Trekaday 033: The Best of Both Worlds, The Best of Both Worlds Part II, Family

Posted on June 30th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S03E26 The Best of Both Worlds (5 out of 5 stars). Season 3 of TNG aired in first-run syndication in the US between 25 September 1989 and 18 June 1990. In the UK, we first got access to the new Star Trek via VHS tapes available for rental. Finally, on 26 September 1990, Season 1 started airing on BBC2, beginning with Encounter at Farpoint and continuing in a seemingly-random order (and with a few episodes omitted). But the BBC had only bought the first three seasons and there was no plan in place for them to acquire any more. As frustrating as it was for American fans to have to wait three whole months for The Best of Both Worlds Part II to air, there was a chance that UK fans would never see the episode at all. With rare perspicacity and attention to detail, the BBC secured special dispensation to air Part II the week after Part I, in May 1992, despite having not purchased any other Season 4 episodes. My memory told me that they showed Family as well, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. That story wasn’t shown in the UK until 14 April 1994, followed by the rest of Season 4.

So, the impact on me wasn’t quite the cataclysm that American fans felt (Patrick Stewart recalls a family in the next car over yelling at him in traffic “You have ruined our summer!”). Behind the scenes, Michael Piller took on the writing duties for this one solo. He had promised Rick Berman he’d work on the show for a year. He’d sorted out the writers room, he’d developed a pipeline to find new scripts and new writers, he’d figured out what made the show work and he’d groomed an ideal replacement in Ira Steven Behr. As a parting shot, he was going to write the best damned episode the show had ever seen, and leave the series on an impossible cliffhanger which would guarantee renewal (not that that was really in doubt at this stage). And pity the fools who would have to write their way out of the corner Piller had painted them into.

Watching “part one” again (it isn’t identified as such on screen), it’s not all about that crackerjack ending. There’s a sense of foreboding from the earliest scenes. Sure, we’ve seen destroyed colonies before, but there’s something apocalyptic about this one, helped by a nifty matte painting crater which concludes the terse teaser – shorter even than many of the TOS ones. Borg experts are called in to give their views, notably Lt Commander Shelby, played with clarity and intensity by Elizabeth Dennehy, who adds some Roddenberry-baiting friction to the bridge crew. Adding to the subtle feeling of “anything might happen” she’s also presented as Riker’s replacement should he finally accept a captaincy – even taking up Troi’s bridge chair to Picard’s left. (Frakes apparently disliked this plot strand, and thought it was ridiculous that Riker stuck around to be second banana when he could have had his own ship, and it’s hard to disagree.)

There have been pacing problems in other episodes, but this one accelerates smoothly, and the character beats in the first half, even the ones that we feel we’ve seen before, have a detail and a freshness that makes for engrossing viewing. Riker muses that he might be too comfortable on the Enterprise. He won’t be for long. The spectacle of Shelby seeing the Borg as an opportunity for career advancement is a delicious piece of irony. Getting short shrift are Beverley Crusher (no surprise there) and Worf, but the pattern of doling out good scenes over the course of a season is now well-established and we don’t need every cast member to get a major plotline every week, especially not when… we have engaged the Borg!

After a series of “bottle shows”, we get our first space battle in ages and it’s a doozy, followed by the shockingly transgressive sight of a Borg drone beaming onto the bridge, tossing Worf aside like a rag doll and making off with Picard. Suddenly, terribly, Riker has what he wants. He’s the captain now, without having to choose between command and staying on the Enterprise. And now both ships are heading for Earth at warp 9. Cliff Bole directs all of this wonderfully well, and Ron Jones delivers an iconic score.

And then… quite unexpectedly, instead of a last minute solution to this intractable problem… I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile. Mr Worf. Fire. To be continued. Wow. Fucking wow. Get out of that one.

TNG S04E01 The Best of Both Worlds Part II (5 out of 5 stars). And of course, it was that same Michael Piller who had to solve the problem he’d so brilliantly created. The grammar of this is interesting. First the “last time on…” which recaps part one and builds to that amazing climax. Then another short scene which builds to its own climax and functions as a teaser. Then the titles. But we knew (if we stopped to think about it) that blowing up the Borg ship wasn’t going to be the answer, even if we suspected (fallaciously) that Patrick Stewart had had enough of spandex in space and was going back to Shakespeare. And unlike Data’s shuttlecraft blowing up (or even Kirk’s seeming death in The Tholian Web) this has an air of sepulchral finality about it which is grimly convincing.

Once again, the effects team works wonders. The devastation of the battle at Wolf 359 is horrifying. We’ve never seen anything like this in any previous incarnation of Star Trek on the small or large screen. Finally, they separate the saucer section again, and Riker takes the battle bridge (although there’s no time or budget to show much of the lengthy separation procedure on-screen).

Riker’s plan involves kidnapping Locutus and trying to find out not just what he has told the Borg but what the Borg has told him. In an amazing scene, Picard manages to break through the alien programming, and grabs Data’s arm. Their hive mind which seemed like such a strength in Part I now becomes their fatal flaw. While this doesn’t quite have the shocking novelty of Part I, nor is the Shelby-Riker relationship as fascinatingly spiky, it’s something of a miracle that this works at all – but it does, as science-fiction adventure, as tension-filled climax, as character drama and as visual spectacle. And the win isn’t easy. We don’t end with the bridge crew laughing together as red-shirts carry off the bodies of their fallen comrades in the background. This victory was hard-won. It hurt. And the pain will continue into the following episode.

TNG S04E02 Family (5 out of 5 stars). “The injuries are healing.” “Those you can see.” While TNG never embraced serialised storytelling the way that DS9 did, taking an extra episode just to put the Captain back together emotionally was a commitment to making big story swings matter that I greatly respected at the time and still do. Plenty of episodes to come will hit the big red reset button with a blithe insouciance that beggars belief but if Piller was going to come back for more, he wasn’t going to ignore the cataclysmic pair of episodes he’d just delivered (although Ron Moore’s name is on this script). And in fact, the massacre at Wolf 359 will come back more than once before this journey is over.

The commitment to dealing with the trauma of past episodes doesn’t guarantee an engaging hour of television, but everyone’s on their game here, with three separate stories centred on Worf, Picard and Beverly reflecting off each other, and no stellar anomalies, android doubles, childlike aliens with godlike powers or Holodeck malfunctions anywhere in sight. Picard’s story is the most interesting of the three, with lovely location work, fantastic casting of Jeremy Kemp as Robert Picard and Samantha Eggar as Marie. These aren’t space officers talking technobabble. They’re ordinary people, dealing with universal, yet specific problems.

O’Brien gets a first name, Miles, and as if that wasn’t good enough, I finally spotted some background artists with the good uniforms. I believe this is the only TNG episode without Data or a scene set on the bridge.

Season 3 wrap-up

  • Yum, yum, yum. This is the stuff. The general flailing about of Season 1 and the uncertainty of Season 2 are behind us, and while not every episode is a banger, the floor is higher, and the lows far less frequent.
  • All of the cast have come into their own, and if Troi, Crusher and La Forge are never going to really get any character development from this point on, at least they now feel like familiar friends and not three mannequins stiffly reciting meaningless dialogue at each other. They each have good moments, usually opposite another better-defined cast member: Troi with Riker (or her mum), Crusher with Picard, La Forge with Data.
  • Not only has the show made peace with its past, it’s now doing things which Star Trek has never done before. A willingness to continue expanding the tapestry (as opposed to repeating what’s been done before, or disconnecting from the past entirely) plus a rich set of characters to do that with is a very potent mixture.
  • Average score for Season 3 (up to and including The Best of Both Worlds “part one”) is a very impressive 3.56, the best since TOS Season 1. Stand-out episodes (apart from the gangbusters finale) include the totally brilliant Yesterday’s Enterprise, the tense and character-driven The Defector, the fascinating The Most Toys and the heartbreaking Sarek. Disappointments include the dreary The Price, the incredibly stupid The Vengeance Factor and the sluggish Transfigurations but note that they all scored 2s and everything else was 2.5 or better. So it’s not that this series is getting 5s across the board, rather it’s that there are no catastrophic failures anymore. Good news.

