trek ship image

Synopsis of Class: August 24, 2000

Continuing our discussion of important terms for the study of narrative, I showed students today the first scene of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called "Cause and Effect." In this scene, we see 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?

Of course, as Lane Sanders and Eric McCrory explained, the problem is that not enough is explained. We want to know WHY the enterprise is blowing up. What caused this disaster? In short, we invoke what Roland Barthes terms "the hermeneutic code." We want the mystery solved. The destruction is also too premature. It acts something like a traumatic event and a good narrative refuses to stop with such a shocking event.

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. Indeed, as Aisha Peay suggested, the episode appears to be all about the construction of suspense, an essay of sorts on the relationship between the hermeneutic and proairetic codes, since with each loop we learn a little more and the narrative advances (the characters act slightly differently) with each revelation.

As the viewers of this episode learn, 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. 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.

As the class quickly came to realize, what we seem to be seeing here is an allegorization of narrative itself—hence the very title of the episode ("Cause and Effect"). Narrative is one of our primary tools for making sense of the contingency of life, particularly of such traumatic events as death (and, for Star Trek fans at least, the destruction of the enterprise is certainly just as traumatic an event). In fact, could we not even argue that what we are seeing in this Star Trek episode 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.) 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. (Indeed, a narrative, by necessity, edits out those moments in life that are not significant and highlights those that are, just as Data edits out all superfluous information from the jumbled voice recordings or just as this particular narrative is focalized through the character of Dr. Crusher, as Elizabeth Lowe pointed out.) Narrative, unlike the "sufficiently randomized" events of quotidian life, tends, indeed, to stack the deck; 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.

One could even say that none of the apparently innocuous events presented to us in the first sequence are really meaningless. As Meg Lowry pointed out in the Citizen Kane episode we saw last class, through such a repetition of the same apparently mundane and innocuous events or objects, the familiar is made to become unfamiliar. As Maria Weir brilliantly pointed out, these innocuous scenes are forced, in fact, to take on the status of metaphors: the gambling scene, for example, accrues meaning with each repetition until we come to understand it as a metaphor for the contingency of life itself, which is opposed to the improbable "stacked" order of narrative. Given the destruction of the enterprise at the end of each loop, even Dr. Crusher's act of cutting blooms become significant. What better metaphor for life's inevitable degenerescence? Without the proper ending, the very existence of Star Trek: The Next Generation would, indeed, be "nipped in the bud." Also of interest to the study of narrative, is the focalization of this episode. That is, the camera tends to stay with Dr. Crusher throughout each loop, so that the narrative maintains her perspective as "focal point," so much so that we suspect she will be the one to figure out the problem at the heart of this particular hermeneutic puzzle. We also discussed a number of the discursive manipulations in each loop (music, ever-tighter close-ups), all of which serve to alert us to important details and increase the suspense of the episode. Stacey Morgan also alerted us to the discursive manipulation of the story, since, as in the traditional epic, we begin very much in medias res.

Do also keep in mind DJ Dangler's comment about the increasing realism of contemporary pop culture (the spate of recent "reality shows", for example) since this question of mimesis and the diminution of epic form will be important for our discussions later on.

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