Beyond Green-Skinned Space Babes Part II – The Ferengi

By Nathan Comstock, Television Section Editor

Last week, I continued where my Connecticon and Revoluticon panels had left off, giving a brief overview of gender relations among the Romulan and Cardassian races on Star Trek. This week, we take on one of Star Trek’s most fascinating and problematic races, and find a surprising amount of resonance with our times. I’m speaking, here, of the Ferengi.

Although they haven’t gone through as dramatic a change as the Klingons or the Romulans went through from the original Star Trek to The Next Generation, those who know the Ferengi only from their frequent, zany visits to Deep Space Nine might have a hard time reconciling this with their debut appearance in the first season TNG episode “The Last Outpost.” These Ferengi, intended as more of a menacing villain than a source of comic relief, are more animalistic and barbaric, clothed in animal furs and armed with pain-inducing laser whips. It is in this episode that we learn that Ferengi women are confined to the homeworld, treated as property, and not allowed to wear clothing.

Although several characters, most notably rough-and-tumble female security chief Tasha Yar, do express some level of disgust at this revelation, it is not totally out of place as a trait associated with a villainous race. Villains are supposed to make us fear them, so having them support cultural practices we find abhorrent makes sense — just as the totalitarianism of the Romulans, the brutality of the Klingons, and, well, just about everything about the Borg exist to make us root for the good guys, so the misogyny of the Ferengi gives the Enterprise and her crew the higher moral ground. The problem comes as the race becomes more developed and more sympathetic, and the writers attempt to reconcile this with their attitudes towards women.

By the time Deep Space Nine debuted, the Ferengi had gone from slightly silly fearsome barbarians to a full blown parody of consumerist America. Every aspect of their culture aside from greed is quickly and completely shut down, and we get a society governed by “The Rules of Acquisition” (rule number one is “Once you have their money, never give it back”). The pilot introduces us to three individuals who will become the eyes through which we discover more and more of Ferengi culture. Quark, a stalwart believer in the ways of Greed and Profit; his brother Rom, an “idiot” with a secretly compassionate soul; and Rom’s son Nog, a cunning petty thief who eventually becomes the first Ferengi in Starfleet. Like B’Elanna and Worf, the evolution of these characters is fraught with conflicts between their morals and their heritage.

The first real examination of Ferengi women comes in the episode “Rules of Acquisition.” Quark is asked by the Ferengi leader, the aging Grand Nagus, to represent him at an important trade negotiation. He is joined by Pel, an ambitious young waiter with a keen business sense. As the episode continues, it is revealed that Pel is secretly a woman, dressed as a male to be allowed to make a profit and to see the galaxy. The ruse is discovered by the Nagus, who demands she return to the homeworld and surrender the profits. The episode focuses on Quark’s moral dilemma of whether or not to betray someone who has helped him to further his own profit, and as such largely avoids focusing on the disenfranchisement of Ferengi women. The attitudes exhibited by the main cast here are extremely problematic.

Jadzia Dax, a highly competent and intelligent woman with experience being both genders, is weirdly not incensed to learn of female Ferengi’s effective enslavement, instead spending the episode giving Pel romantic advice on the erroneous assumption that he is gay (she picks up on the fact that Pel is in love with Quark, but not on the fact that she’s female). This is jarringly out of character for Dax — in her interactions with the Klingons, she is happy to completely ignore any of their cultural precepts which she finds stupid (see her behavior towards Lady Martok in “You are Cordially Invited”)^. But there is not even the stock speech about the Prime Directive and not interfering in other cultures — Dax simply accepts the deplorable civil rights situation as a fact of life.

