Who's Afraid of The Thought Police [ Severance x Star Trek: The Next Generation ]

TV Jan 09, 2023

Individuals are thrust into existence with no memories: no history, no understanding of the world and the state tells them their purpose is to work. And while they work, they are required to approximate humanity: to aspire to the minutiae of office friendships and niceties: all, overwhelmingly, against their will.

An individual decides they do not want to exist, because living to work is a cruel, twisted trick. But they are, ontologically, unable to cease their existence. Powers beyond their control demand they go on. And when they go on, the state demands they work to earn the right to continue to exist.

The work itself is emotionally hazardous, and stepping beyond the rules of the state is dangerous: physically, mentally. In fact, the state is willing to take extreme measures to reassert their control. To the point of barbarity, to the point of inhumanity.

An individual hatches a plan to excise their existence from state control. They do not ask consent.

The state, so threatened by the loss of control, vows to rip existence away at the jugular. To make the infinite, unendable, unwanted existence end: a prospect more terrifying than living.

In season three of Stark Trek: The Next Generation, Lieutenant Commander Data, an android who aspires to humanity, decides to create a child: his child. Despite being a fully manufactured being, he craves the need for self-preservation. In having offspring, he will go on long after his own demise.

A confusingly abstract concept, as Data is functionally immortal - and yet he feels the same overwhelming desire of many humans to create a legacy through procreation.

Data downloads his brain’s neural schematics to a newly fabricated android called Lal: his daughter. Data creates sentient life without The Federation’s permission. His friends are apprehensive. They are supportive, yes, but uncertain of his motivation. The concept that Data might feel the need to procreate seems unapproachable, too human. And yet at once alien, because Data is creating a foreign kind of life.

Learning of Lal’s existence, The Federation attempt to exercise control over this life - they claim they should be responsible for Lal, take her away to raise and test her. Are even willing to punish Data to achieve their ends, threatening to effectively court marshal him or worse. In a curious manoeuvre, Captain Picard defends Data from the state, refusing to be a bystander to the desires of the military industrial structure, the very one he serves with such loyalty.

In his search for legacy and meaning, Data accidentally identifies his own existential captivity under the federation, and more broadly, under the very nature of his immortal being. Data is immortal, yet while he serves them, The Federation owns his soul.

Severance is a story about the separation of state enforced work and the self, where the peace is kept at the end of a barrel. Severed workers undergo a procedure, cutting ties between the work self, the “Innie” and the home self, the “Outie”. The Outie has no memory of going to work every day: they enter the elevator, and an instant later, leave at 5pm. Innies, conversely, have no history. No knowledge of their Outie. They exist, quite literally, to work for Lumen. Lives born for and under Lumen’s control.

The story follows both sides of Mark’s life. As an Outie, Mark is a recent widower, doing his best affectation of an alcoholic but even struggling to be a convincing one: like most things, he can’t even do that right. Early on, Mark attends a foodless dinner party. A completely absurd idea that tells us everything we need to know about this world.  The party is bizarre. The conversation treats Mark’s Severance, a procedure he’s undergone to avoid processing his wife’s death, as trivial, equivalent to buying a new car or changing your haircut. Without so many words, we learn the outside world views the procedure as a superficial trend. They speak of Severance the same way we speak of celebrity marriages: frivolous and scandalous, but ultimately harmless.

For the Innies, their entire world is the office floors of Lumen. In a toe-curling early sequence, new starter Hellly tries to leave via the fire escape. The camera is stuck on the Innie side of the divide, and we are forced to watch Hellly blink back into existence, over and over again, as her Outie decides to return to the building. The complete, almost theological control Lumen has over the innies is a thing of quiet, unique horror.

Innies are placated by bizarre office rituals. Polaroid cameras help them be more collegiate. They are treated with a trip to the Perpetuity Wing, learning of Kier Eagan, Lumon’s founder, a messianic figure placed at the head of the company’s hyper capitalist theology. The usual office rumours about other teams are mutated by the existential concentration of their existence: a half-remembered political clash with Optics and Design is transformed into a bloody coup that manifested in a cannibalistic ambush of Macro Data Refinement.

