The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 5

For previous installments:


The Best:

Ensign Ro, Silicon Avatar, Unification Parts I and II, Power Play, The Outcast, Cause and Effect, The First Duty, I Borg, The Next Phase, and The Inner Light


In brief bits:

  • Ensign Ro is the first episode to feature the Bajorans, with Ensign Ro Laren;
  • Silicon Avatar features the final appearance of the Crystalline Entity;
  • Unification features the return of Sarek, Spock and Commander Sela, arguably an awesome two-part story, complete with Data and Picard posing as Romulans on Romulus;
  • Power Play sees Troi, Data, and Cheif O’Brien possessed by energy from a planet;
  • The Outcast deals with an allegorical presentation of homosexuality;
  • Cause and Effect features the Enterprise caught in a time loop;
  • The First Duty features the return of Wesley Crusher with the question, “Be loyal to your friends, or be honest?”;
  • I, Borg features the first attempt at trying to reform the Borg, with moderate success, with Hugh;
  • The Next Phase is a fun “out of phase” story featuring Ensign Ro, and Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge; and,
  • The Inner Light is a beautiful episode in which Picard lives a lifetime in Ressik on the planet Kataan.

According to the A.V. Club review of Ensign Ro:

To sum up: A new bad-ass female character! Also, Guinan. Ugh.

Well, there’s a bit more going on beyond that. “Ensign Ro” introduces us to the Bajoran race, the Space Jews (basically), who’ve been persecuted by the evil Cardassians (who are pretty darn evil this time around); these guys and this conflict are going to end up being a lot more important in Deep Space Nine. In fact, it’s one of the fundamental conflicts of that show, to the point where I had to actually make sure “Ro” was the first time we’d heard of the Bajorans. The Cardassians first popped up in last season’s “The Wounded,” and the two alien species are so inextricably bound together in the franchise’s mythology, I half assumed we’d heard about Bajor back then too. But we hadn’t. So here they are, all bad feelings and refugee camps and nose bridge wrinkles. And, in the case of one Ro Laren, hot, hot hotness.

Okay, okay, that’s a bit dick (word play!). It’s not fair to turn one of the show’s first really interesting and exciting recurring female characters into Hottie of the Week. And yes, you read right; five seasons in, and we’re only now getting a woman who isn’t either painfully underwritten (hi, Bev!) or just painful (hi, Troi!). There have been passable one-offs before (I think, right? There have to have been), and both Beverly Crusher and Deanna Troi have had their moments. Hell, Lwaxana Troi wasn’t all terrible the last time she was here, although don’t tell her I said that. But there’s something new about Ro, something that makes her interesting from her first moments on the Enterprise on. Yes, partly that’s because Michelle Forbes is a nice looking woman, but Forbes is also a terrific actress, able to give weight to even utter absurdity like her role as “Pagan Goddess of Sexing It Up” in the second season of True Blood. There’s steel in her, which isn’t really something you can say about the show’s usual female cast; hell, the only male I can see standing toe to toe with her is Picard, and maybe Riker on a good day.

The last time we saw Forbes on the show, she was in the unenviable task of trying to convince her father to commit suicide in “Half a Life.” Her character here is just as driven, but her internal conflicts are far more sympathetic. For one, she’s actually conflicted about them, instead of playing a one note concept created solely to help prop up the episode’s central argument. Ro is tricky. She arrives on the Enterprise with the chip on her shoulder pre-installed, and Riker’s immediate order to remove her Bajoran ear-pieces doesn’t improve the room temperature. (Riker is uber-dickish here, probably because of Ro’s reputation. I doubt he’d dress down any other new ensign for having a bit of jewelry.) Ro comes with a past, which only comes clear gradually over the course of the episode, but her frustration is clear from the outset. This is someone who’s been repeatedly instructed on the possible depths of betrayal, and she’s learned her lesson very well.

Another point to recommend this episode is that it keeps the complicated politics the show has been slowly bringing to the forefront in the past few seasons, and it does so without belaboring the point or getting too tied up in the details. The situation is set down clearly and concisely. Once upon a time, the people of Bajor were super-advanced. Like, even better than humans, which, I know, is totally hard to believe, but I’m serious. Then they had the misfortune of meeting the Cardassians, who, having just had their reality show cancelled, weren’t in a very pleasant mood. The Cardassian subjugated the race, eventually kicking them off their home planet, and now, the Bajorans live in isolated pockets through the galaxy, struggling to make ends meet. Some of them aren’t particularly happy about this, and they’ve formed resistance groups. One of those resistance groups, led by a Two-Face wannabe named Orta, apparently just blew up a Federation outpost. As the Federation has done it’s damnedest to stay out of the fight (Prime Directive again), this is a very big deal.

Which is how the Enterprise gets involved, as Admiral Kennelly charges Picard with tracking Orta and his Bajoran down to make some kind of deal. Kennelly assigns Ro to the ship as well, ostensibly to aid in the negotiations, but really because he’s given Ro a secret mission to offer Orta equipment the Federation has no intention of delivering. Kennelly has actually made a secret deal with the Cardassians to draw Orta out of hiding, so that the Cardassians can take care of their problem and, in doing so, seemingly resolve a sticky situation for the Federation as well. It’s up to Picard to untangle the situation, and things get really tricky when he meets Orta face to face and Orta denies ever attacking any Federation outposts. Which makes you wonder who would do such a thing; who might benefit from tricking an ally into believing they have a common enemy…

Not that hard to unpack, really, but the implications here are potentially devastating. For one, by the end of the episode, it’s clear that the Cardassians were responsible for the destroyed outpost, which at the very least throws their relationship with the Federation into question. This isn’t the sort of situation where everyone can just shake hands and agree mistakes were made; there’s a question of proof, but if the folks at Starfleet are able to provide any, the whole balance of power might shift. (I realize I could look this up on Wikipedia, as Deep Space Nine does a lot with the set-up, but I’d rather go on with vague memories and fingers crossed.) There’s also a definite questioning of the value of the Prime Directive, as the Bajorans suffering is unequivocal, and their persecution at the hands of the Cardassians is impossible to justify. Besides, it’s not like the Bajorans were significantly less advanced than the Federation. This isn’t “let’s not mess with a still developing culture.” This is “Well, Vietnam sucked, so maybe we should not do that.” Well, roughly. The problem is, there are clear good guys and bad guys here, which makes non-interference increasingly difficult to justify. You can see even Picard struggling with his convictions. Sure, he stands by them, but he’s clearly satisfied at pulling a fast one on the Cardassians in the end.

So, we’ve got a straightforward conflict with engaging undercurrents. And we’ve got Ro, who, as I said, is terrific. Antagonistic characters on this show are too often strident irritants or morally corrupt bureaucrats, so it’s great to have someone who, at least at first, doesn’t much care for the Enterprise and doesn’t immediately worship Picard or Riker or anyone else. Ro’s surliness, while it lasts, is one of the rare times that TNG has managed to have a frustrated character who doesn’t immediately seem overly hateful or falsely confrontational. Generally, the Enterprise crew is such a swell bunch that whenever someone shows up and doesn’t immediately drink the Flavor Aid, that person almost always comes off as exaggeratedly unreasonable. Ro doesn’t. There’s something almost refreshing in her unwillingness to be chums.

Of course she has to warm to Picard eventually, and the reason why is the episode’s big stumbling point: Guinan. The character has been used well before, but lately, every time she shows up on screen, she drags the episode to a screeching halt, churning out cringe-worthy, pat dialogus that belongs in the climax of some terrible children’s film. Here, she forces her friendship on Ro, which somehow leads to Ro trusting her, which then leads to Guinan bringing her to confess her problems to Picard. Once Guinan leaves the room, it’s a fine scene. In fact, everything in this episode that doesn’t feature Guinan works very well. And yet, there she is, dragging us down half a letter grade. There are half a dozen other, better ways to handle Ro’s transition from skeptic to reluctant believer, and the hand-holding we get here is probably the worst. (Well, I guess she could’ve fallen in love with Riker and/or Barclay. That would’ve been worse.) Thankfully, the rest of the episode is strong enough that this is just a blip in an otherwise excellent hour.

According to the A.V. Club review of Silicon Avatar:

So we’re in the fifth season, right? The longer a show like this goes on, the more likely the writers are to bring back characters or threats from earlier episodes. We’ve had a handful of recurring faces. Every year seems to bring us another Q episode or some more face time with Lwaxana. But “Silicon Avatar” is a call-back I wasn’t expecting at all, pulling a creature from way back in the first season episode, “Datalore.” And it’s not the one who had any lines. I spent a good chunk of “Silicon” wondering if Lore would show up, but the show here belongs to his old pal, the Crystalline Entity, and a deeply, deeply disturbed woman named Dr. Kila Marr. Like “Ensign Ro,” this isn’t a perfect episode; I’d rank it lower than “Ensign,” as the guest actress here (Ellen Geer) isn’t quite up to the task. But “Avatar” is still strong, and refreshingly bleak in its conclusions.

Speaking of bleak, as cold opens go, this one is uncharacteristically dark. Riker is helping some colonists settle into their new home; said help involves letting Data and Beverly do science-y things over yonder, while chatting up the cute colony leader. Their conversation leads to what has to be the most blatant double entendre on the show in a while (“I provide the most memorable desserts,”), and it’s pretty clear Riker is going to get lucky, at least until the Entity shows up and kills the poor woman. (I suppose I could make a joke here about how she escaped a fate worse than death, but I’m sure Riker is perfectly adequate in his romantic duties. The beard does most of the work, probably.) Riker, Data, Beverly, and most of the rest of the colonists hide in a nearby cave while the Entity lays waste to the countryside. Once the danger passes, the Enterprise arrives and pulls the group out of their hole. The damage is catastrophic, and an official decision is made: The Entity must be dealt with, once and for all.

To aid this, Dr. Kila Marr comes aboard the ship. Marr is an expert on the Entity; her 16-year-old son was killed by the creature, during the same attack that killed the colonists on Data’s home world. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t particularly like Data at first contact, lumping him in with Lore as a potential threat because of Lore’s relationship with the Entity. Data deals with this as he always deals with emotional assault: patiently, but with a slight look of confusion on his face, like a man who isn’t quite sure what language he’s hearing. So we get an act’s worth of one of my least favorite recurring TNG motifs, the “let’s be mean to Data” plot. It’s fairly ridiculous here, as it always is; while Marr’s bad feelings aren’t impossible to understand, her refusal to hide them in any way is at best unprofessional and at worst downright foolish. None of it bothers Data, of course, but it makes her come off as a narrow-minded fool.

Admittedly, she kind of is a fool, and it’s not like super-smart people of any era are always going to be the most emotionally unstable. It’s just not much fun to watch, because it’s all one note, and whether or not Data is offended, it’s unpleasant to see a character we care about so openly despised. Thankfully, Marr comes around to the android, and it doesn’t take her all that long to do so. Points to the episode, then, for recognizing that it’s very difficult to hold a grudge against someone who refuses to gloat or wince at your insults. (In fact, it seems like Marr loses her interest in baiting him after realizing just this.) Instead of taking the full hour to show Marr gradually softening her hostilities, we change tacks before the midpoint, when the doctor learns that Data has memories and records from all the colonists on Omnicron Theta. That means he has her dead son’s journals floating around inside his skull. And then things get awkward.

Really, Geer is the weak link here. Given the consequences of her increased obsession with Data’s stored memories and the way she uses those memories to try and recreate her connection to her son, it’s hard to argue that anyone involved on the episode thought that Data speaking in the dead kid’s voice was a good thing. And yet Marr’s reaction goes beyond grief-stricken madness into something disappointingly close to camp, undermining the scenes to the point where their creepiness is so obvious, it’s uncomfortable to watch. In order for “Silicon” to be completely effective, we need to feel some sympathy towards Marr. Instead, she’s just an overly obvious crazy person, which makes it far more difficult to take the ethical problem at the heart of the episode seriously.

Which is a shame, because it’s a problem worth taking seriously. Marr assumes (and it’s another mark in favor of the episode that, until we hear otherwise, her assumptions seem entirely reasonable) that the Enterprise‘s mission to track down the Entity will result in a battle and the Entity’s destruction. But Picard insists that she and Data work out some way to communicate with the creature. He argues that it has as much right to live as they do, and it’s possible to both see where he’s coming from and still believe he’s wrong. Given that most people in the audience would be siding with Marr at this point (or, because she’s a nutbag, they’ll be siding with Riker, who also has serious reservations about not killing the Entity on sight), the episode goes a little too far in sticking by Picard’s point of view. After all, this creature has killed hundreds, if not thousands; at a certain point, “right to live” becomes questionable in the face of all that death.

And yet it’s refreshing to see the show so willing to stick to its guns that whether or not you agree with Picard, his position is still obviously consistent with his character. He is a man who persists in demanding the best of all possible worlds, of acknowledging the limitations of the universe, while still insisting that he and his crew strive to rise above them. This nobility makes the climax of the episode surprisingly affecting. The Entity itself is an instantly dated bit of CGI wizardry, and it has little in the way of personality, apart from its structural beauty. But when Marr betrays Data and Picard and the others, and kills the creature while pretending to “speak” to it, it’s unsettling. The Crystalline Entity had killed, yes, but there was no way of knowing it had any understanding of what it did, and in those initial moments, Data had gained whatever trust it had to offer, and then that trust was betrayed.

Then Data asks to escort Marr back to her room, and for a moment, you think he’ll offer some word of reconciliation, some final thought from her dead son to give her peace of mind. Marr has gone around the bend at this point, actively (and, one guesses, willingly) mistaking Data for her dead child, and you assume that, since this is TNG, there’ll be an attempt to mollify the harshness of the previous scene. Instead, when Marr begs Data to tell her how her son would approve of her actions, Data tells her he believes her son would be unhappy with what she’d done. That her son valued her scientific passion and her respect for life, and that, in destroying the Entity, she betrayed this integrity. “Yes, I believe your son would be very sad now,” he says. And that’s the end. You’d think I would’ve gotten used to Data episodes ending this way, but it gets me every time. There are few things more powerful, and more devastating, than an inarguable truth.

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

I always thought two part episodes were a good thing. There’s something bold about them that appeals to me. Holding an audience’s interest over an hour is impressive enough, but two hours? That means you have to be sure of your story, and that means that whatever story you’re trying to tell has to be a pretty big deal. It has to be so important, so Earth shaking, that we’re willing to disrupt the regular structural flow just to give it the attention it deserves. And that is so, so exciting. Television gives us comfort in the form of routine, promising us that every week, we’ll see the same faces, at the same time, doing roughly the same thing. There’s a lot to be said for that, just as there’s a lot to be said for when a show breaks that routine, either in small ways or large ones. It’s exciting, and it makes whatever happens in the episodes that step outside the format automatically more important.

When I was a kid, I was willing to accept that importance on faith. Honestly, I was willing to accept just about anything that happened in art on faith, and if I had a problem with it, I assumed that was my fault, not the artist. If this character was particularly irritating or if a certain storyline bored me, well, I just wasn’t appreciating it properly. My tastes were getting in the way of what I was trying to appreciate, and because of that, I was bad, and I should feel bad. So it never even occurred that a two-parter has to earn its super size status. To me, “To Be Continued…” was just something that happened, not something any writer or producer could be directly responsible for. It sounds ridiculous now, but I sometimes wonder if that willingness to accept whatever TV and books gave me as incontrovertible fact didn’t, in a roundabout way, lead me to the sort of work I do here at the A.V. Club: because once I did start questioning just why Dawn got on my nerves so badly, or why I found newer Stephen King novels like Insomnia such an agonizing slog, I took to writing to try and work through what was bothering me. (Although weirdly, I still feel a little guilty about having all these opinions and everything.)