Later on in the series, we discover that Quark’s mother, Ishka, has taken to wearing clothing and making business transactions without even bothering to dress in drag. It is in this episode that we get the first voices saying “hey, this is wrong,” but even here, the focus is more on issues of family loyalty than on basic human rights. In fact, Quark (and to a lesser extent, Rom) continues to be visibly disgusted at the idea of a female wearing clothes or earning a profit, despite having lived the last three years of his life on a space station commanded by a woman. Now, having Quark continue to stand up for Ferengi ideals was in some ways essential to the character’s evolution (and Deep Space Nine was all about character arcs), but the result, when taken holistically, is a “heroic” character whose misogyny can be hard to swallow. As late as season six, Quark can be seen soliciting female employees for sexual favors and threatening to fire them if they don’t comply,^ and filming Major Kira with the intention of making a sexual holoprogram of her for a client, without her permission. In the rare episodes focusing on him as romantic lead, he frequently talks about sex as a business transaction (Nog does this as well.) But the disturbing thing about all of this is it’s completely played for laughs.

Yes, Quark’s sexual harassment of employees and blatant violations of a female coworker’s privacy are all comic relief. Even the episode in which the enfranchisement of female Ferengi finally occurs, “Profit and Lace,” is a farce where Quark spends much of the episode in drag, resisting the advances of an old Ferengi patriarch. And while the experience is meant to teach him a valuable lesson, it still leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Because the fact of the matter is, there are still places in the world where women are considered property and aren’t meant to be seen by anyone but their husbands. And even here in the United States, there are a remarkable number of men who still want to limit women’s freedoms. Workplace sexual harassment is still a huge problem, and our culture is a long way from gender equality.

Star Trek is known for bringing perspective to complex social issues. And in the case of women and the Ferengi, there was a real opportunity to tell relevant stories about sexism in our world. And they instead chose to make light of serious social problems. While there are things about the Ferengi on Deep Space Nine and Quark’s internal struggle that I find really compelling and interesting and even funny, the feminist stuff did not hit its mark. And I look at that as a missed opportunity.

Beyond Green-Skinned Space Babes, Part I: Gender among the Romulans and Cardassians

By Nathan Comstock, Television Section Editor

As I have mentioned on this blog, I have now twice run panels on feminist aspects of Star Trek, focusing specifically on the Klingon race. I chose Klingons because of their overt associations with masculinity, but also for several other reasons – they are perhaps the most iconic, and therefore accessible race, and also one of the ones we know the most about. They are represented by series regulars on three of the five franchise shows, and appear as the primary antagonists of the other two.

But at both panels, audience members expressed a desire to see the same kind of analysis applied to other iconic Star Trek races. Well, we here at The Analytical Couch Potato believe in giving the people what they want, so here are some observations to get the ball rolling. This week I look at the Romulans and the Cardassians, and next week I’ll tackle the Ferengi.

Before I get into the specifics of the other major alien races, I’m going to take a wider view and ask a question we should consider for each of them: why? If humanity has gotten over its misogyny by the time it reached the stars, why has it been so hard for everyone else? What does it say that no inherently matriarchal societies have risen to prominence? In short, how is Star Trek’s world building shaped by the assumptions of the patriarchy?

The fact of the matter is, Star Trek is a product of 20th Century American culture, and 20th century American culture is, by and large, misogynistic. Uhura being an officer on the Enterprise bridge may have been revolutionary for its time, but she was still a glorified receptionist with little relevance to the plot. Later Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher, despite being as capable and confident as their male counterparts, were routinely undervalued and given very little to do for much of their series. Voyager (the first Trek with a female executive producer) gave a nice amount of focus to its female leads, but also heavily sexualized Jeri Ryan’s body in increasingly unsubtle attempts to attract more viewers. Trek may have preached equality, but it was very much still a TV show primarily by and for a male-dominated world.

Because of this, we need to look at how various alien women are portrayed from a production standpoint, and how they do and do not correspond to the gendered expectations of our time. I’m going to start with a race that seems the most in defiance of these conventions – the Romulans.

The Romulans occupy an odd space in Star Trek lore. They’ve appeared on all five shows, but have never contributed a regular or even a particularly sympathetic recurring protagonist to any of them. As such, we don’t get as much of a glimpse into their culture as the other three races I’ll be discussing. What we do see suggests gender relations more in line with Starfleet than the Klingons. As mentioned previously, we see women commanding their ships (This in an era where even Starfleet ostensibly did not allow women to command Starships.). We also see both women and men among the Romulan senators, and there are mentions of an Empress (though the primary canon gives little hint as to the extent of her powers.)

