Sunday, October 4, 2015

“Otaku Talk”: Rascals

Somehow this shot seems familiar, but I can't place it...
This is one of those stories where you really have to wonder what was going through the heads of the creative team. Call me a stick-in-the-mud or a killjoy all you want, but I find nothing whimsical or endearing about “Rascals” whatsoever. Instead, I think it's utterly bonkers and it makes me cringe.

Ron Moore agrees with me:
“When Michael [Piller] bought the premise I thought he was completely insane: An Away Team rematerializes on the transporter as children — with adult minds! I tried again and again to bury this idea, which of course meant that I would get saddled with the inevitable rewrite when the script came in. I just thought it was a ludicrous idea and wanted nothing to do with it. That said, once I got the assignment, the professional writer in me had to commit to the material and do the best with it that I could, so I tried very hard to bring humor and humanity to the proceedings, chiefly through the Guinan/Ro story that I did end up liking in the end. I still cringe when I think of the episode (the Ferengi capture the Enterprise in a couple of broken down Birds of Prey???) but many people have told me how much they like it.”
Moore's being terribly gracious to his fans here, as all Star Trek creative figures are, but he's right. This is completely insane. And actually, I'm not even sure he manages to salvage it.

I think this is probably an episode that resonates differently with you depending on how old you are. Because I never remember finding “Rascals” to be unwatchable: Silly, yes, but I enjoyed seeing how Captain Picard was still competent and professional even as a 12-year old and how he devised a plan with Commander Riker on the sly to outwit the Ferengi (and it should give you an idea of calibre of this week's outing if they're giving us the *Ferengi* as antagonists. And that they couldn't even bother to give us stock footage of their *own* ships). If you're a kid watching this, I suppose you might find something empowering in that. I also had a faint notion that the Guinan/Laren story was supposed to be important character development and that I ought to at least humour that. The rewatch, though? Cringe after cringe.

The child actors...Are not the greatest this show has ever cast. But that's a cheap shot. More worryingly, the plot is, plainly, inane. What exactly is this episode supposed to be about? To enjoy your youth while you have it? That kids are just as competent as adults, except not really? It doesn't seem to have a coherent point beyond “let's do some technobabble bullshit so we can de-age the characters it'd be the most fun to de-age”. Speaking of, why exactly are Captain Picard, Keiko O'Brien, Guinan and Ro Laren on vacation together? Some of those characters have pre-existing relationships with each other, but up to now they've all been pretty discrete sub-cliques that didn't tend to interact. Yeah, Jean-Luc is friends with Guinan (by the way, does anyone else sort of ship them? Guinan is the only person on the Enterprise I could conceivably see shipping with Captain Picard) and he's friends with Laren, and Guinan likes to hover around Laren, but the three of them don't tend to hang out together. And Keiko doesn't hang out with any of them!

And if they're all friends, why don't they seem to get along? Guinan seems weirdly dismissive of Jean-Luc's interest in archaeology in the teaser when I would expect her of all people to be the most supportive of it. And even so, how can you not be interested when someone is so obviously that passionate about something? Passion and energy is contagious, and I often find myself listening intently to someone talk about something they're passionate about even if I don't share that passion. Patrick Stewart really sells that here, but Guinan isn't allowed to play off it it at all! Michelle Forbes does a good job reinforcing the uncomfortable and forced nature of the situation, as she plays Laren awkwardly trying to make small talk with Keiko. Once again Laren has to sew the torn fabric of the show's coherent narrative back together. Really, all I'm thinking about in this scene is how on Earth these four wildly disparate people became a unit such that they apparently go on vacations together-I'd quite frankly rather be watching that story than this one.

Anyway, this goddamn story. I agree with Ron Moore that the Guinan/Laren subplot is where the bulk of the erudition this week comes from, but I disagree with him on the assertion that it works. If you were to try and tease some theme out of this, and one that might tie into the other subplots, you might say this is a story about trying to reclaim an idealized conception of childhood and not growing up too soon. This is a very loaded set of ideas...For one thing, the romanticizing of childhood, or rather a typically inaccurate, unrealistic and ahistorical vision of childhood, is the foundational belief in a series of terribly reactionary ideologies, from reproductive futurism to the very Enlightenment underpinnings of Western Christian modernity itself. “Rascals” goes the next step and gets into issues of passing judgment on different kinds of childhoods: That you're “supposed” to have a certain kind of pure-hearted, innocent and carefree childhood and if you didn't, that's something about you that either needs to be fixed or is deserving of pity. And that becomes problematic for this story because Guinan is trying to turn Laren into an otaku.

