. The amnesia is just a plot device to get at the heart of what “Conundrum” is actually trying to look at, which turns out to be several different interesting things. The original idea for the submission, according to Michael Piller, was the concept of mentally reprogramming people to be soldiers by manipulating their memories and sense of identity, and thus that it was a critique of militarism and the military-industrial complex. Piller feels “Conundrum” doesn't do justice to the original pitch and he's right to make that criticism as that's not quite what this story is (though there's a bit of that at the end), but that doesn't mean the episode as aired is any weaker as a result. If anything, this just allows it to get even more clever and fascinating.

And anyway, the first key concept “Conundrum” is exploring does actually tie somewhat into the original pitch: What would happen, the story is asking, if you had all the conscious mental signposts of how you defined your identity stripped away from you? What parts of you would remain, and would those parts still be you? The easy answer is yes, as even though Kieron MacDuff puts on a convincing ruse, the Enterprise crew simply cannot accept his evidence that they're cold-blooded killers. But there's a further thread to examine here, several, in fact. Through this, “Conundrum” is also making a statement about what our identities actually are and where precisely they lay-As important as the context of our life experiences are (they've doubtlessly shaped the Enterprise crew even when they can't consciously remember them, after all), our innate personhood goes beyond that.

I'm not trying to tread into Cartesianism here, but you can imagine a situation where you might hold similar beliefs and make similar decisions even if your life turned out differently. You would be a different person of course, but not necessarily an unrecognisable one. Put it another way by framing it in personal identity theory terms: To reject the concept of the singular and monolithic Self does not invalidate the experiential self. Rather, by letting go of the concept that you are a self-contained entity existing disconnected and apart from all the other Selves and matter-states only serves to help you understand the disconnectedness of all the self-experiences. Your experiential identity as part of a larger whole remains, even absent traditional notions of the singular Self. In the language of this blog, the transcendent experience of ego death frees the self to live a more holistic and interdependent existence. We travel not just to better and learn more about ourselves, but to rediscover with that which connects all of us.

In Star Trek terms, this is actually almost similar to our conception of how the Mirror Universe works: These are essentially still out characters we're looking at, just with specific background details changed. Part of the appeal is meant to be looking at how they live in and interact with a different set of circumstances. And so even without any reference as to their conscious identities, the Enterprise crew falls back into their familiar roles remarkably quickly. Laren and Geordi innately realise they're the ship's pilot and engineer, respectively, Beverley gets straight back to healing patients, Will wants to go check up on the crew as soon as possible while Jean-Luc immediately starts delegating. Deanna, of course, can instantly sense something fishy's going on, though she can't put it into words. They still instinctively understand what their true selves are.

As for the characters who seem to be mistaken, Data and Worf, they're actually not if you think about what their roles on the show really are, as opposed to their shipboard position. Data thinks he's the inexplicably artificial bartender and slightly oversells the inherent absurdity in his performance. In other words, he's playing the comic relief, which is what Brent Spiner has *always* been the best at. Worf doesn't so much think he's the captain as much as he thinks he should be captain and sees Jean-Luc as a potential rival. In other words, he's defaulting on Klingon norms about how chain of command works. Remember how we learned in “A Matter of Honor” that Klingons challenge their superiors to duels if they lose faith in their leadership, and this is how they advance in rank-That's pretty much what Worf implicitly does to Jean-Luc here.

What all this means is that “Conundrum” is really about performativity. Namely, the performativity of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the different roles that go into holding it up. This is, incidentally, why Keiron MacDuff is such a threat in spite of his people's woefully underpowered arsenal: He's a really good actor. MacDuff knows how the show is supposed to work, and he's a good enough narrative invader that he can manipulate things in just such a way that he's almost capable of turning it into something evil. This also ties into the somewhat infamous tryst between Riker and Ro, which is a subplot that I have a feeling is more clever and complex than most people give it credit for. The common reading either posits their brief relationship is another example of Will's Space Age Sex Tourist persona, or takes Deanna's claim at the end that it was the result of subconscious urges and desires at face value, thus handily (and insultingly) reducing the characters' animosity to stock “unresolved sexual tension”. But that's not what I think is actually going on here.

For one thing, I think their behaviour towards one another before the “affair” starts is actually very telling. Freed from the shackles of having to dance to offensively rote and stock interpersonal drama tropes laid on by their canon backstory, Riker and Ro seem to be dreadfully utopian characters. Laren admits she can get impulsive at times because she feels powerless if she can't act, but Will reassures her that everyone is feeling the same way, she's not alone and that they need to work together as no one person is going to be able to fix things. That's a perfectly understandable and respectable perspective for someone who's lived the sort of life Laren has to hold, and Will's gentle, encouraging response is precisely the way the Enterprise crew should have been treating her from the beginning. We could have stood to see this kind of thing everywhere in “Ensign Ro”, and it says something that we only get it when the crew get their memories wiped.

