Star Trek The Next Generation: Loud as a Whisper

"The time for killing is come to an end."

An unusual ambassador boards the Enterprise; when his interpreters are killed, however, the negotiations he's been drawn to deal with fall apart, and the crew must help the Ambassador find the inner strength to conquer his loss.

This is a pleasure of an episode to review for me. It's the only time, for example, that I've ever seen a Deaf person portrayed in a science fiction setting. It's also a relatively interesting take on it from a Deaf writer's perspective.

Let's look at the Ambassador himself. Riva is played by Howie Seago, a well-known actor in the Deaf community and last seen Shake-ing his speare in a festival in Oregon as a member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Company. Here, he plays an ambassador who travels with three interpreters, each communicating in situations requiring specific emotions. He is also a member of the royal family of his planet. Both of these situations are recognizably familiar to Deaf people. I've worked with American Sign Language interpreters trained for specific situations, and even on Earth there's examples of royal families with the Deaf gene (Saudi Arabia's got a couple, I believe.) Riva and his ambassadors, the Chorus, use telepathy for communication, an interesting wrinkle; this allows him to do something I can't in real life, which is maintain easy eye-contact with the people he speaks to.

Riva is who he is and proudly so. When asked about his Deaf status, he and his Chorus reply:
Picard: There are aspects to Riva of which we have not been informed.
Riva/Chorus: Precisely. Our way of communicating has developed over the centuries and it's one that I find quite harmonious.
Picard: Then Riva the mediator...
Riva/Chorus: Is deaf.
Picard: Deaf?
Riva/Chorus: Born, and hope to die.
He's introduced to the crew. He's excited to meet Geordi, who he seems to see as akin to himself, and accepts the VISOR with respect in his eyes. With difficulty, he manages to raise those eyes and meet Troi's. If you're a woman, you will likely have rolled your eyes after that last sentence. Honestly, the over- or under-sexed Deaf person is turning into a trope in literature. Here, Riva sees Troi and basically offers to be her Spandex uniform. Maybe the mind-reading excused the instant lust, but I think his eyes saw her before his mind did. I digress.

Riva's here to help the world of the Solari, which seem to have split into two warring factions that continue to war in a faction-like way. This part I liked the least: the world has no personality except for badly-patched armor and misfired weapons. Unfortunately during his initial visit to the planet we get an example of those weapons and, in an exciting but hilarious effect I've reviewed before, the Chorus gets deep-fried.

See? This is what happens when you save alien worlds. Stay home.
This is where the show gets interesting. Riva is dealing with inconsolable grief while the crew of the Enterprise is desperate to communicate with him. He's frustrated. The crew's pushiness kind of weirds me out. Hasn't the Enterprise crew had more sympathy for grieving people in the past?

In any case, Riva is working through pain and yelling at the crew to leave him alone. It results in some interesting interchanges. While Seago invents some signs for Riva, some are similar or identical to the American signs. He's clearly frustrated by the inability of the Enterprise crew to give him, say, a couple of hours or maybe, Q forbid, a day to get over the loss of close friends and co-workers he's known all his life:

"I'm tired of you hearing people! You don't understand me!"
The Enterprise crew is so focused on the "communication" part of Riva that they forget the whole "person" part. Pulaski is consulted and instead of talking about shock or something normal when someone's had a traumatic experience, she discusses the possibility of changing Riva, of "curing" his hearing (and isn't that totally against the Prime Directive? Or did the Prime Directive go out when differences in ability appeared?)

"No! Leave me alone!"
Riva sends them away, and they resort to getting Data to memorize something which looks nothing like the sign language Riva is using:

"Hmmm. Well, the hands are moving, so it just might work."
Riva tries to be polite, but it's clear Data is a poor version of the Chorus. Meanwhile, point and counterpoint, we take a look at a conversation between Pulaski and Geordi; Pulaski offers an experimental cure for Geordi's eyes, but reminds him it's a one shot: if he changes his mind later, he can't go back to the VISOR. Geordi is shaken - canon for the show says the VISOR is painful, annoying, but highly beneficial especially for an engineer. He's left to ponder his own uniqueness.

We head back to Riva. Troi solves the problem by accident. She goes in to speak with Riva privately, intent on taking over his role, and talk to him about... his techniques for diplomacy. Imagine that. She didn't even mention auditory treatment! She focused on him as a person and on the strategies he himself developed! And the result was that Riva, confronted with the loss of his role and the core of himself, began to recall the procedures and strategies he used to help groups reconcile in the past. He realizes he can turn his loss into an advantage: he'll force the desperate Solari-folk to learn his signed language; the common challenge might provide grounds for the two groups to learn about each other. In most cases, I'd be doubtful: here, I think there's actually a chance. The angry warring groups really do seem desperate, for fashion if not for a future. Riker, at the end, expresses concern about leaving Riva alone, but Riva almost laughs: he'll be fine.

