Thursday, May 12, 2016

“Thrice burnt, thrice brought forth”: The Collaborator

Vedek Bareil experiences an orb vision in this episode's teaser-The first we've seen since “The Circle” at the opposite end of the year. The one in “The Circle” was surprisingly trite, however, only showing us foreshadowing (and basically shot-for-shot foreshadowing to boot) of the climax to “The Siege”. Kind of a weaksauce spiritual vision, if you ask me. The vision in “The Collaborator” (or rather series of visions) is comparatively far more visually striking, utlising a lot of inventive cuts and camera angles as well as some well thought-out abstract visual symbolism. It's the first time since “Emissary” the Prophets have really felt like gods who have a presence in the lives of their people.

There are other, more explicit parallels to “The Homecoming”/“The Circle”/“The Siege” here as well, since “The Collaborator” effectively serves as the end of the Bajoran Provisional Government plotline that was the backbone to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for almost a year and a half. It's been an interesting thing to watch unfold to be sure: The show's connection to Bajoran religion began as an attempt to explore more internal spiritualist themes in Star Trek. “Emissary” is essentially a lite version of abstract cinema depicting different metaphors and analogies for our personal, macro/micro individual inner lives. But with Kai Opaka's sorta-death in “Battle Lines”, the result of the creative team's desire to kill off a recurring character for dramatic purposes, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's mysticism has been increasingly compartmentalized, repackaged and kept in check (with notable exceptions like “The Storyteller”, “If Wishes Were Horses”, “Playing God” and arguably “Shadowplay”). The Bajoran religion, originally a metaphor for our cosmic wonderings in general, becomes planet-of-hats set dressing, its main purpose to serve as the backdrop for Vedek Winn and Vedek Bareil's Machiavellian story of political machinations.

So in this respect “The Collaborator” feels almost like an attempt at reconstruction and reconciliation, which is perhaps appropriate for a story about Bajorans. It's very much a story about backroom deals, realpolitiking and political backstabbing, but some of that mystical energy from “Emissary” manages to crackle through. And yet at the same time there's definitely a sense that this is the last time we'll be seeing this sort of thing, with Vedek Winn's campaign for the Kaiship finally coming to fruition through the character assassination of Vedek Bareil, who plays along with it due to his stubbornly intractable loyalty. Winn's victory is a win for fundamentalism, which has really nothing to do with spirituality or religious experiences. Rather, fundamentalism is about dogma, xenophobia, nativism and willfully shallow networked thinking. Fundamentalists believe that there is only one true way of thinking and behaving, their unexamined assumptions are it, and they furthermore have a right to coerce everyone else to share them. It doesn't actually matter what the fundamentalism is about, so long as the fundamentalist has the feeling of being righteous, and of being listened to.

It's also interesting that the episode ends up condemning not just Bareil, but Kai Opaka as well, who is retroactively revealed to be the titular collaborator whom Bareil takes the fall for. Frankly, it's not even the collaboration itself that bothers me so much as the fact her actions apparently consisted of partaking in a miserably boring and trite trolley problem. Again, spirituality and mysticism are not the game here: That's just the wrapping paper for this particular plot about political manoeuvering and consolidation of power in a particular social context coded as post-imperialist. And that's not to knock that because that's an important story to tell...But I can't help but feel Star Trek: Deep Space Nine could have told it with a *bit* more nuance and depth than it did: Imagine, for example, if we got to see more of the specific sociopolitical factors that led to someone like Vedek Winn developing the worldview she holds. We only got a bit of that in “In the Hands of the Prophets” before she quickly swerved into “obvious villain”. However, it should be said that the truncated run of this particular incarnation of the show assuredly contributed rather heavily to that. Extradiegetically, the show needs to wrap all this up in a bit of a hurry to make room for what's coming next.

