The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 3

For previous installments:

 

 

The Best:

Evolution, The Ensigns of Command, The Survivors, Who Watches the Watchers, The Defector, Déjà Q, A Matter of Perspective, Yesterday’s Enterprise, Sins of the Father, Allegiance, Tin Man, Sarek, Transfigurations, and The Best of Both Worlds Part I

TNG3.25Transfigurations

In brief parts:

  • Evolution sees Wesley Crusher accidently release nanites aboard the ship, threatening a once-in-a-lifetime experiment by a scientist;
  • The Ensigns of Command sees Data attempt to convince a colony to evacuate a planet before the aliens who own it arrive;
  • The Survivors sees the Enterprise investigates two survivors living on the only undamaged patch of land on a devastated planet;
  • Who Watches the Watchers has the crew of the Enterprise must undo the damage after a primitive civilization witnesses an observation team;
  • The Defector has inspiration from the Cuban Missile Crisis;
  • Déjà Q features Q being exiled from the Continuum as a mortal aboard the Enterprise;
  • A Matter of Perspective has Riker charged with murder, and each side uses the holodeck to show their side of the story;
  • Yesterday’s Enterprise features a rift in which, when a ship comes through, alters the timeline in a drastic way;
  • Sins of the Father sees Worf’s decesed father accused of treason;
  • Allegiance sees Picard abducted by an unknwon force and replaced by a duplicate;
  • Tin Man sees the Enterprise race against Romulans to make contact with a very powerful entity;
  • Sarek saw Ambassador Sarek come aboard to finish a long, diplomatic mission;
  • Transfigurations sees a person with no memory go under a transformation into  a being of energy; and,
  • The Best of Both Worlds Part I certainly remains one of the best cliffhangers in the series.

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

I always get nervous when I talk about a show’s big themes. It’s something I really should do more often. My favorite television critics are the ones who can take a full season of a show and discuss it as unit, making confident statements like, “The third season of Breaking Bad is far and away the show’s best,” or “This last season of 30 Rock had some serious problems,” and teasing out how individual episodes work together in service of a larger picture. Obviously 30 Rock doesn’t have the lofty goals of a serialized drama, but it’s inevitable that a group of twenty-plus episodes, written and filmed as a rough unit, are going to have some kind of connective tissue, especially if there are stabs at continuity and a common writing staff. Part of my job as a TV reviewer is to try and tease out that tissue, even when it’s not obvious. Especially when it’s not obvious. And it always makes me nervous, because, y’know, I’m just this guy. How do I know anything?

Still, a pattern is emerging in The Next Generation, and it’s worth talking about as we move into the third season. TOS was a space Western, focused on exploration, and the danger and excitement of living life on the edge of civilization. TNG is about the next step: what happens when civilization has moved in and the paperwork begins. Which sounds boring, and let’s face it, sometimes TNG is boring. Sometimes it feels like every exciting new discovery gets buried under hours of discussion and deliberation and debate. Yet that careful consideration arguably creates greater opportunity for drama. The best TV shows of the last few decades have been shows that have embraced the drudgery of second guessing, of realizing that no action can exist without consequences, and one of the elements of the show that excites me the most as we move forward is its willingness to deal with the aftermath. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, the impact is incredibly powerful. (And really, aren’t the best episodes of TOS the ones that embrace the idea that heroes don’t live in a vacuum? “The City On The Edge of Forever” wouldn’t work if Kirk and the others had found a way to save Edith Keeler; “Amok Time” wouldn’t resonate if it didn’t contrast Spock’s stoicism against his temporary fury.)

“Evolution” isn’t a great episode, but as a premiere, it is so much better than “The Child” that I’m in danger of overrating it. Beverly Crusher is back! That means we get more face-time with Wesley, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. The plot is a riff on the standard “alien force messes with the Enterprise systems,” and it all comes down to Wesley not putting his toys away properly, which is the sort of storyline that would’ve worked a lot better if he was 10. (No, wait, I take that back, precocious kids are far more irritating than immature teens.) Plus, the ending resolution solves everyone’s problems without any cost. I don’t need every episode to be a tragedy, but in order for an upbeat ending to work, there needs to be more of a sense that it won’t work, and that never really happens here.

It’s never embarrassing, though, and there are enough good ideas thrown out that it’s never boring, even if it fails to hit the high notes. It might just be my lingering affection from Scrubs, but I dig Ken Jenkins as the prickly Dr. Paul Stubbs. He hits the line between off-puttingly arrogant and vulnerable, and Picard always gets more interesting when he’s forced to deal with someone who doesn’t immediately bow to his orders. (Glad as I am to have Beverly back, there was a potential in the Pulaski and Picard relationship that was never really fulfilled. I’m not sure it could’ve been with the show as it was, but the current crew of the Enterprise can be a little too friendly.) The series has dealt with the problem of determining what constitutes life before, but there’s something to be said for its commitment to its principles. Once Dr. Crusher raises the possibility that the force that threatens the ship could actually be more than just a technical glitch, the discussion over what to do changes without hesitation.

Basic plot: There’s some science stuff going down (I appreciate the show’s attempts to bring more hard science into the franchise, and I think it works, but I sort of zone out during those bits–I like knowing they’re there, but I don’t understand them well enough to summarize), and Dr. Paul Stubbs is on the Enterprise to complete an experiment he’s spent a good portion of his life working towards. Wesley, being a dork, inadvertently lets some nanites loose on the computer systems of the ship, and those nanites breed, and gain sentience, and cause all kinds of havoc, inadvertently endangering Stubbs work and the rest of the crew. Stubbs and Wesley exchange some words about the dangers of being a child prodigy, Troi tries to break through Stubbs’ arrogant shell, and Data lets the nanites used him as a puppet. Oh, and Beverly is worried that her son is too stressed. Happy endings all around, though.

There’s conflict in the episode, and some minor suspense about whether or not the main problem will be resolved in time for Stubbs to complete his work, and yet… Well, it’s very pleasant. I really don’t have a problem with pleasant, and there are lots of times the show can use pleasant to its advantage; it makes the characters more immediately appealing, it helps carry us over the weaker writing beats, and it means we definitely pay attention when we get a legitimately serious threat. There are also times, though, when I wouldn’t mind a little more edge. “Evolution” is a good example of an episode that starts to tighten the screws, and then leaves off a few turns too soon. Stubbs is pushy and single-minded, and a decent character–his obsession with using old baseball statistics to recreate plays could’ve been overly quirky, but Jenkins sells it well enough. His decision to take care of the nanites himself (or a portion of them, anyway) has potential, but it doesn’t go anywhere. When Data lets himself be infected by the tiny robots, it’s a little creepy, but that creepiness is half-realized. The nanites aren’t particularly interesting, and the danger they represent never distinguishes itself.

As for Wesley, I like the idea of what they’re doing here–I can’t imagine him ever getting the full Quiz Kid Donnie Smith treatment, but I appreciate the awareness that being the smartest guy in the room has its downside. Yet, again, there’s no follow-through. Wesley freaks out when he realizes that it’s his fault that the ship is in danger (I do like that we start with him sleeping, presumably moments after his science project made its escape), he has a eye-rollingly on the nose conversation with Guinan, and he gets in a minor spat with his mom. There are no sanctions, and no one yells at him for his mistake. Even Beverly’s concerns are pointless. She talks to Picard about being worried that Wesley isn’t behaving like a proper 17 year old (when I was that age, I had no girlfriends, and I read a lot, and look how I turned out)(er, check that), but it turns out he’s fine. He even has a girlfriend.

“Evolution” is very passable. It isn’t great. While none of its plots are terrible (only the Beverly story comes close, as her conversation with the captain is kind of ridiculous), there’s no risk. The characters are all where they need to be, my favorite doctor is back, and the show feels like it’s ready to take that next step. It knows the way. It just needs a little push.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Ensigns of Command:

How many problems in this world come down to land? It can be a difficult concern to relate for those of us who don’t identify strongly with our homes (I mean, I like Maine, I really do, but if somebody was throwing grenades at me to convince me to leave, I wouldn’t be all that torn up about doing so), but that doesn’t make it any less powerful or real. Identity is hard work, and one of the ways people figure out who they are is knowing where they came from. The threat of losing that, of being uprooted and thrown into an unfamiliar environment, one that doesn’t have the same connections or memories… well, that can have a powerful effect on people. The threat of losing home can change normally peaceful men and women into, well, whatever they need to be to protect their piece of the world.

It’s that desperation that drives the story in “Ensigns,” and while I don’t think the emotion is as well-developed as it could be, it’s clear enough to create the sort of conflict that “Evolution” lacked. I really liked this episode, and while it’s come down slightly in my estimation since I watched it, I still think it’s got a lot to recommend it. The stakes are higher, the resolution forces characters to make strong choices, and the episode makes some smart observations about Data that aren’t compromised or softened. There are weak spots–the colonists aren’t as developed as they should’ve been, and their leader, Gosheven, is sort of a lump. (An aggressive lump, but still a lump.) Plus, the Sheliaks look like they belong in a Dr. Who serial from the ’70s, although that’s not really a bad thing in my book. Anyway, weak spots and all, this was exciting and clever, and I especially appreciated how the best parts were the ones you had to think about a little to really grasp the implications. “Ensigns” connects most of the dots for you, but not all of them, and that’s important.

Let’s put the issue of property aside, and take a look at Data. I don’t think the question of his nature has been this prominent in an episode since “Measure Of A Man,” and where “Measure” was primarily about proving what we all knew, “Ensigns” goes a step deeper, and questions whether or not Data’s quest for self-actualization can ever be achieved. We tend to assume certain things about the character because humans tend to ascribe emotional content to actions, even when there’s no proof of it. When Data should be happy or sad or excited or proud, it’s nearly impossible to accept that he isn’t those things, even when we’re repeatedly told that the android is incapable of feeling the way we understand it. Partly that’s because Data is played by a human actor, and he’s written by humans, and given the natures of on-going television drama, there’s going to be some occasional seepage. Really, though, we see what want to see. Data is polite, helpful, and calm, so it’s easy to assume that must mean something more than programming.

But does it? “Ensigns” doesn’t spend all its time on the issue, but it opens with Data preparing to perform in a concert, and the relationship he develops with one of the colonists on Tau Cygna V makes it more than just a matter of curiosity. That Data wants to be more human makes sense, because it’s inherent in his design. I can’t remember if he’s brought this up himself, but the fact that he was built to look like a man, and given the basic tools required to interact with other men (and, hubba hubba, women), at least implies that his purpose is to be as human as possible. How exactly he goes about that is by getting better and better pretending to be a real live boy, with the hope that eventually there will be a transition between pretending and simply being. I never really liked the emotion chip he gets in Generations. (Which is otherwise an absolutely perfect movie that I have no problems whatsoever withahahahaha, who the hell am I kidding, it stinks) It’s a shortcut to the solution that actually makes him more robotic than before. Here, at least, when he doesn’t feel anything in the face of Ard’rian’s affections, it’s honest.

I’m making it sound like the episode is dryer than it actually is, but one of the reasons I liked this one so much is that it manages to balance all this heaviness with a gripping, well-paced story arc. The core conflict is very clear: an immovable object (15,000 colonists who’ve made their home on Cygna through years of sacrifice and struggle) meets an irresistible force (the Sheliak, to whom the planet technically belongs). The Sheliak want to colonize Cygna immediately, and threaten to wipe out anyone who gets in their way, while the colonists, led by uber-dick Gosheven, want to stay and defend their home. Against an alien race with vastly superior technology. Maybe it’s an arrogance born out of decades of struggle, but the colonists aren’t really making smart choices.

The ep is split between the sides of this struggle: on the one hand, there’s Data trying to convince everyone to run for their freaking lives, and on the other, there’s Picard, negotiating with the Sheliak to buy enough time for the evacuation. (The atmosphere of the planet prevents easy transport.) Both sides are great fun to watch. Like I said, Picard does well when faced with a strong adversary, and he’s besieged on multiple fronts here. The Sheliak are inflexible and contemptuous, and Starfleet isn’t much help in the deliberations; when Picard asks for assistance, they tell they can get him the extra ship he needs… in about three weeks. Even the normally reliable Geordi is unable to solve the transporter problem in time. Picard is only able to get the time by relying on the Sheliak’s obsessive attention to detail, putting them in a corner and forcing them to accept his demands.

The emotional core of “Ensigns” comes from Data’s struggles on Cygna. As with everything, his approach is logical, and the solution he eventually settles on is striking while still being consistent with everything we know about the character. I do think the deck had to be a little stacked to force him to the point of violence. While we don’t see every conversation Data has with the colonists trying to convince them of the dangers of the Sheliak threat, what we do see is more vague than it needed to be, and if he’d done a better job of explaining the nature of the danger, the episode probably would’ve ended a lot sooner. (It seems like he doesn’t actually say, “They have really, really good weapons” until the very end.) I like his progression, though, from direct honesty, to reverse psychology, to shock value, and I like how his decision to shoot some of the locals (with the phaser on stun, of course) is both perfectly sensible and surprising. It’s not like Data is in danger of becoming an anti-hero, but he takes a risk here that a human character might not have taken, and it’s an excellent reminder of Data’s potential to make the right choices the rest of us might not be capable of. (I worked very hard not to have that sentence end in preposition, but it was not to be.)

Another reminder of Data’s oddness comes in his relationship with Ardy, a geeky tomboy who’s first fascinated, then emotionally drawn to the android. This is the first time we’ve seen Data dealing with romance since (shudder) “The Naked Now,” and it could’ve been disastrous; it’s easy to imagine the writers trying to soften the character or wink at the audience. (I didn’t really get into it at the time, but one of the disappointing elements of “Pen Pals” is that it relies on Data having an emotional connection with someone, and it reduces him. He’s more interesting if he’s pretending to have feelings, not losing his judgment to them.) I wouldn’t call their final scene together stark, exactly, but it does show there are certain limits to Data’s development, even while his conversation with Picard at the end of the episode argues otherwise. Ardy kisses Data, and he analyzes the action, and then tries to respond in kind–not because he shares the emotional connection, but because he’s designed to mimic appropriate behavior. Ardy realizes this, and while you could argue that she’s a little naive to think she might’ve won the android over, her self-awareness mitigates this. She knows she’s being foolish, but she tries anyway, and Data comes as close as he can to reciprocation.

It’s a nice scene that only gets better in retrospect, because it’s the sort of touch this show needs to jump from good to great. It goes back to the idea of consequences I mentioned earlier. TNG has tried to achieve the same levels of pulpy fun that were TOS’s stock in trade, and never quite managed it. Our new leads are more thoughtful, more deliberate, and that means it’s harder to buy them as two-fisted, hormone-crazy action stars. (Obviously TOS was capable of thoughtfulness, but it’s a much rawer show than TNG is.) That’s something the series needs to embrace, and both “Evolution” and “Ensigns” are good examples of the returns the writers can get when they know what kind of show they’re working on. “Ensigns” is the better of the two, because the compromises it reaches to arrive at a semi-happy ending are organic and satisfying. Bring on the rest of the season, please.

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

We’ve been talking over in the X-Files recaps about how great X-Files was as an anthology show once it got a good head of steam going. The show’s core concept–two FBI agents investigating strange cases that fell through the bureaucratic cracks–made it possible for episodes to vary wildly in style and intent, from the overtly horrific to the cynically comedic, while still maintaining a consistent world. There were mythology episodes that worked with continuity, but there were also one-offs like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” or “Home” that played like short stories that our heroes just happened to brush up against. While X-Files could be hit or miss (especially in its later seasons), that freedom to explore the edges resulted in some absolutely stellar television, and it’s something that genre shows do better than just about any other kind of TV.

TNG doesn’t really work the same way. The cast is too large, and the tone is too consistent, for it ever achieve the same level of diversity. I don’t think that’s a problem with the series in any way, as a lot of my favorite shows are very consistent, and I’m not sure TNG could’ve sustained the same amount of self-parody without losing its soul. I mention The X-Files here partly because I just want to pimp out those recaps (Todd VanDerWerff and I are nearing the end of the third season, why not join us?), and partly because “The Survivors” is proof that, when it wanted to, TNG was quite capable of producing its own short-story style narrative. The crew of the Enterprise needs to be more directly involved with the action than Mulder and Scully ever did, but when the end results are as excellent as they are here, it’s a great reminder of TNG‘s potential for exploration, and how it’s possible to tell a self-contained plot that still feels connected with the rest of the show.