Trekaday 032: Tin Man, Hollow Pursuits, The Most Toys, Sarek, Ménage à Troi, Transfigurations

Posted on June 27th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S03E20 Tin Man (3.5 out of 5 stars). Guest star of the week is telepathic negotiator and Countdown Conundrum Tam Elbrun. Despite having been able to read minds since birth, he’s never noticed that people find his habit of finishing their sentences maddening. Still, he is supposed to be something of a screw-up, so maybe this tracks. The Federation flagship has been diverted from doing the kind of routine and monotonous survey work that should be beneath it to investigating the mysterious living ship orbiting a star which the Romulans have a claim to. Lots going on here then – a dissection of what reading minds would actually be like, more Cold War intrigue with the Romulans, and the sci-fi plot which gives the episode its title. The elements mesh more smoothly than they have in the past, and the plight of Tin Man is genuinely affecting, even if this is the ending of The Motion Picture reprised. But there’s nothing here to push this one over the top and we still haven’t quite got away from it’s-the-guest-star’s-story-of-the-week despite Michael Piller’s best efforts. Data has a man-cave which Elbrun finds “spartan”.

TNG S03E21 Hollow Pursuits (3.5 out of 5 stars). Dwight Schultz from off of The A Team makes an instant first impression, being a dick in Ten Forward. But this turns out to be merely a Holodeck fantasy wherein the socially awkward Lt Barclay can live out his adolescent fantasies. Surely there should be codes of conduct about turning colleagues into living sex dolls? Right? They also really really need to be able to put a lock on those Holodeck doors if they’re going to get up to these kinds of shenanigans. Riker describes Barclay as “seclusive” which is certainly an imaginative epithet. But it fits, and it’s heartening to see Picard insisting that they not give up on this misfit screw-up they’ve been saddled with. And this avoids the trap of coming off like a management training film because it’s about who this man is and what makes him tick and how that affects our regular characters, not about abstract notions of leadership and teamwork. Whereas the previous episode felt like it was all about the guest star and not our people, Barclay is a member of the Enterprise crew and that makes a surprisingly big difference. It’s also refreshing, if a little implausible, that even on the Federation flagship not all the team are highly-competent, well-adjusted adults with excellent social skills and good personal relationships with those around them. And I can only imagine that this depiction of social anxiety might have resonated strongly with some of the teenage science-fiction fans watching. While I think I enjoyed this more than Tin Man, it ends up with the same score because the Holodeck stuff is all so ick. Apparently the Enterprise requires a flux capacitor. Great Scott!

TNG S03E22 The Most Toys (4.5 out of 5 stars). The drama of the destruction of Data’s shuttlecraft in the teaser is slightly undermined by the fact that we already know that something else is up. But I suppose we were never likely to be convinced that Data had been written out before the opening titles (Tasha Yar notwithstanding). And lo! there he is, alive and well, mere moments later. Saul Rubinek is deliciously shifty as the trader selling under-the-counter explodium and very funny in his first interactions with Data. His performance is especially praiseworthy, given that he was a last-minute replacement for poor David Rappaport, who had already shot several scenes before taking his own life. The crew’s reactions to the loss of a shipmate are very affecting, and Data’s implacable opposition to his captor’s wishes very satisfying. Sure, this eventually becomes a bit of a retread of The Measure of a Man, but what’s so wrong about that? And how about that nasty surprise in the transporter beam, huh? In several early scenes, there seems to be a lumpy item under Brent Spiner’s costume on his back just above his belt. I’m not sure what it is. A girdle? Surgical truss? Scoliosis?? Nonspeaking extras are still in the old uniforms! The season’s almost over for chrissake. Wardrobe!

TNG S03E23 Sarek (5 out of 5 stars). TNG began with a difficult relationship with its legendary progenitor. Having decided, pretty much at the last minute, to put a Klingon on the bridge, Roddenberry banned all Vulcans and Romulans, and wanted no references at all to past adventures of the original Enterprise (once McCoy’s cameo was out of the way). Gradually, these elements began to creep back in, and this episode was green lit on the explicit understanding that Spock would never be mentioned. After a knock-down, drag-out argument, Roddenberry finally permitted the sacred name to spoken exactly once. This fascinating behind-the-scenes wrangling is actually in many ways the least interesting aspect of this episode, which – whether the Great Bird realised it or not – uses Sarek as a proxy for The Original Series and demonstrates that the new show does now have the confidence to stand on its own, because for all the undeniable virtues of 60s Trek (for which see early entries in this blog) this is the kind of story which could never have been told with Kirk’s crew. And it’s a marvel, anchored by two titanic performances from Mark Lenard and Patrick Stewart. Sarek’s secret is heartbreaking and the solution is devastating. Amazing stuff from all concerned, and the new show is now able to play with the old show with much greater freedom. Best episode of TNG so far, and maybe the best episode since Amok Time.

TNG S03E24 Ménage à Troi (3.5 out of 5 stars). It seems as if it’s an unwritten rule that when a returning character is in an episode, this is commemorated by means of a punny title. As wordplay goes, this is at least better than Hide and Q but that’s a pretty low bar. The Ferengi are back too, and for the first time, it’s possible to see actually potential in this avaricious race – the early scene between Majel Barrett and Frank Corsentino is a highlight. And that’s Neelix standing next to him. Quite a number of future series regulars get auditioned during the run of TNG including Tim Russ, Armin Shimerman and Robert Duncan McNeill. Meanwhile, Wes’s lengthy campaign to be admitted to Star Fleet Academy has passed another milestone and Picard packs Riker off on shore leave, so it’s hard at first to identify the central narrative around which all of these storyettes are orbiting. But this eventually develops into a kidnap plot with Lwaxana, Deanna and Will all held captive by the lovestruck Ferengi. Compared to most recent episodes, this is pretty thin, uninvolving and unfocused stuff, but by the standards of Seasons 1 and 2, it’s a masterpiece of detailed characterisation and tight plotting, and the end is very funny, which is worth another half-a-star. Seeing Wesley in his proper uniform is nice too. Just have to do something about Troi now…

TNG S03E25 Transfigurations (2 out of 5 stars). Sigh. Geordi is sharking again, and consulting (of all fucking people) Worf for seduction advice. Christy even has the same hairdo as Leah Brahms. Geordi evidently has a type. Meanwhile, in a genuinely spectacular-looking exterior set, the away team are investigating a crashed shuttle, and now that same Geordi has to become a human pacemaker for its injured inhabitant. Again, it takes a while to discover what this episode is really about and to connect Geordi’s largely uninteresting love life with Dr Crusher’s latest case study, and an inordinate amount of time is spent on people coordinating their social diaries or discussing their leisure activities. Eventually, Geordi and Data start exchanging some technobabble and they figure out how to get “John Doe” home, but at no point does the relationship between him and Beverly seem real or important or even the least bit interesting. What a disappointment.

This last story notwithstanding, this has been a truly impressive run of episodes. I do hope there’s something left in the tank for the season finale.

Trekaday 031: A Matter of Perspective, Yesterday’s Enterprise, The Offspring, Sins of the Father, Allegiance, Captain’s Holiday

Posted on June 21st, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S03E14 A Matter of Perspective (3 out of 5 stars). Renaissance man Picard is failing art class (according to Data) but succeeding once again as an advocate. Guest stars include Mark Margolis, better known these days from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Riker’s skin-of-his-teeth transporting off an exploding space station is reason enough to accuse him of murdering its only occupant. So this is basically Poirot on the Holodeck, or maybe more accurately Rashomon since different witnesses remember the same events in different ways. Not quite the show that we generally get, and rather too in love with its gimmick, whether or not it makes sense (it never makes sense), but Frakes and Stewart are as good as ever and who doesn’t like a murder mystery? Remember how Geordi can tell when people are lying? Not to mention Troi, who sits there mute for the most part. The killer’s motive is purely financial, in this post-money society.

