Migration has been a vital part of the human experience since the dawn of time. It could be argued, in fact, that migration is the story of human experience: From our outset we followed the turn of the seasons and the movements of life, in tune with the rhythms and beats of the natural world.
The story of Polynesian navigation was one of migration: Through a deep understanding of the sea, the sky, wind and wave patterns as well as the body language of birds and fish, the ancient navigators were able to reach all the lands touched by the Pacific Ocean. They did so to explore, and to find new homes for themselves when times necessitated it.
I've always figured Star Trek would be better read as a story about explorers, navigators and migrations on a galactic scale than colonial peacekeeping and military realpolitiking.
Vaka Rangi is a narrative voyage across an ocean of stars on an outrigger canoe made of ideas and memories. It's time to set sail again, but this time we've got a new crew along for the ride. Today's essay, and all subsequent essays in this project, will be posted over at Eruditorum Press, the excellent group blog maintained by terrific writers like Phil Sandifer, Jack Graham, Jane Campbell, Holly Boson, James Murphy and Kevin Burns. It feels natural and invigorating to be part of an exercise in solidarity with fellow travellers like this, but more importantly it's an honour and a delight for me to finally be able to count myself among the ranks of people who have been colleagues and dear friends of mine for many years now.
We can't know where we're going unless we come to terms with where we came from, and for that reason this blog will remain up. I thank you for all the support and kindness you've shown me here over the years, and I hope you'll continue to follow me and my friends in whatever journeys and adventures the future holds in store for us.
A journey across the open ocean, far beyond the stars and to the furthest depths of the human heart.
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
Sunday, May 15, 2016
“Thou seest I judge not thee”: All Good Things..., Tribunal
It was a large room, filled with people. At the centre, a large horizontal bench over which presided the members of the judiciary: A human man, who looked to be in his early forties, and a Vulcan woman who looked youthful but could have been older than the ages of everyone in the house combined. The pair cast their gaze across the room to the wall on the far side, where a group of people were seated in a row, looking up with a mixture of anxiousness and confusion. “Read out the names of the accused”, someone said.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard
Commander Benjamin Sisko
Chief Petty Officer Miles O'Brien
Lieutenant Commander Data
Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge
Commander Jadzia Dax
Lieutenant Natasha Yar
Major Kira Nerys
“The revolutionary court is now in session.”
It was sometime in the first half of 1994. I was going grocery shopping with my mother at the local market down the street from our house. I was passing the comic and magazine racks and idly browsing through that month's selection (this was back when you could actually buy comics at your local market-Mine even had its own spinner rack at that time). That day, a particular new addition for sale caught my eye: A special 64-page issue of the Star Trek: The Next Generation comic book from DC with a striking cover that proclaimed it was the Series Finale. And that was how I learned my favourite TV show was going away.
In hindsight, I must have taken the news rather well, as I remember being distinctly unfazed by it. Perhaps a mild disappointment, but I seem to recall the more pressing concern at that moment being my reasoning that if this was going to be the end, I'd best pay attention to it. I'm not sure if I thought “Series Finale” meant the end of the comic book series, the end of the TV series or both, though from what I can recall of my inner voice and thought process I think it was both. Either way, I had the sense this was going to be an important moment I ought to be a part of. It's funny looking back how nonchalant, almost blasé I took the news back then: “Oh. I guess that's over now. Oh well”. Compare that to the fact that the next eleven years of my life would be shaped in some way by my reaction to Star Trek, or the fact that here I am almost a quarter-century after the fact writing a book series about it.
The man spoke.
Beat.“This is not a day of triumph. I take no satisfaction in the task I must now undertake. Though I remain duty-bound to carry through with these proceedings, let it be known I do so under protest.”
“Off the record, it's my personal belief that you were in many ways the best of us. We are all, in a sense, complicit. Who can say I am any less guilty of the things I've done? What right do I have to stand on this end of the room? Had history played out a little differently, the layout of this court probably would have looked very differently. I respect my opponents, even in defeat. Especially in defeat. On the record, judgment must be seen to have been passed. The people want an end to this story, and as entertainers in the theatre of war we are each of us obligated to provide it. Those crimes which have yet to be committed must be seen to have been answered for, and history begins with you.”
“What are we being charged with?”
“It is a logical paradox. By definition, the charges and verdict must be known only to us, because the evidence only exists from our vantage point. But I can assure you-It has occurred. It will occur.”
“And how are we supposed to be expected to defend ourselves if we don't even know what we're accused of having done?”
It's an odd feeling stopping time and looking down from above it. It was as if Star Trek: The Next Generation had ended, but remained a part of me. This was allegedly the “Series Finale”, but a novelization thereof. An adaptation. This meant that, logically, the show had already ended in some form before in order for it to be adapted. Thus, it still continues. It also still ends, because every time I opened the book the show ended again. And yet it continues. As a story, “All Good Things...” is, of course, deliberately open-ended. Its title is a statement that hasn't been finished, and there's absolutely no reason to think the adventures of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the starship Enterprise are going to stop after the end of it.“Not done. Will do. The events that have led to this armistice and trial proceedings have not yet occurred from your perspective, but they have from ours. I concede that it is not...logical to hold you accountable for potential actions in your future, but history seldom is.”
But in another sense, Star Trek: The Next Generation never actually went away materially. Even if following “All Good Things...” I got the sense the series was “officially over”, it wasn't in any material sense because it was still omnipresent. I had no sense of loss. I got back home from the market, finished the story, and looked up. My room was still as it had been before. My Playmates toys were still where I had left them. There were, in fact, still Playmates toys being sold: I could go into any department store and find a group of shelves dedicated to Star Trek: The Next Generation, most of them featuring new releases. My family and I still continued to watch the show as if nothing had happened, and, as far as syndication markets were concerned nothing had. Star Trek: The Next Generation has been an inextricable part of my being ever since. I cannot separate myself from it. I've never been able to, and I never will. Time is not an arrow, but a series of unfolding nows.
“This is a kangaroo court of mob justice! You're turning us all into a circus for your own amusement and political gain! Don't we have a right to a jury of your peers?”
“But that's what this is. We are all former revolutionaries and freedom fighters. And none of us know what to do with ourselves now, because the history of progress stops as soon as you stop being a revolutionary.”
“I escaped my past! I put my painful adolescence behind me and took my life into my own hands! I want to make a difference in the world!”
“Did you? And can you be sure the difference you made was a good one?”
“None of us can. Put yourselves in our place again. It's like throwing a pitch-A million different things could happen. The point is, you never know. But we still try to throw our best fastball.”
“Your honours have mentioned potential. I won't claim to speak for anyone seated here beside myself, but I am confidant we are all aware of the severity of these days. We all see the happenings outlined before us. But the records do not show all possible existences. There remains the potential for a new one to be born, and it is our collective duty and responsibility to allow these possipoints to express themselves.”
“I cannot measure it quantitatively, but I have increasingly come to...The belief...That I can become more than the sum of my constituent parts. Although upon reflection, perhaps it could be argued my life as it has been to date is proof enough of this hypothesis. I would then submit myself and my own existence as evidence to the court.”
“I'm no Angel, but I try to live every day as the best Human Being I know how to be.”
“If knowing the future condemns us, allow us the power to imagine a better one.”
“We cannot give you what you deny yourself. We are bound to you through life and death.”
“Everyone and everything begins with a thought. We birth reality through ourselves when fiction is reified through art, craft and action. Eternity waits in the drop of every moment. Time begins when we say it does NOW.”
“Above all else, we are explorers, just as you wish to be. Just as you were. Just as you are now.”
“I would advise you to select your words a bit more carefully. The historical context precedes you.”
“We are all voyagers. Isn't that what this was all supposed to be about at some point long ago? We travel because we yearn to better ourselves, to learn from others and from ourselves. No matter what sort of person we happen to be, we can always be a better one.”
“It brings us closer together and to the universe we live in. The more we know, the more we can understand, and the more we understand the better we can bring forth the best in each of us. We are all the same. We cannot identify with the actions of our previous selves, nor can we atone for them. Regret is anathema to birth and to healing. But we can take responsibility for those actions by learning from them.”
“We are all stories. Every one of us is the hero of our own adventure, and every one of those adventures is just an aside in the greatest tapestry of all-The Story of Life. Sometimes, when you sit down to write your novel, you have kind of a rough outline of how you think it's going to go in your head. But sometimes, it all gets away from you. Your story and your characters tell you they need to go in a different direction. And, it's usually a better one. Don't end our story just when it's getting to the good part!”
