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  • Ric Crossman

3.1.24 The Replacement Killers


The alien queen revealed, rearing from Remmick's ribcage.
"We come in peace!"

Oh, it's

you! For a moment I was worried it might be... well, that doesn't matter now, I'm sure. Take a seat, while I fix you a drink.

I suspect this is going to take some time.

Mr Spock Goes To Washington

Perhaps the best route into "Conspiracy" is to consider what the episode isn't. I don't mean the fact that Remmick's brood never reappeared in this or any other Trek show. That was a huge disappointment to me as a kid, but thirty years on there are much more serious missed opportunities on which to focus [1]. I don't even mean the fact that these aliens were originally intended to be an ongoing threat to replace the poorly-received Ferengi, before their own failure to convince here prompted another rethink, eventually giving us the Borg.

What I'm interested in instead is how the original plan for the story, as seeded in "Coming Of Age", was for the titular takeover plot to involve Starfleet admirals who were under the influence of nothing but their own desire for more power.

I can't imagine it was a surprise when Roddenberry vetoed the idea. To him, Starfleet represented the absolute pinnacle of achievement in a society dedicated to mutual understanding and cooperation, an organisation so picky over who it admitted, they rejected an application from a kinde so wunde he represented humanity’s futured development into quasi-mystical reality-warpers. The idea you could excel even within that framework – could become the best of the best of the best of what we can be – and turn out to be so power-crazed you'd work towards a military coup, was clearly anathema.

But was this the right call? That's actually a pretty interesting question. It's certainly more interesting to ponder than the episode as broadcast. With enough work we can, and will dig up something (hopefully) interesting to say about the show failing to make a Wrath Of Kahn/Aliens mash-up work on a TV budget, but it's hard to get too excited about discussing the ways in which something doomed to fail did, in fact, do just that.

We'll begin with picking apart Roddenberry's decision, then, and what implications it has for the franchise. Was he right to suggest Starfleet admirals could never try and seize control of the Federation? Or, since Starfleet remains defiantly fictional, perhaps the better way to phrase the question is this: under what assumptions regarding the nature of the Federation and Starfleet would he be right?

Let's start narrow, and work our way outwards. Tracy Tormé's original idea here wasn't just to do an episode that featured Starfleet admirals being naughty, but to do it in a way that would allow the show to comment on the Iran-Contra affair. This, at least, seems like a concept better left undeployed. Not because that particular scandal is a poor choice for comment, obviously - I've already highlighted two strong swipes this show has taken at it. My issue is with the idea that you can comment usefully on Iran-Contra via a story about a military takeover. Iran-Contra wasn't about high-ranking military officials trying to take control of the government, it was about them doing precisely what the government (or the branch that directly controls it, anyway) was telling them to do.

This is not said as an attempt to excuse the officers involved - we all know how far "I was only obeying orders" should get one as far as justifications are concerned. My point is that military overreach had nothing to do with the situation. This was about one branch of the democratically-elected civilian government deciding it simply didn't have to follow the rules anymore. You know, in the way that US presidents regularly do. The Watergate Scandal erupted less than fifteen years before this episode was filmed. The uncovering of the States' illegal bombing of Cambodia was revealed just three years earlier. And these are simply unusually egregious - or even just unusually public – of a recurring problem. The President simply has too much power within the system. As a result, that same system find itself unable to effectively police abuse of that power.

There is a common and distressing limitation built into the vast majority of centrist and liberal critiques of power, which is that they amount to the suggestion that the problem lies in how the system can become corrupted. Different approaches to this put different emphasis on how easily this corruption can happen, but the underlying argument is always that there exists some hypothetical way in which the system could run without the rot being present. Checks and balances, eternal vigilance, whatever; if we could just get the rule set right, we'd be in the clear.