A few commenters complained about the lack of summary in these recaps, and I don’t mind giving a little more info than I have been. (Although you should check out my recaps of TOS, which often devolved into plot-summaries-with-occasional-jokes.) To that end: The Enterprise responds to a distress call from a Federation colony on Rana IV. When they arrive, they find the colony wiped out and the planet nearly devoid of life (intelligent or otherwise), except for one small area of land that appears untouched by catastrophe. An away team beams down to find two life forms, a married couple, Kevin and Rishon, who seemingly have no idea that the rest of the colonists are dead. Both are pleasant and accommodating, but refuse to leave the planet, despite Riker’s urging. Then the evil alien ship comes back, only it’s kind of wussy, and Troi starts freaking out because of a music box tune. Something strange is going on here.

There’s a lot that’s great about this episode, and we’ll hopefully get to all of it, but what I noticed most while re-watching it for this recap (“Survivors” is one of the TNGs I remember most strongly even though I haven’t seen it in years, enough so that I was able to figure out which episode it was after the teaser–which isn’t really that impressive, but it may be the first time that’s happened since I started doing these write ups) is how wonderfully, elegantly logical it progresses from one point to the next. The central mystery doesn’t really require the presence of the Enterprise to exist; Picard serves as a kind of audience surrogate here, asking the questions we want answered, albeit with a little more emotion behind them than we might have.

What’s cool is that we get to see him figure things out, and in a way that doesn’t make him seem slow for the sake of padding. It clear that something is going on, and it’s not hard to figure out there must be a connection between the couple on the planet, and the alien ship that keeps trying to scare the Enterprise out of orbit. Once Picard realizes this connection, he tests it, first reasoning out the opposing ship’s intentions, and then proving just how direct that ship’s relationship with Kevin and Rishon must be by providing the couple with the one condition that would cause the Enterprise to leave the planet for good, just to see if they’d attempt to fulfill it. (Gah, clumsy sentence–basically, Picard says, “”We’ll never leave, unless you two have been killed by, oh I don’t know, that crazy creepy ship that keeps showing up,” and bam presto, ten minutes later, the evil ship seems to do just that.)

It’s pretty clear something is up from the beginning. There’s that weird unscathed patch of land, and then there’s the fact that, when the alien ship first makes an appearance, it attacks the Enterprise with embarrassingly low power levels. Anybody who’s watched their far share of sci-fi could probably start connecting the dots, especially with the franchise’s frequent use of the god-like being, but by following each step in Picard’s deductions, the delay between our understanding of the situation and our heroes’ understanding is minimized. There’s none of that tedious wandering around repeating the obvious that can make stories like this so boring. (The time to fill is usually a big factor. Stripped to its core, you could probably get the important pieces of “Survivors” done in about twenty-five minutes, or the length of a half-hour Twilight Zone.) The reveal is important, but the episode doesn’t depend entirely on the reveal for it’s dramatic effect.

Part of the drama comes from Picard’s work; Patrick Stewart’s indignation at being even temporarily fooled gives him an emotional investment. Obviously he can’t simply leave, given Troi’s condition, but you get the sense that even if Troi wasn’t suffering, Picard would’ve kept poking around. One of the difficulties in trying to pull off this kind of anthology-style approach is coming up with convincing reasons to involve the Enterprise with the action. Here, we have Troi, whose agonies give us another emotional undercurrent (and while I don’t think making her a victim every week would really improve the character, it is nice to see her abilities used in a way that isn’t simply her commenting on obvious subtext), and the need to figure out just what killed everyone else on the planet, which are both good enough reasons. I like that the more character-oriented motivation from Picard is there, too.

Of course, the real core of “Survivors” is the deep dark secret behind just what the hell is going on with Kevin and Rishon. Both the guest actors are solid, and both are faces that should be familiar to TV fans. I don’t really associate Anne Haney, who passed away in 2001, with any one role, though I’ve seen her in a bunch of stuff, but despite his long and distinguished career, John Anderson (who died in 1992) will always be MacGyver’s grandfather to me. Haney gives you a clear sense of Rishon in a handful of scenes, nothing remarkable but a very warm and likable presence, and Anderson, who gets the episode’s big reveal monologue, does some heavy lifting with a nicely underplayed weariness. I like the general thread of irritation that runs throughout his performance, too, because it’s the frustration of someone who knows they’re about to be caught, and knows they deserve to be caught, but can’t bear to let go of the moment.

All right, so let’s get into the big secret: Kevin, contrary to appearances, isn’t human. He’s actually a Douwd, an immortal being with the ability to create illusions and trickery and all kinds of wonderful god-like being magic. Rishon, at least the Rishon we see, is a phantom, created by Kevin to replace the real Rishon, who died in the attack on Rana IV just like the rest of the non-Douwd colonists. Already, this is heartbreaking. The issue I’ve always taken with the GLB plotlines is that GLBs are so powerful and ill-defined that there’s no reason to invest in them as characters. They’re either a justification for an otherwise inexplicable storyline, or else they’re obstacles to be defeated. There’s no real grounded personality, so it’s hard to get that emotional about what they do. Crazy stuff happens, then after a certain point it stops happening, and we all move on our lives.

Kevin is different, because his connection to Rishon, who was human, and therefore mortal and vulnerable, shows the limits of his power. He can’t bring her back from the dead, not really (she’s there enough to register on life scans, but the soul is gone), and when she decided to go fight alongside of the rest of the colonists when the planet was attacked, he was unable to stop her, because he loved her. His own moral code prevented him from fighting the enemy–he tried his tricks to fool them, but as we’ve seen, those tricks aren’t impossible to see through. So eventually, the alien threat, a group of Husnocks, figured out his ruse and struck back. Hard.

So that’s terribly sad, and it’s a terrific image–a powerful being haunting a planet with the memory of his lost love and the home they shared together. What makes “Survivors” really great, though, is that it approaches Kevin’s character with the same careful deliberation that it applies to Picard’s deductive efforts. Kevin’s pacifism is, apart from his powers, the character’s defining trait. It’s what makes the tragedy of this story possible, and it determines the nature of our heroes’ investigations; if Kevin was more willing to fight to defend his position, he might never have lost Rishon, and even if he had, he would’ve easily been able to repel Picard and the others from discovering his secret. It’s only natural, then, to wonder if he’s really justified in his commitment to principle. Shows like this often deal in absolutes, and while that can make for powerful moments, it also tends to fall apart in the aftermath. (Which is another reason why the half-hour format worked so well for Twilight Zone; it didn’t give you much time to ask questions.)

Here, though, we’re given a reason why it’s so important Kevin stick to his principles. After the death of Rishon, Kevin was angry. Very, very angry. So he killed the Husnock. Not just the aliens who had attacked his planet, or a portion of them, or everyone over a certain age; he killed every single Husnock, obliterating an entire race with the power of his brain. That’s… well, that’s messed up. It’s maybe a little more over-the-top than the series can really support, but it works for me. I’m not sure Picard’s decision to leave Kevin alone with his misery at the end of the episode is the right decision, because the genocide of 50 billion sentient beings for the sake one lost love is impossible to justify. And yet, I can’t think of any other option. Like Picard says, there’s no way to judge Kevin for his actions, because what he’s done is so immense it can barely be conceived of, let alone understood. This is the first great episode of the new season, because it’s easy to imagine it standing on its own as a terrific science fiction story, but it also manages to incorporate the Enterprise without straining too hard. Plus, it’s really sad, and I’m a total sucker for that.

According to the A.V. Club review of Who Watches the Watchers:

I think I know what’s best for everyone, really I do. I’m reasonably intelligent, I’ve been through my share of crap, and I’ve learned some lessons. It’s so easy to listen to my friends talk about their lives and point out the obvious mistakes they’re making. Aren’t I obligated, then, to take a hand and try and make their lives better? If I have this wisdom (and oh my god, you guys, it’s crazy how smart I am about this stuff, I could be a therapist if it didn’t require all those classes and text books and professional ethics), surely it’s my job to do everything I can to use that wisdom to help the less fortunate. Couldn’t be more clear cut, really. Except, well, okay, sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes I misread a situation, sometimes I over-simplify, and I do have a tendency to favor stabbing as my go-to. But really, that isn’t so bad, because, hey, worse case scenario, if I tell my friend that she should dump her boyfriend because he has a last name ending in “e,” and she does, and then she freaks out… Hey, she’s not me. I get to walk away, and go spread some love elsewhere.

It’s easy to think you know what other people should do to be happy. And I think when we’re younger, you can even be right occasionally, but that doesn’t last long. Anyway, being right or wrong isn’t the point here. I’m not saying that advice is a bad idea, or that you can’t help (or be helped by others in turn). I’m more getting at that specific arrogance that sometimes hits us when our lives are going well, and one of our friends isn’t doing so great, and suddenly you get this brilliant idea that you can fix them. The reason this hardly ever works is that, well, you can’t. You can’t make somebody be what you think they should be, and the more you try, the more you struggle to control a situation that isn’t directly connected to you, the more difficult it becomes to see the outcome.

All of which is a more roundabout than usual way of saying, The Prime Directive? Yeah, that’s a good idea. I mean, a ruined friendship is one thing. At least the relationships I’ve destroyed didn’t have a body count. (That I know of.) We’ve seen what happens when Federation personnel ignore the rules and try and impose their will on less advanced civilizations, and it’s never pretty, even if those personnel are motivated by the best intentions. “Who Watches The Watchers” shows how badly things can go when accidents happen, when a string of bad luck hits good people, and how quickly events can spin out of control. It continues the excellent run of “Survivors” by following a problem from creation to resolution and taking each step with careful consideration, often moving the story in a surprising direction, but never sacrificing character for the sake of plot.

So, we’ve got ourselves another distress signal, this time coming from Mintaka III–or, more specifically, from a research outpost on Mintaka III. The natives of the planet are a pre-industrial race that look Vulcan and share the Vulcan’s love of reason, pointy ears, and bowl haircuts. (The Vulcans were actually super passionate when they first started out, which I initially assumed was something this episode forgot or overlooked. However, given how much in sway of their emotions the Mintakans reveal themselves to be, the characterization makes a lot more sense than I’d given it credit. These are people who are struggling to follow the dictates of logic, while still being vulnerable to their insecurities.) The outpost is full of scientists, hidden behind an electric shell, watching the locals and taking all kinds of notes. Only now they’ve been having problem with their machines, and they need the Enterprise to come down and fix everything.

It doesn’t go so great. The batteries powering the holodeck-style illusion that keeps the scientists hidden fail, and two of the natives, a girl named Oji and her father, Liko (Ray Wise!), see behind the curtain. Worse, Liko is badly injured, and Dr. Crusher makes the call to beam him up to the Enterprise Sick Bay for treatment. Oji sees him disappearing, and Liko, in his dazed state, sees Picard giving orders and decides that Picard is a god. Which, you have to agree, is a reasonable assumption to make. Beverly tries to do the standard mind-wipe, but it doesn’t take, and when Liko returns to his people, he starts spreading stories about the great Picard, and how He can do anything, maybe even bring back the dead. (Like Liko’s wife…) This is bad enough, but during the catastrophe at the outpost, one of the scientists was thrown clear, and is now wandering the countryside, seriously injured and unable to contact the ship.

All right, so arguably, this is a little contrived–but that’s sort of the point. Given the existence of the Prime Directive, and the fact that the Federation still makes the effort to send scientists out to do this work regardless of the risk, crises like this one are going to pop up from time to time. I doubt the events of “Watchers” are a complete anomaly, and instead of using the confluence of unfortunate events simply to drive the plot, it works as part of the episode’s main theme: the importance of maintaining the right kind of boundaries, and the way life often works to make that separation nearly impossible. So yeah, it’s weird that they don’t have a working back-up system at the outpost, since it’s not like the situation is impossible to foresee, and it’s also pretty unlucky that one of the scientists goes missing, and that Beverly’s attempts to wipe Liko’s mind clean don’t really work. (Kind of makes you wonder what happened to the little girl in “Pen Pals.”) But all of these things could have happened, and that the Enterprise would get involved in this particular case just means we get to see the results first-hand.

One element that does serve to mitigate the perfect storm of suckiness here is the Mintakans themselves. I’m not a huge fan of Trek‘s habit of ascribing broad personality traits to alien races (one of the few aspects of “Survivors” that doesn’t quite work for me is the attempt to write off the Husnocks as warlike and aggressive, to make them a little more “bad guy”-ish and mitigate Kevin’s crime. Although since Kevin is the only one who knows anything about them, I suppose it’s not a stretch to think he wasn’t completely truthful in his description), but the peaceful, agrarian culture we see here works well enough, and it does a nice job of both minimizing the damage that Federation interference might’ve caused, it also helps back up the story’s point, that even under the best circumstances, everything can fall apart. Ray Wise is great as Liko; Wise plays “open wound” emotional situations well, and watching him go from friendly dad to fervent apostle, he never hits a false note.

This is another swell Picard episode, too. I love his outrage when the head scientist suggests he play God; Stewart takes what could’ve been a question of philosophy and turns into a conviction, a stand against the irrational and superstitious and backward. And I love his reaction to Beverly bringing Liko to the ship, telling her she should have left him to die. Here’s another way that Picard differs from Kirk: if it’d been Picard in “City On The Edge Of Forever,” he would’ve let Edith Keeler die with a minimum of angst, because being a starship captain isn’t simply about adventure and phasers and punching. Kirk wasn’t immature or anything, but Picard has a sense of responsibility that weighs down all his actions and relationships. With a lesser actor, this could’ve been boring, but Stewart makes it work, and his attempts to communicate with the leader of the Mintakans are really beautifully played, full of hope and sadness and risk. (We’ll see the “check out your planet through this window” trick again in First Contact, where it’s used to decent, if lesser, effect.)

Again, we spend so much time with the guest characters this episode that the rest of the cast doesn’t get a ton to do, but Riker and Troi do end up infiltrating the Mintakans in an attempt to calm everyone down. Their banter is fine, and, for once, the series finds a good excuse for Troi’s presence on the ship. Given her training and abilities, she should be used more often as an ambassador to new cultures, but while you sometimes see hints of that, her emotion-sensing talent is too often as a cheap way to foreshadow betrayal or twists. Here, though, she’s an informed, valuable crewmember, and if she ends up as a hostage for most of the second half of the episode, well, that’s not really her fault. (Although it would’ve been cool to see her use her empathy to play off people more, but that’s just my personal pipe dream.)

It all ends in a confrontation on the planet, when Picard is finally forced to reveal himself, and gets shot by Liko for his pains. The final scene is definitely the optimistic take on the situation, showing that even when everything goes horribly, it’s still possible to find common ground. I think “Watchers” earns this optimism, though. I’m not entirely convinced that the Federation’s efforts to study primitive life are worth the potential catastrophe those efforts create, but I’m willing to accept the premise. I’m generally not a fan of farce, because I hate conflict that arises from unnecessary dishonesty, but this is basically farce played for drama, not laughs, and it works very well. I may be grading this and “Survivors” too high, but I think I’m just grateful. For the first time since I started these recaps, I got a week that was just about perfect. I think my standards may be rising already, but if season 3 keeps shooting for this level of quality, I’m not too concerned.

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

I’d like to think I have a code. Maybe not a code, exactly; I don’t pretend I have any set rules to getting through my oh so stressful life as full-time librarian’s assistant, part-time Internet snarkologist. But I’d like to think that there are lines out there, and that, with someone of them, were the situation to arise there I’d have to make a choice between one side or the other, I would be able to choose between the two based on some internally consistent ethics and morality. Like, if I wanted to join some kind of a club, and the club told me in order to join, I’d have to shoot a homeless person, I think it’s safe to say, I would say no to this club, even if they had a really cool tree fort and were offering me a free gun. Or to make it a trickier call, if I was being offered money to, say, give something a favorable review, I would totally never do that, even if I could use the cash because of student loans and everything else, and it’s not like anybody cares about my opinion in the long run, so maybe give me a call sometime and we can work something out?

Anyway, what I’m saying is, I like to think that I could be a good man if I was ever thrown into a situation where being a good man meant more hardship than just not running over slow people in the crosswalk. (My favorites are the ones who wait till the No Walk signal goes up before crossing directly into traffic. I think they are all Satan.) In “The Defector,” a Romulan commander betrays his race because be believes that, in doing so, he can help make the universe safer for his children. It’s a monumental decision, an attempt by an individual to take a moral stance not just against an action, but against the general philosophy of his entire government, and in doing so, the Romulan leaves behind everything he’s ever known and loved, forever. Then he finds out that his actions have all been planned out by the ones he sought to sabotage, rendering his sacrifice pointless. It’s a dark, dark episode, despite the occasional moments of levity, and it ends with a suicide. So, no huge surprises that Ron Moore is the main writer.

If you reverse the perspectives here, and look at the situation from Picard’s perspective, the Moore-ian themes become even more clear. “Defector” is about trust, and how difficult it is to  define “truth” even under ideal circumstances–not that Starfleet’s shaky relations with the Romulans are anything close to ideal. I love how “Defector” plays with our expectations. Whenever I watch an episode like this, my impulse is to assume the truth is the opposite of whatever the narrative is currently pushing on me. It’s something a lifetime of watching shows and reading stories have taught me; you go against the flow. The least obvious suspect in a murder mystery stands a good chance of being the killer. Unless you’re dealing with a clever writer, in which case the least obvious suspect might simply be a red herring designed to catch you off-guard, and it’s really the most obvious suspect who’s responsible. Unless you’re dealing with a writer that’s even more clever than that, and it’s some kind of double bluff, and then it turns out everything’s this crazy fat guy’s hallucination and the whole movie turns into a piece of shit!

Ahem. All I’m saying is, the more you watch this stuff, the more patterns you start to suss out, and the more prepared you are to recognize those patterns before the story really wants you to be aware of them. It’s not something I do on purpose. I’ll admit, I get a certain thrill of pride when I figure out a twist ahead of time, but I’ve been burned by this before too. (I was very pleased with myself for figuring out the big reveal of A Beautiful Mind based on the trailer, but I also spent the last hour of 12 Monkeys really hoping I was wrong about the ending. I wasn’t, and that meant I was too busy getting pissy to really enjoy the movie.) Which means I really get a kick out of a twist that catches me off-guard. “The Defector” does a great job at this, by providing us with a mystery: is Admiral Jarok, the titular turncoat, telling the truth about Romulan operations? Or is he part of some larger scheme designed to trick the Enterprise into fumbling into an ambush? The episode spends so much time focused on this issue, letting us spend time with Jarok to decide if we trust him, following Picard and the others as they pick apart the holes in Jarok’s story, that it fools us (or fooled me, anyway) into thinking this was, like my adolescent thoughts on relationships, a purely binary issue. Either Jarok was telling the truth or he wasn’t. That was all that mattered.

And then, of course, it doesn’t. It’s that fabled extra step you hear about in reviews a lot, that final turn of the screw that takes a story from good (and this episode is very, very good) to spectacular, simply by throwing us in a direction that we don’t see coming in a way that still works organically with what we’ve already seen, and that actually works to emphasize or throw into a new light all the details we’ve accumulated up to that point. Jarok, it turns out, isn’t a liar. He believes that the current tense relations between his people and the Federation have to be put to an end, and he’s willing to sacrifice his career and even his life in the name of that end. To find out that he was used the whole time is both effectively upsetting from an emotional standpoint (by the end of the episode, Jarok had become one of my favorite one-off characters on the series), as well as reinforcing the need for Jarok’s actions even while rendering them moot. It’s a devastating reveal, and Moore deserves credit for refusing to soften it with any kind of happy ending.

There are a ton of great scenes in “The Defector.” The cold open is terrific: we start with a pair of random guys standing by a campfire, talking Shakespearean English, and then Data shows up, dressed to match them, and we listen to more of Henry V. Finally we get a cut to Picard, in his standard uniform, watching the whole scene with a tremendous enthusiasm, and it’s not too hard to put the pieces together. (Figuring this out is made slightly more difficult by the fact that Patrick Stewart is actually playing one of the random guys. He’s heavily made up, but you can still see the actor under the make-up, and his voice is distinctive enough that even if you missed the features, you’d recognize the tone. There’s no reference made to the doubling in the episode itself. I can see making the argument that it’s a distraction, but really, if there’s any Shakespeare to be had in TNG, it’s only fitting that Stewart should have some part in it, no matter how small.) The scene speaks of war, which is thematically appropriate, and it’s a good reminder that Data is still striving to be human, but really, I think I just like this because it’s one of those cool hang-out scenes that make the Enterprise feel more like a living, breathing world.

Data does some further research on being alive by spending some time with Jarok (who is played by James Sloyan. Sloyan does excellent work; Jarok skirts the edge of hamminess, but the character is an effective mixture of off-putting arrogance and charming directness. He’s likable by the end because he makes no real effort to be liked). Unsurprisingly, Jarok is willing to open up with Data, and Data creates a program replicating a part of Jarok’s homeworld in the holodeck, in order to provide some comfort for the Admiral for all he’s left behind. The scene where Data shows Jarok the program is very smartly done. It’s no surprise that Jarok would reject the illusion, because everything we’ve gotten to know about the character has told us this is someone who values plain-speaking and truth above all else. What makes this work is that Jarok is initially overcome by the sight of his past. It makes him more vulnerable, and easier to care about.

Picard gets some terrific dialog with Jarok as well, where Picard expresses his frustrations and the difficulties of knowing what to do with the information Jarok offers, and Jarok confesses he has a daughter, and how that daughter was the prime motivation for his decision to defect. Moore would show himself to be a genius on Battlestar Galactica in dealing with characters struggling to find common ground, even while we, in the audience, sympathize with both sides. You can get good drama out of a unified group working towards a seemingly impossible goal, but you can get great drama out of that group if unification is never taken for granted, if each individual is granted some measure of individual desire, and if cooperation relies as much on compromise and faith as it does on a common enemy. It’s easy to understand why Picard is so suspicious throughout “Defector.” By the end of the episode, it’s just as easy to understand why Jarok did what he did. You want them to come to some kind of mutual truce, but there’s no assumption that will happen, and when the truce does arrive, it’s not a happy one.

So yeah, Jarok commits suicide at the end of “Defector.” Has a character ever offed themselves at the conclusion of a TNG episode before? I don’t think we’ve had many suicides on the series, and there’s a difference between a death before the third commercial break, and one before the end credits. It’s a bleak note to end on, and the letter Jarok leaves to his wife and daughter is a heartbreaking final touch. He knows there’s no way that letter could be delivered as current relations between the Federation and the Romulan empire stand. But he leaves it any way, both as a symbol of why he sacrificed so much, and in the hope that maybe, someday, things could change. His voice may have been alone back home, but he won’t be the last to speak out, and maybe, someday, there will be enough so that an individual need not betray all he knows to save all he loves.

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

Human beings spend a lot of time standing around talking about what it’s like being human, you ever notice that? It must be a function of consciousness; we have all these brains, and we’re aware of all these brains, and that’s just so weird and stuff. And there are feelings, too! Man, don’t even get me started on feelings. In the face of all that sloppy passion and unchecked desire, the intellect responds in the only way it can: by cataloging, by dissection, by engaging in a study of why we’re sad or happy or whatever. There’s no one to compare us to, but sometimes I get the suspiscion that that our race must look impossibly self-absorbed to any outside observer. Unless, that is, the observer is even more self-absorbed than we are.

Which brings us to Q, which brings us to the first episode of this week’s double feature, “Deja Q.” I don’t think either of the eps I’m writing about today are classics, but “Deja” is definitely the better of the two–it’s intermittently funny, deals with some major themes on the show, and comes perilously close to hitting the emotional marks it’s aiming for. It doesn’t entirely work. Some of the jokes fall flat, the themes we look at aren’t explored in a way that’s all that exciting, and the drama is undercut by a scene near the end that, while structurally inevitable, works mostly to undermine what we’ve seen so far. After our last Q ep, the brilliant “Q Who?”, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed to see the character rendered as impotent as he (mostly) is here–and I don’t just mean because he’s lost his powers. But get past the high expectations, and there’s fun to be had. I mean, Picard is tormented by a mariachi band. That is a thing of wonders.

I appreciate a good pun as much as the next guy (unless the next guy is Gallagher, in which case I’m probably in the wrong line), but I can’t help thinking that “Deja” is ill-served by its title. Because this episode doesn’t start out like a Q episode; it starts out with the Enterprise in orbit around Bre’el IV, working on a way to prevent that planet’s asteroid moon from breaking orbit and crashing through the atmosphere. Such a crash could potentially throw Bre’el into its very own ice age, and as much as we all love mammoths that sound like Ray Romano and freaked out squirrels, that isn’t a good thing. Tempting as it would be to just blow the moon to pieces (or perhaps call Bruce Willis, the best oil-rig guy in the world, to do the job), those pieces would do as much damage as the big rock would as is. Geordi suggests using the tractor beam to try and slow the descent; problem is, the Enterprise‘s tractor beam wouldn’t be enough. So they’re stuck.

That’s when Q shows up on the bridge, naked and floating. One commercial break later, we find him dressed in one of the ship’s boring-ass unitards, complaining about the color and claiming to’ve lost all his powers. Of course no one believes him, and they also assume he has something to do with the falling moon. Q protests, gets a little snippy, and eventually, Picard throws him in the brig. So now we have what the episode is really about: is Q fooling? And if he is fooling, what’s his game? And if he isn’t, just how can he possibly fit in as a normal person, after spending countless years pissing everyone off?

It’s funny, I don’t think I ever considered even for a second that Q was faking, and you get the impression that Picard’s response is more based on irritation and an unwillingness to deal with the situation than anything approaching logic. After all, this kind of play doesn’t seem like Q’s style–he doesn’t do humility, not even of the fake variety. It could get irritating that no one else on the ship seems to realize this, but it’s not, mostly because the crew’s reaction doesn’t play as unbelief; it plays as antipathy. If Q was some respected, much loved figured on the ship, then his problems would be relevant. But he isn’t, so they aren’t. Plus, his timing is terrible. The whole moon thing would be stressful even under the best circumstances, and Q just adds in an unnecessary complication.

As for how he’s lost his powers… That’s one of the things about this episode I’m mixed on. I know there are stories down the road that make good use of the Continuum (I remember a pretty decent on one Voyager, of all things), but here the concept seems poorly-defined. Normally, that’s not a huge problem for me. When it comes to characters who are basically magic-based, I don’t need a lot of specifics to make the story work; in fact, those characters work better when we don’t question the “how” of what they’re doing because we’re too busy focusing on the “why.” Still, we gotta have rules, right? “Deja” would be a great time to set down some of those rules, because if we’re going to keep bringing Q back, at some point, we’re going to need more of a sense of where he comes from than, “some place some where.” Instead, all we’re told is that Q lost his powers because his fellow Q weren’t happy with the way he’s been behaving.

That seems unimaginative to me. It seems like what you’d expect–because Picard and the others are so irritated by Q, of course his fellow god-like beings would be too. But it’s too… easy somehow? Like, we’re being told information we already know, and it reduces Q somehow by giving us an apparently moral force that can keep him in his place. But we don’t know what drives this force’s decisions, and when we finally meet another member of the continuum at the episode’s climax, it’s not exactly a satisfying experience. (That’s the scene I was talking about above, by the way.) Corbin Bernsen overacts as much as de Lancie, only de Lancie knows how to modulate his haminess so that its distinctive; Bernsen’s performance is just this wave of smirking, self-satisfied smarm. This should be a triumphant moment, as our Q has decided he no longer wants to live as a human, and will sacrifice himself to an alien ship (the Calamarains, who apparently have good reason to dislike Q) to save the Enterprise. This selfless act wins him back his powers. It’s an old story, but de Lancie manages to invest his decisions with enough gravitas that it could’ve worked. Then Bernsen shows up. It’s not just that he’s hammy, it’s that his performance is basically just a mediocre imitation of de Lancie’s own–so if everybody in the continuum is so nutty, why did Q get booted out? I can almost make it fit in my head: that this is some dark joke, that while we’re led to believe early on that Q is facing the consequences of his behavior, it really comes down to a bunch of crazed super-beings who follow a system of laws more for entertainment’s sake than any actual morality. That, I could buy, because then Q’s return to power would play as a gag, instead of as an indication that he’s learned his lesson. But the scene is just too clumsy and misjudged for my interpretation to work, and it robs some power away from the episode’s few moments of effective pathos.

Still, “Deja” can be effective, and that’s largely based on the one brilliant choice: pairing the powerless Q off with Data. The Q/Picard relationship is one the show has gotten great mileage out of in the past, but with Q unable to torment the captain with anything beyond sarcasm and whininess, the power balance is wrong. It’s hard to imagine him fitting very well with most of the other regular cast-members, either. Riker is too square-jawed, Worf would tear Q’s head off (“What must I do to convince you people?” “Die.” “Oh, very clever Worf. Eat any good books lately?”), Wesley is too much of a naive idiot, Troi would probably lecture him–and so on. Data is perfect because he never gets annoyed, never loses his patience, and because he takes everything Q says with such straight-forward seriousness that he forces Q to actually talk with him, as opposed to just delivering a monologue with pauses for the expected outraged responses.

There’s also this line from Data: “An irony. It means that you have achieved in disgrace what I have always aspired to be.” Q spends much of the episode complaining about the limitations of his human form, from back pain to hunger to the need for sleep. (I vaguely remember reading a story once about a creature who was forced to sleep after a lifetime of wakefulness. It’s played for laughs here, but it would be a terrifying experience, wouldn’t it? “Okay, for eight hours, you’ll pretend to be dead, and you might hallucinate.”) It wears thin, because it’s one of those surface-level gags that falls apart when you think about it. Humans aren’t the only sentient beings that eat or sleep or suffer, and surely, in all his time as a sub-space Loki, Q would’ve noticed these things happening even if they weren’t happening to him. I can buy that he’s self-absorbed, but he’s never been portrayed as an idiot, and he’s supposedly still in enough command of his mental faculties to help Geordi figure out a way to stop the moon. But I’m getting off-track; pairing Data with Q is the only plausible way to have Q learn some humility, because Data values everything that Q hates, in a way that’s steadfast, sincere, and unforced.

What disappoints me the most about this episode is that its basic ideas are so cool (what would it be like to lose omnipotence?), but so much of the scripting is shallow or under-explored. I mostly buy Q’s decision to sacrifice himself at the end, and I think it’s not unreasonable that Data’s sacrifice helps push him to that point (it doesn’t hurt that Q’s is driven as much by his unwillingness to stay mortal as anything more noble), but I do feel like we’re missing a scene in here. The falling moon isn’t a terrible plot device, but it also works as a distraction, preventing the main storyline from ever getting much past surface impressions. The ending is nice, though. Q, for the moment chastised, saves Bre’el IV, and gives Data the perfect gift: one great big belly laugh. Brent Spiner is, as ever, more than a little creepy when trying to convey human emotion, but it’s still a great send-off, and leaves me with a better impression than the episode, perhaps, deserves.

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

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is an amazing film. I’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes trying to figure out a way to explain it to you in a few sentences, but I can’t. It’s not that complex, apart from its structure: a man is murdered in the forest, and the three witnesses to the crime, the bandit, the wronged (?) woman, and the murdered man (his ghost is called back for the trial–and pardon the brief digression, but that always struck me as the most nihilistic gesture in an incredibly cynical movie; that the dead could speak, and they’d still lie as bad as the living, is horrifying), tell a court their version of the crime. Each version varies wildly, and even after hearing all testimony, it’s impossible to know exactly what happened. That’s the heart of things, right there, that swirling mystery of the past, and what makes the film so unsettling is that it never gives you the “real” account. It never settles your mind by treating you, the audience, to the truth. You can watch Rashomon like a puzzle waiting to be solved, but you’ll never find an answer that satisfies you, because there isn’t one.

Countless television shows have homaged (or stolen) this format, but hardly any of them remember that the whole point of Rashomon is that none of the stories we hear are any more true than any of the other stories. Everyone has something to gain or hide or protect, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it, and that need trumps their abilities as objective observers. The rip-offs always have to give us a cheat sheet by the end. It’s always easy to watch each fake version and realize what makes it fake, because the fakeness always stems from one of the narrator’s obvious flaws. Like, the guy with the huge ego will give an account where everyone worships him. It flatters the viewer that even though these imperfect characters can’t really see what’s going on, we can, because we’re quite clever, and because ultimately, buried under all those exaggerations, there is one core Truth that only we can figure out completely. It makes Rashomon safe, in a way the film was never intended to be.

Another way to make the Rashomon story “safe” is by including a main character as one of the narrators, like Riker in “A Matter Of Perspective.” The Enterprise is visiting a space station to check in on the research of Dr. Nel Apgar. Riker beams over to the station, along with Geordi, but Geordi beams back first the next day, and tells Picard that there’s some kind of unpleasantness going on between Riker and the doctor. Then Riker beams back, but as he leaves the station, the place explodes, and O’Brian is just barely able to get Will’s pattern on the transporter beam. No one knows what caused the explosion, and soon after, a Tanugan official, Chief Inspector Krag, arrives on the ship, wanting to arrest Riker on suspicion of murder. Given that Federation law puts the Enterprise liable to the laws of the planet below them, Picard has negotiate a deal in which, via sworn testimony and voice logs, they can use the holodeck to find out what happened on the space station, and whether or not there’s sufficient evidence to send Riker below.

Already there’s a problem with this: Riker is innocent. Everyone may put on their serious faces, Krag may be a complete dick about the whole thing (it’s funny how guys in that kind of role are always dicks), and the episode may try and play coy about just what happened on the space station, but there isn’t a chance in hell that the Enterprise‘s first officer murdered that scientist. That’s just not the kind of show this is–all the leads have very clear, very powerful moral codes, and while there are circumstances that could theoretically drive them to bend those morals, I can’t imagine any situation that would require outright breakage. “Matter” makes a few plays towards throwing suspicion on Riker in the beginning, first by having his final scene with Apgar played off screen, then by holding back his account of events till after the holodeck simulation is set up, and while it’s effective enough in making us want to find out what happened, it also seems a little cheap. If you’ve been playing along at home, you might remember “A Wolf In The Fold,” an episode from the original Trek that had Scotty accused of a murder he didn’t commit. That episode also tried to play around with ambiguity, and once again, it doesn’t really work; and let’s be honest, it’s much easier to imagine Scotty as a killer than it is to imagine Riker. (Although Frakes is so laid back all the time, you kind of wonder how he relieves his stress, especially when he doesn’t have his dad around to re-enact episodes of American Gladiator.)

“Matter” doesn’t go deliriously off the rails in the final act like “Wolf” did (we don’t find the space station was destroyed by the reincarnated spirit of Guy Fawkes), which is both a relief and something of a shame. The explanation we get for Apgar’s death is clever, science-based, and fits the established facts. It also conveniently exonerates Riker, which, while expected, makes the earlier uncertainty even more pointless. But it does make sense, and it doesn’t feel like a cheat, which counts for a lot. Plus, you could argue that whatever suspense the episode is shooting for is generated not from trying to make us doubt one of the show’s leading men, but in worrying about whether or not that man will be sent down to the planet, where he’ll almost certainly be imprisoned or, worse, executed. Krag explains to Picard that, on Tanuga, the accused are guilty until proven innocent, which doesn’t speak well to Riker’s chances in a Tanugan court. (It doesn’t speak well to anyone’s chances, honestly. Proving a negative is nearly impossible.) Geordi is able to prove that Apgar is basically responsible for his own demise, killed in an attempt to kill Riker, which means that not only is the Beard One in the clear, the dead guy was a whiny bastard who deserved what he got. No reason for caution, everyone: we are entering a Tragedy Free Zone.

Even before we get to the decent but toothless ending, “Matter” is a mixed bag. Much like “Deja Q,” we’ve got a lot of potentially interesting ideas (the Federation’s relationship with working scientists, middle-aged aliens hitting on Riker) which aren’t handled all that successfully, and sadly, there’s no goofy performances or core of solid emotion to help smooth over the rough patches. Once the episode gets down to its Rashomon-ing, there’s some interest to be found in matching up the various versions (we hear from Riker, Apgar’s wife, Manua, and Apgar’s lab assistant), and seeing how they contrast, but that only goes so far. Again, it comes down to the problem of Riker being a major cast member. While it’s possible he exaggerates Apgar’s wife’s amorous advances, nothing we’ve seen of him so far on the show indicates that he’s so arrogant or insecure that he’d have to imagine aggressive attraction when there is none. Besides, Manua’s version of events requires Riker to be such a leering, one-note villain that’d it be difficult to take seriously even if we had every reason to believe her. (That said, the best laughs in the episode come from comparing the three versions of the Riker/Apgar fistfight: Riker’s, which has Apgar throwing the first punch, Manua’s, which has Apgar getting beat down for no good reason, and Apgar’s own version, relayed to his assistant, which has Apgar kicking Riker’s ass.)

All of this would’ve been better served by putting a guest actor in the Riker role here, pulling some formerly anonymous crew-member out of the Enterprise‘s halls and making him the suspect. If it was somebody we didn’t already know, we’d have more reason to wonder just what actually happened, more reason to doubt the crew-member’s story, and more reason to watch all the other versions of the tale that play out here. I’m not sure why we didn’t get this. It might be a budget thing, or it might be that they wanted to do another Riker-centered episode, or maybe they chose to put the unabashedly heroic Riker on the stand because even the hint that someone on the Enterprise might be capable of murder would tarnish the show’s Up With People image. Whatever the reason, it seems like a missed opportunity.

We got what we got, though, and credit where it’s due: “Matter” goes to a great deal of effort in the final act to make every version of the story we’d seen relevant to the final reveal, as Picard uses threads from each as evidence in his accusations against Apgar. It’s a smart piece of writing that I can respect without really enjoying all that much. The episode makes a few stabs towards the original movie’s despair. At one point during Manua’s account of events, Riker becomes so frustrated by what he’s seeing that he interrupts the re-enactment, insisting that none of what they’re being shown actually happened. Later, he insists to Troi that he’s telling the truth, and she tells him she believes him, but that she senses no falseness from Manua, either. And since the real villain here is Apgar himself, none of the other characters had reason to consciously lie, which means the fact that Riker and Manua’s stories don’t match up is an example, however unsophisticated, of how no one remembers the same past.

Only, this is the future, where there’s high tech machinery, computers, and a million different ways for bringing that past back to life. That should make this all the more poignant; even with all that technology, the truth remains elusive. Instead, all doubt is swept away in Picard’s final speech (and let’s be honest, if you have to have someone sweep away doubt, you could go worse than Picard), and the discrepancies between Riker and Manua’s memories are rendered irrelevant. Rashomon is a deeply unsettling film that questions our basic understanding of reality, and only provides some minor comfort in the final moments by showing that however uncertain the world is, human connections still matter. “Perspective” is a decent mystery that ties everything up nicely, with only some minor uncertainty left over. Each represent their own version of the truth–but in this case, it’s pretty easy to figure out which one is worth remembering.

According to the A.V. Club review of Yesterday’s Enterprise:

What if something was wrong? I don’t mean a broken heart or a lost shoelace. I mean something major, something so big that it’s impossible to step back and look at the big picture because anywhere you step, you’re still buried inside the mess. So you just feel it, the way a great conductor can tell if a single instrument in the orchestra is off-key. You can’t eat, because you can’t get the oily sick taste of wrongness off your tongue, and it’s impossible to form lasting emotional connections because everyone you talk to is as wrong as everything else; misplaced, out of step, on loan from the Island of Misfit Realities. Then one day, you figure it out–you realize what’s been causing all the problems. Once you fix the cause, you can right all the wrongness, and the universe will be set back on its proper course. Everyone can go home.

Everyone except you. Because as it turns out, you’re supposed to be dead.

I had high hopes for “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” I’ve heard it praised often enough, and, given the title and the few facts I knew about the episode, I knew I was in for some alternate reality fun. I live for that stuff. There’s time travel here, paradoxes, anomalies, great action sequences, sterling performances. And Tasha Yar. I was expecting all kinds of goodness from this, but what I wasn’t expecting is for the series to somehow find a way to absolve itself of its most ignoble sin: the pointless death of a main character from the first season. “Skin of Evil” is an awful hour of television no matter how you slice it, and Yar’s death scene in it is an insulting end for someone who was just beginning to come into her own. That happens sometimes. Shows, especially long running ones, can hit rough patches, and, unlike with the rough draft of a novel, they can’t go back and edit out a bit because they realize it doesn’t work. And yet, that’s basically what “Yesterday’s Enterprise” does. It works beautifully. Even at her best, Tasha was a problematic character, but by the end of this episode, it’s impossible not to feel her loss.

Emotional aspects aside (and, of course, I’ll get back to those in a second, because I am a soppy son of a bitch), “Yesterday’s” is a wonderfully efficient piece of science fiction storytelling. The teleplay (written by what looks like half the show’s writing staff) wastes no time at all in getting down to business. The Enterprise comes across a time displacement floating in space. While Data struggles to get a reading on it, and Picard debates the best course of action, a ship comes through the rift. Before anyone can figure out what’s happening, the universe–shifts. I’ll admit, I misread this when it happened; I was assuming that the ship coming out of the rift, which looked like the Enterprise, had the alternate reality versions of Picard and everyone else aboard. I thought the rift wasn’t a break in time but a gateway to another dimension, sort of a “Mirror, Mirror” deal.

The situation a good deal more clever than that, though, as the episode soon makes clear. The rift is a time warp, and the ship that comes through it is actually the Enterprise-C, the previous model of our Enterprise that was destroyed over twenty years ago. The shift on our Enterprise, the shift that changes the bridge design, uniforms, and puts Tasha back in command of security, is actually a result of the Enterprise-C leaving its own time period, changing the past, and creating a new present. It’s a complicated concept. While time travel stories have been playing this kind of spin since Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound Of Thunder,” this is a lot of information that needs to be unpacked quickly, in order to set up the conflict that will drive the rest of the episode.

What’s impressive, then, is how much “Yesterday’s” manages to convey without ever becoming belabored.  The episode does a terrific job of laying down its basic concepts in an efficient, easy to follow way. In addition to the dialog (which is often expository but never tediously so), there are all kinds of brilliant touches to show just how screwed up this world is. This Other Enterprise is severely over-crowded, and you hear a steady stream of announcements playing over the ships intercom about combat training. The Captain’s Log is now the “Military Log.” Guinan’s outfit changes color. (Okay, that last one probably doesn’t count for much.) Even some of the performances have changed. Stewart’s Other Picard is harsher, angrier, honed to a furious point by years of ceaseless conflict, and he and Riker don’t have the comfortable camaraderie that their regular counterparts share. And there’s no Troi on the bridge or, indeed, anywhere that we ever see. It isn’t mentioned, but her absence tells as all we need to know about the change in the Enterprise‘s on-going mission; nobody gives a damn about feelings anymore.

Another point in the episode’s favor is how quickly it comes to its main crisis–what to do with the Enterprise-C and her crew. As soon as the shift between potentialities occurs, Guinan knows something is wrong. She tells Picard that the Enterprise-C will have to return to its own time, that it’s their presence in the future (and absence in the past) that caused the twenty year war with the Klingon Empire that’s already cost millions upon millions of lives. Picard objects to this, but he doesn’t waste too much time on these objections. It’s very easy to imagine “Yesterday’s” spent with Guinan struggling to sway the minds of an increasingly irritated crew, of her having to sneak around and find others who also somehow sense what she senses, of their brave efforts to set right what once went wrong. But that’s not what this episode is about. Sure, Riker isn’t happy; the idea of sacrificing a whole crew on someone’s hunch doesn’t go down easy, so somebody has to speak up. Riker’s unhappiness doesn’t stand in the way of what needs to get done, however.

All the clever writing here is much appreciated, and there’s an elegance to it that you don’t always see on genre shows. For example: note how Other Data explains how the death of the Enterprise-C in the past could’ve prevented the Klingon War. We know the ship isn’t going to survive in the past for long, so we need a clear reason why its sacrifice will be enough to right history back on course. By having Other Data present a possible theory, we’re saved the wasting time at the end of the episode–without his explanation, one of the “real” members of the Enterprise crew would’ve had to say something like, “Gosh, remember how the deaths of everyone aboard the previous model of this ship twenty years ago stopped a war?” It would’ve been a clunky piece of housekeeping that distracted from the episode’s emotional denouement. Even if all “Yesterday’s” had was smart, risky plotting, it would stand as a series highpoint. But we go one step further here, with Yar’s brief return to the bridge.

Denise Crosby isn’t an amazing actress, but she’s better directed here than she ever was in the first season, and she’s given far, far better dialog. Her relationship with Lt. Richard Castillo (Christopher McDonald), a crew-member aboard the Enterprise-C, is one of the stronger romances we’ve seen on the show, without any of the smarmy aggression that’s bogged down similar plotlines in the past. Really, though, it comes down to Yar’s conversation with Guinan in Ten-Forward, and her final exchange with Picard. It’s not enough that Guinan tells Yar she’s supposed to be dead–Guinan goes so far as to tell Tasha that her death was “empty” and “without purpose.” It’s a terrific acknowledgement of one of the series’ worst moments, and provides the episode with its strongest emotional beats. Tasha’s determination to die with meaning by the end of “Yesterday’s” transforms her from a misstep into something more noble and sad. Characters die all the time in stories, and sometimes we care, and sometimes we don’t, but here’s one who knows that she’s doomed, who knows that in order for the story to be told properly, she has to leave. It’s not really a sacrifice, since whatever happens, she’s dead. But at least this way gives her back her dignity.

So yeah, this is brilliant. The space battle at the end is appropriately thrilling (alternate timelines are a great excuse to kill off leading character consequence free; in that spirit, please enjoy Riker’s gaping neck wound), and the story flows from beginning to end with an amazing amount of confidence and grace. The best testament to quality I can give here is that, when Guinan sits down with Geordi in the final scene and says, “Tell me about Tasha Yar,” I wanted to hear more.

According to the A.V. Club review of Sins of the Father:

World-building is as much about illusion as it is about information. No fictional creation can ever have as much detail as reality, no matter how many episodes a show runs, or how many novels fans write about it, so the idea is to suggest worlds without ever having to show them. The Enterprise is just a collection of rooms, but it has to feel like a ship; some of the ensemble characters may only get a handful of lines each episode, but there has to be the sense that, were they to talk longer, they’d have stories to tell. On the best shows, any character can step forward and take center stage without losing our interest, because even if all we know of them is some tics and a few punchlines, we still believe there’s more to learn.

I love TNG, but I don’t think it’s a great show; it’s more a very good show with a share of amazing individual episodes. In terms of world-building, it can be hit-or-miss; it’s not that I doubt that, say, Troi has a past, it’s that I have zero interest in hearing about it. (All right, that’s not entirely fair. I would be as happy as the next guy with a terrific Troi-centric storyline. I’m just not holding my breath that we’ll ever get one.) I think we’ve all had enough Wesley-centric episodes to last us a very long time. But everybody else I’m still curious about. I wouldn’t mind finding out about Riker’s earlier days, or learning what’s going on with Picard and Beverly. While “Sins of the Father” isn’t a flashback episode, it does give us more information about one of the show’s most unsung (and best) secondary leads. In doing so, “Father” helps expand the TNG universe, and gives Worf his moment of glory. It’s another strong episode in what is turning into a consistently solid season.

Speaking of Riker, remember “Matter Of Honor”? It’s from back in the second season–as part of an officer exchange program, Riker spends some time as first officer of the Klingon ship, Pagh. He makes friends, flirts with Klingon women, and wins the respect of his crewmates. One of the pleasures of watching TNG from the beginning is the show’s occasional references to earlier episodes; they’re smooth enough that, if you haven’t seen the episode being referenced, you won’t realize you’re missing out, but if you’ve been paying attention, it helps maintain the feeling that this is a persistent world. That happens here: “Sins” begins with the Enterprise taking on a Klingon officer named Kurn to serve as the ship’s First Officer, as the second part of “Honor”‘s exchange program. The  writers (Ron Moore, W. Reed Moran, and Drew Deigna) could’ve justified Kurn’s presence in any number of ways, but they remind us of the Pagh and Riker’s time there, partly for continuity, and partly because “Honor” was all about, well, honor, and that’s going to be a very important thread here.

Kurn is played by Tony Todd, who does a great job of balancing his usual menacing presence with a sense of desperation and even, oddly enough, vulnerability. As First Officer, he runs roughshod over the crew, barking orders, berating everyone for their lax discipline (I’ve gotten used to Wesley by now, but I can’t say I wasn’t happy to see him yelled at), and ignoring Riker’s attempts at advice. This, initially, looks to be our main plot: Kurn’s difficult, a crisis arises, Kurn learns to adjust his methods, and the ensemble learns that maybe discipline isn’t such a bad thing after all. Oh, and of course Kurn will spend some time tormenting Worf, because that’s what Klingons do: torment each other. Only, that’s not what happens. Kurn pushes Worf, until Worf is finally upset enough to confront Kurn in his quarters. After determining once and for all that Worf isn’t anyone’s pet, Kurn explains the truth: he is Worf’s younger brother, and he’s here to ask for Worf’s help. Someone has put up treason charges against their father, Mogh, and Worf, as the eldest (and only publicly acknowledged son of Mogh), is the only one who can restore the family reputation.

