The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 6

In a previous post, I began the series on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and here I continue with Season 6.

 

The Best:

Relics, The Quality of Life, Chain of Command Parts I and II, Face of the Enemy, Tapestry, Birthright Parts I and II, Starship Mine, The Chase, Frame of Mind, Rightful Heir, Second Chances, and Timescape

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Briefly:

  • Relics features a Dyson sphere, and the return of TOS’s Montgomery Scott;
  • The Quality of Life is quite the wonderful episode, which merely asks, “What is [considered] life?”;
  • Chain of Command features Captain Picard, Lieutenant Worf and Dr. Crusher are assigned on a secret mission involving Cardassians, meanwhile Captain Edward Jellico takes command of the Enterprise, ruffling some feathers in the process;
  • Face of the Enemy sees Counselor Deanna Troi captured and surgically altered to appear Romulan in order to fulfill a plot;
  • Tapestry is an espicially brilliant episode featuring Q, and Picard;
  • Birthright features the Enterprise aboard Deep Space Nine, with an appearance of Dr. Julian Bashier from the series, meanwhile Worf is taken to a Romulan Prison camp after hearing reports that his father, Mogh, is still alive;
  • Starship Mine sees Picard under siege by terrorists aboard the Enterprise;
  • Lessons is an awesome fully-developed romance featured with the show, with results that were expected;
  • The Chase has always been a neat story, à la Contact;
  • Frame of Mind features Commander Riker in a play but the lines between reality and the play bleed through;
  • Rightful Heir is a very faith-centered story, featuring the return of Kahless;
  • Second Chances features a transport duplicate of Riker, Thomas Riker; and,
  • Timescape features a ‘man against time’ scenario with slight misdirection on the events unfolding.

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

One of the smartest choices the creative team of TNG made when starting a new Trek series was pushing the show nearly a century after the events of TOS. After all, by the late eighties, the original  Enterprise crew had become iconic to TV and film fans alike, and any series that tried to follow in their footsteps was going to have its work cut out for it. By starting long after Kirk, Sulu, Chekov and the others should’ve been dead, TNG allowed itself the space to find its own voice, without having to fill every episode with fan service and homage. Sure, there’ve been occasional nods to TOS. DeForest Kelley popped up in the premiere wearing a crapload of old age make-up. Sarek did a couple of guest spots before he died. And of course Spock had his two-parter last season. But while it took a season or two for TNG to come into its own, it was able to do so without putting William Shatner on the bridge, or turning Uhura in a computer simulation. The distance allowed us to accept that this was, for all intents and purposes, a new show, and not one that had to try and recapture whatever rough-hewn magic TOS achieved in its brief run.

Plus, the rarity of those callbacks makes it all the more fun when the writers (in this case, your friend and mine Ron Moore) decide to work one in. In “Relics,” the Enterprise gets a distress call from the Jenolan, a Federation ship that went missing over seventy years ago. The follow the signal and find the ship has crash-landed on an honest to god Dyson Sphere, a previously theoretical model created in 1959 by Freeman Dyson that postulated a shell built around a star could allow people living on the inside of the shell access to almost limitless amounts of energy. No one’s ever seen one built before, so Picard and the bridge crew are understandably impressed. And that’s not the only wonder. Geordi, Riker, and Worf beam over to the Jenolan, and Geordi discovers that there’s still a pattern left in the transporter buffer–a pattern that has someone managed to avoid significant degradation in the decades since the ship crashed. Geordi activates the energizer, and then, with a sound and visual affect familiar to anyone whose watched the original Trek series, Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (James Doohan), former Chief Engineer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, fades into view.

If you followed my TOS reviews, I’m not a big fan of Scotty from his portrayal on that show; I found the character often problematic, and kind of unpleasant, for various reasons that aren’t worth getting into here. He grew on me over time, and I enjoyed his presence in all the Trek movies, but I was surprised at just how much I liked him here, in a way I’m not sure I would’ve liked Sulu or Uhura if Moore had chosen one of them to appear. Nothing against Sulu or Uhura, or Chekov, or anyone else–Scotty just makes the most sense because his job on the original series is one that leads to the most potentially effective dramatic narrative when he finds himself in the “present” of TNG. As Chief Engineer, Scotty was a man made of his time, and his expertise and knack for problem solving saved his ship dozens of times over. But even as the movies went on, and the technology passed him by, there was a sense that he wouldn’t be able to remain relevant much longer.

The movies played this gradual process of antiquization for laughs or “Right on!” moments, as Scotty was always able to find some loophole or trick to demonstrate his old-school cleverness could top any new tech that got in his way. But in “Relics,” well, just look at the title. This is TNG, and, as such, there wasn’t much chance that Doohan’s guest spot was going to end with him feeling humiliated and alone. By the conclusion of the ep, Scotty has once again shown his usefulness, and he leaves the new Enterprise with a general sense of optimism and pride. And yet, even then–he leaves. Even after helping Geordi to save the day, there’s no suggestion that Scotty stick around and get retrained. (Well, I think someone–Picard?–suggests he go back to school, but Scotty rejects the suggestion, and rightly so.) This isn’t an episode about death, exactly, but it is one about how good times pass us inevitably by, and how there will come a time in all our lives, if we’re lucky enough to live that long, when we’ll spend too much of our days reminiscing over the memory of when we really mattered.

“Relics” is a strong hour, then, both for the series and for the franchise, and it deals better with an old crew-member passing the torch to Picard than Generations did. (Or does, since when “Relics” aired, Generations was a few years down the road yet. Of course, that leads to a plot-hole when Scotty talks about Kirk in “Relics” as though he thinks Kirk is still alive, but I think we’d all be happy to pretend that Generations never existed.) I can see fans accusing the episode of being occasionally mawkish, or overly comic, or not focusing enough on the admittedly fascinating concept of the Dyson Sphere. The mawkish worked for me, because Doohan carries the character well, and the sentimentality was earned; and I actually laughed at most of the jokes, which is a rarity for this show. As for the Sphere, well, you got me there. It’s a bit under-used, and we never get any sense of who built it or why. But, quite honestly, I don’t care. TNG doesn’t do a lot of hard sci-fi, and while there may be some plot that was squandered here, the episode as is works well enough that I find it hard to complain over possible missed opportunities.

So, Scotty is saved, and he beams back over to the Enterprise, where his attempts to involve himself with Engineering go about as badly as you’d expect. Wonder of wonders, you even see Geordi getting angry here, as Scotty’s constant interruptions and misguided offers of assistance threaten to put him behind schedule. What makes this work is the way “Relics” manages to put our symapthies with a guest character, even while we still understand Geordi’s point. Obviously it’s hard to be told you’re obsolete, and Geordi’s initial condescension (it’s subtle, but it’s there, and it’s a great character moment for La Forge), a sort of polite “Okay Grandpa, I’ll pretend like you matter,” makes it easy to be on Scotty’s side, whether or not you have an emotional attachment to TOS. But the fact is, while he could probably stand a little more perspective, Geordi is essentially right. The mistakes Scotty makes in Engineering are all clear indications that he’s no longer qualified or equipped to do the work he once did, no matter how much he might protest otherwise. Eventually, he’s given a chance to prove himself back on the Jenolen, but that doesn’t change the basic truth here: time passes, and even if you stay alive, you will get left behind eventually.

Scotty spends some time in Ten-Forward, trying to drink his way through his troubles; he’s horrified to discover that the scotch served on the ship is non-intoxicating, but luckily Data is around to dip into Guinan’s private stash. (“It is green,” is a great laugh-line, and a fine call-back to TOS episode “By Any Other Name.”) This leads to what may be the best scene of the episode, as Scotty wanders half-drunk to a holodeck and uses the computer to re-create the bridge of the original Enterprise. (“NCC-1701. No bloody A, B, C, or D.”) The effects here are a little rocky, as the show didn’t have the budget to recreate the original set, and mostly just green-screened Scotty in over old footage. But it’s still effective and nostalgic and sweet, especially when Picard pops by for a chat about old ships and lost loves. Yes, on the one hand, there’s a bit of that fan service I mentioned above here, as Picard and Scotty’s conversation doesn’t advance the plot, but dammit, that doesn’t make it one whit less entertaining.

Of course, we can’t just hang around and shoot the breeze the entire ep, so soon enough, Picard sends Geordi and Scotty back to the Jenolen to try and access the ships data logs. This is supposedly to give Scotty something to do so he can feel useful again, but it’s story purpose is to get Geordi and Scotty off the Enterprise so that when Picard and the others manage to get themselves sucked into the Dyson Sphere, our twin engineers can come to the rescue. (Scotty and Geordi get the Jenolen running again, and use it to block open the entrance to the Sphere long enough for the Enterprise to escape.) It’s a traditional ending, to a largely traditional episode, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch. Doohan and Burton have a good chemistry together, and while their mutual antagonism never rises to the level of outright contempt, it’s nice to see both men learning to respect and appreciate the other. After a generally unpleasant episode like “Man of the People” (which, even if it had been successful, would’ve been pretty creepy and unsettling), it’s a relief to spend some time on an honest adventure with plenty of good vibes.

And Doohan is just a lot of fun throughout. The reveal that he used to exaggerate the amount of time projects would take in order to seem like a miracle worker is terrific, as are the handful of references to TOS episodes. But what makes this really work is that even if you didn’t have any history at all with Star Trek, it would still be easy to appreciate what happens here. Because even if the details are specific to the franchise, the core idea–accepting that the world moves on, realizing you still have something to offer even if it’s not as important as it used to be–are universal. I wonder if Moore ever considered killing Scotty off before the end of the hour. It wouldn’t have been all that difficult, really, and I suppose there would’ve been a certain neatness to it. But I’m glad that, instead, Scotty ends up with a shuttlecraft, off to explore a galaxy slightly older than when he last saw it. It’s a bit on the corny side, but like everything else in “Relics,” it works better than it should have.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Quality of Life:

It’s easy to sympathize with Data for much of this episode. Fiction teaches us to support anyone trying to protect life, and right up till the moment when Data demonstrates he’s willing to let Geordi and Picard die to save a handful of jumped up shop-vacs, that support isn’t all that difficult to maintain. After all, Data is such a nice, reassuring presence, and he has the benefit of being nearly always right. Plus, Dr. Farallon, the scientist responsible for the machines that cause all this confusion, is single-minded and self-righteous enough to make it fun to side against her. Really, though, she does have a point. Imagine if your microwave started getting uppity or if your computer deleted programs without consulting you. You’d assume the machines were malfunctioning, right? You certainly wouldn’t think you were witnessing the birth of new life.

Or maybe you would; I’m not privy to what goes on in your sordid little apartment, anyway. Still, even if you are somehow gifted with insight above and beyond the capacity of normal men, it’s rare for the rest of us to see what we don’t expect to see. “Quality of Life” deals with questions the show has dealt with before, and for most of its running time, it does its best to show just how difficult those questions can be. I said it’s easy to sympathize with Data for most of the episode, and it is, but that’s because we in the audience have a certain edge; while there’s always a chance that the exocomps (the jumped up shop-vacs I mentioned before) really will be glitching as Dr. Farallon believes, we know from experience that’s probably not the case. From the characters’ perspective, though, “Quality” doesn’t make things easy. The exocomps look about as far from living as possible. If your career was on the line, would you want to throw aside your dreams to see if the calculator was crying?

The Enterprise is visiting the Tyran System, where Geordi is assessing a new mining system devised by the ambitious, driven Dr. Farallon. The system (which uses an orbital laser to mine material from the planet below, and there’s also a lot of science goobledy-gook involved) has had its fair share of problems, and Geordi isn’t completely sold on it. He thinks the doctor has made some amazing leaps forward, but he’s not convinced the equipment is ready for wide-spread use. Farallon believes otherwise, and one of the reasons she’s so confident is that she’s invented a new robot that can quickly and efficiently perform the kind of elaborate repairs the system demands. She demonstrates one of these robots, an exocomp (which sounds like it should be a Japanese mecha anime series from the ’80s, but never mind that), to Geordi, who is suitably impressed. Only, when she tries to use the exocomp to fix another problem, the machine returns without having fixed anything, right before the entire station is rocked by explosions.

When Geordi checks the seemingly faulty exocomp, he and Data discover numerous new circuit pathways inside the machine’s “brain.” Farallon designed the exocomps so that they could learn as they progressed and form new connections on their own with each new problem they solved, but she says that after a certain point, the machine starts creating connections apparently at random, for no purpose she can determine. Once that happens, the exocomp becomes worthless, and she has to erase its systems and start over again. She explains this casually, as if it’s not anything to be that impressed by, but Data is intrigued. And quite frankly, Farallon’s nonchalant dismissal of her own machine’s odd behavior doesn’t speak too well of her. (At most, she’s exasperated by the whole thing.) For someone with the technical know-how to design this kind of robot, especially someone so well-versed and fascinated by Data’s neural pathways, to not even consider the ramifications of what’s happening right before her eyes is, quite frankly, embarrassing. The point of the episode is that she’s so committed to her mining work, she doesn’t realize what she’s inadvertently accomplished on the sidelines, but as with many guest TNG characters, her blindness seems more plot-dictated than organic.

This becomes a problem later in the episode, once Data determines that there is good cause to believe that the exocomps are alive (I’m half-convinced this episode was written after someone made a bet that they could make the cast say a very stupid word in very serious tones a dozen or more times without laughing) and sets about trying to prove his case to the others. Farallon, after being portrayed as largely sympathetic (if somewhat blindered) for the early part of the episode turns more openly antagonistic here. And it’s frustrating, because it sets her up to fail. She’s clearly making her decision based on emotion: she’s completely invested in making sure her mining system succeeds, and the idea that the tools which are crucial to her efforts might have rights or needs throws a wrench into everything. “Quality” obviously needs some conflict, but if Farallon had just been a little less angry about the whole thing, a little less quick to ignore the conclusions of someone she claims to respect, it might’ve played better.

It might also have given us more time to deal with the most interesting aspect of the episode: Data’s decision to disobey orders, a decision which directly endangers two of his closest friends. Data tries to prove the exocomp is alive by recreating the initial crisis that caused him to be suspicious of the machine in the first place. The idea being, if the ‘comp flees again, that first glitch wasn’t a glitch at all, but a clear indication of self-preservation. The tests fail, but Data, with some help from Beverly, eventually discovers that it fails not because the exocomp isn’t alive, but because the machine realized it was a test, and thus fixed the problem on its own. So the exocomp is alive, but before Data can gloat to anyone in that calm, non-gloaty manner of his, all hell breaks lose on the mining station, and Picard and Geordi get left behind after everyone else is safely beamed back to the Enterprise. In order to save the captain and the engineer, Farallon proposes using exocomps to disrupt the beam the station is firing at the planet. This would destroy the exocomps, and Data objects, bringing up the whole “They’re really alive” thing. Riker, forced to chose between the lives of crew-members and Data’s beliefs, opts for Farallon’s plan, only for Data to override system controls and lock down the transporters before they can do anything.

This is a big deal. Data’s willful insubordination here is, I think, the most rebellious he’s ever been in the entire run of the show, and considering the stakes, it’s a shock that he does it so quickly. I’m torn here. On the one hand, there’s something more than a little artificial (heh) about how this particular catastrophe comes together, how it puts Data in a position where he either has to break ranks or take part in the slaughter of the closest cousins he’s ever known; it feels constructed, and while, yes, obviously, all scripted television is constructed, there’s a way to build this sort of dilemma to make it take you by surprise. The fact that the exocomps just happen to be the only possible solution and the fact that using them means killing them is too direct. It smacks of writers imagining how powerful such a moment could be, and then trying to work into it and not quite succeeding.

At the same time, it’s such a bold, big choice, I can’t help but dig it for that reason alone. The crew of the Enterprise sticks together, by and large, and to have one of the show’s most trusted heroes stand in the way of an apparently essential rescue mission, creates a level of drama the series rarely aspires to. Admittedly, the fact that there aren’t any real consequences to this choice diminish the impact somewhat. Picard and Geordi make it out alive, and the exocomps find a way to save them that means nearly everyone survives. (One exocomp sacrifices itself to allow the others time to escape.) As well, Data isn’t court-martialed, shut down, or even formally reprimanded. Picard even compliments Data on his behavior, saying, “It was the most human decision you’ve ever made.” On a show like, say, Battlestar Galactica, this would’ve been yet another sign that everyone was on their own, that even the characters we loved and trusted the most would betray everyone around them if they believed they had just cause. TNG can’t really support that; nor should it try. But it’s nice to see them dabble.

“Quality” isn’t a great episode—it’s no “Measure of a Man,” for instance. It’s too contrived, and the almost entirely happy ending plays like something of a cheat, especially considering the lack of fallout from Data’s actions. Still, it works pretty well, and I’ll take from it the same thing I take from nearly every Data-centric episode: He’s perhaps the most alien being anyone on the show has ever come across, even though they work with him every day. He’s nice enough. But when he makes a choice, he commits to that choice, and nothing—not weakness, not doubt, not confusion—stops him. There is something equal parts terrifying and inspiring in that, and for all his surface politeness and inability to grasp basic English idiom, Data remains one of TNG‘s most fascinating leads, and it’s all the more impressive that the show sometimes doesn’t even seem to realize it.

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

So we’re finally here, are we? This may be the last of the big episodes that I’ve been waiting to watch ever since starting this project, so many millenniums ago. No, wait, we’ve got “Tapestry” coming up this season, I keep hearing how amazing that is, and I’ll admit to being curious about “Sub Rosa,” as it sounds like the Holocaust and the season one finale of The Killing combined. (Too soon?) But the two part “Chain of Command” is definitely a line to be crossed off an ever dwindling list, and while I’m excited to be here (and especially excited about next week’s conclusion), I’m a little sad as well. To everything a season, and all that. You realize when you watch a lot of TV that every show has a peak, and that peak is hardly ever the show’s final season. Unless it’s a series cancelled before its time, like the above quoted Joss Whedon space epic, it’s going to hit the heights, and then begin the slow, painful collapse into mediocrity or worse, until the audience dwindles, and it’s time for a mercy killing.