TNG S03E15 Yesterday’s Enterprise (5 out of 5 stars). In one of the best teasers in the whole of Star Trek, a big glowy thing is near the ship when suddenly – alakazam! – there’s a dramatic lighting effect and Tasha fucking Yar is back on the bridge. But, wait, that’s not all. They’re also nose-to-nose with the previous version of the Enterprise, NCC1701-C, from decades past. Only Guinan can tell that something is wrong, and you kinda have to give all the time travel technobabble an all-day travel pass, but if you do that, the rewards are tremendous, because, did I mention, Tasha fucking Yar is back on the bridge, and with a better haircut to boot. What’s gutting about this, of course, is they could have brought Denise Crosby back permanently, but here, for basically the first time since Farpoint, she’s actually called upon to act, play a character, affect the plot and so on. Rather like the Mirror Universe (oddly never mentioned) this is a glimpse of our regular characters in a very different situation than we’re used to. It all plays brilliantly, and everyone brings their A-game, not just Crosby who gets the meaningful death denied her in Season 1, but also Christopher McDonald, Tricia O’Neill and director David Carson. Worf’s big dick energy is a literal danger to fellow crew members.

TNG S03E16 The Offspring (2.5 out of 5 stars) Pinocchio recasts himself as Geppetto when Data builds himself a child. The episodic nature of the show means that we can be certain that “Lal” won’t become a regular member of the crew, or even the cast, but from the teaser it’s hard to tell whether this will be a rogue-technology-threatens-the-ship story or a let’s-take-a-moment-and-ponder-the-implications-of-our-actions story – but my money’s on the latter. What this also does is drag us back to the tiresome Picard-hates-kids plot line from Season 1, and uncharacteristically-secretive-Data from Pen Pals also makes an unwelcome return. We can’t really blame 1990’s René Echevarria for a rigidly binary view of gender, but the conversation clangs on the ear. Data says he was able to provide Lal with more realistic skin and eye colour, but I always thought this was a choice on the part of Soong to remind others that he wasn’t fully human. The contrived tug-of-love battle between Star Fleet and Data ends in the only way it can, but unlike The Measure of a Man, this story doesn’t tap into any deeper personal dilemma, so this feels dry and theoretical and ultimately all a bit of a muddle, reaching for a more philosophical and engaging story than it can grasp, and arriving at a conclusion driven by the nature of episodic television rather than its own internal dramatic logic. What I do appreciate is that Picard chews out Data because of his reckless stupidity but then he totally has his back when talking to Star Fleet top brass. That’s some good leadership, right there. Jonathan Frakes’s first time in the director’s chair. He gets better, and gets better material to work with.

TNG S03E17 Sins of the Father (3.5 out of 5 stars). Extraordinarily, the show remembers what happened in a previous episode and so this is the reciprocal exchange following Riker’s tour of duty on board the Klingon ship in A Matter of Honor. Playing Commander Kurn is Tony Todd which is a bit of a treat and, despite my anti-Klingon stance, it’s great fun to see him clomping about the bridge of the Enterprise, snarling at Wesley Crusher and shaking up the crew’s complacency. But soap opera shenanigans aren’t too far away as Kurn is actually – du-du-dum – Worf’s brother and this episode is really about a load of Klingon family history and backstory that I really, really struggle to care about. Kurn disrespecting Worf with ostentatious kindness and politeness is delightful but I’m more interested in the culture clash than the details of the Khitomer massacre which falls squarely into the category of people I don’t know talking about things I’ve never seen. And the officer-exchange programme and all the consequences of that just get shelved as soon as the Khitomer business takes over. The respect that Worf has for Picard and vice-versa is rather touching and Worf’s sacrifice at the end is well-played. As usual, a mystery which has persisted for decades is solved by the Enterprise in 40 minutes, even if they end up keeping the secret.

TNG S03E18 Allegiance (3.5 out of 5 stars) The poker game is back, in the middle of the episode this time. And Picard decides to join them – or does he? As noted, science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular loves a doppelgänger, whether it’s a transporter clone, a mirror universe counterpart, an android, an alien shapeshifter, a time-traveller or some other species of sciencey-sounding magic. Here, what looks like an extra-terrestrial photocopy abducts Picard and leaves a copy in his place. There’s no mystery as far as we are concerned – we immediately follow the real Captain and his fellow captives – so the fun lies in seeing how well the imposter will convince the rest of the crew as well as how escape can be accomplished. Rather niftily, the fake Captain explains to Riker that he is going to be acting out of character and craves his indulgence. Clever. Meanwhile, like something out of Sartre, the real Picard is trapped in a small room with three very different characters and trying to get them all to work together. The solution, when it arrives, doesn’t bring the episode to a climax, rather the drama just evaporates – a common failing of early TNG, possibly a hallmark of outgoing producers Manning and Beimler who get the screenplay credit for this episode.

TNG S03E19 Captain’s Holiday (4 out of 5 stars) Following a story in which Captain Picard acts erratically and the crew discover that he has been replaced by an alien duplicate, we get a story in which Captain Picard acts erratically but Troi and Crusher’s solution is simply to pack him off to The Eye of Orion pleasure planet Risa where he can cos-play as James T Shirtless. Once we arrive on Risa, it’s pretty much the Patrick Stewart show, paired with the lithe form of Jennifer Hetrick as (checks notes) “Vash”. There’s not much of substance to this episode, but it is very, very charming. I’m not sure which I like more, Deanna Troi manipulating Picard by inventing a story about her mother visiting the ship or Picard seeing straight through her deception but bowing to pressure anyway. Max Grodénchik, who we will be seeing much more of in DS9, makes his first Ferengi appearance. Gotta give ’em credit, as bad ideas go, the Ferengi do benefit from a refusal on the producers’ part to quit.

Trekaday 030: The Enemy, The Price, The Vengeance Factor, The Defector, The Hunted, The High Ground, Déjà Q

Posted on June 15th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S03E07 The Enemy (4 out of 5 stars). The teaser places us on a more-than-usually convincing Planet Sound Stage, full of dry ice, blue lighting and ominous sound-effects, and before long, Geordi is stranded with a only a half-dead Romulan for company, having blundered into a Picard-and-Beverly-style pit. This episode thus functions as an examination both of Geordi’s character and of Romulan culture. As far as Geordi’s character is concerned, writers David Kemper and Michael Piller have at least remembered that he’s meant to be blind. Beyond that we don’t get much (he’s Data’s Best Friend and he can’t get laid, surely that’s enough) but Levar Burton is as good as ever, always hoping for better from his suspicious fellow strandee. The intrigue on board the ship is more interesting, with the debut of the fantastic Andreas Katsulas as the shifty Romulan Tomalak. Overall this is a nice balance between political intrigue, personal jeopardy and medical ethics, with good material for Worf as well as Geordi (and Picard, as ever). When the viewscreen is shot from the side, the angle of the image changes too, suggesting a 3D effect, although the surface only ever seems flat.

TNG S03E08 The Price (2 out of 5 stars). After last week’s blood-and-thunder, the set-up for this one seems a little tepid. Yes, it’s nice to see our people as people and not the functions that they were in Season 1, but Troi’s enthusiasm for chocolate doesn’t seem more than superficial. She’s summoned to Ten Forward where a gaggle of alien races are bidding for rights to use the only known stable wormhole (remember that, it will be important later) and they are soon joined by the Ferengi who are even less funny than usual. In this post-money society, there is still a contest to see who can make the best offer. But the A plot seems to be that Troi is falling for hunky negotiator Matt McCoy – he catches her in her quarters, Googling him, and when he begins relentlessly negging her, she’s helpless before his beta-male magnetism. It’s all pretty awful, a poor treatment of a thin character who never reads as an actual person despite Marina Sirtis’s best efforts (and Ron Jones’s syrupy strings). The misogyny continues in one of the most ludicrous scenes in the series’ history as Crusher and Troi stretch seductively in Lycra, while exchanging “girl talk”. I would never have believed this script was written by a woman, but noticing the same name on Skin of Evil and We’ll Always Have Paris, it makes more sense. One extra star because Troi’s empathic powers are actually deployed in an interesting and useful way at the end.

