Unnatural Annoyance (S02:E07)

I’m examining the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation had on my formation. The introduction to this series can be seen here.

Unnatural Selection

The Enterprise discovers a starship and a star base where inhabitants have been struck by a disorder causing them to age rapidly. Soon, Dr. Pulaski has been affected.

I’m writing this not because I’ve ever gotten much of anything out of this episode, but because I’m pretty sure it was supposed to be a turning point. We learn that Pulaski has admired Picard from afar for years. We see her take some rash acts to help others, and some selfless acts to protect even more people. Someone verbalizes that the thing that gets in the way of her being more personable is an all-consuming dedication to her craft. And we see her come to some kind of resolution with Picard by the end.

And again, I thought with youthful loyalties faded and not overwhelming my judgement, that I would honestly find something in Pulaski to like here.

But I don’t.

She interacts with Data most of the episode, never ceasing to objectify and belittle him. Actions she takes that on paper should seem compassionate feel rooted in anger and self-righteousness as I watch them. And she interrupts. A LOT. When people are trying to reach some common ground with her. I hate that shit.

I really think we’re supposed to like her by this point, at the very least in a begrudging way. Which makes me think the writers have lost complete control of this situation. I didn’t like her then. And, surprisingly to me, I don’t now. I looked. But I still see nothing to like.

But maybe I just wrote a post to say this. The best thing about this episode, hands down, is that unnamed transporter dude has now been christened Transporter Chief Miles O’Brien.

1. From http://postatomichorror.wordpress.com/page/2/

Published in: on June 30, 2012 at 4:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

THAT Guy (S02:E06)

I’m examining the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation had on my formation. The introduction to this series can be seen here.

Schizoid Man

After witnessing the death of cybernetics expert Ira Graves, Data starts behaving erratically.

Have you read any of Robert Heinlein’s books? He very frequently writes into the story an author’s proxy: a stand-in for himself, carrying many attributes he sees in himself. Done poorly, the author’s proxy can become a Mary Sue. But done well, it’s a solid and time-honored technique in literature. Heinlein had a very specific proxy character: an old man who was benevolently authoritarian, sexist, self-reliant and opinionated but wise. For some reason, in Heinlein’s stories, I can generally appreciate such a character. Heinlein as a writer doesn’t seem to be sanctioning everything the guy does (though I don’t doubt I find things problematic that Heinlein wouldn’t). Perhaps it’s the distance of several decades since Heinlein wrote that makes it work for me. Perhaps there is an ultimate humanity and imperfection to the characters that I rather appreciate. Perhaps it is Heinlein’s distrust of utopianism that makes his universes and characters sympathetic in general for me.

This episode’s guest character, cyberneticist Ira Graves, reminds me of that Heinlein proxy… but without the humanness. He says things like “Women aren’t people… they’re women,” and the context for that statement really doesn’t improve it at all. He’s dismissive and bullying, and easily tolerated by the culture that’s supposed to know better. A Vulcan character within the episode1 calls him “brilliant, egotistical, arrogant, chauvinistic” but there is no sense that what he’s doing is inappropriate… just sort of dated or inefficient, in a humorous way.

Of course, the real “fun” starts when Dr. Graves deposits his personality into Data, and we watch someone with Data’s body bullying and condescending others. At first it’s considered cute; again it’s not seen as inappropriate, just humorous. Eventually he is directly insubordinate, and that gets folks’ attention. The underlying value appears to be that chauvinism and abuse isn’t wrong because of the way you’re treating people, but because it doesn’t fit well in a hierarchy when it’s directed up the chain of command. This is disturbing to find in our supposedly enlightened friends, and I’m frustrated to have this behavior modeled in a space I considered sacred by this point.

Eventually the crew cottons on to the situation. Picard confronts Graves-in-Data, explaining that he has cheated death at the expense of someone else, whom he is treating as expendable. Picard insists that “no being is so important that he can usurp the rights of another.” This apparently eats away at Graves’ conscience, as does his inability to refrain from harming people with Data’s strength. It is a crisis resolved by Picard appealing to reason, stating a straightforward ethical truth that disturbs the “villain” of the piece enough for him to lay down his life to stop harming another. While it’s not a solution to conflict that commonly works, I’m grateful to have been told a story where it does. It is one of the simpler forms of nonviolent communication – basic truth-telling – and it is portrayed as a powerful act.

