Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Next Generation Rewind: "Allegiance" as a prelude to "All Good Things..."

For longtime fans, it's always fun rewatching Star Trek to see if you'll catch anything new.  BBC America broadcasts Next Generation on a routine basis, and so of course I've been availing myself.  And wouldn't you know it?  I made a discovery about a seemingly trivial episode: "Allegiance."

Near the end of the third season, "Allegiance" tells the story of aliens who seek to study methods of leadership by capturing various individuals and replacing them with duplicates who behave in atypical ways.  The relevant individual in this case is Picard, whose replacement behaves oddly enough to provoke mutiny in the crew.

And how exactly does he behave?  In a lot of ways that are relevant later in the series finale, "All Good Things...," actually.

Don't believe me?  Consider this: 1) he asks the crew to go along with questionable orders without explaining them, 2) he romances Crusher, 3) he joins the poker party, and 4) he is unusually concerned with how the crew feels about him.

So let's go over these beat by beat. 

1) He asks the crew to go along with questionable orders without explaining them.  In "All Good Things..." this would be in the "Encounter at Farpoint" era sequence where he can't adequately explain why he's doing what he's doing in part because everyone is still new to each other. 

2) He romances Crusher.  This one isn't totally unusual, because multiple episodes tease this.  The difference is that in "Allegiance" they turn a decidedly romantic leaf in their otherwise platonic relationship.  In "All Good Things..." they've been married and divorced by the time of the future era, the only other time they can talk about such a situation frankly.

3) He joins the poker party.  Pointedly, for the duration of the series he's otherwise absent from these games.  In "All Good Things..." the big emotional climax is Picard finally joining them as Troi says, "You were always welcome."  In "Allegiance," it's Data who says, "You are always welcome."  If you're at all skeptical about my analysis, I think this one similarity is the most telling.

4) He is unusually concerned with how the crew feels about him.  This stands for all three eras represented in "All Good Things..."  In the past, that one is pretty obvious, as is the future.  In the present, his new diagnosis of impending dementia causes him to begin questioning his standing.  Otherwise in the series, he's about as confident as you can get, unafraid to express his mind or to appear aloof (the latter especially in the early seasons, which was the big change in the later ones that helped make the whole thing work so well).  To witness a version of Picard who does care, who is concerned that he might be coming off wrong (as expressed to Troi, at least) is one of the big tipoffs that he's not really Picard.

Pretty weird, huh?  Otherwise, "Allegiance" is a pretty minor episode.  But as a precursor to the final episode, it becomes pretty significant.  In my original analysis (here), I thought it was best seen as a minor Picard character study.  Now it seems something a bit more.

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Next Generation 4x23 "The Host"

rating: ****

the story: Crusher finds herself in an unusual romantic situation in the franchise debut of the Trill.

similar to: "Sarek" (Next Generation), "Life Support," "Rejoined" (Deep Space Nine)

my thoughts: It's rare that a species that essentially is set up to try and prove a point ends up becoming a major element in the wider franchise, but that's exactly what happens to the Trill once Jadzia Dax debuts in Deep Space Nine.

This is a very, very tricky episode, and its immediate impact comes most directly from its closing moments, when the symbiont that has previously been residing in Crusher's lover and then Riker ends up in the body of a woman.  This is the first franchise statement on sexual orientation.  It's not a matter of how you interpret it so much as that it's addressed at all, not as the entire point of the story but rather how it ends, and that's really quite remarkable.

Crusher was routinely a tough nut to crack as a character.  She was famously excised from the series entirely following the first season, only to make further franchise history by returning in the third.  She's the main cast member with the least to do in the movies.  And every time she's got a moral quandary, she comes off as being shrill.

So here's Crusher in her biggest test.  How does she do?  That's the big question, isn't it?

That she somehow remains the main draw even after "The Host" twists into one of Riker's more unusual romances is a good start.  What the episode ultimately proves is that everyone has a point where they're no longer willing to play along.  That's in fact arguably the character's whole legacy.  From her backstory and entangled relationship with Picard to other weaker versions of this same plot ("Ethics," one of her worst moments), Crusher was always defined by this trait.

It's not a judgment, then, on her part, when she declines to continue the romance.  It's a statement the franchise is making about sexuality with or without her: that gender is more fluid than it seems, when a whole species can exist that plays host to a continuing personality who can easily step from male to female, and only pesky outsiders will fail to completely understand.

