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  • Ric Crossman

3.1.20 "Guided By The Beauty Of Our Weapons"

The Arsenal Of Freedom

Picard fails to catch Dr Cusher as she falls into a pit.
“Well this is the last time I offer dancing lessons to a human.”

What happens when the gun-runners run out of track?

Women What Work

“The Arsenal Of Freedom” adds to the growing body of evidence that TNG underwent a sea change in the final third of its debut season. Whatever Maurice Hurley’s glaring faults as a human being, and the damage he would soon do to the show via his treatment of Gates McFadden (whatever the specifics of that situation were), taking over as showrunner from Roddenberry may have been the best thing to happen to the quality of what the show aired since filming started. There’s an impression of baseline competence that just hasn’t been there before.

It’s not, clearly, that the show hasn’t turned out excellent episodes until now. It’s more that they’ve generally been curate’s eggs, to the extent where there’s little critical consensus regarding which those excellent episodes are. Up until now, the show’s quality to date has been something of a crap-shoot. Even when you win big, no-one believes you had much control over your success.

Here, it feels as though everyone knows precisely what they’re doing. Everything points in the same direction. The episode runs three separate but interwoven plot lines – divisible into ground level, subterranean, and orbital, which is fun – in such a way that almost every single main character gets the chance to contribute something toward solving this week’s crisis. In terms of the menfolk, Riker figures out they’re not dealing with the real Rice, Data helps run interference against the killer drones, Geordi and Worf win their space battle, and Picard gets to fake a sale and thereby bring wrap everything up. Sure, Wesley doesn’t get to appear this week – presumably because dragging a fifteen year old into battle was just too obviously a bad idea. Given we’re just two episodes out from a story which basically put his character to the test and judged him unworkable, though, it’s not surprising a spike in competence for the show involves keeping him off the board (and note he wasn’t in “Heart Of Glory” either).

It’s a good week for the men of the Enterprise, then. What’s more impressive is that the script actually finds ways for Yar and Troi to work as well. Yes, it’s somewhat enraging that this is something which does count as impressive, rather than a necessary condition for the show deserving to continue, but that’s the terrain we’re crossing here.

And at least that terrain is starting to look a little less barren. Denise Crosby finally gets a story in which she’s playing a Chief of Security who happens to be a woman, as opposed to a woman who happens to be Chief of Security [1]. Sirtis still finds herself underused in terms of screen-time, but she does at least get one solid scene in which, again, she’s a person doing their job, rather than a woman for men to take a run at (as in, say, “Haven”, the closest she’s had to a showcase episode so far). Again, it’s pretty depressing that the bar for a decent Troi is so low that we can clear it with a story which gives her all of thirteen lines (Worf has the next-lowest number of lines from an adult in the main cast, and he gets precisely double that). Still, she gets to analyse Rice’s likely approach to a crisis, stand up to Picard about his decision to beam down, and – in one of my favourite Troi scenes to date – manages to give La Forge a pep talk while gently criticising his ability to give pep talks. She’s not in the episode enough, but at least the episode makes it clear she deserves both her scene here, and her place on the ship in general.

As frustrating as it is that Troi still isn’t getting much play, then, “The Arsenal Of Freedom” does a good job of demonstrating that both our chief of security and our counsellor are both entirely workable characters within the context of the show. It’s the execution that has been letting them down, not the concept, and in particular the show’s complete inability to recognise them as professionals or even as people, as opposed to sex objects. None of this can make up for knowing that Sirtis apparently only avoided the chop because Crosby quitting and McFadden being fired took her into the second season by default. That’s not something we can lay at this episode’s door, though.

And speaking of McFadden, there’s just one main character we haven’t talked about yet.

Physician, Heal Thyself

Dr Crusher, alas, arguably has the least impressive plotline of the three women this week. In an episode where Yar and Troi finally get to actually do something, it’s a bit of a shame that the good doctor simply falls down a hole, and then needs the captain to keep her alive. The original plan, which was for Picard to be injured and for Crusher to tend to him, would have fit in much better with the theme elsewhere of the white men getting shuffled off the board, leaving everyone else to get the job done.

In keeping with the rest of the episode, though, you can at least understand how a competent production team could chose to do things the way they were done. Having Crusher save a dying patient is even more impressive when she is the dying patient. I lack the medical or botanical knowledge to know whether getting Picard to search for bitter root that turns the skin yellow is a Hail Mary, a ridiculous idea we’re supposed to gloss over, or even just a way to fool Picard into thinking he can help while she quietly bleeds to death. Whichever one it is, though, it demonstrates Crusher is competent in at least one dimension beyond those we already knew about. Plus, she’s the one who puts the idea in Picard’s brain about how to save the day, which is pretty good going for someone who’s life is leaking out of their lacerated leg.

This seems like an opportune moment to discuss the idea of romance between the captain and his ship’s doctor. Apparently this was the episode in which their relationship was meant to go up a gear, only for the idea to be nixed by Roddenberry [2]. This is an uncommon example of the show’s creator actually making a savvy choice, I think. This isn’t because of the age difference, though. I kind of think that once a woman enters her mid-thirties, fretting about her dating someone older than her becomes less a safeguard against predatory men, and more one more attempt to use what’s deemed socially acceptable to proscribe women’s behaviour. “If you were really a feminist, you wouldn’t date a man more than [arbitrary number] years older than you”.

