“Whoever sows evil”: Tapestry


Also there's this scene. That's all I'll say about that.
And here I was all ready to write a lengthy, poetic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind-influenced essay too.

This may have been the biggest shocker for me in all the time I've been writing about Star Trek: The Next Generation for this project. Here's “Tapestry”, an episode so obviously a classic and a masterpiece it's taken for granted-It's right up there with “The Inner Light” in terms of stories that are absolutely peerless and are held up as definitive moments for the show without a second thought. Even I just immediately accepted it: I mean of course. It's “Tapestry”. How can you criticize something like that? Yeah, it uses the It's a Wonderful Life plot, which I find so far beyond hackneyed it transcends overused cliché to attain a new state of absolute fucking unwatchability, but this was traditionally the one exception I would suffer.

And I actually didn't like it very much.

I hasten to add I don't think this episode is conceptually flawed at all; not in the slightest. I think the core idea here is good, brilliant actually: Fundamentally, “Tapestry” is about coming to terms with the person you were in your youth, embarrassing mistakes and all, because all of your past experiences helped shape you into the person you are today. It's the ultimate payoff for Commander Riker's comment way back in “The Last Outpost” about how “we can hardly hate the people we used to be”. It's an extremely Star Trek sort of moral, an immeasurably important one, and something I personally strive to live my life in accordance with even today.

The problem with “Tapestry” for me, and I say this with the caveat that I mean no disrespect to the man or his work personally, is that Ron Moore wrote it. I'm reasonably confidant I've now reached the point where I've realised I simply do not agree with Moore's favourite themes or his take on Star Trek and never well. His trademark signifiers are justifiably and rightfully all over “Tapestry”, and that keeps me from getting into the story. There's the conception of Q, a deft blend of his trickster god and judiciary personae playing the spirit who teaches Captain Picard a valuable lesson about aging. But this time it feels like there's a biting cynicism to it, Q just forcing Jean-Luc into a humilation conga for our amusement. After all, Picard and his crew are all complacent and snooty and stuck up and need to get knocked down a few pegs.

Something similar happens in John de Lancie's own “The Gift”, but somehow I don't like it or find it anywhere near as effective here. Yes, Q humiliates Picard in the beginning, but that might have been a hallucination or an alternate timeline and it's played more as payback for Q being humiliated in human form earlier in the series (that happened in the first volume of the comic line, if you recall). And actually “The Gift” is a really excellent point of comparison: That story also has Q taking Jean-Luc back into his past and features a similarly loose It's a Wonderful Life structure to make a point about making peace with the past, but that story has a far more entrancingly nebulous and dreamlike tone to it, and it's never entirely clear what exactly is going on or what Q's true motives are. Indeed, Q himself has a powerful sense of unknowable and actually downright fearsome cosmic mystery about him in “The Gift” he lacks anywhere else apart from “Encounter at Farpoint”, “All Good Things...” and perhaps “Q Who”. In “Tapestry”, Q just clowns around and taunts Captain Picard through the entire running time: He's less voice of the cosmos and more The Great Gazoo.

Not only is the structure far less ambitious (even down to the fact this Q has fashioned a very Abrahamic vision of the afterlife for Captain Picard's, and presumably our, benefit) the plot is far less compelling within the context of its themes. “The Gift” was about coming to terms with grief and tragedy, possibly the most painful manifestations of regret a person can face. “Tapestry” is about...how being a complete dick when you're a kid is awesome and it'll all be OK because you'll grow out of it at some point. When watching this episode this time I was instantly reminded of the row between Moore and Michael Piller way back in “The First Duty” about the ethics of sticking by your friends no matter what. In the comments under that post, many of you raised the perfectly valid point that servicemen (and it does tend to be men) lying to cover up fatal abuses of power and authority is a legitimately serious issue and shouldn't be kid-gloved away with the platitude “always stick by your friends”. And we see a similar instance of Moore going down that line of thought here.

