Required Materials: Star Trek: TNG, "Cause and Effect" $14.95 at
Optional Materials: Roland Barthes, S/Z $11.20 at
  Some text-based or web-based introduction to narratology and film  

THIS CLASS, ENGL 373 (Science Fiction and Fantasy) doubles for me as introduction to a number of theories. The allegorical and speculative nature of science fiction makes the genre a helpful tool in teaching students what are often quite difficult concepts. The students tend also to get a kick out of seeing to what extent the theories we analyze are actively having an effect on the genre (for example, the way shows like Star Trek and X-Files actively play with narrative and cinematic form in surprisingly self-conscious and self-reflexive ways). The speculative nature of what is sometimes called "speculative fiction" also gears students to think about applications of these ideas to the world around them.

To get students familiar with the distinction between story and discourse (often a difficult concept for them to grasp) as well as the distinction between the hermeneutic and proairetic codes, I examine a number of sci-fi examples that play with narrative form (and often with time and space). These exercises also allow students to get comfortable using film terms in analyzing works on screen. My first example tends usually to be the Star Trek: TNG episode, "Cause and Effect." As the title suggests, the entire show is an exploration of narrative form, of sequentiality, and of the relation between time and space. Like the lesson plan centered around Citizen Kane, this one is enjoyable since it poses a question that students are able to answer right away but which, when analyzed closely, actually has some rather important implications about narrative form. These sorts of time-loop shows tend also to be interesting as an introduction to Freud's concept of repetition compulsion (see below for the discussion of this point).

In the exercise, I show the first minutes of the show. What we see is an enterprise that appears to be partly on fire and in dire straits. Even as we hear Jean-Luc Picard ordering the crew to abandon ship, we see the Enterprise blow up, followed by the opening credits. (To see the clip, click here: 2.4 MB mpeg file, with a 35 sec. download time on DSL. Different browsers will handle the file in different ways; if you are taken to a different page, you can return to this page by hitting the back button on your browser; if the play-back is jumpy, allow the entire file to download to your browser window before playing the clip.) The question to ask is: what is wrong with this narrative? Why can't we stop here? What is interesting about this beginning? I then play excerpts from each of the next four sequences, each of which (except for the last one) more or less repeats the same sequence of events, ending with the destruction of the enterprise before commercial. It is worth showing at least some clips from each of the subsequent loops because each quasi-repetition of the same events is actually presented with significant discursive variations (the music gets more ominous, the angles become more severe, the cuts more frenetic, etc.). The story remains more or less the same, it's the discourse that changes. The exercise thus helps students understand a distinction that they often find difficult to grasp, and allows students to begin using film terms in discussiing visual works.

The following discussion occured on the second day of class. When possible, I have tried to mention the names of individual students who spoke in class in order to give a sense of the atmosphere in the class.

Synopsis of Class Discussion on Jan. 14, 1999
(for the original class, click here):

Today's class concerned itself with the issue of temporal sequentiality and, thus, with the concerns and parameters of narrative form. Science fiction often tests the limits of time and space (the elements of a diegetic universe) and, so, often raises questions about narrative. The Star Trek: TNG episode, "Cause and Effect," is a perfect example of how science fiction can help us better to understand how we order our lives on a day-to-day basis through narrative. I began by showing the opening scene of the episode and then asked students what is wrong or interesting about this beginning. Here is what they said:

The problem here, as Joe Garcia exclaimed, is that "it blew up!" The problem, in other words, is that we have an effect without a cause or, in yet other words (specifically those of Melissa Reimer), not enough is explained. We want to know WHY the enterprise is blowing up. What caused this disaster? Viewers and readers of narrative want explanations for the events presented to them. In short, we invoke what Roland Barthes terms "the hermeneutic code." We want the mystery solved. We also want to know what's going to happen next. Given the expectations of this t.v. series, in which only secondary characters (in non-command uniforms) ever die, we assume that the core crew must have survived and will be continuing the narrative after the commercial. In other words, we also invoke the other driving force of narrative that Roland Barthes has defined for us as the proairetic code. We might also expect a flashback at this point (termed an analepsis in narratology) since we have found ourselves in medias res or in the middle of things, as Sarah Robinson explained.

I then showed the next sequence, in which we are presented with a mundane day aboard the enterprise: some of the crew are playing cards, Geordi gets a headache, Dr. Crusher cuts some blooms before going to bed, the crew has a meeting about a boring scientific exploration, then the enterprise blows up again, followed by a commercial. Again, the question: what's wrong with this narrative? Of course, the problems are the same as before: there does not appear to be a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the mundane events we see and the explosion. None of the questions are answered. Instead, we are faced with more questions: what's causing Geordi's headache? What are those voices that Dr. Crusher seems to hear when she's trying to fall asleep? That is, the hermeneutic code is further invoked.

