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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.

19 Comments

  1. Ross
    April 23, 2014 @ 2:19 am

    The one that sticks out for me is Kirk's line to McCoy in the transporter room:

    The one that bugs me is when Peter asks Kirk to officiate at the wedding and Kirk gets uncomfortable… Because it means his Little Nephew is All Growed Up

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  2. Josh Marsfelder
    April 23, 2014 @ 7:01 am

    Yeah, they're all bad. I could have listed all of them but the video is embedded and this was running long as is.

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  3. Tom Allen
    April 23, 2014 @ 9:43 am

    I appreciate this review of "Blood and Fire". However, trying to deny that ST:TNG was "appallingly and spectacularly heteronormative and reactionary" by pointing out that it was the studio execs, rather than the writers, that forced the show to be appallingly and spectacularly heteronormative and reactionary — well, that's not a denial, it actually reinforces the common reasoning. I judge the show by what was actually shown, not what might have been written, or what was shot down.

    You yourself even admit "Star Trek never actually properly engaged with one of the biggest progressive concerns of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s." Apparently a number of people involved with Star Trek were on the side of the angels in this — but they lost. For all its good points, the franchise had, and still has, this huge glaring flaw.

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  4. Josh Marsfelder
    April 23, 2014 @ 10:34 am

    OK yes. But this is what I was trying to hedge against with my comment about implied authors: The common reasoning lays this at the feet of the writing staff, and oftentimes goes so far as to actually name names with little to no grounds for accusation.

    Yes, it is deeply, deeply unfortunate that because of all this we end up with "The Outcast", "The Host" and "Blood and Fire" and a lack of even background binary and queer characters and that is a black mark on the history of the franchise. But I think it counts for something that the people actually making the creative decisions didn't want it to be this way.

    (Also, while I grant this for much of 80s and 90s Star Trek, there is one really, really big person nobody ever brings up when talking about this stuff. But we'll get to her in time.)

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  5. Josh Marsfelder
    April 23, 2014 @ 10:48 am

    Also it's worth stating again that the way I approach Star Trek is to concentrate on its potential and the explore what I personally have found meaningful and worthwhile about it. I'm far more interested in the ubiquitous cultural myth of Star Trek than I am in the extent bits of Soda Pop Art. Really, the only reason I care about the latter is for the insight it can give me into the former.

    This doesn't mean that the bits of Soda Pop Art shouldn't be critiqued and re-examined in a new light. I wouldn't be doing this project this way if I didn't think they deserved that. But ideas are given form through positionality and intent as well as through mechanical writing: it's what Star Trek means to people, and what it can mean to people, that's really more important than what it actually is. That's the whole reason why this show even exists in the first place, or really any Star Trek that isn't the Original Series to be honest.

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  6. Josh Marsfelder
    April 23, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

    Ugh, non-binary that should be in the first comment. I am an idiot.

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  7. Ross
    April 23, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

    I am not comfortable with the idea that "appallingly and spectacularly heteronormative and reactionary" means the same thing as "At most only very slightly less heteronormative and reactionary than pretty much every other comparable contemporary thing"

    No, I don't mean to exonerate TNG in this regard, but treating it as something unusual and spectacular seems to be exonerating all the rest of society.

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  8. them0vieblog.com
    April 23, 2014 @ 1:08 pm

    In terms of gay portrayals in Star Trek and acknowledging queer sexuality, it is worth noting that there is evidence to support particular naming and shaming on the production staff.

    René Echevarria doesn't get enough credit for trying to get queer content in under the radar. The Offspring has Lal choosing her own gender, a sign he takes credit for on the commentary. His second credited script, Transfigurations has a strong queer subtext. John Doe is queer Jesus. Handsome man rejects advances of female crew member, is described as a threat to the natural order of things by his own people. These were both before he was on staff. Similarly, Echevarria was one of the writers on Rejoined. Not to mention that his teleplay for Improbable Cause was the real last bastion of Bashir/Garak shipping. (They get each other chocolates!)

    However, also during The Offspring, Whoopi Goldberg changed her talk to Lal from "when a man and a woman…" to "when two people…" Allegedly the scene was to include a homosexual couple holding hands in the background, but David Livingston rushed down to the set to stop that. These are all names that are sourced, and these are all stories confirmed.

    Ronald D. Moore's infamous exit interview stated that the studio really didn't care about homosexuality on TNG or DS9, and it was internal elements that resisted it. Whether or not you take him at his word, the studio let DS9 do Rejoined and (ugh) the mirror universe episodes. Yes, the latter were exploitative, but the former was tactful and thoughtful, and there's no evidence the studio would have resisted it.

