Encounter at Farpoint
We open on a star-field. Of course we do, this is the post Star Wars age. Might as well make the link immediately. Except in Star Wars we always drifted downwards, sinking to the level of the brutal, war-loving Imperials and their giant war vessels. Here, in contrast, we ascend. The Enterprise-D is above us. It is at a level we have yet to reach. Even Picard needs to head upwards to reach it. We learn that in the very second shot he’s in. The first shot, though, is him literally walking from the darkness into the light. The visual rhetoric is being ladled on with space-trowels.
Motion both upward and forward is everywhere here. Take the saucer separation. When the Enterprise splits in two, it’s so the bridge crew can head down to the battle bridge. Back into our militaristic past. With the fighting’s done, and it’s time to reconnect, it’s the soldiers in the main drive section that have to rise once more to meet the level of the botanists and hairdressers and children they’d left behind. As a metaphor it has its issues – it’s maybe implying a duality of man that doesn’t actually exist in practice – but it remains powerful. Given all this, the fact that Picard’s very first test for Riker is to show he can successfully rise to the level of being more than a soldier takes on added weight.
And surely weight and metaphor are what the separation procedure is all about. Certainly it’s actually a fairly dumb move from a tactical perspective. Making your senior officers spend precious seconds taking an elevator to where the fighting happens whilst you cast your civilians adrift? That just doesn’t seem smart – which presumably is why it was only ever done twice more in the entire series. On a thematic level though it’s perfect. The battle-bridge is cramped and functional; it’s darker than the standard seat of power. It’s also much more reminiscent of the original series bridge. The message is clear: Picard’s crew have moved on not just from our time, but from the days of Kirk. Or at least, they mostly have.
This distancing is a common theme. The shots most evocative of the original series are those of the ancient Bandi city. The red sky, the sandy ground, even the City Of Forever-esque arch through which Riker and Data view it (naturally they don’t go through; the past lies behind us, and that’s not the direction in which this show is moving). And it barely registers as being on the screen before the Farpoint alien’s mate blows it all to bits. Because this is not what Star Trek looks like anymore. Something new and greater has arrived.
Nor is this the only way this sentiment is expressed through the use of weapons. “The Man Trap” featured the Enterprise crew firing phasers twice, once to subdue an archaeologist who just wanted to be left alone, and once to murder the last remaining member of an intelligent species. The Enterprise-D crew fire their sidearms twice too, once to open a door (it was impeding forward process, which cannot be allowed), and once to save a man they disliked and distrusted from being tortured.
This is important. Indeed, it may be necessary. As I’ve mentioned, there’s plenty of material for anyone wishing to argue “The Man Trap” was a total failure in presenting its heroes as being explorers worth the name. Accordingly, the first order of business here needs to be not just showing Starfleet exploring, but showing that Starfleet has the right to explore.
Conveniently, this is (ostensibly) precisely what Q wants to judge. His giant impenetrable floating wall impedes the necessary forward progress of the Enterprise. He insists that humanity can go no further until it can prove it can progress, rather than merely expand. Which is obviously completely fair. Or at least, it is when talking to an Englishman playing a Frenchman on an American TV series. As others have argued, there is not a single accusation Q levels at humanity that is in any way wide of the mark. Indeed, as Josh Marsfelder points out, the contemporary US Army uniform Q uses to lampoon the attitudes of the Cold War is the same as that worn by Oliver North when he testified to Congress about the Iran-Contra Scandal earlier in the year this went out. For those that don’t know, Iran-Contra involved the Reagan administration selling missiles to Iran (despite them being under an arms embargo for being state sponsors of terrorism) to generate money to help the Contras. Those were the people who murdered and tortured their way through the civilian population of Nicaragua as part of a crusade to rid their country of Communists, who were ruining everything with such horrifying policies as keeping people healthy and teaching them to read. It might be tempting to call this a stain on America’s foreign policy, but of course it wasn’t. It was a disgraceful act of sociopathic self-interest. It was a disgusting reminder that when people say “realpolitik” what they mean is that real people need to suffer to keep the political class happy. But it absolutely wasn’t a stain on American foreign policy. It was American foreign policy. You cannot smear shit over a cowpat. You cannot stain blood with blood.
I don’t want to single out America. The entire history of US and European exploration is one of finding new people, and then exploiting and murdering them. It’s not a uniquely white phenomenon, admittedly, but no-one has excelled in the field to anything like the same extent. Q’s insistence we prove that we have moved beyond such practises seems to me entirely reasonable. It’s something we need to prove to every new alien species we encounter, actually. Otherwise we become like those dreadful nationalists who insist that history has demonstrated our moral superiority to the point where it cannot be lost no matter what we do – the shorthand for this is “Waterboard for FREEDOM!”.
And on the one hand, Picard handles this pretty well. The only two people he looks up to (in the literal sense) throughout the episode for more than a moment are the aliens he has met. In an episode filled with references to the importance of gaining height, this is not a flippant observation. (Still not convinced about that importance, by the way? How about the fact all Wesley wants to do is take a ride upwards in a turbo-lift to reach the bridge? How about the fact that just moments after Data explains for the very first time that all he wants is to be human he lifts Wesley above his head and stares at him as an ideal to strive for?) Yes, Q doesn’t give Picard much option but to look up to him as he looms over this Post-Atomic Horror show-trial, but Picard is very clear throughout that he will respect the judge so long as he abides by his own rules. When Picard objects it’s because Q isn’t giving him a fair shake to defend humanity, not because of any suggestion that Q as an alien entity has no right to judge us. Picard knows Q is right; if mankind hasn’t advanced beyond what Q entirely fairly accuses us of having been in the past we don’t deserve to have left Earth’s gravity well.