So, I’ve been paying more attention to two-part episodes than I used to, both here and over at our X-Files coverage, because I’m fascinated by the difference between a successful example of the form (like “Best of Both Worlds”) and a less successful one. “Unification” falls into the latter camp, sadly, although there’s enough here that does work and works well that I didn’t begrudge the amount of time spent. A good double episode isn’t exactly like a movie, although it’s a little like that, and it’s not exactly like heavy serialization, although it’s a bit like that as well. A good double episode should be an event; it should be to a series what a show-stopping solo is to a musical, revolving around an idea that’s so powerful, so important, that it couldn’t possibly be expressed in any other way. The problem is, like I said, we have a tendency to appreciate off-format when it happens for its own sake, and that magical roman numeral at the end of an episode title creates a Pavlovian stimulus response. The excitement comes built in, and the cliffhanger ending of part one feeds into that excitement. Which makes it difficult to separate the content from the style, especially seeing as how the disappointment when the form doesn’t work doesn’t usually hit till the second part, and that doesn’t always mean the second part is the problematic one.

In the case of “Unification,” both halves have some flaws, but the biggest, most glaring mistake to me has to be the presence of Sela, who is clearly intended to be the face of Romulan repression and villainy. I like the idea of the Romulans getting a specific avatar, because of all the important races in the Trek franchise, they seem the least defined, an amalgam of Klingon and Vulcan philosophies who remain one of the only major holdouts to the Federation’s, well, Borg-like ability to pull in other cultures. (Really, isn’t Starfleet like some benevolent Borg? Sure, their first and foremost principle is avoiding interference, but they still make sure they’re on hand to welcome races who are just starting to explore the galaxy. It’s part of TNG‘s general optimism that, despite the occasional lapses by individuals, the Federation is essentially a force for good; I’m not sure I’m enough of an idealist at this point to believe this would be possible in the real world.) While it’s nice to have a culture that isn’t clearly associated with a specific emotional trait, there seems like a lot of untapped story potential here. Giving us a few specific Romulans, helping us to understand what drives them, bringing them back once a season and showing how those drives change over time: All would’ve made a great contrast to the slow death of the Klingon Empire.

The problem here is that, while we get some fascinating concepts thrown around, “Unification” is about at once too much and too little and never quite lives up to the strength of its premise. Sela is part of the problem, and her appearance near the end of “Part I” had me wincing, but even before then, something felt a little off. It’s obvious why the show tried to milk this for two episodes. If you can get Leonard Nimoy on your show, playing the most iconic character in the franchise (yes, I think Spock is more iconic than Kirk, although the distinction is negligible), you want to get as much out of that as you can. And from a dramatic standpoint, “Unification” does a great job of building to Spock’s arrival in the final moments of “Part I.” We first get a glimpse of him in the cold open, when a Starfleet Admiral informs Picard that one of their most important ambassadors has gone missing; she shows Picard a shot from a security scan, and when Spock’s face comes into focus, Picard is clearly shocked.

It’s a fitting reaction, considering how shocking a moment this would be for anyone in the audience who didn’t know this was coming, but it’s also well-justified. As Picard later explains to Riker, because of his bond with Sarek, he has a certain connection with Spock as well. “Unification” divides its time between Picard and Data’s search for Spock (heh) and Riker and the rest of the Enterprise‘s attempts to… um… Well, mostly it’s their attempts to fill out the running time so that Spock can show up in the final minutes of “Part I.” Plot-wise, they’re hunting down the source of some spaceship parts, which leads to a sort of mystery, and then another Trek version of Mos Eisley with one of the ugliest make-up jobs I’ve ever seen on the show. (That’s in “Part II.” The multi-armed lady who plays keyboards has what can only be described as a nose vagina.)

It’s not badly made, and it does mean that when Riker is confronted with the Romulan’s invasion forces (cleverly hidden inside Vulcan ships), he knows enough of what’s going on that he’s able to thwart the surprise attack. Only since Spock and Data managed to send out a message from Romulus before Riker acts, it’s hard not to view roughly a third (or more) of “Unification” as pleasant but wasted time. There are some good jokes, and Riker gets to threaten a fat Ferengi (who has space bimbos! Is this a first for TNG? Excluding “Justice,” of course), but unless I’m missing something, there’s no reason for any of this. We don’t need to know how the Romulans got Vulcan ships; we just need to know what they plan on doing with them.

That leaves us with Picard, Data, and Spock. And Romulus. And, of course, Sela. It’s always great to see Picard and Data have a team-up, although even here, we have to wade through some unnecessary plotting to get to the good stuff. Picard decides he needs a ship with a cloaking device in order to make the trip across the Neutral Zone to Romulus, so the Enterprise pays a visit to the Klingon homeworld to see if Gowron is willing to return one of the many favors he owes the Federation. There’s some telling detail here about how Gowron tries to avoid contact with Picard because he’s busy re-writing history to make his victories entirely his own; this makes sense from what we know of Gowron, and it fits that, even after everything, relations with the Klingons aren’t exactly perfect.

Picard gets his ship, though, and we waste more time meeting the crew of that ship, watching Picard react to the sparseness of Klingon crew accommodations, and seeing him and Data chat a bit. Most of this is enjoyable, but, again, enjoyable isn’t really enough in a two-parter. The crew of the Klingon ship has no real impact on the core of this story, Spock’s attempts to unify Vulcan and Romulus, and they play no real part in the second half, outside of being grumpy that it’s taking Picard so long to finish his mission. We’ve seen Klingons screw around with Starfleet personnel before, and we don’t learn anything new here, even if Stewart makes what he can out of it.

One of the hardest things to accept about writing a story is that good stories are hardly ever a matter of starting at point A and then showing all the steps that led to points B through Zed. It’s something that comes up in a lot of creative writing classes, because when you’re not sure of your instincts on what to tell, the big temptation is to tell everything. So, yes, from a character perspective, everything in “Part I” is reasonable enough. But I’m guessing it only really exists because the showrunners wanted to milk the most out of Spock’s return and to make sure the final scene of the episode bookended the cold open, with Nimoy in the flesh stepping out of the shadows to announce himself to Picard and Data.

Out of everything else, the best scene in “Part I” is Picard paying Sarek a visit, in order to get his thoughts on where Spock is and what he’s trying to do. The last we saw of Sarek, he wasn’t doing so well, and he’s considerably worse here; while “Unification” makes some interesting stabs at getting us invested in the plight of the Romulan people, the real emotional core here is Sarek’s awful decline and the broken relationship between him and his son. Mark Lenard’s final scene is painful to watch, and, if you’ll permit me a slight touch of the melodramatic, it casts a shadow over everything else that happens. Picard learns on the way to Romulus that Sarek has died. We expect our favorite characters to resolve their issues before their story ends, and it’s always a surprise when this doesn’t happen, even when the conflict is a minor one. Sarek dies without ever seeing his son one last time. That’s harsh, and good drama.

All right, so what about the actual stuff in this double feature that’s “relevant”? Picard and Data surgically transform themselves to look like Romulans and beam down to Romulus to hunt for Spock; from Sarek, Picard learned that Spock has a personal relationship with a Romulan senator named Pardek. Before Picard and Data can make contact, though, they’re picked up by Pardek’s men, brought to the secret rebel base under the city, and that’s when Spock comes in. In “Part II,” we learn that Spock is trying to bring about the reunification of Romulus and Vulcan. It’s a bit of a stretch, but from what he’s heard, he believes the time is right to start pushing for a change. But of course it isn’t. Proconsul Neral, who seems so open to the idea of bringing the two races back together, is actually just working with Sela on a surprise invasion.

I’m not really sure how much sense this all makes. A Romulan surprise attack, well, I can accept that, but all this subterfuge with Spock? Apart from giving us a Stunning Twist, it all seems like a lot of effort for not much return. If they really needed Spock to make his announcement, why not just kidnap him as soon as he landed on the planet; letting him run around fomenting rebellion is not a good long term strategy. But maybe I’m missing something, so I’ll let that lie. I remain uninterested in Denise Crosby, especially in this role. She isn’t threatening, and there’s no pleasure in seeing Sela again, working behind the scenes to ruin everyone’s day. It feels mean-spirited to pick her apart any further considering, so let’s just say, better choices could’ve been made here.

And yet… there’s still a lot here that works. Mainly, it’s Spock. If you didn’t read my TOS reviews, I’ll bring you up to speed: I’m a big ol’ Spock fan, and the simple fact of his presence here was enough to get me past a significant number of bumps. Nimoy doesn’t get enough to do. Unlike “Sarek,” which managed to balance the character against the necessities of plot, all the story threads and Romulan trickery don’t allow us to get much of a sense of who Spock is now and why he’s willing to take this chance. Nimoy manages to sell it anyway, and his gravitas, combined with Stewart’s, gives this foolishness a lot more weight than it probably deserves. And while they only get a couple scenes together, pairing Data with Spock is sublime. Data has always served as TNG‘s Outsider figure, just as Spock served the same role on TOS. The difference is, Spock was proud of his outsider status, while Data is forever working to minimize it. There are only the briefest of nods to this, but that it’s alluded to at all is great.

I like the idea of the Romulans naturally moving towards the Vulcan philosophy as a part of their cultural evolution. (It reminds me a little of the controversial last chapter of A Clockwork Orange, although the concept works much better here.) That Spock decides to stay behind isn’t much of a surprise, although I’m not sure how long he’d be able to avoid capture with the whole weight of the government intent on tracking him down. I can’t help wondering, though, how much better this episode might have been if it had given more time to Spock, instead of losing him in a mess of double-crosses and political intrigue. Like, if maybe this had just been a single episode and if it had focused on Picard trying to bring Spock and Sarek back together. In the last scene of “Part II,” Picard invites Spock to mind meld with him, to give him a final connection to his father. Spock touches Picard’s face, and it’s a beautiful, fleeting mixture of the old with the new, the wonderful, absurd passion of the original series mixed with the thoughtful compassion of the new. The rest of “Unification” doesn’t really live up to this, but just having it is nearly enough.

According to the A.V. Club review of Power Play:

Here we are, over halfway through season five, and I’m noticing something of a slump. Now, let’s contextualize this. (God, how I love that word!) When I say “slump,” I don’t mean that this has been a bad season, nor do I mean the show isn’t capable of greatness anymore. It’s not even necessarily a horrible thing. Part of the problem with rating or criticizing television is that it doesn’t have to be great to be worth watching. That’s not a shocking truth: Greatness is rare enough that it would be a poor life indeed if you insisted on perpetual perfection. But (and I’m blue skying a bit here, so stay with me) I think one of the reasons fans can get so upset when critics point out the flaws in the shows they love is that, for them, the world of the show is so important that the flaws are largely irrelevant. I say TNG‘s fifth season is weaker than its third and fourth, but the momentum created by those previous seasons is strong enough that my overall enjoyment of the series hasn’t really diminished yet. It’s funny how that works, like the way books can have a weak ending and still be worth reading, I guess.

“Power Play” is the latest in a season largely populated by pretty-good-but-not-great episodes. It’s the sort of storyline I can easily imagine the show attempting earlier in its run, and the basics of the script (alien entities take over Troi, Data, and O’Brien’s bodies; a hostage situation; and a twist) aren’t so spectacularly solid that they stand on their own. But while this would probably have been horrendously cheesy in the first couple of seasons, with a lot of over-acting from the villains and, well, Tasha Yar-ness, it’s quite credibly enjoyable here. It’s lacking that mystical “third heat” that great episodes manage; there’s no particularly deep philosophizing at play, the suspense is never all that suspenseful, and the final twist is too vague to have much of an impact. And yet I never cringed watching it, and I wasn’t bored. This sounds like a painfully low bar, and maybe it is, but one of the nice things about watching a show that you’ve invested a considerable amount of time in is that it doesn’t have to be great to be satisfying. It can just be not bad.

“Play” begins, as roughly ninety percent of TNG episodes seem to (seriously, while it’s plot appropriate here, I can’t help wondering if the writers drew the first few sentences of every script out of a hat and just replaced all the proper nouns), with the Enterprise checking out a distress signal. This one is emanating from a supposedly lifeless moon, where electromagnetic whirlwinds prevent the scanners from picking up adequate readings. The distress signal seems to be coming from the USS Essex, a Starfleet ship that disappeared over 200 years ago, but while Data is unable to pick up any life signs, Troi is convinced there’s something on the planet worth investigating. Considering what happens next, this does seem like a terrible time for Troi to actually try and do her job, but hey, beggars and choosers and all that.

So Troi, Riker, and Data take a shuttle to the moon’s surface, which, given the dangerous weather, seems like a pretty ballsy move on their part. They suffer for their daring, though, when the shuttle crashes and Riker breaks his arm and we briefly think we’ve gotten to the big plot for the episode: the trio, stranded on the moon, where presumably their situation becomes more dangerous, while they are unable to establish contact with the ship. But back on the Enterprise, O’Brien has a plan! Using transporter enhancers, he beams down to the moon’s surface to save the day, just in time to get knocked unconscious along with the others by a strange cloud of energy. We get more Tinkerbell action here, as three balls of light invade Data, Troi, and O’Brien’s bodies. Riker is left untouched, possibly because his arm is broken and partly because his beard renders him immune to any form of possession which isn’t performed by a seductive alien lady.

Wow, this is more plot summary than I usually do. And it’s not like the story is all that complicated. Yes, Troi, Data, and O’Brien are now under the control of alien entities who quickly make a concerted effort to take over the ship once they’re back on board. They claim to be “survivors” of the Essex (Troi claims to be possessed by the Essex’s captain, Bryce Shumar), but Picard doesn’t trust them, so of course they’re lying. Funny how that works, isn’t it? It makes it more than a little obvious that things aren’t what they seem to be, that Picard doesn’t believe “Captain Bryce’s” claims, but at the same time, it’s gratifying that our captain catches on to the lie as quickly as he does. The Rule of Plot Efficiency (which has another, much better name than that I’m sure) dictates that any time a character on a show like this voices a suspicion, it has to be for a reason more important than a simple passing thought. So the moment Picard expresses his doubts, we know those doubts will be confirmed.

Once their clumsy attempt to take over the ship falls through, the trio of the body snatched winds up in Ten Forward, where they take everyone in the room hostage. (Guinan, apparently on the interstellar equivalent of a smoke break, is nowhere to be found. Maybe she’s getting her hats done.) Now here, you’d assume, is where the real meat of the episode is; here’s where the tension ratchets up and the various screws tighten. Not only are a bunch of innocent people under threat by a surprisingly efficient group of villains, but those villains show odd signs of straying under the stress of their situation, which is rarely a good sign for anyone. Faux Data keeps trying to pick a fight with Worf. Faux O’Brien remembers enough of the real O’Brien’s life to recognize Keiko and their infant daughter, which fascinates him for reasons which are never entirely explained. Eventually, Picard offers to trade himself for the hostages which were injured in the initial attack, and Faux Troi agrees to the swap. So, lots of dramatic potential here.

Except no one on the Enterprise never seems to be in any real danger. After their first assault on the ship, the bad guys never come across as all that dangerous or smart, which is odd, because part of the reason that first assault is fun to watch is how ruthlessly the fakers behave. As soon as they’re sure they won’t be able to get what they want through subterfuge, Faux Data starts taking out everyone on the bridge, with Faux O’Brien happily joining in. Faux Troi even takes out Picard. Then they power through the Enterprise, and it’s fairly exciting because for once, we have a threat which seems intimately and legitimately threatening. I’m not saying the show suddenly turned into The Shield (I just imagined a TNG episode with Walton Goggins guest-starring, which, seriously, holy crap guys), but having psychos wandering around mid-ship doesn’t happen every week. I didn’t expect body count, but the element of uncertainty was, brief or no, gratifying.

