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The ‘Reality’ Behind Below Deck - NYT Article
PALMA, Majorca — A provocative theory in vogue among physicists and philosophers suggests that we humans are not experiencing, and have not ever experienced, reality.
What we understand as reality, the theory proposes, may merely be one of an astronomical number of vivid computer simulations of an ancient past, designed by humanity’s distant descendants to study the evolution of their forebears. If so, the United States of America is about as real as, say, the Mushroom Kingdom in an unattended game of Super Mario Bros. Our creators are not the deities of any major world religion, but the architects of the simulation we inhabit.
How might they perceive our lives — this advanced civilization for whom every facet of our existence, from elation to exhaustion, is merely edu-tainment about the human experience?
Hopefully with an excitement similar to the rapt fascination with which the production team of “Below Deck Mediterranean” watched the cast of “Below Deck Mediterranean” living out the events that would become season five of “Below Deck Mediterranean” (currently airing on Bravo) twenty-four hours a day for six straight weeks, from a small headquarters hidden in a stateroom on the “Below Deck Mediterranean” yacht as it sailed around Majorca late last summer.
What happened?” exclaimed Courtland Cox, a gray-bearded, Argus-eyed executive producer, after one of more than a dozen simultaneous feeds broadcast Malia White, the franchise’s first-ever female bosun, cutting herself off with a midsentence expletive.
“Seriously?” Ms. White grumbled on the monitor.
“What happened?” Mr. Cox, of the 51 Minds production company, repeated, voice rising in concern. In the cramped control room, which was, by the accounts of all present, a decadently spacious control room, several pairs of eyes pored over video monitor mosaics — large computer screens subdivided into Brady Bunch tiles, each displaying a different view of the action taking place on or in the immediate vicinity of the yacht. The screens rested on a plywood platform erected weeks earlier over the magnificent bed in (what The Wellington’s paying guests were not aware was) the vessel’s true master suite.
Did that boat—?” Mr. Cox interrupted himself as Ms. White recommenced fuming onscreen. (“Sometimes life really sucks,” she said to no one.) Because cast members are banned from interacting with, or even acknowledging, the coterie of producers, editors, camera operators, audio specialists, fixers, and occasional representatives from Bravo network brass who spend weeks tracking their movements — much of the production crew’s on-location work consists of attempting to reconstruct the cast’s inner monologues as they unfold inside cast members’ minds.
To aid in this implausible task, the production crew relies on 19 cameras; typed chronologies of every action that has taken place since they began rolling; a walkie-talkie tuned, baby monitor-style, to the channel where the cast members communicate about work; extra ears in the form of two editors perpetually plugged into alternate live audio feeds; architectural diagrams of the yacht on which they sail; a hand-drawn map of the marina in which they dock; call sheets laying out each day’s likely schedule; cheat sheets featuring the photos, names, and roles of boat crew members (“DECKHAND”) and yacht guests (“PRIMARY’S FRIEND, MARRIED TO YUKI”); and, at time of filming, more than 160 episodes’ worth of experience anticipating and on-the-fly adapting to human behavior. Thus, in seconds, Mr. Cox deduced what had prompted Ms. White’s reaction: a newly-arrived boat was obstructing her path through the marina — exactly as her boss, Captain Sandy Yawn, had warned might happen, over Ms. White’s breezy protestations hours earlier. Mr. Cox’s chuckle was diabolic.
Beyond ‘Housewives’ Those who have never seen “Below Deck,” “Below Deck Mediterranean” or “Below Deck Sailing Yacht,” and who do not wish to spend the rest of their lives glued to Bravo’s flotation-themed programming, must never, ever watch even one minute of either program, for the “Below Deck” franchise lures in viewers with the pitiless ease of sirens summoning sailors to hurl their ships against the sun-warmed Grecian coast.
Typically, every incarnation is set in a new locale and follows what is presented generally as an eight to 10 trip “season” in the life of a luxury charter boat, from the perspective of the vessel’s crew.
Unlike Bravo’s ostensible tentpole franchise “The Real Housewives,” which depicts the lives of the same cabals of wealthy women year after year — and often underperforms “Below Deck” in ratings, according to Noah Samton, a senior vice president of current production for Bravo — the yacht shows feature few familiar faces. Apart from captains and chief stewardesses, the majority of crew members arrive fresh each season, and are never seen again.
