Welcome to season 2 of TNG. Like any growing show, this one has been going through some changes. You'll notice hair that wasn't there before, like Riker's smirk-enhancing beard, and new responsibilities, like Geordi's promotion to Chief Engineer. (Which means we finally have a regular in the role, so I can stop writing down a new name each week and then forgetting to cite it.) We also have ourselves two brand new cast members: Whoopi Godlberg as the wise bartender Guinan (oh hey, the Enterprise has a restaurant!) and Diana Muldaur as Dr. Katherine Pulaski. Guinan dispenses easy-going guidance in "Child," and Goldberg is pleasantly restrained in the role. Pulaski, on the other hand…
Look, there's no getting around it: she's a horrible character, and a huge misstep for a fledgling series whose misstep budget is already well into the red. I'm crossing my fingers that she'll develop some depth as the season progresses (as others have mentioned, I remember her and Worf having fun scenes together), but for right now, she's miserable, poorly cast, painfully written, and quite possibly the worst possible choice to replace the smart, passionate, and sensible Beverly Crusher. Muldaur isn't a terrible actress. She's more professional than Crosby was, and there's none of that off-putting skittishness. The problem is, her persona is detached, icy, and aloof, and we're given no reason to think there's anything underlying all that condescension.
Even her introduction starts on the wrong foot. Instead of reporting to Picard as ordered when she first arrives on the ship, Pulaski goes to Ten-Forward, where off-screen she meets Deanna Troi, and learns about Troi's surprise pregnancy. (…yeah, we'll get to that.) Now, typically, this sort of ignoring-standard-protocol behavior would be indicative of a down-to-earth, irascible personality, like McCoy from TOS. If you go by the script as written, that's clearly the intent here. Pulaski doesn't play by the rules, but she cares about her patients, and is willing to stand up to any authority to defend those rights. It's not perfect(her conversations with Data are poorly constructed in any context), but at least there's some sense of how she could fit into the existing cast.
Muldaur ruins it because she has no warmth, and this kind of role has to be warm. McCoy was a bigoted ass at times, but he was passionate, and it was clear that passion, not calculation, was what drove him. Muldaur plays Pulaski like a librarian who would enjoy her work so much more if everyone stopped reading. It is a joyless, embarrassed turn, and given how cheerily enthusiastic every other cast member is, very out of place. Maybe the idea was to provide some balance for all the smiling. Often characters who stand out from the norm are break-out roles on shows, like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory or, hell, Spock from TOS. These figures provide points of identification for audiences who also often feel at odds from the rest of society. I can't imagine anyone relating to Pulaski, though, for the simple fact that if you did, why would you still be watching TNG?
I'll save discussing her mistreatment of Data for later(although the scene where she mispronounces his name and then mocks him for correcting her is a treasure for the ages), though, because as badly judged as Pulaski is in this episode, the story is probably worse. The MacGuffin about a plasma plague is fine, and should've been the main focus. It falls into the hard sci-fi category, and the tensest moments in "The Child" come when that situation balances on the edge of getting completely out of hand. It's too bad, then, that this isn't called "The Perilous Plasmatic Perplexity." (Really, really too bad.) Instead, we get the Troi's unwanted pregnancy and the Space Baby.
A dot of light jumps aboard the Enterprise, does some zinging around the halls, and finally finds Deanna Troi, asleep in her bed. There's no other way to describe it: Tinkerbell knocks Troi up. Trek has never been exactly female-friendly, but for all its tasteful presentation, this has to be a low-point. Even though she should be the central focus of the episode (it is, after all, her womb), Troi is essentially passive. Other characters discuss how to handle her pregnancy while barely acknowledging her presence in the room (reminds me of a similar scene in the original Dawn Of The Dead, but there it was supposed to be creepy), and when she finally does voice an opinion, it's to state unequivocally that she's keeping the "baby." Never mind that the pregnancy is an invasion of her privacy and rights, never mind that her sudden determination to protect her mystery guest could come at the cost of great physical danger (Betazoids have ten month terms. This kid is out in three days. Don't sci-fi writers realize how much that would hurt?), it's beautiful because she's gonna be a mom now, and that's clearly the greatest gift anyone could ever have.
