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  • Ric Crossman

6.1.16 Anger Mismanagement

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

Fusion

Tolaris shares a cup of tea and a smug grin with T'Pol.
Tea, but no sympathy

(Content warning: references to sexual assault.)

OK, so. This one wasn’t much fun to write about at all.


The Rage Mirage


I think I’ve talked before about how I like to try and find the good in bad episodes. In part that’s just because giving an episode a kicking is too easy. The internet is infested with “critics” whose only real talent lies in finding pithy ways to deliver an endless sneer-stream. And where does that get us? With occasional and notable exceptions, it’s pretty much never the case that anyone sets out to create deliberately bad art. It’s always trying to do something other than suck. Figuring out what that actually was supposed to be seems a much more useful approach than just listing something’s faults while waggling your eyebrows.


Episodes like “Fusion” demonstrate the limits of that approach. Lots of episodes are train wrecks, but wrecks generally have something you can salvage from them. “Fusion” is something different. While it’s certainly not particularly well-made, the problem isn’t just that it comes off the rails. It’s that that every carriage is filled with toxic waste.


It says a lot about what’s wrong with this episode that I’m not even really going to touch on how much I dislike the idea that anger is fundamentally bad. I mean, I don’t really have to – TNG already did it for me in “Descent”. There are plenty of circumstances in which anger is not only appropriate, but capable of being channelled into something positive.


Even if that weren’t the case, though, I wouldn’t want to focus on the terrible views about emotion expressed here. I can’t. There’s no acceptable structure for this post that doesn’t put front and centre the much, much more problematic aspect of the episode’s A-plot. This is an episode in which T’Pol is physically assaulted, and in a way that the episode’s own logic states must constitute sexual assault as well.


Even absent any additional context or developments, this is an entirely horrible call. While I’ve tried hard to avoid this series of posts becoming a regular slating of Berman and Braga or the show they created, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest they don’t have the sensitivity or deftness necessary for them to have been let near this topic [1]. Frankly, I can think of much, much better male writers who I would be nervous about hearing were planning a plot like this.


Perhaps I might be being too unfair to B&B in terms of their general level of ability (though I really don’t think I am). I’m certainly proved right in this case, though. Especially since, while having to watch T’Pol be attacked is clearly the single most objectionable moment of the episode, or even of the entire season, every decision made following this manages to make things worse.


Because now Archer’s going to get involved.


The Object Objection


It’s hard to write about the climactic scene in Archer’s quarters, where the captain confronts and then chucks out Tolaris. There’s a lot going on here about the way television necessarily has to be distinct from real life, which then intersects with the treatment of people who have been sexually assaulted. Add in the need for me to stay in my own lane, and there’s an awful lot to try and navigate.


So let me express my uncertainty by starting out with a question, rather than a statement: how much of a problem is it that it’s Archer taking Tolaris to task, rather than T’Pol herself?

As I say, I think this is an issue rooted in the difference between television and the real world. Out in the latter, the trauma that can be involved in a sexual assault survivor confronting – or even meeting – their attacker again has to be taken into account. Reporting what’s happened to someone in authority who you can trust and then stepping back seems an entirely reasonable response to the situation.


But this isn’t the real world. This is a television show, and those play by different rules. What we see in this scene is two men arguing over the treatment of a woman who isn’t even in the room. While there’s an unusually strong reason for that here, it’s still a contribution to the longstanding tradition of seeing women as objects for men to yell at each other about. This is very much leaned into here, as well. Archer’s “defence” of his Science Officer amounts to portraying her as a helpless victim of Tolaris’ manipulation. That’s an appalling way to frame what’s happened. The outrage is that T’Pol withdrew consent, and Tolaris refused to listen to her. The reasons why consent was initially given are completely beside the point.