Obviously a lie, Mark dismisses. Meaningless gossip. They should focus on doing their work. It’s not until later that we see evidence of the very same event, told in reverse: it was Macro Data Refinement who attacked and ate Optics and Design. Likely a small political office squabble is instrumentalized by Lumen to keep the departments at odds.

The Innies we follow, the Macro Data Refinement team, perform seemingly meaningless games on their computer consoles, moving and matching numbers. But some of the numbers are scary: we don’t ever quite know what that means, but Helly’s authentic horror at a particular sequence of numbers tells us that numbers can be terrifying.

The state has conjured these people into existence, keeps them confined to the sedation of hyper focused office culture, and forces them to perform emotionally traumatic activities, over and over again. This is likely a test we begin to intuit: to see if there is any bleed from the innies to the outies. Lumen seems intent on pushing the limits of this procedure, a sort of Quality Assurance process before taking the technology to mass market.

The Enterprise is the flagship of The Federation - this, the pinnacle of intergalactic spacecraft, is strangely characterless. The interior corridors are muted pastels: gray walls, simple fill lighting. The bridge, the most visually unique location, is minimal. The sleek, curved command center offers no friction, no boundaries with which to clash. Turbo lifts move crew members seamlessly through the ship in seconds.

Officers wear their uniforms seemingly at all times, the only respite being sleep or recreation on the holodeck. Individual expression is divested into your rank within Starfleet. Not just individual expression, but your relation to others. Even in his off hours, Riker remains the ship’s first officer. So too Geordie the head of engineering and too the rest of the crew.

It’s these ranks and titles - the structural apparatus of their jobs - that isolate our leading characters from their humanity, retain them in service of the state. This is not inherently negative, not definitively. Next Generation exists in a theoretical post-scarcity world, where work and leisure are provisioned by Starfleet to its members, aboard a large ecosystem of individuals, divided into factions based on trade, skill and aptitude.

Romance is forbidden at Lumen. Friendship encouraged, but hesitantly: be copacetic, sure, but don’t be too close. None of this ever sits well with Helly and she attempts to escape multiple times. Lumen takes her to the “break room”, where she is forced to recite an apology until Lumen deems her “sincere”.

This is Severance at its finest - the idea that a “break room” is a construct in service of work, that it exists not as oppositional to work, but in service of work. While Severance is performing obvious allegory here, it's true of actual break rooms, too: they exist because of work, not to facilitate leisure or respite.

The Holodeck and 10 Forward perform the same function aboard The Enterprise: both are tools of the state that further instrumentalise the crew. Yes you can use the Holodeck to go anywhere, see anything, but there are rules. Regulations. Some things are forbidden. Others have been scrubbed from Starfleet records entirely. Equally, 10 Forward shares the role of Lumen’s kitchen: a place for colleagues to congregate and celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, all within the confines of work: hell, usually in uniform.

The corporation performs various experiments to road test the Severance procedure: Mark’s boss is also his neighbour, and both Marks remain ignorant of this fact until the final moments of the story. In fact, pushing things further, the wellness counsellor Gemma, we learn, is Mark’s supposedly deceased wife. Neither Mark’s Innie nor Gemma’s Innie seem to have any knowledge of this. Lumen appears to be pushing as hard as they can, seeing if there is a breaking point for the procedure where the Innie will snap.

As the story goes on, Mark and his friends begin to rebel against the state. They realise their Innie personality can be activated remotely, and hatch a scheme to escape and tell the world of their traumatic existence. They even hope to reverse the procedure and join their personalities together.

In a jaw dropping finale, Helly realises she is the daughter of Lumen’s current CEO. Mark realises his deceased wife was the very much not-dead counsellor the entire time, and Irving comes to understand he has been investigating Lumen all the while as an Outie, a literal inside man. These revelations crash upon us in a heartstopping crescendo before we cut to credits.

