Internal contradiction by omission
The downfall of Star Trek
The internal consistency of a sprawling media franchise is difficult to maintain, especially in speculative fiction. This article studies one episode of a long-running series, “Second Skin” (1994), to find out why and how Star Trek as a franchise limited the quality of its setting through errors of omission.
I only want to talk about the nice things.— “Baby Jane” Hudson, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Long before the age of focus groups and presales put old SF “intellectual property” (IP) at the centre of the blockbuster moviemaking industry, Star Trek (1966) struggled just to survive on television. The original series was famously lengthened by letter-writing fans, but it still didn’t last very long. Fan passion was prominent in every later production until broader name recognition made Trek one of those zombie evergreens that are continually brought back to a tepid reception. In 2022, the question is not whether to make more Trek, but how to steward an IP with a unique role in media history, by making more Trek.
The first three Star Trek series were written episodically, with little overarching plot or coordination. That production model had worked well in earlier television, especially in realistic dramas, where the basic premises of the setting could never change. In Gene Roddenberry’s new science fiction setting, on the other hand, each writer took their own liberties to enable their respective fanciful plots. This has profoundly impacted what can now be done in the setting.
“The weight of consistent, functional detail”
The 1966 series launched in the era of “The Imagination of Disaster” (1965), when popular science fiction on TV was an emotion-driven spectacle and any continuity was rare. The relative consistency and detail of Star Trek on a superficial level were striking, thanks to the hard work of a small crew:
William Ware Theiss’s arrowhead patches each contained a different symbol indicating to which branch of Starfleet the wearer belonged. Matt Jefferies’ small phasers fit perfectly into the larger phasers, and the handles were power packs of some kind. Romulans were related to Vulcans. The transporter controls were operated the same way each week.
Hour by hour, episode by episode, the telling details mounted, were kept track of, and were reinforced.
With each viewing, it became easier to suspend the knowledge that these were simply actors emoting among plywood sets and papier-mâché boulders, and to accept the illusion that the Enterprise existed in a real future made all the more believable by the weight of consistent, functional detail that was presented.1
The idea of consistency, of course, wasn’t new. The series had been greenlit by comedian Lucille Ball. Her Lucy Show (1962) was also pretty consistent, having the benefit of more realistic premises. For example, there are no androids on Lucy. That would have shifted the premises of the sitcom. There are androids on Trek.
Taking the existence of androids as a premise increases the burden of stewardship. Roddenberry OK’d androids because the android motif is something he recognized as part of the genre or imagined could really exist in the future. It was also easy to show androids on television because they can be played by people without expensive makeup. Trek thus broke a limitation that existed in Lucy. Both series still obeyed other kinds of limitations, such as keeping the main characters around from one episode to the next. Lucy writers did not have to remember whether androids were known in their setting. Trek writers had to, and failed.
A typology of plot holes
There is a scene in the episode “Return to Tomorrow” (1968) where an established character on Trek’s original series scoffs at the plausibility of androids. By then, the character had already encountered androids in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” (1966) and again in “I, Mudd” (1967). Androids as such are not a plot hole, but this one character’s scoffing is a plot hole. It shows the fiction to be inconsistent after all.
You can call the scoffing an internal contradiction by inclusion: Despite the character’s apparent memory gap, his reaction is in fact an inclusion, an addition to the setting and plot, that contradicts the existing narrative. Simply omitting that specific reaction would have left the TV series and the franchise as a whole slightly more coherent on its own terms and, I would argue, better.
The production model made such contradictions inevitable. Only three or four weeks were spent making each episode of the original series, by analog methods, to be viewed once. As time went on, Trek came to contradict itself more and more, resembling its trashier predecessors. One of the most amazing examples of this is “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” (1973). In it, Kirk, who is the franchise’s first hero, saves a Christian god named Satan by using magic, at a date before any of the android stuff.
Having magic is like having androids in the franchise. It is not a plot hole, but a premise. However, there are plenty of situations in apparently subsequent plots where it would have been appropriate to take “Megas-Tu” into account, such as by having Kirk use the same powers again, or use anything else the crew learned in the episode. Not doing so is a plot hole, and a plot hole of a different kind. Call it an internal contradiction by omission.
The setting undermined
From a commercial standpoint, the mass of internal contradictions in the franchise has not yet been fatal. It may alienate some of the potential audience, but fans forgive plot holes or find them charming up to a point. Still, Paramount—which now owns the IP—naturally wants a growing audience streaming its back catalogue. Since the age of VCR, producers and head writers have attempted to tamp down the forces of chaos to prevent reaching a critical mass of discontent.
