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Devil's Due: Star Trek meets Faust

A very interesting episode, but it loses its way at the end.

The Enterprise finds a planet (Ventax) in distress because of a rather unusual crisis. According to them, a thousand years ago they made a bargain with Arda (basically the devil, though female), that their extremely bad problems would be solved. In exchange for which the whole planet would be enslaved by her in, er, a thousand years. (Although there is a reference to selling their souls, that's an exaggeration.)

To Captain Picard's surprise, Ardra appears, saying "Time's up." She starts discussions with the government on their resources. The rest of the episode involves the Enterprise crew's attempts to unmask her as a con artist (having considered and rejected the possibility that she is Q or something like that, on the reasonable basis that Q would not be interested in all this contract and resource stuff). Picard says that they cannot know how the contract was originally made—perhaps it was a political myth to make change possible, perhaps there was some sort of historical Ardra. But the result is that the idea has become a fundamental of Ventaxian thought.

The trouble is that Ardra's powers, whatever they are based on, seem to be considerable. She runs rings around the Enterprise's security. She evidently fancies Captain Picard and tries to seduce him in his own quarters one night. Since he claims not to fancy her, she transforms into a woman in Victorian dress, who she says is Picard's ideal woman (this seems to be borne out by the Nexus scene in the film Star Trek Generations). And she also becomes Troi, who she says is "close at hand and yet unattainable". Picard refuses but you have to wonder if she's onto something.

Picard resorts to a legal hearing to challenge the contract, with Data as the judge. (By this time Ardra has made the Enterprise vanish.) Picard develops an interesting line of argument. How did Ventax change? Did Ardra produce instant change in, say, the environment? Apparently not. There was slow change, as result of changed environmental policies. Did Ardra direct the changes, or even advise on them? No, it was done by Ventaxian leaders. Picard makes the case that the improvements were actually the work of the Ventaxians themselves, not anything done by Ardra, who according to the record had left Ventax after making the contract. All this points to his historical theory that the contract had some sort of psychological, spiritual, or political significance which enabled the Ventaxians to change their ways. However, Ardra asks the Ventaxian leader, who regards Picard's efforts as essentially hopeless, whether he is satisfied that without Ardra the terrible conditions would have continued, and that she has kept her side of the bargain. He says yes.

And now the conclusion. Geordi is able to detect Ardra's ship, and cancel out her special effects! Now she is exposed as a powerless sham. Picard tells the Ventaxians that they saved themselves. Ardra gets the last word, telling Picard he would have more fun if he'd lost, and bidding him au revoir till they meet again. (Sadly, she never reappeared. She has something in common with Vash, who Picard did fall for.)

Star Trek has rather a lot of false gods, including the one in Star Trek 5. But a Faustian version of the theme is a new twist, and in many ways a more interesting one. Given that we don't actually believe the mysterious woman is the devil, the Contract of Ardra is an interesting basis for a society. The episode wisely does not give us any definite answers about its historical origins, but Picard's theory seems plausible. This raises some questions to think about. For a society in a dead end, could a magical idea fulfil a practical purpose? For those who don't believe in any supernatural realities, there is the question of whether such ideas may have some positive social effects. For those who do believe in supernatural realities, there is the question of whether a false spiritual belief can have a positive outcome.

But it doesn't need to be about supernatural beliefs. A lot of politics is motivated by ideologies, but when we look back, how often do we fully agree with everything about some past ideology? Perhaps if you don't have some definite beliefs that make change possible, you won't accomplish anything. But what of the eventual payoff?

Or what about all the motivational speakers and literature which fill our bookshops and diary pages? A lot of this motivational stuff (I'm not saying all of it) seems a bit trite, yet there is no doubt many people find it helps them. Perhaps, like the Contract of Ardra, what you get out is really only what you put in.

In any of these cases, there are questions about claims of (earthly) salvation. How far should we credit leaders for what a society achieves?

To take it a step further, suppose Ventax really was offered such a contract by the devil? Why not accept? What are your responsibilities to hypothetical people in a thousand years? Our own society seems to be doubtful about responsibilities to people in a mere hundred years. Can you bind your successors? But whatever you do now, it inevitably affects their choices.

The ending of the episode is a disappointment. So they manage to disprove her trickery. Fine, but what if they hadn't? It doesn't really mean anything. Picard's arguments, on the other hand, focus our attention on the themes. He does repeat his argument briefly at the end in case we've forgotten it, but it isn't why he wins. (To be fair, the other approach would be very difficult to write.) The courtroom scene might have seemed appropriate inasmuch as the story involves a contract, but is not very satisfactory for a number of reasons, including the fact that the Ventaxians have conceded in advance.

Ardra should have known it was hopeless to try to seduce Captain Picard, who seems to have been vaccinated against fun. If it had been Captain Kirk, now, there would have been some scenes. Though it wouldn't have done her any good in the end.

Copyright © 2024. Not to be reproduced without permission. ||  Saturday, 20 July 2024

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