The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 2

For previous installments:


One of the most notable changes in the series was the departure of Gates McFadden as Dr. Beverly Crusher, and the introduction of Diana Maulder as Dr. Katherine Pulaski. According to the TrekCore article, “We Could Have Been Great Together: Kate Pulaski“:

Star Trek: The Next Generation saw a number of significant changes between its first and second seasons, none more glaring than the replacement of Beverly Crusher with Kate Pulaski as chief medical officer aboard the Enterprise.

At Diana Muldaur’s request, the actress was never elevated above a ‘special guest appearance’ title for the second season opening credits, implying a kind of temporary or experimental status as a cast member. When the third season debuted, the medical reigns had been handed back to Gates McFadden, who was asked to return to the series, and Pulaski was never heard from again (outside of a few brief references in “Who Watches the Watchers,” “Ship in a Bottle,” and “Endgame,” the Voyager series finale).

While it’s hard to imagine The Next Generation without Doctor Crusher, looking back at the second season, it’s just as hard not to entertain the possibility that Pulaski’s character could have really succeeded for the series.

Despite some obvious and none-too-subtle character nods to Doctor McCoy, Pulaski displayed a certain resolve and wisdom that could have opened the door for some interesting relationships with the other crew members. Whatever the definitive reason for Pulaski’s replacement – be it lack of chemistry, creative differences, or Muldaur’s dissatisfaction with the show — there’s enough in the second season to point to a character with tremendous development potential.

Pulaski biggest opportunity for growth, had she stayed with the series for the third season and beyond, likely would have come with Troi, and maybe even Riker. Troi was set up from the start as someone who would be her closest friend, but that bond was never fully realized despite some promising starts in “The Child” and “The Icarus Factor,” in particular.

As reviled as it is as an episode, owing largely to its soap opera melodrama, “The Icarus Factor” is one of the few episodes that truly tries to weave her character into the tapestry of the other crewmembers’ lives – and it works. It may seem a bit corny that Pulaski was once romantically involved with Riker’s father, but Muldaur sells it, and the scene where she tells Riker to get over his anger for his father is a wonderfully layered moment setting the stage for an interesting parent-child dynamic with Riker.

You saw some of that when she confronts Wesley on learning to take charge in “Pen Pals.” I can only imagine the ball-busting she would have given Riker over his fears in assuming command in “The Best of Both Worlds.” Instead, that ball-busting was left, somewhat jarringly, to Guinan.

Both Troi and Riker have complicated relationships with their parents. It would have been interesting to see how Pulaski and Lwaxana Troi would have played off each, especially once Troi and Pulaski became a lot closer and Troi embraced her as a surrogate mother. When you consider this, it almost makes sense now that “The Child” was made the debut episode for Season Two – it gives us a necessary medical story to introduce Pulaski and to sow the seeds of her connection with Troi.

The biggest problem with Pulaski was the decision to pit her against Picard, and to a lesser extent Data. Had Data been portrayed as colder and more Spock-like, I could buy her ongoing distrust of him as a lifeless machine (and fulfilling yet another intended McCoy trait). Fortunately, Pulaski did warm to Data over the course of the season, but had she not, fans would have completely turned on her because… well… we liked Data, and so did the rest of the crew.

The conflict between Crusher and Picard worked better because there was romantic subtext to it. There was a glaring lack of chemistry between Pulaski and Picard (and it would seem, Stewart and Muldaur) that made the conflict feel forced. I always had a soft spot for “Time Squared.” It is a weird and creepy episode. It works almost in spite of itself. However, the conflict between Pulaski and Picard is so cringe-inducing it even alienates Troi at one point. It is at this point that you know Pulaski’s days are indeed numbered as a regular character.

Two of Pulaski’s best episodes are “Elementary Dear Data” and “Up the Long Ladder.” “Elementary” is a stand-out in its own right, and a lot of the credit for its success goes to director Rob Bowman. I love how he introduces Pulaski in this episode as an eavesdropper in Ten Forward. We don’t really know Pulaski up to this point, but in this one scene he tells us she’s smart, fun, and even a little sneaky.

“Up the Long Ladder” shows us she’s also a bit of risk-taker when she decides to partake in a dangerous Klingon tea ceremony with Worf. This sets up a rather unlikely camaraderie with Worf, which could have been one of The Next Generation’s more interesting dynamics as the series progressed.

So what would have The Next Generation been like had Pulaski stayed aboard third season and beyond? As a serious character well-tenured into her responsibilities, it’s likely we would have gotten some truly compelling medical episodes. I never felt Crusher was given enough to do. She’s clearly a smart woman and has saved the ship from several crises. But she was never given a really meaty medical story to sink her teeth into.

What’s more, Wil Wheaton’s decision to leave the series fourth season sidelined a big opportunity to broaden Crusher role as a single parent. This, along with the producers’ decision to minimize family drama post-fourth season in favor of more sci-fi fare, found Crusher with less to do save the ongoing and tiresome will-they-or-won’t-they unresolved romantic teasing with Picard.

Fans seem to be pretty divided on Pulaski as a character. It was easy to hate her because she came across too stuffy and parental, and her initial distrust of Data was something many of us just couldn’t swallow.

That said, she also has her share of fans, many of whom probably see, as I do, a character who had growth potential and whose service aboard the Enterprise came to an end far too soon.


The Best:

Elementary Dear Data, The Outrageous Okona, Loud as a Whisper, Unnatural Selection, A Matter of Honor, The Measure of a Man, Contagion, Time Squared, The Icarus Factor, and Q Who


In bits:

  • Elementary Dear Data sees a holographic Professor James Moriarty take over the Enterprise;
  • The Outrageous Okona sees a flamboyant space rogue, Thadiun Okona, introduce Data to the concept of humor;
  • Loud as a Whisper sees a deaf negotiator, Riva, help resolve a centuries old war on a planet;
  • Unnatural Selection has the Enterprise investigate the deaths of the crew of the USS Lantree, who have died of old age;
  • A Matter of Honor sees Commander Riker serve aboard a Klingon vessel as part of an exchange program;
  • The Measure of a Man is a great episode that debates the grounds on what constitutes as life;
  • Contagion sees a Romulan warbird and the Enterprise receive a computer virus, meanwhile, Data and Picard unlock the secrets of the once-powerful Iconian civilization;
  • Time Squared is a seriously neat time-travel story;
  • In The Icarus Factor,  Riker is offered his own ship to command, the Aires, as his father with whom he has had an antagonistic relationship is sent to brief him on a dangerous mission; and,
  • Q Who features the first appearance of the Borg, one of my favorite foes.

According to the A.V. Club review of Elementary Dear Data:

I should hate this. I mean, I loved this episode (and its sequel)(spoiler!) when it first aired, because it had a talking robot who wore a hat (I was an easy to please kid), but it has a lot of elements I’ve come to dislike about TNG. The holodeck is insanely powerful and dangerous for no good reason; Brent Spiner over-acts, which can be a clown-on-styrofoam experience; and the plot hangs in part on Pulaski’s contempt for Data . Plus, the episode’s got the actor who played the super fey butler from The Nanny, and that is a show I would dearly love to never think about again.

I don’t hate “Elementary, Dear Data,” though. I thoroughly expected to, and was dreading having to watch it for the recap, but something odd happened by the ten minute mark. Spiner was playing Sherlock Holmes as broad as Marilyn Monroe at a Hemingway convention, and Levar Burton was doing a bizarre British accent (he sounded like he was gargling something painful), but instead of drafting a formal letter of resignation to my AV Club overlords, I started grinning. I didn’t stop grinning, either. Let me stress this: Data’s Holmes is ri-goddamn-diculous. Geordi’s Watson is as bad. And yet their tomfoolery is so infectiously winning that I couldn’t help but be charmed. I still winced from time to time, sure, but unlike the tepid noir references of “The Big Goodbye,” “Elementary” gets enough details right that the clumsiness is more a matter of character than poor writing. Data and Geordi act like dorks because they are dorks, and, let’s face it, so are we.

Now that I’ve said nice things (and I’ve got a few more up my sleeve), I might as well talk about Ms. Bad News herself.  This is as good a place as any to start into Pulaski’s treatment of Data, since the episode hinges on her refusal to accept that Data is capable of deductive reasoning. (What’s fascinating here is that she views Data as an object, but is essentially criticizing him for failing to live up to the standards of a fictional character. How does this help her reasoning? No one can live up to the standard of Sherlock Holmes! It’s like an orphan having his lack of parents questioned because he never really got into the crime-fighting, spandex-wearing lifestyle.) Pulaski’s mistreatment of the Enterprise android is, like the rest of the character, a matter of bad judgment. She’s supposed to be raising questions about the nature of consciousness, the definition of life, and what it means to be human. Instead, she’s a bigot, and a charmless one. That’s bad enough, but the way the rest of the crew treats her concerns as if they’re worthy of argument is bizarre. Data has a rank in Starfleet. He’s been an equal crew member for the entirety of the first season. He is (shudder) fully functional. If someone showed up at your office and started treating one of your co-workers like an uppity coffee machine, would you debate the issue, or would you tell her to get stuffed? (All right, all right, pretend it’s a co-worker you actually like.)

There’s also the problem of Geordi’s little experiment, and what it does to the holodeck. One of the big questions of the episode is the difference between wisdom and knowledge. Data, clearly, has knowledge, but Pulaski (and, in a more friendly way, Geordi) doubts that he’s capable of the reasoning and maturity required to have wisdom. In order to test this, Geordi has the computer whip up an opponent who could actually defeat Data in the Holmesian fashion. So the computer, stealing some power from the rest of the ship, creates a Moriarty capable of self-actualization. This is a villain who sees the exit to his fake existence, and actually strives to escape the confines of the illusion.

