Sunday, February 28, 2016

“...which opens to that primeval cosmic night”: Dark Page

Memory Alpha is *really* letting me down in terms of screenshots.
The first thing that struck me upon rewatching “Dark Page” was the Cairn. In prehistoric times, a “cairn” was an artificial stone pile structure used as a trail marker or burial mound, or in ceremonial astronomical rites. Some cairns, especially in German, Dutch and Inuit territories, were considered totemic figures: They were known as “imitation people” or “stone men”, and considered effigies and representation of human forms.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Cairn are a telepathic species who communicate purely on the level of images. It's an elegant and holistic form of communication that engenders a sense of cosmic oneness, and the show understands the real ramifications of this. The Cairn find verbal communication awkward and limiting, and the show makes no attempt to refute this assertion because it's true. Language is built around artifice, an inaccurate facade constructed to represent and stand in for the ineffable whose only hope for success is to convey a general idea for a concept through simile, metaphor and mimicry. The true nature of reality is that great cosmic interconnectedness of all things, and the only way we can truly perceive and understand this is at a heightened state of conscious awareness: The realm of images, emotions and memory.

It makes perfect sense that this would be something Star Trek: The Next Generation would instinctively know, at least at a subconscious level. Art exists in the liminal space between language and the eternal, and is meant to serve as the modern shamanic pathway from one to the other. Thematically, Star Trek: The Next Generation was always destined to reach this point eventually because the realisation is ultimately little more than empathy writ universal: The macro- and microcosm both of the divine cosmology. But Star Trek: The Next Generation has also always been an artistic evocation whose true self lies within aesthetics-The utopian dream lives in the image of the navigator and is evoked through the picture of a brilliant blue voyaging starship adrift in deep space. It's not the show and never has been the show: It's the idea of the show and what the show inspires within us through the ideals it signifies. 

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

I relate to the Cairn. I relate to the hopeless struggle of trying to express yourself with words you don't have, visions you don't know how to communicate and images whose depths you may or may not even fully understand. That is, ultimately, what the story of this phase of Vaka Rangi is: You can never truly know what Star Trek: The Next Generation means to me and I can never truly explain it. And some days I don't even feel like trying. Star Trek: The Next Generation doesn't even fully understand itself, and it's through the Cairn it's finally openly admitting this to us. The show is a performative simulacrum of its true self and its true potential and always has been. Maybe it was always destined to be this. Time and again we have caught glimpses of the transcendent eternal that exists within and just beyond our senses and have felt the longing to grasp it, and time and again we have failed to reach it.

And so it has to be Lwaxana Troi who serves as our intermediary to the Cairn, and who is transformed herself through knowing them. Lwaxana has a working understanding of the true nature of the universe; we've known this since “Haven”. But Lwaxana is also “Classic Star Trek” incarnate, deliberately, diegetically and extradiegetically reminding us of the way we willfully stunted our own spiritual growth. Of course she has a dark personal secret that haunts her with could-have-beens. Guilt and regret are the province of the ego, and the nagging feeling that things could be and should be better than they are reminds us of our true calling and untapped potential in its own small ways.

“Dark Page” has a resoundingly negative reception amongst Star Trek fandom, and this makes me actually kind of angry. Firstly because it is visually one of the single most iconic moments in all of Star Trek for me, and I mean like “seared into my psyche at a primordial level” sort of iconic. The scene where Deanna is exploring her mother's subconscious, as represented by the darkened corridors of the Enterprise, has lingered in my mind since I first saw this episode in 1993, *especially* the scene where she sees a hole opening up into space at the end of the corridor and boldly jumps into it. You would think all that, well, dark imagery would be frightening, but I never once remember being scared by it. Instead, I was transfixed by the surreal dream logic of the scene and recall somehow just intuitively “getting” it at an innate, instinctual level. For me this was formative to an absolutely incalculable degree: This experience utterly defined not just how I conceptualized Star Trek: The Next Generation, but my understanding of Deanna Troi as a character and a person as well. “Dark Page” is, as far as I'm concerned, *the* definitive Deanna Troi story.

(This is also why “Where No One Has Gone Before” always resonated with me too: I remember connecting the scene in that story where Captain Picard almost falls into open space to the shot of Deanna freely jumping down into it of her own volition here. Connecting the dream imagery of these two stories with that of episodes like “Birthright, Part I”, “Timescape”, “Phantasms”, “Eye of the Beholder”, “Emergence” and even “Genesis” forged a link to an intellectual thread that I felt was self-evidently present all throughout Star Trek: The Next Generation. To me, this is the purest expression of the show's creative drive and ambition; a visual presentation of its truest self.)

Of course, another reason “Dark Page” is so maligned in fandom is precisely because it's a Deanna Troi story. In fact, not only is it a story custom-tailored to play to her strengths, dealing quite heavily and maturely with actual psychology and grief counseling, it's a mother-daughter story to boot about Deanna's relationship with Lwaxana. And obviously, any female-led story about relationships between women written by a female author is going to rankle the sci-fi nerds. But what really bothers me is how hollow and easily refutable the case against “Dark Page” really is: The argument tends to go that the revelation about Kestra comes out of nowhere and only builds upon Deanna and Lwaxana's pre-existing relationship in a strangled and unrealistic way. First of all, OK, no, everything Lwaxana does in this episode is perfectly in keeping with her character as previously established. In fact, she's far more believable now than she was before: We can now understand and respect, if not condone, Lwaxana's nervous pressuring of Deanna to settle down and get married. Because she's terrified something might happen to Deanna and that she can't protect her, just like she feels she couldn't protect Kestra.

This even builds on “The Forsaken”, where we learned that a lot of Lwaxana's public persona is a conscious and deliberate act to cover up her insecurities about never quite being good enough. If she's blamed herself for Kestra's untimely death all these years, that just compounds any self-worth issues she may have had previously and explains really a great deal about why she acts the way she does. And Deanna treats the situation with absolutely peerless utopian strength and professionalism, Marina Sirtis giving an absolutely formidable performance playing both Lwaxana's counselor and her daughter at the same time. Deanna knows, and we must remember, that we have to forgive our parents, and sometimes that involves helping them reach a place where they can start to forgive themselves.

One last thing I want to address in regards to the complaints that get leveled against “Dark Page” is the argument that the reveal Deanna had an older sister who died young and whose existence was kept secret from her from her mother was an unrealistic narrative stretch. Or, somewhat amazingly, that the post-facto grief Lwaxana was shown to be carrying with her bottled up such that it was destroying her mind was unbelievable melodrama (do I sense a potential grimdark double standard at play?). Quite simply, no it's not, and it's a bit insulting for you to claim otherwise. I don't want to go into a whole lot of detail, but, suffice to say, there are aspects of “Dark Page” that I relate to on one or more personal levels that go beyond just the outstanding writing/direction/acting and the unforgettable dream sequences. So, speaking from experience, I'd just like to politely tell those critics who might look down their noses at a plot like this without having lived through a similar one themselves to, respectfully, shut the fuck up.

Once again, utopianism doesn't need to mean a world where everything is perfect and free of strife. Sometimes it can mean healing ourselves or another person and learning to move beyond our griefs, regrets and personal traumas. Rejecting the healing process, trying to wallow in our pain or pretend it doesn't exist, is inherently self-destructive. You have to ask yourself if you think there's any hope of creating and achieving a better existence. It's the divide between aspiration and apathy that defines the difference between grimdark nihilism and utopianism. If you choose to be utopian, you have to start with yourself.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

“Love is Zero G”: Melora

Both this episode and its titular character are concepts that hail from the early days of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's pre-production. Melora Pazlar was originally going to be Deep Space 9's permanent science officer, but she was replaced by Jadzia Dax in part, ironically, for the very reason she has a tough time adjusting to the station in this story: The low-gravity environments she was adapted to proved too time-consuming and expensive to convey on a regular basis. The station, in a very real sense, could not accommodate her; a theme that underwrites this entire episode.

As an episode of television exploring the topical message it takes on, “Melora” is very good. It was put in the best possible hands: Writer Evan Carlos Somers, who served as a Guild intern during Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's first season before getting a shot at pitching his own stories in the second, was a wheelchair user himself and pushed for the chance to build a story around a the abandoned concept of a Starfleet officer from a low-gravity planet who had to use a wheelchair to navigate Earth-like environments. Somers also wrote “Melora” as a direct rebuttal of the appalling ableist issues of “Ethics” from the fifth season by showcasing a disabled person who is proud and accepting of who she is and the perspective she brings and doesn't want to change to suit anyone else.

Understandably given his own perspective, Somers' treatment is as laudable a depiction of mobility issues as we could expect. This episode always reminds me of a conversation that transpired during one of my seminars while I was still in the university system doing academic work in social studies of knowledge: One of my colleagues at the time was a disability advocate, and during a panel one day the question was posed to him whether “disability” was an appropriate term to use in his work. He felt that, from his experience, both “disabled” and “differently abled” were equally valid terms because while the people in question most certainly were not ashamed by their positionalities and in fact championed them, the infrastructure of modern society is not built with their needs in mind, and they are thus disenfranchised and excluded by it. So in a sense while they are merely “differently abled”, the material realities of modernity also leave them “disabled”. I think this a paradox that Somers captures incredibly elegantly in “Melora”.

