Thursday, December 31, 2015

“We who are without kings”: Duet

There are classics, and then there are classics.

“Duet” needs no introduction. Even those who would be inclined to slag off Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's first season, either on its own merits or due to some rule of thumb about first seasons, readily admit that this is one of the very best episodes in the entire series. Any Star Trek fan worth their salt is going to go one step beyond and will likely posit “Duet” as one of the very best episodes in the *entire Star Trek franchise*. I'm not about to rock the boat on this one, not this time. “Duet” is absolutely superb.

The biggest reason why this episode is so phenomenally successful is that it's completely unafraid to do something that Star Trek in general, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in particular, can do effortlessly well so long as it's given the chance. “Duet” is a bottle show, one of many commissioned at the back end of the season to make up for the ludicrously expensive and overbudget episodes from earlier on in the year (c.f. “Emissary”, “Move Along Home” and “The Storyteller”): No new sets, no major effects shots to speak of and only a couple of guest stars, which is frankly heresy for US television sci-fi at this point in time. And it absolutely doesn't need any effects shots or fancy effects to be one of the most chillingly gripping and powerful things ever. 80% of “Duet” is held together by nothing more then Nana Visitor and Harris Yulin talking to each other, and that is absolutely all this episode needs. Is there any joint performance in Star Trek that's even remotely comparable to the show they put on here? I submit to you there may well not be.

We of course have to single Nana Visitor out here. Two weeks in a row she's gotten some pretty unprecedented showcase episodes for her range, which is is two more than anyone who wasn't named Patrick Stewart or Brent Spiner got at this point in the game six years ago. Nana also got “Progress” and “Past Prologue” to herself earlier on in the year, so things are already looking great for Kira Nerys. That's a great indication of how quickly Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has attained a level of egalitarianism in comparison to Star Trek: The Next Generation: Although there are still a few characters this team struggles with (*ahem* Jadzia Dax), this is still a great sign. Again though, this is no indictment of The Next Generation, but rather a regret that really nobody who's worked on it (*including* this team, who have obviously proven themselves fully capable on this side of the lot) ever got comfortable enough with those characters to afford them the same treatment. But either way, “Duet” is in a class of its own for Visitor: None of her previous showcases are on this level and, while some will come close, none of them really ever will be again. Visitor is captivating, poignant, emotive and human, her power here absolutely unparalleled.

Except, of course, perhaps for Harris Yulin. It should say something that he's as much remembered as an essential component of “Duet”'s success as Nana Visitor is. It takes an incredible actor to stand up to, let alone match, the passion Visitor is pulling from in every single scene, and Yulin completely delivers. This story wouldn't be anywhere near as perfect as it is had he not been able to. In Yulin's Aamin Marritza we see every single facet of imperialist modernity's dehumanizing weight conveyed in the single portrait of a man who feels his culture heavily and painfully on every aspect of his life. And that's the titular duet: Both Kira and Marritza are individuals whose lives have been badly damaged by the forces of modernity. Angry and guilt-ridden, they're both looking for answers and someone to blame, because otherwise they feel helpless and voiceless. And there's that theme of performativity again, because what is Marritza doing if not improvising a performance with Kira through the recursive artifice of the role of Gul Darhe'el? and who is Gul Darhe'el but a man who became something larger than life in two very different ways for two very different groups of people?

And though they necessarily must play a supporting role to Visitor and Yulin, it must be noted how formidable the rest of the cast is, as strong as they've ever been. Avery Brooks and Sidding el Fadil are engaging to watch as they play Commander Sisko and Doctor Bashir progressively piece together the mystery alongside Kira. Brooks even gets to act alongside Mark Alaimo's Gul Dukat, whose intimidating and powerful one-scene wonder relating the funeral of Gul Darhe'el in the capital city of Cardassia Prime is as memorable as anything else in the story. But who stands out to me the most is of course Terry Farrell's Jadzia Dax, sensing Kira's confusion and anger and coming to visit her at the most beautiful spot on the station. This entire scene, where Dax asks Kira “what [she's] looking for”, and Kira confesses to her that she wants Marritza to be Darhe'el so that he can embody the sins of Gallitep, is so beautifully oversignified, so loaded with meaning from beginning to end and such a perfect demonstration of the relationship these two women have with each other. It's yet another in a long line of brilliant scenes for Kira, but for simply being there and offering wisdom, comfort, support and guidance to a friend in pain, it may well be Dax's greatest moment on the series to date.

And yet in spite of how singular “Duet” feels, it's something that could only have happened now. This cast, though always civil and friendly, lacked the instant kinship and intimacy of the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast and needed a year or so together to get acquainted with themselves and their roles. Only now could the scenes in “Duet” between Kira, Sisko, Odo and Dax really work on the level they needed to. In the history of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Duet” straddles the line between the show's more diffuse identity-mysticism of its first season and the gritter politics of its second and marks the point at which one form begins to turn into the other (and indeed, the changeover is complete in the very next episode). And we needed a show this comfortable with mercurial performativity, associative narrative and pataphor honed through six years of experimentation to be able to arrive at something so structurally flawless and unmatched in its elegance.

As such this is a very liminal and very powerful place to be, and “Duet” embodies the very best of both incarnations. And as a result of coming here, “Duet” is perfect, definitive and defining Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This is the first moment where the show is truly able to be this peerless and this holistically iconic, and also the last. The material process of history is even now making it so this is one solitary moment in time that can never, ever be repeated in this state of being. We have well and truly peaked: In “Duet”, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has quite possibly just given us not just its own finest hour, but that of all of Star Trek itself. A fantasy world brought to life through one set, and a human tragedy of utopianism cast against it as a backdrop. A science fiction television play that, through sheer accident, has transcended itself and its own limitations to become something greater than the sum of its parts was ever designed, intended or meant to be.

Here, in the wilderness, On the Edge of the Final Frontier, something magical has happened. The mission complete, this congress a memory, its intertwined fate and destiny now lies with us, and within us.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

“All the world's a stage”: Dramatis Personae

An often overlooked entry from the first season, “Dramatis Personae” was always one of my favourite episodes to think about, even if this time around I found it a little difficult to actually watch. As is increasingly the case, the reason for this is not so much due to the quality of the piece itself as much as the fact it's dealing with televisual storytelling norms that I find myself less and less inclined to watch as I get older.

The title says it all: “Dramatis Personae” is an exploration of performative themes, which on the one hand is nothing new, but on the other this episode is more textually overt about it than most. Writer Joe Menosky's original idea was inspired by his observation that people tend to follow a kind of socially approved (and very, very stock) script whenever major life events happen, and there seem to be a very slight number of scripts generally available. This means that, no matter how different and unique the individual circumstances are, absolutely everyone's story about, for example, falling in love is going to sound exactly the fucking same. Menosky saw this as a kind of voluntary self-imprisonment within a very bad pulp fiction play, and he was interested in exploring what that was like and why it happened. In a Star Trek context, this theme took the form of a telepathic matrix that was transmitted like a a virus.

For my money, this is a genius concept and a perfect fit for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. As a kind of science fiction urban community, the show offers a great setting to explore how this manifests on the level of populations and, even though this episode doesn't end up taking the approach that “Babel” did, dealing with a disease outbreak is a solid plot to throw at a team of scientists and administrators working in a metropolitan environment. The handling of performativity itself “Dramatis Personae” does mark an interesting evolution from the way it's been handled in the past: On Star Trek: The Next Generation, much of the performative facade comes from the cast themselves looking for room to play around with the roles they've been given, although at this stage the show is finally beginning to fully plumb the recesses of its sham theatricality, and this will come to a charged head next season. Here though the performativity is a crucial aspecct of the textual narrative, and that's not actually something we've seen a ton of to date, although, like I said, this is starting to change.

With “Dramatis Personae” Menosky has in a sense penned a kind of spiritual follow-up to “Frame of Mind”, where the extradiegetic themes about being imprisoned in a stock set of narrative tropes become diegetic. The form this takes on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a bit more straightforward and traditional than what Brannon Braga pulled on Star Trek: The Next Generation, with the crew literally being taken over by other characters as opposed to the structure of the narrative reality itself breaking down (which is, interestingly enough, a certain kind of theatrical approach). But this is unsurprising given the fact the Deep Space Nine team blew the surrealism in their Prisoner tribute several weeks back, though that's not to single them in particular out as at this point the key difference between the two creative teams pretty much comes down to “one of them has Brannon Braga and the other one doesn't”. Although in one sense, the more overt exploration of performativity in “Dramatis Personae” serves as a kind of bridge between the more scattershot and chaotic ruminations we got much earlier on in the series and the masterful baroque theatre like “Masks”, “Phantasms” and “Emergence” we're getting next year that “Birthright, Part I” and “Frame of Mind” laid the groundwork for.

What's especially interesting about the approach “Dramatis Personae” takes above and beyond this is the specific type of play the characters are trapped in. Where “Frame of Mind”'s critique was largely metaphorical, this episode's is curiously and very explicitly barbed-The telepathy virus ends up almost destroying the station and killing off the crew by forcing them into conflict. It's a deliberately stock paranoid conspiracy thriller with a lovely side of mad Napoleonic ambition courtesy Avery Brooks (while plainly an actor showcase episode for everyone, it's Brooks who shines the brightest, giving Star Trek fans who weren't familiar with Spenser for Hire or A Man Called Hawk a taste of his true acting range). It's really hard for me to not read this as a nasty indictment of the unsettlingly giddy lip service the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine creative team keeps paying to the Almighty Conflict (read unlikeable antiheroes screaming at each other in squalid 90s grimdark settings). It's a pretty ballsy move that goes a long way towards revealing the show's true feelings about its alleged audience, made even more remarkable due to its proximity to “Descent”.

This may come back to bite Deep Space Nine in the ass at some point in the future, but for now it's another solid example of why I adore this season so much.

Aside from Avery Brooks, there's obviously a lot to love in the performances from the other cast members, although I don't say that without reservation. First of all, this is another implausible “Odo and Quark Save the Day” plot (one wonders at this point, given the way the team often handles them, whether they should just take over from Doctor Bashir and star in their own wacky medical comedy double act sitcom), so that's a bit annoying for me. Colm Meaney is probably the second standout, but Colm Meaney is a fucking genius in everything so that's not really remarkable. And while as good as Nana Visitor and Terry Farrell are, they're actually my biggest complaint with this story. Well, not them so much as Dax and Kira. Giving Jadzia Dax the role of the giggling imperial concubine-cum-Starscream is...upsetting. This may have actually worked had Jadzia been given a lot of opportunities to demonstrate her cool competence and wisdom over the course of the season such that the contrast here would be pack a dramatic weight...but she really hasn't. At least not as much as we would have liked: Most of her best scenes have been due to Farrell's acting, and though she is clever, Jadzia disturbingly tends to be the first one to be affected by plot-based incompetence and incapacitation.

But what's really problematic here is the relationship Dax's character has with Kira's character. The whole interaction between the two of them in Quark's leading to Jadzia's character's defection is just so incredibly icky: Kira *literally* seduces her over to the dark side, and in spite of how astonishingly progressive the show has been on queer issues to date, the heavily implied bisexuality in *this* story is absolutely intended to be of the depraved variety. The only reason Kira's character displays any bisexual urges is because she's evil in the narrative of the telepathy play (while clearly unhinged and crazy bananas, Sisko's character is portrayed as far more of a tragic figure: A great man undone by hubris, madness and betrayal) and Jadzia's character's tacit reciprocation of those selfsame bisexual advances is depicted as a weakness and failing on her part; a fatal flaw that leads to her ultimate downfall.

And it actually makes me really angry, because I see this scene gifed and screencapped out of context all the time on Tumblr, always with fawning admiration from Kira/Dax shippers and some glowing endorsement of how wonderfully and cheekily queer, progressive and feminist Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was. Because in reality, this scene, and the subplot that goes along with it, is literally the exact opposite of all those things. First of all, that's not even Kira and Dax in that scene! So, I mean, if you're looking for shipping evidence for the two of them (and I don't object to that-there is a fair bit of it), that's fucking amateur and weak for starters. If that's seriously the best the femslash shippers can do, I'm *extremely* disappointed. And second of all, within the barest context of the episode it hails from, that scene is revealed literally in seconds to be utterly ugly and repugnant, straightforwardly sexualizing, othering and villifying lesbians and bisexuals for a stock piece of male gaze narrative. And that's actually a gigantic problem for “Dramatis Personae”, as it effectively undermines the point the rest of the episode seems like its trying to make.

And that's a deeply frustarying reality, because the point “Dramatis Personae” is trying to make about conflict is a very important one. It's something that needs to be said, not just on the cusp of the Long 1990s, but even (and especially) today too. I'm writing this essay in an age when fascism and fundamentalist terrorism is on the rise worldwide again, and the one thing that links such movements together, especially in the west, is an incredibly dangerous runaway id complex fostered by a culture of voyeuristic violence. And this is something grimdark media actively perpetuates: Individuals who feel (justly or unjustly) ostracized and persecuted can, through the ego, start to visualize themselves as the tragic antihero protagonist of a dark action movie. And when people enter into that mindset, they oftentimes turn to terrorism out of a desire to go out in a blaze of glory. And then the copycat effect kicks in, and it all happens again somewhere else.

Grimdark has gone beyond simply being rote and adolescent and has turned into a very real threat to world society. This is everything Star Trek is supposed to be the antidote for, and if it's not even willing to keep up its own standards, you have to wonder what hope the rest of us have.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

“We never touch but at points”: The Forsaken

So I miscounted a bit when I was planning these entries. Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine do run completely parallel, beginning and ending their seasons roughly the same week. However, when Deep Space Nine premiered in January, 1993, the studio held production on The Next Generation back a few weeks so the new show could air four episodes in a row without any potential competition for attention. I, however, missed that when I was planning my watch schedule and went straight from “Emissary” to “Ship in a Bottle”, thus neglecting the fact that “Past Prologue”, “A Man Alone” and “Babel” all went out before that episode aired.

Which means we have to go back in time a bit for “The Forsaken”. Technically speaking, having just watched “Descent” we should be passed “In the Hands of the Prophets” and into the between season material by now, but I have to make up those four episodes somewhere. But it turned out OK after all because “The Forsaken” is a great episode to kick off a brief Star Trek: The Next Generation hiatus on the site, and I like the narrative this sets up from my writing perspective better anyway. And besides, you all should be used to time travel and temporal mechanics having stuck with this project this long, and there's going to be plenty more where that came from in the not-too-distant-future. Well, I say future. But now I'm getting ahead of myself. Or behind.

You know what? I'm just going to stop now and get into “The Forsaken”.

Of all the Star Trek: The Next Generation characters who have crossed over to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine this season, Lwaxana Troi makes far and away the most sense. It's not like Q, who's really bound up thematically and symbolically with Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise specifically and thus doesn't have much of a point in being here (though I maintain you could have found a way for him to work over here that wasn't “Q-Less”) or Vash who doesn't have much of a point at all. And while you could conceivably see Lursa and B'Etor lurking around the area scrounging up resources for their next nefarious scheme, it takes no leap of the imagination whatsoever to picture Lwaxana here. She may have family and friends on the Enterprise but she's an ambassador herself and has her own life outside of them. In fact, it would be an insult to her character to insinuate she doesn't. Of course she'd be part of a Federation diplomatic delegation to Deep Space 9, the most important port of call in the galaxy.

This is very well portrayed during Lwaxana's introductory scene in the teaser: Although it's not required for viewers to have seen her previous episodes as she's consciously positioned alongside the other members of the ambassadorial delegation, the show does on some level expect us to know who she is and be familiar with how she acts and the kind of stories she appears in. In other words, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is subtly treating Lwaxana as a reoccurring character in spite of the fatc this is her first showing on this side of the lot. Normally this is the sort of thing I'd decry as fanwank, but I actually don't have a problem with it in this case: My argument from the beginning of this season has always been that, in 1993 and 1994, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are really better viewed as not just twinning series, but effectively *the same* series manifesting in two different forms at once. So obviously Star Trek: Deep Space Nine should expect to share a sizable chunk of Star Trek: The Next Generation's audience, who would naturally be well acquainted with Lwaxana Troi from six years of visits to the Enterprise.

(This train of thought isn't always going to work out in Star Trek's favour, and in fact getting careless with it is ultimately what will do the franchise in down the road. But in this specific instance with these two specific shows at this specific point in time, it's simply the natural thing to do.)

Furthermore it's who Lwaxana is as a person, not the iconography she represents or her diegetic connections with any given character, that's central to what “The Forsaken” is about. Much has been made about the relationship that develops between her and Odo here, typically in regards to how it reveals more about his backstory and how that shaped him into the person it became. What's *not* talked about is the role Lwaxana plays in the relationship, what she does here (besides being “nurturing” and “feminine”) and why it's so important. The thing is, this really couldn't be any character *other* than Lwaxana, because, as she actually states in the story, she may be the vivacious and outgoing Lwaxana, but she's still a Troi and she's still a Betazoid. This means she's an empath, remember?

Odo's not quite antisocial, but he's a bit of a loner and a pretty private person-That's not a character flaw, that's just who he is. Part of the reason he finally does click with Lwaxana the way he does (even if you can't always tell from his expressions or his attitude) is that, in spite of what it looks like, she actually really does respect that. She's not the only person who's shown Odo willingness to lend him an ear: Commander Sisko, Major Kira and Quark all do that too, and so would Jadzia Dax if he knew her better. But Lwaxana is the first person extroverted enough to make Odo open up to them, and that her outgoing nature distracts us from her very deep-rooted and palpable sense of compassion and empathy is just all the more fitting. Frankly the only other person would *could* conceivably do this for Odo is Deanna herself, and Deanna has always been more comfortable as a social scientist and a researcher than a therapist anyway (ironically enough, Will Riker has always been the better empath), and when they do eventually meet they'll have a very different sort of relationship.