Eventually we learn that the Enterprise is, in fact, caught in a temporal loop, endlessly repeating the same sequence of apparently meaningless events, each time forgetting the events of the previous loop, although not entirely (a sense of déjà vu remains). Eventually, the crew gets such a sense of déjà vu that the gamblers in the opening scene are actually able to guess exactly which cards will be dealt out by Data, even though, in the first time loop we saw, he assured his friends that the cards were "sufficiently randomized" (following a friendly jibe from one of the players who accuses Data of "stacking the deck"). Eventually, the crew also figures out the meaning of the voices Dr. Crusher heard in her quarters. They are a slice out of time, with thousands of voices speaking about heterogenous things from throughout the Enterprise (ship operations, complaints, arguments, love-making, etc.). Out of these, Data is able to edit out three significant moments that re-construct the narrative of the Enterprise's destruction. To escape the loop, they attempt to send a message to Data from this loop into the next, a message that is likely to be interpreted by Data as perhaps little more than a subconscious irritation. In that next loop, after we witness yet another destruction of the Enterprise, everything seems to change. Although the gamblers once again think they can predict the cards that are to fall, Data instead deals out four "3s" in succession followed by four "three of a kinds." In fact, the number three continues to pop up throughout this loop until Data manages to save the Enterprise in the final scene when he realizes that the number 3 points to the proper course of action to escape destruction.

Throughout these loops, the class went to work interpreting the narrative. Before we got to those, I offered up an interpretation of my own, one which introduces a Freudian concept that will be of importance later in the course: what we seem to be seeing here is an enactment of Freud's theories about repetition compulsion. As Freud explains, traumatic events are usually followed not by an effort to forget the horror-filled events (as would seem to make sense) but, paradoxically, with the need to repeat them over and over until, as he says, our conscious minds are able to make sense of them, to "bind" them. (Think, for example, about war veterans returning home to nightmares in which they constantly relive the worst events of the war, or how, when you see a horror-filled film that disturbs you, you do not try to forget it but seek to relate the film to anyone you can get to listen.) Narrative is one of our primary tools for making sense of traumatic events. Indeed, as the Star Trek episode suggests and as many narratologists have argued, narratives are not really mimetic, (that is, "realistic") for this very reason. They do not present life as it actually happens in the real world, for life in the real world is often chaotic and meaningless, something like the slice of the real that Dr. Crusher hears in her room and that Data manages to record in the episode. Life works by chance, hence the reason for starting the show with a card game, as Craig Stalbaum pointed out. On the other hand, as Melissa Reimer and Jill Parks suggested, narrative tends, indeed, to stack the deck, unlike the "sufficiently randomized" events of quotidian life; in short, life is a gamble, narrative is not. The Enterprise, faced with a traumatic, meaningless destruction could be said to enact Freud's repetition compulsion, repeating the same events until enough meaning is imposed, represented by all the 3s that, as it turns out, Data has unconsciously made to appear throughout the ship in the final loop. Data's extraction of three significant sentences out of the "slice of the real" that the crew managed to record is itself a sort of narrative act. Narrative selects that which is significant in a diegetic world and presents these events to us in an ordered way. One narratologist who has illustrated the psychoanalytical dynamic of narrative form is Peter Brooks, in his influential work, Reading for the Plot.

Narrative does not, however, present us with events in a simple, chronological way, which is the narratological definition of story. Narratives tend discursively to re-order the chronological events of a story for various reasons (sometimes through analepses and prolepses). A detective story is a good example since the novel usually begins at the end of the "story"; the rest of the novel invokes the hermeneutic code in the effort to reconstruct the story of the murder. The story, in order words, is discursively re-organized and the full story can only be reconstructed at the very end of the narrative. The other aspect of discourse includes all the other ways that a text or a film presents a story to you: camera angles, camera movement, close-ups, music, etc.. We analyzed a number of different ways that the TNG episode used these discursive tricks to affect our interpretation of the story.

I also suggested that the show functions as a sort of deconstruction of narrative form and of the very medium of film. The show for example breaks down the latter to its consituent parts: sound (Data's recorded "slice of the real") and sight (Geordi's visor). The time loops function the same way: after all, is it not true that the show does repeat over and over, since we can always rewind the tape and watch it again. At times in the episode, it almost seems as if the characters begin to become conscious of their fictional nature. The scene in which Picard thinks he has already read a book he is reading is a good example: might there not also be a certain nudge from the writer of the episode about Picard's own fictional status. Such a move is a prototypical postmodern one. Think, for example, of Scream in which the characters seem to become concious of themselves as fictional characters stuck within the rules of a specific fictional genre, the horror film. The final episode of Seinfeld has a similar effect: to force the characters of the show to be put under trial is the same as forcing the purview of one generic form—comedy—to be valued by another genre, the judicial drama; the Seinfeld characters seem so befuddled in the episode because within the rules of comedy none of the otherwise objectionable actions they committed would be considered bad. The point of comedy is that actions do not have tragic consequences; Wile E. Coyote always gets up after falling off cliffs, for example.

Indeed, as different students pointed out, the show seems self-conscious about other aspects within the episode. Craig Stalbaum argued that Crusher's breaking of her glass may well be symbolic of the destruction of the enterprise that is about to occur. Crusher's cutting of orchid blooms may well be a nod to the prototypical metaphor for life's degenerescence: "ah, he was cut down in the bloom of life!" Think also of the phrase "nipped in the bud." Indeed, Vanessa Leamer pointed out how Dr. Crusher's expression of abject fear as she's about to cut the blooms in the final loop suggests just how much meaning this apparently innocuous event begins to take on. It's as if she fears cutting off her own life. Scott Seaman took this even further suggesting that the shears may be evocative of Atropos, one of the three Fates of classical mythology, which suggests just how much the TNG episode is concerned with issues of narrativized fate vs. chance. (See the image to the right; the Fate with the shears is Atropos.)





Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Lesson Plans for Narratology: Citizen Kane." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.[date of last update, which you can find on the home page]. Purdue U. [date you accessed the site]. <>.








Visits to the site since July 17, 2002