Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 6.1.7: “…Just Wanna Have Fun”

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: IDFC is going to be on hiatus over the next two months while I focus on writing up the new season of Game of Thrones for Geek Syndicate. I’ll be back with my piece on “Miri” on Thursday September 7th. Thanks as always for reading.

Breaking The Ice

Star Trek Breaking The Ice

“Lieutenant, are you sure this is the time?” “SHUT UP, ENSIGN; THE CAPTAIN HAS ORDERED ANOTHER DANCE-OFF! NOW GROOVE IN THE MANNER DICTATED BY STANDING ORDERS!”

I’ve always been scared of space.

It’s the blackness, I think. The cold. It’s worse than the deepest oceans, because at least those have a way up and out. Space doesn’t have an up; every direction is down into something infinite. The void operates on a timescale so inconceivable it can barely have noticed Earth’s arrival, let alone our own. It is an incomprehensibly huge everything that will eventually swallow all that isn’t itself. An unending stalking predator, picking off anyone who strays from their planet for too long, waiting for the chance to finish us all.

Space is terrifying.

So what is it humanity does when it ends up in the endless, unfathomable expanse of frozen horror that exists just beyond our troposphere?

We shamelessly muck about.

Buzzkill Lightyear

I don’t know if this is a reaction to the inky, killing cold outside, or just humanity’s standard need to goof around wherever possible. Either way, these brave souls seem determined to prove that space can be – and even should be – fun.

“Breaking The Ice” clearly wants to make the same point, from the gloriously corny triple-threat pun of the title onward. Making snowmen in micro-gravity, chatting to kids about your awesome adventures and enjoying their wonderful drawings, chasing a giant comet just for the hell of it; the opportunities for joy offered by a tour in space are everywhere here. This is the first time since the opening half of “Strange New World” that Enterprise has bothered trying to persuade us a life in Starfleet is something you might actually enjoy.

It’s interesting then that this is the first episode of Enterprise to have been neither written nor plotted by its two creators. It also makes it hard to not read this as push-back to the show so far in general, and its last episode in particular. I think one can easily overstate the degree to which the first half-dozen episodes are built around cynically and cheaply constructed conflict, but there’s certainly no small truth to such a criticism. Every single episode before (and including) this one involves some kind of clash between humans and T’Pol as token Vulcan. The best two – “Terra Nova” and the aforementioned “Strange New World” – seemed to find ways to subvert this, but it was still undeniably present. And frankly, after the full-on ugliness of “The Andorian Incident”, it’s hard to believe that even those subversions were actually intentional. The idea that the show might want to take a step backwards from paranoid yelling is certainly a welcome one.

“Breaking The Ice” does more than just object to the overall problem, though. It locates the specific causes. Consider the snowman. The moment we learn Archer is watching Reed and Mayweather standing beside their creation is a genuinely well-crafted sight gag, but it’s more than just a joke. It moves the episode from simply suggesting Enterprise should have more fun to suggesting the barrier blocking us from that fun is Captain Archer himself.

And his crew know it, too. Reed and Mayweather respond to their captain dressing them down by adding Vulcan ears to their snowman, because it’s the most obvious way possible to stick it to the boss. What, the Vulcans show up and suddenly no-one’s allowed to muck about a little? Even if Archer hadn’t specifically mentioned that the Ti’Mur was observing their progress, it would surely be obvious what has him so on edge. Every time the Vulcans make an appearance he becomes close to unbearable. The chip on his shoulder has been mouldering so long it’s stinking up the place.

The stench returns at dinner, with Archer becoming more and more irate with Captain Vanik before flat-out accusing him of spying on Enterprise. All poor Tucker was hoping for was a nice meal, and now his boss is trying to start a cross-species punch-up over the pok tar? Vanik’s completely right to shoot Archer down: what kind of spy arrives in full view and asks whether it’s OK for them to observe what’s going on? Archer could have turned down the request, or inquired further about what Vanik thought he’d get out of watching Enterprise follow a comet, or even do something more interesting than chase an unusually large ball of ice. Instead, he lets Vanik’s arrival fester to the point he tries to provoke a diplomatic incident.

