Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Embarrass Me in Front of My Friends! (Haven)

Pretty much the main reason I wanted to do a Spider-Man blog.
Star Trek was never part of my childhood. I’d heard about it, but I never actually sat down to watch the series until the Abrams movies were announced. I can certainly see the appeal of the series, and I do genuinely love some episodes of the shows, but it never felt like it was the series for me. Maybe it’s because my aesthetics tend to push me towards episodes that are typically seen as unpopular like Sub Rosa, Dark Page, and Night Terrors. Maybe what I want out of Sci-Fi isn’t the dull parts of Heinlein with five pages worth of “scientific explanations” for how a ship works. Or maybe it’s because I view Star Trek as a “comfort food” series rather than the paragon of what Sci-Fi ought to be.

So when it comes to approaching Haven from the “infamous” first season, I’m going to have a bit of an atypical reaction to what I presume was the mainline opinion. I thought it was fine. It’s not my favorite episode of Star Trek or my least favorite, but it was still a good watch. The story’s a bit simple: an arranged marriage brings the arrival of a family member of the crew whom they have a somewhat terse relationship. But it still works thematically and narratively without ever betraying Star Trek’s ethos of a utopian society without conflict. The character interactions were a lot of fun, in particular Tasha Yar’s glee at finding out about the Betazoid attire worn at weddings. Some of the characters feel a bit off (Data in particular is more callous in his fascination with humanity than I’m used to), but you get the sense that the writers understand the characters as opposed to writing archetypes of other characters.

The main highlights of the story are Deanna and Lwaxana Troi. Many a fan have berated Deanna for being a crap character, citing how she always states the obvious, is completely useless in many of her stories, and is only there to be ogled at. And while there is a level of truth to those claims, the claims are a bit stretched. The thing about Deanna Troi that attracts me to the character is that she’s immediately aware of what’s about to happen. Take for example the climax of the episode. Though out of focus, Marina Sirtis is able to convey Troi’s disappointment (and, even more subtly, relief) at Wyatt’s unspoken rejection and farewell with only her eyes.

Indeed Sitris is perhaps one of the better actresses in a cast filled with amazing actors. But Sitris has been tasked with one of the hardest characters to play on the show, one who has to simultaneously show the emotions of the room as well as her own. This has caused numerous difficulties with the theatrical style Sitris was trained under, hence numerous later episodes featuring Deanna Troi being possessed by an alien force. But Sitris is able to play the part so well that she doesn’t get a rival in skill and subtlety until Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter (indeed, Hannibal is perhaps the best comparison point for Troi in regards to this episode. Both are therapists who only wish the best for those around them and will do whatever it takes to help others find their true selves. This includes willingly breaking a vow so someone else could be with their true love [as is in the case of Haven] or psychologically torturing someone they love until they embrace their serial killer nature [as is the case of Hannibal’s relationship with Will Graham and most of his other patients]).

Less subtle, and all the better for it, is Lwaxana Troi, daughter of the Fifth House, holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed, and Deanna’s mother. To say she’s overbearing would be akin to saying getting shot in the face is painful. While her belief that empathetic honesty is one that is healthy compared to most modern modes of behavior, she’s a bit too blunt with her openness. Not in the typical way of “foreign people don’t get our customs” that a lot of Sci-Fi tends to go for, but the more casual “oh by the way, your husband fantasizes about me” that at once needs to be said but at the same time should be said more gingerly.

At the same time, her bluntness (and talkative nature) brings out an understanding of the universe and all its implications unparalleled by anyone else in the show. This is in no small part to Majal Berret, who seems to naturally get the role Lwaxana (especially given the role was written with her in mind, famously pitched as “you don’t even have to act”). She gets to the core of the interconnectedness of life (which I’m not going to talk about yet because Dirk Gently came out within the circle of October/November 1987) and how the best thing to do for one another is to be true to ourselves, while also improving that true self to be better. This can range from accepting that love doesn’t last forever and letting go to leaving the life you knew behind for one that lives only in your dreams.

Which brings us to a problem with Star Trek: the female characters. This isn’t to say they’re bad characters per say. Indeed, on paper none of the main cast of Star Trek are bad characters and all of the actors and actresses performing them are all brilliant (this is to the degree where both Miriana Sitris and Denise Crosby [Tasha Yar] were actually supposed to play the other’s role, and they still pull off playing roles they weren’t cast for well [for the most part, there are times when Sitris, for all her unsubtle subtlety, is straining at a desire to be more unsubtle while Crosby has a tendency to play the part a bit too soft for the moment {though this is at times to her advantage, as her seductive bits in The Naked Now are the best parts of that episode}]).