1. Dr. Selar makes this observation, one of the two awesome characters played by the awesome Suzy Plakson.
2. From http://www.emagill.com/trek/tng2-06.html

Published in: on June 30, 2012 at 1:29 am  Leave a Comment  

It’s Complicated… I Think (S02:E05)

I’m examining the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation had on my formation. The introduction to this series can be seen here.

Loud As a Whisper

The Enterprise provides passage for a renowned mediator to negotiate a badly needed peace agreement. When a tragedy occurs, the shaken mediator must improvise.

Hm. My primary memory of this episode was a pleasant one. I thought the mediator’s sign language looked cool, and I thought being a peace negotiator was an awesome thing to be. As I watch now, though, he and the episode disturb me, a considerable amount. There’s some weird boundary issues going on here.

Riva is a member of his planet’s ruling family. He is highly self-assured, and has an imposing physical presence. As he sweeps in to receive passage on the Enterprise to his destination, he immediately expresses strong romantic interest in Deanna, in front of everyone, in the middle of conversations with others. If we posit a culture free of oppression, would that mean there are no consent issues for Deanna? Could she respond to public advances without any coercion present? Would it be less of a boundary violation of professional ethics under those circumstances than it would be in mine? Certainly, professional ethics can vary widely even on one planet, much less across the galaxy. But the fact that his behavior could be seen as a violation is never addressed.

She responds – initially and throughout the episode – with body language that I read variously as discomfort, distaste and lack of interest. She also doesn’t verbalize much about her emotions, but when she does, I’m surprised by the fact that it’s all positive. She says she’s interested in him as well, and appears to befriend him. Which, on a visceral level, I don’t buy. It’s never addressed as anything other than a consensual relationship though. So the whole thing is… creepy.

Riva comes with three full-time attendants, who telepathically communicate for the deaf mediator. Three individuals appear entirely committed to being invisible themselves, and existing only to share Riva’s thoughts in great detail and nuance. This speaks again to Riva’s privilege, and again mitigates the obstacles he has and the adaptation required of those on the Enterprise, making his a kind of pseudo-disability2. Of the three members of his chorus, two men represent detailed sides of Riva’s personality (poet and warrior), while a woman represents “that which binds them”. It has and had the impression, to me, of making the woman’s role seem less… less rounded, less full. While I suppose I could be grateful there’s a female presence in the chorus at all, she’s in a supportive role, in a way, and it feels secondary and “clean-up” in nature.

Riker makes the comment here that “Our job is not to police the galaxy.” It’s a complex and compelling statement. But it’s weakened just a few minutes later, when Troi uses her empathy to tease out emotions from a landing party member, ostensibly because the safety of the ship might be involved. Safety wasn’t compromised, yet Worf was forcibly compelled to share a private emotion with the captain and crew. It was a disturbing boundary violation.

As Riva meets the crew, he and Geordi discuss disabilities. Riva equates Geordi’s Visor with his chorus, and asks Geordi if he resents his Visor, or being blind. Geordi responds: “They’re both a part of me and I like who i am so there’s not a reason to resent either one.” It’s a bit simplistic, and it’s rewarding of marginalized folks that aren’t “too angry” in ways that make others uncomfortable. But, also, I am glad for every single time in my life I hear such a message of self-acceptance. Each one helps combat the battering messages to the contrary.

On a similar note, the episode ends with the message that “communication is the first and most important aspect of any relationship.” I don’t mind being exposed to that in a trusting environment at a young age. God knows it wasn’t a common message at the time.

1. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loud_as_a_Whisper
2. As I’ve mentioned before about Geordi, these pseudo-disabilities are championed as an example of how advanced the culture and the show itself are. But they do not function as most disabilities do in our culture, presenting obstacles to the individual in getting their needs met, and/or requiring significant adaptation from people interacting with an individual to give them what they need. This limits the potential of these pseudo-disabilities to function narratively as a commentary on diversity of bodies and needs in our current culture.

24th Century Sex (S02:E04)

I’m examining the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation had on my formation. The introduction to this series can be seen here.

The Outrageous Okona

The Enterprise helps a charming and roguish smuggler freighter captain with his engine troubles, and gets caught in the middle when two warring planets both want him extradited.

This is a light-hearted, relatively innocuous episode that I nearly skipped writing about. But it is rare, direct look at sexuality and codes of sexual behavior in this universe, and it’s the clearest picture we get of the sexual culture of the ship for some time. So let’s pause and look at just a couple of points.