Unfortunately, and by his own admission, Somers didn't give himself enough time to groom his script with the level of care and attention that it really deserved, necessitating a successive series of rewrites by Steven Baum, James Crocker and Michael Piller. Though Melora herself is predictably handled well in Somers' original draft, the other characters aren't so lucky. From what I've seen of it, Melora actually comes across as a bit of a Mary Sue in it and ends up lecturing the rest of the crew, who seem to have collectively lapsed to a level of ignorance and thoughtlessness about her condition they really ought not to have. And while it's become trendy in recent years for fandom to slag off the episode as aired, I want to stress that Baum, Crocker and Piller deserve a heck of a lot of credit for their repair job here, successfully managing to restore the voices and characterization of the regulars while preserving the important message Somers had hoped to convey.

(I will quickly add, while the vast majority of the writing staff's edits improve the story, there is one that I think was a poor call. In the original draft, Melora didn't struggle with her crutches in Ops: Instead, she stayed in her chair at the foot of the stairs in front of the office, Commander Sisko came down to greet her, and they would have held their meeting in a different location. I really liked that scene because it struck me as such a very welcoming and utopian thing for Commander Sisko to do: He knows the station isn't built with her in mind, but he's going to go the extra length himself to accommodate her as much as he can. Speaking of...)

So the script and episode work, but there are paratextual issues surrounding it that give me some pause for concern and they all surround Melora's diegetic and extradiegetic disability. In the episode, there's a plot reason for Melora having to use a wheelchair apart from her background as an Elaysian: The corridors of Deep Space 9 are not wide enough to fit her anti-grav chair. This is actually true behind the scenes as well: The team had originally wanted to use the hover chair that Admiral Mark Jameson uses in “Too Short a Season”, but the prop would not fit into the deliberately narrow and cramped sets of Deep Space 9. The chair was designed for the bridge of the Enterprise, a very open and spacious room that even features ramps on both sides which Andy Probert *deliberately* placed there to accommodate wheelchair users. Part of Star Trek: The Next Generation's utopianism lies in the fact the Enterprise was designed from the ground up to be a safe and welcoming space for people of all levels of mobility: Just take a look at the windows on the saucer section of the six foot model next time you watch the first season or stock footage from the first season if you want further evidence of that.

(Although that said, all you have to do is take a glance at poor Geordi La Forge if you want proof of how tone-deaf Star Trek is on accessibility issues across the board.)

But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was envisioned as a show about conflict, and starbase Deep Space 9 was created to be the antithesis of a safe and accessible space. Instead, the conflict was built into the design of the station itself: It's cramped. It's claustrophobic. You have to step up, over and around things all the time. Had Melora transferred to the starship Enterprise, she would have had absolutely no trouble living and working there with all the same opportunities and privileges as everyone else onboard. It's only on Deep Space 9 where the annoyances and aggravations of everyday life become so overwhelming she briefly considers abandoning a vital part of herself just to cope. And I really have to wonder if this is the right message to be sending. Yes, “Melora” is an excellent science fiction metaphor for how differently abled people are disabled by modern society every day. It's a classic Star Trek morality play “Issues” story of the sort that's made the franchise famous since the days of the Original Series, and one of the best.

But it's not utopian.

You have to seriously ask yourself, is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine *really* served by having inaccessibility built into its very fabric like this? Is it really such a good idea for it to be constantly, overtly trying to contrast itself with absolutely *everything* Star Trek: The Next Generation does at every turn, especially the things that are actually good about Star Trek: The Next Generation and make it unique? This is a show that ostensibly wants to be about healing, rebirth and reconstruction, but its mesmerizing fetish for conflict is fundamentally incompatible with these stated goals. Sooner or later this show is going to have to pick one side or the other to definitely cast its allegiance with. Maybe it's true that you can't make utopian scripted drama. But utopian fiction *is* a valid form of storytelling, and an inability to commit to it says more about the writer than it does about the story.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

“The register of machined-being belongs to the milieu of dream logic”: Phantasms

Warning: Star Trek: The Next Generation is going to resist you.

An alarm sounds. Dare you answer? 
Hello, Sil. 
“Do you ever have nightmares?” 
“I have them. I think they tell me who I am.” 


Do you think Star Trek: The Next Generation is afraid of something? This is my diagnosis: A show haunted by the spectre of technocracy. Data was created as the ideal technoscientific glorified body: A sublime machine Vitruvian Man, a posthuman figure with no humanity. And this is what Data fears might be the sum total of his existence: An autocratic vision of humanity's utopian future. Data fears reductiveness, because he fears reductiveness is built into his being. There is not that large of a gap between Data and Lore (“Descent”), and Data's programmatic logic and rationalism does not by definition make him a progressive figure (“Gambit”). 
Arch-rationality seeks to purge itself of the marginal waste products that do not fit into its master narrative. Barbarians at the gates of Rome would tear the Enterprise down bit by bit, othered monsters who take the form of working class labourers. But the biggest threat of all is Deanna Troi, the scientist of the arcane: Female, feminine and tainted by the forbidden knowledge of the so-called “soft” sciences, she is the Eve figure upon who is projected the insecurities of the rational, patriarchal world. Rationality is gendered at its core, as is must be because rationality gets to define who is and isn't “us”, and thus who is and isn't deserving of a voice. And the fundamental other from the dawn of civilization is woman and the feminine. 
Data is afraid because he fears this part of himself. 
“There are no longer any haunted houses, but there are haunted beings”. That's what Anne Dufourmantelle once said. She didn't say it to me, but I overheard her say it in conversation with somebody else. Data is haunted by the ghosts of his past, which is his heritage. He may not like what he might hear if they call him. 


0.0.1 “You are watching me. I am talking, and you are listening” 

Technology is the praxis by which fiction is reifyed. All technology is fiction because all technology begins as an idea, and ideas exist within the imaginal realm. A book gives a fiction material form by conveying a simulacrum of ideas through the technology of printing and bound organic tree matter. The process of technolgizing a concept gives politics (both in the general sense of social connections between human and nonhuman actors and in terms of hierarchical systems of power) material and tangible form. Our dynamic interactions with technology, perhaps one could call it an addiction to technology, will then in turn reiterate the political concepts into daily life. A master narrative is a fiction, but it's a fiction we voluntarily choose to live our lives in accordance with through the way it is invoked through and evoked by technology. 
A book is patriarchal technology that breeds patriarchal sentiment in turn. It is the discrete material husk of a dead story being delivered to us from an authoritative figure intended for passive consumption. A gospel, or Word of God. It bears a veneer of discontinuity and authoritativeness that, though it falls apart through the act of critical reading, remains a superficial characteristic. A selling point, if you will. 
So the question becomes, how does one bring about a progressive, utopian technological philosophy? Or perhaps more to the point, how do you take a technology that isn't utopian and make it utopian? One way to do this is through reading: The act of critical reading is itself a radical act, because it brings to life truths and meanings from a multiplicity of realities. 
This gets at the inherent limitations of written and linguistic communication in general, but that's not this story. “Stop being so literal”, as someone might say. Or was it “literary”? 


Vaka Rangi is an interdisciplinary switchboard. It has a multiplicity of identities that I alternate between depending on what I think would be an appropriate angle for the topic at hand. First and foremost it is an examination of the image and archetype of the voyaging starship, and how that manifests in a variety of different modern science fiction works over the second half of the 20th century. My personal thesis is that the best possible interpretation of the voyaging starship archetype is as a western version of the philosophy of Polynesian navigators, where the voyaging canoe was a microcosm of the universe and represented the basic interconnectedness of all things. My personal politics, philosophical background and even aspects of my own blossoming spiritual outlook can't help but contribute to the way my conception of this has evolved over time. 
It's also a personal journey for me to revisit a specific media artefact that had a major impact on my life in my formative years (Star Trek, namely Star Trek in the years 1987-1994) through the medium of critical history in an attempt to discern what meant to me back then, what it means to me now and how much it truly shaped me into the person I am today. Furthermore, it's a narrative itself, or rather several narratives, because I can only convey my personal experiences through a theatrical pantomime of metaphor and allegory.


