My all-time favorite Star Trek episodes

For the last several years, as many of you know, I have been watching a metric shit-ton of Star Trek. I have finally hit the point of diminishing returns where watching more Star Trek no longer seems very realistic in the near term, and this has led me to reflect on what I’ve most enjoyed about the experience. Hence I share with you my personal favorite episodes, which often don’t tend to make it onto the all-time best lists, but which made an impression on me. I’ll limit myself to one from each series.

The Original Series: “All Our Yesterdays.” I’ve written about this one here before, and I don’t have much to add to that post other than to reaffirm that I find the premise of a society attempting to disappear into its own past very compelling. The fact that Spock, of all people, is the one who gets most drawn in makes this an especial treat, because it allows Leonard Nimoy to show much greater range.

The Animated Series: “Yesteryear.” I am hesitant to endorse conventional wisdom, but in this particular case, we are dealing with an episode that is clearly superior to anything else TAS did — an exploration of Spock’s past, written by arguably the greatest creative force behind Star Trek other than Roddenberry, namely Dorothy Fontana. Here again, time travel provides a poignant premise: Spock must return to his own childhood to save himself and give himself necessary counsel. Since I’m such a fan of the Animated Series, though, I’ll add a couple honorary mentions: “The Lorelai Signal” (in which Uhura takes command when the male crewmembers are disabled by a Siren-like species) and “The Terratin Incident” (which takes full advantage of the animated format to explore what would happen if the crew started shrinking).

Next Generation: “The Most Toys.” Of all the many Data-oriented episodes, this one pushes things to the limit. He is kidnapped by a galactic collector and exhausts all avenues for resistence — until a last-minute rescue prevents him from carrying out his logical decision that murder is the only answer.

Deep Space Nine: “Melora.” I have literally never seen this episode highlighted in any best-of list, and it does come early in the show’s second season, before it started becoming the more ambitious series that contemporary Trekkies know and love. To me, this is the very darkest episode in all of Trek, as Dr. Bashir falls in love with his patient — and then shows that he really fell in love with his own self-image as her savior. The final scene is truly chilling. (I hesitate to say more because this lesser-known episode arguably remains spoilable.)

Voyager: “Infinite Regress.” I’ve confessed before how much I identify with Seven of Nine, and I’m tempted to choose an episode that I highlighted in that post. Instead, though, I want to put forward Jeri Ryan’s true tour-de-force performance, which challenges the best of the Data “multiple personality” episodes. Truly, Voyager was not worthy of the character — or the actress.

Enterprise: “Carbon Creek.” Star Trek returns to its roots with a true Twilight Zone plot as a crew of Vulcans finds itself stranded in small town America. It’s a cool reversal in many ways, above all in dealing with the question: What would it look like for another species to try to navigate the Prime Directive with us?

Notes toward an overanalysis of a failed sci-fi spin-off

I’ve been using Gerry Canavan’s Star Trek CFP as an excuse for “researching” the red-headed stepchildren of the franchise: Enterprise and The Animated Series. I began by rewatching Enterprise over the last couple months, a process that is coming to completion. Over the course of this rewatch, I shared with the members of the Daystrom Institute a wide range of theories and assessments — again, justifying this as “research,” to see how the fan community responds to my ideas. This morning, I wrote up my definitive assessment of the final season, so hopefully my obsessive Enterprise redditing is at an end. Hence I compile some highlights here for those who are interested in my hermeneutical approach to an unpopular and mostly forgotten Star Trek spin-off.

  • In which I consider how Enterprise might reframe certain events and themes from the original series.
  • In which I make the daring claim that the Borg episode does not cause a continuity error and indeed is necessary to preserve continuity.
  • In which I debunk of a popular fan theory that the show caused an alternate timeline.
  • In which I cautiously reassess the concept behind the series finale and argue that it was in principle a cool idea that should have been used more frequently in earlier seasons.
  • In which I stake out the claim that the first two seasons were actually the best, contrary to most fans.
  • In which I ask what it was like to watch the season 3 Xindi arc in real time, prompting a Post of the Week-winning comment relating a time when the online fan community collaboratively invented a made-up episode in the course of “critiquing” and “defending” it.
  • In which I wonder aloud whether the Temporal Cold War could provide the grounds for an in-universe explanation of the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
  • In which I argue that Enterprise and The Animated Series are the most systematic instances of world-building within the Star Trek franchise.
  • In which I investigate the possible influence of MacGyver and X-Files on Enterprise.
  • In which I reveal that the reboot films draw to a surprising degree on Enterprise.
  • In which I put forth the episode “Hatchery” as exemplary of Enterprise‘s particular strengths as a series.
  • In which I issue a scathing critique of the Orion Slave Girls episode.
  • In which I assess the final season, contradicting the widely-accepted fan opinion that it is among the best of the series.

As they say, look up on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

What is Star Trek’s vision of politics?

[Cross-posted from The Daystrom Research Institute, with some revisions.]

