Thursday, April 28, 2016

“To the Future”: Firstborn

I didn't want to use this picture. Thought it was too obvious. But there are very few high quality images from this part of the series.
A brief rant: Why isn't this episode called “Bloodlines” and the next one called “Firstborn”? “Bloodlines” to me connotes family ties, lineages and heritage, which is precisely what this story is about. Next week's episode is a drama about firstborn sons, or perceived firstborn sons, with DaiMon Bok coming back (oh yeah Spoiler Alert DaiMon Bok comes back. Remember him? That makes two of us) to try and exact revenge on Captain Picard yet again because he's still tortured by the death of his son. I legit thought this episode was called “Bloodlines” and got incredibly confused when I was trying to figure out which episode I was writing about.

Anyway, the should-have-been-called-“Bloodlines” isn't about any of that, although it does feature a firstborn son. Namely Worf's, that is, Alexander. A personal highlight of the TNN years for me, it's the best Alexander story in the entire series, which will assuredly make things interesting for any prospective viewers who (for some reason) listen to my recommendations as I would advise skipping every story in which he plays a major role except this one (and I suppose “A Fistful of Datas” too). It's also the best thing Star Trek: The Next Generation has done with the Klingons since the first season. I hate to keep bringing up “Heart of Glory” as I seem to be doing that a lot lately, but that really is the best, and pretty much only, story you can do with the Klingons as originally conceived for this series (there is one more story that can be done with the Klingons without throwing out absolutely everything about them, and it's a damn good one at that, but we have to wait nine years to actually see it get made).

Because the whole point of “Firstborn” (I am never going to get used to saying that) is to problematize the concept of honour and the way of the warrior in Klingon society. It doesn't quite go far enough with this on a macroscopic level-You could, for example, imagine a story where the ramifications of Alexander's choice are explored on larger scale political and social level (again, nine years), but that's OK because this isn't that kind of story. It's a very personal story about a father and son and the social expectations that are placed on them, and it handles this outstandingly. Ever since “The Emissary”, Worf has tended to get pigeonholed as a born-again zealot for conservative Klingon values and cultural norms which, like all conservative values and cultural norms, are ludicrously ahistorical and inauthentic. I still think it was wrong to take Worf in that direction and it irreparably damaged him as a character, but that aside if there was one story where it was absolutely imperative that he not be written this way it was this one, and miraculously he's not.

Instead, Worf is depicted as being very uncertain and hesitant about how to educate Alexander, on the one hand being concerned that he should know that part of his heritage, but on the other being absolutely understanding and respectful of Alexander's own desires: He manifestly doesn't want to indoctrinate him, and emphasizes on a number of occasions that he only wants Alexander to learn what he wants and is comfortable learning. Furthermore, Worf openly clashes with K'mtar over the latter's desire to see Alexander shipped off to the Klingon parochial school, making it explicitly clear that Alexander must choose his own path. It's an utterly refreshing change of pace for the character and is such a perfect fit for the backstory and the plot you have to wonder why it's taken the team this long to hit upon it. Thematically, “Firstborn” is also a perfect fit for this year, in particular this side of it, as it comes relatively soon in the wake of “Shadowplay” and Jake's confession to his father Ben that he doesn't want to join Starfleet, and Ben's heartfelt encouragement that he doesn't care what Jake does so long as he finds something he loves doing.

(It is also, speaking of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a pleasingly fitting rebuttal of this week's episode on that side of the lot: “Blood Oath”.)

And Alexander, for his part, responds well in turn. Beyond just his desire to find his own path in life as opposed to one his father or any other Klingon in authority carves out for him, Alexander refuses to join the Klingon warrior caste, for which he has no real love, and understandably so given the appalling and tragic impact it's had on his life. Alexander looks at warriors and doesn't see honour and glory, but death and killing that takes children's parents away from them. He wants to move his people away from war and murder to peace and empathy. It's a laudably nuanced examination from all sides and classic Star Trek: The Next Generation, though at the same time it raises a few concerning truths. What are we to make of the fact the narrative prime mover here (in more ways than one) is Alexander, not Worf?

On the one hand, one might expect that, on a show called Star Trek: The Next Generation, it would be one of the main characters who exhibit the youthful progressive energy. By giving this to Alexander, a child of one of the regulars as opposed to one of the regulars himself, the story does seem to be painting its own parent series as past its time (The Next Generation of The Next Generation, perhaps?). We could argue about whether or not this is true; the creative team certainly seems to think so, while I very much disagree. I happen to think that, overall and all things considered, this has been one of the top three best seasons in the show's history, and this will take on a bit more of an insidious tone given what we're going to be talking about next time. On the other hand, the level of maturity and nuance with which “Firstborn” handles its topics is definitely worthy of note and praise: It's the kind of thing that certainly could only be done in the Star Trek: The Next Generation era. I'll leave it to you to decide how ironic that is.

Perhaps it is worth noting, however, the fact that this episode hinges on a version of Alexander coming back from a Bad Future to change the past for the better. First of all it's a fantastic idea to have someone so ashamed of the person they used to be that they travel back and time to assassinate them and commit a weird form of double suicide: Michael Piller said this was something that resonated with him very strongly given some of the things he went through in therapy, and I think it's a sentiment to which a lot of us can relate on some level. I know I'm deeply ashamed of a lot of things my younger selves did, many of which have continued to haunt me throughout life. Even writing this book has frequently been an exercise in forcing myself to confront things about my past: I clearly used to enjoy some things I would find morally and politically reprehensible today because I didn't examine the implications back then. But, as Commander Riker said way back in “The Last Outpost” in what I still maintain is one of the greatest lines in the show's history, “we can hardly hate the people we used to be”. Part of maturing is coming to terms with this: Learning what experiences shaped us into the person we became, and making peace with ourselves and our myriad identity facets in order to realise our truest self. And that's the sort of lesson a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation is primed to teach us.

There is, however, another, slightly darker side to this. That Temporal Cold War is still boiling away in the background, no matter how much we may try to ignore it while going about our daily lives. It may be out of sight but, like all cold wars, it's never truly out of mind and it shapes everything we do and think and say to some degree. It's certainly reasonable to view K'Mtar!Alexander as an agent in the War, at least a rogue agent. He comes from a future where Worf is killed on the floor of the high council, a future that is more or less implied to derive directly from the present we're witnessing unfold. Something happened in this reality that is going to fuck things up royally later on, and I'm seeing a big cube starting to come into focus. Whatever your takeaway from Star Trek: The Next Generation, it can safely be postulated that the show hasn't lived up to its full potential, and a big part of the reason for that is Worf. Now is the time where we'll have to start examining the consequences of that.

But there remains hope: Worf assures K'Mtar that things have already been changed for the better: We can still learn and improve ourselves and take back the reins of our own destiny. And everywhere else in “Firstborn” there's a sense of quiet, reassuring confidence: There's another crossover, but this time it's played very breezy, casual and routine. As well it should be. I used to be a bit annoyed that it's Quark, because Quark can sometimes run the risk of become a bit of a gimmicky mascot character and I would have really liked to see Commander Riker interacting with Commander Sisko (had the series continued, maybe I would have gotten to see that). But apparently in the script there's a line that indicates Ben had previously spoken to Will and that he gave him the idea to hit up Quark, and I adore that.

I love how Ben knows his station so well and is so laid back that he not only knows Quark is engaged in underhanded activity, but actually tells his colleague on the Enterprise to got talk to him because this means Quark's a good source of information. I also love how this implies Ben is on friendly terms with the Enterprise crew now, leaps and bounds beyond the bristling animosity of “Emissary” (although if anything, that just makes me wish Avery Brooks was in this episode even more: I'dve found that exchange priceless). And I love how familiar Will and Quark seem: It's as if the Enterprise pops by Deep Space 9 often enough the crew considered regulars at the bar. It's also totally in keeping with the sorts of things we've seen Will do before, in episodes like “Unification” and “Gambit”: Quark's is exactly the kind of dive Will likes to hang out in, and Quark himself is just the sort of mildly shady guy he enjoys shooting the breeze with.

Then there's Lursa and B'Etor too, who, for the first and last time, are actually depicted the way I remember them being depicted: The Enterprise crew's amicably vitriolic frenemies. Their exchange with Commander Riker is the most wonderfully blasé and sardonic thing ever:
“We know you're dealing in stolen ore, but I want to talk about the assassination attempt on Lieutenant Worf.” 
“What assassination attempt? This is the first I've heard of it.” 
“Too bad it didn't succeed.”
Seriously, it's almost a Miami Vice line, it's great.

The Duras Sisters' presence here doesn't feel fanwanky to me, instead serving to give the joint Star Trek: The Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine universe a sense of cozy intimacy: They have an actual point and manage to link together some related narrative connections to be sure, but more importantly the evoke a sense of comfort and familiarity with these characters and this setting that really helps to bring this whole mad, rickety overbuilt thing together. It feels like this is the way things have always been, and this is the way they were always meant to be.

