Eruditorum Press

Don’t look at the future. We drew something awful on it.

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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

9 Comments

  1. Adam Riggio
    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.

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  2. Adam Riggio
    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.)

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  3. Ross
    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.

    Wow.

    I think this reading of Troi and Riker wins at everything.

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  4. Adam Riggio
    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.

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  5. K. Jones
    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.

    Frenemies.

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  6. Ross
    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.

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  7. Adam Riggio
    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.

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  8. Daru
    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.

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  9. Marionette
    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.

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