...That's a statement that requires some degree of explanation, I grant. So I tossed the term around back when I was covering Dirty Pair (only occasionally, as the otaku subculture is only incidental to the history of Dirty Pair), but I'll define my preferred usage of it now as it provides a useful lens for what Guinan tries to do to Laren here. Put broadly, “otaku” is a term derived from a particular Japanese formal honourific not used in casual conversation. The implication is that if you did try to use it in casual conversation, it would mark you as someone who was very socially awkward, possibly to the point of having an irreparably stunted ability to socialize with people your own age. Later on, the term became appropriated (first as a pejorative, which it still is to some extent in Japan, and then later as a badge of honour) to describe a succession of generational subcultures who, aside from being socially awkward (and overwhelmingly male), all shared a set of interests, most commonly idol culture and *very specific* kinds of anime, manga, video games and tokusatsu (special effects heavy) TV shows.

The anime and manga the otaku tended to be drawn to was of the shōnen variety, that is, targeted towards boys aged fourteen and younger. Thing is, otaku themselves tend to be college age or older, sometimes into their thirties and forties. The reason for this, at least at first, was that the historically original generation of otaku were just starting university coming out of the notoriously rigorous and demanding Japanese school system that essentially dominated their entire childhoods and teenage years. We all tend to get nostalgic and introspective in our late teens and early twenties, because that's the age most of us begin to be aware that there's been weight to our lives; that we ourselves actually have history, so otaku were already predisposed to latching onto something yearning and escapist.

Otaku liked fantasy anime and manga targeted at young boys firstly because they're mostly boys themselves, but also because it portrays an idealized version of boyhood (shōnen being, like all children's media, effectively utopian by definition). Otaku who felt that the crushing demands of the educational system and Japanese tradition had robbed them of a “real” childhood immediately gravitated to the romantic fantasy version of Japanese adolescence depicted in shōnen; an adolescence they never got to experience and now desired to live vicariously through their favourite characters to make up for lost time. This is precisely what made Rumiko Takahashi's Urusei Yatsura such a runaway smash hit in the early 1980s (not, sadly her clever wordplay and syncretic humour), and Urusei Yatsura is in many ways the ur-otaku series, even though otaku were demonstrably a periphery demographic for it. Media explicitly marketed to otaku becomes more prevalent in the late 80s and all through the 90s (and it's pretty much what all of anime is today), and if you look closely at it you'll see a lot of tragedies about the end of youthful innocence and characters' (oftentimes unexpected and unwanted) transition into adulthood, and a nostalgic yearning for simpler times that existed in the imagined golden age of childhood.

It's something I see a lot amongst the younger generations in the United States today too, probably due at least in part to how utterly shameful and broken our own educational system now is. In fact, the trend I see in young USAsians today is far closer to the context of the original otaku than the commercialized industry contemporary Japanese otakudom has become. I think this also ties into the utter dearth of utopianism in pop culture and the skyrocketing popularity of children's cartoons with young adults today: Life is rough for everyone and there's nothing but sadism, nihilism and grimdark on TV. So people turn to children's media, because it's the only thing that seems hopeful and reminds them of happier times (or what they think were happier times). And then they get confused and frustrated when their adult emotions, experiences and desires seemingly clash with that very innocence and idealism they so yearn for. That's a distinct cultural phenomenon I feel I'm obligated to return to somewhere if I ever get the chance.

So, bringing this back to Star Trek: The Next Generation, this to me is what Guinan is trying to hoist onto Laren in this episode. Guinan thinks it's a bad thing that Laren, who grew up in a refugee camp, didn't have a “real” childhood. A “fun” one. An idyllic one. But this is a lotus eater's fantasy: There's no such thing as an otaku childhood, because childhood is just as complex and multi-faceted and has just as many ups and downs as any other phase of a person's life. And having an “easy” childhood is no more a prerequisite for living a fulfilling and engaging adult life than having a “difficult” one is. Hell, my own childhood is nothing but proof of that: As many fond memories of it as I may have, it was hardly charmed and there are surely countless more memories that embarrass and shame me, or that I've forgotten because they were inconsequential. But every experience I had shaped me into the person I am today, so I'm grateful for each and every one, even the ones that pain me to think about today. I'll bet Laren's childhood growing up in a refugee camp shaped her just as much, even if it forged her in fire. These are things I would imagine Laren would be *proud* of, and it's wrong of Guinan to deny and dismiss those experiences.

