“The needs of the one”: The Survivors

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Our textbooks always generalize history and make it all seem much cleaner than it really is: A torrid cycle of life reduced down to big, monolithic, yet easy to digest bits and pieces. Here's where this Age ends. Here's where this Age begins.

Even though “Evolution” is the big watershed debut of Michael Piller, it's nowhere remotely near the case that everything after it can be safely called part of the “Michael Piller Era” or that we're now comfortably in the period of Star Trek where everything is Right and Good and Doesn't Need To Be Talked About Anymore. For one thing, Piller isn't even on staff yet: Michael Wagner is technically still head writer and co-executive producer, him having managed to get two other stories after “The Ensigns of Command” and “Evolution” into production before fleeing the scene-This one and the next one (as well as banging out an *extremely* early rough draft of “Booby Trap”). Essentially, even though we're now in the period that's frequently cited as the Big Star Trek Golden Age...None of Piller's trademark innovations are actually visible yet, at least not as standard operating procedure, and won't be for another month at a conservative estimate (there's another episode coming up in a couple of weeks that's similarly held up as a transformative milestone, but, as we'll see, there was no reason at the time to see it as anything other than a complete fluke).

So what we get with “The Survivors”, and for the next two weeks or so more generally, is a curious dead end: This is as close to a glimpse at the abortive “Michael Wagner Era”, or as much as such a thing can be said to exist, that we can get. If we're going to try to tease out any sort of influence, if any, Wagner might have had on the unfolding text of Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is the most opportune moment to talk about it with him not only still technically on the payroll, but writing the script for “The Survivors” as well. This episode is also interesting for me personally, as it's one I actually have no recollection of: “The Survivors” is among a handful of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes that I at once never saw when it originally aired, but also somehow managed to miss whenever it was rerun during any of my numerous revisits of the show. So finally seeing this on Blu-ray was an education for me in a number of respects, as it both filled a gap in my personal history of Star Trek and also gives me insight into how Michael Wagner and his team might have conceptualized Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Unfortunately, that seems to be “A very TOS-like sci-fi mystery superficially updated for modern sensibilities”. It's a bit uncanny how well this ticks the necessary boxes: The Enterprise shows up somewhere where something weird is happening, the away team beams down to discover a baffling mystery with locals who are being suspiciously obtuse and evasive, more stuff happens including, but not limited to, at least *one* major space battle and ship-shaking scene, some telepathic chicanery, the captain bluffing his way to victory on an assumption while leaving his co-workers in the dark, something deeply shocking and unpleasant happening to one of the female crewmembers, and it all ends with a trademark Hyper Evolved Being of Pure Consciousness engaging the captain in a philosophical debate about a weighty moral dilemma that's entirely removed from anything that there was the slightest chance of being construed as applicable to actual terrestrial morals and ethics. And, of course, the whole conflict hinges on something as eye-rollingly bombastic and cheesy as “The Love Of A Woman”. It's not purely for dramatic effect that Captain Picard tells Kevin Uxbridge “We are not qualified to be your judges. We have no laws to fit your crime”.

(Even the denouement, where the Enterprise mopily warps away from Delta Rana IV with Picard recording a somber Captian's Log entry ruminating on pop philosophy could have come straight out of something like “Requiem for Methuselah”. In fact, the whole thing kinda feels like a Jerome Bixby script.)

What's immediately interesting this time, as opposed to all the previous times people have thought Star Trek: The Next Generation is just Star Trek with better acting, better special effects and nicer set design, is the specific version of the Original Series Wagner seems to focus on. When the first season team got lazy and did this, they quite explicitly emphasized the version of the Original Series that was Roddenberry's Fables: That is, the crew drops into some idiosyncratically quirky and backwards planetary society to teach them the Proper Way To Do Things, typically by way of a big Moral Lesson delivered with the subtlety of the average blunt instrument. Wagner, meanwhile, seems to have hit upon a paradoxically more idealistic version of the Original Series, that is, the Original Series the way it was under Gene Coon. Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say “the way it was trying to be”: “The Survivors” is no less held back by its ageing body and structure and is thus ultimately no less retrograde, but it does hide this remarkably well, with Star Trek: The Next Generation's ultra-modern production elevating the source material considerably and laudably.

