“That’s not how I remember it!”: A Matter of Perspective
|Possibly the single most iconic shot of the season.|
One common story structure going forward from here is what’s been described by numerous writing staff as, essentially “Let’s Do X”, where X is some non-Star Trek work of fiction that the show can bang out a more-or-less straightforward translation of with minimal edits needed to translate the story to a science fiction setting. Arguably the most prominent example we’ve seen so far could be called “Let’s Do Moby-Dick”, as the Original Series did that an astonishing three times over the course of its existence, the first two impressively even being in the same filming block, and the rest of the franchise promptly decided that wasn’t overkill enough and did it three more times.
But that’s not exactly what I’m talking about here: Nicholas Meyer (and a fair few Original Series creative figures, if we’re being brutally honest) leaned on Moby-Dick (and Paradise Lost, King Lear, A Tale of Two Cities as well as about a billion other things plucked from the reading list of a high school English class) because he pretentiously thought it made him and his work look intellectual and cultured. When Michael Piller’s creative team and its descendents do an adaptation, it’s largely due to equal parts money and time saving concerns (it’s much easier to take a script from pitch to screen in a week if all you have to do is take a familiar archetype and plug in the names of your characters) and a desire to pay homage to an existing work that they’ve found inspirational, formative, or just that they thought would handily fit the narrative and ethical sensibilities of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in a pinch.
We’ve already seen the team do something like this already with “The Hunted”, which is quite obviously “Let’s Do First Blood”-Even though it was a freelance submission, it was something that went through a (somewhat infamous) rewrite process. What we see this week is basically that but more so: The genesis of “A Matter of Perspective” is quite easy to identify as “Let’s Do Rashōmon”, and because this is another story the entire creative team worked together doing rewrites on, it belies a particularly knowing cinephile’s touch about it that befits the source material. Rashōmon is a 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa based on a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa about a samurai and his wife who meet a bandit travelling on a road. A series of events transpires, and then the samurai winds up dead. The bandit, the samurai’s wife and even the dead samurai himself (via a psychic medium) each come forward in turn to explain how the murder happened and, baffilingly, each claim sole responsibility for it. The film follows a commoner, a woodcutter and a priest sitting beneath the titular Rashōmon city gate in Kyoto, today known as Rajōmon, attempting to piece together precisely what happened as each story flatly contradicts each of the other ones. The climax of the film features a succession of bombshell revelations as it’s revealed there’s one more eyewitness…and *his* account turns out to be even more sensational.
So, in “A Matter of Perspective” we have the holodeck being pressed into service to recreate the three, then four, contradictory eyewitness testimonies about a murder. In this version of the story, Doctor Apgar is the samurai (although Tayna provides his testimony as the medium), Manua is the wife, Commander Riker is the bandit, and the Enterprise itself is the surprise reveal witness. The first major difference is that Riker insists he’s innocent (because he is, of course) and the episode plays out as a courtroom drama instead of a story about a group of bystanders trying to piece things together. Although I’m ecstatic Star Trek: The Next Generation has decided to seriously engage with Japanese cinema, it must be said this was a pretty obvious pick. The film version of Rashōmon was the movie that broke Akira Kurosawa, and Japanese cinema in general, onto the international stage and won Kurosawa an honourary academy award (this was before the Oscars had a category for non-US films and Rashōmon is credited with being one of the films that convinced the academy to create a foreign film category) and is probably one of the most ubiquitous examples of Japanese filmmaking this side of Godzilla.
But that’s not to say it’s become a hackneyed story: I remember always being really intrigued by the way this episode played with the way that different people, through their different life experiences and perspectives, essentially really can create their own realities in a sense. It toys with notions of subjectivity in a way the original film didn’t and couldn’t, because another major departure the Star Trek: The Next Generation team takes from Rashōmon is that in Kurosawa’s film the big conceit is that everyone is *lying*: Each witness tries to make themselves the main character of the story through portraying themselves in the most heinous and deplorable ways they know how through wild exaggerations and misleading information to the point it leaves the other characters aghast. Rashōmon is ultimately a film about how Kurosawa felt the corruption, imperialism and modernization of the Shōwa era was poisoning and eating away at the heart of Japanese society such that a once-great culture had decayed to a shell of its former self. It’s an incredibly cynical, practically nihilistic, prognosis for early modern Japan.
“A Matter of Perspective” isn’t, mainly. It uses the Rashōmon structure to explore how different people can see what is ostensibly the same situation in wildly different ways. There are some genuinely interesting moments on display too where you almost get the sense the creative team is poking around the question of whether there even really is an objective truth or reality or it’s all entirely subjective, before ending with an easy, though more or less satisfying, conclusion that everyone sees a portion of the whole truth coloured by their own experiences (it’s the “blind men feeling about an elephant” argument). One major problem I have with this approach though is that it leaves ambiguous precisely what went down between Riker and Manua. I mean I know why that’s there, obviously: It’s dramatic and raises questions about the integrity of one of our regulars and that gives us the Almighty Conflict. But I don’t like that. I simply can’t stomach, let alone picture, there ever being the slightest possibility that Riker could behave in the manner the Tanugans accuse him of behaving. That flat-out undermines just about every ethical premise this show stands for. There’s an alternate reading of that particular bit of conflicting information that posits Manua was confused by differing social norms, but there’s really not enough material to build a case for that reading in my opinion.
