Thursday, June 15, 2023

Enough With the Canon Fundamentalists

By most people's reckoning, Star Trek will be 57 years old this September. To put things in perspective, Superman hit his 57th anniversary in 1995, by which time he'd already gone through one hard reboot and numerous softer ones. Not even the most ardent fanboy would've expected the character and his world to maintain a single unbroken continuity from 1938 to 1995.

But that's exactly what some Star Trek fans expect. 

Never mind that the world of 1966 is as far in our past as 1909 was to Star Trek's original audience. You could argue that TV has changed as much between 2023 and 1966 as the medium of film had between 1966 and 1909. No, the only thing that matters to these Star Trek Fundamentalists is "canon". These are the kind of people who will make an absolute judgement on the "goodness" or "badness" of a Star Trek production based on the shape of a starship's warp nacelles in a single leaked screencap.

These canon-humpers are always looking around for things to be angry about, and these last six years of streaming Star Trek have given them enough fuel for a near-constant orgy of rage. A recent complaint is that Strange New Worlds shouldn't have Nurse Chapel in it at all, and that she definitely shouldn't be having feelings for Spock because established "canon" tells us that she was involved with a scientist named Roger Korby at this point in the timeline.

Except it doesn't.

The first time we see Christine Chapel is in the fifth regular episode (if we go by production order) "The Naked Time". This episode tells us two things about Christine: she's a nurse and she's in love with Mr. Spock. Obviously the two haven't just met; it's implied in dialogue that she's had these feelings for a while. We next see Nurse Chapel three episodes later in "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" where we're told that she joined the Enterprise in hopes of finding her fiancee Dr. Roger Korby (described as "the Pasteur of archaeological medicine) who's been missing for five years.

This is as much as we ever learn about Chapel. Interestingly, her feelings for Spock come up again in future appearances, but Roger Korby is never mentioned. Over the years most fans assumed that Christine was involved with Korby first, and after he disappeared she joined Starfleet, was assigned to the Enterprise, and met Spock. But that's all it was—an assumption. The show said absolutely nothing about her professional or personal history.

In the Season Two premiere of Strange New Worlds Chapel mentions that she's applying for a fellowship in archaeological medicine, the very field that one Dr. Roger Korby is the Pasteur of.

So why couldn't she have fallen for Spock during a tour on Pike's Enterprise, and when it didn't work out she left for an archaeological medicine fellowship where she met Dr. Korby? They entered a relationship, then he disappeared, and she rejoined the Enterprise in hopes of finding him one day, only to realize that she still had feelings for Spock. That works, right? And the only thing it contradicts are the long-held assumptions of unimaginative fans.

A real Star Trek fan would react to that by saying "Wow, what a surprising development that gives the Majel Barrett version of the character more depth than she had before!"A canon-humper would just be mad that a long-held assumption got contradicted.

My problem with the canon fundamentalists is that they don't want anything new. All they want is to see exactly what they expect. Any story set during a particular era of Star Trek "history" must exactly match whatever we've seen from previous installments set during that same era, even if those installments were produced as far in our past as the Titanic disaster was for fans in the '60s.

If your main thing is being performatively Mad on the Internet, I guess canon fundamentalism is a good business to be in. But if you want to be a mentally-healthy human being who watches stuff because you enjoy it, then maybe not.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Weird Star Trek: Star Trek Novelverse Edition

Since the very beginning, Star Trek has had rules. Mostly this was done to keep things within a TV budget and make the world of the show seem believable; it was never really something that viewers were supposed to obsess over. But it turned out that Star Trek's fans love to obsess over things, and attention to detail quickly became a major part of the whole franchise.

And yet, during its first 20 years the Star Trek universe was a pretty wide-open place. The original series and the first few movies didn't really do any deep dives into alien cultures, the character's pasts, or Federation politics. So all that stuff was open for exploration, and novels were the perfect place to do it. Unlike TV or movies, a book's only limits are the author's imagination and what the editors will let them do. And up until 1988 or so the editors mostly let Star Trek novel authors indulge themselves. The result was glorious run of deeply weird, occasionally wonderful stories full of stuff that was totally inconsistent with where the Star Trek universe ended up going. For example:

The Federation Chemically Lobotomizes People Who Invent "Dangerous" Technology
Vonda McIntyre's The Entropy Effect was the first novel that Pocket Books published after Gene Roddenberry's novelization of The Motion Picture. Its main plot is about the chaos that erupts when the Enterprise is assigned to transport convicted murderer Georges Mordreaux to prison. After a lot of twists and turns (including the murder of Captain Kirk), Spock discovers that Mordreaux didn't actually kill anybody. (Well, his crazed alternate-timeline variant did) He invented a time machine, and a few of his friends begged him to use it to send them into the past to live out their lives. When Federation authorities realized the incredibly dangerous nature of Dr. Mordreaux's invention, they suppressed all his research, framed him for the murder of his friends, and sentenced him to be confined to a psychiatric hospital and pumped full of drugs to destroy his brilliant intellect so he could never re-invent the time machine.