This is bunk. It's not bunk that Troi is enthusiastic—the Space Baby (who quickly becomes the Space Toddler, and then the Space Third Grader) could be manipulating her emotions in order to provide itself with an accommodating host. What's bunk is that the episode treats this an an unquestioned positive. Picard has his suspicions, but the birth scene is presented as a comedy (Data says silly things! Pulaski is bothered by the security team!) and the STG's eventual exit is intended as a moment of great beauty. What it translates to is: an alien hitches a ride without permission, rapes a woman, knocks her up, saddles her with grotesque body changes, attaches itself to her post-birth to gain information, endangers everyone on board the ship with its thoughtless selfishness, and then orchestrates an exit in the most emotionally manipulative fashion possible by forcing its "mother" to witness the death of her child. That's not how it's presented, of course. It's presented as a joyous life experience, but no amount of tears and lies make this anything less than a travesty.
"Where Silence Has Lease"
Speaking of information gathering…
Man, I love that title. That's classic TOS titular-poetry right there. And this is a very TOS-style episode, as it's back to the God-like beings and technology-indistinguishable-from-magic storytelling. It's better than "The Child," because there's no vaguely sleazy exploitive angle ("The Child" goes out of its way to avoid exploitation, but it plays like a Merchant Ivory production of a V.C. Andrews novel), and because we get some intriguing plot hooks, but when you get past the shiny moments, this is a tale we've seen before. Whether or not you enjoy it hinges largely on how willing you are to see some familiar ideas with a slightly different spin.
I've got mixed feelings. I enjoyed "Silence," because for most of the episode, I wasn't sure how the situation would resolve. Once it did resolve, I wasn't thrilled, but I didn't feel entirely cheated, either. It's only on reflection that I'm bothered by how, for all its clever tricks, there was no center here, that it's less like the tricks drove the narrative, and more like the narrative was just an excuse to do strange things. Contrast that with "We'll Always Have Paris": while I think "Silence" is a more successful episode overall (it hangs together better, and the end at least resolves in a satisfying way), "Paris" tried to play with new ideas. I've said it before: the reason GLBs are so frustrating is that they have no limitations on their abilities, so there's no game for us to follow along. Q works (or at least he can work) because his personality is so distinctive and provides its own restrictions to his action. The being in "Silence" is just a dick.
The set-up is cool, anyway. We get a really interesting opening sequence with Riker and Worf fighting computer bad-guys on the holodeck. (Picard's "I'm worried" to Troi is a bit silly.) Anything that lets Worf be more of a bad-ass is aces in my book, and it's fascinating how he's developing; his battle anger is clearly an essential part of his nature that must be controlled, and vented, but never resolved. This may change down the road, but the fact that it's not presented as a negative element to his character is surprising and, well, neat. It puts more emphasis on what makes Worf distinct. There's no real pay-off in this episode, apart from Worf having a freak out further in, but it's effective anyway.
Also effective is the hole of nothingness that the Enterprise stumbles across. There's a lot of discussion about how little sense it makes, and again, I want to call attention to how much fun it is to watch these characters debate the meaning of a situation. It doesn't always work (see: "The Child"), but when it does, it makes the show more about exploration and understanding, which, after all, is the main mission. Also also effective is the way the situation worsens in a natural way, from Picard wanting to get a closer look (but still keeping a seemingly safe distance), to the splotch swallowing the ship and trapping everyone inside.
The threat deepens: the Enterprise can't escape the blotch, even traveling at high warp. (Excellent use of the stationary beacon. It'd be an interesting challenge to develop a machine that could actually remain in a fixed position in the vacuum of space. Must not last that long.) A Romulan ship shows up, attacks, and explodes after a return volley of fire. A Federation ship appears, the Enterprise's sister ship, and when Riker and Worf beam aboard, they find that nothing inside the new ship is as it should be. This is where Worf has his freak out, as apparently Klingons don't deal well with space-time anomalies, but I have to question the logic of beaming aboard in the first place. There are no life signs on the new ship, and seeing how quick the Romulan ship exploded, Something Is Clearly Up. At the very least, send some redshirts in first. Why risk a familiar face?