Daniel Davis (the afore mentioned butler) plays Moriarty, and he’s quite good, managing an air of menace even while making the character sympathetic, intelligent, and tragic. So he’s not my problem. My problem is that the creation of Moriarty is a cheat. I like the cleverness of the computer inventing something self-aware as the only possible way to defeat Data, but nobody really considers the implications. Given Data’s treatment on the show as a singular creation, why aren’t people more impressed with the discovery that their ship can create artificial intelligence by voice command? In “The Big Goodbye,” the villains tried to escape the holodeck, but they never really transcended the bounds of their programing. Moriarty does, and it happens too easily. At least give me an electrical storm in space, or mention the Binars again.

If we accept that Moriarty is possible, though, “Elementary” becomes very interesting indeed. The strange programming glitches in “Goodbye” were used primarily as threats for the lead characters. Here, Moriarty does endanger theEnterprise, but only because he wants to be taken seriously as an independent will. When Picard goes to confront him, Moriarty cedes control almost immediately, and without need for violence on anyone’s part. The question is more what happens when a limited being desires to evolve. What responsibilities do its creators have? And how do you handle a consciousness that only wants a freedom you can’t provide? We don’t really get a satisfactory answer, and I’m not sure there is one. The fact that the issue is taken as seriously as it is here, though, is important. There’s real sadness to Moriarty’s fumbling, and while I don’t want to give too much credit to a five minute scene, it doesn’t blink, and it doesn’t turn him into an easily defeated virus.

“Elementary” is kind of a mess, because it spends so much time before getting to the main event that the first section of the episode doesn’t tie in too well with the latter half. Data, who seemed like the focus of the plot at the beginning, is largely a bystander by the end, and his abilities as a detective are irrelevant. (I do love the scene when he first realizes something is wrong, though. His sudden switch from fun-and-games to shit-got-real is excellent.)(Maybe that’s why Spiner’s silliness works here; it keeps getting contrasted with his restraint as regular Data.) We could’ve used more time with Moriarty, and more thematic cohesiveness would’ve been cool. Still, this is a tremendous amount of fun, provided you don’t mind getting your nerd on.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Outrageous Okona:

People used to give me a lot of advice on how to relax. They were trying to help, of course, but there’s no helpful way to explain, “Don’t try so hard,” because it draws attention to your self-consciousness that only serves to reinforce it. I wanted everybody to love me, I didn’t think anyone possibly could, so I put every ounce of sweat and concentration I had towards making myself acceptable, pleasing, and, as is relevant to this week’s first episode, hilarious. Now, I can be funny in person. I’m not any great wit or anything, but at my best, I get by. The trouble that it’s hard to be funny when you’re trying to be funny–some people can pull it off, but most of us can’t, and when you’re stuck in a position of desperately wanting to blow everyone away, you mostly end up fizzling out. Nothing kills comedy quite as dead as visible effort.

This delightful personal revelation comes as a way to try and explain why “The Outrageous Okona” is so goddamn painful. It’s not the worst episode we’ve had, because the story makes a rough amount of sense, there’s no blatant racism or sexism, and only one actor makes a fool of himself. It’s lousy, though. The first warning sign hits you in the opening credits: “Joe Piscopo as The Comic.” You have to be a certain age to see that name and be horrified, but even if you don’t recognize the presence of one of the eighties worst break-out comedic actors, your heart is sure to break once you realize why “Okona” needs a “The Comic.” Data wants to be funny. And now he’s going to take lessons.

Before we get to that, the main plot of “Okona,” the plot that inspires Data’s latest attempts to be become human and also provides us with the only relief (here used in the loosest possible sense) from those attempts, centers on a guest star, William O. Campbell, aka Bill Campbell, aka The Rocketeer. (“The Rockawho?”) Campbell plays a Han Solo-ish scoundrel who gets picked up by the Enterprise when his engine dies mid-trip. Troi clears him in advance, explaining to Picard that he’s a good guy and a “rogue.” (I actually wrote down “rogue” in my notes about ten seconds before Troi said it, which shows you how, um, distinctive Okona is.) Okona beams aboard, and immediately starts hitting on the super hot teleporter engineer. Played by Teri Hatcher, who I guess had some kind of a contract that required her to make at least one guest appearance on ever eighties genre show.

Anyway, Okona’s charms work on Hatcher. And not just on Hatcher; we get the impression he’s basically screwing his way through the female portion of the crew. It’s hokey, and more than a little absurd, given that we have not one but two jokes based on someone watching an attractive woman hanging over the guy in their bedroom, but unlike the comedy sections, it’s not painful. I’m not completely convinced that Okona’s easy-going charisma is what’s getting him laid. Campbell is a good-looking dude, and it probably gets boring on a space-ship, so while I’m not sure I buy the Enterprise is full of Leisure Suit Larry characters, I do think it’s reasonable to think there’d been some screwing going on. If we choose to ignore the somewhat silly presentation (and we’ll be doing more of that soon), I can appreciate the ethos behind it. This isn’t a morality play. Okona doesn’t turn out to be a bastard, and none of the women regret hooking up. I dig that. I dig the optimism of a free love society which still encourages committed relationships.

Sadly, this isn’t just a mildly tone-deaf attempt at a sex romp. (While TOS had some great lusty sequences, TNG really isn’t a sexy show. It’s too deliberate, too reasonable, too polite. It’s at its best when the characters discuss problems and work together towards solutions in a thoughtful, conscientious way. I’m not knocking that, either–I think it’s one of the things that makes the show stand out, and one of the big reasons why the Borg threat is so effective when it arrives. The only problem is, it’s really hard to want to rip the clothes off somebody when you have to fill out forms in triplicate first.) If that’s all it was, “Okona” would be middling, a forgettable forty minutes of fluff notable only for the presence of two up and coming guest actors, and for Okona’s Ice Pirates-style outfit.

Instead, after talking with Okona, Data decides he wants to learn how to tell jokes. He’s been struggling with this before, but this is the first time we’ve spent scenes watching him make the effort. Theoretically, it’s not a bad idea. Data’s quest to become human has dramatic potential, because it offers writers a chance to get philosophical (“What does it mean to be human?”) without losing the grounding of a likable, intelligent character. I’ve talked before about how break-out characters are often the ones who question social conventions that everyone else takes for granted, and that’s essentially what Data is; the difference being that Data’s questions are respectful and curious, which actually makes them harder to answer. Having him put some effort into understanding what makes a joke work could’ve been a great opportunity to show how impossible it is to explain some things, and how that translates to Data’s quest as a whole, the way “being human” is such a nebulous concept that achieving it is as much about asking questions as it is about answering them.

Technically, they do try this, and I very much liked Guinan telling Data at the end of the episode that there’s more to humanity than just an ability to tell jokes well. The real problem here is that it’s an episode about humor with no good laugh lines. Worse, it’s an episode about humor with no good laugh lines that thinks it’s really, really funny. Data’s attempts at stand-up are supposed to fall flat, (although I don’t think they’re supposed to be quite as wince-inducing as they actually are; once again we’re reminded that Brent Spiner trying to act “human” is really loud. I think, as a friend reminded me, it’s because Spiner’s background is in theater, and none of the episode directors have made an effort to tone him down) but the scenes with Piscopo are equally terrible, and there’s a bit with Piscopo and Data both pretending Jerry Lewis that kind of made me want to die. The idea that Piscopo, who’s basically just Jay Leno with muscle tone, is one of the best comedians of the 20th Century is, well, horrifying. Was there some kind of apocalypse that left the future with nothing but thousands of copies of Dead Heat?

At least we have Whoopi Goldberg on hand, and I heard she might have done some stand-up at some point. Data goes to Guinan for advice, which is a nice meta-moment that the episode never overplays. (Actually, that may have less to do with subtlety and more to do with me occasionally forgetting that Goldberg made her name as a comedian. I’m old, sometimes I forget things.) That’s ruined, though, by the fact that Guinan’s few attempts at humor are as bad, if not worse, than Data’s. “You’re a droid and I’m a noid”? Seriously? It’s hard to remember this show ever being intentionally funny. Whimsical, sure, endearing, definitely, but intentionally hilarious? I’d say it happens occasionally, but right now, the idea of a purely comic episode (like, say, TOS‘s “Trouble With Tribbles”) here gives me the shakes. I suppose “Okona” could’ve been worse. The discovery at the end that the title character isn’t quite as immature as he appears to be is a nice twist, and, even better, it indicates that the writers are getting a handle on how to tell a story that’s paced reasonably well. Too bad so much of that pacing is given over to pain. Data learns a valuable lesson that humor can’t be forced, and we learn the same, albeit in a far less friendly way.

According to the A.V. Club review of Loud as a Whisper:

There’s something about TNG’s tone that always makes episodes like this harder to take. I’ve been trying for years to figure out the best way to describe it, but every time I do, all I can think of is one word: pastel. That’s not enough, really, but it’s close. I love TNG, I love the cast, and I love the great stories we eventually get, but right now, so many of these episodes are like getting stuck in a doctor’s waiting room, flipping through copies of Readers Digest, staring at renderings of landscapes and abstract designs hanging on the walls, lost in a sea of light brown, gray, pink. Great ideas are important, but the wrong presentation can make even the greatest idea fall flat, and sometimes that’s what these early seasons sometimes feel like: smart writing and some great acting buried under a sea of surface mediocrity.

For an experiment, I tried to separate “Loud As A Whisper”‘s concept from its execution. It’s not a bad episode for that approach. “Whisper” is often painfully earnest in its philosophical meanderings, and it’s nearly impossible to watch without snickering in places, but it’s also thoughtful, sincere, and, if you can stop rolling your eyes long enough, inspiring. I’m not saying it’s successful at those things, at least not completely. I am saying, though, that this is the kind of storytelling that will eventually develop into true greatness. Sort of like “We’ll Always Have Paris.” (Note to self: Try and come up with a different way to be optimistic for next week. They may be catching on how much of these reviews are copy and paste.)

