Notes after reading Fellowship of the Ring

Well, I had determined that I wouldn’t write about this until I was done with the series. But then, I kept falling into rants about it with friends and family. So here’s some quickly jotted opinions from one person who:

a) saw the Jackson movies first, and knew nothing of Tolkien’s universe beyond those films, until a month ago,
b) doesn’t have the best memory for details (especially for content that isn’t emotionally significant), and so may blur together or forget elements of the films, but
c) saw each of the movies several times… not because I liked them, but because I didn’t mind them, and many people around me wanted to see them frequently. So I tend to believe that a Venn diagram of what the filmmakers prioritized and focused on and what I came away with will overlap a great deal.

You should also know that I hold storytelling in very high regard, and I treasure filmmaking as an art… though I loathe the Hollywoodification of stories, and that last will play a huge part of my growing dislike for the films. For me, Hollywoodification centers around the erosion of unique styles of storytelling and creative perspectives, in order to fit a rigid template of storytelling considering the most sellable. It often includes flattening rich characters into stereotypes or “one-word characters” (the innocent one, the brooding one, etc.), not just because of time constraints but to dumb down characters so Hollywood audiences know how to relate to them. Hollywoodification also frequently includes shoehorning cookiecutter romance into any story.

I greatly enjoyed the book “Fellowship of the Ring”, and plan to have a relationship with it that isn’t all about the films! But this post will be a compilation of my thoughts on approaching the books after the films, and on comparing the two (and finding the films lacking).

The first thing I noticed is that the book does not open with a feeling of EPICness. The films – from first to last – were EPIC with EPIC hobbits and EPIC New Zealand. Everything was dazzling and bigger than life from the first moments, as the Shire sprawled out in front of us. This is very different than the quiet, homey beginnings of the book. The hobbits’ world is circumscribed. Most of them haven’t traveled outside the Shire, and their knowledge of the outside world is patchy and scarce. The non-Shire world is an exotic and dangerous place, and those who frequent it are by turns romantic and suspect. I felt the Shire as a familiar place by the time they left it. The emotional space Tolkien gives at the beginning of the book is a pleasant, manageable place to start a journey, and I feel after reading Fellowship of the Ring that I have actually been on part of a journey that is changing me. The movie was more of a travelogue of exotic places to visit, the Shire being the first.

I have intentionally been putting effort into giving the characters different faces than they had in the movies, just to allow the book as much room as possible to exist outside my experience of the films. This can be challenging because, while Tolkien easily spends a quarter of his word count describing the weather, the entirety of his physical descriptions of characters might just possibly fit on a single page!

To understate profoundly, Tolkien has a way with words. So it’s not surprising that a significant portion of the dialogue came directly from the book, in pivotal and in small scenes.

“It has been called that before, but not by you.”
“I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.”
“It is hardly possible to separate you from him, even when he is summoned to a secret council and you are not.”
“There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep parts of the world.”
“That spear thrust would have skewered a wild boar.”
“Fly, you fools!” 1
“Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing!”

I’m not sure that the looksism of the movie will be mirrored quite so strongly in the book, as far as good being beautiful and evil being ugly. Tolkien’s already played with that a bit. This is something I’ll reserve judgment (and comment) on for now.

I want to talk for a second about what I’ll call “shoutouts.” In adapting a book to a movie, you generally have a story that is far too long for the medium you are adapting it to, and you must cut or condense. The perennial question is, do you include a larger number of events from the book, and give them far less attention? Or do you reduce the number of events and characters – removing many entirely – in order to focus better on what’s left? With such a series as LOTR, Jackson did have to cut some things out completely. The journey that takes the hobbits to Tom Bombadil is one sad example (but, okay, if you have to). But it’s clear that a great number of writing decisions were made not to tell the story itself, but to reference the story Tolkien wrote, to give a wink to already-established fans without explaining enough to actually tell the story to those that haven’t heard it. My frustrations are with these shoutouts: at what was left in, but glossed over… Lothlorien being my biggest frustration. As far as I knew – from seeing FOTR multiple times, mind you – Galadriel was random Elven royalty, and Lothlorien was a place for the Fellowship to restock their supplies. There’s several different reasons this aggravates me, one of them I’ll return to in a moment. And another reason is a thematic issue that I will have to reserve judgment on until I’m done reading. But I will share my suspicions that an Eden-like land with a woman that quotes Jesus of Nazareth2 might be more important to Tolkien and Tolkien’s story than Jackson suggests in his film.

Additionally, the more shout-outs you have, the larger the ‘just because’ movie-logic looms over the story. The shoutouts increase the number of actions that appear to me in my first visit to Middle Earth as simply the way things are done. Nearly every decision made as to how the Fellowship would travel, for example, was made in the film just because. We’ll go this way or that because it’s the best. People in the know have decided. Throughout the book, decision-making is a more harrowing, more realistic experience. Various people with various incomplete knowledge and skill sets do the best they can to reason out the best decisions on partial information, and we see their angst and struggle. This is a constant vulnerability in the book that speaks deeply to me, that I felt not a whit of in the film.

