Let us take the process of growth into our own hands. Let us show Mother Nature how things are done. Speed her up a little.
Let us genetically engineer a creature, and call it Enterprise.
From the third generation we shall take the violence. What we create must be able to defend itself. Perhaps philosophy can bloom between the phaser blasts, but we know what success looks like now. Or, if not success, failures that are slower. It’s still a triumph for genetic engineering if a sickly creature takes longer to die.
A thirst for conflict, we shall extract from the same helix. A creature that just tries to get along with everyone will not last long. Not anymore. Not in this new landscape. The horrors of the decade before last may no longer hold sway, but they are not yet dead. We are still working to draw out every drop of poison they forced us to drink. It almost killed our third generation, before she grew claws and fangs. Or maybe not. Maybe she could’ve ridden the storm out (if we can mix genes, we can mix metaphors). Better to play it safe, though, and go down fighting. To go down killing.
(We know, naturally, what we shall extract from the fourth generation. We just don’t talk about it openly. Our creature must be able to invoke lust, by whatever means necessary. No matter how much shiny gel she needs to smear across herself. We are in the business of survival.)
But whilst it lived less time than any subsequent iteration, it is the first generation – itself no slouch in its capacity for offence – that we must study most carefully for opportunities for splicing. After all, without the primogenitors, we would not be in a position to create the fifth generation now. From the original models we shall take their defining characteristic: youth. A brashness, yes, but an indomitable will too. The young too often spoil for a brawl, but there are some fights that need to be fought. Some injustices you cannot turn your back on.
Like the first generation, the fifth generation will have a tri-lobed brain. One lobe will process sensory input without reference to emotion, the second will filter information through raw, unalloyed animal instinct. The third will process the resulting conclusions and combine them into a coherent whole. Thus will balance be guaranteed at a biological level.
And what to take from the second generation? The creature that rescued our discipline from the hands of the insular and pathologically self-referential? That is surprisingly hard to decide upon. So much has changed since their ascendancy. Perhaps its success can never be recaptured. Perhaps it was lightning that cannot strike twice because it was caught in a bottle, one blown by a genius who is no longer with us. But if there is any way we can set our newest creation off down the same path as its most successful ancestor, our starting point is obvious.
We need to recreate the circumstances of its birth.
This week we study “Encounter At Farpoint 2 Or I Guess 0”.
Just as with “Caretaker”, the debt “Broken Bow” owes to an earlier pilot episode is fairly clear. Once again, we are watching a crew called upon to justify their right to venture out into the galaxy. All that differs here is the nature of the trial, and that of the judge.
The first of these differences we can cover quickly, though with sadness. Picard’s initial mission became a challenge in which he needed to demonstrate sufficient empathy to justify his right to interact with the interstellar community. That is an approach with some bite to it. Archer’s challenge ends up being to shoot enough Suliban to get everyone to Rigel. If empathy is touched upon here, it’s only as a trigger for a lecture from T’Pol about how Trip shouldn’t stick up for a child being repeatedly asphyxiated because there’s an off chance choking kids is a good thing sometimes.
That brings us neatly to our judges. There are several obvious and important differences between Q and the Vulcan High Command, but the one that seems most crucial involves their respective histories. Because of course Q didn’t actually have one, at least from our viewpoint. When he burst onto the screen in “Encounter at Farpoint”, we had no context for him at all. As a result, we couldn’t filter his objections to human behaviour through what we knew of his own point of view. Picard – by which I mean TNG – had to prove humanity worthy to call themselves explorers by talking up mankind, rather than trying to tear down the judge. The process of defence had to be wholly positive. “This is who we are. This is why we deserve to be out here”.
This was never going to work in the same way with regards to 22nd century Vulcans. They’re simply too familiar to us. We are already entirely aware of the fact that by and large they’re awful.
My beef with the Vulcans runs long and deep. Fundamentally, I simply refuse to believe that any species that has made the application of logic their only approach to decision making would be so utterly unable to grasp that an individual’s concept of logic has to flow from their positionality. Life experience – including those that stem from ethnicity and gender – must inform how one processes the world, even if emotion is set aside. Indeed, this is utterly and trivially true. Otherwise no two Vulcans would ever disagree on anything at all. There would be no such thing as Vulcan characters, just different actors speaking the same one character’s thoughts on planets and stations and starships across the Federation. The Vulcans would be no less a hive mind than the Borg, merely one with much less efficient information sharing between nodes.
(In fact, here’s a hypothesis for you: the Vulcan refusal to assist humans in leaving Earth until we behave the same way they do constitutes a de facto attempt at assimilation. A less invasive and swift form of assimilation than that the Borg practices, sure, but with the same goal of everyone thinking the same way. The fact the Vulcans haven’t realised that this goal is impossible using their methods in no way makes their determination to achieve it any more palpable.)
And yet despite the glaringly obvious flaw in the idea at the most basic level, Vulcans insist on behaving as though only they have the keys to perfect objective logic. They’ve bought into the awful myth of “the view from nowhere” – that hideous idea that only those who don’t suffer from a problem can usefully comment on it because of their “objectivity” – and they’ve done it at the species level. It seems easy to dismiss Vulcans with the gotcha that arrogance is surely an emotion, or at least a result of one, but that isn’t quite right. I don’t actually think Vulcans are arrogant, really, at least in the way the word makes sense to us humans. I think they make a point to be deliberately dismissive of emotions even in situations when it would be to their benefit to not be. Which seems very odd. How can it be logical to deliberately antagonise people you are trying to work alongside? What does that get you, logically? It actually seems as though the Vulcans would much rather provoke emotional reactions in others than they would avoid them, which seems like something they’d consider counter-productive. So why do it? Why make things worse when there’s no need and nothing to be gained?
