“I Love Lucy is on tonight”: Little Green Men (DS9) vs. Carbon Creek (ENT)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Little Green Men” (season 4, episode 8)

Teleplay by Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolf; story by Toni Marberry and Jack Trevino; directed by James L. Conway; first aired in 1995

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Quark, Rom, and Nog take a trip to Earth in Quark’s new starship, to drop Nog off at Starfleet Academy in San Francisco, and to do a little light smuggling on the way. But some timey-wimey technical difficulties land the three Ferengi in the year 1947 … and in Roswell, New Mexico, where they’re studied as “Martians” by the US military. Quark figures that a planet of primitive humans willing to poison their own bodies with cigarettes, and poison their own planet with atom bombs, should be ripe for the taking. But when the military goes from studying the Ferengi to violently interrogating them, they’ll need help from a sympathetic medic and her scientist fiancé – and from Odo, who’d stowed away to catch them in the act of smuggling – to get back to the 24th century before they become the subject of an alien autopsy.    

VS.

Star Trek: Enterprise – “Carbon Creek” (season 2, episode 2)

Teleplay by Chris Black; story by Rick Berman, Brannon Braga, and Dan O’Shannon; directed by James Contner; first aired in 2002

(IMDB | Memory Alpha)

On her first anniversary as a member of Enterprise’s crew, T’Pol has dinner with Captain Archer and Trip. At their prompting, she tells the story of her great-grandmother, T’Mir, who was a part of Earth’s actual first contact with Vulcans … when her survey ship crashed near the small mining town of Carbon Creek, Pennsylvania, in 1957. For most of the episode, we follow T’Mir and the Vulcan crew members under her command, Stron and Mestral, as they take up residence in the town while waiting for rescue, passing for human by covering their ears, taking on odd jobs, and watching I Love Lucy. Unlike T’Mir and Stron, Mestral is quite taken with humans in general, and one human in particular: Maggie, a local bar owner. While T’Mir doesn’t approve of Mestral’s willingness to involve himself in human society, she ultimately respects his decision to remain on Earth … and helps Maggie’s son pay for college by inventing Velcro.     

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The aliens of Star Trek have never been particularly three-dimensional. This is something the franchise has drawn criticism for over the years; as our own real world has become smaller and more interconnected, Trek’s tendency to pigeonhole the population of entire planets into a single reductive phrase – ‘warrior race’, to pick a classic – has become increasingly uncomfortable. It’s a valid criticism, and I’m not going to argue against it, but I do think it’s worth noting that Trek is deeply rooted in a less naturalistic, more allegorical approach to storytelling than we see in much of today’s pop culture. Where we might expect the science fiction of today to give a great deal of depth and realism to its alien cultures, Trek has often treated its aliens as metaphors more than people. Its alien characters often weren’t meant to represent a whole, fictional culture, so much as they were meant to stand in for isolated elements of the human condition: it’s notable that the first alien species encountered in an episode of Trek – the Talosians of “The Cage” – served almost entirely as an allegory (in their case, as an allegory for fears that new technologies, like television, might leave us all so addicted to escapism that we’d become unable to function as a society).

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As some of these alien species became integral parts of Trek’s ever-expanding continuity, the impulse among fans was to ascribe more depth to these cultures than they’d been given on screen. And, as one generation of Trek fans became the next generation (sorry) of Trek writers, this impulse was translated into storylines which actually attempted to show some of this depth on screen. The Klingon ‘warrior race’, again, is probably the most obvious, most famous (or infamous) example of this process. Star Trek: Discovery has taken flak from some fans over its redesign and retconning of the Klingons, but the complaint that Discovery’s Klingons aren’t ‘real’ Klingons has never made sense to me. When they first appeared, in the original Star Trek, the Klingons were a shallow allegory for America’s fears of its Cold War adversaries of the time, and each of the many tweaks that have been made to their backstory – and their makeup – since then has been an attempt, successful or not, to add a level of depth and realism that would be more satisfying to audiences of the time. There are no ‘real’ Klingons; they’ve always been whatever each installment of the franchise has needed them to be.

