Every time I see this episode title, I get a Flight of the Conchords song in my head.
Maybe I'm suffering from some sort of weird Stockholm Syndrome/Ludvico Treatment hybrid effect, but I found two of this week's three episodes to be a substantial improvement over much of what we've already covered, and even the weak link of the bunch had some promising moments. The cast is settling into their roles: Picard's belligerence has hit a comfortable level, Data isn't doing that freaky grin anymore, Wesley is occasionally bearable, and Tasha Yar doesn't get many lines. Even better, the stories are improving, with stronger pacing, clearer conflicts, and a more definite sense of identity. While they aren't perfect, the scripts are beginning to come out from the shadow of TOS, and taking advantage of TNG's one great asset over its predecessor: a larger universe to play in. On TOS, Kirk and the rest bounced from world to world without much sense of connection between places. On the new series, Picard and his Enterprise are part of a definite system, and that means a different kind of storytelling.
For example: in TOS, starbases acted like townships in Westerns, small pockets of isolated civilization trying to hold together in the face of a million miles of untamed void. Starbase 74, which the new Enterprise visits at the start of "11001001," is more like a post office or a city hall, a comfortable, professional location where trustworthy people do reliable things. The ship is due for some routine maintenance, and the holodeck needs looking in to; this last is mostly mentioned as set-up for what happens later in the episode, but it also works as casual continuity with "The Big Goodbye," so that's nice. While the work gets done, the crew finds ways to keep themselves busy.
I've mentioned TNG's strong sense of community before, and "11001001" does an excellent job of reinforcing that, following Riker around as he visits all the leads in turn to try and find some way to keep himself occupied. Beverly Crusher is attending a lecture by a leader in the field of cybernetics; Tasha Yar and Worf are off to play some made-up future game; and Geordi is helping Data paint a picture. None of this is strictly necessary plot-wise. That's another interesting departure from the original show, which had ample padding, but very few "pure character" moments. It's effective, too. Instead of feeling like wasted time, Riker's walking tour increases our emotional attachment to the cast, and helps build the illusion the stories we see don't end when the camera stops rolling.
Still, we're not going to get an entire episode of that sort of thing, so eventually a plot emerges. For technical work, the Federation employs the Bynars, a race of bald, child-sized gray aliens who have evolved a special, highly dependent relationship with computers. They communicate with each other and name themselves in binary (hence the episode title), work in pairs, and are able to compile and enter massive amounts of data in very short periods of time. Now, you'd think Picard would be a little suspicious after the last alien to come through and muck about with his ship, but clearly the Bynars are an accepted part of organization, so the captain leaves them to their work without so much as a suspicious glance.
Surprise surprise, the Bynars are up to something, which doesn't become evident until Riker makes a trip to the holodeck and meets a lovely computer simulation named Minuet. Minuet easily wins Riker over (my favorite part of this is how Number One acts like it's true love, when she's just a program designed to feed him exactly what he wants to eat), keeping him on the 'deck until Picard comes to see what's going on. She manages to ensnare Picard as well, just long enough for the Bynars to send out a fake message that the engines are about to asplode, forcing Data, commanding officer due to Riker and Picard's incommunicado status, to evacuate the Enterprise. It's a good sequence, because even though we know the ship isn't going to blow up, the crew doesn't, and the efficiency of the ruse is quite satisfying.
Also satisfying: the holodeck does exactly what's it's supposed to do, and no more. That's going to be an increasingly rare event as the show progresses. The Bynars steal the Enterprise and bring it back to their home world, Bynaus, in order to save their civilization. A star in a neighboring system went super-nova, sending out an EMP that would threaten the integrity of the Bynaus mainframe. Given how much the Bynars depend on their computer systems, this was very bad news indeed, and they decided to grab a star-ship and download all the necessary information into its hard-drives to allow them a chance to reboot after the pulse passed. The holodeck distraction/seduction was a back-up, in case their timing was off and they needed someone around to get them up and running again. And it works, without any need for malfunctioning equipment or self-aware literary characters. (Although the Bynars are lucky, because Picard being along for the ride wasn't a part of their plan. He just happened to check on Riker at the right time to fall into the trap, but if he hadn't been there, the plan would've failed because the Bynar system requires two people for the rebooting process.)
I had fun with this, which I wasn't expecting. It's one of the few first season episodes I could remember before re-watching, and last time I saw it, I thought Riker and Minuet's interactions were cheesy as hell. They didn't bother me so much now, because they don't go on very long, and there's something hilarious about a man trying to seduce a computer simulation designed to respond to his seductions. There's an episode down the line that'll give me a chance to go into the idea in more depth, but it'll be a while before we get there, so for right now: how psychologically healthy can the holodeck really be? On the one hand, I can imagine it serving as an excellent stress reliever, and it could even build the self-esteem of nervous or insecure young people who will take any kind of encouragement they can get. But on the other hand, it's already difficult enough separating fiction from reality. The sex stuff makes for good jokes and squirming, but what about someone who falls in love with a phantom that will never get tired, never leave them, never break their heart? TNG is big on the "perfect" future, so, for now at least, we don't see a lot of tortured psyches. But I imagine there's gotta be some kind of limit of use on these machines, and you'd probably want a competent psychological counselor keeping an eye out in case somebody got twitchy. (Again, this becomes more relevant in a season or two.)
Riker's romance with Minuet is played for a little more poignancy than it really deserved, and there's a surprising lack of conflict for all the running around, but I thought this was solid.
"Too Short A Season"
Okay, this one I didn't like as much. To repeat a point I made in a TOS review, genre fiction has a long established habit of telling us the things we dream of aren't the things we really want. Immortality, untold riches, the love of millions, an empty world full of books—all of these things sound good, but, if we're going by the lessons we learn from our favorite writers, they've all got nasty hooks built in, catches so small you don't notice the danger till they rip your heart out. The dramatic irony in granting wishes that hurt the wisher without changing a word is sound, but after years of being taught the same lesson, you can't help but wonder if all this insistence on not aiming for the impossible might be unreasonable, especially when it comes to eternal youth. Sure, it would most likely stagnate our race and you could, theoretically, become incredibly bored if you lost that invisible expiration date, but I dunno, I wouldn't mind sticking around a thousand years or two just to be sure.
"Too Short A Season" has that classic staple, the de-aging drug, and if anybody went into this expecting a happy ending, they haven't been paying attention. The political maneuverings are a new side to the show, and there's a darkness we haven't really dealt with before, which was solid turn. Admiral Mark Jameson's third act confession is a nasty piece of business, the sort of mistake you can imagine a well-meaning but arrogant and short-sided young man making, and the consequences are impressive, but the episode is undone by a weak central performance, and a sci-fi angle which is too familiar to be as tragic as it should be. Oh, and the ending ties up waaaay too neatly.
I knew I recognized Clayton Rohner. He plays Jameson, and though he's caked in unconvincing old age make-up when we first see him, he's in plain view by the end. (I always think this kind of story would be better served by casting two actors in the role. Probably not possible due to budget constraints, but the make-up gives away the game too early. I see someone slathered in lumpy laytex, I start waiting to see what they'll look like once the make-up is gone. The lesson here is the importance of aging gracefully, but the effects are so distracting that youth seems like the more natural state. I'm not sure it's effective to give us ample opportunity to cringe at the old guy's weird face.) Rohner doesn't get around quite enough to be one of the "Hey, it's that guy!" crew, but he did play the male lead in Just One Of The Guys, a movie I largely remember for the scene when Joyce Hyser opens her tuxedo shirt. He's lousy here, acting like a Muppet when he's supposed to be elderly and weak, then laying on the over-heated angst once his youth is restored. The ideas here aren't terrible, but Jameson is so thoroughly unlikable that it's hard to care much what happens to him.
As for the sci-fi tragedy… Picard and the Enterprise are sent to pick Jameson up when a hostage crisis breaks out on Mordan IV. Karnas, the leader of the planet, sends a message that the terrorists who've taken the hostages (Federation staff, of course) are only willing to deal with Jameson, who, in his less-plastic-face days was a respected negotiator who'd previously had dealings with Karnas and his people. Jameson's old now, and grumpy, but more than willing to go back to Mordan IV to save the day. Once aboard the Enterprise, though, strange things start happening to the man. He has painful attacks, and that would be a concern if Jameson didn't appear to be getting stronger and healthier with each passing hour. Not just healthier; his hair comes back, regains its color, his skin smooths out, and he's pretty randy, too, to the dismay of his wife.
After dodging the issue for some time, Jameson finally comes clean. There's a mystical de-aging drug, he got his hands on some doses, and while he'd been administering them in the recommended portion for some time, the sudden emergency (and shot at redemption) convinced him it was necessary to take all the magic meds at once. Now he's back in his late twenties, but his body isn't handling the change very well, and his wife believes he betrayed her by keeping it a secret. Then, just to completely bum everybody out, Jameson explains to Picard the real reason Karnas requested him specifically. The last time Jameson was on Mordan IV, Karnas was the one with the hostages, demanding the Federation give him some proper weapons so he could take over the planet. Jameson gave in, but he also gave weapons to all of Karnas's enemies. In this way, he believed he was holding to the Prime Directive, which is a terribly obvious piece of poor rationalization, made all the more evident when the whole planet was plunged into four decades of civil war. Nice work!
We get some good dialog with the regular crew, and conceptually, a man so desperate to redeem his past that he'll risk everything to relive it has thematic and plotting potential. Plus, it's good to get periodic reminders why the Prime Directive is so important. Come to think of it, this episode works as a direct response to "A Private Little War" back in TOS, when Kirk ended up giving a group of natives some phasers to try and balance the damage done by Klingon interference. That episode was willing to acknowledge the double-edged nature of the situation, and "Short" confirms just how ineffective such action ultimately is.
Really, though, I can't get past how over-the-top Jameson was, and how it's painfully easy to chart out his character's arc the instant you realize he's taken a youth serum. He's gonna die, because they always do, and it's hard to get that worked up about it. Tragedy can gain resonance from our expectations, but it needs to expose some greater emotional truth, and that really isn't the case here. I could see this sort of thing working in TOS—and hell, Rohner's performance would've fit nicely next to Shatner—but it's too old-school, too willing to accede to our expectations, to be effective. Besides, it's hard to get caught up in a story in which our main characters are largely incidental.
"When The Bough Breaks"
This episode features children. And Wesley. And Wesley spending time with children. And you know what? I liked it. I know. I'm scared too.
Part of my affection may have something to do with the way "When The Bough Breaks" starts with what I've decided is a Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy reference. In Guide, Zaphod Beeblebrox steals the Heart Of Gold in order to find Magrathea, the most improbable planet in the galaxy, whose inhabitants were technologically advanced enough to actually build other planets. The resemblance to Aldea, the mythical planet that the Enterprise discovers at the start of "Bough," isn't close enough for me to be certain that it's a nod to Douglas Adam's novel, but it's close enough that I can enjoy my suspicions, at any rate. Legend has it that the Aldeans were technologically advanced, and that they hid themselves away from the universe. And just like in Guide, it's not a very nice place to visit.
We're used to super-advanced races on Trek, because evolution and development doesn't move at a single galactic rate. Also, really advanced people can do basically whatever the writers want them to do, which opens up the story possibilities significantly. Here, the Aldeans, led by hottie Rashella and hottie-for-very-particular-tastes Radue (Played by Jerry Hardin, who was Deep Throat on The X-Files. Kind of regretting the last joke right now, because I'm worried I'll have some truly horrid dreams later tonight.) contact the Enterprise, act very welcoming, and even beam themselves onto the bridge of the ship with a gift basket. Their planet is cloaked, they're shielded so that it's seemingly impossible for anyone to beam down without their consent, and they seem very friendly. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, there's the probe that zaps Wesley and all the other children aboard the ship, for starters. This is just a prelude to the real assault: kidnapping seven kids (including Wes) down to Aldea. The Aldeans, for reasons they don't understand, are unable to bear children, and they want some fresh faces to keep the race going. Whether from arrogance, a misunderstanding of cultural values, or the desperation of their need, Radue and the others think they can bargain their crime away by offering payment in exchange for the swiped kiddies. Obviously that's not going to fly, since, as Troi explains to them and the audience, humans are "unusually" attached to their offspring. (I don't buy this at all, by the way.) Picard is pissed, Dr. Crusher is freaking out, and nobody's going to tell either of them that a civilization of super-geniuses knows better than they do.
Actually, that's overstating. The Aldeans seem decent enough, apart from the kidnapping, but they don't have any idea how all their uber-sweet tech works. The whole thing is run by a computer system they call "The Custodian," and they prefer to press a few buttons and let the programming take care of the rest. In fact, they get downright annoyed when Wesley tries to ask questions, and as much as I sympathize with anyone who gets irked by the Prince of Dorkness, once again I find myself on Wesley's side. Blind acceptance is almost never a healthy choice in science fiction, especially when computers are involved, and it's not surprising that the Aldeans inability to procreate stems from their ignorance. The power source for their planet's shield has given them radiation poisoning—poisoning that, ironically, would've rendered Wesley and the other children just as sterile as the natives, given enough time.
While the presence of children on the Enterprise has been mentioned before, this is the first time we've had extensive contact with them beyond Wes, and it's not as bad as it could've been. They're cute and precocious, but they aren't sassy, thankfully, and they aren't required to act too far above their ages. Given the short amount of time that passes, their separation anxiety isn't all that powerful, but it's easy to dislike the Aldeans for their presumption, and as much as this episode gives us proof of the stupidity of bringing children on a ship like the Enterprise, the end result is yet another reminder of this ship as a unit of people, and not just a backdrop where the main characters can kill time between adventures.
Wesley's attempt at rebellion through passive resistance is an effective choice, considering the team he has to work with. Of course, there's never any real worry the children will be left behind, and since the Aldeans are peaceful enough that there's no risk of physical harm coming to anyone, the conflict lacks a certain edge. Plus, the fact that there's a solution to the problem that makes everyone happy is something of a cop-out. Once the source of the radiation is discovered—the energy battery that powers the planetary cloaking device—Crusher is able to heal the whole population. That's too happy, honestly. It's okay if there's a little blood left over by the end credits, because if conclusions are always perfectly neat, their essential artificiality becomes even more difficult to ignore.
- Picard makes reference to a "personal relaxation light." Apparently, the future is too cool for reading lamps.
- I like that Riker can be a dick sometimes: "A blind man teaching an android how to paint"
- "Their phasers, sir, set on kill." "Thank you, Mr. Data, I have heard the sound before."
- Alexandra: cute as a button… or cuter?
- Next week, we look at "Home Soil," "Coming Of Age," and "Heart Of Glory"