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  • Ric Crossman

3.1.22 "This First Parting There Was Among Us"

Skin Of Evil

Yar's holo-message.
Never quite allowed to become solid.

“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”- Victor Hugo


The Swan On Its Song


This is another of those episodes where it would be bizarre to not start with the obvious. Indeed, in this case it might even be disrespectful. This is the story in which Denise Crosby finally gets her exit from a show she really wasn’t enjoying being a part of, with that exit being achieved in the most callous and brutal way possible. How can we possibly not start this story there?


I’m going to be spending a lot of this post discussing whether this approach works from a narrative perspective. Before I do that, though, I want to briefly cover Crosby’s own response to the script. Clearly, Crosby is a professional, and making sure your performers are always happy with character decisions doesn’t strike me as a great way to put together fiction (though clearly plenty of actors have plenty of useful insights regarding the people they pretend to be). In the specific case of Crosby, though, the show had treated her with such contempt from casting onwards that it might have been nice to put a little effort into giving her an actual send-off, as opposed to dropping her like a hot, mouldy potato. Her opinion on “Skin Of Evil” strikes me as a little more relevant here than it might be in the general case. than usual,


Crosby’s opinion seems to be mixed, but like a surprisingly tasty cocktail, mixed in a really interesting way. She has noted she would have preferred Yar to go out in a way that demonstrated her competence, in no small part because the show had shown no interest whatsoever in doing so up to that point. On the other hand, she has also said that “Skin Of Evil” was one of the better scripts she received. To return to the cocktail metaphor, those are two ingredients that seem distinct, even clashing, but putting them together makes it clear they work in parallel. It’s just doesn’t result in a beverage that is enjoyable to drink. Considering this episode as one of Yar’s best outings isn’t exactly a full-throated endorsement; it’s more like the Platonic ideal of damning with faint praise. “My character dies for no reason halfway through this episode, and it’s still more than I got to do for almost any other story”.


It’s almost impossible to disagree with Crosby’s conclusion that the show was wasting her – the nearest we can come to a counter there is that she clearly wasn’t the only one being wasted. Nor does script quality seem to have been the only issue on set (Crosby revealed Berman tore her comm badge off her costume on her last day of filing, declaring “You won’t be needing THIS anymore!”, though in fairness she later suggested people were over-interpreting the encounter, speaking in defence of Berman as a “friend” and “colleague”). Giving her a nice send-off seems like the least the show could do.


We could alternately argue that the damage had very clearly already been done, I guesss. Perhaps if this exit for Yar really was the best option available, then that should be our focus, rather than marvelling at how little the show thought of Crosby both here and in every episode that came before it.


So let’s think it over. Let’s ponder, OK? The intent here was to create as much shock value as possible. In these (essentially) pre-internet days, keeping something like this secret was a little easier – to the point where even when watching “Skin Of Evil” on its first UK broadcast two years after its premiere, I had no idea what was coming. So yes, Tasha’s death was shocking. My memory of watching “Skin Of Evil” in 1990 is unusually strong. Compared to the scattered images I have of other Season One episodes, I have a very clear recollection of watching this one with a mounting sense of disbelief and dread that they weren’t going to find some way to bring Tasha back. This was something I’d never considered as possible. Main characters got added and changed sometimes between seasons, obviously. I knew that. But to actually brutally kill a main character and then just leave them dead? It left me reeling. By the time Tasha’s hologram was performing her own eulogy, I felt completely adrift. Television simply didn’t work the way I thought it did.


The episode clearly had the effect Roddenberry had wanted, then (or at least it did for a child with no access to genre magazines and the like). The issue, of course, is whether shock value has any actual, well, value. Yes, Tasha’s death breaks the established norms of television. But there’s any number of ways to do that. There’s nothing inherently clever or virtuous in tossing aside the rulebook. There has to be a reason to believe doing so lets you produce something worthwhile, something that obeying the rules can’t get you to.


Like Riker sinking horrified into the malevolent oil slick of Armus’ evil, let’s go deeper.


