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The Problem With Standardized Tests: The Kobyashi Maru Theorem

This is going to be an education rant in the guise of a science fiction rant, or maybe a science fiction rant in the guise of an education rant – your choice, really. My day job is as an educator and one of my former education-related jobs was working for a test prep company, teaching students how to take the SAT. I have a lot of opinions about tests, not all of them bad, but I will say this: standardized tests, in order to function as designed, need completely unrealistic infrastructure and, for that reason, they should be universally abolished or completely changed.

By way of demonstrating what I’m talking about, let’s talk about that iconic science fiction test, the Kobyashi Maru of Starfleet Academy.

For those of you not in the know, the Kobyashi Maru is a bridge crew simulation that Starfleet runs for its cadets, placing them in an impossible, unwinnable situation for the purpose of seeing how the cadets will react under such pressures. On the surface, this is a wholly reasonable and even intelligently designed test, very much in the vein of what a standardized test aspires to be: a test that can be applied equally to everyone that will generate completely unbiased results that allow you to evaluate all students who take the test equally. It’s also the purest of test-design fiction – it literally cannot exist as displayed and actually work.

The reason for this is very simple: as soon as students learn how the test works (and they inevitably will, since students always talk to other students about tests), the test will cease to be an accurate measure of the cadet’s capabilities because they will know it’s a no-win scenario going in. This necessarily will change their behavior towards said test and will, therefore, throw off the results. So, sure, for the first few years (if we’re being generous) the Kobyashi Maru will be a perfectly reasonable test because no one will actually know it is no-win, but before long somebody will find out. Once they find out, it is in their interest that the test (1) not change and (2) they guide their friends in how to take the test. Furthermore, instructors – whose capabilities will likewise be judged by how their students perform on the test – will inevitably skew their instruction (even surreptitiously) to reflect the qualities the test aims for.

Before long, certainly long before the events of The Wrath of Khan, the test would be bracketed by

There is no way he is the ONLY person to do this.

all manner of pedagogical apparatuses that serve to help students perform well on the test, and that wouldn’t even count the cheaters, such as Kirk (who would doubtlessly be more numerous).

The solution, of course, is for Starfleet to change the test somehow, but even if they change that test, if it is designed to test the same thing (a no-win scenario), it will inevitably be vulnerable to the same kind of gaming as it was before. Test gamesters will just have to modulate their strategies somewhat, and the Academy will be right back where it started.

This is exactly the problem real world standardized testing faces. There is nothing inherently wrong with a standardized test. A standardized test is attempting to create an assessment tool that will tell you (with some degree of accuracy) the aptitude of any student in some specific set of skills, regardless of who they are or when they take the test. All SAT results, in other words, are supposed to be comparable with all other SAT results. This is a useful tool! Given that everyone comes from different school systems and are taught by different teachers and that, no matter how hard anyone tries, GPA is not and just cannot be a completely even or universally measurable kind of assessment (some people’s schools are easier/harder than others! Some schools “don’t believe” in GPA! Etc, etc.). Having some kind of universal yardstick by which to assess everybody is great!

But it can’t work! And here’s why:

1: It only works if nobody knows HOW it works

Here’s the thing: multiple choice standardized tests are a game. They are a game because they are (and sort of have to be) graded by machines and they have to assess all the exact same skills in the exact same proportions. Once you “solve” how the game works, the test becomes monumentally easier. Like the Kobyashi Maru, it is inevitable that people will figure out how the game works and, once they do that, they throw off all the results, since the results are designed to compare your performance against everyone else’s performance. So, unless you can keep the content of your test some kind of state secret (and good luck with that!), any given standardized test is only good for as long as it takes for the test takers to figure out the rules.

2: The people who know how it works will inevitably be the best connected/wealthiest people

Okay, fine – so suppose your test has been cracked by somebody. The damage, at least, would be somewhat mitigated if everyone had access to the tools needed to crack the test themselves. That’s never the case, though! The people who will be taught to crack the test will inevitable be the ones who can afford the tutors or who happen to have the connections or live in the kinds of privileged communities that get these kinds of advantages. This is NOT everyone, and this inequality automatically invalidates the test results, since some people are actually taking the test (the regular folks) and others are simply cracking the game behind the test (the test preppers). You can’t have an accurate standardized test that is testing two different cohorts of people in two different ways for two different things. Want to know something funny? The students that routinely did the worst on SAT math were almost always the best at math in all other environments. Why? They didn’t see the game. The best way to do well on SAT math is to do as little math as possible. Don’t believe me? Well, this lazy math student scored in the 95% percentile on SAT math by doing just that. And I did it several times over.

3: The test cannot be fundamentally changed without invalidating its own existence.

“Just change the test” sounds like a great plan, but if you fundamentally change how the test works, you automatically invalidate all the preceding test scores. In other words, if part of the purpose of a test like the SAT (or MCAS or TOEFL or LSAT or MCAT or whatever) is to produce scores that can be compared (and this is their purpose), then changing how the test works means your test has lost the very thing that makes it useful.

4: Testing warps instruction!

Because these tests are so important and because they are also so crackable, this means that teachers have a vested interest in teaching students to crack the test, knowing (as I point out in #2) that not all of their students will have the resources to crack it on their own. So, instead of actually learning things, they learn how to take a test. Pretty much everybody knows about this problem at this point – it’s cliche to even point it out – but it is also 100% true. Students that are taught to take tests have less knowledge, fewer skills, and impaired critical thinking when placed against previous generations who were not saddled with these things. I know this because I’ve been teaching at the collegiate level for 15 years and have watched both the amount of testing rise and the quality of incoming students drop simultaneously. Granted, that’s anecdotal – maybe I’m wrong (I hope I am!) – but I somewhat doubt it.

5: A perfect test doesn’t exist in the first place!

