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.


  1. You know, I don't think I ever saw this episode in the first place, and your thoughts on it certainly don't encourage me to seek it out. What I find most interesting is the essential concept of the episode, how it so faithfully echoes the concerns of 1960s scifi to its detriment. Being a cyberpunk heyday, keeping up to date would mean exploring transhumanist and mind-bending themes as some of the best TNG episodes in its last season did. Or class exploitation in a futuristic setting as the better Ferengi stories of DS9 do. Even some Doctor Who novels of the time did their best. It's sad to see that focus on at least current trends in scifi slip away from Star Trek. If this mediocre episode does nothing else, it can at least teach us that.

  2. I totally used to fall for it, but as I grow older, I get more and more cheesed off at just what an amazing place of privilege you have to come from to advocate luddic neo-agrarianism. I'm sure the one in thirteen women who die in childbirth, the one in three babies who die of jaundice or the whatever other percent you like who die of treatable medical conditions (or, for that matter, live but with treatable pain or impairment) in their technology-free paradise really appreciate the simple life.

  3. Yeah, the situation with the anti-tech movement in sci-fi is weird and untenable in the Star Trek universe. While it sort of almost maybe worked in The Original Series that some of these Federation colonies were weird agrarian ranches (with alien sunflower spores) it always felt more like a result of a field trip off the dour studio sets to some nice California sunshine in farm country than a necessary plot element of space colonization. (And always ignored the second step after the establishment of a self-sustaining human colony on an alien world - the stripmining of that world's resources, and probably the cultural appropriation of that world's natives by the Federation.)

    But lest I diverge from my DS9 points ... because I did feel a TOS rant coming there ... the simple fact of the matter is the anti-tech movement is flawed. Inherently, stupidly fucking flawed. Agriculture IS technology. Shovels and pitchforks and steel hand-plows are technology. Steel itself is advanced technology. Next Gen had the decency to show us anachronistic Mariposans as being at least a bit eccentric in their willful attempt at going backwards. But even they weren't stalwartly refusing the help of the Enterprise, shocked or not, they adapted rather well - indeed they adapted rapidly, whereas the ... whatever the fuck other colony - the cloners - couldn't adapt to shit without the certainty of doom being the only other option and the Enterprise mediating.

    So we have O'Brien meeting with more anachronisms, except these ones don't even have the benefit-of-the-doubt of having settled their colony back in "Old Federationy Times".

    And it's rubbish, I agree. And rather a waste, too, as the separate issue of a world of scarcity putting Sisko and O'Brien into bondage is a goldmine - and I'm not even just talking about the potential of a black man and an Irish man (who we know from other context are very up on their own personal cultural Earth tribal histories), but also the notion of two family men in those dire straits, but also, just generally the notion of Avery Brooks and Colm Meaney being the ones who get to act in those situations, which is perhaps the only aspect of this episode I do like - their rapport and demeanor, dignity and comradeship as a duo here. They should be teamed up more often.

    But yeah, otherwise this episode is kind of painful to watch. One notable beat though, for me, is the actor who plays Alixis - she might be one of only a few characters or actors on any show that just oozes a vibe that repels me on a visceral level to the point where I find it hard to watch her as a character because I find it impossible to be in her presence.

    Of course, the other major character who does that for me is Oscar Winner Louise Fletcher's Winn Adami.

    1. I agree entirely. Though I think Fletcher's doing that repulsion on purpose.

  4. I think the only good thing about this is the chemistry between Sisko and O'Brien. The rest of it feels to me like a story dead-end as far as Trek is concerned.

  5. This episode could have been so much more interesting if it hadn't taken that wrong at Albaquerque and ended up being about some crazy brainwashing cult leader. Because, by making the architect of this primitivist cult so ridiculously evil, while on the other hand having the residents all agreeing with her in the end, the story not only fails to explore the causes of such Arcadian longing but also comes damn close to a "but she made the trains run on time" argument, i.e., "Yeah she imprisoned us and straight up tortured and killed a bunch of us, but we're glad she did because we like the feeling of dirt under our fingernails or something."

    Is this episode supposed to about how turning one's back on modernity makes one more human in some pathetically Romantic way? No, because it was a trap laid by a total nutjob, and they were all coerced into this way of life . Is it about the dangers of powerfully charismatic leaders who justify their brutality in the name of the greater good? No, because they all end up deciding it was fine, that it helped them "find themselves." Although what parts of their selves are more easily found by killing someone with an arrow instead of a phaser? Beats me.

    So I almost liked this, at first, when I thought it would actually explore tensions between modernity and Romanticism. But then it chickened out, went off the rails, or whatever metaphor you want for a storytelling f*ckup. Nice points, Josh, as always, about the writing staff's TOS hard-on and their obsession with sticking it to TNG.

  6. However, I liked the boo box.