“Gods and ungods”: Booby Trap


If Star Trek: The Next Generation's new mission is to explore utopian themes through the interiority of its characters, than it's reasonable to expect one of the first things it would do with this new mandate is to try and clearly reaffirm and rearticulate who those characters and what their accompanying positionalities actually are.

“Booby Trap” then is a good example of Michael Piller's philosophy is it pertains to the show going forward and is very indicative of the sorts of things that are going to define Star Trek: The Next Generation in general and the third season in particular. Although kickstarted under Michael Wagner's tenure, it's a script that Piller and his team comprehensively rewrote and it passed through an impressive number of hands before making it to screen which is going to be kind of the norm from here out. But because of this, it gives us a fairly clear look at the creative differences between the two third season teams: Wagner's version of the story would have had Captain Picard be the one involved with the holographic woman, perhaps because in the Original Series it was always the leading man captain who would get the girl of the week. But the very first thing Micheal Piller did upon getting this script was nixing that idea outright, figuring that it should be Geordi instead and the real story should be about him. As Piller himself put it
"It just said to me, 'Picard should be on the bridge, not chatting with some woman.' I said to myself, 'It should be Geordi, because Geordi is in love with the ship and this is a story about a guy in love with his '57 Chevy.' That played into Geordi's character, who's always been a fumbling guy around women, but if he could just marry his car, he'd live happily ever after. He gets to create the personification of the woman who created the engine he loves. It's sort of a relationship between he and his Pontiac."
This is interesting, and I'm going to extrapolate a bit from Piller's explanation if for no other reason than “Booby Trap” has been the butt of a seemingly unending stream of unfunny mechanophile jokes because of this reading, not to mention the fact that the behaviour that tends to get projected onto Geordi here hedges uncomfortably close to that of a certain kind of broken male genre fiction fan that's frankly unbecoming of any member of the Enterprise crew, especially him (indeed, Star Trek: The Next Generation will tackle the issue head-on in a story at the other end of the season). Also, one wonders if by the time of that interview Piller hadn't gotten the chronology of his episodes confused, as it had never previously been established that Geordi was unlucky in love. Sure, the only person he'd ever been shown to be interested in before was Tasha Yar during his non-starter romance with her in the first season (which this team certainly knew about, as they give it a touching nod in “Yesterday's Enterprise”), but that didn't mean Geordi was awkward around women in general.

But more to the point, the character Geordi interacts with in this episode is quite explicitly *not* Doctor Leah Brahms, nor even an idealized fantasy version of her. Piller himself almost hits on what's really going on in the quote above: Leah here is nothing less then the guardian spirit of the Enterprise herself given form. This is quite strongly hinted at several times throughout the story, from the fact she gives a face to the ship's computer (and in fact a key part of the climax hinges on Geordi remembering that Leah is “not human”) to Leah's constant declaration that she *is* the Enterprise that's conveyed through the metaphor of the real Doctor Brahms' assertion that designers put so much of their heart and soul into their creations. Leah may not be Doctor Brahms (she's no more her than Moriarty in “Elementary, Dear Data” was “that evil character”) and she many not even be human, but she is most definitely real, alive and sentient: Don't forget that by this point in the show we already know the holodeck can summon conscious entities if you ask it to and we haven't gone backwards to the point where the rights and sapience of holographic lifeforms are being called into question (if nothing else, “The Measure of a Man” has already set a strong precedent and no-one's felt the need to re-examine that).

Geordi called upon the spirit of the Enterprise for help and guidance in a time of need, and she answered.

“Booby Trap” then is one of the earliest examples of a reoccurring theme on Star Trek: The Next Generation wherein the Enterprise itself is implicitly coded as a living, thinking thing. Normally anthropomorphism is bad, but throughout history there are plenty of examples of cultures who have recognised the spiritual energy of places and different living things and have given them humanlike characteristics. This is, after all, the core of animism: The idea that all things have a spiritual component and are interconnected in some way, and furthermore that shamans can sometimes call upon those spirits for aid and guidance. They recognised and respected the spirits and the land and knew it was alive, and so it is with the Enterprise. And if we stop and think about it, this isn't actually that much of an intellectual leap given that even Gene Roddenberry always maintained the Enterprise should be seen as a character in her own right. Well, in this episode, we finally get to meet her and talk to her. And naturally it would be Geordi, the show's heart and soul, who performs the evocation ritual and gets to kindle a romance with her, pushing this story comfortably into the territory of any number of mythological cycles involving mortal heroes joining with gods, demigods and spirits of place, particularly in the Gaelic tradition.

