“Descent: Part 2” (first aired 9/18/93)
Or The One Where Data Is His Brother’s Keeper
Here we are with the seventh season première of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the final season premiere for the entire run of the show—and, well, it’s not looking quite as solid as I’d like, really. We’ve got two of the series most familiar villains, who respectively serve as polar opposite representations of humans’ inherent fear of technology: the Borg, as the impersonal machine that renders all our individuality moot; and Lore, as unchecked aggression with inhuman strength and persistence. And bridging the gap between those two we’ve got Data, the fan-favorite android whose benevolent quest to be a real live boy has been seemingly perverted into rage for his former friends on the Enterprise. Picard, Troi, and Geordi have been taken captive by Lore and his followers, while Beverly’s captaining the Enterprise and Riker and Worf are running into Hugh, the individualized Borg drone who (through no fault of his own) started this whole mess. It’s a very busy episode, no doubt about it, and it has a few exciting moments; Captain Crusher’s attempts to out-maneuver the Borg ship have the hallmarks of a good TNG episode, with smart people making risky choices, and it’s fun to have all that “metaphasic shielding” stuff from “Suspicions” pay off in an unexpected context.
So why don’t I love this? My knee-jerk response is to say that “Descent: Part 2,” even more than “Part 1,” doesn’t really feel like TNG, but I’ve used that criticism before, and it’s not a particularly effective one. It doesn’t say anything specific. So digging deeper, I’d say the failing of this episode, and of the two-parter as a whole, is that it doesn’t go much beyond the obvious. The biggest idea the writers had on this one was “Lore takes advantage of the Borg,” and while that’s not a bad idea at all (and a fairly clever way to bring Lore back, really), “Descent” never goes beyond it, not really. Apart from Hugh, the Borg are little more than mobile props—there are occasional nods to the turmoil they must be experiencing after being severed from the Collective, but once the episode has established that Lore is the real threat, the Borg operate like any other manipulated race. They listen to the master, they obey, right up until it becomes dramatically effective for them to stop obeying, at which point they start fighting amongst themselves. They used to be the show’s boogeymen, but here, they are presented almost entirely as victims. In a better episode, this could’ve been effective. We could’ve gotten into the ethics of the situation: In a way, Lore is more evil than the Borg because he actually recognizes that his behavior causes harm, whereas the Borg simply see themselves as obeying a natural, and ultimately beneficial, prerogative. But even Lore was programmed, which makes you wonder how much to blame for all of this he really is—or, at least, that’s what I would have wondered, if the episode had any interest in that sort of question.
Instead, we get what is a half-hearted deflation of a potentially devastating threat, and a betrayal of one of TNG’s most consistently compelling characters. This is an episode that can only survive if you don’t think about it, if you spend most of the running time taking the most shallow possible interpretation of events. And that’s a problem, because this show has trained us by now to always think things through. “Descent” is far from TNG’s worst episode, and it’s easy to be moderately entertained while watching it, but for all its seemingly epic scope, it’s essentially hollow, raising big issues only to drop them without much consideration.
So, it turns out I was basically dead on when I guessed that Lore was using some sort of emotion emitter to manipulate the Borg and Data—and I don’t mention this to brag (Haha—I correctly predicted the plot of a show that aired almost 20 years ago), but because… okay, I did sort of mention it to brag. But come on, how weak is this? Lore is using the emotion chip he stole in “Brothers” to send a carrier wave that overwhelms artificial life forms with feelings they can’t understand, making them vulnerable to his machinations. At least, I think he has to be using this chip on the Borg as well as Data, since we definitely see angry Borg or worried Borg at various points throughout the episode. Plus, Data caught the wave during the Borg encounter that started this whole mess. But we never see Lore actively controlling how much “feeling” the Borg get, like we see him doing for Data. Does he have it set to some kind of low-level aggression? Does he only activate it when he needs the group to attack? And none of the Borg we see are addicted to emotion like Data clearly is. Lore’s control over the group is shaky at best, given how easily Hugh is able to infiltrate them and then throw everyone into a riot when the narrative requires an easy resolution. In concept, Lore taking over as leader of a small group of Borg who’ve been thrown into confusion by Hugh’s individuality makes sense; Lore is one of the only other artificial life forms around, and he’s comfortable with being his own man (so to speak). But how did Lore find the rogue Borg? And why haven’t other Borg tracked down these rebels and eliminated them? Surely this dissolution would be a greater threat to the Collective than, well, just about anything. At times, it feels like we’ve jumped into a story past the most interesting part, and while I realize there’s no way that TNG in its current form could’ve shown us Lore and the rogue Borg’s initial connection, the episode could’ve been substantially improved if it gave off the impression that anyone had given any thought at all to the back-story.
Then there’s poor Data. Last episode had him confronting the fact that not all emotions are easy to handle—this one has him as a brainwashed junkie willing to betray his closest friends and the entire human race for a quick fix of… pleasure, I guess? I dunno. Look, there are ways this could have worked. (I’m beginning to sense a theme here.) Data’s quest for humanity has been arguably the most persistent character objective in the run of the series, and it’s led to some great episodes. And even the episodes that weren’t great were interesting, primarily because Data is at once instantly likeable and utterly alien. He is polite, non-confrontational, never takes offense or gets angry, and, because of his inability to consistently comprehend the behavior of even his closet friends, he’s set slightly apart from the rest of normal society—something which just about everyone can relate to. But he’s also a machine, and invulnerable to the weaknesses and indiscretions that plague seemingly every other sentient being on the show. He mimics empathy, but is incapable of experiencing it; his mercy is the mercy of subroutines, logic, and facts. Which, up until now, has served him and his co-workers very well, but what if he finally got what he thought he wanted—what would happen next? Imagine an adult whose spent his entire life emotion-free suddenly waking up lustful, sad, impassioned and delighted all at the same time. It would render him, at least for the moment, incapable of making rational decisions, because he would have no frame of reference for what “rational” meant in this new context. Data’s in roughly the same position, he's been fixed his whole existence to strive for emotion. So how do his priorities shift once the new emotion hits? We saw he was willing to risk the lives of two of his closest friends for the sake of a sentient vacuum cleaner last season. Who knows what he’d risk if his goal was in sight.
That’s not really what we get, though. We get brainwashed Data, who needs to be reminded of his friends and separated from the tech that’s making him be all evil and stuff. There’s no subtlety in Data’s performance in “Part 2.” He sneers at Picard, Troi, and Geordi like a second-rate hoodlum, and we never get a sense of him transitioning from the generally normal Data of the first part of this story to the willing-to-torture-Geordi Data we see here. The only real way to read this is that everything that happens once Data escaped the Enterprise with Crosis happened because Data was under Lore’s control. Despite the conversations with Troi last time about “negative” emotions (which, frustratingly, gets raised again here and then immediately dropped; does that mean Troi was wrong, and there are negative emotions, not just negative actions? Because it certainly doesn’t seem like Data has a choice in his actions), this has nothing to do with Data’s quest, nothing to do with him becoming more human. If it did, I doubt Picard and the others would be so comfortable at letting the android off the hook after everything that happens. The final scene of the episode has Data nearly destroying the emotion chip, because it made him do things he’s not proud of. Then Geordi stops him and has him put it aside until he’s ready to use it, or something. How does that work? When will Data know he’s ready to install a chip that, earlier, made him turn traitor and engage in a campaign, however briefly, to destroy all non-artificial intelligent life? This could’ve been a profound, even tragic moment, but given how muddled and lazy his episode arc is, feels like too little, too late.
Again, this isn’t terrible. I enjoyed Beverly kicking ass and taking names on the bridge of the Enterprise, although I’m not sure how necessary it was; the problem with big two-parters like this is that writers assume they need to shoehorn storylines for every character, and that means that the most compelling parts of the story (here, the Borg/Lore problem and how that relates to Hugh) have to share time with not necessarily awful but still less than essential threads. Worf and Riker seem to get forgotten for large chunks of the episode—they run into another group of rogue Borg on the planet, they meet up with Hugh again and find out he’s less than happy with the role the Enterprise played in his life, and they disappear until the last 15 minutes or so, when they convince Hugh to help them get into the compound, just in time for Hugh to stop Lore from shooting Data. I’m not sure why Hugh would be all that compelled to save Data; they didn’t hang out much at all during “I, Borg” (Hugh’s closest relationship there was with Geordi, who’s off busy being unconscious during the climax), but I guess it’s just assumed that, hey, he’s a nice guy and everything, why not. Then we get a great scene in which Picard installs Hugh as the ruler of his band of merry, murdering Borg, and the heroes ride off into the sunset with the pleasure of a job well done. So while it’s not terrible, it doesn’t really hold up. This is the last we see of Lore, a character who was always more interesting in concept than practice, and it’s the last we see of the Borg on this show, and neither goodbye is particularly satisfying.
- Fact I learned thanks to Memory Alpha: the actor who plays Lieutenant Barnaby here (James Horan) also played Jo’Bril, the possum-playing villain of “Suspicions.” The actor really nails both sides of the multiphasic shielding debate.
- This was my week to be haunted by Benito Martinez, an actor best known as for his role as Captain Aceveda on The Shield. He plays Salazar, the transporter tech, here; he showed up in last week’s Torchwood finale; and he popped up on the latest episode of Sons Of Anarchy.
- Next time someone pisses you off, point your cell phone at them and say, “I am ready to irradiate your existing brain cells.”
“Liasons” (first aired: 9/25/93)
Or The One Where Picard Gets Lucky By Not Getting Lucky
I wonder if the Enterprise has a special alert category for ambassador missions. Like, they couldn’t go to Red Alert, because even the most oblivious alien might wonder about the constantly flashing red lights, but surely they need to make sure everyone on board is on their toes when some strange outsider beams aboard, brimming over with baffling customs and, potentially, horrifying new smells. Episodes with ambassadors nearly always mean bad news (I mean more for the characters than for the audience, although we’ve also had to endure our share of suffering), but that stands to reason when you think about it. I mean, sure, given the nature of storytelling, it wouldn’t make much sense to show us the times the Enterprise had, say, a Sornag from Untonia on board without any incident, but it also fits for less metatextual reasons. An ambassador mission is essentially an attempt between two cultures to negotiate some common understanding. Tensions are high even during the most seemingly benign encounters, and the two groups, no matter how well meaning, don’t even have the comfort of a shared humanity to fall back on.
“Liasons” is another ambassador episode (I feel like I should’ve put more effort into establishing a category for these), and yes, Troi is involved. And yes, there is some unsettling sexual politicking, but thankfully, Deanna isn’t involved there; the worst she has to deal with here is an upset stomach. The Enterprise is doing a cultural exchange with the Iyaarans, a somewhat mysterious race that nobody knows much about. Two Iyaaran ambassadors are going to stay on the ship, while Picard is set to travel to the Iyaaran homeworld. The initial meeting seems to go well, as one of the Iyaarans, Loquel, immediately takes to Deanna, but when Picard tries to partner the other Iyaaran, Byleth, with Riker, Byleth refuses and demands to work with Worf. Which is odd, to say the least, and Byleth’s cold, arrogant attitude doesn’t bode well for Worf’s peace of mind, but the Klingon accepts the burden readily enough. Then Picard gets on the shuttle with a third Iyaaran, Voval, and heads off.
What follows are two different stories, albeit ones that ultimately stem from the same source. While Worf deals with an inexplicably hostile Byleth, and Troi handles Loquel’s developing obsession with sweets and desserts, Picard and Voval run into their own problems. Something goes wrong with the shuttle, and Voval is forced to make an emergency landing on an apparently unknown planet. When Voval is injured in the crash, Picard goes out looking for help, and gets zapped by a plasma field. When he comes to, he’s in a downed freighter, his wounds have been seen to and a young woman is tending to a fire. Her name is Anna, she’s been trapped on the planet by herself for seven years and she has a few issues. Those issues aren’t immediately obvious, but Anna is clearly very, very lonely, right from the start. And Picard is a patient, polite, and reassuring—more importantly, he is literally the only game in town. So she starts getting attached, and when Picard doesn’t immediately reject that attachment outright, that attachment becomes something more intense and more dangerous. She tells him she loves him. She locks him in the freighter when she goes out for supplies. She kisses him. And when he finally tells her he isn’t interested, she threatens to throw herself off a cliff.
All of this is unsettling and more than a little sad, but because this is TNG, we need to have some sort of science-fiction twist at the end of tie everything up. (I’m trying to imagine this episode with just Picard and Anna, and I’m not sure it would really work. Say she really was just a mixed up mental case—would we get something like “The Perfect Mate”? Or would it just be flat out boring?) Early after rescuing Picard, Anna tells him that Voval died of his injuries, but, given that we never see the body, and that we already are suspecting Anna has her reasons for wanting to keep Picard to herself, it’s no huge surprise when Voval turns up later in the episode. But Picard realizes something is up, and the next time he sees Anna, while she’s standing on the edge of a chasm, threatening to jump to her doom if he doesn’t tell her he loves her, he calls her bluff. So Anna pushes a button and turns into Voval, and Picard becomes very, very glad that his relationship with the young woman never got beyond awkward kissing stage.
The twist: Voval isn’t just a shuttle pilot, he’s the third ambassador, and along with Loquel and Byleth, he was sent to explore one specific aspect of human culture. Loquel was to investigate pleasure, hence the constant ingestion of delicious food; Byleth was sent to study aggression, so he picks the most aggressive crewmember on the ship and, eventually, forces him into a physical confrontation; and Voval was sent to study love. This all came about because the Iyaarans had been the to the planet Voval and Picard were on before, and had found the diaries of the real Anna, which told the story of how she’d nursed someone to health, and how they’d fallen in love, and, well, the Iyaarans are very calm and reasonable and they just don’t understand any of this. So they decided to experiment, and here we are.
The problem with an episode like this is that it tries to take on Big Questions in a very self-conscious way, and that self-consciousness winds up making everyone involved look kind of silly. Like, when I think of “pleasure,” eating chocolate isn’t the first thing that comes to mind (or even the 10th), and Loquel’s investigations seems pretty short-sighted. Or the fact that once again, we have an alien race with no real personality (apart from a blind disregard for others’ feelings, but since they don’t have feelings of their own, how can they expect to realize what they’re doing may be hurtful?) who exists primarily to reflect information back on the heroes, not particularly compelling information at that. The story is, basically, a long, drawn-out build to a punchline that renders all the drama irrelevant. Which is fine in the case of, say, Troi and Worf, since their stories are played for laughs, but all those weird, tense conversations between Anna and Picard were interesting largely because of the potential consequences that hung behind every word. But since Anna is a construct created for an experiment—an experiment which falls because it’s difficult to pull of a full Stockholm Syndrome with someone with Picard’s sense of self in less than a week—who cares? Although I am curious as to how far Voval was willing to go with the experiment. What if Picard really had fallen for Anna? What if they’d gotten to the point where intercourse was the next logical step? I’m guessing if Voval’s experiment had worked, Picard would’ve been a lot less likely to forgive and forget at the end of it. But then again, given that the whole point was for each Iyaaran to experience the emotion in question for themselves, maybe Voval wouldn’t have been willing to let go either. That could’ve made for a more interesting episode. At least then, something would’ve been at stake.
It’s telling when I end up with a review that’s over a third plot-summary, because that means I don’t have much to say about what I just watched, for good or for bad. This one kinda feels like a half-hour show drawn out to an hour, without much reason for the expansion.
- A double “B-” week. This does not bode well for the rest of the season.
- I would watch a show that was just Worf and Data hanging out. “Byleth is demanding, temperamental, and rude.” “You share all of those qualities.”
- “And if you were not an ambassador, I would disembowel you right here!”
Next week: We achieve “Interface” and start another (sigh) two-parter with “Gambit: Part 1.”