Or The One Where Picard Breaks An Ankle And Troi Doesn't Back Down
One of the ways you can tell the strength of a show's ensemble is how easy it is pair off different characters. I don't mean romantically, although that can sometimes be a part of it. It's more that most episodes put the primary focus on a part of the larger cast; there are episodes which deal with most everyone at once (and yes, in a way "Disaster" is actually one of those episodes), but those can be difficult to balance. Besides, even in an episode like that, most scenes take place between only a handful of people at once, as they do in "Disaster." My point here is that on a bad show, there are some pairings that just won't work. The characters are too static and too incompatible to spark off each other in the way that good drama or comedy requires. In a good to great show, though, the actors are strong enough, and their performances rich enough, that the sky's the limit.
Whatever the problems TNG occasionally has handling some of its characters, its ensemble by now is a solid one. All the actors have settled into their roles, and the chemistry between them, at first somewhat forced and arbitrary, has become consistent, if a sometimes a little on the smarmy side. "Disaster," while not a big ticket episode with a high concept or epic sweep, is a fun outing that gives nearly everyone a chance to show off how far they've come and how well this series has earned our trust. It's fun, occasionally intense, surprisingly sweet hour; it's not essential, but it does have one of the funniest scenes in Trek history, and for once, the joke is on purpose.
The set up: The Enterprise is basically just hanging out in space, having completed some heavy duty work recently and taking a much needed break from the usual world-saving and Romulan-bashing. In Ten-Forward, Keiko and O'Brien are showing off Keiko's baby bump and discussing potential names with Riker, Worf, and Data, in one of the cargo bays, Beverly and Geordi work together while Beverly tries to convince Geordi to appear in her production of The Pirates of Penzance, and on the bridge, Picard prepares to take three children, all science fair winners, on a tour of the ship. It's all a little bland and dorky, but then, that's kind of what these people are in their natural state. If I've learned anything over the course of this project, it's that in order to appreciate TNG, you have to embrace the utter lack of cool.
Thankfully, before we can devolve into a very special episode of Full House, a science calamity strikes: something to do with a "quantum filament," and a lot of other words that I lump together in the category of "effective bullshit." (I suppose this exposes my ignorance, but really, while I'm sure the science here is somewhat well justified, it's basically a MacGuffin to make everything else possible. So whenever O'Brien or Ro start explaining, I mostly just hear the adults from Peanuts cartoons going "wah wah wah.") Because of this calamity, the Enterprise is thrown into chaos. The turbolifts shut down, trapping Picard and the three children inside, stranding Troi with O'Brien and, eventually, Ro, on the bridge. Beverly and Geordi face off against a plasma fire in the bay, and while Riker and Data try and fix the malfunction in the bowels of the ship's engines, Worf helps Keiko give birth to her first child.
So everybody gets their own story, and those stories all work, to varying degrees of success. The best, for my money, is Worf and Keiko; it's slight, only a couple of scenes, but it's one of the best uses of Worf I've seen, providing him with a hilarious comic set-piece that doesn't require him to be the butt of the joke. Sure, part of the humor comes from his strident approach to cervical dilation, but it's sympathy humor. Too often, TNG resorts to turning Worf into a kind of reluctant Data, constantly requiring lectures from the people around him on how to be more "human." But here, his confusion is easy to relate to, and it's so, so funny. It's also undramatic, which, depending on your point of view, is disappointing or a relief. (In this case, anyway, I didn't mind the light touch.)
Actually, there's precious little drama in any of the plot arcs here, even the ones that try and create tension. "Disaster"'s biggest problem is that it tries to do too much; there are five distinct threads running here, and a few of them inevitably wind up shortchanged. The biggest victim of this is Troi's time as commanding officer on the Bridge. It's an awkward set-up to begin with. Ro and O'Brien debate the best approach to the situation, and Troi fights to keep the panicked look on her face. On the one hand, I appreciate the effort to give her something to do, but it's embarrassing to watch her squirm this way. While it's understandable that she'd be stressed under these conditions, she looks terrified, like she wandered into a surgery and somebody forced a scalpel into her hand. It just makes her seem foolish, which is troubling enough for a character who needs every precious ounce of dignity she can find. Her arc here is to find her spine and prove herself worthy of command, but given the intensity of her panic at the beginning, the transition never comes across as satisfyingly as it should. Instead, it just seems like Troi grabbed onto something she could actually understand—the possibility there might be someone alive in engineering—and clung to it. That's not leadership; that's drowning.
As for the rest, well, Riker and Data is as fun as you'd expect, and the image of Riker fiddling with Data's bodiless head is wonderfully surreal. Beverly and Geordi are fine, although their story suffers a little from unimaginative writing. They experience a crisis, they come up with a solution, and that solution works exactly as intended. That's not awful, but it's not really memorable, either. Picard's time with the kids is more effective and sweet in a way I thought might be too much, but it isn't. All three kids are charmingly awkward, and Stewart does a good job of showing his mild discomfort at being around children (which has been a consistent character trait since the first season) without overplaying it. That he focuses on Marissa, the girl of the group, to be his "first officer" is excellent, especially considering the show's troubled history with female characters. And I'm not made of stone: The plaque the kids make for Picard to commemorate their time together is just too damn adorable for words. "Disaster" tries to do too much, but its ambition does it credit, and when it works, it's very charming.
- Goodbye, Lt. Monroe. You were competent, and you paid the ultimate price.
- I didn't expect to see Ro again so soon. And this was a good use of her, too.
- "Congratulations. You are now fully dialted to 10 centimeters. You may now give birth."
- I haven't thought about "Frere Jacques" in years.
Or The One Where We Learn the Real Reason The Virtual Boy Failed
Well, that certainly was silly, wasn't it.
For the first 20 or so minutes of "The Game," I was enjoying myself. The episode wasn't great, and I wasn't, y'know, delighted to see Wesley "Mr. Whisper Thin" Crusher back on the ship, but there was some good momentum building, and it was fun to watch everybody slowly turn evil because they really liked electronic orgasms. Body snatcher storylines always creep me out, even more so than if somebody was just sneaking through the ship and killing everyone. I don't know why (obviously "murder" is a bit more permanent than "mind control that can be undone with a flashlight"). Maybe it's that sneaking suspicion that the people around me wouldn't really notice if I was replaced. If you're dead, there's some comfort in imagining the grief caused by your passing, but if someone takes your place, and no one realizes it, who's to say you were ever really there at all?
I'm getting distracted, though, and that's probably because "The Game" is a very easy episode to get distracted from. In the last 20 minutes, while Wesley and his girl Friday, Robin Lefler (a young, vaguely chipmunk-ish but still ridiculously adorable Ashley Judd), run around the Enterprise trying to save the day from the dastardly butt-forehead aliens, I found my attention starting to wander. Yes, it was all very tense, and yes, there was some fun to be had in seeing Wesley ably avoid pursuit by being the clever brat he always is, but something felt… off. The game that caused all these problems was hilariously tacky, both in form and function, but that was only part of the problem. I'd heard friends complain about the episode before, and the more I watched, the more I realized I agreed with them, but why? This was suspenseful and occasionally surprising, and the gradual, corner-of-your-eye domination of the ship's crew by the Gameboy From Hell (yes, I know that's dated, I'm old) was deftly handled, for what it was. Why didn't it work?
The big issue here is that this isn't really a proper episode of TNG at all. It's more a children's cartoon script that happened to be filmed in live action. "The Game" doesn't really fit our Enterprise, and while it's unsettling enough on the surface, it falls apart if you think about it for more than a few minutes. There's nothing of any real depth here, and our heroes are forced out of their usual roles into simply operating as cogs in a disappointingly straightforward machine. The fact that Wesley arrives on the ship just as all this foolishness is going down and he happens to be the only person (with an assist from his new girlfriend, of course) capable of saving the day? That's the worst kind of Mary Sue writing. I supposed you could say this is an intentionally nostalgic throwback to the first season, where Wesley was, quite literally, a Chosen One. (Yeah, I bet you forgot that.) But given how terrible the first season was, why on Earth would you reference it? Besides, "Ensigns of Command" managed to give us a Wesley who was convincingly, but not ridiculously, smart and good at his job. Here, the idea that he'd be one of the only two people on the ship to escape the Game's clutches long enough to realize its sinister purpose is, well, silly.
The story: Riker is hooking up with Etana, she of the butt-shaped forehead, but before their innuendo can go from "stun" to "screw," Etana convinces Riker to try out this new game she's discovered. Riker puts on the device (which looks like it was repurposed from equipment you'd find in in a dentist's office) and is immediately engaged by a VR-ish game that revolves around mentally commanding discs to dive into tunnels. This is in every way exactly as stupid as it sounds, but the game works by stimulating your pleasure centers every time you complete a level, which is something Riker is totally into. It also has a nasty habit of rewiring part of your brain, and when Riker brings the device back to the Enterprise, he slowly starts to infect everyone on board with the Happy Funtime Let's Let The Aliens Take Us Over virus.
While all this wackiness is going down, there's some big science afoot, a fact that I completely forgot about until just now because the episode forgets about it as well. We don't see anyone jockeying for the time slots we're told are crucial to a number of group's research. We're told times are stressful and Geordi is a little more tightly wound than usual, but the fact that nearly everyone on board is soon devoting all their time to something that has nothing to do with work doesn't seem to affect, well, anything. Wesley shows up, there's a goofy surprise party, and then everything starts going to hell. It seems like all that static about scientific study was designed to raise the stakes for the rest of the episode, but it doesn't; in the end, the best you can say is that all that extra work is making everyone tired, distracted, and in the mood for any kind of entertainment, even if it does nuke your cerebral cortex.
"The Game" is occasionally creepy, although not always in ways that are that fun to watch. Data getting essentially cold-cocked in Sick Bay is a nice moment, a relative surprise that takes out the Enterprise's big security blanket while at the same time revealing the widening scope of the conspiracy; there are a couple of fine shots of brainwashed Riker and the others looming over Data's fallen body that give a neat "time is out of joint" feel to the scene. Of course, it's hard to understand why they don't just take Data out permanently. I'm sure they wanted to make his collapse look like an "accident," but the fact that Wesley is able to fix him with a minimum of fuss, thus providing the episode with its resolution, is weak; I don't want Data to be dead, but I also don't much enjoy a story where the villains give the heroes free passes. (For that matter, why single out the Enterprise for initial take-over, considering it has a rare crew-member completely immune to the game's charms? Yes, this is the flagship of Starfleet, but surely it would've made more sense to target one of the many ships without the Kryptonite, so to speak.)
At the same time, watching Beverly's aggressive attempts to win her son over to the Orgasmatron are off-putting in all kinds of wrong ways, her usual maternal affection degraded into something uncomfortably intimate and desperate. "The Game" could be seen as a metaphor for any kind of addiction, and while it's a shallow metaphor at best, the few glimpses we get of how TNG would handle actual narcotics make me hope desperately that we never get into Willow-on-the-ceiling territory here. There's some OK stuff in "The Game": Wesley and Robin's courtship isn't utterly unbearable—oh, who am I kidding, it mostly is, but Judd is just so damn cute I didn't mind. I also like the part where Michael Douglas shoots Sean Penn and then jumps off a building. Really, though, this is a script that doesn't fit the complexity and depth of TNG in its fifth season, relying on broadly drawn conflicts (a better episode might've considered just what the hell you do with a race that's invented a device that can spread mind control this easily and efficiently) and hoary story tricks to make its point. If it even has a point; if this is intended as an indictment of the horrors of video games, it fails pretty miserably. Everyone involved deserved better. Even Wesley.
- I love that they give you a warning sign by never bothering to give the game a proper title. "Look, we just don't care enough to pretend this matters. Maybe you should go do some laundry, this will be over soon."
- Troi's lecture on the wonders of chocolate is so, so ridiculously specific that it's almost genius. It really belongs in a Jean Teasdale column. (More seriously, why does the show repeatedly insist on making her the underdog? I can buy that being an empath carries its share of problems, but Troi's moping is always bizarrely generic, as though she stumbled into the series by way of a Cathy comic strip.)
- Riker tells Geordi he needs to "unwind a little." Geordi, who has yet to experience the game and is in no way mind-controlled, gives in immediately, despite the fact that Data is, for all intents and purposes, lying dead in the other room. I'm not even talking about sentimentality here; as far as I can tell, Data isn't prone to malfunction, so you'd think his best friend on the ship would be a little more concerned.
- Robin and Wesley, after realizing that nearly everyone on board the ship has been taken over by the game, split up for no real reason. I hate that.
- Wheaton is rather terrifyingly thin in this episode. He looks to be constructed out of well-tanned pipe cleaners.
- Hey, so now we know Riker's o-face. Thanks, show.
Next week: We take on the double header of "Unification I" and "Unification II." I hear we may bump into an old friend…