How lucky we are that our reclaimed faery queen is, as she says, with us every day because we can travel with her and her Otherworld court anywhere in the galaxy.

Given how fascinating this part of the story is, it's easy to overlook the rest of the production this week, which would be a shame because it's all terrific. “Booby Trap” is a fantastic ensemble show, and feels like one of the first times the natural camaraderie of the cast started to gel with the honed and refined structural elegance and symmetry Michael Piller and his team have brought to the series. Furthermore, it's a great example of Star Trek: The Next Generation's mature approach to science fiction: Not only do the “human stories” and the “sci-fi” stories all compliment each other flawlessly, there are a lot of really memorable moments sprinkled throughout that add to the richness of the show's world. There's Guinan's speech about bald men, this time in its original context dating to a time where adding more mystery and wonder to the show, rather than explaining it away, was the order of the day. The “ships in bottles” subplot, apart from serving up some of the best believably, endearingly low-stakes small talk we've seen on the show yet, gives the rest of the cast ample opportunities to remain stimulated and engaged while the important stuff with Geordi and Leah is going on.

Speaking of, this is also allows the show to demonstrate how compelling storytelling can be done in a science fiction setting without getting bogged down in irrelevant world-building minutiae: As “technobabbley” as you could argue “Booby Trap” is, it's still manifestly just window dressing: You don't really know *what* Geordi and Leah are talking about, but you don't need to because you can pick up on the severity of the situation by paying attention to the urgency in the way they act and speak. It's not important *why* we might have to turn the ship over to the computer, only that this is something that we might be forced to do. In this regard, and entirely in spite of its reputation both inside and outside Trekker circles, Star Trek: The Next Generation actually *pushes back* against the genre of classical hard SF and all its accompanying technofetishism: The tech stuff doesn't simply exist for the sake of existing, it's there to prop up the human story and provide colour to the world the show is trying to sketch out for us.

(Indeed, as much as this episode would seem to end on an almost TOS-style “machines will never replace humans” tirade, in truth, the problem is only resolved by the human Geordi and digital computer-spirit Leah *working together*. It's in fact *their union* that saves the day, reminding us both of how, in moderation, technology can help us to visualize the singularity while still retaining our connection to the rest of the universe as well as the situated cyborg affinity that by definition shapes our lives living in the spectre of modernity.)

“Booby Trap” is an episode I'm very familiar with, it being one of third season episodes I caught the most frequently, but I was concerned upon this rewatch that I might have a hard time articulating an unproblematic reading of it. Thankfully, I was wrong: It's even better than I remember and without question a high water mark for the year, right up there with “The Bonding”. There are story arcs and ideas this episode puts into place that *will* prove to be more problematic than not, but those are later problems to be dealt with down the road that don't actually have any bearing on the original work itself. No matter what subsequent stories might do with its concepts, “Booby Trap” itself stands alone, self-evidently another formidable proof of concept that Star Trek: The Next Generation should work, does work, and remains a very special sort of television.


K. Jones 5 years, 11 months ago

I was dreading a reading of Booby Trap because in my head it's not good, but I realize reading this that it's only retroactively not good because it has a direct sequel where we meet the actual real Leah Brahms that just kicks Geordi in the pants and makes him look like a fool.

It's hard then to think of one without the other. Yeah, apart from the sad realization that the ramifications of them being able to literally create photonic life are never really taken to a sci-fi, narrative or just plain philosophical conclusion, this episode is lovely. It could just as easily be a story set on an old galleon or viking longboat. The asteroid field could just as easily be the Hebrides or the islands of the Mediterranean.