And I want to talk about the women. On a very personal note, I actually had a loathsome experience watching the first movie in the theatres. I was with my father, and while I found Arwen’s depiction problematic in a number of ways, he fell in love with her. He was visibly moved by this character, and obviously considered her a kind of ideal woman. His feelings, combined with my problems with her portrayal, highlighted a LOT that was wrong about our relationship as I grew up, all rooted in stereotypes of what is feminine, and what is valued in women’s behavior and appearance. To quickly summarize my problems with her portrayal:

A) While she is portrayed as powerful, her so-called power is entirely dependent on her father’s power, and this fact is pretty explicitly involved in the run-in Jackson fabricates between her and the ringwraiths;
B) in said run-in with all nine ringwraiths, she walks away with one, inch-long thin red mark daintily placed upon her cheek, and is otherwise composed and glamorous;
C) She is the far larger part of two named female characters in the movie, and both are Elven. As movie elves, they are beautiful, thin, dainty, never dirty, always composed, ethereal, billowy and distant. Since this is already a problematic female stereotype for me, having two separate characters as the entirety of the female cast BOTH represent this actually made me pretty nauseous.

Despite all this, my impression was that this was one of those old stories written by men that didn’t have any decent female roles, so we’d just have to make our own. I got the impression the script writers were doing us a favor making Arwen a larger part and a stronger woman, and so I let it slide that it was “Hollywood” female strength and not actual female strength.

Then, I met Galadriel in the book.

Mother fuckers. Seriously? As I said before, to my mind the movie Galadriel was random elven royalty (and I don’t have much use for royalty). I know I don’t fully understand yet what Tolkien’s doing thematically with Celeborn, Galadriel and Lothlorien. But Galadriel is a powerful figure in her own right, just completely wiped out of having any significant role in the movie. Which makes it clear to me that having substantial women’s roles really wasn’t a priority for the writers.

I can’t quite put words to it yet, but the characterizations of Frodo in particular and the hobbits in general are so much richer and more satisfying in the book. There’s more than one action or behavior of Frodo’s in the book that enriched his character, that wasn’t present or was only faintly present in the movie. The largest example I’m thinking of was him actually slowly becoming aware of Gollum’s presence, slowly discerning the meaning of the clues he had heard and seen. In the movie, Gandalf hands him (and us) this answer. He is streamlined to the point of feeling like a rather blank character in the films in general. The strongest content of his film character is just generally being the least silly of the hobbits. Hobbits as a whole in the film are only one small step away from being comic relief, which I don’t feel is at all fair to their representation in the book.

In one last comparison, I will say that I was really entirely unaware of any history of animosity between Elves and Dwarves. This is a regretful elimination, as the various exchanges on the subject, and the layers of relationship built between Legolas and Gimli, are all very satisfying in the book.

Now, for a couple of observations of the book unrelated to the movie. My friend Lexi, who inspired me to read the books, mentioned Tolkien’s love of trees, and that shines through in a lovely way in the text. Though I don’t have words now, I know I’ll have something to say about Tolkien’s profound way of relating to the physical landscape of Middle Earth.

It will certainly be best to wait to say much on matters of theology until I’ve seen where Tolkien takes his narrative. But I am thankful that in the books so far, he is not as pedantic as other Christian writers I’ve seen (I’m looking at you, Clive). For this reason, I think I can embrace parts of his story that mean something very different to him than they do to me.

I can see glimpses of what he has famously called his view of “the long defeat” — a concept he describes as quintessentially Roman Catholic, and a concept I am unfamiliar with (and can’t find much on, actually, other than references to Tolkien himself). On one hand, I think the idea of humanity progressing linearly into greater and greater moral and scientific quality is a dangerous narrative. “Progress” as an idea leads easily to ranking societies by who’s more advanced/moral, to a feeling of invincibility in Western culture that we will only keep going and becoming “greater” and to general historical blindness, and attitudes that things have never been better than they are right now. Clearly, an idea called “the long defeat” doesn’t sound progressive. 🙂 It may be the reverse, however: the idea that we once had perfection, and have slowly been falling further and further away from it. It’s my impression that he has built Lothlorien as Eden-like, as perfect at least in how it used to be. The Elves in the first book describe how the world will change, even if Sauron’s evil is defeated. It is clear that things will never be the same. I don’t find value in the idea of anything being or having been perfect. Life just is. Yes, there is better and worse, there is more just and less just, or more loving and less loving. But perfection again requires a ranking of diverse ways of being that I do not desire. It requires layers upon layers of value judgments to define what is and isn’t perfect. It requires an unchangingness that to me is antithetical to life itself. Now, my dislike of perfection certainly stems from my own experience of twelve step work (itself based in certain Christian theologies); admitting that perfection is not possible in this broken world is a survival mechanism for me. But I still find nothing valuable in envisioning a perfect paradise, either at the beginning or at the end of all things. Will this be a hindrance to enjoying the ultimate shape of the book narrative? I don’t know yet. I don’t think so. The sense of mourning in the Elven culture resonates with me. Grief is grief. And one major element of all this that Tolkien weaves together resonates oh so deeply with me: that awareness that defeating evil will not make us who were were when we started our journey. The Elves say that Middle Earth will never be the same. I know certainly that Frodo will never be the same as he was on page one. That single aspect of his journey is what has drawn me into the story more than anything else — that journey of one individual, living with pain and evil moment by moment, every day, and striving not to be overcome by it. That’s what’s really appealing to me, and I want to see Tolkien’s version of that tale.

