Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 3.1.3: Starship Diplomacy

Code Of Honor

Star Trek Code Of Honor

How to talk to a woman wearing uniform.

I will not bury the lead. “Code Of Honor” is a steaming racist mess. Bottom place of everything ever is pretty much immediately assured. And astonishingly, it’s racist for reasons even beyond the obvious ones. Just stop and marvel at that for a second. This episode is about a white guy arriving at a planet of black people to tell them they should feel obliged to give him what’s theirs. And yet it manages to be worse than that sounds.

“A Racist Piece Of S***”

Even in the best of circumstances – i.e. episodes which aren’t about an African prince dumping his wife for a shot at upgrading a blonde white woman from kidnap victim to new bride – this kind of story throws up all sorts of problems. They’re simply baked in to this kind of diplomatic stand-off. Whenever our crew needs a disaster-averting McGuffin and must show sufficient deference to another culture to acquire it, I get nervous. The implication, every time, is that other cultures are unreasonable and truculent even when they’re not flat-out untrustworthy. These are people willing to allow catastrophe for the innocent if someone uses the wrong fork at dinner. Think about just how terribly the Ligonians are portrayed here via Lutan. Lutan’s insistence that Yar risk her life for a shot at his hand would be terrible enough.  Announcing it as a condition on saving millions from a fate so hideous it even freaks out Dr Crusher throws him squarely into the realm of cartoon villainy. He makes that guy who got infamous in the summer for jacking up epi-pen prices 450% look like Patch Adams. And that’s not on him, what with him being fictional and all. This is on the writers. Suggesting that diplomacy means smiling through gritted teeth at inscrutable Others who hold your vital interests hostage is nothing short of appalling.

“Just A Racist Episode”

Matters are made worse by Picard’s attitude throughout. The man is a Starfleet captain, which must mean the Federation places great trust in his diplomatic skills. And yet Jean-Luc spends the entire episode either barely holding back lectures on morality, or letting them fly. He constantly needs to be reminded by his crew to see things from the Ligonian perspective and act accordingly. All he wants to do is keep telling Lutan how annoyed he is with him. Every time Picard says something like “Oh, Lutan; yours is a different culture”, the subtext isn’t covered by so much as a damaged fishing net. “Different” here means “lesser”.

Nor is this the worst we see from our new captain this week. I’m sure he thought he was complimenting the Ligonians when he says they remind him of an old Earth culture they “all admire”. But the actual nature of the Ligonians is so scatter-shot and half-formed that the only “culture” I can imagine him referring to is “kinda African”. That’s a stereotype, not a society. It’s the 24th century equivalent of saying “I love how exotic you guys are!”, and should be treated accordingly. It’s possible this line is a hangover from the original script, which would have had the Enterprise-D negotiating with a reptilian race with strong similarities to feudal Japan. That’s no excuse for it remaining in the final draft, though. Indeed, this could easily have been its own kind of disaster. Especially since Picard would then be honouring a people that remind him of the Japanese by giving them a Chinese relic.

(A gift, you’ll notice, that Lutan doesn’t insist his own chief of security checks out before accepting. Almost as though doing that would be a unconscionable insult that could immediately derail trade negotiations.)

“The Worst Episode Of Star Trek Ever Filmed”

This gets us into the issue of whether “Code of Honor” would remain a horrendous nightmare were the guest cast not all black. Doubtless that would have improved matters. As I say above, though, there’s still plenty here that causes problems. And, alas, we’re not yet finished taking Picard to task. Let’s talk about his brief conversation with Data regarding the French language. Because holding the speaking of French up as a measure of civilisation is utterly sickening. Ask the Haitians just how “civilised” the French proved themselves after they invaded. Ask the Vietnamese. Ask the Algerians.

The current circumstances manage to make it even worse, though, precisely because Picard calls French the language of civilisation, whilst fuming over the actions of generic space-Africans. The history of French-speakers interacting with African societies (“Oh, Yacef; yours is a different culture!”) is a horrifying and enraging one. Try talking to someone from the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo about the circumstances that led to them both having French as their official language. King Leopold II was so “civilised” the missionary John Harris felt compelled to ask the Congolese colonial administration if there were any chance they could at least limit their murders of native people to those who had committed a crime.

