Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 4.1.6: Old Skin For The New Ceremony

Q-Less

Star Trek Q-Less 1

Prophets know, someone here needed punching.

(Content warning: generalised references to abusive relationships)

Jambly crisps. Reading reactions to this episode make me wonder if Bashir was the only person it put to sleep for days.

“Q-Less” is not, to put it in the most charitable terms I can, regarded as a fan favorite. It’s easy to understand why, and much less easy to argue against the consensus. This isn’t going to be one of those posts about why I think everyone else is wrong.

That said, I do think that “Q-Less” is rubbish for some fairly interesting reasons. The episode clearly isn’t a success, but it’s at least a failure that’s trying to make a point. It’s just that everything it wants to say is drowned out by one loud, obnoxious, and terribly uninteresting voice.

And yet it so nearly wasn’t this way.

Sin-Q-Larity

There is, in fact, a precise moment in the development of this episode where everything went to hell. Up until that point, the basic concept was one I could have got behind. Before we get to exactly where things went wrong, though, I should at least gesture towards the reasons “Q-Less” doesn’t work. You should always consider the symptoms before delivering a diagnosis.

First, the tuppence summary: “Q-Less” has an awful lot of nerve wanting to be about how encountering the new can be thrilling and surprising and beautiful, considering its obsession with two characters who belong to the franchise’s past. There are other issues here too, and we’ll get to them, but this is the one that’s most structurally damaging. Q’s line about how he’d been able to see the universe anew through Vash’s eyes might be his very least intolerable one in the episode, but it rather rings hollow considering we too are supposed to be seeing this universe through new eyes – Sisko’s and Kira’s and Dax’s and so on – and we can’t, because all they can catch sight of is Q’s gurning mug. Every time we might get to hear a new voice offer up a new viewpoint, Q sucks all the oxygen from the room. Sisko can argue all he wants that he’s not sure Q is causing explosive decompression across the station, but on a narrative level that is exactly what’s happening.

Star Trek Q-Less 2

It’s… heh heh… it’s… no wait, listen… it’s… A RAY OF LIGHT! BOOM! Comedy gold. You’re welcome.

Q’s presence is a problem on almost every possible level. This isn’t John de Lancie’s fault; he’s as completely charming and delightful as he always is. That can only get us so far, though. The unique viewing structure of IDFC means this is the first time we’ve encountered Q since rewatching “Encounter At Farpoint”, and his descent from outraged chaos god to magical git is horribly obvious. He simply isn’t an interesting character here.

And yet Wolfe – in his first writing gig for the show – insists on putting him front and centre, where his mass allows him to warp the entirety of the narrative around him. He’s a black hole. He’s a power drain. He forces the brand new set of characters we’re supposed to be learning about into roles of mere reaction. This might have had some chance of working later in the show’s lifetime, when Sisko’s crew was familiar enough to hold their own against so powerful a presence (note how little screen time Q gets in “Encounter At Farpoint” compared to here, by the way). Right now, though, all they can do is react to an attention-hogging idiot. Wolfe wields the past of the franchise as a fetish here, and in doing so directly undercuts its present.

Everything Old Is Q Again

In short, including Q here more or less wrecks the episode from the very start. It’s interesting then that the earlier drafts of the episode didn’t feature him at all. Originally, Vash was going to be the only returning guest star, having found stranded in the Delta Quadrant as she is here, but with her erstwhile partner nowhere to be seen.

There’s a way in which this alternative episode would still causes problems. It doesn’t seem a great sign that the first life form we encounter in the Delta Quadrant itself turns out to be a TNG character. Even if we ignore the fact that of the six opening episodes of this show, fully half have featured regular or recurring Next Gen characters (not including O’Brien, of course), mistaking a gateway into the unknown for some kind of nostalgia tunnel seems like a rather non-trivial problem. Wasn’t this supposed to be about, y’know, the future?

