This is not an episode that starts well. I’m never going to come down in favour of stories that involve our heroes gushing over the obscenely wealthy. People like Winston don’t deserve credit simply for realising the lives of others take precedence over them holding on to more money than they could ever spend on themselves.
Don’t get me wrong. If we have to have super-wealthy people, it’s probably better they be philanthropists, so long as that philanthropy isn’t mistaken for any kind of solution. You don’t shower the millionaires who save lives with praise, though. You shower those who don’t with contempt.
The Mask Of Civilisation
But that “if” above is doing a lot of work. It’s worth thinking about whether or not we do need the money-bin class. Certainly, we should ask whether we need them in Star Trek. Shows about a “better future” have a responsibility to think hard about what aspects of contemporary life they allow to feature in that future. Any property the writers give to their fictional utopia is implicitly one they think either a positive good or an unfortunate inevitability. Either one bothers me when we’re talking about billionaires, but in any case Kirk’s attitude here leaves no doubt which of two we’re dealing with. Winston’s existence directly undermines the idea the Federation can be considered anything approaching a utopia. It isn’t just that having rich people pretty much guarantees you’ll also have poor people – you could maybe assemble an argument about how expanding into space might allow you to make a fortune without exploiting anyone else’s labour, though that’d be an odd way to spend your time. It’s the idea that there are entire planets in the Federation of the 2200s that would no longer exist had there not seen someone around with enough space-bucks to save them. A society whose disaster relief efforts rely on the whims of millionaires is one in serious trouble.
It might be tempting then to take some comfort in the fact that Carter Winston proves to be a lie. More than that, actually. They prove to be a monster, at least in terms of visual coding. A grasping tentacle-beast waiting for its chance to shuck off the decent-man costume they wear and reveal the truth.
And it does seem like the episode is keen to make it clear that Winston’s transformation has significance beyond its use as a plot point. His disguise is portrayed as part of a larger theme, with nods everywhere to things not being what they seem. Beyond the Vendorian’s shape-shifting antics, there’s the lovesick-white-woman disguise Nichelle Nichols wears, the Romulan interception fleet with its borrowed Klingon insignia (and, apparently, interior designers), and the repeated shifting between Uhura and M’Ress at the comms console whenever we’re on the bridge.
Sure, much of this can easily be dismissed as just the cost-cutting moves the series was famed for. But that doesn’t explain the degree to which Ted Knight is channelling William Shatner in his portrayal of Carter Winston (I genuinely had to check the cast to be sure Shatner wasn’t voicing him). Nor does it throw any light on why, when Spock has the bridge memory tapes replay events, they don’t actually show what we saw happen just a few minutes earlier. Shifting roles and unreliable memories are everywhere here. As a result, it’s tempting to think we’re being actively encouraged to ask whether Winston was ever who people thought he was.
“Work Actually Helps Free People”
Alas, “The Survivor” doesn’t follow through. We’re betrayed late in the episode when the Vendorian announces that Carter Wilson was just so good a guy that even pretending to be him makes one into a self-sacrificing pillar of decency. As soon as this happens, all the problems above come back. If anything, things are worse now. Lieutenant Nored’s insistence that Winston was so rock-solid a moneybags that even an illusion of him cast by a chitinous chess piece is worth dating turns hagiography into hero worship. It seems that just the idea of a filthy rich man who chooses to not let millions die is somehow intoxicating.
It’s all a great shame, because there’s a great deal about the Vendorians that’s really interesting, or at least holds plenty of potential. First of all, they look great:
It’s the brief window we’re offered into their civilisation that I want to talk about, though. I am as usual not happy about the idea an entire race can be summed up in a single sentence. Reducing whole cultures to this kind of thumbnail description is always lazy, and in our own world, actively harmful. This is especially true when all the information you receive is a comment like they “practise… deceit as a way of life”. That said, if we take “Winston” at face value Vendorian society certainly seems pretty objectionable. An awful lot is conveyed through their deceptively simple description of their former life:
Among my own people, I am a non-producer, useless. An outcast fit only to do those tasks of the lowest order.
A “non-producer”. What an obscene label to give to a sentient being. To tell someone that unless they generate something others deem worthwhile, they will dismissed as “useless”. As though a person’s life can only be measured by what society can take from them.
