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.


  1. Of course, there's also the continuity reference that Galen is the name of Picard's archeology professor from The Chase who compared Picard being a federation officer to a centurion guarding the walls of a crumbling empire.

    Also when I watched the second part a few nights back, I thought the whole bit with the Klingon pirate was to show how ill-equipped the Enterprise was in the face of "real manly men", given that it appeared that Troi was having issues "coping" with the Klingon as well as Data.

    Also, when talking about this episode on twitter, you mentioned you figured out why Sela had issues with the Klingons and wanted to tear them down. Could you elaborate on that?

    1. Worf took SelaXTasha's job, and thus her place in the Enterprise family, both diegetically and extradiegetically. And in the years since, Worf has done nothing but deride the community's utopianism through his petulant and adolescent refusal to play.

      Tasha would have enhanced Star Trek: The Next Generation's utopianism by contributing her voice as an outsider who was hurt by the Federation's expansionist colonialism, yet who still believes in the ideals they lied about having. Worf has become a reactionary Klingon fundamentalist who has been systematically working against them for six years.

      As of "Redemption", Tasha feels enough is enough. She sees the Klingon Empire of the type that tempted Worf as a threat to peace in the galaxy and to her and her people: The Romulans, the only ones who were willing to accept her.

    2. What's your Twitter handle, Josh?

    3. Um, it's actually private...Let me know yours and I'll drop you a line...

    4. I'm @mybrittlehelmet. Would be nice to have another follower. I don't have many.