If Captain Picard caught the Federation doing something like that we'd get the mother of all Picard speeches about Federation ideals and the rights of sentient beings. But Spock just kind of shrugs and accepts it. He reasons that if a such a thing were invented on Vulcan, everyone would unanimously agree never to use it. But since humans aren't as self-controlled, he agrees that the Federation basically has no choice but to forcibly suppress the technology and lobotomize the inventor. Vonda McIntyre's take on the normally-idealistic Federation was shockingly dark, yet it presaged some of what future stewards of the franchise would do with Section 31. 

Klingons Are Violent Animals Who Can Only Act Reasonable If They're Drugged
Again with the drugs! In the 1988 novel Timetrap by David Dvorkin, the Enterprise tries to rescue a Klingon ship trapped in some kind of space storm, but it disappears with Captain Kirk aboard. Kirk wakes up on a base full of reasonable, peaceful Klingons who tell him that the space storm transported him 100 years into the future. They say that in their time the Klingon Empire and the Federation are at peace, and it all started 100 years earlier when Captain Kirk led a fleet of Klingon ships from the future into Federation space on a peace mission. They want to take Kirk back to the 23rd century to fulfill his part of their historical record.

Of course, the whole thing turns out to be a Klingon ploy to trick Kirk into helping them take an invasion fleet past Federation defenses. And the peaceful Klingons only act that way because they've been taking drugs to suppress their violent tendencies. When they go off the drugs, they devolve into snarling, animalistic monsters. To be fair, a formerly drugged Klingon who's reverted to her violent tendencies does have a moment of compassion for Kirk after he collapses from injuries he sustained earlier in the story. But the overall message--that Klingons are inherently violent and animalistic--very uncomfortably mirrors stuff that real-world racists say to justify the terrible things they do.

I believe that this was one of the last books (maybe the last) published before Gene Roddenberry's office--in the person of his manservant Richard Arnold--took a direct role in approving novel manuscripts. And let me be clear: I never liked the late Richard Arnold. He was a fundamentalist who thought the only person allowed to have original Star Trek ideas was Gene Roddenberry. He loved to tell behind-the-scenes stories, and all of them were about a time when he was right about a piece of Star Trek trivia and some more important or famous person was wrong. If he was a Star Trek character, he'd be one of the hooded Lawgivers from "The Return of the Archons" who mindlessly enforced the will of the Landru computer.

That being said, I imagine Richard Arnold probably would have rejected this book, and it would've been the one and only decision of his that I agreed with.

The Forgotten TV Western That's Part of the Star Trek Universe
Timetrap was not the first novel where a main character disappeared on a Klingon-related mission. In 1985 Pocket released Ishmael by Barbara Hambly. It's one of the first Star Trek novels I remember seeing in my local Waldenbooks, maybe because of how strange the cover art was:

It clearly said "Star Trek", and that was obviously Mr. Spock there on the right. But who were those other people and why were they all dressed like riverboat gamblers? Whatever explanation you can think of, the truth is way weirder.

The 1968-69 TV season was Star Trek's last on NBC. Meanwhile, over on ABC a new comedy-Western series called Here Come The Brides was starting the first of what would be a two-season run. The premise of the show revolved around women who came to Seattle after the Civil War to find husbands. One of the show's characters, sawmill owner Aaron Stemple, was played by Mark Lenard (the same guy who played Spock's father Sarek a year earlier). In the book, Stemple finds an amnesiac Spock unconscious in the woods and takes him to his cabin to recover. As we go along, Spock meets the show's other characters and becomes integrated into their social circle, making this book basically a Star Trek/Here Come The Brides crossover.

Eventually we learn that Spock got caught up in a Klingon plot to travel back to the 1860s and kill Aaron Stemple to prevent him from helping to thwart Earth's takeover by the Karsid Empire. Of course they fail, Spock gets his memory back, and we learn that Aaron Stemple is actually one of his human ancestors. Oh, and there's also a scene in an alien cantina where Dr. Who, Han Solo, and Apollo and Starbuck (the Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict versions) all hang out together.

A book like this would probably never get published today and it's absolutely glorious.

The Klingon Empire Gets Canceled By Godlike Aliens
When Spock Must Die! was published in January 1970, Star Trek had been off the air for less than a year. The show was dead and buried as far as anyone knew, and author James Blish was free to do whatever the heck he wanted.

So he wiped out the Klingon Empire.

The book is a semi-sequel to the episode "Errand of Mercy", where the practically-omnipotent Organians stop a Federation-Klingon war and force the two sides to sign a peace treaty. In Spock Must Die!, the Klingons imprison the Organians on their planet with a powerful force field, which leaves the Klingons free to make war on the Federation. Eventually the Enterprise crew takes down the forcefield and frees the Organians, who respond by taking away the Klingons' spaceflight ability for 1,000 years. Imagine what future Star Treks would have been like if the Klingons were completely taken off the table.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

The Star Trek: Picard Dumpster Flambé

You may recall that I was a wee bit critical of Star Trek: Picard's first season on account of how the story didn't make any sense. Of course I wasn't angry at the show. It didn't hurt my feelings. I was just disappointed that I wasn't able to enjoy something I thought I was going to like.

