Season 3 of Star Trek: The Next Generation is probably my favorite season of that show. It introduced us to the awkward yet lovable character of Reginald Barclay, offered a proper sendoff to Tasha Yar after her embarrassing departure from the show in season 1, added a new dimension to the previously one-note Q, and, of course, gave us the greatest TV cliffhanger of all time in the form of “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1.”
Sandwiched in the middle of “Deja Q” and “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is a little episode entitled “A Matter of Perspective.” Star Trek is at its best when it takes a moral dilemma and shows us multiple sides of the issue so we can make our own value judgments on it. And “A Matter of Perspective” takes that concept literally by showing us multiple people’s takes on events leading up to a murder.
It’s never clear exactly what happened leading up to the murder itself, and that’s part of the brilliance of this episode. We want to believe one character’s side of the story because he’s a main cast member, but we can’t be absolutely certain he didn’t embellish to make himself look just a little more stalwart than he actually acted.
While this episode aired more than two decades ago, it has a lot to say about the supposed rape culture taking place on college campuses. Some people claim that between 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted while attending college – numbers that are insanely high and easy to debunk. But this supposed crisis has led to a lot of injustice, and I’d like to talk about it by walking through “A Matter of Perspective” and likening it to current events.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
At the start of the episode, Commander William Riker, First Officer of the Enterprise, is returning to the ship after an extended stay aboard a space station orbiting an alien planet. He was evaluating the material needs of a scientist named Dr. Apgar who’s working on a new type of radiation. As Riker is beamed back to the ship from the space station, there’s a mysterious power drain and suddenly the space station explodes, killing Dr. Apgar. Riker is unhurt and unaware that he nearly died in the explosion, as well.
Shortly after this disaster, an investigator from the planet arrives on the Enterprise and demands that Riker be turned over to him at once and taken to the planet for questioning and to be put on trial for the murder of Dr. Apgar. Captain Jean-Luc Picard objects that in Federation law a man is innocent until proven guilty. But the investigator responds that the murder took place in the non-Federation territory of the space station, and so the alien culture’s laws supersede the Federation’s. And in their jurisprudence, a man is guilty until proven innocent.
We can see this very thing playing out today in campus tribunals where a student accused of raping another student is forced to prove his innocence rather than the accuser proving his guilt. Some argue that due process is not required because universities are not making criminal charges or forcing students to serve jail time for offenses. They are simply deciding whether or not to discipline students, so it’s not required to presume that accused students are innocent until proven guilty. Doesn’t that sound a lot like the alien culture’s contention in the episode? It happened in our jurisdiction, so it falls under our rules. Even though Picard eventually finds the evidence against Riker lacking in substance and is mostly just hearsay and circumstantial evidence, he admits that there’s nothing he can do because he has to abide by the unfair rules the investigator is playing by. And that’s often the same situation innocent students who are falsely accused find themselves in.
He Said, She Said
Riker and Dr. Apgar’s wife submit detailed depositions of the events they witnessed leading up to Dr. Apgar’s death. Riker portrays himself as acting very professional and only wanting technical facts from the doctor. From his perspective, Mrs. Apgar started coming on to him almost immediately after she laid eyes on him. He claims that she tried to seduce him and kept him from leaving her room, even after he spurned her advances and told her he was tired and just wanted to sleep. Dr. Apgar found the two of them together, slapped his wife, and fell on his face after Riker dodged his blow. Riker then pled that this has all been a terrible mistake.
According to Mrs. Apgar’s testimony, however, it was Riker who acted sexually aggressive toward her and tried to seduce her, even after she tried to leave his presence. He apparently locked her in a room with him and tried to rape her. When Dr. Apgar found them together, he didn’t lay a finger on his wife, but Riker proceeded to assault him. Then Riker said that if the doctor were to report this incident he would be making a terrible mistake.
Riker’s words have been twisted to mean something completely different in her mind. But she has no concrete evidence to pin on Riker. It’s her word against Riker’s about these events. Her story certainly makes Riker look like the aggressor and her and her husband as helpless lambs heading to the slaughter. But is a scintillating story enough to convict a man of a heinous crime? Unfortunately, that does seem to be the case all too often in campus trials. Even if there’s not enough evidence for police to warrant bringing charges against a student accused of rape, a tribunal can still rule against him and give him a serious red flag on his permanent record that makes him untouchable to other universities.