It’s time, then, for a field trip to the First City of the Klingon Empire, because it’s not like Picard’s going to let Worf go off on his own. The First City is remarkable, all thunder and storm clouds and buildings that look as if they could be used as weapons, should the need arise. The Klingons make fascinating characters (when well written) because they used to be the bad guys. Traditionally, the aggressive, war-like races on a sci-fi show are the villains. This is because of story demands–heroes are the guys who try and stop places from being conquered, not the ones who do the conquering. (Plus, it makes us human look better if we’re not the only ones killing the Indians, so to speak.) Here, peace has been made, but the decor remains the same; there’s no attempt made to friendly up Klingon hospitality, and while we learn by the end of the episode that politics on the home-world are trickier than they initially appear, we’re never given cause to believe anything here will change.

The second half of “Father” is a curious sort of courtroom drama; while Worf stands his ground against the insults of Duras, the son of Mogh’s greatest rival, Picard and the Enterprise Mystery Team go to work trying to prove Mogh’s innocence. Picard’s unquestioning support of Worf serves to make both characters more likable (Picard for putting his trust and respect in Worf, Worf for earning the trust and respect of a man like Picard), and Stewart’s performance during the Klingon council is unsurprisingly excellent; he can’t make himself a Klingon, but he can surely do his damn best to behave like one. His commitment is tested when Kurn, who’s been serving as Worf’s cha’DIch during the trial (we never see anyone engage in actual combat during the proceedings, but from what Worf says, if anybody’s going to fight, it would be the cha’DIch), is injured by a trio of assassins working for Duras. Worf asks Picard to take Kurn’s place, which gives even Picard a moment’s pause, because hey, he’s not getting younger (and his skin is not getting any more knife-proof). But he accepts, and when the assassins come for him, he makes a surprisingly good showing. There’s a long held myth in Trek fandom that Kirk was the bad-ass, and Picard was the thinker. While it’s true that Kirk had more of a rough and ready approached than Picard, it’s important to remember that both characters were more than simple archetypes. Kirk could think his way out of most anything, and Picard, despite being a man of more distinguished years, is no slouch in the ass-kicking department.

In council, the long dead Mogh is accused to colluding with the Romulans; his treason made the Romulans attack on the Khitomer Outpost (the attack that killed Mogh and left Worf an orphan) possible. It goes without saying that Mogh is, of course, innocent. Ron Moore’s name on the credits or not, we’re not in the murky gray morality of Battlestar Galactica quite yet, so it’s probably asking too much to force Worf and his newfound brother to accept that just because their father was a son of a bitch, doesn’t mean they have to be. I’m not sure TNG could’ve supported that kind of twist, anyway; we’ve been told again and again how important Worf’s honor is to him, and a storyline that stripped that honor away in a manner that left him no recourse could’ve sent the character into a tailspin that would require more than a single episode to come out of. Thankfully, it’s a little more complicated than that. One of the assumptions when Picard sets Data, Geordi, and Riker to looking for answers is that there will be answers to find, and “Father” gains a lot of points out of proving that assumption false. Oh sure, Geordi is able to determine that the logs damning Worf’s father are probably faked, but there’s no definitive evidence. When Picard goes to meet the other survivor of Khitomer, Kahlest, she agrees with him that Mogh was innocent, but she has no knowledge that can prove that innocence in court. Picard uncovers the truth by bluffing, bringing Kahlest to the council and pretending she has information in order to draw out the conspirators; it’s a dramatic choice that helps underplay the convenience of Mogh’s innocence.

Even better is what happens next. It’s not really a surprise when we learn that it was Duras’s father who contacted the Romulans, nor is it a major shock when K’mpec, the head of the council, reveals he was in on the frame-up. Duras is flat-out bad-guy material (three on one? Mocking Picard? Total jerkface), and K’mpec’s warning to Worf earlier was an obvious sign that something was up. What is surprising is that this isn’t some cruel attempt to trap Worf, but the end result of some behind the scenes negotiations to keep the Klingon Empire from collapsing. If the true traitor is revealed, we’re told, the Empire will fall to civil war. Picard is outraged, demanding that the truth must out regardless of the consequences, but Worf demurs.

Much of the latter part of “Father” is focused on Picard and the others’ attempts to figure out what really happened back at Khitomer. Once he accepts his role and makes his claim to the council, Worf is sidelined from the action. We don’t even get a scene of him beating the crap out of Duras’s henchmen. Picard’s bluff reveals the secret, but these are Worf’s people, and in the end, this story belongs to him. It’s his honor that’s in question, and the choice he makes, to sacrifice face in the Empire in order to save that Empire from devouring itself alive, makes up for his time on the bench. It’s a decision that’s consistent with everything we’ve seen of his character so far, but one that also serves to clarify our understanding of him. This is a being who has spent his entire existence aspiring to be part of the home he lost as a child, and here, he willingly sacrifices another tie to that home because it is the honorable thing to do. In the final scene, the members of the Klingon council turn their backs on Worf. Kurn resists, and Worf says, “You must also, brother.” It’s a remarkable moment, and no matter how or how little we see of Worf in the episodes to come, it will prove difficult to forget.

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

Well, well, well, doesn’t this sound familiar: an unknown alien force kidnaps Captain Picard from his quarters, depositing him in a cell with three companions. The cell is locked, and anyone who tries to tamper with the lock mechanism is hit with beam of pure pain. No one in the cell seems to know who brought them there, or why, and it’s up to the four of them working together to discover what’s happened, and to find some means of escape. The cell is small, the furnishing’s spartan, and Picard’s cell-mates are broad types: Tholl, the arrogant thinker who uses logic to hide his cowardice; and Esoqq, the violent warrior who wants to stab things and is very, very hungry. There’s also Mitena Haro, a first year Starfleet cadet who’s a huge fan of Picard’s. She’s a little more complex than the other two, maybe sort of a bridge between their outlooks… or maybe something more than that.

Oh, right, these are reviews, aren’t they. She’s the alien kidnapper in disguise! Moving on.

The details are different, but doesn’t this sound a lot like something that we would’ve seen during the original series? I could imagine it fitting in (as well as anything did) in TNG‘s first season, back when the show was struggling both to carry on the Trek legacy and find its own way, but it’s a testament to how far the show has come that “Allegiance” doesn’t entirely fit. As TNG has gone on, it’s deepened its storytelling; where the original series was focused on broad stroke and archetypes, TNG is more about the complex societies and interactions that make up a functioning, universe-spanning governance. It can still make effective episodes out of standalone stories, like “The Survivor,” but it’s more difficult to swallow a scenario like “Allegiance”‘s because it’s easier to spot the laziness. Picard’s kidnappers aren’t precisely godlike, but they share the Godlike Beings’ affinity for disruption without consequence. The ending does something to correct this, and there’s enough to enjoy here to keep the ep from being a slog, but it remains a kind of plot the series can do without.

Of course, now that I’ve dismissed it, there’s all this empty space left to fill. So what the hey, let’s unpack this. Picard gets kidnapped (and how suave is our captain, lounging in his quarters with a glass of, I’m assuming, wine and a good book), but Riker and the others on the Enterprise don’t realize it, because the aliens thoughtfully leave a duplicate of Picard in his place. It’s not a bad stinger, and given that the aliens running the show here are interesting in studying the effects of authority and leadership, it makes sense that the duplicate Picard is as much a part of their experiment as the real one. Structurally, though, it’s odd. The big hook of the episode is what’s going with the real Picard in that little room. No matter how well done Fake Picard’s scenes are (and they’re not bad), he’s in a familiar setting, and we already know basically what’s going on, even if we don’t know the reasons behind it. And yet the episode seems to spend as much time with the Fake Picard as with the real one, maybe even more. Every time we cut away from the action in the cell, the tension dies.

What, then, is going on with Fake Picard anyway? “Allegiance” strings us along for a while by pretending there’s a deeper meaning in the duplicate’s actions. Obviously he’s stalling for time; his first action on the bridge is to redirect the ship to a visit a pulsar at low warp. He covers with Riker by asking if can count on his First Officer’s trust, and then he politely asks Geordi to improve Engineering efficiency. So maybe, in addition to the stall, the duplicate is testing how the Enterprise crew responds to orders. That would certainly put a new spin on the Fake Picard and Beverly date. After two and a half seasons worth of barely discernible sexual tension, the duplicate asks Beverly to his room for dinner, and a surprisingly frank discussion about the nature of their relationship. Maybe he’s seeing how command can affect romance, but that’s not really how it plays. This, and most everything else we see from the Fake Picard, plays more like someone who’s playing around with the possibilities of being human than anything clinical. And that’s what it very well could be; one of the problems with the episode is that we get no really pay-off to all the time we spend with Fake Picard. Sure, Riker eventually steps up and takes over the ship, but by the end, Fake Picard was distinct enough from the real version that he needed some kind of send-off more satisfying than “Oh, right, he’s just an alien too.” (This confused me, as the kidnappers say that they have machines that can duplicate organic matter and brain function, which led me to believe that Fake Picard was actually a separate entity. As it’s filmed, it looks like he and Mitena are just suits.)

Enough about that, though. Let’s check in with the real Picard. I’ve already outline the situation above, and introduced the characters, and, well… okay, that about wraps it up, honestly. One of the reasons we spend so much time watching Fake Picard is that there isn’t much for the real Picard to do. His cell is small, there’s limited materials to work with, and the characters he’s trapped with aren’t interesting enough to really warrant much discussion. Conversations proceed on the expected routes; Picard is reasonable (I love his efforts to make sure their captors know they’re intelligent.), Tholl is whiny, Esoqq growls a lot. There’s some mildly interesting paranoid that develops near the end, but even that is handily defeated by Picard’s calm rationality. Maybe that’s why this plotline feels so artificial to the show (beyond the obvious artificiality of it all being a test): Picard is just too sane to fall for any of it. He’s clever, of course, able to piece together the circumstances, as well as see through Mitena’s lies (she knows more information about the Enterprise‘s travels than a simple cadet should), but it’s the sanity that makes all of this a little foolish. He simply applies common sense to the problem, and renders the experiment null.

Thankfully, this rationality leads to the episode’s best moment, a scene good enough for me to bump this one up half a letter grade, even if it doesn’t really redeem the rest of a passable but half-hearted entry. Once the real Picard is back on his bridge, he and the bridge crew trap two of the alien kidnappers. The aliens, terrified of any sort of containment, immediately panic, and Picard informs them that he himself has some tests he’d like to run. He stretches out the torment for a few extra seconds, then frees the creatures, making sure they understand that Starfleet knows who they are, and knows what their weakness, so they should probably give the whole “kidnapping for scientific purposes” a rest. It’s one of the only times when “Allegiance” isn’t working off of somebody else’s playbook. A hallmark of the Godlike Being is that it renders our heroes helpless; for once, we get to see the good guys turning the tables, and it’s a legitimately thrilling moment. Overall, this episode was too lazy for my tastes, especially coming on the heels of the excellent “Father”; this one just regurgitated stale concepts, and failed to follow through on the few good ideas it managed to unearth. Still, it felt good to see Picard getting the upper hand, because really, I don’t care if you do provide your captors with the materials to make a rudimentary lathe–kidnapping is still just plain wrong.

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

Being around people isn’t the easiest experience in the world. Even close friends can be a drag sometimes, not because of anything intentional, but because when you’re around others, you have to maintain a certain poise. The lucky ones learn this when they’re young, but the rest of us learn it eventually. We have to; you can’t function in the world without some kind of persona to present outwards. Without that, it’s just raw nerves and impulse and need, and you have to hide that, somehow. You have to have a place you can retreat to when necessary, a place where no one gets in, a place where you’re safe to think the worst and want the worst and feel selfish and stupid and mean. It’s easy, then, to understand why Tam Elbrun is so on edge. He can see into everyone’s secret places without any effort at all, and I imagine that must get lonely fast. All that looking out–and no one’s looking in.

I have mixed feelings about “Tin Man,” sad to say. The idea is solid, but it’s underdeveloped, and too much of the episode feels like a pointlessly long journey to arrive at a conclusion that was obvious from the start. All the smart ideas here are played out by the midpoint, and while that doesn’t make them any less smart, it does make the episode’s climax, which should be a deeply moving connection between two lost souls, oddly rote. As well, the Tin Man ship never gets enough of a personality. Tam is clearly defined, but the object of his obsession, in the end, comes off too much like the answer to all his prayers. That’s not effective storytelling. Not every wish has to be made on a monkey’s paw, but it would be nice if the happy ending here didn’t feel quite so convenient.

The set-up is another one of Starfleet’s ultra-secret missions. The Enterprise is the specialest ship in the fleet, so of course they get stuck with the really tricky high-priority stuff. In this case, it’s escorting a psychic expert in alien relations, Tam, to meet with what’s been dubbed “Tin Man,” a living ship of unknown origin which is currently orbiting around a soon-to-nova star. This star is in a far reach of space which has yet to be officially mapped, and, unfortunately, the Romulans consider it a part of their dominion, despite not having any legitimate claim. Legitimacy for Romulans seems to be established mostly through blowing up anyone who objects (in their defense, they’re far from the first to employ this tactic), so that’s going to be a problem. Despite all the Federation’s best efforts at secrecy, the Enterprise gets a tail immediately after beaming Tam aboard. Five bucks says it’s not a surprise party.

All of this would be bad enough, but Tam himself is what can be kindly called “difficult.” Harry Groener is a character actor who’s done a fair share of television and movie work, but I’ll always remember him as the Mayor in the third season of Buffy. (Or, in my lighter moments, as “that goofy Danny Elfman-looking dude.”) He was amazing on Buffy, funny, ridiculous, and menacing all at once, but the Mayor was a confident super-villain, and Tam isn’t either of those things. I’m not sure what to make of his performance, honestly. It’s off-putting, but that’s at least partly by design. Tam isn’t supposed to be likable, and he goes out of his way to tell everyone that he isn’t likable, which is never an easy angle to play as an actor. It feels overly self-conscious, and while it’s possible to pull off, I’m not convinced it works here. Groener does his best, and during his conversations with Data, you can see the decent person buried under all that self-loathing. It’s just too bad the rest of his performance is so shallow and showy. All the difficult characters the Enterprise has had to deal with over the years have been showy; wouldn’t it have made sense to have this one, this man who was hearing other people’s thoughts before he even knew the difference between “me” and “Them,” be a little more subdued? 

At least he gets a compelling backstory. In addition to Troi’s explanation of how they met, we get some references to the “Ghorusda incident,” which sets Riker against Tam almost from the start. We’re never given a complete story, but from the pieces of information we do get (most of which come from Tam himself), he was serving as a bridge between a Federation outpost and an alien race called the Ghorusda. When problems arose, Tam had a hard time remembering which side he was supposed to be on. That makes sense. Someone with his condition would have a hard time forming boundaries between himself and others, and since he’s bombarded by every thought and feeling around him, well, good vibrations must be the order of the day. Really, the more I think about it, the more amazing it is that Tam even exists as a conscious entity. There’s a short story by Philip K. Dick called “The Golden Man”–they made it into a Nicolas Cage movie, Next, but don’t hold that against it. The idea is, (and I’m totally going to spoil the story here, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph) there’s a mutant who can see all possible consequences of any action he takes. Which means he can always pick the best option, ensuring his long-term survival and success. The cool part is, the Golden Man has no discernible consciousness. Because he can foresee all outcomes, there’s no need for a intelligence, just the instinct to know which decision benefits him most. Tam’s abilities aren’t exactly the same–he can’t see the future, obviously–but given the desire to please, and the talent for knowing what everyone wants… well, I’m not sure, but I think the results would be more complicated (and less hopeful) than what we see here.

Again, though, I’m falling into the trap of criticizing what I think “Tin Man” should have been, instead of commenting on what it is: the story of two lonely creatures finding mutual salvation in each other. That’s a lovely idea, and there are times when the episode captures that sense of wonder and belonging. It helps that Tam becomes closest friends with Data, who is the only person on the Enterprise who seems to understand him. Troi claims she does, but as Tam and Tin Man come closer together, Troi is insistent that they be kept separate for fear that Tam might lose himself in the alien entirely. Data’s the only one who trusts Tam’s judgment, and what’s interesting here is the subtle but distinct impression you get by the end that Troi wasn’t entirely wrong; that Tam may indeed have lost himself; but that in losing himself, he finds the only happiness possible to him. There’s an ambiguity in that, even if Tin Man itself (or Gomtuu, as it prefers to be called) is disappointingly generic. The ship looks like a giant glowing pine cone, the insides are all brown organic blah, and there’s no sense of the ship’s personality, if it even has one. So it’s nice, then, that at the end, as satisfied with his place as Tam is, it’s still possible for us to feel a little uneasy about the whole process.

