“—to remind us of the values we've lost, and of those that we've allowed ourselves to relinquish.”
June 8, 2011 12:29 PM   Subscribe

Abigail Nussbaum, senior reviews editor for Strange Horizons, has written a series of personal blog posts on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The tables of contents:

Let's See What's Out There (TNG)
  1. Introduction
  2. To Boldly Stay - How The Next Generation changes its focus from exploration to politics;
  3. "Optimism, Captain!" - On Star Trek's most contentious quality;
  4. Keep Flying - The tragedy of Picard;
  5. Odds & Ends - A few more thoughts on the characters and the actors who played them.
Back Through the Wormhole (DS9)
  1. Introduction
  2. The Two DS9s - Did Deep Space Nine only get good in its later seasons?
  3. The Menagerie - Alien races on the show;
  4. Looking for Ron Moore in All the Wrong Places - The obligatory Battlestar Galactica comparison;
  5. What Does God Need With a Space Station? - Deep Space Nine's treatment of religion;
  6. Ode to Kira - Just what it says;
  7. The Justice Trick - Odo and his troubled relationships with Kira and morality;
  8. Odds & Ends - A few more comments.
posted by kipmanley (87 comments total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
In the episode "Transfigurations," the show strongly excoriates an alien species who are persecuting and exterminating a minority who are "evolving" into energy beings, but when Barclay becomes uplifted in "The Nth Degree," the reaction from the Enterprise's crew is fear and incomprehension.

yeah but that's because it's barclay bro
posted by Greg Nog at 12:37 PM on June 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Her commentary on DS9 is fascinating. Thanks for posting this.
posted by zarq at 12:38 PM on June 8, 2011

Welp, there goes my afternoon.
posted by emjaybee at 12:45 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's like everything my friends and I used to write on the Internet circa '96, except collected together and written with greater insight, plus no typos.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:46 PM on June 8, 2011

She also has some thoughts on Babylon 5.
posted by grouse at 1:03 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Very well-written; thanks for posting.

A couple of notes for fellow DS9 fans:

1. The increasingly awesome TV Club at the Onion's AV Club will soon start reviewing DS9.
2. DS9 is finally coming to Netflix Instant by the end of the year.

posted by Rangeboy at 1:03 PM on June 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Wow, the Picard one is excellent. She completely changed how I think about the series.
posted by heathkit at 1:11 PM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Too late, I've already seen everything.
posted by blue_beetle at 1:18 PM on June 8, 2011 [12 favorites]

Rangeboy: " 2. DS9 is finally coming to Netflix Instant by the end of the year. "

posted by zarq at 1:20 PM on June 8, 2011

She mentiones that Babylon 5 was a profound disappointment for her - I watched it only briefly as a child, so when I recently watched the whole series I thought it was quite good. Perhaps not as revolutionary as its hype (which represents some of the worst tendencies of fandom), and it definitely has its bad episodes and clunky writing, but there's so much good stuff there. Londo Mollari has one of the greatest character arcs in modern sci-fi (I disagree with her assesment on his character entirely).

On the other hand, I felt similarly disappointed by the original series of Star Trek - it just did not hold up to fandom's hype on rewatching it with modern eyes. It's sort of like when you grow up and find out some childhood hero like Roal Dahl is cruel and mean-spirited.
posted by muddgirl at 1:24 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to her blog and had a sensation much like a rock climber standing at the base of an imposing cliff.
posted by hat_eater at 1:43 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Um yeah, The full quote is "What's wrong with X-Men: First Class isn't that it's anti-Israel, which I don't actually think it is."
posted by zarq at 1:43 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

She's just terrific. You can spend a weekend digging through her archives. Her articles on Jane Austen are very good.

And, yes, I really enjoyed her Star Trek write-ups, too.
posted by not that girl at 1:47 PM on June 8, 2011

I'm always pleased to see people condemn the militarism and machismo of late Trek — and doubly so when they pin the blame on Ron Moore — but I'm baffled by the way she doubles back to justify it as a good thing in the later part of that essay.
posted by RogerB at 1:53 PM on June 8, 2011

Does anyone have a "good parts" episode list for TNG? I'd like to go back and watch some of it, but I'd prefer to skip over the boring or really dumb eps.
posted by murphy slaw at 2:03 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

She mentiones that Babylon 5 was a profound disappointment for her - I watched it only briefly as a child, so when I recently watched the whole series I thought it was quite good. Perhaps not as revolutionary as its hype

What made B5 different for its time was that it was an SF show in which long story and character arcs were played out. Events and actions had consequences that still resonated on the show years later. To me, that was where it was revolutionary - it allowed SF TV to be more than stand alone episodes (or a two-parter) in which everything was solved by the end of 60 minutes and reset for the next week. That difference was what struck me the most when I watched it the first time. I am doing a very slow rewatch now, and it seems less revolutionary because (I think) it has become the expected norm to have lengthy story and character arcs now.
posted by never used baby shoes at 2:08 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm always pleased to see people condemn the militarism and machismo of late Trek — and doubly so when they pin the blame on Ron Moore — but I'm baffled by the way she doubles back to justify it as a good thing in the later part of that essay.

Which essay is this?

Does anyone have a "good parts" episode list for TNG?

Here you go!
posted by Greg Nog at 2:10 PM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh. I mean, I think she's saying it's not a good thing morally, but that it is narratively; that's it's a great story about bad-yet-realistic choices.

