Or The One In Which We Find Out What To Get The Will Who Has Everything
Judging by the comments, the consensus is that I was too hard on "Remember Me" a couple weeks ago, and you may be right. Reviews aren't objective, much as we might like to pretend they are; those grades look solid, but if you get in close, you can see right through them. A write-up is as close as I can come to describing and explaining my reaction to a given episode, which means that they aren't always as clear as I'd like them to be. Even when they are, there's no guarantee that I'll be in the right mood to get the most out of what I'm seeing, or that my own personal prejudices won't blind me from appreciating a story's particular virtues. These reviews are meant to create discussion and to provide a consistent critical perspective on an influential series; when people don't agree with me, well, that's what the comments section is for. (It goes without saying that these reviews have, like, the bestest comments section on the Internet.)
I say this not to try and excuse my opinion, but because watching "Future Imperfect," I was struck by how conceptually similar it was to "Remember Me" and by how much more I enjoyed this ep than I did "Remember." And I wonder how much of that stems from my own prejudices and how much is some definable increase in quality. My main problem with Bev's story is that I get bored when a show keeps hitting the same notes over and over; as unsettling as it was that people kept disappearing around her (Wesley's disappearance was one of the creepiest moments the series has ever done), there really wasn't a second act. More people disappeared, Beverly continued to be the only one noticing, and the situation didn't really change until the final 15 minutes.
There's a little more going on in "Imperfect," much to the episode's credit. It should be obvious from the start that Riker's jump forward in time (16 years into the future, to be exact) is nonsense, just as the people vanishing on Beverly's Enterprise weren't really disappearing. Between Lost and Battlestar Galactica, shows have developed a willingness in the past few years to play around with time in ways whose effect lasts longer than the episode at hand, but TNG isn't really a show about risk taking. Even if it was, it's hard to think of a series that would be willing to jump 16 years in the middle of its fourth season. So obviously, something strange was going on, and whatever it was didn't jibe with the explanation future-Beverly gave about a retrovirus attaching to Riker's DNA and causing massive memory loss, just 'cause.
What makes "Imperfect" better, in my mind, than "Remember," is how it plays with your expectations. While no one breaks the fourth wall to wink at the audience, we're obviously supposed to be suspicious about Riker's revised circumstances from the start. The episode begins with Riker's birthday party (Troi appears to have raided Katy Perry's Closet O' Laytex for her outfit here), signaling he'll be the focal point of the episode, and reminding us how much everybody likes him. While this is going on, the Enterprise is probed by a planet with no discernible life signs. There may be a secret Romulan base involved, however, so Riker, Worf, and Geordi beam down to Alpha Onais III to investigate. Their location is immediately overwhelmed by methane gas, and when the transporter tech tries to beam everyone to safety, she has trouble locking in on their signals. Riker collapses, and we cut to him waking up in Sick Bay, graying at the temples.
So Beverly gives her reasons for what happened, and its vaguely plausible. Riker is now the captain of the Enterprise, which is surely something he's wanted deep down for a long time (why else would he keep refusing transfers to captain other ships?), and many of his friends are still around. Picard's gone Admiral, and he's even grown a goatee. The ladies all have their hair pinned up, so as to appear more matronly, I guess. Riker has a dead wife and a live son, and both pieces of information are difficult to take easily. Then there are the Romulans. Riker's informed that some years ago (back in the dead zone of his brain), the Enterprise rescued a crippled Romulan ship when it entered Federation territory. The Romulans were so impressed that they agreed to get down to finally brokering peace negotiations. So Riker's a hero to, well, all of the civilized universe or nearly, and now it's time for the historic signing of the historic documents, and his presence is required, even if his brain is swiss cheese. Funny thing, though; When the Romulan ambassador beams over to the Enterprise, it turns out to be our old friend Tomalak. Odd coincidence that he's involved, wouldn't you say?
In fact, all of this seems to be built on odd coincidences, and what makes it work is that it never feels like Riker's ability to understand his situation is held back in order to fill out the running time. We're supposed to be suspicious of all this, of the fact that so many original crew-members are still around. The Enterprise seems like a great place to work, but 16 years is a long time. Why is Geordi still running Engineering? Why is Worf stuck at the helm? It's telling that the changes are all the sort of changes that would have immediate emotional meaning; Geordi having real eyes or Data being Riker's First Officer mean something to Will right off, because these are people he's connected to in his regular life. For the most part, we don't get the new personnel one would expect if this really were nearly decades down the road. There aren't any unfamiliar faces moved into prominent roles, even though there should be. (Take a look at your own life. You may still know some of the same people you knew 16 years ago, but those people don't make up your entire world anymore.)