Isn't that how it always is?  Deep Space Nine itself later revisited this topic in "Rejoined," ostensibly the episode where sexual orientation was the subject matter.  It was for viewers, anyway, and in point of fact, I know it engendered the conversation because in my own family it was the breaking point in viewership for some of us.  I ended up being the last one to continue watching it regularly because of creative decisions like that.

And beyond that, "The Host" joins a rich Star Trek tradition of the irreplaceable negotiator whose presence is predictably compromised, from Next Generation's own "Loud as a Whisper" and "Sarek" to Deep Space Nine's wrenching "Life Support."

So there's a lot of really good reasons to watch this one.  And to name it a classic.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Patti Yasutake (Ogawa)

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Next Generation 4x22 "Half a Life"

rating: ****

the story: Lwaxana Troi serves as the voice of reason as she argues for an elderly man's right to live.

similar to: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

my thoughts: Just as "The Nth Degree" a few episodes earlier used Barclay, "Half a Life" ingeniously uses Lwaxana Troi in strict contradiction to her established character diameters.  Previously known at best as a comedic presence and at worst a pest, Lwaxana would not have been considered worth taking seriously at any rate.  (For another such instance, witness Deep Space Nine's "The Forsaken.")

Just as Kirk felt old and pointless in the first and second movies, this episode tackles the matter of what aging members of society can still contribute.  As is usual for the franchise, it presents an extreme example, literally an alien culture that condemns the elderly to death (a few years ahead of the Jack Kevorkian debate in the real world), and is one of the best examples of topical subject matter in the franchise, one of the more positive tropes and frequently the source of its best material.

And for a change, the voice of the opposition, the poor man at the center of the story's own daughter, doesn't come off as stilted, possibly because it's Michelle Forbes' first franchise appearance.  She'd inhabit the more familiar guise of Ro Laren next season.

But it's really Lwaxana's moment to shine, and it's so unexpected and it works so unexpectedly well, that it's easy to take for granted, but it deserves to be remembered as a classic. 

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

notable guest-stars:
Majel Roddenberry (Lwaxana)
Michelle Forbes
David Ogden Stiers
Colm Meaney (O'Brien)
Carel Struycken (Mr. Homn)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Next Generation 4x21 "The Drumhead"

rating: ****

the story: The ship is investigated in relation to an elaborate conspiracy.

similar to: "Court Martial" (original series), "Rules of Engagement" (Deep Space Nine)

my thoughts: One of the truly exceptional and unique episodes in franchise lore, despite ostensibly participating in one of its more frequent tropes, the courtroom drama.

Except as it takes a look at further parts of how the ship runs on a routine basis (see "Family," "Data's Day," and "In Theory" elsewhere this season), it provides an expansive view that neatly complements another intimate look at Picard (see "Family" and "Qpid") and specifically how his assimilation by the Borg has affected his reputation but not his moral conviction (see the other great series courtroom classic, "The Measure of a Man").

This is about as sophisticated and intricate as Star Trek storytelling can get, aside from the more bombastic elements featuring the nasty Federation judge hell-bent on her witch hunt (until she becomes the recipient of Picard's greatest intellectual takedown), so unlikely and powerful a source of emotional catharsis that it continues to stand alone in execution and tone in franchise lore, a rare opportunity for the bad guy to get what's coming to them and the audience be entirely onboard with no manipulation or need to just assume the good guy is right because the whole thing is spelled out so brilliantly.

Do you end up caring for that poor half-Romulan crewman?  Absolutely.  You've never seen him before, and you'll never see him again, but his part is essential to how the whole thing unfolds.  This is emblematic of how the series had begun to realize how important it is to develop every aspect of the story, and why it elevated the whole franchise to levels fans found hard to see in later series (even though Deep Space Nine, from "Duet" onward, took it still further).

In the end there's very little to say but to let this one work its own magic.  It's the least flashy of all Star Trek classics, but absolutely deserves it placement with them.

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

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Next Generation 4x20 "Qpid"

rating: ****

the story: Q uses Vash and the tale of Robin Hood to teach Picard a lesson.

similar to: "A Piece of the Action" (original series), "Our Man Bashir" (Deep Space Nine), "Bride of Chaotica!" (Voyager)

my thoughts: "Captain's Holiday" guest character Vash makes the second of three appearances (the third occurs in Deep Space Nine's "Q-Less"), entangling herself in the affairs of Q in the process.  She thusly becomes a sort of next generation Harry Mudd, a character fans hopefully identify with the series even if her overall impact is less than other familiar faces end up being.