First, one of the people clamoring to get Han Okona handed over to him is a dishonored father with a pregnant, unmarried daughter. When Picard is confused by the man’s anger and demands, Deanna describes him as having an “ancient morality” and a “heartfelt, if arcane, sense of righteousness.” She names this code as meaningless to the captain and herself, but she assures the captain of the father’s seriousness. This exchange defines Starfleet sexual code negatively, by what it is not. And this little taste of another sexuality – beyond women being treated as the property of men in their family – was incredibly alluring to me.

Han Okona is promiscuous and extraverted, and explicitly equates love and sex with one another. After he beds several women on board, Picard makes clear that consensual “socializing” with crew members is well within the man’s rights (so, casual consensual sex between adults is not frowned upon, it seems). He is not quite a rake; he is not portrayed as a misogynist, simply as emotionally unavailable. And by the end of the episode, we discover he’s not responsible for either crime he’s accused of, but only appeared guilty from the covert actions he’s taken to help a young, secret romance come to fruition. So Han Okona apparently has a soft heart. He’s also portrayed as a bit lonely, as he describes his capacity to “use up a place.” He may be a raging trope, and casual sex is still apparently equated with some level of irresponsibility… or at least immaturity. But he’s a sympathetic character that is not in the Starfleet hierarchy, and is not confined to existing only in his head, and I appreciate seeing at least that much.

1. From http://www.dailydrew.com/2011/03/outrageous-okona.html

Published in: on June 22, 2012 at 7:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Steampunk Holmes (S02:E03)

I’m examining the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation had on my formation. The introduction to this series can be seen here.

Elementary Dear Data

When Geordi attempts to prove Data’s creative thinking abilities to Dr. Pulaski, a recreational holodeck tour through the Sherlock Holmes canon turns dangerous.

This is an intriguing twist on the “holodeck malfunction” trope: it’s not actually a malfunction. In looking for ways to challenge Data’s mystery-solving skills, Geordi asks the computer for an opponent capable of defeating him… not of defeating Holmes, but of defeating Data. The computer responds by creating a holodeck character capable of conceiving of the concept that he is a holodeck character; he achieves self-awareness. He’s also Holmes most nefarious nemesis: Professor Moriarty. This creates a delightfully complex look at the line between non-sentience and sentience, and what is necessary for the creation of an entity that crosses that line.

It’s a delight to watch Data and Geordi learn how to hang out with each other in their off time. Initially, Data’s familiarity with the Holmes stories ends the adventures long before Geordi has had any fun. They are already on their way to discovering an answer, when Pulaski’s pointless prejudice is injected into the situation. She insists that Data has the limitations she decided upon before meeting him, and again refuses to consider input from him or his friends. She even goes so far as to say that creative thought would be dangerous for him, that “his circuits would short out at true mystery”. It’s an intrusion unnecessary to the plot point of building the Moriarty character, and only serves to place her in position to be a damsel in need of saving later.

Both Data and Moriarty are case studies in sentience, but they are otherwise stark contrasts in character. Much of the episode hinges on Moriarty’s ambition. Moriarty offers the observation that he is “no longer what I was created to be”. He takes more and more power from the ship to get Picard’s attention, and seems to grow stronger with the accumulated knowledge. When he discovers he cannot leave the holodeck, he chooses continuing consciousness when the embodied creatures leave, risking an unknown state (and possible death) with a hope that he can someday move about freely. But, in many ways, it is not in Data’s nature to seek out challenges; he originally pursues the holodeck activity simply to immerse himself in the stories of Holmes and savor them. It’s Geordi and Pulaski who argue about his nature, and change the situation to test him. When his colleague is in trouble, Data puts his prodigious intellect to the task; we’ve seen Data problem-solve, and know his skill. We also learn here that it takes a sentient foe – who happens to be a mastermind – to have the potential to best him. But Data just doesn’t have a drive to prove himself, which Pulaski misreads in this episode as lack of creativity. I read it as more… Taoist. I’m now wondering how he may connect to my fondness for mindfulness.

More to come very soon on Data! 🙂

1. Data and Geordi from http://memory-beta.wikia.com/wiki/2365
2. Moriarty from http://fersforum.blogspot.com/2011/01/star-trek-next-generation-elementary.html

Published in: on June 17, 2012 at 8:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

It’s A Trap! (S02:E02)

I’m examining the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation had on my formation. The introduction to this series can be seen here.