If only it could stay this way forever.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

“The Murderer”: Blood Oath

So this episode. This one has been a long time coming, certainly for me. Here's an episode I've always heard so much about: A good, nay great Jadzia Dax episode penned by Peter Allan Fields, possibly the most consistently excellent writer in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's stable. It's a story I never experienced at the time, as I didn't have the magazine issue where this one was written up and I didn't, to my knowledge, see it on television before the DVD sets came out. Furthermore, this is supposed to be a kickass action story set against the backdrop of a glorious Klingon romp. If this isn't Dax's best story, its the one where she finally comes into her own as a character.

At least, that's what everyone tells me. And you can, I'm sure, see where this is headed.

The first thing that strikes me about “Blood Oath” is how much it actually feels like a Ronald D. Moore story. It isn't, obviously, nor could he have had any input on it considering he's not on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But it had absolutely all of his signature beat points: Pompous, grandiose musings on death, honour and glory. Angsty, moody, broody male antiheroes who don't get along with anybody because “no-one understands” them (at least Fields has the decency to play them as slightly comic characters, whereas Moore tends to play these types of characters alarmingly straight). A ham-handed approach to feminism that is basically saying a “strong woman” is someone who can reject femininity to prove to us she's capable of filling the same masculine/patriarchal archetypal roles. Here it even manifests in a rather cringe-worthy game of “I can do anything the boys can do!” that lasts about two-thirds of the episode. It's a picture-perfect example of the liberal assumption that increased opportunity to climb the pre-existing social ladder of the heierarchical status quo is tantamount to liberation, where real liberation would entail the dismantling of said ladder and probably the torching of the entire building and surrounding areas. And of course, it's a great big Klingon love-letter epic that puts the entire rest of the show on hold so it can fawn over a bunch of trivia questions for forty minutes.

To be fair, this isn't on Fields. Kor, Kang and Koloth were not in his original pitch, which was basically a “Let's Do” of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. The Klingons were apparently added at the behest of Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who is, of course, a massive Original Series fan. Fields compensates for this by writing them based not so much on their portrayals in “Errand of Mercy”, “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “Day of the Dove”, but on characters from John Sturges' remake of Seven Samurai called The Magnificent Seven, as well as Falstaff from Henry IV, Part II. But even so, Holy Prophets is this bad: The fanwank, while not quite as overwhelmingly wanky and referential as this sort of thing tends to get, is still the number one biggest problem with “Blood Oath” and sinks the whole production for me before even the shaky grasp on feminism can.

So let's talk about that! You could, theoretically, read this episode as a self-critique of the acritical nostalgic yearning and romanticizing that's been starting to creep into Star Trek over the past couple of years. Kor, Kang and Koloth, partly through the comedic broad strokes with which Fields paints them, certainly come across at least in part as slightly bumbling oldster archetypes. You could interpret that as the show saying the Original Series and the 1960s cultural values that went along with it are not something it should be going about trying to recreate because it looks silly and retrograde by this point. And Prophets know Star Trek: Deep Space Nine could use a reminder like that right about now. I don't think that's a wise course of action to take though-In the Star Trek: The Next Generation era, we're supposed to be empathic, respectful and understanding of others, including our elders. The show has already done a far more nuanced take on these issues through Lwaxana Troi's character arc in episodes like “Half a Life”, “The Forsaken” and “Dark Page”, one of which Fields himself even wrote. Doing a punkish “kick the old geezers to the curb” story here would itself be insulting and retrograde.

And anyway, I don't think that's actually the angle the episode is going for. If anything, it feels like it could be going in the exact opposite direction. Wolfe's embarrassing pleading aside, the whole story here is about Jadzia trying to prove to us why she should be allowed to go on this revenge mission and why it's a noble cause. And because we sympathize with Jadzia, we're supposed to sympathize with her defense. If anyone comes across in a bad light, it's everyone else for telling Jadzia she can't do this because of who she is or that she shouldn't do this because it's not her fight. Kor's first line is even about how “the Klingon Empire” isn't what it used to be, and, since we're supposed to recognise him because of who the implied audience for this show is now, his thinly-veiled message of how “Star Trek Just Isn't As Good As It Used To Be, By Robert Hewitt Wolfe, Los Angeles, California” actually takes. And for anyone who isn't Wolfe or Ira Steven Behr (or Ronald D. Moore), this kind of tone rankles. The fact of the matter is that in 1994, Star Trek: The Next Generation at least is pulling record ratings that utterly shames anything else this franchise has ever done, and the only people who don't like that are the people who never liked Star Trek: The Next Generation in the first place.

At this point, I'm half-expecting someone to come out and start grumbling about “Casual” Star Trek fans.

Furthermore, this is a terrible Jadzia Dax story. Firstly because it completely contradicts her established backstory from last season. The whole point of the episode “Dax” (which, I might add, Peter Allan Fields actually wrote, or at least co-wrote) was that Curzon Dax and Jadzia Dax were two different people and Jadzia shouldn't feel responsible for the actions of Curzon or any other previous host. So to have Jadzia feel compelled to fulfill Curzon's titular Blood Oath with the Klingons just blows my mind with how spectacularly sloppy a but of continuity this is, especially in a franchise that is so unbelievably anal about continuity that, amidst the dissonant clamour of complaints the last episode got, the loudest by far was fan outrage over Spot becoming a girl. It's so bad, the episode itself seems aware of how bad it is, having Commander Sisko and Major Kira constantly bring up how what Jadzia's doing makes no damn sense and then needing to tie itself in absolute knots trying to explain it away. But I suppose Jadzia Dax having a completely incoherent backstory and characterization is far more forgivable a misstep than daring to revise the almighty Star Trek Chronology.

But the main reason I find “Blood Oath” so odious is because of its implications, and the implications of this episode becoming one of the consensus-best of the year. Coming to this episode more-or-less straight off of “Playing God” (not to mention the tepid reception “Playing God” has amongst fans) is incredibly dissonant and deeply offensive. They really are selling two completely different and contradictory messages about who Jadzia Dax is, as well as two mutually contradictory political positions. “Playing God” has Jadzia as a lover, a creator and a defender of life. “Blood Oath” has her as a warrior who's not above vengeance slaying to uphold a point of honour. There's a larger essay examining the repercussions of war existing in a supposedly post-scarcity utopia, but that's not an essay I want to write. The point is this simply is not compatible with the person Jadzia has been established as being over the past two years, and it's sad the writing team felt they needed to throw that all out in order to figure out how to write her.

Because in a real sense Jadzia Dax as we know her is being rejected in “Blood Oath”. Though Jadzia hasn't been completely cast out or killed off yet, this whole episode is about trying to show how Curzon Dax was Errol Flynn and that Jadzia Dax is basically nothing more than a genderswapped Curzon Dax. This is the reading that will stick with fans and creators and will influence all subsequent reinterpretations, reconceptualizations and reimaginings of Jadzia in the years to come.

I could go into a mopey monologue about how I can't forgive that and how upset I am that a story that's meant so much to me over my life so often feels like it's actively trying to shun and exclude me. When we talk about any work of fiction that is this ubiquitous and mythic and has played such a formative role in the lives of so many people, that trifold act of reading does take on a new power: These stories are important because people relate to them, identify with them and learn about themselves though them. There is a real dissonance when that relationship breaks down-We feel very hurt and betrayed. This does real harm to people, and I fault no-one for getting angry and sad about that and actively working to rebel against it. In the past (indeed, the fairly recent past as of this writing), I would have done the same.

But I'm not going to do that tonight. I think I've reached the point in my own life where I'm beyond needing to do that. Part of undertaking a project of this scope and this personal entails coming to terms with this part of ourselves to in some way put it behind us, and I think I've reached that now. It may not be entirely the result of writing this book, but I'm sure writing it has contributed to my being in the mental state where I'm able to make peace with things like this. I think a big part of it is finally developing a complete understanding of all of who I am and becoming comfortable with that. It's what Jadzia would do. You don't need to cling to a role model once you discover that you yourself can be one, so long as you remember who your role models were and what you learned from them, and to keep living in accordance with your own ideals for the betterment of yourself, of others and the rest of the universe. Holy wars aren't necessary once you understand and respect that everyone has their own god.

Everyone deserves to find peace, love and understanding in their lives. I hope all of you will be able to find yours.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


Well, it could be worse. A lot worse.

I've been looking forward to revisiting “Genesis” since I first started this project. Of all the episodes of Star Trek I remember, this is the one that has the absolute widest gulf between popular opinion and my own recollections. Fan consensus on this story is that it's about as bad as it can possibly get-The only episode that seems to regularly beat it out for the title of Worst Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode Ever Made is, deservedly, “Code of Honor”. It's at least regarded as one of the nadirs of the series, and of the franchise as a whole. But I remember being utterly mesmerized by this one back in the day-It's another story whose imagery has haunted me ever since, and I remember immediately taking to it for its grotesque surrealism and dark, foreboding atmosphere. Prior to this rewatch I'd actually only ever seen this episode once, way back when it aired in 1994: I'd always avoided watching it again because I wanted to save it for a time when I could give it a fair and sober evaluation, and also because I probably always knew it was never going to be as good as I remembered it as being.

And it's not. “Genesis” is no masterpiece of popist abstraction in the same way even “Eye of the Beholder”, “Phantasms” and “Dark Page” are. But it is significantly better than people give it credit for being...Or at least there are parts of it that are definitely deserving of praise and attention that people tend to ignore and disregard while in a rush to mock its sillier aspects. You could call it a Curate's Egg (“parts of this disaster are excellent!”) if you were so inclined, but I think even that's being a bit unfair. I found “Genesis” to be an entirely enjoyable and watchable (well, mostly), albeit goofy, outing with some really outstanding cinematographic touches worth taking some time to look at.

So let's get the big thing out of the way right off the bat. The plot device makes absolutely no damn sense. But let's be careful here: This isn't to say the plot makes no sense. Actually, it makes perfect sense, it just doesn't make sense in a way Star Trek fans like. What doesn't make sense is the technobabble stuff, all that business about introns and junk DNA and synthetic T-cell viruses. The script's conception of evolution is notoriously scientifically wonky, and there's absolutely no getting around that. But it's actually not as terrible on this front as you might expect: It's actually very careful to avoid falling into the trap of presenting biological evolution as teleological-I don't think the phrases “lower life form” or “higher life form” appear anywhere in the script, and the central artistic license hinges on the fact that all life shares common ancestors somewhere up the tree, which isn't actually inaccurate, it's just vague.

Certainly when dealing with technobabble explanations for goofball genre fiction plots that are meant to at least have the veneer of plausibility one has to be careful, but in terms of Star Trek's screwups in the outright Bad Science area I don't think “Genesis” is anywhere remotely near as bad as “The Child” or (ugh) “Savage Syndrome” (seriously, if you think this episode is bad and an offensive depiction of evolution, go give that titanic piece of shit a watch). Because that's the thing about this kind of plotline: It's actually not supposed to make literal sense, it's supposed to sound like it might make sense within the show's universe. And “Genesis” pulls that off fine without making its science too terribly misleading: Junk DNA does exist, even though it doesn't work quite the way it does in this story. Also, the episode mercifully goes out of its way to avoid having the black characters “devolve” into apes or older hominid species, which it could very easily have done. That alone I feel is worth of a thumbs-up.

(However that said, the idea that Commander Riker's early hominid is slow-witted and less intelligent than later humanoids is pretty cringe-wrothy.)

And there's actually some really fun stuff that gets done with the creature feature brief on the production level: Captain Picard as a Pygmy Marmoset is hilarious. Reg Barclay as a spider is similarly amusing and Dwight Schultz seems to be having a lot of fun. It's also a really creepily well done prosthetic, likewise Worf: Proto-Klingons are apparently Predators (like from the movie, not the generic classification), which is pretty awesome. He's also the episode's strongest standout by far: Not only are the makeup and sound effects positively bone-shaking, the whole final act of him stalking us through the darkened corridors of the Enterprise is absolutely unforgettable. The image of Data and Captain Picard taking refuge in sickbay as Worf tries to claw his way in, followed by that of the Captain leading him on a chase through the bowels of the ship, is the part of “Genesis” I've always remembered the most vividly.

There are, however, certainly bits of this episode that do not work anywhere near as well. Near the top of the list for me is Deanna Troi turning into an amphibian, which was a particular scene I was really looking forward to seeing again. The way I remember it, I was picturing something like Rebecca Romijin's Mystique from the X-Men movies, except green and with claws, fangs and a mermaid's tail. The actual prosthetic effect in the episode is...something considerably less striking than that. Even worse, during the early stages of her mutation, she actually gets into a fight with Worf over the thermostat. You know it's bad when we start cribbing from 90s stand-up comedy acts. The whole first half of the episode just drags on in general, and there's a whole lot of snippy arguing and disciplining of the sort I just can't stand. It doesn't really feel like the episode is building any sort of dramatic tension or mystery over what's happening to the crew and it just makes me wish they'd all hurry up and turn into monsters already, although maybe that's because I already know what's going to happen.

(As forgettable and annoying as the first half is, however, the bit with the asteroid target practice may be another one of those orphaned bits of imagery that's stuck with me all these years for some reason. Naturally, if this is it, it's far more obnoxious than I remember.)

And that's a shame, because the second half (or maybe the last third) is actually really good. The moment we cut to Data and Captain Picard in the shuttlecraft finding out that the Enterprise is mysteriously and creepily adrift things pick up in a big way. As soon as they get aboard, the episode becomes a horror movie set on a ghost ship that's been turned into a weird and threatening alien menagerie. And the atmosphere it goes for is pitch-perfect, with red-tinted lighting that's so dark you can barely make anything out and disturbing and unfamiliar animal cries faintly echoing through the halls. You sort of wish the entire episode could have been like this. Worf's arrival just ratchets up the Holy Shit quotient even further, and the climactic chase scene in particular is amazingly shot. This is all credit to the episode's phenomenal director, none other than Gates McFadden herself. Bit annoying the choreographer, stage combat instructor, theatre vet and seasoned unit director didn't get to direct a production of her own until six weeks before her show ends, but hey, I suppose it's better than nothing.

Regardless, Gates' experience, eye and obvious skill really help elevate what might otherwise have been a complete misfire instead of only a partial one. Her leadership behind the camera is really the best part of “Genesis” by light years. She's a deft hand at the episode's more surrealist and horror aspects, and an absolute master at setting a mood. Makes you wish that, in addition to “Genesis” itself being a bit better, Gates could have gotten a shot at helming a tighter Brannon Braga script like “Eye of the Beholder” and the upcoming “Emergence”, or something else of its ilk like “Dark Page”: She really is the perfect director in the stable to handle this kind of wildness. It's so immensely infuriating that Star Trek: The Next Generation has finally hit on a reliably winning story structure with the talent to back it up and make it happen and it's only got a month and a half left to live.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

“Here's lookin' at you”: Profit and Loss

I've got a theory that Hollywood and the greater Los Angeles area are different from other big world cities. I mean granted every city is different in its own way because every place has its own unique energies, but even so there are general and superficial cultural similarities that we can notice if we do a comparative study of a lot of big cities. By those standards, I've always got the sense that Los Angeles is weirdly insular, at least the Hollywood area. It seems to operate less like a huge world city and more exactly like a small town with the exact same traditional relationship with vocational trade that's existed throughout modern western history. Nobody is in Hollywood if they don't want to be in the film industry, and if you grew up there you know everyone. Hollywood is an old European small town that just so happens to dominate the media of the entire country, as well as that of a few other countries.

It's no secret that the Star Trek team are massive old Hollywood fans. I think that's sort of a prerequisite for living in southern California. When you get right down to it, they're all tradesmen and craftsmen who have worked their way up through a system that's basically vocational apprenticeship and they naturally want to pay tribute to their old masters. That's the reason genre romps, pastiches and “Let's Do” stories exist to begin with: Art is built on imitation anyway, and I would imagine that's merely amplified and concentrated by living and working in a climate like southern California's film industry. Genre fiction is no different and isn't on some higher plane: In fact, one of my favourite ridiculous things about the generally ridiculous movie Species is how it's this serious, provocative sci-fi sexual horror movie that also desperately wants to be a breathless tribute to 1940s hard-broiled LA Noir pulp fiction because it's endearingly, stupidly, hopelessly in love with Los Angeles. It's “the city of the future”, you know! You can do anything and be anyone in the City of Angels!

But I'll have to come back to Sil and her joyride of carnage through every LA landmark that's been in every movie ever another day (though her movie is in production by now and, because synchronicity is everything, the earthquake that interrupted production on “Profit and Loss” is an actual plot point in Species). The point of the matter is that Star Trek is far from immune to this sot of hyperlocalized psychogeographic make-out session, and we've seen this plenty of times before (Vasquez Rocks, anyone?). And so with “Profit and Loss”, we get Star Trek: Deep Space Nine bending over backwards to borderline remake Casablanca simply because Casablanca is a classic of Old Hollywood and because it can. This sort of giddy-yet-pointless genre romp seems to be a reoccuring Thing for Quark stories, considering “The Nagus” was basically this but for The Godfather instead. But “Profit and Loss” is a unique and important “Let's Do” story, because it's the rare “Let's Do” story that actually works, and it's all due to the interaction between whole plot reference and showcased protagonist. In fact, it's probably the best “Let's Do” in the entire show, a highlight of the year and very possibly the definitive Quark story.

Thing is, Quark is already sort of a Humphrey Bogart antihero character. Armin Shimerman has displayed glimpses of these characteristics since the beginning, and he really works best when he's written this way. This is partly due to, actually, Shimerman's prosthetics: The combination of fake Ferengi teeth and gigantic Ferengi headpiece means his range of movement around his face is restricted, and he ends up inflecting his speech with a very Bogart-drawl type accent, which he'll frequently play up for dramatic emphasis. So writing Quark this way actually plays to Shimerman's strengths and acting range that he's somewhat forced to use while playing the character. But also, it's just a great thematic fit for him: Quark is this broody, surly, cynical and slightly shady bartender character who you can't help but love because he's witty and charismatic. He's the Humphrey Bogart archetype to the letter and it's kind of a no-brainer for anyone to write for that.

