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  • Ric Crossman

1.1.29 "I Don't Like What Happened To My Sister"

Operation -- Annihilate!

It was in 2021 that my sister emigrated to Canada, to continue her research career in a small Ontarian university. We hadn’t seen a huge amount of each other since she left the North-East in 2005, so it didn’t end up making all that much difference. A Skype call at Christmas instead of raiding our parents’ drinks cabinet while they were sleeping; that was the only notable change.


The last time she was in Britain, she suggested we meet up. I couldn’t find the time. The usual story, no doubt – too many pigeons, not enough pigeonholes. Plus, hanging out with my sister was always like playing Russian roulette, except we kept pointing the pistol at each other. Nobody knew who would fire or when, but it was only a matter of time before the gunshot.

Is that too crass a metaphor, now that she's dead?


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My thinking on "Operation -- Annihilate!" has gone through three distinct stages. Watching it as a child, I thought an invasion by hairy meat pancakes was cool, and I felt clever about having realised the cure was light, rather than heat, ahead of anyone on-screen. Seeing it again last summer, I decided the plot was derivative and maybe even a little exploitative, and I realised the fact Kid Squid had figured the answer out all those years ago said more about how stupid the main characters are forced to be here than anything about my nascent deductive powers.


But I'm writing this in April 2022, seven months after my sister died, and all I can do is wonder about how an episode about losing a sibling leaves me so cold.


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I got the call the day after she died. Or I think I did, anyway. She passed in her sleep in a time zone six hours distant. It's hard to be precise about moments in someone else's small hours. She wasn't found until lunch the next day, when a friend dropped round to see why she hadn't shown up for a coffee date.


The coroner for their part couldn't even tell us what killed her, let alone when. They ended up taking the path of least resistance. A broadly healthy thirty-eight year old suddenly gone?Well, she'd been diagnosed with epilepsy as a child, and they were no other obvious causes of death, so... *shrug*. Must have been the epilepsy. Must have been. Next corpse, lads.

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Part of the problem is the deadening familiarity. “Dead sibling” has been scrawled near the top of character summaries since before anyone could have conceived of what the term "character summary” could even mean. If real life worked like television, grief counsellors would outnumber school teachers – or they would, if TV grief counsellors didn’t almost exclusively exist to insist grief counselling can’t work.


We all carry or scars, marking the points where we were hurt, and where we were changed.


A year ago, it was just a fact about television, no different from knowing characters won’t ever end phone calls appropriately, or that liars almost always give themselves away with a slip anyone in real life would just chalk up to misremembering or misspeaking.


These days, it lands differently. something scrambles across my brain every time a TV character tells us about their dead sibling. A deathwatch beetle, trapped in my skull, announcing his presence whether I want to hear from him or not.

It happens a lot. And fine. It's perhaps becoming a cliche itself at this point to say it, but the idea that seeing the televisual terrain as a dense forest of trope-trees, with success measured only by how far you can penetrate the vegetation without hitting any trunks, is a shitty approach to criticism. "A landscape? In watercolour? LOL OK, Poussin."


But if you’re going to remind people of their loss, maybe you need to actually, you know, do something with that? Grief is endless, and it’s everywhere, and it’s fucking awful. Our cultural understanding of it is formed like crude oil; uncounted centuries of colossal pressure and incomprehensible death. You tap into that with care, or disaster ensues.


I’m not saying never upset people. I’m saying, if you’re going to upset people, make sure you’ve have a better reason for doing so than your lead wanting a false ‘tache and a lie down.

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It took six days to hit. A total breakdown while trying to do the dishes, because my sister was dead, but we still needed clean plates. It wasn't so much that I was in denial, as what I knew and what I felt took a while to synch up. Unless that's what denial means? It doesn't seem important, given the circumstances.

I think this was the day before the funeral, but I can't be sure. It's all something of a jumble. Maybe I'd remember better if I'd been able to attend. But I wasn't. My sister lived on a different continent, and for whatever reason, the locals seemed to want to burn her body before it had time to cool. Even aside from the cost of trans-Atlantic flights, there just wasn't time to sort everything out at work, find a cattery for our goblin, get the tests necessary for travel during COVID (Canada, unlike the UK, having a government who actually value the lives of their citizens), and hop a trans-Atlantic flight to the backwoods of Ontario.


Which means, just as with her last trip to England, I get to spend the rest of my life wondering if I should have tried harder to make it all work.

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Let’s proceed on the assumption that the episode is looking to sell more than a cheap tragedy. After all, if anything, the problem here isn’t that “Operation: Annihilate!” tries to use Sam’s death to justify extreme measures from Kirk. It’s that so little of the episode would change if Sam had lived, or not been involved at all.


That criticism has its limitations too, though. Take the moment as the episode begins, where our captain rattles off the equivalent of his brother’s phone number. That’s something I couldn’t have done for my sister, or do for my brother, or even my partner.