Everything about the actor's reactions to the discovery of the Promelian battlecruiser sells the world-building, but it's not painstakingly gratuitously mapped out world-building. It's the Romance of history we see in action, blinding us to the dangers of the present. And that's just the entirety of the B-Cast!

There's so much to like. Wesley doesn't suck outright. Picard and Worf as historians, even coming at it from different angles of interest, are like little kids seeing their first museum - their friendship is blooming a bit now. Riker and O'Brien get a bit of back-and-forth in, continuing that strong trend from Season 2. The fact it's an ancient ship gives a sense of the scale of the cosmos and takes us out of politicking and into our place in the scheme of greater forces.

And then there's Geordi and Enterprise, pulling the whole "Doctor and his TARDIS" routine. Yes, it's proper fairy stories here.

If I had one criticism it might be a lack of a female point-of-view in this episode. This one feels like it's about the boys, and their toys (and a little bit of objectification - in one case with a literal object), and what we see of the women is them reacting to that, whether it be novel or disconcerting or a gentle nudge or whatever else. But those are very poignant emotions and experiences to highlight. There's not a single character in this episode's main narrative that I can't identify with. We've all got our hobbies, our passions and our imaginations and our escapism to retreat into when we strike out with the opposite sex.

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Adam Riggio 5 years, 11 months ago

It anticipates what we'll probably end up discussing in the episode where we meet the real Dr. Brahms, but I think about that story as Geordi himself misunderstanding what precisely happened to him in the holodeck. What's actually happening to Geordi in Booby Trap is that he and the starship Enterprise are literally falling in love. It's the old Star Trek stereotype of the Chief Engineer who only has eyes for his ship taken to a context where the ship itself can create an avatar that appears human.

Geordi's problem is that most people in the world of the Federation don't actually understand the mystical nature of the holodeck and the power of holographic life forms. This is one of the most interesting elements of Voyager's take on Star Trek. So he's mistaken the Enterprise's avatar, where the ship expresses itself through the image of Leah Brahms, for Brahms herself. This state of mind is creepy and unsettling, and the real Brahms calls him out on it.

TNG scripts, especially in this early phase of Star Trek's television renaissance, made the holodeck a space that created photonic life forms, where the intelligence and personality of the ship expressed itself. But the characters of Star Trek themselves didn't understand this at all.

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Froborr 5 years, 11 months ago

"You don't really know *what* Geordi and Leah are talking about, but you don't need to because you can pick up on the severity of the situation by paying attention to the urgency in the way they act and speak"

Yet another way in which The West Wing and TNG are basically the same show.

Have I mentioned my... well, for lack of a better term, headcanon I guess... that the holodeck is based as much on the Genesis Device as it is on holography, creating temporary matter in a sustaining matrix for the nearby objects and using holography for more distant things, and that it was created as a result of Carol Marcus dedicating her life to finding a way to turn her son's "mistake" (his use of protomatter created an unstable Genesis usable only as a weapon) into something positive that would bring joy?

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Jacob Nanfito 5 years, 11 months ago

This episode has a great atmosphere of the wonder and mystery about it, especially in the first half. I love the shot of Data and Wesley playing their game in ten-forward against the backdrop of the asteroid field. It's really beautiful.

The ship-in-the-bottle element of the story as really appealed to me, as someone who was drawn to the show at a young age, in large part because of the amazing ships and imagining adventuring aboard them, much as Picard described. I am definitely one of those who plays with ships in bottles. :)

In fact, as I watched this today, my son got really excited about the alien ship, and asked to play with my Playmates Enterprise D. He also brought out my Star Trek Micro Machines ships to examine, admire, and adventure with. It was really funny to hear Picard talk about the joy of playing with ships while my son was actively doing it -- just as I did when I was a kid. That surface "this is SO cool!" element of Star Trek's ships is a big part of its enduring appeal, IMO.

Maybe when he's older, my son will enjoy pouring over the Okuda books with the ships' design specs and layout -- I spent hours doing that as a lonely, awkward young nerd. I can relate to Geordi's pain.

