Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 5.1.7: Dead Man’s Mirror

Ex Post Facto

Star Trek Ex Post Facto

*Record scratch. Freeze frame.*
“Yep, that’s me. I’m definitely wondering how I got into this situation.”

Ooh, Star Trek goes noir. Kind of, anyway…

The Big Gamble

So. Noir Trek. As Alan Partridge once said, “Ask yourself two questions: how and why?”.

Not that the second question is particularly hard to answer. We don’t even need to fall back on a cheap “why not?”, either. The benefits are clear. This is about a clash of narratives.

As usual, I’ll start with the obvious. Starfleet crews are meant to represent the best of our species. They’re a glimpse of what our society could look like if it were freed from cupidity and want. Roddenberry was always very clear that in his vision of the future, there were many stories that simply would not work, because his concept of a better mankind would no longer care about anything involved. Bitter love triangles, squabbling over wills, getting dragged into shady backstreets by the need to feed our vices – these things are unrecognisable to the citizens of the Federation.

There are plenty of advantages to this approach. If nothing else, it allows for a thoroughly original mode of storytelling (something I wish Discovery had kept in mind). It does have limitations, though. If Trek can’t tell those stories, it can’t deconstruct them or even comment on them, except in the most didactic manner. Every time Picard or one of his crew starts a sentence with “Human beings no longer…” we learn more about the franchise’s optimistic vision of the future, but nothing about how we can hope to get there. We learn nothing about how those stories should be told.

It’s therefore a really smart idea to take the story frameworks of our past/present and insert our heroes into them. That way we can explore how the moral dilemmas within that particular genre should be handled. We can start mapping out an actual route to the future, rather than dreaming about the destination. And that’s a valuable idea. Hell, even if you look askance at the idea that Starfleet officers are actually all that perfect (which is a topic for another time), revisiting a genre as cynical as noir and refusing to play by its rules to see what happens is a strong concept.

It’s the how of it all where things get tricky. There’s nothing blocking the idea of noir Trek in itself.  The 24th century is large enough to contain every kind of story. There are genres that might fit poorly inside our concept of what the Federation is (though that’s a slippery, shifting idea to begin with), but with a functionally infinite number of worlds beyond Starfleet’s patrol routes, this doesn’t matter a great deal in practice.

So there’s nothing stopping a Federation ship stumbling into a noir storyline. Moreover, if you’re going to write that episode, Voyager is genuinely the best Star Trek show to write it for. Not because it’s permanently outside Federation space; that is incidental. What makes Janeway’s crew the best choice is the fact that, as I argued in my posts on “Caretaker” and “Eye Of The Needle”, the whole damn show is centred on looking backwards anyway. Might as well make as much of a virtue of that as possible.

The problem comes in precisely how the interface between the two story forms is constructed. Serious thought needs to go into what will blend, what will mesh, and what will clash. For all that it was the original plan for the episode, you can’t actually just film everything in black and white and hope it does the job.

The Man With My Face

Fortunately, what the episode ends up doing instead is much smarter. Rather than dragging everything into monochrome and yelling “SEE WHAT WE’RE DOING?”, LeVar Burton plays up the noir influences in the planet-bound scenes, allowing the space battles and ruminations on holographic life to proceed in more or less the same way they always do. This is a sensible decision for at least two reasons. First is the degree of thought and effort that would be necessary to bash starship combat into a form compatible with the genre. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I’d hate to be the guy they asked to try.

That’s a problem that could be easily dealt with, I realise; you just chuck out the explosions. That wouldn’t be the only thing you’d have to do away with, though. One of the key ingredients of noir is the inability of the protagonist(s) to find support from the authorities, either because the authorities are too morally compromised, or they themselves are. The central characters have to feel cut off from help; that they are in it alone. This is a difficult set up to manage when your main characters are part of the Starfleet hierarchy. About the only way to do it is to cut a character off from their comrades, as is done in the noir (or at least noir-adjacent) Deep Space Nine episode “Honor Among Thieves”. That episode was in the tail end of the show’s sixth season, however. This early into Voyager’s lifespan, a story that would require most of the main cast to barely feature isn’t a smart way to go.

The episode’s solution to all this is elegant and simple. Paris still finds himself cut off from Starfleet back-up so that the noir elements can work, but this is explored via flashback to avoid it interfering with the episode’s structure.