But we’re not quite there yet, and even if TNG has passed its best years (I’d put that at roughly season four, or three—just generally in that middle area, which seems a safe enough bet), there’s good to come. Good which includes, among other things, the finale (which I remember liking), and, of course, “Chain.” Let’s dive in, shall we?

About that quote above—Firefly and TNG don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues. In many ways, Whedon’s show was intended as a response to the Trek franchise’s rose-colored take on unified government and unchecked expansionism; the “Alliance,” Firefly’s Federation analog, is portrayed as a crushing dictatorship, forcing new systems to join up whether they want to or not. But one thing both shows could readily agree on is that bureaucracy sucks. While Federation officials generally appear to be motivated by a desire to do what’s best for the organization and, presumably, the universe, that doesn’t make the assholes any easier to deal with. And there are a lot of assholes.

Like, f’r instance, Captain Edward Jellico, the man assigned to take over in the Enterprise when Starfleet assigns Picard to a super-secret, hush-hush, cross your heart and hope to die mission. Jellico seems like a nice enough guy at first. He’s played by Ronny Cox, and, sure, Ronny Cox has played some great villains before. He was a creep in Robocop and a slightly smarmier creep in Total Recall, but hey, he was the President in Albert Pyun’s Captan America, which ought to count for something. I started watching “Chain” for the first time without looking at any summary or plot info on the episode. I knew that part II had (spoiler!) torture in it, but apart from that, and the “THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS” people have been quoting at me ever since I got this assignment, I didn’t have much in the way of expectations. So I actually thought Jellico was going to prove an exception to the rule of assholery. I noted how ridiculous it was not to simply give Riker command of the ship, but when Jellico beamed aboard, he was enthusiastic and friendly. “Which is cool,” I wrote.

Ah, how naive I was! I should’ve realized it would all go to hell soon enough, considering how obnoxious Vice-Admiral Nechayev was when issuing orders to Riker on the transfer of power. Jellico is just another in a long line of self-righteous jerks, so thoroughly convinced in his own ability and insight that he refuses any advice or counsel from anyone else on board the ship. He immediately orders the three-shift rotation of the Enterprise be switched to four-shifts, and when Riker tries to explain to him how all of the shift-leaders agree that such a switch would be disastrous, he simply repeats the order, with more glaring. He runs combat drills, he makes ridiculous demands on the ship’s technical teams, and in general, he behaves like a fool. It’s an irritating convention of this show that whenever new personnel are brought on board to help deal with a crisis, that person or persons is almost invariably going to make the problem worse.

The problem here seems bad enough to begin with. Picard, Beverly, and Worf are assigned to create as special ops team, for reasons that only become clear late in the episode: The Cardassians appear to be developing a metagenic weapon, a genetically engineered virus capable of wiping out entire populations in one fell swoop. (It sounds like a bio version of a neutron bomb; all the pesky civilians and soldiers are taken care of, but the buildings and technology remain intact.) Starfleet has detected certain emanations coming off Celtris III, and they believe the Cardassians have been developing their new (and highly illegal) weapon there. Picard, Beverly, and Worf’s job is infiltrate the base, find the weapon, and destroy it.

Which is a little silly, really. Much as I love all three characters, I’m not sure any of them, beyond maybe Worf, are qualified for this kind of mission. Picard has experience with the theta-band waves which are coming off of Celtris III, due to his time on the Stargazer, Beverly is a doctor who can search for signs of the virus, and Worf has fists and is Klingon. These are all technically valid reasons, but Picard isn’t a young man anymore, and it has to have been years since he or Beverly engaged in this kind of covert action. Worf, I’ll accept, because Worf is awesome. But while I firmly believe that Beverly and Picard are also awesome, their awesomeness doesn’t exactly lend itself to them running around in caves dressed like Mummenschanz.

Those caveats out of the way, the more I think about “Chain,” the more I appreciate it, and the more excited I get about “Part II.” (I haven’t watched it yet.) Picard’s crack suicide squad is a tad ridiculous, yes, but all three actors do their best with the material, and I’m willing to suspend my disbelief long enough to get to the episode’s conclusion. The scene where Beverly essentially seduces a Ferengi to get transport to Celtris III is clearly padding and silly padding at that, but I do appreciate how stretching this story to two episodes gave us more time to deal with the rigorous training that all three team-members have to participate in before they embark. Seeing Picard bruised and exhausted after a long day running around the holodeck or seeing Beverly complaining to Troi of her own aches and pains goes a fair way to making all of this make some kind of sense.

As for Jellico, yes, he’s abrasive and yes, I don’t really understand the logic of Starfleet assigning a new captain to a ship mere days before it engages in a supposedly crucial diplomatic meeting (maybe this is explained better in part 2), but there is something to be said about watching someone rock the boat this determinedly. He does get Troi back into an actual uniform, which, wailing fanboys aside, is really for the best. And the negotiation scenes, where Jellico attempts to strong arm the Cardassian delegation (led by Gul Lemec), are hilariously awkward. I’ve seen dozens of sequences like this before, where the hero demonstrates his knowledge and will by dominating his opponent through discourtesy and shouting, but here, Jellico’s attempts to force Lemec into cowering before his might are a complete shambles. Troi tells Riker midway into the discussions that Jellico isn’t at all sure of himself, which tells you nearly everything you know about the character right there; not a bad man, so much as one pushed to a position of stress and authority that he is simply not prepared for. By the end, it appears that the Cardassians are in complete control of the situation, and with a more competent officer running the Enterprise, that might not have been the case.

That control is important, because down on Celtris III, everything goes to hell in an instant. Our heroes find the source of the theta-waves, but it’s a trap. There’s no metagenics laboratory, no lab at all, and the Cardassians attack almost immediately. Beverly and Worf manage to escape, but Picard does not. Which is another win for the Cardassians, the big win, really, because the trap was designed to catch Picard specifically. Now Picard is in the hands of Gul Madred (David Warner), and Madred has a very specific plan for the days to come. He will ask Picard questions, and if Madred doesn’t like the answers, the captain will die.

“Chain” is padded in spots; I’ve railed about the two-part structure before, and it’s easy to spot the unnecessary scenes here, as most of the episode seems secondary to Picard’s mission and the reveal at the end. But that reveal is so excellent, I can’t find it in my heart to rag on the episode that much. Irritating though he may be, Jellico’s struggle to do a job he can’t quite manage does make for some solid drama. Besides, it’s hard to imagine the discovery that Picard (and Starfleet) has been played for a fool all along would have the same impact if we’d learned it at the 20 minute mark. So, I’ll go with a B+ for now and keep my fingers crossed that next week’s installment will deliver on the promises made here.

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

I covered the last two seasons of 24 for the TV Club. It wasn’t the best writing I’ve done for the site, not by a long shot. By it’s seventh and eighth “Day,” 24 had lost the spark that made its earlier seasons such a rush, leaving behind a lot of empty-headed posturing, bad plot-twists, and, of course, torture. I wasn’t sure how to respond. For one thing, it’s damnably difficult to review individual episodes of a show that’s designed as a continuous narrative. But for another, without its energy and intensity, 24 was just a show with politics I didn’t much agree with, and it got tedious for me to simply reiterate every week, “Really? Really?”. Kiefer Sutherland was great, and there was the occasional twist or action sequence to keep me going, but generally, it was a drag, and the readers were understandably frustrated by my inability to bring anything of interest to the table.

Torture was a part of 24 from the start, but by the end of the show, thanks to outside commentators and the series’ creators presumably exaggerated notions of their own philosophical wisdom, it wasn’t simply a story-telling device, it was a thematic statement. Jack Bauer, whose willingness to maim anyone necessary in the name of freedom had saved a fictional US half a dozen times, was forced again and again to defend his actions, and again and again, he demonstrated that his methods, while morally questionable, got results, and results were what mattered. It made for some uncomfortable viewing to anyone who couldn’t share the same view: a profoundly silly show attempting to align itself with some profoundly unsilly real-world issues. And me, being both a coward and blowhard, was never able to decide if my job was to just talk about plot points, or to actually draw out the very clear signals the series was sending. The latter tack enraged commenters; the former made me feel somehow ashamed.

It’s nice, then, that the second part of “Chain of Command” fits in so well with my weak-willed, soft-hearted liberal sensibilities. Not that that’s much of a surprise; it’s hard to imagine TNG throwing out a “torture is delightful!” episode, especially not by now in its run. What is a surprise is how effective this episode is, even going in with high expectations and following a solid, if not all that remarkable, first half. “Chain” handily wins itself into the pantheon of all-time best Trek episodes (yes, I mean the entire franchise), and it’s a big a part of this show’s legacy as “Yesterday’s Enterprise” or “The Inner Light.” But where both those episodes, and indeed, most of TNG‘s best epsspeak to the resiliency of life and the importance of respect and courage, “Chain” acknowledges that there are some forces even courage and resiliency can’t overcome without help. It’s a criticism of torture which also doesn’t deny the power one person can have over another, and the strength of its message comes from the acceptance that even the best can be broken, but that doesn’t make them weak.

Before we get to the heavier stuff, though, we might as well deal with Captain Jerkwad Jellico, who–actually is a bit more interesting than I may have given him credit for. Where part one was all about him making everyone on board the Enterprise uncomfortable, creating drama to distract us from when the real show began, here Jellico largely gets down to the business of kicking ass. Admittedly, he still makes time to take Riker off active duty for insubordination, but, well, Jellico may have a point here. Riker’s concern for Picard’s safety is praiseworthy, but his sudden willingness to throw all other concerns to the side is unprofessional and ill-suited to the task at hand. It’s also somewhat uncharacteristic of Riker, who’s shown himself willing to put his duty first many times before. You could chalk it up to Number One being so fed up with Jellico’s general behavior that he decides to draw a line, or else inconsistent character writing, but either way, it’s hard to fault Jellico too much for putting Riker on the sidelines.

This is especially true when you consider that Jellico is, in the end, largely responsible for getting Picard back safe and sound in the process of thwarting the Cardassians. Sure, Geordi and Riker go on the hardcore shuttle mission to secretly plant mines on the Cardassian fleet, but that mine planting is Jellico’s idea, and the new captain even chokes down his pride long enough to ask for Riker’s help in the maneuver. That scene in particular muddies the water in the relationship between Jellico and his reluctant first mate, because while everything Riker says to him is right (we can argue all you like, but attempting to force new command routines on a working system mere days before that system is thrown under pressure is just not good thinking), Riker still comes off as much an ass as Jellico does, perhaps even more so.

Really, though, while this section of the episode has some good moments (including the sight of Data in a first officer’s uniform!), it’s not really what anyone remembers about “Chain,” and for good reason. The centerpiece of the ep is the battle of wills between Picard and his captor/torturer Gul Madred (David Warner). The entire ruse we learned about last week with metagenic weapons was designed to lure Picard into the hands of Cardassians. They’re real intentions are an assault on Minos Korva, a Federation planet near the Demilitarized Zone, and they know that, in the event of such an attack, the Enterprise would be the ship at the head of Korva’s defense. Madred’s job is to break Picard on the presumption that Picard knows information about how the Federation intends to defend the planet.

Picard doesn’t. What’s more, the episode dispenses with the question of whether or not Picard will give Madred the information he requires straightaway. In their first scene, Picard is heavily drugged, and responds truthfully and quickly to every question he’s asked. He gives them his name, where he was born, and spills the point of his mission to Celtris III, as well as the names of the two people who accompanied him. Instead of making the episode about Picard’s ability to withhold information under duress, “Chain” demonstrates up front that the question is, when it comes to torture, essentially irrelevant. When asked about defense measures for Minos Korva, Picard says he has no knowledge of them, and this is the truth. But the torture continues throughout the episode, because the point isn’t information. The point is the breaking.

In harrowing sequence after sequence, Madred calmly sets to work taking apart Picard’s defenses, his sense of self, his dignity. Even Picard’s perception of reality is up for grabs. There are four lights behind Madred’s desk. The Cardassian turns them on, and asks Picard how many lights he sees. When Picard tells him the obvious, Madred uses a device inserted in Picard’s body earlier in the episode (between scenes) to inflict great physical pain. Because Picard no longer has the right to perceive the world as it is; his perceptions are to be dictated by the one who’s really in control. There’s a line from Orwell’s 1984 that I kept thinking of, watching this (and really, this whole sequence shares a fair amount with Winston’s gradual undoing in the Ministry of Love)–“Freedom is the right to say 2 + 2 = 4.” Freedom is getting to say the truth, without fear of consequences because it is the truth. Madred’s goal is to take this right from Picard. It’s not a matter of simple capitulation, but total dominance. For Madred to succeed, Picard mustn’t just say “There are five lights” when there are four. He must believe there are five lights, because that is what Madred tells him to believe.

“Chain” succeeds in no small part due to the strength of its performances. Patrick Stewart is, unsurprisingly, excellent, enduring humiliation and conveying distress with heartbreaking sincerity. David Warner more than holds his own. Warner is a terrific character actor, and has played the villain more than a few times before, most notably as Evil in Time Bandits and Jack the Ripper in Time After Time, but Madred trades in Evil’s sneers and Jack’s basic madness for something subtler, and more unnerving. The conversations between Picard and Madred are often cool, composed, even distantly pleasant, a chat between relative equals during a business lunch. Warner conveys Madred’s conviction in his actions, his belief that the degradation and destruction of Jean-Luc Picard are a key part of the maintenance of the Cardassian state, only betraying his emotions when Picard sees through to his embittered, angry heart.

There are plenty of great moments here, and again and again I was amazed at how raw this all felt, how utterly unlike regular TNG. The safety nets were gone; from the start, it’s clear that Picard is going to suffer, and that he won’t be released from that suffering till the end of the episode, and we’re just going to have to deal with that. Of course Picard manages to display some moral fortitude and righteousness. During a casual conversation about his childhood, Madred reveals he was beaten for food in his youth, and Picard realizes that the torture is just an extension of that beating. There’s no knowledge to be gained here, no advantage. Madred is just taking revenge on the ones who wronged him, finding his own sense of power by slowly and methodically destroying another.

It’s a revelation that could seem facile, but Warner and Stewart make it work. As well, the scene succeeds in the context of the episode because, while it gives Picard a much needed “win” moment, demonstrating that it’s possible to hold onto some piece of himself through all he’s endured to that point, it effectively changes nothing. Madred doesn’t break down and let Picard go, and Picard never finds some way to escape his tormentors and win his freedom. In the end, Madred offers Picard a choice: he can spend the rest of his life in comfort and pleasure, or he can continue down his current path of suffering and pain, for a slow, meaningless death. All he has to do to win the former is tell Madred he sees five lights, not four. Picard hesitates, but before he can answer, other Cardassians arrive as a result of Jellico’s ploy, and Picard is informed he’s to be released. “There are four lights!” he shouts before he goes, finally defeating his captor.

Except… he didn’t, really. Whenever anyone references “Chain” these days, the four lights line is what people remember, because it’s the easiest element of the episode to remember, and because we can use it as an example of Picard’s will. But that’s forgetting the long pause before the other Cardassians arrived, and it’s forgetting what Picard tells Troi at the very end of the episode, having returned to his command of the Enterprise slightly worse for wear. In that last moment alone with Madred, Picard would’ve given in if they hadn’t been interrupted. “But more than that,” he says, “I believed that I could see five lights.” Everyone can be broken, given enough time. It doesn’t even require that much skill. We’re all meat and nerves and soft tissue, and we all have our limits, and there’s no weakness in admitting yours. It’s what makes us human, and it’s what makes freedom from oppression (and a refusal to oppress in turn) so valuable. It’s impressive that TNG would deal with such an unpleasant and unsettling subject, but the show’s willingness to be honest when a lie would be so much more comforting is what makes this great art.

According to the A.V. Club review of Face of the Enemy:

This is another frustrating episode–more so, even, than “Aquiel,” because where “Aquile” seemed misguided from the start, “Face of the Enemy” had a fair bit of potential. And it manages to achieve quite a bit of that potential, really. Troi gets to take a much more active role in the proceedings than she usually does; we get to hear more about Spock’s efforts to bring peace to Romulus, albeit without any commentary from the Vulcan himself; and the episode resolution is clever and unexpected. Really, that Troi is the main character here is the big deal, especially considering that at no point in this episode does she fall in love with or become seduced by an ambassador. Hell, she doesn’t establish a romantic interest in anyone, and she’s even called on to be forceful, quick-thinking, and driven.

So why don’t I love this episode? Looking back at it now, a little less than two days after watching it, I feel like I should have loved it, or at least liked it more than I do. The episode tries to make Troi credible, and Sirtis certainly isn’t terrible at doing what she’s called on to do here. But “Face” just wasn’t plausible enough for me to buy into the story, and I spent most of the ep expecting a final twist that never came. Arguably, that’s more my fault than the episode’s; it’s not responsible for my expectations, after all. But I’m the reviewer you’re stuck with, so all I can do is try and explain my reaction as best I can. If “Aquiel” benefited (marginally) from nostalgia, “Face” suffers for not being as complicated as I hoped it would be–although the fact that I was hoping for those complications may tell you something.

Troi wakes up in a dark room, and when she finally gets the lights on, she sees from her reflection in the mirror that she’s been surgically altered to look like a Romulan officer. (And a terribly cute one at that.) Before she can get her bearings, another Romulan, a real Romulan, bursts into her room, telling her she’s part of a vital mission, that he works with Spock and that they kidnapped Troi from a conference and altered her so she could help them get some precious cargo off a Romulan warbird into Federation space. All Troi has to do, this N’Vek (Scott MacDonald) tells her, is pretend to be one of the elite Romulan officers known as the Tal Shiar, and order Commander Toreth (Carolyn Seymour, whose played a Romulan before, as well as the head scientist back in “First Contact”) the warbird’s captain, to take them to the Kaleb sector, and everything else will fall into place.