“The Survivors” then is sort of what the Original Series would look like if all of its broad-strokes, sweeping grabs for greatness actually gelled with a production that was halfway coherent. As turbulent and crazy as things might be behind the scenes in 1989, it's *nothing* compared to the cloak-and-dagger backstage politics of the TOS era. Every problem Star Trek: The Next Generation has at this point comes purely from the outside; people who don't get this show don't tend to last long (just look at, well, Michael Wagner), while Star Trek, at least as a material bit of media, was constantly let down by creative infighting and micromanagement. While the Original Series was insufferably po-faced thematically, it was at least po-faced with an earnestness and ambition that you have to respect at least a little, and had it actually come together a bit more frequently and maybe not been so appallingly morally repugnant with such alarming regularity, it might have managed to become a little endearing, if slightly pretentious, as a result and might just have had a legacy that extends beyond its pure aesthetic superficialities. In short, it probably would have looked a lot like “The Survivors”, so in that regard Michael Wagner really has hit on the ideological core of Star Trek: The Next Generation...at least as it was originally conceived. The major problem is, of course, that this is no longer what this show is and it hasn't been this for years.
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That ultra-modern production really musn't be discounted, by the way. As standard-issue as the plot feels at times, “The Survivors” is a very visually interesting piece of work and is one of the first instances where we get to see how Marvin Rush has changed the look of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Firstly, this is a far brighter show than before: Rush's predecessor, Edward R. Brown, used a lot of darkness and shadow, especially very early on in the first season (most notably in “Lonely Among Us”, which for me simply defines the look of the series' early years). Rush, however, uses a lot of very bright lighting, especially in the interior shots of the Enterprise corridors. So much so, in fact, that he tends to be (wrongly) accused of giving the show a “bland”, “washed out” look: This is mostly due to the steady decay over the years of the original transfer from the VHS tapes all this was composited on back in the day, which makes everything look fuzzy and beige. Thankfully the Blu-ray restoration finally shows us what Rush was really going for, which turns out to be a very high-contrast look that emphasizes areas of strong light mingling with areas of murky shadow, thus giving the show a more cinematic lighting scheme and a much more vibrant sense of colour: Things like the maroon command division uniforms, Deanna Troi's new teal sun dress, the carpeting in Picard's ready room and all the little details on the LCARS displays look really, really stunning now. “The Survivors” is a particularly good showcase for this, considering a not-unsubstantial bit of it takes place during a perfectly beautiful summer location shoot at a Malibu beach house.




Rush's touch is seen elsewhere too, I think, especially during the sequence with Data and the music box, Picard and Riker's conversation in the ready room and Troi's psychic torture scenes: In each instance, the camera slowly pans around the characters, dynamically going into and out of focus at key moments to emphasize specific expressions or important symbolic elements of the shot. In the past, especially last year, the show would have simply run with a bog standard two or three static camera setup and shot everything like a typical TV play (in fact, you can see this as recently as “The Ensigns of Command”). It's not that the new approach is on the whole any more cinematic, if anything the 4:3 resolution Star Trek: The Next Generation forces itself into is going to preclude this by default, but it *is* a bit more visually creative and expressive. The director here is Les Landau, an old veteran of the show by this point, but I think I'm going to attribute a lot of this to Rush, as Landau's previous efforts, which I've liked, I hasten to add (he did “The Arsenal of Freedom”, among other things) haven't quite stuck in my mind the way this one has.


(Getting back to Troi's scenes briefly, as uncomfortable as they can be they're also early example, it must be stated, of the creative team deciding to experiment with new things to do with Troi's character so Marina Sirtis can show off her acting range. This subplot, for example, was quite obviously done so Sirits could go into a full-on Ophelia spiel. It's also sort of sweet that Captain Picard is the one who wants to know if she's alright and who she confides in: There's that Captain Picard “Warmth” again and it's played as a nice extension of the special relationship they're at least supposed to have.)


Incremental change is the name of the story tonight, I think. “The Survivors” is a surprisingly fascinating story to talk about and in some ways really is a bit of a watershed. But again, a lot of this is only clear through retrospect: We now know which changes and innovations here took, and which ones didn't. And it's a bit telling I've been able to go this long without actually talking a whole lot about Michael Wagner or his story in any significant detail. Almost all I could come up with to talk about are things that are going to prove important going forward, rather than what makes this story and this story in particular unique. So I guess in that regard I'm no different from anyone else who's tried to write grand, sweeping historical narratives of shows like this.

Comments

Adam Riggio 2 years, 2 months ago

This is actually one of the episodes that I've seen quite a few times, by the same random coincidence and luck by which you kept missing it. The story itself is very simple, by comparison to what TNG can do on its best days, but also quite troubling as I think on it. Just as you indicate when you say this is basically the current production team defaulting to their take on TOS mode, I find The Survivors today to be a sci-fi morality tale that implies a dangerous morality.

Kevin is a superbeing who's retreated to his private world to live out the rest of his days in exile and shame for an act of mass-murder that he committed in the name of revenge, with a replica of the woman he loved. But he was also responsible for the circumstances that led to his most horrific act: his superpowers could have stopped the alien invaders easily, but he chose not to fight them because of his pacifist values. As a result, the aliens overran the colony and killed his wife, and in his grief and rage he wiped their entire species from existence.