While all this is going on, we do get some back-and-forth with the Romulans, and the realization that, if they can’t communicate with the living ship, the Romulans won’t hesitate to destroy it. So that gives us some sense of stakes, at least until Tam uses his mental mojo to warn Gomtuu, and Gomtuu sends out a wave of energy that destroys the Romulans and cripples the Enterprise. Which should give us a different sort of stakes, come to think, and it almost does. Picard is worried that any interference with Tin Man could further damage the Enterprise, and that Tam, who’s the only person on board able to communicate with the ship, isn’t guaranteed to have the crew’s best interests at heart. But even this conflict is swiftly resolved, and once Tam enters Gomtuu, that’s basically it. The ship has the power to do just about anything, and it proceeds to throw the Enterprise and the remaining Romulan vessel a few billion kilometers away, before beaming Data back to the bridge and going about its merry way. (You could say there’s some ambiguity as to whether or not Tam and Tin Man survive the star going super nova, but since Data returns to the bridge after the sun goes boom, I don’t think it’s that ambiguous.)

Sometimes I’ll watch a Trek episode and have a completely unshakable opinion; whatever anyone else thinks, I know what I think, and I don’t have any intention of backing down. That doesn’t happen very often, though. “Tin Man” is one of the other kind. I keep wondering if I should like it more than I do, if there’s some extra piece I’m missing, or if my ideas of how to make the story better get in the way of appreciating what’s on the screen. I certainly don’t think this is a bad episode. It just feels like it could’ve been, and should’ve been, more.

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

After Deforrest Kelley’s cameo way back in “Encounter at Farpoint,” there hasn’t been any cast cross-over between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. This makes sense from a story perspective; the majority of the crew of the original Enterprise were human, and given that TNG takes place roughly a hundred years after they where in their prime, well, they’re probably all dead now. Except for Kirk, who’s stuck in the Nexus, and Scotty, who’s stuck in some transporter buffer somewhere. Yeah, you heard me: your precious Uhura? Wormfood. Sulu? Daisy pushing. Chekov? Nothing can kill the Chekov.

This is probably for the best. Given the lumpiness TNG experienced at the start of its run, trying to become its own show while still clinging to the legacy it was intended to carry on, guest spots would’ve been distracting at best, painfully sentimental at worst. Still, it’s not like we haven’t heard mention of Kirk and his adventures before, so now that the series has hit its stride in the third season, it’s a fine time to make some direct connections to the past. “Sarek” features the return of Mark Lenard to his most famous Trek role, as Sarek, Spock’s Vulcan father, a brilliant ambassador who’s recently passed the two centuries mark. That’s long in the tooth, even for a Vulcan, and now, on the eve of what everyone keeps insisting is the most important negotiation of his entire career–Sarek isn’t feeling so well. That he’s feeling at all, is, you’ll understand, a bit of a problem.

While Sarek was never a recurring character on TOS, appearing only in one episode (as well as one episode of the animated series–most people these days probably remember him from his few scenes in The Search For Spock), he left a significant impression on the franchise; Spock is one of the mythology’s central figures, and that grants Sarek a great deal of importance simply for existing. And yet, nobody ever really remembers Spock’s mother, Amanda Grayson. Maybe it’s because we’re all sexist bastards, but it probably more that Sarek was so clearly and immediately defined in his first appearance (“Journey to Babel,” second season) that he became impossible to forget. He’s the epitome of the stern, demanding paternal male, representing all of Spock’s insecurities and concern over his identity. Sarek is the Vulcan ideal that Spock spent his life struggling to achieve, and because of that, Sarek was a constant presence, whether or not he was physically present. Plus, Mark Lenard is very, very good in the role.

So it’s nice to see him back here, especially considering that he gets to play off Patrick Stewart for a decent chunk of his screentime. Both men bring such immense dignity and presence to their roles that it there’s something electric to the episode even before the story kicks in. Sarek is a name familiar to Trek fans, and Picard and Riker’s discussion at the start of the show about how honored they are to host the Vulcan on the Enterprise, and what a big deal the talks with the Legarans are, sets the stakes firmly in place so that when things do start to go south, we understand why this is all so important. Although man is there a lot of direct, expository dialog, both in this scene and throughout the episode. I’m not sure if that’s unusual for the show, or if I’m just randomly noticing it in this episode, but two-thirds of Picard’s lines just exist to clarify obvious facts. (My favorite was, to paraphrase, “Sarek is a Vulcan, losing control of his emotions must be very bad for him.” Er, you think?) Stewart sells it, but it’s the sort of thing that once you realize what’s happening, you can’t ignore it.

Sarek comes aboard the ship with his own entourage, including his current wife, Perrin (I guess Sarek has a taste for the human ladies?), a Vulcan named Sakkath, and a human named Ki Mendrossen. Mendrossen attempts to protect Sarek from the rest of the ship, but it doesn’t do much good. The ambassador is clearly on edge (there are few explanations for a snippy Vulcan, and none of them fill one with confidence), and his one attempt to attend a public performance, held in his honor, ends with him fleeing the room in tears. A human crying at a symphony? Not a big deal. But when a Vulcan does it… Even worse, the rest of the crew seems to be affected by the Vulcan’s bad mood. Wesley and Geordi nearly come to blows, a fight breaks out in Ten Forward, and Beverly Crusher slaps her son for–no reason at all. (How awesome is it that so much of the rage is focused on Wesley?)

One of the strengths of this episode is how quickly the bad feelings are accepted as a problem, and how Beverly and Deana combine forces to efficiently and immediately figure out what’s causing it. This isn’t a mystery storyline; we know right off that Sarek is the cause of these disturbances, even if we don’t know how, and instead of having Picard and the others dance around the issue for half an hour, they jump to the same conclusions. Why wouldn’t they? They have the same information that we do: Sarek is behaving strangely, and the bad vibes didn’t hit the Enterprise until after Sarek arrived. Ergo, he’s got something to do with it. Beverly theorizes that Sarek is suffering from Bendii Syndrome, a disease which hits Vulcans late in life, destroying their emotional control and subjecting them to fits of passion, most often in the form of intense anger. (I love how much sense this makes. Remember the Pon Far? The price the race pays for their stoicism is that every so often, the feelings break out, and when they do, they destroy all logic and structure in their wake.) Deanna adds that the reason members of the crew are feeling the same rushes that Sarek experiences is due to the Vulcan’s innate telepathic ability. We later learn that the reason the hits are so random is that Sarek’s companion, Sakkath, has been using his own telepathic abilities to suppress Sarek’s emissions. But now they they’re on a ship, and the ambassador is suffering from too much stress for Sakkath to handle him.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to this concept, an elegance that makes the tragedy at the heart of the episode all the more powerful. Bendii Syndrome could be viewed as a stand-in for Alzheimer’s Syndrome, or it could be representative of any of the hundreds of indignities which await us all in old age (unless science solves everything before we grow up. So get on that, Science). It’s resonant because the science fiction aspect isn’t used to obfuscate the horror of what’s happening. The Syndrome is robbing Sarek of that part of himself which he considers the most valuable, his discipline, and it’s doing so in a way that leaves him naked not only to those closest to him, but to anyone who stays in the room with him for more than a few minutes. There’s a lot of talk about how crucial it is that talks with the Legarans go smoothly, but really, that’s not where the drama of this episode comes from. We never see the Legarans, we’re never that invested in the outcome, apart from hoping Sarek will succeed. This is really about a great individual, dying by inches.

Of course they find a solution in time: a mind-meld between Picard and Sarek, which gives Sarek Picard’s stability and control, and forces Picard to endure the rush of a lifetime’s worth of pent-up emotion in just a few hours. Like I said, we don’t see the talks with the Legarans, and the climax of the episode is actually spent with Picard struggling against Sarek’s passions, as Beverly sits nearby and tries to comfort him. It’s remarkable work, a level of naked, raw intensity that we rarely get on TNG, and in the hands of a lesser actor (basically anyone else in the ensemble), this could’ve been ridiculous. But Stewart doesn’t hold anything back. I think I’m something of a sucker for this kind of acting, so I’ll be curious to hear what others thought of it. For me, the scene works, and it makes the final scene of the episode so much more poignant. Sarek has done his job, but his disease remains uncured. Maybe someone will find a cure. Until than, he can take some comfort that his legacy remains intact. Hopefully, that will be enough.

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

It always bugs me on TV shows when cute girls are really obvious about liking a guy, and the guy doesn’t catch on. I mean, sure, I’ll buy it if the guy is a creep, or if he’s not interested, or if he’s so paralyzingly shy that any interaction is beyond him. But when the guy like the girl back, and is just too insecure to make his move … I dunno. I’ve been insecure most of my life, like any sensible person would be (I mean, have you seen yourself naked? What the hell is going on there?), but if somebody I had a crush on kept going out of her way to talk to me and smile at me and leave me gigantic openings in the conversation for me to make my move, I would at least acknowledge the opportunity existed, even if I was too much of a wuss to take it. “Transfigurations” opens with Geordi whining to Worf about his romantic problems (note to TNG: if you’ve gotta keep coming back to Geordi not getting laid, I approve of including Worf in the conversation), and the object of his affections is so painfully interested it’s hard to feel any sympathy for Geordi at all. Suck it up, man. Worst she can do is laugh.

Although technically, Christy already rejected Geordi way back in “The Booby Trap,” so maybe he’s just worried she’s been taken over by aliens or something. I’m not sure what’s changed in Geordi between those two episodes (maybe he’s been working out?), but whatever it is, Christy likes it. It’s just our poor blind Chief Engineer can’t spot the signs, and not even Worf’s helpful advice can reach him. Then the Enterprise gets a distress signal while charted a previously unexplored region of space, and they find a shuttle crashed on an unknown planet, a seriously wounded alien on the ground beside it. Dr. Crusher connects Geordi’s brains to the alien’s to help regulate the severely wounded stranger’s vitals, and in the exchange, somehow Geordi gets a piece of something that gives him a boost of self-confidence. He starts making out with Christy in the turbo-lift. But just who is this alien? What is it he does? And is it possible to bottle up his mojo and sell it as some kind of over-priced body spray for men?

Judging by the title of the episode and by the effect the alien (who doesn’t ever get a real name in the episode; they just call him “John Doe,” and I will follow their lead) has on Geordi, I assumed that sudden surge of bravado was going to turn sour soon enough. That’s how these stories play out, generally: The geek finds some magical shortcut to coolness, they get to enjoy the shortcut for a few days, and then they sprout fangs and murder everyone. Or else there’s pig’s blood at the prom or the magic box has to go back to the shop because the switch is stuck on “Stabbing.” (If you’re trying to figure out what movies I’m referring to, don’t kill yourself; only one of those is actually real.) Characters very rarely get exactly what they most desperately need without having to pay a very steep price, and it seemed reasonable to assume that Geordi’s brief trip to Real Live Boy Land wouldn’t last out the hour. I expected the confidence would turn sour and he’d get violent. That seems to happen a lot.

That’s not what happened here, though. “Transfigurations” is a largely conflict free episode—there are arguments, and one major character even gets killed, but he doesn’t stay dead very long. (It’s Worf. As always, his job on the ship is show how dangerous the danger is by getting his ass kicked. In this episode, he’s defeated by a wave of yellow light; next episode, a forcefield takes him out. Stay strong, my Klingon brother!) John Doe isn’t a threat, although he puts the Enterprise in a couple of tight spots. He heals very quickly, which is vaguely suspicious, but he’s also quite nice, and Beverly is quickly taken with him. (Which once again raises the question: How the hell would you ever get romantically involved with a member of another species? Just because they’re all vaguely humanoid doesn’t mean the genitalia matches up; we’ve seen the faces, it boggles the mind what might be going on below the waist. If below the waist is even a place where things go on for Doe’s people. Ah well. Beverly’s a doctor. I’m sure she knows more about all this than I do.)

John also makes a habit of healing people on the Enterprise, first inadvertently with Geordi, then fixing O’Brian’s dislocated shoulder. (Sorry for another parenthetical, but: O’Brian injures himself on the holodeck. He’s kayaking, so it’s not like he was attacked, unless he kayaks with bears, but—what about the safety protocols? Surely the system would be designed to prevent any but the most minor injuries. Because if you have a program that can dislocate your shoulder, however accidentally, you have a program that can kill. Join us next week for our latest installment in Why The Holodeck Don’t Make No Damn Sense.) Later, of course, he brings Worf back to life after inadvertently breaking his neck. It’s emblematic of the short-sightedness of this episode that Geordi’s cure, the first one we see, is also the one with the weirdest implications that nobody ever recognizes. There’s a big difference between curing a physical ailment and boosting someone’s self-esteem, and while the positive effect John has on everyone around him is probably connected to Geordi’s good vibes, there’s something strange about treating insecurity like a wound. Does this mean that Geordi’s passed some personal threshold, or is he just on an adrenaline high that won’t last him past third base?

Not that “Transfigurations” is really about any of this. We’re more concerned here with John’s ascension into godhood or whatever. This is the sort of episode that starts off fairly interesting, gets a little more interesting as it goes, and then just falls apart once it actually has to start answering the questions it’s raised. It’s all terribly symbolic and reads a little like somebody’s a big fan of his X-Men comic books: John is one of the last survivors of a race that’s been systematically destroyed because his race is reaching a new level in evolution, and that scares people. It scares them real bad because eek, change! And newness! There’s a confrontation with one of the bad guys who does all the killing, the bad guys use their mind power to choke everybody on the Enterprise, and then John saves them, and turns into one of the aliens from Cocoon. It’s pretty stupid. TNG works best when it’s specific in its stories; it can do more archetypal fare (like, say, “The Survivors,” in which we’re less interested in the mechanics of how everything works than we are in the tragedy of it), but too often, these kinds of vaguely symbolic plots come off as weak and reductive. That’s the case here. There’s a reason I spent most of this review talking about the edges of “Transfigurations” rather than dealing with its main arc head-on. It’s because there’s not much to say about another episode in which our heroes are largely passive and in which everything gets tied up in a neat little bow by the end.

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

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I write fiction. It’s my first love, writing-wise, and one of my favorite aspects of it is the satisfaction I get from fitting the pieces together of a really excellent climax. See, the thing about writing characters is that if you want them to seem real, you can only have them doing things that that sort of person could be expected to do. If your hero is a doctor, it’s not a stretch that he’ll see a patient or two or that he’ll drive a car around or talk to people or maybe even have a drug addiction or be a werewolf. These are varying degrees of possible, but none of them inherently violate who that character is—we accept fantastical elements in stories, but what we don’t accept is when characters behave in ways that violate their nature simply to facilitate plot. So if we spend a whole story hearing about how great this doctor is, and then he intentionally murders a toddler, and we’re still supposed to believe he’s great, only now he’s really, really upset about that dead toddler, well, we’re not going to buy that.

Or for a better example … I’m about to spoil the hell out of the ending of The Mist, so if you haven’t seen it yet (and you should, as it’s one of the best horror movies to come out in the past decade or so), better skip to the next paragraph. At the end of the movie, Thomas Jane, distraught over the loss of his wife and the apparent destruction of his entire world, shoots his companions, including his own son, to save them from a more horrible death at the hands of whatever monster lurks around the next turn. He then walks around for maybe three minutes, screaming for something to kill him next, because he’s all out of bullets. Then the mist clears away, and the military rolls by, carting survivors from the town he just left, the world restored to some relative version of sanity. None of the individual pieces of this ending are unworkable. Given all the ugliness that happens over the course of the movie, it’s possible to accept that he and the others might be driven to group suicide. The arrival of the army, the sudden reveal that everything’s okay after all (except for poor Jane, who probably sucks a shotgun 30 seconds after the scene fades to black), that’s not inherently bad either. The problem is the abrupt conjunction of the two and the way it forces us to re-examine the shootings in the car. In order for this ending to work, we need to believe the trap that Jane and the others are in almost as much as they do. Given the rush of the rest of the film, we’re in the moment when it happens, but by having the rescue arrive less than 5 minutes after the deaths, the scene becomes less about Jane’s awful mistake and the way fear corrupts our judgment, and more about how obvious the strings are. Whether or not the characters in that moment would’ve believed they were trapped, we no longer believe they were, and it becomes nearly impossible to empathize with their choice. Instead of walking away shell-shocked, I kept making jokes about how the next time I shot my son in the face, I’d wait 5 minutes first.

The point of all of this is that plotting means the creation of a succession of plausible events. The greater the stakes of an event, the greater a violation of a character’s internal code it requires, the more thoroughly the trap must be set. By the end of “The Best Of Both Worlds, Part 1,” Riker orders the Enterprise to fire and theoretically destroy a Borg ship. That’s not much of a stretch—except the Borg ship has Picard. A good portion of this episode is devoted to getting us to a point where we’d be willing to believe that Riker would knowingly give an order that would kill his captain. Sure, Picard has been Borg-ified by now, but Beverly insists she could still save him. Doesn’t matter. Riker speaks his final line in the episode without any hesitation whatsoever, and what’s even more amazing is that we don’t doubt his conviction for a second.

