Star Trek, 9/11, and the Age of Perpetual War

A panel I gave at Connecticon 2015, talking about differences between 90s Trek and modern versions, and how those reflect changes in American attitudes to war, terror, and security.
The panel ran out of time, so the last half hour has never been seen anywhere before!
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The Interloper Obsession and Star Trek Online

Sorry this is a bit late. 11:30 AM is probably not a good time to decide I hate the post I have scheduled for noon and start writing a replacement…
It has been observed before that Americans have a particular obsession with the concept of the interloper, the seemingly innocuous neighbor who is actually a terrifying Other in disguise. Certainly this fear is not unique to American culture, but the U.S. does seem particularly prone to panics over it, from witchcraft scares in the Colonial period, to the fear of “seditionists” in the early 19th century, anti-immigrant panics in the later 19th century, the Red Scare, the Yellow Menace, communists in the State department, Satanic Panic, pedophiles in your neighborhood, the gay agenda, President is a secret Muslim, terrorists are plotting to blow up your hick-town suburban mall… There is an undercurrent of paranoia that appears a permanent fixture of American culture, just waiting to burst out at its current target.
And of course it’s in our fiction too. The science fiction classic The Puppet Masters posits people who look completely normal (while clothed, anyway), but are actually under the control of evil alien parasites; given its publication in the 1950s, it’s usually interpreted as a sort of allegory for communist infiltration and the fear thereof, but really it can be adapted to any of the U.S.’s paranoid panics, which is why its basic concept (and the closely related “pod people” from Invasion of the Body Snatchers) keep getting repeated.
Star Trek is no exception. Mind-control parasites were introduced in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation as a hasty replacement for a rejected plotline involving an attempted military coup on Earth. Because of course We (or future-space-We in this case) would never do such a thing, except as a result of infiltration by Them. You know–Them, the canny, evil ones who are always trying to infiltrate, undermine, and destroy Us. They hate our freedoms, you know.
The plan was for the parasites (called “bluegills”) to be forerunners of the new series villain, the Borg, but a writer’s strike, major staff turnover, and budget issues got in the way. When the Borg finally did show up, any relation to the bluegills was gone, and with them the metaphor–the Borg have presented many faces over the years (massive corporate behemoth, dark mirror of the Federation, and the most enduring and least interesting, zombies), but devious, sneaky interlopers has never been one of them.
But we definitely got more of those! Deep Space Nine introduced the Changelings, shapeshifters who could replace people with dopplegangers to act as agents in their war of aggression against the Federation. But cleverly, it turned the classic infiltration narrative inside-out in the two-parter “Home Front”/”Paradise Lost”–instead of secretly replacing key figures and subverting the Federation government, the Changelings deliberately allowed the presence of a Changeling (who later claims there are four, but there is only evidence for one) on Earth to be discovered, and then relied on the paranoia and suspicions of the legitimate military leadership do their work for them.
Oddly, the Changelings barely show up in Star Trek Online, and there is no case I’m aware of where they engage in this kind of doppleganger trick. I say oddly because STO is borderline obsessed with the infiltration narrative. The opening premise of the game, war between the Federation and Klingons, is the result of a different species of shapeshifters, the Undine (renamed from Species 8472, which is what Voyager called them) replacing key figures of various governments. This in turn is revealed to be the result of someone else invading Undine space with fake Klingon and Starfleet ships. Over the course of one story arc based on Deep Space Nine, the player has to deal with a ship taken over by Undine infiltrators, then Deep Space Nine itself taken over by Undine infiltrators, and then a few missions later Deep Space Nine gets taken over again by dopplegangers, this time its crew’s evil Mirror Universe counterparts.
Later in the game, the bluegills make a comeback, controlling the leadership of another species that has suddenly become very aggressive and destabilized the region (they are, of course, working for the same people that sent the fake ships after the Undine). Meanwhile, the Romulans have mind-controlled spies (and are being manipulated by–guess who–the people that sent the fake ships), the Undine pull the same infiltration trick on Deep Space Nine, but this time on Earth Spacedock and nearly destroy the place…
And this is a real problem. Part of the aesthetic of Star Trek is that the unknown is an opportunity–a source of excitement at the possibility of discovery. The insular, paranoid fear of the Other that underlies the infiltrator narrative works directly against that.

Five Episodes I Like

Reminder: MLP Liveblog tomorrow. Details go up at noon EST, actual liveblog chat thingy is at 2 p.m.

Something I’m toying with doing on occasion: Here’s a list of five really good episodes of television. It’s not a top five list or anything, although the intention is for the episode mentioned to be at least a contender for best episode of its show; they’re just five episodes I really, really like, with a brief explanation of what’s so good about them. No pattern, just the first five I think of.

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Once More with Feeling.” Buffy has enough truly great episodes to easily fill one of these lists on its own–“The Body,” “The Gift,” “Surprise”/”Innocence,” “Graduation Day,” “Hush” all come to mind swiftly and easily–but my postmodern heart swells with joy at “Once More with Feeling,” a musical wherein the protagonists’ main goal is figuring out why they keep singing their feelings and making it stop, while the villain uses the inability to feel without singing about it to torment them and disrupt their relationships. On top of this, unlike most musical episodes (a trend it more or less invented) it is not a one-off; it continues plot and character threads established in prior episodes and is a vital turning point for several of the season’s major plots. Plus it’s a genuinely good musical in its own right!
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “In the Pale Moonlight.” It’s the best episode of the best Star Trek, and the one that goes farthest in exploring the moral ambiguity that characterized (most of) DS9. Trekkies who hate DS9 frequently cite it as their go-to example of how the series betrayed the founding values of Star Trek, to which my response is that yes, it absolutely does, and it’s amazing.
  • Veronica Mars: “Pilot.” This is, quite simply, the best first episode I’ve ever seen. It is confident, well-acted, engaging, and not bogged down in exposition; it’s the kind of episode a series has at the start of its second or third season, not its first. Plus, how often do you get to see a rape victim tell her own story for herself and define it for herself? I flung myself headlong into Veronica Mars late last year, and this episode is the main reason why.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: “I Won’t Rely on Anyone Anymore.” Ten episodes into a twelve-episode series is not, usually, when you completely recontextualize every event of the series so far, up to and including the meaning of the opening credits. But Madoka doesn’t do things the usual way. This episode is, by turns, unsettling, heartbreaking, and fantastic, and it blows open the path to the end of the series in an utterly spectacular way.
  • Babylon 5: “Sleeping in Light.” One of the most satisfying, heartbreaking, bittersweet series finales ever shown. I cannot make it through this dry-eyed; there is one musical track in particular that I cannot hear without tearing up. My father died in 1992; that was the last time I cried until I saw this episode for the first time in 1998.

What are some of your favorites?

ETA: Fixed a couple of typos in the last two bullets: Madoka is a twelve-episode series, not thirteen, and “Sleeping in Light” was the series finale of B5, not just a season finale.