The title has a double meaning.
A war game is meant to be a test of someone’s prospective performance in a real combat scenario. But it itself is also a performance; an exaggerated caricature meant to stand in for a supposedly real thing. Symbols and objects are one and the same and the idea of a war is a real war, but paradoxically it’s the very unreality of war games that makes them in the remotest sense ethically defensible. Captain Picard is only half right when he says that “Starfleet is not a military organisation” and that “its purpose is exploration”, of course: He and his crew may think of themselves as explorers and scientists rather than soldiers, but Starfleet is very much a “military organisation”-That is, in fact, its single greatest flaw.
Which is why it’s so interesting that the Enterprise should play a war game explicitly in lieu of the recent revelation of the Borg’s existence. Kolrami thinks this is a needed precaution to prepare for open warfare against the Borg but, even though he’s the only one so far who has witnessed firsthand what the Borg can do, Picard, very tellingly, doesn’t take any of this especially seriously: He remains opposed to the whole concept of the thing from the beginning, and makes it clear that if he and his crew must go through with it, they’ll do so on their own terms. Indeed, its this very “joviality” that Kolrami resents in Commander Riker, seeing it as a sign of capriciousness when really its how he builds trust, community and and camaraderie, as Captain Picard also points out.
The way the Enterprise crew justify their taking part in a war game here is the same one I use to justify my enjoyment of strategy games in real life: By emphasizing the underlying mental exercise while downplaying the unpleasant connotations that tend to accompany tactics and strategy in real life. Commander Riker plays Strategema with Kolrami not to challenge or prove himself against a more experienced opponent (remember the attempt the show made to draw a line between him and his father in “The Icarus Factor”), but for the honour of playing with such a master of the game and because it’s fun. Similarly, he and Captain Picard, and their respective crews, approach the actual training exercise is as essentially an overblown game of Chess or Go. The appeal of the game for them is to guess the thought process of their friends, which, if you look at it a certain way, is another way of showcasing the close, familial bond they share with each other that Kolrami and his Starfleet peers find so upsetting (think back to Dexter Remmick here too). I’ll bet if they had access to Nintendo Wars, the Enterprise crew would likely hang up their phaser rifles for good.
An embrace of the unreality of mental strategy games is a good example of the crew’s knowingly recursive performativity, and an even better example of Star Trek: The Next Generation remaining true to its heritage and themes. In many ways, “Peak Performance” actually grants this central, inescapable criticism of Star Trek’s undeniable militarism as much as it starts to show the way to move beyond it: The only way things like rank structures, military protocol and strategic thinking is ever going to be acceptable is if it’s treated as a game; a charming diversion that can be occasionally engaged with for fun just as long as we remember none of it is actually real. I’ve previously complained about war games in the context of Star Trek when I wrote about the Star Fleet Universe, but this episode addresses every single one of my concerns by actually acknowledging that the artifice is the most important part of the experience at a textual level: For Captain Picard, Commander Riker and the crews of the Enterprise and the Hathaway, if not for Kolrami, the battle simulation is just a fun way to pass the time and bond with each other, completely divorced from the dehumanizing and imperialistic machinations of real combat. And so should it be for us.
Given how invested “Peak Performance” is in, well, performativity, it’s fitting that it should feature one of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s biggest invocations to date. The war game the crew plays here is canonically known as “Operation Lovely Angel”, and the planets in the Braslota system are actually called “Kei”, “Yuri” and “Totoro” (check the map the crew consults in the observation lounge if you don’t believe me). This is very important as, much like “Peak Performance”, Dirty Pair frequently examines the role of performativity in regards to action sci-fi and sci-fi violence. The conclusion it constantly reaches and stresses, of course, is that all of this is only acceptable if we all acknowledge that it’s make believe, and furthermore that it’s far more interesting this way anyway because it keeps us engaged with the actual material process of reading and storytelling (Kei and Yuri aren’t pro wrestlers for nothing). And here we have Star Trek: The Next Generation echoing this sentiment practically diegetically: Even with the Borg breathing down the proverbial neck, Star Trek: The Next Generation is resolute and unwavering in its unwillingness to turn itself into a self-serving, self-destructive orgy of phaser blasts and explosions, and that speaks to quite a lot in my view.
