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  • Ric Crossman

3.1.25 Who Do You Think You Are?

The Neutral Zone

Riker briefs the unfrozen trio.
"And then we get to... God, how to explain twerking?"

A look back at how we've reached this point.

"You Would Have Left One Of Your Own Kind To Die"

"The Neutral Zone" is one of those episodes with flaws that are both extremely obvious and easily explained. Caught in the first waves of a writer's strike, an extremely rough early draft for the episode had to be the one that was shot.

This causes a lot of issues, most obviously the attitudes of first Riker and then Picard regarding Data's discovery of a derelict Earth installation. Riker's incuriosity is very out of place for a Starfleet officer, and him treating discovery of life-forms aboard - people he'd minutes ago accidentally condemned to death, no less - as an inconvenience to him following Picard's orders is even worse.

Picard, for his part, pushes the argument that since the trio were already dead, they had no responsibility to save them, even though full revival was clearly possible. If anything, this is even more obnoxious, and would be even if we weren't just three episodes out from having watched Dr Crusher desperately find a way to bring Tasha back from being murdered by Armus. Hey, Bev! She's already dead? What does it matter what happens next? And we don't even know if Yar held a DNNR (Do Not Not Resuscitate) order, whereas these three very clearly do.

And as if all that wasn't bad enough, the issue of the (presumed) Romulan resurgence results in Picard state that, while ordinarily he'd be very happy to save people's lives (fine, "restore" them, whatever), right now the need to sabre-rattle takes precedence over humanitarian intervention.

As I say, though, there’s not much to say about any of this. It’s interesting as a case-study on why re-writes are so vital, but we can’t get much further with it (not yet, anyway). A bigger issue is the decision to go through with the scene where Clemonds sexually assaults Dr Crusher. I understand that the strike might have meant not being able to rewrite Crusher's response to something more acceptable (like putting his head through the nearest replicator screen), but it's already clear enough that Clemonds is a deluded sex-pest convinced he's a sophisticated charmer; we don't need further evidence. Just truncate the scene.

The choice to leave this scene in is especially egregious when we consider Maurice Hurley wrote the episode’s teleplay. While the full story (as far as I'm aware) still hasn't ever come out about why this was Gates McFadden's last episode until Season 3, her getting the shitty end of misogynistic behaviour from Hurley seems very clearly to have been a big part of it. The possibility of this being an ugly message to McFadden – one that was then broadcast to millions of people – about how modern men are still men, and a modern woman might object, but shouldn’t make a fuss – is just too strong to ignore.

The Whackadoodle Position

The other issue – not that we need one – with the scene is how awkwardly it sits with what seems to be the episode’s more general point. The basic idea here is the possibility that reaching the post-scarcity paradise of the 24th century Federation might have resulted in us losing a few things along the way. Knowing Hurley’s position on Roddenberry’s vision, this isn’t a surprising angle for him to take. Knowing Hurley’s history, though, it is wretched seeing casual sexual assault coming under that umbrella. To state the obvious, you can’t make “What if all these fluffy feelings mean women can’t stand up to sexual predators anymore” when you’re a sexual predator using your power and privilege to make sure women can’t stand up to you.

This is the most egregious example of the episode not holding together on this point. There are others. Mainly, the idea that future humanity has misplaced a talent or two is framed as Picard struggling to deal with selfishness, self-regard, and deliberate deception, though the episode tips its hand at the very beginning by suggesting (human-raised) Worf has no concept of a door with a handle.

The thing is, suggesting a Starfleet officer, or really anyone who lives in the void, can't get their head around a door in a space installation that might need physically opening is actually kind of silly. So too is the idea that Starfleet officers can't understand elementary psychology when dealing with an unfriendly power. It was only halfway through this season that Picard was trusted with a second contact mission after first contact ended in an attack so horrifying no-one wants to speak about what went down. And yes, being able to precisely pronounce a prickly preamble isn't the same as recognising when someone is hiding something (say, isn't that effectively Troi's only job while on the bridge?). But we see in "Coming Of Age" that dealing with aggressive overtones appropriately is part of the Starfleet entrance exams. “Symbiosis” showed just how astute Picard is at figuring out hidden agendas.

