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  • Ric Crossman

3.1.6 A Cloudy Outlook

Lonely Among Us

Tasha converses with an Antican.
"There can be no peace with those lying snakes!"

Lonely Among Us” is an episode about absence. The absence of memory. The absence of understanding. The absence of home. It’s even about the absence of light, with the Selay and the Anticans playing their games in the darkest Enterprise we’ve seen yet.

It’s also about the absence of the soul, actually, though I’m not sure anyone making the episode actually realised it. All of which give us plenty to think about. But there’s a dark side, too (a dark side to the darkness? You bet!). The column labelled "absences" is shaking violently as concepts “structure” and “basic competence” try their best to break in.

But will they make it to the final list? Let’s get on with this and find out.

Diplomatic Incidentals

This time, let’s start off with the kicking of and at things. The most obvious ball -shaped target is that the B plot and A plot here are completely the wrong way round. If “Journey To Babel” taught us anything, it’s that when DC Fontana wants to write a story about squabbling delegates on their way to a vital peace conference, you let her do it. The Antican-Selay story easily had the potential to go toe-to-toe with Fontana’s greatest Trek work. Hell, it could have eclipsed them, or at least worked to shore up their occasional weakness. What’s delightful about “Lonely Among Us” is that it sets itself up to mirror “Journey To Babel” by having suspicious events plague the crew whilst they’re trying to get diplomats to neutral territory. This time, though, the idea that someone among the delegates is a shifty alien spy turns out to be the paranoid assumption of unimaginative thinkers. The Ferengi, already revealed two episodes earlier as reflections of the contemporary culture, are nothing here but a convenient scapegoat, raised by those who see enemies lurking in every non-human shadow.

(Which actually is more evidence that the goal of introducing the Ferengi was less about creating a new enemy than exploring what it means for a culture to have enemies. I’m digressing again, though.)

It’s perhaps true that neither diplomatic posse quite works on screen. The prosthetics are both interesting and distinctive but – particularly with the Selay – they don’t offer their wearers any range of expression, which is rather jarring.

The Selay are beamed aboard the Enterprise.
"There can be no peace with those filthy dogs!"

But fear not! Edward R. Brown has you covered. A quick jog to the dimmer switches to set the lights to sub-romantic settings, and all is solved. And even if their limitations bother you, I don’t see why anyone would bet against Fontana being able to make them work. She nailed it with this guy, after all:

A Tellarite dignitary from "Journey To Babel".
Are we still doing Cameron pig jokes?

There’s just so much potential here. So much about to learn about these two species, and why they just couldn’t just get along. In particular, I want to hear the tale of how this conference was ever agreed to in the first place. Both delegations literally try to murder each other within hours of the Enterprise setting course for Parliament. The presumably most senior and experienced diplomats these species have produced, handpicked to help their societies enter a near-utopian society, are actively tying to sabotage this whole endeavour just to add a couple more dead enemies to the pile. Who are these people? How did their cultures become so poisonously entangled? And if Badar N’D’D truly is as aware of the necessity of getting Federation membership as he claims, why does he end the episode whipping up Selay satay as a midnight snack?

I want more. I want to dig deeper. It might seem like stories about warring cultures Starfleet has to persuade to work together have been done to death, but actually the Original Series barely touched the idea. There were a few about proxy wars (hardly surprising in the late sixties), but the closest I can think of an actual story about diplomacy during wartime is “A Taste Of Armageddon”, which only touches on the subject toward the end. Even “Journey to Babel” itself doesn’t really fit the template, being more about greed threatening a peace, rather than the attempts to establish one where only hostility exists.

And yet we almost completely breeze over the possibilities offered by the Anticans and Selay. Instead of exploring their cultures, they’re simply used as an opportunity for Riker and Yar to prove how sophisticated and peaceful the Federation is. Needless to say, this plays out horribly, as two white people in uniform roll their eyes in exasperation at the savage ways of their foreign guests. I guess at least this time round they’re lording it over dogs and snakes rather than actual black people, but that’s less a defence of this episode than a reminder of how appalling the racial politics on this show are right now. Plus, you know, it’s not like no-one’s ever used “dogs” or “snakes” as names for people from other cultures, right?

