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  • Ric Crossman

3.1.21 The Solar System Cannot Be Reformed


T'Jon stuns Riker with his electric touch.
“I find your refusal to help us absolutely-“ “PLEASE electrocute me before you finish that pun.”

It’s probably safe to assume that just about everyone reading this post knows that the Federation is a post-money society. The “how” of this is pretty easy to explain: replicators can easily give you anything you want but space, and you can get that through, well, space.

The “why” is perhaps a little more challenging. There’s no reason to believe that the invention of the replicator in itself would bring about the downfall of a society built on holding people hostage to their own material needs. Joe Haldeman’s Forever Peace does a very good job of sketching out how replicators could be used by the countries that hold a monopoly on their production to blackmail less prosperous nations into doing what they’re told. Technology in itself, no matter how miraculous, cannot pull us out of an unjust system. Not if our exploiters are determined to keep exploiting, and if they’ve had enough success in persuading people that their way is the only way.

Up to this point, the “why” is something TNG has only gestured at. What actually were the shifts in philosophy that meant the essentially inexhaustible resources of Federation are shared equally between all its citizens? “Symbiosis”, if nothing else, is a huge leap forward in this regard. As it turns out, a major part of getting from here to there was recognising capitalism for what it truly is.

Contractual Obligations

Clearly, there’s just no way I’m going to be able to to avoid talking about “Symbiosis” in terms of its politics. It’s not just that the political reading is obvious, it’s that it’s equally obviously deliberate.

Given the inevitability of a political take, then, let’s hold back on that for as long as possible so we can talk about what else the episode offers. This is Denise Crosby’s last filmed episode, after all. It’s also the last contribution Merritt Butrick made to the franchise before he died at the appallingly young age of 29 [1].

Elsewhere, the costume design for the two alien species is nicely pitched, giving us an early hint about the respective positions of the Omarans and Brekkians. Their minimalist make-up helps underline both how completely this is supposed to be a modern-day parable, and how easily the Brekkians and Omarans could have switched places had their situation been slightly different (see also their shared ability to generate electricity, which doesn’t otherwise serve much purpose in the episode but is a fun touch). There’s some cool special effects, too, as the Enterprise shields take a battering from the local star’s radioactive break-dancing.

Even the much-reviled scene where Riker and Yar teach Wesley about the dangers of narcotics has its heart broadly in the right place, pointing out the link between a reliance on drugs and intolerable social conditions. I can honestly see some worth in Yar gently telling a privileged teenage boy that of course he doesn’t understand why people feel compelled to self-medicate. It certainly doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as a “Just Say No” message, because it isn’t functioning as an attempt to counter-program teenagers on the nature of what’s considered rebellious or cool. It’s saying instead that improving people’s lives will render the need for such counter-programming superfluous. It’s a clunkily-scripted attempt at a strong point, and in the context of the episode, I’m glad something like it exists.

And sure, watching Picard try to justify allowing centuries of exploitation on a literally planetary scale to continue is hard to stomach, but at least Dr Crusher gets to tell him to his face that he’s clearly in the wrong on this one. Just on all that alone, “Symbiosis” would deserve its reputation as being broadly OK by this season’s low standards.

But there’s more.

Over the course of IDFC, we’ve been noting those times TNG‘s first season kicks out against the era it was born into. “The Last Outpost” slams the toxic mixture of Gordon Gekko money-grubbing and misogynistic machismo that blighted 80s America. “Encounter At Farpoint” linked Q’s rock-bottom opinion of humanity to the Iran-Contra scandal that unmasked Reagan’s administration as being nothing but blood-drenched criminals. Finally, “The Arsenal Of Freedom” extended this to a criticism of American militarism, and its cancerous growth throughout the 20th Century.

No wonder that I consider all three of those episodes to be underrated, then. And yet none of them go so far as “Symbiosis”. It’s a story which pours its own bucket of scorn across ‘80s America, sure. At its core, though, it’s a broadside against the concept of capitalism itself.

Land Of The Fee

It does this, perhaps, with a gesture toward plausible deniability. You probably can read the story as a simple allegory of the drug trade. If you’re determined to, that is. And in fairness, that’s what Maurice Hurley thought the episode was doing, hence his insistence on Wesley being given The Talk – over the objections of the cast – because that’s the sort of thing that was expected of shows filmed during Reagan’s “War on Drugs”.