And all of this is just assuming the test is actually able to test the thing it claims it does! Sure, a well-designed standardized test might give us accurate picture of the average, neurotypical student, but this hardly covers everyone! Furthermore, I sort of doubt there’s any reliable way you could get a standardized test to apply equally to everybody – people, and how they think or approach test taking, are just too different.

So, if Starfleet Academy is still giving the Kobyashi Maru after however many years it takes for Kirk to go from being a cadet to being on the verge of retirement, it’s safe to assume that it is no longer performing the function it once did. It should be abolished and replaced with something new. Furthermore, we should reassess the need to compare students to other students in these kind of universal, simplistic ways. When looking to the future, we should try to imagine something more nuanced, more accurate, and fairer. You know, the sort of thing the Federation might cook up.

The Star Trek/Star Wars/40k Unification Hypothesis

But first THEY would…
But then THEY would…
But you forgot that THEY can…
Oh yeah, but YOU forgot…

The inevitable “Who Would Win: Star Trek Vs Star Wars” conversation I find endlessly tiresome these days. Oh, yes, back in my younger years I’d debate phasers vs turbolasers and Klingons vs stormtroopers all you’d want, but now I’ve come to understand that the argument is fundamentally pointless. Since none of the things introduced in either universe are real and any technical specifications given to them are essentially made-up numbers, there is quite literally no point in debating who would win in an “actual” fight, since there is no “actual” to be used and Trekkies and Star Wars fanatics simply cannot agree on common assumptions in order to have a reasonable argument.

Even as I write this, whole legions of people are out there in the darkness, sharpening their sticks to come for me if I don’t declare their faith the winner.

But I’m not here to argue this (again). I’m just not. The side which wins is whichever side the plot is on, ultimately. And anyway, my favorite answer is “Neither – it’s the Imperium of Man of Warhammer 40,000.” On that score, pretty much anybody whose spent much time delving into 40k lore are forced to concede the point, if only because the Imperial Navy of the 40k universe is RIDICULOUS in scale and destructive power and everything else.

And, of course, even as I write that, there are those people out there, sharpening their spears and baring their claws, ready to pounce.

So I’m here to do something totally different. I’m going to suggest that Star Wars, Star Trek, and Warhammer 40,000 all exist in the same universe. Don’t buy it? Okay, but listen to this:

The Galactic Empire

The Star Wars universe is described as being a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away. This means they can easily exist in the same universe, but the odds of them every crossing paths with the Federation or Imperium are exceedingly unlikely.

Compared to Star Trek, vessels in this galaxy are much faster than those in the Star Trek universe. Hyperspace is clearly a superior FTL system – more than just a warp drive, it is something that actually punches through the material universe of spacetime into a hyperspace dimension, enabling speeds that would make Mr. Scot insanely jealous. Their weapons technology is comparatively crude, but very powerful – turbolasers and blasters, in terms of their effects on targets, seem to have a lot in common with disruptors or phasers. Blasters even have a stun function (if rarely used).

Shields and armor are less sophisticated than the Star Trek universe and many ships suffer from glaring design flaws, but the ability for the engineers in this universe to build macro-structures (like the Death Star) cannot be underestimated.

And then there’s the Force. The people of this galaxy are connected by some interstellar energy field, indescribable and extremely powerful. Those who can commune with it can navigate ships through hyperspace, move things with their minds, even transcend death. Star Trek has very little comparable with this, but this is because they are a galaxy of much younger spacefaring species, as will be made clear soon.

The Federation of Planets

Meanwhile, in a galaxy distant from the Star Wars world and many ages later, a new (nascent) series of starfaring species are seeded onto many worlds throughout this galaxy. These beings more-or-less achieve interstellar civilizations at about the same time, astronomically speaking – within a few thousand years of one another – and spread out, come into conflict, make alliances, and so on. Their method of FTL travel – called Warp Drive – is a more primitive version of hyperspace, in a sense. It warps spacetime, but does not puncture it; ships glide along the wave made by the dilation effect (subspace).

Ships in this environment are small in comparison to Star Wars. Given that these civilizations are very young and there is no purpose (yet) for larger ships, this makes sense. Their weapon systems are similarly effective as those in the Star Wars world, though their computational, sensory, and command systems are vastly superior. Shields are better, targeting computers are better, and so on. If a battle were to occur between the Galactic Empire and the Federation, individual battles would be determined by the commanders involved. However, the sheer scale of the Galactic Empire and the vastly superior interstellar speed of its (more numerous) fleets would eventually crush the Federation, almost inevitably.

Then there is the matter of the Force. The Federation has no weapons to combat this since they are scarcely aware it exists. They don’t know it exists because they have yet to puncture spacetime in a way that would lead them to become aware of it. However, such powers do exist in the Star Trek world: the wormhole aliens of DS9, the “subspace predatory” species from another dimension described in one episode of TNG (can’t remember the title – the one where they discovered some aliens were kidnapping crew members and dissecting them without anyone’s knowledge), and even the empathic powers of the Betazoids. These can be seen as certain manifestations of “the Force” being used in material space. Psychic powers.

Parts of the Warp…

The Imperium of Man

Star Trek is set in the 23rd-24th centuries. The Imperium of Man exists from the 301st to the 400th centuries. Yes, that’s right – as much as 37,000 years in the future. Humanity is an elder starfaring race – they have, at this point, forgotten more about space travel and technology than either the Federation OR the Galactic Empire have ever learned. The Imperium rules a million worlds, possibly more, and is engaged in deadly, existential-threat-level wars on all sides at almost all times.

Just to give you a sense of scale.

Their means of FTL travel? They enter what they call “the Warp” – a vestige of the ancient term bandied about by early humanity’s conquests in the age of Star Trek. But this is not a simple dilation of spacetime – they rupture it entirely, traveling into a kind of hyperspace. However, this hyperspace is now full of the psychic shadows of all the creatures who have lived before and been perverted by their thoughts and ambitions and dreams. In other words: the Force has long since fallen massively out of balance. There were no Jedi to keep the peace or, if there were, the Sith long ago rose up and destroyed them utterly. Now, hyperspace/The Warp is a realm of pure, terrifying chaos. It can, however, blink fleets across vast distances at speeds even the Galactic Empire cannot duplicate. Alternatively, it can devour fleets whole or send them lost and spinning through the mutating swirls of a hell dimension for millennia.