This is completely false. The problem with the system is not that it is prone to corruption. It's that the system is a corruption in and of itself. The rules were written by the corrupt, and are enforced (or more often, not) by the corrupt, in order to maintain a system that exists only to perpetuate the fundamentally corrupt engine of capitalism, which can only exist by stealing from the working class. This fixation on which moral outrages individuals do within the system were and were not "allowed" within that system misses this point completely. Iran-Contra was appalling because the executive branch was selling weapons to a religious leader fighting a bloody war in-between executing his own gay citizens, so as to fund far-right mass-murdering thugs hoping to overthrow the revolutionary government of another country. The fact Congress had told Reagan he wasn't allowed to do that pales into insignificance in comparison, a fact rather underlined by Congress later changing its mind and declaring the arms sales/counter-revolutionary funding pipeline to be acceptable practice after all.

You cannot comment on any of this with a story in which specific people have gone rogue, and are going to have to be dealt with. At best, you might offer some form of catharsis to the viewer, given Picard would almost certainly get further with seeing the fictional villains punished then ever seems to be the case in actual US politics. Occasionally people briefly go to prison, until pardoned by a future president from the same party, but mostly the hope is people will have the integrity to just agree to stop doing their job, which was never a meaningful deterrent in any case, and post-Trump seems unimaginable in any case. More likely, though, you're just selling one more fairy tale in which we can sweep the kingdom clear of the villains, and return to a peaceful life under just rulers.

It's an odd thing to say about something which genuinely involved a conspiracy, then, but this kind of story relies on classic conspiracy theory nonsense. There is no tiny hidden cabal that controls everything (or is about to) and needs to be removed so that humanity can be free. Claiming otherwise, as well as very commonly being anti-Semitic, actually does the work of the system for it, because people spend the time they should use on seeking genuine change searching instead for an illusory band of conniving baddies, who are all that stops us from not needing change in the first place.

I'll return to conspiracy theories later. For now, and in short, "What if the military took over?" is a supremely uninteresting question in the context of a country where the military has no need to take over. We can see this even more clearly when Trek actually did get around to a military coup story, in DS9's "Homefront" and "Paradise Lost". In those two episodes, multiple Starfleet officers, led by Vice Admiral Leyton, conclude the Federation President isn't willing to curtail civil liberties to the extent they believe necessary to keep Earth safe from Dominion infiltrators, and begin a coup. Memory Alpha suggests that this two-parter, broadcast four years after Roddenberry's death, finally allowed the franchise to explore the kind of story Tormé had wanted to tell.

Broadly, that's clearly true, but we soon run into the same problems. "Homefront/Paradise Lost" involve a civilian President refusing to accept a ramping up of Starfleet’s security presence, because an overly-powerful military strikes him as a source of concern, and because he refuses to accept domestic safety should trump all other concerns. There's just no way to map that to the political situation in America. Not in the '80s, and not in the '90s. Perhaps there is some mileage to the hypothetical of what might the American military might be prepared to do if, somehow, someone took the Oval who was prepared to meaningfully downsize the armed forces and reject the excesses of security theatre. But considering Iran-Contra doesn't get us any closer to gaming that situation out. It just reminds us of how utterly implausible that scenario is to begin with.

Considering "Homefront/Paradise Lost" does get us somewhere with "Conspiracy", though, because while Starfleet officers planning a coup can tell us nothing about then-contemporary America, the whole point of the Federation in general and Starfleet in particular is that it very much isn't supposed to represent the US at all.

The relevant question, then, isn't how Starfleet's military structure can be used to pass comment on the armed forces of contemporary America. It's how Starfleet's military structure can be used to pass comment on Roddenberry's conception of what a post-capitalism human society might look like.

Less Alienation, More Alien Nations

A little bit of scene-setting is necessary here, because we're approaching a fault-line that runs through fandom, ready to sheer it in two at the slightest tremor. What even is the Federation, politically speaking?

There can be little doubt, at least in his final years, that Roddenberry saw Trek as presenting a post-capitalist society. That is not quite the same as an anti-capitalist society, though I've argued that both "The Last Outpost" and The Voyage Home are anti-capitalist, at least with regard to the uniquely American flavour of same. But while TNG might criticise the idea of greed as a motivation, there's very little sense Roddenberry agreed with or even understood Marxist critiques of the system he lived in. His solution to moving beyond capitalism appears to be a technological rather than social revolution, positing widespread automation and the ability to convert energy into food as being the central planks on which a post-capitalism future could be built. With the resulting reduction in necessary labour time, and a functionally infinite supply, life can stop being about making ends meet, and become about, well, whatever you damn well want it to be.

