Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations 4.1.5: “Freedom To Starve Ain’t No Freedom”

Captive Pursuit

Star Trek Captive Pursuit

“Check out my sweet new digital watch, Dave! Dave?”

We open on an employee complaining to the station commander about her working life.

We all have ideas we find so unpalatable we’ll overturn the table whenever someone tries to serve them up. One of mine is the suggestion that there exists nothing we shouldn’t allow people to sign up to do. That there should be no provision in a contract, agreed to by both parties, that can blocked by an interfering government.

Many people disagree with my position on this. Their argument has the benefit of simplicity, if nothing else: if someone is willing to do something, preventing them from doing it is limiting their freedom. Why do you hate freedom, Ric?

Any full response I can think of to that comes up short in terms of snappiness. Perhaps I’m just not eloquent enough. The closest I can get to a retort as pithy as the original accusation is this: it is possible to force people into volunteering.

Has there been, anywhere, ever, a less helpful piece of advice than “If you don’t like it, quit?”. Quit and do what? You think Quark’s dabo girls sign contracts that let the boss sexually harass them because they secretly like the attention? You think people stay in crappy work environments because it’d be too much effort to learn the route to a new office? If someone won’t leave a job they hate it’s because they think all the alternatives are worse. Or at least, all the alternatives are too likely to end up being worse.

And when those alternatives include things like unemployment, and potentially therefore homelessness, it’s not hard to see the point. Or it shouldn’t be, at least.

Why is this relevant? Because if people won’t leave terrible jobs because having no job is too unpleasant or risky, employers know they can make their employees’ jobs worse without necessarily losing their workforce. In particular, their workers will almost certainly stay on if enough other employers are all making their own employees’ jobs worse in the similar ways. A receding tide lowers all boats. If every water-hole is shrinking there’s no point in the hippos moving from their own disappearing lake. Because at least they’re not out in the desert, right? Not yet anyway.

So when your boss calls you into their office to tell you they’ve drawn up a new contract for you, and you’ll sign it or be fired, and you know being fired would be potentially/inevitably disastrous, and you know every other company in your sector is doing the same thing, in what meaningful sense are you volunteering for whatever new responsibilities the new agreement lumbers you with if you choose to sign? Our laws ban certain contract provisions because we know there are some things almost none of us would agree to unless we had no other viable choice, and because employers as a group can always make sure we have no other viable choice.

Um… I’m supposed to be talking about Star Trek, aren’t I?

Grow Your Own Goon

On to my point, then. Sisko would appear to agree with me, to some extent at least. It’s worth noting he doesn’t tell Quark’s employee he’ll get her in particular out of whatever duties she’s signed up for because she’d missed that particular stipulation in the contract. He’s very clear that anyone who signed this agreement will be released from the provision. That means whether they read it or not, and equally important, whether they explicitly consented or not.

Because “I will sleep with the boss when he asks me to” simply isn’t something you get to put in a contract. Getting someone to sleep with you by threatening to fire them if they don’t is rape, plain and simple. There are many different ways to hold a gun to someone’s head.

(Fun fact: it’s actually possible for the law to declare stipulations in a contract are unenforceable from only one direction. Take German law, for instance. In their legal system if Person A signs a contract with Person B in which it’s agreed B will sleep with A in exchange for money, the courts will assist Person B if they don’t get paid. In contrast, though, they won’t lift a finger to help Person A if they pay up front and then don’t get laid. I mention this in case someone somewhere reads the above and thinks “But what if Quark had specifically hired this woman to be a prostitute?”. It wouldn’t actually matter, necessarily.)

Why am I bringing all this up? It’s because the Toskmasters in this episode clearly think they’ve come up with a smart solution to this problem. They’ve genetically engineered people who will not only voluntarily sign terrible contracts, but be delighted to do so. And that’s the circle squared, right? How can you be pressuring someone into signing something they’re unhappy about if they’re clearly desperate to do it? The job, surely, is a good’un.

Well, no. Obviously. That conversation at the top of the episode leaves us in no doubt as to the position the episode takes on this.  The key word is “desperate”. Tosk may consider himself to be on the “greatest adventure of all”, but the Toskmasters still have to threaten his kind [1] with dishonour and humiliation if they don’t do the jobs they’ve signed up for. There’s still an unthinkably bad option outlined for those who don’t follow the contract. The fact that contract is written into Tosk’s DNA couldn’t make the slightest difference. He’s still trapped by a contract signed in order to avoid the unthinkable. As the title of the episode makes plain, the Toskmasters have always been pursuing a captive.

The Toskmasters know it, too. They know that if the carrot really was as delicious as they claim, they wouldn’t actually need the stick. This is why they make Tosk take a vow of silence. They’re worried that if they didn’t, the quarry might keep themselves alive not through stealth or strength or cunning, but by surrounding themselves with sympathetic bodies disgusted at what a Tosk’s culture is prepared to do to them.

