The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 7

I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation as a child. It’s a TV show that left a powerful mark on me, so it is a great pleasure to go over this series. According to the A.V. Club‘s article, “Beam me up: A beginner’s guide to the Star Trek franchise“:

Thanks to Star Trek’s growing popularity, Roddenberry and Paramount Pictures made the unprecedented decision to reboot the series as a brand new TV show.Star Trek: The Next Generation (also known as TNG or The Next Gen) debuted in 1987 and marked the beginning of almost two decades of Trek on TV. Set in the 24th century, 100 years after the original, the show followed a brand new crew aboard the Enterprise. Where TOS focused on space adventures, TNG emphasized negotiations, diplomacy, and headier storytelling. To alleviate the redshirt jokes, commanders on this Enterprise now wore red while security and engineering wore gold (doctors stayed in blue). Replacing the macho Captain Kirk was the more thoughtful, philosophical Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). Stewart quickly became TNG’s secret weapon and his Shakespearean gravitas single-handedly elevated the quality of episodes like “Tapestry” and “Chain Of Command.” The often-austere Picard kept his crew at an emotional distance, yet his love of history and literature and his occasionally cheeky sense of humor gave the character a softness.

The Next Generation reimagined Enterprise as a family ship and focused as much on its characters’ personal lives as on their professional duties (a trend future shows would also incorporate). This new crew included bold First Officer William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes), no-nonsense Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and her boy-genius son Wesley (Wil Wheaton, in a role generally disparaged by fans). The bridge briefly featured two women: empathetic Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) and Security Officer Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), although the latter became only a guest player after the show’s first season. In another important bit of representation, LeVar Burton portrayed the show’s blind engineer, Geordi La Forge. Spock’s outsider role was pushed even further with the character of Data (Brent Spiner), an android crew member with Pinocchio-like aspirations of being human. Over the past 100 years the Klingons had become Federation allies and Chief Of Security Worf (Michael Dorn) is the first Klingon in Starfleet (sporting the dramatically modified forehead ridges introduced in the Star Trek films). Whoopi Goldberg had been so inspired by Nichelle Nichols in the original that she requested a role on The Next Generation and wound up as bartender Guinan, memorable both for her solid advice and strange hats.

Initially, Roddenberry refused to let his writers create conflict among the main cast, perhaps too caught up in maintaining the first series’ beloved optimism. While he had been crucial to the show’s creation, illness largely diminished his hands-on involvement after the first season. Roddenberry died in 1991, leaving the franchise in the hands of Rick Berman, a practical executive who lacked Roddenberry’s vision. Instead it was writers like Michael Piller, Ronald D. Moore (who would eventually go on to write Battlestar Galactica), Ira Steven Behr, Brannon Braga, and Jeri Taylor who convinced Berman to accept darker storylines and more compelling character arcs. Taylor, in particular, pushed for better stories for the show’s female characters. This pool of writers (who would go on to spearhead the rest of the Trek series) lifted The Next Generation to its greatest heights.

While there are episodes to recommend in the first few seasons—notably the Data-centric “Measure Of A Man”—The Next Generation firmly hits its stride in its third season finale, “The Best Of Both Worlds,” which ended the show on a massive cliffhanger not resolved until the start of season four. Along with the subsequent character drama, “Family,” those three hours highlight the breadth of what The Next Generation can do. This new iteration of Star Trek continued to use sci-fi as social allegory, most notably in “The Outcast,” a metaphorical exploration of the persecution of the gay community. (An interesting but imperfect hour, it’s mostly a reminder that Star Trek’s dedication to diversity never extended to an LGBT Starfleet officer.) A new invention called the holodeck—an entertainment suite that can project images— became a popular tool for themed episodes (Westerns, film noir mysteries, Sherlock Holmes stories) as well as a common source of disaster.

The show’s strongest hours are “The Inner Light” and “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” but those play better with a familiarity with the show’s characters and world. Potential entry points that offer satisfying, but not mold-breaking, stories include the time-travel mysteries of “Cause And Effect” and “Clues,” the action romp “Disaster,” the lighthearted “Data’s Day,” and the stellar “Darmok.” TOS fans can see DeForest Kelley in the ambitious but flawed pilot, “Encounter At Farpoint,” James Doohan in “Relics,” and Leonard Nimoy in “Unification”—a two-parter that marked the series’ 25th anniversary.

The Next Generation ran seven seasons before ending in 1994 with one of the most satisfying series finales in TV history (“All Good Things”). The Original Series andThe Next Generation remain the most popular series in the franchise and the most “essential” viewing for Star Trek fans. Yet TNG’s finale wasn’t the end of Trek on TV. By 1994 another series was about to start its third season.

It has always been immensely wonderful to rewatch old episodes of this series, as the philosophy was proven to be quite compelling. According to Claremont.org‘s article, “The Politics Of Star Trek” under Next Generation Nihilism:

This moral weariness highlighted the moral disarray into which the franchise had fallen. By 1987, when the new Enterprise was being launched on the new series Star Trek: The Next Generation, the liberal landscape had changed. The show premiered a year after feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding referred to Newton’s Principia as a “rape manual,” and a year before Jesse Jackson led Stanford student protesters chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!” The Kennedy-esque anti-Communist in the White House was now Ronald Reagan, a former Democrat and union leader who thought the party had left him.

Next Generation’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) was more committed to coexistence and non-intervention than to universal liberty and anti-totalitarianism. Following Spock’s lead, Picard would elevate the Prime Directive into a morally obtuse dogma and would seek ways to evade the responsibility of moral judgment. Time and again, the show featured false equivalency on a grand scale, coupled with the hands-off attitude that the Kirk of “The Apple” had dismissed as complicity with evil.

Consider the episode “Redemption.” Picard has overseen the installation of Gowron as chief of the Klingon Empire, a decision that, though unorthodox, follows Klingon law. The empire, now humanity’s ally, had invited Picard to judge the leadership controversy, and the Enterprise’s Klingon crewman, Mr. Worf (Michael Dorn), has even resigned to join Gowron’s crew. But at just this moment, rivals to the throne revolt and attack Gowron’s ship in full view of the Enterprise. In Star Trek VI, Kirk nearly gave his life trying to prevent the assassination of the Klingon chancellor, but Picard, rather than defend the lawful leader of an ally against a revolt of which he had been forewarned—and which takes place in his presence—chooses to abandon Gowron, and his friend and shipmate Worf. He orders the Enterprise to withdraw, rather than be drawn into a battle his own actions helped precipitate. If that were not enough, Gowron—who manages to survive this fickleness—requests aid against the rebels, whom they all know to have been collaborating with the Romulans, deadly enemies of both the Klingons and humans. Yet Picard again refuses, citing the non-interference directive that Gowron has already waived by requesting assistance. Picard, the Klingons learn, is not a very valuable friend.

What accounts for this incoherent foreign policy? Nothing less than Picard’s commitment to non-commitment. He represents a new, non-judgmental liberalism far shallower than that embraced in Roddenberry’s era. Where Kirk pursues justice, Picard avoids conflict. Just as Kirk’s devotion to universal principles goes deeper than politics, so does Picard’s sentimentalism. When it comes to the universe of real suffering, real need, and a real search for truth, he is content not to decide, not to take responsibility, and not to know.

 

The Best:

Interface, Phantasms, Parallels, The Pegasus, Lower Decks, Masks, Journey’s End, Bloodlines, Emergence, Preemptive Strike, and All Good Things…

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In brief pieces:

  • Although Interface has it’s flaws, I really like Geordi’s story here;
  • Phantasms features Data delving into dreaming, with interesting results;
  • Parallels is a great alternate reality episode;
  • I really liked The Pegasus for delving into Riker’s past
  • Lower Decks was great in depicting lower-ranking officers within the show in a serious context;
  • Masks features the premise of finding the lost Library of Alexandria;
  • Journey’s End features the return of Wesley Crusher, and the Traveler;
  • Bloodlines is a sequel to the first season episode, The Battle, with the addition of Picard’s estanaged son, Jason Vigo;
  • Emergence has always been one of the more interesting episodes, combining AI with the holodeck;
  • Preemptive Strike features the developing story of the Maquis, and the final episode featuring Ensign Ro Laren;
  • All Good Things… is certainly a series finale worth watching. I am particular to rewatching it an awful lot because of my enjoyment of time travel stories.

According to the A.V. Club review of Interface:

I got excited seeing Ben Vereen’s name in the opening credits for “Interface.” Vereen is a terrific actor—a little crazed if he doesn’t have strong direction, but brilliantly talented and unique—and I was curious to see what kind of energy he’d bring to the show. I was even more interested when I realized Vereen was going to be playing Geordi’s dad. The story was, in part, driven by Geordi’s concerns over his missing mother, and maybe there was going to be some estrangement or difficulty between him and Vereen that the two would have to overcome together to deal with the disappearance. Maybe halfway through the episode, Geordi talks with his dad via Future Skype. It’s a bit awkward, as La Forge Sr. has already given Mom up for dead, and Geordi isn’t ready to let go. Not a terrible scene, but there isn’t much to it; and that’s the only appearance Vereen makes. In fact, its his only appearance (so far as I can tell) in the entire franchise. I suppose he might not be quite as big a star to the rest of the world as he is to me (although surely everyone has seen him in All That Jazz?), but it seems like a waste. Much like everything else about this episode.

We’re into season seven now, no turning back. That’s over twice the number of seasons as the original Trek, and the stretch marks are starting to show. Seven seasons is an impressive number for any series, and however bad this end run gets, I’m going to leave TNG with a favorable impression on the whole. But man, if “Interface” is the mean for what’s to come, I’m not looking forward to the next couple of months. This was by turns boring, poorly constructed, and frustrating, a hodgepodge of half-considered ideas tossed together in an ill-advised hope that they might add up to more than the sum of their parts. It takes on a major issue—the potential loss of Geordi’s mom—and thoroughly bungles the delivery, treating behavior which in any other episode would be rewarded (i.e. Geordi’s refusal to believe that his mom is gone for good) as unstable, and throwing some magical aliens into the mix just to make everything worse. We’re not quite in the dregs of the first season here, as the episode isn’t badly acted, and characters behave roughly as they usually do, but man. This was a whole lot of not good.

To begin with, the level of coincidence required to make the story possible is a bit of a stretch. Geordi, Beverly, and Data are testing out a new virtual reality-esque interface, via which Geordi can physically control a probe from a distance, allowing him to study close-hand problems that would be otherwise fatal to human beings. (I thought this is what Data was for?) The Enterprise is on its way to  check out what happened to the Raman, a science vessel currently trapped in the atmosphere of a gas giant, and Geordi plans to use the probe-suit to investigate the ship as directly as they can. It’s a little odd that, after so many years and God knows how many rescue missions, we get a mission that requires the use of a specific technology, and it just happens to be the episode that specific technology is first introduced, but it’s not like the show hasn’t played that card before. What really doesn’t work is that just as the Enterprise enters orbit around the gas giant, the word comes down that Geordi’s mother’s ship, the Hera, has vanished. Silva La Forge’s disappearance is what creates much of “Interface”’s dramatic tension, and it’s what ultimately puts Geordi in serious danger, when an alien race assumes the form of Geordi’s mom to try and get him to let them go. The heightened emotions of the situation make the interface process a highly unstable one—which means it’s awfully convenient for the episode that Geordi just happens to be hit with a crisis. And such a specific sort of crisis, too. His mom isn’t “dead,” she’s “vanished,” a plot hook that could have easily served as the foundation of an episode on its own.

And that’s another problem with this episode—the handling of Silva’s disappearance is unusual, and while it’s possible to view that unusual quality as a sign of the writers trying to take risks, it plays instead as sloppy storytelling. The Hera vanishes, and seemingly within hours, everyone is telling Geordi he needs to accept that she’s gone for good. There’s nothing wrong with drama that deals with the difficulties of overcoming grief, but the balance here is all wrong. Until “Silva” shows up on the Raman, Geordi seems like the sane one, and there’s something almost suspicious in the ease with which everyone—including the afore mentioned Vereen—is willing to let go. We’ve been trained by decades of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy stories on the principle that no body means no death, and while there’s a tale to tell that uses that need for closure to good purpose, “Interface” is not that story. Geordi’s grief and confusion are really just a means to an end, which makes his emotional responses throughout seem less a natural response to his situation, and more something that has been dictated by the needs of the story. That does a disservice to the character, and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to really care about anything that happens here. At the end of the hour, Geordi says that his experience with the magic shape-shifting aliens has allowed him to find closure regarding his mom’s probable death. Which is nice for him, but there’s no closure or catharsis for us, no transition from “Wait, her entire ship vanished? Leaving no trace? Okay, something has to be up with that,” to “Aww, she’s space vapor.” As far as I can tell, the issue is never resolved, and it’s not some sort of “Pine Barrens”-esque commentary on the essential mystery of life. It’s basically just half-assed. (If I had to guess, I’d say Silva’s hotshot engineer pulled something that destroyed the ship, but what’s bizarre is the cavalier attitude everyone has towards a vanished-without-a-trace starship. Any other time this happened, the Enterprise would be investigating. Here, it’s treated like this sort of thing happens every week.)

Then there’s the aliens. When Geordi uses the probe-suit to project his mind on-board the Raman, he finds a damaged ship full of corpses—and then Silva shows up. She tells Geordi he needs to bring the Raman down to the surface of the planet somehow, claiming that the Hera is down there, and Geordi believes her. He spends most of the episode believing her, and doing his best to explain to everyone else how her ship could’ve somehow teleported itself onto a planet where the atmospheric pressure would easily be enough to crush its hull. At least in these conversations, Geordi comes across as actually off-kilter, as opposed to the other points in the episode where we’re simply told he’s being unreasonable. It’s silly, and it’s the sort of silly that could’ve maybe worked if they put a little more effort into making it work. All you’d have to do is make “Silva”’s story just a little more plausible. Like, have her claim her crew is trapped on the gas planet instead of saying her whole ship. Sure, the idea is that the alien pretending to be Silva is just pulling things off the surface of Geordi’s mind, and that Geordi is so desperate for some sign of his mom that he’ll believe it, but in order for the episode to work, I think we need to be able to believe it too. At least at first. This isn’t “Interface”’s worst crime, but it’s such a needless one that it’s hard to accept.

Turns out, the aliens are the reason everyone on board the Raman is dead. Oh, they’re nice aliens to be sure, but they tried to communicate with the ship’s crew in the same way they communicate with Geordi-in-a-Probe, and that killed ’em. For some reason. Now they’re trapped on board the Raman, and they’re dying, and they need to get back to the planet. So that’s enough to give us some conflict—only thing is, that’s all we get. These aren’t sentient beings, they’re a plot device, as nakedly anonymous as they come. Everything about them is convenient to the needs of the episode and nothing else. Which is not a first for TNG (or Trek in general), but I’d be more willing to accept this if it was in the service of a story that actually earned a level of expedience. Here, we have mind-reading aliens to exploit Geordi’s grief; and we have Geordi’s grief to make sure the interface with the probe becomes dangerous, and that’s as far as it goes. Once you clear away all the interference, there’s barely anything left.

There are other complaints. The virtual-reality probe system is pretty ridiculous—I’m not sure why it’s necessary for Geordi to be fully immersed in the system, in a body suit and everything (when we see the probe, it’s basically a floating trash can), and I certainly don’t understand the physics that go into a system that can create physical burns on its users hands simply because he’s really feeling it. (Maybe the aliens psychic powers caused it? Sure, let’s go with that.) And there is some good here as well, mostly in the interactions between Geordi and Data. It’s also great to see Geordi getting reprimanded for his behavior here—he’s irresponsible and directly disobeys Picard, and at least this doesn’t just get swept under the rug. Still, that doesn’t go very far. This is a weak effort, and while it’s possible to imagine various elements making for good television, the way they’re combined here mostly makes for a tedious, unrewarding hour.

According to the A.V. Club review of Phantasms:

Every show has a line it can’t cross. Like most simple declarative sentences, that’s something of a simplification, because most shows have a lot of lines they can’t cross. In fact, series are defined as much by what they can’t be as by what they are, and as time goes on, the more the former category begins to solidify. In the first season of TNG (I know, I don’t like thinking about that anymore than you do, but I’ll try and make this quick), if the series’ creative team had decided to question Data’s programming more, if they’d wanted to make him substantially more ambiguous as well as a potential threat to the crew, they could’ve done that. I’m not sure it would’ve worked artistically, especially given how much that season feels like a lot of flailing with very little forward motion, but it wouldn’t have been violating any promise the show had already made to its audience. The ensemble was still in the process of being defined. Data could’ve had more sinister intentions; Riker could’ve been sent by Starfleet to keep an eye on Picard; Wesley Crusher could’ve been an alien who’d taken the place of Beverly’s real son. Everything was up for grabs.

Now? Not so much. Really, about as far from that as you can imagine, because it’s been a few years, and one of TNG’s big pulls now is that it tells stories about people we like to think we know. Yes, those people are all made up and don’t really exist beyond the illusion of dialogue and costume and performance, but that illusion has been going on for long enough that it feels as close to solid as it ever will. When I sit down to a new episode, I don’t know exactly what to expect story-wise, but I do know that Picard and the rest of the ensemble are going to behave in a fashion logically consistent with everything that’s come before. If Picard suddenly goes psychotic, well, I’d have a hard time believing it unless I had a really good reason for doing so. And if Data suddenly up and stabs Troi in the lift, I’m going to need enough justification to straight the Leaning Tower of Pisa. (Too silly? Yeah. I worked on that one for a bit, but… yeah.)

“Phantasms” comes very close to screwing that particular pooch, but while I think it does bend one of the show’s defining lines about as far as it can go, the rest of the episode is strong enough that I’m willing to overlook it. Data’s dreaming again, only now, for the first time in his life, he’s experiencing nightmares. And what nightmares! I’m a sucker for dream imagery (I think I’m one of the only people who really loved the first half of The Sopranos’ sixth season), and the stuff we see here is top-notch, as deeply creepy as anything we’ve ever seen on the show before. Nearly everything we see turns out to be directly symbolic of some experience or danger in Data’s real life, but where in other shows (or movies) that would make the experience too literal, here, it makes sense. Data is, after all, a machine, running a program, and that program is only able to translate events into dream logic to a certain point. So we get “cellular-peptide cake” as a stand in for actual cellular peptide, and we get 19th-century coal miners as stand-ins for the invisible insects currently devouring every member of the Enterprise crew. Which is actually quite creative, come to think of it. Data should be proud.

Most of “Phantasms” revolves around two mysteries, which, as is often the case with such things, turn out to be one mystery. The Enterprise has a new warp coil, but whenever Geordi tries to get the thing up and running, it dies almost immediately. Despite his best efforts, he can’t figure out the problem, and he’s dodging the attentions of a new ensign who has a crush on him. (It’s fun to see Geordi on the opposite end of unhealthy obsession, although I’m not sure what this adds to the rest of the episode. Ensign Tyler gets to be moderately helpful once, leading Picard away from Engineering when the captain decides to take a more hands-on approach, and then she disappears. Maybe Levar Burton just really wanted his character to be a smooth operator for once.) While Geordi sweats over a proverbial cold stove, and Picard makes his apologies for being late to an admiral’s banquet he’d rather miss, Data starts having nightmares, and he doesn’t know why. Which is the episode’s other mystery, and by far the more interesting of the two.

TNG isn’t a fantasy show, in that it needs slightly more grounding than “Magic!” as explanation for the seemingly inexplicable. It doesn’t always succeed in this, mind you, and I’m not really trying to get into a sci-fi/fantasy debate; all I mean is, “Phantasms” is the sort of episode that uses an ostensibly natural phenomenon—in this case, those invisible bugs which came in with the ship’s new warp coil and proceeded to infest every deck and crew-member—as justification for all kinds of craziness. You combine the bugs with Data’s dream program, you get nightmares. Where, exactly, those nightmares come from is something the show leaves unexplained, although the fact they’re intended as a warning which Data doesn’t immediately understand suggests he has some sort of functioning unconscious mind. Although when you think about it, while the nightmares would be helpful in a human being (who wouldn’t have nearly as total access to his mind as Data does), in Data, they’re a curious sort of malfunction. If Data is able to perceive the creatures infesting the Enterprise, wouldn’t it be easier for him to just realize he’s perceiving them? Either he has to become less efficient to be more human, or else realizing the creatures are on board requires a level of intuition that he’s not normally capable of.

I’m wiling to give the episode the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re going for the latter case (although really, I’d be just as interested in a storyline with Data realizing that imperfection is part of being human), even if I’m not quite sure how that would work. “Invisible bugs” isn’t the deduction of the century, and the amount Data knows about them in his dream—where the bugs are biting Troi, Riker, and Geordi; that they’re eating cellular peptide; that they’re going for the warp core; and that Data’s brain can emit a pulse that can destroy the lot of them—seems like it should’ve been information that he could’ve put together without the need for an unconscious mind. But, again, I’ll accept it, because it’s freaky and fun and I enjoy it when the show dabbles in a bit of Lynchian horror. And it brings us to a terrific scene in which Picard and Geordi, having realized that Data’s nightmares might be the key to the problem, use the Holodeck to experience a Data dream alongside him. While this is significantly less unsettling than when Data walked through his dreams alone (mainly because we know that Picard and Geordi are safe in a way dream-Data wasn’t; hell, dream-Data got torn to pieces by the miners, in a moment that probably gave 10-year-olds country-wide fits), it’s such a cool, just-plausible-enough idea that it makes for a great climax to the episode.

The big problem here is, well, Data goes a bit mad. More than a bit, actually. He can’t stop thinking about his bad dreams, he starts experiencing those bad dreams while in a supposedly waking state, and then, he stabs Troi in a turbo-lift. Oh sure, he has his reasons. The part of his brain that understand what’s happening also knows that one of the bugs is gnawing on Troi’s shoulder, and he attempts to remove that bug the most direct way he can think of. But while it’s possible to come up with story and character reasons for the scene, it’s such a deeply disturbing moment that it throws everything else in the episode, and, for a moment, the whole show, out of whack. It exposes the dark side of the core of what Data is: a machine, and unlike The Pirates Of The Caribbean, when Data breaks down, he could eat the tourists. Yes, it’s possible for human beings to malfunction just like machines, and yes, accepting Data as a crewmember and sentient being means granting that he could possibly have bad days. And yes, what he does to Troi is, in the long view, a good thing. But—well, imagine if someone else in the crew did this. Imagine if it was Riker in the lift. It would still be creepy—especially considering their history—but it wouldn’t be as creepy. We could still trust Riker to go back to his usual self. Data, on the other hand… The episode is trying to capitalize on the horror of seeing our most trusted character behave like a psychopath (whatever his intentions), much in the same way “Descent” did, and once again, there’s no effort to deal with the consequences of his behavior.

Really, this could have been a better episode if it had either found some other way to accomplish what the turbo-lift scene accomplishes, or if it had been more thoughtful about the implications of that attack. But without those approaches, the scene sticks out like a sore thumb, scary in a way that isn’t fun—it’s too much like a something out of a slasher movie, and that’s not a kind of storytelling this show can support. In the end, the day is saved, the bugs (which are also really, really scary) are destroyed and Data and Troi are back to being friends again. They conclude the episode eating a Data-shaped cake, which is cute and all, but I can’t help wondering just comfortable Troi is when she hands Data that knife. She doesn’t flinch—but maybe she should have.

According to the A.V. Club review of Parallels:

The hardest part about starting a review—starting anything, really—is finding the opening line. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t even have to be all that good, but it does need to be something that helps you find a way into the rest of the article, or essay, or story. Sooner or later, I’ll figure something out, but whatever choice I make, I’ll be leaving something behind. Like: Worf has been well-served by TNG in the past, but almost exclusively in storylines that focused on his Klingon heritage. Or: Every great episode of television needs to have at least one unforgettable image, and the sight of a million Enterprises suddenly winking into existence in the same limited area of space is as unforgettably bizarre as anything the show has ever managed. Or: This comes as something of a shock—a week of two solid-to-excellent TNG episodes, and one of them even has a successful, if somewhat unexpected, romantic relationship. Or: We’re back to one of my favorite types of stories this week, something from the “mucking about with timelines” genre, and thankfully, we don’t have to deal with any irritating impersonations from iconic historical figures. (Can you imagine what Oscar Wilde would’ve looked like on this show?) Or I could just muck about with some meta-foolishness that people will assume is a technical error.

The point is, eventually I have to pick something. And when I do, that means all the choices I didn’t make will disappear forever. That’s life: a constant process of eliminating options. You have to wonder, though, what might have happened if you’d decided otherwise. As Data mentions in this episode, some scientists theorize that there’s a universe for each possible outcome of any given choice. It’s a daunting thought, and a little claustrophobic, but it makes you wonder, if it were possible to travel between all those universes, what might you see? What others of you are there out there, and how different would your life have gone if you had picked a different major in college (or if you’d gone to college at all); if you’d missed a phone call; if you’d opened a different door; if you’d gone left instead of right. Would you still be you, or are our presences in this world as much defined by what we have done as by what we have. “Parallels” is a fun, trippy bit of sci-fi that has Worf ricocheting through possibilities with little grasp of what’s happening to him. It has the good sense to take a great idea and push it to its logical extremes. The plotting leaves a little to be desired in the climax, but it’s a minor flaw, and the sight of Worf and Deanna Troi hooking up is not to be missed.

Worf has been away from the Enterprise on leave to compete in a (unsurprisingly violent) Klingon sport. Worf won the competition (“Several contestants were maimed, but I was triumphant.”), the victory has him in a good mood; unfortunately, it’s also his birthday, and he knows from experience this means that his co-workers and friends among the Enterprise crew are going to throw him a surprise party. This assumption proves correct, but during the party, Worf starts experiencing dizzy spells. Worse, every time he recovers from the dizziness, he finds elements in his environment have changed. At first the shifts are subtle: a painting moved to a different wall, people standing in different places, Picard being present after Riker informed Worf that Picard was unable to make it to the festivities. But as the days wear on, the changes become more extreme. Complicating matters, the Enterprise is currently investigating the malfunctioning Argus Array, locating near the borders of Federation space. Geordi and Data have reason to believe that the Romulans may have reprogrammed the array to spy on nearby outposts, which is bad enough, but then Worf has a dizzy spell and, suddenly, no one but Worf remembers hearing about the Romulans at all. The jumps keep coming, and the changes keep getting more extreme, until Worf shifts on the bridge into the middle of a battle with a Romulan ship. This time, even the Enterprise’s control panels have changed, enough so that Worf is unable to bring the shields up in time to prevent a Romulan hit.

So, clearly, this is more than just stress, or a concussion, or any other primarily medical cause. What makes the first half of “Parallels” so much fun to watch is how subtly the episode eases us into its premise. The first shift happens fairly early on, but it’s presented as a weird glitch, observed and then quickly forgotten. You suspect something must be up, since shows rarely have characters commenting on continuity errors for no reason, but there’s a long enough gap between the first few shifts that it becomes to doubt those suspicions. I’m not saying that I watched this episode and thought for a moment that it would turn into a low-key drama about Worf asking Troi to be Alexander’s godmother (sort of; it’s a Klingon concept), but I did appreciate “Parallels”’ patience in getting to the point. This makes it easier to empathize and even share Worf’s growing confusion. As outside viewers, well-trained in the cues and tropes of fiction, it’s easier for us to recognize that something’s happening, but by refusing to draw attention to the shifts beyond minor camera movement, the episode forces us to be more actively engaged in what’s going on. Plus, it also helps ground the fairly insane final act.

The second half of “Paralells” is fun because it’s a treat to see the different variations the show can put Worf through without ever fundamentally changing who he is, or his place on the Enterprise. This isn’t the sort of mirror-universe style storyline in which we get to see familiar faces cast in entirely different lights; Worf’s wild ride is more akin to something like Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory,” in which one small change (who goes for pizza?) leads to seven different iterations, with characters remaining consistent even while their situation does not. “Parallels” has more time to play with, and a larger area to play with, and the episode has fun with trying out different directions without having to bust out the agony booth. In this universe, Worf’s painting is on a different wall. In this universe, Worf and Troi are dating. One more dizzy spell, and now Worf is married to Troi. I’m not sure there’s a logical story reason for it (maybe the shifts are cumulative somehow, and each one brings him to a more substantially altered timeline than the last?), but each time Worf jumps to a different universe, the change is more drastic then before, building to the final shift in which Worf is First Officer, and Riker is captain of the Enterprise, having been officially promoted after Picard’s death during the Borg attack of “Best Of Both Worlds.” Oh, and Wesley’s hanging around, so that’s nice.

There are a number of small but effective dramatic moments in “Parallels”; on the whole, this is a nicely balanced episode, changing timelines enough to keep us disoriented, but still managing to find room for some effective emotional beats. The most obvious of those are the increasingly passionate exchanges between Worf and Troi: they begin the episode with Worf asking Troi to take a slightly largely role in his son’s life, and before the end, he’ll learn there’s a universe in which he and the counselor have had two children. (In this universe, Alexander doesn’t even exist; if it wasn’t for Picard’s death, I’d think it was tragic Worf couldn’t just stay there.) The Worf/Troi connection is a little out-of-left-field, but it works, by and large. The two actors have great chemistry together, and while I wasn’t moved to tears by Wife-Troi’s protestations of love, I was impressed at how well the episode sold the idea of the two of them being together. It also gave us a hilariously awkward scene in which Girlfriend-Troi undoes Worf’s hair and attempts to massage his back to ease his tension—Worf’s shocked reaction demonstrated once again how terrific Dorn’s comic timing is. (He and Patrick Stewart are arguably the funniest actors on the show, because neither of them overplay the jokes.) Beyond the romantic scenes, Other-Riker gets a few great exchanges as well, once the Alternate Enterprises show up; the first, when he talks to Picard (our Picard), and then, when he meets a version of himself from a far more disturbing universe. It’s nothing huge, but it a sign of a great episode when it can allow for moments of character work in the midst of the action.

Criticism-wise, it’s unfortunate that the finale has as much tech-babble as it does. As mentioned, the shot of thousands of Enterprises popping into one timeline is a great visual, but by relying on a sort of sci-fi MacGuffin to explain everything and resolve the crisis, “Parallels” takes Worf away from the center of the plot for a while, reducing him to a piece on a game board while Riker, Data, and Wesley discuss the best way to solve his problems. As well, it’s almost too bad that it takes so much time to get the multiple Enterprise section, as once that starts, there really isn’t time for much more than a mention or two of the other timelines. But these are minor complaints. This is an exciting, clever, and well-written hour of television, and one that finds the heart in what might’ve been dry concept. Worf may not be responsible for getting himself out of his predicament, but in the last scene, he does take a sort of action based on his recent experiences. It may not lead anywhere, but by inviting Troi to dinner (after she kindly helps him get out of that much hated surprise party), Worf is acknowledging that there are choices we don’t make simply because it never occurs to us to make them; and that some possibilities are worth exploring in any universe.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Pegasus:

Two high-quality episodes in one week—I feel like I won a lottery. (Or else that someone is softening me up for the kill, considering that “Sub Rosa” is coming next week.) And two very different episodes as well. “Parallels,” for all its occasional darkness, was essentially a lark, a trippy genre exercise with some fun, good-natured character development. “The Pegasus” is quite a bit heavier, featuring an actual villain (Terry O’Quinn, playing another in a long line of psychotic admirals), a ship full of corpses stuck inside an asteroid, and a compromised Will Riker. There’s also shouting, drama, yelling, and a very, very pissed-off Picard—and if you’re guessing this is a Ron Moore episode, good show. “Pegasus” allows our heroes to end things on a far more positive note than Battlestar Galactica ever did, but there’s still that same fundamental belief in the corruptive influence of power, and how a military mind can have a difficult time grasping that the arms race doesn’t really have a winning side. Plus, there’s Riker having a past that makes him a few shades less than perfect, and if there are few things Moore loves more as a writer than tarnished heroes.

Before the grimness gets going, however, we get a rather delightful cold open: The school children of the Enterprise have made a variety of arts and crafts to celebrate the annual Picard Day, and the captain, Troi, and Riker are looking over the results. Picard is, unsurprisingly, extremely uncomfortable about all of this. The only way the situation could possibly be worse for him is if the children where there right then, watching as he judged their efforts—and you just know that any decision he makes is going to require him praising the winner personally. Troi argues in favor of the display, and Riker’s there to make jokes. It’s all quite hilarious (neat to see how far this show has come; I can’t even imagine how botched this would’ve been if they’d tried something similar in the first season), until Picard gets a special message from Starfleet. The Enterprise has new orders: It’s to pick up Admiral Eric Pressman (O’Quinn), and head out in search for the Pegasus, Pressman’s former ship. The Pegasus had been assumed lost for years now, but pieces have turned up recently indicating that the ship may still be intact somewhere, and now it’s of crucial importance that the Federation find it before the Romulans do.

There’s something else, too, although we don’t find out about it for a while. The Pegasus was Riker’s first tour of duty, and Pressman his first commanding officer. The two keep exchanging looks, Pressman’s avid, Riker’s uncomfortable, and whenever they talk in private, the conversation is heated; there’s an “experiment” that may still be on board the Pegasus, a piece of equipment that makes Riker very, very uncomfortable to talk about. We also get telling hints about their former relationship when Pressman has an informal chat with Picard. Picard explains that the reason he picked Riker as his first officer was that he respected Will’s confidence and ability to follow his own judgment. To him, Riker is a man who can obey orders without sacrificing his own moral compass. Pressman is surprised by this. On board the Pegasus, he tells Picard, Will was a very different sort of officer. Clearly, there’s a past here, and it’s one which has definite relevance in the present, especially now that the dread Romulans have arrived. One of the many highlights of “Pegasus” is watching Picard chat with Commander Siral, captain of the Terix. They are both excessively polite, but the threats are unmistakable. (You almost wonder if part of Picard’s fury at the end is due to the fact that he’ll have to apologize to this creep for Pressman’s actions.)

Eventually, the Enterprise crew is able to track the Pegasus to where it got stuck so many years ago—the inside of an asteroid. (We’re in the Devolin System, in case you were wondering.) The ship is half stuck in the rock, and that turns out to be a big clue as to exactly what’s going on here. Picard does some digging, and discovers that there were suspicions of a mutiny on board the Pegasus, and that no one did much in the way of investigating what really happened on the ship that led to Riker and Pressman (and a few others) escaping. Picard confronts Riker with this, and if there was any doubt that this was a Moore episode to the bone, that disappears here: Picard is frustrated, and he’s especially frustrated at the way his first officer and an outsider are seemingly conspiring together to keep him in the dark. He doesn’t know exactly what kind of danger he’s putting the Enterprise in, and Pressman’s determination to push forward (or press—wow, the name’s practically Dickensian, isn’t it) without providing any new answers is making the worst out of a bad situation. The fact that he can’t even completely trust Riker to keep him informed during the crisis is clearly getting to him. It’s easy to accept Pressman as the villain. He’s new, and we’ve had a long history of Starfleet creeps from all over the chain of command. But Riker? Finding out Riker has a blemish on his record stings a little, as it was clearly intended to, and watching him and Picard fight is unsettling. Everybody’s chums on board the Enterprise! Quick, somebody make ’em hug.

Unsettling can make for great drama, though, and like other tense episodes on TNG, “Pegasus” makes the most out of bending the ties between its main characters without actually going so far as to break them. While this episode shares certain basic ideas with BSG, the essential safety of the core group—the belief that these are all inherently decent people and that they can work together to achieve common goals—remains intact. If anything, the occasional testing makes those ties even stronger, much like the eventual revelation about Will’s past sins serve to make his current steadfast decency seem wiser and more earned. After forcing Picard to take the Enterprise inside the asteroid to get closer to the Pegasus, Pressman and Riker beam aboard their old ship, where they find an engineering section half fused with solid rock. It turns out the “experiment” Pressman has been so keen to get back is a new kind of cloaking device, one that allows a ship to go invisible and phase through solid matter. This is a big deal—and it also violates the Treaty of Algeron which the Federation signed, prohibiting the development and use of cloaking devices. Pressman doesn’t care, and he also didn’t give much thought to his crew’s safety years ago, which is what prompted the mutiny. Riker, being young and inexperienced, sided with Pressman, and, as ordered, kept silent about what happened ever since. He’s not proud of this.

As horrible pasts go, this one ranks low on the outrage scale, and that’s smart. While this episode gets mileage out of the tension between Riker and Pressmanand Riker and Picard, that tension isn’t about us discovering some awful thing that Will’s done that changes everything we know about the character. This isn’t the “drowned kid reveal,” or anywhere close to that. This is more about making a mistake when you don’t really know any better, and then having to deal with the consequences of that mistake; not because it’s punishment or because of karmic retribution, but because that’s just what happens sometimes. And more than that, it’s about how locking on to a single idea can be dangerous. On the Pegasus, Riker was lacking in self-confidence and confused, so he latched on to the principle that the people in power are always right, even when they aren’t. Pressman is committed to getting the most powerful weapon the Federation can develop, regardless of what that means in the long term. “Pegasus” could’ve been overly harsh or melodramatic; instead, it works towards reaffirming the basic principles of the show, and of Picard’s Enterprise, by demonstrating the behavior that arises when people put aside careful consideration in favor of knee-jerk response. It seems like a criticism directed at the military, too, both in young Riker’s foolhardy commitment to the chain of command, and Pressman’s fixation on militaristic goals above political and social ones.

Or maybe it’s just reminding us once again that obsession (which has a tendency to short circuit common sense) is never a good idea. Pressman and Riker bring the cloaking device back on board the Enterprise, but when the Terix gets the drop on the ship, Riker tells Picard about the “experiment,” and offers the device as a way to cut through the asteroid and deal with the Romulans in open space. We get another great scene between two terrific actors, as Stewart and O’Quinn face off—but once Riker comes clean about what’s going on, Pressman has basically lost. He tries to take command of the Enterprise, but Worf refuses his orders, and Picard has Pressman arrested. Riker turns himself in, too. Oh sure, he gets off in the end—it’s Riker, and Riker always gets off (that one was for free, folks)—but it’s satisfying to see him turn himself in just the same. Not because we want him arrested, or because we feel he needs to get punished—well, I certainly didn’t want or feel either of those things. What I did feel, though, was a sense of justice being served, of an order being re-established. Again, unlike BSG, the good guys get to stay good guys at the end, and they still have a way to wash their hands clean of sin. I appreciate the darkness an edgier drama can provide, but there’s something to be said for a show where the only permanent crimes are committed by the guest stars.

According to the A.V. Club review of Lower Decks:

Supposedly, there are hundreds of people aboard the Enterprise. We hear this referenced every now and again, whenever someone in command is struggling with the weight of his or her responsibility, or if Picard is trying to convey how it would be very bad indeed if his ship were to blow up. The existence of those hundreds is a statistic I’ve internalized, about as much as it’s possible to internalize a statistic, but even with all the extras flitting through the corridors and occasionally paying the ultimate price in the name of planet-jumping, it’s easy to forget that the seven or eight members of the ensemble we see on a semi-weekly basis aren’t the only ones on the ship. Admittedly, yes, there is no real “ship” here, because this is all a fictional construct. We see the scenes we see, and there’s nothing actually going on around them, which means, for all intents and purposes, there really are only seven or eight people on this show, surrounded by a small cast of rotating extras. And yet TNG is a world-building show, so even if those hundreds and hundreds puttering about on the lower decks (episode title!) don’t have an actual presence, we need to believe they’re there.

This can be tricky to pull off, but I think the series has managed well enough. It helps to have a fairly deep ensemble, and TNG has made an effort to fill in the background with occasional details that imply a larger context. Like, say, the crew evaluation chat between Riker and Troi that begins “Lower Decks.” We’ve had scenes like this before, and it’s always fascinating to me how much they show that the chummy, we’re-all-hanging-out-for-the-greater-good relationship that much of the senior staff share isn’t something that necessarily trickles down to everyone else. The not-so-senior members of the crew are friendly with each other, but they are also, for the most part, stressed and worried about their jobs. With the show’s regulars, career concerns arise from time to time, but these are people who are largely confident in their roles. No one is tensely angling for a promotion, like Sam and Sito are at the start of “Decks.” It’s not that Worf expects to be chief of security for the rest of his life, but it’s a good gig; he’s proven his competence, and in a few years, he’ll presumably have a chance for a higher rank. Just like Riker will, if he ever decides he’s ready, have that captaincy.

It’s different when you’re just starting out, though. Confidence takes time to develop, and that time can be stressful, unsettling, and downright unpleasant. “Decks” gives us a glimpse into the lives of young men and women who are trying to prove to themselves and each other that they belong on the Enterprise. There’s Sam Lavelle, a human overachiever convinced that Riker has a grudge against him; Taurik, a Vulcan working in Engineering who’s having a hard time bonding with Geordi La Forge; the human Nurse Alyssa Ogawa, who we’ve seen before (and who, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem all that stressed about her job, given her friendship with Beverly Crusher); and last, and most importantly, the Bajroan Sito Jaxa, who we last saw in “The First Duty.” (There’s also Ben, a waiter in Ten Forward, but he doesn’t do a whole lot.) None of these characters have the range of movement and freedom we’ve come to take for granted following the main ensemble, and the episode by and large plays fair with this restriction; we have the luxury of following the entire group, but we’re rarely privy to any information that none of them are privy to (beyond, of course, our own accumulated knowledge from watching the series as a whole), which is always fun. Withholding key pieces of plot until the last minute is a key part of storytelling, but usually, we don’t know what we don’t know because Picard and the others don’t know it either. Here, what would be the main storyline takes place behind the scenes till roughly the finally third of the show. Again, this is fun, because it’s a change of pace, and it also is a nice bit of world-building because you can extrapolate outward from this episode to every other episode of the series. For most of the crew of the Enterprise, every mission is like this.

All that really happens here is that Joret Dal, a Cardassian working as a double agent for the Federation gets in a bit of trouble, and has to use the escape pod on his ship. The Enterprise picks him up and, in order to get him back into Cardassian territory, they provide him with a pre-distressed shuttle to support a story that he escaped from Starfleet’s clutches. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite enough of a cover, so Picard asks Ensign Sito to accompany Dal as his prisoner. Once he passes a checkpoint and uses her as proof of his loyalty, he can then eject her back into Federation space with another escape pod. It’s a difficult, dangerous plan, and it doesn’t turn out well for Sito, but this alone isn’t enough to support an entire episode.

What makes “Decks” work as well as it does is that Joret Dal’s storyline isn’t the episode’s only focus. It’s background noise for much of the hour; mysterious and curiosity-inducing background noise, but Sam’s insecurity, Taurik’s efforts to impress Geordi, and Alyssa’s relationship concerns are nearly as loud. (Well, maybe not Alyssa’s problems. She’s not a terrible character, but it’s hard to get too worked up about her getting engaged to someone we never see.) Sito is arguably the main character of the episode, but her mission with Dal, and the ultimate result of that mission, don’t really happen till near the end. Before then, she’s more confident than Sam, but still dealing with her own demons; namely, the incident at Starfleet Academy that nearly ended her career. When she, along with a few other cadets (including Wesley Crusher) attempted to cover up the fact that their risky flight maneuver cost another cadet his life, Picard realized what had happened, and forced them to come clean. Now Sito is working on the Enterprise, and Worf has put her in line for a big promotion—except it seems that Picard is still holding a bit of a grudge. He asks her into his ready room, only to rant at her about how he believes she should’ve been kicked out of Starfleet completely. Things look bad, but then Worf calls Sito aside and challenges her to a combat test in which the only way to win is to call attention to the unfairness of the test. It’s almost like he’s trying to teach her some kind of lesson…

“Lower Decks” does a good job at establishing the on-going dynamic between the senior bridge crew and the up-and-comers, a dynamic that is by turns paternal, challenging, and even occasionally irritated. (Riker, as is consistent with his character, isn’t a huge fan of some of the more mundane aspects of command.) There’s nothing hugely dramatic about most of this, which helps give it the sense of activity that serves as an undercurrent through all of the ship’s daily routines. Sam realizes he may need to lighten up a bit after a disastrous attempt to bond with Riker in Ten Forward, but the two of them don’t have to face a life-or-death struggle, and there’s no sense that Sam is going to suddenly relax and have all his problems resolved for the rest of his time on the ship. Taurik learns that maybe trying to show off isn’t the best way to ingratiate himself with his boss, but Geordi also comes around on being so standoffish, which is neat. And Alyssa’s boyfriend isn’t cheating on her, but is, in fact, getting ready to propose. Which he does offscreen, which is probably the nicest part about her story.

As for Sito, Picard’s attempts to browbeat her into demonstrating a spine pay off, eventually. That must be the most difficult lesson to teach: that sooner or later, lessons aren’t enough. With a slight push from Worf, Sito gains the necessary self-confidence to meet with Picard again and tell him that either he acknowledge that she’s done good work in the three years since her Academy disgrace, or else transfer her to another ship. This being what Picard was really waiting for all along, Sito’s speech gets her a chance at her first big-time, life-or-death mission. She accepts willingly. And then she dies. Her death is fairly shocking. It happens offscreen, and the crew only learns about it when they find the remains of an escape pod, and learn that the Cardassians are taking credit for killing a fleeing Bajoran. Sito isn’t a regular, of course, and TNG hasn’t shied away from sad endings before, but in her short amount of screentime, she was likable, passionate, and smart. She got what she wanted: a chance to be taken seriously, to prove her worth, and to finally put the stigma of her past misdeed permanently behind her. That she dies for it is less a matter of paying a price, and more a matter of the consequences of committing to the life she chose, that nearly everyone on board the Enterprise has chosen. And it leads to one of the most moving scenes in the history of the show, as Worf, dealing with his own grief over Sito’s loss, joins the rest of her friends to share in their grief. TNG isn’t a grim series by any marker, but its willingness to embrace the fact that no utopian future can completely forestall tragedy makes it a better show. And by presenting us with a slightly different perspective on that tragedy, it shows itself still capable of telling vital, enriching stories in its final season.

