You've seen Primer, right? Of course you have. In case it's been a while: Primer is about a couple of guys who invent time travel. This is not, as such, an incredibly original plot-line. What makes the movie so great (and it is great) is that it takes this concept as a way to examine what happens to a person who discovers that every action is rewritable. There is a cost for the rewriting, but when the reward is so incredible, who really pays attention to how much they're paying? Primer dealt with the seductive allure of the perfect moment, of how the ability to refine every interaction means losing sight of the life that brought you to them in the first place. It also addresses one of the major concerns of time travel: what do you do when there's suddenly a spare you?
"Time Squared" isn't anywhere near as complex as Primer (which I've seen six or seven times, and still haven't entirely worked out), but I found myself thinking of the movie while watching the episode. Both deal with duplicates, and both deal with one character's obsessive need to get one decision absolutely, unquestionably correct. The big difference here is that, in Primer, the choices the protagonists fixated on were largely selfish. In "Squared," Captain Picard is trying to unravel his future in order to save the lives of everyone on board the Enterprise.
Before we can get to that, though, it's time for another round of "Get To Know Your Characters." Instead of a poker game, Riker has the whole sick crew over to his place for some good old fashioned home-cooking. It's kind of charming, in that endearingly dorky way that TNG has, and what's curious is that the scene plays out as a simple vignette with no real connection to the rest of the episode. Riker explains to Data the value of hands-on cooking, then promptly defeats his point when the meal (an omelette made of magical space eggs) turns out terrible. "Squared" isn't about authenticity, or the value of human agency, apart from the vague way just about every episode is, and since the story focuses mostly on Picard, we're not even getting immediately relevant character work. It doesn't seem like padding, though. It's sillier than it needs to be (haha, Worf eats the meal everybody hates because Klingons are crazy!), but I like the idea that the writers are getting comfortable enough to throw in something like this almost on a whim. I'm a big fan of tight pacing, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate a good hang-out scene as much as anybody.
The story proper doesn't really get started until the Enterprise receives a signal from a shuttlecraft, dying and adrift across their path. One tractor beam later, the 'craft is in the ship's docking bay, and, well, something funny is going on. The rescued ship is the exact same make and model as one of the Enterprise's own shuttles, right down to the ID number and markings. It gets worse, because inside this curious copy is another duplicate, and a far more disturbing one: an unconscious Jean-Luc Picard. (God bless Riker's pragmatism. On seeing the body, he calls to the Picard he just left on the bridge, just to make sure it wasn't some weird sort of game.)
TNG has screwed around with time before, and it will again, but one of the things that makes "Squared" stand out is its essential simplicity. We're given an explanation for presence of Picard-2, but the explanation only goes so far; there's no indication that the energy vortex is doing this intentionally, although that's certainly possible, and there's no direct connection between the fate of Picard-2's Enterprise and Picard-2's jaunt, apart from the fact that the vortex which destroys the ship must've also thrown the doomed captain back for a second try. (Or a third, or a fourth. For all we know, this particular loop could've played out a thousand times before one Jean-Luc made the right choice. Since our Picard's final decision is made based on the information he gets from Picard-2, it's probable that this is only the first iteration, but still. Fun to think about, right?) That weakens "Squared" somewhat, because it relies too much on the "outer space is magical" concept that gave us all those damn godlike beings in TOS. Hard sci-fi isn't a requirement for great storytelling, but it would've been nice if we'd gotten a little bit more rationale than "just cuz."
Yet this simplicity also allows us to focus most of our attention on Picard, and, as we've learned, that's not a bad idea. There's a lot of fun puzzle solving beforehand (getting thrown out of sync with his natural time puts Picard-2 all out of whack, as well as essentially reversing the electronics on his shuttlecraft)(given that we've seen people travel through time before in this universe and not have similar problems means this is sort of a continuity oddity, but let's just squint and say it has something to do with the energy vortex that caused all the trouble in the first place), but once Geordi and Data manage to get access to the shuttlecraft's logs, the situation clarifies to a terrifying degree: we see Picard-2's Enterprise blowing up inside this sort of space tornado. So wherever Picard-2 came from, he's the only one left, and the current Enterprise—our Enterprise, essentially—is already on a path to potential doom.
There's the usual discussion about what to do next; like I said, "Squared" puts most of the decision making squarely on Picard's shoulders, which shows you just how important the captain is to the ship. Riker may do a lot of the standard orders while both men are on the bridge, but it's Picard who has the final say when the situation comes to a head. It's odd, in a way, that Picard would have such a personal stake in resolving the conflict, since to all intents and purposes, he's the only person who'll survive the coming catastrophe, but it also makes sense. The captain who goes down with his ship isn't just a noble ideal, it's a philosophy based on a deep sense of responsibility and dedication. To suddenly find out that there's possible future in which all your friends die is awful, but to know that you somehow survived, and that your survival looks like you actually voluntarily ran from danger… for a man like Picard, for anyone of reasonable virtue, that would have to be unbearable.
