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2.1.16 The Dirty Half-Dozen

The Jihad

Tchar, Larr, Kirk, Spock. Sord and Em/3/Green pose for the camera.
Our crack team, just before Skorr's heel turn (or zygodactylis, in avian terms).

“The Jihad” is an absolute mess. I could probably take up 1500 words just listing all the ways in which it makes no sense, or contradicts itself. You’re all busy people, though, so let me offer a condensed and incomplete list: Kirk complains the group’s broken car means they’ll have to proceed on foot, but the very next scene sees them driving again. Spock says something to Sord that moments later is attributed to Kirk. Spock argues the planet may not be devoid of life but ten minutes later disagrees with Sord when he says the exact same thing. There's also at least a whiff of laziness here, as evidenced by these lads showing up for the fourth time in the series:

Another purple pterodactyl.
Oh for God's sake.

There’s a sense of shoddiness in the construction here, in other words. The most major instance of this is the question of who sabotaged the first three missions. Was there a different Skorr on each mission, each of them stuffing things up for everyone else? Or did Tchar himself keep coming back as the only survivor? “Sorry lads, we’ve cocked it up again! Any more crack teams in the hopper? Um, my regards to the families of my latest late teammates.”

Presumably this isn’t something we’re supposed to give much thought to. And to be fair, there’s certainly plenty to keep us distracted. I’ve criticised The Animated Series more than once for bulking out ludicrously slight plots with barely-relevant action scenes, but here the series of distinct crises the team have to face on their way to the Skorr temple feels less like padding, and more like an obstacle course. It’s like a speed run through a story like The Hobbit, or perhaps a Fighting Fantasy novel conceived in a cheese dream. Violence as vignette. That makes all the volcanoes and earthquakes and exploding dashboards far more forgivable, if no easier for me to actually write about.

The D-Team

So what can we talk about? How about the lineup of the best (still-living) crime team in the entire Alpha Quadrant? Kirk’s Six might have been the Vedala’s fourth choice, but I think they’re all gems – so sparkling and valuable I can’t believe they don’t try to steal themselves. It’s tough to choose a favourite among them. Maybe Sord? I can’t help but respect someone who has no problem doing his job, but also has no problem letting everyone know this whole endeavour is a huge pain in his scaly backside. What really makes him work is that fact that while ill-temper is his baseline, it’s also his ceiling. Where everyone else sees growing danger, he just sees a variation in what’s bugging him. As tensions and perils mount, he refuses to move past mild irritation. I guess it’s not surprising that someone with eyes so far apart might view things askance. In any case, Sord trades in exactly the kind of laconic side-eye I wish I were better at delivering.

If Sord’s attitude is what I aspire towards, Em/3/Green is much closer to where I’m at – a guy who wants to help, but whose attitude to the outside world is basically terror when he has the energy for it, and exhaustion when that energy gives out. A literally spineless introvert, surrounded by punch-happy go-getters. No wonder he finds the whole situation “mad”. No wonder there comes a point where he’s simply too tired to function. Having four pairs of arms just means you hand out your spoons that much quicker. I don’t think Trek has given me a character so relatable since Spock himself. And yet come the time when he’s needed, the dude steps up. In that sense, he’s the biggest hero in the episode.

Lara, on the other hand, is someone I can’t possibly claim to identify with. This matters not one bit. Lara is wonderful. Capable, independent, unashamedly sexually aggressive; she’s one of the distressingly small number of women in early Trek who work because of how they’re written, rather than despite it. It’s a lot of fun watching Kirk rocked onto the back foot by such forthright horniness, especially given he quotes Spock with his wry response: “Fascinating”. A simple case of someone picking up the mannerisms of a close friend? Or a man reminding himself he’s spoken for by quoting his own partner? We can all listen to the canons firing in or own heads. All those “green memories” have got to stem from somewhere, though, and per Erin Horáková, they ain’t coming from the lady aliens.

And whatever Kirk’s reasons for demurring, “let’s bone so that if one of dies, the other one can remember them naked” has got to be one of the most inspired pick-up approaches of the 23rd or any other century. And this from a show that won an Emmy for outstanding children’s entertainment.

The four newcomers – including Tchar, who I’ll get to in a minute – work so well that it feels like a real missed opportunity that they were never given their own spin-off. Imagine them being sent out by the Vendala once a week to save the galaxy from some new ridiculous threat. Or just having them romp through space, helping people out like an interstellar A-Team: a reformed Tchar as Hannibal (commanding, literally able to see further than anyone else), Sord as Baracus (strong, capable, zero tolerance policy for nonsense), Lara as Face (gender-flipped charm-machines are the best charm-machines, you may quote me), and Em/3/Green as Murdoch (because obviously).

I mean, it’s not too late. Come on, CBS. Give this a go. You’ve already green-lighted basically everything else.