It certainly seems clear that the hunters understand how dim a view other races will take of their hobby. They have their justifications ready for deployment at a moment’s notice. What’s interesting, and in some ways depressingly familiar, is how truly feeble those justifications actually are. Not just feeble, even; outright self-contradictory. In the space of two brief conversations the lead Toskmaster manages to suggest both that Tosk is so worthless a being Sisko should be delighted to be rid of him no questions asked, and also that the Tosk are honoured by the entirety of his culture for their dedication and capacity for self-sacrifice.

But that’s the thing about people so powerful they can get away with treating others like objects. They don’t care if their justifications don’t actually make sense, because they don’t need to persuade the objective observer. So long as they can convince themselves, that’s all that matters. If they have an answer prepared for every objection, it couldn’t matter in the least if each answer completely contradicts the previous one. They don’t want a coherent philosophy, they want a series of snappy-sounding retorts. This is standard practice for bigots, obviously, and it’s equally obvious that bigots is precisely what the Toskmasters are. I’m not sure how they’ve reached this point. Was this tendency to contemptuously dismiss those who are different what led to them coming up with the idea of Tosk without vomiting out their spines in shame?  Or did all that time murdering those who look almost exactly like them bring them to the conclusion that anyone not utterly identical should be ignored. Which became racist first, I wonder: the racist chicken or the racist egg?

Either way, they’re clearly raging xenophobes right now. That’s what it takes to ignore a handshake, disable an installation’s defences, encroach on another power’s territory without permission (more or less explicitly over their objections, really), and assault the first person that approaches you, all before attempting a jailbreak. The Bajorans would have been entirely within their rights to consider these actions acts of war. And yet when Sisko confronts the lead Toskmaster about his wilful endangerment of Deep Space Nine’s inhabitants, the newcomer can’t even comprehend that Sisko’s objections might be about anything other than Tosk. Because even the prey isn’t as meaningless as the lives of those from the Alpha Quadrant.

“I’m Not An Officer; I Work For A Living!”

The result of all this is some strong, if implicit, commentary on the links between bigotry and economic oppression. And, just as in our world, none of that is weakened by the fact Tosk has himself completely bought into that same system. That’s what systems teach you to do. Plus, of course, they always have a punishment to hand if those lessons don’t take.

The punishment aspect to all this is critical, in fact. Take that away from the episode and you’ve just got a story about whether it’s moral to create intelligent beings who delight in the tasks disgust and/or terrify everyone else. Which is something pretty much every sci-fi show in existence has already commented on. That’s basically what robots in fiction are for. You’d struggle to find a story about them that doesn’t at least touch upon it. There’s probably little to that tradition that DS9 could add here.

(For the record, the question of whether the robots/genetically-engineered people themselves are ill-served by this arrangement has never interested me – it’s too rooted in the hypothetical.  Whether it’s a good idea for society in general is a more pressing concern, as (for instance) the explosion of self-service checkouts across the country can attest.  For me though the answer here comes down to whether said society has processes in place to deal with the people being replaced by those who don’t demand danger money/extra pay for crappy circumstances. Again, though, this is a commonly-explored theme.)

This economic angle to the proceedings also reinforces how good an idea it was to give this story to O’Brien. I mean, already he was the best choice; Meaney excels at the kind of spluttering, baffled outrage this episode requires. More than that, though, it makes use of O’Brien’s unique status among the Federation main characters. The show doesn’t go into this very often – I can only recollect “Empok Nor” tackling it, actually – but O’Brien is basically an NCO. That would, according to the logic of centuries of military hierarchy, make him the only working class human we meet among the entire station crew. The kind of bind Tosk is in – and again, it couldn’t matter less that Tosk himself thinks his position is just aces – is something O’Brien’s historical equivalents would have been all too familiar with. On the metaphorical level, it makes perfect sense that he’d be utterly unwilling to accept the enlisted officers’ conclusion that there’s nothing the rules will allow them to do.

“Can’t We Resolve This Conflict Without Anger?”

Speaking of those rules, let’s finish up by rolling the Prime Directive around a little. This is the reason Sisko gives for not being able to assist Tosk, after all, and I’m on record as considering it a terrible idea at least some of the time. As I said in that post, a good way to figure out whether a Prime Directive story is any good at all is to port it over to the world of international relations, and see if Starfleet still has a leg to stand on. In this case, the closest equivalent I can come to is the following scenario. Imagine a foreign national enters a military facility under your control and commits a crime, so you detain them. Authorities from their home country then arrive and demand they are given custody of the prisoner, arguing they’ve committed a crime under their own legal system which takes precedence over the one committed on your soil. It quickly becomes clear however that this prior “crime” isn’t something you recognise as illegal or even immoral under your own system. Even worse, you know that the punishment these authorities will employ for what you see as a non-offense is appallingly severe. And yet, the person you have locked up begs to be released into the custody of his own people, understanding and accepting what this will mean when they return home.

