Friday, September 30, 2016

The Next Generation 7x25/7x26 "All Good Things..."

rating: ****

the story: Q offers Picard a chance in the past, present, and future to prove that humanity has evolved.

what it's all about: It's hard to conceive of a better way to end Next Generation than with Q, returning to the same trial begun in the very first episode, "Encounter at Farpoint," and exploring three separate timelines along the way. 

This was a series that had a rough start.  Providing new material set in the tumultuous first season is kind of the best gift "All Good Things..." could've given fans.  I mean, you could interpret the title of the episode a number of ways because of it: 1) as the incomplete phrase that concludes "must come to an end," and 2) this is the best version of the series, as in, all the good things about it.  (Heh.)

Those who later thought the four movies that followed misrepresented the series will no doubt agree, even though there has been plenty of debate over the years about the science of the way the spatial phenomenon works backwards through time (the argument being, if it starts in the past, the future characters should always have seen it, for instance).  Putting that aside, because if you worry about such things in fictional storytelling you have too much time on your hand, it's kind of hard to view the final episode as anything but what it is, which is the most satisfying and accessible final episode of the franchise.  (You really have to be a Deep Space Nine fans to appreciate "What You Leave Behind.") 

The camaraderie of this crew, whether the timelines agree as to how it functions, if it functions, is in full effect, right down to the classic final scene, in which Picard finally sits down at the poker table with his senior staff.  There's classic Data ("to ignite the midnight petroleum"), the Riker/Troi/Worf triangle, and old friends popping up (Yar, O'Brien). 

Oh, and Q!  Since he didn't appear in the movies, there are conceivably fans who have no idea what this character is all about.  In truth, sometimes he could be too silly for his own good, and there might be an argument that he was hard to take seriously as a result.  But the cleverness of his role in "All Good Things..." proves beyond all doubt that Q was always more than he seemed. 

The point of putting humanity on trial for being too barbaric is a clever way of suggesting that the work of reaching its full potential doesn't end by perfecting life on Earth, that in fact the whole idea behind Star Trek was to push our definition of the possible to its limits ("to seek out new life" and all that).  Too often the franchise, and its fans, lose sight of that goal.  To have a character like Q embody this challenge, in the first and last episodes of the series, is a way of keeping everyone honest. 

So in some ways, how you regard "All Good Things...," and its science, is a kind of litmus test for how you view Star Trek in general.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Good for this.
  • series - Good for this.
  • character - Good for this.
  • essential - Yeah, four for four.
notable guest-stars:
John de Lancie (Q)
Denise Crosby (Yar)
Colm Meaney (O'Brien)
Patti Yasutake (Ogawa)
Andreas Katsulas (Tomalak)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Next Generation 7x24 "Preemptive Strike"

rating: ****

the story: Ro goes rogue, joins the Maquis.

what it's all about: It's really astonishing that fans later totally misunderstood the Maquis in Voyager when the whole concept was plainly laid out here in "Preemptive Strike" (as well as the less successful two-part "The Maquis" in Deep Space Nine), with a beloved character like Ro Laren helping explain it.

Ro was one of the best characters in Next Generation, but aside from her equally brilliant debut ("Ensign Ro"), the series more often than not totally blew her potential, so it's not surprising that Michelle Forbes gradually lost interest the character, and flat-out refused to continue playing her in Deep Space Nine (Major Kira was created to replace her, which actually worked out really well).  "Preemptive Strike" brings Ro full-circle, as she finally decides Starfleet really isn't for her anymore, but the distinction between how her career ends and where we first saw it is a crucial one. 

It's all a matter of choice.  Originally, it wasn't Ro's choice at all.  She agreed to play ball with Starfleet, working covertly to assist initiatives aimed at relieving the stresses her native people, the Bajorans, still felt after years of occupation by the Cardassians.  Her relationship with Picard eased a troubled career, and mind, making it possible for her to find peace. 

That in a nutshell, by the way, is what Picard was all about, throughout the series.  He gave Worf and Data, for instance, safe places in which to explore their potential, allowed Riker to see what a functioning leadership team looked like, patched things up with Crusher, gave himself redemption, and let Troi see that family history doesn't have to be a burden (probably).  Of course he did the same for Ro.  In fact, Ro's the only character where this kind of relationship was spelled out.  (I mean, he had the same thing with Guinan.  That was the whole point, what "Time's Arrowed" finally explained about them.) 

So when Ro finds a new purpose, the one thing she regrets is having to tell Picard she's moved on.  That's the Maquis for you: not so much troubled or disgruntled Starfleet officers (though Chakotay and B'Elanna Torres certainly represent those aspects in Voyager), but individuals who have moved beyond Starfleet careers and found new purpose, which just so happens to be fighting for the same ideals, against the Cardassians. 

"Preemptive Strike" is actually a pivotal episode of the franchise beyond its Maquis groundwork.  Ever since Gene Roddenberry declared humanity's future as perfect, conflict had become a difficult thing to introduce into the narrative, at least without alien antagonists.  And yet, differing philosophies will always exist, in one form or another.  It's hard to watch Ro in the episode and think she's made a bad decision, just as it would be equally unlikely to suggest that because she's made a good decision, the people she's leaving behind have made a bad one.  Ideals are always worth fighting for.  The season had earlier botched that kind of storytelling in "Force of Nature."  Here the execution is pitch-perfect, in part because we're invested in the messenger and the message doesn't clash horribly with Star Trek's ideals. 

It's a certified classic.  When Ro says goodbye to Picard, through Riker, you can't help but feel you've seen the franchise in one of its finest moments.  The most striking thing about the scene is that Riker is hardly presented with his most flattering look ever.  It doesn't matter.  It's Picard you should be paying attention to, and the character whose absence suddenly envelops the whole series.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Embodies the contradiction at the heart of Star Trek.
  • series - Fleshes out the character of the character dynamics in this series.
  • character - Works for Ro, for Picard.
  • essential - Explains the Maquis perfectly.
notable guest-stars:
Michelle Forbes (Ro)
Richard Poe (Gul Evek)
Natalija Nogulich (Nechayev)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Next Generation 5x11 "Hero Worship"

rating: *

the story: To deal with his pain, a boy starts pretending he's an android like Data.

what it's all about: This is one of those episodes that sounds really good in theory, and in fact is a fairly decent, warm-and-fuzzy one to watch, too, but conceptually is so much like "The Bonding" from a few seasons earlier, you kind of half to wonder why it even exists.

In fact, it's hard to think of the two as entirely separate episodes, and neither really wins in comparison.  "Bonding" features Worf taking a boy under his wing; "Hero Worship" features Data doing much the same.  There are certainly variations to be considered, but on the whole they're exactly the same.

If you have to give the edge to one of them, it'd be "Hero Worship."  The traumatized boy who loses himself in fantasy is just easier to root for, and on the whole.  While Worf's experiences reflect well on his interest in Klingon culture, there's more to say about Data when a human is trying to be like him ("Bonding" presents Worf's relationship as entirely his idea) is an ironic twist on Data's arc.