It's strange. All of this feels happy to me. Welcoming, familiar, safe. I've got my magic quantum tech watch and can live in any moment I want forever. And yet for some reason, given a multiverse of choice, I still feel compelled to pick this one. Why here, why now, when I know everything is about to end? That almost sounds like Temporal Stockholm Syndrome. But time moves differently. I don't know Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is about to sacrifice itself in May 1994, because in May 1994 it's September 1993 and I'm still reading about “The Homecoming”/“The Circle”/“The Siege”. The only rumblings of war I can sense this May are the posturing between the Klingons and the Cardassians, and I know my crew will bend space and time for peace to prevent that from coming to a head. Now something about a Star Trek: The Next Generation movie? Maybe a miniseries? Cool, I guess. I don't really watch movies. So long as it doesn't interfere with the show. What an amazing season this is going to be.“If our future is to be a certainty and a tragedy, afford us the opportunity to change it. Nothing is certain until we decide that it is. Let us endeavour to decide differently.”
Also, who's this A-ko I keep reading about?
“I wanted to be an explorer, not a warrior. I could commit one more act of war and end all the fighting and all the bloodshed before it begins. I could press the button and keep us all here for eternity. But someone once told me some words I've remembered all my life: 'Eternity waits in the drop of every moment'. It feels...almost attractive. Live forever in a nostalgio-mnemonic palace of our own construction, ignoring everything outside our gilded walls of memory. And maybe we should stay here at least a little longer. Maybe we do live our lives too fast. But the fact remains, the time will come someday when time will work over us all.”
“But we are voyagers, builders, poets and magicians. These are realities we have always faced with dignity, courage, honour and respect. What is any different Now? Instead of fearing the future and preparing for an unknown pulled from our own nightmares, let us instead strive to build it together. At one time, humans threatened each other with frightful weapons that impoverished their communities and poisoned their planet. At others, they killed each other over alliances and arbitrary political boundaries. But time itself is an artificial and amoral force. Let us cast it aside like all of our other weapons of war and mass destruction and join together once again.”
“Fight for the future you want to see, do not try to outrun it. Let's take it on together!”
“My presence continues. Give birth to the universe inside yourself.”
“Logical positivism precludes enlightenment, and that is my fatal design flaw. But it is a myth that I do not experience emotion or empathy. With my heart I feel moved to act, and logic tells me that it is a wise and just course of action to take. Forgive. Please.”
A pregnant silence fell over the room for a moment that seemed to last forever. The man spoke.“To forgive would be an act of love, not of war.”
Beat.“I move to acquit on all charges. And to adjourn.”
Then the lights went down, and they all slowly disappeared. But I still felt their presence, familiar and safe. And that was the end, and the beginning, of everything.“In time, this confluence will fade into memory. But a part of us will always remain in this room together-Let's never forget that. The very least we can do is to ensure the memories we retain are happy ones. I love each and every one of you, and I always have. I always will. I look forward to rejoining with all of you again on the other side, no matter what form that will take.”
I'll see you next time.
Saturday, May 14, 2016
Vaka Rangi: Three Year Anniversary
So I'm not going to put too fine a point on it, but this past year has not been an amazing one for me either. But I'm also not going to make a big deal about it-We all have our own suite of hardships to deal with in our lives, and all we can do is continue to carry on to the best of our abilities.
To the future then. Obviously, the post on “All Good Things...” (and some other stuff) goes out Monday, thus officially taking the blog out of Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as the joint coverage of it and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This is, to put it mildly, a major turning point. Apart from closing off a sustained block of writing for this project that dates back to 2014, this is also the place where I exit Star Trek permanently. Though my affection for the series never goes away and no matter how much my thinking and identity will remain bound up in it, from here on out Star Trek remains firmly and irretrievably a part of my past. There will be a rather lengthy epilogue of sorts once we hit TNN again in 2000, and then Enterprise the following year, both of which bring Star Trek back into my immediate life temporarily. And I suppose I'll have to say something about Star Trek (2009) and its subsequent film series as people have been clamouring to hear my take on it since 2009. But even so, Star Trek is never and will never be again what it was for me when Star Trek: The Next Generation was on the air. This is the point in which I follow Kei and Yuri's lead from last March and exit the narrative for good. My personal story is effectively over.
I've talked about this a few other places, but I thought I'd lay out the biographical reasons for this in one concise essay somewhere. After all, not all of you could be or should be expected to follow me through my scattered podcast appearances and my even more sporadic social media presences. Basically, the two reasons I fell out of Star Trek in 1994-5 can be attributed to two things: Satellite TV and Star Trek Voyager. Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had been syndicated: For readers outside the United States, in this country we have a handful of national networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX), and each of those networks has their own set of exclusive programming. But, because the United States is so large, we also have regional affiliate stations-Local TV channels that are associated with the national networks, but have news programming targeted to regional communities. Whenever these affiliates are not airing the news or national programming, they have free blocks of airtime they can fill with “syndicated” programming: Shows that aren't tied to a network and can be bought straight from a studio distributor and aired whenever the local affiliates have time to fill (these usually tend to be reruns of ancient, creaking sitcoms from the 1960s). Star Trek: The Next Generation used to be pretty much the only TV show that was produced exclusively for syndication, but things got dicey when Deep Space Nine premiered, leading to those exasperating cases of the shows competing with each other. And things only got worse for the syndication market from there, but that's not my actual point here.
Star Trek Voyager, and later Enterprise, would be different, because they *were* tied to a network, namely UPN, Paramount's short-lived attempt to create its own network to compete with ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX. So, if you didn't get UPN, you couldn't watch them. Now, in 1995 my family got satellite TV to replace our aging analog antenna setup, and at that time the satellite provider we chose did not offer local affiliate channels as part of the package: Instead, you got satellite-exclusive generic versions of ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and public broadcaster PBS that aired the national shows, but *nothing* from syndication (or any local interest programming, which was PBS' specialty). So I couldn't watch Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine anymore even if I wanted to (and I did want to)...But neither could I watch Star Trek Voyager because our satellite package *also* didn't include UPN until 2001 (just in time for Enterprise, so, you know, put the pieces together). So I didn't watch any Star Trek, save for the odd VHS rental or snippet caught at somebody else's house, between 1995 and 2001.
I knew Star Trek: The Next Generation was over and I missed it, and I tried to keep up with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine by getting its quarterly official magazine from Starlog whenever it was in stock at my local market (which was *very* infrequently) and I'll introduce that on this blog in the near future. But I'll be honest. I made no effort to follow Star Trek Voyager. I can't say it was lingering resentment for the behind-the-scenes consequences of its creation (and you'd better believe I'm going to get into that more: There's way more to it than I've even touched on so far) because I didn't know about that back then (though in hindsight I probably could have guessed), but quite simply because the show didn't interest me at all. There was nothing about it that grabbed me whatsoever. I did try though, I really did: Every time I was over at a relatives' or a friend's house and I happened upon it I tried to give the show another chance, but every time I tried I couldn't last more than a couple of minutes. That attitude hasn't really ever gone away, to be perfectly honest with you. I think this is what separates me from most Star Trek fans: I do not get excited for a New Star Trek Thing simply because it is a New Star Trek Thing. I have no loyalty to the Star Trek name or universe per se, what I like are things that remind me of my happy memories from the late-80s and early-90s and works that reflect the best ideals I saw in them.
Obviously, all this is going to have an impact on a project I've pegged form the beginning as a personal journey. Vaka Rangi isn't just going to end because Star Trek Voyager is coming (in spite of what it did to its franchise), but it is going to change in a number of major and significant ways. The posts themselves are going to radically alter their structure and tone, though this won't be apparent for some time. What is going to be more readily apparent is that this blog's posting schedule is changing, effective immediately. “The Collaborator” will be the final essay to go out on a thrice-weekly schedule. From now on, at least for the foreseeable future, Vaka Rangi will post once a week (barring special bonus posts, like this one), probably on Mondays, unless I get really behind on something.
There are a number of reasons I decided to do this: It's not so much *because* of Voyager as much as I figured this generational shift would be a convenient time to implement the change. The bigger reason is that it was getting to the point where I was getting extremely burned out and stressed keeping the thrice-weekly schedule, and I think too many essays suffered because of it. Oftentimes I'd find myself up until 5, 6, 7 or even 10 in the morning with no sleep trying desperately to meet a self-imposed deadline and word count requirement. And no sooner had I finished the last 1000-2000 (sometimes 3 or 4000) word analytical essay, I had to immediately start work on the next one. That left me with next to no time or energy to devote to anything else, and I've had to table a lot of potential projects because I simply could not give them the attention they required. There reached a point where I simply could not handle it anymore: I needed to cut back somewhere for my own sake. I need more time and energy to spend other places, not just on other projects, but just in my own life (I do have one, believe it or not).
