“It is you who are not real, sir”: The Big Goodbye (TNG) vs. Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang (DS9)

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “The Big Goodbye” (season 1, episode 12)

Written by Tracy Torme; directed by Joseph L. Scanlan; first aired in 1988

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Captain Picard is a little stressed from working on his greeting for a race called the Jarada, and from knowing that he could screw up the Federation’s first diplomatic contact with them in 20 years if he doesn’t get that greeting exactly right. Counselor Troi recommends that he relax in the newly upgraded holodeck, and he takes the opportunity to immerse himself in the simulated world of the fictional 1940s private detective, Dixon Hill. He’s so impressed by the simulation that he returns with Dr. Crusher, Data, and the ship’s 20th-century historian. But when an unexpected Jaradan scan of the Enterprise causes technical difficulties, they find themselves trapped in the holodeck, where Picard won’t be able to deliver his Jaradan greeting … and where a gangster’s bullet turns too real for the historian to handle.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang” (season 7, episode 15)

Written by Ira Steven Behr & Hans Beimler; directed by Mike Vejar; first aired in 1999

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Dr. Bashir and Chief O’Brien are spending some time with their favorite holographic lounge singer, Vic Fontaine, when his simulated club is suddenly bought out by Vic’s nemesis, Frankie Eyes, and is turned into a mob-controlled casino. Bashir learns that this twist is a “jack-in-the-box” included by the programmer to shake things up, and that Frankie must be outsmarted in-universe by the DS9 crew if they don’t want to lose Vic, who, hologram or not, they’ve all come to value as a friend. All except for Captain Sisko, that is, who has some understandable reservations about celebrating a 1960s Las Vegas where a black man like himself wouldn’t have been welcome as a guest. But Kasidy Yates argues that a holo-program like Vic’s allows them to live out a version of Vegas as it should have been, and Sisko eventually joins the rest of his senior staff in the holosuite … for a casino heist.   

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When we looked at the pilot episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, I noted that the early episodes of TNG bore the responsibility of reintroducing Star Trek to a weekly primetime TV audience, after a number of decades during which Trek existed only on film and in syndicated reruns from the 1960s. Part of this process took the form of attempting to recreate the familiar sense of wonder that fans of the 60s series might have felt, both in those same fans, if they were returning, and in a new, younger audience as well (hence the inclusion of both the Original Series’ Dr. McCoy as a guest star in “Encounter at Farpoint”, and young Wesley Crusher as a member of the main cast). Another part of this process was the introduction of new sources of wonder, to reflect the fact that TNG was set nearly a century after TOS. This accounts for the way “Encounter at Farpoint” can feel, at times, more like a guided tour than an episode of television, as in the conspicuously long scenes of the Enterprise D’s saucer section separating from, and then reconnecting to, its drive section.

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Another contribution “Encounter at Farpoint” made to Trek tech – one which checks both those boxes, sentimental wonder and something new – was the holodeck, technology allowing its users to create and interact with solid holograms of objects, places, and people. Unlike saucer separation, rarely seen after “Encounter”, the holodeck went on to become an absolute staple of TNG, DS9, and Voyager, and it’s not hard to understand why. Like transporters and replicators, the holodeck’s real-world applications and appeal are obvious and universal. It’s a classic sci-fi concept, with fascinating implications for how it might be used by the advanced society of the 24th-century Federation: not just for entertainment and crew training, we can imagine, but for education, counseling … you name it. But, while the holodeck only appears in one scene of “Encounter at Farpoint”, it’s telling that this new technology’s most significant use in that scene is to allow Wesley to fall in a holographic lake, and leave him tracking water through the non-holographic hallways of the Enterprise, annoying the hell out of Captain Picard. Intentionally or not, this scene foreshadows the fact that future holodeck-centered episodes would tend to be much more interested in how the holodeck could be used wrong than in how it could be used right.

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This tradition would be immediately established by Trek’s first fully holodeck-centred episode, TNG’s “The Big Goodbye”. Picard’s narration of his first visit to the Dixon Hill detective novel simulation, and his almost uncharacteristic enthusiasm for it, do get us thinking, early on, about the fascinating possibilities of this technology. But it’s significant, I think, that when he leaves the holodeck after his first short visit, we, the audience, see one of Dixon Hill’s enemies enter his office and wonder where Hill went, even after the holodeck door has closed behind the Captain. This has the effect, early on, of subtly priming us to think of the holodeck as a sort of Frankenstein monster; no matter how impressive it all might be, what happens if we can’t control the simulated people, if they turn out to have minds of their own? And of course this is exactly what happens later in the episode, when technical difficulties somehow deactivate the program’s safeties (raising the question of why in the universe those safeties have an off switch at all), leaving Picard and company at the mercy of the villainous Cyrus Redblock and his ambitions of plundering whatever world lies beyond the holodeck. Those ambitions are foiled by the fact that Redblock and his henchman are only out of the holodeck for a few seconds before they start to gradually vanish (by the rules of the holodeck as they would be established in later episodes, they probably shouldn’t have made it through that door at all, but it’s allowed here just to give Lawrence Tierney a little more time to chew scenery as Redblock). But Picard is left trying to console Dixon Hill’s police detective friend, McNary, who now knows that he’s a hologram.

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As with much of “The Big Goodbye”, that final existential conversation between Picard and McNary works much better for me as part of Picard’s Dixon Hill LARP than it does as philosophical musing, or as a warning against the dangers of unchecked technological progress (both of which, I think, the episode vaguely gestures at, but never really lays the proper groundwork for). In general, my favorite parts of the episode are those that focus on our characters experiencing the simulation as a simulation, as a piece of interactive fiction. Picard’s delight at being interrogated, for instance, is a lot of fun to watch, and it makes a certain sense that Data would revel in the fact that, in this cliché-ridden simulation, he can blend in with (simulated) humans simply by parroting stock phrases, in a way that doesn’t work, day to day, with the (actual) humans on the Enterprise. And while the woman-pining-for-an-oblivious-man aspect of Crusher and Picard’s relationship, here, is a bit tired and tropey, I do like the idea that being immersed in a fictional world might free them to act on any feelings they might have, outside of the restrictions of Starfleet protocol and chain of command. This is, in fact, exactly the sort of thing I want to see explored in holodeck-centric episodes. What if, for instance, members of the crew had completely different relationships with each other (romantic or otherwise) on the holodeck than in their daily life as members of the ship’s crew? Would easy access to the holodeck turn LARP into everyone’s favorite pastime in the 24th century? What would that look like, socially, in a contained community like the crew of a starship?

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Even the specific setting of this episode’s holodeck adventure is ripe with questions “The Big Goodbye” could ask, if it wasn’t preoccupied with asking what happens when a piece of complex, probably-heavily-regulated technology magically turns against its users. For instance, it would be interesting if the episode explored the differences between actual 1940s American history and detective fiction set in the 40s – a distinction the characters themselves conspicuously fail to make. It’s significant that Picard chooses to bring not an expert in 20th-century fiction, but a 20th-century historian with him when he returns to the Dixon Hill program … an historian who makes a point of taunting Redblock’s henchman with detective-fiction clichés. The episode makes a point of establishing the time and place of the simulation by having Data explain the actual history of Joe DiMaggio, while stock settings like the police station, or stock plot elements like Picard’s interrogation, are treated by the characters as accurate artifacts of a particular time, rather than tropes from a particular genre of fiction. I find this distractingly problematic – the Dixon Hill novels aren’t meant to be history books any more than Downton Abbey is a documentary – and what’s more, it represents a real missed opportunity. By focusing on half-heartedly asking whether holodeck characters are “real” or not (which, from a 2018 perspective, seems about as profound as asking if the NPCs from Skyrim are “real” or not), the episode misses the chance to use the holodeck to acknowledge that there are different degrees of “real”, both in fiction and in our understanding of the past. Instead, the episode uses its setting, however historical and/or fictional it might be, simply as the backdrop for a fairly cliched ‘isn’t technology great until it inevitably tries to kill you’ story.