Letting Lwaxana show up on her own without her relatives and building a story around her individual positionality does wonders for her character, and this is her best outing since “Half a Life”. In fact, it's a better showing for her as a person, her kinship with Odo revealing a stronger, more mature and more nuanced character who seems to have genuinely grown over the past few years. “The Forsaken” is not the unwatchably poor comedy of “Manhunt”, “Ménage à Troi” and “Cost of Living”, nor is it the intensely dark and personal grief of “Dark Page”, but oddly enough it *is* somewhat reminiscent of “Haven”: You could read Majel Barrett as coming in and blessing the show once more in another year of new beginnings, and I think there are far more parallels between this story and the older one than people want to admit: In both cases, Lwaxana shows up and to give a little advice and assistance to get things going on the right track, although this time some of the more overt symbolism is tempered with a more conventionally dramatic sense of characterization. Your mileage may vary on how effective that is, of course.

(And let's not forget that Lwaxana, after all, was one of the first people to describe the nature of this Star Trek universe in terms of animist synchromysticism in that very episode. No wonder she'd find herself on Deep Space 9.)

Lwaxana's touch on the show is easy to miss if you're not looking for it, but it's most definitely there. Every other plot in “The Forsaken” is about empathy and compassion in some form, and that's easy to overlook if the only thing you're focusing on in this story is Odo's character development: Chief O'Brien figures out the only way to work with the program being that's been wreaking havoc with the station's computer system is to respect it as a living thing with wants, needs and desires. Doctor Bashir has to keep his patience with a bunch of obsequious diplomats as they're people too, and those selfsame diplomats have to come down off of their high horses and not treat Julian as subhuman just because he's below their social class. And naturally, it's an emergency that brings about the crucial change: Nothing like a natural disaster to equalize and humble us all.

(That disaster, by the way, may well be a lost memory of mine: Watching Ben and Nerys cut their way through the burning habitat ring set looked *really* familiar to me: I seem to recall vividly watching some kind of scene like that almost twenty-five years ago. The lighting and camera angles in particular struck a very recognisable chord.)

With that in mind, it's sort of interesting to see how “The Forsaken” actually *isn't* the best outing for Deep Space 9's *resident* empath, Jadzia Dax. She's shown to be competent enough during the tech mystery, and I always like to see her getting technobabble lines and being an active particpant in the action. She's better with Miles this time around then she was in “Battle Lines”, but she's still getting some very frustratingly Doctor Who-ish lines. It's almost as if “the young woman” doesn't have “300 years of experience”. However, the climactic scene with Chief O'Brien's decision to build a doghouse comes off well, and it's all due to Terry Farrell. Even though her lines are horrendous, her body language, presence and intonation all sell the moment as one more great Jadzia metafictional precognition moment: She's playing Miles' interlocutor, asking leading questions to get him to figure the problem out on his own, belying her nature as a powerful extradiegetic spirit medium. Amazingly, in a little under a year, Jadzia Dax has done this more often and more effectively than Guinan has in five, and although this scene sadly doesn't quite measure up to the standards of “The Nagus” due to the actual dialog, you can tell this is someone destined for great things.

Since all life is connected, the ripples of love and empathy Lwaxana Troi have brought to Deep Space 9 can only be seen as heartwarming. This is the kind of story it's always nice to see Star Trek tell because it's the kind of story it can be so good at when it puts its heart to it. We can only hope we'll be seeing a lot more stories like this in the years to come and that we never forget the lessons and the wisdom that they contain.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

“Till the sun grows cold”: Descent

The Borg are back.

“Descent” marks an important turning point in a number of respects. Up front, it's the first time Star Trek: The Next Generation has done a cliffhanger season finale more or less only because this is the sort of thing it does to close off filming block seasons; in other words, the first time the cliffhanger finale structure is implemented as a matter of course and functional habit instead of being the result of unexpected necessity. “The Best of Both Worlds” was born out of a narrative-melting crisis springing from the chaos of the third season's production as well as contract disputes with Patrick Stewart's agent. “Redemption” was a double length story done to lead into the 25th Anniversary year and to accommodate the bombshell return of Denise Crosby, as well as closing off Worf's epic story arc about his isolation from his Klingon heritage (oh how naive we all once were). And “Time's Arrow” wasn't even going to be a a two-parter until the building hype for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine started to concern viewers that Star Trek: The Next Generation was going off the air.

Interestingly enough, much of this remains palpable swirling about the thematic and aesthetic core of “Descent”. Most notably, of course, the Borg. What's important to remember about the Borg's status in Star Trek is their joint role as extradiegetic challenge and interloping threat: The Borg are not exactly a dark mirror of the Federation, and while it's tempting to call them purveyors of narrative collapse, they're actually not. “The Best of Both Worlds” threatened to be a narrative collapse, but if it had been that would have been the show doing that to itself-The Borg winning was a symptomatic result of the show's panic-stricken crisis, not the cause of it. The closest Star Trek: The Next Generation has actually come to narrative collapse is the forced artifice of “Chain of Command”, which examined the potential threat of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dispersing its older sister by purging Bajor and the Cardassian occupation from it. Crucially, this story came not long after two other double-length episodes meant to reassure us this wasn't going to happen (one of which even featured a cameo by the Borg). Since then, we've seen Gul Ocett on this side of the lot and there's even a Bajoran extra in “Descent” itself.

In practice, the Borg are actually more of a counterfactual narrative invader. They come from Star Trek's future, and as iconic as they may be to Star Trek: The Next Generation in pop culture they fundamentally do not belong here. The Borg represent all the darkness and ugliness the Star Trek universe inherits as part of its pedigree, the terrifying end result of science fiction's teleology and technological determinism gone horribly right. And, keenly aware of the show's perpetually unfulfilled potential, the Borg lie in wait for a moment of weakness to strike and appropriate. Not out of malice, but out of sheer opportunism and a compulsion to consolidate power and efficiency. As such, the Borg work best when they're used as a source of grotesque parallel and contrast to remind us of what it would look like if we were to allow the impulses of capitalism and modernity to continue to evolve and adapt unchecked. The reason the Federation fear the Borg so much, the reason Admiral Nechayev calls them “our mortal enemy”, is merely because of their inner consciousness playing on their unspoken, yet fundamental, self-doubt and self-loathing that, perhaps, they're actually not so different after all.

“Descent” is sometimes seen as the moment the Borg jumped the shark as it were, because in this story they're not a monolithic hive mind blindly absorbing everything but a handful of trained, individual strike force commandos. But this is actually the biggest reason why the Borg in this episode provide the biggest threat they have possibly ever posed, because as big of a deal the crew makes about how they're acting atypically, they're actually not. The “I, Borg” callback isn't just to throw out a red herring in the plot to play for time (seriously, with Data's prominent role here involving his oddly timed emotional resurgence, was there ever any doubt that Lore was going to turn out to be behind it all? But that's for next season), it's a firm critique of the previous episode's ethical underpinnings and moral dilemma that also reveals how terrifyingly powerful and dangerous the Borg really are.

This is not the same as critiquing, say Captain Picard's specific actions in that episode: In fact, the whole reason Alynna Nechayev is here is to further reinforce that he acted wisely and correctly-Let's not forget that Nechayev is the first Starfleet Admiral *overtly* coded as actively evil. Her very condemnation of Picard's choice lets us know that he made the right one. Rather, what “Descent” is attacking is the notion that moral choice was ever necessary: There is no moral dilemma in regards to the sanctity of life; it should be preserved and respected above all else no matter what, end of, and “I, Borg” was stupid to insinuate that wasn't the case and to put Captain Picard and Guinan in the position of neglecting that. So we have the Captain taking the fall for the show *yet again* by being put in between Admiral Nechayev and Commander Riker...and note that after Will reassures him all of that bothersome luggage is cast aside.

But what's really scary about “Descent” is how, from this, the Borg still manage to get the upper hand, even in spite of the crew's good intentions and noble actions. Remember, the Borg gestalt is capitalism given form, and what capitalism is best at is devouring and appropriating all other ways of thinking, even that which is used against it. And what's one of the very first things we learned about the Borg way back in “Q Who”? That any weapon you use against them will only work once, because they will then immediately learn, adapt and turn it against you a hundredfold. Jeri Taylor was right: “I, Borg” *did* change the Borg forever, but not quite in the way she thought. Because what the Borg have done here in “Descent” is, terrifyingly, assimilate the very concepts of individual positionality and human empathy themselves. They've taken two of the most sacred tenets by which Star Trek operates, ground them into the engines of capitalism and turned them back against us in an attempt to quell any resistance we could offer before we reached a point where we were prepared to effect change.

The Borg's endgame is, and always has been, to kill off Star Trek as Star Trek: The Next Generation before it transitions to the form that will do battle with them on their own terms. And even if they were to fail here, they'd still be ready for us in the future. Either way, they win.

It's in this way that the Borg have given us their timeliest and most critical challenge to date. Through assimilating and weaponizing empathy in the name of capital, they've transformed themselves into the living embodiment of the one and only thing that could truly be called Star Trek: The Next Generation's greatest threat: Grimdark. It's been creeping into the series ever since Michael Piller became head writer and executive producer, and its only been magnified by the presence of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the intense scrutiny both series have been subjected to that goes above and beyond anything we've seen before. It is the fatal flaw of two major showrunners, one of whom wrote this episode. And now grimdark has come to life more frightening and monstrous than we ever could have imagined, the symbolism sealed by the Borg's apparent claiming of Data-Who better than he to represent those selfsame virtues the Borg have stolen from us? A transhuman character who acknowledges there's still more for him to learn and grow from.

