Tuesday, August 4, 2015

“I am not worth this coil that's made for me”: Cost of Living, Imaginary Friend

The episodes I look at for this project pretty unfailingly come in one of three forms. Bad episodes I know are bad but which I may or may not be fuzzy on the details of precisely why, good episodes I know are good because of longstanding vivid memories I have of them and episodes I have next to no recollection of whatsoever. “Cost of Living” and “Imaginary Friend” mark something an interesting milestone in this respect because they're none of those things: Sadly, this is probably the first time (or at least one of the rare instances in which) a story that brought me a lot of joy in the past turned out to be nowhere remotely near as good as I remembered.

This essay is, I should mention, something of a strange one for me. Normally when I do these multiple episode recap-type posts I know in advance which episodes I'm going to be lumping together and what central shared theme I'm going to hang them on. This gives me time to schedule my watching and writing so I'm not down to the wire trying to fit everything in at the last minute. That, uh, didn't happen the week I was writing this: I had initially planned to give each of these episodes their own posts as I had fond memories of both I wanted to reflect on. As it turned out...They both suck. And they both suck for dully pedestrian and identikit reasons. So I'll freely admit this is a rough sort of cut-and-paste job, but I guess this means you now have the opportunity to see how my writing style adapts to contingencies.

I'll run down the gamut of both episodes and the things I was expecting to talk about each of them. What I always remembered about “Cost of Living” is Lwaxana Troi's interactions with Alexander. I remember her coming in, finding him out of sorts and immediately bonding with him and showing him the multitude of life's little joys and wonders through the medium of mud baths. A great many mud baths. This was traditionally my favourite Lwaxana Troi story, after “Haven” and “Dark Page”: I always thought this episode was a terrific showcase for the more whimsical, breezy and inspirational sides to her character and I thought she made a delightful comparison to Alexander, someone who's trying to find out what it means to be a kid in a family dynamic that doesn't have any idea either. And all of those things are indeed there-The episode simply sings whenever Lwaxana and Alexander are onscreen together, and the first mud bath scene in particular, where Lwaxana tells Alexander about the “hundreds of little people” who live inside all of us “waiting for just the right moment to come out and save us from ourselves” is flat-out one of the greatest single lines of dialog in the show to date, at least from her. The problem is that everything about “Cost of Living” that doesn't have to do with Lwaxana and Alexander bonding is absolutely atrocious.

This is without question the most cringe-inducingly unwatchable this show has been since the second season, maybe even since the halcyon days of “Justice” and “Angel One”. It's so godawful I found myself leaving the TV on mute whenever Worf and Deanna were talking, or whenever Lwaxana was onscreen with her fiance (I don't know his name because I had the TV on mute whenever he was on, so I'll just call him Baron Tightass, Lord of the Manor of Buzzkill). Let's talk about Worf and Deanna first. The nice thing is that, like “Ethics” and “The Outcast”, this furthers the thread of their blossoming relationship. The not nice thing is that, like “Ethics” and “The Outcast”, it is accomplished in the most embarrassingly, shittastically stereotypical manner imaginable. They don't even behave like human beings (or, half-Betazoid hybrids and Klingons or whatever...Shut up, you know damn well what I mean): Their scenes play out more like someone watched a 1990s sitcom depiction of gender roles and child rearing and then tried to copy that really badly, as if this was some terribly, tragically socially stunted writer whose first and only exposure to the outside world was terrible, awful made-to-order populist entertainment.

And now I'm going to stop because I've just now realised my attempt at satirical caricature and rhetorical exaggeration might well actually be way more realistic and accurate than I intended it to be.

Apart from being “Final Mission” levels of immeasurably awful stock, the other thing that's bad about Worf and Deanna here is that they're more or less the antagonists. They are depicted just as stodgy and obsessed with rules, protocol and demeanour as Baron Tightass, deliberately so, and are portrayed to be so lacking in imagination that they've forgotten everything wondrous and joyful that make life worth living. And so Lwaxana, in a complete reversal of Majel Barrett's star-making turn in “Half a Life” last year, is being wheeled in to inject colour into a cast of characters the writers clearly think live a beige and grey existence (she even gets to point out, however rightly, that “contracts are for people who don't trust one another”). It's a version of Lwaxana we haven't seen since “Haven”, and with good reason, since at least back then Star Trek: The Next Generation was three episodes in and coming off of “The Naked Now” and “Code of Honor” and definitely needed to be legitimized by the presence of someone from the Old Generation in the eyes of the public.

And at least “Haven” gave Will and Deanna a meaty subplot and had lively characters like Data and Tasha Yar to show off: “Cost of Living” is on the level of “Ménage à Troi” in terms of tone and humour and feels like it was written by an actual robot. And while you could argue Lwaxana makes a mistake in being “too flighty” and impulsive in agreeing to marry Baron Tightass as quickly as she does (by the way I do love that they met on the 24th century equivalent of an online dating site), I don't buy that because she gives Alexander that big weepy monologue about fearing being alone at her age. It's not a flaw if we're supposed to feel sorry for her and come around to her side anyway. If I didn't know better, I'd accuse Peter Allan Fields (who even wrote the teleplay for “Half a Life”) of writing Lwaxana as a Mary Sue. Here's the point where it should be irrefutable that there's a serious problem in this writers' room: We've crossed a line in moving beyond giving the guest stars the ethical dilemma and weight of the story to actually explicitly saying the guest stars are preferable to and better people than the regulars.

I'm getting the distinct, sinking feeling I'm the first person ever to write for or about Star Trek: The Next Generation who cares about this show and these characters on their own merits and not as an extension of or methadone for the Original Series.

