A journey across the open ocean, far beyond the stars and to the furthest depths of the human heart.
Sunday, November 29, 2015
“A person who trusts no one cannot be trusted”: The Nagus
However as I have previously argued, I feel these two interpretations are not necessarily mutually exclusive; there's a great deal to be said, after all, about a group of antagonists who at once embody ruthless capitalist values and blatantly misogynistic attitudes (many of which are at least taken for granted and accepted as “the way things are” in modernity, thus becoming hegemonic, or, in the absolute worst case scenarios, idealized and triumphed) and are also seen as a completely harmless laughingstock by the Star Trek universe. I still believe “The Last Outpost” walks this line fairly well, gerbils notwithstanding, but subsequent Ferengi stories have had a rougher time trying to maintain that careful balance. Too often we've been expected to see them as genuinely menacing and ignore their kind of inherent silliness, which is kind of a hard swallow given the aformentioned gerbil jumping (though there was a Michael Jan Friedman story from the third season that actually managed to pull it off in my opinion). Or, the opposite problem: Writers will portray the Ferengi as a total joke and not taken seriously whatsoever. In stories like “Ménage à Troi”, “The Price”, “The Perfect Mate” and “Rascals” the Ferengi's clownshoes quotient is dialed up to such a degree they become so grating to the point of becoming absolutely unwatchable.
By the first/sixth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and our first regular Ferengi character in Quark, the show has been sort of forced to develop some more nuance with them, although it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing either. After a good show in “Emissary” and a few assorted memorable moments in other episodes (most notably Quark's subplot in “The Passenger”), for as much good as we've gotten there's also been a lot of bad. As fun as Quark and Odo are to see bicker, when they get overexposed to the point of hijacking the show, such as in the insufferable “Odo and Quark Save the Day” of “Babel”, things become less fun. And then there's the utterly obnoxious grovelling Quark is made to do in last week's stupefyingly awful “Move Along Home”.
With “The Nagus” though we now have an entire episode pretty much dedicated toward exploring Ferengi culture in ways we haven't really gotten the chance to see until now, and thankfully the show more or less manages to pull it off and make it seem somewhat respectable (well, as respectable as the Ferengi can ever get I suppose). There are a few parts that grate on me, but most of them are actually from the B-plot and I chalk that mostly up to personal taste. In spite of this episode's origins as effectively a pastiche of The Godfather (yet another slavish reference to old Hollywood-There's even a scene nicked from the Francis Ford Coppola film shot for shot), I found the Ferengi summit Grand Nagus Zek calls in Quark's bar to be delightfully reminiscent of, say, some self-important CEO indulging himself during an annual sales figures meeting for some giant investment firm as the board of directors goads him on with false sincerity through clenched teeth. It's completely hilarious for one, but it's also genius satire that's the perfect extension of who the Ferengi were supposed to be in “The Last Outpost”: This is exactly the way I would imagine Ferengi foreign policy operates, and their prominent purple and gold lamé aesthetic just further invites the art deco and Manhattan comparisons for me. I also just love how the Ferengi are a society organised around a monolithic corporation comprised of sociopaths, sexists, cutthroats and robber-barons: Just like in real life!
Telling a story about these kinds of themes and exaggerating them beyond infinity also makes it easier for us to take note of the striations that develop in this kind of hierarchical authoritarian system. To put it bluntly, the shit rolls downhill: Krax is forever subservient to his father the Nagus Zek to the point several characters point out how he's always living in his father's shadow. It's his resentment of this, along with his own personal ambition (and youthful hotheadedness), that leads him to spring the assassination plot with Rom, who himself is constantly getting dumped on by his older brother Quark. But even Quark isn't on the top of the dogpile himself, as he and the rest of the Ferengi delegates are still lower on the ladder than Zek, though Quark's strength and stubbornness is shown through him being one of the few Ferengi representatives less than thrilled about having to prostrate himself before the Nagus. And yet at the same time, this also shows Quark to be cut of a slightly different cloth than his kinsmen: He speaks of things like honour, loyalty, dignity and cooperation, concepts that would assuredly be alien, if not anathema, to other Ferengi. He's the most charismatic, upstanding and likable one of the lot, in a kind of grizzled antiheroic way. Which only makes sense, as he's one of us. He lives on Deep Space 9. This bears significance to the rest of the plot threads here and is worth returning to a bit later on.
And at the lowest of the low here is, predictably, Nog. As the child and therefore the youngest, he is also the one who bears all of the vitriol and weight from three generations of his elders taking out their frustrations on and power tripping through him. Just as is the case throughout modernity, children are the most powerless of all, denied the freedoms and liberties of their adult relatives to the point they're effectively indentured servants. And the fundamental unfairness and inequality of his society is something Nog is just now starting to realise and chafe against, as adolescents in modernity have done for as long as modernity has existed. But unlike his father, who chose to play the game to win for himself (and fail miserably at it), Nog is starting to realise that maybe there's another, better path for him to go. Regardless of your feelings on this epiphany coming to him through a whitewashed and idealized version of the Western educational system (I have plenty, believe me), the fact of the matter is it still comes through a form of cultural diffusion. Nog's eyes are opened and his horizons are broadened through interacting with people from other positionalities and knowledge-spheres.
Which is actually a theme that resonates at multiple levels throughout “The Nagus”, reinforcing a major tenet of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's utopianism. The “opportunity”, a Zek puts it, is the wormhole. And not just the wormhole, but specifically Deep Space 9 and its proximity to it. People from all different societies and experiential spheres mingle here, resulting in a net positive for everyone. For Zek it's an opportunity to line his pockets. It is for Quark too, but it's something a bit more than that as well: Take notice of how he's the only one who doesn't raise an objection to Nog attending the O'Briens' school over dinner, and how he mentions in passing that he's always wanted to see the wormhole-Not because of where it takes him physically, but merely because of it itself. Because of his permanent presence on Deep Space 9, Quark is beginning to embody its ideals of empathy and self-growth just like his fellow residents.
This is all still a tentative process, mind, just as it is for everyone. And it's therefore wonderfully appropriate how trust, or lack thereof, is a major theme of this episode as well. Chief O'Brien doesn't trust Nog and express his concern about his relationship with Jake to Commander Sisko. The Ferengi famously distrust on principle: None of the delegates trust each other, though Quark does trust Rom and Krax (even though he shouldn't) but doesn't trust Gral, Commander Sisko, Odo and Doctor Bashir (even though he should). And meanwhile, Ben himself isn't entirely convinced he can trust Jake anymore, and likewise Jake distrusts his father enough not to tell him about his entirely benign plans to teach Nog how to read and engage in amateur business ventures with him.
But what's critical here is how the show handles this: Never once do we get the impression this is being done simply to wallow in negative emotions for the audience to voyeuristically partake in, because in each case it's an individual, unique manifestation of utopianism: Quark's decision to “keep things in the family” instead of putting faith in Sisko, Odo and Bashir almost gets him in serious trouble, and the Nog's dilemma over continuing to attend school is framed as really being about the benefits of exposing oneself to other cultures and other ways of thinking instead of remaining isolated in an insular comfort zone of fundamentalism. Even the Ben and Jake story has undercurrents of this, albeit far more subtle ones: What their impasse boils down to is essentially a failure to communicate. Jake is projecting his experiences seeing Nog's frustration with Rom onto his relationship with his own father.
Ben isn't outright forbidding Jake and Nog to see each other out of a basal xenophobia, actually the contrary: He's championing Jake on his enthusiasm to go out and meet new people who are different from him, he's just cautioning his son that part and parcel of everyone having different beliefs is that not everyone's beliefs are compatible and not everyone is going to necessarily like him. The problem is Jake doesn't fully understand what Ben is trying to tell him because, well, Jake is a teenager. One of the things that makes adolescence rough is that constant exposure to new and unfamiliar experiences can be overwhelming to the point of not being entirely sure what to believe anymore. In those circumstances, some teenagers have a tendency to cloister themselves up because they're not entirely comfortable with their experiences and beliefs, have a hard time expressing themselves and aren't always sure who to trust, and that's what Jake's going through here. That doesn't make him wrong, it just means he's a regular kid. It's a damn sight more accurate and realistic a depiction of adolescence than any kid's show or young adult fiction I've ever read, and it's a great call to address it as part of a larger story where trust (and learning to trust) is such an important theme elsewhere.
This also leads to yet another brilliant Jadzia Dax moment. The scene where she basically invites herself into Ben and Jake's quarters for dinner is classic Jadzia, and throughout she demonstrates an absolutely uncanny sense of perceptiveness and empathy. Because of course adolescence is just as hard on parents: We're all just people trying to do the best we can, and there's no playbook telling us exactly how to fill these kind of roles. So this scene is about Ben not being entirely sure how he should act as a dad-Jadzia senses this and, displaying the same preternatural awareness of the narrative she showed in “The Passenger”, guides him into a position to act that's beneficial to both him and Jake employing some abjectly brilliant double reverse psychology. She says if Jake were her son, she'd be the strict (authoritarian) parent, find him and demand he come back to eat his dinner.