And who better to mastermind it all than a psychopathic fascist android?

To Be Continued

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

“Everything is alive”: If Wishes Were Horses

The interpretation here seems obvious. So obvious, in fact, it almost feels hard to accept.

Stories have power. That much we have established: “What war hasn't been a war of fiction?” as Alan Moore would say. Our ideas of how the world is are cultivated in the stories we tell about them and guide our actions in a myriad of ways, from the material psychology of the copycat effect to the more intangible power of symbols and synchromysticism. And so it's no great stretch to see, in “If Wishes Were Horses”, our stories take on a very real life of themselves derived from the meaning we imbue them with. One way to look at it is to argue that all our knowledge of the world is in some sense a kind of story-A representative facsimile meant to stand in for experiential perception. Our conscious understanding of others in necessarily incomplete, based as it must be on what we see, what we are allowed to see and how we interpret what we see. Fantasies are narratives we outline ourselves deliberately built out of distortions and exaggerations.

None of this is new for us: We know spirituality goes hand in hand with performativity. Like Alan Moore also said, “there's a certain amount of sham in shamanism”. Some shamanic rituals involve adopting the guise of spirits or the retelling of sacred stories. Magic, in the western sense, is just another form of symbolic language representation of individual experience. The occult is “hidden” specifically because it belongs to a realm we're not consciously aware on an everyday basis. It's also well-trod ground for Star Trek: The obvious point of comparison is “Where No One Has Gone Before”, but Michael Piller said since that was “six years ago on a different show” there was no reason not to do another story that “celebrated imagination”. I agree inasmuch as I believe it's *always* important to tell stories like this.

I'm not convinced Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are different shows.

But going back beyond this particular series, the theme does tend to reoccur; “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” being possibly the other biggest example in Star Trek's history prior to “Where No One Has Gone Before”. This does seem odd territory for science fiction, though: It's the very thing you might think Hard SF, or at least the proponents of Hard SF, would denounce as fantasy at best and “woo” at worst. Mind and consciousness, and thus the experiential, is something traditionally seen as taboo for empiricism. And yet even in the celebrated works of the old masters you see things like “telepathic science”, hinting that perhaps the experience and the observational process aren't as irreconcilable as we might think. Star Trek is not Hard SF, but this only means that it lacks the self-conscious narrow materialist focus that the genre has come to represent in this day and age: It does not mean, and should not mean, that it is anti-science.

Being anti-science is a very different thing, I should add, to being anti-Science, which Star Trek should *always* be, especially as so many of its fans tend to be Scientistic. Despite what certain staffers on the sister show might think, Star Trek is fundamentally not a work of secular humanism, because secular humanism almost demands New Atheism and arch-rationalism, and those are concepts that are patently anathema to Star Trek, especially now. And one way in which it can be pro-science without being pro-Science is through the techniques of anthropology: In spite of the show's rather questionable history of attempting to diegetically engage with the field, it remains an unseen mover in the narrative because Star Trek uniquely privileges empathy, problem solving and utopian conflict resolution.

One of the earliest, and still arguably the most influential, anthropological constructs was the theory of animism. Animism is a singular term coined to describe a set of spiritual belief systems that are effectively universal throughout humanity: The idea that everything, from people and animals to plants and rocks and water and storms is a spiritual being. In fact, “animism” translates out to “breath” and “spirit”. Indeed, what anthropologists call animism is so universal and taken for granted for almost every indigenous culture that they don't even have a word to describe it themselves: In the act of naming itself the anthropological perspective and positionality must necessarily be highlighted.

One thing that people often misunderstand about animism is that it's not pantheistic or polytheistic, nor does it rest on a premise of Cartesian dualism: It's a far more subtle and holistic approach than any of those. The idea is not that everything has a soul so much as it is that the soul is everything. Everyone and everything is sacred because the universe is sacred and everyone and everything is part of the universe. It's a thin distinction, but an important one, because in doing so animism stresses the interconnectedness of all things. Our greatest actions are therefore in service to sublimating reality instead of transcending it. Enlightenment lies in the knowledge and embrace of this fact rather than an escape from it.

Curiously enough, it's in this way that the apparent schism between spirituality and science is overcome. Science has long struggled with that problem of consciousness. The best reductiveness can do is come up with handewavey comparisons to computational theory that, after a history of constant nervous repetition, start to come across less as actual scientific theories and more like insecure attempts to shut down discourse in the hope the problem will go away if we don't think about it. Perhaps part of the reason Science is so quick to denounce and dismiss any ethnoknown indigenous knowledge about the nature of perception and reality is that it doesn't have any better theories of its own. But what if science has actually got us *closer* to the answer than even it realises?

Physicist Nick Herbert holds to a system of beliefs he calls “holistic physics”, “quantum tantra” and “quantum animism”. Herbert literally wrote the textbook on quantum physics and quantum mechanics in (naturally) the 1980s and his experience in the field led him to believe that the mind and consciousness is an emergent property of the universe itself at the quantum level. Herbert believes that this would explain not just things like wave-particle duality but also the argument in some theoretical camps that quantum mechanics is necessarily mathematically incomplete: Consciousness is literally the missing variable in explaining what happens during quantum jumps. Thought, belief and consciousness creates reality in a very material way. And of course, this is something that it would seem indigenous people around the world and throughout history have known intuitively from time immemorial, even if they didn't explain it in quite those terms. The answers to all our questions about the nature of reality come to us through the joining of science and ancient traditional wisdom. The answer, quite literally, is to remember we're all connected.

There never was any divide in the beginning, but we believed that there was, and thus we found one.

Perhaps the real occult secret may lie within the connection between animism and magic. Traditional shamans and spirit healers learn how to cure diseases and make positive changes by tapping into the experiential knowledge of the spirit world all around them. If this knowledge is occult, and thus hidden, it may only be because there are realms of experience and consciousness inaccessible to humans in normal states of perception: It's well-known that humans can only see, for example, a small percentage of the spectrum of light that exists in the universe, and Nick Herbert theorizes that the limitations of human consciousness can be explained by each one of us being a self-contained quantum system residing within the brain. And yet, because *everything* is a quantum system, that world is all around us and we remain part of it. Once you learn to live by empathy and with respect to the universe around you as life that's as sacred as you are, your perspective shifts.

This is something Star Trek and Star Trek's tradition have always intuitively known, because empathy and shamanic folk magic have always gone hand-in-hand. I know he's on “another show”, but does anyone remember by this point that Geordi can see well beyond the visible light portion of the spectrum? Think of Guinan and Jadzia Dax. Or Deanna Troi. The starship Enterprise was designed with organic curves to demonstrate how human engineering had learned to become one with nature. In narrative we see it in this episode and in “Where No One Has Gone Before” most blatantly, of course: Time, space and thought are all the same. But it's an omnipresent theme in Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, even just this season alone. Think back to “Frame of Mind”, “The Storyteller”, “Birthright, Part I” and “Emissary”. This was the predominant theme in all of those stories. Thinking back to earlier on in the show, we see obviously “Remember Me”, but also “The Inner Light” and, brilliantly, “Transfigurations”. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is in good company amongst its peers in this regard. The Dirty Pair Strike Again is fundamentally about different faiths and cultural knowledge systems clashing over their interpretation of divine nature and what it looks like when that energy gets transformed as its channeled through each one of them, and this is explored in even more intuitive depth in the Classic Anime series in the OVA Series episodes “No Thanks! No Need For a Halloween Party”, “We're Not Afraid of Divine Judgment! It's Like Magic?!” and the movie Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia. Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is nothing if not a sprawling treatise on the place of animism and traditional shamanism in a world of modernity, as only a science fiction story could ever do. And even going all the way back to Star Trek: The Animated Series, you see the germs of this idea beginning to take root in certain episodes. Most notably “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” and “Once Upon a Planet”...but also in “The Jihad”.

And it's “The Jihad” that gives us the clearest look at how this translates into utopianism. One of that episode's heroes was named Lara, a hunter and tracker from a group of humans who rejected the expansionism of their ancestral home on Earth and kept their traditional indigenous way of life well into a future out in the stars. Lara and her people didn't just survive in a universe arguably defined by the Federation's extrapolated modernity, but they thrived in it, taking the best aspects of a high-tech society to create a genuinely postmodern and post scarcity society. And “The Jihad” is dripping in animism elsewhere, from its sacred totem imbued with the power and thoughts of its people to a planet that seems alive from the soil to the sky, testing our heroes to see if they can adapt to its challenges. Star Trek is in truth a fundamentally animist sci-fi, and this is what makes it and the tradition it belongs to so utterly unique. It's not Hard SF, and it's not even really fantasy, but rather oral history reinterpreted through the lens and trappings of modernity. It's speculative fiction that, through metaphor and allegory, constantly reminds us of where we came from and where we can go.

