Mark Watches ‘The Next Generation’: S01E04 – Code of Honor

In the fourth episode of the first season of The Next Generation, this show is not off to a good start, is it? If you’re intrigued, then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.

Trigger Warning: For talk of racism, particularly anti-black racism, and racial stereotypes, as well as consent, sexual assault.

Jesus christ.

There are immense issues with this script that could be solved with one very easy change: don’t make the entire Ligonian race black. You would think something like that would have occurred to the casting department, and yet here we are with an episode that casts black people into roles that portray them as backwards savages, concerned more with own their own culture of honor than in… literally anything else?

There’s actually a lot one can learn from this episode, so GATHER ROUND FOLKS. What does this episode tell us about writing about cultures or races that you do not belong to?

1) Please be aware of existing power structures.

There’s a common thing you’ll hear from me or anyone concerned about representation or diversity within this genre: the work you create does not exist in a vacuum. That means that the world you have grown up in has affected the way you create your own world. It affects your perception of events, peoples, cultures, religious views, and any number of aspects that I don’t have the time to list. Your perception of gender or sexuality is influenced by your experience and the society you live in. And this means that it will be harder for you to see how you might be defaulting to a certain state in your writing.

This episode is a fine example because it replicates an existing dynamic. By choosing to make the Ligonian race analogous to an African tribal culture (and infuriatingly ambiguous at that, since I caught like five different cultures represented here, and none of them were openly defined), you get this uncomfortable, horrifying dynamic at play. You have a mostly-white cast, who represent the moral good of the Federation, criticizing an all-black culture for their unwillingness to be modern, reasonable, moral, or civilized. It is a mirror image of Western culture’s perception of Africa, as well as having the unfortunate implication of being a commentary on African Americans as well. Did the writers intend that? Probably not, and I wonder if the script itself even demanded that these characters be cast as all black and African. Again, a great deal of this could be alleviated with a more diverse culture!

But this is what we’ve got, and at some point, someone should have thought this through. Even Tasha Yar’s story – which I found an important one to tell! – is sullied by this. I know that it’s incredibly significant that this show gave the Security Officer role to a woman, and this episode tries to address that. The Ligonians are a foil in that sense, since they don’t view women within their culture as the Federation does. (However, it must be pointed out that even though the writers tell us how enlightened the Federation is, we’ve still got lines about weapons “for women” and other such absurdities.) There’s a value in discussing this and representing this on the screen! However, once you factor in the dynamic that race brings, this becomes a disaster. I’ll touch on this more in the next point, but when you’ve got a representation of a culture that feels like a monolith, it’s very easy for your audience to fill in the blanks with their own assumptions and biases, which often reflect the dominant culture. In the case of Tasha Yar, the exploration of gender ignores the racial disparity present. We get a story that invokes the harmful trope of predatory black men who seek out white women. Which isn’t meant to excuse black men of misogyny, of course! But there’s a long history in my country of whiteness used against black men to accuse them of crimes involving the respectability of white women. (Please see the Emmett Till case for one such example, but MASSIVE TRIGGER WARNING if you do Google it. Take great care, as the photos of his corpse often show up in images.) This episode makes that reality even more egregious when Lutan is suddenly willing to throw away his life with Yareena in order to pursue a Yar. (Yes, this is part of his manipulation of his own culture’s code of honor, but only to a point. The writing still invokes this trope.) You’ve got an African man fawning over a white woman and destroying his own culture in the process. Like… LIKE… WHAT.

2) Please consider if you are using a race or culture as a monolith.

One of the easiest ways to avoid a disaster like this is to consider whether or not your characters have depth. The Ligonians are so unfortunate because the writers treat various real cultures or traditions as if they’re interchangeable, like they had a grab bag in the office and they just pulled shit out of it and stuck it on to these characters. Why do this? Because instead of worldbuilding and doing the work to create a believable culture, the production staff is hoping that we will use our own perception of an ancient tribal race to fill in the blanks. Straight up: that is some lazy fucking writing. Why do these people wear those clothes? Why do they have that accent? Why does their music sound the way it does? Why are they so concerned with honor? Look, I don’t need this show to spend a billion hours doing culture-building for 45 minute episodes, but the reason this episode looks as it does is because the writers treated Africa as a monolith. It’s all the same, there’s no context for anything appropriated here, and it ends up blurring together into a sloppy stereotype and nothing more.

So where is the depth here? Do these characters matter in any emotional sense? There’s a hint of some of that in the end when Yareena turns to Hagon. (But then immediately cedes all her land and property to him, and it’s clearly meant for us to view them as goddamn weirdos because of it.) But for the bulk of this episode, every single character is a one-note antagonist. Even Yareena, who is only doing what her culture dictates her to do, and yet even she doesn’t really get any sympathy from the narrative until the Enterprise saves her. (Which also invokes another horrible trope: the white savior. CHRIST, THIS EPISODE IS SO BAD.)

This becomes glaring when you see how willing the writing staff is to give everyone else depth. Tasha gets to struggle with her sense of duty and her possible attraction to Lutan; Picard gets to rethink his perception of Wesley; Data gets to try out more jokes on Geordie in an attempt to understand human humor. All of the white characters are complicated and flawed. All of the black characters? None such complication, and that makes the whole story suffer. Y’all, if you can’t understand the societal issues at hand, perhaps this will help you get why this matters: Your stories will be better when you write other cultures and races better.

3) Think about your preconceived notions of character types and race.

This show is a creation of many people. Again, I don’t know if the writing crew or the production staff was responsible for this, so I have to address it as if it’s both. One of the most common things I hear when I talk about representation and diversity invokes a specific frustration. When faced with such criticism, a lot of people will ask me if white writers should even bother writing characters of color, particularly if they’re always going to get them wrong. It’s an absurd question, though, because writing is ALWAYS a process of getting shit wrong. Is that how we think about spelling errors? Bad research? Poorly constructed sentences? Plot holes? No, it’s not, and that’s traditionally accepted as a part of the editing process and the act of critical analysis. However, whenever people of marginalized communities express concern with representations of their communities, editing and criticism is suddenly out of bounds. Why? Why is it that every other type of criticism is fair game, but this isn’t? If you’re working on a story and someone corrects your word usage, do you shut down and tell them to stop being so demanding and arrogant?

Look, this genre has a sticky past in terms of race. How often are the savage, violent, and backwards races in these space operas comprised entirely of people of color? How often is blackness used as the antithesis to both whiteness and goodness? Why is it that in genres like science fiction and horror, we joke about the black guy dying first? Because, like in “Code of Honor,” IT’S ALWAYS FUCKING HAPPENING. Characters of color are often the most frequently disposable roles in these journeys, often to build tension or to heighten the odds or to frighten us. That may serve the story, but can you imagine how it feels to watch shows like this or to read novel after novel and never see people like yourself surviving to the end? Slaying the dragon? Getting the stories of redemption and honor and glory? When you’re constantly fodder for other characters’ quests (and those characters are almost always white), you end up being unable to escape from the world where these realities are already true. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using speculative fiction or science fiction to escape our world; I do it all the time. But then an episode like “Code of Honor” comes along, and I am reminded that even in the future, even within a fictional universe where there are allegedly no bigotries left on earth, those with darker skin still can’t get away from the things that plague our own world.

It is one thing to tell us that the future is free from prejudice, and it is another thing to actually show it.

The video for “Code of Honor” can be downloaded here for $0.99. In case you haven’t seen the introduction to the next video, I botched the credit for this episode; that belongs to the wonderful aurora_belle, who commissioned this episode. You can blame that on my confusion of the double episode pilot, which messed up how I credited people.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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