JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

More images from "Twilight," following the narration of an alternate universe and then the correction of cause and effect in "real time"

Archer learns that Earth has been destroyed.

American agony.

The Vulcans are always the heavies in Star Trek Enterprise. Here the Vulcan ambassador says T'Pol should return to a command with them but she accuses that they witheld the warp drive from the humans, leaving this colony unable to defend itself. She says she will stay with Archer and the Vulcan replies that emotion is clouding her logic.

Archer asks T'Pol, "Exactly how far has our relationship gone?"

She deliberates just what to tell him and explains she is his lover as well as his nurse.

Enterprise is circling the planet, on patrol. An aged Trip has been captain for ten years. Phlox thinks he can take Archer there to give him an energy intensive treatment from the warp core that would be somewhat less than the "subspace cure."

On board, the crew warmly greets Archer, who finds out Reed was also promoted — to captain of Intrepid. "Did everyone get their own ship?" he jokes.

"Not all of us," Hoshi says. No more women are in command.

While Archer is in treatment, the Xindi attack Enterprise and the human colony. Archer goes to the bridge. As a last-ditch effort the officers try a subspace explosion to kill the time-space parasites. Phlox and T'Pol are killed but Archer sets off the implosion.

Apocalypse II: The episode shows the destruction of Enterprise, its crew, and the rest of humanity.

The denouement and end of the alternate universe: Archer awakes with no mind parasites but just a mild concussion.

T'Pol is no longer in charge.

Archer asks her to fluff his pillow and ....

... she obliges.

"You know ...

... "you'd make a wonderful nurse."

 

 

The new patriarchy

Brannon Braga, the chief creator of Enterprise, has received a great deal of flak over the years from Trek fans for his flouting of Trekkian continuity. But in my view, his work apart from Enterprise — on Voyager and on the short-lived CBS sci-fi series Threshold — has been provocative and daring, especially in his creation of gritty, intriguing, bold female characters. Considering Threshold (available now on DVD) as a counterpoint to Enterprise illuminates the choices Braga made for each show. Threshold has a heroine at its center, Dr. Molly Anne Caffrey (Carla Gugino), a government contingency analyst whose job is to devise response plans for worst-case scenarios. When an extra terrestrial craft that emits a horrific auditory signal that transforms those who hear it into aliens lands in the mid-Atlantic ocean, Molly and a motley-crew team of government-appointed experts must find a way to battle the alien takeover.

Molly is inventive, humorous, compassionate, and eminently capable. She is that rare action heroine whose brains complement rather than interfere with her tenderness. She also successfully negotiates an almost entirely homosocial world of various government officials, military hotshots, geeky scientists, and corrupt senators. In one of the most poignant moments in the series, an alien-human hybrid little boy, who may represent the hope for the future, tells her that she will indeed save the world, only she won't be around to see it. Like Moses, she can lead humans to the Promised Land of alien liberation but can't enter it herself. Tellingly, this moment, the last in the series, plays as bittersweet rather than as deadening — it makes Molly a complex heroine with tragic stature rather than the inevitably failed female counterpart to hegemonic masculine power. Hearing this mixed-bag prediction, Molly proceeds, emboldened, to her world-saving task.

Given Braga’s considerable talent for writing world-making heroines, his misogynistic themes on Enterprise appear more vividly as a canny concession to the moods of the nation, complicity with the Bush-era rolling back of feminist power that works to challenge it at the level of premise. Enterprise is not alone, however, in its efforts to reinstall women into more comfortingly traditional roles. Several series of varying genres from the same cultural moment have striven to corral female authority through various means. Bush-era genre television shows reveal a shared nervousness about strong and powerful women. Most often, the women characters who assert themselves most boldly undergo a transformation through illness, addiction, or some other form of debilitation, that renders them more conventionally feminine, less autonomous, more “sympathetic.” The relevance of issues such as illness and addiction loses its urgency in light of the reactionary uses to which the issues are put.

On Deadwood, the enterprising, financially independent widow Alma Garrett is depicted, like Enterprise’s T’Pol, as a drug addict, as well as an adulteress; and the subservience to strong, often brutal men on the part of several of the women on the series belies their seeming strength and autonomy. In another genre it is telling that it is sexually adventurous Samantha on Sex and the City upon whom breast cancer is bestowed. The acclaimed new version of the 1970s sci-fi cult show Battlestar Galactica promisingly numbers a female President amongst its innovations, yet the President is often depicted as morally questionable (throwing Cylons, the cyborg enemies of the humans, out of the airlock), a stark contrast against the gravitas of the “Old Man,” Captain Adama of the Galactica. In addition, the President suffers from breast cancer and becomes a female mystic, replacing military authority with occult “feminine” vision.

