Wherein Wesley fans are again in the minority (S03:01)

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

One of Wesley’s experiments threatens the ship’s safety and a scientist’s rare chance for data gathering.

This is the dreaded nanite episode: Wesley built microscopic robots and accidentally looses them on the ship’s computer. It seems at this point in time that the writers just can’t do anything right with Wesley; whether he’s saving the ship or nearly destroying it, fans don’t like him. But, as you know, I’m fond of Wesley, and overidentified with him as a kid (I do wonder how many angry fans just didn’t like awkward reminders of their own adolescence). Beverly worries here that he’s “too good”, a worry I had about myself as I worked so hard, pouring all my energy into following everyone’s rules and expectations of me. As Wesley worries that he’s responsible for damaging the ship, he’s asks if he’ll get a good grade on the project. He dejectedly comments that he “always gets an A”, something else I could relate to — the fact that the grades that others demanded and so highly valued were entirely unrelated to the seemingly life-and-death situations I was otherwise making. Wes doesn’t get a huge amount of counsel from adults here (which is usually what I worked so hard to absorb from his character). But I could relate to his angst, and I felt far less alone during episodes like these. And the adults in the episode deal with learning how to move forward from initial mistakes in a relationship. I valued exposure to that lesson.


Published in: on June 8, 2013 at 5:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Nature of Competition (S02:21)

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

Peak Performance
With the Borg threat looming, Starfleet decides to test its tactical readiness with wargames. Picard and Riker are pitted against each other in simulated battle.

The overall theme of the episode is competition, and how various individuals approach it. Considering how much competitiveness was both valued and taken as a given in my family of origin (and in the larger culture), it was wonderfully refreshing to hear people talking about it, exploring it and observing how various personalities interact with it. I again got ideas from this episode about how the world worked around me that I wouldn’t find elsewhere for years.

Both Picard and Riker are initially uninterested in wargames, feeling that military strategizing is not a major purpose of Starfleet. That prioritizing of exploration and diplomacy over warfare or conquest was one of the main reasons I enjoyed this show more than the original. But, eventually both Picard and Riker get emotionally invested in the competition, in one form or another. Riker is especially in his element as his aggressive, competitive streak comes to the forefront. Picard’s primary emotional interaction in the competition seems to be pride in his first officer’s performance (again, he is highly motivated by nurturance and relationality). Worf is also initially uninterested, but for a different reason: because it’s simply a game. If there is nothing to lose, there’s nothing to gain, and he expects it to be a waste of time. Riker gets him interested by connecting his sense of honor to his performance in the game.


Dr. Pulaski manages to manipulate Data into competing with a skilled guest on board, and Data is shaken when he loses — to the point of relieving himself of duties. He believes that losing the game shows him as vulnerable, and shows his deductions as lacking, so he must be damaged somehow. Picard must explain to him that it’s possible to make no mistakes and still lose, and that making mistakes and being fallible doesn’t cancel out his duty to his colleagues. Data is also counseled that he can handle defeat in one of two ways: lose confidence in himself, or learn from his mistakes. This was another moment where Picard was effectively parenting me, offering things I needed to hear and didn’t from any any other source.

Pulaski at one point verbalizes some of the appeal of the urge to compete. She says humans have “an inborn craving to gauge [our] capabilities through conflict” and “humans sometimes find it helpful to have an outsider set the standard by which they’re judged.” While I’ve never had a strongly developed urge to compete, these articulations of competition helped me apply the idea to my own life, and find ways to enjoy competition — at the very least, with myself.

Published in: on June 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Half a Look at a Powerful Woman (S02:20)

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

The Emissary
When a Klingon crew that’s been in suspended animation threatens to awaken and restart a war, an old friend of Worf’s arrives to handle the situation.

This episode introduces a well-loved though little seen character: K’Ehleyr, the mother of Worf’s son. I thought her awesome then, and I still do now.


K’Ehleyr arrives via space travel in a Class 8 probe — a tube about 2 meters long. She is charming and confident, fierce and capable, quickly and easily holding her own with other crew members. We learn she is half human and half Klingon, and felt she grew up trapped between cultures. She gets awesome costumes to wear. When she pretends to a high rank on board the ship (in a bit of deception designed to solve their dilemma), her demeanor fits perfectly in a command chair. I loved her as a child, and while she may strike me as a bit melodramatic now, I still fall hard for the character.

It’s clear she and Worf share a past, though it’s never clearly explained. What we *are* privy to is their next step: arguing that leads to a passionate time on the holodeck. The scene is hot, with physical affection that is coded as foreign/different and is compelling: smelling each other’s wrists, forearms, and palms, along with holding each other’s hands closed and other hints at rough/painful sex. While I had shut down a great deal of my own sex drive out of fear when I was a teenager, this was most certainly an image that my brain kept in a “special drawer”: a powerful and independent woman enjoying rough sex.

The writers here actually manage to allow K’Ehleyr to be sexual without being sexualized; as one example, Riker doesn’t hit on her, and instead treats her as a colleague. Even Worf’s attempts to equate the sex act with marriage are rebuffed by her, as she determines for herself what it meant to her. She rejects Klingon ideals of honor and insists that it was just fun. In a brief period of time, K’Ehleyr manages an impressive level of depth as a character. We’ll see her once more in a later episode.