There are two points to make here. The first is that socially necessary labour clearly still exists. I touched on this when writing up "Prime Factors", but let's flesh the argument about a bit. A more advanced society is not necessarily one in which necessary maintenance becomes unnecessary. It's arguably the other way round, indeed, given the complexity of the mechanisms in such a culture. Someone needs to keep the replicators knocking out the milk and honey. Vast swathes of humanity lives in environments that would murder them in seconds without constant monitoring and maintenance, and that can't be fully outsourced to machines (if it could, Engineering wouldn't exist as a branch of Starfleet). The actual amounts of labour required on average per head may well be much lesser than what it currently is, but it hasn't shrunk to zero. What we're seeing removed from the human experience isn't labour in its entirety, then, but alienated labour. That is, work done from which the worker does not derive full benefit, being performed primarily so that those who steal most of the value of that labour will graciously allow the worker to have food in their belly and a roof over their head.

And good riddance, obviously. Unless you've gotten very lost, if you're reading this, you're spending your life being robbed by people with vastly more money than you, every hour you work, while being told it's your own fault for not working harder. I'm entirely glad Trek jettisoned the whole idea into space during the mid-80s. What we need to bear in mind, though - and this is where the second point comes in - is that neither widespread automation nor magic nosh-boxes are actually prerequisites for ending alienated labour. We clearly have enough people to share the labour needed to keep humanity going, this is made rather obvious by the fact humanity isn't extinct (the eschaton grows ever closer, of course, but that's entirely due to capitalism in any case).

Nor is feeding ourselves genuinely a problem - the world already makes almost enough food for the entire population to eat healthily, and could easily shift to producing a comfortable surplus if we stopped focussing on offering westerners hundreds of choices of what type of car to drive, or shoes to wear, or what type of ketchup to squeeze over what type of sausage nestled in what kind of bread bun. It's true (and a sad irony) that the longer we wait for the revolution, the more advanced the technology will be that we can bend to the true benefit of all humanity, but the bare building blocks for strapping capitalism to a tumbrel have been in place for over a century at this point.

One conclusion to draw here is that Roddenberry misunderstood the world he lived in, and thereby imagined the problems we face require technological miracles, as oppose to a mass refusal to allow our own oppression to continue. This is possibly a disservice, however. The show's own vagueness as to how we got from here to there (steadily chipped away as the franchise began to explore ever-more thoroughly its own rectum) works in its favour. Until

Picard starts talking about his family vineyards [2], TNG doesn't really offer much in the way of counter-evidence to the theory that 24th century society went socialist first, inventing or receiving the replicator only much later.

The only major potential exception to this, in fact, is Starfleet itself.

Imperialism At Impulse

The year is 2021, and the centre is dying. And, you know, good. Centrism was and is genuinely preferable to rule by the right, but in the ling term, it fundamentally only exists to help the right regain control. It holds that the right is frequently needlessly cruel, but basically correct about how the world works. The left, meanwhile, is simply delusional, and dangerous in that delusion. You can persuade someone to stop being an arsehole. You can't persuade someone to stop thinking a fundamentally better world is possible. Including, as it turns out, the definition of a better world which includes a planet that simply isn't drowning while on fire.

As a result of this ongoing bifurcation of Western society, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to refuse to flee to one end or other of the political spectrum (those ends being roughly labelled as "Let's do whatever we can to save our planet" and "So long as the brown people die first!"), there's increasing talk within the Trek fandom about the extent to which TNG can be seen as a socialist parable.