TNG S03E09 The Vengeance Factor (2 out of 5 stars). The Gatherers are a galactic nuisance and Picard is recruited by Sovereign Marouk of Acamar III (who wants the help of “the Star Fleet” to wipe them out). This all feels an awful lot like the people with silly names and dodgy prosthetics who babble about made-up things which don’t mean much. Marouk has brought her own cook on board, and Riker flirts with her by mansplaining food replicators. What makes this work better than some Zagbars vs Zoombles plots is the depiction of the devastation wrought by the Gatherer – the wasteland which Geordi, Worf, Data and Riker explore looks fantastic. Alas, the Gatherers themselves look like standard-issue Mad Max knock-offs and I still struggle to care about their petty squabbles. We’re not out of the woods yet. Data does Spock’s “Is that not what I said?” gag yet again. Non-speaking extras are still in the old-style uniforms, both in sickbay and on the bridge. That roll-out must have been a bitch.

TNG S03E10 The Defector (4.5 out of 5 stars). Picard and Data (and Patrick Stewart) putting on an am-dram production of Henry V (for several minutes) is pure self-indulgence but rather good fun nevertheless. Look how far Picard has come from the brittle headmaster we met in Series 1. And, fleshing out the tertiary cast, here’s Tomalak back again. From their introduction in TOS, the Romulans have generally been used to tell Cold War stories and so it is here, with seeming-defector “Setal” warning that war is coming and only a pre-emptive strike by Star Fleet can avert it. It’s delicious to see the pompous Federation from another perspective and it’s the kind of thing which Ronald D Moore is so good at. I clocked Ira Behr’s name on these credits too, and intrigue of this nature will influence a great deal of Deep Space Nine too. Picard’s heart-to-heart with Data is simultaneously touching and terrifying, and while the episodic nature of this show means that it’s unlikely that we will be plunged into war, everyone concerned makes it seem as credible a future as possible. The structure of the story makes necessary a certain amount of narrative “vamping” in the middle which means that we lose a little power and momentum, but overall this is very fine stuff, using one excellent guest character to bounce off the regulars to great effect (rather than letting a lot of strangers bicker with each other like last week).

TNG S03E11 The Hunted (3.5 out of 5 stars). Guest star James Cromwell is prime minister of a world which wants to join the Federation, but the Enterprise initially fumbles its attempt to recapture an escaped prisoner, who turns out to be another Lone Starr-looking motherfucker who doesn’t show up on on the ship’s sensors, for… reasons. Lone Starr is a blunt instrument of the state, programmed to kill for his government. The ethical dilemma of the week becomes whether to return him to his penal colony or whether to meddle in the affairs of another planet. High-minded stuff but not especially engaging. Luckily, once it comes to trying to return him, he turns out to be more than a match for the crew’s ingenuity and the pursuit sequence as he finagles his escape is very watchable. Even more striking is Picard’s behaviour in the final act. Rather than the patrician Federation resolving a decades-long conflict in twenty minutes, here he confronts the Prime Minister with the natural consequences of his actions and beams out, leaving him to find whatever solution he can.

TNG S03E12 The High Ground (3 out of 5 stars). Infamously not shown on BBC2 for years, as it’s basically a treatise on how to mount a successful terrorist campaign (like the one which lead to the reunification of Ireland in 2024, so there’s something to look forward to). There’s good character stuff here for Beverly and the Captain and some decent action sequences, but I really am getting sick of 90s bad boys with floppy hair and designer stubble. This one’s called “Finn” which for some reason I find maddening. What’s interesting is how much more self-assured the show is as a whole. We’re roughly mid-way through Season 3 and we’ve got to the point where, sure not every episode is a diamond, but we almost never plumb the depths anymore and pretty much every week there’s something new, something fresh and something to enjoy.

TNG S03E13 Deja Q (4 out of 5 stars). While puzzling out an errant and death-dealing moon, the Enterprise is visited by a flirtatiously naked Q who proclaims that he has been stripped also of his powers. De Lancie is as good as ever and the writers rise to the occasion (he asks Worf if he’s eaten any good books lately). Picard is rightly suspicious, but Q passes every test, making the outcome of this genuinely hard to guess. While the crew battles to divert the moon, Q is persecuted by a race he wronged in the past. Although the Enterprise and our people are hardly ever in jeopardy, and the fate of the planet below never feels particularly tangible, this is probably the best outing for Q so far, even if it doesn’t have quite the lasting impact that Q Who had. Corbin Bersen makes a valiant attempt to match De Lancie’s unpredictable energy but doesn’t quite pull it off.

Trekaday 029: Evolution, The Ensigns of Command, The Survivors, Who Watches the Watchers, The Bonding, Booby Trap

Posted on June 8th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S03E01 Evolution (3.5 out of 5 stars). Remarkably, Paramount kept the faith. After 48 fairly ropey installments, they could see promise and they re-upped for a second time. As with The Original Series the third season sees some wardrobe changes. Kirk swapped velour for nylon. Picard swaps spandex for wool. The new uniforms are two-piece affairs with a belt, a streamlined shoulder and a smarter collar. Like last time, the changes are minor, but still an upgrade in every way. (Some of the supporting artists are still stuck in the old ones for time being.) Dr Crusher is back (with shorter hair) and now this starts to look and feel like the show I grew up loving, complete with freshened-up opening titles beginning out in the galaxy instead of in our own solar system (shame about that awkward wipe from new titles to old as the Enterprise appears though).

Behind the scenes it’s all-change as well. Maurice Hurley has quit in disgust and an ailing Roddenberry has now handed control completely over to Rick Berman who in turn has put Michael Piller in charge of the writers room and it’s Piller who, more than anyone else, finally starts to figure out what this show is and how it works. He hires Ronald D Moore, Ira Steven Behr and René Echevarria, who all get their first scripts this year. As well as turning the writing function of the show into a collaborative, creative team, he instigates an open-door script policy which leads to several hires, including some of the names I just mentioned. From here on, the balance between high-stakes adventure stories, thought-provoking sci-fi concepts and character growth and development will be far better maintained.

The difference is made clear in an early scene in this episode between Crusher and Picard where she tries to understand who her son is through the eyes of her captain and her friend. The show is doing what it can to make sense of the imposed absence of Gates McFadden and to make story out of it. It leans into the history between these two characters, and when they talk, they sound like people. It will take a while for all of these changes to filter through, however. Evolution has Michael Piller’s name on it, but when the main plot takes over, it still feels more like Season 2 than Season 3. Computer glitches are plaguing the ship and this dull idea feels overfamiliar from shows like 10011100 and Contagion, and the climax is a replay of the end of Home Soil. On the plus side, guest star Ken Jenkins (Dr Kelso from Scrubs) livens the place up considerably, as well as doing what he can to make observing a rare stellar event seem extra-specially-super-important, but overall this doesn’t manage to place these stronger, clearer characters into a very interesting situation, and the humdrum conundrum resolves itself rather quickly and easily.

TNG S03E02 The Ensigns of Command (4 out of 5 stars). The family feeling on board the Enterprise is maintained as Data receives a brief lesson in the dangers of radical honesty before a string recital in Ten Forward. The main plot revolves around a long-forgotten race called the Sheliak who have identified a human-colonised planet as one they want for themselves, but Federation records show the planet in question as uninhabitable. Despite this, there’s a thriving colony of 15,000 people who are not at all keen on leaving home at short notice. Data is required to negotiate with the colony leader, Geordi is trying to technobabble the transporters into action, while Picard is attempting brinksmanship with the Sheliak. Very, very good stuff from writer Melinda Snodgrass whose debut script was the amazing The Measure of a Man. I could probably do without the Data love story but the stakes are sky-high, the character work is excellent and the resolution very satisfying. Troi and Picard’s conversation about language is fascinating and heightens the tension as well as adding telling details. On the other hand, the colony leader’s voice is dubbed throughout, as if this was a 1960s James Bond film, and it strains credulity a little that the colonists could be so invincibly dumb for so long.

