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  • Ric Crossman

6.1.22 Sad Ambassador

Fallen Hero

T'Pol and V'Lar in conversation.
"I'm not racist; I'm just saying they all smell."

Well, this is nice.


To Reiterate...

“Fallen Hero” continues an approach Enterprise introduced with “Vox Sola” last episode and will return to at least once until the Temporal Cold War crashes back into the narrative at season’s end. The strategy being employed here can be described as dialling back on ambition to concentrate on the basics – aiming for a quiet competence that would help the listing show to right itself. A re-centring before setting out in a new direction. After all, if you’ve been headed the wrong way, you’ve got to stop before you can start out again on the correct heading.


Of the two such episodes so far, “Vox Sola” is probably the better episode (though there are arguments either way), but “Fallen Hero” is the better corrective. That’s because while the former episode was focussed on finding an alternative to a problematic trope that pervades science-fiction in general, this one concerns itself with pushing back against the issues inherent in Enterprise itself. Namely, the Vulcan Problem.


We’ve been through all this before, more than once, so let’s try for the briefest summary possible: what began in this show as a welcome dissection of why the Vulcan philosophy is problematic has sunk to the level of revelling in fictional bigotry. The ugliness no longer has any justification beyond its own existence, save perhaps for the ridiculous belief it lent the show (this word again) realism.


Some kind of intervention was needed.


This isn’t the first time, either. The thesis of my post on “Breaking The Ice” was that the show’s first episode not written by its creators was squarely aimed at criticising what Enterprise was doing. The message seemed to be clear: having Archer whizz round the galaxy being rude to every Vulcan he met wasn’t really an awful lot of fun to watch, irrespective of how badly Surak had messed up at philosophising.


The warning didn’t take. “Shadows Of P’Jem” returned to the same wellspring of prejudice and petulance that had characterised the show’s Vulcan plots up to that point. “Fusion” managed to be even more galling, suggesting that the unpleasantness of the Vulcan philosophy was a necessary corrective to a biological tendency towards violence and worse.


Another reminder of what Trek is supposed to be about was clearly necessary. Unfortunately, the Jaquemettons weren’t really well-placed to repeat the trick themselves, having penned the jaw-droppingly offensive “Dear Doctor” in the meantime. I guess once you argue your personal interpretation of evolutionary theory trumps the right of an entire species to not die in agony, it’s kind of hard to take the high grounds is regards avoiding depictions of prejudice in fiction.


Still. Cometh the hour, cometh the scribes. Enter Chris Black and Alan Cross.


Choose Your Hero


This isn’t quite Black’s first contribution to Enterprise, having been one of the people behind the atmospheric but ultimately unsatisfying “Rogue Planet”. As a staff writer, he presumably worked on other episodes besides. Cross, on the other hand, has this down as the only Trek contribution on his CV. Whatever their respective contributions to B&B’s original idea for the episode, though (Black himself has claimed credit for making the Vulcan ambassador both female and T’Pol’s hero) they do both a good and a necessary job here.


We’ve discussed before the limits of an approach to processing the six Trek series (now eleven) in terms of whether any given episode resembles an earlier one. In this case, “Fallen Hero” looks a lot like a replay of the Vulcan ambassador plot from “Data’s Day”, right down to the Ambassador faking her own death to escape her hosts. There’s an obvious inversion, in that this is about learning why V’Lar has been branded a criminal, rather than her being an enemy agent, but then from the perspective of the Mazarite thugs, that’s exactly what she was anyway. It’s almost like we’re watching a restaging of T’Pel’s escape, this time from the perspective of her getaway crew.


In this sense, “Fallen Hero” is an episode that any Trek show could have done. Except that isn’t true, not really. Yes, one can imagine a story in which Kira is more willing to believe an important Bajoran official than Sisko is. You can even imagine Chakotay defending a Maquis crewman’s conduct while Janeway is more critical. Indeed, both of those (admittedly deliberately general) descriptions can be applied episodes we’ve already covered. In both those cases, though, the conflict is at heart one about differing identities and differing loyalties. Sisko had no issue with Bajoran culture – he was uncomfortable about how he ended up centred within it, but that’s very different. Janeway had zero beef with people from the Demilitarized Zone itself, and while an essay about the degree to which opposition to the Maquis is de facto opposition to those in the DMZ might be interesting to write, both entities had existed for mere months by the time Voyager entered the Badlands. It’s hard to fall too deep into prejudice in so short a space of time.


Archer, in contrast, has absolutely no reason to distrust V’Lar other than the fact she’s a Vulcan, and he clearly considers this an entirely good enough reason on its own. And he’s shown to be completely, totally wrong. Oh, there’s a bit in there about how V’Lar herself could maybe stand to question her assumptions. Even here though, the spectacle of Archer fuming over how a Vulcan’s justification for automatically thinking the worst of him is much worse than his justification for automatically thinking the worst of her makes it clear who the problem is here.