The ultrawealthy guests are still more evanescent. Viewers are told, and immediately permitted to forget, their names as, one after another, each group of six to 10 high-rolling vacationers is welcomed aboard. At its salty core, the franchise is a workplace drama. Just as one needn’t be a wind turbine technician to appreciate a warm summer breeze, no knowledge of, or even interest in, boats, or the sea, is required to enjoy 900 hours of “Below Deck.” The most fundamental element is the ship’s hierarchy, which simultaneously commands and receives no respect. Multiple seasons in, the landlocked viewer may yet be unable to articulate even one specific duty of a lead deckhand — but what the viewer will know, and will demand, is that he not speak to the bosun like that ever again if he wants to continue serving on this ship.
The operation’s inherent expense and scheduling logistics — booking 47 hotel rooms for six straight weeks for production, for instance — render the filming timeline largely inflexible. Whereas a season of “Housewives” might shoot for four to five months, “Below Deck” is allotted one third of that time to produce the same number of episodes. It is, for a reality show, uncommonly constrained by the bounds of reality.
“You can’t say, ‘Oh, the show’s not going great. Let’s extend shooting three weeks,’” Mr. Samton said. He was seated in “Below Deck” mission control as part of his traditional once-a-season set visit to ensure production was running smoothly. “The window for shooting the show is the window and that’s it. Whatever we get, we get and we’re done.”
Which is why it was tough, that September morning, to tell who was more distressed that the yacht had not left the dock: the captain or the network executive.
The problem was wind gusts, which, for insurance reasons, precluded Captain Sandy’s attempt to pull out of the crowded marina, lest she assume personal liability for any possible damage or injury, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
It’s heartbreaking,” said Mr. Samton. “I actually didn’t sleep last night.”
When working out of his NBCUniversal office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, Mr. Samton receives daily briefings of the cast’s activities, assembled by the shows’ producers — similar to behavioral reports from your child’s teacher (“except so much more exciting!” said Mr. Samton). Per production policy, the production crew cannot influence the captain’s decision about how or when to operate the boat — such as by notifying her that the wind has died down to insurance-approved levels.
Cast members scrambled, around midday, to orchestrate a beach picnic that would distract the guests from the fact their seafaring was being limited to those waves that had migrated from the open water to lap gently against their docked luxury yacht. In the control room, where crew members had been working since six that morning, anxiety begat snacking.
“I eat stuff in the control room that I would never eat in my real life, ever,” said Mr. Cox, perusing a packed shelf of Spanish supermarket treats. “I get halfway through a thing of gummies and I’m disgusted with myself. But I just start stress-eating Swedish Fish.”
Simultaneously, on one monitor, the yacht’s chef, Hindrigo Lorran, nicknamed Kiko, prepared a sumptuous spread of jamon Ibérico to tide the guests over until their six-course dinner.
“Every location we go to, there’s some sort of special flavor of Pringles,” said Mr. Cox, reclaiming his chair. “So that’s a highlight for everybody.”
How to Make Reality on a Boat A suitable “Below Deck” locale offers easy access to a major airport (to fly charter guests in and out, at network expense), six weeks’ worth of available hotel rooms to accommodate production (in Thailand, every crew member ended up in a mini-villa), and a robust network of local suppliers able to continuously outfit the yacht with perishables like ice and fresh meat. It must also, of course, be a place that will look beautiful on TV — the better to complement beautiful cast members.
While the pool of professional, available yachties is smaller than that of, say, housewives, it is, at least, a pool crowded with foxy, daring exhibitionists, which makes it conducive to casting.
The yachting industry, Mr. Samton said, “attracts the kind of people that are good TV.”
“First of all, they’re a lot of young, attractive people. A lot of people that are sort of escaping their lives for some reason, or have this adventurous streak in them.”
The zigzag of frantic, round-the-clock shifts followed by sudden reprieves between charters — plus regular windfalls in the form of huge tips (the average, divided evenly among all boat crew members — including off-camera crew, like engineers — is around $20,000) — fosters a work hard, party hard atmosphere.
“People who aren’t on TV are pretty good at keeping drama behind closed doors,” said Mr. Samton. “We’re really good at finding the people who are going to wear it on their sleeves.” (A psychiatric evaluation is a standard part of the casting process.)
When asked if cast members were highly paid compared to other yacht workers in exchange for appearing on television, Mr. Samton said “No, they get paid their normal —” and then cut himself off (“I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about finances.) A spokesperson for Bravo later confirmed “most” cast members’ pay is “roughly the same as they would make doing their same job on a similar sized boat.” Once the network has convinced nine professional yacht workers to open their lives up to a TV audience, production’s task is to outfit a boat in such a way that it becomes virtually impossible for them to escape that audience.
