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  • Ric Crossman

2.1.9 "By Definition Alone, Sequels Are Inferior..!"

Once Upon A Planet

Uhura encounters one of the computer's drones.
In Roddenberry's nightmare future, fidget spinners play with YOU.

Poor Lewis Carroll. First he dies, and then this happens.

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“Once Upon A Planet” isn’t all bad, obviously. Just ending an episode with McCoy and Sulu picnicking with Alice and a two-headed dragon constitutes a direct challenge to the haters. Who could see that and dare to suggest this isn’t an episode that needs to exist?

Much of the episode follows a similar philosophy. “Shut up and enjoy it” is the order of the day. The moral here is that there’s nothing wrong with offering people a little harmless fun. More than that, we should respect those whose business is generating that fun. This isn’t a position I’m doing to push against. I came of age in the ’90s. I can remember what happens when hefty proportions of multiple genres decide enjoyment is twee, and cynical, bloodstained sneering should carry the day instead. I’m wholly on-board with the message we should respect the local entertainer, even and especially when they’re serving up simple pleasures.

This episode certainly practices what it preaches, too. We’ve got McCoy chased by axe-wielding playing cards, Scotty floating around the Enterprise discovering computers being built by more computers under the control of another computer, and an AI with world-shaping capabilities using that awesome power to have fun with Kirk’s search party. This isn’t a story aiming to offer anything more than a quick kickaround in the park.

Which is fine, in theory. We've talked about this before; not every episode has to involve high drama or profound character beats. There doesn’t always need to be a chewy subtext. Episodes this frothy are a pain for me to write up, but that’s no-one’s problem but my own. That said, if your goal is to defend unaffected and lightweight fun, you need to make sure that is in fact what you’re bringing to the table.

Alas, “Once Upon A Planet” comes up short here. What we’re offered here is simply too familiar, and while familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, it rarely breeds excitement, either. I’m not talking about the pleasure planet itself. I’m quite sure there’s enough depth in the idea for it to comfortably sustain more than one episode. Really, the two stories set here are first brace of holodeck-gone-wrong tales, and that’s clearly not a well the producers of 24th century Trek believed could ever run dry. The dull Devil is in the dry details. As I said about “The Infinite Vulcan”, there’s a whole good news/bad news deal about an animated Star Trek. Yes, there is no visual spectacle that can’t be realised on screen. The flipside to that is no spectacle qua spectacle can be considered impressive anymore. There needs to be more thought put into what the audience is going to see than grabbing for the obviously silly and weird. We’ve seen Alice’s white rabbit before, last time we were here. This crew has already been menaced by a colossal felix domesticus (and a giant mouse would objectively have been funnier). Bizarre takes on the pterodactyl (with the exact same sound effects) were flapping all over the place just two episodes ago.

I’m normally not interested in calling out the franchise when it repeats or rhymes with itself – that’s a big part of why IDFC takes the form it does. When an episode is relying on its ability to offer fun ideas for the crew to bounce off without needing to worry about a budget, though, raiding the archives bothers me more than it otherwise would. This is especially true with a sequel directly referencing Alice Through The Looking Glass. If you lack the imagination necessary to make your own follow-up work, you should probably avoid referencing one of literature’s most inventive and satisfying sequels.

Fire Canon From A Cannon

Part of what frustrates me here is that we almost end up somewhere interesting. By reusing the White Rabbit from “Shore Leave”, we're offered a comment on the new body of work being written. The Caretaker, author of the original story our crew found itself trapped within last time, is dead. There’s a new pen in play. And yet the new tale starts at the exact same point as the old one does, with the planet’s computer ripping off the Caretaker ripping off Lewis Carroll. The computer is writing a sequel to at least two other people’s work.

Imagine what could have been done with that idea, in the context of a sequel episode within a sequel show, one which has tried to replicate its predecessor to the maximum extent circumstances permitted. Think of the commentary one could make about the strip-mining of intellectual property, or how one maintains and builds upon modern myth. And I realise I'm lamenting a swerve away from complexity in an essay where I've already defended a lack of complexity, but again: you needed to give us something.

We don't have to abandon this angle just yet, though. What the script itself didn't deliver, the passage of time has. As of Discovery, the majority of shows in this franchise have existed without meaningful input from Gene Roddenberry. By the time Lower Decks was greenlit, the word "meaningful" was no longer necessary in the previous sentence. Any consideration, however undeveloped, of how a creator’s work can be twisted by those who follow them seems evermore relevant as Star Trek enjoys its third wind. Whatever my problems with Roddenberry, both as writer and as a person, it doesn’t seem a coincidence so many Trek shows since his death seems consumed with pushing back against the utopianism he insisted upon. Deep Space Nine focused upon the compromises forced on Starfleet by the Dominion War. Voyager literalised the need to take short-cuts in extreme circumstances. Enterprise answered the question literally no-one had asked by showing what a Starfleet vessel would look like were it run by a sulky racist.