(And yes, I realise that I’m saying all this in English. I recognise the irony.)

Does it seem like I’m reaching? Not judging by Picard’s gambit with his photon torpedoes moments earlier, I’m not. This is an immediately recognisable and historically freighted tactic. Jean-Luc is far from the first ship’s captain to attempt to intimidate a less technologically advanced civilisation by having his gun-decks clear their throats. In fact the practice was once so common it was given its own name: gunboat diplomacy. It’s a pretty simple approach, really. You park a warship or two off a country’s coast and you threaten to start blowing things up unless you get your way. State-sponsored terrorism, in other words. I’m sure you can guess who tended to use the tactic, and who it was used against. Which makes the approach something you should want a thousand years away from stories about diplomatic difficulties in general, and this one in particular.

And before anyone grabs for their keyboard to punch in a defence of Picard, I’m aware of the obvious comeback. Perhaps Picard shelves his usual commitment to diplomacy because Lutan has taken one of his crew. It might be Lutan’s actions are so outrageous they force Picard to think the unthinkable. Had this episode come later in the run we might have understood the difference between Picard’s standard approach and his righteous anger here. Well, shoulda woulda coulda. Moving the episode back a few slots might have helped, but clearly no-one thought to do that. That the show-runners saw no problem with offering this up as Picard’s first real turn at diplomacy (his questioning of Groppler Zorn doesn’t really count) actually adds to the incompetence on display, rather than mitigating it. Plus, obviously, pushing “Code of Honor” deeper into the season wouldn’t stop it being the only black culture we’ve encountered that ends up getting the imperialist treatment.

“That Horrible Racist Episode”

Add all this up and you have an episode pretty much no-one involved in making wants to defend (every subheading here is a quote from the cast). Certainly both black cast members have called it the worst episode of TNG, if not the entire franchise. And while on the subject of Dorn and Burton, note their roles in the episode. Or lack thereof, in fact, since Worf isn’t seen at all here. Meanwhile, La Forge has to suffer the whitest man imaginable physically preventing from leaving their conversation because Data believes he’s entitled to as much of Geordi’s time as he needs. Three episodes in and it’s really looking like Doctor Soong skimped on Data’s woke algorithms. The racial issues here extend far beyond the Ligonians.

Is there anything positive to be said from this sewage plant fire? I guess. A little. Just scraps, really. A knowledgeable tweep pointed out that learning Geordi doesn’t feel the need to use his visor inside his own quarters is a nice touch. That’s a very good point. This is also Wesley Crusher’s best episode so far, if only because his towering sense of entitlement gets lost among most of the the senior crew being just as bad. Ligon II itself looks quite pretty, and their design ethic throws up some interesting ideas. Who hasn’t, in their heart of hearts, occasionally wanted to battle a romantic rival atop a 3D bar chart?

Star Trek Code Of Honor

One of the few images from the episode that doesn’t fill me with rage.

Beyond that, nothing springs to mind. Even when the episode takes time out from being racist, it’s only so it can be sexist instead.

All the discussion of Yar’s physical beauty bothers me – though the idea Picard needs telling his chief of security is attractive because he’d completely failed to notice makes me smile – but it’s the idea that she’s attracted to Lutan that enrages me. Tasha is a woman who spent her youth constantly on the run from rape gangs. And yet she’s “thrilled” by the man who kidnapped and imprisoned her announcing in public his plan to marry her? How is that not utterly ridiculous? Even if that is how she feels, I can’t see any justification for Troi making Yar admit it in front of the captain.  How is it Picard’s business that, under other circumstances, Yar might have returned Lutan’s attentions? How can it possibly be relevant that Tasha happens to be attracted to her abductor? What, a woman being assaulted and forced into a marriage pact isn’t quite so bad if she thinks her captor is attractive? That lessens the crime somehow? This is some straight-up ugly thinking, and the links between it and horrible assumptions in our own world are depressing and obvious.

And hey, look at that. The same scene is shot through with even more racism, too. Troi’s description of Lutan as “a base male image” rings all sorts of alarm bells, and her comment that “Betazed blood is also practical” plays directly into the race essentialism problems the franchise keeps dabbling in.  So the episode manages to be overtly sexist and racist, sometimes simultaneously.

