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  

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.

Picard Squared (S02:E12)

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

Time Squared

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dauphin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Data is absolutely adorable. No further context needed.

1. From
2. From

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

Knowledge of Good and Evil (S02:E09)

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

The Measure of a Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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