Thursday, October 29, 2015

“Of a Kind”: Face of the Enemy

The prevailing fan consensus on “Face of the Enemy” was always that it's “The Good Troi Episode”: The one episode in the entire seven year run of Star Trek: The Next Generation that actually managed to do something interesting and compelling with Deanna Troi as a character. And that's blatantly bunkum: “Face of the Enemy” isn't the “good” Troi episode, it's the definitive Troi episode. It's the episode you show a Troi hater as the final closing argument for the defense of her character and for how brilliant Marina Sirtis is.

As an actor showcase episode, you'll find none better in the series. Marina Sirtis' last best outing, “Power Play”, still hinged on showing off one particular aspect of her acting range, albeit one we don't typically get to see on Star Trek: The Next Generation. And even Brent Spiner's numerous showcases mostly show off his knack for impersonations and comic character bits. By contrast, “Face of the Enemy” puts Marina front and centre and the story gives her an opportunity in every scene to deliver an incredibly interpolated and complex performance: Instead of locking her into “soft Marina” or “tough Marina” modes, “Face of the Enemy” finally gives her the chance to move through every emotion and pull the entire spectrum together into a very human and compelling performance that's still larger than life enough to stick with us long after the credits role. It's the absolute perfect venue for Marina to show off everything in her repertoire, and it's the story she's been starving for since at least the second season.

And yet “Face of the Enemy” is also a story that could in a sense only have come now. I mean idealistically speaking, as we are wont to do on Vaka Rangi, any reasonably conscious and aware casting director could have seen how bloody excellent Marina Sirtis was just watching the filming of “Encounter at Farpoint” and given her a pair of showcase venues in place of, say, “The Naked Now” and “Code of Honor”. However acknowledging the realistic production history of this particular series (and also, to be fair, the fact saddling Marina with Deanna Troi was always going to be something of a crippling handicap), we needed to get through things like “Clues”, “Power Play” and even “Man of the People” before we could get “Face of the Enemy”: Both Marina Sirtis and the production team needed time to experiment with pushing the boundaries of what Deanna Troi could do as a character before totally breaking them down.

Which brings us to the nut of what's really brilliant about this episode, which is that as much as it is a cathartic redemption of everything great we've always loved about Marina Sirtis and Deanna Troi, it's also very much the logical follow-up to a specific antecedent. And, perhaps counterintuitively, that's “A Fistful of Datas”. As we talked about in its respective essay, the big innovation of that story was that it was the first time the show had made an effort to channel Marina's adaptability as an actor through the character of Deanna Troi herself. Previous times the show tried to let Marina stretch her legs, they did so at the expense of Deanna: Either she gets mind raped or depowered so Marina can go full Ophelia (“The Survivors”, “The Loss”, “Violations”) or she gets possessed such that Marina is technically playing a character other than Troi (“Clues”, “Power Play”, “Man of the People”). In “A Fistful of Datas” though, Durango was explicitly a character created by Deanna, which gave Marina the unique opportunity to play Deanna purposefully putting up a performative artifice: It already helped that Durango is a character so far up Marina's alley anyway, and it was fascinating to see her play Deanna playing a character archetype that she could easily have played herself without that extra layer of performance.

(And performativity aside, this Romulan espionage job is essentially also just an extension, albeit an extreme one, of Deanna's pre-existing role as ship's cultural anthropologist. Remember how she's supposed to be that? What have empathic powers ever been code for?)

So really, “Face of the Enemy” is on one level just the next step from this. Major Rakal is explicitly an in-universe fictional identity (she was a real person at one point but, in true Romulan fashion, she's fictional now) and Deanna's ability to put on a compelling performance is the lynchpin to the entire plot. And man if it isn't one hell of a performance: Marina's delivery radiates mercurial fluidity, ebbing and flowing between Deanna's horror at her situation, outrage at the gall of Spock and N'Vek's “cowboy diplomacy”, and timid discomfort on the bridge of the Khazara, eventually giving way to positively frightening Tal Shiar despotic tyranny. There's of course the brilliant moment where she faces down the Enterprise and gambits outwitting Captain Picard, Toreth, N'Vek and everyone around her. And that incredibly unsettling moment where she explodes at N'Vek after his plan unravels, speaking not as Deanna Troi, but as Major Rakal: A dark, twisted manifestation of the freeform mutability we've always known about the Star Trek: The Next Generation characters.

Perhaps revealingly, I find this even more chilling than Denise Crosby showing up as a Romulan commander.

Speaking of the Romulans, this is an equally brilliant outing for them. “Face of the Enemy” is the greatest Romulan story probably since “Balance of Terror”, and precisely the kind of story Star Trek: The Next Generation needed long about “The Enemy” and “The Defector” when it was faffing about trying to get a handle on what to do with them. Unsurprisingly, writer Naren Shankar cites “Balance of Terror” itself as a major influence, stating he wanted to tell the Next Generation version of that story (and no, as underrated as it is, “The Neutral Zone” doesn't count). It definitely shows: Just like in “Balance of Terror” we get a visceral feel for the different layers and manifestations of Romulan society, and (in spite of what Ensign DeSeve says) the strong sense there's far from “clarity of focus” or universal love amongst Romulans for the imperialistic aspirations of their government. In fact, “Face of the Enemy” gives us a better look at Romulan culture than even “Unification” did.

A lot of this is due to the imperious Carolyn Seymour as Commander Toreth, the only person possibly on the planet capable of standing up to Marina Sirtis here. Whenever the two of them are onscreen together it's impossible to take your eyes off of how utterly commanding and mesmerizing they both are. Interestingly enough, in another nod to previously definitive depictions of Romulans, Toreth was originally going to be Joanne Linville's character from “The Enterprise Incident” (another episode “Face of the Enemy” is slightly reminiscent of), but with Linville proving to be unavailable during filming, the creative team called up the only other person who had the necessary chops (though I will say I'dve given them props had they gotten Denise Crosby too). Seymour had already left her mark as a Romulan in “Contagion”, where she played the effectively identical Subcommander Taris, but the team decided against bringing that character back because they'd forgotten she survived the events of “Contagion”.

No matter whether you call her Taris or Toreth though, the fact of the matter is Seymour is fucking brilliant, perfect in the part and one of the most memorable (and frustratingly underused) guest spots on the series. She's a hypnotically commanding presence, yet at the same time she also sells her weariness and frustration with what the Romulan Star Empire has becoming heart-wrenchingly well. She's loyal to her ship and her crew in the exact same way Captain Picard or Commander Riker is, and she has a similar opinion of her own superiors to what we have of Starfleet Command. It's impossible not to hear echoes of Mark Lenard's Romulan Commander from “Balance of Terror” in Seymour's Toreth, and she's every bit as sympathetic. But at the same time, this also highlights a major difference between “Balance of Terror” and “Face of the Enemy”, especially in regards to what the Romulans now represent.

In the Original Series, under Paul Schneider and D.C. Fontana, the Romulans were explicitly a mirror of the Federation (or Earth Command in “Balance of Terror” as that episode predates the Federation and Starfleet in Star Trek): On the one hand a dark mirror, but on the other hand a reflection that in some sense was better than us, having internalized and developed our best qualities better than we had. With the dictum that the 24th century ought to be an explicitly utopian setting (which remember, the universe of the Original Series never was, despite what Trekkers say), that symbolism fell by the wayside a bit as Star Trek: The Next Generation began. Not fully disregarded, least not at first. But it is true we haven't seen more than the briefest of glimpses at what Star Trek: The Next Generation Romulans might look like, and even then not since, well, Carolyn Seymour's last outing as a Romulan, actually.

The thing is, by this point in the joint Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine universe, the Cardassians have long since been positioned as the Federation's mirror. They were created in “The Wounded” explicitly to be equals to our heroes, and in “Chain of Command” we saw some some disturbing, though not inaccurate, paralleling between the ugliest impulses of the Cardassian and Federation military hierarchies. And in “Emissary” and “Past Prologue” both, Kira Nerys rather bluntly points out that the Federation are no better than the Cardassians and have no business meddling with Bajor. This frees up the 24th century Romulans to be what they quite frankly always should have been: The inverse of what they were in the Original Series-Not us-but-better, instead, us-but-a-little-bit-worse. The Romulan Star Empire is what an empire in entropy looks like. A paranoid, despotic, self-aggrandizing institution in decay and decline desperate to prove to everyone that it's actually rotting from within. All perfectly embodied in the histrionic fire and brimstone of the Tal Shiar. The Romulans now are one more direction the Federation of the immediate future could go, as an alternative to becoming the Borg.

Actually, when phrased like that, perhaps the Romulans are still better than us after all.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

“Worlds in time”: Past Prologue

To elaborate a bit on some of the discussion in the last chapter, a big thing that underwrites the difference between “A Man Alone” and “Aquiel” from a narrative procedural standpoint is the differing, though complimentary, central focus of their parent series. In the context of those episodes, I phrased the difference between Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as being primarily one of scale-The former works best when it's seen as a counterintuitively intimate show about a close-knit family team of voyagers, while the latter gives us a community-sized look at an entire urban geopolitical region extrapolated to a science fiction setting with interweaving stories about several different families set against a large-scale cast of characters.