This makes it a good time to consider the degree to which Starfleet itself fits into a socialist schema. What are we to make of a de facto standing military from this perspective? That seems to be what we’re dealing with here, after all. While the fleet's principle activity (at least at this point in the timeline) is exploration, the events of "The Last Outpost" and "Angel One" make it clear Starfleet also operates as the military arm of the Federation. This causes something of an issue, given the extent to which a) Starfleet is modelled on the US Navy, and b) the degree to which that model is explicitly rejected by socialists. Can Trek truly be said to espouse socialist values while embracing so imperialist a military model?

And it is imperial, albeit not straightforwardly. The idea that Starfleet are first and foremost explorers, only pressed into military service in self-defence, arguably at least gestures toward the idea of a socialist military only even existing when a socialist society finds itself under threat. But consider how much of Starfleet is based around being able to flick that switch at a moment's notice. An extensive security division required to constantly improve their skills at busting up some fool, tactical officers who regularly recommend shooting first and asking questions preferably never, a secondary command centre that's literally called "the battle bridge". The problem with constantly preparing for trouble is you start justifying those preparations by looking for trouble.

There's also the awkward fact that exploration whilst packing weapons is precisely what Captain Cook was up to in the 18th century, before he got too precious about one of the ships in his fleet and got himself killed (who knew abducting a king wouldn't work out?). As I argued back at the start of all this, you don't have to be on an explicitly military mission to be advancing the cause of imperialism.

In addition to this, you have Starfleet's rigid hierarchy. This is something of a problem in socialist terms. Admittedly, there’s not actually a huge amount of writing regarding how socialists should run a military, as and when it’s necessary. This is in large part because the whole idea is to not encourage people to spend their time thinking about how to perpetuate something we should be desperate to see abolished, but it's also because Marxism is unusual among political philosophies in being up-front about how much of their preferred approach to running a society isn't for them to prescribe. The worker's councils will decide how to deal with an attack from outside, thank you very much. They don't need people like me, lucky and well off enough to spend hours yelling about the need to tear the system, to actually insist upon what the details of rebuilding from the ground up needs to look like.

Some see this as a dodge, but it's not that at all. It's a recognition that when your goal is the liberation of all humanity, you need to minimise as much as possible the limitations you believe need to be put in place as to how that liberation is expressed.

That said, there are two models we can turn to, both of which have been tried in the field. One was used in the early stages of the Russian Revolution (before the White Army and international sabotage shifted Russia into a permanent war footing, and the reality slipped ever further from the dream), the other was employed by the Communist militias fighting Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

The former model works on the principle that officers must be obeyed without question during an actual mission, but that those officers are democratically elected, and almost immediately replaceable, before and after missions. This way, you eliminate uncertainty and equivocation when it could get people killed, but you ensure no officer can lead people into battle unless the majority of those troops have chosen them specifically for the job.

The latter model is for the officers to be more permanent, but to allow soldiers to question orders at any time. This way you avoid complications over what does and doesn’t count as an opportunity for a new round of voting, and offsets the risk of an officer who’s not up to the job continuing to screw up, by allowing those under their command to require any given order be justified to their satisfaction.

One advantage of both models is that, because you accept your soldiers have their own opinions about what needs to be done and by whom, you don't need to spend months breaking their spirit before deploying them into battle. This is good news for the soldiers who don't need to be dehumanised, and any civilians who end up caught up in whatever those soldiers are doing. There are also tactical advantages, because Socialist armies can be deployed much faster from a standing start than imperialist ones. Orwell made this very point in Fighting In Spain, noting that while he wasn't sure the anti-Franco militias were the most effective troops to ever see action, at least they were out there shooting fascists almost immediately, rather than spending months in some squalid boot camp somewhere, unable to fight until they’d had enough of their free will brutalised out of them.

