Today's class concerned itself with the issue of temporal sequentiality and, thus, with the concerns and parameters of narrative form. Science fiction often tests the limits of time and space (the elements of a diegetic universe) and, so, often raises questions about narrative. The Star Trek: TNG episode, "Cause and Effect," is a perfect example of how science fiction can help us better to understand how we order our lives on a day-to-day basis. I began by showing the opening scene of the episode. What we see is an enterprise that appears to be partly on fire and in dire straits. After a command from Jean-Luc Picard to abandon ship, we see the ship blow up, followed by the opening credits. The question is: what is wrong with this narrative? Why can't we stop here? What is interesting about this beginning?
I then showed the next sequence, in which we are presented with a mundane day aboard the enterprise: some of the crew are playing cards, Geordi gets a headache, Dr. Crusher cuts some blooms before going to bed, the crew has a meeting about a boring scientific exploration, then the enterprise blows up again, followed by a commercial. Again, the question: what's wrong with this narrative? Of course, the problems are the same as before: there does not appear to be a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the mundane events we see and the explosion. None of the questions are answered. Instead, we are faced with more questions: what's causing Geordi's headache? What are those voices that Dr. Crusher seems to hear when she's trying to fall asleep? That is, the hermeneutic code is further invoked.
Eventually we learn that the Enterprise is, in fact, caught in a temporal loop, endlessly repeating the same sequence of apparently meaningless events, each time forgetting the events of the previous loop, although not entirely (a sense of déjà vu remains). Eventually, the crew gets such a sense of déjà vu that the gamblers in the opening scene are actually able to guess exactly which cards will be dealt out by Data, even though, in the first time loop we saw, he assured his friends that the cards were "sufficiently randomized" following a friendly jibe from one of the players who accused Data of "stacking the deck." Eventually, the crew also figures out the meaning of the voices Dr. Crusher heard in her quarters. They are a slice out of time, with thousands of voices speaking about heterogenous things from throughout the Enterprise (ship operations, complaints, arguments, love-making, etc.). Out of these, Data is able to edit out three significant moments that re-construct the narrative of the Enterprise's destruction. To escape the loop, they attempt to send a message to Data from this loop into the next, a message that is likely to be interpreted by Data as perhaps little more than a subconscious irritation. In that next loop, after we witness yet another destruction of the Enterprise, everything seems to change. Although the gamblers once again think they can predict the cards that are to fall, Data instead deals out four "3s" in succession followed by four "three of a kinds." In fact, the number three continues to pop up throughout this loop until Data manages to save the Enterprise in the final scene when he realizes that the number 3 points to the proper course of action to escape destruction.
Throughout these loops, the class went to work interpreting the narrative. Before I get to those, I want to offer an interpretation of my own: what we seem to be seeing here is an enactment of Freud's theories about repetition compulsion. As Freud explains, traumatic events are usually followed not by an effort to forget the horror-filled events (as would seem to make sense) but, paradoxically, with the need to repeat them over and over until, as he says, our conscious minds are able to make sense of them, to "bind" them. (Think, for example, about war veterans returning home to nightmares in which they constantly relive the worst events of the war, or how, when you see a horror-filled film that disturbs you, you do not try to forget it but seek to relate the film to anyone you can get to listen.) Narrative is one of our primary tools for making sense of traumatic events. Indeed, as the Star Trek episode suggests and as many narratologists have argued, narratives are not really mimetic, (that is, "realistic") for this very reason. They do not present life as it actually happens in the real world, for life in the real world is often chaotic and meaningless, something like the slice of the real that Dr. Crusher hears in her room and that Data manages to record. Life works by chance, hence the reason for starting the show with a card game, as Craig Stalbaum pointed out. On the other hand, as Melissa Reimer and Jill Parks suggested, narrative tends, indeed, to stack the deck, unlike the "sufficiently randomized" events of quotidian life; in short, life is a gamble, narrative is not. The Enterprise, faced with a traumatic, meaningless destruction could be said to enact Freud's repetition compulsion, repeating the same events until enough meaning is imposed, represented by all the 3s that, as it turns out, Data has unconsciously made to appear throughout the ship in the final loop. Data's extraction of three significant sentences out of the "slice of the real" that the crew managed to record is itself a sort of narrative act. Narrative selects that which is significant in a diegetic world and presents these events to us in an ordered way.
Narrative does not, however, present us with events in a simple, chronological way, which is the narratological definition of story. Narratives tend discursively to re-order the chronological events of a story for various reasons (sometimes through analepses and prolepses). A detective story is a good example since the novel usually begins at the end of the "story"; the rest of the novel invokes the hermeneutic code in the effort to reconstruct the story of the murder. The story, in order words, is discursively re-organized and the full story can only be reconstructed at the very end of the narrative. The other aspect of discourse includes all the other ways that a text or a film presents a story to you: camera angles, camera movement, close-ups, music, etc.. We analyzed a number of different ways that the TNG episode used these discursive tricks to affect our interpretation of the story.
I also suggested that the show functions as a sort of deconstruction of narrative form and of the very medium of film. The show for example breaks down the latter to its consituent parts: sound (Data's recorded "slice of the real") and sight (Geordi's visor). The time loops function the same way: after all, is it not true that the show does repeat over and over, since we can always rewind the tape and watch it again. At times in the episode, it almost seems as if the characters begin to become conscious of their fictional nature. The scene in which Picard thinks he has already read a book he is reading is a good example: might there not also be a certain nudge from the writer of the episode about Picard's own fictional status. Such a move is a prototypical postmodern one. Think, for example, of Scream in which the characters seem to become concious of themselves as fictional characters stuck within the rules of a specific fictional genre, the horror film. The final episode of Seinfeld has a similar effect: to force the characters of the show to be put under trial is the same as forcing the purview of one generic form--comedy--to be valued by another antagonistic genre, the judicial drama; the Seinfeld characters seem so befuddled in the episode because within the rules of comedy none of the otherwise objectionable actions they committed would be considered bad. The point of comedy is that actions do not have consequences; Wile E. Coyote always gets up after falling off cliffs, for example.
Indeed, as different students pointed out, the show seems self-conscious about other aspects within the episode. Craig Stalbaum argued that Crusher's breaking of her glass may well be symbolic of the destruction of the enterprise that is about to occur. Crusher's cutting of orchid blooms may well be a nod to the prototypical metaphor for life's degenerescence: "ah, he was cut down in the bloom of life!" Think also of the phrase "nipped in the bud." Indeed, Vanessa Leamer pointed out how Dr. Crusher's expression of abject fear as she's about to cut the blooms in the final loop suggests just how much meaning this apparently innocuous event begins to take on. It's as if she fears cutting off her own life. Scott Seaman took this even further suggesting that the shears may be evocative of Atropos, one of the three Fates of classical mythology, which suggests just how much the TNG episode is concerned with issues of narrativized fate vs. chance. (See the image to the right; the Fate with the shears is Atropos.)
Next Class Synopsis
BACK TO COURSE SYLLABUS