Now, I'm going to talk a lot about story and character and all that stuff, but I should point out that I am a fairly nerdy Star Trek fan. I have all the tech manuals and I've read each of them cover to cover many times. I actually understand what all the technobabble means. I regularly pause episodes to scrutinize the LCARS panels. And I shared the disappointment of people who acted like Season One's main failing was that big fleet of identical, hastily-rendered Starfleet vessels in the finale. But ultimately those things are just minor details. Complaining about them would be like complaining that the flames shooting out of the Hindenburg were the wrong color.

But I'm not comparing Star Trek: Picard to the Hindenburg. The Hindenburg actually flew for a while before it burst into flames.

So, what's Season Two of Star Trek: Picard about? Isn't THAT the million-dollar question? Stories told in fairly compact chunks, like two-hour movies or one-hour episodes of older TV programs like Star Trek: The Next Generation (to pick a totally random example), always tell you what they're about pretty early in the story. But for some reason, people who write for this show think it's a really great idea to tease the actual point of the story for as long as possible. I'm not saying that nothing happens in Season Two, far from it. All kinds of things happen. So many things! But we don't understand the point of it all until the season is 90 percent over.

And what's the point?

Well, it's all about how Picard has never been able to settle down and commit to a woman because of a deep, dark childhood trauma. Now, you might think that being assimilated by the Borg or tortured by the Cardassians or getting his brain zapped by an alien probe that made him live an entire lifetime in 45 minutes would've messed him up way more than anything that could've happened to him growing up on a vineyard in France about two hundred years after war, poverty, and disease were eliminated on Earth. But that's because you watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, and whoever decided on this storyline obviously did not.

No, Picard's big trauma, which is endlessly teased and hinted at but not fully explained until episode 9 of a 10-episode season, is that his mom was mentally ill but refused all treatment, and one day after a particularly bad episode, his dad locked in her in her room until he could get her some help. But she pleaded with Jean-Luc to let her out, and since he was too young to understand what was going on he used a skeleton key to unlock her door, and she went to the atrium and hung herself.

But an unfocused time-travel caper to the year 2024 makes it all better, and before returning to the 25th century Picard deliberately leaves the skeleton key where his little-kid self will find it in the future so his mom can get out of her room and commit suicide. Unburdened of his trauma, he goes home to make out with his new girlfriend in the very room where his mommy killed herself! I mean, do I even HAVE to talk about how grotesquely sociopathic and horrible this is? 

I would truly love to find out exactly how this turd sandwich was made. We'll probably never get the whole story, but to me it has all the symptoms of an ego trip vanity project like the movies of Neil Breen (which he writes, directs, and stars in). If you sit through a Neil Breen film (or even a humorous Internet review of one) two things are clear:
  1. Mr. Breen sincerely believes that he makes movies to communicate the Big Important Ideas in his brain.
  2. None of his ideas are all that big or important, and he is not very good at using the medium of film to communicate them.
For example, in his movie Fateful Findings, Neil Breen's character gets hit by a car and gains incredible computer hacking powers, which he uses to make the shocking discovery that politicians take money in exchange for political favors, and big bank executives manipulate the financial system to make themselves very rich! Neil exposes their wrongdoing to the world, which somehow leads to a press conference scene where all the politicians and corporate executives take turns stepping up to the lectern, confessing to their crimes, and immediately committing suicide while Neil Breen stands off to the side and smiles like an idiot. Obviously Breen was trying to say something meaningful about societal injustice, but managed to do it a clunky, ham-handed manner that made him look like an awkward sociopath.

In the same way, this season of Picard was trying to say something meaningful about how grief and trauma can keep us rooted to a point in our past. But in the process they had Captain Picard deliberately enable the suicide of his mentally ill mother, and this was framed as a good thing! It's no less ghoulish than Neil Breen standing there with his creepy, vacant smile while a procession of people step up to a press conference and shoot themselves!

If anyone is to blame for all this I have a hunch it's Sir Patrick Stewart. Sir Patrick is a great actor. He's better at acting that I will ever be at anything. His success has earned him a hefty amount of clout, which translates into creative control over the projects he chooses to do. But here's the thing: he's only good at acting

All the other stuff that goes into a writing and producing a TV show call for several different skill sets. And just because someone is good at one or two of those things doesn't mean they're good at all of them. Patrick Stewart had little or no control over his character on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it was a huge hit. But as soon as they started making movies, he got creative control, and his notes on the scripts almost always made things worse. Brent Spiner once joked that the main difference between the TV show and the movies was that fewer people saw the movies.

I'm willing to bet that even fewer people are watching Star Trek: Picard.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The First Contact Retrospective

Sometimes I wonder how the people who are always complaining that Discovery isn't "real" Star Trek would react to a big-screen reboot of The Next Generation that reimagined that era's starship Enterprise as a warship captained by a grim, revenge-obsessed Captain Picard. What if it was more darkly violent than any previous Trek film, and relegated the optimistic Roddenberrian message to a paper-thin B-plot? If that ever happened, I'll bet the online Star Trek Fundamentalists would throw a massive Internet tantrum that would make the furor over The Last Jedi look like a polite disagreement.

