Or The One Where I Get Uncomfortable
Geordi La Forge is very excited. Dr. Leah Brahms is coming on board the Enterprise to personally study the alterations the Chief Engineer has made to the ship's engines, and even though Geordi has never met Dr. Brahms in person, he's positive they're going to be the best of friends. See, he has a special connection with the good doctor. Back in TNG's third season, the Enterprise's computer created a holographic version of Brahms to help Geordi solve a crisis, and that holographic representation just happened to be a bit on the flirty side. It gave Geordi a new self-confidence, and while one would think that increased esteem would've helped his love life, apparently such is not the case, because now he's super stoked to meet Brahms, and he's convinced they're going to hit it off wonderfully. Oh sure, he says he's just looking to be "friends," but that's just something you say when you're going out of your mind. He's convinced this is true love. All she has to be is exactly what he needs.
"Galaxy's Child" is going to be a tricky episode for me to review. We all have our blind spots; we all have our red flags. Most times, I'm sure I'm not even aware of mine. But a storyline like this is different, because it hits me in a personal way that makes it difficult for me to balance the episode's flaws and strengths against my own vulnerabilities. I'm pretty sure this isn't a classic; I'm also pretty sure that it has some serious problems, and that these problems connect back to some larger concerns I have with the show as a whole. But I also suspect that my intense discomfort for much of the episode is unique to me. While it's true that, specifically speaking, all my reactions are uniquely mine, their intensity here served to unbalance my perception of the entirety of "Child." Or, to put it plainly, I was too busy cringing most of the time to keep both eyes on the screen.
A bit of personal history, then, if you'll indulge me, and I promise it's relevant to the issue at hand. In college, I fell in love with a girl. Let's call her Matilda, because that was really not her name. Matilda was very pretty and very nice, and we did some acting classes together; I was overweight (I looked a bit like a young Philip Seymour Hoffman), but I was very confident when it came to acting, so we became decent friends. At some point, I developed a crush, which was fine. Crushes aren't really fun, but they are generally containable. In my experience, I'd pine for a while, and do some mild obsessing, but it would never go farther than that.
Cut to a year later. I've never really understood how it happened, but through a combination of depression and coincidence, I decided I was in love with Matilda. I can even remember the exact moment; walking from the common room of the suite I lived in with my friends, and thinking, "I'm in love with her. I really am in love with her," and that was pretty much the end of me. Winter break followed soon after, and I spent the whole time trying to understand what was going on, going utterly out of my mind, half blissful, half terrified. Then I come back to school, I find out Matilda has broken up with her boyfriend, and I decide this is a sign. It has to be a sign, right? We go see a movie together (American Beauty), and I probably should have known I was off the track when I made to pay her way, and she got uncomfortable. But, like I said, out of my mind. After the movie, I told her I thought we should go out, and she started crying.
Gah, this is taking too long; and besides, none of that is all that unusual. What happened next, though, is something that still terrifies me. Because Matilda said she wasn't interested in me, and I got really sad and scared for a while, and then I decided that, okay, maybe she just wasn't ready, y'know? Maybe she just needed space after the break-up. What I felt was so strong, so real, there's no way she couldn't return my feelings, and if I was just patient and respectful, eventually, everything would turn out okay. Which doesn't sound so bad, saying it like that, but it's horrifying to realize you can be so thoroughly misled by your emotions, that my perception of events was so clouded by what I thought I needed, I believed in a false reality for five whole months. It worked out all right in the end. I'm not really the stalking type, so I mostly just broke off contact with Matilda, and then, one day, I came to my senses. But it's still one of the worst times in my life.
So who cares, everybody's got a crappy story like that. Geordi's crush on Brahms is less about misreading obvious signs (although he does do that), and more about assuming a connection where none exists. But then, that's basically what I did with poor Matilda. In my head, we were soul mates, and all information I received was interpreted with that conviction firmly in view. Geordi isn't quite that far gone, but he's certain that he and Brahms are well-matched, even after she's initially cold to him and unhappy with the changes he's made to "her" engines. His smarmy chumminess, the way he keeps using her first name, his petulant frustration that she isn't behaving like he assumed she would, all of this is almost unbearable for me to watch. While I suspect other people may feel the same, this is one of the rare cases when I'm nearly certain my reaction is more intense than most. Like, that dinner date he sets up? Ugh. I watched much of that scene on mute. There were subtitles, but that was as far as I was willing to go. And then, when Brahms finally sees her computer-created doppelganger, well, for a few seconds, I was expecting Geordi was going to have to find a way to hide a body very quickly.
