Or The One Where Pinocchio Dreams Of Being A Real Live Robot
Someone mentioned in the comments a week or two ago (take a bow, person whose name I am too lazy to go back and find) that season five of TNG was the season of the child guest star. This is, I'm really hoping, an exaggeration. But we've had more kids in this season so far than we've seen in the entire series, seems like, and I'd be lying if I said I was pleased about this. Kids are a drag, because children on TV shows are hardly ever compelling characters; they exist primarily as complications for the real characters, irritating amalgamations of need and irresponsibility. Or else they're merely symbols, as in "Hero Worship." Given his circumstances, it's not surprising that Timothy, sole survive of the doomed ship Vico, isn't allowed a tremendous amount of specific personality. We're interested in him as a representative of grief, and while the manner in which he deals with that grief is distinctive, it develops in a way that doesn't tell us much about Timothy himself.
Thankfully, "Worship" is interesting enough, and deft enough, that Timothy never really becomes a liability. He's never quite as compelling as the show's best guest stars, but he's not the bland irritant that Alexander was, because he's giving very clear motivations throughout the episode. The premise sounds, well, wince-inducing: A young boy deals with a tragedy by copying Data's mannerisms. There's something very twee in that idea, no matter how thoroughly grief could anchor it; it's not the sort of thing you can imagine supporting an entire episode, and it also calls to mind a lot of cringe-worthy humor. I'm showing my cynical side here, but having a 12-year-old regurgitate Data's lines and mimic his movements sounds like the sort of thing that would bring out the worst in TNG, all sappy cuteness and leaden jokes. And yet, for the most part, "Worship" works, not the least because the plot summary, while accurate, doesn't really give you a good feel for what's going on here.
Our set-up: the Enterprise comes to the aid of the Vico, a science ship that went missing in a dark cluster. Unfortunately, the Vico is beyond saving. Some force has nearly destroyed the ship, and a quick sensor scan reveals no life forms aboard. But when Data, Riker, and Geordi beam over, they find a boy trapped under some sensor-blocking rubble. The rubble is precariously balanced, and in order to rescue the kid, Data has to put himself and the boy at some risk. The rescue succeeds, and everyone is beamed back safely to the Enterprise. At which point the boy, Timothy, has to come to terms with the fact that his parents, and everyone he knew on board the Vico, are dead.
That's fairly brutal, and the episode gets a lot of points for dealing with Timothy's emotional trauma as seriously as it does. (An aside: I'm assuming that, once Data rescues Timothy, the ensuing collapse prevents any further exploration for the ship. Or else they'd already seen all the rooms they could check. Because if there was material on board that could block the sensors, I'd want to be sure I'd checked for anybody else the computer might've missed.) (Second aside: A quick check on Memory Alpha indicates the hull collapsed after Data moved a beam. Fair enough!) TNG is in some ways a relentlessly optimistic show, but it's also equally willing to deal as directly as possible with misery and loss, which arguably makes the the positivity of the best episodes more resonant. We know the cost of looking forward. So here we have an episode that begins by dealing head on with something that's going to be impossible to magical resolve. Sure, if Q had popped in and decided to bring Timothy's parents to life in some non-monkey-paw-flavored fashion, that would have fixed everything, but it also would have been a tremendous cheat. Which means much of this hour is given over to someone trying to cope with a situation that is impossible to cope with in the time we spend with him.
It's a long-running joke that most shows go to inordinate lengths to make sure their conflicts are resolved before the end credits. This has changed in the era of increased serialization, when an audience's emotional commitment to the characters is heightened by a sense of continuity between episodes; we don't necessarily need to have every plot point referenced every week, but when a crisis occurs, the echoes of that crisis can linger for an entire season. It used to be, though, that when an episode was over, it was over. Neatness required that all dangled threads be neatly clipped before a final tag sent everyone home laughing. But sometimes shows chose to make things slightly messy and refused to make sure all the good people were happy and the bad people were punished. In a way, that's more unsettling than letting episodes directly comment on each other, because it means that whatever happened can't ever really be fixed. What's done is done, and those hanging, awkward moments won't ever build to any sort of catharsis.
"Worship" goes for this somewhat open approach in regards to Timothy. It's not utterly bleak, and there's more than a little hope for the future, but it allows for the fact that mourning, especially when its for close loved ones, isn't a process with an immediate resolution. But I'm getting ahead of myself here, as is my general tendency. "Worship" has some problems. While Troi acquits herself very well throughout the episode, there's a rushed quality to some of the initial conversations with Timothy that didn't quite work for me. This may be exposing a personal prejudice, as I tend to get irritated when people are overly aggressive when trying to ensure my well-being. But seemingly hours after beaming aboard the Enterprise, Timothy has been placed into on-board schooling (which seems to be designed for kindergarteners), and when he doesn't want to participate in class activities, the teacher acts like the poor kid just pulled out a switchblade. (This marks our second episode in a row with agonized teachers. Is this what Starfleet does with its emotionally unstable cadets?)
It's understandable that Troi would want to provide Timothy with companionship during the initial stages of grief; he's alone on the ship (and god, how awful would that be?), and just leaving him in his quarters to fend for himself isn't an option. But the school isn't the right context, and it's a relief when Troi, recognizing how much Timothy attaches himself to Data, encourages Data to spend more time with the kid. Timothy learns that Data doesn't feel emotions, so, logically, he decides to pretend he's an android, too. (As always, the ages seem a little odd here. This seems like the sort of game a younger child would try. But he did lose his parents, and it's not like he's dressing up like a giant bat.) So then we get some of those awkward comedy scenes I'd been so dreading, and at first, everything seems to be going off the rails, but then it… doesn't.
I've been puzzling over that ever since I watched the episode, and I think what makes this work is that no one ever acts as though Timothy's behavior is a bad thing. Troi doesn't freak out and demand Data stop spending time with Timothy, and there's no big moment when the boy is forced by our heroes to come to terms with his humanity. In fact, Troi recognizes Timothy's act as a good sign, as he's taking steps to re-connect with the world, even if those steps are unnatural and, let's face it, pretty damn weird. This saves the episode. Instead of creating fake tension (Oh no! Is Timothy going craaaazy?), "Worship" just allows the drama to progress naturally. Data and Timothy's scenes together aren't perfect, but they aren't unbearable, either, and their best exchanges have a gentle, melancholy beauty to them. Last week, I criticized the crew of the Enterprise for being overly accepting, but when it works, that acceptance is one of TNG's greatest strengths. It works here.
The episode has a secondary plotline: There's some mystery as to how the Vico was destroyed, and Picard keeps the Enterprise in the cluster to try and figure out what went wrong. Turns out there's some harmonic resonance that essentially turns the ship shield's against itself. Timothy, who initially blames himself for the disaster, helps Data save the day by remembering what happened right before everything went to hell the last time, so we get the nice pay-off of their friendship (and Troi and the others willingness to trust that friendship) saving everyone's lives and Timothy getting to work through his guilt in the best way possible. In the end, he's still not quite ready to join the other children in a rousing chorus of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" (who could blame him?), but he's on his way to recovering. "Worship" is a little too awkward in some spots and a little too smooth in others, but overall, it's a solid, affecting look how we try and rebuild ourselves after our lives fall apart and how no matter hard we try, the architecture of our hearts remains in place.
- Really, my biggest issue here, what keeps this from getting into "A-/A" territory, is that Timothy's initial reaction to his situation never rings quite true. TNG has a sort of dampening affect on raw emotions, and while great actors can get around that (like Patrick Stewart in "Family"), Joshua Harris doesn't really have the experience. While we understand logically why Timothy does what he does, it would made a huge difference if his circumstances had been more emotionally affecting than just a generic idea.
- According to Memory Alpha, the cast and crew learned about Roddenberry's death while filming this episode.
- Dear lord, school on a starship is painfully dull.
Or The One With Mind Rape
This isn't the first time I've written about this episode. A couple years ago, back when I was doing reviews of the original Trek, the A.V. Club did an Inventory called "Space-racism is bad: And 17 other not-so-subtle lessons learned from Star Trek." I contributed a few entries. Here's what I wrote about "Violations" back then:
"Genre storytelling is a great way to deal with touchy subjects through the veneer of fiction. By providing the audience with distance from a difficult issue, it allows them to view things more objectively, and maybe find a new perspective on things. Or else it turns something bad into, well, kind of a joke. 'Violations' sits on the middle of the line—like most episodes of Next Generation, it’s well-meaning and generally effective, but when the metaphor becomes literal by the end, it turns into shrill moralizing that makes the whole 'cloaked in sci-fi imagery' angle seem largely pointless. The Enterprise is transporting three Ullians on their trip to create a kind of personal history of the galaxy. Using their psychic gifts, the Ullians are able to probe minds of their subjects, bringing previously lost memories into sharp focus. It’s all pleasant and soothing, until one of the Ullian takes a shine to Deanna Troi and forces himself into her brain. It’s a mental rape standing for a physical one, and creepy as that is, the metaphor is so direct as to be hardly a metaphor at all. Much like Willow’s much hated 'magic addiction' on Buffy, it’s less a clever way to make a point than it is an obvious lack of nerve in dealing with something that would’ve been far more effective had it been handled more directly."
Not my best work, I think. I was still getting the hang of Inventory entries (you can tell which ones in the list are mine because nearly all of them are unnecessarily long), so I had to over-explain everything, and "Violations" was probably the weakest of the bunch, because I wasn't sure I entirely agreed that it belonged on the list. It's certainly heavy-handed, and I suppose the dialogue at the end of the episode (which helpfully points out that this was about rape, in case anyone missed that) is clunky and needless. It's not like anyone watching this would come away with the idea that TNG was pro-mind-rape. But "shrill" seems a bit much, and I'm not sure this is really about "an obvious lack of nerve." I can't really imagine an episode of TNG that had an actual physical sexual assault, but I don't think it would work very well. Partly because of that lack of rawness I was talking about earlier, but even more because, well, this is a fun, genial sci-fi adventure show. It has its dark moments, but I'm not sure we really need to get into Starfleet: Special Victims Unit territory.
"Violations" does try to be about as creepy as it possibly can be without getting explicit, and the results are uncomfortable and not necessarily in a good way. The dream sequences that Jev, a telepath who can't keep his brain in his skull, forces on Troi, Riker, and Crusher, are effectively unsettling, and the core idea here is certainly frightening. And hey, any episode that has Geordi and Data teaming up to solve a mystery can't be all bad. But there's a weird, sort of exploitative vibe here that throws everything off. TNG is not an exploitive show by any stretch; its idea of tawdry is Marina Sirtis' plunging neckline. Which is ridiculous, don't get me wrong, but we're not exactly in Joe D'Amato territory here. And yet "Violations" keeps trying to be tasteful about a subject that is inherently distasteful, which means it has a lot of nibbling but no real bite.
Of course, questions of tone aside, there's the fact that we spend much of this episode waiting for the heroes to catch up with what should be obvious from the cold open. I can sometimes over-criticize this show for what I perceive as disappointing predictability, but there really isn't any effort at all to hide what's happening here. We meet the Ullians and see them at work (Hi, Keiko!), and a few scenes later, Troi gets assaulted in her room by a memory of her and Riker that quickly turns sour. Now, it's not hard to guess that the Ullians are involved, as Troi's woes are clearly telepathically induced, but the episode makes sure we know exactly which one of the three aliens is responsible; not only have we had ample time to see Jev looking suspicious and not only is he the last person to speak with Troi before the attack, but he actually appears in her nightmare, taking Riker's place. He appears in Riker's vision too, as well as in Crusher's. All three fall into comas immediately after the attack, and when Troi wakes up, she can't remember anything, but we can.
The episode does try and pull a fast one by having Jev probe Troi's memory and replace her visions of him with visions of his father. While there's no real concern that Jev will get away with his crimes (TNG is willing to dabble in ambiguous endings but not quite "rapist gets away free while innocent man burns" ambiguous), it's something. Like I said, I harp on predictability a lot here, but the honest truth is, I don't mind being able to figure out where a story is headed. Unless there's some awful twist coming, it can be just as fun to feel clever and observant as it is to be shocked. So really, the issue here isn't that you know who's guilty. It's more that there really isn't much else to know beyond that. Jev is screwed up and likes to mess with people's minds in horrible ways. So he does that a couple times (presumably the first time because he's into Troi, and then on because he's trying to target people he suspects are a threat), and then they catch him, because he's not all that smart. The end.
As for how well this works as a metaphor for actual sexual assault, it's fairly weak. Yes, Troi and the others surely feel invaded after this, and the idea of someone who could just rifle through your brain and force his way into one of your memories is a painful one. But rape is far more damaging than a show like this would be capable of showing. Physical assault leaves wounds, scars. It's messy and ugly, and those aren't concepts that TNG really does well with. The victims in "Violations" will probably undergo some therapy after this, but Troi wakes up with no memory at all of what happened. It's no better or worse than half a dozen other screwed up things that the heroes of this show have had to deal with, but the difference is, getting knocked up by Tinkerbell doesn't have a real world equivalent. By explicitly using the word "rape" in its closing moments, this episode is trying to make emotional connections it simply can't support.
For all of that, there are enjoyable moments here. The dream sequences aren't bad; I especially liked the last one, in which Jev forces Beverly to relive identifying her husband's body with a young Captain Picard. (Picard has hair!) And like I said, it's fun watching Geordi and Data piece things together. Even when we know where they'll end up, there's something to be said for seeing how everything fits. And there's a lovely scene with Riker talking to the unconscious Troi, with some really nice acting from Frakes. Generally speaking, though, this one was a misfire. And once again, poor Troi got to bear the brunt of it. Not only is she assaulted twice, but she isn't even allowed the dignity of coming to her own defense. Clunky writing or no, I wasn't that far off in my original assessment.
- Haven't busted out the C in a while. My reasoning: A "B-" ep would indicate a workable premise, done poorly. I'm open to argument, but I just don't feel like the core concept here could ever have worked, unless it was on a different show. And even then.
- Out of Context Theater Presents: "Klingons do not allow themselves to be… probed."
- Next week, we put on our monocles for "The Masterpiece Society," and our thinking caps for "Conundrum."