“Griefs and Anxieties”: The Loss
Ugh, but first we have to sit through “The Loss”.
Last time we talked a bit about how speculative fiction can sometimes get so caught up in its own ideas it neglects certain other aspects of good storytelling convention. And we also mentioned how Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s various creative teams have pretty much always had a problem with their characters, for some reason never quite managing to find a way to make them understandably human while also maintaining the idealism they’re supposed to represent (a problem that is, I should point out, exclusively limited to the TV series side of things at this point in time. Michael Jan Friedman has never once been tripped up by this). “The Loss” is the most cringe-worthy and egregious example of this worrisome trend we’ve seen to date, because nobody on the Enterprise seems to furrow quite as many brows in the writer’s room as Deanna Troi.
Wesley may have been sent of in an excessively tropish way, but at least it seems like “Final Mission” was something the creative team was onboard with and knew how to approach, even if the way they approached it was glaringly lacking in ambition. Yes there’s still a glut of Picard, Riker and Data stories such that even if you don’t like specific individual episodes about them, there’s almost certainly another one you will, and no, don’t get me going on Tasha Yar again, but the fact remains that we’re at a point in the show’s history where even Worf and Doctor Crusher have had extensive (and more or less effective) stories dedicated to them. And even so poor Deanna Troi gets shunned like she somehow offended every single crewmember on the series. The only other character who elicits anywhere near the same amount of confused emotions from Star Trek creator types seems to be Geordi La Forge, and we’ll deal with the issues he gets saddled with at the end of the season.
With “The Loss” though, the show tries to do for Deanna much the same thing it had done to Captain Picard last season in “The Best of Both Worlds”: Strip away something vital and fundamental to her character and see what’s left behind. But it plays out very differently for Deanna than it did for Captain Picard-“Family” notwithstanding, the whole ordeal with the Borg and Locutus was supposed to be about demonstrating how human Picard really was by showing what he looked like as the hollow shell of a human: Something is defined by its absence wherein we notice what we’ve taken for granted when we notice it’s no longer there. “The Loss” is sort of the inverse of that-The episode plays out almost as a critique of Troi, trying to show that how, absent the one thing that defines her as a character, she’s rendered a seething, barely-constructed bundle of negative emotion. It feels altogether more malicious than “The Best of Both Worlds”, and that’s concerning for a lot of reasons.
Picard is allowed to be sympathetic and dignified, while Deanna is portrayed as basically a spoiled brat. Once again I think the reason for this is fairly obvious, but, because I’ve used up my reserves of unbridled rage on “Reunion” and “Final Mission”, I’m not going to go on at great length about why. You’re all intelligent enough to make the cognitive leap yourselves.
Plainly, the supposed “five stages of grief” play an important role in this story, but I think that’s so obvious as to basically not even be worth mentioning. It’s essentially what the whole plot is about, and it’s not shy about making sure you picked that up. What’s more interesting to me is what Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann say about this in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365: They read this episode as in a sense a critique of Deanna Troi’s supposed “holier than thou” attitude. For them, the crucial moment is the end when she regains her empathic powers, as it’s only then when she reaches the “acceptance” stage. About that, they say, in what is quite possibly the single nastiest out-of-context quote in the entire book
“Well, it’s easy to be gracious and say nice things about being human when you’re so much more than human, isn’t it? Would she have reached acceptance without regaining her powers? Quite possibly-so long as her human friends kept her plied with chocolate.”
It should be noted here that Block and Erdmann are admitted Original Series fans, because I think this passage sums up a lot of latent, unspoken (well, if we’re lucky they’re unspoken) problems a lot of people, especially Original Series fans, have with Star Trek: The Next Generation. We’ve spoken at length before about how fixated everyone seems to be on “conflict” and this show’s supposed lack of it without realising what the show is actually trying to do with its utopian setting. And, to be fair, the show itself doesn’t always know what it’s doing with its utopian setting. In fact, it rarely does, especially in the past year and a half. In the context of Original Series fandom, a lot of this criticism of a perceived lack of conflict is really just code for the fact TOS fans miss the racist banter between Spock and McCoy, but there is another kernel here worth parsing out.