“That Episode Stinks. Without Question.”

I’ve already talked about whether this episode could work if the Ligonians weren’t all played by black actors. Troi’s comment about her blood makes me think about this from the opposite direction. Could Trek ever feature an alien civilisation played entirely by people from the same non-white ethnic group and it not lead to problems? I mean, it clearly wouldn’t have to be quite such a stinking, rotting mess as “Code Of Honor” is. But could it ever be problem-free?

This is without doubt a question others are better qualified to answer than I am. For my own money, though, the relevant issue is the degree to which alien cultures in Star Trek – and science fiction in general – get postage-stamp descriptions of philosophy and personality that are then applied to the race as a whole. Vulcans embrace logic. Klingons are quick to anger and prone to violence. Ferengi love money. This is generally known as the “Planet of Hats” problem. Admittedly these qualities are sometimes expanded on as we see more of a species and learn how and where individuals vary from what we see as their average. But it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, especially with one-episode wonders, an entire race gets summed up with one or two adjectives and we go no further. And this lack of diversity in other cultures is a problem, because it legitimises thinking in stereotypes. If you can believe you can sum up an entire interstellar civilisation in a few sentences, it gets easier to believe you can do the same for minorities within your own community.

Often such simplifications are justified as being for the sake of using aliens as a metaphor. The problem with that argument though is that aliens are unavoidably already a metaphor for race. That means reducing an entire culture to a Twitter bio is automatically a bad idea. Casting those who have historically been on the crappy end of such simplification and stereotyping to be those aliens seems like it would just make matters worse.

(This is also why pointing out that all-white alien cultures frequently show up without objection doesn’t really help. Firstly, plenty of people do object to them, just for different reasons. Secondly, there simply isn’t a history of white stereotyping which would lead to comparable issues. Plus, obviously, the underlying issues around television casting makes it entirely likely an alien culture will be all-white without anyone consciously intending it. Deliberately making the choice would be a different issue.)

“We Never Got Quite That Bad Again”

And we’re still not finished. We still have to deal with all the dismissal and objectification and denigration of a non-white society taking place alongside our heroes repeatedly commenting on how much more enlightened they are than these poor backward Ligonians. Riker can’t wait to browbeat Lutan over how female security officers are commonplace in Starfleet. Picard gets partway into a lecture about how Earth left behind this kind of societal structure hundreds of years ago when people stopped trying to enforce it on others. So let’s review. The Ligonians are a non-white society scorned for its outdated treatment of women, which only survives because those in charge force the population to follow barbaric rules no sensible person would respect. Sound familiar?

Read my second paragraph again. Notice what’s missing? There were and are plenty of occasions in which society has happily allowed tragedy to befall thousands of others because of some ridiculous notion about how people should act before we deign to help them.  The problem with “Code Of Honor” is that it suggests this is something that happens to us, rather than something we inflict on others.

What else, after all, could you call letting Syrian children drown in the sea because people don’t think Muslims can integrate into European society? In the middle of one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 21st century our overriding concern seemed and still seems to be whether women should be allowed to wear burkas to the beach. Western societies will absolutely hold the lives of others to ransom until we feel sufficiently flattered. Then we’ll write stories like this about how it was never our fault.

“The Worst And Most Embarrassing”

Which means “Code of Honor” isn’t just a stinking pool of bigotry, but an act of projection as well. It’s the inevitable result of a mode of thinking that begins with the axiom that we cannot be racist anymore, and therefore any dislike for other cultures must in fact be their fault.  This has proved an endlessly damaging self-delusion out in the world, and seeing it so fully embraced here is tremendously dispiriting. These things still live within us. The fact we see them in everyone but ourselves does not mean what we tell ourselves it means.  If Trek is ever going to live up to its own promise, our demons must be dissected, not dismissed. We need to consider how 24th century racism expresses itself, rather than watching it leak out whilst no-one notices.

For the second time in a row, we’re going to need Sisko to fix the Enterprise-D‘s mistakes.

Ordering

1. Where No Man Has Gone Before

2. One Of Our Planets Is Missing

3. Code Of Honor

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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