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.

1 comment:

  1. "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"

    Yup. I only ever liked most of Worf's main storylines as a kid. In my growing up I have seen how awful they are, and thankfully how I have moved on. I accept I liked then them as I was lost in a bit of a difficult and warring teenhood, and needed something shallow and unreal to lose myself in. It helped then, but now I ask for more growth and more empathy from my characters, rather than having them stuck in the past.

    I really loved this episode.