Oh wait, that happened in 1996 and they loved it:

The 1990s were a weird time. We had a movie where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles danced with Vanilla Ice. Pauly Shore had a career. And amazingly, against all reason, we had a dark and gritty Star Trek: The Next Generation reboot that the very same fans who now rail against modern Trek for being too dark and violent absolutely loved. How did this happen?

It's worth remembering that the original show was made during the Vietnam War by World War II and Korean War veterans, in a world that lived under the constant threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. The idea that conflicts should be solved with words instead of weapons was a somewhat-radical notion that greatly appealed to the show's young audience, most of whom were personally affected by Vietnam in one way or another.

But by the time Star Trek celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1996, all that stuff was in the past. The second generation of fans grew up during a time when the Cold War was receding, the US military draft had been discontinued, and the western world was at relative peace. The cartoons that entertained us as young kids were the Transformers, GI Joe, He-Man, and even R-rated characters like Rambo and Robocop that had been repackaged for children. All of them were about factions of good guys and bad guys attacking each other with lethal force. (Although nobody ever died or got hurt unless it was time to refresh the tie-in toy line.) Yeah, a lot of those shows had a "moral" at the end, but it kind of got lost after the previous 20 minutes of nonstop fighting.

In 1991 our generation experienced its very first war, the weeks-long Gulf War. It was fought by a small, all-volunteer force and packaged as entertainment by the 24-hour TV news networks. (CNN even gave it a logo and theme music.) Not much of the coverage bothered to delve into the inherent complexities of a conflict in the Middle East. They framed it as a battle of Good vs. Evil; a live-action version of the GI Joe cartoons we consumed in in the '80s. There were serious consequences and real human costs, of course, but the American media didn't really stick around much to cover those.

During the 1990s our generation grew from rambunctious kids to rebellious teenagers. Teenagers of our parents' generation had rebelled by becoming anti-war, flower-power hippies; we rebelled by doing the opposite of that. Our favorite video game was Mortal Kombat, a fighting game where the victorious player could gruesomely murder their opponent by entering a character-specific combo. Our favorite superhero comics were "extreme" Image titles like this:

We liked "heroes" with names like BloodGun and MurderBlade and Slaughter Ninja who did stuff the Super Friends would never dream of, like smoke, drink, curse, and above all else kill their enemies. In these kinds of stories, peace was the coward's way out. "Real" heroes showed their bravery by doing what "needed" to be done i.e. kill the bad guy. Even Superman wasn't totally immune to the trend:

Granted, he went back to his old self two pages later, but for the majority of that issue he was wearing black and toting a ridiculous amount of guns

What I'm trying to say was that the young Star Trek audience in 1996 wasn't a bunch of socially-conscious peaceniks. We were stupid adolescents who saw violence as empowering and fun, but we had zero understanding of its real-world consequences. As much as we enjoyed Star Trek: The Next Generation, we tended to think of Captain Picard as kind of a boring wimp who talked too much:

From a 1994 issue of Starlog

So when the first stills from the movie showed up in Star Trek Communicator magazine, featuring scenes like this one with an action-oriented Picard leading a security team with beefy phaser rifles down a darkened corridor, we were stoked:

And when we saw a sweaty, rage-filled Captain snarl that "the line must be drawn here!" in every trailer and TV spot (along with shots of the biggest space battle in Star Trek history up to that point) we totally lost our minds. 

First Contact was shaping up to be the most action-packed, testosterone-filled Star Trek in history. But it was also the first one to be rated PG-13. People forget what a big deal this was; it gave Star Trek the same cachet as other sci-fi action blockbusters like Independence Day or Jurassic Park. For the first time in ages, Star Trek was dark and edgy and dangerous. And in 1996, we loved it.

Today, First Contact is older than the entire Star Trek franchise was in 1996. And it doesn't hold up particularly well. Yes, it's the best of the TNG films. But here's the thing: none of the TNG films are good. My apologies if you enjoy them. By all means, go right ahead. But in my opinion, they're all bad. They all suffer from tiny budgets and the hand of a TV producer who didn't really like or understand Star Trek. First Contact feels the most "liberated" because it's the only one that wasn't made with some kind of creative mandate imposed by meddling executives.

And even though Picard works through his feelings of rage at the end (by killing his enemy, it should be noted), the movie commits the unforgivable sin of turning the Starship Enterprise into a warship. I'm all for Star Trek stretching its formula in new and different ways, but an inviolable part of its DNA is that the Enterprise is a ship of peace. The bad guys travel around in warships and battlecruisers, not our heroes.