I may be putting my own opinion onto her here, though; I think DS9's shift toward militarism is a really really good thing, as it addresses not humanity as we'd like it to be (which is what I think TNG is all about), but humanity as it so often is, which is a terribly wicked collection of bad decisions and greedy actors.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:16 PM on June 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Tangential to something in Part III:

I completely forgot that there was a Trill episode in TNG - it's sort of interesting that they adapted the concept of Trill culture but radically altered pretty much everything about it for DS9, just as the Klingons significantly change between TOS and TNG. Of course the Trill biology and culture is much more interesting in DS9 (although the execution in the first two seasons is often disappointing - when Jadzia Dax has her The Measure of a Man moment in Season 1, the writers conveniently sidestep any answers by setting up a Deux Ex Cheating Wife)
posted by muddgirl at 2:36 PM on June 8, 2011

AND AND AND ALSO (yes I am going to monopolize this thread with a point-by-point conversation with Abigail)
It's impossible, however, to imagine [The Federation] as less Western.
It could be argued that Whedon tries with The Alliance in Firefly, although we see them from the perspective of the losers. Although it's not explicitely stated that The Alliance is collectivist or communist, the freedom-loving heroes in Firefly are explicitly capitalist and anti-federalist and exploit relative scarcities for a profit.
posted by muddgirl at 3:08 PM on June 8, 2011

There's something very McCoy-ish about Pulaski (right down to her casual bigotry towards Data), a down-to-earth, no-nonsense quality that suits her role on the ship very well. When Crusher and her breathy overacting returned in the third season, and especially in episodes where her role was to stick by her guns and represent the humanist point of view, it was impossible not to wish that Pulaski were there in her place.

I think it's interesting that she names both Pulaski and Barclay as more engaging characters. I'd agree, easily, but I don't think this is a particular failure of the other actors (Dorn, Burton, and maybe even Sirtis are all capable actors . . I actually disagree with her on McFadden and Frakes as well), but rather the conception and the writing. I've read before that Rodenberry wanted the conflicts on the show to be external rather than internal--wanted his crew to get along in a show of egalitarian utopic peacefulness. And the writers followed through with that even to the last season. In contrast, there was quite a bit of organic character conflict in DS9, to the better of the show in general.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:19 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like Abigail's stuff even when (as is often the case) I disagree with her strongly.

I think that counts as a neat trick.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:25 PM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I disliked Pulaski (because of her McCoyishness - his casual bigotry towards Spock didn't make sense in 2266 and it doesn't make sense in 2365, plus it was a pretty bald excuse to reshape a bunch of TOS storylines to fit incompatible characters. Data != Spock) and loved Barclay - Barclay's strength was that he wasn't a Boy Genius, or the Best Engineer Ever, or a Decorated Captain, or an Empath - he was just regular old Lt. Barclay.
posted by muddgirl at 3:28 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

his casual bigotry towards Spock didn't make sense in 2266

Really? How do you figure?
posted by Greg Nog at 3:31 PM on June 8, 2011

In "Time's Arrow II" Samuel Clemens is accidentally transported to the 24th century ... Clemens is a stand-in for us, for any cynic who believes that humans are inherently evil and that the human race is doomed. The Next Generation, like Star Trek before it, is the story that tells us that no, humanity is going to overcome its problems and create something wonderful.

The ending of that episode was one of the most profoundly disturbing moments in Trek for me, since it ends with Picard casually committing genocide against a newly discovered species. Granted, they were hostile, but there wasn't even an attempt to understand them, other than to find an effective way to kill them. Maybe my 12-year-old self just got whiplash from Trek's shift from exploration to militarism, but that ending with Picard and Guinan exchanging a knowing smile after committing mass murder always gave me chills...
posted by heathkit at 3:33 PM on June 8, 2011

I enjoy her essays, but I completely disagree with her on Ron Moore in DS9 vs. BSG. She compares nearly identical scenes in the two series, and without any explanation, she points to them as proof of the DS9's success and BSG's failure.

Also, she repeatedly argues that the ability of Cylons to download makes BSG's treatment of terrorism toothless; but really, it's just getting at a different, and more interesting aspect of it. The Bajorans use of terrorism, even against non-combatants, follows into the familiar ends justifying the means questions. The Colonials are aware of the limited tactical value of what they're doing, yet they are still employing suicide bombing to do it. The issue here isn't entirely the morality of those tactics (though it's certainly touched on). It's also an exploration of what invasion and occupation do to the oppressors and the oppressed. She says Tigh comes across as merely "deranged"- but I think the possible derangement of an entire civilization is a more interesting idea than merely Major Kira not regretting what she did to save her people.

She says that BSG is actually the less dark show, but the examples she uses is one of DS9 finding the light in the darkness versus the characters in BSG gladly jumping into the abyss.
posted by spaltavian at 3:36 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Really? How do you figure?

Oh, I have no problem with bigots in space (although I do question the fact that they apparently defeated scarcity and sexism and a whole bunch of bad things, but the ship's doctor is free to spout off hurtful things to other officers whenever s/he wants, harrassment claims be damned). My problem is the wider implication of the casual bigotry. You see, in many ways, McCoy was right about Spock. Vulcans were all brain no heart. Data was just a hunk of metal. Both of them were lesser-than - neither of them could be fully "human" (aka perfect), and even if they could acheive it, it would come at a terrible cost - that's what makes them the most human character on either show. And McCoy and Pulaski were perversly blinded to this -- for what? Character conflict?

I had hoped, on watching TOS, that we were supposed to dislike McCoy - for picking on the outcast, for being a bully - but I just don't think that's so. On many occasions, we're supposed to agree with him!
posted by muddgirl at 3:44 PM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I completely agree with the Picard essay, I am not sure I buy all of this. Star Trek has always been about politics (though not about Federation politics) because it has, since the inception, been social commentary dressed up in sci-fi clothes. How much of the original series was about boldly going to examine new (and largely troubled) forms of government?

I have not seen much of Wheaton in his adult roles but what little I have witnessed has been good, making me wonder what causes her to characterize him as a poor actor as an adult. Is there a particular movie in which he does poorly? What's with the Geeks On The Show Are Creepy riff?

