Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Justice" (November 9, 1987)
After settling a Federation colony in a nearby solar system, the Enterprise visits Rubicun III, a planet populated by the friendly, and sexually-liberated Edo.
Shore leave privileges are approved on the planet, after a review of local customs by Lt. Yar (Denise Crosby), but the Enterprise must also reckon with a sensor ghost in orbit: a giant phantom-like presence that resembles a space station.
Meanwhile, the legal customs of the Edo prove not to be quite as liberated as the citizenry’s sexual behavior. Capital punishment -- for every crime -- is widely used as a deterrent.
Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) accidentally breaks a law while playing ball with some Rubicun youth, and is sentenced to die for the transgression.
Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) wants to adhere to the Prime Directive, and not interfere in the planet’s customs, but he also knows he can’t let the boy die over a minor infraction (destroying young plants, accidentally).
Picard must weigh his choice carefully, however, because the phantom in space is worshiped by the Edo as a God.
And that “God” takes care of them, and warns the Enterprise not to interfere with its “children.”
I readily confess that I like “Justice” a good bit more than I do many early first season offerings of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
This episode gets away from the oft-seen sound-stage interiors and fake rocks found there to shoot on location, for one thing. It also follows to the hilt Gene Roddenberry’s “kinky” proclivities, and, finally, tests Captain Picard most profoundly.
On that last front, our good captain is very much in the middle. While he is judging the customs of the Edo, he is, simultaneously, being judged by the Edo’s God. Captain Picard may think the Edo primitive and misguided for their legal system, but for every move he makes, he must weigh how his behavior reflects on him, his crew, and even the Federation.
He is battling his responsibility to the letter of the law, but also responsibility for his people, namely Wesley.
Today, the sexuality of the Edo -- “playing at love,” scantily clad, and oiled up -- probably seems like nothing scandalous, or even a bit cheesy. To which I would say; remember context.
We have had thirty years since “Justice” aired to grow accustomed to more provocative TV on premium cable (HBO), regular cable, and even network television. In 1987, however, this was all cutting-edge stuff. Star Trek was a “family franchise” pushing the envelope on content and visuals.
Too often, I think, people forget that fact, now. It’s easy to laugh at this show, and call it “Planet of the Joggers” (because all the super physically-fit Edo run everywhere, in what looks like a public resort), but the fact of the matter is that the episode is very frank about sexuality. Although we don’t see it, it’s pretty clear that the Enterprise crew who are visiting the planet are engaging sex with these people. There’s a sexual charge in some of the sequences, such as Worf and Rivan’s (Brenda Bakke) introduction, or Tasha’s look of contentment and arousal when she notes that the locals make love at the drop of “any” hat.
On Star Trek.
Thematically, “Justice” is a much like the series premiere, “Encounter at Farpoint” in that it concerns a superior alien being judging the crew of the Enterprise. This is a common Star Trek theme, but here the emphasis is a bit different.
In “Encounter at Farpoint,” Q had no real interest in the Bandi, or what happened to them, let alone the jellyfish aliens. He just wanted to see if the humans could solve what he viewed as a complex mystery.
In “Justice,” Picard must make a choice -- based on his values -- which he knows the God Alien won’t like. And the God Alien is invested in the Edo the very way that Beverly and Picard are invested in Wesley. This is an elegant dramatic structure, one often overlooked in the negative reviews of the installment. Picard has to act as judge, even as he is judged.
Even surrounded by the half-naked Edo, Patrick Stewart displays a kind of intellectual dignity in this episode, showing us how Picard grapples with his choices, and does his best to be consistent. For me, this is the first “real” Picard episode since the pilot. Since then, we’ve seen him silly and drunk (“The Naked Now”), hamstrung and frustrated (“Code of Honor”), relegated to the ship while philosophical leadership is delegated to Riker (“The Last Outpost”), and even cranky and surly (“Lonely Among Us.”) Here, he assumes leadership, and we see how he lives by his ideals, and makes decisions by his ideals.
He has an issue to grapple with too, and so “Justice” is smart. Where, we all must wonder, is the consistency in having a law (like the Prime Directive) and breaking it when one judges it wrong? How can we, or the God Alien, respect Picard if he breaks the rules he supposedly reveres?
That consistency emerges in the adult acknowledgement that even though law is necessary to maintain a civilization, it won’t serve the needs of that civilization in every situation. There must be exceptions to the law, or there is law, but not justice. And those are two different things. It is not just to kill someone for falling into a bed of plants, even if it is the law.
We live in a country that sometimes tries 13-year old minors as adults in court, even though they are not adults. We live in a country that administers the death penalty on a regular basis to the poorest of the community; people who can't afford proper legal representation in some cases. Therefore, this talk of justice is not irrelevant to the program’s audience. And so in the best tradition of Star Trek, “Justice” is not really about some alien planet and its customs. It is about us and how we view it. Are our laws always fair? Are they applied equally to all? Do they foster justice, or do they foster inequality?
Back in 2006, I had the chance to discuss “Justice” a little with its director, James Conway, and he told me about the experience: “I did "Justice," which was the ninth show…That was a lot of fun. That was a classic old-style Star Trek episode. I remember that one of the first things I shot on the show was the scene where we beamed in like nine people at once. It was unwieldy to try to photograph nine people on one side, and then all the people seeing them on the other side."
"It was fun," he also observed of the episode’s production. "They spent a lot of time designing the costumes. If you look at the old, early Season One of TNG, and you see where it went in seasons three and four when it became such a huge hit...it's a totally different TV show." It ["Justice"] was very much a Gene Roddenberry-style show. He was a great guy, by the way. I loved Gene. When he left the show...originally there was no interfering with other cultures, so there were no fights, there was no action to speak of. And frankly I think the show got much better when the Borg showed up and everyone started shooting at each other. It [“Justice”] was like an updated version of the original series, down to the wardrobe," he concludes.
I think he’s right. “Justice,” warts and all, feels a bit more like Original Trek, than many chapters of The Next Generation do. For me, that’s not a bad thing at all. “Justice” is provocative in design, costume, and ideas, and that, in my book, is what makes for good science fiction television.
Next Week: “The Battle.”