Understandably, Troi doesn’t quite know how to handle this situation, especially given that she knows little about the Tal Shiar, or about Romulan culture in general (at least I think she doesn’t; if I remember right, Romulans are still fairly unknown quantities to the Federation?). As well, Toreth is a stern, unforgiving leader, and one not accustomed to being ordered around on her own ship. But Troi catches on quickly, and, in a nice change of pace from the character’s usual behavior, takes control of the ship as best she can, barking orders and using intimidation tactics when the rest of the crew shows reluctance to follow her. And it’s a good thing she works fast, too, because the cargo N’Vek is using her to transport is especially critical: a high-level member of the Romulan government who has chosen to defect to the Federation.

So far, so good, and like I said, I really feel like I should appreciate this more than I do, after all this time complaining that Troi is by far TNG‘s most useless character. Only–I don’t buy her involvement here. It just seems like such a random, poorly thought out plan, to the point that I spent most of the ep expecting to learn near the end that N’Vek was actually playing Troi for a fool. I suppose the justification that it was easier to grab her than anybody else on the Enterprise, given that she was attending a conference, should be enough. And it makes sense that Spock would want them to find someone from Picard’s ship, given that he already has a relationship there. But… Troi? And to not give her any sense of what she was doing until maybe five minutes before she actually had to pull it off is bizarre. I suppose it’s to create more suspense, that Spock and the others’ efforts are so tenuous that they need to resort to this kind of desperate play to have a chance of working out. But it’s all very artificial, like one of those dreams when you wander into a class final without being able to remember ever having been in class before.

Still, if you can buy into that (and this could very well be something that irks me in particular, and not a more general flaw of the episode), it is exciting to see Troi bashing in heads. The episode milks a lot of tension out of her butting up against a suspicious-but-can’t-prove-anything Toreth, and there’s something to be said for having two women vying for power without their gender being relevant in the slightest. (Troi doesn’t mention chocolate. Not once.) And as improbably as the set-up is, the seat of the pants feeling works well for “Face” as a whole, because there’s a definite sense of risk here. We know intellectually the show isn’t going to kill Troi off, but her mission could easily fail, and the fact that she’s working without a safety net, on a mission that no one back on the Enterprise even knows about, raises the stakes considerably.

There’s also the fact that Troi never really knows how far she can trust anyone, not even the ever-demanding N’Vek. Halfway through the ep, the Romulans encounter the Corvallen ship that’s supposed to take N’Vek’s cargo and deliver it to the Enterprise. Within a few moments of conversation, Troi realizes the Corvallens are lying, and when she whispers this to N’Vek, his response is to fire on and destroy the ship. This upsets Toreth, because no commander likes having someone else fire her ship’s weapons without her authorization, but if anything, it’s even more upsetting to Troi, who had no idea N’Vek would react with such immediate violence. At first, I thought this meant we were going to find out later on that N’Vek was working some other angle, but he stays true to Troi right up until the moment he gets phasered out of existence.

Which, the more I think about it, is actually cool. I mean, how often do shows acknowledge that just because everybody is working for the good guys, that doesn’t mean they all have the same idea of how to get the job done? N’Vek reacts like he does because he’s a Romulan, and that’s what Romulans do–they don’t have maybes, just “save” or “destroy.” We get this helpfully explained to us in “Face”‘s other plotline back on the Enterprise. The ship picks up a Federation member who had defected to the Romulans twenty years ago, before realizing he’d made some bad choices and defecting back. (Re-defecting? De-defecting?) Ensign Deseve is a stiff looking dude, with larger breasts then you usually get on a man, but he’s able to articulate the appeal of Romulan culture, as well as his disenchantment with that culture, very clearly: the Romulans answer every question “yes” or “no,” and that’s appealing when you’re a young man, stuck in a Starfleet full of people constantly trying not to step on each other’s toes. But when he got older, Deseve realized that “maybe” has its place as well. It’s a pleasantly complex idea–while Deseve is carrying his own message from Ambassador Spock, there’s never any suggestion that he’s going to go unpunished for his defection. But he came back anyway, knowing the cost.

If it sounds like I’m talking myself into liking this episode more than I thought I did, well, I’m pretty sure that’s what’s happening. Which must be terribly exciting, I know. But the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that my false apprehension of where the story was headed did “Face” a disservice. I haven’t even gotten to the cool ending. Toreth’s ship finally runs into the Enterprise (after Troi cleverly works out a way to let the Enterprise track the ship even while it’s cloaked), and Troi takes the bridge to communicate to Captain Picard directly. She says some things that sound like they may be code words, but don’t have to be, and convinces Picard to lower his ship’s shields. Then Troi orders N’Vek to fire on the Enterprise–only the weapon he fires is at the lowest setting, and really serves as a smoke screen so N’Vek can transport the Romulan cargo directly to the Enterprise‘s bridge. It works beautifully, only Toreth immediately recognizes the ruse, and N’Vek is killed. Troi survives only because the Romulan ship has to drop its shields when it cloaks, allowing Worf to beam the counselor back to the Enterprise at the last second.

I’m sure there are problems I’m overlooking, just as I was almost certainly overly hard on the episode the first time I watched it. That happens from time to time. But really, I think we can all agree that it’s a relief to see Troi getting to be more than a victim. While the episode never explicitly stats it (that I can remember), her empathic abilities would be helpful for this kind of espionage work, as it would allow her to fine-tune her performance based off the emotions of the people she was trying to fool, so for once, that power seems useful rather than an after-thought. I’m going to grade this conservatively, as I can’t shake the feeling that it didn’t entirely work, but I would like to watch this one again sometime. At the very least, it shows that Troi really isn’t useless, even if the way the show uses her so often is.

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

I don’t have a lot of regrets in my life. There’s only a couple I can think of: I wish I’d handled money better when I was still in college, and that I’d understood the perils of taxation and freelancing back when I started this job. Oh, and I also wish I hadn’t eaten so much crap food in college, because then I wouldn’t have had to spend two or three years getting into passable shape. I’m 32 years old, and as regrets go, neither of those are all that dramatic. I’m not even sure they qualify for the word “regret”–to me, that word always implied a level of sadness and a sense of permanent damage that being in debt and a bit on the chubby side don’t really create. I’m lucky, really, in that I’ve led a largely sheltered life, with few opportunities or reasons to hurt or be hurt on a grand scale. But I’ve still gone through some rough patches, and I’ve still done some amazingly stupid things that made those rough patches worse than they needed to be.

I just don’t regret doing those stupid things, or making the choices that led me to those actions, because “regret” implies a desire to change the past, and I can’t see the percentage in that. By and large, I like where I am now, and to sincerely wish that, say, I’d gone out with this girl in school instead of pining for that one, or if I’d moved someplace else after college or if I’d chosen a different career path, would be to risk losing what I have. If this sounds like wisdom, well, it might be, but it’s certainly not earned. It’s as much a way to give the bad times in my life meaning as it is a philosophy. There are, perhaps, different paths I could’ve taken earlier on, knowing what I know now, that might’ve conspired to raise my station about its current semi-lofty position. But if I could somehow arrange for this to happen, even if I successfully navigated the currents of the past–I would no longer be me. And however awful things get, and however much I might dislike myself, I wouldn’t care for that at all.

That’s the essential message of “Tapestry,” and if it takes Captain Picard longer to arrive at the same conclusion that I’ve taken as writ my whole life, well, he has a history with death toll, which isn’t really anything I can compete with. The premise: Picard is dying. There’s a lot of talk in the cold open about Lenarians and weapons fire and so forth, but what it comes down to is, Picard’s in Sick Bay, he’s close to death, and his artificial heart is to blame. While Beverly hovers over him, Picard wakes up in a seemingly infinite white space, alone but for a single, glowing figure. Picard approaches the figure, takes its hand–and Q comes into focus. “Welcome to the afterlife, Jean-Luc. You’re dead.” After the usual pleasantries (Picard doesn’t believe what’s happening, Q insists), Q badgers Picard into confessing his great regret in life: the fight with Nausicaans that resulted in the chest wound that gave him the artificial heart which seems to have cost Picard his life. (Picard told Wesley the story all the way back in season two’s “Samaritan Snare.”)

So, Q offers Picard a one time only deal. He’ll send Picard to his past, in his young body (although he still looks like Patrick Stewart to us–think Quantum Leap), just a day before the fight with the Nausicaans. If Picard can manage to avoid the fight this time around, he can keep his real heart, and, presumably, avoid the accident that’s put him in mortal danger in the present. But if Picard fails, and the fight happens as it originally did, he’ll be back where he started, where, presumably, he’ll be dead for good. Which means an eternity spent getting lectured by Q, which, if not officially Hell, at least shares a zip code with the place.

Now, we all know that nearly all of television is about how the more things change, the more things stay the same. (For more statements of this type, I advise you to check out my best-selling book, Zack Handlen Makes Vaguely Comprehensive Statements In A Desperate Attempt To Sound Clever and Insightful. It will change your life, or at least the contents of your bank account.) There are exceptions, of course–TV is a big medium, and, apart from picture and sound, you’d be hard pressed to find any one theme that runs consistent through all of it. But generally speaking, shows work because they prevent you with a consistent world, and then spend their runs finding new ways to show basically the same world over and over and over again. Two of the best series ever produced for television, The Sopranos and The Wire, cloaked that resistance to change in artful ways: on The Sopranos, one of the core ideas is that people can move on or better themselves, but that requires a tremendous amount of effort, and most of us would much rather cling to what we know, even if its immoral or evil, just because it’s easier; on The Wire, the system itself established patterns that would repeat again and again, despite the best efforts of those trapped inside of it. Arguably the best show on TV right now, Breaking Bad, is notable for its willingness to buck that trend, with a status quo that’s constantly shifting to mirror the slow downfall of its leading man, but it’s still the exception to the general rule.

TNG is no exception to this, and it’s especially noticeable in Picard’s case. Watching “Tapestry,” it occurred to me that, as much as I love the rest of the cast, this show really does belong to Stewart. We know Picard better than any other member of the crew (with the possible exception of Data, who has less history to cover), and while the show does its best to tell stories around an ensemble, Picard-centric episodes tend to be the strongest. He’s been assimilated and de-assimilated, spent a lifetime in another man’s head, and had to endure the ravages of Wesley Crusher, but he’s stayed roughly the same person through all of this. Sure, he may need a moment or two to collect himself after the latest calamity, but (“Family” aside) the remarkable amount of physical and psychic damage Picard has lived through has left hardly a mark on him. Because each week, Picard is back in the captain’s chair, dispensing wisdom and phaser fire as needed. That’s how TV works. Sometimes, this can be frustrating, and one of the ways modern television took its first steps towards being recognized officially as legitimate art (as opposed to lowest-common-denominator pablum) was by allowing episodes to bleed into each other over the long term. But there’s something comforting in the security of the familiar. In a more psychologically realistic show, Picard would suffer more visibly, but here, the nature of his character is defined by one of the unwritten requirements of the medium: through whatever happens, the captain remains steadfast.

It’s no surprise, then, that the lesson Picard learns from Q and from trying to change the past is that he’s always been the person he needed to be, and to change any part of that would be to change  everything. When Jean-Luc rewrites history, he loses two friends: Cortland (Ned Vaughn), the guy who causes all the problems with the Nausicaans when they cheat him at a game of Dom-Jot; and Marta (J.C. Brandy). Corey is increasingly disgusted over Picard’s attempts to mollify and turn the other cheek, finally walking off in disgust the day of the actual fight, after Picard shoves him aside to prevent a fight from breaking out. Things are a bit more complicated with Marta. Picard tells Q that he’d always regretted never making a move on her during their friendship, so this time around, when Marta seems impressed by the new-old Picard’s sudden maturity, Jean-Luc goes for it, and the two sleep together. (Which leads to a great shot the next morning, with Picard naked in bed, waking up to find Q beside him.) Afterwards, though, things get weird, for no reason anyone can really put a finger on. It may be that Marta is just as unhappy as Cortland about Picard’s behavior, or it may be that, since they’re due to be shipped off to separate, er, ships soon, Marta just doesn’t want to commit to a long distance relationship. Or maybe Picard is a terrible lover, who knows.

Regardless, changing his past enough to save himself a short-sword in the back costs Picard more than he was expecting, and the situation doesn’t improve when Q jumps him forward in time, back to the “present.” Here, Picard is still a crew-member on the Enterprise, but he’s a minor officer running errands for Chief Engineer La Forge. As Q informs him, by avoiding conflict with the Nausicaans, Picard has changed the course of his life, and while he’s no longer dying in Sick Bay because of an artificial heart, he’s sacrificed his career, and, in a sense, his very self in order to save his life. Picard finds Riker and Troi in Ten Forward, and asks them some questions about how he’s viewed on the ship, and whether it would be possible for him to apply for command. They’re polite, but firm: Jean-Luc is a good man, and does his job, but he lacks the necessary spark, the boldness, to lead. Picard realizes his mistake–his past, for all the hardship and pain and embarrassment it may have caused him, is a part of who he is, and to pull even one thread lose from it would be to destroy the entire thing. He begs Q to return his life to what it was, so Q sends him back to the Nausicaan fight, where Picard gets stabbed once again, and laughing when it happens just as he did when he was younger. Then it’s back to Sick Bay, where, still laughing, Picard doesn’t die after all.

I could nitpick this episode. Q insists to Picard that what we’re seeing is the actual past, instead of a construct, and if that’s the case, I’m not sure just altering one fight would be enough to distort your entire personality. It’s not as if the more cautious Picard relives his entire life; this is a Quantum Leap type scenario, so far as I can tell, so presumably the original rowdy young Picard would take over once the older Picard jumped to the future. There are ways around this, though, the easiest being that nothing that happens here is really “real” at all, that all of it is created by Q to teach Picard to accept that the man he was is responsible for the man he is, or else it’s just Picard having a death-bed hallucination. (I think that last option is unlikely, but it’s possible.) If this was all something Q had made up, that would also explain the coincidence of Picard still getting a position on the Enterprise, which is still staffed by the same people who ran it in the “real” timeline. That would mean Q had lied to Picard before, though, and while Q has had no problem lying in the past, it sounded like he was playing straight here.

Really, it doesn’t matter that much, because this is a great episode regardless of whether it’s time travel or fantasy or hallucination. There are plenty of nice touches here, like the fact that the Nausicaan fight Picard has so rued wasn’t entirely his fault, or the way that everyone aboard the Enterprise where Picard isn’t captain still seems perfectly happy and content. The former is a subtle way of indicating how memories change the past to fit the narrative we want to see, in this case, that Picard viewed himself as rash and irresponsible; and the latter makes sure that Picard’s choice in the end to risk dying and go back to his real life is entirely about him, and not driven by a need to protect or save anyone else. It’s been a while since we’ve seen this aspect of Q, whose efforts here seem entirely designed to teach Picard a small lesson that won’t really change his life much at all. (Really, have we ever seen this aspect of Q? The closest I can think of is when he taught the Enterprise a lesson in humility in “Q Who?,” but that was motivated more out of spitefulness than any desire to help.) Because really, while we’ve seen Picard talking about his younger days with some shame over what he once was, it’s not as if this is some sort of psychic torment that has dogged him his entire life. For all the time jumping and vague A Christmas Carol-ish feel, “Tapestry” is a modest episode, with a modest goal: to remind us that the we are the sum of all our parts, even the ones we aren’t very proud of. It’s funny, really. Getting stabbed in the heart may have been the best thing that ever happened to Picard.

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

I’m not sure if it’s a shift in the general culture, or just something unique to me, but I’ve never had any emotional investment in carrying on my father’s legacy. I love my dad, and I would be the first to tell you he’s a good man, and that he’s accomplished a lot in his life to be proud of, but I don’t feel any direct connection to those accomplishments. I’m ambitious, no question, and I certainly wouldn’t object to either of my parents taking pride in what I do, but there’s no sense that I need to achieve in order to do right by the family name. Stories about fathers nearly always revolve around a son needing to live up to his dad’s expectations, or else transcend them. I’ve seen and read dozens of them, some good, many bad, and I’ve always wondered is this a theme that we repeat more because it’s always been there, than because it means anything to any of us now. Maybe it’s about maintaining fictional continuity, just as the son who strives to make sense of sire is trying to maintain a biological one.

Or maybe I’m just odd. Either way, the “I need to connect with my dead dad!” element of “Birthright: Part 1” didn’t do a lot for me emotionally, but it’s a sign how much I liked it (and it’s follow-up) that this didn’t really matter. As yet another two-part storyline in a season jammed full of them, “Part 1” seemingly makes the mistake that so many other part ones have made, with a plot that’s heavily padded with unrelated material in order to justify the running time. But where before I’ve been frustrated by TNG‘s inability to make the two-part structure work, here, that clumsiness actually made for a more interesting episode than I was expecting. What we’ve got here isn’t really a “part 1,” despite what it says in the title. “Birthright” is more a peek into the kind of show TNG might’ve been had it been able to more fully embrace serialization. I appreciate that peek, and for the interesting ideas raised here. I can see how they wouldn’t work for everyone, but it worked for me.

Ostensibly, “Birthright” is about Worf. While the Enterprise is visiting Deep Space Nine (leaving time for Beverly and Picard to rave about the stations recreational facilities, while Geordi complains about the food), a Yridian information trader, Jaglom Shrek (James Cromwell, no stranger to Trek, although he isn’t given much to do here), comes to Worf with an offer: he knows where Worf’s father is. This enrages Worf, because as far as he knew, his father died during the attack on Khitomer, fighting the Romulans. If Worf’s father is actually alive, a prisoner instead of a corpse, it will bring a shame down on the family that will reach all the way down to Alexander. Not that Alexander couldn’t use a bit of shaming, just to keep him in line. So Worf threatens Jaglom, dismisses what he says as a lie, and we spend most of the rest of the episode waiting for Worf to have second thoughts. If he doesn’t, it’s not much of a story.

But then, an entire episode given over to Klingon doubt wouldn’t be much of a story either, so while we’re waiting for Worf to realize that he’d be better off having a living, shamed father, then a dead noble one, Dr. Bashir pops over from DS9 to muck about with a new toy, and Data has a dream. It’s nice seeing Bashir (Alexander Siddig); as I mentioned in the comments section last week, the good doctor was a favorite character of mine when I watched DS9 as a kid, and he’s fun here. Once again, we have a terribly smart person being very interested in Data, although, as Data notes, Bashir is more interested in Data’s ability to mimic humanity than he is in Data’s computational skills. To Bashir, Data’s hair growth and breathing is impressive, and also indicative of his creator’s big goal. The android wasn’t designed to be a magic robot super hero. He was designed to be alive, and that means something.

