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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.

23 Comments

  1. Alphapenguin
    May 24, 2013 @ 2:05 am

    You know, you might just be the only person I've ever seen PRAISE William Shatner's acting, but I think you have a point there.

    I love this project so far, keep up the good work!

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  2. Josh Marsfelder
    May 24, 2013 @ 8:06 am

    Thanks for the good wishes!

    I am increasingly finding William Shatner to be the most watchable thing on display here. The rest of the cast is very strong, but they don't always leave as immediate an impression as he does (although they do quickly up their game after "Where No Man Has Gone Before"). And really, someone as delightfully campy as Shatner is a relief coming off of the wannabe John Wayne and Charlton Heston posturing of "The Cage".

    Shatner may not be the single reason Star Trek went to series and became iconic in pop culture, but I definitely think he's one of the most important.

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  3. Burl Bird
    October 23, 2014 @ 10:32 pm

    I was wondering if you'll handle these two episodes with a Temporal Incursion, and I'm glad I was right 🙂

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  4. Spoilers Below
    October 24, 2014 @ 3:40 am

    I couldn't have said it better. Wonderful essays, Josh.

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  5. Froborr
    October 24, 2014 @ 8:00 am

    Really impressive essays.

    I have a suspicion as to what other episode you feel betrayed the show's values, and it's my single favorite episode of the entire franchise. But we'll see when we get there.

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  6. BadCatMan
    October 24, 2014 @ 11:50 pm

    Nice posts. The Temporal Incursion thing really works for this pair (I was so confused the first time around).

    I'm afraid Tasha always struck me as uninteresting, given how little was done with her, but you're really making me want to rewatch TNG Season 1.

    The point where I noticed how poorly treated Tasha was was in the novel "Survivors" by Jean Lorrah.
    http://memory-beta.wikia.com/wiki/Survivors
    It starts good, with a graphic and tragic account of Tasha's life on her homeworld (New Paris, before it was Turkana IV), learning to fight and survive, and yes she's a recovering drug-addict (born addicted, in fact) and rape survivor, cared for by women at points. Then she's rescued by a male Starfleet officer. Then the rest of the book switches between two stories: one with Tasha as a Starfleet cadet, and her romance with her rescuer (now instructor and senior officer, to be improper); and a fairly standard investigation on a planet with troubles.

    And at no point is Tasha allowed to make a choice and influence either plot or be independent. Whenever the story calls on her to make an important choice, a man steps in and makes it for her, or a man rescues her. I'm treating Data as a man here, and even he steals the key decision from Tasha and solves her problems for her. (Ostensibly, it's Tasha's story, and it all becomes Data's.) And Tasha only joined Starfleet and joined Security in hero-worship of her rescuer.

    And then the epilogue flashes forward to "Skin of Evil" and her funeral just to rub it in.

    YMMV. You might see more or worse in the story than me, of course. If I noticed how dodgy it was, it was pretty blatant. That was the point where I began to notice the role of women in a plot, whether they get to actually affect the story or if it all comes back to a man.

    And author Jean Lorrah is a woman, so I'd hoped for something more confronting than the first chapter.

    (OTOH, the A story of siding with a rebellious feudal warlord against a corrupt puppet democracy, representing exploitative Orion corporations, controlling the populace with television and drugs and calling the rebellion terrorism to increase security and limit freedoms, on a developing world, is much more interesting, more so now than in 1989.)

    Now you've us about her, I so wish TNG had had Macha Hernandez. 🙁

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  7. elvwood
    October 25, 2014 @ 2:40 am

    I wasn't particularly invested in Tasha Yar, but I remember watching Skin of Evil and thinking that it was a terrible way to send off a regular. The recorded message hologram scene felt moving but also kind of odd; I didn't at the time figure this was because of how out of character she was, because I hadn't really got a handle on what her character actually was. I partly enjoy that scene now because of the story that was told about what went on at the recording. I don't know if it's true, apocryphal, or mistransmitted, but apparently the cast were effectively told off for mucking about too much. They were all very chastened. Then, as soon as the producers (or whoever) had left, Patrick Stewart started dancing round the mound singing "The hills are alive…"

    Tasha Yar is, for me, very much like Susan in the first recording block for Doctor Who. Neither was given a chance to live up to their potential, so their actors decided to leave. Susan got the best of the deal for actual departures, though, despite being dumped by her grandfather with someone she barely knew in a war-ravaged land – which says something, really.

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  8. Josh Marsfelder
    October 25, 2014 @ 11:30 am

    I was actually planning to cover "Survivors" as a between-season entry for many of the reasons you outline, but now you're making me second guess myself. If that's how it plays out, then I'm not sure how much more erudition I can squeeze out of it that I haven't already laid at the feet of "Skin of Evil" and "Symbiosis".

    That said, the idea of Tasha being "rescued" by Starfleet, which she "worships" as the opposite of what she grew up with, is sadly not that far removed from how she's described in the series bible. This is worse, of course, because it projects all that onto a male paramour.

