Taboos (S02:E18 and S02:E19)

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

Up The Long Ladder

The Enterprise juggles two long separated colonies: one agrarian community who hitches a ride on board, and another more technologically advanced civilization with a secret.

If you can enjoy the kind of silliness that has Captain Picard nonplussed at having chickens on his ship, and Riker bedding down alien Irish lasses, then this may be a fun episode for you. As a kid, I found it a smidge embarrassing; as an adult, the Irish stereotypes wear thin.

The reason I write about it here is that unquestionable taboos and heresies really intrigue me. As many times as Star Trek might have given me an opportunity to question my assumptions, it’s still written by humans, with certain values they won’t question and certain gaps in their self-analysis. Here, the issue is cloning. The second colony, comprised of scientists with great technology in tow, survived early devastating losses of population by cloning themselves and have in fact developed a distaste for sexual reproduction. They ask the Enterprise crew to donate DNA for cloning to help the colony survive certain survival-threatening limitations they’ve run into. Picard and company flat out refuse. It’s apparently a taboo subject. It seems that no one on board beyond the present away team is even asked whether they would want to contribute. The strategy that the colony itself has decided would be best for its survival is categorically rejected before discussion, and before consenting contributors are even sought out. There is, to my knowledge, no Federation law that would keep a consenting crew member from donating. But in place of asking, Picard explicitly states that it’s not likely anyone will want to. Riker passionately names individuality as an important value to him, and defines cloning as being in opposition to that. He believes having a clone would inherently diminish him. Picard seems to concur without discussion, and that’s that. There is no further exploration of the subject.

The eventual philosophical point they make is that “differences make us strong”… which is an admirable sentiment, even if it’s not always ideally personified on the show. I have no particular investment in cloning as an issue, and I didn’t notice this treatment of the topic when I was a kid. I’m simply amused to find Star Trek’s outer edges of appropriate deliberation material now.


The Enterprise transports several delegates to a conference. One of them is Lwaxana Troi, who is intent on finding a lover.

This episode deals with taboos in a different way: rather than soberly assuming an idea is unquestionable, they encourage us to laugh at it. Here, they import our own cultures’ sex-shaming, fear of aging and shitty gendered violence tropes by centering the episode-long joke around a sexually active older woman that aggressively chases Picard.

Lwaxana is looking for a lover, which by itself is apparently supposed to be terribly amusing. Just how much of the discomfort-that’s-meant-to-be-funny comes from a woman being sexual, a mother being sexual and/or an older woman being sexual is hard to say. But her character’s usual, raging self-absorption combined with this new level of raging horniness translates into some predatory behavior on her part. And that’s just supposed to be hilarious. A significant amount of time is spent highlighting Picard’s unease at her advances as something that’s supposed to be enjoyable. Mostly, it just creeps me out. Not a favorite episode of mine.

Published in: on October 18, 2012 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Stumbling Through Intimacy (S02:E17)

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

Samaritan Snare

Riker leads the crew through a harrowing dilemma while Picard and Wesley travel together to a planet where they both have personal business.

The primary storyline is silly and unfortunate, and hardly worth a mention. But it gets everyone else out of the way for a great series of moments to materialize between Picard and Wesley. As the episode opens, Pulaski must scold and threaten Picard to convince him to travel somewhere and address some unnamed health concern he’s neglected. Soon, a very cranky and bristly Picard is accompanying an awkward and petrified Wesley as the two take a six-hour shuttle ride alone.

As Wes fumbles through attempts at conversation, we soon learn that Picard is having an artificial heart replaced, and that he is very concerned about gossip and his image among the crew at this time. While Picard hides behind gruffness, irritability and a book, Wes offers straightforward honesty, commenting on Picard’s discomfort with him and with children in particular. This leads to Picard reluctantly opening up about life choices, values, and dreams. The two talk about marriage, children, careers, each other, and how Picard lost his heart. Each man is able to shift his feelings of vulnerability into an intimacy with one another.

I could go on at some length on how Stewart masterfully moves Picard through an intensely satisfying emotional arc, and how Wheaton’s striving to keep up with him serves his own characterization quite well here. But for now I’ll say that this milestone for Wes and Picard holds a special place in my heart. And Picard’s insistence that the most important things in life will never be on exams might be cliched, but it was a brand new insight to my very lost young self, and one that I savored.