After twenty-plus years of wars, mass shootings, and terrorist attacks we've come back around to the ideal of TV Picard who used reason and diplomacy to solve problems. The angry, gun-toting action hero on a revenge quest, who we thought was so cool when we were stupid teenagers, turns out not to be what we needed after all.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Season-Long City on the Edge

As I write this we're less than 24 hours away from Star Trek: Discovery's season four premiere in the United States. Discovery was the first Star Trek show to completely break away from the episodic format. Rather than tell 13 different stories every season, Discovery (and its sibling, Picard) tells one story broken up into 13 pieces.

Last month, this very insightful observation about the Discovery-Picard storytelling method appeared in my Twitter timeline:

In the replies, someone else pointed out that Dr. McCoy once shot himself up with space heroin and erased time and they fixed that mess in 45 minutes. That got me thinking about how "The City on the Edge of Forever" would work if if were a modern Star Trek show. I imagine it might go something like this:

Episode 1 "Waves in the Sea of Time, Part 1": Weird things happen when Federation colonies are hit by "time waves". The Enterprise is sent to find their source. McCoy and Spock notice that Kirk seems upset about something.

Episode 2 "Waves in the Sea of Time, Part 2": Time waves cause more weird things to happen. Spock comes up with an algorithm to compute their exact source. "This is the power of math!" We learn that Kirk is hurting because got a "Dear James" letter from his girlfriend. End on Spock's algorithm pinpointing the source of the waves.

Episode 3 "There Be Squalls Ahead"Enterprise en route to the source of the time waves. McCoy finds out about Kirk's breakup. He shares that he's feeling dissatisfied with life in space. Wishes for a simpler existence on Earth. Time waves cause tech problems for Scotty. Episode ends with ship in danger.

Episode 4 "Typhoon" : Much action and peril as time waves threaten to tear the ship apart. Different ways to modify the shields to protect the ship are tried, but nothing works. Just in the nick of time, Scotty discovers the solution and implements it. We drop out of warp at the source of the waves: a mysterious, remote planet.

Episode 5 "Unsafe Harbor": Investigation of the planet begins. Time waves continue to buffet the ship. McCoy is being run ragged caring for all the injured. Just as the worst appears to be over, he's called to the Bridge to help a wounded Sulu. Accidentally shoots himself up with cordrazine.

Episode 6 "The Darkness That Runs Through the Soul of Man": A dangerous hide-and-seek as the characters chase a cordrazine-overdosed McCoy through the ship. We cut between their perspective and his terrifying hallucinations. McCoy knocks out the transporter chief and escapes to the planet as the episode ends.

Episode 7 "What World Lies Beyond That Stormy Sea": Notice that we're halfway through the season and the story is only just now getting started. Kirk leads a landing party to the planet to retrieve McCoy. We find the Guardian, learn what it is, and then McCoy jumps through and changes history. What took five minutes in 1967 takes 45 here.

Episode 8 "Into Time's River": Kirk and Spock hatch their plan to go through the Guardian, get McCoy, and fix history. The encounter with and flight from the police officer is much longer and more action-packed here. Episode ends just as Edith Keeler discovers them in the basement of her mission.

Episode 9 "The Light in the Heart, The Dark in the Night": Kirk and Spock acclimate to life in 1930s NYC. Fish-out-of-water moments, some dangerous and some humorous. Edith Keeler speechifies about the future, and Kirk starts to get all googly-eyed. Elsewhere in the city, McCoy appears. In his paranoid state, he kills the homeless man he encounters. Episode ends with him fleeing into the night.

Episode 10 "Stone Knives and Bearskins and Murder": Spock gets the idea to build a memory circuit. Kirk and Edith begin their romance. Meanwhile McCoy, still suffering from the effects of the cordazine, kills a couple guys who try to mug him. Kirk and Spock read about the killings in the paper and wonder.

Episode 11 "Spocky Mnemonic": Spock makes progress on his memory circuit. Kirk confides in Edith about his recent failed romance and gets dangerously close to telling her who he and Spock really are. The cops close in on McCoy.

Episode 12 "The Heart Wants What the Future Cannot Possess": Spock conducts several tests of his memory circuit as the Kirk-Edith romance continues. Spock realizes that Edith must die for history to be set right. Cops hunting for the hobo killer find an unconscious drunk in a bloodstained Starfleet uniform. Nearby, McCoy is in the drunk's clothes, shivering as he comes down from the cordrazine. Spock tells Kirk that Edith must die just as McCoy stumbles into the mission.

Episode 13 "Return to Tomorrow's Past Future": Edith nurses McCoy back to health. It's clear he has only vague memories of his actions under the cordrazine's influence. A few near misses as Kirk and Spock almost cross paths with him. Meanwhile, a police detective has realized who's really responsible for the murders and traced McCoy's steps to the mission. McCoy flees just as Kirk and Edith are leaving on their date. He sees Edith about to get hit by the truck and gives up his chance to escape to save her. Kirk stops him, and Spock steps out of the shadows and nerve-pinches the cop before he can arrest McCoy. The Guardian pulls them back to the 23rd century. McCoy is obviously troubled by what happened and will need much help to recover. (Naturally this will all happen offscreen and he'll be 100% fine by next season's premiere.) Kirk is sad about the end of yet another romance, but he finishes out the season with a Grey's Anatomy voiceover about how sometimes we look to the past to find our future, and in that future we find the stars, and in the stars we find hope, and in that hope we find ourselves.