    "I so wish TNG had had Macha Hernandez. :("

    So do I. Because I grew up with her, Tasha Yar is a complicated character for me. So I'm rhetorically using "Tasha Yar" to refer to both the actual character and the set of ideals I projected onto her back when I didn't know all that much about her.

    In hindsight, Hernandez would certainly have been the stronger, preferable character. And Marina Sirtis would have absolutely knocked it out of the park.

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  9. Josh Marsfelder
    October 25, 2014 @ 11:33 am

    Thanks 🙂

    A quick clarification. Star Trek betrays itself and its values all the time. I usually don't mind so much because I'm used to it by now and I'm well aware production realities often hold really ambitious, overreaching myth tapestries like this back.

    There's only one other episode that hurts me, personally, as much as "Skin of Evil".

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  10. Josh Marsfelder
    October 25, 2014 @ 11:36 am

    My understanding of the production of that scene was that nobody was "told off": Everyone knew that the TNG cast loved to screw around by this point and understood that to be part of the reality of working on the show.

    What did happen though, was that everyone was very choked up because nobody wanted Denise to leave. Marina Sirtis' tears were real, and Jonathan Frakes hard a hard time keeping himself composed too. Patrick Stewart did indeed run around the set singing "The Hills are Alive", but he didn't do it to tell off the producers, he did it to cheer up his friends.

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  11. crylikeaman
    October 25, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

    I recently read Survivors as part of a research attempt to follow up my now-finished blog-journey through Sliders (earthprime.com/roulette, if you are interested [no one is interested in Sliders]) with a blog-journey through TNG, and didn't quite loathe it. It was certainly better written than Ghost Ship (which I read in research for the "first TNG Pocket Book). All the points that BadCatMan raises are perfectly valid— it's unfortunate that a lot of the plot's action is instigated by Tasha's feelings being re-instigated by a Man From Her Past. It's also unfortunate that this is still far more than Yar was ever given on the show.

    Really, I think the reason the book is worth checking out is for the characterization of Tasha. I found it to be believable in a way I didn't expect— but, to be perfectly honest, Tasha is a character who means a bit less to me than to you (though your championing of her inspires me to try again), so maybe your results will differ.

    Second, the extended epilogue that deals with her death is all told through Data's perspective, and I personally found them to be wonderful, and makes the whole "Data is way more human than he thinks he is" idea more moving and poignant (and most important, subtle) than it ever is on the show.

    I don't know, Survivors is flawed— deeply flawed, even. But I don't think it's worth discounting.

    (also, Hi! I'm Ian, I've been reading since about Season Three of TOS, and haven't yet chimed in.)

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  12. BadCatMan
    October 25, 2014 @ 9:15 pm

    Aargh, another lost post on this blog. Trying again…

    Don't take my word for it. Take crylikeaman's. 🙂 I read it a few years ago, and you can probably read much more out of it than me. I'd be interested to see your analysis.

    I left a bit out for time and spoilers. Darryl, the rescuer/teacher/lover, is accused of a crime and goes on the run, and he and Tasha feel betrayed by the other. It certainly breaks the hero-worship angle.

    If anyone's interested, I wiki-fied the entire novel for Memory Beta.

    Huh. I turned on the TV today and "Skin of Evil" was on. I only watched it for a minute, because meh, but remembered something I noted last time I saw it. The TNG crew always try diplomacy on foes who are to some extent reasonable in their beliefs and actions, so here they are pitted against a foe who is utterly unreasonable and wants nothing but to be cruel. It's like they ran into a Doctor Who monster.

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  13. BadCatMan
    October 25, 2014 @ 9:17 pm

    I'm interested in Sliders! I'll check it out.

    Reply

  14. elvwood
    October 25, 2014 @ 10:50 pm

    That's even better.

    Reply

  15. Josh Marsfelder
    October 26, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

    Welcome aboard, and thanks for the suggestion!

    I dunno. On the one hand I feel like I should take a look at it, but on the other I'm not sure I can muster up the energy to sit through sexist narrative structure for the length of an entire book just to get diminishing returns about Tasha and her increasingly problematic characterization. I'll definitely consider it, but thankfully we've got another section of the blog to get through first 🙂

    Reply

  16. Josh Marsfelder
    October 26, 2014 @ 5:03 pm

    Wait, you wrote the Memory Beta entry for "Survivors"? That was actually one of the things that got me interested in covering it. I have actual fan archivists reading this blog? I feel both honoured and a little nervous…

    Reply

  17. BadCatMan
    October 26, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

    Yeah, the whole thing. And I only did it because I liked Orions, though Survivors also proved disappointing in that area. Well, I'm glad these articles really do get read and inspire interest, not just satisfy my bug for exploration and editing. 🙂

    Don't worry about me, I fell out of MB two years ago. I'd mostly finished my Orion project and gotten interested in another wiki and fandom. Severe differences of opinion with one of the administrators over absolutely everything are the rest of my reason for leaving. Thus, I joined the long, long line of people to quit MB. 🙁

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  18. Ross
    October 27, 2014 @ 12:40 am

    It's kind of strange, for me. Killing off a regular wasn't exactly unheard of in TV at this point in history, but it was rare, and something that was typically handled with a great deal of ceremony. I remember at the time that just how offhand they were about it, Tasha Yar essentially getting sort of slapped to death by an evil oil slick. I get, with perspective, that this was not a fitting end to the characters. But at the time, nine-year-old me found the absence even more powerful: if she'd died heroically, saving the enterprise from otherwise certain doom, and even then almost having made it out herself, except that, say, she had to run back into the fire to save someone or something, that was kinda what I was expecting. Instead, it was just like, holy crap, she's flat-out dead and never had any chance or anything, and that made it all the more chilling and shocking and powerful for me.

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  19. Josh Marsfelder
    October 27, 2014 @ 10:34 am

    Sorry to hear that Memory Beta seems to have large-scale administration issues. I found it to be a great reference for tracking down information on obscure bits of tie-in material that was difficult to research otherwise. Although it looks like Memory Alpha has relaxed its canon position to include a bunch of comics and novels now too.

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  20. K. Jones
    October 27, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

    It took me a while to get to this.

    The only redeeming thing in Skin of Evil is Andrew Probert's concept art. Gripping, iconic, disgusting. I mean props to Frakes for actually dunking himself in that sludge, but the episode is a waste of space, characters, and obviously cuts deep.

    Symbiosis is wonderful, though. More and more poignant with every passing year. The Big Pharma comparison when you watch it these days is both timely and really, really there for all to see out in the open. And the guest roles from the two Wrath of Khan actors were nicely done, too. There was even some fun just general sci-fi world-building with the electric discharge super-powers resulting from a different type of sun.

    It'll be a bigger thing to talk about when we get to Season 3, and then to Seela, but honestly the sensationalism of killing Tasha Yar was just so poorly done. So bottomless they had to dial it back two seasons later, as much as they could and seek some kind of redemption for it. But then even that becomes a missed opportunity when they could have at least gone for pragmatic sensationalism and done a heel-turn, right? What sells a villain better than one of your crewmembers being a defector or a double-agent? And it's competency-porn as well!

    In my headcanon, Tasha was Seela all along (down to the half-human bit), and her passion and use of some of her real backstory in "bonding" with her Starfleet crewmates speak to her dedication and professionalism and the absolute terrifying effectiveness of Romulan spies, who are every bit as good at … well, getting their silly ship's doctors to make them up to look like aliens.

    It's the counterpunch for Kirk's brazen move a generation ago. And to top it off, Worf totally had a crush on a Romulan.

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  21. K. Jones
    October 27, 2014 @ 2:40 pm

    (Though it would be Geordi who gets the romance – another beat in his arc from "The Enemy" onward.)

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  22. Josh Marsfelder
    October 27, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

    "In my headcanon, Tasha was Seela all along (down to the half-human bit), and her passion and use of some of her real backstory in 'bonding' with her Starfleet crewmates speak to her dedication and professionalism and the absolute terrifying effectiveness of Romulan spies, who are every bit as good at … well, getting their silly ship's doctors to make them up to look like aliens.

    It's the counterpunch for Kirk's brazen move a generation ago. And to top it off, Worf totally had a crush on a Romulan.

    (Though it would be Geordi who gets the romance – another beat in his arc from 'The Enemy' onward.)"

    Whenever I write about Tasha Yar, I'm faced with a bit of a challenge, because I'm really talking about three distinct things: The Person I Thought Tasha Yar Was in 1996, The Person Tasha Yar Actually Was In 1987 and The Person I Wanted Macha Hernandez To Be. These are three very different characters, and while there is a scant amount of overlap, mostly these are three completely irreconcilable concepts.

    So that said…

    I really like your headcanon and can definitely see writing it onto a counter-factual history of Star Trek: The Next Generation as it materially existed. I think it's a very compelling character arc for The Person Tasha Yar Actually Was In 1987. However, I'm not sure I would, or could, tell that story about either of the two other Tashas.

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  23. Daru
    November 19, 2014 @ 11:24 pm

    Thanks so much for two really wonderful essays again Josh. I don't have too much more to add – except to say that your writing on the 'Just Say No' campaign and drug culture was especially insightful. I have done a lot of work with supporting people through Drug and Alcohol Addiction Services and the whole body of thought connected to that campaign is toxic.

    So sad that Denise should have such a strong episode where her character can really deeply begin to comment on the truth on the Federation universe as a mirror for our own, but then be ejected in such a cruel and pointless way. As a child watching it for the first time, it truly hurt in it's callousness.

    Reply

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