But of course she says she's not the type to be a mother or a father (and she really isn't) and has pretty much failed as a parent each time she's tried: She knows it's not the right thing to do, but she also knows a lot of parents think it is the right thing to do (after all, she's been in that position before herself), and she plays on Ben's desire to Do the Right Thing to get him into a place where the rift can be healed. Again, we never explicitly get to see Dax figure out what Jake and Nog are really doing, but we can pretty easily infer that she has and is popping by with that in mind to help smooth things over a bit, just because she's Jadzia and incredibly perceptive and this is the sort of thing she does all the time. I'll bet she knew perfectly well Ben had been waiting on Jake for dinner for a half hour and came by *specifically because* of that. It's a moment that's deeply reminiscent of early Guinan scenes because, just like Guinan, Jadzia plainly does not mean what her words would superficially indicate she means. She's playing an interlocutor to help move the plot along to a more positive place, and it's all in Terry Farrell's inflections and body language, something she's every bit as good at as Whoopi Goldberg.
“The Nagus” is another terrific example of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine doing what it does best. The broad-strokes comedic tone works to obfuscate some storytelling that's far more intricate than the brief might lead to to believe. It's another fantastic use of the ensemble where every major character has a subplot centred around the themes of the week; themes that are a subset and microcosm of the show's larger set of themes and ideals it looks at each and every week. If there's parts that wore on me a bit, it's honestly only because I'm overly familiar with some of the teenage beats and have long since grown beyond tired with them (although I stress this is hands-down the best I have ever seen them examined) and the Ferengi always walk a thin line between endearing and unwatchable for me. But they certainly keep the balance here, and it all adds up to yet another stellar week On the Edge of the Final Frontier.
Thursday, November 26, 2015
“Inner Space”: The Chase
And yet I'm finding it hard to come up with things to say about it that aren't obvious. I guess I'll address the only real potential criticism I can think of straight away: The von Dänikenism stuff at the end is a little bit iffy and arguably anthropocentric, even if it does fit into the continuity of the established Star Trek universe without incident. But that's sort of the problem with this kind of writing, isn't it? Science fiction writers can focus on details like world-building minutiae and miss the larger social implications of their work. It must be said, however, that Ron Moore and Joe Menosky cite Carl Sagan's Contact rather than Chariots of the Gods? and “The Chase” does provide the interesting wrinkle that the protohumanoids were responsible not for the cultures and religions of the species they gave birth to, but to existence itself, theirs being the only intelligent life in that part of the galaxy (and I like the stipulation “this part of the galaxy” because it hedges against the common sci-fi tendency to downplay the immense size of the observable universe: Maybe intelligent life evolved in other forms elsewhere in the universe. Maybe even in our galaxy, like, say, on the other side of that wormhole near Bajor).
I also adore the protohumanoid's speech: It's such a beautiful and fitting Star Trek message delivered with warmth and conviction by Salome Jens. And from a Vaka Rangi perspective, it's even more appropriate: Cherish and respect life, because we are all living beings bound together by consciousness. And it's entirely fitting that this is a message we hear at the conclusion of a vast, galaxy-hopping adventure (and it's a testament to how much progress we've made this year that I don't even feel the need to point out how well served the cast is, with everyone getting to show off their skills in an effective and memorable way to help solve the puzzle): It's a perfectly effective Star Trek metaphor for the very things we voyage to understand.
Jens' one-scene wonder also showcases what an absolutely killer week this is for guest stars: Apart from her, Norman Lloyd is absolutely wonderful as Captain Picard's old archeology professor and mentor, and he brings a lovely and moving bittersweetness to every scene he's in. Just in passing, Professor Galen's subplot with Captain Picard is a naturalistically flawless demonstration of what's become such a hallmark of this series: An examination of your life guided by awareness, and acceptance, of the weight of your past on your present self. Jean-Luc's words to Beverly about the weight of the past resonated particularly with me: I think it's the best depiction of this theme in the season, and one of the best in the whole series. Galen even provides us with another barbed critique of Starfleet and what stands for: The Professor's stinging indictment of the Federation as a “dull and bloated empire” and Picard's role as “a centurion off patrolling the provinces” is absolutely devestating...But so is Jean-Luc's contention that he wouldn't trade being an explorer for anything.
Then there's Linda Thorson's Gul Ocett, the first adult female Cardassian we've seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and the only female Gul we'll ever see. She's a delightfully commanding presence with an incredibly striking style, but the even in spite of all that the standout for me this week is and has always been John Cothran, Jr.'s positively amazing Captain Nu'Daq. I absolutely love this guy and always have: I'll always vividly remember his look, his bombastic inflections and the way he goes around calling everyone a dishounrable Topah, whatever that means. Frankly, he's probably my favourite Klingon character in all of Star Trek and just about the codifying example of the Klingon warrior character archetype-For my money simply one of the all-time greatest prosthetics guest stars in the show's history.
Captain Nu'Daq also leads me to an interesting point, however. One thing that caught my attention on this rewatch was how actually untrustworthy the Klingons are portrayed here. For one thing, they're paralleled with the notoriously devious Cardassians as another “rival faction” for the Enterprise to compete with for Professor Galen's puzzle, but Nu'Daq even tells us that he's initially unwilling to share what his team have found with his Federation allies, leading to that brilliant scene where Nu'Daq tries to bribe Data (and you couldn't have asked for a better showcase for Brent Spiner's comic relief approach to Data's character than that scene, especially getting to act opposite a performance like John Cothran, Jr.'s). Taken on its own this is an interesting way for Star Trek: The Next Generation to depict the Klingons, at least after “Redemption”: One thing that's easily forgotten in the general knowledge that the Klingons and the Federation are allies in the 24th century is that the alliance was depicted as far cooler and shakier prior to “Redemption” and there was a lot of uncertainty and distrust of the Klingons in those earlier episodes, especially in stories like “Heart of Glory” and “A Matter of Honor”.
But in the wake of “Aquiel” this is even more interesting, because there the Klingons were used explicitly as red herring antagonists. So this is two stories in the same season that seem to walk back the post-Gowron affable familiarity between our heroes and the Klingon Empire. It's also interesting to see them paralleled with the Cardassians here, because in a little under a year we're going to be seeing the galaxy positively lit up by bloodthirsty warmongering and unreconstructed imperialism from both of them, with our heroes caught in the middle. Future hindsight aside, it's also a provocative idea to link the Klingons and the Cardassians in this story following “Face of the Enemy” and the eleventh-hour reveal of the Romulan investment in the search. Because in the denouement, it's the Romulan commander who contacts Captain Picard with that lovely speech about how we're all “not so different as we might think”.
I think it's wonderful that the story gives that scene to the Romulans. It could just as easily have gone to Nu'Daq, our Klingon ally, or Ocett, as the Cardassians were originally conceived of as antagonists who could debate our heroes as equals, something it was thought the Romulans could no longer do. But as I said, we're in a post-“Face of the Enemy” world now, and the Romulans have reclaimed a lot of their earlier symbolism because of that. Furthermore, it calls back to Galen's indictment of the Federation at the other end of the episode and sets up an interesting schism that is potentially starting to develop: On one side are the Klingons and The Cardassians, perhaps foreshadowing their looming confrontation with one another, a conflict born of the fact they're both too proud, stubborn and quick-tempered to admit how similar they are to each other. In the original draft of the script the Ferengi were supposed to be involved as well, and you can hypothetically imagine them being on this side too. Meanwhile on the other side are the Federation and the Romulans, who have always been designed as compliments. No, that's not the way it plays out in the plot diegetically, but thematically this is the arrangement that seems to be speaking to me here.
After all, as the story takes care to point out, its the things we share with other life, our inner and fundamental humanity, that's the best hope for progress we have. That's just empathy, and it's not an anthropocentric platitude because our humanity is bound up with life and consciousness, and life and consciousness is everything. Nobody is better poised to understand that better than the Enterprise crew and Romulus. We really are more similar than not, especially our best sides.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
“Jam, elephants, peanuts, elephants and dung...”: Move Along Home
|Allamaraine, if you can see/Then Allamaraine...Oh fuck me.|
I'm tempted to just leave the essay there-The production woes of this story are all well documented and self-explanatory (the team could not budget, ran out of money, and were working with a questionable brief to begin with) and almost nobody is going to leap to defend it. Ranting about how dumb and silly everything is here feels like a waste of time and preaching to the choir. One thing I will go on a bit of a tirade about is how Terry Farrell's obligation to have Jadzia Dax play alien hopscotch precluded her from guest starring in “Birthright, Part I” as both episodes were filmed the same week. Aside from the fact Dax is and always was obviously the correct character for that subplot, there's also the tragic fact that Farrell was the biggest Star Trek fan of the entire cast, was yearning for a chance to walk the Enterprise sets and was currently rooming with Marina Sirtis at the time.
Farrell begged and pleaded and even broke into tears, but the creative team refused to budge. Apparently for whatever reason they couldn't do a simple strikethrough script edit (even though that's been common practice in Star Trek since time immemorial because this is Star Trek). I guess they were firmly set in their notion that playing alien hopscotch was really gripping abstract theatre and it was really important for Jadzia's character to be the one doing the hopping. I appreciate the commitment to start giving Dax a more active role in the show than has been the case up to now, but I kind of wish this hadn't been the episode where the team dug their heels in.
Apart from satisfying a personal vendetta, bringing this up also allows me to segue into a broader analysis of “Move Along Home”. Well, I say analysis. Part of the reason the team remained so steadfast and doggedly dedicated to an obvious tire fire is because they were dead set on doing an homage to “Checkmate”, episode four of The Prisoner. This means “Move Along Home” is the latest in a long line of Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tributes to Patrick McGoohan's magnum opus, and it also means it's the latest in a long line of utterly and ineptly *failed* Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tributes to Patrick McGoohan's magnum opus. As far back as the second season, Maurice Hurley's creative team tried to do two Prisoner riffs straight in a row with “The Schizoid Man” and “The Royale”, and it was even hoped McGoohan himself would be able to guest star in the former. But “The Schizoid Man” was aimless and kind of creepy and “The Royale” was a frustratingly tepid presentation of half-baked surrealism. And now we've come to “Move Along Home” which is...“Move Along Home”.
In that regard, it's worth asking the question: Why? Along with Hurley and his team, both Michael Piller and Ronald D. Moore were admitted die-hard Prisoner fans. Piller would even frequently cite The Prisoner as his model example of how to make television as art. How can people who have that level of appreciation for the source material consistently screw up this regularly and be this spectacularly awful at adapting it? I don't think it has to do with the level of talent of the writers involved: Apart from Moore (who's irrelevant to this discussion anyway as he's not even on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), every one of those people is a veteran television writer or producer with credits that aren't to be taken lightly. And while yes, they may have tripped up on Star Trek here and there, by this point the argument for the influence of Piller at least on the history of the franchise is straightforwardly a non-issue.
I think the answer may lie somewhere in Star Trek's strained relationship with abstraction and surrealism, especially in recent years. And that's a consequence of changing attitudes about what Star Trek is, what it's about and who it's for. In the 60s and 70s, not coincidentally when its fandom was mostly female, Star Trek was seen as a kind of sci-fi “lite” for the primetime TV crowd, not befitting of attention from “serious” sci-fi fans (who were, not coincidentally, Hard SF fans and overwhelmingly male), in spite of the calibre of “serious” sci-fi writers and creative figures it attracted. This may be part of the reason, apart from just generally being part of that zeitgeist, that the Original Series was able to do so much trippy gonzo psychedelia-influenced stuff back in the day. But somewhere around the early 80s male SF Nerds started to speak up and loudly proclaim their affinity for Star Trek (they've been there pretty much as long as stuff like the tabletop wargaming scene has been around, but they only took control of the discourse in the early 80s), and it's also not a coincidence that this is when the film series began, which laid the groundwork for the climate we're at now. And Hard SF, as a general rule, doesn't like anything that smacks of mysticism or baroque experimentation.
So as of Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, we have an interesting dilemma. We have a Star Trek that's more popular than the franchise has ever been before and will ever be again that's popular entirely because it appeals to normal people, but it's being made by people who came up through early 80s Star Trek fandom. Namely, male Hard SF Nerds who read Star Trek as an extension of the old Golden Age stuff and write with that conceit (we even saw a bit of that in “Dax” with the team's respect for D.C. Fontana's pedigree stemming largely from her perceived status as an old guard Hard SF writer. Whether she is or not is up for debate). And this is kind of strange to think about, considering the art department, namely Rick Sternbach and Mike Okuda, are so heavily indebted to animated Japanese science fiction, which is *incredibly* heady and stylized: It's not, and never has been, what Westerners would think of as Hard SF. You'd think if anyone could translate that to a live-action production it'd be them, and perhaps they could under better circumstances.
The team will say the budgeting killed “Move Along Home”, but I honestly have a hard time believing that. You don't need infinite money to do really excellent baroque theatre, as the other half of the team is going to start proving with aplomb and regularity very soon courtesy Brannon Braga. Hell, he already has: Again, look at “Birthright, Part I”. And it probably unfortunately says something that Braga is at once both the person who is most capable of penning proper, genuinely compelling abstract cinema and is also the one person on either team who came onto the series with zero prior knowledge of or experience with Star Trek (apart from Piller, though since he's been around awhile he's a special case). And that's really sad, because Deep Space Nine should be every bit as capable of this as The Next Generation, if not more so, given where it started with “Emissary”.
I dunno, maybe Star Trek just should have been an anime.
Sunday, November 22, 2015
“In space, no one can hear you play the flute”: Lessons
I'm afraid this is going to be another one of those essays where I don't have a whole lot to say or anything refreshingly new and interesting to add to the discourse. “Lessons” is bad, it's bad for boring reasons and it's bad in ways I've actually already discussed at great length in other posts. Normally this would be the kind of episode I'd throw into a multi-episode post, and while both this week's Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are both equally terrible, they have the obnoxious gall of not being terrible in complimentary ways, which precludes me from doing that.
I would say that the one unique thing I could say about “Lessons” is my statement of dislike itself...I was under the impression that while not considered a great classic or anything, this episode was reasonably warmly received by mainline fandom-A necessary next step in progressing Captain Picard's story arc after “The Inner Light”. But even mainline fandom seems to be agreeing with me in this case, at least judging by the reaction this episode gets both on Memory Alpha and in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365: Its wiki page as of this writing looks neglected and incomplete and doesn't even feature the usual quotes and statements from the production team in the notes that most Star Trek stories get, while Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann couldn't even be bothered to do anything more than halfheartedly re-state the story's diegetic plot and themes in their own words.
I mean, let's address the obvious points you know I'm going to bring up right off that bat. Doing a sequel to “The Inner Light” is stupid. Trying to set up a me-or-them contrast between voyaging, especially aboard the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D, with a long-term relationship is a false dichotomy. Doing a naval (and navel-gazing) “involved with your subordinates” drama is hackneyed and trite. Captain Picard's entire attitude feels off, the romance plot is 90s sitcom quality and Commander Riker acting like a jealous schoolboy envious of the teacher's pet is an asinine and spectacularly out-of-character way to force banal conflict. That much should be obvious. But from my perspective, the problem here is that I've essentially already written the essay I wanted to write for this episode, except I did it for “The Outer Light”.
The whole reason I covered “The Outer Light” in the first place was to contrast it with “Lessons”. My idea was to set up my imagined plot for “The Outer Light” (which is not at all what the actual “Outer Light” was) as the proper way to do a sequel to “The Inner Light” while calling out “Lessons” for being rote, derivative and too hung up on an adolescent conception of materialism to add anything to the story worth hearing. My imaginary version of “The Outer Light” (which is not at all what the actual “Outer Light” was) had Captain Picard attending a summit of historians and scientific experts on Kataanian life and culture, all of whom had been contacted by the probe and experienced a slightly different version of the ancestor simulation programme. This story would have examined the malleability of oral history, as each person would have presumably brought their own positionalities and backgrounds to the experience and had it custom-tailored to them. As such, no two people experienced the exact same programme, which is fitting as that's how video games work in real life. I would then, in this essay, rail against “Lessons” for basically not being that and asking why the creative team felt the need to invoke “The Inner Light” if they weren't going to be able to play on that level (a level they already, it must be said, went on record saying they felt the original “Inner Light” played at).
Unfortunately for me, this was not at all what the actual “Outer Light” was. In fact, with it's horrendously stock premise, crippling sequelitis and twice warmed over grimdark themes, a case could be made it's an even *worse* follow up to “The Inner Light” than “Lessons” is. By the time I had figured that out it was too late to change my schedule so I had to cover it anyway and use up all of the criticisms I had of trying to do a follow-up to “The Inner Light” that I was planning on using in this essay in that one. And now I don't have a heck of a lot left to say. I suppose I could approach the story from a different angle by examining how the episode has Captain Picard interact with the rest of the crew instead of with Nella. I guess I'd best do that then.
So, one theme I haven't looked at as much is the idea some writers seem to have that Captain Picard is always aloof and has a hard time socializing with the crew. He's never at the crew's poker games, we never see him in ten-forward or the holodeck with other people, and he seems to spend most of his free time alone reading. The implication seems to be that he's austere and distant and seems more interested in duty and the ship than making friends or forming relationships with others. We saw a bit of it last week where Morgan Grendel (ironically enough) was trying to get across that the Enterprise is the most important thing in the Captain's life. It's the hoary old “married to the ship” routine which, in spite of what Grendel seemed to think last time, is more of a Star Trek tradition (because of the Original Series' hideously repressed sexuality) than it is a naval one. And we see it again here where Jean-Luc is buffoonish, awkward and abrasive while trying to pick up Nella.
The thing is I've never actually read Captain Picard this way. This could very well just be the result of me projecting again and not paying complete attention to what the show itself was saying back in the day, but I'm not entirely convinced it's all in my head either. “Starship Mine” is actually a really good example, because in spite of what the script seemed to be trying to say, whenever Patrick Stewart was interacting with his castmates their chemistry simply radiates a warm and endearing familiarity that seems completely at odds with the way the writing seems to want to depict their characters' relationships. And in how many episodes have the crew come to Captain Picard for advice, and how many scenes like those and the chat about ships in bottles in “Booby Trap” have we been lucky enough to see on this show over the past six years?