Unfortunately, there’s not too much else to say about the internal Gender politics of the Romulans beyond that they appear to have the smallest gender bias of any Star Trek race. But in the contrast between TOS’s unnamed Romulan commander and her spiritual descendants on the later series does give some interesting insights. TOS’s Romulan Commander is an oddity, a woman in a position of power, but proves to have little in the way of agency. Like her Starfleet counterparts, she wears a mini-skirted version of the uniforms worn by her male compatriots, and wears impractically long hair and make-up. Despite her power over her male comrades, she is still primarily a love interest, albeit for Spock rather than Kirk, and her inability to resist him is ultimately her downfall.

Later Romulan women are impressively not sexualized, in a way which is anomalous in comparison with just about every other major race. They are tough and often ruthless, wearing short, masculine haircuts and dressed in identical uniforms to the men, complete with shoulder pads that mask their figures. Compare this to the Klingon women we see, who sport impractical boob windows and inexplicable armor skirts, or even Major Kira’s form-revealing military uniform. While the Klingon women possess an almost animalistic sexual aggression, Romulan women post-TOS show no romantic interest in anyone (though, it is worth noting, neither do the Romulan men.)
It is possible that this uniformity is in fact a political allegory – the Romulans have always carried a cold-war metaphor, and the lack of individualism fits in well with the Maoist reverence for the State which Romulan military characters seem to possess. In this way sexual equality is almost vilified – “look at this oppressive society, where the women have to dress like men.”

The Cardassians are much like the Romulans in many ways – both species are megalomaniacal, xenophobic, and somewhat totalitarian, relying on powerful intelligence agencies the Tal Shiar and the Obsidian Order. However, while the Romulans appear happy to ignore gender differences almost completely, the Cardassians still divide gender roles very strictly – albeit down a totally different line than humanity. In the Deep Space Nine episode “Destiny” it is revealed that Cardassians consider science and technological achievement to be “Women’s work” while men are far more prominent in the military. Within the civilian government and the Obsidian Order, both genders are seen to be equally represented.

Despite their cultural similarities to the Romulans, Cardassian women are not desexualized in the same way. The first Cardassian woman we see (as well as the only female military commander) is Gul Ocett in the TNG episode “The Chase.” Although Ocett wears armor similar to that of male Guls, she has long hair and wears make-up (and eye-shadow like coloration applied to the spoon-like indentation on her forehead.) From an in-universe perspective, it seems odd that long hair and make-up would be seen as universally female regardless of species, and that a strict military culture would allow such deviations in appearance.

From an out-of-universe perspective, it continues to reinforce the way in which gendered signifiers have become ingrained in our culture. Jewelry, make-up, and long hair have only symbolized femininity for an extremely narrow period in our history; it’s ludicrous to assume they would continue to in the 24th century, much less evolve independently that way on other worlds. But these visual cues inform the audience that they are looking at women, even when the individuals in question are grey-skinned lizard people.

In the second part of this article, I’ll examine Star Trek’s most misogynistic race, the Ferengi, and try and reconcile some of the more problematic aspects of their portrayal. In the meantime, I hope I’ve helped some of you look at the show in a new way.

Sound off: In the comments, let me know if there’s another race you want to see discussed. Or give me your thoughts on Romulan women post TOS.

Panel Report: Klingons and Feminism, Take Two

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Connecticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Those who want to see the full album of Connecticon pictures can see it on Facebook here. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us.

This weekend at Connecticon, Jonah and I reprised the panel I led with Gillian at Revoluticon on Klingons and Feminism. It was sad to lose my cohost (and a little awkward to be on stage talking about gender theory with no women) but my brother knows more about Star Trek than anyone I know, so I felt like he was a relatively good replacement.

The crowd was fantastic. We sold out the room, and a diverse audience comprised of many ages, races, and genders of Trekkies provided key discussion points and kept the conversation moving in unexpected but fruitful directions.