So Picard isn't a very happy man for much of "Squared," and the episode works best when it shows him struggling with the problem. His treatment of his other self is fascinating, because he starts off in a poor temper and just gets angrier and angrier as his dilemma becomes clearer. Here is a way for him to vent all his self-doubt and guilt, at a person he can blame for all the failings he suspects in himself. Once the vortex manifests, and Picard finally realizes what drove Picard-2 to leave his Enterprise, that the motives were the opposite of selfish cowardice, that fury eases off, but he still shows precious little mercy to his own future. That's some sharp characterization. There's no team-up between the two, no hugging or chance for Picard-2 to realize he'll actually be able to save the ship he'd seen destroyed. There's just interrogation, demands, and finally-
"Squared" has a few dull pockets. Troi and Pulaski's discussion of Picard's mental state is conceptually interesting but not really necessary, and the episode could've used another complication or two. The fact that there are only two options at the end for Picard to choose from, and already he knows one ends badly, is overly simplistic. Still, this works, and the final scenes between the two Picards rank among my favorites of anything we've yet seen on the show. The stone cold conclusion of that sequence is shocking even when you know it'll have little consequences. Realizing that the only way forward is to prevent Picard-2 from leaving the Enterprise, Picard shoots and murders his double, without hesitation. That puts this one over the edge for me, soft science or not. We already knew Picard was a bad-ass. This is the first time we've really seen how far he'll go to do what's necessary.
- You could make a case that, since the energy vortex specifically targets Picard (both versions), this all might be some kind of test or experiment or what have you. But why bother? While I think the vortex could've been better developed, I do appreciate its ambiguity.
- "Release him." "Do you know what you're doing?" "No. Release him."
- According to Data, women are traditionally the food preparers in human households. So, three hundred years in the future and you still have that to look forward to, ladies.
"The Icarus Factor"
I was talking to Mabel the other day. I sez to Mabel, I sez, I do so enjoy watching these episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Mabel sez nothing. (Such is her wont. Mabel is a cat, and I don't own a cat, and it gets complicated from there.) Mabel, I sez, but do you know the one thing the show doesn't have I'd like to see more of? Mabel eagerly awaits my reply. Mabel, I sez, the show needs some more characters with daddy issues. And maybe some crazy futuristic type sports. Mabel can only bask in awe at my genius, before I remember she doesn't exist and realize I should probably go back on my meds.
Maybe I've been too spoiled by a run of decent to good episodes, but "The Icarus Factor" really killed my good buzz from "Time Squared." It's pedantic, treacly, and uninspired, and despite the occasional bright spot, plays way too much like a generic TV drama, full of hand-holding music cues and predictable psychology. Which is a shame, because the idea behind "Icarus" actually isn't half-bad. Instead of one main storyline, abutted by a subplot or two, we've got an entire episode that's largely populated with character beats and low-key drama. It's the sort of thing you'd never see on TOS, and it's something I still think TNG could do well, because that easygoing, friendly tone does have a definite appeal. The danger doesn't have to be life-threatening to make us want to spend time with these people, and there's an experimentalism here I respect in trusting our affection for the characters is strong enough to make us willing to endure a little soap opera. The problem is, there's a lot of soap opera here, and it's far too mundane to be enjoyable.
We've heard a few things about Riker's childhood (just last episode we found out that he learned to cook because his mom was gone and his dad didn't want the job), but in "Icarus," we finally get to meet the man behind the legend, Kyle Riker, father, lover, and sometime jerk. Before I go any further, I would like you to imagine how this scenario will play out: Riker's dad comes aboard the Enterprise to see his son after a 15 year separation. There is some tension. Now… just picture what comes next. No, I'm not giving you any more than that. Trust me on this one.
If you imagined lots of resentment, refusal to openly discuss emotions, discussions of pride and abandonment, and a resolution which relies on physical violence, here, have some cake. Kyle Riker (Mitch Ryan, who mostly makes me think of Dharma & Greg) is that oh so reliable of Dad Types, the Emotionally Unavailable But Still Caring Deep Down Guy who gets a lot of lady love, but can't seem to win the affections of the one person who matters the most. Now, the idea of a man who has difficulty expressing himself or showing vulnerability isn't so horrible that it couldn't have worked here. There's a reason the type keeps coming up again and again, and it's not just because screenwriters can't afford good therapists. It makes for believable conflict, it means that actual connection has to be earned, and it can, when done well, make for good drama. That is not the case here. Ryan isn't a bad actor, and Riker's open contempt for the man is darker than the interpersonal conflict usually gets on the series. Only, the conversations between them are horribly written. Just god-awful.