So here’s the thing. It clearly makes some sense to read V’Lar as being the “fallen hero” of the title. T’Pol thinks very highly of her, and not just because of the rank V’Lar has attained in Vulcan society. That said, the actual period of V’Lar’s fall from T’Pol’s graces is pretty brief. The scenes of V’Lar stating she cannot defend herself, T’Pol indicating her disappointment, and the Mazar criminals attacking Enterprise directly follow on from each other. The very next scene has T’Pol confirm with the ambassador that the Mazarite attack and her own expulsion are part of a larger and classified issue. While the episode clearly raises the question of both how Vulcans express hero worship (while in denial about doing so), and process being let down by said heroes, then, it would be too great a stretch to say this is what the episode is about.


So why choose “Fallen Hero” as the title? I think the best answer to that is that the fallen hero in question isn’t V’Lar.


It’s Archer.


Downwards Arrow


Trek shows are ensemble pieces, or at least they have been since TNG. Even so, the first eight(!) shows had a single character identifiable as being the principal lead, and other than Discovery, that character has also been a present or former commander of a Starfleet vessel or installation. In this sense, Archer is both recognisably the hero of the show, and recognisably fallen as well, being the first (explicitly) racist lead character the franchise has given us. [1]


That’s a hell of a charge, I realise, so let me back it up. It’s not just the constant griping about how badly the Vulcans treat humanity – though we should note the ugly irony in a human behaving crappily to a Vulcan under the justification that Vulcans don’t recognise how good human behaviour is. Archer is racist in the sense that he allows his beef against the Vulcan government (however legitimate) to colour how he views all Vulcans. That’s a textbook example of bigotry, as anyone who’s studied how anti-Semites conflate the actions of the Israeli government with the attitudes of Jewish people as a whole can tell you [2]. He’s incapable of viewing Vulcans through any lens other than the one ground by his father’s experiences with High Command. He allows those specific objections to that body’s lack of openness to justify distrusting what any Vulcan says to him, at any time. T’Pol tells him explicitly that you don’t get Vulcans rising to the rank of ambassador and then committing crimes against their host society, but it’s clear Archer just doesn’t want to hear it. Because of course a Vulcan is going to say that. right? [3]


It’s true, I’ll grant, that this last part is complicated by the ending of “The Andorian Incident”, which demonstrated that Vulcans really are willing to violate their own treaties with other species if they believe it’s in their best interests to do so. But that just gets at a larger problem, which is that the show doesn’t just chronicle Archer’s bigotry, it endorses it. As I’ve said, the fact a race like the Vulcans are presented as a monoculture is a problem that stretches across both the franchise and the genre in general, but Enterprise takes this several stages further. Vulcan High Command really is awful, being both duplicitous and extraordinarily petty. Every new Vulcan character we meet is arrogant and dismissive and demanding that everyone else’s behaviour be modified to match their own. And the one time it didn’t happen, the explicit message was that those who deviate from the mould are somehow even worse, as the actions of a single individual are somehow taken to represent the instinctual behaviour of an entire species.


Archer can only get away with being so far below the standard set by Picard and Sisko because the franchise has fallen with him.


“Ambassador, With This Basic Graciousness You’re Really Spoiling Things”


“Fallen Hero” isn’t having any of it. V’Lar is an entirely new kind of Vulcan for the show. Still reserved, but entirely pleasant, and fully aware that while on a human ship, it makes sense to follow human norms as a matter of courtesy. She even imitates “our” (which is to say, white American) intonations, giving the impression of an emotional engagement she presumably doesn’t actually feel.


In doing so, V’Lar highlights how shockingly low the show has set the bar for Vulcans up until this point. It’s an obstacle she effortlessly clears through basic politeness, and the fact Trip and Archer are so shocked to see it happening is an indictment of their characters and the show both.


Nor does “Fallen Hero” paint V’Lar as some paragon of virtue. Her hesitance at trusting Archer based on a centuries-old first impression of an entire species is problematic in its own right – especially since it’s never actually explained what V’Lar fears Archer would do with the information she holds. Hand her over? He’s planning to do that anyway. Tank the trial against the Mazarite Mafia? That’ll happen anyway if he hands her over, which again, is already the plan.


But you don’t need a character to be perfect in order for them to act as a direct challenge to racist assumptions. V’Lar is just a Vulcan doing her job. That’s all it takes to shake Archer’s worldview (galaxyview?) along with that of the show itself.


True, the job in question is ambassador, so we could maybe get somewhere with an argument that suggests V’Lar is simply more focussed on diplomatic courtesy than the average Vulcan. That’s ultimately a dead end, though. It’s surely true that a necessary condition of being a good ambassador is that you are polite to your hosts and respectful of their traditions, mores and taboos. That said, the idea that diplomatic training somehow conditions you into thinking respect for others is important even when it’s not part of your job rather misses the fact that this is obviously true anyway. If you only believe in politeness when it’s of benefit to you, then you don’t believe in politeness. You believe in self-advancement. [4]


While it’s entirely possible that V’Lar’s professional experiences have caused her to rethink her position on the importance of politeness, then, the fact she has reached these conclusions is still an indictment of every Vulcan convinced it is illogical to be pleasant.


Which brings us to T’Pol.


Majority Of One


In what’s almost certainly a complete accident, Enterprise presents an interesting case study in the nature of intersectionality. It’s clear both that the Vulcans are in a position of dominance compared to humanity on the galactic stage, and that there’s a huge amount of anti-human racism present among Vulcan society in general. T’Pol herself is certainly no exception – her inability to stop complaining about how humans smell is proof enough of that. By being on a human starship, though, T’Pol becomes a minority within the community in which she lives, a community which clearly includes individuals who are prejudiced against her. Further, she’s now part of an organisation which has multiple levels of authority above her, all of them comprised entirely of humans.


Because of this, criticism of T’Pol’s attitude from her colleagues can get a bit complicated, because she’s not able to fully express herself in response to anti anti-Vulcan attitudes she experiences while within Starfleet (however far outside of fleet structure her position supposedly sits). Much of what she has to deal with in terms of criticisms of Vulcan arrogance is itself tinged with problematic assumptions about how humanity should be considered the galactic baseline.


V’Lar’s arrival therefore offers another opportunity – it lets the show explore T’Pol’s shortcomings not by having humans yell them at her, but by comparison to another Vulcan who interacts with humanity very differently. T’Pol is absolutely astonished by the fact V’Lar is willing to meet people where they are, rather than insisting everything be reordered to suit herself. That while on a human ship she will abide by human etiquette. T’Pol’s attitude is so far in need of adjustment that her first thought when V’Lar asks whose quarters she has been given is that the ambassador must want to know the name of who, specifically, has stunk the room out.


While the realities of how Enterprise is structured means Archer’s prejudices are the ones most in need of tackling, then, there’s clearly plenty of work T’Pol needs to do as well. If this actually wants to be a Trek show, that is, rather than grimdark cosplay.


How We’ll Get To Where We’ve Been


It all adds up into a particularly important message. This late into the season, it’s going to be a while before we’ll know whether this time, it’s been heeded, but it certainly means something that it’s been deployed.


All that, and the wonderful Fionnula Flanagan, too, who adds just as much class here as she did in “Dax”. Also, since we’ve dipped in and out of Trek’s progress as regards the Bechdel test, we should note how this episode ends one conversation between two women (V’Lar and Hoshi) in order to start another (V’Lar and T’Pol) that not only mostly revolves around their shared history, but which only discusses a male character in an entirely unromantic and uncentered context.


And that context is important in itself. Despite their mistrust, even animosity, towards each other’s cultures. V’Lar can see how Archer and T’Pol are building the foundation of true cooperation between Earth and Vulcan. A relationship based on mutual respect, rather than paternalism on the one hand and expansionist zeal on the other. The hope, then, is that V’Lar can act as a catalyst here for allowing the ship’s two most senior officers to help each other out of the holes each has dug themselves. That by reminding them of who they are, independently an in relation to each other, human and Vulcan might not just set aside their differences, but celebrate them. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Let’s get to work.


More than any other episode this season, “Fallen Hero” shows us a glimpse of how the Alpha Quadrant got to where we know it boldly goes.


Ordering


1. (The Storyteller) 2. Fallen Hero 3. (Ex Post Facto) 4. (The Infinite Vulcan) 5. Space Seed 6. Skin Of Evil


Series Ordering


1. Deep Space Nine 2. The Original Series 3. Voyager 4. The Next Generation 5. The Animated Series 6. Enterprise


[1] You can maybe argue Picard becomes a bigot in his view of the Borg post-BOBW. That’s certainly the implication of “I Borg”, with Picard flirting with genocide. As I’ll maybe one day get to, though, the problem with the dilemma in “I Borg” isn’t that it has Picard consider genocide, it’s that TNG inadvertently created a monoculture so lethally antagonistic and dangerous that genocide became a conceivable option in the first place.


[2] This is only a partial analogy – I am not suggesting I think the Israeli government is somehow “the Jewish government”. Such a thing does not exist, and suggesting otherwise is another classic anti-Semitic idea.


[3] Then there’s “Breaking The Ice” again, in which T’Pol is only able to persuade Archer to let a Vulcan ship save two of his crew by suggesting he’d annoy the Vulcans more by accepting their help than by refusing it.


[4] This is not an argument for tone policing, just so as we’re clear. In fact, it’s closer to an argument against it, because telling people they should only speak in ways you consider acceptable is actually colossally bloody rude.

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