Once the three take hostages, though, the tension drains away, because our heroes never seem to lose control of the situation. Beverly comes up with a way to shake the energy beings out of Troi and the others, and Geordi and Ro do their best to implement the plan, failing because apparently Ro didn’t play enough video games as a child. This should increase the sense of danger; our last, best hope has been attempted, and now the villains will be angry, which means they could do anything. But they don’t, and for all Brent Spiner’s sneering (I think he just gets bored from playing Data all the time; thankfully, the over-acting is actually fairly effective here), one never really gets the impression that they’re going to. Everything feels terribly safe, and since none of the baddies ever get much of a personality, we’re left with a decently made but filler-ish hour. Faux Data is a jerk, Faux Troi has a certain professional malevolence about her, and Faux O’Brien is weirdly creepy about Keiko and the baby, but none of these initial developments ever feels like anything more than an after-thought.

That goes for the ending as well. It turns out “Bryce” was lying. The energy beings are actually convicts who’ve been imprisoned on the moon for ages. They destroyed the Essex when they tried to take it over back in the day, and now they want to use the Enterprise to beam their fellow prisoners off the moon. Then everyone else on the ship will get invaded and, presumably, wacky hijinks will ensue. As twists go, this is a bad choice, because instead of making the story more interesting, it takes out a potential dramatic conflict. Before, we thought the bad guys were actually former Starfleet officers, driven to madness by their incarceration on the planet. If that had been true, it would mean that Picard would have to deal both with the threat they represented and his obligations to them as, essentially, victims of circumstance. But a bunch of convicts trapped by an alien civilization? Screw ’em. They probably murdered babies or something.

So Picard and Riker are able to short circuit Faux Troi’s plans, as we knew they would. There’s nothing wrong with the outcome here; I know it seems like I complain sometimes about the show being too predictably safe, but I’m not asking for a body count. And there are touches here I enjoyed, like Data’s apologies to Worf after he’s freed of alien influence or Geordi and Ro’s banter as they tried to set up the plasma beam. Like I said, TNG has done its homework and created a pleasant enough environment that hour-eaters like this are more a pleasant distraction than a chore. But, well, there’s a reason I relied more on plot summary here than usual, and it’s not because there were so many cool ideas to talk about.

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

I’m not a fan of “message” entertainment. And I’m not exactly sure why. I thought I had very clear reasons coming into this piece; I don’t like it when someone puts making a political or ethical point ahead of storytelling, because it nearly always makes for bland stories, full of shallow characters who exist solely to espouse a certain position. The Trek franchise is well known for this sort of holding forth; the original series was full of broad-stroke, lecture hall foolishness, and many of those episodes were enjoyable in their way, due to TOS‘s willingness to commit entirely to a premise, no matter how absurd. But I’d still rather watch an episode that wasn’t supposed to work as a direct metaphor for some real-life situation, and that goes doubly true for TNG. Now, I love this TNG, as much in its way as I love TOS, but this is not a series that can pull off camp. So when it tries a message episode, it’s generally pretty dire.

All of which is reasonable enough, but then something like “The Outcast” shows up, which is basically terrific throughout and has something to say about the real world, and I’m not sure how to respond. Because really, isn’t all great writing about more than just story? Sure, there are movies or books or shows that function as pure entertainment and are all the better for it, but you can’t tell me The Godfather is just a simple family drama, or that 2001 is just about a crazy robot and some lights and a giant space baby. Trying to apply across the board rules to art is basically a bad idea, at least if you pretend those rules won’t eventually be broken by some really talented people. So let me simply say that whenever a show tries to put some kind of direct statement about political or human rights into a plotline, it’s tricky business, and you should tread lightly. Stories work best when they’re character/world specific but morally generalized. But don’t hold me to that.

“The Outcast” is, on one level, a treatise about how horrifying it is when a culture decides a certain portion of its population is “sick” and takes steps to punish them for being outside the norm. Specifically, it’s about how the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered are often badly treated by the so-called mainstream, viewed as unhealthy abberations that are “sick” and need to be “cured” through psychological conditioning. It’s a scary, depressing, and unsettling subject, and if you’d asked me before if I thought TNG could handle this idea with the compassion and honesty it deserved, I don’t think I would have given you a very optimistic answer. So I was pleasantly surprised here and more than a little shocked by an ending that ranks up there with one of the grimmest the show has ever done. For once, the real world connection actually adds to the drama instead of distracting from it. This feels less like a lecture and more like a cry of rage, and that’s a good thing.

The Enterprise is working with the J’naii, a race of androgynes who’ve lost a ship in what turns out to be a pocket of null space. Null space is hella dangerous (actual scientific term), so Riker works with one of the J’naii, Soren, to determine the best course of action to rescue the crew of the missing ship. While they work together, eventually deciding that the only real course of action is to fly one of the shuttles into the pocket with some advanced hardware and hope for the best, the two form a strong connection. Soren is charming, intelligent, and brave, and he/she’s more than a little curious about all that “he/she” stuff Riker is such an expert on. The two banter, it gradually gets more serious, and finally, Soren tells Riker that he/she has feelings for him—and that “he/she” actually identifies specifically as “she,” which is a bit of a problem in J’naii culture.

Before we get into the heavy drama, it’s worth noting that, right up until Soren comes clean about her crush and her particular “abnormality,” this is a terribly charming episode and easily one of the show’s best efforts at giving us a believable, appealing romantic relationship. It’s maybe stretching to believe that Riker would be so thoroughly and passionately infatuated with Soren after knowing her for such a short amount of time, but then, that’s how infatuation, and sometimes even love, works, and Frakes does a great job of selling his transition from friendly, to interested, to invested. I’ve complained in the past about how often Troi and Beverly’s romantic entanglements read as bland, Harlequin romance novel versions of actual emotional connection. With Riker and Soren, we’re allowed to see a connection build over more than just a scene or two. It may not be the romance of the century, but it is very well done, especially for this series, and that’s a good thing even beyond saving us the agony of bad poetry; the ending wouldn’t work if we didn’t care for Soren nearly as much as Riker does.

So, good job to writer Jeri Taylor for making so much of this work. It’s also just a fun episode to watch, until it suddenly stops being fun and becomes really, really sad. The “null space” concept is cool, even if I didn’t take thorough enough notes to describe it in detail, and Soren and Riker’s rescue mission is exciting and suspenseful. We get some fun scenes between Worf, Data, Beverly, and Troi over the poker table (did you know that Worf is, like, crazy sexist? At least he is this episode, which is unfortunate, considering how often he’s talked about his appreciation of strong women). After everything goes to hell, there’s a great conversation between Worf and Riker before the two join forces on a rescue mission to save Soren. Oh yeah, the plot: Despite their best efforts to hide their attraction (i.e., walking away from a party a few yards before making out), Soren and Riker are discovered by her people, and Soren is jailed. She’s tried for her “crime,” she gives a speech about how messed up all this is, and then she’s sentenced to “psychotectic therapy,” which is what prompts Riker (despite Picard’s neutrality and the Prime Directive) to try and save her. He fails.

Yeah, we’ll get to that. But first, Soren’s speech in the courtroom is the closest the episode comes to becoming overly preachy. It’s the character’s second big monologue in the episode; the first comes when she reveals her feelings and true self to Riker for the first time, and that monologue is aces, a well-written, intimate, and deeply unsettling account of just how thoroughly messed up poor Soren’s life has been and how horribly she and others like her have been treated by their kind. It’s that second speech that’s a little much, because it’s by and large boilerplate “If you prick me, do I not bleed?” holding forth. This is nothing you haven’t seen before in a dozen other social issue movies or shows, and it could have been a disaster, but it’s saved largely by Melinda Culea, the actress playing Soren. She’s low-key throughout the episode, quiet but not precisely shy, underplaying most of the emotional beats so that when she does raise her voice, it’s very powerful.

The other reason the courtroom defense doesn’t hurt the episode as badly as it might have is that it falls on deaf ears. When Soren finishes her plea, we cut to a commercial break, confident that by the laws of TV drama she’s managed to earn herself a reprieve, but when we come back to the trial, the judge simply pities her for being “sick” and sends her away. Riker begs to be allowed to take Soren back with him to the Enterprise, but the judge explains that they really do believe she’s sick, and they care for their citizens, and Soren is going to have her treatment no matter what. And she does. When Riker and Worf beam back down to the planet and take out Soren’s guards, it’s too late; the psychotectics have done their dirty work, and “she” is now “gender neutral,” her past self essentially murdered by science. Soren apologizes to Riker for the inconvenience, and he returns to the ship, back to work, haunted by what he (and she) have lost.

There are ways of reading this last scene that make it not entirely brutal. The judge who explains the J’naii position to Riker does sound legitimately sincere, no matter how misguided, and we’re told that people who’ve had the “therapy” lead happy lives afterwards. Maybe Soren is fine now, and “Outcast” was trying, in some stupidly misguided way, to be fair to both sides of the sexuality wars. But I refuse to believe this. For one, Soren’s speech, heavy-handed or no, is inarguable in its basic message, and while the “fixed” Soren doesn’t twitch or show any obvious signs of discomfort when Riker finds him/her, that doesn’t mean that Soren is better off post-treatment. It’s shocking when Riker finally realizes what’s happened, and it’s not shocking because you can’t see it coming. It’s shocking because TNG never does this, it never punishes a complete innocent in such a cruel, irrevocable way. We’ve had downbeat endings before, but there’s nearly always some mitigating factor to cushion the blow, and if there isn’t, it rarely feels this brutal. When a Romulan defector commits suicide after realizing he’s been played by his own people for a fool, it’s sad, but there’s a pleasing completeness to the moment, as though that story couldn’t have any other ending; when an older scientist returns to his people to die as he’s told, it’s disappointing, but it’s still his choice.

And there’s the rub right there: choice. Soren’s choice is stripped away from her, and we’re given no comfort in that, no compensation, no balancing sense that the universe might somehow reddress this wrong. “Outcast” avoids the usual pitfalls of social metaphor eps through great performances and writing, and also because, in the end, it doesn’t gives us the catharsis of a happy ending. There’s no relief here, no lie that, “Well, our world sucks, but at least everything’s fine on my favorite show!” This is an ugly, awful situation, and it happens whenever the majority decides to impose its view of morality without thought, mercy, or compassion. The real tragedy here is that this episode first aired almost 20 years ago—and it still stings.

According to the A.V. Club review of Cause and Effect:

Well, somebody up there must like me, because after all my griping in last week’s review about season five, this week I got one of the best double features yet. “The Outcast” is some high-minded, surprisingly powerful drama, and “Cause and Effect” is what, at heart, will always be my favorite Trek flavor, even though I’m now old enough realize other types can be just as good. We have ourselves a good old fashioned piece of sci-fi trickery here, one with time travel that doesn’t telegraph its plot, that trusts its audience enough to blow up the Enterprise in the cold open and not immediately explain why, and, hell, Kelsey Grammar shows up. Sure, not till the very end, but it’s kind of awesome anyway. (This means that Frasier is now officially a captain in the Trek-verse. DO NOT TRY AND ARGUE THIS.) I knew just enough about this episode going in to have some very high expectations indeed, and I was not disappointed.

I wasn’t kidding about that cold open, by the way. It’s one of the shortest I’ve seen on the show. When we come in, we find the Enterprise is already seriously damaged, and the situation goes from bad to terrifying in seconds. Picard starts shouting for everyone to abandon ship, and then we pull back to space just in time to watch everyone we’ve spent the past four-and-a-half seasons caring about explode. (All at once. I mean, it’s not like each cast member steps up, introduces himself, and then blows up. Although that would make for a cool end credits sequence.) BOOM. Opening credits. That’s a hook, my friends; cold opens are designed to grab an audience’s attention and hold them through that first commercial break, and this one’s a shocker. Obviously, we know that everyone isn’t actually dead, but that doesn’t make the urge to find out just what the hell’s going on any less potent.

It’s a good thing that cold open is so strong, too, because a good chunk of the episode which follows, while fascinating in its way, isn’t as immediately gripping. Picard records a new captain’s log. Beverly, Data, Worf, and Riker play poker. Geordi has a minor accident, and Beverly does what she can for him, though neither quite know what’s going on. Beverly hears some voices in her room, and she’s not the only one on the ship who experiences this. No one knows what to make of it, though. One of my favorite aspects of TNG‘s approach to a mystery is that other characters always take the afflicted person’s problem seriously, but while Picard and the others grant that whatever Beverly experienced was real, that doesn’t mean any of them are capable of understanding what’s going on. The usual staff meeting is interrupted when Ensign Ro gets some readings off a space-time anomaly. (You gotta spray for those.) Everyone heads up to the bridge. While they’re investigating the anomaly, a ship pops out in front of them. In order to prevent a collision, Data suggests using the tractor beam to divert the new ship’s path. Picard “makes it so,” but the new ship still hits the Enterprise, and, well, remember that cold open? BOOM.

And then we’re back to the same place we started. Picard’s brief narration. The poker game. Only this time, Beverly has this feeling she’s done this before. The feeling persists, and she starts asking questions, but none of those questions come fast enough to prevent the same basic pattern from recurring, and, again, BOOM. Now, you could argue this is boring. We’re seeing the same basic outline of scenes playing again and again, and while there’s variation, there’s none of the sense of power that usually comes from time loop stories. One of the charms of Groundhog Day is that Bill Murray is aware of what’s happening, and when he realizes the parameters of his situation, he can take advantage of it. Everybody has had fantasies about knowing exactly what was going to happen on a given day and being able to use that knowledge to construct a perfect afternoon.

In “Cause,” nobody gets to play a god, because nobody really realizes they’re repeating. Beverly comes the closest (and it’s an unexpected, pleasant surprise that this episode relies largely on her as the main POV character), but the most she gets to show off is when she predicts what cards Data will deal during the second to last iteration. This cuts down on the episode’s fun factor as a power trip fantasy, but the amount of respect it shows for the viewer is gratifying. Given its unusual premise, “Cause” is wonderfully realistic in its plotting. There’s no reason for anyone onboard the ship to be aware of what’s going on, just as there’s no reason to let us in on what’s happening apart from simply letting it happen over and over again. Of course we figure out the problem fairly quickly. We have an edge, because we get to watch each repetition, but it’s not like there’s an exposition dump from some external source to bring us up to speed.

I appreciate that; I said this was “old-fashioned,” but the way content dictates form (in that this episode doesn’t really play like a standard TNG episode) here seems fairly modern. I also appreciate how short a time period our heroes have to realize their predicament. It seems like roughly a day, maybe less, and crises on the Enterprise rarely happen this quickly. Usually there’s at least some window of days between suspecting something’s amiss and everyone dying. So Picard can take Beverly’s concerns about voices seriously, and he can tell her to keep an eye on it, but it’s meaningless, because they’ll all be exploded and reset in a few hours. They do accumulate knowledge between jumps, but it’s not like taking notes or remembering mistakes. The real trick of the episode, once the central problem is established, is finding a way out of that problem that doesn’t cheat the rules established in the first few loops. In a very real sense, that’s where the suspense comes from; not in whether or not the Enterprise will eventually survive, but whether or not the writer (Brannon Braga) will provide that resolution fairly.