Still, this is another episode I don't particularly want to exaggerate in terms of its worth.  (When writing these reviews, I actually completely forgot to write this one up originally, which just goes to show that its duplicate nature made it seem like I'd already written it.)  You can enjoy "Hero Worship" at a very basic level, and that's it.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Move along!
  • series  - The episode echoes are kind of interesting to observe.
  • character - Interesting but not too interesting as a Data episode.
  • essential -  You really don't have to worry about this one.

The Next Generation 7x23 "Emergence"

rating: *

the story: The ship gives birth to an artificial intelligence, and the crew experiences this via a holodeck ride on the Orient Express.

what it's all about: The last word in a longstanding thread woven throughout the series, not the least in the form of Data himself, "Emergence" is otherwise a minor and somewhat baffling addition to it, that just seems to have been done because it was a cool idea.

Remember "Evolution" from the third season?  "Emergence" is kind of the throwaway version of it.  You can choose to think of it as a holodeck episode, because that aspect of the story is the most memorable, even if it also typifies the randomness of holodeck episodes, or at least their reputation.  But it's better to think, if you want to give a somewhat entertaining episode its due, the strongest link to significance possible.  So that leaves us with a ship trying desperately to communicate with its crew. 

By the time the Enterprise-D gives birth at the end of the episode, you'll naturally wonder if we ever hear about this again, if the ship suffers from post-partum depression, etc., and of course this is a one-off episode, because the series is nearly done, and if anything the entirety of "Emergence" can be seen as a metaphor, a thank-you to fans who helped the series endure and prosper, and the impending next spin-off, Voyager, as well as Deep Space Nine, the movies that would follow (including the death of baby's mommy!), etc.

Or don't think too much into it, accept it for what it is, a very minor achievement in Next Generation storytelling, and move on.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Move along!
  • series - Good for a look at one of this show's obsessions.
  • character - Not important to any one character.
  • essential - Not essential!
notable guest-stars:
Thomas Kopache

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Next Generation 7x22 "Bloodlines"

rating: **

the story: DaiMon Bok returns with another diabolical plot against Picard, this time featuring Picard's...son?!?

what it's all about: This follow-up to the first season episode "The Battle" has to automatically be seen as better than its predecessor, even if "Battle" actually holds up better than most episodes from that season.  "Bloodlines" also fits in with the seventh season's trend of looking at dark or overlooked chapters from the past, when Picard's Ferengi adversary Bok comes up with a convincing case for Picard having a son he didn't previously know about.

Bok, and the Ferengi in general, will never have the reputation of legitimate villains in Next Generation.  Botched horribly in the first season ("Battle" wasn't their only appearance that season; their debut in "The Last Outpost" is downright pitiful).  Two-for-two, Bok is betrayed by his own crew, who are outraged that he can so single-mindedly obsess over Picard against the basic Ferengi custom of fixating on profit.  Deep Space Nine's Ferengi had far more convincing villains among them (including Brunt, who basically works for the IRS), and far more to do with being Ferengi.  There's nothing intimidating about these alien trolls except their values, which are more or less indicative of everything humanity outgrew to reach Star Trek's future.  Plus, they're natural cowards.  The worst thing about Bok is not he's not even much of a Ferengi.

But his obsessive tendencies are familiar, if one-note.  It's basically Bok with another con job, though.  Harry Mudd he is not.  So let's just put him aside.  The real meat of "Bloodlines" is Picard confronting his wild past, all over again.  I mean, wild by his standards, by the time we know him, anyway.  The younger Picard, who was a lot like Kirk, we never really get to meet is always fascinating to explore, and this is a fun way to touch on him.

The best thing about the episode is Picard finally confronting the idea of having a family.  This was a solitary man who hated the idea of children (his relationship with Wesley Crusher, as it evolved, was a major character aberration; just look at the continued awkwardness presented in "Disaster").  Remember how shocked Kirk was in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to learn of the existence of David Marcus?  Well, this was Picard's David Marcus moment.  And once more, we're presented with the extreme differences between Picard and Kirk.

The most surprising thing about "Bloodlines" is that Picard tries so hard to forge a relationship with the man Bok presents as his son.  (Never mind that like David Marcus, the guy wants nothing to do with his supposed father.)  The audience is asked to believe that someone would hate the idea of Picard as their dad (no doubt contributing to the ill-ease that greats this whole season, where Picard is joined by the rest of his senior staff in feeling extremely uncomfortable for such reasons).

Seeing Picard vulnerable always makes for good storytelling.  For a man who is usually in control of himself, and a given situation, it's nice to see him struggling upstream.  In a way, "Bloodlines" is an episode that had to happen, an update and not just sequel to "Battle," from a point in the series where his character has been firmly established, and everyone's on his side, including the audience.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - It's a fun thought exercise, comparing this episode with Kirk's David Marcus moment, but you don't have to.
  • series - It's a mark of the growth of the series since its first season.
  • character - It's a good character moment for Picard.
  • essential - It could've been better.
notable guest-stars:
Lee Arenberg (Bok)

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Next Generation 7x21 "Firstborn"

rating: ***

the story: Worf and Alexander have a final reckoning (in this series, anyway).

what it's all about: Of the episodes that tried to follow the final season mandate of looking for character resolutions ("Descent, Part 2," "Attached," "Journey's End," and the later "Preemptive Strike"), "Firstborn" may be the most bold.  In a far less significant way, it's kind of Next Generation's version of Deep Space Nine's brilliant masterpiece "The Visitor."

The longer Alexander was in the series, the more problematic he became.  You can see a conscious de-emphasis of the character the longer he's around, even in episodes where he should have been a natural presence ("Rascals").  Fans tend to remember Wesley Crusher as the annoying youth of the series, but it really was Alexander all along, and it's because he was horrendously one-note, and no offense to Brian Bonsall, but he was played by a child actor far too young to bring anything meaningfully dramatic to the series.  It always fell to Worf to redeem their scenes, but an exasperated Worf only goes so far (and is by far the least interesting version of the character).

"Firstborn" finds a clever solution to this dilemma: Instead of focusing on Kid Alexander, his future self is brought into the picture.  Frequent guest-star James Sloyan becomes one of the most interesting Klingon actors of the series in one appearance, proving beyond a doubt that Alexander could have been interesting, had anyone bothered to try, which is what "Firstborn" is all about.  Too often the series didn't really try to flesh out his perspective.  Well, this episode is all about it.

What's also interesting is the intersections with Deep Space Nine going on.  For one, there's an appearance by Quark.  For another, one last series appearance by the Duras Sisters, who had last appeared in that series' "Past Prologue" (they would finally meet their fate in Star Trek Generations, a fact that's usually overlooked in franchise lore).  It's oddly appropriate, because Deep Space Nine would later have one of its rare major creative missteps by undoing all the good work "Firstborn" accomplished with Alexander.

