Archive for June, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season 3 wrap-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season 2 summary

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