Friday, April 22, 2016

The Next Generation 6x1 "Time's Arrow, Part 2"

rating: ****

the story: Picard saves Guinan's life, and Mark Twain meets the 24th century.

similar to: "Storm Front" (Enterprise)

my thoughts: Okay, so let's recap.  Enterprise later ambiguously (or not) concludes its Temporal Cold War in "Storm Front," and everyone's wondering in "Time's Arrow" just how Guinan met Picard, and the nature of their intense bond.

It helps to keep in mind the nature of Guinan's people as explored in Star Trek Generations.  There, we learn that they have incredibly intimate bonds.  It's what they do.  So naturally, that's what Guinan forms with the guy who saves her. 

That's the short version.

The longer one actually has Guinan spending more time with Data, who's busy trying to keep his head attached to his body.  Guinan actually meets the whole crew in turn of the 20th century San Francisco.  But it's Picard who decides to stay behind and make sure she's okay.  This is a younger Guinan, who hasn't yet lost her planet to the Borg.  She's young, she's rebellious, and she's exploring her potential.  The imp who later challenges Q ("Q Who?") doesn't yet exist.  The know-everything Guinan, who's more aware than anyone ("Yesterday's Enterprise") doesn't exist yet.  But they can be reconciled.  Picard is the person who makes it possible, with a leap of faith

Actually, it's possible to explain this by analogy, and it's right there in the episode, with an old codger named Mark Twain.  A lot of this is implied.  If you know Twain at all, you know him as a cynical optimist.  History remembers him best for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and his many famous quips.  Yet by the time of the events in this episode, he's nearing the end of his life, and more cynical than ever.  He doesn't believe in a hopeful future, certainly not in Data and his odd experiments...

I must confess.  I didn't always like this episode, and it was because of Twain.  Frankly, I found him annoying and obnoxious.  And I didn't see how any of it explained the bond between Guinan and Picard.  But then I realized, Twain's journey parallels Guinan's.  And the bridge?  The unnamed young Jack London.

In the episode, London hasn't even become a writer yet.  Yet he is destined to complete the literary era of American frontier adventure, which Twain himself embodied.  So he continues and expands on the narrative, just as Star Trek as a whole does.  Guinan was every bit as lost as Twain, as London, before Picard came along, the symbol of the hopeful future.  It's this hope Guinan embraces, just as Twain does, just as London is about to.

And that's why Picard is so important to her, and why she's so important to him, because they prove to each other that they're not wrong.  That's Star Trek in a nutshell.  And that's why this one's a classic, and absolutely essential.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan)
Jerry Hardin

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Next Generation 5x26 "Time's Arrow, Part 1"

rating: ****

the story: Data's head is unexpectedly discovered in a cavern below San Francisco.

similar to: "Storm Front" (Enterprise)

my thoughts: Well.  Here we go: the secret origin of Guinan and Picard's relationship.  Was it worth the wait?  It's complicated...but yeah, it really is.  It just needs some special insight.

Remember Enterprise's Temporal Cold War?  That was an arc that lasted the span of the series, but ended on an incredibly ambiguous note in the fourth season two-part opener "Storm Front," in which we never find out who Future Guy is, one of the central riddles of the series.  Or do we?  I have my theories.  I believe that the alien who collaborates with the Nazis is Future Guy.  But without confirmation, it's just speculation.

"Time's Arrow" is a little like that.  Guinan is one of the trickiest characters in franchise lore.  Steeped heavily in mystery in her earliest appearances, the more we learn, the more we must decide if all that mystery was really worth it.  This is the central question of just how much was lost from the creative transition from the second to third seasons.  And it entirely hinges on "Time's Arrow."  Clearly the entire season had been leading toward it, just as Worf's in "Sins of the Father" inevitably led to "Redemption" (which itself served as a sequel to "Yesterday's Enterprise," which is what led to "Time's Arrow"...), so again, the question must be asked, Was it worth it?

Before we even get there, we have to examine what the bulk of the episode is actually about, which is an improved version of the previous "Next Phase," in which the crew once again deals with matters of mortality.  It's odd that the episode is so heavily centered on that (actually, two-part Star Trek episodes often work like that) without a lot of fan memory making much of it, but there you go, and as Data episodes go, it's a pretty good one, worthy of the finest tradition ("The Measure of a Man," for instance).

But in order to solve the mystery of what happened to him, and possibly prevent it (or cause and remedy it), the crew has to journey to the past, and at Guinan's insistence. 

...And in order to find out the answer to the question I keep posing, you will have to wait until the second part of this episode...(Hint: it's totally worth it.)

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan)
Jerry Hardin
Marc Alaimo
Alexander Enberg

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Next Generation 5x25 "The Inner Light"

rating: ****

the story: Picard experiences the last days of a long-dead alien civilization.

similar to: "The City on the Edge of Forever" (original series), "The Visitor" (Deep Space Nine), "Twilight" (Enterprise)

my thoughts: You don't need me to tell you that "Inner Light" is a classic.  It's been considered one since it first aired, akin to "City on the Edge of Forever" as one of those defining, transcendent experiences in the franchise that kind of speaks for itself.

And yet, here I go.  I guess I'll choose to spotlight the cleverness of its internal logic.  Picard assumes the latter half of someone's life, at first being understandably flustered by the abrupt existential transition.  And this is exactly what's needed for that other person, something for him to build on, and the people around him, and even his daughter.  His confusion, and subsequent drive to figure things out, neatly dovetails with Picard's eventual acceptance that there's nothing nefarious going on here, just a beautiful experience, one that leads to the very probe that later gives Picard the experience in the first place...

Later comparable franchise experiences are equally elegiac in their own ways, reflective of the series in which they happen.  Deep Space Nine's "Visitor" features the intense bond between Sisko and his son, Enterprise's "Twilight" the significance of the bond between Archer and T'Pol.  "Inner Light" is, like Picard, an insular, singular moment.  While Picard accepts those around him, he always keeps a distance, a necessary one that drives everything around him.  Nowhere is that better explored than in this episode.

I've sometimes had trouble accepting "Inner Light" for what it is, because it's such a quiet episode, and attempts by others to explain what makes it great (that moment where Picard's alternate leaves his shoes out for the last time) overlook what makes it so special.  If Kirk's greatest romance is his most tragic ("City on the Edge"), then Picard's greatest experience is kind of completely in his head.  Which is completely appropriate.  The later "Tapestry" does its best to duplicate this experience, and while a triumph in its own right, can't really compare.

This is as good as this series gets.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
Patti Yasutake (Ogawa)
Richard Riehle

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Next Generation 5x24 "The Next Phase"

rating: **

the story: Geordi and Ro are presumed dead after a transporter accident.

similar to: "The Tholian Web" (original series), "Whispers" (Deep Space Nine), "Vanishing Point" (Enterprise)

my thoughts: This is another appearance from Ro, who like Alexander quickly became a victim to fairly pointless guest-star status after a newsworthy introduction.  As a member of the supporting cast, Ro became a fairly bland presence though certainly a notable one, especially in appearances like "The Next Phase," where her role could literally have been filled by anyone.

The story itself also squanders the Romulans once again.  For whatever reason, the series continually shifted from meaningful to pointless with them, too.  Here they, too, could have been replaced by any other species.

It is interesting, though, as Geordi and Ro attempt to prove to their crewmen that they're still alive.  Like Enterprise's later "Vanishing Point," it's far more interesting to follow the desperation of the missing characters than to see the reaction of their crewmates.  Data evoked far more sympathy in his various existential crises than these two manage, but maybe that's simply because the audience is in on it the whole time (Hoshi has a somewhat different experience, akin to O'Brien's in the Deep Space Nine episode "Whispers;" both of them are wondering if it's everyone else who has the problem).  It's certainly not like Spock and McCoy battling over command in "The Tholian Web," alas.