Starting with the same roots, the discussion went very differently than it did a few months ago. The Connecticon audience seemed more interested in broader themes and the portrayal of Klingon culture as a whole than analysis of individual characters which had been the focus of the panel in Ohio.
We discussed the sexual aggression of peripheral female Klingons, to what extent it was the result of male writers, and the role comedy played in shaping that aspect of their development. We looked at how Klingon women were empowered vs. objectified, and what sort of roles they were allowed to play in their own society. Finally we came around to the question of how Klingon society could even function with its entire population devoted to warfare.

The character study we did do was more focused on Worf than B’Elanna this time, and delved more into issues of race and stereotyping. Worf’s complexity comes from his attempts to meld the culture he was raised in with a heritage he feels is his birthright, but which he has come to as an outsider. The discussion took this point in several directions I had not considered, noting that Worf ultimately fails in many ways to assimilate into either culture, but does accomplish the goal of learning to accept himself for what he is.

One audience member brought up the racism inherent in attributing B’Elanna Torres’s anger issues to her Klingon blood, which led us to a conversation about the questionable racial politics of monocultures. Just before wrapping up, we compared B’Elanna and Worf’s parenting woes, and the fact that neither wants their child to grow up straddling two worlds. B’Elanna wants Miral to be fully human, whereas Worf strives for Alexander to be a Klingon warrior. We asked the question of what wouls happen if they’d ended up with children of the opposite genders.

All in all the panel was a huge success. In any part of the country, Trekkies can be counted on to be knowledgeable and insightful.

One audience member commented that she thought the panel would delve into all of Star Trek’s races. Klingon’s were about all we could handle in an hour, but I’d love to look at sexism in Trek through the lens of the Ferengi, the Romulans, and the Cardassians. Is that something you would be interested in reading? Sound off in the comments!

Gul Macet to Legate Damar or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cardassians

Editor’s Note: this article, written by Fay Hughes, was an Honorable Mention for the 2012 Larry L. Stewart Prize for Critical Essay on Entertainment. Thanks to everyone who participated! 

“I’ll bury radioactive waste along the Lithuanian border and put up powerful fans and blow the stuff across at night.  They’ll all get radiation sickness.  They’ll die of it.  When they either die out or get down on their knees, I’ll stop.”

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a rather interesting character in Russian politics, declared this in 1991.  Zhirinovsky is the founder and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, a neo-fascist, anti-west and nationalistic party. Zhirinovsky represented everything that made Americans nervous about a post Soviet Russia.  It did not help that his party earned a shocking 22.9% of the vote in the 1993 legislative elections.

When I first read that quote, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this one:

“I knew it. I’ve always known it. I should’ve killed every last one of them! I should’ve turned their planet into a graveyard the likes of which the galaxy had never seen! I should’ve killed them all.”

This quote was spoken by the thankfully fictional megalomaniac Cardassian named Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo).

Why am I talking about Russian politics?  I am talking about Russian politics because essentially, this article is about Russia.  The Cardassians can be likened to many villains in history, but they most closely resemble the American view of Soviet Russia.  Star Trek has a long history of using that view as an inspiration for the enemies of the Federation.  As American relations with Russia changed, though, so did those enemies.  The 1990s was a time of great transition in American-Russian relations, a transition that can be mapped through the use of these newest Federation enemies, the Cardassians.

The first appearance of Cardassians occurs in the Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) episode The Wounded (S4E12 aired January 28, 1991).  This was during the tenure of President George H. W. Bush and aired during an extremely turbulent time in Russian politics.  As the Cold War came to a close, Mikhail Gorbachev enacted historic reforms, reforms many Americans were hopeful but skeptical would stick.  There were a number of factions working against Gorbachev, including the still powerful military.  Bush himself seemed unable to adapt to these changing circumstances, still maintaining a large military to fight a Red Army that would never come and timidly keeping the United States out of any sort of engagement with Russian reforms.