The Truth as She Remembers It
Riker is dumbfounded after hearing Mrs. Apgar’s testimony. He tells Counselor Troi that he would never act the way that that woman claimed he had acted, and Troi believes him. But when he asks if Troi could tell that the woman was lying, using her Betazoid empathic ability, Troi responds that she couldn’t. Mrs. Apgar truly believed everything she said about Riker. Perhaps she had convinced herself of a lie or else she had seen the events through such a warped perception that she had no doubt Riker was guilty. Either way, her testimony was calculated to show herself in the best light possible and Riker in the role of the arrogant aggressor.
It is possible for a woman to willingly have sex with a man one night and then, after talking with friends or otherwise regretting her behavior, become convinced that she was actually raped. Replacing objective facts with subjective feelings is the basis of affirmative consent laws and low burden of proof, such as a preponderance of evidence rather than being beyond a reasonable doubt to convict someone of sexual assault. Even if a person is absolutely convinced that their version of events is true, it could still be objectively wrong. It’s polite to listen to and believe friends and family members who are going through a traumatic experience, but the legal system must remain an impartial judge in order to ensure justice is served to accused and accuser alike. Otherwise, simply being accused of a crime would be the same as being convicted of one.
Of Course He’s Innocent! But That Doesn’t Matter
As noted before, Picard is torn in regards to the evidence against Riker. He knows that the hearsay and lack of concrete evidence wouldn’t stand a chance of convicting Riker in a Federation court of law. But he must put his personal feelings aside and impartially declare that the so-called evidence against Riker warrants a trial under the aliens’ legal system. Troi is appalled by this. She and Picard agree that Riker is innocent, but there’s nothing they can do to prevent him from being punished for a crime they believe he didn’t commit.
Even if an accused student has evidence (in the form of texts, tweets, phone conversations, and witnesses) that he did not rape another student, he could still be found guilty by a tribunal. Evidence and testimony can be discarded if it’s not brought up during the discovery process, accusers can’t be cross-examined to see if their testimony stands up to scrutiny, and legal advisors must be silent during tribunal proceedings. Students are generally not acquainted with the whole process and what they must do to ensure they have a fair chance to present their case.
The Unresolved Issue
Thanks to a healthy dose of technobabble, the Enterprise crew is able to explain to the investigator that Riker did not murder Dr. Apgar. They prove that Dr. Apgar inadvertently killed himself while attempting to kill Riker with a beam of energy that caused the previously unexplained power drain and explosion. He wanted to silence Riker because he believed Riker was going to recommend the Federation cut off their support to Dr. Apgar because he was not being on the level with them about his research. Riker’s supposed sexual assault on his wife was just a red herring that served as a convenient distraction from the real issue.
But even after the charges are dropped against Riker, it doesn’t really resolve the other issue in this case. Did Riker attempt to rape Mrs. Apgar? She doesn’t press the issue and demand he be charged with that lesser crime after he’s proven not to have murdered her husband. She could still have a chance of getting Riker convicted under her planet’s warped legal system, especially since it would be a true “he said, she said” situation in which there would be no other evidence besides their testimony.
Perhaps she realized it would look petty to try to keep prosecuting Riker. But with or without another trial, Riker has no way to clear his name. His Starfleet personnel file will always be tainted by the fact that he was accused of murder and the motive behind it was suggested to be sexual assault on Mrs. Apgar. Riker cannot prove that the sexual assault allegation was false, since any physical evidence in the case was destroyed when the space station exploded.
Similarly, the Duke Lacrosse team members, University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, Paul Nungesser, and many other college men cleared of any wrongdoing in sexual assault cases still face social stigma simply for being accused of a crime they didn’t commit. There is no way to completely undo the damage to their reputations from a single false accusation.
Putting It Behind Him
Riker was able to leave Dr. Apgar’s planet and never return, stating that he just wants to put this whole ugly affair behind him. He still retains the respect and admiration of his fellow crewmembers. We earthbound folks aren’t quite so lucky. For example, if someone close to me, like my wife or one of my children, ever changed their mind about me and wanted to harm me, all they’d have to do is accuse me of assaulting them and I’d have a hard time proving that I didn’t. I don’t expect such a thing to ever happen, but the possibility remains. I’m sure Riker didn’t expect a seemingly routine mission to turn into a legal fight for his life.
I think everyone talking about the supposed rape culture on American college campuses should just calm down and think about what they’re saying. Do they really believe women are at a higher risk of rape at a university than they would be in South Africa? Or that accused students should be deprived of due process, setting a dangerous precedent? Or that the law should be subjectively, rather than objectively, enforced? I think those are dangerous ideas. Of course, that’s just a matter of my perspective.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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