The result is that Archer comes across as protective of his crew-mate, but only like a farmer might protect livestock from a poacher. The problem is exacerbated by T’Pol not appearing on-screen between the attack itself and the departure of the Vahklas. It’s not just that this casts the attack as a problem for a man to solve, it’s that no-one seems to think T’Pol’s wants or needs are relevant to the situation. So long as Archer chases Tolaris off the ship with his shotgun, the situation is apparently satisfactorily resolved. It’s true, of course, that Archer might have asked T’Pol how she wanted Tolaris dealt with (and you’d certainly hope he’d checked and been told she didn’t want to press charges). But we don’t know whether that’s the case, and that’s because the episode doesn’t think it relevant.


Archer’s not done doing wrong, though. I’m sure that in his mind, offering approval of T’Pol’s meditation regimen counts as another brick knocked from the wall built up between them. In fact, though, it’s just one more manifestation of his anti-Vulcan racism – “I used to think this was silly, but now I know it’s a necessary process to stop your people becoming rapists.” It should go without saying that moving from thinking Vulcans are intolerably stuffy and superior, to thinking they’re all two missed yoga sessions away from being a danger to everyone around them, is not actual an example of conquering bigotry.


The Fusion Delusion


In truth, though, it’s difficult to blame Archer specifically coming to this conclusion, considering how fully the episode tells us he’s right.


It’s worth noting that at one point this episode was going to be titled “Equilibrium”. Apparently this was changed to avoid any confusion with the Deep Space 9 episode of the same name – though given the headache that DS9 caused by calling its pilot episode “Emissary”, I’d say turnaround is fair play. In any case, the change is suggestive. Equilibrium is something one can reach, or at least approach. That isn’t true of fusion. Outside of the hearts of stars, fusion – so far as we’ve been able to determine – simply isn’t possible. It is, more or less literally, science-fiction, a dream chased for decades without success. Choosing this as a metaphor for what the V’tosh katur are up to is rather giving the game away. Emotional balance, for Vulcans, is apparently an impossible dream.


This is not, to put it mildly, a hypothesis provable from the available data. While I recognise it’s not a great advert that the V’tosh katur can’t spend two days on another ship without 33% of them committing sexual assault, using a single person’s actions to justify a culture-wide assumption is a familiar and terrible idea. It’s technically a form of confirmation bias, but that term doesn’t really do justice to how often this kind of thinking is used as a flimsy pretext for obvious bigotry. Somehow every black kid who gets busted for a crime in the US is evidence that African Americans have no respect for the law. Somehow the fact a serial rapist who was somehow allowed to continue sexually assaulting women while in prison for rape is proof all trans women are inherently dangerous. It’s weaponised anecdotalism, and the fact it’s Trek of all things trying to tell me people can be judged by the very worst among them is incredibly depressing.


(It’s also further evidence that while Berman is almost certainly one of the five writers to have contributed the most to what we consider Trek, he didn’t actually comprehend the philosophy that it adhered to, or at least tried to adhere to. On occasion, as I’ve argued, this show and season’s obsession with the Vulcans has resulted in some strong material (I’m thinking “Broken Bow” in particular), but it’s clear at this point that this was never anything but blind luck.)


This is made all the worse by pointing at Tolaris’ crime as a justification of Vulcan repression. I’m sure this was carelessness rather than intent, but still breathtaking to watch a female character come as close to experience date-rape as this show could allow, and then be told it’s a good thing she isn’t able to express the emotional consequences of her awful experience. I said about “Shadows Of P’Jem” that there were issues involved in a woman being forced by societal pressure to not object to being used as a scapegoat by her bosses. “Fusion” takes this problem and makes it far, far worse. I mean, how it is possible to miss the ugliness of suggesting women being unable to express the emotional impact of a sexual assault is a necessary part of preventing those assaults from happening?


How has the Enterprise brought us here?


The Remorse Discourse


It didn’t actually have to be this way. Let’s talk about Kov. I love Kov, my sweet little puppy-dog earboi. All he wants is to learn more about humanity, and he’s happy to reciprocate to whatever degree he’s asked to. His interactions with Trip demonstrate the V’tosh katur could genuinely have worked perfectly well. It was simply a matter of choosing the right angle, and the right emotions.


There’s plenty to like about Trip’s emotional training course for unassuming Vulcans. Trineer does well in signalling just how uncomfortable Trip is with having been ordered to pry into a stranger’s personal life, and John Harrington Bland keeps up Kov’s affable innocence even as he makes it clear he wants Trip to leave well enough alone.


(Note by the way that Kov doesn’t even come close to anger here, or even irritation. It’s almost as though the idea Tolaris proves the V’tosh katur are doomed to furious failure is total nonsense.)


What really makes it work, though, is the decision to focus the B-plot around the idea of regret. As Trip says, this is believably something someone could go eight years without really experiencing, but more than that, it’s a much more interesting and less cliche emotion to focus on than the more standard explorations of, say, love. It’s played straight and simple, but the basic unfamiliarity of the territory and Trip’s rather sweet story about not summoning up the courage to ask someone to dance carry it through. Or so it seems to me, at least. Perhaps I’m biased, what with my regrets both about a lack of romantic courage, and about not speaking to a relative while they were terminally ill.


Mind you, how many of us have escaped both of those entirely? Not many, surely. The Trip/Kov storyline doesn’t need to be all that complicated or intense, because it knows it’s going to hit a lot of people very hard, simply because of how remorse works in the first place.


Kor hasn’t finished giving, though. He might not be your typical Vulcan, but with the haughtiness of most of his people stripped away, we learn more about what they think of us in this episode than we have in the entire show up to this point. And his innocent attempts to check the truth of what Vulcans say about us isn’t just funny. It holds a mirror up to Trip’s own inaccurate beliefs about the Vulcans themselves. Kov isn’t just the most delightful space-lad. He’s a full-on ambassador of goodwill. He tears down the walls of interstellar bigotry.


A real shame that it’s only a matter of time before he commits sexual assault, then, isn’t it?


I said above that whether Enterprise does any good or not with its Vulcan-focused episodes seems to be entirely a matter of luck. Another way to put this is that the showrunners seem to be pulling themes at random out of a hat. How else do we explain the fact they decided to dip in twice on this occasion, and came up with results that weren’t just mutually exclusive, but which meant the actual good idea gets buried by the terrible one. There’s a tonal dissonance that’s almost whiplash-inducing to watch Kov’s heartfelt farewell to Trip be sandwiched between two scenes that imply he must be a powder-keg waiting to explode and hurt someone.


Broadly speaking, I went into the IDFC project with two intentions. The first was to demonstrate that the first year of Voyager wasn’t a disaster, it had simply been graded on an absurdly steep curve. The second was to make the same argument for this season. It’s now inescapably clear than ever that I was only going to be able to get anywhere with one of those. The bad isn’t merely outweighing the good, it is crushing it. The victories are so uncommon because the show is fighting itself, blindly punching itself in the dark while yelling about canon. At this point, Enterprise is struggling so badly that I can’t even recommend it above The Animated Series, a show so patchy Roddenberry tried to argue it didn’t count as Trek. In a sense, Kirk’s celluloid adventures are actually preferable, if only because you can get through the crappy ones in half the time.


It’s true that, at this point in the project, the first season of TAS has run its course, while Enterprise still has time for an uptick. The competition for not having the worst opening season pre-Discovery is this show’s to lose.


My hopes aren’t high, though. It’s difficult to get better when you’re so completely incapable of realising what's making you sick.


Ordering


(Ordering this cycle was done by comparing the median episode of Voyager’s first season, “Ex Post Facto”, and deciding where that episode would fit in-between the five above episodes.)


3. (Ex Post Facto)

6. Fusion


Overall Season Ordering


(Season ordering from now on will be done by comparing the mean placement of each series among the cycles which each series was represented.)


1. Deep Space Nine

2. The Original Series

3. Voyager

4. The Next Generation

5. The Animated Series

6. Enterprise


[1] True, they didn’t write the episode, and one of two who did is a woman. Without wishing to dip into problematic territory myself by erasing Phyllis Strong’s contributions, though, Berman and Braga wrote the story which Strong and Sussman based their teleplay on. The structural problems we see here are therefore most reasonably blamed on the showrunners themselves.

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