1. Though, remarkably, the phrasing of Ian McKellen’s now meme-ish line “You shall not pass”, has changed from what it is in the book, “You cannot pass”.
2. Galadriel quotes from the canonical gospels when she says “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” from the passage supposedly of Jesus’ words: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” I remember noticing a second quote, but I don’t immediately find it again.

Published in: on July 30, 2012 at 1:19 am  Comments (5)  

When Men were Men and Women complained (S02:E13)

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

The Icarus Factor
Riker contemplates a promotion to captain and taking his own command, while seeing his estranged father for the first time in fifteen years.

(This episode has some large spectres over it: namely, the two complementary rigid gender roles that I grew up with. Will’s father Kyle Riker and Deanna Troi appear to portray the most pure “man” and “woman” as I was raised to understand them. So, my reaction then and now cannot help but be flavored by the fact that these were both reflections of people I knew, and a kind of ideal to live up to — or at least supposedly inevitable realities to live with (that men and women are separate species with predetermined behavior matching these characters). I know others grew up with similar stereotypes affecting them, and I know we can find plenty of examples of these tropes in the media. I don’t know how widespread these were, though, or when. I don’t quite know how to place them sociologically… though I do believe the primary “man” trope on US television has shifted away from this boomer era authoritarian, and into goofier stereotypes. “Woman”, I believe, is still defined by her emotional intelligence in particular areas, though both then and now there were clear limits to that emotional understanding.)

The bulk of the story here is the content of Will Riker’s relationship with his father Kyle. Kyle is an imposing figure: arrogant, competitive, defined by his career, dismissive of emotional displays and unwilling to admit mistakes or be vulnerable. The two of them lost Kyle’s wife and Will’s mother when Will was very young, and it’s clear that whatever Kyle’s strengths are, being a father – especially a single father – was not among them. The senior Riker related to his young grieving son almost exclusively as a competitor. It would seem he did little to provide for the young man’s emotional needs, and instead employed various strategies of neglect and aggressiveness that built no trust between them. Though Kyle can express the sentiment that “I can talk to a whole roomful of admirals about anything in the galaxy, but I can’t talk to you about how I feel” (just in case the audience misses this flaw of his), he still can’t express anything further about those feelings. The adult Will still doesn’t feel heard, seen or loved by his father, who appears to feel entitlement for his return and is put out that he hasn’t been forgiven his faults.

The two men take the knot of grief, pain and broken relationship to the Holodeck for a space-age martial arts match. The anger and bitterness pours out, as they compete about whose grief is bigger and say many things that probably should have been said years ago. At one point, Will realizes his father has broken a rule, and pieces together that his father always won sports they played together by cheating. Kyle proudly owns up to his strategy, explaining that Will could best him from an early age, but he had to “keep him interested.” Now, to my mind, they finally get started on a potentially useful conversation here. But there is no further unpacking of the feelings that have been spewed, and no negotiation or attempts at common ground that I personally would want. Instead, this catharsis is enough to bring them to hugs and expressions of love… which is probably exactly what my own brother and father do in similar situations.

Deanna is aware of some of the emotional truths behind Kyle’s lack of parenting skills and how that affects Will. She makes mention of the competition, and indirectly addresses some of Kyle’s entitlement issues. She then appears to lose all of her insights into relationship and throws a fit when the two men seek the catharsis of a sports match between them. She and Pulaski see it as barbaric as a Klingon ritual Worf engages in for a side plot, and the two women have one of the most obnoxious exchanges in the series:

Deanna: In spite of human evolution, there are still some traits that are endemic to gender.
Pulaski: You think that they’re going to knock each other’s brains out because they’re men?
Deanna: Human males are unique. Fathers continue to regard their sons as children even into adulthood, and sons continue to chafe against what they perceive as their fathers’ expectations of them.
Pulaski: It’s almost as if they never really grow up at all, isn’t it?
Deanna: Perhaps that’s part of their charm, and why we find them so attractive.

At fourteen, I could already see that:
a) Despite hating Kyle Riker, I had thought beating somebody up would be cathartic plenty of times. I could see the appeal for them, and wished I had the knowledge and capacity to pursue similar cathartic strategies in respectful ways in my own young life.
b) Deanna just felt smug about being superior to a relationship that – as she describes it – exactly mirrors her relationship to her own mother.