Clearly, Starfleet follows neither of these approaches. Nor does it offer an alternative – indeed “Learning Curve” at least very much suggests the standard model of breaking recruits’ spirits is standard Starfleet procedure. We can’t really hold Voyager episodes against the first season of TNG, of course. Still, based on what we’ve currently seen from this particular show, the only evolution over four centuries seems to rest on widely expanding what being in their society's military actually involves.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing - Picard at least shows time after time that he is an explorer first, a diplomat second, and the captain of a warship a distant third. Further, I accept we should allow for the fact that the sheer size of interstellar space, and the nature of IDIC itself, means insisting exploration vessels traverse the void unarmed is a recipe for endless disasters. But neither of these considerations justifies a system featuring an expectation that you should want to advance to positions of ever more power - thereby undervaluing the work of the lower decks - and that this be done by impressing those above you, rather than those you have a responsibility to treat with dignity and respect, and keep whole and safe wherever possible [3]. Socialism means never having to suck up to the boss, indeed it means anyone who wants to be in a position of authority over you - on the rare occasions authority is even acceptable - they have to be the ones who are making you happy. It's unimaginable that a thunderous dickhead like Jellicoe could raise through the ranks of a socialist Starfleet, for instance. Nor is it easy to believe such an organisation would be run by admirals who almost always turn out to be jackasses (note that "Conspiracy" is an outlier in this regard, with the fact Admiral Quinn no longer aligns with Picard's position treated as evidence that something is wrong, as oppose to it just being what always happens).

Fundamentally, the problem with seeing the Federation as socialist is that TNG considers permanent authority to be easily corruptible, but not actually illegitimate. Which is where we came in, of course, with thinking one can comment on Iran-Contra in terms of the corruption of the system, rather than the horrors of the system working as intended. What "Conspiracy" teaches us is not how hard Picard will fight to defend the status quo. It's how little that status quo deserves to be fought for.

I Don't Want To Believe

The problem then lies not just in Tormé's specific idea of what "Conspiracy" should have involved, but in the more general conception of what Starfleet is, and what we should think about it. But there's an even more broad problem here, which lies in the decision to employ a conspiracy plotline in the first place.

I discussed conspiracy theories in my retrospective of Deep Space Nine Season 1, sketching out some of the ways that they cause problems. This seems like a good moment to expand on this position, especially since we can think of "Conspiracy" as being an indication of where genre TV will be heading half a decade later. Back in that post, I suggested one issue with conspiracy theories is that they promote fatalism - it's not just that the deck has been stacked, it's that we don't know what game we're playing, or who our opponents are. Victory is impossible, so why even try? While I still believe this is an issue, especially in the context of my experiences as a white male teenager during the '90s, there's another response possible. Rather than seeing the hidden. all-powerful enemies as a reason for hopelessness, they can be seen as the opposite, because as long as you have specific enemies, there's always the possibility they'll be defeated, at which point things will be better.

Paradoxically, both approaches aid the system, because both approaches cast the villain as a group of individuals, rather than the system itself. Whether one considers destroying the conspiracy as impossible or not, the result is a focus in entirely the wrong direction. Indeed, while some individual conspiracy theories (9/11 Trutherism, for example) are cosmetically anti-conservative, the focus on individuals makes them a dark mirror of Great Man Theory, an idea which is fundamentally reactionary because it insists the lesser people need to sit around and wait for a man impressive enough to lead them.

Once we get to the specific form of conspiracy theory that involves people being replaced in secret, the links to reactionism become stronger still. The idea of a hidden rot setting in has been a favourite trope of the right from HUAC through to anti-Corbynism. Hell, we can find it at least as far back as those defending the status quo during feudalism, when defending the concept of a divinely-ordained monarchy during periods where the monarch themselves were clearly running the country into the ground, required the assumption of secretly evil councillors, pretending to be the king/queen's friend while working to destroy the realm, for some reason.

From then to now, there are some things that haven't changed. Excuse-making through conspiracy claims is a well-honed tactic of the modern right (and see Corey Robin's remarkable The Reactionary Mind for a very strong argument on how today's right wing boil down to a project to re-establish a society led by, if not a literal monarch, someone equally powerful and beyond contradiction).This is partially to have a scapegoat for whenever anything goes wrong, but it’s also about the fact the right has to push the idea that the left is secretly everywhere, to avoid the centre paying attention to the fact that the right is publicly everywhere. There has to be a secret, ever-growing threat that only the right wing can stop (a threat made up of people who are all weak-willed bleeding-heart cowardly idiots, of course, which is a classic example of fascistic doublethink). Otherwise, people might notice the right-wing claims of being underrepresented in the corridors of power was obvious nonsense, and the endless cycle of cruelty and catastrophe happens because of them, rather than despite them.