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While the Klingons might be the highest-profile example of Trek’s ever-evolving approach to its aliens, the Vulcans and the Ferengi make excellent examples in their own right. It could be argued that the concept of Vulcans as purely logical beings was originally invented for the sole purpose of making Spock a uniquely qualified foil for Captain Kirk: looking at TOS’s second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, we already see Spock as the first officer who’s there to temper Kirk’s gut feelings with his own dispassionate, unsentimental logic, treating the newly-godlike Gary Mitchell as the deadly threat that he is, while Kirk is still somewhat blinded by his own friendship with Mitchell. Since then, Trek’s portrayal of Vulcans has alternated between representing a level of sober reasoning humans should aspire to, and representing the supposed dangers of cold logic divorced from gut feelings … and has often leaned towards the latter, putting Spock and subsequent Vulcan characters – notably Enterprise’s T’Pol – in the role of Pinocchio, playing them as incomplete aliens who should aspire to be – and who gradually become, whether they want to or not – more human.

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We see an even more exaggerated example of this in the Ferengi, an alien race who, when first introduced in The Next Generation, had literally no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. The very first mention of them, in “Encounter at Farpoint”, is a cryptic, offhand reference to their tendency to eat their business partners. While this detail was dropped going forward, it was a good first indication of how over-the-top irredeemable the Ferengi would be when we first met them. One of the more polarizing species ever to appear in Trek, the Ferengi as first portrayed on TNG – fur-clad, misogynistic, capitalist goblins – could be held up as a gleeful takedown of the worst impulses of 1980s America … or they could be written off as an unhelpfully cartoonish take on real injustices that real people with real power really get away with (I mean, it’s not like any creepy, misogynistic capitalists who rose to prominence in the 80s still hold positions of great power today … right?). Deep Space Nine would arguably make great steps toward giving the Ferengi an actual culture: from the moment we first meet Quark in “Emissary” – speaking without the whiny nasal growl that had been standard-issue for TNG’s Ferengi, and clearly demonstrating a level of nuanced intelligence that certainly wasn’t standard-issue for the Ferengi who came before him – it’s obvious that DS9’s take on the Ferengi will be more three-dimensional than TNG’s. Still, even this better-fleshed-out version of Ferengi society would still be presented, throughout DS9, as needing to become more enlightened by, naturally, becoming more like human society.

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It’s interesting, then, that much of the humor in DS9’s “Little Green Men” lies in how barbaric the humans of 1947 appear to a group of 24th-century Ferengi. “Little Green Men” is an enormously fun episode, with consistently clever dialogue and character-based jokes, but what makes it more than just fun for me – and what surprised me most when I rewatched it – is the mileage it gets out of inverting Trek’s old trope of using alien species as a mirror to reflect one isolated aspect of humanity. Having the comically capitalistic Ferengi express wide-eyed horror at 21st-century humans’ willingness to poison their own environment, and at the fact that they can legally buy cigarettes in stores, could come off as heavy-handed, sure … but it’s also an impressively self-aware inversion of the heavy-handedness with which Trek has often approached its aliens, in comparison to its seemingly more highly-evolved humans.

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The episode achieves this inversion, in part, by populating 1947 Roswell with character archetypes pulled straight from an old monster movie. Not only do these characters smoke – something we’ve literally never seen any 23rd or 24th century humans do – but they chain-smoke like cartoon chimneys. Similarly, the Roswell characters – such as a perfectly-cast Charles Napier as the cigar-chewing general – all embody exaggerated, B-movie stereotypes: the nurse is an idealist whose vision of the future, though surprisingly accurate, isn’t taken seriously by her fiancé, an out-of-touch ivory-tower intellectual; and the other military officers are gruff, short-sighted, and small-minded in a way that’s typical to old monster movies (and which, it’s worth noting, I would be surprised to see in a Hollywood TV series today, given the way public attitudes toward the military have shifted after a decade and a half of constant military deployment). These characters, and the archetypes they embody, don’t create a sense of nostalgia for late-1940s America – quite the opposite. They present a critical, satirical, and highly stylized view of mid-20th century humans that deliberately casts them as less sophisticated even than the Ferengi, who, as mentioned above, are typically taken to represent some of the worst impulses of late-20th century humans (as perfectly communicated, I think, by Quark’s rumination on the importance of “short-term quarterly gains” over all else).

