“Unbound”: Parallels

(12 comments)


And this is it. We've arrived: The greatest episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation ever. Not necessarily in terms of abject quality, though “Parallels” is definitely one of the best outings of the year, and of the series in general, on that front as well. The reason this episode is the show's finest hour is because of the repercussions the events of this story have on all of Star Trek.
“For any event, there is an infinite number of possible outcomes. Our choices determine which outcome will follow. But there is a theory in quantum physics that all possibilities that could happen do happen in alternate quantum realities.”
What “Parallels” does is establish the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and whatever else you want to attach to it by association, as a quantum multiverse of literally infinite possibility. This is the actual plot of the episode, with Worf shifting between one reality to the next, each different from the other in ways both negligible and profound. It's textual on such a level that it's impossible to deny. Just look at all those Enterprises out there, and than try to think about how many more there could possibly be. Or even Galaxy-class starships that aren't called Enterprise and don't serve an imperialistic Federation. If anything that can happen does happen somewhere, there are absolutely no constraints on plots or themes or characters or anything anymore: If you can imagine it, it exists. Captain Picard is a pirate. Ro Laren made commander. Beverly Crusher a respected scientist. Kestra Troi grew up to be her sister Deanna's role model and best friend. Will Riker finally got together with Lyrinda Halk. Worf isn't an asshole. Tasha Yar and Sela really were the same person, or Tasha Yar stayed aboard the Enterprise to be Geordi La Forge's lover and closest ally.

Oh right, Tasha Yar. I'll come back to her later.

The point is, “Parallels” tells us Star Trek can be anything we want it to be. Anything. It canonizes the franchise's status as a living modern oral tradition by abolishing the idea of canon: The Lovely Angels came back to destroy the God Canon once and for all. Your interpretation is every bit as true as mine, because we all have a universe inside of us and we all share a universe together. “Parallels” takes the way we generate truths through reading and the operational process of the imaginal realm and writes it back into itself through a science fiction metaphor. It's astronomically brilliant, sublimely elegant and unfathomably oversignified genre fiction; the medium at its thematic and intellectual best. The kingmaking moment for Brannon Braga and, without exaggeration or hyperbole, the single most important and cosmically meaningful story this franchise has ever produced, or will ever produce. I can't think of a single other large-scale, ostensibly corporate controlled populist mass media franchise that has ever, or indeed would ever, come out and explicitly say this about itself. From now on, Star Trek will always belong to each and every one of us as individual and all of us together, and there's nothing any one person or group of oligarchs will ever be able to do about it again.

The ghost of Gene Roddenberry has finally been exorcised. As well as that of Rick Berman, Maurice Hurley, Michael Piller, Ronald D. Moore, Ira Steven Behr, even Brannon Braga himself. And anyone and everyone else. Star Trek has been “dispersed in clouds of narrative language”. There is no more ego here, because this is the collective dream of being.

The plot is completely irrelevant in the shadow of images, emotions and symbols, as it always is for Star Trek and as it always should be. It's well-written and entertaining, but superfluous. It's Good Television, but who cares? Fine, I'll throw you lot some lit crit bones. I like the Worf/Deanna stuff, but I wish it had been developed better earlier on in the show. I've always shipped them (or rather, I ship this version of them and the quantum figures who show up in some of the comics), but this rewatch I've noticed that their romance is questionably professional at best, because it's basically a guy falling for his therapist, who is also his co-worker. It works in this story though, quite well I might add, and that makes the further development from this point sail more smoothly. There are some deliberately awkward scenes and character interactions I could have personally done without (there's a quantum reality where they don't occur), but that's what mute buttons were invented for.

