“And the greatest good is little enough”: Relics

(10 comments)

I'll bet you all already know how I feel about “Relics”. There's really no point in going on. You can all fill in the blanks yourselves. You've all heard this story before.

Do I remember it? Yeah, of course I do. It's one of those episodes that comes right out screaming “I am iconic!” and practically *demands* to be remembered. The viewing I most vividly recall was not one at my parents' house, which is the way most of my memories of Star Trek are, but at my grandparents'. I guess we had just driven in for a visit one night or something, they happened to be watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and this was the episode on that night. I can't remember if this was the first time I'd seen it, but it was definitely the one I remember most clearly, because everyone in that house made a *really big huge deal* about how Scotty was in this one and that this was the episode where the two Generations came together. Which was weird considering “Unification” had already come out the year prior, as did Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Maybe my family hadn't seen those episodes and movie, but considering it was the media event of the year, I find that hard to believe. I mean even *I* had seen them, and I was years and years behind everyone else in everything.

I remember someone excitedly telling me how in this one shot the “new” Enterprise was flying alongside the “old” Enterprise. By this, they of course meant the part where the crew rescues the Jenolan. Which looks nothing whatsoever like the Original Series Enterprise in any way, shape or form. I hadn't even seen the Original Series yet (except, again, for maybe “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “By Any Other Name” like a year or two prior) and even I knew that was utter bollocks. When I pointed out the ship in question didn't seem to look a whole lot like Constitution-class as I understood it, I was told that was because it was upside-down, at which point I proceeded to drop the subject. Who knows, maybe it was and I just couldn't tell because of how far away I was from the giant CRT TV in the hutch. I didn't care enough to press the issue.

My relatives on this side of the family, my mother's, had a bit of an inelegant relationship with my Star Trek fandom. While they were utterly supportive, incredibly generous and terribly well-meaning, they never quite seemed to grasp that I wasn't a “Star Trek Fan” as much as I was a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, inasmuch as that was the show that was on the air and that I watched every Wednesday or Friday or whatever: I watched TV casually at nights like ordinary people used to do back then, and while this was my favourite of the shows I watched at this age (at least of the big primetime dramas: Miami Vice has hung like a neon haze over my life and perspective forever, although I wouldn't fully realise my love for it until later), it was, ultimately, still just another show.

They also seemed to have a hard time understanding that Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation were not, in fact, interchangeable. Not that I can blame them, of course, considering this is a sentiment shared by an overwhelming majority of Star Trek fandom itself. That is, when their actions are not heavily implying that you can only be a Star Trek fan if you came to the franchise through the Original Series or that the Original Series had to be your favourite. Nevertheless, this led to awkward moments like my aunt taking my Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation tricorder toy and flipping it open to “show” me how they did it on the show. Which I knew was wrong and that they never did. It was much later on when I figured out she'd done that because she must've thought it was a communicator. From the Original Series.

(My cousins, whom I talk about here not infrequently, are not from this branch of the family. They're from my father's side, were far closer in age, temperament and personality to myself, and shared my particular flavour of enthusiasm.)

So you have to understand that I had no emotional investment in Scotty's presence here. I mean I knew who he was, more or less, and thought it was neat to have an intergenerational crossover like that, but this was not a big defining television event for me. In fact, I was a bit surprised (though in hindsight I absolutely shouldn't have been) to discover later that “Relics” is considered an untouchable classic and a masterpiece by Star Trek fandom at large. I mean I thought it was fine enough: It was fun to see Geordi teaming up with the engineer from the old show to do some cool stuff, but none of that emotional connection and attachment was there in any way. Seeing the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew team up with the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine one a year and a half later was *way* more moving and powerful to me, but I'm getting ahead of myself if I start bringing that up now.

In fact, the part of “Relics” I dug the most was the Dyson Sphere. In a science fiction encyclopedia published in 2000, media scholar Peter Nicholls coined the phrase “Big Dumb Object” to refer to a preposterously gigantic and mysterious artefact, likely of extraterrestrial design, that's designed to give a story a sense of wonder and fantasy simply by being there. I happen to love the hell out of Big Dumb Objects, though we don't get to see them a lot in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I wish we did though, as Star Trek can too often get itself bogged down in adolescent grimdark and middlebrow realpolitiking and could use the occasional jolt of cosmic wonder injected into it. The Dyson Sphere in this episode more than suffices: The art department really went above and beyond the call on this one, and there are a lot of really memorable and achingly beautiful passes that show off the scale and detail of the thing. And naturally, modelmaker Greg Jein says how the surface of the Dyson Sphere was made out of...a Japanese garage kit. There's an appalling lack of Dirty Pair models out there, but it could well be something from the Gundam or Macross series. I keep saying, anime and Star Trek: The Next Generation just *go* together.