“They’re here to share every aspect of their lives,” said Mr. Samton in the control room. “Those are the rules. The only place you have privacy on the boat is the bathroom.” Even bathroom sanctity has limits; cast members are informed at the beginning of a season that if two or more people enter one at the same time, a camera should be expected to follow.
“Not just because of sex,” said Mr. Samton. “It could be they’re having a conversation — they hate so-and-so. We need to know that.”
But also because of sex: Toward the end of filming the third season of “Below Deck,” producers discovered that two cast members had secretly been meeting for trysts in their ship’s laundry room — an area that, by chance, was not within the range of any mounted cameras. “The result,” said Mr. Samton, “is now we have a camera in the laundry room.”
In addition to surveillance cameras, there are hand-held cameras, remote-controlled mounted “robo-cams” (which can silently zoom in to reveal the contents of a deckhand’s sext), and the odd Go-Pro stashed somewhere like the inside of a walk-in cooler.
“There’s nowhere they can hide,” Mr. Samton said — including the solitude of their own minds, since cast members are forbidden to listen to music while working, even on headphones, because of its potential to prevent conversations. Headphones are permitted during the legally mandated breaks the cast takes from boat duties. Many use the time to nap — first waving their arms to get the attention of the control room, because they are unable to darken the lights in their own cabins. In the cigar lounge, Tania Hamidi, co-executive producer, gestured at Impressionistic art adorning the walls. “These, believe it or not,” she said, and pointed to a shelf on the other side of the room “are photos of that shelf.”
Copyright law prevents Bravo from broadcasting images it does not own. Thus, during a week of harried preproduction, down came the yacht owner’s paintings of Bill Clinton and Che Guevara; up went photographs of the room’s own shelves, shot by the show’s director of photography, Laurent Basset.
“Every morning,” said Ms. Hamidi, “I come in and —” she pressed firmly around the edges of the peel-away pictures “— reinforce.” The possibility of one falling during a dramatic moment was an abstract source of worry.
Fake panels were placed over mirrored walls in one guest cabin so camera operators could film the space without being caught in reflections. Along an interior corridor, real panels were removed (later put back) to wire for cameras, lights and sounds without compromising the vessel’s watertightness. In the master bedroom-slash-control room, expensive wood and marble surfaces disappeared under protective cardboard and blue painter’s tape. Across one cardboard wall was scrawled a countdown of sorts: “ALL WE HAVE LEFT IS” — here, part of the original message (“THE ENTIRE THING”) had been crossed out in black marker, and replaced with an update — “THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITY OF IT.” It was the third charter of the season.
While the cast receives time off from guest pampering duties in between charters, the production crew, which is also responsible for filming that time off, receives just three days off for the duration of the six week round-the-clock filming blitz. On these days, cast members are sequestered in hotels and asked not to communicate, in an effort to prevent stories from developing further. (It’s not the only break they have from each other: Every few days, in between charters, cast members are individually interrupted from their work restoring the boat for incoming guests, and taken to film talking head interviews about the events immediately preceding.) Late in the afternoon, Nadine Rajabi, another executive producer, arrived, swapping Balenciaga Speed Trainers for white-soled boat shoes to relieve Mr. Cox of his post. The final task for Mr. Cox was to catch her up on the events that had transpired since she left the boat 12 hours earlier, around 4 a.m.
This, Mr. Cox did in such meticulous detail there is not room to describe even one-tenth of it. His report included information like the color of one guest’s sneakers (yellow); a bird’s eye explanation of a walkie talkie-based miscommunication the boat crew themselves had not yet untangled; an assessment of Captain Sandy’s mental state vis-à-vis wind conditions (“She’s kind of psyched herself out a little bit about it…”); a thorough recounting of the various mishaps associated with the ill-fated beach picnic (“…then Alex is trying to pour, essentially, a full double magnum of rosé into a tiny Iceland Spring water bottle…”); the particulars of a gossip session between two stewardesses; and an overheard bit of conversation in which one guest bragged to another about having participated in a sexual act in the hot tub the night before.
“We had eyes on the Jacuzzi the whole time,” said Ms. Rajabi dismissively. “It’s not true.” (“He wishes!” she added.)
But what really captured the production crew’s attention was the quality of the table decorations laid out by the second-in-command stewardess Christine Drake, who goes by “Bugsy.”
