Kobayashi: Dal vs. the No Win Scenario

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

Prodigy steps into the vacuum left by Discovery’s hiatus, and offers us a tantalizing glimpse into what might be the season’s endgame. However, what I liked most about the episode was how it used the Kobayashi Maru exam. The Maru has a long and storied history in Trek, first appearing in The Wrath of Khan and then playing a significant role in 2009’s Star Trek. Ostensibly, the test is about gauging how command officers react to a no-win scenario, but narratively, it existed to demonstrate Kirk’s amazing outside-of-the-box thinking. Kirk “wins” because he rejects the parameters of the test and rewrites them. Outside of that context, we never get a definitive answer as to what the Maru either measures for Starfleet or teaches as a lesson because the Maru exists as an antagonist. “Kobayashi” does something unique in Trek history because the Maru finally becomes a real teaching tool, and for the first time, the test seems to achieve a real outcome. Yes, the episode contains a world of awkward moments, but if for nothing else, “Kobayashi” should be watched because it adds a much-needed dimension of nuance to an important piece of Trek canon.

Plot Ahoy!

After the Protostar drops out of warp some 4000 light-years from where they entered it, Dal sits in his ready room, playing an awfully familiar game when Zero, Rok-tahk, and Jankom Pog all come in to tell him that they have decided that they would like to seek asylum with the Federation. Dal reacts badly and storms off ostensibly to find Murf who has discovered the Holodeck. Janeway demonstrates the holodeck’s capabilities to an awed duo, and Dal finds out about the Kobayashi Maru. Immediately, he decides to try and complete the test to demonstrate that he doesn’t need help from anyone, much less the Federation. He commands the computer to provide him with Starfleet’s best, and then, he proceeds to take the exam. Unsurprisingly, the Maru does not go as well as Dal thinks it will, and after more than fifty tries, he kicks Jankom Pog out of the holodeck and devises a scheme that very nearly succeeds. In the wake of his final failure, he has a heart-to-heart with Spock about needs and whose needs should be prioritized, and Dal realizes that he should listen to his own crew more in order to be a good captain.

In Sickbay, Gwyn wrestles with the reality that her father chose a ship over her, and surprisingly, Zero appears to offer some comfort. Gwyn wonders what use she has on the ship, but Zero reminds her that translation is more an act of interpretation than anything else. Gwyn’s abilities make her uniquely qualified to interpret better than the Universal Translator can. Gwyn relents and leaves her self-imposed exile in Sickbay, and she and Zero head to the protostar room in Engineering.

The episode then offers a flashback to the Diviner’s decision to create a progeny. It becomes very clear that the Diviner has sought the Protostar for years, but the effort has weakened him. He begs Dreadnok to create the progeny, and though Dreadnok protests on the basis of something called the Order, the murderbot relents. The Diviner exults in Gwyn’s birth, claiming that she will rise up and take his place.

Back in the present, Rok-Tahk searches for Murf who has swallowed some ordnance, which explodes inside him. He survives, seemingly unharmed.

Gwyn and Zero work with Janeway to glean more information about the protostar from the Protostar’s memory cores, but Janeway cannot access certain data. Gwyn and Zero dig into the actual programming, where Gwyn discovers an entire section written in her own language. She quotes her father’s line: “there is no barrier we cannot overcome, for we are Vau N’Akat.” The phrase unlocks the data, and the computer reveals a series of data fragments. These fragments will require some piecing together, but Pog believes they will be legible. The other item that Gwyn unlocks is a fragment of a distress call recorded by a Captain Chakotay of the Protostar.

Analysis

I mentioned above that the Kobayashi Maru has a long and storied history in Trek, but I’ve never believed that the test itself makes much sense. While I do believe that an organization like Starfleet would do well to test their candidate’s mettle in the face of likely or even inevitable death, I don’t know that the Kobayashi Maru quite does that nearly as well as the Bridge Officer’s Exam that Deanna Troi takes. The only real solution to the problem posed by the exam is for her to order her friend and colleague to his death, which seems to be a far, far better evaluation of what a commander is willing to do at the end than facing an entirely hopeless scenario. “Thine Own Self” clearly positions the test as a new take on the Kobayashi Maru, and the most interesting aspect of that is that Troi’s actual solution to the test is the point.

