Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 6.1.8: Second Contact

Civilization

Star Trek Civilization

“Diane? It’s your agent. She does NOT sound happy.”

I won’t bury the lede on this one: “Civilization” doesn’t really work. Perhaps appropriately for a story about the meeting of two societies hundreds of years apart, this is an episode that feels rather out of time. What’s odd is that it’s arrived both too early, and far, far too late.

Stolen Identities

We’ll start with the episode’s tardiness. “Civilization”, to put it as nicely as I can, is not an episode that offers up a host of daring new ideas. In fact, it’s derivative as hell.  I don’t just mean how familiar long-time viewers will be with the central idea of Starfleet officers trying to disguise themselves as members of a less-advanced race, though that’s certainly an issue in itself. I mean the scene on the bridge in the episode’s final minutes where Tucker threatens mutiny over T’Pol’s apparent decision to abandon the captain is almost identical to something which happens in “Broken Bow”. Cribbing from Trek’s long and frequently illustrious history is perhaps forgivable (though wasn’t the point of a prequel to stop that happening?). Plagiarising the pilot episode of a show in the first episode you write for it is rather less so.

The decision to return to squabbling on the bridge is particularly disappointing given the warning “Breaking The Ice” offered just last episode, about the importance of having fun and trusting each other. In many ways then the problem here is as much about what’s been cut as what’s been copied and pasted. To the extent to which this episode actually has anything to say – beyond calling for a return to the glory days when a Starfleet captain’s day job included punching out lizards – it seems to be asking what first contact would look like if you took away the Prime Directive and Starfleet’s unshakable commitment to communication and cooperation.  Episodes like “Who Watches The Watchers” and “First Contact” were about the psychological and cultural problems an unprepared alien culture might face upon meeting us, and the corresponding responsibilities shouldered by those who wish to explore the galaxy. “Civilisation” is about how sometimes you just gotta try shooting an alien in his latex-covered face.

After twenty-six seasons of television and nine movies, the decision is made here to offer up some of the most obvious and commonplace genre ideas imaginable, and then remove the elements that actually make the franchise unique in the first place. Even the trailer had to pitch it as a love story to make it seem like something interesting was going on. We’re not even getting another take on a Trek staple, then. This is a generic space opera production of a generic space opera idea.

In offering up something so familiar, the writers seem to be inviting the widest comparisons possible. I see no reason not to indulge them.

We can start our tour of similar stories with films like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Invaders From Mars, or Heinlein’s story The Puppet Masters. These are all tales about aliens with superior technology infiltrating Earth culture in order to exploit us or our world, and as such map quite well onto the Malurians’ scheme. We could talk about how this links this episode of Enterprise into the ugly history of Red Scare stories [1], and about how including the heroic American Archer as the “good” alien infiltrator arguably goes so far as to drag us into a story about the benefits of proxy wars. Honestly, though, that implies a coherence and depth to the subtext that just isn’t there. It’s easy to see reflections in material stretched out as thin as this.

So the problem here isn’t the crappy politics of the ’50s and ’60s tales that “Civilization” bears resemblance to. It’s the sheer fact of them being decades old by the time this episode was written. This kind of story wouldn’t have represented seizing the zeitgeist even as an Original Series episode, though at least that way the unmasking of Random Malurian Thug #1 couldn’t be seen as ripping off V.

Since we’re talking about tearing off masks to reveal reptiles, though…

A Quick Trip Across Town

For my money though, the work of fiction that most thoroughly demonstrates how totally past relevance “Civilization” is has to be “Visitors From Down The Street”, an episode of J Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 spin-off, Crusade. There are a few reasons for choosing this episode to hold up against “Civilization”. The first is the timing; Crusade predates Enterprise by two years, and so can be viewed a both as forerunner and contemporary. The second regards focus. Straczynski once described Crusade as being an action show with dramatic elements, an inversion of what he saw as Babylon 5′s identity as a drama show with action elements. That’s a shift in focus that actually maps remarkably well onto Trek‘s drift from the heights of The Next Generation to the franchise’s post-imperial phase and ultimately this show. This episode is a case in point, with its fisticuffs, shoot-outs, and exploding oil lamps.

What really links the two episodes in my mind, though, is how totally “Visitors…” understood that sci-fi had passed the point where it could get away with relying on the tropes “Civilization” is built upon. There’s a clear realisation here that if these ideas are still to be usable, they need a degree of twisting into less familiar shapes.

The plot of “…Down The Street” is one of those ideas so simple and so clever it annoys you that you didn’t think of it yourself. For those who’ve not seen it, the episode starts when the Excalibur picks up a distress call from a small ship. Picking up the stricken craft, the crew discover the vessel is piloted by two aliens wearing human clothes and speaking perfect English.

Visitors From Down The Street

Dress for the job you want to make fun of.

The rescued pair then lay into their baffled hosts, accusing mankind of having spent centuries visiting their world to manipulate and exploit it, all whilst disguised to look like the locals. Sound familiar? It very much should do. I’ve already mentioned V, but there’s easily dozens of alternative antecedents, most obviously The X-Files, which “Visitors…” is clearly poking fun at. The twist here though is that humanity has never visited this world; our alleged sinister interference has been invented wholesale by the local planetary government to give them an easy scapegoat for everything that goes wrong.

