Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 6.1.2: Kidnapped By Jerks (The Sluggy Sluggo Story)

Fight Or Flight

Star Trek Enterprise Fight Or Flight

“I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of money on this see-thru disco hall for molluscs.”

“Fight of Flight” is a frustrating beast. Perhaps not as frustrating as an alien slug going on hunger-strike just because you kidnapped it from its home planet and stuck it in a perspex box, maybe. Still, though. Annoying. I think the basic problem is in how the episode sets up two extremes of behaviour so as to explore the spectrum in between. That’s a perfectly sensible approach, albeit not a particularly original one. What makes me dislike the approach here is how completely the script fails to notice just how terrible the two extreme points actually are. Which, given that both those extremes are represented here by one of our main characters, seems like a more than trivial problem.

We’ll start with that poor slug. I feel so sorry for that slug. Ripped from his family and home to be stuck in a wee see-through box so Hoshi can complain it won’t eat the alien food she’s trying to shove down its pharynx. This must be how thin people feel when they go home for Christmas. I take issue with the way Hoshi treats Sluggo, for all sorts of reasons. First off, it’s just plain bad science. If you want to understand a creature’s behaviour, taking them from their natural environment and putting them in a box for convenience of poking is a terrible idea. Pretty much everything starts acting differently when caged and prodded. And if you’re not interested in behaviour so much as biology, then take some scans and move on. You can always go back if you find you’ve missed something; slugs are not well-suited to fleeing from naturalists.

As bad an idea as taking Sluggo from its home was, though, sticking it on a new planet is even worse. How can the explorers of the 22nd century not know how many problems an invasive species can cause? Sure, they’ve only dropped one slug-analogue off. Who know what weirdo viruses that thing is stuffed with, though? Plus, if it resembles Earth gastropods in function as well as form, it might be capable of parthenogenesis. This time next week there could be hundreds of those things crawling across the surface of a world completely unprepared to deal with them. It’ll be the rabbit invasion of Australia all over again. Or worse, the film that taste forgot (check out the trailer on Youtube if you have a strong stomach and you’re not at work, or really in public at all).

So everything Hoshi does with or regarding that slug is terrible (what’s a translator doing swiping molluscs in any case?). I suppose that might not be too bad if the narrative suggested an awareness that something sketchy is going on. But it doesn’t. At all. Instead, it seems to think Sluggo is a workable analogy for Hoshi’s problems in adapting to her new environment (indeed both Phlox and Hoshi herself essentially state this explicitly). The problem is this doesn’t really make much sense. Hoshi might want to identify with Sluggo, but doing so means conveniently forgetting that she volunteered for this mission. Sluggo was press-ganged. By Hoshi.

Indeed, if there is an analogy to Sluggo’s experience in this episode, it’s not Hoshi’s difficulties in adapting to shipboard life. Instead, it’s the Atraxans who are forced into machines for the sake of someone else’s desires, without the slightest regard for their own preferences.  Obviously a slug is not a sentient being (though I note the Atraxans are also without gender, which is an interesting link between the two species). Even so, though, the decision to snatch a life-form away from its home on a whim and worry about whether it can be kept happy or even alive later is a pretty good example of what T’Pol objects to about human curiosity. We do tend to blunder in where we’re not necessarily wanted and start deciding how things should be.

Not that T’Pol’s approach is free of problems either. So the structure of the episode should work. Set up Hoshi’s impulsive and ultimately unwise decision to grab Sluggo as one pole, and T’Pol’s hyper-cautious refusal to go one step beyond where’s she’s been explicitly invited on the other, then stick Archer somewhere in-between. In practice though it doesn’t shake out right. This is partially because the episode doesn’t realise Hoshi is at fault, but it’s also because T’Pol’s objections end up being not about human bullishness, but about missions of mercy in general.

Obviously, this is massively frustrating. I had major problems with the way the Vulcans were used in “Broken Bow”, as I argued six weeks ago. One thing about the Enterprise pilot I did really like though was T’Pol making the point that the impulse to intervene is only a commendable one if it is coupled with an understanding of the situation. That almost reads like an oblique swipe at neoliberalism, actually, which makes it rather ironic that this episode went out just three weeks and a day after September 11th. It’s important to recognise that sometimes the right thing to do really is nothing, or at least that doing nothing is almost always a better option than sending in the bombers.

Here, though, T’Pol gives a variant on that argument that’s transparently awful.  A ship drifting in space with possible signs of battle damage which doesn’t respond to hails should be left alone of the off chance they wanted to be drifting and their damage came from something that left the ship otherwise functional and their culture responds to hails with silence? That’s just an unwillingness to help others dressed up as prudence. How many crews have the Vulcans left to die in space because their ships were too damaged to send out a distress signal? The idea that no aid should be offered to any ship if it’s theoretically possible that aid isn’t needed isn’t just hard to square away with any useful definition of “logic”, it’s actively monstrous.  T’Pol’s final point that there are other protocols to be tried is a decent one – Archer should have let her try whichever ones she could without having Hoshi to assist – but there’s clear reason to believe time might be an important factor here. If you think someone is dying in a room, you don’t insist on saying “Are you OK?” in every language possible before you bust down the door.