And that's how you stretch a 45-minute story into 13 episodes. The trick is to add a lot of additional activity but no actual depth, lots of noise but no substance. You can have big emotional moments, but they should be like the explosions in Michael Bay movies: loud, spectacular, and impressively done from a technical perspective, but with no lasting effects on the characters. 

Hooray for 21st century television.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Weird Star Trek: The Paradise Syndrome (Or: What Does God Need With a Hairpiece?)

"The Paradise Syndrome" may be the most racist episode of Star Trek. There are more popular choices like "Code of Honor" or "The Omega Glory", but in those cases the racist stereotypes were depicted as imaginary alien cultures.

Not so with "The Paradise Syndrome". Its embarrassing Native American stereotypes are depicted as actual Native Americans transplanted to another planet by benevolent (but not too bright) aliens. (There's not one Native American actor in the bunch, but we'll get into that.) Even worse, it's clear that writer Margaret Armen had no idea she was being racist. This is clearly meant to be a sympathetic portrayal, which somehow makes it worse.

It begins with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beaming down to an idyllic Earthlike planet that’s threatened by an approaching asteroid. The planet has two items of interest, the first being a Native American village on the banks of the same lake where Andy and Opie Taylor used to go fishing. . .

How do the natives not notice three brightly-shirted guys standing in plain sight?
From his vantage point on the other side of the lake, Spock identifies them as Navajo, Mohican, and Delaware. Which is kind of weird because the Navajo came from the American southwest, the Mohican and Delaware were native to the northeast, and none of them lived in tipis. I have no idea how Spock could make that determination, except that he read it from the script.  The other item of interest is this nifty obelisk:

It's made of an alien metal that Spock's tricorder can't penetrate, and it's covered with unfamiliar symbols. The technology needed to construct the obelisk would equal or surpass the Federation's, so Spock doesn't think the natives built it. There's not much time to investigate, though; the Enterprise needs to warp out of orbit within thirty minutes to deflect the asteroid. Any longer, and it'll be impossible for the power of the Enterprise to deflect the asteroid enough to keep it from hitting the planet. (They could have taken care of the asteroid first and THEN investigated the planet, but then the episode wouldn't happen)

After observing the village from afar and wistfully yearning for the Native Americans’ simple lifestyle, Kirk announces that it’s time to go. But first, he wants another look at the obelisk. Spock and McCoy stay behind as he struts up there alone. He walks up the obelisk’s steps, takes out his communicator to call the ship, and is taken by surprise as a trap door opens beneath his feet. Kirk falls into the obelisk down a flight of stairs and comes to rest in front of a control panel. He grabs hold of it to pull himself up and accidentally activates some kind of alien Brain Zapper, which treats us to a classic William Shatner Acting Moment:

Fast forward an unspecified amount of time as Spock, now at the obelisk standing on the very trap door that Kirk fell into, voiceovers that numerous search parties and sensor scans have failed to locate the Captain. Well, since he said that he was going to check out the obelisk, and the obelisk clearly has some kind of trap door built into it, and you said earlier that you can’t scan inside the obelisk, and you couldn’t find him anywhere else, maybe, I don’t know, he’s inside the obelisk. However, since the story needs Kirk to get stranded on the planet, our hyper-intelligent Vulcan Science Officer is prevented from making that particular connection. Spock tells McCoy they’re going back to the ship, and when the doctor protests, Spock reminds him of the urgency of getting to the asteroid in time to deflect it away from the planet. Otherwise, he warns “everyone on this planet will die, including the Captain.” Again, maybe they could've come to spy on the Native Americans after they took care of the asteroid. Spock and McCoy beam up.

Meanwhile, the Brain Zapper has left Kirk with a serious case of amnesia, which is communicated to the audience by Shatner stumbling around the underground chamber and voiceovering "What . . . place . . . isthis? Who . . . amI? Try . . . toremember." He staggers up the stairs he fell down earlier and the trap door opens automatically for him. Kirk walks up into the sunlight, and we're treated to the sight of our first two Native American characters:

The one on the left is Miramanee, the "tribal priestess". She's played by the very white actress Sabrina Scharf in brownface. The one on the right is credited only as "Indian Woman", and is played by another white actress, Naomi Pollack. The producers must've liked how she looked in brownface, because later in the season they cast her as the Indian (South Asian, not Native American) Lt. Rahda. Back in the 60s, actually casting Native American or Indian actors to portray characters of those ethnicities was the farthest thing from the mind of your average Hollywood casting director.

In the first of many moments that make you wonder if William Shatner wrote this episode, the ladies bow down worshipfully the second they catch sight of the amnesiac Kirk:

Or maybe they're covering their faces because they've never seen a bad toupee before
After a brief interlude on the Enterprise where Scotty complains that the engines can't stand Spock's demand for maximum warp speed, we cut back to the planet. It seems that the tribespeople have decided that Kirk coming up out of the obelisk (which they call "the temple") means he's a god, and the tribal council is interviewing him for the job of Lord and Savior.