Add in the fact that his own first officer can’t receive messages from her people without him freaking out and ordering they’re read in secret to check she isn’t plotting against him – just one episode after T’Pol took him for task for questioning her loyalty – and it’s clear Archer’s vendetta is making everyone around him miserable. Including himself, actually. Archer seems irritable and unhappy for almost the entire episode. The closest he seems to get to enjoying himself is when recording a message to school children. Even then he seems stilted and hesitant, and far more comfortable with Tucker’s squirming than he is with Phlox’s obvious relish.

The episode ends with Archer’s stewing over Vanik’s presence reaching the point where he would rather risk two of his crewmember’s lives than accept a Vulcan offer of help. By this stage it’s clear the Captain has stepped over the line at some point (you’ll note T’Pol only gets him to take the obviously correct decision by suggesting it would somehow be sticking it to Vanick), but the script makes it clear that Archer has been wandering  in the wrong direction for quite a while.

Enterprise, it seems, is no longer allowed to be a place where people enjoy themselves. And Archer is the reason why.

The Shrewsbury Pie Pie

This is a fair-handed episode, though. Whilst “Breaking The Ice” is unambiguous in suggesting Archer’s anti-Vulcan animus is draining any sense of fun or enjoyment from the show, it also takes the time to criticise Enterprise’s approach to the Vulcans. There’s clearly a moral being set up here about how humans and Vulcans should set aside their differences to work towards their mutual benefit. After all, it’s human curiosity that results in the discovery of the comet’s eisilium deposits, but it’s the superior technology of the Vulcans that allows both the substance and those sent to collect it, to return alive.

And yet this is absolutely not what actually goes down, because the Vulcans ruin it. Archer offers to hand over the data they’ve collected to the Ti’Mur, but Vanik turns it down because he can’t conceive of there being anything of worth in it. The Vulcan captain claims to be in the area to check out why a human crew is interested in this particular comet, and yet he hasn’t done so much as order a single scan of the object itself. Archer might be the focus of this episode’ disapproval, but ultimately it’s Vanik’s smug certainty that humans have nothing to offer that scuppers the chance for Vulcan to benefit.

This is because Vanik is an unambiguously terrible person. I stand by my criticism of Archer’s behaviour at dinner, but that doesn’t mean I approve of his Vulcan counterpart either. Vanik is calculatingly insulting throughout. Apparently it’s now logical to show up to dinner and refuse to eat, take issue with the culture and manners of your hosts, and then explain you find them boring. On the other hand, it’s seemingly illogical to learn the most basic rules of another culture’s etiquette before joining them for a meal. The more time I spend watching the Vulcans of Enterprise, the more sure I am that I got it right back in my piece on “Broken Bow”. All they want to do is revel in how detached and dispassionate they are, to the point they’ll deliberately provoke you just so they can openly disapprove of your behaviour when provoked. This isn’t logic, as I argued at the time. This is the deliberate conflation of anger with error. It’s the idea that the very act of someone angrily disagreeing with you is proof they’re wrong, and you are right.

In that same post, I referred to this behaviour as part of “the view from nowhere”; the idea that opinions are only of value if they are articulated calmly, and therefore those who remain calmest whilst laying out their ideas are automatically correct. As I said at the time, this is not actually a logical or unbiased perspective, but a conservative one, because in general it’s much easier to remain calm if you think things are more or less OK as they are. To take just one example, I’m reliably informed that it can be much harder for a woman to keep their cool when arguing society is still riddled with sexism which it refuses to address, than it is for a man to suggest misogyny belongs to the past and all that’s left is for feminists to accept their own victory.

