The Lorelei Signal
Best worst-episode-ever ever? “The Lorelei Signal” has some grand moments, but getting to them means setting sail on a great ocean of sexist, transphobic bilge.
Let’s begin with the obvious: there are some real issues here with cisnormativity. The suggestion that what makes a man is so rooted in genetics that it can cross species barriers – the Lorelei’s signal works on their own kind, humans, Klingons, Romulans, and… well, whatever Lieutenant Arax is – causes problems for anyone aware that gender is a fluid concept, and one which is at least in part culturally determined. A signal to which no man is immune and no woman is susceptible could only work if there existed a yawning chasm between our concepts of “man” and “woman”. Such a gap doesn’t exist, and all sorts of real social problems develop whenever people start insisting it does. What about trans people? The assexual? The bigender and the genderfluid? How they would react to a sample from the latest Lorelei chart-topper is simply ignored.
Clearly, this is a sin of omission. We’re left to assume the signal works only on men because every character presented here is cisgender. I’m not saying this excuses anything – those who are not cisgender didn’t spring into being ex nihilo in the twenty-first century – but it does mean that the episode’s failure on this count is no different from that of any other prime time American TV show of its time (or far too many of our time), save that its sci-fi nature allowed it to be problematic in a way no-one else got to be.
Given my status as a cisgender man, I don’t get to decide how big a problem this is. You may think it fatally torpedoes the whole episode. Personally, I can get through the episode by imagining the signal only affects those with a Y chromosome. You and I know that carrying that particular sliver of genetic information is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for being a man, but the overlap is large enough that this head-canon patch lets me watch the rest of the episode. You might feel differently about it, and be done with this instalment already. In which case; cool.
“You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Bairns”
I think it is considering the episode in full, though. There’s a lot I like in here. Also a lot more I don’t like, obviously. Let’s start there. I’ve already warmed up my leg muscles, after all. I may as well continue kicking. The Lorelei themselves are an absolutely wretched concept, a fact not mitigated one millimetre by their origins in central European myth. If anything, it’s quite the opposite: it should be utterly obvious that stories from the first years of the 19th century might require some work to make them work in a modern context. But no. According to Armen, all you need to update a German folk-tale of the drowned woman reborn to lure sailors on the Rhine to their deaths is to give her a spaceship that crashed and a computer she seems barely able to work. Also for there to be loads of her.
The basic idea here, casting women as parasites who attach themselves to virile men and drain them dry, is immediately an obviously unpleasant one. It’s a riff straight out of the darkest caverns of misogynistic thought, something which hurts all the more given the episode was written by a woman. It also makes little sense. Others have pointed this out before, but the Lorelei could easily just hop on one of the ships they’ve acquired and fly somewhere else, instead of having to regularly kill men to combat their planet’s strange effects. The reason they don’t is because they’re stuck playing a deliberately and miserably sexist role in the narrative. Put another way, they’re only evil because they’re too dumb to think their way out of their predicament. This too is some distance from an encouraging idea.
But things get still worse. You could be charitable and assign all the above problems to the original Lorelei myth, and argue imported problems are ultimately less concerning than homemade ones. The trouble is, this episode is stuffed with both. Having McCoy describe these uniformly tall, willowy, blue-eyed blondes pushes a very specific norm of beauty brings in historical problems from far more recent than the early 1800s. Further, it’s baffling to watch these women complain about the horrifying fate of having been rendered immortal and forever young. Sure, they can’t have men or babies, but there are hundreds of thousands of women who would take that deal in a hot second. “Excuse me; would you mind living forever among amazingly hot – albeit uniformly pale and slender – women with no dudes to bother you? You won’t be able to have kids, though.” I can think of half a dozen women on my Twitter feed alone who would have their interstellar passports out before you could say “death to rape culture”. And as my partner was quick to point out, the suggestion that a woman’s life is hollow without men or children is unbelievably offensive. It’s a slap at women who want to conceive but can’t, at those that choose not to try, and at every woman who, regardless of whether they desire a family, have no interest in involving a man in any stage of their life.
