Thursday, March 31, 2016

“Wuthering Heights”: Sub Rosa

“Sub Rosa” is a fucking triumph, and I'm not at all ashamed to say so.

One of the most reviled entries in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation and a frequent sight on various “Worst Star Trek Episodes Of All Time” lists, like most stories in its class the reaction to “Sub Rosa” says more about the fandom at large than it does about its own textual quality. As is usually the case with these types of episodes, I enjoy “Sub Rosa” considerably more than the kinds of people who typically critique and review Star Trek episodes, but this time I have a bit more of a chip on my shoulder than I normally do for this sort of thing because the split in fandom is *so* blatant and explicitly defined the contrast couldn't be drawn any clearer. If you're looking for a microcosm of the schism in genre fiction circles that led to the rise of master narratives, you actually can't find a better example than “Sub Rosa”.

Men hate it. Women love it. That's what it comes down to, plain and simple, and that's what it has always come down to. That has always been the line drawn in the sand. It's as true for “Sub Rosa” itself as it is for every other controversy or debate we've talked about in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the entire history of genre fiction writ large. Where you stand on issues like this has always been and will always be determined by where you stand on the patriarchy/feminism binary.

Displaying a seasoned wisdom and savvy that only comes after making a career of spending years of their life immersed in the genre fiction mire, this is something that, for the very first time, the creative team has actually come out and admitted. They saw it back when this episode was made and commented on it then. And it even manifested in the actual production: The majority of the male creative figures were at best cautious about doing this story and at worst outright opposed to doing it sight unseen, while the entire female staff was very enthusiastic about it and showered Brannon Braga with constant praise and affection for his work on the teleplay. It is literally physically impossible for the network gap (which exists everywhere in society and has existed as long as agriculture and the division of labour have existed, but which is significantly magnified and exaggerated in genre fiction circles) to be defined any clearer.

Braga himself puts it succinctly when he says “I've come to notice that whenever you infuse a show with sexual themes, some of these fans seem to short-circuit”. I think that sort of speaks volumes.

Of course, just because some women of a certain social class, occupation and predilection liked “Sub Rosa” does not mean “Sub Rosa” was enjoyed by all women across all circles of society did, or that it's by definition good for feminism (although I would posit the fact the show was inundated with letters from grateful women who saw the episode, loved and, and thanked the creative team for finally writing to their interests likely says something). “Sub Rosa” is, of course, a Gothic romance, a genre not entirely without its unfortunate implications. I mean, this is explicitly what it's doing, down to the period trappings that Captain Picard even notes look like they're ripped straight from pop culture memory of the Scottish highlands. However, “Sub Rosa” is also an abjectly brilliant Gothic romance in the fact that it's actually exploring some of the underlying assumptions the genre makes (or in particular, the assumptions a certain kind of fan of Gothic romance bodice-rippers tend to make) and casting a critical eye on them. And in doing so, crucially, it offers a utopian path forward through them.

The biggest clue is Ronin himself, the textbook “tall, dark and mysterious stranger” archetype with an inner tumult (who may or may not also be a vampire, ghost, werewolf or vampire ghost werewolf) who always ends up the dreamy paramour in this kind of story by coming into the heroine's life as if carried in on a storm and proceeding to sweep her off her feet and take her breath away by being equal parts romantic and forcefully dominant to the point of being controlling and abusive. And he's the villain for precisely those selfsame character traits. While it's an inaccurate overgeneralization that Gothic romances always portray characters like this as admirable, romantic and heroic and glorifying their relationships with the heroine as charmed instead of abusive (as relationships like this tend to be in real life), that's a criticism that does get levelled at the genre for some very good reasons, namely that this is the way they're read by a not-insignificant part of their fanbase and that they do lend themselves to be read this way in a nonzero number of instances.

But stories get misread all the time by all kinds of fans, so it's unfair to Gothic romance and its female readership (not to mention incredibly sexist) to single them out here. And “Sub Rosa” doesn't: Though it portrays Ronin as a bad man and his relationship with Beverly to be dangerous and harmful to her (this is incidentally the explanation for one of the most particularly hated aspects of the story, the idea that Beverly, a trained scientist, would throw her career away because of her new mysterious paramour: The episode is trying to depict this as her behaving confused and erratic, because that's how people like Ronin control the women they prey on. Also note how Beverly breaks free of his control by remembering her scientific training, and thus her individual agency), it doesn't out-and-out vilify him either, portraying it as a tragic thing that someone so otherwise romantic and charming let himself be consumed by his negative impulses to the point he inflicted them on his lovers. Beverly does note at the end that Ronin made her grandmother very happy, and it's clear he made her happy too, at least to some extent. So as much as “Sub Rosa” deconstructs the Gothic romance narrative, on some level it also redeems it by adding in a new level of melancholy.

And frankly, I'd take a narrative like this, flaws and misinterpretations all, over yet another angst-ridden monologue about grimdark and manpain any day. At least Gothic romance has something comparatively intelligent and meaningful to teach us about sexuality and loneliness. “Sub Rosa” is the perfect, and necessary, counterpoint the ghastly awfulness of “The Pegasus” and “Homeward”. I'd infinitely prefer to have another twelve episodes just like this than one single, solitary more outing like “Rightful Heir”.

The genre trappings aren't the only thing that mark “Sub Rosa” as being a story specifically targeted to women and women's concerns. Gates MacFadden is an absolute starlet in this production and obviously gets a ton of great material, but so does Marina Sirtis. In fact, this has always been one of my all-time favourite Deanna Troi stories because of how proactive and compassionate she is here (not to mention the amount of screen time she gets). This is another episode that really plays to the strengths of both character and actor, with Marina getting to play Deanna as a psychologist, scientific investigator and close confidant all at once whose deep concern for her friend's happiness and well-being overlaps with her desire to get to the bottom of the weird mystery on the planet's surface that seems to have made its way to the Enterprise. And as we've sadly seen too many times before, any story that features two women talking to each other for too long about their own lives and concerns without feeling each other up or being interrupted by an action scene or rumination on the burden of command makes the sci-fi crowd uncomfortable.

“Sub Rosa” is also just an absolutely gorgeous production in general. The production crew really went out of their way to lovingly bring to life a to-the-note Gothic romance setting for this episode (it's even diegetically referred to as an artificial construct). The set trappings are as pitch-perfect as the narrative beats and Jonathan Frakes, back in the director's chair, knocks it out of the park again by bringing it all together. I absolutely adore how at one point the Enterprise *actually starts filling up with fakey Gothic spooky fog* and *Data* of all people is stuck trying to figure out why. Not only is the show making strides to be inclusive and being respectful and intelligent about it, it's managing to have a blast doing it too. And that's the balance Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine really needs to be striving for, especially at this point in its life. For the first time in absolutely ages, this is reminding me of the show that once tried to do a Douglas Adams story without help from Douglas Adams just to see if it could.

The reason that Star Trek never works when it takes itself and its own pretenses too seriously is that Star Trek, at a fundamental level, is ridiculous and unsustainable. It's military science fiction that, because of its commitment to utopianism, can only ever work when it's not being militaristic or exploring military themes. It's scripted drama that can't be dramatic, at least not in an Aristotelian sense. Star Trek is a walking paradox. The way forward for Star Trek: The Next Generation is to embrace its own contradictions, acknowledge it with a campy little wink and a smile and let its hair down. There's a multiverse of infinite possibility open to us, and in at least one of them Star Trek has to respect women.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

“Ragnarok”: Armageddon Game

I can't help but read “Armageddon Game” in the context of the Cold War, or rather, in the context of the perceived end of the Cold War that would have permeated the zeitgeist of the early 1990s. I say “perceived”, because a lot of the geopolitical climate we currently live in as of this writing stems directly from the Cold War, or from multinational powers operating like the Cold War is still on. Which, by definition, means that it is.

Perhaps some of this is due to the title's similarity to that of the Original Series episode “A Taste of Armageddon”, which was likewise about apocalyptic wargaming with thinly-veiled stand-ins for nuclear weapons. But “Armageddon Game” goes well above and beyond the average Cold War fears over Mutually Assured Destruction: In this story, the analogs for the United States and the Soviet Union are entering their process of disarmament, a certainly timely topic in early 1994, yet are still engaged in heinous acts related to their earlier displays of diplomatic aggression. In order to ensure such a protracted conflict can never happen again, they can't just destroy their stockpile of weapons, they want to erase all record that their weapons ever existed in the first place. This includes...disposing of...anyone who had any contact with the weapons or the process through which they were created, which unfortunately includes Chief O'Brien and Doctor Bashir.

(It is perhaps worth noting that mere weeks after this episode aired, the CIA arrested Aldrich Ames at the end of a nearly ten year investigation into his perpetration of the second biggest act of espionage of the Cold War. The biggest ever espionage case, which would result chief investigator and double agent Robert Hanson playing cat-and-mouse with his own superiors for literally decades, would not be resolved until 2001.)