Granted Ensign Whathisname's move of tampering with a pool table and pissing off some alien bruisers isn't as severe as lying to cover up criminal negligence or actual wartime atrocities, but Moore still phrases the ethical issue at hand as being one of standing by your friends no matter what. Jean-Luc's mistake is meant to be taking the mature high ground: That by not standing with his friends he paints himself as a moral coward and ultimately costs him the Enterprise. There are an unbelievable amount of things wrong with this line of thinking...First of all, it personally rankles me to see Moore espousing this kind of moral theory because the implication is that acting mature for your age is tantamount to being a cowardly killjoy and is going to cost you all your friends and the respect of your peers. As someone who's lived my entire life being told I act too old for my age, constantly only relating to people 5-10 years older than me (but never getting any respect from them and never becoming real friends with them because of the age gap) and never having any friends in my own generation, that touches a very particular nerve. If nothing else, it's a position Jadzia Dax's existence seems to refute.

It gets worse (well, at least in my estimation) when you bring in the fact that Moore sees this episode as interesting because of the contrast it draws between Captain Picard and Captain Kirk. In Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, Moore says
“I've always loved the notion that while Kirk was 'a stack of books with legs' when he went to the Academy and that he went on to become more of a hell-raiser and a womanizer as he matured, Picard had gone in the opposite direction. As a young man, he was so out of control and so wild that he did something stupid and got stabbed through the heart-which matured him in a different way. Picard became more studious, more cautious, more reserved. I was drawn to the story of how a mistake in your life turns out to be the pivot point that makes everything else in your life possible.”
It's interesting, of course, because it means Picard was like Kirk when he was young. Symbolically, Star Trek used to be like the Original Series, but eventually grew beyond that. Then we have to remember how Moore is fiercely loyal to the Original Series model of doing things, to the point he thinks it's an unworkable problem that the Star Trek: The Next Generation universe is utopian. In that light, it becomes impossible to view the scenes in the past as anything other than an indictment of Picard's character: Not being like Kirk (or at least the way Kirk was written and the way fandom lionizes him for being) turns Picard into an ineffectual, forgettable coward and drives him away from the “real” heroes.

Ironically enough, for being such a “young buck” and clearly writing from the perspective of a very young man, this, alongside his man-crush on Edward Jellico from “Chain of Command”, paints Moore as a terribly old-fashioned and actually borderline reactionary writer.

And “Tapestry” is so wonderfully oversignified too. There's the Nausicaans, of course, and everything that goes along with that particular invocation. When Captain Picard first enters Q's “afterlife”, it's a soft white light that seems to go on for infinity in all directions, just like the Celestial Temple. Q even makes a crack about humans and their fixation on linear time. Coming so soon after “Emissary” (and so soon before “Q Less”!), this is obviously incredibly loaded and meaningful. That it's nowhere near as good or as enjoyable as “Emissary” is beyond frustrating, and kills any enthusiasm I might have had for a more lyrical and experimental reading. It's not an awful piece of television, but it's a massive disappointment in a season that's been so reliably strong so far.

Once and for all, this episode proves to me that the real problem with Star Trek: The Next Generation isn't any hypothetical conceptual or design flaw, it's the people writing it.


David Faggiani 5 years, 2 months ago

Yes, Tapestry is a bit of a strange one. It also seems to big up abstinence in your youth too, as it's pretty conclusively shown that Picard sleeping with his female friend was a mistake.

Even as a kid of 10, I thought something was wrong about their 'morning after' scene, and I think I've figured out what it is. She seems weird with him, which is fine, maybe that went too far for her and her friendship with 'Johnny'. But why doesn't Picard seem weirded out? I don't blame him for sleeping with her, that would of course be a potent fantasy, revisiting a 'never-was' young adult' crush as a wiser, more confident soul (in disguise, effectively!), but why doesn't adult Picard seem the one that is ashamed, or at least conflicted, the next morning? He's essentially just taken advantage of a young woman (much, much younger) under false pretences. Shouldn't this at least bother him? Instead, all that seems to bother him is her rejection. That's pretty dark...

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David Faggiani 5 years, 2 months ago

Also, if you are thinking about the theoretical link between the Celestial Temple and the Q Continuum, I came up with a fun theory a few months back which casts a bit of light on one possible version of that! It's pretty bonkers tin foil, and far too long to relate here, but it's given me a lot of pleasure!