Rather, the problem comes from a lack of giving these wonderful female anything to do. For the most part, they are window dressing in their own story. Infamously, it was declared that Star Trek was about Picard, Riker, and Data in response to Crosby requesting to do more than just have three lines. This, in turn, lead her to quit the show out of frustration and for Tasha Yar to be murdered in such a half assed way as to be indistinguishable from a no name character dying.

And even though Haven itself is an outlier within Star Trek through its nature of being a story about women and their relationships with each other, it still hinges on a narrative about men: that of Wyatt and his dreams, effectively sidelining their relationship for his story. If I were to be unsympathetic, I’d say this was due to the writers’ inability to actually write about female positionality to this scale and a lack of desire to do so regardless of ability. However, this may very well be due to the implied audience of Star Trek (and, subsequently, superhero comics): middle-aged boys.

While the writing staff of Star Trek isn’t making this assumption at this point, the producers of the show were, and would continue to do so no matter how much evidence comes to light that literally the exact opposite is true. There are several reasons for this assumption: a desire to keep Sci-Fi in a box marked “cult,” sexism, nostalgia for older science fiction shows. But perhaps the biggest reason for this shift towards “older” male audiences would be that of capitalism.

We’ll go into more detail on this in a later post, but suffice it to say, our circle of October-November 1987 is less than 10 years away from the comic bust of ’96, wherein the economic decisions of the comic book industry in general (and Marvel Comics in particular) nearly destroyed the entire industry. One of those decisions was to put the entire market in the hands of middle-aged boys who could buy merchandise and comics to such a degree as to alienate every single other audience in the market.

One such audience would be people interested in stories other than “hard men doing hard things hardly,” which is what a lot of Star Trek was into near the end of its run. Whereas early on in the series’ run where it was interested in being about exploring a strange and mad universe (thus attracting a wider audience more receptive to stories about women rather than just stories with women in them), late Star Trek got wrapped up in a stupid war that was frankly the aforementioned dull bits of Heinlein.

This was hampered even further by the fact that, much like the comic book industry at the time, the writers were stuck between two impulses: Our heroes are bad asses and Our heroes are compromised in their efforts to preserve humanity. Suffice it to say, they weren’t good enough to pull this off. Indeed, I have only found two writers in the comics industry that could pull off such a pitch, one of who wouldn’t enter the industry until 2013.

This is a problem for a number of obvious reasons, not the least of which being a cognitive dissonance when attempting to watch late era Star Trek, not the least of which being numerous cases of fascist apologia to such a degree as to commend genocide. In perhaps one of the notable choices of late era Trek was the decision to have Betazed invaded and conquered in their big thesis episode. This is notable as this is the home world of Deanna and Lwaxana Troi.

The implications of this are staggering. Given the episode of Star Trek we’re meant to be talking about, this is a flat out rejection of the ethos of empathetic truth, especially given the episode in question is about the necessity of covering up a conspiracy to start a war between two worlds as means of helping a third world destroy foreign barbarians. In other words, empathy, the act of understanding the positionality of others, is rejected in favor of fascism, a political viewpoint that hinges on exterminating the other. And this is considered to be one of the best episodes of Star Trek. To top it all off, the conquest happens off screen, implying a lack of importance for the values of the Betazoids.

To say this is a summation of why my interest in Star Trek has always been at a minimum would be an understatement. When I watch Sci-Fi, I don’t want stories about how terrible it is to be a white guy or how good is a lie that must be told lest the barbarians tear down out gates. I want stories about people healing, becoming their truer selves, and helping others improve. I want to explore strange new worlds and watch people fall in love while burning down cruel and unjust systems. I want stories about building utopia and working to prevent distopias. I want something that isn’t po-faced about how “serious” we ought to take the man in the rubber suit.

For all my misgivings, I’d much rather have something like Haven than late era Star Trek. At the very least, there’s a sense of strangeness to the universe, a humor to the script (for all his callousness, Data is a riot in this episode, with his level of humor being matched this season solely by putting him in a deerstalker and giving him a pipe), and a love for those experiencing the story. And there are many episodes, even in the late era, that embrace the ethos of this episode; one that many a fan claims is what Star Trek is all about. But they are fewer than the ones that don’t. I wish Star Trek would embrace it’s true self more often than it does. Alas, it seems to only want to be a faint echo of something we should have given up on long ago.

(Next Time: When Time Reverses and Teacups Come Together…)

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[Photo: How to Kill a Computer Directed by Misuko Kase, Script by Kazunori Ito, Storyboards by Toshifumi Takizawa, Deep Dream by Sean Dillon)

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