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.


  1. What does it mean to be true to one's own self?

    Nothing. That's the point. It's just another in the string of meaningless platitudes and clichés, which are either contradictory or utterly meaningless, that Polonius spouts. The whole point of the line is to be the sort of thing that the idiot saying it thinks sounds profound, but the audience realises is totally meaningless, and so cue them in that this character is not someone whose advice on any matter is worth a single penny.

    People who think that Polonius's advice is actually meant to be taken are a bit like those who have Every Breath You Take played at their wedding.

  2. I was always really bothered by the way that the point of the command test is "In this 30 second scenario, you have to sacrifice Geordi based on someone saying 'you've got to send someone to their death here'," with the assumption that if you don't kill your crewmember, but instead spend ANY TIME AT ALL trying to find another solution, you're not tough enough to command. When in fact we have spent seven fucking seasons at this point with it always being the case that there's another solution, and if you're going to have to sacrifice a regular, you spend all fucking episode agonizing about it and trying to find another way first. This isn't a command test, it's a sadism test pure and simple.

  3. While Moore's particular notion of what a command test should entail are on him, ultimately a lot of the problem lies with the conflict between Roddenberry's military fetishism and the more progressive elements introduced by TOS' other major contributors, especially Coon and Fontana.

    Ultimately, the problem is that the concept of "Commander" exists at all. The Enterprise should be a team, not a hierarchy.