TNG S03E03 The Survivors (2.5 out of 5 stars) In what feels like quite a familiar trope, and not just because of last week’s episode, the Enterprise arrives at a colony planet to find it devastated with seemingly no survivors. In a more novel-feeling wrinkle, a small square patch has been left unaffected – and when we get down there it’s shot on location which is always nice to see. Federation tricorders can detect every detail of the dwelling except for some cartoonish Home Alone style booby traps left by someone called (checks notes) Kevin. Troi has swapped her catsuit for a more flowing ballgown-type affair which looks even more ridiculous on the bridge of a starship. She’s plagued by mysterious music-box tunes in her head, and Marina Sirtis clearly relishes having a bit more to do this week, but her plight is too intangible to really take seriously. It’s also a shame that Picard doesn’t give her condition more weight. If this was Season 4, he wouldn’t have dreamed of giving her the brush-off. When we cut back to Mr and Mrs Home Alone it seems dull. “Good tea. Nice house,” growls Worf, clearly as bored as I am. Picard solves the puzzle but bafflingly refuses to share his deductions with the bridge team, in what I assume is an attempt to wring extra drama out of a tepid storyline. Troi’s suffering seems designed to keep the Enterprise around despite what the cos-play colonist says, and ultimately this is yet another all-powerful being with mysterious godlike powers who doesn’t understand humans very well. Ho-hum.

TNG S03E04 Who Watches the Watchers (4 out of 5 stars). This seems like it’s going to be one of those high-minded philosophical episodes but whereas in Season 1, this would be 45 minute of idle navel-gazing, here it’s considerably shored up with detailed character work and some proper jeopardy, added to which the ethical conundrum is genuinely fascinating. It’s also refreshing to come across a civilization whose progress closely matches Vulcan and not Earth (although it seems lots of planets have a Vasquez Rocks). The Mintakans’ transition from peaceful atheists to bloodthirsty zealots is a little hasty, but this is really just a function of storytelling in hour-long episodic television. Manning and Beimler, who wrote this one don’t survive Michael Piller’s new broom, but I could have done with more scripts like this in Season 2, which give an intellectual concept like the Prime Directive some guts and power. Dr Crusher’s mute nurse is still wearing the old-style uniform.

TNG S03E05 The Bonding (3.5 out of 5 stars). Welcome to the show Ronald D Moore, one of Piller’s most significant discoveries, who brings with him a cracking teaser with an away team suddenly placed in mortal danger. But this isn’t an episode about thrilling escapes from death, because the focus now switches to Picard breaking the news to a young boy on board that his mother has been killed in the line of duty. I don’t love that we’re seeing this partly through Wesley’s eyes but it’s a better use of him than having him save the ship every week. And it’s also better than seeing this through Troi’s eyes – “I sense the weight of this responsibility on you,” she intones inanely to Picard’s grim-set face. Quickly it becomes, of all people, Worf’s duty to guide the now-orphaned Jeremy through his grief. So, this is a) Michael Piller’s it’s-about-our-family MO taken to its logical extremes and b) the beginning of Moore’s obsession with Klingons, which as noted I don’t share. But there’s a clarity and a precision to the storytelling, exemplified by the Data/Riker scene in which the loss of a never-before seen officer is compared to the death of Tasha Yar. In sum, this is very well done, if not quite what I’m really here for – plus this is our second all-powerful-alien-conjures-up-a-domestic-fantasy-to-cope-with-grief scenario in three episodes. It helps that the child isn’t too winsome, and Michael Dorn continues to do excellent work.

TNG S03E06 Booby Trap (3 out of 5 stars). Michael Piller’s desire to flesh out the regulars extends to giving Geordi a second character trait. Now as well as being Data’s Best Friend, he’s also Hopeless Wiv Teh Laydeez. We join the action right when he’s being sent to the Neutral Friend Zone. Poor Geordi. The sight of him striking out on the Holodeck raises questions that some people had when we first Encountered Farpoint – namely is the Holodeck also “fully functional”? This episode gets as close to that sleazy issue as prime time television (even syndicated) will allow but doesn’t really provide any answers. Picard grumbles that nobody else ever built ships in bottles. I wonder if Geordi’s model ship-building hobby will be referred to again? JK, his character trait now is He Cant Get Dem Chicks. So, following an episode in which an all-powerful alien conjures up a fantasy dead parent for a grieving child, here we have a member of our own crew conjuring up a fantasy foxy colleague for his own frustrated libido. Yikes. Did Geordi learn nothing from his hijinks with Moriarty? The problem that Geordi and his sex doll are trying to solve is of scarcely any interest, and so – despite gamely centering the captain – the climax is somewhat limp (fnarr). Non-speaking extras are still in the old togs, although the new costumes have been refined yet again, with less obvious seams on the chest, at least for Picard. As usual, radiation causes zero ill-effects and then is instantaneously fatal once a stupidly precise time limit is up. Is the title a pun?

Trekaday 028: Manhunt, The Emissary, Peak Performance, Shades of Gray

Posted on June 2nd, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S02E19 Manhunt (1.5 out of 5 stars) More ambassadorial hijinks, beginning with two mute aliens beaming on board, whose physical appearance is the topic of much discussion, and then the arrival of Lwaxana Troi, converting Troi’s mother from one-shot virtual cameo to recurring character. She has once again boarded the Enterprise with marriage on her mind, but instead of a husband for Deanna, this time she is attempting to bag the Captain for herself. So, this is a low-stakes, relationship comedy-of-manners episode – not what I’d prefer, especially when the characters are still so fuzzy. But this one did elicit some smiles from me, notably when Picard using a loquacious Data as a verbal shield between him and Mrs Troi’s libido. Not wanting anything to do with Betazoid pon-farr, and just when I was starting to enjoy this episode, Picard retreats to the “safety” of the Holodeck and his Dixon Hill fantasy, whereupon the stakes plunge through the floor. Like all good assassins, the Antedeans arrange matters so they have to be onboard the Enterprise unable to respond or notice what’s around them for as long as possible, all the while festooned with easy-to-discover secret space-dynamite. LWAXANA: You can’t detect these explosives with your transporters. DATA: (reading the transporter control panel). Captain, I am detecting large amounts of explosives. Apparently one of the largely mute, motionless delegate-assassins is Mick Fleetwood. Did I dream this episode?

TNG S02E20 The Emissary (4.5 out of 5 stars) No, we’re not quite ready for Deep Space Nine yet. We start with another visit to the card table, and again it’s a good omen. The early scenes on the bridge are thick with intrigue, and saving six hours by stuffing Suzi Plakson into a tiny probe haring across space at warp 9 does much to engender a high-stakes feel. This isn’t the return of Dr Selar, it’s the first appearance of K’Ehelyr, Worf’s ex. So this is another episode about who’s going to get married to whom, but it’s much more interesting on a character level, and much more exciting on a sci-fi adventure level. Plakson is wonderful as the no-nonsense half-human, half-Klingon, and Michael Dorn’s face when he first sees her is perfect. She’s on board because there are Klingons about to come out of hibernation who think the war is still going on – a perfect puzzle for the pacifist crew to have to try and solve. This is very fine stuff, combining all the best aspects of what the franchise is capable of. Another sewn-together-by-monkeys admiral’s uniform on Gromek.