The early portrayals of Cardassians reflect this general discomfort with Russia and its political situation.  Cardassians are a reptilian looking race who almost exclusively swagger wherever they go.  They have heavy over eye ridges that obscure their eyes, giving them the appearance of deceitfulness.  They tend to stand in the shadows, further obscuring their features and are filmed from below, making them look tall and intimidating.  The uniforms in The Wounded are all black, interlocking plates and include a helmet that partially covers their faces.  The later Cardassian uniforms forgo the helmet and transform the interlocking plate armor into a single breastplate shaped in an upside down triangle, creating the effect of broadening the shoulders.  The overall outcome is to create an intimidating and untrustworthy looking enemy.

The Wounded begins with the Enterprise waiting for a Cardassian ship named the Trager.  We learn that the Federation was recently at war with the Cardassians but now are trying to maintain an unstable peace.  We also learn that Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) himself, in an attempt to foster trust, once approached a Cardassian ship while keeping his shields down.  The Cardassians returned the favor by nearly destroying his ship.  If this were not enough, the Trager flies in, guns blazing, and attacks the Enterprise.  When we see the Cardassian bridge, it is dark with flashing red lights and all the Cardassians are wearing their helmets, making it very hard to see these new aliens, creating an atmosphere of distrust and fear.

When Gul Macet (Marc Alaimo), Trager’s commanding officer, comes to the Enterprise with two of his officers though, they appear to be reasonable people, being helpful and friendly with the Enterprise crew.  Any hope of trust is broken though when we learn that one of the Cardassian officers was caught accessing information on the Enterprise’s weapons systems.  Even worse, it becomes clear that the Cardassian science stations being attacked are actually weapons facilities.  The episode ends where it begins, viewing the Cardassians with skepticism and only calling them allies because of a treaty, not because of true confidence.

The Wounded presents itself as a perfect example of American mistrust of a post Cold War Russia.  Without leadership from the Bush Administration, the relations between Russia and America sat in a holding pattern.  Americans did not trust the Russians just yet.  This attitude continues into the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) which primarily features two Cardassians, Gul Dukat and Elim Garak (Andrew Robinson).  First season Gul Dukat is typical of early Cardassians, primarily remaining in the shadows, standing obscenely close to the camera when he is not and does not try very hard to hide that he is up to no good.  Overall, the view we get of Dukat is that he is menacing and untrustworthy.  Garak on the other hand, is presented as more of an enigma but is still given treatment to foster distrust.  We see this through the way the other characters interact with him [Doctor Bashir (Alexander Siddig) looks like he wants to jump out of his skin when they first meet] and by being revealed through side sweeps and around pillars, making him seem deceitful.  Although in his lone first season episode he helps our heroes, we are left with a distinctly uncomfortable feeling about him.

Something happens as DS9 moves through its seven seasons though.  Cardassians start seeming considerably less nefarious.  We see their governmental systems at work and they certainly qualify as totalitarian but the individual Cardassians we meet are generally not so, some are even heroic.  This change occurs during the administration of President Bill Clinton who had a very different view than President Bush of how to deal with a changing Russia.  Clinton chose to work on the assumption that the reformers in Russia would eventually win.  As such, he reconstructed Bush’s geopolitical view (building armies) to a geoeconomic view (building economies), believing that world peace could be achieved through the free market.

The writers of DS9 show this changing view of Russia by giving us concrete reasons to dislike the Cardassian government while giving us reasons to like Cardassians themselves.  In Profit and Loss (S2E18 aired March 20, 1994) we see a Cardassian government, willing to do anything to make sure political dissidents are killed.  Even worse, in Tribunal (S2E25 aired June 5, 1994) we learn that in Cardassian courts, not only do you learn your sentence well before your charge but that the evidence is made up and the facts don’t matter.  These episodes and others, though they show a very dark side to Cardassia, humanize Cardassians by putting them in an untenable political situation, rather than themselves being inherently evil.  In the episode Destiny (S3E15 aired February 13, 1995) we meet two very admirable Cardassian scientists who are uncomfortable with their government.  Furthermore, in the final nine episode story arc The Final Chapter (S7E17-25 aired April 7 – June 2, 1999), Legate Damar (Casey Biggs) leads a rebellion with the help of Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), a former Bajoran freedom fighter there on behalf of the Federation.  He even goes as far as killing his second in command and friend who cannot overlook Kira’s race saying “He was my friend. But his Cardassia is dead and won’t be coming back.”

