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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.

6 Comments

  1. gatchamandave
    March 9, 2015 @ 12:42 am

    It is the case that in the late 80 s The Next Generation was the stick that BBC management and much of the science fiction community, as well as many mainstream commentators, used to beat at Sylvester McCoy era Dr Who. Essentially, " If you can't be as good as ST; TNG what's the point of you ?" This attitude persisted as late as 2005 when I encountered it in an Open University text book on genre tv that insisted that with its multiple incarnations Star Trek was a work of genius – and I'm sure you can guess who that genius supposedly was – whilst Dr Who had, I kid you not, "failed".

    My tutor was therefore most uncomfortable when I devilishly pointed out that Enterprise had just been cancelled whilst Dr Who was a ratings smash.

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  2. Adam Riggio
    March 9, 2015 @ 1:26 am

    The ironic part is that even though BBC management was using Star Trek's success to cudgel Doctor Who, the McCoy era was producing brilliant science-fiction stories on a per episode budget barely big enough to buy the videotape that no one was watching because it was scheduled in a death slot opposite Coronation Street. I suspect the Doctor Who fans who shit on Star Trek for these resentful reasons are the Ian Levine types who have thankfully been left behind.

    I do remember this story, though I was never a very big fan of it. Learning how well-regarded it is in fandom circles, I gather it's because it was such a Data-centric story. Also, you should add to its list of egregious offences (as well as the fridging of Varria, the characterization problems, and the superfluous plot points) its accidental anti-Semitism after recasting the part of Fajo with Saul Rubinek, following the suicide of the original actor, Time Bandits' David Rappaport. While I'm always happy to see Rubinek in any part because he's a delightfully ubiquitous Canadian character actor, he's a Jewish actor who looks kind of stereotypically Jewish playing an unscrupulous, greedy, materialistic freelance trader. I don't think it was intentional on the part of anyone, because Rappaport's suicide was a surprise, and Rubinek was cast as a very quick replacement in the middle of the episode's production.

    As a result, Fajo tends to embody some racist stereotypes, where if Rappaport had lived to complete his performance, the character would have come off more as the mercurial imp the script intends him to be.

    Fajo's morality, of course, offers no real challenge to Data's, which is, other than the accidental racism, the central flaw of the story as far as I'm concerned. Fajo thinks he's genuinely needling Data for serving a military power, but he only offers the lifestyle of a cruel mercenary thief as an alternative. It's not possible to depict that as a better lifestyle. If the Doctor were actually to show up in Star Trek properly (unlike the comic you reviewed at TARDIS Eruditorum a few months ago), he actually would constitute a solid critique. The Enterprise would have to prove that it was an agent of ethical progress because of how its journey pushes back against the militaristic and realpolitik forces of the Federation. Facing Fajo, Data only has to prove that he's better than a fraudulent thief and murderer. We already know he's better than that. So the episode has been built around a straw conflict. It blows away in the breeze just as easily.

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  3. Froborr
    March 9, 2015 @ 7:57 am

    Wait, they think THIS episode has the Doctor parody in it? Not the one with the glib conman flying a stolen time machine starring the lead actor from the sitcom Doctor, Doctor?

    The fundamental split between you and I is becoming clear–I prefer Trek when it's showing its characters struggling to achieve utopia, which necessarily includes them sometimes failing. You prefer it when it shows them having already achieved it. Underlying that is, I think, that you see utopia as a point which can be reached; I see it as… well, if I may quote myself, "Perfection is an illusion, and progress is not teleological. It is not a process of narrowing down to a singular endpoint, but of climbing up and out into new possibilities." Utopia is like tomorrow, always ahead of you no matter how far you go.

    So I like stories where the characters struggle with being utopian, where they stumble and fall short, because to me such stories say "It's okay to stumble. There'll be another episode next week where you can try again."

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  4. K. Jones
    March 9, 2015 @ 8:22 am

    I like Saul Rubinek but he always seems like a terrible choice for villains. My disdain for this episode actually stems from the design. I get that we're a TV show, I get that it's sort of a lived-in hi-fi computer store world of spaceships and design, but this never felt cosmic enough for me. I'm really into the idea of bringing the Superman vs. Brainiac, Collector of Worlds dynamic into the "outer space mundane" of Star Trek. I like the idea of exploring possessions and possessiveness and using Data to do it.