So here we are, thinking we're really clever because we know something strange is going on here, and then Picard and Troi arrive in a Romulan Bird of Prey and seem to deliver the answer into our hands. The Romulans are willing to sign the treaty, but one of the requirements is that the Federation divulge the location of Outpost 23, a spot that used to be lodestone of Starfleet's defenses in the Neutral Zone. Riker objects, and Picard explains that things have changed significantly in the time Riker forgets, and that the outpost is no longer strategically relevant. Which is awfully convenient, isn't it, especially with Tomalak hanging around. Odd that the Romulan ambassador would be someone the Enterprise has such a troubled history with. So, again, because of the cleverness, we assume all this future imperfection is a Romulan attempt to trick Riker into divulging key information. When Riker watches video of his dead wife and recognizes "Min" as "Minuet," the holographic ideal woman from back in season one, we're surprised at how he figured it out but not by what he figured out.
It's a great scene, too. I especially like the relish with which Riker tells "Picard" to shut up. Then Tomalak ends the program, and we're all, like, "A-ha! I knew it! That jerkface," because this is what we were expecting. At least, this is what I was expecting. Sure, there's ten minutes left in the episode, but surely that can be given over to Riker struggling to find a way to escape his captors. And it sort of is, until Riker meets up with the young boy who played his son. The son's name was Jean-Luc, the boy's real name is Ethan, and he's Star Trek's version of Newt from Aliens, small, scared, and desperate to escape. So desperate that Riker doesn't even realize he's being played again till "Ethan" slips up.
See, this I was not expecting. "Imperfect" would've been a solid episode without the final twist. There's enough curiosity in finding out just how Riker's future differs from his present to make the first two-thirds interesting even once you realize it's all imaginary (er, more imaginary than usual, I mean), and it's interesting trying to figure out just why we see what we see, once we realize it's supposed to be part of his own fantasy. (Kind of funny that Troi isn't his wife.) The final twist gives it an extra edge for me. I can see people not liking it because it's sort of corny and because it relies once again on magical alien technology. But what saves it is that the technology is ultimately impotent. Riker sees through both ruses eventually, and I like to think that the reason "Ethan," aka Barash, is so lonely is that he, too, can't believe in what the machines show him for very long. This isn't really godlike. His race is dead, his mother sacrificed herself to save him, and now, he's stuck on a rock with pretty pictures that can't help but break his heart. I'm not sure the episode quite earns the pathos, but I liked it.
- I love how Picard delivers his line: "Mr. Data, we must hurry or we'll miss Commander Riker's party." I can't really explain why, but I do.
- So, it's more than a little weird that the woman Riker dreams of most passionately never really existed, right? (Also telling how even in the future, wives are referred to as "Mrs. [Husband's name here]." Unless that's just one more sign this is all Riker's fantasy.)
- The way you can tell when Riker finally gets to the heart of what's going on: For the first time since he passed out on the planet, the episode cuts away from Riker and back to what's happening on the ship.
Or The One Where Wesley Leaves
Late in the episode, Wesley and Picard are trapped on a strange planet, hiding from the overpowering sun in a cave where the only water is guarded by a powerful and inexplicable energy force. Picard is seriously injured, possibly dying, and Wesley is freaking out a little. To try and reach the captain, and because when somebody might be dying is usually a good time to tell them things you need them to know, Wesley confesses that the reason he's striven so hard in recent years, to excel at his studies, to prove himself on board the Enterprise, to get into Starfleet Academy, was to impress Picard. He wanted Jean-Luc, the closest thing to a father he has anymore, to be proud of him. It's the moment of honesty much of this episode has been building to, and it should be a powerful reminder of the bond these two share.
And all I'm thinking is, Jesus, what a fucking tool.
"Final Mission" marks Wesley's departure from the show. I have no doubt he'll be back for occasional guest turns, but for now, at least, he's headed back to the Academy, and there's no ill-timed rescue mission to block his way. Before he goes, he's given one last storyline to indicate that he's well on the path to manhood and to give his relationship with Picard a satisfying note to close on. It's also one of the first episodes I've seen that manages to balance two unconnected storylines, the Wesley/Picard plot and the struggle to pull a radioactive garbage ship into an asteroid belt before it kills a lot of people, without losing momentum in either. It's nice to see Wesley getting another arc, especially one that uses his super genius in a way that doesn't make him infuriatingly precocious. So, this was strong overall, nothing hugely flashy, but good, grounded character writing, and well-realized science fiction.
I'm not kidding, though, about not caring much for Wesley's big confessional scene. There's something off-putting about how he says, about the naked emotional greed of what he's driving at. Instead of clarifying and strengthening a bond between a young man and his mentor, it reminded me instead of the machine Wesley developed in the first season (I think) that let him recreate Picard's voice saying whatever he wanted to hear. This isn't healthy, what we're seeing here. At this point in his life, Wesley should be doing things more because they build his ego than because he really wants some bald dude to love him. (Unless, y'know, that's his thing. In which case, I'm sorry, I think I broke my mind a little.) There have been positive signs in this regard earlier in the season; the character has been more confident, he's been, on occasion, a little dickish, he's condescended to his mother, all things that are a normal part of getting older and becoming your own person. But here, for this one scene, he's a mess.
Obviously the writers aren't pushing for ambiguity with Wesley's big speech. Picard doesn't indicate any shock or horror at the adulation, instead taking it in stride as the expected cornerstone of their interactions. I probably should too. This is, after all, a story about Wesley proving that he is capable of doing the right thing, the brave thing, even if the Captain isn't there to back him up. And his behavior throughout generally gets that character-appropriate balance of nerdy arrogance and desperate insecurity; he's dismissive and snide to Dirgo, the shuttlecraft "captain" whose crappy ship maroons them on a planet moon and whose arrogance keeps putting everyone in danger, but that dismissiveness isn't strong enough to dissuade Dirgo from an obviously foolhardy course of action. (Points to the episode, by the way, for killing Dirgo. If he'd stayed around, Wesley would've had to get the upper hand with him eventually, and that just wouldn't have worked.) But once he's left alone with Picard, the neediness returns, and it's cloying and misjudged. Wesley's desperation is heartbreaking, for all the wrong reasons.
This has always been my biggest problem with Wesley, really. His fan-worship of Picard is probably his biggest Mary Sue aspect; he's the stand in for any nerd who dreamed of standing alongside Captain Kirk and Spock and the rest in TOS, and it never quite rang true for me as something that was specifically his, and not just the show's assumption that, hey, any young male cast member would be devoted to winning Picard's approval. This isn't helped much by Wil Wheaton's performance. He's grown into the role over time, and I don't really think anyone could've made it work (much like Tasha Yar, this is someone whose underpinnings are so fundamentally flawed that you'd need a really terrific performer to make sense out of them), but he plays this confession without holding onto any piece of his own dignity. It's more the guileless intensity of a much younger man, and that makes the speech that much harder to take seriously. There's something wrong here, the brain tells us, because the words we're hearing and the face they're coming from don't really match.
Contrast that with Wesley's confrontation with the energy force that guards the only source of water around. It works very well. Wheaton does a great job looking scared and determined, and it's one of the few times I can remember the show allowing him to look, well, pretty bad-ass. It's also a nice touch that we never figure out exactly what's going on here. There's the fountain of water, which is protected by a shield, and whenever anyone tries to damage the shield, a rush of … something comes out and cocoons them. Picard and Wesley's circumstances are dire enough that there isn't much time for speculation as to why this is; it's just a matter of how to stop it long enough to get something to drink. It's a weirdly specific creation, and because of that, it has a certain solidity to it. That's a basic rule of thumb for creating alien devices, I'd say: Make it clear what it does, and justification is largely unnecessary.
Another element that works here: unlike in some other episodes, the subplot back on the Enterprise never becomes extraneous. The crisis Riker and the crew face with the garbage ship is just the right kind of problem to stall them from rescuing the others. It's not so huge as to be impossible to resolve in time, but it's not so easy to get past that it stretches credibility how long it takes them to finish. Again, we get a reminder of the professionalism of the crew, as no one ever suggests they turn away from their duty to try and find Picard and Wesley, not even Beverly, who has probably a little more invested in Wesley than the others. And again, we're reminded of just how useless Troi is. Her main contribution to the episode is to badger Beverly over her worries about Wesley. I'm not sure what point she was trying to prove. Yes, Beverly is worried, but she has a job to do, and that's what she's going to focus on. Maybe if Troi had started talking about how Jack Crusher was dead, and how Wesley was the only family she had left, and how she'd always been close to Picard, Bev might've broken down completely.
Despite my objections above, I can't really find it in my heart to dislike this episode. It does what it needs to do, sending Wesley off in a befitting manner without really belaboring the point, and it managed to generate tension out of a situation we've seen half a dozen times on the show before. Mostly, though, I'm just grateful we won't have to deal with Wesley pleading for attention anymore. Godspeed, O Dork. And while you're gone, see if you can find some damn backbone.
- Dirgo is hilariously useless. He serves his purpose, but it would've been nice if he'd had some character beyond, "The Worst Travelling Companion Ever."
- Some really obvious model work during the garbage scow scenes.
- Next week, we take a look at "The Loss" and celebrate "Data's Day."