Tuesday, September 29, 2015

“Eternity waits”: Schisms

The way I thought of time was I thought of it like a river. And so I thought of it as flowing toward its lowest level. And I thought of history as a river and Eternity as the ocean. So naturally history flows downhill to reach Eternity. I also like the fact that when the descent in elevation is rapid, the river runs faster, and when the landscape is almost flat, the river broadens out and meanders. So it was to preserve this idea of time as a fluid. The other reason is a mathematical reason. It has to do with the fact that if we have novelty moving downward, then the maximum of novelty is zero.
-Terrence McKenna

Brannon Braga sells himself short when he describes “Schisms” as “just a garden-variety-UFO abduction episode”. Though only writing the teleplay, Braga's signature stamp is unmistakably all over the place here, and it's all for the better.

This isn't the first time Star Trek has done missing time and alien abductions: The earliest I can remember is “The Mark of Gideon” in the Original Series, which was seeped in that imagery and iconography even if it wasn't overtly about it. The Animated Series was similarly awash in all manner of 1970s New Age sci-fi spookiness. And actually describing “Schisms” that way similarly does it a disservice, Braga himself pointing out the story's real appeal lies in the mystery underlying its initial acts. While its surrealism looks comparatively tame next to the sheer mind-breaking symbolic power of some forthcoming Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes (in particular, Braga's forthcoming episodes) and it doesn't help the big reveal is given away in the weekly syndication teaser trailer, “Schisms” remains unarguably compelling.

It also doesn't help, sadly, that the aliens themselves are, shall we say, somewhat underwhelming as realised. Braga himself even describes them, rather bluntly as “fish monks” and complains, albeit correctly, that neither fish nor monks are scary. Their language of clicks, by contrast, is a testament to the kind of insane attention to detail that can go into shows like this: That's not just random background noise, that's an *actual fictional language of clicks* devised by producer Wendy Neuss and the sound team, and every sequence of clicks you hear has been painstakingly translated to Fish Monk from English. Yes, that's *actual dialog* those dudes are speaking, and none of you would ever have picked up on that had I not told you.

One thing I do really like about the Fish Monks is their origin: A group of mysterious creatures from outside the normal space-time continuum who are trying to re-shape our universe for their own unclear motivations. They don't just come from another universe, which would almost be blase in the kind of science fiction setting Star Trek: The Next Generation has, they come from an *entirely different* kind of space (in fact, if my understanding of how subspace works in Star Trek is correct, it's literally a *liminal* space between). There's also something to be said that their endgame goal is to reshape our universe with their space, effectively rewriting reality in their image, which is an unbelievably oversignified concept. They will not be the last group of Star Trek antagonists to attempt this, and even though they don't make a return appearance (on television at any rate) the open-ended conclusion to this episode still rings with an ominous tone of foreshadowing.

But if we can pretend for a moment we don't know what's going on from the beginning (maybe we somehow managed to turn off “Relics” before the trailer, or, more advisably, skipped “Relics” entirely) and approach “Schisms” as a newcomer it's perfectly effective at slowly building a sense of unease and dreamlike disorientation. One of the things especially deserving of praise in my opinion is the way Robert Wiemer's direction compliments Braga's script here, as the sense of missing time experienced by various crewmembers seems to plague the audience as well. Take particular note of the scene where Geordi wakes Will in his quarters and where Data asks Geordi if he's been to sickbay: In both cases the camera's perspective is paralleled with that of the victimized crewmember. So we watch Will get ready for bed and settle in, only to have Geordi come to his door for what to him (and us) seems like moments later even though he's presumably spent eight hours in the subspace construct: All that information is relegated to what amounts to a solitary cut *at most*. With Data, things get a bit trickier, as we do get a whole scene with Geordi in sickbay so we instinctively *know* Data is wrong about how much time has passed, even though the cut back to him is equally subtle.

The combined effect of direction like this is that “Schisms” is scary good at building a sense that time itself, or at least our perception of it (which is all time, and the rest of the universe, is anyway) is being fucked around with by some unseen force. And part of the reason this is so creepy and effective is that the rest of the episode has an almost “day in the life” tone to it. The Enterprise is on a stellar cartography mission, which is precisely the sort of thing you'd expect it to be doing when it's not getting wrapped up up galactic realpolitiking, and, if you're like me, the kind of thing you'd kind of like to see it doing more often. Then there's of course the subplot about Data's poetic aspirations, which to me is just a masterpiece of characterization. “Ode to Spot” is naturally a laugh riot, and that whole scene is a showcase for the brilliant physical and facial acting of the regulars, including seasoned veteran extra Tracee Lee Cocco's Lieutenant Jae!

Jae is basically TNG's Morn. Keep an eye out for her.
(Speaking of Jae, I should talk a bit about her. Although I haven't mentioned her before, she's always been here, quietly in the background of a *ton* of episodes and definitely an unsung hero of the Enterprise. Really, Jae ought to be considered an honourary bridge crew member right alongside people like Miles O'Brien: Hell, with 63 appearances she's in more episodes than Tasha Yar and Ro Laren *combined* and even made the transition to the first three 90s films. By this point in the show the casting directors and choreographers seemed to be subtly trying to position Jae as a more prominent part of the crew, culminating with her looking for all the world here like Captain Picard's date to Data's poetry reading. I mean, they sit right next to each other, exchange glances with each other and the camera keeps cutting between them and fan-favourite couple Will Riker and Deanna Troi. The cinematic symmetry and comparisons are simply too easy to make. If nothing else, it's an interesting stylistic choice coming not long before “Lessons”: As much as I like to read Captain Picard as asexual and aromantic and as much as the age difference would obviously be an issue, I'm not going to pretend Picard/Jae isn't a kind of adorable couple to me.)

But even more remarkable is how the thread continues throughout the early acts. After his (altogether human) awkwardness in the aftermath of the reading, Geordi is in full-on Reading Rainbow mode, imploring Data to put more of himself into his art. And after that, we shift right back to the tech mystery: This isn't the personal character development stuff getting subsumed by technobabble, nor is it serious science fiction (whatever that is) getting compromised to focus on navel-gazey emotionalism and sentimentality-Rather, it's a demonstration that both personal growth and cosmic wonder are important parts of life. In fact, this even ties in to the psychological horror stuff that makes up the bulk of this episode. Through fusing its post- “Data's Day” day-in-the-life structure seamlessly with the uncanny and high concept science fiction ideas (in a manner that's far better, actually, than what “Data's Day” itself actually managed to pull off) “Schisms” seems to be telling us that all of this is simply in a day's work for the crew of the starship Enterprise. And I kind of love that: This is what I watch Star Trek: The Next Generation to see, and “Schisms” is as deft an execution of that paradigm as you're ever likely to find.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

“And the greatest good is little enough”: Relics

I'll bet you all already know how I feel about “Relics”. There's really no point in going on. You can all fill in the blanks yourselves. You've all heard this story before.

Do I remember it? Yeah, of course I do. It's one of those episodes that comes right out screaming “I am iconic!” and practically *demands* to be remembered. The viewing I most vividly recall was not one at my parents' house, which is the way most of my memories of Star Trek are, but at my grandparents'. I guess we had just driven in for a visit one night or something, they happened to be watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and this was the episode on that night. I can't remember if this was the first time I'd seen it, but it was definitely the one I remember most clearly, because everyone in that house made a *really big huge deal* about how Scotty was in this one and that this was the episode where the two Generations came together. Which was weird considering “Unification” had already come out the year prior, as did Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Maybe my family hadn't seen those episodes and movie, but considering it was the media event of the year, I find that hard to believe. I mean even *I* had seen them, and I was years and years behind everyone else in everything.

I remember someone excitedly telling me how in this one shot the “new” Enterprise was flying alongside the “old” Enterprise. By this, they of course meant the part where the crew rescues the Jenolan. Which looks nothing whatsoever like the Original Series Enterprise in any way, shape or form. I hadn't even seen the Original Series yet (except, again, for maybe “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “By Any Other Name” like a year or two prior) and even I knew that was utter bollocks. When I pointed out the ship in question didn't seem to look a whole lot like Constitution-class as I understood it, I was told that was because it was upside-down, at which point I proceeded to drop the subject. Who knows, maybe it was and I just couldn't tell because of how far away I was from the giant CRT TV in the hutch. I didn't care enough to press the issue.

My relatives on this side of the family, my mother's, had a bit of an inelegant relationship with my Star Trek fandom. While they were utterly supportive, incredibly generous and terribly well-meaning, they never quite seemed to grasp that I wasn't a “Star Trek Fan” as much as I was a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, inasmuch as that was the show that was on the air and that I watched every Wednesday or Friday or whatever: I watched TV casually at nights like ordinary people used to do back then, and while this was my favourite of the shows I watched at this age (at least of the big primetime dramas: Miami Vice has hung like a neon haze over my life and perspective forever, although I wouldn't fully realise my love for it until later), it was, ultimately, still just another show.

They also seemed to have a hard time understanding that Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation were not, in fact, interchangeable. Not that I can blame them, of course, considering this is a sentiment shared by an overwhelming majority of Star Trek fandom itself. That is, when their actions are not heavily implying that you can only be a Star Trek fan if you came to the franchise through the Original Series or that the Original Series had to be your favourite. Nevertheless, this led to awkward moments like my aunt taking my Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation tricorder toy and flipping it open to “show” me how they did it on the show. Which I knew was wrong and that they never did. It was much later on when I figured out she'd done that because she must've thought it was a communicator. From the Original Series.

(My cousins, whom I talk about here not infrequently, are not from this branch of the family. They're from my father's side, were far closer in age, temperament and personality to myself, and shared my particular flavour of enthusiasm.)

So you have to understand that I had no emotional investment in Scotty's presence here. I mean I knew who he was, more or less, and thought it was neat to have an intergenerational crossover like that, but this was not a big defining television event for me. In fact, I was a bit surprised (though in hindsight I absolutely shouldn't have been) to discover later that “Relics” is considered an untouchable classic and a masterpiece by Star Trek fandom at large. I mean I thought it was fine enough: It was fun to see Geordi teaming up with the engineer from the old show to do some cool stuff, but none of that emotional connection and attachment was there in any way. Seeing the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew team up with the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine one a year and a half later was *way* more moving and powerful to me, but I'm getting ahead of myself if I start bringing that up now.