According to the A.V. Club review of Masks:

When I was a kid, sick days were like a visit to a strange land. A place where it didn’t matter how much I slept, where there were no bells telling me when I had to switch rooms, and no lectures to sit through; a place where I could eat whatever I wanted so long as I drank the mystical draft of “lots of fluids.” Mom and Dad both worked, and while I read a lot as a kid, when I was sick, it was hard to concentrate, so more often than not I’d wind up by myself, on the couch, watching daytime television. That’s when it got really strange. I stayed away from talk shows and judge shows and news programs, but there was plenty to occupy my attention, and I was always fascinated by how all these cartoons and kids’ series could survive, airing as they did during what was normally school hours. There was that gnome cartoon on Nickelodeon, or The Bionic Five on one of the local affialiates, or Eureka’s Castle which, admittedly, I was too old for but it still had a cool theme song I can remember even to this day. And then there were the shows on PBS. I’m sure they weren’t intended to be terrifying, and I’m sure that if I watched them now, I’d laugh at my fears, but some of the programs on public broadcasting in the late morning and early afternoon scared me for life. LikeRead All About It, a Canadian educational series that aired in the US when I was eight or nine. It wasn’t supposed to be unbelievably creepy, but looking at the show now (via some heavily pixated videos on YouTube), it still seems nightmarish to me, a Lynchian horror show of baffling, dangerous creatures and the inexplicably chipper children sent to battle them.

I mention this because, hey, I love talking about myself (because I am awesome), but also to try and quantify my reaction to “Masks.” It’s not a great episode. It doesn’t really fit TNG, and it doesn’t really make what you’d call “sense.” (Although it does have its own internal logic.) To enjoy the episode requires a willingness not to snicker whenever Data speaks riddles in a funny voice–although I suppose if you do snicker, you’re getting some kind of enjoyment out of this. I’m not sure what to make of all of it, is my point, and after doing this so long, that’s unusual in and of itself. “Masks” is loopy, and while it never reaches the surreal, eerie heights of my childhood memories of Read All About It, it seems to be operating in that same unnerving frame of reference. Bad things happen, and the only way to deal with those bad things to is to play by their rules, and even then, nobody knows exactly what’s going on. If I’d seen this twenty years ago with a bit of cold medication in my veins, it would almost certainly have traumatized me for life.

The plot, near as I can make it: the Enterprise comes across a rogue comet and moves in to do some science-related investigating. After Data starts a scan, there’s a flash of light, and the android is briefly confused. Not enough for anyone to notice, but soon, his work in sculpture class takes on significantly more abstract qualities than before. Strange objects start appearing on the ship–statues and blocks covered in hieroglyphic symbols, symbols which soon enough start taking over the Enterprise’s computers. Then Data busts out the multiple personalities. He talks in strange voices about people no one on the Enterprise has heard of before, and he warns Picard (in the guise of “Ihat,” a personality that comes off like Data’s brother Lore, only slightly less of a jerk) that “Masaka is coming.” Realizing the disturbance is coming from inside the comet, Picard has Worf fire into the comet’s center, revealing an alien ship. (It looks like something left behind after an aborted game of Jenga.) The insides of the Enterprise continue to change, and what was a curiosity becomes a very real danger. Picard and the others have to decipher the messages Schizoid Data is passing on, and find some way to deal with “Masaka,” before their ship is swallowed up completely.

That about sums it up, at least right up till the ending, but I’m not sure any summary could convey just how bizarre all of this is. Data’s personality shifts are one thing. Brent Spiner isn’t always the most subtle of actors, but I thought he actually did a decent job here. It helps that his role is basically impossible; he’s called on to create multiple characters with only his voice and mannerisms, from a barely-defined culture (Mayan-Egyptian-ish?), as well as provide the episode’s only source of contact with the alien threat. No one discovers a group of recordings in the other ship, there’s no ancient caretaker (or real Masaka) who shows up to rasp threats at our heroes. It’s all Data, all the time with a side order of intruding geography. The fact that Spiner makes it the full episode and stays committed to the premise throughout is impressive enough on its own, let alone the fact that he often makes it work, at least better than it has any right working. This is very silly stuff, but when Data gasps, “Masaka is coming,” or rasps like a dying old man, it’s… well, it’s not incredibly ridiculous. Which by every right it should be, frankly.

Then there’s the weird cosmology behind the alien ship’s invasions. I’ve been reading up on Philip K. Dick lately (I’m doing a thing at a comic convention this weekend in Portland) (neerrrrrrrd), and all the references to Masaka and Ihat and Korgano remind me of Dick’s increasingly complicated and, quite frankly, insane conception of the foundation of the universe. Or really, any particularly left field religious history–it’s that feeling of people juggling ideas that aren’t really based off of any visible, definable concepts, connecting them with their own tenuous narrative logic. This stuff makes my head hurt, although nothing here comes close to VALIS levels of mind-melting. Ostensibly, Picard is just going along with what Data tells him; since the Enterprise lacks the tools to effectively combat the alien ship (in that the alien ship keeps taking those tools away), the captain has to beat them at their own game. And there’s something charming in watching Picard fight fire with fire, especially given his long established love of archaeology. There’s a part of him that clearly lives for this shit, studying the designs on the alien structures, trying to piece together what they might mean, and, finally, using those symbols to create his own method of stopping the threat.

“Masks” does its best to keep things interesting, although it doesn’t entirely succeed. The problem here, for me, is that there’s no real core to any of this. There are cool bits here and there, like the photon torpedo that gets filled with snakes before Worf and Geordi can fire it, or the fact that the alien objects appearing in the Enterprise aren’t being beamed over, but actually transmuted from material already on board the ship. And there are weird bits that, at the very least, offer some solid “the hell?” value. Like the chest plate on Data’s uniform that changes every time he shifts between personalities, or, hell, the whole bizarre narrative of Masaka, who is some kind of goddess, and she does awful things to anyone who wrongs her, and only Korgano can stop her. In order to save the Enterprise, Picard summons Masaka and pretends to be Korgano, convincing Masaka to go back to sleep so they can go on the hunt again. Or something like that. I get frustrated by backstories that refuse to make intuitive sense, so I tend to get lost very quickly.

That’s what kept me from having as much fun with “Masks” as I wanted to. I’ve heard comments for and against this episode, and it’s not hard to see either side of the argument. If you can really get behind the crazy, oddly haunting vibe the episode is intent on putting out, this is a fascinating anomaly; just because it isn’t the sort of story TNG usually tries to tell doesn’t make it inherently bad. But on the other hand, you really, really need to be on the episode’s wave-length for this to work for you, and it’s a kind of wave-length I don’t think TNG has ever really prepared us for. We’ve had mysterious alien races, sure, but in those confrontations, the point was to try and find common ground before moving forward. In “Masks,” Picard simply does his best to play Masaka’s game just long enough to be rid of her. That makes for a hollow story, one that lacks much of anything in the way of an emotional component or, to be honest, a significant threat. For all of Ihat’s doom and gloom, Masaka turns out to be a big bowl of not much, and the episode’s commitment to following the alien ship’s mythology makes everything else disconnected and surreal. I was terrified by Read All About It because there was just enough realness there to make me feel personally threatened by what I was seeing, suggesting that the irrational was always possible, no matter how much I might want to believe otherwise. “Masks” is all irrational, and without that context, once you remove the surface, there’s nothing underneath.

According to the A.V. Club review of Journey’s End:

There’s an episode from the third series of the original Star Trek with Indians in it. It’s called “The Paradise Syndrome,” and judging by my review, it was rather absurd. It posits that a group of preservation-focused aliens (named, astonishingly, “the Preservers”) grabbed a sampler of Native Americans off our Earth and transported them to a sort of a planetary national park, there to be free to be all Native American-y and in touch with nature and so forth. Kirk gets zapped and starts calling himself Kirok, and he marries a local princess, and there’s an obelisk—anyway, like I said, absurd. (Man, there are only so many different words for “silly.”) But then, while TOS certainly had far, far better episodes than “Paradise,” it’s not like the silliness was unprecedented. The original Trek was a broad-stroke show, more interested in big moments and bigger emotions than in anything so subtle as “basic plausibility.” I cringed watching the horrifically stereotyped representations of Native Americans, but I wasn’t exactly surprised by it.

On the other hand, I was surprised by “Journey’s End,” because this is TNG, and things are supposed to be, if not better, than at least better thought out here. I don’t want to harp on the Indians (who are called “Indians,” not Native Americans here—probably because that term hadn’t been invented yet, but it still sounds weird) in “Journey’s End” too much, because this is tricky ground. The episode does its best to be as respectful and open-minded as possible, and should be lauded for that. But I won’t lie—something about watching men dressed in recognizable Native America-in-the-’90s garb talking about how they don’t want to leave their home because the mountains speak to them rubs me the wrong way. I’m just not sure if my reaction is one that deserve legitimate critical analysis, or if it’s just me knee-jerking at what, to my cynical eyes, looks like a lot mystical bullcrap. I’ve always appreciated how hard TNG has worked over the years to treat all cultures (except Ferengi, because ew) with respect, and it’s not like the Indians we see here act that much differently than, say, the Klingons Worf visited when he went on a spiritual retreat. But it still feels like pandering.

Worse, it feels like treating an issue that’s relevant in modern times—guilt over the way white settlers and the American government murdered and stole land from an indigenous people—as though it will still have the same level of relevancy 300 years into the future. On the major dramatic cruxes of the episode is Picard’s guilt over having to moving a group of Indians. These Indians having been living on the same planet for 20 years, but now, due to a new treaty signed by the Federation and the Cardassian empire, that planet no longer belongs to them. The Cardassians are coming, and before they arrive, Admiral Necheyev tasks Picard and the Enterprise with making sure the planet’s current inhabitants have been moved to a less diplomatically desirable location. Unfortunately, the Indians don’t want to move, because the place has a special meaning for them, so now Picard has a big case of the ol’ White Guilt blues. It certainly doesn’t improve his frame of mind when the tribal leader tells the captain he’s convinced this is all happening because one of Picard’s ancestors was involved in a massacre of Native Americans centuries before.

Actually, I don’t really see how that should affect Picard’s frame of mind in the slightest, because it is ridiculous. The idea that he would feel some kind of racial culpability for a crime someone hundreds and hundreds of years dead committed is absurd, especially seeing as how he didn’t even know of the event until this episode. I realize that people are often motivated in strange ways by their family history, but this seems like an arbitrary attempt to drum up drama at best. The episode tries to frame the re-location of the Indians as a great tragedy, and it doesn’t play. This isn’t the Trail of Tears. There’s some irony in the fact that a culture that spent a long time being jerked around and betrayed is once again being asked to leave what it thought was home, but it’s not enough irony to build an episode on. The funny thing is, the basic premise is not actually terrible. “Journey’s End” does do a decent job of trying to make sure we understand the perspectives of every side involved in the situation, and the Indians’ refusal to leave should lead to some great drama, as Picard is forced to chose between obeying his orders, or following his conscience—if he even knows which direction his conscience is tending. But it just comes off as insufferable.

Still, if that was all this episode was about, I’d probably view it more favorably than I did. Get past the irritating trappings, and the conflict is decent. Even the ending isn’t terrible, as the Indians make a deal with the Cardassians to keep living on the planet. (Although I’m not sure this is a “happy” ending, mind you. Picard unequivocally states that once the Indians agree to this deal, they will no longer be under Federation protection. Gul Evek seems like a nice enough guy for a Cardassian, but it’s hard not to wonder what will happen the first time the Indians and their neighbors come into conflict.) What makes this truly laughable is a roped-in attempt to resolve the Wesley Crusher story arc.

I’m not sure if you remember this; I sure as hell didn’t. But way back in the first season episode, “Where No One Has Gone Before,” we learned that Wesley is a Chosen One. Not the Chosen One, because that would’ve required a lot more time and attention and possibly a wand of some sort, but he is a very special boy, so special that an alien being has to make a trip to the Enterprise just to tell him how cool he is. That alien, called simply The Traveler, left at the end of the episode, before making another cameo appearance in “Remember Me,” never clarifying exactly who he was or where he was from, but just giving a lot of vague hints about destiny and possibility and other planes of existence. This couldn’t have been easy on Wesley, who’s spent his whole life having people tell him he was remarkable, without ever knowing exactly what that meant. When he returns to the Enterprise at the start of “Journey’s End,” he’s in a lousy mood, and nothing his mother or his friends say will cheer him up. It isn’t until one of the Indians finds him and tells him he was destined to appear that Wesley—

Eh? Yes, I just wrote “destined to appear.” And yes, that is what Lakana, the Indian mystic, tells Wesley. Which sounds like someone got a little too much fantasy in my sci-fi (and it tastes improbable), but on the plus side, it turns out that Lakana isn’t actually an Indian. He’s The Traveler in disguise, because I guess it was easier for him to test Wesley by pretending to be someone else. Also, Wesley can stop time now, or move to those other fabled planes of existence in such a way as to create the illusion that he’s stopping time, and really, this isn’t any less improbable than it was before The Traveler showed up, it’s just that now we can pretend continuity lends credibility. Wesley, realizing that the reason he’s been so angry and depressed is that he’s trying to fill his father’s shoes, and that he was meant for something else entirely, gives up his cadet’s uniform, drops out of Starfleet Academy, and leaves the ship, and TNG, for good.

I appreciate the writers’ desire to wrap up loose ends, I really do. But some loose ends are best left forgotten, especially when they were initially introduced on a very different show. TNG’s first season was a mess, and while “Where No One Has Gone Before” was one of the first episodes that didn’t entirely suck, it wasn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination, and the “Wesley Is A Very Special Boy” storyline was never a good fit for this show. It’s puts too much emphasis on the wish-fulfillment aspects of the character, and it relies to much on what is basically magic to work with the series TNG finally (thankfully) became. If the seventh season had ended without ever referencing Wesley’s destiny or The Traveler, I’m sure some detail freaks would’ve complained, but I’d prefer to believe they’d be a minority. Building a story through television is (if you’re very lucky) a long and complicated process, and the writers are not omniscient gods. They don’t always know what plots will work down the line, and which ones will be the narrative equivalent of that week you wanted to be a ballerina. (Don’t lie.) I’m willing to cut slack.