And whilst I’m on the subject of the right and how easily it dismisses even the mere existence of sexism, let’s move on to the subject of T’Pol’s engagement. I’ve got all sorts of questions about what constitutes “logical” criteria for an arranged marriage, and what happens to those for whom no match is deemed acceptable. Maybe this was covered in “Amok Time”; I’ve not seen it in decades. Sticking with this episode, though, this entire set-up stinks like Archer’s mouldy shoulder-chip. I realise it isn’t my place to object to another culture’s traditions; it’s possible there exists some method of arranging marriages that doesn’t come coupled with the kind of patriarchal ugliness it always seems to in our own world. This, though, clearly isn’t such a beast. The suggestion that T’Pol must put the breaks on her own career so that Koss doesn’t has to delay his own is shot through with sexism (it’s also nonsensical; what, you can’t draw a house on a starship?). Moreover, T’Pol’s request for a postponement so neither party need compromise their careers whilst she is aboard ship seems entirely logical, and Koss’ parents respond by announcing they’re insulted. Insulted?  Because their son’s betrothed wants to avoid making the same sacrifice it’s already been decided their son shouldn’t have to make? That isn’t logic. It’s hypocrisy. Worse, by making their feelings (feelings! Vulcans! Feeling insulted!) known, they’re engaging in emotional blackmail. Emotional blackmail. That’s crappy enough when humans do it. For Vulcans, it should be considered close to treasonous.

(Once again, I refer you back to my “Broken Bow” piece, in which I pointed out that if the Vulcan’s claims about their logical approach were actually true, no two Vulcans would ever disagree. Well now we know what can happen when they actually do disagree: one party starts sulking and tries to punish the other.)

Given my general thoughts on how Enterprise’s Vulcans are simply reactionaries playing at being intellectuals, I’m entirely unsurprised the metaphorical cudgel being waved at T’Pol has the word “TRADITION” stamped on it. The idea that individuals should be forced to sacrifice in the name of tradition is clearly a reactionary one, because it prioritises a culture’s stasis over the well-being of its people. Worse, it doesn’t even have the decency to offer a good reason why. Traditions are what we’ve been doing so far, so apparently they must be what are always done, no matter who gets hurt.  It’s an argument that because you’ve always gotten what you wanted up until now, you should continue to get what you want from now on; the attitude of a spoiled child somehow enshrined into social etiquette and even law.

It’s cruelty in the name of stability. What it most certainly isn’t is logical. Seeing Enterprise point this out is rather pleasing.

Assorted Nopes

So far so good, then. So why have I put “Breaking The Ice” below the fun but ultimately slightly unsatisfying “Ex Post Facto”? Well, there’s a few reasons. Whilst there are aspects of fun here, the focus on how Archer keeps undermining everyone’s enjoyment is ultimately too effective; you end up as frustrated as everyone else waiting for him to stop being an ass. This episode improves on the “The Andorian Incident” by at least articulating how things can be better rather than just exploring how everyone is awful, but the awfulness is still present, and still dragging the experience down. Even my appreciation of the episode further exploring Vulcan society and its contradictions is tempered by how depressingly awful Spock’s people keep turning out to be on this show.

There’s also the problem that the episode’s critique of the Vulcans strays into soft bigotry. Yes. T’Pol’s insistence on tradition outweighing the individual and the obviously sexist set-up of her arranged marriage are problematic, but Tucker’s lecture on the importance of personal choice misses these points entirely. As a result, this becomes one more example of an American character explaining that any culture that does things differently to their own must be wrong. Then there’s the awful moment earlier in the episode where T’Pol refuses pecan pie and Tucker responds with “Vulcans don’t have a sweet tooth?”, as though her food preferences can be mapped onto her entire culture/species. If Ensign Hoshi had demurred on dessert it would be unconscionable for Tucker to reply “The Japanese don’t have a sweet tooth?”, but this point is somehow missed here.

In fact, it gets missed a lot in Enterprise, in which the human characters seem horrifyingly unable to conceive of Vulcans having individual personalities, and so keep demanding that T’Pol simultaneously both embody and reject her culture. It’s as big a problem as Archer’s simmering resentment; maybe bigger.  The fact Maria and Andre Jaquemetton could so smartly skewer the first whilst indulging so unthinkingly in the second suggests Enterprise has a long way to go before it can wash away the smell it’s been dragging with it up until now.

Ordering

1. Dax

2. Ex Post Facto

3. Breaking The Ice

4. The Infinite Vulcan

5. What Are Little Girls Made Of?

6. Justice

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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