The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 4

For previous installments:

 

Season 4 sees multiple things happening with the series, including the notion of a brewing Duras-Romulan plot, Worf’s effort to reclaim his family’s honor, as well as the character development of Chief Miles O’Brien.

 

The Best:

The Best of Both Worlds Part II, Family, Brothers, Legacy, Reunion, Data’s Day, The Wounded, Clues, Identity Crisis, The Drumhead, The Host, and The Mind’s Eye

Ishara_in_Ten_Forward

Briefly:

According to the A.V. Club review of The Best of Both Worlds, Part II:

Cliffhangers are tricky. But resolving a cliffhanger is nearly impossible.

I should qualify that—resolving a cliffhanger in a way that maintains the same level of excitement is nearly impossible. There are plenty of ways to get a hero out of a jam. You can cheat, although I wouldn’t advise it. (“He didn’t get out of the cocka-doodie CAR!”) Nothing wreaks havoc on your narrative’s integrity like shifting the pieces of last episode’s carefully laid trap until the exit is clearly marked. So you need to have an escape hatch in place from the start, but that shouldn’t be that difficult, right? After all, it’s not as though you come up with the first half of the story, then screw off for six months and suddenly realize the second half is due tomorrow and you need to somehow answer this question in twenty minutes or you’ll never pass Beginner’s Science Fiction. No “Part I” should air without a “Part II” either in the can or thoroughly planned out. This isn’t a long running fantasy series. Nobody gets to take six years off between seasons just to figure everything out.

So the resolution isn’t the tricky bit. The tricky bit is finding a resolution that doesn’t feel like a let-down. A cliff-hanger is a sort of narrative implosion: a ton of energy builds and builds right up to a final point, when it all closes in on itself, locking the audience in place, forcing them to fixate all their attention and energies on a single scene. But resolutions always have a way of deflating energy, not intensifying it. Because all of our TNG-related thoughts are tuned in on Riker’s order, by the time we get around to watching the result of that order, we’ve played through a thousand different scenarios in our minds. Like the Enterprise fires, but the weapon is ineffective. Or “Fire” is actually code word for some secret plan to rescue Picard. Or the Enterprise tries to use its magic weapon, but the Borg ship destroys them. Or the Enterprise shoots, and the Borg ship is destroyed and Locutus along with it.

Did I say “a thousand different scenarios”? This was a slight exaggeration, and that’s the problem. There are only so many ways to finish off a hanging moment like this one, and odds are, you’ll come up with the right one. And even if you don’t, so much emphasis and expectation is placed on a single moment in an on-going story that when the other shoe finally does drop, you’ll most likely be disappointed. Watching these two episodes back to back, if one were able to cut out the end credits of “Part 1” and the “Previously on Star Trek: The Next Generation” montage that opens “Part 2,” the cliffhanger would be barely noticeable, and that would work just fine. It’s impressive from a character perspective that Riker is able to give the order, but his order is made irrelevant so quickly that the sequence, on its own, has only mild dramatic impact. The real drama here comes from seeing Picard as Borg. It would’ve been possible to cut this scene differently and not lose much in the way of pacing or information—have “Part 1” end with the Enterprise‘s magic bullet failing, and the crisis would still be relevant. We just wouldn’t be so focused on one particular beat. I’m not saying either episode should have handled the cliffhanger differently; using Picard’s knowledge as a way to defuse the Enterprise‘s efforts is a legitimate out, though a mildly shocking one, and it’s consistent with the Borg’s approach to assimilation. And I can’t imagine “Part 1” ending a second sooner or later. It’s just interesting to note how our expectations are affected not so much by the contents of the episode, as they are by how those contents are presented.

That goes for the rest of “Part 2” as well, really. As a TNG episode, it’s excellent, a few minor quibbles aside. The Borg remain a powerful threat, Riker’s transition to the captaincy is well-handled, and Picard’s eventual rescue and redemption are satisfying and consistent with a show that doesn’t really do multi-episode arcs. (Sure, they’ll reference details over multiple episodes, but the connective tissue is never as strong as on, say, Battlestar Galactica.) And yet it is a little bit of a letdown, because it fails to live up to the epic potential that “Part I” raised. The Borg ship destroys a huge chunk of the Federation fleet, but we don’t see the battle, and even as the Borg ship raises towards Sector 001, we don’t get a true sense of the epic. That’s because we only see what our main characters see, which means we’re restricted to the Enterprise, to the occasional filtered message and view-screen horror, and to a few glimpses of Picard-as-Locutus hanging out with the Borg. Going by the rest of the series, none of this should be a surprise, and I don’t hold it against the show that it didn’t exponentially expand its horizons at the start of its fourth season. It’s possible to raise a few legitimate criticisms of “Part 2,” but by and large, this is a terrific conclusion to one of TNG‘s brightest moments. It just feels like a little less because we’ve come up to the edge of what the show, with its budget and with the creative assumptions of the time, was capable of.

Still, it’s impressive how seriously “Part 2” takes Picard’s loss, and Riker’s plan to rescue him and save Earth is nail-biting stuff. That the Borg use Picard’s mind against his former comrades makes sense, although it’s a hazy area. I’ll buy them being able to predict the magic weapon, but given what Picard knows of Riker, I’m surprised they didn’t take the time to destroy the Enterprise when they had the chance early on. The Borg are single-minded, yes, but Picard knows Riker won’t be stopped so easily, and that means the Borg know it; they also know that the Enterprise is the best ship in the fleet. But OK, they want Earth, so however convenient it may be for our heroes that their greatest enemies don’t murder them while they’re sitting ducks, I’ll allow it. It’s also odd that the Borg are taken relatively off-guard by Data and Worf’s rescue mission, but at least here, the individual Borg fight back immediately on sensing the intruders.

Most of this episode is taken up with the climactic confrontation with the Borg cube, and it’s some of the most exciting space action the series has ever done. By separating the saucer section from the rest of the ship, Riker successfully distracts the Borg long enough to wound them, by taking advantage of their greatest weakness, their collective will. This is not a race which understands bifurcation easily, and there’s a great sense of pushing right up to the edges of what’s possible, and then going further because, hell, what’ve we got to lose? Shelby’s ascension to First Officer makes sense in context, thought I’m not sure assigning someone new to the ship to the second highest position of command on the eve of the most dangerous battle anyone on board has ever faced makes good sense. And Riker’s pre-game chat with Guinan gave us some interesting info on her relationship with Picard (OK, it just reminded us once again that there’s a Big Mystery without actually confirming anything), but I’m not sure how relevant it was. It’s a conversation that fits plausibly in the moment but that Riker so thoroughly ignores it can’t help but look like wasted time in hindsight.

The highlight of the episode, apart from the space battle, is Picard’s return to the Enterprise. Actually, screw the “apart.” This is the good stuff right here. His first words as Locutus in Sick Bay are excellent reminders of the nature of the Borg threat; he assures those present that he won’t harm them, he’s just there to observe before their inevitable defeat, and there’s no hostility or threat in his voice. (If Data, with his moral code and unflappable calm, represents the ideal qualities of computer-based intelligence, the Borg represent all that a lifetime of sci-fi movies and books have taught us to fear: no mercy, no sympathy, no passion. Just will.) Using Data to interface with the Borg part of Picard’s consciousness is a cool variation on the traditional mind-meld, and the final solution to the threat, suggested by Picard, is clever and believable. That it comes from Picard himself is no surprise, but it’s nice to have Riker’s faith in the importance of a rescue mission paid off.

My favorite scene in the episode is its final one. Picard has been restored to the captain’s chair, and why wouldn’t he be? There will be some hurt feelings from people in the Federation who don’t understand that the Borg got their information from him against his will, but he spent so little time as a half-machine, surely it’s an experience he’ll be able to put behind him as quickly as he does every adventure. And yet there are those bandages on his head, for wounds that haven’t quite healed properly. And there’s that final, wordless moment as the full impact of what happened to him comes clear. I’m sure we’ll see more of this soon, but it’s telling that the first we see of Picard after he’s been re-humanized, he’s cramming down the work as fast as he can. He has to keep moving, you see. The moment he stops, he’s back on that ship, and he’s lost in a thousand other faceless minds, his will perverted into the collective, his body a parody of efficiency and control. “Part 2” was an effective ending, and the two episodes as a whole are well-crafted, but for my money, its most powerful moments are also its most fleeting. The Borg came on his ship, and they stole him, and they changed him. He’s back now, and they’re dead, but something is lost forever. Peace of mind, perhaps. I doubt he’ll be sleeping well soon.

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

Nothing much happens in “Family.” It’s a direct continuation of “The Best of Both Worlds,” but the Borg remain defeated. There’s no new alien threat to handle, no strange crisis to unravel, no political infighting or diplomatic negotiations. There are three stories but no real plots. People talk, there’s some fighting, a bit of hugging, and then it’s over. This is the closest to straight drama that TNG has ever gotten, and two seasons ago, the idea of that would’ve scared the crap out of me. Good drama requires a certain amount of subtlety and nuance; it requires characters who are consistent, not necessarily in action but in their drives and core selves; and, God help us all, it requires subtext. That means sometimes people have to say things and mean something else entirely, and, apart from the occasional villain, that’s not really something TNG used to do very well.

This isn’t the first two seasons, though, and while it lacks the Earth-threatening stakes of the episode which precedes it, “Family” is one of the best hours TNG has ever done. Heartfelt, intimate, and wise, it’s the sort of grace note that the epic maneuverings of “Both Worlds” required. The Borg’s assimilation of Picard had a happy ending. Jean-Luc was restored to his humanity and his captaincy and even provided the key piece of information required to take down his attackers. And yet, the humiliation—the betrayal—lingered. What happened to Picard was a form of rape, and rape isn’t something anyone gets over by working too much and drinking tea. Picard needs some time away from the Enterprise, with the loved ones he left behind to go traipsing across the galaxy. He needs to find some way to deal with whatever is breaking his heart.

The Picard segments of “Family” are the best parts of the episode, but what makes this one work as well as it does is that, by and large, there are no weak spots. While Picard is off in France, visiting the village where he grew up, life continues back on the ship. Worf’s human parents, Helena and Sergey, come to visit—and of course they’re Russian, which is just so perfect I couldn’t stop grinning for most of their scenes. Worf is uncomfortable to have his parents around, which isn’t surprising. If he was on a Klingon ship, there’d be no familial visits, but as Riker helpfully reminds us, the Enterprise isn’t a Klingon ship. So here come Mom and Dad to nose around in everything, share embarrassing stories of Worf’s youth, and maybe have a chat about that whole “shamed in front of the entire Klingon Empire” thing from last season.

The only other running story here takes up the least amount of screentime, but has the most surprisingly emotional pay-off. (Picard’s story is more powerful, but the emotions there aren’t quite as surprising; we know Patrick Stewart is going to deliver the goods, but Wesley isn’t such a sure thing.) Beverly gets a delivery while the ship is orbiting Earth: a box full of her dead husband’s things, including his old uniform, a book he sent her when he decided to propose, and a holographic recording of Jack’s first—and, sadly, final—message to his son, made just after Wesley’s birth. Beverly isn’t sure at first if she should pass the recording along, but she decides to with a minimal amount of drama, and near the end of the episode, Wesley plays it in the holodeck. It works very well, tying together with the episode’s loose theme about the importance of our ties to the people closest to us and how these connections are stronger than we realize, stronger even than death.

Worf’s experiences are also moving, though not nearly as tragic. His parents aren’t bad people; they aren’t even really annoying people. That’s to be expected, because TNG isn’t a show about toxic families or complex psychological problems that can’t be fixed through a simple application of honesty. Here, all the main characters are fundamentally decent people, and when conflict arises, it’s nearly always about different conceptions of what’s best for everyone. Greed or stupidity or malice are things that happen elsewhere. It’s maybe a little naive, but there’s something refreshing about it as well. The drama between Worf and his mom and dad comes from personality and insecurity, and all it really needs is a good heart-to-heart to fix everything. And it works, because we like Worf, and his parents seem very nice, and because it’s satisfying to see characters we care about living through the minor crises that make up most of life. I’ll admit it: Worf’s smile near the end really got to me. Because, dammit, he sullied his honor for the sake of the Klingon Empire, and he deserves a little support for that.

It’s also nice (or some other, less ridiculous word than “nice”) to see characters we care about plowing through the major catastrophes, and that’s what Picard’s visit to Labarre is about, although he doesn’t really understand this at first. Picard is running from his duties. His track-record is so unimpeachable that I doubt anyone (beyond the perpetually nosy Troi) would look askance on him asking for some time off, especially with what he’s been through recently. And it’s important that he leaves for a little while, but it’s even more important that he decides to come back, and there’s some time here where he doesn’t seem to realize this. We meet Picard’s family, most importantly his brother Robert (Jeremy Kemp), who is the only openly hostile relative in the entire episode. (And, so far as I can remember, the only one in the series proper, outside of Lore, whom we will be dealing with shortly.) Picard chats with his nephew, praises Robert’s wife’s cooking, and talks with an old friend about a potential job planet-side. He finds himself considering that last very seriously, which doesn’t seem in character at all.

Robert doesn’t like his brother that much. He calls him an “arrogant son of a bitch” behind his back, and the conversations between the two men are at icily polite at best, cutting and dismissive at worst. There are all kinds of old wounds here just below the surface, and impressively, those wounds don’t immediately reveal their cause. Robert doesn’t like technology, and considers Picard vain, but it’s not till the two get drunk on wine that his jealousy of his younger brother becomes clear. This is a beautifully shot sequence, too, with Picard walking as fast as he can while Robert stalks him just behind, repeatedly assaulting him with accusations of ego and selfishness. The verbal assault finally provokes Picard into lashing out physically, and the two wrestle for a few minutes before collapsing in laughter. And that’s when the real reason for all of this becomes plain.

