Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Soong/Spiner Arc

Brent Spiner created a complex character in Arik Soong, different from the three he created for Next Generation. In the first episode, we see Soong the outlaw scientist, devoted to his work, and both cynical and sardonic about authority. As we learn here and throughout the arc, he's also been a rogue player in interstellar politics and trade, and has dealt with some unsavory characters---but all, it seems, to support his vision and his work. He's complex but single-minded: not all that rare among visionaries, especially in science. We can see aspects of him in the later Soong, and certainly in Lore.

In the middle and third episodes, we see his paternal devotion to the Augments. The scene in which he views the remaining embryos is a bit startling: he really sees them as life he has some responsibility for. He also begins to see the flaws in his genetic engineering, and works to repair these flaws before the other embryos are "born."

His approach to parenting is a bit dodgy however. He apparently assumes the Augments have a moral compass though evidently he didn't teach them much about moral values as children, and now that they are adults, he still plays the authoritarian father. Maybe this is supposed to suggest to us that part of the reason the Augments are morally flawed is that Soong is as well. If so, perhaps that point could have been made more clearly.

In Cold Station 12, Soong realizes that the Augments are ethically challenged, especially Malik (a name out of Harry Potterdom which guarantees the kid is going to be a mal-icious mal-content) who is recognizably a sociopath: a charismatic liar who always blames others, as well as a vicious power-hungry killer. He's a kind of Richard III, whose mal-formed limbs aren't physical, but psychological and moral. Playing him that way might have been interesting. But Malik does seem to be struggling within himself early on, at least in relation to Soong.

The reason we're given for how the Augments behave is consistent with their behavior but seems a little too simplistic. Archer provides the formula: "Superior ability breeds superior ambition." But what does that mean? Depends on what you mean by superior. The only elements of superiority we are shown are physical strength and abilities, and adeptness at math and computer manipulation: technical intelligence. Otherwise most of the Augments are like super sheep, with no personalities or social, emotional or moral intelligence. The metaphor here may be technology: the Augments represent superior technology, which does tend to breed superior ambition, when technological power has outrun humanity's moral and psychological intelligence. A better formula is Phlox's analysis of the designers of these Augments in the Eugenics War---human intelligence and human instinct were out of synch.

The middle episode also features scenes of torture; there are extended torture scenes in the Vulcan arc as well. I object to these scenes, and when re-viewing these shows, I fast-forwarded through them. I think they compromise Enterprise as a family-friendly show because of their gratuitous violence, and they give a false sense of torture, at a time when polls show that many Americans share this false sense of torture while their government is actively engaged in it.

Torture of a kind appeared in TOS but it was not very realistic and usually was done with some exotic technology. I believe torture appeared in the TNG series exactly once, in an exemplary episode which explored the psychology of torture, and in which Picard explicitly told the truth about torture as a means of obtaining information: it doesn't work, and professionals in the information-extracting business know it doesn't work. (That's a big part of the internal dispute in the U.S. government right now, apart from violations of Geneva Accords in Iraqi prisons and Guantanamo.) The public doesn't seem to know it, but they should.

I can forgive all the scenes in caves, since I've seen the standing sets. But torture has been treated as a device rather than explored for what it is. This is certainly not unique to Enterprise, but I'd hope they would think about it harder. The fact is that while torture is employed on TV and in movies to extract information, it hardly ever was in the real world. It was mostly used to get people to admit to what the authorities wanted them to admit to. The Inquisition, for example. This is one of those TV/movie conventions that can be really harmful as it affects attitudes about real torture in the real world.

Sure, there's a point to it in this episode---to show how far Malik will go. It has more of a justification here, actually, than in the Vulcan arc. But even so, this point needs to be made. And as the case with any sort of violence on Star Trek, it doesn't need to be so graphic. That's been a Star Trek tradition---that all ages and families as a family can watch it. Maybe the demographics of young male viewers make it tempting, but that temptation should be resisted. I'd hate to see Star Trek cheapen itself with this kind of sensationalism, especially violence. I'm no expert but it seems to me that kids essentially ignore sexual suggestiveness, it goes right by them. But they are affected by graphic violence. I'll bet this is discussed frequently by the producers, so that's my two cents.

Back to the arc. To maintain the pace, there's a lot of action consisting of getting in and out of trouble that diverges from the main arc of the arc, but most of it is fun to see once. Some issues of genetic manipulation are at least raised, though the emphasis seems to be more on continuity with what's known about the Eugenics War. The conversation between Archer and Phlox in the middle ep will remain important in Star Trek lore, and I say that not just because I witnessed its taping (see account of my set visit below.)

It's also intriguing that Soong treats the genetically engineered embryos as children with a right to life, and that Malik views these artificially altered embryos as having inviolable integrity, when he objects to Soong's plans to introduce more changes into their genome, because they are "not what our creators intended." Though this may be more of Malik's mendacity: what really upsets him is that Soong wants to dampen their aggression, maybe even make them more Data-like. Still, it's an interesting irony.

As for Soong's modifications, it's not clear that dampening aggression is what's needed. Maybe Data's ethical programming, or some built-in introspection and sensitivity. Although that's already in the genome, however recessively. Humanity at its best is not more passive, but more conscious and compassionate.

The prequel links to the rest of the Star Trek saga really begin to multiply in this arc and the next, with the Orions, the Eugenics War and then all the Vulcanology: IDIC, needs of the many, the katra, "remember," etc. There's an echo of Kirk in the way Archer bluffs the Klingons. Even the name "Hernandez" has a Star Trek history. And there's an irony possible only if you know from the film, Star Trek: Insurrection, that "The Briar Patch" Soong heads for contains a planet of perpetual youth, which the Augments might have found, but they refuse to go there. And that the eventual creation of Soong's descendant will save the inhabitants of that planet from Federation treachery.

On the other hand, Enterprise still has trouble keeping its technology to prequel levels. After barely using the transporter for three seasons, this year it has suddenly become standard, and is capable of transporting somebody in motion, which Kirk-era transporters didn't seem able to do.

The foreshadowing ending was a little too much, with Soong deciding to give up genetics for designing artificial life forms, which he figured might take several generations to figure out. But it could have been worse. Imagine if he'd continued:

Yes---creating an artificial lifeform will be part of my lore. I could do it now, if I only had more data...

But it might take a generation or two. Of course, I'm not married, and somebody else's genes might mess up my son's ability to do the work, so I'd better clone myself, and have my clone clone himself when the time comes. That way, my descendant in the twenty-fourth century will carry on my work without a pause, and he'll look exactly like me!

For the first true mini-arc, this worked well---it had good momentum, individual scenes and performances, good chemistry between Brent Spiner and the regular cast, particularly Scott Bacula, and some meaningful issues raised in subtle ways that will repay repeat viewings and discussions. Best of all, it was inviting; we want to see what they'll do next.

High points of this arc: Hard to specify except as Brent Spiner's acting and character creation.
Low points: the torture scene, T'Pol as a rag doll.

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