Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 1.1.8: Finding Neverland

Miri

Star Trek Miri

I’ve taught in worse.

“Miri” is a story still in its childhood. Perhaps it’s forgivable then that it has so much growing up to do.

Trois Siècles de Vacances

There are a lot of complaints we can level at this episode. The “second Earth” idea deployed to sell the story in the cold open is discarded the instant it’s been used to excuse the set dressing. Much of Spock and McCoy’s plot here can be fairly described as “They spend ages trying to do a thing, then they do the thing”. Michael J Pollard looks like someone more likely to be troubled by mortgage repayments than acne. And there’s going to be some trouble with the union when they find out Kirk sent his security officers to patrol an alien planet but wouldn’t let them take their communicators.

All of that is relatively small beer, though. The bigger issue here involves the episode’s exploration of its central trope, a strong and frequently well-used idea that doesn’t really land here.

As implied above, “Miri” is an early instance of the trope. Clearly it’s not the first example of a tale about children attempting to survive without adult supervision. Lord of the Flies predates “Miri” by over a decade, and (as a knowledgeable tweep pointed out to me) Jules Verne’s  Deux Ans de Vacances explored the idea before the birth of the twentieth century. So far as I can tell, however, that wasn’t one of Verne’s genre works. That puts “Miri” in the running to be the first story that comes at the idea of an adult-less society from a science fiction angle.

Does that actually matter, though? Does adding the sci- to the fi make any difference, beyond warranting a footnote in the history of the genre? In theory, maybe not. There’s no obvious functional difference between adults dying in a plane crash and them being wiped out by a deadly virus with a taste for the post-pubescent. That’s not the only shape here Spies has painted using the sci-fi palette, though. He doesn’t just use the synthesised pathogen to explain the lack of grown-ups, or to provide a threat to the leads. He also uses it to bring in the idea the Onlies have been left to their own devices for three centuries.

We should not understate the importance this idea has within the structure of the episode. By this I don’t mean importance to the fictional reality Spies has created, because it doesn’t really have any. There’s nothing in the Onlies’ situation that is made more plausible by introducing the concept. If anything, the opposite is true, with the kids’ longevity raising questions about how their food supply has lasted so long, or how they all look more or less healthy without any medical professionals around. Given these (admittedly minor) problems, then, and the ease with which the idea could have been dropped without really affecting the rest of the script, it’s fair to ask: why make use of it at all?

My theory on this is pretty simple. The idea exists in the script because it’s central to the point Spies (or possibly Carabatsos, who rewrote the vast majority of Spies’ original script) wants to make. Specifically, “Miri” is arguing that children have a fundamental need for adults.

In fact, Kirk explicitly makes this argument during the episode. He suggests kids have an innate desire for adults to tell them right from wrong. After three years of teaching in secondary schools I’m not completely sure this is correct – if there are going to be rules, children want them to be clear, consistent, and fairly applied, but that’s not really the same thing – but let’s leave that aside. It’s the more general point I want to focus on, which is that the three hundred year gap between the initial disaster and the arrival of the Enterprise somehow hasn’t led to these children changing at all, barring the most minor alterations in language. The Onlies aren’t just not growing older physically, they seem to be in stasis. Even the new slang is ridiculously tame and underdeveloped. There should be an entirely new dialect in operation by now. The kind of phrases my pupils used to shoot off at each other had a half life measured in weeks, and that was when my colleagues were literally teaching them how English is supposed to work. Three hundred years without a single “blah blah blah” policing their language in the classroom? It’d be a grammar Nazi’s worst nightmare down there.

In short, the central idea of “Miri” seems to be about more than children needing adults around to look after them or teach them right from wrong. It’s about them needing adults around to progress in any way at all.

Quit Fooling Around

Deux Ans de Vacances exists because Verne wanted to write about children’s resourcefulness and capacity. Golding intended Lord of the Flies to explore how children removed from civilisation and a power structure would go about reconstructing both. “Miri” by contrast appears to be about how children finding themselves without adults will simply sit around until they come back.

This is a poor position to take, for multiple reasons. Firstly, it demonstrably isn’t true. These are children who had to forage for their own food, or they would have died. They had to figure out their own sources of clean water and adequate heat and medical treatment, or they would have died. Given this planet is a parallel Earth, these children would have had to find out ways to deal with bears and wolves and feral dogs roaming their city, or they would have died. Basic common sense suggests the sudden total loss of all caregivers would shift children’s behaviour patterns into something radically different from the norm. The closest the episode comes to noting this is Kirk’s response to Rand marvelling at the possibility of getting to spend centuries as a child, and therefore without responsibility. While Kirk suggests she rethink that position, though, the whole episode is tacitly siding with her.

It’s true of course that common sense can be a tricky beast. Fortunately we don’t have to rely upon it entirely here. I’ve got anecdotal evidence, too! Back in 2003 I did my diagnostic teaching practice in a secondary school on the edge of a former pit-town in southern Tyne and Wear. Even by the standards of moribund North East post-pit communities, this place had itself a reputation for being economically bereft – a grim punchline even to the surrounding communities struggling with similar problems. The destruction of the coal industry had hit the whole area like a sledgehammer welded to a rocket, flattening and burning everything in range. The initial impact might have been a generation earlier, but the damage was still everywhere, and it seemed to me that ground zero was the school playground. Or maybe it just felt that way because I spent so much time there; some of the kids had worked out how to set off the fire alarms without getting spotted, so I probably saw more fire engines in those weeks than I did tears. And I saw a lot of those. Also a stabbing.