Published in: on October 16, 2012 at 2:07 am  Leave a Comment  

First Glimpses of Monsters(S02:E16)

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


To prove a point, Q transports the Enterprise 7000 light years away to force an encounter with a race they’ve never met before: the Borg.

The writers were feeling a great deal of pressure by this point to provide a new major villain — a year and a half into the show, with one giant flop of a villain (the Ferengi) and a few lukewarm attempts (some stirrings of a growing Romulan threat, as one example). Here we have a rather flimsy frame story to get the Enterprise out of its geographical comfort zone and positioned to meet a brand new race. This new contribution to Star Trek ethnography is widely regarded as a big giant home run, reverberating throughout the galaxy of shows.

The Borg present a unique challenge to the ship and the Federation: they have no interest in political maneuvering, in prideful posturing or alliances. They don’t have interest in communicating at all, really. They are interested only in consumption. They are not yet the fully realized zombies they would become, though. They are fresh off the drawing board, and don’t yet have a taste for consuming people, only technology. Humanity’s first communication received from the Borg does not have their eventual trademark reference to assimilation:

Borg collective: We have analyzed your defensive capabilities as being unable to withstand us. If you defend yourselves you will be punished.

The greatest threat they pose is not yet that the vanquished will be violated and turned into weapons and extensions of the conquerors. That comes later. The greatest threat here is in what makes them foreign: their collectiveness, and their lack of individuality. While they are plugged into each other as the parts of a computer are, they have no uniquenesses or relationship about them. Babies are stored in drawers; grown Borg rarely even interact with each other or humans in their presence. The ship they are a part of is generalized in design, with no bridge, command center, living quarters, or engineering section. It is perfectly square in shape. They are not interested in relationship or politics, so Picard’s diplomacy tools are useless. They are only a relentless consuming and destroying machine. And their weapons outstrip the Enterprise by an order of magnitude. Picard does not discover a way to find peace with them, or a way to win against them. He must turn to Q and ask that they be whisked back to their sector of space.

With the crew properly humbled, Q saves them and leaves. But he’s set a chain of events in motion; the Borg know about humans now, and will hunt them down. Picard echoes what must be floating through the writers’ minds as they manage criticism against them, when he characterizes the events of the episode as a “kick in our complacency”.

I easily fell in love with the show without any major villain, as white hats v. black hats stories hold little appeal for me. So, I didn’t care about all the uproar that the show was “dull” for lacking a big bad guy. But I acutely remember being chilled by this new race, and Picard’s inability to secure the safety of the ship from them. And, of course, the Borg would figure heavily into a later personal development in Picard’s life.

Today, as an anti-capitalist adult, my fondest wish is that they would have made more of a statement with the Borg about the evils of runaway consumerism. But hey, Star Trek’s got way too much merch to sell to say that.

Published in: on October 14, 2012 at 5:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Relational Ethics on the Enterprise (S02:E15)

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

Pen Pals

While investigating a profound level of geological instability in a system, Data befriends a young girl whose planet is in grave danger.

The episode begins with Picard pursuing his horseback riding hobby on the holodeck. We learn that, even though he’s not generally an animal person, the connection of mutual need that a Bedouin would have with his horse, and the mythos around Arabian horses, is something that captures the captain’s heart. We also learn in this opening scene that Betazoids in general find their empathy to be an obstacle to excelling at training animals. I had some inkling how empathic I was at the time (indeed, I was frequently overwhelmed because I didn’t know how to regulate or turn off that gift), and I can still remember how satisfying it was to have a burden/limit of empathy named on the show. It’s not an accident that the episode opens with Picard and Troi both unpacking how they relate to other creatures.