Where Silence Has Lease

The Enterprise is pulled into a localized phenomenon they’re studying, becoming a rat in a larger being’s experiment.

This is a basic escape-from-a-snare plot, done fairly well. There’s some awkwardness of role and relationship on the ship. But it’s an eerie and soon frightening trap with well-accomplished spatial confusion and wonderful use of sound and silence to heighten the tension. It also has a welcome focus on their role as explorers, as learners and investigators instead of fighters.

What was important to me then were various points of both character development and, sometimes, remarkable wisdom:

+ When Data is pressed to parse out some understanding of the mysterious phenomenon from a lack of data, he says, “The most elementary and valuable statement in science, the beginning of wisdom, is ‘I do not know.’ I do not know what that is.” Embracing the unknown is fundamental to just about every element of life for me, and I expect this moment helped guide me in that direction.

+ Picard feels that his ship runs best when officers share freely what’s on their mind; he says this, and acts on it. Though the final decision is his, he supports his officers in collaborating with one another and in contributing richly to the discussion that Picard uses to reach his decisions. Collaboration is kind of a basic default setting for me, by temperament. But as far as having role models to learn the actual skills, Picard was my first.

+ When measurements that Data’s taken don’t yield the results she’s expecting, Dr. Pulaski turns to the others to say, “It does know how to do these things, doesn’t it?” She gets quite a few looks, and is assured of Data’s competency by the captain.1 It occurs to her that she might be out of line somehow, so she then says to Data, “Forgive me, I’m not used to working with nonliving devices… forgive me again, your service record says that you are alive. I must accept that.” Despite the fact that Data is a Starfleet officer, she still finds it incomprehensible to treat him as a living being. Her inability to perceive him as sentient grows more and more ludicrous, and annoys me as much now as it did then. Again, either the writers intend for her to be a truly obnoxious character, or they believe her responses to Data are understandable on some level. Perhaps they’re trying to illuminate what prejudices Data must deal with, or setting the stage to question his personhood further and more directly. But it’s at the expense of any likeability or sense on Pulaski’s part. My response as a 14-year old was based on my desire to defend Data in particular, who had become my friend. But as an adult, I find myself angry that anyone is being treated this way. I find Pulaski’s logic and ethics to both be profoundly lacking, and consider her to be as dangerous as anyone else who so easily negates the personhood of someone standing right in front of them.

+ When the Enterprise appears to destroy an entire Romulan ship threatening them, there are expressions of delight, relief, and accomplishment among the crew. This disappoints me. This show rarely reinforces the idea that our enemies are wholly evil and worthy of death. This is an odd moment to see.

+ The entity that has trapped them eventually decides to explore how they die, and explains to Picard that it will kill a third to a half of the crew to accomplish this. Picard refuses to allow this to happen, and authorizes an auto-destruct for the whole ship. He could have allowed them to be toyed with; he could have submitted to the entity and tried to keep some of them alive at the expense of others. But he chose dignity and integrity over simple survival. It was the only example I’d seen, outside war, of certain values being more important than one’s life. This kind of example would certainly shape my spiritual life as I grew into ideals of nonviolent resistance.

+ After Picard has ordered the autodestruct, there is a 20 minute delay for the crew to prepare. Picard finds himself being asked whether he believes in an unchanging afterlife of some sort of paradise, or if death is just a door into nothingness?3 He replies:

Considering the marvelous complexity of universe – its clockwork perfection, its balances of this against that, matter, energy, gravitation, time, dimension – I believe that our existence must be more than either of these philosophies, that what we are goes beyond Euclidian or any other practical measuring systems and that our existence is part of a reality beyond what we understand now as reality.4

This was mind-blowing at 14, when I hadn’t given much thought to any afterlife, and when I desperately wanted to leave the distorted reality I was in. What was more transformative than anything else about it, though, was the repeating pattern of finding a third option when offered only two. I am realizing I learned a lot about the act of queering from Captain Picard.