But there's one other major distinguishing characteristic of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's approach, and it's one “Past Prologue” is the key episode in setting in motion. Namely, although it's every bit as utopian as Star Trek: The Next Generation, it examines this utopianism from a different angle: Whereas the Enterprise is a utopian setting by default, even down to the fact “Encounter at Farpoint” essentially establishes it that everyone aboard knows each other in some capacity already and has some history with at least one another person (the exceptions would seem to be Worf and Tasha Yar, solely for the reason they were last-minute additions to the cast, though the mid-fourth season reboot does retcon shared backstories for Tasha and Captain Picard in), Deep Space 9, in accordance with this show's key themes about building and healing, has to be made utopian through the generative and commutative efforts of the people who live there. That sense of community and mutual trust that comes so easy aboard the Enterprise isn't here yet, and by design, and a significant portion of the first/sixth season is about fostering that.

A lot of critics will turn this contrast into a judgment of quality, making the claim that the lack of familiarity aboard Deep Space 9 is objectively better than the premise of Star Trek: The Next Generation because it encourages conflict and conflict is always better in absolutely every circumstance for everything. I don't think this is the case for a healthy variety of reasons...Setting aside for the moment my extremely well-documented distaste for the (in my opinion) crass and juvenile conception this team has of what the word “conflict” in a dramatic sense actually connotes, by the very narrative structure Star Trek: Deep Space Nine operates under, this crew is going to get to a level of Enterprise-style intimacy and comfortable familiarity at some point, and presuming that “conflict”, where “conflict” is defined as “people screaming at, disappointing and betraying each other constantly”, is always better all the time would seem to be setting up the show for what they would consider failure at some future date. Were they just planning to cancel Deep Space Nine whenever the crew started actually getting along with each other? I find that difficult to believe, considering A. This show was designed as the Heir Apparent for Paramount's biggest cash cow and B. That date comes roughly midway through this half-season.

No, rather than an Aesop about how “good dramatic storytelling” is “supposed” to work, I see this more as another manifestation of the different scopes these two shows operate under. And “Past Prologue”, which admittedly and assuredly has all the “conflict” in the world to make the Ira Behrs and the Michael Pillers happy, is secretly all about utopianism. Every character here has some utopian ideal they bring to the table and strive to live up to themselves. The trick is, it's not the *same* utopian ideal as any other person: Kira Nerys and Tahna Los once shared the same ideal for what Bajor should be, but Kira eventually changed her mind, especially after the wormhole was discovered (and I have to wonder what she must be thinking, given that the Prophets chose to contact Sisko and Dax, but not her or any other native-born Bajoran). Both are in their own minds fighting “for Bajor”, but they've now come to disagree on what “for Bajor” means.

The Starfleet officers have ideals of their own, and thankfully the episode never gets so crass as to suggest that they're cushy and out-of-touch military aristocrats and imperialists, because that's tone it absolutely could have taken and something a fair few creative figures on this show seem to believe themselves, given the stuff they've gone on the record saying. Kira and Tahna believe that, but the story doesn't give either one of them the moral high ground on the issue, which I definitely appreciate. And even at this early a stage, we're seeing glimpses of how, just like the Enterprise crew, the Deep Space 9 team is not cut from the same Starfleet cloth as that of their superiors in the admiralty of Starfleet Command: This is two episodes in a row Commander Sisko is willing to throw curveballs and take counterintuitive gambles, and while Jadzia Dax doesn't get a ton to do this week there's still a distinct aura about her.

And then there's Doctor Bashir, who is just this delightfully rambunctious little puppy. He fancies himself the hero in some trumped-up 1960s action spy-fi movie, which is probably exactly what he expected life in Starfleet to be like. But, like, this weirdly effeminate kind of naive debutante secret agent, which is a spin on the concept that has to be 100% uniquely and exclusively his. It's almost this oddly subby drag performance of Starfleet as filtered through Julian's positionality: Everyone in Command takes their jobs super-duper seriously, but Julian is almost consciously play-acting, drawing explicit attention to Star Trek's pulp action sci-fi roots in a way not even the workaday “lets just play along with them so we can get back to exploring the cosmic wonder” ethos of the Enterprise crew is completely able to do.

So of course Garak is the key compliment to Julian here right from the start. Garak may or may not be a spy, but what's important about him right now is that he knows Julian thinks he's a spy (as do Lursa and B'Etor) and reacts accordingly. He plays along, putting on an act of his own. And in this way, he takes it upon himself to be the young doctor's mentor, using Julian's giddy enthusiasm for super-duper-super-secret-super-spy stuff to gently lead him to be more aware and perceptive of his world so that he can actually help make a positive material difference in it. And this is the moment where it becomes abundantly clear that no matter how deliberately mysterious and misleading Garak's backstory might be, he's unequivocally going to be one of the good guys: Everything he does here is in service of the material good of Deep Space 9: He's actively opposed to the Kohn-Ma and the meddling of Lursa and B'Etor not because he wants to sell Bajoran nationalists out to the Cardassians (he even plays them too so that Commander Sisko and Chief O'Brien have an easy out in the climax), but because he wants to see the wormhole and the station, and thus its spiritual and utopian lives, continue to exist and grow.

(Speaking of Lursa and B'Etor, by the way, they're in this episode. And I have to say, despite their bit parts, they're way, way more effective and likable here than they ever were in “Redemption”.)

Which I suppose brings us to the key ethical question of this episode: Was Tahna Los in the right? Do the Kohn-Ma have the right idea? I certainly wouldn't be one to cast criticism on the idea of armed resistance to a brutal fascist occupying regime, and even Kira agrees there's little difference between the Cardassians and the Federation in that regard. One could certainly read the ultimate solution Kira comes to, through Sisko, to be one of capitulation and compromise: A hoary old moderate liberal, and inherently hegemonic, perspective of politely and dutifully asking for concessions and small favours from the ruling class. I don't think that's quite what's happening though, and I also can't personally cast my lot in favour of the Kohn-Ma in this story.

For one, I don't think Commander Sisko represents the party line for what Starfleet interests in Bajor are. I understand it'll take time to convince Kira, and one hypothetical audience, that this is the case, but I do believe that it is. More basically though, and at the risk of being in the position of the privileged passing judgment on the oppressed and dictating how they can and cannot deal with their oppression, I think the Kohn-Ma are at heart a reactionary fundamentalist movement and this is their fatal flaw. This is embodied in two key lines: Tahna's sloganeering of “Bajor for Bajorans” and his staunch opposition to the wormhole. The wormhole, the Celestial Temple itself, stands for cosmopolitanism, worldliness and interconnected enlightenment. Not only does it bring Bajor contact with many different cultures and perspectives, it is the literal source of their spiritual enlightenment which, just like real-life spiritual enlightenment, is only possible once you realise you are without and within the entire universe always.

So the Kohn-Ma's hatred of the wormhole is a recalcitrant and reactionary response to being confronted with this essential truth: It is in every sense a desire to deny reality in an attempt to go back to a perceived simpler state of being. A desire for solipsism over enlightenment. They hate anything that smacks of growth or networked existence because it forces them to call their long-held beliefs and assumptions into question. That's something people like Tahna are not prepared to deal with, and it's a staple of right-wing reactionary movements the world over. Odo even begins to draw a direct parallel with burying one's head (not even in sand, but underwater) and catches Kira's statement that the Tahna Los is “just the way [she] used to be”: The Kohn-Ma represent an essentially adolescent worldview and state of mind that it's necessary to move beyond if one is to make true progress down a spiritually sublime path.

Sometimes, the universe has to drag us into utopianism kicking and screaming, whether we want to go or not.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

“Missing Persons”: Aquiel

What immediately struck me about watching “Aqiuel” in contextual sequence for the first time is that in many ways it's really a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine script. That's not to say it was actually pitched to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it was very much conceived of as a story explicitly for this show. But in many ways it's a story that would have been a better fit on the other one, namely because it's a murder mystery and murder mysteries tend to work better in settings that aren't about voyaging. It makes sense how the Enterprise gets involved in the case here, but from a genre perspective it's kind of weird to have them in the role of private investigator as they have no permanent investment in the area they're investigating.

