“Dark Thoughts”: Violations
So. There are a handful of episodes that, irrespective of their quality one way or another, I simply cannot watch. This would be one of those.
The first strike against “Violations” is that it’s one of those infamous “Issues” stories. Even though this is the kind of story Star Trek is arguably most famous for doing, the fact of the matter is they’re also the kind of story Star Trek is also the most terrible at telling. There’s no way it can do a story like this and not come across as equal parts blinkered and self-absorbed. The best way for Star Trek to do “social commentary”, as it were, is through its utopianism: Demonstrate a utopian approach to solving a problem or portray a world where a specific problem is conspicuously absent. Conversely, if you must tell a story about a specific social topic that would no longer be strictly speaking relevant in a utopian future setting, you have to speak about it in allegorical generalization. The problem “Violations” has is that it doesn’t quite commit one way or the other, which is deeply unfortunate as it also happens to be “The Rape Episode”.
I’m not even sure how to tactfully go about this. I mean, I think the story has its heart in the right place, but it’s deeply, deeply uncomfortable to watch, and not in a good way. And just being right-on politically and ethically does not mean can adequately translate that into a narrative setting. Alien this isn’t, that’s for sure. Actually, Alien might be a good place to start: Like “Violations”, that’s a story that is at its roots a condemnation of rape and rape culture told mostly through allegory. But while the Alien eventually did end up going around indiscriminately slaughtering people, the key thing there was that the first victim was male, part of an attempt to force male audience members to come face-to-face with the rape culture they have been brought up a part of. “Violations” already comes up short by comparison, because two of its three victims are women and the first is…Deanna Troi. Someone who has an unsettling predisposition to mind rape. And this one doesn’t even have the excuse most of Deanna’s possession plots do (that being allowing Marina Sirtis to actually do shit) as she’s comatose for most of this episode.
Another crucial aspect of Alien‘s success is the fact that so much of it is conveyed through its own awareness of its cinematic nature. It’s a film so loaded with symbolic imagery that it basically runs on it (thanks in no small part to H.R. Giger and Ridley Scott), demonstrating a peerless mastery of Long 1980s cinematography. “Violations”, meanwhile…doesn’t. It’s a further continuation of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s frustratingly conservative and dated filmmaking techniques, and this is a major problem for a story like this because of the subject matter. Alien is a veritable attack on our cinematic habits and tendencies: Through editing it equates the leering voyeurism of the audience with the predatory monstrosity of the Alien, forcing them to confront the realities of rape culture they have internalized. “Violations” meanwhile is itself voyeuristic as it gives us free inside access to the crew’s personal traumas (and you can discuss among yourselves whether any of them are a fitting metaphor for rape).
This is the real consequence of an adolescent fixation on conflict and glorification of traditional cinematic techniques. You wind up acritically reiterating rape culture and the male gaze, even in stories that are supposed to criticize those very concepts.
(Speaking of cinematic techniques, it’s probably worth pointing out that “Vioaltions” marks a baby-step forward in developing Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s handle on psychological horror, which will become a signature of its in the next two seasons. It’s not conveyed as effectively as it could have been though and feels…“off” in this story to me. It’s certainly got nothing on “Night Terrors”, for instance. Also I should note it’s not altogether an ill-advised move to describe rape through painful memories given the link it can have to post traumatic stress disorder, though I’m not sure that link is made quite well enough.)
“Violations” isn’t even saying anything particularly new or productive except “rape is bad” which yeah, it definitely is that and that’s a lesson a good many science fiction fans could probably stand to learn, but I would sort of hope Star Trek: The Next Generation would be able to touch more at the heart of rape culture and show the path out of it. I suppose this episode, or an episode like this, was in some sense “necessary” given how perpetually mired in rape culture the original Star Trek was and how backwards-fixated, reactionary and fannishly introspective a lot of this creative team is. I could imagine there being sort of a sense that an injustice or imbalance needed to be corrected, thus leading to a pitch like this. But does “Violations” even accomplish this comparatively more meager goal? I don’t think it does: It even ends on an incredibly awkward line for Captain Picard:
“But I think no one can deny that the seed of violence remains within each of us. We must recognize that, because that violence is capable of consuming each of us, as it consumed your son.”
Um, well, yes, I think I’d deny it. I mean for one its a cringe-inducingly pat Captain Kirk-style line that Captain Picard would never say and doesn’t belong anywhere near this show, but more importantly it couldn’t actually be more wrong. What this line is basically saying is that rape culture is an intrinsic aspect humanity, all of humanity, and it’s just an impulse we have to control. And no, it’s not. It absolutely is not. This is the kind of thinking that has normalized rape culture for centuries, and it’s the merest of stone’s throws from something like this to flat-out victim blaming.
I can’t think of a worse way, actually, to end an episode that’s supposedly a condemnation of rape and rape culture. Those who must live in fear of rape culture do not have “the seed of violence” because they are oppressed and marginalized, and this kind of violence is a weapon directed against the oppressed and the marginal. That’s what rape fundamentally is, an attempt to demonstrate absolute power and authority over someone else, and that’s the point “Violations” fails to make. Rape culture is part of patriarchy, and like all of patriarchy it’s a social construct that has become a behavioural pattern repeated unconsciously without question. But human society, like history, is not teleological. There was never any predisposition that this would become the default mode of social organisation: We collectively chose this, and now it’s up to us to choose to reject it.
July 15, 2015 @ 12:33 am
There was never any predisposition that this would become the default mode of social organisation
Well, except the fact that people are basically shits, of course.
July 15, 2015 @ 4:35 pm
I was ready to launch into the allegorical comparison of rape culture being presented through the lens of "male privilege culture", being ultimately self-defeating, but there you had it as your pithy final few sentences.
I'll warrant that it was definitely a lesson nerd-culture needed to learn in 1991-92. And I'll even warrant that compared to some (not all, but maybe most) of their contextual peers, Star Trek's foresight here was probably considered quite advanced. The early 90s, after all, were a very long time ago and by god have we made some leaps and bounds since then, and those I feel like (maybe because I grew up ensconced in it) may more have been the result of Neo-Feminism more than anything else, which was happening at the same time as TNG.
We certainly praise Next Gen when it's showcasing early examples of things we hold as truisms today, but we shouldn't forget ever that it's essentially something that exists at a halfway-point between The Original Series and "Now". (God, even now if Star Trek went back on TV would we ever see a majority of women writers, and women producers? At least now there'd be the chance of a more 50/50 split.)
As for the episode itself, I can't watch it either. Though I find myself less discomforted and more embarrassed. Even in my less empathetic teen years I thought this was a little too Junior High Health Class and could use some nuance and like, "real life human experience".
July 15, 2015 @ 9:49 pm
It was such a clunky and clumsily constructed episode, made all the more worse by the fact that as you say most of those attacked were women and the first was Deanna!
Yeah I do not think it was enough just to leave us there, saying "well we just accept this is as a part of our culture and it's up to us to deal with how to live with it". That's putting your head in the sand and removes all thought of agency.
July 15, 2015 @ 11:48 pm
I believe this was the first episode of TNG I ever saw. God knows what I made of it at the age of 8.
July 15, 2015 @ 11:49 pm
Oh god, and we've got The Outcast coming up….
July 15, 2015 @ 11:49 pm
Thank god for Cause and Effect.