Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Next Generation, Season 1: Code of Honor

The Next Generation, Season 1
Airdate: October 12, 1987
3 of 176 produced
3 of 176 aired

Introduction

Rushing to find the cure for a deadly plague, the crew of the Enterprise encounters the Ligonians, whose culture is reminiscent of one of Ancient Earth "that we all admire." Will Captain Picard and his compatriots be able to navigate the rocky shoals of cultural relativism when the leader of this race kidnaps Lieutenant Yar?

"Thank you for your kind words, captain. Now where can I gets me some white wimmen?"


Writing

Matthew: Well, there are two ways to criticize the writing in this episode. First, on its failures as a good story. Second, on its failures to adhere to any reasonable standard of propriety with regard to not being terribly, horrifyingly racist. On the first count, there is a lot in this story that fails to make sense. We get the artificial drama of the "awful plague which needs virus X from planet Y within time period Z." Add to this: the notion of a substance which can't be replicated for some reason (though, to be fair, the replicator hadn't really been established by this point, and wouldn't really be until "The Neutral Zone"); the complete lack of character chemistry between Yar and Lutan, who we are told find each other attractive, but are never shown or convinced of this fact; and the plethora of logical issues regarding Ligonian society. Kevin, have I covered all the bases with regard to the non-racist aspects of the story?

Kevin: I didn't really stop to think about it until we viewed it for the podcast, but the underlying story, just on paper, is pretty hideous. I think you've itemized the list fairly completely, Matt, as to this story's problems. The only thing missing was a Federation bureaucrat questioning Picard's decisions at every turn. That and a transporter malfunction. Then we would have the TOS-trope-trifecta.

Matthew: We both mentioned the particularly irritating "twist," which seems to hinge on Ligonian property law (zzzzz) and legal definitions of death (zzzzzz... sleep apnea!). I can't imagine a more strained hinge upon which a story could creakily turn.

Kevin: Also, why the hell did Picard let Wesley on the bridge in the middle of a crisis? Just saying.

Matthew: OK. Now that we've cataloged the story sins, let's catalog this episode's sins against human decency in general and the Civil Rights movement in particular. There's no nice way to put this, so I'll just say it straight out - this tale revolves around violent, degenerate, primitive black men stealing more highly cultured and refined white women. I get that it's 1987 and all. But really, did NO ONE see any potential problems here?

Kevin: Another thing I hadn't really realized until this viewing is the remnants of the pervasive sexism that popped up every now and again in TOS, lines about a female officer "finding a man and leaving the service" type stuff. Even if the initial attraction had been credibly played, the idea that a woman would be flattered and not horrified at being kidnapped is patronizing at best, misogynistic at worst.

Matthew: The other issue is the purported similarity between the Ligonian culture as portrayed in the teleplay and the "culture we all admire," presumably some pastiche of African tribal cultures from before the age of industrialization and colonization. To gain some perspective, let's imagine it this way - what if the culture had been Asian-inspired, and the characterization settled upon had been "shifty and devious with fu-manchu mustaches" instead of "violent and oversexed with turbans and sandals?" One can see how claiming that there is a viable comparison between the culture portrayed and the ostensible example from Earth history would be  problematic, to say the least.  Now look. I'm no cultural relativist, and it would be far from my intention to claim that there is no objective way to measure the success or failure of a culture writ large. But to put up such a straw man for comparison is insulting, both to the culture in question, and to we the viewers.

Kevin: As I will discuss below, the decision to make the Ligonians all black was not one in the script, but a decision by the director. I'm wondering how this line came into the script in that case. Was it just a throw away line, a nod to the fact that every Star Trek alien seems to have an Earth analogue? The line would be fairly innocuous had we encountered another Classical civilization knock-off. I have just enough optimism in be to make myself believe that this was an unintentionally horrible line brought on by coincidence with someone else's bad decision. Admittedly, someone watching the dailies should have caught it, but had the "Make Sure There's No Horrible Racism in This Episode" Guy been awake at the switch, the negatives of this episode would have been burned.

Acting

Matthew: Denise Crosby complained about getting nothing to do. Well, Denise, if this is the kind of performance you turn in, it's hard not to see why. Now, this isn't Shakespeare, by any means. The story is terrible. But you could at least try to look engaged by what is going on, and appear to have the hots this story is imputing to your character.

Kevin: Given that I know what I know now about the main actors and their abilities, it's easier to blame their lackluster performances on a deeply shitty script, but still, other than maybe one nice character moment between Crusher and Picard in the ready room, there's nothing here really that would make me as a new viewer feel a whole lot of confidence in this cast just now.

Matthew: It was nice for Troi to get something to do. Marina Sirtis played it pretty well, lending an air of credibility to her character's expertise. Too bad they forgot this aspect of her character for most of the next 2 or 3 seasons.