I see politics in Star Trek — thinking of politics broadly as the sphere of relationships involving power — as having two conflicting levels. On the one hand, the starship itself is a fairly authoritarian environment, characterized by a strict hierarchy of rank and command. Captains are open to deliberation by their senior officers, but they make the final decision. Sometimes this has bad effects, as when the captain is taken over by an alien, etc., but by my count, there are many more stories where we are expected to be very anxious or upset about the idea of the captain’s authority being usurped.

On the higher level, we are almost never given a reason to trust Starfleet admirals or the Federation as such. At the level of those larger organizations, it seems, there is a tendency toward entropy and corruption. Perhaps we’re to think that the absence of a clear, urgent mission allows people to indulge in empty careerism rather than sincerely using their skills to the best of their abilities.

When it comes to large-scale political events, then, most often it’s not the official leadership that is pushing things in a good direction. If we’re going to get a good outcome, it has to come from people “on the ground” (so to speak), often in defiance of their superiors. So we see Sisko coming to earth and almost immediately uncovering a conspiracy that had been unfolding for a while — presumably if he had not shown up, the “inside job” attack would have had its desired effect. Similarly, in Enterprise the foundation of the Federation seems to hang on the actions of Archer, T’Pol, and Shran, more than on their official leadership (who are feckless in Archer’s case and often malevolent in the latter two).

The ideal outcome, it seems, is for one of these authentic people to become the political leader — Archer becoming president of the Federation, the various “liberal” leaders who emerge out of the Dominion War, etc. — but it’s notable that we never actually see their leadership in action. Chancellor Martok is a happy ending, full stop, and we don’t have to see his inevitable compromises with the already existing factions that, while perhaps chastened, surely remain powerful in many ways.

The dark side of this reliance on “free agents” to counter institutional careerism and inertia is Section 31. On one level, we can ask why their acts of “going rogue” are supposed to be different and worse than the routine insubordination we see from captains — and the show certainly leaves things ambivalent, insofar as they “get results” despite their nefarious means. Perhaps we can say that the lovable rogue captains are embracing the ideals of the Federation while Section 31 is advocating its raw existence and political power — but aren’t the latter a condition of fulfilling the former? I don’t think we get a good answer to this question at the end of the day, and perhaps Star Trek’s general conception of politics (institutions suck, brave individuals are the ones who get things done) leaves it unequipped to do so.

In terms of real-world politics, it all seems hard to map onto our experience. The central concept that we’re going to get liberal outcomes (Federation ideals!) from authoritarian structures (quasi-military command structures!) is, to say the least, difficult to find evidence for in the real world. Institutional inertia and corruption are of course real, but so are transformative leaders, even if they are relatively rare. I chalk it up to an attempt to be all things to all people that leads Star Trek to embrace mutually contradictory ideals — but at the same time, I would wager that most of us embrace contradictory ideals at the end of the day, in some cases the very same contradictory ideals Star Trek does. Its very simplicity may thus make it a more useful tool to think with than the faux-sophisticated House of Cards, for instance.

What is the deal with my Star Trek fixation lately?

You may have noticed that I’ve been blogging less frequently in the last several months. Part of the reason is that I’m trying to make some headway on my devil project during the semester, so a lot of my excess intellectual energy is taken up with that. (Though I’ve written posts on the devil in earlier phases of my research, I generally don’t find it helpful to blog about something that I’m actively drafting.) I’ve also continued to be generally busy for the whole school year, as The Girlfriend’s move to Minneapolis has further complicated an already travel-heavy lifestyle (by my standards).

All of that presumably makes sense. What perhaps makes less sense is that I’m contributing multiple posts per week to the Daystrom Institute, a Star Trek subreddit. I mentioned this a couple months ago, and things have if anything gotten worse since then. I’ve continued to stake out unpopular positions — for instance, I think Enterprise was actually pretty good, all things considered — but my most explosive contributions have challenged the “fundamentalist” approach to Star Trek that most hardcore fans embrace. Most recently, I proposed that maybe we shouldn’t take the specific future calendar dates mentioned in Star Trek literally, since doing so results in the bizarre situation that Star Trek’s future takes place in our past (most notably, Khan should have been a warlike dictator in the 1990s).

Why bother? I think part of it is a simple desire to satisfy my desire for online argument in a no-stakes environment. It’s much easier to agree to disagree about the dating of the Eugenics Wars than about serious political issues. In a weird way, too, these very debates are becoming a kind of “comfort food,” much like Star Trek itself — because they really do feel like debates with biblical fundamentalists. More specifically, they’re like an idealized version of those debates, with the edges sanded off and some (though strangely not all!) of the self-seriousness and self-righteousness deflated. I was always fascinated with the Bible and wished that I could find someone willing to discuss and debate it without prematurely shutting down the conversation or worrying about my soul. It’s really hard to find that sweet spot with the Bible even now.