This is the last Klingon episode of the series, and it's a good one, an intimate one, and handily sums up everything you need to know, in case the rest of it had somehow eluded your attention.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Crossover appeal?  Check!
  • series - Since I don't want to call it a classic, a mark must be taken from somewhere, and it's between these first two categories.  It's a toss-up, so I'll take one away here, because that overall series Klingon arc doesn't need this to feel complete.
  • character - It's the best Alexander episode.
  • essential - It's a better Worf episode, and by Alexander episode standards, that says a lot!
notable guest-stars:
  • Brian Bonsall (Alexander)
  • Armin Shimerman (Quark)
  • James Sloyan
  • Gwynyth Walsh (B'Etor)
  • Barbara March (Lursa)

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Next Generation 7x20 "Journey's End"

rating: ****

the story: Wesley Crusher finally discovers his destiny.

what it's all about: Some fans accuse Star Trek: Insurrection of being an unnecessary duplication of the earlier seventh season episode "Homeward."  Which is ridiculous.  It actually has more in common with "Journey's End," a true forced relocation story.  (But they're still pretty distinct, and you don't have to think of them in relation to each other at all.)

There's a lot of stuff going on here.  One is the more subtle Voyager groundwork episode of the season (the later "Preemptive Strike" actually features the Maquis, rather than "just" problems with Cardassians demanding things of the Federation).  The other is that this is a Star Trek episode about Native Americans that takes them much more seriously than "The Paradise Syndrome" from the original series.  Usually Star Trek metaphors use something other than what they're actually talking about, but because "Journey's End" features another attempt at forced relocation, it works perfectly well, and is allowed to properly resonate with history, as Picard points out (which actually makes Insurrection resonate quite well with this episode, too, thank you).

But you can put all that aside.  This is the last real appearance of Wesley Crusher.  After becoming a scapegoat among fans for the wildly inconsistent quality of the early seasons, this former series regular left and then only made sporadic return appearances.  Blink and you'll miss his only movie appearance (at Riker and Troi's wedding reception in Star Trek Nemesis).  But then, after "Journey's End" it would have been very difficult to pull off anyway without making it the whole focus of the story.  Fans made it clear they didn't like anything but a happy cheery follow-up when Kes finally returned in Voyager's "Fury," for instance.

No, this is a whole culmination for the character, and the payoff for "Where No One Has Gone Before," when we first meet his spirit guide, the Traveler.  Wes's journey was always about discovering his unique destiny.  Everyone tried so hard to just make him a Starfleet officer, a legacy he would've shared with his mother, Dr. Crusher, and his dead father, but he always seemed pointed in a different direction.  (Jake Sisko very quickly made a similar decision in Deep Space Nine).

What makes this episode so interesting is that it suggests a whole alternate version of Next Generation, where Wes was the lead character, and the point was to help him reach this exact point.  His last two appearances before this, "The Game" and "The First Duty" all the way back in the fifth season, very clearly set him up this in how poorly he seemed to be fitting in with Starfleet culture in his later years.  His inability to tell right from wrong in "First Duty" might have made Wes seem uncharacteristically like something other than the golden boy image he'd cultivated for so long, but the truth is, all it did was prove that he was meant for something else, something bigger.

All this sounds absurd to anyone who still hates Wes with a passion.  Good for them.  The rest of us can revel in the nuances of this character as they emerged over time, and how everything finally makes sense in "Journey's End," which is kind of the ultimate Next Generation philosophical rebuke of the original series, where a character in a similar situation would have been bad-guy-of-the-week.  Where Q, especially in the series finale, went out of his way to do much the same, having Wes do it, too, and with far less bother, just the basic human decency embodied by his mentor Picard, was also the ultimate affirmation of everything this season tried to accomplish, which was to make a final statement about the series itself, how tragedies in our past can still lead to a better tomorrow.  Isn't that the Star Trek message in a nutshell?  The decisions we make, if we make the right ones, make the future a better place, in big and small ways. 

If Wes goes off and becomes a superbeing, what else is there to say about that without making it the whole focus of the story?  Again, Kes serves as textbook example for this.  She ended up becoming very confused.  But she didn't have a guide anymore.  That's Wes's big advantage.  For all the time he seemed like he didn't have anyone who could understand him (least of all the audience), he really did always have someone to help him.  Picard hated to love him.  The Traveler never stopped believing in him.  In "Where No One," it's Wes who understood the Traveler because he didn't take his eye off him.  Well, you can bet it became the reverse.

Anyway, for an unpopular character, Wes certainly got the best possible sendoff anyone had in this series.  This is only fitting.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Rebukes the original series, in a good way.
  • series - Finishes out a longstanding arc in the series.
  • character - Wes's best episode.
  • essential - It ties everything together!
notable guest-stars:
Wil Wheaton (Wes)
Richard Poe (Gul Evek)
Natalija Nogulich (Admiral Nechayev)
Eric Menyuk (the Traveler)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Next Generation 7x19 "Genesis"

rating: **

the story: The crew reverts to more primitive forms.

what it's all about: The common fan vision of "Genesis" is that it's one of the worst episodes of the franchise.  Frankly, I tend to take these distinctions with a grain of salt.  I don't think "Spock's Brain" is that bad.  I don't think "Threshold," which is hated for much the same reasons as "Genesis," is bad at all.  I don't think "These Are the Voyages..." is bad at all.  I don't think "Profit and Lace" is that bad.

Frankly, fans dangerously expose their prejudices when they call these episodes terrible.  It's especially surprising for "Genesis" (and "Threshold").  Gene Roddenberry and the whole of the original series took a very humanist, science-based philosophy to Star Trek storytelling.  "Genesis" may play fast and loose with evolution (though presumably, and maybe I'm exposing my own limitations of scientific knowledge, DNA will contain with itself versions of what we no longer have and/or need, such as that pesky vestigial tail, or appendix, that we do still have for no discernable reason), but I think it creates a lot of fun scenarios.

And it also takes some playful digs at the main characters (and even familiar guest characters, like blink-and-you'll-miss-him-in-his-only-appearance-this-season-Barclay).  Worf gets more primitive.  Crusher gets more caustic.  Riker becomes more dense.  Ha ha!  And Picard becomes even more scared of everything!

It becomes a little awkward when Data becomes a pencil sharpener.  Just kidding!  This is not deep storytelling, but it's fun, and that's about as much as you could ask of any episode.  Fans who have a problem with this theoretically have a problem with evolution?  I don't know.  That's what I could never figure out...

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Frequently labeled one of the worst ever, but actually fits in really nicely with franchise philosophy.
  • series - Frequently labeled the worst episode of the series, but is actually a really nice parody of it.
  • character - Light caricatures of every character, so we'll just stick with the series label.
  • essential - Won't say you need to love it.
notable guest-stars:
  • Dwight Schultz (Barclay)
  • Patti Yasutake (Ogawa)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Next Generation 7x18 "Eye of the Beholder"

rating: *

the story: Troi finds herself investigating a suicide.

what it's all about: Sort of like "Vanishing Point" (Enterprise) or "Flashback" (Voyager), "Eye of the Beholder" (The Animated Series had an episode with this exact title) is intentionally misleading in its perspective, since events are manipulating the lead character into false memories and thus worse conclusions.  Of the three, "Eye" is the least memorable.  It's a fine Troi episode, and probably works best as a Troi episode, but it's not particularly relevant to the character, and so my recommendation, based on the lowest rating possible, will go in favor of its connection to similar franchise storytelling.

