"I did it because I wanted to. It amused me."
Troi and an expendable lieutenant crash-land on a mysterious planet inhabited only by an equally mysterious living oil slick.
Obviously, there's one major talking point coming out of 'Skin of Evil', and that's the decision to kill off Tasha Yar in the same abrupt, brutal manner in which redshirts and expendable ensigns get slaughtered in their dozens every week. It's clear to see what the writers were going for here. Star Trek is forever being mocked for its treatment of the redshirts, so when one of the regular actresses wanted to leave, they decided to kill her off just as quickly and senselessly, to show that no one is safe and to give some weight to this episode's death-to-show-the-situation-is-serious. Plus in the real-life military, people are killed suddenly and senselessly all the time, and they wanted to reflect that on the show.
The thing that makes this a bit tricky, though, is that this isn't real life, nor even a fictionalised depiction of a real war. It's not that science fiction and fantasy should be escapist and less brutal than reality - I don't believe that, and it's always frustrating when the genre is dismissed as 'escapism'. But science fiction and fantasy stories are constructed narratives taking place in a hyper-real context. You wouldn't read an epic poem and expect Achilles or Agamemnon to be killed meaninglessly by a random Trojan - you expect heroes to get meaningful deaths that play a part in the larger narrative. And so it can be frustrating if a named, significant character is killed off apparently at random, because such a death breaks the unwritten rules of the genre in a rather depressing way - and this will be particularly frustrating if the character in question has been rather under-developed, as Yar was.
For me, in this particular case, Yar's death works because of Star Trek's history with redshirts - it makes sense that sometimes it will be a senior officer who bites it the minute they set foot on an alien planet, rather than an expendable ensign (they forgot to bring one in this case - a fatal mistake). But I can understand why it may not work for everyone, and it's a shame we never really got the chance to see Tasha Yar shine, not even in her death scene.
Of course when you look closely, Tasha does still get a lot more attention than your average redshirt. Picard beams up the entire away team as soon as she's hit, Crusher spends several minutes trying to revive her (that's several minutes more than any expendable ensign) and she gets an entire onscreen funeral. And while her death appears 'senseless', it is instrumental in helping Troi to understand the creature and how it functions, so it's not quite as meaningless as all those poor ensigns who get gunned down for no other reason than to show that the situation is serious. Picard and Crusher's actions stand in marked contrast to their usual reactions to all the poor ensigns, though the funeral makes sense - we simply don't see the funerals of characters we didn't know, presumably. It's also an effective scene and a sweet goodbye to the character.
Yar's death looms so large in the memory, it's easy to forget that the rest of this episode is really rather good as well. Yar is gone within the first 15 minutes, and the rest of the story is an interesting and fairly effective exploration of the nature of evil, as represented by the evil oil slick that killed Tasha. OK, it sounds silly when described that way, but honestly, Armus may look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but he's a genuinely interesting and completely irredeemable antagonist. It's also a strong episode for Troi, and Marina Sirtis does a great job portraying her professionalism and determination while also allowing her grief to show through, and her desperation when Armus is torturing Riker is well played.
The bulk of the episode may be over-shadowed by the first act, but as a whole, this is still one of season one's very best hours. It's a story about the dangers of life in the military, the perils of exploration and the implacability of evil that ends with Next Gen's first note of real melancholy. Yar's character may have gone too soon, but all the other regular characters are developed through their reactions to her death, and much as I don't like the idea that you need lots of death and 'darkness' to make good drama, the tragedy of it does make it feel like the show is growing up.
Bits and pieces
- The true tragedy is that we never got more of Worf and Yar bonding over martial arts.
- It's lucky that the people Tasha addressed by name in her goodbye speech were the exact people who attended her funeral. Quite apart from the fact Riker and Troi nearly died on the same mission, what if another friend or colleague turned up, only to be spurned in the speech? Ouch.
- Mr Lynch is Possibly Chief Engineer Of The Week. While baffling as a way to run a ship, it's kind of fun watching out for what each different Chief Engineer will be like in each episode. This one is extremely grumpy (though to be fair, that describes most of them).
- Mild expectation spoiler and discussion of the whole series coming up: I wish the show had created another main female character to replace Yar and come a little closer to some kind of balance in the gender split. I like Troi and Crusher, and later recurring female characters like Ro Laren and Guinan, but we're left with two regular women and five men, and both women are in, broadly speaking, 'caregiver' roles (doctor and counselor). Worf as Chief of Security makes sense, but couldn't they have added a regular, main character who was a female helmsman, science officer or engineer?
Hologram!Yar: It probably happened while I was on duty, and quickly, which is what I expected. Never forget I died doing exactly what I chose to do. What I want you to know is how much I loved my life, and those of you who shared it with me. You are my family.
Data: Sir, the purpose of this gathering confuses me.
Picard: Oh? How so?
Data: My thoughts are not for Tasha, but for myself. I keep thinking how empty it will feel without her presence. Did I miss the point?
Picard: No, you didn't, Data. You got it.
I'm not crying, it's just raining on my face. Four out of four evil oil slicks.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.