“Sandy literally yelled at Hannah last year about the table settings,” explained Mr. Samton, referring to chief stewardess Hannah Ferrier. On the show, Ms. Ferrier displays an inveterate resentment of Ms. Drake — and no particular flair for table décor. “So there’s this whole deep history about the table settings.” Mr. Cox credited Ms. Drake with setting “the most beautiful table you’ve ever seen,” shortly after setting foot on the boat.
Ms. Rajabi looked forward to the ascendant levels of showmanship Ms. Drake would bring to her arrangements of small colored rocks, shells, and glass marbles over the course of the season. “They’re really incredible,” she said.
The obsession with the tablescapes represented a key element of production’s work in the field: anticipating flash points of drama.
“It’s figuring out the archetypes of who the people are and trying to be two steps ahead of that psychologically,” said Ms. Rajabi.
(“Table looks amazing, doesn’t it?” Captain Sandy observed to Ms. Ferrier on a monitor.)
“We watch this like a soccer game,” said Ms. Rajabi. “We’re, like, screaming.”
“This is like a soccer game,” agreed Mr. Samton, “except stuff happens in this.”
The raw footage streaming into the control room so closely resembled the final polished product that, on the monitors, the cast members felt as far away as they do on television. Inside the commandeered master suite, the production crew’s parental affection for the cast (“Careful! Oh, Bugs, don’t hurt yourself!” Mr. Cox pleaded as Ms. Drake ran to find plastic cups) battled for dominance against their incurable addiction to drama (“Kiko! Show me Kiko, Vinny! Show me Kiko! Vinny, show me Kiko!” he yelled to a camera operator, realizing the chef was receiving bad news about dinner).
Mr. Cox described his increased ability to anticipate people’s reactions as “the only muscle I have that’s actually grown over the 13 seasons.”
“I find in my brain, when people are having a conversation, my brain instantly shifts to watch the person as they’re getting a piece of information,” he said. “I’m so used to anticipating guest reaction on stuff, I go to restaurants now and I literally, when a plate is set down, stare at the person who’s about to eat it. I’m like, ‘Oh, he doesn’t like it. And she’s annoyed that he doesn’t like it.’ And my wife is like, ‘Will you please just keep eating?’”
That’s a Wrap Filming for the current season wrapped in early autumn., The cast left the boat, the master suite bed re-emerged from its plywood sarcophagus, and most members of the production crew took a short vacation, to travel, or to go home and sleep for a week. Then it was time to carve more than 4,000 hours of footage into 20, 44-minute installments.
“You’re writing backwards,” said Mr. Samton over a video chat this past spring. “You’re creating the story after. It’s somebody giving you 1000 words and saying ‘Put these in the order of an essay.’”
Using chronological activity logs assembled in the field, a team led by Ms. Rajabi spent two or three weeks sketching out story arcs for the season and per episode.
“It’s like looking for a needle in a stack of needles,” said Ms. Rajabi, also on the call. In March, to accommodate remote work during the coronavirus pandemic, 51 Minds shipped every editor working in postproduction on “Below Deck Med” a weighty hard drive containing 40 terabytes of video footage — quadruple the quantity of data generated annually by NASA’s Hubble Telescope. (Asked about the coronavirus’s effect on future seasons, Mr. Samton said the network was “exploring changes to almost every aspect of production, from where we shoot the show to how we shoot the show.”)
Footage review in postproduction regularly turns up significant moments that passed unnoticed in the field. Any unearthed context can give viewers insight into cast members’ motives and reactions. “People aren’t just fighting to fight,” said Ms. Rajabi. “They’re triggered for a certain reason.”
But explanatory grace is not doled out equally among the cast. On June 17, Bravo and 51 Minds issued a joint statement announcing that “Below Deck Mediterranean” deckhand Peter Hunziker, who is white, had been “terminated” after sharing a sexualized image of a naked black woman in chains to his Instagram account. The announcement came days after the network fired four cast members from “Vanderpump Rules,” a reality show built around a California restaurant, for racist behavior.
Less than a handful of cast members in the “Below Deck” franchise have been people of color. The firings followed months of increasingly vocal criticism about the lack of racial diversity in the casts of the network’s most prominent shows.
In their statement, Bravo and 51 Minds vowed to edit the show “to minimize” Mr. Hunziker’s “appearance for subsequent episodes.” Ms. Rajabi put no stock in the common reality TV star defense of having received a bad edit. “Everything is true to what we shoot,” she said — though occasionally chopped and screwed in pursuit of a more efficient kind of truth.
