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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Up the Long Ladder (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

It’s been a while since Star Trek: The Next Generation has been openly offensive. So, just in case you’d forgotten that this was the same production staff that gave us “Riker beams down to a planet of beautiful women and screws their heads on straight” or “Troi’s womb is occupied by an alien intelligence, isn’t that cute?”, the writing staff have conspired to remind us that just because prejudice doesn’t exist in the 24th century (tell that to the Ferengi!) doesn’t mean that it can’t exist inside a late twentieth century writing room.

Begosh and begorrah! The space Oirish are coming!

"Wait, we're actually filming this?"

“Wait, we’re actually filming this?”

To be fair, I suppose there are worse stereotypes. Given that the Irish have historically been portrayed as sub-human or even ape-like, the stereotypical portrayal of the Irish being a friendly and funny (and a little stupid and lot drunk) really isn’t that bad. There’s a reason that there are Irish bars all over the world, and why the Irish passport is so highly regarded. Sure, there’s also a reason that the Australian government has had to single out Irish immigrants for drunk and disorderly behaviour, but still…

Look, it’s hard to defend Up the Long Ladder, which faces stiff competition as the worst of The Next Generation‘s somewhat wobbly second season. Stumbling across an ancient colony of early explorers, the Enterprise encounters a bunch of Irish emigrants who have settled on a distant planet. Naturally, they are all drunken farmers, beaming up to the Enterprise with their livestock and almost immediately setting about “brewing poitin.”

I call the Aran midriff...

I call the Aran midriff…

The drunken clan leader immediately sets about trying to marry off his daughter to Captain Picard, the noble Englishman who must have some measure of wealth in order to own so fine a ship as this. Despite the fact that his ancestors were apparently able to organise a trip into the void, the leader is stunned by things as rudimentary as force fields and fire suppression systems. “Lightning bolts falling from the ceiling!” he describes one attempt to stop his people from cooking their dinner in the cargo bay.

Up the Long Ladder is just one example of the sort of patronising portrayal of the Irish that we’ve come to expect in popular American media. It’s stereotypical and simplistic, and little condescending. The fact that is clearly intended affectionately helps take the edge off a bit, making watching Up the Long Ladder a slightly bemusing experience. There’s no clear malice here – it seems like Up the Long Ladder is perhaps trying to laugh along with their quaint Irish stereotypes.

I bet this was a fun shoot for Colm Meaney...

I bet this was a fun shoot for Colm Meaney…

For all the laziness of the script, it never seems mean-spirited. The crew of the Enterprise even admit a sort of patronising and condescending admiration for their guests. “If Danilo Odell’s any indication, they’ll be running this place inside of a week,” Riker observes, creating the impression that script doesn’t see the settlers as subhuman or especially stupid, just different in outlook and objective.

I’m reluctant to argue that Up the Long Ladder has its heart in the right place. There’s no way that this should have gotten through the initial pitch phase. It’s worrying that nobody identified the script as horrible racist, even though it was – broadly speaking – affectionate in its portrayal of the Irish space travellers. It’s worrying that nobody seemed to speak up about this, and that producing Up the Long Ladder wasn’t a last-minute act of desperation towards the end of a troubled season, but something that somebody thought was a good idea.

Looks like they almost bought the farm...

Looks like they almost bought the farm…

As writer and script editor Melinda Snodgrass – the writer responsible for The Measure of a Man, to put this in proper perspective – explains:

It was intended to be a commentary about immigration, because I hate the current American policy. I wanted it to be something that says sometimes those outsiders you think are so smelly and wrong-colored, can bring enormous benefits to your society because they bring life and energy. That’s what I was going for. Now my boss, at the time, was Maury Hurley, who is a major Irishman and leads the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. When I was describing to him what I wanted to do, I was trying to come up with an analogy, and I said it was like a little village of Irish tinkerers, and he loved it so much he made me make them Irish tinkerers. I said okay, and that’s how it came about.

To be fair to Snodgrass, her initial pitch sounds interesting – it sounds like exactly the sort of analogy that Star Trek should be doing in the late eighties. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out like that. The episode ends with the Irish settlers used as “breeding stock.”

"I think I've seen this prop before..."

“I think I’ve seen this prop before…”

Interestingly, though, the episode doesn’t play up the religious stereotypes of Irish people. On being told that “monogamous marriage will not be possible for several generations” and that “it will be best if each woman, Bringloidi and Mariposan, had at least three children by three different men”, the Irish seem surprisingly accepting. There’s a sense that Up the Long Ladder just wants to limp across the end credits at that point, but it’s interesting how nobody bats an eye at that fairly interesting rule.

You would imagine that people would have an objection to being forced to breed like that. The Next Generation is a very sterile television show, and the sexual moors of the future never really come up, but Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager suggest that monogamy is still the cultural norm for humanity in the future. So this is a bit of a radical change to ask anybody to make, whether they conform to Irish cultural stereotypes or not.

"Let's just get this over with..."

“Let’s just get this over with…”

(That said, The Next Generation seemed to very carefully hint – with copious amounts of plausible deniability – that Riker and Troi were in an open relationship. They seemed to occasionally behave like a romantic couple in each other’s company (picnics, weeping in each other’s arms), and yet had no real problems with the other hooking up with the guest star of the week. Maybe human sexuality had changed in the future, even if Deanna does firmly suggest that they never kissed from the second season on in Star Trek: Insurrection.)

For what it’s worth, the franchise didn’t even learn their lesson here. Ever trying to ape ideas that were already a little worn out on The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager would eventually give us a recurring holodeck subplot involving a stereotypically quaint Irish village. Fair Haven and Spirit Folk are somewhat less offensive than Up the Long Ladder, but there’s still some of that quaint American fascination with Ireland, as if expecting the place to be nothing but pubs and green fields.

No, Worf, you can't snooze through this one...

No, Worf, you can’t snooze through this one…

Still, despite the space!Irish and all the problems associated with them, there is more to Up the Long Ladder. Although Pulaski is quick to suggest that the settler abolish monogamy, the crew get very old testament when the possibility of cloning is raised. They discover another colony that exists through cloning. The default reaction seems to be revulsion, even before the other colony tries to hijack Riker and Pulaski’s genes.

It’s interesting how reflective that revulsion is. When the topic is first mooted, Riker is disgusted. He makes it clear that he would never agree to be cloned, which is fair. However, he goes on to suggest that he finds that entire civilisation disgusting and contrary to natural order. “You would be preserving yourself,” Granger argues. Riker retorts, “Human beings have other ways of doing that. We have children.” Picard adds, “I think you will find that attitude prevalent among all the Enterprise people.”

"No wonder I grew the beard..."

“No wonder I grew the beard…”

The Enterprise doesn’t seem very open-minded here. Even when they encountered the transhumanism of the Borg, the crew were more professional. Here, the disgust seems almost primal. Pulaski refuses to allow the possibility that a society built upon cloning could be remotely viable. When Troi moots the idea of consensually providing DNA for cloning, Pulaski shoots the idea down. “That’s just postponing the inevitable. If they get an infusion of fresh DNA, in fifteen generations they’ll just go back to the same problems. Cloning isn’t the answer.”

Indeed, the script even frames the issue in a way that is meant to make it seem distasteful. “How did you suppress the natural sexual drive?” Pulaski asks, as if harassing an accused on the witness stand. “Drugs? Punitive laws?” Granger concedes, “In the beginning, a little bit of each. Now, after three hundred years, the entire concept of sexual reproduction is a little repugnant to us.” It feels like the most crass sort of framing, as the script tries to construct a vision of this society that would most offend the viewer at home. These colonists are sex fascists! They’re the worst sort of fascists!

Data is a commanding presence...

Data is a commanding presence…

What would be wrong with the colonists enjoying sex but not for reproduction? After all, despite the uncomfortable implications of Up the Long Ladder, surely there’s nothing wrong with non-reproductive sex? Even if that wasn’t the purpose that sex had developed for? Given how uncomfortable The Next Generation was exploring homosexuality, the show is on very shaky ground here.

After all, the Enterprise just shows up and imposes their own reproductive fascism on the colonists. They pretty much mandate open marriages, which would arguably be just as abhorrent to certain societies as asexual reproduction seems to be to the Enterprise crew. And yet Up the Long Ladder is written without a sense of irony or self-awareness. It’s just a diatribe about how cloning is wrong and evil, but without being willing to constructing a convincing argument. Instead, it stacks the case.

Cloning around...

Cloning around…

This feels like a bit of uncomfortable regression. Wasn’t one of the problems with the first season the close-mindedness and arrogance of the crew? Wasn’t it pretty terrible to hear our enlightened Federation officers to talk so snidely about different cultures in episodes like Lonely Among Us and The Last Outpost? It seemed like the second season of The Next Generation had been making progress… and then we hit this rock.

After all, the colonists are just living another way of life. Ignoring the obvious issue of ownership and reproductive rights, which we’ll come to in a minute, this colony has chosen to live a particular way. Who is the Enterprise to judge that behaviour as “abhorrent” or “unnatural”? Indeed, this sounds like the opposite side of the argument from the side that the Enterprise crew should be taking. They should be celebrating diversity and different perspectives.

Needling them on...

Needling them on…

There is another interesting angle to all this. Up the Long Ladder is perhaps the closest the franchise has come to date to engaging with the hot-button issue of abortion. It was mooted and rejected in The Child, but Up the Long Ladder does at least broach the issue of control of the crew’s reproductive rights, as noted by Robin Roberts in Sexual Generations: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Gender:

Up the Long Ladder can be seen as a counterpoint to The Child. The former’s title refers to the long ladder of evolution, a journey of species development fueled by sexual reproduction. Although the episode was penned by a woman, the main character is not a pregnant woman, as in The Child, but a man whose control of his own body, because of its literal reproduction as a clone, is in question. Lieutenant (sic) Riker, the officer so concerned about the paternity of Troi’s child in The Child, faces a rape and reproduction of his own.

Of course, this debate requires turning our already deviant cloners into space!rapists. They stun Commander Riker and Doctor Pulaski, and then steal their DNA for nefarious cloning. As you do. However, they also avoid cloning Geordi. Although the explicit reason is not provided, the inference is obvious. They are space!ableists as well as space!rapists. But, then again, the episode suggests that we should have expected as much from those deviant asexual creeps.

Jeez, even the planet is green...

Jeez, even the planet is green…

Abortion is, in many ways, the other hot-button issue of the nineties that The Next Generation completely avoided. Abortion was really thrust into the public spotlight with the infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, several years after the classic Star Trek went off the air. Given that it remains a divisive political issue to this day, it feels strange that The Next Generation was never quite willing to tackle the topic head-on.

Along with homosexuality, it seemed like The Next Generation was afraid to weigh in on the issue – perhaps wary of how that might affect the show’s syndication. Given that Star Trek has always prided itself on being able to explore the issues of the day in an abstract and engaging manner, this represents another glaring omission and failure on the part of eighties and nineties Star Trek. That a short segment of Up the Long Ladder represents one of the franchise’s most direct engagements with the issue feels like something of a disappointment.

"Wait 'til the right-to-lifers get a load of this..."