It's even really easy, even at this early point in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's history, to see how this story would have translated. Imagine Aquiel being one of the Bajoran technical staff, let's say. Maybe even a nationalist and former resistance member, to play up her allegedly spotty past. The somewhat questionable usage of the Klingons as red herring adversaries being filled instead by the Cardassians, perhaps the crew of a “supply ship” being run in “good faith” in the interest of “joint Cardassian and Federation relations”. There's Sisko and Kira caught in the middle of a potential diplomatic incident neither of them are prepared to deal with. Former ambassador Dax plays confidant to them both. Picture Julian Bashir in Geordi's position, taking on the case out of his brash exuberance and desire to make not just a difference, but a grandiose, heroic difference and becoming predictably smitten with his subject. Put Odo in Commander Riker's place, grudgingly taking Julian on as “deputy”, cautioning him on his overt investment and maybe clashing with him over interpretations of the evidence. Complicated, naturally, by the ultimate revelation that the killer was a shape shifter; itself potential foreshadowing to “Vortex”.

This probably would never have happened because Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had literally just done a murder investigation the week before, even if a bizarre call on the part of a Paramount higher-up sent “Past Prologue” out ahead of “A Man Alone” in spite of the latter episode featuring all of the exposition one would normally expect to see in the first regular episode of a TV show. Although that said, this thought experiment does highlight some important differences between Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: The Next Generation, or at least differences in the assumptions about how the two series operate held by their respective creative teams. Because “Aquiel” is a different sort of murder mystery plot than “A Man Alone” and has a very different reputation. While I feel “A Man Alone” is underrated and understudied, it's still held up as a solid first step for Deep Space Nine while “Aquiel” holds a standing in mainline fandom opinion just slightly above “Code of Honor”.

Now I find this terribly interesting, but I'll return to the question of “Aquiel”'s actual quality a little later on. Right now, I want to focus on the comparisons and contrasts a little bit more, because they are important. While “A Man Alone” was tacitly about Odo's self-imposed isolation and the hijinks we can get up to doing a murder mystery on a space station, that was in practice just one of a great many disparate story threads and subplots that episode introduced or examined. As far as the mystery itself was concerned, Odo was really the only suspect for the majority of the story (that was, in fact, the point) and the clone business could almost be seen as a deus ex machina saving throw. By contrast, while “Aquiel” has its own sci-fi shenanigans (she's actually alive and not the victim but a suspect and there's some colony creature going around contaminating the evidence and crime scene), it's way more focused on the actual investigation and how the different characters react to it and plays out as far more of a straightforward whodunnit structure.

(“Aquiel” was, by the team's own admission, effectively conceived as a Let's Do of the 1944 film noir movie Laura, where a detective is investigating the murder of a young woman, falls in love with her, and than discovers she's actually alive. And Laura got away without any technobabble embellishments.)

Over the course of the story, we're introduced to a raft of suspects, each with their own plausible motivations: First Rocha, then Aquiel herself, and finally the sexist loose cannon Klingon commander whose name escapes me. And also like a traditional whodunnit, or at least a particular well done one, all the clues are there for the audience to find and piece together to solve the mystery themselves should they be savvy enough to notice them. Little things that nevertheless demonstrate an impeccable attention to detail: One of Aquiel's logs shows her reacting to a loud noise off camera made by something that seems to be threatening her. Captain Picard and Commander Riker note that Rocha was a “model officer”, which doesn't match Aquiel's description of a violent and controlling man. When she meets Geordi for the first time, Aquiel points out that Maura chewing up his shoes is uncharacteristically aggressive for the dog. She does that again during the climax right before it's revealed “Maura” is really the colony creature in disguise. And Doctor Crusher mentions in passing how a theoretical colony creature might get hostile and violent when it was looking to change form.

So the big difference between these two murder mysteries is actually not, as some might be tempted to suggest, Star Trek: The Next Generation's inability to properly characterize and reliance on incomprehensible technobabble coming up against Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's focus on strong character development and conflict. “Aquiel” is just as character focused as “A Man Alone”, being intended as the start of a possible romantic relationship for Geordi (I'll deal with the potential effectiveness of that later). Instead, the difference is one of scale and in how much emphasis is given to procedural form. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine gives us snapshots of life in a space metropolis: It has a huge and diverse cast of characters from all sorts of different backgrounds all with their own lives and their own agendas. Star Trek: The Next Generation is more about our core group of friends-It's got a much smaller-scale and more intimate feel to it. I'm not saying one is better than the other (actually the opposite: I think they're necessary compliments of each other), but they are different and require different approaches to writing.

As it pertains to this episode, “Aquiel” definitely feels more procedural than “A Man Alone”. But that's OK, because Star Trek: The Next Generation always has to in a sense be sort of procedural as “competency porn” (I still wish I could come up with a better phrase for that style that sounds less like a pejorative) is a major aspect of how the show operates. We watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, or at least we should, to see the Enterprise crew get along with each other and work together to jointly solve a problem or make a discovery. And “Aquiel” is actually a really good showcase for that: Geordi gets to do some work that's not just technical but involves healing somebody and piecing together a story. Will gets to look out for his friends, and Bev gets to play forensic investigator.

If it's not obvious by now, I actually really liked “Aquiel”. Frankly, I don't understand the flack this story gets from fans, because as far as I'm concerned there's literally nothing wrong with it. The big complaint from the writing staff at least seems to be that this was too tech-heavy; that there was too much jargon to follow and that they had to jump through too many hoops to explain why the tricorder and ship's scanners couldn't have solved the mystery immediately. But I didn't find that to be the case whatsoever: I instantly picked up the different clues and plot beats and had no trouble following the sci-fi stuff at all. Granted I've seen this one before, but not in over a decade, and while I knew going in that Aquiel was alive and innocent I couldn't remember anything else about the plot. I didn't have any problems with it, and honestly I think the creative team is giving their fans way too little credit. Especially if they think they're all hardcore sci-fi nerds, which they're not anyway, as we've long ago established. But even if they were...I mean, you think you're writing exclusively to old-school Trekker dudes and you think this is going to confuse them? Give me a break.

And even back then I remember liking this story a lot and not understanding why it had such a poor reputation. This is perfectly serviceable and functional Star Trek: The Next Generation of the sort that, in my earliest memories, is what I remember this show being like on average: A team of likable and iconic scientists doing what they do best and working together to figure something out. Even the low camera angle during the scenes were Bev is working in sickbay were powerfully evocative to me, because that's how I always remember seeing her: At that angle, looking up at her fiddling with a tricorder and talking technobabble with her research assistants and lab techs. It's no different from the jargon used as flavour speech in police procedurals or medical dramas. All we need is the lighting to be a lot darker, a consequence of having my living room lights off at night or my crap 1980s tube TV, or perhaps both.

If I were to muster one criticism of “Aquiel”, it would be the romance subplot itself. Parts of it feel a bit too reminiscent of “Booby Trap” and Geordi seems to have been wheeled in once again purely because the team thought “something needed to be done” with him. But it's far and away the best deliberate Geordi showcase since “Booby Trap” purely because it eases off of him and lets him do his thing. Apparently the impetus to do this story came about because Jeri Taylor felt guilty that with the O'Briens gone from the Enterprise the show was implying that the 24th century was for single people and long term romantic relationships wouldn't survive...Which kind of makes no sense. Last time I checked, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine takes place in the 24th century too. And as far as I can tell, there's something *really* interesting going on over there with Ben Sisko and Jadzia Dax.

I mean even if you were to limit your case study to the Enterprise (which *also* makes no sense as the whole point of having two shows running concurrently is to demonstrate how the universe is rich and vast and bigger than one show can portray, but whatever), it seems to me the far more interesting tack to take is to tell stories about asexual and aromantic people (which is how I read Captain Picard and Data, and, actually, Odo too) or swingers (which is kind of how I see Will and Deanna). But obviously that wasn't going to fly in 1993, so Taylor decides to try an introduce a new long term relationship between Geordi and Aquiel. Of course the shipper in me kind of wants to grouse that they didn't do this with Geordi and Ro Laren as an incidental B-plot to some other episode, especially as this is now three times in the same season the team has totally dropped the ball on a potentially really interesting development for Laren they absolutely could have run with, but I'll concede I'm the only person on the planet who ships them. But even though the Geordi/Aquiel thing doesn't go anywhere, I can't fault the execution in the narrative itself, and maybe that just means Geordi is polyamorous too. It works in the context of the story just fine.

In fact, that's almost the most important thing to take away from “Aquiel”. It works. It's enjoyable television and not offensively terrible. And I've reached a point with Star Trek where that's enough to get my recommendation.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

“Geometrically Demonstrated”: A Man Alone

Of course Jadzia Dax would spend her free time meditating. With a video game, no less. Technological media does not supplant spiritual experience (except when appropriated by hegemonic forces of social control), but it can offer a glimpse of it, or at least a simulacrum of it. We can't spend every waking hour in an altered state of consciousness, so art exists that we might not lose sight of what's real. 