Airing the same year as Kevin Costner's blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, "Qpid" could very easily have come off as a bad gimmick, but the contributions of Vash and Q, as well as how the proceedings help distinguish the dynamics of the crew (notably, Worf's immortal line, "Captain, I must protest, I am not a merry man!") elevates it to a classic very easily.

Picard's near-romance with Vash is exceptional enough, and this return engagement of its very possibility helps flesh out Picard, how he interacts with the crew (Crusher is always at her best playing off of him).  The only person who seems more hapless at finding love than Geordi is Picard, and this is a fun way of exploring that status.

Even better?  His increasing chemistry with Q.  The more flippant Q becomes, the more regular his appearances, the better he is, and this is one of his best.  The more exasperated Picard becomes, the more he has to break from his most comfortable bearings.  It's not even Q, but the whole Robin Hood scenario that further reveals how even in action mode he differs from Kirk.  The frequent allusions to how in his youth Picard was considerably more carefree make it all the more rewarding when we see glimpses of what exactly that might have looked like, or what it looks like now, given an opportunity to stretch a little.  When he climbs into Vash's chambers, for instance, he's not looking to storm the premises, but make it as quick and painless as possible (never mind what Vash does to him in return!), so that even carefree doesn't mean careless for him.  (Which is not to say Kirk was careless, but certainly, reckless.)

And to fit in his archeology hobby, too seldom in the spotlight, and how he fits in to the greater galactic community outside of his role in Starfleet, and his feelings on that...This episode is just firing on all cylinders.  It's the season, and the series, once again completely owning its own potential.

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

notable guest-stars:
John de Lancie (Q)
Jennifer Hetrick (Vash)

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Next Generation 4x19 "The Nth Degree"

rating: ****

the story: Barclay develops exceptional intelligence.

similar to: "Where No Man Has Gone Before" (original series)

my thoughts: This one's really quite remarkable, at once snapping the season's dry spell while drawing on some of its more common instincts and bringing back a familiar guest-star.

Last seen in his debut appearance, "Hollow Pursuits," Barclay has a wonderful opportunity to counterpoint his own known characteristics as he inexplicably becomes the smartest man in the room.  This could easily have degenerated into nonsense, and at face value it's strange that a guest character experiences this at all, but this was a whole season of exploring the limits of the show's characters, wisely branching out in the process to begin shaping the supporting cast (it's no wonder that the next season introduces Ro, easily in her first appearance the best-developed character in the series). 

It's the series once again affirming that it has a firm grasp of its own potential, and it's a nod to the second pilot of the original series at the very same time.

Really?  Yeah, really.  "Where No Man Has Gone Before" is the story of Kirk's old buddy Gary Mitchell develops god-like abilities.  That in itself set off a whole subset of Star Trek tropes, which Next Generation had already answered in the character of Q.  For one episode, "Hide and Q," the series even played with the idea of Q bestowing his abilities on one of the main cast members (arguably the weakest Q episode, alas), the closest the theme had come to merging back with the franchise's origins.

Barclay is about as far away from Gary Mitchell as you can get.  "Hollow Pursuits" featured him as one of the most marginalized Starfleet officers ever, crippled by his own neuroses.  Yet he was a capable officer, perhaps even a brilliant one.  So it's interesting that in his next appearance, he accidently becomes the best one ever, surpassing even Data's abilities.

It's a fascinating concept executed perfectly because of Barclay's established personality.  It would have felt stiff and awkward shoehorned into a main cast member's character.  And it's the rare instant where a perfect solution was realized.  It's a situation that works to everyone's advantage, a crisis that pushes everyone to their limits, with something as simple as trying to figure out what the heck's going on with Barclay.

(In Voyager, Barclay gets to have an achievement all his own when he's the one who locates the wayward crew, so it's nice that Star Trek finally let him get a bona fide win.)

That the whole thing is actually a plot by some aliens to explore the galaxy in ways very different from Starfleet's, harkens back to moments like "Clues," which features another left-turn ending, or "Future Imperfect," where we learn late in the episode what Riker was really experiencing.  It's a culmination of a particular creative itch from the writing staff, and it works perfectly.

