Archive for August, 2022

Trekaday 043: Rascals, A Fistful of Datas, The Quality of Life, Chain of Command

Posted on August 31st, 2022 in Culture | No Comments »

TNG S06E07 Moppets Rascals (3 out of 5 stars). So, for this one, you kind of have to accept that the transporter is magic. It might have been better to give one of those Q-like omnipotent beings that are always hanging around credit for this. A transporter is essentially a 3D photocopier. What happens here is the equivalent of trying to photocopy a page from a book and because of a fault, the machine produces the author’s preliminary notes instead. It’s complete bunk from beginning to end. We also take four fine actors (at least one of whom, Michelle Forbes, we haven’t seen nearly enough of) and have to spend the great majority of the time watching awkward and unconvincing pint-sized substitutes instead. Facing the most daunting task is poor David Birkin as Picard, who rushes through all of his lines at the same pace and with the same (lack of) intention. He was better as Picard’s nephew in Family, playing an actual child. Most successful is probably Isis Carmen Jones as Guinan, who does manage to evoke fragments of Whoopi Goldberg’s wry serenity. So there’s some fun to be had with the what-if nature of the story, but the downside of the problem being scientific gibberish is that the solution is yet more gibberish and so it’s hard to be terribly invested, especially when Riker making up gibberish to fool the invading Ferengi is a plot point. Leonard Nimoy’s little boy Adam directs in what’s a pretty funny piece of stunt-casting.

TNG S06E08 A Fistful of Datas (4 out of 5 stars). Now, this is what confidence looks like. The Holodeck-goes-wrong is one of the clichés minted by TNG and the western setting calls to mind one of the more fondly-remembered TOS episodes Spectre of the Gun. But, with Brent Spiner’s versatility now established, the creative team finds the thinnest of pretexts on which to have him play every part and put Worf, Alexander and a few others in mortal danger. None of this should work, and it all absolutely does. Patrick Stewart directs and conjures some lovely shots of the backlot. They even let Troi have some fun. It’s a bit of a shame that we leave the Holodeck on a homosexual anxiety gag but any points docked for that get put back on with that gorgeous final image of the Enterprise gliding off into the sunset.

TNG S06E09 The Quality of Life (3 out of 5 stars). Oh dear. Yes, The Measure of a Man is a wonderful episode, and I’ve no doubt that further riffs on that theme could be highly entertaining and thought-provoking. But this one is almost entirely undone by the prop design of the Exocomps which look like they could have come from the set of Lost in Space or Buck Rogers. As Data pleads for their right to determine their own futures, all I can hear is Mel Blanc going “wibiwibiwibiwibiwibi” and when they’re hoisted up on wires and start wobbling around the set, they look like something from Doctor Who. To be clear, the problem is not simply that it’s a poorly-executed prop – although it is – it’s that making them cute little robots with big feet and little sticky-up arms was a terrible plan in the first place, which doesn’t mesh with the high ideas the script is going for. I don’t know whether this was director Jonathan Frakes’ error of judgement or whether he had his head in his hands when he saw them. Either way, the script doesn’t have enough new ideas to survive this blunder, but it does build to an effective climax.

TNG S06E10 Chain of Command, Part I (4.5 out of 5 stars). You know I like a good teaser and this one is absolutely gangbusters. It lasts about 45 seconds and it punches like a jackhammer. “I’m here to relieve you of command of the Enterprise.” Wow. While Picard, Worf, and for some damn reason Crusher are sent off on a secret mission against the Cardassians, now fully established as the resident big bads of the galaxy, Captain Jellico takes over the centre seat. Fans have debated for ages whether Jellicoe is an incompetent hardass who assumes none of the senior staff of the flagship of the fleet have anything to contribute or whether he’s a shrewd operator, deliberately shaking things up to keep the crew on their toes. I appreciate the ambiguity (and Ronny Cox knows exactly what he’s doing) and it’s thrilling to see our cosy family denied their avuncular leader, even if it’s hard to believe it will be in any way permanent — although once Jellico takes over reciting the captain’s log, it does seem that way. I can’t speak to whether four shifts is in any way better than three, but I do greatly appreciate seeing Troi in uniform — she stays that way for the rest of the show’s run. This all feels unbelievably high stakes and exciting, the disruption on board the Enterprise balancing the more significant jeopardy faced by Picard’s team. The chartering-an-under-the-counter-ship sequence feels a bit second hand, but it’s still fun seeing Picard out of his element. This is somewhat all set-up, no payoff, but it’s a pretty faultless set-up.