So giving Quark a story that's Casablanca in everything but name is not only obvious, it's damn near inevitable considering Casablanca is Bogart's iconic role. It's also a perfect fit for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, because that's exactly what Deep Space 9 *is*: It's a Deep Space Casablanca where characters of every size, shape and moral alignment from all walks of life and all corners of the galaxy come to mingle, each with a story to tell and a chip on their shoulder. And the lingering unpleasantness with the Cardassian Empire, which Natima Lang' plot here is a direct outgrowth of, is a fitting stand-in for the machinations of empires that served as the backdrop for the movie Casablanca. There's a sense of a world gone mad and turned upside down, which is very much in keeping with the source material: We've seen sympathetic Cardassians before, but not to this extent, Quark reminds us he has hidden depths and isn't a one-note joke character and Garak's trademark erratic behaviour and unpredictability is the perfect accompaniment.

(Mary Crosby as Natima Lang brings with her some more fun associations. Famous for shooting J.R. on Dallas, a very fitting guest star for a show that has often been called a soap opera in space, she's also the daughter of Bing Crosby and thus the aunt of Denise, our very own Tasha Yar. Now what was that I was saying about Hollywood being provincial?)

We even get one of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's crapshoot attempts at Moral Ambiguity when Odo pulls a temporary Face Heel Turn and tries to haul Natima in because he's been ordered to by the Bajoran Provisional Government, who are basically cartoon villains by this point (but in a good way). I would have a problem with this if not for two reasons: One, this is actually in keeping with Odo's character: He's interested in some permutation of law, order and justice first and foremost because that's what “gives him shape”. So he probably wouldn't think too hard about turning over a political radical if someone in authority asked him to (although this is a gray area: He encouraged Major Kira to go against the Provisional Government in “The Circle” and told Commander Sisko that laws come and go in his establishing scene in “A Man Alone”, but both of those situations were in circumstances he was probably more familiar with and informed about. Remember, he would have turned Kira over to Gul Dukat in “Necessary Evil” had she told him the truth about Vaatrik).

But secondly, he gets better. Which is also in keeping with Odo's character. Quark convinces Odo to help him and Natima escape because it's the right thing to do, and that's all he needs. “Profit and Loss” is another example of the Deep Space 9 crew, who are, lest we forget, basically administrators, being forced into an uncomfortable situation and facing making a morally bankrupt decision due to circumstances beyond their control. But, for what I think may well be the first time, they find another way. A better way. Because that's the utopian thing to do, and this show is supposed to be about utopianism and progress. That's the critical element that was missing in episodes like “Progress”, “Cardassians”, “Sanctuary” and even “Thine Own Self”. You can tell a story about the crew being backed into a corner where it looks like there's no way out, sure, just so long as you eventually show us that there really is a way out we just hadn't seen yet. It's that final element that's the most important: You can tell a perfectly serviceable and effective bit of drama without it, but not on this show. It's that final element that makes it a Star Trek story.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

“Reoccurring dreams”: Eye of the Beholder

It's always an event when I return to a story that left such an indelible impression on me it literally shaped my own visions. And there are few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, or of anything, that are as deeply ingrained in my imagination as “Eye of the Beholder”.

I count up to the double digits, at most, the moments in media that were so primally formative they completely changed my life. Many of them are from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and at least five of them are from this season. We've seen two of them already and there's another two to go, but “Eye of the Beholder” may well be the most momentous and personally meaningful. The degree to which the imagery and iconography of this episode have haunted me all my life, and haunted really is the only truly fitting term, is almost completely unparalleled. Why this episode stuck with me to the unbelievably powerful degree that it did, to the point rewatching it actually gave me chills due to how familiar it felt (even though, prior to this rewatch, I'd only seen it twice)...I have no explanation. Except for, perhaps, that it's really damn excellent.

But it has, and watching it again was like reliving a dream from long, long ago buried deep within the recess of my psyche: I remembered, vividly and to the last detail, the nacelle control room that features prominently in the plot. The hallucinations of the psychic imprint that constantly replay themselves. the lingering single-take shots where the camera follows Deanna Troi as she pensively meanders through the Enterprise's corridors. And, above all else, the unforgettable image of Deanna standing on the landing gazing into the pulsing heart of the ship's warp nacelle. I remember that the way I remember my first birthday, and the first house my family lived in when I was a young child. In fact, it literally was reliving a dream for me: After it was announced that TNN would start airing Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns, which would be the first time in seven years I'd have the chance to see the show again, I got so excited the show started to infiltrate my real, actual dreams. As the date approached, I distinctly remember having an incredibly lifelike dream where I was onboard the Enterprise myself. I was accompanied by Deanna Troi, dressed exactly the way she was in this episode, who took me on a tour of the whole ship so I could reacquaint myself.

One of our stops was the nacelle control room from “Eye of the Beholder”. And, just as I had been reminded once before on TNN, as I watched this inexplicably powerful episode for only the third time in my life, I couldn't help but notice that room looked exactly the way I saw it in my dream. The only difference is that now I can tell it's a stage set.

Perhaps therein lies part of the reason this story remains with me at such a close and intimate level. “Eye of the Beholder” is about the psychogeography of an imaginal space, namely, the starship Enterprise. I could point to the plot point of the empathic echo left by Lieutenant Pierce of the horrible tragedy that happened in that nacelle room during the construction of the ship, or how Deanna reinterprets it through the lens of her own positionality and those thoughts and feelings she's been working through at both conscious and unconscious levels. In essence, she creates her own personal Enterprise world that is shaped, in a negative way, by the forbidden information left behind. Places have their own energy about them, even (perhaps especially) imaginary places that are shaped by the history and lives of the people who inhabit them, both mundane and grandiose (which are, after all, ultimately the same thing). I believe particularly sensitive people can become attuned to this and be affected on a very deep and powerful level, for good or ill, depending on how their own personal information energy resonates with the energy of place. Perhaps this is where our spirits and gods once came from.

Maybe this is something I subconsciously knew when I first saw “Eye of the Beholder” and became transfixed by it at however-old-I-was. Although I stress I always liked everybody, I can distinctly remember who of this crew had my attention the most when I used to watch Star Trek back then. Before I latched onto Jadzia Dax (and later Tasha Yar during my first revisit), I remember watching Star Trek for firstly LeVar Burton, because I recognised and looked up to him, and then Patrick Stewart's Captain Picard and Jonathan Frakes' Commander Riker, because I found them charismatic and fun to watch. But then there was Deanna Troi. I seem to remember being eerily fascinated by her, and no, not for the usual reasons people are “fascinated” by Deanna Troi either: For some reason I think I maybe felt I had some sort of odd connection with her-I'm not so sure I'd go so far as to call her a cipher or someone I projected onto, although perhaps that was the case...But I'm beginning to wonder if my still-forming awareness of the world found some kinship in Deanna's preternatural ability to pull aside the veil and traverse imaginal Otherworlds that operate through the language of pataphor, heavy symbolism and association. I would not have watched this episode too long after “Dark Page”, after all, another story and set of images that had a profound impact on my understanding of Deanna Troi, Star Trek: The Next Generation and myself.

But if this is the case, what are we to make about the fact a grisly passion murder is literally embedded into the foundation of the Enterprise itself, let alone the part of it that actually makes it go forward? Deanna Troi's dream-echo is more of a horrible nightmare woven around an otherwise pleasant set of potentialities. Mine, by contrast, is a hauntingly moving set of visions that seem to always bring me back to somewhere transcendent. It certainly doesn't make me feel especially good about myself. But that's the nature of psychogeography, and of life: The same places bear witness to both bliss and tragedy at different times. And maybe there is comment that can be cast from this, because Star Trek: The Next Generation does in fact have trauma built into itself from its very nascence: The trauma of Gene Roddenberry's legacy and the looming shadow of militarism. A traumatic series of events that have hamstrung this show from the very beginning, very nearly threating to kill it before it was ever born. Murder and loss are, in a very real sense, coded into the landscape of Star Trek: The Next Generation's dream for hopeful progress and utopianism.

This need not be the case forever. Place-energies always ebb and flow. If we want our home to feel happy, we must strive to do things there that make us happy. The energy conduit is not one-way. If we tap it and channel the spirits towards the full realisation of our own true selves and true potentials, we can give back to the land as much as it gives us. And this is something I think Deanna Troi and her shipmates are aware of. In her own mental landscape, she explores love, on her own terms for the first time. All love begins as a potentiality within the imaginal realm first, and is reified through understanding, empathy and the desire of people to make it so. Deanna's perpetually exploratory relationship with Worf thus becomes the most believable, and sweetest, romantic relationship this show will ever depict (that is, so long as you ignore just about everything from “Ethics” to “Parallels” at any rate).