Star Trek exists in what the Imperium’s historians refer to as “the Dark Age of Technology,” where humans achieved dizzying heights of power and progress, but never realized that the Warp was as dangerous as it was. Eventually, they were cut off by warp storms and their civilization collapsed. The Imperium rose from the ashes, fighting every step of the way. It has blighted entire planets at a rate that would make the Death Star blush. It has access to technologies that would baffle any Starfleet engineer. Their elite soldiers are genetically engineered soldiers that would make Khan look like a designer baby intended for a photoshoot, not a firefight.

The Imperium obviously wins any battles with those other settings. They have psychic soldiers and psychic hunters the equal of any Jedi (the Culexus Temple, anyone? The Grey Knights?), they seem to have actually assimilated the Borg at some point in their history (Servitors), just as Q predicted (“you will surpass us”). They have gone so far beyond exploration that now they are the moldy remnants of a once great species in a way the Federation could scarcely comprehend. Humanity did it – it conquered the stars – only to discover that the stars are a terrible, cold place where war is unending and death assured.

And all of that is part of the same history of the universe – the Galactic Empire, in the thousand years before their time and ours, doubtlessly fell to the same conflagration that threatens to devour the Imperium of the Federation’s far future. The refugees of the Star Wars universe possibly seeded the very galaxy where humanity was born. Star Trek is the placid island in between two war-torn eras, where humanity still sees endless potential and hope for the future. But sooner or later, the daemons of the Warp will twist the hearts of mortals, and the Fall will begin anew.

Nog and the Promise of Potential: A Teacher’s Reflection

I’ve been (slowly) re-watching Star Trek: Deep Space 9 for the last few months or so and I just got to that episode in season 3 where Nog, son of Rom and nephew to that scoundrel Quark, declares to Commander Sisko that he wants to apply to Starfleet Academy. It was a subplot I had sort-of half forgotten about but then came raging back all at once – Nog’s struggles, his long journey, and his eventual triumph. I just love that subplot. In fact, it might be my favorite Star Trek subplot of all time.

Not the face of sober, dedicated student.

Now that I’m watching it as an adult, this storyline has some extra resonance for me. Besides being an author, my day job is as a college professor – a teacher – and Nog and his quest represent a very important lesson we teachers need to remember. To look at Nog from a distance, the kid is obviously a fuck-up and a lost cause. He gets bad grades in school, he is always goofing off, he gets arrested by Odo on a semi-regular basis, and his uncle Quark is a known criminal and low-life who associates with known criminals and low-lifes. To top it all off, he’s a Ferengi! No culture is more opposed to what the Federation represents – they are greedy, dishonest, selfish, and cowardly. There’s just no way in hell a kid like that has any business wearing a Starfleet uniform.

Sisko knows this. Hell, Nog knows this! Nog knows nobody expects him to amount to anything. His father is a permanent, laughable loser and his culture would never accept him going to Starfleet even assuming he could get in! But you know what this kid does? As soon as he comes of age, he scrounges together what money he has, walks into Sisko’s office (Sisko – the most powerful person on the station by far), shakes his hand, looks him in the eye…

…and offers him a bribe.

Because of course he does! That’s how Ferengi society works! This, to Nog, is what being a man is all about. This is responsible, adult behavior. And Sisko – bless him – realizes this. Everything tells him to show this kid the door – it’s probably a trick, a trap, some kind of prank – but…he hesitates. Sisko does something that makes me love him forever: he gives this kid a chance. He decides to trust him. He gives him a day alone with a cargo bay full of valuable stuff and lets Nog prove himself.

And you know what? Nog earns his trust. He proves he’s the hardest working kid on the station. He wants to be taken seriously. He wants this.

What I take away from all of this – the person I identify with – is Sisko. As a teacher, one is often faced with students who are…well…less than impressive at first glance. They show up late. They sleep in class. They don’t seem to be taking their education seriously. But the thing that I need to remind myself of is that I just don’t know what this kid is actually capable of. I can’t judge them based on superficial characteristics. Yeah, maybe they aren’t much good in my literature classes, but this person could very well become an excellent doctor or nurse or scientist. Hell, they might even have within them to become a wonderful writer or artist. As a teacher, it is part of my job to give them that chance – to allow them the opportunity to prove themselves, no matter what they look like or even how they act. Will I be let down? Sure, sure – happens all the time. But if a kid who’s been goofing off all semester comes up to me and asks if I can help them clean up their resume or give them advice on how to bring up their grades or ask me to recommend books for them to read to improve themselves, I remind myself of Sisko, sitting in Ops, looking at that sack full of latinum from an eager young Ferengi…

And I say yes.

And, like Sisko, I am often pleasantly surprised.

Star Trek TNG, Season 3: The Best and Worst

It took me a very long time to make my way through Season 3 of TNG again, but what can I say, I’ve been busy.

Anywho, I finished it a few weeks ago and finally find myself with a little time to give you my picks for the best and worst episodes of the season. Part of the reason I’ve put it off is that the decision on either end is a very tough one. Honestly, none of the episodes were truly abysmal and a great many of them were very, very good. How does one pick from among the episodes “Sarek”, “The Most Toys,” “The Enemy,” “Who Watches the Watchers,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and, of course, part one of “The Best of Both Worlds?” Man.

Well, here’s what I decided. Your commentary and personal preferences welcome:

The Worst: “Menage a Troi”


Yep, it’s *that* kind of episode.

First of all, just look at that title. Look at it, I say!

Just a little skeevy, isn’t it?

