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.

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