Not does it become a perfect metaphor for relationships in potentia (as all relationships are forever in potentia in one state of being or another) by casting the narrative lens just a bit askance, as all the best genre fiction can do, it's also eminently relatable: Worf, both inside and outside Deanna's reality, behaves exactly the way someone who has just started to view his feelings in a different light and is very nervous and self-conscious about the possible ramifications of exploring them is going to behave. It is, in point of fact, the single best thing that's been done with Worf since “Heart of Glory”. And Deanna, for her part, runs through a very recognisable gamut of dreaming a fantasy a certain part of her desires and would so very much enjoy, yet at the same time imaging all the possible ways it could go wrong. Her tragic melodrama is a perfect introspective mirror of Worf's shuffling awkwardness in the first part of the episode, the only difference is we get to see hers played out for us. Meanwhile, Geordi and Data show us a very different sort of love: Not romantic or platonic for each other, but for all of life. Their conversation about suicide is pitch-perfect and the exact sort of scene these characters exist to play.

“Eye of the Beholder” indeed. Perhaps this is what this story is trying to tell me. Listen to what the world and the spirits within are saying and respond in kind. Together we will make magick that will sublimate the world and take us beyond the imagination.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

“Goddess Remembered”: Playing God

Attest to your goddess. In this form, she is the energy of life and creation embodied. She waits for you to realise that which you have always known about yourself.

Normally I write these at night. I'm a bit of a night owl by habit already, and I find that, when doing creative work, I perform far better at night. I'm much more focused during the evenings, whereas I tend to get distracted far too easily by the business and hustle-and-bustle of diurnal life. Today though I am breaking habit and writing this during the morning, but it seems to feel right. I am, after all, also very much a day person: Sunshine is a vital and fundamental part of my existence and I need to be around it and in it constantly or I get depressed. I am of the Sun and the Moon equally, which makes things annoying when I need to find time to sleep. I could say the same thing about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine-This is a show that uses a great deal of dark cinematography and colouring, and it's of course a space-based science fiction series. And yet a sizable majority of my memories of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine evoke feelings of openness, brightness and warmth because, as I'll discuss in further detail in following chapters, much of my experience of it came through comic books and magazines, including most, if not all, of this season. I have extremely vivid place-memories of reading about this year's stories in such magazines beneath the warm and welcoming summer sunshine.

It's news to nobody that Jadzia Dax is my favourite character on this show. It is, in fact, typically a three-way race between her, Tasha Yar and Geordi La Forge for my favourite character in all of Star Trek. But of those three, it's no contest who has the most consistent and unforgettable personality. Jadzia Dax is a goddess-woman, a divine avatar who exists in the space between worlds beckoning us to join her. And this is her definitive story. Jadzia is “Playing God”, that is, playing at being a god, but not in the expected Robert Oppenheimer sense. Though diegetically mortal, Jadzia Dax is dressed in the trappings of the divine, her initiate Arjin also her prospective pupil and the play's stand-in for us. Jadzia plays a goddess of fertility, love and lust: Wild and vivacious, she tries to make Arjin get over himself in order to make peace with and accept himself. Because only someone conscious and mature enough to do that will be able to accept cosmic love and light into themselves. It's in that moment of ego death where we find clarity and gain the power to channel our own truest selves. True confidence and identity lies in the moment where we shed the anxieties and self-consciousness of youth while retaining its vive. And if we're not there yet, we can pretend we are. It's the same thing.

Arjin himself wears the masks of many things. Chief among them, however, is that of the implied audience-Hardcore science fiction and/or Star Trek fans and, by extension, the franchise itself. Like Star Trek, Arjin is nebbish, insecure, directionless and far too eager to impress. He's put off by Jadzia less by bigotry or prudishness and more feelings of insecurity and intimidation, and that's what's holding him back. He's totally uncomfortable being himself because he isn't quite ready to admit to himself who he really is. It's not that he doesn't necessarily know (this isn't the cliché navel-gazey plot about the young adult going off to “find himself”), he's just not yet ready to embrace himself for all that he is. Were he just to relax and be himself, he'd find his life would be a lot more clear to him and it would go far easier. And that's the exact sort of person who needs a goddess to come to them, show them their reflection and give them guidance towards navigating their path. And like all great goddesses, Jadzia is not at all coy about putting things in front of her disciples to force them to confront themselves.

Naturally given this is Jadzia's story (which means it's really Arjin's story), “Playing God” is simply dripping in sex magic. Jadzia makes Arjin walk in on the aftermath of one of her own sessions, and then proceeds to tease him by walking around her quarters in just a towel, all in an attempt to focus his attention and force him to confront sides of himself he's afraid to. Moments later, the scene is echoed extradiegteically for our benefit when the camera appears to be preoccupied with Major Kira and Miles O'Brien, who it catches in a compromising position under the Ops command table, lingering for a fair bit of time on their shapely backsides. Standards and practices for a syndicated TV show that goes out before the watershed in certain markets mean there always has to be backdoor “innocent” explanation for such things (including a rather risible, albeit tongue-in-cheek, suggestion in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion that Dax and her paramour were “wrestling”. I'll bet they were), but the “not what it looks like” context of the Ops scene does nothing to dissuade the shippiness quotient I read in it.

(There is also the subplot of the Cardassian Vole infestation, which we are helpfully reminded happens to take place during the voles' mating season. This subplot is utterly incredible and one of my absolute favourite storylines in the entire series-It's as playful and quirky as Dax herself.)

Dax takes Arjin through the wormhole, the Celestial Temple, and for him creates new life. An entire universe of new life, in fact: Breath channeled and given a new dream-form. We get a typical Star Trek moral dilemma, because this is the set of storytelling conventions and symbolic associations we must translate ourselves into to operate in this realm. Is it dangerous? Only if you look at it a certain way. The universe is of us, but it is also bigger than all of us. How do you, personally, respond to a truth like that? Odo and Kira articulate the debate and, in doing so, reveal something fundamental about their characters and their relationship with each other:
“We already have a solution and the longer we wait the harder it will be to implement it. I'm sorry, but this is us or them. We have to destroy it!”  
“You can't just wipe out a civilization! We would be committing mass murder!”  
“It's like stepping on ants, Odo!” 
“I don't step on ants, Major.”
The shapeshifter who can be anyone and anything can mould himself into any perspective...And the formless being looking for an identity falls back on justice. Meanwhile, Commander Sisko spells out the solution for us:
“Personal log. Supplemental. One hour. One hour to make a decision that could mean the life or death of a civilization. Or the end to our own. My mind keeps going back to the Borg. How I despised their...Indifference as they tried to exterminate us. And I have to ask myself...Would I be any different if I destroyed another universe to preserve my own?”
By acknowledging the Borg, Commander Sisko makes his choice. The Borg are who we do not want to emulate, and this is something he would know better than anyone else. And in order to avoid becoming the Borg, we choose empathy. We choose life. We choose love and anarchy. We choose Jadzia Dax, and we welcome her into our lives for all she has to teach us.

And as for Arjin? Perhaps he was scared that the new universe would overtake him. He's not ready to be a Trill host. But perhaps he will someday. In Another Time.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

“The Face You Wear”: Masks

Does a mask hide a person's identity or bring it out? Perhaps it does a little of both; emphasizing certain states of being while keeping others hidden.

We all wear masks. We switch between them every day as we go about our lives, putting on different face and playing a different role for everybody we meet. Rarely, if ever, do we find someone with whom we can share the full multiplicity of people inside us. Instead, we wear the mask appropriate to the encounter. I'm wearing a mask right now for you all: This is the mask of Vaka Rangi, which has come to symbolize certain familiar behaviour traits and tropish signifiers that you have come to expect following this blog for a number of years. As personal as I try to get in my writings, Vaka Rangi is not, has never been and cannot ever be a complete encapsulation of my feelings and my identities for many different reasons. It's a caricatured facsimile meant to stand for specific aspects of it I felt were appropriate and workable enough to weave into a multi-threaded series of narratives.

(This is not, it should be stressed, by definition a bad thing: We always want to evoke different parts of our personalities in different contexts because we all have different skills, talents and experiences that are relevant to different situations. This is ultimately just a more roundabout way of explaining how we call upon and mobilize our positionalities when it's fitting to do so. In this world, not everybody needs to know everything about everybody else all of the time. Think about me however you need to in order to help you get through your day.)

Deanna Troi claims Data is suffering from “android multiple personality disorder”. But she's a psychologist and is trained to view things in terms of diagnoses and disorders. But Deanna Troi is also an artist, as is Data, which is an important point worth returning to. Either way, what Data is experiencing is something far more profound than what the medical terminology would have us believe. In many cultures, masks play a ritual shamanic role: The mask is supposed to embody the essence of a god, spirit or ancestor, so when a shaman adopts the mask he or she is attempting to contact the deity it represents, either through channeling, invocation or direct communication. As in all such rituals, there is a strong performative element-For the duration of mask ceremonies of this type, the shaman “becomes” the deity through a combination of staged artifice (they're literally playing a role) and through magickal, spiritual identification and association. And who better to give a role like this than to Data, our “imitation man” who is defined by the way in which he self-consciously takes on different roles, and is himself played by impressionist Brent Spiner? Indeed, this episode is likely the defining moment where Spiner and Data are finally allowed to meld their respective skills in a way that naturalistically furthers the story's themes.