Today, these obnoxious gender-defined behaviors and the related “insights” about men and women – including the dreaded “men never grow up” trope – really make me want to hit something.

We learn a significant amount about Dr. Pulaski here. She has 3 ex-husbands who are friends of hers now. She nearly married Kyle Riker, and seems to understand him quite well, perhaps even mirroring many of his traits. She is equally dismissive of Will’s feelings about his childhood and agrees with Kyle that he should just get over it. There’s also an odd, awkward throughline for Pulaski in this episode, involving Pulaski giving her chicken soup to a patient, and Troi’s credibility receiving a stunning blow with the observation that “Dr. Pulaski’s greatest medical skill is her empathy.” In the context of this episode, I begin to wonder if some writer involved in creating Pulaski was looking to do something edgy with gender, creating an abrasively assertive yet “empathetic” female character. In case it’s not obvious by now, it’s my opinion that this flopped badly.

I suspect that this episode spoke to the emotional lives of some of the male viewers (and writers?) of the show. I was perhaps supposed to be included in its intended audience by my “inevitable” sympathizing with the plight of the women. But, then and now, I don’t fit well in either camp. I was offered these two stunted roles as a kid, and have never found either appealing. Rather than any emotional trajectory I’ve ever seen explored in stories with these stereotypes in them, I’d rather the gender roles themselves be questioned so their obvious flaws can be prevented from doing more damage.

1. I can’t find where I got this image from. But these aren’t real footnotes anyway, since everything belongs to Paramount. So I’m not going to feel bad about my shoddy sourcing here.

“Let folly be our cloak…”

Yes, this is a non-Star Trek post. But how far can you expect me to get from a nerd fandom, really?

I’m reading The Fellowship of the Ring, for the first time ever. I won’t go into the details of my relationship to the story yet, but I want to keep this passage handy:

‘Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. ‘It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of his reckoning.’


‘At least for a while,’ said Elrond. ‘The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.’

Published in: on July 15, 2012 at 11:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Picard Squared (S02:E12)

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

Time Squared

Picard is stunned when a version of himself from 6 hours in the future arrives, bringing warning of the Enterprise’s destruction.

Though some complicated science – a “mobius”, or twist in time and space – Picard comes face to face with himself, in the most literal sense. He meets another him, the two separated only by a few hours worth of decisions made and events experienced.

The “later” Picard is foreign to the Picard from our time. He has left the Enterprise during a crisis once, and badly wants to leave it again. He seems locked into one course of action and can’t see alternatives. He has seen his Enterprise destroyed, and is undone. Seeing this uncharacteristic behavior in himself is unnerving for our Picard. It presses him into fears of hesitation and second guessing himself. Right as he most wants something he can be decisive about – something that can release the tension of uncertainty and prove he has not lost his steeliness – right then the problem that they’re heading toward remains frustratingly unclear and impossible to act on. This episode is a character study in how Picard reacts to helplessness.

It’s also what’s referred to in the trade as a “bottle episode” – to keep to a smaller budget this week there’s no guest star, no new sets or expenses. The script sticks to the regular cast playing out the story in known spaces… and the writers use this restriction to its advantage, contributing a slight sense of emotional claustrophobia that matches the action. The two Picards have been forced into closer contact than they should have, with a crisis of unknown origin bearing down on the whole ship before they understand it. Other than a single, noticeable awkward moment2, the entire rest of the episode is a tensely well-constructed series of conversations. They are prevented from acting more often than they can act.

Watching it the first time, I mostly experienced it as a taut thriller. I wouldn’t yet get the layers of psychological trouble for Picard that are much keener for me as an adult. But one part that stood out for me then was the unexpectedness of this exchange, as our Picard and the doctor discuss the restrained future Picard:

Picard: Release him.
Pulaski: Do you know what you’re doing?
Picard: No. Release him.

Picard is honest in his lack of knowledge, lack of insight, lack of surety, even as he struggles to maintain his internal sense of authority. He also still expects his orders to be followed. This moment of deliberate vulnerability in a leader is quite compelling.

As the climax nears, Picard expresses a value that is deeply meaningful to me. It’s clear from the future Picard’s information that the Enterprise tried escaping this problem once before, and was destroyed. Our Picard then works on the assumption that there must be another option. If one choice doesn’t work, there is no doubt in his mind – or at least not in his working method – that there mustbe another way, and he must find it. While he manages to tolerate the reality of helplessness, he does not let it turn to a sense of hopelessness. I learned a LOT of hopelessness in my family of origin; it was programmed far deeper than conscious thought. Even when, as an adult and after decades of practice, I wisely and compassionately avoid hopelessness as a response to stress, it’s only because of careful habits on my part… not because that option has ceased to be readily available in my internal landscape. Picard here offers some of my first experiences with doggedness and determination that I could relate to, and that became important to me.