And then there's the relationship itself. I don't begrudge either one of them it, personally. In that situation, they're two hot strangers who have impressed one another and have had ample opportunities to check each other out through working in such close proximity. I know a lot of people have read this as a major issue that ruins Ro's individuality and effectiveness by making her into just a girl who has a crush on Riker and you might think I'd be inclined to agree given how upset I still am about the fallout from Tasha and Data's rendezvous in “The Naked Now”. But I think “Conundrum” hedges pretty well against this: The thing to remember here is that Ro is still a comparatively new character and we're not sure yet how her relationships with the rest of the crew are going to develop yet. Granted “Disaster” was somewhat crippling for her and it certainly doesn't help that Michelle Forbes will never be as available as the rest of the main cast. But Ro doesn't have her canon love interest yet (though we get what might be the first glimpse of that next week), and right now it's this uncertain fluidity about where her role is going to fall that actually ends up helping her and making this plot work. See, what Laren does here is pick up narrative slack. She finds a part that needs filling and fills it. And in this case, it's Deanna's.

If the love triangle subplot reflects poorly on anyone, it's not Will or Laren, but her. One can understand how she'd be drawn to Will after her memories are suppressed as she obviously recognises that the two of them are still emphatically linked, but it's what she does with that knowledge after her memories return that's troublesome. She clearly perceives what went on between Will and Laren as Will cheating on her, but it isn't. Deanna is no longer Will's girlfriend, and even if she were she wouldn't have been after they lost their memories because everyone becomes a stranger to everyone else then. One of the best redemptive readings I think we've come up with for how Will and Deanna operate is that they effectively get off on each other getting off even when one of them isn't around, a logical and physical extension of the intimate familiarity of their relationship. The last scene here sort of goes against that reading, and even if we set aside our own projections it still doesn't fit with who these characters are supposed to be. Deanna shouldn't have any remaining hangups about her terminated romance with Will, and indeed should be happy for him that he found such happiness with someone.

Indeed, if anyone comes across as the “jealous type” in this situation, it's certainly not Laren, which she rather cleanly and succinctly proves in the episode's closing moments. She tells Will “Commander, don't worry about it. As far as I'm concerned, you and I have shared something that we will treasure forever”, and walks out of ten forward leaving him and Deanna alone. Some read this as her being sarcastic, and while that does certainly fit Ro's character, in Michelle Forbes' delivery I hear something else. I hear her being sincere, if disarmingly and complaisantly so (Standoffish as she may be, Laren's ultimately not one to wear her heart on her sleeve-She's not always comfortable opening up with raw, heartfelt feeling). What she's done is take on Deanna's old role as Will's empathetic, understanding and supportive ex, which Deanna has apparently also relinquished now alongside everything else that made her distinctive. In doing so, Ro Laren has, only in her second appearance as a regular, put herself on Captain Picard's narrative level, because this is the exact same sort of thing he did in stories like “Q Who” and “Redemption II”. She's unquestionably a part of the Enterprise now.

(And anyway, defining Ro by her relationship with Riker really is just as bad as defining Tasha by her relationship with Data. Worse, probably, as Ro actually does have some more good material ahead of her. It's only “Preemptive Strike”, her final guest spot, that fucks her over in this regard.)

But that aside, “Conundrum” is wonderful. You can argue amongst yourselves whether it merits classic status by virtue of these niggling issues, but in my view it remains one more highlight from a stellar run of stories.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

“Snake, a snake!”: The Masterpiece Society

This is probably the episode I've changed my opinion on more times than any other. The first time I saw “The Masterpiece Society” I thought it was middling, though acceptable in a vague sort of way: It didn't really hold my interest long enough to leave much of an impression, though I liked that Geordi had a meaty plot with a lady guest star. Later, I came to understand that this episode has, or at least had, a very significant and vocal hatedom, with many fans describing it as the flat-out worst episode in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Which struck me as odd, considering “Code of Honor” and “Reunion” both exist. Then I remembered I had read somewhere that some fan forum or critical aggregate site (I can't remember which one) bestowed upon “The Masterpiece Society” the unusual title of “most average Star Trek: The Next Generation episode”. As in, if you were looking for one episode that best encapsulated what the show looked like and how it operated on an average week, this would be it.

So going into it this time I really had no idea what to expect. These are the kinds of episodes I actually secretly like revisiting the most: I always know the classics and my old favourites are going to be just as good as I remember, but it's the episodes I haven't seen in many years or don't remember as well (or in extremely rare instances have *never* seen) that often prove the most rewarding from an analytical perspective as it gives me a chance to approach a show I typically have a very hard time maintaining any sort of real emotional distance from with the full arsenal of critical tools and ideological maturity I've accumulated over the years. So my takeaway from “The Masterpiece Society” in a nutshell is that it is actually kind of bad, but not at all for the reasons people tend to say it's bad and is actually way less egregious in some respects than other times the show has slipped up. And even then the only truly irredeemable bollocks is in the last act, and there's quite a strong kernel of a good idea here that's obfuscated by the unpleasantness at the end.