Data is not just channeling the D'Arsay people's gods and mythological heroes, as Captain Picard points out in the episode's closing moments, he's also channeling their entire civilization. It's a lovely, and very nuanced, sort of paralleling: Folk tradition dictates that gods can take mortal form through ritualized performativity, and its through those same traditions that the D'Arsay in a real sense get to live again. Gods and heroes are localized to the people, places and traditions who honour them, so in many ways you could argue one of the best way to get to know a people is through their stories. It's also an interesting extension of a feature of Data's that's often been mentioned, but rarely explored: That he supposedly contains the memories and experiences of everyone on his colony. This is just that, but with far more meaning and resonance.

Also intriguing is the way the D'Arsay archive ship works. It uses pre-existing matter to literally re-shape an environment into a recreation of its homeland, myths and all. Comparisons have to immediately be drawn with concepts such as alcheringa, the “eternal” or “uncreated” time in the spiritual traditions of the indigenous Australians popularly known as “The Dreaming” or “Dreamtime”. According to the stories of the eternal time, during the prehistory of Australia and of its indigenous cultures (which is not unconvincingly posited to be the same thing), great culture heroes travelled the land, which is amorphous and without form in this time. As they did so, they shaped the land and created sacred places, and the energy signatures they left in their wake during their journeys became trails called yiri, or “songlines”, which could be interacted with by singing a series of songs on the proper sequence. The act of belief and folk tradition itself shapes the place energy of the land and its inhabitants. This is very similar to what we see the D'Arsay archive do to the Enterprise in “Masks”, as it physically reconstructs the layout and environment of the ship piece by piece. And honestly, it's tough to argue this isn't a massive asset to the Enterprise, which now has an imaginative and provocative sense of scale and diversity Star Trek: The Next Generation hasn't always been able to convey.

And yet there's a danger here. Although the way it happens is a bit unconventional as the crew accidentally awakens a singular and unique culture and set of beliefs long dead as opposed to forcibly imposing one on another, we're still witnessing one belief system threatening to engulf and extinguish another. Assimilate it, if you will. Wars of psychogeography are sadly far from uncommon in the history of the world, conquerers and occupiers from the dawn of war using the interplay between land, culture and spirituality to accrue power and stamp out indigenous societies and traditions all over the planet. Native gods don't always get along with the gods of foreigners, even they're brought over by immigrants as opposed to colonists. And this is what the central conflict of “Masks” really is: The gods of place of the Enterprise, which our crew are very much assuming the roles of, and those of D'Arsay clashing over who will be allowed to preside over this space.

And absolute credit to the Enterprise crew, who resolve the situation peacefully and idealistically: Instead of blasting the fuck out of the archive, which was an option at one point, Captain Picard (who is, of course, an archaeologist) is able to communicate with the D'Arsay collective unconscious by taking the time to learn their stories and beliefs and taking up the mantle of one of their own without appropriating it for himself. In this he's also aided by Deanna Troi (who is, of course, an anthropologist, another of her masks), and Geordi the storyteller. Every person who plays a major role in the reenactment and recreation of the D'Arsay psychogeographical landscape is an actor, storyteller or artist on multiple diegetic and extradiegetic levels. So it's only natural that they of all people would be sensitive to the delicate intricacies of this situation, for artists are the modern shamans.

The D'Arsay landscape of myth itself is also interesting to study, as so much of it literally revolves around the figure of Masaka the Sun Goddess. Solar goddesses, particular solar goddesses who are also powerful ruling queens in their own right, as Masaka apparently is, are actually quite rare in studies of comparative mythology (at least in the popular understandings therein). Those who we do see are almost always hypothesized to be relics of extremely old belief systems, by which I mean stone age old. Historical details on them are by definition scant, but what we can piece together seems to indicate that they were strongly venerated and deeply beloved for their power and the care with which they oversaw their people. So at first glance it did strike me as concerning that Masaka seems portrayed as a figure of fear and scorn by so many of her people, and I wasn't entirely sure how I should read that. There's the obvious interpretation, of course, which I hoped to avoid. I also thought that the planet where the D'Arsay culture originated might have orbited very close to their sun, or perhaps their sun went supernova, which might explain the seemingly malevolent depiction of Masaka.

However then it occurred to me that the answer lies in the episode itself. We're witnessing the gestalt of an entire civilization and the history and evolution of its mythology from beginning to end: Gods and heroes are reinterpreted all the time by different storytellers, just as an episode of a TV series can be interpreted different was by different people who watch it. The act of reading generates meaning, and for gods and heroes this shapes their identities, attestations and spheres of influence too. So perhaps Masaka was once a benevolent figure, or at least one capable of both benevolence and malevolence (the sun gives life through its warmth, but can also scorch and dehydrate the earth during a drought), and she became reinterpreted in a more negative light once, let's say, the sun went supernova or there was some other environmental catastrophe that befell the D'Arsay. Or maybe we're just seeing the different viewpoints and interpretations a cross-section of D'Arsay society viewed her from. Either way, that plurality of meaning and identity is captured in both Data's channeling of her as well as Captain Picard's rapport with her as he takes on the role of lunar god Korgano: These are clearly fierce and powerful gods, but the way we view them is incumbent on the eyes we look through ourselves.

Our gods can appear to us in many guises.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

“Maya”: Shadowplay

A holographic little girl discusses the nature of imaginal reality with a formless being and a goddess. This is an interesting one.

We should begin with the personal identity theory and problem of self themes which naturally always crop up in any story like this. As one might expect from this show, particularly this show this season, the problem is addressed and dealt with rather easily. As a direct thematic follow-up to both “Inheritance” and “Whispers”, it's never portrayed as ambiguous whether or not the colonists really are sentient beings. That is, if you discount Odo. Odo's apparent uncertainty over this fact is a reflection of his own inner nature, not necessarily a statement of judgment: He's accompanied Dax to the Gamma Quadrant to look for clues about his history and identity, and he wants hard and clear answers. Of course, Dax has helped him in this regard before, earlier in the season in “The Alternate”. But seeing “The Alternate” is not a necessary prerequisite for enjoying this episode.

Odo is a neoplatonist here, out searching for an objective reality he can define himself in accordance with. He's also a detective, heavily invested in solving mysteries and getting to the bottom of a capital-T Truth he sees as being wrongfully withheld from him. It's of little surprise that the mask he crafts for himself involves serving as a constable, an elected law-enforcement officer with changeably defined responsibilities. This is, of course, and always has been, the key to understanding who Odo is: The naturally fluid and amorphous shapeshifter yearns for form and rigidity because of his own reflexive questions and self-conscious insecurities. Odo likes hard facts and hard truths, things he can hold onto and be absolutely sure of. So naturally he's going to be less than thrilled with the colony of holograms whose holographic nature is being hidden from them. To him, this is a willful Obfuscation of The Truth, a crime being committed that someone must be held accountable for.

Except Taya tells Odo that shapeshifters aren't real. Which means, by definition, Odo isn't real either. And things suddenly got all “Ship in a Bottle” up in here. Although then Taya says she wants to be a shapeshifter, because that would mean she could be anything and everyone would want to be with her. And maybe the better analogy is Promethea...

Taya and the rest of her people are real because Rurigan treats them as if they're real. He designed them to be exact duplicates of his deceased family and friends on his homeworld and loved them the same way, which means the holographic villagers have become them. This is personal identity theory working on the plane of the imaginal: Not only the psychical continuity of one person, but an entire world kept alive through one person's perspective of it. The imaginal is dynamically formless: Shaped by positionality, it can also influence it in turn. Gods inarguably exist in the realm of the imaginal, and gods can reshape themselves into new identities through mythopoeia. In essence, they are shapeshifters, with a myriad of different contextual lives identities-Not one Self, but a plurality of selves. Which is an altogether fitting bit of oversignification, considering Odo is accompanied in this episode by an actual goddess.

Yes, you read that right, and no, there's no need to act so surprised about it. She's not textually divine, of course, and yet Jadzia Dax is constructed out of a series of allegories and analogies that really make the most amount of sense if you read them as pointing to her coded divine nature. She's a living series of nested metaphors about the divine. She's an Otherworldly role model who exists on a higher plane of existence (this was, in fact, one of the very first things she told us about herself, if you recall). As a Trill, Jadzia Dax has not one identity or self, but a plurality of them, and like all powerfully divine figures she exists as a sacred union of masculine and feminine energies. She can even change her shape and form. Jadzia only ever exists in the margins of a story (when people try to write stories about her things tend to get awkward and wonky, she's someone you have to just know), as is always the case for goddesses in the written record, yet her presence is always keenly felt.

Layers and layers of parallels, mirrors and symbolic association point to the underlying reality we search for. Star Trek claims to be an ensemble show, but loves to hero worship its (male) Captain figures: On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Commander Sisko is the Emissary to the Prophets, the one who travels to the Otherworld and consults with the gods. Many cultures consider the hero archetype a semi-divine or divinely ordained figure, and there are other similar stories of prominent figures earning respect and authority through symbolic union with the gods. Celtic mythology has its semi-divine heroes travelling to the Otherworld and back for counsel, and tutelary deities who could grant or remove sovereignty to local authorities through ritualized matrimony. Myanmar has the legend of the God-King, who invokes Shiva through the ritualized joining of male and female totems, where divinity is explicitly equated with the union of masculine and feminine energies.

