(Added April 2017)
On SilverBlood Voyager, Ferengi hell, and Roseanne’s final season:
Legacy as a character on television
I thought to pick
the flower of forgetting
but I found it
already growing in his heart.
(Ono No Komachi, Sent to a man who seemed to have changed his mind)
For this Lenten season, your host was prompted to spend some time with assorted fictional characters who all die horribly and then no one even misses them.
—Unpause; or, If you prick us, do we not Silverbleed?—
The Star Trek: Voyager episode “Course: Oblivion” is the Kansas song, the Psalm 88 of Trekdom. It is StarDate 52586.3. The good ship Voyager seems healthy, happy, and only two years from Earth. The crew has just invented an enhanced warp drive with a top cruising speed some fifty times faster than Starfleet’s standard-issue propulsion systems. (Some fan somewhere on the Internet did the math.) Almost immediately the ship and its crew die of radiation poisoning.
In a cruel twist, the characters have always known that their engines emit “subspace radiation.” They just didn’t think it would be a problem because that radiation is not harmful to humanoids. When their chief engineer melts to death, they learn that they are not humanoid. They are not the carbon-based, electro-chemical, bags-of-mostly-water crew of Starship Voyager. They are the duplicate, liquid-metal, bio-mimetic “SilverBlood” Voyager, and the warp engine that would have blessed anyone else is killing them.
Characters grieve, rage, debate, and beg, but none of it is enough. They are stranded: unable to go forward, unable to get home. The one choice that affects the outcome is that they refuse to kill some bystanders who deny them safe haven. They have children on board, and they still can’t do it. SilverJaneway is not biologically human, but Thou shalt not kill is bred in her silverbones.
In saying No, they rescind their last chance at survival. Soon over 80 percent of the ship is uninhabitable, held together by forcefields. Even their time capsule—made from “unaffected components”—is destroyed when they foolishly trust their melting rocket launchers to boost the probe. (At this point they literally could have tossed it out a literal open window and it would have survived.)
It is StarDate 52597.4. A passing vessel detects their distress call. SilverHarry, last as he was first, looks toward his deliverance through smoke and flames and hopelessness. SilverBlood Voyager explodes less than six minutes before the rescuers can reach him. Of course the ship is the Original Voyager. They have no way to know who died, or how many died, or if anybody died. (Four different Originals express doubt that the debris field is a ship at all.) Just a drop of deuterium in an endless sea. The Originals see only dust in the wind.
“Course: Oblivion” is a very polarizing episode, which is odd as it is not at all controversial. For all its idealism Star Trek has never hesitated to slay innocent people to tell a story. The franchise has killed individuals (TOS: “City on the Edge of Forever,” TNG: “Vengeance Factor,” “Half a Life,” DS9: “Past Tense”), starships (TOS: “Doomsday Machine,” “The Ultimate Computer,” “The Tholian Web,” TNG: “Best of Both Worlds,” DS9: “Emissary,” “VOY: “Deadlock”), cultures, tribes, and nations (TOS: “The Mark of Gideon,” DS9: “Duet,” VOY: “Remember”), and planets/empires (TOS: “That Which Survives,” TNG: “The Last Outpost,” “The Inner Light,” “Relics,” “The Chase,” VOY: “Prototype,” “Year of Hell”), etc. Indeed, Star Trek: The Original Series mentions deaths, investigates deaths, witnesses death, or causes death in well over half of its 79 episodes.
What makes “Course: Oblivion” unique is that no one knows that SilverBlood Voyager lived and died. Of the complaints against the episode this is the most constant: how dare the writers kill the last man and/or destroy the time capsule. No record is left. No witness is found. Nobody learns anything. In the other episodes just listed, some witness is identified. Someone learns the truth. But these characters die alone and unmourned, and viewers hate it.
Fans grieve for the characters and praise their courage in the face of impending death. Such fans often have fascinating world-building theories: for example, that the SilverBloods found a safer route. This made for a happier crew with more time to play, with their toys and with each other. It also makes for a more wrenching contrast between their origins and their fate.
Unhappy viewers call the episode bleak (which it is), tormenting (which it also is), inexorable (yes again), cynical (a matter of opinion; do they mean that only cynical people can appreciate it?), and pointless (um, maybe that is the point). Yes, the characters’ fate is unfair, arbitrary, and all those other words in the thesaurus. At the same time, those viewers often are the same who complain that it happens to doppelgangers, rather than to “the real characters” and so “they don’t count.” (More on this later.)
All of these sound like legitimate criticisms, but your host believes that these are points in its favor. In a way, the most meta review agrees. That reviewer proposes that (aside from the tragic ending) the episode is representative of the series, that it is the Voyager series. Hence the divided opinions.
In terms of construction, the episode is sympathetically directed by Anson Williams (who also directed the prequel “Demon”). There are some astronomical errors, along with the discrepancy of disintegrating characters who retain pristine hair and uniforms. (With over twenty performers, it must have wildly expensive just to paint their faces.) Favorite non-speaking performance: the poor ghoul hunched over the helm in place of Paris. Your host especially would commend the music. It’s haunting, quiet, not overly complicated, and thematically appropriate (e.g., squelched [muted] trumpets when the deflector fails, contrasted with a distant clarion call when the rescue ship appears just out of reach). As a franchise Star Trek’s music tends toward the soap-operatic. Swelling strings, blaring brass, wailing woodwinds, and extreme electronica declaim this is funny; this is scary; this is wuv, twue wuv!. Sometimes your host wants to hear the dialogue, thankyouverymuch.
Even critics admit the story is framed by great performances. The brotherhood of SilverTom and Harry is evident. The SilverBloods Chakotay, Tuvok and Neelix sleuth about the ship with Holmesian efficiency. SilversTom and B’Elanna show a genuine chemistry and tenderness. It is a little odd that B’Elanna passively lets Tom plan their honeymoon, but he finds one that would have enchanted them both. (Chicago during Prohibition was crawling with gangsters. She could have ridden shotgun with said shotgun and had a happy time. Fast cars for him, whack-a-mole for her.) Still, true to her wary nature, B’Elanna’s wedding speech doesn’t contain any actual vows. SilverJaneway is as confident and stubborn as ever. SilversChakotay and Tom’s reaction to her charge to lead the lemmings off the cliff is heart-breaking and mostly believable. Many fans regard SilverJaneway’s actions as negligent. Perhaps. But nothing would have saved their ship.
Viewers first realized that SilverBlood Voyager was not the Original when they saw the bridegroom wearing lieutenant’s pips. (Original Tom recently was busted down to ensign.) After that, they counted the discrepancies. One of the more metaphysical was the difference between how SilverJaneway perceives her Original counterpart versus how she sees herself. Would the Original Janeway have shot the miners? Janeway has killed before to save her crew. Would she murder to save her crew? SilverJaneway decides she cannot shoot the miners, and that’s the last we ever see of four of the eight starring characters (Silvers Tuvok, Paris, the Doctor, Chakotay). SilverJaneway not only clings to her sense of humanity even if it kills half of her command inner circle, but she attributes more humanity to herself than she does to the Original. “Even if we did find the Original Janeway, how do we know she’d help?” asks the troubled SilverCaptain. The Doctor is bewildered by the question. “She’s you.” Well, yes, but who am I?
Not all discrepancies are sad ones. This crew seems genuinely creative. We might even use the word gifted. Consider their known accomplishments:
• Their “enhanced warp drive” is faster than any starship engine known to the Trekverse (save only the slipstream tech assimilated by the Borg).
• Their environmental controls can simulate both Class-M worlds and Class-Y environments. (The Originals could not create a Class-Y environment even on the holodeck.)
• As a result, the SilverBloods can both outrun more foes and explore more worlds.
• Although the line “through the center of the galaxy” is clearly writer’s error—no one could go “through” the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way’s core—their upgraded systems allow them to skirt the galactic center more closely than can most ships. (The star map in “Message in a Bottle” shows that even the extinct superpower who built the Hirogen relay network chose to travel the long way around.)
• Speaking of the Hirogen, the SilverBlood sensors can operate to almost one-quarter of the alien sensor network’s range. (I.e., the SilverBloods can detect stellar phenomena six months in front of them and/or 2-3 months [round trip] to either port or starboard. Given that they plan to reach the Federation in “two years” and a few days, a six-month range is almost one-quarter the size of the aforementioned network.)
