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Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Rascals"/"A Fistful Of Datas"

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"Rascals" (season 6, episode 7, first aired 10/31/1992)

Or The One Where O'Brien Is Briefly Transformed Into Doug Hutchinson

This won't come as a shock to any of you, but I don't know that much about science. I enjoy science fiction, but in terms of believability, all I ask is that the story not directly contradict any basic physical laws. (Or if it does, it should at least provide some explanation for doing so.) But even I have to question the logic of an energy disruption/transporter malfunction that somehow de-ages four Enterprise crew-members to early adolescence. Beverly and O'Brien work up some explanation involving biological coding and power fluctuations, but it's a stretch that such an event would happen entirely randomly, without any connection to anything else.


"Rascals" hinges on this premise, and it's safe to say, I was disposed against it from the start. That's not entirely due to the implausibility; reducing Picard, Ro Laren, Guinan, and Keiko to youthful versions of themselves is a concept which doesn't interest me in the slightest, plausible or no. Usually, when it comes to premises, I can understand where the writers are coming from even if I don't entirely agree that they got there. To me, that's one of the jobs of the critic: while I obviously have my own personal preferences and reflexive dislikes, and while pure objectivity in criticism is a laughable impossibility, I do believe it's the duty of people who write silly articles like this one to be able to look past their own personal tastes in their work. Which is such an indistinct way of putting it that I doubt I've explained myself at all—really, all I'm saying is, even if a story fails, I can usually see why someone would want to tell it. I don't really understand why anyone would think "Rascals" is a good idea. It's not the worst episode of TNG I've seen, and the third act is actually surprisingly strong, but the basic idea of it baffles me. There are a few interesting ideas here, and the episode does as decent a job as could be expected at thinking through the ramifications of suddenly losing decades (in the physical sense) off your life. But I'm just not convinced these are questions that demanded answers.

Maybe I'm just bitter. We're seven episodes into the season, and this is the closest thing a Picard-centric storyline we've had yet, but Patrick Stewart is barely in it. We see him at the beginning, waxing philosophical about some pottery shards, and he shows up at the end, once the bad guys have been defeated and Beverly comes up with a way to restore everyone to their proper ages. But for most of the ep, Picard is played by an teenager named David Birkin. Birkin does a fine job; of the four actors brought in to replace the adults in the ep, he's by far the best. (Isis Carmen Jones, as Guinan, is the worst, but we'll get to that.) It's just, you can say Birkin is Picard, and you can try and give him the same dialog grown-up Picard would have, and the dilemmas you'd imagine a youthized Picard would have to deal with, but it's not Patrick Stewart, so I have a hard time getting invested.


At least the problems Lil Picard faces are dramatically sound. After the accident, the affected deal in different ways. Picard and Keiko attempt to go on with their life as normal; Ro Laren mopes, because that's what Ro Larens do best; and Guinan encourages Ro to view what happened as an opportunity, rather than a curse. The real threat of an episode like this, the danger of it going from "eh" to "OH GOD IT BURNS MAKE IT DIE," is that it goes in the direction of "Kick the Can," Steven Spielberg's segment from the Twilight Zone movie. (Which, it's been pointed out, was based on an original series episode, but since I've only seen the movie version, that's what I'm referring to.) In "Can," a group of oldsters gets a second shot at childhood, which leads to a lot of fun-having and playing around and soft light and delightful, life-affirming music. (Then nearly everybody decides they'd rather be old, which always struck me as kind of bullshit.) It's corny as hell, and when "Rascals" made a few feints in that direction, I tensed up, expecting the worst.

This was fairly reactionary of me, to be sure, but in my defense, Guinan is in this, and she's at her absolute worse. After lecturing Picard about his archaeology work (how dare someone relax the way they choose to relax on their time off? The only way to have a vacation is the Guinan-approved way!) in the cold open, Guinan spends her time as a youngster lecturing Ro Laren about how she needs to have more fun. The actress is terrible, delivering every line as though looking to earn high marks in Enunciation and Condescension 101, and that does the character no favors, but really, Guinan's Yoda act gets old no matter who's spewing it. There's supposed to be an emotional resonance in Ro's softening from hard-ass to (sigh) "jumper," and the ep even ends with her savoring her last few moments as a child. But it's hard to get much sense out of the journey, as the circumstances are so bizarre. Ro complains that she had a rough childhood, but it's not as though she's in the same situation as she was then. Why not have her get frustrated by her inability to go about her normal duties on the ship?