1. From
2. In what I think is an attempt to heighten the tension, Pulaski jumps the gun on discussing her capacity to strip Picard of his command. It comes off as annoying posturing more than contributing significantly to the graver tension of the piece.

Two Drive-Bys (S02:E10; S02:E11)

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

The Dauphin

Wesley falls for a visiting dignitary who is not who she appears to be.

There’s just a few brief things to say about this episode.

Wesley’s first crush is a young woman born to royalty. She has been given a duty by birthright; the weight of an entire warring world is on her shoulders, and she feels no ability to shape her own life or deviate from her assigned path. She may have power and privilege, but her agency is curtailed. She cannot fathom even visiting the farflung places Wes talks about, much less being able to sustain a relationship with him. In contrast, Wesley’s great freedom and oportunity stand out. At one point, when she says a relationship between them is impossible, he replies with “Nothing is impossible.” This is one of the few times that Wesley’s experience felt quite foreign to me, feeling trapped as I did in an excruciating situation. I was jealous of his freedom, but also gained strength and a sense of solidarity in his own realization that he doesn’t have as much control over life as he thinks he does… even if it’s because of the life circumstances of people he comes to care for.

Picard is compassionate and thoughtful in making decisions that directly affect Wesley. He eventually decides to warn Wes away from spending any further time with the girl. He does so to secure the success of the mission and the potential for peace on a planet, but it’s clear he also does it to protect Wesley from further hurt. And he does it sadly, with a fatherly love for Wes.

The girl is a shapeshifter. When she appears again in humanoid form after Wes witnesses her turn into a large, bear-like creature, Wes believes her to be “dressing up” as a human to somehow fool him. She explains that her human form is not any kind of lie, that she is just as much this as she is the many other things she can be. This concept of being both/and on such a fundamental level, of embracing this multitude of being, was something that softened some internal ground for me, as I grew to break boundaries and embrace both/and living in a multitude of ways.

As the episode concludes, and she has gone, Wesley nurses his feelings of loss in Ten Forward, and Guinan joins him. They have the following exchange:

Wesley: I’m never gonna feel this way about anyone else.
Guinan: You’re right.
Wesley: I didn’t expect you to say that.
Guinan: There will be others. But every time you feel love, it’ll be different. Every time it’s different.

This valuing of people and relationships as unique and varied is special to me, and my adult self is grateful for this exposure I got as a teen.


The ruins of an ancient civilization somehow destroy a starship, and have begun to affect the Enterprise and a nearby Romulan vessel.

There’s even briefer things to say here. Much of this episode is simply some solid action-adventure, but there’s a couple of things to mention:

Archeology is here revealed as a passionate hobby of Picard’s. He is again a model of pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Despite pressure in my family to excel academically, it is Picard’s modeling of true curiosity that fired my imagination.

There is a kind of standoffishness and indignance in Riker’s leadership style. It’s another way that I feel distanced from him, and I was uninterested in learning more at this point.

At one point, they’re discussing the known history of an ancient civilization, and Picard casually offers the observation that “the victors write history.” My mind was blown by this idea. I remember not hearing it anywhere else for a long time, and feeling I had been let in on some sort of secret here, in this small questioning of the objectivity of historical records.

Data is absolutely adorable. No further context needed.

1. From
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Published in: on July 13, 2012 at 3:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Knowledge of Good and Evil (S02:E09)

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

The Measure of a Man

A Starfleet scientist orders Data to submit himself to dismantling and study, so more androids may be produced. When Data refuses, a hearing is held to determine his legal rights, and the very nature of his personhood.

This episode is a masterpiece, one of the high points of the entire Star Trek universe. And because of its content, it’s near and dear to my heart. Data’s trial is a remarkable look at prejudice, objectification, individual agency, the definition and sacredness of life and the power we wield when we define one another. At the time it boggled my mind and resonated deeply with me, in ways I wouldn’t fully understand for years. It was this story that began unlocking my understanding of privilege, normativity and invisibility before I ever learned those words.

There are five key characters here, each with a rich context and complicated set of responses and decisions to make.

When we first meet Judge Phillipa Louvois, she is unfamiliar with Data, and casually assumes he has no more self-awareness than a starship computer does. She is not an ally, but not out of intentional malice. She simply has the privilege to not care much about Data’s reality, even while she holds his fate in her hands. Picard has some sort of very complicated history with her; they flirt and argue, and refer to an obviously painful trial they were both involved in. Picard accuses her at one point of being more interested in the adversarial process than using the court system to get at the truth. This glimpse at the motives of the most powerful person in the room is quite disturbing, and quickly demolishes the illusion of any objectivity in this process.

