4 years, 11 months ago
Of the many unproduced scripts Star Trek has accumulated over the years, “Blood and Fire” is, aside from “Joanna”, likely the most famous. Actually, make that “infamous”: Notorious as the cause of Dave Gerrold's split from Star Trek: The Next Generation
six weeks into production, it's also gained a reputation in recent years for being “that one awkward story about gay people and AIDS the show almost did”.
...Yeah. This is gonna be an uncomfortable one.
Before we get started, let's dispel a few myths, because Star Trek's history with LGB, transgender, queer, asexual, nonbinary, etc. issues, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation
's, is a major source of misinformation and misunderstanding. The common reasoning goes that Next Generation
was appallingly and spectacularly heteronormative and reactionary (if not outright homophobic) and thus a story like “Blood and Fire” would have been the most callous, thoughtless, trainwreck of an episode imaginable. The reasoning then goes on that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
improved things a bit, but not enough, and Star Trek ends up completely hypocritical in terms of its claim of utopianism because of it's failure to engage with these issues in a serious and adult manner.
This isn't actually true. Multiple Star Trek: The Next Generation
creative teams did in fact want to address queer concerns at numerous points throughout the show's run, but extenuating circumstances always prevented them from actually building episodes around them. Usually this was due to orders from Paramount executives, who felt (sadly probably correctly) that overt depictions of homosexuality, transsexuality or anything else of that nature would not go over well with US audiences, especially in the 1980s. That said, it's probably also true that there were certain people involved with the near-fifty year history of the franchise who were less tolerant than others, though I'm not going to begin to speculate as to who. Either way, whenever a particular pitch got far enough along to actually get made, stuff tended to be bungled, mismanaged or micromanaged, leading to unfortunate confused aimless things like “The Outcast”.
The situation is best summarised by Rick Berman. Berman had the unenviable position of being both an executive and Gene Roddenberry's heir apparent, was caught between the show's creative teams and studio management and likely got it from both sides. He once said (and I'm paraphrasing here) that of course the Next Generation
staff wanted to show how queer sexualities and nonbinary identities would be accepted in the utopian 24th century, but the problem was that it was A. difficult to actually do a story about these things (because, by virtue of it being a utopian setting, there would be no conflict to build a story around) and B. The studio wasn't having it anyway and the team didn't want to do it unless they could do it right. Nobody ever came up with a solution that would satisfy everyone, and this had the regrettable side effect of meaning Star Trek never actually properly engaged with one of the biggest progressive concerns of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s (and yes, today too, but Star Trek isn't around in this form anymore), making its implied author looking like a total fucking hypocrite.
“Blood and Fire” then makes an interesting case study for the peculiar catch-22 Star Trek often finds itself in. That it was rejected in 1987 has been used as fuel for Trekkers to decry the homophobia and/or the incompetence of Gene Roddenberry, Maurice Hurley, Rick Berman, or all three, while the fact it was submitted in the first place has been used by critics of Star Trek to accuse it of being homophobic. I am extremely doubtful anyone involved in either side of these debates has actually read Gerrold's original script, watched the Star Trek Phase II
episode made out of it, or indeed even know who Dave Gerrold is or that he wrote it. Watching the version of “Blood and Fire” that ultimately got made, the likely real reason it was rejected becomes painfully clear: It isn't actually very good. Like a lot of Gerrold's other scripts, there's a lot to praise and recommend here, but also
like a lot of Gerrold's other scripts, it's weighed down with a lot of problems that keep it from actually working.
Two things immediately become apparent when turning on “Blood and Fire”. Firstly, it's striking how easily this story translates from the Next Generation
crew to the Original Series one, which is something of a far cry from what happened in the opposite cases when this show's source material was adapted for The Next Generation
. I'm not sure how much this story was revised before filming (I'm sure some rewrites had to be made), but this just simply feels like an Original Series story, in particular “Plato's Stepchildren”: There's a lot of speechifying about how enlightened and tolerant life aboard the Enterprise
while Next Generation
and its compatriots trended more towards the “show, don't tell” side of the utopia spectrum. Trying to picture Patrick Stewart delivering any of the Big Kirk Speeches in this episode (of which there are many-There's even a Big Kirk Speech that lasts for the better part of two acts, which is...a separate issue) is almost impossible to imagine. This isn't actually that unusual if we stop and think about it though: Gerrold was only on staff at The Next Generation
for a few weeks extremely early on in the first season, at which point nobody had really yet figured out how to differentiate the show from its predecessor (well, nobody except the actors and D.C. Fontana at any rate).