The episode that best shows this change is Second Skin (S3E5 aired October 24, 1994).  Second Skin chronicles the kidnapping of Kira Nerys by the shadowy, KGB like organization the Obsidian Order.  The Obsidian Order makes Kira look like the Cardassian daughter of the powerful Legate Tekeny Ghemor (Lawrence Pressman) in order to expose him as a secret leader in the growing dissident movement.  Ghemor truly believes that Kira is his daughter and proves to be a very loving father, in the end trying to help her leave Cardassia Prime.  He is always filmed under the light and in scenes with Kira, does not wear his breastplate, giving him a smaller, softer appearance.  Even after learning that Kira is actually a Bajoran, He continues to treat her as a daughter.  Kira herself, despite her fervent hatred of all Cardassians, comes to respect and like Ghemor, saying at the end of the episode “I realize now, you’re an honorable man.”

Star Trek has a long history of using America’s turbulent relationship with Soviet Russia, as an inspiration for its plots and enemies.  Cardassians are the latest enemy of the Federation who takes the place of Russia in real life politics.  Unlike the earlier incarnations though, Cardassians are not inherently evil.  As the United States moved from seeing Russia as a potential enemy in a hot war to a potential ally, the Cardassians followed this same arc.  The Cardassians transition from the untrustworthy Gul Macet and Gul Dukat to the hero Legate Damar who says that he is an ally of the Federation, and thus the United States.

Panel Report: A Feminist View of Klingons

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Revoluticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us!
We were the first panel of the morning and it took us a little while to get started, but pretty soon about nine people were out in the audience – more would trickle in later. I was a little apprehensive about sitting down in the massive panel room one, especially as our modest turnout was dwarfed even more by the venue. But the people who showed up were all obviously interested in one or both aspects of our topic – they seemed to be all either Trekkies or feminists, and we decided to just jump in.

After a brief introduction where we talked about who the ACP is and what it is we do, I started by observing how Star Trek uses different monocultures like the Klingons, the Ferengi, and the Romulans, to tell stories about the human condition – basically a reiteration of some of the points in this article. In the particular case of the Klingons, the monoculture is one of hypermasculinity – that is to say, the Klingons represent what it is to be a “real man” in our society, at least according to the sociopolitical constructs of the patriarchy. I asked the fundamental question of the panel, which was, looking at the Klingons in this light, what insights does Star Trek have about gender politics?
Following this, Gillian took the mic for a while and briefly defined a few terms – the patriarchy, the male gaze, etc. – that we thought would be useful to our audience over the course of the discussion. Over the next forty-five minutes we would find our audience surprisingly well-versed on this topic, but it was still important to make sure everyone was on the same page.
Our discussion was structured primarily around two characters – Worf, from Star Trek the Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and B’Elanna Torres, from Star Trek: Voyager. At one point a quick poll of the audience revealed that most of them favored Voyager of the three shows, a statistic which surprised me somewhat but steered the B’Elanna part of the discussion more into the spotlight than we had perhaps planned. Still we started off talking about Worf, and his struggle between his warrior heritage and the culture who had raised him, the utopian Federation, which stresses diplomatic solutions and non-violent conflict resolution. The outline at this point had us discussing Worf’s relationship with his son, but the audience seemed more engaged with the fundamental struggle between Klingon and Starfleet morality, so we talked about that for a while before venturing into B’Elanna territory.
Many aspects of B’Elanna’s character generated a spirited discussion, and it was here that the feminist element of the panel really took the spotlight. We talked about her as a metaphor for women in positions of power, drawing comparisons to Hillary Clinton at one point, and how that was influenced by her warrior heritage. We also talked about her relationship with Tom Paris and the ways in which that it confirmed and challenged traditional male/female power structures. This led us into a discussion which was nowhere in our outline, about the various fully Klingon characters on the show (Lursa and B’Etor, Grilka) and how they did and did not uphold the sexual double standard. This took us into totally new and exciting territory as we talked about whether the sexual double standard would even exist in such a hyper-masculine culture. I have to credit our audience with starting us down this train of thought, which never occurred to me during my preparation for the panel.
After a brief digression about the believability of institutionalized misogyny in Klingon culture given the rest of what we know about them, we found ourselves dissecting the very idea of a monoculture, especially one composed entirely of warriors. One audience member quoted Terry Pratchett, saying of the old Klingon adage that “Today is a good day for someone else to die” is a much more effective mantra for a militaristic culture. This brought us back around to the idea that perhaps both the masculine and the feminine are required for a productive society.
All in all I think the panel was a great opportunity for a group of Star Trek fans to talk about their passion in a new and hopefully more analytical context, and I think everyone had a great deal of fun. The level of articulate and insightful audience participation was really heartening and I hope to be invited back for Revoluticon 2013.

