“Welcome aboard. Now rewrite act three for me and have it on my desk by this evening.”
That’s how Ira Steven Behr was welcomed to Star Trek: The Next Generation by Michael Piller on his first day as producer and staff writer. That gives you an idea of what this show’s behind-the-scenes climate was like during the third season: Behr recalls how even though he was a veteran writer and producer, this was like no other show he’d ever worked on before. Everyone was frantically writing and rewriting stories, absolutely nothing was ready to go, and it stayed like that for the entire year. The insane workload eventually burned Behr out so badly that he walked away from Star Trek after only one season, and only came back to the franchise at Michael Piller’s personal request four years later when he and Rick Berman were drafting up what would become Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s sister show. We’ll talk more about Behr and his influence once we get to the fist story he actually wrote himself (as opposed to ones he did an uncredited rewrite of at the eleventh hour to get them into a marginally filmable state), but that script that Behr rewrote the third act of on his first day happens to be this one: “The Hunted”.
“The Hunted” is perishingly easy to explain. It is straightforwardly First Blood on the Starship Enterprise and, in spite of its positively ridiculous production history, it works and is a solidly watchable hour of television. There are moments in which it reveals its functionality as a work, and, frustratingly, when it does it’s at its most Original Series-esque: Even that third act Ira Behr worked on is one big chase through a bunch of pre-existing sets with a lot of flying fisticuffs and choreographed doofy fight scenes (Which isn’t altogether surprising as Behr, for a number of reasons, was never entirely comfortable with Star Trek: The Next Generation, being much more familiar with the Original Series). That’s not to say it’s entirely without merit, as the gambit our John Rambo analog, Roga Danar, pulls off is truly laudable in its cleverness and sophistication, even if he does kinda end up making the Enterprise crew (save Worf) look like a bunch of idiots in the process. Also memorable to me are the scenes where Danar is clomping around the Jeffries Tubes trying to misdirect the crew: The sets are some of the best interior designs of the year, exuding a palpable sense of being a sprawling, labyrinthine maze of corridors. Furthermore, Marvin Rush’s use of subtle red mood lighting really sets the tone for these scenes and also happens to look really cool. Actor Jeff McCarthy’s presence and swagger compliment this splendidly; he really sells the tension and walks around like he owns the place.
Which leaves examining the wisdom of doing First Blood on Star Trek: The Next Generation in the first place, which there is, even if it’s not entirely intuitive. Although later eclipsed by the blockbuster Sylvester Stallone franchise they spawned, the original book and movie both tell the story of displaced Vietnam veteran John Rambo who returns home only to find he’s no longer welcome in his country. Constantly harassed by a thuggish police force and shunned by his peers, Rambo eventually runs off into the wilderness and snaps back into “Vietnam mode”, launching a manhunt against his tormenters by treating them like enemy combatants in a war. What makes First Blood so effective is that, the one-man war action climax aside, Rambo’s experience is almost note-for-note the same as pretty much every real-life returning Vietnam veteran, who came back from an unethical, unjustified and piss-poorly managed war to face the brunt of the blame by an uncaring government, a disgruntled populace and a radical left that was neither coherent nor effective enough to seize the discourse of the time.
Readers of this blog will undoubtedly, and correctly, leap to condemn any act of imperialism and warmaking as inherently oppressive and destructive to freedom, egalitarianism and quality of life. I would sympathize and agree. But it’s our responsibility as the new radical left in an era where once again the counterculture has atrophied to the point of irrelevance to not make the same mistakes as our forebearers in the 1970s did-The operational parameters of the corporate-state war machine were not the same in 1973 as they were in 2003 or the way they are now, for that matter. While certainly no-one would, or should, take up the mantle of “Support the troops, not the war” after that philosophy was appropriated and turned into a propaganda catchphrase by the George W. Bush administration, we always have to remember that when we talk about soldiers in the Vietnam conflict we’re almost universally talking about people who had absolutely no desire to go over and fight a war, but who had no choice in the matter because they were drafted. These were people coercively taken and forced to become weapons of war by a paranoid and sadistic US government, which is why the mental and chemical “reprogramming” of Roga Danar in “The Hunted” is such an apt metaphor. These people were literally used and thrown out like the tools of capitalism they were.
