Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 3.1.2: Naked Incompetence

The Naked Now

Star Trek TNG The Naked Now

“Shut up, non-Wesleys!”

After a brief diversion to Vulcan, we’re back aboard a ship controlled by a teenager. Can Wesley succeed in irritating us less than Charlie did? Maybe. Everyone else is acting just as badly, after all.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first, so that we don’t have to circle back around to it again. Yes, this is a reheated version of a story already broadcast 21 years earlier, almost to the day. Yes, it’s hardly a great sign that the new show literally couldn’t go two episodes without relying on its predecessor to provide it with material. Whilst both those things are true, though, I don’t think they get us very far. The history of this franchise is littered with examples of self-reference and self-homage and self-plagiarism; I don’t see much point in cataloguing them. In fact, one of the strongest motivators for considering these shows in parallel is to break away from the idea that each Trek incarnation must be considered in terms of the accumulated mass of what has come before. With this approach, the “The Naked Now” is the first time we’ve come across the Psi 2000 compound. This allows us to toss out the standard question of “Of all the TOS episodes to remake, why that one?” in favour of at least a potentially more interesting one: if this had been an entirely original idea for Star Trek, would the episode still suck?

Yes. Yes, is the answer. Obviously. “The Naked Now” would still suck with the power of an exploding escape hatch.

Which is a shame. It didn’t have to be this way. There’s actually a fairly smart idea at the heart of the episode, and one that ties in perfectly with “Encounter At Farpoint”. The key takeaway from the pilot was that of all the thoughts that run through a human’s head when they encounter new life out in the galaxy, the absolute last one should be “Maybe this thing is a threat”. The suggestion was that we don’t actually belong in space until we can see the utterly unfamiliar as a source of wonder rather than terror.

Which is absolutely true, obviously, and these days remembering that the foreign shouldn’t scare us seems more important than ever. But if the alien is not what we have to fear in our journeys between the stars, what is? Well, if I might be allowed to paraphrase Lt. Cmdr. Ron Hunter in Crimson Tide, “In the post-warp world, the true enemy is space itself.”

Living in the darkness between stars is tough. You need your wits about you, always. You open the wrong door and you’re dead. You forget to turn the radiators on and you’re dead. Spill your Earl Grey into the delicate mechanisms of whatever’s keeping the oxygen flowing and guess what? No more Picard manoeuvres for you, pal, A 24th century starship has all kinds of redundancies and force-fields and safety features, obviously, but every machine can go wrong – Data is proof enough of that here. The minute you stop treating hard vacuum as something that wants to kill you, it will kill you. That’s been clear from the very first days of astronautics, when people like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky got to work designing airlocks to keep space-farers alive. Getting drunk on a spaceship is not the same as getting drunk on a cruise ship. They lead a slightly different life out there.

So the basic premise that a condition that makes you extremely and unwittingly drunk could be a life-threatening disaster under certain circumstances is actually a very strong one. In the pilot episode the crew had to show that they were philosophically suited to cruising the space lanes. This time around they need to show they have sufficient competency as well.

The problem, obviously, is how utterly and completely they screw the test up.  From Dr Crusher failing to restrain La Forge to neither Yar nor Picard considering it might be worth warning the crew and passengers against contact with him, and the subsequent total failure to even attempt to impose a quarantine, this is amateur hour as well as happy hour.

What makes it worse is how all this incompetence is accented by arrogance. What does Picard think he’s doing telling his CMO that he “most certainly” has the cure for what’s going on? What could he possibly be basing that on? What, something similar that happened a century ago was successfully negated by a specific chemical, so that compound must automatically work again? Data even points out that last time it was from a planet – you know, something you beam down to – and not a star, which you can’t exactly visit. Where did these mutated complex water molecules (EPIC EYE ROLL) even come from? None of this is to suggest I particularly care about how little sense this makes. What I care about is Picard thinking he’s effortlessly got this one in the bag. When Wesley says “It was an adult that did it!” – genuinely one of the best lines here, for all that that’s faint praise – it just serves as a reminder that everyone here should absolutely know better. Wesley barely registers as an irritant here (well, OK; “why not just see it in your head?” is a line so condescending it makes me want to space him feet-first) precisely because almost everyone else here is displaying the same gulf between their self-regard and their actual level of competence, without the excuse of adolescence.

This focus on our heroes failure would be fine, I suppose, if the purpose of the episode was for the crew to realise just how urgently they need to start taking things more seriously. Well, perhaps not fine, exactly. I’m not sure it’d ever be particularly sensible for a new Trek show to suggest half its characters shouldn’t be left in charge with so much as a paper aeroplane. But as a tale of personal growth, and after sufficient toning down, I could just about see the logic of it. That’s not what we get here, though, because apparently at some point it was decided this was actually a morality play about the dangers of alcohol. Not alcoholism, you’ll note. Not the condition that has genuinely wrecked countless lives (which isn’t to say lecturing people via a TV show is a sensible way to deal with the problem). It’s the substance itself – what Dr Crusher calls a “contaminant” – that’s the problem here.