Telling stories via flashback is a noir move in itself, of course, as anyone who’s seen Sunset Boulevard will know. These flashbacks then are doing double duty. They’re both where the noir material is contained,  and they’re noir in themselves. Burton makes the most of this with how he shoots the segments from the “past”. Note that during Kim’s scene-setting flashback, the noir elements are almost absent. There’s not a hint of them when he and Paris meet with Kray, and little after they arrive at the Ren household beyond Linnet’s Veronica Lake-inspired hairstyle. There’s a lack of illumination during the supper scene as Kim gets close to the gateway into a noir plot, but with his attention so totally on business, he doesn’t fall in.

Once we get to Paris’ flashback, though, the noir influence becomes much more noticeable. Partially this is driven by the dialogue, but the cigarettes, darkness, and low-angle shots all reinforce what’s being said. Linnet’s flashback makes things more obvious still, as she attempts to seduce Paris amid the shadows of a thunderstorm.  He’s the poor schlub brought to a bad end by the femme fatale, probably the most well-known trope in film noir.

And what a bad end it is, forced to repeatedly watch himself committing a murder he’s actually innocent of. A fictional scene, in other words, in shadow-drenched monochrome. Paris isn’t just trapped inside a noir film, he’s trapped in a cycle of rewatching one; one that happens to star the woman who betrayed him (another echo of Sunset Boulevard). You could even interpret the Banean memory implantation as imposing a recurring dream, bringing in noir’s common use of the oneiric, albeit only at a rather vulgar level.  The idea of harvesting brain engrams of murder victims to torment their killers is already an interesting one – though as my partner pointed out, there’s are issues with an approach that punishes people in direct proportion to how guilty they feel about their crime – but these links to the genre being dabbled in gives everything greater coherence.

It’s not without its problems, though. As I mentioned, the ability to have our heroes visit various other genres and warp them with their own morals and viewpoints is a useful and exciting one, but “Ex Post Facto” doesn’t actually do that. The noir elements are played entirely straight. Thought has gone into how to portray them, but not how to critique them, or even riff off of them. Linnet is no less a sexist cliche than her forebears. Tom does better than most noir characters at (more or less) resisting temptation, but his confession in the shuttlecraft suggests it was only a matter of time before he succumbed.

That’s not to say there’s no commentary at all on the limitations and problems with noir. The basic criticism here is very clear: the genre is a nightmare from which Paris is struggling to extricate himself. Noir itself allows no such escape. Its fundamental cynicism refuses to even accept such a thing is possible. So it actually counts as a nice jab at the genre that Voyager refuses to go along with that. Yes, Tom is trapped somewhere horrible through his own weakness and a woman’s treachery and an uncaring system.

But Janeway’s given Tuvok the job of pulling him out.

Ace In The Hole

This is where the noir influence ends. So what comes in to replace it? Or, put better, from which genre is the mission to save Paris from film noir launched? The episode’s dabbling in space combat notwithstanding, the question isn’t a difficult one; this is a detective story through and through. And not just any detective story. As the end of act four is happy to make clear, Lieutenant Tuvok takes the noir plot he finds and rewrites it as an Agatha Christie novel.

Star Trek Ex Post Facto 2

“Why are we even here?”
“Because it would be illogical to not MILK THE HELL OUT OF THIS.”

This is actually quite a lot of fun. Watching Christie in space is genuinely enjoyable, and both the structure of the mystery and the steady drip-feeding of clues are nicely done. I have strong memories of watching this episode in the ’90s and being very impressed in particular with the use of the alien letters in Paris’ visions. I remember catching them and wondering about them from the very beginning, but dismissing them in the exact same way Paris did. “Ex Post Facto” does this quite well; it gives you enough to put together vague theories about different aspects of the central mystery – who killed Ren and why, why frame Paris, what’s going on with the Numiri – and yet still be impressed by Tuvok’s solution.

A few more hints would have helped, admittedly. If this is a Christie story, it’s one of her more opaque efforts – spotting the inconsistency in height especially requires detailed memory of a few seconds of footage shown before we’re even aware of what we’re supposed to be looking for or why. This doesn’t really matter all that much, though. The mystery isn’t active for long enough for a dearth of details to frustrate, and there’s enough going on elsewhere that Tuvok’s investigation never needs to take more weight than it can handle.

That doesn’t mean the Christie impersonation goes off entirely without a hitch, though. Let’s try a little thought experiment. If Tuvok is impersonating a Christie sleuth, which one is it?

Personally, the first name which came to mind when watching Tuvok gather his suspects together to lecture them on how smart he is (which is essentially my day job, so I can’t really criticise) was Hercule Poirot. There’s many possible reasons for me making that link. There’s the fact he’s appeared in far more Christie stories than any of her other sleuths. There’s the way Tuvok’s use of a pet dog as crucial witness evokes the Poirot novel Dumb Witness (though my only experience of that story is with the David Suchet adaptation that, to my surprise, came out two years after this episode). There’s also, if I’m being honest, the borderline obsession my partner has with Belgian’s most famous fictional crime fighter (sorry Tintin! Try being less racist next time!).