And that leads into the other dodgy thing about this episode's central premise: Everyone except Guinan desperately wants to go back to their adult lives. That in and of itself isn't problematic (in fact, I'd argue it's anything but); the issue is that the script seems to think this is a bad thing vis a vis Guinan arguing the away team should stay children as long as they can and enjoy it. I'd grouse more about Keiko chomping at the bit to go back to being the picture of heteronormative wedded and maternal bliss, but those are legitimate desires and yearnings (indeed, they're even things certain children, shocker of shockers, know they want from a young age) and she is contrasted with Laren here. Laren, of course, really wants to return to duty: The Enterprise is where she feels at home, she wants to show she can do things and hates feeling powerless. Laren hates being trapped in a child's body because she can't do as much as a child-She lacks the agency that comes with adulthood, and that's got to just torture her.

(Speaking of Keiko, and Miles too, “Rascals” has the somewhat incredible distinction of being their final appearance as regulars on Star Trek: The Next Generation, not counting “All Good Things...”, as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was well into production by now. It's also Hana Hatae's one and only appearance as Molly on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and funnily enough this one was produced *after* “Emissary”. Annoyingly, it's effectively the last appearance of Ro Laren too, because while she comes back next season it's in an episode that's not really about her in any meaningful sense.)

And this is something I can totally relate to. As much fun as I had at times during my childhood, I'll freely admit I spent most of it wishing I was grown up. There were just too many things I wanted to do, and I instinctively knew being a child was holding me back from accomplishing those goals. It also didn't help that all of my friends and acquaintances were older than me-I was always the youngest person in the room and I desperately wanted to be respected and taken seriously as an equal of the people I admired or interacted with. That eventually developed into a very strong sense of assertiveness that's stayed with me my whole life. It's not that I “wasted” my childhood either: I lived in the present and tried to make the most out of every moment I had, a philosophy I still try to live by today. Captain Picard nails it on the head when he says “I've spent my life looking forward”. And I don't think that's something to mourn or be ashamed of.

That's certainly not the lesson Star Trek: The Next Generation should be teaching. This of all shows should be inherently comfortable with the idea that growing up isn't so bad. You know, Hayao Miyazaki may well be right. There may well be something special about childhood, and children may well be “inheritors of historical memory”. But I don't think it's the unattainable fantasy nostalgia of otakudom that will help us reconnect with that: I tend to think that far from limiting our perspective, growing into adulthood actually broadens and expands it (and Guinan is doubly wrong if she thinks being an adult means not being able to have any fun anymore-She should spend more time with Keiko for starters). The trick is becoming consciously aware of what made our childhoods special and important, both the good and the bad (but especially the good), and keeping that with us in our adult lives to continually enrich our present existences.


  1. I found the plot with Picard and Riker fun ("He's my number one dad!"), the Guinan/Ro stuff was just boring, but the subplot where O'Brien is now married to a small child... what the heck were they thinking?? I mean, it could have been anyone in the plot but Keiko!

    You're right in that the episode is really unfocussed and 'bitty' to coin a phrase. There's three plots, but only one of them actually works (the Picard one). Really, they could have just had Picard de-aged and it would be a much better episode.

    I can't remember how they fix them now. Do they just use the magic transporter again?

  2. The original Otaku mentality was recently dealt with very well in the semi-autobiographical Japanese drama series Blue Blazes. It's set in 1980-81, and is all about a young college student''s attempt to become a successful creator of... well, something... anything... that's as good as the shows and comics he likes so much. Only he happens to be attending school with Hideaki Anno and the other folks who will go on to start the legendary anime studio Gainax.

    The key bit, I think, of the whole series is in episode 9. Anno and his friends have been hired by the "Ota-King" Toshio Okada, who will go on to bankroll them for most of their career, to produce an opening animation for the upcoming Dai-Con convention. Okada is filthy rich, and lives his life in a rather childish and enthusiastic state. In between long, obsessive bouts of drawing which he never considered good enough, Anno liked to sit in the nuclear fallout shelter built into Okada's palatial home, in part because he had permission to eat any of the expired food there. Okada finds him down there one evening.

