“Hew-mon mating rituals”: The Price
|Random Operations Crew Lady is my kindred spirit here.|
Stable wormholes! Galactic quadrants! Trade negotiations! Sexy romantic tension! The Ferengi! Almost feels like we’re on another show, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, looking at “The Price” just made me wish I actually was watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine instead. Or really anything other than this.
I would have so many questions about this episode were I actually inspired enough to bother to ask. Why is everybody treating majestic celestial phenomena like natural resources under late stage capitalism? According to their own ideals, the Federation should be staunchly opposed to any kind of wheeling and dealing involving the Barzan wormhole unless they’ve been lying to us through their teeth which, OK, but the Enterprise crew at least shouldn’t be on board with this plan. I can’t think of a *worse* group of people to host these negotiations: They should be firmly arguing for the wormhole to be left in the galactic commons where it belongs. This isn’t even me just projecting my own ideology onto the show-The whole philosophical model the show’s universe is built on is one of post-scarcity where material wants and motivations no longer exist or apply. It’s *told* us this *explicitly* a number of times. Why do the effects shots all look universally cheap and unappealing? And why is the Enterprise crew still hosting negotiations of any kind in the first place? They’re supposed to be scientists and explorers, not diplomats!
Then there’s the episode’s crux, the one-off romance between Deanna and Ral. Oh My God. This might be, in all seriousness, one of the single worst television romances I have ever seen. There’s the obvious fact Ral is transparently a sleazy manipulative womanizer (one sort of gets that feeling when he makes his appearance prancing onstage with a model hanging off his arm) who bullishly strongarms Deanna into falling for him: She gets little to no agency in the relationship, simply being swept off her feet by overwhelming masculine guile. Ral is a 24th century pickup artist, and the mere thought that this was supposed to be a story to flesh out Troi as a character sickens me. Was something this rote, hackish and frankly offensively sexist really the only thing this team could come up with to give Troi something to do? Apparently so, considering they got rid of her suboplot in “The Enemy”. I guess the only thing women are good for is cheesy dimestore romance novel stories. Except no, wait, this isn’t even a cheesy dimestore romance novel story-This is a *parody* of cheesy dimestore romance stories that doesn’t realise it’s a parody and isn’t remotely funny: The dialog and plot beats are so stilted and cliche it defies belief and there’s an absolutely staggering, and deeply uncomfortable lack of irony and self-awareness at every possible level.
Aside from its general terribleness, “The Price” comprehensively fails at being romantic *or* sexy, and you kind of need to hit at least one. Every time Ral is onscreen I want to punch him, the dinner and sex scenes are shot in about as ungainly a manner as possible and the entire production seems to be actively trying to go out of its way to make everything visually unappealing to the point of actually being nauseating to look at. The cinematography is awkward, forced and joyless, just like the script itself, and the costume and makeup design are in my opinion among the very worst in the series thus far: Special demerits go to the Barzans and the Caldonians, who all look astonishingly repugnant, anything Ral wears (of course) and that ridiculous tin-foil bedsheet in Troi’s quarters.
And oh yeah, there’s that *fucking exercise scene*.
Midway through this slog, the show decides to try and throw the most blatant (and blatantly bombed) attempts at fanservice since William Ware Theiss’ planet of neo-hippies in “Justice” by trussing Deanna and Doctor Crusher up in workout leotards and having them do stretches in front of a mirror in a last-ditch effort to keep us from changing the channel and/or throwing ourselves out of a second-story window and I have never been left so aghast and horrified at something meant to be erotic. Those leotards are the most spectacularly unflattering things I’ve ever seen and I really have to wonder what in the name of the Prophets Bob Blackwell was thinking putting Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden in them, and combine that with Marvin Rush’s ill-advised use of bright exposures in this scene the whole thing comes across as sickeningly clinical and sterile.
The one borderline redemptive moment in this Galaxy-class shitstorm comes during, of all things, a conversation between Ral and Commander Riker. The diplomat is being as classy as tactful as ever, meaning the opposite of those things, as he boasts he’s going to take Deanna away from Riker and make her happier than he ever could. To which Riker calmly responds that whatever makes Deanna happy makes him happy too. The reason why this stands out is because it’s the first instance in awhile where we get a good look at what Will and Deanna’s relationship on the show really is. It’s altogether too easy to just ship them and assume they’re romantic soulmates destined to end up together someday (indeed, by the looks of things, even the writers and producers seemed to think that at times). But that’s not the kind of relationship Will and Deanna actually have: Theirs isn’t a story of ex lovers vacillating about whether or not to get back together again, they’re pretty explicitly, at least at this stage, ex-lovers *period*.