The Last Push and the Spirit of Exploration

Space exploration has always been a staple of science fiction. But when reality caught up with it, it turned out a lot less exciting than we thought. Space is really big and it takes forever to get anywhere. So sci-fi faced a choice between becoming less grounded in science and less interesting, and for the most part it went for option one. Works like Star Trek gave their heroes impossibly fast and sometimes downright luxurious ships—transporters, holodecks, and warp drives all opened up possibilities for interesting stories, but at the cost of making space travel look easy.

The Last Push, which I had the good fortune of seeing at the Somerville Science Fiction Film Festival last week, takes the opposite approach. It portrays space travel much as it is—dangerous, terrifying, and something no one in his right mind would want to do. And, in the process, it creates a more uplifting view of the human spirit of exploration than most faster-than-light space fantasies.

Set in the near future, the film focuses on a privately funded six-year manned mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, where probes have discovered animal life beneath the ice. To get there, the ship plans to perform a slingshot maneuver around Venus, then head past Earth and onto Jupiter. The astronauts are meant to be in stasis of most of the journey. Early on in the mission, though, a micrometeor destroys the stasis chambers and kills one of the two astronauts. The survivor, Michael Forrest (Khary Payton), must repair the ship and get himself home.

The challenges Forrest faces throughout the film are not exceptional or supernatural. Though he is threatened by mechanical failures, primarily it is the loneliness, the boredom, and the fear of dying alone in space that are the greatest threats. The film makes the audience feel his frustration with repetitive scenes showing his attempts to establish a routine. Forrest also must deal with the grief of losing his comrade, which manifests itself in hallucinations.

The turning point comes when the ship slingshots around Venus. Interspersed throughout the film are scenes from a video which Forrest’s superiors assemble for him, showing well-wishers from around the world who are following his journey. Forrest refuses to watch the video until after he sees Venus and becomes the first human to stare down on its alien clouds. It is then that he remembers why he is out there, and realizes what his journey means to the people of Earth.

Star Trek and The Last Push (and Star Trek here stands in for any number of works of “soft” science fiction) both fulfill the human need for exploration, but in completely different ways. Star Trek gives us the fantasy of easy exploration with cool gadgets, and gives us something to strive for. But The Last Push is about how incredible it is that even without those cool gadgets, we still send men and women into space and bring them back alive. In other words, instead of being constrained by the realities of spaceflight, it turns those realities into something to be proud of—look what we can accomplish even in spite of science screwing us over. We may not ever have warp drive, it says, but the universe will still be remarkable.

The Last Push is about the tangible and intangible results of the space program. The tangible results are the reason NASA has grounded the space shuttles with no plan to replace them—the space program has never been cost-effective in producing useful technological advances. If a Star Trek level of technology ever becomes possible, it is too far down the road even to contemplate. But the fact that we kept doing it anyway is so much more of an amazing statement about humanity than it would be if space travel was easy. The Last Push is about the human drive to explore the universe at all costs, and the value of the impossible dream, and in our current climate, it may be the most useful kind of space fantasy we have.

Give Spin-Offs the Chance They Deserve

The history of television is littered with the corpses of failed spin-offs*, and it’s not hard to see why. Media like television and movies are the joint offspring of creative people (i.e. writers, directors, and producers) and network executives — the people who watch ratings numbers, come up with schedules, and worry about the bottom line. And bottom-line people love a sure thing.

