|Oh look. Vasquez Rocks.|
There should be an entire genre of Star Trek story called “Star Trek Does Not Understand How Anthropology Works.”
So the obvious problem with “Who Watches The Watchers” firstoff is that it’s a Prime Directive story, which means it sucks. It also has a kidnapping subplot, which means it sucks even more and I also hate it for that. But what really arouses my ire is that for the first time Star Trek explicitly connects the Prime Directive with anthropological fieldwork which…no. No, no, no, no. You know that one person who’s so specialized in a certain field they get irrationally upset when bits of pop culture misrepresent that field through innocent ignorance? Yeah, I’m pretty much that person when it comes to anthropological methods. I’m sure everyone has their own justifications for getting incensed over stuff like this: Because we’ve dedicated a lot of our lives to working with and studying it, we think things like particle physics or paleontology or thermodynamics or ballistics or whatever is The Most Important Thing In The World and that when TV shows get it wrong it will surely send society onto a path of utter ruination.
But here’s the thing. Pop culture is a shared language and is the first exposure roughly 99% of everyone is going to have with certain concepts, fields and ideas, and getting them wrong can in specific cases be actually misleading to the point of being irresponsible. And Star Trek has been as guilty on this front as anything else, being at times egregiously sketchy on things like history, legal jurisprudence, developmental biology and yes, cultural anthropology. There’s a certain political and social responsibility associated with these things that you can’t just cast aside and ignore in favour of squeezing more melodrama out of your script, especially if it’s particularly shitty melodrama. And call me biased all you want, I am casting cultural anthropology in that group because cultural anthropology is fundamentally about how people communicate with and understand each other. If you don’t know how to do that, or teach people how to do it poorly, you are provably being a toxic and counterproductive force in the world.
Cultural anthropology is first and foremost a framework for empathy. It’s an academic structure that facilitates talking to people and getting to know them and the way they think better. There’s a reason one of the field’s most sacred tenets is called “participant observation”: Anthropologists think the best way to learn about people is to live with them, talk to them and do what they do. There is a necessary sharing and exchange of of positionalities that happens when we do this, and both the insider and outsider perspectives are equally valued. This is how thinking and living anthropologically can help make the world a better place, because when positionalities meet people are exposed to truths and ideas they might not have been otherwise. So, in the case of, for example, international development, it’s generally accepted by anthropologists that the people who know what’s best for improving the quality of life of local populations are the people who themselves live in them, the insiders in the situation. But outside contacts like anthropologists can serve as necessary and useful middlemen who can relay those needs beyond the immediate local era while also mode-shifting between the situated knowledge-spaces of indigenous knowledge and global Western discourse because they themselves have become of two worlds (this is, of course, provided people are willing to listen to them in the first place).
In “Who Watches The Watchers” though, we have Federation anthropologists staked out in a big fuck-off holodeck duck blind spying on the Mintakans from afar, much as a classical Great White Colonial Explorer might do, or indeed a sport hunter going after his next trophy mark. This is almost the first thing they teach you not to do in your Intro to Cultural Anthropology 101 class, as the entire field of modern cultural anthropology was formed in direct opposition to this very way of thinking and doing fieldwork. Bronislaw Malinowski, the founder of our field, railed against this in the *1920s*, calling it “anthropology from the veranda”, in reference to pampered white aristocrats who would build elabourate mansions on hills overlooking native populations whom they would watch with binoculars, because not only is it obviously patronizing and racist as fuck, you also miss absolutely all of the goings-on in the day-to-day life of the people you’re supposed to be getting to know, which is always the most important part of the story.
From there, the episode dovetails into a standard-issue Prime Directive faffabout, which is anthropologically stupid for its own reasons. I’ve already talked this up a great deal in the Original Series book and I’m not going to repeat myself every time Star Trek does, but the basic problem I have with the Prime Directive is that it is an entirely unnatural way of thinking. Simply by interacting with other people, you’re “interfering in their development” to some extent because your mere presence means their lives are not playing out the way they would if you hadn’t been there. Anthropologists have had to deal with this for decades, because we know it’s impossible to get a truly “objective” or “unbiased” account of the daily lives of our contacts because we’ve had the gall to go and crash-land *right into* their daily routine, and anyone’s life is going to be disrupted somewhat if you have a stranger in khakis trying to interview you and ask you silly questions. But that’s life, and the only way to avoid that is to shut yourself off from everybody and shun human contact for the rest of your material existence.
The one good thing is that this time it’s the Federation at large screwing up with the Enterprise crew forced into the position of doing damage control, which is a twist on this hackneyed trope that we haven’t seen before and does play nicely into the strides Star Trek: The Next Generation has been making at separating the Enterprise and her crew from the institution they’re supposedly subordinate to. However, the episode then handily decides to rub salt in my wounds by having the loveable sci-fi primitives go and kidnap the ship’s *female* *anthropologist* to sacrifice her to their Cargo Cult of Captain Picard, because that’s what all wacky savages are wont to do in fiction. Incidentally, Ira Steven Behr, who’s about to join the writing staff, says that this was a good episode but that it was let down because Captain Picard didn’t stay around for the next half a decade to face the consequences of his decisions. He also says the fact that the Enterprise always leaves is Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s fatal flaw, which is a statement that’s rather unfortunately telling about the blossoming cultural norms of this creative climate.
As unfathomably offensive as this all is, it’s tempting to lay the blame on the outgoing Michael Wagner, whose brief and unhappy tenure with Star Trek: The Next Generation comes to an end here. If “The Survivors” tried to recreate the virtues of the Original Series and was at least watchable, “Who Watches The Watchers” can’t help but drag up its vices. And it’s, well, not. But with Wagner gone and Michael Piller finally stepping up to bat, won’t that usher in a brand new Golden Age for the show? Some might say that. But it’s truthfully not a simple as we might like to wish it was-Yes, Michael Piller finally takes the big chair after this, but his mere presence does not magically make everything better or mean the day-to-day operations of the show are going to be any less insane for the next year or so: Piller isn’t going to be able to prevent “Yesterday’s Enterprise” going through the rewrite process on Christmas Eve or the season ending on a cliffhanger due to contract renegotiations running long.
What Piller taking over will mean most immediately is a specific policy change that will streamline the process of getting scripts. What this will *not* guarantee, however, is a net increase in the quality of those scripts-The problem, perhaps appropriately, remains with people who don’t understand Star Trek: The Next Generation. People who can’t grasp the strengths that come with its unique stature amongst primetime television drama, or perhaps more to the point the people who think those strengths are actually the weaknesses it can’t help but inherit from its ancient and creaking pedigree. It’s a stereotype that Star Trek and Star Trek fans both have a dangerous predilection towards insularity and navel-gazing, but, like a lot of such things, it doesn’t come without historical precedent. There is an inkling to become so absorbed in the bubbles of our individual positionalities that we neglect the universe outside of them. Perhaps we should let “Who Watches The Watchers” stand as a cautionary tale about what happens when we let those impulses consume and define us.