The story amounts to an attack on pacifist values. Not only does the end of Kevin's story amount to a condemnation of pacifism as leading inevitably to a more destructive outcome, but it depicts Kevin's pacifism as simply sitting back and doing nothing while his home is overrun by aggressive invaders. Pacifism is depicted as a privilege of creatures like Kevin, who normally live above the ordinary attachments and dangers of moral humans. The rest of us must deal with conflict by taking up arms, as Rishon did.

Yet when I first watched this story as a child, and would catch it again in reruns in my teen years and early 20s, I was personally fascinated by the puzzles of the strange phenomena on display, intrigued at the layers of weirdness and what the underlying cause could be. I was so distracted by the puzzle that I missed the story's moral, which is so repugnant to my own values today.

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EclecticDave 2 years, 2 months ago

The bit I can never quite get past when I see this episode is the exchange between Kevin and Picard you quoted above:

“We are not qualified to be your judges. We have no laws to fit your crime”

Errr, what? The Federation have no laws against Genocide now?

Of course whether the Federation would be too keen on prosecuting a being capable of destroying all humans everywhere on a whim is an entirely different question.

Adam - while I see what you mean, I'm not convinced that the anti-pacifist message was intentional. The fact that Kevin was inconsistently much more aggressive in his attempts to protect his secret than he was to prevent the invasion, leads me to suspect that the "would not kill" speech simply wasn't given a lot of thought. A more consistent characterization would at least have had Kevin doing everything he could short of using lethal force to protect the planet, but having that not be sufficient somehow.

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K. Jones 2 years, 2 months ago

The first thing I thought when I applied a critical lens to Survivors, was "this could just as easily be TOS". This isn't bad; itwould've been a great TOS and while it's not beholden to repeating TOS, it's not like it's intrinsically wrong for TNG to do so. I like that Next Gen is capable of doing a TOS episode if it wants to.

It occurs to me that while they do a capable job here - with some genuine pathos once things get rolling - this would actually be better were if it were Spock having the freakout and Kirk and McCoy sussing out the mystery and the moral challenge (particularly McCoy). Playing the role of "wait, WTF? acre of land?!" an exasperated Uhura, Sulu and Chekov would've been dynamite, and I think Scotty might've been a good sub for Riker's role.

But you get what you get.

This is one I really remember having seen as a child in two stages - first I was five years old sneaking downstairs and barely breathing because it was past my bedtime ... and second when I was an early teenager and these hit SpikeTV.

And it's one that really connected with me even if I didn't particularly like it. As a five-year-old this was a scary, suspenseful mystery. The creepy-factor of the music scared me, I was really along for the ride, as I imagine most five year olds always are.

I guess my biggest takeaway is the pathos - something that I understood when I was 5, when I was 14 and what I still understand now when I watch it - is Kevin's anger when he's finally provoked. My relationship with this can be illustrated through those same stages.

I am a pacifist. When I say this I don't mean I am a millennial hippie fan who has peace sign stickers on his car window and hates war. I mean I genuinely can not get angry anymore and have never been in a fight. (Interesting enough considering the kinds of people I grew up with, live with and am friends with.)

But I was a historically angry child. By age five I lost my temper a lot. Prior to that I'd already had outbursts that had resulted in serious injury to my older brother, attacked my father, probably punched my little sister regularly. Since I have no actual memory of these things happening, my parents filled me in later on the details and as it turns out, blinding rage is a very real thing. By the early teenage years (which I have practically no memory of) it still happened, less regularly, but was starting to be pointed in healthy directions at least. At this point it doesn't exist. Nothing phases me. Nothing shakes me. (Conversely, it takes a lot to motivate me.)

But I still get where Kevin was coming from. Somewhere deep down in the trace memory. Because fear of losing my temper kind of always gnaws around the fringes of my interpersonal relationships and is one of the factors that goes into forming connections with other people. It's not a moral conviction at this point, or a philosophical quandary - it's kind of the opposite. Having no beliefs, no controversial opinions or desire to rock the boat. No convictions or expectations. Few personal connections that could get me dragged into a conflict, having basically exorcised all the concerns or cares worth fighting about from my mind, and then scabbing over the open avenues with scar tissue so new concerns and things worth fighting for can't get in. Pacifism has the very real potential to become Passive-ism.

The trouble then, is that if something, say a Rishon manages to smash through, you might end up putting all your eggs in one basket. Kevin failed specifically because he considered his "special conviction" something special about himself, and he counted himself as an exception or thought his way of thinking was "better" than others, instead of truly making it into his personal nature.

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Daru 2 years, 2 months ago

Lovely hearing about your praise for the cinematography here, as I thought that around this time the filming became particularly interesting - so great to hear about Marvin Rush.

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