Friday, July 10, 2009

Star Trek aliens I'd like to see more of

As a result of the fact Star Trek is a television show, a low information density medium, we often end up not learning much about any of the alien races and their culture. Sure, the Klingons got their "Heart of Glory," where we learned exactly how they thought, how they looked at the world and behaved, but there are many other races that didn't receive that kind of characterization or development. For instance, despite their regular and persistent use, I don't think the Romulans have ever received their "Heart of Glory." This, despite the fact they have been a part of the Star Trek universe from the beginning (they've actually been around slightly longer than the Klingons!) and were the main villains of two movies.

1. Deltans

It's easy to overlook the Deltans, because they never made any appearances beyond their initial one. For one thing, the idea was modified and became the Betazoids for TNG. Second, they are associated with "The Motion Picture," a very unpopular part of Trek lore.

But the Deltans are interesting and shouldn't be discarded. For one thing, they are a culture that considers humans to be "sexually immature." What exactly does this mean? What would a "sexually mature" society, one that has "grown up" about sex, actually be like?

Consider: there are a ton of euphemisms in our language for sex and sexual body parts (penises, breasts), and also for death. This isn't a coincidence, since cultures always create a myriad of terms to not directly discuss something they're not comfortable with.

As fundamentally sensual beings, the Deltans were actually very different from Betazoids. For one thing, according to the Gene Roddenberry novelization, Kirk always periodically imagined Ilia naked uncontrollably, for instance. No wonder they had to take a vow of celibacy!

2. Zakdorn

We first see the Zakdorn in "Peak Performance," and we learn almost everything we know about them from that episode: they're considered the greatest natural tactical minds in the universe, yet they haven't been in an actual combat for a very long time, because their reputation prevents possible aggressors from attacking them.

Mr. Worf contemptuously said, "If it isn't tested, their reputation is meaningless." Perhaps Worf is right, but I would have liked to see.

It's hard to say what the Zakdorn are actually like, or what a "garden variety" Zakdorn temperment is, as we've only really seen two: one was the swishy, excitable, arrogant Kolrami from "Peak Performance," and the other was a completely heterosexual junkyard owner in "Unification" that seemed like he was perpetually on Valium. Kolrami was able to defeat Data at a game like Stratagema because there were only a limited number of moves possible and Kolrami could antipate them all...however, when Data redefined his objective (to just fight to a draw) the game continued perpetually because Kolrami couldn't figure out his opponent's intentions.

This seems to be the way to defeat the Zakdorn, despite their very scary tactical edge: their weakness isn't so much that they are startled by unexpected tactics, which doesn't seem like a problem they'd have, but rather, their ability to out-think enemies comes from understanding their motives. If you can "fake out" a Zakdorn, or make them think you want something other than what you really want, you could probably out-think them.

One possible opportunity to use the Zakdorn emerged during Deep Space Nine: what if the Zakdorn, like the Breen and Cardassians, defected to become members of the Dominion? Now that would have been terrifying, to have the Dominion charging into battle led by the greatest strategic minds. For that matter, where were the Zakdorn, anyway? You'd imagine the Federation would have asked for their help in the greatest military problem in Federation history.

One thing I loved about Deep Space Nine was the feeling that during the Dominion War, there was a feeling a million things were going on at the same time. For the first time, the Trek universe acquired scope. This was in contrast to Voyager, where I never really believed in the Delta Quadrant; it was like the space Voyager passed through ceased to exist after they left!

One of the more impressive opportunities not pursued was the conquest of Betazed. I mean, here's a famous planet known for being sensualist and sexy, and they've been taken over by a group as ruthless as the Dominion. Surely there's a story there...

3. Tholians

The Tholians, like the Breen, were mentioned far more than they actually appeared. Which is a shame, because they're a fascinating opportunity, a "villain" race with a pedigree going back to the Original Series. This is extremely rare, because the overwhelming number of recurring alien races the original Trek gave us were usually pretty ridiculous looking, to the point where later incarnations of Trek went out of their way to not use or even mention them.

Take the Andorians, for instance. The writers of TNG deliberately stated in no uncertain terms on a number of occasions that there were no Andorians on the Galaxy-class Enterprise. There was even an interview with a head writer on TNG, when asked if any Andorians would show up on TNG, "Sorry, we don't do antennae on this show." I certainly don't mourn the loss of the Andorians, and in fact I'm a little baffled by their use in Enterprise. No matter how much goodwill one has towards the original series, no matter how much fondness or admiration, it will not change the fact that the Andorians look absolutely silly. A lesson on the dangers of nostalgia that many members of other fandoms have yet to learn, but I digress.

As for the Tholians, not only did they have a great look (or at least they were suggested to look really strange), they were sincerely menacing and mysterious, and had the good luck to appear in one of the most memorable episodes of the original series. The Tholians are, further, something very, very rare in Star Trek: an alien race that truly is alien. At times it seems that the "alien races" are just substitute human cultures. One critique of the Star Trek universe is, like the universes of Foundation or Dune, it could be rewritten so that all the alien races are different human civilizations spread across the universe, and very little of the Trek universe would have to be changed.

Often, real-world human cultures were used as the basis for Star Trek aliens: the Klingons are equal parts Japanese and Norse, and the Ferengi are even explicitly compared to 19th Century Yankee traders. While the Romulans derive their names from Rome, their culture is more like the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th Century, a world ruled in equal parts by the military and the secret police.

The exception are the Borg, who have a radically different basis that is only possible by science fiction, who are much more what alien races are like in written, serious science fiction.

