“The Collector”: The Most Toys

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"Well, shoot or be damned!"
I've been pretty negative on this show lately, so lest you think I go into these looking for things to complain about, here's another episode I never saw when it originally aired and never managed to catch on reruns. I had no preconceptions about how good or bad it was going to be, but I had read a lot about it and knew it got a lot of praise. So no prior baggage to jettison here, just a solid example of how Star Trek: The Next Generation worked when it was at is supposed creative and aesthetic peak.

And guess what? I still didn't like it!

My big problem with “The Most Toys”, as has been the case with most things this season, comes down to a philosophical disagreement on my part as to how Star Trek: The Next Generation should be approached (Yes, I rib Bailey, Bischoff and White, but only because I see where they're coming from and empathize. It's always healthy to be able to laugh at things you care about, doubly so if it's traits you see in yourself). I'll touch on that a bit later (I suppose I have to), but for the moment let's take a look at something I think will be of more interest to the readers of this blog: I have heard from more than one reader or critic in Doctor Who fandom about a prevailing theory that in this episode Kivas Fajo is meant as a stand-in for The Doctor. Considering Kivas Fajo is an evil psychopath with no regard for sentient life who literally kidnaps and imprisons living beings for his own amusement I find this highly interesting, as I generally thought Doctor Who was understood to be about sort of the opposite of those things.

The obvious explanation would be that, Doctor Who fans being Doctor Who fans and thus having some unfortunate complex in regards to Star Trek: The Next Generation that compels them to view it as the staunch enemy of everything they hold dear because they seem to have a pathological need to define themselves in opposition to something, are reading “The Most Toys” as some kind of malicious satire of Doctor Who's philosophical and ethical groundwork. Which...doesn't actually make sense if you watch the story itself. I mean, Fajo himself doesn't seem to me to bear even a passing resemblance to the good Doctor, apart from I guess the fact he has a quirky and offbeat manner of speech and has a female travelling companion. Over the course of the episode's runtime, I racked my brain trying to come up with some way this could be read as a parody of Doctor Who or some attempt to put Star Trek: The Next Generation's values (well, such as they are at this point in time and yes, I said it) in conflict with it and I honestly could not come up with any way to make even a shoddy simulacrum of an argument out of it.

The best I could come up with, and this is really stretching things here, is that the Doctor Who evocation comes when Kivas Fajo is calling Data out on his loyalty to Starfleet, saying his own way of life is preferable because he's bound to nobody, does not have an obligation to serve a militaristic power and can travel anywhere he wants doing anything he wants. And I suppose you could extrapolate from that the notion that Fajo's undoing at the end is Data showing him how irresponsible, childish and destructive his actions are, and that this is the show saying the forces of justice and order will always win out over evil criminals, because everyone who does not conform to Starfleet's ideals must be a dangerous criminal. That certainly fits the prevailing attitude in Doctor Who fandom about Star Trek, which is that it's a very reactionary, pro-hegemony intellectual framework that trends very strongly to the fascism side of the fascism versus anarchy spectrum. It's certainly an argument I myself have witnessed being articulated in debates I've personally been involved in.

But there are a ton of problems with this reading. I mean obviously I disagree with that assessment of Star Trek, which I think is pretty fucking insultingly crude and generalizes a whole sweeping myth structure that's been contributed to, and thus shaped, by people from every political and social background conceivable down to a few smug “gotcha” talking points that people who are already inclined to sneer and look down their noses at Star Trek are going to accept without a second thought anyway. I've always been of the belief, and still am, that while it's incredibly easy to point out the worrying undertones to the political structures of Strafleet and the Federation, this was never something Star Trek's various primary creative figures were ever unaware of or were unwilling to put under intense scrutiny. In fact, as I've written here a number of times before, I think the true heart of Star Trek lies in internalizing its own utopianism by showing how the Enterprise crew (or the crew of any other hero ship or station you care to name) are actually better than the universe they inhabit, showing how they embody the ideals their bosses can only deceive themselves into thinking they do as well.

But additionally I don't think this particular reading is even in “The Most Toys” to begin with. If it had been, I probably would have been more invested in this episode. Kivas Fajo is clearly evil and clearly not meant to be in any way sympathetic, but equally he's also quite clearly meant to be an instigator for Data: What this episode is actually about is testing the boundaries of what Data is capable of. Can he be pushed so far that his programming would allow him to kill somebody, even though he was specifically designed to not be capable of doing so? At it's heart it's a boring Asimov-style Three Laws of Robotics story, but updated to fit the interiority focus of Michael Piller-era Star Trek: The Next Generation. But it's also a story that fits very neatly into Ron Moore's spheres of interest as a creator, so much so that I was surprised to learn he didn't write it: Freelancer and then-intern Shari Goodhartz did. But, as with everything on this show, we can assume it was considerably worked over by the staff so bringing in Moore's positionality isn't off-base, especially as they both seem to be on the same wavelength.

Back when we looked at the Original Series episode “The Conscience of the King”, I mentioned that Moore cites it as his favourite Star Trek episode because it cast doubt onto the character of Kirk. He likes it because he sees it as an exploration into the lengths and depths a person will go to when pushed beyond their limits. Knowing this puts, say “The Pegasus” and pretty much everything to do with Battlestar Galactica into perspective, but it's also a useful way to look at “The Most Toys”, because it's pretty much that story for Data. And, I suppose if you were inclined to do this kind of a story, Data would be a sensible character to do it with precisely because of the aforementioned Three Laws of Robotics stuff. There's even a little bit of Ira Behr here too, in the same scene where Data and Fajo are debating the former's Starfleet service, Fajo mocks Data by calling him “a military pacifist”, calling it a contradiction in terms. Yes, Fajo's obviously the villain of the piece, but the episode plays it very much akin to how The Dark Knight will one day depict The Joker: A dangerous, unhinged psychopath, yes, but one who is scary because he makes so many good points.

And now we come to my big issue with “The Most Toys” (I mean, apart from the fridging, everyone being out of character again and the superfluous plot that doesn't cover any ground not already handled way better in “The Bonding” and “Descent”) because the episode is actually making the exact same intellectual errors the Doctor Who fans are, just in a slightly different focus and context. Once again, we have the creative team damning the entirety of Star Trek: The Next Generation with their flak shrapnel. It's attacking Star Trek itself for being imperialistic propaganda and apologia, and it's not realising that's sort of the entire point of the Federation and is what the Enterprise crew is supposed to be standing *against*. It's trying to sully Data by “bringing him down to our level” and showing how even the transhuman Übermensch is no better than us after all and is still capable of the same wicked, depraved actions as the rest of us proles (and yes, obviously the intent is that Data fired the shot and is lying. Everyone involved in the story confirms it), which is about as Long 1990s a concept as exists: There are no utopias, there are no ideals, just cynical, petty, dangerous people going about their lives.

I guess by giving us a world where two warring factions fight each other without realising they're using the exact same rhetoric as their supposed enemy, Goodhartz, Moore, Behr and their colleagues have unwittingly proved their own point.

Comments

gatchamandave 1 year, 11 months ago

It is the case that in the late 80 s The Next Generation was the stick that BBC management and much of the science fiction community, as well as many mainstream commentators, used to beat at Sylvester McCoy era Dr Who. Essentially, " If you can't be as good as ST; TNG what's the point of you ?" This attitude persisted as late as 2005 when I encountered it in an Open University text book on genre tv that insisted that with its multiple incarnations Star Trek was a work of genius - and I'm sure you can guess who that genius supposedly was - whilst Dr Who had, I kid you not, "failed".

My tutor was therefore most uncomfortable when I devilishly pointed out that Enterprise had just been cancelled whilst Dr Who was a ratings smash.

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Adam Riggio 1 year, 11 months ago

The ironic part is that even though BBC management was using Star Trek's success to cudgel Doctor Who, the McCoy era was producing brilliant science-fiction stories on a per episode budget barely big enough to buy the videotape that no one was watching because it was scheduled in a death slot opposite Coronation Street. I suspect the Doctor Who fans who shit on Star Trek for these resentful reasons are the Ian Levine types who have thankfully been left behind.

I do remember this story, though I was never a very big fan of it. Learning how well-regarded it is in fandom circles, I gather it's because it was such a Data-centric story. Also, you should add to its list of egregious offences (as well as the fridging of Varria, the characterization problems, and the superfluous plot points) its accidental anti-Semitism after recasting the part of Fajo with Saul Rubinek, following the suicide of the original actor, Time Bandits' David Rappaport. While I'm always happy to see Rubinek in any part because he's a delightfully ubiquitous Canadian character actor, he's a Jewish actor who looks kind of stereotypically Jewish playing an unscrupulous, greedy, materialistic freelance trader. I don't think it was intentional on the part of anyone, because Rappaport's suicide was a surprise, and Rubinek was cast as a very quick replacement in the middle of the episode's production.

As a result, Fajo tends to embody some racist stereotypes, where if Rappaport had lived to complete his performance, the character would have come off more as the mercurial imp the script intends him to be.

Fajo's morality, of course, offers no real challenge to Data's, which is, other than the accidental racism, the central flaw of the story as far as I'm concerned. Fajo thinks he's genuinely needling Data for serving a military power, but he only offers the lifestyle of a cruel mercenary thief as an alternative. It's not possible to depict that as a better lifestyle. If the Doctor were actually to show up in Star Trek properly (unlike the comic you reviewed at TARDIS Eruditorum a few months ago), he actually would constitute a solid critique. The Enterprise would have to prove that it was an agent of ethical progress because of how its journey pushes back against the militaristic and realpolitik forces of the Federation. Facing Fajo, Data only has to prove that he's better than a fraudulent thief and murderer. We already know he's better than that. So the episode has been built around a straw conflict. It blows away in the breeze just as easily.

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Froborr 1 year, 11 months ago

Wait, they think THIS episode has the Doctor parody in it? Not the one with the glib conman flying a stolen time machine starring the lead actor from the sitcom Doctor, Doctor?

The fundamental split between you and I is becoming clear--I prefer Trek when it's showing its characters struggling to achieve utopia, which necessarily includes them sometimes failing. You prefer it when it shows them having already achieved it. Underlying that is, I think, that you see utopia as a point which can be reached; I see it as... well, if I may quote myself, "Perfection is an illusion, and progress is not teleological. It is not a process of narrowing down to a singular endpoint, but of climbing up and out into new possibilities." Utopia is like tomorrow, always ahead of you no matter how far you go.

So I like stories where the characters struggle with being utopian, where they stumble and fall short, because to me such stories say "It's okay to stumble. There'll be another episode next week where you can try again."

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K. Jones 1 year, 11 months ago

I like Saul Rubinek but he always seems like a terrible choice for villains. My disdain for this episode actually stems from the design. I get that we're a TV show, I get that it's sort of a lived-in hi-fi computer store world of spaceships and design, but this never felt cosmic enough for me. I'm really into the idea of bringing the Superman vs. Brainiac, Collector of Worlds dynamic into the "outer space mundane" of Star Trek. I like the idea of exploring possessions and possessiveness and using Data to do it.

But Fajo just reads as a space-goblin or something. A spritely imp. You can imagine him having a witchy nose and curly-shoes and haunting a NickToons live action series with pixie-trickster magic. Nothing about him reads as "wheeler-dealer". And that dumps him for me, into the category of things like ... well ... Move Along Home.

Everything about Fajo's design, spaceship and mise-en-scene should've been engineered to make this guy look like a man for whom ownership owns. A man possessed by his possessions. It needed to be haunting and cluttered like a pack rat. It needed to be museum. It needed to be funereal like a king's tomb, packed with the rarest and richest of royal trash.

Instead, and admittedly there's some cross-pollenation in my brain here, we get the aesthetic of an episode of Frasier, where Rubinek lauds his stylish art collection and a comedy of errors plays out. (Admittedly, when Rubinek turns up as the first villain of Leverage twenty years later, honest-to-god effectively reprising this character, finally an appropriate venue for this aesthetic is born.)

He should've just been a Ferengi. We should've gotten to see the dazzling and alien interior of a Ferengi Marauder tradeship. Worldbuilding would have happened, the philosophy of Ferengi DaiMons would have been fleshed out, their brand of "villainy" made clearer - both funny and uncannily scary as a concept, and we'd be citing it as "one of the good TNG Ferengi episodes".

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Josh Marsfelder 1 year, 11 months ago

If you think my thesis is "progress is teleological", well, I've pretty fucking decisively failed at conveying my thesis then. I mean I did open up my essay on "Evolution" by saying "Evolution is not teleological". Nor do I think that utopia means "perfection": I have, actually, at times attempted to offer a solid critique of that conception of utopianism.

The way I view utopianism is much more akin to that of Emma Goldman, who said "Every daring attempt to make a great change in existing conditions, every lofty vision of new possibilities for the human race, has been labelled Utopian." Or Robert Nozick, who said "Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others."

(And yes, there's an argument we can have about whether or not Nozick's brand of libertarianism gets us everywhere we want to be IRT material social progress, but I don't want to actually have that discussion right now.)

"Perfection" may not be obtainable per se, but *ideals* are. We can work harder to embody our own personal ideals and make them a central tenet of our everyday existences. What I *don't* like is creators who go around saying "any attempt you make to improve things is a waste of time, if you think you're improving yourself you're self absorbed and deluded and the world is never going to change for the better because this is just the way things are an you'd better get used to it."

The other thing I'm trying very hard to convey about Star Trek: The Next Generation is that it tends to work best if you think of its characters not as characters who go through conflict and story arcs and things like that, but more as a weird kind of divine ideal. Data, actually, is a really good example: Here's someone who's overtly transhuman, who's better than humans in just about every regard. He's not *perfect* though and wouldn't think of considering himself as such, because, as a person, he's still learning and growing because life is a journey on which you never stop learning, growing and trying to improve yourself.

As shamans, the Enterprise crew travels the spirit world, but are also forever tied to the mortal plane. They wear the masks of the divine in order to convey what they see through performance, and, because symbols and objects become each other, they embody their ideals as a kind of performance art. And as a philosophy for living their lives in the most constructive and healthy ways possible.

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Daru 1 year, 11 months ago

I thought that this was quite a ho-hum episode when I saw it last year on my previous re-watch. One thing I have never been into is divisionism within my love of fiction. Ok I do adore Doctor Who, but that has only renewed in the last nine years with the new series, and it has never been at the expense of anything else.

I just try to take each product at its own merits, even down to individual stories within a series. So I have a pretty expansive love for fiction and literature, and pretty much don't have any time for folk that want to dump on other franchises for being lesser or worse to attack those who might love something different from them.

So I *never* saw any parallel with Doctor Who at all with this story and I find it pretty sad that a really tiny voice within Who fandom (like the Great Oz) have magnified their importance to make them sound larger than they are. I agree with Adam's point that: " I suspect the Doctor Who fans who shit on Star Trek for these resentful reasons are the Ian Levine types who have thankfully been left behind."

Here's hoping, as the really important thing is surely that we are are are all in this together for the love of stories?

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