It's significant that these supposed arch-enemies, the T'Lani and the Kellerun, would actually be working together behind the scenes to manipulate information about their activities during the Cold War. State governments look out for each other, not for the people they claim to govern, and it's no different from the United States and the Soviet Union, who spent the majority of their Cold War constructing narratives about themselves they then imposed upon their people. Constructing narratives-That's what's going on in “Armageddon Game” too: Whoever writes the textbooks, or pays the people who write the textbooks, gets to decide what is and isn't history, because that's the narrative that gets taught to children in history classes and disseminated through the public discourse. Were the T'Lani and Kellerun to be successful in their efforts (which I hesitate to call “revisionist”, because there's never any such thing as pure history-It's only what gets written down and repeated by those with the power to do so), they would erase their Cold War from lived memory itself, and saved their own backsides in the process. No, your beloved governments would never do such a terrible thing as bring about widespread destruction on their populaces with chemical weapons-Best you just keep trusting them implicitly and enjoying the status quo.

This is a markedly cynical statement for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to be making in 1994. But, unlike the usual ways the show tries to by cynical, this is isn't petulance just for the sake of being pouty, this is actually cynicism with a utopian angle in sight: “Armageddon Game” is reminding us not to put our trust in authoritarian centralized power structures and not to accept the master narratives they try to force feed us about our history, culture, heritage and potential. Remembering that is, and always has been, the first step towards breaking our chains and realising we control our own destinies. It's OK to be cynical of the status quo so long as you see a way out of it and take the initiatives to show others how to follow you there. This is the fundamental truth Star Trek absolutely must keep in mind during this time of uneven transition: We, and it, are approaching a fork in the road in our collective future, and the path we choose will determine how we shape our lives and our attitudes to the cosmos henceforth. Smash binaries in all things except these: Optimism, utopianism and anarchism or pessimism (which is one with complacency), grimdark and fascism. Think hard and well on this.

On a lighter note, we have another Miles and Julian adventure! This is the angle most commentators like to focus on for this episode, so it's specifically the one I wanted to downplay. Not because it's bad, of course: Everyone is right to point to “Armageddon Game” as a key moment in the development of a relationship that's become one of the most beloved in the series. Siddig el Fadil explained the nature of Doctor Bashir's friendship with Chief O'Brien exquisitely in an interview on one of the DVD sets:
“It's as if these two love to hate each other, and they always seem to be stuck together, and although they voluntary walked into the bar together. But nevertheless, it's 'What am I doing stuck here with you?' 'I don't know.' I guess people have friends like that.”
However, what's not pointed out anywhere near as often, or at all, really, is that “Armageddon Game” is more of a climactic crest than a turning point. This is a relationship that's been building since “The Storyteller” last season, and it's not even the first time we've seen it this year. There was “Rivals”, of course, though “Rivals” was pretty passable and forgettable even with the O'Brien/Bashir stuff. But there was a lot of banter between these two even as far back as “The Homecoming”/“The Circle”/“The Siege” that hinted at the wonderful odd couple dynamic they were always poised to have.

The standout moment for me in this regard is the motif of Julian telling an ailing Miles about his life at the Academy, and in particular his lost love with a lovely ballerina whom he felt he couldn't marry because of his commitment to Starfleet. In particular, it's Miles' rejoinder near the end of the story: All episode he and Julian had been bickering about the benefits of being in a committed relationship while in Starfleet (mirroring, incidentally enough, a debate that had been raging in the writers room and in fandom since Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered), but near the end, Miles delivers this character defining speech:
“Listen to me, Julian. You're always talking about adventure... well marriage is the greatest adventure of all. It's filled with pitfalls and setbacks and mistakes, but it's a journey worth taking... because you take it together. I know Keiko's been unhappy... about our coming to the station... we still argue about it... But that's all right... because at the end of the day, we both know we love each other. And when you get right down to it, that's all that matters.”
It's a brilliant little piece of writing that gets at the heart of a man like that, and it's absolutely something I would expect from writer Morgan Grendel. Domesticity as an adventure has always been a big theme for him, and is what a lot of people love about “The Inner Light”. To me though these sorts of sentiments are far better expressed coming from someone like Miles O'Brien than someone like Captain Picard. Granted Grendel isn't the only writer responsible here as Michael Piller, Ira Steven Behr and James Crocker were all involved in the teleplay (and in fact Chief O'Brien wasn't even going to be in his original pitch, his role being filled by Jadzia Dax instead, which would have been utterly appalling-Thank the prophets for rewrites on that count), but it sounds much more like something Grendel would say.

Speaking of friendships, there are a couple other ones highlighted here I'd like to briefly note as they don't get talked about in the context of this story anywhere near as much as the Bashir/O'Brien “bromance”, and I think they really should. It's the friendships between Commander Sisko, Jadzia Dax, Major Kira and Keiko O'Brien, and in particular the permutations therein. Given Commander Sisko has the duty of reporting the apparent deaths of his officers to their family, you would think he would turn to Jadzia in a time like this for guidance and support. But Jadzia actually has more of an ancillary part this week, and actually spends most of the time talking to Major Kira about Miles and Julian (though she does get her badass cred back by helping Ben pull off an audacious Big Damn Heroes rescue moment). There's a little more of that dangerous Dax/Bashir ship tease here, but in that, given the fact she's tacitly “representing” Julian, this means that Kira must be talking about Miles. And there's an interesting pairing.

Miles and Kira have a lot of parallels in their personal histories, and a lot of similarities in their demeanor, outlook and personality, and they make a great Bash Bros. couple. Obviously Miles loves and is devoted to Keiko, but there is a potential avenue worthy of exploration here, and what did I say about enjoying projecting queer poly readings onto Star Trek: Deep Space Nine? Likewise, although on a far, far less shippy route, I really enjoy how it's Commander Sisko and Keiko O'Brien who work together to solve the mystery here and how it's such a firm rejection of the grieving widow stereotype that crops up so often in stories like this. Considering how Keiko O'Brien is typically written, this is honestly an enormous shock, but again, it's another manifestation of how surprisingly upfront “Armageddon Game” is about its utopianism. And yet even so, that crucial bit of information about Miles' coffee drinking habits that's so essential to figuring out the security footage was tampered with, something only a wife would know...Keiko turns out to be wrong about!

The problem of other minds. You can't always know everything about another person. Even your partner.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

“ ”: Homeward

I cannot remember “Homeward”.

I don't just mean that I didn't watch it during the original run, or missed it on reruns, or that it never left a meaningful impression on me. I literally cannot remember this episode exists: Every time I rewatch this show, I forget that “Homeward” is part of the filming block. I can't remember what “Homeward” is about, or even that there is in fact an episode called “Homeward” at all. Every time it's brought up to me I have to look it up, because the title draws nothing but an empty, blank vacuous absence of meaning. I have friends who were watching Star Trek: The Next Generation along with this blog and, given the schedule I write under, eventually they got ahead of me. They liked to chat with me about my rough thoughts on upcoming episodes, and just a couple of months ago as of this writing they got up to the seventh season. When they asked me about my feelings on “Homeward”, I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about and had to turn to Memory Alpha. When I was planning this week's essays a few days ago and saw that “Homeward” was coming up, I had to look it up again because any and all traces of it had vanished from the recess of my memory even though I'd just looked it up again a few months back.

*That* is how forgettable “Homeward” is to me. It belongs to a very select club of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes I simply cannot, for the life of me, ever remember as a material artefact of media, a club which also includes the likes of “The Survivors” and “The Masterpiece Society”. And, well, I can't say it's in terrible company, to be honest with you.

Longtime readers of the blog who are familiar with Star Trek: The Next Generation...You know what I'm going to say about this. For those of you who are newcomers to Star Trek: The Next Generation but not to the blog: It's a Worf story. It's a Prime Directive story where they wheel in a guest star (Worf's adoptive brother Nikolai Rozhenko, just to drive the point home by using a recognisable character) to lecture the main cast about why they're once again on the wrong side of history. Naren Shankar even goes so far as to *literally* compare Star Trek: The Next Generation unfavourably to the Original Series by saying Captain Kirk violated the Prime Directive all the time while Captain Picard “hides behind it” (as usual, Shankar is right but for the wrong reasons. He also seems to have an alarmingly poor memory of his own show). The structure of “Homeward' is built out of the most objectionable (well, to me at any rate) parts of stories like “The Defector”, “Captive Pursuit” and “Force of Nature”, and it's not worth wasting the time and energy to me to critique it on those grounds. If you've gotten this far in this project with me, it's nothing I haven't said and you haven't heard a million times before.

So let's talk about something else. Namely, the story I thought this was. Every time I look “Homeward” up because I've completely forgotten about its material existence and read “Worf's adoptive brother” and “violates the Prime Directive”, I immediately confuse this story with an event miniseries Michael Jan Friedman wrote for the DC Star Trek: The Next Generation comic book in 1995. Entitled Shadowheart (and this is one of the occasions where Friedman actually gives his miniseries a title himself instead of me having to make one up), it's intended to be a kind of sequel to “Homeward”...Except because I can never fucking remember “Homeward” I always end up assuming Shadowheart is a wholly original story. I may end up actually covering Shadowheart as part of my stubborn indulgence I'm calling Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 7B/2B, at least as a possible bonus entry for the book version of this era if not as an actual blog post (I haven't decided yet as of this writing; I'll have to re-read it) so I don't want to get too far into analysing it here, but it's a damn sight more interesting than “Homeward” so I need to at least mention it. 

Shadowheart sees Worf and the Enterprise receiving news that Nikolai has been killed during an uprising on Vacca VI. Regretful that he was never truly able to make up with his brother over their differences, Worf recalls their childhood together and how they started to grow apart after they attended Starfleet Academy. We also get a brief recount of the Boraal II incident, which I always took to be just straight exposition. Eventually however, we learn that Nikolai is in fact alive, having symbolically killed himself off in the public eye to start over as Shadowheart, a hooded vigilante folk hero who fights for the rights of the Boraalians, oftentimes violently and ruthlessly. Worf tracks him down and we get an extended discussion about identity, heroism, going native and finding one's role in life, in between bouts of kickass action sequences.

What's funny to me is how actually similar “Homeward” and Shadowheart actually are, in terms of the most basic rote plot details. In fact, they're so comparable one has to wonder whether Shadowheart ought to be considered a sequel at all and not a flat-out remake. And it should be small wonder that I keep mistaking “Homeward” for Shadowheart given my opinions on Michael Jan Firedman as opposed to my opinions on Naren Shankar. Because even though I don't quite remember the specifics and this is probably going to end up something of a placeholder essay until I get my post-season schedule straightened out, Shadowheart really is the more interesting and infinitely better written story. Whatever its possible failings, Shadowheart actually gets what it means to be a Star Trek: The Next Generation story and keeps its ideals close at hand. Because it is a story about ideals.

It's a story about Nikolai realising his true self and his true place in the universe. What he's doing is a kind of performance art that subsumes his own identity into an identity that's larger than life: A hero figure. As Shadowheart, he has attained a degree of immortality by becoming someone who will be admired, respected and have stories told in his honour for generations. This isn't Worf's story-Worf is involved because Nikolai is his brother and he loves and honours him, but this is the story of Nikolai's personal apotheosis. Worf's job is to help guide him through it and, at the end, welcome him into the pantheon. *That's* how Star Trek: The Next Generation is supposed to work.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

“We are only us when we are here”: The Alternate

“The Alternate” is a study of Odo's past. There is a clever fake-out during the first few acts, with the tease of an archaeological site in the Gamma Quadrant yielding clues about Odo's people, and which actually doesn't amount to much aside from the plot device needed to get the episode's central...conflict in motion. Because while “The Alternate” is about Odo's backstory, it's not stupid enough to explain away an origin story for him outright, or even give too many hints that would tempt the audience to get distracted trying to solve a mystery instead of paying attention to the story. Rather, the past we learn about Odo is his relationship with Doctor Mora Pol, who becomes the Bajoran scientist who found and raised him Odo mentioned to Lwaxana Troi in “The Forsaken”.

As much as I enjoy the fake-out science fiction mystery worldbuilding that baits us away so we don't notice the naturally more important exploration of characters an their relationship with one another until we're already in it, something about this plot has never sat entirely well with me. Odo is written here as a bit of a prodigal son, a headstrong and wayward child who becomes estranged from his father because of his determination to chart his own course in life (it should be noted that this doesn't really connect back to the Biblical parable of the prodigal son, but it's become a common enough archetype I feel comfortable citing it. Star Trek itself uses it in this context some years down the road). This strikes me as ever-so-slightly a cliché, although it's an unfortunately frequent enough occurrence in family dynamics that it's not entirely so.

The larger issue this strays into is that by pushing Odo's story in this direction (down to the whole “throwing a temper tantrum by turning into a monster” bit), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine risks trespassing into children's literature territory, as it sometimes tends to do from time to time when handling this sort of material. I know I've described Star Trek during this era as being “children's television for adults”, but the crucial variable in that statement is *for adults*. I'm not entirely sure a prodigal son narrative about making up with your dad entirely qualifies. For some reason this doesn't strike me as quite as mature a handling of this kind of familial dynamic as, well, Lwaxana and Deanna Troi, for instance (especially after “Dark Page”). But besides, in “The Forsaken” Odo seems to describe his history with the character who would become Doctor Mora as frightening, being treated as an inanimate object of curiosity rather than a person. And that doesn't quite always come across through James Sloyan's powerful and sympathetic performance.

Another issue I have with this episode is Jadzia, namely that she spends a fair portion of it knocked unconscious. I sort of thought we were passed the point where writers would keep Dax bedridden or otherwise incapacitated for all of part of an episode because they didn't know what to do with her, or otherwise treat her as anything other than one of the most capable and competent members of the crew (if not the most capable and competent outright). Then there's the matter of the Dax/Bashir thing, which I likewise thought we had left behind last season. Part of the reason Melora Pazlar was introduced as a potential reoccurring character (not to mention Garak, but we'll deal with him another day) was to give Julian somewhat less of a single-target sexuality. Sure, I prefer to read him as a queer poly guy, but I'm not about to pretend anyone on the writing staff or any of the freelancers saw him that way. This a bit more of a push back towards putting Dax and Bashir on the path towards becoming the Official Couple in this episode, which I think is an obscenely dangerous move (partly because it would take the form of an appallingly patriarchal narrative wherein Dax “finally gives in” and Bashir “wins” her through a combination of persistence and growing up), and one the show has been actually pretty good about avoiding up to this point.

(That said, there is a nice moment here where Doctor Mora opens up to Jadzia, which reinforces her status as the best empath and listener aboard the station.)

In more fertile grounds, this is also the first appearance of the heretofore unexplored Dax/Odo pairing, a really fascinating dynamic that will get a lot more exposure and exploration later on in the season in “Shadowplay”. And, just like that episode, “The Alternate”, or at least the first part of it, is another example of the “wide-open outdoor spaces awash in summer sunshine” aesthetic I love and associate so much with this season. Dax/Odo is a pairing (non-romantic, I should stress) I'm interested in for many reasons. First of all, the contrast between these two characters is remarkable-Jadzia Dax is vibrant, outgoing; full of life and life energy. Odo is taciturn, private and orderly. Jadzia is the drive to create and beget life, while Odo is practically the definition of asexual and aromantic. But as different as they seem at first glance, they actually share a great deal in common. Dax and Odo both reject and transcend the stereotypical conception of identity: Dax is, of course, a joined being who is a living reconciliation of two seemingly contradictory identities. All genders at once, she chooses to present as a woman, albeit something of a bent drag quotation of a woman. Odo, however, I would argue is genderless. Sure, he presents as male, but are we ever actually given any indication that's how he identifies? Can we even say Odo is a gendered being, given he can be anything?

Our gods can appear to us in any number of forms.

This leads us into another possible way to read the undercurrents in this story. Writer Jim Trombetta says the pitch that became this episode came about through his pondering the question of what it would be like for a shapeshifter to “suffer from multiple personality disorder”. Here I feel there is fruit for an interesting discussion. Not so much the pathological lens for studying identity, but the concept of malleability of form and identity in general. Odo is, by nature, formless: He can, presumably, assume any shape or identity necessary to adapt to any given situation. Even the face and persona he wears to us most of the time is fairly conspicuously just another kind of mask to fit in with us a little better. It's one specific manifestation of a certain combination of facets of Odo's broader and more holistic self, which is theoretically infinite. How many masks do we wear or how many identities do we assume in our own day-to-day lives? More to the point, perhaps consider this as a positive rather than the implicit negative Star Trek: Deep Space Nine might have you read this as...We all carry within ourselves a multitude of beings, identities and higher selves we turn to when the moment calls for it. Far from being lacking in self, Odo instead rejects the ego.

I go by many names...

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

“Reclaim Your Gods”: These Are The Voyages...

So let's make a pronouncement right off the bat, shall we? “These Are The Voyages...” is not a series finale. Yes, it's the final episode in the final filming block of the series, but if you're looking to it to resolve the show's final story arc you're going to be incredibly disappointed. It's far more satisfying and sensible both to grant that “Terra Prime” was that and that this is a bonus episode. In fact, a lot of the this last season is really better seen as a handful of assorted specials anyway; Think about “In A Mirror, Darkly”: That had nothing to do with anything that came before and anything that came after, and so does this episode. So let's just dispense upfront with the notion that this is Enterprise's series finale, because it's going to save us a lot of undue aggravation as we go along.

