Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 6.1.6: The P’Jem Hadar

The Andorian Incident

Star Trek The Andorian Incident

“Lookin’ good, on the hunt, for a little green blood.”

Enterprise gets all political and complex. Or it thinks it does, anyway.

Perfect Antennae

“The Andorian Incident” is one of those frustrating stories that tries to do viewpoints but just makes everybody involved seem unpleasant. The Andorians are by some distance the worst served in this regard. Firstly and most obviously, they’re portrayed here as more or less completely without virtue. Shran is a sadistic bully. Tholos seems to be working up the courage he needs to graduate to rapist. The Andorians here are paranoid, brutal, and openly racist, and none of that is altered in the slightest by the revelation that there was indeed a listening post hidden under P’Jem. Taking and beating hostages doesn’t suddenly become acceptable if it turns out not all those hostages were telling the truth. The ultimate moral that you can be a violent bigot and also right about your political enemies lying to you isn’t incorrect, I suppose, but you have to wonder what actual good it does to point it out. It’s like rewriting “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” so the villagers are attending a Klan rally. The underlying point still stands, but you wouldn’t want anyone using it as a lesson for schoolchildren.

But the problem isn’t simply that the Andorians are terribly unpleasant. It’s that this is all they are. There’s nothing here to distinguish them from any other group of interstellar hoodlums. Yes, we learn where their homeworld is, and that they have an institution called the Andorian Imperial Guard, but these are mere factlets. They tell us nothing about who the Andorians actually are as people. Given the cold open is dedicated to their arrival on P’Jem, and that the whole damn episode is named after them, this is a baffling choice. Or rather, it isn’t baffling, because it’s all too clear what’s happened. Someone somewhere decided the Andorians should be brought back for the new show, and it never occurred to them or anyone else working on this episode that the simple fact of their appearance wouldn’t give the episode all the drive it needed.

As I’ve discussed already, this sixth cycle of episodes has been surprisingly consistent in how each installment has looked backward for inspiration. “The Andorian Incident” fits into this pattern too, but in absolutely the worst possible way. We’re supposed to find Andorians interesting here simply because they were interesting before, and they’ve been gone a long time. There is nothing justifying their inclusion here beyond nostalgia. Their mere presence is supposed to be enough. The fact more time seems to have gone into making sure their antennae twitch than on helping anyone new to the franchise understand or care about them is an almost perfect metaphor for what’s gone wrong.

This is what people mean when they complain about fan service: writers thinking something worked so well in context it must work in any context, or without context entirely. This is clearly incorrect. You can’t divorce iconography from its original content and expect it still to function, not if you refuse to bolt onto it anything new or interesting (preferably both). This is particularly obvious and frustrating having watched “Lonely Among Us” only a few weeks earlier. That episode was actually written by the actual creator of the Andorians, and featured a set-up that echoed the story in which she introduced them, and still felt more fresh than anything served up here.

Hawkwhinge

On now to the humans, who are awful throughout. Tucker in particular is just thoroughly obnoxious this week, giggling at inaccuracies in the Vulcan star charts, insulting the appearance of one of their most holy sites, and poking fun at T’Pol as she attempts to pin down her concerns as she studies the current state of P’Jem. It’s no wonder she seems clearly reluctant to have the Enterprise pay a surprise visit: every indication is Archer and Tucker want not to discover, but to mock. Ha ha. Let’s go see the stupid Vulcans doing their stupid meditations and laugh at how stupid it all is. HA HA.

That’s a comparatively minor complaint as regards what’s going on here, though. The bigger problem is how the episode seems to position humanity in general and Archer in particular as an intermediate point between the Andorians and Vulcans. This can be seen most clearly in Archer’s lecture to T’Pol on the necessity of “a little violence”, but there’s also the symbolism of Archer handing the information about the Vulcan listening post to Shran as the episode ends, positioning him and his crew as standing between the two cultures.

This doesn’t actually work, though, and we’ve already touched on why. You can’t use humanity as a metaphorical midpoint between two groups when you haven’t bothered to define what one of them actually is. With the Andorians defined as nothing but punch-happy military types, the script forecloses almost every interesting way to stick mankind between them and the Vulcans. All it can do is collapse the episode into a discussion about how much shooting is the right amount of shooting.