“The Magicks of Megas-Tu” appears in Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973), which has sometimes been considered “canon” (relevant), sometimes not, as creative control has shifted over decades of corporate history. Ejecting the animated series completely from the canon would constitute a retcon, short for “retroactive continuity”. Overt retcons are rare in the franchise, and not productive. Even if the animated series is thrown out, Kirk still gets magical powers—from another rich source—in “Plato’s Stepchildren” (1968). That too is omitted from all later episodes, but has never been retconned.
A much later TV series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993), was pitched as less episodic. It is instead more serialized, with more central planning and less opportunity for individual contributors to screw up. A still-later feature film, Star Trek (2009), started a cycle of works in an alternative version of the setting, again reducing the scope of possible plot holes at a steep cost in continuity. More generally, series “bibles” and “technical manuals” etc. have spelled out what is and is not allowed in each version of the setting. However, the main quality-control strategy of every generation of writers on Trek is to add more internal contradiction by omission, like the New Testament (ca. 110 CE).
The example of “Second Skin”
Roddenberry, the original creator of the 1960s series, died in 1991. Producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller had already taken over his responsibilities and would continue to lead the franchise’s development for many years. In 1993, on the second-to-last season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987), they included a fabulist episode called “Face of the Enemy”.
In “Face of the Enemy”, one of the most central characters on the show is physically transformed, while unconscious and without warning, to appear as if she belonged to an alien species in a cultural context typical of that species. At the same time, she is unknowingly caught up in high-level espionage.
In 1994, the same basic plot was used again, on another series in the same franchise: “Second Skin” on Deep Space Nine. I mention both instances because repetition demonstrates the interest of the writers. “Face of the Enemy” was written by Naren Shankar, René Echevarria, and Brannon Braga. All of them were frequent contributors to The Next Generation, not one-off writers. “Second Skin” was written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe who’d contributed one script to The Next Generation and was a major contributor to Deep Space Nine. None of these people were amateurs or temporary hired hands.
In both instances, the reused plot has little motivation from within the setting. In short, it doesn’t make sense in universe for things to happen as they do. It must be understood from the extradiegetic, real-world motivations of the writers. As usual in the science fiction genre, the writers picked those premises that allowed them to carry out their artistic ambitions within the constraints of broadcast television. In the case of these two episodes, the ambitions were local and lyrical. Making logical sense in the context of the franchise was not forgotten, as it had been in “Megas-Tu”, but it was secondary. Decades of such work had broken the setting, and “Second Skin” shows how.
Episode plot with spoilers
Kira, a major character on Deep Space Nine, belongs to the Bajoran humanoid species. She represents a planetary government to an allied interstellar Federation, often against an imperial power known as the Cardassian Union. Kira hates the Cardassians, who are another humanoid species. She has seen them abuse, torture and kill friends and innocent people throughout her life. One of her close associates is a human officer of the Federation. If he is provoked by the Cardassians, he can effectively declare war, which is the only thing the Cardassian Union seems to fear.
Contacted by the “Central Archives” of her own government, Kira is told that she served some time in a particular Cardassian prison. Kira has no memory of this. When she herself contacts Yeln, a stranger and supposed survivor from the same prison, he claims she was there. At the end of the episode, Yeln has disappeared. It is proposed that, despite looking Bajoran on a video call, Yeln was a Cardassian spy.
It turns out that the Cardassian secret police, known as the “Obsidian Order”, has embedded some of their own species in Bajoran society, using extensive surgery to make them appear Bajoran. They have applied mind-altering drugs and training to have these spies forget which species they belong to. Yeln may have been such a spy. Kira is not such a spy, but in the course of investigating the fake story about the prison, Kira is kidnapped via teleporter, rendered unconscious, subjected to surgery to make her appear Cardassian, then revived and told that she is a Cardassian spy who has replaced the Bajoran Kira. Among many tricks to convince her, she is shown a fabricated corpse, which looks exactly like her Bajoran self.
Kira is told that she is being given a drug that will undo the psychological preparations she undertook to become a spy, so that she can recall her past as a Cardassian. In fact, the secret police is manipulating her to reject the fake treatment they are giving her. The police’s ultimate aim is to incriminate an anti-imperial Cardassian politician, whose daughter resembles Kira. The daughter apparently is a Cardassian spy in deep cover as a Bajoran. Soon after she deduces this, Kira is rescued and surgically restored to her former appearance, but by then she has already suffered greatly.
The plot of “Second Skin” is convoluted. It requires the coincidence that Kira resembles the politician’s daughter, despite the two of them belonging to different species that originated light-years apart. It also requires the secret police to risk war with the Federation to incriminate one of their own politicians. Indeed the Federation sends a warship into Cardassian territory to retrieve Kira, which is against the interests of the secret police. However, the convolutions of the plot are irrelevant here. Consider instead how every part of the setting that makes the plot possible is already known to Kira, and how this makes the plot less likely to occur.