I think it’s because they just can’t stop telling us how much better they are than us. The Vulcan problem isn’t arrogance, it’s evangelism. They have a knee-jerk need to insist there is One Thing everyone should be like, and that’s them, even though they know that isn’t true and even though the simple fact of them attempting conversion flies in the face of what they claim to believe about the paramount importance of non-interference. Again, it’s the view from nowhere. It’s men telling women they should act more like men if they want to get ahead in life. It’s white people explaining racism would be over faster if people of colour could be more polite when discussing their problems. In short, it’s the perspective that white men are the default position; humanity’s factory setting, the ultimate arbiters of what is fair or reasonable.
And that’s why I don’t get on with Vulcans.
(Not that I’m particularly impressed by the humans themselves here, either. Archer and Trip behave like a couple of sneering, giggling teenagers whenever they talk to T’Pol, sniggering at her enhanced senses and smirking at her unwillingness to eat bread sticks with her fingers. Read up on the eating habits of your guests, jackasses. Plus we actually shoot the very first Klingot we meet, and let’s not pretend we don’t notice the politics involved in a white Midwestern farmer shooting an alien played by a black man in the chest for the crime of not immediately doing what he’s told.)
So there’s an inherent problem with our trial. Whilst Q forced us to defend ourselves due to our total unfamiliarity with him and his race (and we didn’t even know he had a race at that point), we can sidestep the judgment of the Vulcans regarding our first fumbling forays into space by just suggesting we’ll discuss the matter with them once they stop being pains in the bum.
A problem with the trial isn’t necessarily a problem with the episode, though. Whilst the Vulcans have taken it upon themselves to be our judges, leading to us quite understandably kicking against the idea – there’s that Vulcan counter-productivity again – the episode itself sets them up as one extreme on a scale, with their opposite number being the Suliban themselves.
It’s all a question of velocity. The Vulcans want us to slow down, to take it steady, to over-analyse every move we make. This kind of approach to progression as a society – which is ultimately what Archer wants to see via the establishment of Starfleet – is what some people refer to as Chesterton’s Fence. This is a small-c conservative philosophy, the basic idea of which is that making changes is unwise and even dangerous until it’s totally understood what that change would mean going forwards. You should only scale the fence once you’re sure you’re not headed someplace where dragons lurk. At first glance it seems an entirely reasonable approach. After all, if you don’t understand the present how can you possibly claim you are working towards a better future? Really, though, I think it’s a shell game. An attempt to argue through stealth that we shouldn’t set ourselves against those with the most power and wealth until we can prove for certain limiting their power won’t lead to an even worse society. To which the only response, forever, is “Worse for whom?”. The Vulcan position is only slightly different: don’t stop doing exactly what we tell you all the time until you’re sure it won’t go wrong. Which is both an impossible standard to reach for and a prime opportunity for the Vulcans to say “I told you so”, but we’ll talk some other time about why it is that Vulcans don’t consider smugness an emotion.
The Suliban, in contrast, are all about the most rapid development possible. Or at least, the Cabal is – always nice when Trek, or sci-fi in general, remembers not to make every alien race a homogeneous monolith of, like, two character traits. That distinction is important here, because it helps us bypass what might be a tempting interpretation for some that the Suliban represent progressives just as the Vulcans do conservatives. After all, what is a progressive than someone determined to change as much as possible as quickly as possible because nothing is good enough as it is?
Well, the answer is simple: “Obviously not that”. The caricature of progressivism as being obsessed with change for its own sake, heedless of consequence, is just that: a caricature. A picture painted which is just accurate enough to be recognisable and just inaccurate enough to invite ridicule. I could rail at some length about how completely this misses the point, but it’ll be faster to simply point out what the Suliban actually are, which is clearly social Darwinists. That’s why they’re an organisation and not a hostile race, in fact; they’ve given up on the rest of their species as just not good enough. That’s why every Cabalite Suliban we meet here has a different set of “enhancements”. They’re arch individualists scrambling for superiority, allied only because there are so many other people they can screw over before they need to turn on each other. The whole endeavour is ultimately doomed, of course. No cabal based on the vicious anti-scientific lunacy of survival of the fittest can possibly last indefinitely, and Archer rather proves this when he shakes apart their “helix”, a haphazard collection of individual vessels cobbled together in the shape of their supposed idol. Man, that helix was a terrible idea. A terrible idea enacted terribly badly, but still one that’s gotten people killed. How appropriate.
If this first voyage is a trial, then, acquittal comes from not impressing or dismissing the Vulcans, but by walking the tightrope between them and the Suliban. By refusing to choose either the fence or the free-for-all, the two poles of thought that would run this ship aground. It’s worth noting actually that both of these groupings ultimately share similar ridiculous beliefs; hearing T’Pol refer to the inhabitants of Rigel X as being “no more evolved than humans” makes that clear. The Vulcans have the same horrendous obsession with teleological evolution, it’s just they think it’s something to be earned through internal struggle rather than simply paid for on the open market. The Suliban are Donald Trump, whilst the Vulcans are David Brooks. Both are too self-absorbed for them to be worth paying attention to.
What this brings us to is the importance of the USS Enterprise being able to thread its way through the seemingly endless potholes that mar the road to utopianism. To prove that, whilst this might be the earliest Trek series in terms of continuity, that it can correct for the mistakes of its predecessors and finally bring us a vision of an egalitarian future unmarred by the prejudices and failures of the present. Which is impossible, obviously, but utterly worth the attempt. We will never be perfect. We will never be ready. But we forge on ahead anyway, Because the alternative is just so much worse.
2. Encounter At Farpoint
3. Broken Bow
4. Beyond The Farthest Star
6. The Man Trap
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