That's the direction Picard goes in, and it at least makes sense. He attempts to go about his business as usual, and Beverly explains to him that this might not be the best idea, given his current state, and the fact that they don't anything about what's happened to him. So he relinquishes command, and later has a brief conversation with Troi about what he might like to do if his reversion to young (young) adulthood remains permanent. It's not the most intense decision making process, but at least it makes reasonable sense, and allow Birkin-as-Picard to maintain some measure of the character's dignity. More dramatically interesting are Keiko's attempts to act the house-wife with O'Brien. The ep doesn't get explicit, but it does show how impossible it would be for O'Brien to adjust suddenly being married to a teenager. Even the most seemingly harmless of intimacies don't work—she embraces his arm and leans against him, a gesture which could just as easily be daughter-to-father as wife-to-husband (which doesn't make it any less creepy, really), and he jumps away, horrified. On poor Keiko's side, there's the fact that their daughter no longer recognizes her as Mom.

This isn't bad stuff. The Keiko scenes are especially smart, because they take an inherently absurd idea and treat it seriously. And if the episode had made more of an effort to follow through on this, I might have been more kindly disposed towards it. Instead, we get a third act which largely puts these questions aside, in exchange for a sort of Die Hard On A Starship scenario, in which a group of rogue Ferengi trick the Enterprise crew, board the ship, and take over, beaming all the adults to the planet below to work in the mines. Seriously. It's fun to watch, no question; in fact, I'd say the fight against the Ferengi is "Rascals" most entertaining segment. Picard and the others are put in with the rest of the kids, and the captain immediately gets to work trying to find a way to use the element of surprise to their advantage. Guinan offers him the helpful advice of "acting like a kid," which Picard takes to mean distracting the Ferengi guards, grabbing phasers from various storage places around the ship, and, ultimately, using the classroom computer to beam all the Ferengi onto a shielded transporter pad. In order to do this, Picard has to pretend he's Riker's son, which leads to what you'd expect: some awkward fake sentiment, hugging, and a few well-earned laughs.


It works, by and large, a nice mini-action movie that helps pick up a generally dodgy hour. But in order for this shift to work, "Rascal" has to throw aside all the questions raised in the earlier part of the episode. You could argue that Ro learns the joy of play while tricking Ferengi, and Guinan's comment about how they need to act their age is probably intended as a lesson that Picard and Keiko need to learn as well—but it's hollow. Picard doesn't need to learn a damn thing, and neither does Keiko; it's not like Ro really needed to learn how to be a child or anything, either. Enjoyable as their battle against the villains is, it's so disconnected from what comes before it to make the whole first half of the episode play like padding. This was better than I was expecting (in fact, I enjoyed both episodes this week more than I thought I would), but while some of the individual pieces work, they never add together properly. The Ferengi section really feels like it should be part of an episode in which the children of the Enterprise were feeling devalued. While I'm grateful (so, so grateful) that's not the ep we got, that doesn't make "Rascals" a success.

Grade: B-

Stray Observations:

  • Funny how Picard and the others go young right before the ship encounters a threat which turns their newly acquired youth into a crucial benefit…
  • "You're on the most beautiful planet in the quadrant, and you spent your whole time in a cave?" Just.. shut up.
  • "He's my Number One Dad."
  • The brief moment when Lil Picard appreciates his new hair was amusing.
  • Riker's ability to spew out phony tech data at the increasingly confused Ferengi is nothing short of amazing.

"A Fistful Of Datas" (season 6, episode 8, first aired 11/7/1992)

Or The One Where Troi Pretends She's Clint Eastwood, But Worf Does A Better Job Of It


I liked this.