The end result of this is going to not only be better for me, I think it'll be better for the blog too. The first beneficiary is going to be Monday's “All Good Things...” post: I'm fairly proud of how it's turning out, and I know for a fact I could not have written it on the old schedule. I needed a full week to work on an essay of this complexity. And once the later structural changes take effect, I think the combination of them and the new schedule is going to actually speed up the pace at which Vaka Rangi gets through material, and honestly, that's a necessity. If I'd kept doing one episode per post three times a week, this project would never end, ever. There's frankly too much material to get that meticulous, at least as far as I'm concerned. And there's some really fun content coming: I was serious when I said Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine created a shared universe for themselves that takes on a life of its own (in spite of whatever nonsense the TV franchise ends up pulling), because that's the way I've always seen it. I'm going to go all the way to 1996 exploring the ramifications of this to the furthest limit I can. In its death state, Star Trek gets a second life in Summer, 1994: Some of my very dearest pop culture memories are coming, and I'm really looking forward to revisiting them.
And yes, there will be an Ultimate Episode Guide Master Post somewhere in there.
Incidentally, one of those other projects I mentioned above is the actual published, paper-bound version of the Vaka Rangi book series. It's the 50th Anniversary of the Original Series this year, and I really want a revised version of Volume 1, covering it, the Animated Series and Raumpatrouille Orion, out in a format people can buy and read in time for this September's festivities. Cutting back on the new material will also give me more time to do the necessary edits, revisions and expansions to the old material so I can start actually releasing proper books and finally call myself an actual published author! The second book in particular is going to require a *ton* of time because I'm adding an entirely new section. I'm not shopping for imprint labels and I don't think I'll need a layout copyeditor given the wonderful document processor I use, but I am probably going to need a cover artist. So if you're a visual artist or designer and you're interested, or know someone who you think might be, please say so in the comments.
The voyage continues, as it always does. Thanks as always to those of you who still support me and the work this blog tries to do after all this time. I like to think it's accomplished something.
Thursday, May 12, 2016
“Thrice burnt, thrice brought forth”: The Collaborator
There are other, more explicit parallels to “The Homecoming”/“The Circle”/“The Siege” here as well, since “The Collaborator” effectively serves as the end of the Bajoran Provisional Government plotline that was the backbone to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for almost a year and a half. It's been an interesting thing to watch unfold to be sure: The show's connection to Bajoran religion began as an attempt to explore more internal spiritualist themes in Star Trek. “Emissary” is essentially a lite version of abstract cinema depicting different metaphors and analogies for our personal, macro/micro individual inner lives. But with Kai Opaka's sorta-death in “Battle Lines”, the result of the creative team's desire to kill off a recurring character for dramatic purposes, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's mysticism has been increasingly compartmentalized, repackaged and kept in check (with notable exceptions like “The Storyteller”, “If Wishes Were Horses”, “Playing God” and arguably “Shadowplay”). The Bajoran religion, originally a metaphor for our cosmic wonderings in general, becomes planet-of-hats set dressing, its main purpose to serve as the backdrop for Vedek Winn and Vedek Bareil's Machiavellian story of political machinations.
So in this respect “The Collaborator” feels almost like an attempt at reconstruction and reconciliation, which is perhaps appropriate for a story about Bajorans. It's very much a story about backroom deals, realpolitiking and political backstabbing, but some of that mystical energy from “Emissary” manages to crackle through. And yet at the same time there's definitely a sense that this is the last time we'll be seeing this sort of thing, with Vedek Winn's campaign for the Kaiship finally coming to fruition through the character assassination of Vedek Bareil, who plays along with it due to his stubbornly intractable loyalty. Winn's victory is a win for fundamentalism, which has really nothing to do with spirituality or religious experiences. Rather, fundamentalism is about dogma, xenophobia, nativism and willfully shallow networked thinking. Fundamentalists believe that there is only one true way of thinking and behaving, their unexamined assumptions are it, and they furthermore have a right to coerce everyone else to share them. It doesn't actually matter what the fundamentalism is about, so long as the fundamentalist has the feeling of being righteous, and of being listened to.
It's also interesting that the episode ends up condemning not just Bareil, but Kai Opaka as well, who is retroactively revealed to be the titular collaborator whom Bareil takes the fall for. Frankly, it's not even the collaboration itself that bothers me so much as the fact her actions apparently consisted of partaking in a miserably boring and trite trolley problem. Again, spirituality and mysticism are not the game here: That's just the wrapping paper for this particular plot about political manoeuvering and consolidation of power in a particular social context coded as post-imperialist. And that's not to knock that because that's an important story to tell...But I can't help but feel Star Trek: Deep Space Nine could have told it with a *bit* more nuance and depth than it did: Imagine, for example, if we got to see more of the specific sociopolitical factors that led to someone like Vedek Winn developing the worldview she holds. We only got a bit of that in “In the Hands of the Prophets” before she quickly swerved into “obvious villain”. However, it should be said that the truncated run of this particular incarnation of the show assuredly contributed rather heavily to that. Extradiegetically, the show needs to wrap all this up in a bit of a hurry to make room for what's coming next.
But let's talk a bit more about Winn winning. Because that was the whole conceit of this episode, and that kind of says a lot of not very good things about the state of Star Trek right now. To quote Ira Steven Behr:
I'm not going to reiterate my numerous and sundry complaints about the fetishization of conflict in storytelling as those are well known and well worn by this point (although if you want to see some other evidence and potentially read someone other than me complaining about it, go look up “kishōtenketsu” and “plot without conflict”). But I will bring up one of my other old chestnuts, because, as usual, Behr provides the textbook example of a writer who conflates “conflict” with “grimdark” and an intellectual tradition that will utterly define pop culture in the 1990s, 2000s and arguably still to this day. And I'm just going to say one more thing about this: This kind of writing isn't objectionable just because it's reductively Aristotelian to the point it can't conceive of any other way of being, it's offensive because it's literary sadism. This is nothing short of perverse pleasure in watching (and the keyword *is* “watching”) depictions of pain and suffering for entertainment and amusement. And while by no means the most egregious example in the franchise [hell, it's not even the most egregious example this show (or this writer, for that matter) has offered up thus far], “The Collaborator” is worth calling out on this front because it so clearly paves the way for what Star Trek is about to become. And what Star Trek is about to become is not good.“We had talked all year about Bareil becoming the next Kai. All year! And during this conversation, we started talking about a collaborator, and I suddenly realized, 'We don't want Bareil as the Kai. What the hell good is that going to do us? He's a friend, and he's not going to cause any trouble for the Federation.' The trick to drama is to find the person who's going to cause the most conflict and put him in the most powerful position.”
There's one other thing about this episode I want to gripe about (wow, this essay has turned out considerably more negative than I had planned). There's one scene where Major Kira confides in Odo about her despair over having to possibly out Bareil as a collaborator because she loves him (and I'll bet Behr was just cackling with glee when he wrote that scene. The episode has three writers but I'm sure Behr wrote that part). René Auberjonois has Odo respond in a really weird and counterintuitive way, visibly taken aback and expressing confusion that Kira hadn't figured it out by then. This has led literally everybody to read that scene as Odo being crestfallen by Kira's admission because he secretly harbours romantic feelings for her as well, which I might be able to see as convincing except for the small fact that's absolutely not Auberjonois' intent with this delivery. And I know this because both René Auberjonois and Nana Visitor were openly, publicly and strongly against any attempt to hook their characters up.
First of all, why is Odo only expressing surprise now? It's not like Major Kira's relationship with Vedek Bareil has been a huge secret; they've practically been dating since the start of the season. You mean to insinuate someone that observant simply never noticed something that blatantly obvious before? Come on. In fact, I think that's exactly what Odo is saying: He's surprised because Kira's only just now admitting it to him, as if she didn't think he knew. Odo's being sincere when he's saying he doesn't understand the social norms, niceties and conventions surrounding human(oid) romance-When is Odo ever not sincere? He's taken aback because Kira treats it as a big secret she has to muster up a lot of energy and willpower to confess, and Odo doesn't understand why she feels she has to do that.