And, honestly, in X-Men: First Class, there is simply no way, without gutting the character's origin and personality, to subtract the Holocaust/Jewish/Mutants-as-Jews element from Magneto. It's not something for which one could fault the film unless producers wanted to take the bold step of inviting themselves to be napalmed by angry fans. I know squat about the X-Men and even I know Magneto's basic backstory. And then I read "At the most basic level, it's a problem because, no more than homosexuals, Jews are not a separate species with superpowers" and say, "That's why it is a metaphor. We don't have any separate species with superpowers ... unless they are invisible and hiding right now."

Otherwise, she's fairly "on" with the acting and less so when it comes to trying to make these works pass some kinds of tests.
posted by adipocere at 3:45 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

McCoy isn't picking on Spock. McCoy isn't the kind to give hugs and pep talks, but he's the moral center of the show, not Kirk or Spock. He's not a racist as much as a misanthropic uncle.
posted by spaltavian at 3:47 PM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have not seen much of Wheaton in his adult roles but what little I have witnessed has been good, making me wonder what causes her to characterize him as a poor actor as an adult.

My reading is that she's responding to the fact that he was a cute kid who didn't need much acting in Season 1, but he grew out of the role by the end of the series. So by "poor actor as an adult," I think she means "when he was 22 and had been on Star Trek and nothing else for 7 years."
posted by muddgirl at 3:55 PM on June 8, 2011

McCoy isn't the kind to give hugs and pep talks

No, he's the kind to imply that Spock gets pleasure out of letting fellow crewmember's die, as he does, IIRC, in The Galileo Seven and every other chance he gets. Yes, doctor, I'm sure all your moral invectives against Spock are really helpful when it comes to, you know, saving people's lives.

but he's the moral center of the show

And hence my problem with TOS.
posted by muddgirl at 4:01 PM on June 8, 2011

I always saw McCoy as the cautious conservative. He's older than the rest of the crew, a curmudgeon unaccustomed to change. The man doesn't even like transporters, despite being a fairly known quantity at that point in the Trek timeline. It's equivalent to avoiding airplanes.

There's a certain personality conflict, McCoy's casual demeanor versus Spock's studied aloofness; McCoy's self-doubt pitted against a Vulcan certainty that can be distinguished from arrogance only by picking it up, looking underneath, and seeing how very very good Spock is at his job. However, McCoy's biggest beef with Spock always came down to Spock's complete rejection of half his heritage. Spock works so very hard to be more Vulcan than anyone on planet Vulcan itself. McCoy interprets this as a rejection of humanity, wholesale. His biggest insults to Spock come whenever the Vulcan side is the only factor in Spock's decision-making. Emotions? Nah. To a guy whose motivation is caring for every crewmember and Horta, that has to be a little galling.

The Spock/Data comparison gets made quite a lot, and rightfully so, but the inversion is that Data wants to be human whereas I get the impression that, if Spock could just get Martin Brundle to work the transporter, he'd find a way to leave all of his humanity behind.

So you have McCoy, boldly going and so forth for humanity, and here comes Spock, son of an ambassador, taking a high-ranking position, reminiscent of the old days (Star Trek: Enterprise), when the Vulcan's treated humans as if they were small children wanting to pilot a schooner, and the guy happens to explicitly divorce himself from the one thing, a human heritage, that might bring him together with an entirely human otherwise crew. Viewed from that point, Spock looks like a disdainful overseer.

Sidenote: Kirk doesn't care, Kirk just wants to get laid and fuck shit up. Which he does. Kirk is the honey badger of Starfleet captains. Personnel drama is a distraction from Kirk's need for high-drama situations and the opportunity to ... launch his shuttle.

McCoy never seemed like a bully, he just bristled at the arrogant guy who came in to keep an eye on the stupid, inferior humans.
posted by adipocere at 4:10 PM on June 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

However, McCoy's biggest beef with Spock always came down to Spock's complete rejection of half his heritage.

So McCoy is like my one neighbor who's offended that Obama identifies as black? Yes, this absolutely makes him more sympathetic to me **eyeroll** Honestly I will accept that this may be a generational thing - that I never developed a tolerance for a common flaw in an otherwise-lovable character.

Anyway, if McCoy's not a bully, then he's a idiot. He has proof right in front of his eyes that Spock, despite his cultural distaste for emotion, isn't an arrogant father figure - Spock's close friendship with Kirk (which is, I think, the worthwhile "heart" of the show). Maybe it's jealousy...
posted by muddgirl at 4:37 PM on June 8, 2011

Also just realized that there's a huuuge retcon there, unless there was a show bible which explained the plot of First Contact to the TOS writing staff (which would surprise me, given the otherwise lax treatment of continuity between episodes).
posted by muddgirl at 4:41 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's weird to me how she glides past TNG racism by saying that because all Klingons are dark-skinned, Worf isn't "a black Klingon" and zoooom we're elsewhere. Come on. Even when I was watching TNG as a kid I thought it was weird that there was a black race which just happened to be violent and hypermasculine.

Not to mention the Ferengi, Jews of the galaxy.
posted by prefpara at 4:48 PM on June 8, 2011

Erik is a villain not because of what he does with his anger, but because bad things happened to him. Charles is the hero because he's lucky enough not to have been victimized. The fact is, Hollywood--pop culture in general, actually--doesn't like victims. It's willing to feel sorry for them, but it won't quite accept them as heroes.

I feel like she's really forcing this interpretation on the film, and I don't really get it. Magneto is a villain precisely because of what he's done with his anger. I don't understand how she's claiming otherwise.
posted by neuromodulator at 4:51 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

No, you have it backwards. I will run with your analogy, though, despite a less than perfect fit.

McCoy would be black and is offended that Spock identifies as white.

Spock is the light-skinned overseer, "acting white," checking up on the unruly, barely civilized people who now have the freedom to roam a quadrant of the galaxy. By the time we hit the original series, Vulcans had stopped stopped pulling that act from Enterprise, where they were "mentoring humanity to what they see as an appropriate level of civilization, routinely holding back scientific knowledge in an effort to keep humans stranded close to home, believing them to be too irrational and emotionally-dominated to function properly in an interstellar community."

