Or The One Where A Vulcan Cries
After Deforrest Kelley's cameo way back in "Encounter at Farpoint," there hasn't been any cast cross-over between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. This makes sense from a story perspective; the majority of the crew of the original Enterprise were human, and given that TNG takes place roughly a hundred years after they where in their prime, well, they're probably all dead now. Except for Kirk, who's stuck in the Nexus, and Scotty, who's stuck in some transporter buffer somewhere. Yeah, you heard me: your precious Uhura? Wormfood. Sulu? Daisy pushing. Chekov? Nothing can kill the Chekov.
This is probably for the best. Given the lumpiness TNG experienced at the start of its run, trying to become its own show while still clinging to the legacy it was intended to carry on, guest spots would've been distracting at best, painfully sentimental at worst. Still, it's not like we haven't heard mention of Kirk and his adventures before, so now that the series has hit its stride in the third season, it's a fine time to make some direct connections to the past. "Sarek" features the return of Mark Lenard to his most famous Trek role, as Sarek, Spock's Vulcan father, a brilliant ambassador who's recently passed the two centuries mark. That's long in the tooth, even for a Vulcan, and now, on the eve of what everyone keeps insisting is the most important negotiation of his entire career—Sarek isn't feeling so well. That he's feeling at all, is, you'll understand, a bit of a problem.
While Sarek was never a recurring character on TOS, appearing only in one episode (as well as one episode of the animated series—most people these days probably remember him from his few scenes in The Search For Spock), he left a significant impression on the franchise; Spock is one of the mythology's central figures, and that grants Sarek a great deal of importance simply for existing. And yet, nobody ever really remembers Spock's mother, Amanda Grayson. Maybe it's because we're all sexist bastards, but it probably more that Sarek was so clearly and immediately defined in his first appearance ("Journey to Babel," second season) that he became impossible to forget. He's the epitome of the stern, demanding paternal male, representing all of Spock's insecurities and concern over his identity. Sarek is the Vulcan ideal that Spock spent his life struggling to achieve, and because of that, Sarek was a constant presence, whether or not he was physically present. Plus, Mark Lenard is very, very good in the role.
So it's nice to see him back here, especially considering that he gets to play off Patrick Stewart for a decent chunk of his screentime. Both men bring such immense dignity and presence to their roles that it there's something electric to the episode even before the story kicks in. Sarek is a name familiar to Trek fans, and Picard and Riker's discussion at the start of the show about how honored they are to host the Vulcan on the Enterprise, and what a big deal the talks with the Legarans are, sets the stakes firmly in place so that when things do start to go south, we understand why this is all so important. Although man is there a lot of direct, expository dialog, both in this scene and throughout the episode. I'm not sure if that's unusual for the show, or if I'm just randomly noticing it in this episode, but two-thirds of Picard's lines just exist to clarify obvious facts. (My favorite was, to paraphrase, "Sarek is a Vulcan, losing control of his emotions must be very bad for him." Er, you think?) Stewart sells it, but it's the sort of thing that once you realize what's happening, you can't ignore it.
Sarek comes aboard the ship with his own entourage, including his current wife, Perrin (I guess Sarek has a taste for the human ladies?), a Vulcan named Sakkath, and a human named Ki Mendrossen. Mendrossen attempts to protect Sarek from the rest of the ship, but it doesn't do much good. The ambassador is clearly on edge (there are few explanations for a snippy Vulcan, and none of them fill one with confidence), and his one attempt to attend a public performance, held in his honor, ends with him fleeing the room in tears. A human crying at a symphony? Not a big deal. But when a Vulcan does it… Even worse, the rest of the crew seems to be affected by the Vulcan's bad mood. Wesley and Geordi nearly come to blows, a fight breaks out in Ten Forward, and Beverly Crusher slaps her son for—no reason at all. (How awesome is it that so much of the rage is focused on Wesley?)