The thing is, because of confusion over Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s utopia, and it’s a confusion I’ll freely admit can often be found on both sides of the producer/consumer divide, a lot of people think the Enterprise crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation believe themselves to be superior to everyone else. It’s this elitism charge that most worries me, as this is precisely the sort of thing the Enterprise crew should be fighting against: Indeed, the whole relationship between them and their superiors at Starfleet Command ought to be the crew constantly calling their bosses out on their Earth-centric bias and barely reconstructed xenophobia and neo-imperial impulses. As I’ve said many, many times before, the Enterprise crew is meant to genuinely, unironically embody the ideals the Federation can only pretend are theirs, or co-opt for their pseudo-progressive state-sponsored ideology. That so many people, including people who are going to go on and write future Star Trek stories (in particular ones that are openly self-critical and deconstructive in tone), seem to have utterly missed this rather crucial underpinning of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s basic moral philosophy is quite frankly alarming, and can only be seen as something of a failing of the show itself as well.
And I think, unfortunately, this is what’s happened to Deanna Troi as of “The Loss”. As she’s the daughter of an ambassador and technically royalty (though don’t forget Deanna herself said the Sacred Chalice of Rixx was an “old clay pot with mold growing inside it” in “Ménage à Troi”) as well as a mind reader, she could be seen as the most privileged member of a crew a lot of people have read as being elitist. So because of that, and because she’s a woman (because misogyny), “The Loss” takes an almost visceral pleasure in “bringing Deanna down to our level” and humiliating her (notice how when this happened to Data in “The Most Toys” it was played as almost a tragic drama, while this just feels spiteful). In particular, any of the scenes involving Will or Doctor Crusher are basically unwatchable due to just how awful it makes Deanna out to be, and that’s so depressing to me at this point I can’t even muster up the energy to get angry about it.
I am also aware there is a popular reading of this episode that posits it as a nuanced and sympathetic treatment of disability. This is a reading that’s endorsed by a lot of the production team as well, with Rick Berman citing it as an interesting take on blindness. According to Berman, the episode was about what would happen “If you were the only sighted person in a colony of blind people and suddenly you lost your vision and they all said ‘So what?'”. Michael Piller is a bit cooler on the issue, saying it was a tough script to get a feel for and they went with it because they needed a Troi episode, and that the blindness theme wasn’t as clear as it should have been.
Of course the obvious question from me is “Did you guys just forget you have an actual blind character in your main cast?” Well, actually, I guess they must have done given the sorts of stories about Geordi we’ll be looking at eventually. For her part Marina Sirtis says she got a lot of letters from disabled people thanking her for her performance, saying that she captured the emotions they had gone through perfectly. And, well, I’m not one to argue with the experiences of actual disabled people, but I have to confess that while I can maybe see it in Sirtis’ performance, I can’t see it in the script.
And it’s Marina Sirtis who this all kind of comes back to me. “The Loss” exists, according to Michael Piller, essentially to throw her a bone. And, truth be known, Sirtis is very good at portraying heavily charged and intense emotion: If I were to try and derive a more positive reading from this episode, I’d point out how I’m reminded of Tasha’s (oh look, I worked her into the essay after all!) emotional breakdown in “Hide and Q” and how much I thought that made more sense for Troi, as it would seem to follow that a character who spent all day dealing with the emotions of others might have some trouble with her own. But that character wouldn’t have lashed out and alienated those close to her-She would have known to seek them out for guidance and support. But Marina Sirtis is good at big, sweeping powerful and commanding emotions, and what “The Loss” makes clear if nothing else is that episodes that are quite good for Marina Sirtis are very bad for Deanna Troi.
April 28, 2015 @ 10:37 pm
That so many people, including people who are going to go on and write future Star Trek stories (in particular ones that are openly self-critical and deconstructive in tone), seem to have utterly missed this rather crucial underpinning of Star Trek: The Next Generation's basic moral philosophy is quite frankly alarming, and can only be seen as something of a failing of the show itself as well
'All the boys but my Johnny are marching out of time.'
