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Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Power Play"/"Ethics"

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"Power Play"

Or The One Where Data Picks A Fight, But Nobody Plays Hockey

Here we are, over halfway through season five, and I'm noticing something of a slump. Now, let's contextualize this. (God, how I love that word!) When I say "slump," I don't mean that this has been a bad season, nor do I mean the show isn't capable of greatness anymore. It's not even necessarily a horrible thing. Part of the problem with rating or criticizing television is that it doesn't have to be great to be worth watching. That's not a shocking truth: Greatness is rare enough that it would be a poor life indeed if you insisted on perpetual perfection. But (and I'm blue skying a bit here, so stay with me) I think one of the reasons fans can get so upset when critics point out the flaws in the shows they love is that, for them, the world of the show is so important that the flaws are largely irrelevant. I say TNG's fifth season is weaker than its third and fourth, but the momentum created by those previous seasons is strong enough that my overall enjoyment of the series hasn't really diminished yet. It's funny how that works, like the way books can have a weak ending and still be worth reading, I guess.


"Power Play" is the latest in a season largely populated by pretty-good-but-not-great episodes. It's the sort of storyline I can easily imagine the show attempting earlier in its run, and the basics of the script (alien entities take over Troi, Data, and O'Brien's bodies; a hostage situation; and a twist) aren't so spectacularly solid that they stand on their own. But while this would probably have been horrendously cheesy in the first couple of seasons, with a lot of over-acting from the villains and, well, Tasha Yar-ness, it's quite credibly enjoyable here. It's lacking that mystical "third heat" that great episodes manage; there's no particularly deep philosophizing at play, the suspense is never all that suspenseful, and the final twist is too vague to have much of an impact. And yet I never cringed watching it, and I wasn't bored. This sounds like a painfully low bar, and maybe it is, but one of the nice things about watching a show that you've invested a considerable amount of time in is that it doesn't have to be great to be satisfying. It can just be not bad.

"Play" begins, as roughly ninety percent of TNG episodes seem to (seriously, while it's plot appropriate here, I can't help wondering if the writers drew the first few sentences of every script out of a hat and just replaced all the proper nouns), with the Enterprise checking out a distress signal. This one is emanating from a supposedly lifeless moon, where electromagnetic whirlwinds prevent the scanners from picking up adequate readings. The distress signal seems to be coming from the USS Essex, a Starfleet ship that disappeared over 200 years ago, but while Data is unable to pick up any life signs, Troi is convinced there's something on the planet worth investigating. Considering what happens next, this does seem like a terrible time for Troi to actually try and do her job, but hey, beggars and choosers and all that.

So Troi, Riker, and Data take a shuttle to the moon's surface, which, given the dangerous weather, seems like a pretty ballsy move on their part. They suffer for their daring, though, when the shuttle crashes and Riker breaks his arm and we briefly think we've gotten to the big plot for the episode: the trio, stranded on the moon, where presumably their situation becomes more dangerous, while they are unable to establish contact with the ship. But back on the Enterprise, O'Brien has a plan! Using transporter enhancers, he beams down to the moon's surface to save the day, just in time to get knocked unconscious along with the others by a strange cloud of energy. We get more Tinkerbell action here, as three balls of light invade Data, Troi, and O'Brien's bodies. Riker is left untouched, possibly because his arm is broken and partly because his beard renders him immune to any form of possession which isn't performed by a seductive alien lady.

Wow, this is more plot summary than I usually do. And it's not like the story is all that complicated. Yes, Troi, Data, and O'Brien are now under the control of alien entities who quickly make a concerted effort to take over the ship once they're back on board. They claim to be "survivors" of the Essex (Troi claims to be possessed by the Essex's captain, Bryce Shumar), but Picard doesn't trust them, so of course they're lying. Funny how that works, isn't it? It makes it more than a little obvious that things aren't what they seem to be, that Picard doesn't believe "Captain Bryce's" claims, but at the same time, it's gratifying that our captain catches on to the lie as quickly as he does. The Rule of Plot Efficiency (which has another, much better name than that I'm sure) dictates that any time a character on a show like this voices a suspicion, it has to be for a reason more important than a simple passing thought. So the moment Picard expresses his doubts, we know those doubts will be confirmed.