I’d say he does. The idea that each trip through the loop leaves echoes that can be sensed as they intensify may not have basis in scientific fact (or maybe it does, I don’t really know). I do know that it makes enough intuitive sense to work within the episode, especially because in and of itself it’s not a cure-all. The only way Geordi and Data are able to use these echoes to save themselves down the line is by sending a simple message that only future-past Data can perceive. The message can’t be very long, though, and there’s no guarantee as to how Data will respond to it. Ultimately, Data opts to send back the number 3, which turns out to be the number of pips on Riker’s collar, signifying to the next Data iteration that in order to break the pattern, they need to follow Riker’s plan for pushing off the other ship.

“Cause” has some flaws. Given the rules established for what scenes we could see during each loop, the repetition does get old by the end. While there’s excitement in seeing what effect Data’s message will have on events, the final, definitive course of events does feel padded in spots, as we start re-seeing sequences we’re already familiar with in ways that don’t provide us with any new information. (We also watch scenes that’ve been described to us before, like Picard sitting and reading a book. I’m a Picard fan, no question, but I’m not sure I need visual proof that he wasn’t making up his evening just to convince everyone he was literate.) Once Geordi and Data’s plan works and Data manages to save the day (by, um, not suggesting a course of action that will get everyone killed), there’s a little more exposition than I needed about what happened. Although that’s probably just me being picky. I did love the idea of Data sub-consciously littering the entire Enterprise with secret “3”s for them to discover.

Once the day has been saved and time is no longer out of joint, Picard has someone check the ship’s clocks against a Starfleet time-base beacon, and they learn they’ve been looping for 17.4 days. It’s a smart twist, as I’ve often wondered what happened to the Enterprise when it got stuck in some sort of temporal mire; one could imagine them wasting decades on a five-year mission without realizing it. And of course, that’s what happened to Captain Kelsey Grammar and his crew on the Bozeman. Without their knowledge, they’ve been shot forward in time roughly 90 years. Once again, TNG does what it does best: You take an ostensibly goofy idea, and then you make it sting by thinking through the consequences.

According to the A.V. Club review of The First Duty:

It’s difficult being the best. Because when you’re a kid and you’re smarter than most other kids around… well, sure, it has its moments. Your parents are probably going to be super proud of you, and school work won’t ever pose much of a challenge, at least not for a while, and you get to read the really good books sooner than anybody else. On the down side, being smart also means you tend to be more self-conscious from an early age, because you think before you act, which is a sort of social death. Children your age at best won’t understand you, and at worst will punish you for standing out of from the crowd. So you work harder, and you get used to being lonely, because hey, this is your gift and your privilege, and you’re special, right, you’re some kind of genius or something. And if you don’t go through the regular motions of hanging out and if you have a hard time meeting people, that’s just the price you pay for your talent. You’re going to make everyone proud someday. You’re going to show all them and then that will make up for a lot.

Everyone knows this part of the arc. It’s very sad. But there’s more! As you get older, the work gets harder, and maybe you didn’t learn the right lessons when you were young: how to study when the lessons weren’t immediately obvious, how to pace yourself, how it’s okay if you don’t get it all on the first try. Or hey, maybe you did learn these lessons. But even still, the work gets harder, and it becomes more and more important for you to be the best, the golden boy. So much is riding on your shoulders. Everyone has put their expectations on you, and you’ve been perfect so long, so you can’t fail now. Worse, the same old successes aren’t quite cutting it the way they once did. Just getting perfect grades? Eh, we’ve seen it. Tops in all your classes? Filling your plate with extra-curriculars? Getting into the best college, making the best friends, joining the best teams? Not bad, right, but what have you done for me lately.

Wesley Crusher returns in “The First Duty,” and while his situation isn’t quite as dire as all that, he’s clearly struggling with some of that golden boy pressure. He’s doing well at Starfleet Academy, and Picard has been invited to give the commencement address for this year’s class. (Which would be remarkable, wouldn’t it? I don’t even remember the name of the guy who gave my commencement address. He was a business mogul and terribly bland, although that may just be my goofy ass liberal arts major brain talking.) Before the Enterprise arrives at Earth, however, there’s a grave accident: Wesley, although with the four other cadets that make up the “Nova Squadron,” is involved in the accident while training for a planned maneuver around Saturn for graduation ceremonies. One cadet, Joshua Albert, is killed when five single-pilot ships collide mid-flight, and now, Wesley and the others will be called on by the head of the Academy, Admiral Brand, to explain the circumstances that lead to the accident.

“Duty” is a fine episode, probably the best Wesley-centric episode I’ve seen, in no small part due to the fact that it never really feels like a Wesley-centric episode. His dramatic arc from guilt to lying to questioning to confession and repentance is the spine of the story, but much of the episode is built on the mystery surrounding exactly what happened out there around Saturn, so much of the episode, the Boy Blunder is held at arm’s length. Instead, we see events unfolding largely from Picard’s perspective, and that is never a bad thing. It seems like ages since we’ve had Picard as the central figure of a storyline (he was the hero of “Power Play,” but that was more ensemble driven; the last time we got some real Patrick Stewart greatness was, what, his argument with Matt Frewer in “Matter of Time”?), and it’s great to see him do more here than simply sit on the sidelines, handing down vaguely paternal advice. Oh sure, he does that, but this isn’t some mildly pleasant, live-and-let-live captaining; when Picard realizes what Wesley and the others have done, he goes into full on Old Testament God mode, and it’s terrific.

This episode also marks the first appearance of Boothby, the groundskeeper whom Picard recommended Wesley seek out and befriend back in “Final Mission.” Ray Walston plays Boothby, and while the character skirts up against cliche, Walston’s performance is low-key enough to make it largely work. He and Stewart play off each other well in their scenes together, which is good, since Boothby only ever appears on screen with Picard. Despite Picard’s recommendation, there’s never any real sense that Wesley has connected with the groundskeeper; Boothby knows his name and knows a fair bit about the Nova Squadron (including the highly motivated Nicholas Locarno, played by Robert Duncan McNeill, who would later go on to play Tom Paris on Voyager), but we never see Wesley going to Boothby for advice, nor do we ever get a sense that Wesley has done so in the past. Which means that when a moral crisis arrives, Wesley doesn’t have a gruff, stern paternal figure on hand to come in and point him in the right direction, so Picard has to step in.

While Picard is using Data and Geordi to determine what caused the accident and reminiscing with Boothby over his own mistakes, Wesley is slowly panicking. He’s doing it in a controlled fashion, which is just what you’d expect from someone whose spent his whole life on the straight and narrow, but he’s not happy with what’s going down, and it takes repeated reassurances from squad leader Locarno to keep him believing that silence is the best way to go. See, it wasn’t just an accident that took Josh’s life. The Nova squadron are school champions, and as befits champions (as is required of them, even, to keep impressing everyone), they decide to bust out a flight routine that’s been forbidden at the Academy for over a hundred years, the Kolvoord Starburst. It’s a showy, incredibly risky move, and when they tried to rehearse it, they screwed up. So now, Locarno is pushing for everyone to lay the blame on Josh’s door. He’s dead, he won’t care, so say he was getting nervous and twitchy at the controls, and no one has to know about the real mistake.

The episode does a great job of making Wesley’s situation as ambiguous as possible. What happened was awful, but it’s over now, and this isn’t the sort of crime that would automatically lead to other crimes. Yes, Josh’s good name is getting dragged through the mud, which would be miserable for his parents (all we ever see is his father; Ed Lauter appears to have been driven mad by grief, as his eyes spend most of their time on screen trying to push out of the actor’s skull, but he does apologize to Wesley for Josh’s “failure,” which is pretty brutal), but it’s easy to see how quickly rationalization of the cover-up would take hold. Josh is dead, and he was a good friend, but a dead friend is still dead, and he doesn’t have a career to worry about anymore. And he’ll be dead even if they confess and put their own careers in jeopardy. It’s not exactly a victim-less crime, but it’s hard to see what good stepping forward and confessing will do anyone at this point. No one’s ever going to know. There will be some reprimands for improper procedure and maybe a little suspicion, but who cares?

But of course Picard cares, and of course Data and Geordi are able to piece together just enough information for Picard to figure out what went wrong. He confronts Wesley with this knowledge in his ready room, and Picard’s anger throughout this scene is remarkable; I can’t remember ever seeing him this angry at Wesley before (well, apart from that first Lore episode, but that was back in season one, when Picard was always pissed off), and while we in the audience can understand that this is all for Wesley’s own good, that he needs someone to stop him in his tracks before he starts down the wrong path… well, it’s still thrilling to see. And I don’t even say this from an anti-Wesley perspective. I’ve taken my fair share of pot-shots at the character before, and he was never as compelling as his position on the series would seem to indicate. The precocious wonder boy never quite fit in with TNG‘s aesthetic, as it felt too much like a series of children’s books grafted on to a (generally) adult drama. But he had his moments, and of all the Wesley episodes, this one is the most successful at making you feel for the guy. He’s in an impossible situation. He’s over-reached, and now, in order to listen to the dictates of his conscience, he’ll have to betray his friends and admit to the people whose respect matters most to him that he failed and that he is partly responsible for a friend’s death.

So the excitement of watching Picard read him the riot act near the end of the episode isn’t because of sublimated desire in my heart to see Wesley suffer. It’s partly because Patrick Stewart is a tremendous actor, and he’s mesmerizing to watch. But it’s also because this needed to happen, because after so many years of being praised and petted by a world of adulatory adults, Wesley needs to be treated like an adult who is both capable of moral decision and culpable if he fails to make those decisions well. Stepping forward and telling the truth isn’t an easy decision, and it certainly won’t immediately improve his life or bring Josh back from the dead. And yet, for all his brilliance and his prodigious ability, this is the one decision Wesley needs to make that can truly define his character. Everything else was a game of some form or another. Now it’s time for him to take responsibility for his actions, because if he doesn’t, even if there are no immediate consequences, he’ll be compromised, and the next time a situation arises where the right course is a little too difficult, who knows what could happen.

In the end, Wesley stands up and does the right thing, in front of everyone. He gets held back a year at the Academy, and Locarno gets expelled. Actually, in a nice twist, Locarno makes sure Wesley and others aren’t expelled as well, by taking full responsibility for what happened; he may have been lying, but he wasn’t a complete jerk. (Which adds to the ambiguity, too, because if Picard hadn’t investigated further, what might have happened if Wesley had kept his mouth shut? Maybe Locarno would’ve turned out okay. Maybe Wesley wouldn’t have gone insane with grief. Who knows?) “Duty” is the first time we’ve seen any of Starfleet Academy on any Trek series, and while the school isn’t really a traditional setting for a space-faring sci-fi series, the lesson here is the same as it is all over the galaxy, for geniuses and fools and anybody: You make your choices, and you pay the consequences.

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

It’s been a while since we last saw the Borg. Nearly two seasons, in fact (“Best of Both Worlds, Part II”). Watching TNG straight through for the first time, I’m surprised at how infrequently the Borg appear, as they’re the alien race I connect most strongly with this series. They make terrific antagonists, as they represent the polar opposite of everything Picard and the others are trying to accomplish; where the Enterprise‘s crew spends hours angsting over the precise amount of appropriate contact they can have with strange species, the Borg simply force their way of life on any and all they come across. For all its limitations and awkwardness, the Prime Directive is a noble goal, and it’s hard to imagine a philosophy more at odds with it than “You will be assimilated.” Like how Batman’s rogues gallery mirrors his phobias and obsessions, or Spider-man’s villains share his animal/insect, science-gone-wrong origins, the Borg is the best kind of nemesis: the sort that throws the hero’s essential nature into stark relief. Plus, they’re scary as hell, which isn’t something that happens that often on TNG.

But watching “I, Borg,” it becomes easy enough to understand why the Shareware That Walks isn’t a more regular fixture on the series. What makes the Borg so effective and unsettling is also what keeps them from being all that easy to write about: they are singular in intent and by design, to the point where there are only so many stories you can tell about them. There’s no characterization, no subtle shading, no variety of threat. The Borg are effective because they do not negotiate; they can’t be swayed by one of Picard’s speeches; and there are no great depths to explore. Sure, I’d be as curious as anybody to hear how Borg society works, but I’m not sure you could structure an episode around that, which leaves us with two options. Either we find out where the Borg originally came from (which would be fascinating), or we come up with a way to make them a little less scary and a little more distinct.

“I,Borg” goes with the latter option, and while it’s always a little disappointing when a cool villain loses some of its mystique, the episode overall does a fine job of giving us yet another tricky ethical problem, without shorting either side of the discussion. It’s a bit too easy, sure. The stranded Borg goes from anonymous representative of its entire race to “Third of Five” to “Hugh” very quickly, and the transition occasionally feels cheated, but not egregiously so, and certainly not enough to derail the overall impact of the ep. The big trick here is how comfortable we are accepting the idea that the Borg, while still an immensely powerful and dangerous threat, are potentially more complex than simple one-note baddies. It’s a jump that’s more or less addressed directly in the text of the ep itself, interestingly enough. I can understand being let down by making the Borg less nightmarish, and “Hugh” is a little on the cute side. But overall, this works, because it reminds us that easy answers, even when they seem righteous, are still rarely a good idea.

The Enterprise is charting six star systems known as the Argolis Cluster when they get a signal from a small moon. It’s coming from what turns out to be a sort of Borg shuttle-craft, crash-landed on the moon. There’s a single survivor, and Beverly insists the Borg be beamed back up to the ship so she can treat him. (It? There’s actually a lot of fascinating pronoun trouble throughout the episode; you can generally tell how a character is disposed towards Hugh by whether that character uses “he” or “it.”) Picard is reluctant but gives in, possibly because Beverly’s plea moves him, but possibly because the germ of an idea is growing in his mind. As soon as the Borg is ensconced in the brig, Picard asks Geordi if it might be possible to alter the creature’s programming so that when it returns to  the collective, it will spread a virus that could wipe out the entire Borg race in one fell swoop. Geordi says it is possible, and starts to work on the booby trap, while Beverly, being a doctor and such, and there you have your episode.

It’s a bit more complicated than that to be sure, but “I, Borg” sets up the parameters of its central debate fairly early on, and apart from Hugh’s character development, there isn’t really anything in the way of plot twists or striking reversals. And yet it never comes across as boring or belabored, because the question is so massive, and so tricky to negotiate, that it feels like it deserves the full running time to parse out. The Borg are murderous and deadly dangerous, and, as I said before, you can’t negotiate with them. They are a threat that can’t ever be mitigated by compromise or discussion. So under that logic, when presented with an opportunity that could potentially save millions of lives, isn’t Picard obligated to take that chance, whatever moral misgivings his crew might have? But at the same time, the Federation is supposed to be better than their enemy. The Borg would embrace the chance to assimilate large groups without the cost of men or material, but surely Starfleet is above mass, uniform slaughter. The Borg are a life-form after all, however despicable by our standards, and to wipe out the entire race would run the risk of damning the Enterprise crew in the same way that Kevin Uxbridge was damned in “The Survivors” back in season 3.

And that’s before you take into account the method of destruction. One of the most fascinating elements of “I, Borg” is the shipwrecked survivor that Picard wants to Trojan horse into killing off his own kind. Hugh is a bit on the cute side, and the episode might’ve worked better if he’d been more frightening at the beginning, if there was a sense of him having to transition from threat to friend, as opposed to just being sad and lonely separated from the rest of the Borg. He never seems dangerous at all, and no one ever asks if he’s an assimilated Borg (like Picard was as Locutus) or “home grown.” He’s treated as just another orphan, and I’m not entirely convinced that’s consistent with what we know of the Borg. The balance of a story like this is tricky to pull off, and if “I, Borg” fumbles, it’s in making it too easy to sympathize for Hugh’s vulnerability. He’s not nearly as alien as he really ought to be.