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In contrast, Enterprise’s “Carbon Creek” places its own trio of aliens – Vulcans, in this case – into a decidedly more nostalgic, less critical vision of late-1950s America, in the form of the fictional town of Carbon Creek. The human characters here are less broadly drawn, though they still embody familiar archetypes: the struggling but perseverant single mother; the brilliant and surprisingly open-minded small-town kid who everyone knows is destined for greatness, but can’t afford to go to college. But where “Little Green Men” used its archetypal human characters to turn Trek’s familiar human-alien dynamic on its head, “Carbon Creek” keeps that dynamic firmly right-side-up. These human characters are meant to optimistically embody human potential (in much the same way that Enterprise, as a series, tries, successfully or not, to make the case that humans were capable of great things even before they reached the level of enlightenment we’d see from them in the 23rd and 24th centuries). Where the humans of “Little Green Men” seem ironically “savage” to the Ferengi, “Carbon Creek” takes the much more familiar approach of expecting its Vulcan characters, no matter how technologically advanced they may be, to learn something from the humans they encounter.

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Don’t get me wrong: much like “Little Green Men”, “Carbon Creek” is a lot of fun, and takes an equal amount of care in creating an engaging human past for its alien characters to spend time in. The period details – like frozen fish sticks and I Love Lucy – are just as immersive as those in “Little Green Men”, if less biting. And the portrayal of 50s America certainly isn’t as simplistic and by-the-numbers as it could have been; Mestral’s attempt to make money by hustling a human in pool, for instance, could easily have been a cake-walk for him, or he could have ironically lost, but instead, and much more satisfyingly, we see him struggle at first with the reality of the game, before successfully applying theory to win. This works well, I think, as a clever foreshadowing of Mestral’s willingness to learn from the humans, rather than assuming his own superiority to them, as T’Mir and Stron (mostly) do.

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My only real problem with “Carbon Creek” is that it lacks that extra ingredient we get from “Little Green Men”; “Carbon Creek” doesn’t play with the idea of aliens as incomplete, partial humans, but embraces that trope unironically. The episode treats T’Mir very much the way Enterprise tends to treat T’Pol in general – as rigid raw material that might, if she’s lucky, be reshaped by her close proximity to humans. It’s telling, I think, that even though the episode is presented as a story T’Pol is telling about her great-grandmother, it’s Mestral, not T’Mir, who is largely presented as the protagonist of the story; he is, repeatedly, the member of the Vulcan trio who proposes courses of action which are opposed by the other two, but which he ultimately follows. This is, I think, no coincidence. We’re given indications early on that Mestral may not be a typical Vulcan, as when, unlike the other two, he is fully willing to kill and eat a deer, giving up his Vulcan vegetarianism surprisingly easily. “Carbon Creek” is, ultimately, a story about an alternate first contact between Vulcans and humans in which it’s the Vulcans, not the humans, who have something to gain (which, frankly, seems to be the kind of first contact story Enterprise is more comfortable with … the kind it wishes the film First Contact had left it with in the first place). And it’s Mestral, apparently more open-minded than most Vulcans, who is the centre of this revised first contact story, because he is most receptive to learning what we humans apparently have to teach … though T’Mir, like T’Pol, can’t help but be changed a little by humans (and T’Mir even invents Velcro to pay humans back!).

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In the end, the difference between these two fun, inventive episodes seems to reflect a vital difference between their respective series. Where Deep Space Nine is willing to take a step back and look critically at some of the tropes it inherited from TOS and TNG, Enterprise tends, instead, to double down on those tropes. Where DS9 is willing to complicate humanity’s place in the universe, Enterprise is more comfortable insisting that the universe has something to learn from us.

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I’m well aware that I tend to be hard on Enterprise … even on an episode like “Carbon Creek”, which I quite enjoyed watching. So, next time, we’ll look at an episode of Enterprise that even I have to admit is genuinely great – and one which finally gives Jolene Blalock something really interesting to do as T’Pol – when we compare Voyager’s “Before and After” to Enterprise’s “Twilight”!

 

One thought on ““I Love Lucy is on tonight”: Little Green Men (DS9) vs. Carbon Creek (ENT)

  1. It’s been a long time since I saw that episode in which Quark and family crash landed in the 50s, my impression was that Quark was happy that humans back then had fewer rules about what they could buy and sell because he figured if he was stuck there, he could take advantage of them.

    Liked by 1 person

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