Still, you end up rooting for their cleverness as they figure out how to communicate.  It's a minor triumph, next exactly worthy fifth season material, but you can forgive the show for something like this.  It fits with the lesser efforts from the season, at least.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Michelle Forbes (Ro Laren)
Susanna Thompson
Thomas Kopache

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Next Generation 5x23 "I, Borg"

rating: ****

the story: The unexpectedly comes into possession of a Borg drone, and must determine what to do with it.

similar to: "The Abandoned" (Deep Space Nine), "Drone" (Voyager), "Stratagem" (Enterprise)

my thoughts: If the franchise hadn't done a number of similar episodes itself later, "I, Borg" would seem to be a peculiarly singular accomplishment: sympathy for the devil.  I mean, you can certainly find it elsewhere, but it's not the easiest story to do, and it seems all the less likely for having been done with the Borg, who in "The Best of Both Worlds" proved to be the iconic Next Generation villains.

Simply put, this is one of those impossible experiences that define the franchise at its best.  Although it led to somewhat questionable storytelling logic ("Descent, Part 2") later rectified (Star Trek: First Contact, Voyager), "I, Borg" features a nuanced follow-up for Picard as he confronts a representative of the Collective that nearly ruined his life, and deciding that instead of destroying it or using it (Starfleet can be pretty awful), he'll give an abandoned drone a second shot, now that it's been severed from the hive mind.  It'[s chilling and wonderfully human at the same time.

Later versions of this story feature threats from relatively more benign circumstances, but this is the episode that explores ramifications scarcely considered possible previously.  It's like "Devil in the Dark" in its naked complexity, and could only have been done in an era where serialized storytelling was in its nascent state.  The whole story would have been vastly different had Picard been hunting this opportunity (and thus the difference between, say Enterprise's "Stratagem").  Having stumbled into it and knowing exactly what's going on from the start, more or less (unlike, say, "The Abandoned" from Deep Space Nine or "Drone" from Voyager), it's a moment of cerebral meditation in the best tradition of the series.

Like "The Drumhead" before it, "I, Borg" is an oblique continuation of "The Best of Both Worlds," but an essential part of its story all the same.  For Picard, in all possible regards, this is the conflict of his life.  It's another classic.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan)
Jonathan Del Arco

Friday, April 15, 2016

Further news about Series VII

I caught a Wertzone post about new Series VII rumors, stating that Paramount is going with an anthology approach, so that each season tells a complete story, and the next one tells something different.  As far as everything I've experienced with Star Trek fans, this is about as good as news can get.  I'll refrain from further comments on the grounds that they will only infuriate these extremely touchy individuals...

Furthermore, the first season is expected to be set between Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek: The Next Generation, so not only is it set in the familiar reality of the original TV shows and movies, but features a relatively fallow period in franchise lore, previously seen sparingly in Star Trek Generations (the Enterprise-B) and the Next Generation episode "Yesterday's Enterprise (the Enterprise-C), with rogue Klingons running amok between the Khitomer Conference (Undiscovered Country) and the Khitomer Accords (the peace agreement and site of Worf's orphaning).

This certainly makes it look like the reboot movies won't be touching Klingon conflict after all (Star Trek Beyond doesn't look to follow Star Trek Into Darkness in that regard, anyway), so it's crafty to feature a period in existing continuity where that conflict is once again rife and largely unexplored.

As always, I remain excited...

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Next Generation 5x22 "Imaginary Friend"

rating: *

the story: A little girl's imaginary friend becomes real.

similar to: "The Bonding" (Next Generation), "Alter Ego" (Voyager), "Exile" (Enterprise)

my thoughts: A great deal similar to "The Bonding," in which a little boy is manipulated by aliens, "Imaginary Friend" is another tangential Alexander story (there were a ton of these after he becomes a recurring character in "New Ground" during the fifth season...) proving that maybe the series didn't really know what to do him after all.  I mean, it's odd that they were still doing a "Bonding" episode with a recurring boy in the cast line-up and not have him in the lead.