Of course, the only person to die in "Silence" is a redshirt, a poor helmsman who gets zapped by a GLB who doesn't quite grasp the concept of death. Which is absurd, really. The being, which calls itself Nagilum, talks about the traits of humanity that separate our race from all others, so presumably it's done some research on those other races. I don't really believe that "death" is that unusual a concept. (Are we supposed to assume a galaxy full of immortals?) Maybe Nagilum just wanted to fulfill a genre movie stereotype and murder the black guy first, I dunno. Really, this is the part where my interest in the episode starts to wane. We've done GLBs, we've done tests, we've done GLBs running tests, and while the lack of moral component to this test is intriguing, it's frustrating to have such a striking concept explained in a lazy, ill-defined manner. (Suddenly, I grasp why so many people hated the Lost finale.) (I didn't hate it myself, mainly because I was just looking for emotional resolution and was mostly happy that the story didn't completely screw the pooch. Still, I get how [REDACTED] and "GLB" could be considered rough equivalents.)
Thankfully, the story doesn't end there. Nagilum explains how he wants to murder half the crew in his experiments (why explain this? Why give them time to react? Unless their reaction is part of the test), and Picard, realizing that he doesn't have any way to fight the creature off, decides he'd rather sacrifice everyone than let some crazy sky-face screw around with his ship. So he turns on the self-destruct (once again, this happens in Engineering), and prepares to wait out death. We've talked about Picard and Kirk's differences before, but here, I think, we have a perfect example of where the two man would agree. I'm not sure the ethics of Picard's choice, but I believe Kirk would've come to the same conclusion (didn't he actually pull the same threat at least once?), and I also believe the ability to conceive of such a solution, and the will to carry it out, are essential components of leadership. It's arrogant, and possibly monstrous, as Picard doesn't take a poll to see if anyone minds dying for a principle, but it's also a decisive, clear-headed choice, once committed to, never backed down from.
It's also the only option Picard had to save the Enterprise. What follows is an entertaining mind game, as Nagilum tries to convince Picard to back down from the self-destruct by taking on the guises of Troi and Data. (I wonder if Riker is hurt when he finds out that Nagilum apparently didn't think the captain would take him seriously enough to be effective?) Picard sees through this, calls Nagilum on it, and then the ship is released from the blotch of doom. Not entirely convinced, Picard tests their freedom by taking a quick spin with the warp drive engines, only calling off the self-destruct at the last possible moment. It is, no question, hardcore. The conversation Picard has with the GLB in his ready room afterwards is a little too much like every other GLB conversation ("You are an immature race blah blah you show promise blah blah blah can you get me Troi's phone number," and so on.), but really, Picard's maneuvering is thrilling enough that the episode ends on a relative high note. It's not amazing: Haskell's death gets forgotten almost immediately, and the whole "experimenting on humans" trope is really tired by now. It's solid, though.
"Elementary, Dear Data"
I should hate this. I mean, I loved this episode (and its sequel)(spoiler!) when it first aired, because it had a talking robot who wore a hat (I was an easy to please kid), but it has a lot of elements I've come to dislike about TNG. The holodeck is insanely powerful and dangerous for no good reason; Brent Spiner over-acts, which can be a clown-on-styrofoam experience; and the plot hangs in part on Pulaski's contempt for Data . Plus, the episode's got the actor who played the super fey butler from The Nanny, and that is a show I would dearly love to never think about again.
I don't hate "Elementary, Dear Data," though. I thoroughly expected to, and was dreading having to watch it for the recap, but something odd happened by the ten minute mark. Spiner was playing Sherlock Holmes as broad as Marilyn Monroe at a Hemingway convention, and Levar Burton was doing a bizarre British accent (he sounded like he was gargling something painful), but instead of drafting a formal letter of resignation to my AV Club overlords, I started grinning. I didn't stop grinning, either. Let me stress this: Data's Holmes is ri-goddamn-diculous. Geordi's Watson is as bad. And yet their tomfoolery is so infectiously winning that I couldn't help but be charmed. I still winced from time to time, sure, but unlike the tepid noir references of "The Big Goodbye," "Elementary" gets enough details right that the clumsiness is more a matter of character than poor writing. Data and Geordi act like dorks because they are dorks, and, let's face it, so are we.
Now that I've said nice things (and I've got a few more up my sleeve), I might as well talk about Ms. Bad News herself. This is as good a place as any to start into Pulaski's treatment of Data, since the episode hinges on her refusal to accept that Data is capable of deductive reasoning. (What's fascinating here is that she views Data as an object, but is essentially criticizing him for failing to live up to the standards of a fictional character. How does this help her reasoning? No one can live up to the standard of Sherlock Holmes! It's like an orphan having his lack of parents questioned because he never really got into the crime-fighting, spandex-wearing lifestyle.) Pulaski's mistreatment of the Enterprise android is, like the rest of the character, a matter of bad judgment. She's supposed to be raising questions about the nature of consciousness, the definition of life, and what it means to be human. Instead, she's a bigot, and a charmless one. That's bad enough, but the way the rest of the crew treats her concerns as if they're worthy of argument is bizarre. Data has a rank in Starfleet. He's been an equal crew member for the entirety of the first season. He is (shudder) fully functional. If someone showed up at your office and started treating one of your co-workers like an uppity coffee machine, would you debate the issue, or would you tell her to get stuffed? (All right, all right, pretend it's a co-worker you actually like.)
There's also the problem of Geordi's little experiment, and what it does to the holodeck. One of the big questions of the episode is the difference between wisdom and knowledge. Data, clearly, has knowledge, but Pulaski (and, in a more friendly way, Geordi) doubts that he's capable of the reasoning and maturity required to have wisdom. In order to test this, Geordi has the computer whip up an opponent who could actually defeat Data in the Holmesian fashion. So the computer, stealing some power from the rest of the ship, creates a Moriarty capable of self-actualization. This is a villain who sees the exit to his fake existence, and actually strives to escape the confines of the illusion.
Daniel Davis (the afore mentioned butler) plays Moriarty, and he's quite good, managing an air of menace even while making the character sympathetic, intelligent, and tragic. So he's not my problem. My problem is that the creation of Moriarty is a cheat. I like the cleverness of the computer inventing something self-aware as the only possible way to defeat Data, but nobody really considers the implications. Given Data's treatment on the show as a singular creation, why aren't people more impressed with the discovery that their ship can create artificial intelligence by voice command? In "The Big Goodbye," the villains tried to escape the holodeck, but they never really transcended the bounds of their programing. Moriarty does, and it happens too easily. At least give me an electrical storm in space, or mention the Binars again.
If we accept that Moriarty is possible, though, "Elementary" becomes very interesting indeed. The strange programming glitches in "Goodbye" were used primarily as threats for the lead characters. Here, Moriarty does endanger the Enterprise, but only because he wants to be taken seriously as an independent will. When Picard goes to confront him, Moriarty cedes control almost immediately, and without need for violence on anyone's part. The question is more what happens when a limited being desires to evolve. What responsibilities do its creators have? And how do you handle a consciousness that only wants a freedom you can't provide? We don't really get a satisfactory answer, and I'm not sure there is one. The fact that the issue is taken as seriously as it is here, though, is important. There's real sadness to Moriarty's fumbling, and while I don't want to give too much credit to a five minute scene, it doesn't blink, and it doesn't turn him into an easily defeated virus.
"Elementary" is kind of a mess, because it spends so much time before getting to the main event that the first section of the episode doesn't tie in too well with the latter half. Data, who seemed like the focus of the plot at the beginning, is largely a bystander by the end, and his abilities as a detective are irrelevant. (I do love the scene when he first realizes something is wrong, though. His sudden switch from fun-and-games to shit-got-real is excellent.)(Maybe that's why Spiner's silliness works here; it keeps getting contrasted with his restraint as regular Data.) We could've used more time with Moriarty, and more thematic cohesiveness would've been cool. Still, this is a tremendous amount of fun, provided you don't mind getting your nerd on.
- Pulaski is deeply offended to have a security team present at the birth of the kid who magically appeared in its mother's womb and took three days to gestate. Look, it's either gonna be Jesus or a xenomorph. I'm sure Jesus would love to meet Worf.
- I didn't mention Wesley's subplot in "The Child" at all, since I was already hating on everything else, but: he decides to stay aboard the Enterprise instead of transferring to be with his mother. (Beverly's now the Head of Starfleet Medical, which is swell for her.) I loved the hilariously awkward turbolift chat Wesley has with Picard. "It's going to be hard leaving the Enterprise." "Mixed feelings for all of us." Yeah, I'll bet.
- Pulaski does get one good line in "Silence," after Picard announces his plans: "Why do I get the feeling that this was not the time to join this ship?"
- I really dig Riker and Worf's relationship. It's got a great friendly antagonism that the show could use more of.
- Next week, we continue the second season with "The Outrageous Okona," "Loud As A Whisper," and "The Schizoid Man." (Er, haven't I done that last one before?)