The Dark Catch in Star Trek and Elsewhere

This isn't normally a musing-about-Star-Trek sort of blog, but I've been enjoying the heck out of Star Trek lately, and last week's episode of Strange New Worlds was a new version of an old favorite, so that's got me musing. Spoilers ahead.

When I say "an" old favorite, I don't just mean a single episode of Star Trek. I mean several episodes of Star Trek and a few of Doctor Who, and more besides, because this is a story we've seen a lot, and I never mind seeing it again. The type goes like this: our heroes visit a society where they've solved one or more big societal problems. They've figured out:

  • Crime: Nobody does nobody wrong.
  • Want: Everybody can make it rain, so nobody needs to.
  • Sickness: Everybody's super healthy; no more disease.
  • Hunger: No child goes to bed with an empty tummy.
  • War: Good God, y'all!

And so on. Basically they've cured the Apocalypse of a horseman or some kind of horseman-wannabe. But there's a Dark Catch, some kind of cruel gimmick behind their miraculous achievement.

Many have cited the Ursula LeGuin story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" as the classic most directly comparable to this latest Trek, since they have a very similar Dark Catch: the suffering of a single child. Of course that's true. But really, the Dark Catch is just another variable. The point is always the broader one, about the the injustice that can lurk within any success, or privilege, or comfort. It could just as easily be about Amazon warehouse employees. Some examples of this story I recall offhand:

  • A Taste of Armageddon: Classic Trek in which two planets have solved war. The Dark Catch is that they've solved it by voluntarily mass-murdering their own citizens in response to computer simulations. But hey, nobody has to suffer unsightly rubble or bothersome explosions!
  • Justice: An early, cheesy TNG episode where, on the Planet of the Sexy Pajama People, they have solved crime. The Dark Catch is that they've solved it by making even minor infractions carry the death penalty. But sexy pajamas! Such thirst.
  • The Pirate Planet: Old-timey Doctor Who in the Tom Baker and Douglas Adams years, where the Doctor and Romana visit a peaceful world that has solved poverty. The Dark Catch involves the hollowed-out planet consuming entire worlds for wealth, but the fakeout villain is fun and has a robot rocket-parrot.
  • The Beast Below: A much later Doctor Who, where Matt Smith's doctor, and Amy Pond, visit the Starship UK, which is what the UK became when it solved that thing where your planet is being destroyed by solar flares. The Dark Catch is they survived by becoming an amnesiac police state who survive on the literal back of a kindly Space Whale who won't eat children, and they zap its brain with lasers to torture it into motion.

There are a lot more in both Star Trek and Doctor Who, as well as in the broader worlds of science fiction. Arguably even The Stepford Wives is an example, if "they've solved insufficiently subservient housewives" is a thing we want to type. Murdering them and replacing them with wifebots is definitely a Dark Catch.

The third interesting variable (past the thing they've solved and the Dark Catch they've solved it with) is how aware the society is, how consciously complicit. I included The Beast Below not because it's a great episode, really, but because it has an interesting take on that variable, where even the Queen chooses to have her own memory wiped rather than face the awfulness she perpetuates. Turning a blind eye to injustice, indeed! A Dark Catch within a Dark Catch.

In some tales, the society is utterly conscious and complicit (including last week's Star Trek, where they just ritualize, rationalize, and fetishize, and of course The Stepford Wives, where they're all a bunch of murderous slimeballs).

This formula is distinct, by the way, from ordinary "Place with a Dark Secret" stories where it's just about peril, with no examination of blindness to injustice. Nobody in The Cars That Ate Paris has solved any big social problem with their misdeeds ... they're just jerks and they don't even get to live in France.

Of course, the reason I'm musing about all this is that it's very gameable. Readers with long memories may recall my praise for A Love in Need, a Call of Cthulhu adventure that flips this problem on its ear, where society suffers random awful murders in order to preserve the sick child at the heart of things, and the child has no idea, totally innocent.

And then there's Toast of The Town. While I designed Toast to provide a detailed "worked example" of my style of adventure design, it's also my own little love-letter to this formula. The bustling mountain town of Trostig isn't anyone's idea of a utopia, and the PCs aren't introduced to the adventure by marveling over how the town solved a local plague with their trippy hippie healing oil, but at the core there's that classic case of people benefiting from a hidden injustice, where a group of stranded extradimensional people are basically held prisoner in an underground sweatshop bottling their almost-literal sweat to provide the wonder-product.

Which brings us to the fourth variable: whether Our Heroes are here to just observe the problem and feel crappy about it, or actually take steps to solve it. That's one of those points on which the latest Star Trek is kind of a downer, because they're not really in a position to solve the problem or even just save the child. In part, this descends from the third variable: since the society in Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach are absolutely aware of their Dark Catch and embrace it, and they're not part of the Federation, the Enterprise crew must simply face the awfulness.

It's still a crackerjack episode, especially for advancing Dr. M'Benga's personal subplot. But oh my god when he has to explain to his daughter where her fun new friend ended up ...

Just ... Ouch.