As absolutely everyone who has ever commented on this episode has pointed out, it plays out far more as a Star Trek: The Next Generation story than it does an Enterprise one. Which is fine because, the textual quality of this particular outing aside, in spite of everything Star Trek: The Next Generation was frankly a better show than this one. And you have to remember the context into which this was coming: In 2005, Star Trek was going away from television, possibly forever. “These Are The Voyages...” wasn't just closing off Enterprise's final filming block, it was closing off a sustained and uninterrupted period of Star Trek constantly being on the air dating back to 1987. You can't think of “These Are The Voyages...” as being of the same ilk as “All Good Things...” or “Endgame”-Really the only remotely comparable thing I can think of in media history is Doctor Who's “Survival”. This is the end of an institution that has to acknowledge not just the end of the current incarnation, but pay tribute to the entire twenty-plus year era of history it's a part of. In that context, the framing device of this story is more than fitting.

If you're going to criticize “These Are The Voyages...”, do so within its proper context. Most of the arguments I see leveled against this episode are quite frankly idiotic: It's a poor series finale and more of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode than an Enterprise one? No shit-That's what it was *supposed* to be: A lost episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that addressed the New Universe of Enterprise. This was going to be the last episode of the filming block whether UPN renewed Enterprise for a fifth season or not. It's fanwanky? Well, yeah. An episode like this kind of has to be fanwanky by default. And hey, have you, hypothetical interlocutor, even been paying attention for the past year? This whole season has been fanwanky as shit. So “These Are The Voyages...” is too weighed down by continuity nods and references, but utter nonsense like “The Forge”/“Awakening”/“Kir'Shara”, “Babel One”/“United”/“The Aenar”, “Affliction”/“Divergence” and “In A Mirror, Darkly” get a pass? That's just bald-faced hypocrisy. Then there's the astonishing criticism that Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirits look too old to be reprising their characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Oh, and I suppose you happened to have some time machine kicking around your apartment that would have allowed you to cast a ten-years-younger Frakes and Sirtis in 2005, then?

That's not to say there aren't valid criticisms to be leveled at this story. Problems do start to arise once we start to piece out the actual execution here. Firstly, all my talk about how “These Are The Voyages...” isn't a series finale for Enterprise and should be seen as a bonus episode of Star Trek more broadly is all well and good, except for the fact it still opens with the traditional Enterprise credits sequence. Even “In A Mirror, Darkly”, to which “These Are The Voyages...” is the most immediately comparable, had a unique title sequence that helped emphasize the fact that this was supposed to be something different outside our usual continuity. Wouldn't it have been a hoot if instead this episode had opened with a variant of the old Star Trek: The Next Generation intro sequence except with the names of the Enterprise cast (along with Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis and “Special Guest Star” Brent Spiner) in place of the Next Generation one? That would have been a laugh riot and would have spelled out far more clearly what I think this episode was aiming for.

Speaking of Star Trek: The Next Generation, invoking it here raises a few more questions worth discussing. For one, instead of making this a real “hidden story”, which would have been more befitting the Temporal Cold War connection and a much more appropriate tribute to Enterprise, the creative team decided to set it inside a previously made episode that tangibly exists. Furthermore, the episode they pick is a complete piece of shit called “The Pegasus”, a Ron Moore grimdark special from the seventh season that sees Commander Riker having a crisis of conscience about his involvement in a Starfleet cover-up masterminded by his former commanding officer involving a stolen Romulan cloaking device. Riker eventually tells Captain Picard the truth, but not before getting into a verbal altercation with him and being thrown in the brig. It's a contemptible, hateful relic from the Old Universe that should have been left in the 90s. But “These Are The Voyages...” would have us believe it's a sterling example of the lasting power of Starfleet values in a universe of moral ambiguity, or at least what Star Trek writers think pass for moral ambiguity.

Yeah, about that...

So part of this episode's conceit is that the Enterprise crew are beloved heroes from history specifically because of their involvement in the founding of the Federation charter, which raises eyebrows for several reasons. The first is that, for obvious reasons, anything from Enterprise is going to be, by definition, absent from the official historical record. This is the secret occult story of history's losers and marginalized, not its golden glowing Master Narrative. It is also quite frankly a kind of whitewashing: In “These Are The Voyages...” we see a Jonathan Archer lionized for his efforts at bringing people together to sign what is for all intents and purposes the Federation charter. Does this sound like the Captain Archer we've spent four (well, OK, three) years with to you? The Captain Archer who has given so much to resist the Federation's incessant meddling in the lives of him and his crew, and to deny its nonstop efforts to micromanage and strongarm their destinies? The Captain Archer who has fought tirelessly for freedom and liberation from the oppression of history's Master Narratives? It sure doesn't to me. I think you can hear it all in Scott Bakula's delivery when the holographic Archer tells the holographic T'Pol about beginning his mission as an explorer, and having to end it proclaiming that it was all worth it to bring about the Federation. That all of history will march gloriously and teleologically to this moment.

He doesn't buy it, and neither do we. 

Enterprise's presence within Star Trek: The Next Generation makes things...decidedly complicated. This is of course, a history that, speaking on one particular level of superficiality, this crew should not be aware of. That they are, to the point there's an entire holodeck programme dedicated to lauding and recreating the exploits of Captain Archer and his crew, raises all manner of potentially headache-inducing implications. It's not so simple as Enterprise trying to retcon its way into the diegetic history Star Trek: The Next Generation's universe, if that were the case why only this episode? And you still have Arik Soong to account for. This is not Jar Jar Binks and Hayden Christiansen getting sloppily re-edited into Return of the Jedi. No, what we're witnessing here is nothing so straightforward as the presumptuous prequel trying to legitimize itself. I think things start to reveal themselves more clearly as soon as we remember this story is largely set in a holodeck simulation: Remember Leah Brahms? She wasn't the real Doctor Brahms, but rather a simulation created through the computer's historical databanks and given life so the Enterprise could have an avatar to communicate with Geordi. That's what we're witnessing here, but the implications of this are a lot more disturbing then they were in “Booby Trap”.

History has to be written by someone.

This is not Captain Archer and T'Pol, this is what Federation history thinks Captain Archer and T'Pol were like. Or, to be more exact, what Federation history wants you to think Captain Archer and T'Pol were like (incidentally, you can also use this knowledge to save Trip from his fate here as well. If you want). This is Enterprise *re-written* as Officially Sanctioned Starfleet History, whitewashed and neatly compartmentalized into its own Proper Place in the grand unfolding history that leads inexorably to Us at the endpoint of history and teleologcial evolution. Suddenly, the fact that “These Are The Voyages...” is supposed to slide into “The Pegasus” and provide a way for Commander Riker to deal with that episode's alleged crisis of conscience becomes way more insidious. In essence, “These Are The Voyages...” is reappropriating Enterprise in service of 90s grimdark, which is now being presented to us as the teleological endpoint of history. And of utopianism to boot. The Empire of Capitalism once again dispatches its threats by assimilating them, warping them and weaponizes them for its own ends.

It's a dangerous move by the plutocrats, because it's not just an attempt to efface Enterprise's true radical history, it's an attack on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It's surprisingly enough that show this episode poses the greatest threat to, not Enterprise, which has been effectively dead and buried for the past year and a half. This is just the reanimated corpse made to dance for the fanboys, who will never be able to deny their compulsion to the grotesque. An attack on Star Trek: The Next Generation is an attack on utopianism at its source. But Star Trek: The Next Generation left the War behind long ago. It's immortal and eternal now, transcending this plane of existence to return to the collective consciousness. But what our enemies fail to understand about Star Trek: The Next Generation is that it will resit its efforts to contain or control it. They may try to make it serve them, but they can never own it because it is incapable of being owned, being as it is everything and nothing at once. Any role Star Trek: The Next Generation may have once played in bring about the War is irrelevant now because it is formless, and formless things cannot be forced to hold one shape above and beyond any other. Star Trek: The Next Generation can be anything it wants to be.

The Empire may think it has a Star Trek: The Next Generation, but so do we. One thing history does teach us is that conquering powers will try and claim authority by subjugating the local gods. But gods can never be truly taken away from their people and live on through folk beliefs and stories. These things cannot be taken away so long as the stories continue to be told. Tradition and mythology are stronger than written history, because they can constantly adapt to changing times, and these are certainly times when time is changing before our very eyes.

A written history is a dead story, extinguished and filed away for the archives. But a story that continues to be told is a voyage that never ends.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

“The Butterfly Effect”: Rivals

Chaos theory is the principle of mathematics that states dynamical systems which are subject to any number of individual initial conditions, such as the commonly cited example of a butterfly flapping its wings ultimately leading to a dramatic shift in weather at the opposite end of the planet, behave in such a way that defies prediction in the long-term. These systems are called chaotic, where by this definition chaos is not random, but is so impossible to predict by any meaningful system of measurement that it might as well be random.

This is ostensibly the premise “Rivals” was pitched under. But the neutrino-spinning gambling machine Martus Mazur brings to Deep Space 9 hardly constitutes an example of chaos theory. Instead, it operates by altering the laws of probability, as numerous characters state at various points in the episode. Far from large-scale effects being generated seemingly at random by an otherwise inconsequential initial event, the device arbitrarily dispenses good luck and bad luck across the station, which is a very different sort of phenomenon. Perhaps it's small wonder than that the “chaos theory” pitch languished around in production hell for over a year before Michael Piller got around to it, by which point the finished product could hardly be called something that could be traced back to its source. Actually, that's a better example of chaos theory than anything in the actual episode as aired.