The most recent crop of shows show similar problems. Lower Decks gets it, broadly, though I'm not crazy about either its depiction of the Pakleds, or the idea there are command-track officers who are convinced a class distinction exists in Starfleet (even if they are all shown to be awful). Picard's decision to step away from Starfleet felt long-overdue, but its reliance on action set-pieces and mining the franchise's past for cheap shocks resulted in a show that, for almost all of its run, felt for all the world like Patrick Stewart had absent-mindedly wandered onto the set of a generic and slightly mean-spirited space opera. Discovery, meanwhile, has at least retreated somewhat from a rather reactionary first season, which was filled with projecting strength through violence, and insisting on the need to rely on cold-hearted bastards to get things done in a crunch. Even so, it joins Picard in insisting every season has to take place against the backdrop of quadrant-spanning catastrophe, with its stirring speeches about our better (red) angels attempting to distract us from the fact there's always something which needs blowing up just beyond the next moon. And don't even get me started on "Terra Firma, Part 2".

Simply put, whatever Roddenberry’s flaws, and however much the franchise needed him to step aside in order to reach its greatest heights, Trek without him seems increasingly likely to undermine - or at least set aside - his vision of a better future. What once concerned itself with imagining something different to our own world has been replaced with just remapping the world onto interstellar space. Lewis Carroll used sentient playing cards as croquet hoops. The computer uses them as lynch mobs.

Given all that, it surely counts as ironic that not only does “Once Upon A Planet” fail to warn of the pitfalls of grabbing someone else’s building blocks while unable to translate their designs, but that Roddenberry himself declared almost every episode of the animated series didn’t “count” as Trek.

Artificial Stupidity

Since we’ve arrived at their strange behaviour, let’s bring things to a close by considering the Caretaker’s computer. Actually, let’s not call them that. It’s pretty clear the AI running the planet isn’t cool with being thought of as an extension of its former operator. Instead, let’s refer to them as Larkin. I’ve watched this episode twice now, and even made a point of going through the finale a third time, and I’m still none the wiser as to what Larkin’s plan actually is. The goal is clear enough, obviously. It’s the strategy chosen to get there that baffles me.

Let’s break this down. Larkin wants to use the Enterprise to leave this system on a mission to find other sentient machines. Fine. To achieve this, they’ve kidnapped Uhura to keep Enterprise in orbit until they’ve finished building a computer on board that Larkin can upload themselves into. The rest of the “sky machine’s slaves” are to be executed. Cool. But why assume Uhura is irreplaceable to the Enterprise, while Kirk’s party is disposable? What’s to stop the sky ship cutting its losses after the away team is killed? Why does Larkin simultaneously believe the crew is so inferior to their vessel that they must be its slaves, but that the Enterprise is so reliant on them it can’t leave once one disappears, even if Larkin starts killing the rest of them off? And why, with this entire plan based on holding Uhura hostage, doesn’t Larkin inform the Enterprise to let it know what they’ve done?

The simplest explanation for all this is that Larkin’s programming says that this the best way to keep someone at the planet. Their former role acquiring, processing, expanding upon and finally delivering narratives for the planet’s visitors leads them to assume keeping Enterprise on the hook won’t take a hostage negotiation. It’ll be with the opening to a mystery novel. They start with a central drive to the plot – where is Lieutenant Uhura? Next they provide vital clues at appropriate intervals, like the signpost to their hidden base. Lastly, they provide a healthy dose of peril for the protagonist. In fact, I doubt the plan was ever to kill Kirk at all. How could it be, with the planetary medical systems still in effect? The intent was only ever to threaten harm, so as to keep the Enterprise turning pages.

All of which makes Larkin a 23rd century iteration of a literary Twitter bot, attempting to regurgitate its inputs into some kind of Turing-test novella. The results aren’t entirely without merit, either, which is a shame considering how totally pointless the entire endeavour is. The Enterprise was already planning on staying at the planet for days or even weeks. Larkin is simply wasting everybody’s time.

Indeed, for all that the conclusion is confused and crowded (do our heroes persuade Larkin they’re not slaves, or just that he’s better off catering for slaves so he can chat more with their masters?), there’s a fairly clear underlying message here. Larkin might be a super-intelligent computer with more FLOPS to their name than Dick Fosbury, but they’ve still managed to misunderstand the Federation’s set-up completely. As a direct result, the story they assemble is entirely without utility. Like I say, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If your thinking is based on faulty premises your conclusions cannot be anything but completely inaccurate. For all his intelligence Larkin is terribly ill-suited to writing a Star Trek story.

(This total failure to understand the basics of the Federation, or humanity in general, is presumably also why Larkin feels free to tell a black character their employment circumstances constitute actual slavery. Apparently one doesn’t even need skin in order to whitesplain.)

In conclusion, “Once Upon A Planet” doesn’t make the grade at all. It’s not just that there’s so much it hints at and then ignores – there’s a limit to how much you can blame something for not being what it’s not trying to be. It’s that it fails even on its own terms. It simply isn’t the romp it wants to be. Yes, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting the bar at the rather modest level of just being twenty-two minutes of fun. When you fail to clear that bar, though, there’s nothing to fall back on. You’re left with a tale that absolutely anyone could have written.


2. Once Upon A Planet

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