And again, if the line here was that alcohol is a pretty dangerous compound to be chugging down whilst skipping around in space, that would be a reasonable, albeit probably entirely obvious point – “Do not drink whilst operating heavy machinery or flying hundreds of people through an airless death-zone”. Without even that angle, though, all we have is vapid, puritanical preaching. Stewart is even given some toe-curling dialogue where he basically tells Wesley to say no to drugs, before ending the episode suggesting the shower on incompetents the Enterprise-D has been lumbered with might make a fine crew if they can avoid temptation.

Which rather badly misses the point. This was never a test of people’s willpower, but their competence. You can’t possibly put together an episode critiquing humanity’s tendency to give in to temptation if your central metaphor is an intoxicant they don’t know that they’re taking.  Attributing the crews’ behaviour here to a failure of willpower is like calling someone lazy for falling asleep after you rufi them.

You might be able to see where I’m going with this. Whilst confusing someone being drugged with someone taking drugs is in general merely ridiculous, it becomes actively awful in certain specific situations. Like for example one in which all three female leads get exposed to the magic water droplets [1], and they all react to their condition by trying to seduce a superior officer. If you’re writing about women who’ve been drugged pushing for sexual liaisons they wouldn’t dream of were they sober, you can’t go within a million miles of implying this is a story about giving into your temptations and not sound like a victim-blamer and all-around terrible person.

This might be something we could dismiss as a bum note, completely unintended by the writers (who included DC Fontana, though you’ve got to figure there’s a reason she had her name taken off the finished product) that simply came about through a failure to compare each piece of the story against the others. Except of course for that scene. And there’s no chance you don’t know the scene I mean.

So. Data sleeping with Yar here is a terrible idea for all sorts of reasons, already gone into by many others before me. Firstly, there are major issues of consent here. I mean, yes, Tasha clearly thinks she’s consenting, but this is a level of intoxication at which people have already literally killed themselves, and Data knows that. If you’re too drunk to not flush yourself into space, you’re too drunk to consent to sex. I don’t see how that can possibly be argued with.

And even if that weren’t the case, Data’s position as Yar’s superior officer makes the power dynamic here problematic to say the absolute least. There’s also the fact she was chased by rape-gangs throughout her childhood (as she mentions just moments before Data explains how “fully functional” he is), so the question of under what circumstances she sees herself as giving consent could well be something Tasha would be particularly sensitive to when she’s sober.

In other words, even if a hypothetical court were to rule that Data does nothing actually illegal here, you’ve still got the undeniable fact that men who will toss aside friendships and/or positive working relationships with women the very second their judgement is impaired enough for sex to become an option are just the absolute worst. To think so little of everything a non-sexual relationship has to offer, and of the person offering it, that you’ll willingly toss it aside for the sake of an orgasm or two is an appallingly ugly choice. It isn’t compatible with seeing women as actual people. It’s not something one should be able to do without being shunned in the street.

Whatever the legal definition of what Data does here, then, the morality of it is of real concern. It’s actually a pretty damning indictment of Dr Soong. Designing an android that can have sex, programming him with multiple techniques for pleasuring someone, but then utterly forgetting to write any subroutines about when to realise you shouldn’t take “yes” for an answer? Who does that? It would seem that, a century after Charlie X threatened Kirk’s Enterprise, the Federation still isn’t free of the curse of outrageously entitled men.

So all told, “The Naked Now” is awful; almost without exception – even worse than “Charlie X”, which at least can be read as something better than it presents itself as. There are, I’ll admit, occasional bright spots. In amongst all the appalling moralising and careless sexism and squandered potential, there is exactly two things that I really like, both of which involve Geordi. The first is the creepy image of La Forge walking through the frozen sections of the Tsiolkovksy, ice crunching underfoot.  The second is the idea that La Forge’s burning desire to see in the same way his crew-mates do is so out of character that it’s taken as evidence by Troi that something is severely amiss. I love that; a simple act of recognition that the visually impaired do not as a rule spend their lives seething over the fact they can’t see the way others can, and suddenly acting otherwise is not a long-suppressed admission, but proof that something unusual is going on. That’s an unexpected pleasure. like finding a pack of wine gums floating past as you swim down a sewage pipe.

Of course, the problem with that is that you still can’t actually open the wine gums. Not without getting crap all over them. Troi’s observation belongs in a much better episode, and so does she. So does everyone here, in fact. They belong in an episode in which our Federation heroes can demonstrate what genuine competence among the stars actually looks like. Which, fortunately for them, is exactly what we’re going to get next.

It just won’t involve anyone we see here.

Ordering:

1. Yesteryear

2. Charlie X

3. The Naked Now

[1] Maybe I’ve got all this wrong and really this is a story about how terrifying a world we’d live in were homeopathy real. “Wooo! I brushed against a drunk person and I got their sweat on my skin and now I’m drunk as hell! WOOOOO!”

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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