One of the most disturbing aspects of these retrograde depictions is that they come from television shows acclaimed for their daring and their unconventionality. Deadwood has been praised for its raw realism and the garish, heady literariness of its idiolect, Sex and the City for its uncensored look at urban sex-lives, Battlestar Galactica for its uncompromising vision of a desolate future. All of these series embody a sense of the boldness of postmodern representation. Yet when examined closely they can be read, however brilliantly made and compelling, as reactionary visions of the social order that lock down rather than explore gendered and racial stereotypes.

What all of these shows, Enterprise included, have at their core is a male character to whom all the others are subservient no matter how questionable his motives or personality. Al Swearengen on Deadwood is a prime example of the new kind of male character whose despicable actions are implicitly condoned by the “complexity” of his characterization. Learning about his childhood woes (abandoned by his mother to an orphanage), we are asked to view Al not as the monster he is but as the victimized child he was. Another technique employed on Deadwood — and even more pervasively on The Sopranos — is to pit Al’s evil against a higher and more sustained evil. In comparison to other villains of the series, Al comes to seem more thoughtful, compassionate, even benign, just as Tony Soprano does in comparison to the “more” psychotic, lesser gangsters with whom he must contend.

Enterprise disappointingly rolls back feminist progress in the Trek universe, but in so doing it is far from alone in Bush-era television. It now seems like decades ago that television brimmed with shows that featured strong women characters at their center — Xena, Warrior Princess, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Voyager, Dark Angel, Witchblade, Alias. The dearth of such series today attests to the cultural shifts with which television shows are complicit.

Vulcans and the Suliban:
Or, Jews and Arabs

From its inception, Trek has been an anti-racist show. The Classic Trek of the 1960s daringly offered an image of racial unity in the turbulent era of civil-rights agitation. The premise of Trek rests on constant encounter with otherness and the embrace of it. Many over the years have found this premise alternately hokey and limited; some have read a colonizing agenda in the Trekkian mythos. Nevertheless, it is important to note that, however flawed the attempts made have been, Trek has consistently attempted to promote tolerance and critique racism. For this reason, Enterprise’s depiction of race causes the greatest concern for the future of Trek.

Enterprise’s treatment of Vulcans, other than Klingons, the most famous alien Trek race, most vividly reveals the frightening ideological shifts in current Trek. Though always subject to jokes about their staunch, stoic adherence to logic, purgation of emotion, and general lack of a sense of humor (“What’s the matter, Spock, change your mind?” asks Kirk in the fourth Trek film, The Voyage Home [1986]. “No — is there something wrong with the one I have?”), Vulcans have also always been seen as a noble, highly moral race, the intellectual rationalists of the Federation.

Ever since Classic Trek, Leonard Nimoy’s Spock has been taken as a metaphor for racial Otherness, specifically for Jewishness in patriarchal white male, Christian culture. Indeed, Nimoy himself has made the connection between his Jewish identity and his portrayal as Spock.[16][open endnotes in new window] His status as “half-breed” — both Vulcan and human — intensified the theme of Spock’s loneliness and apartness. Vulcans, though, have come to seem the holy priesthood of Trek, one of the signature allies of the Federation, a race that overcame their violent history and now maintain a deeply spiritual, if utterly austere, society.

On Enterprise, however, the Vulcans are consistently, throughout the series, villainous — craven, deceitful, profoundly ungenerous, the enemy of humanity. The series makes noises about its Vulcans as pre-Classic Trek — as working towards the moral elevation they exhibit in the later series. But Enterprise’s treatment of Vulcans smacks of mysterious phobia. Given the construction of Vulcans as shadowy, duplicitous, and secretly all-powerful — they control humans, their space exploration, much of the galaxy — and the excruciatingly obvious racial allegory of the Suliban, the series seems to have made a coded version of the Jewish (Vulcan)-Arab (Suliban) conflict its chief metaphorical foundation.