“They’re stuck on a boat, and they talk about the same things over and over and over again,” Ms. Rajabi said. “It’s basically, how do you tell the story in 45 seconds at a time?”
The answer, with thousands of hours of footage to choose from: however you want.
A More Informal Piece: How Rigorous Scholarly Geopolitics Can Provide a Rigorous Framework to Unite the Treks, Explain Away Inconsistencies, and Address Many of the Critiques of the Recent Treks.
A note on definition:
For the record, Geopolitics is often used somewhat colloquially to simply refer to international affairs, the structure of the international arena, and sometimes as conflict over resources. The term arises from MacKinder, and, although it comprises all of those topics, it is about the way the structural, spatiotemporal, energetic, ecological, military fields, & related aspects of politics interrelate. Specifically, he was concerned with water vs. land warfare, and the importance of holding Eurasia as the fulcrum of the world. The reason I choose it in this context, is that the central conceit is understanding how states seek to control space, and absorb or defeat those enemies on their spatial borders, while gaining key resource & tactical advantages in the process.
On Treks Past and Future, and What they Did Right and Wrong
NOTE: This is NOT a bashing post. I actually happen to love Discovery, Picard, Short Treks, and Lower Decks. The Abrams movies are not my favorite, but I am glad they introduced Trek to a whole new generation.
Personal Subjective Assessments
By and large I like the new Star Treks more than most purists, but I do think there were a lot of missed opportunities, specifically as pertains to geopolitics which as a thematic, social scientific & robust framing could have brought open ended coherence to the shows, and made them more obviously relevant to our contemporary era.
As of now there are several confirmed Treks to be coming to order or in existence
- Discovery 3+
- Picard 2+
- Section 31
- Strange New Worlds (Pike & Spock)
- Lower Decks 1+
- Short Treks 2+
- Untitled Kids Show
The Abrams Treks are not my favorite but they did revive the series and got a ton of new people involved, a new Abrams’ Trek, a Tarantino Trek in the Abrams universe, and a new prime universe film would all probably be similar, generating new buzz, and fans so I support that.
All that said, i simply do not agree with the idea that the new Treks are not ‘true’ to Roddenberry, too grimdark, too canonically inconsistent, too spectacle focused, too fanservice (or not enough), or that they are bad TV. In fact, I am frankly sick of people saying this, especially when people claim there are no philosophical themes in the show, or that ‘The Orville’ is better.
I do agree that their rapid shifts in focus in the shows are annoying, that many of their A & B plots are mixed weirdly, that too much serialization needs a counter balance, that the writers missed some opportunities, & that they switch their writing staff too frequently. I mean we almost got a Walter Mosley Star Trek until a white writer got uncomfortable with his use of a racial slur in a script about race relations (Mosley is the author of the Easy E Rawlings PI stories, most famously perhaps resulting in the movie Devil in the Blue Dress) But that was symptomatic of a broader phenomena where writer staffs were switched wholesale, which is why there are roughly 4 arcs in Discovery, rather than 2 season arcs & one broad meta one. It also accounts for aspects of Picard.
Where we Know the Show is going, both from in universe and supplemental information to use as the basis of cautious inference.
We know from Picard, from the Short Trek ‘Calypso’, from DIS season 3, from the aborted ‘Star Trek Federation’, from the notes that got turned into Earth Final Battle & Andromeda, & from time travel in ENT, & VOY That the future Federation falters & fragments
Like Babylon 5, Trek’s vision becomes more cyclical, and reminds me of Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’; the message is how sensitive the future is to the present, how utopias need to be continually revolutionized or else they stagnate, and we must build the better future in the present. This is what the main themes of Discovery and Picard were, and, in this sense, are definitely still in the ‘Trek’ spirit. Picard and Discovery, far from not engaging in enough philosophy & engaging in too much spectacle all 3 address real philosophical problems.
- Yudkowsky’s box
- The struggle of nationalism against liberalism
- The problems with unaccountable security agencies
- The demoralizing effects of war
- The sensitivity of utopia to its design,
- The conflict between ideology & reality
- Problems of consciousness
- The nature of rights & dehumanization
- The arc of bureaucracies
- The nature of self fulfilling prophecies,
- The way technology & social institutions are dialectically related,
- The power of solidarity & mutual aid,
- The dangers of totalizing technological perfectionist ideologies
- The nature of trauma and prejudice,
- The cycle of oppression,
- The dynamics of dehumanization,
- The culpability of individuals in evil power structures & war machines.