Sigmund Freud's approach to psychoanalysis has been widely discredited, and yet his theories remain fundamental to the field. There is what engineers would call a “design flaw” within psychoanalysis; technoscientific code for a disconnect between two sets of actors. We might call it a “failure to communicate”. 
Data understands that Freud's theories are inherently flawed, and yet he summons him as an actor anyway. In fact, he consults him long before he considers calling on the heretical Deanna Troi. But this Sigmund Freud is a holodeck simulation, and thus a phantom channeled through the medium of Data's positionality. This is what media studies scholars might call a “redemptive reading”: Although Data acknowledges the flaws and shortcomings in Freud's approach, he still cares enough about him to wish to speak with him. And Freud further manifests himself to Geordi and Captain Picard as the representation of Data's subconscious in the collective dream. 
Data invokes Freud, literally calling on him, because he sees something in Freud's work that is worth preserving in spite of whatever other faults may be present within it. This is an act of unconditional love wherein the reader glorifies the text by making it into something more than it was before. We only criticize because we care. 
Do you love Star Trek: The Next Generation


Although it probably doesn't reach the level of a serious medical condition, I have what I would consider a form of telephone anxiety. I do not like communicating through it and I refuse to own a cell phone (a decision I feel is validated by the fact smart phones are exquisitely designed agents of social control). 
I got part of this from my father, who served in the Vietnam War and was trained to treat any form of electronic communication as a potentially bugged information trap and to view any and all telephones with latent suspicion. But I also grew up in a family that was isolated from the outside world for both voluntary and involuntary reasons and, over time, the only time the telephone would ring in our house would be for calls from telemarketers and collection agencies. The only time I had a phone of my own was in college, and the only people I ever talked to were judgmental administrators, financial aid organisations looking for payments and the harried and overworked boss at the mismanaged part-time job I worked who would call me up late at night in a rage to blame me for some breakdown in communication further up the line. 
For me, the telephone has always been an invader. It's an assailant into my environment that demands my attention and subservience to its authority with a latent threatening presence. There's the famous Cold War story of the “nuclear hotline” or “red phone” that would only ring in the event nuclear war was declared, a call the entire world would wait in dread anxiety to hear. And in World War II, the Nazis mobilized both the telephone and radio: For Hitler the telephone was a weapon, an instrument of surveillance, propaganda, recruitment and brainwashing. The legacy of fascism leaves the telephone at least a partially fascist tool that appropriates and subjugates its listeners. 
Even Joseph Campbell's “Call to Adventure” is phrased in telephonic terms. There is a call from someplace absent and distant that summons someone to a pre-ordained mission they cannot refuse. And thus is perpetuated the master narrative.


Spoken word predates linguistic communication. Mantras (translated in Chinese as zhenyan, literally, “true words”) are sacred syllabic and melodic vocal constructs thought to be older than language itself. And in many indigenous societies, shamanic practice involves ritualistic chanting to enter into trance to bridge the gap between the material and spiritual worlds. In populist language, hypnosis is synonymous with brainwashing. Yet in practice, hypnosis can be a joint act of guided meditation through which participants can attain a heightened state of conscious awareness. It doesn't work if both parties don't jointly agree to play along. 
Can we reconceptualize this as a form of communication? Not on a conversational level per se, but perhaps at an empathic one. Maybe reach the imaginal realm in tandem is the way to understand both yourself and another, because in doing so you'll have attained that truth together. And if the subjective congress were to be read in microcosm, then 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

“Set course for home”: Cardassians

The imaginatively titled “Cardassians” is a solid story about innocent bystanders whose lives are upended by political gerrymandering. There are the Cardassian War Orphans, most notably the young Rugal, who are ripped away from the lives and families they know on Bajor in order to cover up a potential scandal involving a number of military higher-ups. But there is also the crew of Deep Space 9, namely Commander Sisko, who end up tasked with the unpleasant duty of uprooting these children from their homes as part of their jobs in order to avoid a diplomatic incident.

Like last season's “Progress”, “Cardassians” examines the repercussions of life for administrators and local officials trying to do their best to represent their people, but who are ultimately at the whims of powerful governments and other systems of centralized authority who wish to consolidate power regardless of whether or not it serves the best interests of those who live under them. There's no way to argue that being forcibly relocated to Cardassia, a planetary society he fears, distrusts and doesn't even know, is going to be a net benefit for Rugal, so I'm not going to address it. Apart from the false equivalence in critiquing Rugal's hatred of the Cardassians by paralleling it with the decades of brutal oppression those selfsame people inflicted on the Bajorans, there's also the rather uglier implication that adopted children are always better off with their biological parents in every circumstance (the episode by no means endorses this perspective, but it doesn't do enough to refute it either). But ultimately, this is a story about the Deep Space 9 crew having their hands tied in order to prevent them from making the obviously correct choice and exploring how to react to a situation like that.

The regulars themselves are a slightly mixed bag on this front...Commander Sisko is generally excellent, as are Garak and Doctor Bashir, but I disagree with some of how Miles O'Brien is written. His speech to Rugal near the end about how it's wrong to write off an entire people with generalizations, stating that he himself has met some Cardassians he liked and some he didn't, is beautiful knowing his backstory and an utterly perfect Star Trek moment. Or at least it would be if the chief's history with the Federation-Cardassian War and the dismissive speciesist feelings he once suffered as a result of it were left unspoken and implied. Instead, the scene earlier in the episode where Miles expresses concern to Keiko about Molly associating with Rugal sort of undermines that moment's effectiveness for me.

I know it was meant to show moral ambiguity and that racism is difficult to overcome overnight and how even good people can slip back into bad habits from time to time. But the thing is I don't agree that was a good call. That's not a Star Trek: The Next Generation message. This series is supposed to be showing us how we can *overcome* our various foibles and vices. Not that we don't necessarily have them, just that we can overcome the ones that we do. And the point of “The Wounded” was to show Miles getting over whatever leftover baggage he had from the Federation-Cardassian War, his assisting Captain Picard and Gul Macet's efforts to track down and apprehend Captain Maxwell his moment of growth and redemption. That's what gives the Minstrel Boy scene its power: Having shown that he's grown beyond his anger, Miles proves to Captain Picard that he can be trusted to beam over to Maxwell's ship and do the right thing.

Even if you choose to ignore his subsequent growth in Michael Jan Friedman's comic book line due to canon concerns, that's self-evidently what “The Wounded” at least was about. “Cardassians” doesn't add any nuance to Miles O'Brien's character by having him say that sort of thing, its actually *undoing* character development, which sounds like the sort of thing this creative team would be opposed to (I guess “conflict” was more important). But more to the point, this scene is effectively a relapse, and relapses just aren't a Star Trek: The Next Generation to do. This show is supposed to be about growing and moving forward, not regressing, and the episode's final moments would have been considerably more powerful and effective had it embraced that angle.

But now that I've squared that away, I want to talk about another aspect of this story. Rugal is one of the more notable examples of a cultural transplant in Star Trek, and the comparative detail afforded to his backstory, along with the fact it's set against the backdrop of the heavily symbolic Cardassia/Bajor conflict, allows us to examine some important themes about cultural identity and belonging. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a show about rebirth, healing, reconstruction and starting anew. Most everyone on the station has come to it from somewhere else, and everyone is looking to set aside their past and begin new lives as honourary, if not ethnically, Bajorans. Commander Sisko is moving beyond the trauma and grief of Jennifer's death, and while he is not technically “Of Bajor”, he is destined to be the Emissary of the Prophets. Major Kira feels self conscious about her past as a terrorist and, while she didn't want the job at first, has come to see Deep Space 9 as her home. The O'Briens moved to a new city and have to adapt to new jobs. Jadzia Dax literally gave birth to herself as a new person. Odo doesn't know where he came from, but he's slowly starting to realise that doesn't matter because its his actions in the present, not his heritage, that define who he is.

And the same is true for Rugal, who is Bajoran even if he wasn't born on Bajor. And yet Rugal is an interesting case, because he is descended from Bajor's former occupying overlords. Temporarily setting aside the larger latent political issues with the Federation, within the show's logic the Starfleet officers of Deep Space 9 effectively represent immigrants. They came from somewhere else and consciously cast aside their past in order to reinvent themselves. The Cardassians, however, including Rugal, are the descendants of imperialist colonizers who continue to live in the lands their ancestors conquered and stole away from its native peoples. This breeds a different sort of person, I think: Although some amount of intermingling can occur, colonial societies tend to live purposely apart from indigenous societies of the same geographic area, either walling themselves away in continent-sized gated communities or forcing the indigenous people into smaller and smaller reservations so they're out of sight and out of mind.

In his book Changes in the Land, environmental historian William Cronon dispels the myth that Native Americans in New England lived in a pristine, untouched wilderness prior to the arrival of European colonialists. Pointing out that ecosystems can never in fact actually be inert, Cronon shows how the Native Americans actually carefully maintained the land by working in tandem with it. Their intimate familiarity with their environment, as all indigenous people have, allowed them to recognise and respect the way the various natural cycles manifested locally. Therefore, while they did alter their environment, they did so in an empathetic fashion that was mutually beneficial to both the people and the land. The Europeans, by contrast, were strangers in New England-They didn't know or understand the land and were often fearful of it. Thus, they attempted to “tame” and “dominate” the environment, forcibly bending it to their will and perceived needs, paying no heed to whether or not their actions were sustainable or not.