The primary issue here, whatever effect my past may have on my current judgment, is that we should be sympathetic to Geordi's mistakes here, and I don't think we're given good reason to be. It's obviously sad what happens to him, but he keeps walking into his own trap over and over again. If Brahms had been warmer and if Geordi had been more reserved in his expectations, "Child" could have effectively made its point about the dangers of forming attachments to fantasy without alienating us from its hero. But he's just too stupid for words, and that's something that comes up a lot on TNG and not just with Geordi. There's a weird sense of childishness that runs through the cast whenever the writers decide they want to impart a moral lesson. When I went kind of crazy, I was still in college and not quite into my twenties. Geordi is, what, late twenties, early thirties? He's been on the Enterprise for a few years now; he's had dates. And yet it doesn't even occur to him that Brahms might not be what he's expecting. This is the behavior of someone who's painfully inexperienced in dealing with human beings, and while I buy that Geordi is a dork, I don't buy that he's an idiot. It's hard to feel very sorry for him, because he doesn't even try to respect Brahms' wishes until he has no other choice.
Or maybe that's just me; maybe I relate too closely to his circumstance not to despise him a little for it, in the way I can't help despising myself a little when I remember the past. Still, the Geordi/Brahms interactions would have worked better if they'd been handled with greater subtlety. I'm not sure I buy that she'd be so willing to be pals after everything was over. I can see her not hating him, and I can see her getting over her discomfort, but the brief moment of chemistry they have at the end, before her husband calls and ruins everything? Eh, I dunno.
There was a whole other plotline here, and, thank god, this one doesn't bring up any bad memories. The Enterprise is forced to kill a living ship, which distresses Picard to no end. Thankfully, the dead living ship was pregnant, and, with the help of some deft phaser work, the Enterprise helps set the baby free. Less good, the baby mistakes the Enterprise for its mother, latching on to the ship's hull and draining its power reserves for sustenance. It's a clever story made all the more effective by the sincerity of Picard's distress. He's not just disappointed when they accidentally kill the living ship, he's devastated, and his commitment to the ideals of exploration and the preservation of life gives a weight to what happens here. TOS was all about survival in the explored reaches of space, but TNG is more concerned with the ideals that make survival worthwhile.
So that's nice. Still, I can't get past the other part of the storyline, for reasons which should be clear now. Credit where it's due: The idea of Geordi meeting Brahms in the flesh is a good one, and it's completely believable that their meeting wouldn't go entirely as he planned. But the execution left a lot to be desired.
- Guinan: "You saw exactly what you wanted to see on the holodeck." Which is basically what the holodeck is for. Can you imagine how creepy it would be for a movie star in the age of holographic simulation? Every fan would have an extensive personal relationship with their fantasy of you, one that had been repeatedly reinforced by a completely lifelike version of yourself who always said whatever they wanted to hear.
- I'm sure Geordi is supposed to come off as misguided here, but my problem is, as with "The Loss," the deconstruction of his character goes too far for me. I actively disliked him for three-quarters of the episode, and I don't think TNG is a show that can really support that level of antipathy.
Or The One With Snakes, Why'd It Have To Be Snakes?
Night terrors, eh? Once again, I must apologize, as I have suffered from night terrors in the past, and this great and tragic suffering of mine makes impossible for me to adequately judge the sight of Riker hallucinating a bed full of snakes. Or Picard hearing his door buzzing repeatedly. Or Chief O'Brien thinking his wife is cheating on him. I've lived too closely all these horrors, and as such, cannot comment upon them, but merely bask in their ugliness. Bask, I tells yah. Just… bask.
Actually, I really have had night terrors before, but this is less an episode about a familiar real-world phenomenon than it is one that gives writers an excuse to throw out some random scary scenes and then wave them all away with zero consequences. For whatever its faults, "Galaxy's Child" at least told a story that related directly to the crew of the Enterprise. The conflict with the living spaceship required Picard and his bridge crew's commitment to the sanctity of life to be suspenseful (otherwise they could've just blasted the alien and gone about their merry way), and, of course, Geordi's troubled relationship with the object of his assumptions was a very personal plotline. That's not really the case in "Terrors." Troi's Betazoid abilities are important, and Data's invulnerability to problems that affect other humanoids probably saves the life of everyone on board, but overall, this is a sort of "could happen to anyone" story, and that makes it somewhat less thrilling.
Still, it starts off well enough. The Enterprise comes across the USS Britain, a ship that's been marked missing in Starfleet records, in deep space. Troi senses something is wrong and accompanies Riker and the away team when they beam over to the ship. They find a lot of bad news: bodies everywhere, murdered in surprisingly gory ways, and one near comatose Betazoid. The Betazoid appears physically unharmed but scared out of his mind and unable to explain exactly what killed everyone on board the Britain. Beverly gets to work on some autopsies, Troi tries to communicate with her fellow empath, but while the causes of the catastrophe are unclear, the danger to the Enterprise is not; the ship is trapped in a kind of energy vortex, and soon, everyone on board starts losing their focus, growing more irritable and experiencing waking nightmares.
That's a classic Trek premise right there: random space thingie threatens the lives of our heroes and makes them vulnerable in ways that can't be defeated by phaser fire or negotiation. And "Terrors" does an excellent job of conveying the mind-numbing unpleasantness of insomnia. The transition from normalcy to exhaustion is done with a gratifying amount of… well, subtlety isn't exactly the right word, but the changeover happens quickly, and there's not a lot of hand-holding to make sure we know that the beeping door in Picard's office or O'Brien's paranoia about his wife's fidelity are indicators of degraded mental states. Patrick Stewart, in particular, looks utterly wretched by the end of the episode, a small, defeated man who mostly seems held together by the uniform he's wearing. A few missteps aside (snakes? really?), the night terror sequences themselves are effectively creepy. I especially liked Beverly's morgue freak-out; it reminded me a bit of Re-Animator, which is a good thing.