• To cite a second example, the SilverBlood Voyager sensors observe the Original vessel—with both vessels traveling at high warp—that is a staggering twenty-two light-years away (208,136,070,396,777.6 kilometers), and in sufficient detail that the audience recognizes it through the snow on the viewscreen. (In contrast, this episode confirms that the Originals have to get within 5 million kilometers just to puzzle over the “erratic” readings of SilverBlood Voyager’s transponders. The Originals only enter “visual range” at less than 400,000 kilometers distance.)
• SilverSeven’s nanoprobes adapt [become impervious] to the subspace radiation that is killing them. That is a staggering achievement, albeit limited in application. (It’s the same sort of thing that makes self-appointed wags ask, If the black box is so indestructible, why don’t they make the whole plane out of that stuff? Well, because the plane wouldn’t fly, of course.)
Super sensors, engines, shields, life support systems and better-than-Borg tech? The Originals could not do any of these things, let alone all of them.
As for how they got a ship, how they got their own holodoctor, and how they became Class-M lifeforms, the series already provides that answer. (“It reminds me of the Australian Aborigines. Their creation mythology states that their ancestors actually dreamed the universe into existence.” —episode, “Waking Moments.”) The hardest part should have been finding enough puddles, not explaining their behavior.
However, once they dreamed their ship into existence, the SilverBloods should have two more advantages. Their ship is “born” new. It left the demon planet without the 200-plus hull breaches that the Originals had accumulated. The SilverShip is not held together by 24th Century duct tape but by living material. It might even have a limited ability to heal itself, a la Borg Lite. (Personally, your host has always puzzled over the “neural gel packs” in Engineering. They are purported to be alive; they can even get sick. Nevertheless they were installed because they are supposed to be superior to traditional hardware and software. Now imagine a whole ship like that.) Surely the SilverBlood vessel would be at least as strong and unspoiled as was the Original Voyager when fresh out of Spacedock.
The other superb advantage is that the SilverBlood Voyager may have been born ahead of schedule. In the four years the Originals have been in the Delta Quadrant, their ship has fallen behind their Starfleet maintenance schedule. But the SilverBloods may have dreamed into existence the refits and upgrades for which they knew they had been scheduled. (Yet another reason that the 200-plus hull breaches would have been rendered immaculate: Starfleet would have replaced the hull plating.) To coin a phrase, a tough little ship.
The episode is not perfect. For your host, we noticed dialogue gaffes.
• Chakotay: They are starting to remember their existence before Voyager. This is incongruous and just wrong. The crew are unlikely to remember being puddles, rocks, lava, or dust storms as anything more than a haunting, a skin-crawling sensation. It is fair to throw SilverJaneway’s line in her face that the hallucinations and fever-dreams of the dying feel real to them.
• Janeway: How do you know where we belong? For all we know, the Original Voyager has been destroyed, and we are all that is left. Surviving as a message-in-a-bottle would be commendable. Lying about it? Not commendable.
• Janeway: For all we know, we are supposed to be living their lives. Recall that neither the Harry Kim nor the Naomi Wildman who landed on the Demon Planet were native to the starship that landed. They were duplicates who escaped from a duplicate Voyager. They replaced the Harry-1 and Naomi-1 who died in the episode “Deadlock.” It is accepted by all known Janeways (and by the television audience) that Harry-2 and Naomi-2 are supposed to be living their lives. But SilverTom posits, if you needed a drink of water and I showed you a painting of water, would you be satisfied with that? Thus SilverTom denies the equivalency of Harry-3 (SilverHarry).
• Chakotay: I’d like to think I know Kathryn Janeway pretty well myself. And as much as she would want to get her crew home, I don’t think she’d be willing to kill them in the process. An impudent line, to say the least. The episode “Timeless” (which aired weeks earlier) shows a Janeway who knowingly risked her ship on a technology that killed all hands twenty-five (25) consecutive times. Only the Doctor’s suggestion saved the ship on the twenty-sixth and final attempt.
To make the episode perfect, these lines should have been defended or omitted.
Other viewers could not overcome the storyarc’s technobabble. In “Demon” the SilverBloods purportedly could not adapt to a Class-M environment, and the Original starship could not replicate a Class-Y environment. They’re half right. On the Class-Y planet [500 degrees K = 226.85 C = 440.33 F] the primordial SilverPuddles maintained a constant temperature of “only twelve degrees” [minus 261.15 C = minus 438.07 F]. Under different circumstances the Voyager scientists could have spent several days studying these wondrous creatures.
Clearly the SilverBloods are not a cold-blooded species. But it’s uncertain how they could be a warm-blooded species as science defines the term. What is certain is that the Class-M temperature onboard Voyager is, say, 70 degrees F [294.261 K = 21.1111 C]. SilverTom and SilverHarry adapted instantaneously, transitioned seamlessly, from one temperature extreme to another. In fact the SilversTom and Harry flitted back and forth from the planet to Voyager four to six times between them, and suffered no deleterious effects from any temperature change. They only exhibited distress when breathing the wrong atmosphere. The demonstrated ability of the mimics to adapt to the Class-M temperature foreshadows their ability to adapt, more slowly, to other factors of a Class-M environment.
Other viewers could accept sentient puddles of dichromates spouting the occasional implausible one-liner, but they balk at the notion that the duplicates could be so convincing that they convinced even themselves. Can silver blood really copy a soul? Well, we don’t even know how carbon-based beings get a soul. Did the Originals all stick their thumb in the droplet that mimicked B’Elanna’s thumb? Does the silver blood infect and tour the humanoid body and brain, before exiting and returning to its liquid state? Or did The Doctor provide blood samples from the crew? Scripture declares the life is in the blood (Lev, 17:11,14; Gen. 9:4, Hebr. 9:22). This is why some sects teach that it is against their religion to donate blood. Is the soul in the blood?
Still other viewers solve the problem by proposing that the silver blood created multiple copies. As each crew departed for space, the planet got lonely and created more duplicates. Thus any glitches are the result of replicative fading.
At this point your host concluded that we are Solving The Wrong Problem. Even the transporter can create ensouled characters ex nihilo (TOS: “The Enemy Within,” TNG: “Second Chances,” VOY: “Tuvix”). If the transporter can do it, surely the living silver blood can do it.
Secondly, viewers cannot have it both ways. Let us invoke C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. No one criticizes Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy for forgetting much, much more: their soldier father, their loving mother, their friends, their besieged England, their very planet, and their home. Susan was even planning to get married in Narnia. None of the Pevensies express regret that their parents know nothing of the wedding, or that their parents will never meet their grandchildren, if and when. None of them ponder whether they could get married in Narnia and then be free, or unfree, to marry someone else on Earth. The Pevensies have forgotten Earth. Even when they die, the earthling Pevensies do not immediately report to earthling Heaven, where their parents await them. They first go to Narnian Heaven, where their heart is.
So, no, your host will not criticize the mental toddlers of SilverBlood Voyager for forgetting their labor and birth, no matter how piercing and memorable the participants would have perceived it at the time. Unlike the Pevensies, the SilverBloods are not living a double life. This is their first one. And at the risk of becoming sentimental, it is safe to say that wherever the Originals go when they die, the SilverBloods are going there too.
For the Pevensies it is more than a matter of living in Cair Paravel for fifteen years. Narnia accelerated and altered their biology (a fact much attested in the book series). Narnia therefore feels more “real” to them. (“Every blade of grass just looked like it meant more.”) Were the amnesiac SilverBloods also accelerated and altered? Possibly. We have no way to know how a Silverblood brain works. But it is plausible that “subspace radiation” is not harmful to humanoids because humanoids do not live or exist in the subspace layer. To be exposed to the radiation, they would have to be where it is. Perhaps in some way we not do yet understand, SilverBlood life does extend into subspace. Whether or not the SilverBlood lifeforms had a sensitivity to extra dimensions before they met Voyager, they almost certainly have it now.
Is it really so surprising that Voyager would be Narnia to the SilverBloods? For lifeforms that never had color vision, or eyes, or individual consciousness, or collective consciousness, or dreaming, or language, thoughts or feelings, the sudden inrush of sensations must have hit them like a board. Of course the SilverBloods are going to be intensely creative, endlessly curious, exasperatingly strong-willed, and bewildered by the capriciousness of death. Like little children, they are seeing everything for the first time.
In retrospect, there always were clues in “Demon” that SilverTom and SilverHarry began as the children of Voyager rather than the crew of Voyager. Content as they are to toddle after the grown-ups, they also display their eagerness to please, their abject terror at the prospect of being abandoned, and their unfiltered, gobsmacked wonder at their first sight of their home. SilverHarry in particular is close to breaking into song like Julie Andrews and spinning on a hilltop. (Before the sequel the music in his head must have switched from The Sound of Music to Come Sail Away). It is not the behavior we expect of Starfleet professionals, as the exhausted, hungry, jaded Originals scold him.