I'm beginning to develop a theory that this is the original sin that lies at the heart of Western modernity. Because of our imperialistic roots, we have always grown up in societies distant and detached from the lands our ancestors conquered. Because it's not our land and we didn't come from here we never took the time to truly understand the places modernity assimilated and, as a result, we behave recklessly, destructively and shortsightedly. But also, we lose a sense of cultural identity: Westerners are a people without an actual home, and that gives us a crisis of identity and spirituality. I think this may be the root cause of not just capitalism's environmental destruction, but also the temptation of cultural appropriation. Since we don't really have traditions of our own (or the ones that we do are too odious and embarrassing to embrace), we try and adopt those of others in our joint ignorance and desperation.

Are voyaging and immigration the solution to these deep-rooted problems? Can you, like Rugal and the crew of Deep Space 9, ever truly become connected to a land and a culture you weren't born and raised in? As someone who is the descendant of immigrants and possesses an undeniable wanderlust, I'd certainly like to think so. But that's not a question I feel qualified to answer.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

“A pirate's life for me”: Gambit, Part II

Last time on Star Trek: The Next Generation...
“I suppose it's worth pointing out the possible significance in the fact that the first few acts of “Gambit” chronicle the crew's search for Captain Picard, missing and presumed murdered, and their efforts to discover the identity of his would-be killer and bring them to justice.” 
“It's exciting to watch Captain Picard, Commander Riker and Data all try to think around each other and anticipate each other's moves so as not to put the undercover operation with the pirates or their safety in jeopardy. Pulling it off requires them all to have an absolutely peerless level of intimacy with each other, so this is a really fitting test to give to this crew, especially at this stage in their career. It's especially noticeable and interesting with Data, who is forced to apply everything he's learned about human(oid) behaviour and culture in order to ensure he doesn't let the Enterprise down during his first real stint as acting captain.” 
“There are still some lingering problems, though. For one, it's a bit annoying that it is once again Captain Picard, Commander Riker and Data who get the majority of the interesting dramatic and strategic stuff. Doctor Crusher gets one scene in the teaser and then never appears again, and, most egregiously, Deanna Troi is reduced to spouting hollow, tin-eared expository dialog when really she ought to be the one doing most of the heavy tactical and psychological lifting.” 
“Also, another thing that bugs me is that for a story about space pirates, these guys really suck at being pirates. Captain Picard is absolutely right when he tells Tallera that Baran is a poor captain because he relies on fear and intimidation. Ruthless though they might have been, pirate ships were famously democratic and egalitarian institutions for their time, and it was most certainly a better career move (from both a financial and safety perspective) for a sailor to sign up with a pirate ship than to enlist in the navy or merchant marine.” 
“Of course this line of thought, as well as Captain Picard's rather brilliant recursive performance as Galen, just makes me really want to see a Star Trek: The Next Generation AU where the Enterprise crew are a bunch of outlaw space pirates who get their kicks fucking with the big galactic imperial powers.”
And now, the conclusion...

Every great pirate adventure story needs to have a quest to find a secret hidden mystical treasure out on a lost island somewhere. “Gambit” dutifully gives us “The Stone of Gol”, which is brilliantly split into pieces and scattered across the galaxy for aspiring treasure hunters, supervillains and legendary heroes alike to go questing after, just like in all good fantasy RPG video games. It's a very fitting MacGuffin for the Star Trek: The Next Generation universe's take on adventure stories because it's explicitly connected to the most overtly fantasy-coded of their alien races, namely, the Vulcano-Romuloids. There's the diegetic fact that it's a sacred talisman used in rituals to focus thought into material action, which I naturally quite liked (and there's even a faint callback to the last aesthetically coherent and competent episode of this season-It's not the emotions that are good or bad, but what we do with them): It's a return to a kind of starry-eyed sense of weirdness and wonder Star Trek: The Next Generation hasn't openly embraced in quite a few years, and it will serve the show eminently well going forward, as the next episode will proudly prove.

In that sense, the reveal that Tallera is actually Vulcan, and part of an isolationist movement to purge all “illogical” offworld influence under the belief that it is contaminating and corrupting their culture, is absolutely brilliant. Once again, cosmopolitanism and fundamentalism are shown to be two necessarily opposed sides of the same coin, and “Gambit” coming when it does is consummate timing. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine just finished up a massive story arc about religious and political fundamentalism and how it ultimately does nothing but reinforce existing structures of power, and now Star Trek: The Next Generation gives us a different take. Not based in religion or cynical political power consolidation, Vulcan's blend of fundamentalism is based on scientific logic and rationality. Which of course it would be, because this is the direction Vulcan has always been poised to go since as far back as “Amok Time” and “The Andorian Incident”: Ultimately, the Vulcans are an entire culture built around arch-rationalism, new atheism and dogmatic skepticism (there is, after all, a reason the Vulcans are so insufferably patriarchal, because who is the ur irrational, illogical other but woman?). It does not surprise me in the slightest that they would have an emerging nativist fundamentalist movement built around their long-simmering sense of superiority.

(Mega props to Robin Curtis, by the way, who steals the show as TalleraXT'Paal. I'm glad she finally got the chance to play a decent Vulcan character.)

I also find it ironic that it's the show heretofore most known for realpolitiking that dispatches its fundamentalist enemies with light magick. Meanwhile, the show about magick and mysticism has seemingly decided to go all in on gritty material politics.

It's wonderful to me to see the crews in this story hopping from planet to planet, island to island, each searching for their own truth. Star Trek: The Next Generation feels like it's actually *voyaging* for the first time in forever, and the choice to do it as a pirate fiction romp is a savvy decision that blends the ancient tradition of navigation with modern concerns about pacing and populist action spectacle. There's a case to be made (albeit a shaky one) that if you're looking for a true western analog to navigators, pirates would be a solid choice: In their age, they openly rejected the hierarchical social norms and structures of modernity to live a fulfilling and successful life on their own terms. Pirates created a bottom-up, genderfluid egalitarian anarcha-communitarian society for themselves deliberately and firmly outside conventions of “The Way Things Are”, and not all of them were murderous and rapacious slave-owners and taskmasters. The archetype of the “good pirate” did come from somewhere and does have some basis in history, and that's plainly what Captain Picard ends up as by the end of this story.

Picard's arc as Galen (which, it should be noted, is a narrative he created for himself) is all about rejecting the unjust tyranny and undeserved authority represented by Baran. Captain Picard knows that no pirate captain was deserving of his or her command if they didn't have the respect and loyalty of the crew. During the mutiny he allows the crew to appoint him the new captain (I initially thought this was a bit of a plot hole since the engineer said he and the crew would only follow Tallera, but, upon reflection, Baran's betrayal of the crew during the raid on the Enterprise was probably the tipping point that swayed them over to Galen's side), and his first action is to destroy the torture device, declaring that “there'll be no more 'punishment' on this ship”.

And this is what makes Galen a turning point in the history of Star Trek's interactions with performativity: When Captain Kirk put on a performance, in “A Piece of the Action” for example, he was very obviously clowning around a bit. Playing a character to get attention and cause a scene. And when Captain Picard has played up artifice in the past, he's tended to focus more on filling unfilled gaps; shoehorning his established character into a different part to salvage a performance that's gone off the rails. But Galen *is* Captain Picard, or rather a different side of him: He's still recognisably the same character, just with aspects of his personality emphasized we haven't seen before. Galen engenders loyalty among his crew the same way Captain Picard does, through respect, competence and trust. In that regard, this is far more similar to one of the Mirror Universe stories than the kind of performativity we're used to in Star Trek to date-This isn't “Captain Kirk plays a camp mob boss” or “Captain Picard does damage control for a borked-up production”, this is “What if Captain Picard was a pirate?”. And that kind of changes everything.

“Gambit” is a story about Star Trek: The Next Generation starting to change again. The show has just learned something new about itself, and it's beginning to work through the implications of that. It's almost another soft reboot, and this time there are some noticeable growing pains. One of the most interesting things I noticed about the way “Gambit, Part II” in particular plays out is that the Enterprise and the pirate ship seem to be so obviously mirrored, and the show finds this world shaking. The pirate ship story is, as I've already mentioned, on one level about what it means to be a pirate and grooming who's the most worthy of becoming captain. Baran is in command only because he can force people to get in line through torture. Tallera has the crew's loyalty, but she won't act quick enough and eventually Galen wins their hearts and minds.

But the Enterprise is going through this too: We go through a succession of captains rather quickly, and each has a tough time convincing the crew they deserve to get the wheel. First Commander Riker, who, though well-liked, has his mission of justice constantly questioned by Data and Deanna Troi due to his personal investment. Then quickly thereafter Data, whose actions are blocked at every turn by an impatient and bloodthirsty Worf. It's Data who this proves to be the most dangerous for: Commander Riker is only on the Enterprise for a short time before finding himself on Baran's ship with Galen. Over there, he very quickly makes a name for himself with Captain Picard's help. He's part of Galen's pirate story now, and his grasp of strategy, acting and bluffing allows him to adapt to the new role effortlessly.