You can't get any more perfect than having Worf's visions of other realities sparked by Geordi and his VISOR: It feels like this is the first time Geordi's VISOR has actually been used properly and lived up to its symbolic and metaphorical potential since, like, “Heart of Glory”. Which just makes it all the more annoying that he's apparently dead in quite a number of universes: What got him, anyway? Is this the show trying to tell us something about how it's feeling in regards to its own sustainability? Frankly I'd rather have seen a universe where he got to be with Tasha Yar and...Oh right, Tasha Yar. She was supposed to be in this episode, filling Wesley's spot as tactical officer in the First Officer Worf universe. The team, however, decided against it because they felt it would have made the episode too similar to “Yesterday's Enterprise”, which is quite frankly an utter bullshit line of reasoning in *my* quantum reality.

The show's done alternate realities quite a few times between “Yesterday's Enterprise” and “Parallels” and no-one found that confusing. And while I know Denise Crosby is going to be in the finale, she doesn't get to come back as often as Wil Wheaton does, so having her here would have corrected the imbalance the show accrued by having her absent last season. They did it with Q. As it stands now, it kind of feels like the team is deliberately *looking* for excuses not to bring Tasha back, and that just comes across as spiteful. Now I'm not saying they were, but that's how it feels to me sometimes. Apparently, anything and everything can happen in a quantum multiverse *except* Tasha Yar being alive. And just think: Wesley gets a grand total of two lines, one of which is a bit of technobabble problem-solving. He didn't need that material-Think how much that would have strengthened and empowered Tasha's character if she had been the one to come up with the way to send Worf home. That one little bit of plot advancement would have been more than Tasha was allowed to contribute in her entire collective tenure as a regular and reoccurring character.

But my being able to imagine a universe where Tasha Yar was in “Parallels” merely speaks to the power that “Parallels” itself has. From the very outset of Vaka Rangi we've been interested in exploring utopianism through the counterfactual, and here's the counterfactual literally made fundamental to the entire Star Trek universe at the quantum level. Nothing I could write here as critique would make that any more powerful, empowering or inspiring. The universe is what you believe it to be, what you imagine it to be. We shape it every present moment of our lives through the decisions we make and the actions we take. And through knowing this truth, we can know our own higher selves. How could I ask for a better Star Trek statement than that? 

Star Trek: The Next Generation went on a voyage of discovery to learn about the universe and itself. And it found the key to unlocking the true nature of reality also unlocks its own limitless potential.

Comments

SK 11 months, 1 week ago

I can't think of a single other large-scale, ostensibly corporate controlled populist mass media franchise that has ever, or indeed would ever, come out and explicitly say this about itself

Well, there's Doctor Who, at least twice. And haven't various superhero comic book worlds also done something very similar?

And of course two years after this episode it would be the entire premise of Sliders, but I'll grant you that was never 'large-scale'.

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Froborr 11 months, 1 week ago

Both Marvel and DC have in fact done the opposite: introduced numbered, finite alternities. Crisis on Infinite Earths is pretty much the anti-"Parallels," a devouring of possibilities, reducing all of them down to a singular continuity.

And Doctor Who is owned by the British government, not corporate-controlled.

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SK 11 months, 1 week ago

Both Marvel and DC have in fact done the opposite: introduced numbered, finite alternities

I don't follow superhero comics much, on account of them being shite, but I'm sure I read about something… ah yes:

'The basic premise of the idea was summed up by writer Mark Waid as "It's all true." It presumes that all of the stories ever told about a character are equally valid stories'
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypertime

And Doctor Who is owned by the British government, not corporate-controlled.

It's actually owned by the British Broadcast Corporation, which is (a) independent of the government, and (b) a, um, corporation (clue's in the name).

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SK 11 months, 1 week ago

British Broadcasting Corporation, of course. Apologies.

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Sean Dillon 11 months, 1 week ago

I think the recent Secret Wars made the multiverse pretty much as finite as Franklin Richard's imagination, which is infinite, and Hypertime is one of the interesting concepts that Grant Morrison has come up with, and will thus be ignored by the writers and fans just like Peter Parker coming to terms with his part in Uncle Ben's death or Batman being anything other than a brooding loner who broods.

But yeah, Parallels was fun.