And the radical left of the 1960s and 1970s utterly failed to pick up on this or react to it in any remotely constructive large-scale manner: The discourse of the time was dominated by the Hippies, the Yippies and the Situationalists and their self-indulgent psychedelic street theatre performance art pieces that they did an abjectly shitty job of explaining to everyone else who wasn’t them. Yes, protest the war and stand against imperialism and oppression, but for the love of God understand and clearly explain what those things are and why and how they’re so destructive. Material social progress by and large comes from people opting out of a decaying system until it collapses and a better one can spring in its place. Change comes through education and winning hearts and minds (and sometimes large-scale populist uprising), not from one miniscule and statistically irrelevant subculture flipping off the world and running away to live in a commune somewhere. We lead by example, we don’t yell and scream incomprehensible slogans at people who don’t care about or understand us anyway.
I know this as well as I can know anything, because it’s exactly what happened in my family. My father was drafted for service in Vietnam and came home to shoulder the blame for the whole ordeal. His experience with the childish and counterproductive radical left of the time soured him on any form of activist leftism from that point onward, and that made life difficult once my own political leanings started to become apparent. To this day my father has immense difficulties trusting anyone, a habit my mother’s own unique neuroses have simply compounded. The two of them moved to Vermont to hide from the rest of the world and surround themselves in an echo chamber. This is how right-wing fundamentalists are born. The radical left of the Long 1960s failed about as decisively and catastrophically as anything is capable of failing, as with the election of Richard Nixon, the subsequent conservative counter-revolution and stories like that of my father’s, it can be not unconvincingly argued its biggest material legacy was bringing about the exact polar opposite of what its stated intentions were.
But this is the 1980s. A new generation has stepped up to bat. The Enterprise crew is rightly horrified at what the Angsosians have done to their soldiers, but they also demonstrate boundless patience and empathy when faced with an angry, bitter and confused man who only ever wanted to live a normal and fulfilling life. It’s particularly a fine showcase for Deanna, who convinces Danar that even he is worthy of happiness and a future and Data, who delivers one simple, yet powerful line: “My programming can be overwritten. Yours cannot?”. This is also another strong episode for furthering the show’s theme of placing the Enterprise and the Federation in conflict: Picard sides with Danar, but his hands are tied by the Federation, who would have him turn Danar over dispassionately and emotionlessly to uphold their treaty with Angosia. Instead, he gets by on a technicality: The Enterprise reminds Danar a better life is possible, than gives him a fight for survival through its corridors because that’s the only way he knows to communicate. And in the end, the crew has facilitated an armed populist uprising against a stolid hegemonic authority without actually getting themselves in trouble with the Federation: As Picard says, he’s seen all he needs for his report and he’s returned their prisoner to boot.
The beginning of empathy comes through understanding the perspective of others, even if we don’t always agree with the descisions it leads them to make. And on top of that, this episode gives us yet another of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s iconic quotes when Captain Picard sadly observes “’A matter of internal security’. The age-old cry of the oppressor”.
Apart from First Blood, this episode also puts me in mind of the Original Dirty Pair episode “Red Eyes are the Sign of Hell”, in which Kei and Yuri investigate the inexplicably renewed hostilities of a group of rebels fighting a decades-long civil war, but who were on the verge of signing a peace treaty. It’s eventually revealed the increased tension is the work of a series of unprovoked and incredibly brutal attacks on both sides by a third party, an elite group of super-soldiers who, like Danar, were forcibly taken from their home worlds and reprogrammed to be killing machines. The soldiers are being remotely controlled by, of course, a hyper-capitalist arms dealer from atop his solar system sized star fleet who profits from endless war. But Original Dirty Pair took the theme one step further, by slaughtering the entire guest cast violently and senselessly. With each death, Kei and Yuri become visibly more shaken and disturbed until they finally adopt the mask of the Destroyer Goddess and smite the arms dealer’s entire fleet *by hand*. The point being, of course, that there can be no winners in this kind of situation, because such a situation only exists to poison and to hurt.
I’m not sure how I feel about Star Trek: The Next Generation positing a far more hopeful outcome. On the one hand, its job is to show us utopian solutions to problems, so that’s only to be expected. But I can’t help but feel that when it comes to war and imperialism, the only real solution is Kei and Yuri’s: To bring forth our inner Kāli and just burn everything to the ground, because death brings rebirth and moves the cycle of time. Once that’s done, we can rebuild our lives around the principles espoused by the other Mahavidyas, those of empathy, love and divine protection. This also unfortunately dates Star Trek: The Next Generation somewhat: As I said above, the military industrial complex doesn’t work the same way it did during the Vietnam conflict anymore, which means this episode’s moral, while a good one for the time, is somewhat ironically stuck there.