However, the suspicion hangs on with McCoy (and that sort of thing takes a few generations to overcome, sound familiar?) that here is this another Vulcan science officer, "passing" despite his background, checking up on the humans, who are just too uncouth, emotional, and undomesticated to be trusted with the business of interstellar exploration. McCoy isn't your neighbor, he's the fifty-five year old black guy who wonders if it is only a strange run of luck that he keeps getting stopped by the cops and remembers enough of the bad old days to not be as optimistic about the possible interpretations as the younger folk are.

So he sees Spock as rejecting half of himself, the half that is McCoy, to side with the specter of the old days, and that's a betrayal, because isn't he one of us, too?
posted by adipocere at 4:57 PM on June 8, 2011 [7 favorites]

DS9 was the best Star Trek series, because BSG kicked it in the ass, and demanded interesting stories about (human) politics in times of war.
posted by ovvl at 5:11 PM on June 8, 2011

By the time we hit the original series, Vulcans had stopped stopped pulling that act from Enterprise, where they were "mentoring humanity to what they see as an appropriate level of civilization, routinely holding back scientific knowledge in an effort to keep humans stranded close to home, believing them to be too irrational and emotionally-dominated to function properly in an interstellar community."

Maybe you missed my comment where I noted that, AFAIK, this is one giant retcon. The "Vulcans introduce humanity to galactic civilization" was not mentioned in TOS, so for the purposes of analyzing the writer's intentions for the characters in that show, I can not use this character motivation. Unless there's some evidence to the contrary - it's hard to verify this without wading through lots of Spock/McCoy slash.
posted by muddgirl at 5:16 PM on June 8, 2011

note: I meant B5 instead of BSG. I will now retire. sigh.
posted by ovvl at 5:36 PM on June 8, 2011

I stumbled on to a random white power board randomly one day, and the participants were discussing trek. The discussion topic was something like, "Which race in Star Trek reminds you most of n------?" Anyway, the overwhelming answer was Klingons -- because they're violent. Yes, I was as confused as you are, and no, I have no idea how I ended up there.

Only a very few of the dumbass racists were perceptive enough to point out that Klingons having the dark face paint was pretty recent, and dark-skinned TNG-era Klingons were cultural standins for Communist menace of the (then) future, the Chinese, just as TOS Klingons had been Future Space Russians. Not to mention most Klingons, even the dark skinned ones, were played by white actors.

All this is to say that despite the obvious fact that Klingons aren't "black", both viewers and writers sometimes forget that on TNG because the primary Klingon was Black. During the TNG era Worf was often portrayed as a noble savage -- a trope currently more associated with African-descended people than Chinese Communists. Worf was always fighting against his 'baser' instincts, thanks to his human upbringing, whereas other Klingons were simply savage. I think that's a big part of what the crazy racists were seeing -- they were associating "black" with "savage". I'm sure the TNG writers did not intend this parallel, but like most Americans of any race, it was an implicit cultural assumption that they didn't take care to fight against.

I do love in the DS9 era, when Klingons are portrayed less as culture-less "savages" and more as people with a rich cultural tradition, the difference between them and Worf isn't papered over, but given a richer meaning, as the blog author does point out. I think she misses something, though, in declaring that Worf fully embraces his Klingon-ness. For one thing, if he *really* did, he would have left Starfleet much earlier. And when he did left, it would have been to claim his chancellorship, as was his right upon killing Gowron.

Ironically, as a Black Caribbean who feels more at home in White American culture, and must thus fight for validity in both cultures -- which both feel very alien at times -- I really identify with DS9-era Worf. Not because Caribbeans are anything like Klingons, but because whatever I embrace of either of my cultures, people like the blog author accuse me of a full rejection or a full embrace, when neither is the case.

I cannot believe, though, that the author doesn't address the whole Feregi=Space Jews thing, especially since she's from Israel (I don't know if she's Jewish, but it seems so). I've seen producers defend them time and time again as "the most 20th century human-like characters", as she does. Substituting the United States for humanity, I do see it in some ways: it is a damning indictment of our culture that we see everything in terms of commerce, exchange, and individualism. However, as in the Worf case, the issue of who the characters are played by under the makeup are so overwhelmingly Jewish that it crowds out other interpretations. Not to mention that the tropes the actors, writers -- even the makeup people -- fall back on are so well aligned with historical stereotypes of Jews.
posted by lesli212 at 5:40 PM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

mudgirl, you're right that adipocere's ideas about McCoy are based on a retcon, but I think it demonstrates that there could be a quite defensible motivation for the way McCoy treats Spock and that therefore TOS just doesn't actually give us enough information to render a moral judgement against him.
posted by straight at 5:40 PM on June 8, 2011

Nussbaum is fantastic, kipmanley. Thank you very much for linking us to her writing.
posted by straight at 5:43 PM on June 8, 2011

Again, I'm not passing moral judgment on McCoy as if he were a real person (in which case I suppose it would be acceptable to include retconned material) - I'm passing judgement on McCoy as a product of writers who had a specific problematic purpose for that character within a problematic show. And such an analysis can't assume that writers had a specific, coherent backstory that was never revealed on-air, unless there is some evidence that this is the case.
posted by muddgirl at 5:46 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Actually, I take that back. I'm sure the writers didn't have a specific purpose for McCoy, beyond the whole "moral center between science and intuition" thing. But that doesn't mean that subconscious prejudices were not revealed through him. Maybe I need to get my hands on Star Trek and Sacred Ground:
Jennifer Porter and Darcee McLaren wrote that McCoy is an "unintentional"[6] example of how "irrational prejudices and fixations, wishful thinking and emotional reasoning, denial and repression, and unresolved neurotic disturbances" compromise "scientific rationality" in Star Trek.[26]
posted by muddgirl at 5:49 PM on June 8, 2011

What I liked about DS9 was that the founders were clearly superior to us and all the other species, and treated the various other species either as domesticated animals or vermin to be controlled, the way we treat coyotes.