Yet it's not a complete waste, because the kid in the lead is played by the precocious Noley Thornton, who would later appear in Deep Space Nine's "Shadowplay" in a much better story.

But as you can see above, this kind of story was a franchise trope, and a season that otherwise was packed with excellent episodes sometimes had to fall back on old standby material to pad itself out.  That's what "Imaginary Friend" basically is, padding.  Watch it if you're a season completest, but otherwise you can certainly consider skipping it...

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars
Brian Bonsall (Alexander)
Noley Thornton
Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan)
Patti Yasutake (Ogawa)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Next Generation 5x21 "The Perfect Mate"

rating: ****

the story: Picard inadvertently bonds with an intended bride.

similar to: "Precious Cargo" (Enterprise)

my thoughts: Most people familiar with Star Trek at all will know Captain Kirk and his legendary womanizing ways.  Now, fast-forward to Next Generation and the Kirk figure is Riker, so it would be logical for an episode like "The Perfect Mate" to center around him.  But it doesn't.  The focus, instead, is one Picard.

Long identified as Kirk's opposite number, Picard became so identified with Next Generation, and the later adventures of Star Trek, that he achieved the impossible, which was to hold equal footing with Kirk in the eyes of fans and the greater culture in general.  His more cerebral approach often meant there was little room for love, so when there was room, it was sure to be notable, as it had been in "Captain's Holiday"/"Qpid" before "Perfect Mate."  In fact, a Picard romance seems to be an instant recipe for a Star Trek classic, because that's exactly what "The Perfect Mate" is.

As a character study, the episode neatly sums up why it's so difficult for Picard to find love, because there are so many boxes to tick in potential candidates.  It's not surprising that the most enduring relationship Picard ends up having is with Crusher, whom he's know for most of his life, because short of that, it's a near-impossible task.  Yet "Perfect Mate" finds one all the same, an empathy (makes you wonder what Picard really thought of Troi all those years) who is capable of adapting herself to any companion, because she's spent all her life training to meet the needs of her eventual suitor.

The situation is a pretty complicated one, a franchise trope where two warring factions will finally bury the hatchet, but under a tricky agreement.  Historically, this kind of war bride is as much of a tradition as it is horrible for modern minds to contemplate.  Yet the loss of love is one of the main themes of the episode, and its ending is heartbreaking for it, not just because of what is once again denied Picard, but his potential partner, too.

I don't often talk about the actors in these commentaries, but it's worth noting that "Perfect Mate" features Famke Janssen, who would later co-star with Patrick Stewart in the X-Men movies, and is one of a handful of Star Trek guest-stars who went on to much greater fame later (most of them seem to be women: Teri Hatcher and Kirsten Dunst, from Next Generation alone, for example).

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
Famke Janssen
Max Grodenchik

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

First Contact Day

This is the second time I've commemorated First Contact Day here at Star Trek Fan Companion.  The previous occasion, fifty years from the day itself, was on April 5, 2013, which I've chosen as my first post highlight (a new feature from Blogger).

First Contact Day comes to us from Star Trek: First Contact, originally released in 1996.  First Contact remains one of my favorite Star Trek movies, and in fact movies in general.  The pivotal ready room confrontation between Picard and Lily, and the bookend scenes with Picard and Worf, are some of the best moments in the franchise for me.  Some fans had a problem with Picard in the movie because he's atypically aggressive, but you can go all the way back to the first season to see Picard acting lively, or his biography, which finds the younger Picard to be infamously impetuous (see: "Tapestry," or Nemesis).

The movie itself was originally released in conjunction with the franchise's 30th anniversary, along with the Deep Space Nine ("Trials and Tribble-ations") and Voyager ("Flashback") tribute episodes.  In this 50th anniversary year soon to see the release of Star Trek Beyond, it's fun to remember twenty years ago how a crucial element of continuity was finally explored for the first time, one that had considerable impact on Star Trek as it continued to unfold over the next decade.  Can Beyond match that, or next year's much-anticipated next live action series?  Well, time will tell.

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