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is in the position of justifying its existence. With its pilot, the show has decisively seized the zeitgeist, but it still needs to let us know the sorts of things it's going to do and how it's going to operate on a week-to-week basis. What we see in “A Man Alone” is already very compelling, however: The plot is a simple sci-fi murder mystery the likes of which even Dirty Pair on an off day can do, but even that is an important indication of one of the things that sets this show apart from its sister. Star Trek: The Next Generation is ideally a show about voyaging and exploration-The Enterprise crew is best seen as a team of scientists going out and doing their jobs, which are in the business of making new discoveries about themselves and the universe. The inhabitants of Deep Space 9 are a far more heterogeneous bunch, however; most of them are civilians and business owners and the joint Starfleet/Bajoran action staff are basically administrators. My favourite analogy is to think of the Enterprise as a research vessel and Deep Space 9 as a port authority.

This means that the Deep Space 9 team are going to be spending most of their time dealing with situations that crop up in their jurisdiction, so to speak. If you can imagine the station as a kind of port city, you can conceive of a lot of things that could only happen in a setting with that sort of eclectically striated society. That's not to say we won't get a fair bit of world building to go along with that: Bajor alone is ripe with infinite possibilities for storytelling, and the Gamma Quadrant is their very own “vast unexplored reaches of the galaxy” waiting to have research teams sent into it, just like Miles tells Keiko here. But it's the station itself that will unquestionably be the primary setting, so “A Man Alone” does a great job showing us what this looks like in practice.

Against that backdrop, a murder mystery is a straightforwardly sensible thing to throw out as your first nominal episode. There's Prophets-only-know how many detective shows and police procedurals on the air, so it's a solid idea to use that as a case study for how this series can do urban slice of life in deep space. But while it's Odo's story that's obviously front and centre this week, there's a multitude of other stories going on all over the city as different family units and circles of friends try to get themselves situated: We have the expected (and ever-so-slightly stock) marital strife with the O'Briens, the beginning of the Jake and Nog Comedy Show and the quite fascinating Sisko/Dax/Bashir dynamic that's beginning to take shape that I'll be spending a great deal of time parsing out, but we even get a look at the lives of characters who are effectively extras. Quark's patrons are obviously regulars and there's a tantalizing shared history there dating back to the days Deep Space 9 was under Cardassian jurisdiction we don't get to see. But that only serves to further enrich the tapestry the series' world is hinting at.

(And outside the narrative, in sound, Jay Chattaway is continuing Dennis McCarthy's thread from “Emissary” by giving us a very New Age feeling soundtrack. It's an interesting clash with the nuts-and-bolts materialism of the plot, though not an off-putting one, and helps to set the hazy, dreamlike and wondrous tone that surrounds Deep Space 9.)

In that regard it's pretty bold to come right out and do racial hate crimes as your very first story. It actually feels like this team has been chomping at the bit to do something like this for ages, and it certainly fits the bill for that precious “conflict” we seem to adore so much. But if it's the kind of “conflict” we've had preached at us for four years it demonstrates an incredible feeling of nuance and maturation we've honestly not seen from this team before. The friction between Odo and the Starfleet officers comes purely out of Odo's stubbornness, inflexibility and unwillingness to turn to others for help. There's no “gotcha!” moment where Odo gets to call out Sisko, Dax or Bashir for being a hypocrite: In fact, he pretty much sets himself right up to fall into Ibudan's trap. That's not to say we don't understand where he comes from, though, nor does it in any way excuse the treatment he gets from the Bajorans. It's also pretty brave to have the oppressed Bajorans be the ones to form a lynch mob: The complex, multilayered politics that will define this series are already present and obvious.

And while I'm sure it's nobody's highlight of “A Man Alone” except mine, I also have to talk about the actual science mystery part of the story. It's clever enough with the whole clone deal, but, as is so often the case with Star Trek, it's the images that stick with me. This is actually one of the most visually iconic episodes in the series for me, and it makes up one of my earliest and most vivid memories of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I can't actually remember when I started watching the show (I know I was watching it on and off all throughout the 1992-3 and 1993-4 seasons), but it must have been pretty early on because I *definitely* remember Sisko, Dax, Bashir and Odo staring at that gelatin dude in the tub. That was one of the screenshots that was used all the time in my Starlog magazines as the production and early broadcast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was being covered, and I'm *positive* I saw it on TV at some point too. After I got Season 1 on DVD and started rewatching the show later on, I grinned from ear to ear when I got to “A Man Alone” because so much of it felt familiar to me. I remember Julian working over that bubbling mad scientist tub!

Speaking of Julian, and Ben and Jadzia, their subplot *really* caught my attention. In fact, the whole Sisko/Dax and Dax/Bashir dynamics are beginning to strike me as way more intricate, complex and interesting this time around then I'd ever given them credit for being before. So the irritatingly persistent Nice Guy act of the sort Julian engages in is and always has been juvenile at best and creepy and stalkerish at worst. I have a redemptive reading that explains this away, but we need to wait until Garak gets here to start playing with it. One thing to say is that this viewing has basically confirmed something I've always kind of suspected about how this works on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which actually ties into that very utopianism some writers would be so keen to get away from: Jadzia is actually a strong enough character that this wouldn't bother her, because she's old enough she recognises the signs of brash and impetuous youth for what they are and wouldn't feel threatened by them. And because of the gender equality taken for granted in most of the Star Trek universe, she knows there's no patriarchy or rape culture that might otherwise put her at risk.

So on that note, I was almost surprised, albeit pleasantly, to see how Jadzia basically *teases* Julian here! That whole scene with the video game from when he comes in until Ben joins them she's *totally* messing with him. She is trying to teach him meditation techniques to help him clear and focus his addled mind, but she's *also* very clearly having fun with him in the process. Julian doesn't have a chance with Jadzia and they both know it (even if he doesn't want to admit it), but that doesn't stop her from knowingly flirting back in good fun. Even if you cast aside all the information we know about where her character goes later and just look at what we know from this episode and “Emissary”...Jadzia will say relationships don't mean the same thing to Trills as they do to humans and she finds romance more of a “nuisance”, and she is right: Jadzia isn't looking for romance in the everyday sense, but that doesn't mean she's not looking for an intimate (even a physically intimate) relationship with others. There are other, higher ways of loving and knowing someone than what we think of as romance.

One of them is how Sisko and Dax love each other. And they do, they absolutely do: None of their scenes together in this episode give off a “we're better off as friends” vibe. There's something way more sophisticated at play here. Ben is obviously torn as to his feelings-He sees Dax as the mentor and father figure Curzon used to be for him, but he is clearly also attracted to Jadzia. Everyone can see it: Quark can (though he'll laugh it off), Odo can, Julian can and so can Jadzia. And she's gently leading him to make peace with those feelings and integrate them into their shared life together in a productive way-That's the whole point of her “I suggest you allow yourself to be comfortable with your discomfort” line. She's trying to guide him to a point where he realises they can have a loving relationship that transcends that of best friends, mentor/mentee or boyfriend/girlfriend (it's worth keeping in mind how in the early drafts of the series bible, Dax wasn't Sisko's old mentor in a new body, but his ex-girlfriend). It's a more spiritual and intimate version of Captain Picard's relationship with Guinan.

But what really knocked me for a loop was the lunch scene with Ben and Julian. My memory of this episode has Julian cranky because he thinks Ben is his “competition” for Jadzia's affections, and it does start out that way. But in practice that actually lasts only until Jadzia brings up her desire to “live on a higher plane”, at which point his tone changes. But it's when he has lunch with the Commander himself that things get really interesting for me: They immediately start bonding with each other over their shared affection for their friend, and Sisko explicitly parallels himself with Bashir when he regales him of the hijinks he and Curzon used to get into. He remembers what it's like to be that age. And it's not Bashir, but Sisko who brings up the potential love triangle, immediately offering to bow out. But Julian keeps pressing him to admit his feelings for her, flat-out stating that “If I were in your shoes, knowing Dax as intimately as you do, I think I'd find her hard to resist”.

He's not doing this out of spite or jealousy, the tone in Siddig el Fadil's delivery is entirely that Julian is saying this out of genuine, heartfelt care and affection for his new friend (and probably the fact Sisko is his commanding officer has something to do with that too, but still). The way he responds to Ben's reaction to his prodding is really counterintutitive: He thinks it's adorable Sisko cares for Dax so much. He wants them to be together and doesn't want to stand in the way of that. All of a sudden, Julian seems to be playing matchmaker. But at the same time, he's still got his own stake in all this. Sisko assures Bashir he won't give him any “competition”. It's the graceful, adult thing to say. But he's still invested, and Julian sees that. Not only does he see it, he acts on it. To be blunt, Julian now seems to be angling for a polyamourous relationship between him, Ben and Jadzia and seems to be testing the waters to see what his boss thinks of the idea.

(I also think it's pretty funny how they both just assume that just because Dax identifies as a young woman now she won't be game for the same sort of mischief and roughhousing Ben got into with Curzon. Seems everyone here has been misjudged to some extent this week.)