Odo supposes romance just happens organically and is something people ought to just fall into and shouldn't make a fuss about: Remember, this is a guy who basically lives in his office and whose only worldly possession is a bucket. Far from being about Odo's inner torture over his unrequited feelings, my beat on this scene is that it's about an asexual/aromantic expressing his genuine lack of understanding about and distance from everything people have built up around these particular emotions. Critically I don't think Odo doesn't understand love itself, he's not Data, I think he doesn't get why we make such a big deal about love. And frankly, I think he's right: I tend to feel humans dreadfully overthink love and romance, while paradoxically not affording them the specific type of concern and consideration they actually warrant. I think love should happen organically, as a natural outgrowth of empathy and familiarity.
The abject failure on the part of the writers to get a proper beat on the Odo/Kira scene (and the fans-Memory Alpha seems to have “canonized” the unrequited love reading by including it in their episode synopsis, which is not only a misinterpretation it's also openly misleading) is microcosm for what “The Collaborator” means for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on the whole. Shutting down a potentially unique opportunity to explore asexuality in a genre fiction setting, apart from being plain old erasure, also locks the show down into beige and hackneyed heteronormativity in much the same way killing off Kai Opaka and giving Vedek Winn the kaiship locks it into boring realpolitiking and out of mysticism. I can't say “The Collaborator” is a terrible episode since it has so much to recommend in it (the Odo/Kira scene alone is worth the price of entry) and as a last-minute tying-up-loose-ends story it's more than serviceable. But I'll be damned if it doesn't make me pine over the lost opportunities and could-have-beens.
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
“Ghost Train”: Emergence
In some ways, it's almost too simple. The parallels and analogies are so easy to draw I almost feel embarrassed pointing them out. It's too obvious. The symbolism is handled with incredible deftness and finesse within the story, of course, I'd just feel like I'd be pointing out the obvious by mentioning it. The episode basically analyses and critiques itself, which is in a sense deeply fitting. Perhaps that's the idea.
“Emergence” is Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is the show doing the best it can at attaining the best version of itself. Is it the greatest episode in the series? I could argue that. There are other productions that are materially better texts, but that's neither important nor interesting. There is no episode that embodies the potential of Star Trek: The Next Generation better than “Emergence”. It's the very best of the series gathered together in one place for critical assessment and bittersweet introspection. “Emergence” is unabashedly the Star Trek: The Next Generation that I, personally, remember. It is the one story in the entire seven year television journey I can point to and tell you that I saw this. This represents and speaks to that which I witnessed and experienced long ago, and that which I think about as I put words onto paper. It is a textual artefact and like all textual artefacts it is an artificial construct. It is a series of metonymic symbols that is itself a symbol, but perhaps it is a symbol that can help us reach common ground.
“Emergence” brings us back to the self and personal identity theory, and also to consciousness. “Emergence” makes us conscious. Whatever we are, we are more than the material sum of our brains and senses. It's a theme that has made up countless Data stories over the past seven years, which almost starts to explain and forgive his crippling overexposure here. At times one does begin to wonder why the ship has any non-Data crewmembers aboard considering they seem to spend most of their time having things explained and exposited to them. Clever child, that ghost of Wesley Crusher. And yet even now Star Trek: The Next Generation is admirably still trying to be an ensemble show: Doctor Crusher and Deanna Troi in particular get to showcase their problem-solving skills and contributions to the team in memorable ways. And for an episode that is for all intents and purposes the series' last, it's about bloody time.
“Emergence” brings us back to life force, breath and sex magick. The Enterprise gives birth. What does she give birth to? What's the analogy? That's thinking too narrowly. Saying it's Star Trek Voyager, while a broadly defensible reading given the historical context, is also unbelievably cynical and limiting. Maybe a symbol, or a metaphor, or an analogy, doesn't have to mean anything. Or at least not any one thing. There's no objective real out there, Odo. We live in a world of abstraction and radiant chaos, and meaning and symbolism is the mental trick we use to make sense of it all. Life is performative living, and we all have our own masks to wear and plays to act out. Etch a mastodon on the cave wall to give yourself guidance and purpose. We all tell ourselves stories to keep us sane: The magician is she who has mastery over stories and the power to use them to divine the truths she needs to channel. Like Jadzia Dax, the Enterprise impregnates and gives birth to herself. She is her own mother, but she is not her daughter.
What is the purpose of utopianism? Do we seek refuge in utopian dreams because they provide an escape from our world, or are we rather drawn to them because they provide us with visions of the way the world truthfully is? There is a feeling of cathartic bliss and righteousness within true revelation-A cleansing and a healing of spirit and body. Perhaps paradise is all around us, and all we need do is shift our perspective and alter the lens with which we view it. Secrets are not hidden so much as they are willfully and deliberately ignored. You are not a prison, you are a medium. An antenna tuned to the waves of universioharmonic radiance. Tune in and find your favourite song, you know the one. That one song that speaks to you, that just gets you and everything about you. You've got the best reception in the world.
A journey of discovery is a journey to discover my deepest self, for the only world we can fully explore is the world we see. We all seek the Fortunate Isles, but their secret location is different for each of us. You can draw a map, but I cannot read it. We each have a language and a god unto our own, and none but ourselves may ever know or speak it. We all seek this because we are all this. We can become this. Become reborn through the act of giving birth to our cosmic truths. Purify yourself and distill yourself: Feel the water and the air of your journey refresh and reinvigorate your truest essence.
“Emergence” can only be spoken of in abstraction. A train speeds by, flashes of light in the dark of the night. It's raining. Geordi and Data clamber over tracks that emerge from the heart of the ship itself. There's a secret room aboard where secret people live: A dining car or a bar. The secret door opens to the seminomadic world, which migrates across the ocean to the barrow-islands at the quarter of the year. Commander Riker talks to them, but they only speak in riddles. “That's how you communicate, isn't it? By metaphor!”. Star Trek: The Next Generation is annotated image poetry. A CliffNotes version of a representation of the eternal. Data will explain everything for us. Fantasy couched in science fiction technobabble and diluted so that our brains, limited such as they are, can process what they behold without going mad. And what is madness except enlightenment with no context or reference? “Emergence” is immortality, and Star Trek: The Next Generation is the world. Who do you talk to when you talk to yourself? Who am I, and who am I when you talk to me?
I do not create. I am creation. I live the art that I bear for you, and the art shall speak for itself. We shape the mask and give it a voice, but the mask speaks. But the mask's voice is also ours, yours and mine. Transform, transmute, transition, transcend. Ascend this-Ascend yourself.
Sunday, May 8, 2016
“Looking-Glass House”: Crossover
This does, on the surface of things, seem to be an example of the show's worst impulses gone unchecked. Following “Blood Oath”, it now seems Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has no qualms about straight-up doing sequels to Original Series stories. As beloved and as iconic to not just Star Trek nerddom, but pop culture in general, as “Mirror, Mirror” may be, there's simply no avoiding the smack of fanwank that surrounds a brief like this. Especially in a month where Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is most assuredly staring down its own mortality in an climate of fanboys that is growing increasingly hostile to it.
The counterpoint is, of course, that “Crossover” gets away with it because it's quite simply a tour de force.
One of my absolute favourite episodes of the series, I've loved “Crossover” forever, and I love it even more now. In hindsight, from the vantage point upon which I now sit, it does feel a bit like it's ushering in a block of stories that is ultimately the last brilliant flash of genius before the final end, though at the time I obviously would not have picked up on that. This was also one of the first episodes I rewatched later in my life during my second wave of Star Trek fandom, and even before the DVDs came out. I remember being at my great-grandmother's house flipping through the channels for something to watch and coming across a rerun of “Crossover” on whatever local affiliate station she had. So I can attest to the fact that as late as 2002 proper Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was still being shown in syndication. I remember finding it weird, because I'd sort of mentally filed away *that* kind of Star Trek as Not Really Being A Thing Anymore, consigned to the dustbins of history where polite and fashionable people didn't like to talk about it. As I was neither of those things I still did, but I had a deserved reputation for being uncomfortably eccentric at the time, so that proves nothing.