That’s relevant to what happens next. Bashir is on the Enterprise to test out some mysterious space tech, and when Data and Geordi get involved, Data gets zapped by a bolt of energy from the machine. The energy knocks him offline, and in the thirty seconds he’s out, he sees himself walking the halls of the ship, and meeting a young version of his creator, Dr. Soong (Spiner, without the make-up). The vision ends before Data can make any sense of it, but it haunts him, and while Worf is coming around to the idea of going on a dad hunt, Data is puzzling out how to handle the first seemingly irrational experience of his life. In the end, he does the logical thing, and recreates the initial exerpiment that caused him to pass out, with instructions to Geordi and Bashir to let him stay under for as long as he needs.

If you view “Part 1” as a typical first-half, it leaves something to be desired. While there’s a nominal thematic connection between Worf’s soul-searching about his dad, and Data’s attempts to reconnect with his own father, the connection is never all that compelling, and the two storylines could easily have been relegated to different episodes. The only problem being that neither story has enough meat to it to stand on its own. Worf’s arc, from learning that his dad may be alive, to rejecting this, to learning from his friends that he might have been to hasty, to going back to Jaglom, to setting out for the prison camp, isn’t enough for a single episode. Nor is Data’s arc. The drama for both characters is entirely internal, and there isn’t much danger for either of them. (Sure, Worf decides to put himself in danger, but that doesn’t happen till the second part.) Which makes it easier to dismiss this as padding, but I think it works.

The highlight here is Data’s dreaming, and it’s the dreaming that makes the padding easier to forgive. In order to get this story in this form, you need to have something else going on around it, and in most other cases, that would’ve meant some artificial conflict. At the very least, we would’ve had to create more artificial difficulties to keep Data from understand what was going on before the final five minutes. That would’ve been a shame, because the strength of these scenes lies in their efficiency. If this is padding, it’s a sort of padding that doesn’t come across as belabored or pedantic. The dream sequences are nifty, and Data’s attempts to paint them show a new side to his character. And for once, Spiner’s work as Soong comes across as more inspiring than unsettling. Data’s self-discovery in “Part 1” represents the purest form of TNG, exploration done for knowledge that leads to personal growth, and it’s such a lovely, quiet thread that I’m willing to put up with some structural clunkiness if this is we get in trade.

Really, the biggest misstep in “Part 1” isn’t something that becomes a clear mistake until the second half of Worf’s story. When Worf arrives at the prison camp, he finds the situation not at all what he expected. He finds a Klingon elder, who tells him that Worf’s father, Mogh, did die on Khitomer after all–and then the elder turns Worf over to the Romulan guards. Take Worf’s father out of the story is a bad call, I think, but we can wait till part 2 for that. For now, let’s just leave Data to his dreams, and Worf standing there with a confused expression on his face. He does those so well, don’t you think?

And back in we go.

Here’s my criticism: a large part of the first part of this two-parter is taken up by Worf trying to understand his relationship with his maybe-not-dead dad. Klingon culture dictates that warriors are supposed to die in battle, and being taken for a prisoner of war indicates a certain cowardice or weakness. Lord knows, Klingons aren’t forgiving when it comes to cowardice and/or weakness, and Worf knows that if Mogh really did survive Khitomer, if he’s spent the decades since the attack as a Romulan POW, it’s not going to be good for the family name. Worf’s family name has taken a number of hits over the course of the series, but those hits were always unjustified, part of a frame job that looked to turn Mogh into a traitor for political reasons. Here, the shame would be, at least by the dictates of Klingon culture, entirely deserved.

I’ve said before that I appreciate TNG‘s attempts to treat Klingon laws and ritual with the same amount of respect the show gives other, easier to relate to cultures. TNG‘s record isn’t spotless, and it sometimes treats Worf as a headstrong child who needs to be taught to think before he stabs, but in general, the series has done a decent job of handling Worf’s struggles to balance his Klingon side with his Federation duties. “Part 1” is no exception to this. While to you and I, Worf’s fury at the very idea that his father might not be dead may seem ridiculous, the episode itself never acts as though Worf is behaving foolishly, instead allowing him to come to his own decision through conversations with friends about their relationships with his father. It’s a nice bit of writing, and it’s one of the reasons this storyline, at least theoretically, needed two eps to work. With only one episode, Worf would have to had to make the decision to rescue his dad almost instantaneously. I’m not sure any of us would’ve noticed (my knowledge of Klingon culture is, “shouting and stabbing and whatever Worf says”), but we would’ve lost some fine acting from Michael Dorn, and some good character work.

Which is why it’s so frustrated that almost the first thing Worf learns upon arriving at the prison camp is that Mogh really did die at Khitomer after all. I’d thought when L’Kor told Worf his dad had died that L’Kor was lying; I thought there was even a chance that L’Kor was Worf’s dad, and that the shame of his capture and emprisonment had led him to hide his true identity. I was wrong, though. Mogh is definitely dead, which means Worf spent “Part 1” doing all that soul-searching for nothing. Sure, the idea of Klingon values is an important one for “Part 2,” and the scene where Worf talks about fathers with Data is strong enough that it doesn’t need to be justified, but the writers here have chosen to take away the strongest emotional connection that their hero and the audience has to the situation, without any clear reason. The episode does a decent job finding conflicts without having to deal with any father/son unpleasantness, but why sacrifice the most interesting development without having anything to replace it with?

The twist here is that the Klingons who survived Khitomer to be taken captive by the Romulans are now by and large happy with how things ended up. Sure, they had their problems at first–and they certainly didn’t want to be captured, but when the Romulans knocked them unconscious during battle, they didn’t have much choice. But now, everyone is getting along very well, enough for a whole new generation of Klingons to have been raised in the confines of the camp. Even more, there’s been some inter-species hooking up. Tokath, the Romulan in charge of the camp for the start, chose to keep the place going after the war, and he’s now married to a Klingon; they’ve even produced a beautiful half-Klingon/half-Romulan daughter named Ba’el. It’s a relationship that wouldn’t work in the outside world, just as the peace between the Klingons and their former guards wouldn’t work. It’s an Eden for people who’ve only known bloodshed, and then Worf has to arrive and screw up everything.

The problem with “Part 2” is that it’s soft; despite the increasing tension between Worf and the elders, despite the fact that Tokath nearly has Worf executed at the end of the episode, the tension isn’t particularly strong. There doesn’t always need to be tension, of course, but given the volatile nature of the situation, everything that happens here happens too easily, and to much by rote. The elders resist Worf and refuse to let him leave, so he starts behaving like a Klingon in front of the younger people, and they soon grow infatuated with the ways of their culture which have been denied them. This comes to a head, Tokath tries to remove Worf from the equation, but it’s too late, and Worf finally leaves the planet with the young people who are curious to see more of the universe. (Barring, presumably, Ba’el, whose mixed-species parentage would probably cause some problems.)

There’s no real sacrifice here by any party, and, apart from realizing he’s maybe a little racist towards Romulans, Worf doesn’t learn much of anything about himself, or open his mind. I appreciate the way “Part 2” presents us with a conflict that has no clear answer: the peace that Tokath and the others have achieved is laudable and worth preserving, but Worf’s attempts to bring culture and self-awareness to his own kind are also important. It’s also fun to have the ostensible hero of the episode be the nearest thing there is to a threat. Worf is a disruption here, not the others, and if he’d never come to this colony, there may never have been any strife. The episode asks just how much our heritage and social identity is worth, and it does its best to show both sides of the idea without giving any easy answers.

It just doesn’t hold together, though. I’m not sure that the lessons Worf teaches really are that worthwhile, and the fact that all we get to see is the Klingon side of this, when it’s a Klingon/Romulan camp, makes it less interesting to me. I suppose there’s some point being made here about the way the older generation always resists young people coming into their own, and how forcing people to make one choice isn’t right, even if that choice is better for them in the long run, but it’s too tepid to have much impact. It’s especially disappointing how easy that final resolution comes–Worf makes everyone leaving with him swear never to reveal where they truly came from. That’s it? If that’s all that was needed, they should’ve just done that at the start. (I realize it’s more complicated than that, but the end here is too much of a wish fulfillment for Worf. Apart from one awkward last look, we don’t even get an acknowledgement that Ba’el won’t be able to leave with the others, and that even if he loves her, Worf will have to leave her.)

Despite all my assertions otherwise at the start of this review, I seem to have once again come around to a two-part episode in which the first half is stronger than the second. But really, these episodes are so distinct that I don’t think the failing of “Part 2” is the usual failing we see with two-parters. It’s not that “Part 1” raised the bar so high that the conclusion couldn’t hope to live up to expectations. As cliffhangers go, Worf-at-phaserpoint isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind. It’s more that the second half failed to deal with the ideas it raised in a satisfying way. I appreciate the ambition and thought that clearly went into both these episodes, but while I found much of “Part 2” interesting and fun to watch, I was never gripped by it. “Part 1” brought me something new, with Data’s strange visions and the ghosts of dead fathers. “Part 2” is a little too much of a classic TOS plot, without the camp: first thing we do is find an Eden, the next thing we do is destroy it.

According to the A.V. Club review of Starship Mine:

This is an odd fit for TNG: an action movie plotline that has Picard running around a nearly abandoned Enterprise, taking out bad guys with crossbows and booby traps. Die Hard on a space-ship, as it were. There’s also a sub-plot with the rest of the crew stuck on the planet, standard hostage-situation set-dressing, largely created in order to believably isolate Picard for most of the hour. This is a story that, with some retooling, wouldn’t seem out of place on an episode of MacGyver (especially the booby traps), and it’s a definite change of pace for this series, which usually strives to be more thoughtful and measured in its storytelling. But then, season 6 has been an odd season from the start. That’s not a negative, at least not completely. Both “Chain of Command” and “Tapestry” come from writers and producers willing to push the edges, to excellent result, and “Starship Mine,” while not at the same level of those episodes, is a lot of fun.

The more I think about it, the more “Mine” really does play like an ’80s action drama. We have thieving bad guys, each of whom gets a comeuppance that leaves our captain guilt-free; a comedy relief commanding officer down on the planet, so irritating that our heroes go to great lengths to avoid him; Riker getting in a fist-fight; and, most enjoyably, Picard’s transformation into a bad-ass, capable of nearly taking out an entire crew of villains single-handedly. Of course, none of these story elements on their own is that distinctive. TNG has had its share of villains and annoying Starfleet personnel. Riker has punched and been punched before, and periodically, the show goes out of its way to try and shed those troublesome accusations that Picard is a thinker, where Kirk was a doer. (This was always bullshit, by the way. Kirk did his fair share of thinking, and Picard is decisive when he needs to be.) It’s just the way everything combines together that gives “Mine” its special feel. For once, we’re not interested in complicated political relationships, strange alien species or trippy high concept. We’re here to tell a simple tale that’s been told dozens of times before, for better or worse.

What I love about stories like this is that they are, in a way, puzzles, but for the writer, not the audience. In order to make everything work, you need to find a way that gets Picard alone on the ship for the duration. This means not just emptying the Enterprise of its crew, but also arranging a plausible reason for Picard to return, as well as some way to stop him from making contact with the rest of the ensemble when trouble strikes, and stopping that ensemble from rushing to his aid when they notice he’s missing. At least part of the success of the episode depends on how contrived all of this design becomes. If it’s too elaborate, the audience will notice the strings and the tension becomes laughable. If it’s not airtight enough, there’s no tension to laugh at, because the danger is never all that pressing. Die Hard is a classic of the genre because it brings all the pieces into play so deftly that you’re only ever really asked to believe one hugely implausible thing (the coincidence of Rickman and his gang taking over the Nakatomi building the same night that Bruce Willis happens to be visiting his wife; the advent of the holiday makes this slightly less random, but it’s still a a pretty big leap). The rest just falls into place naturally from there.

Going by that standard, “Mine” does a decent job. The Enterprise is brought in for a scan designed to eliminate accumulated baryon particles. I’m not sure we’ve ever heard of this problem before, but the idea of the ship needing periodic repairs/work done, considering how much time it spends in the outer reaches of space, isn’t a bad one. The scan is lethal, so that means the entire ship needs to be evacuated before the scan starts. The episode opens with the evacuation already well under way, and the hectic, “I hope I don’t forget to turn the oven off” vibe gets things off to an excellent start. We learn that the senior members of the crew have been invited to attend a reception for them on Arkaria Base, run by Commander Hutchinson. Hutchinson, it turns out, is something of a bore. We get hints of this when Data tries out a new small talk sub-routine on Picard, who tells him he should try and learn from Hutchinson during the reception. We then get confirmation of the commanders dullness when Worf manages to excuse himself from the reception (thus removing him from the conflict to come).

This serves as set-up for some passable comic relief (Data takes Picard’s instruction to learn from Hutchinson very seriously), but it also gives Picard extra motivation to leave the reception and go back to the Enterprise. Hutchinson mentions that they have horses and areas for riding by the base, and Picard seizes on this, deciding he wants to do a little horse-backin’, and that needs to return to the ship to get his saddle. Which leads to a running joke, as people keeping repeating some variation on “Every experienced rider has their own saddle.” It’s more than a little corny, but really, that’s part of the ’80s action drama homage–you can’t get through an hour of The A-Team without suffering a fair share of awful gags. Besides, it gets Picard where he needs to be, and the sight of him lugging a saddle around the ship’s corridors is amusing, in its way.

Really, this isn’t a perfect solution; I’m sure there were other saddles on the base, and the fact that there are only minutes before the scan starts makes it foolhardy of Picard to take such a risk for no real pressing reason. But it works enough in context, and I guess it’s a sign of how mundane the baryon scan really is, if Picard takes the danger this lightly. Once he’s on the Enterprise, he runs into trouble when he’s accosted by one of the technicians supposedly prepping the ship for the scan. (Tim Russ plays the technician; he’s best known these days as Tuvok from Voyager.) The conversation is tense for no apparent reason, and Picard quickly realizes something is wrong. He and the techie fight, Picard wins; while back on the base, Geordi gets a glimpse of something he shouldn’t have. This prompts station personnel to shoot Hutchinson and Geordi, and take Beverly, Troi, Riker and Data hostage. And after that, it’s pretty much on.

The majority of “Mine” follows Picard’s attempts to first understand the situation, and then get control of it. On the base, Riker and the others are able to work out a plan fairly quickly–they use Geordi’s VISOR to send out a super-sonic pulse that knocks everybody unconscious, except, of course, for Data. But back on the Enterprise, life isn’t so easy. The episode really doesn’t have enough plot to sustain the full hour, largely because we never really get to know much about the bad guys, beyond the fact that the head bad guy–or bad gal–Kelsey is on the ship to steal a waste bypoduct of the engines, trilithium resin, which is very dangerous, and very valuable. She intends to sell the resin, which makes her the worst kind of TNG villain: someone whose only doing what they do for money. And she’s especially evil, because she’s willing to kill her own people to get what she wants. Beyond that, though, there’s not much there, which means the byplay between her and Picard is never that compelling. Die Hard (which also featured thieves who are initially mistaken for terrorists) got a lot of mileage out of the cat-and-mouse game between its protagonist and antagonist, helped in no small part because Alan Rickman is such a fun, interesting performer. Kelsey is just one note, and the team around her is barely that.

This means that instead of trying to establish relationships, “Mine” has to fill the time with Picard first beating the enemy, then getting trapped by the enemy, then beating the enemy and getting trapped by them again. It’s tedious dynamic, although thankfully, it all happens so fast that the tedium never really gets a chance to set in. Besides, Picard is never captive very long, and his resourcefulness–running to Worf’s quarters to get a crossbow after the power is shut down (in a way that renders all phasers inoperative, which is another piece in the puzzle), setting up booby traps in the one spot of the ship he knows Kelsey will have to go–is plausible and fun. The episode keeps at a brisk pace throughout, moving fast enough that its problems never really stick around long enough to register. It’s not profound, but it’s certainly inoffensive.

My other big criticism here is the increasingly convoluted way the story works to bump off members of Kelsey’s team (including, ultimately, Kelsey herself) in a way that absolves Picard of any blame. The baryon scan serves as a convenient executioner, and characters have a weird habit of stumbling into it, despite Picard’s best efforts to save them. The only death he’s directly responsible for is Kelsey’s. Well, Kelsey and whoever’s on the ship she uses to escape. Picard removes the stabilizer from the equipment she’s using to carry the resin, and it explodes, although thankfully, it waits until Kelsey’s ship is sufficiently far from the Enterprise before doing so. It’s all a weird, kind of silly method to keep Picard, who obviously values life, from going full Kirk. That wouldn’t have suited TNG at all, and really, “Mine” isn’t a wheelhouse the series should be visiting on a regular basis. The episode serves as a fun diversion, and that’s enough.

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

Here’s an episode which, while a bit unusual for the show in some respects, seems a much better fit for TNG. It’s thoughtful, open-minded, and more concerned with character than action. It’s a little on the slow side, to be sure (I spent the first twenty minutes waiting for the plot to kick in), and hampered to a certain extent by the closed-off nature of TNG’s storytelling. But on the whole it works, focusing once again on Picard’s role on the ship, in this case how his job as captain makes it difficult for him to form personal relationships with the crew. Really, any episode that focuses on Picard is starting on a good foot. The rest of the cast has come a long way, and they’ve all had their chance to shine (well, apart from Troi, but “Face of the Enemy” wasn’t that bad), but Patrick Stewart still owns this series, and he’s the only one I can think of that could’ve pulled this off.