TNG S06E11 Chain of Command, Part II (5 out of 5 stars). In the third and finest of his three Star Trek appearances, the late and much-missed David Warner is given what looks at first glance like a fairly standard-issue moustache-twirling torturer, but like the wonderful actor he is, Warner’s characterisation flows into the gaps left in the script (let’s generously assume on purpose, to avoid over-writing) and he creates an indelible villain, whose point of view, although abhorrent to us, is not impossible to see. And Patrick Stewart has never been better, not just for mastering the technical challenges of rendering the character so damaged by his brutal treatment but in accurately charting the rise and fall of Picard’s fear, confusion, dignity, intransigence, hope, dismay and eventual seeming capitulation.

The other strand of this story, taking place on board the Enterprise, is more complex in plotting, but far simpler in tone, offering its balancing share of triumphant punch-the-air moments, and paying off all sorts of set-ups from part one. But it’s not without subtlety and complexity either (Jellico continues to reveal layer after layer) and if the reset button is hit fairly hard at the end, it never even threatens to make the journey feel any less than thoroughly worthwhile. This is about as good as this, or any other iteration of Trek is capable of.

Trekaday 042: Realm of Fear, Man of the People, Relics, Schisms, True Q

Posted on August 26th, 2022 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

TNG S06E02 Realm of Fear (3.5 out of 5 stars). Poor Barclay should have kept his mouth shut. He figures out how to get the transporter to work through a technobabble interference cloud but then finds himself on the team having to take this “bumpy” ride over to a stricken ship and he scurries off the transporter pad. Before long, he’s confessing his transporterphobia to Troi and he seems almost eager to face his fears. And for the first time, we see transportation from the point of view of the transporter, with a nifty parallax effect on the sparkles. As usual, it’s gratifying to see that Barclay is largely believed when he babbles about creatures in the transport stream (no Michigan J Frog shenanigans here) and the final twist is very cool. Titles are back to normal, but Roddenberry no longer gets a mention in the closing credits (actually this was true of S06E01 as well).

TNG S06E03 Man of the People (2 out of 5 stars). A remix of fairly familiar elements, from Oscar Wilde and from TNG episodes past. Ambassador Smoothie is the only person in the galaxy who can negotiate peace between the Zagbars and the Zoobles. A cranky older lady is on board, snarling at Troi over her marital future. Poor Marina Sirtis struggles to find any chemistry at all with Chip Lucia who presumably got his first name from being carved out of wood. Before long, Old Mother Cranky is dead and Chip Board is performing a hugely suspicious ritual with Troi who promptly turns into Counsellor Cougar. So as well as Troi-falls-in-love-with-the-wrong-dude we’re also going to get the oh-no-I’m-aging-to-death storyline, with a spoonful of the Sarek-needs-a-vessel-for-his-unwanted-emotions-plot, only this time more rapey. Marina Sirtis gets to show a bit more range than usual, but it’s not exactly progress to see her screaming for affection like an unruly child. Once again, sex proves to be the biggest blindspot for this creative team. Even Jeri Taylor, now a permanent fixture in the writers room, can’t stop this from feeling as if it was written by a gang of adolescent boys who haven’t had their first kiss yet. In a particularly absurd version of the Precise Countdown To Certain Doom, Troi can stay dead for exactly 30 minutes with zero ill-effects, but at one second past that time, she will be definitely deceased with no hope of recovery. Once the link with her is severed, her physical condition snaps back into place like a bungee cord too (which is the equivalent of putting out the fire burning your house down and seeing all of your possessions un-incinerate themselves). I’m also concerned for the young science officer that Evil Troi doled out that gleeful tough love to. Although, who knows – maybe it worked!

TNG S06E04 Relics (5 out of 5 stars). Being largely familiar with the original crew only from the movies, watching all of TOS for the first time was an eye-opening experience, not least because both McCoy and Scotty get such short-shrift on the big screen. McCoy gets plenty of screen time, but he’s usually just someone for Kirk to talk to, rather than a person in his own right, and he never gets anything remotely resembling character development. And Scotty gets lumped in with all the others, generally getting four lines of purely functional dialogue and one moment of comic relief per movie. But in the original series, he’s possibly the most able and vital member of Kirk’s crew after Spock – perceptive, shrewd, level-headed, warm and of course an engineering genius. Here, something like that character is back and it’s a pleasure to see him, albeit now as somewhat of a gasbag. The gag of having him survive for decades in the transporter pattern buffer is very clever and it’s a complete delight to luxuriate in the nostalgia of this episode. Eventually of course, it turns out that he has something to learn from the 24th century and the 24th century has something to learn from him, but this never feels cloying or saccharine. I note that this episode edits out the movies too – the transporter effect and the Holodeck recreation of the bridge of the Enterprise are both 60s versions, not later.

TNG S06E05 Schisms (4 out of 5 stars). The crew of the Enterprise is tackling a globular cluster, but there’s an ointment you can get which will clear that right up. Riker is having trouble sleeping, but Data has a cure: his poetry which is enough to put anyone out for the night. Meanwhile the sensors are on the fritz and other officers are starting to complain of similar symptoms. This one doesn’t cut very deep into any of our characters but it’s an engaging mystery, with a satisfyingly detailed solution and Jonathan Frakes is as watchable as ever. This is a high 3.5 but the spooky camerawork in the climax persuades me to round up rather than down. It’s also cool that we don’t get a complete solution to the mystery. It’s fun to think that there are still some strange new worlds out there…

TNG S06E06 True Q (3.5 out of 5 stars). The Enterprise is saddled with an intern, but she’s of surprising interest to Q, who we haven’t seen in some time (not since the incredibly uninteresting Qpid in Season 4). Q is implacably opposed to the Protestant work-ethic which Crusher, Picard and co. are intent on instilling in young Amanda. Like a divorcing parent, Picard insists that he and Q display a united front in front of their charge. Immature characters with god-like powers is scarcely a new Star Trek concept but there’s an intriguing glimpse here into what it would actually be like to be suddenly granted them. On the other hand, Amanda’s mooning after Riker is exactly the same kind of adolescent view of sex and relationships which dogs all four Berman series.

Trekaday 041: The First Duty, Cost of Living, The Perfect Mate, Imaginary Friend, I Borg, The Next Phase, The Inner Light, Time’s Arrow

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

TNG S05E19 The First Duty (2.5 out of 5 stars). Yay, Wesley’s back, victim of an accident too expensive to portray on-screen. High class guest star Ray Walston (My Favourite Martian, The Apartment, Silver Streak) appears as Boothby the gardener and future Voyager regular Robert Duncan McNeill makes his Star Trek debut as Tom Paris Nicholas Locarno. Picard’s chats with Boothby are detailed and well-acted but seem irrelevant as they don’t impact the present. Wesley’s handwringing over whether or not to listen to Tom Nick also doesn’t play particularly strongly as the outcome is never in doubt (“I know you were telling the truth, but the satellite data makes it look as if you were lying,” bleats Beverly inanely). I honestly fail to see what’s so special about either this character or this actor, but we’ll get to Voyager another day.

TNG S05E20 Cost of Living (2.5 out of 5 stars). In an almost James Bond-like move we join the bridge crew in the middle of their last mission and smash into the titles as soon as they’ve finished the job. The real story is about Lwaxana who is taking Alexander under her wing, and planning her wedding onboard ship (because this is the story we tell with this character). Marina Sirtis has developed an easy chemistry with Majel Barrett who always brings her A-game. But in a trope that goes back to the very earliest episodes of TOS (and which we’ve seen more than once this season) a visual effect has snuck on board the ship, no doubt with malign intent. While we wait for them to get up to their pixelated mischief we have to suffer through Lwaxana and Alexander’s sojourn on the Holodeck which is aggressively tedious. “The higher the fewer” is Carroll-esque nonsense from late 19th century Britain. Troi’s parenting contract sounds like the kind of thing a male writer with no kids would come up with.

TNG S05E21 The Perfect Mate (2 out of 5 stars). Whew, it’s all go for the Enterprise. Warring factions, distressed miners and a Ferengi shuttle seemingly in distress. One of the rescued Ferengi is Max Grodénchik who we’ll be seeing more of before long. Ambassador Briam of the Zagbars has brought some valuable cargo on board with which to broker the peace with the Zoobles. This cargo turns out to be Xenia Onatopp who is being offered as a mate to secure the agreement. This is obviously ick, and luckily the bridge crew seem to understand this and raise some (fairly feeble) objections to this kind of “human” trafficking before Riker shows her to her quarters – what could possibly go wrong? Cue much handwringing and soul-searching about whether she is a victim of exploitation or a willing participant in a necessary political alliance. The usual patriarchal bullshit is all present and correct (Famke’s trip to Ten Forward would make Sean Connery look politely deferential), and the debate is given a token amount of depth and complexity. There’s precious little drama though and it is hard to avoid just how ick it all is. Famke Janssen was offered the part of Dax on DS9 but turned it down, although Terry Farrell ended up inheriting her makeup.

TNG S05E22 Imaginary Friend (2 out of 5 stars). Moppets. Now stop me if you’ve heard this one, but one of the Enterprise’s youngest inhabitants is having mild emotional issues when a strange glowy thing that looks like Automan’s cursor appears on board and suddenly what were previously just fantasies become real and solid while the Enterprise’s systems start behaving oddly. While new combinations of old ideas can feel fresh and exciting, this has a real “will this do?” energy to it, which I haven’t felt before. Early episodes failed sometimes because they were trying too hard. An episode which has dated badly like The Perfect Mate at least has its heart in the right place. This isn’t trying to do anything except use up another 45 minutes. After the shot of vinegar which I so appreciated in the first episodes of this season, the mawkish sentimentality of this outing is even more disappointing. I’m tempted to mark it down even further, but it’s competent enough and if you picked an episode of TNG to watch at random, you probably would like it more. I just feel let down because of how few new ideas are present and because of how strongly this season started.

TNG S05E23 I, Borg (5 out of 5 stars). In a reversal of my feelings about the previous episode, here we have an idea which now feels like it’s been done to death – actually that implacable foe, the very essence of evil, turns out to be a future ally we just haven’t made friends with yet – but which at the time, Klingons notwithstanding, still felt very fresh. The real achievement of this outstanding episode is humanising the Borg while not reducing the threat which they represent. It’s a remarkable piece of storytelling which portrays the Borg as both victim and aggressor, while positioning Picard as pulled between his compassion and his personal hatred in a genuinely fascinating way. In fact, almost everyone on board has an interesting reaction to the presence of a tame Borg, from Crusher to Guinan. “Hugh” calls himself “Third of Five” which prefigures the name of a regular character on Voyager, but she was “Seven of Nine” not “Seventh of Nine”.

TNG S05E24 The Next Phase (4 out of 5 stars). Once again Ro Laren is pissing off everyone around her before a rescue mission to bail out some Romulans goes pear-shaped and she and Geordi are seemingly lost beaming back on board the ship. In fact, she and Geordi are “out of phase” with the Enterprise and the rest of the crew, able to walk its corridors but not be seen or interact with anyone. If you think this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a virtual remake of the TOS episode The Tholian Web, even down to funeral arrangements being made for the two missing crew members. The choice of Ro is an inspired one. By this stage, she feels like a regular member of the crew, but by the rules of television she could die and that raises the stakes enormously. You do have to wonder why people “out of phase” are solid to the Enterprise’s floors (and shuttles) but not its walls or view screens, but that seems like an uninteresting thing to worry about when the story is this good, with the resolution provided by a very nifty twist that’s hard to seeing coming. About the only thing I don’t like is how professional everyone is. I thought we’d got to the point where we could see our characters let the guards down a bit more under extreme stress (like losing two colleagues or being thought dead).

TNG S05E25 The Inner Light (5 out of 5 stars). It’s barely a minute before the bridge of the Enterprise vanishes and Picard finds himself in a domestic setting he doesn’t recognise. On its face, this is another one of those “cover of a comic book” set-ups which we know can’t be the truth. But the details of Picard’s new life as he gradually learns to forget the man he was are intricately woven. It’s almost a loss when he does snap back to Star Fleet and it’s easy to imagine that the life he lived over several decades is going to be something he carries with him forever – indeed, future episodes show him playing that flute. I’m only mildly disappointed that we cut back to the bridge and see the crew desperately trying to recover the captain at all (I’d forgotten that this happened), but this is still a truly remarkable hour of television. I’m amazed that anyone pitched it and I’m astonished that anyone as risk-averse as Berman allowed it to proceed, but I’m incredibly grateful that they both did. By any measure, this is a masterpiece.

TNG S05E26 Time’s Arrow (4 out of 5 stars). How about this for a teaser? Picard and Data are poking about in a cavern on 24th century Earth, looking at relics from the 19th century. Among the haul – Data’s lifeless disembodied head! Boom. Inevitably, the crew’s attempts to unravel this mystery cause the circumstance they are desperate to avoid to come about. Data is translated to San Francisco of 1893 and there’s some budget left at the end of the season to give us some lovely-looking location filming. His adventures in the past are highly entertaining – “I am a Frenchman” – and it’s one of those great intractable problems that are so much fun. It’s a different approach to the end-of-season cliff-hanger as well. Instead of massive jeopardy for people we care about, it’s just a question of “Gosh, what will happen now?” Which is cool if a little bit under-powered.

TNG S06E01 Time’s Arrow, Part II (3.5 out of 5 stars). Compared certainly to The Best of Both Worlds, this feels far more purposeful and planned with arbitrary details in part one that don’t pay off at all until part two (like that couple who go around zapping vagrants with a handbag) and the general tone of levity is engagingly maintained. Picard, Riker, Crusher, Geordi and Troi have integrated into 19th century society with appealing ease (Geordi’s visor notwithstanding) and it’s great fun to see for example the doughty landlady not taking any more nonsense from that silver-tonged “Mr Pickard”. However, the writers of this episode seem to have forgotten that Sam Clemens not only overheard Data and Guinan talking about their true origins, but also that he fessed up to them immediately. Additionally, the final act depends enormously for its impact on the about-face performed by Clemens, but this isn’t really given the space or time it needs, what with all the other time-hopping and technobabble. Ultimately, while it’s enjoyable enough, it feels a bit low-key for both a season opener and a resolution to an epic two-parter.

Season 5 wrap-up

  • This season got off to a very strong start with some well-remembered episodes, a new darker tone and the return of Spock all in the first third. The rest of the season isn’t quite so consistent, with an over-reliance on moppets, some attempts to confront social issues which have aged very badly, and a slight feeling of exhaustion creeping in towards the end. The upshot of all of that is the season average comes in at 3.5, about the same as 3 and 4, and still not eclipsing that epic first season of TOS.
  • Despite that, there’s definitely a greater complexity and imagination on display in the best of these episodes: successes like Ensign Ro, Unification, Cause and Effect, Conundrum and even Darmok don’t feel like anything the series has done before, and if most of the regular characters have “topped out”  by now, there’s seemingly no limit to the depths of Jean-Luc Picard as episodes like I, Borg and The Inner Light
  • But it’s disappointing to be still getting limp outings like Hero Worship, The Game and Imaginary Friend. While it isn’t true that there are no successful episodes in the first two years, it also isn’t true that everything from Season 3 onwards is a banger and Violations is criminally bad.
  • Where now? Will the series keep doing what works, or start shaking things up even more? And what’s this about Paramount worrying about rising costs and thinking about a TNG movie…?

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 DeForest Kelley. It’s the last movie centred on the original cast and the last set entirely in the 23rd century until JJ Abrams shows up. 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.