|Also there’s this scene. That’s all I’ll say about that.|
And here I was all ready to write a lengthy, poetic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind-influenced essay too.
This may have been the biggest shocker for me in all the time I’ve been writing about Star Trek: The Next Generation for this project. Here’s “Tapestry”, an episode so obviously a classic and a masterpiece it’s taken for granted-It’s right up there with “The Inner Light” in terms of stories that are absolutely peerless and are held up as definitive moments for the show without a second thought. Even I just immediately accepted it: I mean of course. It’s “Tapestry”. How can you criticize something like that? Yeah, it uses the It’s a Wonderful Life plot, which I find so far beyond hackneyed it transcends overused cliché to attain a new state of absolute fucking unwatchability, but this was traditionally the one exception I would suffer.
And I actually didn’t like it very much.
I hasten to add I don’t think this episode is conceptually flawed at all; not in the slightest. I think the core idea here is good, brilliant actually: Fundamentally, “Tapestry” is about coming to terms with the person you were in your youth, embarrassing mistakes and all, because all of your past experiences helped shape you into the person you are today. It’s the ultimate payoff for Commander Riker’s comment way back in “The Last Outpost” about how “we can hardly hate the people we used to be”. It’s an extremely Star Trek sort of moral, an immeasurably important one, and something I personally strive to live my life in accordance with even today.
The problem with “Tapestry” for me, and I say this with the caveat that I mean no disrespect to the man or his work personally, is that Ron Moore wrote it. I’m reasonably confidant I’ve now reached the point where I’ve realised I simply do not agree with Moore’s favourite themes or his take on Star Trek and never well. His trademark signifiers are justifiably and rightfully all over “Tapestry”, and that keeps me from getting into the story. There’s the conception of Q, a deft blend of his trickster god and judiciary personae playing the spirit who teaches Captain Picard a valuable lesson about aging. But this time it feels like there’s a biting cynicism to it, Q just forcing Jean-Luc into a humilation conga for our amusement. After all, Picard and his crew are all complacent and snooty and stuck up and need to get knocked down a few pegs.
Something similar happens in John de Lancie’s own “The Gift”, but somehow I don’t like it or find it anywhere near as effective here. Yes, Q humiliates Picard in the beginning, but that might have been a hallucination or an alternate timeline and it’s played more as payback for Q being humiliated in human form earlier in the series (that happened in the first volume of the comic line, if you recall). And actually “The Gift” is a really excellent point of comparison: That story also has Q taking Jean-Luc back into his past and features a similarly loose It’s a Wonderful Life structure to make a point about making peace with the past, but that story has a far more entrancingly nebulous and dreamlike tone to it, and it’s never entirely clear what exactly is going on or what Q’s true motives are. Indeed, Q himself has a powerful sense of unknowable and actually downright fearsome cosmic mystery about him in “The Gift” he lacks anywhere else apart from “Encounter at Farpoint”, “All Good Things…” and perhaps “Q Who”. In “Tapestry”, Q just clowns around and taunts Captain Picard through the entire running time: He’s less voice of the cosmos and more The Great Gazoo.
Not only is the structure far less ambitious (even down to the fact this Q has fashioned a very Abrahamic vision of the afterlife for Captain Picard’s, and presumably our, benefit) the plot is far less compelling within the context of its themes. “The Gift” was about coming to terms with grief and tragedy, possibly the most painful manifestations of regret a person can face. “Tapestry” is about…how being a complete dick when you’re a kid is awesome and it’ll all be OK because you’ll grow out of it at some point. When watching this episode this time I was instantly reminded of the row between Moore and Michael Piller way back in “The First Duty” about the ethics of sticking by your friends no matter what. In the comments under that post, many of you raised the perfectly valid point that servicemen (and it does tend to be men) lying to cover up fatal abuses of power and authority is a legitimately serious issue and shouldn’t be kid-gloved away with the platitude “always stick by your friends”. And we see a similar instance of Moore going down that line of thought here.
Granted Ensign Whathisname’s move of tampering with a pool table and pissing off some alien bruisers isn’t as severe as lying to cover up criminal negligence or actual wartime atrocities, but Moore still phrases the ethical issue at hand as being one of standing by your friends no matter what. Jean-Luc’s mistake is meant to be taking the mature high ground: That by not standing with his friends he paints himself as a moral coward and ultimately costs him the Enterprise. There are an unbelievable amount of things wrong with this line of thinking…First of all, it personally rankles me to see Moore espousing this kind of moral theory because the implication is that acting mature for your age is tantamount to being a cowardly killjoy and is going to cost you all your friends and the respect of your peers. As someone who’s lived my entire life being told I act too old for my age, constantly only relating to people 5-10 years older than me (but never getting any respect from them and never becoming real friends with them because of the age gap) and never having any friends in my own generation, that touches a very particular nerve. If nothing else, it’s a position Jadzia Dax’s existence seems to refute.
It gets worse (well, at least in my estimation) when you bring in the fact that Moore sees this episode as interesting because of the contrast it draws between Captain Picard and Captain Kirk. In Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, Moore says
“I’ve always loved the notion that while Kirk was ‘a stack of books with legs’ when he went to the Academy and that he went on to become more of a hell-raiser and a womanizer as he matured, Picard had gone in the opposite direction. As a young man, he was so out of control and so wild that he did something stupid and got stabbed through the heart-which matured him in a different way. Picard became more studious, more cautious, more reserved. I was drawn to the story of how a mistake in your life turns out to be the pivot point that makes everything else in your life possible.”
It’s interesting, of course, because it means Picard was like Kirk when he was young. Symbolically, Star Trek used to be like the Original Series, but eventually grew beyond that. Then we have to remember how Moore is fiercely loyal to the Original Series model of doing things, to the point he thinks it’s an unworkable problem that the Star Trek: The Next Generation universe is utopian. In that light, it becomes impossible to view the scenes in the past as anything other than an indictment of Picard’s character: Not being like Kirk (or at least the way Kirk was written and the way fandom lionizes him for being) turns Picard into an ineffectual, forgettable coward and drives him away from the “real” heroes.
Ironically enough, for being such a “young buck” and clearly writing from the perspective of a very young man, this, alongside his man-crush on Edward Jellico from “Chain of Command”, paints Moore as a terribly old-fashioned and actually borderline reactionary writer.
And “Tapestry” is so wonderfully oversignified too. There’s the Nausicaans, of course, and everything that goes along with that particular invocation. When Captain Picard first enters Q’s “afterlife”, it’s a soft white light that seems to go on for infinity in all directions, just like the Celestial Temple. Q even makes a crack about humans and their fixation on linear time. Coming so soon after “Emissary” (and so soon before “Q Less”!), this is obviously incredibly loaded and meaningful. That it’s nowhere near as good or as enjoyable as “Emissary” is beyond frustrating, and kills any enthusiasm I might have had for a more lyrical and experimental reading. It’s not an awful piece of television, but it’s a massive disappointment in a season that’s been so reliably strong so far.