But as much as I’m impressed with the obsessive-compulsive attention to detail this episode represents, no amount of slack in the world will make it worthwhile. Wesley was often a difficult character, smarmy, irritatingly over-smart, creepily dependent on Picard (remember when he built that robot that talked in Picard’s voice? <shudder>), but in the last few seasons, he’d come into his own. He made mistakes, some of them quite serious, but he learned from them, and I was ready to assume he would do great things, and that those great things would be almost entirely off camera. And then “Journey’s End” comes along, and it’s all “You’re ready to move beyond these puny mortals,” and putting on hippy clothes, and hanging out with a paternal—if somewhat unsettling—and mysterious bald dude. (Oh my God, that’s why he trusts The Traveler—the alien looks a little like Picard!) TNG has referenced episodes from the first season before, and used that reference as a chance to make up for past mistakes. It looks like that era of smart writing is gone, sadly, and now all that’s left is to wait for the end.

According to the A.V. Club review of Bloodlines:

Did everybody get enough Daddy issues in “Firstborn”? No? Well have I got an episode for you!

I’m not really a television historian. Yes, yes, I realize this may come as a shock, but I’ve never had a good head for dates or trends or important names. In some ways, this limits my usefulness as a critic of classic TV; if I had any real regret over my work on the various Trek series so far, it’s that I’ve never put much effort into trying to contextualize the shows, beyond stating some common knowledge. (I don’t really regret this, honestly, because I think we all have fun anyway, and I do good work in other areas. In fact, the only time this has really bothered me is back when I was doing my write-ups of The Prisoner, which I can’t help feeling was something of a missed opportunity. But I digress.) So when I say that it’s a sign of desperation when a show starts throwing long-lost relatives at its main characters to try and generate new drama, I can’t provide you with a catalog of examples to back up the assertion. But it makes a certain amount of sense. This late in a run, you’ve probably worked through all the major conflicts between the ensemble, and given that TNG generally avoiding the usual bed-hopping that comes from workplace dramas, there’s only so much mileage you can get out of Beverly and Picard occasionally glancing at each other. So its time to start pulling every trick in the book: buried secrets, inter-dimensional prophets, and orgasm-inducing aliens.

And now we can add “long lost son” to the list. (Actually, have we been down this road before? I suppose Alexander sort of counts, and maybe there was something with Riker at some point… nah, I’d remember that.) Picard is having his usual stellar day when he gets a visit from Bok, a Ferengi who blames Picard for the death of his son. This brings us to another classic late-season ploy—the “Hey, let’s bring back stuff from the first season, because we definitely want to remind people how long we’ve been on the air!” game. We went through this with “Journey’s End,” and now we’re getting a call-back to the first season episode “The Battle,” in which then DaiMon Bok attempted to get his revenge on Picard via a mind-control device. At the end of “Battle,” Bok was stripped of his rank for engaging in an unprofitable mission (sigh), but he’s back now, and apparently up to no good, using a variety of probes and transporter techniques to send Picard a simple message: Bok is going to murder the captain’s son.

Only, so far as Picard knew, he doesn’t have a son. So now it’s a race to find this mysterious progeny before Bok does, and prevent the unthinkable. (Er, actually, it’s been thought of, so I guess the unacceptable? Which makes murder sound like a poor test result, but whatever.) If everyone wasn’t so hell-bent on saving the day, they might stop to wonder just why Bok would be so keen on warning Picard of his intentions in advance. We learn later on that it sort of makes sense; Picard doesn’t actually have a son, but he was in a relationship with a woman named Miranda who had a kid named Jason who doesn’t know who his father is, so Bok manipulates Jason’s DNA to match Picard’s, and none of this wouldn’t have been worth it if Picard hadn’t had some time to bond with his fake offspring. Although that still requires a ridiculous amount of planning and good luck, and it’s bizarre that Bok would be so invested in all this. When Bok was originally introduced, Picard’s involvement in his son’s death (which happened while Picard was captain of the Stargazer) made for a decent dynamic; even if Picard didn’t have any reason to be guilty, he could at least feel responsible enough for there to be some tension between wanting to protect himself, and dealing with the past. Plus, this is season one we’re talking about. A lot of crazy shit went down back then, and it was easy to accept anything that even hinted at competence. Now, though, Bok’s two-dimensional obsession makes him look like a sub-par Batman villain.

That means that our only real hope for any depth here is the connection Picard tried to build between himself and Jason Vigo, the 20something scoundrel who he believes is his son. The Bok problem doesn’t have a lot of surprises, apart from the twist that Jason is a con (who doesn’t realize he’s a con), so a good chunk of the episode is taken up with Picard and Vigo’s tentative attempts at rapprochement. None of it’s revolutionary, but as usual, Patrick Stewart does his best with what he’s given, and there’s a certain dignity in his careful, measured sincerity, unsure of his next step but determined to do the right thing. As Jason, Ken Olandt is fine, in a generically charming-and-good-looking kind of way. (To put it in different terms, the actor wouldn’t look out of place doing a guest spot on a CW show.) The two have one genuinely good scene together on the holodeck, as Picard carefully attempts to explain his reasons behind wanting to establish a relationship. They talk about Jason’s mother, who died years ago, about his troubled past, and various other things, and Picard gets the best line of the episode: “You’ll never look at your hairline in the same way again.”

And yet, too much of this relationship is built on the premise that its a parent’s responsibility to force his way into their child’s life, even if that child is an adult and doesn’t seem to particularly want to meet his dad. (Even if his dad is the freakin’ captain of a starship, I mean come on.) The downside to TNG’s utopian vision is its assumption that meddling in other’s lives is an automatic good if one’s intentions are in the right place. The Prime Directive stops them from doing this with outsiders, but there seems to be no limit to the amount of poking, prodding, and unasked for interrogations you’d be forced to endure if you happened to wander around the Enterprise having a bad day. Compassion is a wonderful thing, but so are boundaries, and time and again, our heroes have shown an inability to grasp this. Beverly tells Picard he should push to get closer to his son, and while Picard initially resists this, he ultimately decides his resistance is based on selfishness; he has responsibilities, and given Jason’s criminal record (mostly just petty theft and an occasional bar fight), it’s his duty to get involved. Commendable motives, and it works out in the end—Because really, who wouldn’t want Captain Picard as a dad?—but I’m not sure I buy the message. Jason isn’t a teenager. He’s an adult, and if he doesn’t want a stranger butting into his life and telling him where he went wrong, that’s his right.

Not that any of this matters, because of course Jason isn’t really Picard’s son. It’s hard to get too worked up over any of this, really. There’s a brief tension when Bok manages to beam Jason off the Enterprise even after Geordi and Data have done all they can to stop the Ferengi’s plans, but being the cartoon villain he is, Bok decides to gloat over Jason for a while before actually stabbing him, giving Picard enough time to bravely beam aboard the Ferengi ship and explain to Bok’s crew just how crazy their new “DaiMon” really is. This is largely one-note material, and since Bok’s issues with Picard aren’t really delved into, there’s no weight to anything that happens. It’s not horrible, but beyond the above mentioned scene, and a few eerie moments when Bok suddenly appears in Picard’s quarters, it’s not really necessary, either. If the grade seems harsh, well, it’s not that I mind episodes like this; it’s just, there’s something sad about coming to the end of a show I love, and realizing I’m more and more eager to be finished with it.

According to the A.V. Club review of Emergence:

After what seems like months of slogging through sub-par to awful TNG episodes, I finally catch a break just before the end, with a pair of decent to great episodes to ease me into the forthcoming Movie Extravaganza, and, ultimately, the series finale. Out of this week’s pairing,“Emergence” is easily the weakest; it feels more like an episode from the second season, an interesting idea that’s more than a little undercooked, with an ending that’s less a conclusion and more a shrug. But it’s consistent in its aims, which means there’s no sudden, poorly justified twist at the end, and it’s weird enough that it’s never incredibly boring. The cast isn’t forced to betray their characters for narrative purposes. Beverly isn’t sexually assaulted by an alien. It’s the little things that make me happy these days.

Speaking of little things, “Emergence” opens with what I’m assuming is a reference to the show approaching its conclusion, as Data plays Prospero fromThe Tempest for the benefit of a somewhat distracted Picard. The monologue Data recites comes from near the end of the play, as Prospero states his intentions to break his staff and burn his books and basically get on with his life, which isn’t a terrible sentiment to express when you’re getting ready to shut down a seven-year-old production. The scene is a nice callback to Data’s various efforts over the course of the show to develop his humanity, an arc that never really got the finale it deserved, but managed to generate many of the series’ most powerful, original moments. And maybe it’s appropriate that we never got a definitive version of Data-as-real-boy. Unless you’ve got a fairy godmother following you around, the journey to humanity isn’t one with a set or foreseeable conclusion. It would’ve been nice to spend more time with Data before the end, but given the general tenor of the seventh season (and the way that last Data-centric episode played out, with Lore and the Borg and, well, ugh, basically), maybe we’re better off this way. None of TNG’s cast would be well-served by the film franchise, but poor Data got the brunt of the damage, so it’s a relief to see him here, much the same as he always was, without any unfortunate emotional tics or painfully forced attempts at comic relief.

Picard and Data have their little talk about the context of Prospero’s speech, but before Data can give it another go, the two are interrupted by a passing train. Which is, to the say the least, a little odd, and it marks the return of one of TNG’s most reliably goofy plot generators: the malfunctioning holodeck. See, something happened to the ship when the Enterprise passed through a magnetic storm (“magnetic storm” is basically just “a wizard did it,” isn’t it?), and now various systems are acting up. Specifically, the engine takes control of itself and hits warp drive without Picard’s express command; but what’s really startling is when Geordi discovers the Enterprise’s quick jump actually saved the ship from being destroyed by a build up of theta flux distortion, a kind of disturbance the ship’s computers weren’t actually designed to detect. This has all sorts of implications as to what’s really happening—it’s not just a series of malfunctions, it’s actually a behavior pattern. But what really struck me is how weird it is that there’s a kind of distortion which can build up naturally in space, which the Enterprise isn’t normally able to detect, and which, if left unchecked, can destroy the ship. Awfully convenient the computer developed sentience at exactly the right moment to save the day.

All of this is silly stuff, played as straight-forwardly as possible, and it gets sillier when Data and Geordi start finding curious nodes distributed through out theEnterprise’s internal wiring, nodes that they’ve never seen before. Data theorizes that the ship’s computer has somehow developed an independent consciousness, demonstrating a survival instinct (i.e., that sudden burst of warp speed) and sort of random whimsy you could label as the efforts of a growing mind. There is something almost unbearably cute in having the Enterprise go all sentient, as though after seven years of being forced to carry around a gaggle of well-intentioned doofuses (and Picard), the ship suddenly decided it needed to have its own adventures. I’ve never been exactly sure what people mean when they say a location is a “character” in a movie or TV show—it always seems like one of those vague phrases critics use when they’re trying to indicate a concept that can’t be adequately pinned down in words—but if you can say it about anything, you can say that the Enterprise is a character on TNG. At the very least, we’ve spent a large chunk of the series worried about her well-being, and looking for cures to her various ailments, so it’s kind of adorable that here, right before the end, she gets to drive the action rather be a victim of it.

Also cute? The way the holodeck, as it has so many times before, becomes the capital of Crazyland. That train Picard and Data saw earlier wasn’t a singular phenomenon. Ripped off from Beverly’s Oriental Express program (sidebar: it irritates me that we learn this via a conversation between Picard and Beverly, in which he recites some facts about the Express, and she tells him he should just relax and embrace the romance of it. One of the more unfortunate assumptions of so much popular culture is that knowledge is somehow unromantic, and that true appreciation stems more from an emotional understanding than an intellectual one. Really, it’s been my experience that the latter generally leads to the former more often than not. To sum up: Beverly should have said, “Of course I know that, I designed the program, isn’t it fascinating?” and then we could’ve spent twenty minutes on train facts), the train now serves as a home to cast-offs from various other programs, each of which represents a different aspect of the ship’s burgeoning personality. When Riker, Worf, and Data enter the holodeck, they find a car full of disparate characters, from a knight in full armor, to a gunslinger villain, to an engineer, to a debutante, and so on. It’s weird and cheesy and not quite as creepy as it might have been, but close enough to be interesting.

Once the Enterprise starts flying itself again, and siphoning particles from a dwarf star in order to construct some sort of device or object in one of the cargo bays, Troi decides to communicate with the ship’s consciousness. So we get some more silly stuff with a gangster and a city set, and Data stops a 1930s era taxi-cab with one hand. This is the kind of episode I always have a hard time reviewing, because while I’m watching it, I’m fine with it; but when it comes time to write anything down, I can never think of what to say. “Emergence” isn’t terrible; I wasn’t cringing or actively embarrassed at any point, but I wasn’t engaged either, because apart from the goofy costumes and weird, quasi-eerie symbolism, there’s really nothing here to get that invested in. Troi gets hit in the head by some falling bricks, but apart from that, no one’s in any real danger; obviously it’s a problem that the Enterprise is controlling itself, but it’s not an immediate problem, because the ship isn’t screwing around with life support or playfully beaming various crew-members into open space. Apart from a general sense of strangeness, the only real tension in the episode doesn’t come up until the final 10 minutes or so, when the life form the ship is trying to create is in jeopardy. Even then, there’s no real sense that the thing might die.

And who cares if it does? “Emergence” spends so much time working on the symbolism on the holodeck that it never really does much with the various implications of its storyline, and that’s arguably the least interesting way to handle the central idea here. Picard pays lip service to the importance of treating any emergent life with respect and compassion, and that’s a fine idea, but there’s never any sacrifice necessary on the part of the crew to maintain these ideals. We’ve had episodes where our heroes have struggled with the difficulties raised by the Prime Directive, and the drama there emerged out of localized compassion conflicting against long-term philosophical necessity. Here, though, it’s simply, “We should get control back. Hm, I guess it may prove to be tricky. Oh look, we can actually get control and give the ship what it needs. We should probably do that!” And once this is accomplished, everything reverts back exactly to the way it was. The ship’s emerging intelligence vanishes, and the life form it put so much effort into generating (which looks like something that should be churning out sheets of candy dots in Willy Wonka’s factory) just flies out of the Enterprise, never to be heard from again. Data and Picard have a nice closing scene together, but it’s hard to shake the nagging sensation that nothing really happened here. Which is fine, not every episode needs to feature some titanic struggle and the collapse of the status quo, but it would’ve been nice if there’d been something approaching stakes in a storyline which ostensibly had thousands of people wake up one morning inside the belly of an unknown beast. Still, it was generally okay, and could’ve been considerably worse.

According to the A.V. Club review of Preemptive Strike:

Politically, TNG has never been a daring show. Sure, we’ve touched on hot-buttons issues dressed up in science-fiction tropes from time to time, and we’ve seen our fair share of hateful bureaucrats getting in the way of letting our heroes do their job, but if you were to leave the series with an almost uniformly positive impression of the Federation as “good guys,” I’d be hard pressed to argue. That’s one of the main reasons why Firefly is structured the way it is; having the Federation-like Alliance serve as a force of control and a source of potential danger for the heroes was Joss Whedon’s way of undercutting the rah-rah-hegemony vibe of the Trek franchise. (It was also a way to mimic the classic Westerns trope of a former Southern soldier trying to survive a post-Civil War world, without calling up any of Johnny Reb’s unpleasant connotations.) From what I’ve heard, Deep Space Nine does some undercutting of its own, and I look forward to seeing how that plays out, but for right now, everything I’ve seen has led me to believe that Starfleet is just peachy. I may have my suspicions (mostly due to the show’s tendency to portray any culture that outright opposes the Federation as villainous), but that’s all they are.