It sucks, because "Eye" is a pretty engaging episode.  It just makes absolutely no sense for Troi to be investigating someone's suicide.  It would make sense if the episode had gone out of its way to have presented her as counseling the deceased before his death, but someone thought this wasn't possible, since by all indications, and as we later learn, this wasn't a suicidal man.  Still, it should've been a Worf episode.  Eventually it's just a story that makes Troi look weak.

The saving grace really turns out to be the tiny glimpse we have to the ship's origins.  It would've been nice to see Leah Brahms in there someone (linking "Eye" to other episodes in the series).  That doesn't happen.  Instead, it's kind of like one extended alternate take on how to get away with murder aboard a starship, as previously featured in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (honestly, "Flashback" really does feel like someone's attempt to make good on the shortcomings of this episode).

The best moments in the episode are pretty cruel: like a perverse version of the earlier "Parallels," the further Troi gets into her version of the events that led to the original murder (uh, spoiler alert), the more reality warps around her, so that she imagines Worf spurning her.  For a relationship that only really finally happens in the final episode of the series (and ends with it; the movies, and Worf's later Deep Space Nine adventures, very conveniently omit it), it definitely came up a lot.  Like all of this series' romantic aversions (seriously, what was with these characters?), it could sometimes come off as silly, how many gymnastic knots they had to tie to pull it off in a given episode.  "Eye" features one of the worst.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Shares a common theme of existential paranoia with other franchise episodes.
  • series - Could've done a lot better to be series-relevant.
  • character - Could've done a lot better to be Troi-relevant.
  • essential - Not essential.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Next Generation 7x17 "Masks"

rating: **

the story: An ancient alien probe begins to transform the ship, and Data inhabits characters from the culture's mythology.

what it's all about: Two episodes in a row now, the seventh season does some pretty neat riffing on classic franchise storytelling.  In "Thine Own Self," you get a good look at what primitive science looks like when confronted with Starfleet's more advanced instincts, and now "Masks" brings to life a whole alien mythology.

"Masks" evokes prior episodes from the series, classics like "Darmok" and "The Inner Light."  That's not bad company at all, and as a minor entry in that line, it's not a bad one at all.  It also has a little of "A Fistful of Datas" in it, when Data's art and then Data himself begins to transform along with the rest of the ship.  The whole thing becomes a stellar showcase of Brent Spiner's versatility.

But it also becomes a kind of metaphor for Picard's interest in archeology, which pops up every now and then in the series.  As he and the rest of the crew begin to interpret what's going on, and Picard realizes he's going to have to embody one of the characters to help bring about a conclusion (not the first or not last such a scenario occurs in the franchise, by the way).

The best thing about "Masks," though, is that it takes the time to flesh out an alien culture, even if we don't see any of the aliens themselves (one of the classic long-dead races that pop up so often in Star Trek), which even for the best-established aliens doesn't really ever go this far.  So it's definitely worth watching just to see the writers think a little more about such things than they usually do.  They'd better, in a whole episode about such things, right?

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Great alien culture development.
  • series - Doesn't specifically impact series lore.
  • character - Good showing for Data and Picard.
  • essential - Doesn't specifically impact franchise or character lore, either.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Next Generation 7x16 "Thine Own Self"

rating: **

the story: Data has amnesia on an away mission, and Troi takes the command test.

what it's all about: This is a pretty fun little episode.  I don't want to say it's a contender for greatness, but you won't feel like you've wasted your time at all if this is somehow your first-ever episode of Star Trek.  In fact, in some ways it would be a pretty good one to sample.

In a twist on a classic franchise trope, trying to explain the very alien appearance of a lead character (for instance, Spock's "rice picker accident" from "City on the Edge of Forever"), Data stumbles into a village on a world he's meant to retrieve radioactive material from, but the twist as indicated above is that not only can't he adequately explain himself, he doesn't know anything at all, much less that he's got the aforesaid radioactive material...

Things quickly get out of control.  The villagers don't know the rock he brought with him is radioactive, either, and so they quickly set about contaminating themselves by fashioning jewelry out of it...And anyway, Data quickly sets about improving science for them as he investigates the sickness that has suddenly started spreading.  Star Trek often depicts these aliens-of-the-week as fairly primitive (otherwise, so it goes, the Federation would probably have already welcomed them into the fold).  It's kind of the condescending heart of the franchise.  Sometimes you just have to decide to go with it.  It's easy when you find yourself rooting for Data, who becomes the monster the villagers are hunting.  Eventually half his face is slashed off, exposing his circuitry, and then he's impaled and buried...

Obviously Data doesn't die in "Thine Own Self" (a title cribbed from Polonius's advice in Hamlet).  The episode is actually pretty clever.  It speaks to the general strength of Star Trek storytelling.  A lot of other writers would've concluded that arc with lots of unnecessary drama, when all that happens here is that the crew beams down (properly disguised so as to try and limit further cultural contamination) and brings Data back (remember that in "Time's Arrow" he even survived getting his head blown off!).  Sometimes simple really is better.

While that is all well and good, the episode might actually have been better if the b-story had been the lead, because it's basically the first time we get to see the Kobayashi Maru scenario played out in franchise lore.  If that means nothing to you, just know that it's a reference to a no-win scenario Kirk famously cheated to win.  Later, we'd see in the 2009 movie how he did it, but that was some fifteen years in the future at the point "Thine Own Self" first aired.  Instead, we get to see Troi take bold step into the future of her career.

This was something several seasons in the making.  She took command of the bridge during "Disaster" in the fifth season.  "Chain of Command" famously saw her finally placed into the same uniform style as everyone else.  This was all an effort to give her greater depth, so that she could be taken seriously, when sometimes it hadn't been so easy to do so, especially when the series tended to emphasize her tendency to talk about emotions just because that was her defining characteristic (otherwise known as stating the obvious). 

Anyway, "Thine Own Self" works extremely well as a culmination point for Troi's development, which makes it slightly disappointment that it was the b-story.  Why waste such a huge moment like this?  Just two episodes later is "Eye of the Beholder," a Troi spotlight that doesn't feature nearly as strong material for her.  I have no idea what that's about.

Watching Troi have such a hard time trying to figure out where she's going wrong in the test, and having Riker be the one to evaluate her, is such a perfect summary of everything that's gone right with the character over the past seven seasons, and what it means to take being in Starfleet seriously.  Because that's certainly what Troi, and her relationship with Riker, embodies.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - This would make a great gateway episode for new fans.
  • series - Probably the b-story not being the lead hurt its overall series impact.
  • character - But it's still a very good Troi episode.
  • essential - Still, when you think about this episode, you think of Data's amnesia.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Next Generation 7x15 "Lower Decks"

rating: ****

the story: Junior officers are uncomfortable awaiting performance reviews.

what it's all about: One of the most necessary episodes ever, in which we finally have a look at what it's like to be one of the ordinary personnel of Picard's ship.  (Voyager had a slightly similar one with "Good Shepherd," but that was more in line with its early work of exploring members of Janeway's crew that didn't fit in with the Starfleet/Maquis mishmash that was the backbone of that series.) 