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I can imagine how some TV writers might respond to my criticism of the harmless-simulation-turned-death-trap trope: of course things go wrong when characters use the holodeck, because if things went right, there’d be no story. And sure, this is true, to an extent. I just think it’s much more interesting when the things that go wrong with a fictional technology actually reflect the interesting implications of that specific technology, and not a simplistic, generalized fear of technology ‘going too far’. To be fair, we would get this from some later holodeck episodes, like TNG’s “Hollow Pursuits”, or my personal favorite use of the holodeck, Voyager’s “Worst Case Scenario”. But more often than not, holodeck episodes would follow the format set by “The Big Goodbye”, and manufacture drama by turning the holodeck into a place where bullets really are bullets (just like they are, you know, outside the holodeck). In other words, they would tell stories about the holodeck turning into something other than a holodeck, instead of just telling stories about the holodeck.

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When I compared “Encounter at Farpoint” to DS9’s first episode, “Emissary”, I also acknowledged that at least some of what I liked better about “Emissary” could be attributed to the fact that it was launching DS9 from very different starting position than TNG. Where “Encounter at Farpoint” was the first live-action episode of Trek to premiere on TV in almost 2 decades, DS9 was the first series of Trek to start before the previous series had stopped; where TNG’s pilot, and arguably its entire first season, was visibly saddled with the responsibility of justifying itself by simultaneously attracting new Trek fans and satisfying existing ones, “Emissary” first aired, a few years later, in a world where TNG had already done the hard work of building a spot for it on mainstream, primetime 90s television. This privileged starting position gave DS9 the leeway to take the kinds of risks, and make the kinds of formal and narrative adjustments to the existing Trek formula, that have made it surprisingly timeless, and consistently relevant.

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And the contrast between “The Big Goodbye” and “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang” is even starker, in terms of their relative positions in Trek history. “Goodbye” was a part of those first-season growing pains for TNG, even if it is a much better episode of television, overall, than “Encounter at Farpoint”. “Badda-Bing”, on the other hand, aired in the seventh and final season of DS9, and was, in fact, the last episode of the series not to focus on the ongoing Dominion War storyline that would bring the series to its conclusion. Unlike “Goodbye”, “Badda-Bing” was the product of a series at its most confident, both in terms of storytelling and its place in the Trek canon (with Voyager set to keep Trek’s primetime legacy going after DS9 ended, an assurance TNG didn’t yet have in its first year). That confidence, I think, allows “Badda-Bing” to do something “Goodbye” didn’t, and maybe couldn’t: trust that Trek’s audience will be perfectly happy to spend an hour watching the characters just using holodeck technology, more or less as it was intended, without it going all Skynet on them.

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Of course, DS9 did its own dabbling in the ‘deadly holodeck’ genre over the years (don’t get me started on “Our Man Bashir”). But after 7 years of establishing its own approach to balancing heavy and light subjects, DS9’s last season gave us both “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang” and “Take Me Out to the Holosuite”, two episodes which use holodeck technology not as an adversary or an obstacle, but as a backdrop against which to show us a slice of life aboard the station. At a time when the series was largely dominated by serious, high-stakes war stories, these episodes were a welcome reminder of the normality the characters must be longing for, with the station’s holosuites serving as a relatively mundane (albeit very useful) element of that normal life. “Badda-Bing”, in particular, shows the Vic’s Place program as something we can recognize today as, essentially, a video game, or some other form of interactive fiction. This allows the episode to focus on the unquestionably real and meaningful role that games and fiction plays in the lives of these characters, and not make a fuss, as “The Big Goodbye” does, over whether what happens in the holosuite is ‘real’ or not (a distinction which just makes a lot less sense today than it would have in the largely pre-Internet late 1980s of TNG’s first season; if that last bill I paid online doesn’t count as ‘real’, then I might have some trouble posting this to the blog).