The following premises were already established before the episode, and are re-asserted within the episode:
- Cross-species surgical alterations are fast and convincing. They are apparently done in a matter of a few hours, including a total skin graft and full recovery with a sense of touch. This was established in “The Enterprise Incident” (1968) and reiterated in “First Contact” (1991), which features a flawed disguise, then again in “Face of the Enemy”, where the changes are convincing even to the unknowing subject, and yet again in “Homeward” (1994).
- Accurate mind-reading is possible by means both technological and magical. Shortly before “Second Skin”, Kira experienced a perfectly convincing dream under partial enemy control in “The Search: Part 2” (1994), and in “Second Skin”, her captor has access to knowledge she has supposedly never shared with anybody.
- Brainwashing is also effective, as necessary for deep-cover spies to forget who they are. An unwilling participant is kidnapped like Kira and brainwashed to work for aliens in “The Mind’s Eye” (1991). “The Game” (1991) did this on a larger scale with less labour.
- Individuals can be tracked, identified and teleported over astronomic distances and through obstacles without their knowledge or consent. Doing so is apparently not a war crime. A “shield” technology can prevent it, as can a “cloak” technology and some exotic materials. In the episode, traces left behind by teleportation are subtle and ambiguous.
- Travel is much faster than light and power is too cheap to meter, so that hostile agents may appear anywhere at any time.
- More realistically, surveillance is somewhat common and both video and official electronic records can be tampered with. It is not proven in the context of this episode whether a particular recording that Kira sees is fake or actually made by the politician’s daughter, but given all of the other premises and real-world technology, faking it can’t be hard. A similar fake appeared in “Armageddon Game” (1994).
The following premises are not specifically re-asserted in the episode, but relevant and not contradicted:
- Translation technology is so advanced that people apparently do not know which language they are hearing.
- Tangible holograms and comparable illusions are convincing. “Homeward” features an entire people living inside a hastily programmed hologram without knowing it, “Shadowplay” (1994) inverts “Homeward” so that the environment of a village is real while the people living in it are holograms without knowing it, and so on.
- People can be perfectly copied as in “Whispers” (1994). Like Cardassian deep-cover spies, such copies can be profoundly mistaken about their true identity until they are activated.
- There are reliable lie detectors, both technological as in “Court Martial” (1967) and magical as in the “Betazoid” species of The Next Generation.
- One past episode, “Interface” (1993), has shown a relevant telepresence technology that Kira could have used to examine the prison.
These things are canonically easy enough that they are used in the internal politics of nation-state actors. Most of them seem to be known to hundreds of different species with human-level intelligence, which makes for unknown thousands of polities able to use them against someone like Kira at any time.
The basic premises changed over time, but very little. In the episode “Force of Nature” (1993), for example, a speed limit is imposed which makes space travel a little slower for a while, but that is a political measure for environmental reasons, not a fictional natural law, and the actual speeds were never consistent anyway. The speed limit was mentioned again a couple of times, but soon omitted without explanation.
The premises of the setting were not invented for the setting. They were copied from earlier science fiction, and it wasn’t done to amuse television viewers. Instead, each premise was added to enable something a writer or producer wanted to do for the moment, or had to do to save money. Teleportation technology, for example, makes it unnecessary to build extra sets and props for transportation by shuttle when an episode is filmed. It saves money, but it also has other consequences.
The plot of “Second Skin” is convoluted not only in terms of coincidence and politically irrational behaviour on the part of the antagonists. It is also overly elaborate in relation to the premises. Given the technology available to the secret police, faking evidence of the Cardassian politician’s treason would have been easier than getting Kira involved to provoke the politician to treason. It would have been easier even if the secret police had also, independently, killed Kira.
Like the coincidence of Kira resembling the politician’s daughter, the needless complexity of the plot is irrelevant here. It is an internal contradiction, but it is a contradiction by inclusion, and therefore out of scope. Consider instead the level of internal contradiction by omission that is necessary for the plot.
Kira lives on a space station with “shields”, but the shields are unused 99.999% of the time. Not even personal quarters are built from any of the materials that obstruct sensors and teleporters. Kira and everybody else on board are vulnerable to being identified and teleported away for any purpose, including purposes as irrational and hostile as those of the Cardassians in this episode. In “Schisms” (1992), an onboard computer system is apparently able to detect when crew members are teleported away, but the computer isn’t set up to inform anybody when such things happen. Countermeasures against teleportation are thus available when needed, but not used. This is implausible and doesn’t change.
