Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 2.1.9: The IP AI

Once Upon A Planet

Star Trek Once Upon A Planet

In Roddenberry’s nightmare future, the fidget spinners play with you.

Poor old Lewis Carroll. First he dies, and then this happens.

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“Once Upon A Planet” isn’t all bad, obviously. Ending an episode with McCoy and Sulu picnicking with Alice and a two-headed dragon in particular is a direct challenge to the haters. Who would dare see that and still suggest this isn’t an episode that needs to exist?

Much of the episode follows a similar philosophy. “Shut up and enjoy it” is the order of the day. The moral here is that there’s nothing wrong with offering people a little harmless fun. More than that, we should respect those whose business is generating that fun. This isn’t a position I’m doing to push against. I came of age in the ’90s.  I can remember what happens when hefty proportions of multiple genres decide enjoyment is twee, and cynical, bloodstained sneering should carry the day instead. I’m wholly on-board with the message we should respect the local entertainer, even and especially when they’re serving up simple pleasures.

This episode certainly practices what it preaches, too. We’ve got McCoy chased by axe-wielding playing cards, Scotty floating around the Enterprise discovering computers being built by more computers under the control of another computer, and an AI with world-shaping capabilities using that awesome power to mess with Kirk’s search party. This isn’t a story aiming to offer anything more than a fun knockabout.

Which is fine, in theory. Not every episode has to involve high drama or profound character beats. There doesn’t always need to be a chewy subtext. Episodes this frothy are a pain for me to write up, but that’s not strictly speaking a reasonable objection. That said, if your goal is to defend the unaffected and lightweight, you need to make sure you actually serve up a decent slice of fun-cake.

This is where “Once Upon A Planet” comes up short. What we’re offered here is simply too familiar. I’m not talking about the pleasure planet itself. I’m quite sure there’s enough depth in the idea for it to comfortably sustain more than one episode. Really, the two stories set here are first brace of holodeck-gone-wrong tales, and that’s clearly not a well the producers of 24th century Trek believed could ever run dry. No, it’s the specifics of what this world offers the second time around. As I said about “The Infinite Vulcan”, there’s a whole good news/bad news deal about an animated Star Trek. Yes, there is no visual spectacle that can’t be realised on screen. That means though that there’s also no visual spectacle that can in itself be considered impressive. There needs to be more thought put in to what the audience is going to see than grabbing for the obviously silly and weird. We’ve seen Alice’s white rabbit before, last time we were here. The crew has already been menaced by felix domesticus (plus, a giant mouse would objectively have been funnier). Bizarre takes on the pterodactyl (with the exact same sound effects) were flapping all over the place just two episodes ago.

I’m normally not interested in calling out the franchise when it repeats or rhymes with itself – that’s a big part of why IDFC takes the form it does. When an episode is relying on its ability to offer fun ideas for the crew to bounce off without needing to worry about a budget, though, raiding the archives bothers me more than it otherwise would. This is especially true with a sequel directly referencing Alice Through The Looking Glass. If you lack the imagination necessary to make your own sequel work, you should probably avoid referencing one of literature’s most inventive and satisfying follow-ups.

Fire Canon From A Cannon

That’s not to say we gain nothing from the reuse of the White Rabbit from “Shore Leave”. It does lead us into some interesting territory. The Caretaker, writer of the original story our crew found itself trapped within last time, is dead. There’s a new author now. Despite this though, the new tale starts at the exact same point as the old one does, with the planet’s computer ripping off the Caretaker ripping off Lewis Carroll. The computer is writing a sequel to at least two other people’s work.

As a result, the episode at least touches upon both the issue of intellectual property, and how to maintain and build upon modern myths. Alas, a touch is all we get. Even that requires squinting, a choice to see the computer’s failings here as a statement of intent. Perhaps the argument here is that no matter how smart or talented a writer is, they’ll crash and burn when handed an IP they can’t or don’t care to understand. That’s a nice idea, I think, and I’ll come back to it later. There’s not nearly enough support for it within the text itself, though. The opportunity is mainly just allowed to pass by, which given this is a sequel episode within a sequel show seems like an unforced error.

Despite any failures during the episode’s creation, though, the sheer weight and drift of history has given “Once Upon A Planet” additional meaning. The arrival of Discovery means there is now a majority of Trek series which have existed without meaningful input from Gene Roddenberry. Any consideration, however undeveloped, of how a creator’s work can be twisted by those who follow them seems particularly relevant right now. Whatever my problems with Roddenberry, both as writer and as a person, it doesn’t seem a coincidence every Trek show since his death seems consumed with pushing back against the utopianism he insisted upon. Deep Space Nine focused upon the compromises forced on Starfleet by the Dominion War. Voyager literalised the need to take short-cuts in extreme circumstances. Enterprise answered the question literally no-one had asked by showing what a Starfleet vessel would look like were it run by a sulky racist.