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Froborr 5 years, 2 months ago

Hmm. My reading of "Tapestry" has always been a little bit different, I think. It's not that being a hellraiser when you're young is great. It's not, and Picard still carries the consequences of that. Rather, it's that Picard naturally became more careful and conscientious as he aged. That's what the process of maturation was for him. So a Picard that started as careful and conscientious as the one we know would, by the time he reached that age, be much too careful and conscientious.

But then I'm a cynical old bastard who enjoys watching the TNG cast get knocked down a peg, and I'm more interested in people reaching for utopia than people already living in one, so.

Tangentially, since you mentioned the Prophets and I just played it last night, one of the new STO missions involves an Orb that was swapped with its Mirror Universe equivalent, and you have to return it to the Mirror Prophets. I fully expected them to go the boring route and have the Mirror Prophets be functionally indistinguishable from the Pah Wraiths, but they didn't. The Mirror Universe Prophets and the religion built around them are indistinguishable from the Prophets and Bajoran religion of the primary universe. The only difference is that where the vision of the main universe Prophets has them using the forms of major friendly NPCs, the Mirror Prophets use the forms of villains. But they're still basically benevolent and helpful, albeit very alien.

Still mulling over how I feel about that and the implications of it, given how weird the Mirror Universe is conceptually to begin with.

(Fleet Admiral Leeta, Savior/Conqueror of the Galaxy remains the best thing STO has done with the Mirror Universe. Hearing Chase Masterson say "This is Admiral Leeta, captain of the Enterprise" last night was one of the highlights of the game thus far.)

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Ross 5 years, 2 months ago

I liked Tapestry, but I remember at the time thinking that I was basically done with stories about how it was wrong to try to change your own past because blah blah shitty things in your past blah blah character building.

There is, interestingly, a 1996 interactive fiction game of the same name which has exactly the same premise: at his moment of death, the fates offer the protagonist the chance to relive three moments from his past, with the player having the choice to try to change things, leave them as they are, or not-change-things-but-change-his-understanding-of-them (for example, there's a very Silent Hill 2-prefiguring scene where the player has to decide whether to euthenize his dying wife)

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K. Jones 5 years, 2 months ago

This is always tough. I've been thinking of a lot of narrative flashback storytelling lately, and I'm not sure that contextually dilemmas of "who you are now taking advantage of who people are then" can count as unethical or egregious any more than having a memory of being in the moment, not unstuck-in-your-old-body would be.

When applied to any of us, the fantasy logic kind of falls apart, because obviously we have our memories, but the implication that Picard is within some sort of living memory and he's reliving things may be awkward (as it is when you live it in the first place, sometimes) but isn't scurrilous. I'm not sure I'm being as clear with the central focus of it as I could be, though. It's a thought about flashbacks in general and sci-fi "Wonderful Life" scenarios in particular that I have yet to really crystallize.

But that scene was definitely erring on the side of a male gazey, "women are the ones who get awkward" trope instead of doing something more interesting.

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K. Jones 5 years, 2 months ago

Tapestry's a great example of how what I like about Star Trek isn't what the larger fandom likes about Star Trek. But I've always known that I'm not like anyone who I'd hesitantly call a peer.

To that, I actually just genuinely don't like it. It's a quality episode but nothing about the premise appeals to me. First of all, while I'm okay with flashbacks, I generally don't like "Year One" type scenarios that essentially try to retroactively fill in backstory, killing a character's mystique and telling a story we know the ending to already in one fell swoop.

The fact of the matter is we already know from context clues and a lot of subtext who Picard "used to be". We know that he's an middle-aged-to-older man in a show called "Next Generation", markedly older than most of the people he's traveling with. We've seen him contrasted with other men his age who've remained stuck in the Crap Starfleet or Kirk Trope lifestyles while he's been able to evolve and grow and learn from his young companions.

Ostensibly we already know that he was something of a would-be Kirk and that at some point he grew out of it and made himself better. And what's more, we know this story already, too, because he literally already told it to us and Wesley.

And much like The Inner Light, as well-crafted as they are, I skip it a lot.

Anyway, none of this is a negative indictment, it's just to say that I haven't got any patience for mopey, reflective flashbackery, because it's already so clear that Picard is a man who lives for the present and future, and doesn't dwell in the past.

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