- Broad, contemporarily based political, social & philosophical themes for 30 episodes or so of TV isn’t bad, especially when many are two parters, or are devoted to plot, humor, and/or characterization.
All that said, Picard’s plot lines could have been more or less the same, especially the beginning and the end episodes, and the explanation for the turn to authoritarianism, as well as how the authoritarian future of Trek comes to be, if they just paid attention to geopolitics and used it has a frame.
At the end of DS9 the Federation had:
- Allied with the Romulans, and S31 had installed a pro federation leader
- Allied with the Klingons, put a Starfleet agent, Worf, directly with the seat of power, and had started to basically merge their two societies
- Absorbed Bajor
- Absorbed other random planets like in insurrection
- Defeated the Maquis
- Defeated the Dominion, almost killed their leadership, and installed a pro Federation agent (Odo) in their power structure
- Defeated the Cardassians, then allied with them, then installed a pro Federation person (Garak) and helped them to rebuild
- Explored a substantial portion of the Gamma quadrant, alpha quadrant & beta quadrant
- Allied with the Ferengi, and put a pro Federation reformist in charge (Rom)
- Defeated the Breen
- Implied to have normalized relations with Gorn, Tzenkethi, & even Tholians
- Made unparalleled gains in technology
- Control the Wormhole, one of the most important regions in space
- Had absorbed a lot of the Orion’s planet and became more aware/in control of the Syndicate
- Acquired cloaking device, advanced holography, and so on By the end of Voyager and Insurrection they:
- Beat the Borg, and destroyed their Transwarp Hub
- Documented an entirely new region of space & made many allies, & defeated many empires
- Gained massive impressive new technology, integrated Borg science & tech, infiltrated the Borg, created a Borg resistance movement
- Got multiple points of assistance, technology & info from the future and closed multiple temporal loops
- Discovered subspace corridors, mobile emitters, new kinds of holograms, nanites, anti Borg technology & cloaks, several kinds of transwarp, the space cannon, United With Maquis & figured out cross galaxy communication.
- Made absurd advances in medicine, technology, computation, life extension, and so on
- Established diplomatic representation in the quadrant, found 3 connections to humanity (the 38s, Voth, and Spirit people) & learned about the Sikarians and their tech
- Mastered self piloting & hologram piloted ships
- Learned a lot about time travel, wormholes, sub space, and so on
- Encountered the Species 8472, helped defeat them, then forged an alliance
- Outwitted, allied, or defeated the Hirogen, Observers, Krenim, Kazon, Viidians, Ocampa, Devore, Malon, Vaudwaar, etc
- Were instrumental in the liberation & saving of dozens of cultures
- Learned the outcome of several older missions like that probe, the missing astronaut, the Equinox, That Klingon ship, those Ferengi, the Hansens, and so on
- Learned how to survive long distance away missions and stressful trips and ration resources
- Got an absurd amount of new data on astrometrics, communication, subspace, astronomy, time, physics etc from all 4 quadrants
- In TNG they installed a human in the Q, in DS9 they gave Q a human companion (& Sisko whooped his ass), and in Voyager they revolutionized the Q, caused a civil war, raised a new generation of Q, helped them change their philosophy on suicide & so on
- By the time of Voyager Starfleet had gone to another galaxy, to the ‘end’ of the universe, to the ‘beginning’ of the universe, to many alternate dimensions, to fluidic space, to many timelines, to the mycelial network, & so on giving them unparalleled knowledge
- Revolutionized fuel efficiency, long term survival, ablative armor, shielding, photonics, temporal mechanics, communication, relays, wormholes, alternative fuel sources, teleportation, shuttlecraft, weaponry, cloaks, positronics, self replicating tech, shields & weapons etc
- By the end of Insurrection, Nemesis, First Contact & Genesis, they’d integrated dozens of new species, discovered that field that heals people, discovered the Nexus, guaranteed First Contact in a closed loop (also the Borg Loop arc in Enterprise)
- Spock’s reunification movement gained steam among the Ronulans, the entire Romulans senate was wiped out, they teamed up with the new guard to defeat them, while also still helping the Remans, and so on
And also helped overthrow the dictatorship in the dark universe for the 3rd time, assisted their revolution, and became tentatively more friendly with them and able to cross between them at will.