Her prejudice is clear when she punctuates one of her preliminary rulings with the phrase “Data’s a toaster.” With this quick decision, she carelessly ignores Starfleet’s two previous judgements of Data, when he entered the academy and when they made him an officer… neither achievement available to nonsentient creatures. Most disturbingly, at one point, she responds to the real danger to Data with the argument that “we all knew there would be risk when we signed up.” She’s equating danger from one’s own commanding officers – in one’s own “home” and familial community, for all intents and purposes – to the external, unknown risks inherent to exploration, as though they bear the same moral and legal weight. With this, she suggests that the consent given by individual participants in Starfleet absolves the command structure of reflecting critically on their treatment of their own people. There is no sacred trust visible in her definition of this community. I wish I could say this myopic attitude from a large and powerful organization is not based thoroughly in human reality. But experiencing it here at fourteen at least gave me some small voice, some small vision to be able to understand it when I encountered it — from government structures, from educational structures, from collegial structures (even those dedicated to God). It also mirrors the kyriarchal assumptions that make so many families unsafe places for their members.

Louvois has one small, telling, learning moment. As Picard asks a question meant to reveal Data’s previous sexual relationship with Tasha, and Data discretely confirms their history, Louvois is shown as visibly taken aback. The fact that he has a sex life appears to surprise her… and I suspect it “humanizes” him in her eyes as few other things might. I am appreciative of this embedded valuing of sex and sexuality as things that make us “human”.

Ultimately, Louvois rules for Data, based mostly on what she doesn’t know and doesn’t understand about him, deliberately choosing to give Data the freedom to grow and discover answers for himself. I was very aware of the disturbing nature of this “freedom”: bestowed only because he had friends willing to fight for him, and because this single judge decided he could have it. Having this arbitrariness of the “justice” system present in a sacred story of mine made it easier for me to see and understand when others alerted me to its presence in this world.

Commander Bruce Maddox is the cyberneticist who hasn’t really done his homework, and wishes to dismantle and study Data as a shortcut to understanding positronic brains. Maddox aggressively objectifies Data, and has a history of doing so: he opposed Data’s entry to Starfleet, believing that he was not and is not sentient. He rarely engages Data directly, and instead explains what he will be doing to Data to those he believes may have a claim on him as property. He refers to him as one would an object, using “this” and “it”. At one point, he stumbles into Data’s private belongings; he automatically and casually rifles through them, making it clear that he doesn’t conceptualize Data as having any sense of meaning or privacy (elements of basic personhood). He assumes those who advocate for Data must be acting from anthropomorphism; Maddox is convinced Data’s allies only presume his personhood because of the shape of his body (“If it were a box on wheels, I would not be facing this opposition.”)

Maddox’s eventual response to all this inconvenient advocating on Data’s behalf is another telling moment in the script: “Rights, rights. I’m sick to death of hearing about rights. What about my right not to have my life work subverted by blind ignorance?” Somehow, he values his career far higher than Data’s right to exist.

At fourteen, I thought to myself, “Why is he being allowed to do this??” I still believe that’s the pertinent question, for it is not the prejudice itself that is dangerous to Data, but the power being lent it. If Maddox were not supported and encouraged by the system that he and Data live within – if there were not a whole chain of people that have confirmed and allowed the original transfer order, and a lack of any official advocacy on Data’s behalf when he questions its appropriateness – the harm to Data would be on a far lesser scale. The danger is in the weight of the assumptions that support Maddox: the system is built by humans, for humans, and Data is not human.

Because of a particular set of circumstances/plot devices, Riker must prosecute his friend Data’s case, for Data to receive a trial at all and avoid summary condemnation. Riker reluctantly agrees to the distressing role, and presents a case that “dehumanizes” his friend, for lack of a better word. His case consists of:

1) listing Data’s data storage and computational speed, in order to other him, and strengthen the connection between Data and other computers (ignoring the difference of sentience)

2) creating an exhibition of Data’s profound strength. Again this others him, providing only evidence that he is different from humans, not addressing any issues of agency or sentience.

3) equating Data with the (Webster’s!) dictionary definition of “automaton”, without proving it, and simply stating Data’s purpose is to serve human needs and interests.

Riker does not offer any evidence directly questioning Data’s agency. The frightening thing – then and now – is that he doesn’t have to. In an adversarial system, he plays on xenophobia and privilege and employs rhetorical tricks and dramatic effect to create a damning case that could easily cement the already-present species-ism of the judge. It’s clear that Data is at the mercy of a system created to serve others, not him.

On a more personal character note, Riker is consistently, visibly wounded by being forced into this position. It is only later reassurances of his friend’s forgiveness that alleviates his pain. This is one of the few times so far I’ve felt an emotional connection to Riker.

Captain Picard doesn’t begin with a full comprehension of the situation. He and Data have the following exchange early in the episode:

Picard: Data… I understand your objections. But I have to consider Starfleet’s interests. What if Commander Maddox is correct? There is a possibility that many more beings like yourself can be constructed.
Data: Sir, Lieutenant La Forge’s eyes are far superior to human biological eyes, true?
Picard: M-hm.
Data: Then why are not all human officers required to have their eyes replaced with cybernetic implants?
[Picard considers this shortly, then looks away without giving an answer]
Data: I see. It is precisely because I am *not* human.