Manny Coto, the creative force behind the final season of Enterprise, crafted a season that generally exhibited a less reactionary agenda than its predecessors, and even came up with some powerful and affecting episodes (“The Aenar” in particular). Despite Coto’s love for Trek and his talents, he and his team are responsible for the worst reconceptualization of Trekkian lore in Trek history. Enterprise rigs the development of the Vulcan race — their passage out of violent emotion into pure logic — as the product of Archer’s guidance. Surak, the Vulcan visionary who leads his people to their Great Awakening, from a violent, passion-driven, almost animalistic cultural to the Stoic severity it now embraces, entrusts the future of his race to Archer. An exotic and mysterious race now has a white, patriarchal Captain to thank for its greatest cultural triumph. (One has only to compare the representations of Surak in Classic Trek and Enterprise to register a profound shift in representation. The Surak who appears in the Classic Trek episode “The Savage Curtain” is clearly exotic, dark, Other; the Surak of Enterprise’s 2004 episode “The Awakening” looks like a Great White Father, a comforting emblem of bland, benign white patriarchy.[17] )

“Bound” to archetypes

In a Season Four episode, “Bound” (2005), the crew are infiltrated by Orion slave women, pea-green sirens who drive men wild with passion and desire.  However one looks at it, this is a misogynistic premise. Yet, astonishingly, Enterprise manages to resolve the situation far more conservatively than the 70s Trek did.[18] In “Bound,” the episode strenuously bends the plot in order to allow Trip to save the day (though presumably unaffected, T’Pol and Hoshi stand around limply on the bridge as Trip dispatches the green Orion succubi).

Not so in “Bound.” The Orion thug/pimp appears to have dispatched the enslaved green women to seduce and therefore thoroughly to unman the men, thereby securing the take-over of the Enterprise — because obviously none of the women on Archer’s ship, unaffected by Orion slave girl charms, could ever pose a threat! He reveals that, contrary to popular opinion, the slave girls are the ones in control. On Orion, it is the men who are the sexual slaves! So Enterprise provides us ingeniously with the spectacle of lurid female sexuality — which the trope of enslavement reinforces, enlarges, mobilizes — and the archetypal misogynistic, compensatory legend of female carnality as female power over men, i.e., the lesser sex is truly the mightier, though it may seem otherwise.

Emblematizing neoconservative’s deployment of sexism homophobia along with racism and sexism to roll back liberal progress, “Bound” also perpetuates the extraordinary heterosexism of all the Trek series. It posits that every single male member of the Enterprise crew will fall helplessly under the sway of the Orion women’s enchanting spell. With bald unawareness of the ironies of its own storytelling biases, “Bound” features a scene in which male members of the crew pound iron together in the weight room, grunting and comparing feverish notes about their sexual frustrations, intensely enhanced by the Orion women, as rivulets of sweat pour down their gleaming, drenched hypermasculinized bodies. The homosocial was far more knowingly homoeroticized — and undercut — in nineteenth-century U.S. fiction. In Herman Melville’s story, for example, “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” the split between homosocial groups of men and women serves to highlight the disparity between the social power of men and women — the men in the story enjoy freedom and companionship, while the women, zombielike drudges, must inexorably toil away their days in a noxious paper mill.

Interestingly enough, it is the two most sexually ambiguous figures on the crew — the British, secret-spy Malcolm Reed, gleaming, chiseled, yet oddly feminized African-American Travis Mayweather — who carry on a discussion about their swelling sexual needs and pains. And the episode certainly never considers that some of the women on the ship might experience overpowering sexual desires for the Orion sirens. The Orion women, whose hypnotic dance before Archer and other male crew members suggest the jerky movements of birds (it should be remembered that Homeric sirens “are creatures with the head of a female and the body of a bird”[19] ), represent archetypal female evil, but they are deployed on Enterprise as regulators of sexual and gendered roles.

The real Neoconservatism

One of the chief lessons provided by Enterprise is that a show can be, on the face of it, liberal and open to otherness while, upon inspection, pernicious in its pervasive ideological character. Enterprise’s commercial failure also suggests that it is precisely in its “hokey” 60s liberal values — which include the belief that exploration and the unification of diverse groups are good things — that the source of most successful Trek lies.

But I think that Enterprise also provides evidence for the alarming desire return to American origins that both covers for and is represented by the reclamation of white U.S. male power in its most masculinist form. It is little wonder that characters like Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen become pop icons in our era. They enable an audience to return to an illusory time before the strictures of “liberalism” in its politically correct form ruined everyone’s ability to speak “openly” about blacks, gays, women, and other oppressed groups. Tony, Al, and the early Jonathan Archer of Enterprise spoke out explicitly against anyone not of their own raced, classed stature. The failure of Enterprise meant that Archer failed to be celebrated for his apparently refreshing racist candor, but the fact that Trek producers, desperate for a hit, gave the latest Trek this particular new xenophobic spin — that the most current incarnation of Trek could be so openly a rejection of the original’s series’ basic values — reveals a great deal about the newly traditionalized and once again overtly racist and sexist popular culture age we’re watching in.

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