(Oh and speaking of Nella, isn't their “flirtation” in this episode the most painfully stilted thing ever? They both act and sound like standoffish and insecure teenagers in spite of being grown, middle-aged adults. It's almost like this was written by people who had no concept of how actual, mature romantic relationships develop in the real world. I would say Captain Jean-Luc Picard isn't Doctor Julian Bashir, but frankly in the context of this episode that's being unfair to Julian.)
I'd like to say this is just another idiosyncrasy of another forgettable filler episode, but this is unfortunately a plot thread that reoccurs every now and then in the show, even in otherwise good episodes. I guess when you come to a contradiction in the way a character is portrayed you have to pick which horn of the ensuing dilemma you want to side with, and which side you pick probably reveals something about your positionality. That's an argument that you can apply more broadly to all aspects of big, sprawling polyauthored works like Star Trek in general, and possibly their greatest strength in the opinion of this particular book series. Embrace the contradiction because each decision creates a universe unto itself. And maybe that's a truth that we can actually see the clearest in passable fare like this.
Thursday, November 19, 2015
“The city's ripped backside”: The Passenger
One interesting thing to note about this episode, or at least where this episode falls in my coverage of the series, is that it's a Morgan Grendel pitch with help from Michael Piller coming immediately after another episode with the exact same credit (though the teleplay for “The Passenger” also had help from Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who's not on staff for Star Trek: The Next Generation). If Grendel is brought up in the discussion here though, it's typically to compare “The Passenger” with his most famous work, “The Inner Light”. Both stories do, after all, deal with a person living on in some form after death within the mind of another person, and some people like to read “The Passenger” as a dark reflection of “The Inner Light”. Grendel didn't mean for it to be though, and anyway the two episodes are only similar in a very superficial way: “The Inner Light” uses its premise to examine different kinds of utopianism and a life unexplored, while “The Passenger” uses its mainly as a plot device to set another mystery in motion.
Said mystery is a good fit for this story though, in a procedural sort of way: There's a dangerous fugitive running amok on Deep Space 9, and the team have to work together using their various skillsets to find him. And in spite of any protestations that this setup is too “Next Generation-like”, this is a premise that actually works way better here: We've seen plenty of examples in the past where trying to do a story like this on Deep Space Nine's sister show requires a significant amount of hoop-jumping, often involving the Enterprise having to escort some shifty dudes for some strangled reason, typically interrupting the galactic exploration they really ought to be doing. But it makes far more narrative sense for your undesirables to crop up in the stationary setting of this show, especially given the fact said stationary setting is an interstellar port city.
So in “The Passenger” we get another good look at the Deep Space 9 team in the role of first responders, investigators, and local city officials. It's a role we've not really seen them in since “Babel”, and not used quite to this extent since “A Man Alone” (though there's a little bit of it in “Dax”, I suppose). I've said before I really like seeing this crew used this way (it's probably my favourite alongside being intermediaries to Bajoran post-colonial politics) so no surprises I like it used here, but what I *really* like is how it develops the framework laid down earlier in the season and shows the main cast more comfortable in their roles and with each other. Yes! Shock of shocks, the crew actually does *get along* with each other, *and* their interplay is optimistic and utopian to boot. I guess cancellation really is inevitable at this point, isn't it?
So the characters. First of all, cementing my theory that Julian (and we'll obviously have to talk some more about him in another context later) is polyamorous, he's clearly hitting on Major Kira in the teaser, and doing a right poor job of it to boot. For all of the single target fixation on Jadzia Dax people traditionally read in him, the vibe I'm getting from him now is much more of someone who'll make a pass at anyone who makes the mistake of giving him a platform for a moment. He's the Ataru Moroboshi of Bajoran space. He's mostly focused on women right now, but that will eventually change. His biggest flaw is probably his arrogance and self-assuredness, though the tone in Siddig el Fadil's voice very much sounds to me like he's playing Julian bragging only ironically, which adds an interesting twist to the character I hadn't thought of before.
Meanwhile, on the subject of Jadzia Dax, I love her in this episode. Terry Farrell has allowed herself to get far more nuanced in her performance over the past few weeks, switching naturalistically between exuberantly geeky, flirtatious and coy, wise and aloof and gentle and reassuring, oftentimes in the same scene. I also love how we finally get the chance to see Jadzia sink her teeth into a proper tech mystery instead of just letting Julian handle everything. Which the show has done and could very easily have done again here, especially given Julian's subplot in this episode. Naturally Jadzia runs with it and is a ton of fun to watch, and as usual I really dig her interactions with Benjamin. The scene where she talks his ear off about her hypothesis as to how Vantika survived and their exchange in the climax communicating only through expressions particularly stand out to me.
Also great is the subplot between Commander Sisko, Odo and Chief Primmin. It's an endearing and necessary bit about differing perspectives and working together that curiously goes against a lot of what the stated intent for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine seems to be, and all the better for it. It's a deft execution of what's become a staple Star Trek plot that reveals Deep Space 9 is far more similar to the starship Enterprise in form and function than not, and more than some writers and fans might want to admit. Primmin, being a guest star, is implicitly coded as being from the outside. He's not of Bajor, not one of our regulars and thus, represents the “other” Starfleet. The Command Starfleet versed in protocol and blinded to imperialism and appropriation. He won't admit it, but he can't see how Odo and his Bajoran security team, the local rubes, could ever be good at their jobs. After all, Primmin went through official Academy security training on Earth and everything!
Crucially, Commander Sisko calls him out and dresses him down for this elitist snobbery. I love his stern reaffirmation that “We are guests of the Bajorans” and the contrast between his chastising of Primmin and his placating of Odo later: On the one hand he's drawing an explicit line and putting himself on Odo's side, not Primmin's (and by extension, Starfleet's). And yet at the same time, he's also stressing the need for cooperation and teamwork, because it's through those ideals that something can be built. Even as he's acknowledging the existence of rifts and different knowledge-spheres, he's also reminding Odo and Primmin (and by extension us) that the best solution is always to talk to each other and try to understand. Apparently Primmin's role was originally going to go to Miles O'Brien, but Colm Meaney being away filming a movie necessitated the creation of a guest character. It's a very fortuitous happenstance, because had that part gone to O'Brien it just would have ruined the whole episode: As it stands in the finished product, it's a testament to what Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's *true* purpose is: Not ceaseless conflict, but healing and building something new.
Speaking of guest stars, I really loved Caitlin Brown's Ty Kajada. She's one of the most memorable guest stars of the year for me, and she provides the other side of the argument Chief Primmin's presence hints at. What we've basically got in “The Passenger” is another instance of a trend I started talking more at length about back in the fourth season: That while it sounds completely counterintuitive and goes completely against Michael Piller's original dictum, Star Trek tends to work *best* when an episode's dramatic and emotional weight goes to the guest stars, *not* the regulars. While the Deep Space 9 crew are most certainly invested, the story here is really Kajda's, not Odo's or Julian's or Quark's. Dax touches on this when she and Doctor Bashir point out how Kajada's life has been defined by her relationship with Vantika, and how as a result she knows him better and more intimately than anyone else.
And I thought it was perfect that she executes Vantika herself in the denouement, and the look Brown gives in the final shot tells it all: She's overwhelmed by the freedom the weight of her responsibility to him being lifted has afforded her, but her life is finally hers again and she's free to do as she will. It's almost as if she's finally ended an abusive relationship, which in a way she did. We always say on Vaka Rangi that one comes to the Enterprise to become a better person through the act of voyaging and exploration that's equally inward- and outward-facing. But couldn't we also say that this is almost more true of Deep Space 9? A city that one physically has to actually “come to” and that's built on the ideals of rebirth and reconstruction, a quite literal gateway to enlightenment. Like so many other things about these two shows, it's the same idea, but examined in each case from a slightly different perspective. And yet we need those differing perspectives, because they all tell us something about the whole.
I also think it's significant that Kajada is surrounded in that moment by Sisko, Dax and Bashir. Julian was a potential love interest for her, something that was more clear in the earlier drafts and that yet again plays into my theory he's just ready to jump at anything. Ben is many ways a parallel reflection of hers, being the most notable example of a person who came to Deep Space 9 to leave their old life behind and begin a new one. And there's Jadzia, who can't help but be a metatextual spiritual guide and teacher. It's a skill she just radiates and she has an impact on the narrative through her presence alone.
Another scene I liked along those lines, although I didn't when I first rewatched this episode, was right after Bashir was revealed as Vantika's vessel. Dax goes looking for him, can't find him, then rushes to Ops telling Ben “I can't find Julian anywhere!”. She never gets to actually tell us she's figured it out, even though she's the one who came up with the theory in the first place, but Terry Farrel's tone paired with the direction and editing of that scene gives the impression that Dax has moved the plot forward and the crew is diegetically aware of this. It's as if the information was communicated telepathically (and hey, didn't we say back in “Babel” that Jadzia doesn't need words to communicate?) and right after that Sisko, Kira and Odo figure out exactly what they have to do.
Making Doctor Bashir Rao Vantika's receptacle is obviously more of an excuse to give Sidding el Fadil the chance to show off other parts of his acting range than it is an attempt to define Julian's character further, although I suppose one could make the halfhearted argument that there are parallels between Julain's mild narcissism and his status as a healer and Vantika's obsessive complex to preserve his life at all costs, a dark reflection of sorts (and I'm also reminded here of “Criados' Heartbeat” and all the accompanying transhumanist themes that went along with that episode as well. Interesting too how they crop up again on a show with similarly explicit mystical and sublime themes).