The first thing about this episode is that, like a lot of middling Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, it's basically an Original Series episode. The Enterprise discovers a “Planet of Hats” where everyone behaves in a programmatically idiosyncratic manner where said idiosyncrasies put them at philosophical odds with our heroes and the crisis of the week. There is a conflict of interests and culture clash between the two parties as they work to resolve the crisis, exacerbated at least in part by one of our heroes falling in love or becoming otherwise involved with a prominent figure among the natives. Just a brief tangent before I launch into the redemptive reading: This bothers me quite a lot, and I think it's very indicative of the more systemic problems with this writing staff. Say what you will about people like Maurice Hurley and Melinda Snodgrass (or indeed, of Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor and even Ira Steven Behr), but they were veteran writers and TV people who came from outside the Star Trek think-tank, and they brought their years of experience and wisdom with them.

People like Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga though literally have no credentials apart from being Star Trek fans, and one gets the sense altogether too frequently they'd much rather be writing for Kirk, Spock and McCoy instead of Picard, Deanna and Geordi. This crops up not just in their own scripts, but in the teleplays their team adapt from freelance submissions. At least D.C Fontana and Bob Justman had the excuse they were writing six weeks into the first season and nobody really knew what Star Trek: The Next Generation actually was yet.

But enough of that, as A. there's an episode next season where these complaints are going to prove even more damning, and B. “The Masterpiece Society” is actually on Michael Piller, who thought the idea was good enough to press ahead with. Ron Moore actually hates this one for his own reasons, which we'll discuss later on. And anyway, “The Masterpiece Society” actually does something rather interesting with the “It's just TOS with nicer paint” brief: Typically with a story like this you'd expect the triumvirate roles to get pigeonholed onto the usual suspects-Kirk's role would be filled by either Captain Picard or Commander Riker, rarely both, Spock's part would go to Data and Doctor Crusher would fill in for the impassioned Bones McCoy, unless Worf or Commander Riker already has. Meanwhile, nobody gives a shit about Geordi, Laren (unless the episode is about her), Beverly (if she isn't given a triumvirate position) or Deanna (unless the episode is going out of its way to mock her).

What “The Masterpiece Society” does though is really unorthodox by the standards of lazy plug-in-the-numbers stock TOS stories: The Kirk figure's role, that of the person who falls in love with a prominent local authority and gets emotionally invested to the point their judgment is clouded, falls to Deanna, while the voice-of-reason Spock role gets absorbed into Captain Picard's part, which both includes it and is something far more (as he still has to shoulder the brunt of the philosophical dilemma and decision making). Meanwhile Data is practically missing in action, which he almost *never* is, while the overwhelming majority of the episode's ethical teeth go to Geordi. And Geordi is something special to watch here: Sure, it's not like he has a huge task in front of him going up against an engineered society of eugenicists, they basically line themselves up to get knocked down. But even above and beyond that he gets a number of truly devastating bits where he icily rebuffs Hannah's flagrant abelism with what have got to be some of the best words ever penned to combat it.

The exchanges in question,
“It was the wish of our founders that no one have to suffer a life of disabilities.”
“Who gave them the right to decide whether or not I might have something to contribute?”
“Oh, that's perfect.”
“If the answer to all of this is in a VISOR created for a blind man who never would have existed in your society.”
were obviously intended to critique the Moab's practice of eugenics, but in the context of their scenes, and particularly thanks to LeVar Burton's delivery, they also serve as a powerful, and irrefutable, response to those who would argue disabled people are deserving of pity, lack self-worth or are somehow unable to live a full and fulfilling existence. It's a side of LeVar we've never really seen before, and he's unbelievably good at it. Seriously-This is probably the single best moment for Geordi as a character pertaining to his blindness we've seen so far, if not in the entire series. If Michael Piller had wanted to do an actual, legitimate story about blindness in Star Trek: The Next Generation's utopian setting (not that piece of shit “The Loss”) this is the exact groundwork for going about doing that.

Speaking of the Moabs' eugenics-based society, I have to wonder, especially so soon after “Violations”, whether or not this was intended as a response to that omnipresent bugbear bit of uninformed criticism of Star Trek: The Next Generation-That it's aristocratic and elitist. Here we *really do* find a society that's been meticulously engineered to be perfect and free of any perceived “flaws”or “defects”, and it's just about the most horrific thing ever. Pretty much no-one on the Enterprise can contain their disgust and contempt for the Moabs and what they've done except for Data, who can't feel, and Deanna, who is a problem this week. Again. I'd say her character is being assassinated by the way she behaves in this story if I thought she had any character left to assassinate by this point. Even among her dubious track record to date, falling in love with the leader of a eugenics cult and romanticizing the lifestyle they've created has got to be near the top of the list. Honestly, poor Deanna Troi is so far gone and so problematic five years in it would be honestly better if the writers just threw everything about her into the dustbin and started anew from scratch. Which, incidentally, they do start of make overtures to doing in a few weeks. The only place she works and displays any manner of consistent characterization is the comics.

