Saturday, November 12, 2016

ST:TNG - Dr. Pulaski - and wtf is up with scifi biotech?

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.

Ah, Pulaski - a.k.a. the Enterprise's "other" doctor in TNG. Her stint on the show lasted all of one season, yet if you'd asked me last year I would've mistakenly said it felt like half the series. Likely this stems from her being a better defined character, more centered on her science fictiony functions instead of emoting all over the place. Not that Crusher ever approached her son's epic nuisance levels, but ole' Bev was blatantly intended to serve as mother to Weasely and love interest to Jean-Luc first and as qualified professional second. Replacing her soft-voiced mothering presence with a stern, hard-nosed medical researcher like Pulaski greatly improved TNG's SF credentials in my book and should've remained the case for the rest of the series.

Seriesdate: 2.01
The Child

Y'know, that idiotic episode written by amateurs while the professional writers were on strike. Troi's immaculate conception of a fast-track martyr boy-child. I do find it hilarious that although I contrast the two doctors in terms of their femininity, Pulaski's very first action on the ship is to deliver a baby. Way to cut your own branch, geniuses.
Seriesdate: 2.03
Elementary Dear Data

Presented more at length here in terms of Data's progression, but also yielding a bit of Pulaski's true personality, including her derision and skepticism of Data's sentience. Pulaski was initially a female copycat of Bones from the original series, gruff and straightforward but capable of having a laugh, even down to her constantly needling Data as Bones needled his own token logic factory, Spock. It was a good, soft-toned antagonism that could've really kept the dialogue flowing aboard the ship, a feature lacking in Beverly Crusher the mother hen. More importantly, it shows us Pulaski as a self-possessed, dignified prisoner calmly having tea with her captor, the villain Dr. Moriarty on the holodeck, as a rather un-distressed damsel.

Seriesdate: 2.07
Unnatural Selection

Pulaski's time to shine! There's a medical emergency and the good doctor gets to prove her dedication to her patients by crossing the quarantine zone and risking getting infected herself. Which she does! The disease in question rapidly ages its victims, which was a rather more popular trope from the late '80s until 2000 or so than it is now. The discovery of telomeres hit pop culture and suggested a single cause of aging, and for a while telomere elongation sounded like the fountain of youth.

In case you're wondering, and ignoring any specifics, immortalizing cell lines will eventually yield cancer just in probabilistic terms, by accumulating mutations as the cells divide. No, telomerase is no fountain of youth, and really it makes no appearance on this show, but the trope of rapid aging was very, very popular. It tied into great scientific hopes and it presents a stunning visual rather easily manageable with make-up, therefore a relatively low-budget special effect for the time.

A greater aside: why is biology the red-headed stepchild of science fiction? Physics in SciFi touts all these amazing progressive and/or badass discoveries like teleporters and laserguns and flying cars... yet every time biology gets tapped it's for plagues and Brundleflies and zombie apocalypses! This is the same show with that wonder of cybernetics, Data, riding a force-field-phasering interstellar exploration vessel. Then when it's time to show the wonders of biology we get a freaking luddite wail of panic that attempting to breed telekinetic ubermenschen will somehow wipe out the human species. Well, replacing humanity would be kind of the point of breeding ubermenschen, but in reality it's biologists saving all our asses from unicellular apocalypse! Augh!
Okaaaayyyy, calming down now, calming down... where was I, let's see...

"Their immune systems don't wait for disease to attack the body. It would seek out the virus and destroy it!"

What the FUCK! I'd say that's the most idiotic line you could've come up with but some dingbat on that writing team already gave us "subatomic bacteria" so I guess you've already outdone yourselves. Did you even read the dictionary definition of an immune system? Or did you just assume it's some mystical miasma you can send out into the aether like Professor Xavier projecting his astral form? Isaac Asimov taught biochem and he was still alive in 1989. Would it have killed you jokers to call him up and beg him to kindly smack you upside your heads? Aside from other problems, if those post-human brats were spewing clouds of antibodies and immune cells everywhere they went, they'd probably be sending everyone around them into anaphylactic shock or inducing graft vs. host disease!
Oookaaaaayyyy, calming down.... whew.

Anyhoo, pretty good episode aside from from all the nonsensical biotech jargon and hatin' on biology, and by the end Dr. Pulaski's saved from her untimely plunge into senility through the medical magic of... O'Brien's teleporters...

Oh, fuck me, let's just move on to the last one.

Seriesdate: 2.18
Up The Long Ladder

Yup. That's a cow alright.