This is also where I was going to level my biggest criticism of “The Passenger”, because frankly I didn't find Sid convincing as Vantika at all. it seemed a very laboured and stilted performance, and I was all ready to gently critique him for perhaps being a younger, less seasoned actor, but then I found out that all his lines as Vantika were actually *dubbed over* after the fact and this wasn't the performance he'd intended to give at all. That explains everything-Apparently he originally gave a take that was reminiscent of Bela Lugosi, which I personally would have loved to see as I think Vantika's part definitely demands a more overtly inhuman and monstrous approach. One of the original pitches, as Grendel points out, was to make Vantika a sort of Hannibal Lecter character, and I think that would have been a blast to see. But, the team didn't like it for whatever reason, so they had Sid go and re-do all his lines in post. I don't know what the original take was like, but I daresay it surely would have been a bit less awkward to watch than this.
And just to round out the main cast, I want to make special note of Quark's role here. It's oftentimes too easy to write Quark off as a goofy comic relief character (in fact, there are a pair of episodes coming up that do their very best to cement this in the audience's minds), but I think that's an appalling waste and shortshifting of Quark's potential. Although there's the tendency and temptation to write him that way, Quark is actually most effective in episodes like this one and “Emissary”: He does some very unpredictable and often morally questionable things, any silliness derived from his Ferengi heritage used more for obfuscation. “The Passenger” is a great example, because while he's not outright hijacking the freighter, he *is*, as is mentioned several times in the story, acting as a middleman to facilitate it. And while Quark has enough of a conscience and set of morals such that he's definitely still a good guy, he's not someone you should just write off or turn into a buffoon either. What he offers is yet another perspective, and it's a perspective well worth paying attention to as the show develops: Effectively, he's a a Ferengi Humphrey Bogart character.
With “The Passenger”, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is finally back on its feet. Well, barring one particularly egregious face-plant next week that is. But in spite of that, and granting there's still more experimenting to be done with it, I think we've found the winning formula that will keep us afloat from here on out.
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
“42 Decks Of Sheer Adventure!”: Starship Mine
This is also something *only* Star Trek: The Next Generation could do, at least in 1993. That's not to say the cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine couldn't have handled a brief like this or that the setting would have precluded it, but the writing staff on that show has something of a problem handling action without it coming across as unreconstructed, bloodthirsty and grimdark and that's ultimately what's going to end up killing the series. That didn't have to happen, of course, but circumstances will eventually dictate that's what the final obituary will read. But that's thankfully not for a good while yet. By contrast, Star Trek: The Next Generation has long since become keenly aware of its status and place in history, and a lot of careful thought went into ensuring that, while undeniably fun, “Starship Mine” never crossed the line into becoming a mindless run-and-gun military fantasy. And in fact, this story ends up being one of the most intriguingly provocative out of a year that's been so stellar already.
Much of this is due to writer Morgan Grendel and Michael Piller. Grendel hates the moniker "Die Hard on the Enterprise" fans tend to appellate “Starship Mine” with (even though come on, it self-evidently is. Grendel even pitched it to Piller as exactly that) and prefers to read it as a story about how Captain Picard loves the Enterprise more than anything else and is willing to go to any lengths to protect it, citing the old naval “the captain goes down with the ship” trope. This is a problematic (and ahistorical) narrative device, but that Grendel invokes it here reveals some interesting things. Even (well, especially) divorced from the naval symbolism I like this idea because it shows how Captain Picard is someone who lives and breathes the spirit of voyaging so much he can't conceive of ever doing anything else.
I particularly like the scene at the end of the teaser where he's alone on the bridge, the last person on the ship before the “cleaning crew” comes aboard. He dawdles and takes his time, and Patrick Stewart's expressions and body language sell the emotions of the moment. He's in no rush to beam down to the starbase and takes no particular joy in being away from the Enterprise-None of the crew do. The Enterprise is their home and where they belong and they're never going to be truly happy if they're apart from it: They're always going to act a bit restless and awkward, always going to be a fish out of water without someplace to go and discoveries to be made, just as the crew are at Commander Hutchinson's reception. That to me is the more interesting takeaway from this theme: Travellers will always be more at ease forming communities and families with other travellers. They don't belong at a starbase any more than they belong in the bloviating world of Starfleet's good ol' boys club.
Unless of course that starbase is Deep Space 9. But that's another story.
But what's especially interesting is seeing this coming from Morgan Grendel, whose previous submission, “The Inner Light” comes the closest in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation to forcing Captain Picard to slow down and adopt a more conventional and heteronormative lifestyle. In other words, killing him. And it's even more curious right here, as the very next TNG story is explicitly a sequel to “The Inner Light” that tries to address this, and generally makes a big mess of itself and everything else. I'd say this implies the common reading of “The Inner Light” goes contrary to what Grendel's original intent was had he not gone and written “The Outer Light” two decades later. But I'll save the rest of my missive on that little issue for next week: The main point here is that “Starship Mine” is a vivid and clear portrait of what drives and inspires our heroes, and it's important we get a story like that every now and again, because it can be easy to forget.
Michael Piller's influence on “Starship Mine” isn't as obvious, but it's just as important. Piller was deeply concerned that an action show such as this would come across as too violent, so he was very conscious throughout the rewrite process of toning it down where possible, and where it wasn't, ensuring that the violence was never something the audience could take visceral and voyeuristic pleasure in. In the last volume I made the point that during the Long 1980s there are basically only two ways of doing action sci-fi (or action genre fiction more broadly) acceptably: You either, as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind does, depict the action as a grotesque and horrific spectacle or, as Dirty Pair does, play it up as medium-aware camp performative kayfabe. Star Trek: The Next Generation has savvily been able to more or less sidestep the matter entirely up to now, but here it has to address the issue head on. And curiously enough, in spite of its deep-rooted and multilayered performativity and the fannish obsession it has with Dirty Pair, when up against the wall it plays things much closer to the Nausicaä side of the spectrum.
(Although I guess a Captain Picard-centric story that follows the Nausicaä model for action sci-fi is probably quite fitting. It certainly makes up for “Tapestry”.)
The tone is set when Devor taunts Picard that he won't kill him because he's Starfleet, to which the captain responds “I guess you're right”. And throughout the rest of the episode while there are plenty of chases and fistfights, Captain Picard never escalates things, striving to outmanoeuvre and disarm Kelsey's lackeys and adamantly refusing to kill them. As they do end up getting picked off, Jean-Luc visibly views each death as a tragic loss, culminating in him looking genuinely saddened and grief-stricken when Kelsey's ship explodes at the end of the climax. And this is no mere “there should have been another way” platitudes either: Piller's point is manifestly that these people are not cut out to be killers and there's no place for death and killing aboard the starship Enterprise (and furthermore that this is a *good* thing), yet another thing that sets them apart from their alleged colleagues in the rest of Starfleet. It's one of the most openly utopian bits the show has done since the first season, but it's handled with the grace and elegance we could only expect from a veteran craftsman like Michael Piller.
It truly is heartwarming to see this from Piller. It's hard to believe this is the same person who was actively stirring up grimdark conflict back in the third season and signed off on Robert Hewitt Wolfe, Peter Alan Fields and Ira Steven Behr trying to turn Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a show he envisioned as being about healing and rebirth, into a show about unpleasant people screaming at each other. It really does say to me that Piller has genuinely learned and grown and become a better writer though his experiences with Star Trek, and I think that's wonderful. I mean I wish it'd happened about three and a half years sooner, but I'm not complaining. And not to get spiteful, but it's also worth noting Ron Moore has gone on the record saying this was a point of friction between him and Piller, because he saw himself as they guy always saying, in his own words, “Kill more, kill more!”. Piller shut him down this time.
Ethics of violent TV spectacle aside, what also interests me about “Starship Mine” is its unorthodox, and laudable, political themes. A brief like Let's Do Die Hard seems like it'd be one of the simplest and most rote of these types of briefs you could get, and you could imagine how it could run the risk of turning reactionary. Doing a straightforward anti-terrorism bit where the terrorist antagonists were generic cannon fodder bad guys is poor work in any era, would have looked really weird next to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and its former terrorist lead and would have looked especially horrible in the early 21st century. But crucially that's not what “Starship Mine” does. The big twist, of course, is when Kelsey boldly declares she and her crew aren't terrorists at all, but in fact covert weapons dealers who profit from war. She's a Merchant of Death, a more charismatic and less pervy Mazoho from “Red Eyes are the Sign of Hell”, happily letting armies slaughter each other in perpetuity and in fact encouraging it because it lines her pockets.