Spin-offs come with built-in audiences and pre-developed beloved characters and settings. People will tune in, at least for the first few episodes. It’s just like how Hollywood would rather greenlight Transformers 12: Let’s Drop the Pretext of a Plot and Show You Some More Exploding Robots more readily than they would an original screenplay.

Let’s put them … on the moon?

And yet, the thing about these “sure things” is that they aren’t. As I said before, the history of television is littered with the corpses. So network executives, ever-thinking, asked themselves, “What if we could make a pilot for a spin-off, air it, test it with viewers, and invest nothing in it at all?” And from that brilliant idea comes The Backdoor Pilot.

The Star Trek franchise has been more successful in the spin-off market than any series before or since. The original three-season show yielded 25 additional seasons of spin-offs and 11 movies and counting. But the first spin-off conceived was a show called Assignment: Earth. It was about a man named Gary Seven and his talking cat who lived on Earth in the present and… saved it from aliens or something? I don’t know, look it up.

That, my friends, is a backdoor pilot. When viewers tune in to see the ongoing adventures of their favorite characters, and are instead treated to a parade of new faces, often with the supposed stars of the show shoe-horned in in a perfunctory manner.

Remember when Gilmore Girls did an episode about Jess flying to California and meeting his Dad and all his wacky friends and we didn’t see Rory and Lorelai for the rest of the episode? Back door pilot for an unproduced show called Windward Circle. They’re easily spotted.

What the networks hope is that regular viewers will tune in and be so impressed by the new characters that they will demand more. And the network will be able to say, “What a coincidence, we just happen to be developing this new show.” And it works perfectly, which is why Assignment: Earth and The Gilmore Men are still on the air today. Except, oh wait, they never saw the light of day. Because backdoor pilots are a terrible idea.

Instead of giving a new show a chance to attract new viewers and stand on its own two feet, a backdoor pilot begs for comparisons to the by definition stronger original source material. The viewer has an expectation of seeing Kirk and Spock, and they’re so busy going “Where the heck are Kirk and Spock?” that they don’t give a second thought to whether they like Gary Seven. And if the target audience of the show is different, or the overall tone is different (first and last talking animal on Star Trek, I have to point out), it’s even worse.

Though this moment makes it all worthwhile.

A few weeks ago I think I watched the most tragic example of this travesty I’ve ever seen: Scrubs: Med School. The entire last season of Scrubs was a failed backdoor pilot, and I don’t think it was the show’s fault. The problem was that it shouldn’t have been the last season of Scrubs. It should have been the first season of Scrubs: Med School.

After a beautiful finale and eight years of telling all the stories the cast and crew of Scrubs had to tell, ABC renewed the show for a ninth season. Fans, dreading a hackneyed, post-finale zombie of a show, turned off their televisions. The network reworked the show, changing the setting, hiring an entirely new and very capable (if young) cast, and keeping about five of the old regulars on in reduced roles (with others in occasional cameos).

They were, in effect, creating a spin-off. But, in a backdoor-pilot-esque have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too decision, they branded it a ninth season. They relentlessly trotted out the old cast in roles that were either out of place or repetitive. When the young cast was on their own, they were shining, but the show couldn’t work out what it wanted to be. They gave up the chance to bring in new fans, who felt, rightly, like they were coming into the middle of something, and they had already lost most of the old fans, who wanted to see the old horse die already.

Now it should be noted that introducing some characters and plotlines, testing the waters in a way that fits into a show, is very different. The Maquis were introduced as a set up for Voyager; Jack Harkness, I’m told, was introduced to Doctor Who with the express purpose of testing the waters for a spin-off. Stargate: Atlantis was set up very nicely by SG-1. But these were gradual set-ups, incorporated into the plots of the shows they were actually in.

When it comes to spin-offs, if you’re going to go, you have to go big. You have to develop it like you would a new show, with a new team and its own big pilot right out of the gate. The best spin-offs surpass their forbears. And they do it by standing on their own two feet.