The biggest difficulty in getting into “Lessons” is that at least half of the episode is taken up by Picard’s growing fondness for a new crew-member. TNG has done its best with romance before, but generally those romances are set up against some kind of conflict or drama, and the affair is much more overtly passionate. (Well, by TNG standards, at least.) The courtship between Picard and Lt. Cmdr. Nella Daren (Wendy Hughes) is low-key by comparison to, say, Troi’s emotional messiness or Geordi’s fumbling. It’s easy enough to guess where things are headed when Picard first meets her in the cold open; she and her astrophysics team are using a considerable amount of ship energy for their experiments, and when Picard stops by to see what’s going on, he interrupts their work, which frustrates Daren to no end. She quickly realizes he’s the captain, and gets him some tea from the replicator as a peace offering, but instead of getting him his customary Earl Grey, she offers a mixture of her own creation. Picard doesn’t much like it, but he gets this certain look in his eye, and you know this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Daren.

Well, of course it isn’t the last we’ve seen of her. Regardless of Picard’s expression, this is a TV show, and it doesn’t have the time to randomly introduce characters who only appear in one scene, to no great purpose. But there are plenty of other reasons Daren could’ve come back, and it’s a measure of how slow “Lessons” takes things that I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Obviously Daren is going to be important, and odds were, Picard was attracted to her, and she to him, and that was going to lead to something. But there’s nothing else in the episode beyond that relationship, and it’s sometimes hard to tell just how close they’ve become at various points in the story. Picard starts exhibiting all the signs of new love–he keeps talking about Daren to everyone, including Beverly, which makes for an awkward scene–but it doesn’t get serious until the two start playing music together. Picard shows her the flute he got in “Inner Light,” and, in one of the ep’s best moments, Daren takes him to a spot in the bowels of the Enterprise she marks as the most acoustically perfect place in the whole ship. There, the two duet, her on keyboard, him on flute, and the music filters out through the ship to where Geordi can here it. But eventually they stop playing, and start kissing, and that’s when things get complicated.

Here’s where the plot really kicks in–actually, wait, not quite yet. First, we get a scene of Picard asking Troi if it would cool if he and Daren hooked up (Troi is, unsurprisingly, fine with this). Then, as their relationship goes public, things get awkward; Daren breaks protocol on a question of personnel, and Riker feels as though her actions have put in him a difficult spot. He talks to Picard, and Picard assures him that he trusts Riker’s judgment in the issue, but the (mild) damage has already been done. It’s not exactly the most thrilling sequence, but it does fit in with one of TNG‘s recurring themes: the way its possible even for good people with the best intentions to run into difficulties while working together.

The action finally kicks in when the Enterprise gets a distress call from Bersallis Three. Approaching fire storms have put the colony there at risk, and the Enterprise has to evacuate everyone before the storms arrive and lay waste to the area. Daren has had some experience dealing with fire storms in the past, and she proposes a method of holding the storms back temporarily to allow time for the colonists to escape. Given her experience, Picard has to assign her to the team installing the shields that will keep off the storms, and he’s not super happy about it. This is dangerous work, and it only gets worse when Daren realizes that she and her team will have to make adjustments to the shields by hand, while the storm rages around them. As the batches of colonists beam up to the ship, Picard hears reports of the situation on the planet worsening by the moment, until finally, he gets word that everyone has left–except for two teams working on the shields. And, even worse, Daren was on one of the missing teams.

To give “Lessons” credit, I wasn’t sure if Daren had been killed. It would’ve been a lame choice if she had, admittedly. As I mentioned above, the show’s general lack of serialization means it’s unlikely that Picard would get a love interest who’d stick around for long, especially one we’ve never seen before. In order for “Lessons” to fit in with the rest of the series, then, the episode has to come up with some plausible reason for the two characters, who seem very much in love, to part before the end credits. Death is one way around this, but it’s such an obvious, hokey trick that it would’ve seriously undercut the episode’s gentle, contemplative tone. That I still thought they might go in that direction is less a flaw in the ep, and more the handling of those tense moments when Picard believes Daren has died. His shock here, and grief, are short-lived, but they need to be believable enough to convince us we’re not watching filler, and painful enough to justify Picard’s decision to end the relationship.

Daren is alive, after all, the last person to be beamed up from the planet, carrying someone and looking significantly worse for wear. After Beverly treats her and the crisis has concluded, she and Picard meet privately to discuss what happened, and while nothing that happens here is exactly a surprise, it’s handled so well that it doesn’t need to be shocking. After coming so close to losing Daren, Picard has realized he can’t ever order her into life-threatening danger again, and Daren knows it. Which means either one of them has to quit their job, or else they need to call it quits. Picard suggests trying to manage a long-distance relationship, but they both understand how unlikely that would be. All of this was basically inevitable from the moment the two first met, which could’ve made it less interesting to watch; as well, the sudden appearance of a danger which Daren is uniquely suited to deal with is a little too convenient for the narrative, especially coming so early in their relationship. “Lessons” generally works, though, because of it’s low-key approach. That approach can be rough, and I still think the first half of the episode plays things too bloodlessly–it takes a certain amount of patience to get through to the meat of the story. But there are some beautiful scenes, and there’s something to be said for allowing drama to develop on its own.

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

I went to college because my parents wanted me to go to college, and because that’s just what people my age were doing–there was no question about it, not once. The only real issue was what I planned to major in, but even that wasn’t too mysterious. I was going to be a writer, I knew that, but to support myself before the writing career took off, my parents suggested I get a Bachelors in English Literature, with an eye towards teaching someday. Again, I did this because I’d heard others had done it. Stephen King was a teacher for a while, and really, what else was I going to do? But less than a semester away at school, I started having doubts. I was taking English classes regularly, and enjoying them well enough, but college drama was my real home, the only place where I could create anything approaching a social life. When I declared my first major, I threw caution to the wind and went with Theater. For the next few years, right up until I graduated, I thought I might try and make a go of it as an actor. I took English as a second major, but being a performer was more immediately exciting. Hell, I didn’t even really need a degree. I could just move to Chicago and start scrounging for gigs.

Ten years later (oh dear god), and I never tried to make it as an actor. I never tried to make it as a teacher, either, but to be honest, that was never much of a dream. I don’t think I could’ve survived the stress of living job to job like struggling actors (if they’re lucky) do, and I believe the choice I ended up making–to wander through the next seven or so years, over-medicated and uninspired, until I finally got my shit together–was the only choice I could’ve made. (Remember what I said before about regrets? Wait, why the hell would you remember. Are you taking notes?) That doesn’t mean I don’t miss performing, and that I don’t sometimes wonder what might’ve happened if I’d taken the risk. Most lives have moments like that. If you’re lucky, wondering what might have been won’t be incredibly depressing. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll get a glimpse of what was down the road untaken, like Picard does in “The Chase.”

That title sounds exciting, doesn’t it? And this episode does have its exciting moments, but the actual “chase” part of it doesn’t really become relevant till about halfway through. The first part of the ep deals with a visit from an old friend. Professor Galen, a mentor of Picard’s from his academy days, visits the Enterprise with a special gift for his old student: an artifact made by the Master of Tarquin Hill, who is, in fact, completely irrelevant to this story. In fact, apart from providing a valuable clue and giving Picard a visual representation of his internal confusion, the artifact isn’t important at all. What is important is that Galen wants to remind Picard of his passion for archaeology, so that Picard will agree to accompany him on a search for what may be the most important the discovery in the history of recorded civilization.

As for what that discovery actually is, well, Galen refuses to explain himself, and when Picard politely but firmly refuses the offer, explaining that as much as he’d like to go adventuring, the Enterprise isn’t just some hobby he can drop when a another opportunity comes along, Galen becomes unreasonable. Really unreasonable, actually; the professor acts like a spoiled child, accusing Picard of making a mistake by choosing captaincy over a more scholarly pursuit, and resenting that Jean-Luc doesn’t see things his way. It might be easier to understand Galen’s anger here if he got into specifics, but he refuses to say what exactly he’s looking for, only that it’s incredibly important, huge even, and jeez, just get on the shuttlecraft, will you? He also doesn’t mention that whatever he’s looking for, he’s not the only one looking for it, although it’s possible he just doesn’t realize this. Galen does not strike me as a man built for intrigue.

Maybe Galen doesn’t tell Picard what’s really going on because of ego–Hey, I’m amazing enough that my former student should agree to do what I say without justification, and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t get to play. Or maybe it’s because he secretly fears that if Picard really knew what was going on, Picard would seize control of the mission in the name of the Federation. (Although Galen does how much easier it would be to do his work if he had a starship at his disposal, which sounds more like someone who wouldn’t mind some help.) Whatever the reasoning behind the professor’s recalcitrance, it ends up effectively getting him killed. After he leaves the Enterprise, a Yridian destroyer waylays his shuttle, holding the ship in a tractor beam and boarding it. When the Enterprise attempts a rescue, the Yridian ship is destroyed by a single hit (which confuses Worf to no end), and the professor is already doomed. Picard has him beamed to Sick Bay, but Beverly can’t do anything for him. Galen mutters, “I was too hard on you,” to Picard, and then he dies.

Which is how Picard finally gets drawn into the real meat of the story. “Chase” has a lot of fun showing our heroes first finding a series of number blocks on Galen’s computer drives, and then trying to figure out what those blocks mean. They visit two of the planets Galen had already visited in his travels, and neither planet has any intelligent life on it. One planet is rendered completely barren of life while the Enterprise is in orbit around it, so clearly something is going on here. Eventually, Picard and the others figure it out: Galen was on a quest to find the missing entries in a series of DNA fragments which seem to comprise a kind of genetic computer program. To this end, he’d farmed DNA samples from each of the worlds he’d visited to finish the program (we never hear how the professor stumbled across this idea, or how he figured out which planets would have the code he needed). The Enterprise rushes to the Kurl system, where Galen purchased the relic he gave Picard at the start of the episode. There, they find Cardassians, who are also interested in the professor’s work. And then the Klingons show up.

It’s at this point that “Chase” goes from intriguing sci-fi/character study about regret to a kind of wacky espionage thriller, as Picard negotiates a brief peace between the three groups in exchange for information, only to be betrayed by the Cardassians almost immediately. The tonal shift is entertaining, and it gives more of a sense of urgency to the quest, but both the Cardassians and the Klingons are broadly drawn, turning the episode into another in the show’s long history of “Man, humans are so much better than all these crazy, greedy aliens, huh?” stories. Instead of spending time with Picard as he deals with his need to satisfy Galen’s legacy as well as salve his guilt over what happened to his mentor, we get silly villains being silly. There’s even a scene when the Klingon captain (who, to the episode’s credit, actually turns out to be the most honorable of the bunch of thieves) screws around with Data, for no plot purpose whatsoever. It’s a funny scene, and I don’t need every moment in an episode to advance the storyline, but it cuts down on any attempt at tension when we get five minutes of pure comic relief in the last act.

There are plenty of good ideas here. The secret behind Galen’s search is a great concept, and the way everyone teams up together to find a solution manages to make use of most of the cast. (I especially like how excited Beverly is about everything. I never thought of this before, but Dr. Crusher is as into the geekier, more technical aspects of her work as Geordi is into his own. There’s something to be said for having a positive female character who’s super into science, without anyone needing to make a big deal out of it.) I’m not sure we’re given enough of a reason to justify why other races are involved in the hunt. I get it, everybody thinks the program, once finished, will yield up some great treasure, but the way their expectations fit so neatly with what we know about them (the Cardassians think it’ll be unlimited power, the Klingons think it will be a weapon) is uninteresting, and we never really know how they found out about Galen’s research in the first place. I’m sure he wasn’t subtle in his work, but given how reluctant he was to tell Picard anything, I’d be curious to learn how, say, Gull Oceat found out. There’s something cartoonish about all of this, from the Klingon’s posturing to the inevitable Cardassian betrayal to the arrival of the Romulans in the end game–it’s like one of the sillier episodes of TOS. Or, hell, an actual cartoon, some well-made and well-intentioned but ultimately shallow kid’s show meant to demonstrate the hollowness of greed.

That’s especially true of the conclusion of the chase. (Said chase, by the way, only really takes up about five minutes of screen-time. You could argue that the hunt had been on-going long before the Enterprise got involved, but it only really feels like a race to a shared goal near the end of the episode.) Everybody gets together on the last planet, Worf and his new buddy confront the treacherous Klingons, and then the Romulans show up, because they’ve been tracking the Enterprise ever since the Yridian ship exploded. While the rest of them argue, Picard and Beverly manage to get the last DNA sample. They finish the program, which reconfigures Picard’s tricorder and delivers a message in the form of a hologram of a species that have been dead for billions of years. The alien doesn’t offer weapons or power or anything concrete, beyond the knowledge that she and her kind manipulated primitive DNA so that the races of intelligent life in this universe would share her kind’s shape–what we call humanoid. She reminds the group that they are all related somehow, hopes that they don’t mind serving as a monument to her race, and disappears.

This is corny as hell. The idea that an ancient race engineered a coherent blueprint for sentient beings that would, many years later, make life easy on decades of make-up and costume artists, is ridiculous enough to be cool, sure. But “The real treasure is love!” is never a satisfying answer to this kind of mystery, and it comes with a sort of guilt-inducing moral superiority that makes it hard to take seriously. “Oooo, so you were expecting something concrete? Oh, you stupid minds! So childish and full of greed. We don’t have toys to offer you–just the joy of our empty handed embrace!” Something like that. I’m sure the first time this trick got pulled, it was effectively clever enough to work, but now, it just smacks of laziness. At least “One Tin Soldier” had the decency to make it all rhyme.

With that in mind, though, this ending isn’t that bad. It fits in with the overly broad goofiness of the episode’s latter half, and just because something is corny doesn’t mean it’s terrible. And it fits in with TNG‘s utopian ideals, of a galaxy of life-forms slowly, tortuously coming together, despite their myriad differences. “The Chase” has a certain endearing optimism in its conclusion, right up to a scene when a Romulan commander makes it a point of saying farewell to Picard, hinting that maybe, at some future point, their two warring cultures might eventually find peace. This, to me, is Trek all over–idealistic to a fault, and more than a little naive, but so committed to its idealism that it can almost make you believe it’s true. Or else should be.

According to the A.V. Club review of Frame of Mind:

I usually avoid reading plot teasers for episodes before I review them. As I’ve mentioned, I’d seen a fair number of TNG episodes before starting this project, but it’d been years since I watched the show regularly, and there were plenty of episodes I’d never even heard of. So I decided, like I did with TOS (and like I’ll be doing with Deep Space Nine, which I’ve seen even less of than TOS and TNG), to go as blind as possible. If I stumbled across spoilers in comments, so be it, but I wouldn’t seek them out, and I’d even avert my eyes from the few short sentences Netflix (or the IMDB) provided to describe individual eps. It’s worked out well so far. This week, though, I did get a piece of what “Frame of Mind” was about before I sat down to watch it. The name was familiar to me, and while I’d never seen it before, I had vague memories of Riker acting crazy. The plot teaser read, in effect, “Riker finds himself in a mental institution, where he’s told that his life on the Enterprise was a delusion. Now he has to figure out what’s real, and what isn’t it.”

This sounded cool–it’s like that Buffy episode from the sixth season, “Normal Again,” only without any of the meta-commentary. But while that is a fairly accurate description of what happens in “Frame,” it suggests a level of conventionality that the episode doesn’t possess. For once, going in with expectations worked to my advantage, because it meant I was completely fooled by the cold open. Riker is talking to someone off-screen (someone who sounds a lot like Data, but that could mean anything). He’s out of uniform and clearly agitated, arguing about his innocence, and his sanity. The off-screen presence suggests Riker has committed some horrible crime, but Riker denies this. So, I’m thinking, we’re doing an in media res opening, and Riker is already in the asylum. The back story of how he got there will just come out in the dialog.

Then the camera pulls back, and we realize that Riker is actually rehearsing a scene from a play, with Data as his co-star. Beverly’s directing, but she’s not entirely convinced by Riker’s performance. The play’s called “Frame of Mind.” From that moment on, the episode had me. It’s a simple twist, and you could even argue it’s just as familiar as my original concept. These days, it seems like people are constantly putting fictions inside of fictions inside of fictions, metarduckens designed to make your brain explode instead of your heart. Maybe it’s just getting caught off guard (by a show that doesn’t surprise me that often at this point) because I made the wrong assumption that sold me. But really, this isn’t a game TNG plays very often, and, as the rest of “Frame” ably demonstrates, that’s a shame. Even if depicting mental anguish isn’t really what the show is about, they do a damn good job of it.

The episode kept catching me off guard even after the cold open, not because the plot is so hugely different from anything we’ve seen before (it reminds me a bit of “Schisms,” the episode where Riker and other crewmembers kept losing time to alien abductors), but because of the way that plot is presented. “Mind” gets by with minimal hand-holding, something I’ve expressed my admiration for many times before. We’re given clues, but nothing in the episode telegraphs what’s happening, and there’s no explicit, hard truths until the very end. The audience should have some basic ideas by the midpoint; we know that Riker isn’t really crazy, that the alien race that has him locked up is playing some kind of dirty pool, and that in order to escape, he’ll have to find some way to break their spell. But the script never confirms these assumptions until it has to. More, it goes out of its way to seemingly contradict them, getting a great deal of suspense out of both Riker’s plight, and the curiosity over how that plight could possibly be resolved.

Riker’s working on the play, running lines and pushing himself before the performance. Picard tells him about an upcoming mission on Tilonus 4. The planet has fallen into civil war, and both sides are desperate for an edge in weapons and technology, which makes the Federation team stationed on the planet a perfect target for kidnapping and torture. The team has gone into hiding, and it’ll be Riker’s job to go undercover and contact them for extraction. This is a standard expository scene; we’ve had dozens of them on the series before. It sets up what will most likely serve as the main conflict of the episode. Since I’d heard that Riker was going to be held in some kind of asylum, it seemed logical to assume that the Tilonians would capture him while he was on the planet, then attempt to break his mind for interrogation by drugging him and convincing him that his past was a hallucination he needed to exorcise.

That’s fine, but there was something clunky about wasting a whole scene with Picard for this information, especially when this was followed by a scene with Worf instructing Riker on the proper way to blend in on Tilonus. It’s not a terrible sequence, but we’ve had Riker go on missions before, and by this point in the show, starting with a briefing is just too predictable and flat a way to introduce the plot. There’s no momentum here, and by telling Riker what he needs to accomplish, we now know what to expect. We know what we’ll need to get through before the real episode starts, which is a bummer.