It’s odd, then, that the series’ penultimate episode goes to such lengths to inspire sympathy for those outside of Starfleet, to the point where the episode’s climax features a major recurring character betraying Picard’s trust. Odder still, it’s pretty clear that the episode wants us to believe she made the right choice. “Preemptive Strike” is a challenging piece of work, and often an unsettling one, forcing us to look at Captain Jean-Luc Picard—ostensibly the most trustworthy character on the entire ship (I think I’ve used this phrase before, possibly in reference to Data, so let’s just call it a tie)—as well-intentioned but misguided obstacle in the path of Ensign Ro becoming who she really wishes to be. The episode doesn’t insist we take this view, and Picard never becomes outright villainous or cruel, but we spend considerably more time with Ro, watching as she comes to realize she’s finally found the place where she belongs. In a way, “Preemptive Strike” plays like a much smarter, much more effective version of“Journey’s End,” where Wesley realized his true destiny was to hook up with Lurch and go planet-hopping. Like Wesley, Ro meets a wise old man who helps her feel like her life has meaning again, and like Wesley, Ro is forced into a position where in order to follow her beliefs, she needs to disobey orders from her superior officers. But where “Journey’s End” concluded with a lot of hugging and smiling, the last shot of “Strike” is Picard, stone-faced, staring off screen. It’s one of a handful of TNG final scenes which isn’t inherently optimistic or accepting, and there’s something shocking about that. “Preemptive Strike” isn’t just a better episode than “Journey’s End” because it’s not inherently ridiculous; it’s also honest enough to admit that sometimes, you have to go against the people you care about. And when you do, there’s no guarantee your relationship will ever be the same again.

How did we get to this point? Why, trouble with the Cardassians, of course. It’s all political and complicated and whatnot, but basically, everyone’s supposed to be at peace, but the Cardassians keeps pulling nasty tricks on Bajoran settlers to drive them out of disputed territory, and in response, a group of Bajoran fighters calling themselves the Maquis have banded together to defend their people. Lately, the Maquis have decided to switch from defense to offense, and have started attacking Cardassian freighters. This doesn’t sit well with the Federation, because however sympathetic they might be to the Bajorans, they’ve got a treaty with the Cardassians to protect, and the Maquis’ actions could upset that treat. (I suddenly realized, if I’m going to cover DS9, I’m going to have to get a lot more comfortable summarizing complicated, somewhat metaphorical political issues.) So Starfleet decides they need to take action to shut down the Maquis, and they want Picard’s help to do it. Of course, they’ll also need someone on the inside, and for that, they’ll need Ro Laren.

Another curious element of the this episode, when considered in terms of its placement next to the series finale, is the way the hour is largely devoted to Ro, first re-introducing her to the Enterprise, then watching her as she integrates herself into the Maquis and is slowly won over by their cause. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and it’s a key part of the episode; if we’d spent our time with Picard and Riker as they fretted over their lack of regular reports, and the growing doubts about Ro’s reliability, this would’ve been a decent but probably less complicated and interesting story. And yet, as a fan of TNG who has come to have a lot of fondness for the entire ensemble, I can’t help feeling cheated at seeing the show’s next-to-last episode focus so little on the main characters. Equally as curious is how the shift in focus serves to make the series’ regular leads come off as a little less heroic than they normally do. There’s Picard’s obstinacy, for one, but the few moments we get with Beverly and Troi make both women seem somewhat foolish, pampered and naive women who don’t understand the challenges of the real universe. Even Riker, for the five minutes we see him, comes off as something of… well, not a buffoon, not exactly. (I appreciate the episode’s subtle indication that Riker respects what Ro does, even if Picard doesn’t.) But his “loyal soldier” behavior makes him look a little naive. It’s not that I mind being made aware that these characters are more complex than we normally realize, but to get that knowledge so close to the end, without any chance for it to expand or affect other episodes, is a little disappointing.

That doesn’t take away from what this episode achieves, however, and while it doesn’t always feel like a TNG ep, it still holds up quite nicely, tricky morality and all. I especially appreciated the careful way “Preemptive Strike” re-establishes the relationship between Ro and Picard, her clear gratitude to him for all he’s done for her career, and his trust in her abilities and her loyalty. There’s nothing exactly romantic going on between them, and that’s for the best, but the chemistry between Patrick Stewart and Michelle Forbes is phenomenal. Late in the episode, Ro and Picard meet in a bar to exchange information. It’s a conversation that starts pleasantly enough; to hide what they’re talking about from prying ears, the two pretend to be a prostitute and prospective client, which means a lot of touching and lot of whispering in each other’s ears. Picard doesn’t realize it at first, but Ro’s doubts about her mission, after meeting all the kind, noble folks in the Maquis and watching a Cardassian shoot one of them down, have solidified, and she wants to call off a planned trap. The scene plays almost like a break-up, or a lover realizing his partner has had an affair. It’s not perfect; Picard’s refusal to listen to Ro’s doubts and his determination to have the mission go through as planned (even to the point of insisting on Riker being present to make sure she doesn’t try and back out) seems out of character for someone as resolutely humanist as Jean-Luc tends to be. But while it may not sit entirely comfortably within the context of the entire series, as a scene on its own, and working within this episode, it’s terrific.

Really, this whole episode is great, and if this is the sort of complexity I can look forward to in DS9, I’ll have my work cut out for me. There are quibbles, because hey, I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I wasn’t able to poke a few holes here and there. Macias, the older Bajoran who helps convert Ro over to the side of the Maquis isn’t the subtlest of archetypes, and we’re never given much sign that his Andy Griffith routine is a ruse designed to earn people’s trust (I don’t mean it has to be a ruse, but he lays it on a bit thick either way). The fact that Macias dies is an overly convenient way to remind Ro that the Cardassians are evil, and I’m not sure how smoothly her plan to defect will work out in the long run. If the Federation wanted to be pissy about it, they could spread the word that she was a double agent, and given her record in Starfleet, some of the rumors would stick. But hey, that’s her worry, not mine.

Again, though, quibbles, as are my comments on the placement of the episode in the season’s overall order. It’s heartening to see TNG manage such an accomplished hour right before the end, one that builds on established relationships and moves in ways we don’t expect. That may be the biggest shock of all, really. Trek has trained us over the years to have faith in the system, to believe that every wayward soul can find his or her way back to society if they choose to—and, unless they’re actively evil, they always choose to. Only here, we have someone we have every reason to trust, someone who’s proven her basic decency and strength in every episode she’s been in, and she turns her back on what we thought were the good guys. Not because she’s evil or misled—at worse, you could say she’s misguided, but I have a hard time believing that. “Preemptive Strike” leads us to the inexorable conclusion that sometimes, there is no easy answer; sometimes, whichever way you chose means hurting someone you trust. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, but an important one, and it makes for a moving, uncompromising hour.

According to the A.V. Club review of All Good Things…:

The truth is, most television shows die hard. Unlike film or literature, a television show is a narrative which is started without a definitive conclusion in mind. The continuation of their main narrative is dependent on the whims of the public, and the commitment of the creative and financial team which keeps the series going. There are exceptions, of course, and it’s getting more common now for shows to announce their own end-date ahead of time, to allow for greater closure (and ratings), but this is still a rarity. With most shows we watch, the odds of getting a satisfying ending, one that works as an episode of television and manages to tie up narrative lose ends in a compelling way, is slim to none. The longer a series airs, the more the audience investment grows, and the more difficult it becomes to maintain the expected level of quality. The central cast becomes more expensive; performances go from nuanced to caricature-based; characters are cheapened by writing that’s quickly running out of ideas; plots are more and more likely to be tedious reheats of older classics. This is just as true about cult shows as it is about any other—more true, in fact, as I doubt the fans of NCIS are going to have their hearts broken any time soon. But Community? Fringe? Even a Mad Men or a Breaking Bad is not immune to gravity, because let’s face it, the better the show, the trickier the high wire act of making entertaining television becomes. We grouse about imperfections. Some of us are paid to do so. But the simple fact of the matter is, great television should be nearly impossible, and the longer it goes on, the longer the fall back to reality.

By these standards, the success of “All Good Things… ” is a minor miracle. It’s not a perfect episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it’s not the best episode the show ever produced; if this double-sized entry had shown up earlier in the season, or during some other year of the show, I’d probably still enjoy it, but it wouldn’t have meant as much as it does, for obvious reasons. In all honesty, judged as an episode and not a finale, this is sitting on the B+/A- line. It’s more towards the A-, but the science fiction McGuffin that drives most of the action doesn’t quite work, and while the final scenes are strong, the various thematic implications they attempt to pull together aren’t as fully realized as they should be. But “All Good Things… ” isn’t just another episode of TNG. It’s the finale, the last ever, the concluding onscreen voyage of Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s Enterprise, unless you count the movies, and, if my review schedule didn’t already make this obvious, I don’t. As endings go, I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen better, sure, but that’s nothing for TNG to be ashamed about, and considering the limitations of the show, and the largely fumbling seventh season, this is better than I, or anyone, could have hoped for. Like I said, minor miracles. As a reviewer, I can criticize, but as a fan, well, it’s a little dusty in here, isn’t it? Shut up, it’s just something in my eye.

Of course, it isn’t enough. How could it be? I wanted more Riker, more Worf, more Data, more Beverly, more Geordi, more Troi. And more Picard, even though “All Good Things… ” is all about Picard, in the same way so many great hours of the show have been. After two months of struggling to find new ways of saying, “This isn’t very good, really,” and getting more and more excited about finally finding my way to the end of a project that has taken up so much of my time and effort, I got to that last poker game, and Picard’s casual final line (so perfect, and so beautifully un-stressed; the significance is to us, not the characters), and all I wanted was 10 more minutes. Five, even. I’d take a stupid Data joke, or Troi talking about “sensing” something, or Worf being mocked, or, ugh, Lwaxana freakin’ Troi—anything, for it not to be over. Not quite yet. Because when you live with a show this long, it becomes something more than a bunch of actors standing around spewing techno-babble. Relationships deepen, affections grow stronger, and even the slightest gesture takes on greater significance. This is what television shows have that no other medium can truly replicate: time. No book or movie, however long, can wear down our defenses through sheer attrition, setting its hooks, and becoming a part of our lives without us ever realizing it. Sure, we’re all adults, and we understand the distinction between fiction and reality because most of us (fingers crossed) are still on our meds. But with great art, emotions don’t really distinguish between reality and fiction. It’s all affecting, and it all matters, and even though I never thought I’d give Picard a call or go drinking with Riker, saying goodbye to these people isn’t a meaningless gesture. Stories are intangible objects, but they have weight, and they leave a hole in their absence.

“All Good Things… ” works in part because writers Brannon Braga and Ron Moore don’t oversell its significance. Yes, it’s a double-sized episode, and yes, we have a couple of special guest stars in the form of John de Lancie’s Q and Denise Crosby as pre-dead Tasha Yar. Yes, there’s time travel, and yes, the fate of the whole human race is at stake. But while we see Picard dealing with a potential future and his past alongside his present, and while there are occasional references to the show closing its doors, the finale never becomes overly consciousness of its own importance. The ensemble gets to shine, but it’s not a conspicuous shine, and we don’t waste a lot of time on big speeches or game-changing emotional confessions. This makes sense, as for all its drama and occasional mind-bending crises, TNG is, at heart, a low-key show. Well, maybe not exactly “low-key,” but barring Tasha’s death in season one, the paradigm shifts have been more by implication. There are plenty of drawbacks to low-key serialization, but it’s strength plays into one of the key reason television has become so important in people’s lives: it creates a comforting continuity, a place you can always come back to when you need to escape. TNG is people doing a job they love, and getting through the day. They have strong principles, and ideals they’d give their lives for, but this isn’t a universe that regularly requires such a sacrifice.

It makes sense, then, for all its devastating possibilities, that “All Good Things… ” doesn’t do much to change the established status quo. Part of this is undoubtedly because of the movies; Star Trek: Generations was being filmed when the show ended, and that limited the degree of shake-up the writers could pull. That doesn’t make it any less fitting, though, and any finale that didn’t end with the crew of the Enterprise hanging out and getting ready to go on another adventure would, I think, have been a lie. Here’s what happens in the episode: Picard becomes unstuck in time. He travels through three distinct periods, the show’s present, the past, and the future. In the past, he’s just coming on board the Enterprise to take command of the ship, alongside Tasha Yar and a not-quite-complete crew. In the future, he’s an old man with a vineyard, alone, who only gets visits from friends when he’s diagnosed with a fatal disease. At first, he doesn’t know why he’s jumping around, and, since he can’t retain his memories and no one notices the transition, he isn’t even sure anything is happening. But it goes on, and the memories get easier to hold on to, and he realizes there’s a problem in the Devron System, just inside the Neutral Zone. Something has created a temporal anomaly, and it’s getting larger; worse, it’s getting larger as it goes backwards through time. Even before Q shows up to belittle him, Jean-Luc realizes this can’t be good.

Let’s get the elephant out of the room right off, shall we? Yes, it’s a fairly large plot hole that Future Picard is able to see, and ultimately interact (via Admiral Riker’sEnterprise) with the anomaly. Supposedly, the anomaly was created when three different ships hit the same area of space with a tachyon beam, and it began with future Picard; since Future Picard doesn’t realized what’s happened until after the anomaly was created, and since the anomaly, being made of anti-time, is moving backwards, there shouldn’t be anything to see when Admiral Riker brings hisEnterprise back to the Devron System. But because he needs to see something in order for the episode to work, to give us the great climax of all three Enterprises sacrificing themselves to save humanity, I’m willing to let it slide. (There’s also the fact that the episode states that the anomaly was created by all three Enterprises firing the tachyon pulse at once, but it was actually Captain Beverly Picard’s ill-fated USS Pasteur which fired the initial beam in the future.) More problematic is the somewhat underwhelming nature of the finale’s central mystery. It’s fine, but it’s no more than fine, and given the ambition of so much of the rest of the episode, the reliance on tech-babble for the solution is a little disappointing. The fact that Picard causes all of this because he’s traveling in time is odd as well; Q indicates that this is a test by the Continuum, which works passably well as justification, but plot and character don’t gel as powerfully here as they did on the series’ best hours.

Thankfully, if the plot isn’t great, the execution is. As mentioned, the finale, with all three ships destroying themselves one after the other is thrilling, and the episode moves at a good clip throughout; for the first time in ages, we have a two-part episode that never feels overly padded or self-indulgent. (It also never feels like a two-part episode, since it was designed to be shown as a single unit.) Each separate time period has a distinct, easily recognizable vibe, even when characters are standing on the same sets in both, and it’s impressive how ably Patrick Stewart manages to shift his performance between each of the three Picards. The change is more obvious in Future Picard, a old man made bitter by years of obsolescence and loneliness, but even Past Picard is distinct, the somewhat cold, distant leader the character was at the start of the show. As for the other characters, the future comes off the clearest, and also the most depressing, a not-completely awful place which is nonetheless disappointing. Yay, Picard and Beverly got married! Boo, they’re divorced. Yay, Data is a professor at Cambridge! Boo, he’s turned into kind of a dick. (I can’t decide if this is a subtle reference to the emotions chip or just more evidence that the future kind of blows.) Yay, Worf and Riker have risen in power! Boo, they’re estranged, and even worse, they’re estranged because Troi is dead. In “All Good Things… ,” tomorrow is a lonely place, and while the ending of the episode strongly implies that this future is avoidable, it’s still bracing to see Future Picard ranting like a lunatic while his former shipmates look on in discomfort.

