To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also next year’s release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I’m taking a look at the recent blu ray release of the first season, episode-by-episode. Check back daily for the latest review.
Any time I worry that I might have been too kind on Datalore, watching Angel One tends to set me straight relatively quickly. Watching Angel One feels like somebody in the writers’ room said, “I really liked the racism in Code of Honour! Can we do that again, but with sexism?” It’s very difficult to imagine to imagine how the script got into production without somebody raising red flags about it. While a lot of the racism of Code of Honour arose from the decision to cast the Ligonian characters as black, sexism in hardwired into the DNA of Angel One, making it one of the most unfortunate scripts in a long line of unfortunate scripts.
To be entirely fair, the cast have been willing to call Angel One out on its sexism, with Patrick Stewart apparently being chief amongst them. Stewart has been rather candid about the difficulties that Star Trek: The Next Generation had with gender roles, including on the special features of this release, and it’s hard to argue with a lot of what he says:
One of my personal battles in the first season was about elements of sexism in the scripts. I thought that the women’s roles – I thought, they didn’t have to tell me – were archetypal and not thought through. And that they were fulfilling a kind of archetypal female television role. The “token” dark-haired one, the “token” (in our case) redhead, the “token” blonde with Denise. So there was a certain amount of unevenness.
Indeed, Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis have both acknowledged that Stewart had a lot of problems with Angel One:
“In one of the most sexist episodes we ever had, Angel One, Patrick really pushed to get it changed,” says Gates.
“It was still sexist though,” adds Marina, “These women had been running their own planet for aeons, and then Commander Riker arrives, makes one speech and they start to consider changing their government.”
If only that were the worst of it. Angel One takes a somewhat ill-advised science-fiction staple, and manages to mess it up even more than usual. A planet dominated by women is the kind of idea you’d see in the most cringeworthy episode of the original Star Trek, undoubtedly written as some sort of bitter reaction against feminism. Were it a product of the sixties, we’d almost be able to forgive it as a product of a different time. We wouldn’t have to like it, but social values were different. However, as a piece of fiction from the more enlightened eighties, it is a lot harder to excuse.
Let’s start with the basic idea of Angel One, as outlined by Picard in his own log. “Our away team has beamed down to an unusual matriarchal society where the female is as aggressively dominant as the male gender was on Earth hundreds of years ago. Here, the female is the hunter, the soldier, larger and stronger than the male. An arrangement considered most sensible and natural.” The initial premise is a little clunky, but the execution is terrible.
There’s an argument to be made that males traditionally hunted because of certain biological advantages: male humans are stronger and faster on average, which is why sporting events don’t tend to be unisex; while women carry children to term for nine months, a considerable physiological challenge to hunting wild game. If you want to imagine a culture that reverses the gender dynamics rooted in these biological factors, you might want to suggest it in the episode itself.
In other words, don’t cast these female hunters as supermodels. I know that the audience at home likes look at conventionally pretty women, but it would have been nice to see some indication that female attractiveness on Angel One might be judged by different social mores than on our own world. The closest that we get to this is the idea that men wear – gasp! – perfume. Which doesn’t really seem that different from modern Earth, to be entirely fair. Of course, Jonathan Frakes is a tall actor, so it might have been difficult to find female actors of similar height (or taller), but the end result is that Frakes towers over these puny women.
We’re meant to believe that this is what a society of physically superior women might look like, conforming to Western ideals of beauty, so it feels more than a little shallow. Even the token man wandering around in the background looks pretty muscled. He is short, but he looks much physically stronger than any of the women inhabiting the planet, which really makes you wonder how far the producers really thought about this “aggressively dominant” female culture.
It doesn’t help that the show treats this all as a bit of a lark. If the episode were played entirely straight – if it were an oligarchy controlled by men subjugating women – you sense that Angel One wouldn’t be quite so tolerant and patronising in its attitudes. When the crew discuss Angel One, we get a rather patronising exchange, where Worf remarks, “Klingons appreciate strong women.” It’s really a line that can’t be delivered in a way that doesn’t sound sleazy, and I don’t blame Michael Dorn for how it turns out.
Then Picard appoints Deanna to make contact because she has the right body parts. “Counsellor, as this is a female dominated society, you might wish to make the initial contact.” Imagine the outcry had Picard asked Geordi to make contact with Ligonia back in Code of Honour. Which raises all manner of questions. Explaining why he’s ignoring the sexism of Angel One’s inhabitants, Picard notes, “Starfleet are adamant that we maintain excellent diplomatic relations with this planet.” Ignoring the fact that diplomatic relations seem far from excellent (“ever feel like you’re not really wanted?” Geordi asks), it raises the question of whether the Federation would accept the male-oppressing Angel One into its ranks as is. Don’t try to change me.
It gets worse from there. Riker sleeps with the head of the government in order to smooth things along. I’m half considering calling it “the Riker Maneuver”, but it sounds too flippant. Imagine Troi had to sleep with Lutan to keep the Ligonians on friendly terms, and all the gender issues that would raise. Similarly, Riker is forced (well, asked) to parade around in an outfit that seems to recall the way that female characters were dressed on the original Star Trek.