    Plus, while Blood and Fire is a crumby script (I've read his original TNG draft, which is crappy, but is better than this sounds), it was not fighting for space with the cream of the crop in it's original position. Richard Arnold famously argued it was a quality issue with the teleplay, but it's weird those quality issues didn't apply to Code of Honour, The Last Outpost, Datalore, The Neutral Zone or Angel One. It wasn't like it was a choice between this and The Measure of a Man.

    By the way, first time commentator, long time reader. Love the blog.

    Cheers,
    Darren Mooney

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  9. Josh Marsfelder
    April 23, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

    @Ross

    Yes, this is an argument of mine too. It irritates me a bit when TNG gets specifically called out for stuff like this when I really don't see how it was any worse than any contemporaneous TV show.

    @Darren

    Thanks for the comment, and welcome to the site!

    I appreciate the background information: I try to be even handed, but I freely admit backstage politics isn't a major strength of my approach here: I tried for awhile, but then threw up my hands once I realised I was hopelessly out of my league. I finally decided the best I could hope for was to aim for not actually being provably wrong. Always been a big fan of René Echevarria and Whoopi Goldberg and their contributions to the franchise though.

    Yes, "Code of Honor" and "Angel One" really are inexcusable (though "Angel One" isn't nearly as bad as "Are Unheard Memories Sweet?" would have been, for whatever that counts for). At least those other episodes you name-checked had one or two redeeming things about them.

    Interestingly, I just heard today from another reader that Richard Arnold recently said he objected to "Blood and Fire" because it personally offended him as a gay man. I'm not qualified to back that story up, and I've been trying to avoid talking about Arnold wherever possible, but I guess that's something that's been said as well.

    Again, I get too far tracing this stuff back I'll be gossiping forever and will never actually do any proper analysis. I just hope what I have access to is enough for my purposes.

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  10. K. Jones
    April 23, 2014 @ 8:28 pm

    I was really glad to see the word 'subtext' come in, because while I'd never argue that more poignant, more obvious stories should have happened in regards to queer lifestyles, there's a real mystique and strength to occupying that subtextual space, rather than a supertextual one. It's very much the 'why' of Spock being a compelling closeted character, or Bashir and Garak's flirtations, and on and on and on. The subtext of kink and queerness has always been there. In a medium shaped by creative people, how could it not be? I mean, subtextually, Riker and Troi are swingers, probably Imzadi-linked, possibly consciously, during each other's conquests (so much more on that, later). Certainly as a reader, writer and artist, subtext, underground, alternatives are what appeal to me and always have. I'm far less interested in the overt.

    But being apropos only adds to that "what happens in your bedroom/I don't want to have to see it" double standard, as the passively intolerant would love to reduce queerness to subtext in real life as much as in fiction rather than learn from their discomfort. Bless my dad, as belligerent as he is, that's where his logic goes when you press him on these issues. It's where a lot of middle-aged men go. And Star Trek is as much for them as it is for us, I suppose, the generation of boys (and girls!) who watched Apollo land and grew up on Popular Mechanics. The same subtext can say different things to different generations, after all.

    I always found the "if it's a utopia, it's not a problem for them" argument to be the biggest cop-out. You use an alien race to allegorize every other damn thing. But I also grew up in and remember the 90s pretty well. None of the cultural zeitgeist of network TV choices are foreign to me. To say nothing of the fact that the quality of art found in film hadn't made its way to television yet like it has in recent years.

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  11. them0vieblog.com
    April 23, 2014 @ 9:13 pm

    @ Josh

    Thanks!

    That's a fair point, although I look forward to your redemptive reading of The Last Outpost. (The Neutral Zone is interesting because, to me, it's always been an adaptation of Balance of Terror in the style of TNG. So lots of talking and consulting and considering on the edge of a war, rather than pulpy submarine action, which is a nice way of delineating both TOS and TNG at the end of the first season of TNG. But I anticipate some insight on the a-story.)

    That said, the original script for Blood and Fire was pretty ropey, but it doesn't sound as bloated as this episode here. It wasn't good by any stretch, but – from my reading – it wasn't unsalvageable if given to the right writer to re-work and tweak. Indeed, the original script seems to have filled the same sort of niche filled by The Naked Now in the original run order – dangerous infection, abandoned Federation ship, hints at Picard/Crusher, gratuitous shout-outs to Kirk to assure viewers it's the same show, etc. I'm not sure it was THAT much worse than The Naked Now, although that's damning with an outright insult.