This approach doesn't entirely fail. I quite like the idea that Starfleet doesn't lock either its doors or its comm systems, because it just isn't necessary. The whole system works perfectly well on trust, in a way that interspecies negotiation might not be able to. The problem comes with the assumption that our protagonists aren't completely aware of this fact. In order to make the case that these visitors from the past have something to contribute, everyone around them has to be written as a naive idiot. It's pretty damning that you can describe "The Neutral Zone" as being about a Regan-era Gordon-Gekko dickhead carrying the day by deliberately abusing his rescuers' trust, and that be a completely fair summary.

And I say "Regan-era", because that's what it is to us. To the show itself, these people represented the present. There were only twelve years left in the twentieth century when "The Neutral Zone" aired, and while cryonics had really become a thing during the 1970s, hypothesising about a second wave taking place after the failures of the first suggests our visitors were frozen just a few years after the time the episode was written.

Which means there is something interesting to say about the effects of the writer's strike after all. It means Hurley got to present his unvarnished opinion on Roddenberry's vision, from the perspective of contemporary America. Sure, it's nice people don't obsess over money or drink themselves to death anymore. But it doesn't half turn people into gullible idiots. It’s frustrating to see this point made so poorly, obviously. Twisting the characters into almost-unrecognisable shapes in order to make the case should have been a sign to any half-decent writer that the case probably couldn’t be made in the first place. As a demonstration of why Hurley wasn’t the right man for the job, though - even had he not been a sexist piece of shit – it does have some utility.

And isn't all bad. We can see this particular glass of Romulan ale as half-full [1]. Hurley's swipes at the show do nothing but conclusively reveal the problem lies within him, but watching everyone stare in bemused horror at how colossal a dickhead Offenhouse is still makes for satisfying viewing.

He's not just a greedy, grasping asshole - while insisting he's only interest in money as a stepping-stone to power, as though that makes anything any better. He's completely unaware of his own position. His own lack of the very power he insists is fundamental to his worldview. His subconscious is so terrified about the loss of clout that he’s incapable of checking how much of that clout might still remain. He simply belligerently insists that a ship he knows nothing about, in a century he knows nothing about, absolutely can't be on a mission of any importance, at least compared to his need to look at his bank balance (as though the bankers of the 24th century are desperate for his input). His entire world has been stripped away from him, yet he has no choice but to assume he must be the centre of whatever world has replaced it. In his own way, he's worse than the Ferengi, who at least have the self-awareness to be obsequious when they’re clearly at a disadvantage.

What a thunderous dickhead. What a delight to have the Enterprise crew treat him like a fossil carved into the shape of an anus.

Nor is it just the broad strokes that reveal how awful Offenhouse is. There's delightful (which is to say entirely appropriately unpleasant) little details like him demanding to know why, if the comms system isn't available for use by passengers, it lacks an "executive key". Not a "code", an "executive key" - something available only to the higher-ups in the company. It seems almost certain that, were Picard to state that such items existed on the Enterprise, Offenhouse would demand to be given one. There's no doubt in his mind that he's the most important person on the ship, after all.

(I also love how it doesn’t occur to him that Starfleet might be a military outfit. Picard might take umbrage at having the Enterprise compared to the QE2, but the idea his vessel and crew seem closer to that of a cruise ship than a battlecruiser seems perfectly right to me.)

The result is another broadside against the Reagan era. Sure, not one as focussed as "The Last Outpost" or The Voyage Home, or as expansive as "The Arsenal Of Freedom", or as aware of root causes as "Symbiosis". On the other hand, there's something "The Neutral Zone" does here that makes its take uniquely useful.

To see what that is, we'll need to return once more to the SS Botany Bay.

Point Of Inflection

"Space Seed", entirely obviously, is also a story about finding people from the 1990s have been floating in suspended animation for centuries, and who are subsequently revived to react to the future. It was also an episode that was remixed to create the (incorrect) consensus-opinion best Trek film, Wrath of Khan. Which, of course, was a remix of "Balance Of Terror", an episode in which the Romulans resurface after decades of total silence following a colossal loss of Federation life, in the context of a wave of unprovoked and massively destructive attacks along the border of the Neutral Zone. Sound familiar?

I've noted that the most obvious parallel to “The Neutral Zone” in the franchise's history isn't Wrath of Khan, but the actual best film in the series, The Voyage Home. It's worth looking at how completely "The Neutral Zone" goes in on supporting the idea that Nimoy's film is superior to Meyer's. Firstly, it rejects the influence of "Balance Of Terror", by having the Romulans turn out to be victims of the sudden rash of attacks in precisely the same way the Federation have been [2]. Bringing the Romulans back as a direct military threat is set up only to be explicitly rejected. However questionable the use of Offenhouse at the climax is, the confrontation is resolved through diplomacy, rather than a space battle.

But it's the revivified human angle (great band name) that's really telling. Last time round, we unwrapped unrepentant fascists we were nevertheless meant to see as compelling. This time, it's a pompous Reaganite, telling everyone who'll listen that he's the most powerful man on the ship while failing to get a single thing he's demanding. It's not just that The Next Generation has updated its vision of the enemy for the Long 1980s. It's that it (almost) completely refuses to treat that enemy with anything but the contempt they deserve (once again, we see echoes of “The Last Outpost” here). I mean, even after Offenhouse helps out with the Romulans, Picard still has him chucked off the bridge. He still lets the contempt seep into his voice when he explains to Offenhouse what the new challenge of being human is.

Both our crew and the franchise have reached a point of inflection, a moment where the curve they were travelling shifts into a new form. A pause between two arcs of history. The past is revisited here, but in forms which point to where we must head next. The Romulans will become a fixture of the show, and the franchise, but will never again be an existential threat to the Federation. That role will go instead to the Borg, whose first imprint on the franchise is also made here, even if at this point their identity is a complete mystery. Refighting the conflicts of the previous generation is no longer the focus, we're moving on here to engaging with the world as it actually is. We revisit the past only in order to confirm it is something we should leave behind. [3]

After a distinctly wobbly first season, TNG is ready to truly take flight. We're on the cusp of the future of the future.

Except it doesn't work out quite like that. This may be a point of inflection, but it's also a point of discontinuity. The writer's strike will hit full force during the first half of the next season, leaving TNG completely incapable of moving into the future, as it scrabbles through the detritus of the past just to find enough to keep itself alive. This will be aggravated by the departure of McFadden, who as noted wasn't finding the expressions of 20th century sexual harassment limited to scripted performance.

That's unquestionably the most serious hit against Hurley's tenure, but it isn't the only one. For all that the show improved significantly upon him taking over the reins from Roddenberry himself, we've entered a form of stasis ourselves here. Yes, we can't blame Hurley for the writer's strike. But there's a ceiling quickly reached for a show run by someone aiming for competence in a job they fundamentally have no faith in. We seem to have just hit our head on it.

"The Neutral Zone" shows us a new curve for the franchise to follow, but it also shows us how far the path along that curve really is, and what had to be smashed through in order to continue.


1. Devil In The Dark 2. The Neutral Zone 3. [The Infinite Vulcan]

[1] Well, let's say one-third full, given the insistence of playing Clemond's sex-pestery for lols, and the decision to have the female survivor be the only one to care about the family she's lost. That "home-maker" joke is a bit snide, too. She even faints when she sees Worf. FEMINISM!

[2] One of my favourite parts of Picard's generally lacklustre first season was the decision to focus on how the Borg attacks in the Alpha Quadrant had affected the Romulans. At least until all the nonsense about interdimensional Matrix rejects, that is.

[3] For a while, at least, until Berman's retrenchment led not just to Enterprise, but a film that re-inverted "The Neutral Zone" to give us Nemesis, a film so disappointing and bloodless it looked like the entire franchise had been killed. Another point of inflection, this time leading into a death-spiral.

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