But in modern narrative, the feminine side is suppressed. We love our gods and heroes, not so much our goddesses and goddess energies. Commander Sisko entered the Bajoran wormhole with Jadiza Dax, yet only Commander Sisko officially gets to be called Emissary (notice also, please, how the Prophets can change how they present at will). And yet Jadzia remains, a Goddess-Queen to his God-King. She is the unspeakable Other, the one who cannot be spoken of, yet who also cannot be ignored. But Jadzia is more than feminine, or even sacred feminine, she herself is an embodiment of the divine union. She remains and exists to remind us of our latent potential, and what we've forgotten under the clattering wheels and grinding engines of the master narratives of history (why else would Jadzia Dax be paired with Odo here, who displays this power in a different way? Both she and he are pan-gendered, and thus a simultaneous male and female spirit). The sacred becomes profane and feminized, and then reappropriates that femininity to reclaim its awesome power.

It helps this power come through that there is genuine evocative craft here. A recursive myth, “Shadowplay” imagines an entire world for us in much the same way Rurigan does for his community. In this case, the world of Deep Space 9. A rare A-B-C plot, and an even rarer one where the story's themes and motifs permeate at every level. Not only is this episode boldly mystical in a way Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has largely stopped trying to be this season, it also gives us a vertical slice of life in this world, another hallmark of the series that it proved to us early on. Aside from the Dax/Odo stuff on Rurigan's planet, there's also the story about Jake admitting to Ben he doesn't want to go to Starfleet Academy, and Kira trying to keep things in order in Odo's absence, particularly where Quark is involved (as well as some more development of her relationship with Vedek Bareil). And each and every story deals with the nature of illusions, reality, and perceptions making reality.

“Shadowplay” then does what Star Trek has been seemingly desperate to do for so long: It reminds us of the ancient truths that have been the birthright of humanity for as long as they have existed on Earth, and it does so by showcasing the potential of genre fiction. And not just any genre fiction, horrid dime-store serialized pulp genre fiction that's Star Trek's real ancestry. Whose presence is more revealing than Kenneth Tobey's, storied character actor and veteran of such shlock classics as The Thing from Another World, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came from Beneath the Sea, not to mention cornerstones of United States myth and legend Disney's Davy Crockett and Gunsmoke? The hard-broiled product of the pulp serials beholds the entheodelic and dreams the world. Even in the meat-and-potatoes staples of capitalized, mass-market fluff storytelling, there remains an essential power that seeps through. Art has power no matter what form it takes, all it requires is someone to understand and channel it to reconnect with the divine.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

“Truthfully”: Thine Own Self

Sometimes I wonder why I do this.

This is another episode I have vivid, fond memories of that left me sorely disappointed. It's not that I think “Thine Own Self” is particularly bad, and in fact I'd go so far as to say there's a lot to recommend in it. But it couldn't live up to the position it had in my memory, and there's some writing decisions made in it I'm pretty vehemently opposed to. I mean, just look who wrote the teleplay: I should have known. A lot of this season has surprised me by how little enthusiasm I can muster for it, especially on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where we're at the tail end of a stretch of episodes that are all peerlessly iconic to me, but which I wound up writing some fairly mixed things about after I sat down with them again this time. This should be my absolute favourite era, and while there's a lot of it I do like, there's just as much, if not more, that I'm finding myself at more of a distance from then I ever expected.

I suppose in some ways this episode is a perfect microcosm for my entire experience with Star Trek: The Next Generation over the course of my journey with Vaka Rangi. It's not an episode I recall watching during the original run, but I do distinctly remember seeing screenshots from it in calendars, guide books, magazines and that sort of thing. I saw it for the first time (that I can place) as part of TNN's reruns in the early 2000s and thought it was utterly beautiful. I remember the subplot about Deanna Troi taking the Bridge Officer Exam and getting promoted beat-by-beat, but it's Data's story on Barkon IV that was the most iconic. The makeup work on the Barkonians is some of the most striking in the series, and shots of them, alongside Data in rustic mountain clothes with part of his circuitry exposed, are among the defining moments of this whole year.

Some of the writing here is nothing short of poetic (the title, for one): Talur's speculation that the amnesiac Data is an “Ice-Man” from the “Vellorian Mountains” whose superhuman strength is an inherited trait amongst his people to help them “fight off the wild beasts that roam the mountains” is an absolutely spellbinding bit of worldbuilding. It's evocative and haunting in a way Star Trek hardly ever is, and it captures the imagination in a way typically reserved for, let's face it, superior genre fiction franchises. “Thine Own Self” also boasts one of the single greatest lines in the entire series, if not the franchise, bar none: When Gia comments that her mother passed away, she tells Data “Father said she went to a beautiful place, where everything is peaceful and everyone loves each other and no one ever gets sick. Do you think there's really a place like that?”. Data looks out the window up at the stars and responds “Yes. I do”.

Just looking up the quote to copy it down is enough to bring tears to my eyes. That's the kind of scene writers spend years trying to get good enough to craft. You'll not find a better or more defining statement of purpose anywhere else in Star Trek.

It's heartbreaking then to learn “Thine Own Self” doesn't have much else to offer to back that statement up.

I had assumed I would take umbrage at Deanna's subplot. And I did. I'm of course thrilled she gets promoted and gets one more reason for people to take her seriously, and I really like how she decides to pursue a bridge position after a casual chat with her friend Beverly about why she decided to go for the rank of Commander. But the “Bridge Officer Exam”, as Deanna herself so succinctly puts it, is just a test to see if she's capable of ordering someone to their death if there's no alternative. So this means the way you earn your place on the Enterprise bridge is to prove you're capable of foregoing empathy to think in terms of realpolitik. And just to twist the knife further, who's the person Troi has to order to death in her holodeck simualtion? Geordi. I know this is Ron Moore and Ron Moore-style space opera and that I just need to admit this doesn't work for me and never will and get over it, but when you put Ron Moore-style space opera next to Data's exchange with Gia, things feel weirdly dissonant. And that's before we get to the stuff in that part of the plot.

(It should be noted, for the sake of apologia if nothing else, that Moore was very much in favour of Deanna getting promoted so that people would take her more seriously. He felt it was unfair the female characters were pigeonholed into “soft” roles and he wanted to show they were capable of handling responsibility too. Of course, that he thinks it's a bad thing Deanna is “just” a “therapist” is pretty revealing too.)

So Data's plight is that he's hated and mocked by the Barkonians because he's “different”. And he's “different” because he's “intelligent”. And by “intelligent”, the show means “thinks in a scientific, rationalist and positivist way”. And the show is incredibly condescending about this, taking every opportunity to portray the Barkonians as primitive, backwards and self-delusionally superstitious. The “good” Barkonians are the ones closest to Data's hyperlogical mindset while all the “bad” ones are one hat drop away from going on a literal witch hunt. It's a total self-righteous Nerd Culture ballad, and Ron Moore even says so himself:
“What I enjoyed writing was Data as Mr. Wizard on the planet of people who aren't very smart. That was kind of funny. I got a kick out of Data being the guy in the back of the class raising his hand, inventing quantum mechanics with stone knives and bear skins.”
There's so much in a statement like this that concerns me. I'm going to leave aside the obvious racism and neo-colonialism that's coded in this kind of comparison between a tacitly Western network and a tacitly pre-modern or non-modern one. You could tangent off of this about how the implicitly masculine “hard” sciences think they're superior to the implicitly feminine “soft” sciences and humanities (especially given Deanna, a “soft” scientist and an empath, must prove she's capable of setting aside empathy and behaving in a masculine way in order to get promoted), but I'm not going to. Prophets know I've done that enough. Instead, I want to focus on the basic image of a person, and let's be honest, a child, who comes to believe they're special and superior to others because they're “different”, where “different” means more academically inclined.

This can happen because they've come to the conclusion themselves through interacting with peers or, more horrifyingly, they can be taught this by authority figures like teachers and parents. Either way, this happens all the time and it's unbelievably dangerous when it does. Someone who grows up believing themselves to be superior to others because of their academic or intellectual pursuits is destined to live a life of bitterness, loneliness and spite because they will have lost the kinship with the world that is everyone's birthright and unjustly believe that some lives are more important than others. I can speak from experience: When I was a child, many people would tell me that because I was passionate about learning this made me special, and if I ever had any problems with others it was never my fault because they just “didn't understand” me or “were jealous” of my supposed intelligence. Thankfully I don't think I ever let that go to my head, but the consequences of that have haunted me my entire life.

This is especially dangerous for Data, because, if there's one thing this season has taught us, Data is one slipped positronic connection away from becoming a somber parable about eugenics, racial purity and fascism. This is precisely what Lore represents, and precisely the thing Data must strive to overcome. To have an episode like this come along and so completely refute that, to the point of sending the exact opposite message, is...upsetting. So break the child away from his peers, burn one empath in effigy, and purge the other of her feminine power. All in the name of Science.

