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  • Ric Crossman

3.1.23 "...If I Was In LA"

We'll Always Have Paris


Picard exits the holodeck through the arch, as the Paris programme continues to run behind him.
A gateway to what comes next.

Here at last.


Endgame


"We'll Always Have Paris" is an episode with special significance when it comes to IDFC, being as it was the last episode I covered for the original run of this series over at Geek Syndicate. In large part this was simple happenstance. The decision was made to cease producing web content, and I had the choice as to whether to end my run with this episode, or with "A Taste For Armageddon".


There was serendipity in that, it seemed to me. Would I end on an episode title that references the literal end of everything? Or on one that acknowledges the importance the past, but declines to be consumed by it?


The choice seemed a simple one, thematically. Trek by its very nature is a story that refuses to accept there is ever a final end. Not just in terms of there always being more of it - at the time of writing, three Trek shows are ongoing, with two more soon to premiere - but philosophically, too. As McCoy points out in one of my favourite lines from the whole damn shebang, who and what we love really never dies, so long as we remember what has passed. We all carry our pasts with us into our futures.


That was what I wanted to reflect on when IDFC v1 came to an end. Happily, it also operates as a springboard into what comes next. The section headings here are now coloured with happy irony. This essay no longer represents an ending, but a beginning. T.On Thursday, this blog will start putting out entirely new essays, taking us to the end of season one for the three shows we're still working through. The answer to "what comes next" turns out to be, well, this.


The Undiscovered Country


Someone once told me the reason kids find landscapes boring is that they’ve not yet built up the association between picturesque scenery and a sense of peace. That’s something that we build up over time, as we strengthen the link between drinking in the landscape, and actually having time to drink in the landscape. The surroundings themselves don’t have to be peaceful – you could be looking out at Paris on a bustling 24th century day, to take an example entirely at random – but our memories of how we felt in ourselves during such moments stir in our subconscious, when we find ourselves appreciating the same or similar scenes once again.


It’s a form of time travel, in a sense. You present your brain with the images of the past, and you trick it into making you feel like you’re back in that past. There is great power in that, and great temptation. Even in so lushly-produced a space opera, in a galaxy as filled with wonder as Roddenberry’s, sometimes the past is what stirs your blood the most. Sometimes, you just want to go home.


There’s the rub, though. “Home” isn’t just geography, it’s chronology. A point in the past. The memories that awaken are, by definition, no longer a reflection of your present. You can’t go back to something until you’ve left it. This trick you can play on your mind with visual stimulus is just that, a trick. Like any illusion, there might well be genuine pleasure to be taken from it, but that doesn’t make it real.


That’s why they say you can never go home again. You shouldn’t dwell on the past, precisely because you can’t dwell in it.


Unless, that is, you start messing about with actual time travel. Unless you become so obsessed with the past, you are willing to break the present.

“We’ll Always Have Paris” reminds me of this trick, where scenery and memory intermingle, and not just because it features the Paris skyline. The idea of how the present can reawaken the past is, of course, everywhere here. And just as with absorbing the scenery, Picard’s problems here don’t really resonate with the kids. Watching this as a ten-year old, I hadn’t the slightest interest in how Picard was affected by the sudden reappearance of a long-gone lover. There was no way for me to process the idea of being confronted by someone you’d not seen for more than twice as long as I’d been alive. It was a story about looking back over ground I’d yet to map out for the first time.


Now, though, only half a decade or so younger than Stewart was when this was filmed, an exploration of how to deal with someone who once meant the world to you suddenly reappearing is something I can easily map to my own life. It's been twenty-two years since my first heartbreak, and almost as long since the first time I broke the heart of someone else. I’ve had my share of messy situations and sudden separations over the years. The question of how to handle the sudden return of someone thought long left behind is something I’ve had cause to ponder from time to time.


On that front, I think Picard does rather well. Whatever the more general limitations of Roddenberry’s proscriptions of interpersonal conflict, there’s a wonderful emotional maturity to Picard’s actions here that allows (almost) every standard cliche to be deftly avoided. Picard doesn’t clash with Jenice’s husband, or ask her inappropriately personal questions about why she’s still with a man who, by his own admission, has neglected her totally in favour of his work. The captain’s only message to Mannheim is to learn from his mistakes – a recognition of where he went wrong, but not an attempt to either correct or relitigate what’s long done.