The Steadiest Voice
In short, then, what goes on down on the planet is an absolute car-crash. A churning, stinking swamp that bubbles even as its gas pockets catch fire. On the Enterprise, though, things are vastly better. Let’s start with Uhura. Nichelle Nichols is clearly having a whale of a time getting a decent chunk of of script to chew on. I’ve not done the maths, but I’d be willing to bet she says more here than in any other episode of this show or its predecessor, despite this instalment being half the length of most of those she appeared in.
But there’s more to love here than Nichols finally getting the room to do a job. Quality increases here along with quantity. Watching Uhura just unilaterally decide she’s taking over because she can’t trust the menfolk to get the job done any more is simply glorious. She doesn’t agonise, she doesn’t second-guess; she knows what needs doing, and she does it. A black woman decides to take command of a Federation starship 13 years before The Voyage Home, and completely and unreservedly excels at the job.
And she’s not alone. The dialogue and action at various points make it quite clear that the Enterprise crew includes enough women to make up multiple science teams, at least four security personnel, and an engineer. Add in Nurse Chapel and Uhura as a bridge officer, and its clear there are enough women on board to capably handle the ship (indeed this must be true, since none of the men are apparently doing anything on board but slouching around singing). The implication is clear: the earlier Federation ships – along with their Klingon and Romulan equivalents – were lost because there simply weren’t enough women on-board to take over when the men went all floppy. Gender diversity is what saves the Enterprise. Yes, it’s cisgender diversity, so we still have some way to go. That doesn’t stop this from still being real progress from where Trek began.
(Even Scotty helps out in this mission of diversity, in his own way. The sequence with the Enterprise floating silently through space whilst he sings sadly is a triumph in itself – just an absolutely lovely demonstration of the loneliness of the void – but it gets even better when you learn the lyrics are in Welsh. Because why the hell would a Scotsman in the twenty-third century not know Welsh?
It’s kind of a relevant song, too. Sure, it’s about how the singer is stupid enough to propose to a girl without even ever having talked to her. But it’s also about how the girl is stupid enough to accept. They might be idiots, but they’re equally idiotic.)
To summarise, then, we have a planet-bound story-line that’s disgracefully sexist, and some shipboard scenes that are an absolute delight. The result is an episode that seems deliberately bifurcated for most of its run-time. Eventually of course we achieve convergence, with Uhura, Chapel and their all-female security team beaming down to the Lorelei compound to wreck anything they deem needs wrecking. They take over the place with almost embarrassing ease, too. The brittle cod-classical paradise of the Lorelei is thoroughly swept aside – no siren will recline seductively beside THAT vase ever again – and then in the space of seconds Uhura completely destroys the thinking that has led to them being what they are. The Lorelei don’t make sense, they never did make sense, and they never needed to be in this place at all.
By “this place” I don’t just mean the MacGuffin planet the Lorelei are stranded on. I mean the Trek universe itself. The franchise can’t simultaneously offer space to the thoughtless sexism represented by the Lorelei and the commitment to recognising women’s competence and importance as demonstrated by Uhura. So when the two meet, something has to be pushed aside. One concept of what women are has to be shot down. One approach must stand revealed as not the way things are done around here. How wonderful then that the right side wins, and wins big. Whilst the male characters are trying not to drown inside a big pot, no less.
It isn’t enough to salvage the episode. The horrific sexism of the Lorelei is too unpleasant, and the refutation of it too implicit. I’ve done my best to put together the most positive reading of this episode possible, but if Armen really had wanted to write about two perspectives on women clashing, with total victory for the progressive side, there were dozens of less self-defeating ways to do it. “The Lorelei Signal” both pushes its worse ideas far too hard, and fails completely to recognise its best ones. All of which is to say nothing with the cisnormativity issues I’ve picked at already.
It isn’t utterly without merit, but fundamentally “The Lorelei Signal” is a very bad episode. It relies too heavily and unthinkingly upon a narrative from the past, and as a result, clearly becomes better off being left there.
1. The Naked Time
2. The Lorelei Signal
GS Blogger: Ric Crossman