Dirty Pair has also, of course, cast a very harsh eye on the concept of war gaming, most notably in the Original Dirty Pair episode “Who Cares If They’re Only Kids!”. But even that was a bit more nuanced than it might have appeared at first glance: There the main issue was people, really boys and men who act like boys, treating real war as a game. These are warmakers who would and do strip all of the honour and ceremony from combat, thus further dehumanizing the process and the combatants (shades of Japan’s warrior culture heritage are in play here to an extent). Kei in particular would be one to talk if she came down on war games, given her own love of arcade space battle games and first person shooters. But the Lovely Angels are not warriors per se, except in very particular circumstances, and nor do they go out and willfully cause destruction and property damage; that would be completely anathema to them and a rejection of the series’ basic ethical stance. When they *are* forced to fight for real, they always treat the situation as incredibly grave and somber, and Dirty Pair is absolutely not ashamed of painting those who would intentionally go out and start wars as the most disgustingly reprehensible of human beings-Just look at Mazoho in “Red Eyes are the Sign of Hell!”, Orun in Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia the military in that very episode.
(And take note: Who are the ones who take things one step too far and escalate the playful war game into an actual real-life, dangerous armed combat? The Ferengi, via another inspired turn by Armin Shimerman. And then, of course, there’s Starfleet and Kolrami, who similarly take things far too seriously.)
Though the Dirty Pair link is the most obvious and resonant one, the reference to Totoro is revealing in its own right: Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s connection to Hayao Miyazaki and his work is becoming intriguingly complex, what with Nausicaä stabbing Captain Picard through the heart in ritualistic combat and all. My Neighbor Totoro is debatably Miyazaki’s most famous work, though it frequently finds itself competing with Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away for that title. One thing all of these movies share, however (with the probable exception of Princess Mononoke), is that they’re all some manner of children’s literature (Nausicaä isn’t, and tellingly it’s Nausicaä among all of Miyazaki’s work with which Princess Mononoke shares the most similarities). Although he may be best known for it, Miyazaki’s children’s literature is atypical for both the genre and his own collective ouevre, which makes an interesting point of comparison with Star Trek: The Next Generation: Like a lot of Miyazaki’s work, it inherits some aspects of the children’s literary tradition, primarily by virtue of simply being idealistic, but it can’t really be placed into the genre it tends to get pegged as entirely, leading to a goodly amount of confusion and lack of understanding in popular discourse as to what it actually is.
I think what all of this comes down to is that Western society doesn’t really know what to do with adult works that are also utopian and idealistic, though this is probably true of modernist societies in general. There seems to be an in-built assumption that everything made for adults has to be cynical, dark and completely self-absorbed and that there’s no room for stories that do something above and beyond caricaturing and sensationalizing the drama of everyday life. What Dirty Pair, Star Trek: The Next Generation and the works of Hayao Miyazaki all do is demonstrate examples of utopian conflict resolution and social interaction at both an interpersonal and a naturist-cosmic level. On top of that, they’re also all unafraid to wear their spiritualism on their sleeve (it may not be as clear in Star Trek: The Next Generation yet, but it will be before this run is over), and I don’t think that’s something we as people raised in capitalist modernity quite know what to make of. Which is likely the reason why all three works are so badly, badly misunderstood.
True to form, “Peak Performance” makes this even more abundantly clear in its B-plot, where Data begins to question his judgment after losing his first Strategema match to Kolrami. it’s a brilliant, brilliant showcase for not only Data (who dispels any lingering concerns about his humanity through his actions here, Doctor Pulaski even wryly states “the effect is the same”, whether caused by human emotions or “android algorithms”), but for Doctor Pulaski, who is 180 degrees away from her initial characterization at the opposite end of the year. This episode has always stood out to me as the definitive portrayal of both her character and the way she interacts with Data: She fully recognises his personhood and agency and has become just as much his friend as anyone else on the Enterprise, but she’s also the one who can, like the best of doctors, cut through the navel-gazing trend in his metaphysics to get at the root of his thinking (indeed, and appropriately, she can do this for Deanna Troi as well: I just love “You may be able to sell Troi that line, but not me”). It’s irritatingly fitting poetic justice for a year that’s been marked by so much unsatisfying half-filled potential that Doctor Pulaski finally unambiguously works as a member of the Enterprise family in her penultimate appearance.
As much as it feels a bit too little too late, and history shows it certainly was so for this production team, “Peak Performance” is, along with “Elementary, Dear Data”, “A Matter Of Honor” and “Contagion”, among the scant handful of iconic moments that define the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation for me. Doctor Pulaski’s exchanges with Data here are, for me, right up there with the Sherlock Holmes romps, the 3D Enterprise dioramas and the Iconian gateways. Whenever I think about what this year looked like, felt like and sounded like…at least when it was actually working…These are the stories I think of.