“Wait ’til the right-to-lifers get a load of this…”

Still, at least Melinda Snodgrass’ script doesn’t pull its punches. In one scene, after killing clones created from his DNA, Riker bluntly observes, “We certainly have a right to exercise control over our own bodies.” Pulaski adds, “You’ll get no argument from me.” This scene apparently generated some controversy, as Snodgrass confessed to Cinefantastique:

I got enormous flack from the right to life coalition because they destroyed the clones. They thought I was condoning abortion. In fact, I did put a line in Riker’s mouth that was very pro-choice and the right to life coalition went crazy. He says I told you that you can’t clone me and you did it against my will, and I have the right to have control over my own body. That’s my feeling and it was soapbox, and it was one I got to get on. I was supported by Maurice all the way.

While it’s nice to be able to make that argument, it feels like a bit of a tangent off a tangent here. The abduction and cloning subplot is just a small segment of the episode, and it’s designed to make the colony’s asexual reproduction look even more abhorrent and obscene. That said, it’s also worth conceding that a clone is different from a foetus, even for the purposes of metaphor. At what point can that clone of Riker be deemed its own person with its own destiny, and not just subsidiary property of the “real” Riker?

Worf's feeling faint...

Worf’s feeling faint…

Given that Snodgrass wrote The Measure of a Man about the dangers of refusing to consider Data a person, it seems cavalier to dismiss the same question about clones. The clone isn’t growing inside Riker. The violation has already taken place, and it feels a bit spurious to suggest that the clone can be blamed for its origins. There’s a hint of an interesting story here, but Up the Long Ladder would rather feature racists clichés and suggest that asexual reproduction is inherently unnatural.

Up the Long Ladder also features a bit of a strange subplot involving Worf catching “the Klingon version of the measles.” It provides the episode’s hook, with Worf fainting on the bridge, but it is resolved conveniently by the end of (and never mentioned again after) the first act. It’s really weird. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know about Worf, so it’s not a character bit; and it’s not funny, so it’s not a comedy bit.

Afternoon Klingon Tea...

Afternoon Klingon Tea…

Sure, we get a nice little sequence of Worf inviting Pulaski to join him for a “Klingon tea ceremony” (those guys have a ceremony for everything), but it feels rather tacked on to the episode as a whole. It feels even more tangential than the Age of Ascension subplot from The Icarus Factor, even if both feel like shallow excuses to use Worf’s Kling heritage as a desperate attempt to eat up screen time.

Up the Long Ladder is pretty terrible, if only because it feels so pandering, simplistic and patronising. It really feels like the show is on autopilot here, just trying to limp towards the end of the season, which is almost in sight. Almost.

Read our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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6 Responses

  1. I don’t blameTNG for not wanting to directly tackle the controversies over abortion or homosexuality. Television doesn’t need to be explicitly didactic, and preaching of any kind usually hinders storytelling.

    Your punchline under the picture of Riker phasering the clone is accurate. Right-to-lifers who are Trek fans dislike that little moment, criticizing it as an inconsistent break with the show’s theme of protecting even the most alien and bizarre forms of life:
    http://www.speculativefaith.com/2014/01/23/honest-sci-fi-honors-life/.

    There are better ways to be relevant to contemporary problems. Pro-choice writers should try to show the themes are important to them organically. Good storytelling is not pro-life or pro-choice or anything else, it is just good storytelling. The argument comes over whether the truly good stories support “right to life” or “right to choice.” I’m a pro-lifer, so I think that good stories naturally support the inherit value of life. I can imagine that a pro-choicer could look at the same good story and argue that it’s themes really go the other way.

    • That’s a valid point.

      And it’s worth noting that, for all anybody tries to ascribe a particular political or moral philosophy to Star Trek, the franchise isn’t entirely internally consistent. For example, the first season of the original Star Trek was both pro- (The City on the Edge of Forever) and anti- (A Taste of Armageddon, Errand of Mercy) the Vietnam War. It was occasionally sympathetic to counter-culture (The Way to Eden, pandering as it was), and occasionally terrified (Operation — Annihilate!, This Side of Paradise). It couldn’t make up its mind about the Federation, which Gene L. Coon was skeptical about, but Roddenberry loved.

