Friday, January 22, 2016

ST:TNG - Skin of Evil (and an analysis of Tasha Yar)

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

Seriesdate: 1.23
Skin of Evil

(The one where Tasha Yar dies)
(No, that's not spoiling much, both because this show's thirty years old and for reasons outlined below.)

Let's start with death. Killing off a recurring character is not an easy decision. Forget that writers can get attached to their creations, as professionals overcome their own preferences (often to the detriment of their work - see the dictionary definition of pandering) but keep in mind that death's dramatic tie-ins require conscious attention. You risk alienating that character's fans, you risk making the death either too corny or too gruesome, plus there's always the question of whether the rest of the cast will interact properly in the future without that character's influence. Most relevant in this case, unless you can specifically work some nihilistic lesson about the cold, uncaring universe into things, storytelling mandates important deaths for important characters, or at least good death scenes. Case-in-point: Boromir.

The crew square off against Swamp Thing, moments before it zaps Tasha

Tasha gets insta-gibbed ten minutes into a forty-five minute show. Now, I'm not saying she necessarily needed to make some big dramatic speech or that she was such a major character that her death should overshadow Star Trek's main themes, but she at least deserved a send-off to rival that simpering snot Weasely's ascension to heaven or whatever. Give her at least a couple of lines about bravery or duty or a shoot-out or a cavalry charge or something hers alone. Don't make her death just a footnote in one of Deanna Troi's episodes. Extras and one-shot characters in TNG got better death scenes than poor Tasha.

Sadly, she was always a poor fit for the show. At its most basic the character's a blatant feminist giveaway. While TNG sorely needed more serious female officers to distance itself from the original series, it badly overcompensated by shoehorning a woman in as security chief, the most masculine (indeed the only inherently physical or dangerous) role on the Enterprise. It doesn't scan. The humans in Star Trek still act entirely too human not to have men sacrificing themselves for women as per human instinct. But then, that's feminism. Equality's never enough. You gotta slap men around.
So, instead of a female engineer or scientist or transporter chief or tactical officer of some kind, TNG acquired the plucky commander Yar. Not only is she hired muscle, but men want her because she's a tough chick (sadly, she delivered some of her better lines of dialogue in the otherwise reprehensible episode Code of Honor) and her troubled past has her fighting "rape gangs" for survival - or for feminist legitimacy, because she needed some stereotypically evil, evil men to square off against. Even the tar-monster that kills her was given a deep rumbling masculine voice to build up the male-female animosity.

On the other hand, once they had Tasha's basic persona, the show's various writers seemed at a loss as to what to do with her. The cast's other two major female crew members, Troi and Crusher, filled stereotypically feminine, empathetic (or in Troi's case, outright empathic) roles, compounded by sexiness and motherhood respectively. If Yar was to balance out the female cast all by her lonesome, then her "tough chick" persona would quickly escalate to farcical proportions which the show as a whole was unlikely to accommodate. Star Trek's Utopian precepts left little room for dark pasts and grim grittiness, for the likes of Molly Millions for instance, so Yar would likely be reduced to muscling her way into various scenes to reinforce the presence of a "tough chick" in an egalitarian society where her presence was nominally supposed to be a given. The difficulty of orchestrating such situations within an otherwise fairly nonviolent show cropped up throughout the first season. Yar's abilities had to be displayed or alluded to in holodeck demonstrations, ritualized combat and sporting events. Only in one episode, the one preceding Skin of Evil, was she allowed to simply be a security chief whose dialogue and actions reflect a concern and practical care for the ship's internal safety.

Her replacement with Worf was, I'm sorry to say, appropriate (though it might have worked equally well if Worf had been female) because the Klingon angle lent more credibility to plots involving aggression, violence and, errr, growling? It's a pity that TNG didn't acquire more competent female professionals with no token reproductive role (until Guinan plus Dr. Crusher's rather late replacement with the more balanced Dr. Pulaski) but Tasha's role was too prone to farcical overstatement to be good in itself.

That being said, she still deserved a better death scene than "she's dead, Jim" to serve as verbal reference for other cast members' character development.

As for the rest of Skin of Evil, it's not as terrible as some of the other first-season nonsense, or any Wesley episode. Some relatively weak emotional dialogue, a somewhat interesting villain hampered by a lack of appropriately grandiose special effects or hard-science postulation, and a good show of headshrinking under fire by Troi can't dress up the poorly written and badly directed write-off of what was originally obviously intended as a major crew member. Even her funeral makes no sense. She addresses Wesley in her farewell video? Forget that she barely knew any of the crew. The Enterprise is a new ship and Riker only joins halfway through the pilot episode, but Wesley? One of many, many lower-ranking crew with whom she's had no direct interaction whatsoever throughout the show? His only link to her was through his mother. She may as well have made a final farewell to Picard's aunt or Riker's sister-in-law.

Aspiring writers take heed. This is precisely how not to set up and take down your characters.

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