Except… look at how Vash acts during the episode. Look at what she represents. She rolls her eyes at the Bajoran banker who cares nothing for her archaeological assortment beyond their dimensions and the materials they are made from. She ignores the obviously negative reactions of Quark’s clientele – thereby risking her own profits – and insists they should have some understanding of what they’re bidding for beyond “old and from far away”. Her own message is very clear: the past is a place of fascination and joy. The artefacts she “sources” have monetary value, but that’s not the only scale on which to measure their worth. This perspective is what leads her to conclude at the end of the episode that she simply has to take a trip to Tartarus V. She needs, on a bone-deep level, to keep exploring new slices of the old.

And whilst Quark might not have any time for this particular approach to acquisition, others here respond in kind. Take Bashir. We open this episode with him trying to bed a woman barely out of her teens through the use of a pick-up routine so self-absorbed and hokey O’Brien looks like he wants to remote beam himself into space rather than keep listening to it. Between this and the good doctor’s infatuation with Dax, about whom (far too) much is made regarding the youthfulness of her new body, a pattern is established. Bashir is very much into the hot young things. So far, so cliche. You half expect him to tell Dax the only ailment he can’t cure is a broken heart.

When you stick Vash in front of him, though, he reacts in the exact same way. Hell, if anything he seems to find her more attractive than anyone else he’s flirted with so far (except maybe Garak). Just as with her stash, Vash herself has not stopped becoming entrancing simply because she isn’t freshly made. Quark, who is also being portrayed in his early appearances as being all about the young ladies – to the point of having them sign contracts requiring them to… well, we’re mercifully spared the details – also finds himself enchanted by Vash. The sexy archaeologist routine clearly isn’t even close to tired. She is no less desirable than the artifacts she’s hawking.

(As a brief aside: oomox seems to be a pretty obvious weakness for the busy Ferengi entrepreneur, doesn’t it? It must have cost Quark so much latinum over the years. It’s almost surprising they go for it. If every Ferengi male becomes so terrible a negotiator whenever his lobes are stroked, you’d think they’d cover them up. I actually quite like that they don’t, though. There’s something very fitting in these misogynists recognising how much money flaunting their lobes costs them but doing it anyway, in the hopes they can score some quality oomox from a sexy stranger).

The above points need some unpicking before I can move on, because I don’t want anyone to infer I find something remarkable in the idea women in their mid thirties might be considered sexually attractive. Of course I don’t. What I find remarkable is a television series explicitly agreeing with me. And sure, its a banal point. Like a story about how women shouldn’t be kept in the kitchen, it’s too obvious a statement to bake anyone cookies for making it. But we can stop short of praising this step in the right direction and still note how rare it is to see that step taken. Bashir panting after Vash clearly is unusual in the environment of network television, and culture more generally. This becomes no less true for being so horrendously depressing.

I also want to note that although the episode points out both that people should value the history of ancient artefacts and that middle-age women can be sexy as all hell, there’s a danger in lying these two points too close together. Reconsidering how to think about historical objects is by definition a reframing of your approach to objectification. Objectifying women, in contrast, doesn’t need reframing. It needs destroying. I think I’m OK here in linking both these problems to a common theme of not dismissing what isn’t new, but I realise I’m walking on eggshells here.

Ultimately though, all I’m trying to say is that actual age shouldn’t matter nearly so much as we’re endlessly told it should. “Just because something’s old doesn’t mean you throw it away”, as Geordi pointed out to Montgomery Scott (its strange more people don’t make the link between what “Relics” and “Q-Less” are trying to do, given the episodes are in almost the same slot in their respective shows’ 92/93 season). More pertinently, the amount of time something has existed matters far less than the amount of time you’ve spent experiencing it. The episode underlines this idea throughout, especially with its resolution. Remember that the station is only in danger at all because no-one who has seen Vash’s coolest trinket understands what it is. Even after Q tries to warn people, they can’t imagine the glowing polyhedron being anything more than something extremely old and extremely pretty. Even Vash herself, for all her interest in historical context, makes the same mistake. Given where and how she picks up her wares, the egg has presumably laid inert in some dusty vault for centuries, waiting to be close enough to the void to hatch. Vash assumed it was safe because it had always been safe up to that point. But it was new to the place where she took it, and in that new context everything changed.