But you know what’s coming, right? I’m going to point out that this idea runs deep through our own society too. It’s how an entire section of our culture has been allowed to get away with painting the unemployed as congenitally lazy scum. It’s how people who literally contribute nothing to the world beyond making more money for extremely rich people are fawned over whilst doctors and teachers are portrayed as grasping and selfish. It’s why public debates about how to treat people with disabilities (debates, of course, that frequently exclude anyone not able-bodied) almost always revolve around how to make sure everyone has the chance to work for a living rather than, say, making sure everyone gets to live at some baseline level of acceptable comfort.
Speaking of comfort, though, let’s not ignore what counts as a task of the lowest order to the Vendorians: the provision of palliative care. Could anything better underline that a society has completely lost its way than it demanding everyone must produce to be worthwhile, but that being a carer doesn’t count? It’s left unclear if the Vendorians consider it a worthless occupation in general, or if they only think looking after aliens is a waste of energy. Whether their pathological disregard for life is driven by racism or purely profit margins doesn’t ultimately matter, though. The damage is still clearly done.
Resistance Is Futile
Imagine spending your whole life being told the only way to not be worthless is to produce exactly what you’re told to by those in charge. Imagine those same people telling you the only alternative to towing that line is to be denied participation in society. And imagine this happening for so long, and from so many directions, that you end up internalising it, becoming ever more desperate to take on any kind of “productive” role just to get by.
Except a lot of us don’t actually have to imagine that, do we? That’s what most people call “life”.
There’s something grimly familiar in the Vendorian’s explanation that if they spend long enough in a certain form – a certain role – they come to actually acquire the qualities of what they thought they were only pretending to be. The system we live in is a totalising one. We cannot exist outside it. We are forced to engage with it, and to prop it up. We cannot help but become entangled. We cannot help but become compromised. Not all of us go so far as to sign up to help throw hundreds of people into unjust imprisonment so someone can steal the spaceship from their neighbours, but the general point stands.
So why aren’t I happier with “The Survivor”? This sounds like exactly the kind of sneak attack against terrible politics I should be on board for. Well, ultimately the episode suffers from the exact same problem as its alien visitor. It’s taken on too much of what it reflects. The references to Vendorian society and how it damaged “Winston” suggest Schmerer realises there’s a problem with the way America functions, but his solution is for those who don’t deserve the power they wield to be nicer, rather than recognising that power has to be taken away. There’s no recognition that the true problem isn’t that the ultra-rich aren’t always kind enough to others, but that anyone is hostage to their whims in the first place. There’s a sense of being on the brink of revelation, but like one of those ridiculous coin pusher machines in a seaside arcade, the penny never actually drops. It’s pretty difficult to get excited about an undercurrent which pulls in the right direction if you’re stuck on a ferry steaming hard in the opposite direction. It’s something, yes; certainly it lifts this episode well above the classless horrors of “Mudd’s Women”. But a qualified failure is still a failure.
Of course, none of this might be of any interest to you at all. I realise that even by my standards, this has been a post in which my assessment of the episode is inseparable from my personal politics. The thing is, though, skip past the politics underlying “The Survivor” in general and the Vendorians in particular, and all you have is a dull runaround which makes the Romulans look like easily-bested cowards and Dr McCoy look like he literally cannot count to three. That’s still better than Harry Mudd’s first appearance, for sure, but only “The Lorelei Signal” has had less to offer in our heroes’ animated adventures so far.
In fact, the half-dozen instalments we’ve seen to this point reveal a rather worrying trend. I nodded to this in my last post on STA, in fact, albeit whilst showering “More Tribbles, More Troubles” with praise. This show has done good episodes. It has done episodes which actually do explore strange new worlds and new civilisations, rather than just repacking past glories, or at best digging into them to uncover new skeins in existing mine-shafts. Only “Beyond The Farthest Star”, though, has really managed both.
This is a series with one foot in the past and with the other unable to bear its weight. This imbalance has to be corrected, quickly, or this attempt to make a show into a franchise will topple over.
1. The Survivor
2. Mudd’s Women
GS Blogger: Ric Crossman