The other thing that becomes obvious here is that Dave Gerrold doesn't want to make a Big Important Episode about AIDS and gay people. He wants to make a Big Important Movie
about AIDS and gay people, because “Blood and Fire” is seriously bloated. When it was originally made, it actually had to be split into two separate filming blocks and be released as two different episodes over a year apart
. Even the version I watched, which was edited down to feature length, still clocks in at a whopping hour and a half
. And I don't care how good your script is, how important the issue, or how much you care about it, no
Star Trek episode needs to be that bloody long or require that amount of overhead. “Blood and Fire” is trying to bring the scope of Star Trek: The Motion Picture
to its issue, and it's paced about as well.
This has always been a problem for Gerrold: He's a very talented writer badly in need of an editor. He had an absolutely unbelievable one in Gene Coon on “The Trouble with Tribbles”, and Coon's absence is felt very strongly on all of Gerrold's subsequent submissions: “More Troubles, More Tribbles” felt a bit rough around the edges, Gene Roddenberry couldn't help him on “Bem” and that “Castles in the Sky” was significantly improved by Margaret Armen
rewriting it into “The Cloud Minders” is a deeply worrying sign. The problem on “Blood and Fire” is that Gerrold is trying to use it as his grand, sweeping statement about, well, basically everything, and it ends up crammed full of a bunch of ideas that never really gel together, and even Gene Roddenberry would have seen that.
Had Gerrold pitched this in, say, 1990, things might have been different: Michael Piller would have taken him aside and told him “Look, Dave. This script has a lot of potential, but there are some things we have to change and you can't actually do Star Trek: The Motion Picture
for gay people on Star Trek: The Next Generation
's budget and timetable. Rewrite act 3 and get back to me”. At the very least some of “Blood and Fire”'s more redeeming features, few and far between as they are, may have made it into episodes that were actually produced. In 2009, however, nobody on Star Trek Phase II
is going to say no to Gerrold, especially with Star Trek's perceived failure to properly address the issues “Blood and Fire” tries to tackle.
This then leads us to the question of whether “Blood and Fire” actually properly addresses these issues in the first place, and I see the answer as something of a mixed bag. There are, in fact, things “Blood and Fire” gets right: The actual depiction of a homosexual relationship is very, very good. Kirk's nephew is one half of the pair, giving him a personal stake in things, and the relationship itself is portrayed as just another relationship with its ups and downs, and the fact it's between two gay men is almost completely incidental. Almost
. The first half of the episode is loaded up with *appalling* subverted sitcom gay jokes, and the fact they're subverted does nothing to take the edge off of them. The one that sticks out for me is Kirk's line to McCoy in the transporter room:
“My nephew...on a security team?”
“Relax, Jim. We don't put bull's eyes on the redshirts anymore.”
See, it's funny because you think Kirk is going to express shocked disapproval Peter is gay, but instead, he's shocked that he's a redshirt
. Hilarity. All of the other “jokes” are roughly of this calibre. This isn't so much leaning on the fourth wall as much as it is kicking it down, grabbing the camera and screaming incoherently into the lens.
Problems start to happen when the episode tries to be allegorical. Ostensibly, this is an allegory about AIDS and how wrong it is for people to discriminate against those who have the disease. Doing this in the same episode where we would have introduced Star Trek's first ever gay couple is...troubling, to put it mildly. There's nowhere Gerrold can go with this that *isn't* ludicrously offensive, so he winds up going nowhere: The disease is actually an infestation of Regulan Bloodworms (which are apparently now also a doomsday weapon that corrupts the natural lifecycle of sentient wave-particle...things) that a landing party consisting of Spock, Peter, Peter's fiance and another redshirt all become exposed to. So, “Blood and Fire” infects the gay couple with the AIDS stand-in, but it's trying very hard to show that it's not a “gay disease” (though making Spock one of the landing party members doesn't particularly help) and that it could infect anyone, including people you, personally care about.
