“Allamaraine, if you can see/Allamaraine, you'll come with me”: To Attain the All

(12 comments)

Bloody hell.

“To Attain the All” has got to be the worst episode of Star Trek Phase II by *far*. “Cassandra” was bad. “The Child” was awful. “Savage Syndrome” was appalling, but that was by Margaret Armen, so that's par for the course. And nobody really expected greatness from “Are Unheard Memories Sweet?”: A brief like that is angling for major problems from the outset. But this? Wow. There's no excuse for this.

While investigating a system of planets strung together like a pearl necklace (so *that's* where Star Trek: Year Four got the idea from. Seriously, how do you screw up a visual like that?), the Enterprise is suddenly transported to a realm outside normal spacetime where they are visited by a hyper-evolved energy being called The Prince who claims to represent an infinitely old culture who hold the secrets of the universe, and declares he's going to test the crew to determine whether or not they're worthy of attaining a form of enlightenment called “The All” (and it should be an indication for how bloody long this show has been going on that a brief like that feels hackneyed and boring). The Prince says he wants two representatives to face a series of challenges, to which Decker and Xon immediately volunteer for their own reasons (Xon thinks it's logical, while Decker is starry-eyed at the prospect of learning and new discovery). Reluctantly, Kirk agrees, but at the same time begins to work with Uhura and Ilia to find a way to free the Enterprise.

After that bit, Decker and Xon go off to rainbow space land to play Legends of the Hidden Temple. They are faced with a series of puzzles and physical challenges they must overcome by using a combination of logic and intuition to progress to the next stage and reach The All while The Prince occasionally pops in to give them advice. You thought I was kidding. I wish I was. While this is going on, Kirk begins to notice that the remainder of his crew are starting to act disturbingly similar to each other: McCoy and Chapel are having a professional disagreement, but then start to see each other's points, Sulu is starting to display character traits more associated with Chekov and vice versa, and Uhura and Ilia are starting to speak for each other. Eventually, this culminates in the entire crew, save Kirk and Decker, becoming subsumed by The All, which turns out to be a great big ancient hive mind that goes around assimilating other people, so naturally the two manly action heroes have to go and punch some sense into everyone and aggressively re-introduce them to good ol' American Individuality.

Christ on a bike.

Where do I begin? The All is self-evidently enlightenment, obviously coded as a Buddhist version of it to boot...and the show thinks this is an evil, horrible thing. Idiotic and embarrassing children's gameshow trappings aside, this is the fundamental problem with this episode. It dwarfs everything else and puts Star Trek into a dangerous position the likes of which it hasn't ventured near for at least twelve years. If this is the kind of garbage that usually characterizes Norman Spinrad's work, then thank whatever forces intervened to allow Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana to extensively re-write “The Doomsday Machine”. To simplify things a bit for our purposes, there's a strain of Buddhist philosophy that conceptualizes the universe as a kind of cosmic oversoul that binds and unites all things. Each being is thus a manifestation of the oversoul and its own unique mind: We both are and are not individuals, then. We have agency, to a point, but we’re all connected together and having an understanding of both truths is a major step towards attaining enlightenment. It's a theory I was first introduced studying Self and Personal Identity, and one I tend to find helpful and attractive.

And Star Trek thinks this is the worst thing in the universe and conflates it with Soviet-style Stalinism.

Not only does “To Attain the All” have the gall to appropriate Buddhist concepts with the sole purpose of belittling them, it mashes it up with 1950s Red Scare propaganda into a vague and handwavey notion of “Groupthink”, setting the entire franchise back a good two decades in the process. This is hateful and reactionary in a way Margaret Armen never even managed to be: Spinrad is *actually saying* that understanding and empathy are toxic, destructive things only the Red Commies do and will erode masculinity and individuality. This is the exact opposite of “In Thy Image”. This is “The Return of the Archons” again, but somehow even worse. This is Star Trek's every reactionary impulse gathered together and unleashed in one angry, blind hate-filled scribe against material social progress. This isn't just wrong television, it's straightforwardly evil television.

Never, and I mean never, have I seen a Star Trek story more hostile to my redemptive reading of the franchise than this. “To Attain the All” is a serious contender for the title of single worst Star Trek story ever written, and to have it crop up this far into Star Trek Phase II is just about the most depressing and disheartening thing I can think of. And this does demonstrable harm, to not just the idea of material social progress, but to Star Trek itself: Just like “The Enemy Within”, “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and “The Apple” managed for the Original Series, “To Attain the All” kills Star Trek Phase II dead, or at least provides conclusive proof that it deserves to die.

More than even that: Honestly, this production team has to go. In hindsight, it should have been obvious. The best assets of the Original Series and the Animated Series, by which I mean the only good ones, were D.C. Fontana, Gene Coon, Dave Gerrold and Alan Dean Foster, all four of whom are long gone by now. Perhaps tellingly, Star Trek Phase II is done after one more episode, and after that Star Trek never retains the same creative team for such an extended period of time again.

Frankly, good fucking riddance.