The SilverBloods embrace life. Star Trek: Voyager has been reproached for its tendency to “press the reset button,” i.e. to deliver calamities without consequences. (Let the record show that TOS invented this phenomenon as well. In addition to its time-travel stories, the series has killed and revived Kirk in “Amok Time” and “The Enterprise Incident,” Spock in “Wrath of Khan/Search for Spock,” McCoy in “Shore Leave,” and Chekov in “Spectre of the Gun.”) But the infamous Reset Button is a tactic of the writers, of which the characters are largely unaware. The Voyager crew themselves are more likely to press the Pause Button.
The Originals, sounding for all the world like a character in a Left Behind novel, rely on miracles, or technology, or the miracle of technology. (“Engaged in the riskiest endeavor of his life, Rayford had cast his lot with God and the miracle of technology—” Left Behind #9, Desecration, page 1.) It is rather brazen of the fans to criticize SilverBlood Voyager for being so providentially clever, given some of the divinely madcap stunts the Originals have done.
• “The Gift.” The character Kes—introduced as a human butterfly who would pollinate the ship’s gardens and then die of old age—is revealed to be a battle angel with superpowers approaching the Q Continuum and looking at Superman in the rear-view mirror. Even Superman could not get a starship out of Borg space unless he picked it up and carried them there.
• “Dark Frontier.” Like the Romulans, the Q, and Species 8472, the Borg develop a convenient fascination with humanity. This allows Janeway to steal technology from them.
• “Timeless” (again). Not one, not two, but three of the command crew (FutureChakotay, FutureHarry, the Doctor) violate the Temporal Prime Directive.
• “Endgame.” Admiral Janeway, Captain Janeway, and the entire starship knowingly violate the Temporal Prime Directive. So repeatedly we have characters who deliberately destroy a timeline that actually has worked out quite well for trillions of other Federation citizens. Screw ‘em (apparently).
What would the series have looked like without these contrivances? Consider what would have happened if the starship Voyager had not taken a mere seven years to reach their home. In fifty years, the crew of Original Voyager would consist of (say) Captain Doctor, First Officer Naomi Wildman, and Engineer-or-Pilot Miral Paris. (Tuvok would have died of early-onset dementia. In Vorik’s case, most likely shot by a jealous husband.) The ship has added less than ten Delta Quadrant citizens and has lost all but one of them (Icheb the Borg boy, whom they would not have met). Aside from their bookend babies (Naomi, Miral), they are not having children. They lack the computer core capacity to create a holographic crew. They are utterly unprepared for a ship full of old people too feeble of body and mind to push a button at their posts. The ship needs not just to double its crew but to triple it: one crew to tend the ship, and one crew to nurse the aged. And for this they lack the resources, air, or living space.
But worst of all, the Originals lack the will. They are so tunnel-visioned on the Alpha Quadrant (where their “real” lives await them) that none of these characters are willing to do the incremental, boring, painful things that they know will work. It’s all about winning the wormhole lottery, the get-rich-quick scheme, the magic beans. It is a series of grand adventures, but it’s not much of a life.
In contrast the SilverBloods are marrying and giving in marriage, two years before that other couple gets around to it. They are having children. Ensign Harper’s human name suggests a nine-month human gestation. Therefore these SilverBloods were pairing off within a month of their own conception. Granted, one known marriage and two known children are not much in the grand scheme of crew replacement. But they are doing exactly what Picard’s crew or Sisko’s crew or any other Starfleet crew would do: getting on with their lives. These characters are living their lives Unpaused. No wonder they’re happier.
One other behavior merits mention. The first SilverBloods urge the second away team of Originals to remove their space suits. Some viewers interpret this as malicious. Possibly. It is arguable that SilverTom and SilverHarry just want to touch more Originals and make more SilverBloods. They may not comprehend that the environment could kill the Originals. After all, it didn’t occur to them to alert the newcomers to the plight of the real Tom and Harry, but they didn’t interfere with their rescue either.
Still, at the time the fans had valid reasons to speculate that the motive was malicious. In early story sessions, some ST: Voyager series writers proposed that the doppelgangers should make it all the way to earth. Then, after their hero’s welcome, the SilverBloods would go insane/turn evil and murder everyone in sight (including some of the stateside families). Thus bitterness and hatred would be aroused among those who had been united in their longing for Voyager’s return. Your host is gratified that the series writers did not choose this version. We already have plenty of homicidal impersonators (TNG’s “Conspiracy,” DS9’s Changelings, VOY’s Species 8472, etc.).
One last reason to explore darker motives. The SilverBloods have elements in common with The Twilight Zone. That series earns a whole chapter in Bertonneau & Paffenroth’s The Truth Is Out There. One episode in particular strikes the authors as Augustinian. St. Augustine argued that children are not spiritually pure—they are physically helpless. We think children are innocent because we love them, because we envy them, and because we can control them. Augustine maintained that if children had the strength to enforce their wishes, the power to take what they want, we would swiftly learn the difference.
Little Anthony (Billy Mumy) is superficially no better or worse than any other child (“It’s a Good Life”). He is adorable; he is curious; he is perceptive; he wants to be liked; and he wants to be loved. He just happens to have “monstrous” superpowers that will kill them all. In the end, even he will die. Evil destroys itself.
The hymn tells us In our end is our beginning. Little Anthony makes Augustine’s argument devastatingly clear: children are not innocent. And neither are the SilverBloods. They tried to sink the Original Voyager with all hands. They tried to drown them in SilverQuicksand, tried to crush them under pressure in a SilverSea. The only reason both crews escaped alive is that the Originals found a way to spank [electrocute] SilverHarry. He is feeling pain. He doesn’t like it. The parents have found a way to control their deadly children. Suddenly both sides feel extremely motivated to resolve their differences.
At the start of “Course: Oblivion” SilverJaneway is self-assured that she is a child of the universe, the same as any lifeform born to other lifeforms, that she has a right to be here. When she starts dwelling on that other Janeway, she’s not so sure. The Originals could have killed them. Perhaps it would have been prudent to kill them, given the coercion, the lack of remorse, and the imminent threat to life. Kathryn Janeway spared them once. Would she spare them twice?
Which brings up the final objection from viewers: SilverJaneway’s doubt is half-paranoia and half-legitimate. By secular-science reckoning, the SilverBloods artificially skipped over one billion to four billion years of evolution. By mystical reckoning, the Originals made a godlike impact upon a species that was not only pre-warp but pre-sentient. The Silvers became both conformed to and transformed to the image of their creators. And then the Originals disappeared. They left without a backwards glance. Of the many fanfixes in fanfiction—(controlled reliquification [SilverPuddle stasis]; the intervention of Q)—the invocation of SilverSeven’s interplexing beacon [cf. “Timeless”] is the most intriguing, and the most grave. The two ships always had each other’s telephone number. Neither ship ever thought to use it.
(Again, regarding the episode “Timeless,” every version of Seven of Nine should have received FutureHarry’s transmission. Those starships for whom the message was not intended would have perceived it as an attempt to communicate, a distress signal possibly, and would have replied.)
By the standards of mere logic, it is a contrived coincidence that the two starships would ever meet again. But by mystical standards their encounter is both essential and inevitable. As the SilverBloods shrink before the mystery of death, of course they would seek and draw nigh unto the face of their creators. But their creators are imperfect. The Originals gave the SilverBloods sentience and community, but they never gave them goals, a sense of purpose, something to live for. Perhaps they couldn’t.
To their credit the Originals haul nacelles the instant they hear the distress call. But in the end they had a massive impact on the SilverBloods, and the SilverBloods had next to none on them. The only people who ever knew that they existed, are unconcerned with whether they still exist. The Originals do not acknowledge their offspring even in death. The Originals may remember what they did, but they have no idea what they have done.
When the Originals chose to show mercy, both crews lived. In “Course: Oblivion” the SilverBloods show mercy as they were shown mercy—and they die. They may have been born as alien children, but they died as honorable men and women. They died as grown-ups. Grown-ups choose. The SilverBloods met their end as neither monsters nor martyrs, but as people. Of their many accomplishments, this one is the most important, even if nobody ever knows it. Would you still do the right thing if nobody saw, and nobody knew?
Do the duplicates “count?” Do they matter? Some viewers say No. They rejoice that at least this episode is not canon. Clearly this declaration is headcanon, rather than canon. It would be like saying that the Federation-Dominion War is not canon because the Original Voyager never experienced it. Yet “Course: Oblivion” itself is not sympathetic all of the time. For example, not one character’s death was deemed worthy of even a commercial break.