Then there's the jaw-droppingly dreadful B-plot, which couldn't be more obviously a cynical, contemptuous sneer at science fiction as a genre: “Oh, the nerds aren't going to be happy unless we throw them some technobabble mumbo-jumbo that doesn't have anything to do with anything. Metal eating parasites? Sure why not. These proles don't care as long as it sounds futuristic”.

And “Imaginary Friend”, another episode I had been really looking forward to seeing again, is just as bad. At least it doesn't throw the Enterprise crew under the bus again, but it's every bit as tone-deaf and alien feeling. Just like with “Cost of Living”, I specifically remembered Alexander's scenes here, particularly his interaction with Clara. I remembered him reaching out to her as someone who also felt a bit disconnected and isolated to show her she would always have friends here; in a sense serving as a child manifestation of the Enterprise's consciousness. Instead, I got a tortuously prolonged showcase of dumb, stilted dialog with a theme so incredibly off-base I can't even begin to tease out what the freelancers were thinking: So, imaginary friends are perfectly good and natural for kids to have except when they're not? What parent in the history of parenting has ever responded to their kid's imaginary friend the way Clara's dad does? Then there's that excruciating false tension storytelling thing again I absolutely detest where Alien!Isabella gets Clara into trouble and the adults don't believe her. I absolutely fucking despise that sort of hollow drama: This, this is why I can't watch scripted fiction apart from Dirty Pair and Miami Vice anymore.

(I'll give them the Tarkassian Razorbeast though. Guinan always makes everything better.)

Then you've got teleplay writer Brannon Braga saying how the original draft was “more like Puff the Magic Dragon” in that the alien was just curious and that this was bad because of some reasons, so they needed more “conflict” and by “conflict” they of course mean “turn the imaginary friend evil, have her try to hurt the kid and destroy the ship”. Because that's not horrifying or traumatic in any way. I am really starting to reach my limit in calling out television's propensity to normalize violence and trauma and the frightening eagerness with which some jobbing writers will fall back on that to the point it becomes part of the hack playbook. It's especially maddening when you have Rick Berman saying things like
“Where else but in science fiction could you do an idea about an imaginary friend who turns out not to be imaginary? It's a story about an alien who takes the form of a little girl's imaginary friend and begins to perceive our world through the eyes of a child.”
That's a brilliant idea! Why didn't you just do that? But no, the script's idea of “the world through the eyes of a child” is “grownups are mean and scary and make rules I don't understand to hurt me”. Which is actually a legitimate grievance for a child to hold given how chillingly rampant different forms of psychological child abuse can be, but neither this episode nor, actually, “Cost of Living” do anything to acknowledge this, preferring to sweep it all aside as an innocent, childlike misunderstanding. Always trust grownups kids, because they will always have your best interests at heart! Where have we heard sentiments like that before?

Oh yeah, from fascists and colonizers.

There are so many ways you could do a speculative fiction story about the perspective of children and childlike wonder. This is something Hayao Miyazaki understands intuitively, having once said
“I believe that children's souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations. It's just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower. I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level. If I could do that I would die happy.”
You can debate amongst yourselves to what extent, if any, you think Miyazaki speaks truth. I'm more inclined than not to believe he speaks some facets of it. Either way, it's a direction I think is worth at least keeping in sight when telling stories about children's perspectives. But it's clear the writers of these two episodes aren't thinking anywhere along those lines, simply believing that children, being “undeveloped adults”, are easier to write for because it's easier to come up with conflict to saddle them. And that's almost as youth-hating as any of the anti-countercultural messages in the Original Series.

It might also worth remembering something else Hayao Miyazaki said:

“Children understand intuitively that the world they have been born into is not a blessed world.”


  1. Nope, can't remember anything about these, other than the first and last mudbath scenes (I take it there were more, then). Just this once (twice?) you have moved into agreement with the consensus - or at least the consensus on the Kethinov site, which placed them at 162nd and 174th, so both in the bottom 10% of episodes.

  2. Hi Josh, just wanted to let you know I've name-checked you in this (very brief and surface) piece about Captain Picard! Wasn't sure how else to let you know! Keep up the good work. http://www.libdemvoice.org/liberal-heroes-in-pop-culture-part-2-captain-jeanluc-picard-from-star-trek-the-next-generation-47051.html

    1. Hey, thanks for the nod! And nice piece, too!

  3. "The episode simply sings whenever Lwaxana and Alexander are onscreen together, and the first mud bath scene in particular, where Lwaxana tells Alexander about the “hundreds of little people” who live inside all of us “waiting for just the right moment to come out and save us from ourselves”

    I adore all of the moments in "The Cost of Living" between Lwaxana and Alexander - *that* should have been the whole story for me! Maybe one where Worf could be struggling with supporting the more imaginative aspects of Alexander's development and Lwaxana comes along. Can't stand the whole 'rules must be followed' thing that spills into this story and the next (the next is even worse!)

    The whole thing that the writers have missed is inspiration - they have completely lacked any inspiration in these plots, as shown by the creation of fake conflict in them both. Surely in a Utopian society there would be a basic understanding that the development of the imagination of a child would be paramount, and that *any* attempt to suppress that would damage the growth of that individual? In Norway for example there is not structured schooling or curriculum of any kind until the age of 7, and all activities explored are based around play and making room for the fascinations of the child to be followed.

    I mean, I certainly don't live in a Utopian society, but in the work I carry out with children around 90% of the parents I meet, whose children I have worked with and bigged up the imaginations of, are *so happy* that I have done so.

    But sadly both of these stories seem to be about keeping children down to some extent, *not* a good vision for the future.