I mean, imagine a right that actually had to win elections on the strength of their own record of cruelty and incompetence, without being able to insist they were the last bulwark against a secret lefty cult that would sweep away all opposition the moment they got into power [4]. Insistences of censorship and impenetrable bias against them are all part of this approach. Why actually get any good at scoring when you can get every ref that won't throw the match to you fired?

Liberals and progressives also make the argument that censorship and bias are part of the current system. They have much better grounding to do so, given the obvious self-interest media corporations have in pushing pro-wealth positions, though one should always note how completely the centre-left stops caring about such institutional disadvantages whenever actual socialists want to be part of the conversation. In contrast, the idea of secret right-wing infiltrators worming their way into the system in order to bring everything down doesn't really exist to the left of centre (as with all sweeping statements, exceptions and caveats apply).

Because we don't actually need it. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the current system is already primed to be shifted toward rightward drift, ultimately ending in some form of fascism. The idea that electing Corbyn would lead to the UK becoming a new USSR was always beyond delusional, because that's light years away from anything the system as it stands could possibly allow for. You can't vote in a revolution, which is entirely the point. In comparison, dragging a neoliberal democracy into genuine fascist territory, as we saw in the US and are seeing right now in the UK, is horrifyingly easy - you stack the current system with cronies who will no longer apply what few barriers actually stop a shift further right, and rely on enough of the public not caring whenever you actually overstep your authority. In this sense, the choir of increasingly strident anti-Corbyn voices we had to suffer through endless performances of didn't just hurt the country by torpedoing our best chance to arrest our slide into endless Tory rule. Their ludicrous, gleefully ignorant insistences about how much power the British Prime Minister actually wields helped grease the skids for Johnson to overreach as far as he has, because the entire British media pretended that these kinds of shifts in how things are done are something the PM has the power to implement.

The second reason replacement theory (and doesn't that phrasing carry some weight here?) doesn't really feature on the left is related to the first. The process by which the metaphorical deck is stacked with the suit of fascism (presumably either diamonds or (private) clubs) happens in plain view. Recent history has proved beyond doubt that pseudo-, proto-, and very much actual fascists don't work their way into positions of power by hiding what they are. They lie about what they are, yes, but that lie doesn't function as a disguise - they need their supporters to recognise them, after all. Instead, the lie works as an excuse for the people who clearly have or should have recognised them - whose job it is to recognise them, and to sound the alarm - to loudly insist that everything is fine. The works in different ways for different people: some are genuinely too intellectually incurious to know what they're talking about, some are far more ideologically aligned than the monsters they're pretending not to see than they would like to admit, and some simply recognise how much harder their lives would get if they were seeing monsters, and therefore persuade themselves that that can't be what's actually happening.

Put another way, the Left doesn't need a conspiracy theory to explain why the system isn't work the way we’re told it should, because our position is that the system wasn’t ever intended to work in the way we’re told it should. You don’t need to invent gremlins to explain why a plane won’t fly when you see someone’s just scribbled “Boeing 737” onto a double-decker. The problem, of course, is that we’re still treated as pushing conspiracy theories, because idea such as rich people valuing money over the people who make them that money, or that profit by definition can only exist if you pay your workers less than the work they did for you was worth, are considered ludicrous but dangerous flights of fancy by the very people who have internalised right-wing conspiracy theories completely.