It’s funny—Picard is the noblest character on a ship full of noble characters (only Data can match him for moral grace, and that’s mostly because Data doesn’t have a choice in what he is), but Robert’s accusations of arrogance aren’t entirely off the mark. Picard’s ego isn’t that he’s selfish, though; it comes from a deep conviction that he has to be the best, the most perfect, the most ideal in all situations. He can’t ever let himself be weak or foolish or cowardly, because that would mean failure, and that’s not something this guy does. Which makes him a terrific role model and a wonderful lead, but it’s also a lie, because no one can be that perfect. Picard is, after all, just a man under everything else, and there is something egotistical about his occasional refusal to admit this. (Which reminds me a little of Nicole Kidman in Dogville, which is not a comparison I ever thought I’d be making.) It takes his brother to bring him back down to earth long enough to admit that the Borg defeated him for a time, and he failed. Sure, it wasn’t the kind of failure he should be ashamed of—the assimilation didn’t leave him with many options—but that doesn’t make his guilt and his self-loathing and despair any less real.

This confession, of all Stewart’s amazing acting moments on the show so far, may be my favorite. There’s none of the operatic intensity of “Sarek” here; it’s just a man sobbing under the weight of his temporary damnation. “Family” is a necessary episode, as we all needed a breather after last week. It’s also a remarkable episode, thoughtful, a little sad, but in the end full of hope. The final shot shows Picard’s nephew dreaming under the stars. Like much of this episode, it could’ve been corny. And like all of this episode, it isn’t.

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

Hey, remember Lore? Last time we saw him was back in season one, which surprised me when I looked it up, because I thought he was on the show more often than that. Looking online, Lore only appears in four episodes of the series, which seems low to me. But hey, good to see him again, and since Brent Spiner was probably bored with the whole “two roles in one scene” gag, we meet a new character who’s crucially important to Data and Lore: the cybernetics genius Dr. Noonien Soong, who created both androids and, last we heard, was dead. But this is a genre show, and on genre shows, unless we see the corpsification going down, the dead aren’t exactly dead. (And even if we do see bodies hitting the floor, the collapse isn’t always permanent.)

After easily the show’s best premiere so far, and a second episode that managed to ease us into the rest of the season without losing the intensity or emotional realism, “Brothers” continues TNG‘s win streak with a gratifyingly complex look at Data’s past. It doesn’t have quite the depth of “Family” or the scope of “Worlds,” but both of those were series defining episodes. “Brothers” is more conventional, returning us to the standard mystery followed by confrontation followed by conclusion structure that most of the show operates on. The mystery here being: What the hell is going on with Data? In the space of about 10 minutes in show-time, he takes control of the Enterprise, forces the crew off the bridge, changes course for a new destination, and then beams himself down to an unknown planet, without help of any weapon beyond the ship’s security tech and his own ability to perfectly mimic Picard’s voice. So, clearly, something’s going on.

Most of the big moments in this episode come from the second half in Soong’s lab, but Data’s assault on the ship is crackerjack (random confession: I get a ridiculous kick out of using that word) material, because it demonstrates what anyone who’s been paying attention realized long ago: If Data didn’t have those ethical subroutines in his positronic matrix, he would be a well-nigh unstoppable threat. Lore is dangerous because he has many of Data’s abilities and none of Data’s compunctions about harming innocents, but Lore is also tremendously unstable, and that makes him imperfect. Data, on the other hand, has real Skynet/Colossus potential, if he ever decided to give up on the full Pinocchio and get into business for himself. His ruthlessly pragmatic approach, combined with four years’ worth of established trust, means that when the switch flips in his head, nobody is prepared to deal with it. Hell, they don’t even realize Data is doing anything until he’s already forced the bridge crew into Engineering. Geordi and O’Brien eventually manage a work-around to circumvent some of Data’s installed protocols, but he’s already in Soong’s lab, mission accomplished, and the Enterprise is still basically useless to them without Data to provide the necessary access code. Imagine if he’d done this with actual harmful intent?

Ah, but none of this was Data’s fault, of course. Our Data wouldn’t dream of such things. Blame it on Soong, who, after years spent hiding, has finally decided to make contact with his greatest creation. Data has a “simple” homing device installed in his skull, which, once activated, creates an unignorable imperative to meet his maker. Interestingly enough, Soong doesn’t seem like that bad a guy. We don’t get to know much about him, beyond him being old and nearly dead, and that Brent Spiner looks odd under all that old age make-up. But he’s proud of Data, and while his actions indicate a clear lack of consideration for others, it’s not his fault that some stupid kid ate some stupid plant-life and will die if the Enterprise doesn’t get back to a certain Starbase in time. (Here’s a thought: maybe you should make the cure for eating a planet’s flora available somewhere near the planet itself?) Soong is just another one of those nutty scientists who doesn’t really think much for consequences. That’s why he risks the stupid kid’s life when he orders Data to hijack the ship, and that’s why he’s shocked when Lore walks in the front door.

In his defense, Lore was disassembled the last time Soong saw him, but after the Enterprise put him back together and after the poor psycho floated around in space for a couple of years following the conclusion of “Datalore,” he’s fully functional. (The Pakleds saved him, and he’s even dressed in Pakled-esque garb.) He’s also not too happy at what he considers his mistreatment at the hands of Soong and his brother. There are a couple ways the episode could’ve played this. Most obviously, it could’ve made Lore an outright villain. He was a bad one in “Datalore,” partners with a crystalline entity that nearly devoured the Enterprise, so it only stands to reason he should be a bad one here. The best guess would be, he finds someway to betray Data again and beats up on Soong for leaving him behind.

This is what happens, but if that was all that happened, “Brothers” would be fine, but not much more than that. What makes this episode work well is that Lore is actually sympathetic. I’m not sure if Brent Spiner became a better actor since the first season, or if it’s because the direction and writing have become that much stronger since the character’s first appearance; I’m betting it’s a little of both. Spiner does triple duty for a number of scenes in “Brothers,” and he’s credible in all three roles, but it’s his work as Lore that’s the most impressive. The character has gone from being an explosion of crazy, all creepy grins and mustache-twirling-worthy inneundo, into something more haunting and sad. He’s more contained here than he ever was, and its easier to connect with his emotional state, partly because of Spiner’s performance, and partly because he’s given understandable motivations. He’s upset and hurt because he believes Soong mistreated him, and more importantly, he’s right. It’s not perfect—once Lore steals Data’s uniform and gets the drop on Soong, the old one-note antics start to pop up again, although there’s still enough justifiable rage behind them to make them mostly land. But the earlier scenes hold up very well and even achieve something I didn’t think possible: They make you identify, if only for a moment, with Lore over Data.

“Brothers” is a generally tight piece of work, but like Lore’s newfound complexity, it has some missteps. There’s a transition in Soong’s lab that feels like we’re missing a scene. We don’t need to see Lore knocking Data out and stealing his uniform, but we do need a few more beats of that set-up than what we get. I’m not sure I buy that Data would be that easy to beat, especially now that he’s on his guard, and I don’t really understand why Soong would just go straight to installing the chip without checking to see where his other robot was hiding. Less damning but still flawed is the subplot involving the two brothers. Its symbolic meaning—forgiveness and so forth—has a place, but the plot itself, like the scenes with Beverly trying to cheer up the sick boy, isn’t necessary or all that entertaining. (It’s also another reminder why having children on a ship like this is tricky business at best.)

Still, I do like that final scene, as Data considers what it means to have a brother and what he might do the next time he sees Lore. Throughout the episode, Soong repeatedly encourages Data to have sympathy for Lore, and while this could be dismissed as the scientist’s hopeless naiveté—Lore does throw him across the room after stealing his latest invention, after all—the episode’s conclusion seems to give the urge towards reconciliation a certain legitimacy. Lore is a monster, but it is literally the fault of his design. Like Frankenstein’s creation, he was feared by those around him, and then dismissed by his creator as hopelessly flawed. He’s imperfect, dangerous, and surely doomed. But he’s the only brother Data will ever have, and maybe that means something.

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

Out of everyone in the Enterprise crew, Data and Tasha had the most potential for back-story in the first season. Data was unique, his origins mysterious, and, hey, who doesn’t love a robot? Tasha was more problematic; as a character, she was impulsive and emotionally unstable, and it never really made sense that she’d risen to her position of authority on the Enterprise, since it was hard to believe she could keep a cool head in a snowstorm, let alone during the delicate diplomatic entanglements the ship was prone to stumble upon. Maybe she would’ve become more credible as the show went on or maybe she would’ve faded into the background like Troi, existing primarily to remind us that hey, women still totally exist in the future, and many of them have jobs.

However it might’ve gone down if Yar hadn’t run into the Oil Slick Monster, we can only speculate, but I can promise you, sooner or later the show would’ve found a way to get back to Tasha’s home-planet. Because that’s what happens when a series runs long enough: Histories are developed, and when you’ve got a history like Tasha’s, full of “rape gangs,” (I still can’t decide if that phrase is ridiculously horrible or horribly ridiculous) and whatever violence and chaos made her the catalog of dysfunction we met in “Encounter At Farpoint,” sooner or later, you’ve get to go back. An episode like “Legacy” was inevitable if Yar had continued on the series, and even without her around, the dramatic potential remains. As we saw in “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” Tasha is far more interesting in death than she ever was in life, so it makes sense to try and mine a little more pathos out of the lingering remains of her memory.

After a crew poker game that turns out to be surprisingly thematically relevant to the rest of the story, the Enterprise goes into full rescue mood; the Arcos, a Federation ship, is in grave danger, and only our heroes are near enough to offer any hope of rescue. They still arrive too late to beam anyone off the ship before it explodes, but thankfully, the surviving crew made use of their ship’s escape pod and fled. Less thankfully, the pod crash-landed on Turkana IV, Tasha Yar’s birthplace, and by all accounts, not a very nice place to visit or live. The survivors make the understandable mistake of heading to the nearest colony and get immediately grabbed by one of Turkana’s two ruling factions, the Alliance. (The name is longer than that, but one gets the impression that the specifics don’t count for much here. There are two groups, and neither is very nice.) When Riker and an away team beam down to the planet, they find a bunch of locals engaged in what might be the most deadly game of Laser Tag ever. They’re picked by the Coalition, who offer to help, for a price. Riker huffily refuses, the away team beams back to the ship, and that’s when the Coalition leader busts out his big gun: Ishara Yar, Tasha’s sister.

“Legacy” works fairly well, even if Turkana never seems all that deadly. The existence of the Coalition and the Alliance is supposed to explain this; everyone has proximity detectors installed in their chests, so they can’t get too close to the opposing side, which means all kinds of running around, but a lot less of the rape gangs. Even with that in mind, there’s nothing so vicious or unsettling here that it wouldn’t seem to fit with half a dozen other planets the Enterprise has visited in the past. Despite the connection to Tasha, we never get much sense of her history here. They remember he name, and Ishara has her share of issues over her sister, but mentioning Yar at the beginning is more a way to shorthand us into this environment than a connection that has serious consequences. We know about as much about Tasha’s past coming out as we did going in: It sucked.

Really, though, that isn’t a mark against the episode, because unlike “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” Tasha wasn’t the point here. The point was more seeing how Data would connect to someone with a similar past as his lost lover (yeah, I’m never going to forget that “fully functional” scene, as long as I’m around, you won’t either), and seeing how Ishara would handle the possibility of a better life as presented by the Enterprise. For a while, she appears to be won over by the camaraderie she sees and how pleasant everyone is and how there’s food and nobody’s getting shot in the face. She changes into the standard, extremely embarrassing unitard look that civilians are apparently required by law to wear on a starship, and she has her proximity detector removed to supposedly help with the big rescue mission. She kisses Data on the cheek.

It’s all an act, though, or at least it mostly is. In keeping with the end of “Suddenly Human,” we once again see our heroes trying to rescue someone from a potentially dangerous culture, and once again, that someone rejects the aid. This is a pretty big jump from the first couple seasons, when it seemed like Star Fleet was the best possible answer to any question asked. Unlike in “Human,” though, Picard and the others don’t come off looking foolish for trying to force their ways on a stranger. Ishara is playing them, and when her betrayal is revealed, she’s the one who seems more than a little ridiculous. The Coalition and Alliance war doesn’t haven’t much point to it that we can see, just people killing each other to kill each other. Ishara stays true to her culture, not because her culture is healthy or worth protecting, but because when you’ve spent your whole life stuck in idiotic misery, you start believing there’s something noble in what you do. You have to.

The main reason Ishara comes off as the loser here, apart from the fact that her plans come to naught, is that she spends most of her time on the Enterprise bonding with Data, and it’s Data who first realizes what she’s up to. He’s advocated for her to Picard, arguing that she should be allowed to leave Turkana IV after the survivors of the Arcos are rescued, and when he discovers her using their foray into enemy territory as an opportunity to take out the Alliance’s shields, he has every right to be angry and hurt. Of course he isn’t, because this is Data; even if he’s developing emotional responses over time (and the last shot of the episode strongly implies this), he’s still not prone to over-reacting to protect his ego. So he reacts calmly and logically to what’s happening, while Ishara panics and demands he leave her alone. In the end, Ishara is returned to her people, and Data is left confused over his apparent inability to read people’s behavior. He’s gotten good enough to know when Riker is bluffing during their poker games, and he shouldn’t be vulnerable to emotional appeal or seduction. But for Data, all behavior needs to make sense, and human behavior so rarely does. “Legacy” isn’t an amazing episode. We never really get a sense of how Turkana’s political structure works, and the proximity detectors are more a neat-sounding phrase than a necessary plot device. But Data’s misplaced trust makes for a solid conclusion.

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

Is this our first Worf episode of the season? I believe it is! Plus our introduction to Worf’s son, Alexander, and the return (and, sadly, final appearance) of Worf’s lost love, K’Ehleyr. And oh hey, here’s Duras again, last seen being an all around jerkwad in “Sins of the Father.” In fact, “Reunion” is something of a sequel to “Sins,” as it carries on the runner that the Klingon Empire is slowly collapsing in on itself, and the honor and codes Worf adheres to so faithfully have largely become a way of masking internal corruption and greed. K’mpec (also last seen in “Sins”), functional ruler of the Klingon Empire, is dying, and someone’s going to have to take his place. Normally this would be an internal matter; there are two strong contenders for the position of leader, and, since we’re talking Klingons, T’weedledum and T’weedledee have to have a battle to see who gets top spot. It’s just, well, K’mpec isn’t dying of old age or the Klingon equivalent of prostate cancer. He’s been poisoned, and one of the candidates is responsible.