Well, that about sums up the episode in general: a little bit skeevy. Now, it doesn’t quite go to the lengths of actively offensive, but it flirts with idea.

Synopsis: A Ferengi, Daimon Tog, falls in love with Lwaxana Troi for no particularly good reason, even though she violently and publicly rejects him. No matter – he decides to kidnap her and also manages to kidnap Deanna and Riker, too. Then they fly off. There’s a Ferengi doctor that wants to study Betazed physiology to try and make mind probes or something. You know what? It hardly matters. This is an episode about a Ferengi forcibly abducting and then sexually harassing and assaulting a woman.

Now, the Ferengi are depicted as hopelessly incompetent and goofy and Lwaxana is basically in control most of the time. She tolerates his attentions in order to give Deanna and Riker time to figure out how to escape and signal the Enterprise – they do. At the end, Picard has to pretend to be Lwaxana’s jilted lover in order to force her return. We all chuckle. The end.

The thing wrong with this episode is twofold: (1) The Ferengi are unpardonably stupid at every single juncture and (2) the whole schtick with this episode is a bit creepy. Almost everybody is forced into unwanted romantic and/or sexual situations and they are played off as a laugh. Granted, the Picard bit is funny, but everybody else seems to be cutting the Ferengi a bit too much slack here. This is the episode (I think – it may have been mentioned in an earlier episode) where it is revealed that the Ferengi don’t believe women deserve clothes and, while our heroines are appropriately displeased, it seems like, in the end, everybody’s going to treat this like some kind of ridiculously funny anecdote instead of something that is really, really upsetting. Given how cartoonishly stupid the Ferengi are here, I guess that makes a degree of sense – they are absurd – but still, I feel like this kind of thing should be really bone-chilling.

On a darker note, the episode does make me wonder what the kidnapping/rape situation is in the 24th century. I mean, if you’re a psycho bent on sexual assault, can’t you just beam your victims up from anywhere? That seems to be really, really worrisome – terrifying even. Did Star Trek ever accelerate the creep-factor on this to its rational conclusion? I’m not sure – I don’t think so. Still, it is something that chills the blood.

Except not here because, you know, funny.

The Best: “Who Watches the Watchers”

First of all, an explanation is in order: I did not pick “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” for two reasons. Firstly, it would be a bit obvious and, secondly, the first part is really just the set-up – the good stuff doesn’t happen until the next episode in Season 4. Perhaps I’ll talk more about it then.

Pretty much what the whole show is about, right?

Pretty much what the whole show is about, right?

Synopsis: The crew accidentally reveal themselves to a primitive culture while observing them for study, leading the primitive people to being believing in a god figure they now call “Picard.” Riker and Troi infiltrate the society to try and undo the damage, but bad things happen. People are accused of heresy. The poor guy on the planet starts begging Picard to bring his dead wife back to life. Crazy pants nonsense ensues. The only way Picard can stop it is by having the prime believer shoot him with an arrow to demonstrate his mortality. Finally, then, they are able to convince the primitive people that they are not gods, but just mortals with advanced knowledge.

I picked this episode from among many other fine episodes this season because I feel it exemplifies what Star Trek is (and should) be all about: the triumph of reason over superstition, fear, and violence. The frustrating Picard feels at being equated with a god is palpable – he is angry and upset over how such a misunderstanding will likely set these people back. They will abandon what they can learn with their eyes and ears and minds for the subjective “truth” of an unknowable god who dictates to them through prophets more likely to be chasing their own personal demons than being in touch with the Almighty.

Aspects of the episode are silly, but the performances are very compelling and the drama very real. It is the embodiment of Clarke’s insistence that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and it shows the lengths one must go to dispel that illusion. I think this episode is right at the heart of what this show was basically about – intelligent beings trying to be the best they can be without needing to fall back on mysticism or hogwash to make them great. I love it.

Anyway, those are my picks. What are yours from Season 3?

The Real Starfleet Captain’s Manual

Congratulations on your new command, Captain! Now, before you begin your sojourn through the cosmos, there are some things you need to know that haven’t been covered in your Starfleet manuals and likely haven’t come up prior to this time. Below is the collected wisdom of captains like yourselves, who have experienced the Final Frontier enough to know how it all works. Read carefully – this might save your life someday.

Take it from me - I became a giant bug!

Take it from me – I became a giant bug!

Directive One: Have a Safe Word

One you become captain, at some point you are going to be replaced by an impostor. Just get used to the idea – it’s gonna happen. The hyper-intelligent gas cloud, alien hologram, or curious Q or whatever will likely be very familiar with your mannerisms and will pull off a charade just convincing enough to prevent being removed from command immediately.

To prevent this kind of thing, just verbally inform your crew of a password (like “potato salad with crotons”) to be uttered to confirm your identity. Make no record of this password in any manual, message, or database. If you have an android on board, don’t tell them. This way, the only way you (or one of your senior staff) can be replaced is by those creatures that can read minds and assimilate memories. This ought to cut down on the rate of impostors by a good 65%.

Directive Two: Screw the Holodeck

I know, I know – crew morale. We’ve all been there, believe me. Take it from us, though: it just isn’t worth it. You should see the reports on this stuff. On simply ships called ‘Enterprise’ alone, there have been dozens of nearly catastrophic incidents related to the holodeck. It takes over the ship regularly, it threatens crew-member’s lives, and it can lock up senior staff for hours on end while they have to figure out the Murder on the Orient Express for the billionth time.

Just get rid of the thing and install a rec room. A pool table, some Ping-Pong, a bunch of board games, and so on. Keep a replicator around to make any and all recreational objects whatever alien needs for his/her/its version of alien foosball, but that’s it. No ship in the history of the Federation has ever been threatened by a Foosball table.