Picard takes the same tack with Jenice herself – he wants to make what amends he can, but only on Jenice’s terms. There’s no nonsense spouted about how he’s a changed man, and/or wanting to give things another go. No insistences that the fact Jenice ended up with someone like Mannheim proves she could never have been happy with Picard in any case, so really he did them both a favour. He just acknowledges the damage he did, and commits to making whatever restitution Jenice still feels owed. He doesn’t even come to her, waiting instead for her to make the decision as to whether to discuss the past. He’s captain of the ship that’s not only the finest and most powerful in Federation space, but one that just saved her life – he’s fully aware of the power imbalance here.


The closest the captain comes to putting a foot wrong is his first return visit to Cafe des Artistes, not so much because of the locale, but because it allows him to actually interact with what Crusher calls the ghost from his past. The idea people can actually do this makes me more than a little uncomfortable – its the first glimmering of the idea that will eventually become “Hollow Pursuits” two years later [1]. Fortunately, then, it doesn’t take long for Picard to realise this is the wrong way to go. A “self-indulgence” that gets no-one anywhere.


This is what makes the decision to say goodbye properly back at Cafe des Artistes so important. It’s the same program as earlier, to the point where we can still see the younger Jenice waiting for the man that never came. This time, though, Picard doesn’t so much as acknowledge the image from his past. This is about him and Jenice in the present. Not dwelling, but reminiscing. The trappings of what was are deployed, but only to put what is in context. The scenery wakes its memories, but the purpose is not recapture, but recontextualisation. Some memories invoke peace, others you just have to find a way to make peace with.


What We Leave Behind


This decision to make the story to be about processing the past and moving on from it feels perfect for TNG – so much more interesting and fulfilling an ending than the Casablanca echo the episode initially seems to be heading for. As shaken up as Picard is by Jenice’s reappearance, there’s no suggestion he’s committing some kind of noble sacrifice in letting her go off with her scientist husband. Nor does Jenice require his persuasion on that score. This is a love triangle in which all three protagonists want the status quo to continue, irrespective of what’s happened in the past. That’s absolutely remarkable, a perfect distillation of what TNG offered that no other show could. It matters very little to me that we almost did get a straight port of Casablanca (to the point that “…Paris”, like the film, was originally going to include the suggestion of the hero sleeping with the scientist’s wife, though in this case it was the lead actor who shot down the idea, rather than jittery censors). The central tension of the episode is not in who ends up with the girl, but in how Picard deals with the guilt of having so poorly handled realising ending up with the girl wasn’t actually what he wanted.


Stewart does brilliantly with all this, because of course he does. It’s worth noting though how much he’s assisted by playing opposite Michelle Phillips. I know that Phillips has took flak about an apparent lack of chemistry with Stewart. This is an objection I find baffling, not because I necessarily think it’s inaccurate (though for sure Trek has offered us less plausible pairings, often between main characters and for multiple seasons), but because it utterly misunderstands what the episode has ultimately settled on doing. Of course the two of them don’t have chemistry now. This isn’t about the possibility of a rekindled romance, this is a forensic investigation of why and how the fire went out. I mean, Dr Crusher explicitly states that Picard’s problem is he’s confronting a ghost from his past. He’s holding on to an idealised image that no actual woman could compete with, and that includes Jenice.


Complaining Stewart and Phillips don’t spark makes no more sense than complaining your friend’s favourite childhood movie doesn’t actually hold up to adult scrutiny. You’re not supposed to see why they love it, you’re supposed to recognise you have the same relationships, just with different things.


In fact, casting Phillips is absolutely inspired. It’s not just that she nails the quiet echoes of a once-unbearable sadness, either. I mean, that’s crucial, and I wonder how much of the argument about a lack of chemistry stems from Phillips very wisely playing Jenice as just not that into Picard-as-is [2]. But there’s also the crucial fact that Phillips represents one quarter of The Mamas and the Papas.


I mean, consider the meta-commentary in play here. This episode was filmed in early March 1988. That means the distance between Jenice asking about why Picard stood her up, and him actually doing it, is within a few months at most of being the same distance between Michelle Phillips stepping onto the TNG set, and her band releasing the staggeringly-popular-even-to-this-day “California Dreaming”. A song, of course, which itself is about the memories of the past haunting the present, being as it is about a guy considering leaving his partner without warning or explanation, so he can return to the warmth of the California he once knew. Finally, there’s the status of 1960’s Phillips as a hippy-chic sex symbol, something which many if not all the people working on the episode would have been perfectly aware of. By casting Phillips, the episode lets thousands of people at around Stewart’s age tap into the memories of the women they idolised in their own youth.