“Course: Oblivion” carries the added burden of asking us to care about duplicates in a mythos that prefers originals. Duplicates get little respect in Star Trek. To use just one example, it is implied that images or copies of “real” characters have been utilized as sexual playthings (TOS: “The Man Trap,” “Shore Leave,” “Spectre of the Gun,” VOY: “Body and Soul”). Worse, when the “real” victim learns of the infraction (TNG: “Hollow Pursuits,” “Galaxy’s Child,” DS9: “Meridian”), the scene may be played for comic relief, as something at which the audience is intended to laugh. Seen in this light, SilverTom’s grief and rage at the death of his wife is tainted by a profound humiliation: the dread that the sacredness of his love was directed toward something that (in his mind) would horrify and sicken the “real” B’Elanna, were she ever to learn of it. For SilverTom, death is a release from torment and a fitting punishment—and far too many viewers are willing to give it to him. But SilverTom is wrong. The SilverBloods arguably are the only duplication in Star Trek in which the originals being duplicated both planned it and gave their blessing.
Do the duplicates “count”? Well, your host thinks they do. We have not yet found supporting verses in the Bible [compare Exod. 25:16, Exod. 25:21; Deut. 10:2, Deut. 31:26 to 1 Kings 8:9, 2 Chron. 5:10, Hebr. 9:4], but apparently the Talmud states that “both the (second set of) tablets and the shards of the first set were kept in the holy Ark.” That is, the spark of holiness does not depart from some broken thing, or broken person, that was touched by the finger of God. It also does not depart if an Ark, or a starship, is never found. We do not know if the writers had this aim in mind, but the writers have crafted an episode around the Kobayashi Maru Scenario. There is no correct solution; it is a test of character.
SilverBlood Voyager was destroyed. One hundred fifty people died. An entire species perished. SilverJaneway’s benediction is simple and fitting. “This crew’s existence may have been brief, but it’s been distinguished. None of you deserve to be forgotten.” The SilverBloods were “ten months, eleven days” old when they learned the truth. Your host is inept at reading Stardates, so our best calculation is that SilverHarry and the ship were ten months, twenty-two days of age when they died.
The ship was lost. It happens. There but for the grace of God go I.
—Keeping sweet with the Ferengi—
The fictional Ferengi were introduced (badly) in Star Trek: the Next Generation. They were refreshed and reimagined in the spin-off series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. (If you haven’t seen the series, look for an introductory tie-in titled Legends of the Ferengi. Try to get the audiobook narrated by Armin Shimerman.)
Put simply, commerce is the Ferengi religion and profit is proof of holiness. Acquisition and liquidation drives their cultural and socio-political constructs. Citizens live by 285 Rules of Acquisition which they consider holy writ. In Ferengi thought, the universe is a Great Material Continuum through which flows the Great River. This continuum has myriads of worlds, all of which contain too much of one thing and not enough of another thing. The Ferengi mystically sail the Great River which connects these distant shores, thereby profiting from the universe’s efforts to achieve equilibrium.
Profit defines their afterlife. When Ferengi males die, they expect to ascend to the Divine Treasury, where they bid on their afterlives, or to descend to the Vault of Eternal Destitution, the desolation of bankrupts and failures. In the episode “Little Green Men” a Ferengi family awakens in an exotic but ugly room. One whimpers, have they died and gone to Ferengi hell? To this Shimerman’s character “Quark” (his faith unshaken) retorts that they must be alive because “the bar was showing a profit.”
Of course, the Ferengi can know the fear of hell while still alive. The scariest thing in Ferengi society is Liquidation, a blend of the Spanish Inquisition and the tax audit. Sinners have been known to be displayed upon the sacred high place of the people and thrown to their deaths. (cf. “Bar Association,” “Small children would bet on where you would land! Your spattered remains sold as feed mulch for gree-worms!”)
Consider the episode “Body Parts.” Liquidator Brunt suspects Quark of secret sin. Brunt tricks Quark into selling his body to Brunt on the Ferengi Futures Exchange. The Liquidator then demands delivery of the merchandise. If Quark kills himself, he is a “good” Ferengi. If he refuses, he breaks a sacred contract and receives temporal ruination and eternal damnation. Quark chooses to live. He is publicly excommunicated and his possessions liquidated. His government claims even the clothes he is wearing, because he bought them with the profit he earned with his holy business license. At no time does the Liquidator renounce his right to collect the merchandise i.e., to have Quark put to death. Rather, every day that Quark lives is a fresh day that the heretic fails to repent, recant, and make restitution. He is allowed to live as a public example.
Most Ferengi who meet Liquidators do not fare as well as Quark. Still, while the Liquidators are both aggressive and numerous, space is vast, the pickings are good, and Ferengi Heaven is open to any Ferengi male who dies with decent coin in his pocket.
We noted that male Ferengi find their profits, if any, waiting for them in the afterlife. They meet the Registrar and the books are opened. No profit-and-loss statement, no business plan, no tax return can be hidden from the scrutiny of the eternal bouncer. If the supplicant fails the holy audit, he goes to Ferengi hell. If the supplicant passes the holy audit, the Registrar will accept his bribe and usher him into the presence of the Blessed Exchequer. After bribing the Blessed Exchequer for a license, the supplicant uses his remaining profit to bid on lots at auction: to acquire the afterlife package deal of one’s choice. (As for the lots themselves, it sounds like the Showcase Showdown packages on The Price is Right.)
At this point canon falls silent. Extracanonical sources disagree on what else, exactly, the Ferengi are doing at this auction. Many sources argue that the supplicant can bid on only one lot. Furthermore, he must achieve the winning bid. If he fails to win that one lot, he loses his profits and plummets shrieking downward to Ferengi hell. Even if he wins that one lot, he does not stay long in Ferengi heaven. Purportedly Ferengi males get reincarnated. Thus they are buying the life they’d like to live next.
Of course, Satisfaction is not guaranteed (19th Rule of Acquisition). Maybe the individual will prosper in his next life. Maybe he won’t. Whatever the outcome, eventually he will die, report to the Registrar for another holy audit, and start the cycle all over again. Your host has not found any canonical nirvana, rite, or mechanism by which a Ferengi could stay in Ferengi heaven forever. Apparently the cycle only stops if the individual goes to the Vault. (Either that, or when the universe dies in the Big Crunch.)
Therefore your host prefers the rarer and more obscure extracanonical interpretations. Heinlein’s Baslim would observe that one bid is not an auction, and where no minimum has been set, no less than three bids are permitted. For example, hew-mon auctions may have a ringer in the audience, an accomplice of the auctioneer. His function is to drive up the bidding—but no profit is acquired if the auction house buys back the lot (i.e. the ringer made the winning bid). Logically, the Divine Treasury might not bid against itself, as this could cause expensive lots to go unsold. Moreover, it would be unprofitable for the Divine Treasury to leave even the most modest lots unsold. Consider Rom. According to Ferengi theology, Rom bought the life he has now and was happy to get it. (Question: does anyone think Rom was a financial genius in a previous life? No? Didn’t think so.) Finally, it would be unprofitable to toss a Ferengi into the Vault when he did earn enough profit to meet the Blessed Exchequer. Even hew-mon businessmen know that something is better than nothing. How many lives can a Ferengi live between now and the Big Crunch? That’s an awful lot of return visits. That’s an awful lot of profit. Can a profitable Divine Treasury be so imprudent?
And so, a lenient interpretation of Ferengi heaven is just as valid, if improbable. The supplicant should not go to Ferengi hell if another outbids him. He just bids on something else. Nothing is known, in canon or out of it, regarding whether winners may purchase more than one lot, or whether a winner may resell a lot, but the Rules suggest that that they can and they do. (12th Rule of Acquisition: “Anything worth selling is worth selling twice.”) Such a heaven would be both solipsistic—each winner pursuing his own private vision—and fluid, expanding, ever-changing as new lots are purchased, sampled, and resold throughout eternity. And on all such transactions the Divine Treasury levies a service charge (naturally).
In truth, your host cannot recall if the following is fanon’s pseudepigraphical conjecture or merely personal headcanon, but it works. There ought to be a Great Material Continuum in the afterlife—it’s all in Plato, bless us, all in Plato—wherein Ferengi would live without fear of the auditor, the taxman, the freeloading relative. There ought to be lots for sale that let the supplicant stay in Ferengi heaven, without having to relearn learn toilet training and tax accounting ever again.