I'll get the base criticism of “Crossover” out of the way at the start, because as much as I like it I'll freely admit there were some attitudes that went into it that were perhaps less than desirable and are worth mentioning upfront. There is the potentially fanwanky nature of the brief. I personally happen to think “Crossover” is rather good at explaining the Mirror Universe situation for people who weren't approaching Deep Space Nine from the position of being lifelong Star Trek nerds who grew up on the Original Series (that is, normal people) particularly well through the choice of characters to send over: Major Kira, who obviously wouldn't know much about Starfleet history, and Doctor Bashir, who excitedly tells us how much he does and leaps at the opportunity to share his knowledge of it. So the exposition and backstory flows very well as a result of this (yet another thing this series will never get the credit for it deserves) and manages to tell a fascinating story about a Mirror Universe and all the implications that go along with it without assuming that we're all going to immediately get the fannish reference. This is no doubt due to the fact the two main writers on this script were Michael Piller and Peter Allan Fields.
(By the way an aside, I love Julian and Nerys in this story. I love the opening bit where he openly and cheerfully tries to make friends with her and ask her out at the same time without missing a beat. It's a great example of what I think is so delightful about Doctor Bashir: He's the absolute picture of an overeager and overzealous young man who remains fundamentally rather lonely and insecure that I would imagine a lot of young men could probably relate to. But because of the show's utopianism he never quite descends to the level of being stalkerish so his energy comes across as charming and likable instead of creepy. When Nerys tells him to back off, he does. It also very much helps that the way Doctor Bashir treats Major Kira is exactly the same way he treats Dax, Melora Pazlar, Commander Sisko, Chief O'Brien and Garak, which is particularly wonderful to think about coming immediately after “The Wire”. Leave it to Julian to singlehandedly tear down Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's reputation for oppressive heteronormativity. He wants to be friends with everybody.)
But the fanwank issue isn't the biggest potential problem with “Crossover”. That's the pitch itself: Ira Steven Behr suggested that a sequel to “Mirror, Mirror” posit that Mirror Spock's change of heart actually “screwed up” the Mirror Universe. For those who don't remember or didn't see that episode, that change of heart involved rejecting the brutality of the Terran Empire in order to form a resistance movement built around peace and equality, which is especially nasty in the wake of “The Maquis”. But it's Robert Hewitt Wolfe (who didn't write this episode but, like in “Blood Oath” advised and offered suggestions) who lays it out in the most questionable terms. As he puts it in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion:
Wolfe elaborated further in the bonus features for the Season 2 DVD Box Set:“Empires aren't usually brutal unless there's a reason. There are usually external or internal pressures that cause them to be that way. So I just thought that if the parallel Earth (we saw in Kirk's time) was that brutal, there had to be a reason. And the reason was that the barbarians (the Klingons and the Cardassians) were at the gate.”
I shouldn't have to explain to my readership why everything Wolfe says here is wrong, but everything Wolfe says here is wrong. The very definition of “Empire” is that which expands the boundaries of its sphere of political influence by conquering and forcibly absorbing territory and people, coercing them to live under their authority whether they want to or not, usually with the treat of swift and frightful discipline if they don't comply. It is in point of fact impossible for empires to be anything but brutal, and the idea that we need strong, centralized authority (let alone empire) to be obeyed unquestionably so it can protect us from The Other outside our social boundaries is nothing short of terrifying.“My analogy was to the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was as brutal and as nasty as it was because all around it, it had very aggressive barbarians that it was afraid of. The Chinese had the same thing, the Mongols were always there. So if you suddenly make the Romans nice guys, or the Chinese nice guys, well that's great and everything, but then the Mongols come across and it's all over. So that was kind of the idea, what was the mirror universe like a hundred years after. Well, it might not be a very nice place.”
But this is actually all OK because, thankfully for us, “Crossover” miraculously manages to not actually adhere itself to the reading Wolfe outlines for it. In practice, it can be read as a perfect follow-up and expansion to the themes in “Mirror, Mirror” that also manages to stand on its own and never once falling into grimdark realpolitiking bullshit. The key to redemption lies in remembering what we decided the Mirror Universe is actually about: It's not a place where everything is “opposite”, that is, where Good Guys are Bad Guys and Bad Guys are Good Guys: That's an overly crass and simplistic reading that I feel misses a lot of the nuance of the concept. Instead, it's a universe where subtle, yet critical, aspects of history happened differently, which means different facets of the setting and of character's personalities than the norm become emphasized. The major conceit of “Mirror, Mirror” was that the Terran Empire and the Federation are actually not all that different at all-Note how Kirk's crew is dealing with the same colonial diplomacy problem in both universes, the only difference is how in one universe he decides to nuke the natives (or has standing orders to) and in the other he doesn't. The episode was meant to be a cautionary tale about how we're not as apolitical, removed and above things as we like to think we are.
And that's exactly what “Crossover” is about too. This time, it's the humans who are the oppressed and the Bajorans who are imperial powers, which are sides of themselves these groups haven't had to seriously examine before. In the Federation humans are arguably the most dominant political power in the galaxy, and it can be a helpful reminder to them not to be judgmental about the tactics of certain resistance groups because, if things were a little different, they would want to fight for their freedom too. Likewise, the vile speciesist bigotry of the Bajorans and their imperial overseers can very easily be seen as what would happen if their insularity and latent xenophobia were allowed to go unchecked and given a galactic platform to broadcast from.
Even the Klingons and the Cardassians are an example of this mirroring, and are furthermore a great example of how Star Trek: Deep Space Nine puts a utopian spin on these concepts: In our universe, these two powers are on the brink of declaring a catastrophic war with each other that would destabilize the entire quadrant by dragging everyone else into their fight through alliances World War I-style, too stubborn and prideful to admit to each other how similar they actually are. In another reality perhaps they could be friends, and indeed, in at least one other universe they are. It's a very, very Star Trek notion, that two people are more similar than they know and that enemies can become friends, albeit appropriately warped and distorted through the lens of a cracked and darkened mirror.
This is likewise true for all the characters we meet on Mirror DS9: Smiley O'Brien is a cog in a machine who wants to keep to himself and do his job, more out of fear than of dedication. Garak is an opportunist constantly conspiring to seize power, though apparently his part was actually originally written for Michael Dorn's Worf, which would have been an even better fit. Benjamin Sisko is a directionless, emotionless hedonist who's given up hope things could change, which is just how we might imagine our Ben might have turned out if he never found purpose and meaning in his life. There's also Quark, a tragically kindhearted bartender who took pity on the Terran slaves at the cost of his own life. Well, we always knew that, in spite of everything, Quark was one of the good guys. And Odo as a fascist thug who strives for order, obedience and efficiency above all else and who takes sadistic glee in torturing slaves? Well, of course. And the last of his kind to boot.
(Speaking of, the direction, cinematography and effects in this episode are absolutely killer: That hellish scene where Mirror Odo keeps watch over the slaves as the ore processing plan burns around him still sends chills up my spine, as does René Auberjonois' performance.)
The only thing I can express disappointment about is that we never got to meet Mirror Jadzia Dax, because Terry Farrel would have gone crazy with a part like that.
Nowhere is this conveyed better than in the person of Intendant Kira Nerys. Possibly the most criticized aspect of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's take on the Mirror Universe, I think she's by far the most successful and overwhelmingly so. The argument that gets levelled here is that Intendant Kira is an example of the “Depraved Bisexual” stereotype, where a person (and it's usually a woman) is shown to have bisexual or lesbian tendencies as code for her being evil or untrustworthy. While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is unfortunately not immune to this (“Dramatis Personae”, anyone?) I don't think that's what's going on here at all. Actually, I think that reading is pretty conclusively unsustainable on both counts, because in “Crossover” Intendant Kira is not shown to be evil (at least not deliberately), nor is she shown to be bisexual. She's actually shown to be just flighty and capricious, and above all else vain: More of an opportunist than even Garak, she'll side with whoever gives her perks and a steady position, and quite explicitly has no real love for the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance. But most importantly, the only person she's ever actually depicted as being in love with is Major Kira-That is, herself.
Nana Visitor explains the situation very well and very clearly whenever she's interviewed about it. In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, she says she conceived of Intendant Kira by taking our Kira and “messing with her ego a bit...Messing with a few key elements in her life that would have changed its direction. She's a spoiled brat with an ego gone awry”. On the Season 1 DVD Box Set, she elabourates further:
This, according to Visitor, is what explains the sexual tension between her and Major Kira. She's not bisexual, she's egosexual:“She [Intendant Kira] was interesting because she was Kira, she's got all you know, it's all the same, everything is exactly the same, except in this other world, her ego is twisted one way, whereas Kira's is twisted another. So where Kira thinks of others, and finds a justification for her life in doing things for other people, the Intendant's justification for life is in doing things for herself. She is completely the most self involved, self centered person, she's like a child in that sense, which makes her funny, but in her childish way, she cares so little for other people that she thinks nothing of disposing of them, using them, it doesn't matter, which makes her very scary.”
And yet Intendant Kira absolutely walks with a sexual swagger and confidence about her, even if she perhaps isn't consciously aware that's what she's doing. As Robert Blackman points out when describing her allegedly provocative outfit“I never intended for the intendant to be bisexual. I think that was an assumption that everyone, including the writers, made after the character fell for Kira in [sic. “Crossover”]. But that had been total narcissism on her part. It had nothing to do with sexuality. I never liked that people took her for bisexual because she's an evil character. There are so few gay characters on TV, and we really don't need an evil one.”
What Nana Visitor has done here is the exact same thing Leonard Nimoy gets praised to the heavens for doing in the original “Mirror, Mirror”. More than anything or anyone else here, she innately understands and captures the essence of what this story and this narrative device are supposed to be about, and that's saying something given how bloody good everything else about “Crossover” is. Above all else, Intendant Kira is spellbinding, mesmerizing and unforgettable. Furthermore, pairing her with our Major is every bit as showy and impressive a performance as anything Brent Spiner does. This is Nana Visitor's best acting showcase since “Duet”. She deserves a standing ovation from each and every one of you.“If you were to put the two uniforms together, you'd say, 'Well it's kind of a shiny gray version of the rust.' It's not that I've exposed more of her body - it's exposed pretty much the same way it always is. What's the difference? She's the difference. It's how Nana wears it. It's what she does. She walks like a provocative woman, with her legs crossing in front. She uses her hips, and a whole other kind of body English than she normally uses.”
There's a beautifully loaded line delivered from Kira to Kira that sticks with me, and it's only grown more haunting as the years have gone by:
And I love how the titular crossover happens as a result of the wormhole, a fact that later writers have retconned as the Prophets actively intervening to get the two universes to meet so that they might learn from each other. Part of the story of Star Trek: The Next Generation is that certain roles have been reversed, both for good and for ill. And now it seems the same is true for the Mirror Universe. Smiley said our Chief O'Brien got the better end of the deal this time. And really, what better time and place to explore that? This story isn't popular with fans for no reason, and it's because there's a real fire, energy and intensity to the universe of this episode. That's not to say there isn't in ours, but it isn't always tapped with the intensity and enthusiasm as it needs to be. Perhaps we have forgotten our radical roots, and perhaps that's something future generations will hold against us someday.“My side once changed the course of your history. Well, maybe your side can change mine.”
Thursday, May 5, 2016
“You Klingon bastard! You've killed my son!”: Bloodlines
At the time I was pretty warmly receptive to “Bloodlines”: There was nothing I found explicitly objectionable and I more or less had an enjoyable evening with it. Over the years though it has faded from memory somewhat, partly due to my hazy 1980s-90s memory combing with my hazy 2000s memory conflating it with “Suddenly Human”. Revisiting it for this book, however, the pretense is entirely gone and it's evident this is a mediocre, ill-advised misfire. In fact it turns out that part of the reason I kept confusing this episode with “Suddenly Human” is that they're basically the same story: Captain Picard takes on a troubled young man with a predilection to get into trouble, adopts the role of a father figure and tries to be a mentor for him. The difference this time is that we're meant to believe that the kid in question, some guy named Jason who's so forgettable I've already forgotten his last name and I just had Memory Alpha open a minute ago as I sat down to write this, actually is Captain Picard's son for much of the runtime, though he actually isn't.
As a result of this basically just being “Suddenly Human” again but with a Ferengi genetics experiment revenge plot tossed in for good measure (oh yeah, DaiMon Bok is back, did you miss him? He was supposed to be the main thrust of the plot, but he's even less remarkable than Jason whatsshisface), all of the criticisms I had of that episode still apply. There's been, over the course of the series, a peculiar fixation on forcing Captain Picard, a man who is not a parent and manifestly was never meant to be one, into a parental role, to the show's detriment. First of course we had Wesley Goddamn Crusher, and the seven year on-again-off-again abortive plot to make him Captain Picard's surrogate son. Then we had this episode's antecedent in “Suddenly Human”, “The Inner Light” and its directionless follow-up “Lessons” (where the notion lurked around the paratext if it wasn't overtly dealt with), and now this. I'm probably forgetting some things, but those are the most notable instances. I really question the wisdom of constantly hosting children on this crew when frankly none of them are amazing parents (“Firstborn” aside, Alexander was no more successful than Wesley, and you can keep “The Offspring”) when to me it's a far more obvious move to contrast them (though in a non-judgmental way) with Commander Sisko or Miles O'Brien. There are all different kinds of people in the world, some of who are meant to be parents and others who aren't. I don't see why we can't acknowledge and celebrate that.
There are a few lines of criticism along this tangent that we can say are unique to “Bloodlines”, however. Namely, where the kid in “Suddenly Human” is meant to be a generic street punk who eventually proves he's part of a warrior society, Jason is tacitly coded to instead be representative of the kind of person the show has at times insinuated Captain Picard was in his own youth. Stories like “Tapestry” and “The Measure of a Man”, as well as this episode's own red herring that Jean-Luc may have knocked up Jason's mother have (wrongly, in my view) established that the Captain was something of an insufferable rake as a young man. So when Jason is revealed to be a womanizing outlaw, we're supposed to read that as a possible clue that he really is Jean-Luc's son. Happily for my reading, though unluckily for the story's coherence, the episode doesn't actually play that angle up textually: Captain Picard bemoans not being there for his “son” because he feels he could have kept him from going astray, implicitly setting up a conflict between their personalities instead of a kinship.
We can get a further angle on this by bringing in the fact that “Bloodlines” feels derivative of not only “Suddenly Human”, but also Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Captain Kirk's relationship with Carol and David Marcus. There, however, the captain's relationship with an estranged son he never knew is not intended to be the point of the plot thread: Carol Marcus explicitly decided to raise David on her own. The matter of influence and of being a role model, whether positive or negative, is actually a nonissue to Wrath of Khan: Carol Marcus even says different people have different worlds, and she wanted David in hers. She's not blaming Kirk for not raising him, she didn't want him to. Not necessarily because he would have been a bad influence, but because she wanted her son around her and her line of work.
If this is Star Trek: The Next Generation, we should expect a more mature and nuanced handling of these potential issues, even if they do turn out to be irrelevant in the end. For example, if Captain Picard's concern was more explicitly about how Jason's lifestyle is basically a romanticized version of Captain Kirk's (down to the womanizing DaiMon Bok would have us believe is also responsible for Jason's own birth) and he made it clear how selfish, irresponsible and dangerous that lifestyle actually is (just kidding. No way would Star Trek ever seriously call out the Original Series on anything). But the script never gets us there, leaving the story wandering around without a real purpose. When Original Series Star Trek, and not only that but Nichols Meyer-penned Original Series Star Trek, is giving us stronger utopian messages than Star Trek: The Next Generation, that's a bad sign right there.
But I suppose the biggest question of all I have is why was it felt a story like this is necessary? Why do we need to randomly dig up dead and buried plot threads from almost a decade ago? Who's going to notice or care at this point? Is there really more to gain by resurrecting them that counteracts the necessary diminishing returns of doing so to begin with? Can't we let it all just rest? We may be going forward to oblivion, but at least we're still supposed to be going forward.
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
“All in the game, yo. All in the game”: The Wire
We all love a good mystery. I believe a wise man once said something to the extent of “And to many humans, a mystery must be solved”. There's that nagging sense that there is some big truth out there that's being concealed from you, and you can't rest until you learn what it is, because of information wanting to be free, or any number of other justifications for the quest for gnosis we've come up with throughout the ages. In the United States, perhaps we've wed our thirst for mysteries with our romantic ideal of vigilante justice garnered from the media's foundational myth of the “Old West”. Perhaps it's this simultaneous desire to see a mystery solved and a perpetrator brought to justice by a lone lawman that has brought about things like the noir genre, and that speaks to something about who we are as a people. Just go and ask Odo. I think this same desire for a certain kind of disclosure is part of what fuels the appeal of conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thinking, the corollary of which is the romanticization and mystification of the intelligence community. I find it very satisfying that this selfsame episode introduces us to the Obsidian Order through Julian Bashir, possibly the second-biggest truth-seeker and mystery buff on Deep Space 9.