Kevin: Watching the early TNG episodes again, it is nice to see they initially tried to give Troi a more substantial job, and Sirtis does actually have the chops to pull it off. Sadly, it's going to be about 5 years before Jellico makes her wear a real uniform again.

Production Values

Matthew: The costumes in this episode are... not good. Crunchy rouched shiny fabric rarely looks good. When paired with shiny turbans, gratuitous bling, and jheri curls, things go from bad to worse. I also found the planet set to be less than inspiring. The matte painting was pretty good, but the actual filmed segments didn't jibe well with it - it looked like a soundstage. The weapons, too, were rather uninspired.  

Kevin: The most obviously horrible aspect of this episode was the choice by the first of the episodes two directors to cast the Ligonians as stereotypes out of a H. Rider Haggard novel. We don't have a separate "Ass-tacular Decision Made by the Director" section in our reviews, so Production Values seemed a good a place as any. The first director, Russ Mayberry, was jumping off from a line in the script that described Lutan's guards as two large black men. Now, that's pretty awful in itself. All they need are some scimitars and we've got our bodyguard stereotype covered. Taking a horrible inch and running a horrible mile, he decided to...well...I have no words to classify this decision. According to Wil Wheaton, he was apparently actually racist on set, and Roddenberry fired him, replacing him with Assistant Director Les Landau, who went uncredited. I bet you everyone else wishes they could have gone uncredited too. It would have been nice if they had just started over, but I guess that would have been impractical.

Matthew: On the plus side, we get our first view of the holodeck and the arch. Solid designs each. 

Kevin: I agree, the holodeck looked neat. The yellow grid is bold and eye-catching, but not distracting for the scenes that take place in it.

Conclusion

Matthew: All told, this episode was an outright disaster. When, in 1987, you warp past any of the various politically incorrect aspects of TOS and create an utterly disgusting caricature of an entire continent's people, you've really accomplished a feat. Paired with a lame and artificial story that is almost entirely bereft of drama, you have pretty much the definition of a 1 on our scale.

Kevin: This episode manages to undo in 43 minutes what the franchise had done in all three years of TOS in terms of racial politics. Casting a black woman in the 1960s as something other than a servant built up a reserve that "Code of Honor" has now completely spent. You have to credit the Trekkies for slogging through and not abandoning the show at this point. Had I watched these in order, this may have turned me off to the show. This is a 1, for a total of 2, and somehow that even feels generous.

Podcast



9 comments:

  1. Great podcast. I would just point out though even now in 2010 there are still not many African Americans on TV. Also I love your Giordi shaving aside in the middle of a massive rant.

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  2. In the immortal words of Drawn Together's Foxxy Love: "Great Googly Moogly!" 'Nuf said.

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  3. Okay, Matt wanted me to watch this after he did to see how i felt about it...

    Yep, blatantly offensive.

    However, I know this was totally due to ignorance. It's set up to be about tense, impulsive culture with a ton of weird rules, and the subtly one person thought, "You know what would make this place unique to our audience? This ethnic thing that totally reminds me of Africa!" If you get several other people that would think on those wavelengths (and a lot of people did in the late 80s) and suddenly all of the aliens are cast black with greasy hair and stick instruments. Whoops!

    The director is atrocious, as well.

    You know, I remember watching this as reruns as a kid, but only was ever able to watch the second half. Probably better that way.

    Sidenote: my trekkie mother can see what they were trying to do, and doesn't see it as racist but really just trying to show how each culture sees the other as more civilized. Unfortunately, it's not done well.

    Also, that fight scene desperately needs better choerography. (sorry, can't spell).

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  4. The choreography of the fight never occurred to me as a flaw. Perhaps my ability to sense flaws was blown out, like eating a jalapeno right after eating a habanero.

    What did you find lacking in it?

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  5. It was lacking anything that made it look like a fight. They leapt around that bizarre set without looking like they were fighting, let alone to the death. It's hard to describe, I went to college with someone that was an awesome fight choereographer, and was able to make actors look like they were actually hurting each other on stage. It's lacking all the good qualities that my friend was able to put into her work.

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  6. Wow, once you see this in HD, the aikido scene becomes really obvious for its use of a body double for Yar. It's obviously another woman with a weird two-tone hair helmet.

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  7. It looks like the link to this podcast is broken. Also, did you guys take down your iTunes channels? If so, do you have any plans to upload all of your podcasts to iTunes again?

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  8. My English teacher was right, punctuation is important. The link was missing the ":" after "http" and that was causing the problem. It works now.

    As for the iTunes channel, I think it stopped updating when we switched dropbox accounts that we use to store the podcasts. We'll see what we can do about getting those fixed. Glad people are still trying to download older episodes.

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  9. It's a goof thing it's fixed, because this is one of our more entertaining podcasts. Let us know what you think, Bill!

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