Directive Three: Every Energy Field is Super Important

If your engineer or security chief or Ops officer or whoever mentions to you that they’re getting some ‘odd energy readings’ or ‘a minor systems fluctuation’, we recommend immediately going to yellow alert. Why? Well, probably because an energy alien has just sneaked aboard your ship, or one of your crewmembers has become a robot, or you just entered an alternate timeline, or whatever. It’s always bad, but it wouldn’t be as bad if you guys didn’t spend the next three hours sitting around on your beige couches staring at the view-screen. Get ahead of that shit!

Directive Four: Always Believe Time Travelers

If you meet a future version of yourself, a future version of your ship, or a person who is clearly from the future, believe what they say. Why? Because they’re from the damned future, that’s why! If you went back in time and told some idiot in the 20th century to avoid buying a Pinto, wouldn’t you think he was an idiot for not believing you and getting his face burned off? I mean, why do you even think they’re back here, anyway? Tourism?

Directive Five: Just Play Along With Q

It isn't like you're going to argue him into *not* being a giant douchebag.

It isn’t like you’re going to argue him into *not* being a giant douchebag.

The primary reason the omnipotent Q shows up to bother us is because he thinks we’re interesting. You know why he thinks we’re interesting? Because we always struggle and fight and argue with him. If he shows up and said ‘we are going to play checkers for the fate of the Earth’s Moon’, just say “s’cool – what time?” Watch him get bored and leave. Isn’t that better than spending all that time yelling at a god? I know, right?

Directive Six: Don’t Believe Utopian Societies

They are never utopias. Not ever. They either have some kind of weird disease and are going to steal your children or they’re indentured to some giant evil computer or they don’t know that people can die and will throw your young ensigns off cliffs for fun or whatever else. Repeat after me: I am from utopia, and everywhere else sucks. Again: I am from utopia, and everywhere else sucks. Earth is where it’s at, and keep that in mind when being offered to “join in the love ritual” with some stupendous busty redhead. Don’t buy it. It never works out.

Directive Seven: When You Go On Vacation, Bring a Phaser

Seriously, you should see the logs. Pretty much every time somebody goes on leave, they get kidnapped or attacked. Every. Single. Time. Go armed, at least with one of those little dinky phasers you can slip up your sleeve. You’ll thank us later.

Well, that’s about it. Good luck out there, Captain. Oh, and if you happen to meet the Borg, make certain your crew has practiced running. Seriously, Borg drones are awfully slow.

Star Trek TNG Season One: The Best and Worst

I finished watching (or, I suppose, re-watching) the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation earlier this week. It was an interesting experience, especially since a lot of these episodes I hadn’t seen since I was nine or ten years old or so. I remember watching “The Naked Now” in 1987, furiously trying to figure out who was the ‘hero’ in this show, since nobody seemed to be cooler than anyone else. I remember that I wound up settling on Riker, since he was the tall white man with hair, and 1980s television had taught me that such men were heroic by default. It was confusing that he wasn’t in charge, though.

What was also confusing to nine-year-old me was what on earth Tasha Yar and Data were going to do in her bedroom.

Anyway, fast forward about a quarter century, and here we are: the best episode and the worst episode (in my estimation) in the first season of this iconic show.

The Worst Episode: “Code of Honor”

Since I want to end this post on the upswing, let’s start with the bad one, shall we? This episode has been called “the worst episode of Star Trek ever made”, apparently. I can see it, since this episode is borderline racist, overtly sexist, and entirely stupid.


Aren't I sexy, with my woman-stealing ways?

Aren’t I sexy, with my woman-stealing ways?

The Enterprise needs a vaccine from this planet to help some other planets with a nasty plague. The aliens on this planet are intended to be like Africans from a semi-traditional African tribal civilization. Sort of. The important thing that comes across here is that all the aliens are black people. Now, this isn’t racist in and of itself (obviously), but the extent to which these actors are portraying a caricature of African Tribal culture comes close. They come off as silly and savage and they wear ridiculous, shiny outfits that look like the stuff a genie would wear.

Then, their leader up and steals himself a woman – Tasha Yar – and gives out an artificial, inauthentic triumphant laugh before beaming down to the planet.

Okay, so that’s silly. Of course, Troi is harping on and on about how that’s their culture and they need to play along with his little game and so on. Granted, it’s probably good that they did just beam up Tasha and then bombard that jerks house with photon torpedoes (peaceful relations and so-on), but still you want to say ‘seriously, Starfleet? We’re going to let this slide?’ This, of course, is why I would make a crappy diplomat.

Anywho, this dude is in the middle of some kind of land-grab attempt that involves switching wives or something (the women own the property, the men run the property). He wants to marry Tasha, since this means his current first wife will challenge her to a duel to the death. Tasha, to her credit, says “whatever, lady – you can have the jackass” to which the woman responds “how can you not love him? Is he not manly and attractive?”

Tasha’s response is “well, obviously I am attracted to my kidnapper, what with his strong manly body and what-not.” Wow. Like, just wow. Somewhere out there, a bunch of young men got a bunch of really incorrect ideas on wooing women. “I know,” they say to their buddies, “if I drug her and throw her in the back of my El Camino, she will totally want to do it when she wakes up in my basement!”

No, 1987 teenage boys. Bad.

There has got to be a better way to do this.

There has got to be a better way to do this.

Anyway, the episode culminates in a ridiculous duel between Tasha and Wife in a maze of neon tubes while wielding what ~amounts to fatally poisonous porcupines on one hand. All around them, the men cheer and hoot as though they’re watching a mud wrestling exhibition at a monster truck rally. At least the episode had the decency of having them wear clothing. As it stands, the fight isn’t so much sexist as it is really, really dumb. Whatever happened to just fighting with knives? Why are they jumping around in a neon box full of weird glowing tubes? What kind of battle scenarios is this planet used to? Do their wars always happen in jungle gyms? If they did, wouldn’t you devise a weapon that you were less likely to kill yourself with? Sheesh.