Or at least that's how *I* choose to read it. Take it or leave it: Go make your own reality.

But even if this is true of Star Trek and its ilk on the whole, what of its manifestation in “If Wishes Were Horses”? What's special about the way the story is told here, and why is it so important that it happen at the Celestial Temple? Because while this is a truth that permeates the Star Trek universe at every level and can be internalized by anyone, Deep Space 9 is a diegetic metaphor that's constantly present. The station is a liminal space, and the Bajoran Wormhole is the doorway to the Otherworld. And the Otherworld is the domain of the gods and spirits forgotten by the advent of modernity, so reconnecting with them means we reconnect with our own birthright too. Even the fact that this episode is such a strong ensemble show (as Terry Farrell puts it, the first time the cast felt like a family unit that understood and got each other) is eerily prescient. Odo and Quark's brilliant dialog in the teaser that's equal parts naturalistic and poetic in a way that's demonstrative of immense writerly skill, Dax's own empathetic acceptance of Doctor Bashir's fantasy life; her nurturing and reassuring tone spiced up with gentle, good-natured needling. Commander Sisko and Major Kira's introspectiveness. Miles O'Brien The Storyteller. The climax itself. It's all there to remind us that we're all in this together dreaming a collective dream.

That's the dream Buck Bokai wants us to remember. We, like Commander Sisko, want to know more about his people, to reconnect with that dream. But that's the voyage. That's what we're out here for.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

“...rose from a solid sea”: Timescape

A river, flowing to eternity. Frozen.

But even when frozen, water does not stand still. There is movement and kinetic energy at the molecular level, imperceptible though it might be to normal human senses. Water's mercurial nature is in its ability to remain fluid throughout many different forms.

In the depths of space, due to the extreme temperatures, water does not solidify into the crystalline lattice commonly associated with ice, but ice still exists. It is still freezing. In space, ice forms as an amorphous solid, transitioning in an instant to a kind of cosmic glass. Amorphous ice is likely the most common form of water in the universe.

On Earth, a lake frozen over in winter appears still and silent as the world around it appears locked in suspended animation. But beneath the surface, life goes on: Some fish, such as trout, are actually *more* active during the winter, while many species of insect spend their larval stages underwater during the winter in temperatures that can average a balmy 1-4 degrees Celsius in places. Winter is not a finite cessation of life, but a part of the continuing cycle of life.

There are events still in motion even as the world seems to sleep, setting the stage for the inevitable spring. And so the cycle begins again.

There are few stories that have become so much a part of my being and existence as “Timescape”. Rewatching it the other night reminded me why. There are some episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that instantly come to mind when I think of the series-I've already mentioned “The Chase” is one this season. “Timescape” is not one of those episodes. It's in a category beyond that, existing only as a vivid sensory memory. When I think of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I don't think of this *story*, I think of its *images*: The Enterprise locked in combat with a Romulan Warbird. The eerily silent dreamlike atmosphere of the ship itself as she and her crew remain suspended in the unfolding moment. Deanna Troi making her way through a frozen sickbay, visibly astonished at the sight of Doctor Crusher in the midst of being crippled by a disruptor blast. Those images have lingered in the back of my psyche as clear as they were on first transmission for over twenty years.

Not so much Captain Picard playing with the warp core breach in engineering, though it's every bit as evocative and fitting. It certainly plays well for Tumblr, though.

I sometimes forget who else is stuck with Deanna outside in normal space-time. Not because Captain Picard, Data or (Prophets forbid) Geordi are low-key or forgettable presences, but because Deanna is the person I seem to have fixated on the most in these sets of images. Perhaps I've subconsciously connected “Timescape” with forthcoming episodes like “Dark Page” and “Eye of the Beholder” that share the same space in my memory, are equally dreamlike and in which Deanna also plays an important role. These are all experiences that, for me, transcend television and narrative itself to attain a nirvana of pure aesthetics. Star Trek: The Next Generation in its highest, most profound and purest form. The state in which I know it the most intimately and constantly strive to maintain; its realest. That is, ultimately, why Vaka Rangi exists.

And maybe here, and in Deanna, I also see a kind of ghost-echo of the Alice in Wonderland oeuvre, which is and always has been my favourite story. A young woman patiently and methodically explores a hauntingly surreal dream world with just a twinge of darkness and malaise about it. And I would assume that if anyone on Star Trek: The Next Generation were to step into that role, it would almost have to be Deanna: “Timescape” shows her at her most investigative and competent to date, the science officer she always should have been. Normally we'd expect this role to go to Beverly, but Beverly isn't with us this week and Deanna *is* in the sciences division: These are skills we always should have expected she had. There's a boldness and inquisitiveness to her here that also reminds me of Alice, and as an empath with extensive expertise in psychology, perhaps it only makes sense for Deanna to be the one to plumb the recess of the mind.

There's the Runabout. The starship's only appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also the only appearance of the living quarters section of the ship. The set was actually built by the Next Generation team on their budget for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which was going to need it but couldn't afford it this season. The irony being that this was the only time the set was ever actually used. But it's natural to see a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine invocation in this of all episodes, and appropriate in a bittersweet way that it's a glimpse into a future for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that was fated to never come to pass in this reality. It, like the temporal anomalies, is a window into an alternate temporal dimension outside our current space-time continuum. But we can see it. And we're reaching for it. Like Alice, all we need to do is cross the gateway into the world that exists within and beyond the barrows.

I once had a model kit of a Runabout. Specifically, the USS Rio Grande, the celebrated hero of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Runabout fleet. I always felt it was so decorated because that was the ship that Ben Sisko and Jadzia Dax travelled in to rediscover the Celestial Temple, but that's another story. My father built it for me because I had no patience for model kits (I still don't). I think it was one of the very first pieces of merchandise produced for Deep Space Nine, so I must have gotten it 'round about this time. I remember looking through the vertical windows at the stern and imagining what the interior looked like in that part of the ship. I'm astonished that somehow the art department built it to look precisely as I imagined for “Timescape”. Or maybe I'd already seen “Timescape” and had a lingering memory.

There's a specific shot I remember from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think it must have been from this period. The crew remotely explode a shuttlecraft off what I'm thinking had to be the starboard nacelle. I'm upset, because to my knowledge the only shuttlecraft is the Goddard, which my toy represents (because no other support craft was featured in promotional materials at the time) and I don't want my ship to be destroyed. My dad had to explain to me that the Enterprise has more than one shuttlecraft, and they can easily build another. Now I'm wondering if the scene I'm actually remembering is Captain Picard remotely steering the Runabout into the energy transfer beam in this episode, and I've misremembered a Runabout as a shuttlecraft all these years. I may yet never know.

Once more, aliens from outside are trying to reshape the time-space continuum for their own ends. A form of self-preservation, as they've accidentally nested inside the Romulans' engine core. The Romulans use an artificial singularity to warp time and space to move forward. Some physicists speculate that black holes could empty out into other universes, but a black hole isn't the only thing that can have a singularity. So, of course, can a wormhole. Two realities are jeopardizing their mutual existence by being in contact with one another: The world of Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Another. Something that's come here from somewhere else. With our mutual continued becomings in the balance, the only options are to reformat the universe or split it in two.

There are many details about “Timescape” I do not remember. I do not remember that The Freezing was brought upon by aliens from beyond time. I do not remember why the Enterprise and the Romulan Warbird are locked in combat, but I have a faint recollection it's not because of a trap or an unprovoked Romulan attack. Something unseen, intangible and unknowable has manipulated events to be this way, as if posing the two ships mid-battle in a kind of cosmic diorama. I also do not remember what a good Romulan episode this is, the next step in their redemption following “Face of the Enemy” and “The Chase”. Indeed, its Deanna's experiences in “Face of the Enemy” that help the crew piece together the clues to the mystery. The Romulans are exquisite red herrings that play extradiegetically on their fall and rise over the course of the series: The crew, and us because we share their perspective, immediately (and wrongly) assume the catastrophe is somehow a result of a Romulan attack. But it's then revealed that the Enterprise and the Warbird both knew about the aliens and the two teams were willingly and happily helping each other when disaster struck. We get a happy ending, and utopia prevails.

The thaw is inevitably coming, and the brighter days that accompany it, because here at the point of singularity we can see all points in time are present. The cycle constantly repeats and reinvents itself always in every waking moment.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

“Manifest destiny”: Progress

One of the telltale omens of the looming Long 1990s is a desire to see stories where heroes fail, lose or make bad decisions. I've spent a good amount of time, space and energy looking at the psychology of this, which is curious considering I haven't actually begun looking at the Long 1990s yet (although there is the argument that the groundwork has already been laid by numerous sociocultural factors and a handful of influential works).

This desire to voyeuristically engage with failure is not a guiding principle of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Although future Star Trek creative teams will most assuredly take this as gospel, most of the touted “conflict” of this particular series was designed to hinge around the natural tension that organically emerges when you take a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds and make them live and work in close proximity with one another. You can actually see a number of good examples of the show's approach to this throughout the various subplots in “Progress”: The B-plot is the obvious one, where Nog tries to teach Jake some basic Ferengi philosophy to make an “opportunity” out of a supposed setback. But Nog isn't able to turn a profit on his own, because he's not capable of negotiating with respect to the various positionalities of the parties involved in his transaction (the only thing he can do on his own is subtly manipulate Quark, which is just him working his native Ferengi system of social mores). It takes Jake to come in and help steer the negotiations into a direction that's beneficial for everyone's interests, which provides an interesting echo for the events of their subplot in “The Storyteller” last week.