Which brings us to K’Ehleyr, who meets with the Enterprise on K’mpec’s request. She’s acting as a liaison to bring Picard into the conflict; while Picard’s last encounter with the Klingon high command didn’t really end in good vibes, he’s clearly a man of integrity, and if I needed someone to solve my murder and save my people from chaos, Picard would be on the short-list. (And since Santa is generally busy this time of year, Picard would probably be at the top of that list.) K’Ehleyr has her own motives, though. We haven’t seen her since she and Worf hooked up in “The Emissary,” but apparently, that hook-up resulted in a pregnancy, which resulted in a son named Alexander which Worf knew nothing about. And now he does, but since he’s shamed himself in the Empire, he can’t directly acknowledge his son’s lineage, as that would put Alexander in danger of being shamed himself. Family is difficult.

“Reunion” tries to do a bunch of things, and most of them are successful. It’s good to see more movement on the slow collapse of the Klingon political system; TNG still isn’t really big on long-running story arcs, but it does a good job at keeping plates spinning in the background. “Sins” is a season ago, but “Reunion” does a good job at bringing you up to speed if you aren’t crazy enough to be watching the whole series from beginning to end. The events here represent a somewhat substantial jump in plotting—when we last saw Duras and K’mpec, they were collaborating to pin blame on Worf’s dead father and hold the Empire together, and now K’mpec is dying and Duras is vying to take his place—but the jump doesn’t feel incongruous. Duras was a bastard then and a bastard now, and his alliance with K’mpec was based more on greed for power than any concern for stability in government. If we’re not going to spend a lot of time focusing on Worf’s storylines, this is the best way to handle them; just show us the important bits.

The episode also deals with Worf’s relationship with K’Ehleyr and how he handles meeting Alexander. This also works well, although it feels a little short-changed in the end, especially for K’Ehleyr. Her complicated relationship with her Klingon heritage was one of the driving forces behind her character in “Emissary,” and while I buy that she might eventually come around to admitting her love for Worf (c’mon, it’s Worf.), the transition here, from meeting, to the expected tensions, to her confession that she needs him, happens fast. Worf’s scenes with his son are terrific, the few we get, and my problems with tempo here (which, admittedly, aren’t even my major criticism of the episode) could more be a factor applying current television drama standards to older models. In terms of early ’90s TV, where major relationship shifts were dictated by what guest stars appeared when, this isn’t that unusual. I just enjoy watching these two spar so much that I wish we could’ve seen more of it. As is, the Klingon political issues and the mystery of K’mpec’s killer get more screentime; these are the big ticket items of the episode, so to speak, but I wouldn’t have minded shaving off a little of these scenes for some more time with the doomed lovers. (Although I wouldn’t want to lose a minute of the Ritual of Poking The Dead Guy With The Cattle Prod. That was awesome.)

My biggest concern with “Reunion” is K’Ehleyr’s death. It’s a cheap way to go out. After Worf refuses to marry her because he can’t bear to have her and Alexander share his shame, K’Ehleyr starts poking around into just what happened back in “Sins.” She’s a smart woman, and, after both Worf and Picard refuse to answer her questions, she quickly determines the computer files she needs to understand the situation. But by trying to access these particular files, she sets off an alarm that only Duras and his men hear. Duras comes to her quarters, they have a confrontation, and the next we see, Worf and Alexander enter her rooms to find her battered, bloody, and dying.

It’s a shocking scene, and a moving one, as K’Ehleyr reaches out to her son for one last exchange. But I also can’t help feeling it’s a little cheap. K’Ehleyr is, again, a smart woman, and she’s also a warrior; we saw her kicking a fair share of ass in “Emissary.” That she would allow Duras into her quarters without any means of defending herself is a stretch, and that she would be so easy to murder (yeah, the coffee table’s wrecked, but next time we see Duras, he doesn’t seem to have much in the way of visible wounds), smacks of contrivance, and worse, it turns a strong character into just a victim whose death has to be avenged. If K’Ehleyr had to die (and I can accept that she did) we should’ve seen the fight scene, and it should’ve been a fight, not just the assault that’s implied here. Or else have Duras kill her by cheating, much as he does K’mpec. As is, it plays a little too much like K’Ehleyr got in over her silly, soon to be caved in head, and that’s doesn’t sit well.

I wasn’t initially sold on Duras being the poisoner, either; it seemed too easy that the Klingon so responsible for Worf’s social humiliation would conveniently put himself in a position where he had to be put down. But sometimes a bad guy is just a bad guy, and narrative twists aren’t always necessary to make a story work. (Although even if he is innocent of killing K’mpec, Gowran is one seriously freaky looking guy. Are there Klingon heroin addicts?) Plus, it was righteous enough to see Worf finally get to take the creep down in the end. I can’t remember the last time we saw Worf getting to do some serious damage to someone, and his “K’Ehleyr was my mate” is a great moment, whatever compromises were necessary to get there.

TNG is generally not big on vengeance, but apparently they were willing to make an exception in Worf’s case. When Riker orders him to stop, he ignores the order and kills Duras quite dead, and while Picard gives a big speech about how he’s disappointed in Worf for his actions and that an official reprimand will appear on Worf’s record, it’s impossible to believe that he made the wrong choice. It’s odd, really, how unambiguous this episode is. Duras, the guy we want to be the villain, is the villain, and when he does the unthinkable, he gets take down in immensely satisfying fashion. Sure, Worf is still not quite able to clear his family name yet, but it’s only a matter of time; “Reunion” lacks some of “Sins” punch, because most of the hard choices are made for our heroes, instead of the other way around. Still, it’s very good, and Alexander manages not to wear out his welcome in the few scenes he’s given. And whatever it took to get there, the final scene between father and son is melancholy, honest, and hopeful, and that’s not a bad mix to make.

According to the A.V. Club review of Data’s Day:

I guess this week’s theme is “episodes that could’ve been great and really aren’t.” Because on paper, the idea of a Data-centric episode, one that follows him around his daily activities on the Enterprise, sounds terrific. TNG has a fairly consistent structural format. This format is loose enough that it rarely feels tired (certain plot developments get old, but not how the stories themselves are built), but it’s there. The ship is going somewhere, a crisis occurs; generally, this crisis requires more from certain crewmembers than from others, but sometimes, the whole ensemble gets pulled in. We spend the hour trying to figure out the problem, various solutions are proposed, and then, finally, one of them works. Important life lessons may or may not be learned.

There’s nothing particularly special about this. It’s the way a lot of TV works, and unless you’re doing a character drama or investing in more heavily serialized storytelling, this is basically the best engine for running a show. (Think of it as the Unreal of television.) That doesn’t mean that we can’t think outside the box from time to time. Off-format episodes have tremendous potential, because they force us to watch a series, and its familiar, soothing rhythms, in a new way. It helps strengthen the reality of the world, by shining a light into corners not generally explored, and it allows writers to comment on our expectations without breaking the fourth wall. Plus, there’s a playfulness to a lot of these, even when the subject is dour. It’s meta without the deconstruction. And it’s fun. Who doesn’t like fun?

I guess I don’t like fun, because “Data’s Day” is, while still telling a traditional TNG plot, off-format, and I didn’t care for it. We see here some of TNG‘s worst crimes: its pastel emotional palette, the way it reduces men and women to childish caricatures, and its willingness to rely on stereotypes to get its point across. Data, who’s gone from being a simplistic Pinocchio figure to something far more complex and unique, is once again forced back into the role of perpetually bewildered observer. We don’t learn anything new about him we didn’t know before this; we don’t really learn anything about anyone. Oh, O’Brien is marrying a woman named Keiko. Also, a Vulcan ambassador turns out to be a Romulan spy in disguise. Also, also, Beverly can tap dance.

There’s nothing as actively off-putting in “Day” as there was in “The Loss”; the episode isn’t trying to invest new dimensions into a under-developed character or trying to justify Data in some way. Along with Picard, Data is one of the only characters on the show who’s been strong nearly from the start, and he’s just gotten stronger over time. “Day” even references one of Data’s key episodes, “The Measure Of A Man.” The android is writing down his experiences over the course of a singular 24 hour period to help Bruce Maddox (the guy who initially wanted to dismantle Data so they could figure out how to build more of him) better understand how his brain works. If you guessed this means endless repetitions of “Data is baffled by the illogic of basic human behavior,” go buy yourself a Coke.

This all starts off well enough. We rarely get a sense of how scheduling works on the Enterprise; since everything is artificial, the “night” period has to be simulated by dimming lights. It’s a small detail, but it fits, and it also fits that Data would be tasked with running the bridge crew during the early morning hours, given that he doesn’t need to sleep. Then Data explains, via narration, that he’s playing father-of-the-bride for O’Brien and Keiko’s wedding, and he pays a visit to Keiko to see how she’s holding up before her big day. She’s not well at all, and demands that Data tell O’Brien that the wedding is off.

Sigh. Let’s unpack this, shall we? We’ve never seen Keiko before, but that’s all right. O’Brien is someone we know, but we don’t spend a lot of time with him off-duty, and it’s not that weird that he might’ve found a girlfriend and gotten engaged while no one was looking. Thing is, since this is the first time we’re meeting Keiko, our impression is going to be based on her immediate actions, and, well, she doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. She’s decided she wants to call off the wedding, but she doesn’t give any specific reason for doing so; she seems upset, but not distraught. The fact that she asks Data to tell her husband-to-be that she’s having cold feet just serves to make her seem selfish, flighty, and barely substantial. This is all supposed to fall under heading of “Women, they so crazy!”, and it doesn’t work. Later in the episode, she suddenly decides that she’ll go through with the marriage after all, and there’s no sense to any of it. Data’s confusion about emotional responses only works if the emotional responses are ones that make sense to us; part of the enjoyment of seeing him puzzle through things is realizing how absurd most of what we feel really is, and there’s no fun in randomness being identified as randomness. Of course Data couldn’t follow what happens. No one could.

The other main plot of the episode fares better. The Enterprise is doing an escort mission for a Vulcan ambassador, but she requests a change in course that takes them toward the Neutral Zone. She claims to be initiating negotiations with the Romulans, but it’s all a ruse; once the Enterprise meets the Romulan ship, the ambassador beams over, faking her death in the process. This is b-grade political stuff (it could’ve been stronger if we know more about the ambassador), but it works well enough because it holds together, and because we’re only privy to what Data knows, so we have to piece together the details as we go. Data’s investigation into the ambassador’s death gives him a chance to trot out the expected Sherlock Holmes reference, and the reveal that the ambassador was not who she appeared to be fits the facts. It’s a bit of a stretch that all of this could happen in the course of one day, though.

Apart from Keiko’s baffling behavior, “Day” is disappointing less for what it is, than for what it could have been. There’s no effort here, no clever insights, nothing but supposedly crowd-pleasing pablum. The sappiness grates, and the comedy bits, like Data’s dancing lesson with Beverly, fall consistently flat. We get an overdose of Data explaining irony, and we get Data not being able to smile properly. Frankly, I have a hard time believing either of these. The android’s character arc is a slow progression toward developing a soul, and if we don’t get the sense that’s he’s learned anything from the countless jokes he’s heard before, than he becomes static. We don’t need regular check-ins with Data to prove he’s doing his homework, but those episodes that do focus on him need to show him capable of change. Nothing that happens in “Data’s Day” couldn’t have happened two seasons ago. That’s a shame. That it’s boring, too, makes the shame damn near a crime.

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

As though to prove me wrong after all my talk about closed episode continuity, the first entry in this week’s Star Trek double feature picks up essentially where “Data’s Day” leaves off. Oh, we don’t deal with the ramifications of a Romulan spy infiltrating the Vulcan government (although I agree with the commenter who pointed out last week that you’d think this would be a pretty big deal). Nor does Data do much in the way of soft-shoe. But we do check in on O’Brien and Keiko, and their interactions suggest a couple still in the early stages of matrimonial bliss. Actually, they seem more like two people fumbling through a third date, one that isn’t too likely to lead to a fourth. Keiko is less crazy this week, but there isn’t a lot of chemistry between her and her apparent husband. (So maybe this episode takes place three or four years after “Data’s Day”?) Maybe this is some kind of mail-order bride scenario or an arranged wedding.

Whatever the reason, O’Brien has more chemistry with his former captain, Ben Maxwell, then we ever see him having with his wife, but that works to “The Wounded’s” advantage. This isn’t an episode about marriage, or love, at least not of the romantic kind. This is more about trying to find honor in situations that require more subtle responses and how trauma can warp the judgment of even the best of men. It’s an episode I enjoyed, although this is a story that’s been done and been done to death many times before. I’m fairly certain we’ve seen some variation of this on TNG already and in TOS and half a dozen other genre shows besides. Hell, this is basically Space Rambo, only Bob Gunton isn’t ‘roided up, and there’s no Space Brian Dennehy getting in his face and thinking he’s a hippie.

Stripped to its basics, this isn’t a plot I automatically have a lot of interest in. It’s one of those concepts (the warrior who can’t find peace) that makes so much inherent sense that it becomes almost too familiar. Like, say, a Christmas episode when everyone has to be reminded that the holidays should be about everything but freaking out over buying the right toys. Once a theme or moral becomes a common part of our cultural experience, it becomes a sort of unwritten requirement or fall-back position for TV show writers. It’s fertile material, but it also allows for lazy writing, because the structure is so readily identifiable. That means that nearly all of these stories follow the same arc, and it means that once you’ve seen a few of them, it can seem like you’ve seen them all. Not every show can support a storyline about a soldier unable to come in from the cold, but enough of them can, so that it’s easy to recognize the signs.

When we learn that Maxwell, as Captain of the Phoenix, destroyed a seemingly unprotected Cardassian science station, did anyone really think it was an innocent mistake, or that his behavior had been justified? I know I didn’t. That’s partly because a morally questionable Maxwell makes for a more interesting story (if the Cardassians were just flat out lying bastards … well, okay, we’ll get to that), but also because the minute we learn about the massacre Maxwell and O’Brien witnessed, and how Maxwell lost his family, it doesn’t take much effort to follow the lines. The only way to make this work is by finding a new angle to play it from. It doesn’t have to be shockingly original, but it has to surprise us out of our expectations just long enough to get our attention.