At the same time, though, the episode helps us see the Borg’s goals from their own perspective, and it smartly recognizes that, to themselves, the Borg are no more “evil” than we are to ourselves. Hugh misses the voices of the Borg hive mind, and he feels lonely and lost without the group consciousness to guide him. He’s legitimately surprised that Beverly and Geordi might not wish to be assimilated, as though the thought had never occurred to his kind before. (Surely it must’ve, though? When they assimilate a race, I was under the impression that they downloaded all of that race’s cultural knowledge; surely they would get a sense of how feared and despised they are.) I’m not sure if this is entirely believable in context of what we’ve seen before. You could say that Hugh is “young,” and doesn’t know all there is to know about being Borg, but that would seemingly violate one of the core principles of his kind, that there is no individual to develop, that all pieces are an equally important (and unimportant) part of the whole. But we’ve spent so long being frightened by the seemingly malevolent consciousness the Borg represent that there’s something fascinating in the idea that “Resistance is futile” may not be a threat, but in fact a sincere, if misjudged, attempt at conciliation: Don’t worry. It’s all right. Soon you will be one with us all, don’t fight it.

This episode is also one of the first in recent memory to use Guinan as more than just a plot device. She’s probably the only person on the ship with a more legitimate right to grievance against the Borg than Picard has, and initially, when she learns that Beverly and Geordi having Hugh on board and are running tests, she’s extremely upset. When Geordi tries sharing his growing reservations about the project to her, Guinan gets even more upset, until she finally goes to see the captive herself. For once, Guinan isn’t a source of ineffable wisdom, but an individual with an emotional response that may not be the healthiest response to the situation. There’s a great scene late in the episode, after she goes to see Hugh, when Guinan visits Picard’s quarters and directly asks him to convince her they’re doing the right thing. The reason this episode largely works is due to moments like that, which admit that whatever choice they make, Picard and the others will be losing something: either they destroy the Borg and lose a piece of their humanity, or they let Hugh go unharmed, and risk feeling responsible every moment for the rest of their lives whenever they hear some new Borg atrocity.

In the end Picard meets with Hugh himself, in another great scene (and really the best in the whole ep): he pretends that he’s Locutus, and tells Hugh that it’s time to assimilate Geordi and the others. Hugh objects, even going so far as to refer to himself in the singular first person, and at that point, for Picard, it’s really not a choice anymore. The only decision is whether or not to return Hugh to his own kind, or to try and protect him and let him foster his newfound individuality. Hugh, realizing that the Borg would never stop hunting for him, opts to go back, which isn’t not a huge surprise. It is sad, though, since odds are the Borg will download his consciousness into the hive mind and then erase it. But that’s also where the hope lies: Picard theorizes that in those brief seconds when “Hugh” is available to the entire collective, every single Borg will taste what it is like to be an individual. Only for a moment, sure, but who knows what effect it might have.

This one works, largely for the reasons outlined above; and it also makes me like First Contact a little less, because Hugh certainly doesn’t bring up a Borg Queen. (Also, I have a hard time accepting that Picard is still so pissed off about the Borg that he needs a guest actor to lecture him about Moby Dick.) I do think it cheats in making Hugh so sympathetic so quickly, but I appreciate the core concepts here, and overall, they were well-handled. The Borg may be a bit less scary after this, but let’s be honest; they stopped being terrifying as soon as they were handily defeated in “Best of Both Worlds.” This just leaves us with more stories to tell, and who isn’t a fan of that?

According to the A.V. Club review of The Next Phase:

Oh, I like this kind of episode. It doesn’t give me a ton to discuss, but I love it when TNG takes off its serious hat and wades in, knuckles bared, for some serious ass-kicking sci-fi pulp. Oh sure, there’s some serious talk here about death, and about how we mourn the people we care about after they’ve left us, but that’s entirely secondary to a story that has Geordi and Ro running around the Enterprise, invisible, desperate to find away to phase back into step with everyone else before the Romulans succeed in destroying the ship. This is suspenseful, beautifully constructed, and well-paced through out. We get some more quality time with Ro Laren, and Geordi gets to be completely competent and charming. At one point, Geordi shoves a guy through a wall and sends him floating out into space to die. It is totally hard-core.

Sometimes I think the Enterprise spends half its time flying through space with its chin out. How else to explain the set-up for “Phase”: they find a Romulan ship in serious trouble (this happens even before the episode begins), and Riker and a few others beam over to try and help. There are some technical problems and the ship’s engine gets ejected before it explodes, but the real important part here is that when Geordi and Ro beam back to the Enterprise with a piece of Romulan equipment that Geordi needs to fix in tow, there’s a transporter malfunction, and the two are seemingly killed. The ep keeps this illusion up for a while, everyone doing their jobs with slightly grimmer expressions than usual–that engine jettisoning I mentioned happens before Ro re-appears on the bridge, and even though it has nothing really to do with the overall plot, is an exciting scene. As we’ve seen before on the show, the Enterprise crew is very good at doing their jobs in the face of tragedy. It sometimes seems off to me, just how good they are at it, considering how rare it is for anyone to die on the series; I have complete faith in the professionalism of Picard and the others, of course, but death looks like such a rarity in their lives that you’d think it would be more difficult for them to shake it off. But maybe that’s just one of the benefits of living in an enlightened society, who am I to judge?

Besides, this isn’t what I was getting at when I joked about the ship leading with its chin. Nor was I referring to Ro and Geordi’s reappearance. Once Ro realizes that no one can see her, she can pass through solid objects, and everyone assumes she’s dead, she decides that death is as good an explanation as any, and gets this mystical, peaceful look on her face as she tries to make peace with everyone she’s left behind. Geordi’s having none of this, however, and despite Ro’s objections, he’s determined to figure out what happened, and find some way to restore them both to their natural state. You could say this is some kind of argument between science and faith; Geordi refuses to accept what he sees without testing it, while Ro simply believes it at face value. And I like seeing it that way, because the skeptic gets to be right for once. As well, the whole ep is a subtle critique of Ro’s beliefs; not only is she wrong about being “dead,” she is shocked when Data’s idea of a proper memorial service for his supposedly dissipated co-workers is a party-life affair where Riker plays trombone and everyone’s laughing. So it works as an atheist’s fable, although that’s never intrusive or strident. The moral being, if Geordi had followed Ro’s idea, they would’ve wound up dead, and so would everyone else on board the Enterprise.

And that’s what I meant about sticking their chin out and begging someone to take a swipe. Because it turns out the Romulans, who Picard and the others were so keen on helping, are, in fact, evil, like nearly every other Romulan we’ve see on the series. Worf is the only one with any reservations about allowing them access to the Enterprise‘s computers, and Riker agrees with him, but he’s get kind of an indulgent smile on his face, like, “Oh that Worf. Always such a paranoid nut. I think I’ll keep him.” Worf’s right, though, although not right enough to realize that the Romulans are sabotaging the Enterprise‘s engines so that the next time the ship goes into warp, it will become a horrendous space kerblooey. Ro and Geordi hear the two main baddies discussing their plan, and we move into phase two: now, not only is it important for our heroes to get back in phase with everyone else before they starve to death (a concept the ep only really addresses after everything’s been resolved), they’ve now got to do it before the ship moves on to its next destination.

Ron Moore’s script isn’t the best he’s done for the show, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, but it is really, really good, and through much of the episode, I found myself grinning to ear to ear. It’s just built so nicely, starting us with one obvious danger (the Romulan ship is going to explode!) before moving to a mystery (what happened to Geordi and Ro?). Once Geordi and Ro’s dilemma is established,  we spent time watching them struggle with what happened, establishing the rules of their strange condition (they can pass through objects, but not each other, no on else can hear them), and allowing a few scenes spent on them spying on their friends and fellow crew-members reacting to their deaths. But just as we’re getting relaxed–Geordi is on the case, and we know he’ll find an answer soon enough–we learn about the Romulan plot, and the race is on. And if that wasn’t enough to get us worried again, we quickly learn that Geordi and Ro aren’t as alone as they thought they were; there’s a Romulan who is phased as well, and it’s his job to make sure the Enterprise sabotage goes off without a hitch.

This is just really smart writing, and while “Phase” lacks the depth of the series’ greatest hours, it’s a lot of fun to watch. None of the various threads that run through the episode ever get old; I thought maybe we’d spend too much time dealing with the reaction to Geordi and Ro’s “deaths,” but while we do get some scenes of Data planning that memorial service, it never wears out its welcome. Data and Worf talk some about death (I love watching Data and Worf hang out; it’s maybe one of my favorite pairings on TNG, because they complement each other well), and Riker has plans to speak about Ro during the service, which unsurprisingly fascinates the hell out of Ro, and that’s largely it. I’m not sure I’d use this specific episode if I wanted to hook someone on the series, but this is the kind of sharp, gratifyingly solid work that helps support TNG‘s more ambitious eps. It’s just a neat adventure story, and you need those once in a while.

That said, I do have a reservation or two. Actually just one, and it’s that chin thing. (Man, of all the jokes for me to repeat…) I appreciate that the Romulans have to be involved with this. The reason Geordi and Ro “disappear” is that the Romulans have been working on a device that would combine an inverter and a cloaking device, rendering them essentially undetectable for however long they want to be. The device malfunctions, our heroes are caught in the crossfire, and there you have it. But the fact that the Romulans are once again setting the Enterprise up for a fall has the unfortunate by-product of making Picard and the others look naive and overly trusting. It’s not like there’s any sort of surprise in the idea that the Romulans would be creeps. Apart from Worf’s precautions, nobody really worries that much about what the Romulans might be up to, and while you need that ignorance in order to increase the tension in Geordi and Ro’s efforts, I wish this could’ve been managed in a way that didn’t make everyone else seem a bit foolish. Maybe if it was all some accident that only Geordi grasped the ramifications of, it might’ve worked better. Although that would’ve meant losing the chase scene with the phased Romulan, and the totally cool moment when Geordi shoves him through the outer wall of the ship. Hm.

Generally, though, this was very fun, and a great change of pace after the more serious “I, Borg.” It all culminates, as of course it had to culminate, at Geordi and Ro’s memorial, as the two of them desperate try and get Data’s attention by spreading chroniton particles. (It makes sense in context.) It’s a great note to end everything on–two friends presumed dead appear first as ghosts, and then full on in the flesh. Reminds me a little of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and there are worse associations to have. The bad guys are thwarted, the good guys are saved, and we even have time for a short grace note at the end, with Ro contemplating the implications of their experience while Geordi wolfs down his second (or third, or fourth) dinner. Not every episode has to end in tears, and it’s swell to see everything wrap up with a minimum of heartbreak.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Inner Light:

It’s funny, sometimes, how a show can learn all the wrong lessons from its successes. And by “funny,” I mean, “irritating as heck.” No one is denying that “The Best of Both Worlds” was a brilliant hour and a half of television. After an increasingly self-assured third season, TNG upped its game in impressive fashion with one of the best cliffhangers in the history of genre TV; and whether or not the resolution lived up to the reveal of Picard as “Locutus,” on the whole, it was as well-crafted a two-parter as one could hope to have. It was an event which, for once, fully managed to justify its status as something special and distinctive, as opposed to simply existing because the show’s creative team decided they wanted to goose ratings. This was a story that needed more than just a single episode to tell, given its scope and its subject, and its popularity, and lingering impact on the Trek universe, were both richly deserved.

Which makes it all the more unfortunate, then, that instead of taking this clear demonstration of the heights the series was capable of as an inspiration to keep striving, TNG has apparently decided that two part episodes–more specifically, two part episodes in which part one serves as a season finale, making the cliffhanger conclusion all the more teeth-gnashingly frustrating for fans–are less a form to be saved for the kind of plots that deserve them, and more something that has to be pulled out every year, whether or not the writing is good enough to support the extra focus. We’ve already dealt with the fall-out from this. While “Unification” certainly deserved extra focus because of its guest star, Leonard Nimoy, the two-episode structure led to an inordinate amount of padding, and a storyline which felt lumpy and distracted, less than the sum of its most effective parts. Another part of the problem here is also the show’s on-going struggle with serialization; a rebellion within the Romulan empire is the kind of concept that’s too big for a single episode, but also too nebulous and slow-moving to support a two-episode structure. Compare “Unification” with the long-form disintegration of the Klingon empire which played out over two seasons. The Klingon mythos wasn’t perfect, but it helped create a much stronger sense of the show being larger than it really was. “Unification” just made the Romulans look a little more ridiculous.

It’s too early to tell just what “Time’s Arrow” will look like when it’s finished, but after watching “Part I,” my hopes are not high. We’ve got time travel here, a trope which TNG has handled ably before, but one which can lead to all kinds of confusion and lazy writing when mishandled. We’ve got two cliffhangers: Data’s apparent death in the general sense, and Picard and the others sudden disappearance in the more specific. We’ve got potential back-story for Guinan, although I’m less excited about that then I once was. We’ve got a lot of terrible fish-out-of-water comedy. And we’ve got some actual honest-to-god monsters, which I’m generally a fan of, although they seem terribly confusing here. There are potentially interesting ideas floating throughout this episode, but hardly any of them really stick. While I hesitate to dismiss “Arrow” out of hand, seeing as how I haven’t watched the second part yet, I don’t think it’s too out of bounds for me to suggest that this isn’t anywhere near TNG at its (And then you wake up and you’re someplace else

“The Inner Light”

Or The One Where Picard Takes The Longest Flute Lesson In History

No one’s ever asked me why I care so much about genre fiction, despite being so regularly disappointed and frustrated by its myriad of false starts and failures, but if they did ask, I’d say that I’m fascinated by possibility. Science fiction, fantasy, even horror, appeal to me for any number of reasons, but the big one, the one that makes it so painful to see yet another clone of last year’s–or last century’s–hits trundle off the assembly line, is what the best stories can do to us when they don’t have to pretend to be real. Admittedly, no fiction is ever “real” in the strictest sense, given its tendency to confirm the haphazard and fumbling exigencies of life into plot, but genre fiction doesn’t have to bow its head to the grim dictates of common sense. Genre fiction, so long as it provides its audience with some small familiar core to hang on to, can do anything, create any world, violate any law. Gravity can be overcome, death can be denied, and time itself might bend or curve or even break, should an author require it. Great genre fiction–more to the point, great science fiction and fantasy–makes us reconsider the reality we take for granted, so simply and beautifully that we can never go back to where we thought we were.

Few shows ever strive for this, and fewer still achieve it. TNG has vacillated between ambitious, mind-bending stories and more traditional space opera fare, but while the series has had a great number of successes up to this point, “The Inner Light” still feels singular. It’s an off-format episode; apart from a handful of scenes on the Enterprise, most of the episode has just a single regular cast member, and the emotional power of the episode comes entirely from this singular character’s journey. Despite the initial set-up, there are no problems to be resolved here, and, apart from one brief scene, little in the way of danger. Of the story’s two central crises, one solves itself, and the other turns out to have passed long ago. There are no action sequences; no striking alien designs; no sense of galactic import or epic doom. Well, maybe a little of the last–the story is, after all, structured around the slow death of an entire civilization. Except we only see a very small part of that civilization, and the point is less epic, and more personal. But we’ll get to that.

As far as beginnings go, though, nothing marks “Light”‘s cold open as particularly out of the ordinary. The Enterprise is exploring a sector, they find a probe that looks a bit like a lightning bolt, and Picard gets hit by some flashing light. He collapses, and when he wakes up, he’s in a modest stone home somewhere, and a woman calls him Kamin and says how grateful he is that his fever broke. Picard is understandably non-plussed by this, and tries every way he can think of to break the spell, or program, or illusion. So far, so normal. While getting knocked unconscious and mentally transported to an unfamiliar world may be an unusual event for us, for Picard, and most of his crew, this is practically a biweekly occurrence. Trek history is full of people waking up in strange places, with aliens who tell them “Huh? You’ve always been here! This is totally your beautiful house, wife, etc. Now come over here and explain to me the defense systems of this imaginary ‘starship’ you keep going on about, and then we can build us a rocket.”