1. At the time, the rest of the crew’s response to Pulaski felt like them tolerating a bully, and my current opinion’s not too far away from that. I appreciate the maturity of friends not leaping to Data’s rescue, but I also wish someone would call out her shitty behavior.
2. From http://thecia.com.au/star-trek/next-generation/201b/
3. I’m wary of how religion will be treated as a whole in the series. What I remember of it being directly addressed seemed to revolve around magical thinking and, at best, a mythic-literal faith. I hope the narrow description of the afterlife here is not intended as a stand-in for most religious concepts of death.
4. Yes, it’s a long sentence. And yes, Patrick Stewart knocks it out of the goddamn park. (Actually, just go ahead and assume that last sentence goes without saying as a footnote to every episode.) Apparently he also quoted from this speech at Gene Roddenberry’s funeral.

Changes, Changes, Changes (S02:E01)

I’m examining the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation had on my formation. The introduction to this series can be seen here.

The Child

Counselor Troi finds herself mysteriously pregnant, which rapidly progresses into a child that ages quickly. Other crew members are immersed in a dangerous project involving transportation of virus samples.

When the show got picked up for a second season, a significant number of elements were retooled. Geordi becomes chief engineer, and Dr. Crusher is shipped away.1 Number One gains a beard, and the ship gains a bar and bartender. Wesley has had a growth spurt, and in this first episode he contemplates his future.

First, let’s talk about Counselor Troi [TW for this section: issues around rape and conception]. Her own feelings about the mysterious conception of her child are not mentioned aloud a single time, presumably because an exploration of rape is just not where the writers wanted to go.2 The closest we come to knowing how she feels occurs in a scene in the conference lounge, where the senior staff is informed of her pregnancy. The others discuss the fate of her child as though they have a say in it, commenting primarily on issues of the ship’s safety. She, however, has separated herself from them physically, sitting at the far end of the table from everyone else. She is visibly preoccupied, presumably with her situation in general, and says nothing for most of the meeting. I can only guess that the physical separation is the one clue we’re given that she may have feelings of violation and/or uncleanness from the mysterious conception. It is never said.

By the end of the meeting, Troi has informed everyone of her decision to keep the child. She bonds powerfully and lovingly with the strange being as he’s born and grows, seemingly without any emotional complications for her. They have a unique communication between them, and it is possible that the child somehow communicates to her in some way that relieves the situation of its potentially violating elements. Again, it’s never discussed. The complete omission is… disturbing to me at this point. At that time, I had uneasiness but couldn’t place it. I do remember being angry at Riker for his selfish response (anger and indignation, and demands to know who the father was). Whether the choice to write Riker’s response that way was an intentional reflection of the anger that rape victims can receive, or whether someone simply felt that his voicing of that anger was appropriate, I don’t know.4

Next, let’s talk about the new doctor, Kathryn Pulaski. I had expected – with a more mature, adult perspective under my belt, after years of handling interpersonal conflict and generally seeing people as more complex now – that I wouldn’t have such strong animosity toward her as I did as a child. I was wrong. She evokes far more hostility in me today, probably because I can see she’s not just having conflict with coworkers. She’s disrespecting them, and in one case, behaving abusively towards them.

Dr. Pulaski is first introduced by having her breach a major protocol with Captain Picard. We discover that instead of reporting to him the way she should have, she’s met with Deanna to discuss her situation. But Pulaski is entirely remorseless about her bad first impression, and there’s no indication given that this breach was necessary or that she regrets it. It’s, again, a poor first impression, but she could have recovered from that, has she shown some other redeeming quality.

The other major character development is her reaction to Data. Because of her preconceived notions about him, she feels justified in dismissing his personhood entirely, naming him nothing but machinery. Her actions toward him range from firmly believing he could be no comfort for a friend in need, to insisting that his fucking name just really isn’t that important. There’s a host of other moments where minor actions and word choices on her part suggest a treatment of Data that is less than his other colleagues in Starfleet, and is more akin to how one would treat a piece of furniture. The kicker is that when she is confronted about some of this inappropriate behavior, she responds only with smugness and further belittlement. Not only did she decide Data isn’t a person before she met him, but she’s uninterested in learning any truth about him.

Now, unpacking prejudice in a central character could be done in a really interesting way. But the key to that being interesting, and not just an obnoxious waste of my time, is having a) some other redeeming quality to the character, b) some complex look into why they have these blind spots or confusions, or preferably both. Further, I would need there to be some acknowledgement from the storytellers that this prejudice is problematic, and not just an endearing character flaw. None of this is present in Pulaski.

My best guess as to what the hell the writers were doing is a combination of 1) trying to make a new McCoy, hoping that the fan base would transfer and the magic of the McCoy/Spock bickering would be reborn, and 2) getting rid of more of that pesky peacefulness by throwing more interpersonal conflict into the crew. I have got no problem at all delving into more depth around conflict and tension between crew members; in fact, I’d prefer it. But there is all manner of dramatic tension that is much more compelling than setting loose a new bully.