And I just don’t care about that conversation. It’s of no interest or worth. Often it’s actively harmful, in fact. Whenever stories end up walking this beat we always seem to end up with someone giving a lecture to ludicrous caricatures of naive peaceniks in the service of getting them to rise up and attack equally ludicrous caricatures of violent bullies. As a result the actual reasons for taking a maximalist stance against violence go completely unexplored, and at the same time a group of people are being presented as the kind of irrational monsters you can only deal with through violence. In other words, dovish criticisms are studiously ignored at the same time as those criticisms are being validated.

Not sure what I mean? Consider for a moment who it is in our own world who finds themselves repeatedly lectured on the need for violence. It isn’t actual pacifists, mainly because they’re aren’t actually all that many of them, or at least if they are no-one ever deigns to pass them a microphone so they can make their numbers felt. It’s the people who are counselling a non-violent approach to whatever specific situation is being discussed. It happened when NATO geared up to bomb Kosovo, and when the US and its allies invaded Iraq. It happened over Libya. It happened over Syria. We were told over and over and over that the avoidance of violence was all very well in theory, but those who lived in the real world were sure that this was one of those very rare and very unfortunate occasions where there was no other option. Force was all that Milosovic would understand. It was all that Hussein would understand. It was all that Gadaffi or Bashir would understand. They’re not like us, you see. Reason doesn’t work. They’re unhinged. They’re unfeeling. They’re barbarians. Doves who claim that war is entered into too easily might have been right in the past, and it’s unfortunate they were ignored, but this time it’s totally clear that violence is necessary and anyone who doesn’t agree must just think violence is never OK, and how ridiculous is that?

These caricatures of the implacable enemy and the hippy-dippy peacenik are both ugly and dangerous, but what’s worse is that they feed off each other. The more bloodthirsty and unreasonable our enemy becomes, the more pathetically naive those who don’t want to kill them must be, and the more naive those who don’t want to go to war are, the more urgent it must be to defeat the enemy, because not doing it is clearly so stupid.  This then feeds into and is fed in turn by a second feedback loop, which says the more people discuss violence, the more clear it is that there can’t be any alternative, and the more clear it is that there is no alternative, the more we have to discuss violence. Archer demonstrates this rather ably when he makes contact with Enterprise and wants only to talk about where and how to deploy a security team to go full-on Eugenics Wars on the Andorians’ blue backsides. The idea of, for example, of beaming the Andorians themselves onto his ship and detaining them doesn’t occur to him. He’s got a critical point to make about how sometimes people have to get shot. There’s no time to consider whether it’s actually true.

Them Crooked Vulcans

Mind you, if Archer is unpleasantly trigger-happy here, it’s because the Vulcans have set him up for it. They’ve been serving up naked propaganda from the very start. “They resent us for our superior reasoning” in particular is basically indistinguishable from “They hate us for our freedoms”. It’s therefore rather fitting that the episode ends with it becoming clear that the Andorians were acting on accurate intelligence, and that their beef with the Vulcans is legitimate at least in this one narrow sense – which at present is the only sense in which we’re able to judge it. The Andorians are described almost entirely through a Vulcan filter, and we eventually learn this view is no more honest or objective than that of any other culture describing their fractious neighbours. It still seems pointless to bring back the Andorians specifically for this, but the basic idea that Vulcans are as aggravatingly smug when describing other species as they are when discussing our own is a strong one.

Clearly lots of people disagree. Memory Alpha states fan consensus puts this in the top three episodes of the show’s first season, which is ridiculous (it’d be hard to argue it was even in the top three episodes broadcast to this point), and lists its biggest flaw as how cynical it is regarding the Vulcans, which is more ridiculous still.

Seriously, people. How can you not have seen this coming? Of course the Vulcans will break a treaty if they’re convinced they’ll get away with it. It’s all upside. It’s the logical thing to do, if your particular definition of “logical” simply means “starkly utilitarian”, especially when you’ve convinced yourselves that your opponents are so untrustworthy they need keeping tabs on even after they’ve signed an accord with you.

If there’s anything approaching a surprise in this episode, then, it most certainly isn’t the idea Vulcans can be duplicitous. It might be a little more shocking that they’re using monks as willing stooges in their deception, but even that doesn’t strike me as unexpected. I’ve already talked about how Vulcans mistake their perspective for a baseline truth, judging everyone else by how far from this marker they lie. How they represent the kind of people who insist to others and themselves that they’re totally opposed to prejudice, but who are actually bigoted to the core because they can only evaluate someone in terms of how similar they are to themselves.

All we’re seeing here is the next logical step. We already know how rotten Vulcan secular society is, and now we see their religious orders aren’t necessarily any better. In some ways, they may even be worse. Once again, we can map what’s going on here to prominent aspects of Western thought. If previous Vulcan characters have represented the paid opinion-providers of, say, the national press, these monks are the Christian extremists who use their own beliefs as an excuse to hate other religions, and their hatred of other religions as an excuse to hate those of other races. The monks of P’Jem simply ooze conviction in their own racial superiority, from their description of the Andorians to their discussions of how badly humans smell (“they smell bad” being, naturally, a common racist trope). This is justified through their use of kolanar, which purges the emotions and thereby by Vulcan lights makes the monks into superior beings. Which is a pretty questionable justification for a pretty appalling attitude, actually. That doesn’t really seem to matter in practice, though, since the monks seem rather less interested in their religious doctrine than in keeping their religious icons and revered dead out of harm’s way.

This is worth thinking about for a moment. An obsession with the material? Martin Luther was slagging this approach off all the way back in the 16th century, of course, but it seems particularly strange and concerning here. I don’t really care all that much about the relics – though it’s not clear how it’s logical to consider an object sacred, as oppose to simply rare/well-crafted etc. – but this idea of the revered dead worries me. Where is the logic in considering one dead body to be more important than another? By definition that means some dead bodies have to be less important than others, which implies some kind of hierarchy of worth among living Vulcans that makes me nervous. You could maybe argue that this is simply a sop to tradition rather than a consciously-expressed theory of worth, but that doesn’t actually improve things all that much. This touches on a topic I’ll talk about in my next Enterprise article, though, so I shall leave it alone here.

In summary then, none of what we see here regarding the Vulcans can count as surprising. Quite the contrary. That said, whilst this look at what Vulcan religion might involve in practice tallies with my low opinion of their approach in general, it’s still not actually a lot of fun watching the three species trying to out-compete each other in terms of how unpleasant and reactionary they can be. If the Vulcan monks here are problematic – and they absolutely are – the fact Archer’s lecture to them makes him more problematic still is pretty depressing. The result is an episode that I loved at the start of my twenties – so gritty! So real! – but which sixteen years later seems cheaply cynical, and with its cynicism not all that well-calibrated either. Beyond my smugness at being proved right, the only part of this episode I really like is the conversation between T’Pol and Archer about where her loyalty lies, in which she completely shoots him down about as comprehensively as someone can a superior officer. She chose his warmth, smell and all, over the cold in which her people live. What more proof could he possibly want?

That one scene can hardly save the episode. Still, it and the logical (hah!) development of the underlying problems of the Vulcan philosophy at least put it above the cliche and uninspired runaround of “The Survivor”. In some ways it even beats out “Lonely Among Us”, since it at least has coherence and some (limited) drive. Ultimately, though, I can’t justify putting a story that recycles a DC Fontana script above an actual DC Fontana script, even if it was one of her lesser efforts.

So that puts “Lonely Among Us”- an unsatisfying and unbalanced minor failure – on the second highest spot of the cycle. Just about every series has stumbled here. Some of them, however, can afford that stumble rather less than others. The Original Series in particular feels like it’s in real trouble right now. Is what’s coming next going to finally help it clamber out of the sexist, reactionary hole it’s managed to dig itself?

Star Trek What Are Little Girls Made Of 0

Ah.

Ordering

1. Eye Of The Needle

2. Lonely Among Us

3. The Andorian Incident

4. The Survivor

5. Q-Less

6. Mudd’s Women

Season 1 (so far) Show Rankings

1. Deep Space Nine

2. Enterprise

3. Voyager

4. The Animated Series

5. The Next Generation

6. The Original Series

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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