Monday, November 25, 2013

Deus vs. Diablo Ex Machina

"In this episode, I die.  Wait, what?"
Once upon a time, long long ago, the Greeks invented "deus ex machina," or literally "god out of the machine." It was a handy-dandy device: got your hero pinned to a wall by the baddie?  Boom, Zeus comes out of nowhere, strikes down the baddie, and victory is won for the good.

Nowadays, it's looked down upon as a cheap trick, as the heavy hand of the sloppy writer.  Can't kill off your unstoppable Martians in War of the Worlds? Take everyone to the brink of destruction, the boom, microscopic life off the alien invaders.  (I'd argue that it isn't a completely sloppy ending, but hey.)  I wonder what makes someone write a deus ex machina ending.  Lack of talent?  A great story that needs an exit?  The constraints of time/energy/budget?

Take, for example, the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Ethics." Now, to be fair, this is a season five episode--the season where they tackled: the after-effects of rape, metaphor in language, Romulan politics, childbirth, death of both parents, ghettoization, addiction, and abortion.  In the first half of the season.  In "Ethics," they added another warm-and-fuzzy to the pile: Worf, "permanently" paralyzed in an accident, ponders suicide as a sane and rational answer.

To be fair, the show deserves credit for jumping into such a grave topic (ha!), and for doing so in a manner which wholeheartedly fits into the show.  Who else would consider the 24th Century equivalent to robot braces a travesty and non-option if not Worf, the outsider to the Gene Roddenberry enlightenment?  However, the show quickly paints itself into a corner.

In a scene about halfway between the accident and the ending (deus ex machina spoiler: he lives!  and walks!), a guest doctor muses about the fact that Klingon's have redundant systems: extra ribs, extra livers, it's all set up "in line" so that if one goes, the other takes over.  The show quickly covers its deus ex machinan tracks by scoffing at the Klingon body, saying that it's actually more that can go wrong, i.e. double chance for liver cancer (my words, not theirs).

The show then spends a lot of time debating the appropriate nature of suicide; it does a very nice job of looking at it from multiple angles, with different characters acting organically and sharing appropriate and thought-provoking views.  Worf ultimately decides to try a risky thingus-magingus where they [tech tech tech] a spine transplant or something.  A criticism that Ron Moore has had of the Trek universe is that oftentimes they will out-tech the situation.  Here, again to the show's credit, they don't: the spinal laser scan re-make-ify doesn't work, and Worf dies.  That is to say that the new spine is working great, but because a "dramatic countdown until brain death" counts all the way down, Worf dies.  Literally.

Then we get the skies opening (figuratively) and boom, right after the teary-eyed "We did all we could" scene, the "Son, your father is dead" scene and the "I wanna see my Daddy!" scene, Worf comes back to life.  Why?  That redundant system, it must have a redundant neural pathway that lets the brain restart!  I guess he also had a redundant lung, because with his brain down, he hasn't been breathing for a while either.

Clear-cut deus ex machina.  They couldn't not take the surgery all the way; then it would have just been tech to save the day.  So they went one step further: Zeus/nature/genetics/mysteries of alien medicine, that's what saved the day.

Boo hiss.  Don't the writers know that the "god" in the "god in the machine" has become hackneyed and lousy?  That it's turned into the devil of writing?

Hey, at least we had a salient debate about the pros and cons of end-of-life care... right?

No comments:

Post a Comment