The above is frustrating on its own terms, especially since it compounds the harm already done by “Broken Bow” to the Vulcans in general and T’Pol in particular. But it also damages the actually interesting moral question in the episode, regarding whether Archer should risk hundreds of his own people to try and track down the slaughtered alien crew’s home world. That, surely, is a genuinely tough call. They don’t recognise the species who built this ship, they have no idea how their technology or their language works, and T’Pol has presumably concluded that the pump installed on the ship demonstrates a technology level some distance beyond that of the Enterprise.  Every minute spent on the Atraxan vessel is a minute in which the raiders might come back and harvest Archer’s entire crew. I find it hard to blame Archer too harshly for deciding to warp out of there.

Once he does, though, it’s more or less inevitable that he will eventually turn back. The remaining run-time alone strongly suggests that, and even in its more cynical, post-“In The Pale Moonlight” phase, the franchise was never going to use the second episode of a new show to point out sometimes heroes need to run away from space-vampires who are turning people into Spanish Fly. So it would have been nice if the process that got him from “flight” to “fight” included someone on the Enterprise putting forward a plausible case for not reversing course. You know, so it didn’t look like the whole crew were just waiting for Archer to stop faffing and do what everyone on-board wanted him to. That should have been T’Pol’s job, and in some ways she makes a decent go of it at dinner. The trouble is, she’s already too compromised after admitting she’d let you burn to death in your house if you couldn’t find a phone to dial 999.

As a result, she comes off not as prudent, but as dismissive to the point of being pissy. This is then made worse by how badly she reacts to Archer’s flyer’s remorse (shut up, that’s a great pun). It’s not enough for her to disagree with the reasons behind his obvious discomfort, she has to dismiss the discomfort itself. As a result she sounds far too much like her superior last episode; someone so contemptuous of emotions they won’t even recognise that understanding how they work in humans would help them to get their own way more often. Just as in “Broken Bow”, a Vulcan achieves the exact opposite of what they want because it’s more important to sneer at emotional displays than to respond to them effectively.

That’s not being logical. That’s being dogmatic. That’s convincing yourself that preaching is more important than conversion. That it isn’t important to persuade others to listen, just so long as it’s you that’s talking.

The result is that when Archer decides to risk every person under his command to return to the Atraxan wreck, it feels like he’s doing it to try and annoy T’Pol. The episode manages to give us the most obvious result possible to its moral quandary and manages to find the worst justification possible for it. Still, Archer’s gamble pays off. The climactic space battle doesn’t make a lot of sense – I don’t get why fixing the targeting system means torpedoes can suddenly pass through shields and not be intercepted, or why if a single Atraxan vessel can so effortlessly destroy the raiding ship how the original attack ever succeeded in the first place – but there are ways to fix that in your own head, and the point isn’t the pyrotechnics anyway. What matters here is Hoshi managing to communicate with the Atraxan captain. It would be tempting to suggest that this doesn’t make a huge amount of sense either, but I rather like it. It makes sense to me that the Atraxan would rather speak to another person with vocal inflections and body language than a translation system, even if the latter has a technically superior vocabulary. It’s a comment on the importance of engagement as opposed to the simple transfer of information (which in itself is a criticism of T’Pol’s approach), and a validation on the importance of Hoshi’s role on the ship. She isn’t doing the job of a universal translator but less well, she’s giving other species a reason to want to talk to us. Persuading others to listen.

Which is a nice message for the episode to end on, really, despite how mangled the approach to it is. And there’s certainly other things to appreciate here. Phlox’s delight in his surroundings is infectious, and his desire to observe humans more closely, but only with their permission, puts him too on the sliding scale between Hoshi and T’Pol.  I also love the idea that the first ever Starfleet vessel to head out into space on a mission of its own did so without actually getting around to sorting out its weapons systems, because the need to explore overcame the desire to be able to fight whatever we found.

Neither of those things can save the episode, but then I’m not sure it needs saving, strictly speaking. Like letting your lactose-intolerant dog eat cheese, it isn’t actively terrible so much as messy in ways that should make you rethink your approach.

And rethinking feels like what Enterprise should be doing right now. I argued last week that Voyager’s crew were struggling to come up with new ways of doing things, mainly because it hadn’t sunk in yet that a new approach was needed in the first place. But at least Janeway was sticking to an approach that used to work. This crew feels closer to that of the Enterprise-D‘s during “The Naked Now”. Nowhere near as bad, fortunately, but there’s a similar sense of not having a sufficient grasp of the basics of space exploration to be out among the stars at all. If Enterprise is going to keep flying, her crew needs to wise up fast.

Of course, as Gary Mitchell is about to demonstrate, wising up fast isn’t always a desirable outcome.


1. Past Prologue

2. Yesteryear

3. Parallax

4. Charlie X

5. The Naked Now


Seasons 1 Ordering (so far)

1. Deep Space Nine

2. The Animated Series

3. Enterprise

=4. The Next Generation

=4. Voyager

6. The Original Series

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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