“Wounded” mostly worked for me, and, as always, the details are the crucial difference between a decent episode, and a very good one. It’s great to see O’Brien get so much attention; this is (if I’m remembering correctly) the first episode where he’s been actually crucial to the resolution of the main storyline and not just in a “Well, somebody has to push the button that activates the transporters” kind of way. Colm Meaney is more than up to the task. His scenes with Keiko are enjoyable (although weirdly tense, as I kept expecting casual conversation to break into a soul-shredding, George-and-Martha-style argument at any moment), and his final scene with Gunton, as O’Brien tries to talk his former captain out of killing again, is understated and all the more moving for that.

Understatement is really the key word for Meaney’s entire performance, and it’s most crucial in his transition from pretending he’s fine seeing Cardassians on board the Enterprise, to admitting he’s not all that happy to have to deal with their race again. There’s subtext in his scenes here, always a welcome presence, and while we’ve seen characters denying their issues before (just last week, in fact), rarely have they seemed so utterly divided in their circumstance. O’Brien repeatedly tells everyone he has no problem with the Cardassians, and he never sounds all that defensive when he says it. And yet the instant he’s left alone with the aliens, he’s stand-offish to the point of rudeness, and it’s not the kind of calculated rudeness you see from a man who quite realizes the depth of his disquiet. It’s a small point, but an important one; instead of milking his internal conflict for more obvious drama, Meaney stays on the level throughout.

In addition to helping make that final scene (which ends with Maxwell and O’Brien singing a song together, which could’ve been mawkish, but is instead one of the most striking moments I’ve seen on the show, as it’s just so simple and direct) work, unexpected subtlety benefits the rest of the episode as well, primarily in our introduction to the Cardassians. This is the first we’ve seen or heard of the race, and while it helps to know how important they’ll become to the franchise in the future, specifically on Deep Space Nine, the few we meet here are interesting enough in their own right, with or without context. We’ve met warlike races before, and initially, that’s what the Cardassians seem to be. There’s a treaty between them and the Federation, but it’s only a year old, so things are still tense, and when the Enterprise moves into Cardassian space, a ship fires on them without provocation or warning. Not a good sign. When the Enterprise takes out the attacking ship’s weapons and finally makes contact, we get our first glimpse of the Cardassians, and they don’t look friendly. It’s one of the coolest alien designs we’ve had on the show, really. They just look like monsters.

Which makes it all the more interesting when they don’t actually act like monsters. Like I said, warlike races are a dime a dozen on the show, and it’s been so long since I watched DS9 that I fully expected Gul Macet, the Cardassian captain of the ship that attacks the Enterprise in the first scene, to start yelling and posturing and making a fuss. He’s icily polite, however, and he maintains that detachment throughout the entire episode. Of the three Cardassians that beam over to the Enterprise to help Picard, et al., on their hunt for the Phoenix, only one ever really displays an emotion, and he’s quickly reprimanded and dismissed by his commanding officer. Clearly, this is a race that prides itself on maintaining equanimity whatever the cost, and the tension this creates between the intensity of the situation and Macet’s measured response helps keep the audience off-balance.

Another point in “Wounded’s” favor is how far Maxwell goes before the Enterprise is able to catch up with him. We hear that he destroyed the science station, but we get to “see” (in a science fiction kind of way) him take out a Cardassian battle cruiser and a supposedly un-armed cargo ship as well. It’s not a huge point, but destruction does raise the stakes, and it’s effective because it’s a strong choice from a dramatic perspective. We don’t see the Cardassians dying, and we certainly don’t know anything about them before they explode, but their deaths can’t simply be waved away as a mistake or tactical error. I also like that Picard eventually caves and provides Macet with the Phoenix‘s transponder codes, thus, theoretically at least, opening Maxwell’s ship up to attack. He’s forced into a situation where he has no other choice, and that he accepts this, rather than blustering, fits in with his character. That the codes prove ultimately worthless is just a bonus, plot-wise.

I’m not sure what to make of Picard’s deduction that Maxwell really was on to something and that the Cardassians aren’t being entirely forthcoming about their plans in the end. It does allow Picard to make some strong, difficult choices; he argues that Maxwell was still in the wrong, since his actions would’ve eventually led back to war. The only way to hold to the peace treaty is to keep an appearance of surface friendliness and hope everybody calms the hell down. Which is all very Cold War of Picard and so forth, but while I appreciate the attempt to add another wrinkle of moral complexity to the story, I’m not sure how well it works that the Cardassians really do turn out to be kind of evil. Although making them perfectly good would’ve been an over-simplification the other way. Hm.

Maybe it’s better to focus on O’Brien’s conversation with a Cardassian officer in Ten-Forward. It hits just the right tone; O’Brien is attempting to make up for his rudeness earlier, and the Cardassian, while uncomfortable aboard the Enterprise, is likable and clearly trying to make a good impression. Things get awkward when O’Brien explains his bad feelings towards Cardassians, describing the massacre that killed Maxwell’s family and led to O’Brien killing a Cardassian in battle, but what I love about the scene is that it doesn’t get too awkward. O’Brien doesn’t end his speech screaming or in a rage, and there’s no fighting between him and the other officer. It plays less like something that’s supposed to teach us a lesson about how war messes with people’s minds and more like just an honest conversation between two individuals trying to find some mutual understanding in an impossible situation. This isn’t the dramatic highpoint of the episode, but it works very well. It’s moments like that which make “The Wounded”‘s familiar ideas still seem fresh.

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

I love mysteries. More to the point, I love mysteries that have definitive solutions, which is the sort of thing you only ever really find in fiction. Mysteries in the real world rarely, if ever, have clear answers, because in the real world, we don’t ever know the whole picture. Murder is often inscrutably mundane, the end result of a series of choices and social pressures that only the gods themselves could reconstruct with any degree of certainty. And smaller puzzles are just as tricky. I’m exaggerating a little. The Mystery Of Who Drank The Last Beer isn’t, y’know, one for the ages or anything. But mysteries in fiction, even of the most experimental, realistic sort, are always neater than their reality-based counterparts. In fiction, it’s a puzzle with a solution that at least one person knows. In life, it’s often as not just a culmination of coincidence.

Thankfully, the Enterprise exists in the land of make believe, so when this series calls an episode “Clues,” you can be reasonably sure there’s a riddle coming, and that it will have an answer, whether we like it or not. I liked it, even if I didn’t remember what was going on roughly halfway into the story. If a mystery can hold your interest even on a second viewing, after you know all the tricks, then it has to be doing something right. “Clues” isn’t quite as thematically deep as the show’s best episodes tend to be, but it’s very clever, the premise is intriguing, and it’s one of those stories where I find myself obsessing over the implications at the margins. And I get a pleasant rush of nostalgia off it, too, as this was always my favorite kind of plot when I was younger. Yes, yes, characters were all well and good, but when I watched a sci-fi show, I wanted weird sci-fi junk happening, dammit.

As weird sci-fi junk goes, this is a good start: While gadding about the cosmos on their usual “let’s poke things and see what happens” mission, the Enterprise finds a new Class M planet worthy of investigating. They set a course, but before they can get close enough to the planet to probe it, they come across a wormhole that knocks everybody on board the ship unconscious. Everybody except for Data, that is. We cut to the title sequence, and when we get back to the episode proper, Picard and the others are waking up. Data assures them they were only unconscious for 30 seconds, and here they are, light years away from that crazy planet they were going to investigate. So maybe it would be for the best to just to forget the whole thing ever happened. Space is really big. Nutty stuff like this is happening all the time.

Except Data’s explanation isn’t quite as airtight as one might expect from an android. And there are all these, well, clues that something strange happened and that those missing 30 seconds are actually a lot longer than half a minute. Beverly’s attempts to grow cotton candy in the lab (oh sure, it’s supposedly some kind of moss, but I know cotton candy when I see it, and I hope we’ll see Bev running off to join the space carnies soon) have yielded far more results than the short time gap would allow. On a hunch, the good doctor makes use of transporter records to prove that the crew’s internal clocks are off by at least a day. And with each new discovery, Data’s attempts to explain away the situation become more forced. He is, as always, unfailingly polite, but there’s a certain evasive quality to his tact that’s impossible to ignore. Which is unsettling, because if someone tampered with Data in those missing moments … well, who knows what else might’ve happened?

Also, Troi keeps losing her shit. Which seems to be a regular occurrence for her, but in her defense, whenever Troi starts freaking out, there’s always something going on. At least she isn’t pregnant again. Man, I know I rag on the character a lot, but “Clues” just makes me feel really bad for her. Her abilities give her an edge in dealing with new species. (Although it’s odd that emotions are somehow a universal language, isn’t it? What, exactly, is she sensing? We just assume feelings are the same all over, because that’s essentially the case here on Earth. For humans, anger is anger, even if it’s colère or гнев or what have you. But that doesn’t make it the same all over.) But those abilities also make her incredibly vulnerable to any force that needs a handy conduit for interacting with the ship. Maybe it’s no wonder she seems so raw and nervous so much of the time. It’s a wonder she isn’t completely insane; every day offers a thousand new ways to get brain-raped.

What makes this episode work, for me, is the way the solution to the big mystery plays off our assumptions. We’ve been trained by years of watching this kind of show to automatically believe that something bad happened in that missing time period, and Data is trying to cover it up; if everything really was on the level, well, there wouldn’t be much of an episode here. (I suppose you could do a story about a character obsessing over a discrepancy that proved to be entirely irrelevant, but that would be very tricky to pull off. Audiences don’t tend to like it when someone reminds them that Santa Claus isn’t real. By which I mean we like the magic to be magical and not just a trick.) Which makes it all the more satisfying when we turn out to be right and wrong at the same time. Yes, the Enterprise lost more than 30 seconds, and yes, Data has been restrained from telling the true story of what happened. But the ruse was created by Picard and the rest of the crew, and Data’s restrictions were put in place by Picard himself. It’s just a Picard that the current Picard can’t remember anymore.

The wormhole wasn’t actually a wormhole. It was a protective measure put in place by the xenophobic aliens that live on the Class M planet the Enterprise was intent on investigating. Normally, the faux hole would’ve knocked out everybody on the ship, and sent them on their merry way; they would’ve woken up, assumed the obvious, and never bothered going back. Unfortunately, Data monkeywrenched this. Because he remained conscious, he was able to revive the crew, which led to them pushing forward with their investigations. So the xenophobic aliens body-jumped Troi to say, “We’re sorry, but we have to kill all of you to protect our secret.” Past-Picard decided that the best course of action was to wipe everybody’s memory and behave as though the trap had actually worked as intended. He ordered Data not to reveal the truth, which explains Data’s increasingly unconvincing attempts at obfuscation. It’s just that they weren’t quite as careful in covering their tracks as they might have been.

I tend to mistrust absolute scenarios in fiction, situations that present heroes with a choice that allows for no gray area, and “Clues” relies on one to work. We have to assume that the alien race is so immensely powerful that the Enterprise can’t withstand their attack, and that Picard’s first choice, on being presented with such a threat, is to immediately bow to its wishes. This latter makes a certain amount of sense; it’s not exactly a Prime Directive question, but the captain has demonstrated on more than one occasion his willingness to respect a species’ wishes, so long as those wishes don’t harm his crew. But this all seems a little too neat. As I’ve argued before, TNG is at its best when it’s a show about consequences, and in a way, this episode is all about avoiding consequences. It’s a closed loop. In the end, once they solve the mystery of the missing time, the crew goes re-creating that mystery, only this time, doing it so well that their future selves will never notice the discrepancy. The alien race is basically moot to the series as a whole. There’s no character development here that will last (except for Data; who knows how many contradictions are stored in his synapses by now?), and the very nature of the solution dictates that we’ll never hear about this again.

Still, I quite like this episode, because it’s unsettling in a way that isn’t really apparent unless you think about it. There’s something creepy in knowing that Picard and the rest willingly brainwiped themselves, not once, but twice. It makes you question just how many gaps they’ve come across in their travels and if any of those gaps are as meaningful as this one. Will Troi still be troubled by bad dreams? Or even better, maybe there’s another crewmember on-board, someone we never meet, but due to their genetic make-up, the memory wipes don’t work quite as efficiently as they ought to. Maybe they’re being driven slowly insane by the constant, nagging suspicion that reality isn’t as consistent as it ought to be. And sometimes they’ll pass Data in the corridors, and they’ll try and ask him a question, but they don’t quite dare to speak. Just because we don’t see the consequences ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t imagine them.

According to the A.V. Club review of Identity Crisis:

Space must be absolutely filthy. At least, that’s what I’ve always suspected. Neither TOS or TNG have spent much time dealing with the potential dangers of alien environments, or the seemingly inevitable difficulties involved in interspecies contact (hey, remember the bio-suits in “The Naked Time”? Yeah, nobody else on either show did). And probably that’s for the best. There’s a potentially amazing hard sci-fi show about what interstellar travel might be like that focuses on the strict realities of the situation, but the Trek franchise isn’t about hard sci-fi. It’s more concerned with adventure stories and characters, and problems with varying degrees of plausible foundation. There’s nothing wrong with that; I have fun poking holes in the absurdities (seriously, the holodeck is insane), but generally speaking, those absurdities don’t diminish my enjoyment of the show unless they get really, really egregious. It’s like Larry Niven’s famous essay, “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” about the impossibility of a sexual relationship between Lois Lane and Superman. It’s interesting to think about, but it doesn’t really damage the narrative itself. (Superman Returns did that just fine, thanks.)

Still, I enjoy those few episodes when TNG does decide to dabble in the complications of exploration, and “Identity Crisis” fits quite well in this mini-genre. We’re not talking Stanislaw Lem levels of ambiguity here, but the story is thoughtful enough that it stands above many of TNG’s other mystery-based eps. An alien life form is causing problems for Geordi and some old shipmates, and that life-form doesn’t turn out to be the latest variation on the godlike-being. Just the opposite, in fact. There’s some clever writing here, and Geordi gets to look smart instead of creepy. Plus, there are cool invisible monsters who glow in the dark, and not one of them attempts to psychically violate Troi. Seems like a win in my book.