Too bad they couldn't have gotten away with the real ending, where the founders defeat the coalition easily, and kill off the humans, ferengis, klingons, etc. except for a few to be used to establish new lines of domesticates.
posted by jamjam at 5:50 PM on June 8, 2011

I dunno. I kinda think referring to X-Men: First Class's "moral bankruptcy" just makes you sound like a schmuck. Well done post, but not a fan.
posted by Amanojaku at 5:55 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

lesli, I'm not sure I understand why you think it's significant that some Klingons were played by white actors. Those actors were given dark makeup because no TNG Klingons (as far as I can recall) have pale skin. That, to me, seems far more meaningful than the fact that under the makeup, there might be a white person. The actor's skin tone is invisible. Only the completed Klingon is seen by the viewer, and that Klingon invariably reads (to an American audience) as black. The more Klingons got explored on TNG, the more we saw how their culture was a warrior culture that prized violence and animal-like roars. Klingon women were also more violent, Klingon sex was violent (and dangerous for poor reads-white Troi), etc. This all fits so neatly with American racist stereotypes about black people that I don't really understand how the Klingons as portrayed on TNG can be understood as not constituting a racist vision of blackness.
posted by prefpara at 6:37 PM on June 8, 2011

Garak makes everything better

Indeed. About halfway through the series, the writers figured out that Andrew Robinson's acting had imbued a relatively minor character who was originally a foil to pretty boy Bashir, with wit, irony, and sophistication. Thus amazing episode such as In the Pale Moonlight, which uses Garak's amorality as a means to expose a deeper amorality at the heart of Sisko and, by extension, the federation,
posted by googly at 6:46 PM on June 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Klingons as black is new to me. In TOS they're essentially an entire race of Merciless Mings, in both appearance and actions, and in the later stuff they're the two dimensional warrior race (sometimes noble) who vaguely look like Mongol raiders with unusual foreheads. The cinematic resemblance was clear in a recent viewing of a Korean film where the good guys make a last stand against some outriders of Genghis Khan and my GF remarks that she hopes the Klingons aren't keeping a bird of prey in reserve to massacre our heroes.
posted by honestcoyote at 7:13 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

prefpara, sorry I wasn't clear before. I was describing what people on this board who were, um, less dumb (?) extreme racists were pointing this out to the others on the board who thought that all Klingons are Black actors (and because of this, representative of Black people). It gets very convoluted when trying to describe the theories of people whose intelligence is on par with a rock, as opposed to the completely brainless they choose to associate with.

(And to nerdily nitpick about TNG details -- there is at least one pale full TNG Klingon: Koroth, in that episode with the clone of Kahless, Rightful Heir. And of course, The Albino from DS9, but he's completely beside the point.)

I do feel that TNG Klingons were conceived to be "Space Communist Chinese", and I also agree with you that in many ways TNG Klingons come across as "Space Africans", with all the negatively stereotypical baggage. I feel that this is implicit and unintentional and due primarily to coincidences of casting and makeup that caused actors and writers to insert traits they otherwise might not have, and that's what the crazy racists were picking up on, as I noted previously. I hope that was clear throughout the rest of my comment.

On a semi-related note, I recently rewatched Code of Honor, that terribly racist TNG episode from the first season, and there's a scene in which Picard gives the "Africans in Space" a Ming(?) Dynasty Horse because he says the alien culture reminds him of this particular culture from Earth's history. I almost died laughing, but I do find it interesting that these aliens were also conceived as Chinese yet cast as Africans. It's a little troubling in both cases that the Chinese are "acceptable targets" of stereotyping, and I think it speaks more to the problems with taking any culture wholesale and "transforming" them into "X... in SPACE!"
posted by lesli212 at 7:16 PM on June 8, 2011

Also, as a half-Korean, half-German gal, who is herself at odds with her heritage, explained to me, the Ferengi aren't the Jews of the galaxy, they're the Koreans. She launched into this whole bit about the bargaining culture and that there was a special word reserved for elders who were known for slick deals and hard bargains, people one ought not to mess with, and that they are the sub-nagus for each Korean town. She had other points, which I have forgotten, but that one always stuck with me.

I am not sure I buy into it, but people can read quite a lot into something, can't they?
posted by adipocere at 7:18 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think if many Ferengi actors and writers were Koreans, or even if they were very familiar with Korean culture, that could work, but I doubt they did. Perhaps then, it's more apt to say that Koreans are 20th century Ferengi? [Can of worms.]

I know very little about Korean culture -- just that kimchee is yummy & late 90s Korean soap operas are the bomb -- but I don't doubt that she's spot on. I definitely share your friend's experience in seeing something in standard American culture that reflects hilariously on my own culture, which I know the vast majority of US culture-makers know nothing about.
posted by lesli212 at 7:30 PM on June 8, 2011

I always saw the Klingons as Vikings. I do not read them as black.
posted by spaltavian at 7:33 PM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

The one thing I like about the relentlessly bland and tedious "Next Generation" is its fundamental optimism regarding the future of our species. Why is optimism contentious? Why does every depiction of the future have to be a dystopia - and usually exactly the same dystopia at that? Why is every identikit dark, oppressive and gritty future - dominated of course by EVIL CORPORATIONS - lauded as original and biting when it's a lazy, dreary trope that's been played out to no purpose a million times before?

We're only going to actually reach the stars if we're optimistic about the future and our capabilities, otherwise we're going to let our culture run down around us while we slouch on our backsides watching ham fisted social commentary masquerading as science fiction films and playing dazzling video games bought from the EVIL CORPORATIONS these works of art oh so bravely lampoon.