Except it’s not that simple; in fact, it’s not clunky at all. There’s a new crewmember Riker keeps seeing around the ship who strikes him as… off, somehow. And then, while Worf is demonstrating the proper use of a Tilonian ceremonial dagger, he accidentally cuts Riker’s forehead. It’s not like Worf to be so clumsy, and it’s not like the show (or any show) to have a moment like this for no good reason.  Riker goes to see Beverly to have his wound healed, and on the way out of Sick Bay, catches a glimpse of a burn victim. This upsets him so terribly he goes to Troi for answers; all she can tell him is, maybe he’s given himself over completely to his role in the play. And that’s a good thing, right? Acting is all about going a little mad. In fact, Riker has given himself so completely that at the performance that evening, he wows the crowd to a standing ovation. And then the crowd disappears, and Riker finds himself in a real cell that looks a lot like the stage set, only less fake. There’s a calm doctor there to tell him that everything will be all right, and to remind him that there’s no such thing as William T. Riker of Starfleet. They called the Federation. No record of such a person exists.

The rest of the episode keeps working to throw you off guard, by never letting the status quo settle between the Enterprise or the Tilonian asylum. We know the things the doctor tells Riker can’t actually be the truth, which means there’s more to the asylum than meets the eye. But what does that mean when Riker finds himself back on the Enterprise after a length sojourn in Ward 47? It’s not just some dream he’s having, and we can be reasonably sure the character isn’t going insane. (This is because in fiction, given the choice between strange phenomena and insanity, the smart money is always on the former. Not so true in real life.) By repeatedly switching back and forth between both places, “Mind” makes it difficult to pick up the thread of exactly what’s going on–and where in some episodes that could be pointlessly frustrating, here it simply serves to put us even more firmly on Riker’s side.

Which makes it even more interesting when Riker surrenders to the Tilonian version of events as quickly as he does. Usually in this sort of story, you’d expect the hero to firmly resist all attempts to break his mind, and for his determination to eventually win through in the end. Riker does finally beat his captors, but before that happens, he capitulates to the doctor’s assertion that everything about the Enterprise is fake. He doesn’t look weak in doing so, and it makes for another fun shift in expectations (as well as fitting in, in a subtle way, with Picard’s behavior in “Chain of Command”; even heroes can be dismantled). It also, probably unintentionally, draws out the central conflict in his delusion. Since the Enterprise is real, by going along with the delusion, Riker forces his mind to try and sustain an unsustainable premise. And on top of all that, it feels honest. We like to pretend that we have strong, unbreakable ties to our version of reality, that only a crazy person could mistake delusion for the real world. But really, none of us is as solid as we pretend to be. Our concepts of existence are just aggregates of experience, a rough average of all the moments we’ve lived through, and the only reason each new moment feels as solid as the last is that we’re never offered any choice in the matter.

Riker finally comes to his senses, and it turns out neither the Enterprise nor the asylum are actually real, at least not his recent experiences in them. The Tilonian who, in Riker’s hallucination, had served as the head of the hospital (as well as appearing regularly on the Enterprise as a lieutenant), is actually attempting to drain information from Riker’s brain, and the delusions he’s been experiencing are his mind’s way of coping with the process. Riker gains consciousness long enough to get rid of the plug in his temple (which just happens to be where Worf cut him, a wound recurred throughout the episode), grab his communicator and escape back to the real ship. It’s an abrupt conclusion, mitigated somewhat by the coda, in which Riker starts taking down the set of the “Frame of Mind” play, but it doesn’t diminish the rest of the episode. Really, with a story this strong which relies so much on confusion and mystery, the ending would have to be a bit of a let-down.

“Mind” is one of the darkest TNG episodes yet, and it inspires Frakes to turn in some of his best work in the series. He hasn’t had much to do in a while beyond smirk, so it’s good to see him get a chance to show off his chops in a role that requires him to be manic and terrified for a large portion of his screen-time. TNG has been testing the limits of its format in the past two seasons, for good and bad (“Time’s Arrow” springs to mind in the “Dear god, never again!” category), and “Mind” more than justifies the experimentation. I had a great time throughout the episode, trying to guess what would come next, and failing more often than not. For a series to be still capable of surprises this late in its run is a fine thing indeed.

According to the A.V. Club review of Rightful Heir:

Faith is the art of investing in expectation. You believe in something in the hope that, someday, you’ll find that belief confirmed, either by achieving some kind of transcendence in the afterlife, or by having your regular existence transformed for the better. What’s fascinating is that having that expectation fulfilled means an end to the faith that brought you to that fulfillment. That’s fine if you’re just having faith in, oh I don’t know, becoming a professional writer—once you start publishing your work, you don’t need faith anymore. (You need confidence, which is like faith, but dresses better.) And if you believe in the divinity of Jesus, well, odds are you’ll be able to hold onto that until you die, at which point who cares if you’re thrust into an existential crisis. But what would happen—if you believe Jesus was the Son of God—if you were to open your door tomorrow morning and find him on the stoop? Once you cleaned away the doubts and the second guessing, once you were absolutely sure this was Christ in the flesh, sipping your coffee and complimenting you on the decor… what happens next? And what happens when you try and bring Jesus back to the world?

In “Rightful Heir,” it’s Kahless we’re dealing with, not Jesus, but while he isn’t really a “turn the other cheek” kind of guy, Kahless serves much the same purpose for his people as Jesus did for his. Kahless is a symbol of all that’s good and right in Klingon culture: He defined the warrior spirit, he helped turn violence into something more than just chaos and blood, and he gave his followers an ethos to commit to, a belief that made them a part of something bigger than themselves. Given the sad state of Klingon affairs, with its government struggling to get beyond decades of institutionalized corruption and decadence, it’s only natural that the people may be clamoring for greater spiritual guidance. But that doesn’t mean Gowron, the current head Klingon, is going to be all that happy when Kahless shows up, demanding to take his rightful place on the throne. That’s the problem with these damn heroes of myth—no respect for due process.

“Heir” is another Worf episode, and a much better one than the two-parter from earlier this season. It addresses a problem that’s been building for some time in our favorite security chief, in a way that recognizes the complexity of his situation, as well as allowing him to define his own path. If Beverly is a character who’s never been allowed to live up to her potential, Worf is the opposite, a secondary lead who’s put in his dues in the background, but has been rewarded with a run of showcase episodes that share a gratifyingly consistent level of quality and insight. There are bad apples in the lot (Remember Alexander? “Heir” sure doesn’t!), but not many, and if you were to pull out all the Worf-centric eps from the run of the series and watch them back to back, like a sort of stealth spin-off, I’d bet they’d hold up well. Certainly better than if you did the same with any other major character on the show, apart from Picard and Data.

Worf begins “Heir” in crisis. After the events of “Birthright,” he’s been adrift, missing something in his life but unsure of how to reconnect with his past. After he’s late for a shift on the bridge and nearly sets his apartment on fire doing a Klingon ritual, Picard puts him on mandatory vacation, kicking him off the ship until he can find what he needs and refocus on his duties on the Enterprise. Worf heads to Boreth, to join a group of dirty Klingon hippies who spend their days staring into flames hoping for visions. Worf soon gets sick of the process and is about to leave, when one of the clerics who runs the place convinces him to stick around a little longer. And wouldn’t you know it, the next time Worf settles in for a good long look, Kahless appears. Except this isn’t a vision—everyone can see him. The Klingon who promised to return over 1,000 years ago has finally made good on his promise. Which is a bit of a head-screw, to be sure.

There are a lot of things that make “Heir” work—its clear, believable view of Klingon culture; the actor playing Kahless (Kevin Conway); and Worf getting a chance to put all the stuff he’s learned over the years about himself and his people to good use. What struck me hardest watching it for review was how expertly Ron Moore (working off a story by James Brooks) manages to build up belief in a seemingly impossible revelation. There’s no way this Kahless could be the actual Kahless. While TNG was never afraid to get vauge or semi-magical with its “science,” having someone return from the dead in a purely religious context is beyond the bounds of the show by a fair margin. There had to be some kind of sci-fi explanation for his re-emergence, and we do get one eventually—but until we do, Moore plays things close enough to the vest that I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Even if I knew, intellectually, Kahless was a phony, emotionally, I was in the same place as Worf—skeptical, but wanting to believe.

It doesn’t hurt that Kahless is an amazing guy, and not just because he has a century’s worth of epic tales to back him up. Conway plays him exactly as you’d want a Klingon spiritual leader to be: lusty, cheerful, passionate, and, when necessary, profound. There’s no sense of ulterior motive in the performance, which makes sense when we learn the truth: this Kahless is actually cloned from the blood of the original Kahless. The clerics on Boreth then implanted all their accumulated knowledge and lore of the real Kahless in the clone’s brain, and tried to pass him off as the Second Coming. The cloned Kahless doesn’t know any of this, and if “Heir” has a fault, it’s that we’re never really privy to how he handles the revelation of what he really is. Once the head cleric confesses to Worf, clone Kahless goes quiet, and when he does speak again, he acts much the same as he did before. His fortune changes dramatically in the span of a few hours, going from a reborn messiah to a test tube baby to the new Emperor and spiritual leader of the Klingon empire. That’s got to mess with your head.

But hey, this is Worf’s story, not Kahless’s, and “Heir” is probably better for that. Worf goes from desperate seeker, to skeptic, to passionate follower, to… something else, and Michael Dorn handles each transition ably and convincingly. Kahless’s sudden appearance sets off warning bells for Worf, because it’s too perfect. “Heir” understands that just because we pray for something (or, for us atheists, just because we yearn for something really, really hard), that doesn’t mean we expect our prayers to be answered literally. When Worf travels to Boreth, he’s trying to regain the unquestioning devotion to Klingon culture that defined much of his life. He grew up apart from his own race, and that outsider status, as a Klingon in the Federation, meant that his knowledge of who he was supposed to be came purely from books and theory. He aspired to be the purest, most idealized version of Klingon-hood, and it was inevitable that when he’d finally reconnect with actual living Klingon culture, he would be disappointed. His time teaching young people in “Birthright”—young people who, while still being raised by Klingon parents, were still in their way as orphaned from their society as Worf had been—reminded him of the purity of faith he once had, while at the same time failing to resolve the disillusionment that has been eroding that purity ever since he got involved with actual Klingon politics. So he goes to Boreth, because that’s what a Klingon in spiritual crisis is supposed to do, and he gets exactly what he’s supposed to want, and it gets awkward.

There is a period of time when Worf does believe, but it’s telling that what converts him (for a while, anyway) is Beverly’s scientific proof of the new Kahless’s connection to the old one. (She matches his DNA with the sword blood DNA, and of course, they match.) Worf has passed beyond a point where he will blindly accept anything—he wants to believe, he says to Kahless, but the fact that there’s a gap between wanting and actual belief shows how much he’s changed over the years. He brings Kahless aboard the Enterprise to transport him back to the Klingon home-world, and tries to convince the rest of the crew that it’s possible they’re witnessing a true rebirth. Worf seems convinced himself, but it’s a conviction he sheds at the first sign of doubt, when Kahless, supposedly the greatest Klingon warrior to ever live, loses a fight to Gowron. When Worf learns the truth, he’s so amazed by the gall of it that he laughs. The knowledge, the final nail in the coffin of his belief in Klingon idealism (First the government lets him down, now Jesus?) could’ve made him bitter, but doesn’t; and after talking with Data, of all people, he realizes that this is an opportunity. Just because Kahless isn’t “real” won’t stop people from believing in him. And the Klingon people desperately need someone to believe in.

The episode deals with the potential ramifications of a savior reborn, bringing Gowron back into the picture and showing how reluctant a political leader would be to embrace a spiritual power—but mostly, this is Worf’s show. He watches, he considers, and in the end, he’s responsible for guiding the Klingon empire back on its course. He begins the story adrift; then he gets what he thinks he wants, and realizes it isn’t what he needed it to be. But instead of losing his way again or giving up entirely, Worf realizes that faith is what matters, not the fulfillment. His own faith goes from an unquestioning devotion to something more mature. He respects the ideals Kahless represents, without the need to invest in the man himself. That gives him the maturity to recognize what the others fail to see: The cloned Kahless is still a symbol of what could be. For someone who’s spent much of his life blindly worshiping a culture that continually failed to deserve such commitment, Worf is someone who understands how important ideals can be, even if they remain forever outside your grasp.

According to the A.V. Club review of Second Chances:

On the one hand, “Second Chances” is a mild, laid-back melodrama about characters facing choices and versions of themselves they’d thought long abandoned into the past. Troi gets another romance (although thankfully, this one isn’t humiliating or horrific), and Riker gets a chance to see first hand how he would’ve reacted if his life had gone differently than he’d planned. It’s all very pleasant and a little sad. On the other hand, “Second Chances” is a huge mind-blow, to a degree that I don’t think the writers really take into account. The premise is, well, not straightforward exactly, but it seems to fit in the same lines as “The Enemy Within” from TOS: a transporter malfunction creates two Rikers. Unlike “Enemy,” these Rikers are functionally identical at the moment of creation, but for one fundamental difference. The first Riker, our Riker, was successfully beamed off of Nervala Four eight years ago, going on to live a life that led to his current position, as the First Officer of the Enterprise. The second Riker was left on Nervala, and due to an atmospheric condition that renders transporters inoperable on the planet for years at a time, he had to fend for himself on the station, right up until Riker1 and an away team beam down to pull the station’s data records.

Pretty cool, right? Very cool, in fact, and while “Chances” isn’t drop-dead amazing or anything, it’s got a terrific hook, and it does a decent job living up to that premise. (Unlike other episodes I watched this week.) But what amazes me is how much the existence of Riker2 should change things in the Trek-verse. Kirk’s bifurcation in “Enemy” happened after the transporters were exposed to an alien ore—it would be theoretically possible to replicate the mishap, but you never get the sense anyone on the old Enterprise was taking rigorous enough notes for that sort of experiment. (Or any notes at all, really.) On TNG, though, some weeks it’s like the crew does nothing but take notes. Even more importantly, there’s no weird ore required to pull off the malfunction that created Riker. If I’m getting the fiction science right, the two Rikers were created when the tech who was trying to beam Riker off the planet hit some interference, and created a second transporter pattern, identical to the first, to reinforce the beam. That second pattern got bounced back to the station, where it reformed into Riker2, just as Riker1 was arriving on the orbiting ship. Basically, by creating two beams, the tech inadvertently created two Rikers, and, well, that seems like it could be a big deal, right? I guess there’s some hand-waving about frequencies being exactly aligned, and we’re supposed to come away from this thinking it’s a once-in-1,000-a year coincidence, but… well, to look at it another way, this is a way of creating exact duplicates of people with no apparent drawbacks or restrictions if you can refine the process. That just seems like it would be useful.

Okay, maybe I’m getting overly enthusiastic—Trek, and science fiction in general (especially sci-fi series, which generally try and maintain a base level status quo, and as such, don’t generally embrace massive, earth-shattering discoveries), has a history of throwing out crazy stuff and then letting it drop through the cracks between episodes. It’s fun to speculate, but  I wouldn’t say it’s a huge flaw in the episode. But there’s something so mundane about “Chances” that you can’t help but poke around for something more. I’m off two minds (Ha!) on this episode—which means that, yes, you’re about to get yet another review in which I piece together my thoughts and impressions as I type, rather than me approaching the material with a cogent thesis already in mind. I’d be sorry about that, but honestly, I get paid either way. (Bonus honesty: All my reviews are basically like that. Even the ones which seem to have cohesion. You type enough sentences, you’re bound to get a good run of paragraphs eventually.)

In my first mind: “Chances”’ most exciting moment happens in the cold open. No, I don’t mean Riker’s thwarted jazz solo. (Although—brief digression—I know it’s supposed to be charming and prankish of Troi to push Riker to perform a solo he’s avoiding, and I realize Ten Forward is about as low pressure a performance environment as you can come up with outside the womb, but it’s a bit mean. He’s spent years working on something, and he’s never gotten it right. The odds of him suddenly nailing the solo now, in front of everyone, are slim to none.) When Riker comes face to face with Riker2, without any warning to him or to us of what’s about to happen, it’s a great shock. Presumably, this shock was ruined for anyone who read TV Guide in 1993, but dramatically speaking, it’s a fine beat whether you’re prepared for it or not. But as the episode progresses, there’s never really anything to top this. The explanation for why Riker2 exists is about as mundane as a “I just discovered another me” explanations can be. Sure, it says all kinds of cool stuff about the transporter, but this episode isn’t about the transporter, and Geordi’s little speech about what happened is the beginning and end of the science-fiction element. The rest of “Chances” might as well be the story of two brothers who haven’t seen each other in a long time, at least in terms of plot mechanics. There’s some thematic stuff about what makes us who we are, and how we keep on making the same choices even when our situations have changed (there’s a reason for that title, after all), but all of this is very low-key. Riker2 has been around for eight years by the time the Enterprise finds him. There’s nothing physically wrong with him, there’s no sudden twist that one Riker or the other has to die (although apparently this was considered, in a Spider-man Clone Saga kind of way). Riker2 shows up, spars a bit with our Riker, hits on Troi, and then decides to call himself Thomas and sign on with another ship. The episode presents us with a conundrum, but then never puts much energy into resolving it, or using it to rile anyone up, apart from Troi, who tends to spend her time on ship in a state of constant riling already.