The Kobayashi Maru originated as a way to tell us something about Kirk in The Wrath of Khan, which is that he eschewed finding an in-universe solution to the Maru. He regarded the test itself as something to be beaten, not the scenario, so the Maru comes to symbolize his unique brand of strategizing. In 2009, the reboot film used the Maru exam as a way to emphasize Kirk’s refusal to accept defeat, which is a slightly different take on the concept. However, the film still focuses on how sidestepping the issue is a better solution than actually working within the exam’s parameters. Discovery also tackled the test as a concept, though only by alluding to it. Discovery tried to imbue the Maru with a greater and more interesting meaning, but most of those attempts can be boiled down into an exploration of what these characters do when there are no choices that do not carry with them disastrous consequences. The character confronted with the scenario must then choose the lesser of two evils, and that choice then tells us not only something about the character’s values but what values the show wishes to portray. This version of the Maru flirts with something similar yet just different enough for it to be exploring a very different nuance.

“Kobayashi” uses the test much more in the same vein as the Bridge Officer’s test because both Dal and Troi learn that command involves making hard choices. For Troi, that choice meant that she had to sacrifice her friend for the greater good of the ship, no matter the cost to her personally. That’s a lesson that makes sense and would be necessary for a command officer. As with Discovery’s metaphorical Kobayashi Maru, it’s about making the best choice in a bad situation. However, that’s not all it is because it teaches a valuable lesson about command. For Dal, the Kobayashi Maru does exactly the same thing. He asks for Starfleet’s best to crew his ship, and he gets Uhura, Spock, Dr. Crusher, and Odo, which would be fantastic resources. Dal being Dal, he never takes advantage of them, and as the scenarios progress, they lose faith in him, resulting in lower and lower leadership scores. It’s not until he watches Spock “save” him from death by Klingon that Dal begins to understand the necessity of relying on his crew, which has been a lesson the show has been asking him to learn since the first episode.

The Maru doesn’t stop there, either, because it also teaches Dal something about Starfleet values. Both Dal and Jankom Pog’s first impulse is to abandon the Kobayashi Maru to its destruction, but Dal’s holographic crew refuses. Odo would rather resign his commission than take that path. What the test teaches Dal here is that the Federation values life. It values doing the right thing, which represents a huge divergence from the governmental structures with which Dal has been familiar up to this point. Yes, Dal takes on the test because he has something to prove, but he learns a valuable lesson about putting the needs of others before his own, which is another thing Janeway has been trying to get through his thick, purple skull. The Kobayashi Maru teaches that lesson more effectively, giving the actual test itself a purpose it has never had.

I like that “Kobayashi” also gives Gwyn a place. She hasn’t been a member of the crew until Zero extends a hand to her, which is also a very Starfleet thing to do. You may remember Tuvok giving Lon Suder a chance at redemption, which pays off in “Basics, Part II.” That said, I am glad that we’re getting some movement on just what the Protostar was doing in the Delta Quadrant. While we’ve had some fantastic character development, I’d really like to get some answers on the season’s big questions. I’m also a little concerned about Chakotay’s fate, given the length of time the Diviner searched for the ship. It’s been at least seventeen years, and that doesn’t bode well for Captain Chakotay at all.

Rating:

Three crates of chimerium

  1. Okay, my real disappointment with this episode is that Spock’s side of the conversation with Dal makes exactly zero sense. It’s obviously pieced together from existing footage, which would be fine, but it doesn’t flow and just comes off as gibberish. I appreciate the nostalgia, but maybe this wasn’t the way to do it. I also dislike that Dal needed to get this lesson from Spock rather than Janeway because there are some uncomfortable implications there.
  2. I did appreciate that the computer selected TOS Uhura as some of Starfleet’s best. She deserves the respect.
  3. The game Dal plays at the beginning of the episode is the exact same game that Riker finds so addicting in “The Game,” in case the spheres and pipes seemed strangely familiar.

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