The issue of Picard being above her in a professional hierarchy is an issue for me, but that’s an argument about their feelings not being actionable, rather than not being inappropriate. It’s not like no-one has ever been able to write a good story about would-be lovers kept apart by fate, right? Not to mention that the idea of someone being in love with someone you are directly responsible for having widowed is exactly the sort of classical tragedy you could trust Patrick Stewart to sell the heck out of.

No, the problem with casting Jean-Luc and Beverly as starfield-crossed lovers, unable to find comfort in each other’s arms because of the bonds of duty and the weight of their history, is that the show is already using that framing for Deanna and Wil. And worse, it’s clearly not working. The degree to which the show hasn't given a damn about Troi except as regards how she interacts with Riker has pushed Sirtis to the verge of being fired, simply for not being allowed to do her job. Saddling the only other medical professional in the show with a remix of that same story feels like passing on the kiss of death.

Far better to go the road less travelled, then. To show a potential romantic pairing, with clear chemistry and obvious affection for each other, just getting on the business of being co-workers and friends, and that being fine. I mean, who needs one more story about how hard it is to work with someone you’re attracted to? Much more interesting to be among the vanishingly small number of stories about how it’s entirely possible to be hugely into a junior co-worker and never do anything about that because are you kidding me?

Vector Of The Gun

There is, perhaps, a nested series of uncomfortable ironies here. Roddenberry manages to make one of the only good calls regarding a female character just as it becomes clear his influence was slowly poisoning his latest series. Hurley’s promotion provides a shot in the arm for the show, but within eight episodes he would be responsible for McFadden’s departure in what was a completely unforced instance of foot-shooting, and an enraging hurricane of obnoxious sexism to boot. Meanwhile, Robert Lewin, who co-wrote this story with Hurley, ended up quitting because he got so sick of Hurley and Roddenberry’s interference, despite Roddenberry having been entirely right to overrule him in this case. And that’s before we even get to the two people who actually wrote the teleplay, who must have felt they were being asked to write up a traffic report without mentioning the multi-car pile-up that almost took out their broadcast van.

Sometimes, though, the relevant metaphor isn’t too many cooks spoiling their broth. On this occasion, it’s more like a flock of vectors that somehow cancel each other out along all axes but one. The result is an unstoppable forward momentum, rather than everything being ripped to pieces.

We’ve talked already about how the episode does so well in giving every salvageable character a moment to shine, and how – mostly – it manages a decent job of creating a theme of the most senior officers being pushed off the board. Even Picard’s time with Crusher manages that to an extent, in fairness, given the poor guy is trapped in a hole for more or less the entire time he’s off the Enterprise. This does lead to the only part of the episode that really pisses me off, admittedly, with Picard just happening to stumble across a terminal which lets him sort everything out.

Even there, though, there’s a logic to the proceedings. Of course the armaments trade has seeped into the sewer systems of Minos. It’s seeped into everything.

Time to address the Republican elephant in the room. All the way back when IDFC first started, I talked about how Q criticising humanity while wearing Oliver North’s uniform in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal was a firm sign of where this show wanted to plant its political flag. As a reminder, Iran-Contra was a scandal in which Reagan secretly sold missiles to the Iranian government (which Congress wouldn’t let him do) in order to fund the Contra counter-revolutionary terrorists in Nicaragua (which Congress also wouldn’t let him do). I said at the time this couldn’t be considered a blot on US foreign policy, because it encapsulated what US foreign policy always is – a myopic, twisted realpolitik utterly divorced from both mortality and reality. This is rather underlined by the fact that by the time the scandal broke, Congress had already changed its mind and re-legalised military aid to the Contras, despite all that pesky business of them murdering doctors, nurses and judges (in 1990, they graduated to murdering nuns).

“The Arsenal Of Freedom” sees the show singing a similar tune, but with significantly more gusto. This about as clear a condemnation of the self-destructive nature of arms-trading as one could find. The Minosians made their money selling to both sides of a major war (just as Reagan’s America did, supplying Iran in secret while publicly flogging military helicopters to Iraq), and this obsession with destruction first took over all other concerns, and then resulted in their culture’s total obliteration. That’s a pretty stark warning for a country which averaged something like twelve billion dollars of arms sales a year during the decade the episode was first broadcast.

Nor is it just the arms trade itself that gets skewered. The title “The Arsenal Of Freedom” is so obvious a swipe at nationalistic Cold War sabre-rattling that I’m genuinely surprised it isn’t a quotation from somewhere. That said, “These are the mechanisms of colossal, star-hot destruction that guarantee we can live free” feels like something Reagan might have said on the campaign trail. “We live by the motto ‘peace through superior firepower'” manages to be even more pointed, like a fortune cookie message printed out by Skynet.