Anyway. There are plenty of stories I could tell from my brief time at that school, but right now I want to tell you about Ashleigh. Ashleigh was a Y10 pupil living in a council property with her younger sister, because one parent was long gone and the other was too drunk too often to be trusted with her own kids. So there Ashleigh was, waiting for the horribly overstretched social services to find a workable solution, helping her sister into her school uniform every morning before putting on her own. I’d see her three times a week, and she’d come to every lesson a fizzing ball of sulky fire. I didn’t so much teach her as try my best to stop her from boiling over. She just didn’t have any patience for me, or the school, or for the other fourteen-year olds in her class, almost all of whom she thought were idiots. The idea of her having any interest in playing around like Jahn and his friends is beyond ludicrous.

Perhaps you prefer your data less anecdotal, though. Fair enough. Try this, then. Four years ago The Children’s Society estimated the number of UK citizens under 17 who were providing more than 50 hours of care a week as around 15 000. There were almost 10 000 at least part-time carers between the ages of five and seven. Five and seven. There are all sorts of political dimensions to this – particularly given the number was only about half that in the previous decade – but my point right now is this: children finding themselves caring for their own and other people’s well-being is far from unheard of. It’s always been happening. The idea that only puberty can unlock the capacity or desire to look after others is one totally without basis in reality.

(This is why the one aspect of Only lingo I rather like is referring to games as “foolies”. These kids know the fact that school’s out forever doesn’t mean they can spend their waking hours horsing around. They know that when they play at playing like they used to, they’re just fooling themselves.)

#NotAllGrups

This leads me on to what really sinks “Miri” for me: it’s a story about children that exists entirely to justify the relevance of adults.  It is, appropriately enough, childishly insecure, a desperate attempt to insist that without adults, our kids would have no ability to mature. The episode seems convinced that growing up is a process adults can take credit for rather than something children simply do. That adulthood is somehow top down, rather than bottom up. This is a story about children surviving in a world without adults which somehow manages to ignore those children’s perspective in favour of those of adults. That’s actually an oddly impressive trick, I guess, but that doesn’t make watching the result particularly interesting.

This total failure to consider how children might adapt to cope without grups comes to a head with Kirk’s impassioned speech at the end of the episode. It’s bad enough our captain simply assumes the Onlies are weeks away from starvation because he can’t imagine the children having figured out they’re low on supplies, and formed a plan to deal with it. To have him stand in a classroom as he lectures the kids on how only adults know what’s best is almost too much to bear. Kirk doesn’t get to become an educator just because he’s the only adult in the room. All I can hear when I watch that scene is the distant echoes of a hundred thousand adults yelling “BLOODY KIDS!”.

Because BLOODY KIDS, am I right? Not only do they twiddle their thumbs for centuries waiting for adults to come and bail them out; they’re not even grateful when the grown-ups arrive to explain what they’re doing wrong. The episode’s suggestion to children who find themselves without adult authority is that they wait until such authority arrives, and make sure to show appropriate deference when it does.

And I have real problems with that message. Even having spent three years in a profession where my job required persuading children that there was some point to listening to me, I can’t get behind the arrogance involved here. There’s just something so appallingly smug in telling children that they might not like how we do things, but they’d be stuffed without us so they’d best quit complaining. It’s patronising, it’s self-aggrandising, and it shoves coal into the furnace that belches out that ridiculous idea that because we don’t require the input of children, their input must necessarily be useless. That we don’t need to hear from them on how the system works until we’ve had enough time to force them to fit into it. In other words, it’s a story about how the best thing for children is for everything to stay as it is but for kids to complain about it less.

Finally, on top of everything else, you’ve got some highly questionable gender politics. I’ve been hammering The Original Series so much and so often over this issue that I feel inclined to keep this brief, but I didn’t want to pass by the fact that “Miri” doesn’t just riff off Verne and Golding by adding sci-fi elements to their basic structure. It also asks what would happen if a story about children trying to survive without adult influence bothered to include a girl or two. Which, quite obviously, is an entirely necessary question to pose. The problem is that the episode’s answer is “They’d fall in love and do something foolish”.

In fairness to the episode as aired, Miri’s crush comes across as believable, Kirk does a pretty good job of neither leading her on nor being unnecessarily harsh (until the plot demands it, at least), and Whitney manages to defuse those moments in the script which seem to be pushing towards some kind of unpalatable love triangle. None of that makes up for having a three hundred year-old person who has spent literal centuries keeping herself and others alive suddenly decide she needs to simultaneously protect Kirk and get him killed because hormones or something.

In sum, there’s not a lot here that works. Too much is dull, or incoherent, or actively unpleasant. The only real question here is how much we can forgive this on account of the trope’s youth. Many strong stories have been built on the idea of adults dying through SF shenanigans and leaving only the children alive. You’ve got the surprisingly sharp post-apocalyptic teen soap opera The Tribe, for instance, or J Michael Straczynski’s loose adaptation of the Belgian comic Jeremiah, with at least a hundred points in between. This would hardly be the first trope with deeply problematic beginnings that led to later successes. The importance of “Miri” is almost as incontestable as its failings.

Perhaps we can allow this to be enough. Having seen what it grows into, perhaps we can forgive “Miri” the missteps of youth. After all, the only true constant of childhood is that eventually it must end.

That’s just as true of this franchise as anything else. To survive long-term Star Trek was always going to have to stop being new and start learning how to get things done. Next week, fortunately, we’ll be looking at an episode which does exactly that.

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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