Comments

gatchamandave 2 years, 10 months ago

Do you agree with the essay at the end of the official book on Phase II that had it gone into production it would have killed Star Trek stone dead as a show that had failed twice, Josh ?

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Adam Riggio 2 years, 10 months ago

It seems as though Star Trek: Phase II faced this limitation from the start. I discussed in a comment on Devil's Due that the franchise couldn't really progress with the original crew remaining the focus. The stereotypical conceptions of the characters weighed down the show too much; the popular conception of Kirk and the rest of the crew was very different, and often in opposition, from how Shatner and the other actors portrayed the characters at their best.

If To Attain the All is any indication, this gravity also applies to Star Trek the franchise itself, and is held by its creative figures. With Roddenberry remaining at the helm, his own conception of Star Trek continued to reassert itself, even though that idea only got in the way of Star Trek becoming its best. In Thy Image may have been an absolutely brilliant script, but it was twisted away from all its potential through Roddenberry's instincts for what Star Trek was.

If the subsequent development of the later scripts of the season were any indication, Roddenberry would have killed Star Trek with these witless adventure plots. Though I have to admit that the idea of crossing Star Trek with Legends of the Hidden Temple could certainly have had some potential for an episode. To put the matter in my own terms, your analysis over the last year has shown that Roddenberry didn't have the philosophical potential to make Star Trek what it could be. However, he had the marketing potential to make most fans of the show believe that he was its heart and soul. Still, we have to admit that it's only when Roddenberry gets out of the way or is shoved out of the way that Star Trek can attain its own potential.

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 10 months ago

Warning: Lengthy, divergent ramblings ahead.

I'm actually on the fence about that particular statement: I'm not 100% convinced by the Reeves-Stevens' argument here for a number of reasons.

(For anyone playing along at home, in 1997 Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens wrote an officially-licensed book chronicling the production history of Star Trek Phase II and collecting scripts and summaries for each of the 13 accepted episodes, which is obviously where I'm getting all the information for this section of the blog from.)

The thing is, the Reeves-Stevens are writing from the perspective of 90s fandom, where the general consensus was that Star Trek was a wonderful Phoenix of a thing that had come back from the dead, become unimaginably successful (but only with true believers) and was here to stay indefinitely, if not forever. The idea of Star Trek following a different path to success was almost unthinkable already, before you get into the fact Star Trek's biographers have (or at least had) a tendency to lean on various aspects of teleology and essentialism.

They're making the argument that had Phase II gone into production, it would have followed the same path Star Trek Voyager did, with a huge audience for the premier and then a massive viewership dropoff immediately afterward, and with the additional burden of being too similar to the Original Series, not to mention the competition it would have faced from popular 70s sitcoms and procedurals.

They're thinking that the premier of a new Star Trek show is always a "singular event" that brings the nation together, while the rest of the show's run is really only for the die-hard Star Trek fans. Well, even though that happened to Star Trek Voyager and Star Trek Voyager is superficially similar to Phase II in a number of ways, they're manifestly not the same thing and the reason for that is explicitly because one show was made in 1995 and the other was made in 1978.

See, 1995 was the beginning of the period where Star Trek went from being "popular" to being "oversaturated". What nobody remembers, and especially nobody writing in 1997, is that Star Trek: The Next Generation was *not* a niche, cult property: It was a massive, mainstream phenomenon and regularly and reliably the most popular, most talked-about show on television throughout its run. So, actually, was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (though people remember *that* even less), at least at *first*.

The *reason* Star Trek Voyager saw such a massive audience dropoff after its premier is that it had too much competition, but not from other sci-fi-fantasy shows (though it is true the market, especially the syndication market was different in 1995 than it was in 1987), but from other Star Trek. This was the period where Rick Berman memorably (and correctly) pointed out that DS9 was struggling in the ratings due to the way syndication works and the general glut of Star Trek on the air because

"Trek is up against not just other sci-fi shows, but other Trek shows. DS9 has to play against repeats of Next Generation, the original Trek, Voyager and even repeats of DS9."

This is the problem with mid-90s Trek in a nutshell, which is also responsible for the general thematic drift those shows experienced and the reason they became niche shows again: Next Generation and early Deep Space Nine established Star Trek as an iconic, relevant and beloved fixture, but Voyager broke the base, both at a creative and financial level.

(cont'd)

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 10 months ago

The Dominion War was introduced partially in an effort to make DS9 distinct from Voyager, and that drove away the mainstream audience DS9 inherited from TNG because it was bloody depressing, mean-spirited, nihilistic and fanwanky. As for the hardcore Trekkers who never liked DS9 to begin with because it wasn't set on a starship and didn't have 'splosions (and who Paramount mistakenly believed was their target demographic), they were perfectly satisfied with Voyager because it was a watered-down TNG with more action scenes and fanwank. But the thing is...this also meant they were the *only* ones watching Voyager. In the meantime, nobody's watching DS9 because the Trekkers are over at UPN and the mainstream audience is watching The X-Files, Xena and reruns of Trek in syndication from when it was actually good.

