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The Trek Nation - Loud as a Whisper

Loud as a Whisper

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at November 2, 2007 - 8:58 PM GMT

See Also: 'Loud as a Whisper' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise is ordered to transport a legendary mediator to the Solais system, where two warring factions are ready to discuss a cease-fire. The senior officers are surprised to learn that Riva is both deaf and mute, communicating through a chorus of three people who communicate telepathically to express his thoughts and feelings aloud. Riva is attracted to Troi and in order to be alone with her, he uses some sign language as well as her innate empathic skills to speak. When the ship arrives at Solais, one of the planetary leaders who does not want to make peace fires a weapon at Riva. Riker is able to pull the mediator to safety, but the blast kills all three members of Riva's chorus. Back aboard the Enterprise, Riva becomes withdrawn and angry and refuses further dialogue even after Data learns sign language in order to facilitate communication. Troi convinces him that he should turn his loss into an advantage, and Riva decides that he will teach the warring factions sign language so that in learning to communicate with him, they will also learn to communicate with one another.


Analysis: "Loud as a Whisper" isn't a bad episode, but it leaves me as a viewer thinking about how much more it could have been with a slightly tighter script and slightly more inspired directing. The "infinite diversity in infinite combinations" theme comes across a bit heavy-handed, which is particularly odd given that the original Star Trek gave us an episode starring one of the actresses from this season's Next Generation - Diana Muldaur - playing a blind woman who uses technology so seamlessly to adapt to her difference that none of the main characters even suspect until the difference becomes a handicap to the task she wishes to perform, thus causing the doctor to mention it in front of the captain. In "Loud as a Whisper," both Picard and Riker seem taken aback at the idea of a deaf mediator who communicates differently than they do, even though they have a blind chief engineer whose range of vision with his VISOR so exceeds theirs that he opts to keep his own non-functioning eyes and the pain of his device rather than give up his technological advantage.

Riva is so famous that even Worf has heard of him ("Before Riva, there was no Klingon word for peace," Worf announces in aggrieved tones, though Worf was raised by humans and ostensibly knows little about Klingon tradition and lore). That the fact of his deafness and the need to feed, board and protect his chorus would have gone unmentioned, not only in stories of his accomplishments but in the Starfleet orders telling Picard to see to Riva's needs, strains credulity, and the long expository discussions just after he boards comes across both pedantic and defensive - if this man is such a legend, Picard and Riker should be effusive about getting this glimpse into how he operates. Despite the repetitive and rather dull introductions of the chorus members, we never get answers to obvious questions like what percentage of Riva's culture is deaf, why Riva learned sign language in the first place if he has always had a chorus, why Riva can't write down his thoughts instead of waiting for others to learn sign language and how he expects to teach without an interpreter for the initial days, when the warring factions won't be able to understand him at all even if he can sense their thoughts.

The actor playing Riva, Howie Seago, is deaf and I recall reading that he had asked the series' writers to produce an episode about deaf people to break down prejudices, but I'm not sure that this is the best vehicle to do so, for a couple of reasons. One is that it's very obvious to an audience when it's being lectured, and there's more than enough of that in this episode. The other is that creating a deaf-mute who can read thoughts magically is perpetuating an unhelpful stereotype - while it is certainly true that most deaf people can read lips, body language and other nonverbal signals with far greater adroitness than most hearing people, they can't be expected to know everything from a gesture or a glance. Maybe this is why Riva misreads his attacker, who ultimately kills his chorus, but because Picard and Riker regard Riva with some doubts in the first place, the end result is to make it appear that Riva is less gifted a judge of people than his reputation holds. (Kirk would have made a grand speech about interdependence, not left things to an angry romantic interest who just happens to be the ship's counselor.)

Just as frustrating is how non-dynamic Riva seems when others are translating for him. Maybe this was the director's choice, to have him hold still and use limited gestures to show his peaceful thought processes, or maybe the actor wanted a dramatic contrast with his later wild gesticulation when he must rely on sign language to communicate. But it just isn't entertaining to watch Riva, even during a romantic meal with Troi, while he's keeping his face in that tranquil mask. Whereas most ASL interpreters I've seen (at school functions and synagogue dinners - not just in the theater) are, in addition to the valuable function they perform, entertaining to watch. They exaggerate their gestures and facial expressions to make sure that their meaning is conveyed, not only in imperfect words and hand gestures, but via a full range of bodily movements. Peaceful telepathic Riva really slows down the first half of the episode.

There are some humorous moments, such as when the member of the chorus who has identified himself as speaking for Riva's libido announces an interest in seeing Troi alone, but those raise questions as well. Do the chorus members have independent lives apart from serving as translators? Is this a paid profession, a labor of love, or a form of slavery expected in their culture? Do the libido and the intellect ever sneak off to read literary erotica together while the wisdom soaks in a bubble bath? Riva tells his audience to accept these three as nothing more than his voices, since the entire ruling line of his culture is deaf, and it's a bit unnerving how readily everyone agrees. Maybe it's not Picard's place to interfere but I'd think he'd still make a few discreet inquiries about how this culture operates - for one thing, it likely has direct significance for why Riva is such an accomplished negotiator.

This is an episode I really want to like - I know several deaf fans to whom it is very significant - but I can't escape from the sense that I'm watching an after-school special (and not a very good one). Oh, to see Troi in a romance with chemistry; oh, to see Riker and Picard behave in character instead of in service to the story; and oh, to see an issue story where the issue is seamlessly woven into the plot.


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Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.