6 December 2017

Masterpiece Society

Episode: s5, ep 13

Genetic predestination meets the glow-ball of doom.

What Happens
The Enterprise is following a big, glowy sun fragment, it's going near a planet that's unexpectedly populated by humans. The crew try to contact the doomed, domed settlement to warn them they need to evacuate. The leader of the settlement refuses, they're totally sealed in. Picard explains about transporters and the Leader is intrigued, he agrees that a few people can come and talk options. You just know it's going to be one of  those settlements.
Under the dome, the Leader explains to Riker, Troi and Geordi that the whole community is precisely genetically modified and attuned to the environment, according to the plan of their founders. Everyone's genes and functions are mapped out, no one wonders about what they'll do with life. The away team explain the danger; their biosphere won't survive glow-ball proximity. Grumpy Judge is very defensive and wants the away team gone. Just the presence of strangers has an effect on the environment. Leader is more open to contact, especially with Troi (nudge nudge, wink wink, etc.). Evacuation is not an option anyone seems willing to take. Geordi meets with a Physicist, who is fascinated by transporters and other tech. She has an idea to move the glow-ball away, there isn't enough power in the settlement, but maybe the Enterprise can help? She gets permission to work on the problem with Geordi on the ship, making her the first person to ever leave. Troi stays on the planet, she obviously wants to spend more time with Leader.
Geordi gets on well with Physicist, despite the rampant ableism that is a tenet of her society and means she reacts rudely to him as a blind person. In fact Geordi's visor turns out to be the solution to their engineering problem, which makes him rightfully pleased. Leader and Troi get closer, and then they kiss. They go on about how it's wrong, but continue anyway (I think we're to assume sex happens). I'm not really sure why it's wrong, at least not for Troi. It turns out that even with moving the glow-ball there will still be too much damage to the biosphere, unless some Federation engineers improve the shielding. Grumpy Judge objects, he thought the away team of three was too many. Leader allows it, because otherwise they'll be destroyed.
The glow-ball passes and it works, but Physicist is unhappy about returning after all she's seen outside. She tries to pretend there was damage in order to force an evacuation, but Geordi knows she's lying. She's realised that being isolated from the rest of humanity means that she's been outstripped scientifically. Geordi points out that discoveries are often made because they're needed, but these people had no pressing needs before. Leader is sad Troi is leaving, but she can't stay and he won't go, he's exactly where he's meant to be. Physicist isn't only one curious about outside, the population were intrigued by the engineering crews. Physicist and others request asylum. The balance of the society is so carefully planned that if more than one or two people leave it'll ruin the place. Picard is in an awkward situation as he can't refuse asylum seekers, but can't deny that the skills-gap they leave behind will destabilise the settlement. Leader argues for his people to stay as the Founders intended, even though he privately admits he understand their desire to leave. He tries to get them to stay for 6 more months, which Picard thinks is fair, but Physicist refuses. In the end 23 people leave. Troi parts from Leader; I don't feel bad because she seemed guilty about the whole thing anyway, and who needs that?

Oh Captain My Captain
While talking to Troi about convincing people to evacuate Picard expresses his distaste at "dubious scientific endeavour" turned to dogma. He's against genetic engineering, as seems to be common among 24th century humans. In this specific case Picard believes they've given away their humanity (which seems a little strong) and bred out many of the things that make life worth living, like uncertainty and self-discovery. Not that he'd say that to any of the people involved, he's a diplomat after all. Troi questions him on this; it seems she's been a bit swayed by Leader.
The real philosophical issue actually comes late in the episode, which is whether Picard is right to grant asylum when doing so will wreck the society for those who stay behind. Of course Picard can't refuse an asylum request, and will take the people if they want to go. He's willing to swing by again later, to give people time to consider their decision. He discusses this with Leader, and while both men understand the other's viewpoint, they both have duties they will not swerve from. It's probably easier for Picard, since he thinks the idea behind their culture is wrong-headed. It's sort of a nice that Leader can privately admit his own feelings to Picard, as men in similar positions of authority.

Blind Engineering
Here we see that Geordi can be perfectly appropriate and professional working with women when he doesn't have feelings for them. More of this please, and less of the deeply-irritating creeper that Geordi becomes when attraction is in the mix.*
In this situation Geordi is very much the victim of ableism. Grumpy Judge makes it very clear that he's looking down on Geordi for being blind, and also looking down on Geordi's entire society for even letting him exist, which is awful. (It's interesting that Grumpy Judge is also played by a black actor, I guess so the focus could be on the discrimination against disability, rather than anything racial.) Even while he is working well with Physicist, the attitudes she's been raised with are an issue. She awkwardly asks if he's always been blind, and he apologises for taking his visor off and shocking her, which he didn't need to do. She assumes he's embarrassed, which angers him because he's always been this way and he's never been embarrassed about it. This is the kind of thing that makes me feel good about the way the future is depicted in this version of Trek, because clearly Geordi has lived in an environment where his disability was not a cause of bad treatment or problematic assumptions, or at least he was raised in a way that meant stuff like that rarely bothers him. Having gotten annoyed he presses her on how he wouldn't have even existed on her world. She replies with what she's been conditioned to say, that the founders didn't want anyone to suffer a life with disability. Geordi angrily asks what gave them the right to decide he had nothing to contribute and shouldn't exist. Physicist isn't sure how to respond, so expresses an interest in his visor, this is safer ground and allows the awkwardness to dissipate (not that the awkwardness was unjustified, she was expressing assumptions that were very offensive to Geordi). The visor conversation leads to the solution for moving the glow-ball and Geordi is smugly pleased that a visor for a blind man is the answer to saving a society where blindness isn't allowed to exist.

It's Not Easy Being Troi
Troi and Leader were clearly crushing on each other from the start, which might have informed how receptive each was to the other's culture. When Troi stayed on the planet a while I figured they were hooking up, but then it turns out that they'd both been holding back, at first. The reasons seem to be that it's against his culture; whether that has to do with sex, relationships, or not increasing the general contamination from outsiders, is not made clear. Frankly I would've liked more details on this, if I'm supposed to care about this clearly-temporary relationship then knowing the stakes involved is useful. Anyway, the point is that all the issues with this relationship are on his side, but Troi seems to be the one lumbered with all the guilt. She confesses to Picard like she's done something bad (and I'm sure it's the kind of detail Picard is uncomfortable knowing about), but I honestly can't see the issue. There's no Prime Directive conflict and neither Troi nor Leader appeared to be committed to anyone else. Maybe it's a little unprofessional, but Riker has sex with people he meets on missions, and that doesn't cause any comment. In fact Riker has literally had sex with the leader of another culture while on a mission, and he just got to enjoy himself. Maybe Troi feels like she led Leader astray, but he's a grown man -one who was literally bred to be in a position of responsibility- so I'm sure he can sort himself out. It may break his cultural beliefs, but he's not the one protesting, so I'm not sure what she's blaming herself for. Honestly I think I bounced so hard off this because Troi seems to be taking on a load of bad feelings for no clear reason. Maybe it's an empath thing, which really sucks for her.

Planet of... GM Ableists
These people live in a sealed biosphere, the environment outside is entirely inhospitable to humans, and the rest of humanity don't know they're there. Those founders were really keen that no one within their experiment would have the option to leave. They say that the biome is attuned to the people there and so any foreign bodies are harmful, but is that even true or just what they've been told so they won't interact with the outside? (I thought this was going to be an episode where a population realises their founders/elders lied to them all along and it was actually a prison colony or something.) Of course genetic modification is a major taboo in the Federation -at least among humans- due to Khan, but even if you're broadly OK with the idea this situation is really messed up. The culture is pretty oppressive; everyone is bred for their role in life and presumably trained for that their whole lives. They say everyone is happy not having a worry about their place in life, but there's no mention of whether the environment they're all attuned to is full of happy-drugs. It's basically a dystopia.
Then there's the ableism, a trend often found in utopian SF. In a future where illness has been cured, so the thinking goes, there isn't any disability. While that might sound good on paper, to able-bodied folks, this episode points out that the implications of it are pretty icky. Despite being utopian Trek (in this incarnation anyway) avoids and works against this through having Geordi as a main character. I'm sure there are issues in the way they do this, but at least this episode addresses this common flaw in the genre and the underlying ickiness. Who decides which people are too disabled to live? Why end someone's life/prevent someone from living when you have the technology to provide support for them? Yes, sickness and disability are challenging, but life has challenges for any/everyone and support is preferable to extinction. It's only addressed in terms of blindness here, but what other 'abnormalities' are screened out in this society? Autism? Depression? Anyone who isn't neurotypical? Anyone with the kind of psychology that might question this isolationist set-up?

Staff Meeting: 1
Geordi tells Picard that Physicist wants asylum, Riker adds that others might too. Worf is fine with it (because he's more security-conscious than aggressive, though his colleagues don't always realise it). Troi is immediately concerned about the colony and says they can't do it. Geordi points out that they have to and that the people have free will. (This is a weird stance for Troi to take and probably only due to her fling with Leader and seeing things from his viewpoint first.) Crusher mentions the genetic gaps and wonders if they can help further. Picard thinks they've helped too much already. Worf points out they saved them all. Picard says he should meet Leader.

The End
Troi's doomed love affair ends, I did not feel this one, so whatever. He was nicer than some guys she's dated, but the situation and her constant guilt meant there was little to root for.
Picard talks to Riker about the importance of the Prime Directive. Riker is initially confused because the Prime Directive doesn't come into a situation involving humans. Picard says that's his point, by showing up they've possibly done as much damage as the glow-ball.** This was my point way back in Up the Long Ladder, but the show wasn't dealing with this particular philosophical issue then.

* I doubt it's intentional, but at this point Geordi feels like the kind of friend who's a wonderful person as a friend, but comes off awkward and unfortunate to people they're attracted to.

** An exaggeration, as without their intervention the entire domed colony would have been destroyed immediately, but I take his point. It wasn't the fault of these people that they lived in a badly-created, blinkered society that gave it's descendants unforeseen challenges.