As a result, we see an ongoing take-over by the right, completely obvious to any unbiased observer, which continues to worsen because no-one is allowed access to the warning beacons unless they’ve proved they can be trusted not to light them. Instead, the torch-bearers insist the real problem is the those of us who are pointing out the monsters are already here, either because we're monstrous themselves, or because by insisting the monsters are already in sight, we ruin any chances of being taken seriously when the monsters actually do arrive. It's like the story of the boy who cried wolf, only the wolf actually is there from the very beginning, tearing sheep apart, and the boy's father is ignoring the terrified bleating because if there really was a wolf, he'd be doing something to help, wouldn't he? A version of "Conspiracy" that actually commented on the ways in which scandals like Iran-Contra are able to occur would have had Picard insisting Keel and Rixx were hyperbolic, paranoid lefties, before apologising to Riker for going on about politics while his First Officer was just trying to enjoy his mealworm risotto.

Evening In America

Let’s sum up. The original plan was to criticise arguably the most right-wing US administration of the 20th century, in a way that completely failed to understand the system which allowed the actions being criticised. This was then nixed for failing to adhere to a moral standard that could not exist within the show's structure in any case, and was replaced by precisely the kind of Red Scare nonsense that helped that administration gain power in the first place. We can argue all day which of those options is the less bad, but there certainly isn't a good choice between them.

We arrive at the common point during my write-ups of episodes that haven't worked for me at all: the question of whether there's any positives we can point to at all. Is there anything that can be salvaged here, or, like Keel's Horatio, is the damage simply too great?

Well, since I've mentioned one of the (apparent) loyalists, let's talk about the others. I think Tryla Scott might actually be TNG's first black captain, and only the second in the franchise entire after The Voyage Home. Having her not just be a captain, but be the youngest captain in Starfleet history because she’s just that good, is nice. I think the fact she recently got jumped by an alien centipede dissipates any issues of race politics with it being her who presumably destroys the Horatio too (ultimately it's not for me to say, of course).

It's also fun to see Trek give us its first Bolian in Captain Rixx - a bit more grey than later iterations, but I'm sure the lad was knackered. That said, I'm rather more interested in the name of Rixx's ship. Thomas Paine was arguably the least objectionable of the American Founding Fathers, given as he was an abolitionist rather than a slave-owner. He was also staunchly opposed to an overly powerful church and, most relevant in this context, he found himself repeatedly in trouble throughout his life for advocating the right of a people to overthrow their government, from the American colonies through to the French Revolution.

Perhaps the writers thought they were casting Picard and these other dissenters from the new order as being latter-day American revolutionaries, recognising that a system that does not care about their interests must be torn down. This would be politically incoherent, though, not just for the reasons given above, but because the revolution here both restores a status quo rather than pushes it aside, and is achieved by the military forces of that same status quo. Suggesting the American Revolution owes its success primarily to rebel British officers would not be evidence of a desire to comment coherently on America's political structure.

No. If we're going to allow for the possibility of political incoherence here (and really, what choice does "Conspiracy" leave us), much better to see the Payne name-drop as the script squirming against its worst impulses. It serves to remind us that you cannot always expect a system to police itself (as is ultimately what happens here), and instead must sweep it away when it abandons its responsibilities toward you.

Other aspects of the meeting on Dytallix B support this reading. Note that the blood-red sky of the planet isn't just wonderfully eighties in its vision of the cosmos, it suggests the meeting is taking place at sunset. Or sunrise, perhaps, but the tone of the meeting, and the general sense that Starfleet - at least in any recognisable form – is in deadly danger, speak to the scene occurring near the end of day. The idea is that, if Picard doesn't act swiftly, darkness will overtake the Federation. He is the show's only hope for a new dawn.

And yet the episode deliberately ends on a downer. The bugs, whatever they were, know where Earth is now. They will be coming. Picard has arrested the downward spiral, but the shape of it still stretches out below the Federation. Even if you can successfully deal with every revealed instance of corruption (far from easy in any case), you can't win unless you cut out the source of that corruption. You can't catch an arsonist by more efficiently putting out their fires. The episode is more or less explicit that Picard has only one a temporary victory, and indeed the time he granted to the aliens by sitting down to dinner before acting may have made the difference between saving the Federation, and seeing it destroyed.

Seen through this lens, it actually becomes a strength that the storyline is never returned to. Picard never wins an absolute victory against the corruptive influence. He's never granted that vindication.