In fact, the part of “Relics” I dug the most was the Dyson Sphere. In a science fiction encyclopedia published in 2000, media scholar Peter Nicholls coined the phrase “Big Dumb Object” to refer to a preposterously gigantic and mysterious artefact, likely of extraterrestrial design, that's designed to give a story a sense of wonder and fantasy simply by being there. I happen to love the hell out of Big Dumb Objects, though we don't get to see them a lot in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I wish we did though, as Star Trek can too often get itself bogged down in adolescent grimdark and middlebrow realpolitiking and could use the occasional jolt of cosmic wonder injected into it. The Dyson Sphere in this episode more than suffices: The art department really went above and beyond the call on this one, and there are a lot of really memorable and achingly beautiful passes that show off the scale and detail of the thing. And naturally, modelmaker Greg Jein says how the surface of the Dyson Sphere was made out of...a Japanese garage kit. There's an appalling lack of Dirty Pair models out there, but it could well be something from the Gundam or Macross series. I keep saying, anime and Star Trek: The Next Generation just *go* together.

Then I saw the episode again when I was older, on TNN/Spike TV or G4 or WGN or BBC America or the Sci-Fi Channel or whenever it happened to be airing at the moment (seriously, for seven years you couldn't find Star Trek: The Next Generation *anywhere* except in video stores or in the homes of particularly wealthy and unsettling collectors, or at least *I* couldn't. Then all of a sudden you couldn't get away from it! What was up with that?). Probably TNN/Spike TV at that point. I don't think I reacted to it the way I was supposed to. Obviously I objected incredibly strongly to how Geordi was characterized-I hadn't yet formulated my theory about who he is and what he does on the show, but he was still my favourite character and his behaviour towards Scotty just felt *wrong* on a very basic and fundamental level.

I felt Geordi should be way more empathetic, that he would totally understand why Scotty felt the way he did even if it rankled him a bit. People should be allowed dignity at any age: Sure, it may not be his time anymore, but that doesn't mean Scotty should be treated like a useless dead weight either. There were a lot of discussions in the writer's room about being careful this wasn't going to destroy Geordi as a character and make him wholly unsympathetic: I'm not entirely convinced by the arguments that it doesn't, especially given the inescapable gravity of bringing someone like Scotty on. I mean, I didn't take it out on the character, in fact, the opposite: I felt he was pushed aside and written out of character to give James Doohan the spotlight (and Doohan is predictably excellent). But then again, I'm not an Original Series fan. And I'll bet there were a whole bunch of Original Series fans relating to Scotty's feelings of being isolated and out of time. I can relate to the sentiment if not the specific set of experiences.

And that's what really bothers me about “Relics”. Everyone talks about this episode in hushed, reverential tones, especially when it comes to Doohan and the recreation of the Original Series bridge. Indeed, the only reason this episode has the reputation it does is precisely because Scotty is in it: If it was Morgan Bateson of the USS Bozeman, nobody would have given a shit. This episode exists purely to cater to Original Series' fans nostalgia, and no matter how well-written it is that's never going to not be a part of what it is. Writer Ron Moore (because there's no way it could have been anyone other than Ron Moore-I kind of empathize with Brannon Braga, who says "I didn't even know who Scotty was") talks about “bringing a piece of his childhood to life” and director Alexander Singer talks about tearing up directing certain scenes. And I know we're still technically in the 25th Anniversary because the Playmates toys just came out and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is on the way, but...For some reason this feels like a step too far to me. Maybe it's just Geordi, or the fact the script absolutely, cloyingly fawns over Scotty in a way it never did Spock, but I cannot accept “Relics” the way I can “Unification”.

(Speaking of Playmates, what the hell was up with giving Scotty the Goddard? That just goes and renders my shuttlecraft toy obsolete! I cant have my plastic Star Trek friends going on adventures in it if Scotty took it away! Clearly, I would have to retcon “Relics” away if I ever wanted to play with my shuttlecraft again.)

Then there's the creative team, who excitedly go on about how you couldn't do this story earlier in the show's run because of Gene Roddenberry's dictum Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation had to be kept entirely separate, that Star Trek: The Next Generation could not reference its predecessor because it had to stand on its own. And that it was OK now because the show had now proven that it could do that. But that's bullshit because it's ignoring the actual, real “generation gap” that exists in fandom: That doesn't give you carte blanche to go fanwank, especially when it's taken five goddamn years for Star Trek: The Next Generation to prove to Star Trek fans it's not a pale imitation of the Original Series. And it's *still* failed-The inescapable shadow the Original Series casts over Star Trek: The Next Generation manifests in Singer himself, who openly admits he only took the job because he always wanted to direct the Original Series and never got the chance. Star Trek: The Next Generation is nothing but methadone for Original Series fans.

I don't know. Maybe I'm the only person who watched this show who felt this way. I'd say they're my feelings and experiences and that automatically means they're valid and that I should have a voice to express them, but just holding a minority opinion doesn't automatically make one right. Maybe the truth of the matter is that my rhetorical exaggerations are in fact true, that no matter how much Star Trek I've watched and how much merchandise I have and how much I've thought about this franchise over the years, the truth of the matter is that I'm just not a Star Trek fan. I certainly don't feel welcome among its ranks or that I deserve a seat at the table.

I could sit here and come up with increasingly more strangled redemptive readings of Star Trek to force it to be the show I thought it was and wanted it to be. I could write my own version of Star Trek to ensure that. But what would be the point? We're now almost as far from “Relics” as “Relics” was from the Original Series. Nobody cares about 25 year old TV anymore except the saddest of the sad. Maybe I was wrong to read this series this way. Maybe I should gather what remains of my dignity and leave quietly while I still have the chance. The faint ramblings of a lone, aging out-of-touch crazy person aren't meaningful to anyone.

At least Scotty had nostalgia for something he actually lived through. I'm a generation of one: That which I thought spoke for me in truth never did. No past to look back fondly upon and no future to look forward to. Nothing but irrelevance against the cosmic night.

"Presently, however, we saw a star blaze up and destroy its planets. The Empires had murdered something nobler than themselves. There was a second murder, and a third. Then, under the influence of the sub-galaxy, the imperial madness faded, and empire crumbled. And soon our fatigued attention was held by the irresistible coming of Utopia throughout the galaxy. This was visible to us chiefly as a steady increase of artificial planets. Star after star blossomed with orbit after crowded orbit of these vital jewels, these blooms pregnant with the spirit. Constellation after constellation, the whole galaxy became visibly alive with myriads of worlds. Each world, peopled with its unique, multitudinous race of sensitive individual intelligences united in true community, was itself a living thing, possessed of a common spirit. And each system of many populous orbits was itself a communal being. And the whole galaxy, knit in a single telepathic mesh, was a single intelligent and ardent being, the common spirit, the 'I,' of all its countless, diverse, and ephemeral individuals. This whole vast community looked now beyond itself toward its fellow galaxies. Resolved to pursue the adventure of life and of spirit in the cosmical, the widest of all spheres, it was in constant telepathic communication with its fellows; and at the same time, conceiving all kinds of strange practical ambitions, it began to avail itself of the energies of its stars upon a scale hitherto unimagined. Not only was every solar system now surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use, so that the whole galaxy was dimmed, but many stars that were not suited to be suns were disintegrated..."
 -Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker

Thursday, September 24, 2015

“The picture you see”: Man of the People

Oh good, Deanna Troi again. Well, at least we know what we're in for.

But let's be fair here. Deanna Troi is a fine character (regardless of what the creative team thinks) and Marina Sirtis is a fine actor, it's just the combination of the two that seems to cause problems. In fact, this is probably the episode that proves this unequivocally beyond the shadow of a doubt. More to the point, this is an episode that probably shouldn't exist, not because it's particularly ethically reprehensible (well, it kinda is that a bit too) but because it's plainly a stopgap story: “Relics” was supposed to go in this filming block, but James Doohan's unavailability forced the team to push that episode to the following week. This necessitated a brand new script *right goddamn now*, with the brief given to incoming supervising producer Frank Abatemarco. It's also another “Let's Do” story, this time for The Picture of Dorian Grey.

(By this point in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jeri Taylor is effectively the sole showrunner, with Michael Piller temporarily stepping back a bit to spend more time on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to help it get off the ground and oversee the franchise more broadly. Abatemarco steps in here to ease some of Piller's burden until things stabilize by mid season.)

So this is an episode quite frankly nobody has or should have any expectations for. It's a “Let's Do” story, stars a character nobody seems to have a good handle on, was thrown together at the last minute and given to a guy who was brand new to the show, effectively throwing him right into the deep end. Brannon Braga sums up the situation pretty well:
“I would have done it differently. I would have made it darker and much more a story about Troi's dark descent from the psychological point of view. A scene we all wanted to see was Troi giving therapy to a young ensign – but make it twice as long and twice as dark as the one that was filmed, and make it much more of a Hannibal Lecter thing. This was a case where Frank Abatemarco saw a different show. He was focusing in on the show as a Prime Directive issue and looking at the character of the guy who was using Troi as a receptacle. To me, that was the utterly incorrect instinct. After six years, who cares about Prime Directive issues? It's a Star Trek cliché. It should have been all about Troi and he would have been the catalyst in two brief scenes. The first three acts were still fun. It was enjoyable to see Troi acting strange and dressing in skimpy outfits. There was some argument in the structuring sessions. Ultimately, Frank was the writer and he was given the opportunity to do it the way he wanted to do it, and it suffered because he was new to the show.”
And that's pretty much my critique: Of course it's bad. There was very little chance it could have been anything other than bad. There's not much more to say than that. Last-ditch Hail Mary efforts are nothing new. Deanna Troi getting screwed over is nothing new.

So I'd like to use this opportunity to talk a little bit more about the unique Problem of Deanna as it were. “Man of the People” is basically the last traditional “Troi goes crazy” episode, and probably the definitive one, and that itself tells us some things. If you'll recall, the impetus for doing this kind of story in the first place is the not altogether unfounded concern that Marina Sirtis' considerable acting chops were being squandered on a character with some crippling conceptual flaws that render her more or less ineffectual. I personally think there's a robust redemptive reading to be done of Deanna Troi, but that's for another time-Right now the point is that this is what the creative team has traditionally thought. From this, their solution up to now has been to write stories where Troi gets possessed or otherwise compromised so Marina Sirtis can show the other sides of her acting range: Aside from this, we've seen “The Survivors”, “Clues” and “Power Play”, just to name some of the most obvious ones off the top of my head.

“Man of the People” isn't the best one of these (that would be “Power Play”), but it does serve as a kind of limit case for it. The problem with these kinds of stories is, ironically enough, the very underlying assumption they're predicated on. Although things are better under the current creative team and while everyone more or less respects Marina Sirtis (and rightly so), there is a history of the writers on this show writing for her first and foremost because they don't respect Deanna Troi. Because yes, Marina Sirtis *can* do all this crazy stuff and do it really well, but it always seems to come at the expense of her character. And yes, she was miscast and yes that's certainly not her fault but...Fuck's sake, it's been six years! Has there been nobody who's stopped petulantly throwing a tantrum about Deanna long enough to find a way to make her work in the here and now?

It's not like writing for Marina Sirtis' Deanna Troi was some impossible paradox of a task: Michael Jan Friedman figured it out from the beginning of his tenure, and DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation had it pegged even before Friedman came aboard all the way back in the first season! Even Brannon Braga admitted “Man of the People” should have been more about Deanna, and Marina herself even explains how her performance here came out of her understanding of who Deanna was as a person:
“I played it like these were underlying parts of Troi that she controlled or managed to suppress. And just looking in the mirror was all I needed to change. When I look in the mirror and see Troi, it's a very soft and gentle look. In the scene in Ten Forward where my hair was up, I saw Anne Bancroft in the mirror. I saw Mrs. Robinson and that's what I played. Basically, a lot of the performance is governed by the way that one looks. Some actors say they put the shoes for the characters on first and figure out the walk. I look in the mirror and play whatever I see in the mirror – especially when it's a make-up thing like in 'Man of the People,' where the old person was a witch and that's who was in the mirror, so I played a witch.”
And as brilliant as that performance may be and as savvy an actor as this reveals Marina Sirtis to be (for anyone who still has lingering doubts even after all this time), what it shows us most of all is the overwhelming need for something to change about how Deanna Troi as a character is written for TV in the fall of 1992. There is a way for Marina Sirtis' Deanna Troi to fully live up to her potential (and she does have potential). But the actor and the character truly need to be reunited for this to work, because it's really not fair to either of them any other way. They're both too good for this. They're both capable and deserving of so much more.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

“Portrait of a frightened man”: Realm of Fear

“Realm of Fear” has always been memorable to me for two reasons: Being my favourite Reg Barclay episode (I've always hated “Hollow Pursuits”, was skeptical of “The Nth Degree” and forgot he was in “Ship in a Bottle”) and being a great example of a solid, all-bases-covered Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. It's been ages since I last saw it though, and considering how much this project has made me come down with self-consciousness and self doubt about my own taste-making abilities, those positive memories could be meaningless.

Happily past me did well this time: “Realm of Fear” is great, and this season is off to a strong start so far.

This episode is pretty obviously about a fear of flying. It's kind of hard to read it any other way when Geordi tells Reg “transporting really is the safest way to travel”, and writer Brannon Braga (who suffers from mild aviatophobia himself) freely admits that was the impetus. Simple as the concept may be, that's a legitimate fear many people face, and it's a fitting thing for Star Trek: The Next Generation to look at. The primary thing that makes “Realm of Fear” so successful is that this is the rare occasion where all the different little stylistic sub-genres this show can effectively play with come together harmoniously: Given its cut-and-dry brief, you could potentially read this as a mild “Issues” story and the inclusion of Barclay gives the story's dramatic focus to a guest star, which worked to great effect in stories like “Half a Life” and Separation Anxiety and means the show doesn't have to cripple one of the mains by writing them bizarrely out of character.

(Braga also admits inspiration from the famous Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”: I'd never thought of that before reading that, but it does make sense. I suppose this means you could also read “Realm of Fear” as a “Let's Do” story too, though Michael Piller says he felt it was important to downplay any such comparisons.)

Again like last time, and fittingly given this is a Brannon Braga story, “Realm of Fear” is also a decent tech mystery. Some might argue there's an overabundance of technobabble here, especially during the last act, but frankly I don't have a problem with that. The way I see it, the technobabble in Star Trek: The Next Generation serves two purposes at this point. Firstly it serves as window dressing to reassure a certain subset of obsessive viewer that the Star Trek universe obeys its own scientific rules (regardless of whether or not those rules map on to anything remotely resembling any real world science) and makes the constructed world feel richer and more believable, which is what it's always done. But now it fulfills a secondary role in the narrative, which is giving each member of the crew a chance to show off their unique skillsets: Beverly gets to solve a life sciences mystery while helping to save Reg's life, Deanna offers her psychology expertise, Will and Worf offer Reg support and encouragement and Geordi, Miles and Data come up with a technical solution to save the day while helping guide Reg through his anxieties and apprehensions.

And I just love how supportive and understanding the rest of the crew is to Barclay here, and while everyone is lovely this is most clearly a terrific showing for Geordi, who for once gets an entire episode to do the sort of stuff he should be doing all the time. In fact if I had one complaint about “Realm of Fear” it would be that a lot of Deanna's dialog with Reg here could have just as easily gone to him. But that would be screwing her over: Deanna is the ship's counselor after all, she has a documented pre-existing relationship with Reg and could use all the spotlights she can get. This is also a great episode for Miles O'Brien-I love how he gets to play a role quite similar to the one he did in Separation Anxiety with Terry Oliver, empathizing with Reg and bringing up comparable experiences in his own life to help Reg get over his fear and anxiety the same way he did.

From a naturalistic and cosmic perspective, Geordi and Miles are doing a wonderful thing here because not only are they extending a hand to a friend, they're doing so in such a way that helps him become closer to the universe. A phobia is defined as an “irrational fear”, and I tend to conceptualize them as basal reflexive reactions against natural things the body has been artificially sheltered from that it might otherwise be accustomed to. Topically, I personally tend to see arachnophobia, entophobia and ophidiophobia most commonly in people who grew up in urban environments and never spent a lot of time in the wilderness. The more you're around something, the easier it is for you to accept it as part of the necessary interconnectedness of the world and the less likely you'll react out of instinctual fear or ignorance.

This is especially significant for Barclay, whose last outing saw him undergoing a transcendent spiritual experience. His fear of transporters is obviously a fear of something technological and humanoid-made as opposed to something organic, but remember also that the transporter is special technology: By breaking people down into their component particles, it is in effect returning them, however temporarily, to their most cosmic and primordial forms. One would imagine beaming anywhere would be a kind of mini-epiphany that's just another part of the mundane everyday, and that's as clear a sign as any that we've attained a kind of utopia. Actually, if you can cast your thoughts all the way back to Alan Dean Foster and “In Thy Image”, which is where Star Trek: The Next Generation more or less began anyway, you might recall Earth's technology was supposed to have reached perfect balance, harmony and integration with the universe, with architecture and urban design that seemed as natural as the land around it. The Galaxy-class Enterprise itself is made up of all those elegant organic curves: No matter what we might say about the Federation elsewhere, if there was any place that had achieved cosmic harmony it would be here.

It's so incredibly important for Star Trek: The Next Generation to tell a story about issues like this, to be caring and, crucially, not to belittle or dismiss those who might be lost or suffering. “Realm of Fear” is no different from those times when Mister Rogers would tell stories to us from the Land of Make-Believe to help children better understand and come to terms with their feelings and experiences, and because of that it's a success. Here's where Star Trek: The Next Generation's performativity, freed from the shackles of having to do damage control on itself, can do real material good: The world the show creates is an allegorical one where we can visit and work out what our life experiences mean to us and how to deal with them. It works just like the Land of Make-Believe, because it *is* a Land of Make-Believe, just for grownups. And this is oral history too, because the ancients knew stories were the best way to pass on important knowledge, skills and life lessons to, well...to The Next Generation.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

“Trillions ahead, and trillions ahead of them”: Time's Arrow, Part II

I'll be honest. I do not get the criticism of “Time's Arrow” and “Time's Arrow, Part II” at all.

As far as I'm concerned, this is one of the most solid and effective stories, two-part or otherwise, Star Trek: The Next Generation has done on TV in a very long time. This makes me doubly happy, as “Time's Arrow” and “Time's Arrow, Part II” together also make up one of the most iconic stories in the series to me and a personal favourite, and I was delighted to see it completely lived up to my memories. As I get further and further entrenched in the process of coming to terms with how much I've projected onto Star Trek: The Next Generation over the course of doing this project, it's nice to get the occasional reminder that there really is genuinely something about Star Trek, and this version of Star Trek in particular, that stuck with me and inspired me to project my imagination in the first place.

For me, part 1 was more about mortality, with Data's predetermined death being treated as a touching metaphor for terminal illness. There's a sense of always wanting to live in the moment, and mortality returns as a theme here when Captain Picard is temporarily stranded alone in 19th century San Francisco after the rest of the crew chase the Devidian hunter back to the 24th century. Part 2 shifts the narrative focus a bit, however: One thing it does do is double down on the time travel mechanics and bootstrap paradox plot points introduced in the first part. I suppose you could read this as overly self-indulgent and gimmicky Hard SF speculative trickery that has little to offer beyond its own cleverness. I think there's more you could tease out of the story than that though: Although a stable time loop is by definition anticlimactic (as all Star Trek time travel at this point must by necessity be, although even now forces that lie beyond the pale outside of history conspire to change all of that), the time travel in this story seems to exist more for the purpose of avoiding material death.

For time is not, in fact, an arrow, even in this story: It's a circle (as Guinan said in the last part, things have come “full circle”), perhaps even a spiral or a Möbius strip. Materially, this manifests itself in the text's own existence: “Time's Arrow” and “Time's Arrow, Part II” came about as a direct result of a perceived ontological threat in the material realm of production, namely, the existence of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. With the new show's premier officially slated for January, 1993, there were widespread and persistent rumours that Star Trek: The Next Generation would end in June, 1992. So the producers commissioned a cliffhanger finale, even though one wasn't originally planned, to reassure audiences that this wasn't the case. So in effect, the “Time's Arrow” two parter becomes partially a performance about Star Trek: The Next Generation's longevity and continued lasting influence in the face of an expected slide into irrelevance.

A fear, if you will, of history coming full circle and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine consigning Star Trek: The Next Generation to history as Star Trek: The Next Generation had just recently done to Star Trek in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. But within the paratext of “Time's Arrow” lies the unspoken truth that things are going to be different this time, that these are heroes and stories strong enough to last by design. No more shall we have oldsters clashing with young upstarts: This time we will be as sisters; equals travelling and growing together.

And this is just one level on which the scene between Mark Twain and Deanna Troi during their tour of the Enterprise is so defining and important. Twain, the archetypal United States satirist (living in what will become the cradle of the Federation to wit), is offering a direct challenge to Deanna, the Enterprise crew's ambassador, anthropologist and empath. His challenge to her is, in so many words, to at once prove and justify the existence of her utopia. And thus is the spirit of Q invoked, or more accurately, that of “Encounter at Farpoint”: Star Trek: The Next Generation returns to its most primordial state to once again define itself for us. But where “Encounter at Farpoint” was cosmic and mythical, “Time's Arrow” is shaped by a post-Michael Piller and Ronald D. Moore sense of materialism, doubling down on the diegetic political critique Q offered of humanity's ability to grow-It might be interesting to note how the crux of Deanna's response involves the elimination of poverty.

Q was a god, Mark Twain was a writer. Q wanted evidence humanity was capable of improving itself while Mark Twain needs proof that it has, and will continue to do so. Q placed the Enterprise on probation and warned the trial is not over, but Mark Twain's visit to the Enterprise (must I bring up the shamanic and otherworld themes again, especially given Twain is a writer, and thus a shaman, with a working class background?) heals him through the power of utopian thought.

One way in which people can find inner peace is through identifying with their particular place or calling in the universe. “Time's Arrow” helps demonstrate this by being an incredibly strong ensemble piece, with each and every major character getting to showcase their specific talents and skillsets and everyone working together as a team and a family to solve the problem and look out for each other. Back in her role as life sciences mystery solver, Doctor Crusher is instrumental in uncovering the Devidians' plot, while Geordi and Data apply their technical skills in their own unique ways: Data uses his knowledge of human psychology to bluff his way into various positions of influence, while Geordi can see the counterfactual and helps literally rebuild his friend's sense of self-identity. Deanna's ability to empathize and delegate between different positionalities legitimizes the Enterprise before someone who could stand in equally for the audience, the writers and Star Trek's own conscience, Worf is a pragmatist, Will Riker works with everyone and Captain Picard switches between a working class electrical repairman and a working class theatre troupe leader.

In many ways this is Guinan's story, though not necessarily in the way it presents itself. Supposedly we learn a great deal about her mysterious backstory here, with fanwanky details very clearly meant to explain away previously tantalizing lines like “long ago a bald man was very kind to me” and “an old man helped me once when I was in serious trouble”. And yet, do they really? I've never read “Time's Arrow” as being the story that depicts those events. Perhaps it does for the context of the episode, but remember Guinan is a consummate philosophical interlocutor and performer. Like Captain Picard and Ro Laren, she will adapt whatever persona or perspective she needs to, and she'll even make sure she calls our attention to it. Even diegetically, Guinan is being obfuscating and evasive: Taking on a specific identity in San Francisco (a writer, no less) and deliberately withholding information from Captain Picard and Commander Riker at points. Unable to share with us the raw experience of being one with the forces of time, Guinan does the only thing a magician can do: Make art about it.

Here then we see Star Trek: The Next Generation at its purest and most unbound...Or as close to that as we can possibly get. A story that pleads a case for immortality, that no matter how compromised our art may be there is real power to it. To exist in the constantly unfolding present is to let go of the egoistic Self and to know that we are all changing and becoming. And to know this is to transcend the permanence of death.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Totemic Artefacts: Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation Part 3 - Wave 1 Vehicles and Role Play

The USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D is one of my favourite designs for anything ever. I have been fascinated by this starship and the way it looks for *literally* almost as long as I can remember to a degree that borders on outright obsession. I cannot fully put into words what the Enterprise means to me because even I'm not sure I fully understand the true depths of that meaning myself. Whenever I look at it I'll sit entranced its curves, the vibrant colouring of the panels and the deflector dish or the slope of the stardrive section as it flows elegantly into that giant saucer. I don't even think there's just one thing about it that makes it so incredibly beautiful; it's a genuine work of art in the sense everything about it sings together in perfect harmony such that you could stare at it forever.

The Enterprise is the centrepiece of Star Trek: The Next Generation's iconography for me. It's the one piece that sums up everything that I found so powerful and captivating about this series' look and feel. When I would get merchandise for the show, I would often cut apart the various boxes and hold onto them: To me, the artwork and iconography was so beautiful and it so consumed my imagination I wanted to somehow be able to physically *hold* it, as if that would bring me closer to the emotions and atmosphere they conveyed, or that I might perhaps be able to channel that through me and bring some of it into my own being. My room would be littered with various carboard effigies of the Star Trek: The Next Generation logo or Playmates' own space art that adorned their packaging: Dissociated, scattered signifiers of some ethereal confluence. And there always was that azure tinged Enterprise.

When I finally got the Playmates Enterprise toy it was an absolutely monumental moment in my life. Here finally was my very own spirit totem of this ship of the imagination, in three dimensional plastic instead of cardboard. My constant exposure to various representations of the Enterprise and my obsession with its design meant that I had become an expert on its every detail, but not in the classic Star Trek Nerd sense of memorizing deck blueprints or anything like that: My resources were disjointed publicity stills, toyetic caricatures, half-remembered effects shots and ViewMasters. What I knew best was the Enterprise's *soul*, not its body. And even then my intimate familiarity with every detail of the Enterprise's vibe allowed me to make some specific observations about this new toy.

First of all, even I could recognise Playmates' Enterprise was based on the four-foot shooting model, not the six-foot one. This may sound like pedantic nerdery, but it's actually hugely important to me because there are significant and noticeable visual differences between the six-foot and four-foot models and I think the six-foot model best captures the Enterprise's divine essence. The struts that connect the nacelles to the stardrive section are thinner and have much more of an elegant and organic curve on the six-foot model, whereas the ones on the four-foot one are squarer and more angular. The six-foot model is thinner and wider overall, most noticeable at the back end and in the more pronounced deflector dish, to the point it almost seems top-heavy with its overwhelmingly dominant saucer section. But this just adds to the almost impossibly mystical and futuristic nature of the technology that we can imagine went into building the Enterprise, as does the fact it's so eerily smooth all over. And it's only the six-foot model that has that striking azure blue colour scheme.

I probably like the six-foot model the best because it was the first and is thus closest to Andy Probert's original vision. The four-foot model was introduced midway through the third season to make filming easier, and, by contrast, is visibly chunkier and squatter than its predecessor. It also has a lot of engraved detail all over its body, the idea being the studio lights would generate a lot of eye-catching shadowplay on the model that would show up nicely on television. But this has the side-effect of making the four-foot Enterprise look grungier, more utilitarian, less graceful and less futuristic, and that's to its detriment. This is especially noticeable on the high definition restoration, where it becomes clear there was no loss of visual interest in shots using the old six-foot model. Even back then I could tell watching the show that there had to be more than one Enterprise model used for filming: I could tell some shots looked different (and better) than others, even if I couldn't place my finger on precisely why at the time.

So as overjoyed as I was to finally have an Enterprise of my own, I couldn't help but feel disappointed by this. Stuff like the nacelle struts and the general stoutness bothered me, as did the colour scheme. In lieu of the Enterprise's signature azure, or even its iconic battleship grey, the Playmates model is a flat dull white. The windows are nothing more than little indentations in the plastic, which is sad, but it probably would have been time consuming and expensive to do them any other way. But what upsets me the most about the Playmates Enterprise is the deflector dish: It's cast from a solid piece of translucent red plastic, and there's no light bulb behind it so that it could light up with the rest of the ship. But what annoys me even more is that the deflector dish isn't supposed to be bright red: It's actually supposed to glow concentric circles of neon blue and dull maroon. In fact, some publicity art even has the deflector dish glowing a *rainbow*, which I absolutely loved. This was actually so important to me I even remember once having a dream where that was fixed on the toy, that's how much I thought about this stuff.

Happily, even though the struts are a letdown, the nacelles themselves are pretty cool. They're the only part of the ship that lights up, and while it's not the bright and captivating neon of the TV show, they're still quite striking. The Enterprise has four buttons running down its dorsal spine, and pressing each one activates the internal sound chip for a unique sound effect. From the bottom up, it's photon torpedo, phaser blast (and explosion), warp drive and impulse cruising, respectively. Each button also activates the lights in the nacelles, and one of my favourite things to do was go into my closet, shut the door, turn the overhead light off and just stand there making the ship light up over and over again. Another thing I always thought was fun is that the nacelles are removable, probably to pack and ship the model easier, but for some reason I thought that was really cool: If nothing else, it all but demanded “Cause and Effect” style alternate timeline ship explosions as it made doing them effortless.

Speaking of those lights and sounds, my Enterprise has a little bit of battle damage, as you might be able to see from the photos. One day they stopped working, even though I was reasonably certain the batteries were fresh. So my dad took a knife to the stardrive section to try and open it up to get at the electronics inside, but to no avail (in hindsight, it probably would have been a better idea to unscrew the screws at the bottom of the model). Thankfully they started working again of their own accord sometime later, though they're still intermittent sometimes (there's got to be a loose wire in there somewhere). This does not, I should add, have anything to do with the fact the registration decal is on upside-down. That's all on my stupidity: The original ones fell off ages ago and I tried to replace them with decals from other Enterprise models (you better believe I have a bunch of them), but in my haste and ignorance I grabbed the wrong ones and put them on incorrectly.

Even though I'm a bit harsh on the Playmates Enterprise, it's only because it's representing one of the most profoundly powerful and personally meaningful things in existence for me and I care so much about it. That's not to say that, like the four-foot model itself, that I don't have fond memories associated with it, or that I didn't share a great many special experiences and adventures with it or that's it's still not one of my absolute most treasured possessions. I would be hard on *any* effigy of the starship Enterprise, and in fact I've not yet either seen or acquired one that I'm fully comfortable with. I'm still looking for a model that embodies everything I love about this remarkable design, but that may well be an impossible goal.

