"Code of Honor" Ligonians: Humans or Aliens?

Discussion in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' started by SonicRanger, Aug 27, 2012.

  1. SonicRanger

    SonicRanger Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    So now that TNG's first season is out in Blu-ray, discussions will no doubt arise again about "Code of Honor" and how it is viewed by many people as racist in its portrayal of the Ligonians.

    Tracy Torme said, "I felt like it was a '40s tribal African view of blacks."

    Wil Wheaton said, "Code of Honor is not an especially good episode, but it's not as overtly racist as I recalled... if the Ligonians hadn't been arbitrarily determined to be entirely African American, it wouldn't have even been an issue."

    But here's the question: Are the Ligonians humans or aliens?

    The core problem is revealed in Wil Wheaton's statement: the Ligonians are perceived to be "African Americans" rather than aliens.

    What if the Ligonians had some sort of alien forehead makeup or something to clearly identify them as aliens? Do you think that the episode would be perceived as racist?

    Or do you think this is supposed to be a human colony, whether established a few generations earlier or by, say, the Preservers many centuries or millennia earlier?

    If these are humans, what makes a group of people living differently than the very Western way of the Federation "racist"?

    I was 10 when this episode first aired, and I saw the Ligonians as aliens, just like all the human-looking aliens in TOS. So what is it in your view: Are the Ligonians humans or aliens?
     
  2. Tosk

    Tosk Vice Admiral Admiral

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    As far as I'm concerned, they're aliens.
     
  3. Spock/Uhura Fan

    Spock/Uhura Fan Captain Captain

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    They were presented as "aliens," so they are "aliens." It does tell you what someone thinks of humans that vary slightly in appearance, though. It kind of looked like someone's opinion of Africans, not African Americans, from all of the "tribal" stuff they had going on. I just like to think of it as a bad episode I'll not watch again. Definitely not Trek's finest moment.
     
  4. Timo

    Timo Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    FWIW, the dialogue establishes the Ligonians as "closely humanoid", meaning they are less human than, say, Zephram Cochrane of Alpha Centauri. Which sort of rules out both the "known Earth colony" and "lost Earth colony or abducted Earthlings" theories.

    Also, Picard seems to think that the culture of the Ligonians closely approximates Song China. Song is credited with introducing things like paper money, gunpowder weaponry and a standing navy, the last of which also gave the dynasty remarkable exploration capacities. It is also the dynasty during with meritocracy reached its peak in China. Doesn't really sound much like the Ligonians - they are farther along in their technology, they don't yet seem to be exploring space with or without a standing navy, and the sort-of-matrilinear economy doesn't ring a bell, either.

    Timo Saloniemi
     
  5. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Of course they're aliens, just like the vast majority of aliens in TOS -- and most SFTV of the '50s through '80s -- looked exactly like humans.

    As for the racial thing, I think it's widely misinterpreted. The episode says clearly that the Ligonians bear a "unique similarity" to medieval Chinese culture, so they weren't intended to be "tribal Africans," at least not by the scriptwriters. And keep in mind -- before this, the general trend in depicting humanoid aliens was to make them all white, or else cast white actors and paint them red or green or something. The one exception to that pattern that we saw on TOS were the Kohms in "The Omega Glory," and that's because they were actually meant to be parallel Chinese.

    So "Code of Honor" was actually an attempt to be more racially inclusive -- to break free of that pattern of portraying all aliens as white. But, like many such first-blush efforts to break free of old prejudices, it didn't go far enough. Even though there was nothing specifically "African" about the Ligonians as scripted, the actors they cast used "African"-sounding accents (perhaps because most African-American actors would have more practice learning those accents for various roles than, say, Germanic or Chinese accents), and so it ended up conveying some unfortunate and unintended implications. As for the wardrobe and production design, it wasn't specifically African either -- the costumes were kind of a mix of Asian-influenced robes, Mideastern- or Indian-style turbans, and shimmery "spacey" fabric; but I guess the bare chests on the Ligonian men could've been interpreted as suggesting something "tribal" (though I think it was just Bill Theiss trying to apply his traditional skimpy design sensibilities in a more gender-egalitarian way than he had on TOS). So their intentions were good, but the execution left much to be desired, and some innocently intended ingredients had a regrettable synergy.

    Part of the problem is that they went with a Katharyn Powers-cowritten script as the episode they chose to cast inclusively. Powers also wrote a number of early Stargate SG-1 episodes, and her writing of "alien" cultures (which in that case really were transplanted humans) wasn't much more nuanced or respectful or anthropologically coherent than this was. If the Ligonians came off as somewhat caricatured and barbaric, I think that was more due to Powers's limitations as a writer than due to any racial motivations. Or rather, if there were stereotypes motivating the script, they were more Orientalist stereotypes -- the old movie/TV trope of cultures from the Far East as exotic and sophisticated yet barbaric and prideful. Perhaps the original intent was to cast the Ligonians with Asian-American actors, so they were actually trying to avoid the obvious stereotype by casting a different ethnic group. Unfortunately, they chose one that's subject to plenty of unfair stereotypes of its own. So it was a misfire all around.
     
  6. SonicRanger

    SonicRanger Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    But do you think that, if the Ligonians had forehead bumps or three arms and legs, the episode would be considered terribly racist?
     