A few years back, Geordi was on an away team that investigated some disappearances on planet Tarchannen III. They weren’t able to find anything (and while it isn’t very dramatically satisfying, it would be nice if the Enterprise occasionally stumbled upon a completely inexplicable mystery–although, again, that’s the sort of plot that would better suited to a more serious show), but now, here in the present, something’s gone wrong. Three people from that original group have vanished, two of them stealing a shuttle to escape. Now Susanna Leitjen, the commander of the away team and Geordi’s former superior officer, has joined up with the Enterprise to return to Tarchannen and see if there’s any sign of the missing.

In talking about “Night Terrors,” I criticized the show for making the crew’s hallucinations so impersonal and generic. That’s a fine line to walk, however, because not every crisis on the series needs to be unique for the individuals in question. There’s no particular reason why Geordi should be the main character here. It makes sense given his station on the ship, and his relative youth, that he had an  experience in his recent past working under another captain, and Geordi does seem more vulnerable than, say, Worf or Riker. (And Data, of obvious reasons.) But it’s possible to imagine an iteration of this story with Riker going through the same problems. The biggest difference is that Geordi busts out some computer science to try and figure out the root cause for what’s going on, but the actual issue itself isn’t character specific.

Which is cool, really. “Crisis” could’ve maybe done something with how Geordi’s affliction, caused by an alien spore that changes him into a different species, reflects his own occasional alienation from the human race, but that would’ve been a stretch. This is an episode in which the story is the primary interest, and the characters serve largely to move that story around, as opposed to, say, “Family,” in which the characters come first. TNG can do both kinds of show. The key difference that sets “Crisis” above something like “Night Terrors” isn’t that it’s more personally connected to Geordi; it’s that the plot is just more interesting. That’s really the only requirement here. If you’re going to make the story the focus, so long as our heroes aren’t breaking out of character or anything, all that matters is that the story be worth our attention.

This one works, for a couple of reasons. The aliens, who never get an official name, are appropriately cool, creatures capable of camouflaging themselves to the point of near invisibility (the effect we see is basically the Predator), and then going all glowing veins and bugged out eyes when you hit them with a black light. It’s ridiculous, but I’ll be honest with you: I like ridiculousness in alien design from time to time. These are still humanoids, albeit with fewer fingers, but at least we didn’t get the standard “slap some laytex on the forehead and call it good” make-up. As for the cause of the transformations, the idea that these creatures procreate by infecting other life forms with their genetic code is, well, even more ridiculous than those glowing veins. It’s the biological version of the Borg, and while I’m not sure how practical it would actually be (we never really know anything about the life forms on Tarchannen; are there other humanoid races? And what happens when one of these guys tries to infect something significantly smaller than itself?), it doesn’t actually need to be that practical. Maybe this is just some bizarre genetic experiment gone wrong.

The other reason “Crisis” works is that that the story takes some unexpected turns. There aren’t any huge shocks; once you find out that three members of the away team disappeared, and see Susanna succumbing to the same condition, you know it’s only a matter of time before the symptoms start hitting Geordi. But before that happens, we get to watch Geordi using old footage of the away team to try and find any clue of what went wrong. His focus, and the smart way he goes about his search, are engaging and, in their way, quietly thrilling. Weirdly enough, if you look back once the ep is over, Geordi’s discoveries are basically irrelevant. Via the holodeck, he determines that someone else was hiding in plain sight on the planet, but it’s Beverly who determines the real cause of the problem, and once she cures Susanna, Susanna is able to tell everyone what happened, and what needs to happen next. But Geordi’s efforts are entertaining enough to justify their existence. It’s arguably padding, but it’s the best kind of padding. Once Susanna collapses, nothing critical really occurs until she’s human again, and leads an away team down to the planet to try and find Geordi before his transformation becomes irreversible. But seeing that shadow come to “life” is compelling and creepy, so the scenes between those two points don’t feel like wasted time.

There are nits to pick here. We don’t really know much about Susanna, and her relationship with Geordi becomes so dramatically important by the end that it would’ve been nice to have a better sense of her. (It might’ve made more sense to have someone from the Enterprise talk Geordi back down off the genetic ledge; the idea of Data struggling to make an emotional connection with his friend would’ve been more dramatic, and would’ve had some nice thematic depth as well.) It’s odd that the infection takes different amounts of time to finish people off, since everyone in the away team was hit with the spores at roughly the same time. Also, why this many years? It’s clear that the missing personnel who prompted the original away team search had completed their transformations before Geordi and the others arrived. Does that mean that Starfleet just ignored their disappearance for long enough for the infection to take hold?

But really, “Crisis” is the kind of solid, intriguing TNG that I’ve come to expect from the series at this point. It uses technology in a smart way, it gives us a problem that the ship hasn’t encountered before, and it moves at a good pace. Plus, it’s nice reminder that other worlds can be dangerous even if you don’t see what’s coming. I doubt anyone on the Enterprise will be that much more careful when beaming down into unknown territory, but maybe they’ll count the shadows on the walls around them a little more often.

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

It’s easier to expect the worst in people because they so rarely disappoint. Most folks aren’t inherently evil or cruel, but we can often be selfish and short-sighted, and if you go through life looking for these qualities in the strangers you meet, you’ll find them. Partly because we’re hardwired that way—biology dictates a certain level of self-interest—but also because innocence is as difficult to prove as a negative. Once you presume guilt, life will conform to your assumptions, and the longer you cling to them, the more desperately important it becomes for those assumptions to remain true. Because if you’re wrong, if others are capable of dignity and nobility and honor, what does that make you? What kind of monster could look at the world and only see its shadow?

“The Drumhead” is about how our prejudices and need for redemption color our ability to effectively parse information, and worse, how our expectations can blind us to the cost of our actions. It’s powerful, dramatic, and moving. It’s also a shade on the didactic side, at least if we’re going by the dialogue-as-written. Picard gives any number of speeches about the dangers of overeager prosecution, and while the episode does a decent job in justifying the actions of its chief antagonist, it doesn’t really do much in the way of making her sympathetic once the tables start turning. Once again, the Enterprise proves to be a bastion of sanity in a universe full of corrupt politicians and obsessives, and once again, if it wasn’t for Picard, everyone would probably just go flat-out insane. But it works. You might be getting tired of how often I praise Patrick Stewart in these write-ups, but so much of this series wouldn’t work without him as the center; it’s hard to think of many other actors pulling off the heavy thematic lifting that’s required of him here. (Shatner would’ve been entertaining, and passionate, but he would’ve heightened the overly-direct dialogue, rather than made it more effectively naturalistic.) Picard carries the episode, with some excellent assisting work from guest star Jean Simmons. And Worf gets to have a moral conflict, which is nice for him.

“Drumhead” hits the ground running, with a cold open that takes place after an event that one would normally assume to be the focus of the episode: A saboteur aboard the ship has apparently stolen design plans and caused an explosion in the engine room. The likely suspect, a Klingon xenobiologist, has already been taken into custody, and we start with his interrogation. The Klingon, J’Dan, denies his guilt, but he doesn’t try very hard, and when he mocks Worf later in private, it’s pretty obvious that the bad guy has already been caught here. J’Dan takes too much pride in his contempt, and he soon admits to providing information to the Romulans.

So, there you have it, really. Not much of a mystery left to explore. Except there was that explosion in Engineering, and J’Dan vehemently denies any involvement in it. Why would he lie about that? Maybe there was someone else working with him on the Enterprise, and maybe that someone decided to cover their tracks by damaging the ship. (I’m not sure if I’m reading too much into this or not, but it fits in with the plot of the episode that this explosion really wouldn’t provide much in the way of tactical value. If it had been intentional, I suppose J’Dan could have intended there to be more significant damage and to be off the ship when it happened, but when the explosion is ultimately proven to be just an unfortunate coincidence, that coincidence doesn’t seem convenient to the point of contrivance. It’s just that the timing of events is close enough to be bad for everybody.)

Starfleet sends Admiral Norah Satie (Simmons) to help aid Picard in his investigation of the disturbance. Satie brings with her two aides (one of them a Betazed) and an invisible chip on her shoulder roughly the size of one of your angrier continents. She’s perfectly pleasant at first, of course, bonding quickly with Picard, telling him that she hadn’t initially liked the idea of working with someone else, but she respects him and thinks they make a good team. There’s something very brittle about her, though. Simmons plays the role very well. She brings a prim, precise presence to all her performances, and Satie is no exception. In the same scene where she tells Picard she’s pleased to be working with him, the two talk about her father, and it’s not hard to see what drives the admiral and how her need for justice could curdle into something more like contempt.

While Satie’s pursuit of the “truth” (and her persecution of anyone who stands in her way) turns into a witch hunt very quickly, she remains well-motivated. I said earlier that Satie wasn’t as sympathetic as she should’ve been; this isn’t entirely true. The final shot we see of her, alone in the courtroom after her supporters have abandoned her, is moving in all the right ways. But I do think the episode makes her shift from legitimate inquiry to pointless, self-fulfilling accusation, too easy to spot. Her victim, poor Simon Tarses, is too obviously innocent. This sort of modulation is very tricky to pull off, so the episode doesn’t really lose points for being overly obvious. But as Picard says at the end, the danger of people like Satie—and, in a way, the tragedy of them—is how easy they are to follow over the cliff. “Drumhead” makes it too simple for viewers to draw the line between what’s right, and what’s expedient. While TNG has never been afraid of outlining its moral conflicts in primary colors, the level of performances here are so good, and the central concept so powerful, that it’s hard not to wish the issues had been handled with a little more subtlety.

Thankfully, what we do get is still very satisfying. Satie is determined to root out what she perceives as a conspiracy aboard the Enterprise. Geordi and Data eventually determine that the explosion in Engineering was caused by an equipment malfunction, but the admiral is having none of that. There’s a problem here; she’s sure of it, and it’s her duty to root it out. She finds her first weed, the aforementioned Tarses, a crewman who works in Sick Bay and had some dealings with J’Dan. (J’Dan’s spying efforts are a kind of MacGuffin, in that their only real relevance to the plot is as a motivation for others’ actions. The fact that he used amino acids to transfer information, though, is unbelievably cool. It’s that sort of attention to detail that makes this show such a pleasure to watch when it’s firing on all cylinders, and, I suspect, adds to my frustration with genial shoulder-shrugs like “Qpid.”) During Tarses’ initial interrogation, he’s forthcoming but nervous, and Satie’s Betazed assistant senses that he’s concealing something. So she decides to hound him, with no other evidence than “feelings,” until his reason for nervousness becomes clear: He lied on his job application, pretending he had a Vulcan grandfather instead of a Romulan one.

All sorts of fascinating stuff going on here. I may have been too quick to dismiss J’Dan’s biological transmissions as mere plot ornamentation. It’s the blood that’s in question here, and it’s the blood that both men are trying to hide. J’Dan’s subterfuge essentially calls everything into question, as it conceals information under the skin, tainting whoever carries it, whether they realize it or not. Satie proves Tarses was willing to lie about his heritage to further his career. What else might he be willing to conceal about his biology?

Plus, there’s Satie’s use of a Betazed counselor and Picard’s unwillingness to use that counselor’s judgment alone to determine Tarses’ guilt. As Satie points out, Picard has often used Troi in the past to get a read on others in difficult situations. (In fact, Troi is present during J’Dan’s interrogation at the beginning of the episode.) But there’s something different about this. Satie isn’t simply taking into account her assistant’s interpretation of Tarses’ emotional weather; she’s using that interpretation to justify her own conviction that someone is guilty here and that someone needs to be blamed. I’ve made fun of Troi’s somewhat useless presence on the Enterprise, but this scene is one of the few times that uselessness seems less a function of the writers inability to handle the character properly (which I think it generally is) and more an intentional choice on Picard’s part. However reliable the Betazed intuition is, it’s still just one person’s word against another. Given how difficult it is to read emotions even under ideal circumstances, simply saying, “I sense he’s hiding something” doesn’t justify destroying a man’s life. And Tarses’ life is destroyed, or at least his career is; it’s one of the stronger points of “The Drumhead” that it doesn’t compromise on the costs of Satie’s vehemence.

And then, of course, there’s Picard. He’s a little like Henry Fonda at the start of 12 Angry Men here. While I don’t doubt Riker or any of the rest of his crew (apart from Worf, who is seduced by Satie’s conviction, and by his own need to prove himself) would stand behind their captain, the episode purposefully isolates Picard for much of the running time as the quiet voice of reason in an increasingly shout-based universe. Most anyone else in this role might’ve seemed nearly as self-righteous as Satie does, but Stewart has that whole unassuming dignity thing down cold. Even more important is the slow spread of grief across his features. It’s a process that takes nearly half the episode to come to fruition, as he does his best to placate both sides, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Stewart plays Picard here not as a man just bothered by an injustice but horrified by it; his heroism is less boldness and more the calm decency we all should aspire to. He gets a lot of heavy chewing, monologue-wise, but by underplaying those monologues, by routinely showing Picard’s shock and dismay and only letting his anger rise to the surface near the very end, Stewart heightens the sense of tragedy that pervades “Drumhead.” In the end, he tells Worf that vigilance is the cost of freedom, and it’s easy to see that cost etched into every line on his face.

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

So I guess Beverly decided to stop waiting for Picard, because the very first shot of this episode (after we establish that, yes, the Enterprise still exists) is her playing tongue tag with some bumpy forehead dude in a turbolift. How very gauche. Then Data interrupts Beverly and her handsome stranger, aka Ambassador Odan, who fits the “calm, taller” type that Beverly and Deanna both seem so fond of, and there’s some mild comedy as Odan and Beverly try and find some way to keep Data from invading their together time. Really, having that android around is like having a 5-year-old on the ship. Somebody should really sit him down and explain the facts of life to him. Or at least the verbal cues that indicate he’s being intrusive, since I’m pretty sure Tasha already helped him out with the whole birds and bees back in season one.

