“Use logic more quietly”: Empok Nor (DS9) vs. Impulse (Enterprise)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Empok Nor” (season 5, episode 24)

empok 11Teleplay by Hans Beimler; story by Bryan Fuller; directed by Mike Vejar; first aired in 1997

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

In need of replacement parts for Deep Space Nine’s Cardassian-made equipment, Chief O’Brien plans a salvage mission to another Cardassian station, this one abandoned. Fearing the traps typically left behind in abandoned Cardassian military facilities, O’Brien brings along Garak, the Cardassian no one believes is just a tailor, as well as a very eager Cadet Nog, and a few proverbial red-shirts. The runabout ride to Empok Nor station is already tense, as Garak tries to push O’Brien’s buttons by bringing up his combat experience in the Federation-Cardassian war. And things only get tenser when the team arrives on the station – a dark, creepy mirror image of DS9 – and finds empty stasis pods which once held two Cardassian soldiers, drugged to become xenophobic killing machines. Those Cardassians are now stalking the away team, slasher-movie style, and manage to murder most of the redshirts before being stopped, and killed, by Garak. Unfortunately, Garak has been exposed to the same drug as his fellow Cardassians, and he turns on the rest of the team, murdering the last redshirt himself. He captures Nog, and goads O’Brien into one-on-one battle, soldier to soldier, in order to rescue the cadet. But as the Chief reminds Garak, he isn’t a soldier anymore, but an engineer – an engineer who rigs his tricorder and phaser to explode, incapacitating Garak. Back on DS9, O’Brien visits a remorseful, recovering Garak in sickbay, and reassures him that he wasn’t responsible for his actions … while admitting that he would have killed Garak, if need be, which Garak, of all people, understands.

VS.

Star Trek: Enterprise – “Impulse” (season 3, episode 5)

impulse 5Teleplay by Jonathan Fernandez; story by Jonathan Fernandez & Terry Matalas; directed by David Livingston; first aired in 2003

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

We open in sickbay, where Captain Archer and Dr. Phlox struggle to restrain a ranting, violent T’Pol. One day earlier, we follow the Enterprise crew, in the midst of their mission in the Delphic Expanse, as they receive and investigate a distress call from a Vulcan ship, the Seleya, on which T’Pol once served. Finding the Seleya adrift in an asteroid field, Archer and T’Pol join an away team to board the Seleya by shuttle, while Trip leads an attempt to harvest trellium from the asteroids, a substance needed to safeguard the ship against the spatial anomalies common throughout the Expanse. Onboard the Seleya, Archer’s team find themselves in a dimly-lit space-zombie apocalypse; the Vulcan crew are technically alive, though “undead” might better describe the eerily silent, unwell-looking Vulcans who attack the away team. As they fight for their lives, tensions rise between the rest of the team and T’Pol, who is clearly being affected by the same substance that zombified the other Vulcans – trellium, which turns out to be toxic to Vulcans, and weakens their emotional control. An increasingly paranoid and distraught T’Pol becomes convinced that Archer is still nursing his old grudge against Vulcans and can’t be trusted, and when he okays a plan to shut down power to the doors which block their way back to the shuttle – a plan which will, unfortunately, cause an eventual warp core breach and kill the Seleya’s already-too-far-gone crew – she turns on him, forcing him to stun her. They barely escape the Seleya before it explodes, but are left with a new problem: how to fortify the ship with trellium without zombifying T’Pol (or leaving her on a random planet, which she suggests, but Archer refuses). While T’Pol recovers in sickbay – physically, at least – she finds herself having nightmares about Vulcan zombie attacks, and is left questioning her ability to control her emotions.

empok 4 Last Halloween, we looked at episodes of The Next Generation and Voyager which played with some standard horror tropes in the context of the Star Trek universe: the interesting but not quite successful “Night Terrors,” in which the crew’s fears manifest as stock horror imagery; and “The Haunting of Deck Twelve,” a fun take on campfire ghost stories, and a clever deconstruction of the tropes (and the fandom) of Star Trek itself. But Trek has done its fair share of homages to specific genres of horror, as well, and for Halloween this year, we’ll look at Deep Space Nine’s tribute to slasher films like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) itself. We’ll also look at Enterprise’s take on a zombie apocalypse, which first aired, weirdly enough, on the exact same day that the first issue of The Walking Dead comic series was published – October 8, 2003 – and coincided with the beginning of that genre’s 21st-century resurgence, pre-dating both Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake (also 2004), as well as, of course, The Walking Dead TV series (airing from 2010 to the present, and possibly continuing until an actual apocalypse happens).