Plus, there's Kyle's relationship with Pulaski. I have no idea what to do with that. I'm not even sure I dislike it, because I've eased up on my Pulaski complaints, and it's interesting to see her in a context that actually makes her close to vulnerable that doesn't involve a lot of really stupid decisions. It just seems weirdly extraneous to everything else, like the writers wanted to give Kyle something to do when he wasn't glaring at his son, and this is the best way they could think of to humanize him. TNG has dealt with old flames before, and this one isn't embarrassing, but it is… odd. Kyle is friendly with everyone on the Enterprise and he's fooled around with the ship doctor? And yet he hasn't seen Will in fifteen years. Okay then. We're supposed to think he's a hero because Pulaski gives a speech about this time that Kyle was on a space station where everybody else died, only he lived because he really, really wanted to. That doesn't make him sound like a hero, though. Just lucky. (Or else a murderer with a very clear notion of the importance of eye-witness accounts.)
There's also a plot about Worf being in a bad mood, and Wesley deciding it's his job to fix that bad mood. It's hilarious, although not always in the way that's intended. After all the nice things I've tried to say about the character recently, Wesley returns to full irritant mode here, badgering Worf until the poor guy snaps, then badgering Geordi and Data till they agree to figure out what made Worf so irritable. (A theory: maybe the pale pink blur that keeps whining by his ear, perilously close to punching range.) It's a storyline that seems more suited to a children's TV show than TNG, full of goofy attempts at friendship and caring, and a complete disregard for personal space. The only person Worf comes close to expressing his problems to is Riker, and Riker is too busy with his own issues to help. I can understand the need for a psychologically sound security officer (although Worf is far saner than Tasha Yar ever was), but isn't part of respecting someone giving them some space to occasionally have a bad day?
Thankfully, the resolution of this plot is one of the episode's highlights, so all this buzzing and interfering isn't entirely for naught. Wesley learns it's all about the tenth anniversary of Worf's coming of age, and so everybody gets together to give Worf a surprise party in the holodeck complete with physical torment and growling. There's something very satisfying in seeing Worf's human friends, with all their good intentions, utterly baffled by the masochistic intensity of Worf's needs. Yet they respect them anyway. No one tries to talk him out of the ritual, no one encourages him to seek counseling or maybe find a job that doesn't depend on his even temperament and focus. If Wesley's badgering plays as too childish and naive to make much sense, at least the result reminds us that, nosiness aside, these are characters who take the Prime Directive seriously in all aspects of their lives. Just because they don't understand something doesn't mean they don't grasp its importance.
There's a goofy final showdown between Riker and Riker, playing a game called "anbo-jytsu," which looks like Ultimate Fighting for people terrified of the possibility of direct physical contact. Riker, Jr, yells at his dad, realizes his dad has been cheating in the game for years, lessons are learned, and manly vows of love exchanged, and so forth. Oh, and Riker turns down the chance to be the captain of his own ship, which I didn't mention earlier because really, I can't imagine thinking he would accept. Oh, and there were some problems in Engineering, and we learned we should always trust Data. There's not really much to discuss here beyond that.
- Grade-wise, this is on the line for me. I wanted to rate it higher because I really, really loved Worf's big scene, but the rest of it was pretty dreadful.
- In case you were wondering what to feel when Riker says goodbye to Troi, the music helpfully reminds you to be sad.
Man, if you ever wanted an episode that perfectly demonstrated the best and worst of TNG, "Pen Pals" is… well, there might be better examples, but "Pen Pals" is certainly high on the list of potential candidates. On the one hand, we've got an interesting science-based problem to solve (it may also be a ridiculous problem, but anything is better than "Oh great, that shiny thing screwed us over again"), we've got characters using research and reasoning to find that solution, we've got some heavy discussion over the morality of the Prime Directive, and we have planets covered in lava. I love me a good planet covered in lava. (Although Revenge of the Sith can just go straight to hell. "She lost the will to live" my ass.) On the other, less exciting hand, we've got a lot of sentiment, a lot of hand-holding and lesson learning, and a frustrating refusal to examine consequences.
Maybe this was part of an ill-conceived attempt to make the show more family friendly? I dunno, but between this and the "Wesley bugs Worf" subplot in "Icarus," it's hard to ignore the bland kiddie vibe. Not only do we have Data making friends with an alien girl over ham radio, we also have Wesley learning how to be a man in the mean old world of telling people what to do. Even worse, we get a five minute scene with Picard and the others discussing how their guidance of the Crusher brat should progress, as if this was somehow a storyline we've all been aching to return to. Yes, I remember that Picard and Riker said they would help Wesley along, but he seems to be doing a fine job of getting up in people's business all on his own. I'm not sure encouraging to meddle further is really necessary. (Unless this is part of a plot to just keep him out of everyone's hair for a while? Maybe Worf filled out some forms.)
I did like the business with Picard and his horse, at least. The glimpses we get of the captain's personal life are always welcome, if slightly amusing in the lengths the writers will go to in order to differentiate him from Kirk. ("Look, he's gentile, goddammit! He's cultured! If he ever had sex with a green-skinned chick, he'd totally know what wine to order at dinner, pre-banging. And he'd probably smoke a clove cigarette, post-bang.") Also, the elementary school kid in me got a kick out of the inadvertently hilarious dialog between Picard and Troi: "So you like horses for the romance." (Well, it is an awful long time between star-bases, and Riker won't always wear the blinders I got him.) "It seems some creatures have the capacity to fill spaces you never knew existed." (…no comment.)
Then we get into the stuff with the planets melting, which is theoretically cool but really just serves as a way to tie together our two storylines: Data and his friend, and Wesley and his learning, um, things. Data adjusts some equipment to listen to distant radio signals, and ends up chatting with a girl from a pre-space-age culture. That's strictly not good, but Data assures Picard that he did his utmost to make sure the little girl, Sarjenka, had no idea who she was talking to. Then Sarjenka started complaining about earthquakes and volcanoes, and Data realized that her planet, Drema IV, ("Dream for," cute, guys) was in danger of the same fate that had already ruined other planets in the system. And that's when it gets tricky.
The Prime Directive dictates non-interference. Going strictly by orders, Picard and his crew should leave Sarjenka, her people, and all of Drema IV to its fate. But Sarjenka is really cute! Well, she's cute sounding, anyway. And she's just a little kid! Well, she's just-a-little-kid sounding, anyway. Picard and the others debate the rightness of involvement, and while it's nice to have the issue openly argued, there's something cheap about the essential simplicity of the conflict. Stewart does a good job trying to make his decision seem more weighty and important than it really is, but what this comes down to is that a child is in danger, and no hero on this show would ever turn their backs on that kind of need. "Pals" goes out of its way to make sure this decision to betray their core ethos is as easy for the character as it possibly could be, even allowing Pulaski to memory wipe the kid and leave a clean slate behind. Instead of rational thought and compassion, we get a delicate situation that apparently goes out of its way to make the most desirable choice the easiest one.
Then there's Wesley. In the interest of helping him become a man (Picard should've just signed the kid up for some time on the holodeck nobody talks about), the captain puts him in charge of the team to determine what's causing the global meltdowns. Wesley gets nervous about this, then asks Riker for advice. His first sessions go all right, but one of the scientists talks him out of a test he really feels needs to be done. So he asks Riker for more advice, interrupting the guy in the middle of what has to be a pick-up. Riker states the obvious, Wesley does what needs doing, and everything runs smoothly.
Seriously, would it kill the show to give us even a little conflict at this point? The ensign who gave Wesley some lip, why not have him argue his point more strenuously? Why not make taking command something more than simply showing a moderate confidence in your own abilities? And jeez, Data's pet kid… there are so many more interesting ways this could've gone I don't even know where to begin. "Pals" flirts with drama by forcing Data to beam Sarjenka to the ship, thus violating the PD as well as countless other potential biohazard restrictions (yes, the magical transporter could've removed any troublesome disease vectors, but there's no guarantee). Sarjenka, for her part, is frightened by the Enterprise, and clings to Data, so I'll give them points for letting her act like a little kid even when it made her annoying.
Apart from that, though, she's as stereotypically sweet as they come. Wesley's team figures out what's causing the disruptions (dilithium crystal fever, apparently), works out a way to stop them, and the day is saved. And that is pretty much that. It's hard to argue against what Picard and Data and the others do here, because it's an action with purely positive results. Unless we get an episode a few seasons down the line in which Sarjenko, having somehow regained her memory, has turned into a warrior queen and murders anyone who dares scoff at her tales of albino sky gods, I'm not seeing a down side. That's weak. Moral quandaries are only difficult when they allow us no clear, reasonable solution, and drama is created when good people are forced to make impossible choices. This was just a lot of back-slapping and day-saving, and, while I'm sure everyone involved was proud of themselves, it was kind of a snooze to watch.
- Uneven batch of episodes this week, but I'm glad we're getting more of Chief O'Brien in the transporter room.
- Picard's "Ooops" to Data is rather brilliantly done.
- Next week, it's "Q Who?," "Samaritan Snare," and "Up The Long Ladder."