Their whole story is an example of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s utopianism, because they’re former lovers for whom things didn’t work out and *that’s perfectly OK*. They have no hangups or regrets and get along fine with each other today, even if they’re no longer involved. When Will and Deanna say they’re “just friends”, they *actually mean it*: They used to have one kind of relationship and now have another that, while it’s maybe not intimate in the same way, is still close in its own right. And this is something someone as broken as Ral can’t understand because Ral can only frame things in terms of winning and losing, which is why it’s so impactful to have this come from Commander Riker. Here, Will is demonstrating the same nuance and respect for agency that’s been so attractive about him in the past (most notably in “Peak Performance”), and that we’re going to get an even better look at in the next episode. So naturally, “The Price” then has to go and ruin everything by twisting the whole thing into a commentary on Deanna’s role as counselor, tacitly setting up the stereotypical and heteronormative assumption that the “feminine” part of a romantic couple has to be a doting, supportive healing figure.
(Yes, Deanna does eventually reject that label, but no, the episode doesn’t do nearly enough to problematize this wildly sexist assumption about social norms.)
There is absolutely no reason for any of this to be as bad as it is. It’s as if absolutely everyone showed up that week and promptly, simultaneously forgot how normal fucking human beings look and behave. Even Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 write as if doing sex and romance was some new, unfamiliar ground for the show to be treading on which, I’m sorry, but what? By their own admission, sex was everywhere in the Long 1980s and *plenty* of shows knew how to do it in an actual mature manner that people could actually stomach and even Star Trek: The Next Generation has handled it with more class than this in the past. Hell, “Booby Trap” was more risque than this. Not to mention about ten thousand times better. For what it’s worth, Micheal Piller said he got a ton of hate mail before this episode went into production by people accusing him of “sexing up” Star Trek, though none after it aired (which is actually hilarious, because you just know all those people who took the time to complain to the Star Trek: The Next Generation production team about too much sex in an episode they *hadn’t even seen yet* were all shut-in Star Trek fans uncomfortable with their own sexuality).
It probably doesn’t help that my patience is at a bit of a low as I write this, but I can’t help being reminded of why I always skip this episode. But really, the most offensive part of the whole ordeal is how much of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine can trace its lineage back to this limp, damp squib of mediocrity.
February 6, 2015 @ 2:33 am
First, I want to say how much I agree with you about how weird and generally terrible this episode is aesthetically and regarding the morals/politics of the Federation and the Enterprise crew itself. However, I do have a redemptive reading of this with which you will probably not agree at all, though I think you might actually find it intriguing. Well, I say I have a redemptive reading, but my girlfriend and I came up with it together.
Here's my half. The entire episode is a commentary on the emptiness of living your life by the norms of capitalism alone. The Federation isn't itself there to profit from the Barzan wormhole. They're there to secure Barzan as a trading partner, and in a post-scarcity world, that means they sent the Enterprise there to secure a regular relationship with Barzan society. And because Barzan itself isn't a post-scarcity world, they'll only accept the Federation as trading partners.
So the Enterprise is being roped into these negotiations as pawns of Federation policy to prevent the growth of minor powers and the spread of Ferengi influence. Nobody's heart is really in it for these negotiations, and you can tell the crew don't really give that much of a crap (whether that's an explicit aspect of their performances in this episode, or the actors' awareness that this is one of the meh scripts this season, take your pick).
The Ferengi are another aspect of this depiction of capitalism as empty. They see the world only as jockeying for advantage, and so are lost in the Delta Quadrant because they can't understand why Geordi and Data would genuinely want to help their opponents in the negotiations. They're so absorbed by capitalist competitive norms that they can't even conceive of altruism anymore.
Ral is the same. He sees every social interaction as an opportunity to manipulate someone into giving him what he wants. The structure of the episode displays this. His conversations with each of the negotiators plays on a weakness: he unnerves one minor power's representative about the administrative costs of the wormhole and encourages Barzan distrust in the Federation because of their role as a major military power. The only reason his technique doesn't work on Riker is because he's actually progressed morally beyond caring only about his own interests.
This, again, shows how the Enterprise has progressed beyond the Federation. Their mission is to anchor a point in the Federation's galactic-political power, a mission of self-interest. But they're already beyond that.
February 6, 2015 @ 2:50 am
And now for my bear's contribution. It's steeped in the culture of BDSM, and the insights that such a perspective offers about the character of desire as it folds among a complex of multiple self-awarenesses.
Ral is able to sense immediately the structure of Troi's sexual desires: she is, sexually speaking, an extreme submissive, and is empowered by being swept up in another's desire, from being enfolded in a wave. Riker himself is too much of a sub, which results in their mutual dancing throughout the show. They're ex-lovers, but also on-off lovers, always flirting but rarely fully entwining each other because they're both teasing for the other to take initiative. This behaviour makes for great shipping, but a frustrating relationship because each signals the other to act, but never acts themselves.