We can talk a little about Wesley too. He doesn’t have much to do until the end of the episode, when he’s preparing to leave the Enterprise to join his mother. He has an enjoyable exchange with Guinan where she asks if he always does what he’s told to do. Wesley says yes, and considers it a virtue. Guinan suggests he look into the virtues of being selfish instead. Eventually, Wesley asks Captain Picard for permission to stay.

I haven’t talked much about how thoroughly I identify with Wesley, but this is a huge reason why. I wouldn’t have the wherewithal or understanding for a long while to act on this small lesson he learns here. But eventually I’d learn how to temper my gifts for following and obedience, and how to deeply value this kind of selfishness. His unfolding search for his own path mirrors my own for a long time. This is just the first step. And there are some ways in which the steps he eventually takes were thrilling and freeing for me.

Finally, let’s talk about Guinan. I remember liking Guinan, and learning a thing or two from her. What I’m most struck by here is that she’s got more skills as a counselor than we’ve seen yet (or will see) from Troi. So, I’m glad to see Guinan again, and I’m glad for what she says to Wesley… but it’s like I’m seeing the cars skidding towards each other in the wreck that Deanna’s character will be most of the time. She already has so little to do. And now she’s got major competition in the ship’s bartender. I guess there’s still a limit to what constitutes women’s work on the Enterprise.

1. My recollection of the interviews the actress was eventually allowed to do is that she was never given a clear reason for being let go… not when they did it, and not when they hired her back a year later.
2. This script was originally written for a second series that never materialized, and the mother of the child was Ilia, the character from the first Trek movie. This explains – but does not make any less problematic – the fact that Deanna’s body is at the center of the story, but she feels interchangeable as a character and as the child’s mother.
3. From http://www.startrek.com/article/marina-sirtis-part-2-from-convention-queen-to-evil-queen
4. I have third-hand reports of discussions that supposedly happened on set, and these reports keep rolling around in my head as I watch. One of the officials at a convention I attended spoke of comments that either Patrick Stewart or Jonathan Frakes made, where they described both men sitting down with certain members of the writing staff, and refusing to perform in certain scenes until female characters were rewritten in a less sexist and offensive way. I keep wondering what got changed, and how the cast feels about what made it to camera.
5. From http://daharadreaming.tumblr.com/post/20845655111/there-just-arent-enough-women-in-general-women

Published in: on June 14, 2012 at 3:43 am  Leave a Comment  

We Need Enemies or We’ll Die (S01:E25)

I’m examining the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation had on my formation. The introduction to this series can be seen here.

The Neutral Zone

Disturbing activity near the Romulan Neutral Zone suggests that long-secluded hostile forces may be returning to engage the Federation. Meanwhile, Data discovers several inhabitants of Earth’s 21st century in cryogenic deep freeze, and Dr. Crusher revives them.

There’s now been nearly a full season of fan complaints that the 24th century is just too damn peaceful, and the Ferengi were a miserable failure at building a worthy adversary. So, before wrapping the season, the writers decided to mine a tangential race from the original series, the Romulans, and tease us with their ominous return as the next major enemy of the Federation.

There is a portion of the grand experiment of Next Generation that ends here. It was Roddenberry’s vision that this would be a more peaceful place to be than the universe of its predecessor in a number of ways. The Federation’s alliance with the Klingon Empire and the presence of Worf on the flagship was a part of that. This theme was part of what grabbed my attention from the beginning. But here, peace is finally decided to be narratively detrimental. Having a military target is considered necessary to the health of the show. This was the opinion of the majority of the fans, and the writers adopt it here, with this narrative decision. I didn’t agree then, and I don’t agree now. The best episodes of this season did not require a major enemy. The most beloved future episodes that I remember (“The Inner Light”, “The Measure of a Man”) had no requirement for military targets. That’s not to say that the show is made unwatchable by this event. At the time, the foreboding of this episode certainly gave me excited chills. But I was also sad. Even then I realized, something of a grand dream died. This assumption is still made today among writers… that peace, or basic psychological health, or all manner of desired characteristics are narratively “boring”. There’s a pervasive and anemic definition of useful dramatic conflict that profoundly diminishes the stories we could tell. To me, this speaks to our own stunted imagination rather than to the dramatic reality of pursuing health and right relationship.