The return of Q is the best choice the writers make, especially as this is a return of the slightly-scary, threatening Q of the earlier part of the show’s run. “Things” doesn’t overuse him, either building to his first appearance by making Picard aware of his involvement before even we are. (I guess if you were really clever, you might notice that the people who keep taunting future Picard were the peasants from the trial scene in “Encounter At Farpoint.”) Q gets some of the best lines in the episode, and he and Picard play off each other as beautifully as they always do. Better, his involvement in the finale goes a long way towards justifying the plot. Everything Picard goes through is the latest stage in humanity’s on-going trial, and it’s all designed to force him to think of time differently than the way we foolish mortals so often do; not as a line, in which events proceed in orderly fashion one after the other, but as a great, well, tapestry, in which every moment of our lives and ever moment of everyone else’s life informs everything. Nothing exists in isolation; everyone matters. It’s a fascinating idea, one worthy of a show that’s spent so many years building its ensemble and working to create a universe in which each different species come together and fight and struggle towards common understanding. Exploration doesn’t end at space, just as human progress didn’t end at the night sky. There will always be new frontiers. At one point, Q takes Picard back to the very beginning of life on Earth, and it’s such a staggering, wonderful moment, to think of how far we’ve come, and how far we can go. There’s a nagging part of my brain that doesn’t think the actual storyline quite lives up to this, but I’m just going to hum loudly until he shuts up.

It all ends with a poker game, as is only fair. Out of every scene in the episode, Picard’s final conversation with Q, and the poker game, are my favorite. The chat with Q sets up the possibilities, opening the door to the next step, but, well, it’s a little scary out there. The stairs are steep, the air is thin, and the way is dark. There is a time for boldness, for stepping through the door and fighting your way up higher and farther, but there’s also a time when you need to come home. That’s all the poker game is, really. There’s no amazing twist, no heartbreaking revelations. There are just friends. Picard finally decides to sit in, and in a way, it’s almost like the entire episode has been building to this moment, all the drama and the danger and the crisis contrived to get Picard ready to take his seat with Riker, Troi, Beverly, Geordi, Worf, and Data, and deal out the next hand. Yes, the future is bright and there are so many places we may go tomorrow. But today is for the people we love and the lives we share with them. With this crew by our side, anything is possible. With a good ship and better company, the sky’s the limit.

 

The Worst:

Gambit, Sub Rosa, Thine Own Self, and Genesis

gambitpartone5

In brief:

  • Although Gambit has some good moments, I was not particular to towards it;
  • Sub Rosa is one of the worst episodes of the series;
  • Thine Own Self is based on Data-as-Frankenstein; and,
  • Genesis is a strange episode overall.

According to the A.V. Club review of Gambit, Part I:

Actually, “Gambit: Part 1” isn’t as bad as I was dreading it would be. In fact, once you get past the opening 15 minutes, it turns into a fun, goofy romp along the lines of “Starship Mine.” Only it’s a bit better than “Mine,” because Data ends up as captain of the Enterprise, which hasn’t happened in a while. “Gambit” plays a bit like a cheesy ’80s sci-fi flick, something Canon might’ve made in between churning out ninja and Chuck Norris pictures; the presence of ’80s B-movie fixture Richard Lynch as the episode’s main villain doesn’t alter this impression. It’s not amazing or anything, and as always I question the need to spread this out over two episodes. (We’ll see how part two works out, though.) But it’s less bad than “Interface,” and, at least right now, probably better than anything the seventh season has had to offer. I’m slowly coming around to the idea that the thoughtful, challenging stories that TNG told in its best moments might be a thing of the past, but if this is what’s replacing them, well, there are worse ways to go.

Speaking of “worse,” the first act of “Gambit” is something of a slog. The cold open in the space bar, featuring Riker, Worf, Beverly, and Troi trying to find out what happened to Picard, is decent—I especially enjoyed Beverly’s kicky beret—but once the crew learns that Picard is dead, things take a turn for the painful. (No, Picard isn’t dead. But they think he is.) Really, it’s just this one scene, when Troi confronts Riker on his behavior in the wake of Picard’s purported demise. It’s amazingly bad. Like “high-school students doing a play that somebody in creative writing class wrote after watching ‘“A,” My Name Is Alex’” Full of tortured, overly direct sentences and actors so desperate to justify their dialogue that they overplay everything. It’s an unnecessary scene as well; it exists to show how Riker and Troi are dealing with their grief, and how Riker is determined to track down Picard’s killers. The latter information is proven redundant when Riker tells a Federation admiral of his intentions (to the episode’s credit, we don’t waste a lot of time on authority figures arguing against Riker’s decision, although I’m fuzzy on exactly what happens to a ship’s command when its captain dies), and the former… well, since Picard is, in fact, not dead (Gasp!), this is pointless. It’s necessary to indicate that the ensemble has been affected by what happened, but a whole scene about how to properly deal with the tragedy is wasted time when the object of their mourning pops back on screen in the next act. If the Riker-Troi argument had been well-written, if it had been even competently managed, I wouldn’t object so much—but this one scene threatens to derail the entire episode.

Which is a shame, really. Once Riker gets himself kidnapped by a group of relic-hunting space pirates, things get a lot more interesting. The bad guys are straight out of the genre playbook, a motley crew of scum and villainy who serve at the pleasure of Arctus Baran (Lynch). And I’m not kidding about the pleasure part; each crewmember has a neural servo implanted in his or her neck, and if they go against Baran’s wishes, Baran can transmit great waves of pain with the touch of a button. (Which is somewhat reminiscent of “Chain Of Command, Part 2.” I was initially worried the episode would lean too heavily on the servos as a way of breaking Riker—torture isn’t something this show can do casually anymore—but the devices are more an obstacle that Picard and Riker will eventually have to overcome than anything designed to unsettle us too badly.) Picard’s already on board. In an explanation that only just lands within the bounds of plausibility, it turns out that Baran and the others have a special device that allows them to beam people onto their ship by shooting them. Which is why the snitch at the bar thought Picard was dead; instead of being “shot,” he’d been transported to Baran’s ship. As for how that worked out, well, Picard was doing his archaeology routine, and the space bandits are hopping around the galaxy looking for a very specific relic. Since Picard was off-duty when they found him, he was able to fake his way onto the ship and join up. Now he’s processing relics looking for a certain signature that Baran wants (for reasons we don’t know quite yet), and Riker shows up to lend a helping hand in bringing the bad guys to justice.

Basically what starts off as an episode with a really big hook (PICARD IS DEAD OH NO) shifts soon enough into a bit of escapism, and is all the better for it. Picard and Riker make a great team, but it’s not a pair the show usually throws into action together; usually Riker is off on the away team, and whenever Picard is directly involved with the action, it’s because Riker has already been incapacitated or Picard has been separated from the crew. But this is one of the foundational relationships of the show, and while this episode isn’t particularly deep, it’s great to see captain and first officer making plans and kicking ass and so forth. It’s also amusing how readily Picard takes to hating on Riker whenever any other member of the crew is around to hear. (Picard is so committed to this that I briefly worried this was going to turn into a mind-control episode; thankfully, it’s just that Jean-Luc is nearly as good an actor as Patrick Stewart.) Obviously establishing open antagonism against his real-life friend is the easiest way to try and prevent Baran from suspecting anything, but Riker’s pained look after Picard belts him one is hilarious.

While all this is going down, Data has become captain of the Enterprise, and I’m not gonna lie to you: it’s awesome. The main focus of the story is Riker and Picard, but every scene with Data running the ship is gold—it’s not showy or particularly dramatic, but he’s super efficient, and basically unstoppable. If you’ve ever seen the original Trek, you know that every once in a while, Spock would be in the command seat. Sometimes this didn’t work out so well, but by and large, he made a terrific commanding officer, because he was über-competant. Spock made logical, sensible choices, and while that isn’t always the source of great drama, it can be very satisfying to watch. Data is basically in the same boat here. Picard and the rest of the organic crew aren’t the hormone addled adult-teenagers of TOS, but it’s refreshing to see a story move forward without being hindered by doubt or bad instincts.

Arguably that takes some suspense out of the cliffhanger that ends the episode. The Enterprise catches up with Baran’s ship while Picard is doing his best to stop Baran from destroying a science vessel that stands in his way. There’s some talk, and Riker sends Data a message to lower their shields. Data considers this, nods, and then obeys the order—which, apparently, allows Baran to fire on the Enterprise while it’s unprotected. The fact that Riker set this all up, and Data allowed it to happen, means that it’s hard to get too worried about anything happening to the Enterprise before we watch part two. But then, it’s hard to believe that anything would’ve happened to the ship regardless, and what Data and Riker are working together to accomplish is to create a different kind of suspense. I’m not wondering if the Enterprise will survive; I’m wondering how it survives. Which, really, is the question at the heart of all cliffhangers. It wouldn’t be a cliffhanger if it was going to have an unhappy ending.

I don’t really have a lot to say about this one—can’t say yet if the two-parter justifies itself, or if the cliffhanger resolution makes sense, or if Baran gets a dramatically satisfying end. I doubt the second part of the episode is going to be amazing television, and I’d guess that, super-sizing aside, “Gambit” isn’t going to try for quite as much as “Interface” did. (For all its faults, “Interface” did have a certain kind of ambition.) But it’s entertaining, and it makes a lot more sense than “Interface” did, and, that one scene aside, I didn’t hate this. I just don’t have a whole lot more to comment on, so hopefully that’s enough.

According to the A.V. Club review of Gambit, Part II:

I forgot to mention last week: Tarella, the Romulan-who-turns-out-to-be-a-Vulcan hanging with the space pirates, is played by Robin Curtis, who previously replaced Kirstie Alley in the role of Lt. Saavik in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. This isn’t particularly relevant to anything, outside of pointing out the Trek franchise’s willingness to recycle actors in different roles (something which, while occasionally distracting, is actually pretty cool). While it’s supposed to be a surprise that Tarella is a Vulcan, not a Romulan, there’s no indication her character has any connection to Saavik, which is for the best. And hell, I wasn’t really surprised that Tarella was a Vulcan—given her cool, composed behavior through much of both these episodes, I’d just ignored the telltale forehead ridges and assumed she was Vulcan from the start. There’s some double crossing at work here, and Curtis is fine in the role, but the main reason I mention her so early in this review is that, well, once again I find myself at something of a loss. I promise I won’t spend the rest of this season constantly complaining about having nothing to say, but man. This is… passable. It’s moderately entertaining, it has a scene or two I loved, and an ending that was reaching for the profound but was ultimately just very, very silly. Everything else seemed kind of childish.

But I’m paid to blather, not to whine (there is a subtle difference), so let’s do this: Remember that cliffhanger? It was, like, a week ago, so you probably should, but to refresh: Under orders from Riker (who’s currently hanging out on Baran’s ship), Data lowered the Enterprise’s shields, allowing Picard to fire Baran’s ship’s phasers on them unprotected. The bad guys scored two direct hits on one of the Enterprise’s nacelles, but we learn this week that the phaser power had already been sufficiently lowered, and the attack did minimal damage. Captain Data responds to this by making his own fake attack on Baran’s ship, which allows the space pirates to escape with the impression that they damaged the Enterprise, but lack sufficient power to damage it further. As cliffhanger resolutions go, this is… fine. It makes story sense, and while it doesn’t keep tension high, let’s be honest with ourselves: Tension in this two-parter was never that high to begin with.

The most interesting idea raised in this entire two-parter doesn’t hit till roughly halfway through the episode. Tarella, having deduced Picard’s true nature through careful observation (she realizes he was the one who lowered the ship’s phaser levels and then pretended as though they were too damaged to continue firing), tells him her real name is T’Paal, and she’s actually a member of the Vulcan intelligence, sent to infiltrate Baran’s group. The relics Baran has been hunting for are pieces of an ancient Vulcan weapon designed to amplify its users’ thoughts, which sounds scary enough; back on planet Vulcan, an isolationist movement is growing which believes that the Vulcans need to rid themselves of interference from all other outside influence, and they’re willing to pay big money for a weapon they believe will make them the most powerful force in the universe. T’Paal explains that she’s trying to figure out exactly who is offering Baran money for the relics, and Picard readily agrees to help, but she warns him: She has to make sure the weapon doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, and she’s willing to blow up everyone on board just to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Only—and here’s the twist—T’Paal (or Tarella, or whatever the hell her real name is) is lying. Oh, there’s an isolationist on Vulcan, but she’s not working to track them down—she’s one of them. In fact, she’s the only one we ever see, so it’s entirely possible that the “group” she tells Picard about is just a product of her deluded, fevered ambition. But I always enjoy some political intrigue in my Trek, so it’s nice, at least for a while, that the episode pretends to be about more than just a bunch of greedy mercenaries raiding ruins for cash. We haven’t hard about much going on at Vulcan for a while now, maybe they’re going through a period of hardship, or maybe some people are having bad reactions to the attempts to broker peace with the Romulans. Who knows. Sadly, this episode doesn’t really give us much in the way of answers, because the “Vulcan isolationists” plot is just a hook to hang the episode’s climax on. T’Paal gets the pieces of the device she needs, she puts them together back on Vulcan, and is able to use the device to kill two members of the space pirate crew. But when she goes to attack Picard, she tells him to pick up his weapon first (sadly, Curtis does not bust out a Jack Palance impersonation here), and Picard is able to quickly deduce the resonator’s one weakness: peace.

Thematically, this fits in well with TNG’s fundamental assumption that dialogue, mutual respect and tolerance are sufficient to defeat just about any form of violence. This is an optimistic show, and it makes sense that the so-called ultimate weapon would prove insufficient against the force of that optimism. In terms of plot, however, it’s a little weak. It’s not so much that I object to the weapon ending up as something of a dud; it’s a smart way to undercut the rest of the two-parter, and a way to bring the whole story into something more in keeping with TNG’s basic philosophy. It’s just that, as it plays out here, I don’t really buy it. I found myself thinking of gags from Ghostbusters, and much as I love Ghostbusters, I doubt that’s what the writers were going for. When the away team beams down to Vulcan to rescue Picard, the captain quickly warns them that the only way to defeat T’Paal and her machine is to empty their minds of violent thoughts. And somehow, Worf manages to do this, enough to survive a direct shot from the brain gun. I love Worf, but—really? A Klingon who always seems one bad day away from going Keith Moon on quarters, Worf has never struck me as someone capable of calming down—from a position of full alert, mind you—so immediately. It comes across as too easy.

Really, the whole episode is like that, from the resolved cliffhanger to the plotting on-board Baran’s ship. Baran actually asks Riker to get closer to “Galen,” (Picard’s assumed name) in order to betray him down the line, which allows Riker and Picard to chat at their pleasure without fear of raising suspicion. And Baran’s downfall comes when he uses his pain-control remote on Picard without realizing that Picard has “switched the transponder codes” beforehand. When it’s that easy to accomplish everything, why bother making it a threat in the first place? “Gambit” didn’t need to be brilliantly insightful to work, but it did need suspense, and it seems like every moment in this episode is about reassuring the audience that there’s no real reason to be concerned. The most intense moment in the whole thing comes when Riker learns that T’Paal isn’t actually working for the Vulcan government, because for once, it means that Picard is in danger without anyone able to directly inform him he’s in danger. Only, T’Paal doesn’t take advantage of this edge for a long time, and by then, Picard has taken over as captain of the ship, which means he could’ve hailed the Enterprise at any time just to check in, and gotten the information. There’s no danger here at all, and that kills most of the fun.

