“Off the Verandah”: Who Watches The Watchers


Oh look. Vasquez Rocks.
There should be an entire genre of Star Trek story called “Star Trek Does Not Understand How Anthropology Works.”

So the obvious problem with “Who Watches The Watchers” firstoff is that it's a Prime Directive story, which means it sucks. It also has a kidnapping subplot, which means it sucks even more and I also hate it for that. But what really arouses my ire is that for the first time Star Trek explicitly connects the Prime Directive with anthropological fieldwork which...no. No, no, no, no. You know that one person who's so specialized in a certain field they get irrationally upset when bits of pop culture misrepresent that field through innocent ignorance? Yeah, I'm pretty much that person when it comes to anthropological methods. I'm sure everyone has their own justifications for getting incensed over stuff like this: Because we've dedicated a lot of our lives to working with and studying it, we think things like particle physics or paleontology or thermodynamics or ballistics or whatever is The Most Important Thing In The World and that when TV shows get it wrong it will surely send society onto a path of utter ruination.

But here's the thing. Pop culture is a shared language and is the first exposure roughly 99% of everyone is going to have with certain concepts, fields and ideas, and getting them wrong can in specific cases be actually misleading to the point of being irresponsible. And Star Trek has been as guilty on this front as anything else, being at times egregiously sketchy on things like history, legal jurisprudence, developmental biology and yes, cultural anthropology. There's a certain political and social responsibility associated with these things that you can't just cast aside and ignore in favour of squeezing more melodrama out of your script, especially if it's particularly shitty melodrama. And call me biased all you want, I am casting cultural anthropology in that group because cultural anthropology is fundamentally about how people communicate with and understand each other. If you don't know how to do that, or teach people how to do it poorly, you are provably being a toxic and counterproductive force in the world.

Cultural anthropology is first and foremost a framework for empathy. It's an academic structure that facilitates talking to people and getting to know them and the way they think better. There's a reason one of the field's most sacred tenets is called “participant observation”: Anthropologists think the best way to learn about people is to live with them, talk to them and do what they do. There is a necessary sharing and exchange of of positionalities that happens when we do this, and both the insider and outsider perspectives are equally valued. This is how thinking and living anthropologically can help make the world a better place, because when positionalities meet people are exposed to truths and ideas they might not have been otherwise. So, in the case of, for example, international development, it's generally accepted by anthropologists that the people who know what's best for improving the quality of life of local populations are the people who themselves live in them, the insiders in the situation. But outside contacts like anthropologists can serve as necessary and useful middlemen who can relay those needs beyond the immediate local era while also mode-shifting between the situated knowledge-spaces of indigenous knowledge and global Western discourse because they themselves have become of two worlds (this is, of course, provided people are willing to listen to them in the first place).

In “Who Watches The Watchers” though, we have Federation anthropologists staked out in a big fuck-off holodeck duck blind spying on the Mintakans from afar, much as a classical Great White Colonial Explorer might do, or indeed a sport hunter going after his next trophy mark. This is almost the first thing they teach you not to do in your Intro to Cultural Anthropology 101 class, as the entire field of modern cultural anthropology was formed in direct opposition to this very way of thinking and doing fieldwork. Bronislaw Malinowski, the founder of our field, railed against this in the *1920s*, calling it “anthropology from the veranda”, in reference to pampered white aristocrats who would build elabourate mansions on hills overlooking native populations whom they would watch with binoculars, because not only is it obviously patronizing and racist as fuck, you also miss absolutely all of the goings-on in the day-to-day life of the people you're supposed to be getting to know, which is always the most important part of the story.

From there, the episode dovetails into a standard-issue Prime Directive faffabout, which is anthropologically stupid for its own reasons. I've already talked this up a great deal in the Original Series book and I'm not going to repeat myself every time Star Trek does, but the basic problem I have with the Prime Directive is that it is an entirely unnatural way of thinking. Simply by interacting with other people, you're “interfering in their development” to some extent because your mere presence means their lives are not playing out the way they would if you hadn't been there. Anthropologists have had to deal with this for decades, because we know it's impossible to get a truly “objective” or “unbiased” account of the daily lives of our contacts because we've had the gall to go and crash-land *right into* their daily routine, and anyone's life is going to be disrupted somewhat if you have a stranger in khakis trying to interview you and ask you silly questions. But that's life, and the only way to avoid that is to shut yourself off from everybody and shun human contact for the rest of your material existence.

The one good thing is that this time it's the Federation at large screwing up with the Enterprise crew forced into the position of doing damage control, which is a twist on this hackneyed trope that we haven't seen before and does play nicely into the strides Star Trek: The Next Generation has been making at separating the Enterprise and her crew from the institution they're supposedly subordinate to. However, the episode then handily decides to rub salt in my wounds by having the loveable sci-fi primitives go and kidnap the ship's *female* *anthropologist* to sacrifice her to their Cargo Cult of Captain Picard, because that's what all wacky savages are wont to do in fiction. Incidentally, Ira Steven Behr, who's about to join the writing staff, says that this was a good episode but that it was let down because Captain Picard didn't stay around for the next half a decade to face the consequences of his decisions. He also says the fact that the Enterprise always leaves is Star Trek: The Next Generation's fatal flaw, which is a statement that's rather unfortunately telling about the blossoming cultural norms of this creative climate.

As unfathomably offensive as this all is, it's tempting to lay the blame on the outgoing Michael Wagner, whose brief and unhappy tenure with Star Trek: The Next Generation comes to an end here. If “The Survivors” tried to recreate the virtues of the Original Series and was at least watchable, “Who Watches The Watchers” can't help but drag up its vices. And it's, well, not. But with Wagner gone and Michael Piller finally stepping up to bat, won't that usher in a brand new Golden Age for the show? Some might say that. But it's truthfully not a simple as we might like to wish it was-Yes, Michael Piller finally takes the big chair after this, but his mere presence does not magically make everything better or mean the day-to-day operations of the show are going to be any less insane for the next year or so: Piller isn't going to be able to prevent “Yesterday's Enterprise” going through the rewrite process on Christmas Eve or the season ending on a cliffhanger due to contract renegotiations running long.

What Piller taking over will mean most immediately is a specific policy change that will streamline the process of getting scripts. What this will *not* guarantee, however, is a net increase in the quality of those scripts-The problem, perhaps appropriately, remains with people who don't understand Star Trek: The Next Generation. People who can't grasp the strengths that come with its unique stature amongst primetime television drama, or perhaps more to the point the people who think those strengths are actually the weaknesses it can't help but inherit from its ancient and creaking pedigree. It's a stereotype that Star Trek and Star Trek fans both have a dangerous predilection towards insularity and navel-gazing, but, like a lot of such things, it doesn't come without historical precedent. There is an inkling to become so absorbed in the bubbles of our individual positionalities that we neglect the universe outside of them. Perhaps we should let “Who Watches The Watchers” stand as a cautionary tale about what happens when we let those impulses consume and define us.


Adam Riggio 6 years ago

I always quite enjoyed this story, though I never had the direct and meaningful engagement with how actual anthropology works that would spark my ire. But consider this.

Every Prime Directive story (that's good) is simultaneously a critique of the principle. It's a hard and fast rule that, like all such unyielding principles, generates hard cases in its application. This episode presents a vision of how having to obey the Prime Directive would destroy all the progressive processes and techniques that were developed in anthropology.

The unyielding principle of the Prime Directive is that there must be no interaction with cultures that haven't yet developed faster-than-light travel or communications technology. So anthropologists are forced into methods that prevent respectful interaction with the societies under study. As a result, those techniques are forgotten, and we end up with the contemptible anthropologists whose response to the crisis is openly trying to convince Picard to pretend to be their god and explicitly deliver them moral rules based on the Federation's mainstream principles.

Picard ends up as the voice of Malinowski in this scenario. The Prime Directive has separated technologically advanced cultures from those that are less so. Once such a divide sets in, the condescension can bleed from there into other contexts, as in the initial attitudes of the crew and their frankly dumb-as-rocks plan to trick the Mintakans into changing their beliefs. When the crew treats the Mintakans as if they're stupid, they respond stupidly, kidnapping Troi and playing into all the stereotypes of primitivism and savagery that condescending attitudes hold to low-tech cultures.

Picard's response is to treat the Mintakans as moral and intellectual equals, talking through the problem with the community's leader and defusing the conflict on the ground through his own direct intervention. And he instead leaves a legacy that doesn't dictate to them from a superior position, but the inspiration of a fellow traveller. They now have something they can look forward to as a culture, and the confidence that they can take their own path into the stars.

The Enterprise has overcome the constraints of the Prime Directive by treating the less advanced as equals.

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Josh Marsfelder 6 years ago

That's a terrific redemptive reading and certainly fits with the general themes I'm working with here. My big concern though would be the way Star Trek most typically ends up trying to explain the Prime Directive.

My opposition to the Prime Directive springs from my anthropology training, but I think Gene Roddenberry had development in mind when he created it (which is one of the reasons I keep tending to bring that up) and I think this is also the way most of the subsequent creative teams have thought about it.

Way back in "The Apple" (or maybe it was "Return of the Archons", I can't remember offhand) I pointed out that the reason someone might want to prohibit interfering with other cultures (ignoring for the moment the somewhat loaded lexicon of "more developed" and "less developed) would be to prevent things like Modernization Theory: A sweeping, cack-handed set of vague policies and initiatives based on making nonmodern, nowestern cultures as modern and western as quickly as possible.

Now, Roddenberry was somewhat hypocritical IRT his attitudes about this: When pressed, he'd say the Prime Directive is a Very Good Thing and a sterling example of the Federation's utopia. But in a lot of his stories he winds up criticizing it, usually with the basic plot that "this time" intervention is a necessary evil to straighten out a bad situation.

In other words, *these* primitives are so backwards they *desperately need* the help of our Modernization Theory regardless of what the suits tell us.

In my opinion, the vast majority of Prime Directive stories in Star Trek fall into one of these two camps (sometimes, confusingly, both). As a narrative device, it's so FUBAR that even the *criticisms* of it become ludicrously problematic. To me, it's one of those things that sounds really nice and rosy on paper, but turns out to be a complete clusterfuck in practice. Much like International Development theory, actually.

I'm also hesitant about any attempts to paint one or more Enterprise crewmembers as in the wrong or splitting them off from the rest of their peers. Especially not when the one who gets lionized is the charismatic leading man. In my view, each member of the crew should be equally utopian and idealistic, just in a diverse set of ways that are natural outcroppings of their positionalities and situated knowledge-spaces. And if nothing else, not doing that here winds up saddling this episode with that "Iditot Plot" the writers of "Tin Man" get so wound up about.

Though I will say, based on that last paragraph or so, I'd love to see you rebut Ira Steven Behr.

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Josh Marsfelder 6 years ago

"In other words, *these* primitives are so backwards they *desperately need* the help of our Modernization Theory regardless of what the suits tell us."

Or, put differently, it's wrong to forcibly impose our beliefs on others unless we really, really have to for their own good.

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Ross 6 years ago

Now, Roddenberry was somewhat hypocritical IRT his attitudes about this: When pressed, he'd say the Prime Directive is a Very Good Thing and a sterling example of the Federation's utopia. But in a lot of his stories he winds up criticizing it, usually with the basic plot that "this time" intervention is a necessary evil to straighten out a bad situation.

Not really all that different to how Isaac Asimov proposed three simple rules that could safely govern robot behavior, then made a career out of writing stories about loopholes and edge cases that made those rules fail to safely govern robot behavior.

It seems to me like the prime directive stories follow the pattern of some other things that come up later in the canon that boils down to "There are certain cultural bugaboos that sends humanity (usually humans in particular, but possible the federation at large) off the deep end causing them to set up profoundly stupid rules that forbid behaving sensibly." And these tend to center around anything that tacks anywhere in the general neighborhood of "playing god" (Only, according to a very specific and limited notion of what playing god entails, since "Let's genetically engineer a super-race" counts but "Let's kick the laws of physics in the balls" doesn't)

I have an easier time accepting prime directive stories framed behind that "No, it's really not a good policy. It's a stupid policy we enacted because we've got this major cultural bugaboo about it and don't trust ourselves to behave reasonably"

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Josh Marsfelder 6 years ago

Well, that's certainly fair. And I mean full disclosure I happen to adore the episode actually *called* "Playing God" at least partially (IIRC) for a lot of those reasons, so I can certainly get behind that line of defense.

I mean if it were me I wouldn't have even written the Prime Directive into Star Trek in the first place. But I'm not writing Star Trek and that's a perfectly solid reading I'm happy to throw support behind.

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Adam Riggio 6 years ago

I could see the Prime Directive as being primarily motivated by the experience of the Cargo Cults. The Vulcans (and later the Federation as a whole) wouldn't want to end up disrupting a culture that doesn't know how to conceive of advanced technology and alien worlds. The religious beliefs around "The Picard" turned Jean-Luc himself into the deity of a Cargo Cult, a technologically advanced foreign entity perceived as a divine figure.

I suppose that's my rebuttal to Behr's position that Picard should have stayed on Mintaka to comprehensively repair everything that had gone wrong (though I haven't yet found the text of what he precisely said, so I may be hitting wide of the mark). Picard would still be acting from the position of a cultural superior dictating terms to his inferiors so they can be good and proper little pre-warp civilizations.

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Adam Riggio 6 years ago

This is a pretty interesting critical essay on the episode too.


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Ross 6 years ago

@Adam: Personally, I like to believe that the Prime Directive is the way it is because, after Archer declared that evolution "wanted" one race to die out in favor of another, they decided that captains were too damn stupid to be trusted.

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Adam Riggio 6 years ago

A civilization like ours that has relatively advanced planetary technology and a strong tradition of sci-fi media/literature could probably handle contact with actual extra-terrestrials, but it would still be a tough judgment call requiring a lot of detailed study of our cultures, ethics, and human personality tendencies to know whether contact would more likely benefit humanity and the visitors than put us both at risk.

It may just be safer for the ETs to step off until we develop faster-than-light travel tech and they have to deal with us whether or not they want to.

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Adam Riggio 6 years ago

Ross, having not actually seen very much of Enterprise, I didn't know that was how one of the episodes went down. Holy crap.

Well, any law usually has more than one reason why it's there.

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Ross 6 years ago

He even says "Maybe someday Starfleet will have some kind of rule, a 'directive' if you will, that will give us clear guidance on how to deal with this sort of thing."

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Adam Riggio 6 years ago

Oh, for fuck's sake. This is why I stopped watching Enterprise.

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K. Jones 6 years ago

From a writerly standpoint the prime directive always interested me because of Murphy's Law. You don't introduce a rule like that unless you intend to break it, because that's melodrama. The conflict has to happen. Nobody wants to watch an episode where the Federation anthropologists safely watch this weird culture from afar and never the two shall meet. So it's an inherently flawed concept in general to ever get caught up in the philosophical or "rules are rules" aspects of a Prime Directive story.

If Murphy's Law states that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong (eventually), Murphy's Law of Storytelling should be "anything that can go wrong, will go wrongest in the course of an hour."

I skip this episode a lot.

The one thing that is memorable for me though is the idea of Vulcanoids. In a universe where we accept that you can go to faraway planets and find cultures that are built from the same or incredibly similar building blocks as Terrans, and we call them Humanoids ... OF COURSE there must be Vulcanoids! And of course they must be somewhat rarer than Humanoids! With copper-based blood due to the rare occasion when an Earth-like world has more copper than iron (iron of course being the most common elemental residue). With slightly more electrical conductivity leading to slightly more ordered brain patterns and far more aptitude for tactile psychic linkage!

They didn't all have to have the same stupid haircuts, though!

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Adam Riggio 5 years, 12 months ago

Another idea occurred to me about possible ideologies underpinning the Prime Directive. During his conversation with the head anthropologist, when Picard reacts with revulsion to the suggestion that he become a literal god to the Mintakan community, the anthropologist suggests that because the Prime Directive had already been broken, the floodgates for interference were open.

It's as if entering interstellar communities and relations cost a culture some primordial purity. I came across this frequently in some of my research on environmentalist philosophy that all too often romanticized indigenous peoples as existing in some mystical communion with nature. It was the eco-imbecile's version of the Eden myth that was often used to dehumanize indigenous cultures.

A similar thing seems to be happening here with at least one (of the many) justifications of the Prime Directive. Pre-warp cultures are depicted as living in a state of purity, and the Prime Directive is a rule against cultural contamination. We can only engage with a planet's people when they cross the technological divide on their own (when they contaminate themselves).

Just another depressing way in which the Prime Directive has, in the world of Star Trek, destroyed all that was great about the human discipline of anthropology.

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Ross 5 years, 12 months ago

I get the feeling that the idea behind the prime directive, ill-conceived though it might be is less "We must not contaminate the purity of these cultures" and more "We don't trust ourselves to only intervene in 'good' ways and therefore will err on the side of doing nothing"

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