(This is also the root of my beef with Ron Moore and director Winrich Kolbe's criticisms of “The Masterpiece Society”: Kolbe thinks the fact the Moabs are “too perfect” makes them boring and tows the usual Interpersonal Drama Is God party line, which is still bullshit in my estimation, while Moore says the episode is boring essentially because it involves Deanna and a romance plot. Which is, well, pretty hurtful.)

On the other hand, the Enterprise crew's response to the Moabs' society is also this episode's crippling flaw. Because it ends on that hoary old TOS Garden of Eden moral H-bomb: The Moabs have lost their innocence through interacting with the Enterprise crew, the only reason the Prime Directive doesn't apply is because they're human and isn't it all so sad. Two weeks in a row now we've had a final act completely torpedo and undo the ethical position of the rest of the episode, because this isn't a tragedy in the slightest. That society absolutely needed to be undone, because it was morally and ethically repugnant and reprehensible at basically every conceivable level. On top of coming out in favour of eugenics, “The Masterpiece Society” also manages to tell us that reactionary, insular, xenophobic fundamentalist cults are a Good Thing and talking to people from other cultures and other ways of life is dangerous and will ultimately lead us down a path of ruination that will bring about the collapse of society.

And that, actually, might be single most antithetical thing to Star Trek as has ever been said.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

“Dark Thoughts”: Violations

So. There are a handful of episodes that, irrespective of their quality one way or another, I simply cannot watch. This would be one of those.

The first strike against “Violations” is that it's one of those infamous “Issues” stories. Even though this is the kind of story Star Trek is arguably most famous for doing, the fact of the matter is they're also the kind of story Star Trek is also the most terrible at telling. There's no way it can do a story like this and not come across as equal parts blinkered and self-absorbed. The best way for Star Trek to do “social commentary”, as it were, is through its utopianism: Demonstrate a utopian approach to solving a problem or portray a world where a specific problem is conspicuously absent. Conversely, if you must tell a story about a specific social topic that would no longer be strictly speaking relevant in a utopian future setting, you have to speak about it in allegorical generalization. The problem “Violations” has is that it doesn't quite commit one way or the other, which is deeply unfortunate as it also happens to be “The Rape Episode”.

I'm not even sure how to tactfully go about this. I mean, I think the story has its heart in the right place, but it's deeply, deeply uncomfortable to watch, and not in a good way. And just being right-on politically and ethically does not mean can adequately translate that into a narrative setting. Alien this isn't, that's for sure. Actually, Alien might be a good place to start: Like “Violations”, that's a story that is at its roots a condemnation of rape and rape culture told mostly through allegory. But while the Alien eventually did end up going around indiscriminately slaughtering people, the key thing there was that the first victim was male, part of an attempt to force male audience members to come face-to-face with the rape culture they have been brought up a part of. “Violations” already comes up short by comparison, because two of its three victims are women and the first is...Deanna Troi. Someone who has an unsettling predisposition to mind rape. And this one doesn't even have the excuse most of Deanna's possession plots do (that being allowing Marina Sirtis to actually do shit) as she's comatose for most of this episode.

Another crucial aspect of Alien's success is the fact that so much of it is conveyed through its own awareness of its cinematic nature. It's a film so loaded with symbolic imagery that it basically runs on it (thanks in no small part to H.R. Giger and Ridley Scott), demonstrating a peerless mastery of Long 1980s cinematography. “Violations”, meanwhile...doesn't. It's a further continuation of Star Trek: The Next Generation's frustratingly conservative and dated filmmaking techniques, and this is a major problem for a story like this because of the subject matter. Alien is a veritable attack on our cinematic habits and tendencies: Through editing it equates the leering voyeurism of the audience with the predatory monstrosity of the Alien, forcing them to confront the realities of rape culture they have internalized. “Violations” meanwhile is itself voyeuristic as it gives us free inside access to the crew's personal traumas (and you can discuss among yourselves whether any of them are a fitting metaphor for rape).

This is the real consequence of an adolescent fixation on conflict and glorification of traditional cinematic techniques. You wind up acritically reiterating rape culture and the male gaze, even in stories that are supposed to criticize those very concepts.

(Speaking of cinematic techniques, it's probably worth pointing out that “Vioaltions” marks a baby-step forward in developing Star Trek: The Next Generation's handle on psychological horror, which will become a signature of its in the next two seasons. It's not conveyed as effectively as it could have been though and feels...“off” in this story to me. It's certainly got nothing on “Night Terrors”, for instance. Also I should note it's not altogether an ill-advised move to describe rape through painful memories given the link it can have to post traumatic stress disorder, though I'm not sure that link is made quite well enough.)