It's really the perfect eleventh hour reveal for this kind of story because it writes the episode's extradiegetic critique of violent spectacle back into the text: Capitalism and all its beneficiaries perpetuate death and destruction of human lives and well-being in the name of profit. There's honour among thieves. Even terrorists have a sense of camaraderie. But there's none in Kelsey's crew, and none among capitalists. No one is too close to be betrayed, nothing is too sacred such that it would be above appropriation and assimilation. Star Trek: The Next Generation hasn't been allowed to be quite this radical in awhile, and it bears its teeth here just to remind us that yes, it does indeed most certainly still have them. We get the sense the show is finally pushing back against the boundaries of its material existence, finally aware of the oppression its medium forces onto it. But in that most Star Trek: The Next Generation of themes, we still forgive. As much as we fight our oppressors, who hold out hope in their humanity. The hope that everyone has the potential to leave the system and embark on their own journey of self-discovery: Captain Picard respects Kelsey as an equal and a brilliant leader, and mourns her when she's gone. Her tragedy is hers and hers alone.
The rest of “Starship Mine” is every bit as demonstrative of Star Trek's creative peak as its story. The characterization is peerless, the acting and writing breathing in perfect sync. I could quibble about Geordi being unconscious for most of the action and Worf being a no-show, but we saw a lot of Worf in “Birthright” and pretty much everyone gets a moment to shine in the pleasantly lengthy teaser and opening act. Deanna Troi is the immediate highlight: Her running up to Captain Picard to fill him in about some mundane personnel matters on deck 7 is instantly memorable and endearing precisely because this is something we never see Deanna doing. This is the first time we've seen her doing a job on the Enterprise and taking an active role in the crew that's not just being their psychologist. The irony is, of course, that this is always what she was supposed to do in the first place.
Commander Riker and Doctor Crusher are pitch perfect, and so actually is Data. This is the first time Brent Spiner's knack for impressions is treated as something Data just casually does instead of something the script jumps through hoops to justify him indulging it, and it's a perfect fit for his character. Brent Spiner always saw Data as the comic relief character, and here's the final synthesis of that with the narrative role Data has always had. That's the tone of “Starship Mine” in a nutshell: The actors are so visibly comfortable in their parts and that just absolutely sings. I love the little exchange where Captain Picard tries to come up with an excuse to go back to the Enterprise with that convoluted bit about the saddle, and I *love* the way Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis and LeVar Burton play their characters' reactions: The four of them radiate such a comfortable familiarity with each other that the cast has always had, but the characters haven't always been allowed to express. Or at least, that was never written into the show before now. But what a delightful thing to see.
And what a perfect way to sum up the whole show. Love is always more fun to watch then pain. Always.
Sunday, November 15, 2015
“She most lives”: Dax
I'll bet you can guess how I feel that Jadzia Dax is the character who gets the treatment in question. But what makes it even worse is that this actually doesn't make any real dramatic sense! Think about it: How much more dramatic would it had been if, rather than deciding to indulge their Buck Rogers fantasies, the writers actually let us know this was going to be a courtroom drama from the start. Imagine if in the teaser the Klaestronians approach Dax in the corridor, validate her identity, and than flatly state “Jadzia Dax, you are hereby under arrest on suspicion of treason against the Klaestronian people and the first degree murder of General Aredlon Tandro, my father”. Tandro, Jr. slaps handcuffs on Jadzia, we pan up to a shot of her stoic and unmoved expression, and then fade right to black and cue credits.
Casting doubt on characters like Kira, Quark and Odo is one thing. Quark is set up to be a shady dude right from the start, from her first appearance Kira's loyalty to us is in question (though if you'll notice, that seems to have all be resolved as of this episode: Kira is one of Commader Sisko's staunchest allies all throughout the investigation. Uh oh, the crew seems to be getting along! Guess it's time to cancel the show then!) and before we got to know him better we could imagine Odo being the kind of person who might take his dedication to justice a bit too far. But Dax? The wise woman of DS9? I mean hell, if you're looking to shock the audience and get them to distrust the characters (I mean, I personally don't think that's a great idea, but this team sure seems to think so) I can't think of a blindside bigger than accusing Dax of all people of murder. High treason...OK, maybe. But murder? That's a twist worthy of a teaser.
The rest of the story has its ups and downs and has a lot of fruitful material to discuss, and is obviously one that's quite important to me, but that whole first sequence absolutely mars the episode and singlehandedly consigns it to the rubbish portion of this season it otherwise could have marked the end of. Furthermore, in the words of Kira Nerys (or at least the words she was thinking and would have said had this show not needed to be censored and cleaned up for pre-watershed audiences) it really pisses me off. I don't know which of this story's two writers was responsible for this, but whoever it was they ought to be ashamed of themselves. We've gotten to the point where this team's fetishization of outmoded and sexist narrative tropes isn't just reflecting badly on them, it's actively working to make the finished products materially worse than they should have been. And not just by my standards: By 1993 standards this would have been seen as unacceptable.
It's things like this, especially coming so soon after Jadzia's tragic absence from “Birthright, Part I”, that conspire to hold her back out of the gate more than she really needed. Thankfully it's never going to be as bad for her as it's all too often been for Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher, but it'll still be another year before this team will be able to completely strike a comfortable balance in writing for her as a character while keeping all her symbolism intact. And by then it'll be just about too late.
“Dax” is definitely the strongest of this run of troublingly mediocre stories though, and in spite of all that does actually manage something truly special with the title character. This is I'm sure in no small part due to the fact it marks D.C. Fontana's return to Star Trek after five years, though also sadly her final script for it (not her final contribution to Star Trek, I should add, but her final filmed teleplay). For the sake of my sanity and motivation, I'll make the quite possibly unjustified presumption that Fontana was *not* the one responsible for that train wreck of an opening act, even knowing that Peter Alan Fields is capable of some pretty masterful stuff himself on a good day: He helped give us “Half a Life”, a good deal of “The Inner Light” and, coming up, “Progress”, “Duet”, “The Circle”, “Necessary Evil” and “Crossover”. On the other hand, he's also responsible for “Cost of Living”, so there's that.
And yet it still doesn't feel like Fontana's doing anyway: Her touch is present and very noticeable all throughout the rest of “Dax”. Apparently she was brought in because the team wanted a vetted sci-fi author to handle a story that was intended to be very heavy on exposition and world-building. Which it is, and that's actually one of the other problems with it: This episode is basically “The Measure of a Man” for Jadzia Dax instead of Data (to the point I misremembered the scene where Kira questions Sisko at his request as Kira being coerced into prosecuting the case like Will Riker was), but while the earlier story had a lot of hauntingly gripping scenes deftly and profoundly exploring slavery, the self and personal identity theory to make up for its legally questionable plot, “Dax” doesn't have that luxury.
Everything from the trial framing device itself to various bits of dialog all throughout feels ever-so-slightly stilted and unnatural, as if it's been forced to service the episode's numerous infodumps about Dax's backstory and Trill culture instead of the other way around. Which it kinda is. People say things that don't really sound like what we'd expect their character to say because most of them sound like questions the writers are assuming the audience has about the setting and the plot, so they get said just to get addressed. This is like Trill Biology and Culture: The F.A.Q. But credit where credit is due, Fontana is an old hand at this, her having been there when this style of genre fiction writing was in vogue, and while it's not her personal style she acquits herself well to it.
All of the players, including the regulars, never lose their voice in spite of the stifling sci-fi weight hoisted onto them, and for a lot of them this is their best outing to date. The succession of witness testimonials at the climax as Sisko, Kira and Bashir in turn take the stand is absolutely gut wrenching as you can read on their faces and in the tone of their voices that they all know they're running out of time and options as they look imploringly to Dax to help them help her. And naturally, it's Sisko and Dax themselves who shine the brightest: Ben is an open sore of emotion and raw passion, while Jadzia remains almost irrationally calm and placid. But that doesn't mean she doesn't feel: This is Terry Farrell's first real showcase since “Emissary”, a test of her physical acting she excels at. Everything she does here from her reaction at hearing the name Tandro to the way she starts to choke up when talking about Curzon's ring is simply masterpiece work.
And whenever the two of them are together, sparks fly. Fontana finally drops all the show's pretense-If you don't see in her writing or Avery Brooks and Terry Farrell's acting a portrayal of a relationship that has gone well beyond friendship into something more deeply and uniquely meaningful, you're pretty much willfully trying to ignore it. As Ben tries to prove Jadzia and Curzon are different people, he's also trying to come to terms with that reality himself. In his testimony, he admits to the court, to us and to himself that while Curzon was his mentor and biggest inspiration, he doesn't know how he feels about Jadzia yet. Or at least he's not sure he's ready to admit it.
He's overwhelmingly protective of Jadzia, almost endearingly so, and one assumes he might not have taken quite the same tone had Curzon still been alive to defend himself for a lot of different reasons. Dax herself must be flattered at the overture and touched by his loyalty, but she probably also sees in him a reflection of the excess youthful exuberance exhibited by Julian. Their entire subplot here is about reexamining and coming to terms with what they both mean to each other. The scene where Ben breaks down at Jadzia's feet as she gently caresses his cheek and assures him he's done all he can and there's nothing she expects from him just melts me. It shows the scope of their feelings in their purest, rawest form and even doubles as foreshadowing to the eventual plot twist. Any sense of duty or honour indeed. This isn't what a mentor consoling a protégé looks like. This goes beyond friendship, and it's no simple basal romance either: What Ben Sisko and Jadzia Dax share is something altogether grander than both.