  7. R. Star

    R. Star Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    It's considered terribly racist because it glaringly hits upon African sterotypes and the plot summary is "white woman kidnapped on planet full of black people!" A few bumps aren't going to fix that.
     
  8. Timo

    Timo Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    To engage in my favorite hobby of machine-gunning my own legs, this is not "clearly" established. Picard says the Ligonians remind him of an Earth culture, and then proceeds to present them with a gift relating to the Song dynasty. Perhaps he wants to show how the Song had to capitulate to the superior Mongols and give them gifts like this one?

    Ligonians as Mongols might make more sense in light of what we see in the episode...

    Timo Saloniemi
     
  9. Use of Time

    Use of Time Commodore Commodore

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    I don't recall this episode as being all that big of a deal except for it being not that great of an episode. Does anybody know if there was any kind of racial backlash when this episode orginally aired? That might put it into context.
     
  10. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    That would probably depend on whom they cast.


    As I said, that's not entirely true. The stereotypes in the script are Orientalist. The Ligonians are specifically compared to Chinese culture, their wardrobe is a mix of various Asian and Mideastern elements, even Fred Steiner's music wouldn't be out of place in a historical drama set in the court of Khubilai Khan or something. According to the TNG Companion, the scriptwriters actually based the Ligonian culture on the Japanese samurai class and envisioned them as a reptilian race. But instead of using reptilian makeup, the producers altered the script's intentions and instead decided to cast African-American actors who used stock "African" accents, so viewers interpreted the "exotic/barbarian" tropes of the script as African stereotypes.


    I don't know what the broader reaction at the time was, but my reaction was "At last, I'm so sick of aliens always being white!" I saw it as a step forward, though it certainly does feel backward by today's standards. You bring up a good point about context. These things are incremental. What looks backward and prejudiced by today's standards was often seen as quite progressive when it first happened (like the miniskirt uniforms in TOS, which in the day were seen as a symbol of female liberation).
     
  11. CommanderRaytas

    CommanderRaytas Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    Hehehe.

    In a nutshell, this. I agree completely. It would probably not have changed a thing.

    The choice of words made me giggle though. :lol:
     
  12. SonicRanger

    SonicRanger Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    Let's say that they're the exact same actors, except their makeup looked like, well, since it is you, Christopher, this...

    http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Rhaandarite

    ...or perhaps this...

    http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Tilonian
     
  13. Timo

    Timo Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    I guess there's always the risk of people just going "ah, the old African savage stereotype - see, they even mutilate their faces!"...

    Timo Saloniemi
     
  14. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Well, I think the key is that a certain stereotypical view of the "proud barbarian" was inherent in the script, whether Orientalist or otherwise, so probably casting anyone other than white actors -- or a mix of ethnic types -- would've ended up giving a stereotyped impression. While it was a nice idea to try to break the pattern of only casting white people as aliens-of-the-week, they should've chosen another episode to do it -- maybe "Justice" or "Haven." (Although the fact that the people responsible for casting chose this episode, the one with the "exotic Other" stereotypes built into it, as the one to feature an all-black alien race, and kept other first-season TNG alien races all-white... well, that suggests something about the people responsible for casting. But at this point, the producers were mostly veterans of TOS, so they were from an earlier generation and had certain assumptions that would've been hard to unlearn. On the other hand, they did cast Michael Dorn as one of their main regular aliens... but then, TOS Klingons were kind of a racial stereotype themselves, essentially Space Mongols.)
     
  15. SonicRanger

    SonicRanger Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    Well, for what it's worth, Memory Alpha states:

    "In the teleplay, however, only Lutan's guards were specifically written as being African. It was director Russ Mayberry's idea to make all the planet's occupants African. Disgusted by this decision and Mayberry's attitude towards the performers, Gene Roddenberry fired Mayberry late in production. The remainder of the episode was directed by an uncredited Les Landau."
     
  16. R. Star

    R. Star Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    Haha, glad to be of service. Some of those season 1 episodes, you just have to wonder "What were they thinking."

    Next week on TNG! After saving Tasha from the planet of black people, our crew boldly goes to the planet of scantily clad blond haired, blue eyed people known as the Arya-- I mean Edo!

    You just have to poke fun at things like this. ;)
     
  17. Trekker4747

    Trekker4747 Boldly going... Premium Member

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    They're clearly dark-skinned aliens who simply LOOK like humans. Hardly at all the first Trek "aliens" we've seen who were simply humans without even the simplest of makeup or appliances attached.
     
  18. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Apparently the source for that information is Wil Wheaton's review of the episode. But Wheaton himself presents it as hearsay:
    So it's certainly a story that's widely propagated on the Internet, but it doesn't seem to be proven. And it wouldn't be out of character for Roddenberry to try to pin a mistake on someone else after the fact by making up a story about them.
     
  19. SonicRanger

    SonicRanger Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    ^^^ Hence my "Well, for what it's worth..." preface for what is simply a wiki entry.
     
  20. SonicRanger

    SonicRanger Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    If we look at the TNG Companion, it states that Katharyn Powers and Michael Baron "initially tried to base the Ligonian 'honor is all' culture on that of the Japanese Samurai, using a reptilian race called the Tellisians."
     
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2012