Thursday, March 29, 2018

ST:TNG - Sins of the Toys

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: 3.17
Sins of the Father

(or: Days of Our Klingon Lives)

More head crests = moar! powarrr!

The smug one up front's called Kurn. In an unusual continuity callback all the way to Seriesdate 1.20 Kurn takes Riker's place aboard the Enterprise as part of the Klingon-Federation officer / cultural / experience exchange and baked goods raffle.
Or something.

Kurn's Klingon Kommanding pisses off most of the crew. He also goads Worf into a confrontation by... ignoring him while disciplining everyone else, thereby wounding Worf's pride. Nice touch. Turns out Kurn's Worf's long-lost baby bro, yo (and probably has amnesia and slept with his wife, while we're operating soaps) so we completely drop the storyline about the officer exchange to segue to Klingon courtroom drama.

Worf and Kurn's father, Mogh, has been posthumously accused of treason by inciting the attack at... Kittomer? Khitomar? Ketomar? Katamari Damacy?

Kittymuck, that's what it's called: Kittymuck. The tragic Romulan attack on Kittymuck station, which also left Worf an orphan. Spoiler alert, the hero's honored father's in fact innocent. The real scoop at Kittymuck was that the accuser's own father pooped up the defensive grid, littering it with Romulans. But being as his family's of bluer blood, the Klingon in kharge fears civil war if they should be accused and instead scapegoated the family of the conveniently expatriate Worf.
In the end, the mystery's solved by some fancy computer geekery aboard the Enterprise and the testimony of Worf's old nanny. Yes, Klingon brats have nannies. They don't just chestburst out of their mothers, Bat'leth in hand, ready to smite their enemies.
(They really only get a small dagger... I mean, they're only fetuses after all.)

It would be easy to handwave all such operatics aside, were it not rather relevant to the developing Star Trek universe. The basic premise of the Klingons is that of a warrior race, space samurai, which filtered through the intellectual rigor of a 45-minute TeeVee serial translated as petty thugs. Though obviously aware of the need to flesh them out a bit, TNG's various writers still pigeonholed Worf, episode after episode, roaring at the ceiling or getting his nipples cattle-prodded to show how tough he is.

You have to wonder how such a species of Jocko Homos would ever make it out to space in the first place, much less pose an organized threat to any other race. Here, finally, we see them capable of resolving disputes without combat and occasionally placing the greater good above pecking order.


Seriesdate: 3.22
The Most Toys

(You know, the one with the disruptor pistol that tortures people to death from the inside.)
Data's been botnapped!
An interstellar trader named Kivas Fajo fakes a planetary disaster, a resource shortage and shuttlecraft accident, all to steal Data for his collection of unique specimens. Data refuses to play dress-up or sit pretty. Thus Fajo dissolves Data's military onesie and threatens to kill an innocent bystander. Said innocent bystander is his assistant. Being female, she of course is portrayed as only a blameless victim of her evil, evil male boss, ultimately turns a one-eighty and attempts to help Data escape. They're caught and Fajo vaporizes her with the banned torture disruptor, stage right. And that's where it gets interesting, as Data turns that same weapon against Fajo (just as the Enterprise is teleporting him out, because we can't have a hero actually shooting anyone on television.)

Of course it bears asking why Fajo wasn't written as a Ferengi, as the species was custom-made for such antics, but that's neither here nor there. Maybe the actor wanted his face more visible. Maybe the Ferengi were enough of a one-trick pony already without piling on. See the very similar kidnapping episode involving Troi's mother.

In broad strokes, the plot approaches comic book simplicity. Scene by scene, though, the dialogue reveals new depths to Data's intellectual integrity, honesty and ethical standards. His initial gentlemanly passive resistance to his captor's demands, his declared refusal or inability to kill except defensively, progress to a conscious decision to rid the universe of an obvious villain. Ah, but what truly elevates this story past any comparable TV SF plot is the ambiguity of Data's moral development. While scrupulously honest to his captor throughout his ordeal, refusing to play along and earn his trust, our positronic positivist lies to Riker at the end about having attempted to kill Fajo.

Can a little white lie be worse than murder? Fajo repeatedly taunts Data about his emotional inability to rage and avenge his own gruesome murder of his accomplice just moments earlier. Yet simple animal fury or self-interest are not the only motives for an execution. When Data finally pulls the trigger, it's as a rational, informed choice to stop a much greater wrong: Fajo's continued villainous career. In comparison, his little white lie at the end is ostensibly both much less harmful and even justifiable. After all, what good would be served by having himself court-martialed for the attempted murder of a civilian?

And yet... his lie targets Riker and O'Brien, betraying the implicit trust of crewmates. It is, unlike the murder, perpetrated primarily if not even entirely in self-interest. It masks the alarming mental changes he has undergone, and in someone routinely responsible for steering a spaceship, an altered mental state might pose no small concern.

For better or worse, Data has changed.


To me, both episodes above are true classics of the series (though not my personal favorites.) All the bitching I've done until now about stupid writing, acting, special effects, stupid writing, editing, cheap moralizing and more stupid writing seem to have largely vanished. Sure, by the standards of written SF printed around 1990 this all seems tiresomely buffoonish, but compare it to most any other TV series in the golden age of Baywatch and Saved by the Bell. Then remember that intellectual expectations for Star Trek, based on the original series, had been if anything even lower than for a teen comedy...

The guest stars for both episodes helped greatly. Saul Rubinek was annoying enough as Daphne's annoying brother on Frasier, but the same spazzy wide-eyed over-emoting worked wonders for a one-episode Caligula act. Tony Todd, whose ludicrously prolific career includes the eminently non-spazzy, critical-eyed, modestly emoting anthropologist in The Man from Earth, lent that same moderation to his stiff, collected, self-possessed Klingon officer.

And moderation is the key word here. In both cases, details are not simply added to the characters' basic personae, but the main dimension of these personae is scaled back. Both Data and the Klingons suffer a pigeonhole widening (as I believe the scholarly dramaturgical phrase goes) to fit more nuance. The Klingons gain a legal and political system and Data gains the ability to act impulsively. This involves losing some chest-thumping and some inflexibility, respectively.

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