“I live my life like I’ve been raised by wolves”: Savage Syndrome
It’s Margaret Armen again. That’s really all you need to know.
It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect Margaret Armen-penned Star Trek Phase II to be: Almost comically terrible, offensive and unworkable drivel that largely misses the entire point of the show. So structurally unsound as to actually become some kind of cosmic anti-structure and loaded up with the most unforgivably ghastly racism and misogyny you can think of, “Savage Syndrome” is without question the worst episode of the show to date. No contest. It’s also probably her very worst submission overall, which wow, we’re really hitting record lows here.
There’s no point in any kind of summary, but basically, the Enterprise gets hit with a space mine that “reverts” the crew to a “primitive”, “animalistic” mindset, all save for an away team comprised of Decker, Ilia and McCoy, conveniently the three crewmembers who could most easily resolve the plot at the end of the episode, who were conveniently off exploring a derelict spaceship and conveniently decided to use a shuttlecraft so they wouldn’t have to be beamed back aboard (no, the script does not explain why they just happened to decide to use a shuttlecraft on the precise mission where it was absolutely vital that they do so). And of course, Armen’s conception of “animal instinct” is the absolute worst it could possibly be, firstly totally misunderstanding how gender roles manifest in real life animals by embracing the patriarchal assumption that female animals are always submissive breeding stock for alpha males and the appallingly racist notion that evolution is linear and that indigenous cultures are closer to animals and thus more “primitive” and “savage”. I can’t even muster up the energy to get righteously angry at this shit anymore. It just sucks. That this evil, reactionary, talentless hack is still getting paid writing gigs in fucking 1978 is beyond belief. Fuck this.
(Ironically, in spite of all of this, “Savage Syndrome” is, somewhat horrifyingly, Decker and Ilia’s best outing yet. Both get really sizeable and important parts and carry the majority of the episode’s narrative weight, given that everyone else save McCoy is incapacitated. Ilia in particular is quite good: She does manage to get kidnapped a couple times, but she frees herself, and she uses her “Deltan powers of sensuality” to manipulate the male crewmembers because of course she does, but she runs all over the ship rerouting power and just generally fixing things and, scary as it is, this is her best episode to date.)
As it would be terrible for my patience, temper, mood and general mental well-being to do so, what I’d rather do instead of meticulously going through this episode’s litany of flaws is to talk about the story’s underlying assumption. This would be, in an attempt to strip away as much of the hideous racism as is possible, the idea that simplifying one’s life is tantamount to being retrograde, going against the idea of progress. The affected crewmembers, for example, do not know how to use the modern technology of the Enterprise and resort to fashioning basic implements out of metal rods and bars. Of course, the notion of progress is already built around colonialism and racism: There’s no way to actually separate them, they’re too intrinsically linked as part of the larger Westernist hegemony.
In addition, the idea of technoscientific progress in particular also carries with it classist and capitalistic overtones. Innovation-speak tells us that it’s good for corporations to constantly invent and release new products for us to buy, and it’s functionally retrograde not to play into the system and buy them. Lower class people thus become shunned for their inability to buy their voice and play their ordained role. This, then, becomes hegemony: The interaction of patriarchy (which by definition desires nothing more then power and domination), capitalism, classism, racism, teleology and a modernist conception of technoscientific progress. Really, Margaret Armen’s work is a perfect demonstration of how hegemony manifests in the late capitalistic West, in particular California, which was significantly transformed by the personal computer, electronics and semiconductor industries and their military-industrial complex backing.
(The electronics industries are, as it happens, some of the most wasteful and ecologically devastating: Through a combination of unnecessarily and deliberately costly manufacturing processes, a top-down and closed-box attitude, planned obsolescence, reliance on outdated components and architecture and just basic greedy scalping, they manage a truly astonishing and unprecedented turnover rate from “new-and-improved” to “worthless” and generate a monumental amount of unsalvageable technological waste that could otherwise have proved solid, reliable and useful for decades.)
One series of video games I could never get into was Civilization. This isn’t my video game book and Vaka Rangi really isn’t the place for me to articulate a lengthy criticism of it, but my basic complaint is that the entire game seems built around the very teleological conception of history I’m taking Armen to task for here. For those unfamiliar with Civilization, it’s a series of turn-based strategy games where everyone plays as a nascent nation-state (and it *has* to be a nation-state, you can’t play a diffuse group of allied people or some other kind of culture or social structure) starting at the Stone Age and moving throughout history for as long as the game lasts. The strategy comes from taking your group, who are hunter-gatherers at the start of the game, throughout the various stages of history and evolve them over the course of the game into a spacefaring civilization.