empok 5I’m not much of a slasher movie fan, to be honest, but even I can see why the original Halloween works, and why it’s had so many sequels and imitators over the years. The way it turns a seemingly safe, suburban neighborhood into the scene of its horror – not a location that’s new to the victims, like the Bates Motel in Psycho (1960), but their own upper-middle-class homes – remains deeply unnerving to this day. Deep Space Nine’s “Empok Nor,” either by design or to stay under budget, takes a page from this book by making its titular deserted Cardassian space station virtually identical, inside and out, to Terok Nor, or Deep Space Nine itself. Besides making in-universe sense and saving the production staff time and money, this choice pays off for the audience from the moment we first see Empok Nor on the runabout’s viewscreen. That first glimpse of the station, looking so familiar but drifting at such an odd angle, immediately puts us on edge, and that feeling continues as our characters venture inside. Our first look inside Empok Nor is from Garak’s point of view, as he enters the darkened airlock in an environmental suit, which, significantly, is one standard element of science fiction we’ve seen actually quite rarely from Star Trek; on TV especially, Trek’s vision of life in space is one in which, the vast majority of the time, people can pretty much just walk around freely, without gravity boots, a portable oxygen supply, or what have you. To see one of our characters wearing an environmental suit, in a setting where they’d normally be walking around as freely as we do here on Earth, is an immediate visual cue that things aren’t quite right, and even once the away team is moving through the station unencumbered, the sight of such familiar sets as the promenade all dark and deserted keeps the tension level high.

empok 2Another famously creepy element of Halloween is its paradoxical portrayal of the William Shatner-masked killer, Michael Myers: on the one hand, Myers is less a person than a force of nature, possessing no real character traits besides a tendency to murder folks; on the other hand, “Michael Myers” is a deliberately innocuous-sounding name, and the film’s camera work often puts the audience firmly in his point of view, forcing us to identify, uncomfortably, with “the evil,” as Dr. Loomis calls him. This is where “Empok Nor” differs somewhat from Halloween, and where it is, perhaps, not entirely successful in what it’s trying to do. The episode does borrow the killer’s-POV-cam trick (as have so many slasher films since Halloween), occasionally filming from the unnamed Cardassian soldiers’ perspectives. But those soldiers are far from a force of nature; for all the exposition we’re given about how badass they must be based on their regimental badges, they’re dispatched pretty easily by Garak, so that he can become the real threat of the episode. This twist makes the last third or so of “Empok Nor” a different kind of story than it had been up to that point, deriving its horror not from some unknowable outside threat, but from seeing a familiar and beloved character behaving frighteningly out of character, in much the same way that it’s scary to see the familiar-looking promenade dark, abandoned, and eventually, decorated with  dead redshirts, whom Garak has strung up to “cheer on” Chief O’Brien during their duel.

empok 10But that scene, the culmination of Garak’s turn to the dark side, illustrates the episode’s weaknesses. First, there’s the redshirts themselves – the four Starfleet officers O’Brien brings to Empok Nor, whom we’ve never seen before, and whom it’s fairly obvious, from the first moment we meet them, we’re not ever going to be seeing again after this episode. Now, the clearly-slated-to-die character is a well-worn tradition in both slasher movies and Star Trek, the latter of which helpfully provided pop culture with the term “redshirt” to describe this very phenomenon. But as someone who’s not typically into slasher movies, I’ll say that this trope – knowing, as we meet the characters, that most of them will be dead before the end of the movie – is a big part of what keeps me from getting into the genre. Your mileage may vary, of course, and if you are into slasher movies, then this probably doesn’t bother you – you’ve accepted it as a part of the genre, the same way I’ve accepted that most alien species in Star Trek are, improbably, almost identical to humans. But personally, I find it very hard to care what happens in a story if I don’t care about the characters, and I find it very hard to care about characters if I know that the story’s going to treat them like cannon fodder. Of course, there are interesting ways that a slasher movie, or an episode of Star Trek for that matter, can play with those expectations; “Empok Nor” could have genuinely surprised me if one of the redshirts hadn’t died, but instead, it did exactly what I expected, by killing them all off.