I mention all that because what doesn’t link Poirot and Tuvok in my mind is any similarity of personality. Which rather brings us to the central problem with “Ex Post Facto”. It’s an episode focusing on Tuvok’s character that doesn’t actually give us any character to focus on.

What is it, after all, that we really learn about Tuvok here? Aside from a scrap or two about his past, the only revelation here is that he’s very good at his job. But that’s exactly what we expect from Starfleet officers. Years of watching Worf hobbled by narrative demands may have helped us forget this, but the average competence of Starfleet security officers is supposed to be extremely high. I’ll grant that even by those standards, Tuvok absolutely nails this one. Picking up two separate visual clues from watching Ren’s last moments once whilst under exceptional and possibly dangerous circumstances is unquestionably impressive. His willingness to perform so dangerous a mind-meld in order to pick at a case that seems completely open and shut also tells us Tuvok’s personal sense of logic prioritises the lives of others over his own, though I guess any Starfleet officer who felt differently probably wouldn’t pick security as a career path.

Still, compare this to your average episode of Poirot, or for that matter to “A Man Alone” (the equivalent first showcase for Deep Space Nine’s head of security) and there’s a hollowness here. A sense that Tuvok can really only be defined by his job and by his Vulcan heritage.

Crime Without Passion

This is starting to sound very negative, and probably a bit predictable given my previous comments on the idea of Vulcans in general. In truth, while I’m concerned about their being hard limits on what Tuvok can offer as a character, “Ex Post Facto” does suggest a novel approach. While the episode disappoints by playing Paris’ headlong fall into a noir plot entirely straight, sending a Vulcan in to bust it wide open is a smart move. There’s a theory (summarised here) that noir exists as a response to classical Hollywood’s default product; the simple morality tale with easily identifiable heroes and villains and an obligatory happy ending. I’ve no idea how true that is, but it certainly a useful idea, because it lets us frame noir as the first stepping stone towards grimdark.

There are many similarities between the kind of fantasy stories that led to the term “grimdark” being coined and the ethos of noir, but because of the impossibility of replicating noir’s visual language in prose, the clearest evidence of the link between the two (sub-)genres is probably in comics. Whatever you want to say about the creative bankruptcy of Rob Liefeld’s work, during the first years of the ’90s he was clearly working noir influences into his art, and his storylines mark him out as a genuine pioneer of American grimdark, albeit only of the most vacuous form.

Well, maybe even that is giving Liefeld too much credit. Maybe he was just taking visual clues from 2000AD and Dave Gibbons without the slightest idea what was making them work. It doesn’t matter, I don’t need or want to defend Liefeld. My point is that, even with this episode being broadcast two years before Game of Thrones came out and made grimdark a genre it was necessary to define, the movement towards the violent antihero and the cynically brutal story line was already in full flow. Framing this as a recurring nightmare from which people need to be saved has power, and casting Tuvok as the rescuer is smart. With his Vulcan dispassion, he’s neither the traditional melodramatic hero nor their cynical noir inversion.  He rejects the excessiveness of both the default mode and its polar opposite, offering us something in between.

This might be the best use of a Vulcan possible, actually, as a dispassionate spoiler injected into genres that can’t process him, and thereby improving them. In terms of narrative, I can see this approach having some potential. But inasmuch as it’s a role that literally any actor could perform whilst playing literally any Vulcan, the idea doesn’t make me any less worried the show will totally waste Tim Russ.

Which I suppose works pretty well as a final word on the episode. In terms of demonstrating what the show can do, it’s an entirely acceptable showpiece. There’s nothing tremendously flashy here, but there’s enough to enjoy and think about to outpace everything we’ve seen in this cycle so far save “Dax”. In terms of using the episode to demonstrate Tuvok’s potential, though, it’s more concerning than anything else. We’re not seeing the possibilities for the character – or the opportunities for the actor – stretching out before us.  We’re seeing them being closed off.

“Dax” made me excited to learn how Jadzia would develop as a character, “Ex Post Facto” made me nervous about whether developing Tuvok would even be possible.

Ordering

1. Dax

2. Ex Post Facto

3. The Infinite Vulcan

4. What Are Little Girls Made Of?

5. Justice

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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One comment

  1. What a delightful review. I had no idea someone was putting this kind of thoughtful consideration into one of my favorite series. Thank you.

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