There's also the obvious anxiety of the Provisional Government's representative in Ops before the A-plot kicks off in earnest, who's not sure he can trust Commander Sisko and Jadzia Dax to oversee the drilling project, and isn't sure what to make of Major Kira working with them. Kira has to be their spokesperson to him, and bridge the gap between the two teams, which subtly foreshadows what she's going to have to do once the story itself gets going (and fails to, but that's getting ahead of things). But the best example is actually the scene where Kira and Dax are in the Runabout en route to Jeraddo: Wonderfully, it's the first glimpse we get of Jadzia's signature libido, as she chats to Nerys about attracting Morn's attention, almost bragging about it. Nerys is repulsed because not only does she not share Jadzia's taste in friends-with-benefits or her promiscuity, but she can't even conceive of how someone could swing that way in the first place. She doesn't think less of Dax, but she's entirely incapable of putting herself in her shoes. Which is Jadzia's entire point: She knows Nerys is too buttoned-up and too immersed in her comfort zone, which is something that comes with youth. Jadzia has the wisdom and empathy that comes with age while maintaining the zeal of youth, and she's trying to open her friend's eyes to that possibility and also get her to loosen up around her.

What all of these scenes have in common is that they're all examples of, believe it or not, utopian conflict resolution. The show sets up a conflict brought upon by the heterogeneous mixture of life aboard Deep Space 9 to be sure, but critically it then proceeds to resolve that conflict by demonstrating examples of how to move beyond that in a mutually amicable and constructive way. Where the Long 90s grimdark stuff falls down is that it neglects the second part of that structure, setting up a conflict (be it brought upon by multiculturalism or angsty manpain or what have you) and then, figuring its job is done and thinking itself quite clever for getting to this point, just leaves the story there and wallows in it. And this is where the rest of “Progress” actually starts to walk kind of a thin line for me: I think it succeeds in what it's trying to do, but just barely, and it's probably one of the more imperfect episodes in this classic back half of the season.

The elephant in the room is of course that this story is setting Kira up for failure because there is absolutely no way any remotely conscious or empathetic reader is going to say the Provisional Government's position is anywhere near defensible. It's putting Kira in the same position Data was forced into in “The Ensigns of Command”, which is to say, that of a stooge for a genocidal imperialist relocation effort disturbingly reminiscent of any number of forced displacement programmes that have wrecked indigenous communities around the world in real life. She's being made to do something that's only a few degrees removed from what the Cardassians did to the Bajorans decades earlier, which is the basis of Mullibok's whole argument. I used to think “Progress” was a classic because of the issues it tackled, even though in hindsight it's rather egregiously similar to “The Ensigns of Command” (although, to be fair to me, this was largely because I barely fucking remembered “The Ensigns of Command” when this was going out), but even so there are a few noteworthy aspects that push this story out ahead of its predecessor in the comparison.

The first of which is simply that the setting of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is far more conducive to doing this kind of story. Bajor has a long history of this kind of thing happening, and it's easier to get invested in something happening to the Bajorans than Random One-Off Forgotten Human Colony #9573. Also, and far more crucially to the success of “Progress”, is that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is fundamentally a show about bureaucratic administrators. The Enterprise is supposed to be an exploration and research vessel, so when they get wheeled in to play pansy for the Federation it feels even more awkward, strangled and wrong than it normally would. But this is exactly the kind of headache the Deep Space 9 crew, tasked with reconstruction and development of an unofficial protectorate, would be expected to have to shoulder. This means “Progress” is really the prototype of a new kind of Star Trek story, one that can look far more closely at what happens when you have a bunch of good, well-meaning people stuck in a fundamentally wrongheaded and dehumanizing system: Commander Sisko and Major Kira fundamentally know Mullibok is right, but the amount of power they each individually have to change the system is limited, and ultimately they're forced to take the least worst action given the circumstances.

The problem with this is that it does trend dangerously close to the “let's watch our heroes screw up because for some reason we think that's what makes for good entertainment” mindset, and truth be known “Progress”, at least to my mind, it not the most elegant execution of this formula. The problem is, ironically enough, that the issue at hand is almost too cut-and-dry: There's no way to reasonably argue that Mullibok is wrong and the Provisional Government are within their rights to forcibly relocate him. There's not enough bureaucratic messiness, and the crew come across as looking more heartless and amoral than I really think they were supposed to. Writer Peter Allan Fields felt a lot of the problem was Brian Keith's performance of Mullibok, who he had envisioned as a far more unsympathetic and manipulative character than Keith played him. But I think that would have just made things worse, as it would have implied that all rural or indigenous people are dangerously backwards and irrational. The reality as I see it is that this problem simply doesn't have enough bureaucratic messiness to be effectively sold as a convincing moral dilemma.

But it does have self-sealing stem bolts. Which is reason enough for “Progress” to earn its iconic status.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

“There are usually two sides to a story”: Second Chances

Wait...Didn't I already cover this one last season? Oh well, it was a great issue worth hyping up again, even if talking about it here almost a year later loses a lot of the context of reading it as part of its story arc. Anyway, so this is issue four of the story arc I dubbed Separation Anxiety after the title of issue three. The story on the whole deals with the saucer and stardrive sections of the Enterprise being flung to opposite ends of the galaxy after an encounter with a mysterious alien relay station. All the while, the crews of both ships are engaged in combat with a territorial race called the Sztazzan, who new transfer officer Terry Oliver has had tragic prior dealings with.

A major theme of this story are bridges, both actual starship bridges and structures that can either bring people together or keep them apart. Terry Oliver hates the Sztazzan for a previous skirmish she was involved in that resulted in the destruction of her former ship and the deaths of its crewmembers, and she's paralleled with both Chief O'Brien (this was originally released before Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered, you understand) and Ro Laren, both of whom have had similar traumatic experiences with enemy combatants, but whom have been able to deal with their grief and trauma in more positive and constructive ways. But this issue was a turning point for Terry, because on an away team mission led by Doctor Beverly Crusher, and following a conversation about moving beyond hate with Chief O'Brien, she finds a wounded Sztazzan officer and...

Fuck, that's not the right “Second Chances” is it? Dammit.

Unlike the comic book that shares its name, this “Second Chances” is about a transporter accident that split Will Riker into two halves during a mission on one of his old ships. And also unlike the comic book “Second Chances”, this episode is a piece of shit.

It's never sat quite well with me, even back in the day (“back in the day” here referring to the early 2000s, as this is another episode I didn't watch on original transmission) how the show felt the need to jump through a bunch of rhetorical and technobabble excuses to come up with a second Riker who could be more rakish and insubordinate for a *lot* of reasons. Firstly, it once again smacks of conflict-for-conflict's-sake childishness, but it also idolizes the wrong parts of Will's personality (or what people seem to think Will's personality is). And don't you for one minute think this writing team didn't 100% prefer writing for Thomas over writing for Will: There was even an idea floating around early in this episode's pre-production that Will would be killed off and Tom would take his place (or rather Data's, who would have been promoted to first officer), because nobody was going to expect it and it would have shaken up the crew dynamic. Thankfully that got canned pretty quickly, but it still gives me the chills just thinking about it.

There are just so, so many ways how that would have been catastrophic for the show, and the team's preference for Tom says a lot about how they see these characters. The very fact they felt the need to come up with a “hipper, edgier” Riker says to me they think Will is boring, and that's a line of argument I actually remember. I distinctly recall hearing fans back in the day (this time I do mean 1993) joke/complain that Will's only purpose on the ship was to lean over things, bark orders and say “Shields up, Red Alert” every episode. Funnily enough, Will's reputation among fans today, that of the galaxy's greatest Casanova space stud and interstellar sex tourist (that is, Kirk 2.0) is way more applicable in the actual show as produced to Tom. That's not to agree with the older fandom that Will is boring, far from it: Rather, what I'm trying to argue is that if this was part of Will's character at one point he's long since grown beyond that and channeled his libidinous energies into more mature and constructive outlets. Which is actually what “Second Chances” is about on one level, even if the episode bizarrely seems to mean for this to be a criticism of Will. You know, because nobody writing this show knows what utopianism and being a grown-up means.

Nowhere is this more painfully evident than in Tom's relationship with Deanna, which is far and away the most crippling part of this episode. As awkward as Tom individually might be, at least he doesn't show up again in the series, but the effect he has on Will and Deanna, or at least the perception of what their characters are like, leaves a lasting impression. The reason the writers wanted to hook Tom and Deanna up was because it was their way of exploring a relationship they felt hadn't been looked at deeply enough: The one between Deanna and Will. The impetus seemed to be that there was some kind of outlying romantic loose ends dangling over them that needed to be addressed somehow because, after all, that's just the kind of thing that traditionally makes good drama. But the problem is, as it always has been, that Star Trek: The Next Generation is neither traditional nor good drama-It's something different, and it requires a different skillset and playbook. There are no romantic loose ends between Will Riker and Deanna Troi because they're *former* lovers in a utopian setting, end of story. The entire point of their characters has always been that they broke up and are totally cool with it and remain intimate friends, and that dates all the damn way back to Star Trek Phase II when they were Will Decker and Ilia.