“Violations” isn't even saying anything particularly new or productive except “rape is bad” which yeah, it definitely is that and that's a lesson a good many science fiction fans could probably stand to learn, but I would sort of hope Star Trek: The Next Generation would be able to touch more at the heart of rape culture and show the path out of it. I suppose this episode, or an episode like this, was in some sense “necessary” given how perpetually mired in rape culture the original Star Trek was and how backwards-fixated, reactionary and fannishly introspective a lot of this creative team is. I could imagine there being sort of a sense that an injustice or imbalance needed to be corrected, thus leading to a pitch like this. But does “Violations” even accomplish this comparatively more meager goal? I don't think it does: It even ends on an incredibly awkward line for Captain Picard:
“But I think no one can deny that the seed of violence remains within each of us. We must recognize that, because that violence is capable of consuming each of us, as it consumed your son.”
Um, well, yes, I think I'd deny it. I mean for one its a cringe-inducingly pat Captain Kirk-style line that Captain Picard would never say and doesn't belong anywhere near this show, but more importantly it couldn't actually be more wrong. What this line is basically saying is that rape culture is an intrinsic aspect humanity, all of humanity, and it's just an impulse we have to control. And no, it's not. It absolutely is not. This is the kind of thinking that has normalized rape culture for centuries, and it's the merest of stone's throws from something like this to flat-out victim blaming.

I can't think of a worse way, actually, to end an episode that's supposedly a condemnation of rape and rape culture. Those who must live in fear of rape culture do not have “the seed of violence” because they are oppressed and marginalized, and this kind of violence is a weapon directed against the oppressed and the marginal. That's what rape fundamentally is, an attempt to demonstrate absolute power and authority over someone else, and that's the point “Violations” fails to make. Rape culture is part of patriarchy, and like all of patriarchy it's a social construct that has become a behavioural pattern repeated unconsciously without question. But human society, like history, is not teleological. There was never any predisposition that this would become the default mode of social organisation: We collectively chose this, and now it's up to us to choose to reject it.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

“Strange New Worlds”: Hero Worship

And this would be the perfect counterpoint to that argument. It's one of my absolute favourite episodes in a season mostly made up of favourite episodes.

I used to get “Hero Worship” mixed up with “The Bonding” a lot because they both deal with helping children cope with a traumatic loss and move forward with their lives. They're also both fucking brilliant and textbook example of what Star Trek: The Next Generation is all about. It would be understandable to make the assumption “Hero Worship” is a ripoff or rehash of “The Bonding” in this respect, and I even thought that myself for awhile. But it's actually not: Both episodes approach loss from different angles, and Jeremy from that episode and Timothy in this one deal with their confusion and sadness in two very different ways: Jeremy tries to cling to a past he can't go back to, while Timothy shuts down and doesn't want to acknowledge his feelings. Also, and this is just me I'm sure, but I almost think “Hero Worship” is maybe a little more nuanced and sophisticated than “The Bonding” in some areas.

Firstly though, the title is very apt. Timothy doesn't pretend to be an android just because they don't have emotions and he doesn't want to feel pain and guilt anymore: As Deanna Troi points out, Timothy also sees a strength in Data that he wants to emulate. It's pretty much the first diegetic acknowledgment in the entire history of the series of how Star Trek: The Next Generation is actually supposed to work, and if there's a better place to put an episode like this than in the 25th Anniversary year as part of a season of growing strength and confidence, I don't know where that is. There's also the very nice touch early on of Data turning to Geordi for help in understanding childhood trauma so he can better help Timothy, to which Geordi naturally responds with a story.

He's not the one directly interacting with Timothy, but Geordi helps Data who then helps him. Reading Data, as we do, as filling the kind of role that might otherwise go to a child character, this results in a very sweet and elegant chain of empathy showcasing how role models work: One person is inspired by another, they then take those lessons into their own being and, through living their lives in accordance with them, can then go on to inspire a third person. Role models are important not only because we see in them the sort of person we'd like to be ourselves, but because they can sometimes provide example of solutions to confusing and painful situations. We trust their judgment not necessarily because they think like us, but because they think the way we would like to think, and that can be profoundly helpful on many different levels.

(In fact Deanna gets a very telling quote early in the story: “His world is gone, Data. We're going to have to help him build a new one.” It helps that she's exceedingly good across the board this week, especially considering therapy is such a central theme of this story. Actually, it's almost a surprise to see her like this, as it's been so long since the last time we've properly seen her in this capacity-Since “Night Terrors”, by my count. Maybe even since “Tin Man”. She's so good I can *almost* forgive teleplay scribe Joe Menosky grousing in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 about how much he hates Deanna Troi as a character and thinks her position as a therapist dates the show horribly.)