But what does any of this matter in the end? Empathy and utopianism is the message *I* read into Star Trek: The Next Generation. That doesn't make me any more right or any more valid than anyone else who's ever watched this show, let alone worked on it. I can rant and rave about how this episode or that episode doesn't support my preferred reading, but my preferred reading is just one of a myriad of possible readings that can be derived from the same source material. Which brings me back to my opening question: Why do I even bother doing this in the first place? Ultimately, media criticism is little more than an exercise in navel gazing and self-examination, especially media criticism with such a keen eye on the past. I go back to revisit a story from my youth so I can learn more about myself and come to terms with the person I've been at different points in my life. If you're new to Star Trek: The Next Generation and are coming to it for the first time through this blog, you must understand you're by necessity doing so through my intensely personal lens. I literally cannot think about this show any other way.

The title “Thine Own Self” derives from the line from Hamlet: “This above all: To thine own self be true”. What does it mean to be true to one's own self? Has Data, or indeed, Star Trek: The Next Generation, lived up to the title of this episode? That can't be known definitively and is something you can ponder on your own. I'll take the quote to mean living in accordance with one's True Self, our highest form of existence, which is an ideal form each and every one of us has that we can aspire to become. I happen to think that if we all dedicated our lives towards attaining our True Self and embodying it each and every day of our lives, the great work of the universe becomes knowable and attainable. But in order to reach that point, we have to first believe it's possible. And maybe, just maybe, the stories we tell each other should remind us that it is.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

“Two Cheeseburgers”: Paradise

OK, this one's absolute rubbish.

I've had my philosophical disagreements with this show this season, but at least those were on episodes that were basically well-constructed and where there was room for a nuanced discussion about different interpretations. “Paradise” is just hot garbage and the first Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode since “Invasive Procedures” I simply can't defend or come up with any interesting tangential topics to venture forth into. It's a directionless parable about cultism and the relationship the Star Trek universe has with its technology that can't make its mind up about what it wants its actual point to be and plays out as a hideously boring rehash of “The Apple” from the Original Series and “The Masterpiece Society” from the fifth season. No amount of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Magazine's lovely purple prose or Block and Erdmann's praise for how how Commander Sisko “radiates” defiance in their Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion is ever going to upsell me on this story or convince me it's anything other than some alien looking crap-on-a-stick.

I said I didn't have any tangents to go off of here, but, now that I've said that, I actually think I do. It's not a major theme in this story purely because of the fact the episode can't take a stand one way or the other, but “Paradise” remains another example of a worryingly Luddite motif that's been creeping into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine this season and that will become more of a problem on the next series. Apart from Alixis' tyrannical anti-tech cult in this story, there's also stuff like Major Kira's disparaging remark to Dax in “The Siege” that Starfleet officers have forgotten how to use their “natural instincts” because of their reliance on technology (and before anyone comments, we're absolutely meant to sympathize with Kira here: This is from her Big Damn Hero making scene and that Dax comes across as well as she does is purely due to Terry Farrell). There seems to be the beginning of an idea that Star Trek (really Star Trek: The Next Generation, as all Star Trek from now in is going to be in some way a reaction to Star Trek: The Next Generation) is too overly sanitized and technologized, and that this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed and that the show needs to be taken to task for.

This is the brainchild of Ira Steven Behr, who has gone on the record numerous times stating his open disdain for technobabble, his belief that it's a dramatic crutch that hinders actual storytelling and that he “tried very hard to take the tech out of DS9”. But let's unpack this concern a bit. First of all, let's remember what the actual point of technobabble in Star Trek really is-In truth, it serves two primary purposes. The first, and most important, is to make the crew seem competent. All that tech speak isn't necessarily supposed to make explicit sense from a real-world vantage point (Prophets know there are enough butthurt physicists who would *love* to talk your ear off about how much it doesn't), but that's not the point. The point is it makes sense to the characters onscreen, and that they can manoeuvre their way through it as deftly as it does makes them come across as professional, knowledgeable, quick-thinking inhabitants of a science fiction story.

The second purpose of technobabble, and arguably the more potentially troubling one when viewed from a certain perspective, is to appease Star Trek fans. See, Star Trek fans (and most Star Trek creators, in fact, as most Star Trek creators were once Star Trek fans) are very anal in regards to continuity, and by this I don't just mean fanwank: All nerds are anal about fanwank. In this context, I mean that Star Trek fans very much like things to be continuous. So, when a world-building fact is mentioned as part of a throwaway bit of dialog, it's very important to Star Trek fans that this fact is in keeping with what had previously been established about the Star Trek universe. For example, it doesn't actually matter to Star Trek fans what a tachyon is or whether or not what the show says tachyons are has anything to do with what tachyons actually are in the real world, just so long as the way tachyons are presented within the show remains consistent. This, to Star Trek fans, gives the show's universe a veneer of believability and realism they find lacking in other genre fiction stories. So lengthy conversations between characters about technobabble explanations to the plots-of-the-week are also there to reassure fans that, whatever is going on in this episode, it's still completely and safely in keeping with the technobabble prior episodes established.

(This is the real reason fans pitched a fit over Enterprise and its depiction of heretofore unknown voyages of a starship Enterprise in the 22nd Century whose design was explicitly inspired by a model they'd already seen: Because they didn't feel it was continuous with what the constructed universe had established earlier.)

The obvious problem with this level of analysis is that if you fixate on continuity to the point it becomes of paramount importance to you, you are rather blinding yourself to, you know, everything else a story is trying to tell you. And in fact, one of the upcoming series is going to take this concern so far it's going to completely disappear up inside itself as a result. That does hurt storytelling, and that might be what Ira Steven Behr was concerned about, but I'd argue technobabble works just fine in Star Trek: The Next Generation-there's enough else going on it's easy enough to follow the flavour, tone and direction of a conversation even if you don't quite grasp the literal meaning of some of the terms they throw around. We might not know exactly what they're talking about, but the important part is that it's clear they do and that their expertise is going to get them out of whatever jam they've found themselves in (although I'd even maintain Star Trek: The Next Generation is actually quite good at making its technobabble make sense to non-Star Trek nerds). To flip this into a general critique of any and all technology, however, especially in a science fiction show, strikes me as a bit too extreme, and potentially dangerous.

The point of science fiction, in my view, is to tell stories about a modern world from a more generalized and abstract position of metaphor. And modernity is defined by high technology: Once you strip that out of science fiction, there's basically no point in it being a science fiction story anymore and you might as well just be doing a contemporary police procedural or didactic theatre routine. I mean, why even beat around the bush and cloak yourself in any sort of metaphor at all at that point? Just as easy to write a scathing polemic to your local newspaper about how you're Very Unhappy about The Way Things Are Right Now. Furthermore, I have something of a problem with the idea that the Star Trek universe in general would be better without its high technology: From a post-scarcity perspective it is, after all, the replicator that has allowed for a lot of the utopianism of this universe. There's no need to work to manufacture anything: All our labour is now automated by computers, there's no need to manufacture any goods or work to support a ruling class overseeing a structural hierarchy. We should, at least in theory, be doing things purely because we love them and want to do them. Certainly Alixis' idea of going back to a society that revolves around agriculture seems like a horrifically terrible idea.

(I'd also like to point out the interesting choice of regulars to get drafted into indentured servitude by a cult of neo-agrarians: A black man and an Irish man.)

Even extending this criticism beyond Star Trek and science fiction raises more problems. How do you define technology? Machines? Automation? Technology is really nothing more than a human idea reified through praxis and materialism. Do we also want to give up things like language, art and tools? As soon as animals figured out how to use their environment to make life easier for themselves, be it chimpanzees using sticks to get at ants, termites building elabourate tower-mounds out of mud and spit or paleolithic humans fashioning rocks and bone into arrowheads they were using technology. If your argument is that technology causes us to lose touch with our “natural instincts” and stop living in harmony with the natural world, I'd like to see you posit that to a prairie dog. Except you can't, because that would require verbal communication, and verbal communication requires language. There's no clear line to be drawn separating a world with technology in it from a hypothetical Golden Age where we all lived in union with untouched Wilderness-That's an indefensible fallacy. Humans and the rest of nature have always changed and shaped each other for as long as humans have existed, the only difference is in the particular characteristics and sustainability of the relationship at any given point in time.

It's fairly easy, in my opinion, to explain why Star Trek: Deep Space Nine falls into this trap. It's because ultimately, fear over unchecked capital-T Technology (read “automation” and “mechanization”) and humanity's supposed reliance therein is a very 1960s concern, and thus a very Original Series concern. And this creative team are some of the loudest, brashest Original Series fanboys we've yet seen, especially Behr. In spite of everything, Star Trek: The Next Generation really has managed to craft a kind of postmodern technological utopia for itself, and that's something a hardcore OG Original Series fan is likely going to chafe against. You'll notice that, as mind-bogglingly shitty as some of its episodes can occasionally get, Star Trek: The Next Generation is *very rarely* mediocre in the sense of just presenting a warmed over, prettified Original Series story anymore, and that's exactly what “Paradise” is. This is the kind of thing that could only happen on this side of the lot, and while this show will be able to keep these impulses in check as it closes out its run, this is something future Star Trek is going to have a far worse time with.

Also, the prison box is really goddamn stupid.