Once their clumsy attempt to take over the ship falls through, the trio of the body snatched winds up in Ten Forward, where they take everyone in the room hostage. (Guinan, apparently on the interstellar equivalent of a smoke break, is nowhere to be found. Maybe she's getting her hats done.) Now here, you'd assume, is where the real meat of the episode is; here's where the tension ratchets up and the various screws tighten. Not only are a bunch of innocent people under threat by a surprisingly efficient group of villains, but those villains show odd signs of straying under the stress of their situation, which is rarely a good sign for anyone. Faux Data keeps trying to pick a fight with Worf. Faux O'Brien remembers enough of the real O'Brien's life to recognize Keiko and their infant daughter, which fascinates him for reasons which are never entirely explained. Eventually, Picard offers to trade himself for the hostages which were injured in the initial attack, and Faux Troi agrees to the swap. So, lots of dramatic potential here.

Except no one on the Enterprise never seems to be in any real danger. After their first assault on the ship, the bad guys never come across as all that dangerous or smart, which is odd, because part of the reason that first assault is fun to watch is how ruthlessly the fakers behave. As soon as they're sure they won't be able to get what they want through subterfuge, Faux Data starts taking out everyone on the bridge, with Faux O'Brien happily joining in. Faux Troi even takes out Picard. Then they power through the Enterprise, and it's fairly exciting because for once, we have a threat which seems intimately and legitimately threatening. I'm not saying the show suddenly turned into The Shield (I just imagined a TNG episode with Walton Goggins guest-starring, which, seriously, holy crap guys), but having psychos wandering around mid-ship doesn't happen every week. I didn't expect body count, but the element of uncertainty was, brief or no, gratifying.


Once the three take hostages, though, the tension drains away, because our heroes never seem to lose control of the situation. Beverly comes up with a way to shake the energy beings out of Troi and the others, and Geordi and Ro do their best to implement the plan, failing because apparently Ro didn't play enough video games as a child. This should increase the sense of danger; our last, best hope has been attempted, and now the villains will be angry, which means they could do anything. But they don't, and for all Brent Spiner's sneering (I think he just gets bored from playing Data all the time; thankfully, the over-acting is actually fairly effective here), one never really gets the impression that they're going to. Everything feels terribly safe, and since none of the baddies ever get much of a personality, we're left with a decently made but filler-ish hour. Faux Data is a jerk, Faux Troi has a certain professional malevolence about her, and Faux O'Brien is weirdly creepy about Keiko and the baby, but none of these initial developments ever feels like anything more than an after-thought.

That goes for the ending as well. It turns out "Bryce" was lying. The energy beings are actually convicts who've been imprisoned on the moon for ages. They destroyed the Essex when they tried to take it over back in the day, and now they want to use the Enterprise to beam their fellow prisoners off the moon. Then everyone else on the ship will get invaded and, presumably, wacky hijinks will ensue. As twists go, this is a bad choice, because instead of making the story more interesting, it takes out a potential dramatic conflict. Before, we thought the bad guys were actually former Starfleet officers, driven to madness by their incarceration on the planet. If that had been true, it would mean that Picard would have to deal both with the threat they represented and his obligations to them as, essentially, victims of circumstance. But a bunch of convicts trapped by an alien civilization? Screw 'em. They probably murdered babies or something.


So Picard and Riker are able to short circuit Faux Troi's plans, as we knew they would. There's nothing wrong with the outcome here; I know it seems like I complain sometimes about the show being too predictably safe, but I'm not asking for a body count. And there are touches here I enjoyed, like Data's apologies to Worf after he's freed of alien influence or Geordi and Ro's banter as they tried to set up the plasma beam. Like I said, TNG has done its homework and created a pleasant enough environment that hour-eaters like this are more a pleasant distraction than a chore. But, well, there's a reason I relied more on plot summary here than usual, and it's not because there were so many cool ideas to talk about.

Grade: B

Stray Observations:

  • Another cool bit: Faux Data and Troi both pushing for exploration of the moon's southern region in their own ways. I wonder if the episode would've been better if the trio had managed to go incognito for just a little while longer; it almost seems like the amount of damage they manage to inflict happens too quickly.