(It should be noted that you don’t have to follow the actual pattern of real-world history, as that would be stultifyingly boring: You could, for example, play the United States as a tyrannical dictatorship that goes around nuking all their neighbours and taking all the resources by force. Wait…Maybe that’s not actually so different from the real United States after all…)
Now to me, the deal-breaker with Civilization is that it’s basically Modernization Theory: The Video Game. It ticks absolutely all of the boxes: You can’t develop certain technologies until your country “advances” to a certain level, and social, cultural and technological development is all expressly linear. Literally so, in fact-You go into the sub-menus and you can see the Grand March of History laid out all neatly as a tech tree. (there are branching paths, but it’s essentially one big line). And this is just as much of a problem as it would be in any other form of media for me, because it’s yet another example of how hegemony reasserts itself through our media artefacts and how insidiously it can seep into our consciousnesses unless we’re constantly aware of it.
What I always wanted to do whenever I found myself playing Civilization was to try and go through the entire game without ever leaving the hunter-gatherer stage. I wanted to see if I could get as far as the Space Age without ever actually establishing a permanent settlement. I never managed to, for one reason or another. Well, OK, the main reason it never happened because the guy I would play with was always in a mad rush to get nuclear weapons, so he always managed to destroy the planet (literally cracking it like an egg) before I could get my strategy in place. Now, granted, it’s been awhile since I’ve played Civilization, this speaks more to the calibre of person I play video games with than it does the aesthetic merit of the games themselves and it’s entirely possible I just suck at Civilization, but I’ve always remembered that nevertheless.
Now, I know I’ve digressed rather significantly from Star Trek (but come on dude, it’s Margaret Armen. Cut me some slack), but the reason I bring this up is to pose an open question: What does this say about our franchise? I’m thinking in particular about “The Jihad” here-In that episode we had a really provocative contrast between Kirk, depicted there as the best representative of Starfleet and the Federation and all its technoscientific wonder, and Lara, someone who consciously lives her life by a code of simplicity. We’re not yet at the phase of Star Trek’s history where post-scarcity becomes a major theme, but, nevertheless, “The Jihad” depicted Lara as someone who deliberately rejected the technoscientific fetishism of the Federation in favour of living by the land, but whose people still managed to develop space travel. The implication, at least, that there are ways to Star Trek’s galactic utopia that don’t involve going through Starfleet was still there, not only intellectually, but materially as well.
Because this is the thing about simplifying your lifestyle: It’s not, in point of fact, about making sacrifices. It’s about cutting out everything extraneous and unnecessary. The trick is to figure out what all that is *before* you make your choices about what to keep in your life and what to abandon. And, if you believe people like John Muir, Robert Burnham, Jr. or any number of other similar thinkers (such as, er, me), simplification also involves rediscovering the bond that connects humanity with the cosmic natural world. There are ways to live in a modern world, and even utilise some of its tools and artefacts, without subscribing wholecloth to hegemony. Hegemony, like Margaret Armen, thinks simplification is retrograde and anti-progress. I’m inclined to think the opposite is likely true.
But the question remains, can Star Trek actually convey this? And furthermore, can science fiction itself, given the genre’s roots in teleological, technofetishistic modernity? There are many who would say the answer to both questions is a resounding “no”. I tend to think the answer is a bit more nuanced then that: Star Trek can, and it’s in fact uniquely poised to do so, but the problem is it so very rarely did. Margaret Armen’s influence may be a ghost that perpetually haunts Star Trek and my attempts to engage with it, but she’s no more of one than modernistic hegemony itself. Margaret Armen may be the single worst writer we’ve seen so far, if not of the entire franchise, but in truth the things she’s most egregious at were the exact same bits of toxic hegemony that weigh down the rest of Star Trek, and really all of Soda Pop Art. It just so happens that she’s the most blatantly and obviously hegemonic writer we’ve looked at. Ultimately, for Star Trek to move beyond Margaret Armen, is has to move beyond Westernism.
April 4, 2014 @ 9:27 pm
"The Jihad” depicted Lara as someone who deliberately rejected the technoscientific fetishism of the Federation in favour of living by the land, but whose people still managed to develop space travel. The implication, at least, that there are ways to Star Trek's galactic utopia that don't involve going through Starfleet was still there, not only intellectually, but materially as well."
This gets to the point of some of my underlying tensions with Trek as a show, even though I still enjoy it. I have discussed this with my partner as we travelled through our recent mammoth re-watch of Voyager. In a lot of ways I would say that my partner and I live quite an unusual life compared to much of the culture immediately around us where we live. I could actually say that a lot of my vies can have their influence tracked back to the more cosmic and magickal episodes of shows like Trek – but I have come to realise that given the opportunity there is absolutely no way that I could be part of the Federation, let alone Star Fleet – I would just be incompatible.
That is my issue with the show – the fact that the kind of life I live (as described well in your above quote) does not feel represented in the show. I do live with technology, but in as simple a way as is possible. Maybe it is till to come or I have missed it, but I can't help notice that when people or cultures that spring from the Federation, but choose to live outside of it, they are often portrayed as deluded or wrong somehow. The difference does not seem to be celebrated. This does not undermine the show for me, but the question mark is still there.