Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 6.1.4: One Man And A Baby

Unexpected

Star Trek Unexpected

My face throughout.

Yikes.

The nicest thing I can find to say about “Unexpected” is that it doesn’t let itself get bogged down. There’s far too much going on here for that. The episode kicks off with some nice ideas about the complexities of inter-ship acclimatisation, then quickly moves on to cross-species romance. That takes us to just past the halfway point, where our star-crossed lovers part ways and Trip discovers he’s pregnant. The ramifications of this are explored (if you call childish giggles and lazy cliches “exploring”) for all of eight minutes before we’re off again, this time for a showdown with some Klingons. It is, at least, hard to get bored watching this.

“Why Did You Go Into The Holodeck Alone With Her?”

Unfortunately, staving off boredom is not the same thing as creating enjoyment. Each of these component parts feels slight, and the whole lacks structure – even if you want to stretch things terribly and claim the Xyrillians are unwanted passengers in the same way Trip’s baby is.  It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that someone started chucking in additional plot threads when they realised neither Tucker and Ah’len’s romance nor the surprise pregnancy had enough potential to base an episode on, even in combination.

Which is an accurate conclusion, at least. Trinneer and Christie give things a good go, but there’s little sense the two characters are into each other. And they don’t have to be, I suppose; all the episode needs is for Trip to like Ah’len enough to try the Xyrillian version of spin the bottle. But then if the first 60% or so of the episode isn’t supposed to be a romance story, then what is it? A tale of two people who kind of like each other hanging out for a while? That seems an odd choice for the central focus of an episode.

You could argue this low-key ramble through Trip’s first stay on an alien ship is simply a peg to hang the various instances of the Xyrillian’s weirdness on. Certainly “Unexpected” put plenty of effort into getting across how completely foreign and inexplicable an alien ship would seem to us humans. After decades of extra-terrestrial life meaning a slightly different forehead, reaching for the strange here makes for a pleasing change of pace. The sequences during and immediately following Trip’s sojourn in the Xyrillian airlock are the best in the episode. Water-nuggets, gigantic aquariums, grass growing on deck, diagnostic systems based on Simon (showing my age here, I realise); that’s all interesting stuff. But surely that all could have worked without making Trip’s own story aboard the ship so dull?

All of this is far from my real problem, though. Let’s talk about the box of pebbles. Even on the level of the text, it makes me a little uncomfortable. Fishing around in Tucker’s mind is a major invasion of privacy, and that doesn’t in any way become OK because it turns out he’s into it (and heads straight for whether she’s attracted to him, like an utter creep). That’s not what really gets to me, however. What really makes me mad is the underlying metaphor. Metaphors are all we can deal in here, of course, because alien telepathic granules that can induce a pregnancy aren’t real. They can only be a stand-in for something else. In this case, that certainly seems to be a degree of intimacy that can lead to a pregnancy. Which is sex, obviously. And here’s the thing: we have a word for having sex with someone who isn’t even aware of the fact it’s happening. We have a word for having sex with someone who has no idea they are risking pregnancy.

That word is rape.

“Why Didn’t You Fight Her Off?”

I realise those four letters spell out a very big word, just as I realise that no one working on this episode thought they were telling a story about non-consensual sex. But that doesn’t actually make it OK. Indeed, in some ways it makes “Unexpected” even more wretched. Not understanding that the term rape covers far more circumstances than violent sexual assault is a huge problem. This is why so many dismissed the charges against Julian Assange as an irrelevance, and why Ched Evan’s accuser was labelled a lying slut. It’s why Whoopi Goldberg defended Roman Polanski’s infamous assault of Samantha Gailey by saying “I know it wasn’t rape-rape”. It’s why Brock Turner got the kind of sentence British judges like to hand out for stealing bottles of water. We’re very good at this as a species. We tend to divide a wide range of immoral and unacceptable actions into some sort of awfulness ordering. Which I guess we have to, at least in the legal system, though I’m very glad that’s not my job. Once that’s done, though, the tendency seems to be to insist that the instances of what we’ve labelled the worst kinds of these crimes are so terrible that all the other ones aren’t really worth making a fuss over.

(This doesn’t always happen, of course. No-one ever argues that violent muggings are so unpleasant we shouldn’t consider picking someone’s pockets to be “theft-theft”. What could possibly explain the difference between how we view stealing and sexual assault? I’m sure the answer eludes me completely.)

On top of all of that, you’ve got the obvious and repeatedly-mentioned fact that Tucker is a man. That adds another level of problems in pretending this isn’t a story about sexual assault; it feeds into the prejudice against men who are raped. That’s not supposed to be something that happens. The codes of masculinity insist upon it. And if it does happen to you, you’re supposed to say silent forever (this isn’t too different for what women get taught in practice, of course). Do otherwise, and you will be held to have become feminised by the same code that tells you being feminine whilst a man is unacceptable. There are quite clearly multiple ways in which this manages to be insulting and disgusting towards both men and women, and yet it happens. That being the case, the issues inherent with Tucker having sex without his consent and it leading to him becoming so feminised he actually becomes pregnant are left as an exercise to the reader.

(There’s also the issue that this show kicked off its run just three weeks earlier with the Coors Light girls dancing around in nothing but latex body-paint and the oiling of a scantily-clad T’Pol. Put bluntly, this is neither a show nor a franchise with a strong enough record of considering women as equals to get away with an episode which boils down to saying “Hey, men get taken advantage of too!”.)