But in my second mind: There’s something to be said for taking such an outlandish premise and handling it as realistically and straightforwardly as possible. While “Chances” lacks a lot of overt shocks or twists, its thoughtful approach is, in its way, pretty darn subversive. Once we establish that Riker2 is real as real, and that the nature of his creation poses no threat to anyone, he’s treated as completely and reasonably human as the rest of the ensemble. In fact, most of the episode is told from Riker2’s perspective—or at least, more of it is from his perspective than from our Riker’s, which is an odd but neat choice. This is an episode that requires more of the viewer, in that it doesn’t spell out all the strangeness. Like the fact that Riker2 and Troi pick up again where our Riker and Troi left off years ago. Or the obvious frustration both Rikers have with each other. Riker2, having spent so much time on his own with little hope of rescue, is more mercurial, more willing to take risks and less willing to accept orders. Our Riker isn’t a fan of this, and it’s doubtful either man is all that happy to meet a slightly skewed version of himself; for our Riker, it’s clear evidence of his faults, and for Riker2, it’s getting to meet the guy who stole your life. This conflict is played out via strained expressions and the occasional shouting, and has as happy an ending as it could’ve when Riker saves Riker2 from death while the two are doing repairs under the station on Nervala Four. When Thomas Riker leaves, Will Riker gives him his trombone as a parting gift, which is nice of him.

Maybe a little too nice, really. While I like “Second Chances” more than I dislike it, I do think the episode short-changes the drama in favor of TNG’s standard, “Everybody really can get along if we’re all polite and patient with each other” approach. Riker2 spends nearly a decade in isolation, keeping himself alive through improvisation and, I’m guessing, a fair bit of luck. Then finally someone comes to rescue him, and he can go back to the life he had and the love he left. He tells Troi that thinking of her, the hope of seeing her again and being with her again (every time anyone on this show says “I want to be with you,” I assume they’re talking about sex), is what got him through the rough patches. And you have to imagine that there were some seriously rough patches on Nervala, days when suicide must’ve looked very, very attractive. But he had love to pull him through, and he had the same determination and energy we’ve seen our Riker display on the series. This guy is an adventurer to the core, and while getting stuck in a few small rooms millions of miles from anyone isn’t exactly a romp, it’s not implausible that he’d manage to get through it.

And then he meets himself, and everything he’s spent eight years waiting for falls apart. As much as I’d like to believe that Riker would be reasonable in either form, I don’t think there’s a reasonable solution to that, at least not an easy one. Near the end of the episode, our Riker rescues Riker2, which helps mend some fences. The length of time Riker2 has been away from Starfleet makes the split between the two of them easier to take, since Will Riker’s position on the Enterprise isn’t something that Thomas Riker ever knew to long for. But identity is a tricky business, and it’s not as logical as “Chances” would have us believe. Thomas’ choice at the end is reassuringly sensible and non-stabby, but sometimes, TNG’s commitment to reasonability is, well, unreasonable. Sometimes, people need to go a little mad to be believable. This is one of those times. Riker2 spends most of “Chances” acting a little on edge (and Frakes does a decent job differentiating between his two selves), but that never goes anywhere. He takes to prolonged isolation and being forced to be the “not-Will” Riker with a surprising, and not entirely believable, aplomb.

But then, I guess that’s part of being a hero. “Chances” is a good episode, and if the review is more rambling than usual, that’s because I’m trying to pinpoint what stops it, to me, from being a great episode. Riker2 and Troi’s courting is sweet and melancholic, and that’s a rarity for TNG; and the resignation on Troi’s face when Thomas tells her he’s leaving the ship speaks volumes. She clearly still has feelings for Riker that she’s never entirely gotten over, and the opportunity to embrace those feelings again is irresistable. And yet it’s doomed from the start, because for all his different experiences, Riker2 is, at heart, as ambitious and driven as Will, and as much as he tries to deny it, given the same choice Will was given, between a relationship and his career, he’s going to take the latter. This is an episode that arrives at its conclusions a little too easily for my taste, but that doesn’t make those conclusions less valid. We all think about second chances from time to time, but it’s the first chances that define us; and as much as we may wish otherwise, we can’t ever leave them behind.

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

Everybody’s had a good idea for a sci-fi or fantasy or horror story at some point. Getting a single good idea isn’t that difficult, at least when you don’t need to come up with one. Writers will tell you the difference between a good idea and a story is the actual hard work of writing it down, and that’s true, but there’s also the fact that good idea on its own isn’t much of anything. A good idea isn’t a story, it’s just a way into a story, and if you can’t come up with the follow-through, you aren’t going to get very far. And what’s really tricky is trying to find a way to explain the good idea. The more effort it takes to provide a logical reason behind some really arresting image you’ve stumbled across, the worse the story’s going to be. Explanations require an organic elegance—when revealed, it should seem like there’s no other answer to the questions you’ve been asking. The minute the audience sees the work that goes into suspending their disbelief, that’s the minute you start to lose them. It’s a hard line to walk, and examples of failed attempts at exposition and explanation litter the genre landscape like ungainly corpses. “Timescape” is a lively corpse for the most part, and one I enjoyed a lot at the start. But once it starts throwing down answers, things go from mysterious to silly in a hurry.

Let’s at least savor those first two acts while we can, shall we? A quick double shot of scenes on the Enterprise tells us Riker is scared of Data’s cat (understandably, considering the size of the scratches the cat leaves on his forehead), and also sets the plot in motion, although we won’t know exactly how for a while yet. The ship receives a distress signal from a Romulan ship, Riker tells Worf to make plans to assist the Romulans—carefully—and then we cut to a runabout (a slightly larger than usual shuttle) carrying Picard, Geordi, Troi, and Data. All four of them are headed back home after attending one of season six’s legendary interstellar conferences: This one was about the psychological effects of long-term deep space missions, which, you’ll be delighted to hear, has exactly nothing to do with the rest of the episode. Troi and Picard regale the others about embarrassing and/or tedious experiences they had during their sessions—an expert on inter-species mating hit on Troi, and Picard suffered through a lecturer so boring he didn’t even realize he was speaking on the wrong topic—and it’s all very charming. But then, everybody but Troi freezes for maybe 20 seconds. When they unfreeze, they have no memory of the time loss, and Data’s internal clock is still in sync with the shuttle’s computer. Troi starts to wonder if she didn’t imagine the whole thing, but then she falls, and when she comes to, the others tell her that this time, she was the frozen one.

Something strange is going on, and “Timescape” is never better than when it follows our four heroes in their efforts to unravel the strangeness. A few more temporal oddities pop up—like an engine that burns through all of its fuel as though it had been running constantly for 47 days, or a bowl of fruit that rots in an instant, and has such a fast-running time bubble around it that Picard essentially burns his hand with aging when he reaches inside. Data determines that the entire area is littered with time bubbles, small-to-moderate sized anomalies which speed up, slow down, or otherwise interfere with normal chronology. When the shuttle arrives at the point in space where they’re supposed to rendezvous with the Enterprise, the other ship never arrives, and when they finally find her, it’s obvious why she’s late: The Enterprise is frozen alongside a Romulan Warbird, apparently in the middle of battle. And if it is a battle, the Enterprise is losing.

The image of the two ships hanging suspended in time and space is a great one, and a natural conclusion of the build-up of the first part of the episode. The rest of “Timescape” is on the downhill side. That’s not a huge surprise, really; the weirdness that pulls you into the story is cool in no small part because it’s seemingly inexplicable, and the explaining part of mysteries is nearly always duller than the set-up. (Even learning that the shuttle was flying through time-bubbles was a bit of a let-down. All of sudden, eerie horror is transformed into moderate science-fiction inconvenience.) But TNG has had plenty of stories with decent or even powerful reveals. The backstory of “The Survivors” turned something spooky into a powerful tragedy of loss and misspent vengeance, and while “Timescape” probably wasn’t going to hit that level of emotional complexity, it at least could’ve managed something like the end of “Schisms,” which provided enough information to justify what had happened, and then got out of the way. Instead, we get a story that tries for a big concept, but pushes too much into too little time, leaving us with a resolution that feels more than a little forced into existence.

Before that can happen, we have to spend some time with our heroes poking around on the frozen ships, because hey, why not? Geordi works up personal shields for everyone to prevent them from being frozen with the rest of the Enterprise crew—the shields are imperfect, initially making Troi dizzy before eventually sending Picard into hysterics. Amusing/freaky as it is to see Picard laughing uncontrollably and drawing smiley faces into semi-frozen clouds, the “space-time madness” subplot is padding, plain and simple. I don’t object to the reminder that it’s dangerous for Picard and the others to move inside the displaced time, but the fact that Picard’s collapse doesn’t add anything to the story or create new difficulties (apart from meaning Picard has to stay behind on the shuttle for a little while), is sloppy writing.

The tableau which Picard, Troi and Data discover aboard the Enterprise are appropriately dramatic: On the bridge, it looks like a Romulan is attacking Riker, and in Sick Bay, a Romulan has actually fired on Beverly, hitting her in the stomach with a now-paused disruptor ray. (Which looks totally cool, by the way.) Worst of all, Data discovers a warp-core breach in engineering, and through that breach, Data learns that what they thought was stopped time is actually just time moving at an infinitesimal rate. That means that Picard and the others will have to figure out what happened before time slowed to a crawl, figure out what caused the crawl, and figure out some way to prevent disaster and resolve the issue, before the warp core breach slowly but surely engulfs the ship. They’ve got nine hours, which is just enough time to make the work possible, but not so much time that it kills the suspense.

In the interest of adding even more suspense, we see a supposedly time-stuck Romulan blinking in Sick Bay. If this seems familiar, it should—almost the same exact scene occurred in “The Next Phase,” a season five episode that had Geordi and Ensign Ro wandering around invisible after a transporter accident. There, the sudden twist that Geordi and Ro weren’t alone did a great job of goosing the ep into its final acts; here, it’s a big piece of the puzzle of why all this is happening, and it’s also the most problematic aspect of “Timescape.” Because the blinking Romulan isn’t actually a Romulan at all, but an alien being whose taken over a Romulan body. She and her mate (who also grabbed a Romulan host) were using the artificial singularity in the Romulan engine core as a nest to incubate their young. Normally they would’ve used a black hole, but I guess those aren’t easy to find, and maybe they had dinner plans they just couldn’t get out of, so they dumped their kids into the Romulan ship. Then it went horribly wrong, and when the Enterprise came to help the Romulans, not knowing the situation was more complicated than just an engine failure, the aliens showed up, grabbed a couple of warm bodies to invade, and made things worse.

That’s sort of cool. It’s reverse engineered, in that the writers started with “time keeps on skipping!” and then tried to figure out some way to justify the premise, but hey, that’s not the end of the world. The problem is, we barely get to know either of these aliens before they (somewhat conveniently) disappear—first they assault one of the heroes, and then the shock of the assault sends them off to the Phantom Zone, or makes them cease to exist, or whatever. The reverse engineering becomes more obvious when its result doesn’t have much character beyond its function as a plothole-plugger. Plus, their behavior doesn’t make much sense. Why are they just hanging around? Why don’t they make any attempt to communicate with Picard or anyone else before they attack? After Picard cleverly uses the runabout to interrupt the power transfer between the Enterprise and the Romulan ship that would’ve caused the Enterprise’s warp-core breach, the Romulan ship—and the second not-a-Romulan alien—both disappear. Why? And why isn’t anyone even a little bothered by any of this?

There are plenty of cool moments in “Timescape” to keep it from being a waste. The episode makes good use of time manipulation in all sorts of clever ways, building to the final attempt to save everyone’s life in which Data rigs a system (using the alien young trapped in the Romulan ship) to reverse time back far enough to allow him and the others to manipulate events. It’s convenient that every seemingly damning tableau of the Romulans turns out to be innocuous; they really were just trying to evacuate their ship, having no idea the root cause of their problems. But it’s not distractingly convenient. No, what keeps this episode from really delivering is the rushed, poorly thought through fourth act reveal, and a sub-par coda in which Data is humorously attempting to test the veracity of yet another human idiom. (This time, he’s studying to see if a watched pot ever boils. Hilarity!) The cooler the mystery, the more important it is that the solution makes sense. What we get here is too close to “aliens = magic,” and lacks TNG’s usually insightful follow-through.

 

The Worst:

Time’s Arrow Part II, Man of the People, True Q, and Lessons

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In bits:

According to the A.V. Club review of Time’s Arrow, Part II:

I can’t help but wonder if I’m being punished for something. Last week, I sat through Star Trek: Generations, but I was confident that I still loved this show enough to keep covering it without taking a break over the summer. Oh sure, it was tempting. Whenever Todd posts one of those articles about “New TV Club Classic,” I feel like I’m getting picked last for the softball team or something. (Yes, I know this is stupid. Maybe that’s where the punishment comes in?) I like new things, and y’know, I have been writing about Trek for a couple years now. Last time I had a break was when I covered The Prisoner for a couple months, when I was still writing about TOS. It’s easy to get impressed by the amount of time I’ve invested, and to start dithering about how, hey, I want to do one of the serious shows, I don’t wanna just be “the Trek guy.” But really, I’m lucky to have what I have, to get to keep writing about a franchise I honestly do enjoy, and get paid for the privilege. There are much worse things than being “the Trek guy.”

None of this was precisely on my mind when I sat down to endure “Time’s Arrow, Part II,” but I did begin the episode with the complacence of having made a decision that I believed was both easy and fundamentally sound. Within minutes, my beliefs were shaken. “Time’s Arrow, Part I” was terrible; “Part II” is, amazingly, worse. It is, quite possibly, the worst episode of the show I’ve seen since the first season. Yes, worse than “Cost of Living.” (Okay, it was better than “Shades of Grey,” but I tend to skip that one, as it’s a clip show, and shouldn’t count.) And probably worse than a bunch of other episode I said were horrible. And you know Hitler? Totally worse than Hitler! I–sorry. I’m a fan of Samuel Clemens, and I liked Jerry Hardin on The X-Files, but by the end of this ep, I wanted Hardin dead and Clemens to have never been born.

Well, okay, not really. I do quite like Huckleberry Finn. And in case this hasn’t been made obvious by the sheer electronic tonnage of hyperbole I’ve unleashed in these pages (how can you have electric tonnage? Because my words are made of MAGIC), when I’m irritated or bored by a TNG episode, I tend to go overboard; if I didn’t enjoy myself watching the ep, the least I can do is try to enjoy myself when I’m writing about it. “Arrow” is pretty bad, though, and Samuel Clemens is one of its biggest problems. What little narrative momentum the story manages to build stops dead whenever he comes on-screen; he’s an irritating caricature who serves no purpose beyond padding out the running time in order to justify the two-part structure. Which is even more exasperating when you consider how how much of this episode feels weirdly under-developed. I’m not sure it could’ve been saved by focusing more on the alien threat, or Picard and Guinan’s “first” meeting, but at least those would’ve allowed more dramatic opportunity than Hardin’s cackling, tedious whine did.

All right, let’s try and get through this while we’re all still young. Hey, remember how “Time’s Arrow, Part I” ended in a cliffhanger, in which Picard, Riker, Troi, Geordi, and Beverly (I have no idea why I refer to some of these characters by their first names and some by their last, by the way) stepped into the glowing doorway, after seeing the freaky glowing snake monster? Well, if you guessed that doorway was similar to the one Data passed through (although it’s not the same one, since they don’t end up in the same place; I’m not sure why the aliens keep creating new doorways to slightly different time periods), you are correct. The away team arrives in San Francisco of the 19th century, where Data has put together a machine to try and track the aliens’ movements, and Samuel Clemens has become obsessed with time travelers he believes are here to take over the world. This leads, unsurprisingly, to an awkward reference to A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court.

What’s strange here is that “Arrow” doesn’t actually pick up right after where “Time’s” left off. We’ve actually jumped a few days ahead of when Picard and the others went back in time, as they’ve all managed to integrate themselves into San Franciscan society, in full costume and everything. I appreciate this in theory; screentime is at a premium, even in a two parter, and as we’ve already seen how Data had to work to get himself set up in the past, we don’t really need to see Riker stealing a cop’s uniform or Beverly applying to be a nurse. But the material chosen to replace this potentially tedious, but still story relevant exposition, is The Adventures of Sam Clemens, General Irritant and All Around Busy Body. A quarter of the episode or more is devoted to the man’s attempts to expose the “conspiracy” which Data and the others represent, and it gets even more pointless when Clemens gets sucked into the future, and spends a whole scene just complaining about everything to Troi, only for Troi to carefully explain to him how wonderful her present really is. This serves no purpose; worse, it’s dull, preachy, and thoroughly unentertaining. If Jeri Taylor (who’s credited for the teleplay of this ep–she’s also credited with “The Drumhead” and “Violations,” among other episodes, which is quite the gamut) was going to be clever and throw us into the middle of the action, the least she could’ve done provided some action worth being thrown into.

And you know what? Maybe we do need to see Riker stealing that cop’s uniform. At the very least, it would provide a stronger sense of continuity to a story that’s painfully lacking in it. Everything in in the episode is disjointed, a series of predictable gags masquerading as context: Picard and the others have rented a room from a comic Irish woman, and he tricks her into thinking they’re an acting troupe. Ha ha. Except how did he get the room? I can come up with a somewhat plausible scenario, but this ep requires me, as the audience, to do too much of the legwork required to make it make sense. I’m not sure where the line is here; I think structures that shortcut through obvious set-ups can actually work wonders, especially if the writers in question don’t have anything new to add to a particular scenario. (I doubt that anyone involved in this episode would’ve written a “Picard fakes his way into an apartment” scene that would really make you think.) And I certainly don’t wish this had gone on longer. It’s just, the reality of this 19th century world wasn’t all that real to begin with, and these jumps made it seem even more haphazard and slipshod.

Really, though, if the rest of the episode had worked, I doubt I’d be complaining much about this. It’s more endemic of a larger problem to me, in that so much of “Arrow” seems haphazard and slipshod. It’s possible to put together what’s going on with the Devidians–they feed on neural energy, so they’re travelling back in time to a point in Earth’s history when the people they feed on can be dismissed as cholera victims. But there’s no sense of an organization at work, no feel for the dead hundreds Troi senses back in the cave in part one, and no real urgency. There’s nothing to match the eeriness of the scene in the last episode when a pair of well-dressed rich folk drained the life out of a drunk. As I said when I covered “Time’s,” stories that take this much time on a show need to actually be more important, or more complex, or more something than regular stories. (That’s one of the problems with them, really. Too many “epic” plots, and epic stops being quite as special as it once was.) This had the pieces, but none of them paid off in any real way.

