Saturday, May 13, 2017

ST:TNG - Samaritan Watchers

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: 2.17
Samaritan Snare

Due to half this episode being muddied by viscous Wesleyitis and an insipid (and terribly acted) B-plot about Picard going into the shop to rinse the rust off his pacemaker, the main plot's greatly reduced. LaForge teleports to a ship run by a dopey, pudgy species of tweedledums.
They are Pakleds. They are far from home. They look for things. Things to make them go. Their ship is broken. Can you make their ship go? Once LaForge does so, they decide to keep him to make them stronk. Turns out any idiot can point a gun at someone, and the stupidity makes the gun no less threatening. Taken hostage, LaForge outwits his captors into surrendering.

While the main idea of babyish cretins exploiting others' generosity, looting and kidnapping their way to greatness is solid, the execution's lacking. Not enough time could be devoted to gradually unveiling the Pakleds' unlikely star-cruising career, so this is delivered as fairly dry exposition. On the other hand, too much time was devoted to establishing their dopey, mumbling, waddling mannerisms, which by way of repetition without nuance grow thin after a couple of reiterations.


Seriesdate: 3.04
Who Watches the Watchers

Hmm. Minus five points for the very tenuous application of Plato's old noodle-scratcher. Then again, I pun half my titles so I'm in no position to talk.
Aside from that, this one's a classic. Right off the bat, even Patrick Stewart sounds more confident and comfortable delivering his standard introductory monologue. Everything's better. Outdoor shots are shot out of doors and not on some poorly-lit sound stage littered with plaster boulders (see The Last Outpost or Hide and QQ.) The actors move and interact with each other more naturally, beyond mere choreography. The special effects support the action instead of being gratuitously showcased. The social commentary's more than facetious political correctness. Best of all, it takes a moldy old SF plot straight out of 1930s young adult pulp magazines and manages to get it to a striking approximation of "right."

There's an old romantic adventure story trope of gun-toting Europeans reaching some primitive tribe who immediately starts worshipping them as gods. Call it imperialist propaganda if you like but that shit goes down more often than you'd think. SF codifies its equivalent in Clarke's third law, whether portraying human gods as aliens or humans being mistaken for gods by aliens. So, in this episode, the Enterprise resupplies a trio of anthropologists observing a planet of "proto-Vulcan humanoids at the bronze-age level." They look more like Romulans but never mind. An equipment malfunction wounds the anthropologists and one of the natives, who in a drugged-out stupor (conveyed by a greased camera lens, really breaking the special effects budget with that one) witnesses Picard giving orders in what he thinks is heaven (sick-bay) and upon being sent back down brings the gospel of the almighty Overseer Picard to his people. All that's missing is a volcano in the background. Hilarity ensues.
Actually, for once it really does, as watching a religion spring up through all its predictable phases in the space of half an hour, Penguin Island style, is a satirical gold-mine.

I believe I have seen the overseer. He is called... The Picard!
Granted, it's not all perfect. Liko, the wounded Mintakan, received his vision of "The Picard" under conditions of physical and emotional stress and was thus understandably susceptible to a rapid slide into delusions of the supernatural and becoming a revival tent Saint Paul. However, Nuria, the level-headed leader of the colony who only gets the story second-hand, should not have turned proselyte so quickly.
It makes perfect sense for Troi to help Riker infiltrate the Mintakan village, but once there we devote no screen time to her applying either her telepathy or her skills as a mediator to the situation.
The anthropologists are surprisingly uninvolved in discussions with their objects of study.
Such corners were likely cut in the interest of cramming the whole plot into forty-five minutes. Also, what the hell was the props department thinking with these bows?
Yeah, they dressed a very modern bow from a sporting goods store up in some rags to make it look vaguely wooden... except they didn't even bother with the grip? Or the arrow? Were there seriously no Robin Hood surplus props lying around the studio? Bah.

Anyhoo, what really makes the episode is the Mintakans themselves. The standard version of the technomagical presto-divinity routine relegates the natives to the status of wide-eyed, mumbling, gullible, excitable dimwits prone to attributing anything and everything to supernatural causes. The Mintakans on the other hand are rational beings with a tendency to show up our current society's own taboos, as Troi's exposition to Riker demonstrates:

Troi: "Mintakan emotions are quite interesting. Like the Vulcans, they have highly ordered minds. A very sensible people. For example" she nudges him aside and struts ahead of him "Mintakan women precede their mates. It's a signal to other women."
Riker: "This man's taken, getcher own?"
Troi: "Not precisely... More like: if you want his services, I'm the one you have to negotiate with."
Riker: "What kind of services?"
Troi, grinning: "All kinds."
Riker: "They are a sensible race!"

More importantly, the writers did not shy away from the question of faith. A conference with the anthropologist pulls no punches in outlining the devolution threatened by a religious revival in the Mintakans: barbarism, repression, holy wars, inquisitions, pogroms. The failure of the intervention would likely ultimately render humans as reviled in Mintakan mythology as the Overlords of A.C. Clarke's Childhood's End.

Mintakan society abandoned religion a millennium ago, and we're given to understand that only the extraordinary conditions of the humans' appearance to Liko overcame their natural rationality. This reverses the old volcano god routine into a perfect illustration of the rationale behind the prime directive. Instead of the mighty civilized people elevating the primitives, too-early contact nearly sends their society backsliding a thousand years into slavish, simpering, anti-intellectual religious idolatry. There's a respect for independent thought, for innate intellectual ability, for stoic Vulcan reason in the script's attitude which is itself a taboo in popular entertainment with its constant reinforcement of mindless emotionalism and codependence. Yet unlike Home Soil which over-exposited its slightly similar theme, Who Watches the Watchers is aided by Stewart's excellent acting in the conversation with the colony leader Nuria.
Nuria: "Perhaps one day my people will travel above the skies."
Picard: "Of that I have absolutely no doubt."

The sense of awe his voice and fixed gaze carry in those seconds manage to eclipse the more conventionally dramatic next scene when he offers himself up as a sacrifice to convince the other natives of his mortality. Here is the captain of an interstellar spaceship with enough firepower to scorch this woman's entire planet, a sky god staring and whispering in hushed, rapt admiration to her in her cheap linen rags. What Picard is witnessing as Nuria watches her planet's clouds from the other side is the potential and promise of these people, intellectual growth itself, the only meaning to be discerned in existence. It's a finer moment than you can find in a thousand hours of television and Stewart captured it perfectly.

For all its unevenness, when TNG was good, it was damn good.

Now think of the Pakleds again. For all their unpleasantness, their story could just as well have been handled the same way, to even more poignant effect. After all, Clarke's protagonist in Childhood's End makes it clear he doesn't believe the Overlords' appreciation of humans is any more than that of a man for his pet dog, liable to bite his hand once in a while, yet the affection is there nonetheless. We can despise the Pakleds as they are now, but if they are capable of intellectual growth then we can still stand in admiration of the advancement itself, of progress.

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