This is an instance where the most interesting story isn't the story that was produced, but the one that went on behind the scenes. First and foremost this was LeVar Burton's directorial debut, and a big turning point in his career. He'd been wanting to try his hand at directing for awhile but was afraid to ask, and when he finally did Rick Berman flatly told him that he'd been waiting for him. Burton has gone on to become an incredibly accomplished director, and he certainly does do a good job with “Second Chances”: The technical complexity of those doubling effects shots are not to be discounted, even though I don't have a ton to say about them because we've seen this done with Brent Spiner a million times before.

Then there's Mae Jemison, who it's impossible not to call the highlight of the episode. I of course knew her as Mae Jemison for a long time before, and when I saw from a picture of her in a Starfleet uniform that she'd done an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation I thought “good for her”, although even she couldn't sell me on a premise that seemed from Starlog's writeup to be questionable at best. Jemison was a big fan of the Original Series growing up, and seeing Nichelle Nichols play Uhura inspired her that she herself could be an astronaut someday. She got in touch with LeVar Burton to express her desire to come to the show, who knew this was an opportunity he couldn't pass up. And furthermore, he got in touch with Nichelle Nichols herself and asked if she might like to come down and meet the first African-American woman to go into real-life outer space. There's no doubt Mae Jemison's days on call were anything less than magic.

It's a textbook example of how it's the idea of Star Trek and what it means to each of us individually that makes all the difference in the world, not so much the TV show.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

“What war hasn't been a war of fiction?”: The Storyteller

One of the big advantages Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has, regardless of whether or not Star Trek fans think it's actually an advantage or not, is, as we have established, its stationary location. But this asset doesn't just apply to the titular space station, it also applies to the nearby planet: After all, the whole point of setting this show so close to Bajor in the first place was to allow for development of one specific planetary society above and beyond what just having a representative as part of our crew would facilitate.

The biggest problem Star Trek has from an ethical anthropological standpoint is its well-known predilection to fall into the “planet of hats” issue. In less netspeak terms, this means Star Trek has an annoying tendency to depict extraterrestrial civilizations as monocultures in service to metaphor and allegory. Star Trek isn't the only sci-fi-fantasy work to have this problem (in fact I'd argue it's effectively endemic to the genre) and I don't even think it's anywhere near the worst perpetrator of it, but it is a problem Star Trek is famous for having. There are a number of reasons for this, most of which have to do with the inherent problems of using people or groups of people as dolled-up metaphor in this way, but the one that's relevant to tonight's discussion is the inescapable fact that a voyaging starship can't stay in one port of call long enough to flesh out any given society to the realistic extent they really deserve. Because in theory this is something Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is primed to alleviate and another huge reason why it's such a necessary second perspective on the Star Trek universe. With our city's proximity to Bajor, there's really no functional narrative reason why it need be depicted in the traditionally shallow and superficial sci-fi-fantasy way.

(Actually I tell a lie for the purposes of argument. Star Trek's biggest problem from an ethical anthropological perspective isn't the planet of hats issue, it's the Prime Directive. But I'm not about to dig up that old chestnut again.)

“The Storyteller” is the first episode to really grapple with the potential this setup offers the show, and it succeeds with flying colours. We get not one, not two, but *three* different representations of Bajoran culture that differ from what's been established thus far across both the A- and B-plots and the story even throws us Kira in specific opportune moments to further the contrast. There's of course the village of the Sirah that Julian and Miles visit, but also the Paqu and Navot delegations that Commander Sisko has been asked to mediate between. In each case, we get to see glimpses of folk belief and cultural norms and attitudes that differ just enough from established dogmatic Prophets theism that it's uniquely memorable: The first Sirah obviously talks a lot about destiny and chosen ones being sent from on high wand whatnot, but it's obvious this is mostly rhetorical bluster and the village has a special set of folk spiritualism all its own based around the Dal'Rok and the telling of the tales that's found nowhere else on Bajor. Meanwhile, the Paqu and Navot come across as practically agnostic, more concerned with immediate (and hyperlocal) material concerns like borders, treaties and trade agreements. A far cry from the priests, monks, refugees and former resistance fighters we've seen so far.

This means “The Storyteller” is kind of the perfect way to follow on from this past week and a half's crop of episodes. Firstly, it's an important continuation of certain thematic strands from “Battle Lines”: Among other things, that episode showed how Star Trek: Deep Space Nine could still do stories involving exploration and voyaging to new places (in the Gamma Quadrant), but while giving that brief its own unique twist. This one gives us the flipside, showing us what being stationed in one place can offer the show by, in one episode, fleshing out Bajor leaps and bounds beyond what was capable before. Secondly however, and more importantly, it makes up for the lazy, lackluster and kiddie pool depth world building of “Rightful Heir”. The Klingons are probably the most egregious example of a monoculture in all of Star Trek, and there's frankly no reason for that to be necessary. Star Trek: The Next Generation has (or *should* have) Worf, a uniquely Klingon diasporan, shaped by Enterprise values. “Rightful Heir” gave us not just Worf, but Gowron's imperial court, Viking Space Opera Jesus *and* a Klingon ice monastery and somehow *still* managed to be possibly the most boring and inept fucking thing all year.

Like other standout episodes before it, such as “A Man Alone” and “The Nagus”, “The Storyteller” is a great showcase for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine capturing snapshots of life across all striations of society. Just about every main character has some level of investment in the plot of the week, and everyone seems to be thinking about its themes in their own way. There's Julian and Miles needing to learn to work together for the first time, setting the stage for their fire-forged odd couple friendship in the second season. That's almost subtly mirrored in the Paqu and Navot needing to find a way to resolve their conflict peacefully, as is Hovath's need to come into his own and take his rightful place as Sirah of his village with Varis Sul's need to find away to prove herself as Tetrarch and defuse the powder keg political situation she inherited from her late father. Everyone has something to do this week (OK, Jadzia gets like a line, but Ben and Kira didn't need her, so it's OK for her to get some time to herself) and Deep Space 9 feels like a busy and cosmopolitan place where something's always going on.

I want to take some real time to single out and praise Varis Sul's story here, because she's always been one of the most memorable parts of this episode to me. And that says a lot in an episode where working man Miles O'Brien becomes The Man Who Would Be King and tries to help a village of Bajorans ward off a monster from fiction by reminding the townsfolk that belief and perception make reality through the medium of oral history and storytelling. And all that stuff is absolutely brilliant, it's every bit as oversignified and I love it every bit as much as you'd expect I would and it's definitely a huge part of the reason “The Storyteller” is one of my all-time favourite episodes: It's something only Star Trek can do and something Star Trek: Deep Space Nine does especially well. But it's the added wrinkle of Sul, and her relationship with Jake, Nog and Benjamin, that really cements this one's classic status because it shows Star Trek: Deep Space Nine not just aiming for and hitting one of its signature targets, but *all* of them.

I didn't always though, because this gets back to the themes about adolescence we talked about in the context of “The Nagus”. When I first saw this episode I thought the B-plot felt tacked on and kind of juvenile and didn't work well with the clever metafictional stuff the Miles/Julian story was doing. But that couldn't be further from the truth: Not only do the A- and B-plots flow effortlessly into one another, the B-plot is doing something terribly important in its own right by continuing the show's examination of the struggles of young people. As always you've got Jake and Nog, who bring with them their own signifiers we've talked about before, but here we also have Varis Sul, a teenager who's not allowed to be a teenager because she's had her adolescence stripped away by the Cardassian occupation. Like so many kids with similar stories in the real world, she's been coerced by imperialistic forces to grow up immediately to take care of her people in the aftermath just so she and they can continue to survive.

The episode could have gone the “Rascals” route here and treated Sul the same way Guinan treated Laren, with Jake and Nog giving her back the childhood they felt she was robbed of by showing her the joys of good old fashioned teenage mischief, but it *doesn't*: Instead, while she enjoys their company, Sul hangs around Jake and Nog mostly to get information on Jake's father so she can decide if she can trust him, and she's clearly uncomfortable during Nog's prank with the oatmeal and the bucket (although wonderfully, the show pulls the frankly astonishing feat of redeeming the Ferengi capitalist mindset, as it's those very skills of barter and cost/benefit analysis that help Sul figure out how to work out a compromise that will appease the warring factions). But more importantly, “The Storyteller” never depicts Sul as a tragic figure forced to grow up too soon: She's plainly more mature for her age than Jake and Nog because she has to be, her mind is always on her duties and she has no desire to recapture some idealized fantasy childhood that's been stripped from her. She wants to be a strong leader for her people and knows she's fully capable of it-Indeed the only reason she took such a seemingly “childish” hardline stance is because she felt the Navot would view her as a weak-willed and unsteady girl instead of a leader, which frankly is a not an unwarranted concern for her to have.