Once again, Picard is teachable, a virtue I greatly admire. Data’s analogy seems to drive home for Picard what is being demanded of Data, and the belittling of him inherent in the situation. Picard has already become Data’s loudest (and most powerful) advocate before he is officially assigned to his friend’s defense in the trial.

Picard’s case is also threefold. First, he plays on the emotions Riker stirred, and directly combats elements of xenophobia in the trial. He builds similarities between Data and the rest of them by reminding the court that humans are machines as well, and by discussing Data’s medals, achievements, and valued personal belongings. He thus “humanizes” Data.

This last element of Data’s personal belongings leads into Picard’s second point, and plays a dual role: it draws parallels between Data and humans, and also highlights his meaning-making, which reflects on his sentience and distinguishes him from other computers. Data keeps items that remind him of friends, which defines a part of his selfhood: his ability to connect and build relationships with others. Using this and other evidence, Picard establishes Data meeting two of Maddox’s three criteria for sentience: intelligence and self-awareness. He challenges the court on how certain they can be that Data doesn’t meet the third criteria: consciousness.

Finally, Picard takes Maddox’s stated goal – to make many more androids – and takes it to its logical conclusion. Data is a single new life, something Starfleet is charged to seek out. If there are more Datas, he becomes a race, and this decision the judge is making will have repercussions for the agency and dignity of an entire group of beings. Declaring Data property would extrapolate to enslavement of an entire group of beings, a fact somehow easier to see and more terrifying when applied to groups instead of an individual. Picard finally rightly emphasizes that this decision will be redefining personal liberty.

Picard’s compassion for Data and his passion to secure proper treatment of him and others like him was overwhelmingly wonderful to young me. I’ve known his advocacy here was a huge part of my emotional connection to him. But, even then, I had some inkling of what it would have meant to Data were he under someone else’s command. I am glad for the truths Picard gave voice to – for the ways he lends his voice to Data – but the arbitrariness of this opportunity, and Data’s lack of any voice at all, weighed on me.

Finally, there is Data, and this episode is a unique glimpse into his inner workings. When he first discusses resigning to preserve himself, he articulates that he does so to protect the uniqueness of his creator’s work… or, more personally, to “protect his dream”. Data says, “…when Dr. Soong created me, he added to the substance of the universe. If, by your experiments, I am destroyed, something unique, something wonderful will be lost. I cannot permit that.” I must admit, I am amused to realize only now that this very personal insight from a character I have long loved bears such a resemblance to my own adult values. There are certain values of nonviolence and compassion that are more important to me than self-preservation. However, my own survival instinct thrives, and has only become stronger and fuller with my deepening understanding of how I have been fearfully and wonderfully made by my Creator. I too believe my Creator adds something unique and wonderful to the substance of the universe with each creation. Data and I obviously have a different relationship to death, as he could conceivably continue living indefinitely. But this connection to the “dream” of our respective creators is something we share. Noticing this now makes me wonder how much of a role model Data became for me, without my realizing.

When Maddox insists Data’s memory banks would be downloaded safely into a mainframe, Data explains that there is an ineffable quality to memory, and that the flavor of his memories could be lost. This is one of the few times we’ve heard Data refer to his own uniqueness as something ineffable or abstract. As an audience member that admires and cares for him, it was and is gratifying to me to hear him understand something of his own specialness and sacred particularity.

After the trial, Data offers to work with Maddox in the future, once he has proven himself to be sufficiently prepared for the work. I admire his capacity for and modeling of forgiveness and right relationship. He holds no ill will toward Maddox, only a practical understanding of the consequences of his actions. He makes himself open to further relationship — not if it will be harmful, but with the stipulation that Maddox is ready to engage with him in a way that honors them both. Data says to him, “When you are ready, I will still be here.” To me, this kind of boundary-drawing is an issue critical to authentic forgiveness and rebuilding broken relationships. And I can’t imagine I’d seen many examples of it before this moment.

Finally, Data seeks Riker out after the trial. When he hears Riker’s pain at nearly being successful in his role, Data explains to him that “the action injured you, and saved me. I will not forget it.” His ability to reframe makes all the difference to his friend, changing what could have eaten away at Riker into a burden he was able to carry to help save Data. Data’s interpretation is a noble and compassionate act.

Though he is dispassionate, and overtly names himself as such, Data is still emphatic about what he values, and intent on living by his principles. Though I couldn’t have quite named it yet when I saw this episode, he is one of my earliest examples of a gentle and virtuous person, and his example would stick with me and be mirrored in other models of virtue throughout my life.