Fortunately, we don’t have to believe something is true simply because Hurley did. The tenor of the conversation with Wesley is worlds away from the Reaganite fixation on portraying drug use as evidence of weak moral character, correctible only by draconian legal punishments. Yar’s conception of drug use is rooted in socio-economic concerns, rather than in personal choice. Her argument, indeed, is that Wesley is wrong to draw a bright line between the circumstances of the Omarans and (what is clearly intended to be) 20th century American drug users. In the context of the Reagan administration’s callous (and nakedly racist) attempts to curb drug use by drastically increasing legal penalties – a minimum of five years in prison for possessing just enough crack to fill a teaspoon – suggesting the source of the problem was societal actually challenges the Gipper’s approach, rather than falling in line with it.

A diagnosis of “external factors” is rather vague, though, so “Symbiosis” goes all in on identifying its specific target. Like “The Last Outpost”, this is a broadside against the greed that was strangling the country when the first season of TNG was filmed. Unlike the Ferengi’s first appearance, though, “Symbiosis” doesn’t just attack the attitudes of the time. It hacks at the foundations of the system itself. I mean, this is a story about how having complete control of the means of production has allowed the Brekkians a level of prosperity and comfort unimaginable to the Onarans. How it gave them the opportunity to turn an entire planet into an underclass, forced to labour exclusively for their benefit, all while insisting they deserve credit for their generosity. I don’t know how it could be much clearer a condemnation of the ruling class.

This is the foundation on which the episode builds its scaffold. From there it works resolutely toward the point it can raise the guillotine. The attitude of the Brekkians is absolutely note-perfect as an imitation of preening, thin-skinned bosses. They’re genuinely convinced that, if anything, they’re doing the Omarans a favour by giving them access to the felicium. “We have to work hard to produce it”, they whine, as though the mere fact it requires effort for them to maintain control over their neighbours justifies that control. The kind of employers who might hear workers tell each other “You have nothing to lose but your chains” and yell “What, you think those chains were easy for us to forge?“.

Note that we don’t have to assume the Brekkians are lying about it being tough to refine the felicium. Controlling the means of production isn’t a guarantee of a life entirely free from effort. The difference lies in the fact the Brekkians could do literally anything else other than keep manufacturing the drugs they use to keep the Omarans under the thumb. The Omarans can do nothing but keep labouring for the Brekkians. “Symbiosis” is a story about a people alienated from their labour because they’re forced to sell that labour to literal aliens. Because they’ve been told the only alternative is a quick but painful death. But hey. Oppressing the Omarans is costing the Brekkians a fortune in whip-leather. So who’s really suffering here?

The thing is, this really isn’t too different from our own system. For most of us, the deal is work or starve, rather than work or waste away from a plague. Suffering is suffering, though, and dead and dead. Sure, if you literally can’t work, you might be excused from the process, while being remorselessly demonised as lazy, and then begrudgingly offered the bare minimum of resources to keep you alive. Not that there’s even a guarantee of that, in a system where driving disabled people to suicide is considered an acceptable price to pay to avoid helping hypothetical shirkers.

There are modes of capitalism less cruel there seems to be than the 21st century model. Or perhaps, more accurately, individual groups may find themselves in better circumstances according to some variants of capitalism than others, depending on who’s in charge and who they’re inclined to focus their attention on helping. But forcing the vast majority of the population to accept their own exploitation in order to be allowed to live their lives is an inextricable component. Which is to say, not all real-world Brekkians are quite as obviously evil as Langor and Sobi. None of them, though, can claim their hands are clean.

As I’ve noted, though, this is an American show, and the Brekkian model hits particularly hard in that context. Even to this day, the US medical system works on the principle that, outside of emergency care, treatment should only be available to those who can afford to pay for it, whether directly or indirectly. Were the situation in “Symbiosis” ever to break out in America, the government would completely be on the side of those acting like the Brekkians, and we know this because in 2020 it did, and they were.

The fact Crusher and Picard both take a strong dislike to the Brekkians even before they know the truth about felicium is therefore a statement with real power. It’s just obvious to them, from almost the very beginning, that their sympathies should lie with the Omarans. This isn’t quite an argument that medication should always be free, but it’s certainly an argument that withholding medicine on the grounds someone can’t pay for it is morally reprehensible. As with the episode’s economic arguments, then, this is the show being more direct than ever before that the problems with America lie far deeper than the actions and influence of Reagan - a fact rather underlined by the Biden administration treating the idea of free COVID tests with open contempt. Even at the time, it was clear that the problem wasn't just that the Republican Party was and is nakedly evil - though that's certainly the case. The central issue is what the country has unwittingly found itself addicted to.