So obviously this is going to be a major theme once we reach the 1990s, but the point is Star Trek Phase II wouldn't have had those problems because it would have been, for the majority of people, the first new Star Trek they would have seen in a decade. We shouldn't be comparing it to Star Trek Voyager, if anything we should be comparing it to Star Trek: The Next Generation: A potential bold reinvention and reintroduction of the franchise.

In that regard, I think we should look at the calibre of the scripts. When it was good, Phase II was much, much better than TOS and when it was bad, it was at least as bad as TOS' lows. Would this have been enough to keep the show going? Probably, considering how many people watched and loved TOS and were willing to forgive its most unforgivable moments. Star Trek likely would not have gotten as big under Phase II as it did under The Next Generation, but then again nobody ever expected Star Trek to get that big in the first place.

And it's at least possible Phase II would have inspired the same amount of fan literature that Star Trek: The Motion Picture did, what with a bunch of new characters and relationships to explore and a huge gap between it and the end of TOS. And really inspiring people to dream and create is what's most important about Star Trek.

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 10 months ago

And this is the other side of the coin: Even if Star Trek Phase II proved to be successful, it may well have continued to keep Star Trek shackled to the iconic conceptions of the original crew. Something else was needed to allow the franchise to transcend its roots.

Then again, you mention "Devil's Due", and as I try to hint in that post, even Star Trek: The Next Generation might not ultimately have been enough to do that...

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gatchamandave 2 years, 10 months ago

Wow, thanks for your lengthy, heartfelt reply, Josh. Much appreciated.

I happen to think we do have a perfect model for what would have happened to Phase II that is contemporary with the period in question. Battlestar Galactica.

I agree with Reese/Stevens that audience figures would have dropped, because that's the nature of television - everyone that is remotely interested tunes in for the premier, then they gradually drop away as other interests come along and the show, whatever it may be, eventually attains a base line of committed viewers. Not just fans, but people who just happen to like this particular show. That's what happened to the '79 incarnation of BSG. But, nevertheless, that can cause network executives to panic...

Now, if one studies BAG we can see that mid season there is an obvious drop in budget, and script quality. Most obviously there are folks that appear in the credits - Tony Swartz, Maren Jensen - who just aren't there any more. The effects move from specially shot footage to clips from Silent Running and the like. The scripts become ( even more ? ahem...) juvenile.

I can easily imagine a Hollywood "player" like Michael Eisner thinking " These new folks aren't working - why do we need Decker when Kirk 's there ? Chapel, when we have McCoy ? What's Ilia do that Uhura can't ? As for Xon ? Check, fire them all and with the money saved, maybe I can make Nimoy a lucrative offer...guy wants to direct ? Hell, why not ?"

Although that last sounds promising...

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 10 months ago

Definitely there would have been a dropoff of sorts, I agree. It's, like you say, the nature of television. Though I doubt it would have had as *dramatic* a dropoff as Star Trek Voyager had for the reasons I outline above: The Reeves-Stevens are taking the experience and history of one show and trying to make it it fit every incarnation of Star Trek ever made or yet to come, which ties into the 90s belief that Star Trek was one big monolithic irreducible thing with one discrete audience, which was already a provably false claim.

I think you're onto something with the comparison to OG Battlestar Galactica, especially with someone like Michael Eisner in the producer's chair. It would be interesting to see how Star Trek fandom circa 1978 would have responded to Ilia, Decker, Chapel, Rand and Xon and how that would have affected both numbers and the show's general reaction. From what I could gather, Star Trek Phase II met with a considerably warmer reaction than Star Trek: The Next Generation did by jettisoning the entire TOS universe, though we'll probably never know if they could have kept that goodwill going.

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gatchamandave 2 years, 10 months ago

Oh my. Have you good people seen what happens if you enter Star Trek Phase 2 on a site that sounds a bit like Yew Tyoob ?

One might be cynical and think, " wow, the very definition of more money than sense". Or one might think, " wow, how wonderful that some folks embrace Star Trek so enthusiastically".

Me ? I'm in the latter camp. See what you think.

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Josh Marsfelder 2 years, 10 months ago

Erm, or you could tune into this blog on Monday...

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Robert Hutchinson 2 years, 10 months ago

I was *wondering* why you seemed to be 2 episodes short...

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Daru 2 years, 10 months ago

Sounds terrible, no two ways about it. So glad this never got made, this is one that I am happy that it did not make it to screen. I am something of a Buddhist myself (though not in the strict sense) and this just sounds like the most cynical appropriation of ideas, and ideas with a sound foundation that are then turned back on themselves.

*Really* looking forwards to the other Phase II posts coming up, they will be a breath of fresh air after this.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 9 months ago

Marshak & Culbreath's _Triangle_ seems like it might be a variation on this story. (So, another occasion for me to wish you were doing the Marshak & Culbreath books.)

That said, I do find Buddhist views of personal identity pretty horrific (Pudgalavada excepted), so I have a hard time sharing your outrage.

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