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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Blood and Fire by David Gerrold (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.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry. This is actually supplementary to the first season of the Next Generation, specifically the episode Symbiosis.

The lead up to the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was full of potential. Gene Roddenberry was directly overseeing a Star Trek production for the first time since Star Trek: The Motion Picture. More than that, the producer had brought along quite a few of the talented production staff members who had helped to make the franchise so special in the first place. David Gerrold and D.C. Fontana, two of the best loved Star Trek writers of all time, would be working on the show.

Despite all that television had changed in the decades since the original Star Trek had been on the air, Roddenberry proudly boasted to fans that the franchise would continue to engage directly with the big issues of the day. After all, one of the most memorable aspects of the classic Star Trek was the show’s willingness to engage with big political issues. Even the most casual of pop culture fans remember the awkward metaphors for Vietnam or racism.

Unfortunately, The Next Generation really seemed to lack the nerve of its direct predecessor. This became quite clear early on, when veteran writer David Gerrold’s script for the proposed Blood and Fire was unceremoniously shelved, and quickly forgotten about.

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Gerrold’s script has become something of a lightening rod for discussion of this aspect of The Next Generation. Blood and Fire is a very thinly veiled AIDS allegory which would also have had the distinction of introducing the franchise’s first openly gay characters. It’s worth noting how far ahead of the time this was. Star Trek would eventually construct an allegory for AIDS over fifteen years later in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode Stigma. Over a quarter-of-a-century since the script was mothballed, there has yet to be a gay character in any official live action Star Trek production.

Blood and Fire has refused to go away. Gerrold himself has adapted the original story twice; once for his Star Wolf novels, which seem to be “how David Gerrold would have written Star Trek: The Next Generation”, and once for the fan production Star Trek: Phase II. The adaptation for Phase II was such an event that the story was expanded into a two-part episode with a special guest star Denise Crosby. It garnered considerable attention for the fan production, and reopened the whole debate two decades after it had originally taken place.

It is worth noting that the impetus for Blood and Fire wasn’t Gerrold himself. The writer was merely responding to some of Gene Roddenberry’s contemporaneous statements to fandom. As the introduction to the Star Wolf adaptation of Blood and Fire explains:

Some months before, Gene, David and others from the show had attended a science fiction convention in Boston. A gay fan in the audience pointedly asked is the new show would include gay characters, as Star Trek had been a pioneer in depicting blacks, Asians and Latinos in key roles. Gene agreed that it was tie, and he hoped to do it.

Gerrold seems to have written the script based off that promise made by Roddenberry to fandom. Indeed, in interviews concerning the script, Gerrold stresses that an AIDS allegory was included among a three-page memo of proposed story ideas from Rick Berman.

As Bruce E. Drushel documents in A Utopia Denied: Star Trek and its Queer Fans, the script was immediately divisive:

Reactions to the script from the production staff were mixed. Some staff memos criticised the homosexuality of the characters. Others praised it as a strong script. According to Mark Altman, Executive Producer Rick Berman said the episode couldn’t run in markets that had scheduled the series in the afternoon.

This is precisely the sort of network note that The Next Generation had hoped to avoid by going directly into syndication.

After all, one of Star Trek‘s proudest out-of-context moments remains the infamous kiss from Plato’s Stepchildren, which had generated many of the same sort of concerns. (Although there remains some debate as to the actual reaction it generated in the end.) The reasons for shelving Blood and Fire remain contentious today. There’s the obvious knee-jerk suggestion of homophobia – the sense that the producers were uncomfortable with possibly offending conservative viewers.

However, some commentators reject this contention. Gene Roddenberry’s right-hand man, Richard Arnold, contends that the problem wasn’t Gerrold’s inclusion of homosexual characters, but how he chose to write them:

“I knew Gerrold from 1972, and I’d read all his books up to that point. Blood and Fire was not his best work,” says Richard Arnold, Roddenberry’s research consultant on The Next Generation and a columnist for the official Star Trek newsletter. “I was almost offended by the stereotypes. The scene I remember particularly was when the gay couple was having a sort of lover’s dispute. The one we could call the wife was expressing concern to the other about getting into dangerous situations. He was saying stuff like ‘You know how much I worry about you when you’re away.’ I mean, come on. This was absolutely ridiculous — for Starfleet officers or for gay men.”

This is a slightly more palatable complaint, one that feels less like moral cowardice from the writing staff.

However, Richard Arnold is hardly the most reliable of witnesses, and his argument has a certain internal inconsistency. One of the best-loved episodes of the original Star Trek, Paul Schneider’s Balance of Terror, featured a heterosexual couple planning to wed before a crisis occurs. One of the partners is killed, leaving the other mourning. There’s no significant difference between Gerrold’s gay characters and those two heterosexual characters.

Even if those lines of dialogue were problematic, the solution would be to retool the episode, rather than to throw the whole script out. That is one of the perks of having lead-time on television production and having a large writing staff. There is room to re-work and re-write troubled scripts like this. Some of the best episodes from the show’s third season would be speculative scripts that were radically re-worked and re-written by the series’ professional writing staff. Killing the script in response to some corny dialogue is overkill.

From Gerrold’s point of view, it’s worth noting that the decision to scrap Blood and Fire effectively killed his interest in the series, leading to his departure:

There was a flurry of memos, pro and con. One memo said, “We’re going to be on at four in the afternoon in some places and we’re going to get angry letters from mommies.” My response was, “If we get people writing letters, it shows they’re involved in the show, and that’s exactly what we want. We want them engaged, and a little controversy will be great for us.” And I said, “Gene made a promise to the fans. If not here, where? If not now, when?” But the episode got shelved anyway and that’s when I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to write the very best stories we should be writing. The original show was about taking chances. If we weren’t going to take chances, we weren’t doing Star Trek. So I let my contract expire and I went off to do those other things I told you about.

Allowing a veteran with the strength of Gerrold to depart over a disagreement like this is not something that a healthy television show should be doing. Gerrold was, and remains, one of the franchise’s most interesting and intriguing writers, and the confusion and discord over Blood and Fire can’t help but feel like a disappointing end to his involvement.

But enough context. What about the script itself? It’s quite obvious, reading Blood and Fire, that this is a very early episode of The Next Generation. In many respects, the script can’t help but evoke The Naked Now, which is hardly a good sign. There’s an eerily empty science ship, a mysterious infection, hints at a more complicated relationship between Picard and Crusher and even a somewhat gratuitous shout-out to James T. Kirk and the classic Star Trek.

There’s a sense that Blood and Fire was written at a stage when the writing staff had absolutely no idea what they expected The Next Generation to be. For example, one awkward moment has Picard asking Worf how he should have dealt with Crusher’s insubordination. “You’re asking me as a Klingon?” Worf replies. “Beat her.” One hopes that the line would have been tidied up before the show made it to air, but it’s hard to be sure of anything in a season that gave us Code of Honour and Angel One.

There’s the same sort of problems one can see in many first season episodes, as the writers struggle to find the proper voices for the characters. So we get lots of awkward character exposition, as they bluntly state things at each other, and provide each other with character insights the crew should really be taking for granted. When Crusher volunteers for a risky mission, Picard tries to stop her, asking about Wesley. Crusher states, “Wesley and I have had this conversation… many times.”

This is off-set by the fact that Gerrold feels a little uncomfortable with the ground rules of The Next Generation. At one point, Wesley asks Picard why families are on board this ship that will be encountering deadly phenomenon week in and week out. Picard offers the stock answer about values and optimism and so forth, but Wesley isn’t convinced. Picard eventually concedes, “I agree with you. It is an unsatisfying answer.” Gerrold does seem to have a sense of humour about all this. One security officer reflects on how times have changed for security staff. “We don’t have bulls-eyes on our uniforms any more.”

All of this makes the episode feel a little weird, but not necessarily any more awkward than any of the first season episodes that were actually filmed. That said, Blood and Fire does trip over itself a bit when it comes to its central allegory. This is an episode about a deadly epidemic – “spores” that become “blood worms”, much as HIV develops into AIDS. There’s a surreal earnestness to all this science-fiction high-concept gimmickry, particularly when Picard engages in a blood drive to combat these evil alien space worms. “Dr. Crusher assures me that it doesn’t hurt — but it sure as hell will help.”

After all, there is a point where you spread science-fiction as metaphor too thin. While it’s a nice idea to explore the social stigma of AIDS and the government’s slow response to the crisis, it can’t help but seem a little heavy-handed when you have the captain of the Enterprise organising a blood drive. Gerrold suggested that you could add a helpline number to the end credits, and it’s hard to read the scene without imagining Patrick Stewart staring at the audience through the camera.

Things get a bit messier when you try to write that metaphor into the larger tapestry of a science-fiction thriller. It turns out that the AIDS allegory in the episode was actually genetically engineered as a biological weapon, and one of the guest stars plans to use the epidemic to commit genocide. Contextualising your very po-faced AIDS allegory as “a doomsday weapon” can’t help but evoke all those unfortunate conspiracy theories there were popular in the early days of the epidemic. To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with exploring that particular theory as part of a pulpy thriller, but in a very self-serious allegory it feels out-of-place.

Still, that’s not to say that it’s all bad. There is something to be said for heavy-handed social commentary, even when executed in a rather blunt fashion. Although far from a classic in its own right, Symbiosis remains one of the stronger episodes of the season because it has something important to say about something that matters – the fact that it’s a trite and simplistic “just say no” metaphor does hem the plot in a bit, but it immediately gives the episode more weight than something like Skin of Evil.

And there are some nice moments here. There’s a lovely little scene (that probably could have been integrated better) with the families on the Enterprise expressing their concerns to Picard about the spread of the disease. It’s a nice metaphor for the way that certain segments of society do try to quarantine and marginalise other sections in order to insulate themselves – the fact that there are two gay crew men who will be abandoned by the conventional “families” on the Enterprise is a rather stinging criticism.

In fact, Picard himself gets to deliver a rebuke that Patrick Stewart would have relished, “We’re not throwing away half the human race because the other half is scared.” It’s a very strong statement about the debt that a society owes to those under its protection, and a firm rejection of blind majoritarianism as a political morality. Yes, it’s on the nose, but in the same way that Picard’s meditations on Data’s nature in The Measure of a Man were on the nose.

Blood and Fire is not a strong script on its own merits. There’s a bit too much techno-babble, the structure is all over the place, and the central metaphor is a bit heavy-handed. However, these are far from fatal flaws. Indeed, the script of Blood and Fire is on par with quite a few of the scripts produced during the first season, and a polish could easily have elevated the material. There’s really no justification for casting the script aside so readily, and it serves as an early condemnation of The Next Generation.

The original Star Trek prided itself on trailblazing. Instead, quite a lot of The Next Generation is spent treading water on thorny issues. The show would never really engage with any of these issues, but at least Blood and Fire forced the series to be up-front about it. The scrapping of this script – as imperfect as it might be – is something of the Berman era’s original sin.

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3 Responses

  1. Apparently the producers of Next Gen had reason to be afraid to feature a Gay character. In 1992 they broadcast the episode “The Outcast” about Riker falling in love with a member of an androgynous race which identified as neither male nor female, and to identify as one or the other was forbidden. This was clearly meant to be a Gay parallel and yet was done in the most inoffensive (and I dare day) timorous approach possible. And yet in that pre-internet day Star Trek fandom exploded! The episode was condemned and called “politically correct” for being an obvious pro-Gay storyline. Hate mail was published in both the Star Trek fan club newsletter (which ordinarily never criticized Star Trek in any way) as well as in Starlog magazine. It exploded the myth of Star Trek fans being open minded and forward thinking.

    • Wow. I never knew about that fan reaction to The Outcast, although I know the studio received angry phone calls after Rejoined. It’s one of those great “maybe Star Trek fans aren’t as open-minded as they think” moments.

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