Speaking of Japanese media, being one of the first “Let’s Do…” stories, “A Matter of Perspective” serves as a handy point of comparison with Dirty Pair, particularly in regards to how it and Star Trek: The Next Generation approached adapting other works. Because both do it all the time, and both do it in significantly different ways. Notably, Dirty Pair takes a far more mix-and-match, anarchic and transformative approach then Star Trek does. If you look at stories like “Hire Us! Beautiful Bodyguards are a Better Deal”, also a Kurosawa riff, it throws Yojimbo into a blender with Hollywood Spaghetti westerns and 1980s cyberpunk aesthetics to make a commentary on how US democracy and Soviet Stalinism are in truth two sides of toxic and self-destructive capitalist modernity, and how both have been playing Japan like a putz. Then there’s “Dig Here, Meow Meow. Happiness Comes at the End” which is a delightfully scathing gonzo sci-fi reinterpretation of the adventure serial revival that came in the wake of the Indiana Jones movies. Star Trek by contrast, both here and in most of the times it does this kind of brief in the future, is content with a basic plug-it-in, fill-in-the-blanks type of approach: “A Matter of Perspective” really is just Rashōmon with the character names changed and a few key details tweaked, just like “The Hunted” really was just First Blood on Angosia.
Returning to the music metaphor, Dirty Pair plays narrative like a DJ in a club, sampling different soundbites from different sources and remixing them into something new. Star Trek plays it much more like a cover song or tribute band, keeping their takes fairly close to the original source material while adding a few obligatory twists of their own. Now there’s nothing particularly wrong with either approach, both are perfectly valid ways of making good music, but one is certainly more ambitious and experimental. And it must be said Dirty Pair’s approach does allow it to keep its hands on the pulse of the current zeitgeist, and that does make it far more current and relevant in this particular regard. Additionally, Star Trek’s approach, being one more of recitation and reiteration, is also one that marks it far more clearly as an outgrowth of Nerd Culture (or, well, still proto-Nerd Culture at this point in history) who tend to be *all about* obsessive, meticulous recreations of things done as tribute to their inspirations. Look at people who recreate classic games like Super Mario Bros. down to the last detail in modern games like Minecraft, LittleBigPlanet or M.U.G.E.N., for example. And this does make sense, as we’re starting to enter the era where Star Trek fans (or, rather, Star Trek fans of a specific generation) by in large hold the creative reins.
I don’t have a sense of what the consensus opinion on “A Matter of Perspective” is among fans or other audiences, but I do know it was controversial among the writing staff. It was apparently really difficult to get all the disparate elements to tie neatly together at the end and was something of a nightmare for Cliff Bole, the director. Science adviser David Krieger had to get so involved in the writing process to ensure the rule in the series bible that stated the holodeck couldn’t create anything dangerous was upheld that he got a radiation phenomenon named after him. Ron Moore and Ira Behr say this is the worst episode of the season by far (which is funny for me to think about considering both “The Price” and “Deja Q” exist), if not the worst of any story they ever worked on, which strikes me as a hyperbolic assertion worthy of the characters in the original Rashōmon. As usual, Michael Piller takes a more degreed assessment of things, saying it’s a wonderful mystery plot (and he should know, as he worked on plenty of mystery shows) but it didn’t really translate well to film for some reason. In particular, Piller blames the casting, saying everything would have clicked with the audience immediately if Manua had been played by Lana Turner, and I have to wonder what he meant by that because there are a number of ways you could interpret that statement and not all of them are unproblematic.
But it does get me thinking that Rashōmon is a particularly apt way to view the history of Star Trek itself. Doing research on the production history of this franchise has proved to be a task of impossibly Byzantine complexity: It seems like every single person’s account of what actually happened in those studios and writers’ rooms almost spitefully contradicts that of somebody else, especially when it comes to the Original Series, the movies and early Star Trek: The Next Generation. Maybe, like the Krieger waves in this episode, the real answer is that everybody has their own little piece of the truth. But really, what strikes me as more important than any of this is how different people’s perspectives and positionalities have shaped the way they view Star Trek itself, and how Star Trek changes through the act of reading it. Mythology, like reality, is created through the act of trying to imagine and map it.
February 20, 2015 @ 1:10 am
Good essay Josh. The thing I remember being fascinated most about this episode was the holodeck recreations of the different points of view in the case. Loved that.
I like where you ended the essay on the discussion around the shaping of myths. The great mono-myth that has been created and wrapped around Roddenberry feels quite problematic in the way it has put in the shadow many of the other stories. It makes me think of Joseph Campbell and his Hero with a Thousand Faces, which is my least favourite out of his works, as in a lot of mays it led over time to some pretty generic writing practices within cinema. I do love his Masks of God series though, which a a deeper exploration of the function of myth across four books.
February 20, 2015 @ 1:10 am
Rats – I mean "in a lot of ways".
February 21, 2015 @ 10:15 am
"Let's do X" is also a common format for Doctor Who, at least from the Fourth Doctor on if not earlier. The advantage of the more transformative, flexible approach used by Who and Dirty Pair when you compare the "Let's do X where X equals Doctor Who" era of that show, a.k.a the Davies era, to the "Let's do X where X equals Next Generation" era of Trek, a.k.a Voyager.
February 21, 2015 @ 10:20 am
Dangit. "The advantage of the more transformative, flexible approach used by Who and Dirty Pair BECOMES APPARENT when you compare…"
February 22, 2015 @ 5:06 pm
This is a terrific post, Josh. I remember seeing this episode on its initial broadcast and being quite underwhelmed. I never thought these "let's do x" episodes represented the Next Generation at its best. This segment is not even a particularly good mystery. The Next Generation could certainly do mystery, as in the case of shows like "Identity Crisis" or the sublime "Cause and Effect", and while not creating unpalatable ambiguity vis-a-vis a main character so as to fit in with a story structure from another source.