(I think my problem with the adolescence stuff is quite simply that it's not a set of themes I really like engaging with. I'm a bit sick to death of ruminations on teenage anxiety, no matter how well done they may be, because of how oversaturated pop culture is with them as a result of pop culture being overwhelmingly directed at adolescents. Once again Star Trek: Deep Space Nine does it exceptionally well, the best I've ever seen it done, but I just can't get invested. I want to read stories by adults, for adults and about adult issues. The entire prank scene is action I flatly did not need to see and the show could have cut straight to Ben and Sul in the office and I would have been perfectly happy. But that's just personal preference.)

And a huge part of why she finds such a close ally in Commander Sisko is that Ben *respects* her for all of that and everything else she stands for. I *adore* both Avery Brooks' performance here and the lines he's given: The contrast between his attitude towards Jake and Nog (and Jake and Nog's bumbling depiction here) and the tone he takes with Sul is night and day: He never once talks down to her, thinks less of her or expresses reservations about her abilities because of her age or her gender. I mean not that Ben talks down to Jake, but he's always aware Jake is still a learning and growing teenager, because he is. That's not patronizing, that's good parenting, but it just serves to highlight how Ben treats Sul as an adult and an absolute equal without reservation, no different than if it had been her father. And even so, at the same time, you still get the feeling Ben feels sorry for this poor girl and all the responsibility that's been hoisted upon her, and that all that Sul tells him about her own father isn't just idle conversation: Ben becomes for Sul a kind of mentor as well as a mediator, and I thought that relationship was handled exceptionally well. I always wanted to see how it could have developed further, with Ben seeing Sul both as a strong local political ally and perhaps the daughter he never had.

(In that regard, one scene I really loved was Sul's question to Ben “Didn't you, in your youth, ever do something stupid to impress a girl”? to which he responds “Perhaps I did”. Of course, we know he did because we saw it happen in “Emissary” with the lemonade on the beach fiasco!)

This is also a good episode to compare the diplomacy styles of Commander Sisko and Captain Picard that will become more of a central theme a year from now. Personally, I don't think either should really be written as diplomats: One's an explorer and the other's an administrator, but they do both have some basic understanding of and skill with diplomacy. But Jean-Luc is written as a skilled diplomat far more often to the point it's become a basic assumption made about his character, and as such one could argue he's a bit more tactful than Ben, who tends to prefer playing hardball to get things done. Or maybe it's more accurate to say Ben is tactful in a different way: After all his mentor was Curzon Dax, and you could conceivably see some of that influence shining through in the way he deftly and respectfully works with Sul here. That's another reason I'd love to have seen the Ben/Sul relationship developed further: I would have loved to see it paralleled (literally mirrored, in fact) with Ben's relationship with Jadzia.

I'm not sure where “The Storyteller” stands in fandom these days, but I don't recall it having a hugely positive reaction back in the day. And it should, because this is a really stellar outing. It's got fascinating things to provoke discussion at every level, one of the most trailblazing and redemptive scripts we've seen yet and a host of memorable performances from just about everyone: Colm Meaney and Siddig el Fadil are obviously standouts, as is Avery Brooks, but Cirroc Loften and Aron Eisenberg are endearing and believable as always and I adore René Auberjonois as basically a grouchy truant officer or campus security officer. And guest star Gina Phillips gives a formidable turn as Varis Sul. The fact that the boldy and openly metafictional implications of the story are what I wound up talking about the least should speak volumes.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

“Jesus! Jesus is here!”: Rightful Heir

I don't know how you screw up a concept like "Klingon Ice Monastery", but they do.
You know, I think I'm just done listening to stories about Worf and Klingon heritage. Especially as told by Ron Moore.

Here's another episode I vaguely remember liking that completely turned me off on the rewatch. It's not one I have really fond memories of from back in the day-This was an episode I only caught once TNN started rerunning Star Trek: The Next Generation in the early 2000s. Consequently I'm not super broken up about having “Rightful Heir” fall flat for me as I don't have any particularly potent nostalgia affixed to it and this season has been strong enough it can afford to give us a few duds at this point in the year....Even if we do seem to have, since “Suspicions” (and looking ahead to next week), crossed over into the Enterprise variant of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's month and a half long water-treading session.

None of you need to hear my reasons for being alienated by this episode. I most certainly do not need to go into my litany of disagreements with Ron Moore's philosophy, writing style and approach to characterization again. My issues with “Rightful Heir” are the same ones I had with “Redemption”, only magnified to an even greater extent because I no longer have the time or patience to humour them. Worf is by now cripplingly overexposed as a character and has had way, way too many showcase episodes, even just this season alone. And the only reason he is so overexposed is because he's the only character (on either show, frankly) that Moore actually enjoys writing for because he's also the only character Moore knows how to write for. That's a big problem for a showrunner, and an ever-present one.

(Moore isn't the sole showrunner of The Next Generation by a longshot, but given Rick Berman and Michael Piller's promotion to franchise overseers, the complex web of the producer/writer relationship and Jeri Taylor's position, he definitely is one of them. He's certainly the most senior staff writer by this point. This does not, however, make him the best.)

I mean should I even make an attempt to derive some erudition about the Klingons from their depiction in this episode? What more is there to say? It's Moore-type Klingons. Ridiculous cartoon Viking/Dwarf stereotypes who like to eat, drink and stab in no particular order. Even the monks. Especially the monks. There's a ghost of an interesting idea where the Kahless clone calls out the Klingons at the monastery for forgetting the reason why they fight and it almost seems like the story is going down a kind of jihad route by framing this in terms of a righteous struggle. And then it doesn't, because of fucking course it doesn't. I should have given up my hopes to see non-warrior caste and non-cartoon Klingons after the first season ended. Then there's that business of Worf's eagerness to believe the clone is the real Kahless contrasted with Gowron's more grounded political and tactical savvy. Worf, as an outsider fundamentalist convert, would naturally be far more willing to accept such things than a “normal” Klingon. It's still not my preferred reading of Worf, but what in the hell is apart from “Heart of Glory”?

And “Rightful Heir has problems apart from being yet another story about Klingon realpolitiking and yet another episode of The Chronicles of Worf's Manpain too. “Rightful Heir” is supposedly a story about mysticism, spirituality and faith, but it's a fundamentally banal story about mysticism, spirituality and faith because Ron Moore, at least at this stage of his career, is a fundamentally banal writer. It is proudly, self-indulgently, almost triumphantly Pop Christian, and like all such gloriously blinkered Pop Christian works it blithely assumes everyone's experiences with spirituality map neatly onto the template gleaned from a particularly poor reading of Dante Aligheiri and Thomas Aquinas. Moore and the other staff writers admit they had trouble breaking this because they, as secular humanists, had the impression Star Trek as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry was fundamentally a secular humanist work and stories about spirituality were tough for them to crack. But then one wonders why they even bothered.

(Interestingly enough the writer we'd most expect to be staunchly in the secular humanism camp, self-proclaimed New Atheist arch rationalist Brannon Braga, has been responsible for the hands-down *most* mystical and baroque stories in the entire series.)

All it takes is a glance back at the immediately preceding episode to see how spectacularly out of touch the TNG writers are. While “Battle Lines” wasn't anything uniquely special mysticism-wise when it comes to primetime US dramatic television, there was still a very explicit undercurrent there that touched on something a tad bit more universal than the “scrap Pop Christian cultural norms and assumptions incidentally picked up just by virtue of living in a Christian country” we got here. Kai Opaka's (and Commander Sisko's!) message of love, forgiveness and acceptance, and of tuning into your larger role in the universe, is a line of spiritual thought that can be applied to a myriad of different belief systems around the world. And that was completely intentional on Michael Piller's part, who had admitted at the time he expressly wanted to see more mysticism in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, although he took it carefully and one step at a time. And Michael Piller actually does know what he's talking about-He'd never admit it, and though it didn't map onto any system of thought we'd recognise as such, but he was a deeply spiritual person in his own way. Remember, this was the guy who wrote “Emissary”.

Meanwhile, Deep Space Nine's sister show is proudly giving us Space Opera Viking Jesus.

Then there's the teaser and opening act, which is just bald-facedly conflict-for-conflict's sake bullshit thrown into barky and hackneyed military drama because ROTC man Ron Moore, following Gene Roddenberry, thinks any of that is actually interesting. Of course without that painful setup, the episode would likely have been about a half-hour shorter and even more boring. Literally anything else could have gone there instead of Worf morosely neglecting his duties. He could have talked to Deanna, you know, the person whose fucking job this is to sort out and the person Worf has a pre-existing relationship with. I mean I don't actually think she even appears in the episode as is! Or why not use Guinan here instead of in “Suspicions”? Hell, Worf could have even gone straight to Riker or Picard with his problem. But of course, then Moore wouldn't get to have his main man be a martyr for the Almighty Conflict at the hands of these horrid human squares in the Enterprise crew.

I don't think I need to waste any more of my time with this. I'm done with “Rightful Heir”, I'm done with Ron Moore, I'm done with Klingons, and I'm done with Worf.