One of my favorite ideas for the Tholians came from Peter David's New Frontier Trek novels. The Tholians experience time in a nonlinear fashion, radically different from other species. For instance, when the Tholians attack a ship without obvious provocation, it may be not be because of something they have done, but something that they are going to do in the future.

Incidentally, I always thought the "updated" makeup designs in Enterprise looked silly. The CGI "Jurassic Park" Gorn, for instance, looked especially laughable. But in the case of Tholians, they was nothing short of spectacular. My reaction was "oh, so that's what they looked like, all along!"

4. Nausicaans

The Nausicaans made quite an impression when they showed up in "Tapestry" as the silent, brooding bruisers that stabbed Picard from the back and caused him to need his artificial heart. They were something that few Trek villains often become: truly intimidating, able to arouse fear. It would be fascinating to see them again. It was often mentioned in later series that the Nausicaans were used as hired thugs, bodyguards and muscle for criminal operations, a role that somehow suits them perfectly.

In fact, it's really very strange we haven't seen these guys much, considering how powerful their debut was, and how hard-up TNG was for new enemies. All but one of their appearances (just let me get to that) featured the same Nausicaan hardcore mystique: my personal favorite was the scene in Quark's bar where the Nausicaans amused themselves by throwing darts at the chest of one of their own (who it should be said, took it like a champ)!

Yes, I am aware there was an episode of Enterprise that featured the Nausicaans, but like everything Enterprise, it took the potential of these new villains and squandered it. For one thing, they colored the Nausicaans pink and made them much smaller! Even the makeup was different; they looked much more like ridiculous parrotmen.

5. Bynars

What was really amazing was, the Bynars were pushed forward in a lot of early TNG promotional material as one of the new aliens created for the series, along with the Betazoids and Ferengi.

This makes their absence all the more puzzling from every episode except their debut. I mean, they couldn't just have a few Bynar pairs running around in a toolbelt fixing things in corridor shots, on starbases or ships? They couldn't put a couple Bynars in a Federation Council chamber or diplomacy room? (Yes, I'm aware it was never technically stated the Bynars were Federation members, but still.)

The reason I like the Bynars is because they have a truly alien culture and biology as opposed to just being Japanese Samurai or Communists in outer space. They view all information in terms of 0 or 1. All of them are linked to a massive computer network on their planet, and they live as identical pairs that complete each other's sentences, and even their names are in binary code. Surely something can be done with a race that unique.


David said...

I always assumed that by "sexually immature," Ilia meant humans were incapable of experiencing sex on the level the Deltans practiced it, without suffering some sort of damage to their psyche or maybe even their physical health. Or it could simply have meant "once you've had Deltan, you'll never go back," and thus engaging in sex with a human would so intoxicate the human that he/she would be unable to function in their job (thus necessitating her oath of celibacy). Supposedly her pheromones alone are enough to distract crewmembers (in a restored scene, even Sulu fumbles in her presence!) so we can only imagine what "going all the way" would do a guy.

For the record, I always thought this was one of Gene's dippier notions (Hey, we have a race ruled by logic; how about one ruled by sex?) and in my opinion it sabotages the Ilia/Decker relationship since we can never be fully sure whether he had "real" feelings for her or was just under her spell, as it were. Or is Decker supposed to be the only human male who's sexually mature by Deltan standards?

And for the record, I'm pretty sure Kirk imagines every female crewmember naked in the course of the average day. In many cases, it's probably more memory than imagination.

Julian Perez said...

Incidentally, I always assumed when Decker merged with the machine at the end, "the new life form" that was consequently created was the Borg.

Oh, snap!

There was even a moment when Spock, about to mind meld with it, says (and I quote, exactly) "Resistance would be futile."

Perhaps you're right about the "no human can survive sex with the Deltans" idea.

By the way, have you read the Gene Roddenberry-written novelization of the motion picture? I was just thinking about it when reading the Countdown comics to the new movie, because it was the only example prior to Countdown of a tie-in novel being a major part of the movie's promotion and release.

I always thought Persis Khambatta was one of the more interesting guest-stars in Trek history. She practiced Zoroastrianism, dated Henry Kissinger, Ted Turner, and Stallone, and she was politically active in India to the point where she received death threats from Sikh extremists and foul play was suspected in her death.

I was always impressed they listed her in the credits as AND INTRODUCING PERSIS KHAMBATTA. I have a feeling they meant for her to be a much bigger star than she actually became.

David said...

I did read Roddenberry's novelization back when the movie came out. It was mostly interesting to me for officially confirming that "Tiberius" was Kirk's middle name, and for the fourth-wall-breaking acknowledgment from Kirk of the "slash" fiction written about him and Spock. (His response, albeit in 1979 language, was basically, "I don't swing that way. Not that there's anything wrong with that").

After that, I've only revisited certain passages once or twice to see what was going on in a character's head in some key moment, or to refresh my memory of Lori Ciani, Nogura and the other morsels of info relating to Kirk's "lost years." Well, that and the passage where Spock wishes his hearing wasn't so good, because he can hear human couples having sex through the bulkheads. LOL

As a veteran Bond fan, I'm used to ingenues being presented with "And Introducing..." fanfares. The idea seemed to be that if for some reason this chick ends up being a star, we want the credit to go to us. But since most of them never amounted to much, I stopped noticing after a while. Even Persis, who was beautiful and sometimes mesmerizing in TMP, never got as prominent a role again in an American film to my memory (unless M.A.S.K. counts).

Julian Perez said...

The only thing that I concretely remember about the Wrath of Khan novelization is that the female author had a giant crush on Mr. Sulu that was really obvious and hilarious. I've learned from hard-won experience to avoid women that have a thing for Mr. Sulu.