The fact that Barclay doesn't progress as a character, at least for the duration of this series?  Don't let it bother you.

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

notable guest-stars:
Dwight Schultz (Barclay)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Next Generation 4x18 "Identity Crisis"

rating: *

the story: Geordi is transformed into an alien.

similar to: "Ashes to Ashes" (Voyager)

my thoughts: This is a Geordi episode that works less well than the earlier "Galaxy's Child."  It attempts to flesh out more of his backstory by drawing on his earlier career (the series loved doing this, almost to an obsessive degree: "Clues," also just a few episodes earlier; "The Wounded," also just a few episodes earlier; and "The Pegasus," from the final season, which was further expounded on in the controversial Enterprise finale, "These Are the Voyages...").

The problem with "Identity Crisis" is that Geordi gets together with a friend with no dramatic heft, and nothing to say about Geordi's past.  The whole thing becomes far more about a random sci-fi story (which itself is pretty interesting; that's the main reason why I'll give it franchise credentials, because, as fans seem to forget, Star Trek is above all things kind of a random sci-fi story vehicle in the best Twilight Zone tradition).  The later "Ashes to Ashes" explores a similar tale of someone being somewhat forcibly drafted into an alien species.

When the episode can literally be about anyone but goes to the trouble of being about someone, that's a problem.

But as I said, it's not without its merits.  For example, there's one of those neat holodeck recreation scenes (such as also featured in "Schisms") that's a wonderful working example of how these people in the future use their fancy technology in ways that are easy for people like us to understand (in other words, not what's commonly known as "technobabble). 

All that being said, if you want to watch this just for having the spotlight on Geordi, then it's all good.  He was apparently a tough character to write for, outside of his purely functional roles, so it's always a treat to watch him in one of his own episodes. 

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Patti Yasutake (Ogawa)
Dennis Madalone

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Next Generation 4x17 "Night Terrors"

rating: (no stars)

the story: Troi attempts to figure out why no one can achieve REM sleep.

similar to: We'll skip this one.

my thoughts: When talk about bad episodes, they normally focus on concepts that just didn't work for them, such as someone stealing "Spock's Brain," or Next Generation characters appearing in Enterprise's final episode ("These Are the Voyages...").  They rarely bring up clunkers like "Night Terrors."  I have no idea why.

This is the kind of episode that can be summed up in one sequence: Troi floating in space, crying "Where aaaaare youuuuu?"

And I will let that set in for a moment.

Apparently it was a nightmare to shoot.  When the nightmare in shooting completely translates to the screen, you know there's a problem.  Those same fans often bring up Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as the worst film in part because they have little faith in it creatively (William Shatner directs, is plague by the perennial Star Trek movie problem of not having enough time to finish his vision; see also: Star Trek: The Motion Picture, another favorite among chatter about the worst of the franchise).  Yet to actually watch Final Frontier, you can quibble about special effects not being impressive enough or creative choices, but nothing you see on the screen is nearly as bad as the image described above from "Night Terrors."

So to me, that's what defines bad Star Trek.

The episode in general is horribly uninspired, the franchise on autopilot, as riddled with tropes and devoid of real character content as you can get.  I don't pin this on the character of Troi, but Next Generation's habit of forgetting that, generally, it did characters far better than the original series.  No, I'm not talking the affinity and familiarity of Kirk, Bones, or Spock.  But about depth of characterization.  And there's just no depth here at all.  Poor Miles and Keiko O'Brien are so soon reduced to story fodder it's like the episode was trying to take a huge step back for the series.  Worf contemplating suicide?  For any other time he was feeling low, this is just a mockery of his character.

It's that bad.  And worse, it doesn't even try to play along with established character traits.  Troi is half-Betazed.  The guy who technically leads her to the terrible sequence is a full Betazed.  Yet he spends the entire time comatose, and the best way he can communicate is enigmatically?  It's just bad storytelling.

Next Generation unquestionably features a certain level of quality storytelling over all.  And yet, sometimes it was far too comfortable in taking it easy.  Fans bellowed that later series (Voyager, Enterprise) coasted on good will (and sputtered because they both used it up quickly), but that very level of quality was evident well before they ever made the air.  And the second season of this series at its creative peak (generally agreed to have begun in the third season) releasing material of this poor caliber is just insulting.

