Before I begin, I want to talk about something that happened that I feel is relevant to the discussion of this particular episode of Star Trek TNG. I’ve been rewatching Community for the past few weeks, and I made it halfway through episode 2 when I realized—the “Dungeons and Dragons” episode of the show is missing. I did a quick search and found out why: Chang plays a “dark-elf” character and is essentially in blackface throughout the episode, so Sony & Netflix agreed to take the episode down.
I think it’s a testament to how racist I was when the episode originally aired (or how common it was, as a White person, to disregard things as “just jokes” that are now more widely known to be harmfully racist) that I don’t even remember that being part of the episode. I’m at the point now where I understand why blackface is particularly problematic and shouldn’t be perpetuated in any form. I’m even mostly on board with taking down the episode instead of doing that “explain the historical context” thing HBO Max is doing with Gone With the Wind. So my question is this: if we’re taking down episodes of old tv shows that we now know are incredibly racist, why the hell is Code of Honor still on Netflix?
Racismception: Racism Inside of Racism
The episode isn’t guilty of blackface (and it was the 80s!) so, credit where it’s due. But “not doing blackface” is just about the minimum requirement in avoiding racism. Almost every way the writers could have been racist, they checked the box.
I have a question about the conception of this episode. Did the writers decide, “let’s do an episode about a planet with humans that are slightly less evolved than 1980s humanity, because they’re very prideful and follow a strict code of honor” and then decide, “let’s have them all be Black!”, or was it, “Let’s do an episode about a planet where everyone is Black,” followed by, “they should be slightly less evolved, and far too prideful—if only they could behave more like us!” Honestly, it doesn’t matter which came first, either way it happened is extremely racist.
And I haven’t even described the plot of the episode yet.
The episode opens with Captain Picard describing the inhabitants of the planet Ligon II before we’ve seen them: they are “closely humanoid” and are “exceedingly proud.” From that description, I was expecting intelligent neanderthals, or some sort of mild cheesy 80s Star Trek prosthetic on actors. Representatives from the planet beam onto the Enterprise, and we learn the truth: everyone on Ligon II is Black. Not only that, but they aren’t wearing any prosthetics; there is nothing about them that would suggest they are “closely” humanoid apart from this fact.
Once the Ligonians have arrived, they learn that Yar (a woman!) is the ship’s Chief of Security. They are shocked—shocked, I tell you—to discover this fact. They are so disbelieving that one of the Ligonian security men immediately attempts to subdue Yar. She easily puts him to the ground (although the choreography is impressively bad), and Lutan, the leader of the Ligonians, decides that he must kidnap this woman.
After she’s gone, as the crew attempts to discover why this happened, they consider that they may have taken her for sexual purposes. Troi, who can sense other beings’ emotions whenever its convenient to the plot, explains that all of the men from Ligon II were sexually attracted to Yar, but that Lutan wanted something even more—power.
I can see how, in the 80s, creators might have patted themselves on the back for including Black actors at all. And maybe, at the time, this episode was seen as incredibly progressive. But by today’s standards, this episode leans on every negative stereotype of Black people that exists of Black people. They’re “less evolved,” “misogynists,” “savage,” “proud”… and they’re willing to risk their lives and civilization to steal White women!
The premise alone has to be at least as offensive as Ken Jeong in blackface.
That Whole Code of Honor Thing
After the crew researches the history of Ligon II, they inform Picard what’s going on and come up with a strategy to deal with it. Data explains that the Ligonian policy that caused Yar’s capture is similar to the Native American concept of “Counting Coup,” where harming a (usually more advanced) enemy without being injured yourself is seen as a high honor, and earns you respect amongst your peers. Knowing this, Yar’s kidnapping should be seen as a sign of respect.
The correct diplomatic move is for Picard to go to Lutan and politely ask for Yar’s return, as a way of showing that humans respect Ligonian customs without being insulting. They unanimously agree that these customs are ridiculous, but because of the Prime Directive, they must follow them.
And that’s really what the whole episode is—the crew of the Enterprise, again and again, attempting to “follow the rules” of this confusing society, all while Lutan repeatedly changes them. For instance, when Picard jumps through all the hoops to ask for Yar’s return, Lutan announces that he will not be returning her, because she is too sexy, and he would like to make her his “First One,” or the “most important” of his many wives. Immediately after he makes this announcement, his current First One Yareena stands up and challenges Yar to a fight to the death.