Like “Half a Life,” “The Host” is about the challenges of interspecies courtship, and both episodes don’t quite live up to the ambition of their premises. (Premisi? Man, I so wish that was a real word.) “Life” fumbles in its attempts to turn a philosophical dilemma into a real world one, while “Host” can’t really make the romance at its core sing. The story requires Beverly to be so passionately invested in Odan that she’s ultimately willing to follow him across bodies (though not genders), but it mostly seems like a passionate affair because we’re told it’s a passionate affair. Beverly goes through the expected motions of a tightly-wound woman in love, and I suppose Odan is charming enough, but the actual relationship that drives the episode is bland as every other affair on the show. Lots of throbbing music and intense close-ups, but not much in the way of actual believable emotion.

And yet, I can’t really hold that too much against “The Host,” because the idea here is so clever and fascinating that I don’t mind it not entirely living up to what it might have been. This is just not a series that can really handle romance, for whatever reason, and really, “Host” doesn’t need Odan and Beverly’s love to be all that profound in order to work. This is more a problem of relationships than it is anything about specific characters. Like, remember Indecent Proposal? Yeah, the movie where Robert Redford turned Woody Harrelson into a pimp and Demi Moore into a, ahem, lady of the evening. It was a ridiculous movie, all slick visuals with no real soul or character, but the concept was so intriguing that it didn’t need to be good to be successful. Everyone was just so fascinated by the moral question at the heart of the story that everything else was just gravy. Stupid, stupid gravy.

Thankfully “The Host” is quite a bit more successful, character-wise. Beverly is still Beverly, and while Odan is a little too wish-fulfillment perfect to be memorable, the actor playing him exits the episode at roughly the 10-minute mark, so that’s not a huge problem. (Yes, once the symbiant is moved into Riker, Jonathan Frakes is basically playing Odan, but we still see him as Riker, with all the baggage that carries.) The actual model for the symbiant is effectively cool/gross enough looking to sell the point, and the conflict which tightens the screws on the relationship, while being yet another in a long line of “aliens who squabble” plots, is solid enough. Maybe I’m just seduced by the tech details. (There are moons and stuff!) But in a way, none of this really matters. Beverly’s personality isn’t really that important; apart from a brief mention of Wesley at the start of the episode, she’s more here to be a stand in for the audience than because of who she is. Of course, her job as the ship’s doctor is relevant, given Odan’s specific health requirements, but… well, as with Geordi in “Identity Crisis,” while it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling the duty Bev does here, this is more something that happens to her, than something she instigates.

Which brings us back to the Indecent Proposal angle. Nobody’s offering anybody money to sleep with the good doctor (although just imagining the expression on Picard’s face if somebody made the offer is enough to get me through a lot of bad mornings), but we are presented with the sort of philosophical problem that’s fascinating to contemplate in the abstract. Odan is a Trill, which means that oh-so-attractively non-threatening body he’s wearing at the start of the episode isn’t really “him” at all, but a host that the real Odan wears until its no longer viable. The real Odan is a freaky purple and brown thing that looks like a cross between a slug and a bigger, freakier slug, and it/he/whatever has been jumping from host to host for a long time now. This isn’t a negative process; the creature isn’t leaching off of anyone or taking over bodies without permission. If that were the case, it would be much easier to dismiss. Instead, we simply have a different form of life than what we’re accustomed to, and when Odan’s host body is killed in a shuttle attack, Beverly is forced to come face to, er, something with her form-jumping suitor.

This raises some interesting questions about the nature of love, about what it is that pulls us to someone. Is it purely physical? Purely spiritual? Or is it some combination of the two that makes it difficult to accept a new face and a new body, even if the personality is unchanged. I rather think that last is true, and it’s not hard at all to sympathize with Beverly’s distress here. “Host” is a tad melodramatic, of course. Beverly’s only known Odan two weeks when he “dies,” and the amount of angst she goes through on realizing his true nature is a little much at times, even if it is entirely understandable. We need strong pressures to drive her back into the new Odan’s arms, but this could’ve been underplayed a bit more to help balance out the strangeness of the situation. Beverly comes off as weirdly unstable, as though her lack of romance has made her nearly as lonely as poor Lwaxana. It’s not that she wouldn’t be upset, or troubled, or confused, but… well, it was two weeks. Falling like crazy for someone in two weeks happens all the time, but if something interrupts the fall, it’s usually not that difficult to walk away.

Odan doesn’t really make a great case for himself, either. While Beverly’s freaking out, he spends too much time acting baffled as to why she’d be uncomfortable around him. Like just about every lover on this show (seriously, do people in the future ever just meet and decide, “Hey, let’s hang out again some time”? Is it always a case of one side or the other forcing their attentions?), Odan seems to have difficulty understanding the concept of “personal space,” just barely managing to restrain himself from grabbing Beverly in his arms post-transformation and forcing her to see reason via lip assault. She does eventually succumb, at least in part because after Odan’s original host dies, Riker volunteers to temporarily support the Trill until a new host can arrive. While there’s never been any implication on the show that Bev is into Riker (or the reverse, although seeing as how this is Riker, I doubt he hasn’t considered it), he’s at least a familiar face and someone she trusts. Admittedly, the fact that she knows Riker so well makes the alienness of Odan’s condition even more apparent, but there’s a friendship there already. Only I think the host bodies experience/remember everything that happens to them, so there was probably some awkward eye contact after Odan left.

As always with new races on TNG, I can’t help wondering at just how the Trill society works. Are the host bodies from another species? Why would someone willingly give up control of themselves to another creature? And how is it that nobody at Starfleet as any idea how any of this works? None of this really stretches credibility, and I appreciate that it isn’t over-explained, but given that, so far as we can tell, Odan’s control over the body he inhabits is a dictatorship rather than a democracy, it’s the sort of connection that could use a little more justification. (Since the Trill don’t exactly disappear from the Trek franchise after this episode, I imagine we’ll get more explanation down the road.) Really, though, the details aren’t the important part here, as much as I enjoy them. The important bit is trying to decide if you could love someone even if they stopped looking like themselves.

Beverly decides she can, but only to a certain point. I made the joke last week that “The Host” compromises at the end in the face of potential controversy, but I did the episode a disservice. After a long struggle to keep Riker alive long enough for Odan to get his job done, Odan’s new host body arrives, and it’s female. While this She-Odan still has the same feelings for Bev that Riker-Odan did, Beverly isn’t able to make the gender jump and sadly ends their relationship in the episode’s final scene. This makes perfect sense. We like to pretend that love is a wholly spiritual thing, but that does the sensation a disservice; we fall in love with features, with shapes, with bodies, as well as with minds. And, more crucially, when we fall in love, we admit that we’re willing to sacrifice a piece of ourselves in order to get closer to someone else. But everyone has a line, and if you love them, you won’t ask them to cross it.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Mind’s Eye:

You gotta love the blind spots of the TNG writing team. On the one hand, there’s the holodeck, perhaps the most perfectly insane entertainment device every created for a science fiction show; it can give you anything, simulate anything, and make you part of a story, and if you’re really lucky, it can even generate a powerful artificial intelligence seemingly at random. I’m not sure it’s the ultimate gaming experience (I think most of us enjoy sitting on our asses for extended periods of time too much—”perfect realism” in games is an overrated concept), but it does indicate a logical endpoint in the development process. It’s a stunning achievement in design, programming, and execution.

And on the other hand, we have Geordi, sitting alone in a shuttlecraft for however many hours, listening to calypso music and playing trivia games against the computer. Awful trivia games, I might add. “The Mind’s Eye” aired in May of 1991. The Game Boy had been around for 2 years; books for… quite a few centuries more than that. Surely, one of the writers on staff had had ample opportunity to pick up one or both.

Still, that cold open had a great “travel always kind of sucks” feel to it, as Geordi’s stuck in, essentially, a small box, trying to make the best of it the only way he knows how: by being a huge freaking dork. And then a Romulan ship decloaks right off the starboard bow, and Geordi just about craps his pants. Because hey, who wouldn’t.

“Eye” is a rock solid TNG episode, playing off of continuity for long-term fans (like us!) and, regardless of how well you know the backstory, delivering a solid, exciting, and sharp thriller. Last week’s episodes were all about ambition, exploring high concepts which paid off more through ambition than actual execution. “Eye” is still ambitious, but the hooks here (brainwashing, political intrigue, betrayal) aren’t quite so mind-bending. Well, okay, apart from the literal mind-bending part. What I’m getting at is that this episode isn’t trying to challenge how you look at the world or make you rethink your views on sexuality and emotional attachments. It’s just trying to kick some ass, and it does that very, very well.

For starters, Geordi gets tortured! In that he gets these crazy implants stuck in his VISOR equipment that put him under the control of some very not nice people. Ah, Romulans. Is there any evil they won’t sink to? It’s all part of a plot to upset Federation/Klingon relations; rebels on the Klingon colony of Krios are fighting for resistance, and the Governor of Krios, Vagh, is accusing the Federation of working with the rebels. This would be bad news for everyone, except, of course, the Romulans and those Klingons who kind of wish everything could go back to the way it was, with all the villainy and the gloating and the killing humans. The Romulans have been providing the rebels with Federation phaser rifles, but Geordi and Data are able to prove easily enough that those rifles didn’t actually come from Starfleet. That’s okay, though. The bad guys have other tricks up Geordi’s sleeve.

It’s impressive how much “Eye” manages to pack into a single hour, without ever feeling particularly rushed. We’ve got Geordi’s time aboard the Romulan ship and his “training,” we’ve got the political situation with the Klingons, which means a few references to Worf’s disgrace, and we’ve got Geordi’s attempts to solve a mystery that he himself is responsible for, even if he isn’t aware of it. All of this fits together quite well, and there’s no confusion here or convoluted plotting that I noticed. One of the benefits of TNG‘s somewhat casual approach to continuity is that, when the show does make references to it’s past, it rarely seems forced or unnecessary. There’s no “This is just like that time we fought that nest of Gundarks” moment here. Ambassador Kell references Worf’s disgrace as a potential cause of discord in dealing with Governor Vagh, and Vagh references Picard’s reputation among Klingons. Both these moments might pass under the radar of someone new to the show, but for those who catch them, it creates a sense of a greater story behind the story we’re watching. We have to fill in most of the gaps ourselves, but it helps the illusion that all this time we’ve been watching Beverly hook up with space slugs, the Klingon Empire has been on the verge of collapse. That’s efficiency right there, and that kind of smart writing (Rene Echevarria is credited with the teleplay) pervades the episode.

For example, we only get a couple of scenes showing us how the Romulans break Geordi’s mind down, but those scenes are enough to convince us that he’s a threat once he’s back on the Enterprise. First, they explain how his VISOR makes him especially vulnerable to cortical implants, since the pre-existing tech can largely hide any new equipment. So Geordi gets hooked up to a freaky looking machine, and we’re reminded how painful those white-eye contact lenses must be when they remove the VISOR. Second, we got a Manchurian Candidate style sequence in which the Romulans recreate Ten Forward on a holodeck and order Geordi to kill Chief O’Brien. Which he eventually does. We get some murky shots from Geordi’s POV (the first we’ve seen of what the world looks like to him in a few seasons), and Geordi’s casual “Can I sit with you guys” post-murder is appropriately chilling, but I think my favorite part of this scene doesn’t happen till later in the episode. Once he’s returned to active duty, Geordi seems largely okay, but then he wanders into the real Ten Forward, sees O’Brien sitting alone, and dumps his drink on the guy’s shoulder. It’s an appropriately weird moment, and it ties in nicely with Geordi’s agonized conversation with Troi at the episode’s end. While the Romulans are ultimately thwarted by Data and Picard, their plan nearly works, and it’s impossible to know just how much damage they did to the Chief Engineer’s brain.

There’s also the nice touch of having Geordi put in charge of investigating his own crimes (his ultimate assignment is to assassinate Governor Vagh, but before he does that, he beams some weapons down to Krios to pin more blame on the Federation). As he has no idea that his mind has been tampered with, he investigates to the best of his abilities, and there’s something darkly funny in the way he keeps casually mentioning himself as one of the few people who could’ve been responsible for what happened and how no one suspects him until it’s nearly too late. The only real reason the Romulans’ scheme doesn’t work is that Data and Riker happen to notice some strange transmissions on an unusual frequency. Data investigates, and the episode climaxes with him looking over the shuttle Geordi was abducted from, while Geordi goes to take out Vagh. We know Data will figure out the danger before it’s too late, just as we know something will prevent Geordi from committing murder, but it’s to the episode’s credit that this knowledge doesn’t hinder the suspense. It’s also nice that we don’t get the “But Geordi, it’s me, Data!” scene that seems par for the course for brainwashing storylines. Nobody talks Geordi out of firing the phaser; he’s been programmed to do a job, and if not for Picard’s quick reflexes, he would accomplished his objective.

For all its soppy nobility and utopian ideals, TNG can often be surprisingly stark in its conclusions. Here, it’s the knowledge that part of what makes Geordi unique also makes him vulnerable and that even after the Romulan’s efforts to control him have been detected, he’s still left to struggle with memories (including a girlfriend named “Jonic”) he can’t believe are fake. There’s also the fate of Ambassador Kell; once his treachery is revealed (he’s been working with the Romulans and was Geordi’s handler on the Enterprise), the ambassador requests asylum. Picard says sure—once he’s cleared his name of all charges. So basically, our captain sentences the bastard to brutal torture and execution at the hands of the people he betrayed. It’s a long shot from the darkest the show has ever been, but it is good to remember that here, just like everywhere else, if you come at the King, you best not miss.

 

The Worst:

Future Imperfect, Devil’s Due, Galaxy’s Child, Night Terrors, and The Nth Degree

night-terrors-hd-074

In brief pieces:

  • Future Imperfect was far too obvious from the beginning;
  • Devil’s Due reminds the Third Law by Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but is technology none-the-less;
  • Galaxy’s Child sees Geordi finally gets to meet Dr. Leah Brahms (real people are just not like holograms), with whom he infatuated, and Enterprise becomes a mother;
  • Night Terrors was just one convoluted mess; and,
  • The Nth Degree features the cloudcuckoolander (apparently has a mental disorder) Lt. Reginald Barclay, whom show signs of profound intelligence, and hooks himself up to the main computer to take over the ship.