We are aware that many fans will insist there is no wiggle room: Ferengi get reincarnated and that’s that. Let us propose a compromise. Any reincarnation can only happen when the Ferengi male has concluded his heavenly business. Presumably a Ferengi who plays to a profitable stalemate (cf. Data and Kolrami playing Stratagema, TNG “Peak Performance”) could stay in Ferengi heaven indefinitely. And it wouldn’t be a staid, dour auction where the slightest twitch of a nose is a bid. No, Ferengi heaven would be fun, like a stock exchange floor in full scream. (It is canon, we seem to recall, that the Ferengi revere the ancient hew-mon site called “Wall Street.”)
Little is known of Ferengi hell. The very name of the Vault of Eternal Destitution just sounds gray, like mental depression, like old pavement. Some extracanon material suggests a listless place of shades, alone together, too oppressed in the general gloom to move or to speak. Other versions suggest a horrifically lively place. Evil entities called Auditors punish debtors (i.e., sinners) by purchasing them and making them work off their debt. Naturally the debtors can never repay, what with them accumulating new debt such as exorbitant income taxes and outrageous rent for their very cages/quarters. Lost souls also get audited daily. The numbers that doomed them are brought to mind forever, because the debtor did not pay enough attention to those numbers in life.
(In theory it is possible for lost souls to bribe their way out of Ferengi hell; in reality, the odds are not zero but they are statistically zero. If the doomed had that kind of profit and acumen, they wouldn’t have failed the holy audit in the first place.)
Legend suggests that the bogeymen who terrify Ferengi children at bedtime are evil spirits from the Vault, who steal profit from naughty children and give it to charity.
Fandom frequently asks why the Alpha Quadrant tolerates the existence of the Ferengi. The two most frequent answers tend to conflict. On the one hand, there is an over-confidence toward them that tends toward disdain. When a powerful alien asks Commander Riker if it should destroy a Ferengi vessel for Riker, Riker declines. He is comfortable in his belief that the Ferengi could “learn and grow” i.e., to learn to be more like his own nation (TNG, “The Last Outpost”). Frodo Baggins spared Saruman, but that incident lacked the quiet air of superiority we see here.
On the other hand, wars are expensive. Even for the Federation, wars are expensive. They probably should be more grateful that the Ferengi Alliance has never gone to war as we define the term. Several of the great powers of the Alpha Quadrant no longer use money; instead, they have replicators. This makes it easy for their governments to track all economic activity and to enforce transparency. The Ferengi use replicators and money. At that, they are the largest nation that accepts cash and opacity. They move effortlessly from one method of accounting to another. By any standards the Ferengi have very deep pockets. They are the superpower of all those nation-states that do not subscribe to the replicator way of life—or to the Federation way of life. The Ferengi may be avaricious, duplicitous, and relentless, but they also are neutral. They are the closest thing there is in Star Trek to a Swiss bank account. No one is ever going to declare war on the Ferengi; it is unprofitable. Too many customers (and nations) have too much to lose.
Put all this together and it becomes clear why viewers debate if the Ferengi are a legitimate fictional culture or merely a parody of a real one. For obvious reasons, new Ferengi characters tend to be explorers seeking new markets. The Ferengi must have nurses, teachers, bricklayers, firefighters, file clerks, and artists, but those aren’t the citizens we are likely to meet. We are more likely to encounter the sort whom the Federation would call predatory: robber barons, corporate raiders, space pirates, pickpockets, moneylenders, moneychangers, traveling salesmen, used-starship salesmen, casino owners, and purveyors of holosuite fantasies (i.e., owners of a No-Tell Motel).
The fact that alien races object to the Ferengi way of life is baffling to them. Do not hew-mons read the weather? Earth’s atmosphere is inherently unsettled, yet farmers plant before spring rains and reap during the fall drying. One can rail against the Great River (of air or of space-time), or one can make a life in it. This the Ferengi believe they have done.
Actor Armin Shimerman was one of the first DS9 performers to embark on the convention circuit. We witnessed him speaking enthusiastically to a room of less than twenty people. (Fandom didn’t know him yet.) The fans would inquire, “Where would you like to see Quark in the future?” The actor quipped, “Miss Dax’s bedroom!” Then, more seriously, Shimerman replied that he “would like to redeem the Ferengi from their introduction as hyperactive space gerbils.” Aliens in Star Trek are supposed to hold up a mirror to the audience, to help us see in our blind spot—to comment on the human condition. Since that time, actor and series have done a masterful job of developing an alien intelligence both arrant and shrewd—a species that exposes said blind spots whilst remaining oblivious to its own.
QUARK: “You Federation types are all alike: You talk about tolerance and understanding, but you only practice it toward people who remind you of yourselves. Because you disapprove of Ferengi values, you scorn us, distrust us, insult us every chance you get.”
CAPTAIN SISKO: “Quark, I don’t have to stand here and defend myself.”
QUARK: “Tell me, Commander, would you allow your son to marry a Ferengi female?”
SISKO: “I never thought about it!”
QUARK: “Exactly my point! …. The way I see it, hew-mons used to be a lot like Ferengi: greedy, acquisitive, interested only in profit. We’re a constant reminder of a part of your past you’d like to forget …. But you’re overlooking something: Hew-mons used to be a lot worse than the Ferengi. Slavery. Concentration camps. Interstellar wars. We have nothing in our past that approaches that kind of barbarism. You see? We’re nothing like you. We’re better.”
—from “The Jem’Hadar”, ST:DS9
But the Ferengi do wage war, practice slavery, and commit genocide (sort of). Half of all Ferengi routinely subjugate the other half. The default setting for Ferengi females is captivity when alive and Ferengi hell when they die. It is extremely illegal for them to earn profit, not to mention nearly impossible. Ferengi females receive no education, employment, or even clothing. Only lodging and food are provided, sometimes just enough to keep them alive. They are treated as little more than breeding stock. They even can be sold into “indentured servitude.” Ferengi males make no apologies. Money spent upon a wife or mother or sister or daughter is money that the male cannot hoard for himself. Besides, the Ferengi male can expect a visit from the Liquidators if he violates those boundaries.
(Aside: it is said that Gene Roddenberry personally suggested the misogyny aspect of Ferengi culture.)
The result is that the majority of lost souls in Ferengi hell may be female. Their only hope of salvation is to have a male take them into the afterlife with them. To put the matter beyond all doubt: the only way a Ferengi wife, say, can escape perdition is if her captor-husband purchases an afterlife package with her in it. If nobody buys her, well, too bad, so sad. She’s off to hell.
It’s bad enough that there must be females in Ferengi hell because her male redeemer chose to spend his money on an eternal Jet-ski instead. But if a female cannot leave her house, cannot visit or be visited, then she cannot spend time with him. If she cannot read, then she cannot send or receive letters; she cannot operate a space phone to call him. Ferengi females cannot even speak to a male without his permission. Under such circumstances, how can a female even have the chance to build the kind of relationship that would later motivate her father, husband, brother, or son to want to save her?
The 18th Rule of Acquisition states, “A Ferengi without profit is no Ferengi at all.” Females are unpersons. But what kind of unpersons are they? Not all fanon believe that Ferengi females go to the Vault. Some argue that females get reincarnated instantaneously, with neither reward nor punishment imputed to their souls. The second theory is that females would be treated as any living thing that is not Ferengi: trees, livestock, etc. They go around just once. When they die, they go wherever those things go. The third theory is that Ferengi females just vanish. Death is extinguishment, extinction. In none of these versions is there any motivation for males to intervene.
(In the interest of full disclosure, some explanations are just plain quirky—which doesn’t necessarily mean they are false. Fandom often jokes that no male in the Vault would be permitted the comfort of females; therefore, no females would be there. It also is joked that females could still go to Ferengi heaven without profit in hand. They just have to be really good at oo-mox. Then again, it wouldn’t feel much like heaven to the female if that’s what she had to spend eternity doing.)
The affliction of Ferengi females is so entrenched that we don’t even know when, how, or why it started. Did the first Grand Nagus introduce this horrific misogyny or merely canonize it? It is this sort of thing that makes us reluctantly accept that yes, the Divine Treasury could be self-destructive enough to kill their golden goose (i.e., banish males to the Vault even after said males arrive in the Treasury).
We realized something else while scribbling. Your host is a Christian, and we believe that one of the most precious gifts God has given humanity is children—that is, God has given us the incredible privilege of helping to populate Heaven. That doesn’t happen with the Ferengi. As mentioned, the majority interpretation is that Ferengi heaven only admits visitors, not residents. If this is accurate, then except for the people who work there, Ferengi heaven is empty. In contrast, Ferengi hell is always growing. Ultimately, it will absorb all Ferengi living. As SilverJaneway learned to her grief, it is possible to have countless adventures, to get it right again and again, and still lose everything on one bad roll of the dice. All dogs may go to heaven, but all Ferengi go to hell, eventually. The Ferengi religion is a system gamed against the player. The house always wins.