TNG S02E21 Peak Performance (3.5 out of 5 stars) Roy Brocksmith looks delighted to be on board the Enterprise, covered in latex and scurrying around like a cross between Manuel and Groucho Marx. He’s a fine, fine actor and for once the sight of somebody greedily devouring the scenery doesn’t unbalance the tone of the whole show. The premise is a nifty one too – an old ship is taken out of mothballs and given to Riker and Worf as part of a war game exercise, to prepare for the impending Borg threat. This is supervised by the aforementioned Brocksmith but early on far too much time is taken up playing a silly video game, which works far less well than poker as a method of revealing character flaws and hidden motivations. Data’s loss gives him the glums. “We’re less than an hour away from a battle simulation and I have to hand-hold an android,” growls Picard, and I share his frustration, especially as that’s the end of this sub-plot. Once the battle simulation begins and the Ferengi – yes, the Ferengi! – screw up the exercise, things take a turn for the far more interesting and exciting, and the solution to their problems is neat and tidy if not tremendously cathartic.

TNG S02E22 Shades of Gray. Flat on his back, Riker relives past glories (and some idiocies) in this budget-saving clip show of zero interest. I can remember rushing home from lectures at Southampton University to watch this on BBC2 and being crushed to discover that the season was ending with this tepid remix. Not a Star Trek episode, so no score.

Season 2 summary

  • Another rough ride. The characters are more clearly-defined so when the show is just doodling in the margins it’s often more watchable than it was in Season 1, but the really strong episodes are still few and the bad episodes are still really, really bad.
  • Much of this is due to the writers’ strike with a reduced episode count, a clip-show, a recycled Phase II script and some contradictory writing all symptoms of this unforeseeable problem. A show on a big network would probably have been cancelled.
  • The cast have settled in nicely now. Stewart rules, as ever, Spiner is often excellent, Frakes often finds something interesting to do with Riker, and Michael Dorn is growing into Worf. Wesley is much less annoying and although Geordi is hardly ever given anything more than exposition, Burton continues to fling himself at the lines with such enthusiasm that it hardly matters. Only Troi is getting left behind, ignored both by the writers and the rest of the bridge crew.
  • Undermining the family feeling is Dr Pulaski, who never finds her place. Imagine how much more interesting the Picard/Wesley dynamic would be if Beverley Crusher was still in the mix. (I imagine it would a be “a bit more” interesting.)
  • Average score for Season 2 is 2.78, only a marginal improvement on Season 1 and still a long way off the glory days of early TOS. Top stories this year include the promising Elementary Dear Data, the fascinating A Matter of Honor, the teasing Q Who, the very fine The Emissary and the truly excellent The Measure of a Man. Worst stories include the horrid The Child, the dire Pen Pals, the tedious The Outrageous Okona, the dopey The Royale and the eye-wateringly bad Up the Long Ladder. What’s frustrating is that even when stories begin with an excellent premise such as Picard-from-the-future in Time Squared, too often the execution is weak.
  • So, this new show, which nobody thought would work, has somehow managed to find stronger foundations. What it needs now to elevate the storytelling to even greater heights is some sort of… pillar.

Trekaday 027: The Final Frontier

Posted on May 29th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (2 out of 5 stars)

Star Trek IV was a smash and Nimoy had created the story and directed the film. Trying to be a good friend, he diplomatically pointed out to a devastated William Shatner, whose ego was self-destructing, that the “favoured nations” clause in their contracts could be interpreted to mean that for each film Nimoy directed, Shatner could direct one too. With carte blanche from a happy studio sitting on a pile of Star Trek cash from the last three movies, Shatner set to work on The Final Frontier.

Unlike The Voyage Home, the Star Trek movie for people who didn’t like Star Trek, this was going to be for the fans. And unlike the last two installments, which had established the seven regulars as a gang of friends who work together to solve mutual problems, this film was going to go right back to the television series and focus on Kirk, Spock and McCoy, with odd bits and pieces for whichever other actors were hanging around. And although all of this was conceived in the shadow of the increasingly successful and well-regarded new show, no heed at all was paid to what was happening on Monday nights in syndication (apart from the re-use of some Enterprise corridor sets).

What was Shatner’s big idea? The one that Roddenberry had been dicking about with for ages, the Enterprise meeting God. Give us strength.

What’s good about this? Well, as director, Shatner’s shot-making isn’t half bad. Compared to the rather ordinary-looking Star Trek IV, the opening scenes on Nimbus III are splendid, and the Secret Pain scenes are very stylishly mounted. In fact, given the material the director has been handed, there aren’t any really serious mis-steps in the production, apart from a few ropey-looking effects. Then again, not all the casting comes off. They wanted Sean Connery to play Sybok, and the actor they got has nothing of his magisterial charisma. David Warner is fun but will be iconic next time round. As noted, almost none of the “second tier” regulars get much – and sometimes when they do, I rather wish they hadn’t, as more often than not they’re being demeaned, undermined or used for cheap gags. The Motion Picture theme (now much more associated with TNG) is back and in general Jerry Goldsmith’s music is pretty good, and Nimoy and Kelley are as fine as ever – in fact this is probably the best cinematic outing for McCoy.

But the rest of it? Structurally it’s a mess with tedious early scenes on Nimbus III and in Yosemite that go nowhere, it grinds to a halt in the middle with the fascinating but ultimately barely-relevant Face Your Pain segment, and the money runs out at the end so we conclude with a whimper rather than a bang. Far too many ideas are overfamiliar from previous outings and Shatner is so keen to rewrite the Kirk-is-old-now narrative established three movies ago that he shoots himself clambering up a sheer face of the aptly-named El Capitan. Lol. He doesn’t realise the gravity of his situation. Rofl.

Choppily edited, indifferently acted and tonally uncertain, with comedy beats that elicit more cringing than laughter, this muddle of a film staggers from mis-conceived scene to mis-conceived scene in ways that make me miss the sluggish but consistent Motion Picture. If it weren’t for the success of TNG I doubt there would have been a Star Trek VI, especially given that Shatner’s film barely made its money back. Reportedly, the director’s preferred two-hour cut was shorn of 15 minutes by studio suits and producer Harve Bennett, although time is still found for an interminable rendition of “Row Row Row Your Boat” round the old camp fire. Those scenes of “secret pain” are great (in writing, filming and acting) but they play as if ten minutes of a much better movie has been edited into the second act of this one. Those ten minutes earn both of the two stars I’m giving this very uninteresting film.

Trekaday 026: Time Squared, The Icarus Factor, Pen Pals, Q Who, Samaritan Snare, Up the Long Ladder

Posted on May 28th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S02E13 Time Squared (3.5 out of 5 stars) opens with a fairly uninspiring comedy Riker-cooks-dinner scene. Thank the Great Bird of the Galaxy that it was the poker game that took off. What follows is a very engrossing mystery for the most part. One of the Enterprise’s own shuttlecraft is drifting in space, and inside it is an unconscious Captain Picard. Science fiction and fantasy shows love doing doubles of the regular cast (we saw a duplicate of every classic Doctor Who until the seventh). TOS already gave us two Kirks on more than one occasion. Here Patrick Stewart gets a glimpse of his own future, which means he is forced to constantly second-guess himself. The results are often fascinating, if you can overlook the gobbledegook science. To be clear, plenty of TNG stories are resolved with technobabble, but it’s rare that so much of the plot rests on so much sciencey-sounding nonsense that doesn’t actually mean anything. He’s from the future so everything runs backwards? Okay, then. It’s also a shame that Picard-from-the-future is unconscious for so much of the episode. Picard phasering his other self (to death?) to stop the cycle is a baller move, but feels more like Rick and Morty nihilism than TNG optimism. Compare the treatment of future Picard here with the treatment of Thomas Riker in Season 6. How far we (will) have come…

TNG S02E14 The Icarus Factor (2.5 out of 5 stars). The Enterprise has failed its MOT and so a stop at Starbase Montgomery is called-for. This is somewhat of a ruse on Picard’s part to install Riker as Captain of his own ship, the Aries. We’ve been here before but this does feel more like character development and less like this-is-the-story-which-we-tell-every-week-with-this-character. His scenes with Picard are great and harking back to Encounter at Farpoint helps, but the presence of Riker’s father (a very stiff and awkward Mitchell Ryan) plays like a daytime soap rather than a prime time adventure series and the fact that he’s also an old friend of Pulaski’s strains credulity more than a bit. Also, as usual, I find delving into Klingon rituals a bore and the technobabble down in engineering never becomes more than a way to pass the time. Eventually Riker works out his daddy issues with some Tron cos-play and decides – shocker – to stay on board the Enterprise.