Worker And Parasite

So even before the truth comes out in the episode, the situation is clearly unacceptable to those who believe in human dignity. Nor is the problem limited to the outrageous way in which the Brekkians respond to the shipping accident, which prevents the delivery of goods the Omarans intended to exchange for felicium. Even so, it’s definitely worth drilling into the argument which breaks out after the loss of the Sanction [2], because it too is a comment on the workings of capitalism, and more precisely, the lies told in order to keep it running.

Often, the imbalance between those who control the mechanisms for production and those who have no choice but to work for them is waved away as not truly being an imbalance at all. The standard argument for this is that having control of the means of production entails an inherent risk factor, one that labourers do not have to contend with. We all just show up and do our jobs and go home. They have to keep every plate spinning, or else the whole enterprise collapses. If a labourer loses their job, they can just get another job. f the capitalist loses everything, there’s no way back; it’s game over. No option remains.

(Well, they could get a job themselves, of course. For some reason this is never considered a thinkable outcome for the rich and powerful. The capitalist must always be a capitalist.

But then “just get another job” is clearly nonsense as well. As Sobi says of quite the wrong people, we should not expect too much of them.)

“Symbiosis” has no time for any of this nonsense. It knows precisely where the true risk lies. The instant something goes wrong with the trade relationship between Brekkia and Omara, the Brekkians insist it’s the Omaran’s problem. Sure, the Omarans did the agreed labour in exchange for the promised felicium. But the products generated by that labour were never received, so, sorry! No payment for you. The risk here is entirely the Omaran’s to bear. It’s presumably only the need to keep their dirty gigantic secret that stops the Brekkians just threatening to sell the felicium to someone else. Someone less poor.

The Brekkians are like some cartoonish villain in a black and white Soviet cartoon, who promises payment at month’s end for all who work in his factory. Then he arrives, money in hand, finds the factory’s warehouse burned down, and refuses to give out any cash. The work was done, and the cash is there. The profit isn’t, though, so hard luck, chumps! Your kids might need to eat, but he has to look his wife in the eye over caviar-stuffed swan tonight, so everyone’s got problems. Best find a new factory to work in! Those tears will just dehydrate you, making your labour less efficient!

As usual with parodies of capitalism, this isn't really a parody at all. It's just unusually honest.

Still, at least the Brekkians feign sympathy. So long as that sympathy doesn’t cost them anything, of course. So long as it can help them deflect from the fact that the two lines they’re pushing – that Omaran labour is essential to their system and that a total inability for the Omarans to produce labour isn’t even slightly their problem – are directly contradictory.

(I’m slightly surprised Sobi and Langor never point out the shipment was lost due to the Omarans not being able to run their own freighters. That would at least give some slight rhetorical weight to their insistence it shouldn’t be them called upon to make a sacrifice – until Picard learns the truth, at least. I suspect they don’t try this because they don’t want the Omarans thinking too hard about why they’re always too stoned to be thinking too hard.)

It’s easy to see the plot-related reasons for why the Brekkian’s sudden change of heart persuades Picard they’re fully aware of the scam their running. Really, though, it’s just as easy to read it as the capitalists belatedly realising that short-term generosity on their part is the only alternative to the death of their entire workforce. That they’ve spent so much time repeating the lie that the Omarans need them more than they need the Omarans that they’ve come to believe it themselves. This is always the way with propaganda – ultimately you forget that it was a lie to begin with.

Speaking of lies you tell so often you forget they’re not true, one of the most telling moments of the episode comes when Sobi remonstrates with Langor for “expecting too much” from the Omarans. This is immediately recognisable as respectability politics. Sobi is trying to cast the Brekkians as the only reasonable voices in the conversation, sadly incapable of making their sober-minded arguments stick in the hostile minds of those demanding, illogical Omarans, who can’t even imagine imagining anyone’s perspective but their own.

Sure, the nature of the disagreement is whether the Brekkians are compelled to take a significant financial loss, or whether the Omarans are compelled to die in agony as a species. That’s no reason to yell, surely? We’re simply trying to explain, and frankly with great patience, how you’re going to need to find some more money from someplace, otherwise we will have to let you die. Are you maybe too angry to really absorb how reasonable our position is? Perhaps you need to settle down before we continue this negotiation? Hopefully you’ll still be alive then! Kidding! Just kidding! God, why can’t you people ever take a joke?