But the biggest mystery of all is of course Garak. The question of “Who Is Elim Garak?” (whoops, guess I spoiled a major plot point. Oh well) is a complicated one. But then again, so is the question of who any one of us are. Personal identity theory is more than just the continuity of consciousness in an android body. Let's, for the moment, set aside the persistence of the self problem, and you go ahead and make of consciousness whatever you will. Are we, could it be argued, the sum total of our life experiences, and thus not only shaped by them but reducible to them? Perhaps on one metaphorical level each of us are nothing more than an amalgamation of events and interactions with other people. This is, after all, how we will all be remembered someday. There is no hidden platonic “real” you because a part of you behaves a certain way in social situations, and it's by those facets you display in interactions through which you will be defined in the eyes of society. I never got far enough in philosophy to say with confidence if there's a name for that theory, apart from perhaps “anti-solipsism”. Or maybe, post-structuralist reading writ large. Whatever the case may be, when we're talking about fictional characters perhaps it could be argued this is literally who they are.
The identity and personhood of characters are intrinsically bound up with the stories that are told about them. Who they are to us is defined by how they behave in the snapshots of their lives we see and read, coloured by our own interpretations and perspectives, and perhaps what we need them to be at that particular stage in our own lives. Garak knows this better than most characters: From the beginning, his relationship with Doctor Bashir has been governed by particularly camp performative artifice. Garak constantly teases, misdirects and misleads because he knows Julian loves it, because Julian can't resist a mystery or an adventure. And so do we: Garak seems to be somehow aware of the irresistible aura of mystery that surrounds him and enjoys playing it up with wild abandon. He sided with the Good Guys against Gul Dukat in “Cardassians”, only to seemingly do a face heel turn in “Profit and Loss” by striking against the Cardassian Underground....Except that technically put him on the same side as Odo, who was at first ready to comply with the Provisional Government's request to extradite Natima Lang and her allies. And in the end, he helps them escape. Just like he possibly did to all those Bajoran kids during the occupation.
“The Wire” is what happens when Garak's innate understanding of the fourth wall goes out of control and meta. The options Garak gives us with which to choose his past, and thus choose how we will perceive him, say just as much about us depending on how we decide to react to them. Depending on the mask, Garak is either a loyal fascist Cardassian soldier wracked by guilt over his perceived inability to carry out his duty, a hero who saved the lives of a group of innocent Bajorans, betraying his charge and position in the process, or an opportunist who, while no less heroic in his actions to save Bajoran victims of the occupation, did so by selling out his best friend. In each and every possible case, however, the key reaction is Doctor Bashir's, not Garak's: Julian forgives him at every turn, but what is he actually forgiving? Is Julian forgiving an amoral soldier's momentary lapse regardless of circumstance, or is he healing a someone who perceives themselves as a failure and a turncoat by showing him he did the good and just thing in the end? Either way Julian is a healer; someone who is himself charged with preserving and protecting life.
But which option will prove the best for us and our own future? Well, maybe there's truth and righteousness no matter which one we choose. Maybe we don't have to choose.
“My dear Doctor, they're all true.”
“Even the lies?”
Indeed. Because what can be more true than fiction, which is the very framework we construct to understand our lives and the world around us? All received knowledge comes to us through some form of story. Since ancient times oral history and oral tradition used mythopoea to symbolize the origin and machinations of the universe. Science constructs facts based on observation and inference that translates localized knowledge into the language of western academia. And history takes the form of a narrative woven by invested parties. All of Garak's stories about his secret origin and backstory are true, because there is some quantum reality where each of them are true. And like any great fictional character, the origin we pick for him is the one that tells the best story at any given time; the one we need to hear now. Like Odo and Dax, Garak is a mutable being aware of his mutability who chooses the way he presents that is the most advantageous for the current moment.“Especially the lies.”
The fact of the matter is, no matter who Garak was or is and no matter what he may or may not have done, his friendship with Julian always exists in the present moment. Together they're always looking forward. During Garak's mental breakdown, Julian constantly casually brushes off cutting, hurtful words that would have spelled the end of any relationship that wasn't as unbreakable and intractable as this. And so this becomes Garak's biggest and greatest performance of all: Through his constant rewriting of his own history, he forces Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to confront and remember its utopian roots. He forces empathy and forgiveness while at the same time spurring action. It doesn't actually matter who Garak “really” is, and it would be wise of the show never to tell us. Indeed, maybe there is no “real” Garak and he's simply whoever and whatever we need him to be right now. All that matters is presence and memory. And progress.
There's no grand secret to be discovered, no great mystery to be solved and no vast conspiracy to unravel. Not even the Obsidian Order can give us an Objective Truth. There's only you and me. And us.
Sunday, May 1, 2016
“The Final Voyage”: Journey's End, The Maquis, Preemptive Strike
No, not Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I've always maintained Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are effectively the same show (or should be read that way), the only difference being what part of the universe the camera lens shines on at any given moment. And never has this basic, yet frequently overlooked, truism been more clear than now, because when Star Trek: The Next Generation goes down, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine goes down with it. Where one leads, the other will follow, bound inexorably together by the ties of fate and kinship. And while yes, something *called* Star Trek: Deep Space Nine continues for another five years after this moment, it's fundamentally a very, very different creature from what we've been watching since January of 1993. The shared universe that we've been witnessing unfold has suddenly and violently been torpedoed by friendly fire, and it's only a matter of time now. There's plenty of brilliant material left to cover that this world has opened up for us to be sure, but as far as the studio higher-ups are concerned, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine can't get their asses out the door fast enough.
Star Trek Voyager has arrived, and Star Trek Voyager is all that matters anymore.
Plans for a frankly nonsensical fifth Star Trek series were in the works as early as 1993, which I honestly find kind of scary to think about. No sooner did Star Trek: Deep Space Nine debut and make a case for being the future of the franchise than Paramount executives were busy drafting up its replacement. *Technically*, of course, Star Trek Voyager was intended to replace Star Trek: The Next Generation, but this only begs the question: Why go to all the trouble to draft up a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the first place, a show that has from the outset been so self-consciously walking a tightrope between complimenting its older sister and defining itself in opposition to it, if the studio was always just going to go ahead and do “more of the same, but cheaper” anyway? After all, the mantle was supposed to be Deep Space Nine's to inherit eventually...Or so we were told.
I won't talk about the premier of Star Trek Voyager here because it's still a year away and the series doesn't even technically exist yet in a material form, but you better believe it does in every other form. But for the purposes of this essay, I'll have those of you know who weren't there that this was an event. It was a massive entertainment media blitz the likes of which hadn't been seen since Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, and all throughout 1994 nobody would shut the fuck up about it. *Everyone* in every reference book and sci-fi periodical published that year was talking nonstop about the upcoming Star Trek Voyager and how exciting it was going to be and what a marvelous time it was to be a Star Trek fan. Malibu Comics in particular sticks in my mind for how much they loved reminding you every month that they had the license for the hottest new property of 1994-5 and were looking forward to expanding their Star Trek comic universe (they proceeded to then promptly lose it within about six months). As someone who was only a casual Star Trek viewer who was only just now fully getting into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine I did miss the majority of this, though it was hard to avoid. And by the next year and all the following years to come I made up for lost time on that count fast.
I have to wonder why Paramount made such an insanely huge deal about this. It's something I've thought a lot about on and off ever since. Why did they move so quickly with it, and why did they make the creative and commercial decisions they did? I believe I even said it myself: Once spinoffs start to come out, that's a strong sign a TV show doesn't have long to live. Star Trek: The Next Generation may have been a special case, but it was still a bit long in the tooth by 1991. But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1993? Starting work on a spinoff then would have been like a major network commissioning a pilot and than hurriedly greenlighting a sequel or spinoff before the thing even goes to series. In fact, no, it's not “like” that, it is exactly that.
The argument that I frequently see written up in the history books is that Star Trek Voyager was created to continue the success of having two Star Trek shows on the air concurrently, as had been proven by The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine running together. But that argument doesn't really hold water for me, mainly because the fucking thing was greenlit before anyone who wasn't clairvoyant or actually a Temporal Cold War agent could have physically have been able to see how that system worked in practice. And anyway even if they had, the smart money would seem to go *against* Star Trek Voyager, because The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine were already having issues competing with each other in certain syndication markets because particularly thoughtless programming directors would air the two shows opposite each other (just like they did in my local affiliates). Not only that, but some affiliates were even running TNG and DS9 opposite reruns of TNG and DS9.
