The Nature of Evil (S01:E22)

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

Skin of Evil

Deanna’s shuttle crash lands on a nearly-deserted planet. The away team discovers a sadistic life form there that exacts a painfully high price to amuse itself.

At this point in time, actors Michael Dorn (Worf) and Denise Crosby (Tasha) had been especially unhappy with their lack of characterization. It’s possible that the Worf-centered episode just a couple of weeks back helped assuage Dorn’s frustrations. But Crosby ended up jumping ship1, and this episode includes her character’s death. It’s a senseless death, at the hands of a cruel entity that only wishes to enjoy others’ suffering.

My memory of this episode was overwhelmingly of Tasha’s death. I thought the character had amazing potential, and I related to her traumatic past and her desire to escape it. I knew I wouldn’t be nearly as sad this time around (as I’ve not been impressed with the actress’s depth or scope in the role). But I was taken aback by the intensity of the sadism portrayed in the rest of the episode. The entity is portrayed, at least at first, as pure disembodied evil; ey’s2 actually described as portions of several other creatures, those portions sloughed off and unwanted. The entity first kills to alleviate eir boredom… until that is no longer enough of a diversion, so ey begins attempts to torture the crew. Much of ey’s activity centers on trying to make crew members’ feel responsible for one another’s suffering, but the crewmembers do not succumb to the manipulation.

Picard explicitly states that preserving life is important to them, and that they believe everything in the universe has a right to exist. He tells the entity Armus that ey is, in fact, not evil, just consumed by eir own pain, and feeding on eir own lies. He describes as evil the possibility of them submitting to the entity, giving up their dignity and freedom instead of defying Armus. Now, I’m capable of writing at great length about this exchange, and about the nature of evil. But I don’t want to go quite that far. At 13, the topic of the nature of evil went over my head. I do, however, think that this theological point will undergird the approach of the writers as a whole, so I want to at least name these elements:

1) Picard does not other the entity entirely. He does not believe that Armus is merely made of the substance of evil. The root of evil, in his worldview, is not foreign to or outside of human nature. Those that do evil are not subhuman or animals. The cruelty is rooted in very human emotions and feelings. Armus emself is not categorically lacking the capacity for good, but is deeply flawed and choosing to take actions that are profoundly evil. This is not something always focused on in mainstream entertainment, and I value being exposed to this complexity.

2) I don’t believe Picard is negating Armus’ agency for creating the cruelty when he focuses on the responses of the crew. Instead, I believe his focus mirrors elements of liberation theology, nonviolence, and other theologies of praxis. Armus’ victims can’t control eir actions, or the ways ey can harm them, but they have choices they can make. They have control over their choices, and they can choose to – as I would name it – be true to their spirit, personhood and integrity. I believe that such actions contribute something tangible to the force of love in the universe… that they expand the presence of the holy.

While I wouldn’t have made any conscious connection at the time, elements of the entity’s sadism now remind me of my mother. Likewise, I don’t know that I learned anything in particular from it at the time about how to handle her (as I didn’t see the applicability). But now I see several similarities of technique. I can only hope this primed me, at least on some level, to sort these things out. I don’t know.

I do know that at the time, I was pleasantly confused and stretched by the unspoken message that human beings’ greatest strength is located in their spirit and their choices, not in their ability to avoid death. This simple movement away from “action film” theology and “might makes right” that permeates the secular world was a signpost for me, pointing out the way I wanted to go.

I do know that Tasha’s memorial service had an effect on me. Picard and Data’s exchange stayed with me through a ministry career, and many memorial services, as a sweet, sad, simple reminder of what’s on people’s mind as we gather to remember:

Data: Sir, the purpose of this gathering… confuses me.
Picard: Oh? How so?
Data: My thoughts are not for Tasha, but for myself. I keep thinking how empty it will be without her presence. Did I miss the point?
Picard: *long pause* No, you didn’t, Data. You got it.

1. It’s also worth noting that, according to Wil Wheaton’s book Memories of the Future, the entire cast and crew were pretty much convinced that they wouldn’t get picked up for a second year. So it’s possible Crosby made her decision to leave truly believing the show would soon be over.
2. Armus has no named gender, so I’m using the gender-neutral pronouns ey (like he or she), em (him or her), eir (his or hers).
3. From

Published in: on June 12, 2012 at 3:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *