Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 3.1.9: “It’s Time For Some Game Theory”

Hide And Q

Star Trek Hide And Q

“Anyone seen Alan Moore?”

After a seven-episode recess, Q has returned to the bench. The trial of mankind can continue.

Below And Beyond

As a general rule, I try not to spend too much time in these articles talking about Trek episodes we’ve not yet reached. Partly that’s just because there’s a lot of episodes I just don’t remember all that well. Beyond that, though, I don’t want IDFC to become lumbered by the future any more than I want it burdened with the past. This is about television, not teleology.

This time though, I’m going to allow a look forward, because “Hide And Q” is very much improved by watching it after seeing “All Good Things”. Which is helpful, because if there’s one thing this episode needs, it’s opportunities for improvement. Besides, if I’m going to break the rules of causality and let the future influence the past, what better episode to do it with than the TNG finale?

The secret to sitting through “Hide and Q” without questioning every single life decision that got you to this point is recalling Q’s claim in “All Good Things…” that in fact, humanity’s trial had never actually ended. With this idea in mind, any given TNG episode that features Q can be re-watched under the assumption that his presence is part of some new way of testing mankind’s right to live among the stars. In this case, we can work from the starting premise that the Continuum’s offer to Riker is motivated by something entirely different from what Q claims.

In fairness, it’s not like the episode itself doesn’t give us plenty of reasons to doubt Q’s honesty, and not simply because the stated reasons for turning Riker into a god make so little sense. “All Good Things…” can help with nailing down the specifics of what Q actually wants, but we’re certainly being encouraged to not take him at face value here. Picard dismisses him as just a “flim-flam man”. Q himself berates the captain for thinking his appearance has any bearing on reality. He makes a show of not giving the slightest damn about the approaching death of dozens of Federation citizens, but there pauses time so that the rescue mission is ultimately entirely unhindered. Finally, there is Q’s use of an “As You Like It” paraphrase about the whole galaxy being a stage. By taking and twisting that line, Q casts himself in the role of an actor, just as he essentially does throughout with his period costumes and their accompanying roles.

If this is simply the second stage of testing mankind, then (step one being checking we don’t just go around murdering aliens because they look weird), how is it intended to work? What precisely is being tested, and how? The best way to tackle those questions, I think, is by raising another. Why have the Continuum chosen to offer their powers to Riker, and not Picard?

I can think of several reasons why it would have made complete sense to offer the chance of godhood to Jean Luc. As captain of the Enterprise, seeing how his attitudes to and treatment of the crew shift once he no longer requires them or need worry they might turn against him would surely tell the Q plenty about how humans interact. There’s also the simple fact to consider that we’re still a very short distance into this show, and Picard is still functioning as the main character, and hence the obvious choice for deification. Finally, to look ahead once more, almost every other TNG instalment featuring Q has indeed centred on Picard.

So why not this time? The answer lies in the specific form of the conflict Q wishes to ignite here. He wants to see what happens when you supercharge somebody with a direct superior. How the hierarchical command structure humanity has set up can handle such an upset. It’s not enough just to watch a human become a god, the Q need to see what happens when that human goes up against someone who formerly held more power. Whether Q’s story about mankind one day eclipsing the Continuum is the truth or manipulation, this is at least partly about the consequences of leap-frogging. Even the title of the episode suggests this. It might seem at first glance that this is the only episode title featuring Q which isn’t a pun. Actually, though, it’s a clue to what’s going on. If you’re a comparatively young species hoping to avoid the attention of godlike aliens so you can have your own turn at developing to your maximum potential,what do you do? You keep out of sight, and you wait your turn. You hide, and you queue. The Continuum, of course, are here to check out what happens if we’re denied the ability to do either.

What this means is that Picard actually is central to this trial, he’s just not in the dock alone. His responses are still of great interest to the Q. Last time they gave Picard an external potential threat to process; this time the call is coming from inside the house. In this trial, our captain has to show how he handles a possibly dangerous situation involving someone he knows, respects, and may even like.

Everything Q does here is carefully calibrated to put Picard and Riker at odds. He waits until the Enterprise is on the kind of mission of mercy that’s most likely to tempt Riker to use the power he’s given. He also makes sure to pause time while Riker plays his “game”, so Will can’t blame him for anyone who dies at the Federation colony. Q even themes the game around images from Picard’s head, essentially forcing Riker to fight against a twisted image of his own captain’s subconscious and historical identity.

Star Trek Hide And Q 2

“You may find it aesthetically displeasing, sir.”

He’s being set against his absent captain, even whilst the game gives him a chance to flex his own command muscles. This is a challenge designed to erode Riker’s image of Picard, whilst raising his opinion of himself.

Finally, after Riker has been supercharged, Q brings Picard to the battleground so he can witness Riker compelled to use his new powers to save the lives of his crew-mates. This ensures Picard is fully aware of the power his first officer now has and how seductive he might find it, but also gives Riker a strong justification for using those powers, both of which increase the chance of the two men coming into conflict. It is this, and not a rock-strewn alien wasteland, that forms the battleground over which our crew will fight.

Right then. That’s enough about the Continuum’s motivations. Let’s talk tactics.

DMQs

First, let’s return to that “As You Like It” quote, because this is an interesting episode to find it in. I’ve mentioned above how it works as another clue to Q’s being less than honest regarding his visit to the ship. It performs another function as well, however. It reminds us that games aren’t the only form of play.

Offering a link between theatre and games opens up some pretty interesting routes for us to follow. Obviously, a play in itself is not a game, or at least if it is, it’s a game of Snakes and Ladders in which the players know everyone’s dice rolls ahead of time. The act of performance absolutely can be a part of a game, though. It’s basically all there is to Charades, for instance. More interestingly, it can also be structured through combination with a rule set. There are games like Cranium which includes performative tasks as one way to advance your team’s playing piece. Or ones like Once Upon A Time, whose players compete to bring the fairy tale they together create from card prompts to an end in their own specific way.

Really, though, if we’re going to talk about performance as a fundamental part of a game’s structure, we need to talk about role-playing games. Which is handy, actually, since it’ll help us get past one of the most obvious problems with Q’s game, namely the near-total lack of rules.

The OED defines a game as follows:

1. An activity that one engages in for amusement or fun.  1.1  A form of competitive activity or sport played according to rules.

The Wikipedia article on games, meanwhile, calls it “a structured form of play”. There’s no obvious structure to Riker’s private little war with les hommes-cochons, though, and apparently the only rule in effect is to not annoy Q.  Rather than disqualifying this as being a game, though, this simply suggests Riker is playing an extremely light-touch RPG with an unusually cantankerous GM. In fact, we could see this as one of those interesting occasions where Star Trek actually manages to predict the future. I don’t play RPGs nearly as much as I used to, but at Nine Worlds this year I got to pretend to be a larcenous grizzly bear, an orc both big and gay, and one fifth of the group that brought about the butterfly/meat-tree apocalypse. Based on that experience, conversations with those still active in the RPG community, and reading through various reviews at places like Shut Up & Sit Down, it seems to me the current trend is very much in favour of compact and non-intrusive rules sets. Gone are the days of heavy, joyless rulebooks in which you’d have to roll on a table to determine which table you’d have to roll on, and when games playable with fewer than four types of dice just weren’t trying hard enough.

Not that rules-light games didn’t exist before the new millennium. LARPing (Live Action Role-Play, for those not in the know) had arguably existed for a decade by the time “Hide and Q” hit the airwaves, though it was very far from its current levels of popularity. The basic idea of a LARP is that you don’t just tell people what your character is doing inside the game’s world, you act it out in real time. That’s a crude and horrifically incomplete definition of a LARP, but it’s the common starting point for these types of experience, hence the “Live Action” half of the acronym.

Deciding to write a game in which people are saying and doing exactly what their characters are saying and doing (potentially up to and including actual combat, albeit with limitations on what you get to use and how you get to use it so that no-one gets more than a bit bruised) comes with major challenges. In particular, you need rules simple and flexible enough so that the game doesn’t need to be stopped every two minutes to consult the manual. This is no small trick to pull off. It can’t be easy writing rules so good as to be almost non-existent. All of which means there’s an argument to be made that Q has created the Platonic ideal of LARP games. Once he’s created a scenario for his players as their GM, he just steps back and watches them play. He interferes only when someone breaks the rules, and really those “rules” comprise of a single command: if you’re playing this game, you actually have to engage with it.

Obviously, this is a triumph only in the sense of mechanics. The actual scenario – in which the PCs play as themselves and are attacked by pigs with boom-sticks and fancy dress- is utterly terrible (though I’ve head of worse). Being imaginative or entertaining isn’t Q’s goal here, though. He wants to nudge Riker towards ideas of both conflict with his French boss and, through the miraculously appearing lemonade, of wish fulfillment. This is inception through gaming.

(Note by the way that lemonade is a callback to the pilot episode, which also involved things inexplicably appearing in response to people’s whims – including at one point Riker’s.)

In certain ways what Q gives us here might even outstrip the otherwise closest point to performative game-playing the franchise has offered: the holodeck. Q’s game both allows a greater freedom of movement, and – for those who fret about the verisimilitude of such things – Q’s game renders injury and death not impossible, but merely irrelevant (though he takes a while to bother mentioning this to Riker). The only aspect of reality to be excluded from a game run by a member of the Continuum is consequence.

What’s interesting here is that this is also true of Q’s actual life. Every experience follows the same logic as there set-up here- he can do whatever he likes without a trace of fear. By his own (apparent) definition, everything Q does counts as a game.

Which raises an interesting, if entirely unoriginal pair of questions: how would a god define a game, and would they ever be able to play one?

As I say, these are not new lines of inquiry. Einstein said “God does not play dice” more than seventy years ago. He wasn’t actually talking about game theory as applied to deities, in point of fact, but never mind. The phrase still encapsulates an obvious problem with an omniscient entity wanting to break out a board game – if you already know everything that’s going to happen, there’s no such thing as randomness anymore.

Fortunately, the Q aren’t omniscient. If they were, there’d be no need to put us on trial or check how we responded to apotheosis. They’d already know whether or not we would replace or destroy them. The problem they face is different; total control over their own actions. Which means if they want to play a game, they’re going to have to do it through proxies.

We’re still not into original territory, obviously:

Star Trek Hide And Q 3

“One more joke about your ship needing a harbour and I’ll send another of your bastards mad.”

Or, even better:

Star Trek Hide And Q 4

When you’re one elbow-drop away from controlling the Enterprise.

So no points for making the link. It’s entirely obvious to think about this episode centering on the Q being the game players, and our protagonists being merely random number generators with boots, unpredictable ambulatory objects that the Q can place bets upon. Because sure, testing an upwardly-mobile sentient species is an important business. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

As simple an observation as this is, though, it does work to the episode’s advantage, by making sense of its otherwise slightly baffling structure. “Hide And Q” always felt rather unbalanced to me. With Q’s game being set-up, completed, and abandoned entirely by the end of the third act, the fourth act seems to come from a totally different episode. If we see the whole as being the true game, however, with departing the alien world simply representing Riker being upgraded in his level of participation, this problem becomes far less pronounced.

Plus, as an added bonus, it also explains how Q could be forced from the ship over a bet he is later seemingly allowed to completely renege upon. It’s because the bet was never with Picard at all.

Four Wishes

Speaking of wagers, I wonder how many side bets this escapade allowed the Continuum to engage in. They could bet on which of Riker’s crew-mates would accept his gifts, for instances, or even lay money on which of them he’d bother to offer money to in the first place.

This brings me to the last topic I want to cover here; the various circumstances in which Riker uses, or refuses to use, his new powers.

Some of that I want to skim over. You don’t need me to tell you it’s morally abhorrent to suggest it’s better that a child die than Will risk being tempted by Q’s offer. It’s not necessary to point out Picard’s argument that saving Wesley and Worf is somehow OK because Q engineered the situation that killed them is obvious and ugly sophistry.  And lastly, whilst the story’s structure does at least try to hide this, it’s still pretty breathtaking that “Hide And Q” features a main character who won’t bring a child back to life, but will offer his mate consequence-free sex with a honey conjured from the ether.