The Enterprise is on transport duty, assigned with bringing a diplomat named Riva to Solais V to negotiate a peace between two warring factions. Riva is a really big deal, although no one seems to know much about him, except that he has a reputation for resolving seemingly irresolvable conflicts. While this mystery does give us a chance to figure out the situation at the same time as Picard and the others do, it’s implausible. Riva’s “secret” is so fundamental to his character, and so immediately obvious to anyone who meets him, that I can’t believe it hadn’t come up before. Like, I dunno, Starfleet saying, “Hey, could you go pick up this guy? Oh, and FYI, he’s deaf, and he’s got three friends who communicate for him.” It’s a small point, and I won’t harp on it for much longer, but this sort of thing does damage to the show’s universe, because in trying to oversell a twist, it undercuts continuity. In order for surprise situations to be be effective, we need to feel like the Enterprise crew generally knows what’s going on. As it is, too often Picard seems to be wandering into someone else’s play.

Right, Riva’s “secret.” It is, no denying it, goofy. Riva can’t speak for himself (y’know, “deaf” doesn’t automatically mean “mute”), so he’s got two guys and a girl to do the work for him. Each member of the trio represents a specific element of Riva’s personality. One guy’s the thinker and artist, the other guy’s the warrior and lover, and the woman is harmony and balance. (So, the two men are active, while the woman just sets a reasonable bedtime. Sounds fair to me!) Each can read Riva’s thoughts, and which ever one is most indicative of his emotional state is the one who expresses those thoughts aloud. So if he’s musing, it’s the Dork, if he’s horny, it’s the Stud, and if he’s, I dunno, in sort of a warm-milk-and-tedium mood, it’s the Mom.

Troi calls this form of expression “elegant,” which is one of the more ridiculous things she’s said lately. It’s certainly interesting, but there’s no simplicity to it, and it’s hard to imagine how such a system would develop naturally. Yet the concept is dramatically interesting for what it tells us about Riva’s intentions, and just plausible enough that you could sort of see it working. It raises questions–how are the people chosen? Does he work with the same three all his life? Do they get time off when he’s not on diplomatic missions, or is this a lifetime gig?–but leaving those questions unanswered means we’ve got less plotholes to worry about, and more encouragement to figure it out for ourselves. Also, it makes sense that this could help Riva make peace, because the communication is so striking and odd that it could serve as a distracting from heated emotions. In order to understand what was happening, the feuding parties would have to pay attention, and that’s the first step towards a dialog.

Of course, in practice… Riva is immediately attracted to Troi, and she to him, so when he starts putting the moves on her it’s supposed to be romantic. I think. It plays as creepy and overly forceful, possibly because there’s something unpleasant about a large, full-bearded man staring at you with a smile that wonders if your empathy goes all the way up. The relationship becomes more palatable as the episode progresses, which is good because it’s fairly important to the plot, but that initial vibe lingers, and I think that’s because Riva’s intentions are so blatant from the start. Whenever he “speaks” with Troi, it’s the Stud who does the talking, and it’s like they’re ganging up on her. Things only really work once the Stud exits the room, and Riva starts speaking to Troi via sign language. At least then, they’re equally matched.

Apparently the Solari agree with me, because when Riva and the Rivettes beam down for some negotiating madness, somebody shoots and kills the Rivettes. It’s a really smart twist, too, the kind that in retrospect seems obvious (how else could they raise the stakes?) but comes as a shock at the time. Given the whole pastel-vibe, I hadn’t been expecting this, and the deaths are appropriately disturbing, very quick, but you see skeletons and stuff. (Makes you wonder of the bad guy had stole a laser from a Mars Attacks Martian.) Riva’s self-confidence is shattered, which means for the first time in the episode, it’s possible to actually kind of like him, and Troi gets a chance to be active and tell Riva to man up. Oh, and Data learns sign language.

I don’t precisely like “Whisper.” There’s that tone problem again, and Riva himself annoyed me, but once I was willing to look past my initial reservations, I can at least respect what I saw. Again, this episode is well-constructed, and lacks the egregious padding we’ve seen in some earlier first season work. We are presented with a scenario, we arrive at the scenario, the scenario becomes something else, and everything is resolved at the end. I’m not sure how well Riva’s “I’m gonna teach them sign language!” plan would actually work, but I believe that it could work. Oh, and this is our second episode in a row where the guest star essentially does all the heavy lifting, story-wise. Troi gives a pep talk, but it’s Riva who drives the action here, much like Okona did. That the show can do this, and not have the main crew seem like passive observers, is essential.

According to the A.V. Club review of Unnatural Selection:

How do you solve a problem like Pulaski? Let’s overlook the character flaws, the miscasting, the way she doesn’t quite fit, and just deal with generalities. As mediocre as the first season of TNG was, the new crew of the Enterprise was a solid unit by the end. Some of them had been developed better than others, but with the death of Tasha Yar, we finally settled into something approaching a groove. People had roles, and they fulfilled them, and even more importantly, those roles all meshed with each other reasonably well. Yes, Troi was a bit on the useless side (“I sense understatement, Captain,”), but this is less about individual importance and more how we, as the audience, became attached to a certain concept of the show’s cast. You watch something long enough, you develop a bond with the people you’re watching. Upset that bond, and the show risks ruining one of the few undeniable advantages it has.

Enter Pulaski, then. It’s the second season, so it’s not automatically the end of the world to do some cast change-up. Beverly Crusher, while pleasant enough, hadn’t had a huge amount of character development (dead husband, nerdy son, had the hots for Picard), so her absence doesn’t ruin any delicate structures. The trick, then, is trying to make her as important to the audience as the rest of the crew, in a much shorter span of time. The downside is, before Pulaski is sufficiently developed, her sudden appearance can throw off the cast chemistry, her scenes becoming dead spots in each episode. Fortunately, though, since the rest of the character know their responsibilities, it’s easier to contrast their personalities against this new person’s, and use that contrast to flesh her out.

Well, that’s a theory, anyway, and “Unnatural Selection” is an attempt to do something with that theory, by giving Pulaski her first real main storyline. Not only is she the person driving the action for much of the episode, characters spend an awful lot of time discussing her in her absence. By the end, we have a much clearer picture of the character–or at least, we have a clearer picture of what the writers really want her character to be. Unfortunately, like I mentioned at the start of the season, those intentions fail to live up to the final result, and what we have is a classic example of a strong actor unable to find a necessary sympathy with the role she’s performing.

The Enterprise gets a distress signal from the Lantree, but by the time they arrive the entire crew is dead of old age. (Pulaski does a scan, brings out the old chestnut they always deliver in premature seniority story-lines: “They all died of natural causes.” Why is this supposed to be more shocking than the evident fact of their advanced aging?) We get a neat scene where Picard takes remote control of theLantree via computer codes, just like Kirk took control of Khan’s ship way back inWrath Of Khan, and then a quick scan of the records determines that the ship’s last stopping point was at the Darwin Station. They do genetic research there. Wonder if that’s relevant?

The crux of the episode is Pulaski’s supposed humanism. As a McCoy analog, she is supposed to be passionate, willful, and intent on putting her patients’ needs above all other concerns. In practice, this means becoming immediately and deeply obsessed with protecting the results of the research done on Darwin: supposedly genetically perfect humanoids who are unaffected by whatever’s causing the aging sickness. The Darwin scientists themselves are all suffering, including their spokeswoman, Dr. Kingsley, who blames contact with theLantree for the problem. She demands that the Enterprise beam the children aboard, since they won’t be able to fend for themselves with the adults dead. Pulaski agrees with Kingsley’s assessment, despite never having seen these children, and despite the fact that contact with them would put the Enterprise‘s crew–people it’s her job to protect–in potential danger, regardless of Kingsley’s repeated assurances otherwise.

Pulaski’s commitment to a foolhardy idea doesn’t do her any favors. Over and over throughout the episode we’re informed of her devotion, her stubbornness, her intellect, and while all three traits are technically apparent, in practice, they don’t serve to make her more endearing. Her arguments with Picard don’t work, because it’s impossible to understand what point she’s trying to make. Intellectually, yes, a case could be made for the importance of protecting the kids, given the amount of time and research put into them, and simply for their rights as living, sentient beings. In order to make that case work, though, a person would have to be so convinced of the rightness of their cause that their passion for it would overwhelm all other responsibilities. It would need to be a situation in which the children will die without immediate intervention.

This sort of conflict happened all the time in TOS. Kirk was often faced with situations in which he’d need to sacrifice the few for the needs of the many, and part of McCoy’s job on the show was to make sure the voice of those few was always heard. The trouble is, TNG doesn’t really deal in the same levels of danger. There have been (and will be) times when the crew is in incredible peril, but rarely are we faced with the kind of moral dilemma that the original show did so well. If TOS was about translating fables into science fiction, TNG is about using science to exhaust all options. There’s no sense of necessity in Pulaski’s demands. She comes off as short-sighted and immature, and given that her entire performance is so restrained and detached, there’s no way to empathize with her.

Really, Diana Muldaur isn’t right for this part. Her sudden intense desire to protect the kids comes across less as a defining characteristic than as a weird kind of nervous breakdown. We learn over the course of the episode that Pulaski is frustrated with Picard’s “by-the-book” methods, which is a conflict I had to keep reminding myself had been established before (she objected to the security team being present while Troi gave birth in “The Child”), and then later we discover she specifically requested a transfer to the Enterprise because of her deep respect for the man. Neither the conflict nor the respect rings true. Pulaski seems to equally dislike everyone on the ship, and if she’s so in awe of Picard–a man who’s methods she’s studied, a man who she herself has accused of being obsessed with regulation–why the hell would her first act upon transferring aboard his ship be to ignore him and directly contradict established procedure?