    But Fajo just reads as a space-goblin or something. A spritely imp. You can imagine him having a witchy nose and curly-shoes and haunting a NickToons live action series with pixie-trickster magic. Nothing about him reads as "wheeler-dealer". And that dumps him for me, into the category of things like … well … Move Along Home.

    Everything about Fajo's design, spaceship and mise-en-scene should've been engineered to make this guy look like a man for whom ownership owns. A man possessed by his possessions. It needed to be haunting and cluttered like a pack rat. It needed to be museum. It needed to be funereal like a king's tomb, packed with the rarest and richest of royal trash.

    Instead, and admittedly there's some cross-pollenation in my brain here, we get the aesthetic of an episode of Frasier, where Rubinek lauds his stylish art collection and a comedy of errors plays out. (Admittedly, when Rubinek turns up as the first villain of Leverage twenty years later, honest-to-god effectively reprising this character, finally an appropriate venue for this aesthetic is born.)

    He should've just been a Ferengi. We should've gotten to see the dazzling and alien interior of a Ferengi Marauder tradeship. Worldbuilding would have happened, the philosophy of Ferengi DaiMons would have been fleshed out, their brand of "villainy" made clearer – both funny and uncannily scary as a concept, and we'd be citing it as "one of the good TNG Ferengi episodes".

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  5. Josh Marsfelder
    March 9, 2015 @ 9:26 am

    If you think my thesis is "progress is teleological", well, I've pretty fucking decisively failed at conveying my thesis then. I mean I did open up my essay on "Evolution" by saying "Evolution is not teleological". Nor do I think that utopia means "perfection": I have, actually, at times attempted to offer a solid critique of that conception of utopianism.

    The way I view utopianism is much more akin to that of Emma Goldman, who said "Every daring attempt to make a great change in existing conditions, every lofty vision of new possibilities for the human race, has been labelled Utopian." Or Robert Nozick, who said "Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others."

    (And yes, there's an argument we can have about whether or not Nozick's brand of libertarianism gets us everywhere we want to be IRT material social progress, but I don't want to actually have that discussion right now.)

    "Perfection" may not be obtainable per se, but ideals are. We can work harder to embody our own personal ideals and make them a central tenet of our everyday existences. What I don't like is creators who go around saying "any attempt you make to improve things is a waste of time, if you think you're improving yourself you're self absorbed and deluded and the world is never going to change for the better because this is just the way things are an you'd better get used to it."

    The other thing I'm trying very hard to convey about Star Trek: The Next Generation is that it tends to work best if you think of its characters not as characters who go through conflict and story arcs and things like that, but more as a weird kind of divine ideal. Data, actually, is a really good example: Here's someone who's overtly transhuman, who's better than humans in just about every regard. He's not perfect though and wouldn't think of considering himself as such, because, as a person, he's still learning and growing because life is a journey on which you never stop learning, growing and trying to improve yourself.

    As shamans, the Enterprise crew travels the spirit world, but are also forever tied to the mortal plane. They wear the masks of the divine in order to convey what they see through performance, and, because symbols and objects become each other, they embody their ideals as a kind of performance art. And as a philosophy for living their lives in the most constructive and healthy ways possible.

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  6. Daru
    March 10, 2015 @ 10:54 pm

    I thought that this was quite a ho-hum episode when I saw it last year on my previous re-watch. One thing I have never been into is divisionism within my love of fiction. Ok I do adore Doctor Who, but that has only renewed in the last nine years with the new series, and it has never been at the expense of anything else.

    I just try to take each product at its own merits, even down to individual stories within a series. So I have a pretty expansive love for fiction and literature, and pretty much don't have any time for folk that want to dump on other franchises for being lesser or worse to attack those who might love something different from them.

    So I never saw any parallel with Doctor Who at all with this story and I find it pretty sad that a really tiny voice within Who fandom (like the Great Oz) have magnified their importance to make them sound larger than they are. I agree with Adam's point that: " I suspect the Doctor Who fans who shit on Star Trek for these resentful reasons are the Ian Levine types who have thankfully been left behind."

    Here's hoping, as the really important thing is surely that we are are are all in this together for the love of stories?

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