Because it isn't a vindication he deserves.

A Refrain Of Refraining

There's more to say about the ending of the episode, from the moment we first catch sight of the crawling wee beasties onward. I've said above that what the episode attempts here was basically impossible on a TV budget, making the fact it fails barely worth mentioning.

This isn't quite the full story, though. I pointed out there's something of Wrath of Kahn here, with mind-controlling beetles taking over Starfleet officers being the most obvious parallel. More than that, though, the second Trek film is almost certainly the most visceral and violent the franchise ever became. Other stories would have higher death-counts, but the claret-soaked battles, the screams of the disintegrated, and the casual butchery on Regula One give Wrath... a discomforting physicality to its violence that the franchise rarely reaches for. It's not remotely difficult to understand why the burning off of Remmick's face before the detonation of his head and upper torso failed to escape the censor's knife when this episode was initially shown on UK TV. It's so bloody and horrifying a scene, it wouldn't surprise me were the undeniably rubbish effects for the alien queen a deliberate attempt to avoid making things too upsetting - similar to how the spider puppets in the Doctor Who story “Planet Of The Spiders” were originally considered to be too scary, and then deliberately redesigned to be total shit.

Concept art and a production still, both of the dead Remmick queen, its drones dead on the floor around them.
Expectation Reality

Whichever elements of the ending's incompetence were strategic, though, this is a well TNG never really went to again (with the possible exception of First Contact). Production headaches are likely part of why, but even those can be interpreted as deliberate. There's the feeling here that an envelope is being pushed in full expectation of a split - that "Conspiracy" exists to demonstrate that stories like "Conspiracy" shouldn't exist at all. This isn't just about making the point by failing to recreate Hollywood visuals, either, though demonstrating why employing the dying art of stop-motion and trying to adapt the 80's sci-fi ethos of bleak/parodic violence (depending on the film) can't work on TV certainly underlines the point. More or less exactly a decade after Star Wars changed on-screen sci-fi forever, TNG makes the case that trying to ape contemporary movies isn't just technically impossible, it's philosophically unwise. "Here's what you say you wanted; can we all agree it's rubbish, and try something else"? The unpleasant grimness of Wrath of Kahn, for all it is (wrongly) thought to be the best film the franchise ever manged, simply has no place in Trek anymore.

Perhaps my boyhood self might have been totally wrong about this episode desperately needing a sequel. Perhaps a commitment to never go through a door again is all the stronger if that door is deliberately left ajar. The franchise refuses to return to the story even though it could. Even though the pressure to do it is there. Like Riker's beloved jazz, this is about the importance of those notes not played.

And to this day, “March Of The Brain Bugs, Part 2” is that's a tune left unplayed. Fundamentally, this just isn't what the franchise is anymore.


2. (The Infinite Vulcan)

3. Conspiracy

[1] Still, spare a thought for Wee Ric, who sat down in front of his parent's CRT television on March 27th, 1991, to find that not only did the "Conspiracy" cliffhanger not lead into a second half of a two-parter, what what he got instead was the bloody "Neutral Zone". That's like killing off a main character in a shock twist and then not mentioning them at all in the following episode!

[2] Headcanon engaged: in an interstellar society in which life can be lived in comfort in the most inhospitable places, people get to live pretty much wherever they want. Picard's family are allowed to continue living on the land they once owed, because no-one has asked to hang out in so sad a reminder of what people used to have to put up with. If the Picards want to cosplay their own unpleasant history, well, they're still make a tasty vintage. Let the babies have their wine bottles.

[3] Since I tend to use Worf's post-Enterprise career a lot when working this beat, it's worth reflecting for a moment how the action that likely disqualified him from ever becoming captain wasn't firing on a civilian vessel (irrespective of what it was doing in his battle-zone), but rather refusing to allow a junior officer to die in the pursuit of a mission.

[4] Younger readers may not be aware that they tried this tactic against Tony Blair in 1997. Tony Blair! A man so anti-socialist he apologises to Rupert Murdoch every time he indicates left in his car.

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