Pulaski gets her way, and deals with one of the kids, putting herself and Data at risk in order to prove what anyone with a brain knew ages ago: the kids are responsible for the aging sickness. Super genius Kingsley keeps bragging about the children’s perfect immune systems, and it turns out those immune systems are so amazing that they produce airborne antibodies at even the slightest hint of disease. (Hence the mention of Thelusian Flu earlier.) Once the antibodies are activated, they decide that “regular” humans are essentially viral, and must be destroyed. There is potentially a tragic arc to science creating lethal beauty, but Kingsley is tedious and one-note, and the children themselves are vaguely beatific blank slates. As episodes go, this had a clever enough conclusion–using the transporter to restore the afflicted was satisfying, and it’s always fun to see Picard save the day. The problem is, “Selection” depends on Pulaski for emotional depth, and that gets old, fast.

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

So far I haven’t had a whole lot of surprises doing these recaps. I knew the first season was largely terrible, I knew I didn’t much care for Tasha Yar or Dr. Pulaski, I knew Patrick Stewart kicked ass, and all of these beliefs have been confirmed. There are little surprises, though, and the best of them is that I really dig William T. Riker. Jonathan Frakes has always struck me as a nice enough guy, but I don’t remember having an opinion on him when I first watched the series. Data and Picard took up most of my attention. As I got older, somewhere I got the idea that Riker wasn’t all that highly respected among Trek fans. I decided he was smarmy, and dumb, and, at best, a place-filler for the real leads to bounce lines off.

Screw that. Riker is really, really fun. He is a bit smarmy, but the guy is so clearly having fun with his job that it’s infectious. He’s the Han Solo of the group, and while Frakes doesn’t quite have Harrison Ford’s charisma (Frakes is too familiar to be really rakish; he’s like an uncle who occasionally sells you pot), he does well as a guy who loves his work, loves his friends, and every once in a while likes to screw around with both. For fun, check out the way he stands. It’s easy to mimic, easy to mock, but it’s also bad-ass, because he knows he’s a little ridiculous and he doesn’t care. Kind of makes me think of Timothy Olyphant’s strut, although that is a deliberate, “I’m walking this way to keep myself from murdering someone each time I put my foot down,” whereas with Riker, it’s like he just wants to make sure you know he’s screwing with you. He takes his duties seriously, but he also finds a lot of things pretty hilarious at the same time, and I dig that.

Another surprise is how much I like Worf. He hasn’t gotten as much to do yet, but the show is getting better at giving him lines, and letting him be funny. (The eye-roll he does when Pulaski demands the children be saved in “Selection” is great.) Worf and Riker’s relationship is probably the closest the show gets to really capturing that TOS tone: the two are friends, but there’s an edgy playfulness to that friendship that you don’t really see in, say, Data and Geordi’s interactions. Worf doesn’t do a lot in “Matter of Honor,” but what he does get is choice, and he’s basically an entry-point to Klingon culture as a whole. We’ve seen how Worf deals with others of his race in the context of the Enterprise, but what happens when a mere human is set adrift in Klingon culture, without the recourse of the Federation to aid them?

“Honor” has Riker signing on for a temporary re-assignment to the Klingon shipPagh. It’s part of an officer exchange program, but no one from Starfleet has ever attempt to serve with Klingons. The impression we get here is that it’s a potentially dangerous mission, but not an inherently suicidal one. Picard first introduces Riker to the idea while the two of them are playing some sort of target practice with lasers game, and the captain clearly wants Riker to volunteer. Picard is not one to risk his crew lightly. (Which we’ll have even better proof of next episode.) He does, though, take the Enterprise‘s mission of exploration and discovery very seriously, and what’s really cool here is that Picard is encouraging Riker to take the assignment for philosophical reasons. It’s a plot motivated by one character’s eagerness to learn something knew.

Plus, Riker clearly gets a kick out of doing his job well. He takes to this new assignment with what can only be deemed as “gusto,” sampling ugly Klingon delicacies, and questioning Worf as to the subtleties of Klingon high command. (Turns out it’s the job of the first officer to assassinate his captain the moment the captain proves unworthy to lead. Any bets on how a battle royale between Riker and Picard would turn out?) One of the impressive things about “Honor” is how it manages to set up its premise, and deliver sufficiently on that premise, in the space of a single episode. It’s easy to imagine this playing out over multiple hours, and if it happened in a modern genre show, that’s probably how it would go–Riker taking some courses, then slowly working his way into Klingon society, developing relationships, questioning his own identity as he starts to relate more and more to their warlike ways, until finally he’s forced to make some kind of dramatic choice, betraying a part of himself in the name of survival.

That could’ve been compelling, but I doubt TNG could pull it off as the show currently is, and there’s also a great deal to be said for brevity. As a single unit, “Honor” is forced to refine its major conflicts down to their most basic elements. So we get a scene with Riker eating Klingon food, to set us up for a later scene on the Pagh where he has to prove himself to his shipmates by munching on some live worms. We get a danger, with the biological organism that threatens the integrity of the Pagh‘s hull, putting the ship at risk and giving the already suspicious Captain Kargan ample reason to mistrust Riker and the Enterprise. There’s an arc here, and while I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say Riker goes through significant change, there’s a sense of him coming into his own. Riker stands equal (or better) with the Klingons, and it works because the Klingons aren’t softened or diminished in order to make them “safer.” TNG is still painting with broad strokes, but its respect for the alien culture here makes for some of the best dramatic moments I’ve seen on the show. Riker taking over the Pagh by tricking Kargan is a cheer-worthy twist, and it wouldn’t have worked if it didn’t feel earned.

There are some minor quibbles. I don’t mind the sub-plot with Mendon learning valuable lessons in the art of communication, but combined with Riker’s domination on the Pagh, it skews a little too close to the “humanity is the greatest!” tone the series leans on. Some of Kargan’s behavior is on the inexplicable side, especially considering his paranoia. He can’t possibly believe that Riker would willingly help destroy the Enterprise, and while I can see him trying to test the first officer by drawing out his loyalties, Riker probably should’ve been thrown in the brig once Kargan decided that Starfleet wanted thePagh destroyed. Also, why the hell are the lights so dim on the Pagh, anyway? Are Klingons just that into the color red? Maybe it’s a genetic thing, in which case Worf should spend most of his time on the Enterprise bridge squinting.

This was really excellent, though, and between it and “Measure of a Man,” I finally feel like TNG is starting to pay off on investments. Much of what Riker does here follows the familiar genre pattern of an outsider making a place for himself in a new society, but instead of making the story overly-predictable, that familiarity resonates. It’s deeply satisfying, which is not a feeling I often get watching this series. I hope it lasts.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Measure of a Man:

It must be a rule every starship captain’s adventures must at some point put him in contact with old flames. How else can you explain the presence in “Measure of a Man” of Phillipa Louvois, former lover and adversary to Jean-Luc Picard, and current JAG Captain at Starbase 173? Much like the “Court Martial” episode of TOS, “Measure” tries to mine some emotion out of a years buried relationship, and while watching the two characters spar is amusing, it’s not really necessary. (It also doesn’t help that Amanda McBroom isn’t anywhere near the same acting league as Stewart.) Picard and Phillipa are not the heart of this story. Data is. And for once, we finally get an episode that lives up to his character’s potential.

As viewers, there are certain things we tend to accept without asking when we watch sci-fi and fantasy. Those elements change from show to show, but the basic principle stays the same: we accept what is presented as truth in the universe we’re watching. We don’t have warp travel, we don’t have spaceships like theEnterprise, we don’t have instant teleportation or replicators or holodecks, but all of these are presented as given on TNG, and so we don’t question there presence. Sure, we can wonder as to the plausibility of certain elements, but unless a show starts breaking its internal rules, we’re willing to take quite a lot at face value. Just the name alone, “science fiction,” has our expectations prepared. We don’t need to see the physics explained in detail as to how Picard and his crew sail the stars. Just to know there’s a ship is enough.

For a while now, Data has been one of those accepted truths. Anyone who’s spent much time at the movies has seen robots before, so he’s not really an anomaly to us. There’s Geordi’s visor, and Worf, so we already know that this new universe is not solely populated by understandable technology or recognizable humanoids. Yet all along, there have been these certain threads of disquiet as to just what his position in Starfleet, and among his fellow crewmembers, really is. There’s a reason that “fully functional” line is so creepy, after all. It’s bad writing, but it’s also a reminder of Data’s uniqueness, his distinction and separation from basic humanity interaction. It’s not like anybody had sex with the toaster, but at the same time, just how much of Data is programmed response? How much is choice?

Actually, I doubt that’s a question that has plagued me much, since there’s never really been any doubt that Data has a soul, that he’s a fully conscious, self-realized entity. So maybe the real question, then, is how the other characters view him. Even if we as audience members are conditioned to accept certain central tenets, Picard an the others are not. They accept the holodeck because it’s been there for ages, same with warp speed, but Data is a new idea, and even if we have no trouble believing in his basic reality and rights within the series’ context, there’s no rule that says the characters that live in that context have to agree with us. Imagine if cars started demanding equal pay, or if refrigerators would only be willing to hold certain kinds of food.

On the one hand, it makes sense that a scientist would want to take Data apart to see how he works. It’s a bad idea to us, and to the people on the Enterprise, because we “know” Data, and his presence on the show (and on the ship) is as valuable as anyone else’s. (In some cases, quite a bit more.) To Starfleet, though, Data is simply another computational tool. So now we get to spend some time trying to find out how our acceptance of the idea of Data, and Picard and the others’ belief in him, can be expressed in concrete enough terms to defend Data’s rights.

It’s surprising that Pulaski isn’t more present in “Man,” considering her general feelings towards the android. I’m not sure if this was a conscious choice, or simply a matter of time; she appears at Data’s farewell party, and doesn’t have any snide comments to make, so that’s all right. She doesn’t even rise to some very obvious bait in the poker game at the start of the episode. (Ahhh, TNG poker. This, I remember.) Picard does most of the heavy lifting here, as Data’s ability to come to his own defense is one of the questions that needs to be answered. Riker gets a few meaty scenes, and Geordi has a semi-tearful goodbye to Data, but mostly, this one is all the captain. He’s the one trading barbs with Phillipa, he’s the one who demands a hearing be called to defend Data’s rights, and it’s his efforts that ultimately save Data from dismantling. Spiner and Stewart work well together, as Data’s trusting nature and straight-forwardness meshes nicely with Picard’s clear contempt for the complexities of social convention. It’s great to see Picard stepping in to protect his crew, and his clear emotional investment in the issue (an issue he himself may have had some questions on before) makes his final arguments in the hearing powerful and moving.