Let’s take that observation as our springboard into what is actually being talked about in a bit more detail; Will’s genie routine. There are three things here that I really like, and all of them stem from the way Riker fails to understand why his friends refuse to accept his gifts. First of all, we have the puncturing of Will’s casual ableism (however well-meant), as Geordi makes it very clear that whilst the sighted community is a nice place to visit, he has no deep-seated need to live there. Even the fact that he suffers from chronic pain as a result of compensating for his visual impairment doesn’t change the fact that he’s fundamentally OK with his identity.

Second, there’s the realisation that Riker only offers his gifts to male crew-mates, with Dr Crusher and Tasha Yar both utterly ignored. Apparently Will has only taken the time to figure out (what he thinks are) the motivations of all nearby dudes. I mean, maybe you could colour this as being about Riker not wanting to make assumptions about what the women he works with want (though there’s a non-trivial chance he thinks they mainly want him to screw them), but even if that were true, he could still have asked. Instead, Will works his way through every named bloke on the bridge other than his captain, as though his female colleagues simply don’t exist. Hell, one thing he absolutely knows about Beverley’s wishes is that he not grant Wesley’s desire to become an adult, and he rides completely over that, because he knows better than the kid’s mother what would be best for him.

Finally, we return to Worf’s sex-growler, and the burning question as to what the hell Riker could possibly have been thinking. Offering seduction in front of the entire bridge crew? Of course Worf said no. I mean, were I not already spoken for, I’m sure I’d be tempted by the idea of some consequence-free filth-friction with the sexiest woman the Enterprise’s resident horn-dog could dream up. Suggest the deed be done midway through a departmental meeting, though, and I’d be liable to rethink my position.

Riker should absolutely have realised this. The fact he didn’t demonstrates why it’s all going wrong for him here. What’s important to Will isn’t making his friends happy. It’s that his friends see him making his friends happy. His need for credit comes first, to the point where the gifts themselves become soured.

In sum, then, Will ignores his female colleagues, fails to understand his blind coworker’s attitude toward his visual impairment, and wants credit for himself more than he wants happiness for everyone else. He’s living proof that humanity might have reached the point where it accepts those who are different as theoretical equals, but we still won’t bother to actually engage with or try understanding them beyond the minimum necessary to feel good about ourselves, and then demand praise for that. Riker makes the gift of his new powers entirely about himself – even during the relief mission, where he decides his word is worth more than a child’s life. We might have passed the first stage of the Continuum’s trial, and Picard for his part handles Riker’s apotheosis with genuine aplomb.  Picard passes Q’s test, just as he always does. Thanks to Riker, though, our second trial is a resounding failure.  We may not need to be destroyed, but we have a long way to go before we can be allowed power like those who might have felt compelled to destroy us.

Which might almost make this an episode worth the watching, except for one nagging problem. Riker has failed the second labour of Her-Q-les (shut up I know that joke makes no sense), but so too have the writers. The opportunity to build upon Q’s first, magnificent appearance is squandered here almost completely. There’s clearly and frustratingly plenty of potential here, as I hope this post has proved. It simply hasn’t come close to making it onto the screen. What made Q work was a clever balancing of his childlike love of mischief, the extreme consequences of displeasing him, and the inescapable fact that what he demanded we demonstrate was actually an entirely reasonable ask. Here those latter two aspects are close to completely absent, making Q indistinguishable from every other git-god the franchise has given us.

To this we have to add in the fact that the show is now apparently so utterly unable to work out what to do with Tasha Yar that they’re literally removing her from scenes where her security training might be of some use – it should have been obvious from the start that the show as conceived couldn’t support both her and Worf. The whole package is a profound disappointment. At best we have a strong central idea so totally ruined in execution that both the episode and its titular character are so badly damaged as to be more or less irreparable. At worst, we’re just watching a remake of “Where No Man Has Gone Before” absent the charm, and with far fewer lines for women. I can believe the Q play games. I’m just convinced their games would be much, much better than this.

And speaking of terrible games…

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

 Ordering

1. Dagger Of The Mind

2. Hide And Q

3. Once Upon A Planet

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