This episode is an interesting one to give to D.C. Fontana on other levels too. She's always been known for her imperiously powerful matriarch characters, for pretty obvious reasons, and “Dax” has four of them. First there's Kira, who, though she's a supporting character this week, Fontana clearly took a liking to and had her proudly show off her confidence, competence and swagger whenever she got the chance. Then there's the frankly amazing arbiter Els Renora whose wonderfully sardonic attitude gives us many of the story's memorable lines (hell, they're some of the season's most memorable lines). You have to wonder if the by this point assuredly crotchety Fontana, bitter after decades of putting up with Star Trek's shenanigans, saw Renora as a kind of author avatar, particularly when she tells off the testy Sisko and Ilon Tandro like a pair of hormonal teenage boys, One can imagine her expressing similar sentiments to herself speeding away from the Paramount production lot never to return, possibly muttering something to the extent of “I'm too old for this shit”.
And then of course Enina Tandro, who really has the bulk of the emotional and dramatic weight here. She represents a different side of age and experience, and her story arc is a genuinely moving Star Trek: The Next Generation kind of attitude about aging and time. The defining moment for her is when Odo reveals that her son is about to condemn Jadzia Dax, an innocent young woman, by wrapping her up in the thirty year old dirty laundry of people who are all too dead to care. Enina knows the younger generations should not be made to answer for the crimes of their elders and that they must be allowed to live their own lives, a moment that interestingly hearkens back in more than one way to “Half a Life”. Her farewell to Jadzia in the denouement, one of the all-time greatest scenes in the history of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine can thus be read at a somewhat superficially metatextual level about Fontana's own farewell to Star Trek, placing it in the hands of the person she sees as most deserving of inheriting the mantle.
There's an aspect of truth to this, as Fontana has herself stated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is her personal favourite Star Trek. But there's way more to the scene than just that. Because Jadzia is of course the fourth lady of power in this story, even though perplexingly this episode isn't really about her. But that's sort of fitting: Jadzia is the ultimate Star Trek character because she's the ultimate supporting character. She's going to work best when the show doesn't force her to bear her own interiority, but rather uses her to elicit certain reactions from the people around her. This episode isn't about Jadzia Dax (even diegetically, as Tandro, Jr.'s argument she and Curzon are the same person is plainly nonsense and he's just using that to justify satiating his bloodlust), it's about what other people think Jadzia Dax is and why she's important to them. Benjamin is very openly grappling with this, and while Julian and Nerys don't have quite as powerfully personal a stake in the matter as he does, they're still clearly affected. And Tandro, Jr. and his lackeys can't even see Jadzia as her own person.
(That scene with Enina and Odo reminds me: I'm spending so much time talking about Sisko, Dax and the female characters I'm almost forgetting to mention how utterly brilliantly Fontana writes Odo! He almost steals the show and to me this is the moment where he finally comes into his own as a character. There's the curt, yet admirable dogmatism in his fierce loyalty to justice which in this case prevents him from entirely dismissing Ilon Tandro's claim outright, but his scene with Enina is one of the absolute highlights of the whole piece. He's a full-on 24th century Columbo, standing well back, both in terms of narrative and visually in terms of blocking, asking polite, though leading, questions until he eventually gets at the truth he needs. And furthermore, inspiring her to take the action she must take to allow the healing to begin. A shape shifter goes where needs to and takes the form he has to to get his job done.)
Jadzia then must be a fascinating figure for D.C. Fontana: So many of her matriarch characters have been just that; older mother figures. And there's a bit of that here, what with Enina's plot, some of Renora's lines and even the fact Jadzia seems to take a subtly mothering and nurturing tone with Ben on occasion. The only time she's really had the chance to work with an actual younger female lead is in “The Enterprise Incident” when she tried to turn Joan Linville's Romulan Commader into one. But, as Renora points out, Jadzia is both 200 years her senior and about the same age as her great granddaughter. Here, Fontana gets the chance to synthesize both of her favourite (or at least familiar) character archetypes, and it's intriguing that it's in a character who spends most of the episode deliberately in the background. Amusingly enough, the staff writers seem to think Jadzia's dual nature is a source for sweet, juicy inner conflict given some of the things they've written about this story, as if Jadzia is somehow in a state of permanent identity crisis, constantly struggling to come to terms with who she is.
But that's clearly ridiculous. Jadzia Dax is straightforwardly and obviously both young and wise. She's her own person, but she carries the experience of many other people with her. There are parts of her that are as much Curzon as they are her own: Her sense of honour and loyalty and the love she has for people like Ben and Enina. Just like we all do, she tries to take the best parts of her forbears while casting aside their vices and negative energy. The eternal now, where we revisit our memories to help make us better people now. There's no conflict, because she's absolutely at peace with who and what she is. She couldn't be joined if she wasn't. That's sort of the entire point of this episode, isn't it?
Live, Jadzia Dax.
Thursday, November 12, 2015
“Regress”: Birthright, Part II
Last time on Star Trek: The Next Generation...
“The idea of doing a crossover between Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is such an intuitive one it writes itself. There are no two iterations of this franchise that mesh and blend together quite as well as these do: Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are a part of each other's existence in a way that's not true of any other Star Trek. Deep Space Nine opens up with the straightforward declaration that it's a part of The Next Generation-Its opening moments literally take place in a Next Generation episode, its entire setting is inherited from one and The Next Generation plays an integral role in the plot of “Emissary”. This isn't like Doctor McCoy showing up for one brief scene in “Encounter at Farpoint”, Captain Picard and the Enterprise are actual essential aspects to that plot.”
“Of course the artefact that ends up triggering Data's dream programme comes from the Gamma Quadrant. When we open our minds to the possibilities of different knowledge-spaces and expand our awareness to the harmonious interplay of people and events, we discover the things we are meant to find. Doctor Bashir cannot study the artefact with the resources he has on Deep Space 9; he needs Beverly Crusher's lab aboard the Enterprise. Data could not unlock this heretofore unknown level of his potential had he not gone to investigate, or had the Enterprise not come to Deep Space 9 at this point in time. He could not have done so had he not met Doctor Bashir.”
And now, the conclusion...“But that 'Birthright, Part I' actually manages to live up to so much of what it hints at and points to is telling. It could only happen on Deep Space 9.Honestly, I almost don't want to see part 2.”
There's an interesting structure to “Birthright” we haven't necessarily seen in previous two-parters. This is the first time the show has done a story like this purely for creative reasons instead of responding to external pressures: “Chain of Command” was partially split into two for narrative reasons, but a big contributing factor there was finances and, to be honest, the fact that it was a mid-season finale and a spinoff series was going to be premiering directly after it. But there's no ratings reason to drop a two-parter here, roughly midway through the second half of the year: The only reason there's a “Birthright, Part I” and a “Birthright, Part II” is because the team through the story was too big and too good to contain in just one hour of television.
This leads to the interesting structural consequence that superficially, “Part II” has next to nothing to do with “Part I”. While Worf's plot was introduced last week, Data gets a whopping one line in this whole episode and the entire story of him developing the ability to dream and the visions of his father he's experiencing isn't addressed even in passing; not even in the teaser. At first this seems a bit strange, as if two disparate episodes had been smooshed together for some reason. But that's not what happened (although Data's story *was* written after Worf's when the decision was made to split this episode into two), and a closer reading reveals the two halves of “Birthright” are linked together in a really elegant and well-done way. Both episodes are united by common themes: Visions, memory and a person's relationship with their family. Data is literally using buried and forgotten memories to learn more about himself, while memories of Khitomer, both truthful and falsified, are the driving force for everything going on in Worf's plot. This is of course all brilliantly spelled out for us in the ten-forward scene between Data and Worf in “Part I”.
As for “Part II” itself, I have to say it is something of a disappointment coming after “Part I”, although I hasten to add it's an extremely minor one. For me, basically nothing could have effectively followed up on the symbolic power I saw in “Part I”: That episode more or less finalizes the blueprint for what I see as Star Trek's victory lap phase and sets up some unparalleled brilliance coming up in this last season and a half. There's no way the inevitable grubby culture clash story about Klingon heritage and contrasting concepts of honour in a Romulan prison camp, as brilliant and inarguably respectable as those are in their own way, was ever going to satisfy me in quite the same way. But you've got to have both the mythic and the mundane, and when taken together “Birthright” works really well as a diptych examining specific themes from all sorts of different angles and perspectives.
And there are a lot of great ideas here. On this rewatch I was actually quite stricken by the depiction of the Romulans: Following up on their final redemption in “Face of the Enemy”, the Romulans here are once again depicted as loyal and upstanding people with a sense of honour that, while it may not be the same as that of the Klingons, is unmistakably there and deserving of respect. Tokath in particular embodies this excellently, and reminds me of Mark Lenard's Romulan Commander's line in “Balance of Terror” that “We [Romulans] are creatures of duty”. His undying commitment and loyalty to his people and the family and community he's built at the prison colony, even if it's to a fault, is admirable and worthy of note.