In the end, everything works out – doesn’t really matter how, does it? The fact is that, while I was watching this episode, I wasn’t sure to what degree I ought to be offended. I mean, if these ‘aliens’ weren’t arbitrarily cast as African Americans, would it feel as racist as it did? I don’t know, honestly. I felt like I was watching some weird offspring of Flash Gordon and a Blacksploitation flick. Not good, Star Trek. Not good at all.


The Best Episode: “Too Short a Season”

Now, this episode was a good indicator of how interesting TNG was going to become in future seasons. Don’t get me wrong – the first season of TNG wasn’t terrible by any means. There were about as many solid episodes as there were duds, and much of the silliness could be explained by merely shaking your head and saying “Oh, 1987, you cad, you.” When I think of

Behold the hilarity of Star Trek's patented Old Man Makeup!

Behold the hilarity of Star Trek’s patented Old Man Makeup!

what this show was competing with on television – the likes of MacGyver, Dallas, Dynasty, Hill Street Blues, LA Law, ALF, and Matlock – it stands up just fine. “Too Short a Season”, though, was an episode with legitimate emotional depth and a nice, clean arc.


The episode deals with an elderly Starfleet admiral with a degenerative disease being asked to return to a planet he once negotiated a hostage release from in order to negotiate another hostage release. He beams up with his charming wife and caretaker, and the story gets rolling. Then weird stuff starts happening – the old man starts getting younger, becoming more virile, more like his young, brash self. You can tell he was once a hero of the Federation, clever and resolute.

How is this happening? Well, he’s taken an experimental drug to make himself younger. He hated being confined to a chair, to surrendering to old age, and so he risked the dangerous procedure to make himself strong and ready for the tough task of negotiating the release of innocent people from bloodthirsty terrorists. The cost, though, is alienation from his wife (whom he loves) and very nearly failing his mission.

At the same time as he is trying to become younger, he is also trying to atone for what he did to this planet in question years ago. To get the hostages back that first time, the terrorists wanted advanced weapons. So, he gave them to them, but he also gave them to all the other factions on the planet. He thought this would even things out and keep the peace, but instead it resulted in decades of bloody civil war and the death of tens of millions. By getting younger, he is metaphorically turning back the clock – he is trying to do the right thing this time. In the end, he gives his life for it. No one is pleased, not even the terrorist leader who simply wanted to make him suffer.

This episode had a certain weight to it. It was powerful at moments, and the acting was superb. Though not the best episode in this series by half, it was a very, very good one and showed just how far one could take the ‘morality play in space’ concept.

That’s it for now. When I finish watching the second season (whenever that happens), I’ll do this again, methinks. Anyway, thanks for reading!

In Memoriam: Tasha Yar

I suppose we hardly knew you. Or maybe we knew all about you. Hard to tell...

I suppose we hardly knew you. Or maybe we knew all about you. Hard to tell…

Today, I saw Lt. Tasha Yar of the USS Enterprise get killed by an evil alien oil slick. The event was every bit as lame as I remembered it. It wasn’t so much that it was sudden – I have always been somewhat pleased that the evil alien oil slick just killed somebody to start off, since that makes sense (if only the Daleks were so direct) – no, my problem was that it was pointless and arbitrary.

Though, now that I’m thinking about it, her death was not significantly more pointless or arbitrary than Tasha Yar’s character as a whole, so in this sense, the death was fitting. Tasha’s character was sketchy at best; she came from a dark past, but we never really believed it. There was nothing about her that indicated a childhood of fear and anger and aggression. Yes, there was a lot of talk about ‘rape gangs’ (she was always itching to tell the bridge crew about the rape gangs), but her smiles were a bit too sunny and her personality just a bit too balanced to fill out the character. She was a woman who was good at martial arts and…well…something about rape gangs.

Denise Crosby, who portrayed Tasha, wanted off the show before a season was out since her character was not being developed, and I don’t blame her. I mean, what was she given to do, exactly? It almost seemed as if the writers got this novel idea for a (hold on to your hats, folks) woman who (get this) knows aikido and runs security! Then, after creating this character, they thought to themselves “well, jeez, any woman who knows aikido probably didn’t have parents and had to dodge rape gangs!” Shortly after this conversation, they ran out of ideas and then just had Denise Crosby talk about…well…nothing for twenty-some-odd episodes. Occasionally she lamely shot something with a phaser.

Tasha Yar, to my mind, was a victim not of an oil slick monster, but of two things:

  1. Screenwriters in 1987 had no idea what to do with a woman who could beat up men, so they didn’t bother trying.
  2. Gene Roddenberry couldn’t write believable ‘gritty’ characters if they wore skull necklaces and ate babies.

Apparently, according to the internet, Tasha Yar was supposed to based on Vasquez from Aliens – the tough chick with the giant machine gun. The thing is, though, while Vasquez was able to out-macho the guys in an environment full of machismo, Yar is stuck in a world of gender neutral clothing and a complete lack of the crass, devil-may-care attitude our culture assigns to ‘manly-men’. So, if your point is to introduce a female character who can keep up with the guys in the combat arena, but you stick her in a society where they don’t believe in fighting and do not indulge in the typical male posturing around warrior-hood, you quickly find that your character isn’t edgy or groundbreaking or even interesting. She’s just part of the furniture.

But, you know, that should be good, right? Tasha was so believable as security chief that it was never a big deal that she was security chief. Well, if they had played it straight like that, maybe it would have worked. Instead, though, they always had her obsessing over her femininity and went out of their way to show her as feminine (1987 keeps nudging you and saying “guys, she’s a girl! Get it! A GIRL!”). This starts to get weird and confusing. You, the viewer, start saying things like “look television, I understand that Tasha is competent and tough and am totally okay with that…but why are you having her complain about not having pretty clothes like Troi?”

In the end, the character was a hot mess, and not in the good way. She just didn’t seem to make sense; she was an incomplete sketch, more so than any other character on that show in the first season. The only real character hook she seemed to have was the possession of breasts, even though the whole point of the character was that it didn’t matter that she had breasts. What’s an audience supposed to do with that? What is an actress supposed to do?