There's another level at which Timothy's android persona resonates, though. It's not just a coping mechanism, though it certainly is partially that, but it's also another instance of something Star Trek: The Next Generation has done since the beginning: Role-playing as a means of working through emotions in a constructive and beneficial way. One of the things the holodeck is very good at is improvosational role-play with the crew (“We'll Always Have Paris”, “Elementary, Dear Data” and “Booby Trap” being the three examples that most immediately spring to mind), and this is another variation on that. But there's an added layer of meaning at a textual level insomuch as Timothy is a child, and imaginative play and make-believe have always been ways children make sense of the world. You can extrapolate this thread even further given the way this show operates, and indeed the very story it did not ten weeks ago: Timothy's android persona, and the crew's engagement with him about it, is essentially collaborative storytelling as an allegory for real-world experiences and emotions.

It helps considerably, of course, that Timothy works as well as he does. By this point Star Trek: The Next Generation has finally more or less solidified its approach towards handling conflict and conflict resolution: In spite of Michael Piller's decree from the third season that every episode have to be about a specific main character in one respect or another, the show really does work best when the guest stars handle the brunt of the plot. Star Trek: The Next Generation is, essentially, a show where the main characters are more like supporting cast: This isn't a “Data Story” in the traditional sense, it's really Timothy's story, but Data's positionality and perspective is still key to that. And Data (and Geordi and Deanna and Captain Picard) are not flawless automatons of awesomeness, they still have real human emotions (or in Data's case real android experiences) and still feel like people, no matter how idealized they may be and how much Timothy diegetically looks up to them.

But that's fine because the supporting characters are always the coolest ones anyway. And you'll note that this is the same thing Michael Jan Friedman had figured out in like 1988: It's taken the TV team four seasons to get to the same point the comic book started at ( Well OK, three: We understood in the first season to an extent, but promptly forgot immediately thereafter).

While re-watching this episode this go-around I also couldn't help but think about some of my own experiences in the context of what the story is saying. Though it was nothing on anywhere remotely near the scale of what Timothy went through and I was a great deal younger than I think he's supposed to be, I myself had some amount of tragic loss in my childhood, and even into my older years. And while it wasn't always the case, I didn't tend to get very emotional about it either...Perhaps it was because they were people I wasn't particularly close with (as we know, “We feel a loss more intensely when it's a friend”), but I seem to remember always sort of being aware that death was a natural part of life and never really having a hard time accepting that. I have to wonder now though if maybe I was just unconsciously doing the same kind of thing Timothy tries to do here: Suppress his feelings so he doesn't have to deal with them. I hope that wasn't the case.

I suppose some would say it's sometimes easy to become desensitized to bereavement, especially if one experiences a great deal of it on a regular basis. But perhaps the best way to come to grips with any loss, no matter how large or how small, is to remember and be thankful for whatever time you spent in another's presence and how your lives enriched each other from sharing that time with them. And from this, continue living, and continue searching for more opportunities like these to treasure.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

“I Am Your Father”: New Ground

“New Ground” is a bit like “Ensign Ro” in the sense it's a rather middling, though functional, effort that exists primarily to introduce a new reoccurring character, or in this case reintroduce one. “New Ground” comes across a bit better than “Ensign Ro”, or at least more forgettable (in a good way) because it doesn't have the retroactive weight of Bajor, the Cardassian occupation and Ro Laren hanging over it and because Alexander is quite frankly nobody's favourite character (with the exception of Michael Piller's mother, which is apparently the reason he sticks around as long as he does).

Any problems this story has can be purely chalked up as conceptual ones it inherits by virtue of digging up Alexander rather then issues with its localized narrative structure. Simply put, Alexander was never a good idea, or at least the way they introduced him wasn't a good idea. The stink of “Reunion” is going to hang over the poor kid forever no matter what he does (and he does do some good stuff). Actually, the most annoying thing about “New Ground” is that like 80% of it works as a perfectly standalone introduction to Alexander before Deanna Troi has to come in and talk about how K'Ehleyr hurt both of them by not telling Worf about her pregnancy and not telling Alexander anything about his father or his Klingon heritage and how they both have to heal each other together. Of course, it's all K'Ehleyr's fault-The girlfriend and mother conveniently cut out of the picture who also conveniently can't come back to defend herself.

The plot, such as it is, fairly clearly is designed with a form-follows-function approach in mind. Kid shows up to live with his single parent, has trouble adjusting, gets into problems, situation arises where they're forced to work together and reconcile. The acting is good on everyone's part, but it always is, isn't it? That's barely worth mentioning now. There's a subplot involving something science fictiony and technobabley going on that crosses over with the A-plot, which is another device Star Trek: The Next Generation can use as a comfortable fallback. It's not as well put-together as it sometimes is (the idea that the sci-fi plot and the human plot could be the same and metaphors for each other was ossified way back in “We'll Always Have Paris”), but it works and it's cool, which always helps. I do remember the major setpieces here fairly well: That oscillating electric blue wave surging towards the main viewer, the explosive backdraft in the science lab with Worf and Commander Riker on either side.