As for the episode’s flaws, well, having Guinan basically spell out “THIS IS LIKE SLAVERY” was unnecessary. While I appreciated the overall discussion, I sometimes wondered if the arguments made against Data’s autonomy were a little soft. (As when Maddox, the scientist determined the see what makes Data tick, says that no one would allow a ship’s computer to refuse a refit. I think if the computer was actually capable of making the refusal, the situation would change. Isn’t Data’s desire for survival here proof enough of consciousness?) I really, really didn’t like shoehorning Riker into leading the prosecution’s case, because it’s a very obvious attempt to create fake drama. Still, he does well with the role. There’s a great scene which shows Riker studying Data’s specs; he finds information that can help him “win,” grins, and then realizes that in winning, he’d be dooming a friend.

Overall, this was as good as “Matter of Honor,” albeit in a different way. “Honor” was an adventure story; “Measure” is the sort of profound philosophizing thatTrek has always made its bread and butter. Soft arguments or no, “Measure” does well to not play anyone as the bad guy. Even Maddox, a definite irritant, is proven to be more blinded by his passion for his work (and a fear of his own inadequacies)  than a villain. Hearing him call Data “he” instead of “it” at the end was nice. (Less nice: Phillipa immediately pointing out the change. Apparently, we can be trusted to follow high-minded debate, but as an audience we suffer from serious pronoun trouble.) TNG hasn’t lost its flaws, but it’s finally, definitively shown that it can be great. The next time I find myself wishing I could fast-forward to the good parts, I’ll just remember Picard’s big speech here, or Riker taking down the Pagh‘s second-in-command. I don’t mind waiting for more of that.

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

Well, this one is really just a more developed (and better structured) retake on the first season episode, “The Arsenal of Freedom.” We’ve got a mysterious planet, incredible technology, and deadly danger, but we also have a third act, so I don’t mind a second try. At least this one isn’t a fable about how weapons are bad and the more deadly we become, the more we risk self-destruction. In fact by the end of the episode, Picard theorizes that the Iconians, the mysterious race that Captain Donald Varley gave his life (and the lives of everyone about his ship, the Yamato) to find, were actually a peaceful people who’ve been slandered by history. Sure, an Iconian probe is responsible for the Yamato‘s destruction, as well as the near-destruction of the Enterprise and a Romulan vessel, but that’s more of a software glitch than any deep-rooted hostility. Sort of like if Microsoft ran a planet–it would only force its software down the throats of neighboring systems out of love.

After the intermittently drippy “Dauphin,” it’s nice to have some wall-to-wall action again, and “Contagion” starts fast. Picard gets a distress message from Varley: the Yamato is suffering severe technical problems, and they’re in bad need of assistance. Unfortunately, the Yamato is in the Neutral Zone, which means riding to the rescue entails a certain level of risk. (Hey, remember the Kobayashi Maru?) Picard takes the chance, though, and risks the Enterprise, arriving just in time to chat briefly with Varley before the afore mentioned technical problems cause the ship to explode.

I’ve gone on at some length about TNG‘s more thoughtful storytelling approach, but there’s a brief scene here that’s worth pointing out. In just a few seconds it manages to convincingly demonstrate how good Picard is at his job, and how thoroughly his crew is prepared to support him. (You can also see this in “Where Silence Has Lease,” but in that case, it’s the focus of quite a few scenes, whereas the moment in “Contagion” is delivered almost incidentally.) Picard has already explained that Varley is a good friend, and their final conversation is, if not really warm, the sort of open banter you’d expect from old comrades. Then the Yamato explodes, and in the next instant, as debris hurtles outward, Picard orders the shields up.

It doesn’t sound like much, but shocking as that explosion is, there’s something wonderfully cold-blooded in Picard’s response. We don’t see him break down over Varley’s death, although his willingness to continue the man’s quest is probably connected to their friendship, and we don’t get a passionate outburst in the moment. Later in the episode, Wesley comes to see the captain for a chat about the tragedy, and Picard explains that grief and duty don’t often make comfortable bedfellows. The unhesitating, flat inflection of that “Shields up” demonstrates this more clearly than any monologue, though. In its way, it’s a gutsy choice. The Wesley scene tries to soften this, but the main reality stands: we don’t see Picard weaken. We don’t see him stagger back, and we don’t see him react as we ourselves would when confronted with such disaster.

Obviously, there’s a lot more episode after this (in fact, that entire scene takes place during the cold open!). Varley was searching for Iconia, and going by his logs, he found it. There’s amazing technology available for the taking–if only he could’ve found some way to beam to the planet itself. Unfortunately, a probe launched from Iconia’s surface just as the Yamato made orbit hit the ship with some new operating software, and the resulting crash between the existing system and the invading one created the resulting glitches and eventual explosion. The Enterprise nearly gets hit by the same probe when it follows in the Yamato‘s footsteps, but thankfully Geordi figures out the problem before it’s too late and is able to tell Picard to destroy the probe. (For a series of supposedly random accidents, the trials that Geordi goes through attempting to get to the bridge are both improbable and hilarious.) Too bad that in downloading Varley’s logs, our heroes have already managed to infect their ship…

While the main storyline here is too similar to earlier episodes to stand out, the consequences of the Enterprise‘s slow meltdown make for fun viewing, especially once Picard beams down to the planet with Worf and Data, leaving Riker in charge of the ship. Riker’s increased frustration at his inability to successfully defend against potential Romulan attack is hilarious without defusing the tension, and the scene in which the Enterprise fails to fulfill any of Number One’s commands is a nice piece of farcical suspense. It’s always good to have the Romulans back, even if their uniforms still look silly.  The strained diplomacy between Riker and the Romulan captain, neither one exactly operating on the level but both unwilling to admit they might be at fault, makes a good dynamic. (I could be wrong there. Do we know what the rule is on rescue missions into the Neutral Zone? Obviously it’s risky, but is there official regulation against it? At the very least, Picard’s justification for hanging around is suspect. I’m not sure there’s that much danger of an inter-stellar incident, especially once Varley’s logs show the probable connection between the Yamato’s malfunctions and that probe.) I love the ending, too, with Riker passing on the secret to beating the probe programming to the Romulans, then prudently ordering the Enterprise into warp in case the Romulans aren’t able to act on this information. This would’ve worked better if we hadn’t had that last shot of the Romulans leaving orbit, though; I’d rather have their survival be more ambiguous.

I wasn’t as thrilled about Picard, Worf, and Data’s Iconian adventure. Wandering what’s basically a haunted house for an entire civilization is a neat idea, albeit a routine one for this show and TOS, and Picard’s decision to risk everything in order to make sure the Iconian tech doesn’t fall into Romulan hands is sound. It’s just that the Iconians themselves don’t have a whole lot of personality in their absence, and their magical doorway machine is too much of an afterthought, created as a form of nonviolent, but potentially incredibly dangerous, equipment to justify Picard’s decision to blow everything up. The problem is that, as entertaining as the episode often is, the explosion of the Yamato is the undeniable high-water mark, and that happens before we get the opening credits. It doesn’t ruin “Contagion,” and the knowledge that the probe’s infection has already taken so many lives does raise stakes through the episode, but it makes the solid plotting seem uninspired. Still, Picard winding up on the Romulan bridge near the end was pretty genius.

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

You’ve seen Primer, right? Of course you have. In case it’s been a while: Primer is about a couple of guys who invent time travel. This is not, as such, an incredibly original plot-line. What makes the movie so great (and it is great) is that it takes this concept as a way to examine what happens to a person who discovers that every action is rewritable. There is a cost for the rewriting, but when the reward is so incredible, who really pays attention to how much they’re paying? Primer dealt with the seductive allure of the perfect moment, of how the ability to refine every interaction means losing sight of the life that brought you to them in the first place. It also addresses one of the major concerns of time travel: what do you do when there’s suddenly a spare you?

“Time Squared” isn’t anywhere near as complex as Primer (which I’ve seen six or seven times, and still haven’t entirely worked out), but I found myself thinking of the movie while watching the episode. Both deal with duplicates, and both deal with one character’s obsessive need to get one decision absolutely, unquestionably correct. The big difference here is that, in Primer, the choices the protagonists fixated on were largely selfish. In “Squared,” Captain Picard is trying to unravel his future in order to save the lives of everyone on board the Enterprise.

Before we can get to that, though, it’s time for another round of “Get To Know Your Characters.” Instead of a poker game, Riker has the whole sick crew over to his place for some good old fashioned home-cooking. It’s kind of charming, in that endearingly dorky way that TNG has, and what’s curious is that the scene plays out as a simple vignette with no real connection to the rest of the episode. Riker explains to Data the value of hands-on cooking, then promptly defeats his point when the meal (an omelette made of magical space eggs) turns out terrible. “Squared” isn’t about authenticity, or the value of human agency, apart from the vague way just about every episode is, and since the story focuses mostly on Picard, we’re not even getting immediately relevant character work. It doesn’t seem like padding, though. It’s sillier than it needs to be (haha, Worf eats the meal everybody hates because Klingons are crazy!), but I like the idea that the writers are getting comfortable enough to throw in something like this almost on a whim. I’m a big fan of tight pacing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good hang-out scene as much as anybody.