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I like the use of the “jack-in-the-box” in Vic’s program as a plot device to get DS9’s senior staff all dressed up and pulling a heist; not only is it recognizable as something we might encounter in our games or fiction in the real world of today – be it an easter egg, an add-on, or even an update that suddenly throws your old familiar phone into chaos – but it also allows the characters to rob a virtual casino because they decide to, not because some malfunction forced them to. Their lives aren’t at stake, but their game, their fiction, is: as much fun as the characters (and the actors playing them) are obviously having, they go into the heist knowing that the program might permanently replace Vic’s Place with Frankie Eyes’ mob casino if they’re not successful. With life and death already at stake in the Dominion War as it rages outside the holosuites, the stakes in this episode can be smaller and less dramatic, but still meaningful; fighting against the Dominion keeps them alive and free, but it’s the games and stories they share with each other that keep them human (or Bajoran, or Ferengi, or what have you). And while this episode is mainly meant to be fun – a chance to decompress, for both the characters and the audience, in between darker, more serious episodes – it does allow for some subtle reflection on how meaningful these games and stories can be to the characters. When Worf wonders why his crewmates would care so much about the holographic Vic Fontaine, they all have their own stories of how Vic has helped them through tough times in their real lives, much as real-world fans of Trek (or Buffy, or The X-Files, etc., etc.) often do. This is what I meant, above, by “degrees of ‘real’”; the crew don’t argue over how sentient Vic might or might not be – whether there’s an argument to be made there or not – because he doesn’t need to be sentient to mean something to them, no more than Kira or Kasidy or Sisko need to be actual, existing people to be meaningful to us.

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And when a significant, substantial argument is made against indulging in the fiction of Vic’s Place, again, it’s an argument which assumes that fictional worlds like Vic’s are real, on some level, to the people who enjoy them. Where Worf is simply dismissive of his crewmates’ attachment to Vic’s Place, Sisko is actively opposed to it for specific, historical reasons:

Sisko: Look, this is not about Vic Fontaine.
Kasidy: Then what is your problem?
S: You want to know? You really want to know what my problem is? I’ll tell you. Las Vegas, 1962, that’s my problem. In 1962, black people weren’t very welcome there. Oh sure, they could be performers, or janitors, but customers? Never.
K: Maybe that’s the way it was in the real Vegas, but that is
not the way it is at Vic’s. I have never felt uncomfortable there, and neither has Jake.
S: But don’t you see, that’s the lie! In 1962, the Civil Rights movement was still in its infancy. It wasn’t an easy time for our people, and I’m not going to pretend that it was.
K: Baby, I know that Vic’s isn’t a totally accurate representation of the way things were, but it isn’t
meant to be. It shows us the way things could have been. The way they should’ve been.
S: We cannot ignore the truth about the past!
K: Going to Vic’s isn’t going to make us forget who we are or where we came from. What it does is it reminds us that we’re no longer bound by any limitations, except the ones we impose on ourselves.

Where “The Big Goodbye” spends time wondering how ‘real’ the world of Dixon Hill is in a metaphysical sense, but ignores the way that world conflates fiction with history, “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang” does the opposite; it dismisses the metaphysical questions so that it can focus on the historical ones. In doing so, it engages in an upfront, nuanced discussion of race – in the real-world, non-science-fictiony context of that word – of the sort that DS9 had tackled before (as in the excellent 6th-season episode “Far Beyond the Stars”), but which every other series of Trek has almost entirely avoided. It also allows Sisko to make a very valid point about the role fiction can play in the whitewashing of history, by encouraging us to romanticize images of the past without thinking too hard about the reality behind them. I’m ambivalent about Kasidy’s argument: “we’re no longer bound by any limitations, except the ones we impose on ourselves” makes sense in the fictional utopia of the 24th-century Federation, but it isn’t true (and is, in fact, a common and harmful myth) when applied to the real world of the present day. But otherwise, I like that their argument is left somewhat unresolved, with both of them making valid points … after all, fiction is both a tool for perpetuating inequality, and a means of proposing alternatives to inequality. Sure, Sisko relents and joins his senior staff in the heist, because of course we want to see Avery Brooks playing the high roller, and belting out a tune with James Darren at the end for good measure – that’s exactly the kind of fun this episode was made for. But we never see him actually relent in his position on the dangers of “the lie”, and the episode is all the better for it, I think. Even as it focuses on what fun the holodeck could be, “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang” poses more interesting questions in that one conversation than most holodeck-centered episodes do in their entire running time.

 

 

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