The Medicine Chief, an argumentative guy named Salish, is skeptical. He insists that the newcomer in the weird pajamas should prove he's a god.

"What does God need with a hairpiece?"
The Tribal Elder explains that a God's main job is to "rouse the temple spirit" when "the sky darkens". He asks Kirk point-blank if he can do this, but Kirk gives a rambling non-answer that makes it clear he has no idea what they're talking about. But everyone forgets about Kirk’s unsuitability for the position of God when he uses a 1960s version of CPR to revive a kid who drowned in the lake. They’re so impressed that they declare him God right then and there and give him Salish’s Medicine Chief gig. One of the perks of being Medicine Chief, it turns out, is that you get to marry tribal priestess Miramanee.

Naturally, Salish is not too happy about losing his job and his fiancĂ©e to a bushy-sideburned amnesiac who's less of a deity than the most unimpressive member of the X-Men. And yet the episode clearly depicts Salish as the villain, which makes no sense. I mean, amnesia or no, Kirk has to know that he’s not a god. And yet he pointedly allows everyone to think he is, and even goes so far as to allow the tribe to make him solely responsible for their welfare.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise's efforts to deflect the asteroid aren't going well. After the deflector beam fails to push it far enough off course, Spock orders phaser fire to destroy it. That fails, too, burning out the warp engines in the process. He has no choice to have the ship retreat in front of the asteroid at impulse power for the months-long journey back to the planet.

Back on the planet of bad stereotypes, Kirk (who's now going by the name "Kirok") is running around in full Native American cosplay and setting a wedding date with Miramanee. She wants to get married the very next day. "The sooner our happiness begins, the longer it will last," she says. In case you haven't noticed by now, Miramanee doesn't really have a personality, unless "Stereotypical Native American maiden who talks in Hallmark greeting card sayings" is a personality. Kind of like Commander Riker's holographic girlfriend Minuet, she doesn't seem to have any wants or needs of her own, she just exists to please Kirk. What did she do before he showed up? 

On the Enterprise, Spock is in his quarters studying the pictures he took of the symbols on the obelisk while McCoy chews him out because his plan to destroy the asteroid didn't work. Naturally, McCoy doesn't have any better ideas (he's a doctor, not an asteroid removal expert) he just wants to complain that Spock's decisions are stupid and bad because he's a Vulcan. Rather than report the doctor to Starfleet HR for his blatant racism, Spock just ignores him.

At the obelisk, the Tribal Elder applies some paint to Kirk Kirok’s face, then tells him to wait while he walks the “holy path to the earth lodge” where the wedding will take place. This gives Kirk time to hug himself while he voiceovers about how happy he is. There are some iconic images that just cry out to be made into demotivational posters, and this is one of them:


After his little self-love session, Kirok heads off to the wedding venue only to be accosted by Salish, leading to a fight scene between two stunt doubles.

What's that in Salish's hand, a butter knife? Is he there to stab Kirk or make him peanut butter sandwich?
Of course, Kirk defeats Salish with his patented William Shatner Flying Kick. Salish managed to slightly wound him during the fight, and is elated to see that Kirk bleeds, which is a thing that god's aren't supposed to do. He promises not to rest until he exposes Kirk as a fraud, and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing.

And then we have a wedding. I’m no expert on Native American customs, but I’m pretty sure that none of their marriage rituals involved the groom wearing a robe made from Muppet pelts.

Two months later, Miramanee and a shirtless Kirok are playfully chasing each other through the woods when Miramanee drops the bomb that she’s pregnant with a little Captain Kirok, and with that her fate is sealed. No reason to get attached to Mrs. Kirok, dear viewers, because if the Rules of 1960s Television are harsh on the love interests of main characters, they’re even harsher on the unborn children of such unions. Miramanee and Kirok Jr. are as good as dead.

The seeds of their destruction come from Medicine Chief Kirok’s inability to do the one thing that a Medicine Chief/God is supposed to be able to do. It seems that, while the alien race called the Preservers did a noble thing by rescuing this group of Native Americans from genocide at the hands of white settlers, the planet they plunked them down on is especially prone to asteroid impacts. So, the Preservers “solved” this problem by building the obelisk, whose function is to fire a sort of anti-asteroid phaser beam. However, the thing has a combination lock, and in their wisdom the Preservers only told one member of the tribe (the original Medicine Chief) how to get in and operate it, and the “secret” has been passed down from father to son ever since. Currently, the tribe is in a pickle because Salish’s father died before he could pass the secret on to his son, and now nobody knows it.

What’s the logic in putting these people on a planet where their survival depends solely on the obelisk thingy, and then telling only one guy how to work it? Come to think of it, why does this asteroid deflector even need to have a human operator? If the Preservers were super-advanced enough to build the thing, couldn’t they give it an autopilot?

Also, since they never got around to inventing the telescope, and since the Preservers never bothered to explain to them about asteroids and space and stuff, the only way the tribe knows that an asteroid impact is imminent is when the sky gets dark, the ground quakes, and they start having weather problems. I’m no astrophysicist, but I’m pretty sure that if a giant asteroid is so close to your planet that it’s blocked out the sun and you’re having seismic and weather disturbances, then it’s probably already in the atmosphere, and powerful asteroid deflector or no, you don’t have time to do anything but bend over and kiss your butt goodbye. And what if the asteroid is approaching from the other side of the planet?

Back in their hut, Kirk is explaining to Miramanee his plans to build a system of canals from the lake to irrigate the fields the tribes use for farming, and this is probably the part of the episode that infuriates me the most. Because most Native American tribes weren't hunter-gatherers; they farmed. In fact, until the Europeans introduced livestock to the Navajo, farming was pretty much their only source of food. 

The Mississippian people were good enough at farming to build a huge city in present-day Illinois that supported 40,000 people at its peak in the 12th century CE--more people than London during that same period. So are you seriously telling me that the natives on this planet never thought of digging canals until an amnesiac space captain showed them how? Not only that, but Kirk has also "invented" the idea of making oil lamps out of hollowed-out gourds and stockpiling food to preserve it for lean times. I'm pretty sure that actual Native American cultures figured this stuff out millennia before the Europeans arrived.

Well, sure enough the approaching asteroid causes the weather to get windy, and Salish and the tribal chief insist that Kirk go the obelisk and carry out his one and only job duty. Naturally, Kirk doesn’t know how to get inside the obelisk, and Salish, seeing the chance to get rid of his rival once and for all, incites the tribe to stone Kirk and Miramanee with rocks made of styrofoam. Honestly, you can understand why they're upset. Kirk has been passing himself off as a god and allowing the tribe to wait on him hand and foot, and when the time comes for him to hold up his part of the bargain the only thing he can do is pound the obelisk with his fists and yell "I am Kirok!"

The tribe is scared off when Spock and McCoy beam down, and after Spock restores Kirk’s memory with some kind of Vulcan mind thing, they go inside the obelisk and save the planet by activating the Asteroid Repeller.

How do they get into the obelisk, you ask? Well, it turns out that the symbols on the obelisk are musical notes that spell out the combination to open the door (again, why has the tribe been living in close proximity to this thing for the last four or five hundred years and never been inspired to come up with a written language?) And by sheer coincidence, when Kirk took out his communicator and said "Kirk to Enterprise" it matched the exact set of tones needed to open the door.

So, let's recap. According to "The Paradise Syndrome", James T. Kirk is so awesome that:

  1. Native Americans take one look at him and automatically assume that he’s a god.
  2. Beautiful tribal priestesses want nothing more than to spend their life doing whatever he wants.
  3. The very sound of his name can unlock the secrets of alien technology.

Are we sure William Shatner didn't write this episode?

Oh, one other thing: exactly why does the asteroid deflector even have a brain-zapping ray? It’s like building a toaster oven that also shoots poison darts if you push the wrong button! Yeah, Spock calls it a "memory beam" and attributes Kirk's amnesia to it being activated out of sequence, but why does the thing need a "memory beam"? To implant the instructions for operating the deflector directly into the Medicine Chief's brain? Spock activates it by pushing a single button; it's not that complicated. 

Of course, Miramanee's styrofoam-inflicted injuries are too severe for McCoy and his 23rd century medicine to heal, and she’s going to die. She passes away in in Kirk’s arms, sincerely believing that he was a god after all.

According to this episode, people dying of severe internal injuries look like they're relaxing at the beach

So what happens to the tribe? Does Kirk explain who he really is and where he came from? Does he arrange for everyone to learn how operate the asteroid deflector so the entire tribe's safety isn't dependent on one person? Does he apologize to them for impersonating a deity? None of this is addressed. The moment Miramanee breathes her last, we cut to the Enterprise leaving orbit and the episode is over.

So that’s “The Paradise Syndrome”. For years it was considered one of the better episodes of Star Trek's final season, partially because it was the only one shot on location and one of the few with its own musical score. But now that everyone realizes how racist it is, it's just an embarrassment. Look, I know that doing research was a lot harder in 1968, but did Margaret Armen even try to learn anything about any Native American peoples before writing her script? I guess that in those days, simply not depicting them as savage killers qualified as non-racist. Also, her story has plot holes big enough to fly a C-130 through, and our illustrious Captain Kirk doesn’t exactly behave like a role model.

So what did we learn today?

  1. If you're on a mission to save a planet from a giant asteroid, you should definitely deal with the asteroid first.
  2. There's no excuse for impersonating a god, even if you're suffering from alien-brain-zapping-ray-induced amnesia.
  3. If you're an alien super-race that rescues primitive cultures, maybe put them on a planet that isn't prone to frequent asteroid impacts. And if you just can't help it, at least teach more than one person how to operate the Asteroid-B-Gone.
  4. Finally, if you're a white person who wants to write a story about Native Americans, do some amount of research. Otherwise, you might go down in history as being responsible for the most racist entry in a historically inclusive franchise.