empok 9This lessens the impact of all their deaths, which may be intentional, in order for Garak to be let off the hook, by the episode’s end, for killing one of them. But this, too, is a weakness of the episode – probably its biggest weakness. When it comes to Garak breaking bad, the episode either goes too far, or not far enough. His posing of the dead redshirts for O’Brien to see is not just gruesome, but premeditated in a way that makes it hard to accept that he bears no responsibility, as O’Brien and Dr. Bashir both later tell us, for his actions on Empok Nor. And by the same token, ending the episode with no lasting consequences for Garak – hitting the same reset button I’ve so often criticized Voyager for hitting – greatly reduces the horror of having him break bad in the first place, since I care a lot more about Garak, and about what consequences he could have faced, than I do about the random, obvious redshirt he kills. Ultimately, I think that what “Empok Nor” wants to say – that both Garak and O’Brien have potentially scary sides to themselves that they hope they’ll never need – may be slightly out of sync with the choice to model its structure and style after slasher films, which depend on a much clearer distinction between monsters and victims.

impulse 2Where the slasher movie stylings of “Empok Nor” don’t entirely mesh with the story it’s telling, Enterprise’s “Impulse” tells a story which understands not just the tropes, but the themes, of zombie fiction. I may not be a big fan of slasher films, but I am a sucker for a zombie apocalypse, and for post-apocalyptic fiction in general, despite being a bit uncomfortable with one of the core assumptions of the genre: that society is just one big calamity away from collapsing entirely, and that most of us would, inevitably, be at each others’ throats shortly after that happened. In zombie apocalypse fiction specifically, this view of human nature as the real threat is the source of much of the subgenre’s satire and social commentary, as when characters in both George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and its 2004 remake note the zombies’ tendency to flock, unthinkingly, to the mall; or when the protagonist of Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968), a black man, survives the zombie hordes only to be shot and killed by a posse of white zombie-hunters, led and sanctioned by law enforcement. (I’m aware that Romero was on the record as saying he simply wasn’t thinking about race when he cast an actor of color in that role, or when he filmed that scene, but with all due respect to Romero, I don’t believe that for a second.) This dim view of human nature also informs the narrative structure of much zombie fiction, with the core conflict of the story often turning out to be between factions of surviving, unzombified humans, not between humans and the zombies themselves, who play the role of an environmental threat, an obstacle more than an antagonist. The Walking Dead is probably the go-to pop-culture example of this, with its highest-profile storylines, both in the comics and on TV, revolving around larger-than-life human villains like the foul-mouthed, barbed-wire-bat-wielding Negan. But I personally can’t think of a piece of zombie fiction I’ve watched, read, or played that didn’t suggest, at one point or another, that “We are the walking dead,” with a particularly clever example coming from Shaun of the Dead, in which Shaun’s main conflict ultimately turns out not to be with the zombies, or even with other humans, but with his own tendency to plod unthinkingly through life as if he were a zombie.

impulse 4So how does the zombie apocalypse genre, with its sometimes insightful, sometimes troubling view of human nature, fit into an episode of Enterprise, set in Star Trek’s famously utopian universe? Surprisingly well, actually. Granted, the transformation of the Vulcan crew into something that so obviously and explicitly resembles classic, Romero-style zombies is a bit of a narrative stretch; we’re told that the toxic trellium weakens the Vulcans’ emotional control and brings out their most violent tendencies, but it’s never quite clear why that makes them behave like zombies, shambling around silently and attacking only the away team, never each other. But I’m not particularly bothered by this; from the moment one of those Vulcans first appears on screen, it’s crystal clear that “Impulse” is doing an homage to classic zombie movies, and from there it’s up to us whether we’d rather nitpick the episode’s internal logic, or just go along with what it’s doing. And what it’s doing is very consistent with the genre’s message that “We are the walking dead,” as T’Pol makes the connection between the zombies’ behavior and her culture’s violent past. Just as human nature is the real threat in so much zombie fiction, Vulcan nature, freed from the emotional control Vulcans have come to be known for, is the threat here, embodied both in the fully zombified Vulcans and in T’Pol herself, as she struggles with her own violent tendencies. And her loss of control is also in keeping with the genre’s assumption that in-fighting amongst survivors will be as big a danger as the zombies themselves. By robbing her of emotional control, the episode can have her be just as untrusting and paranoid as the zombie genre so often assumes humans would be in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse.