No, what makes “Light” so effective, and so striking, is the passage of time. Picard wakes up as Kamin, in what he eventually learns is Ressik, in the Northern Province of Kataan. The concerned woman at his side is Eline, Kamin’s wife, and she’s as kind and patient with Picard’s questions as she can be, even though she doesn’t seem to understand them. Picard goes for a walk in town, meets Council Leader Batai, and gets the general impression that wherever this place is (while they give him the name of the town and planet easily enough, it’s not something that provides him with much context), it’s full of terribly nice people. But that’s often how it starts, isn’t it? You don’t get brain-napped, and find yourself surrounded by slavering psychopaths hell-bent on destroying everything you care about. Well, all right, that can happen, but like I said, so far, none of this is outside the range of our experience, Trek-wise.

“Light” cuts back to the bridge of the Enterprise, where Riker is attempting to assess the situation while Beverly and her assistant do their best to determine what’s happened to the captain. I’d never seen this episode before this week, but I knew the premise; when I was a kid, a family friend had related the whole thing to me and my father one night, and it was such an amazing concept that it stuck with me ever since. Some shows are actually better appreciated this way, I think, like that episode of the ’80s Twilight Zone about the box with the death-dealing button. Thankfully, “Light” is quite a bit better than “Button, Button,” but I did manage to form my own conception of the ep over the years, and I was surprised that there were any cuts back to the Enterprise at all. I understand why they did it, at least on a functional level; it at least gives the rest of the cast some reason to show up for work (though Troi is absent, probably because she might’ve been able to figure out what was happening too soon, I guess), and, more importantly, it helps us jump forward in time whenever we return to Picard-Kamin after seeing the “real” Picard passed out on the bridge.

At one point, Riker has Geordi and Data break the stream of energy that’s passing from the probe into Picard, in an attempt to disrupt whatever hold the probe has on the captain. It goes poorly, and back on Kataan, Picard-Kamin suffers something that looks quite a bit like a heart attack, only recovering when Riker lets the energy beam get back to its business. This is the only contact between Picard and his crew for nearly the entire episode, and certainly the only time Riker and the others are able to inflict any sort of change on whatever’s happening. Traditionally, in this sort of story, Geordi and Data would’ve made every effort to figure out someway to circumvent whatever was holding Picard in its sway. While Picard pushed the boundaries of his mental prison, the rest of his crew would go through a trial and error process until finally, through some combination of luck and ingenuity, both storylines would meet up, and Picard would force his way free with the help of the others.

That doesn’t happen here. After they block the beam once, and Picard nearly dies, Riker essentially gives up try. Actually, that’s not quite right–it’s more that there really isn’t enough time for him to find and attempt another solution, because, on their end, Picard is only unconscious for twenty-five minutes. As well, on Picard-Kamin’s end, instead of obsessively continuing his quest to get back to his real life, Picard eventually gives in to the evidence of his senses and accepts that Ressik is where he belongs; that Eline is truly his wife; and that no matter how many times he views the stars in the night sky and feels a pang of longing, there’s nowhere else for him to go. And the pang fades, as such pangs always do eventually. Over the years-

Yeah, that’s a big concept right there. Let’s not rush by this. What truly distinguishes “Light” from every other episode of this sort is its understanding of the concept of time. Picard doesn’t spend twenty-five minutes as Kamin. He doesn’t spend twenty five hours, or days, or weeks. Picard lives somewhere in the area of forty years as Kamin, and in that time, he fell in love with his wife, had a daughter and a son, and the daughter grew old enough to marry and have her own child. In this time, Picard invests in his community, and watches the encroaching signs of destruction as drought begets drought, and the sun begins to die. And then the people of Kataan launch their probe, and the ghosts of Kamin’s past explain to him how all he has seen is their attempts to pass on their culture to a stranger, someone who’ll remember them long after they are gone. And then Picard wakes up on the bridge, in his old uniform, his young(er) body, and all the friends he spent so many decades putting behind him staring at him in concern. He’s been gone to them for less than half an hour.

I suppose I could find points to criticize here. The culture of Kataan is never specifically defined, and sometimes comes off more as a New Age paradise than a specific place in need of being remembered. By the end of the ep, all really know about Eline and Batai and their people is they’re terribly pleasant, and they have ceremonies for their children. Oh, and they have schools, because Kamin’s son drops out to be a musician. And of course, there’s the flute that Picard spends so much of the episode learning to play. As well, I’m not entirely sure it works to the episode’s benefit to have the cuts back to the Enterprise at all. It would’ve been possible to indicate the passage of time in other ways, and the story works best if we’re locked into the same mystery as Picard. It smacks a little of the writers backing down from the strength of their premise, trying to make it more user-friendly by reminding us occasionally that, yes, Riker and the others haven’t been written off the show, and Picard will be back in the red and black soon enough.

But those cuts represent maybe a tenth of the overall episode, and my resistance to them could very well be the fact that I’ve spent so long with an imagined version of “Light” in my head. As for the supposed blandness of the Kataan people… I don’t care, and I don’t think it matters that much, because we’re not here for a history lesson. Besides, the probe the Kataanese send out is designed for one use, on one person. (How lucky are they that it discovered Picard? Can you think of anyone else capable of surviving an experience like this without losing his mind? Between this and the Borg, Jean Luc is officially a super-human.) They’re not trying to bring the ways of Kataan back to the universe. No single probe could encapsulate an entire race, and entire world. Not even forty years would be enough to pass on a whole civilization.

What possible memorial could serve for the lives lost, for the way of life forever destroyed? Perhaps nothing more than to let someone somewhere know that there was a place once, and the people in it loved and were loved, and then they died. The specifics aren’t important. Sometimes, just knowing there was beauty, and that it is lost, is enough, and in the end, all that’s left are some memories, and a flute, and a single line of melody. Also, the lesson that the most important time is the time we have, and our only true duty to ourselves and those we love is to make the most of it. “Light” is an expertly constructed episode, one that ably demonstrates the potential of genre fiction to astonish us and move us in equal measure. And it manages to be beautiful, hopeful, and devastating all in a single final scene.


The Worst:

The Game, A Matter of Time, Violations, The Perfect Mate, Imaginary Friend, and Time’s Arrow Part I



  • The Game is rather After-School Special about playing video games too much, with the concept of Virtual Reality Addiction;
  • A Matter of Time features a con-man from the 22nd century who time travels to the 24th century;
  • Violations features Troi getting…well, violated…by an alien aboard a delegation on the Enterprise;
  • The Perfect Mate features Picard develop feelings for a women whose purpose is to end a war through marriage to an opposing planet;
  • Imaginary Friend sees an imaginary friend of Clara Sutter threaten the Enterprise; and,
  • Time’s Arrow Part I is still the worst time travel story, partially due to the appearance of Mark Twain, whom I quite loathe, and the aliens, who were done poorly.

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

Well, that certainly was silly, wasn’t it.

For the first 20 or so minutes of “The Game,” I was enjoying myself. The episode wasn’t great, and I wasn’t, y’know, delighted to see Wesley “Mr. Whisper Thin” Crusher back on the ship, but there was some good momentum building, and it was fun to watch everybody slowly turn evil because they really liked electronic orgasms. Body snatcher storylines always creep me out, even more so than if somebody was just sneaking through the ship and killing everyone. I don’t know why (obviously “murder” is a bit more permanent than “mind control that can be undone with a flashlight”). Maybe it’s that sneaking suspicion that the people around me wouldn’t really notice if I was replaced. If you’re dead, there’s some comfort in imagining the grief caused by your passing, but if someone takes your place, and no one realizes it, who’s to say you were ever really there at all?

I’m getting distracted, though, and that’s probably because “The Game” is a very easy episode to get distracted from. In the last 20 minutes, while Wesley and his girl Friday, Robin Lefler (a young, vaguely chipmunk-ish but still ridiculously adorable Ashley Judd), run around the Enterprise trying to save the day from the dastardly butt-forehead aliens, I found my attention starting to wander. Yes, it was all very tense, and yes, there was some fun to be had in seeing Wesley ably avoid pursuit by being the clever brat he always is, but something felt… off. The game that caused all these problems was hilariously tacky, both in form and function, but that was only part of the problem. I’d heard friends complain about the episode before, and the more I watched, the more I realized I agreed with them, but why? This was suspenseful and occasionally surprising, and the gradual, corner-of-your-eye domination of the ship’s crew by the Gameboy From Hell (yes, I know that’s dated, I’m old) was deftly handled, for what it was. Why didn’t it work?

The big issue here is that this isn’t really a proper episode of TNG at all. It’s more a children’s cartoon script that happened to be filmed in live action. “The Game” doesn’t really fit our Enterprise, and while it’s unsettling enough on the surface, it falls apart if you think about it for more than a few minutes. There’s nothing of any real depth here, and our heroes are forced out of their usual roles into simply operating as cogs in a disappointingly straightforward machine. The fact that Wesley arrives on the ship just as all this foolishness is going down and he happens to be the only person (with an assist from his new girlfriend, of course) capable of saving the day? That’s the worst kind of Mary Sue writing. I supposed you could say this is an intentionally nostalgic throwback to the first season, where Wesley was, quite literally, a Chosen One. (Yeah, I bet you forgot that.) But given how terrible the first season was, why on Earth would you reference it? Besides, “Ensigns of Command” managed to give us a Wesley who was convincingly, but not ridiculously, smart and good at his job. Here, the idea that he’d be one of the only two people on the ship to escape the Game’s clutches long enough to realize its sinister purpose is, well, silly.

The story: Riker is hooking up with Etana, she of the butt-shaped forehead, but before their innuendo can go from “stun” to “screw,” Etana convinces Riker to try out this new game she’s discovered. Riker puts on the device (which looks like it was repurposed from equipment you’d find in in a dentist’s office) and is immediately engaged by a VR-ish game that revolves around mentally commanding discs to dive into tunnels. This is in every way exactly as stupid as it sounds, but the game works by stimulating your pleasure centers every time you complete a level, which is something Riker is totally into. It also has a nasty habit of rewiring part of your brain, and when Riker brings the device back to the Enterprise, he slowly starts to infect everyone on board with the Happy Funtime Let’s Let The Aliens Take Us Over virus.

While all this wackiness is going down, there’s some big science afoot, a fact that I completely forgot about until just now because the episode forgets about it as well. We don’t see anyone jockeying for the time slots we’re told are crucial to a number of group’s research. We’re told times are stressful and Geordi is a little more tightly wound than usual, but the fact that nearly everyone on board is soon devoting all their time to something that has nothing to do with work doesn’t seem to affect, well, anything. Wesley shows up, there’s a goofy surprise party, and then everything starts going to hell. It seems like all that static about scientific study was designed to raise the stakes for the rest of the episode, but it doesn’t; in the end, the best you can say is that all that extra work is making everyone tired, distracted, and in the mood for any kind of entertainment, even if it does nuke your cerebral cortex.

“The Game” is occasionally creepy, although not always in ways that are that fun to watch. Data getting essentially cold-cocked in Sick Bay is a nice moment, a relative surprise that takes out the Enterprise‘s big security blanket while at the same time revealing the widening scope of the conspiracy; there are a couple of fine shots of brainwashed Riker and the others looming over Data’s fallen body that give a neat “time is out of joint” feel to the scene. Of course, it’s hard to understand why they don’t just take Data out permanently. I’m sure they wanted to make his collapse look like an “accident,” but the fact that Wesley is able to fix him with a minimum of fuss, thus providing the episode with its resolution, is weak; I don’t want Data to be dead, but I also don’t much enjoy a story where the villains give the heroes free passes. (For that matter, why single out the Enterprise for initial take-over, considering it has a rare crew-member completely immune to the game’s charms? Yes, this is the flagship of Starfleet, but surely it would’ve made more sense to target one of the many ships without the Kryptonite, so to speak.)

At the same time, watching Beverly’s aggressive attempts to win her son over to the Orgasmatron are off-putting in all kinds of wrong ways, her usual maternal affection degraded into something uncomfortably intimate and desperate. “The Game” could be seen as a metaphor for any kind of addiction, and while it’s a shallow metaphor at best, the few glimpses we get of how TNG would handle actual narcotics make me hope desperately that we never get into Willow-on-the-ceiling territory here. There’s some OK stuff in “The Game”: Wesley and Robin’s courtship isn’t utterly unbearable–oh, who am I kidding, it mostly is, but Judd is just so damn cute I didn’t mind. I also like the part where Michael Douglas shoots Sean Penn and then jumps off a building. Really, though, this is a script that doesn’t fit the complexity and depth of TNG in its fifth season, relying on broadly drawn conflicts (a better episode might’ve considered just what the hell you do with a race that’s invented a device that can spread mind control this easily and efficiently) and hoary story tricks to make its point. If it even has a point; if this is intended as an indictment of the horrors of video games, it fails pretty miserably. Everyone involved deserved better. Even Wesley.

According to the A.V. Club review of A Matter of Time:

By this point, we’re all familiar with the various dangers of time travel. It’d be interesting, if you were of a mind to do it, and had the patience to track decades of science fiction, to see how the concept has developed over the years. Because surely at some point, it was just wish fulfillment or fantasy. H.G. Wells The Time Machine was largely a parable for the way social classes would eventually split into two distinct races; it was an adventure story that was less concerned with the possibilities of paradox than it was with extrapolating a distant future that helped Wells make a philosophical point. (Poor people will eventually become monsters; rich people will eventually all turn into Paris Hilton.) What I’m talking about is more jumping backwards in time and trying to change what was, in order to create a more positive present. By now, I can barely even type the idea without wanting to fall into an argument about the dangers of meddling, the butterfly effect, chaos theory, and how creepy it must’ve been for Marty McFly to jump into a completely different timeline, even if it did score him cooler parents and an awesome truck. But surely there was a time when people didn’t take this quite so seriously.

I wonder if the ground zero moment for all this contemplation isn’t Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder.” First published in Collier’s magazine in 1952, it’s the sort of high concept, brutal gut-punch that only short stories are really capable of managing. In “Thunder,” time travel is real, and a group of entrepreneurs use it to take rich big game hunters back into the distant past to hunt dinosaurs. Everything is carefully controlled to prevent any impact on the present. There’s a path the hunters follow, and the T-Rex they kill is one that would actually have died moments later, even if it hadn’t been shot. But of course something goes wrong, something very small on the surface but something that changes everything. It’s a fine story, turned into a terrible movie (and, according to Wikipedia, a book series?), and I always think of it whenever I get to thinking about time travel. The idea that someone could step on a butterfly and thus significantly change the course of history is one of those ideas that seems so horribly plausible you can’t help but believe it’s fact.

Although who knows? I’m stalling here a little, because in the end, “Matter of Time” isn’t really that much about time travel. It’s mostly about a clever con-man (played by Matt Frewer), and how he ingratiates himself (sort of) with the crew of the Enterprise while they do their best not to completely destroy a planet desperately in need of their help. Frewer, who calls himself Rasmussen (because it’s easier to type “Frewer,” I’m just going to stick with that), claims to be a historian from 300 years into the future. He’s arrived just in time to watch Picard and crew handle a crisis on Penthara IV, and all he asks of them are the answers to a few questions, a couple minutes of their time, and maybe some spare technology they may have lying around. Oh, and if someone—say, Beverly Crusher—decided to sleep with him, he wouldn’t have any problems with that, either.