    In terms of redemptive qualities, though, actually showing that queer people exist in the future (particularly in 1987/88) would – I'd argue – have been forth doing on its own merits. Even if the script wasn't re-worked, which it should have been before reaching the screen, it would have set a precedent early in the show's run so that you could more comfortably have two same-sex people holding hands in Ten Forward two years later.

    Of course, this is all "coulda woulda shoulda", perhaps more suited to the alternate potential-filled universe you were exploring a week or so ago. 🙂

    @ Ross, Josh:

    I think the "calling TNG out" is rooted in the fact that Star Trek took such pride (particularly in the wilderness years) for being a progressive and open-minded franchise. Nichelle Nichols' oft-changing story about Martin Luthor King is fan lore, while people forget the context of the kiss in Plato's Stepchildren, heralding it as a huge step forwards in the portrayal of race relations. People forget racist drivel like The Changeling, and just remember that the future of Star Trek was diverse and welcoming.

    This is all debateable and questionable, but it's part of "the myth that Gene build and fostered during the wilderness years" and became something that people talk about when they talk about the franchise. With gay rights serving as the eighties and nineties equivalent of the civil rights movement, it makes sense that fans (and pop culture analysts) expected more.

    This, coupled with Roddenberry promising to feature gay characters in the lead up to TNG on the convention circuit (one such appearance inspired Gerrold to WRITE Blood and Fire, with Gene's blessing), heightened expectations. These expectations were never met.

    So yes, it is a little unfair, and a little unreasonable, but I'd argue the expectation is perfectly understandable – it wasn't hoisted on by fans, but created by the production team themselves.

    Cheers,
    Darren

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  12. Josh Marsfelder
    April 24, 2014 @ 8:36 am

    Actually, its the allegorizing of alien races that's a big problem for me IRT Star Trek. I'm far more in favour of using them to help in world-building and as examples of cultural diffusion and differing societal norms.

    I agree that the "if it's a utopia, it's not a problem for them" argument can be used as a cop-out, but I don't think it actually has to be. There's certainly no reason why this should preclude, say, a same-sex couple holding hands in the background or giving one of the main characters an incidental gay romance: It wasn't that side of the dilemma that seemed to be holding them back, it was internal and external pressures from specific parties-All the utopianism did is make it hard to do a traditional Star Trek issue story with conflict about it.

    (This is where I think Berman is wrong, incidentally: I'm still a firm believer in the concept of plot without conflict and I'm not a fan of the kind of Star Trek story he's talking about anyway.)

    That's another thing I think was so brilliant about "Rejoined": It managed to allegorize homosexuality without actually telling you that's what it was doing. There really is no question that's what the Trill stigma against reassociation is about, and there's no question it's not at all an issue that Jadiza and Lenara are two women (and the fact one of the involved parties is Jadzia helps a lot). The episode is straightforwardly saying this kind of taboo is about nothing other than keeping two people who love each other from being together and very clearly wants us to think about how wrong that is.

    Though, as good as "Rejoined" was for the time, that's of course not to say there can't be more that could have and can be done with these casts of characters and the setting. I think there are ways Star Trek can inspire material social progress without allegorizing every single thing, and I actually find it a cop-out when it does do that: I like to see issues handled with a bit more maturity than that.

    "Blood and Fire" almost got at this in the beginning with how it portrayed Peter and Alex's relationship. But then Gerrold decided he needed to be funny

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  13. Josh Marsfelder
    April 24, 2014 @ 8:49 am

    "That said, the original script for Blood and Fire was pretty ropey, but it doesn't sound as bloated as this episode here. It wasn't good by any stretch, but – from my reading – it wasn't unsalvageable if given to the right writer to re-work and tweak. Indeed, the original script seems to have filled the same sort of niche filled by The Naked Now in the original run order – dangerous infection, abandoned Federation ship, hints at Picard/Crusher, gratuitous shout-outs to Kirk to assure viewers it's the same show, etc. I'm not sure it was THAT much worse than The Naked Now, although that's damning with an outright insult."

    Yes, there's potential here. As I tried to point out a number of times in the post, Gerrold's a talented writer who needs an editor to help him be a good one. Give this to René Echevarria or, as I said in the post, Michael Piller, and you could have made something of it. Leave it all up to Gerrold, however, and you get, well, what you see above.

    "In terms of redemptive qualities, though, actually showing that queer people exist in the future (particularly in 1987/88) would – I'd argue – have been forth doing on its own merits. Even if the script wasn't re-worked, which it should have been before reaching the screen, it would have set a precedent early in the show's run so that you could more comfortably have two same-sex people holding hands in Ten Forward two years later."