There's a reason why science fiction has been so laughably bad at actually predicting the future - nearly every vision of tomorrow paints everything as bleak and getting worse while all the actual evidence from history shows that things have always got better and continue to improve. Any notion that what we've achieved is worthwhile or that it's worth striving to do better may be sneered at by the lazy kneejerk cynicism which passes for sophistication these days but no bridge was ever built by a pessimist and I bet the future resembles the federation in many ways - decent, well meaning and ever so slightly dull.
posted by joannemullen at 3:16 AM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are two moments in my life that stand out to me and made me realise how deep the black/white race issue is in America. (and this is not an insult, Americans, it's just an observation)

The first was when I first stepped foot in another country, and a haggler tried to sell me tickets to some booze-cruise in Honolulu, and as part of his spiel he stated "It's all Australians, Irish, English .... no blacks". Apart from airport staff, this was the first local I spoke to.

The second was after I'd watched EVERY episode of TNG, many several times, and I read somewhere on the interwebs that "Klingons are black". I was like "What? Really? Well, sure they have darker skin, but aren't the big ridges in their foreheads, their bizarre mating rituals, and their warrior mentality more of a differentiator than the colour of their skin?". The concept that Klingons are "black" had just never crossed my mind, and still doesn't make any sense to me.
posted by Diag at 4:44 AM on June 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

There's a reason why science fiction has been so laughably bad at actually predicting the future

Very little of it was ever intended as a prediction of the future, though. The vast majority is a comment on problems facing humanity today, hence the recent obsession with evil corporations, past obsessions with nuclear war, and so on.
posted by harriet vane at 6:00 AM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jennifer Porter and Darcee McLaren wrote that McCoy is an "unintentional"[6] example of how "irrational prejudices and fixations, wishful thinking and emotional reasoning, denial and repression, and unresolved neurotic disturbances" compromise "scientific rationality" in Star Trek.[26]

This seems overthinking it. Isn't it more likely that rather than an example of "unintentionally compromising scientific rationality", the character of McCoy is simply a sop to the needs of drama and conflict? Star Trek is fiction, and storytelling will always come before scientific rationality. I don't think there's anything "unintentional" about it all.
posted by modernnomad at 6:02 AM on June 9, 2011

Any notion that what we've achieved is worthwhile or that it's worth striving to do better may be sneered at by the lazy kneejerk cynicism which passes for sophistication these days but no bridge was ever built by a pessimist (...)

What? Pessimists build the best bridges. Pessimists build bridges while thinking about everything that might go wrong with the bridge.

You can go ahead and drive your car over optimist-bridges built by ambitious six-year-olds with baler twine, cotton candy and high hopes.

Me, I think I'll take the ones built by pessimists bogged down by trifles like load limits and structural integrity.

One of the ways we make the future better is by worrying about what might happen.

If that future doesn't happen, that means we're doing something right, possibly because people with imagination and vision have taken the time and effort to point out how things could go wrong.
posted by Shepherd at 7:19 AM on June 9, 2011 [7 favorites]

The concept that Klingons are "black" had just never crossed my mind, and still doesn't make any sense to me.

My favorite Klingon (after Worf, of course) as a kid was Gowron, Chancellor of the Empire, who was played by this guy.
posted by EarBucket at 8:46 AM on June 9, 2011

I always thought of them as space bikers myself, when they're not being Russians. They stand in for a lot of things, TBH. I suspect that Klingon=Black probably makes sense if you pay attention to all the most boringest "Wolf finding his identity" storylines, but they all suck.
posted by Artw at 8:55 AM on June 9, 2011

This seems overthinking it.

I would be fine with stating that it's all poppycock, and that McCoy is just poorly-drawn foil to Spock, but it's clear that many people think that McCoy is the voice of scientific humanism, which blends Spock's cold logic with Kirk's hot "will" or intuition. It's the basis of the argument that McCoy is the real heart of TOS. I think it's only fair to consider what the greater implications of this argument would be.
posted by muddgirl at 9:08 AM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

In re the whole optimism-versus-pessimism thing, I'd like to say that one of my favorite things about TNG (which got an even finer point on it in DS9) was the idea that shit got SO MUCH WORSE before it got to the lovely utopian ideal we see with Picard et al. TNG is optimistic about the future, but realistic about the shortcomings of Homo sapiens.

In the very first episode of TNG, the whole plot revolves around Q trying humanity in a "historic" location: a Post-WWIII court of horrors. And Q is basically coming at humanity with his proposition that humans aren't worth saving, so my read on the scene is that he's using this particular example as the vilest thing he can come up with -- that these courts represent the absolute worst of human civilization, and that we the viewers ain't even seen it yet. What the episode is saying is that yes, dystopia is indeed coming, that the track we're currently on is going to lead inexorably to it.

I think Shepherd's pretty much right that you want a bridge built by pessimists, and I think that's kinda what Roddenberry was doing; explicitly laying out a way that things are going to go Extremely Wrong before humanity manages to gather itself back up and try again.

My favorite example of this is The Bell Riots episode of DS9, where the world of "future" San Francisco is just a slightly more grotesque version of what we have right now -- incredible inequality in incomes, with poor people walled off from the middle class and the rich. Given our current carceral state, the notion of gated communities, and the income gap we have right now, it doesn't seem far-flung at all.

One of the major turning points of that episode is when one of the middle-class characters is regretting her complicity in the system, and Bashir points out that it's not HER fault things are the way the are. "Everybody tells themselves that," she says, "and nothing ever changes." The franchise as a whole is remarkably clear about the idea that shit is gonna get worse before it gets better.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:12 AM on June 9, 2011 [6 favorites]

Ooh. Now I want a spinoff series about Starfleet officers transported through time and trapped in the past at the height of Earth's dystopia. How many of their ideals are they willing to sacrifice to survive?
posted by EarBucket at 9:25 AM on June 9, 2011

but it's clear that many people think that McCoy is the voice of scientific humanism, which blends Spock's cold logic with Kirk's hot "will" or intuition.