April 29, 2015 @ 5:32 am
I stumbled onto Vaka Rangi recently and read quite a few posts over the weekend on TOS episodes and films that I remember quite well – and watching both "Bread and Circuses" and "Journey To Babel" based on comments in other posts.
Then I decided to watch the next episode of TNG due for coverage, having no idea which episode it was. (Sadly, I'm more familiar with Voyager than the rest of the franchise.) I may well have seen "The Loss" before, but I certainly won't bother again. The analysis, however, was as reliably interesting as I've come to expect.
Keep up the good work, and I hope "Data's Day" proves a better episode.
April 29, 2015 @ 6:35 am
This is one of the ones I recall, even as a child, feeling off in a way I couldn't quite verbalize at the time. The way everyone treated Troi losing one of her senses as if she should just Man Up And Grow A Pair, because she was still human-baseline-fully-abled, therefore that one of her senses was really "optional". A perk.
It didn't occur to me until much much later that Deanna never actually talks about it, but it must have been really hard for her, being a limited telepath growing up on a planet of full telepaths. She was already profoundly handicapped by betazoid standards — she's already gone through learning to cope with a "disability". I'm not sure I even have words for just how petty it is to have the rest of the crew treat her like a wimp.
April 29, 2015 @ 12:05 pm
Thank you for saying so and I'm very happy you're enjoying the blog!
Not to worry about "Data's Day": I think we're all going to be profoundly grateful for that one 😉
April 30, 2015 @ 12:38 am
Don't give up, Thor. You just hit a bum episode. Go back to the first season and check out Too Short a Season. That one became my favourite after revisiting it thanks to Josh's post. And don't forget The Bonding, Yesterday's Enterprise, Tin Man, and Remember Me.
April 30, 2015 @ 11:54 am
Oh, SK, you adorable little goblin scamp. The point of blogs like this isn't to reflect and relate accurately the facts of the production teams' own goals and understandings of what Star Trek is and what/who it's for. That would just be a reference book. That's no more Vaka Rangi's goal than it was ever TARDIS Eruditorum's.
Vaka Rangi identifies one core idea in the whole range of possible meanings that Star Trek could have for us, an idea that Josh chose because it was particularly close to his heart. That Star Trek is an illustration of utopian progress, striving to improve ourselves and improve our world in doing so, working in the world toward the justice we seek.
It's an that's rather important to how I want to live the rest of my own life and career as well. It's why, however much I love TARDIS Eruditorum, it moved me through my love for Doctor Who itself. Eruditorum's conception of mystical threads running through all of Doctor Who was fascinating, but I don't associate as deeply with alchemy as I do with utopian dreaming.
But it's no more a necessarily correct and comprehensive conception of Star Trek than alchemy was of Doctor Who. It's an idea from which you can open your mind and learn to see the world differently. I hope to achieve the same if I ever get my project of a joyful existentialist reading of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, or my reading of Trailer Park Boys as an aesthetic of the anarchist working class hero.
Free your mind. And your ass will follow.
April 30, 2015 @ 2:29 pm
I will say this, though – while I don't have to go into why this episode is bad, I did always think the 2-dimensional cosmic lemmings were a pretty standout sci-fi concept, and something very akin to taking concepts that are easy to do in comic books and making it work on TV.
April 30, 2015 @ 11:19 pm
Vaka Rangi identifies one core idea in the whole range of possible meanings that Star Trek could have for us
'Johnny is marching to one core beat in the whole range of possible beats that the band could conceivably be playing.'
May 4, 2015 @ 10:22 pm
I feel that in so many ways this is a ridiculous episode that completely demeans and diminishes Deanna. Not much of the disability issue comes through in the script really. I personally imagine that Deanna's abilities lie not only in her telepathic empathy, but also in her simple, innate sense of basic empathy which I feel she has as a part of her and is not simply dependant on telepathy but also on observation, caring, sense of body language, etc.
I feel that she would have actually coped very well and adapted quickly, and there are so many avenues the story could have gone down that celebrated her rather than bringing her down in a cynical way. Very poor story.