Lastly, the scene where Picard walks in on Geordi in the holodeck is hilarious -- the look on Picard's face is most excellent. Stewart really sells it.

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Josh Marsfelder 5 years, 11 months ago

Well, they even say in "Encounter at Farpoint" that the Holodeck works not unlike the transporter, temporarily transmuting energy patterns into matter. Sounds reasonable to me!

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Josh Marsfelder 5 years, 11 months ago

This story makes me so happy. I have similar memories of the appeal of the starship designs and the different starship toys and it heartens me to hear real-life next generations are still able to experience the same thing.

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Froborr 5 years, 11 months ago

We didn't have a lot of money when I was a kid, and toy spaceships tended to be REALLY expensive. Most of my toy spaceships were variously sized soda bottles, carefully washed out and preserved from parental attempts to toss them in the recycling bin.

The only ACTUAL toy spaceships I had were those Micro Machines, and they were MUCH beloved. It's really quite lovely to imagine the, well, next generation playing with them too.

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Dustin 5 years, 11 months ago

I'd like this episode a lot less if the real Dr. Brahms hadn't shown up and reprimanded Geordi on his incredibly creepy creation of a romantically pliant fake Brahms. I'd see this episode as one more example of the embarrassing trope in which the lonely sexless nerd would rather create his perfect fantasy of a woman than deal with the emotional complexity of an actual human being with interests and desire that may diverge from his own. Geordi was a creep in this episode, and I'm happy the show callled him on it. But aside from that cringe-worthy "When you're touching the Enterprise, you're touching me" bit, I really like this episode, and I share everyone's joy at how the episode conveys these characters' wonder at the universe they live in, and its sense of a history deeper than just the story of the Federation. It's one of the first episodes I remember.

Speaking of toys, Josh, when will you get to talking about the Playmates line? I'll have a lot to say when that comes up.

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Jacob Nanfito 5 years, 11 months ago

Well, it helps that the toys are really beautiful. I feel like we're blessed as Star Trek fans to have such cools toys out there. You really get the sense that they were made with love for the show. Next to CO's Doctor Who stuff, the Playmates line has to be the best line of action figures ever produced.

And the Micro Machines -- they're wonderfully detailed and just really cool. You can't help but have your imagination captured by them.

For anyone out there interested in checking out this stuff out, or maybe re-collecting them, I have a pretty big collection of Mego, Galoob, and Playmates ships and figures, all of which I've collected only in the last 5 years or so (my mom threw out all my childhood stuff). I find them on ebay, at thrift and antique, and at most comics and collectable toy shops. At least in the US, they are plentiful and, as far as vintage action figures go, relatively inexpensive.

Plus, they're nice enough to go up on shelves, but hardy enough for my 3 year old and 7 year old to play with. You can't say that about many genre toy lines.

Ok, there's my unpaid endorsement. :) Thanks for the responses to my comment.

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Josh Marsfelder 5 years, 11 months ago

Definitely want to second everything above: I'll talk about the Playmates line myself when we get to it as part of the show's chronology (look for the TNG toys somewhere around the fifth season and the DS9 ones a year later), but for now I just want to heartily endorse everything Jacob has been saying.

I still collect the Playmates stuff too: They've really got to be the greatest line of action figures ever because they are so detailed, so imaginative and you can *still* find most of them for under $10 pretty much anywhere you look. That hits just about everything a toy needs to hit to be a success in my book.

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Daru 5 years, 11 months ago

"mortal heroes joining with gods, demigods and spirits of place, particularly in the Gaelic tradition"

This is one of my favourite episodes, in fact part of a string of stories that I think really kindled my fascination with animism, leading then to mythology and storytelling. For the act of having the show create an avatar for the ship with whom we can dialogue and share, new layers of mythology are added to the whole show. I have always found myself deeply inspired by the stories that implied the living magic t the heart of the ship.

In many ways the holodeck reminds me of the ancient Faerie mounds inhabited by the Sidhe, the Faerie Queen and all her denizens, as time works differently there, the place acts as a doorway to new consciousness and Otherworlds exist.

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