It's also a sequel to "The First Duty," in which the focus is shifted from Wesley Crusher to Sito Jaxa, from whom we learn a new perspective of Picard's eagerness to discover the true moral caliber of those below him.  In that sense, "Lower Decks" also functions as a quasi-sequel to the earlier "Pegasus."

It's also the closest to a Nurse Ogawa episode the series ever got.  Ogawa appeared in many episodes as a member of Crusher's staff, but her significance rarely seemed much more than the likes of Riley in the original series; you really have to be a Next Generation fan to even know she exists.  Casual fans might recognize her, but I bet they wouldn't know her name.  In a way, this is her "Data's Day," the episode where we first meet Keiko, who'd marry O'Brien at the end of that one, because we learn all about Ogawa's romantic life in addition to her career.  Along with Sito, she's one of several junior officers up for promotion, including a Vulcan and a sort of younger version of Riker (a comparison that leads to one of the episode's best scenes, and most awkward!).

But with apologies to Ogawa, this is really Sito's episode.  Her relation with Worf follows a pattern that in "Lower Decks" is finally perfected: Worf's interest in passing on what he's learned.  Strangely, the recipient ends up being a Bajoran and not, say, a little boy or his own son.  But among the best scenes, and you know it's a classic when you can point to numerous scenes that stand out, is a combat lesson that turns out to be a moral one, which leads to Sito standing up for herself in front of Picard...and volunteering for a heartbreaking mission.  This is the extremely rare episode where what amounts to slice-of-life scenes merge with a b-story that totally complements and augments them.  Most of the time, that b-story, meant to please angsty producers who think some excitement is needed, spoils the fun.  Not this time.

The end result is one of the most genuinely affecting episodes of the whole franchise.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - a fruitful glimpse into how the other half lives.
  • series - speaks volumes for the series' depth.
  • character - works for Worf, Picard, Sito...
  • essential - this is the humanity of Star Trek personified.
notable guest-stars:
Shannon Fill (Sito)
Patti Yasutake (Ogawa)
Alexander Enberg

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Next Generation 7x14 "Sub Rosa"

rating: [no stars]

the story: Crusher unwittingly uncovers a creepy secret about her family.

what it's all about: This is legitimately one of the worst episodes of the whole franchise.  Frankly, it's kind of the worst, if you take into account that it comes along when there's absolutely no reason for something like this to have happened.  I mean, the other worst episodes of this particular series occur in the first season, when Next Generation was struggling desperately to find itself.  "Sub Rosa" technically fits the pattern of the seventh season, in which dark family secrets of the past are exposed.

The problem with this one is this, and it's simple enough to explain: it's creepy.  It's really, really creepy.

Oh, if I could leave it at that..."Sub Rosa" takes all the wrong lessons from all Crusher's previous spotlight episodes.  I've talked about the remoteness of Crusher's personality in other reviews, and how it forced her to take positions that only further isolated her.  But "Sub Rosa" takes it to a thoroughly unlikeable extreme.

And it's so unfortunate, too, because we'd just had "Attached," where the carrot of the Crusher/Picard relationship was dangled so enticingly.  Instead, not just Crusher, but everyone woman in her family line, becomes the dupe in the dumbest romance ever, one of those parasitic beings who pop up in the franchise every now and then ("The Man Trap" from the original series, "Exile" from Enterprise) in desperate need for some lovin' and doing their best to screw it up as royally as possible (I mean, even Harry Kim wasn't this bad in Voyager! not even Geordi!).

It's supposed to seem like a classic romance of the 19th century, but yeah...just really, really creepy.  And Crusher is the last character capable of selling something this insipid and having it come off as anything but.  I have no idea why "Sub Rosa" isn't touted as the worst episode ever.  Because it basically is.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - makes Star Trek in general look bad.
  • series - makes the series itself look bad.
  • character - makes Crusher look bad.
  • essential - it makes everything look bad!
notable guest-stars:
Duncan Regehr

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Next Generation 7x13 "Homeward"

rating: ***

the story: Worf's foster brother forces everyone into a difficult position when he takes it on himself to relocate an entire alien race about to lose its home.

what it's all about: A lot of fans kind of never could tell the difference between "Homeward" and Star Trek: Insurrection.  So let me clarify: they basically two completely different stories.

Insurrection is about Starfleet being manipulated into trying to relocate an entire alien race because of a blood feud with another alien race that turns out to be the same one.  "Homeward" is about, well, what I said above.  You'd have to make pretty broad generalizations to confuse the two, and I just don't see the point, except as a matter of convenience for fans who have little time for nuance and are really just trying really hard to be dismissive.

No, "Homeward" doesn't need to be thought of in association with Insurrection at all.  Instead, it's a trademark episode of the seventh season, in which matters of family become disentangled from the past...and tangled in the present.

This time we get to meet Worf's foster brother, the son of the humans who took him in after the Khitomer disaster he experienced as a boy.  This is always a tricky thing to accomplish, because fans don't like to have someone brought up they spent...six seasons having nothing to do with.  But Star Trek, especially episodic Star Trek, which Next Generation most assuredly is, is uniquely suited to overlook such quibbles, if you have the mind to, and just let you worry about how Worf and his brother just don't get along, because although they grew up in the same house, they became totally different people.

Because we spend so much time with Starfleet officers in Star Trek (that was always one of the key advantages of Deep Space Nine, in that there were plenty of individuals who had nothing to do with it), it can sometimes be hard to imagine that there are people who matter in the future who aren't in Starfleet.  Worf's brother is one of them.  When we met his Klingon brother previously, that kicked off a whole Klingon opera in the series.  Here, it's less complicated but no less emotionally taxing.  Because Worf's human brother also has different ideas about how to conduct himself, and how he might contribute to galactic affairs, like Worf.

There's the whole matter of the Prime Directive to be considered.  Worf's brother doesn't take it as seriously as Worf and the rest of the crew.  If this had been the original series, Kirk probably would cheerily have done the very same thing, with some intense debates with Spock and McCoy, no doubt.  But this is another instance where Next Generation gets to explore the greater complexities of such situations, not just with words but actions, not by interfering in wars but the basic process of living.  This is a matter of deciding whether or not it's right to condemn an alien race to extinction.  Enterprise made a more direct pitch with "Dear Doctor," and ultimately, fans are better off thinking of "Homeward" in relation to that than Insurrection

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Speaks very well to classic Star Trek dilemmas.
  • series - Relevant to the whole season.
  • character - Certainly relevant to Worf!
  • essential - But you don't have to think too much about how important it is.
notable guest-stars:
Paul Sorvino
Penny Johnson

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Next Generation 7x12 "The Pegasus"

rating: ****

the story: Riker's old commanding officer brings back ghosts from the past, and a secret Federation cloaking device.

what it's all about: What's baffling to me is that fans have such a hard time appreciating Enterprise's series finale, "These Are the Voyages..."  They've cooked up this malarkey that it's somehow more of a Next Generation episode, because Riker and Troi play supporting roles in it, viewing Archer's crew in their holodeck.  What they so often fail to distinguish is that the Riker/Troi sequences are part of a different episode, "The Pegasus."

This is like trying to argue that Deep Space Nine's "Trials and Tribble-ations" isn't a stone cold classic because it features scenes from the original series' "The Trouble with Tribbles," or to a lesser extent, that Voyager's "Flashback" is unworthy of some distinction because it draws heavily on certain elements from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (both episodes were part of Star Trek's 30th anniversary celebration in 1996).

Listen, if you reference a classic episode, and that's exactly what "The Pegasus" is, and you manage to say something significant about it, which "These Are the Voyages..." does, it's really hard to argue what fans somehow have argued, for more than a decade.

"The Pegasus" is kind of the Riker episode Next Generation spent seven seasons trying to find.  Not just the idea that Riker never became a captain in all that time, but his troubled relationship with authority (Picard notwithstanding, which I think was the whole point of their dynamic, though it was never really spelled out as such), and how his early career was spent desperately trying to be the perfect officer (he even gave up Troi!), and finding that this was difficult even in a so-called utopia like Gene Roddenberry envisioned the future.  In fact, if you ever wanted to figure out how Next Generation changed the finish line of utopia from where Roddenberry originally placed it, "The Pegasus" is the place to look.  It crystalized years of storytelling for the series and led to great storytelling in subsequent series.  (Fans have an equally tough time making peace with Janeway making peace with the Maquis, and vice versa, so easily in Voyager, but I think it can be summed up with a viewing of "The Pegasus.")

So what does "These Are the Voyages..." have to say about "The Pegasus?"  Well, the Enterprise episode is all about the ability to trust your superior officer.  Trip ends up taking a unique interpretation of trust when he sacrifices himself to save Archer.  In a way, that's what Riker thinks he's doing in "The Pegasus."  Picard ("Lower Decks" just a few episodes later makes this very clear) could sometimes be a little high-minded, aloof, in his judgments of the crew, or at least appear to be, which no doubt always made it hard to face him.  Riker not only has to come clean about something from his past, but withholding information from the present as well.  In his mind, he's sacrificing himself in order for Picard to get to do the right thing.

It's perhaps too easy to interpret the episode as Riker doing the right thing.  He already did the right thing, originally, and now he's being asked to do it again.  The choice, however, is not ultimately his.  This isn't Miles O'Brien in "The Wounded," talking an old commanding officer out of something.  This isn't about whether or not Starfleet should have cloaking devices.  This is about Picard taking an active stance on the issue.  So often, in what would have only been conversational material in the original series, Picard was forced to accept the moral ambiguities of the universe, the very definition of adhering to the Prime Directive.  Here he's backed into a corner as never before.  And his first officer has disappointed him for the first time.

This is a Picard episode as much as a Riker episode.  This is about the two of them finally coming to terms with one another.  "The Best of Both Worlds" is often misunderstood as a Picard story, when in fact it's Riker's.   It's appropriate that the dynamics finally change when they're forced to confront each other once again. 

It's a big, big moment, one of the most important ones in the whole of franchise lore.  So of course it's worthy of a follow-up.  I mean, if the tribbles...!  (Incidentally, that's also why Wrath of Khan and Into Darkness can comfortably coexist, and all other happy echoes.  That's just good storytelling.  It's call narrative renascence.)

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Oh, it's important all the way around.
  • series - So definitely for the series itself.
  • character - For Riker, for Picard.
  • essential - Kind of the high point of the season, at the very least, eh?
notable guest-stars:
Terry O'Quinn

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Next Generation 7x11 "Parallels"

rating: ****

the story: Worf skips along a series of alternate realities.

what it's all about: While fans in general don't think much of the seventh season, they all seem to agree that "Parallels" is a highlight of the series.  It's just too much fun, more or less the "Trouble with Tribbles" of Next Generation.

It's really hard not to love.  Like the cleverest episodes of the series before it ("Cause and Effect," for instance), "Parallels" sets up a simple premise, lets you know everything you need to know, and then begins to chip away at that knowledge as the story progresses.  Worf returns from a Klingon tournament, which he has won, and it's his birthday, and the crew has a surprise party for him, even though Riker swears they wouldn't.  Then things change, and we get to see variations not just on stuff we know from the series (where an average episode would have drawn on), but the basics of the story itself.

And it's easily the funniest non-Q Next Generation experience you can imagine.  The more things change, the more you realize nothing's off-limits.  The Worf/Troi relationship, long teased and headed toward its culmination in the series finale, has some great material, such as when Worf ends up in a reality where he's married to Troi and has no idea! 

Wesley Crusher gets to pop up without too much fanfare thanks to the nature of the story, another prelude to later season developments (it can sometimes seem depressing, how easily Wes was to erase from later Next Generation lore, when he was so important in the early seasons, including a similar cameo in Star Trek Nemesis), and that's fun, too.

By the time the big convergence at the end of the episode occurs, and we see the harried Captain Riker of a reality where the Borg weren't defeated, "Parallels" brushes on just how serious this could've gotten, and you're grateful that it was kept so lighthearted.  Instead, it's a classic romp.  A classic, period.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Any fan would love this one!
  • series - Fans of the series, certainly!
  • character - Fans of Worf, of course!
  • essential - It's a classic.
notable guest-stars:
Wil Wheaton (Wesley)
Patti Yasutake (Ogawa)

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Next Generation 7x10 "Inheritance"

rating: ***

the story: Data meets his "mother."

what it's all about: This late-series addition to Data's backstory is a fascinating one, which maybe would have been better if it'd happened earlier.  You can bet that if this had been Deep Space Nine, we would've seen Noonien Soong's wife a few more times at least.

So it turns out Soong, the man who created Data, Lore, and B4 (whom we don't meet and/or know about until Star Trek Nemesis), also transferred his wife's consciousness into an android body.  This is a wonderful Next Generation echo of far more blunt moments from the original series ("What Are Little Girls Made Of?," for instance), and even from its own past ("The Survivors"). If "Inheritance" has a quieter legacy, it's because the story around what really matters is about as generic as the series could get.  It's still a step up from "Interface" earlier in the season, though, and a clear sign that the season had begun to find its footing.

Data was a remarkably rich character to explore.  Whether his quest in the present to become more human, or his origins, there was always great material to be found.  To consider it as something that could easily have consumed the entire series (Data was probably inspired by Gene Roddenberry's failed pilot concept, The Questor Tapes, which did star an android, played by later Trek alum Robert Foxworth) is to wonder how any other in the series ever managed to compete with him.  He even had the season premiere to resolve another aspect of his story, the matter of Lore and the emotions he'd stolen from Soong that were meant for Data.

That was a thorny story, and didn't in the end add anything new.  It was so obvious there was nowhere left to go with Lore the episode ended with Data switching him off!  So to have another android, one who apparently was the most sophisticated android Soong ever created, is something worth considering.

Soong had a human prototype to work with.  For the androids everyone knows he created, he merely used himself as a visual aide, and created everything else from the ground up.  For Tainer, he had an actual person.  From other episodes we already know Soong could program the memories of individuals into Data.  It's not so unreasonable to assume he could imprint Tainer's directly into a positronic net, so that the android believed it was Tainer.

That's the story, right there, Tainer not realizing what she is, but Data figuring it out.  It's perhaps one of his most human moments in the whole series, not one where he was forced to pass judgment on someone, but in the grand tradition of the series let the moral ambiguity work itself out.  Soong programmed the Tainer android to live a natural lifespan.  She never needed to find out, and Data decides it's just as well that way.

Soong was full of secrets.  What made him such a maddening genius was that those secrets had a way of revealing themselves without warning.  Tainer was the best of them, and "Inheritance" is a happy experience for it. 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Smart, subtle echoes to franchise lore.
  • series - In its basic structure reflects poorly on the creativity of the series.
  • character - Works wonders for Data, however.
  • essential - It adds a nice flavor to his backstory.
notable guest-stars:
Fionnula Flanagan (Tainer)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Star Trek's 50th Birthday!

Fifty years ago today, NBC aired "The Man Trap," the first broadcast episode of Star Trek.  The rest is history, right?

In sum: The series struggles to remain in production, limping to three seasons before finally being cancelled.  Then the fans truly emerge, and it just keeps coming back, in one form or another.  It makes history any number of ways: the mixed ethnicity of the crew, the interracial kiss, the technology, Vulcan culture. 

Everyone has a reason for why this happened, and why it endures to this day.  The more high-minded commentators point out that it was a perfect embodiment of all the best '60s ideals.  Today, Star Trek's legacy can perhaps best be summed up as: Star Wars' main competition.

Now, this is somewhat more interesting to me, as I am a fan of both franchises (it can happen!), and this has been the most relevant dialogue of the past forty years, ever since Star Wars helped revive Star Trek once and for all.

I think Star Wars invented a whole new class of Star Trek fans, actually.  Fans today moan about how JJ Abrams, who later directed Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force Awakens, turned Star Trek into Star Wars with his 2009 revisions, but this is something they've secretly wanted since they emphatically made the Star Wars-chasing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan into the franchise standard-bearer, so it's hard to explain. 

Remember how I noted everyone has their own reasons why Star Trek has persisted for fifty years?  Well, the fans who think Wrath of Khan, which often seems to be all of them, is worthy of such consideration seem to think it's because of Star Wars.  Yet Star Trek existed a full decade before anyone had seen Star Wars, and its wild and woolly legacy was already well underway by the time George Lucas started hammering out the specifics of his grand space saga. 

What makes Star Trek special is that it can embrace the Star Wars conceit, along with everything else.  I mean, Kirk was always a kind of Han Solo anyway, right?  What was Spock but a Jedi Starfleet officer?  There's a reason why he became so philosophic in the movies, because the filmmakers were suddenly concerned with how well he compared to the wise little Yoda.  They never had to worry.  Kirk and Spock are still Kirk and Spock, and people still have an easy time telling these franchises apart.  Star Trek Beyond was not the massive hit The Force Awakens was, because again, it embraced the complete wild and woolly legacy of its franchise.  It doesn't take three movies to tell a Star Trek story (unless Spock dies).

Star Trek was born for the Internet Age.  In some ways, it created the Internet Age.  Everything's up for debate, and things are either loved or loathed.  There's rarely any middle ground.  That's how fans have talked about Star Trek all along.  That's what put it in the position to be cancelled, all those years ago, because it was so polarizing, like the decade that spawned it.  But today, nobody thinks of Star Trek as a product of the '60s.  It's somehow transcended its own origins, even while fans continue to pour over the original series as if it were biblical truth (if that's your thing, and it certainly wasn't Gene Roddenberry's!), and only a heathen admits Star Trek might actually have...improved in later iterations.

The Next Generation, at its prime, did become the standard-bearer, but was quickly relegated to the same woes of its successors, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, as having to defend its legacy tooth and nail, its movies easy to dismiss, an era when Star Trek fell out of favor, not just among viewers but fans.  There came a time when the franchise looked all but dead, with no one much interested in reviving it.

Today, you have absurd debates about Star Trek Into Darkness being the worst of all possible Treks, because it dared echo Wrath of Khan, and you wonder, what's it all about?  Is it about rancor, about putting up little fences and finding enemies everywhere?  Not the Star Trek I know.  Apart from everything else, it's a message of hope, that we can overlook petty differences, finally, that we can find common ground.  Like Star Trek.  I can sometimes seem as if I want everyone to like everything.  That's never been the case.  I don't like everything.  But it's always been odd, seeing how much passion Star Trek fans put into hating various pieces of the franchise.  There's a million ways to love the franchise, to celebrate it, to boast about it.  If Star Trek really did create the Internet Age, I think fifty years ago, something very different would have aired.

If there's something that hateful in "The Man Trap," and other episodes, I never saw it.  Today, I remember, I choose to remember, the best of it, because that seems to be the standard Star Trek tried to set, all those years ago.  If it's remembered in another fifty years, I think fans will have finally figured that out.  Hopefully.  The future's funny like that.  Constantly going where no one has gone before...

Best Episodes:
  • "The Trouble with Tribbles" (Star Trek 2x15) Nothing quite captures the spirit of the original series as this lark featuring the most unlikely menaces in the galaxy, plus Klingons!
  • "Yesteryear" (The Animated Series 1x2) This crucial episode formed the basis of Spock's backstory as featured in 2009's Star Trek.
  • "The Inner Light" (The Next Generation 5x25) The dignity of the series, and Picard, in a nutshell.
  • "The Visitor" (Deep Space Nine 4x3) The deep bond between Sisko and his son embodied the soul of this series, and this is the best opportunity to explore it.
  • "Distant Origin" (Voyager 3x23) The series often said to on the whole be the most generic of the franchise also made the quintessential episode of the franchise.
  • "Twilight" (Enterprise 3x8) The third season Xindi arc helped define this series, and this is the episode that helped define the Xindi arc.
Best Characters:
  • Spock (Star Trek) With all due apologies to Kirk, this was the indisputably logical selection.
  • Picard (Next Generation) They used to teach leadership lessons based on this guy.
  • Sisko (Deep Space Nine) As noted above, he was the necessary soul of his show.
  • Seven of Nine (Voyager) The curvaceous ex-Borg transformed what it meant to be human.
  • Trip (Enterprise) The final episode revolved around him.  People tend to forget that.
Best Movies:
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Star Trek) This Cold War capper perfectly encapsulated what it meant to love the original crew.
  • Star Trek: First Contact (Next Generation) Picard's best showcase.
  • Star Trek (2009) The introduction to the reboots is perfect.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Next Generation 7x9 "Force of Nature"

rating: *

the story: Scientists claim that warp drive is an environmental menace.

what it all means: Boy o boy.  Fans really pick their spots when naming the worst episodes/movies/ideas in franchise lore.  "Force of Nature" rarely seems to come up in the conversation, but like "Phantams" earlier in the season, it certainly merits consideration...

As with most episodes/movies fans despise," the problem resides mostly in the idea (although execution often plays a heavy hand): just go back and read my plot summary above and try and see for yourself what the problem might be.

Okay, let me spell it out for you: having the basic concept of warp drive questioned is like having an episode question tricorders, or communicators.  Sure, one of the running tropes of the franchise is questioning transporters, but Star Trek could technically get by without them.  It couldn't without warp drive.  You see the problem?

The '90s were a watershed moment in the environmentalism movement.  You wouldn't have the concept of climate change without the ideas discussed in the '90s, when great strides were made in at least addressing the worst things man was indisputably doing to nature.  We've since entered territory where things are a little less clear-cut, and "Force of Nature" kind of epitomizes that.  Simply put, we're now kind of putting into question whether humans are more menace than friend to the planet, on an existential level.  "Force of Nature" does the same with Starfleet, whether or not it realizes it.

It's a brave and foolish subject to tackle, and the episode has been questioned in the past, but it apparently has been easy to overlook in more recent years.  This is oddly troubling.  The whole franchise very early on developed a reputation for fearlessly tackling the most difficult issues, and usually not having too much of a problem sounding right about them.  Here it's such a difficult subject, and handled so clumsily, it's hard to know what to make of the episode, even two decades later.

So I will exercise the rare privilege of giving the final verdict up, and merely noting that it's worth considering in the greater Star Trek experience.  Otherwise I'd be very much inclined to outright dismiss it, the way fans can sometimes find it so easy in such matters.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - This big idea is at least worthy of Star Trek's highest ideals.
  • series - The series should really have been able to do better, though.
  • character - Some half-hearted attempts were made to ground the story.
  • essential - I'm inclined to say this is the opposite of essential.
notable guest-stars:
Lee Arenberg

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Next Generation 7x8 "Attached"

rating: ***

the story: Picard and Crusher become tethered to each other's thoughts.

what it all means: If "Dark Page" initiated the seventh season's efforts to dig deeper into the familiar characters of the series, "Attached" is the episode that finally offered some time to one of the show's longstanding unfulfilled teases: the relationship between Picard and Crusher.

Part of the series backstory is that the good captain and his first medical officer previously served together, and that Crusher's husband died under Picard's command.  This kind of necessarily resulted in a complicated would-be romance that never quite happened (somewhat amusingly spun further in "All Good Things...," the final episode, in which they finally did get married...but then ended up divorced).  They could often be seen hanging out socially together, in their private quarters, but that was about as far as it ever went.  Until "Attached," no episode had really even tried to explore it directly.  ("The Arsenal of Freedom" from the first season also saw they trapped together, but nothing like the events here transpired.)

But once they could literally not get away from each other, it becomes an entirely different matter.  Crusher usually needed a strong tether to break free from her natural inertia as a character (all charm, no wit), and Picard is as good a tether as you can find.  Like the earlier "Liaisons" after someone in the writers room figured out how to make that particular story less disposable, "Attached" is also a version of a story that has reliably provided great material in the franchise ("Shuttlepod One" from Enterprise, for instance), in which two characters are forced to spend time together, and everyone wins because of it.

The episode around this scenario is somewhat generic and underdeveloped, but that can easily be forgiven, considering.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Sorry, this is a private viewing party!
  • series - For Next Gen fans, thank you!
  • character - Specifically, Picard/Crusher shippers!
  • essential - I mean, seriously!

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Next Generation 7x7 "Dark Page"

rating: ***

the story: It seems Lwaxana Troi has been hiding a secret pain...

what it all means: This is the only Lwaxana episode (in Next Generation and Deep Space Nine) where Lwaxana herself does not dominate the story.  In some respects, it's the first time her daughter Troi is in control.  Granted, for horrible reasons, but...

"Dark Page" is in some respects the first truly seventh-season episode of the seventh season, the first deep cut into backstory the season allows to fully breathe.  Unlike "Descent, Part 2" or "Interface," this is a truly relevant story of the series, with no qualifications needed.  It even has aliens-of-the-week who go out of their way to help rather than hinder, which is about the one and only time in franchise history this happens.

But you need to be a fan of the series to appreciate it, because without the context, you have no idea what's missing from Lwaxana, and thus why it's so important that this is the rare excursion into taking her seriously ("Half a Life" is the best such example).

Why Troi has two mysteries under her belt this season (the later "Eye of the Beholder" as well) is something of a mystery itself, or just maybe why it took the series so long to let her be featured this way (contrary to what some say, she was always one of the series' strongest characters, when given half a chance, including her standout appearance in the pivotal "Skin of Evil" from the first season).  Too often, she was stuck in lousy episodes with lousy relationships with lousy aliens of the week.  In fact, part of what makes "Dark Page" so refreshing is that it seems to go out of its way to refute that this was ever even necessary, and again, that makes it more a Troi episode than a Lwaxana episode.  We learn Lwaxana's deep, dark secret, but we also learn how strong Troi is entirely on her own.

(I mean, usually she has to be pretty tough around her mother, but not this tough!)

From here, it becomes easier for the season to delve into rich character work, of the kind far removed from the gimmicky early efforts.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Might be baffling for the uninitiated.
  • series - Although perfect for the initiated!
  • character - Good for Lwaxana.
  • essential - Great for Troi!
notable guest-stars:
Majel Roddenberry (Lwaxana Troi)
Kirsten Dunst

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Next Generation 7x6 "Phantasms"

rating: *

the story: Data has nightmares that end up helping save the ship.

what it all means: That logline kind of makes "Phantasms" sound as awesome as Voyager's "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy," in which the Holographic Doc's daydreams are tapped into by aliens (also known as the debut of the so-called Potato Heads), and while some of "Phantasms" is awesome, it isn't really, on the whole.  It's kind of a variation of a Barclay episode, but with Data carving up Troi cake.

In fact, Troi cake is the best part about the episode (cellular peptide, with mint frosting!).  The rest of it is kind of a waste of the potential introduced in "Birthright, Part 1," in which Data initially unlocks the ability to dream.  There ought to be fans who deride "Phantasms" the way they do "Spock's Brain" (or the later seventh season episode "Genesis," for whatever reason; fans are overly concerned with images they think make Star Trek look cheap, which apparently doesn't include all the horrible choreography of the original series, the Gorn fight being just the tip of the iceberg).

Is it that bad?  No.  It's not "Sub Rosa," for instance.  But it's certainly the seventh season living up to its reputation for disposability (it's got about the same mix as any other season of middling episodes).

For shear kitsch value, though, it's hard to dismiss an episode featuring Freud uttering the advice: "You must kill zem.  Kill zem all!" 

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - Not particularly how you want to represent Star Trek!
  • series - Not the series, either!
  • character - Still, it's a fun Data episode.
  • essential - Though, one you could easily skip!
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