You know he will.

Bits and Pieces

-- We held a watching party to check out this episode, with an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter and some Deaf people. The reactions were mixed. Few of us liked the initial message of dependency from Riva. But we all liked his characterization, the force of his personality (some of which was felt by Troi) and I think we admired his bravery at the end. The one off moment: why didn't Riva write a short message to the Enterprise crew asking them to give him a day or two to resolve his grief or something? I know, it's one of those obvious things that would take out most of the drama, and it's possible there's no paper and pen in the future, but surely the padds could do something?

-- On the other hand, as a telepathic race, his world might not have had a written language.

-- The death of the Chorus looked exactly like the death of the aliens in "Conspiracy".

-- How many times does a Deaf guy get to save the world on TV? Props.


Picard: But Data can understand you. Use him. Let him explain your words.
Riva/Data: When Data speaks for me, can you hear my anguish, my despair? Data is a fine machine, but he cannot take the place of my chorus. It took years to develop a communication. That cannot be easily replaced.

Data: I have eliminated all but five distinct forms of signing. I will learn them all. Computer, show me gestural language designation M-9.
Worf: Interesting. A technique of communication which is both silent and covert. It could be very useful.
Data: The use of gestures and hand signals predates the spoken word in most cultures. The major exception being the Leyrons of Malkus Nine who actually developed a written language first.


I actually loved this! I thought the Deaf Power stuff from Riva was slightly out of place but I welcomed seeing it on any media at all anywhere. As a Star Trek episode, though, I thought it fell flat. Picard should have yelled at Pulaski for her eagerness to violate the Prime Directive for medical knowledge. Riker and Worf were basically useless throughout the episode.

Three out of four Superphasers.


Billie Doux said...

I enjoyed rewatching this one. I liked the idea of the three different interpreters. I noticed that the handsome guy got to do the romantic interpretation for Riva. :) One detail I particularly liked was that the interpreters had white costumes but each was detailed and unique. Nice touch.

I had a similar reaction when Riva was unable to communicate in some sort of written form, because any culture as advanced as his would have to have a reliable way to physically record knowledge, or they *wouldn't* advance. (Human advancement sped up after the printing press.) Riva immediately pursuing Troi also made me uncomfortable; it seemed out of character. And when Picard left Riva on the planet and he was just standing there waiting, I thought, um, does he have food, water, a place to sleep? Is there a nice hotel nearby in that stony outcropping in the middle of nowhere? :)

Excellent review, Joseph. What a fun read.

drnanamom said...

I enjoyed the episode more than most recently. It was an interesting concept and I agree props to someone who is deaf saving the world. The scene I found uncomfortable was Picard yelling at Riva, which is a somewhat common, ignorant response to people who are deaf. I would have hoped that he, future type Renaissance man that he is, would know better. Thanks for the fun review Joseph and I'm sure there's a Bedrock hotel just around the corner Billie.

JRS said...

Billie -

I love writing for this site! People lead me to new points even unintentionally.

In the "real" world, ASL interpreters almost always wear black or dark colors. I think you caught that the producers were playing with that fact!

Drnananmom - yep - I felt Picard was really thrown by someone being Deaf for some reason. Often, people who put a lot of their personal "power" into speaking verbally tend to have that reaction.


Josie Kafka said...

Often, people who put a lot of their personal "power" into speaking verbally tend to have that reaction.

I've never seen this episode, or even any episode, but now I'm tantalized by what my own personal, interactive-with-others power might be (in the way that you mean, which I've never thought about before). Hmm...

Don G. said...

Nice review -- I haven't seen that episode for a LONG time -- maybe not since it first aired.

I'd have liked to see some more discussion/analysis of the crew's "pushiness" -- Seems to me it's a fairly common thing for Hearing people -- Deaf people's feelings are typically disregarded, but since they NEED this particular Deaf person for something, they try to force him into some mold or force him to communicate their way or something -- I haven't quite articulated what I mean or am thinking on this, but it does strke me somehow.

As for Data's signing/interpretation, well.... Mandela Interpreter, anybody?

Interpretopia said...

Great review! I really want to watch this episode again. I thought the corpus that Data used to speed-learn sign language was interesting. It only showed handshapes, no dynamic pictures/references or facial expressions. At the same time, they references varying sign language, recognizing that there isn't just one intergalactic sign system.