Or, The One In Which We Learn The Importance Of Moving On, And Wesley Has Something To Say To Captain Picard
So, we were talking about consequences. It doesn't get much more consequential than death. "The Bonding" isn't the first time a character has died on TNG, and it's not even the first time a character's death has had a major impact. While the show's attitude regarding its casualties varies to a certain degree depending on the needs of each episode, this has never been a series that was cavalier about mortality. On TOS, a certain body count was expected: Kirk might beat himself up about an expired red-shirt, but that was always more a way of driving the narrative than it was about dealing with the idea of death itself. Kirk's frustration raised the stakes and our emotional investment in the storyline. Rarely were the pile of bodies the ship accrued on its five year mission intended as much more than a score card.
On TNG, because of the larger cast and more thoughtful tone, there's a clearer sense of the impact each fresh corpse makes on our heroes. Tasha Yar dies twenty minutes into "Skin of Evil," but the episode still makes time to mourn her even after the main threat is defeated. Sure it was clumsy and saccharine, a misguided attempt to establish a connection with a character who never really came into her own, but the intention was there to do something different, and that's important. Season three has TNG coming into its own, and that means we get to see earlier concepts that were promising but clumsily handled dealt with again in a more assured, effective fashion. Last week it was revisiting the limits of the God-Like Being (first seen in "Hide And Q") and the Prime Directive (first seen in, ugh, "Justice"). This week, we're facing the Random Crewmember Death. Instead of just using someone's sacrifice to goad Worf and the rest of the crew to action, "The Bonding" tries to deal with the grieving process as honestly and directly as possible. (Admittedly, "direct" takes on a different meaning when you have energy beings and so forth, but still.)
The Enterprise is orbiting one those planets where the locals all killed themselves in battle, and Worf is leading an away team of archaeologists on the surface when tragedy strikes: an explosion kills a scientist and crewmember, Lt. Marla Aster. (Troi senses the explosion and immediately tells Picard to beam the party back to the ship, in a definite "closing the barn door after the horse is stolen" moment.) Worf is upset, as are Picard and the others, but it's Aster's 12 year-old son Jeremy who's hit the hardest. His mom is dead, and his father died a few years back, so now he's an orphan, alone on the ship, his only relatives thousands of light years away.
There's a sci-fi element to "Bonding," besides the obvious "mom killed by long dead aliens and comfort provided by mind-reading half-human and tall dude with forehead ridges" factor, but it doesn't make itself known for some time. The first act focuses on Troi's work helping everyone deal with the loss, and there's something disarming about the episode's shift from thoughtful adventure to earnest drama. TNG has always been willing to give its characters time to breathe, but this isn't just poker games and holodecks. This is weighty, often ponderous discussion, and at times it can play like a Very Special Episode (no relation to Noel Murray) of some family sitcom, pausing in the midst of all the one liners to teach us an important lesson about coping with loss and moving on, and so forth.
Whether the shift works is up for debate. If TNG has an Achilles' Heel, it's that its earnestness can go too far. TOS's pulp-driven theatrics occasionally edged over the border into camp, but TNG goes in the opposite direction, and it takes an effort of will not to snicker occasionally at just how serious everyone is, behind their goofy uniforms and techno babble. The darker emotions in "Bonding" are dealt with compassionately and with a great deal of tact, but it can feel a little airless. Troi's understanding of the situation is so pitch-perfect, and her ability to chart out of the beats of each character's handling of the grief is so on target, that, until the main plot kicks in, scenes threaten to turn into lectures. Sadness and mourning are like weather patterns; it's possible to predict broad trends, but you only know it's going to rain after the first drops hit. Some messiness here would've been nice. There are moments that flirt with that, but I'm not sure they go far enough.
Yet even with that caveat in mind, this is an often powerful episode. The acting is strong, which goes a long way towards mollifying the potentially cliched dialog; Stewart is as reliable as ever, and it's terrific to see Dorn getting a chance to show more range. I have theory about how the most interesting characters are the ones that question or are baffled by societal norms. Data does that job on TNG, and he gets one great scene with Riker, but Worf is also an outsider, and his solution to grief here, proposing that he "bond" with Marla's son in the Klingon ritual R'uustai, is endearingly direct. Troi is the focal point of the episode, and while Marina Sirtis is never going to be the most amazing actress ever, she does fine, balancing compassion and patience with the occasional flash of frustration. Even Wil Wheaton handles his share of the heavy lifting passably well, for the first time showing some real anger in Picard's presence instead of just the usual obsessive hero worship.
As for the actual plot, remember "The Royale"? Turns out aliens who try and make people feel better via fantastic illusions are more wide-spread than we thought. The Koinonians weren't the only race on this planet, they were just the only ones made of a matter. Another race of pure energy beings really didn't like all the destruction and murder and chaos their more physical neighbors caused, so after Marla is inadvertently killed by a remnant of that long finished national tragedy, the energy beings first clear out and defuse the rest of the mines in the area (leaving them for Geordi to find as, presumably, a show of good faith), and then send up an avatar of Marla to take Jeremy down to the planet, where he will be able to live happily ever after in a world that isn't real.
As a storyline, this is middling, yet another in a long line of generic races who exist entirely to place our heroes into moral quandaries. But as a metaphor for the importance of moving on, well, it's not horrible. It lacks a certain finesse, and at times the climax of the episode threatens to turn into a series of lectures on good mental hygiene. Yet the gravity of the situation is impressive. The lesson that death is a natural part of life is one that gets repeated over and over again in stories of all kinds, but it's not impossible to appreciate the respect "Bonding" shows for its characters and their loss. The alien Marla is a device, and while it might've made for a more dramatic story if there'd been more to the creature than that, it serves its purpose well enough.
"Bonding" is the first TNG episode written by Ron Moore, who eventually went on to create one of the greatest science fiction shows ever, Battlestar Galactica. (I was going to say "the BSG remake," but honestly, the new version earned the name on its own terms.) Moore did a lot of work for the Trek franchise, and while the writing here isn't anywhere near as good as he'd eventually become, there are some familiar themes. BSG is a show perpetually haunted by death, and "Bonding" shows a writer already interested in the the cost of all this cheerful space travel. I said the episode could've stood to be messier, and BSG is a great example of just how powerful tricky emotions and shifting sentiment can be when a group of imperfect individuals has to create a new life trapped in a giant tin can. There are a couple of messy moments here, though. Worf's eagerness to bond with Jeremy, and his awkward initial attempts at sharing Klingon culture with the boy, show the jagged, clumsy reality of what happens when two strangers try and communicate through each other's pain. Even more difficult is how Marla's death reminds Wesley and Beverly Crusher of their own loss. The two have a great scene together that, for once, isn't simply two tremendously nice people communicating even-handedly. Wesley's final outburst, in which he expresses some old rage at Picard for his father's death, isn't a bad beat either.
This one was a little too preachy to my tastes, and I wound up respecting it more than enjoying it. I needed a little more sugar to wash the medicine down, or else I need more of that uncomfortable uncertainty that true sadness brings, but it wasn't a bad try for all that. I'm going to give it the edge for its willingness to deal with a potential bummer of a subject head-on, and for the vulnerability we see in our recurring cast. And hell, it ends with a Klingon ritual, which is always fun. Who wouldn't want to be Worf's adopted brother?
- The score is horrible, though. I noticed it last week as well, but between this episode and the next, hardly a scene went by that it didn't sound like someone shouting emotions at you.
- I didn't mention him, but Gabriel Damon, who plays Jeremy, is fine.
- "Jeremy, on the starship Enterprise, no one is alone. No one."
- I'm curious to see what you folks thought of this one. I sometimes have a tendency to over-penalize a show for what I see as cliches.
Or The One With The Empty Ship, Power Draining Reactors, And Cyber Massage
This episode is about a booby trap. A booby. Trap. That's the title of the episode. It's right there in black and white. (Or, as in the case of the opening titles of the show, blue and black.) And in case you forget that title, Picard will remind you, about twenty or thirty times. And in case that isn't enough, Riker takes up some slack. Maybe it's because the ten year-old in my brain thinks "booby" is so inherently hilarious that it can't pass by without comment, or maybe it's that there really isn't another easy name for what the term describes (triggered unpleasant device? An unwelcome gift? Belloq's revenge?), but man, it sure seemed like those two words came up an awful lot in this episode. It's not as though this is a new concept for the show, either. You think they'd be more used to stepping on the stone that makes all the arrows shoot out.
Of course, "Trap" isn't really about its title, although the offending devices drive the episode more than the fake Marla did in "Bonding." "Trap" is really about Lt. Cmmdr. Geordi La Forge, who despite being a high ranking officer in what is presumably one of the coolest ships in the Fleet, can't make any headway with the ladies. The episode opens with him getting the cold shoulder from a cute girl we'll never see again—and while the situation itself is a familiar one (I think I've been on both sides of the "I like you, but-" conversation multiple times now), that doesn't make it any more fun to watch. Geordi is generally so cheery about everything that it's weird watching him make his move, especially considering how obvious it is he's about to be turned down. Although I have to question Christi, the girl. Unless Geordi seriously undersold the nature of this "program," it couldn't have been that much of a surprise that this was a date. So either she's nice in that stupid way that makes a person mean, or else the sexual harassment regulations in the Federation aren't all that great.
It's not that hard to see what kind of episode "Trap" is supposed to be. We see Geordi get rejected, then we see him commiserating with Guinan. He's your typical nerd: great at the math and the logic, not so great at understanding the mystery that is Woman. (I think my favorite part of that conversation is Guinan explaining why she has a thing for bald guys: "…because a bald man was kind to me once when I was hurting." I hear that her backstory never pays off, which is a shame when we get hints like this.) A crisis arises on the Enterprise, Geordi springs into action, and in the course of that crisis, he ends up creating a computer simulation of a woman who shares his interests and passions. The two manage to save the ship and have chemistry together, and while the relationship can't ever be in the "real" world, Geordi ends the ep with a new confidence in himself, and then maybe he goes and buys some space condoms. THE FUTURE IS NOW.
I can see how this would work, and it sort of does, but it's creepy, too, and I strongly doubt that was intentional. I've got nothing against Levar Burton, and normally the show uses him well, but I have no desire to see him try and get his groove back. The episode handles the create of the holo-hottie as well as could be expected, but this is a contrived idea (I sometimes wonder if Picard shouldn't check in with his crew every Monday, just to see what psychological issues will be determining their missions that week), and it takes some strain to get from "I need to study the designers of the Enterprise's engines" to "I have to beg Picard to give me back my sweet, sweet electronic love muffin." "Trap" goes out of its way to avoid making Geordi appear needy or desperate, having Dr. Leah Brahms (Susan Gibeny), the scientist-hologram who helps him save the ship, appear without Geordi ever directly requesting her. But it is weird, however it happens, and the flirting between them is odd. It's like watching someone's sexual fantasy play out in public. If Geordi was a kid, this would've been fine, but he's a grown man, and he doesn't just want to hold hands with the ladies. However neutered TNG feels most of the time, it can't completely cover up the fact that this isn't just making friends; this is a lonely man creating a connection with adult possibilities, with a phantom who can't ever deliver on those possibilities.
There's a subtle implication here that the computer itself decided to make Brahms, in order to express its connection to Geordi. Once again, the program on the 'deck shows itself capable of far more than anyone on the ship realizes. It stretches the parameters of Geordi's request in the character's creation (note how the first thing she does is make physical contact), Leah is self-aware, and at the end of the episode, she tells Geordi that she is, essentially, the engines, and that "Every time you touch it, it's me." Apart from reminding me of a Futurama, I do think this premise could work, and I like that it's only suggested here, and not outright stated; I could very well be over-reading. Whether I am or not, that doesn't eliminate those off-putting undercurrents. TNG's earnestness can work very well for the show (it's, again, why I liked "The Bonding" as much as I did), but it can also miss unsettling subtext in its unwillingness to show its heroes as anything less than totally swell, utterly wonderful folks. Normally, that's fine, but there's something so miserable at the center of Geordi's situation that by pretending it's all perfectly healthy and normal makes the character appear paradoxically more off-putting.
As for the technological MacGuffin that gives us a reason for all these shenanigans: the Enterprise is floating through the wreckage of Alderaan, I mean Orelious IX, doing whatever it is one does in the ruins of planet that was blown to pieces a thousand years ago, when they find a Promelian Battle Cruiser in mint condition. Picard goes full nerd at the prospect, telling everyone how he used to build ships in a bottle, and insisting that he be a part of the away team that visits the cruiser, over Riker's fervent objections. Given the title of the episode, I'd assumed Riker's objections were going to be proven correct, but Picard, Data, and Worf don't find anything of note beyond some desiccated corpses and a captain's log. There is a trap here, but it's not the Promelian's fault; instead, the Enterprise is faced with the same danger that killed the crew of the cruiser a millennium ago, a group of hidden aceton assimilators, generators which steal the ship's power and drain her reserve.
So this is science, but stripped down the lingo and the science can be converted to a basic problem: the more energy the ship puts out, the more energy they lose, and since you can't really hang out in space with expending at least a little power (given that everyone needs to breathe and so forth), well, you can see the dilemma. While Geordi works towards a solution with his private Demon Seed, Picard, Riker, and the others study the logs from the cruiser in an effort to determine just what it is they're up against. It's not the most thrilling reveal imaginable, especially since once again, we have dead aliens doing the dirty work (the universe is littered with this crap. You could've just had a whole Trek series about a team of specialists who fly around defusing it, if that weren't already so obviously the Enterprise's main function), but "Trap" does manage to blend Geordi's storyline with the rest of the crew's efforts, so that both are crucial in saving the ship.
Geordi's ultimate decision, to trust human intuition over machine, connects vaguely to his relationship troubles, although I'm not exactly sure how. (Don't think so hard, maybe? Oh, wait, it's the "I don't need the feather, I can fly on my own!" moral.) He delivers the hilariously awful line, "The answer lies in our own computer, the mind," like it's some kind of stunning revelation. Ooo, really? Our minds are awesome? I had no idea! If I want read more about it, maybe I should check my local library. The poor guy is saddled with a ton of groaners here, and while "mind-computer" is probably the worst of them, "Another woman who won't get personal with me on the holodeck," has the ring of a gag that probably looked better on page than it does on screen. Burton's always been saddled with corny gags, so maybe it's just a question of exposure—putting roughly half the episode on his back makes the Reader's Digest humor harder to ignore.
Like "Bonding," I like "Trap" more for what it's trying to do than for the end result, although I think "Bonding" is the better episode. "Trap"'s attempt to graft a traditional young geek plot onto a supposedly full adult male falters because the scrubbed-clean sunshine of TNG has a difficult time dealing with unpleasant, unwieldy concepts like obsession and alienation. But on the surface, it's still a decent chunk of fluff, with all the usual likable faces we've come to care about doing their usual shtick. The big climax shifts entirely to Picard's shoulders, as he takes over the helm to pilot the Enterprise out of the debris field. It's the best part of the episode, and a comforting that reminder that by now in the show's run, even when things threaten to go off course, there's always a steady hand to get us back on track.
- The music is even worse here than it was in "The Bonding." I kept expecting "Just You And I" to break out during Geordi's scenes with Leah.
- Susan Gibney, who's manages to give Leah just enough air of mystery to make the episode's final scenes with her work, is a TV regular; she even popped up in an episode of Lost.
- Picard is very frustrated that no one made ships in bottles when they were boys. Data: "I was never a boy."
- Next week it's "The Enemy" and "The Price."