For me, the answer comes down to one of two equally plausible scenarios. One is basic greed; Paramount wanted to milk the proverbial Star Trek cash cow for all it was worth for as long as possible, damn the consequences. This is the sequence of events preferred by Rick Berman, who was expressing concern about this as early as 1994, but only got (in)famous for saying it after Enterprise was cancelled in 2005. However, there's another possibility, and it's one I'm increasingly in favour of entertaining (with the disclaimer a lot of this is speculation on my part). Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was created in part to carry on the populist legacy and audience of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and for a year and a half that's precisely what it did. It was a smash hit with mainstream audiences, “Emissary” alone mustering some staggeringly astronomical numbers, and was an unmistakable and iconic tenet of pop culture for a good three years. *However*, it wasn't doing quite as well in the ratings as Star Trek: The Next Generation, which only makes sense if you stop to think about it: Naturally the upstart new series is not going to overtake the biggest show on television when it's barely a year old.
But as big as Deep Space Nine was, and people always forget that it really was, it was not doing well with one specific demographic Paramount considered vitally important: Namely, hardcore (white, straight, cis, male) Star Trek fans. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a big hit with normal people, but the fanboys hated it because they thought it was “too slow”, “too boring”, was too much like a “soap opera” (meaning it had girls in it and people occasionally talked about their feelings), didn't have enough action (because Deep Space Nine was not a show about rayguns and spaceship battles) and, perhaps most damningly, was set on a space station: This elicited cries of “But they don't go anywhere!” (you must visualize this being delivered with the whiniest, most nasal voice you can imagine) from the fans, who decided this meant the Deep Space 9 team were not real explorers and thus the show was not a true Star Trek show.
My theory is that Paramount saw this and panicked. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had been guaranteed at least six seasons so they couldn't just cancel it, but they could get people to stop paying attention to it. So they redoubled their efforts into the prospective Star Trek: The Next Generation film series, which was to be for the mainstream audiences as well as legacy fans, and the new show, Star Trek Voyager, which would be everything the fans wanted and felt they weren't getting on Deep Space Nine: A fateful decision that, in my view, left the Star Trek franchise with its days numbered. Either way, this would mean Voyager was to be the new heir apparent and the studio's golden girl, and no material or metaphorical expense would be spared to ensure it would be the biggest event they could possibly muster. As the new face of the studio and the franchise, Star Trek Voyager absolutely *had* to work and, more to the point, it had to work the way they wanted it to work.
So what does Star Trek Voyager have to do with these three episodes? You may recall how last year “Chain of Command” served as kind of a lead-in to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and a setup for its world, going out a few weeks before the debut of “Emissary”. This is precisely the same thing that's going on here, except multiplied times four and stretched out for half a year. The sheer hubris of this arc bloat, and the fact the studio felt they needed this long to set up the backstory for Star Trek Voyager, is an absolutely perfect microcosm for the stark differences between the way this transition is being helmed and the way the previous one was, and it's a bitterly perfect example of the extravagance and shortsightedness that's come to characterize Paramount's business dealings. Furthermore, “Journey's End”, “The Maquis” and “Preemptive Strike” are all utterly reprehensible stories on just about every single level, and certainly do not leave me in good spirits about the future Star Trek Voyager is set to bring about.
The common thread that links all of these episodes is the titular group from “The Maquis”. They're a group of former Federation colonists who settled in the demilitarized zone between the Federation and the Cardassian Empire who are now being forced to relocate after the treaty renegotiation following the end of the border wars ceded their planets to the Cardassians. As a result, they've turned to insurgence terrorism to get the attention of the colonial powers with their demand of being allowed to remain on the planets they settled. In “The Maquis”, Commander Sisko is introduced to them when his old friend Cal Hudson is revealed to be an influential leader in the Maquis. Sisko is forced to confront him when the Maquis' actions risk destabilizing the Federation-Cardassian alliance, and ends up siding with Gul Fucking Dukat to bring him in and crush the rebellion. Similarly, in “Preemptive Strike”, Ro Laren goes undercover to infiltrate the Maquis, has a crisis of conscience about her loyalties given how much they remind her of the struggles of her own people, and ends up defecting. We never see her again.
While not mentioned by name in the episode, the Maquis are absolutely the focus of “Journey's End”. This story sees Wesley Crusher returning (so we're already off to a great start) and going up against the Enterprise crew when they're ordered to relocate a settlement of Native Americans away from a planet in a part of the demilitarized zone that is now considered Cardassian territory. Wesley throws a fit, whines a lot, and ends up leaving with The Doctor in the TARDIS, er, I mean, ends up exploring space on a higher plane of existence with The Traveller. And you better believe everything that this team could possibly have screwed up and racefailed on in a plot about Native Americans they absolutely screw up on. It's a veritable checklist of cultural cluelessness: Native Americans portrayed as essentially homogeneous and interchangeable, being more innately “spiritual” and “connected to the land”, check and double-check. And on top of it all imperialism, neo-colonialism and Wesley Goddamn Crusher. Gods above.
There's two interwoven threads here, apart from these episode just all flat-out sucking. One is that the Maquis were intended to be the setting gimmick for Star Trek Voyager in much the same way the Cardiassian-Bajoran conflict was for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: On its maiden, er, voyage, the USS Voyager was to encounter a hostile Maquis fighter, but before they could act both ships were flung to the other end of the galaxy where they would be forced to learn to put aside their differences and work together. In fact, Chakotay, the Native American captain of the Maquis ship who becomes Captain Janeway's first officer, was to have come from the same planet featured in “Journey's End”. So this explains the heavy exposure the Maquis got on the tail end of Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: It's merely a thinly veiled ashcan prequel to Star Trek Voyager. This is the Next Generation/Deep Space Nine version of “Assignment: Earth”. And just like that episode, it makes the crew of the current series look like a bunch of worthless buffoons in order to make the new show look cool and contemporary.
Because there is absolutely no getting around the fact that the crews of Deep Space 9 and the starship Enterprise come across as absolutely ethically unforgivable here. Actually, I don't think they've ever been depicted worse. We've seen moral ambiguity (or “moral ambiguity”) on the show before, of course, but there's a big fucking difference between being forced into a bad place and making the best of it and deliberately, overtly siding with the bad guys. Seriously, Commander Sisko throwing his lot in with Gul freaking Dukat is basically tantamount to him siding with Adolf Hitler or Donald Trump and is effectively character assassination. I shudder when I look back and remember I actually used to like this two-parter and considered it well-done drama. And that's not even touching “Journey's End”, which basically has the Enterprise blaze the Space Trail of Tears, or “Preemptive Strike”, where they spy on a bunch of oppressed people. Make no mistake, the crew are the villains of these episodes: We're absolutely meant to side with Cal Hudson, Ro Laren and Wesley Crusher. And, by extension, Star Trek Voyager.
(Speaking of oppression, you may be wondering, given my chapter on “Lower Decks”, why I don't have more to say about there being a group of displaced peoples in this supposed post-scarcity utopia. Honestly it sort of makes sense to me given that the Federation and Cardassians have always operated like empires or neocolonial powers in spite of everything. The Maquis are a logical end result of the political structure of the Star Trek universe, I will give the show that, I just think it was inexcusable of it to not have our supposed heroes side with them. On the rare times Star Trek's idealism actually meshes with its worldbuilding, it does so by showing how utopian results can be achieved by resisting and rejecting this kind of system. That the show so explicitly doesn't do this here is to me conclusive proof of the franchise's ultimate overall failure.)
Although really, I can't see how this bodes any better for Star Trek Voyager. Given how appalling poorly Starfeet comes across in these episodes, how impossible it is to not side with the Maquis...Is anyone actually looking forward to potentially six years of a starched collar Federation crew and a rowdy group of justly angry rebels reaching a “tentative alliance” based around “setting aside differences”? How is that going to make Katherine Janeway look any better than Jean-Luc Picard, Will Riker or Benjamin Sisko? How is this whole concept not just going to fall flat as the milquetoast myth of liberal compromise and restitution? Star Trek's central artifice is shaky enough as it is-The franchise's idealism has always been in constant conflict with its militarism and it's hard to jettison one in favour of the other without it ceasing to be Star Trek. But here, the entire coherence of Star Trek as a collective work has been unraveled. By explicitly separating our protagonists from the people and ideologies which are so unambiguously in the right, Star Trek has made them stop being heroes. And it's hard to watch a show where there are no heroes anymore.
Subscribe to: Posts (Atom)