The major failing is, of course, that Gerrold is, in fact, doing “The Gay Story” and “The AIDS Story” in the same episode and this is nothing short of a breathtakingly stupid idea. He does seem partially aware of this and tries to separate them to an extent, but he doesn't do it at all effectively. The one bit of lip service he pays is having one scene where a couple of nameless crewmembers express concern to Uhura that the Bloodworm infestation could spread and suggesting they destroy the ship they found them on (with the infected landing party still on it), an act Kirk had been ordered by Starfleet Command to do but was deliberately avoiding. Gerrold then gives Uhura a big defiant speech where she tells the crewmembers that Captain Kirk doesn't leave anyone behind, would give his own life before that of one of his crew and would do the same for them, which is nice, but doesn't do a whole lot to alleviate our
concerns that the fundamental juxtaposition of this story simply shouldn't have happened to begin with.
And the fact remains Gerrold is *still* running up against the problem Rick Berman outlined: The script at once wants to make a Really Big Deal about how Peter and his boyfriend are gay, but also show how it's Not At All A Big Deal in-universe, and it spectacularly fails on all counts. If Star Trek is as utopian as Gerrold thinks it is (and wants us to think it is), there's no reason to linger on the fact that they are as much as it does. Compare this to “Rejoined”, where the fact Jadzia Dax and Lenara Khan were two women was never even mentioned once, and it still managed to tell a genuinely compelling story about homosexuality and oppression. That silence and subtext spoke volumes. Here though, apart from the “gay-jokes-that-aren't-actually-gay-jokes” that already piss me off, “Blood and Fire” treads dangerously close to exploitative sensationalism.
I know it's easy to twist an argument like this into the stock right wing attack on homosexuality: It's the “I don't care what people get up to in their bedrooms, I just don't want to see it, why can't they keep it to themselves?” sort of bigotry. But that's not what “Rejoined” did either, and walking that line is the sort of extreme nuance and care Star Trek has to be approached with. Thing is, in our society there's still a lot of prejudice and hatred and people who fall outside the accepted boundaries of hegemonic power structure *need* to draw attention to themselves in order to point out how oppressed and persecuted they are. It's the whole reason GLBTQ awareness labels itself as “pride”: The point is to stop feeling shameful for who you are because you've lived your life feeling like a societal pariah and to demand treatment as equal human beings. But Star Trek takes place in a utopian setting, so these conversations don't need to happen there: It's not the job of Star Trek to take up the fight, it's to show us what a world where the fight doesn't need to happen would look like
And even then “Blood and Fire” doesn't go far enough. Although it one the one hand screams very loud about how this is the Big Important Gay People and AIDS Story, it on the other hand backpedals pretty hard away from that and ends up on a really generic, facile and unsatisfying “hatred is bad” message. It turns out the Bloodworms were actually part of a Section 31 operation to reconfigure them into a doomsday weapon for the Federation before the Klingons did the same (oh, and by the way, Kargh's back: He crippled the Enterprise
early on in a skirmish and has been hanging around for the rest of the episode doing not really a whole lot).
But as Kirk points out to the Section 31 operative, the Klingons don't want a weapon like this because it's dishonourable and calls him out on his blind hatred. Peter then tries to kill the guy because his fiance died as a result of the Bloodworm infestation, and Kirk tries to stop him by asking if his fiance would have wanted him to stoop to that level out of hatred. But then it turns out Evil Section 31 Guy (I can't be bothered to look up his real name, so that's who he is now) smuggled some Bloodworms off the derelict and threatens to let them loose on the Enterprise
, monloguing for literally minutes
before someone has the good sense to shut him the goddamn hell up. While all this is going on, Kargh delivers the one genuinely funny line in the whole episode by saying he “...hasn't has this much fun since [he] assassinated his grandfather” and quite reasonably asking why he shouldn't destroy the Enterprise
here and now and save everyone this humiliation.
The thing about doing an ending this toothless is that it's practically morally bankrupt given the rest of what this episode is supposedly trying to do. Just as Gerrold's passion tripped him up on “Castles in the Sky” because he lacked the breadth of knowledge about sociocultural and historical factors that lead to racial prejudice, the similar lack of time spent on exploring the roots of Western homophobia runs “Blood and Fire” aground. Simply glossing it over as “hatred” and saying “hatred is bad” says nothing about the origins of oppressive power structures and how to combat them.
Furthermore, this actually hurts the otherwise noble cause Gerrold is trying to take on because it's not actually about the issue at hand anymore (especially not when the whole back half of the movie becomes almost exclusively about the Section 31 and Klingon Cold War story): It's trying to subsume the unique plight faced by nonbinary people into a handwavey bit of cookie-cutter sentimentality. Oh, and along those lines, the scene where the Enterprise
is actually “healed” by *literal* Magic Rainbow Space Butterflies of Love, and having this scene drag on for over five minutes
, is so tone-deaf and so completely un-self aware it would be hilarious if it weren't sad.