This is probably one of those details that hits differently fifty-five years after broadcast, admittedly. Memorising a couple dozen phone numbers was simply what we did, back in the era of landlines (I can still remember my maternal grandmother’s number, a quarter century after her own passing). That perhaps suggests Kirk’s feat isn’t all that impressive. On the other hand, if we’re considering this in its cultural/chronological context, we should note that until the advent of mobile phones, you couldn’t even change houses, let alone continents, without your phone number totally changing too. And while we can’t be sure Sam Kirk wasn’t living on Deneva when he saw his brother off on his mission with the Enterprise, the world's distance from Earth and Sam's attempts to get transferred make a decent case for the home in which he died being one he'd not lived in for long.


And yet Kirk has already committed his new number to memory.


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It’s been seven months now. Seven months of firsts. The first birthday where her age stays at thirty-eight. The first December 25th when we don’t have to be at least vaguely sober to electronically drop in on Canada’s Christmas Morning. The first Mother’s Day when Mum knows she’ll only get two phone calls.

The plan is to arrange a memorial service this summer, so that my brother and I can finally say goodbye. Will that work? I’ve no idea. There’s no frame of reference for me on this. Maybe the moment has passed. Maybe it was never there.

She wanted her ashes scattered in Alaska, among the bears we were always terrified would kill her, and the near-glacial rivers she worked in and that we were always terrified would kill her. The universe has quite the sense of humour, and so did she.


We’re heading out there next year to do the deed. Or at least, that’s the idea. COVID has screwed with every attempt so far for me to formalise my grief in a way I’m told should help. There’s still plenty of time for a new variant to shatter our plans, as well as to leave many more people bereft and breathless.


I think a lot about how she managed to die during an epidemic for reasons completely unrelated to that epidemic. I also think a lot about how she knew she needed to make sure my parents knew exactly what to do if she died.

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I wonder how much “Operation: Annihilate!” would find its reputation altered if people didn’t usually watch it immediately after "The City On The Edge Of Forever". Perhaps this too is my modern sensibilities sneaking into places they don’t belong, but a second episode in a row where Kirk suffers a colossal loss that’s almost certainly never going to be mentioned again does seem a trifle much.


There’s a crucial difference between the two, though. Ellison’s episode continues for just two minutes and seven lines of dialogue after Edith is killed, with only one of those lines being Kirk's. The ways in which Edith’s death sucks his soul through an airlock are left entirely unexplored, trapped in the gap between episodes, a tragedy we are expected to write for ourselves.

In contrast, Kirk is confronted with his brother's dead body barely ten minutes into "Operation: Annihilate!". There’s plenty of time to process his grief on-screen. This is interesting in itself, actually – stories about the loss of a loved one generally either start or end there, depending on the focus. Having Sam die off-screen, early but not too early into the action, offers an opportunity to tread on ground far less well-travelled than the summary of “main character loses his sibling” would suggest.

And yet we’re given almost nothing.


But isn't that the point?

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The problem with presenting this as a story is that there’s no ending. My sister is dead, and she remains dead. The promises of support and earnest enquiries and the sad, quiet looks have dried up now, and she's still gone.


This isn't a criticism (and still less is it a request). I’ve been on the other side of this. There’s only so much RAM in our heads. We can only keep so much suffering at the forefront of our minds at a time. We're all just desperately trying to gather up enough reasons to get out of bed in the morning. Every mushroom cloud eventually becomes background radiation, and there’s always another loose nuke somewhere. ready to burst.


Three months after my sister died, I spoke to another friend, who lost her mother young, and had lost her father just weeks before. I wanted to know how she processed what seems to just keep happening.

“You carry it”, she told me. “It’s always there, and you carry it.”.


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We all carry our scars. If it seems from the outside that they fade over time, it’s only because we learn how best to hide them.


Kirk doesn’t even have a scar yet, though. He’s cut deep, sure. But when that happens, there’s a strange, stretched half-second before your heart next beats, and the sluice of blood begins.

“Operation: Annihilate!” places itself in that moment. There were two obvious directions for the episode to take after Jim learns Sam is dead. One is the full-blown revenge setting of the standard masculine hero (which we eventually see in “Obsession”, a story which is disappointing enough without this episode already having short-circuited it). The second possibility, less problematic but still ultimately unsatisfying, would be to transmute Kirk’s guilt over arriving too late to save his brother into an unwillingness to risk Spock.


Both of these approaches are explicitly rejected. Kirk tells McCoy that he wishes he could indulge his feelings of anger and loss, but that there are too many other lives at stake to allow for that. He is given two opportunities to stand in the way of Spock’s choices to risk himself, and he refuses to take either of them.


This is both an unusually mature take for a story based in grief, and an unusually realistic one. Because while Kirk is clearly correct about the stakes involved, I think he’s failing to react to Sam’s death just as much as he’s refusing to. Grief doesn’t hit immediately. The Kubler-Ross model begins with anger. And sure, no doubt that’s commonly the first stage of grief. But the thing no-one tells you is that there’s a period before the first stage even arrives. Like Wile E Coyote running across empty air until he looks down, there’s a pause. A beat before you realise what you’re looking at, and the drop begins.