For what this episode is – a somewhat desperate attempt to hang on to viewers over season break – it’s crafty and compelling. The story about the Romulans is actually secondary, as far as time spent telling it, and the primary tale is a touching one of three Earthlings adjusting to being thrown hundreds of years into the future.2 Picard’s interactions with one of them – a man obsessed with gaining wealth through the stock market – further elaborates on the values of the future: they have eliminated hunger, and no longer focus on the accumulation of wealth. When the man is told that material needs no longer exist, his disappointed reply is “Then what’s the challenge?”3

It’s just sad that so many seem to feel the same way about peacefulness.

1) From http://www.dailydrew.com/2010/11/neutral-zone.html
2) Tangential to the post here, but worth noting that the writers resort here to the sexism-is-funny trope: Dr. Crusher has to endure an affectionate pat on the butt from one of the adjusting passengers. He gets a free pass because hey, he just doesn’t know better, right? (Which feels very similar to “boys will be boys” to me.) Grrr.
3) Yes, the social commentary is a bit heavy-handed. But questioning something my family considered unquestionable – the importance of the accumulation of wealth – made me feel at home in this universe.

Published in: on June 13, 2012 at 9:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Nature of Evil (S01:E22)

I’m examining the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation had on my formation. The introduction to this series can be seen here.

Skin of Evil

Deanna’s shuttle crash lands on a nearly-deserted planet. The away team discovers a sadistic life form there that exacts a painfully high price to amuse itself.

At this point in time, actors Michael Dorn (Worf) and Denise Crosby (Tasha) had been especially unhappy with their lack of characterization. It’s possible that the Worf-centered episode just a couple of weeks back helped assuage Dorn’s frustrations. But Crosby ended up jumping ship1, and this episode includes her character’s death. It’s a senseless death, at the hands of a cruel entity that only wishes to enjoy others’ suffering.

My memory of this episode was overwhelmingly of Tasha’s death. I thought the character had amazing potential, and I related to her traumatic past and her desire to escape it. I knew I wouldn’t be nearly as sad this time around (as I’ve not been impressed with the actress’s depth or scope in the role). But I was taken aback by the intensity of the sadism portrayed in the rest of the episode. The entity is portrayed, at least at first, as pure disembodied evil; ey’s2 actually described as portions of several other creatures, those portions sloughed off and unwanted. The entity first kills to alleviate eir boredom… until that is no longer enough of a diversion, so ey begins attempts to torture the crew. Much of ey’s activity centers on trying to make crew members’ feel responsible for one another’s suffering, but the crewmembers do not succumb to the manipulation.

Picard explicitly states that preserving life is important to them, and that they believe everything in the universe has a right to exist. He tells the entity Armus that ey is, in fact, not evil, just consumed by eir own pain, and feeding on eir own lies. He describes as evil the possibility of them submitting to the entity, giving up their dignity and freedom instead of defying Armus. Now, I’m capable of writing at great length about this exchange, and about the nature of evil. But I don’t want to go quite that far. At 13, the topic of the nature of evil went over my head. I do, however, think that this theological point will undergird the approach of the writers as a whole, so I want to at least name these elements:

1) Picard does not other the entity entirely. He does not believe that Armus is merely made of the substance of evil. The root of evil, in his worldview, is not foreign to or outside of human nature. Those that do evil are not subhuman or animals. The cruelty is rooted in very human emotions and feelings. Armus emself is not categorically lacking the capacity for good, but is deeply flawed and choosing to take actions that are profoundly evil. This is not something always focused on in mainstream entertainment, and I value being exposed to this complexity.

2) I don’t believe Picard is negating Armus’ agency for creating the cruelty when he focuses on the responses of the crew. Instead, I believe his focus mirrors elements of liberation theology, nonviolence, and other theologies of praxis. Armus’ victims can’t control eir actions, or the ways ey can harm them, but they have choices they can make. They have control over their choices, and they can choose to – as I would name it – be true to their spirit, personhood and integrity. I believe that such actions contribute something tangible to the force of love in the universe… that they expand the presence of the holy.

While I wouldn’t have made any conscious connection at the time, elements of the entity’s sadism now remind me of my mother. Likewise, I don’t know that I learned anything in particular from it at the time about how to handle her (as I didn’t see the applicability). But now I see several similarities of technique. I can only hope this primed me, at least on some level, to sort these things out. I don’t know.