According to the A.V. Club review of Future Imperfect:

Judging by the comments, the consensus is that I was too hard on “Remember Me” a couple weeks ago, and you may be right. Reviews aren’t objective, much as we might like to pretend they are; those grades look solid, but if you get in close, you can see right through them. A write-up is as close as I can come to describing and explaining my reaction to a given episode, which means that they aren’t always as clear as I’d like them to be. Even when they are, there’s no guarantee that I’ll be in the right mood to get the most out of what I’m seeing, or that my own personal prejudices won’t blind me from appreciating a story’s particular virtues. These reviews are meant to create discussion and to provide a consistent critical perspective on an influential series; when people don’t agree with me, well, that’s what the comments section is for. (It goes without saying that these reviews have, like, the bestest comments section on the Internet.)

I say this not to try and excuse my opinion, but because watching “Future Imperfect,” I was struck by how conceptually similar it was to “Remember Me” and by how much more I enjoyed this ep than I did “Remember.” And I wonder how much of that stems from my own prejudices and how much is some definable increase in quality. My main problem with Bev’s story is that I get bored when a show keeps hitting the same notes over and over; as unsettling as it was that people kept disappearing around her (Wesley’s disappearance was one of the creepiest moments the series has ever done), there really wasn’t a second act. More people disappeared, Beverly continued to be the only one noticing, and the situation didn’t really change until the final 15 minutes.

There’s a little more going on in “Imperfect,” much to the episode’s credit. It should be obvious from the start that Riker’s jump forward in time (16 years into the future, to be exact) is nonsense, just as the people vanishing on Beverly’s Enterprise weren’t really disappearing. Between Lost and Battlestar Galactica, shows have developed a willingness in the past few years to play around with time in ways whose effect lasts longer than the episode at hand, but TNG isn’t really a show about risk taking. Even if it was, it’s hard to think of a series that would be willing to jump 16 years in the middle of its fourth season. So obviously, something strange was going on, and whatever it was didn’t jibe with the explanation future-Beverly gave about a retrovirus attaching to Riker’s DNA and causing massive memory loss, just ’cause.

What makes “Imperfect” better, in my mind, than “Remember,” is how it plays with your expectations. While no one breaks the fourth wall to wink at the audience, we’re obviously supposed to be suspicious about Riker’s revised circumstances from the start. The episode begins with Riker’s birthday party (Troi appears to have raided Katy Perry’s Closet O’ Laytex for her outfit here), signaling he’ll be the focal point of the episode, and reminding us how much everybody likes him. While this is going on, the Enterprise is probed by a planet with no discernible life signs. There may be a secret Romulan base involved, however, so Riker, Worf, and Geordi beam down to Alpha Onais III to investigate. Their location is immediately overwhelmed by methane gas, and when the transporter tech tries to beam everyone to safety, she has trouble locking in on their signals. Riker collapses, and we cut to him waking up in Sick Bay, graying at the temples.

So Beverly gives her reasons for what happened, and its vaguely plausible. Riker is now the captain of the Enterprise, which is surely something he’s wanted deep down for a long time (why else would he keep refusing transfers to captain other ships?), and many of his friends are still around. Picard’s gone Admiral, and he’s even grown a goatee. The ladies all have their hair pinned up, so as to appear more matronly, I guess. Riker has a dead wife and a live son, and both pieces of information are difficult to take easily. Then there are the Romulans. Riker’s informed that some years ago (back in the dead zone of his brain), the Enterprise rescued a crippled Romulan ship when it entered Federation territory. The Romulans were so impressed that they agreed to get down to finally brokering peace negotiations. So Riker’s a hero to, well, all of the civilized universe or nearly, and now it’s time for the historic signing of the historic documents, and his presence is required, even if his brain is swiss cheese. Funny thing, though; When the Romulan ambassador beams over to the Enterprise, it turns out to be our old friend Tomalak. Odd coincidence that he’s involved, wouldn’t you say?

In fact, all of this seems to be built on odd coincidences, and what makes it work is that it never feels like Riker’s ability to understand his situation is held back in order to fill out the running time. We’re supposed to be suspicious of all this, of the fact that so many original crew-members are still around. The Enterprise seems like a great place to work, but 16 years is a long time. Why is Geordi still running Engineering? Why is Worf stuck at the helm? It’s telling that the changes are all the sort of changes that would have immediate emotional meaning; Geordi having real eyes or Data being Riker’s First Officer mean something to Will right off, because these are people he’s connected to in his regular life. For the most part, we don’t get the new personnel one would expect if this really were nearly decades down the road. There aren’t any unfamiliar faces moved into prominent roles, even though there should be. (Take a look at your own life. You may still know some of the same people you knew 16 years ago, but those people don’t make up your entire world anymore.)

So here we are, thinking we’re really clever because we know something strange is going on here, and then Picard and Troi arrive in a Romulan Bird of Prey and seem to deliver the answer into our hands. The Romulans are willing to sign the treaty, but one of the requirements is that the Federation divulge the location of Outpost 23, a spot that used to be lodestone of Starfleet’s defenses in the Neutral Zone. Riker objects, and Picard explains that things have changed significantly in the time Riker forgets, and that the outpost is no longer strategically relevant. Which is awfully convenient, isn’t it, especially with Tomalak hanging around. Odd that the Romulan ambassador would be someone the Enterprise has such a troubled history with. So, again, because of the cleverness, we assume all this future imperfection is a Romulan attempt to trick Riker into divulging key information. When Riker watches video of his dead wife and recognizes “Min” as “Minuet,” the holographic ideal woman from back in season one, we’re surprised at how he figured it out but not by what he figured out.

It’s a great scene, too. I especially like the relish with which Riker tells “Picard” to shut up. Then Tomalak ends the program, and we’re all, like, “A-ha! I knew it! That jerkface,” because this is what we were expecting. At least, this is what I was expecting. Sure, there’s ten minutes left in the episode, but surely that can be given over to Riker struggling to find a way to escape his captors. And it sort of is, until Riker meets up with the young boy who played his son. The son’s name was Jean-Luc, the boy’s real name is Ethan, and he’s Star Trek‘s version of Newt from Aliens, small, scared, and desperate to escape. So desperate that Riker doesn’t even realize he’s being played again till “Ethan” slips up.

See, this I was not expecting. “Imperfect” would’ve been a solid episode without the final twist. There’s enough curiosity in finding out just how Riker’s future differs from his present to make the first two-thirds interesting even once you realize it’s all imaginary (er, more imaginary than usual, I mean), and it’s interesting trying to figure out just why we see what we see, once we realize it’s supposed to be part of his own fantasy. (Kind of funny that Troi isn’t his wife.) The final twist gives it an extra edge for me. I can see people not liking it because it’s sort of corny and because it relies once again on magical alien technology. But what saves it is that the technology is ultimately impotent. Riker sees through both ruses eventually, and I like to think that the reason “Ethan,” aka Barash, is so lonely is that he, too, can’t believe in what the machines show him for very long. This isn’t really godlike. His race is dead, his mother sacrificed herself to save him, and now, he’s stuck on a rock with pretty pictures that can’t help but break his heart. I’m not sure the episode quite earns the pathos, but I liked it.

According to the A.V. Club review of Devil’s Due:

Well, that was fun. And a nice change of pace after the somberness of “Wounded,” to boot.

Did you know there was supposed to be a second Star Trek series with most of the original cast? Of course you did, because you know pretty much everything. But in case your memory is hazy, Star Trek: Phase II was planned in the late ’70s, after numerous attempts to bring the Trek crew to the big screen had failed. The show folded before completing any episodes, but it gave us Will Decker and the bald babe Illia, who both popped up in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It also gave us a handful of story ideas that would eventually get recycled into episodes of TNG. This includes “The Child,” which means I have someone else to blame for that one, as well as today’s far more palatable entry, “Devil’s Due.” (This brief history lesson provided courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Even if we didn’t know this, it would be easy to mistake “Due” for an episode of the original series. It has the same broad tone, the pushy sexuality that’s more than a little campy, the parable-style morality. Once we understand the central conflict, there’s no real effort made to deepen that conflict or subvert our expectations for where the story will go. A thousand years ago, the people of Ventax II made a deal with Ardra, their version of the Devil, for a millennium of peace and prosperity. At the end of that millennium, Ardra would come back to take ownership of the planet and everyone on it. Funnily enough, that millennium is just about over when the Enterprise arrives to help a beleaguered science station (man, science stations are like the red-headed step-children of TNG). And a few minutes after Picard and a few others beam down to try and talk some sense into a paranoid government, a woman arrives claiming to be Ardra, demanding what’s rightfully hers.

It’s not hard to see where this is going. “Ardra” is a con-woman, and it’s up to our heroes to prove she’s a con-woman in a way that nullifies the contract with Ventax II. Science versus superstition, and all that rot. On the one hand, well, it’s somewhat difficult to justify the Enterprise giving over so much time to such a silly conflict. The episode does its best to pretend that Ardra is a real threat, but given the sort of the threats we usually encounter on the show, I’m not really buying it. She mostly an irritant, and her ridiculous claim that she owns the Enterprise along with the rest of the planet only makes sense if you don’t think about it too hard. Really, Picard is just picking a fight because he’s annoyed, and while I’m not sure that would work as a long-term policy for Starfleet, Patrick Stewart is entertaining enough while irritated that that doesn’t, ultimately, matter. (Maybe he’s just happy to finally get a Q-like being whose ass he can kick.)

Past this, we already know Ardra is a fake, which means that in order for the episode to have any real tension at all, it has to spend most of its running time trying to make us doubt our assumptions. So we get increasingly impressive displays of Ardra’s power. She can transport herself pretty much anyplace she likes, seemingly change forms, and cause earthquakes. Oh, and she can seemingly make the Enterprise disappear, which isn’t too shabby. None of this is ever really convincing. It might’ve worked in TOS, where the rules were looser and the frontier more wild, but on TNG, reality is too well established. There’s civilization. There are systems intact, and these systems don’t allow for the existence of anything as tacky as the Devil. (Although it does allow for Picard’s horrible beachwear, so maybe the laws of wardrobe are exempt.) Picard never doubts that Ardra is a sham, so why should we?

So, without any real drama, “Due” has to fall back on charm. How well that works depends on how much of a kick you get from seeing Picard playing Captain Kirk for most of the running time. Actually, Picard behaves much as he always does: smart, capable, and not much one for shenanigans. But Ardra is instantly smitten with his cue-ball good looks and general air of contempt and goes to great lengths to seduce him. She even makes him the prize in the bet that drives the episode’s climax. Now, arguably, part of her efforts here are to try and get him to back off his investigations; if Picard was a little less scrupulous (and Ardra a shade hotter), he might have compromised himself and thus let Ardra go about her con without interfering. But Picard is so clearly disinterested that any strategic advantage to be gained from seducing him is basically moot. There’s no way Ardra could have gotten away with her game for long, but she might have been able to maintain it long enough to rob the Ventaxians blind if she’d timed her efforts better. Maybe she could have waited until after the Enterprise left. At the very least, claiming the ship belongs to her means she’s a “flimflam artist” with a perilously overstated notion of her own abilities. It’s especially telling that, when she zaps herself into Picard’s bedroom and starts trying on different bodies to please him, she turns into Troi (the Enterprise female crew member she’s most familiar with), rather than the more appropriate-to-Picard Beverly.

Ardra isn’t much of a threat, nobody’s really in danger, and it’s not hard to see how all of this plays out. But it’s silly, goofy fun for the most part. Not remarkable and maybe a little disappointing in its unwillingness to bring TNG‘s now-expected complexity to the situation. (Wouldn’t it have been cool to get more of a sense of how the Ventaxians were dealing with this? Maybe have a religious leader helping to fund Ardra’s efforts as a way of grabbing power?) But it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. And yes, I’m including Picard’s ridiculously short .. what the hell is that, anyway, a bed dress or something? “Due” resolves in the expected manner; Picard and his crew managed to trace Ardra’s powers back to their source, and they used that source to prove she was a fake by duplicating her effects. (I did like Picard’s arguments that Ardra didn’t really do anything to give Ventax II peace.) It’s satisfying, in a “bazooka taking down a housefly” kind of way. The whole thing is a lark.

By happy coincidence, “Due” begins with Data and Picard engaging in theater games on the holodeck; this time, instead of Shakespeare, Data is playing Scrooge in a “production” of A Christmas Carol. So what do you know? An actual Christmas moment on a show that generally avoids references to specific holidays or seasonal charms. (Generally to their credit.) “Due” isn’t a Christmas episode, and arguably, the episode’s main theme, the rejection of superstition in favor of logic and reasoning, is in direct conflict with pretty much every Yuletide-themed TV episode ever made. It almost makes me wish we did get a TNG Christmas show, although I’m sure it would have been awful. Anyway, it was a cute bit, and offers me the chance to say: Happy holidays, everyone. If you get presents, I hope you get what you want. And if you don’t exchange gifts in your family, I hope you have neighbors who do, and that they don’t always lock their doors. See you next week.

According to the A.V. Club review of Galaxy’s Child:

Geordi La Forge is very excited. Dr. Leah Brahms is coming on board the Enterprise to personally study the alterations the Chief Engineer has made to the ship’s engines, and even though Geordi has never met Dr. Brahms in person, he’s positive they’re going to be the best of friends. See, he has a special connection with the good doctor. Back in TNG‘s third season, the Enterprise‘s computer created a holographic version of Brahms to help Geordi solve a crisis, and that holographic representation just happened to be a bit on the flirty side. It gave Geordi a new self-confidence, and while one would think that increased esteem would’ve helped his love life, apparently such is not the case, because now he’s super stoked to meet Brahms, and he’s convinced they’re going to hit it off wonderfully. Oh sure, he says he’s just looking to be “friends,” but that’s just something you say when you’re going out of your mind. He’s convinced this is true love. All she has to be is exactly what he needs.