This actually plays into the plot, as Worf's personal history with the Romulans makes it difficult for him to come up with the most effective solution to the situation. At first I had massive issues with the way Worf was characterized here and I still do to an extent, but I can see how his bigotry towards the Romulans (and I do like how his stereotyping of them so closely parallels with the way the Romulans were actually depicted between the Original Series and “Face of the Enemy” and is here retconned to be a diegetic stereotype) keeps him from thinking things through all the way such that he'd make the real right call. All through the episode as Ba-el (who is another issue unto herself, let's just put that out there) went on about how Romulans and Klingons don't need to hate each other and how she doesn't see a place for herself outside the camp I kept thinking “Yes, the Klingons and the Romulans wouldn't accept you *but the Enterprise would*! Why isn't Worf pointing that out?”.
After all, Worf can hardly claim to represent all of Klingon culture, living and working as he does nowhere near their territory or culture. It seemed like the episode was missing a tack where Worf could have extolled a little utopianism of his own-To me the obvious argument should have been the gilded cage one that he only mentions very briefly once; that Tokath's real crime is that even though he's worked very hard to create a perfect society, in not letting anyone in or out he's denying his people liberties and freedoms that any utopian society should rightfully have. Sort of like “The Masterpiece Society” except not shit or completely morally and ethically bankrupt.
I also felt that it would make a lot of sense for Worf of all people to point out how while neither Klingon nor Romulan society will fully accept people with such liminal identities, those identities are still completely valid and worth cherishing and owning: It's the Enterprise spirit to make your own way and build your own world through discovery, and this time it's not me (or at least not entirely me), because that would have nicely mirrored Captain Picard's good-hearted and well-intentioned, if a bit clunkily delivered, “culture of one” speech to Data in “Part I”. After all, isn't that the whole reason Worf went to the prison colony anyway? Because he was willing to forgive Mogh, had he been there, regardless of what Klingon tradition dictated? I kept expecting “Part II” to end up at a moral like this but it never quite gets there and that bothered me a bit, especially given the stuff it invokes. Of course, I'm thinking along the lines of what a Worf circa “Heart of Glory” would have said, but we're obviously way beyond that point now. And I will grant that his behaviour in this story certainly is in keeping with the way Worf has been developed post-K'Heleyr.
(I almost wrote post- “The Emissary” but given we're now into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that would have just been unnecessarily confusing and aggravating.)
And then Michael Piller has to go and ruin everything.
Wow.“I had just seen Malcolm X, and I said Worf is the guy who's saying 'You're black and you should be proud to be black.' That's where I started from with the character standpoint, but when you get into it and you realize there is something good in this society and that he'll lose this woman he's in love with when he can't shake his own prejudice, it's a price he has to pay for his character and his code...I think it's wonderful when people act in heroic ways that turn back on them.”
First of all, let's set aside the fact Ba-el is nothing more than a plot device and supporting satellite for Worf's brooding, like, you know, every other fucking female character in the history of the goddamn series, (and speaking of, why is the teenage boy the only one who gets to go hunting with Worf?) and focus on the race stuff for now because Holy Goddamn Shit how fucking white and privileged can you get? Detachedly passing judgment on a black radical for being too militant and bigoted is right out of the elitist moderate liberal playbook. I'm stunned Piller didn't misquote Martin Luther King, Jr. and say Worf should have politely and demurely asked for compromises and concessions too. And all this, let's not forget, about a character played by a black actor. I mean there's privilege blindness and “race fails” but then there's enthusiastically devouring your own feet for Thanksgiving dinner.
Were Piller alive today, I'd shudder to think what he'd say about the police brutality and race riots in the United States or the movie Lincoln.
But willfully ignoring Piller's spectacularly insensitive comments (which really don't add anything to our reading of this episode anyway), we're left with a story that's a well-done, if not masterful, extension of some important motifs introduced last time. With or without my nitpicks, “Birthright” as a whole is a perfect example of pinnacle Star Trek.
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
“As If”: Q-Less
|Remind me again why I'm wasting my time here.|
The critique effectively writes itself. Neither Q nor Vash belong on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Vash was a bad idea to begin with and has never appeared in a good story. It's silly in an incredibly awkward and forced way (granting as I do a lot of the comic dialog is good, so long as you divorce it from literally all of the rest of the context). More seriously and worryingly though, it gets extremely up in the audience's face about forcing contrast to Star Trek: The Next Generation where contrast doesn't need to be drawn. “I'm not Picard” says it all, frankly.
And it really does. “Q-Less”, like “Captive Pursuit” before it, is trying way, way too hard to prove to us it's something that couldn't be done on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is something of a problem for an episode explicitly conceived of as a crossover. When I see work like this, I can't help but get an almost overwhelming sense of adolescent self-consciousness from it and it gets tiresome. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is at its weakest when its so painfully obviously being all neurotic and anticonformist, and this episode is an absolutely prime example of that. There was no reason to bring characters and plot devices like Q and Vash to Deep Space 9 other than to jump about waving your arms saying “See? See? *This* crew handles this kind of situation *differently* than the Enterprise crew would have! Aren't we clever?”.
No. No you're not. Go back and come up with something that actually justifies your own existence instead of being a poser and just trying to define yourself in opposition to something.
Which brings me to the primary criticism to level against “Q-Less”, apart from it being shit. John de Lancie summed it up when he said that Q works best when he's used to explore philosophical issues and concepts, and this episode doesn't do any of that. It's Q in his most obnoxiously grating Great Gazoo mode, petulantly throwing a temper tantrum like a little kid who isn't getting what he wants and fucking with people just because he can. I know that's a common reading of who Q is as a character, but I think it's an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous one because of how it works to sabotage and undermine the power he can wield when he's not used that way. And it's especially frustrating here because, and I'm actually going to walk back a little of what I said above, there actually were ways Q could have been used on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine other than brand mascot.
As much as I disliked “Tapestry”, given how close that episode was produced to this one and given how uncannily fitting certain oversignified aspects of it were, a savvy writer could have conceivably further developed that episodes thematic elements in a different context here. OK, if we're doing It's a Wonderful Life, why not give Commander Sisko the chance to go back in time and save Jennifer? Or maybe even wipe out the entire Borg collective? Maybe the contrast could have been that Ben refuses the offer, being able to “anticipate” the negative consequences, if not for the universe (it'd be a tough argument to make that the universe wouldn't be better plus a living Jennifer and minus the Borg, especially given how borderline Panglossian a lot of those “you can't rewrite history, not one line” plots tend to be) than for himself: Hearkening back to “Emissary”, Ben might think that he's finally made peace with his past and is ready to move on, and, in spite of how tempting Q's offer is, all accepting it would do is bring him back to that grief-stricken place he's ready to leave behind.
Now I'm not saying that would have been an amazing episode-Even I think that pitch has some fairly concerning conceptual issues and it's too close to not just “Tapestry” but also “The Gift”. But my point is there were ways to use Q that weren't this. For another idea (and given we're going to be revisiting and dolling up ancient Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes a week from now anyway), why not go all the way back to “Encounter at Farpoint”? The whole original point of Q, after all, was as a means to get a new Star Trek to legitimize itself. It seems like a no-brainer to use him again in that same fashion, which would even have tied into certain anxieties circulating at the time. Not on the part of the audience, mind: I think after “Emissary” the case for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has already been written and shelved for most average viewers. It seems Star Trek fans and Star Trek writers are having a more difficult time coping, however.
But that's actually fitting, because from the very beginning Q's symbolism has tied him to some extent to Star Trek fandom and its latent skepticism. You could have him throw out all the textbook objections: How can you explore space on a space station, where's your sense of adventure, you're all boring cowards because you're administrators, etc. We've already debunked them all, sure, but sometimes we need a textual echo. Maybe this could have been Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's “Chain of Command”, filling this same extradiegetic role in the season for this show that episode did for Star Trek: The Next Generation. A theatrical narrative collapse.
You could have even gone full “Farpoint” and had Judge Q try the Deep Space 9 crew for something approximating “being a grievously savage race”. let's not forget where we are, after all. This is hallowed space. Q knows about the Prophets and the Celestial Temple to be sure-There's a small, tight-knit community for literal gods. I doubt he'd be too happy about humans, Bajorans, Ferengi and Cardassians poking around this region of space. Imagine a confrontation between Q, Commander Sisko, Jadzia Dax, Kai Opaka and maybe even Gul Dukat akin to the one between Q, Guinan, Captain Picard and Commander Riker in “Q Who”. Are we really ready to hear the truths that lie within the Celestial Temple?
I've spent all this time talking about Q because frankly, Vash is a non-issue. She's such a weak presence in this story it's really surprising to learn she was the person it was actually written for. Even down to the frankly unpleasant and straightforwardly misogynist abuse she gets from Q and her stock “I'm a headstrong independent woman!” spiel that inspired it. It sounds for all the world like the work of an oblivious male writer trying to pay lip service to feminism without fully understanding what that means. It's a perplexing to see something like that given Hannah Louise Shearer actually wrote this story, though maybe Robert Hewitt Wolfe didn't do a great job adapting it to teleplay.
There's really not a whole lot more to say about “Q-Less”. Parts of it are funny, but for all the wrong reasons. You could I suppose extrapolate my panning out to a broader critique, that Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine shouldn't cross over in this way. But I don't buy that line of thought: The episodes surrounding “Q-Less” are a prime example of why crossing over isn't just a good idea, it's inevitable. These shows share a universe very purposefully, and it's ridiculous to try and pretend they don't. But there are ways to demonstrate this holistically, and gimmicky showmanship like this isn't that way.
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