All in all then, by Nemesis they had quite literally defeated or become allies with every major enemy, had installed leaders in basically every opposed society save three, but nornalized relations with them. Between the Dominion war, Cardassia, Bajor, the Romulan civil war, the Klingon war, the Romulan Supernova, and more, the Federation was providing active aid to all of their enemies, had diplomatic ties with all of them. By Picard they’d basically overseen the Romulan relief effort, saw them fragment and be destroyed, revolutionized synthetic life, biocomputing & holography, mastered the Ex Borg process and had studied a Borg cube in detail. This was a verifiable Pax Federationalis, and if irl a major war ended with every enemy defeated, a mass relief effort to every broken society, and pro government people installed at the head of each of them or mutual aid treaties signed, wed all assume it was intentional. They had, in more than one sense, literally conquered the space around them, and politically absorbed the resources, critical tactical routes & empires they needed to achieve security.
The fact that Section 31 and Starfleet intelligence played a role in so many of these lends further credence to the idea that these were basically long run CIA style regime change OPs, and a post on Daystrom Institute today argues Voyager is a section 31 op. If true this would make the entire Dominion war, the events of the four TNG movies, the Vouager’s stranding & return, and the events leading up to Picard all very plausibly a long run op by Section 31.
The explanation for the events of Picard, set up thematically by Discovery, Enterprise, and DS9, as well as the arc ending up in Calypso and Discovery season 3 can therefore be reframed as what happens when an unaccountable imperialist NatSec agency takes over a liberal democratic republic. What’s more, because it ends successfully, the Federation is able to absorb or ally with nearly all its enemies—Klingon, Romulans, Bajor, Cardassians, Ferengi, the Maquis, and so on. The ones they don’t take over or explicitly ally with—the Borg, Dominion, Breen, etc—are totally defeated and have been internally infiltrated or destroyed. Other like Gorn, Tzenkethi, & Tholians are normalized. Even the Q, the Dark Universe, the species of the Delta Quadrant, and occupants of Fluidic Space were revolutionized or defeated by the Federation.
They now had unparalleled knowledge of Borg, Dominion, time travel, warp, transwarp, synthetic, photonic, posironic, biocomputer, teleportation, subspace, communication, long term survival, cloak, hologram, and other technology. They also, between the events with Q time travel, First Contact, the Voth, Sargons species, The Ancient Humanoids, the Admonition, ‘Past Tense’, Futures End, the Iconians, All Good Things, the Preservers & others, they have unparalleled knowledge of their origins & past
Not to mention they have available but classified knowledge of many kinds of time travel, the Mycelial network, the Omega particle, transwarp, Borg teleportation, wormholes, Iconians gateways, subspace corridors, alternate dimensions, etc.
They clearly therefore have the technological, scientific, diplomatic, cultural, historical, intellectual, communication, logistics, goodwill, knowledge, political, navigational, synthetic, holographic, intelligence & other advantage over all other species in the galaxy .
The question is thus NOT “why they’d become authoritarian, after having stagnated and ossified?” but “why did it take so took so long to do so?”, especially when you consider that in absorbing all these former enemies they introduce alternate cultures less committed to liberal democracy.
Picard had the perfect opportunity to address all of this.
And ‘Picard’ dropped the ball on this. All of the events in it could have been told in the above arc. The Romulan supernova, the failure of the relief effort, the synthetic ban, the Ex B project, the admonition, and so on. Very simply, it could have been Section 31 who stopped the relief effort because they wanted to see the Supernova happen so as to destroy Romulus and more easily absorb them afterward. Since we know they work with the Tal Shiar, their participation is easily explained, and their motives could be a mix of the ones in the show, and repeat of the ones from ‘Undiscovered Country’—a desire to maintain war & power
The synthetics then could have just been a convenient scapegoat, or an agreement by both section 31 and the Tal shiar that they don’t want them coming to power. What’s more, that the Federation was so opposed to the Romulans relief effort could be explained by their merging with the Klingon, and absorption of the Bajorans, Cardassians, and other anti Romulan species.
The transition away from liberal democracy could be explained by the above absorption, the increasing influence of Section 31, the Federations hegemony, the experience of the Dominion War, and bureaucratic bloat. And, what’s more, between the experience of war & insecurity, the fact that Section 31 & militaristic tactics saved the federation & guaranteed hegemony, people probably wouldn’t mind ceding rights & liberal democracy for the comparative position & security.