Picard and the crew agree that Yar should go through with this. The Ligonians, you see, have a vaccine that can cure a disease on a nearby planet. For the sake of the plot (and continued misogyny), Dr. Crusher is unable to replicate the sample of the vaccine they were already gifted. The Enterprise must retrieve enough vaccine for an entire planet directly from the Ligonians—and the Ligonians aren’t willing to give up this vaccine unless the Enterprise follows all of their rules and customs to the letter. Their pride is just that important.
At this point, Picard goes off on a rant about the Prime Directive, essentially expressing the old racist White guy point of view: If only the damned rules weren’t in the way, we could teach these savages to be more civilized—like us! You can feel the sense of superiority dripping from every word.
The Misogyny is Strong
It’s notable that not a single crewmember seems at all worried about Yar. Even Yar herself doesn’t seem at all concerned that due to her superior training she will likely end up murdering this woman. Troi tricks her into revealing that, actually, Lutan is quite attractive, and as a woman, it felt good to hear that he wanted to marry her.
No, no, NO! What is this disgusting trope? Why do men feel like we want to be owned by them? That even when our lives are threatened, even if we are taken hostage, all it takes is knowing he “loves” us to make us feel good about ourselves.
Picard goes to speak with Lutan to see if he can learn more about why he wants to keep Yar so badly. He learns that Lutan is not as rich as he lets on, and in acquiring Yar, will be acquiring much wealth and respect.
“So you understand the proper value of women,” Picard says.
“They are highly pleasant things, but unimportant, except for their land,” replies Lutan.
(This show was considered progressive?)
Picard deduces that this fight to the death is a perfect ruse for Lutan: no matter who wins, Lutan comes out ahead. He either ends up with a highly respectable bride he kidnapped from a more powerful force (and the newfound respect of the other Ligonians), or with Yareena and all of her property (and the newfound respect of the other Ligonians).
Lutan smiles mischievously. “The Code of Honor protects me like a magic cloak.”
On the one hand, kudos to you for pointing out exactly how the patriarchy works: men using women as property to gain status in our society. On the other hand, fuck you for creating a “less evolved” planet of Black men even more misogynistic than the real world.
And this episode doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test. Yar and Yareena have a conversation alone together, but its all about how great Lutan is and the fight they’re going to have over who gets to be his bride. Data and La Forge get a random scene where Data tries to tell a joke, but the female characters don’t get any development or time outside of their relationships to the men.
So the savages get their way, and the women fight to the death. They get to choose their weapons (“they’re light, as if made for women to use,” says Data), which look like pointy seashells or cacti. The weapons contain a deadly poison that will kill you instantly. This is is displayed to us when one of the weapons accidentally winds up lodged in one of the men watching the fight, and he dies, which doesn’t seem to upset anyone.
Yar and Yareena fight. The choreography is terrible.
Yar wins, and Yareena dies. Then the Enterprise crew brings her back to life, and this plot point isn’t explained at all, other than to say that they could explain it if they wanted to. When Yareena comes to, she realizes Lutan only wanted her for her land. Lutan’s second-hand man, Hagon, however, seemed like he might have actually been a little upset if Yareena had died in the fight. So she decides to make Hagon her First One instead of Lutan, and Hagon becomes the owner of all Yareena’s land. It’s a… happy ending?
Lutan, even after losing everything, still attempts to get Yar to stay on the planet as his wife, and she STRUGGLES to turn him down!!
This is the episode that made me stop watching the series the first time around, and now that I’ve watched it a second time, I remember why. This is one of the most offensive episodes of television I’ve ever watched, full stop. I saw that someone else wrote a blog calling it “the most cringeworthy episode of Star Trek,” so I’m feeling confident that it at least won’t get any worse than this.
Please don’t prove me wrong, Star Trek.
—Chloe Skye, November 22, 2020
P.S. If you liked this, you’ll love Modern Eyes with Skye and Stone, the podcast where JupiterFStone (follow her on TikTok, you won’t be disappointed) and I review movies from 10 or more years ago through modern eyes. So far, we’ve done Hocus Pocus, Clue, and The Town, with an episode on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows coming out this Friday.