That sounds backwards. Kirk bridges the divide between pure logic and emotional moralism. McCoy is the moral heart of the show, Spock is rational science, and Kirk charts the rational humanism between them.
posted by spaltavian at 9:29 AM on June 9, 2011

Having just finished the DS9 runm I wanted to second Garak being a great character, and being really annoyed by the emo-Basheer that emerges at the end. Ugh... Did they have to bring in a whole new character to tie off that unmarried Basheer plot string?
posted by stratastar at 12:40 PM on June 9, 2011

stratastar, they didn't bring in Ezri Dax as a romantic foil for Bashir, they brought her in because the actress who played Jadzia Dax, Terry Farrell, was leaving the show. They could have simply not brought in another Trill and given more time to the excellent supporting cast, maybe even promoting one (like Nog, who'd already been the focus of a great episode) to regular status, but instead went with the idea of a new host played by a new actress, which I think worked out really well because of the drama inherent in someone taking on the burden of all those centuries of memories without having had the training and preparation to deal with it, plus having to renegotiate her relationships with the rest of the crew, particularly with a certain grief-stricken Klingon. The late-season romance with Bashir came out of her realizing that, even though Jadzia's feelings toward Bashir were purely platonic, she wasn't Jadzia.

Also, I'm not sure what you mean by "emo-Bashir", but the revelation about his past from "Doctor Bashir, I Presume" made him an order of magnitude more interesting as a character, and even set him up to play an important part in the final arc of the series.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:01 PM on June 9, 2011

I agree Ezri wasn't a bad character, but 6+ episodes of moping why-can't-I-find-love Basheer wasn't interesting. Also while Bashir's past was an interesting development, in the end the biggest pay off of having a character that was essentially super-human was that he was really well published and that he had to stand 10 feet back to play darts with Miles.

I mean talk about pulling up short.
posted by stratastar at 2:25 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

in the end the biggest pay off of having a character that was essentially super-human was that he was really well published and that he had to stand 10 feet back to play darts with Miles.

It also led to Section 31 becoming interested in him, which in turn led to Bashir discovering that they'd created the morphogenic virus that nearly killed off the Founders, and also to the cure for the virus, the sharing of which ended the Dominion War. So, yeah, a little more than him having to handicap his darts game.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:05 PM on June 9, 2011

I want to like this. But, she seems to be drawing sweepng conclusions based on tenuous assumptions of the producer/writer/actor's intent. I think the AV Club's episode by episode bean-plating might be more insightful.
posted by HumanComplex at 8:30 PM on June 9, 2011

Yeah, I enjoy her writing but I agree with very few of her conclusions. Can't decide if I want to keep reading or not...
posted by harriet vane at 12:48 AM on June 10, 2011

I enjoy reading this, but I really think she terribly misunderstands Data.

She uses Data's desire to be human as evidence that the show is treating humanity as the greatest, most awesome species in the galaxy. But that's not it at all. Data was created by a human. He looks human, as opposed to Vulcan or Klingon, because he was made to look like a human. His programming was designed to simulate the thought processes of humans (not entirely successful, no, but not bad). That he is, in personality, similar to a Vulcan is an error, a problem, not mere happenstance. Data wants to be a human because, in essence, he was designed to want to be a human.
posted by meese at 9:29 AM on June 10, 2011

Built that way.
posted by Artw at 9:43 AM on June 10, 2011

And let's not forget something that was seriously ignored throughout TNG: Data has the memories and journals of his entire homeplanet floating around in his mind. Humans. He can access their thoughts, their histories. He can read their emotions, even though he doesn't have the apparatus to understand them. Even if we want to ignore the fact that he was intended to be a robotic human, that alone can definitely explain his yearning to become more human.
posted by meese at 10:38 AM on June 10, 2011

meese - like in the case of McCoy, I think we have to separate criticism of the character from analysis of the writers. Sure, the situation is set up such that Data has a reason to desire to be human, but it's not like this happened in real life - it was a situation constructed by the writers to serve a purpose. They can set up any justification they want (because they're dealing with their own constructs), but the end result is the same - Data desires to be something he can never be, and that unobtainable goal is to be human.

Lots of fans don't like engaging in this kind of meta analysis, but lots do.
posted by muddgirl at 11:41 AM on June 10, 2011

Spock weirdly prefigures the autism epidemic yet to come, and Data embodies it in full flower.
posted by jamjam at 11:48 AM on June 10, 2011

Muddgirl, I don't quite understand your point.

I was responding mostly to the following point in the text: "For Data to aspire to be human implies that humanity is pretty hot stuff." My criticism is Data's desire to be human does not imply that humanity is pretty hot stuff. The story behind Data (created for a purpose, yes) makes it pretty clear why he would want to be human without implying the conclusion that humanity is pretty hot stuff. I do not see evidence in how Data is designed as a character to support the conclusion that humanity is pretty hot stuff.

You seem to be claiming that I am misunderstanding her point, and that she is claiming that the mere existence of Data and his ambition to be human proves humans are "hot stuff," because the authors specifically designed him that way. But I don't see why that follows at all. Of course she's right that Data's backstory is justification designed to give the authors the chance to use Data to hold a mirror up on humanity--Data would not have been developed as a character if we didn't find him somehow interesting and relevant to ourselves.

To put some musings behind my criticism of her point... I find it easier to read Data as an analysis of human hubris and ego. A human designed Data in his very own image -- he created this incredible, amazing, unique bit of life..... Why? Because he wanted to look in a mirror. Because he thought it would be neat and a challenge: Dr. Soong created life for his own satisfaction, to show up all those who mocked him as "Often Wrong." But, despite Soong's amazing success, he still failed, and his failure is something that Data suffers with (as much as Data suffers from anything). Dr. Soong wanted to recreate himself perfectly, but he failed. He designed Data to be human, but he instead left the universe with a flawed creature -- a creature sentient enough to know he is flawed, and incapable (for most of the show's run) from ever being fixed.* If we are to read this as a claim about humanity in general, I would see it as this: humans may be clever enough to develop (some) wonders, but it can be a self-centered and thoughtless cleverness.

