"The Chase" (first aired 4/24/1993)
Or The One Where "Peace On Earth" Is All It Says
I went to college because my parents wanted me to go to college, and because that's just what people my age were doing—there was no question about it, not once. The only real issue was what I planned to major in, but even that wasn't too mysterious. I was going to be a writer, I knew that, but to support myself before the writing career took off, my parents suggested I get a Bachelors in English Literature, with an eye towards teaching someday. Again, I did this because I'd heard others had done it. Stephen King was a teacher for a while, and really, what else was I going to do? But less than a semester away at school, I started having doubts. I was taking English classes regularly, and enjoying them well enough, but college drama was my real home, the only place where I could create anything approaching a social life. When I declared my first major, I threw caution to the wind and went with Theater. For the next few years, right up until I graduated, I thought I might try and make a go of it as an actor. I took English as a second major, but being a performer was more immediately exciting. Hell, I didn't even really need a degree. I could just move to Chicago and start scrounging for gigs.
Ten years later (oh dear god), and I never tried to make it as an actor. I never tried to make it as a teacher, either, but to be honest, that was never much of a dream. I don't think I could've survived the stress of living job to job like struggling actors (if they're lucky) do, and I believe the choice I ended up making—to wander through the next seven or so years, over-medicated and uninspired, until I finally got my shit together—was the only choice I could've made. (Remember what I said before about regrets? Wait, why the hell would you remember. Are you taking notes?) That doesn't mean I don't miss performing, and that I don't sometimes wonder what might've happened if I'd taken the risk. Most lives have moments like that. If you're lucky, wondering what might have been won't be incredibly depressing. And if you're really lucky, you'll get a glimpse of what was down the road untaken, like Picard does in "The Chase."
That title sounds exciting, doesn't it? And this episode does have its exciting moments, but the actual "chase" part of it doesn't really become relevant till about halfway through. The first part of the ep deals with a visit from an old friend. Professor Galen, a mentor of Picard's from his academy days, visits the Enterprise with a special gift for his old student: an artifact made by the Master of Tarquin Hill, who is, in fact, completely irrelevant to this story. In fact, apart from providing a valuable clue and giving Picard a visual representation of his internal confusion, the artifact isn't important at all. What is important is that Galen wants to remind Picard of his passion for archaeology, so that Picard will agree to accompany him on a search for what may be the most important the discovery in the history of recorded civilization.
As for what that discovery actually is, well, Galen refuses to explain himself, and when Picard politely but firmly refuses the offer, explaining that as much as he'd like to go adventuring, the Enterprise isn't just some hobby he can drop when a another opportunity comes along, Galen becomes unreasonable. Really unreasonable, actually; the professor acts like a spoiled child, accusing Picard of making a mistake by choosing captaincy over a more scholarly pursuit, and resenting that Jean-Luc doesn't see things his way. It might be easier to understand Galen's anger here if he got into specifics, but he refuses to say what exactly he's looking for, only that it's incredibly important, huge even, and jeez, just get on the shuttlecraft, will you? He also doesn't mention that whatever he's looking for, he's not the only one looking for it, although it's possible he just doesn't realize this. Galen does not strike me as a man built for intrigue.
Maybe Galen doesn't tell Picard what's really going on because of ego—Hey, I'm amazing enough that my former student should agree to do what I say without justification, and if he doesn't, he doesn't get to play. Or maybe it's because he secretly fears that if Picard really knew what was going on, Picard would seize control of the mission in the name of the Federation. (Although Galen does how much easier it would be to do his work if he had a starship at his disposal, which sounds more like someone who wouldn't mind some help.) Whatever the reasoning behind the professor's recalcitrance, it ends up effectively getting him killed. After he leaves the Enterprise, a Yridian destroyer waylays his shuttle, holding the ship in a tractor beam and boarding it. When the Enterprise attempts a rescue, the Yridian ship is destroyed by a single hit (which confuses Worf to no end), and the professor is already doomed. Picard has him beamed to Sick Bay, but Beverly can't do anything for him. Galen mutters, "I was too hard on you," to Picard, and then he dies.
Which is how Picard finally gets drawn into the real meat of the story. "Chase" has a lot of fun showing our heroes first finding a series of number blocks on Galen's computer drives, and then trying to figure out what those blocks mean. They visit two of the planets Galen had already visited in his travels, and neither planet has any intelligent life on it. One planet is rendered completely barren of life while the Enterprise is in orbit around it, so clearly something is going on here. Eventually, Picard and the others figure it out: Galen was on a quest to find the missing entries in a series of DNA fragments which seem to comprise a kind of genetic computer program. To this end, he'd farmed DNA samples from each of the worlds he'd visited to finish the program (we never hear how the professor stumbled across this idea, or how he figured out which planets would have the code he needed). The Enterprise rushes to the Kurl system, where Galen purchased the relic he gave Picard at the start of the episode. There, they find Cardassians, who are also interested in the professor's work. And then the Klingons show up.
It's at this point that "Chase" goes from intriguing sci-fi/character study about regret to a kind of wacky espionage thriller, as Picard negotiates a brief peace between the three groups in exchange for information, only to be betrayed by the Cardassians almost immediately. The tonal shift is entertaining, and it gives more of a sense of urgency to the quest, but both the Cardassians and the Klingons are broadly drawn, turning the episode into another in the show's long history of "Man, humans are so much better than all these crazy, greedy aliens, huh?" stories. Instead of spending time with Picard as he deals with his need to satisfy Galen's legacy as well as salve his guilt over what happened to his mentor, we get silly villains being silly. There's even a scene when the Klingon captain (who, to the episode's credit, actually turns out to be the most honorable of the bunch of thieves) screws around with Data, for no plot purpose whatsoever. It's a funny scene, and I don't need every moment in an episode to advance the storyline, but it cuts down on any attempt at tension when we get five minutes of pure comic relief in the last act.
There are plenty of good ideas here. The secret behind Galen's search is a great concept, and the way everyone teams up together to find a solution manages to make use of most of the cast. (I especially like how excited Beverly is about everything. I never thought of this before, but Dr. Crusher is as into the geekier, more technical aspects of her work as Geordi is into his own. There's something to be said for having a positive female character who's super into science, without anyone needing to make a big deal out of it.) I'm not sure we're given enough of a reason to justify why other races are involved in the hunt. I get it, everybody thinks the program, once finished, will yield up some great treasure, but the way their expectations fit so neatly with what we know about them (the Cardassians think it'll be unlimited power, the Klingons think it will be a weapon) is uninteresting, and we never really know how they found out about Galen's research in the first place. I'm sure he wasn't subtle in his work, but given how reluctant he was to tell Picard anything, I'd be curious to learn how, say, Gull Oceat found out. There's something cartoonish about all of this, from the Klingon's posturing to the inevitable Cardassian betrayal to the arrival of the Romulans in the end game—it's like one of the sillier episodes of TOS. Or, hell, an actual cartoon, some well-made and well-intentioned but ultimately shallow kid's show meant to demonstrate the hollowness of greed.
That's especially true of the conclusion of the chase. (Said chase, by the way, only really takes up about five minutes of screen-time. You could argue that the hunt had been on-going long before the Enterprise got involved, but it only really feels like a race to a shared goal near the end of the episode.) Everybody gets together on the last planet, Worf and his new buddy confront the treacherous Klingons, and then the Romulans show up, because they've been tracking the Enterprise ever since the Yridian ship exploded. While the rest of them argue, Picard and Beverly manage to get the last DNA sample. They finish the program, which reconfigures Picard's tricorder and delivers a message in the form of a hologram of a species that have been dead for billions of years. The alien doesn't offer weapons or power or anything concrete, beyond the knowledge that she and her kind manipulated primitive DNA so that the races of intelligent life in this universe would share her kind's shape—what we call humanoid. She reminds the group that they are all related somehow, hopes that they don't mind serving as a monument to her race, and disappears.
This is corny as hell. The idea that an ancient race engineered a coherent blueprint for sentient beings that would, many years later, make life easy on decades of make-up and costume artists, is ridiculous enough to be cool, sure. But "The real treasure is love!" is never a satisfying answer to this kind of mystery, and it comes with a sort of guilt-inducing moral superiority that makes it hard to take seriously. "Oooo, so you were expecting something concrete? Oh, you stupid minds! So childish and full of greed. We don't have toys to offer you—just the joy of our empty handed embrace!" Something like that. I'm sure the first time this trick got pulled, it was effectively clever enough to work, but now, it just smacks of laziness. At least "One Tin Soldier" had the decency to make it all rhyme.
With that in mind, though, this ending isn't that bad. It fits in with the overly broad goofiness of the episode's latter half, and just because something is corny doesn't mean it's terrible. And it fits in with TNG's utopian ideals, of a galaxy of life-forms slowly, tortuously coming together, despite their myriad differences. "The Chase" has a certain endearing optimism in its conclusion, right up to a scene when a Romulan commander makes it a point of saying farewell to Picard, hinting that maybe, at some future point, their two warring cultures might eventually find peace. This, to me, is Trek all over—idealistic to a fault, and more than a little naive, but so committed to its idealism that it can almost make you believe it's true. Or else should be.
- We never do find out what happened to those poor Yridians.
- The aliens who left the DNA program should've hooked up with the ones who sent out the probe that got Picard in "The Inner Light." That would've been something.
- It's a small point, but the fact that Picard never seriously considers going with Galen is one of the episode's smarter choices. He's upset at rejecting his mentor (for a second time), and he's guilt-ridden when Galen dies, but there's never any question that he might quit his job. As, of course, there wouldn't be.
"Frame of Mind" (first aired 5/1/1993)
Or The One Where Riker Takes a Tour of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
I usually avoid reading plot teasers for episodes before I review them. As I've mentioned, I'd seen a fair number of TNG episodes before starting this project, but it'd been years since I watched the show regularly, and there were plenty of episodes I'd never even heard of. So I decided, like I did with TOS (and like I'll be doing with Deep Space Nine, which I've seen even less of than TOS and TNG), to go as blind as possible. If I stumbled across spoilers in comments, so be it, but I wouldn't seek them out, and I'd even avert my eyes from the few short sentences Netflix (or the IMDB) provided to describe individual eps. It's worked out well so far. This week, though, I did get a piece of what "Frame of Mind" was about before I sat down to watch it. The name was familiar to me, and while I'd never seen it before, I had vague memories of Riker acting crazy. The plot teaser read, in effect, "Riker finds himself in a mental institution, where he's told that his life on the Enterprise was a delusion. Now he has to figure out what's real, and what isn't it."
This sounded cool—it's like that Buffy episode from the sixth season, "Normal Again," only without any of the meta-commentary. But while that is a fairly accurate description of what happens in "Frame," it suggests a level of conventionality that the episode doesn't possess. For once, going in with expectations worked to my advantage, because it meant I was completely fooled by the cold open. Riker is talking to someone off-screen (someone who sounds a lot like Data, but that could mean anything). He's out of uniform and clearly agitated, arguing about his innocence, and his sanity. The off-screen presence suggests Riker has committed some horrible crime, but Riker denies this. So, I'm thinking, we're doing an in media res opening, and Riker is already in the asylum. The back story of how he got there will just come out in the dialog.
Then the camera pulls back, and we realize that Riker is actually rehearsing a scene from a play, with Data as his co-star. Beverly's directing, but she's not entirely convinced by Riker's performance. The play's called "Frame of Mind." From that moment on, the episode had me. It's a simple twist, and you could even argue it's just as familiar as my original concept. These days, it seems like people are constantly putting fictions inside of fictions inside of fictions, metarduckens designed to make your brain explode instead of your heart. Maybe it's just getting caught off guard (by a show that doesn't surprise me that often at this point) because I made the wrong assumption that sold me. But really, this isn't a game TNG plays very often, and, as the rest of "Frame" ably demonstrates, that's a shame. Even if depicting mental anguish isn't really what the show is about, they do a damn good job of it.
The episode kept catching me off guard even after the cold open, not because the plot is so hugely different from anything we've seen before (it reminds me a bit of "Schisms," the episode where Riker and other crewmembers kept losing time to alien abductors), but because of the way that plot is presented. "Mind" gets by with minimal hand-holding, something I've expressed my admiration for many times before. We're given clues, but nothing in the episode telegraphs what's happening, and there's no explicit, hard truths until the very end. The audience should have some basic ideas by the midpoint; we know that Riker isn't really crazy, that the alien race that has him locked up is playing some kind of dirty pool, and that in order to escape, he'll have to find some way to break their spell. But the script never confirms these assumptions until it has to. More, it goes out of its way to seemingly contradict them, getting a great deal of suspense out of both Riker's plight, and the curiosity over how that plight could possibly be resolved.
Riker's working on the play, running lines and pushing himself before the performance. Picard tells him about an upcoming mission on Tilonus 4. The planet has fallen into civil war, and both sides are desperate for an edge in weapons and technology, which makes the Federation team stationed on the planet a perfect target for kidnapping and torture. The team has gone into hiding, and it'll be Riker's job to go undercover and contact them for extraction. This is a standard expository scene; we've had dozens of them on the series before. It sets up what will most likely serve as the main conflict of the episode. Since I'd heard that Riker was going to be held in some kind of asylum, it seemed logical to assume that the Tilonians would capture him while he was on the planet, then attempt to break his mind for interrogation by drugging him and convincing him that his past was a hallucination he needed to exorcise.
That's fine, but there was something clunky about wasting a whole scene with Picard for this information, especially when this was followed by a scene with Worf instructing Riker on the proper way to blend in on Tilonus. It's not a terrible sequence, but we've had Riker go on missions before, and by this point in the show, starting with a briefing is just too predictable and flat a way to introduce the plot. There's no momentum here, and by telling Riker what he needs to accomplish, we now know what to expect. We know what we'll need to get through before the real episode starts, which is a bummer.
Except it's not that simple; in fact, it's not clunky at all. There's a new crewmember Riker keeps seeing around the ship who strikes him as… off, somehow. And then, while Worf is demonstrating the proper use of a Tilonian ceremonial dagger, he accidentally cuts Riker's forehead. It's not like Worf to be so clumsy, and it's not like the show (or any show) to have a moment like this for no good reason. Riker goes to see Beverly to have his wound healed, and on the way out of Sick Bay, catches a glimpse of a burn victim. This upsets him so terribly he goes to Troi for answers; all she can tell him is, maybe he's given himself over completely to his role in the play. And that's a good thing, right? Acting is all about going a little mad. In fact, Riker has given himself so completely that at the performance that evening, he wows the crowd to a standing ovation. And then the crowd disappears, and Riker finds himself in a real cell that looks a lot like the stage set, only less fake. There's a calm doctor there to tell him that everything will be all right, and to remind him that there's no such thing as William T. Riker of Starfleet. They called the Federation. No record of such a person exists.
The rest of the episode keeps working to throw you off guard, by never letting the status quo settle between the Enterprise or the Tilonian asylum. We know the things the doctor tells Riker can't actually be the truth, which means there's more to the asylum than meets the eye. But what does that mean when Riker finds himself back on the Enterprise after a length sojourn in Ward 47? It's not just some dream he's having, and we can be reasonably sure the character isn't going insane. (This is because in fiction, given the choice between strange phenomena and insanity, the smart money is always on the former. Not so true in real life.) By repeatedly switching back and forth between both places, "Mind" makes it difficult to pick up the thread of exactly what's going on—and where in some episodes that could be pointlessly frustrating, here it simply serves to put us even more firmly on Riker's side.
Which makes it even more interesting when Riker surrenders to the Tilonian version of events as quickly as he does. Usually in this sort of story, you'd expect the hero to firmly resist all attempts to break his mind, and for his determination to eventually win through in the end. Riker does finally beat his captors, but before that happens, he capitulates to the doctor's assertion that everything about the Enterprise is fake. He doesn't look weak in doing so, and it makes for another fun shift in expectations (as well as fitting in, in a subtle way, with Picard's behavior in "Chain of Command"; even heroes can be dismantled). It also, probably unintentionally, draws out the central conflict in his delusion. Since the Enterprise is real, by going along with the delusion, Riker forces his mind to try and sustain an unsustainable premise. And on top of all that, it feels honest. We like to pretend that we have strong, unbreakable ties to our version of reality, that only a crazy person could mistake delusion for the real world. But really, none of us is as solid as we pretend to be. Our concepts of existence are just aggregates of experience, a rough average of all the moments we've lived through, and the only reason each new moment feels as solid as the last is that we're never offered any choice in the matter.
Riker finally comes to his senses, and it turns out neither the Enterprise nor the asylum are actually real, at least not his recent experiences in them. The Tilonian who, in Riker's hallucination, had served as the head of the hospital (as well as appearing regularly on the Enterprise as a lieutenant), is actually attempting to drain information from Riker's brain, and the delusions he's been experiencing are his mind's way of coping with the process. Riker gains consciousness long enough to get rid of the plug in his temple (which just happens to be where Worf cut him, a wound recurred throughout the episode), grab his communicator and escape back to the real ship. It's an abrupt conclusion, mitigated somewhat by the coda, in which Riker starts taking down the set of the "Frame of Mind" play, but it doesn't diminish the rest of the episode. Really, with a story this strong which relies so much on confusion and mystery, the ending would have to be a bit of a let-down.
"Mind" is one of the darkest TNG episodes yet, and it inspires Frakes to turn in some of his best work in the series. He hasn't had much to do in a while beyond smirk, so it's good to see him get a chance to show off his chops in a role that requires him to be manic and terrified for a large portion of his screen-time. TNG has been testing the limits of its format in the past two seasons, for good and bad ("Time's Arrow" springs to mind in the "Dear god, never again!" category), and "Mind" more than justifies the experimentation. I had a great time throughout the episode, trying to guess what would come next, and failing more often than not. For a series to be still capable of surprises this late in its run is a fine thing indeed.
- Henceforth, the Tilonians should be known by their true-name: the Earheads.
- This episode also reminded me of House's "No Reason," in which the good doctor gets shot, and then, well, it gets weird. It's one of my favorite episodes of the show (back when the show was good enough that I could legitimately have favorite episodes from it), so I guess I'm a sucker for this sort of thing.
Next Week: We have our "Suspicions," but finally managed to determine the "Rightful Heir."