“Operation: Annihilate!” isn’t misrepresenting or mishandling the acute symptoms of grief. It’s recognising that grief is a chronic condition.


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So yes. The strangest thing about grief is how it becomes quotidian. Do the dishes. Take out the bins. Remember your sister is dead and you'll never speak to her again. Clean out the cat. The feeling of sailing a ship in stormy weather soon gives way to a new nautical metaphor – sailing on a perfectly calm sea on a moonless night. Everything is going absolutely fine until the moment it incredibly isn’t.


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We come to a problem, though. This is an episode that recognises the immediate effects of grief don’t translate into an engaging story, but still wants its story to engage.


“Operation: Annihilate!” attempts to deal with this in two ways, both which involve attempting to give a justification for the compression of grief television tends to deal in. The first we’ve circled round already – giving Kirk a crisis which prevents him from taking time off to grieve. There’s something to this, in that those of us lucky to have access to bereavement leave are likely to associate whatever work we go back to after that leave ends to the tumultuous period which follows the initial dumbfounded numbness.


It's the second choice which is more interesting, though. Again, this has already come up - just after losing Sam, the captain finds himself having to risk Spock. It’s only been hours since the attack on the Kirks’ home on Deneva, and already Jim is being forced to consider the possibility of another loss. The emotional cascade failure still lies ahead of him, but the realisation he can't always save he people he loves is very much in play.


One could frame this as Kirk having to face the possibility that having lost his own brother, he must risk losing his surrogate brother as well. In truth, though, I think we should go still further, because I don’t think there’s nearly so bright a line between Sam and Spock as that framing would suggest.

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My sister and I were never close. I don’t feel bad about that. We all are what we are, and it's hard to miss something you're told you're supposed to have but never did. What I do feel bad about is the possibility she thought we were closer than I did. Nothing hurts like than the idea she thought her death would hurt me more.


This isn't the place to relitigate the past. I have no problem speaking ill of the dead, but there needs to be a better reason for that than wanting to air grievances that now reside entirely within my own head, and perhaps always did. My sister's therapist once suggested she write a list of everything she wanted to apologise to me for, and everything she wanted me to apologise for in return. I think reading the entire list down the phone to me was my sister's idea alone, but still. That's more closure than a lot of us get.

All I’ll say about our childhood is that I think it contributes to how much I believe in the idea of a found family. September crushed me, and I’ll never fully unfurl. But I don’t feel like I lost my only sister.

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And here we come to it.


Thinking of the Enterprise and her crew as being Kirk’s found family isn’t particularly original. He himself likened the ship to the only woman is his life; this very clearly isn't just a place of work for him. It reads to me as being unusually important here, though. Not just in the parallel between Sam and Spock (though note the similarity between their names), but in sketching out a definition of what a family actually is. A collective which might fight like hell within itself, but which operates as a single unit externally. Separate in space, but in no other way.


Partially, this is done through comparison to the fleshcrepes. They represent a warped mirror of the family unit outlined here. On any other day I’d be screaming at how a colonising hive-mind represents a fever-dream of Communism. Today, it’s dark reflection of how a family is supposed to pull together in adversity. The colony creatures clearly don’t care in the slightest when one of their fellows is first shot, and then kidnapped. They too have a connection that exists outside of physical space, but it's one in which the individual is entirely disposable. Family is about considering someone indispensable, no matter how much you want to kill them.


What the creatures are matters less, though, than the reactions they prompt. McCoy and Spock here bicker at their standard levels – or maybe beyond them – in order to maximise the contrast when the bickering drops out completely. McCoy will deliberately misinterpret Spock’s use of the trolley problem for a cheap rhetorical shot, but he’s aghast when he believes his insistence the colonists be saved might require risking Spock. When this progresses to total devastation when he believes he’s permanently blinded “the best First Officer in the fleet”, it’s quietly brilliant, matched only by Spock putting aside his standard airily contempt for McCoy’s professionalism in order to reassure him.


And it’s perfect, and it’s beautiful, and God, it just keeps sliding off me, because I can’t see my biological family in this because that isn’t how it ever worked, and I can’t focus on my found family because the girl I grew up with is dead. There's a wisdom and a kindness here I simply can't recognise. Maybe that should make me feel guilty, but really, it'll have to take a number to join the end of a very, very long line.


We all carry our scars. Sad stories etched into our living tissue. I'm sorry for the cuts I made, and for endlessly picking at the cuts I received in return.


Goodbye, Jill.


Ordering


1. (The Storyteller)

2. (Ex Post Facto)

3. Operation: Annihilate!

4. (Desert Crossing)

5. (The Infinite Vulcan)

6. (11001001)


Final Season Orderings


1. Deep Space Nine

2. The Original Series

3. Voyager

4. The Next Generation

5. The Animated Series

6. Enterprise

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