And what the hell was all that noise about Picard and Guinan? I think I’m supposed to be more invested in their friendship than I actually am; it’s clearly intended as the emotional centerpiece of the ep (we don’t ever “mourn” Data after his head blows off, since it’s obvious Geordi’s going to rebuild him; Clemens is the only other element that appears to be trying for a deeper response, and look how that turned out), because when Picard comes into Data’s apartment and Guinan is there, everything gets really ponderous all of a sudden. Then later, after the confrontation with the Devidians in the cave that started all this mess, after everyone on the away team except Picard and Data’s head have gone back to the future, Picard stays behind with Guinan to tend her injuries. They share some tender moments, and Stewart is obviously doing his best (Goldberg is fine, too), but for all the set-up, there’s nothing really there to speak of. The time has passed for the show to make much effort in building Picard and Guinan’s relationship, and its supposed “origin” here (which, as others have noted, is a disappointing resolution to all the hints we’ve had over the years as to how they met) is, while far from the worst scene in the ep, not much of anything at all.

Then there’s the fact that Picard is able to program a coded binary message into Data’s head with an iron filing. It’s conceptually cool–while the message appears to transmit almost simultaneously to us, it takes five hundred years for the characters, in a way–but utterly ridiculous, to think that Picard would be capable of such delicate work with such a clumsy tool, and that Data’s head would stay in mint enough condition for half a millennium to still retain that work. (I may be forgetting something from part one here. Maybe the cave was airtight or something? Still, I stand by the first part of that criticism.) Then there’s the way Guinan refuses to tell Riker what to do when he asks her for advice after Picard is stranded in the past. She doesn’t want to affect his decisions. Except, well, this is the present. And it’s not like the decision is that complex. Is Picard still in the past, and if so, how can we get him back? Besides, how does Guinan know that her advice wasn’t part of what happened? All she remembers is hanging out with Picard for a bit, and then he left. Oh, and she was probably still conscious when Clemens showed up, but it’s not like he tells either of them, “Thank goodness your future self didn’t provide us with any helpful tips!”

Then there’s the fact that the alien race is defeated by… Ah screw it. This isn’t worth the effort it takes to tear it down. It’s just crap, and the worst sin it makes is that it never really feels like a TNG episode at all. The ensemble acts largely like themselves, which puts it ahead of most season one eps, but too much of the action is dominated by a one-off character who is supposed to be charming simply because, well, shut up, he’s totally charming. Just dreadful through and through, and I say we wash our hands of the whole mess and move on.

According to the A.V. Club review of Man of the People:

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Troi. From enough distance, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any fictional character, at least on a conceptual level. An empathic counselor who works to help her fellow crewmembers deal with the stresses and tensions of living on the Enterprise makes a decent amount of sense. One of the ways TNG distinguishes itself from its predecessor is by admitting there are these touchy-feely sensations called “emotions,” and that often times, grimacing and scenery chewing isn’t the best way to process those emotions. Again, it’s consequences, and Troi’s presence is a sign of the show’s commitment to thinking things through. It’s just, that commitment seems to stop when the writers run into gender roles. There’ve been episodes throughout the series which have tried dealing with traditional concepts of male/female relations, with varying degrees of success, but Troi always seems to bring out the worst in everyone. By this point in the show, nearly the entire ensemble has been fleshed out and developed to more than stock roles, but Troi remains “The Girl,” occasionally effective, all too often forced to behave like a cast-off from a ’70s sitcom.

Really, “Man of the People” isn’t the worst treatment she’s had on the series. Apart from a bizarre line about “I’m going to reward myself with two ice cream sundaes,” (I can’t even explain exactly why this sounds so wrong, but it made me shudder) Troi comes across as normal enough. At least she does when she’s not acting under the influence of some evil bastard’s mind assault. One of the problems with “Man” is that so much of the episode is given over to Troi’s degradation at the hands of Alkar, the horrible, no good, very bad ambassador who uses her as an external drive to store his bad vibes. Sure, it’s unsettling while it’s happening, and it’s unsettling in a way that TNG very rarely is. But then you get to the last ten minutes, which on the one hand provides the satisfaction of Picard once again telling some jerkwad off, but on the other hand, makes Troi’s pawn-status even more obvious. She gets to be the victim (through no fault of her own, beyond simple compassion), and then somebody else comes in and rescues her; despite how much she’s on screen, she’s barely more than window-dressing.

Hell, it’s not even like she really fell for the ambassador before he worked his horrible magic on her. I was prepared for that, as Troi has a history of falling for ambassadors, especially calm ones who do a lot of creepy direct eye contact, but apart from some minor attention and conversation, there’s not a ton of chemistry there. Ves Alkar arrives aboard the Enterprise, on his way to negotiate a peace at Rekag-Seronia. He brings his mother (SPOILER: Not really his mother), Sev Maylor, with him, and while Alkar is friendly, courteous, and respectful, his mother is terrifying. She verbally berates Troi for a presumed romantic interest in her son, with a viciousness not often seen on TNG–she’s one note, shrewish, a caricature of a hateful mother-in-law. Troi is understandably taken aback, but this doesn’t stop her from maintaining friendly relations with Alkar, and when Maylor dies unexpectedly, it’s reasonable that Alkar would turn to Troi for support. And, hey, Troi is an empath, and Alkar’s funeral rituals require an empath to work, so just hold this stone here and close your eyes–KEEP THEM CLOSED, DAMMIT–and yeeeeah. Yeah, that will do nicely.

I do have a few positive things to say about “Man.” While it’s obvious early on that Troi is under Alkar’s influence, it’s not clear for a long time just what that influence is, and the episode spends a lot of time demonstrating Troi’s altered behavior without providing any explanation or context. First she tries to put the moves on Alkar, and he rejects her. Then she becomes increasingly sexually aggressive, apparently seducing a young male ensign and dressing all slutty and stuff. Which is hilarious, and not in the intentional way. I say she “apparently” seduces a young stud, because as far as we see, all she does is give him the eye in the turbolift, and then he hangs out in her quarters while she changes into something more comfortable. I’m assuming there was some sexy time, but apart from Troi’s new outfit, there’s no real indication. The whole thing is presumably intended to be disturbing, as we’ve never seen Troi behave this way before. But it’s mostly just funny.

It’s also more entertaining than much of Troi’s usual, “Captain, I sense something” routines. It should be horrifying and sad as Deanna slowly but surely morphs into the hateful harridan who accompanied Alkar at the start of the ep, but there’s something almost cathartic in seeing her blow up the way she does, lashing out at any attractive female who comes near Alkar and even going so far as to scratch Riker across the face and neck in the throes of passion. Well, maybe “cathartic” isn’t quite the right word, but so much of TNG is soft voices, courtesy, and soothing gestures. Most everyone else in the cast has had a chance to get angry at some point during the run, but while I’m sure Troi has had a moment or two of rage (her frustration with her mother doesn’t count), Sirtis is so often relegated to reactive, even passive behavior that it’s fun to watch her blow up. Which makes “Man” less of a chore to get through, at least. And hey, maybe that’s part of the appeal of stories like this. We can make noises over the selfishness and tragedy of Henry Jekyll, but we’re really in it to see what Hyde’s been getting up to lately.

This does present a problem, though, when Troi is entirely side-lined for the episode’s climax. At first, Troi’s change in attitude creates waves, but no suspicions, not even when she shows up in Ten-Forward in a Bond Girl dress, and nearly attacks Alkar’s dinner companion. (Riker escorts her back to her room, and that’s when she roughs him up. I do like how the series has made an effort at establishing the on-going friendship between these two; it’s nowhere near as “will they or won’t they,” not least because they already did, but their interactions do a nice job of character building without making a big deal about it.) But Troi’s sudden, rapid aging is harder to dismiss as a bad day, and eventually, Beverly realizes something’s not quite on the up and up with ole Alkar. When Troi finally collapses, looking all of a billion years old, Alkar is in the middle of negotiations, and Picard has to beam down to confront him about what’s going on. Alkar is surprisingly honest about what he’s done–at least, as honest as a man who uses a pretend funeral ceremony to effectively murder pretty women.

It’s an interesting scene. I always enjoy seeing Picard getting righteously pissed off, and as the true scope of Alkar’s arrogance and cruelty become clear, Picard reacts as expected. And, like Troi’s vamped up sex queen act, it’s undeniably entertaining to see a character whose so thoroughly, unquestionably evil. Alkar creates forced psychic links with others and then dumps all his negative and unpleasant emotions into them, supposedly freeing him to stay calm and be more effective at his job. It’s basically like Portrait of Dorian Gray, only instead of a painting, living beings have to suffer Alkar’s sins by proxy. It’s monstrous. Oh sure, Alkar makes the argument that he’s helped millions through his actions, and his successes as an ambassador should more than outweigh the deaths he’s caused. But that’s paper thin. There are plenty of other ambassadors capable of doing much the same work he does, and nothing we see here makes him seem any more gifted at his work. Plus, there’s the fact that he doesn’t ask any of his victims permission before taking a psychic dump in their brains. And, even more telling, the fact that all of his “partners” are beautiful women. Oh sure, we never see Maylor in mint condition, but come on. This isn’t a man sacrificing himself and others in the name of progress. This is someone who wants to use people without any of the guilt that comes with it.

Of course, the process here is never entirely clear–he tells Picard he projects his “negative” emotions into the women, but doesn’t mean that Troi is supposed to be behaving as his Jekyll? I guess his “good” side justifies its actions in the same way that Alkar tries to justify himself to Picard, and than just channels any of his guilt into the link. Which, again, is super nasty, and it’s fun to watch Beverly and Picard try and come up with ways to outsmart Alkar, while Troi lies dying and the ambassador sets his sights on his next victim.

But there’s something a little tired about all of this, although I didn’t realize it till after that confrontation scene. Partly it’s the fact that Troi is once again getting emotionally entangled with an ambassador who has something to hide. This is, what, the third time this has happened? The fourth? And this isn’t the first time she’s had someone screw with her mind before, either. There’s the way we never understand the context of Alkar’s behavior: is this a culturally accepted action? His assistant doesn’t realize what she’s getting into when he starts putting the moves on her, but surely the way he powers through consorts–who have a strange habit of becoming drastically old and shrewish before dropping dead–would’ve been noticed by someone, especially considering that Alkar is in such a position of power and influence. Maybe the high-level government officials realize what’s going on, but take steps to cover it up, since Alkar’s efforts bring them such acclaim and respect. Or maybe not. The issue is less which back-story “Man” went with, and more that it didn’t bother with much back-story at all. And then, just when the moral conflict is becoming a little interesting, Alkar conveniently dies. It’s a suitably unpleasant death, and I sure didn’t mind seeing the bastard go, but it does tie everything up in a too-neat package.

Really, though, I keep coming back to poor Troi. She deserves better than this, and while there are some laughs in seeing Sirtis get sarcastic mid-therapy session to a whiny crewmember, the laughs don’t make up for the ill-usage. Having an episode where a character is reduced to a passive sufferer isn’t problematic in and of itself; everybody needs help from their friends from time to time. But for  someone who so rarely is allowed any autonomy to be once again reduced to a prop makes for tedious storytelling. There’s no real psychological depth to Alkar’s influence, and we don’t learn anything new about Troi. Dramatically, this is all one note, and outside from a few amusing scenes, the chance to see Picard get his mad on, and a decently suspenseful climax, it doesn’t hold together well at all.

According to the A.V. Club review of True Q:

After a somewhat off-format episode, “True Q” brings us back to a TNG staple: a protagonist faced with a difficult moral choice. (All right, so that’s a staple of all drama, but I needed a segue.) It also marks the return of John de Lancie’s Q, who we haven’t seen round these parts since “Qpid” back in season four. If you’re having a hard time remembering “Qpid,” it’s the episode in which Q transports everyone to a simulation of Sherwood Forest, so that Picard, playing Robin Hood, can save his lady love from, well, who cares. Really, it wasn’t a particularly good ep, apart from a handful of fun jokes; as TV comfort food, it was unobjectionable, but considering Q is the one who brought the Borg into the Trek franchise (and did so in one of the series’ first great hours), it’s hard not to be frustrated that he’s been relegated to irritating comic relief ever since.

“True Q” isn’t what I’d call a return to form, but it is significantly more interesting than “Qpid,” because it knows the best way to use a character whose powers make him a tricky fit for the show. Q is essentially a call-back to TOS; his godlike being abilities are never explained or justified with anything even remotely approaching science, and, while I love de Lancie, his performance would be more suited to the munchable scenery of the first Trek, as opposed to this new Enterprise‘s less edible (but more nutritious) backgrounds. That doesn’t mean Q can’t work on TNG. The contrast between Picard and the rest of the ensemble’s straightforward nobility, and Q’s self-centered pranking, can be entertaining when done well. The trick, then, is coming up with a good justification for Q’s presence before bringing him into a story. Either he’s around because his powers have been revoked, like in “Deja Q,” or else he’s there to serve as a catalyst for another character’s actions. He has to be part of some kind of problem, but, given his relationship with the Enterprise, it’s hard to see him as much of a threat anymore. (One of the reasons “Qpid” didn’t really work is that there was never any sense of what the stakes were, or why any of what we saw was happening, beyond “The writers wanted to do something with Robin Hood, but didn’t want to use the Holodeck.”) He needs to have a reason to visit, and there need to be potential consequences to that visit, and not just ones that Q can wave away.

Enter Amanda (Oliva D’Abo, who was actually in her early twenties when this was shot, which surprised me–she looks younger), an intern who’s earned herself a spot on the Enterprise. Amanda is smart and studious, and she’s determined to make the most of her time on the ship, but it might not work out the way she hopes. She has these amazing abilities that have recently begun to manifest in ways she doesn’t understand. Like, she’ll mention dogs, and a bunch of puppies will appear on her carpet. Or she’ll see a heavy barrel falling on Riker, and she’ll magic it away. Or the ship’s engines will explode, and she’ll have to pull everything back together. Amanda’s parents died when she was young, and she was raised by step-parents, but her parents weren’t just regular humans–they were Q. And that means Amanda may be Q as well, and that’s when our Q shows up. He’s been sent by the Continuum to determine just what Amanda is. If Amanda is Q, she can go back to the Continuum with de Lancie. But if she doesn’t want to, and she can’t refrain from using her powers, well…

“True Q” is reminiscent of the first season episode, “Hide and Q,” in which Q gave Riker powers, and offered him much the same choice Amanda gets here. Both episodes are built around scenes of someone stumbling onto abilities they’d never imagined possible, and gradually coming to the realization that they can do anything–but that doesn’t mean they should. “True” works better because, well, this is a much better show than it used to be; it doesn’t look nearly as chintzy, and the regular cast is much more comfortable in their roles. The writing is better, too–not perfect, but better. Plus, the character who has to choose between Q-dom and a regular life in “True” is a guest star, which means her decision is entirely up for grabs. There was never any real threat that Riker would join the Continuum. But Amanda… who knows?

“True” benefits from a strong, self-assured performance from D’Abo, who invests Amanda with just the right amount of humbleness, determination, and immaturity to make her journey from human to being of unimaginable power understandable and sympathetic. From the start, she’s presented as an exceptional young adult, someone who’s spent her whole life working to get to where she thinks she wants to go, and that helps make the conflict when the Q powers hit her more dynamic; we don’t necessarily need another lesson in how absolute power corrupts, but at least this one presents the case in a way that doesn’t make Olivia look like an idiot for eventually being tempted. She also has to stand up to Q for much of the ep, and in order for this to work, she has to simultaneously be fascinated by him, and not particularly impressed, and D’Abo manages both side of the performance quite nicely.

She fits in well with the rest of the crew, or at least the ones we see while she’s trying to make up her mind. She bonds most closely with Beverly Crusher, which may be because she’s interested in medicine, or because Beverly had her own gifted child. Picard does his fair share of work as well. He’s suspicious when he first hears the story of what happened to Amanda’s parents, investigates further, and determines that they were killed by a tornado in Kansas (the tornado really should’ve taken the baby away to the Continuum, just to complete the reference). He pesters Q about this, learns the choice that faces Amanda, and makes sure Amanda knows for herself what the stakes are before things get too far. And then there’s Riker. Amanda gets a crush on him, and, when she sees him spending time with another woman, tries to force him to love her. But it doesn’t work out like she wants it to, and so she decides she wants to try and make a go of it as a human.

Only, conveniently enough, Amanda runs into the same sort of test Riker ran into back in “Hide”: while it’s easy enough to recognize the bad things a person can do with too much power, and reject them because they’re hollow and dissatisfying, it’s not quite so simple when you’re faced with a situation in which using your abilities, even though you know you shouldn’t, would save lives. So she gives in and magics away a disaster on a planet (saving Riker’s life in the process), and decides she’ll go the Continuum after all. It’s not the ending I would’ve expected, but it works. It’s a “real” ending, and not a TV ending (by which I mean an ending that conforms to the status quo, or makes us feel comfortable, even if it’s not particularly realistic)–even if Amanda isn’t a regular character on the show, choosing to continue being human would’ve been a safer story decision. It’s not shocking, but there is a certain sadness to it. Going to the Continuum means giving up on the relationships she’s established, and it means saying goodbye to her crush on Riker. Being Q means no more silly infatuations. She has to grow up very fast.

“True” doesn’t entirely work for me. As strong as D’Abo is, and as much as I like de Lancie, I feel like the Continuum needed to be more clearly defined for all of this to hold together. Given Q’s dislike of infants, I’m curious as to how Amanda’s parents could procreate (in that procreating doesn’t seem to be a Q thing), and how it was possible to kill them with a tornado, given that the reason they were executed was their refusal to stop using their powers. This can be explained away without that much effort, I expect, but while I appreciate the seriousness with which it’s played, the conflict here just doesn’t have the impact that TNG manages in its best episodes. Unlike “Schisms,” this ep is in TNG‘s comfort zone, and it’s consistent throughout. But it doesn’t aim as high as “Schisms” did, and its conventionality makes it enjoyable, but hardly essential.

 

 

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The next in best and worst is Season 5.

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