Now the shuttlecraft was an absolute blast, because it was actually *to scale* with the figures, and even had a fully decked out interior you could put them inside! Playmates' shuttlecraft is modeled after the Goddard, which is going to become famous next year for its appearance in “Relics” but at this point would have been best known for its role in “The Next Phase”. Like its parent vessel, the shuttlecraft has light-up nacelles and two sound effect buttons that trigger them: Phasers and impulse engines (though the battery terminal on mine is corroded so they no longer work). It also comes with a pallet of cargo sensors that you can slide onto the back via a set of tracks. Inside, there's a cockpit with a whole array of control panels that was frankly mesmerizing at the time, as well as two little benches that you could either use to seat passengers or fold up to accommodate the cargo pallet. Theoretically speaking you could fit five guys in total in the shuttlecraft, four in the back and one up front, but that makes an already cramped living space all the more of a tight squeeze, so I usually do no more than two at a time.

There are also little wheels on the bottom of the nacelles so you could scoot the shuttle along the floor, but I usually just swung it around in the air, because, after all, isn't it supposed to be flying through space?

It was probably the Playmates shuttlecraft that really inspired my love of small starships. Cramped as it may have been, I loved how confined the space was and it always felt cozy to me. To me it was a good place to put two characters in for a little outer space camping trip of sorts, and I always wished I had a little starship like that of my own. Well I mean I did, but one that was *my* size and that I could actually go in and fly around in myself. Sadly, Playmates never made life-size starships for role-playing purposes, but they did make prop replicas from the show.

The first was a type 2 phaser, modelled after the one used from the third season onwards (as opposed to the earlier model that had the derisive nickname of “the dustbuster”). Like on the show, it has two settings, stun and kill (it would be best not to confuse them), and you can even switch between them using buttons that correspond to the exact ones used on the actual props, and then fire using the exact same fire button! The neat thing about the Playmates phaser is how it has a unique sound effect for each setting: During that seven year period where I didn't watch any Star Trek (or any statistically significant Star Trek at any rate) I had assumed that worked the same way on the show. It turns out it didn't though, and that was purely an innovation by Playmates, which I think is a neat thing. Obviously I have it, but sadly, like a lot of my electronic Playmates toys, it doesn't work anymore. This time I attempted my own repair job on it, taking it apart to see if I could get at the loose wire that was preventing the circuit from completing. Sadly however I was not skilled enough electrically to actually fix it once I took it apart, and I have since lost a great many vitally important pieces, like the bulb, the bulb casing, the battery cover and all the screws. It will likely never be fixed.

There was also a personal communicator accessory. Now this is an unusual one, because while I still have the original box it came in...I can't for the life of me remember what happened to the toy itself. I think that's the only time something like that's ever happened to me. It's a pretty box, mind, with a lot of bright colours and exciting rays. Captain Picard is on it. Based on what the box says, I can presume you would clip the communicator to your shirt pocket and press a hidden button to make the communicator sound play. It also advertises “authentic lights” as well as “authentic sounds” from the TV show, which is interesting as I don't think the communicators ever lit up on the show. I do seem to recall my communicator breaking not long after I got it (for reasons that may or may not have something to do with the clip failing and dropping it on a cement sidewalk somewhere). I don't know why we never tried to fix it, or why I would have committed such a blasphemy by permanently losing it: I'd always wanted a communicator badge of my own, and had I kept that toy I might not have peeled the nametag stickers off my figures' bases. Maybe it's with my copy of The Star Lost.

Revisiting my Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation toys (of which what you've seen over the past few nights is but a small fraction) has reminded me, possibly more than anything else, of what these characters, images and memories mean to me. I can't put it into words and I'm not even entirely certain I know what it is, but...Somewhere in all of this is the Star Trek: The Next Generation that I love and that has inspired me all my life. And while this may not by readily apparent day-to-day on the TV show, the fact that the TV show was able to spawn all of this is significant in and of itself. Star Trek: The Next Generation is far grander and far more important than its egoistic sense of self-identity as a materiel artefact of television production: It's something timeless, transcendent and profound, and each individual manifestation of it is simply a small part of a much greater whole. The most important truth is in the understanding of how it manifests in you.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Totemic Artefacts: Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation Part 2 - Wave 1 Aliens

Any self-respecting toy collector knows you've got to have bad guys for your heroes to fight against. And yet this is Star Trek: The Next Generation, and in spite of what certain creative figures might thing, fighting is pretty much the last thing we ought to be considering. And so we see another manifestation of the curious dual role the Playmates line must play: Fun enough for kids to want to play with and bang together, and sophisticated enough to engage adults.

Playmates knew the Enterprise crew had to meet some people while they were out there exploring space, so as part of the first wave of releases they included a handful of aliens you could either speak or spar with: A Borg drone, a Ferengi, a Romulan commander and Gowron. In hindsight these are sort of interesting picks; the first wave came out in the wake of Star Trek: The Next Generation's fifth season and was clearly meant to capitalize on it-Just take note of how Captain Picard is wearing his “captain's jacket” and, of course, the Star Trek 25th Anniversary branding. But while these aliens are in many ways the iconic ones for Star Trek: The Next Generation, none of them played especially major roles in the fifth season (with the notable exception of the whoppers that were “Redemption” and “Unification”): If anything, you'd at least expect a Cardassian to be among the initial releases, but nope. Presumably Playmates figured that since this was the first set of Star Trek: The Next Generation releases, it'd be best to start with the recognisable staples.

Even so, the inclusion of a Ferengi pirate, particularly one who looks like this, is an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. Although they were intended to be Star Trek: The Next Generation's primary antagonists, they were supplanted at the beginning of the third season by the Romulans, and they haven't really played any significant role in the TV series' plot in three years. But Playmates' Ferengi is explicitly modelled after the ones in “The Last Outpost”: He's got it all, from the animal skin uniforms to the fur boots to the crackling energy whips, down to the fact he looks eerily like Armin Shimerman's Letek. Even the clip-and-collect card cites the same Federation intel the crew went over in “Encounter at Farpoint” and “The Last Outpost”. Furthermore, this Ferengi is most assuredly not meant to be a joke, with the card making numerous references to how cunning, dangerous and ruthless his people can be.

Here I am finding myself talking out of two sides of my mouth again. Because I have to write this with the conceit that I'm just now discovering this toy and the Playmates line now, when in truth this guy was one of the very first pieces of Star Trek anything I ever got. To me, this is *always* how the Ferengi have looked and acted, and this figure gave form to the half-remembered dreamlike imagery from half a decade prior I could only hazily recall. With this Ferengi, Playmates invoked and caricatured the imagery of “The Last Outpost”, and in the process made it bigger, grander and more memorable than it had ever been: Apart from the whip, he comes with a unique stand, a set of dilithium crystals (not in the picture) and two Ferengi standard energy weapons (again, I cut the phaser beam off of mine), all clad in unforgettably striking metallic blue. It's that whip that still sticks with me though: It looks menacingly lithe and as if it's constantly crackling with electricity, ready to discharge it all with a strike on some unfortunate victim.

This Ferengi seems feral, dangerous and intimidating, yet also oddly bewitching and captivating. He seems almost...Dare I say it? Cool. He's one of my favourites from the first wave, probably one of my favourite Playmates figures in general because his iconography sets my imagination running wild like little else in this line. I maintain there's a haunting, ineffable power to extremely early Star Trek: The Next Generation, something fluid and intangible belonging to the realm of dreams. This is very possibly connected to it being made in the High 80s, and for me it showcases Star Trek: The Next Generation at its most raw, pure and powerful. “The Last Outpost” is one of the key defining moments in this for me, and this Ferengi figure captures that. To me he embodies everything that was evocative about “The Last Outpost” and also everything I projected onto it. This is what real modern totemism looks like. Naturally I looked for any excuse I could to use him, up to an including subbing him in as an understudy for Quark.

As we go along, you may find. I have some very unorthodox views on Ferengi cultural norms.

Like just about everyone in the first wave, the Romulan saw an incalculably massive amount of action. Although he bears a passing familiarity to a few Romulan commanders, most notably Tebok (another call-back to the first season!) and Tomalak, he's ultimately meant to be just a generic Romulan. Which is fitting, as that's precisely how I used him: Apart from Tomalak himself and T'alar from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Hearts and Minds, this guy was wheeled in literally any time a Romulan of any status or distinction was required. He's got the weathering to show for it, though he's held up surprisingly well over the years all things considered as far as my Playmates Star Trek figures go. He comes with a Romulan PAAD (which I have since lost), a disruptor, a “Romulan phaser rifle” described as a “perfect copy” of the Starfleet phaser rifle (which really just meant Playmates didn't want to spring for the extra mould to make the Romulan disruptor rifle from “Unification”) and a unique base.

(That disruptor, by the way, has had just as storied a life as its owner. Partly because of the distinguished role they played in Hearts and Minds, but mostly because the Playmates figures idiotically couldn't hold normal phasers, Romulan disruptors became the weapon of choice for *everyone* in my plastic Star Trek universe. As a result, Romulan figures and accessories became quite precious and sought after recruits for my crew.)

The base has a funny story attached, because for the longest time I visualized the Romulan insignia upside-down. That is, I thought the part that was pointing down was meant to be pointing up. See, I thought the pointy end at the bottom that's meant to be the bird's tail feathers was really it's beak and that we were looking up at it in flight from the ground. Actually, the beak is an indefinable squiggle in the middle of the symbol and we're meant to be looking at the bird rearing up head-on. One thing I will give Star Trek Nemesis credit for is coming up with a new emblem for the Romulan Star Empire that looks far more striking and distinctive, one of the only times I prefer something about Star Trek: The Next Generation that didn't have its origins on the TV show.

I have very little to say about the Borg drone, because he is very boring. He's got a bunch of wires and cords and shit coming off of him that restrict how much you can move him, and indeed you can see in the picture one of the cords on mine is broken off because I had the audacity to actually want to play with him (in fact, I even think there's supposed to be one more of those rubber hose things that just came completely off). He does come with two swappable arms though, which is cool. The silvery one I've got on him now is my favourite because it has a little claw grip you can move up and down. He also has a base and a trading card (which leads me to believe my Borg is a reissue from a later wave rather than one of the initial releases). Because he was boring and useless the Borg drone was mostly cannon fodder for action scenes, or comic relief as we watched him topple over under his own lopsided weight hilariously.