“I Tawt I Fooled A Puddy Tat!”

Time now to get our Tchar on. There’s a lot to say about our glorious golden bird-boy, if only because it turns out this whole mess is his fault. The Byzantine nature of his plot adds to the general sense of senselessness to the proceedings, but that’s easily dealt with. Why did he lead the team to the Soul of the Skorr rather than killing them on the spot (or, even easier, not helping them escape a lava flow)? Because his warped sense of warrior honour requires he bests them in aerial combat.

There’s another potential strike against Tchar – that he could just have destroyed the Soul himself rather than make up the story about it being stolen by aliens. This though would be a severe misreading of what’s going on. Firstly, the fact Tchorr is willing to take advantage of his race’s religion in order to gain his own ends doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t a believer himself. It’s a sad and obvious fact that we never need look far to find people using their religion as a justification for doing what that religion explicitly tells them not to. It’s perfectly believable that Tchar couldn’t bring himself to destroy the Soul of Skorr. As to him blaming the whole affair on aliens, what could be less surprising? He’s trying to start a holy war against literally everyone different. Of course that starts with blaming them for his own crimes.

Episode writer Stephen Kandel has mentioned his fear that someone would first recognise and then object to the fact “The Jihad” is a story with a message. This is where that message kicks in. The title of this episode might be “Jihad”, but the script has Kirk give Tchar’s vision its correct name: crusade. The historical crusades were an early example of flagrantly violating religious tenets in order to serve the goals of those running that religion. ‘Thou shalt only kill nonbelievers’ wasn’t what come down from Mount Sinai. Someone had to cook it up later, and the Crusades was when the hob was turned to full. “In the name of peace we must murder anyone different” works no less well as a summary of the crusades, than it does of Tchar’s goals. Whether he actually believes in the religion he’s perverting or not, then, by stealing the soul of a religious leader dedicated to peace in order to provoke their followers to war, Tchar is following a well-worn historical path to its inevitably bad end.

(Perhaps this is why his name is an anagram of “chart”. Whatever we may think of the Skorr having hereditary princes, so long as their monarchy exists, it’s incumbent upon them to guide their people to the best destination possible. To provide a map to a better future. But the chart Tchar is offering is twisted, corrupted, no longer able to perform its function. Tchar not only wants to lead his people to those sections of the chart labelled “Here Be Dragons”, he expects them to give their lives trying to best whatever beasts their arrival rouses.)

Nor is it just those crusades that officially bear the name, the ones that have been categorised and numbered, that these criticisms extend to. Writing in the early seventies it would be entirely clear to Kandel how Tchar was paralleling US government policy. Don't agree with how we maintain peace? Then we'll go to war with you! Good job all that's behind us.

We should also bear in mind what “The Jihad” isn’t criticising. The focus is on the religious, not religion. It criticises both on the twisters of faith, and those who allow their faiths to be twisted (just as with the Crusades, Tchar’s plan for galactic war couldn’t work without the people in general allowing themselves to ignore the ethos of their religion). What it doesn’t do is criticise that faith itself. What’s interesting here is Kandel’s decision that the audience can be trusted to work this out for themselves – there’s no backside-covering sops to how wonderful religion is when it isn’t being wielded like a hammer to smite those who refuse to believe the way they’re being told to believe. Given the time and place Kandel was writing in, that’s not a decision devoid of bravery. Certainly, the fact this episode explicitly references the Crusades without being called “The Crusade” suggests Kandel knew who he was risking offending.

This didn’t stop him sticking to his guns, though, giving us an episode that unapologetically takes aim at a tricky target. As a result, while the message of “The Jihad” might be simple, it's effectively and honestly delivered.

Running Out Of Paint

And with that, we reach the end of the Animated Series‘ first season. I’ve spent the last few posts on this show watching it desperately thrash around to find a way to make the format work, without success. “The Jihad”, in fact, probably comes closest to creating a possible model going forward – a ludicrous but fun set-up, a series of slight but fast-paced distractions, and then a quick wrap-up, all while gesturing at a deeper point. That’s a fairly limited model for a franchise as flexible as this one, but you work with what you have when you have it. Just get in DC Fontana and David Gerrold (who’s kicking around here as Em/3/Green in any case) to show up a couple of times a year to enrich the lore and/or be funny, and then spend the rest of the time having as much fun as possible.

For all I know, this was the plan (Gerrold at least turned up to write one more episode). It was not to be, though. Whatever the reason, the initial order of 22 episodes was never added to. At the end of season one, we’re almost three quarters of the way through the show entire.

Still, better this season ends with the bittersweet realisation there was still a way to make this work, rather than one more reason to doubt it ever could. Even in this, what’s on course to be the weakest opening season of any of the six shows, we can see the possibilities this franchise has to offer.


2. The Jihad

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