But let's talk a bit more about Winn winning. Because that was the whole conceit of this episode, and that kind of says a lot of not very good things about the state of Star Trek right now. To quote Ira Steven Behr:
“We had talked all year about Bareil becoming the next Kai. All year! And during this conversation, we started talking about a collaborator, and I suddenly realized, 'We don't want Bareil as the Kai. What the hell good is that going to do us? He's a friend, and he's not going to cause any trouble for the Federation.' The trick to drama is to find the person who's going to cause the most conflict and put him in the most powerful position.”
I'm not going to reiterate my numerous and sundry complaints about the fetishization of conflict in storytelling as those are well known and well worn by this point (although if you want to see some other evidence and potentially read someone other than me complaining about it, go look up “kishōtenketsu” and “plot without conflict”). But I will bring up one of my other old chestnuts, because, as usual, Behr provides the textbook example of a writer who conflates “conflict” with “grimdark” and an intellectual tradition that will utterly define pop culture in the 1990s, 2000s and arguably still to this day. And I'm just going to say one more thing about this: This kind of writing isn't objectionable just because it's reductively Aristotelian to the point it can't conceive of any other way of being, it's offensive because it's literary sadism. This is nothing short of perverse pleasure in watching (and the keyword *is* “watching”) depictions of pain and suffering for entertainment and amusement. And while by no means the most egregious example in the franchise [hell, it's not even the most egregious example this show (or this writer, for that matter) has offered up thus far], “The Collaborator” is worth calling out on this front because it so clearly paves the way for what Star Trek is about to become. And what Star Trek is about to become is not good.

There's one other thing about this episode I want to gripe about (wow, this essay has turned out considerably more negative than I had planned). There's one scene where Major Kira confides in Odo about her despair over having to possibly out Bareil as a collaborator because she loves him (and I'll bet Behr was just cackling with glee when he wrote that scene. The episode has three writers but I'm sure Behr wrote that part). René Auberjonois has Odo respond in a really weird and counterintuitive way, visibly taken aback and expressing confusion that Kira hadn't figured it out by then. This has led literally everybody to read that scene as Odo being crestfallen by Kira's admission because he secretly harbours romantic feelings for her as well, which I might be able to see as convincing except for the small fact that's absolutely not Auberjonois' intent with this delivery. And I know this because both René Auberjonois and Nana Visitor were openly, publicly and strongly against any attempt to hook their characters up.

First of all, why is Odo only expressing surprise now? It's not like Major Kira's relationship with Vedek Bareil has been a huge secret; they've practically been dating since the start of the season. You mean to insinuate someone that observant simply never noticed something that blatantly obvious before? Come on. In fact, I think that's exactly what Odo is saying: He's surprised because Kira's only just now admitting it to him, as if she didn't think he knew. Odo's being sincere when he's saying he doesn't understand the social norms, niceties and conventions surrounding human(oid) romance-When is Odo ever not sincere? He's taken aback because Kira treats it as a big secret she has to muster up a lot of energy and willpower to confess, and Odo doesn't understand why she feels she has to do that.

Odo supposes romance just happens organically and is something people ought to just fall into and shouldn't make a fuss about: Remember, this is a guy who basically lives in his office and whose only worldly possession is a bucket. Far from being about Odo's inner torture over his unrequited feelings, my beat on this scene is that it's about an asexual/aromantic expressing his genuine lack of understanding about and distance from everything people have built up around these particular emotions. Critically I don't think Odo doesn't understand love itself, he's not Data, I think he doesn't get why we make such a big deal about love. And frankly, I think he's right: I tend to feel humans dreadfully overthink love and romance, while paradoxically not affording them the specific type of concern and consideration they actually warrant. I think love should happen organically, as a natural outgrowth of empathy and familiarity.

The abject failure on the part of the writers to get a proper beat on the Odo/Kira scene (and the fans-Memory Alpha seems to have “canonized” the unrequited love reading by including it in their episode synopsis, which is not only a misinterpretation it's also openly misleading) is microcosm for what “The Collaborator” means for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on the whole. Shutting down a potentially unique opportunity to explore asexuality in a genre fiction setting, apart from being plain old erasure, also locks the show down into beige and hackneyed heteronormativity in much the same way killing off Kai Opaka and giving Vedek Winn the kaiship locks it into boring realpolitiking and out of mysticism. I can't say “The Collaborator” is a terrible episode since it has so much to recommend in it (the Odo/Kira scene alone is worth the price of entry) and as a last-minute tying-up-loose-ends story it's more than serviceable. But I'll be damned if it doesn't make me pine over the lost opportunities and could-have-beens.

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