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Ross 11 months, 1 week ago

As I recall it, DC bounced around with "There are infinitely many universe" to "There is exactly one universe because it's somehow easier that way" to "It's Wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey" and finally settled on "There are exactly ten universes."

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Ross 11 months, 1 week ago

I can't think of a single other large-scale, ostensibly corporate controlled populist mass media franchise that has ever, or indeed would ever, come out and explicitly say this about itself

Well there's an episode of Stargate SG-1 which is pretty much an exact copy of this one.

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Matt Largo 11 months, 1 week ago

Long-time reader. Love the blog, enjoyed this post. It's kind of a sad irony that this would come up in the schedule the very week that CBS/Paramount brought the hammer down on those Axanar guys in court

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librarian-bot 11 months, 1 week ago

As above, long-time reader though I fear my livejournal name is getting in the way of posting comments so apologies for anything that fills up the spam filters.

The thing that makes Parallels stand out for me is the use of the near-identity of the alternatives, which is something that almost never comes up in parallel universe stories (at that level of subtlety, anyway) and the level of validity it grants to the alternatives. I'm not sure it strikes the same chord about blowing canon wide open/up but from what I remember, I didn't get the sense that these were 'cannon fodder' alternatives as per the usual invocation of the multiverse in, say, mainstream comicbooks (DC is particularly pathological in its apparent desire to obliterate all possible divergence; Marvel at least allows [or did] for an infinite series). All those Enterprises passing in the night, converging for just a brief moment before going on their way - perhaps it's the sense of their journeys intersecting rather than tripping over or slamming into each other that makes it seem more palatable than the usual 'worlds collide!!' approach.

Certainly other shows use alternatives but I'm struggling to think of one that has come up with an image to match all those ships spiraling around for conveying the sheer scale a multiverse offers and, strangely enough, for giving them equal weight. The eye cannot pick out the canon-favoured vessel so for an instant at least, all are legitimate and equally valid.

Even Doctor Who, placed as it is to embrace a canon so wide open that it is meaningless, falters a little on that score. The effect of the lunatics taking over the asylum has been to allow concerted efforts to legitimise all the contradictory and separate ephemera that have existed since the first Doctor Who comic strip flatly contradicted what was onscreen, yet there remains a strain of line-drawing and favoritism. It generally seems to prefer folding everything into one canon over allowing multiplicity. Not a bad thing, per se, but not necessarily the best of all possible options.

Or do I mean worlds?

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Ross 11 months, 1 week ago

The effect of the lunatics taking over the asylum has been to allow concerted efforts to legitimise all the contradictory and separate ephemera that have existed since the first Doctor Who comic strip flatly contradicted what was onscreen, yet there remains a strain of line-drawing and favoritism. It generally seems to prefer folding everything into one canon over allowing multiplicity.

There is a plot-arc in the Doctor Who novels around the fact that it is absolutely impossible for parallel universes to exist, conveniently ignoring the episode based explicitly on them.

There is also a plot arc where they go all Crisis on Infinite Earths and have the bad guy destroy all but one possible universe.

(And all that is to say nothing of the universe where Gillian Anderson played the eleventh Doctor.)

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Robert Hutchinson 11 months, 1 week ago

I like Worf more here and in future episodes this season, and I think it's largely because, in interacting more with Deanna, the writers were pretty much forced to stop making him such an asshole.

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Daru 10 months, 2 weeks ago

"The point is, “Parallels” tells us Star Trek can be anything we want it to be. Anything. It canonizes the franchise's status as a living modern oral tradition by abolishing the idea of canon"

Absolutely one of my total favourite episodes too. Anything within a show that cracks the egg of corporate ownership over stories and ideas themselves is important in my book. And especially as you say above, any story that opens up our connection the the oral traditions and completely gives that permission for new stories back to us isn't just special, it's as far as I am concerned vital for the spiritual wellbeing of our communities.

Wonderful piece Josh.

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