What easier, more stock way is there to force conflict onto a set of characters than to shoehorn them into a love triangle? It would have been the most obvious thing in the world for this conflict-addicted creative team to pen, and yet the *very first thing* they do is set it up just to knock it down. They'll never admit it, but Gene Roddenberry was right: We *really have* moved beyond such “petty squabbles” in the 24th century.

And so life goes on aboard Deep Space 9. That's how this show will carve out a niche for itself. Vignettes of daily life on the Edge of the Final Frontier.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

“A shadow, a story”: Ship in a Bottle

I doubt it was deliberately planned this way, but “Ship in a Bottle” is the absolute perfect pick for the first Star Trek: The Next Generation episode to go out into a world where Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a material reality. After the chaotic upheaval of “Chain of Command” and the apotheosis of “Emissary”, Star Trek: The Next Generation needed to pitch something that would unequivocally prove it was still in the game: Something that it and only it could not just execute, but execute flawlessly to once more and for good demonstrate to us it's not going to rest in its laurels, retire and hand the keys over to its wildly successful and popular younger sister.

(The audience figures for “Emissary” were, in case you were wondering, through the roof. There's no question that in January, 1993 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the biggest and most popular show on television.)

And “Ship in a Bottle” is precisely that. It follows on from the intense symbolic power of “Emissary” and while it may be a lower-key and smaller-scale manifestation of it, that power is still there. This is a story about the lasting influence of ideas and fictional concepts and even reveals a subtle hint at the nature of reality itself. We've finally wrapped up any anxieties we might have had left over from “Time's Arrow”...and shown how inaccurate the title of that episode really was in the process. And just incidentally, I find it somewhat interesting that immediately following “Emissary” we get a story about a supposedly forgotten person from Captain Picard's past who holds a bitter grudge against him. However, the narrative never gives Moriarty the high ground here; his grudge against Captain Picard is never shown to be anything other than sadly misguided. Grudges and lingering bitterness are not constructive emotions.

Professor Moriarty is understandably upset at being shoved into cold storage for four years. But it's not Captain Picard he should be upset with, but the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Although the Sherlock Holmes stories were in the public domain in the US in 1988, they were still under copyright in the UK, and the Doyle estate sent a sternly worded letter to Paramount saying that if they wanted to use the characters and setting again they'd have to ask permission and pay a licensing fee. The letter was more in response to the Young Sherlock Holmes TV series and not “Lonely Among Us” or “Elementary, Dear Data”, but it was enough to spook the Star Trek: The Next Generation production team into not using the consulting detective again until now.

The legal backstory is worth delving into a little further, because it actually runs up against the major themes “Ship in a Bottle” is trying to convey in an interesting way and, in doing so, it reveals where Star Trek: The Next Generation stands at this point in time in terms of a broad culture-scale ethical position. “Ship in a Bottle” is, on at least one level, about the agency and lasting power our literary and mythological artefacts embody and take on. It's right back in noösphere territory (or, for you comic book fans, Alan Moore Ideaspace territory if you prefer) with the notion that humans and human fiction have a dynamic and symbiotic relationship that allows them both the shape each other. This manifests in the episode in lots of ways, only the most obvious being the incredible and incredibly delightful trick of Captain Picard and Professor Moriarty outmanouevring one another with nested holodeck simulations of reality. It's a Holmesian logic puzzle kicked into warp drive.

The only problem with this premise, however, is the material existence of copyright. It's a physical product of human laws that poses a legitimate threat to the thought sphere as it imposes a capitalist hierarchy on human creativity through a system of artificial scarcity and intellectual rent seeking. In ancient times, societies were held together through oral history, where sacred and sublime knowledge about the world was passed down from generation to generation through stories. All stories are, in fact, some variation on this way of knowing and communicating that has existed as long as creative sentient thought has. What capitalism does is appropriate this and charge an entry fee, setting arbitrary rules and regulations about who is allowed to participate and under what conditions. Though this may be wildly unnatural and entirely counterproductive to human endeavour, capitalism then normalizes this and would have us believe this is just the way things are, the way they have always been and the way they will always be. It's not, and it need not be.

Through copyright and intellectual property, capitalism dehumanizes stories in the same way it dehumanizes land and water (and other people) by rendering them property that can be bought, sold and fenced off from others. Just as with land and water, which used to be a shared commons belonging to everyone and everything as part of nature, turning stories and mythology into property selfishly takes them away from the rest of the universe and stifles their power. This is especially dangerous for stories like Sherlock Holmes, or indeed Star Trek due to their long history and status as iconic and ubiquitous polyauthored cultural artefacts, because it actively keeps them from filling the role in society they're plainly meant to play.

But with “Ship in a Bottle”, Star Trek: The Next Generation takes a firm and clear stance against this. Finally fulfilling the potential he hinted in “Elementary, Dear Data”, Professor Moriarty is freed from the shackles that bound him to Sherlock Holmes (and by extension to the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) and allowed to remake himself as a new person with a new identity all his own. He does this with help from the Enterprise crew (regardless of whether or not he perceives it as such: We all have bad habits we're at risk of regressing into, after all), but also through the personal epiphanies afforded to him through his own agency. It is, when looked at a certain way, a profoundly radical statement: Stories and fictional characters have a life of their own. They don't belong to anyone except themselves and it is they, not we as writers (or lawmakers), who get to dictate how they're remembered and what stories will be told about them. This may actually be the most bluntly, openly and straightforwardly anti-capitalist progressive statement Star Trek: The Next Generation has made since “The Last Outpost”.

And more to the point, it even speaks to the sorts of issues Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has raised: The challenge and question has always been, how do you live as a mystic in a material world? It's a reality Ben Sisko and Jadzia Dax are now going to have to face on a day-to-day basis. Deep Space 9 is a literal crossroads between the mythic and the mundane; an allegorical concept made real and given form, much like Professor Moriarty. The animist shaman's solution is to point out how there is no spiritual/material binary, that the world of the spirits and the physical plane are actually two perceptive manifestations of the same underlying reality. But these are issues the Enterprise crew has been dealing with, at least implicitly and metaphorically, their whole lives. No-one is better poised to make a statement about these sorts of things than them. And so in "Ship in a Bottle" we have an abjectly fluid reality constantly being reshaped by consciously aware actors. "Canon"? What does canon mean in a world that exists solely within the eye of the beholder? The Enterprise sublimates its reality and deals a death blow to the tyranny of intellectual property at the same time all through remembering the ancient truths.

And in this episode's closing moments, Star Trek: The Next Generation produces one more ace from its sleeve. “Ship in a Bottle” ends with what may be the most blatantly meta scene in the entire series with Captain Picard's offhand observation that
“In a sense, who knows? Our reality may be very much like theirs. All this might just be an elaborate simulation running inside a little device sitting on someone's table.”
What better way to end this story? The implications are obvious. The Enterprise crew is following in Moriarty's footsteps, and have broken free of television itself. Star Trek: The Next Generation declares its immortality.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Ship's Log, Supplemental: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Emissary (Music from the Original Television Soundtrack)

Other composers may be more renowned in the fandom today, but when Paramount needs to launch a Star Trek show, they turn to Dennis McCarthy. He's the working composer who holds the franchise together in song on a day to day basis. And his score for “Emissary” (mistakingly affixed with the definite article on the sleeve notes) may well be his magnum opus. It's definitely a major turning point.

You can make much the same argument for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine itself, at least as it exists now in January 1993. It's the culmination of everything Rick Berman, Michael Piller and the rest of the Star Trek creative team had learned over the past three years, and it's the fullest realisation of everything they'd ever wanted to do with Star Trek. More importantly it's a vision that finally and at long last embraces the franchise's utopianism instead of bristling up against it, in spite of how many overtures to conflict for conflicts sake the team makes in interviews. In absolute defiance of the “three season rule”, in “Emissary” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine opens straight up with a defining statement that's easily a contender for the title of Greatest Star Trek Story Ever Told, and it's a testament to how good this season is that it ends with one too.

Dennis McCarthy's soundtrack is reflective of every ounce of the team's newfound confidence and inspiration. There's even one obvious standout cut from this album that's just as definitive as “Emissary” itself, and is in my mind the single greatest piece of music ever composed for Star Trek. We'll talk about it in good time, of course, but as that's obviously going to take up the bulk of this essay I'll save it for the end. In the meantime, on the rest of the record McCarthy finds the perfect feel for what Star Trek in the twilight of the Long 1980s should sound like: There's still a little of that golden age film score sound Ron Jones popularized, albeit quite a bit less bombastic than Jones' work. And there are definitely slower parts where the music is intended to fade into the background a bit, and by that I mean there are parts of “Emissary” that absolutely sound like, well, a TV soundtrack. But McCarthy strikes just the right balance between that and a more eclectic edge that he's quite frankly never been given the credit he deserves for.

(Although quite frankly, any argument that McCarthy just writes "sonic wallpaper" flies straight out the window for me whenever "New Personality" starts playing. It's an instantly reconisable piece and it immediately transports me right back to one of my most formative and evocative television memories.)

