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.


  1. I find it crazy how Sherlock Holmes was under copyright in the UK and not the US given how the US enjoys extending copyright protection (for Disney, now there's hypocracy!). Apparently War of the Worlds is still under copyright in the UK until next year!

    I think you're a bit harsh on some aspects. The ability to copyright a work and enjoy protection is integral to the ability of an author to be able to create new works, especially if they make a living off them. If dozens of people took every one of your posts on this blog, for example, and posted them on their own site with nothing you could do about it, I imagine that would torpedo your interest pretty quickly and we'd see no more Trek analysis.

    That said, the current copyright rules of after author's death plus what, 70 years, is crazy. I understand the need to support ones family, but I feel that copyright should lapse about 20 years after death. Any more than that gets ridiculous.

    It's fascinating how all these big creative companies became rich off adapting public domain work, and then campaigned so hard to continually extend copyright so that their own stuff never becomes public domain. And by fascinating I mean disgusting.

  2. 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

    Ahem. Sherlock Holmes is not a 'polyauthored cultural artefact'; he has one singular author, namely Arthur Conan Doyle.

    There are some cultural figures it is possible to claim arose from a sort of communal telling and re-telling of myths and therefore were not 'created' by any one person (King Arthur, Robin Hood being the frequently cited examples) but without Conan Doyle, there would simply be no Sherlock Holmes at all.

    1. Now, SK, don't go on reducing such a complicated cultural work to its origin. Yes, of course, there wouldn't have been a Sherlock Holmes without Arthur Conan Doyle. But it's not as though Doyle's own stories are always and forever the only Sherlock Holmes stories that exist. The character may have originated with one person, but it legitimately appears in new stories that are quite different from what Doyle himself wrote. We're all still writing stories with the character Doyle made.

      That's the meaning of 'polyauthored.'

  3. As a writer and artist and all-around creator and someone who always has been and can't imagine not doing those things, the notion of you know, being able to feed myself through my work has always been rather at the forefront, even if I'm philosophically opposed to physical limits being placed on abstract notions. Not that it's easy to craft something with mass appeal and lasting appeal. Or not that I've found much great success in doing so.

    Of course I'm the sort of cad who even if I did profit greatly from a timeless masterpiece would tell my kids to get a job and make their own damn money. Estates as entitlements are as abstract a concept as legally copyrighting ideas, or policing thoughts, and money is for feeding and entertaining yourself and bettering the world for people with less than you, not people who as their default have more than you grew up with.

    These are a lot of overlapping dilemmas.

    It's a pretty good Barclay episode as well, and it's nice to see him play in more of an ensemble piece than a "Spotlight on Barclay" situation.

  4. I get roughly half my income from freelance writing and every single thing I publish is open for free distribution without restriction (other than the basic good manners of attribution).

    And it's entirely possible to make money creating content without the content itself being copyrighted, by bundling it with naturally scarce things that *can* be monetized.

    1. Like paper and beautiful leather bindings and covers, for instance.

      Books are beautiful relics. Stories are ephemera.

    2. Another example is Linux distros that make money off free software by selling customization services and customer support, Phish using free music to sell concerts and merchandise, etc.

      There's also a natural scarcity rent involved in the transaction costs of setting up a competing edition for print, even absent copyright. If you have modest sales and only charge a modest margin over printing cost, it probably won't be worth anybody else's while to go to all the trouble just to undercut you by a buck a copy.

      Abolishing copyright might eat into the revenues of giant blockbuster creators like Stephen King or rock supergroups, but for little guys like me making free pdfs of everything available online and allowing restriction-free copying is a net win. It's free advertising directed at people who wouldn't have bought a hard copy anyway without being able to look through it first, and a lot of people who have access to the pdfs will be more likely to buy a hard copy just for convenience. If anything I think it increases sales.

      I can't recall the specifics, but Techdirt linked to a study a few years ago showing that file-sharing had indeed drastically cut music industry revenues, but that the amount of money going to artists themselves was largely unaffected -- it was just rendering the middlemen and their gatekeeping rents obsolete.

    3. I've read some of those studies on file-sharing.

      It also rather reminds me of Neil Gaiman's argument for not taking a hardline approach against the file-sharing of comics, books, or entertainment, which I should probably find a link to. And after all, what is a library if not a (coincidentally socialist) place for file-sharing?

  5. Copyright is a legal fiction created to give artists a means of selling their labor, because if you can't sell your labor then capitalism kills you. One of the fringe benefits of a true post-scarcity, socialist society would be freeing artists from the necessity of selling their labor, thus permitting more people to spend more time on their art, as well as freeing them to create transformative and derivative works without having to metaphorically file the serial numbers off first.

    1. "created to" are the most important words in that sentence. Because it's been decades since copyright had fuck-all to do with artists. Copyright is a legal fiction which currently exists to give media conglomerates a means of rent-extraction from the labor of artists.

    2. This makes it a pretty intensely meta and appropriate thing for Star Trek, specifically, to delve into. I was trying to wrap my head around why it works well here and that's the piece I needed.

    3. After all, look how "well" (cough, ahem) Star Trek itself has been faring as a mega-media corporate franchise in this current status quo.

      Or the insane irony of the fact that the television landscape is now primed for the kind of show that Star Trek should be, completely owning serious drama over the limited scope of movies, and yet they've counterintuitively tried to sell Star Trek as popcorn blockbuster material, when frankly it should have been airing on like, AMC after Mad Men.

  6. Minor point, but Sherlock Holmes wasn't declared public domain in the US until 2013, and the last Holmes book, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, still contains some stories that are in copyright.
    The Holmes stories started going out of copyright in the UK in 1980, and the last ones went out of copyright in 2000, but in the US the post-1923 short stories remain in copyright until at least 2023, and the Doyle family argued that this meant that the characters of Holmes and Watson were also in copyright in the US until the last story went into the public domain. It was only in 2013 when the writer Leslie Klinger took the Doyle estate to court that it was declared that only those elements in the last ten short stories remain in copyright in the US, but everything else can be freely used.
    Notably, Moriarty doesn't appear in those late stories, so the Doyle estate had no claim on him, even while they still apparently had one over Holmes and Watson.

  7. "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."

    Completely agree with the idea that through the conglomerates and the creation of copyright that stories have been dehumanised, and largely taken away from people. Stories themselves were the cultural currency that aided with the flow and circulation of inspiration within society. For example in the Scottish Highlands where you had such figures as the Seannachie, who not only knew the epic tales and poems but also knew in memory, and could narrate the whole lineage of the tribes and clans. Stories when most alive, live through people.

    1. Again one of my fave stories!

    2. And Josh, I want to express deep thanks for what you say about stories and the need to free them up for their own power and agency - and the suggestion at the end that Picard makes about how what is true for Moriarty may also be true for their crew blew ma away and is my absolute stand out moment in all of Trek. Better than space battles any day, and the whole reason I love the shows.