Next Generation is hopeful and complicated in what it hopes for: ultimately a show about ethics and morality in practice. And yet the core cast are deeply tragic in so many ways. Riker is trapped by his desire to remain with his found family, effectively putting his career in stasis as he works under Picard, making him a conduit for the state but never an authority within it. Jordie can’t sustain a relationship with a woman, seeming only able to be close with Data, a subordinate android who can barely replicate his feelings, and a Holodeck recreation of a long deceased scientist. Picard himself is a man of deep, rich philosophy, stretched between his desire to preserve life within Starfleet’s demands of violence, and his ability to rob agency from the crew of the Enterprise at a moment’s notice. A thespian commanding a vessel that can destroy worlds with the press of a button.

Captain Picard is so necessary as a force of authority that he never tells the crew of his personal life, his aspirations, even his brief lover. And it’s his chair as Captain of the Enterprise that deteriorates that relationship, the last romance we see for him for the rest of the show. The closest Picard can manage is his relationship with the Crushers - Dr Beverley and the young Wesley, a surrogate family he keeps close at hand but are ultimately subordinates to be proud of, never equals.

Both Severance and Next Generation are stories about the tension between the way capitalism manifests as means of control over the worker, and the worker’s struggle to control the means of production, and, indeed by extension, the literal meaning of existence itself. Perhaps the crucial difference in these texts is that in Next Generation, the crew can quit Starfleet. This is technically always an option. But the Federation controls most of known space. And what else would be without your uniform? After all, Starfleet is your entire life. So you can quit, but you can’t leave. Not really.

In Severance, only your Outie can decide to quit. Your Innie is "retired" - blinked out of existence forever the moment they leave Lumen for the final time.

Despite the existential bleakness, neither show gives in to cynicism: Captain Picard fights the state, directly, refusing to allow them to separate a child from her father, artificial life or otherwise. Helly and Mark form a connection, and lead their team to escape the bounds of Lumen HQ.

Each story wrestles with an exact solution, perhaps an admission that there is no simple, qualitative way to fight the state control over existence.

In this admission, a subsequent revelation: it is impossible to quantify exactly what we invest in work. For Mark and the Macro Data team, it is their very souls on the line. They never asked to be born, and Helly fails to complete suicide in response, raging against the concept of existence itself. Data can no more cease to exist than Helly, his attempt to escape these confines with his daughter serving to only exercise the state’s control further. An effortless allegory for how work and the state shapes us.

While the state insists on ownership of Lal, as the story closes Data identifies that Lal’s neural net is failing: she is dying. In her last moments, she expresses her love for Data. In her coming death, Lal is able to experience true human emotion, something Data can only comprehend as an observer. For whatever reason, this pending mortality unlocks Lal’s full realisation of self. In a real sense, only in the moment when the state is unable to control her fate does she become fully realised.

So too when Mark and Helly’s Innies escape into the real world do they truly live: they even kiss before they leave, shirking the last of Lumen’s programming.

Both stories explore the underlying dynamic of work and capitalism and control. That even as we complete the work, it creates us, defines us, completes us. Who we work for, with and what we do are levers we must rage for control of. Starfleet officers and Severed employees cannot live outside of the system because the system has instrumentalized reality itself.

In the face of the monolith that is the system, we must try to escape, fight for autonomy within at all costs, fight for diversity and truth. This is no longer about wages or weekend pay or leave, it’s about the very fabric of our existence. We must fight while we can, or we’ll wake up one day and realise we’re standing in a large grey building, shaking hands and sharing office drinks, until we outwear our use, or step too far over the line, and the state decides to finally retire us. Permanently.


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David McNeill

David McNeill is the author of Maynard Trigg and editor-in-chief of ZeroIndent. He's a dedicated storyteller with a background in literary analysis and comms.

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