What do you do?

Having re-framed the dilemma this way, I honestly think Sisko’s stance is the right one. Offering asylum to those who will be harshly punished for activities you can’t ever conceive of as being criminal is clearly the moral choice,  realpolitik notwithstanding. But if they flat-out refuse the offer, arguing they must accept the consequences of their actions, it’s hard to see what more can be done. This is what the Prime Directive is designed to do – to stop the Federation from pushing its own values into a dispute in which neither side wants their involvement or help. Yes, we should have laws in force to limit what can be agreed to in a contract.  But if someone from another country signs an agreement I consider transparently manipulative and, when given the chance to effectively have it declared void, refuses to do so because their personal principles require them to honour that contract, all I can do is tell them I disagree. I mean, we shouldn’t start buying Toskmaster coffee machines, or anything. And the agreement no more Tosks will come through the wormhole doesn’t mean the situation requires no more action on our part. With regard to this specific situation though, Sisko’s official line seems the least problematic one, demonstrating that, in fact, there is such a thing as a story that invokes the Prime Directive without it being immediately ghastly.

None of which means I think O’Brien was wrong either. There’s a reason I say “official line”. Almost every law needs breaking once in a while, or at least bending. Quark is quite right when he says the rules are always open to interpretation. Sometimes you have to simultaneously uphold and circumvent a law, which is exactly what Sisko and O’Brien do here. I’ve seen it argued that the resolution here is further proof that the Prime Directive is a terrible idea, or at least that it results in terrible plots. In fact, “Captive Pursuit” proves neither. What we see here is Sisko and O’Brien colluding to make sure an otherwise sensible law doesn’t generate a perverse outcome when applied as written in this situation, and to do it without wider repercussions. Sisko works out almost immediately what O’Brien is up to, and just as quickly makes sure it has a chance of working. The message here is that the kind of maximalist approach employed by, say, Odo – who will either enforce the letter of the law or ignore it entirely depending on whether it matches his concept of justice – is generally a bad idea.

This comes up earlier in the episode, in fact, when Odo reminds Kira that he never uses guns. Again, in principle having agents of law enforcement avoid the use of firearms is a very good thing. But by refusing to countenance it under any circumstances whatsoever, the chief of security on a strategically vital installation has to respond to a shoot-out with armed invaders by hiding behind a co-worker. This, needless to say, is not a good look. It would clearly be useful if Odo could be a bit more flexible. Fortunately, it looks as though he is – per this episode’s absolutely delightful visual pun that works on at least two levels – slowly getting there.

If all this is true though, why does Sisko chew O’Brien out so earnestly at the end of the episode? if it’s so clear that he approved of releasing Tosk, and realised the Prime Directive was was forcing an outcome unsatisfactory for all concerned, what’s with all the yelling? It might just be play-acting for the sake of form, but I don’t think so. I think Sisko genuinely is angry at O’Brien. It’s just his problem is the how, rather than the what. O’Brien was transporter chief on the Enterprise-D for years. There have to be half a dozen easier ways to get Tosk back to his ship than blowing up an alien’s weapon and then punching him out. O’Brien’s plan involves lamping Toskmaster Prime because he wanted to lamp Toskmaster Prime. Which is understandable, obviously, because he’s scum. But that’s not the kind of motivation Starfleet countenances and that’s what got Sisko so riled up. There’s a way to do things even when doing what you’re not supposed to.

Plus, y’know, there’s the risk of danger of interstellar war and such. That seems like something worth keeping in mind.

Right. That’s pretty much it for this episode. In summary, it all adds up to something much better than its reputation would suggest. There’s unpacking of both social and legal issues in a nuanced, subtle way, and an absolute nightmare of an authority figure punched out by the working man into the bargain. Tosk is great on every level, too, and as bad as his masters might look 25 years on they at least look bad in an endearingly ’90s way which makes me grin every time. This still isn’t quite a return to form after last episode’s disappointment, but that says less about “Captive Pursuit” itself than about just how good Deep Space Nine is when it’s on form, even so early in its lifetime.

[1] It’s not clear if Tosk as a character even has anything we would recognise as a gender, but out of respect for Scott MacDonald – who does a great job, even if he does accidentally kick Colm Meaney in the face at one point – I’m going with male pronouns here.


1. More Tribbles, More Troubles

2. Captive Pursuit

3. Where No One Has Gone Before

4. The Enemy Within

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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