Because Ral only thinks in term of acquiring what he wants, he only ever manipulates Troi. At first, this is what she wants, as his ridiculous aggressiveness in her office (an invasion of her private professional space, no less) actively turns her on. The force of a powerful tidal wave triggers her own desire.
But she's also a more powerful empath and an ethically better person than Ral. So eventually, she recognizes his own sexuality not as a healthy dominance, but for the manipulative selfishness that it is (a trait all-too-common in a lot of men with dominating sexuality raised in a patriarchal culture). She likes to be dominated, but she doesn't like to be manipulative. And once she sees what, for Ral, is manipulation, she can see it in all his actions.
Even his apparent apology at the end of the episode isn't sincere. It doesn't matter if he genuinely thinks he needs someone to make him a better person, he's only asking her to join him for his own sake. Ral would only make progress if he cared about someone's desires other than his own. Troi clearly sees that he still doesn't, so rejects him.
(The gymnastics scene with Dr Crusher is part of this dynamic as well. It's a dish session, where two close female friends are discussing frankly the developments of their sexual lives.)
February 6, 2015 @ 2:55 am
she is, sexually speaking, an extreme submissive, and is empowered by being swept up in another's desire, from being enfolded in a wave. Riker himself is too much of a sub, which results in their mutual dancing throughout the show. They're ex-lovers, but also on-off lovers, always flirting but rarely fully entwining each other because they're both teasing for the other to take initiative. This behaviour makes for great shipping, but a frustrating relationship because each signals the other to act, but never acts themselves.
I think this reading of Troi and Riker wins at everything.
February 6, 2015 @ 4:25 pm
She's glad you think so. She knew that Troi was a submissive, I contributed the knowledge of sitcom tropes.
February 6, 2015 @ 4:31 pm
I think there's a strong argument for it – we've seen how Troi is ascribed these supposedly "feminine" traits of being the doting, nurturing type and how it's a total cliche, but the whole while Riker is insanely nurturing and helpful – but we describe it in terms of him being a great friend, an earnest people-person, and the least competitive man in the universe. Riker likes winning but it's because he likes growth and challenges, and he likes using his winning to well, spread it around, for everybody.
They are certainly "too alike".
But then we get into my reading of it, which is a lateral shift from the BDSM angle – "what makes Deanna happy makes me happy" is as literal as it is figurative, because their psychic link is permanent. When Troi gets off, Riker gets off, and vice-versa. Their proximity is a mutually beneficial thing as psychic-links go.
Riker isn't impressed by Ral's posturing not just because he is an innate empath (which he is, even without the "powers") but also because he's intrinsically linked to an actual empath and can watch bemused with an outsider's viewpoint and get a read on his friend's paramour without the bias that she has. Riker isn't impressed by the threat of losing Troi because he's acutely aware of its hollowness.
But then, the episode is garbage except for that one exhange in Ten-Forward. I'll say, as dopey as the Ferengi are here, this is the first example I can really think of where they've sort of officially transitioned into the at least galactic socio-political function that they'll retain for the rest of the canon.
February 6, 2015 @ 4:34 pm
Troi being submissive is a fairly minor revelation. The fact that Riker is too and that's the problem with their relationship is one of those things that is entirely obvious in retrospect, but totally not obvious until it's pointed out.
February 7, 2015 @ 4:50 am
Yes, I should clarify. She realized that Troi and Riker were both subs, and I contributed such a relationship would play out on semi-serialized television.
February 8, 2015 @ 11:31 pm
Wow thanks for the fascinating and different insights into the episode above in the comments. Certainly when watching I found the whole relationship deeply uncomfortable to watch, especially with as you say Josh the textual removal of Troi's agency. Agency is key here I think, to the utopian development on the Enterprise, in contrast often with the Federation and especially Starfleet.
Agency is also central for me to why I have always deeply appreciated the portrayal of the relationship between Troi and Riker. Even though they re not together they are still able to express and share their love for one another, whilst sharing freedom. That for me touches at the heart of utopia, to remain connected with the people we love even when the relationship forms change and distance exists.
So for me the portrayal of the connection between Troi and Riker have always deeply special.
Sad that so much of the rest of this story is terrible.
February 11, 2015 @ 8:42 pm
The insights here are fascinating, but even if I'd read them first, I doubt it would have stopped me skipping the "romance" scenes.
I recall not being interested in them on previous viewings, but about ten seconds into the first one I was like "Oh, Hell no!", which just leaves me wondering how I never noticed they were this bad before.