Gowron, by contrast, is a true warrior. The would-be chancellor of the Klingon empire is one of the most unique and exciting figures in the first wave and has lived many lives. He comes with a Kligon scepter/painstick, an eye-catching imperial insignia base, a disruptor and, delightfully a targ minifigure! Targs are awesome and minifigures are awesome, so this makes Gowron awesome by association. Once again, Playmates has gone back to the iconography of the first season and evoked it with style and flair: The targ from “Where No One Has Gone Before” was a boar with some fur and sticks glued to it, but this little guy looks positively regal, as if he belongs on some heraldic symbol somewhere. Also neat is how Gowron actually has a holster for his disruptor: Unlike the bridge crew's phasers, which you had to cut the beams off to fit them in the holsters and even then it wasn't a perfect fit, Gowron's holster is meant for his gun and it first very snugly. So snugly, in fact, it can be a bit of a chore to get it back out again.

Like the Romulan commander, Gowron has played many different roles over his life. Apart from Gowron himself, he acquits himself quite well to being any generic non-Worf Klingon, including Captain Kargan of the IKS Pagh from “A Matter of Honor”, Captain Kol and Lieutenant Koleth (both from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Hearts and Minds). Unfortunately, this has also meant Gowron has sustained his share of injuries over the years, the most crippling of which has been the loss of his left arm. Like Wave 1 Deanna Troi, Gowron was also the test subject for some experimental surgery performed by my grandfather, however the methodology used on him, involving a golf tee and a hollowed-out arm socket, was noticeably less effective this time around. I'd say Gowron was due for a regeneration, except I'm not sure if Klingons would consider that dishonourable or not.

What's important to remember here is that objects hold the meaning we project onto them for us. When we write the symbol of our memories and emotions onto an effigy, we give it power and allow it to remind us of those things forever more. This is the power of the facsimile.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Totemic Artefacts: Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation Part 1 - Wave 1 and the Bridge Crew

Alan Moore teaches us that reality begins with fiction. “The idea of a god is a god”. But fiction can not just be written, it also must be read. And when we read things, according to Shoshana Felman, we are not uncovering hidden meaning, but generating truth. And the truth that we generate will be different for each person, for each person is different themselves. My truth will not necessarily be your truth, and yours will not necessarily be mine.

If this project has taught me one thing, its this: Reinforcing my conscious intellectualization of the reading process by forcing me to undergo it at an intimate and primal level so that I may attempt to convey what I've seen to all of you. It's a shamanic process; travel inside and out (because they're the same thing) and try and share the experience through art for the benefit of others. It's no great arcane secret-I've always helped that by my doing it, it would demonstrate that you could do it too.

When we talk about a work of art having a transformative effect on us and leaving a lasting impact on our lives, what we're really talking about is the experiential meaning the work evoked in us, not the physical work itself. The material artefact is important, obviously, but that meaning only manifests when creators and audiences both react to it, and any meaning inherent to the text itself by necessity undergoes a process of translation. I can say Star Trek: The Next Generation has been a huge influence on my life for decades, but I'm only ever going to fixate on specific things about it that resonate with me personally: My positionality and perspective define what I take out of it and how I react to it.

And then what happens when ideas, characters and themes migrate? They travel, and are shaped and reformed by their travels just like the rest of us.

The Wave 1 line.
The second line of Star Trek: The Next Generation toys and action figures debuted in the fall of 1992. Playmates Toys received the license this time, after the failure of Galoob's earlier stab at adapting the show to the 3 1/4 inch plastic scale. Marketed, of course, as part of Star Trek's 25th Anniversary (indeed, the only part of the two-year celebration apart from The Star Lost and The Return of Okona officially and specifically dedicated to Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: The Next Generation alone), Playmates' auspicious first wave featured the toyetic likenesses of Captain Picard, Counselor Troi, Lieutenant Commander Data, Lieutenant Worf, Commander Riker, Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, a Borg, a Ferengi, a Romulan and Gowron.

As fans we sometimes talk a lot about “our” Star Trek (or whatever your pop culture mythology of choice might be), or at least those of us who were exposed to the show sporadically on initial run broadcast TV do. If you're perhaps a little younger than me or consume most of your visual media these days through marathon binge-watches, you might not feel this way. I've tried to make it clear “my” Star Trek was, is and always will be the Star Trek: The Next Generation that aired between 1987 and 1994, and that by definition I can't have the same set of emotions and experiences with any other incarnation of the franchise. It's these characters and settings and what I see in them that defines what Star Trek means to me. But that's in many ways a deceptive simplification: Star Trek was a huge part of my life for way more than those seven years, and yet I still didn't watch it between 1994 and 2001. The television show (and even the comic books) went away, or came into and out of my life over the years. But I always had my Playmates toys.

So if I were to talk about about what “my” Star Trek *really* was, I'm not sure I could confidently say it was the TV series, or at least the vast majority of the stories it told, or even the comic book line, whose stories I tend to prefer more on the whole. Perhaps a case could be made it really was this line of toys, and the ideas, stories and personalities I projected onto them. The Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation toys were not the first action figures I ever got, but this was the line I remember getting into the most vividly. This Geordi (or rather a rerelease of him, which I'll get into later on) was probably the first piece of Star Trek merchandise I ever owned (and of course it had to be Geordi, because I knew LeVar Burton). Following him came the Ferengi (probably for him to fight against) and the rest of the first wave. For the next three years, I collected the Playmates Star Trek lines fairly obsessively and to this day they remain some of my most treasured and deeply meaningful personal possessions.

The Playmates Star Trek toys, and in particular their Star Trek: The Next Generation line, came at an interesting time in the toy industry's history. Nowadays all action figures are sculpted to the pretense of extreme realism and accuracy to the onscreen character they represent, and have heftily inflated prices to match catered as they are to the kind of obsessive collector who would care about that kind of thing. But back in the day, back when action figures were still *toys*, that wasn't as big of a concern. In fact you could argue they went too far in the *opposite* direction, with figures that barely resembled who they were supposed to be. But Playmates made an interesting creative decision with this line, and as a result their Star Trek: The Next Generation toys were destined to become every bit as liminal as the show they tied into: Although they would be produced as toys first and foremost, they would be marketed just as much to adult collectors as to kids.

This had huge ramifications, and more or less invented the collector's market for toys wholecloth (...which has both positive and extremely negative consequences). One particularly fascinating side effect of this is how the toys themselves looked: Every figure looks like a radical caricature, with wildly exaggerated proportions emphasizing a wholly cartoonish look-and-feel. Yet at the same time Playmates managed, almost to a disturbingly uncanny degree, to effortlessly capture the likeness of their characters: These toys may not be crafted with extreme realism in mind, but through the stylized art style they convey the “soul” of the person completely (this also leads to fun stuff like the figures themselves being meticulously detailed, but coming with a flood of accessories all cast in neon primary colours, which I of course adore). These toys exude personality and heart from every angle, and when I look at them I see the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew staring back at me. No other toy line I've ever come across has managed to so thoroughly embody something for me, no matter how realistic they may strive to be. Divine avatars in plastic.

So what I wanted to do here was take you through a small piece of my Playmates Star Trek collection, but one that's very dear to me. Obviously this is going to be just the first of many essays on the Playmates line, but this one is probably the most important: I'm bending time a bit again as I'm going to be looking at more than just the Wave 1 figures tonight, but considering the first wave is most of the bridge crew it wouldn't feel right to exclude the few remainders who weren't given a seat in this set. And I thought the best way to do that was to take you on a tour of the bridge itself, or at least of my personal bridge playset. That didn't come out until 1993, but come on, where better then to meet the bridge crew than on the bridge?

First, a little overview of the bridge itself. Like all good playsets, this isn't just a place to display your figures in various poses: It's got all manner of fun features and gimmicks all to itself. The first neat thing is that, just like the set on the show, everything here is fully modular-You can add, remove and swap all the major walls to get different angles of the action (the two big ones at each side are even hinged for easy access). The chairs all swivel (as do the conn and ops stations), you can pull the science station chairs away from the wall to sit your crew down at them (again, just like on the show) and you can take everything that isn't part of the electronics apart for cleaning.
Sensors indicate the presence of a blinky red light, Captain.

Speaking of electronics, it has them! There are seven buttons on the tactical console you can press that activate various sound effects, like the computer readout, phasers, photon torpedos, red alert and, of course “hailing frequencies open”. The main viewer is a kind of backlit screen too, so with the electronics on, every time you push one of the buttons something happens on the it: There's a Romulan Warbird on the viewscreen, and if you fire your weapons a little red light on it flashes. And it even has the running lights at the base of the viewer that light up whenever you have Commander Riker take the ship to red alert!

And now, if you enter the bridge from the upper right-hand turbolift doors (which slide open, as do the set of doors directly opposite them) and walk towards the science stations, I'll introduce you to the crew and talk a little about each one of them, starting going counterclockwise. First is, of course Geordi at the engineering station. There is actually a main engineering/engine room playset and I do have it (and we'll talk about it two seasons from now), but it wouldn't feel right to me to have Geordi anywhere but the bridge.

Most Playmates Star Trek figures came with a standard set of accessories, a stand, a phaser, a tricorder, a laptop terminal or a computer bag and a removable holster, and Geordi is no exception. Most figures also came with a few special personalized accessories, and Geordi has a lot of fun ones: An engineering diagnostic tool, something that looks like a wrench, and a nifty set of green translucent dilithium crystals. The holster was intended for the tricorder, but you never really saw the crew doing that on the show, and I figured the holster would be a better place to put the phaser. I also didn't like how the phaser always came with a phaser beam permanently moulded to it, so for some figures I actually cut it off with scissors so I could get one in a neutral state. Others I kept intact, so I could swap the two kinds in and out for action scenes.

Geordi's was one I cut, but the one you see in the picture is intact because this is actually my second Geordi figure. I still have my original, I would never get rid of him, but he (along with many of my other Playmates figures) was starting to look pretty worse for the wear and I wanted something that would still look nice on the shelf. This Geordi, like many of my Star Trek figures, wound up serving double duty as a myriad of other characters, including LeVar Burton himself. Really the only action figures I had were Star Trek ones (although I desperately wanted ones of other shows I was a fan of, oftentimes we either couldn't afford them or they didn't make ones I wanted), so my Enterprise crew had to take on many other roles, like the consummate performers they are.

So because they worked hard for me and served me so well for so long, I feel many of my figures have earned a graceful retirement and deserve to regenerate into fresher forms. Geordi was one of these, so he was due for a shift change even before I realised that my original Geordi was a re-issue: The first Playmates Geordi figure actually has a removable VISOR, but it was considered a choking hazard for kids so they made a second one that was glued to his head. If you buy a Geordi figure, you can always tell which one you're getting by looking at the back of the card: Geordi's VISOR is listed as an accessory on both releases, but the original one shows a picture of him without it whereas the reissue just uses a static headshot. Clearly I had to have one with a playable VISOR!