Who will deliver the Ferengi? Would you believe … the house of Quark?
No, seriously. Time reveals Quark to be a heretic from a family of heretics. Quark owns a business in alien space where clothed females are both his employees and his customers—which in his culture is as scandalous as a Puritan running a bar in a nudist colony. He has three forbidden love interests: a Cardassian college professor; a Ferengi female posing as a male business partner; and a Klingon wife. His nephew Nog joins Starfleet, a nonprofit organization run by people who disparage his species. (Quoth Tom Paris, “Didn’t they warn you about Ferengi at the Academy?”) Quark’s brother Rom marries a Dabo girl (a variant on the stripper with a heart of gold) and, worse, marries for love. And if Rom isn’t in danger of Ferengi hell already, he organizes a labor union. Finally, Quark’s mother taught Quark to read, not just Ferengi First Readers—(See Brock acquire. Acquire, Brock, acquire.)—but also taught him the “holy writ”, the 285 Rules with commentary. Ishka (“Moogie”) soon attracts the attention of both the Liquidators and the Grand Nagus—and defeats them all.
The series concludes with the elevation of Rom as the new Grand Nagus of the Ferengi. Presumably Nagus Rom will issue edicts that liberate his mother from the prospect of Ferengi hell by liberating all of them. Then he really should get around to liberating hapless males like himself who are inept with money. The heretics have won … presumably. Presumably also we humans cheer, given that the premises of Ferengi hell anger and disgust us. It needed to be addressed.
But suspension of disbelief is not limited to the incredible appointment of Rom (as in, how credible, really, is this appointment). On the Great River, the Grand Nagus is the captain of the Ferengi ship of state: both politician and pope. Yet when Grand Nagus Zek spoke ex cathedra that females now could wear clothing in public, he was driven from office (“Profit and Lace”).
And that’s before Quark opens his mouth. Quark has met the wormhole aliens (“Prophet Motive”). He also believes he has met Grand Nagus Gint, who wrote the foundational Rules of Acquisition (“Body Parts”). Gint chortles that he called them rules as a marketing scheme. Nobody would purchase a book called Suggestions of Acquisition, Gint says. (239th Rule of Acquisition: “Never be afraid to mislabel a product.”) It is precisely because Quark is a heretic that he can hear and see and ponder all this without his head exploding. But there is a whole nation-state that might not be able to handle it. The Ferengi people have followed the Rules of Acquisition for ten thousand years. What is the House of Quark supposed to say to them?
Compared to changing the minds of the living, changing the fates of the dead is easy. If Rom can empty Ferengi hell with the stroke of a pen, did Ferengi hell exist in the first place? And how many innocents suffered before they came to this conclusion? Or does Ferengi hell exist in a radically different form? That is to say, what does a sinner look like? Rom is in a position to define “sin” and its opposites: holiness, happiness, and peace. But can he make the living believe it? Can he make the living live it?
Which brings us to:
—Farewell to Roseannadu—
Few plot twists on television are more infamous than the conclusion of the Roseanne sitcom series. The bull-in-a-china-shop rampage of Season Nine would seem to be a betrayal, an unworthy ending of a strong and relatively consistent storyline. The finale reveals the whole series to be a deceit and a fantasy.
In the end is the beginning. The closing monologue reveals “Roseanne” to be an unreliable narrator. Viewer confusion arises because both Roseannes speak (performer and character), and both are exposed as unreliable narrators.
For the character Roseanne, the unreliable-narrator revelation is obvious. We learn that almost no character has been portrayed accurately. The audience has developed relationships with the characters. Some we like. Some we loathe. In the finale, all of those relationships between audience and character are broken. And by this, we do not mean that Roseanne changed her fellow characters so that they would be unrecognizable and wouldn’t sue her. Rather, with a stroke of the pen, Roseanne arbitrarily “fixed” them in her eyes, and broke them in ours.
For starters, heterosexual characters are rewritten as homosexual characters, and vice versa. The Beverly Harris character is made homosexual (bisexual, really, because Jake) so that she would stop submitting to men and looking to men for validation. But the Beverly character becomes increasingly shrill and manipulative as part of that process.
Also, the Jackie Harris character is made heterosexual “because I always pictured [my sister] being with a man. [My sister] has been my rock.” Instead, series-Jackie arguably becomes the most neurotic character and certainly the most promiscuous one. When Jackie and her husband Fred do the math, it is revealed that Jackie has had sex with approximately sixty different men—so far. (Fred marvels, “I don’t even know sixty people.” Jackie replies dismissively, “Well, I didn’t ‘know’ all of them.”) Of all those men, Jackie meets less than five who would have been good to her (Gary, Art, Ty, Fred). Of the two men she does date, both relationships end in disaster, with Jackie and the man pointing fingers at each other for being inflexible.
As for Jackie being Roseanne’s “rock”? After watching the episode “Let Them Eat Junk,” your host hopes that Dan and Roseanne changed their will and gave the minor children back to Crystal and Ed (cf. episode “Second Time Around”). Also, Jackie’s nieces should have torn her money in half.
Next, we learn that the Becky/Mark and David/Darlene marriages never happened. Instead, the marriages “really” took the form of Becky/David and Darlene/Mark.
It is true that the series includes a brief Becky/David flirtation. Bratty Becky initially found Motorcycle Mark appealing in that he had been self-supporting from the age of sixteen. Becky wanted to move out of her parents’ house, and Mark was the fastest vehicle to take her there. But as the years go by, the younger Becky passes Mark intellectually—he had dropped out of high school—and he remains aloof, which frustrates the attention-seeking Becky. Moreover, he fails a trade school certification course and loses her respect. (Did Mark have dyslexia? ADD? Too many blows to the head from his abusive parents? He knew that he learned best with his hands; he knew he would fail a written test. No one believed him. In a tragic footnote, Glenn Quinn is the first of the actors to die—a flickering candle extinguished too soon.)
Under such circumstances, David the Doormat, the only character to graduate from high school, starts to look appealing to Becky. Late in the series, Becky expresses a desire to become a doctor, which she seems to think she cannot do as long as she is married to Mark. David would be more emotionally supportive, although it is unlikely that he could support her financially. Again, it is important to Becky that she can respect her man. David may be too much a boy for her taste, long-term.
But it is the changes to Depressed Darlene that cause the greatest shockwaves in Seasons One through Eight. In the series, Darlene morphs from fearless tomboy (the star of both the basketball and baseball teams), to a wintry teen, to an experimental author. Darlene meets the immature and clingy David in school detention. In such a relationship, Darlene feels safe. The two share a passion for underground comics, with Darlene as writer and David as illustrator. Darlene’s talent is rewarded with a college scholarship. David does not get in. The characters live in sin for a few months, with Darlene the student supporting David the runaway. (Having nothing else to do, he does not even get a job.) Darlene soon discards him for someone who does have a job and a sense of purpose. The other man just as promptly discards Darlene as an icicle, a cold heart, a fake. David the Doormat takes her back.
Late in the series, Darlene reveals that she was offered a $30,000-per-year position as an advertising copywriter—and she turned down the job. It was uninteresting, she says. She wants to finish college, she says. Her mother Roseanne is aghast. (“No Conner has ever turned down a job, ever! It’s the same reason drowning people don’t flip off the lifeguard.”) Darlene’s father Dan metaphorically turns to ice. We learn that Dan Conner has never earned $30,000 a year in his life. And so when Darlene delivers a dangerously premature baby, she does not have the excellent health insurance that this coveted job would have provided.
The loss of a Darlene/David marriage does more than to deform Darlene’s whole life. It creates an alternate reality with no plausible way for the Conner girls and Healy boys to have met. Becky might have met David in detention, had Becky the good student ever received detention.
But the Darlene/Mark scenario has no foundation. From the start series-Mark was aware of series-Darlene’s low opinion of him. For his part Mark the mechanic once expressed irritation toward series-Becky’s desire for a career because “there’s no way you could earn as much money as me.” Mark the amateur chauvinist might not have considered Darlene’s writing to be a real career worthy of relocation. Mark the abuse survivor might have been unsympathetic toward the much-loved Darlene’s stories of teenaged angst. Oh, and when the 18-year-old Mark was introduced to the series, Darlene was twelve. (Can you say “jailbait”?) Dan Conner generally is a forgiving father, and he learned to appreciate Mark for their shared love of shop class as soulcraft—but when Dan is truly angry, he is truly scary. Just ask Fisher. This is one of those things that Dan Conner never would have tolerated.
So what is left? Well, we have a scenario in which alt-Darlene and alt-Mark must have become a couple very recently, perhaps four years after series-Darlene met series-David. What is the alternative? Was Darlene even the middle child? Was she really the oldest? Another possible scenario is that Depressed Darlene never became either depressed or a writer. Instead, she may have continued in the sports/tomboy vein until her path crossed Motorcycle Mark’s path.
We call the series-Becky character Bratty Becky, for so she is; for example, she shows respect toward teachers yet feels free to show disrespect at home. The other Conners are consistent. They are equally sarcastic to strangers, employers, enemies, friends, and each other. Becky is unique in her efforts to ingratiate herself to strangers. Becky also is rather brittle. Did alt-Becky experience childhood depression instead? Would she have been strong enough to overcome it? Did nobody have it and Roseanne simply invented it? Did alt-Becky and alt-David create comic books together? If not, what interests could they have in common? Did any of Roseanne’s children inherit her writing talent? Or did Roseanne invent this too?
Roseanne said that she “fixed” her children and their marriages. (“I guess I was wrong. But I still think they’d be more compatible the other way around.”) The series version is what she wished had happened. Really? In her preferred version, the series version, the Conners ended up with two college-aged daughters, with neither of them in college. This is in spite of the fact that their college tab was already paid. Darlene had her writing scholarship, but then she went and got pregnant. And the Conners gave Becky a sum of money to enroll her in community college. It wouldn’t have paid for a trip to grad school, but it could have gotten her certified as a medical technician, dental hygienist, paralegal, etc. This would have given her the economic stability to chart her future. Instead, Becky insisted on putting her husband Mark through trade school, and we saw how that ended. Moreover, the Becky/Mark and Darlene/David couples fought constantly. Repeatedly they separated, and most of those breakups were initiated by the daughters rather than by the sons-in-law. This is “more compatible” than the alt-marriages?
By rearranging the couples, Roseanne indulges the fanfiction market but alienates the television audience. We are left with two unappealing prospects. Either the Becky/David and Darlene/Mark marriages are happy and Roseanne Conner is just messing with them for some mean-spirited private reason—or the alt-marriages are worse than the ones we saw in the series and Roseanne really did “fix” them. Either way, the audience never truly knew these characters, and we never will.
Yet for some reason David Jacob “D.J” Conner finds his voice in Season Nine. This choice is not rescinded. We didn’t know him either—he was comic relief, the pesky little brother—but here at least we see something that makes sense. D.J. becomes an amateur filmmaker. We cannot know if D.J. chose this hobby or if Roseanne merely imputed it to him. In a manner of speaking, the results are the same. It is doubtful that alt-D.J. knew CPR. If he had, he would have noticed that Dan looked far worse than the vomiting bride. This is not to single out David Jacob. Over twenty witnesses saw Dan’s condition, and none of them recognized a heart attack that day. Why did D.J. begin to make movies? Because that is a form of witnessing. Witnessing leads to testimony—and testimony has the power to change things, in Heaven and on earth. The D.J. character of Season Nine became a filmmaker to give voice to the child’s grief and pain, and to Roseanne’s guilt. D.J. must have been the one who found his father’s body.
Compared to the discombobulating revisions, the rise of D.J. Conner and the death of Dan Conner are almost reasonable. Let not the Gentle Browser misunderstand: your host watched much of Season Nine through our fingers, and cringed. Season Nine obliterated the two immutable premises of the series: the Conners’ financial struggles, and Dan and Roseanne’s marriage. Your host was embarrassed for the characters and embarrassed for the performers. Then we realized that that was the whole point: shame.
“When you’re a blue-collar woman and your husband dies it takes away your whole sense of security.” Well, they were never secure. Dan Conner was never the sole breadwinner of the family. During his drywalling days he probably earned less than $18,000 a year. His bike shop dragged the family deeper into debt. He quit a job at the city garage—the only job he ever had that paid benefits—to bid for a prison construction job. Since he did not live to do that work, he left no income. He blew his last paycheck on a trip to Disney World. He left four healthy adults and a sick grandchild as boomerang dependents for his widow to feed. He left two minor sons with no support. He left two mortgages on his house. He left no pension, no health insurance, no life insurance. Dan Conner died broke. He was married for 23 years. He was 44 years old.
In retrospect it is easy to distinguish the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Shame is an intruder, unwelcome, unspoken. George Bailey and Angel Clarence explore this theme more eloquently in It’s a Wonderful Life. Roseanne Conner uses her writing to wrestle with a forbidden question: would she rather have Dan and no money, or money and no Dan? In Season Nine, she concludes that she would rather have her husband. And so, after writing him out of her tale, she writes him back in.
Thus in her fantasy, Roseanne Conner gains both money and husband. In her reality, she has neither money nor husband. By the cruel standards of Ferengi hell, Dan Conner would have gone there. Roseanne Conner has never heard of Ferengi hell, but her behavior hints at the pain and shame of one who has been taught the wrong definitions of success. Dan was a success—as a human being. He was rich in love, rich in friends, rich in possibilities. He was witty, generous, loyal, and kind. He worked doggedly; he played joyfully; he dreamed big. He never stopped hoping, never stopped trying, never stopped believing. On the one hand, the series did not portray him accurately, in the sense that he reacted to plot points that either were mutilated or nonexistent. On the other hand, the series portrayed him more faithfully than it portrayed any other character, including the narrator herself. It is no coincidence that Dan Conner is one of television’s top-ten favorite dads. By worldly standards he had very little, but he gave all he had.
We mentioned that the closing monologue also exposes Roseanne-the-performer as an unreliable narrator. This requires the audience to know something of the creation of the series. Characters came and went based on the availability of the performers. Characters, performers, and writers also came and went based on their ability to live peaceably with Roseanne-the-performer. This may be why the closing monologue includes lines that would exasperate Roseanne-the-character, especially this one:
“I learned that dreams don’t work without action; I learned that no one could stop me but me.”
It’s easy for a performer, and for the audience, to observe where Roseanne Conner could have made different choices. When she lost a job for lack of computer skills, did she sign up for computer classes? No. Should she have encouraged her husband to purchase a motorcycle store if the previous owner went bankrupt? Probably not. Should the Conners have sent Roseanne to community college instead of sending Becky? Maybe. Should the Conners have rented part of their house to paying boarders instead of letting their unemployed adult children move in with them? Almost certainly. Do Dan and Roseanne have even five dollars—the price of a Little Caesar’s pizza—in a retirement account fund? Almost certainly not. And so on, and so on.
But if determination and hard work were enough, then the Conners would have prevailed. Dan and Roseanne have been known to work four simultaneous jobs between them (example: “Vegas” / “Vegas Vegas”), plus unpaid maintenance of the family and home. Twice Roseanne loses a job (11 years of seniority at Wellman Plastics; fry girl at a chicken joint) because of extortionist bosses. Neither standing up to them nor bowing down to them makes any difference. Telemarketing does not pay enough. Shampoo-girl at the beauty salon ends when she is hit by a customer’s car. The department-store cafeteria closes.
The series ends with Roseanne owning a quarter share in a luncheonette that might not support her a year from now. Her business partners have incompatible agendas. The diner faces competition from stronger restaurants with drive-through windows. Commodities prices (beef, wheat, etc.) could rise. Road construction or the death-spiral of the town’s largest employer (Wellman Plastics) could chase away their customers. And if the diner does close, sister Jackie will lose her income and her house, and will try to move in with Roseanne yet again. In truth, outside forces can and do undermine Roseanne’s efforts.
In contrast, Mark the mechanic would have excellent job prospects if he lived in the economy of today. (The Gentle Browser is invited to notice all tire stores, oil-change establishments, auto garages, and collision/body shops along your route today. For every ten such businesses you pass, do you see almost ten Help Wanted signs?)
It’s difficult to predict the future. The Conners, a family of nine with only one high-school graduate (i.e. David the starving artist) and one college student (Darlene the creative writer) are particularly unprepared for that future. This is the true purpose of schooling: to teach a child how to learn. A comprehensive education should prepare the student for opportunities—for careers—that do not yet exist.