“Galaxy’s Child” is going to be a tricky episode for me to review. We all have our blind spots; we all have our red flags. Most times, I’m sure I’m not even aware of mine. But a storyline like this is different, because it hits me in a personal way that makes it difficult for me to balance the episode’s flaws and strengths against my own vulnerabilities. I’m pretty sure this isn’t a classic; I’m also pretty sure that it has some serious problems, and that these problems connect back to some larger concerns I have with the show as a whole. But I also suspect that my intense discomfort for much of the episode is unique to me. While it’s true that, specifically speaking, all my reactions are uniquely mine, their intensity here served to unbalance my perception of the entirety of “Child.” Or, to put it plainly, I was too busy cringing most of the time to keep both eyes on the screen.

A bit of personal history, then, if you’ll indulge me, and I promise it’s relevant to the issue at hand. In college, I fell in love with a girl. Let’s call her Matilda, because that was really not her name. Matilda was very pretty and very nice, and we did some acting classes together; I was overweight (I looked a bit like a young Philip Seymour Hoffman), but I was very confident when it came to acting, so we became decent friends. At some point, I developed a crush, which was fine. Crushes aren’t really fun, but they are generally containable. In my experience, I’d pine for a while, and do some mild obsessing, but it would never go farther than that.

Cut to a year later. I’ve never really understood how it happened, but through a combination of depression and coincidence, I decided I was in love with Matilda. I can even remember the exact moment; walking from the common room of the suite I lived in with my friends, and thinking, “I’m in love with her. I really am in love with her,” and that was pretty much the end of me. Winter break followed soon after, and I spent the whole time trying to understand what was going on, going utterly out of my mind, half blissful, half terrified. Then I come back to school, I find out Matilda has broken up with her boyfriend, and I decide this is a sign. It has to be a sign, right? We go see a movie together (American Beauty), and I probably should have known I was off the track when I made to pay her way, and she got uncomfortable. But, like I said, out of my mind. After the movie, I told her I thought we should go out, and she started crying.

Gah, this is taking too long; and besides, none of that is all that unusual. What happened next, though, is something that still terrifies me. Because Matilda said she wasn’t interested in me, and I got really sad and scared for a while, and then I decided that, okay, maybe she just wasn’t ready, y’know? Maybe she just needed space after the break-up. What I felt was so strong, so real, there’s no way she couldn’t return my feelings, and if I was just patient and respectful, eventually, everything would turn out okay. Which doesn’t sound so bad, saying it like that, but it’s horrifying to realize you can be so thoroughly misled by your emotions, that my perception of events was so clouded by what I thought I needed, I believed in a false reality for five whole months. It worked out all right in the end. I’m not really the stalking type, so I mostly just broke off contact with Matilda, and then, one day, I came to my senses. But it’s still one of the worst times in my life.

So who cares, everybody’s got a crappy story like that. Geordi’s crush on Brahms is less about misreading obvious signs (although he does do that), and more about assuming a connection where none exists. But then, that’s basically what I did with poor Matilda. In my head, we were soul mates, and all information I received was interpreted with that conviction firmly in view. Geordi isn’t quite that far gone, but he’s certain that he and Brahms are well-matched, even after she’s initially cold to him and unhappy with the changes he’s made to “her” engines. His smarmy chumminess, the way he keeps using her first name, his petulant frustration that she isn’t behaving like he assumed she would, all of this is almost unbearable for me to watch. While I suspect other people may feel the same, this is one of the rare cases when I’m nearly certain my reaction is more intense than most. Like, that dinner date he sets up? Ugh. I watched much of that scene on mute. There were subtitles, but that was as far as I was willing to go. And then, when Brahms finally sees her computer-created doppelganger, well, for a few seconds, I was expecting Geordi was going to have to find a way to hide a body very quickly.

The primary issue here, whatever effect my past may have on my current judgment, is that we should be sympathetic to Geordi’s mistakes here, and I don’t think we’re given good reason to be. It’s obviously sad what happens to him, but he keeps walking into his own trap over and over again. If Brahms had been warmer and if Geordi had been more reserved in his expectations, “Child” could have effectively made its point about the dangers of forming attachments to fantasy without alienating us from its hero. But he’s just too stupid for words, and that’s something that comes up a lot on TNG and not just with Geordi. There’s a weird sense of childishness that runs through the cast whenever the writers decide they want to impart a moral lesson. When I went kind of crazy, I was still in college and not quite into my twenties. Geordi is, what, late twenties, early thirties? He’s been on the Enterprise for a few years now; he’s had dates. And yet it doesn’t even occur to him that Brahms might not be what he’s expecting. This is the behavior of someone who’s painfully inexperienced in dealing with human beings, and while I buy that Geordi is a dork, I don’t buy that he’s an idiot. It’s hard to feel very sorry for him, because he doesn’t even try to respect Brahms’ wishes until he has no other choice.

Or maybe that’s just me; maybe I relate too closely to his circumstance not to despise him a little for it, in the way I can’t help despising myself a little when I remember the past. Still, the Geordi/Brahms interactions would have worked better if they’d been handled with greater subtlety. I’m not sure I buy that she’d be so willing to be pals after everything was over. I can see her not hating him, and I can see her getting over her discomfort, but the brief moment of chemistry they have at the end, before her husband calls and ruins everything? Eh, I dunno.

There was a whole other plotline here, and, thank god, this one doesn’t bring up any bad memories. The Enterprise is forced to kill a living ship, which distresses Picard to no end. Thankfully, the dead living ship was pregnant, and, with the help of some deft phaser work, the Enterprise helps set the baby free. Less good, the baby mistakes the Enterprise for its mother, latching on to the ship’s hull and draining its power reserves for sustenance. It’s a clever story made all the more effective by the sincerity of Picard’s distress. He’s not just disappointed when they accidentally kill the living ship, he’s devastated, and his commitment to the ideals of exploration and the preservation of life gives a weight to what happens here. TOS was all about survival in the explored reaches of space, but TNG is more concerned with the ideals that make survival worthwhile.

So that’s nice. Still, I can’t get past the other part of the storyline, for reasons which should be clear now. Credit where it’s due: The idea of Geordi meeting Brahms in the flesh is a good one, and it’s completely believable that their meeting wouldn’t go entirely as he planned. But the execution left a lot to be desired.

According to the A.V. Club review of Night Terrors:

Night terrors, eh? Once again, I must apologize, as I have suffered from night terrors in the past, and this great and tragic suffering of mine makes impossible for me to adequately judge the sight of Riker hallucinating a bed full of snakes. Or Picard hearing his door buzzing repeatedly. Or Chief O’Brien thinking his wife is cheating on him. I’ve lived too closely all these horrors, and as such, cannot comment upon them, but merely bask in their ugliness. Bask, I tells yah. Just… bask.

Actually, I really have had night terrors before, but this is less an episode about a familiar real-world phenomenon than it is one that gives writers an excuse to throw out some random scary scenes and then wave them all away with zero consequences. For whatever its faults, “Galaxy’s Child” at least told a story that related directly to the crew of the Enterprise. The conflict with the living spaceship required Picard and his bridge crew’s commitment to the sanctity of life to be suspenseful (otherwise they could’ve just blasted the alien and gone about their merry way), and, of course, Geordi’s troubled relationship with the object of his assumptions was a very personal plotline. That’s not really the case in “Terrors.” Troi’s Betazoid abilities are important, and Data’s invulnerability to problems that affect other humanoids probably saves the life of everyone on board, but overall, this is a sort of “could happen to anyone” story, and that makes it somewhat less thrilling.

Still, it starts off well enough. The Enterprise comes across the USS Britain, a ship that’s been marked missing in Starfleet records, in deep space. Troi senses something is wrong and accompanies Riker and the away team when they beam over to the ship. They find a lot of bad news: bodies everywhere, murdered in surprisingly gory ways, and one near comatose Betazoid. The Betazoid appears physically unharmed but scared out of his mind and unable to explain exactly what killed everyone on board the Britain. Beverly gets to work on some autopsies, Troi tries to communicate with her fellow empath, but while the causes of the catastrophe are unclear, the danger to the Enterprise is not; the ship is trapped in a kind of energy vortex, and soon, everyone on board starts losing their focus, growing more irritable and experiencing waking nightmares.

That’s a classic Trek premise right there: random space thingie threatens the lives of our heroes and makes them vulnerable in ways that can’t be defeated by phaser fire or negotiation. And “Terrors” does an excellent job of conveying the mind-numbing unpleasantness of insomnia. The transition from normalcy to exhaustion is done with a gratifying amount of… well, subtlety isn’t exactly the right word, but the changeover happens quickly, and there’s not a lot of hand-holding to make sure we know that the beeping door in Picard’s office or O’Brien’s paranoia about his wife’s fidelity are indicators of degraded mental states. Patrick Stewart, in particular, looks utterly wretched by the end of the episode, a small, defeated man who mostly seems held together by the uniform he’s wearing. A few missteps aside (snakes? really?), the night terror sequences themselves are effectively creepy. I especially liked Beverly’s morgue freak-out; it reminded me a bit of Re-Animator, which is a good thing.

But then, I don’t think we’ve ever seen that morgue before. That’s not hugely odd; the Enterprise doesn’t generally run into situations that require storage space for a whole roomful of bodies. Still, in creating a new space to show how the lack of REM sleep affects the good doctor, the episode demonstrates one of its fundamental problems. The “night terrors” would be an excellent way to get into the heads of the main cast, to expose them in ways that their professionalism and competence normally leave hidden. Instead, we just get a lot of disappointingly generic scary sequences, which have less to do with the individual than they do with freaking out the audience. O’Brien’s paranoia isn’t brilliant (it’s odd how the show considers him and Keiko familiar enough to keep returning to), but it’s at least a problem that’s directly connected to what we know about him.

It’s just too bad we don’t see that intimacy with the rest of the crew. Picard is bothered by a doorbell that won’t stop ringing, and by the lights in the elevator. I liked the doorbell bit well enough. It walks a neat line between irritating and unsettling. But surely, given Picard’s rich history on the show, we could’ve found something more interesting to get under his skin than “Ugh, the ceiling is too bright!” Beverly’s encounter with corpse sit-ups is connected to her only in the sense that, as a doctor, she’s around corpses from time to time. And with Riker, we get a bed full of snakes. Really? Unless he turned into Indiana Jones when I wasn’t looking, I don’t see how that’s relevant. Admittedly, an episode in which each character suffered from their greatest fear has the potential of being awful enough in its own way, translating complicated worries and paranoia into simplistic fantasy. But at least those fantasies would be distinct. Too much of “Night Terrors” could’ve been done on any other genre show without a lot of script edits.

It turns out that a ship trapped on the other side of the space anomaly that sucked in the Enterprise–it’s called a “Tyken’s Rift,” if you’re curious–is sending out telepathic messages that make nearly everyone on board the Enterprise (and the Britain before it) incapable of REM sleep. Hence the exhaustion and the hallucinations. But this effect isn’t being done to cause harm; the other ship is just trying to communicate a way in which it and our heroes can work together to escape the Rift, as neither ship can do so under its own power. It’s just too bad the messages have the inadvertent effect of driving people crazy. Betazoids can interpret the signals the phantom ship is sending, although this didn’t help the Betazoid that Troi finds on the Britain; either he was unable to interpret what was happening, or his pure-Betazoid genetics made the message too powerful for him to handle. Whatever the reason, Troi herself, with Beverly’s help (I like how the two of them occasionally team up) has to find some way of using her dreams to effectively communicate with the aliens, or else everybody on both ships is doomed.

Oh hey, in all my complaining, I forgot there was another character whose woes in “Terrors” are specific to himself: Worf! We don’t actually see any of his hallucinations, but we do see how his growing fear and loss of self-control nearly drive him to suicide. So that’s pretty cool. And Guinan has an absolutely ridiculous gun that she busts out to keep the peace in Ten-Forward, and there’s definitely entertainment value in that. The final sequence, with Troi desperately trying to send the right message in her sleep while Data essentially runs the entire ship, is thrilling, even if it does follow the model of most climaxes on the show with lots of desperate cutting back and forth, and it looks like everything is lost riiiiight up till the moment when it isn’t. (Which is, admittedly, the climax to roughly two-thirds of genre series episode ever produced. I just mention it here because it’s somewhat similar to the end of “Galaxy’s Child.”) And it’s neat how Data’s invulnerability here works in the Enterprise‘s favor, where last week it nearly got everyone on board killed.

Overall, this was entertaining, and enjoyably well-paced. It just feels a little too bloodless, even with those mutilated corpses at the beginning. This is the same style of episode as “Clues,” in a way, because the problems here are nearly entirely external. No one needs to learn any valuable lessons about themselves, and nobody’s short-sightedness is to blame for what happens. I think I enjoyed “Clues” a little more, because I dig the weirdness of intentionally erasing a chunk of your memory, and I love the idea of episodes that give us knowledge about our heroes that our heroes will never have for themselves. “Terrors” was arguably more intense, and the sense of otherness in the aliens was more interesting (although again, Troi gets zapped), but it lacked that mild twist at the end to make it memorable. This kind of episode is really the meat-and-potatoes of this sort of show, so it’s impressive to realize that TNG has gotten to the point where delivering the expected is no longer entirely satisfactory. Given how rich a galaxy the show has built for itself, why should we waste so much time on aliens who can’t be bothered to have personalities?

According to the A.V. Club review of The Nth Degree:

 

2008-02-20-Yesterdays_Ent1

The next in best and worst is Season 3.

 

 

Advertisements

15 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 4

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 3 | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 2 | The Progressive Democrat

  3. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 1 | The Progressive Democrat

  4. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 7 | The Progressive Democrat

  5. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 6 | The Progressive Democrat

  6. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 5 | The Progressive Democrat

  7. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 4 | The Progressive Democrat

  8. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 3 | The Progressive Democrat

  9. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 2 | The Progressive Democrat

  10. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek DS9: Season 1 | The Progressive Democrat

  11. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek VOY: Season 7 | The Progressive Democrat

  12. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek VOY: Season 6 | The Progressive Democrat

  13. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek VOY: Season 5 | The Progressive Democrat

  14. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek VOY: Season 2 | The Progressive Democrat

  15. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Star Trek VOY: Season 1 | The Progressive Democrat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s