(People laugh at the VISOR today, but I always thought it was so cool. I even took a hair clip and fashioned it into one for my own personal use. This became delightfully fitting years later when I found out that's literally what the VISOR prop on the show was: A hair clip spray painted gold and silver with LEDs on the side!)

I still remember the day I first got my Geordi. There used to be a chain of department stores called Ben Franklin, and there was one just a short drive over the mountain from where I live (I don't know if they're still around nationwide, but the one in our town left long ago). My mom and I walked in one day and once we saw the racks of Star Trek: The Next Generation toys, well, that was it, really. It was an exciting experience for me to see Star Trek: The Next Generation toys in a local store like that because it was physical evidence that this thing I watched late at night at home with my parents was actually a phenomenon that was out there and that was bigger than us: I used to always really anticipate going shopping because I couldn't wait to explore the display stands to see if any new Star Trek figures had been released. For the next three years, going around to different stores and finding new faces to bring home and add to the family became almost a sacred rite of sorts.

Geordi's clip-and-collect headshot is different too.
I love the packaging design for the Playmates toys, this initial wave most of all. It has a stylized, almost pop art-deco look to it, but filtered through a lens of Long 1980s design sensibilities. It's an incredibly busy, but visually captivating and provocative style and is a major influence on my memories of Star Trek: The Next Generation's look and feel. And of course like all action figures from the late 80s and early 90s, you had to have the clip-and-collect trading cards. Playmates actually gave you *two*: A brief in-universe biography of your character, as well as a visual list of all the accessories they came with (likely in case you happened to lose any, which was a distinct possibility and a fate that befell a tragic many of my little Star Trek friends). Early on I would cut out all of the cards, taping them together for safe keeping. I even went further than that and would cut out the logos and pieces of the design, because from a very young age I was fascinated by design work and wanted to be able to somehow “hold” that art in my hands. After awhile though I stopped doing that, figuring the cardback art looked better when kept in one piece. None of my more recent acquisitions have gone under the knife, as you can see with this Geordi.

To Geordi's right on the bridge is Tasha Yar. Tasha isn't one of the Wave 1 releases (in fact, she's one of the very last figures released as part of Playmates' Star Trek: The Next Generation line, and *the* last regular to get a figure), but there's no way I wasn't going to talk about her here. This essay is about the *bridge crew*, and Tasha belongs on the bridge, end of story. Tasha's moved around the bridge a lot since I got her: At first I proudly displayed her at the tactical arm, but eventually I felt compelled to move her because that's where Worf stood for six years and as much as I love Tasha, he's still the iconic person to hold that post for me. For a time she guarded the turbolift or hung around in engineering, but now I've got her at the Mission Ops station; a holdover from an old headcanon of mine where Tasha became the Enterprise's Strategic Operations Officer.

Tasha was the figure I was most desperate to get. Because she was such a late period release, I never saw her in stores: By the time she was out (and by the time I knew enough about Tasha Yar that I was chomping at the bit for a toy of her), the Playmates Star Trek line was already on the decline on both the production and consumption end. You didn't see them in stores anymore, except in more rural and remote ones that had older stock they hadn't managed to clear out. And even then you were lucky to find two or three displays, if that. In their place were what to me were a veritable infestation of Star Wars toys tying into the Prequel Trilogy and the Special Edition rereleases of the original trilogy. That I knew this was the reason my beloved Star Trek toys were disappearing, and in particular that I knew this was part of the reason I couldn't find a Tasha Yar of my own, was a *major* contributing factor to the grudge I held against Star Wars for years, and the minor bias I still have against the franchise to this day.

Tasha was a Christmas gift from my generous parents one year in the late 90s long after the Star Trek fad had passed, and even then I'm pretty sure they had to order her for me online somewhere. But that Christmas morning was one of the happiest of my life, because I had been pining for my very own Tasha for *literally years* by that point: Knowing there was a toy of her and knowing I couldn't find it had been driving me half mad, and I was absolutely overjoyed to finally have her. Not only that, but I happen to think Tasha is one of the best Playmates Star Trek figures ever made! Most action figures of the female characters Playmates sculpted were very slight, delicate things with dainty hands you couldn't really play with to a satisfying degree (they couldn't even hold their own accessories!). Not Tasha, though: Tasha is broad-shouldered, broad-chested with long, powerful thick arms and legs and can grab onto anything. And she totally walks with a swagger.

Tasha can grab onto anything.
Tasha doesn't look a thing like Denise Crosby, apart from her head sculpt (which is actually bang-on) and the general proportions of her limbs, but here's a case where that's actually a massive positive. This is a lady who looks like she works out. She looks like she could kick your, mine and everyone else's asses. If you were to get in a wrestling match with her, she'd pin you without breaking a sweat. She properly looks like a soldier, just like Private Vasquez, who was, of course, the person Tasha was always supposed to be. And this is unusual, because by this point in Playmates history they had long since eschewed the caricatured stylization of their earlier figures in favour of more staunch realism, particularly in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine figures that were contemporary with the Star Trek: The Next Generation wave Tasha was a part of. But for Tasha, and only Tasha, Playmates seemed to deliberately go back to their earlier style so that she would fit in with the Wave 1 releases from three years ago, and that warms my heart. Just like them, she exudes personality and captures the soul of her character, regardless of whether or not that's “screen accurate”.

Looking back now, I think this toy is the real reason Tasha Yar is such an important character to me. My inability to find her for so long is a manifestation in the material world of the mythic stature Tasha had accrued in my mind as I read fan reference books, unable to watch any of her episodes. And this toy has so much personality that when she speaks to me I hear her character loud and clear. This is my Tasha.

what the shit is this?
Tasha doesn't have many accessories apart from the requisite base, tricorder and phaser (it's her phaser, actually, I use to stand in for phasers being discharged with the other figures most often): Just a PAAD and a flashlight. The phaser is worth talking about a bit though-Almost every Playmates Star Trek figure, even if they can hold things regularly, is completely incapable of holding a phaser properly. Even Tasha, who you'd kind of like to be able to take aim, can't because of the position of her fingers. The best she or anyone else can manage is to hold their phaser like a lightsaber, which looks silly, ridiculous and impractical, not to mention reminding me of that far more successful and popular science fiction franchise that we shan't bring up again. But hey, at least Tasha can hold shit, which is more than can be said for some of her shipboard girlfriends.

The flashlight though is interesting. I don't recall her ever using it on the show, and actually, I don't recall there ever being any kind of a flashlight used on the show much at all. But Tasha seems sculpted to hold it, and she looks really cool when she does: She holds it military style, grasping it in the palm of her hand and holding it up by her head. This just reinforces how much of a genuine “action” figure Tasha really is: She's clearly designed for some rugged adventuring and it's practically physically impossible to pose her in such a way that she doesn't look unbelievably cool from whatever angle you photograph her. She's not just the most action-geared of the female characters, she's probably the most action-geared of *any* of the Playmates Star Trek toys, including Billy Riker down there. Tasha was undoubtedly worth the wait: She's not just one of my favourite Star Trek toys, but one of my favourite action figures in general. I love her so much.

Doctor Beverly Crusher is at Science Station 1, because, of course, she's the science officer. There are two different Beverlys made by Playmates, neither was released as part of the first wave (but come on), and I have both of them. The one on the bridge is a comparatively recent addition and features her in the standard issue uniform Bev wore mostly in the third, sixth and seventh seasons. Apart from the standard issue accessories (although *her* computer bag has a *medical* symbol on it), she also comes with a thermos of something or other, as well as a Skybox trading card. This Bev is also a late release, coming out 'round about the same time as Tasha and Ro Laren, and by this point Playmates were giving us *actual* laminated trading cards in addition to the clip-and-collect ones. This Bev is my favourite of the two for one major reason: Her body sculpt.

The original Bev (who was part of the Wave 2 Star Trek: The Next Generation releases in 1993) used a unique mould that added her surgical gown as part of the sculpt and, like most Playmates ladies, she couldn't hold jack shit. Sculpted jackets are a big no-go for me when it comes to action figures, because it completely hamstrings their posability. So poor Bev more often than not had to sit out any away team adventures because of her limited mobility and inability to hold a tricorder or phaser (although she was, I believe, for a time Daphne from Scooby-Doo). The later Bev uses the excellent Duty Uniform Deanna Troi body (which we'll talk about further down) as a base, which means she can finally run and jump and play just like the rest of her friends. And frankly, that only seems appropriate for someone who's also a choreographer.

Before I got my second Bev, Doctor Crusher was typically relegated to standing pensively by the left-hand turbolift door. Today, that position is held by her colleague, Doctor Katherine Pulaski. Kate was such a late release she wasn't even part of the Star Trek: The Next Generation line, coming out after Playmates had consolidated their disparate lines into one uniform (and frankly homogeneous) umbrella Star Trek line in the mid 90s. Even so, I still managed to get her before I did Tasha. Her unique accessories are a medical kit and a medical scanner (though I would have loved a bowl of PCS) and she has a unique sculpt that's different from any other female character. It's not as good as Tasha's or the one for Duty Uniform Deanna, but it suits her and she can at least more or less hold her things, which is what matters.

I should also explain the base, which, as you can see in the picture, has no nametag. This was because as part of the same bargain basement cosplay drive that led me to fashion a VISOR out of a hairclip, I set aside some of the bases to stand in as communicator badges, which I accomplished by peeling the labels off of them. Sadly Kate's was one of the ones that were sacrificed (actually I can't even be sure if that *is* hers in the picture), but you have to understand I wasn't as much of a fan of her back then as I am now.

Worf is probably the character who most embodies the caricature style of the early Playmates toys. He looks ludicrously proportioned, almost Rob Liefeldian, and has a bunch of accessories that, should you have him hold them, always make him look like he's about to go apeshit. Apart from his nameless base (I think the tag just fell off of his, as I don't think I would have sacrificed the base of a major character) and Tasha's phaser, Worf has his ceremonial Klingon swords and daggers, one of which is naturally broken. I don't have much to say about him because, thanks to the unrealistic proportions, he's tough to stand up on his own (I try to avoid using the bases unless absolutely necessarily because, well, real people don't have bases) and that makes him a little tough to play with and take on adventures. So, he usually spends his time leaning up against the tactical arm (though he may be reassigned shortly: As of this writing there's a special new addition I'm hoping to bring home soon who might like to take that post).