As I’ve mentioned before – and as is clear from the fact that Data wasn’t dismantled – the judge ultimately rules in favor of Data. She begs off determining the nature of his selfhood, believing she’s being asked questions “best left to saints and philosophers,” as though the legislation of people’s lives can escape such questions. She still refers to him as an “it” as she begins speaking, and names him a machine, but she denies that he is the property of Starfleet. She says,

We have all been dancing around the basic issue: does Data have a soul? I don’t know that he has. I don’t know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. It is the ruling of this court that Lieutenant Commander Data has the freedom to choose.

Is it necessary to resort to language of a soul, to understand Data’s agency? I don’t believe so. In evoking this language, I believe she is looking to quantify how Data is different, and see how he fits into the normativity established without him in mind. She’s trying to decide whether he deserves the rights assumed to be true of the rest of the (white, able-bodied, human) people around the table. Maddox’ assumption that he has power over Data’s life never has to be proven. His claim is a given, and is enforced by both passionate prejudice and by the casual ignorance of the powerful. Data must prove his “right” to not just a place at the table with them, but the right to exist at all, and his fight is against a huge system that by its very nature others him.6 He must try to prove that they have no claim on his very selfhood, as they assume they do. Isn’t this the way basic human rights often work? Haven’t countless groups over the years continued to exist only at the whim of others? Haven’t civil rights movements often been about the ability simply to live as one chooses, without the majority group interfering and laying claim to portions of a person’s life and dignity?

Because of Data’s differences, he cannot lay claim to his own self. It’s not enough for him to speak and say “I do not wish to do that.” He is in a system that will – by force and coercion – inflict its will on him. Yes, he fought and won this time. There have been and will be other battles like this one for Data too. Humans don’t have to prove their own sentience; it’s a given. But Data does have to prove it, repeatedly. His worth can be questioned just this easily, with a transfer order casually handed to Captain Picard. Even the language used – in the episode and by me here – values humanness over other kinds of beingness. The emotional weight of phrases like “that made him seem more human” and “knowing that about him humanizes him in my eyes” embues the word “human” with an emotional quality not afforded to androids, Vulcans, or other nonhuman beings. I began to become aware of the biases inherent in language this early in my life, thanks to Star Trek and a likeable android. I would soon realize that the common definitions of “human” vs “animalistic” made objectification of animals that much easier. I would eventually notice how language undergirds heteronormativity, mononormativity, cisnormativity and more, as I noticed more and more differences between beings, and how those differences are used not just to other and alienate, but to forcibly lay claim to the flesh of others. I would come to see how language can reveal or make invisible… how it can sustain life or be wielded as a weapon.

My understanding of systemic oppression and evil, of language and how it interacts with that system, of the uniqueness and sacredness of personhood, began here with Data and his struggle to be.

1. Image of Louvois from
2. Image of Maddox from
3. Image of Riker from
4. Image of Picard from World News Search
5. Image of Data from
6. These two different approaches to queer rights have a tangled history in my own life, and I believe they are the root of a lot of confusion and cross-purposes in the current conversations about advocacy among queer folk. One example would be those who fight for “a place at the table” in the form of marriage equality for mononormative gay couples, and those who are angry that the marriage issue is eclipsing the struggle for other groups to merely survive, and outwit the destructive powers that press on them.

Summer Camp with the Klingons (S02:E08)

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

Matter of Honor

Commander Riker participates in an officer exchange program, serving as second in command on a Klingon ship.

We learn a significant amount about both Riker and Klingon culture, and they’re a good match for each other. Riker excels on the Klingon ship by exhibiting arrogance and avoiding any impression of fear or other “weaknesses”, by beating up and threatening underlings at appropriate times, and by sharing in jokes the women on board make about having sex with him. This all comes quite naturally to him.

Klingon culture is the first culture examined on TNG with any depth.2 And it exemplifies several values that would be out of place in the human utopia portrayed on the Enterprise. Some values would even be considered abhorrent to humans, like Klingons’ extreme distaste for the diminished capacities and dependence that come with living into old age. One Klingon explains that “old people are weak, useless, honorless” and when Riker encourages him to talk to his old, dishonored father, the warrior says “a Klingon is his work, not his family.”

But within this story, Klingons are still allowed their dignity; they are presented as noble, brave and culturally rich3. Even with a code of ethics that I didn’t find appealing then – and don’t now – they’ve given me a rich enough culture to savor, even if I wouldn’t want to live there. That ability to value someone else’s stories as important to them – even if those customs or stories don’t hold direct meaning for me – is pretty damn critical to who I’ve become, and I’m practicing it first here.

Riker has one of his more compelling moments for me here, when asked why he was willing to risk his life being the first human serving on board a Klingon ship. He replies, “because no one’s ever done it before.” While I suspect his motivation is rooted more in competition and proving himself, rather than in something resembling my desire to solve unknowns, we very nearly have some common ground here. And that’s the closest we get for a while.

1. From
2. We have caught glimpses of Betazoid culture, but nothing of this magnitude (or as well written).
3. At least, as rich as a nonhuman race ever gets on Star Trek. They certainly prioritized other things above anthropological richness, most of the time.