This is all interesting stuff, as far as it goes. It’s certainly much better than anything done with Vash in “Q-Pid”, and probably “Captain’s Holiday”, too, both of which were fundamentally about little more than suggesting what kind of woman Picard would want to clamber into a tent with and yell “Make it so!”. And it’s beyond obvious that the show was always going to have to make a decision at some point about how it was going to handle its historical baggage, just as TNG had to five years earlier. DS9 got the harder job, though, because it was interrogating a relationship with a show still running, rather than one that had been dead for almost two decades. A decision clearly needed to be made on how the show would utilise the material that preceded it. The conclusion that the franchise’s past should neither be ignored nor slavishly recreated is the obvious one, but it’s still one I’m glad was made in public like this. Of course this show should find time to look at familiar objects and people and places and ideas through new eyes.

All of which makes Q’s line about Vash helping him see the universe anew even better, actually, if only by dint of thematic unity (it’s also built on very well in TNG’s final episode, but that’s a long way away for us right now). As nice as that realisation is, however, it can’t change the fact that every other aspect of his inclusion here is absolutely enraging. If this is an episode about dealing with the franchise’s historical freight, Q is the signal disaster that throws the whole train off the rails.

Ex-Q-Ciating

Back to the elephantine jerk in the room, then. I said there were other issues to cover. All of them stem from him. His general cantankerousness grates, sure, but his specific attitudes to Vash and to Sisko cross the line into profoundly unpleasant, apparently without the episode noticing.

I’ll start with Vash. Q is behaving like the absolute worst kind of ex-boyfriend. He’s clingy, he won’t take a hint, he does that thing of trying to make you focus on when the relationship was going well, instead of remembering the dumpster fire it became. The power dynamic makes this even worse – the scene of Q inflicting Vash with the debilitating consequences of an insect bite he originally saved her from is genuinely horrific. This is the equivalent of an oncologist who married one of his patients cutting off her access to radiotherapy when she asks for a divorce. It’s the inflicting of pain to get one’s own way; an abusive ex promising that if you get back together he’ll stop stalking you and attacking you in the street.

This is all as pathetic as it is disturbing. And there might be something to that, I suppose. As “The Last Outpost” shows, albeit in a very different context, it’s worth reminding people that the sniveling and the weak can still be terribly dangerous when given the opportunity. The problem is that this clearly isn’t the position the episode is taking. Vash is exasperated by Q’s behaviour, not outraged by it. She rolls her eyes. I know very little about the different ways women respond when an abusive ex rolls into town and starts making threats, but it’s hard to believe that Vash’s “ooh, you irksome prankster!” approach counts as accurate.

Even the title is a problem. “Q-Less” can only be a reference to Vash, which defines her in terms of her metaphorical ex rather than her own person (and in fact every episode Vash has ever been in is named after someone she’s hooked up with or left). Worse, the Q-Less/clueless pun suggests that without Q around, Vash doesn’t actually know what she’s doing; an idea rather reinforced by it taking Sisko’s nous and a burst of Dax gas to stop her accidentally killing hundreds of people. We can be charitable and assume the title originally came up as a sly reference to Vash being alone in the Delta Quadrant – a kind of “Absence of the Daleks” two decades early. Even if that’s true, however, the failure to consider the implications of the title in the finished product remains an issue.