I’ll mention first the secondary plot, where Wesley takes his first leadership role, heading a team doing geological surveys of the surrounding systems. The adults in charge of his development thoughtfully deliberate first if he’s ready for this momentous lesson. When they do hand it to him, they remind him that his commanding officers are available to assist, not judge, and that asking necessary questions is better than faking it. Having been given an overwhelming amount of adult responsibilities – minus any guidance – at an early age myself, I was both envious of and bolstered by the idea that someone somewhere cared this much about another person’s personal development. Wesley is understandably nervous about leading adults. Riker tells him he’s got nothing to prove, he has authority already; he tells Wes he just needs to hold on to it. This piece of advice would actually cross my mind many times over the years. The two men discuss Picard, and Wes ponders what it is that gives Picard his aura of authority. It is a question I would return to again and again myself in studying authority and power. Wesley successfully leads his team, solves the mystery assigned them, and learns a bit in the process about owning his power with other people. On this subject I was profoundly lost for most of my first thirty years, so I valued this hint, and this reflection on how difficult it is for anyone to learn.

The primary plot is considerably more complicated, and again involves grappling with the Prime Directive. Data’s curiosity leads him to make a friend that he shouldn’t strictly have had contact with. He has not fully explained to her who he is. But she is now in great danger… and helping her would “out” Data. The crew deliberates: is it more hubris to ignore or to interfere? Should we let a plan affecting others unfold as though we are outside it, or are we part of that plan? In one of her very few likeable moments, Pulaski demonstrates that she’s come around to less-than-complete objectification of Data in one exchange, and introduces relational ethics to the show:

Pulaski: Data’s friend is going to die. That means something.
Picard: To Data.
Pulaski: Does that invalidate the emotion?

The Prime Directive is an attempt by the Federation to understand the power they have, and the power over others they can easily wield. It is an attempt to minimize the wielding of that power over others. It is certainly an obstacle to Starfleet making certain capricious political decisions in the guise of helping others. But the Directive also carries the assumption that it’s wrong for any member of Starfleet to have an influence, friendship or bond with an individual whose culture lacks certain political ties to the Federation. The crew essentially grapples with what influence is appropriate to have here. They debate whether emotions should guide them, or should stay out of decision-making, and whether the cause of the danger should change their behavior. They also debate whether simple personal knowledge of those in harm’s way should affect their decision – essentially, whether acknowledging established relationship or making new connections is appropriate – and it is this element that ultimately makes the decision. When Picard hears Data’s friend’s voice, he can no longer turn away.

Picard acts reluctantly though, and both he and Riker repeatedly attempt to mitigate their involvement. It is Data that pushes them in deeper and deeper, intent on helping completely, in whatever way is necessary, even to the point of beaming down to the surface to get his friend and bringing her aboard. Is he acting from reason, free from hesitation and career worries? Is he ‘blinded’ by a relationship with a friend? Or is he simply making the ethical decision to value that friendship and his friend’s life as something worth acting to preserve?

Eventually the young girl’s family and planet are safe, and she must be returned home. It is not questioned by most that her memories of Data and the ship should be erased. Data questions whether it is right or wrong to unilaterally remove all evidence of this friendship from the girl’s awareness. Pulaski responds that she “has to be person she was born to be”… now echoing the idea that Data’s relationship with her and existence in her life is an obstacle to the unfolding of her “true” personhood. Data reluctantly agrees to the procedure, and carries the unconscious girl back to a safe place on the planet surface… but leaves a trinket with her that she liked from the ship. I would call it ‘something to remember him by’. Data later apologizes to Picard for his decisions that put the crew in a difficult position. Picard is understanding, and suggests to Data that remembrance and regrets are a common part of friendship.

There is a lot of nurturing activity (another relational value) going on in this episode. Wes’s personal development is nurtured by a whole gaggle of people. Data and other crew members nurture his young friend. The crew nurtures Data’s understanding of friendship in various ways. The wellbeing of various individuals is looked after and cared for by many others involved. As I look back on the episode, this story has a lot of content that would later shape my understanding of relationality — valuing honest knowledge of our uniquenesses as individuals, and valuing the bonds between us as being of great worth. Data himself is here a great proponent of relationality; he seeks out knowledge of others, deeply values his bonds with them and allows them to be an authority in ethical decision-making. Conversations about the Prime Directive, while always interesting, usually begin and end with the Federation defining themselves as an objective outside observer. Here, the ultimate decision is made because of personal connection — Data’s bond with his friend, and Picard’s compassion being stirred by hearing her voice. The attempts at objectivity that the Prime Directive usually engenders are thrown out the window, and that makes for a very appealing ethical decision-making process here. I can see my earliest exposures to values that profoundly shape my life today.

Published in: on October 13, 2012 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment