Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Trekaday 040: New Ground, Hero Worship, Violations, The Masterpiece Society, Conundrum, Power Play, Ethics, The Outcast, Cause and Effect

Posted on August 12th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S05E10 New Ground (4 out of 5 stars). Geordi can’t wait to see the newfangled Spore Drive Soliton Drive in action. But meanwhile, plot threads from earlier episodes are being gathered up. Worf’s mum is paying him a visit and has brought Alexander with her, now played – as he will be for his remaining appearances – by Brian Bonsall. And we smash into the titles on the revelation that he’s here to stay. The sight of the burly Klingon negotiating his way through domestic and educational matters is well-handled, amusing and affecting without being cloying – you know my feelings about moppets. Troi virtually bounds up to Worf, delighted that she might be useful to someone for once, but all she does is point him towards a field trip, where Alexander lies about stealing a toy. The apparent low stakes of these scenes is at odds with the dramatic music, but actually, this is an engrossing exploration of Klingon honour codes – and you know my feelings about those too – shown through the eyes of a child. Michael Dorn plays all aspects of this with deceptive delicacy and it’s kind of amazing that a syndicated science-fiction adventure show is willing to attempt this kind of character drama at all, let alone pull it off with as much clarity and depth as this. Last appearance of Georgia Brown as Helena Rozhenko, she died within six months of this episode’s broadcast.

TNG S05E11 Hero Worship (4 out of 5 stars). Continuing the theme of families, both biological and found, Data becomes the focus of attention for a troubled moppet who can’t process the grief he’s experiencing and so begins to emulate the android’s emotionless demeanour. 14-year-old Joshua Harris does a splendid job copying Brent Spiner’s tics and quirks and even manages his eventual catharsis with Troi without too much cringe. Even more so than last week’s story with Worf and Alexander, this is a story which only this show could tell, blending science fiction concepts about artificial intelligence and where emotions come from with deep (for a syndicated television show) insights into loss, childhood and parenting. As good as this is though, along with the previous episode, it still feels like it’s playing in the shallow end of the pool. We aren’t really putting our characters through the ringer, we aren’t putting the Federation or even the Enterprise up against any implacable foes. So, this gets a four because it’s extremely well-handled, but I don’t regard it as an all-time classic. And I nearly knocked off half-a-star because it’s the second A-plot moppet, B-plot wavefront-in-space episode in a row.

TNG S05E12 Violations (1.5 out of 5 stars). In a particularly grim example of this-is-the-story-we-tell-with-this-character, a trio of telepaths roll onto the ship and before you know it, Troi is having nightmares of being raped and minutes later is lying in a coma. Riker is the next to succumb, having nightmares of an accident in engineering. It’s nice to see Crusher getting something to do, but she’s all business here. And even in an episode which (briefly) centres her, Troi still remains the thinnest of characters. Her conversation in the turbolift about her mother sounds quite similar to something one real person would say to another, but not enough to be mistaken for it. Watching Levar Burton and Majel Barrett’s computer voice exchange the names of made-up compounds isn’t thrilling drama either, but it least it isn’t nauseating I suppose. Crusher is next, facing the horrifying sight of Patrick Stewart in a hairpiece. There’s little drama here, what there is is unpleasant and there’s basically no mystery as the bad guy’s identity is essentially given away at the end of the teaser. So, this is a poor episode in many ways, but I’m knocking it all the way down to 1.5 stars because it’s so ick, and that’s before we get into the real-world cases of practitioners who implant false memories, either through clumsy questioning, or as deliberate manipulation.

TNG S05E13 The Masterpiece Society (2 out of 5 stars). In what feels like a familiar trope, a tiny human colony, its existence hitherto not even suspected, refuses to be evacuated when a passing technobabble threatens to destroy them. To add to the fun, they’re eugenicists. Whereas TOS kept revisiting the gilded cage, TNG tends to play with the variation: the paradise that isn’t, and so it is here. Picard, quite rightly, strongly opposes their plan for genetic superiority, but Troi seems to think there’s something in it, which undermines her character to no particular purpose, especially when the anti-eugenics argument tips over into an anti-abortion rant. That’s the second time in two episodes the show has taken on a subject matter it’s completely incapable of engaging with. Let’s please go back to space adventures and character stories, even if that does mean more moppets.

TNG S05E14 Conundrum (4.5 out of 5 stars). “Chess isn’t just a game of ploys and gambits. It’s a game of intuition,” observes Counsellor Troi, wholly inaccurately. It’s been a bit of a rough ride lately, and this silly opening doesn’t fill me with confidence. But the rest of the teaser is one of those great covers-of-a-comic-book scenarios where the entire bridge crew is suddenly struck with total amnesia, unable to recognise their colleagues or recall their own identities. It’s a truly fascinating exploration of what makes these people who they are and what makes this crew function. Riker identifies Picard as the leader, but Worf wonders if his sash makes him top dog. Without access to his full faculties, the captain seems faltering, uncertain. Once again, Patrick Stewart shows his class. It’s a wonderfully detailed rendering, full of subtleties and grace notes. Worf meanwhile cheerfully occupies the captain’s chair, but who is this executive officer who has slipped into the next seat? And what is this war they seem to be embroiled in? Troi and Riker’s scenes together are highlights of a very strong episode. It’s possibly the first time I’ve really believed in their relationship and it’s a series-best performance from Marina Sirtis who finds a depth to Troi which has often eluded her in the past. Deliciously, Ro Laren is there to screw everything up. The final scene of the three of them is quite delightful. “Scanning intensity has increased by 1500%” says La Forge, who means “increased 16-fold”.

TNG S05E15 Power Play (3.5 out of 5 stars). Troi detects life-signs on a barren moon, so she joins the away team as they shuttle down to the surface of Strobe-lighting IV and they get stuck there. O’Brien insists on trying to beam down through the storm with a “pattern enhancer” to get them back. All of this is pretty woolly plotting, where stuff happens on the thinnest of pretexts just to make the story work. That story is that the away team (Troi, O’Brien and Data) have been whammied and are now trying to take over the Enterprise. I always enjoy seeing this (or any) regular cast taking on different roles or playing against type and that’s the chief pleasure here, as well as the details of the takeover campaign. There are two or three successive explanations for what’s really going on, each sillier than the last. And Picard bunging the antagonists back on the moon at the end is uncharacteristically heartless, but overall this is a fun, if rather nonsensical, adventure. Phaser beams almost never leave the barrel in a straight line, which is odd given that the camera angles mean we generally don’t see the weapon and its target in the same shot. Data reverses the polarity of the force fields, which is lovely.

TNG S05E16 Ethics (3 out of 5 stars). When Worf is injured in the most banal way possible (moving some boxes – seriously, couldn’t they have had him saving some kids or something?) he ends up paralysed and wants to kill himself. Crusher brings a crackpot specialist onboard who has Pulaski’s bedside manner and Hilary Clinton’s haircut (and has never heard of a double-blind randomised clinical trial). It beggars belief slightly that 24th century can’t rustle up some adequate bionic legs, but while it’s a shame that more care wasn’t given to patch these holes, the fact that they would be easy fixes also means they’re fairly easy to ignore. The question is: how will this series tackle the right to die? Given its recent lack of success with adoption, sexual assault and eugenics I’m not hopeful, and of course there’s a pretty nauseating ableist reading of this plotline too. In practice, of course, we all know that by the end of the episode, Crusher is going to give Worf two reset pills and have him call her in the morning, so the stakes never feel all that high. I admire the refusal to introduce too many silly sci-fi elements, and there is interesting drama to be mined out of the euthanasia debate, even within the confines of episodic television, but this never quite finds the, er, spine of the story. On the upside, as usual, Patrick Stewart makes even the thinnest material seem like spun gold and it’s series-best stuff from Michael Dorn as well. What’s most disappointing about this is that Crusher gets so little character development, when this seems tailor-made to dig into her personality a bit more. Those Dead Ringers red surgical cowls are back.

TNG S05E17 The Outcast (2.5 out of 5 stars). As previously noted, Roddenberry was keen for there to be gay characters on the Enterprise but Berman felt he couldn’t take the risk. We’ve been treated so far to Beverly Crusher recoiling in horror when the love of her life turned female. Now Riker stumbles his way through a conversation about being non-binary which today sounds like Look Who’s Coming to Dinner with gender instead of race, only with less good acting. Soren, his androgynous sweetheart, is of course played by a conventionally attractive cis-woman who’d just come from playing a recurring pretty-girl character on The A Team, which kind of undermines the whole thing. Strictly as a piece of sci-fi “what-if”ing it’s not bad, but it’s impossible to overlook the well-meaning but clodhopping social commentary. Depressingly, for a show about how the battle of the sexes should be a thing of the past, it reiterates over and over again that the Federation is a strictly binary society with no crossing-dressing, gender fluidity or anything like that – even the skant is nowhere to be seen these days. At the time, it probably would have been read as an allegory for homophobia but actually having gay characters would have been far, far preferable. In what might just be Steven Moffat-esque joke about passing, Geordi has a beard.

TNG S05E18 Cause and Effect (5 out of 5 stars). One thing which I really noticed watching TOS is how strong and punchy the teasers were. Week after week, usually in less than two minutes we had the eye-catching premise of the episode, or a really exciting bit of jeopardy and sometimes both and then – smash into those iconic titles. There are some great TNG teasers as well, but sometimes it’s just checking in with a couple of different departments, meeting a guest star and then, ho hum, time for the credits I guess. Not here. The ship is tearing itself apart. Crusher seems to be at tactical and then the motherfucking Enterprise explodes. C’mon now, people. You have my attention. You have 100% of my attention. When we come back after the teaser and everything’s okay it seems like a cheat, but we inexorably make our way back to that devastating teaser and then the other shoe drops. It’s Groundhog Day but nobody is Phil Connors. Everyone is stuck repeating the same doomed actions. It looks insoluable and miraculously it isn’t. The resolution is clever, unexpected and it makes sense. And then Frasier turns up. This might not be the greatest, most profound episode ever, it might not shed any new light on any of our regulars, but it’s as exciting as hell and it doesn’t put a foot wrong. That’s got to be worth five stars. Credit where it’s due: Brannon Braga wrote the script and Jonathan Frakes directed.

Trekaday 039: Star Trek VI The Undiscovered Country

Posted on August 3rd, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (4 out of 5 stars)

Star Trek V had been given a drubbing by the critics, was wildly disliked by fans and hadn’t made the kind money it was supposed to (it cost more than the previous film and made half as much). Possibly, if it had been a smash, there never would have been a sixth film with the original cast. But 1991 would be the 25th anniversary of the franchise and Paramount wanted to commemorate it in some way. Not for the first time, a Star Fleet Academy story was pitched which would have seen a reckless young Jim Kirk meet a stuffy Vulcan named Spock and gradually the two of them would learn to get along. Sounds ghastly, right? And although TNG had proved that there was life beyond Kirk, nobody thought that there was an audience for the same characters but without those iconic actors. Meanwhile, Harve Bennett had gone, the ordeal of cranking out four movies in seven years having taken its toll, and nobody had an idea for how the old crew could compete with the new televisual upstarts.

Nobody, except Leonard Nimoy. He had two ideas. Idea number one: what if the Berlin Wall fell in space? Something must have happened to put Lt Worf on the bridge of the Enterprise by TNG’s time. Idea number two: send for Nicholas Meyer. Meyer’s working title for Star Trek II had been “The Undiscovered Country” which of course means death. Apt for a story as steeped in loss and death as Star Trek II. Now, Paramount would ret-con Shakespeare and claim that it referred to the future.

Is the resulting film any good? Well, the plotting is generally solid, nowhere more so than in the first third, which establishes Sulu as the captain of the Excelsior and puts him in a position to see the Klingon moon Chernobyl Praxis blow itself up. Now Spock is attempting to broker a peace, and it seems only fitting that the crew of the Enterprise be brought out of mothballs and sent to escort the delegates through Federation space. Robin Curtis being unavailable, and a second recasting of Saavik not to anyone’s liking, a new character was created who could fulfill the role of spunky young Vulcan woman who quotes regulations at Kirk. Shatner’s beaming grin as he tells her where she can stick her rule book is him at his most punchably smug.

Shatner was deeply unhappy at having to play Kirk’s anti-Klingon sentiments, hating the line to Spock “Let them die.” And – you know what? – I think he was probably right. Yeah, Kruge killed his son, but don’t forget that a week earlier he had no idea he even had a son. It’s hard to connect the bitter, angry old man in these early scenes to the stoic captain who stamped out racist sentiments when his crew saw Romulans for the first time. Trouble is, it’s also hard to connect these early scenes to later scenes in which he’s doing everything he can to fight for peace. Meanwhile, poor Bones just traipses around after him, getting – yes sure – more screen-time than Scotty-Uhura-Chekov-and-Sulu but never getting anything at all in the way of character development. Looking at the trio of Spock, Kirk and McCoy the question “Who would be most likely to give in to knee-jerk prejudice about former enemies becoming new allies?” seems to be to be best answered with “The bad-tempered one who keeps making grouchy remarks about pointy ears and green blood, not the calm and practical negotiator.” That would preserve the dynamic of logic and emotion vying for the Captain’s decision, which was the very essence of TOS.

So, as usual (in every film bar II) there isn’t much in the way of depth to any of these characters, and what little there is doesn’t really work, but it’s still a pleasure to see especially Nimoy and Shatner together again and whenever one of the others gets a line it’s warmly nostalgic – even Janice Rand pops up for a split-second. Much of Kirk and McCoy’s adventures on the prison planet are exciting and funny with the interplay between Kirk and his shape-shifting doppelgänger a particular highlight. Meanwhile, on the Enterprise there’s a rather low-stakes and long-winded Agatha Christie play being enacted, which naturally ends with the only expendable cast-member turning out to be the traitor. It also surely cannot have been a surprise to anyone that the bad-guy on the Klingon side turned out to be the cackling bald-headed one with the eyepatch. I’m only surprised they didn’t give him a cat to stroke.

But despite all these structural and character flaws, it’s a very easy film to watch and a very easy film to like. As director, Meyer keeps it light and fast-moving; as screenwriter (with Denny Martin Flynn) he keeps the jokes and call-backs coming and if Cliff Eidelman’s music can’t approach Jerry Goldsmith or James Horner’s majestic compositions, it is at least a step up from Leonard Rosenman’s plinky-plonky score for Star Trek IV. And I haven’t even mentioned the rest of the guest cast. As well as a scenery-chewing Christopher Plummer, here’s late lamented David Warner having the time of his life, here’s Kurtwood Smith as a Klingon version of a Kung Fu master from a Shaw Brothers movie, here’s Christian Slater of all damned people. And here’s Michael Dorn, connecting the old show to the new one, playing Worf’s great-grandfather. This film is so stacked, they shot scenes with René Auberjonois and cut them before release. René Auberjonois!

What doesn’t work is the appalling mind-rape of Valeris which is presented without any comment. Spock smacking that phaser out of her hand is perfect, but what happens next is just horrible and I think if the film were being made in less of a frantic hurry to slide in before the end of 1991, it might have been re-thought. So, for me this one ends up in the middle of the pack somewhere. It’s about on a par with Star Trek III but it doesn’t have the problem of undoing the plot of something as perfect as Wrath of Khan. In fact, it’s something of a relief that it’s as enjoyably watchable as it is, following on from Star Trek V and that might earn it an extra, illogical half a star.

But it was definitely time to stop, as what Meyer and co had taken two years to do on the big screen, Rick Berman and team were doing every week in syndication, with higher concepts, greater depth, a more fleshed-out supporting cast and nearly as much visual polish. This is the end of a lot of things which started on NBC in 1966. It’s the last appearance in any professional Star Trek production for Nichelle Nichols (who has also now left us), George Takei and DeForrest Kelley. It’s the last movie centred on the original cast and the last set entirely in the 23rd century. Shatner even signs off by altering the famous catch-phrase from “no man” to “no one” as Patrick Stewart had been saying for five years.

Star Trek was dead. Long live Star Trek.

Trekaday 038: Darmok, Ensign Ro, Silicon Avatar, Disaster, The Game, Unification, A Matter of Time

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

TNG S05E02 Darmok (4 out of 5 stars). I remember this one very clearly. Or rather, I remember two things about it – how good Paul Winfield is and how the big reveal doesn’t make any sense. This ought to be a fascinating dissection of how people from different cultures will struggle to communicate and I’ve got a whole podcast which grew out of the observation that idioms from other countries are frequently bafflingly opaque. So the idea that the Universal Translator can tell you what the Children of Tama are saying and still leave you none the wiser about what they mean is fascinating. And it’s also really fun that it’s the aliens with the bumpy foreheads who are forcing the issue, not the always-knows-best Federation.

The trouble is that the notion of a people who only communicate with metaphors is bogus, because you can’t understand the metaphors without having been told the story in language which didn’t require prior knowledge of the metaphor. Or to put it another way – how do Tamarian children learn the language? Let alone how do they use this language to express laws or build spaceships? They also seem to have a very limited vocabulary with the same dozen or so images recycled and repeated with little variation. Another example of an element of Star Trek lore which is fatally flawed will come up in Voyager: Kes’s people reproduced sexually but each couple only has a single child. Evidently, if this were true, the population would halve with each generation, so this is obvious bobbins. The question is – does it matter? I remember finally watching Blade Runner for the first time and being dismayed when replicants stuck their hands into liquid nitrogen with no ill-effects, meaning that the Voight-Kampff test was irrelevant since a simple skin sample would tell you whether you were dealing with a human or not. But that doesn’t erase everything else that’s good about Ridley Scott’s film and my appreciation for it has grown as I’ve rewatched it, trying to quieten that part of my brain which wants to rigorously examine everything its watching and pounce on any inconsistencies.

Here are some other things in Star Trek that don’t make any real sense when you stop to think about them: warp drives, transporters, phasers, sub-space communication and half-human-half-Vulcans. But those things are all needed to make stories happen, so we wave some technobabble in their direction and get on with the adventure. They’re easy to ignore, and when episodes go out of their way to explain apparent anomalies, like why all aliens look humanoid or why Kirk’s Klingons don’t have bumpy foreheads, then I often wish they hadn’t bothered. So, if the Tamarians’ mode of speech was a quirky detail in an episode which was really about something else, then this flaw would be easy to overlook. But the entire 45 minutes is laser-focused on how they use language and little else (to the point where I was sure that Troi’s example of how difficult it is to learn another language was from this episode, until I saw it in Season 3’s The Ensigns of Command).

So, what’s a boy to do? Well, clearly this ain’t perfect, but if you can just persuade your brain to ignore this gaping plot hole, then there’s an awful lot to admire and enjoy here, from the gorgeous location work, to – as noted – the excellent Paul Winfield, to Picard’s snazzy new jacket which will inform the look of the next Star Fleet uniforms but one, to just how beguilingly odd it all is. It’s nice to see a really unfamiliar, unfathomable, alien culture and to see our people struggle to get to grips with it. But where was Marc Okrand when a real linguist was needed?

TNG S05E03 Ensign Ro (4.5 out of 5 stars). The domesticity of the Enterprise continues to increase, as we join the captain having what’s left of his hair cut by ship’s barber Mr Mott. Also increasing is the number of significant political forces in the galaxy. The Cardassians having been introduced last year, now we meet the Bajorans and another seed for Deep Space Nine is sown. The Bajorans are introduced not as survivors rebuilding their society but as terrorist insurrectionists. Just as Spock’s people were initially called “Vulcanians”, here Bajorans are sometimes referred to as Bajora. To aid his mission to neutralise a Bajoran terrorist leader, Picard is sent a new officer, a loose cannon Bajoran named Ro Laren, played by the luminous Michelle Forbes. And – whisper it so the Great Bird doesn’t hear you – she causes conflict among the crew. Not only that, the genteel TNG universe of trade agreements, pompous ambassadors and erudite scientists is turning out to contain grubbier, messier corners full of compromises, injustices and enmities. We still root for the Federation, but it’s much harder here to see their perspective as the only reasonable one. As well as a satisfyingly complicated plot full of double-dealing and half-truths, this is a remarkably layered portrayal of a clash of cultures and one person’s ethical choices. It feels like the show which found its feet in Season 3 has just jumped up another notch. Ro takes off her tunic to wrap a small child and her com-badge jumps instantaneously to her undershirt.

TNG S05E04 Silicon Avatar (4 out of 5 stars). “We’ve seen this before, we know what it is.” Another episode which asks quite a lot of the audience’s ability to recall details of earlier adventures, especially in this case as we are being asked to recall events some of which we didn’t witness, only heard about, and that was back in Season 1. Watching these in the 1990s I remember being baffled about whether this was a return match or not. This time around, I know it’s coming (and I’ve been making copious notes on each episode, and watching one a day not one a week) and I still feel a little like I’m playing catch-up. Maybe it’s my age. The early nineties visual effects aren’t quite up to the cataclysmic task but the wind machine budget was evidently extensive, and it’s rather shocking to see Riker’s intended next bedfellow fall victim to the onslaught of devastating pixels. As the inhabitants of the planet below are fleeing for their lives, panic-stricken and terrified, Troi sits quietly by Picard’s side, sensing nothing.

The plot goes to a lot of trouble to trap our people underground and then has them rescued almost immediately, which gives me a sense of unease. Also experiencing unease is Kila Marr, played by Ellen Geer, who suspects that the Star Fleet officer who looks an awful lot like the villainous Lore is the reason why there were any survivors at all this time round. Her conflict with Data is the main meat of this episode and it’s decent stuff, but nothing we haven’t seen before, although the conversation she is able to have with her late son, via Data’s memory banks is rather touching. Likewise the debate about whether to try and kill the entity or converse with it is well-handled, but hardly new, going back all the way to Devil in the Dark. The bleak ending does feel new, however – not just the fact that the entity is destroyed against Picard’s humanitarian wishes, but that Data is unable to give Marr the closure she so desperately wants. Suddenly, the universe is a colder, darker, more complicated place and that’s exciting. This one crept up to a four in the closing moments.

TNG S05E05 Disaster (3.5 out of 5 stars). Uh-oh. Moppets. I admire the show’s dedication to revising the bad ideas of early episodes and it’s extraordinary success record in rehabilitating them, but I’ve never found the Picard-doesn’t-like-kids plot line to be either interesting or convincing and having him – of all the shopworn clichés – trapped with three of them in a lift is a pretty unpromising way to start a story. Still, could be worse, we could be watching the crew rehearse Gilbert and Sullivan. Ah. Oh. With the ship crippled, Troi, Ro, O’Brien and a nameless ensign are the only ones on the bridge which means Troi is the senior officer. Her empathic powers are, as ever, useless. In keeping with the dark theme of this season, the indefatigable Enterprise is shown here as a crippled shell, as much a danger to its inhabitants as a source of life let alone power. So this is basically as disaster movie in space – hey! That explains the name – which is a peculiar thing for a long-running series to attempt since disaster movies work by establishing a core group of characters and then keeping you guessing about who will live and who will die, whereas here we know they aren’t going to kill off any of the moppets, pregnant Keiko, doughty O’Brien or any of the regular cast. Maybe that’s why Ro Laren is there? Although she’s in pretty much the safest part of the whole ship. A bad idea for an episode then, but within those constraints, this works surprisingly well, with the unusual arrangement of our regular characters providing some interesting wrinkles, and it’s a pleasure to see some actual character growth from Troi, as well as seeing Worf attempting to deliver Keiko’s baby with the aid of an instructional YouTube video.

TNG S05E06 The Game (2 out of 5 stars). I suppose this is some half-assed metaphor for drug addiction (where’s Tasha Yar to give us a rousing speech when we need her?) or possibly Brannon Braga is in Grumpy Old Man mode and just wants you damned kids to stop watching MTV and go and play outside. Either way, this is a slender story which makes our people look dumb for no very good payoff and features the unwelcome return of Wesley Crusher. Rather than reinventing him as a maturing Star Fleet cadet, the narrative simply slots him back into the clichés which made him such a drag in the first place (another example of this-is-the-story-we-do-with-this-character). But compared to some of the complete failures of Season 1, the world is now so lived-in and the cast so comfortable with their characters that I still find a “floor” of two stars which these episodes can’t go below, no matter how ill-conceived or poorly executed they might be. And there are some nice touches in the filming, like the low angle shot of Riker, Crusher and Troi past the prone Data. Ashley Judd is back as Ensign Lefler (her appearances here and in Darmok were among her very first professional acting jobs). And Wesley’s cadet’s uniform prefigures the coloured-shoulders-and-black-everything-else look of the first half of DS9 (and all of Voyager).

TNG S05E07 Unification I (4 out of 5 stars). Or, “The One With Spock In It”. A franchise which has different episodes called The Emissary and Emissary – one of which is the pilot for a whole new series! – is bad enough. But one of the (various) reasons I find it hard to keep Star Trek stories straight is that even a landmark episode like this one is given such a bland title. Along with Unification, we also have episodes called Reunion, Unity, United and Parturition, most of which are unrelated, not to mention Redemption, Fascination, Resurrection, Inquisition, Acquisition and Rules of Acquisition and I could go on. Two of the films are called Generations and Insurrection for chrissakes.

Anyway… Early on Roddenberry had been neurotic about including elements of The Original Series to the point where he almost forbade Sarek from speaking his son’s name. But by the time this was being written, he was very ill (this episode opens with a dedication to him, as he had died only a few weeks before it was transmitted) and Great Bird Jr Rick Berman was more relaxed about nods to the past. Leonard Nimoy had been approached before, but he understood the value of his scarcity ($1m according to rumour). Now, with Star Trek VI due out soon, suddenly there was a commercial purpose to his gracing the upstart TV show with his noble presence. And there was no way this writing team was going to drop the ball once his participation was agreed.

Spock’s name is spoken often, and Nimoy’s absence is ably covered by the presence of Mark Lenard as Sarek, who is as good as ever. It’s a deeply moving portrait of a great man laid low by degeneration and disease. Spock appears to be up to no good, but we know that the franchise wouldn’t betray its first son like that, so the question is what is he really doing and why? Sarek slips away off-screen and Mark Lenard died only a few years after this episode aired. This is the third two-part story in TNG (not counting Farpoint) and the first to occur other than across a season-break as well as the first to announce itself as part one (or just “I” on-screen).

And compared to the plodding and prosaic Redemption, this is both more entertaining and feels more significant, stretching tendrils into the past (including a few references to the movie which wouldn’t hit theatres for a few more weeks) as well as developing a new future for the political factions in the Star Trek universe. Mention is made of Gowron but he doesn’t appear. Maybe Robert O’Reilly was unavailable? And like Redemption this builds to a dramatic close-up of a returning actor. So, this is really all just set-up and no pay-off, but it’s pretty faultlessly done.

TNG S05E08 Unification II (5 out of 5 stars). Picking up where I left off, this immediately brings Spock and Picard face-to-face and has them go from trading insults to sharing grief in moments. It’s electric seeing the two most iconic characters (and the two best actors) in the franchise sharing the screen, and Spock’s purpose is complicated, noble and epoch-defining. He wants to reunite the Vulcan and Romulan societies (just as he brokered, or will have brokered after Star Trek VI comes out, the alliance between the Federation and the Klingons). His quiet devotion to a better future is very touching, and his famous scene with Data gives us a unique insight into both characters.

Riker’s strand in which he’s tracking down the nefarious forces operating in the shadows also brings us to a more alien environment than we’re used to – more like Star Wars than Star Trek. Riker’s enthusiasm for jazz even becomes a plot point. And then, just when you thought this couldn’t get any better, Denise Crosby appears and fucks everything up. Five years of TNG history, combined with almost a quarter-century of wider Star Trek history and it all comes together not to wallow in nostalgia or pointless fan-service (maybe Data’s neck-pinch but I’ll give them that) but to tell a brand new story.

The climax is pretty perfect as well. With our people on the Enterprise and on Romulus facing impossible odds, they all rise to the occasion. The victory may not be hard-won but it is an immensely satisfying end to a magnificent pair of episodes.

TNG S05E09 A Matter of Time (3.5 out of 5 stars). It was meant to be Robin Williams. TNG by this stage was attracting a wide array of acting talent, not just Whoopi Goldberg but Jean Simmons, Bebe Neuwirth, James Cromwell and more had spent time on board the Enterprise-D and the part of Berlinghoff Rasmussen was written with Williams in mind. I don’t know how serious Williams was about taking part, but he ended up doing Hook instead, and Max Headroom actor Matt Frewer was the one who tried to pass himself off as a time-travelling historian. What’s neat about this plot line is that in the universe of the show, he could be telling the truth, so this isn’t one of those comic-book-cover plots (fond of them as I am) where you just know from the start that the conclusion of the episode is going to have to undermine the premise. And I don’t know that it would have worked with Williams, whose style would risk swamping the show. Frewer is decent, but his conman comes across a little like a Poundshop Q with less good magic tricks. What’s new in the mixture is the slyly satirical portrait of a crazed fan who constantly plagues the crew with his asinine questions. Troi’s empathic abilities are just as useless a lie-detector as usual. “At what point does time travel become a tool for historians?” asks Riker who hasn’t seen TAS S01E02 recently. Picard cheerfully retaining Rasmussen 200 years adrift is a little weird for a man who hours earlier stood up for not meddling with the flow of time unless the circumstances were truly exceptional.

Trekaday 037: Half a Life, The Host, The Mind’s Eye, In Theory, Redemption

Posted on July 25th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S04E22 Half a Life (4.5 out of 5 stars). Troi opens the episode with a one-line personal log entry: “My mother is on-board.” She’s paired with a scientist from a reclusive race played by the marvellous David Ogden Stiers, who – surprisingly – seems very open to the maniacal advances of Lwaxana (because this-is-the-story-we-do-with-this-character). His project is to use the Enterprise’s photon torpedos to restart his world’s sun and of course during the test-run things don’t go according to plan. So far, so breezy, but this is actually going to be a meditation on assisted suicide, since in this society, inhabitants are expected to end their lives at the age of 60. I’m reminded of William Goldman’s horror on being told that the star of the film he was working on, Chevy Chase, wanted this version of The Invisible Man to be an exploration of loneliness. Goldman was happy to explore the loneliness of invisibility – just not with Chevy Chase. Likewise, I’m interested in a story about assisted suicide, I just don’t know if I want it to centre Lwaxana Troi. But Majel Barrett is so good that in the episode’s key scene, confessing her fears of her own mortality to her daughter, she is able to connect the character’s previous chaotic enthusiasm to a new desperation about being left behind. Star Trek in general has a pretty poor track record with love stories (Edith Keeler works, and then there’s… um… er…) and this isn’t Romeo and Juliet, but it is convincing, as relationships between guest characters in hour-long episodic television go. And, impressively, this is not another Federation-knows-best episode in which Star Fleet dismantles a centuries-old society in half an hour. It’s really all about Barrett and Stiers who play this beautifully. Also, look out for an early appearance by Michelle Forbes who will be back with a vengeance next year. Gosh, I’m tempted to give this one a five, but I think it just tops out at four-and-a-half.

TNG S04E23 The Host (2 out of 5 stars). Data is a champion gooseberry when Crusher wants to get it on with her new squeeze, whom she met before the episode began. So, we’re going to have another go at a love story are we? We’re also setting up future shows (though not intentionally at this stage) as Beverly’s beau is a Trill, but this incarnation of the species is more David Cronenberg body-horror than Terry Farrell’s lithe Dax and the details of the joining don’t remotely recall Sisko’s cheerful references to Jadzia as “old man”. Roddenberry told a room full of fans in the early days of TNG that it was about time he put a gay character on the Enterprise but by this time, he was pretty much an invalid and it was Berman’s show. For the full details of what happened next and why, see this excellent YouTube video. According to this story, Trills can’t use transporters which makes little sense on its own terms and of course is contradicted over and over again in future episodes of the franchise. Gates McFadden was heavily pregnant while filming these episodes which is why you never see her in long shot.

The crux of this episode of course is that Odan changes host mid-episode and the “parasite” (as it’s called here) ends up first in Will Riker and then finally in a female body, which is incapable of giving Beverly the horn. While it’s easy to argue that American prime time television in the 1990s wasn’t remotely capable of engaging with the kind of gender fluidity which we take for granted (or at least some of us do) that ignores the fact that it wasn’t necessary to bring the issue up at all, if the only way it could be grappled with is by reassuring middle America that there’s no room for same-sex relationships on their television screens. I’m all for episodes of TNG that are rip-roaring adventure stories and little more, and I’m all for episodes which engage with big social issues, but I feel it’s only fair to judge those latter episodes on how they deal with those issues as well as how they tell their stories, and this one is a disaster in terms of the message it seeks to deliver which is essentially “only ever judge a book by its cover.” The middle of the episode, with Riker as Odan, seems like a missed opportunity too. Make it Riker and Troi or Picard and Crusher then surely you’ve got something? But since Crusher and Riker have never even looked at each other before, this is without nuance or depth, especially as we never see anything of Riker’s reaction to his body being used in this way. Add to this McFadden’s limited ability to sell the love story in the first place and we have a major disappointment, at least as bad as the idiotic Devil’s Due or the cloth-eared Suddenly Human.

TNG S04E24 The Mind’s Eye (4.5 out of 5 stars). Geordi is on his way to The Eye of Orion Risa with a shuttlecraft computer which is happy to play parlour games with him but which takes its eye off the road and doesn’t notice the Romulan warbird decloaking dead ahead. With more than a touch of The Manchurian Candidate, Geordi is brainwashed and turned into an assassin while an android duplicate takes his place so he isn’t missed during his shore leave. The deception effortless fools Troi, whose abilities as usual are helpless in the face of a situation seemingly tailor-made for them. (Dr Crusher gives him a complete physical exam and doesn’t spot anything either.) Meanwhile, a Klingon emissary is on board the Enterprise, so it seems we still aren’t done with all that tedious business about Worf’s family dishonour. Of more interest is the Federation’s possible involvement in supporting a Klingon insurrection. “The Federation is not in the business of supplying arms to rebels,” reassures Picard, who obviously hasn’t watched TOS S02E19 lately.

It’s unusual to see two such strong plotlines running side-by-side. TNG doesn’t often do A and B plots and when it does, the B plot is usually there to complicate the A plot (by occupying the Enterprise which would otherwise be riding to the rescue, for example). Here we have both the Federation’s traditional enemies both involved in separate intrigues. The link is that the Romulans are the ones disrupting the alliance between the Klingons and the Federation. This puts Geordi in the curious position of trying to detect his own duplicity, and in a neat twist it is the seemingly-benign Klingon emissary who is actually Geordi’s handler, and part of the Romulan plot. This is satisfyingly complex, thrilling stuff, with some great camerawork and Levar Burton does great work. It’s just a shame that even after all this time, La Forge is such a thin character, barely on the level of Sulu. We only pay lip-service to the recovery needed from such a mental attack, but we do at least pay lip-service. And just whose voice was that emanating from the shadows on board the Romulan ship?

TNG S04E25 In Theory (2 out of 5 stars). While Geordi is (presumably) continuing to recover from his brainwashing, Data has a back-up friend-who-is-unlucky-in-love in the form of Michelle Scarabelli as Jenna D’Sora. Unlike Geordi, D’Sora wants to solve her problem by boning Data. He is fully functional, as we know. Data’s tour of the regular cast to ask for advice yields little of interest, except some breezy misogyny. I can’t get on board Data’s decision to run this experiment. The whole thing feels ick and the hoped-for comedy which Data’s cold-blooded romancing is intended to generate never got me to even smile, let alone laugh. There’s an obvious opportunity here to investigate the nature of artificial intelligence – not a new area of exploration for the show, but a rich vein. Instead we get little more than the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. In an unrelated storyline, a nameless crew member gets gruesomely bisected and her death goes entirely unmourned, another weird decision in an episode primarily about whether or not Data has feelings. And speaking of weird decisions, there is no reason at all why Picard should be piloting that shuttle. Directed without error but without distinction by Patrick Stewart. I suspect giving a dog of a script to a leading actor who wants a go behind the camera is a deliberate policy.

TNG S04E26 Redemption (3 out of 5 stars). Episode 100. This is its own show now, able to draw inspiration from its legendary progenitor but not stuck repeating it, or afraid to acknowledge it. It’s also building its own mythos and that means its own version of the Klingons, who even as late as Star Trek III were really just generic bad-guys. So, as I feared, Picard wants to disinter that obscure business about Worf’s dishonor, which I can’t clearly recall even at the rate of watching one episode a day. But first, Gowron needs to be installed on the Klingon throne, against the wishes of both Tony Todd and the Kleavage sisters. This is all pretty turgid stuff, and something has gone seriously awry with the plotting when we start with Picard in the Klingon Council Chamber, have the civil war threaten to start, the Enterprise gets out of dodge (“brave Sir Captain ran away…”), but returns when the fighting is done, and then we go back to the same council chamber, having achieved I don’t know what. I also don’t quite know why I should give a shit about any of this, and there are endless scenes of Picard explaining why he isn’t going to intervene and various Klingons explaining why he should. Whereas The Best of Both Worlds was almost breathless as it raced to its climax, Redemption feels as if it is treading water for much of its run-time, unable to play its final ace until the closing moments. And it’s quite a final shot – but was it really worth all that shoe-leather to get there? Worf’s apparent departure plays a little more strongly and I almost believe it won’t be re-set (but not quite).

TNG S05E01 Redemption II (3.5 out of 5 stars). Again, we start with a recap of what happened “Last time on Star Trek The Next Generation”, we build once more to the final revelation of Denise Crosby as a Romulan and then need a new thrill-packed teaser to take us into the opening titles, where Kurn’s ship (with Worf now on board) is under attack. Then suddenly it’s two weeks later. So again, where the previous two-parter was an action movie which barely let the inter-season three month gap break its stride, here the narrative continues in a stuttering, halting fashion with only a bit of stunt casting marking it out as anything very special. And Picard’s next plan is a thrilling traffic stop. Whoop. Yay. “Space the final frontier…”

Of more interest is the decision to put senior Enterprise staff in command positions on various vessels, including Data as captain of the Sutherland (although Picard mysteriously is a dick about whether the android officer is going to get a ship or not). Finally, this turgid storyline, full of people with bumpy foreheads intoning gibberish in darkened rooms, begins to feel big enough to warrant its two-part season-spanning scheduling. And doesn’t Denise Crosby make a fabulous villain? It’s almost worth not having had her on the bridge these past three years to have her back now as the ruthless Sela. Weirdly of course, we know that Tasha Yar was sent back in time by this crew, but Picard and co have forgotten all about it, because that loop in time was closed by their actions, so all of this exposition has to be doled out to Picard, and again the middle of this episode feels languid, patient and relaxed, when surely it needs to be tense, claustrophobic and fast-paced. Picard barely breaks a sweat, a far cry from his massive crisis this time last year. Data’s journey from complete inability to inspire his crew to hero of the hour is more interesting and probably deserved an episode of its own (should he have snapped at Hobson though?) and some aspects of the cat-and-mouse game between Picard and Sela do work, but overall, even though this is better than part one with several strong sequences, it’s still a big disappointment especially compared to the amazing Best of Both Worlds.

Season 4 wrap-up

  • This is a series which is firmly in its groove now. It understands the characters, it understands the world and it shows no signs of running out of stories to tell. Every episode brings strong science-fiction concepts, thrilling adventure plots, solid emotional stories and a warm family feeling which is never cloying. True, there are no main characters with relationships which feel as real or as interesting as the holy trinity of Kirk, Spock and Bones, but this series makes much better use of the secondary cast and all the actors are doing good work now, led from the front by Sir Patrick Stewart who elevates every single scene he’s in, week after week.
  • And it’s cool that the Enterprise feels like a bigger place now, with recurring characters like Nurse Ogawa, Keiko O’Brien, Lt Barclay and co all making an appearance, and Chief O’Brien essentially now a regular in every way except he’s not in the opening credits. Speaking of which, these have a slightly naff Superman-style 3D comet trail for Season 5 and Season 5 only.
  • On the other hand. We’re still wrestling with how serialised this wants to be. Episodes like The Mind’s Eye require a fairly detailed recall of half-a-dozen prior installments, but two-parters are clearly identified as such (and relegated to end-of-season cliffhangers). There’s a vague sense of earlier episodes having an impact on later episodes, but this isn’t consistent and plenty of these stories could have been aired out-of-order with no ill-effects. I think the writers were gunning for a more serialised approach but Berman and the Paramount suits were keeping them in check.
  • We haven’t had a five out of five which wasn’t connected with an epic inter-season cliffhanger (although Half a Life came awfully close). But there have been plenty of 4s and 4½s even if we often get a really thoughtful and impactful episode immediately followed by a two-star clunker. But the ship now feels so lived-in, and the leading man so exemplary, that even a desperately silly recycled Phase II script is more worth watching than the stupidest TOS story and that’s why, again, I didn’t give anything less than two.
  • That said, Season 1 of TOS is still the one to beat, with an average of 3.75. Season 4 of TNG ends up about the same as Season 3 with an average of 3.52.

Trekaday 036: First Contact, Galaxy’s Child, Night Terrors, Identity Crisis, The Nth Degree, Qpid, The Drumhead

Posted on July 19th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S04E15 First Contact (4.5 out of 5 stars) opens with a crackerjack teaser. Instead of the Enterprise languidly orbiting a planet while Patrick Stewart sonorously bleats on about stellar mapping, diplomatic missions or shore leave, we find ourselves in media res during an episode of Bumpy Forehead ER. But the patient the doctors are trying to save has a variety of anomalous physiological details. Because it’s Riker in disguise! This is a very interesting and exciting way of telling the story, showing us our people from an outsider’s perspective and exploring the limits of the Prime Directive, not for the first time, but it’s a rich seam which repays multiple investigations. It lowers the stakes a little that the society in question is right on the verge of becoming warp-capable but for once, an alien civilization feels even a little bit lived-in and it’s rather a treat to see Carolyn Seymour as Mirasta, not to mention Bebe Neuwirth as Lanel who’s thirsty for alien peen (hilariously, Frakes plays their encounter exactly as if he’s a con-man pretending to be an alien in order to get his end away). Riker’s predicament also helps to keep the inevitable conflict at bay. We don’t need it yet, because it’s fascinating to watch Picard tiptoe through this first encounter and not put a foot wrong, keeping everything on track until the episode is almost over. And for once, progressivism, diplomacy and optimism loses, at least for now. Very strong stuff, which only needed more character development for one of the regulars to tip it over into five star classic.

TNG S04E16 Galaxy’s Child (3 out of 5 stars). One aspect of mid-period TNG I’d forgotten (or never noticed) is its willingness to revisit past episodes and try and make them work better or try and fit them more clearly into the show’s ongoing story. The Ferengi are the most obvious example of this, perhaps the most dogged insistence on never letting a bad idea drop I’ve ever seen, and it worked (perhaps not really until DS9 but still). The limp Samaritan Snare will be returned to as the excellent Tapestry. The passable Elementary Dear Data will be re-examined as the exemplary Ship in a Bottle. And here, Geordi is made to confront just what the consequences are of his skeezy actions in Booby Trap when the real Leah Brahms beams on board the Enterprise and won’t give him the time of day. They butt heads constantly and worse is to come when she inevitably finds his sex doll version of her on the Holodeck. But having brought these two characters to this fascinatingly awkward encounter, the episode can’t think of anything more interesting to do with the situation. Meanwhile, the rest of the bridge crew is dealing with a sort of space-mollusc which feels like a bit of a hand-me-down plot line with echoes of Farpoint, Tin Man and various others besides, so this is all a bit over-familiar, albeit with some grace notes, notably (as ever) Patrick Stewart’s detailed and compassionate rendering of Picard. The teleplay is credited to Season 2 show-runner and Beverly Crusher-hater Maurice Hurely, of all people. Once again, the matter/anti-matter ratio is a little more flexible than Wesley would have had us believe.

TNG S04E17 Night Terrors (3.5 out of 5 stars). Another ship, drifting in space and littered with bodies (saves on supporting cast). It seems they all went nuts and killed each other, so this is a variant on The Naked Now / Time only with more lethality and seeing the crew at each other’s throats additionally brings back memories of the Ten Forward brawl in Sarek. As with the last episode, this all feels a bit reheated. It’s interesting that we skip ten whole days while the ship is adrift, but the conceit that they’re in such a remote location that a sub-space communication won’t receive a reply for days or weeks contradicts episodes in which they can have real-time conversations with Star Fleet at will, without seemingly having voyaged for many months in between. Some of the hallucinations are genuinely unsettling (Beverly in the morgue) and as usual Patrick Stewart gives everything such texture and grace. What did we do to deserve him as our lead? And what does freshen-up the recipe a bit is the pervading feel of doom in the last third, which is something we haven’t seen before. The crew also look satisfyingly disheveled as the crisis deepens.

TNG S04E18 Identity Crisis (4 out of 5 stars). Geordi’s past (in which he’s seen in his Season 1 uniform) comes back to haunt him as members of an expedition he was a part of all seem to be deserting and/or suiciding. His claim to be enjoying the bachelor lifestyle is greeted with suitable incredulity by his big-sisterly old colleague, played with feeling by Maryann Plunkett. After joining the away team to investigate the stolen shuttles, inevitably, she starts to succumb to whatever malign influence is at work. Geordi’s patient investigation on the Holodeck is more interesting for being unhurried, and the switch from him being hunter to quarry is well-handled. This is an absorbing suspense thriller which works well, with good science-fiction elements, and it successfully creates a convincing earlier career for Geordi, if not really delivering much in the way of deeper character work.

TNG S04E19 The Nth Degree (4.5 out of 5 stars). Barclay is back. And because the Enterprise is a cross between a community centre and a country club, he’s performing in a production of Cyrano de Bergerac for an audience of about 12, mainly the bridge crew. After being whammied in a shuttlecraft, he bounces back with a newfound and mysterious swagger. Dwight Schultz is better than ever, expertly connecting Barclay’s new confidence to his old anxiety. He still can’t prise himself away from the Holodeck, however, hobnobbing with Albert Einstein about grand unified theories. Jim Norton will reprise the role in Season 6. The bridge team wonder if they should try and return him back the way he was, but they need the eggs so he’s allowed to continue working in engineering and on the space telescope they’re trying to fix (when he isn’t becoming a brilliant actor or learning to play the violin overnight). When he uploads himself to the Enterprise computer to stop the telescope going critical, he discovers it’s a one-way trip. Making the enemy who has taken over the ship and is refusing to surrender control our beloved Lt Broccoli is a very neat moral dilemma and there’s a real sense of jeopardy and stakes here. Terrific stuff.

TNG S04E20 Qpid (2 out of 5 stars). It’s yet another returning guest character, following close behind episodes featuring Barclay, Leah Brahms and a pretend old friend for La Forge. And not just Q, Jennifer Hetrick is back as Picard’s holiday fling Gash Vag Vash. But her moon-eyed bleating about how Picard hasn’t mentioned her to his friends feels more like a high school movie and less like genre-defining science fiction television. It’s something of a relief when John de Lancie shows up, on the slimmest of pretexts. Picard fretting over his speech to a room full of archeologists feels pathetic as well. It would have been about this time that Patrick Stewart starting telling anyone who would listen that the captain needed to do more fighting and fucking. Oh dear. Before long, the bridge crew is cos-playing Robin Hood and while it’s nice to be out on location, this all feels rather thin and inconsequential, and Jean-Luc and Vash’s sub-Moonlighting banter is pretty dreadful.

TNG S04E21 The Drumhead (2.5 out of 5 stars). We begin with an investigation into a duplicitous Klingon exchange officer already underway. Classing up the joint considerably is Jean Simmons as the Witch-smeller Pursuivant up against whose kangaroo court, Picard rapidly stands. Court room dramas have worked on the series before, but their people-talking-in-rooms energy can make for languid episodes, and so it is here, with the captain’s clear-eyed righteous indignation leaving little room for moral complexity. I’m not sure what I want here. If Picard gets it wrong, it’s potentially a more interesting journey for him, but perhaps then we’ll be back where we were when he was busy trying to rip children away from the only home they’d ever known. As it is, his resolute certainty leaves little room for doubt as to the outcome. Maybe the episode was just misconceived, but centering Picard and giving him lots of big speeches is a good way to earn an extra star.

Trekaday 035: Final Mission, The Loss, Data’s Day, The Wounded, Devil’s Due, Clues

Posted on July 12th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S04E09 Final Mission (3 out of 5 stars). Wesley is being packed off to Star Fleet Academy, finally. But this is nothing more than a pretext on which to, once again, stick Picard and The Boy in a shuttlecraft together, as in the rather thin Samaritan Snare. The teaser is unseemly brief, cutting off in mid-scene as the mining ship is beset by space turbulence, while helmed by a Diet Coke Zefram Cochrane named Captain Dirgo. While the actual crash is obscured by a budget-saving screen white-out, the first shots of the planet’s surface are very impressive with some lovely lens flares emphasising the punishing sunlight. I can just imagine a young JJ Abrams watching with eyes like saucers. So, as is traditional, one group of our characters is trapped in a hostile environment and those on the ship have other (less interesting) things to worry about.

As pure character-development episodes go, this is fairly basic. Picard is his usual pragmatic and diplomatic self. Everyone in a Star Fleet uniform is better than anyone not in a Star Fleet uniform. Wesley’s puppy dog devotion to his captain doesn’t achieve much. This is also a variation on a situation we’ve seen before – with Picard and Crusher in The Arsenal of Freedom and Geordi and a Romulan in The Enemy. So, the interest lies in watching Wesley have to step up when Picard is benched by injury. There’s little likelihood that he won’t have the stuff (he basically has to solve a text adventure game kind of puzzle), but Wil Wheaton gives it everything he’s got and so the journey is not without interest. Trouble is, the relationship stuff only really comes into focus once the idiotic Dirgo is out of the way. Imagine how much more interesting this would have been if Picard and Wesley had been alone and getting on each other’s nerves before they faced this crisis, instead of being united in their effortless moral superiority over Captain Selfish.

There are other fumbles, too. PICARD: Mr Crusher, do you have any moisture readings? CRUSHER: (standing next to Dirgo, who has a flask in his pocket) No sir. And usually-dependable director Corey Allen is so concerned to keep the action clear that he depicts Picard standing stock still and staring up at the rockfall which makes him look like a cartoon character. Radiation exposure goes from “no ill-effects whatsoever” to “100% lethal” in an eye-blink, as ever.

TNG S04E10 The Loss (3.5 out of 5 stars). When not sitting to Picard’s left on the bridge, it turns out Deanna Troi does actually have a counseling practice, and her treatment regimens include a radical “hiding-other-people’s-possessions-and-returning-them-at-moments-of-high-drama” protocol. She also sees some people daily. How does she find the time? Especially as a later conversation with Dr Crusher makes it clear that she doesn’t have a staff. She ends up talking to Guinan, perhaps inevitably. Her spiky, defensive reaction to her sudden disability is quite striking and makes her a fascinating character (she even tells Picard where he can shove his inspirational anecdotes) but she’s also completely unlike with anyone we’ve seen in the nearly 90 prior episodes of the show. Imagine if they’d started with that – the expert counsellor who can deal with everyone’s problems except her own. Wow. So, it’s hard to know what to do with this. As an exploration of grief, disability, anger, and rejection it’s very strong. As the continuing story of Counsellor Troi, it’s a fever dream. Not that surprising for a show which is still figuring out just how much serialised storytelling it is capable of or, or wants, but disappointing nonetheless.

TNG S04E11 Data’s Day (4 out of 5 stars). One of the most vital things a long-running series needs to do is figure out its engine. TNG struggled for almost two years to land on what makes it work, and now in the middle of its fourth year, it needs to learn how to ring the changes. Sure, “one member of the bridge crew goes through a character-forming crisis while everyone else frets over a space anomaly” has become a pretty sure-fire formula, but if we see too many of those in a row, we’ll start to see the scaffolding more clearly than is seemly. Here we follow Data while he is off duty, messing up O’Brien’s love life (this is the first appearance of Rosalind Chao as Keiko), playing with his cat and so on. In a sort of Pulp Fiction mode, another more traditional Star Trek story is happening on the fringes, involving Picard and a Vulcan ambassador and the Neutral Zone. We don’t learn a tremendous amount about Data, but his take on the unpredictable, ironical, emotional humans is fascinating, even after this many episodes. It’s also a great showcase for Colm Meany, who will shortly be headhunted for the spin-off. Plus – Gates McFadden tap dancing! The third act, where the formula re-asserts itself has somewhat less to offer, as the mystery is super-obvious and rapidly solved. Rather sweetly, Data’s log is being compiled for the benefit of Commander Maddox who wanted to disassemble the android in The Measure of a Man. Riker has Phillips Hue lights installed on the bridge to help deal with his SAD.

TNG S04E12 The Wounded (4 out of 5 stars). In scenes that recall the introduction of the Romulans in The Original Series, there is much talk of the recently-ended war with the Cardassians and how little they can be trusted. Meanwhile on Deep Space Enterprise, O’Brien and Keiko are in their quarters, happily swapping food cultures in their downtime. O’Brien is still in uniform. What, did you think the wardrobe department was made of money? As with the Ferengi, one of the first actors we see as a Cardassian will return to that species as a much more significant character. Here Marc Alaimo plays Gul Macet with purring Bond-villain relish. Investigating the destruction of a Cardassian science station, Picard advocates radical openness with Macet’s team. Their quarry is Captain Maxwell played by Bob Gunton, who was all over 90s TV and movies playing slime-balls and ne’er-do-wells (he’s the prison warden in Shawshank for example). In single-handedly re-starting hostilities, he’s essentially General Ripper from Dr Strangelove, and this is darker, nastier stuff than we’ve seen before from this show, showing the cost of war on good people on both sides, and it’s fascinating. Yet again, O’Brien gets a good slice of the action, more than several of the actual regulars, some of whom don’t appear at all, but that also means that he’s centre-stage for one of the sillier climaxes in the series, wherein the war-crazed Star Fleet captain is defeated by the judicious application of a strategic sea-shanty.

TNG S04E13 Devil’s Due (2 out of 5 stars). By now, TNG had firmly established its own style, characters and cannon, and there was no danger of it recycling silly ideas like having the Enterprise meet God. Anyway, in this episode, the Enterprise meets the devil. The crew answers a distress call, can only lock on to one member of the science team who are all screaming for help, beam him up and then consider the matter closed. Over a calm cup of tea, Dr Clarke tells Picard that the inhabitants of Faustus II believe they’ve sold their souls to the devil. This devil is “Ardra” played by Marta DuBois who seems to be auditioning to be a Batman villain as she says things like “Stop cowering, if I want you on your knees, I’ll let you know,” which isn’t quite as clever or as funny as it sounds. It ends up as a court room drama, a setting which has proven to be highly effective in past episodes, but which here turns what is purported to be a thousand year old legend brought to terrifying life into people in silly clothes talking in one room, and having Data be the judge has nothing like the power of making Riker mount the case for the prosecution in The Measure of a Man. This is, for some reason, the other Phase II script (after The Child in Season 2) which turns up in the new series. Quite why this was plucked off the slush pile is anyone’s guess. We haven’t had anything this silly or inconsequential for quite some time.

TNG S04E14 Clues (3.5 out of 5 stars). Oh dear, Dixon Hill is back. Luckily, the focus of this episode is not on these tiresome gumshoe exploits, which Guinan clearly finds as irritating as I do. Instead, the crew is trying to understand why Data appears to be lying about the amount of time they spent unconscious when they came into contact with a wormhole. The whole thing is something of a red queen’s race – a lot of energy expended in order to go nowhere – and the resolution feels like the solution to a crossword puzzle with not much in the way of emotional catharsis. The question of whether or not Data is to be trusted is not without interest, and as cheap ship-bound episodes with no guest cast (apart from O’Brien) go, this one isn’t bad. But we wouldn’t want too many of these rather arid outings in a row. Data uses a protocol called “zed zed alpha” which is a nice nod to Douglas Adams in an episode which has a certain Red Dwarf flavor to my eyes.

Trekaday 034: Brothers, Suddenly Human, Remember Me, Legacy, Reunion, Future Imperfect

Posted on July 6th, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S04E03 Brothers (4 out of 5 stars). From Family to Brothers. In the teaser, Riker of all people has to deal with a practical joke gone wrong. Surely the command structure isn’t so narrow that the second-most senior officer has to deal with bratty kids? If any of the bridge crew needed to be involved, I would have expected it to be Troi, but this isn’t an episode which deals with overbearing mothers or roguish space cowboys, so we can hardly expect her to get a line. No, this is a Data episode and more than that it’s a Lore episode, with Brent Spiner now adding Dr Soong to his roster of characters (as well as impersonating Picard, thanks to some post-syncing). The Data-hijacks-the-Enterprise sequence is suitably exciting but once again we’re faced with the fact that this enormous ship with a crew of several hundred can be successfully piloted by one android (wait till we get to Remember Me).

When Data comes face-to-face with his creator and fellow creation, the results are compelling. Spiner is incredible in his triple role, and the effects work, all done on a TV budget and still a few years before digital compositing, is very effective. Echoing the sci-fi adventure storyline with conflict between the two squabbling kids is a reasonable attempt to add some depth and thematic resonance, but the subplot is clichéd and dull, so it drags the episode down rather than elevates it. What’s fun about this is that Data has no idea Soong is alive and Soong has no idea Lore is alive. That’s nifty plotting which keeps our interest and prevents this from being a re-run of Datalore. Soong’s sudden need for a convenient snooze, virtually in mid-sentence, rather less so. Unusually for this show, a clear memory of earlier episodes is required and there’s very little handholding for anyone who might not know who Lore is, or what a crystalline entity might be, but the Data/Lore/Soong scenes are so strong as to sweep away many of these quibbles. The ensign in engineering is wearing the new uniform, but it’s the seam-down-the-middle-of-the-chest version. Rick Berman gets sole writing credit on this one, which is a fairly rare occurrence.

S04E04 Suddenly Human (2.5 out of 5 stars). Rather in the vein of the Smith and Jones sketch which parodied the way in which UK news broadcasts would emphasise the number of Britons involved in overseas catastrophes (and list the remaining wounded in order of importance), when the Enterprise rescues five young trainees from a stricken Talarian craft, everyone fixates on the human boy. It is quickly determined that all of his foreign nonsense needs to be drummed out of him for his own good, and that regardless of the strength of the loving bond between him and his Talarian parents, being returned to a human society he has no memory of is definitely what should happen. (“They brutalised him.” “I forbid you from any custom I personally am unfamiliar with regardless of how much comfort you should happen to draw from it.”) Because this is 90s Trek he is of course rigidly patriarchal. Due to a plot contrivance, Picard (who evidently has plenty of time on his hands) is required to be the one to draw him out, despite the fact that he’s (all together now) no good with children. Nothing we haven’t seen before, but the scene between him and Troi which painstakingly goes over this ground probes a little deeper and is arguably the highlight of quite a thin and frustrating episode, in which Picard can’t understand the concept of an adoptive parent without being stabbed through the chest first. Yes, they get it right in the end, but it’s hard to appreciate the journey when the destination is so breathtakingly obvious and our people so blinkered and stubborn. That Picard/Troi scene is worth an extra half a star.

S04E05 Remember Me? (4.5 out of 5 stars). When I was reading comics as a teenager, I was easily seduced by the seemingly apocalyptic scenes presented on the covers, which promised to totally upend the established norms of the story “It can’t be! The Incredible Hulk is Superman!” That kind of thing. Often, when this panel actually turned up on page 19 out of 24, it would turn out to be a bit less epoch-defining than it seemed and sometimes it would be an outright cheat. But just like those maddening click-bait ads, I can’t resist a story premise which seemingly undercuts the very thing which makes the show work. Some of my favourite episodes fall into this category, but the hard part is sticking the landing – making the revelation of what’s really going on as interesting as what seemed to be going on, and not hitting the reset button too jarringly hard. Remember Me is that rarest of things, a Crusher-based story which isn’t a medical emergency or a soapy love story. Beverley is stuck on an Enterprise which is rapidly losing personnel, and it seems she’s the only one who recalls the familiar faces who used to roam its corridors. It’s a delicious mystery, carefully set up, Gates McFadden does great work and the resolution is exciting and makes sense. It’s probably only really worth four stars, but I’m going to bump it up half a star because it’s just so much fun. What I love about this episode more than anything is the way in which none of the bridge crew refuse to believe the doctor, almost no matter how nuts she sounds. It means we get way more story beats in the time available and it makes the crew seem like what they are – a family. Writer Lee Sheldon didn’t stick around, but he recommended Jeri Taylor, who will become a core part of the team very soon.

TNG S04E06 Legacy (2.5 out of 5 stars). A landmark episode which saw the new live action series overtake the old in terms of number of instalments. But the inhabitants of Turkana IV are yet more sub-Mad Max warlike colonists with designer stubble and 90s highlights. Evoking Tasha Yar doesn’t do Beth Toussaint any favours either. While it’s nice to be off the ship for once, the petty squabbles between the blandly-named Coalition and the even more blandly-named Alliance are so tedious that even the crew is more interested in the Yar family tree than they are in the supposedly thrilling escapes from death happening in the caves on the planet below. This would love to be an epic story about betrayal, trust and family but it gets far too bogged down in its cross and double-cross plotting and none of the supporting cast registers.

TNG S04E07 Reunion (3.5 out of 5 stars). Following episodes which have seen the return of the Traveller, Lore, and the evocation of Tasha Yar, this week K’Ehleyr is back, and it’s always a treat to see Suzie Plakson. Worf does not share my enthusiasm and he’s pretty much horrified by the sight of the Klingon child who materialises next to her on the transporter. “I won’t bore you with the intricacies of Klingon politics,” the ambassador tells Data, showing that she has her storytelling priorities straight. Sadly, a lot of the rest of this relies on not just following the internecine details of this episode, but recalling the equally baroque specifics of the earlier stories Sins of the Father and The Emissary. Among a lot of dimly-lit Klingons under similar makeup, Robert “Eyes” O’Reilly makes a strong visual impression as Gowron. Of more interest is Worf’s relationship with moppety Alexander, and Michael Dorn is excellent throughout, but never more so than in these scenes. This thread will continue through subsequent episodes, but the part will be re-cast. The price we pay for this addition to the cast is the loss of K’Ehleyr which stings. Plakson will be back in both Voyager and Enterprise. We see a bat’leth for the first time, as decoration, as training tool and finally as method of lethal dispatch.

TNG S04E08 Future Imperfect (4.5 out of 5 stars). Time for Riker to get another character dimension. This time it’s “plays the trombone”. Thin? Yes, but fun, and it is one of the things I remember about him (and the writers of Lower Decks evidently remember it too). Party pooper Picard virtually snatches the birthday cake out of his mouth before sending him to Planet Matte Painting, where moments later, he’s choking from methane inhalation. Happy birthday, mate. When he wakes up, sixteen years have passed. This is another of those brilliant cover-of-a-comic book premises. We know it can’t be true, but it gives the writers a bit more freedom to play and it’s (generally) fascinating to watch how the mystery eventually falls away. No money for new uniforms, just a new style of communicator and no rank pips, even though Star Fleet togs will undergo two fairly drastic revisions in the next five years. Like a good practical joke, the clues are there, and even though the number of possible explanations is very small, the vision of the future is so engaging and so much fun, that I doubt many viewers were scrolling through options as they watched – I certainly wasn’t. And even if you were, there’s another twist coming (although neither is wholly convincing). Among the pleasures are Geordi’s eyes, a Ferengi on the bridge, Admiral Picard (in yet another seamstress-panic-attack uniform and a Colonel Sanders beard) and Andreas Katsulas returning as Tomalak. High concept usually means low stakes, and so it is here, so this is very, very good rather than an unassailable classic. Troi and Crusher sport identical “older lady” hairdos. And doesn’t Troi look good in uniform?

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.