The trouble is, the more you focus on your weapons as what keeps your society alive, the less RAM you have for any other considerations. Less and less becomes of relevance if it can’t be considered in the context of military ingenuity, and military might. Ultimately Reagan went so far as to imagine he would weaponise space itself, via the Star Wars program, a planned anti-missile laser defence system that the orbital battle between LaForge and the EP-607 is at least nodding to. Just in case you thought Donald Trump invented American Presidents coming up with ideas which are simultaneously utterly ridiculous and horribly concerning.

Amazingly then, trying to build a society on a foundation of live ordnance doesn’t actually work. There’s no stability possible in constant expansion in any case, but this is particularly true when applied to the military. The United States boasts (and boy does it boast) the largest military in the world, but it does so whilst being unable to guarantee its own citizens healthcare, food, usable roads, drinkable water, or even streetlights. The Biden administration mocked the idea it could be expected to provide free COVID tests to the US population at roughly the same time it announced a twenty-eight billion dollar increase in military spending from Trump’s final year in office. The US has bombed some twenty-six countries since the end of the Second World War, and refuses to give its citizens universal healthcare. In that same period, Wikipedia lists the country as having been involved in over sixty incidents of attempted or actual regime change. It ranks 65th in the world in educational spending per capita.

The arsenal of freedom is never allowed to gather dust, unless it’s grave dust. Everything else can be left to rust and collapse.

It’s hard to overstate the weight of a bunch of space socialists showing up to express baffled distaste at the whole idea, before weathering an unprovoked attack from a system convinced it alone can keep the peace. “It can’t demonstrate its abilities unless we let it leave its nest” is so close to “we will be greeted as liberators” in its arrogant disregard for the people the speaker supposedly wants to help, you could stand at either one and see the bloodstains dripping from the other.

There’s a real sense of intelligence and anger here, carrying the episode's unmistakeable message without any of it feeling like a lecture given with a hand phaser, rather than a laser pointer. The ending in particular – with Picard just agreeing to give the Minosians some money if they’ll stop trying to demonstrate his crew to death – operates on a number of levels. It’s a nicely grim dig at the true nature of the internal arms trade, of course. It’s a way of showing that this crew are moving from being absolutely flummoxed by the idea of capitalism to knowing precisely how to most efficiently short-circuit it. But it also underlines just how obscene the arms trade is. The message is clear: you’ll get our munitions either way. The only question is whether you want them in your armouries, or in your faces.

Splitting Headaches

Not even the show itself escapes criticism. Note that this is the last time in over two years we’ll see the Enterprise separate. Indeed, we only see it happen twice more in the entire ship’s lifetime, once when the unparalleled threat of the Borg necessitates extreme tactics, and once more when the ship itself dies.

Which is fine. The idea of a Starfleet vessel being able to split in two so that one half of it could become an unabashed warship always sat uncomfortably with TNG’s ethos. It’s not like shuttles don’t exist to assist in an evacuation – and hey, they even come with warp drives. The idea is made worse by it being the lower half of the ship being the weapons centre – the warship half of the Enterprise is literally the driving force. Even the shape of it doesn’t work for me. I mean, the silhouette of the drive section is a little too plucked turkey to begin with, but the hammerhead of the ship’s truncated prow seems a little too on-the-nose. Too much of a “when the only tool you have can be broken in two to make a hammer” sort of a deal. Like, how many people are just gonna be waiting for the saucer section to clear out so the arse-kicking can begin? And do you really want those people yelling at their screens during the scenes about exploring the human condition and the importance of finding common ground?

This is twice in the space of as many episodes that the separation capability of the ship is brought up. The first time was to underline how outdated Korris’ dreams of warrior glory were. Here, it’s done in the context of a critique of believing military might can possibly bring about a stable peace. The show has resurrected the idea so that it can kill it more completely. [3]

Like “Coming Of Age” before it, then, “The Arsenal Of Freedom” isn’t afraid to perform a self-diagnostic, and identify which parts of the show aren’t completely working. Unlike that former episode, though, “…Freedom” is eminently watchable on its own terms as well. More than that, it’s evidence that the show isn’t just capable of getting lucky, it’s capable of a baseline competence that will let it reach, well, the stars.

And we’re not going to be breaking the ship in half anymore, either. Everything looks stable for the first time in the show’s history.

Let’s hope nothing’s going to rock the boat going forward!


1. The Arsenal Of Freedom 2. Court Martial 3. (The Infinite Vulcan)

[1] This was also true of “Heart Of Glory”, in fairness, but on that occasion Yar instead found herself upstaged by Worf. Leaving him on the Enterprise while Yar beams down is this episode’s solution to that, and it works pretty well.

[2] I guess no-one could have listened to him too hard on this, given “We’ll Always Have Paris” exists. How the events of that episode might have been built on in a second season which didn’t toss away Gates McFadden is just one more of the seemingly endless “What if…” scenarios from the show’s early years that always conclude with “…the production team hadn’t been full to bursting with misogynistic jerks”.

[3] On this occasion, the separation works as an interesting piece of social commentary, too. Note how every crewmember Geordi takes on to the battle bridge is a person of colour, with the entitled white guy convinced he’s owed command of the Enterprise packed off with the civilians (the idea LaForge will actually take the guy’s job a few months later adds delicious spice to this).

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