From that point on things just fall apart. Tucker’s condition is played for the most cliched laughs (he’s totally right about that lift), as though the mere fact of a man being pregnant is automatically funny and original. The stench of frat-boy humour is all over this episode. I’m not arguing this story should have been approached with more gravitas. I’m arguing it shouldn’t have been approached at all. No doubt it’s all well-intentioned – “Let’s see how a man deals with all that crap!” – but even leaving the non-consensual nature of Tucker’s condition aside, that approach fails for two important reasons. First, it implies pregnancy, a state of being only one half of the population can possibly undergo, can be translated into an experience for the other half with only minor changes. Second, and more important, it takes one of the few stories that can’t be told about cis men and finds a way to stuff a cis man into the centre of it. What, the writing staff were worried there were too few story templates that already revolve around people like Tucker? They figured they needed to borrow one from elsewhere so a cissexual man could finally get the spotlight he’d been denied for so long?

(Note that this criticism doesn’t preclude stories in which men gain insight into aspects of being a woman. Ironically, Bakula himself got such a story all the way back in the ’91 Quantum Leap episode “8 1/2 Months”. In that story Sam leaped into a woman in the final days of her pregnancy, allowing him to empathise with what the process feels like for a woman, rather than having them transformed into something experienced by a man. Ultimately, it was still a story about a man replacing a woman, and so problematic, but it got closer to something workable than this episode manages twenty years later. Empathy without co-option must always be the goal.)

“Don’t You Know What All Women Are After?”

Not even that is my biggest problem with “Unexpected”, though. That would be T’Pol. At this point, four episodes into each show, she’s in serious contention with Neelix for the title of worst main character in the franchise. Her treatment of Trip here is disgraceful. Having lectured not just a human but him specifically in “Broken Bow” about there being a vast myriad of alien life in the galaxy which makes snap judgments based on one’s own limited perspectives unwise, she now utterly refuses to accept the chief engineer could be blameless for falling pregnant. This is very ugly. It’s hypocritical, it’s mean-spirited, and it’s plain, simple victim-blaming. Refusing to believe Tucker when he insists he slept with precisely zero people in the last three days is bad enough. Criticising him for failing at diplomacy is just ludicrous. What, the best diplomats are so paranoid they refuse to play games with their hosts just in case they’re withholding vital information about the long-term consequences of participation? “Quick game of chess, ambassador? “LOL NO what if I get preggers from your rook, pal?”. This isn’t a serious criticism. It’s a launching pad for a smug and vicious morality lecture.

T’Pol is also responsible for delivering the news that Tucker is the first “human male” to ever become pregnant. Which, I’m sorry: no. That’s complete crap. Just the most casual search of the internet reveals a documented case of a man named Matt Rice giving birth in 1999, two years to the month before this episode aired. And even if that information hadn’t been freely available on the web at the time (I genuinely don’t know if it was, though for sure it had been reported in, for instance, the Village Voice, and by this time Al Gore had invented the internet decades earlier), the writers should have damn well known better. Humanity is a species of astonishing diversity. Hell, we’re so diverse even the seemingly humanity-wide love of bonking turns out not to apply to everybody.  It applies to a lot of us, though. Holy Prophets, does humanity as a species love itself the slippery hug of naughtiness. Some of those people having sex are trans men. Some of those trans men are having sex with cis men, or trans women. And then, impossible though it apparently was for the Enterprise production team to even imagine, some of those trans men will then become pregnant.

I don’t care that this episode is now over fifteen years old. I don’t care that trans representation back then was even more miserable than it is right now. Writers have a duty to do better. 1999 wasn’t just the year Matt Rice had a baby, it was the year Boys Don’t Cry came out. Hilary Swank won an Oscar for playing the trans male lead in that film, for pity’s sake. You don’t think news of that carried over onto the Paramount lot? Suggesting it takes until the 22nd century for a man to become pregnant and for it to take alien DNA to do it is an act of colossal, staggering erasure. It’s Trek taking a side, and the quite obviously wrong one. It’s almost enough for me to like this episode even less than “The Lorelei Signal”, but the hideous representation of women in that episode bugs me even more than the sins of omission here, however serious they are.

Given the problems listed above, then, it’s tough to see how the episode could find a way to clamber out of the pit it has dug for itself. And of course it doesn’t, even when the Klingons arrive.  Which isn’t to say Vorok and his crew have nothing to recommend them. They are at least fun, which is more than can be said about anything else here. If they were indeed intended as a way to prop up an episode desperately short on heft then they are at least partially successful. Yes, Vorok is a murderous git, and like all murderous gits on TV I feel bad about enjoying him. But nonetheless, enjoy him I do. The line “I can see my house from here!” in particular must be one of the most charming pieces of dialogue a Klingon has ever had written for them.  As you might expect from characters that turn up around 35 minutes into the episode, though, to the extent they do work, it’s only as the narrative equivalent of salting a burned roast.

Let’s leave that as the final metaphor for this episode, actually. A smouldering, inedible mess someone tried to make sure was at least well-seasoned, for lack of anything else to serve. A case study not only in how not to practice drama or comedy, but in how not to comprehend gender and/or sex either. False comprehension and false binaries are just all over the place here, to the point where simply cataloguing them was exhausting enough. Digging into them was a whole other nightmare.

So you can imagine how thrilled I am that my next post has to be about “The Enemy Within”.

Ordering

1. The Last Outpost

2. The Naked Time

3. Babel

4. Phage

5. Unexpected

6. The Lorelei Signal

Season 1 (so far) Show Rankings

1. Deep Space Nine

2. Enterprise

3. The Next Generation

=4. The Original Series

=4. The Animated Series

6. Voyager

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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