The story proper doesn’t really get started until the Enterprise receives a signal from a shuttlecraft, dying and adrift across their path. One tractor beam later, the ‘craft is in the ship’s docking bay, and, well, something funny is going on. The rescued ship is the exact same make and model as one of the Enterprise‘s own shuttles, right down to the ID number and markings. It gets worse, because inside this curious copy is another duplicate, and a far more disturbing one: an unconscious Jean-Luc Picard. (God bless Riker’s pragmatism. On seeing the body, he calls to the Picard he just left on the bridge, just to make sure it wasn’t some weird sort of game.)

TNG has screwed around with time before, and it will again, but one of the things that makes “Squared” stand out is its essential simplicity. We’re given an explanation for presence of Picard-2, but the explanation only goes so far; there’s no indication that the energy vortex is doing this intentionally, although that’s certainly possible, and there’s no direct connection between the fate of Picard-2’s Enterprise and Picard-2’s jaunt, apart from the fact that the vortex which destroys the ship must’ve also thrown the doomed captain back for a second try. (Or a third, or a fourth. For all we know, this particular loop could’ve played out a thousand times before one Jean-Luc made the right choice. Since our Picard’s final decision is made based on the information he gets from Picard-2, it’s probable that this is only the first iteration, but still. Fun to think about, right?) That weakens “Squared” somewhat, because it relies too much on the “outer space is magical” concept that gave us all those damn godlike beings in TOS. Hard sci-fi isn’t a requirement for great storytelling, but it would’ve been nice if we’d gotten a little bit more rationale than “just cuz.”

Yet this simplicity also allows us to focus most of our attention on Picard, and, as we’ve learned, that’s not a bad idea. There’s a lot of fun puzzle solving beforehand (getting thrown out of sync with his natural time puts Picard-2 all out of whack, as well as essentially reversing the electronics on his shuttlecraft)(given that we’ve seen people travel through time before in this universe and not have similar problems means this is sort of a continuity oddity, but let’s just squint and say it has something to do with the energy vortex that caused all the trouble in the first place), but once Geordi and Data manage to get access to the shuttlecraft’s logs, the situation clarifies to a terrifying degree: we see Picard2’s Enterprise blowing up inside this sort of space tornado. So wherever Picard-2 came from, he’s the only one left, and the current Enterprise–our Enterprise, essentially–is already on a path to potential doom.

There’s the usual discussion about what to do next; like I said, “Squared” puts most of the decision making squarely on Picard’s shoulders, which shows you just how important the captain is to the ship. Riker may do a lot of the standard orders while both men are on the bridge, but it’s Picard who has the final say when the situation comes to a head. It’s odd, in a way, that Picard would have such a personal stake in resolving the conflict, since to all intents and purposes, he’s the only person who’ll survive the coming catastrophe, but it also makes sense. The captain who goes down with his ship isn’t just a noble ideal, it’s a philosophy based on a deep sense of responsibility and dedication. To suddenly find out that there’s possible future in which all your friends die is awful, but to know that you somehow survived, and that your survival looks like you actually voluntarily ran from danger… for a man like Picard, for anyone of reasonable virtue, that would have to be unbearable.

So Picard isn’t a very happy man for much of “Squared,” and the episode works best when it shows him struggling with the problem. His treatment of his other self is fascinating, because he starts off in a poor temper and just gets angrier and angrier as his dilemma becomes clearer. Here is a way for him to vent all his self-doubt and guilt, at a person he can blame for all the failings he suspects in himself. Once the vortex manifests, and Picard finally realizes what drove Picard-2 to leave his Enterprise, that the motives were the opposite of selfish cowardice, that fury eases off, but he still shows precious little mercy to his own future. That’s some sharp characterization. There’s no team-up between the two, no hugging or chance for Picard-2 to realize he’ll actually be able to save the ship he’d seen destroyed. There’s just interrogation, demands, and finally-

“Squared” has a few dull pockets. Troi and Pulaski’s discussion of Picard’s mental state is conceptually interesting but not really necessary, and the episode could’ve used another complication or two. The fact that there are only two options at the end for Picard to choose from, and already he knows one ends badly, is overly simplistic. Still, this works, and the final scenes between the two Picards rank among my favorites of anything we’ve yet seen on the show. The stone cold conclusion of that sequence is shocking even when you know it’ll have little consequences. Realizing that the only way forward is to prevent Picard-2 from leaving the Enterprise, Picard shoots and murders his double, without hesitation. That puts this one over the edge for me, soft science or not. We already knew Picard was a bad-ass. This is the first time we’ve really seen how far he’ll go to do what’s necessary.

According to the A.V. Club review of The Icarus Factor:

I was talking to Mabel the other day. I sez to Mabel, I sez, I do so enjoy watching these episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Mabel sez nothing. (Such is her wont. Mabel is a cat, and I don’t own a cat, and it gets complicated from there.) Mabel, I sez, but do you know the one thing the show doesn’t have I’d like to see more of? Mabel eagerly awaits my reply. Mabel, I sez, the show needs some more characters with daddy issues. And maybe some crazy futuristic type sports. Mabel can only bask in awe at my genius, before I remember she doesn’t exist and realize I should probably go back on my meds.

Maybe I’ve been too spoiled by a run of decent to good episodes, but “The Icarus Factor” really killed my good buzz from “Time Squared.” It’s pedantic, treacly, and uninspired, and despite the occasional bright spot, plays way too much like a generic TV drama, full of hand-holding music cues and predictable psychology. Which is a shame, because the idea behind “Icarus” actually isn’t half-bad. Instead of one main storyline, abutted by a subplot or two, we’ve got an entire episode that’s largely populated with character beats and low-key drama. It’s the sort of thing you’d never see on TOS, and it’s something I still think TNG could do well, because that easygoing, friendly tone does have a definite appeal. The danger doesn’t have to be life-threatening to make us want to spend time with these people, and there’s an experimentalism here I respect in trusting our affection for the characters is strong enough to make us willing to endure a little soap opera. The problem is, there’s a lot of soap opera here, and it’s far too mundane to be enjoyable.

We’ve heard a few things about Riker’s childhood (just last episode we found out that he learned to cook because his mom was gone and his dad didn’t want the job), but in “Icarus,” we finally get to meet the man behind the legend, Kyle Riker, father, lover, and sometime jerk. Before I go any further, I would like you to imagine how this scenario will play out: Riker’s dad comes aboard the Enterprise to see his son after a 15 year separation. There is some tension. Now… just picture what comes next. No, I’m not giving you any more than that. Trust me on this one.

If you imagined lots of resentment, refusal to openly discuss emotions, discussions of pride and abandonment, and a resolution which relies on physical violence, here, have some cake. Kyle Riker (Mitch Ryan, who mostly makes me think of Dharma & Greg) is that oh so reliable of Dad Types, the Emotionally Unavailable But Still Caring Deep Down Guy who gets a lot of lady love, but can’t seem to win the affections of the one person who matters the most. Now, the idea of a man who has difficulty expressing himself or showing vulnerability isn’t so horrible that it couldn’t have worked here. There’s a reason the type keeps coming up again and again, and it’s not just because screenwriters can’t afford good therapists. It makes for believable conflict, it means that actual connection has to be earned, and it can, when done well, make for good drama. That is not the case here. Ryan isn’t a bad actor, and Riker’s open contempt for the man is darker than the interpersonal conflict usually gets on the series. Only, the conversations between them are horribly written. Just god-awful.

Plus, there’s Kyle’s relationship with Pulaski. I have no idea what to do with that. I’m not even sure I dislike it, because I’ve eased up on my Pulaski complaints, and it’s interesting to see her in a context that actually makes her close to vulnerable that doesn’t involve a lot of really stupid decisions. It just seems weirdly extraneous to everything else, like the writers wanted to give Kyle something to do when he wasn’t glaring at his son, and this is the best way they could think of to humanize him. TNG has dealt with old flames before, and this one isn’t embarrassing, but it is… odd. Kyle is friendly with everyone on the Enterprise and he’s fooled around with the ship doctor? And yet he hasn’t seen Will in fifteen years. Okay then. We’re supposed to think he’s a hero because Pulaski gives a speech about this time that Kyle was on a space station where everybody else died, only he lived because he really, really wanted to. That doesn’t make him sound like a hero, though. Just lucky. (Or else a murderer with a very clear notion of the importance of eye-witness accounts.)

There’s also a plot about Worf being in a bad mood, and Wesley deciding it’s his job to fix that bad mood. It’s hilarious, although not always in the way that’s intended. After all the nice things I’ve tried to say about the character recently, Wesley returns to full irritant mode here, badgering Worf until the poor guy snaps, then badgering Geordi and Data till they agree to figure out what made Worf so irritable. (A theory: maybe the pale pink blur that keeps whining by his ear, perilously close to punching range.) It’s a storyline that seems more suited to a children’s TV show than TNG, full of goofy attempts at friendship and caring, and a complete disregard for personal space. The only person Worf comes close to expressing his problems to is Riker, and Riker is too busy with his own issues to help. I can understand the need for a psychologically sound security officer (although Worf is far saner than Tasha Yar ever was), but isn’t part of respecting someone giving them some space to occasionally have a bad day?

Thankfully, the resolution of this plot is one of the episode’s highlights, so all this buzzing and interfering isn’t entirely for naught. Wesley learns it’s all about the tenth anniversary of Worf’s coming of age, and so everybody gets together to give Worf a surprise party in the holodeck complete with physical torment and growling. There’s something very satisfying in seeing Worf’s human friends, with all their good intentions, utterly baffled by the masochistic intensity of Worf’s needs. Yet they respect them anyway. No one tries to talk him out of the ritual, no one encourages him to seek counseling or maybe find a job that doesn’t depend on his even temperament and focus. If Wesley’s badgering plays as too childish and naive to make much sense, at least the result reminds us that, nosiness aside, these are characters who take the Prime Directive seriously in all aspects of their lives. Just because they don’t understand something doesn’t mean they don’t grasp its importance.