But then, I don't think we've ever seen that morgue before. That's not hugely odd; the Enterprise doesn't generally run into situations that require storage space for a whole roomful of bodies. Still, in creating a new space to show how the lack of REM sleep affects the good doctor, the episode demonstrates one of its fundamental problems. The "night terrors" would be an excellent way to get into the heads of the main cast, to expose them in ways that their professionalism and competence normally leave hidden. Instead, we just get a lot of disappointingly generic scary sequences, which have less to do with the individual than they do with freaking out the audience. O'Brien's paranoia isn't brilliant (it's odd how the show considers him and Keiko familiar enough to keep returning to), but it's at least a problem that's directly connected to what we know about him.
It's just too bad we don't see that intimacy with the rest of the crew. Picard is bothered by a doorbell that won't stop ringing, and by the lights in the elevator. I liked the doorbell bit well enough. It walks a neat line between irritating and unsettling. But surely, given Picard's rich history on the show, we could've found something more interesting to get under his skin than "Ugh, the ceiling is too bright!" Beverly's encounter with corpse sit-ups is connected to her only in the sense that, as a doctor, she's around corpses from time to time. And with Riker, we get a bed full of snakes. Really? Unless he turned into Indiana Jones when I wasn't looking, I don't see how that's relevant. Admittedly, an episode in which each character suffered from their greatest fear has the potential of being awful enough in its own way, translating complicated worries and paranoia into simplistic fantasy. But at least those fantasies would be distinct. Too much of "Night Terrors" could've been done on any other genre show without a lot of script edits.
It turns out that a ship trapped on the other side of the space anomaly that sucked in the Enterprise—it's called a "Tyken's Rift," if you're curious—is sending out telepathic messages that make nearly everyone on board the Enterprise (and the Britain before it) incapable of REM sleep. Hence the exhaustion and the hallucinations. But this effect isn't being done to cause harm; the other ship is just trying to communicate a way in which it and our heroes can work together to escape the Rift, as neither ship can do so under its own power. It's just too bad the messages have the inadvertent effect of driving people crazy. Betazoids can interpret the signals the phantom ship is sending, although this didn't help the Betazoid that Troi finds on the Britain; either he was unable to interpret what was happening, or his pure-Betazoid genetics made the message too powerful for him to handle. Whatever the reason, Troi herself, with Beverly's help (I like how the two of them occasionally team up) has to find some way of using her dreams to effectively communicate with the aliens, or else everybody on both ships is doomed.
Oh hey, in all my complaining, I forgot there was another character whose woes in "Terrors" are specific to himself: Worf! We don't actually see any of his hallucinations, but we do see how his growing fear and loss of self-control nearly drive him to suicide. So that's pretty cool. And Guinan has an absolutely ridiculous gun that she busts out to keep the peace in Ten-Forward, and there's definitely entertainment value in that. The final sequence, with Troi desperately trying to send the right message in her sleep while Data essentially runs the entire ship, is thrilling, even if it does follow the model of most climaxes on the show with lots of desperate cutting back and forth, and it looks like everything is lost riiiiight up till the moment when it isn't. (Which is, admittedly, the climax to roughly two-thirds of genre series episode ever produced. I just mention it here because it's somewhat similar to the end of "Galaxy's Child.") And it's neat how Data's invulnerability here works in the Enterprise's favor, where last week it nearly got everyone on board killed.
Overall, this was entertaining, and enjoyably well-paced. It just feels a little too bloodless, even with those mutilated corpses at the beginning. This is the same style of episode as "Clues," in a way, because the problems here are nearly entirely external. No one needs to learn any valuable lessons about themselves, and nobody's short-sightedness is to blame for what happens. I think I enjoyed "Clues" a little more, because I dig the weirdness of intentionally erasing a chunk of your memory, and I love the idea of episodes that give us knowledge about our heroes that our heroes will never have for themselves. "Terrors" was arguably more intense, and the sense of otherness in the aliens was more interesting (although again, Troi gets zapped), but it lacked that mild twist at the end to make it memorable. This kind of episode is really the meat-and-potatoes of this sort of show, so it's impressive to realize that TNG has gotten to the point where delivering the expected is no longer entirely satisfactory. Given how rich a galaxy the show has built for itself, why should we waste so much time on aliens who can't be bothered to have personalities?
- "There's no technology to block telepathic communications." You'd think there would be, though. Given that this is a reality in which telepathy is a proven fact, you'd think that governments would've funneled crazy amounts of resources into finding a way to keep their secrets secret. I mean, Utopian or no, there are still occasional wars.
- You go to hell, Tom Corbin. You go to hell and you die.
Next week: We suffer through an "Identity Crisis," and Barcley's return in "The Nth Degree."