Well, apparently, what is done is see to it that you are killed by an evil alien oil slick.

Fare thee well, Tasha. You set the stage for Ensign Ro Laren and, later, Major Kira in DS9, so you can be said to have not lived in vain. You also have the distinction of being more interesting than almost every character on Voyager. That, though, isn’t saying very much.


Future, Fantasy, and Fashion

Holy shit, Riker. Wow.

Holy shit, Riker. Wow.

For Christmas, my wife got me the DVD set of every Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ever made. This was both unwise of her (she is going to be watching a lot of Star Trek now) and extremely kind (it’s amazing how much I miss that show). It has also made me keenly aware of how the show began airing in 1987, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the clothing worn by its civilians. Whether it’s Wesley’s ridiculous sweaters (seriously, kid, why do you constantly dress like a coffee-shop dwelling Maine hipster?) or whatever the hell thing Riker decides to wear off duty, everybody looks the stupidest they possibly could in clothing made from fabric. You suddenly understand why anyone in their right mind would want to join Starfleet – their primary color unitards are actually quite fetching by comparison.

But it’s the Future! Fashion Changes!

This is the common riposte here. In the 24th century, fashion has changed significantly and, therefore, the things they wear look strange and silly to us. The suit and tie, for instance, would likely look silly to people of the 18th century, western dress seems foolish to eastern eyes, and so on and so forth. Fair enough.

We should not and cannot forget, though, that works of science fiction and fantasy exist for and are created by modern society. It therefore follows that our modern cultural concepts of fashion have great influence, even if only subconsciously, on the clothing our characters are depicted as wearing. Even when we consciously deviate from it, we are deviating for a purpose. In Star Trek, it seemed as though the choice was made to make everybody’s clothing look comfortable and functional – a nod to the newfound utopian society that the Federation stands for, wherein social class and, therefore, status-as-image is a thing of the antiquated past.

Tyvian Reldamar would rock this collar. He would rock it so hard, I tell you.

Tyvian Reldamar would rock this collar. He would rock it so hard, I tell you.

Likewise, if I were to tell you that the fashions of my own fantasy setting, Alandar, are inspired by the clothing of the 17th-19th centuries in Europe, that is an admission that I’m discussing a society where status is deeply ingrained in clothing almost to the point of absurdity. Elaborate dress is important here on a variety of levels, and if I’m going to do the setting justice, I need to have some concept of what those levels are and how they are conveyed.

This, incidentally, is difficult work for someone not inherently concerned with fashion or clothing, such as myself. Indeed, I would say that I am far from alone in this regard: many men, and many of them geeks like myself, show only cursory awareness of fashionable trends, what they mean, how they are important, or why we should pay attention to them. My sense of style is primarily motivated by what I feel comfortable in (and what my job requires of me), and I give only scant attention to others in this regard. Tyvian, though, is quite the opposite – he judges people by their clothing regularly and incisively, to the point where he can judge a man’s prospects by the stitching in his doublet. Writing him in his world requires an attention to detail I typically overlook in my daily life.

Futuristic? Check. Badass? Check.

Futuristic? Check. Badass? Check.

As much as I might be alienated from the fashion world, I have to admit it has great power over how we see and understand others, even if we don’t comprehend or recognize that power ourselves. Accordingly, when creating fantastic or futuristic worlds, we need to be aware of two things: how fashion is understood in the world we’ve created AND how the real world will interpret that fashion. Let’s face it, it is difficult to take any of the civilians in Star Trek TNG seriously; they look like bozos. You meet a guy who’s supposed to be a gritty, self-reliant mercenary captain and he’s dressed like the owner of your local yoga studio, ‘intimidating’ is not the mood that will be expressed. It doesn’t matter how much you want to talk about ‘fashions changing’ and ‘their world isn’t like that’ – the effect of sartorial aesthetics is beyond your power to overcome, dear storyteller.

Even if we don’t care how we dress ourselves, we can’t ignore our characters own fashion decisions. At least not always. Clothing tells stories every bit as much as words do.

What Explosions Don’t Do

Don’t get me wrong – I love explosions in stories. Very exciting in movies, in books, in games, and so on. They can be cathartic, they can assist tension building, they can be fun to watch unfold.

They don’t count as conflict, though. They don’t, in and of themselves, do anything. They do not tell stories. If you don’t believe me, go back and watch Transformers. I challenge you to tell me what that movie (and franchise) was about, besides explosions for the sake of explosions. Same goes for GI Joe.

Note: the empty space where the Starfleet emblem ought to be is symbolic.

Note: the empty space where the Starfleet emblem ought to be is symbolic.

Of late, I’ve been hearing more and more backlash against Star Trek: Into Darkness. It has been criticized as a ‘bad movie’, as a ‘stupid tent-pole action movie,’ and the rest of it. Though I enjoyed watching the film, I can’t really defend it against such criticism. It was a stupid formulaic action movie. Fun, loud, but lacking anything approaching substance. What might make it a ‘bad’ movie (though I’m not really sure I can go that far) is that it pretended to have substance. It made reference to drone strikes, to government overreach, and to the idea of friendship. It did not, however, really care about those things. Mostly what it wanted to do is have a big spaceship crash into a city and then have Spock punch somebody in the face over and over on top of a garbage truck. That’s what it really wanted, everybody. You were duped.

Let us reflect for a moment on what Star Trek has lost as a franchise. It used to be a show (series of shows, movies, etc.) about something a bit more important and interesting than just fighting aliens and blowing stuff up. When I was a kid, I failed to appreciate this. When I saw “The City on the Edge of Forever”, I was bored by the lack of ray guns. I loved Star Wars over Star Trek, mocked the silly beige hallways of the Enterprise-D, and thought that the Federation was a sissy organization run by silly peacenik innocents who, by all rights, ought to have had their butts handed to them years ago by the Klingons.

