“Practice in Waking” is an interesting submission. It’s written by Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. This is not, in and of itself, altogether promising, considering Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a cornerstone of the middlebrow, populist, mystique-chic New Age movement with a plot so dull and facile it led Roger Ebert to once memorably compare it unfavourably to The Little Engine That Could. There’s a very serious line to be drawn between actual magick, narrative or otherwise, and the kind of thing championed by the Western, and mostly United States, New Age fad, which more often than not tends to be built out of the exact same imperialism, syncretism and cultural appropriation that defines the rest of the West. If Star Trek wants to take its spirituality seriously, it really ought to stay as far away from this kind of thing as possible. Clearly, “Practice in Waking” is screaming towards disaster.
And, wouldn’t you know it, this is could possibly be the best episode yet. Funny thing that.
“Practice in Waking” opens up hauntingly prescient, very strongly evoking Star Trek: The Next Generation, in particular the first season finale “The Neutral Zone”: Out in deep space, the Enterprise discovers a derelict spaceship called Project Long Chance, one of the last sublight ships built by Earth in the early 21st century. After Xon exposits that the crew must have been placed in suspended animation, Decker takes an away team, consisting of himself, Scotty and antiques buff Sulu over to the Long Chance, where they find one active unit: The casket of chief engineer Deborah MacClintock. Before they can fully relay their findings to the bridge crew, Scotty accidentally touches a panel on MacClintock’s chamber, generating a massive pulse of energy that knocks the away team out and places them in instantaneous suspended animation.
Decker, Scotty and Sulu awake in sixteenth century Scotland in the middle of a forest. Having no memory of who they are and where they came from, they scarcely have time to get their bearings before they see a woman, MacClintock, who is being chased by a royal garrison and about to be put on trial for witchcraft. As the away team fights off the guards, MacClintock reveals that she does in fact believe herself to be a witch, because she has the power to dream events and objects into reality and declares that they too must be witches as well. Meanwhile, on the Enterprise, Kirk, McCoy, Xon and Uhura work feverishly to find out what’s happened to the away team and to find a way to safely wake them, for as long as they stay in a coma, their life signs will deteriorate, to the point they have only hours to live. Curiously, this parallels with events in the “dream world”, as pursued and eventually captured by the witch hunters, MacClintock, Decker, Sulu and Scotty only have hours before they’re burnt at the stake for witchcraft.
Right away, this is once again an episode that’s both structurally very sound and ahead of its time. Like in “Tomorrow and the Stars”, we have another A/B plot: Although, strictly speaking, this and “Tomorrow and the Stars” don’t technically constitute an A/B structure as both halves of the episode relate to the main plot (they’re more intermediary steps) “Practice in Waking” is closer because the half of the episode dedicated to the Enterprise bridge crew is just as much about how the relationships between the characters have changed now as it is about rescuing the away team. There’s, naturally, the whole fact that Kirk isn’t leading the away team, which no longer constitutes him, Spock and McCoy. But even on the bridge, the dynamic doesn’t automatically default to Kirk, Xon and McCoy (as it did last week), implicitly because Xon is a new recruit and doesn’t have the same rapport with the others Spock did.
And this becomes a very real concern for this episode: Kirk and McCoy lean harder on Uhura than they ever have before, who fills the narrative space Spock and Scotty used to, handling the technical side of the problem and even channels Kirk’s reputation a bit by being the one who always tries to come up with “another way”. A number of times throughout the episode, Xon will recite a list of possible outcomes to a situation, usually very unpleasant ones (this is fast becoming a signature trait of his: He did this a lot in “In Thy Image” as well), making Kirk increasingly frustrated until Uhura improvises a better way out. But Kirk is also tougher on and less forgiving of Xon than he would have been of Spock, precisely because their relationship lacks the closeness of the one he shared with Spock. Or rather, he is at first: There’s a lovely moment in the climax where Xon risks his life to mind-meld with Decker in a last-ditch effort to bring the landing party back (by “showing them the things they love the most”). At first, Kirk implores him to stop, but Xon responds by asking him “Would Spock have stopped?”, which silences not only Kirk, but McCoy, who he had been bickering with as well. Eventually, Xon falls into a coma himself. But then, Kirk leans over to him and finally tells says:
“Xon, you’re my officer and you’re my friend. If you can, give Decker his ship, let him see the ship. If you can’t, I know you did your best to save their lives, and I’ll never forget.”