Fridge Logic


In order to sensibly assess the degree to which “Skin Of Evil” playing fast and/or loose with the rulebook pays off, we should note the ways in which it’s doing so. Firstly, it kills a main character mid-season. Secondly, it does so with no warning or build-up. Finally, it does so less than halfway through an episode.


What’s most notable upon writing up those transgressions out is that there’s an inverse relationship between how surprising each one is, and how successful they are. The fact Crosby leaves with three episodes of the first season still to go was surprising, but given the realities of TV broadcast scheduling, jiggling of episode orders, and (in the UK) the first three seasons being shown back-to-back, that’s not something that could have been relied upon as a way of generating shock. We’re still over two years away from the idea that a season finale should be anything but one more episode, after all, and even that only came about because the show needed a back-door Stewart could walk through if he wished to.


Nor is the fact a main character dies, in itself, unprecedented. Unusual, sure, and therefore surprising, but a move long been a part of the television landscape. I’ve seen M*A*S*H credited as doing it first, with the episode in question airing in 1975, thirteen years before “Skin Of Evil”. Had I been two or three years older when “Earthshock” had aired in 1982, I might have seen an example of main character death myself by the time I watched Armus put an end to Tasha Yar.


Even the idea that this was unusual only works in a certain context, though. The truth of the matter is that main characters dying in television was a semi-regular occurrence, and certainly not something that started in the mid ’70s. Coronation Street did it in their 77th episode, killing off Ida Barlow, who’d been in the show’s first episode and over half of those that followed. That was in September 1961, almost five years to the day before “The Man Trap” aired. In ’64, that same show killed off a character in their 299th appearance over five years.


As with many other things, then, the discussion about the surprising nature of character death in television only works by ghettoising soap operas – as considering them as a form of television so different they exist in a separate dimension all their own. Not something worthy of considering as “proper” television. This has often been something sci-fi fans in particular have frequently been guilty of (or at least were at the time), motivated so far as I can see by nothing but the desire to reflect the contempt they believe is directed at them by the mainstream back onto that mainstream. I see no reason to continue this ignoble tradition here, particularly given the many compelling argument, stretching back decades, that Trek is functionally a soap opera in any case.


There are differences as well as similarities, naturally. For one thing, the idea of a noble sacrifice or meaningful death in the context of a soap is difficult to imagine. While it would be ludicrous to suggest soap operas are in any useful sense “more realistic” than space operas (entire books could be written – and perhaps have been – on how catastrophically people in general and genre fans in particular misapply the adjective “realistic”), their domestic settings certainly limit the opportunities to portray deaths that have their sting lessened by what that death achieves.


From this perspective, Yar’s end could be said to represent space opera accepting how close a kinship it shares with its Earthbound cousin. Sometimes deaths happen to the people you love, and not only is there no reason or purpose, it happens out of nowhere. The argument that fiction should allow us to escape that fact is a perfectly reasonable one, but I don’t think it’s inarguably correct. An obvious example of this approach working, for all that it was written by someone whose reputation in geek circles is now somewhere between pond scum and pond scum that does Nazi cosplay, would be the BtVS episode “The Body”. That one comes slightly less out of nowhere, in that there’s some signposting earlier in the season. Even so, it’s completely an episode about how a sudden and unexpected death can cause your entire world to collapse. An episode in which a teenage girl is attacked by a vampire specifically to make the episode less upsetting – to remind the viewer that this is still nominally fantasy.


Ultimately, though, the comparison to “The Body” demonstrates precisely why “Skin Of Evil” fails to work. If you want a story about how people are affected by the sudden death of someone close to them, you need to show how those people are affected by the sudden death of someone close to them. You can’t just have them act shell-shocked for twenty minutes, have a cry at episode’s end, and then move on as though absolutely nothing has happened. I mean, by the Prophets, it’s completely correct to be contemptuous of fridging female characters, but at least motivating a man through a woman’s death recognises the woman actually died. What we have here is a fridge nobody remembered to install.