It’s obvious from the start that Frewer isn’t who he says he is, which is one of the reasons I had a hard time getting behind “Matter.” Any storyline that opens with a stranger making the claims Frewer makes is going to have make an extra effort in order to fool us along with the rest of the cast. Obviously, a show like TNG has advantage here that something like, say, CSI doesn’t. In the Trek-verse, we know that time travel is very real; nearly every major character in the franchise has engaged in it at some point or another. So at least when Frewer arrives in a ship like nothing anyone on the Enterprise has ever seen before, right next to a space-time distortion, well, it’s not completely ridiculous that they’d give him the benefit of the doubt. And hell, as modest as everybody is about it, who wouldn’t like some confirmation that everything you’re doing right now is going to fascinate people centuries ahead of you?

My problem here is that the benefit stretches just a bit too far. Frewer’s claims are potentially possible, but apart from his ship (which is just an unknown quantity) and the distortion, he can’t really offer anything to back those claims up. He argues that it’s his responsibility to his own time that prevents him from sharing more information with our heroes; much like that squished butterfly (or Homer’s single sneeze), a misplaced factoid might alter crucial decisions and send events along an entirely new course. This is reasonable, but you’d think he’d have something to offer to help smooth the way. Maybe an additional piece of shiny future tech or restricted knowledge about, say, Picard’s past that only future historians might have access to. Instead, he simply shows up and arrogantly makes his demands.

It’s unfortunate, really, because I like Matt Frewer quite a bit, but his tightly-wound style isn’t well used here. He’s so immediately grating and unpleasant that you know from the start that he’s running some kind of con. Which is funny, actually, because you’d think a real con-man would’ve actually tried to run more under the radar. Obviously in order to pull something like this off, it’s necessary to have a certain confidence in your convictions (and Frewer largely maintains his cool until the very end), but this guy goes out of his way to irk people. You can defend this conceptually. After all, in the end, Frewer isn’t really a con-man, just as he isn’t really from the future; he’s actually a failed inventor from the 22nd century who killed the historian the time machine actually belonged to and took his place. So it does make a certain amount of sense that he’d act like an ass. This really isn’t his usual line of work.

Really, then, the issue is that everyone on the Enterprise trusts him for as long as they do before finally bringing the hammer down in the final scene. It’s irritating to be this far ahead of the heroes for so long, and while it’s not like their trusting nature ever puts any of them in any real danger, they still come across as a little too thick for my tastes. Riker wonders if he might be a fraud, but there’s never any attempt to restrict his access to the ship or to force him to give more answers beyond the clearly evasive lines he keeps throwing out. Really, all the show needed was to tone down Frewer’s attitude a few notches and throw us a bone of evidence that would give his story more credibility. (I realize that since he isn’t actually from the future, that bone might be difficult to come up with, but still.) At least then, Picard and the rest wouldn’t look quite so naive.

It’s a shame, really, because there was stuff here I did like. The B-plot, for instance: After an asteroid hits an unpopulated continent on Penthara IV, creating a giant dust cloud that creates a planet-wide drop in temperature, the Enterprise tries to fix the problem by shoot phasers into the planet’s crust and kickstaring a greenhouse effect. This goes badly, and Picard is forced to make a decision. Either he lets the crisis on the planet play out, killing tens of thousands, or else he tries to fix things one more time with the Enterprise, with a solution that will either resolve the problem or kill everything on the planet surface. It’s a thrilling storyline, with huge stakes, and it almost feels like it would’ve been better served as the A-plot. I do like the idea of having these missions play out as the backdrop of some more specific, character-related crisis, but c’mon: This is an entire planet we’re talking about.

This does lead to one of the episode’s better scenes, a scene that, once again, only really works because of the quality of the actors involved. Picard begs Frewer to tell him which choice to make, and Frewer keeps dodging the question. It shouldn’t be that engaging, because odds are you’ve realized by now that Frewer isn’t who he says he is, and that the real reason he can’t tell Picard what to do is because he simply doesn’t know. That makes all of Picard’s debate tactics moot, but Patrick Stewart is so good at sincerity and Frewer is so good at responding to that sincerity that it’s all pretty enjoyable. And the finale, when Frewer finally explains who he really is to a Data he presumes is at his mercy, is a relief. I suppose it’s somewhat hardcore that Picard lets the time machine vanish, trapping Frewer in their present, but really, he killed a guy. Now he’s going to get stuck in a cushy Federation prison and talk about the past with scientists, and really, how are they ever going to build a case against him? All the evidence is gone. And it didn’t sound like his life in the past… in New Jersey… was all that wonderful to begin with.

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

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this episode. A couple years ago, back when I was doing reviews of the original Trek, the A.V. Club did an Inventory called “Space-racism is bad: And 17 other not-so-subtle lessons learned from Star Trek.” I contributed a few entries. Here’s what I wrote about “Violations” back then:

“Genre storytelling is a great way to deal with touchy subjects through the veneer of fiction. By providing the audience with distance from a difficult issue, it allows them to view things more objectively, and maybe find a new perspective on things. Or else it turns something bad into, well, kind of a joke. ‘Violations’ sits on the middle of the line—like most episodes of Next Generation, it’s well-meaning and generally effective, but when the metaphor becomes literal by the end, it turns into shrill moralizing that makes the whole ‘cloaked in sci-fi imagery’ angle seem largely pointless. The Enterprise is transporting three Ullians on their trip to create a kind of personal history of the galaxy. Using their psychic gifts, the Ullians are able to probe minds of their subjects, bringing previously lost memories into sharp focus. It’s all pleasant and soothing, until one of the Ullian takes a shine to Deanna Troi and forces himself into her brain. It’s a mental rape standing for a physical one, and creepy as that is, the metaphor is so direct as to be hardly a metaphor at all. Much like Willow’s much hated ‘magic addiction’ on Buffy, it’s less a clever way to make a point than it is an obvious lack of nerve in dealing with something that would’ve been far more effective had it been handled more directly.”

Not my best work, I think. I was still getting the hang of Inventory entries (you can tell which ones in the list are mine because nearly all of them are unnecessarily long), so I had to over-explain everything, and “Violations” was probably the weakest of the bunch, because I wasn’t sure I entirely agreed that it belonged on the list. It’s certainly heavy-handed, and I suppose the dialogue at the end of the episode (which helpfully points out that this was about rape, in case anyone missed that) is clunky and needless. It’s not like anyone watching this would come away with the idea that TNG  was pro-mind-rape. But “shrill” seems a bit much, and I’m not sure this is really about “an obvious lack of nerve.” I can’t really imagine an episode of TNG that had an actual physical sexual assault, but I don’t think it would work very well. Partly because of that lack of rawness I was talking about earlier, but even more because, well, this is a fun, genial sci-fi adventure show. It has its dark moments, but I’m not sure we really need to get into Starfleet: Special Victims Unit territory.

“Violations” does try to be about as creepy as it possibly can be without getting explicit, and the results are uncomfortable and not necessarily in a good way. The dream sequences that Jev, a telepath who can’t keep his brain in his skull, forces on Troi, Riker, and Crusher, are effectively unsettling, and the core idea here is certainly frightening. And hey, any episode that has Geordi and Data teaming up to solve a mystery can’t be all bad. But there’s a weird, sort of exploitative vibe here that throws everything off. TNG is not an exploitive show by any stretch; its idea of tawdry is Marina Sirtis’ plunging neckline. Which is ridiculous, don’t get me wrong, but we’re not exactly in Joe D’Amato territory here. And yet “Violations” keeps trying to be tasteful about a subject that is inherently distasteful, which means it has a lot of nibbling but no real bite.

Of course, questions of tone aside, there’s the fact that we spend much of this episode waiting for the heroes to catch up with what should be obvious from the cold open. I can sometimes over-criticize this show for what I perceive as disappointing predictability, but there really isn’t any effort at all to hide what’s happening here. We meet the Ullians and see them at work (Hi, Keiko!), and a few scenes later, Troi gets assaulted in her room by a memory of her and Riker that quickly turns sour. Now, it’s not hard to guess that the Ullians are involved, as Troi’s woes are clearly telepathically induced, but the episode makes sure we know exactly which one of the three aliens is responsible; not only have we had ample time to see Jev looking suspicious and not only is he the last person to speak with Troi before the attack, but he actually appears in her nightmare, taking Riker’s place. He appears in Riker’s vision too, as well as in Crusher’s. All three fall into comas immediately after the attack, and when Troi wakes up, she can’t remember anything, but we can.

The episode does try and pull a fast one by having Jev probe Troi’s memory and replace her visions of him with visions of his father. While there’s no real concern that Jev will get away with his crimes (TNG is willing to dabble in ambiguous endings but not quite “rapist gets away free while innocent man burns” ambiguous), it’s something. Like I said, I harp on predictability a lot here, but the honest truth is, I don’t mind being able to figure out where a story is headed. Unless there’s some awful twist coming, it can be just as fun to feel clever and observant as it is to be shocked. So really, the issue here isn’t that you know who’s guilty. It’s more that there really isn’t much else to know beyond that. Jev is screwed up and likes to mess with people’s minds in horrible ways. So he does that a couple times (presumably the first time because he’s into Troi, and then on because he’s trying to target people he suspects are a threat), and then they catch him, because he’s not all that smart. The end.

As for how well this works as a metaphor for actual sexual assault, it’s fairly weak. Yes, Troi and the others surely feel invaded after this, and the idea of someone who could just rifle through your brain and force his way into one of your memories is a painful one. But rape is far more damaging than a show like this would be capable of showing. Physical assault leaves wounds, scars. It’s messy and ugly, and those aren’t concepts that TNG really does well with. The victims in “Violations” will probably undergo some therapy after this, but Troi wakes up with no memory at all of what happened. It’s no better or worse than half a dozen other screwed up things that the heroes of this show have had to deal with, but the difference is, getting knocked up by Tinkerbell doesn’t have a real world equivalent. By explicitly using the word “rape” in its closing moments, this episode is trying to make emotional connections it simply can’t support.

For all of that, there are enjoyable moments here. The dream sequences aren’t bad; I especially liked the last one, in which Jev forces Beverly to relive identifying her husband’s body with a young Captain Picard. (Picard has hair!) And like I said, it’s fun watching Geordi and Data piece things together. Even when we know where they’ll end up, there’s something to be said for seeing how everything fits. And there’s a lovely scene with Riker talking to the unconscious Troi, with some really nice acting from Frakes. Generally speaking, though, this one was a misfire. And once again, poor Troi got to bear the brunt of it. Not only is she assaulted twice, but she isn’t even allowed the dignity of coming to her own defense. Clunky writing or no, I wasn’t that far off in my original assessment.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Perfect Mate:

Let’s get this out of the way first: there are Ferengi in this episode. They’re on screen for less than ten minutes total, and they’re really only here as a clumsy way to move the plot, but they’re still as awful as ever. On a show that goes out of its way to treat different cultures with dignity and respect, the Ferengi remain a sore spot, a group of cringingly unfunny schemers who haven’t developed much beyond their debut appearance in the first season’s “The Last Outpost.” Elmer Fudd is better defined than these morons, and far, far more entertaining to watch. I suppose the point is to show that greed for wealth is comically pathetic, unlike greed for power, which is scary and, let’s be honest here, kind of cool. But it represents an irritating and persistent laziness on the writers, as the show keeps bringing them back for no good reason. It’s like if Gargamel did guest spots on The Wire, only, y’know, awful.

But apart from that, this is actually a very interesting ep, one that takes on a plot with all kinds of potential for heavy-handedness or wish-fulfillment, and tries to deal with it with the seriousness and tact it deserves. (Again, apart from the Ferengi.) Even better, while there are definite ways to connect this to real life, the metaphor here is never all that specific. We’re not dealing with rape or homosexuality or any of the other serious issues that Trek shows sometimes try and lecture on. This is more about characters and relationships through the filter of science fiction, and, for the most part, it lets us draw our own conclusions.

The Enterprise is once again doing chauffeur service, this time ferrying Ambassador Briam from Krios to a meeting with Chancellor Alrik of Valt Minor, for a negotiation of peace accords which will hopefully finally bring an end to a lot of fighting. Briam has a special gift for Alrik which he keeps stored in the Enterprise‘s cargo bay, even going so far as to request that Picard make that bay off limits to everyone else on the ship–and for good reason. After the Ferengi trick their way on board the ship (the sabotage their own craft to make it look like they’re in need of rescue), one of them breaks into the cargo bay, and starts fiddling with the “gift,” which looks sort of like a glowing amber egg. He knocks the egg over by accident, and just as Picard and Briam arrive to survey the damage, the egg flashes out of existence, leaving behind a stunningly beautiful woman. Who immediately says to Picard, “I am for you, Alrik of Valt,” which is about as good a reason for changing your name as I’ve ever heard.

The woman is Kamala, played by a young Famke Janssen, and it’s on her that the episode hinges. She’s the metamorph I mentioned above, and she’s culturally and genetically hardwired to please whatever man she’s closest to, by sensing his feelings and desires and then tailoring her personality to suit them. Which is a tricky notion, to say the least, but even trickier is the fact that she’s on the ship so that she can marry Alrik as part of the peace accords, to seal the deal, so to speak. When she bonds with someone for life, she sets herself in whatever personality that mate prefers the most, which makes this, from a certain light, a pervasive and inescapable form of slavery. Picard does his best to play the non-interference card (most likely because he’s as attracted to Kamala as anyone, and can’t trust his own impartiality), but Beverly tells him that the whole set-up is wrong, and that he needs to do something about it. Which is he doesn’t–but does–but doesn’t. It’s complicated.

What do we want in romantic partners? And, more importantly for this episode, what do we want our romantic partners to want out of us? There’s a lot of conversation here about Kamala’s needs, about just how much she can truly be expected to make her own decisions (she says that she has no problems with marrying Alrik, believing that this was what she’s essentially “made” for), and just how susceptible the men of the Enterprise are to her charms. Riker, unsurprisingly, gets a couple of kisses; around him, Kamala is aggressive, playful, and, ahem, educated. Around some miners the Enterprise rescued, she’s rowdy, and nearly starts a fight. Around Worf, she growls. And around Picard, she’s… intrigued. Unlike the others, Picard is largely resistant to her seductions, which of course rouses her interest, and she starts trying to spend more time with him. Picard keeps resisting, but this becomes even more difficult when the Ferengi inadvertently injure Briam, and Picard is forced to handle the upcoming ceremonies himself.

There’s obviously a certain amount of fantasy in here, and just how much fantasy is left up to the individual viewer to decide. Everyone at some point or another has imagined themselves with the perfect lover, with someone who would sense your innermost yearnings, the ones you could barely articulate yourself, and then act on them in ways that left you satisfied like no one else ever could hope to satisfy you. This is called “being 15.” Although maybe younger for girls? Anyway, it’s a teenage fantasy, is my point, because when you’re a teenager, when you’re just figured out that your genitals are like biological transformers, and the thing you’ve been using as a “car” for your whole life is also a totally bitchin’ robot. So you don’t really know what you want, and you dream of someone who’ll come in and know all there is to know about you, all the things you don’t really understand yet, and even better, they recognize your real self, that self nobody else gets, the self that in your deepest darkest heart, you worry may not really be there. Which isn’t to say that older people don’t occasionally pine for this very specific concept of perfection, but as you get more mature, and come into your own, you realize how silly the whole idea is, how a relationship based on one person subsuming themselves entirely to the other’s needs is deeply unhealthy for both parties. Or maybe you just realize it’s impossible, and so the fantasy becomes an occasional idle daydream.