The Counter-Clock Incident


As a result, the episode makes the strongest case it can for the attraction of forever focussing on the past, in order to maximise the impact of rejecting this approach as unhealthy. We see this buttressed still further by the treatment of Mannheim’s temporal fiddling. The disordering of time is presented as entirely a bad thing, an upset of the natural order that threatens to make normal life completely impossible. A singularity of meaningless, inescapable repetition that threatens to expand and swallow the very concept of “next”. No-one here discusses the possibilities that rewinding time might offer them, were Mannheim’s experiments to lead to a controllable process. Everyone is in agreement that what they’re experiencing is a danger that needs to be stopped. Either the past stays in the past, or it will end up consuming you.


The same is true for the future, actually. Perhaps aware of the irony of Trek pushing this line too hard, the idea that living in what is yet to come is a problem in itself isn’t doesn’t feature as much the equivalent approach to the past, but it is there. Mannheim is presented as a dreamer, someone so caught up in what their research might someday result in that he’s neglecting the life and marriage he has in the present. During the episode he comes to realise the depth of his mistake, but he still frames his response in terms of the future, by promising things will be different going forward. He’s simply substituted “I will become famous for my experiments” for “I will rebuild this marriage and make Jenice happy again” for his goal. And Jenice, because she’s Jenice (see [2]), chides him about this in the gentlest. most generous way possible, by suggesting his obsession with the future has led to him missing what’s actually going on in the present. He’s promising to right the wrongs he has done Jenice without actually listening to Jenice’s thoughts on what those wrongs are. He wants to promise the future so he doesn’t have to process the present.


The statement “live in the now” manages to be simultaneously both trite and obvious, and frequently impossible. We are all shaped by the past, and we all have hopes for the future. But then all correctives can lead to over-correction, that’s just the nature of the beast. Reminding us of the need to recognise where we are now doesn’t mean an end to reminiscing or to dreaming. At one point in the episode, Data is about to patch the temporal rift, only to find himself split into three versions of himself in slightly different time periods. The three Datas are all at different parts of the approach to the rift, making it easy to order them – the one at the rift is farthest forward in time, and so on. The question they need to answer correctly to save the ship, and possibly the galaxy, is simple: which of them is actually in the present?


What makes this scene work so well isn’t just that it’s the middle Data who realises he’s at the right point in time – that there’s one Data in the past, and one in the future, and neither can seal the rift by themselves – it’s that when the “correct” Data begins to drop his antimatter into the rift, he’s joined by his two selves, doing the same thing. Data saves the day not by ignoring past and future, but by insisting their influence operates in service of the present.


Picard and Jenice’s final drink brings us to a similar conclusion. The past is there, in the form of the Cafe Des Artistes from two decades earlier. The future is harder to spot. But then that’s the point. The future is considered here by deliberately leaving it open. Picard and Jenice part neither under the assumption that this will be their last meeting, nor that next times things might be different. Sometimes the best thing you can do with the future is let it take shape on its own.


All Good Things...


And that's how I brought the initial run of IDFC to a close. Since then, obviously, the project has been reborn, Spock/Shax-like, with a sexy new blog and everything.


But we're still close to another ending. I only have eleven more episodes left to post about. I've got three essays wrapping up the remaining seasons, a concluding piece about seasons one in general, and one last dip into mathematics, because it's been ages since the last one and it's nice to flex my pop-maths writing muscles from time to time.


That's just over a month's worth of material still to upload (assuming I get the last odds and ends written up on time). After that, it'll be time for what comes next.

Ordering


1. We’ll Always Have Paris

3. (The Infinite Vulcan)


[1] In fact, in its own way, it’s arguably worse. Creating a holographic simulation of a co-worker you want to bone raises all sorts of red flags, but at least Barclay took Troi’s image and then made up his own story. The idea that personal conversations in restaurants are being recorded and stored in public databanks to be accessed by whomever (or, maybe worth, by those with sufficient power) to relive decades later in some ways bothers me more.


[2] There is, admittedly, a line of criticism here that says Jenice is written as the next evolutionary phase of the manic-pixie-dream-girl. We might call this the forgiving-fae-dream-woman, who exists exclusively to help middle-age heterosexual men absolve their guilt for the crappy and hurtful ways they treated women in their callow youth. There’s not really all that much I can say about that reading other than a) it’s pretty persuasive, and b) given the fact that thirty-five years later we still haven’t abandoned the MPDG as an archetype, maybe TNG deserves some credit for at least finding a new way to be problematic.

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