This also puts a hole beneath the waterline of what’s probably the most interesting argument made in the defence of the randomness of Tasha’s death. Keith RA DeCandido (writer of several Trek novels) has suggested Yar’s sudden demise should be interpreted in the context of all the other meaningless deaths of Trek security personnel. Dispatching a main character as though she were some luckless, mononymous extra forces us to consider why the audience (in general) is happy treating the three-year redshirt cull as a meme, but sees Yar’s end as a tragedy.


This is actually a great point. What it isn’t is a great defence, so much as a good way to salvage something from the wreckages. And sure, when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. What you don’t do is drink that lemonade and think “good thing I was given all those lemons!”.


Pointing out the previous show, which ended eighteen years earlier, had a host of problems is fair enough. Actually deliberately porting one of those problems over to the new show, though, in order to make that point? You’re consciously making one show worse in order to persuade people to think less of another one. That’s cutting off your nose to spite someone else’s face. Only three Enterprise-D crew die before Tasha, who’s the last person aboard to die in the first season – that’s 0.16 deaths per episode, compared to 0.65 in TOS Season 1. The franchise had already learned its lesson. What do we gain from condemning the sins of the past by repeating them in the present? [1]


None of this is to say there’s no mileage to fiction gradually ramping up the audience’s discomfort to force them to interrogate why that discomfort didn’t begin earlier. David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence, for instance, does this very well (though it can be criticised on gender-political grounds). It’s this idea of a relapse that bothers me, the deliberate interrupting of progress to get in one more kick at the past.


DeCandido’s point might also have been rather stronger had the show actually dealt with the fallout of Tasha’s sudden death. Rather than make long-term fans [2] consider their stance on the death of extras in general, TNG could have strived to show a better way of handling such events itself.


And since I’m talking about gender politics in any case, it’s worth nothing that Crosby’s departure reduces the main cast from 33% female to 25% female – we have to wait until Voyager to get back to half the population representing a third of a Trek show’s main characters. The spectre of sexism looms large across all of this, in fact. Tasha’s death fits into what is, to generalise somewhat, a fairly male approach to writing tragedy. You maximise the impact of the event, and then ignore the emotional consequences of it, while you go searching for your next big hit. Roddenberry clearly suffered from this approach, Alan Moore has received (very fairly IMO) criticism over doing similar, and the existence of Game Of Thrones shows the problem is still very much with us.


What Tasha’s savage, meaningless death reminds me of isn’t how poorly the Original Series treated its red-shirted men. It’s how poorly television in general did and does treat women like redshirts every damn day.


No Time To Die


That just leaves us with one last consideration regarding the murder on Vagra II: the decision to do the deed halfway through the story. Major character deaths almost invariably happen at the end of an episode, or even a season. There are occasional exceptions, where characters need to be hurriedly written out early on. That’s usually due to major upheaval behind the scenes, though, something the writers are forced into by circumstance, rather than representing an artistic choice. Tasha meeting her end in the closing minutes of Act 2 is therefore the most shocking aspect of the whole affair. It’s something genuinely approaching unprecedented.


Sometimes there are reasons things simply aren’t done, though, and sometimes those reasons include the fact that doing it would be a self-evidently ridiculous idea. Writers kill off main characters at the ends of episodes, even if that death is sudden and unexpected, because people need time to process what they’ve seen before they return to the narrative. Whatever the psychological explanation is for people getting attached to fictional characters, it’s clearly something that happens. You can’t just keep the action rolling on and expect people to get straight back into the flow.


By killing Yar so early on, “Skin Of Evil” makes itself about that, and nothing else. Tasha’s death becomes a shadow as opaque and inescapable as Armus himself. Seeing through it to the rest of the rescue mission is all but impossible.


This is compounded by the nature of TNG itself. Sure, you don’t need magic (either in its pure form or shoddily disguised as science) to pull a fast one with an audience. People declared dead in fiction very often don’t stay that way. In a non-genre show, though, seeing is generally believing. It’s only in the realms of geekdom where we can watch a main character die in front of our eyes, receive medical confirmation of that death, and still know there’s every chance the character will be alive again before the credits roll.


Absent knowledge of how the episode plays out, then, anyone with enough TV nous (and particular, awareness of genre tropes) is just waiting for the reversal. And as we’ve seen, by “enough TV nous”, I mean “Being ten years old and owning a television”. The unease that builds as you realise that they’re actually not going to turn things around is certainly an unusual experience in TV terms, but it grows like mould in a hot, sealed room, sucking away the oxygen everything else needs to survive inside. It’s not even that the tale of the remaining regulars still on the planet becomes irrelevant. It’s that you’re hoping more of them will die, because that would actually reassure you that some kind of reversal must be coming to reset the status quo. I would submit that writing yourself into a situation in which Wil Riker is dragged into a sentient oil-slick and the audience would actually rather he drowned is an indication that you’ve gone wrong somewhere,


Put another way, this is a shock derailing that only really has a hope of working if you already know it’s coming. That’s about as complete a failure for a twist as one could imagine.


And without the twist, Tasha’s death becomes as meaningless outside the show’s universe as it does within it.


Spaceships That Pass In The Night


So much for the twist, then. With the spirit forged by Tasha’s violent death exorcised, it would be nice to make a conscious effort to swim against the episode’s current, and focus on what happens elsewhere in the story. The problem is, that's almost impossible.


Perhaps we could try talking about Deanna. For all that this is our last real opportunity to talk about Denise Crosby’s time on the show, we should note the dire situation Marina Sirtis found herself in at this point. As with Crosby, Sirtis was terribly served throughout the show’s first season, to the point where, again like Crosby, Sirtis cites this episode as one of her highpoints of the year. That’s despite the fact that every line we see her speak here is delivered alone and in the dark, while she waits to be rescued. Sure, she’s able to give Picard the psychological insight he needs to beat Armus, but beyond that she’s essentially entirely passive, able to show her great strength of mind only in the context of not letting the fact she’s been captured and used as bait get her down too much.


And yet, who can disagree that this is still among the best uses the show has put Troi to so far? In the four episodes preceding this one, “The Arsenal Of Freedom” is the only one in which Troi receives more than two lines. She’s absent from “Heart Of Glory” entirely – the fourth episode of the season so far in which she hasn’t appeared. Rumour has it that only Crosby’s departure saved Sirtis from getting the axe at the end of the year – essentially, Crosby jumped before Sirtis was pushed. McFadden’s own disappearance may also have been a factor here, resulting in the show carrying Sirtis over into Season 2 as the only returning female cast member by default.


The idea that Troi essentially survives only because Yar disappears first is a rather uncomfortable one, especially given how close it comes to paralleling what happens in this episode. Indeed, I assume the character of Ben exists exclusively to ensure the rescue mission here ends up feeling a little less to the audience like the direct swap it actually may well have been behind the scenes. The unease generated by all this isn’t helped by the realisation that Troi and Yar don’t actually get to talk to each other at all this episode. Even at Tasha’s funeral, Troi is a silent presence, and Yar’s message that Troi taught her “without ever saying a word” feels like a pretty pointed comment about the fact that, you know, she would have had to. We have to go back as far as “Angel One”, nine episodes earlier, before we see the last time Troi and Yar interact – one of only five such occasions since the pilot (though she did get to describe Yar as “physically very attractive” once, so… there’s that?).


This compartmentalisation of the women on the show didn’t stop Sirtis and Crosby from becoming friends – the tears the former cries here are entirely genuine. It’s just one more reminder though of how completely disinterested the first season of TNG was in treating its female characters as characters. Troi existed basically for Riker’s benefit (Sirtis has noted the only other episode in Season One she enjoyed making as much as this one was “Haven”, which is basically about how Riker has to deal with her being engaged to another man). Dr Crusher serves a similar role for Picard, along with giving the show as justification to include presumed-audience-stand-in Wesley. Yar didn’t even rise as high as either of those options. No wonder Crosby felt wasted. The show couldn’t even be bothered to find a male character to have her revolve around.