“Worlds” isn’t complete in and of itself, but it makes a terrific way to close out the third season, and as TNG‘s first attempt at a finale cliffhanger ending, it’s deservedly iconic. Ask anybody what they most remember about this series, and I’m betting 7 or 8 times out of 10 (presuming you can ask that many strangers before they kick you out of the mall), that most will mention this episode. Not the only episode, mind you, just that final, awful scene: most of the cast on the bridge, aggressive newcomer Cmdr. Lt. Shelby insisting that Riker contact Starfleet for advice, and Riker having none of it. Then Picard’s robo-zombie gaze filling the view-screen to inform them that hope is dead, meet the new boss. And, of course, Riker’s response. This is not a show that’s given to taking major risks with its cast. Tasha Yar is the only main character to die, and that was way back in the first season, before we really cared that much about any of these people. To suddenly throw the show’s most important character into the cybernetic meat grinder, and to do so in such a way as to imply that he could very well be gone for good? That’s heady stuff.

I don’t think I watched “Worlds” when it originally aired, so I have no idea if people actually believed Picard was lost. I kind of doubt they did, given Beverly’s comments, and seeing as how we never actually see Worf firing the Magic Bullet that will supposedly take out the Borg cube; most cliffhangers don’t resolve by just giving us the most obvious next step. But this was back before everyone knew about actor’s contracts, before every casting development hit the Internet before the ink was dry. Plus, the episode is structured in such a way as to strongly indicate that Picard is on his way out. Nobody ever suggests it, but there’s a lot of talk about Riker getting a promotion, about how he needs to move on and take command of his own ship, and about how his time on the Enterprise, as much as it means to him, may have robbed him of something in himself he once valued a great deal. Moxie, I guess, or boldness. This is all partly to help us understand his determination in that final order and maybe suspect he might be trying to prove that he hasn’t entirely lost his spine, but it also works to suggest a future for the series in which Riker is seated in the captain’s chair, with Shelby slotted into the Number One spot.

Really, this is more Riker’s episode than it is Picard’s, which is one of those sideways choices that seems counter-intuitive but actually works to the show’s advantage. Much of the running time is given over to Riker debating what he should do next, and sparring with Shelby over her mildly aggressive manner (which of course reminds everybody of how Riker himself used to be). The investigation into the recent Borg attack is suitably chilling, but the threat remains in the background for the first half; there are poker games to attend, after all. So it’s wonderfully effective when the Borg cube makes its first appearance. The Enterprise is en route to the cube’s last place of attack when they’re ambushed mid-trip by that old classic, an unidentified vessel. Ten seconds later, there it is in the view screen, all bulky and hideous. I don’t often get unnerved by TNG episodes—it’s hardly ever a truly scary show—but that reveal gave me chills. For a long time, the Borg were the threat to beat in the Trek-verse, and while countless iterations have diminished the threat (as is understandable since you can’t have an unbeatable foe bent on destroying you and your civilization hang around forever), at this point in the franchise, they were still, so far as we knew, unstoppable. And for some reason, they were gunning for Picard.

And it’s not just the Enterprise; they specifically want Jean-Luc Picard because the Enterprise is the strongest ship in the fleet and he is its captain. Which is one of those compliments that I never know quite how to take, honestly. Picard does get a few nice scenes before the Borg finally grab him—his conversation with Guinan is great, as she essentially tries to console him by explaining, “Well, most everyone in your race will be killed, but a few will get away, so that’s cool, right?”—but the show does a great trick of giving us a passing-of-the-torch style episode without ever openly admitting that’s what’s going on. I highly doubt there was any intention to do away with Patrick Stewart; you don’t get rid of the best actor on your show just when your show is actually becoming excellent. (That is, unless Stewart was holding out for more money, in which case this would have to be the best episode-inspired-by-contract-negotiations ever.) Still, just seeing him with that zombie make-up, his voice flat, merciless, dead … Whatever logic tells you, there’s a part of the mind that believes he’s gone, same as it believes the shadows behind the closet door have teeth. Hell, I know he’ll be fine, and I’m still a little concerned.

I should probably point out the trap I was going on about earlier. It comes down to this: The Enterprise is chasing the Borg cube, which is headed for Earth. They need to slow the ship down long enough to use their big guns on it—a weapon that can only be used once, by the way, although that’s basically true of every weapon when it comes to the Borg—so an away team beams aboard the cube to find some way to force them to drop out of warp. They shoot some distribution nodes, which has the desired effect, and they find Picard’s empty uniform, which freaks everybody out. Back on the Enterprise, everything’s set for the magic bullet weapon, except when the away team beams back, they tell Riker that Picard is still alive, only he’s been turned. Shelby begs for a chance to go back to get him, but the problem is, the Borg cube is already regenerating the damaged components. It’ll be back at top warp speed momentarily, and the Enterprise engines have been so drained by the chase that they won’t be able to retake the ship. And they can’t just go back and destroy some more nodes, because the Borg will be prepared. This is the only chance to stop the cube before it reaches Earth.

So Riker makes his choice, and, at least for now, sacrifices Picard. It’s really very elegantly done, and all of it is built on information we already know about the threat and the characters. We know the Borg adapt quickly and that they represent a nearly insurmountable threat, and we know that the crew of the Enterprise is trained to keep going about their duties even after losing one of their own. I love cliffhangers, because I love how they feel—like someone pausing in the middle of a sentence, staring at you, grinning, driving you out of your mind. (“SAY IT!”) The resolutions are nearly always disappointing, so I’ll be curious to see how this one plays out. (Other than the fact that Picard goes back to being human soon enough, I honestly don’t know what comes next.) So let’s just savor the moment, shall we? We—and the show—have earned it.

 

The Worst:

The Price, Captain’s Holiday, Hollow Pursuits, and The Most Toys

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In brief bits:

  • The Price sees the Enterprise host negotiations for possession of the only known wormhole;
  • Captain’s Holiday sees Picard take a vacation on Risa, and meet Vash;
  • Hollow Pursuits features the introduction to Lt. Reginald Barclay; and,
  • The Most Toys sees a trader fake the death of Data in order to add him into his collection.

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

Early in “The Price”–during the very first scene, in fact–I got worried. Deanna Troi is checking her mail, and she finds she has multiple letters from her mother. When I heard this, the flashbacks hit: I saw Lwaxana Troi hitting on Riker, I heard her shrill, petulant voice, and the full, agonizing weight of every one of her awful, awful guest appearances washed over me until I nearly lost the will to go on. It was too soon, I shouted at the screen. Didn’t I just have to review the episode where she hits on the holographic bartender? I thought of writing my resignation letter, realized that wouldn’t be permanent enough, and I wondered how hard it would be to fake my own death. But, y’know, I’ve got a girlfriend now, and she’d probably want to come with, and who knows if she could get the time off work…

While I went tried to find some way out of the apparent apocalypse, I left the episode playing, and I realized fairly quickly that it was all a false alarm. Lwaxana’s appearance here is in name only, used to try and remind us that Troi has a personal life, and, presumably, make us care what happens in that personal life. But that didn’t mean I was out of the woods yet. “The Price,” like “Enemy,” has two concurrent storylines, both revolving around a single event, and while the time we spend watching Riker dicker over a wormhole, and watching Data and Geordi investigate the stability of that wormhole, is entertaining, staple TNG stuff, the time we spend with Troi isn’t. Oh, it’s still a staple of the series, but it’s not much fun. Troi takes a lover, everyone! Time to strap in.

I’m never happy when I have to bash Troi-centric episodes, because I don’t object to them at all in theory. Every major character on the show deserves their time in the spotlight, and if anything, that goes doubly for the under-used, under-represented women. With Tasha Yar nearly two seasons gone, we’ve only got three recurring females left on TNG, and one of them, Guinan, spends most of her time being mysterious and wise. Dr. Crusher stays in the Sick Bay, flirts with Picard, and occasionally gets mopey about her dead husband; Troi as the ship counselor is called in whenever a writer wants to explain what a character is feeling without having that character come out and say it themselves. (That tends to make people so ANGRY.) Picard, Riker, Worf, Data, Geordi, hell, even Wesley–these are clearly defined, iconic figures. Crusher and Troi are vaguely feminine blurs.

So yes, by all means, please give Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden more to do, but for god’s sake, that doesn’t mean providing Troi with yet another overly aggressive love interest. This woman is a competent professional who’s spent her life confronting emotions, working to understand them, and working to help people be as sane as they can be. Shouldn’t she at least have a spine by now? Whatever problems I had with “The Bonding,” at least Troi was granted the dignity and respect of her position. Here, she’s reduced to a whimpering mess by some jag-off negotiator, and it happens almost exactly the same way it happened in “Loud As A Whisper.” She sees the guy, is clearly instantly smitten with him, he comes to her room uninvited and unannounced (catching her in the 23rd century equivalent of googling his name), gropes his way into a dinner invite, and before you know it, we’re getting into the massage oil and pillow talk.

It’s distressing, and the more I think about it, the more frustrated I get. There’s nothing wrong with a smart character making stupid romantic choices. It happens, and it helps us to identify with the character, because everybody’s done dumb stuff in the name of love. It becomes a problem when those stupid choices make up most of what we see of a character’s personal life. If Troi were better defined, if she weren’t simply a generic stand in for “chicks get feelings and stuff,” this wouldn’t be as much an issue. But because she spends so much of her time on the show simply stating the obvious and looking concerned, her apparent vulnerability for greasy dudes with wandering hands is difficult to endure. (To be honest, I’m not sure how much I’d enjoy these scenes even if Troi was the next Ellen Ripley or Starbuck. But then, I think Ripley would’ve taken one look at this guy and shot him out an airlock. Then she and Starbuck would’ve gone and played pool. And had adventures!)

There’s more going on here, thankfully, so I’m going to talk about that until everything stops being quite so red. The Bhavini have managed to acquire a singular galactic phenomenon: an apparently stable wormhole. Theoretically, travel via wormhole would be a tremendous boon to whatever race controlled it, as it cuts down on flight time to an incredible degree; the one the Bhavini are selling, for instance, can send a ship light years away, a hundred years worth of travelling at the fastest warp speed known to man accomplished in a few minutes. What makes this wormhole even more important is that it’s apparently stable. That’s unique; every other wormhole known to science operates too inconsistently to be of any use to travelers. So the Bhavini are selling theirs in an attempt to make their race self-sufficient, and their offer has attracted a number of interested parties, including the Federation (represented by Riker), the Caldonians, the Chrysalids, and, in a last minute twist, the Ferengi.

The Ferengi are their usual annoying selves, this time played largely for sniveling comic relief than any true menace. They get punished for their misdeeds and avarice, as always; when Geordi and Data fly through the wormhole to test it, a shuttle of Ferengi follow them, and they wind up stranded a century distant when they won’t listen to Geordi’s warnings that the hole is showing signs of instability. Really, though, the Ferengi here are more a tool of Devinoni Ral, the Chrysalids negotiator, Troi’s eventual lover, and basic snide twerp. Ral is played by Matt McCoy, a character actor who I’ll always remember as the man who took over for Steve Guttenberg in the Police Academy movies. He can be effective in the right role (he was great in a small part in L.A. Confidential), but his turn as Ral doesn’t entirely work. I can buy him as a smart manipulator, as someone willing to use his quarter-Betazoid gift of empathy to make his job easier, but as flawed compromised individual with a soul worth saving, I ain’t buying.

And that’s a problem, because the climax of “Price” has Troi revealing Ral’s questionable tactics to Picard and everyone else, and it should be a dramatic moment, as she betrays her lover both out of frustration at his misdeeds, and because of her desire to force him to better himself. Instead, it’s primarily satisfying because it wipes the grin off Ral’s face for a few seconds. Once that satisfaction passes, I couldn’t help wondering why it took Troi so long in the first place. It can be difficult to convincingly show love in fiction, because the experience of falling for someone is both highly personal and curiously universal; the details and shared moments are what give the feeling texture, but the rush and elation of it are things that we all share. So you’ve got to find some way to make the small moments appear distinct and honest so that the big moments feel earned. Nothing about Troi and Ral’s romance ever seemed more than writers using poor Troi as badly as Ral used his opponents–simply a matter of pushing her to the right place until she fulfilled their needs.

Plus, the one scene we get when we try and do some girl talk, with Beverly and Troi engaging in some hilarious aerobics while Troi gushes and Beverly nods appreciably, is about as dated as this series ever gets. (I love how we get the spandex outfits, which is so hot and everything, but the outfits cover more skin than their regular uniforms.) What of the subtler aspects of TNG‘s rise in quality in the third season is its increasing adeptness as this kind of multi-level storytelling. In “The Enemy,” we have Geordi stranded, Worf’s crisis, and Picard’s battle of wills, and all revolve around each other, intricately connected but still managing to be distinct. It’s an impressive balancing act, because it provides the opportunity for the ensemble to show off its individual parts while still maintaining that feeling of unity; there’s no sense that we’re pausing the “main” action to see how Geordi’s doing, because each different subplot has equal importance to the central problem. “The Price” ostensibly works the same way, with Troi’s relationship with Ral connecting back to the financial battle for control over the wormhole, but instead of creating a richer episode, the bifurcation reinforces how ill-used Troi is in comparison to the rest of the cast. We don’t need to have an episode where she learns to stand up to a man, we really don’t. If that’s the best the show can give her, it might be better to leave her on the sidelines.

According to the A.V. Club review of Captain’s Holiday:

I can think of no greater praise for the cast of TNG than to acknowledge their ability to maintain their dignity regardless of what fresh horror the costume designer forces on them. The uniforms aren’t so bad, but the leisure wear is a disaster, a hideous explosion of flowing wraps, gauze, and various unpleasantries in spandex. There’s an outfit Jean-Luc Picard wears during the mid-section of “Captain’s Holiday” that probably would’ve killed a lesser man: a kind of loose-fitting jacket, combined with some deeply unsettling shorts. He is required to be forceful while wearing this, to express scorn, irritation, indeterminate lust, and worse, he is, in some choice moments, lounging. I’m not one to be upset by the male or female form in its natural state, but nothing about the presentation here is natural. Watching this scene, I find myself identifying with the sons who covered Noah in his drunkenness. That I remember anything else from the episode is, quite frankly, astonishing.

Which isn’t to say “Holiday” is astonishing–it’s not. It’s not bad, either. It’s… a lark? Yes, that sounds about right. The episode gives Picard a rare solo adventure while he’s vacationing on Risa, a getaway planet with the usual open approach to sexuality the Federation requires in their recreational zones (I’m starting to wonder if, “Can you tap that?” is the main determinant as to which planets get deemed “resort spots.”). The tone is light throughout, and the plot is a breezy homage to those detective novels that Picard so favors. No murder to solve, but there is a femme fatale, a thuggish villain, and some interested parties who may not be entirely what they seem. It’s the sort of ep I would’ve hated growing up, because there’s no real teeth to it. Even the time travel element is more for flavor than any real depth. Watching the episode now, I can enjoy it as a showcase for Patrick Stewart, and I can appreciate that the femme fatale he squares off against is actually somewhat age appropriate. I can also find the storyline somewhat ridiculous, because hey, apparently that part of my brain never shuts off.

Of course, “Holiday” doesn’t start on Risa. It should’ve, because nothing that happens in the first ten minutes aboard the Enterprise really has much bearing on anything. It’s all a variation on a very simple joke: Picard is stressed, but he doesn’t like to take vacations. That’s the punchline to every set-up, as various crew members, aware of his tension levels, do their best to cajole, encourage, trick, and force him into leaving the ship for a week of shore leave. As is often the case with humor on the show, it’s a little too sitcom-ish for my tastes, although there are moments of cleverness. Beverly’s “I have a patient who needs to relax” speech is made less painful by the fact that neither she nor Picard make any pretense that Picard doesn’t immediately know who she’s talking about, and Troi’s claim that her mother will be visiting the ship soon is funny enough. Picard eventually yields and packs a bag, lingering just long enough to get a gift request from Riker, and to hear his reading choices criticized. (Screw Riker, I thinkUlysses would make for excellent beach reading.)