As a deflection tactic, it is as obvious as it is ubiquitous. We’ve all heard the script, even if we haven’t realised it’s being recited by bad actors. The other side aren’t delivering their arguments calmly, therefore those arguments cannot be persuasive to the rational mind. It’s a cheap rhetorical shell game, one that somehow leads to the conclusion that being angry about injustice somehow proves the injustice can’t exist. There is, so the argument goes, some hypothetical degree of Omaran politeness that could lead to the Brekkians becoming more sympathetic. Yet somehow, miraculously, that level of cordiality is never quite reached.

We’re already primed to recognise Sibo’s dismissal of the Omarans, then, or at least we should be. There’s proof he (almost certainly wilfully) misjudges them in any case, though. Note that when T’Jon finally gets his hands on the “medicine” he genuinely believes he’ll die without, he chooses to give the first dose to his only surviving crewmate. It’s here that the Omarans show their true selves, not when T’Jon becomes so desperate he briefly threatens Riker’s life. The Omarans are perfectly capable of displays of decency, they’re just in an impossible position and they don’t see anyone else giving a damn about it.

Even calling the drug “felicium” plays a part. It’s clearly a reference to the good fortune the Brekkians enjoy by happening to be the only people who can cultivate and refine the doses the Omarans need. But, just as with its supposed effects, its name is ultimately revealed as a lie. The Brekkians are lucky only in the sense they are in a position to exploit others. Their decision to do so isn’t good fortune, it’s terrible ethics. [3]

“Let Freshers Chant ‘What’s The Alternative?'”

This is all absolutely astonishing. The total refusal of the show to accept our economic system as morally defensible. I know some have chosen to view later seasons of Discovery as the point at which the Federation is finally proven to be post-capitalist (and it’s certainly true that a society without money does not automatically suggest a society without capitalism). For me, though, that moment quite clearly comes here. “The Last Outpost” parodies a system in terminal, vicious decline. “Symbiosis” tears apart the idea that that system can ever truly be reformed. The rot hasn’t spread to the foundations, it began there. This certainly isn’t the best episode the show has produced so far, but it’s the one that most chimes with my personal politics. Speaking of unreformable systems, though… Ugh. I guess we have to talk about the Prime Directive, don’t we? Because the flip side of this episode being so willing to criticise the culture it was created in, is that it becomes even more despicable to argue the best thing to do with a society hoodwinked into contributing to its own oppression is just to leave them to hopefully figure it out for themselves.

I genuinely don’t know if I can convey how contemptible this is. An entire planet has found itself trapped in indentured servitude based on a lie knowingly perpetuated by their exploiters, and Picard argues the truly enlightened response to this is just to keep quiet. It’s impossible to predict how people will respond to learning they’ve been knowingly and grotesquely exploited for generations by their obviously evil neighbours, after all. Best to just quietly back away and pretend you didn’t see anything.

The episode tries to fudge this by having Picard withdraw his promise to repair the Omaran freighters, meaning the truth will out without him having to spill the beans himself. No doubt this is intended to be clever. Instead, it just highlights how arbitrary he’s applying what’s supposedly Starfleet’s most fundamental principle. Help a society by fixing their freight network? Who could object? Help a society by letting them know a centuries-long deception has all but enslaved them? Well, steady on. There’s very little way to read this other than Picard being far more happy to restore a status quo than risk a being directly responsible for altering it, no matter how objectively horrifying that status quo is. This is a terrible idea in the context of the episode. It’s possible the Omarans will be able to jury-rig their freighters, and unwittingly fling themselves back into their endless nightmare. Indeed, the Brekkians are liable to bend themselves to the task as well – letting the Omaran fleet get to so close to ruin was ridiculously risky for them too, and clearly they’ve finally realised that, hence the gift of the felicium. But let’s say Picard’s plan comes off, and the freighters stay grounded long enough for the Omarans to start working through their withdrawal symptoms. What happens then?

Firstly, people are going to die. A lot of people. Some will die because withdrawal from sufficiently powerful narcotics can be fatal in and of itself. This will be exacerbated by the fact that no-one will know that withdrawal is the problem – they’ll still be trying to apply palliative care to a plague that no longer exists. Plus, of course, every doctor on the planet will also be going through withdrawal and also not be aware of that fact, which is liable to put more than a dent in their ability to care for their patients which have suddenly become literally their entire world including themselves. The horrifying scenes of overflowing hospitals and exhausted doctors the UK has been seeing during the COVID crisis is going to look like a day at the socially-distanced beach if Picard gets his way.