Specific Elements that Don’t Really Work, Classified as Personal or Political
Here’s what I would have changed in Picard aside from all of the above
- Not killing all the cool Borg for no reason (personal)
- Explicitly emphasized the politics (political)
- the Cardassians, etc would have been explicitly absorbed and the Romulan absorption plan would have been in the background (political)
- At the end, the admonition would have actually succeeded, and the synthetics would have breached space time, then, once S31s & Tal Shiars role were made clear, the Federation, Romulans, Klingons all the absorbed species etc would have teamed up to fight the super creatures (Personal & Political)
Picard, through influence, and through Data, manages to convince the synthetics to switch back to the good side, and the Synthetics, freed Borg, and so on, would help them fight back.
Using Borg technology, Picsrd’s status as Locutus, and with the help of Data and The Twins would have directly petitioned the advanced synthetics for peace and got them to call it off.
While admittedly, his would be like a mix of the ends of Undiscovered Country, Matrix Revolutions, Discovery Season 2, Star Wars 9, and so on, it would have actually worked well here.
What’s more, instead of just attempting, Picard would have actually killed himself, with some other Q ex Machina, to save him. Picard would then end with the apparent destruction of the S31 Tal Shiar--S31 conspiracy.
The enemies and allies would have been fully absorbed, the synthetics would have their rights back, and the enemy synthetic species would leave the Federation alone, but all of the elements i discuss that push the Federation to authoritarianism would have been intensified, not solved, under the appearance of resolution.
And this makes it eminently more plausible that the fascist future of Discovery 3 could come about. Idk what they’re doing in Dis3, but whatever they do, all of the above could be somewhat feasibly retconned in Picard 2, S31, Short Treks, DIS4, and so on.
Indeed, even with the missed opportunities the reality of the events is close enough to this that most of the main points could be saved, and basically all the arcs of Star Trek tied together in a down and Pat way flexible enough to allow novel contributions
Suffice it to say, we’re going to have some 7 Treks on at once in the future, and maybe more of the movies, other timelines (a Klingon show, etc), more political shows and so on, arise. It would be nice to tie them all together.
As far as a convenient retcon, it *also* has the ability to explain perceived inconsistencies between TOS, TAS, DIS, Picard, TNG, ENT and so on. So much can be chalked up to false narration, partial information, and deceit.
(As a side note personal gripe: Also, instituting an official temporal mechanics & alternate dimension theory would do so too. We basically know there are at least 4 alternate dimension types in Trek—adjacent dimensions like dark universe, classic Everett MWs, time travel splits, and just totally different types of dimensions (fluidic, Q, Mycelial, sphere builders). We also know that Time is multidimensional in Trek—altering the past takes ‘time’ to catch up to the future, and works in weird ways. Officially formalizing all of the above resolves some of the sillier science & also gives good explanation for divergences of timelines. Anyway this is hands down the nerdiest thread I’ve ever done. But I think that whatever issues it may have, I think it’s the best way to tie together the shows, make them more coherent, and explain away inconsistencies. End Side Note Gripe)
This theory, however corny, also has the distinct advantage of being based in real analysis of history, political economy, IR, and social science, and therefore allows Trek’s socio-political allegory to work much more smoothly. Conspiracies are played up, but geopolitics & unaccountable authority are not. Any sort of thing could be posited, and there even could have been some tacit unspoken awareness of these facts at many levels of the Federation.
One of the nice things about structural analysis of political economy, and geopolitics is that it actually technically doesn’t need a specific agent, and, indeed, it usually doesn’t, not as we think of it. Most actors in the world historical stage are not like conspiracies, cabals, presidents or great men, but structures, that have a logic unto themselves. The problem is that this makes for poor writing--just look at the introduction of the Borg Queen!
But, in reality, simply the dynamics of having relative superiority, the potential of collapse & invasion, several massive powers on one’s borders, about whom one is uncertain, and, at issue, key aspects of the control of space, time, resources, tactical routes, the heart of the empire, and their space of operations, means that, if this were real world history, no posited agent like Section 31 would be necessary--the structural dynamics of international politics would suffice. But, alas, this is hard for most people to grasp, which is why conspiracies are posited.
What’s more, I do not see this as threatening the optimism of the show, as it reveals the society in question to be contradictory not evil, at least until the point after which authoritarianism becomes irreversible, but that’s exactly that for which we must look out. Instead, the show would enjoin us to think like LeGuin or Mieville or Banks, and focus on the ways that utopia must be continually renewed, and simply relying on technology & ossified bureaucracy to do it, especially when military, state & imperial structures still exist, just doesn’t cut it.
Here’s my original thread, I’ve obviously cleaned it up since then: