"Starship Mine" (season 6, episode 18, first aired: 3/27/1993)
Or The One Where Picard Does Not Ride A Horse
This is an odd fit for TNG: an action movie plotline that has Picard running around a nearly abandoned Enterprise, taking out bad guys with crossbows and booby traps. Die Hard on a space-ship, as it were. There's also a sub-plot with the rest of the crew stuck on the planet, standard hostage-situation set-dressing, largely created in order to believably isolate Picard for most of the hour. This is a story that, with some retooling, wouldn't seem out of place on an episode of MacGyver (especially the booby traps), and it's a definite change of pace for this series, which usually strives to be more thoughtful and measured in its storytelling. But then, season 6 has been an odd season from the start. That's not a negative, at least not completely. Both "Chain of Command" and "Tapestry" come from writers and producers willing to push the edges, to excellent result, and "Starship Mine," while not at the same level of those episodes, is a lot of fun.
The more I think about it, the more "Mine" really does play like an '80s action drama. We have thieving bad guys, each of whom gets a comeuppance that leaves our captain guilt-free; a comedy relief commanding officer down on the planet, so irritating that our heroes go to great lengths to avoid him; Riker getting in a fist-fight; and, most enjoyably, Picard's transformation into a bad-ass, capable of nearly taking out an entire crew of villains single-handedly. Of course, none of these story elements on their own is that distinctive. TNG has had its share of villains and annoying Starfleet personnel. Riker has punched and been punched before, and periodically, the show goes out of its way to try and shed those troublesome accusations that Picard is a thinker, where Kirk was a doer. (This was always bullshit, by the way. Kirk did his fair share of thinking, and Picard is decisive when he needs to be.) It's just the way everything combines together that gives "Mine" its special feel. For once, we're not interested in complicated political relationships, strange alien species or trippy high concept. We're here to tell a simple tale that's been told dozens of times before, for better or worse.
What I love about stories like this is that they are, in a way, puzzles, but for the writer, not the audience. In order to make everything work, you need to find a way that gets Picard alone on the ship for the duration. This means not just emptying the Enterprise of its crew, but also arranging a plausible reason for Picard to return, as well as some way to stop him from making contact with the rest of the ensemble when trouble strikes, and stopping that ensemble from rushing to his aid when they notice he's missing. At least part of the success of the episode depends on how contrived all of this design becomes. If it's too elaborate, the audience will notice the strings and the tension becomes laughable. If it's not airtight enough, there's no tension to laugh at, because the danger is never all that pressing. Die Hard is a classic of the genre because it brings all the pieces into play so deftly that you're only ever really asked to believe one hugely implausible thing (the coincidence of Rickman and his gang taking over the Nakatomi building the same night that Bruce Willis happens to be visiting his wife; the advent of the holiday makes this slightly less random, but it's still a a pretty big leap). The rest just falls into place naturally from there.
Going by that standard, "Mine" does a decent job. The Enterprise is brought in for a scan designed to eliminate accumulated baryon particles. I'm not sure we've ever heard of this problem before, but the idea of the ship needing periodic repairs/work done, considering how much time it spends in the outer reaches of space, isn't a bad one. The scan is lethal, so that means the entire ship needs to be evacuated before the scan starts. The episode opens with the evacuation already well under way, and the hectic, "I hope I don't forget to turn the oven off" vibe gets things off to an excellent start. We learn that the senior members of the crew have been invited to attend a reception for them on Arkaria Base, run by Commander Hutchinson. Hutchinson, it turns out, is something of a bore. We get hints of this when Data tries out a new small talk sub-routine on Picard, who tells him he should try and learn from Hutchinson during the reception. We then get confirmation of the commanders dullness when Worf manages to excuse himself from the reception (thus removing him from the conflict to come).
This serves as set-up for some passable comic relief (Data takes Picard's instruction to learn from Hutchinson very seriously), but it also gives Picard extra motivation to leave the reception and go back to the Enterprise. Hutchinson mentions that they have horses and areas for riding by the base, and Picard seizes on this, deciding he wants to do a little horse-backin', and that needs to return to the ship to get his saddle. Which leads to a running joke, as people keeping repeating some variation on "Every experienced rider has their own saddle." It's more than a little corny, but really, that's part of the '80s action drama homage—you can't get through an hour of The A-Team without suffering a fair share of awful gags. Besides, it gets Picard where he needs to be, and the sight of him lugging a saddle around the ship's corridors is amusing, in its way.
Really, this isn't a perfect solution; I'm sure there were other saddles on the base, and the fact that there are only minutes before the scan starts makes it foolhardy of Picard to take such a risk for no real pressing reason. But it works enough in context, and I guess it's a sign of how mundane the baryon scan really is, if Picard takes the danger this lightly. Once he's on the Enterprise, he runs into trouble when he's accosted by one of the technicians supposedly prepping the ship for the scan. (Tim Russ plays the technician; he's best known these days as Tuvok from Voyager.) The conversation is tense for no apparent reason, and Picard quickly realizes something is wrong. He and the techie fight, Picard wins; while back on the base, Geordi gets a glimpse of something he shouldn't have. This prompts station personnel to shoot Hutchinson and Geordi, and take Beverly, Troi, Riker and Data hostage. And after that, it's pretty much on.
The majority of "Mine" follows Picard's attempts to first understand the situation, and then get control of it. On the base, Riker and the others are able to work out a plan fairly quickly—they use Geordi's VISOR to send out a super-sonic pulse that knocks everybody unconscious, except, of course, for Data. But back on the Enterprise, life isn't so easy. The episode really doesn't have enough plot to sustain the full hour, largely because we never really get to know much about the bad guys, beyond the fact that the head bad guy—or bad gal—Kelsey is on the ship to steal a waste bypoduct of the engines, trilithium resin, which is very dangerous, and very valuable. She intends to sell the resin, which makes her the worst kind of TNG villain: someone whose only doing what they do for money. And she's especially evil, because she's willing to kill her own people to get what she wants. Beyond that, though, there's not much there, which means the byplay between her and Picard is never that compelling. Die Hard (which also featured thieves who are initially mistaken for terrorists) got a lot of mileage out of the cat-and-mouse game between its protagonist and antagonist, helped in no small part because Alan Rickman is such a fun, interesting performer. Kelsey is just one note, and the team around her is barely that.
This means that instead of trying to establish relationships, "Mine" has to fill the time with Picard first beating the enemy, then getting trapped by the enemy, then beating the enemy and getting trapped by them again. It's tedious dynamic, although thankfully, it all happens so fast that the tedium never really gets a chance to set in. Besides, Picard is never captive very long, and his resourcefulness—running to Worf's quarters to get a crossbow after the power is shut down (in a way that renders all phasers inoperative, which is another piece in the puzzle), setting up booby traps in the one spot of the ship he knows Kelsey will have to go—is plausible and fun. The episode keeps at a brisk pace throughout, moving fast enough that its problems never really stick around long enough to register. It's not profound, but it's certainly inoffensive.
My other big criticism here is the increasingly convoluted way the story works to bump off members of Kelsey's team (including, ultimately, Kelsey herself) in a way that absolves Picard of any blame. The baryon scan serves as a convenient executioner, and characters have a weird habit of stumbling into it, despite Picard's best efforts to save them. The only death he's directly responsible for is Kelsey's. Well, Kelsey and whoever's on the ship she uses to escape. Picard removes the stabilizer from the equipment she's using to carry the resin, and it explodes, although thankfully, it waits until Kelsey's ship is sufficiently far from the Enterprise before doing so. It's all a weird, kind of silly method to keep Picard, who obviously values life, from going full Kirk. That wouldn't have suited TNG at all, and really, "Mine" isn't a wheelhouse the series should be visiting on a regular basis. The episode serves as a fun diversion, and that's enough.
- The more I think about it, the more obvious the Die Hard parallels become. Picard even pretends to be someone else for a while (the barber, of all people).
- I can't decide what to make of Data's brief subplot. It's not painful, at least.
- Troi Watch: she senses that the hostage takers are uneasy, which means they're rushing their time-table. Which is moderately helpful to know. (Although she's back in that no-shoulder uniform, which looks even more ridiculous now that we've seen her wearing a regular uniform.)
- The bad guys on the base who hold Riker and the others hostage are either deaf or terrible at their jobs. And they certainly aren't deaf, because otherwise the VISOR trick wouldn't have worked.
"Lessons" (season 6, episode 19, first aired: 4/3/1993)
Or The One Where Picard Plays With Someone Else
Here's an episode which, while a bit unusual for the show in some respects, seems a much better fit for TNG. It's thoughtful, open-minded, and more concerned with character than action. It's a little on the slow side, to be sure (I spent the first twenty minutes waiting for the plot to kick in), and hampered to a certain extent by the closed-off nature of TNG's storytelling. But on the whole it works, focusing once again on Picard's role on the ship, in this case how his job as captain makes it difficult for him to form personal relationships with the crew. Really, any episode that focuses on Picard is starting on a good foot. The rest of the cast has come a long way, and they've all had their chance to shine (well, apart from Troi, but "Face of the Enemy" wasn't that bad), but Patrick Stewart still owns this series, and he's the only one I can think of that could've pulled this off.
The biggest difficulty in getting into "Lessons" is that at least half of the episode is taken up by Picard's growing fondness for a new crew-member. TNG has done its best with romance before, but generally those romances are set up against some kind of conflict or drama, and the affair is much more overtly passionate. (Well, by TNG standards, at least.) The courtship between Picard and Lt. Cmdr. Nella Daren (Wendy Hughes) is low-key by comparison to, say, Troi's emotional messiness or Geordi's fumbling. It's easy enough to guess where things are headed when Picard first meets her in the cold open; she and her astrophysics team are using a considerable amount of ship energy for their experiments, and when Picard stops by to see what's going on, he interrupts their work, which frustrates Daren to no end. She quickly realizes he's the captain, and gets him some tea from the replicator as a peace offering, but instead of getting him his customary Earl Grey, she offers a mixture of her own creation. Picard doesn't much like it, but he gets this certain look in his eye, and you know this isn't the last we've seen of Daren.
Well, of course it isn't the last we've seen of her. Regardless of Picard's expression, this is a TV show, and it doesn't have the time to randomly introduce characters who only appear in one scene, to no great purpose. But there are plenty of other reasons Daren could've come back, and it's a measure of how slow "Lessons" takes things that I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Obviously Daren is going to be important, and odds were, Picard was attracted to her, and she to him, and that was going to lead to something. But there's nothing else in the episode beyond that relationship, and it's sometimes hard to tell just how close they've become at various points in the story. Picard starts exhibiting all the signs of new love—he keeps talking about Daren to everyone, including Beverly, which makes for an awkward scene—but it doesn't get serious until the two start playing music together. Picard shows her the flute he got in "Inner Light," and, in one of the ep's best moments, Daren takes him to a spot in the bowels of the Enterprise she marks as the most acoustically perfect place in the whole ship. There, the two duet, her on keyboard, him on flute, and the music filters out through the ship to where Geordi can here it. But eventually they stop playing, and start kissing, and that's when things get complicated.
Here's where the plot really kicks in—actually, wait, not quite yet. First, we get a scene of Picard asking Troi if it would cool if he and Daren hooked up (Troi is, unsurprisingly, fine with this). Then, as their relationship goes public, things get awkward; Daren breaks protocol on a question of personnel, and Riker feels as though her actions have put in him a difficult spot. He talks to Picard, and Picard assures him that he trusts Riker's judgment in the issue, but the (mild) damage has already been done. It's not exactly the most thrilling sequence, but it does fit in with one of TNG's recurring themes: the way its possible even for good people with the best intentions to run into difficulties while working together.
The action finally kicks in when the Enterprise gets a distress call from Bersallis Three. Approaching fire storms have put the colony there at risk, and the Enterprise has to evacuate everyone before the storms arrive and lay waste to the area. Daren has had some experience dealing with fire storms in the past, and she proposes a method of holding the storms back temporarily to allow time for the colonists to escape. Given her experience, Picard has to assign her to the team installing the shields that will keep off the storms, and he's not super happy about it. This is dangerous work, and it only gets worse when Daren realizes that she and her team will have to make adjustments to the shields by hand, while the storm rages around them. As the batches of colonists beam up to the ship, Picard hears reports of the situation on the planet worsening by the moment, until finally, he gets word that everyone has left—except for two teams working on the shields. And, even worse, Daren was on one of the missing teams.
To give "Lessons" credit, I wasn't sure if Daren had been killed. It would've been a lame choice if she had, admittedly. As I mentioned above, the show's general lack of serialization means it's unlikely that Picard would get a love interest who'd stick around for long, especially one we've never seen before. In order for "Lessons" to fit in with the rest of the series, then, the episode has to come up with some plausible reason for the two characters, who seem very much in love, to part before the end credits. Death is one way around this, but it's such an obvious, hokey trick that it would've seriously undercut the episode's gentle, contemplative tone. That I still thought they might go in that direction is less a flaw in the ep, and more the handling of those tense moments when Picard believes Daren has died. His shock here, and grief, are short-lived, but they need to be believable enough to convince us we're not watching filler, and painful enough to justify Picard's decision to end the relationship.
Daren is alive, after all, the last person to be beamed up from the planet, carrying someone and looking significantly worse for wear. After Beverly treats her and the crisis has concluded, she and Picard meet privately to discuss what happened, and while nothing that happens here is exactly a surprise, it's handled so well that it doesn't need to be shocking. After coming so close to losing Daren, Picard has realized he can't ever order her into life-threatening danger again, and Daren knows it. Which means either one of them has to quit their job, or else they need to call it quits. Picard suggests trying to manage a long-distance relationship, but they both understand how unlikely that would be. All of this was basically inevitable from the moment the two first met, which could've made it less interesting to watch; as well, the sudden appearance of a danger which Daren is uniquely suited to deal with is a little too convenient for the narrative, especially coming so early in their relationship. "Lessons" generally works, though, because of it's low-key approach. That approach can be rough, and I still think the first half of the episode plays things too bloodlessly—it takes a certain amount of patience to get through to the meat of the story. But there are some beautiful scenes, and there's something to be said for allowing drama to develop on its own.
- The "Inner Light" call-back is well-handled. I wasn't hugely sold on Daren, but when Picard makes a special point of explaining the flute's significance to her, it helps solidify the connection between them.
Next week: The Enterprise takes part in "The Chase," and Riker has something of an identity crisis in "Frame of Mind."