Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 6.1.5: Shale My Parents Told Me

Terra Nova

Star Trek Terra Nova

“Captain, are you sure this is the time?”

This is an episode with an awful lot to say. So much, in fact, that it comes up with a whole new way of saying things.

Histories And Mysteries

The central concern of “Terra Nova” is how quickly humanity can diverge. Artistically, linguistically, philosophically and ultimately even physically; there’s no limit to the historical examples of a single group splitting in two, and growing apart until they become almost unrecognisable to each other.  It’s important to remember this isn’t the only way humanity develops, and we shouldn’t focus on divergence whilst ignoring convergence. That’s not just a limited approach, it’s an actively harmful one. Still, these processes are two halves of an absolutely fascinating topic, and this episode considers the first of them in a rather lovely way.

There has clearly been an awful lot of thought put into not just who the Terra Novans are, but who they were.  Even their time before the poison rain is important here. From their accents and names – and the nature of the franchise itself – we can assume the colonists were predominantly if not exclusively American. This adds something of a sting to the tale of the SS Conestoga and her passengers. After all, they’ve arrived in a land that really was as empty and unclaimed as it suited the pilgrims and their descendants to pretend Turtle Island was hundreds of years ago. And what happens next? Within a generation they’ve decided that there isn’t room for another two hundred or so souls on an entire damn planet. The political relevance of this is not difficult to figure out.

Even the name Conestoga is significant, as Memory Alpha points out. It refers to a kind of covered wagon used in America to move beyond the original colonies southward into the Appalachians. It could manage about 15 miles a day and could transport around 5.4 metric tonnes. Here’s an illustration from Wikipedia:


This then reinforces the link to America, and the baffling and reactionary idea that a country of newcomers to a land should decide that new newcomers absolutely aren’t welcome. In addition to all this we can add the USS Conestoga, a 52m navy tug that vanished in the Pacific Ocean in 1921 and wasn’t found until 8 years after this episode was broadcast. So you’ve got a nod to American colonial heritage and a reference to a ship missing for decades at the time the episode was written. This is strong work.

Bury No Tracks. Bury No Paths

And that’s only the beginning. Let’s move on to the Novans as they are at the time Archer’s crew encounters them. The episode takes pains to ensure that each of my broad categories above are touched on here. The physical differences – attributable to the radiation of the “poison rain”, I guess – are presumably mainly there to stop both groups looking like idiots for not realising they’re all the same species.  Which is kind of funny given the franchises’ history of minimal or non-existent alien make-up, actually, but let’s move on. In terms of cultural differences, you’ve got the digger-skull flautists. These are a nice idea, and I realise there can’t have been much time to fit them in. Plus, obviously, it ties in to the Novan’s reliance on the diggers, which is clever.

That said, I’m a little nervous offering the bone-blowing orchestra too much praise. The idea is great, yes, but the score written to represent the Novan Skull-Tooters’ latest sell-out gig is a bit too ethereal-pan-pipey for me. I might not have noticed had I not been thinking about these issues whilst writing about Chakotay for last week’s post on “The Cloud”, but the music here is the kind of generic floating, sanded-smooth un-tune that’s smeared over any scene in US TV trying to evoke the idea of spirituality or Native American influence (themselves often mixed together in television) without actually bothering to nail down the specifics. Considering the Novan’s status as, at best, third generation immigrants, linking their plight to America’s original inhabitants – even and especially at the level of stereotype – is pretty tasteless. Given the approach taken elsewhere in the episode, though, I’m happy to write this off as, appropriately enough, a bum note.

Let’s move on to language and philosophy, which Antoinette Stella is smart enough to present as intertwined. The effort that has gone into coming up with the Novan dialect is obvious and impressive. Seriously, have you ever tried to come up with fictional dialect? Just extrapolating slang terms is difficult enough. Off the top of my head the only two writers I can think of that have managed to pull it off are Anthony Burgess and Douglas Adams. It’s almost impossible to create the right balance between imagination and recognition. Just think of the number of nicknames given to sci-fi drugs over the years. Almost all of those are terrible.

The Novan dialect, in contrast, has a lot to recommend it. From time to time it relies on cliche (“sky ship” being the most obvious example), but in general it both sounds natural and makes perfect sense in context. “Empty” becomes “hollow”, for instance, because the former can be used to describe the expanses of the surface world, whereas hollow more strongly suggests something both vacant and enclosed. “Digger filth” is a fairly obvious rewriting of “bulls***”, but as the picture of the Conestoga wagon above demonstrates, there’s a nice link there between the critical nature of each of those two animals to their respective colonial communities. “Kill” is now “gut”, which probably also originates from the colony’s dependence on diggers. Instead of “remove” or “get rid of” we now have “bury”; nothing difficult to translate about that, but it’s still a nice touch. It all helps us both get inside the minds of the Novans and see them as their own distinct culture (this will become important later on).

But it’s “shale” and “track” and “path” that most impress me. These work brilliantly both on their own and in combination. Let’s start with “shale”. That’s an absolutely beautiful euphemism for lying, especially in this context. When you live your whole life in caverns below ground, stability is crucial. You need to know you can trust the rock that surrounds you. You need solid stone, dependable and unchanging. Shale is the opposite of that. Shale can cause slips and even falls. It can cut you as you stumble onto and into it. In extremis it can slide in huge quantities into an open tunnel, leaving you trapped. For a cave-dweller, then, shale can rewrite the truth of the world.

All of that, and it’s fun to say, too, That “sh” sound at the start; you can just spit that out at people. Like you can with “sh**”, of course. So it has a weight to it, even for those of us who’ve never set foot on Terra Nova.

Another thing about shale, though, is that it shifts. If you’re trying to retrace your steps through a cavern complex, relying on, I don’t know, wet boot prints or the disturbances you’ve caused in rock dust or something, shale can mess everything up. You can, as Jarmin says, lose your tracks in it.  In Terra Novan, as in English, “track” is both a noun and a verb. Novans use it to describe both the act of moving, and the recognition of where one has come from. Clearly, this is meant metaphorically as well as literally; Jarmin is not actually worried that if Nadet believes Archer she won’t remember where their caves are. “Tracks” are the past, and “tracking”, as well as meaning literal movement, refers to the process of moving through the present, generating the past as you go. Following your “path” which, again in common with its use in English, seems to refer to one’s route to the future.

So why does Jarmin warn Nadet that the human shale will not just confuse her path, but that she’ll lose her tracks too? Here we at least dip into philosophy, albeit at an incredibly – the irony! – surface level (this is handy as it’s the only level at which I can talk about it anyway). It’s clear the Novans see their past as part of their identity. I mean, we all do, obviously,to greater or lesser extents. The poison rain and the assumed betrayal of the humans can easily be understood as having made the Novans particularly focused on the importance of the past in shaping their present, though. This is possibly further strengthened by their living conditions. The Enterprise’s scans show how closely-packed the Novan community is. I suppose a nomadic existence of wandering through a much larger cavern system is possible, but the simpler assumption is that the caves aren’t that big, and the Novans spend their lives wandering through the same tunnels again and again and again – the degree to which they know them and the danger presented by the contamination of a single water source suggest this as well. Which means that the Novan’s past is also their future. Their path takes them over their own tracks, over and over. To lose your tracks is to lose your path as well.


After all this effort put into describing the Novan people, the clear message that they deserve to survive on their own terms (at least until inbreeding inevitably does for them) rather than be integrated into extinction is thoroughly welcome. It’s also great news that it’s T’Pol who gets to point this out.

Since I’ve spent so much time slating the Sub-Commander in these posts, it’s nice that I have an opportunity to praise her position here. Even better is how she allows her position to become clear, hiding it under a totally different and fairly unpleasant one. This lets her work out Archer’s own stance by making him too angry to dissemble. That’s a great use of the Vulcan mindset, and a badly needed reminder that the Vulcan’s can understand how emotions work in practice. It even helps limit the damage of previous episodes, too, by making us wonder how much of what she’s said so far in the series she has actually meant.

In case there’s any doubt at all, T’Pol does not actually want to use stun grenades to knock out the Novans and take them by force. That would clearly be unconscionable. Despite that, though, humanity has regularly done things just as bad and far worse through our history. It was certainly worth checking whether Archer would take that tack under while insisting he was doing what was best for the less advanced locals.

Naturally, Archer isn’t tempted – we’ve learned something over the last few hundred years. Instead, he jumps onto his moral high horse and tries to run T’Pol down. Her appalling suggestion gives him permission to lecture her on what he sees as the right way to handle this situation. And, as T’Pol doubtless suspected, his “right way” isn’t actually a particularly good one at all. For the Novans, integration would be the same thing as destruction.

This is actually a tremendously powerful and subversive sentiment. T’Pol’s position cuts against a lot of conventional wisdom that says multiculturalism is just aces, so long as it’s accompanied by integration. Or perhaps I should say what used to be conventional wisdom, given that I’m writing this post on the weekend of the JFK Airport demonstrations. Right now it feels like the prevailing position among many of us would be that the Novans inability to survive in their own caves is their own problem, and they should be left to poison themselves because a couple of them took shots at “our boys”. Even in happier times, though, the standard line was that we have a responsibility to take in those that can no longer live where they were born, but they then have an equal responsibility to integrate into the country they’ve been so graciously saved by.

The attractiveness of this position is fairly clear. It feels to many like exactly how you should stand against those wanting to stop people from other countries coming to ours at all. And for sure, it’s hugely better than yelling “Our country is full!” or “Immigrants are stealing all the jobs!” (neither of which is remotely true, as the slightest glance at the statistics will tell you). But the corrective alternative to keeping people out of our society entirely is not insisting they throw themselves into it fully. It is inviting them to participate to whatever degree they feel comfortable with. No-one should have to choose between their lives and their culture, and if we insist that everyone who arrives on our shores fleeing disaster discard their identity so they can take on one more like our own, that’s ultimately exactly what we’re asking. And it matters that it’s T’Pol pointing this out. After all, she herself has spent years living in California, and she couldn’t even make it out of the pilot episode without an American haranguing her about not spending enough time away from her own people to experience those things he considered a necessary part of living there.

(Despite all this good stuff, I can still see an objection to this scene. It is after all about Archer and T’Pol discussing what’s best for the Terra Novan culture without any actual representatives of that culture present. It’s still ultimately two people on a spaceship deciding what’s best for the “primitive” peoples below. That said, T’Pol’s suggestion is simply to offer the Novans an alternative choice. There’s no suggestion the Novans are anything other than free to reject that choice, at which point a new discussion would have to happen, hopefully involving Novan input as well.)

In other words, this episode isn’t just one that rejects the kind of reactionary politics that can sink sci-fi stories about intercultural understanding. It also takes issue with the stance with an awful lot of people who’d consider themselves liberal. That’s pretty brave, and far more impressive than the kind of preaching to the choir Trek tends to be more comfortable doing. So if “Terra Nova” descends into cheese in the final minutes with the rescue of Ackary (and it does) then a) the episode has earned it, and b) far better that than some last-minute grimdark twist which causes a breakdown of communications and condemns the Novans to a lingering fate. The Enterprise crew (eventually) do things the right way, and as a result things work out for everyone.

Add all this up, and what you get is really rather lovely. It’s a tale left simple in structure so as to deliver a powerful point, and then teased out into a dozen lovely little flourishes. Those aren’t simply pretty, either; they draw the eye back to the centre of the episode, where the message of accepting others for what they are rather than how much they can become like you is waiting for us.  This is almost certainly the best episode Enterprise has given us to this point, and a high-point of IDFC so far. That it’s so widely disliked by Star Trek fans is a genuine shame.

It’s also a suggestion that we need more stories like this going forward, not fewer.


1. More Tribbles, More Troubles

2. Terra Nova

3. Captive Pursuit

4. The Cloud

5. Where No One Has Gone Before

6. The Enemy Within

Season 1 (so far) Show Rankings

1. Deep Space Nine

2. Enterprise

3. The Animated Series

4. The Next Generation

5. Voyager

6. The Original Series

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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