Then I saw the episode again when I was older, on TNN/Spike TV or G4 or WGN or BBC America or the Sci-Fi Channel or whenever it happened to be airing at the moment (seriously, for seven years you couldn't find Star Trek: The Next Generation *anywhere* except in video stores or in the homes of particularly wealthy and unsettling collectors, or at least *I* couldn't. Then all of a sudden you couldn't get away from it! What was up with that?). Probably TNN/Spike TV at that point. I don't think I reacted to it the way I was supposed to. Obviously I objected incredibly strongly to how Geordi was characterized-I hadn't yet formulated my theory about who he is and what he does on the show, but he was still my favourite character and his behaviour towards Scotty just felt *wrong* on a very basic and fundamental level.

I felt Geordi should be way more empathetic, that he would totally understand why Scotty felt the way he did even if it rankled him a bit. People should be allowed dignity at any age: Sure, it may not be his time anymore, but that doesn't mean Scotty should be treated like a useless dead weight either. There were a lot of discussions in the writer's room about being careful this wasn't going to destroy Geordi as a character and make him wholly unsympathetic: I'm not entirely convinced by the arguments that it doesn't, especially given the inescapable gravity of bringing someone like Scotty on. I mean, I didn't take it out on the character, in fact, the opposite: I felt he was pushed aside and written out of character to give James Doohan the spotlight (and Doohan is predictably excellent). But then again, I'm not an Original Series fan. And I'll bet there were a whole bunch of Original Series fans relating to Scotty's feelings of being isolated and out of time. I can relate to the sentiment if not the specific set of experiences.

And that's what really bothers me about “Relics”. Everyone talks about this episode in hushed, reverential tones, especially when it comes to Doohan and the recreation of the Original Series bridge. Indeed, the only reason this episode has the reputation it does is precisely because Scotty is in it: If it was Morgan Bateson of the USS Bozeman, nobody would have given a shit. This episode exists purely to cater to Original Series' fans nostalgia, and no matter how well-written it is that's never going to not be a part of what it is. Writer Ron Moore (because there's no way it could have been anyone other than Ron Moore-I kind of empathize with Brannon Braga, who says "I didn't even know who Scotty was") talks about “bringing a piece of his childhood to life” and director Alexander Singer talks about tearing up directing certain scenes. And I know we're still technically in the 25th Anniversary because the Playmates toys just came out and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is on the way, but...For some reason this feels like a step too far to me. Maybe it's just Geordi, or the fact the script absolutely, cloyingly fawns over Scotty in a way it never did Spock, but I cannot accept “Relics” the way I can “Unification”.

(Speaking of Playmates, what the hell was up with giving Scotty the Goddard? That just goes and renders my shuttlecraft toy obsolete! I cant have my plastic Star Trek friends going on adventures in it if Scotty took it away! Clearly, I would have to retcon “Relics” away if I ever wanted to play with my shuttlecraft again.)

Then there's the creative team, who excitedly go on about how you couldn't do this story earlier in the show's run because of Gene Roddenberry's dictum Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation had to be kept entirely separate, that Star Trek: The Next Generation could not reference its predecessor because it had to stand on its own. And that it was OK now because the show had now proven that it could do that. But that's bullshit because it's ignoring the actual, real “generation gap” that exists in fandom: That doesn't give you carte blanche to go fanwank, especially when it's taken five goddamn years for Star Trek: The Next Generation to prove to Star Trek fans it's not a pale imitation of the Original Series. And it's *still* failed-The inescapable shadow the Original Series casts over Star Trek: The Next Generation manifests in Singer himself, who openly admits he only took the job because he always wanted to direct the Original Series and never got the chance. Star Trek: The Next Generation is nothing but methadone for Original Series fans.

I don't know. Maybe I'm the only person who watched this show who felt this way. I'd say they're my feelings and experiences and that automatically means they're valid and that I should have a voice to express them, but just holding a minority opinion doesn't automatically make one right. Maybe the truth of the matter is that my rhetorical exaggerations are in fact true, that no matter how much Star Trek I've watched and how much merchandise I have and how much I've thought about this franchise over the years, the truth of the matter is that I'm just not a Star Trek fan. I certainly don't feel welcome among its ranks or that I deserve a seat at the table.

I could sit here and come up with increasingly more strangled redemptive readings of Star Trek to force it to be the show I thought it was and wanted it to be. I could write my own version of Star Trek to ensure that. But what would be the point? We're now almost as far from “Relics” as “Relics” was from the Original Series. Nobody cares about 25 year old TV anymore except the saddest of the sad. Maybe I was wrong to read this series this way. Maybe I should gather what remains of my dignity and leave quietly while I still have the chance. The faint ramblings of a lone, aging out-of-touch crazy person aren't meaningful to anyone.

