Thursday, January 3, 2013

Safety First

This week I'm looking at various types of conflict in speculative fiction. I'm using the first season of Star Trek The Next Generation as a source because I just watched the first season and it's still relatively fresh in my mind. I wish that wasn't so, in some cases.

For this post I want to examine the next step up in Maslow's Hierarchy of Need: concerns of safety. Characters need to go about their life free from a constant looming danger, when placed under threat, they work to remove the threat or remove themselves from its presence. This is different from physiological conflicts because a threat isn't actually lethal. I know in these paranoid times, the merest possibility of danger appears to cause injury and property damage but in actuality the only thing being attacked is one's sense of calm. That's not to say the need for safety isn't real, it's just one step more abstract than fighting to stay alive in a blizzard.

Plenty of examples of this appear in the first season. Still trying to figure out how to convert a basically utopian society into the setting for interesting stories, the writers in TNG tossed in a lot of frankly superfluous threats to juice up the tension. In the Original Series, this might be termed a "monster-of-the-week" episode but apparently someone decided that monsters were no longer the thing to do (Skin of Evil's Armus one odious exception). So instead, we get a lot of vague dangers concerning warp core breaches, unstable temporal rifts and odd contagions. I'm selecting a few of the more interesting episodes to highlight this last type.

To start off, it's hard to talk about the first season without bringing up diseases. For a culture supposedly free of headaches, heart attacks, and emphysema the crew of the Enterprise spends an awful lot of time unwell. It's hard to take Crusher's assertions of the power of 24th century medicine seriously when every other episode everyone's dying of the superflu. Contagious diseases appear throughout the first season: water-borne intoxicants, virulent flus, and planet scourging plagues. The advantage of diseases for an expensive series is that they inject danger into situations at very low cost. In "Angel One," a few well-timed sneezes are the only required special effect. 

"Haven" could stand-in for all of these episodes. Probably best remembered for the debut of Lwaxana Troi, Deana Troi's overbearing mother, it includes a subplot revolving around a totally separate menacing alien contagion. During the episode, an unidentified ship is detected on the Enterprise's long range sensors. This ship proves full of Tarellians, a race nearly wiped out after the release of a plague during a war. For the most part this is a talky episode, the question whether or not the ship's counselor is truly going to leave the Enterprise to fulfill an obligation she had no part in agreeing to. Apparently someone thought this wasn't really enough for the episode so cue plague ship. Picard tries to convince the Tarellians to find some other planet to settle on, but is unsuccessful. The ship comes closer and closer, its entire stern blistered by a translucent, pulsating boil, before the the whole thing is resolved by a convenient deus ex machina. 



Safety conflicts work best when the characters have something at stake. The easiest solution to a threat is to simply run away, so there must be some compelling reason why the Enterprise would stay in a threatening situation. In "The Naked Now," we get another contagion, this one a variant of H20 that behaves like alcohol, but the true threat is a star on the brink of a nova. When the star explodes, a mass of stellar material jets towards the Enterprise, its engines incapacitated by a intoxicated engineer. For the most part the episode is forgettable and Wesley heavy, but the ending works for the most part. By the last five minutes of the show, everyone is compromised, barely able to see straight, and yet terribly aware of impending doom. Yet, it's believable that a fairly simple solution, pushing another ship into the path of the stellar matter, would resolve the issue. As +Darren Landrum pointed out, these episodes work best with the minimum of techno babble.



Which gets to the episode I judge as handling threat conflicts the best, "Conspiracy." This episode is definitely an anomaly, dark, pessimistic, and intensely violent.  It would be a lot better received in fandom if the threat it introduces actually appeared again and the special effects range from dated to stomach-turning. But I think the show remains a nasty piece of work. From the moment Picard receives a Code 47 message we know something is up. Hints of a conspiracy come from shadowy officers holding weapons on a red, barren world. Picard best friend's is sabotaged and converted into a messy debris field. When the ship returns to Earth, Picard finds familiar faces suddenly turned cold and suspicious. It's the slow build of details that really adds to this type of tension. We see a purple writhing larvae in a case but we actually find anything out about it until the last eight minutes of the episode. We are left to conjecture, to fill in the blanks. Quinn is part of the conspiracy, one of the officers on the mining planet is revealed compromised by the silent invasion and at last, Picard has to confront the possibility that Ryker has been subverted. I think this overcomes the "don't go in that room!" effect because Picard is genuinely skeptical the conspiracy is really as large as it seems, or as dangerous. This also plays into Picard's central flaw as a character, his blithe self-confidence bordering on arrogance. By the time he does know the danger he's in, he is far too involved. He's already taken the bait and we are right there with him. Not a perfect episode and not really Star Trek, but definitely worth a re-watch.






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