impulse 1T’Pol’s loss of control – and her fear of what Vulcans are without that control, a fear fully realized in the zombified Vulcan crew – effectively ties the episode’s zombie apocalypse motif to her ongoing character development. The prospect of losing emotional control would have to be frightening to any Vulcan, and we’ve seen before that such a loss of control is considered a great indignity for a Vulcan to suffer. But even beyond that, it makes sense that T’Pol, out of all Vulcans, would be especially afraid of becoming unable to control her emotions, being surrounded by humans and isolated from her own people. Throughout Enterprise, I think, Jolene Blalock often plays T’Pol’s emotions as being slightly closer to the surface than we’d typically see from Leonard Nimoy’s Spock or Tim Russ’s Tuvok, in keeping with the literal, physical discomfort we’re told she experiences as the first Vulcan to spend so much time in such close proximity to so many humans; one of Blalock’s best moments of portraying T’Pol’s subtle struggle with her emotions comes later in Enterprise’s third season, in the excellent episode “Twilight”. But here, Blalock gets to really cut loose, and much like Nimoy and Russ whenever their own Vulcans behave out of character (something Star Trek’s writers love to do to their Vulcan characters), she plays T’Pol’s loss of control expertly. When she accuses Archer of holding a grudge against Vulcans and taking it out on the crew of the Seleya, I think we’re meant to see that not just as random, primal anger, but as the frustration and pain she’s been bottling up throughout her time on the Enterprise; the sight of an angry and paranoid T’Pol holding Archer at phaser-point feels like a call-back to the very early Enterprise episode “Strange New World,” in which she was on the other end of the phaser while Trip Tucker had his own moment of racist paranoia. I’d like to think that this episode is the writers acknowledging that T’Pol has decent reason to hold a grudge of her own, based on how she’s been treated, in earlier seasons, by her crewmates … and, quite frankly, by the writers of Enterprise.

impulse 3And Archer’s treatment of T’Pol in this episode does, I think, show a marked improvement in the show’s handling of their relationship. It also allows “Impulse” to make its own very Trek-ish statement about another common trope of zombie and post-apocalyptic fiction: forcing characters to acknowledge that the only way to survive is to give up some of their ideals, to be willing to do wrong things for the right reasons. This has been a hallmark of The Walking Dead through much of its run, though both the comic and the TV show have clearly become more critical of this sort of thinking in more recent storylines, perhaps recognizing that stories about the downsides to empathy and compassion are not the sort of stories we need right now; sister show Fear The Walking Dead interestingly devoted much of its fourth season to making a direct, explicit argument that hard times are precisely when it’s most important that we hold true to our ideals. And it should be no surprise that, as a Star Trek zombie story, “Impulse” would make that same argument. After all, Star Trek is post-post-apocalyptic fiction: as was suggested early on (in the first-season Original Series episode “Space Seed,” if not earlier), humanity had to get through World War III and the ensuing “post-atomic horror” before starting down the peaceful path it has just begun in Enterprise, and will follow to the utopian 24th century of The Next Generation. Part of the basic premise of Star Trek is that the way we make things better is by being better, not by surviving at any cost until things magically get better. Or, as Archer says here, in answer to T’Pol’s request to be left behind for the good of their mission: “I can’t try to save humanity without holding on to what makes me human.” Of course, the Xindi storyline, which continues past this episode through the rest of Enterprise’s third season, will test which ideals Archer is and isn’t willing to give up in service of that mission. But I like that Enterprise reminds us, early in that storyline, of what Archer’s answer should be, and it seems fitting that they would choose this homage to post-apocalyptic stories in which to do it.

 

 

 

 

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