TNG S02E15 Pen Pals (2 out of 5 stars). Yay, it’s a Wesley episode. He’s being packed off to run a planetary mineral survey and fretting about every aspect of it. It’s not a bad way to examine what makes a strong or a weak commander, but the stakes are so low that it comes off more like a corporate training video and less like a thrilling science-fiction adventure story for the most part. Meanwhile, and bizarrely, fiercely loyal and rule-following Data has been secretly breaking the Prime Directive. This leads to yet more philosophical navel-gazing – all highly thoughtful and educational stuff but not very dramatic or engaging. I think the moral lesson is that the lives of cute children you’ve spoken to are more valuable than entire civilizations you’ve never met. And mind-rape is always just dandy, as usual.

TNG S02E16 Q Who (4.5 out of 5 stars) is a landmark episode in the series, setting up the most enduring foe this crew will see – a foe still going strong in Star Trek: Picard over thirty years later. To Doctor Who fans the Borg look a little like upmarket Cybermen and their insectoid origins show through (they were originally going to be behind all the insane goings-on in Conspiracy) not in their appearance but in their behaviour, which gives them a little extra colour. There are some pacing problems here to be sure – early on it seems as if a spilled cup of hot chocolate is going to be super-important, which it never is – but the main threat when it appears is absolutely terrifying. Does the ending work? Too many recent episodes have had the problem simply sort itself out in the last five minutes, and you could say the same here. Would we really have respected a Captain who didn’t briefly abase himself to save his ship? Are we supposed to think that Kirk wouldn’t have done that? C’mon. But it is a strong moment, Stewart sells the hell out of it, and the promise of more Borg in the now much-nearer future makes this feel like what it is – a delicious curtain-raiser which promises even more scary treats to come. Plus we have Guinan doing witch-fingers at Q. Lovely.

TNG S02E17 Samaritan Snare (2 out of 5 stars). Yay it’s a Wesley episode. He’s off to take more exams, meanwhile Pulaski is bullying Picard into getting an NHS pacemaker, but he wants to go for Starbase BUPA, which is a fairly thin pretext on which to put both Ensign and Captain into the same shuttlecraft. No sooner have they gone than Riker receives a distress signal from a B-plot. The Pakleds, who become brilliantly funny thirty years later in Lower Decks, are dreadfully annoying here, and the rum-tee-tum music to tell us how amusing they are is ghastly. For once, Troi has some useful information to impart, but everyone flat-out ignores her. Meanwhile the father/son bonding between Wes and Jean-Luc is seldom more than grating, although track is laid here for a wonderful future episode – Tapestry in Season 6. As ever, the problem with these early TNG outings is rarely the ideas, and almost always the execution. Ensign Hot Chocolate shows up again, briefly. The plan was to make her another recurring character but it didn’t work out.

Also – look, none of this is really the point but the dreadfully soggy end-of-teaser line establishes that the Enterprise is haring off a long way away from where Picard is getting his chest sliced open, and it takes the shuttlecraft hours to get to the starbase. But when Picard’s surgery goes awry and – wouldntchaknowit? – the only person qualified to save his life is Pulaski, she simply materialises over him like she’s a character in the last season of Game of Thrones. Why bother establishing that the starbase is a long way away, and you’re putting even more distance between you and it, if you’re not only never going to use that in a dramatic way, you’re actually going to ignore it the moment it becomes inconvenient? Was anybody reading these scripts before they were shot?

TNG S02E18 Up the Long Ladder (1 out of 5 stars) Worf has gas, which is reason enough for the incidental music to start going bananas. An ancient distress signal reaches the Enterprise and it turns out that Worf’s flatulence is actually measles, so combative Pulaski has to lie to the captain to spare his blushes. Data regresses to the clumsy character of Season 1 who doesn’t know when to stop offering synonyms. None of this has any narrative drive and none of the characters are really registering. Watching Worf and Pulaski drink tea is not interesting to me in itself and it’s doubly pointless when I know that Pulaski has less than half-a-dozen episodes left. Just when I thought this episode couldn’t get any worse, Riker finds himself on the planet of the Oirish Pig Farmers in scenes that could possibly qualify as hate crimes if shown in Dublin. The previous episode featured potentially strong ideas, executed poorly. This is misconceived from beginning to end. I very nearly abandoned the whole project watching Barrie Ingham channeling Red Skelton while sampling Klingon booze. There’s also a planet of clones (Clones? Clones!) because all the best episodes include three unrelated plot strands. I have a long list of other problems but I can’t be bothered to type them up.

Trekaday 025: Unnatural Selection, A Matter of Honor, The Measure of a Man, The Dauphin, Contagion, The Royale

Posted on May 22nd, 2022 in Culture | 1 Comment »

TNG S02E08 A Matter of Honor (4 out of 5 stars). All these Benzites look the same to Wesley. Because this version of Star Fleet is basically an elite liberal mid-Western university campus, an officer exchange Programme has been initiated and Picard wonders if Riker would like to serve as a Klingon first officer. Worf assures him that “many things will be different” and that starts with lunch (gagh is always best when served live). The interplay between the Benzite, Worf and Picard is first rate; for practically the first time, these characters start to feel truly lived-in and real. And when Riker is on the Klingon ship it feels different than it would be with, say, Geordi. That was harder to say in Season 1. The hull-fungus storyline is slightly dreary but it’s the far-too-easy-resolution which hurts this otherwise excellent episode (a persistent failing in this era). There is no Discovery-style dedication to subtitles here, so it is explicit that the Klingons are speaking Riker’s language, not the other way round.

TNG S02E09 Measure of a Man (5 out of 5 stars). This fondly-remembered episode starts with the first Enterprise poker game. Continuing the strong character work of the previous outing, here the opening scene is not about aliens with bumpy foreheads, space anomalies, plague-ridden outposts or treaty negotiations. It’s about the guys we hang out with every week – and why we hang out with them. It’s before the poker boom of the early 2000s, so the crew are playing five card stud (until Pulaski gets them to play something even more ridiculous). An old flame of Picard’s shows up and the TOS ahoy-there’s-a-woman-in-shot soaring strings take us into the opening titles. Neither of these scenes are what this excellent episode is really about though. It’s a dissection of Data’s personhood, and as if that wasn’t interesting enough, as a matter of duty, it’s Riker who has to mount the case for the prosecution. Make his argument too weak and he’ll be court-martialed. Win the case and Data is disassembled. Wow. Since you can’t have the Borg threatening to exterminate the entire Federation every week, here’s how you deliver a really high stakes story on a reasonable budget, just using the materials at hand. Fantastic stuff. More absurd admiral’s uniforms this week, although not quite as nuts as in Conspiracy (but then is anything quite as nuts as Conspiracy?).

TNG S02E10 The Dauphin (3 out of 5 stars). Yay, it’s a Wesley episode. Worse, it’s a Wesley in love episode. Sex and romance is major blind spot for TNG and so this is not a promising combination. Whereas the previous two episodes provided great character moments for Riker, Picard, Data – and even Pulaski – this regresses back to soapy clichés involving characters we don’t know and their tiresome treaty negotiations, but this wobbly story-of-the-week is resting on firmer foundations now. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the costumes. If the story were better, the silly monster suit would be easier to forgive (see Devil in the Dark). Here it makes a weak story seem ridiculous.