Riker agrees to put it on, which is where you’d imagine you get a clumsy lesson about not objectifying people – whether men or women. After all, why make such a big deal out of it if it isn’t a commentary on the ridiculous wardrobe of countless Star Trek babes? It wouldn’t be the best writing in the world, but it would be better than the story we got. Instead, Riker decides that the story isn’t nearly sexist enough, and suggests that his female colleagues are getting all up in his face because they’re jealous of Beata, the head of Angel One. “This objection doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that Beata is a woman, and an attractive one, does it?” Because we all know they want a piece of this hot Riker action.
Which side-steps the fact that making people parade around in skimpy outfits for titillation is objectifying them and not a good thing. Angel One gets considerable mileage out of reversing Hollywood’s idea of whirlwind romance, but plays it like a tired sitcom rather than earnestly addressing some of the problems with this portrayal. “I like the way your eyes pick up the colour of your tunic,” Beata tells Riker, which is clearly meant to be goddamn freakin’ hilarious because the guy’s supposed to compliment the girl, you know.
This leads to one of the creepiest moments in the episode when Riker asks Beata, “But will you still respect me in the morning?” This would be treated as a legitimate concern were the gender roles reversed, but Angel One plays it for laughs. Riker grins from ear-to-ear while saying it. I’ve remarked before that I kinda like that Riker is a bit of a dick in Roddenberry’s world of perfect humans, but turning him into a sexist douchebag without acknowledging it just pushes the character too far.
The scenes between Beana and Riker are awful, because they pretty much take the worst gender clichés imaginable, and try to flip them to seem intelligent. However, if you turn crap on its head, all you end up with is a mess. So we get the reverse of what would be an extremely sexist scene that is meant to be funny because – doncha know it? – it turns all our expectations about a sex scene on their head?
What a refreshing change to be with a man who knows what he wants.
And doesn’t have to be told by a woman?
Exactly. I knew you were bright enough to understand. You see, women, by our very nature, want only what is best for their men.
Men are not objects to be possessed, Mistress Beata.
Of course they’re not. It was merely a figure of speech.
See, sexism is funny when it’s women being sexist against men! But don’t worry, Riker will distract that silly woman by falling back on that old courtship standard – buying sex with gifts. Riker brings her a gift – “an Albeni meditation crystal” – that prompts her to remark, “And now I must repay you in kind.”
Which brings us to another disturbing subtext of the episode. Apparently strong women are just dying to be treated like dirt be sexist creeps. The two speaking female characters on Angel One are both screwed into tolerance by strong male rogues who refuse to conform to their gender ideals. If Riker can simply sleep with every member of the ruling council, maybe he could get that happy ending faster. Even the most hostile member of the council, Ariel, is getting some hot alien lovin’ that justifies her position. Beata seems to mellow out at the climax because Riker straightened her out.
Turns out all those crazy feminists need is to get laid. That’ll sort everything out! Because, god knows, a woman couldn’t hold a particular position because she came to it herself, you know. The climax of the episode even features Riker lecturing the women at length, as if to suggest that those silly women just needed a man to explain how the world works to them. Because their puny women brains likely couldn’t process it. Ugh. How did this get out of the writers’ room?
There’s also a subplot involving a virus on board and the reemergence of the Romulans as a credible threat – but neither manages to divert attention away from the main plot long enough to stop me wishing I were dead. It does, however, suggest that Strafleet medical practices leave a lot to be desired. Between this and The Naked Now, I can’t help but wonder if Starfleet simply transferred Crusher off the Enterprise due to her admittedly shoddy record.
Angel One is in serious contention to pick up the award for the worst episode of the first season of The Next Generation, which pits it in serious contention for the worst episode of Star Trek ever. Luckily, that means that things should improve dramatically from hereon out, right?
Read our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- Encounter at Farpoint
- The Naked Now
- Supplemental: Star Trek – The Naked Time
- Code of Honour
- The Last Outpost
- Where No One Has Gone Before
- Supplemental: Star Trek – The Wounded Sky by Diane Duane
- Lonely Among Us
- The Battle
- Supplemental: Reunion by Michael Jan Friedman
- Supplemental: (DC Comics, 1989) #59-61 – Children of Chaos/Mother of Madness/Brothers in Darkness
- Hide & Q
- The Big Goodbye
- Angel One
- Too Short a Season
- When the Bough Breaks
- Home Soil
- Supplemental: Star Trek – The Devil in the Dark
- Coming of Age
- Heart of Glory
- Arsenal of Freedom
- Skin of Evil
- Supplemental: Survivors by Jean Lorrah
- We’ll Always Have Paris
- The Neutral Zone
- Supplemental: Operation Assimilation
- Supplemental: The Lost Era – Serpents Among the Ruins by David R. George III
Filed under: The Next Generation | Tagged: Angel One, Beata, Data, Datalore, Deanna Troi, Gates McFadden, Jonathan Frakes, Klingon, Marina Sirtis, patrick stewart, picard, star trek, Star Trek Next Generation, star trek: the next generation, Starfleet, Troi, Worf |