Where Ron Jones was given instructions to be extremely classical and old-fashioned Hollywood (a tad dated and overblown to my ears, though I concede that's my opinion) and Jay Chattaway does his best stuff with organic world sounds, particularly Celtic ones (c.f. “Tin Man” and “The Inner Light”), Dennis McCarthy's best work plays with a kind of fusion sound that would have been very much in vogue at the time. His work on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine here is the best example of this to my mind because he hits on the frankly inspired idea of bringing in a heavy dose of New Age influences. It's a trend in McCarthy's work you can trace all the way back to (fittingly) “Encounter at Farpoint”, but it's showcased the best on “Emissary”. “Into the Wormhole” is probably the best immediate example, with all kinds of trippy, howling witchy sound effects that are actually part of the song itself and capture the mood of that scene perfectly.

Then there's “Passage Terminated”, which is just flat-out brilliant. The best way to describe it is...Did you ever listen to those cassette tapes they used to make of ambient music and sound effects meant to calm you down and relax you? I did, and it left a lasting impression on my musical sensibilities. They're actually terrific for helping put you into a meditative trance-Just get comfortable, close your eyes and focus on the music, and from there it's very easy to enter into a heightened state of conscious awareness. In fact, I have hypnotherapy recordings that use this exact type of music as a backing track. That's the kind of song “Passage Terminated” is, and it's only natural that it plays when Ben is trying to explain linear existence to the Prophets through Baseball. It's the exact right fit for not just that scene, but the feel of the episode on the whole. McCarthy had even dabbled with this sound before (again, in “Encounter at Farpoint”), but “Passage Terminated” is his finest execution of it. It's a stroke of utter genius on McCarthy's part and unlike anything else in Star Trek.

In the most primordial recesses of my memory, this is the music I associate with both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine *and* Star Trek: The Next Generation; the energy and emotion of being in its purest form. And yet even “Passage Terminated” isn't the most defining moment on this album. Really, there could only ever be one song that was.

“Theme from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” is the greatest musical moment in Star Trek's history. Because of course it is. What else could it be? This song is a masterpiece: Just a solitary French horn with a hauntingly subdued backing synth pad, yet one of the most complexly moving and powerful compositions ever set to film. I remember the first time I saw Deep Space Nine's opening credits: I'd long since decided the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme was basically the greatest TV theme tune ever (I hadn't heard a lot of TV theme tunes at that point, mind), but I remember being absolutely *blown away* by this, literally rendered speechless. I couldn't even come up with a way to compare the two pieces; all I knew was that I had just heard one of the most amazingly beautiful songs possibly ever. A little piece of my youth died that day, though: Never again would I be able to be quite so enraptured by my first love. Star Trek now meant something else to me.

The Next Generation theme's unfortunate fate was finally sealed when I later learned that it was, in fact, The Motion Picture theme. Which also leads us to how historically important “Theme from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” actually was: This was the first time a theme song was written *expressly* for a new Star Trek show, without any lineage or continuity with the Original Series whatsoever. And this is a metaphor for the state the franchise is now in as of January 1993: From its very beginning, Deep Space Nine has been gifted a freedom, agency and individuality Star Trek: The Next Generation was never quite able to maintain. Until now. As counterintuitive as it perhaps may seem at first, it's really Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that finally breaks the chains that had bound Star Trek: The Next Generation to its inescapable predecessor. These two shows have together created a new universe for them and them alone to inhabit. Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine belong with each other, not with the Original Series. So maybe in that sense this song is for both of them.

It's 1993. This is it. We've reached Star Trek's cultural peak; its annus mirablis. And the theme song to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the soundtrack to the apex. The majority of my fondest memories of Star Trek pertain to this zeitgeist, and one of my most vivid is connected to this song. I was hanging out at my local mall, about an hour and a half north of me, nestled beneath one of the tallest ski mountains in the state. I was walking between the K-B Toys and Disney Store when suddenly this song comes on the mall radio. I was stopped dead in my tracks. No, that couldn't be...Could it...? Oh My God *it is*! The radio is the absolute last place I would have expected to hear Star Trek *anything*, but there was “Theme from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” clear as anything. It was at that point when it finally clicked with me how big a thing Star Trek was. No, that Star Trek had *become*. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was producing *charting singles*. I was overjoyed and overwhelmed all at once: Never in my wildest dreams could I ever have imagined something like that happening before now, and never again was Star Trek just the thing my family and I watched together at night.

And this literally was a charting single too: I even have the Maxi-CD single that was actually cut from the “Emissary” soundtrack, with “Theme from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” as the A-side. The B-side is “Passage Terminated (Love Theme from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)”, which is an entirely reorchestrated and reconceptualized version of the song used on the show. It's a masterpiece in its own right, really bringing out all the ethereal and meditative qualities of the original and putting them centre stage. I *highly* recommend giving it a listen. And the theme song itself gets a makeover of its own: Neither this nor “Passage Terminated (Love Theme from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)” are simple edits or rearrangements, but rather entirely new recordings and new takes on the songs with all-new (and superior) instrumentation.

This version of the theme song is particularly wild, as it opens up even moodier and more atmospheric than the TV version, before leading into a plodding doom march of a drum line that underscores the whole piece. Then suddenly, McCarthy breaks out electric guitars which he proceeds to just shred in accompaniment for a whole 3 additional minutes to bring the song up to standard radio length! You would think this would kill the contemplative mood of the song, yet somehow it manages to enhance it! Dare I say it, I think this is the definitive version of the piece. It's the first glimpse we get of the pop rock sound that's a big influence on McCarthy that will shape a lot of his early work for Enterprise (particularly “Archer's Theme”), but it's on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where I find it to be the most pleasingly unexpected and oddly affecting.

You could find these songs (along with the similarly offbeat and fun “Cucumbers in Space”) as bonus tracks on the “Emissary” soundtrack, or together on this Maxi single. This is the soundtrack CD from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine I confess is the most precious to me: I didn't own the full “Emissary” soundtrack but I did own this, and the dimly lit photograph of Kira, Dax and Bashir on the upper level of the Promenade that's in the liner notes for this single is one of my favourite and most formative images in the show for me. Together, they comprise an audiovisual scrapbook of a very special and exciting time in my life, a happier time I can always transport myself back to and whose emotions I can channel through the music that was left behind.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

“Forever Now”: Emissary

It's Stardate 4399.7 at the Battle of Wolf 359. Star Trek: The Next Generation fans exist here. This is a moment of grotesque apotheosis: The moment when you finally realise you're truly not alone in the universe. The Borg: Unfettered efficiency and misanthropy. Proof by negative. I refuse to believe. Behold and confront the negation of reality to reveal the true natures of reality. This is a path. You must decide for yourself if it is a good one for you.

It's January 3, 1993 on your television screen. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine exists in this moment. But it has always existed at this point of singularity. It has waited. It waits. I'm skeptical, though cautiously optimistic about a second Star Trek series. I don't like that it's on a space station, because I dream about travelling to the stars. “This isn't a starship, Major”. I fear a new show will make people stop paying attention to and caring about the Enterprise crew. My crew; my family. Living in the present, but without the self awareness and inner focus to truly comprehend what that means. The local Vermont syndication affiliates are airing Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the exact same timeslot opposite one another. They exist together in the same moment. “I do not understand the threat I bring to you. But I am not your enemy. Allow me to prove it”. It's February 2003. It's October 2015.

There's a lithograph of a Runabout leaving Deep Space 9, still in orbit around Bajor. I can see the image in my mind. I remember the Runabouts. The Runabouts are cool. They're like miniature starships. It's late 1993, and my father is doing warehouse inventory for the toy store. There's an AMT/ERTL model kit of the USS Rio Grande on offer and my curiosity is piqued. Deep Space 9 waits to be rediscovered. It's mid 1994, and Star Trek: The Next Generation is on TV. It may be a rerun, I can't quite make it out. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is on one of the other networks. I flip back and forth between the channels, two different cameras trained on two different sections of the same universe at the same point in time. It's dark. Kira Nerys is trying to have a conversation with Jadzia Dax, who is preoccupied with practicing gymnastics on a high bar. I am unable to turn away.

Stardate 46388.2. Three years later. Miles O'Brien is with Commander Sisko wearing the new Deep Space 9 team open collar Starfleet uniform. His sleeves are rolled up, literally getting his hands dirty with the station's bombed out infrastructure. This is how I always picture Chief O'Brien-To me he is always here in this place with these people. He belongs here. But there's a part of him that still exists on the Enterprise: It's those values he embodies and strive to teach, and its the Enterprise his presence constantly evokes. We say goodbye to it along with Miles, but the Enterprise never actually leaves: It plays a part in the opening act, climax and denouement. It may leave frame, but the narrative universe is unbound: The world is greater than one show can depict. Star Trek: The Next Generation continues. And Chief O'Brien remains there still.

