“Regress”: Birthright, Part II
Last time on Star Trek: The Next Generation…
“The idea of doing a crossover between Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is such an intuitive one it writes itself. There are no two iterations of this franchise that mesh and blend together quite as well as these do: Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are a part of each other’s existence in a way that’s not true of any other Star Trek. Deep Space Nine opens up with the straightforward declaration that it’s a part of The Next Generation-Its opening moments literally take place in a Next Generation episode, its entire setting is inherited from one and The Next Generation plays an integral role in the plot of “Emissary”. This isn’t like Doctor McCoy showing up for one brief scene in “Encounter at Farpoint”, Captain Picard and the Enterprise are actual essential aspects to that plot.”
“Of course the artefact that ends up triggering Data’s dream programme comes from the Gamma Quadrant. When we open our minds to the possibilities of different knowledge-spaces and expand our awareness to the harmonious interplay of people and events, we discover the things we are meant to find. Doctor Bashir cannot study the artefact with the resources he has on Deep Space 9; he needs Beverly Crusher’s lab aboard the Enterprise. Data could not unlock this heretofore unknown level of his potential had he not gone to investigate, or had the Enterprise not come to Deep Space 9 at this point in time. He could not have done so had he not met Doctor Bashir.”
“But that ‘Birthright, Part I’ actually manages to live up to so much of what it hints at and points to is telling. It could only happen on Deep Space 9.Honestly, I almost don’t want to see part 2.”
And now, the conclusion…
There’s an interesting structure to “Birthright” we haven’t necessarily seen in previous two-parters. This is the first time the show has done a story like this purely for creative reasons instead of responding to external pressures: “Chain of Command” was partially split into two for narrative reasons, but a big contributing factor there was finances and, to be honest, the fact that it was a mid-season finale and a spinoff series was going to be premiering directly after it. But there’s no ratings reason to drop a two-parter here, roughly midway through the second half of the year: The only reason there’s a “Birthright, Part I” and a “Birthright, Part II” is because the team through the story was too big and too good to contain in just one hour of television.
This leads to the interesting structural consequence that superficially, “Part II” has next to nothing to do with “Part I”. While Worf’s plot was introduced last week, Data gets a whopping one line in this whole episode and the entire story of him developing the ability to dream and the visions of his father he’s experiencing isn’t addressed even in passing; not even in the teaser. At first this seems a bit strange, as if two disparate episodes had been smooshed together for some reason. But that’s not what happened (although Data’s story *was* written after Worf’s when the decision was made to split this episode into two), and a closer reading reveals the two halves of “Birthright” are linked together in a really elegant and well-done way. Both episodes are united by common themes: Visions, memory and a person’s relationship with their family. Data is literally using buried and forgotten memories to learn more about himself, while memories of Khitomer, both truthful and falsified, are the driving force for everything going on in Worf’s plot. This is of course all brilliantly spelled out for us in the ten-forward scene between Data and Worf in “Part I”.
As for “Part II” itself, I have to say it is something of a disappointment coming after “Part I”, although I hasten to add it’s an extremely minor one. For me, basically nothing could have effectively followed up on the symbolic power I saw in “Part I”: That episode more or less finalizes the blueprint for what I see as Star Trek’s victory lap phase and sets up some unparalleled brilliance coming up in this last season and a half. There’s no way the inevitable grubby culture clash story about Klingon heritage and contrasting concepts of honour in a Romulan prison camp, as brilliant and inarguably respectable as those are in their own way, was ever going to satisfy me in quite the same way. But you’ve got to have both the mythic and the mundane, and when taken together “Birthright” works really well as a diptych examining specific themes from all sorts of different angles and perspectives.
And there are a lot of great ideas here. On this rewatch I was actually quite stricken by the depiction of the Romulans: Following up on their final redemption in “Face of the Enemy”, the Romulans here are once again depicted as loyal and upstanding people with a sense of honour that, while it may not be the same as that of the Klingons, is unmistakably there and deserving of respect. Tokath in particular embodies this excellently, and reminds me of Mark Lenard’s Romulan Commander’s line in “Balance of Terror” that “We [Romulans] are creatures of duty”. His undying commitment and loyalty to his people and the family and community he’s built at the prison colony, even if it’s to a fault, is admirable and worthy of note.
This actually plays into the plot, as Worf’s personal history with the Romulans makes it difficult for him to come up with the most effective solution to the situation. At first I had massive issues with the way Worf was characterized here and I still do to an extent, but I can see how his bigotry towards the Romulans (and I do like how his stereotyping of them so closely parallels with the way the Romulans were actually depicted between the Original Series and “Face of the Enemy” and is here retconned to be a diegetic stereotype) keeps him from thinking things through all the way such that he’d make the real right call. All through the episode as Ba-el (who is another issue unto herself, let’s just put that out there) went on about how Romulans and Klingons don’t need to hate each other and how she doesn’t see a place for herself outside the camp I kept thinking “Yes, the Klingons and the Romulans wouldn’t accept you *but the Enterprise would*! Why isn’t Worf pointing that out?”.
After all, Worf can hardly claim to represent all of Klingon culture, living and working as he does nowhere near their territory or culture. It seemed like the episode was missing a tack where Worf could have extolled a little utopianism of his own-To me the obvious argument should have been the gilded cage one that he only mentions very briefly once; that Tokath’s real crime is that even though he’s worked very hard to create a perfect society, in not letting anyone in or out he’s denying his people liberties and freedoms that any utopian society should rightfully have. Sort of like “The Masterpiece Society” except not shit or completely morally and ethically bankrupt.
I also felt that it would make a lot of sense for Worf of all people to point out how while neither Klingon nor Romulan society will fully accept people with such liminal identities, those identities are still completely valid and worth cherishing and owning: It’s the Enterprise spirit to make your own way and build your own world through discovery, and this time it’s not me (or at least not entirely me), because that would have nicely mirrored Captain Picard’s good-hearted and well-intentioned, if a bit clunkily delivered, “culture of one” speech to Data in “Part I”. After all, isn’t that the whole reason Worf went to the prison colony anyway? Because he was willing to forgive Mogh, had he been there, regardless of what Klingon tradition dictated? I kept expecting “Part II” to end up at a moral like this but it never quite gets there and that bothered me a bit, especially given the stuff it invokes. Of course, I’m thinking along the lines of what a Worf circa “Heart of Glory” would have said, but we’re obviously way beyond that point now. And I will grant that his behaviour in this story certainly is in keeping with the way Worf has been developed post-K’Heleyr.
(I almost wrote post- “The Emissary” but given we’re now into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that would have just been unnecessarily confusing and aggravating.)
And then Michael Piller has to go and ruin everything.
“I had just seen Malcolm X, and I said Worf is the guy who’s saying ‘You’re black and you should be proud to be black.’ That’s where I started from with the character standpoint, but when you get into it and you realize there is something good in this society and that he’ll lose this woman he’s in love with when he can’t shake his own prejudice, it’s a price he has to pay for his character and his code…I think it’s wonderful when people act in heroic ways that turn back on them.”
First of all, let’s set aside the fact Ba-el is nothing more than a plot device and supporting satellite for Worf’s brooding, like, you know, every other fucking female character in the history of the goddamn series, (and speaking of, why is the teenage boy the only one who gets to go hunting with Worf?) and focus on the race stuff for now because Holy Goddamn Shit how fucking white and privileged can you get? Detachedly passing judgment on a black radical for being too militant and bigoted is right out of the elitist moderate liberal playbook. I’m stunned Piller didn’t misquote Martin Luther King, Jr. and say Worf should have politely and demurely asked for compromises and concessions too. And all this, let’s not forget, about a character played by a black actor. I mean there’s privilege blindness and “race fails” but then there’s enthusiastically devouring your own feet for Thanksgiving dinner.
Were Piller alive today, I’d shudder to think what he’d say about the police brutality and race riots in the United States or the movie Lincoln.
But willfully ignoring Piller’s spectacularly insensitive comments (which really don’t add anything to our reading of this episode anyway), we’re left with a story that’s a well-done, if not masterful, extension of some important motifs introduced last time. With or without my nitpicks, “Birthright” as a whole is a perfect example of pinnacle Star Trek.
November 13, 2015 @ 1:10 am
You know, on my recent TNG rewatch I actually found this episode to be one of the most problematic. It falls into the trap that culture is important and vital for its own sake no matter what it actually IS and stands for. Klingon culture is incredibly toxic, racist, sexist and violent. Worf 'heroically' lands on this planet where everyone is happy and at peace and decides the youth NEED to embrace their heritage. Specifically their heritage of racism and violence. "Hate the Romulans, don't befriend them! Learn violence!" (and the whole 'you should be ashamed of yourself for not being racist towards Romulans like true Klingons is really strong here).
He radicalises them. And the episode sees this as A Good Thing because connecting with your culture is always good.
November 13, 2015 @ 11:46 am
It's gonna be a long while before anyone starts calling out the Klingon culture. Of course those someones tend to be called Dax, though Quark will get his digs in there, too.
Even in fantasy terms it's something inevitable that I can't believe didn't happen sooner. If the Klingons are nordic-esque dwarven analogs, well, the sire of fantasy, The Hobbit, was a scathing critique of dwarf-culture, and it's entire ending hinged on Bilbo's calling out of Thorin.
And Worf is totally Thorin, and in this episode Tokath gets to be a sort of elvenking figure, but not a Thranduil, more of an Elrond really, mixing cultures in a remote refuge hidden in the forest. But obviously to Worf, all Romulans are Thranduils, dark-hearted and cruel.
Seriously though, Worf is Thorin. Exiled prince of a high house and all that. Mystery surrounding father's death in legendary battle. Well, Thorin with redemption rather than death, anyway. Thorin young enough when the orphaning happened that he could be raised in an idyllic setting and while he's still bitter, he can't be eternally bitter.
November 14, 2015 @ 2:23 am
Because of the DS9 crossover I made time to rewatch this two-parter, and while I really enjoyed the first half (though almost entirely for the Data storyline, which is great) I too found it hard not to see Worf's actions as almost entirely destructive. You have helped to crystallise why. Worf as a radicalising dwarf – certainly not something I would have come up with on my own!
As for that Michael Piller quote: just ouch.
December 20, 2015 @ 10:43 pm
"For me, basically nothing could have effectively followed up on the symbolic power I saw in “Part I”"
Yes that was true for me too, and sadly I recall being a bit disappointed with part 2. I suppose I have a limited interest in the Klingons or Worf's angst. I would find Worf a whole lot more interesting if he, as you suggest above, was depicted as embracing his own utopian identity and be a full expression of what you call 'liminal identities' – great phrase.
December 20, 2015 @ 10:44 pm
And horrible stuff from Piller.