There’s a goofy final showdown between Riker and Riker, playing a game called “anbo-jytsu,” which looks like Ultimate Fighting for people terrified of the possibility of direct physical contact. Riker, Jr, yells at his dad, realizes his dad has been cheating in the game for years, lessons are learned, and manly vows of love exchanged, and so forth. Oh, and Riker turns down the chance to be the captain of his own ship, which I didn’t mention earlier because really, I can’t imagine thinking he would accept. Oh, and there were some problems in Engineering, and we learned we should always trust Data. There’s not really much to discuss here beyond that.

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

It’s easy to get lost in the wild. Call it the arrogance of the path. You see the trail under your feet, you follow it for miles through thick forest growth, and after so many steps, you get to feeling sure of yourself. The path is important, but surely it’s your native wit and instincts that have gotten you this far. You are prepared for the occasional crash of branches in the distance, the stray rocks, the signs pointing forward so caked in moss and sun baked it takes careful detective work to read them. You brought a good supply of snacks, you’re wearing proper shoes, and the blister on your left heel, well, that’s the price of having an adventure. After a while, you look through all the greenery and you think, I don’t really need the trail, do I? There’s a hill over there I wouldn’t mind seeing the other side of, or that maple tree a few hundred yards off that looks like easy climbing. What’s a day in the woods without a little risk.

So you step off the path in the boots you bought mail order and your good thick slacks are stained brown in seconds. You trudge through mud you didn’t notice, and the moisture seeps into your wool socks and you sweat. The swarm of flies around you grows so thick that you can taste bug whenever you open your mouth and the buzzing becomes a never-ending howl. The hill is taller than it seemed, the maple tree is dead inside and groans at your touch, and you’re getting sick of this. You already finished the Gatorade and the granola bars you brought, and the pack straps rub your shoulders. The path really was important, because the path was the way back, and having it beneath you meant all these difficulties were simply irritants to be endured. Now they’re something else. And then you realize you aren’t entirely sure what direction you started out from, and when you try and backtrack you go at least twice the distance you came in without finding your own trail. The crashing sound is closer now. You want to run, but you’re already sinking.

I love the moment when a good show becomes great. I love feeling all your investment and increasingly desperate optimism suddenly pay off. We’ve had good TNG episodes before this, but “Q Who?” goes that one extra step, and finally, finally takes the show out from behind TOS‘s shadow once and for all. There’ll be backtracking in the weeks to come, no doubt (and we’ve got one fairly painful episode to look at in a few paragraphs), but before now, it was possible to legitimately question if TNG could ever stand on its own feet. That is no longer an issue. From now on, even when the writing sucks and the characters are annoying and the special effects insult our ocular abilities, we know for certain that the series is at least capable of kicking some serious ass.

Admittedly, “Who?” doesn’t start with a bang. The title is cutesy, and our first scene is all about introducing the new hottie ensign in Engineering, a motormouth named Sonya who talks Geordi’s ear off before spilling hot chocolate on a less than amused Captain Picard. Given that the episode marks our first introduction to the Borg, I half-wondered if this wasn’t all a set-up to kill Sonya in the third act and create some pathos, but she’s actually a semi-recurring character. (I think “Who?” is a rare case where such a cliched structure might’ve worked, given how rarely people die on the show by now. Still, the almost incidental horror of the crew deaths we do get works fine on its own.) Intentionally or not, a scene like this provides a false sense of security, because it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Geordi is friendly, the new personnel is gawky and excited, and Picard is just barely polite. Quell surprise.

It gets interesting fast, though. Q reappears, snatching Picard off the Enterprise and onto a shuttlecraft in order to follow the letter of the law of his previous “stay away from this ship!” promise. Q has been booted out of the continuum, and wants to join up with Picard’s crew. He argues that he’d be a valuable, even essential asset, with all his crazy semi-magical powers and willingness to insult Worf. Picard understandably balks at the idea. Q insists, “You’re not prepared for what awaits you.” Picard disagrees, and what makes this scene (and the rest of the episode) work so well is that we’re fully on his side. We’ve seen the Enterprise struggle against all manner of aliens, god-like beings, and internal strife, and while there’s been the occasional tense situation, no challenge has ever proven insurmountable. In fact, that’s one of the central tenets of the Trek universe: intelligence, compassion, and force of will are enough to solve any problem. As Guinan points out, that’s what human’s do–we adapt, and we learn, and sooner or later, we will kick ass.

So Q decides to prove his point, by throwing the Enterprise 7,000 light years off course and forcing the crew to face an enemy they can’t beat. And you know why “Who?” is brilliant? Because for once, Q is right.

Before they became the vampires of the Trek-verse (I would totally read a Twilight-esque series about a whiny teenage girl and the cyborg who wants to utterly erase any vestige of her individuality. You wouldn’t even have to change much from the original books), the Borg were terrifying. They’re zombies, which is part of it–each individual body is valueless, they can’t be reasoned with directly, and whenever you kill one, another follows soon after. It gets worse, though. Zombies don’t work together, they don’t handle tools well, and they don’t have a philosophy beyond grabbing and chewing. The Borg have a purpose that is at odds with nearly everything we value about life. They don’t parlay, or conquer, or even massacre. They assimilate. They homogenize. And they learn very, very fast.

It’s scary to watch how thoroughly ill-equipped our heroes are to deal with such a threat. They try peaceful communication, with no response. There’s a great sequence when one of the Borg beams aboard and starts trying to take over the ship. Picard attempts to reason with him, then someone moves to physically restrain the creature, then Worf fires his phaser, first on stun, then on the kill setting. The first Borg dies. Another beams aboard and takes over where the first left off, and this time, when Worf fires his phaser, the Borg has a shield that blocks the beam. It’s an exciting, tense scene, but what really matters is how little attention the Borg pay to any of the Enterprise crew. They are irrelevant to the process. Picard asks Guinan, who’s had dealings with the Borg before, how to defeat them. “You don’t,” she says. Given how generally positive her character is, that brutal two word negative is dark stuff indeed.

Things get worse. There’s a brief hope when the Enterprise manages to do some damage to the Borg ship, but considering the ship’s design, it’s not surprising that even 20 percent destruction fails to slow them down that much. So we get to the big climax, and we have our expectations. This is when Picard pulls out the big guns, or Data comes up with a clever technical fix, or Wesley is annoyingly perfect, or any of a dozen possible solutions we’ve come to expect from our heroes. If that had happened, this still would’ve been a strong episode. The Borg are a creative and effective threat, Q is at his most entertainingly obnoxious, and the stakes are very high indeed.

Instead, though, Picard turns to Q and he begs for help. There’s really no nice way to put it. He admits that the Enterprise isn’t ready to face this danger, and he pleads with Q to save them. You could argue this is a cheat, a weak resolution that betrays an inability on the part of writer Maurice Hurley to come up with a clever twist–and you’d be wrong. “Who?” isn’t the best TNG episode. It lacks an emotional impact that later storylines would manage. It is, however, the first great episode, because it admits that these humans, who have been walking that path for so long that they seem to have forgotten there ever was a wilderness, can be arrogant, and weak, and that they can be bested. It introduces us to an alien force which for once truly is alien, and it doesn’t cheapen the introduction by engineering a conclusion just to let Picard save face. The 18 crewmembers who die here stay dead even after Q brings the ship back home. In the end, Picard learns that there are some dangers that the human spirit can’t overcome through ability alone, and that their escape is a temporary one. The Borg know the Enterprise is out there. And they’re not ones to forget a name.


The Worst:

The Child, and The Dauphin


The Child is all about a Counselor Troi’s Mystical Pregnancy (see Feminist Frequency‘ #5), and The Dauphin sees Wesley Crusher fall in love for the first time, with a young allasomorph who is to become a leader of a plent.

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

Welcome to season 2 of TNG. Like any growing show, this one has been going through some changes. You’ll notice hair that wasn’t there before, like Riker’s smirk-enhancing beard, and new responsibilities, like Geordi’s promotion to Chief Engineer. (Which means we finally have a regular in the role, so I can stop writing down a new name each week and then forgetting to cite it.) We also have ourselves two brand new cast members: Whoopi Godlberg as the wise bartender Guinan (oh hey, the Enterprise has a restaurant!) and Diana Muldaur as Dr. Katherine Pulaski. Guinan dispenses easy-going guidance in “Child,” and Goldberg is pleasantly restrained in the role. Pulaski, on the other hand…

Look, there’s no getting around it: she’s a horrible character, and a huge misstep for a fledgling series whose misstep budget is already well into the red. I’m crossing my fingers that she’ll develop some depth as the season progresses (as others have mentioned, I remember her and Worf having fun scenes together), but for right now, she’s miserable, poorly cast, painfully written, and quite possibly the worst possible choice to replace the smart, passionate, and sensible Beverly Crusher. Muldaur isn’t a terrible actress. She’s more professional than Crosby was, and there’s none of that off-putting skittishness. The problem is, her persona is detached, icy, and aloof, and we’re given no reason to think there’s anything underlying all that condescension.

Even her introduction starts on the wrong foot. Instead of reporting to Picard as ordered when she first arrives on the ship, Pulaski goes to Ten-Forward, where off-screen she meets Deanna Troi, and learns about Troi’s surprise pregnancy. (…yeah, we’ll get to that.) Now, typically, this sort of ignoring-standard-protocol behavior would be indicative of a down-to-earth, irascible personality, like McCoy from TOS. If you go by the script as written, that’s clearly the intent here. Pulaski doesn’t play by the rules, but she cares about her patients, and is willing to stand up to any authority to defend those rights. It’s not perfect(her conversations with Data are poorly constructed in any context), but at least there’s some sense of how she could fit into the existing cast.

Muldaur ruins it because she has no warmth, and this kind of role has to be warm. McCoy was a bigoted ass at times, but he was passionate, and it was clear that passion, not calculation, was what drove him. Muldaur plays Pulaski like a librarian who would enjoy her work so much more if everyone stopped reading. It is a joyless,  embarrassed turn, and given how cheerily enthusiastic every other cast member is, very out of place. Maybe the idea was to provide some balance for all the smiling. Often characters who stand out from the norm are break-out roles on shows, like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory or, hell, Spock from TOS. These figures provide points of identification for audiences who also often feel at odds from the rest of society. I can’t imagine anyone relating to Pulaski, though, for the simple fact that if you did, why would you still be watching TNG?