On the other side of the bridge by the main turbolift stands Guinan, watching the comings and goings intently. I'll bet she knows just what those Romulans are up to as well. Like the original Doctor Crusher, Guinan is a Wave 2 release from 1993. And also like the original Doctor Crusher, she's sadly not much of an “action” figure: Her flowing robes make it impossible to pose her much beyond some really basic arm and leg joint movement.

Of course, standing behind a bar dispensing sage advice means Guinan isn't going to be doing much running and gunning anyway, although it would be cool if she had a phaser rifle so she could go to the holodeck target practice range or curtail unruly crowds in ten forward. Instead, she comes with a 3-D chess set (which is broken) and a tray with set of drinking glasses (one of which is missing).

Unfortunately for Captain Picard, because he was one of the very first figures I got (possibly the third, after Geordi and the Ferengi), he's seen better days and is probably due for a regeneration soon. His paint is chipping and fading in a lot of places and most of his accessories are missing, including, crushingly, his unique type-1 phaser. I picked up a generic laptop terminal and PAAD for the photo, but I have no idea if they're his or not: A lot of the accessories for my early Star Trek figures I just threw in a bag, and since there were so many duplicates, no matter how brightly coloured they are, I have a hard time remembering which ones go with which guy unless they're particularly iconic to them. Later on I started bundling them together in individual snack bags, so it's easy for me to pair up characters like Tasha and the ones I got as adults with their accompanying accessories. The neat thing though is that Jean-Luc has a holster, just like the more action oriented figures (except Tasha, weirdly, though perhaps that would have messed up her sculpt), so you can take him on away team adventures just like he started to do more in the later seasons of the show.

Commander Riker is unique in that his uniform is “battle damaged”, with all kinds of rips and tears all over the place like he thinks he's Captain Kirk or something. When I was younger I thought he was wearing a special pattern uniform with leaf designs on it, and I was mildly annoyed to find out it was supposed to be rips in the fabric. I like my action figures to be “neutral” as often as possible, and while I don't mind stuff like this as a variant it irks me a little bit when this is the only option I'm given for display. And in Will's case it really is, as there's no other “basic” Commander Riker figure made by Playmates that's not based on one of the movies or some weird variant. If the action rip wasn't a tipoff, Will is supposed to be the big “action hero” of the first wave and is sculpted in such a way so you can pose him in really fluid and dynamic ways. This also means he's the *only* Playmates Star Trek figure who can hold a weapon properly, as I shall now demonstrate with Tasha's phaser.

The downside to this, however, is that Will unfortunately can not hold literally anything else in that hand, a problem compounded by the fact his other hand is sculpted in a weird claw grip/jazz hands fusion pose.

And that's a shame, as Will has some of the neatest and most distinctive accessories of the bunch: For one thing, they're all *gold*, which is always awesome, but apart from the base, tricorder and phaser he's also got the “directional UV source” from “The Best of Both Worlds” (I always thought it was just a fancy scanner) and a field kit that even opens up to reveal a hidden PAAD (and yes, the PAAD is removable. This was the coolest thing back in the day, you have no idea). Funnily enough, as much as Will is positioned as the action hero of the crew in this set, I never used him that way. *Tasha* was the action hero: Will just parked his ass on the bridge most times.

I've probably gone through more Deanna Trois than I have just about any other Star Trek figure, probably because there have been a lot of her. This Deanna, again a late-period release, is one of my favourite figures in the entire Playmates line. As I mentioned above, pretty much all of the female characters (with the exception of Tasha and, as we'll see once we hit the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine line, Kira) have insultingly dainty hand sculpts and whisper-thin limbs that really limit the amount of things you can do with them. The Wave 1 Deanna was one of the worst offenders, and in fact my Wave 1 Deanna even had her arm snap off in two places, making her one of the only Playmates action figures of mine that's actually *broken*. My grandfather and I did a quick and dirty repair on her arm joint once many years ago by gluing it in place, but this means she can't twist it anymore. The other place it broke, at the joint connecting the lower arm to the upper arm, I was just able to set it back into place. It'll still fall off if you breathe on it though.

Just looking at you makes my arm hurt. And my eyes.
A few years later, they came out with one based on her regulation uniform she starts wearing midway through season six of the TV show (seriously, why didn't she have that from the beginning? Actually don't answer that, I know why and don't want to think about it) and she was a beloved addition to my family. The Duty Uniform Deanna is probably the best female sculpt Playmates ever did: I love Tasha to pieces, but her body type wouldn't translate too well to many other Star Trek ladies. But this Deanna was used as the basis for a number of other figures, like Duty Uniform Bev above and “Emissary” Jadzia Dax from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine line (which is somewhat touching, as my old Duty uniform Deanna used to pull double duty as Jadzia back in the day before I got any of the DS9 toys).

And this was quite appropriate, as it's a great sculpt: It's generic enough it can fit a wide variety of body types and has hands that can actually hold things. Although even so, that didn't stop Playmates from giving Deanna a special tricorder with a little handle, just to make it easier for her hands to grasp. It also has a nice range of motion such that you can set it in a lot of cool action poses: She's one of the few Playmates ladies who actually seems designed to be played with and allowed to pull her own weight on away team missions. Apart from the usual set of accessories, Deanna also comes with another telltale sign of a late-period Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation release: A Space Cap. “Space Caps” were basically Playmates' version of Pogs, because everything in the early 90s had to have an accompanying set of Pogs. The space art on them was pretty though, and I seem to recall they were of decent quality when compared to the flood of other Pogs you'd find in grocery stores and the like.

As good as she is, Deanna is not immune to injury, however. This is actually my third Deanna, and my second one of her in the Duty Uniform sculpt. My original Duty Uniform Deanna was a staple of the bridge crew and away team adventures both until she...well, “exploded” is probably the best descriptor: One day the adhesive keeping the various pieces together dried out and she completely fell apart. I long ago lost every part of her except the lower body, so Deanna had to revert back to her lavender space pyjamas for many years, and this also meant Jadzia Dax couldn't show up in any stories until I finally got my hands on the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine line. So a new Duty Uniform Deanna was one of my first purchases once I started collecting Playmates Star Trek again, and I'm really glad to have her back in action because she's just a better figure and looks way more professional. I panicked a bit at first when I got her as it seemed like her waist joint was fused together, but after some exercise it thankfully eventually snapped free.

I still have the bottom half of my old Deanna, by the way. Unable to adequately play the role of Deanna Troi anymore, she became known hereafter as Crewman Legs.

Data is one of the most fun characters of the line. First of all, his accessories are *bright orange*, which is just a blast to begin with. Like Deanna his tricorder has a little handle attached (as does his phaser, which makes it unique) because, also like Deanna (or at least Wave 1 Deanna), he cannot hold jack shit otherwise. Which is odd to think of: Among the guys he shares this ignominy with Worf, which is a little surprising considering their status as away team staples on the TV show. So I guess not being able to hold things isn't a sexism problem after all. Because of this, neither Data nor Worf were away team regulars in my adventures: That honour went most of the time to Tasha, Captain Picard, Geordi and Deanna.

Data was more fun to play with on his own-His accessories are mostly the various android diagnostic tools you sometimes see the crew using on him on the TV show. This is significant, because Data actually has little panels you can open up to see his inner workings: One on his back and one on his right arm, so you can re-enact the climatic sequence from “Cause and Effect” where he punches the number 3 into his interface there. Because I was very easily amused, I took great delight in opening Data up over and over again to gaze at his insides. To me, the detail that went into sculpting that was meticulous and fascinating, and the mere fact someone thought to give him that feature seemed genuinely whimsical and delightful.

Data is another figure who has been regenerated comparatively recently. He was badly due for one, as my old Data has had his paint fade and rub off to such an extent he looks disquietingly ghostly, and he's also missing both the panel to his back access point and his diagnostic tools. Fittingly for Brent Spiner, the man of a thousand funny faces and accents, my old Data served for a time as a less-than-reasonable facsimile for Odo before I was able to bring home the real Star Trek: Deep Space Nine crew (among the numerous ways this was unsatisfying was the fact this made crossing over the Enterprise and Deep Space 9 crews effectively impossible, and there came a time I could no longer stand this). Between that and constantly wearing out his joints and hinges opening and closing him all the time, my old Data has more than earned a cushy retirement.

Ro Laren is the newest addition to my family: She only joined the crew in the past two or three years, but I'm so unbelievably grateful to finally have her. Laren was a chase figure for me to be sure: Not as much as Tasha, but she was definitely an irritatingly unfilled position for quite some time and was one of those characters I could never find for years thanks to the plague of invasive Star Wars merchandise. Before her, the conn station on the bridge sat lonely and empty, unless I felt guilty and threw Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Wave 1 Jadzia Dax there just to fill space (she was a pilot once, right?). It was only when I could start shopping on Amazon for myself that I finally got Laren, and when I brought her home, it felt like the family was finally complete for the first time ever.

Apart from the standard stuff, you'll see Laren also comes with a Starfleet-issue messenger bag, the ubiquitous Pog and a contest entry form for the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Design-an-Alien contest (much more on that later, to be sure). The sad thing is, she can't really *do* much of anything with them because Laren is quite possibly the most egregious example of Playmates' female character design philosophy that exists. She's absolutely *tiny*, which Michelle Forbes is most assuredly not, and because she's not even made to the same *scale* as the other characters, she looks completely out of place alongside them. Hell, it's all the poor thing can do not to slide off of her chair! Laren dates to the era when Playmates were striving for more “realism” in their toys so I can understand eschewing the cartoony, caricature look of the earlier figures, but realism doesn't mean unplayable! She looks woefully inadequate standing next to Tasha, and is certainly not going to be winning and wrestling matches with her. Maybe a lightsaber duel, though...

You were the chosen one!
Even though Laren is something of a disappointment as a figure, I'm still incredibly happy to have her because she completes the Enterprise family. In fact, I would hold up my little plastic Enterprise family here as the definitive one: This is the complete happy family we never got to see on TV, and whenever I need my spirit uplifted, I go upstairs to visit with them, paying my respects to the adventures and fond memories we once shared. And even today, they still hold the power to inspire me and make me smile.