Published in: on June 6, 2013 at 2:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Nice Guy Geordi (S03:06 and S04:16)

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

TRIGGER WARNING: a lot of misogyny

Okay, 90% of the reason my Star Trek writing came to an abrupt stop a few months ago was that I came face to face with this story arc, and got creeped out. We’re gonna have to talk about what this means for a regular character… and that’s gonna make me sad. And angry.

Geordi… is a nice guy. In the worst, most obnoxious definition of that term. And the show reinforces every bit of misogyny behind the nice guy meme. *sigh*

We’re gonna talk about the third season episode “Booby Trap” and the fourth season episode “Galaxy’s Child”. (Yes, I’m jumping ahead a bit. Let’s just get this over with, shall we?)

Booby Trap

While investigating an archeological find, the Enterprise gets caught in a baffling trap that quickly threatens the whole ship.

The episode begins with Geordi awkwardly trying to seduce a woman on the Holodeck. I can remember growing up being told that a guy plotting to get his arm around a girl was a charming part of the courtship ritual, and that charm is a lot of what (I think) the writers are going for here. Unfortunately, the old “charming” idea – and Geordi’s entire preplanned date here – is predicated on the guy’s sense of entitlement and his lack of treating a woman as an individual. In this first scene, the episode still has a chance to go somewhere good. The whole point is that it doesn’t work for her. They’re sitting on a beach, uncomfortably. They’re hardly interacting. There is a violin player on the deserted beach with them… playing distracting “romantic” music. The music does nothing for her. He is giving her what he has decided a generic woman wants, without any clear attempts to communicate with the woman in question about her unique wishes, presumably so he can get something that he wants. It is ultimately a dehumanizing exchange he is trying to set in motion. When she gives him “the brushoff”, it’s clear he expects it, and immediately sulks. This scene sums up how Geordi objectifies women (which will continue to be revealed throughout the episode), and it has the potential to lead him to an awareness of that so he can grow. It’s a shame that potential is completely squandered.

Geordi later has conversations that reveal more of his inner thoughts. He asks one woman (Guinan) what she looks for in a man (assuming that, on some level, she can speak for all women as to what is attractive to them). He speaks in broad terms about his desire to take care of “somebody.” And he shares his confusion that he can make objects work well together in engineering, but can’t “make something work with a woman like Christie.” As an adult I can see him indicating he thinks women and objects share certain key attributes, and vaguely indicating some hierarchy of women where Christie is valued as a prize. But all of this was THE standard romance narrative when I was a kid first watching the show. Perhaps this is why Geordi was always just kinda there for me – not a threat that I yet noticed, but not a character I had much interest in. That standard narrative never made any sense to me.

While Geordi’s angst and my adult distaste unfold, the rest of the ship experiences an enjoyable, well-crafted puzzle that is technical without getting cluttered, and brings some well-paced action to the story. To explore every conceivable solution for the problem the ship is having, Geordi digs into prototype schematics and designers’ logs on the holodeck. He discovers that the head of the team that designed the ship is a Dr. Leah Brahms, who he immediately characterizes as “another woman who won’t get personal with me.” He gets bored only hearing her logs, so he has the computer build a hologram of her he can interact with. He is soon circling her motionless body asking her questions, but her dry answers are not enough. So he tells the computer to dig into her public presentations and personality analysis on file (side note: how is personality testing not more confidential information?) and add that data to the hologram. The holographic version of the powerful engineer is immediately warm, encouraging and intimate with Geordi, insisting he call her Leah, not Dr. Brahms. Within seconds, the woman who designed the Enterprise has moved from an unconsenting collaborating colleague to a fantasy woman for Geordi, with sultry exchanges like:

Lt. Geordi LaForge: I know my ship inside and out
Dr. Leah Brahms: Then you must know me, inside and out.

She soon offers to cook for him, and actually rubs his shoulders. It is not just an instant friendly working relationship. It is an instant romance – with a woman that never consented to the relationship. There is even a kiss; as the problem is solved and they part, the hologram of the woman who has never met Geordi says:

Dr. Leah Brahms: I’m with you every day, Geordi. Every time you look at this engine it’s me; every time you touch it, it’s me.

And they kiss.

I've got a dozen advanced degrees, but my life goal is to cook you something hot, sailor!

I’ve got a dozen advanced degrees, but my life goal is to cook you something hot, sailor!

So, instead of Geordi learning anything about how he objectifies women, he just spends the entire episode objectifying one. I’m fucking furious and my skin is crawling by the time this episode is done.

So, what would happen if the unsuspecting colleague – if the powerful and brilliant engineer – found out she was made Geordi’s plaything on the holodeck? Let’s find out. I’m CERTAIN she won’t end up apologizing for her own objectification. Surely not!

Galaxy’s Child

The head designer of the Enterprise visits the ship. The crew meets a space-dwelling creature as large as the ship itself, and gets entangled in complications regarding it and its offspring.