But while “New Ground” may be constructed out of pre-built narrative devices that have become tropes, much as one might with Duplo blocks, it's telling that this time I'm not meaning it as a criticism. There's nothing blatantly ill-advised or backwards-thinking here, though trying to graft this kind of stock bad children's television plot onto Star Trek: The Next Generation isn't the most elegant thing the show has ever done. It does what it needs to do to bring Alexander back and nothing more, and I suppose there's something to be said for that. I guess my one question here is why, exactly this needed to be *quite* as stock as it is, or indeed why the creative team feels the need to do this sort of thing when introducing new characters.

Because while it works, “New Ground” still isn't a terribly *good* or *interesting* story about a kid-The argument could be made that Star Trek: The Next Generation just sucks when it comes to child characters and there's certainly evidence for that...And yet “The Bonding” exists and there are two episodes coming right up that are just about perfect stories about kids. And one of them prominently features Alexander. And say what you will about “Disaster”, Marissa and the others were certainly that episode's major highlight.

That's actually maybe a more interesting question: Why do Alexander (and Wesley Crusher before him) continually prove to be so troublesome when the show is clearly capable of doing good stories involving child characters? I think the answer to both lies in the fact neither character comes from a terribly good place and neither one is especially effective or well conceptualized. Wesley Crusher's problems are obvious and well-trod ground, being firstly a wish-fulfillment avatar and secondly the distilled essence of Nerd Culture and upper middle class white cis heterosexual male privilege. Alexander's conceptual issues are a bit more ephemeral, but no less crippling: “Reunion” aside, the big problem with Alexander is that he's simply never fleshed out or defined as a character at all. Sitting here writing this and even as familiar with this section of the show as I am, I couldn't tell you what Alexander's defining character traits are.

I know he's a Klingon child who's effectively an orphan raised by foster human parents and cut off from Klingon society. As a result his cultural identity is the source of much of his own personal journey. So...He's basically mini-Worf? What sort of narrative benefit does that serve and how does he enrich the kinds of stories we can tell about Klingon society vis a vis its interactions with the Enterprise crew? I'm not being facetious, I genuinely don't have an answer here, and I'm not sure the creative team did either. Alexander, like the story arc that quite literally birthed him, exists only as a satellite to Worf's larger explroation of his personal identity-He's nothing more than a supporting character who exists to be a subset to his father. And that's more or less the exact opposite of how Star Trek: The Next Generation should work: The show is about how people grow from travelling and interacting with the Enterprise, not how they absorb and appropriate other people's stories. This is a bad habit the show has occasionally fallen back onto pretty much ever since Tasha Yar, and unfortunately Alexander probably gets it the worst.

So that's the real problem here. Not that Star Trek: The Next Generation can't write children, but, like Alexander, it still has problems every now and then fully embracing who and what it is.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

“Time, professor.”: A Matter of Time

There's an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that has always been imprinted on me. In my mind, I see an image of Data and somebody else slowly moving about inside what appears to be some kind of alien spacecraft. The walls are all odd, geometric shapes coloured silver blue. There's a cool, yet dark, lighting to the scene. I think the episode is “A Matter of Time”, but I can't know for sure.

So now you've heard their story. It's time to tell the other side.

“A Matter of Time” is another of Rick Berman's rare solo contributions, and marks his first stab at a topic that seems to fascinate him and inspire a lot of his future creative work on Start Trek: The ramifications of time travel. In particular, what kinds of social norms and mores would crop up in a universe where time travel technology is commonplace. As it pertains to this story, Berman cites the “Mark Twain” feeling” of “what Leonardo da Vinci could have done with a calculator or Alexander the Great with a shotgun”. But while Professor Berlinghoff Rasmussen may not technically be a historian, this doesn't mean he's just a simple con-man with a time machine either.

Yeah, Rasmussen was one of ours. Bad seed; went rogue. More or less harmless in the scheme of things, mostly because he was also terrible at his job. We found the time pod adrift in space, probably crippled during one of their skirmishes. We brought it to him for analysis and to keep it safe, hopefully so we could finally get some answers about this damn war. The agents found out, of course. They came to us and told us we had to return it because it would endanger the future-Their future, naturally. Our thinking was that they'd spent so much time meddling in our present, it'd only be fair if we poked around in theirs for a bit to see for ourselves what all this was about. Of course, Rasmussen thought it would be an easy way to make some extra coin.

The thing that struck me the most about “A Matter of Time” is how aware of its own structure it is. For 97% of its running time, it's very straightforwardly one kind of story: Rasmussen's presence prompts the Enterprise crew to realise that Penthara IV is not going to be a run-of-the-mill mission; that something genuinely historic is going to happen. And the knowledge that it will, and they aren't allowed to know anything more about it than that, forces the crew (most notably Captain Picard, but Commander Riker, Geordi, Doctor Crusher and Deanna as well) to consciously think about their own decision making processes and ethical standpoints. It's not shoehorning conflict into Star Trek: The Next Generation for the sake of conflict, it's another manifestation of what travelling on the Enterprise means: That you get to know yourself better and grow as a person because of that. And that act in Captain Picard's ready room between him and Rasmussen has got to be one of the all-time greatest exchanges in the series, even if it hinges on patently nonsensical temporal mechanics technobabble. And it all culminates in that wonderfully glib, but true, line from Rasmussen: “Everyone dies, Captain! It's just a question of when!”.

Where I come from, there's a great war being fought for control over the time-space continuum. Throughout history wars have always been waged for ideological reasons, but try to imagine what forms those ideologies take when the battlefield is history itself. With time travel technology, we now have the capabilities to reshape time to suit our tastes. Every textbook and every story is real, and also a possible weapon. Did you hear what Rasmussen said about his “areas of interest”? Those dates were not picked at random to pad out his cover story. There's a critical battle going on in the 26th century, and depending on which side ends up on top the tide of the war could be permanently shifted. But they've made it so their battles are not contained to their times anymore: They imposed themselves into our existence and made their war ours. And regrettably, our war is now about to become yours as well. Perhaps it already has-I...I can't know for sure anymore.

Of course this thread gets seemingly subverted and abandoned in the final moments when it's revealed Rasmussen is actually a con man. It could be argued that, as was the case with Q in “Hide and Q”, doing this robs Rasmussen of a unique perspective from which to critique the Enterprise crew, but I actually don't think this hurts the story that much, if at all. Though I think “A Matter of Time” would have worked just as well as it does now had Rasmussen not been a con (and in case I've not been clear it works really, really well: This is one of my favourite episodes), the fact that he is adds one more wrinkle to an already intriguing story. Because in essence this means Rasmussen is undercover, in other words, he's playing a role. Remember how one of the strengths Star Trek: The Next Generation has built for itself out of its numerous production adversities is a multilayered knowing performativity where characters take on roles that may not be technically theirs, but that need to be filled. In essence, they double up and play understudy as a coping mechanism to deal with critical pieces of their performance getting crippled from the outset.

Rasmussen knew about it. About them. We all did. Don't underestimate the ingenuity of our engineers. He picked his marks smartly and meaningfully-That was probably his best attribute. He met with them because he had seen what they were going to become in one possible destiny. I think somebody from your time once said something like “every ship to bear the name Enterprise has made history” or something to that effect? If only he could know just how right he really was. Understand, while Rasmussen might have been shortsighted and let his personal flaws get the better of him in the end, he was a good man. I knew him, and can tell you he was profoundly changed by his experiences. Maybe not enough, but he played his part with aplomb when he was called on to do it. We can only hope we'll be able to do the same when our time finally comes for us.

What Rasmussen does here is play the role of interlocutor to Captain Picard perfectly. He might not be exactly what he seems, but neither is this story. And neither are the Enterprise crew, for that matter. A compelling argument could be made that they're gaming the Federation and the structure of Star Trek in much the same way Rasmussen games them here: They're Starfleet's flagship but interact with their superiors with what can best be described as malicious compliance: They embody the ideals the Federation claims to stand for, but in doing so they reveal that the Federation in truth doesn't stand for them at all. And that's a massive embarrassment to Earth that makes them look terrible, and rightly so. If Rasmussen makes a mistake it's that he betrays the Enterprise crew's trust (an egregious error as Shocking Betrayal!-style conflict is a tentpole of the kind of hack writing Star Trek: The Next Generation must purge itself of). Or maybe it's that he got overconfident and blew his cover: As Captain Picard says at the end, they never would have suspected him had he stolen less shit. In the end, Rasmussen's only crime is that he's not as good a con artist and performer as he needed to be.

(It helps of course that Rasmussen has such a fantastically talented actor to bring him to life: Matt Frewer, of Max Headroom fame. Apparently he was written with Star Trek fan Robin Williams in mind, but he was too busy filming Hook at the time, necessitating a recast. Frewer's great in the part though, bringing a perfectly balanced sense of tone and mania to the performance that's neither overly broad or overly similar to his equally quirky (though for different reasons) iconic character. And somehow it feels fitting that he's playing a renegade fighting against the forces of teleology.)

I suppose I'm opening myself and my people up to criticisms of arrogance. You could ask “how could you be so presumptuous as to want to reshape reality?". Well, that's a criticism you could level at every single one of our rivals and our enemies. And to yourself, actually: You may or may not have consciously come to terms with this yet, but reality is nothing except what you believe it to be. That old phrase “perception is reality”? Another quote that's more true than people realize. We all exist within our own realities unknowable to anyone except ourselves. And time? Time can only be known through history, and history is a story we tell each other. And stories are real. You've already heard someone else's story, and now this is ours. We will be heard at last.

Data, at Penthara IV!

La Forge remained below.