Or The One Where Worf Sadly Never Screams, "Where's the rest of me?!?"

Worf gets hit by a barrel that breaks his spinal cord, and then he wants Riker to help him commit suicide. Beverly invites a specialist aboard the Enterprise to help her with Worf's injuries and discovers this specialist plays a bit fast and loose when it comes to the Hippocratic Oath. So basically, this is like an episode of House, only instead of an acerbic, gaunt bastard scarfing pain pills and pontificating about humanity's inhumanity towards everyone, we get Dr. Crusher acting somewhat aghast as her new friend starts dropping bodies. Worf is the PotW. Riker is Wilson, trying to be respectful of a friend while at the same time deeply worried about his friend's intentions. And everyone else is… well, all right, as a metaphor this doesn't exactly hold up. And there are plenty of medical shows which have dealt with this kind of moral crisis before. I'm just trying to stay in my wheelhouse with my comparisons here.


The point, though, is that while it has the expected sci-fi trappings (did you know that Klingons have a back-up for just about every internal organ?), "Ethics" is basically a medical drama, one that focuses more on how people deal with the philosophical quandaries that arise in some extreme cases of injury or illness, and how the pursuit of research can lead to a distinct lack of concern for the present. It has some pretty big flaws that keep it from realizing its ambitions, primarily due to the choice of primary victim and the rapidity with which one of the plotlines plays out. But it's ambitious, and it has a message, and it manages to get that message across without turning too heavy-handed. In short, I enjoyed "Power Play" the most out of this week's two-fer, but I appreciated "Ethics" more. At least it had ambitions.

Hm. Well, I seem to have already given you the basic plot summary, which sort of hamstrings my usual format here. And really, there isn't a lot of plot to go around. Worf's injury is kind of ridiculous (it's great watching Geordi pretend the barrel that fell on the Klingon is heavy enough to have seriously injured him, even though it's pretty obviously not), as it's both arbitrary and insulting. He isn't wounded in battle or while protecting anyone; he's just standing in a loading bay, and then something falls on him. But then, it's not like TNG has ever been invested in maintaining Worf's dignity when it doesn't suit the series' needs. Oh sure, he comes across as the lone paragon of virtue in the Klingon Empire, but as soon as some random alien wanders onto the bridge looking for a smack down, Worf's on his ass, looking baffled and more than a little annoyed.


Actually, "arbitrary" may not be quite the word I want here. "Contrived" is more like it. We've spent a fair amount of time on the Enterprise by now, and I don't remember ever having this kind of major workplace injury go down before, not unless it was part of some ship-wide malfunction or a holodeck error or whatever was driving the plot that week. Really, the only reason this happens is so Worf can lose the use of his legs for a while, and while I realize the nature of television at the time meant that this couldn't be a storyline that dragged out over multiple episodes, it still feels rushed here. And that rush just draws more attention to the silliness of it. Worf is injured, and maybe two scenes later, he's asking Riker to help him commit suicide. Maybe more time has passed on the ship than what we see, but we never get a sense of time passing, which makes Worf's desires hard to take seriously. Sure, it's convention, but suicide is a major choice, culturally dictated or no. I'd like to think Worf has come far enough that he'd at least explore his options before reaching for the knife.

Making Worf the victim here is "Ethics" biggest misstep, because it undercuts the moral questions the episode tries to raise, as well as damages a lot of the great work the show has done with Worf since its first season. Last time we had a Worf-centric episode, he was realizing how important Alexander was in his life and deciding he was willing to put the work in to raise his son right. And here he is, responding to a crisis by immediately choosing the most extreme way out, a way out that would've left Alexander alone on the Enterprise, once again abandoned by the only living relative he knows. (Sure, Worf asks Troi to step in and take care of the kid if he dies, but that's only after Worf has decided to do his best to live.) There are ways this could've been handled better: if we'd gotten a clearer sense of Worf's distress over his condition, apart from that one scene where he collapses in front of his son, say. But as is, it makes him look childish, selfish, and irresponsible, all for the sake of putting Riker in a tricky spot.