(Notice how Captain Picard is very clearly Galen from the beginning: He's searching for a hidden treasure, gets into a bar fight and immediately sets about overthrowing an unworthy pirate captain. After all, Baran even Shanghaied him! A real pirate would never press sailors into service, because that's exactly the kind of inhuman treatment people turned to piracy to escape as it was standard practice in the navy and merchant marine at the time. Also, tellingly and cleverly, Patrick Stewart never wears a Starfleet uniform *once* over the runtime of this entire two-parter.)

But Data, interestingly enough, isn't shown to be very good at this and it very nearly gets him into a lot of serious trouble. Although he figures out Commander Riker's ploy at the end of Part I and recommends the Enterprise “play along”, he seems to be at a loss for how to proceed after that. He's comfortable enough burying himself in the science station to decipher Commander Riker's coded message, but in terms of running the ship he's actually pretty bad at it: He's laughably inept at trying to get information out of Koral, and when Galen and Commander Riker barge into the observation lounge all Data can do is ineffectively sputter Starfleet assault regulations at them. This is fascinating given how “Redemption II” spent so much time trying to establish Data as a strong leader who can effectively command a starship during a tactical situation. I think the answer lies in the final shot: After being reminded that Commander Riker is technically a renegade. GalenXPicard jokes that Data should escort him to the brig. Which he does. As Will points out, he doesn't get the joke.

Data, like Brent Spiner, is an impressionist. But unlike Brent Spiner, Data isn't an actor. He doesn't know how to play a role. An impressionist can uncannily impersonate someone else's vocal inflections and mannerisms, but it's fundamentally a form of imitation. And that's what Data is-an imitation man. Acting requires agency and positionality. It requires improvisation and the willingness and ability to insert parts of yourself and your perspective into the role you're playing. And maybe that's something Data doesn't know how to do yet, because he still hasn't quite found himself yet. Wasn't Data's entire challenge in “Elementary, Dear Data” to show he was capable of bringing his own interpretation to Sherlock Holmes instead of just reciting the canon? A challenge that, it should be noted, he was conveniently able to get out of responding to when the Enterprise gave birth to Professor Moriarty who then decided to take over the ship. And as artistic as Data may be, even he'll be the first to note that he learns mostly by meticulously studying the styles of others in order to copy them.

Data is a child who learns through imitation. And while that's a perfectly valid and natural part of growing (I couldn't tell you how many of my own childhood writings were shamelessly plagiarized from a cavalcade of other sources. All of them, basically), this does mean that Data perhaps isn't ready for primetime yet. “Gambit” is about Captain Picard and Commander Riker boldly announcing to us that they've found their true selves and are comfortable with and proud of them. Data can't do that yet, and as Star Trek: The Next Generation's child character perhaps we shouldn't expect him to be able to do that yet. There is, however, one other darker side to this, because in many ways Data is acting just like T'Paal.

They're both characters driven by logic and rationality and are similarly lacking in the areas of human experience that aren't so easily quantifiable. They approach this differently, to be sure: Like most Vulcans, T'PaalXTallera is in touch with her emotions but resents the fact she is and wants to eradicate all such feminized things from her planet (which would arguably make her a kind of internalized misogynist): A classic neoreactionary technoscientific monarchist. Data admits this is a weakness of his and strives to improve himself, but it's something he constantly struggles with. It wasn't so long ago, after all, that he descended to full-on adolescent grimdark when he actually allowed his emotions to come to the surface. Either way, this is a failing of both Data's and Tallera's, and it shows us why it's a bad idea to have a society ruled by whatever the definition of “logic” and “rationality” is these days. Logical thought is a tool and rationality is whatever we define it to be (usually, people, tacitly male people, with whom we share a situated knowledge-space network who are Just Like Us), and boiling the entire universe down to that is a denial of life.

It's not just Data who ends up wrongfooting the Enterprise either. In a textbook example of “the enemy of my enemy is not my friend”, Worf is a massive liability to everyone, proving once and for all just how comprised this show has become on a textual level. Worf is right to challenge Data's decisions, because a lot of Data's decisions are questionable to say the least, but his own attitude is completely absurd. If Worf had been left in charge, he would have ended up singlehandedly declaring war on half the galaxy by the time Part II started. Worf is a dangerous hothead with a moody adolescent worldview, and that earns him a deserved dressing-down from Data. For a franchise that typically uses “moral ambiguity” as an excuse for grimadark, this is actually a genuinely ambiguous scene: Given the writing credits, you'd expect the show to be siding pretty firmly with Worf, long since established as the creative team's collective mouthpiece and escapist author insert character. But no, Worf gets completely shut down, and while this is typically the sort of scene I find deeply uncomfortable and unwatchable, this time I surprised myself with how cathartic I found it.

By this point, I have to confess Worf is damaged goods for me. Whatever interesting potential he may have had in the first season has now *long* since been abandoned in favour of turning him into a petulantly disagreeable boor with a repulsively bro-ish conception of masculinity and sense of entitlement, and the fact this is precisely why all the writers *adore* him makes it all the worse. With Wesley Crusher long gone, Worf has now become without question far and away the most problematic character on the show, and this was the episode that really drove it home for me: I truthfully no longer feel that Worf, as written here, is an appropriate character for Star Trek. Tasha should have stayed security chief: Whatever conceptual problems she may have had pale in comparison to the litany of offenses Worf has been saddled with over the past six years.

The Enterprise has problems apart from Data and Worf's antagonism too and, like so many other hidden stories, it's about women. Deanna Troi is not much better served in Part II than she was in Part I, though she does get the critical scene playing along with Galen and informing Data that Commander Riker was only stunned (as he clearly wasn't able to pick that up himself). Doctor Crusher gets a few witty bon mots but otherwise not a lot else, and this actually proves to be rather damning. Put bluntly, why isn't she Data's first officer? We know the chain of command typically goes from Captain Picard through Commander Riker down to Data, but we haven't seen who comes after Data before. And does it honestly make sense for it to be Worf? Doctor Crusher is a *commander* and a bridge officer and we know she can run the ship in an emergency without breaking a sweat.

The only other time I can remember when Captain Picard, Commander Riker *and* Data were all indisposed at once was in “The Big Goodbye” and in that case command fell to *Tasha*. Yes, she was security chief at the time, but she also *outranked* both Worf and Geordi (who wasn't on the bridge either anyway). And don't forget Doctor Crusher was out of commission at the time too-It would be reasonable to assume, given what we've seen of the Enterprise command protocol elsewhere, that had she been on the bridge command would naturally have fallen to her. For that matter, Geordi outranks Worf now too, has commanded the Enterprise twice (which is still more than Worf, which has been “never”) and did a damn good job at it both times. As far I can tell Geordi never leaves the bridge in “Gambit, Part II” and he can control engineering from there so...what gives? Given what we've seen, I would have bet the chain of command on this ship *should* properly go Picard-Riker-Data-Crusher-Tasha-Geordi.

(Actually, it's my personal opinion Doctor Crusher should be the real second officer and Geordi and Tasha should go up a few ranks too, but I'm going by the show's internal logic here, not my wishful thinking.)

Imagine if Geordi or Doctor Crusher had been Data's first officer in this episode instead of Worf. They would have been in a position to offer him genuine advice and support instead of constantly butting heads with him, and that would have likely gotten the Enterprise out of more than a few close calls. Geordi, the teacher, mentor and friend, and Beverly, the consummate performer, would have been able to help guide Data through the game and actually learn from his experiences instead of floundering through them ineffectually. And it would have done a lot for the crew to see an acting captain and first officer who could actually work as a team. “Gambit” catches the Enterprise off-guard when it really shouldn't have, and the crew kind of falls to pieces without Captain Picard and Commander Riker. The awkward reality is that the pirate ship *really is* better run than the Enterprise, at least in this story. Galen and Tallera are able to inspire their crew in a way Data and Worf can't, and that's a problem for Star Trek: The Next Generation in this form. Baran ends up killing himself, almost literally hoisting himself by his own petard, and Data very nearly does the same.

But no, we know the real reason Geordi and Beverly can't become first officer, or indeed captain. Beverly is a woman, and Geordi is Geordi, who may as well be a woman as far as this team is concerned (there's an interesting potential essay on how the show feminizes and others Geordi through his various signifiers). And once again, it's Galen and his pirate crew that manage to outplay the Enterprise: Galen's ship, like many real pirate ships, is a space where everyone genuinely is an equal and everyone has a say. Each person has something they're good at and something they can contribute, and everyone gets a share of the treasure at the end. Tallera would have been unanimously voted the new captain had Baran not made a tactical blunder that played into Galen's favour. Vekor too was a well-liked and respected member of the crew. Both of them are valued, taken seriously and treated as comrades in a way the women of the Enterprise aren't.

As a general rule, on pirate ships, religious affiliation, ethnicity or conceptions of race largely didn't matter. The real Redbeard was Captain Hayreddin Barbarossa, an Ottoman admiral who defected and became regent of Algiers, singlehandedly keeping constant streams of European invaders at arm's length. And on European pirate ships, Muslims were welcomed with the same hospitality afforded any other prospective recruit, and this was in the 1700s. Even different sexual orientations and gender identities were accepted: Throughout history, female pirates like Jacquotte Delahaye and the legendary Ching Shih and Gráinne Ní Mháille could and did become powerful admirals commanding awe-inspiring fleets operating under real life codes of honour. There's even been an argument made that Bartholomew Roberts, one of the most famous, successful and beloved pirates in history, who likewise commanded a fleet of 470 ships, was actually a woman playing a drag role. Good luck waiting for Deanna Troi, Beverly Crrsher or Tasha Yar to get that chance. Well, Tasha did...But she had to become a Romulan first.

This is the spirit Galen invokes when he speaks to the crew after Baran's death...something he's never actually done as Captain Picard. Here's where reality sets in and it becomes clear Galen's pirate ship is a better Enterprise than the Enterprise, because the Enterprise really wants to be a pirate ship. “Gambit” should serve as a cold glass of ice water thrown in the face of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek itself that its values and ideals are no longer compatible with its setting and narrative structure. It's being constrained by itself at a fundamental ideological and philosophical level, and it now must reconcile itself with this knowledge in order to keep growing and learning. Star Trek: The Next Generation has the power to write and shape its own destiny, but it must not let other people continue to limit, control and suppress it. This is a metafiction that has to take control of its own life, away from the reach of the corporate lords and imperialists who would see it enslaved to the banality of evil.

What a ship is-what the Enterprise really is-is freedom.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

“Who are You?” Invasive Procedures

You don't want to disappoint Commander Sisko, do you?

Wait, you thought I was going to let Star Trek: Deep Space Nine off the hook for being the younger show? Whyever would you think that?

I have held a grudge against “Invasive Procedures” since 1993. Everything about this episode, from top to bottom, from conception to execution, repelled me at every turn from the beginning. At the time, I was only just starting to become a serious fan of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, that is, becoming actually invested in the setting and the characters as opposed to just watching the general aesthetics unfold from a distance with cautious optimism. And though it was still fairly early, I already knew that Jadzia Dax was going to be my favourite character from this cast. I liked Major Kira a lot too and she was the other early standout for me (in fact extremely early on I got the two of them confused) but it was Jadzia's cool competence and poise that won me over the strongest, So how do you think I felt when the *very first* episode I was cognizant of to deal explicitly with Jadzia's character was also the one that depicted her at her absolute lowest? It's the exact same experience I would have rediscovering Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation, like history repeating itself again

Somehow it strikes me as a bad sign that, when confronted with a joined character with several lifetimes of experience, the only way the creative team can come up with to convey this concept is to show what it's like when she becomes un-joined. Emphasis on “she”-You don't see The Doctor on Doctor Who suddenly unregenerate back to his nascent iteration with the show's writers giving the excuse that they couldn't figure out how to get across all his lifetimes of experience without a proof by negative. And you certainly would never see The Doctor reduced to a mewling, vulnerable damsel character to engender sympathy and give the male characters someone to fight for and protect. But that's literally *all* anyone involved with “Invasive Procedures” talks about when defending their creative decisions: They all talk about how they needed to bring “vulnerability” and “tenderness” to Jadzia in order to “humanize” her and “develop her character”. It's true that we all have moments of confidence and weakness and that we each have dominant and submissive sides, but that's not what this story is about: This is a story about taking a strong, confident, independent woman and stripping away all of her strength and agency because the creators thought that made her distant and unrelatable.

And of course it would be Jadzia who would stump these writers. You could bring in Kira as a possible counter argument here by saying that her retaining all her power and authoritativeness cancels out what they do to Jadzia here, but that's not how that works. Kira and Dax are both strong women, yes, but they're strong in markedly different ways. Although this is a generalization and she's a more complex character than I'm seemingly giving her credit for being here, Kira is predominantly strong in a very masculine way. She definitely exudes a masculine conception of badass: She's a warrior and a soldier (a former resistance fighter), she's a hothead, she gets in a lot of action scenes and she quips and mouths off a lot. We saw that a lot in “The Siege”, for example, especially in that famous assault fighter scene. Now, Nana Visitor injects her performance with a whole lot of nuance and complex emotion, including a lot of tenderness and vulnerability, but that's because she's an amazing actor-When you boil it down to its most basic, this is fundamentally who Kira is written as.

Jadzia on the other hand, while no less competent or confident than Kira, presents as way more openly femme, or even androgynous to the point of transcending gender altogether (because, you know, she's both male and female). This, I think, confounds people, or at least people writing for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on TV in 1993. Somehow, someway I think people look at Jadzia and get the proverbial “does not compute” message flashing across the inside of their heads. The creative team, when presented with a femme (or perhaps transfeminine) figure who doesn't act like any stock pretty girl supporting character they're familiar or comfortable with, suddenly BSODs and revert to their most odious of stock hack writing impulses. And this is the primary reason that Jadzia Dax is always going to be a fundamentally handicapped character and why, even though this season will eventually make heroic inroads to correct this, it absolutely does not start out on the right foot whatsoever.

(Speaking of Kira and Dax together, this is actually what I think is the strongest and most interesting thing about the recently popular fan movement to ship them together. Although not everyone who ships them seems to pick up on this, what's really fun about Kira/Dax is how pairing them plays with and subverts gender roles: Kira, superficially the more masculine of the two, would in reality be straightforwardly the more open and vulnerable of the two. Hyperfemme Jadzia Dax would be a pillar of strength, wisdom, experience and emotional support. This isn't *quite* as excitingly groundbreaking or fascinating to me as Kei/Yuri or what Rumiko Takahashi does with her Benten, but you don't want to hear me go on about Dirty Pair and Urusei Yatsura again, now do you?)

I'm not even going to say it was a terrible idea to show what Jadzia and Dax are like apart from each other, I just think “Invasive Procedures” was a fucking atrocious way to go about doing that. For one, I always felt that Jadzia Dax got most of her science cred and exuberance from Jadzia-We know by this point Curzon was a shit stirrer, but I got the sense his brand of mischief making was considerably more bro-ish than Jadzia's, what with him sleeping around with his friend's wife, punking ambassadors and checking out girls with Ben and so forth. This does not map at all onto the Jadzia we see in “Invasive Procedures”, but my headcanon aside I was always of the opinion the best way to show the difference between unjoined Jadzia and Jadzia Dax was through a flashback sequence. Which, by the way, we already got way back in the first episode. Coincidentally, that scene also gave us a glimpse at a more hesitant Jadzia less sure of herself, but Terry Farrell conveyed that entirely through facial expressions and vocal inflections and she never once needed to subsume herself to male gaze cinematography in order to portray that.

A series doesn't need to reach a certain age or “run out of steam” in order to tread creative water. All it needs is a politically ignorant and out-of-touch creative team running the show. It doesn't matter whether you're young or old, if you don't really know what you're doing and aren't into the characters and settings you've surrounded yourself with, it's going to show through in your work eventually.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

“Yo ho, yo ho”: Gambit, Part I

I suppose it's worth pointing out the possible significance in the fact that the first few acts of “Gambit” chronicle the crew's search for Captain Picard, missing and presumed murdered, and their efforts to discover the identity of his would-be killer and bring them to justice. I will still stubbornly maintain that Star Trek: The Next Generation can't live without Captain Picard, and the symbolism behind a plot twist like this to me seems obvious. A Star Trek: The Next Generation without anyone would be unthinkable, but especially him, the public face of the series to millions. The only other character whose death would be more openly and visibly catastrophic to the show's continued existence would be the Enterprise itself.

Ironic then how “Gambit, Part I” is the moment where this season finally gets its act together and stops faffing around. Not that this show has ever been terrific at season openers, mind, but the one-two punch of “Liasons” and “Interface” was excruciating in a way we've really not seen in six or seven years. This is a story I've always remembered as a highlight of this year ever since I saw it as part of TNN's reruns (I might have seen it when it aired as well, but I don't have strong memories of it from that time period), and I was perhaps understandably relieved to see that it's essentially as good as I thought it was. My favourite scene is the teaser, with the crew undercover at a seedy alien bar: They naturally play their parts perfectly, and, as counterintutive as it perhaps might seem, it really feels like they belong in an environment like this (more on that later). That's another thing I remember vividly from this run of stories: Dank extraterrestrial dives with dark mood lighting, abrasive characters and a lot of grates and sheet metal (except for the one time it was a cramped bar with a lot of bright, gold colours). In hindsight, it was probably the influence and cross-pollination from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Of course Captain Picard's not really dead, and from there we move to what is in my opinion a positively delightful adventure mystery story. It probably tells you all you need to know that this is a two-parter both the fans and writers alike have a rather negative take on: Even Brannon Braga, who talks sense more often than not, says that “Gambit” is of a genre that's “not usually taken seriously” and that it's beneath the show to do an episode like this. He's also of the mind that it was a bad call to open up with the whodunnit cliffhanger, because audiences were never going to buy that the captain was really dead. Which, to be frank, just displays a startling lapse in media literacy and a lack of understanding about how cliffhangers and dramatic tension are actually supposed to work. There was also the concern that there would be an issue with the fact that “Gambit” is a space pirate story, and apparently Gene Roddenberry didn't want any space pirate stories. For some reason.

I will grant Roddenberry this though: It doesn't *really* make sense for pirates to exist in a post-scarcity universe. Piracy, like all reactions to the commodification of nature and human labour, probably shouldn't exist in the same universe as replicators. That said, we've made excuses for forms of capitalism existing into Star Trek's future before: The Ferengi and the Yridians, for example (one of whom plays a role in this episode, as a matter of fact) can be read as playing a sort of game with each other in order to keep an environment of scarcity running amongst themselves. They pretend gold-pressed latinum and information has value, because if it doesn't the foundations of their societies collapse. Ultimately, the existence of such staunch capitalists in a universe like Star Trek's actually serves to reinforce how ridiculous, artificial and unnatural capitalism is by giving it even less reason to exist than it does in the real world. The same goes for imperialism (or at least it should), because the major galactic powers are clearly not fighting over resources, but over prestige and power.

But as far as I'm concerned, none of this is a problem in the finished product whatsoever. In our cultural lexicon, pirates mean more than just a bottom-up reaction against (sometimes literal) wage slavery, and that's what “Gambit” is really about. “The Chase” did a similar adventure archeology mystery plot last season to wild success, and “Gambit” is just that stretched over two episodes with a lot of delightfully fun misdirection and reverse psychology a la a slightly campier “Face of the Enemy”. It's exciting to watch Captain Picard, Commander Riker and Data all try to think around each other and anticipate each other's moves so as not to put the undercover operation with the pirates or their safety in jeopardy. Pulling it off requires them all to have an absolutely peerless level of intimacy with each other, so this is a really fitting test to give to this crew, especially at this stage in their career. It's especially noticeable and interesting with Data, who is forced to apply everything he's learned about human(oid) behaviour and culture in order to ensure he doesn't let the Enterprise down during his first real stint as acting captain.

(Just to speak briefly on the two-part structure itself: Coming so soon after “Descent”, and contemporaneous with “The Homecoming”/“The Circle”/“The Siege”, this is the moment where Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine finally demonstrate that in a *material* sense they've grown beyond the boundaries of their medium. No longer reserved for season finales/premiers, the two-, even three-parter is now a casual, semi-regular occurrence. What this means is that the show has grown confidant enough to tell stories on its own terms and at its own pace instead of being restricted by the conventions of broadcast television.)

There are still some lingering problems, though. For one, it's a bit annoying that it is once again Captain Picard, Commander Riker and Data who get the majority of the interesting dramatic and strategic stuff. Doctor Crusher gets one scene in the teaser and then never appears again, and, most egregiously, Deanna Troi is reduced to spouting hollow, tin-eared expository dialog when really she ought to be the one doing most of the heavy tactical and psychological lifting. The scene that sticks out to me the most is the climactic bit where Commander Riker remotely inputs his access codes from the pirate ship, and Deanna is completely at a loss as to what he might be planning. She of all people should be the first person to figure it out for no other reason then the fact she can read minds. Instead, it's Data. A lot of the dialog in this episode in general feels a bit wooden and stilted in that very classical Hard SF way: Everything naturalistic has to come to a screeching halt, shattering immersion in the process, so the characters can recite a journal article on how the universe du jour works.

Also, another thing that bugs me is that for a story about space pirates, these guys really suck at being pirates. Captain Picard is absolutely right when he tells Tallera that Baran is a poor captain because he relies on fear and intimidation. Ruthless though they might have been, pirate ships were famously democratic and egalitarian institutions for their time, and it was most certainly a better career move (from both a financial and safety perspective) for a sailor to sign up with a pirate ship than to enlist in the navy or merchant marine. The captain needed to engender trust, and the crew were well within their rights to dispose of him or her (yes her: Women could be pirate captains before they could be much of anything else in modernity) if they no longer felt the captain was deserving of that trust. But I think that's actually part of the critique the episode is making, and that's the reason for Jean-Luc's speech being here in the first place. This is, after all, what he begins to suggest to Tallera when they meet in the cargo bay.

Of course this line of thought, as well as Captain Picard's rather brilliant recursive performance as Galen, just makes me really want to see a Star Trek: The Next Generation AU where the Enterprise crew are a bunch of outlaw space pirates who get their kicks fucking with the big galactic imperial powers. If there's one thing this episode proves, its that this crew is way more interesting and fun as renegades, and hell, it's even been done before: This was basically the “bad future” John de Lancie gave the crew in the anti-time future of “The Gift” where fascist Claude Picard turned the Federation into (even more of) a reactionary xenophobic counter-revolutionary state. But is it bad that this is a status quo I'd actually love to see?

To Be Continued

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Legacy: The Siege

In the previous episode, “The Circle”, Major Kira undergoes an Orb experience and receives visions from the Prophets of the events of “The Siege”.

The Prophets' connection to nonlinear time has already been well documented, but what I find interesting about their reappearance here (for the first time since “Emissary”, it may be worth noting) is the way this is conveyed: Images, experience and snapshots of memory, repurposed and rearranged. It's a dream meant to convey a message through coded symbols built out of memory. My first exposure to “The Homecoming”/“The Circle” /“The Siege” was all in one piece as part of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Magazine sometime in either late 1993 or early 1994. So when I watch Kira's Orb vision in “The Circle”, I don't see portents of events to come, but a distorted reiteration of events I already have a recollection of.

“The Siege” itself operates on the level of images. Namely, iconic memorable setpieces. The battle in Bajor's atmosphere between The Circle and the transport runner piloted by Kira and Dax is one of the most spectacular action scenes from Star Trek's golden age, a remarkable series of shots that pushes the boundaries of what can be accomplished with model-making practical effects on an episodic television budget. In fact, I daresay this is probably as complex and striking a scene as could ever have been done at this particular time with these particular resources. Once again, we get another bright, sunny and colourful outdoors setting, conveyed aptly through the use of a matte painting overlayed with shots of the motion controlled models.

But what I remember is actually the interior of the Bajoran raider, and Kira and Dax's outfits: I think the bright colours of the control panels, their clothes and, funnily enough the phaser blasts all really compliment the verdant setting outside and help to convey a uniquel special and memorable vibe. I guess you could say this begins for me what you might call the real “summer blockbuster” phase of Star Trek, which I've always associated primarily with Deep Space Nine, and in particular this season. “The Siege” is really one great big action sequence, but it's got a lot more going for it than most of the other Star Trek riffs on the action genre, and I prefer it head and shoulders above anytime the franchise attempts something like this in the years to come. One of these things is the colour coordination, which really does evoke a breezy, fun summer vibe to me, or at least the memories of that feeling.

There's a deliberate and overt artistry to the action here I don't see in most science fiction, especially Star Trek (and even most action films for that matter). Funnily enough, this sort of thing *is* the province of Dirty Pair, especially Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture and Original Dirty Pair, but actually now that I think about it the other place I can think of right off the top of my head that gives me a similar feeling is...Project A-ko. That film has the same blend of tight, colourful action, comedic dialog and breezy, summery vibes. Deep Space Nine tries to take itself seriously and play up its stakes, but it's hard to fully get on board with that when you're so wrapped up in the spectacle. It's almost comic booky in the most ideal sense, which is probably why both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from this period and Project A-ko translate themselves so well to the medium. It's probably a good thing it didn't let itself get more swept up in its own excesses here, as it may well have run the risk of rubbing up against the old 80s action sci-fi dilemma. And I don't think Star Trek would make the correct choice when presented with that dilemma.

Either way, it's good to see a resurgence one more time here before it finally goes out of style.

Because the Kira and Dax sections are the part of “The Siege” I remember the most clearly and fondly, they're also the part of the episode I criticize the heaviest. I don't *want* to be critical, and for the longest time I would try and put my concerns and objections out of my mind because I really wanted to pretend this was a flawless run of episodes. There's so much I like about this era of Star Trek that the things I don't like stick out all the clearer and sting all the more painfully. And I have to say, Jadzia is written badly out of character here, and actually somewhat inconsistently. She signs up for the mission because she supposedly has first-hand knowledge of these old-style propulsion devices, but spends the majority of the sequence alternating between being squeamish and uncomfortable and being snarky and disaffected. Terry Farrell of course makes it work, especially in the action scenes, and as the setpiece goes on you can almost talk yourself into thinking Jadzia is riffing on the show, or gently chiding Kira for being reckless. But that's clearly not how it was written.

This scene is using Jadzia as a scapegoat for the creative team's feelings about Starfleet officers, which is really code for their feelings on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and are using Kira as their mouthpiece. So Jadzia is accused of being too “coddled” and “dependent on technology”. “Afraid to get her hands dirty”, as it were. And it just makes my skin crawl. Not only is it a mean, petty, petulant thing to do, and particularly hurtful as it's being directed at my favourite character and meant to implicate my favourite show, this whole criticism doesn't actually make any sense. It doesn't make sense for Kira to say, as her whole story arc in this three-parter has been realising her place is on Deep Space 9 and the blossoming respect she has for her Starfleet co-workers, and it's downright disingenuous considering Commander Sisko, Chief O'Brien and Doctor Bashir are literally fighting in the trenches for her and her people back on the station alone against an army. And furthermore, of all the Starfleet officers Kira could have picked on, Dax seems like the absolute least appropriate one to pick considering she's seven times as old as Kira, has done some pretty rough-and-tumble things in her own past and is supposed to be her close friend.

For a move supposedly designed to critique the clinical detachment and elitism of Starfleet, making the indigenous analog and former revolutionary out to seem just as bad seems like a bit of a misfire.

I remember the action on Deep Space 9 just as well, but from a different perspective. I remember the Kira and Dax stuff (and even my uneasiness with it) contemporaneously with the story, in 1993 or 1994. The rest of the episode I associate more with my watching it on DVD for the first time in 2003. The moments that stand out for me the clearest are the aerial shots from the air ducts and the other upper sections of the set, where Commander Sisko and his guerrilla strike team jump down or leap out from around corners to launch surprise ambushes. Also Sisko's final speech once he's outwitted Colonel Day. These scenes are especially fun in retrospect with some behind the scenes revelations that have come out in recent years, because it means a large chunk of “The Siege” is basically Commander Sisko vs. Captain Picard: Stephen Macht, who plays General Krim, was the frontrunner for the role of Jean-Luc Picard when Star Trek: The Next Generation was being auditioned in early 1987. In fact, he was the frontrunner for so long it ultimately came down to him or Patrick Stewart, and Patrick Stewart eventually won over the producers. This, of course, makes any scene where Sisko and Krim talk about being equals on opposing sides all the more bittersweet.

There was, apparently, debate over what Li Nalas' ultimate fate should be. Although everyone had their own opinion, ultimately the arguments can be boiled down and put into two camps: Ira Steven Behr's camp thought Li should die because he needed to make a heroic sacrifice to give his life meaning and make a difference (and also because he wasn't sure he could get Richard Beymer to commit to a reoccurring role). Peter Allan Fields' camp felt that this was a stupid idea and invalidated the point of “The Homecoming”, if not that of the entire trilogy. Certainly with Li Nalas' death and the breaking of The Circle, it would seem Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's interactions with the postcolonial themes it was created to engage with are coming to an end. Li's absence, in fact, causes the team to scramble to fill a storytelling gap in later years. Even so, I was unsure on whose side I was going to fall upon rewatching it, but I've since decided I have to cast my lot with Peter Allan Fields. Commander Sisko himself sums it up perfectly well in the show itself. When Li Nalas insists he'd die for his people, Sisko says
“Sure you would – dying gets you off the hook. Question is, are you willing to live for your people – live the role they want you to play? That's what they need from you right now.”
Being a role model comes with a responsibility. You have to set an example by living your ideals as a kind of performance art. Real people come with baggage and foibles to be sure, but one way for us to overcome those is to take the best of us, whether what we can see in ourselves or what others see in us, and trying to make that idealism a conscious part of our day-to-day lives. Li Nalas was an ordinary guy, but he was also larger than life. In fact, he was larger than life perhaps precisely because he was ordinary: Ordinary people can be extraordinary if they make the choice to be. And it's hard not to argue that Bajor would be better off if it had a real, flesh-and-blood person to guide, inspire and advise them. Myths and legends can be whatever we want them to be, but sometimes we need a mentor to help us understand the power those myths and legends have and how we can wield it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

“Virtual XI”: Interface

Is it bad I can't remember what this episode is called? I've literally had to go look up how the title is spelled three times since sitting down to write this.

Over the course of this project I've noticed Star Trek: The Next Generation takes a roughly annual delight in a sub-genre of story I've decided to call “Let's Torture Geordi”. Ever since the third season (hmmmm) the show, for want of anything better to do with Geordi La Forge, decides to put him through an increasingly mean-spirited and downright ludicrous series of wringers more or less because they can. This team has, in turn, given him a neurotic complex he never had before, turned him into the creepiest human being imaginable by having him get it on with pretend women, forced him to mutate into a neon sea slug and had him brainwashed into a killing machine by his batshit insane murderous alien ex-girlfriend. Even Michael Jan Friedman is not immune to the fun, writing the two-part story “Seraphin's Survivors”/“Shadows in the Garden” about Geordi acting uncharacteristically defensive and oversensitive when his childhood friend/lover comes aboard, thus blinding him to the fact she's a space vampire who eats people. A few issues later, he had Geordi entranced by space mermaids in “I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing” and almost blow up the ship in his reverie.

All in all, sounds like an eminently respectful and legitimate, serious grown-up series of dramatic performances to give to LeVar Burton, national treasure and cultural icon who reads to children on Reading Rainbow and played Kunta Kinte on Roots.

“Interface” or “Interphase” or “Whatever The Fuck It's Called I Don't Give A Shit Anymore” is the episode I would call the requisite “Let's Torture Geordi” outing for this season, although we got a nice preview in “Descent, Part II' when Doctor Frankendata sticks strobes in Geordi's forehead and tries to infect his brain with the Replicators from Stagate SG-1. It's two half-assed stories stitched together into an even more half-assed whole: The first a bog-standard mid-90s virtual reality piece and the second a look into Geordi's family history. Which, this team being this team, we have to explore by brutally killing everyone off and watching drooling, leering and slack-jawed as Geordi bears his grief for us, publicly retreating into his own mind and memories in the vain, desperate hope to be able to feel something again.


This was not an episode I watched at the time, and thus isn't one that contributed anything to the mental landscape Star Trek: The Next Generation inhabits for me. The only thing I remember is the ridiculous-looking interface device itself from a shot in a magazine somewhere, and that I kept confusing it with the equally bullshit mind-control contrivance from that stupid fucking Manchurian Candidate story with Commander Sela from the fourth season. You'd think, with this episode being about inner worlds and psychology and everything, themes I've often gone on record as praising in this season, this would be right up my alley. But it's not. This is just shit. Actually offensive shit that makes me legitimately pissed off and angry in a way this show has actually avoided doing for quite awhile. Ron Moore says the problem with this episode is that it's a story about Geordi's family and is thus boring, and that because of this it marks the point where everyone realsied the show was out of ideas.

As usual, Ron Moore is wrong. “Interface” isn't bad because it's a story about Geordi's backstory, it's bad because it's a story about Geordi's backstory that's cruel and heartless and boring and sucks. And furthermore, what, may I ask, was wrong about telling a story that fleshes out Geordi's family life? I thought this show loved itself some character drama and character development. This show has done it for every other character on this show, frequently at the expense of literally anything fucking else. It spent three interminable years stretching out goddamn Worf's story so much that it now less resembles a Greek tragedy so much as it resembles a first-draft parody of a Greek tragedy written by a screeching idiot. So it's OK to make a cartoon mockery of Worf and Captain Picard's family history, but when they do it for Geordi it's a boring and unnecessary bridge too far?

Fuck off.

I could make some argument about how the continual shafting of Geordi is indicative of how there is something cripplingly, seriously wrong with this creative team and their conception (or to be more accurate, complete and total fucking lack) of what Star Trek: The Next Generation is. But honestly, I can't be bothered anymore. I'd just be repeating arguments I've made a million billion times before. I've moved beyond disappointment and apathy with this franchise's source material to being actively angered and repulsed by the consistent stream of cack-handed incompetence, laziness, childishness and outright disingenuity that goes on behind the scenes of science fiction. There's probably one, two, maybe three actually legitimate writing talents between everyone here, and the fundamental problem is that they never coalesce into a unit frequently enough. And that's before you get to the fact it's demonstrably clear that neither the studio nor the fans have the slightest idea what they're doing with a property like this. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation provides a world of ideals for us to observe, but those ideals actually have to be lived up to. We actually have to take it upon ourselves to work towards living up to the standard the series is trying to set, otherwise there isn't one single, solitary point to this. To any of this. It's long past the time for Star Trek to put up or shut up. There's only so long it can sit sanctimoniously upon its high horse and preach at us when it's abundantly clear it has no intention of practicing any of that itself. I'm writing this in the 50th anniversary year of the entire franchise, and not once throughout that half-century has Star Trek ever reliably, consistently and provably lived by its own example.

And I'm finally starting to realise the problem is us.