Even the parts of Q’s role here that seem less problematic ultimately cause issues. One might be tempted to ease off on him a least a little over the fact he’s clearly returned in order to save Vash’s life. Having left her alone for two years to struggle alone in the Gamma Quadrant, he suddenly reappears just before she accidentally gets the station she’s staying on torn apart? That’s no coincidence. In addition, there’s his attempts to point Sisko towards what’s really going on. “Believe me, gang, she’s far more dangerous to you than I”. Sisko doesn’t listen any more than Vash does, but he genuinely is trying to keep her alive.

It would be a mistake to consider that mitigating against Q’s behaviour elsewhere, however. Even his attempts to save Vash come with problems attached, because it’s just one more way to try and get her back. Having run unsuccessfully through nostalgia, threats, the torpedoing of alternative romantic engagements, and actual physical punishment, Q moves on to saving her and hundreds of others from a painful death. It’s the ultimate embodiment of the childish fantasy, endlessly replayed in fiction, that you can win back a woman who’s left you by pulling off some feat impressive enough she’ll decide she loves you again. It’s everywhere, and it’s profoundly ridiculous, a kind of hyper-condensed form of the idea that women are obliged to sleep with any man who does enough nice things for them.

I suppose we should be grateful for the fact it doesn’t work, mainly because Q goes about saving everyone in so arrogant and childish and unhelpful a way that he doesn’t really achieve anything. Indeed, his hints are so useless and so untrustworthy that Sisko floods his own station with carcinogenic gas rather than consider whether Q is onto something. This is the closest the episode gets to admitting Q’s behaviour here isn’t acceptable. It’s far too little too late, though.

Especially given how he treats Sisko.

First of all, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that obvious: comparing Sisko and Picard here was a bad one from jump. Demonstrating how the new boss differs from the old is absolutely something you be shown and not told. You let it develop naturally as the show progresses; you don’t discuss it explicitly. For all that I rather like how Brooks delivers the line “I’m not Picard”, thinking this is something that actually needs to be said underestimates both your writers and your audience.

It’s the specific nature of the comparison that really rankles, though. Q’s summation of “Benjy” – that he’s less articulate and more easily provoked to violence than Picard – is racially loaded, which leaves a rather sour taste. The four pips Q wears on his jumpsuit means he’s acting as the highest ranking officer we’ve yet seen in the newly-designed uniform; taking the rank that Sisko’s predecessors in the franchise enjoyed, but which he has been denied. Q mocked Picard by pretending to be his equal. Here he insists on being Sisko’s superior, and the rhetorical implications of that make me uncomfortable too.

And yes, obviously, I realise that Q is always an arrogant ass, and this is the kind of nonsense we should expect from him. That doesn’t function as an excuse. When your entire point is to compare two characters and these are the only points actually made, the fact the character making them isn’t reliable doesn’t matter. They’re all that’s been presented, and that means we have to take them seriously.

Let’s bring things to a close there. “Q-Less” is not a success, and to have had any chance of being one it would have had to listen to its own title and do without De Lancie altogether. On the other hand, its failure is far from total. There are positives to take from this. It’s actually rather interesting that almost all of the sixth episodes we’ve looked at so far have in their own way considered the franchise’s past and how established characters and ideas can be seen in new ways. “Mudd’s Women” is the only exception, for obvious reasons, and even that delved into the historical sources of the franchise. “The Survivor” marked the first time the animated series featured the Romulans, and also used Lieutenant Nored to explore what it means to see the familiar in new circumstances.  “Lonely Among Us” involved DC Fontana reframing aspects of “Journey To Babel” to fit in with the new show and the new television landscape. From this perspective “Q-Less” is simply continuing to take the franchise’s past approach to considering the franchise’s past approach.  So marks for meta-commentary, at least, even if Q damages this episode to the extent that even the humdrum meander through missed opportunities that “The Survivor” represents is ultimately more satisfying.

Still, let’s stop looking backwards at episodes that look backwards, and start looking forward to an episodes that look backwards. Time to head back to Voyager, as it stares long and hard through the eye of the needle.

Ordering

1. Lonely Among Us

2. The Survivor

3. Q-Less

4. Mudd’s Women

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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