The point being, this isn’t something that could actually happen in any sustainable way, outside a fantasy or science-fiction context. Kamala is a construct, created specifically to give Picard a moral problem to solve, and because of that, she runs the risk of being more idea than character, which, when you combine that with the fact that one of the crucial aspects of what little character she does seem to have is her ability to change herself at will to reflect someone else, makes for a potentially troubling situation in deed. Kamala could’ve simply ended up a male power trip, and watching Picard resist her charms is sort of like a sensitive male’s power trip. (See, he’s too good to give in, but she keeps pushing him, and as in all grand romances, eventually, the pushed will fall, and whose fault would that be?) Then there’s the fact that we get a few jokes about having men assigned to Kamala specifically because they’re resistant to her charms (Briam is too old, and Data is, well, Data), but we never see Kamala hanging out with a woman. This is Dude’s Only, ladies. Sorry! (Although apparently, Krios is jammed full of male empathic metamorphs, so now you have a good idea where you should head on your next vacation.)

I think “Mate” works on the whole, though, for a couple key reasons. The first is that Janssen, in addition to being, let’s not kid ourselves here, really rather lovely, does a fairly good job of showing how much Kamala enjoys flirting with men. This gives her a certain degree of autonomy; sure, she’s hardwired to get pleasure from making others happy, but so is most everybody, and there’s nothing malicious or mindless about her, not really. She nearly starts a bar fight in Ten Forward, but it’s not that much of a “nearly.” The ep could’ve gone the way of her walking around the Enterprise screwing with every guy’s head, throwing everything into chaos. Which would’ve been fairly painful, I’m guessing. But it doesn’t go that way. Instead, we’re given a sense of someone coming into their own as a sexually aware, potentially powerful individual.

Which makes the ending (the other reason why I think this works) all the more intriguing. As the episode goes on, and Picard is forced by circumstance (and his own desire) to be closer to Kamala, the question becomes whether or not he’ll give in to the temptation, and, more importantly, whether or not he should or can help the lady out of her situation. Now, anyone watching this who thinks Picard will succumb to Kamala’s charms hasn’t been paying attention. If James “The T is for Libido” Kirk could resist a similar seduction in “Elaan of Troyius”, there’s no question Picard will do the same, and for much the same reason. But the more he comes to care for her, and the more we see her as a person, the more her proposed marriage to Alrik seems like a bad idea. It’s necessary, to ensure the lives of millions, and there really isn’t anything else that could happen, but if the episode were to simply end with her doing her duty, and Picard looking pensive, well, that wouldn’t be enough.

Although she does do her duty, and we do get a shot of Picard looking pensive (two, in fact), there’s a twist here I wasn’t expecting. Remember that “permanent bonding” I mentioned earlier, where Kamala sets herself with one person for the rest of her life? It’s a dangerous idea, in a way, because it creates an inherent power imbalance–once’s she’s busted her VHS recording tab (kids, ask your parents), she can’t change her mind if the relationship goes sour, even though her partner will have no problems doing so. I thought this was just part of the fantasy, and it sort of is, but it also allows for Kamala to make a decision near the end of the episode that allows her to preserve who she is, while still following her obligations. She bonds with Picard. She’s supposed to bond with Alrik, and she still marries him, but Picard is the one she imprints on.

You could read this in different ways. You could say it’s a horrible example of a woman needing a man to make her “complete,” or that Kamala’s choice to bond with Picard wasn’t actually her deicision, just the choice that her Picard-focused self made. Those interpretations don’t seem entirely unreasonable to me, but I choose to think of it in a more positive light. The perfect fantasy mate is so often a reflection of our own desires because we want to find someone who can show us who we are, who can bring out what’s best in ourselves and believe in us in a way that we can’t always manage on our own. Kamala does this for others, but I think with Picard, she finds someone who’s equally good at reflecting. Picard’s job as captain, after all, is to inspire his crew, to drive them to be their greatest selves. The title of this episode, I’d say, has two meanings; it’s hard to imagine Kamala finding anything quite like what she experiences with Picard with anyone else. And while the ending isn’t a happy one, it’s at least one that gives her the respect of making her own decisions.

According to the A.V. Club review of Imaginary Friend:

There’s a Ray Bradbury short story called “Zero Hour” that I kept thinking of while I watched this episode. The story is in The Illustrated Man, which is a good collection if you’re interested in tracking it down, and it’s a creepy story to be sure. (I find Bradbury the most enjoyable when he’s trying to scare the hell out of me; there’s a contrast between his ebullient corniness and horror that hits me very hard.) A bunch of kids start playing with imaginary friends, and the parents don’t believe in them, and, well, I won’t spoil it or anything, but it’s not a very long story, and if you remember “Imaginary Friend” at all, you probably see where I’m coming from here. The problem being that “Friend” isn’t five or ten pages long, it’s a full forty-five minutes, and while it has some effective scenes, it doesn’t really entirely work. The whole thing is pretty ramshackle and clumsily sown together, which is something that tends to happen with shows once they get a little long in the tooth, I’ve found. Maybe it’s because it gets harder to tell new stories, so people just cram a bunch of old ideas together and hope for the best.

The one original idea here is Clara, and her imaginary chum Isabella. Clara has been moving from ship to starbase to ship with her father, Ensign Sutter, and that’s not easy on a little kid. So she’s seeing Troi now. Apparently her dad is so far in over his head he’ll latch on to any potential mother figure for his child; which makes me think of Worf and Alexander (who shows up briefly here, by the way, but is largely unobjectionable), and also makes me wonder how much of Troi’s time is spent providing counsel for single fathers. Maybe someone’s looking for a replacement mommy. At least that would be a reason for the therapy appointment, because from what we see here, Isabella is a perfectly pleasant little girl, friendly, polite, and, of course, creative. There’s a strangely over-protective vibe that runs through all of TNG‘s episodes about parenting, maybe (although I can’t immediately back that up, this is just an impression). Anyway, Clara seems like a cool kid, and as Troi tells Sutter, there’s no reason to be concerned that she has an imaginary friend.

Which would be the end of it, except the Enterprise is investigating a nebula, which means of course that something strange happens. (I wonder if Picard allows time for “Weird Shit” whenever he does the Enteprise‘s weekly schedule.) A red light pops into the ship and starts whizzing around, before finding Clara, hearing her talk to Isabella, and then manifesting as Isabella in the flesh, which kind of freaks Clara out. But hey, when I was little, I talked to Popeye a lot, and if he’d suddenly appeared, I’d’ve eventually gone along with it. When you’re little, you don’t realize how many impossible things there are. So Clara shows Isabella around the ship–and of course starts getting in trouble because she’s going places she shouldn’t be going. The Enterprise starts having engine problems, and Isabella keeps glaring and demanding things, and Clara keeps telling people that it’s Isabella’s fault, and nobody believes her. Ugh.

I hate this kind of story. I hate watching people refuse to believe someone, and then accusing that (basically innocent) someone of causing all the trouble. It calls up a lot of deeply uncomfortable associations in me; we can idolize our youth all we want, but the truth is, being a kid means being powerless in the face of a whole lot of grown-ups. They’re supposed to be the responsible ones, they’re supposed to be in charge, but really, they’re just bigger and they have cooler cars. We’re brought up to believe that if we tell the truth, we’re doing the right thing, and things will be okay, especially if we haven’t done anything wrong. To watch this girl tell the grown-ups the absolute fact, and see her lectured and ignored anyway, is just off-putting as hell. It violates one of the sacred covenants of childhood: the Grown-ups Are Always Right. Which isn’t a bad sort of story to tell, inherently, because the grown-ups aren’t always right, and one of the ways we join their ranks is by realizing their fallibility. But Clara is too young and alone for that kind of maturity, so we just see her running into the same problem, and not being able to do anything about it.

This is also because, despite the title and the main story hook, this episode isn’t really about Clara. We do spend a lot of time with her, but there’s this weird shifting sensation about two-thirds of the way through, once it becomes obvious to everyone that Clara hasn’t been lying after all. (This is after Isabella takes Troi down, and thankfully, nobody tries to blame the little blond girl with force-lightning powers on Clara.) Picard basically takes over, and its his decisions that resolve the big conflict. It turns out (I swear to god, I try not to use that phrase in every review, but it’s so damnably convenient during plot summaries) Isabella was sent over by a group of life forms out in the nebulae who were trying to decide if they should kill everyone on board the Enterprise or not. So Picard makes an impassioned speech about how the importance of proper childrearing techniques (seriously), then fires an energy beam into the cloud of life forms to give them some food to munch on.

What’s strange is that this sort of story really should’ve been told largely through Clara’s perspective. She’s the one with the special knowledge (although she doesn’t understand it) about what’s really going on, and she’s the one the aliens choose to interact with. She’s the one who has our sympathy through most of the episode, and there really should be some sort of cathartic HA! moment when she finally manages to turn the tables and stand up for herself. But there’s no moment like that. Picard does all the heavy lifting for her, and the only reason anyone else on the ship realizes what’s going on before it’s too late is that Isabella decides to reveal herself to Troi. Arguably, this is more realistic, because, hey, Clara really is a little girl, and little girls aren’t necessarily going to have a lot of defensive power against strange life forms. By having Picard step in when he does, we avoid having another Wesley situation, where another kid saves the whole ship through a lot of contrivance and exaggerated ability. (It’s not that I have a hard time believing Wesley was smart. I just don’t believe he was perfectly smart all the time, or that, at fourteen or whatever, he was the biggest genius on a ship full of smart people.)

And yet whether or not this is more realistic, it still leaves us with an episode without a center. Clara is sweet enough, but we’ve never seen her before, so we don’t have all that much invested in her. Her father, Sutter, is a more traditional TNG character, but he’s ill-defined here, just sort of generally worried and impatient and bland. (At one point, he touches Picard on the shoulder to get the captain’s attention, and I really wanted Picard to snap at him to back the hell off.) And of our main characters, only Troi and Picard get enough screen-time to qualify; Troi is mostly on hand to help introduce us to the Sutter family, to put Clara in situations where Isabella can act up, and then to get zapped. (And again, I have to question Troi’s empath abilities. Even if she can’t sense if someone is lying, she at least should’ve been able to tell that Clara was terrified and something more than met the eye was going on.) Picard is hardly even in the episode till the final ten minutes or so. And it’s an odd ten minutes.

The whole ep, Isabella has been set up as creepy as all hell. The actress, Shay Astar (who would go on to play Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s girlfriend on 3rd Rock From The Sun, among other things), isn’t going to set the world on fire, but she is effectively unsettling; there’s a definite Bad Seed sullenness going on there. But when Picard confronts her, she explains how it’s all some kind of test, and she rails about how awful the adults are to Clara, which means of course everyone deserves to die. Instead of finding a way to defeat Isabella and her sparkly friends, Picard explains why it’s necessary to create boundaries for children, and Isabella accepts this, leaving only to return briefly at the end of the episode to apologize to Clara for causing so many problems. The whole finale feels grafted on, because it’s not like anyone was questioning the basic role of parents in a child’s life, or even that Clara was ever treated that badly. Clara is pushed to the side for most of the end, and really, it’s like they got the “imaginary friend” idea, and then tried to through in some science crap to justify it (which I imagine happens with at least half the stories on this show), but couldn’t come up with a good way to end it. As is, this is little bit of good idea, some effectively unsettling scenes, and lot of shoulder-shrugging.

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

Evidence has been discovered of the existence of extra-terrestrials on Earth from waaaay back in the past. The Enterprise is called into investigate, most likely because one of the pieces of evidence discovered is Data’s head, which surely he’d be interested in examining. And it is his head, as an examination back on the ship soon determines, which makes everyone depressed because, well, losing one’s head is not a great indicator of longevity for anyone. Data seems to be only person not bothered by this discovery; as he explains to Geordi, he appreciates the knowledge that he is mortal, as he believes that this makes him more human. This isn’t a bad concept to explore, but the sight of Data’s head is so odd, and the circumstances under which it’s found so puzzling, that it’s hard to take any of the discussions seriously.

Because really, if you found a friend’s head buried five miles under San Francisco, and you learned that it had been there for five centuries, well, I’m betting your first reaction wouldn’t be “Oh my god, [friend] is going to die!” Obviously at some point you’d be concerned (especially since he still owes you that twenty bucks from Comic Con), but I think the initial, “What the hell is going on?” response would take precedence. Sure, the Enterprise has dealt with time travel before, and I suppose you could say they’re clinging to the most easily graspable concept in the middle of all the crazy, but it still comes across as awkward, and, justifiable or not, more than a little like padding.

While all this discussion is going on, the Enterprise heads off to Devidia II to investigate the situation still further. There they find a glowing pool and, at least according to Troi, a whole lot of people trapped and in agony. There are life forms on the planet, but they’re just a second or two out of phase with the Enterprise away team. There are ways to deal with this, but the only person who can do the necessary calculations fast enough is Data, whom Picard had ordered to stay aboard the ship to try and avoid the whole time travel, head-loss problem. But of course Data winds up on the planet anyway, and he phases in with the aliens, who are glowing and freaky and have this big snake that they’re feeding. Then Data goes through a glowing doorway, and winds up in San Francisco, to 1893.

If “Time’s Arrow” had been lumpy but inoffensive to this point, once Data shows up on Earth in the 19th century, things get actively painful, as we’re forced to deal with scene out of scene of unfunny, draggy fish-out-of-water comedy. It’s not as bad as Lwaxana, thankfully, and Spiner’s straight-forward straight-man performance always helps take some of the bite out of the worst jokes. But again, none of the characters he meets, not the comic drunk or the comic bellboy, are setting the world on fire. There’s something of a “City on the Edge of Forever” vibe here, as Data quickly focuses his efforts on trying to put together some kind of machine. (There’s also the fact that 19th century San Francisco looks just as much a set as 1930’s New York did in “City.”) But since Data is alone, he’s forced to play off the locals for conversation, and it’s just a whole pile of not much fun.

Then Data sees Guinan’s photo in the newspaper, so he heads off to see her–only she doesn’t know him. Yet. Ah, time travel. Our Guinan had made some comments earlier, most notably to Picard, that suggested this sort of thing might happen, and from what she says to Data, there’s definitely a story here; she doesn’t seem at all bothered by his appearance, even though she doesn’t specifically recognize him, and she asks him if her father sent him to bring her back. Who knows what’s going on there, and considering how little we still know about Guinan, it would be nice to find out some more about her past. Yet her interactions with Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain (Jerry Hardin, aka Deep Throat from The X-Files) are wince-inducing, and the knowledge that Clemens will be back for part two fills me with dread. Yes, we get it, it’s fun to write pseudo-witty things for Twain to say, and we all like to see famous people in time travel stories, don’t you know. But it doesn’t work.

Truth is, not much of this does. Some of it’s boring and irritating, and some of it is very creepy and weird, but so creepy and weird that it almost doesn’t really belong in a TNG episode. Really, this feels more than a little like a Doctor Who script that’s been edited to fit a larger cast. There’s the time travel, of course, but the bizarre alien menace also has a very Who feel to it, particularly the scene where a well-dressed couple shots the drunk Data met earlier in the episode with some special weapon, draining him or freezing him or something. At the end of part I, Picard and the others finally get a glimpse of the glowing monsters, and that freaky snake thnig, and then they pass through to follow Data back to 1893. As cliffhangers go, this is weak sauce. The mysteries of whether or not Data will be killed, and just what the hell those glowing creatures are up to, are intriguing, but given how slipshod “Arrow” was, I find myself not all that interested in what happens next. But I suppose I’ll find out eventually.



The next in best and worst is Season 4.



15 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 5

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