Just before I move on, let’s have a big hand for the designers of the Post-Atomic Horror. The mad costumes and vulgar-Kafka atmosphere are nice enough, but I absolutely adore the flag that serves as a backdrop to the defendants.
Just look at how much is packed into that. In basic form it’s reminiscent of the Albanian flag, a black eagle on a red background. And yet the eagle stands here, rather than flying, as though forced to the ground by an event so horrifying even the country’s symbolism couldn’t survive. One of the two heads the eagle once enjoyed has now gone. The twin heads of the Albanian flag represent north and south, which again suggests something truly appalling has happened here. Yes, the phrase “Post-Atomic Horror” already suggests the mid-21st century isn’t Crewman Daniels favourite shore-leave destination, but the idea that an entire compass direction is gone is something else.
And yet look at the bottom of the flag. The eagle may have been forced to the ground, may have lost one of its heads. But it is rising from the ashes. There is still hope for the future. Which is something of an odd choice of decor for Q’s trial, isn’t it? A tacit admission that humanity does recover from the worst periods of its own history? That there is always hope for the future? Well, maybe, but it’s worth noting just how heavily Q’s thumb is on the scale here, and in completely the opposite direction to what a surface reading of his character would imply.
Because how hard of a task is solving the Farpoint mystery, really? Passing Q’s test ultimately requires that Picard find something suspicious about his officers being able to have anything they ask for, listen to his half-Betazed ship’s counsellor, and not blow the crap out of a mysterious alien spaceship. To not ignore probable exploitation, dismiss those not fully like him, or attack the unknown. Basically Q just needs him to not act like a sneering imperialist. It’s a remarkably easy test that just underlines how truly unforgivable it is that humanity has failed it so, so many times. Why we must now prove ourselves anew to each alien civilisation we come across. The only time Picard even comes close to arguably failing is when the incoming alien ship starts opening fire on the Bandi city. Stewart, as you’d expect, absolutely nails Picard’s internal conflict here – how can he save Bandi lives and even his own officers (currently acquiring knowledge by moving from alien corridors to more prosaic stone – another instance of the importance of forward motion) without endangering what he thinks are the lives of the crew on the alien vessel? Under normal circumstances Picard might have ordered the weapons systems of the attacking “ship” be fired upon – we’ve seen him order this many times since. But here, such an order would presumably, completely unknown to Picard, cause great pain to an alien life-form. In the suddenness of the attack and with lives on the line it would be perhaps an understandable mistake, but it would still represent humanity causing harm through ignorance, which is exactly the kind of behaviour Q is accusing us of.
So what does Q do? He arrives on the bridge to make it completely clear to Picard that opening fire is the wrong thing to do. OK, sure, he does it by insisting that opening fire is exactly what Picard should be doing, but it’s done in so hyperbolic and bloodthirsty a way that it can’t even really count as reverse psychology. It’s persuasion through parody. Even if Q genuinely believes humanity is as thoroughly despicable and violent and immune to reason as he claims, he must realise that when the capricious judge of your kangaroo court is egging you on to do something, the prudent course is to refrain. I’m not saying Picard would definitely have opened fire without Q’s interference, but Q most certainly shuts down the option, closing down the only path towards Picard and hence humanity being found guilty that could even tenuously be taken here.
And so humanity escapes punishment by the simple expedient of having humans in charge of a powerful warship not show up to exploit and kill everything they find. In fairness, they do rather more than that, though; the only direct actions they really take here is to stop two life-forms from being tortured and stop an orbital bombardment; everything else is for those directly involved to sort out. Which is further proof that the franchise has learned some lessons about what exploration should actually mean since its original incarnation, actually. That said, the Enterprise crew has so little opportunity here to meddle more than they actually do perhaps renders that faint praise, like congratulating a child for not playing with the delicate antiques you’ve put on too high a shelf for them to reach anyway.
There are other reasons to temper our praise here. The obvious and major downside to a story about how even a bunch of white men can learn to not shoot first and ask questions about what they can steal later is that it’s still a story about a bunch of white men. Every member of the main cast with two command pips is either black or a woman. The captain, first and second officers are all white men, or at least played by same, with the most senior female officers being ship’s doctor and counsellor respectively. Not in any way careers to be looked down upon or undervalued, obviously, but the distribution of roles here plays into the stereotype of women being in charge of caring and healing whilst the men get on with deciding when to fire phasers. These imbalances spill out elsewhere too. Men are wearing miniskirts on the Enterprise too these days, but they’re not the ones being shot from below as they sashay past the camera. And watching Riker dress down Geordi for not being at attention when delivering a report would be an unfortunate enough sight were it not for the fact the commander had been sliming all over Dr Crusher just moments beforehand. Commander, discipline thyself.
It’s issues like these which ultimately prevent me from fully embracing this new vision of Star Trek. Recognising the need for humanity (or certain subsets therein) to prove it is no longer the rapacious imperial monstrosity it has been in the past is an important step, but the problem comes in the idea that we can shake off that heritage as easily as is done here (this is part of what make “All Good Things…” work so well, but that’s a topic for the very end of this project), and that we can do it whilst so surrounded by the legacy of that heritage.
In fairness, the script isn’t entirely unaware of this. Data’s magnificently blunt “Prejudice is very human” cuts hits home almost as hard as Riker’s MRA whining in response, and combined with Q’s approach here reminds me of General Martok’s great line almost exactly a decade later: “…[W]hat could be better? An ally and an enemy telling him the same thing.” But it’s not enough. Not yet. We don’t need to be told humanity has reached enlightenment, we need to watch how that happens in practice. More important than forward motion, we need growth.
After all, the problem with boldly going is that you can’t take stock of where you are.
1. Encounter At Farpoint
2. Beyond The Farthest Star
3. The Man Trap
GS Blogger: The Scholarly Squid