TNG S02E11 Contagion (3.5 out of 5 stars). Why is Picard – Picard! – cracking gags and having to be put in his place by another, more serious, captain? Even if this one is in the grip of a demented quest to find a mythical lost civilisation. Moments later, the entire Galaxy-class ship has exploded killing everyone on board. Karma is a bitch, Jean-Luc. This is the first proper Romulan episode in quite a long time – following their brief tease at the end of Season 1. Carolyn Seymour is a bit of a treat, playing Taris, recalling the nameless Romulan commander in The Enterprise Incident. But why isn’t she given more to do? The idea that the Yamato blowing itself up could be a “design flaw” is a little hard to swallow, and so is Picard inheriting his late friend’s crackpot mission. If you can get past the casual slaughter at the beginning and how dumb everyone is being in the face of overwhelming clues as to the source of the problem, then there is some fun to be had here. The all-powerful Enterprise falling to bits is a good way of cutting our sometimes-smug heroes down to size and this is a defining episode for Berman-Romulans, even given their brief screen-time. It’s nifty too that the Iconian computer virus makes Data uniquely vulnerable, when usually he has near-magical plot-resolving powers. Picard orders “tea, Earl Grey, hot,” for the first time.

TNG S02E12 The Royale (2 out of 5 stars) opens with an eye-catching teaser (as well as indicating that Fermat’s Last Theorem is still unsolved in the 24th century – in fact, Andrew Wiles cracked it six years after this episode aired) but when the away team beams over, things take a turn for the goofy. This episode was written by staff member Tracy Tormé (although he ended up taking his name off it) but if you’d told me it was a discarded episode from the TOS days, I would have gone “oh, yeah, that makes sense.” Making sense is not something at the top of the agenda of this story, alas, and the regulars seem to have reverted back to their stiff, all-business, Season 1 incarnations. All of this feels lazy, from the inaccurate analysis of blackjack to the lifting of “It was a dark and stormy night,” as shorthand for bad novel-writing. Taking the piss out of a poorly-written story is a bold move, if you’re eighteen months in and still struggling to find your feet as much as this show is.

Trekaday 024: The Child, Where Silence Has Lease, Elementary Dear Data, The Outrageous Okona, Loud as a Whisper, The Schizoid Man

Posted on May 16th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S02E01 The Child (2 out of 5 stars). To begin with, this does start to resemble the show we know and love. Geordi and Worf are in the right colour uniform and in the right positions – Worf at tactical and doubling as head of security, Geordi in engineering – and even O’Brien is back manning the transporter. Ten Forward exists and Guinan is behind the bar. Riker has his beard. Worf’s makeup appliance no longer looks like an ill-fitting beanie hat. But Crusher is gone, victim of a mysterious antipathy on the part of show-runner Maurice Hurley, whose power struggle with Rick Berman continues, exacerbated by the absence of an ailing Gene Roddenberry, who still gets an executive producer credit, but will hardly be around from now on. In her place is Diana Muldaur, who was supposed to be warmly crusty like Dr McCoy, but who ends up coming across as cold and never seems to click with the rest of the crew. She also doesn’t get her name in the opening credits, for reasons which don’t seem well known.

Meanwhile, the writers strike nearly killed the show off for good, but in an act of desperation, Hurley started thumbing through scripts which had been completed for Star Trek Phase II, and – realising that Ilia = Troi, Xon = Data and Decker = Riker – pulled this Ilia-centric story off the pile. It does not get the new season off to a good start. With ten or so minutes taken up with shuffling Enterprise crew-members around, and justifying why on earth Wesley is still here, there isn’t time to adequately deal with many, or indeed any, of the consequences of the counselor’s violation, impregnation, parenthood and grief. Marina Sirtis, never the strongest link in the TNG chain, is helpless in the face of such thinly-written material and nothing the supporting cast can do will resuce this one. Still, nice to see Whoopi Goldberg, even if Guinan’s presence renders Troi even more redundant than she was already.

TNG S02E02 Where Silence Has Lease (2 out of 5 stars). Another one of those entirely meaningless Star Trek episode names which as far as I can tell has nothing whatever to do with the plot. Worf and Riker are on an away-mission which seems to involve battling some half-Gorn half-Armadillo, half-Skeletor creatures. No, it’s a Holodeck callisthenics exercise which Worf looks like he’s getting a little too involved in. It’s pretty thin as teasers go. This script is credited to Jack B Sowards, who contributed much to the screenplay of Wrath of Khan, including the Kobayashi Maru. When it finally gets going, this episode sees the Enterprise trapped inside a featureless black void, in which a Romulan Warbird suddenly de-cloaks. This proves to be the first of a series of illusions conjured by Charlie X Trelane Apollo Q Nagilum, who puts Riker and Worf onto the bridge of The Starship That Jack Built, bumps off a literal red-shirt and then threatens to exterminate half the people on board. As engagingly mysterious as this sometimes is, it isn’t terribly interesting or dramatic. Even blowing up the Enterprise is merely an opportunity for a calm and reasonable conversation about ethics and Nagilum’s Mogwai face looks stupid.

TNG S02E03 Elementary, Dear Data (4 out of 5 stars). Geordi turns out to have an interest in old sailing ships. Bet that’ll prove to be one of his defining characteristics. JK, his personality is of course that he’s Data’s Best Friend. This is a wonderful episode for Brent Spiner and Data, as well as an amazing dissection of what the Holodeck is and how it works. And sure, it’s a retread of The Big Goodbye, but it’s better in every department – Data is a better choice than Picard, Doyle is a better choice than Chandler, and the details regarding Moriarty’s transition from avatar to antagonist to new life form are very well worked out. Even the fact that he basically just gives himself up at the end is a kind of a strength, although not very exciting. The only other problem is the amount of time we’re expected to wait before things start turning nasty, but Spiner makes the most of the fun-and-games which precede the main plot. This is very good stuff, if still not quite great.

TNG S02E04 The Outrageous Okona (1.5 out of 5 stars). What TNG will eventually become is a potent combination of thrilling adventure, strong character-driven plots and thought-provoking sci-fi concepts. For our second Data-centric episode in a row, we effectively get the workplace sitcom version of the show, featuring Diet Coke Han Solo Captain Okona, cracking on to a young Teri Hatcher, and then a truly ghastly sequence in which Data is coached in stand-up comedy. At no point does this ever become what you might call a story, After last week’s near-triumph, this is a huge disappointment, in which “outrageous” turns out to be an ambition rather than a description. Even Picard describes the tiresome plot as “this ancient morality play we’ve been dragged into.”

TNG S02E05 Loud as a Whisper (2 out of 5 stars). Another episode, another pair of squabbling planets, and another very soggy teaser – Picard and co beam down to the planet and are confronted by the terrifying sight of… an empty room. “Space, the final frontier…” TOS treated blindness with a great deal of delicacy and intrigue. Here TNG has a crack at deafness, backed up by telepathy. It’s all very well-meaning, earnest and thoughtful, but it’s deathly dull and we don’t even get the horror of Joe Piscopo to break up the tedium, although that could also be considered a blessing. The deaths of Riva’s “chorus” certainly stick in the mind, even if little else about this slack episode is likely to.

TNG S02E06 The Schizoid Man (2.5 out of 5 stars). The only Star Trek episode I can think of which shares its name with an episode of The Prisoner. Patrick McGoohan faced a duplicate version of himself. Patrick Stewart faces Data carrying an old scientist’s katra. Before this, Data is mainly reduced to reeling off lists of synonyms when asked if he understands what a concept means, and failing to comprehend ordinary idioms. Data’s best-kept secret is his off-button, which he casually reveals to Morgan Sheppard’s “grandpa”. There’s no danger that will end badly, is there? Are we supposed not to guess what has happened, or is it supposed to be dramatic irony? Regardless, it just makes the crew look dumb. Still, at least something happens in this episode, which is a modest improvement. First appearance of Suzie Plakson, here as Vulcan Dr Selar. She will later play a Klingon, a Q and an Andorian. With four Data stories in a row (one shared with Troi) it’s clear now that he’s the second lead in this show. But this is a pretty rotten string of episodes.