The Cruelty of our Assumptions (S01:E17)

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

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The Enterprise visits a team in the early stages of terraforming a planet. But when suspicious events escalate, Picard must eventually solve a murder mystery.

This is another really solid episode, with a few things I want to mention. First, Deanna provides the captain with useful information during the investigation about who’s being deceptive and who’s trustworthy; that’s noteworthy because I don’t remember Deanna being useful all that often.2 Second, Riker is becoming a textbook of some of the basic violations that feminism critiques. While every other scientist on the planet gets introduced as their own person, the only female scientist is introduced through a heavy stream of admiring and “charming” looks from Riker. I couldn’t have picked that out at the time, but I do wonder how much this primed me to understand the concept of the pervasive male gaze later in my life.

Third, it’s the first time we see the Federation fuck up with a new life form and admit it. They are an inorganic species – not carbon-based, like all other life the Federation has found3 – and this challenges the very definition of life that Starfleet uses. So the beings go unnoticed during the planet’s evaluations for the terraforming process, and many of the life forms have already been killed before the Federation members finally notice the communications that have been aimed at them. At one point, as they examine all the clues they had missed, one scientist says “We were told by the best minds that there was no life. We weren’t looking, so we did not see.” This would become a critical theme in my life: the damage that is done when our basic assumptions and basic working definitions exclude some beings, or even make them invisible.

Picard articulates that, to the Federation, “all life is beautiful.” It’s a value to admire, that influenced me. But the Federation’s actions are not easy to forgive, and the newly found life form ends its communications by naming humans too arrogant and untrustworthy to interact with yet. I appreciate this response to violence and broken relationship, as the response feels authentic to me.

1. From
2. Their attempt to include psychology and psychological health as an aspect of this crew’s life is commendable. But I think their intentions were so far past what they had actually integrated into their storytelling, that Deanna’s role suffers immeasurably. They just couldn’t figure out what to do with her. And since she is half of the eventual female complement of the main cast, the presence and integration of women suffers too.
3. Other than the inorganic life form Kirk and company found in that one original episode that was a lot like this one. But this is otherwise such an awesomely done episode, I can forgive the blip in continuity.

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