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.


  1. That's two episodes in a row where a character finds a way of entering another's un(or para-)conscious. "Phantasms" doesn't really work for me, given how mundane I found its explanation (space leeches? Seriously? All that fantastically weird imagery and it just amounts to space leeches?) I preferred the dream story in "Birthright, Part I." (I must admit, though, I have no idea what your Phantasms post was supposed to be.)

    This is one of the many, many episodes I probably haven't seen since first broadcast. It's amazing, really, how little of TNG I've seen or even remember, given how much I used to claim to love it. But I'm glad to have been re-exposed to a really beautiful episode.

    About the left-field long-lost daughter thing that people dislike: this isn't a criticism I've ever really understood. Long-term stories like a TV series develop characters over time and fill in the background slowly. And that character, if they're written well (which Lwazana, sadly, was often not) grows in such a way that each new thing we learn makes a kind of sense (whereas a terrible writer will just drop, without any logic to it, some SHOCKING REVELATION THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING.) "How come we never knew that Lwaxana had a daughter before Deanna?" people will ask, thinking this proves something about poor characterization. "Do you really expect every single detail of the characters life to be info-dumped in their first episode?" It's a criticism that makes even less sense in a multi-authored production (as opposed to the mastermind showrunner model people are used to these days).

    Trek didn't do a whole lot of episodes like this, where female characters controlled the narrative, were part of the crisis and part of the solution. Lots of scenes of women just talking to eachother in non-technobabble about difficult, very real and painful things. It's a god damn shame that it wasn't until S7 that Sirtis and Barrett got a story like this.

  2. It may please you to know that the consensus of the Mark Watches community regarding this episode was quite positive. This is, I think, possibly the only time we get a good Troi episode that is also a good Lwaxana episode, with neither having their narrative sacrificed for the sake of the other. Good stuff!

  3. I do love this episode for many of the reasons mentioned above - women in charge of their narrative, great Troi and Lwaxana story - and especially also the dream aspect of the story, and communication and knowledge happening through the dream/shaman space. I remember all of the episodes that worked with dreams in such a visual way in my brain, the images are still there often like a waking dream.