At least Scotty had nostalgia for something he actually lived through. I'm a generation of one: That which I thought spoke for me in truth never did. No past to look back fondly upon and no future to look forward to. Nothing but irrelevance against the cosmic night.


"Presently, however, we saw a star blaze up and destroy its planets. The Empires had murdered something nobler than themselves. There was a second murder, and a third. Then, under the influence of the sub-galaxy, the imperial madness faded, and empire crumbled. And soon our fatigued attention was held by the irresistible coming of Utopia throughout the galaxy. This was visible to us chiefly as a steady increase of artificial planets. Star after star blossomed with orbit after crowded orbit of these vital jewels, these blooms pregnant with the spirit. Constellation after constellation, the whole galaxy became visibly alive with myriads of worlds. Each world, peopled with its unique, multitudinous race of sensitive individual intelligences united in true community, was itself a living thing, possessed of a common spirit. And each system of many populous orbits was itself a communal being. And the whole galaxy, knit in a single telepathic mesh, was a single intelligent and ardent being, the common spirit, the 'I,' of all its countless, diverse, and ephemeral individuals. This whole vast community looked now beyond itself toward its fellow galaxies. Resolved to pursue the adventure of life and of spirit in the cosmical, the widest of all spheres, it was in constant telepathic communication with its fellows; and at the same time, conceiving all kinds of strange practical ambitions, it began to avail itself of the energies of its stars upon a scale hitherto unimagined. Not only was every solar system now surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use, so that the whole galaxy was dimmed, but many stars that were not suited to be suns were disintegrated..."
 -Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker

Comments

EclecticDave 1 year, 9 months ago

FWIW I always thought this was a case where the book of the episode was better that the episode itself. I have the impression quite a lot was cut from this one, to it's detriment.

In the book, IIRC (I will admit it's been a while since I read it), the relationship between Geordi and Scotty gets much more space to breathe. He very much seems to start out being happy to show him around, only to get slowly more and more annoyed as he repeatedly discovers Scotty poking his nose into parts of his engine without being invited.

Scotty gets treated better as well IMO, I particularly remember the scene in the episode where he almost touches the EPS power conduit before being dragged away by Geordi. On TV he just sort of smiles as if it's nothing, but in the book Geordi makes him understand that he's going to get hurt if he's not more careful and Scotty actually apologies (something that *never* happens on screen as I recall).

On screen it gives the impression that Scotty gets fed up because Geordi and others have no time for him as if everyone has suddenly become ageist - in the book it's more clearly presented that he comes to realise that too much has changed and he can't be an engineer anymore that is the cause of his sorrow.

On a personal note, I very much hope you don't "leave quietly while you still have the chance". I appreciate that your faith might have taken a knock, but if the journey was easy then it wouldn't be worthwhile. I hope you'll stick it out until the end. Also, I quite like reading the ramblings of crazy people - sanity is overrated!

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Froborr 1 year, 9 months ago

You're not alone. This episode isn't bad, exactly, but it's the Dyson Sphere that makes it. (What other Big Dumb Objects HAVE there been in Star Trek? Limiting it to TV and movies... V'ger, definitely. Maybe the Whale Probe, and maybe the Doomsday Machine, but that's really stretching it. I think the Dyson Sphere is the only one in the whole TNG era!)

The episode certainly didn't deserve to be in the "five best episodes" countdown that aired before the Series finale, not ahead of masterpieces like "The Wounded," "Family," and "Darmok." (IIRC, it was fifth; the other four were "Yesterday's Enterprise," "The Inner Light," and "Best of Both Worlds" parts 1 and 2. Two out of five is... better than I'd expect from this fandom, honestly?)

The Dyson Sphere is a major part of the endgame plot of Star Trek Online. It turns out to be part of a reliable means of going back and forth between Romulan space and the Delta Quadrant, and thus serves as the base of operations for the entire Delta Alliance arc. Sadly, you don't get to fly around in it much, but you do get to do a bit of exploring in another, similar Dyson Sphere, and they do an EXCELLENT job of conveying its scale. It seriously screws with your perspective--often your ship feels like it's standing still when it's actually moving at full impulse, because the place is just THAT HUGE.

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Froborr 1 year, 9 months ago

As for picking up and leaving, well... I would miss this blog a great deal. On the other hand, I understand how you feel; my mounting contempt and distaste for the bronies is one reason I stopped My Little Po-Mo with season 4. If writing this blog is hurting you, there's nothing wrong with taking a break or quitting outright. What you've done already is monumental, and there is value to be found even in unfinished work.

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K. Jones 1 year, 9 months ago

My initial, gut-reaction would also be to say that the Dyson Sphere is a wild concept deserving of its in-depth storyline (you do an ancient Dyson Sphere, you've GOT to introduce us to some civilization living on the inside). The Sphere on top of the Scotty episode means whatever this episode does, it's pulling double duty on concepts better left separate so they can breathe and be explored in their own right, rather than as two parts of an inferior whole.