I know, I'm as surprised as you are. It has plenty of elements I've come to dislike on TNG: Brent Spiner doing comedy voices; the holodeck; a meandering story that works to strengthen a character relationship (the father-son bond between Worf and Alexander) by simply repeating ideas we've seen before (hey, did you know Worf loves his son enough to rescue him from danger?); and, of course, Alexander. You throw Lwaxana Troi in there, maybe find a new suitor for Deanna and bring back Wesley at his most irritatingly precocious, and you'd have yourself a show-killer right there. I don't think every episode of a television series should be aimed directly at my sweet spot, and, as I mentioned earlier, I'll do my best to find value in stories and scenarios that don't immediately appeal to me. That's part of the fun of art; every once in a while, you'll find something that changes your mind. But this? I've seen this before, and the title alone had me shaking my head and stomping my foot like a five year-old.


But… I liked this. Quite a bit, actually. I'm sure that has something to do with lowered expectations—I was expecting a teeth-grindingly painful slog through bad comedy and worse sentiment, so anything short of that Full House episode where D.J. picked up a meth habit and Uncle Jesse just happened to be slinging crystal at the time because the band was falling apart, and Uncle Joey was bringing Michelle to baby fights and putting sick wads of cash on her gouging out a toddler's right eye, and Danny didn't realize what was going down until a drunken, strung out Kimmy offered to take him around the world in exchange for a "taste," I was going to be pleasantly surprised. I don't think lowered expectations can entirely explain it, though. I'm going to go out on a limb here, and say that I believe "Fistful" is not half bad. I wouldn't put it up there in the echelon of TNG classics, but I'd be more than willing to label it as a solid, pleasant piece of work.

One of the reasons I dug "Fistful" (that sounds vaguely filthy to me, for reasons I won't get into here) is that, while a life-or-death situation does eventually develop, it starts off as a laid-back, low key episode, with various characters killing time while the Enterprise waits to meet another ship. Picard is in his quarters, working on a flute solo in between interruptions, Beverly is directing a play called Something For Breakfast. Geordi and Data have come up with some wacky plan to hook Data's brain into the ship's computer, so that he could serve as a back-up in case anything went wrong with the main system. And Worf and Alexander are spending some quality time in the holodeck, in a program set in the Old West. Drama generally comes from characters forced to deal with problems which have high stakes, and initially, the stakes here are low to non-existent. Sometimes that's okay, though. A TV show can get a lot of mileage out of reinforcing our sense of a shared world, and an opening like this, which gives the impression of what the ensemble does in its downtime, helps create the illusion that they're not just words on paper and actors on sets.


Conflict does eventually arise, although we have had largely conflict free episodes before. (Or at least eps with minor, non-life-threatening consequences.) While Worf and Alexander are screwing around in Cyber-Deadwood, Data and Geordi's attempts to integrate Data into the computers hit a slight glitch. Geordi immediately disconnects Data from the machine (well, from the other machine), but the damage has already been done. Worf and Alexander's adventures had been pretty straightforward. There's a bad guy (John Pyper-Ferguson, who disappointed me by never screaming at someone for touching his gun), Worf has to arrest him, and then hold him until he can transport his prisoner to higher authorities. Except someone grabs Alexander and takes him to a secret hide-out, which is not supposed to happen until later; and that someone is, apparently, Data. Only it's Data acting like he's the head villain, with a black hat and gloves and sneer to match. And he doesn't behave as if he recognizes Alexander at all.

This is the part of the ep I was dreading; giving Spiner multiple roles is tricky, and the goofy setting makes it all too easy to imagine a lot of shticky over-acting and bad camp. And yet, Spiner does a decent job. As Frank Hollander, the family patriarch, he's reserved and effectively threatening, and while the twang in his voice is a bit on the irritating side when he plays Hollander's hothead son, he never gets too ridiculous. Troi, who joined Worf and Alexander's game earlier in the ep, theorizes that in order to escape the program ("Computer, stop program" isn't working anymore), they'll need to see the story through to the end. As Worf negotiates the release of his son, more and more bad-guys get Data-ified, and while this could've been stupid, it's played more creepy/funny, and largely succeeds on those terms. Worf, realizing that he's facing off against villains with all of Data's speed, strength, and enhanced abilities, builds a temporary shield for himself for the final showdown, in what amounts to a pretty clever nod to the movie that gave this episode its name. (In A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood uses a piece of metal from a stove to block the bad guy's rifle shots in the final showdown.) Alexander is reunited with his father, Worf proves he's not always a joke, and Troi gets to help. Happy endings all around.