    Anno: Mr. Okada[...] Is there really going to be a nuclear war?
    Okada: Of course there is! Why else make a fallout shelter?

    A not unrealistic fear for a country that had been struck twice just 35 years earlier. And if you're pretty sure you're going to be the last generation that exists, because of forces well beyond your control (just like the monsters in Ultraman, or embodied by Gojira, for example), what else is there to do but think of happier times and try to create something beautiful and meaningful in what time there is left?

    The cartoon they make ends up being about a young girl bringing a glass of water through a violent landscape, battling every sci fi creature they could cram in, and pouring it on a daicon, where it grows into a gigantic space radish and sails off into the galaxy. Anno's depression continues, and he doesn't really come out of it until he finishes Neon Genesis Evangelion, a reworking of his favorite show, Space Runaway Ideon, which ran from 1980-81.

    Incidentally, Daicon III can be watched here:

  3. Actually it's the beats with Miles and L'il Keiko that strike me as the most heavy, just because of the implications of weird sci-fi "phenomenon" mechanics having a real effect on humans. And I think Colm Meaney really sells that scene, which is pretty interesting considering that Rosalind Chao isn't the one he's acting opposite.

    And that's my beef in a nutshell. This is an episode that features heavy interaction and focus on Keiko O'Brien, Ro Laren and Guinan. But BARELY features Rosalind Chao, Michelle Forbes or Whoopi Goldberg.

    What in the actual fuck? I'd kill for an episode that you know, actually put all three of them in a strange sci-fi situation with Stewart's Picard. That finally let these regulars who are oftentimes far more interesting than the crew (who we know and love but who get plenty of time and spotlight) drive the narrative for an episode and give us a bit of a look into what life's like on the Enterprise for the non-regulars.

    But it's not an episode to delve too deep into. That's sort of a rhetorical exercise. The impetus here is fun, and it is a watchable, fun episode, even if it's a total mess. It actually touches quite poignantly on the nature of what it's like to be a kid, whether it be a competent intelligent kid who still can't be taken seriously because you look like a kid, or a loving, caring person who has romantic feelings for an adult even while trapped in a body that doesn't "look" mature (Keiko's dilemma is not that dissimilar to Picard's and I thought they handled the effed up implications with a pretty deft hand), whether it be being allowed to act childish even if your actual childhood was pure horror, whether it be somebody ancient and old having a better sense of their own childlike tendencies, having had a lot more time to reflect on it and restore some of that self over the years.

    But boy is it emblematic of the constant reminder of missed opportunities on this show. But hey, it's at least telling that the implausibly ridiculous high concept of de-aging was an event that could've only happened with Guinan (because of course) being transported through a cosmic "effect". And of course she's cool with the situation. Because if I had to speculate, I'd say she's the root of the whole phenomenon. Weird things happen to timespace narrative witch shamans who need to teach life-lessons to sci-fi travelers at different phases in their lives. The answer Chief O'Brien struggled to look for in the "HOW?!" of the episode lies squarely on Guinan's involvement, because of course.

  4. Not commenting on Rascals because I can't really remember it beyond the kooky premise - but seeing as this is Miles and Keiko's farewell before crossing to DS9, I thought I'd mention that with a touch of serendipity CBS Action has just started showing Deep Space Nine this week! I've not seen it since original UK broadcast, but this means I should be able to watch along for at least some of the episodes as you discuss them. The only limitation being my inability to watch much TV...

  5. On one hand I can see how it may have been thought of as a 'fun' thing to do to turn main protagonists into children - but it doesn't really work for me. I completely agree with you regarding the surprisingly narrow view from Guinan's character that they should stray children and how becoming a fully developed being requires a fully expressed positive childhood.

    So wrong on many levels. I had when I look back not only at times a sometimes lonely and sometimes difficult and embarrassing childhood, but one which was often peppered with poverty and some real, simply tragic incidents which catapulted me sooner than normal into adulthood. I guess I was a kid who felt like an 'old soul' who was often happier within books and drawing, rather than other children.

    I would change nothing though. As my experiences are part of where who I am comes from and the resilience I developed has driven me forwards with a real purpose in life, which has been to never compromise who I am and the expression of my creativity. Whatever I experienced I have a joy for my story, as it is mine. And I don't need to be a child to be ridiculous in new ways, have fun and dance!

    So for me Guinan and the story is plain wrong.