To say nothing of the fact that, given who Worf is and given the show's refusal to kill or injure any of its cast (apart from the Tasha Yar Exemption, which is only for Tasha Yar), all this drama over Worf's condition seems forced and, yes, contrived. This is a show that had its leading man captured and essentially turned into a robot zombie and still managed to find a way to bring him back. I really don't think it would suddenly cripple a secondary character, especially not under these circumstances. Which means as soon as Dr. Russell proposes her super-risky, super-magic treatment to save Worf's spine, we know that they're going to perform the surgery eventually, whatever Beverly thinks of it, and that the surgery will be successful, however long they drag that success out. This is really the sort of storyline that needs a new character to be effective. I'm sure it would've been a bit awkward for Riker to have an old friend we've never seen before visit the Enterprise, only to be immediately paralyzed from the waist down, but at least then the PotW's survival would've been up in the air.

But if you can get past this (and I'll admit, it's a lot to get past), there are elements to this episode which are worth enjoying. Jonathan Frakes, who did such impressively low-key work over Troi's sick-bed in "Violations," gets another chance to show off here; maybe seeing his friends in poor health inspires him. His frustration and anger at Worf's request helps make the situation seems just a little more real; while it seems like an obvious choice to us (as Riker himself points out, respect for other cultures doesn't mean you have to like them, and it certainly doesn't mean you have to participate in something you find morally abhorrent), his angst over the decision at least feels legitimate. However, Picard's willingness to equivocate here shines light on an aspect of the character that's actually starting to get on my nerves of late. He's too eager to play the "both sides are equal" card. Generally, this speaks well of his commitment to fair play, and Patrick Stewart is nearly always able to sell his reasoning, but every once in a while, it'd be nice if he said, "To hell with this, that's just stupid." (Actually, he did roughly this in the Matt Frewer episode, so I guess I should've given him more credit there.)


The other decent plotline here is Beverly's increasing mistrust of Dr. Russell. It turns out the supposed expert has gotten in a fair bit of trouble for her shortcutting approach to basic research, and none of that trouble has taught her that maybe killing a bunch of patients now isn't really a resume booster, even if it does theoretically save hundreds of lives in the future. The "correct" answer here is easy enough to spot. Russell's arrogance, her dismissal of the Klingon body structure (really, what kind of idiot scientist looks at an evolved system and says, "I don't understand all of this, so I'm just going to assume it's stupid"?), her willingness to put Worf's life at risk for a surgery with a holodeck-only "37 percent success rate" is bad enough; the fact that she kills a patient on Beverly's watch makes her wrongness pretty inescapable. And yet, she does end up getting to perform her special, ultra-dangerous surgery on Worf. I guess those back-up organs means this episode gets to have its cake and eat it too.

I wish I liked "Ethics" more than I do, but the more I think about it, the more it leaves me cold. I do respect it for trying to make big statements about responsibility and duty and so forth, but the amount of convoluted writing that goes in to making those statements possible is frustrating and often risible. I will say, I was impressed at the big surgery, largely because of how long the episode managed to milk the idea that Worf was dead. But for the most part, this drew out all of TNG's most irritating tics: its desire to tell complicated moral stories while providing the audience with a crib sheet on how to respond, its lack of consistency with some of its central characters, and its often ridiculously mistimed idea of dramatic pacing. Just because I'm glad the show hasn't given up on ambition doesn't mean I don't wince when it keeps tripping over its own feet.


Grade: B-

Stray Observations:

  • "I want you to help me die." In a better judged episode, that would've been devastating. (Also, really, if you're going to do an assisted suicide episode, than dammit, do an assisted suicide episode. You don't have to follow through on the deed, but at least allow it a full hour to breathe. Or else, just have the whole episode be about medical ethics. The mix-and-match approach means both sides end up short-changed.)
  • Right, so Alexander was in this episode. Well, I did like the scene where Worf gave him the ceremonial knife. It seems like a very Klingon sort of moment.
  • Anybody else have Dead Ringers flashbacks during the surgery scene?
  • Whatever my other problems, Beverly's take-down of Russell in that last scene was very satisfying. "You take shortcuts right through living tissue."

Next week: We dance with the left hand of darkness in "The Outcast" and try and pin down some "Cause and Effect."

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