I’ll save discussing her mistreatment of Data for later(although the scene where she mispronounces his name and then mocks him for correcting her is a treasure for the ages), though, because as badly judged as Pulaski is in this episode, the story is probably worse. The MacGuffin about a plasma plague is fine, and should’ve been the main focus. It falls into the hard sci-fi category, and the tensest moments in “The Child” come when that situation balances on the edge of getting completely out of hand. It’s too bad, then, that this isn’t called “The Perilous Plasmatic Perplexity.” (Really, really too bad.) Instead, we get the Troi’s unwanted pregnancy and the Space Baby.

A dot of light jumps aboard the Enterprise, does some zinging around the halls, and finally finds Deanna Troi, asleep in her bed. There’s no other way to describe it: Tinkerbell knocks Troi up. Trek has never been exactly female-friendly, but for all its tasteful presentation, this has to be a low-point. Even though she should be the central focus of the episode (it is, after all, her womb), Troi is essentially passive. Other characters discuss how to handle her pregnancy while barely acknowledging her presence in the room (reminds me of a similar scene in the original Dawn Of The Dead, but there it was supposed to be creepy), and when she finally does voice an opinion, it’s to state unequivocally that she’s keeping the “baby.” Never mind that the pregnancy is an invasion of her privacy and rights, never mind that her sudden determination to protect her mystery guest could come at the cost of great physical danger (Betazoids have ten month terms. This kid is out in three days. Don’t sci-fi writers realize how much that would hurt?), it’s beautiful because she’s gonna be a mom now, and that’s clearly the greatest gift anyone could ever have.

This is bunk. It’s not bunk that Troi is enthusiastic–the Space Baby (who quickly becomes the Space Toddler, and then the Space Third Grader) could be manipulating her emotions in order to provide itself with an accommodating host. What’s bunk is that the episode treats this an an unquestioned positive. Picard has his suspicions, but the birth scene is presented as a comedy (Data says silly things! Pulaski is bothered by the security team!) and the STG’s eventual exit is intended as a moment of great beauty. What it translates to is: an alien hitches a ride without permission, rapes a woman, knocks her up, saddles her with grotesque body changes, attaches itself to her post-birth to gain information, endangers everyone on board the ship with its thoughtless selfishness, and then orchestrates an exit in the most emotionally manipulative fashion possible by forcing its “mother” to witness the death of her child. That’s not how it’s presented, of course. It’s presented as a joyous life experience, but no amount of tears and lies make this anything less than a travesty.

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

This is the episode where Wesley falls in love.


Still here? I’m impressed!

It’s been a while since we had a Wesley-centric episode, hasn’t it? He had a few scenes in “The Child” focusing on his decision to remain with the Enterprise, but apart from that, he’s largely served as background noise, a familiar face at the helm or someone to trade jokes with Data. I have to admit, I no longer find him as intolerable as I once did. Maybe it’s the fact that Wheaton has grown up a little, or that the writers are less interested in forcing Chosen One narratives down our throat, but when I learned that “The Dauphin” was going to focus on young Crusher’s throbbing biological urges, I wasn’t immediately filled with self-loathing and despair. I expected it would get rough at times, and the episode does have it’s weaker moments, but I figured it’d be watchable, which is not something I would’ve said about an ep with a similar premise back in season one.

“Dauphin” is watchable, and I’d even go so far as to say it’s not half bad. Wesley is still somewhat problematic. His super genius status makes it understandable that he wouldn’t have the sharpest social skills, but he’s never weird or awkward in a way that seems distinct. He’s both too generic and too odd to really cohere as a character; his sensitivity and nonthreatening nature should be charming, but instead come across as vaguely inappropriate. You can imagine when the smell gets too bad and they finally bust down the door of his quarters and find all those missing ensigns (well, their skins at least), all Wesley’s co-workers will be able to tell anyone is that he had a nice smile, and his uniform was always clean.

Regardless, Wesley hasn’t suddenly became one of my favorites on the show, and I’d still rather watch a Picard or Riker or Worf or Data (or Geordi or O’Brien or Troi or… or… Ah screw it, or Pulaski) focused episode that one centered on the Boy Blunder. But that’s less to do with my antipathy towards the character than it is with my disinterest in “coming of age” style stories on a big-ass, galaxy-surfing space-ship. I want adventures, and if we’re going to focus inward, the character work better justify my attention. Going on past evidence, there wasn’t any reason to believe that, with Wesley at the helm, the writers would be capable of justifying anything.

So “Dauphin” was a mildly pleasant surprise. It’s a familiar story arc, especially for a sci-fi or fantasy show: a regular character develops an instant, passionate connection with a stranger, then has to deal with the fall-out when that stranger is inevitably killed/sent away/turns into a sentient mass of light at the story’s conclusion. Partly that’s the “nothing changes” style of most television of TNG‘s era, but it’s also done for dramatic effect. Romeo and Juliet is about a pair of teenagers who get the hots for each other and screw around. It only becomes a grand tragedy when people start dying. Not every show merits a body count, but they can exploit the closed nature of their conclusions. We know that Salia, the pretty young woman who catches Wesley’s attention via her keen interest in magnetism (not a pun), will be leaving soon, and that makes their brief affair all the sweeter.

Sure, I’ll admit it: I found Wesley’s stabs at wooing mildly charming. His awkwardness in engineering didn’t work (Wheaton is not what I’d call a gifted physical comedian), but I got a kick out his attempts to glean advice from his co-workers. Worf’s description of Klingon mating rituals is hilarious (“He reads love poetry. He ducks a lot.”), and watching Riker hit on Guinan is actually fairly funny. Even better, the scenes between Wesley and Salia are clumsily endearing. Once he stops falling over himself and stammering, Wesley manages some decent conversation, and Salia’s obvious and immediate affection for him make their brief relationship believable, if not exactly one for the history books. (Am I waffling enough here? I don’t feel like I’m waffling enough.) I could watch most of the moments between them without wishing harm on either actor, or wishing I could change the channel. It’s just that hot.

Of course, “Dauphin” isn’t only about sweet, sweet Wesley love. The Enterprise is escorting Salia and her guardian, Anya, from the terrible Klavdia III, where the two have lived for most of Salia’s life in preparation of her adulthood. Now Salia is on her way to the equally terrible Daleb IV, where she’s expected to create peace between warring factions in a way that no one on the Enterprise really grasps. Indeed, one of the more notable elements of the storyline here is just how little Picard and the others know about who (or what) they’re escorting, and while that makes for some excellent reveals, it does bring into question why the ship is involved in the escort at all. Anya is so paranoid about her charge’s safety that it’s no surprise when tension arises between her and the crew. Was travelling by a ship with this many aboard really the best option? And why does the Enterprise always get stuck with this kind of duty? You’d think there’d be certain Federation vessels specifically designed for this, given how often it occurs.

But like I said, it makes for some excellent reveals. Anya’s shape-shifting talents are demonstrated indirectly at first, in that we see Salia talking with various people and creatures in her private rooms before we see the “original” Anya (a middle-aged woman who looks like a nun who just bit on a lemon) change form herself. It’s a disorienting choice that helps heighten the mystery and alien-ness surrounding the two; we know something strange is going on, but we’re not sure what, and even once we’ve confirmed that Anya is an “allasomorph,” we don’t know what that bodes for the future. I like how little exposition we’re given to understand what’s happening. Salia is important, and by the end, we have a certain idea of just why she’s important, but we’re never told what she’s going to do when she arrives on Daleb IV. We also don’t know how her relationship with Anya began, and I found myself wondering if Anya comes from a race of creatures trained to serve as guardians. (It’s at this point during the episode that I made a reference to Elfstones of Shannara in my notes. I only mention this here because I still feel guilty.) The forms Anya takes are context-determined, in that she changes to meet the demands of the moment, but not all of the context is explained. I especially dug the brief appearance of a pre-Twin Peaks Madchen Amick, as Anya’s younger, more sympathetic shape.

We also get some great scenes with Anya playing against Picard and Worf. Anya’s rigid insistence that even the slightest possibility of harm to Salia be eliminated puts her at odds with other ship’s personnel (most notably, she wants to kill one of Pulaski’s patients for having a potentially communicable disease), and we get one of those “Let’s show how strong the alien threat is by having it kick Worf’s ass” fights you guys have been talking about. This pays off later, though, as Worf and Anya’s conversations finally reveal a mutual respect, from one security officer to another. (Also gotta love how furious Worf gets at losing.) My favorite moment in the episode, though, comes from an exchange between Picard and Anya, after Anya does her quick-change routine in front of the crew for the first time. “Your powers are infinitesimal compared to mine,” she sneers. Picard’s response: “Yes that may be, but you will obey my orders.”

Salia and Wesley make goo-goo eyes at each other in the holodeck, and over chocolate mousse, but of course it isn’t meant to be. In fact, the show goes out its way to make Salia’s final departure from the ship as definitive as possible, short of killing her outright. We’re informed that Daleb IV is so hostile that human life couldn’t possibly exist there, and it requires a prohibitive amount of energy to send a message from orbit strong enough to contact the planet’s surface. There’s something cowardly in this, I think. Relationships end all the time without needing dramatic contrivance, and Wesley’s uneasiness about Salia’s shape-changing abilities could’ve led to an interesting sequel down the road: how do you make things work with a different species? (I’m not entirely kidding here.) “Dauphin” is a little too sweet for its own good, spending too much time on romance when it could’ve been dealing with more interesting questions, but for what it is, it’s not bad. Given it’s subject, that’s more than I would ever have hoped for.



The next in best and worst is Season 1.


14 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Star Trek TNG: Season 2

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