So, yeah, this wasn't hellish, although I'm not sure I have a whole lot to say about it. There are points to criticize. Alexander's still whiny, although he's not nearly as bad here as he has been before. It kind of feels like we've had enough Worf and Alexander getting to like each other episodes in the past, and I'm not sure I needed to see Worf once again realize how much he loves and values his son. On the other hand, well, Worf got to be the hero this time, for once, and he gets some good lines, and maybe there's something to be said for acknowledging that loving your child doesn't necessarily mean you always want to hang out with him. Troi's Western "accent" is atrocious, but in general, she acquits herself as well as everyone else, kicking her own fair share of ass, and even getting to wear a reasonably unembarrassing outfit for once. The Deadwood set is, well, what you'd expect. I'd say it's a little more effective than the sets we saw during Picard's private detective days, but that could just be a matter of taste.

Right, I was criticizing, wasn't I. Well, while the plot here works from a general, "Okay, it's probably magic" level, it does make Data and Geordi look foolish. There's no sudden electrical storm or unexpected ship malfunction while Data's hooked into the system—it seems that the computers just have a bad reaction to the android's neural net, and while I'm willing to accept that could happen (and that Geordi and Data wouldn't be prepared for it), I don't understand why they didn't make more of an effort to isolate the work they were doing from the rest of the ship. They ask Picard for permission to take engineering off-line for a couple hours, but surely that should always have made sure whatever they were doing wouldn't interfere with other tech. At the very least, giving everyone a heads up might've been nice. Data's malfunction affects seemingly half the ship, screwing with Beverly's play rehearsal, and interfering with Picard's music. Even Data himself is affected, as he starts speaking like the characters he usurps in Worf and Alexander's Western simulation without realizing it. All of which just gives the impression that for all their combined brainpower, Data and Geordi started screwing around without having any real idea of the danger, or taking reasonable precautions. Which is a small nitpick, but still.


I'm also a little fuzzy on just how Data ends up re-creating himself in the holodeck. It makes a sort of intuitive sense: his memory and personality is filtering into the system, so his appearances as multiple characters in Deadwood just seems like something that might very well happen. Only, why does it start with just one character, and then seep outward? Why that particular character? And why, while each character retains their original programmed personality, do they also somehow have Data's physical strength and ability? I'm not sure his strength is something that's part of his neural net. It's interesting how havoc Data's temporary invasion causes only really endanger Worf, Alexander, and Troi—most other episodes, you'd expect the ship to spiral further out of control, but here, what happens in the holodeck just sort of goes on under the radar. (And not that I really need to mention it, but for the umpteenth time, why keep the holodeck? Three people could've been killed here, and to what purpose?)

Really, though, this is a nice, mildly goofy hour that manages not to overplay its absurdities, and allows Worf to kick some ass. Maybe that's the reason I'm so fondly disposed towards it right there: for once, Worf gets to be the unquestioned hero. Sure, he's doing it to save his kid (Worf can be a hero when he's fighting Klingons or protecting Alexander, but, until DS9, that appears to be it), but he's resourceful here, powerful, and he shoots a gun out of a robot's hand. In many ways, the homage to classic Westerns in "Fistful" is as corny as the nods to classic hardboiled crime fiction were in the Dixon Hill episodes, but these work better, because this really isn't an homage to anything. It's just a dad having fun with his son, and I can groove on that. Hell, the last shot is of the Enterprise sailing off into the sunset, a nod so resoundingly, unabashedly dorky I can't help but be a little charmed by it.


Grade: B+

Stray Observations:

  • When Beverly asks Picard to appear in her play, he tells her, I'm not much of an actor." Yeeeah, sure you aren't. (He does seem a little disappointed when she tells him the role she wants him to play only has two lines.)
  • "So, we are in law enforcement." The amount of satisfaction Worf gets from this is amusing.
  • Alexander tells Worf that Barclay helped him create the program, and Worf assumes Barclay put the whores in.

Next week: We debate "The Quality of Life," and get started on "The Chain of Command, Part 1."

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