Kira Nerys does not like the Federation. And why should she? One imperialistic occupying force is just as good as any other. The kinship she shares with Commander Sisko, and especially Miles O'Brien, is obvious. In their own way, each knows the dehumanization and trauma that comes at the hands of empires. They remember “Chain of Command”. But on another level, Miles and Nerys are consciousnesses who have been guided to be together by the universe. They understand one another. They know one another. And they are more similar than they might think to Odo, Nog and Quark: Each must live in the worlds others create for them and make the best of it they can. Kira, Miles and Ben are survivors. Quark and Nog are opportunists and Odo, a man literally without form, lives entirely in the moment day-to-day and chooses to define himself by his job.

For Kai Opaka, history is teleological. Everything has a purpose and a destiny ordained by the stars. This is her interpretation, and the one which shapes Bajor's largest and most popular organised religion. Yet some truth lies even guarded away behind the sealed walls of churches and monasteries: Kai Opaka does know life force is the source of all things, and knows how to resonate with it to understand a person and the role they play in nature. And she also knows the true meaning of the Tears of the Prophets: Memory is a part of identity, and that there is no such thing as past where time is unbound. Tears of joy alongside tears of melancholic nostalgia. The Prophets are waiting, but in Another Time.

Jadzia Dax exists. She continues. She is at once “the same old Dax”, and someone who constantly reinvents herself. But she does it in the moment. In this way, she is the problem of the persistence of the experiential self in personal identity theory resolving itself. But on a deeper, more primal and more important level, Jadzia is a powerfully erotic figure: She lives her life guided by the forces of creative and constructive life energy. Not just Erotic, in fact, but Eros itself given form-She is intensely sexual because she is a being shaped by and comprised of sexual energies. Jadzia is compelled to beget life within and around her. Jadzia is Eros and Eros is life force.

Gloria Steinem argues that someone can either give birth to another person or give birth to themselves. But Jadzia Dax does both. Her joining is a profoundly sexual experience, the union of a female identity in Jadzia with the nonbinary, transgender onenesses of Dax. It is the union of sex and Eros resonating with life energy on the astral plane; a Tantric act. And yet the act, and Dax itself, is grubby and materialist-It's through and within Jadzia this becomes sublimated and a divine truth born. Jadzia Dax is born from Jadzia Dax herself, because Jadzia Dax is herself a state of permanent congress. She conceives, is pregnant, and gives birth all in the same moment: The eternal and unfolding Now of her divine cosmic existence. It is the most powerfully, profoundly Erotic and sensual scene I have ever seen in media, a spiritually orgasmic moment that reshapes reality as I know it. Jadzia Dax is the transgender shaman of the ancient traditions, but she's even more than that-She begets herself as the Goddess Sublime, mantling the sacred in her mundane existence through her raw sexual power. Her very life stands as a testament to the Real and the path to attain it.

Benjamin Sisko is a healer and a builder, while Jadzia Dax is a creator. They are drawn to each other by the resonance in the music of their life energy. They belong here and they belong with each other. The Prophets know this, and reach out to both of them. Jadzia may not be *the* Emissary, but she is *an* Emissary. This isn't a story about her, and she knows it. But Ben cannot find the Celestial Temple without Jadzia, because he is joined to her. Their consciousnesses know each other in every sense the phrase connotes: She is his mentor, best friend and lover. He may only be aware of some of the manifestations and incarnations of their relationship, which is a relationship that spans timelines and universes, but she will wait for him to learn. She waits. In Another Time.

Our awareness permeates the world. Our awareness is the world. The world is built by the act of our understanding it. Our subconscious shapes our perception of the universe, and the universe only exists within the moment in which we perceive it. Nature resonates with the sound of our mind at the quantum level. As without as within. Benjamin Sisko's world is barren, violent and ravaged by storms. Lighting in the sky: Charged, raw passionate energy directed into its most caustic form. Jadzia Dax's world is the Land of Eternal Summer. She tries to share it with him, but he can't see it. He's not ready to see it yet. We cannot share our inner worlds with others, because our worlds are our own and we are limited to linguistic communication: Symbols and pictographs intended to stand in for abstract concepts. The Prophets can only speak through performative artifice, taking on the roles of people and places from memory. Only at source energy can we reconnect with our spirits.

Julian Bashir's world must be one of noise and lack of clarity. He lives in the present, yes, but without the self awareness and inner focus to truly comprehend what that means. Hedonism and impulsiveness is not transrational: This is a level of understanding presently denied to him. It's something he has the power to unlock, but only if he searches for answers from within.

The Prophets scan Sisko and Dax by bathing them in light. As they scan Jadzia, they pause at her abdomen.

It's October, 2003. Enterprise has learned that the Xindi are being manipulated by the Guardians, a group of trans-dimensional beings who exist outside our space-time. It was the Guardians, whom Enterprise knows as the Sphere Builders after their penchant for building giant spheres in the Delphic Expanse, who have convinced the Xindi to launch an unprovoked attack on Earth. To me, the solution to the mystery of the spheres couldn't be more obvious: They're plainly Dyson Spheres, and the Sphere Builders are stringing them together to harness energy as part of a grandiose attempt to bend nature to their egoistic Will through advanced technology. It's January, 2004 and we have an answer. The Sphere Builders dwell in a state of pan-dimensional and pan-temporal existence, from which they can observe multiple possible timelines. Nonlinear, flat time where the past, present and future are all equally “now”. As a faction in the Temporal Cold War, the Sphere Builders desire to use their network of Dyson Spheres to reshape our universe in the image of theirs. They are waiting in Another Time.

As without as within.

There's a baseball game on. Like Michael Piller, the writer of this episode along with Rick Berman, Benjamin Sisko is an enormous baseball fan. Baseball is Piller's chosen spiritual path, a game simultaneously ubiquitous and impenetrable to those not drawn to statistics due to a mind's predilection to logical thought. And in the 24th century, by Piller's own design, obsolete. In “Emissary”, we see Commander Sisko literally explain spiritual existence through baseball: A language of symbols and metaphors to convey a working class mystic's understanding of material spiritual truth. The sublimation of baseball into divine exegesis.

As a child, I neither watch nor play baseball. I understand and respect it as part of the cultural landscape in which I exist, but my game of choice will always be basketball. More out of personal aspiration than preference for spectator sports: I look up to and admire the girls on my dad's varsity basketball team and want to be as talented and skilled as they are on and off the court. But, I'll watch a game if it happens to be on TV. Seeing Benjamin Sisko playing baseball with the Prophets evokes to me a world of dreamlike memory and reclaimed nostalgia that isn't mine, but is deeply attractive nevertheless. Bright, warm summer days at the park in the centre of town. Visions of youth lost and found. When I think of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I think of summer days, baseball fields, lush green parks and bright blue skies. When I think of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine I also think of dark nights and harsh green and brown tones just cutting through the shadows.

I watch the Sphere Builders outline their plans, and I remember the Celestial Temple. It's early 2003, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is finally on DVD. I don't own the Star Trek: The Next Generation DVD box sets even though I'd like to because they are very expensive and, after all, that show's still on TNN. I watch it every night except Wednesday, because that's when Enterprise airs on UPN. I'm very interested in the Temporal Cold War story-Nothing will ever be the same again. It's an exciting time for Star Trek. I make a point to buy these DVD box sets though...Well, the first and second season ones anyway. I know for a fact the series is no good in its third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh years. Memories too horrific and painful for me to visit. I don't want to exist here. I have the power to take myself somewhere else. Somewhere better.

It's January, 1993 again and I'm watching “Emissary” for the first time. For Benjamin Sisko, the Celestial Temple is a soft yet all-encompassing white. “Is this source energy?”, he must be wondering. Nonlinear, flat time where the past, present and future are all equally “now”. Jean-Luc Picard is here too, or rather a facsimile of him. Someone playing his role. And so is the starship Enterprise, or rather a fascimile of her. Someone playing her role. Happy memories for me, though evidently not for Commander Sisko. That he's unhappy makes me unhappy. We are at source energy-Let yourself join with the oneness of love and understanding. Heal. “Where's Jadzia Dax?”, I wonder. “Why isn't Commander Sisko thinking of her?”. I ask that in part because I know I am. I have a hard time not. I'm not entirely sure why in the moment, however. Living in the present, yes, but without the self awareness and inner focus to truly comprehend what that means. But maybe Jadzia doesn't need to be here in this particular moment. This isn't a story about her, and she knows it.

I understand now.

It's May, 2004. “Countdown” is on my television screen. The realm of the Sphere Builders is a soft yet all-encompassing white.

It's January, 1993. It's May, 1994. It's July, 1994. It's February, 2003. It's January, 2004. It's October, 2015. We are at source energy. All that is or ever was or ever will be. The world is built by the act of our understanding it. This is a path. You must decide for yourself if it is a good one for you.