      So I don’t want to give the impression that I wanted an episode espousing a political viewpoint over another. The City on the Edge of Forever is a firm rejection of the anti-war movement, and at odds with the liberal values that most ascribe to Star Trek, but it’s still an absolute classic of an episode.

      My problem was more that Star Trek, as a franchise, was really at its best and most iconic dealing with these gigantic issues. People outside fandom fondly remember episodes like A Private Little War or Let That Be Your Last Battlefield because they engage with these big contemporary issues. (Even The Apple is iconic, if mainly as a source of parody.) People remember the kiss from Plato’s Stepchildren, even if they forget the context.

      I think that the Berman-era Star Trek missed a step by being so afraid of tackling big ideas directly. I’d argue that Deep Space Nine has aged the best of all the modern Star Trek shows thanks to the good fortune of airing a War on Terror allegory before the War on Terror even began.

      And I think that one of the many problems with Up the Long Ladder is that it is so afraid to say what it wants to say directly that it creates a scrambled metaphor. Riker’s clone really isn’t comparable to a rape pregnancy. It might be, if the show were willing to dig a little deeper into the issue, but Snodgrass’ script is only allowed to make the most indirect of swipes at a topic she clearly wants to address.

      You’re right about how issue-driven storytelling needs to be handled carefully, but a desire and willingness to say something about something important is still more satisfying than a lame “invasion of the space!Irish” comedy plot.

      • And it’s worth noting that, for all anybody tries to ascribe a particular political or moral philosophy to Star Trek, the franchise isn’t entirely internally consistent.

        That’s something I learned a while ago from your commentary. Keep it up!

        And I think that one of the many problems with Up the Long Ladder is that it is so afraid to say what it wants to say directly that it creates a scrambled metaphor.

        Another problem with that metaphor was how explicit and obvious the accompanying rhetoric was. It really takes the viewer out of the story and into the real-world social controversy, rather than inviting the viewer to think deeply about his or her preconconceived notions.

        a desire and willingness to say something about something important is still more satisfying than a lame “invasion of the space!Irish” comedy plot.

        Right, I can often forgive a good story that promotes an ideology I don’t like, as long as it seems legitimately sincere and internally consistent. But starting off with cheap, insensitive humor and then making a pretense of lofty social crtique is not endearing.

      • Cool. I think we’re on the same page about Up the Long Ladder then. It’s hard to believe this was the same writer who did The Measure of a Man and even Ensigns of Command. (And also a page one re-write of The Offspring.)

        And thanks for the kind words. They mean a lot.

  2. Ah, I see, after all these years, that I was not the only viewer bothered by Riker killing his own clone. That always disturbed me. Yes, it was a horrible violation of his rights that his DNA was stolen and a clone was grown from it. But he still killed another living being in cold blood, even if it was genetically identical. Yes, I am sure that some people would argue that this is exactly the same as a woman aborting a fetus, that it is cold-blooded murder. Even if you argue that what Riker did is analogous to abortion (which I do not) the fact is that for most women who undergo abortions it is NOT an easy decision. In fact, it is often an extremely difficult choice, and it is certainly not something that they just shrug off & forget about five minutes later. Which is exactly what Riker did here. He killed his own clone, treating it like it was an inanimate object, and then forgot all about it.

    I am trying to remember the exact details, but several years later the DS9 episode “A Man Alone” had Odo accused of murdering an old enemy. It later turned out that it was (of course) a frame-up, and it was done by the criminal creating a clone of himself and then murdering it. And when the criminal is finally apprehended by Odo, his line of dialogue is something like “Killing your own clone is still murder.” Well, yes, unless you happen to be William Riker!

    Oh, yeah, automatic deduction in points for the annoying, stereotypical depiction of the Irish, no matter how misguidedly well-intentioned!

    • Glad to hear I’m not alone in my dislike of that particular plot point. And of the racism towards the Irish, although there are worse stereotypes out there than “loveable drunks.”

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