In the episode before “Second Skin” (“Equilibrium”), tampering with an electronic record is discovered by a simple method, namely checking the size of a checksum, without even checking the content. This isn’t done at the Central Archives. The official at the archives is convinced by a manipulated record, having no impulse to verify its contents from a backup or from offline sources or against a cryptographic signature or checksum, even after Kira protests its veracity. This is a technologically advanced society where electronic records are fundamental to security, yet countermeasures against tampering are implausibly weak and there is no sign of improvement.
Kira in turn is intrigued by her video call with Yeln. She does no background check on Yeln, despite knowing about Cardassian spies and collaborators, and despite the ease of faking the call. Lie detectors, telepresence and reliable contacts go unused. Kira sends nobody but herself to check on the story. Despite the lack of urgency, she even travels alone, unobserved and not in a shielded vessel, without so much as a live-feed bodycam to trace her movements in case of hostile action.
On a more basic level, Kira is not mentally prepared for the possibility of her own assassination or kidnapping, despite her suspicion that the prison story is fake. She knows as much as anybody about the Cardassians’ capabilities, and yet she falls into their trap to such an extent that she breaks down crying and is tempted to reject her own identity. She passes through Sutter’s Cloud and, even more importantly, she does nothing to prevent it from happening again, as it happened before.
Kira’s ordeal repeats “Face of the Enemy”, so it is not just a personal hell or an isolated occurence. However, there are bigger preventable lapses of safety and security in earlier episodes. Here is a quick sampler:
- “The Enemy Within” (1966) started a loose string of episodes where teleporter technology—as used in “Second Skin” to abduct Kira—has horrifying side effects.
- In “Conspiracy” (1988), “The Game” and other episodes, malevolent aliens have enslaved ships because of lax security.
- “Evolution” (1989) showed a single-point failure in a computer system regarded as infallible. In “Emergence” (1994) the same computer spontaneously became self-aware and reproduced biologically. Both incidents imply testable design flaws that can kill whole crews.
- In “Hollow Pursuits” (1990), technicians reveal that any of the thousands of power sources on board a ship can randomly malfunction in a way that is too subtle to monitor but likely fatal at a random distance.
- In “Remember Me” (1990), a teenager gets to do the equivalent of tampering with a nuclear reactor while thousands of uninformed people are in harm’s way.
- In “Unnatural Selection” (1989) and several other episodes, diseases spread because there is no quarantine procedure. They sometimes wipe out whole crews.
There are also instances where weapons have been banned and defects patched, but the list of canonical risks is long. To guard against them, people like Kira could be travelling in groups, using more sousveillance/surveillance and expending some more of their energy on verification before risking their lives. They just don’t, which is a paradox.
There are preconditions for adequate security in the Trek setting, but only preconditions. Because of the lack of effort to achieve security, characters suffer tremendously, yet there is no sign of the psychological trauma or caution that would logically result from their nightmarish experiences.
The characters of Star Trek are implausibly resilient and careless. They have to be for “Second Skin” to work. However, resilience and carelessness are not like androids or magic. They are not speculative premises of the setting these characters inhabit, nor retcons, nor the traits of individual characters. Rather, psychological strangeness in this detail is a self-contradiction. Like the omission of references to Kirk’s wizardry, the omission of trauma and security is a plot hole that expands with every new episode.
Retconning cuts off a limb. It’s painful, but sometimes it does stop gangrene. By contrast, internal contradiction by omission allows corruption to spread. Such contradictions are errors of omission, even when they constitute deliberate neglect. By 1994, with more than 300 episodes already rushed to air, it was getting late to do anything else. Unlike Kirk’s wizardry, those long-standing premises that should logically have caused trauma and/or caution could no longer be removed because they had already defined and permeated everyday life in all those hundreds of episodes.
The script of “Second Skin” conspicuously alludes to its own premises as it recycles the plot of “Face of the Enemy”. This demonstrates that—as time went on and the setting became firmly established—the writers were increasingly conscious of the problem. Sadly, Berman, Piller and Wolfe refused to draw conclusions even the second time around. Like the makers of Delta Green, they toed the line, willing to stand by their premises for a little consistency yet unwilling to deal with the consequences as good writers do to preserve the integrity of their fiction.
I have a feeling that hardcore “Trekkies”/“Trekkers” aren’t as common as they used to be. Remaining Trek viewers expect to see optimistic characters get into trouble and get away clean, not characters who are broken or rational. The current makers of Trek don’t dare disappoint. They think the window for improvement has closed. Once corruption reached the point that it did in “Second Skin”, internal contradiction by omission would always be the easy way out.
Doing quality control by the omission of consequences is not killing Star Trek as a commercial franchise. However, it is essentially fighting fire with fire. In the 1960s, it was already limiting the IP’s potential as art. By 1994, internal contradiction had staked out the boundaries of the final frontier on all sides.