I do know that at the time, I was pleasantly confused and stretched by the unspoken message that human beings’ greatest strength is located in their spirit and their choices, not in their ability to avoid death. This simple movement away from “action film” theology and “might makes right” that permeates the secular world was a signpost for me, pointing out the way I wanted to go.

I do know that Tasha’s memorial service had an effect on me. Picard and Data’s exchange stayed with me through a ministry career, and many memorial services, as a sweet, sad, simple reminder of what’s on people’s mind as we gather to remember:

Data: Sir, the purpose of this gathering… confuses me.
Picard: Oh? How so?
Data: My thoughts are not for Tasha, but for myself. I keep thinking how empty it will be without her presence. Did I miss the point?
Picard: *long pause* No, you didn’t, Data. You got it.

1. It’s also worth noting that, according to Wil Wheaton’s book Memories of the Future, the entire cast and crew were pretty much convinced that they wouldn’t get picked up for a second year. So it’s possible Crosby made her decision to leave truly believing the show would soon be over.
2. Armus has no named gender, so I’m using the gender-neutral pronouns ey (like he or she), em (him or her), eir (his or hers).
3. From http://www.tvrage.com/Star_Trek-The_Next_Generation/episodes/162705

Published in: on June 12, 2012 at 3:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

Justice Dilemmas (S01:E21)

I’m examining the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation had on my formation. The introduction to this series can be seen here.


The Enterprise finds a nearly destroyed freighter and saves four of its inhabitants. But when it’s discovered that those four are involved in a planetwide cycle of addiction and exploitation, Picard and Dr. Crusher strenuously disagree on the best course of action to take.

This is a case study in the most compelling elements of the Prime Directive: What is our responsibility to help a foreign culture find justice and health? What are the limits of our own wisdom in doing so? How do we guard against our own potential for ethnocentrism and abuse? When is it appropriate to stand by and do nothing? When must we act?

On one hand, Dr. Crusher sees an issue of exploitation and abuse with a medical foundation to it, and sees a way for her to help. She feels the race being abused has a right to a better life, and she can give them that, and ease the suffering of the transition.

On the other hand, Captain Picard sees that they have no previous relationship with this world, and so he feels the Prime Directive must guide him. While offering life-saving assistance to the freighter passengers was within the Enterprise’s mission, interfering further in the two non-Federation cultures is strictly forbidden. Under the PD, it is only the relationship between said culture and the Federation that shapes Picard’s actions; any ethical, moral or justice interpretations of the situation are irrelevant. Picard mentions the importance of not imposing earth values on others, and names a history of well-intentioned interference being disastrous. He insists they follow the rules that have been put in place to minimize the paternalism that they are capable of acting from.

Now, application of the Prime Directive is not without interpretive issues. And Picard’s interpretation happens to allow the exploitation to continue short-term. But he does not fix a problem that will be an obstacle to long-term continuation of the addiction cycle… and so there is a hope that the passage of time and the effects of the cycle itself may lead to it being broken.

The fandom gave Picard grief for his solution here, and he was considered weak by some for allowing his hands to be tied in a situation where some felt Dr. Crusher’s answer was the obvious one. Certainly, Kirk wouldn’t (and didn’t) give a shit about the Prime Directive when he decided he wanted to act. But Picard grappling with a code of ethics was much more compelling and inviting to me. I was actually reminded of this episode repeatedly, over later years, in two contexts. One was my exploration and creation of my own professional ethics as a pastoral counselor. Even in a counseling situation – where consent has been given – there are times to intervene, and times where it would be damaging to do so. Learning the difference is not so easy, and trying on various guidelines is usually a part of the learning process. The other context has been… well, any situation where more privileged groups are looking for the best way to be of service to less empowered groups. It can be very easy for an outsider to completely misunderstand the needs of a group, or misread entirely the best way to be of service to them.

They are perennial questions: what is the best response to discovering exploitation? How can we shape our role to be the most nurturing and empowering it can be? How do we build right relationship across vast differences in values and beliefs?

1. From Wikipedia. The two actors shown in this screencap also played Khan’s son (Judson Earney Scott, left) and Kirk’s son (Merritt Buttrick, right) in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This was one of Buttrick’s last roles before his death from AIDS-related complications in 1989.

Published in: on June 10, 2012 at 11:10 pm  Leave a Comment