Xon succeeds and Decker gets back in the nick of time just as he begins to burn alive, by fading out of the sixteenth century landscape, but not before reminding Scotty and Sulu who they are and where they belong. But this scene really belongs to Kirk and Xon, and the fact they finally trust and respect each other enough to call each other friends. Furthermore, it serves as another major turning point for Kirk as a character: At what other point would you have heard Kirk describe the Enterprise as somebody else’s ship? While “In Thy Image” didn’t dwell on it, the fact remains Decker *is* still technically a Captain, and it shows a great maturity on the part of Kirk to not throw his weight around as a flag officer.
(There’s also a landmark Star Trek moment that gets tossed out as essentially a throwaway line: In another uncanny parallel with “The Neutral Zone”, when MacClintock comes out of her coma, Kirk has her beamed aboard the Enterprise. As she materializes, Chekov says “Commander MacClintock, this is the Starship Enterprise. Welcome to the 24th Century”. While there was dialog in “The Corbomite Maneuver” and “Balance of Terror” that seemed to imply Star Trek took place in the 22nd Century, this is actually the first time a concrete date is mentioned in the history of the franchise.)
That would have been enough, but then “Practice in Waking” throws us a massive belter: Once Deborah MacClintock wakes up (tellingly, by Scotty imploring her that if she doesn’t, they have a “Long Chance” of survival) and is welcomed onto the Enterprise, Scotty is eager to resume his relationship with her, him having falling for MacClintock when they were in Scotland and is pleased to discover she’s just as passionate about engineering and propulsion as he is. But then, MacClintock apologises and informs the stunned Scotty, and audience, that her prolonged sleep has given her an intimate understanding of the nature of dreams, and that this has led her to the conclusion that the Enterprise, and everyone aboard it, is itself a dream, at which point MacClintock fades away right in front of the entire bridge crew.
Now, there’s one reading of this scene that paints this as a very facile, Jonathan Livingston Seagull-style revelation. That would of course be the Stoner Philosophy reading, which can be aptly summarised in the following: “Dude…What if…like…this is all just a dream? And like…The real world…No man, I mean the real, real world…Is something else? And somebody out there is dreaming of us right this second? Just think of it, dude”. In other words, basically The Matrix without the 1990s cyberfetishism aesthetic. But that’s not actually what I think Bach is angling for here, and in order to get at what that might be, we need to remember what Star Trek really is, how it works and, more importantly, how it’s perceived and understood by people. Recall this is going out before the rise of Nerd Culture, so the predominant discourse in Star Trek fandom is still dominated by the overwhelmingly female and multiethnic zine culture, much the same sorts of people who gave us Star Trek: The New Voyages. For them, Star Trek represented an ideal to strive for, something inspiring and affirmational that validated their life experiences and gave them a voice, or at least made a case to others for why they should have a voice. In other words, Star Trek was a dream.
But Bach is also working through two different definitions of the dream here: Both the utopian ideal that fans project onto Star Trek, but also actual dreams-The visions we see when our consciousness is, for all intents and purposes, in a different place. And in this regard, Bach seems very much in favour of lucid dreaming: The ability to manipulate your dream to your likening through your own intuitive and conscious awareness of it. This, Bach says, both diegetically and extradiegetically, is magick: It’s how Decker, Sulu, Scotty and MacClintock can exert agency over their environment in Scotland and also what gets them branded as witches. And not only is this a lucid dream, it’s a communal lucid dream, as the away team gets to join MacClintock in her dream and help shape it. The conclusion now becomes obvious: Star Trek is a utopian dream, in every sense of the word, given form, and MacClintock, a woman, is dreaming of it right now. And maybe she’s not the only one. I could go deeper and deeper down this rabbit hole, but I think I’d rather wrap up this thread for the moment by saying Bach is anticipating a lot, and that this is a theme I’d love to come back to in more detail another time.
There are still one or two minor quibbles I have with this episode: The story still doesn’t showcase everyone equally and once again Ilia gets glanced over (one would expect, for example, that she’d have something to say about the fact her ex-lover is in a coma), though she’s treated no worse then Chekov ever was on the Original Series, and knowing what happens when this show *does* try to do stories about Ilia I can’t complain too much anymore. And, apart from her, this story really does make excellent strides: Uhura is great, actually better than she’s ever been, and Deborah MacClintock is a showstopper, managing to steal the show from the regulars. And the cast dynamic is both incredibly solid and explicitly its own thing: Decker, Sulu and Scotty are terrific together and it’s great to see Scotty in such a big role. And of course, the story of Kirk, McCoy and Xon’s growing relationship is a definite highlight. Considering we’re only four episodes in, Star Trek Phase II is frankly shining: Our dreams of a better future never looked brighter.