    Yeah, I'd agree with this, though I do try to hedge against it a bit in my analysis: I'm still dubious "Blood and Fire" wouldn't have been an offensive ethical trainwreck, but I haven't read the original script myself. From the way you describe it, it wouldn't be terribly hard to point to it as a very flawed example of the show trying to say something very good, much as, actually, I'm going to argue IRT "The Neutral Zone" and "The Last Outpost". Had this gone out instead of "The Naked Now" the show quite possibly would have been in a healthier position early on.

    "Of course, this is all "coulda woulda shoulda", perhaps more suited to the alternate potential-filled universe you were exploring a week or so ago. :)"

    Ah, you know me so well! Stay tuned, is all I'll say for now 😉

    "I think the 'calling TNG out' is rooted in the fact that Star Trek took such pride (particularly in the wilderness years) for being a progressive and open-minded franchise."

    Yes, absolutely. Star Trek is, and should be, held to a higher standard than other TV shows (both because of its potential and the way Roddenberry and co. talked it up) and people should always be mindful of this, especially when, as you say, the production team end up breaking their own promises for whatever reason.

    On the other hand, I don't quite see how this justifies claiming Star Trek was actually worse on said issues then contemporary 80s and 90s TV shows were: I don't see that that was the case, just that it wasn't always better and it probably should have been.

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  14. Josh Marsfelder
    April 24, 2014 @ 9:07 am

    Also, I'm really glad you mentioned "middle aged men": Though I know bigoted and intolerant women, I know far, far more bigoted and intolerant men. And, at least as far as I can tell, female Star Trek fandom of the same generation you're describing had absolutely no qualms about nonbinary and queer identities in the slightest (Marshak and Culbreath perhaps excepted): They are, after all, the ones who gave us slash partly because it was "screaming obvious" Kirk and Spock were gay.

    Yes, a lot of that comes from a place of institutionalized misogyny as well and has as much to do with straight female sexuality…But the actual text makes the reading incredibly easy too…

    This is also what's going to help make early Star Trek: Deep Space Nine so wonderfully egalitarian and effective: It's this kicked into overdrive, and the fans now have friends in high places to boot. Same is true of Next Generation actually, but it's with early Deep Space Nine that this becomes standard operating procedure.

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  15. Ross
    April 24, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

    At the end, when Yar The Elder is about to make her big heroic sacrifice, and she asks Kirk to make sure her kids are taken care of, did anyone else imagine her adding "And whatever you do, make sure they don't end up on the planet of the creepy dystopian mad-max gang wars"?

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  16. Daru
    May 4, 2014 @ 9:04 pm

    I found this episode pretty cringeworthy with the whole way the gay couple were portrayed along withe all of the jokes and utterly uncomfortable with fusing their storyline along with the "AIDS" virus metaphor. Also in some way I think that there was to much of a big deal (in an EPIC sense) made of there being a gay couple in the story, which comes off in seeming that the the show is getting off on it, in almost a form of vicarious pleasure that seems to disrespect the characters.

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  17. BerserkRL
    May 10, 2014 @ 8:46 pm

    Re Ron Moore: well, Moore spent years on BSG promising to introduce a same-sex couple as soon as he found "the right way to do it" (um, why not just the same way you introduce hetero couples?). And the "right way" turned out to be: a lesbian couple in which one has the other raped and tortured and the other kills the first in revenge.

    Oh, but don't worry: later on Moore introduces a second same-sex couple. This time the revelation concerns Gaeta, a relatively weak and passive male character, thus playing into problematic stereotypes (why not make it Doc Cottle?); the revelation is confined to a minisode; the actual relationship takes place offscreen and ends when Gaeta returns to the ship; we're quickly assured that Gaeta also had a romance with a female cylon who gets far more screentime; and the revelation of Gaeta's sexuality coincides with his becoming somewhat psychotic.

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  18. BerserkRL
    May 10, 2014 @ 8:50 pm

    no qualms about nonbinary and queer identities in the slightest (Marshak and Culbreath perhaps excepted)

    Well, M&C are obsessed with them; these issues dominate the subtext (at least) of all four of their novels, as well as being explicit in "Petard." Their take is problematic in various ways, but certainly not hostile; and they were among the first to explore these issues in "official" Trek fiction.

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  19. Josh Marsfelder
    May 11, 2014 @ 5:17 am

    Yes, I tend to find Ron Moore's word to be somewhat overvalued, no matter how talented a writer he may be.

    Simply because he had a massive falling out with the production team doesn't guarantee his side of the story is automatically more credible. Or that he isn't going to make the same mistakes himself.

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