This exercise is also helpful in that it retrospectively shows the fundamentalist enterprise to be one of treating all the biblical traditions as belonging to a coherent “fictional universe.” Obviously biblical fundamentalists don’t embrace that term, but neither do Star Trek fundamentalists — for them, we must treat the onscreen events as real, or else we’re lost in the seas of relativism. The only difference is that the Star Trek fundamentalists no longer view Star Trek as our possible future. Their strict adherence to the canon means that all the events we see are also the result of an alternate past (which “forked” with the premature invention of transparent aluminum or something). The biblical fundamentalists, by contrast, are willing to continually retcon the struggle against Antiochus Epiphanes or Nero into the future.

My new career in Star Trek hermeneutics

Gerry Canavan recently turned me on to The Daystrom Institute, a Star Trek subreddit devoted to the most intricate possible examination of the franchise. As my life has been in turmoil the last couple months with The Girlfriend’s move, etc., I have found myself ever more drawn toward the comfort food of Star Trek and have become a prolific poster there — even winning a “Post of the Week” and getting a promotion to Ensign! (Yes, it is that nerdy.) Here are some of my greatest hits thus far, most of which are focused on Enterprise since I’ve been rewatching it:

Here’s a page with some of the all-time greats from the subreddit.

Time Travel in the Greek and Hebrew worldviews

Much has been made of the contrast between Athens and Jerusalem, but it has seldom been noted that these two worldviews represent significantly different approaches to time travel. Now obviously they do not include time travel in the full sci-fi sense, but both do include messages from the future in the form of prophecies, and these messages from the future do affect people’s actions in the present. (The closest Star Trek analogy may be the infamous “Future Guy” from Enterprise, who can relay messages without personally intervening in the past.)

From this perspective, Oedipus is fundamentally a time-travel story, and it results in a predestination paradox insofar as his very attempt to “change the timeline” by avoiding the horrible prophecy directly results in the fulfillment of the prophecy. In the Hebrew Bible, by contrast, we might look to the story of Jonah, where the prophetic message from the future actually causes a change in the timeline insofar as Ninevah repents.

While prophecy doesn’t always result in an alternate timeline, one gets the sense that within the Hebrew model of time travel, the possibility of changing the future is always “on the table” in a way that it definitely is not within Greek temporal mechanics. That might help us to understand why Jonah flees from his prophetic task — he likes the current trajectory that leads to Ninevah’s destruction and doesn’t want to divert it. And when he’s moping in the end, it may be because he finds it objectionable that God would bring about a happy ending using an unwieldy plot device like time travel.

Why a Star Trek film would never work

Making a Star Trek film was always a strange project. Both the original series and Next Generation were meandering affairs, with few clear villains and many episodes with confusing premises. The movies have been many different things — sometimes fan service (Search for Spock), sometimes glorified children’s fare (Voyage Home), and sometimes little more than a way to give paying work to series regulars (The Undiscovered Country, Generations, Insurrection, Nemesis). There are films in the franchise that attempt to do essentially a really long episode with better special effects, above all the first (The Motion Picture), which closely followed the plot of an original series episode (“The Changeling”). And sometimes they’ve been embarrassing indulgences (The Final Frontier). At their best, though, they have combined a clear villain with a conscious awareness of the questionability of the undertaking.

Continue reading “Why a Star Trek film would never work”

Fear of the Future: Rehabilitating the “Temporal Cold War”

The film First Contact marks a decisive turning point in the Star Trek franchise’s approach to time travel. Previously, the emphasis was always on preserving the past, which had led to a glorious future. Even at great cost — as in the classic episode “City on the Edge of Forever” — the timeline that had produced the optimistic semi-utopia of Star Trek had to be restored. That emphasis on future greatness continues even in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, whose somewhat contrived plot centers on the hard lesson that present short-sightedness (such as letting whales go extinct) can affect the future in ways that might not even make sense to us now (such as an alien force that had befriended the whales laying waste to earth when they can’t find them). Even if Voyage Home marks a shift, it’s still within the same basic frame of rehabilitating our own accidental behavior in the past.

The new element in First Contact is the malevolent intention of the Borg in disrupting our timeline. A completely unpredictable force, which at that point in history humanity had had no dealings with, blasts out of the future and takes over — and while Captain Picard et al. are able to set things back on the utopian path, humanity’s great hero, warp-drive inventor Zefrem Cochrane, knows that his discovery and fateful voyage were part of a conflict between two mysterious powers from the future.

Continue reading “Fear of the Future: Rehabilitating the “Temporal Cold War””

“All Our Yesterdays”: Days of Star Trek past

The penultimate episode of the original Star Trek series (TOS), “All Our Yesterdays,” has an interesting premise: an alien race faces certain destruction as their sun goes supernova, and instead of escaping into space, they use time travel to escape into their own history. On some level, it’s a parable of the original series itself, which was ostensibly exploring the depths of space, but found various ways to explore humanity’s past (including in some cases the writers’ own present). Viewed from our present perspective, though, it seems more a parable of the franchise as a whole, a franchise that keeps putting off its own demise by escaping into the past of the franchise itself.

Continue reading ““All Our Yesterdays”: Days of Star Trek past”