Perhaps that’s why it feels like she orbited everyone, never allowed to stay in one place long enough to become her own person. As well as being naff on its own terms (and BTW, “Strive for excellence, no matter the personal cost” is actually a really terrible thing to have taught someone, even accidentally), Tasha’s hollow eulogy underlines the central problem. It’s not just that there was ever any sign that Tasha had learned any of the things she claims she has from her colleagues, or that none of the relationships she makes reference to (with the possible exception of Geordi) actually ring true given what we’ve seen. It’s that Tasha’s farewell messages just happen to be for every single member of the main cast and literally nobody else. I realise this is common practice with fictional video wills and the like. In the context of Lieutenant Yar specifically, though, it hammers home the fact she barely existed as a character in her own right, as oppose to a shared fact of life experienced by the “real” characters.


But then that’s “Skin Of Evil” in a nutshell, isn’t it? The application of a violent. senseless death that tries to shock us deeply enough that we won’t notice we’re being asked to mourn the loss of something that was never really there at all.


Farewell, Natasha Yar. We hardly knew ye. Which, you know, feels like something of a problem.


The Evil That Men Do


We’re approaching the end of this post, and I’m aware I’ve said basically nothing positive about the episode at all. And in fairness, there are a few nice elements to “Skin Of Evil” I should work to tease out. Worf responding to his sudden promotion by rejecting the idea of vengeance is a deft touch. He’s the male character most prone to go on a post-fridging rampage, in an episode structured to enable precisely that, and he refuses to do so, in an inversion of television tropes that work much better than anything directly involving Yar’s death. Even in an episode as ugly and mean as this one, the spark of what will soon catch fire can be seen, with the solution not being to fight Armus as an act of revenge, but to calmly lecture him about the true nature of evil.


Armus himself is also interesting, especially his ludicrous posturing about how he somehow represents pure, concentrated evil, like he was born from the smoking toaster oven at the end of Time Bandits. If Squire Trelane was a petulant child playing dress-up as Napoleon, Armus is Grima Wormtongue cosplaying as Sauron. His design is completely ludicrous, of course, but that just strengthens the degree to which it’s obvious he’s play-acting (as well as being a villain that could transform into liquid three years before it was cool). To the extent the episode has anything to say beyond “Tasha’s dead now, PSCYHE!”, it’s in the fact that Armus is a fundamentally piteous being. Not that piteous people can’t do truly evil and horribly damaging things, of course. As we’ve discussed before, pathetic and dangerous aren’t mutually exclusive categories.


This is something that Picard recognises, judging by his comments as the action planet-side draws to a close. He argues here that evil doesn’t exist as a distinct entity. Instead, it exists in the actions ordinary people take, because they think fear grants them a license to accept what should clearly be unacceptable. Evil is a description of actions, not motivations, and believing otherwise just makes it easier for people to commit evil acts, on the grounds that since they themselves can’t be evil, neither can anything they choose to do. Armus is just a petty bully, and evil lies in letting the bullies have their way, because you’re afraid of what might happen if you don’t.


An episode that had focussed on this idea could have been an early triumph for the show. Alas, it’s instead a throwaway point buried beneath the landslide already set in motion by Tasha’s death. Any commentary on the true nature of evil is obscured by the spectacle of a female actor wanting to leave the show because she’s being completely wasted, and that show responding by completely wasting her one last time.


There’s nothing actually evil in “Skin Of Evil”. There’s also very little that is any good. And the tragedy of Tasha Yar is less that she died, and more that she was never really allowed to live.


Ordering


1. (The Infinite Vulcan)

3. Skin Of Evil


[1] Especially since the past itself had at least briefly touched on these issues, with “By Any Name” considering the gendered aspect of the show’s endless redshirt-reaping.


[2] Also, we need to be highly suspicious of arguments that say TNG should have been written with fans of the Original Series foremost in mind. Not turning long-serving Trekkers off is one thing, but actually working on the principle that major TNG events are best viewed in terms of a dialogue with the franchise’s past? Take a look at early ’80s Doctor Who to see how that kind of fan service uber alles turned out.

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