So, Dr. Leah Brahms is going to inspect the Enterprise. Geordi vocalizes such reflections on the woman he calls “Leah” – the woman he has never met – as “It’s not every day a man comes face to face with his dream”, “we worked as one” and “I just know Leah Brahms and I are going to be good friends”. He actually believes that he already has knowledge of her unique personhood, after interacting with the computer’s assumptions of who she is. This here is one of the more offensive moments among many offensive moments for me. I know we might get inured to this type of attitude in Western culture for a lot of different reasons. But to believe you have integral knowledge of a human spirit because you’ve seen a personnel file, or a holographic simulation (or a resume, or a performance, or a filtered interview in a paper)… it’s profoundly objectifying. Geordi honestly cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy with this woman. She has gotten no direct input into how he already defines her.

When Dr. Brahms arrives, she is cool, professional, and irritated at modifications made to her ship designs. All of these rankle Geordi’s sense of entitlement a great deal, and during a low-lit supper in his quarters – where he uses his research on her to romance her – she ends up apologizing for her gruffness. In what I suspect is meant as endearing, she mentions that “people find me cold, cerebral, lacking in humor”, and with no attention paid to how sexism and misogyny across the centuries might shape these perceptions of her coldness, the brilliant woman decides she should try to be warmer to Geordi. But she soon rightly intuits that the boundaries in this relationship are FUCKED UP, and attempts to pull back from the romance Geordi is trying to push. He responds by – wait for it – sulking.

Now where did I put the controls for the sexism disruptor beam?

You’re not crazy, Dr. Brahms. He really did just pull that shit.

They find common ground again, Geordi pushes her again… even after discovering she is married. He perceives rejection and begins to characterize her as unfriendly, cold, and hateful. In the one brief bit of fresh air, Guinan calls him on his behavior, pointing out that he is angry that she is her own person and not meeting his fantasy expectations. He has a growth opportunity. But that opportunity, and this reality check offered by Guinan, are both dropped like a hot potato as the climax of Geordi’s, the writers’ and greater culture’s misogyny is reached.

In solving the episode’s technical problem, Leah finds Geordi’s previous holodeck recreation of her. She is RIGHTLY FURIOUS. She angrily confronts him about making her his fantasy plaything. Here he has an opportunity to show some integrity, own up to mistake and use this as a chance to learn something about relating to people. He instead lies, insisting it was only a professional collaboration. He plays his entitlement card again, emphasizing how hard he’s worked to be friendly to her and how he hasn’t been rewarded for that. And he gaslights her, characterizing her appropriate anger as jumping to incorrect conclusions and a great affront to him. He again laments the nice guy lament – she’s just so unfriendly, and he deserves better.

That, by the way, is the moment where I lose all respect for Geordi. He is entrenched in his shitty behavior and attitudes. And, as we will see, the writers are fine with that. It’s the object of his affections that has to come around.

Even as a kid, I remember thinking the end comes abruptly. The episode ends with the character of Dr. Leah Brahms laughing affectionately about the program that demeans her and APOLOGIZING repeatedly for her behavior. She characterizes her original irritation as she arrived as of equal sinfulness to his repeated boundary violations. AND… Geordi never once apologizes. For any of it. Not once.

I love a flawed and complex character, painted well and compassionately. But when that flaw does profound damage to others that is never acknowledged, and when that profound flaw is written off as a harmless quirk, things get fucked fast. When a “quirk” leads to someone being violated, it’s no longer something to laugh off. When systemic violation is ignored, the problem is perpetuated. Now I know Star Trek is always a product of its time and of its location in a Hollywood system. So, there’s going to be no such thing as a not-racist, not-sexist Trek. But the volume of misogyny not just portrayed but blessed in Geordi’s character arc here is just so overwhelming, so disheartening, so sad and angering. The crux of the nice guy script is not just the personal entitlement, but the “niceness” of it: the cultural sanction of it all, the writers’ sanction of it here, and the gaslighting of people who actually notice the fucked-up-edness. I didn’t get this nice guy entitlement script directed at me personally growing up — I was already both fat and genderqueer by puberty, and so I was not culturally the object of male sexual attraction. But of course the nice guy script permeated everywhere… even onto the Enterprise. It is some small consolation that at least awareness of this is growing and being shared to the point where there is language for it in some of the larger culture. That doesn’t solve anything in and of itself, but it’s a bit of acknowledgement for those of us who see to hold on to. It’s part of the process of standing up for ourselves and others, and moving toward justice.

In a later Trek series, these two characters – LaForge and Dr. Brahms – make an appearance as a married couple. That whole thing just creeps me the fuck out.

Published in: on June 6, 2013 at 12:38 am  Leave a Comment  

Coming Soon… Getting All SRS on Star Trek

*sigh* So, I’ve got a post in the works on my growing awareness of Geordi as a fucking nice guy. I am sad, yes, but I have to talk about it.

In the mean time, to prep anybody who doesn’t know who I’m talking about, here’s a tumblr that explores the idea: Nice Guys of OkCupid.

Published in: on January 5, 2013 at 10:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

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  

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.