Art is neither a system for transmitting information nor a mode of self-expression. It does these things no better than any number of activities. Art is the seizure of a vision that exceeds language. It captures a slice of the Real and preserves it in an artifact. The work of art is fractal and open—an inexhaustible well of meaning and image overflowing the limits of the communicable. It is a way to the wilderness of the unconscious, the land of spirits and the dead. If great works of art are prophetic, it is because they disclose the forces that seethe behind the easy façade of ordinary time. I am not just thinking of the plays of Shakespeare and Sophocles here, but also of the poems of Emily Dickinson, the songs of Bob Dylan, the choreographies of Pina Bausch, the films of David Lynch. All of them are oracles. 
The shaman enters the priestly society of the ancient world and is called a prophet. She enters modern industrial society and is called an artist. From the shape-shifting sorcerer painted on the cavern wall to Mr. Tambourine Man jangling in the junk-sick morning, a single tradition flows—backwards, like an undertow beneath the tidal thrust of history. This tradition tears us out of the system of codified language and returns us to the dreaming depths where language first rose as the idiot stammerings of poetry. The shaman, the prophet, the artist: each knows the way lies not in the dry processes of logic but in the snaking courses of the heart. If art makes use of ideas, concepts, and opinions, it is only to subsume them in the realm of the senses, to push them to the knife-edge of lunacy where the primal chaos shows through the skin of objects, where all judgments are silenced and beauty, naked and terrible, is revealed. 
Art doesn’t begin when you realize that you have something to say. It begins at the hour when there is nothing left to say, when everything has been said, when what must be said is unspeakable.” 
-J.F. Martel, “Beauty Will Save the World”

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

“An ageless light”: Chain of Command, Part II

Last time on Star Trek: The Next Generation...
“And that's an important thing to remember here: Most of the stuff fans like to praise the most about 'Chain of Command', namely the truly gruesome and unsettling torture scenes that are justifiably held up as a human rights statement, are from Part 2. Part 1 in hindsight feels much more like a setup, not just to Part 2, but to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Because that's what this episode is really about, at a metatextual level if not an explicit one.” 
“That's a historical fact I feel is frequently overlooked: This is the first two-parter in the history of Star Trek: The Next Generation to actually come right out and advertise itself as a two-parter from the very beginning. 'The Best of Both Worlds', 'Redemption', 'Unification' and 'Time's Arrow', the previous stories of this ilk, all hung on their cliffhanger endings: You were meant to watch them for 39 minutes assuming they were going to play out like a normal episode, and then be gobsmacked by a left-field revelation...'Chain of Command', however, makes it perfectly clear to us from the outset it's telling a story too big and too epic (and also too expensive, which was the main reason Michael Piller suggested splitting it in half) to be contained in one episode. Given the strategic December airdate, it thus also becomes Star Trek: The Next Generation's first proper mid-season finale, which seems like the only fitting way to reify Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
“Ro Laren's absence in 'Chain of Command' is really, strikingly noticeable and one can't help but wish they held Michelle Forbes' annual guest spot over for this story instead of shunting her into the teaser for 'Rascals'. Especially considering she had already turned down the gig over at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it would make sense to get her perspective on the Cardassians' withdrawal from her homeworld...” 
“Because I do suspect that former ROTC man Ron Moore looks at Captain Jellico as someone he probably admires to at least some degree due to his bombastic and unapologetic old-fashioned masculinity. The kind of captain he'd probably like to serve under if he was in the military...And a story that lionizes Edward Jellico cannot hear the voice of someone like Ro Laren because it cannot imagine that voice exists. And this story, and both incoming Star Treks, are the poorer for it.” 
And now, the conclusion...

It's possible to read “Chain of Command” as a kind of narrative collapse. With Star Trek: Deep Space Nine imminent, and even though it at least should have been plainly obvious by now that both it and Star Trek: The Next Generation were going to exist in tandem rather than conflict with one another ( least not *artistically*, but we'll get to that when we get to it), spinoffs still don't tend to happen in a TV show's imperious phase: It's entirely likely there was lingering anxiety about this, especially considering no-one except insiders had actually *seen* Star Trek: Deep Space Nine yet. Sure, there had been interviews and press junkets and all that good stuff, but audiences hadn't seen the finished product yet: Would this show be any good? Could it ever live up the standard set by Star Trek: The Next Generation? Expected questions, sure, and questions Star Trek: The Next Generation had been frequently asked itself back in its own first season. But 1993 is not 1987, and Star Trek means something very different now than it did then, and these are questions that are going to end up dogging Deep Space Nine all throughout its run.

So we have a massive bit of Star Trek: The Next Generation's world-building stripped away from it and passed on to its younger sister. Captain Picard is captured and brutally tortured by the Cardassians, who are now the new show's villains (and are even wearing the uniforms this show will make their trademark for the first time) in the very heart of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine itself: We may not be on Bajor proper, but it's what's going on there that's set this entire plot in motion, and there's that replimat set. The Enterprise is in the hands of a tin-pot reactionary who's on the brink of undoing everything Star Trek: The Next Generation has spent six years trying to build. This even ties into Ro Laren's egregious and conspicuous absence: We now know Star Trek: The Next Generation isn't going to be telling stories about Bajorans anymore, so there's no place for her. With the original impetus of her character taken away from her, she's sadly become redundant and unneeded.

(Not that this had to happen, mind: There's an entire tack Star Trek: The Next Generation could have gone with Laren that plays off of this instead of running up against it, it just doesn't.)

And yet even so, a piece of Star Trek: The Next Generation's essential power remains, because if “Chain of Command” is a narrative collapse it's got to be a staged one. We've known from the very beginning none of this is going to take because it's an advertised two-parter and mid-season finale/premier with a really stock plot. So in practice this plays out more like a show *about* fears of narrative collapse rather than an *actual* narrative collapse: There was never any significant danger to Star Trek: The Next Generation because Star Trek: Deep Space Nine poses no real existential threat. In fact, both shows stand to enrich each other in very palpable ways-The story of Bajor and the Cardassians is now bigger and more intricate than it had ever been before, and while we haven't yet seen how Star Trek: The Next Generation is going to respond with its own take, rest assured that it will. We now have the opportunity to look at the Star Trek universe from two distinct perspectives at once, and there are so many ways that can enliven our understanding of its complex and multilayered utopianism.

The torture scenes are of course incredibly well done and incredibly disturbing. It's a triumph for not just Patrick Stewart's acting (for which he prepped by watching videos from Amnesty International, an organisation of which he'd already been a supporter) but also Frank Abatemarco, who was responsible for the script for Part 2. If you're looking for something to point to as the defining moment of Abatemarco's brief stint as supervising producer, “Chain of Command, Part II” has got to be it: He went all out in his meticulous research to make sure the depiction of torture was as accurate, realistic and bone-chilling as he could possibly make it. He did such a masterclass job, in fact, that Patrick Stewart was gravely concerned when Jeri Taylor had to do a rewrite because he was afraid she's remove the episode's teeth and he felt it was too important a story to be pared down. Taylor had to personally reassure Stewart that she had no intentions of doing that...Even if it meant she had to submit herself to just as many hours of specific, horrifying, explicit and painful research that left her emotionally distressed and worn out. The finished product is every bit as difficult to watch as it was to write and, as unquestionably powerful and important as this story is and while I'm incredibly glad and proud it exists, that's part of the reason I personally can't actually watch this. Jeri Taylor herself said it should have come with a content warning.

Part of.

The other part of the reason “Chain of Command” is such a tough story for me to watch, and maybe even the larger part, is Edward Jellico. I absolutely cannot stand to see him strutting up and down the Enterprise barking orders at people left and right. He is profoundly, captivatingly unlikeable: Everything I hate wrapped up in a boisterous, authoritarian, ham-fisted, jowly, square-jawed loudmouthed package. He's all of Star Trek's buried and forgotten militarism dragged up and put on parade for all to see, not out of grotesque shock and horror, but out of pride. Of course Jellico would like Data and promote him to first officer, because when he looks at Data he sees a literal automaton who will obey his orders, unthinkingly submit to his authority and carry out his wishes without question. The perfect model soldier.

That Ron Moore finds Jellico sympathetic instead of repugnant is a horrifying micocrosom of everything that's wrong with Star Trek as a franchise. Thankfully, Frank Abatemarco seems to have a better handle on what Jellico's role in this story should be, and makes him eat his own self-righteous words and take a blistering exprobation at the feet of Will Riker, who spent an entire episode as Jellico's whipping boy under Moore. But even though the narrative has finally come back around to side with the right people, it's too little too late and I can't help wishing everything would just end so we could move on from all of this.

And yet, with Captain Picard rescued and restored to his rightful place on the bridge, we actually can. Starfleet Command has left this whole ordeal completely humiliated, not that that's stopped them from utterly destroying everything in their wake. And, as always, it's left to the little people to pick up the pieces and rebuild our lives in the shambles the elites have left behind for us. It's time for us to start to heal.