In the end, where Roseanne the character may struggle for the rest of her life, Roseanne the performer has succeeded. It is one thing to note that Roseanne Conner is not successful like her namesake. It is another thing to assume that it’s a character flaw that she’s not. The fact is that if Roseanne Conner did everything on Someone Else’s List, then they would just find something else to complain about. In other words, it was never about the list. As the character protests in the aforementioned “TWSotF,” “It’s like you’re one of them and you’re putting us down.” Or to go back to Star Trek for a moment, “It is possible to do your best and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”
Not all Gentle Browsers come to this site for our material on the Left Behind series. This is one of the few Lenten seasons that your host has not added to that project either. But there is a theme in common: relationships. Left Behind introduces over fifty Saved protagonists, who then watch their families get saved. We can count on one hand the number of saved characters who will never see their families again, characters who know beyond all doubt that their loved ones are in hellfire: Hattie Durham (dead sister Nancy), Leah Rose (dead husband), little Ryan Daley (dead mommy and daddy), and Cendrillon Jospin’s parents (dead birthday girl). The overwhelming majority of saved characters join their families in Heaven. In Left Behind, virtually all broken relationships are healed. This year we find ourselves writing about relationships that are broken: between characters, between character and writer, between character and writer and audience.
These broken relationships stir up strong emotions. We can hardly criticize viewers who declare that the finale of Roseanne ruined the reruns for them. Your host had much the same reaction to How I Met Your Mother. We learned that The Mother was long dead and that the Narrator was eager to remarry—“had the hots” to remarry—at the same time. We were given no time to mourn The Mother, and no permission either. The series should have been called How I Am So Totally Over Your Mother. (The fact that it took years just to give her a name probably should have tipped us off.)
The starship SilverBlood Voyager perished, failing to leave even a memorial buoy of their existence. Ferengi females live and die by the billions and are only remembered if a male redeemer deems them worthy of remembrance. Roseanne Conner succeeded in leaving a legacy of people who never existed, not as we knew them. The reactions of their disparate audiences have certain themes in common: resentment, denial, fear.
Resentment is awkward. Resentment is real. “Course: Oblivion” is the only eulogy the lost souls of SilverBlood Voyager will ever get, and audiences resent having seen it. They feel “tricked” into watching, “betrayed” by being led to care about “imposters,” as if they were the next-of-kin of whom SilverTom spoke with such feeling.
Meanwhile, thousands or millions of Ferengi females live right here on earth, crying in the dark where nobody knows and nobody sees, except we earthlings call them women. In fact it is worse—many places on earth are dangerous for all human souls: men and women and children. We resent that nagging feeling that we could get up off our left behinds (and our right behinds too) and do something to help them. Bad Ferengi! to spoil our leisure with your appeals to our conscience!
And then there’s Roseanne (one, the other, both, take your pick), who admitted that she told us a story but so what? It’s her story and her right to do as she pleases. It doesn’t matter; it doesn’t count. Viewer resentment arises from our internal conflict. We know these characters do matter; therefore we should care. If only they did not matter, then we would be free not to care, and we wouldn’t have these uncomfortable feelings.
Resentment emerges frequently in storytelling, both false tales and true. Pixar’s Inside Out is a light-hearted illustration of the almost oppressive relentlessness of Joy—of inappropriate pressure to “put on a happy face.” Sadness is misunderstood and rejected. But Sadness is the emotion which helps us to process loss, the emotion which alerts us when we are overwhelmed and need help. The characters must learn that there is a difference between making a young girl happy versus doing what is best for her.
Betsy Burnham’s When Your Friend is Dying includes a devastating incident in which her church’s prayer circle walked out on her. If she were really saved, they maintained, then her cancer would have been cured. They considered her an imposter and resented her for it. Another friend who was not in the prayer circle then appeared in the author’s life. He remained steadfast through the end, becoming an answer to a different prayer. (Because this is a true story, your host sometimes wonders if the others read the author’s book after her death, and came to see their mistake and did better next time. We hope they did. We like to think they did.)
But the most exhaustive treatise is Barbara Ehrenrich’s Bright-Sided. Ehrenreich cites numerous examples in which people in distress were urged to minimize asking for help. The pressure was the same regardless of whether the supplicant was physically ill, financially desperate, spiritually troubled, or legally within their rights for redress. The author concludes that people in distress may be coerced to “look on the bright side”—to be quiet—because their distress and their needs are inconvenient to others. Resentment arises in the stronger party when the weaker party will not, or cannot, follow the script.
“It will never happen to me.” Denial and resentment and fear can walk hand in hand. If it happened to you, then maybe it could happen to me. “If we can find something that separates us—something you did wrong—then I will not do that bad thing, and it will never happen to me.” But if nothing separates us, then the victim may not be a worse person (Luke 13:1-5), and the observer may not be a better person. We might not be special! We can quarantine the other person, or stop watching that television show, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Jesus says I am special to Him—but if I were special, it wouldn’t happen to me. What happens if it does happen?
Sometimes we find it hard to give ourselves permission to feel grief and hurt. Some of the pressure is external (our need to be acceptable in the sight of other people), and some is internal (when we struggle to trust God and ourselves with strong emotions). Often we must remind ourselves that God does not condemn us, even though others might, when we do not immediately put on our “company faces” or resume normal routines after a life-shattering experience. Christians have a Savior Who understands what it is like to be like us (John 11:35, Hebr. 2:18, 4:15). Jesus wept. Sadness is not a sin.
Resentment, denial, and fear are not necessarily the reasons that Rapturist Christians believe in the Rapture. (In truth, most Rapturists believe it simply because they believe that the Bible teaches it.) But we all have emotional needs for acknowledgment, to know that we know that we are special to someone.
Hal Lindsey makes the bold claim “that many of you who are reading this will experience this mystery. You will never know what it is to die physically” (Lindsey, Rapture, p. 43). As Abanes notes, “The inescapable theme permeating the messages of the prophecy pundits could not be any clearer: we are a special generation. Hence, we as individuals must also be unique in God’s eyes. Every person alive has the distinction of being picked to see history’s culmination. Such a notion is much more appealing than the thought of having to work a boring job for the next twenty or thirty years, only to die in obscurity as billions of people have previously done. Many cannot resist believing that they stand at the very pinnacle of history” (Abanes, End-Time Visions, p. 316).
(Carl Olson, Will Catholics Be Left Behind, page 202, footnote 69)
(i.e., Olson quoting Abanes quoting Hal Lindsey)
Think about that. To die in obscurity, as billions of people have previously done. Dead like the SilverBloods. Dead like the Ferengi. Dead like Dan Conner. Ah, wait, the Gentle Browser says, Dan Conner will be remembered. Yes, but how accurately? Yes, but for how long? In time everyone who knows him will also be dead. Dead like our grandparents. But we remember our grandparents. Yes, but do you remember their grandparents? Or their grandparents? Or your 129th grandparents? Or do you only know that they existed because you are here?
And that’s just the souls who were fruitful and multiplied. The village old-maid (*cough*), the hapless soldier, the child who died of fever: none of these left any proof they were ever here. But the broken branches and the main trunk all end up the same: dead. Even countries die, with new tribes and new faces wandering through some graveyard gone to nature and plowing their fields with no knowledge of the way things used to be. (To some extent we all eat Soylent Green.)
Even being famous won’t necessarily make a difference. Consider Eve, “the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20). When is Eve’s birthday? How many children did she have? What lullabies did she sing? What stories did she tell? Did she paint? Did she study the stars? Was she a cat person or a dog person? Was she brave, smart, happy? Were they in love? Which one died first? How old was she when she died? Where is she buried? What do you mean you don’t know? It’s your MOM! We know so little that many people do not even believe Eve was real—and those of us who do can’t prove it.
Sometimes viewers just aren’t in the mood for stories that hit too close to home. That doesn’t make the story bad, or in some other way unworthy of the telling. We all ponder such questions sooner or later, or sooner. As a perpetual celibate, your host has made peace with the fact that no one person’s world will be shattered if something happens to us. Aside from any pets, your host will never be the most important person in anybody’s life. If the Gentle Browser finds this prospect distressing, then the celibate vocation probably isn’t for you. But even with people who come from large families, eventually someone will be the last one. If the Lord tarries His Coming long enough, the day will come when none of us now living are left, and the Lord will be the only One in this world Who still remembers us.
What a blessing that we have a God Who never forgets us, Who neither leaves us nor forsakes us. What a blessing that as Christ rose, we will rise, and all who seek His face will live in His Presence and His peace forever. Sin and death are real words—but with Christ our Lord, they are not the last word.
I take, o Cross, thy shadow for my abiding place
I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of His face
Content to let the world go by, to know no gain nor loss
My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the Cross.
In this season of Lent, let us remember the One Who never forgets us; let us return to the One Who never leaves us; let us live for the One Who died for us; and let us be ready when we die to meet, to join, the One Who lives and reigns forever and ever.