Then it’s off to Risa, where the real fun begins. There are factions here. We’ve got Vash (Jennifer Hetrick, who’s actually 18 years younger than Stewart, but at least she looks like a grown woman), the temptress, who’s on the run from Sovak (Max Grodenchik), a Ferengi in a regrettable shirt who believes Vash has something that belongs to him. Soon enough, Sovak comes to believe that Vash and Picard are working together. Vash is not what one would call discouraging of this assumption. And on the sidelines, we have two aliens called Vorgons who claim to be from the 27th century. They’ve traveled into the past in search of the Tox Uthat, a fabled doohickey of amazing power (it can stop a star, but don’t get too worried because that never really becomes relevant) which another Vorgon thief stole from their present and ditched somewhen in the 24th century. According to their history, Picard supposedly discovers the Uthat while on Risa, and these Vorgons totally want to be there when it happens.

If you’ve already guessed that Vash and Sovak are on the hunt for the Uthat, give yourself a cookie. If you’ve further guessed that the Uthat is really nothing more than a MacGuffin with sci-fi decals pasted on, well, two cookies wouldn’t hurt. Yes, it’s an immensely powerful weapon, and that makes it valuable, which gives a certain edge to the proceedings, but it’s a textbook plot driver. Everything about this episode is archetypal, from Vash, who rides the expected line between “traitorous” and “vulnerable,” just charming enough to ensnare Picard in her escapades but not so charming as to pull the wool completely over his eyes, to Sovak, who’s just smart enough to be annoying, but not so smart as to be really that dangerous. TNG is almost entirely made up of standalone episodes, connected by the universe the characters inhabit and the occasional references to past events, but “Holiday” seems more standalone than most. I doubt anyone was trying for a spin-off here (Vash is enjoyable, but I can’t imagine watching her as a series lead), but that’s almost what this plays like, a brief dip into a world that runs parallel to the one where we spend most of the series. There are no consequences here, but you know that from the start, even with those crazy time travelling aliens. This is a diversion, and as such, it’s agreeable.

As to those aliens… well, okay, me being me I’m going to have to bring this up, but they time travel, and they know in their histories that Picard finds the Uthat, and we learn later on that they also knew he would destroy the Uthat rather than hand it over to anyone, so why aren’t they more aggressive? Vash gives us some overly convenient exposition near the end–something about a pair of male and female aliens bothering her last employer, who’d devoted his life to finding the Uthat–that clearly implies these two are after the Uthat for nefarious reasons. They aren’t happy when Picard destroys it. So why not just, I dunno, shoot him with some future beams or something and grab it? One of the problems with time travel as a story device is that writers rarely think through the consequences. If these two Vorgons really can travel through time, and if they know exactly when and where what they want is, there is no reason they can’t have it, and no real reason that Picard should’ve been able to blow the Uthat up as easily as he does.

This is acknowledged in Picard and Vash’s last scene; she points out that, as the Vorgons can come back to this particular point in their past whenever they wish, she and Picard may be reliving their time together over and over again throughout eternity. It’s a sweet sentiment, but not one that bears much consideration. Because if the Vorgons keep returning, well, sooner or later, they’re going to get tired of the run around. Once they realize Vash has the Uthat all along, there’s nothing to stop them from getting it directly from her, and maybe even bumping off any vacationing Starfleet personnel that might interfere. That’s the problem with time travel, you see. Things are never as simple as you want them to be.

That’s about all there is to this one. The Ferengi are as annoying as always, and Sovak’s crush on Vash–he’s turned on by her trickery–is just weird. There are some good gags, and it’s nice to see Picard get a little more play than the standard allotment of meaningful looks with Beverly. In the end, Picard gets his relaxation by having a sort of holodeck adventure in the real world, so at least we can rest assured knowing he won’t take an ax upside Wesley’s head any time soon. Kind of a shame, come to think of it. (I kid, I kid. Wesley’s okay. I’d be satisfied with a minor flogging.)

According to the A.V. Club review of Hollow Pursuits:

It’s hard not fitting in. Everyone knows this; we all have some time in our lives when we felt like we weren’t in step with the group no matter how hard we tried. But there’s a special kind of hell reserved for being stuck in a group of nice, friendly folks who make every effort to make you feel welcome, and you still keep stuttering and tripping and generally making a fool of yourself. Assholes are never fun to be around, but at least when they treat you badly, you can tell yourself they’re the ones with the problem. What do you do when the ones holding you down are blameless? What do you do when the only person you can really blame for your misery is yourself?

If you’re Reginald Barclay of the USS Enterprise, you create a holodeck simulation that features some of your crew-mates, allowing you to mock the ones that terrify you with their self-confidence, and win the hearts of the ones you wish to woo. It’s not a very good solution, seeing as how poor Reg is still late half the time, and can’t speak more than three words without nearly choking to death on his embarrassment. But that’s the fun thing about social humiliation: it makes you so desperate for any kind of love or respect, you cling to any response that lets you feel even a little less miserable. At the start of “Hollow Pursuits,” Barclay is clinging as hard as he can, and he’s inches away from getting a transfer to another ship. It’s the first time on the show I can remember seeing Geordi actively frustrated with someone under his command, and it’s also the first time we’ve seen our main characters from the perspective of someone who doesn’t neatly fit in to their group. It’s an interesting experience, and while “Pursuits” has its problems, it’s also a telling look at how even a utopian society can still have its share of losers.

Before we get into that, though, can we all agree that Barclay’s holodeck programs are utterly ridiculous? I don’t mean ha-ha ridiculous, although they have their moments; Riker’s diminutive double is funny, and the actors clearly enjoy getting a chance to spoof themselves. What I mean is, there is no way any of this should be possible. Allowing a crew-member to use the likenesses of his fellow crew-members in this kind of elaborate, detailed simulation, while everyone is stuck together on a space ship hurtling through the void–well, I’m not sure it’s a good way to relieve stress (one of the points of the episode is that Barclay’s fantasies let him hide from his problems, which means he doesn’t ever deal with them in a constructive way, which means he’s never going to get better), and it’s definitely an excellent way to create uncomfortable situations.

I can’t remember which psychologist first discussed this (I think it was Jung), but there’s a danger in having imaginary conversations with the people in your life. Everybody has them; it’s a way to feel more in control, a way to rehearse difficult moments before they happen, a way to try and determine the best way to elicit the desired reaction out of someone without actually having to deal with them directly. (And yes, it’s a way to find comfort from a person who will never give you what you need.) The problem is, if you do this too often, it gets difficult to tell the difference between what you’ve really said, and what you’ve only dreamed of saying. Not necessarily in a “psychotic break” way, either, but in a very down-to-earth, it’s happened to all of us deal. It’s subtle, but it colors your perception of a relationship when you’ve fantasized about telling so-and-so how much you hate it when they do such-and-such. Even though you’ve never worked up the courage to deal with them directly, part of you remembers all those fake confrontations, and becomes resentful. Interactions are difficult enough as it is, and the more you can focus on dealing with someone when they’re actually around, they better you’ll be in the long run.

Now, imagine this with the holodeck involved. Barclay is the most harmless possible iteration of a disturbed personality–he’s basically just a shy, nerdy teenager who has the misfortune of being stuck in an adult body. The greatest sins we see him committing in his electric dreams are making time with Troi, and winning fights against his betters, and going by the reactions of Geordi and the others when they discover his programs (all right, so the holodeck just allows anyone to wander inside, mid-routine? I can understand a senior officer being able to override a lock, but at the very least, you’d think there’d be some kind of warning to Barclay that he was no longer alone), this is all a completely new experience for them. That’s part of TNG‘s whole perfect-future kick, that everyone’s problems are solvable; Barclay’s troubling because his solution isn’t readily evident, not because he’s dangerous or upsetting. But like I’ve said before, I have a hard time believing in a future like this, and I have an even harder time accepting that no one would realize the potential psychological havoc the holodeck could wreck. Imagine if Barclay had become convinced the real Troi had feelings for him, and that all he had to do to win her was take care of that stooge Riker?

This is a conceptually intriguing episode because it deals (even in an incredibly polite and unconfrontational fashion) with misfits on a ship that’s designed to make everyone feel at home. We get to see how unpleasant it might be to have to deal with these people if you weren’t on their wave-length, and Geordi’s inability to understand that someone could just be insecure and over-worked doesn’t speak very well for him as a boss. I’ve heard the Barclay gets more intolerable with each successive guest appearance, but I like Dwight Schultz, and I like that Barclay is legitimately awkward and not just nervous. It just seems so obvious that he’s overwhelmed and unsure of himself, and Geordi’s complete bafflement (especially considering that it’s, y’know, Geordi, aka, “Not Mr. Cool”) speaks to how ill-prepared anyone on this ship is for dealing with anyone who’s not strictly normal.

Riker acts like a hard-ass, as though Barclay’s repeated tardiness is a malicious or blatantly irresponsible act–but of course Riker would go the tough love route, the guy is probably champing at the bit to get a chance to play lovable army sargeant. And Picard, well, Picard has never been much use in trying to deal with people; he’s not inept, exactly, he’s just enough of a social deviant himself (albeit in far more productive, easier to manage ways) that this isn’t his field. But Welsey? Freakin’ Welsey Crusher comes up with a nickname for Barclay, and interrupts him during a staff meeting, and then doesn’t understand why the guy is a little on edge. Even Troi is a waste. For a supposed empath, her ability to read that Barclay is infatuated with her and, because of this, intensely nervous around her is bizarre. I can accept that she’s used to men (and the occasional woman) on the ship finding her attractive, but her attempts to relax him by turning down the lights and getting physically closer are not the actions of someone who understands what their patient is feeling.

Right, I haven’t really gotten much into the plot, have I? I have notes, but let’s face it, this all boils down to: Barclay needs to find someway to prove himself. So there’s a crisis on the ship, and Barclay’s the one who figures it out, after we get some amusing holodeck sequences, and have to squirm our way through the humiliation of Riker and Troi finding out just what the poor guy thinks of them. Everything else is just a science fiction MacGuffin designed to make Reg’s redemption possible. There are good ideas here, and Schultz give an performance just the right side of creepy, but in the end, this plays too much like a children’s show. That’s always a tendency with TNG. The best episodes ignore it or subvert it by refusing us easy answers, but here, everybody worries about Barclay, Barclay hates himself, then Barclay ends up okay. There’s a lovely scene at the end that at first plays like the poor guy is transferring off the ship, but instead turns out to be him saying good bye to his simulations; it’s nicely done, but I wonder if the episode might not have been better if Barclay really had left at the end. Sometimes we forget that just wanting to be a part of a group doesn’t make that group the right one for us.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Most Toys:

There are sometimes shows that run under the surface of our favorite shows–well, maybe not shows entirely, but suggestions of deeper motives and darker implications than the surface level allows. As a critic, my biggest fault (well, okay, one of my biggest faults) is my tendency to over-think things. With some series or books or movies, this can be a liability, as I’ll either give credit where it isn’t due by seeing something that doesn’t actually exist; or else I’ll over-consider a concept until I can no longer remember why anyone would enjoy it in the first place. But in reviewing Trek, in all the iterations I’ve seen so far, over-thinking has served me well. That’s part of the fun of watching genre television, after all. They give us the worlds, and the barest of trappings to color them, we provide the minutia.

For instance, “The Most Toys” is arguably just a variant on “The Measure of a Man.” It is an excellent variant, no question, and it stands quite well on its own, but we are dealing here with concepts of ownership and sentient property, and we already know the answers to these questions. Thankfully, this time the antagonist is a non-Federation man, which means we don’t have to worry about Starfleet suddenly forgetting the lessons it should’ve already learned. Data’s conversations with the horrible Mr. Fajo (played by the not horrible, and in fact quite excellent, Saul Rubinek) take us down familiar semantic paths, but they remain satisfying, for all their familiarity, because it’s good to see Data standing up for himself. Fajo is a particularly nasty villain; TNG doesn’t always do nasty bad guys, and it’s a pleasure here to see one who’s both fully drawn and completely reprehensible.

There’s something else going on here, too, and it’s much more subtle. For a call-back, it mostly reminds me of one of the final scenes of “The Ensigns of Command,” when a pretty young woman tried to put the moves on Data, and got, well, exactly what you’d expect. Nobody flirts with Data in “Toys,” but there is that same fascinating glimpse of Data’s alien nature, that same peek below the surface of a being who appears charming and harmless, but has a good deal more depth to him than anyone, even his friends, really realizes. It makes me wonder if maybe there’s an episode that never got filmed, that told some darker story about our favorite android. It makes me wonder just what the hell he gets up to with all those countless hours he spends aboard the Enterprise, not sleeping, not eating, just being there.

It’s this subtle character exploration that gives “Toys” its edge. The plot is straightforward enough: Mr. Fajo collects one of a kind items. Data is a one of a kind item, so Mr. Fajo fakes Data’s death and then collects him. There is then much discussion between Data and Fajo about the nature of captivity, about Data being a sentient being who is unaccustomed to ownership. It’s terrific stuff, because Rubinek is nerdy without ever being likable, and Data is always the most interesting when he’s in a situation where a human being would experience emotion. His reactions throughout the episode have this wonderful ambiguity to them, summarized beautifully in his final line (which is in Stray Observations, if you forgot it); he has no feelings, but it’s impossible not to hear his words and feel some sense of righteous fury yourself. There is something implacable about Data. It’s almost always used as a joke–his constant questions about the reasons behind illogical behavior, his explanations, his inability to understand when a conversation has reached a conclusion. Once Data reaches a conclusion, and has exhausted all other avenues, he will not weaken out of uncertainty or self-doubt or fear. That’s not very funny when he turns his implacability on you.

While all this is happening, the crew of the Enterprise is dealing with Data’s “death.” It’s always a compromise when a show has to pretend one of its characters is gone. We know Data isn’t really dead, and the writers know this (and know we know it). That means the grief the characters show is essentially wasted screen-time; it’s irrelevant to the plot, and as audience members, we don’t experience any catharsis watching the mourning because we aren’t mourning ourselves. Plus, if Data actually died, you couldn’t simply deal with it in a few scenes of one episode. There would need to be some sense of impact, and since Geordi needs to suspect something is wrong almost immediately for the rest of the episode to work, there’s just no time to waste on unnecessary tears. (Yes, Tasha Yar’s death was given about a scene, but c’mon–it was Tasha Yar.)

So, there’s a compromise. Geordi and Wesley are sad, Picard reads a line from a book he gave Data, but there’s no real pretense that this is actual raw grief. It plays more like, Data’s shuttle explodes, everyone assumes he’s dead, and then we cut to a month later after the initial wave of shock and pain have ridden through. You could say that the reason we don’t see the impact more is that Geordi “senses” that something is wrong, but that’s just a cheat. I don’t have a huge problem with this, really, as it’s largely dictated by storytelling requirements (and you could even argue that the detachment we see is just professionalism). What I do have a problem with is how much urgency the episode loses every time we cut away from Data and Fajo. Those two (and Fajo’s tormented assistant, Varia) are what this episode is really about. Geordi needs to figure out that Data’s “death” was faked so that the Enterprise can arrive and beam him back to safety, but his story isn’t strong enough to support as many scenes as it gets.

That doesn’t stop this from being an excellent episode, thankfully, because Data’s storyline is very, very good, and its conclusion is satisfying. After he’s kidnapped, Data is forced into essentially passive resistance; Fajo is protected, and Data can’t use physical strength to escape. But his willingness to compromise himself to protect Varia wins Fajo’s assistant over, and she helps Data attempt an escape. It’s not very successful. While Fajo’s thugs are easily dispatched, Fajo manages to use a disruptor on Varia, killing her. The disruptor is a nasty weapon that kills slower than a phaser, causing great pain as it does so, which means things get tense when Data gets the drop on Fajo with one. Fajo is convinced that Data won’t fire, but after reasoning out that he has no other choice, Data does fire. It’s just lucky for the collector that the Enterprise picks just that moment to beam Data back aboard.

I’ll admit it, I was a little disappointed by this. It seemed like a half-measure–let’s show Data is capable of killing when given no other choice, but let’s not have him actually kill anyone. (Still, he basically lies to Riker back on the ship. Has he ever lied before? I also didn’t write down exactly what he said, so I’m not sure if it’s a direct lie or a careful evasion. But then, why the evasion? Curious.) Thankfully, the final exchange with Fajo pays off the character’s survival. As with “Ensigns,” it’s another case with a humanoid assuming Data will have an emotional response–here, Fajo assumes Data will gloat. The beauty of it is, Data doesn’t show any sign of pleasure or triumph. Because of course he can’t. And yet, there must be some reason he want down to see Fajo in the brig, some reason he explained to him that all his possessions are gone. It might just be circuits firing. Or maybe he was thinking of flung acid, a chair, and a dead woman.

 

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The next in best and worst is Season 2.

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