But there's something to it that I really like that has everything to do with Scotty's relationship to the sphere. And that's a little dash of space magic. From the outset, before "let's do: agism" kicks in, they encounter a legendary object - something Impossible, and what's more, a "legendary figure" from an older odyssey, who has survived by doing something Impossible.

The episode starts with awe, not reverence. It certainly devolves into reverence by the time they work through the tropes and get to the recreation.

There's other oddities. We have Scott being a man out of time, left behind, mere weeks after his actual last hurrah where he got to have the "last action hero moment" of the entire original series run. A second last hurrah. An inferior last hurrah. (We used to talk about when it came to Original Series odd-pairings, and one of the reasons Undiscovered Country feels good is because it splits into the Kirk/McCoy pairing ... which allows us to get some Spock/Scotty (and Spock/Chekov)).

But I want to digress for my last bit, because Scotty is essentially my favorite TOS crewmember and Doohan is wonderful. I think this episode obviously skews toward being another "from the guest's point-of-view" example, where perhaps the ostracism they're depicting is meant to heighten or exaggerate Scotty's anxieties and force us to sympathize more with him. And any episode that can make us think LeVar Burton's Geordi is being a bit harsh must be working incredibly hard to do so.

It could have been Picard-centric, as we can always use a reinforcement that Picard's placement is transitional, and that men of his generation find themselves at a point where they are choosing to be the latter day incarnations of the previous generation, or the ever-evolving forebears and mentors and students of the Next Generation. It could be reaffirming for him to learn that even a stalwart of the Old Generation like Scott, out of time, is willing to dive into progress and learn from the younger people.

Anyway, seems obvious in hindsight, but my retroactive self really wishes the "Scotty Episode" had O'Brien and Barclay in it. Particularly after Realm of Fear. It should've been a big old Engineering jamboree. Especially O'Brien, because he proves to be far more of a spiritual successor to Scotty.

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Josh Marsfelder 1 year, 9 months ago

Incidentally, the team said what they thought was most interesting about "Relics" from a story perspective is that you couldn't pick two characters who were *less* alike then Scotty and Geordi despite both being engineers: They felt Scotty was an engineer at heart and Geordi was just moving up through the ranks.

I obviously don't agree with this, but it's worth bringing up because, as you said. Miles O'Brien is a lot more similar to Scotty. Which is probably the precise reason he's *not* in this episode, because then there wouldn't be enough precious "conflict".

Although also probably because Colm Meany was busy filming "Emissary".

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Kevin Carson 1 year, 9 months ago

I've got to read Stapledon. That quote is amazing!

Sorry to see your Twitter is gone.

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Josh Marsfelder 1 year, 9 months ago

...Is it? That's news to me...

I discovered Star Maker researching the Dyson Spheres for this post-Turns out this book is where Dyson himself claimed to have gotten the idea. It's been cited as possibly the greatest science fiction novel of all time by a lot of big name sci-fi writers, and it's not undeserved.

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K. Jones 1 year, 8 months ago

I couldn't help noticing on my "more episodes" listing that Chain of Command is getting pretty imminent.

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Daru 1 year, 8 months ago

Wonderful post Josh. I know how it feels to be a a relic in terms of the kinds of media products I love and the ways I love them. I was a *huge* lover of Doctor Who, until in the 80's the 6th Doctor basically said 'hello' to his companion by trying to strangle them. I gave up after that. I never came back to the show until is was re-launched in 2005, I never read any of the Wilderness Years books or connected with any Who apart from the TV Movie which did little for me when aired. Really the show had died for me, and I never have really felt a part of the group of people who say that they never gave up. Well I did and I was so glad that the show changed and moved forwards.

The ridiculous thing is that there there are so many out there who seek to identify themselves as Gatekeepers, to bar people like ourselves from the self-identification of 'fan'. I don't know what kind of control they seek, but the results of their actions is joylessness.

And joy, *that* is the most important thing in terms of the media, art, music, toys, whatever it is that we love. The ability to share inspiration is so important, and for me that is what you share here.

So fuck them and leave them alone in their joyless, dark closed sphere.

This episode I love deeply, not because of Scotty - though I do love Doohan, as my father continuously shared TOS and the movies with me - but it's the Dyson Sphere that is the huge star and reason for the story for me, so much that they could easily have jettisoned Scotty in my head. I adore such visions and objects so much that I obsessively read about Dyson Spheres and such things in my teens and twenties.

So for me this episode is a thing of beauty for the Sphere and the magic of such inspiration held in that cosmic circle.

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Daru 1 year, 8 months ago

Yes, brilliant quote from Stapleton! I want to read that too.

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