It’s a neat idea and a fun conceit, and rather timely given it aired between the sixth and seventh season of The X-Files itself. The specifics of Straczynski’s script aren’t really what I’m interested in here, though, so much as I am this episode being an affectionate (I think) lampoon of a then-contemporary repackaging of a pre-New Wave trope. I mean, when a scene like this gets filmed two years before the end of the twentieth century:

how can a TV show in the new millennium still be willing – still be allowed – to present the trope entirely straight?

Shifts In Focus

As I said above, though, there’s a sense in which “Civilization” actually arrives too early. There’s precisely one way in which I can see this plot working without major changes, and that would be to change the viewpoint from that of Enterprise to Riann. I’m fairly sure that even this wouldn’t have made the episode a complete first for the franchise; “First Contact” does something similar, and there are a couple of Voyager episodes along those lines too [2].

What neither of those episodes do, though, from what I can remember/glean from the internet, is introduce an alien culture to both humanity/the Federation and another species simultaneously so as to invite comparison. The focus in the above episodes is always at least partially on the shock of the new, meaning their reactions to the Federation’s identity and to its simple existence become conflated. That wouldn’t entirely change were “Civilization” to be rewritten from the viewpoint of Riann and her fellow Acali. By including the Malurians, though, my hypothetical rewrite would allow Riann to compare Starfleet with another alien culture, rather than simply the historical lack of same.  The choice of siding with the Federation, even temporarily, would become something more than a simple rejection of isolationism. And if there’s anything the last year of British politics has taught us, it’s that people need to realise there are ways to criticise specific intercultural organisations that don’t require a total rejection of internationalism.

There would be two problems with this kind of refocus, however. The first is the one I’ve already nodded at – eight episodes into a brand new show is too soon to sideline the entire main cast to make a point about the limitations of Starfleet. Much as I argued in my piece on “Ex Post Facto”, when a show is still in the first half of its first season the priority needs to be establishing the main characters, not sidelining them for the sake of some narrative cleverness.

(It might also be too early in a different sense, in that the Federation doesn’t even exist yet from this show’ perspective. That’s not necessarily a problem, though; it would just shift the focus from what the Federation is to what it needs to be.)

The second issue would be easier to fix, which is handy as it does a lot of damage to the episode as aired. Rewriting “Civilization” to be about an Acali comparison between Starfleet and the Malurians wouldn’t be satisfying if Garos was allowed to remain as one-dimensional and unreconstructed a villain as he is here.  If the Malurians had the technology to add facial hair to their Acali masks, Garos would definitely have sported a fake mustache, just so that he could twirl it while cackling. He lies utterly shamelessly about his responsibility for thousands of fatally ill locals, and once that lie is revealed he shows not a second’s remorse, arguing that there’s always more where they came from.  Presenting an outsider’s critique of Starfleet through the use of the Malurians as a comparison becomes pointless, because there’s not a single way in which the latter aren’t cartoonishly awful. There’s not a shred of subtlety or self-reflection here. Archer’s role as heroic saviour, like everything else here, is played entirely straight.

There is one way in which the inclusion of the Malurians works here. There’s plenty of Trek episodes that deal with the moral issues of dealing with cultures less technologically advanced than one’s own, and many others about the practical issues arising from encountering those with markedly superior tech. Combining both in the same episode is quite a nice move. It’s also kind of fun that both T’Pol and Riann save the day in their respective theatres, and do so by deciding to blow up Malurian and Acali technology respectively. This idea that it’s not the actual level of your culture’s development so much as your own intelligence and resourcefulness is the closest this episode comes to saying something (note for instance how impressed Phlox is by Riann’s work), and it’s definitely something worth saying. That it’s two women who come up with a way to beat the Malurians whilst the menfolk are pushing the wrong buttons and jumping to the wrong conclusions makes things sweeter still.

This is a somewhat minor victory, though. Beyond it, I’m not sure what more there is to be said, other than to note that Diane DiLascio is a fine actress who deserved a much better episode than this. Ultimately, there’s probably no more damning comment to be made about “Civilization” than the fact I can only talk about what it fails to be, and the other stories that do what it’s attempting vastly better.  It might be better than “Miri” or “The Passenger” by simple dint of it being too vacuous to even say something objectionable, but this is the first episode I’ve covered here for which I simply can’t find anything particularly useful to say about how it’s written.

But that’s because it wasn’t written. Not really.

It was photocopied.

[1] The degree to which …Bodysnatchers actually counts as anti-Communist is debatable, of course, but The Puppet Masters is red-bashing through and through.

[2] My thanks to Stuart Webb and Ilin for reminding me of those episodes and what they involve.

Ordering

1. The Magics Of Megas-Tu

2. The Battle

3. Emanations

4. Civilization

5. Miri

6. The Passenger

Season 1 (so far) Show Rankings

1. Deep Space Nine       

=2. Enterprise                                        

=2 The Animated Series

4. Voyager                                      

5. The Next Generation          

6. The Original Series        

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