If the writers had done a better job with Lore, he'd be an even greater example of this. Data, at least, doesn't get to feel the rage and anger that Lore feels from being a flawed creation.

This reading may seem to go against the general optimism of the series, but I don't really think so. Over and over again, the series seems to support this: with time, with trial and error, we do tend to get more things right and wrong. Data, being an experiment, is part of that trial and error process. Humanity did wrong by Data, and his life is tragic because of our failing. I would expect Gene Roddenberry, envisioning the Star Trek universe a few hundred years into TNG's future, would envision better produced androids, who are exalted and cherished as themselves (rather than expected to be mere mirror images of their creators), who are not flawed and left with unattainable ambitions like Data is.

* I'm not implying that Data is lesser than a human. Instead, Data is flawed insofar as he was created by Soong to be a a human being, and he is not a human being.
posted by meese at 1:58 PM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do not see evidence in how Data is designed as a character to support the conclusion that humanity is pretty hot stuff.

I think you're right that she misses the textual reason why Data doesn't aspire to be, say, a Cardassian or a Klingon, but her ultimate point is more characterized by this:
In "The Measure of a Man," Bruce Maddox, trying to argue that he should be allowed to dismantle Data against his will, asks whether, if the computer of the Enterprise were to refuse an upgrade, the court now discussing Data's case would allow it to do so. He means this as a rhetorical question, which of course it is, but not in the way he thinks. If the computer of the Enterprise possessed the self-awareness and will to understand the meaning of an upgrade and refuse it, its wishes would have to be respected. That neither Maddox, nor Picard, nor the judge recognize this simple truth is because they are hung up on hardware rather than software...

A more important reason for the show's resistance to the notion of artificial sentience, however, is that the purpose of Data is not to explore the possibility of different forms of sentience, but to hold up a mirror to humanity, and a rather flattering one at that.
posted by muddgirl at 2:06 PM on June 10, 2011

And right before the bit you quoted:
As Odo is once told, "What higher flattery is there? 'I, who can be anything, choose to be like you.'
The point is that Data has a choice - so much of the show explores the fact that Data's sentience gives him choices, uncomfortable as they are. In my mind, this is starting to become almost a coded message about homosexuality (and I'm 100% sure that wasn't intended) - does Data aspire to be human because he was built that way? Or is it a path he's consciously choosing? And does it matter either way?
posted by muddgirl at 2:10 PM on June 10, 2011

I think perhaps you and Nussbaum are reading Data as having a whole lot more choice in the matter than I am. Odo's quote helps support the idea that Data's story implies human exceptionalism only if you really see Data as being free to choose what to be. I don't read Data as really having that choice, and I don't really see the authors as using him to imply human exceptionalism. The image in the mirror that is Data's aspiration is flattering only if you see him freely choosing to aspire to be human; the mirror image I see in Data's aspiration is different because I do not understand him as freely choosing to aspire to be human.
posted by meese at 2:27 PM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Clearly Data isn't fully deterministic - he can, for example, choose whether or not to be in Star Fleet. He must choose the various activities that (supposedly) make up being a human - painting, pet ownership, occupation, etc. And I think if Data doesn't have a choice in the matter, then Dr. Pulaski's attitude toward him is even more cruel.

I guess I just don't see clear textual evidence that Data's path is determined by Soong (and not, say, a result of socialization), but I don't have a very good memory and this may have been covered in some episode or another.
posted by muddgirl at 3:04 PM on June 10, 2011

I don't think it's fully determined by Soong, as opposed to socialization, either. But it is determined by all those different factors.

It would be different if he were, say, developed by a Vulcan, but then realized that he much preferred human culture and would emulate us. Or if he originally had the appearance of a Klingon but changed in order to look like us. Then, it would make a whole lot of sense to me to read his story as implying that humans are just so superduper awesome. I can so imagine the TNG authors even coming up with a character like that, and you can almost hear the dialogue they would have written. It's just, that's not Data. He is not the outsider who loves us so much he wants to be one of us; he is instead humanity's offspring, not us but created by us and in our image.

I should note, I've been going through and watching every single episode of TNG. I'm about halfway through. I've been overthinking these plates of beans for a while now.
posted by meese at 3:23 PM on June 10, 2011

But none of this changes the fact that, out of all the stories that could be told about a sentient android, they picked the Pinnochio story.
posted by muddgirl at 3:31 PM on June 10, 2011

That was the first Metafilter post in a while that I really dove into and read exhaustively. Abigail Nussbaum is a really impressive critic--the Pauline Kael of telefantasy--and I subscribed to her RSS feed, but as I read more, I had a much stronger sense of how I disagreed with her. She really has a strong sense of character and plot, which one would think would be incontestable values in a narrative, and one can sense that she'd be a great person with whom to workshop a short story.

As I read more posts, this emphasis on character and plot sometimes seemed like a way to avoid an immanent critique of a work on its own terms. Her verdicts--and they do have the fannish disadvantage of obsession with rankings and judgment--end up seeming somewhat disingenuous and compliance-oriented, like someone proctoring a test to the stories, rather than enjoying them. (There's way more critique than praise.) And so her frequent political readings of works seem rather silly, obvious and limited: it's all very much a humorless liberal democrat reading: all taste-policing, no broader political context--for example, her right-on panning of Consider Phlebas never talks about the Clash of Civilizations; her essays about sf war rarely talk about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

She's great at giving incredibly accurate, well-observed readings of specific characters on their story-arc, but this very genre-inflected focus gradually made me realize how much these things are coded as both very middlebrow and *highly commercial* narrative values. She hates two things I really like (comic books and Doctor Who) and one gets a sense it's because she doesn't really notice or care about things like voice, aesthetics, novelty, idiosyncrasy, spectacle, formally innovative structures, and so on.
posted by johnasdf at 9:50 PM on June 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

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