Thursday, May 10, 2018

Can’t we just send him to his room?

We like to think things will be better in the future. You know, jet packs, meals in a pill, an end to disease. And enlightenment, a whole lot of enlightenment. As in, people will finally get along. Self-important jerks need not apply.

But I’m pretty sure they’re still going to be out there — as certain as death and taxes, the condescending ass-hat is a part of life, and always will be. And, while I’m sure it wasn’t David Gerrold’s intention, Bem demonstrates this perfectly. Pity the story itself wasn’t better.

Our heroes find themselves saddled with Honorary Commander Ari bn Bem, representative of the recently contacted planet Pandro. Over the course of the episode, he is officious, manipulative, insubordinate, insulting and contemptuous and puts the mission, our heroes and the sanctity of the Prime Directive in serious jeopardy on several occasions, without once taking responsibility for the results of his actions.

Now, we don’t know if everyone from Pandro is like Bem or if he’s just obnoxious all on his own, but it doesn’t bode well for Starfleet either way; if all Pandronians are like him, where’s the incentive for Starfleet to have dealings with them? If it’s just Bem, what does it say about Pandro’s opinion of Starfleet that they’d saddle the best Captain in the fleet with such an irritation? I’m thinking it’s the latter. Bem behaves a lot like a troubled teenager: He’s positive he knows everything already. He disobeys direct orders. He’s constantly insulting. His body keeps changing. He probably writes bad poetry and wears too much patchouli. I’d bet the Pandronians saw this Starfleet thing as their opportunity to pack him off for an extended visit to the future equivalent of summer camp and let someone else worry about him for a while. Bem even says that Pandro doesn’t particularly care about his well-being; how sullen teenager-ish does that sound?

Bem also turns out to be a colony creature and can break apart at will without harm, but that’s neither here nor there; it doesn’t add to the thrust of the story, which I suppose is meant to be that “we’re all still children” and should always be growing towards patience and understanding (as with most Filmation cartoons, we’re flat-out told this at the end of the episode).

And here we come to the writing itself. At first, I thought the author was using Bem’s ability to break apart to discuss the concept of conflicting ideas, cooperation, working towards common goals, etc, but I realized that was my wishful thinking, and in reality it was just a convenient way to allow Bem to cause havoc over and over again as a goad to the story.

Besides the tangent of his colony-creature status, we have an ostensibly all-powerful overseer who protects the planet natives and refers to them as her “children” — a plot device that had grown stale even by the early seventies. Further, the number of times our heroes are chased, caught, caged and escape becomes ridiculous.

But the worst bit for me is Bem finally admitting he’s wrong. He inexplicably decides that he has failed at his mission to observe the Starfleet officers and threatens to “permanently disassemble union.” Of course, we’re meant to believe it’s because he’s been caught by the natives and our heroes have had to rescue him. But how is this different than the rest of the episode? It’s just not a good enough explanation. Actually, it seems more in keeping with Bem-As-Teenager: it’s the “pay attention to me” move. But it really seems shoehorned in, just to give the intelligent overseeing entity a message to impart about learning from your mistakes. Also, Gerrold admits the character of Bem is named after the oft-used acronym for “bug-eyed monster.” I just think that’s lazy.

That’s not to say there aren’t some bright moments. There are a few humorous exchanges between Kirk and Spock of the understatement variety, and there is one moment during which Uhura has to corral a stubborn Scotty into coming back to the ship, which is pretty good but could be stronger. (Actually, it takes a long time for Scotty to finally show up on the bridge; in my mind, he’s sulking because she’d given him what-for in front of Sulu.)

In the future, things will be better. I have to believe that we’ll get those jetpacks, cure all diseases and gain enlightenment. But I think I have to come to terms with the inevitability that, when we reach the stars, condescending ass-hats like Bem will be right there with us — knowing everything, insulting everyone and generally ruining vacations for centuries to come.

I can only hope the ass-hats will be better written by then.

- HEATHER MURRAY has a box of bad poetry hidden in the attic.


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Can’t we just send him to his room? was my second book-published piece, part of Outside In Boldly Goes: 117 New Perspectives on 117 Classic Star Trek Stories by 117 Writers, published by ATB Publishing and available online and in bookstores. I’m among some wonderful writers here, and they’re not all simple reviews — included are scripts, Starfleet communiqués, DVD commentaries, fill-in-the-blank games, log entries, restaurant reviews, poems and a trading card set. A great collection for fans of the series and newcomers alike, pick it up!

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