Then there’s the indirect deaths. It won’t only be doctors who find themselves compromised while in a job where mistakes can get people killed. Then there’s the blowback to the crisis. People are going to be furious, and they’re not going to know who to be furious with. Anyone Omaran who had any role whatsoever in disseminating the felicium – and particularly the freighter crews – are going to be at risk of physical harm. Riots are hardly out of the question. Hoarding and rumours of hoarding will become endemic, with entirely predictable and violent consequences. And meanwhile, the Brekkians will be preparing. Because they’ll have known from the second Picard made his decision what will be coming next. War with Omara. How effectively that war can be prosecuted without viable spacecraft is an open question. Still, the Brekkians have the head-start not just in general healthiness, but in foreknowledge. Picard has chosen a way to break the Brekkians hold over the Omarans in the most favourable way for the Brekkians possible. This is what his principled Federation philosophy tells him is a better outcome than just telling the Omarans what he’s learned.

This isn’t unexpected. “Symbiosis” is a spirited critique of capitalism, but it’s still a fundamentally liberal one. It can recognise the horrors of the system as is, and even go so far as to suggest there’s no way the system can be reformed to make it work fairly. Actually doing something about it, though, as oppose to hoping that eventually the system will destroy itself, is considered utterly out of the question.

When Kirk saw the state of life on Beta Three, he didn’t hesitate to set the Prime Directive aside. Some situations are just so obviously morally unacceptable that one needs to act. Moral relativism and cultural understanding are fundamental concepts, but eventually a neighbouring government tries something so obviously repellent, and its people scream so loudly for help, that you can’t claim the best option is to just quietly wait to see how it all shakes out.

I’m not suggesting “Return Of The Archons” is the superior episode in this sense, given it constructed an utterly incoherent, nightmare-logic of what Gene Roddenberry assumed Communism was, and declared it was imperative it be destroyed. Really, “Symbiosis” (which of course was also filmed during the Cold War, albeit in its dying days) is the other side of the same coin. Communism: assuming it’s obviously awful brainwashing evil, we should smash it with space-hammers. Capitalism: assuming it’s obviously awful brainwashing evil, we still have to ask ourselves what right we to actively work to end it? The fact the latter criticism is so much more well-evidenced than the former makes the conclusion to not directly intervene worse, not better. The best thing you can say about the ending here is that, having very deliberately torn capitalism to shreds, “Symbiosis” then accidentally tears apart the argument that we shouldn’t actively set ourselves in opposition to it. That’s not nothing, but it’s muted by how clearly no-one involved actually realises how colossal a misstep they make here. Dr Crusher is allowed only the most milquetoast of objections to Picard’s appalling plan at episode’s end – a display of “but what if we were wrong?” hand-wringing rather a coherent counterpoint to the captain’s decision. The cast’s objections to the episode – as well as those of most critics – revolve around an admittedly clunky but ultimately well-intentioned anti-drugs message, as opposed to ending on the moral that not ending widespread, colossal suffering is clearly the correct choice, as long as the people in agony are on the other side of the border.

“Symbiosis” marks the point where the Trek franchise finally proves it understands the barriers that hold humanity back from the vision of understanding and cooperation its creator believed in. It also marks the point where Trek chooses to fully embrace the moral obscenity its creator accidentally wove into its DNA.

As with the episode itself, there is no symbiosis here. The two halves of Trek cannot be synthesised. Something will have to win out. The war to claim Roddenberry’s peace has only just begun.


1. Symbiosis

3. (The Infinite Vulcan)

[1] Butrick died of AIDS in March 1989, just two months after Reagan ended his second term. The incalculable degree of damage the Reagan administration did to the queer community and beyond, through its calculated mishandling of the AIDS epidemic, makes me really glad Butrick guest stars in this particular swipe at the appalling economic philosophy the Gipper grasped so enthusiastically. It’s not the specific revenge Butrick deserved, but it’s something.

[2] A word itself with resonance in terms of a government deciding to make another country's population suffer, of course.

[3] One of the few tricks the episode misses is to suggest there are multiple brands of felicium. That would both offer the illusion of choice to the Omarans, and fix it so that if any Omarans ever actually do get annoyed about the situation, the Brekkians can argue the fault lies with a specific form of felucium. Isn’t it great that Omarans not happy with Plague-B-Gon Pills can switch instead to FeliciYum? Doesn’t it show that the system basically works?

I guess it would have cluttered up the script somewhat, though. Ah well.

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