But I was a kid then. I was, almost by definition, an idiot.

Star Trek is a morality play. Star Trek is, or ought to be, about the human struggle to do what is right in the face of all that is wrong, and how horrible and difficult that struggle is. There are very few franchises that have done this so well as Star Trek has, whether in science fiction or out of it. Those who turn their nose up at the franchise either lack the maturity to appreciate the messages it sends (i.e. the generation of adolescent males who prefer more ‘kablooey’ to more ‘thinking about their problems’), or hasn’t actually watched what they need to see about the series to make it all make sense. Those people I refer to episodes like “The City on the Edge of Forever”, “The Measure of a Man,” “Rocks and Shoals,” “In the Pale Moonlight”, “Family,” and, of course, “Chain of Command.” There are many, many more besides, plus movies such as The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country round out the great message and moral weight of the universe Roddenberry created.

Now, while I have enjoyed the Star Trek reboot as ‘good time films’, I am increasingly reminded of how much my enjoyment of those two movies is dependent upon that which had been done by the original series before it. Honestly, what relationship or character work has been done in this new series that isn’t entertaining simply because of the echoes from our old friends Shatner and Nimoy and Kelley? Did we really think Benedict Cumberpatch was cool as Khan, or were we just happy to see Khan again, regardless of his form?

There is a reason this poster exists. Think about it.

There is a reason this poster exists. Think about it.

I am not a Trekkie, but this, ultimately, is what all of us who love scifi have lost in Star Trek. This is what I hope somehow we regain, but that I sadly must conclude is gone for good. We have watched character be replaced with effects and story be supplanted by explosions. If it works, it is only because of the coattails it’s riding on. I mean no offense to the cast of the Abrams movies, nor even do I particularly dislike Abrams himself (he is playing to his demographic, after all – explosions sell). I do not think, though, that we will ever again see the likes of this:


A Ship of One’s Own

You can't have this one. Make up your own.

You can’t have this one. Make up your own.

Imagine a starship. Your ship. The steed that shall bear you to the stars and beyond, upon which you will rely for safety, comfort, support, and escape.

What does it look like?

Science fiction has given us a broad range of different designs and styles, but I think a lot of the ships we see boil down to a few riffs on the same couple variables (and a lot of them owing their origin to the difficult-to-escape legacy of the Star Wars universe). So, let’s run through them, bit by bit.


How big is this ship going to be? Is it a stunt fighter some psychic midget can yank out of a swamp, or is it some thing everybody will confuse for a small moon? The smaller ship is easier to maintain, but the larger ship has a bit more heft, has room for more options, carries more stuff, and is probably more comfortable.


Does your ship have the newest gadgets built into the fanciest hull yet devised by modern engineers, or is it a throwback – a hunk of junk that’s seen its share of battles, weathered a radiation storm or two? The new ship gets new toys – it cloaks, it has super-tractor beams, it goes faster than anything ever before, and so on. The old ship, though, has character. It’s more like a person than a vessel, from the way it creaks during re-entry or the way it pulls to the side when you try to climb out of the gravity well.


Do you fly this thing by yourself, or do you need friends? How many friends? You can have ten kilometer long starships run by one guy and his AI companion, and you can also have a ten meter ship that needs five people to operate its manually cranked solar sails (or something). Less crew gives you more freedom, but it also exposes you to the risk of being overwhelmed by space pirates or invasive aliens or whatever. More crew means you’ve got to manage personalities on long voyages, but at least you won’t be lonely and any trouble you run into will provide you with a bunch of folks to help you out. Heck, get that crew big enough, and soon they become redundant – lose an engineer? Well, there’s seventeen more where she came from!


Well, if it’s a starship, it has to be fast (interstellar distances don’t cross themselves, you know), but how fast? This one sees the greatest variations between vessels, ranging from telephone booths that teleport instantly to generation ships that take decades to reach their destination. Ultimately, though, any ship goes just about at the Speed of Plot, which is to say it goes just fast enough so that things happen and it doesn’t get boring. So, in other words, completely at odds with all other forms of travel known.


Is this a military vessel? A pirate ship? A smuggler? A garbage scow? Does it mount guns? How many? Where? Why? Some folks like their spaceships packed with phasers, proton torpedoes, railguns and the rest of it. Others prefer to use their wits and their diplomatic skills to avoid danger. After all, if you don’t carry guns, you are less likely to be shot. Then again, if you don’t carry guns and you are shot, there’s not a hell of a lot you can do about it. Invest in escape pods.

Well, what did you come out with?

For me, a ship is a story. It has to be. The age-old comic book store questions about ‘what ship would you rather have–the Enterprise, the Falcon, or Serenity?’ are filtered through a couple artificial lenses. I mean, if we were really handing out starships, I’d want one to myself that could travel instantly, never break down, and that could allow me to go in the backyard, have an adventure, and be back by suppertime (so, in other words, the TARDIS). That, though, isn’t a story by itself. It’s not interesting because there is no conflict, no problems, no difficulties – the story isn’t about the ship.

If we’re talking ‘what is cooler in the context of a story’, then we get into a more interesting conversation. I’m split down the middle between ‘big military ship’ and ‘speedy, characterful smuggling ship’. In other words, I’m split down the middle between the Enterprise and the Falcon. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since almost every central starship in scifi history falls into one category or the other, with an honorable mention going to the starfighters/giant space robots of the universe (and they’re mostly extensions of the big military ship, anyway).

Why is this, anyway? I’m not sure, but my gut says that our starships are just reflections of our heroes, ultimately, and our heroes in these kind of stories so often are split between those that uphold the existing order (Captain Kirk) and those who seek to change or topple it (Han Solo) and, therefore, we get our ships – mobile symbols of our heroic ideals. Like so many tropes, though, it doesn’t need to be this way. The galaxy is a large place, after all. Let’s branch out and see what other stories our starships can tell us.