This approach of running from Roddenberry’s vision may end up reaching its apotheosis with Discovery. There’s much to love about the newest show, and still plenty of time for it to turn its apparent problems into strengths. At time of writing though we’re five episodes in to the series, and it seems mainly concerned with arguing the benefits of projecting strength through violence, and insisting on the need to rely on cold-hearted bastards to get things done in a crunch. If nothing else, the show’s insistence on endlessly referring to the franchise’s iconography whilst rendering its actual icons unrecognisable demonstrates how far from the source material sequels can get whilst claiming faithfulness to the original.

Simply put, whatever Roddenberry’s flaws, and however much the franchise needed him to step aside in order to reach its greatest heights, Trek without him seems evermore concerned with how to undermine utopia rather than evidence it. Imagining something different to this world has been replaced with just remapping the world onto interstellar space. Lewis Carroll used sentient playing cards as croquet hoops. The computer uses them as lynch mobs.

Given all that, it surely counts as ironic that not only does “Once Upon A Planet” fail to warn of the pitfalls of grabbing someone else’s building blocks while unable to translate their designs, but that Roddenberry himself declared almost every episode of the animated series didn’t “count” as Trek.

Artificial Stupidity

While “Once Upon A Planet” fails to make the most of its capacity to comment on fiction, though, it does have something to offer on that score. Let’s return to the strange behaviour of the Caretaker’s computer. Actually, let’s not call them that. It’s pretty clear the AI running the planet isn’t cool with being thought of as an extension of its former operator. Instead, let’s refer to them as Larkin. I’ve watched this episode twice now, and even made a point of going through the finale a third time, and I’m still none the wiser as to what Larkin’s plan actually is. The goal is clear enough, obviously. It’s the strategy chosen to get there that baffles me.

Let’s break this down. Larkin wants to use the Enterprise to leave this system on a mission to find other sentient machines. Fine. To achieve this they’ve kidnapped Uhura to keep Enterprise in orbit until they’ve finished building a computer on board that Larkin can upload themselves into. The rest of the “sky machine’s slaves” are to be executed. OK.

But why assume Uhura is irreplaceable to the Enterprise, while Kirk’s party is disposable? What’s to stop the sky ship cutting its losses after the away team is killed? Why does Larkin simultaneously believe the crew is so inferior to their vessel that they must be its slaves, but that the Enterprise is so reliant on them it can’t leave once one disappears, even if Larkin starts killing the rest off? And why, with this entire plan based on holding Uhura hostage, doesn’t Larkin inform the Enterprise to let it know what they’ve done?

The simplest explanation for all this is that Larkin has been programmed to consider this the best way to keep someone at the planet. Their former role acquiring, processing, expanding upon and finally delivering narratives for the planet’s visitors leads them to assume keeping Enterprise on the hook isn’t with a hostage negotiation. It’s with a mystery novel.  They start with a central drive to the plot – where is Lieutenant Uhura? Next they provide vital clues at appropriate intervals, like the signpost to their hidden base. Lastly, they provide a healthy dose of peril for the protagonist, from giant cats to flying lizards. In fact, the plan was never to kill Kirk at all. How could it be, with the planetary medical systems still in effect? The intent was only ever to threaten harm, so as to keep the Enterprise turning pages.

All of which makes Larkin a 23rd century iteration of a literary Twitter bot, attempting to regurgitate its inputs into some kind of Turing-test novella. The results aren’t entirely without merit, either, which is a shame considering how totally pointless the entire endeavour is. The Enterprise was already planning on staying at the planet for days or even weeks. Larkin is simply wasting everybody’s time.

Indeed, for all that the conclusion is confused and crowded (do our heroes persuade Larkin they’re not slaves, or just that he’s better off catering for slaves so he can chat more with their masters?), there’s a fairly clear underlying message here. Larkin might be a super-intelligent computer with more FLOPS to their name than a professional high-jumper, but they’ve still managed to misunderstand the Federation’s set-up completely. As a direct result, the story they assemble is entirely without utility. Like I say, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If your thinking is based on faulty premises your conclusions cannot be anything but completely inaccurate. For all his intelligence Larkin is terribly ill-suited to writing a Star Trek story.

(This total failure to understand the basics of the Federation, or humanity in general, is presumably also why Larkin feels free to tell a black character their employment circumstances constitute actual slavery. Apparently one doesn’t even need skin in order to whitesplain.)

In conclusion, “Once Upon A Planet” doesn’t make the grade at all. It’s not just that there’s so much it hints at and then ignores – there’s a limit to how much you can blame something for not being what it’s not trying to be. It’s that it fails even on its own terms. It simply isn’t the romp it wants to be. Yes, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting the bar at the rather modest level of just being twenty-two minutes of fun. When you fail to clear that bar, though, there’s nothing to fall back on. You’re left with a tale that anyone could have written equally badly about anything.

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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1. Dagger Of The Mind

2. Once Upon A Planet

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