Yet the fans...You get the point.  "Night Terrors" is kind of like the barometer of bad in Star Trek.  If you can somehow stomach it, if you find it easy to gloss over, then your ability to judge the franchise objectively is completely compromised.  It's the kind of episode you would rather the uninitiated not sample as their first taste of Star Trek.  Because it will forever bias them, too, unquestionably.

If you want to know what kind of fan I am, just read this review.  Typically, I don't react to episodes like this.  There are some fans who made it a habit to react to whole series this way.  That's just ridiculous.  But there are episodes truly deserving that ire.  Such as this one.

(For those wondering if the season as a whole completely degenerates, it doesn't.  There are some really good episodes coming up!)

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Colm Meaney (O'Brien)
Rosalind Chao (Keiko)
Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Next Generation 4x16 "Galaxy's Child"

rating: **

the story: Geordi meets the real Leah Brahms

similar to: "Hollow Pursuits" (Next Generation), Star Trek: First Contact, "Author, Author" (Voyager)

my thoughts: A sort of sequel to "Booby Trap," the episode where Geordi interacts with a holographic version of Dr. Brahms, "Galaxy's Child" is one of those episodes where you can squarely ignore the sci-fi crisis elsewhere happening, if you so choose, and instead focus on the character development happening along the way.

Geordi is one of the more hapless romantics in Star Trek lore, not because of his VISOR, but because of the basic problem of not really knowing what to do around the opposite sex.  Ironically enough, this duo of episodes encompasses the experiences of another engineer in the crew, the infamous Barclay as introduced and featured in "Hollow Pursuits," who is far more comfortable interacting with people in the holodeck than in real life.

(No, these are not episodes based on the Internet age.)

That Geordi somewhat duplicates that in these episodes is a little ironic, because no one would otherwise associate him with Barclay's rich psychoses.  Yet that's kind of what happens with Dr. Brahms, whom he first meets in deceptive holographic form.  This episode is all about learning what the real person is like.  Suffice to say, she's almost the complete opposite of everything Geordi previously thought he knew about her.  Only O'Brien has worse luck, in general.

That makes for a pretty fun episode.  Not only can you discard the rest of it, you really wouldn't be missing much.  This is a rare opportunity in the series to just watch a single character squirm from very human circumstances.  Unlike Scotty, Geordi was not known as a miracle worker.  He wasn't even known as an engineer originally.  Yes, he's hugely capable in that regard, but he becomes more and more useful as one of the more relatable people in the crew, and this is probably the episode to see why. 

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Susan Gibney (Brahms)
Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Next Generation 4x15 "First Contact"

rating: *

the story: Riker finds himself compromised on an alien world that has yet to find out they're not alone in the universe.

similar to: "The Communicator" (Enterprise), "Who Watches the Watchers" (Next Generation)

my thoughts: This is an episode that feels like it breaks new ground, but then you realize, the series itself had just done most of this episode already only a season earlier ("Who Watches the Watchers") with proto-Romulans instead of...whoever the alien race is this time. 

Yes, the approach is different, but the gist the same: alien species finds out Starfleet exists and puts our crew in a hairy situation.  Here you might consider it a Riker episode, but I'm hesitant to give "First Contact" too much credit.  It really could have featured anyone, and as a Riker episode, it's about as generic as you can get, in that he has a quasi-romance that's so convoluted and impossible (even for him!) that it's just not worth considering in that way.  Riker in peril, in short, is really it amounts to, and again, it could have been anyone.

It's a Prime Directive episode first and foremost, an exploration of something that's about as basic a Star Trek trope as you can get, so I'll recommend it for that basis alone.  Enterprise later goes a little deeper with the same basic premise ("The Communicator"), with the advantage of being able to add something to the mythos.

It's not a bad episode, it's just, in the grand scheme, not as memorable as you might originally think.  Enjoy it for what it is, but there are better episodes out there.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Bebe Neuwirth
Michael Ensign

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Next Generation 4x14 "Clues"

rating: **

the story: The crew begins to suspect something's wrong with Data when things don't add up and he looks increasingly guilty.

similar to: "The Menagerie" (Original Series), "The Omega Directive" (Voyager)

my thoughts: For most of the episode, "Clues" feels like a fairly generic mystery, with the crew trying to figure out why they seem to have lost time.  I prefer to think about it less in terms of the way most of the episode unfolds, and more about its ultimate implications.  It's best considered as a Data episode.

Just as Spock made himself look bad (in "The Menagerie") and Janeway had to withhold information from her crew (in "The Omega Directive"), what might have been an ultimately hackneyed story about Data being controlled by aliens (it's a Star Trek trope with spotty history, believe me) instead turns into another exploration of what sets the android apart.  I think ultimately the way the story approached limited its impact, actually.  A more straightforward story would have been more useful in that regard.  To salvage "Clues," you can of have to ignore most of it.

The series routinely attempted to feature Data in circumstances that exploited his unique nature as a nonhumanoid.  Most of the time it did so from oblique angles (Voyager was far less bashful with the Doctor, and even Enterprise with Phlox), as if making Data stand out too much would, well, make him stand out too much.  His ability to experience the alien culture mostly teased in the episode, and then have to lie about it, could have been far more interesting (would he really be incapable of tying up all the loose ends in the effort?). 

But, the episode is poised as a mystery, so you must accept that Data inevitably has his own limitations.  So to watch him try is as much as you'll get, and it's at least worth it just for that.  Theoretically he would experience moments like this all the time, maybe not to such a dramatic extent, but at least things he can't properly convey, or moments that he can't properly share, like how Geordi sees everything differently because of his VISOR, or Worf because he is a Klingon.  Which makes this a somewhat clumsy but still fascinating way to explore another aspect of what sets him apart and yet still a welcome member of the crew.

In the end, then, "Clues" is a better riddle about Data himself than the aliens he's attempted to help shield from the outside world.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Colm Meaney (O'Brien)
Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan)
Patti Yasutake (Ogawa)

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Next Generation 4x13 "Devil's Due"

rating: ****

the story: The crew attempts to counter a being's claims to fulfilling an alien culture's prophecies.

similar to: "The Apple" (Original Series), "False Profits" (Voyager)

my thoughts: From seemingly such common origins as a Star Trek trope, "Devil's Due" emerges to be a true classic in execution thanks to displaying just how clever the crew really is.

An alien claiming to be the devil is certainly unique in the franchise (unless you count the Animated Series), but otherwise the original series had so many godlike beings running about, Next Generation already created Q in answer (brilliantly, of course) in that direction.  So exploring the opposite was both natural and risky.  Watching it all play out could just as easily have produced another episode about a na├»ve culture needing to be set straight, but instead it becomes a battle of wits.  Voyager did a lot of episodes like this, actually, and usually quite well.  The most similar one would be "False Profits" (a sequel to a Next Generation episode, fittingly enough), in which a different prophecy is seemingly fulfilled.

But watching Picard match wits with a con artist, or someone other than Q, is a thrilling experience, with a wonderful denouement as all their tricks are reproduced by Starfleet technology.  Too often this sort of intervention story can seem condescending.  It helps that even our crew is trying to figure it out, and by the time they do they're far more concerned with the bad guy than judging the duped alien culture.

This is a wonderful example of Star Trek taking one of its most tired tropes and really having fun with it in the classic one-off adventure format.  As a result, existing fans will have as much fun watching it as someone not nearly as familiar with the franchise.  That's a good way of defining a classic right there.

What's more, it's a perfect example of just how comfortable the series was with itself by this point.  This could have been a Q episode.  It wasn't, and even references Q in the dialogue.  That's confidence for you, in ways that at the time were startling and new.  It's hard not to love.

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

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Next Generation 4x12 "The Wounded"

rating: ****

the story: A rogue captain declares war on the Cardassians.

similar to: "The Doomsday Machine" (Original Series), "Defiant" (Deep Space Nine), "Equinox" (Voyager)

my thoughts: It's not at all uncommon for Star Trek to bring in a Starfleet guest character who's gone off the rails.  It's one of the franchise's most notable tropes.  What sets "Wounded" apart, other than the debut of the Cardassians, is how it ends up focusing on Miles O'Brien instead of someone from the main cast.

In contrast to his wedding in the preceding "Data's Day," O'Brien's appearance here gives him his first real chance at carrying a story, letting the viewer know just what kind of man he really is.  It's the perfect way for a Next Generation fan, besides, to find a way into Deep Space Nine, because that's exactly the version of the character they're going to find.  Almost two years to the day this episode originally aired, in fact, and it looks like a deliberate set-up to the third live action series, with O'Brien beginning a new career confronting Cardassians on a regular basis.

Whereas Picard was always known as the calmer counterpart to the more rash Kirk, even he seems pretty wild to the O'Brien we meet here.  For someone who had been making the odd appearance in the series since "Encounter at Farpoint," the very first episode, it took a long time to find out who he was.  Until now, he could just as easily have been another of the original series type of supporting character, familiar but still nowhere near as memorable as the main characters.

And he does it by being completely vulnerable, even admitting that he was wrong.  That's just something you don't see in Star Trek all the time.  Here is the franchise really breaking the mold, with the one character most capable of selling it.

The Cardassians you'll see here are almost exactly as they'd later appear, with some odd exceptions, including the uniforms.  The series had tried so hard with the Ferengi to create a distinctive new threat, and here it appears almost effortless.  The difference is astonishing.

As for the ostensible main plot of the episode, you can almost put it aside, as it so easily gives way to better elements.  "The Wounded" is one of the more unique classics in franchise lore.  It deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as "Balance of Terror."  It's all but an answer to it.

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

notable guest-stars:
Colm Meaney (O'Brien)
Marc Alaimo
Rosalind Chao (Keiko)
Bob Gunton

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Next Generation 4x11 "Data's Day"

rating: ***

the story: Data records a letter detailing, among other things, the wedding of Miles and Keiko O'Brien.

similar to: "In Theory" (Next Generation), "Explorers" (Deep Space Nine), "Dear Doctor" (Enterprise)

my thoughts: Groundbreaking without being overly significant, "Data's Day" is one of those episodes you can heartily recommend to fans of the series.  It's a true slice-of-life experience.

"In Theory" later in the season revisits observing what being Data means on a routine basis, and on the whole it's fairly mundane, though not in a particularly trivial way.  Data's wonder at life around him, and his attempts to make sense of it, has a wide range of implications.  He's the only character who could get away with having nothing to do with someone else's marriage and yet still be relevant to its occasion.

It's not particularly a surprise, however, that this isn't an experience the franchise rushed to duplicate, and thankfully when it did there was usually a better point to be made, some personal achievement (the Siskos bonding in "Explorers") or perspective worth noting (Phlox's opposition to Archer's actions in "Dear Doctor").

What's puzzling is that Data is composing a letter to Maddox, a character we originally meet in "The Measure of a Man," and he's supposed to be addressing matters of his own unique nature.  If the recipient had been anyone else, or merely his recording a common log entry, it would have made more sense.

As much as you might enjoy Data in the episode, it's much more important as an O'Brien story, the culmination to that point in his whole development, and his further adventures in Deep Space Nine, solidifying him as important in his own right, and not just as a familiar face.

It's always nice to have a change of pace, and aside from everything else, this is an episode that proves once and for all that Next Generation is comfortable in its own skin.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Colm Meaney (O'Brien)
Rosalind Chao (Keiko)
Alan Scarfe

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Next Generation 4x10 "The Loss

rating: **

the story: Troi loses her empathic ability.

similar to: "Broken Link" (Deep Space Nine), "Mortal Coil" (Voyager)

my thoughts: Of all the episodes that centered around Troi, this is probably the most important, the essential one, where her whole character is deconstructed.  Like taking away Odo's shape-shifting ability ("Broken Link" and half the episodes of the fifth season) or Neelix's will to live ("Mortal Coil"), taking away her half-Betazoid-derived powers is about as big as it can get.

Naturally, she's completely devastated, and the episode is a complete examination of her coping with that, and how she fits in with the rest of the crew, with or without her empathic ability.  The result is about as fascinating a character study as Next Generation ever did, even if it's wrapped up in a fairly generic sci-fi story that is otherwise undistinguished (don't blame the series and/or franchise if you don't like that sort of thing; it's pretty much half the reason Star Trek exists at all, something a lot of people have a hard time understanding).

What results is a version of Troi who's more significant than perhaps she is otherwise, in the series or later films, someone who has unique insight not only into the minds of others but the psychology of the situation.  This would have been fascinating to explore later, but Troi reverts to what she always was, which is a real shame, and somewhat diminishes the impact of the episode.

On its own, "The Loss" is a classic allegory in the best Star Trek sense, what might almost be described as a PTSD episode (Deep Space Nine's "It's Only a Paper Moon" explores this in more detail, and more directly).  The fact that it features Troi and augments her character, however briefly, is kind of a bonus. 

If you're a fan of Troi, this is the one to watch.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential

notable guest-stars:
Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan)
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