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 http://friday87central.wordpress.com/2011/06/24/thebottleshow/
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 http://www.trekbbs.com/showthread.php?t=88747
2. From http://www.startrek.com/database_article/contagion

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 http://starbaseadran.co.uk/data-s03-epi-0035.html
2. Image of Maddox from http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Category:Memory_Alpha_images_by_episode_%28TNG:_The_Measure_Of_A_Man%29
3. Image of Riker from http://memory-beta.wikia.com/wiki/The_Measure_of_a_Man
4. Image of Picard from World News Search
5. Image of Data from http://www.aplvblog.com/2012/04/review-top-ten-star-trek-next.html
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 http://www.tvrage.com/Star_Trek-The_Next_Generation/episode_guide/2
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.

Unnatural Annoyance (S02:E07)

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

Unnatural Selection

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

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

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

But I don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

THAT Guy (S02:E06)

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

Schizoid Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Complicated… I Think (S02:E05)

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

Loud As a Whisper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24th Century Sex (S02:E04)

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

The Outrageous Okona

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steampunk Holmes (S02:E03)

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

Elementary Dear Data

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

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

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

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

More to come very soon on Data! 🙂

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

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

It’s A Trap! (S02:E02)

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

Where Silence Has Lease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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