But this isn't a blog about mathematical models of scientific processes. I'm sure you can find oodles of critique of Star Trek's clumsy handling of those issues elsewhere. We all know that Star Trek's scientific concepts are usually the least interesting thing about any given story, and the same is certainly true here. The only trouble is there's not a whole lot else to “Rivals”: It's an aggressively unfunny attempt at a low-stakes story that leaves me without a lot to talk about. I suppose that's the first thing I could mention, because it's not a good sign to see Star Trek: Deep Space Nine trip up on a low-stakes story like this. “Rivals” is precisely the sort of episode that should be absolutely in this show's wheelhouse and it should be able to churn out this kind of material practically on autopilot. This is what the series was built to do, and that it can't seem to wrap its brain around it is concerning. Maybe the show has epiced itself out following the season opening three-parter and big dramatic attempts like “Necessary Evil”, “Invasive Procedures”, “Cardassians” and “Sanctuary”.

Maybe the answer is that troublesome brief. Either chaos theory doesn't make a great Star Trek story, or the creative team doesn't know how to make it a good Star Trek story. The fumble on the chaos theory thing has tripped me up for years, and I've spent longer than any human being should trying to piece together what this story actually has to do with a field of theory I've actually found kind of interesting at varying points in my life, only to finally realise it actually has fuck all to do with it. What the events of this episode are actually closer to, and what's potentially even more interesting, is the concept of synchronicity: Meaningful coincidences that make themselves obviously visible to us in such a way they forces us to facet of reality we were heretofore ignorant of. Even if the truth turns out to be something boring like there's a weird gambling machine that's causing the station's neutrinos to rotate in an unorthodox matter (which, according to particle physicists, isn't even accurate either). Real chaos theory tends to get you the weather forecast. But regardless, there are far better and far more memorable Star Trek stories that examine synchronicity you can partake of than this.

There is something of a real Star Trek story here. Or at least what I'd consider a Star Trek story, or the germ of one. And that's in Martus Mazur himself. He's an El Aurian, a member of a “race of listeners”, whom I am informed Guinan is also one of. Now, I'm not sure why people would want to pin down a mundane origin story for Guinan like that, but whatever, we'll roll with it for now. In fact, the link with Guinan was originally going to be even more overt, with Martus being her “wayward son” and Guinan herself getting called in at the end to deal with him. But with Whoopi Goldberg unavailable, the link to her was dropped, and probably for the best, although I confess I would have enjoyed seeing Guinan on Deep Space 9. Actually, contrasting her with Quark is yet another far better story the series could have done than this.

Either way, with or without a textual connection to Guinan, Martus's status as a “listener” means he's tacitly supposed to be empathic. This means he's another example of a theme the show has looked at a lot this season: The corruption of empathy and how it can be twisted for ill ends. The best example is naturally Lore and the Borg in “Descent”, who use emotions and emotional vulnerability as a weapon and the classic misreading of Friedrich Nietzsche as a means to bring about fascist ends. There's also the ever-present spectre of grimdark on the horizon, which is a temptation Star Trek: Deep Space Nine experiences far more viscerally and profoundly than its sister show Star Trek: The Next Generation (in spite of the best efforts of certain creative figures, who shall remain nameless). Grimdark is the antithesis of empathy, or perhaps it's better described as empathy's warped inverse: It's an attunement to one's own emotions and emotional state above all else, and an exaggeration of them to cosmic proportions. It's a form of solipsism, or at least willfully blinkered insensitivity.

So here we have Martus, a supposed “listener” who uses empathy as a ruse to con and manipulate people for his own material gain. There's a nut of an interesting idea, but again, the episode doesn't really take it anywhere interesting. It's not really an examination of grimdark one way or the other, and Lore is a far, far more terrifying example of empathy corrupted than Martus. Really, Martus just comes across as an ass instead of a serious threat or a symbolic adversarial force to be overcome. Which leaves me in a bind, because I can't read this episode as an oversignified semi-sentient self-critique any more than I can really read it as a piece of harmlessly enjoyable fluff.

Although speaking of fluff, there's one fun aspect to this episode worth looking further into: Miles and Julian's racquetball game. This episode goes a long way towards furthering the odd couple pairing of Chief O'Brien and Doctor Bashir, and is probably the highlight of the week on this side of the lot. The relationship itself is obviously cute and they make a good pair, with their early abrasiveness softening into an intergenerational friendship built around mutual respect and admiration. The racquetball court itself is really fun too: I always liked seeing how Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would translate things like sports to their settings, and seeing how the different characters enjoyed them. Although I will say, as much as I loved Chief O'Brien's court back in the day, while I was researching this essay I have to admit I found Captain Picard's setup in “Suddenly Human” to be a bit more visually striking. But perhaps, like so much else about this show, that was part of the point.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

“Unbound”: Parallels

And this is it. We've arrived: The greatest episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation ever. Not necessarily in terms of abject quality, though “Parallels” is definitely one of the best outings of the year, and of the series in general, on that front as well. The reason this episode is the show's finest hour is because of the repercussions the events of this story have on all of Star Trek.
“For any event, there is an infinite number of possible outcomes. Our choices determine which outcome will follow. But there is a theory in quantum physics that all possibilities that could happen do happen in alternate quantum realities.”
What “Parallels” does is establish the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and whatever else you want to attach to it by association, as a quantum multiverse of literally infinite possibility. This is the actual plot of the episode, with Worf shifting between one reality to the next, each different from the other in ways both negligible and profound. It's textual on such a level that it's impossible to deny. Just look at all those Enterprises out there, and than try to think about how many more there could possibly be. Or even Galaxy-class starships that aren't called Enterprise and don't serve an imperialistic Federation. If anything that can happen does happen somewhere, there are absolutely no constraints on plots or themes or characters or anything anymore: If you can imagine it, it exists. Captain Picard is a pirate. Ro Laren made commander. Beverly Crusher a respected scientist. Kestra Troi grew up to be her sister Deanna's role model and best friend. Will Riker finally got together with Lyrinda Halk. Worf isn't an asshole. Tasha Yar and Sela really were the same person, or Tasha Yar stayed aboard the Enterprise to be Geordi La Forge's lover and closest ally.

Oh right, Tasha Yar. I'll come back to her later.

The point is, “Parallels” tells us Star Trek can be anything we want it to be. Anything. It canonizes the franchise's status as a living modern oral tradition by abolishing the idea of canon: The Lovely Angels came back to destroy the God Canon once and for all. Your interpretation is every bit as true as mine, because we all have a universe inside of us and we all share a universe together. “Parallels” takes the way we generate truths through reading and the operational process of the imaginal realm and writes it back into itself through a science fiction metaphor. It's astronomically brilliant, sublimely elegant and unfathomably oversignified genre fiction; the medium at its thematic and intellectual best. The kingmaking moment for Brannon Braga and, without exaggeration or hyperbole, the single most important and cosmically meaningful story this franchise has ever produced, or will ever produce. I can't think of a single other large-scale, ostensibly corporate controlled populist mass media franchise that has ever, or indeed would ever, come out and explicitly say this about itself. From now on, Star Trek will always belong to each and every one of us as individual and all of us together, and there's nothing any one person or group of oligarchs will ever be able to do about it again.

The ghost of Gene Roddenberry has finally been exorcised. As well as that of Rick Berman, Maurice Hurley, Michael Piller, Ronald D. Moore, Ira Steven Behr, even Brannon Braga himself. And anyone and everyone else. Star Trek has been “dispersed in clouds of narrative language”. There is no more ego here, because this is the collective dream of being.

The plot is completely irrelevant in the shadow of images, emotions and symbols, as it always is for Star Trek and as it always should be. It's well-written and entertaining, but superfluous. It's Good Television, but who cares? Fine, I'll throw you lot some lit crit bones. I like the Worf/Deanna stuff, but I wish it had been developed better earlier on in the show. I've always shipped them (or rather, I ship this version of them and the quantum figures who show up in some of the comics), but this rewatch I've noticed that their romance is questionably professional at best, because it's basically a guy falling for his therapist, who is also his co-worker. It works in this story though, quite well I might add, and that makes the further development from this point sail more smoothly. There are some deliberately awkward scenes and character interactions I could have personally done without (there's a quantum reality where they don't occur), but that's what mute buttons were invented for.

You can't get any more perfect than having Worf's visions of other realities sparked by Geordi and his VISOR: It feels like this is the first time Geordi's VISOR has actually been used properly and lived up to its symbolic and metaphorical potential since, like, “Heart of Glory”. Which just makes it all the more annoying that he's apparently dead in quite a number of universes: What got him, anyway? Is this the show trying to tell us something about how it's feeling in regards to its own sustainability? Frankly I'd rather have seen a universe where he got to be with Tasha Yar and...Oh right, Tasha Yar. She was supposed to be in this episode, filling Wesley's spot as tactical officer in the First Officer Worf universe. The team, however, decided against it because they felt it would have made the episode too similar to “Yesterday's Enterprise”, which is quite frankly an utter bullshit line of reasoning in *my* quantum reality.

The show's done alternate realities quite a few times between “Yesterday's Enterprise” and “Parallels” and no-one found that confusing. And while I know Denise Crosby is going to be in the finale, she doesn't get to come back as often as Wil Wheaton does, so having her here would have corrected the imbalance the show accrued by having her absent last season. They did it with Q. As it stands now, it kind of feels like the team is deliberately *looking* for excuses not to bring Tasha back, and that just comes across as spiteful. Now I'm not saying they were, but that's how it feels to me sometimes. Apparently, anything and everything can happen in a quantum multiverse *except* Tasha Yar being alive. And just think: Wesley gets a grand total of two lines, one of which is a bit of technobabble problem-solving. He didn't need that material-Think how much that would have strengthened and empowered Tasha's character if she had been the one to come up with the way to send Worf home. That one little bit of plot advancement would have been more than Tasha was allowed to contribute in her entire collective tenure as a regular and reoccurring character.

But my being able to imagine a universe where Tasha Yar was in “Parallels” merely speaks to the power that “Parallels” itself has. From the very outset of Vaka Rangi we've been interested in exploring utopianism through the counterfactual, and here's the counterfactual literally made fundamental to the entire Star Trek universe at the quantum level. Nothing I could write here as critique would make that any more powerful, empowering or inspiring. The universe is what you believe it to be, what you imagine it to be. We shape it every present moment of our lives through the decisions we make and the actions we take. And through knowing this truth, we can know our own higher selves. How could I ask for a better Star Trek statement than that? 

Star Trek: The Next Generation went on a voyage of discovery to learn about the universe and itself. And it found the key to unlocking the true nature of reality also unlocks its own limitless potential.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

“Need not apply”: Sanctuary

Here's an episode I always remember being ambivalent about. It's one of those situations where it always seemed like it was something I should like, but somehow it never quite clicked with me for one reason or another. Each time I would rewatch this episode (or, given where it falls in the year and the fact it's a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode more generally, re-read) I would expect it to be good given my mental sorting algorithm filed it away as part of a stretch of episodes I'd just accepted as classic outright, and then I would always leave it feeling vaguely unsatisfied for reasons I couldn't quite put my finger on. Well, the same thing happened this time, except now I know exactly why this episode has never struck a chord with me.

“Sanctuary” is ostensibly trying to Say Something Important about the plight of refugees, a humanitarian crisis that's sadly just as pressing as I write these words now as it was in 1993, if not more so. This means of course it's an “Issues” story, and we've just come off of a stretch of episodes that have proven pretty conclusively that “Issues” stories simply do not work in Star Trek in spite of what everyone thinks. Even though its cause is a just and noble one, “Sanctuary” doesn't work any better than “Force of Nature” or “Melora” (indeed, those episodes' respective causes were every bit as just and noble as this), and in fact it's “Sanctuary” that casts into light even more stark why this kind of morality play is a bad fit for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It's not, it should be stressed, that the depiction of a refugee crisis in this episode is a poor or ill thought out one: Indeed, the depiction is, if anything, depressingly realistic: Deep Space 9 becomes a staging ground for millions upon millions of starving and displaced refugees escaping oppression in their homeland. They've made a harrowing journey across great distances and the only thing that's kept them going is the hope that their new home will afford them the realised dream of freedom denied them where they come from. But once they arrive, they find locals whose attitude runs a gamut between reluctant to help and outright bigoted and contemptuous. There's even the reveal that the Skrreeans (which, as an aside, is a name for a fictional culture right up there with BeBeBeBeque in terms of sheer trollishness) see Bajor as their own holy land, a forsaken planet they are prophesied to bring light and hope back to. Which is of course a plot point clearly reminiscent of a certain real-world political situation in the middle east.

But though there are parallels between the plight of the Skrreeans and the great western identity crisis that is the Israeli-Palestinian-Christian conflict, the clearest connections are to the history of the United States, which “Sanctuary” has pegged depressingly well. Although it talks up its alleged heritage as a country built on immigration as part of its national jingoistic ego, the United States actually has a long history of treating those same immigrants with distrust, fear, scorn and disdain (this is true of all nation-states to some degree or another, though I suspect it's especially true for the United States), typically subjecting them to dehumanizing apartheid-like living conditions and social structuring. The first and greatest sin of the United States is of course slavery and a slave economy, where entire ethnic groups were involuntarily relocated to the country and treated as property. But the trend continues throughout the country's entire history, as each new and distinct group of immigrants faces oppression and discrimination: Catholics, the Irish, Jews, the Japanese, Arabs, Mexicans, Muslims, and so it goes, seemingly without end forever. This is, of course, on top of the genocide the country enacted on the native peoples of North America, whose homeland they conquered and stole from them: There's not an Other that can be invented the United States can't be taught to hate.

And you don't have to be descended from colonial landed gentry to be swept up in this. I've personally witnessed some of the most fervent xenophobic and nativist rhetoric in the United States espoused and supported by the last people you would normally expect: Immigrants themselves, their families and their descendants. Why would such people, some of whom have a history of being a refugee and fleeing from oppression within living memory, gravitate to these kinds of beliefs? Because the United States encourages tribalism above all else. That's a loaded term I don't use lightly-In anthropological rhetoric the word “tribe” is firmly deprecated, but in the more general colloquial sense I think it's suitable to describe the way people in this country tend to form communities based around pre-existing identities and cultural boundary lines. And, far from “starting a new life”, those communities retain their old prejudices and alliances. The logic for many people seems to go that “The American Dream” is fit for people like them [say, immigrants of a certain ethnic group” and “Americans” who were born here (that is, descendants of colonialists, landed gentry and those who have capitulated and assimilated)], but not for anyone else, regardless of how similar their situations might otherwise be. So in that respect it makes perfect, albeit sad, sense that the Bajorans, who themselves have a long history of being forced into refugee camps by the Cardassians, would turn up their noses at the Skrreeans and turn them away.

I've seen it in my own life, and I see it every day on the news.

(There is also, perhaps, something to be said about the fact that the group of refugees treated with hatred and disdain is a matriarchal one, but the Myth of Matriarchy and fear of feminine energy and power are topics I've discussed at length elsewhere.)

This, however, gets at why “Sanctuary” is ultimately a poor Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode. Because, ironically enough, it depicts a refugee situation too realistically. There's no utopian solution offered, and the worst part of it is some of our regulars become complicit in the racial discrimination.While it's not entirely unbelievable to see characters like Quark and Nog openly engaging in bigotry because the Ferengi are based on the ideals of Western society many of us are actually forced to live in and I certainly understand the ineffectual and nativist Bajoran Provisional Government acting the way they do, I'm less comfortable with the weak response Major Kira gives. To me, she should be the one proudly and openly welcoming the Skrreeans, recognising them as comrades given their similar histories. The provisional government could still turn them away, but instead of siding with them Kira should have gotten angry and given them a lecture about being hypocrites and forgetting their roots. I'm also not really satisfied with the hands-off approach of the Starfleet crew-You'd think if nobody else Miles O'Brien would have some words to say about the Skrreeans given his own people's history. However, both Commander Sisko and Jadzia Dax do get a few choice moments.

Once more, Star Trek has forgotten that it can't just get on a podium and rant about things, it actually has to offer actual solutions to real problems. More importantly, it has to demonstrate what a world where “Issues” such as these have either been resolved or, at the very least, how they can be resolved...Constructively.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

“What Are We?”: Inheritance

Last week on Star Trek: The Next Generation we talked about the counterintuitive reality that Star Trek is at its creative peak, yet has also run out of ways to tell Star Trek stories. And last week on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine we talked about how I've reached a critical impasse with accepted discourse surrounding the show. What I want out of Star Trek and what other people seem to want out of Star Trek are two completely different things, and it's this episode that finally clarified it all for me.

Basically, I seem to like Star Trek best when it's being anything other than Star Trek. “Inheritance” is not a Star Trek story, not really, but it's exactly the kind of story this show should be doing.

Near as I can tell, “Inheritance” has a reputation 'round about that of “Dark Page”. That is, everyone hates it except me, and I naturally love it. “Inheritance” seems to get a lot of the same criticisms levelled at “Dark Page” too, namely that the story is predicated on a heretofore unknown bit of backstory for one of the main characters that strains credulity beyond the breaking point. And my response to that line of argument this time is about the same as it was then: I don't understand how you can claim any sort of backstory development for a character in an episodic television series in unbelievable (certain Cousin Oliver-type panderings possibly excepted), because in polyauthored episodic television backstory is by definition created cumulatively. It's not that far-fetched to posit Doctor Soong had an assistant who he fell in love with and who, consequently, served as Data and Lore's “mother”. At least, it's not any more far-fetched than some of the other stuff this franchise expects us to swallow from time to time (like, say, I dunno, an arbitrary Warp 5 speed limit). And it should be noted “Inheritance” seems to be aware of the reception “Dark Page” got and hedges against it, with Data being highly suspicious of Doctor Tainer's story until the climax: It's almost as if Data himself is standing in for a fickle, easily bored implied science fiction audience.

(There's some potentially worthwhile ground to be covered in exploring that metaphor further, especially in lieu of what this story reveals about Data's character, but I don't much care to pursue it.)

Aside from being a genuinely sweet, touching and astonishingly well-acted character piece (shout-out to the incredible Fionnula Flanagan, who plays Juliana Tainer, fresh off her equally outstanding stint on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Enina Tandro in last year's “Dax”), I really love the idea “Inheritance” raises that all of Data's positive qualities, his creativity, inquisitiveness and affably polite demeanor, come from a female role model: His “mother” instead of his “father”. Not that Star Trek: The Next Generation has necessarily valorized Doctor Soong-There's always been some darkness lurking around his paratext. But equally, there have been moments where that story has taken on a whiff of The Great Man and His Works about it, and “Inheritance” is a much needed counterbalance to that. Every single revelation about Data's childhood and Juliana's involvement in it is eminently believable, bringing to light what we always suspected about Doctor Soong: That, while a genius, he was an insular one mired in patriarchal self-aggrandizement. A racial purest in all but the most technical of distinctions.

Also believable is Juliana's difficult early relationship with Data, and the guilt she now feels about some of the choices she made back on the colony. Seeing Data having grown into such a mature and successful person makes her feel terrible for doubting, even fearing what he could have become as a child. But she was entirely within her rights to be nervous, because we all know Data and Lore are really not that different (“Descent”, “Gambit” and “Phantasms” all point to that just this season alone), and he could have ended up just like Lore had a few things in his life not gone the way they did. Fortunately, it seems a lot of those things that helped make Data Data were due to savvy intervention from his mom Juliana. Amusingly overbearing as it's supposed to be, it's the nudity conversation in engineering that really cements this for me: Naturally young Data, convinced as he must have been that he's a superior life-form, would think, “logically”, that the concerns and norms of society-at-large should not apply to him. And naturally it would have to be a woman to point out to him that no, they actually really fucking do.

And the cherry on top of the sundae is that Juliana wanted to make Data female.

Normally, the twist that Juliana chose to leave Data behind during the attack of the Crystalline Entity because she was afraid he might turn out like Lore would elicit some grumbling from me about conflict-for-conflict's sake being dragged out to add drama to an episode that was otherwise coming across too feelsy and fuzzy for the fragile masculinity of science fiction fans (Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 even *literally describes* this episode as “touchy-feely”), but in the context of “Inheritance” this is actually really well done. And furthermore, it adds some cleverly subtle ambiguity to the climactic decision Data must make about whether or not to tell his mother that she too is an android. Because Juliana's rationalization is not that she values biological life over mechanical life, but that she was afraid for Data and for herself. If anything, it's Soong she didn't trust. This raises the interesting question of whether or not she would have minded learning that she herself is an android: Presumably, her experience with cybernetics and her android children would have led her to view her own android existence as one that's inherently meaningful and worthwhile.

(I also like how this plot twist is subtly built to over the course of the story, and the implicit callback to Data's old fascination with Sherlock Holmes as a lens to explore his identity: He uses classic deductive reasoning to figure out Juliana is an android, complete with the dramatic flourish reveal at the climax.)

There's actually something of a potential plot hole here, because Holo!Soong tells Data that he write a subroutine into Juliana's positronic matrix that would cause her to self-terminate if she ever learned the truth about her existence, and yet this doesn't ever get addressed during the conference in the observation lounge where Data is debating what to do with Captain Picard, Doctor Crusher and Deanna Troi.One would assume that for purely pragmatic reasons at least the choice not to tell her would seem obvious, but maybe that's what Deanna was referring to when she was talking about how the shock might irreparably harm Juliana. Then the question becomes though whether or not Deanna's second argument, that telling Juliana the truth would deprive her of the same thing Data has been striving towards his entire life, that is humanity, is right either. Because another deceptively clever thing “Inheritance” does is neatly and decisively resolve the Blade Runner-style personal identity problem, and it does it almost as an afterthought: Holo!Soong is right-By any reasonable standard of measurement, the android Juliana *is* Juliana.

But she's not human either, she's Human+. She's a human who was able to harness her latent potential to become something more, and that's wonderful. This is where Star Trek's annoying anhtropocentrism rears its head again, because this is a more accurate description of what Data actually wants, not “To Be Human”. So it's not entirely clear that (again, barring that self-termination subroutine thing) it's actually the right thing to do to withhold that information from Juliana about her true nature and identity, because this is something she could probably do a lot with. Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 actually raises this point too, though it phrases it more as a criticism of the episode and, more specifically, of Deanna's character. But I don't think this is a failing of the story, I think it's actually a genuinely ambiguous scene, and for an audience that seems to be addicted to “moral ambiguity”, it's telling no-one seems to have picked up on this. It's not a grimdark thing, because the option is always there for Data to tell Juliana at some point int he future; in fact the episode pretty explicitly leaves that possibility open.

In the end, that moment is more about Data himself then it is about his mother, which is exactly what he had just said it was. Maybe there will come a day when Data will be able to decouple his desire to transcend himself and unlock his potential from his concept of humanism and the human condition, but that day is not today.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

“What is it that does not cease when the vision ends?”: Second Sight

This is the moment where I finally break with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine establishment. I mean, not that it hasn't been obvious over the past year and a half that I have serious disagreements with this creative team about what this show is fundamentally about and even what constitutes good basic storytelling, but “Second Sight” is where whatever bridges span the rift between us vanish forever and it becomes obvious we have two irreconcilable conceptions of what this show is about and something is going to have to give: I think this episode is a defining classic, but the creative team hates it and I have a feeling the majority of fandom agrees with them.

Just like “Necessary Evil”, “Second Sight” is about elements from the past returning to have an impact on events in the present and, also just like “Necessary Evil”, it's about finding positive, constructive ways to make peace with them and continue our lives. It's the four year anniversary of the Battle of Wolf 359, and thus of Jennifer's death, and Commander Sisko almost forgot. The guilt he feels upon this realisation is genuine: At some point we have to move on with our lives, but through the grieving process it's not uncommon for people to feel like they're betraying the memory and legacy of their loved one by not keeping them in their thoughts 24/7. But of course, we always have to remember that our loved ones would want us to move on and have healthy, fulfilling lives, with our without them. This is the conclusion Commander Sisko reaches, and he reaches it fairly early on in the story, even if the cause is a woman who's not quite all there, if you know what I mean.

And make no mistake, “Second Sight” handles this with unabashed utopianism. The whole narrative is pushing Ben to go talk to Fenna, even in spite of that business about unconscious psychic projections I'll deal with a little further down. The show could have taken the trite and clichéd path by using the romance as an excuse to drive a wedge between Ben and Jake for some good old-fashioned conflict-You can just imagine how the scenario would play out in your head with Jake petulantly complaining that his father beginning a new relationship isn't fair to him and is an insult to his mother's memory or something equally stupid (in fact, the normally sensible Michael Jan Friedman does precisely this in a couple years on Star Trek: The Next Generation, astonishingly with the thirtysomething Will Riker). But no: Here, Jake is the *first* one to say that if his dad has found love, he'll support him all the way. So does Jadzia Dax, though Ben keeps dancing around addressing the topic with her.

Speaking of Jadzia, her role in this story, and Ben's evasive behaviour around her, is somewhat revealing. Like “Rules of Acquisition”, “Second Sight” is another episode that very strongly defined my interpretation of Jadzia Dax: Once again she's playing a support role to another character, and this is the most important one for her because it's with Commander Sisko. I've always felt that for two characters who are supposed to be best friends and possibly pseudo-lovers in some form or another, the relationship between Sisko and Dax always tends to go frustratingly underdeveloped. Not here though, if only because this episode is dripping with all kinds of interesting subtext: Ben doesn't want to talk to Jadzia about his problem with Fenna, even though she's practically trying to shake it out of him. They both joke it off as Ben being uncomfortable talking about this sort of thing with a woman (“It's because I'm a woman now, isn't it? you used to tell Curzon everything”, “It's hard to talk man to man with a woman”), but...why is that?

It certainly can't be that Ben has some kind of mild sexist hangup about what's appropriate to talk to a woman about. Not Commander Benjamin Sisko: He's far too noble and honourable to have that kind of failing. But it finally occurred to me this time around that there may be a level at which Dax's new presentation does give Ben pause. I wonder, is it at all possible that Ben's erratic behaviour and uncharacteristic unwillingness to talk to Jadzia in this particular instance about this particular topic is because he might still have unresolved feelings for Jadzia of his own he's uncomfortable with? Like it or not, it's tough to deny that's an undercurrent these two have had dating back to the very first episode, and it popped up more than a few times in the first/sixth season, namely in “A Man Alone” and “Dax” (and I suppose you could even read “Invasive Procedures” from a few weeks back that way if you really wanted to). This year they seemed to have ironed it out and are back to being just best friends...Except we never saw that moment of resolution for Sisko and it's perfectly possible for someone to be in love with their best friend, but struggling to hide it. This could be another example of Ben being torn about pursuing a relationship with Fenna-He's not concerned about betraying Jennifer, but about betraying Jadzia.

Fortunately, Ben finally seems to get over himself enough to work up the courage to ask Fenna out, but unfortunately it turns out she's the psychic projection of the unconscious mind of Gideon Seyetek's wife Nidel, and the two can't exist together without killing each other. Even this is seeped in utopianism, however: Fenna is a thought-form onto which Nidel has projected all of her best qualities, ideals and ambitions-In many ways, Fenna is the person Nidel wants to be, thus Commander Sisko's final line “she was just like you”. It only make sense that Sisko's first serious crush after moving beyond Jennifer would be someone who is literally the embodiment of someone's deepest, most profound qualities. Michael Piller said he hoped to define Commander Sisko as “a builder and a healer” and that's exactly how “Second Sight” portrays him, both in the way he helps to heal Nidel and Gideon and in the way he heals himself by finally moving on with his life. The episode's climax is a perfect metaphor for this: A dead star is literally born again through the end of one set of lives and the continuation of another.

So why is “Second Sight” so hated by the creative team? Largely, I suspect, for precisely the reasons I outlined above. A few of the writers felt the casting of Gideon was off and he wasn't an effective character, but I get the feeling the real problem is the type of episode this is. “Second Sight” is a very slow-paced, low-key episode about real human emotions and how to confront them, and, in spite of what they say, that's not the kind of thing Star Trek fans are really interested in watching, People (read: hardcore Star Trek fans) were already starting to complain that although Commander Sisko was “nice”, he wasn't “commanding” enough, and an episode like this isn't going to do anything to change those sorts of minds. It's also not going to do anything to assuage the evergreen complaints that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was too slow, talky and feelsy and didn't have enough action.

As far as I'm concerned, “Second Sight” is a masterpiece and the perfect roadmap for the quintessential Star Trek: Deep Space Nine story. But *only* as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

“I Can't Drive Warp 5”: Force of Nature

Now this one is interesting to me because it's an episode that's always been very memorable to me, but also one that's sort of bad, however, it's not memorable to me because it's bad.

For some reason, the Warp 5 speed limit is a concept that really stuck with me. I have no idea why, it's no less outlandish then some of the other artificially out-there concepts this franchise plays with on occasion, but for some reason this one connected with me. When rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation's earlier years back in the day I would *always* self-correct whenever Captain Picard had the Enterprise go somewhere at over Warp 5: “Well, they didn't know any better at the time”, I kept telling myself. For some reason. Because, famously, this is a plot thread that is pretty swiftly abandoned and the speed limit is a rule that has more exceptions and gets broken more frequently than the Prime Directive. I would always let this one through in my personal headcanon, even though I didn't particularly enjoy watching it, because to me it introduced a critical piece of worldbuilding: A “Datalore” for the latter years.

Except it's not critical. At all. The warp speed limit is only mentioned I think like three other times, so I have absolutely no idea why this struck me as such an important piece of Star Trek universe worldbuilding. I can tell you why I think it's important to talk about today though: “Force of Nature” is attempting, albeit clunkily and embarrassingly, to address environmentalist issues, which don't get considered anywhere remotely near as much as they should. Environmentalism is a fundamental part of my political philosophy because I believe in a holistic utopianism that would reunite all forms of life energy in the universe. Connection to our land is an extension of empathy, of course, and perhaps the highest form of it because at that stage you've finally shed all the artificial boundaries you have erected between the self and the perceived other. A great deal of my most formative intellectual background is actually in the fields of zoology, ethology and natural history (my interest in genre fiction media studies is honestly a kind of aberration, albeit a big one) and I'm a big supporter of Donna Haraway's conception of ecofeminism and multispecies ethnography, although that's best saved for a look in a specific essay down the road a bit.

(Apart from the weird warp speed limit thing, as I looked at "Force of Nature" this time some of the effects shots with the space rift and scenes with Data and Geordi in the Jeffries tubes felt familiar to me: This may have been an episode I saw way back when, or it's at least a part of the same landscape of visual memory.)

It's important that Star Trek: The Next Generation adopt ecology and environmentalism as part of itself, but sadly, the way “Force of Nature” goes about doing it is fairly terrible. First of all, it's a story about ecoterrorists, and though it absolutely tries to be sympathetic to them (apparently writer Naren Shankar attended an activist rally in Hollywood for research and, in Jeri Taylor's words, “came back galvanized” about how to crack the pitch), it makes the critical mistake of putting them in dramatic opposition to the Enterprise crew. The problem with this is that it goes against the way Star Trek: The Next Generation is supposed to work in a number of key ways. Put most crudely, the Enterprise crew ought to be fairly right-on politically for their universe: If anything, *they* should be the ecoterrorists and, rather than having a crisis of consciousness over it, someone like Geordi should have been the first person to spot any potential harmful side effects on the space-time continuum caused by warp drive. Having the ship get hijacked and needing to be lectured by a bunch of sanctimonious asshats makes the Enterprise crew look codgy and out-of-touch, and doesn't do a great job painting environmentalists in the best of lights either.

(And the title is even a misnomer: There's no real “Force of Nature” here to come in and set the universe straight. That would be too much like Dirty Pair.)

The other problem, from my perspective, is that this poses a problem for my experiment to compare Star Trek: The Next Generation's voyaging starship motif to Polynesian wayfinding. Because the voyaging canoe is meant to be an ecosystem unto itself: The way everyone plays an important role onboard and the non-invasive methods of shipbuilding and navigation are all meant to reflect a certain environmental fragility while at the same time promoting a harmonious unity: Given that Polynesia is a culture spread across tiny islands in the biggest ocean on the planet, its people have always known that resources are by definition finite and scarce and that the natural world must be respected and treated with care. The canoe represents the island, just as the island represents the Earth: That's the message the Hōkūleʻa and the Polynesian Voyaging Society currently sail to promote. Or rather one of them, the other being a campaign to call attention to and pay tributes to indigenous people and indigenous knowledge.

As I've mentioned here before, I think a disconnect from the land is a very Western phenomenon that's a consequence of modernity's long heritage of imperialism and colonialism. It's something a lot of people need to be re-educated about. And yet I also believe voyaging is a great way to reconnect: I don't think you necessarily need to be born in a certain place to be connected to it (if anything Westernism proves that), so long as your travels through life and around the world are done with a sense of mindfulness, awareness and empathy. There's no better example than nomadic or seminomadic hunter-gatherers, who live simple, elegant subsistence lives as they migrate from place to place (indeed, the settling of Polynesia has been described as the greatest migration in human history). And this is also, I think, something Star Trek did once understand.

Cast your memory all the way back to “In Thy Image”. Do you remember how Alan Dean Foster depicted San Fransisco? For him, it was to be this surreal utopia where futuristic architecture wove itself around the natural surroundings, and children interacted freely with cheetahs. This was even something (some of) the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation were especially mindful of: Everything about the Galaxy-class Enterprise was built with natural harmony in mind, from the organic curves of the ship itself to the accessibility built into the interior design. What this means is that were Star Trek: The Next Generation to do environmentalism properly, it would be a utopian proof-by-negative: We wouldn't need to do a story about this sort of thing because the idealistic themes the show was trying to be convey would be imbued within the setting itself. That's also a classic science fiction trope, the very same one that makes science fiction so ideally suited to be paired with abstract art and avant-garde cinema.

And that gets at the other big problem with “Force of Nature”. It has the same problem as “Melora” in that its trying to Say Something Important about a Hot Button Issue and in the process forgetting to actually be utopian. The only difference is that “Melora” is kind of good in spite of that and “Force of Nature” kind of isn't. The catch-22 is outlined very well by Shankar himself in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365:
“It's a cautionary tale on why you should not let an issue drive a story. We were trying to talk about the environment. When you start from an inherently nondramatic premise and try to craft a nondramatic premise onto a message, it hardly ever ends up well.”
And you know what? Shankar is absolutely right. The only thing is, he's right on more levels than perhaps even he realises, and this has some fairly serious repercussions. What this does is effectively scuttle the entire premise of Star Trek as conceived by Gene Roddenberry, that is an episodic series of morality plays in a science fiction setting. This is the final, definitive proof that “Issues” stories of the sort that have been Star Trek's signature since day one simply do not work, and indeed have never worked. Which is all well and good as my esteemed readership and I figured that out roughly around 1966, but what concerns me now is that I'm not sure either this creative team or the one on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has any ideas besides this.

It's kind of weird to be in a place where we can say Star Trek is at its absolute creative peak while simultaneously saying it's creatively bankrupt.