There's a material social progress element to this, in that an argument could be made “Blood and Fire” would have worked better in 1987 then it does in 2009 because it would have gotten a positive portrayal of a gay couple on television in the middle of the AIDS panic, but for one, I'm not inclined to believe “Blood and Fire” was the story Star Trek: The Next Generation
needed at that time in the first place and secondly it doesn't matter anyway because that “Blood and Fire” doesn't exist. This one does, and *this* “Blood and Fire” isn't actually about gay people: Like so much other Star Trek of this period, it's actually about Star Trek's own interiority, it's just that it's about Star Trek's interiority as it pertains to gay people.
Then there's Denise Crosby, who you'd think I would have had more to say about then I do. She plays Doctor Jenna Yar (yes) who signed on to the operation because she wanted to find a cure for the Bloodworm plague, even if it meant working for Section 31. She's the one who suddenly has a change of heart and clocks Evil Section 31 Guy, offering to test the vaccine Doctor McCoy had been trying to create on herself (conveniently, it kills the test subject, as if we haven't had enough Tragic Sacrifices). But I just look at Crosby and see the same sad unfulfilled potential and workmanship I've come to associate with her: She looks painfully out of place in this story and is clearly only here to fill the by-now requisite “Veteran Star Trek Actor”quota this show has. Infuriatingly, she's made to do the exact same thing she did on Star Trek: The Next Generation
: Stand around reacting slack-jawed to shit before having her character do a hokey, tacked on and fundamentally unsatisfying heroic sacrifice. Denise Crosby leaves Star Trek the same way she came in: Underused, underappreicated and miscast, but gamely acting her heart out with the material she's given the best she can.
(By the way, putting an ancestor of Tasha Yar
of all people in Section Fucking 31
has to go down as one of the single worst ideas in the history of Star Trek.)
Crosby's shafting is indicative of the larger worrying character problems “Blood and Fire” has. Although it goes out of its way to humanize its guest cast and really wants us to feel for Peter's relationship, killing off his boyfriend is such a bafflingly clear-cut, textbook case of what TVTropes calls “Bury Your Gays” I'm flabbergasted
Gerrold put it in. If you're trying to show us an enlightened future where all forms of love are embraced and accepted, isn't killing off one of the only two canonically gay people to shoehorn in some angst surely the last
thing you want to do? Then there's the other redshirt who joins the landing party: The episode likewise wants us to warm to him and make him memorable, but he's killed off too, and as much as it then wants us to mourn him, he still comes across as yet another
generic redshirt who eats it and this has the added effect of making us want to punch McCoy for being such a damn hypocrite, making that quote above even more irritating.
(Then there's the fact that this episode has the utter gall to create a character named “Fontana” who spends most of her time getting yelled at and ordered around by McCoy and who speaks a grand total of one line
in its entire interminable hour and a half
The thing about a lot of these abandoned Star Trek scripts is, believe it or not, there was usually a reason why they were abandoned
. Digging through the things on the cutting room floor isn't going to uncover some treasure trove of lost Star Trek, it's going to net you a bunch of bad ideas that were discarded because they were bad
. If you look at any given poor script of Star Trek: The Next Generation
, what you're likely going to find if you take a closer look at its production history, is that the alternative was an even worse
script. As dodgy as that show could get, and I won't dispute that on occasion it could, the story of Star Trek: The Next Generation
is one of working against all odds to get a television show on the air week to week and trying gamely to make it the best you can on a day-to-day basis.
“Blood and Fire” is a perfect microcosm for this. Far from being about AIDS and homosexuality, it's a story about clashing egos and television politics interacting to make something just a little less then it could have been. Dave Gerrold finally let himself get carried away and turned in something so bad nobody could redeem it, not even his own better qualities, and he hung tenaciously onto it for decades
because he simply could not accept the problem was with him. Ironically enough considering his feuds with Gene Roddenberry, Gerrold has inherited the Great Bird's predilection for hubris and lack of self-awareness: From its inflated glorification of facile, middelbrow politics, badly, badly padded structure and tragedy and angst simply for the sake of tragedy and angst, “Blood and Fire” is utterly convinced it's the greatest Star Trek story ever told.
It may not be, but damn if it isn't the definitive.
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