Pulaski treats Worf when he unexpectedly curls up his toes and faints from a childhood illness. In return he treats her to the Klingon tea ceremony, which I suppose was meant to link Klingons more closely to bad-ass samurai and the Japanese tea ceremonies, except this one's about as complex as, well, sipping tea. Oh, but with both hands. That's important. Also poison.

The real plot involves two lost human colonies, both in danger of dying out. A bunch of "back to nature" drunken Irish hillbillies have to get relocated because of solar flares but it's no bother really because they're hilarious. Their chieftain even tries to set Picard up with his shrewish no-nonsense spitfire of a daughter. Hilarity ensues. Plus pigshit in the cargo bay.

Meanwhile and elsewhere, another (high-tech this time) colony is dying out from genetic disorders. Their original population on arrival was too small to ensure genetic viability, so they've been asexually reproducing, cloning themselves for the past three centuries and the cloning process has begun to wear thin. They beg the Enterprise's crew for a few cells from which to clone new colonists, and the mighty, elevated, open-minded 24th century spacefarers suddenly start throwing salt over their shoulders and crossing their fingers in front of them to ward off such a blasphemous proposition. Desperate, the cloners zap Riker and Pulaski unconscious and simply take a few cells. Pulaski discovers what happened and they return to the planet to discover.... dun-dun-duuuuuUUUUNNN !
-clones being grown from their cells. Oh noes! They murder their incipient doppelgangers and indignantly call the colonists out on the theft of copyrighted genetic material. Then they simply lump the two colonies (rednecks and asexuals) together and tell 'em to fuck 'til their kids all look the same, and with this interplanetary odd couple solution all is well again.

On the whole, this is a decent episode. It's funny, fast-paced, witty and complex by the low standards of 45 minutes of late '80s TV and quite cohesive in its theme of compromise. There's only one snag, and once again it's the paranoid, Luddite treatment of the topic of biotechnology, in this case cloning. There seems to be no way of getting this through the public's thick head: there is nothing special about cloning! Identical twins are exactly that, clones, perfectly mundane, naturally occurring clones, and yet every time the topic comes up it runs into an implacable wall of primitive superstition, the same caveman paranoia running against genetically modified crops or vaccines. It's the idiotic religious fear of hubris, of doing rationally and purposefully only what nature does randomly, recklessly and aimlessly.

The human animal fears its own sentience more than anything, and there's no bigger boogeyman in the public mind than unfettered intellect - the witch, the wild-eyed philosopher, the mad scientist.

It's hilarious that every time cloning comes up in cheap pulp SF it's always demonized as some grand reckless scientific advance, yet always accompanied by tacitly hand-waved futuristic technologies which are centuries ahead of cloning itself. Sweet mother of crap, growing an entire adult human body in one day?!? We can't even dream of that kind of technology now, and we've been able to clone humans for two decades. Transferring memories to clones so they walk and talk just like their tissue donors? What the hell, you're talking about a mind-machine interface which, if available, would result in godlike cyborgs and androids, not paltry simian copies. Yet time and again these jaw-dropping technological marvels have to be worked into cloning storylines because cloning alone, manufacturing identical twins, is so utterly mundane in and of itself as to feed no anti-scientific paranoia. So you're going to have fifteen identical twins of you, all thirty or forty (or however old you are) years younger than yourself. Big whoop. Even identical twins of the same age, grown in the same household, end up with different personalities before they hit grade school.

And there's the core issue: the public has no theory of mind. The popular conception of personal identity relies not on a rational analysis of diverging personal experiences superimposed on natural tendencies, but on primitive superstitious mysticism about souls, so that taking a few cells for cloning sounds to the average cretin (as "stealing" a photographic image did to superstitious aborigines) like stealing your soul! On the other hand, those clones being grown in those foggy vats were persons in their own right, separate individuals whom Riker and Pulaski casually murder with no more than a head-nod as justification, under the moral umbrella of stone-age superstition.

TNG was an excellent Utopian SF show allowing people to look to a post-scarcity future brightened by technological marvels... yet when those marvels edge into the biological it repeatedly flipped around to Luddite hand-wringing. It's the damndest thing. I prefer Dr. Pulaski to Crusher. She's a better rounded character centered not on her biological or social role but on her own quirks, interests and tendencies, an actual personality. Still it seems like after casting her the show's writers had no interest in using her as anything but a prop to demonize biology for stepping on The Creator's celestial toes.

P.S. - Never mind that the Star Trek teleporter, ripping the subject apart and reassembling the atoms at the other end according to the analyzed pattern, was nothing but a murder/cloning machine in the first place.

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