The best scene in the whole episode has nothing to do with the main plot. In the absence of Riker and Picard, Data has taken command of the Enterprise, and he does a fine job of it. But he’s a little too conservative for Worf’s taste, and the Klingon (who is now acting as the ship’s first officer) repeatedly makes sarcastic or disparaging comments about Data’s leadership style. In response, Data takes him aside to Picard’s ready room and, in effect, tells him either to do his damn job, or be replaced. It’s a great exchange, because it takes what we know about the characters—Worf’s impatience, Data’s attention to duty, the friendship between the two—and it exploits that knowledge in a believable, affecting way. For my money, Data’s firm, but regretful, “Mr. Worf, I’m sorry if I have ended our friendship” is more thrilling than anything that happens with Baran or T’Paal or her silly resonator, and Worf’s apology, and his efforts to work with Data later on, are more rewarding than realizing a millennium-old doohickey isn’t quite as powerful as everyone thought it was. All I really got out of either part of “Gambit” (which, I will say, is far from the worst two-parter this show has done) is how much I’d love to watch a show about Captain Data and First Officer Worf exploring the galaxy. And since that won’t be happening any time soon, I’d say we should move on.

According to the A.V. Club review of Sub Rosa:

All right, this one hurt.

Final thoughts: This was bad. Let us never speak of it again.

According to the A.V. Club review of Thine Own Self:

TNG has managed to creep me out before, both intentionally and unintentionally. I’ve been frightened by bizarre, nightmare-inducing aliens; I’ve been made uncomfortable by Data’s behavior; and I’ve been horrified by Lwaxana Troi’s laugh. But I don’t think I’ve been as viscerally unsettled watching the show as I was during “Thine Own Self.” This is an odd episode, although its basic structure—memory loss, stranger in a strange land, outsiders fear what they don’t understand—is familiar to the series, and to science fiction in general. What makes “Thine Own Self” odd is in the margins. Like the subplot with Troi becoming a commander. Or the fact that by the end of the episode, Data has half the face of his skin ripped off, gets stabbed through the chest with an iron rod, and then buried underground by a group of somewhat guilty townsfolk. Or, and here’s the bit that really got to me, the sight of ignorant people casually handling radioactive material. One little girl actually wears a piece of the metal as a necklace.

“Thine Own Self” doesn’t have the coherency of an episode like “Lower Decks,” but it nearly makes up for this by telling a pair of entertaining, clever vignettes, the first centering on Data encountering difficulties during a fairly routine recovery mission, the second detailing Troi’s attempts to pass the Engineering portion of the commanding-officer test. Data’s story, which gives the episode its title (you could make an argument that Troi is also being true to her self by following her ambition, but Data’s the one who loses his memory), is the main plot, but Troi’s is actually one of the best storylines the character has ever had, allowing her to operate in realms beyond the usual spheres of sensing and something. Neither of these plots connect, really, and while I appreciate that the show doesn’t try and force thematic resonance where none exists, that lack of connection does make the episode feel a little less than whole. Plus, Data’s adventures in Vaguely Renaissance Land come just a hair or two shy of entirely working. Overall, though, this was a solid “B+” of an episode; not a classic, and probably not to all tastes, but just loopy enough to keep me guessing.

When “Thine Own Self” begins, Troi is returning to the Enterprise after a school reunion. She finds Beverly on the bridge, and in the course of their short conversation, Troi learns that Data is off on Barkon-4, a planet with a pre-industrial society. A ship bearing radioactive materials crashed on the planet in an unpopulated area, and since radiation doesn’t affect Data the way it affects organic life, he’s been sent on a solo mission to clean up the crash. Troi also questions Beverly as to what prompts her to volunteer to captain the ship during the night shift, and while Beverly’s answer is a good one (because really, if you had the chance to, wouldn’t you want to captain a starship?), it’s clear that Troi has already got the proverbial bee in her bonnet. Going to her reunion and seeing what her friends have accomplished may have jumpstarted her ambition, but what really got her going on this was back in season five’s “Disaster,” when Troi briefly commanded the Enterprise during a, well, disaster. She’s ready for the next step, but taking that step isn’t as just as easy as wanting to.

It’s at this point that our stories split neatly in two. When we first see Data on Barkon-4, an accident has blocked much of his memory. He arrives in town (after a 100 kilometer walk) just in time to meet a local man named Garvin, and his daughter, Gia. Data confesses his lack of memory, and Garvin takes him home, where the town doctor (who isn’t exactly a super genius) looks him over and declares that he’s an iceman from the mountains. Apart from his clothes, all that Data has with him is a case marked “Radioactive.” Since no one knows what that word means, they decide to open the case to see if it has any clues as to Data’s identity inside. Instead, they find a bunch of rocks. Rocks that Garvin sells to the town blacksmith, although he keeps a few for himself. Pretty soon, Garvin starts feeling ill. Sores and burn marks develop on his flesh, and he takes to his bed. Then Gia gets sick. Then the blacksmith. And so on.

There is something deeply and immediately unpleasant about watching Garvin and the others casually toss around radioactive metal, and in its way, it’s a great argument for the Prime Directive. The Barkonians are totally unprepared for this kind of danger. Not only do they not recognize radioactivity for what it is, they have no comprehension of the threat it represents, and only the simplest conception of elements and the core substance of the universe. Again and again, the arrogant (but well-meaning) town doctor exposes her ignorance, and it’s actually impressive that Data manages to stay on everyone’s good side for as long as he does; another character, i.e. someone without Data’s lack of anger and innate calm, would’ve argued harder, and probably gotten stabbed a lot sooner. Sure, if you ignored the Prime Directive, you could try and explain everything about what was happening, as Data does his best to do, but you can’t guarantee that those explanations would go smoothly. Honestly, the biggest lesson to take away from this is that any contact with a civilization that’s not ready for outsiders will probably end badly; and even more troublesome, contact is going to happen from time to time, no matter how much you want to prevent it. The best you can hope for is to minimize the danger, which, at its best, is really all the Prime Directive is about.

Meanwhile, Troi is struggling with her exams. It’s the Engineering test she can’t get a handle on; it takes place on the holodeck, during a simulated ship meltdown, and no matter how many times she takes it, she can’t stop the ship from blowing up. It gets to the point that Riker finally tells her he can’t test her anymore—he doesn’t think she’s cut out for command, and this is the kind of test where you can’t give someone advice. Either they realize their mistake, or they don’t. Finally, a comment about duty gives Troi the answer she needs: She has to be willing to sacrifice a crewmember, even someone she knows and cares about, for the good of the Enterprise. It’s a lesson that ties in well with what we saw in “Lower Decks,” and one of the overarching themes of the series. The original Trek had its deaths, but we never lost anyone we really cared about, and Kirk’s grief over a dead red-shirt tended to be contingent on the dictates of the plot. TNG is more serious than that. I’ve said that this is a show about the consequences of crazy science-fiction ideas, and as consequences go, it doesn’t get more serious than death. Where TOS was pulpy, iconic fun, the writers of TNG decided to take the premise as straight-faced and realistically as possible. (For a given value of “realism.”) Which means that not every ending is a happy one, and that being in a position of command means being willing to send people to their deaths if need be.

So Troi eventually passes her test, which is nice for her, and Data (who can’t remember his actually name and is going around calling himself “Jayden”) is trying to figure out why everyone around him is dying. There’s some nifty low-tech science here, although I’ll leave it to you to determine if any of it would actually work. If I had any problem with this section of the story, it’s that, apart from the slow death-by-radiation that hits so many of the townsfolk, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot here that isn’t easy to chart out in advance. It’s done well, and there are plenty of effective, eerie images here, but the actual Barkonians fail to make much of an impression; apart from the upside down U’s they have tattooed on their foreheads, they don’t have much in the way to distinguish them from a dozen other races we’ve seen on the show. But on the plus side, I was impressed at how far “Thine Own Self” was willing to take the paranoia and suspicion of the townsfolk. Seeing Data get Two-Faced was unexpected, and see him get stabbed through the chest and buried was even more so. You could almost imagine this episode playing out with a different, non-starring castmember in Data’s role. The memory loss would be harder to explain, but the burial would be a poignant and haunting, as opposed to just a minor inconvenience.

Some episodes are frustrating because they fail to live up to their potential; others are difficult to watch because they had no potential in the first place. “Thine Own Self” is solid. It could’ve been better, but its flaws aren’t so obvious as to be distracting, and not every episode is going to be a classic. Season seven has had a lot of uneven material, so it’s comforting to see something like this, an overall unremarkable but still entertaining hour of television, one that offers a few moments of insight and wit, a few memorable images, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Just like this review.

According to the A.V. Club review of Genesis:

I’m not sure if anyone’s noticed, but these reviews have been getting shorter as we approach the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Given that my regular review length tends to be a tad on the self-indulgent side, I really shouldn’t see this as a problem, but it does bother me a little. Partly it’s because I’ve stretched myself too thin this fall, and when I get tired, it gets that much harder for me to find clever ways of poking holes in the adventures of Captain Picard and friends. But if that was the only reason—hell, if that was even the main reason—then it wouldn’t be happening with such regularity. The real issue here is that the worse the show gets, the more difficult it is for me to find ways to comment on it without either repeating what I’ve said in the past, or just giving in to outright sarcasm. The former would be pointless, and the latter, while initially entertaining, would get old fast. (I’m just not funny enough to sustain a season-long riffing session.) Once upon a time, bad episodes could inspire as much passion in me as good ones, because it’s fascinating to understand what separates a failed hour of television from a successful, or even passably mediocre one. But with hours like “Genesis” and “Journey’s End,” I’m sorely tempted to just shrug, roll my eyes, and move on.

Sadly for us all, I doubt my overlords would pay for me for contempt alone, so I’ve got to muster up a few words for “Genesis,” a very silly, irritatingly lazy episode of the “Crazy stuff happens to the crew!” variety. (And for what it’s worth, I don’t include the above as a complaint, or not exactly—I think it’s as much a commentary on the episodes as the reviews themselves that I’m, if not actively dreading the show now, then at least not embracing it with the excitement I once did. If I had to characterize season seven in one word, that word would be “flailing.” There have been a few good-to-great episodes in here, but for the most part, it’s almost like we’re stuck back in the first season, when no one working on the show had any idea what kind of stories they wanted to tell. Only now, it’s more a matter of creative ennui than confusion.) There are a few fun bits scattered here and there throughout the episode, but the ridiculous central concept, combined with an ending that doesn’t so much justify what just happened as it does flip off the audience and dare them to object, doesn’t make for good Trek. Or good anything, really.

The plot wouldn’t be out of place in a Captain Planet episode: While Picard and Data are off in a shuttlecraft to pick up a rogue torpedo, the crew of the Enterprisebegin acting strangely. Worf becomes more violent and intense, snapping at his fellow officers and leering at the womenfolk; Troi is convinced the temperature controls on the ship are off, as she’s constantly cold and thirsty; and Riker starts doing some third thing that, um, wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue… (He’s forgetful and slow-witted.) Also, Barclay is super-hyper. Things continue to generate, climaxing when Worf, clearly in the grip of some kind of fever, attacks Troi and bites her. Then he spews disfiguring venom in Dr. Crusher’s face. Clearly, something is amiss, but before we can find out what that something is, the story cuts to Picard and Data returning to the ship, the rogue torpedo successfully captured and deactivated. They find the Enterprise floating dead in space, the engines shut down, the computer deactivated. Riker is a caveman now, and Troi is some kind of weird frog monster; Barclay’s a spider-thing (eek!), and Worf is, well, a psycho, horny rock monster. No, really. Data and Picard have to figure out what happened to the crew, and how to cure it, before Worf kills them, or Picard himself succumbs to the disease.

All right, do I have anything nice to say about this episode? It is, after all, directed by Gates McFadden, marking the first time a female cast member directed a Trekepisode, and I like McFadden (as a fellow Brandeis alum, I think we’d get on quite well). Well, I was too busy snickering and/or cringing at the writing to notice the direction much, so I’ll give it a pass in that respect. I did like the way the episode split in two, the first part showing the initial stages of the de-evolution process, the second part jumping forward in time to show us the end results through Picard and Data’s perspective. It’s a bit like “Timescape” in that respect, but just because the structure is familiar doesn’t make it any less effective. And as goofy as all of this is, the monster make-up is impressively freaky.

But man oh man is this goofy. Data’s explanation to Picard is that some kind of virus is causing inactive genetic codes called “introns” to reactivate in the crew, leading to the de-evolution. The virus is semi-random, so even people who share the same race won’t necessarily fall back into the same earlier species, which is how the episode justifies both Spider-Barclay and Will “I like rocks” Riker. And that’s it. There’s no alien intelligence running this as a test on the Enterprise(which would be dumb, but still less dumb than the explanation we eventually get), and once we get the main idea of the episode, there’s really nothing else we need to see. Data and Picard wander around for a while, Data figures out the problem, then he figures out how to solve it. There’s some suspense, both in the early goings (when characters behave strangely for no apparent reason), and later on, when Picard has to distract a hormone-addled Worf, all while suffering from a sudden attack of the scaredy-cats. But while that final chase scene isn’t awful, and gives Picard yet another opportunity to demonstrate his quick thinking in a crisis, the earlier tension isn’t really an enjoyable kind of tension, because so much of it plays on Worf’s ancestry as a dangerous, violent animal. While it’s explained (to a point) by the narrative in a way the excuses him from his behavior, that doesn’t make it less creepy to watch him leering at waitresses, snapping at Riker, or assaulting poor Troi and Beverly. Plus, there’s every indication that he murdered the ensign Picard and Data find on the bridge, and the way this is casually tossed off is troubling to say the least.

The real kicker comes in the final scene, however, when we learn that the root cause of all this trouble was a dormant gene in Barclay that someone transformed into an airborne virus when Beverly tried to reactivate it. Seriously, that’s the reason. The entire ship was thrown into chaos, people died, genetic structures were realigned, Troi turned into a freakin’ frog thing, and it’s just because oh hey, Barclay has weird genes. This is weak, weak sauce, a half-assed explanation that falls apart the moment you think about it, and makes an already dumb episode look even more foolish in retrospect. Even beyond the fact that “Oh, you just have weird genes” is a stupid reason for anything, the cavalier way Beverly handles the situation—a situation that left her severely (if temporarily) disfigured, and, again, cost the life of at least one crewman. Bad enough that the show is resorting to corny, shallow storytelling as it winds down its final hours, but it’s insult to viewers (and to the characters we’ve come to respect) to see the show implicitly acknowledge the shallowness of its writing without making any effort to correct it. Of this week’s two episodes, I was more openly frustrated with “Journey’s End,” for reasons we’ll get to shortly, but in retrospect, “Genesis” was the greater sin. At least “Journey’s End” bothered to have ambition. “Genesis” just decided to take its de-evolutionary theme too much to heart.

 

s6e9

The next in best and worst is Season 6.

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18 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 7

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