One of the strengths of this episode is how quickly the bad feelings are accepted as a problem, and how Beverly and Deana combine forces to efficiently and immediately figure out what's causing it. This isn't a mystery storyline; we know right off that Sarek is the cause of these disturbances, even if we don't know how, and instead of having Picard and the others dance around the issue for half an hour, they jump to the same conclusions. Why wouldn't they? They have the same information that we do: Sarek is behaving strangely, and the bad vibes didn't hit the Enterprise until after Sarek arrived. Ergo, he's got something to do with it. Beverly theorizes that Sarek is suffering from Bendii Syndrome, a disease which hits Vulcans late in life, destroying their emotional control and subjecting them to fits of passion, most often in the form of intense anger. (I love how much sense this makes. Remember the Pon Far? The price the race pays for their stoicism is that every so often, the feelings break out, and when they do, they destroy all logic and structure in their wake.) Deanna adds that the reason members of the crew are feeling the same rushes that Sarek experiences is due to the Vulcan's innate telepathic ability. We later learn that the reason the hits are so random is that Sarek's companion, Sakkath, has been using his own telepathic abilities to suppress Sarek's emissions. But now they they're on a ship, and the ambassador is suffering from too much stress for Sakkath to handle him.
There's a beautiful simplicity to this concept, an elegance that makes the tragedy at the heart of the episode all the more powerful. Bendii Syndrome could be viewed as a stand-in for Alzheimer's Syndrome, or it could be representative of any of the hundreds of indignities which await us all in old age (unless science solves everything before we grow up. So get on that, Science). It's resonant because the science fiction aspect isn't used to obfuscate the horror of what's happening. The Syndrome is robbing Sarek of that part of himself which he considers the most valuable, his discipline, and it's doing so in a way that leaves him naked not only to those closest to him, but to anyone who stays in the room with him for more than a few minutes. There's a lot of talk about how crucial it is that talks with the Legarans go smoothly, but really, that's not where the drama of this episode comes from. We never see the Legarans, we're never that invested in the outcome, apart from hoping Sarek will succeed. This is really about a great individual, dying by inches.
Of course they find a solution in time: a mind-meld between Picard and Sarek, which gives Sarek Picard's stability and control, and forces Picard to endure the rush of a lifetime's worth of pent-up emotion in just a few hours. Like I said, we don't see the talks with the Legarans, and the climax of the episode is actually spent with Picard struggling against Sarek's passions, as Beverly sits nearby and tries to comfort him. It's remarkable work, a level of naked, raw intensity that we rarely get on TNG, and in the hands of a lesser actor (basically anyone else in the ensemble), this could've been ridiculous. But Stewart doesn't hold anything back. I think I'm something of a sucker for this kind of acting, so I'll be curious to hear what others thought of it. For me, the scene works, and it makes the final scene of the episode so much more poignant. Sarek has done his job, but his disease remains uncured. Maybe someone will find a cure. Until than, he can take some comfort that his legacy remains intact. Hopefully, that will be enough.
- Geordi to Wesley: "Compared to you, every male on this ship is an expert on women!"
- Beverly to Troi: "I slapped Wesley." (I would like this on a T-shirt, I think.)
- It's great how, once Bevery and Deanna explain to Picard what they think is happening, Picard is determined to resolve the issue, regardless of the threats Mendrossen makes to his career. It's less showy that Stewart's acting later on, but more critical to the character: once he's determined the best course of action, Picard is implacable.
- Spock is only mentioned once by name, during Picard's melt-down at the end.
- "I will take my leave of you now, Captain. I do not think we shall meet again." Although the episode listing says otherwise…
"Menage a Troi"
Or The One Where Lwaxana Troi Has Aural Relations With A Ferengi
This could have been so much worse.
TNG can feel very dated at times, but you can't really hold that against the show; all visions of the future have a way of revealing their present, and at its best, the series is able to achieve a level of universality and relevance that makes questions of timeliness irrelevant. Even when that's not the case, it can be fun to see the show try and translate current events into a fictional context. (It's also fun to laugh at the costumes.) While you'd think that these episodes would be the ones to date the fastest, watching the show now, it's the comedy eps that feel the most of their time to me. Many of the jokes are older than the hills, but the gender relationships and plotting are always stuck in that curious era when women were nominally empowered, but still playing out the same tired roles as wives and mothers on most shows and movies. (So much has changed, right?)
But for once, I'm not here to rant; I just think it's amusing that on a show set three hundred years into the future, the best hook they can come up with for a Lwaxana Troi/Deanna Troi relationship is that Lwaxana thinks her daughter should be married, with children. Then again, maybe that's a standard parental thing, and "Troi" never treats Lwaxana's wishes as anything but ridiculous. What's more annoying is that Deanna, in an episode that should be at least as much about her as it is about her mother, is as useless as ever. She gets kidnapped by the Ferengi, along with Riker and Lwaxana, and it's Riker who gets them out of their cell, and it's Lwaxana who uses her (gah) feminine wiles to convince the Ferengi captain, DaiMon Tog, to release the other two. Deanna basically hangs out, loses her clothes, and senses whatever her mother is going through.
That aside, this is the least obnoxious hour we've spent with Lwaxana and her endless supply of upsetting dresses, because her antics are more driven by good intentions than by the writers mistaken belief that shrill, sexually aggressive women in their later years are inherently hilarious. I'm still not a huge fan of the character, but watching "Menage," I can see her as something more than a bad idea. She has understandable motivations, and she's even sympathetic and likable by the end. Barett's performance is more natural than it has been in the past, too. We've had a lot of great episodes this season, and while this one is definitely not great, it's as much an indicator of the show's overall improvement as, say, "Yesterday's Enterprise" was. What has been problematic at best, disastrous at worst in the past is here just a mildly pleasant, occasionally eye-roll-inducing diversion.
All right, so there's a trade conference on Betazed, and the Enterprise is involved. For the first time ever, the Ferengi have been allowed to participate in the conference, and they do their best to repay this goodwill by kidnapping three people (including a Starfleet officer), and then attempting to hack into Lwaxana's brain to figure out how her empathic abilities work. As always, the Ferengi are tiresome, cartoonish villains who don't really belong on this show; everyone else gets some modicum of dignity, but the Ferengi act like refugees from an '80s cartoon show. They're played for laughs as greedy, foolish, and pathetic, until they need to be just threatening enough to pull the story along. And did we really need another episode where a Ferengi lusted after a woman outside his species because she stood up for herself? Lwaxana shouts, "Get away from me, you're disgusting," and the Ferengi takes this as a signal to increase his efforts. That's not funny. In fact, it's pretty damn creepy, and the only reason it's not unbearable to watch is that Tog is too goofy to take seriously.
Tog decides to kidnap Lwaxana after she continually spurns his advances, and when he makes his move, Riker and Deanna happen to be standing by (they'd been kissing, which is the first sign we've had in a while that their relationship is still in flux), so Tog grabs them as well. On the Ferengi ship, Riker does his hero bit and gets him and Deanna free, while Lwaxana manipulates Tog by some ear rubbing. It's inoffensive, and silly, and not very much of anything at all.
There is one plotline in the episode that has weight to it: Wesley has finally been accepted into Starfleet Academy, and he's leaving the ship to start school. Wesley's come a long way since the first season, and while I'm not sad to see him go, I don't hate having him around. (He made an easy punchline.) There's some talk about how Wesley can't be sure he'll be assigned back to the Enterprise once he finishes school, and Geordi mentions that Picard might not even be captain of the Enterprise anymore by then. It's a low-key piece of realism that reinforces how this is just a job for these people, a major part of their lives, but still just a part. Initially, it seems that Wesley's departure will be handled with a similar off-hand tone, as he leaves while the bridge crew is working to track down Riker and the others. There's no big emotional scene, and that would've been a surprising, and smart, way to handle the exit. Instead, Wesley figures out how Riker's sending his message at the last minute, and misses his ship to the Academy in order to help rescue the others.
I suppose I should accept that TNG's view of humor and my own aren't ever going to really converge, but I can give "Menage" this much: the finale made me laugh. Lwaxana trades herself to Tog in exchange for Riker and Deanna's release, and in order to get her back, Picard has to convince Tog that he's a former lover of Lwaxana's who will murder anyone who touches his beloved. So he starts quoting Shakespearean sonnet in full, Patrick Stewart oratory mode. It's amusing, anyway. Lwaxana's willingness to sacrifice herself for her daughter made her a little more likable, and she doesn't spend the whole episode badgering Picard. Also, she never hits on a holodeck character. Small victories, but I'll take what I can get.
- Yes, I know Wesley will be back. Let me dream.
- Next week, we end the season with "Transfiguration" and "The Best Of Both Worlds, Part One."