(Picard doesn’t help matters either, with his suggestion it’s ridiculous cultures would fight over their respective economic systems. In the dying days of the Cold War I can understand the sentiment, but economic systems matter, damn it. Depending on your place within them, they can literally be a matter of life and death.)

Snakes On A Plate

What makes this judgemental smugness so hard to stomach – aside from the imperialist overtones, that is – is how utterly wretched the Enterprise crew are at their own jobs. How hard can it possibly be to keep two small groups of people from running around trying to murder each other? I can just about understand there not being security guards at the doors to both the Antican and Selay quarters from the very start – you want your guests to feel like you trust them, and that they’re on a diplomatic vessel rather than a prison barge. Once the Anticans are caught loitering around the Selay suite with their lightsaber butter-knives, though, failing to keep tabs on them becomes criminally negligent. The same goes for the Selay after they assault Commander Riker. This goes beyond incompetence, actually. If the highly-trained crew of the most advanced ship in Starfleet can’t keep an eye on fewer than a dozen aliens, it can only be because they don’t give the slightest damn about their mission. Despite the population of two entire worlds relying on its success.

There’s something ugly in the way the mission to Parliament is treated as first an inconvenience to those more interested in the mystery of the power outages and memory holes, and then as a punchline at the end of the episode. It’s not Picard’s fault that he’s been out of action whilst sentient lightning took his body for a joyride, but I don’t care if he’s exhausted. I don’t care if he’s reeling from the philosophical and theological implications of being re-assembled from an earlier transporter pattern, either. He’s just been informed that a member of a diplomatic mission he’d guaranteed safe transport to has just been murdered in cold blood (no pun intended) and served up as dinner. That’s a catastrophic failure on the part of Picard’s crew, and interplanetary war could be the result. It’s possible it’s too late to stop that, in fact, but at the very least, at the absolute freaking minimum, the captain of the Enterprise urgently needs to talk to the Selay. This is a diplomatic emergency. Billions of lives could be at imminent risk. And Picard says “Nuts to it, I’m headed for ma chambre“. This is dereliction of duty, pure and simple.

It’s also a tremendously strange end to the episode, to the point that on watching this as a child I assumed there would be a second part to the story the following week. It’s legitimately one of the most incompetent endings to an episode Star Trek has ever given us. There are instalments that conclude on more problematic notes, sure, but at least they tend to realise a conclusion is needed. “Lonely Among Us” just runs out of time and shrugs. The Anticans and Selay have performed their function in padding out the really rather slight main plot, so now their conflict can be safely dropped. The rhetorical implications of this – that the Federation don’t really mind if the two races start bombing each other’s planets – are bad enough, but we shouldn’t fail to notice that it’s just straight-up crappy writing, as well.

Speaking of terrible rhetorical implications, let’s not fail to notice that the first character of Indian descent to show up on the show (and something like the fourth in the franchise entire) is also the first Starfleet officer to die on said show, and that no-one particularly seems to care. The cloud alien simply announces it killed Singh by accident and he’s never mentioned again. I realise getting non-corporeal lighting creatures into the brig so they can stand trial for murder is probably a tricky business, but no-one even suggests it even just so it can be dismissed as impossible. The death is completely unnecessary, too; it has no consequences. No plot point hinges on it. No character’s arc so much wobbles because of it. The script just chucks Singh aside for a cheap ramping up of tension, which is exactly what the Original Series gets so much – fully deserved – criticism for doing.

The Naked Incompetence: Redux

As well as the baffling ending, I have two other childhood memories of “Lonely Among Us”. The first was the Selay beaming aboard, and me thinking they looked awesome. The second is Dr Crusher attempting to relieve Captain Picard of command. Not the earlier backroom discussions with the senior staff; I’m talking about the moment where she tells the captain to his face he’s being relieved, and everyone gets zapped with lightning bolts for their trouble.

So let’s use my increasingly battered and dog-eared brain as a route into the main story. The Selay stuck in my head because they were brilliant. Beverly’s stand is in there for precisely the opposite reason. Even at the time it struck me as absolutely ridiculous that she would wait until after the Captain had not just admitted being taken over, but explained the entirety of the alien’s plan before leaping into action. She literally waits until after it’s completely clear the alien no longer has any reason to fear being discovered before she pipes up. She doesn’t make her opening move in this game until after the other player has already won.

In fact, this episode really goes out of its way to badly serve the good doctor. First, she keeps quiet about regaining consciousness whilst operating a computer station on the bridge, despite this being a dereliction of her responsibilities both as a medic and an officer. Next, she ties to sound out her captain over his erratic behaviour, but when he engages in precisely the kind of blame deflection you’d expect from a compromised commander she surrenders immediately. She acts as though she’s scared of the captain and desperate to keep him happy, which is a terrible fit both for the character and for Gates McFadden.

Riker, if anything, is even less impressive here. He’s present too when Picard engages in his suspicion judo, and he folds right alongside Dr Crusher. Later he complains in his log about there being nothing he and the other senior officers can do within regulations to remove Picard from command. Well, a) that’s serious evidence the rules are stupid, and therefore b) hiding behind those rules doesn’t make Riker look like he’s in an impossible position. It makes him look like a jobsworth. Worse, it makes him look like a coward.

At this point, we’ve got the security division, the chief medical officer and the first officer all behaving as though this is their first week in space. They’re now in an ever-deepening crisis purely because they can’t do their damn jobs, and that’s close to fatal for the episode as a whole. Spiner does his best to try and distract from all the incompetence, but no part of Data’s obsession with and impression of Sherlock Holmes is half as funny as the idea that shtick could paper over the holes everywhere else.

Speaking of which…

The Soul Cages

The only part of the A plot in this episode that really interests me is how Data rescues Picard from the cloud. All sorts of fascinating questions get raised here. Frustratingly, none of them are much more than picked at by the franchise going forward, but that’s hardly stops us batting them around here.

As a reminder to those who haven’t seen the episode in a while, in the final minutes Picard and the alien both beam into the alien’s cloud so they can live a blissful life as entwined energy, zipping around their gaseous home and revelling in not needing to breathe or poo or suchlike. Something goes wrong, though, and the energy that is Picard and the energy that is the alien become separated. Picard’s energy returns to the ship, passing into the circuitry, and Data uses the Captain’s transporter pattern from his beam-out to recreate Picard’s form. The energy lurking inside the ship then transfers itself to the Picard-husk that Data has slapped together, and both captain and day are saved.

Everyone got that? Good. Here are the questions that itch my brain like intra-cranial acupuncture every time I think about that ending. First, if a transporter pattern already includes whatever form of energy made up the non-corporeal Picard, why couldn’t they recreate the captain without needing it from the cloud outside? Alternatively, if the transporter pattern doesnt include this energy, then where does it go whenever someone goes through the transporter?

This seems like kind of an important question, and no-one here seems at all interested in answering it. The script doesn’t begin to explain what this energy actually is. I presume it’s some kind of nod to the idea of a soul, only expressed in scientific language to help sell it in the context of a sci-fi show. The name you give it doesn’t really interest me, though. What gets me is the knowledge that either the “soul” can be mapped, stored, and transferred by Federation technology, or it can’t. If the former is true, then any Starfleet officer who ever dies in the line of duty should be capable of being saved. You just take an earlier transporter pattern of them, beam it onto the pad, and bingo: instant resurrection. Officers could even be instructed to beam somewhere every day, just so Starfleet has their pattern on file in case of emergencies.

If the alternative is true, though, things get a lot more sinister. It turns out Barclay had it right the whole time: there is something horrifying about being transported; namely that it strips your soul from you. Both options are absolutely fascinating, and it’s a shame more time isn’t spent on them.

I get why they’re not, of course. Either option would deform the franchise to a massive extent, requiring a total rewriting of how the Trek galaxy operates. That’s an exorbitant price to pay for just wanting to introduce a form of travel that could help stretch the budget a bit further.

Still, it feels fitting to end the post on this otherwise minor issue, because it underlines the fundamental problem “Lonely Among Us” suffers from. There’s just too much here that the episode alludes to but fails to capitalise on, focusing instead on an entirely unremarkable – even cliche – plot about bodily takeovers and homesick aliens. It’s not just that what we’re given is dull, but that the dullness is crowding out other things that would be more interesting.

It’s that what is absent offers us more than what is present.


1. Lonely Among Us

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