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Star Trek: The Next Generation: "We'll Always Have Paris"/"Conspiracy"/"The Neutral Zone"

Illustration for article titled iStar Trek: The Next Generation/i: Well Always Have Paris/Conspiracy/The Neutral Zone
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"We'll Always Have Paris"
Our first time travel episode! And we get some Picard backstory, and a mad scientist. By all rights, it should be terrific, but this is the first season, so we're not quite ready for "terrific" just yet. The seeds are there, and the scenes of the episode that fully embrace the possibilities are an exciting presage of stories to come. It's just too bad, then, that between those scenes we get some undercooked romance, and a script that's willing to raise questions without really following through on them. More than anything, it plays like a rough draft, tossing around possibilities but lacking in the craft to tie them together properly.

"Paris" opens with Picard fencing against an unnamed lieutenant. We've been getting occasional glimpses of Picard's personal life over the course of the season, and this one's probably the longest sustained character beat. It's plot important, but not for obvious reasons; Picard doesn't end up having to defend himself against a time anomaly with nothing but an epee. Instead, we get to see a brief time loop, as the two characters exchange dialog, the screen goes fuzzy, and then they repeat exchange. It's a moderate glitch notable because of the lack of context surrounding it. Mostly, this is just a scene to give us a clearer understanding of Picard's approach to combat (it's not exactly subtle, but contrast this with the wrestling lessons Kirk gave in "Charlie X"), and have us thinking of him as a person, and not just a captain.


As for the time blip itself, it's effective because there's no expectation on the series for that kind of trickery. As for the time blip itself, it's effective because there's no expectation on the series for that kind of trickery. There's more recursion to come, and it's creatively done, even if the pay-off doesn't entirely live up to expectations. It's fun to see Picard, Data, and Riker run into themselves, but what's even more exciting is the possibilities this opens up for later seasons. On TOS, we had the occasional duplicates, through transporter malfunction and parallel universes, but we never had this willingness to play around with basic structural assumptions. How weird is the scene when Picard and the others meet themselves on the turbolift? Even better, we start following the group that enters the lift, but then shift our attention to the group waiting to get on, creating a brief feeling of temporal disorientation. And the finale, with Data having to negotiate multiple versions of himself in order to stabilize the anomaly, is also nifty, although over too quickly. I've always loved time travel episodes because I love the possibility of weirdness, of playing games with our accepted concept of how a story will unfold, and "Paris" scratches the surface. It makes me want more, but at least now I know there's a surface to be scratched.

As for the rest of it, well, I wasn't a fan. Picard reacts strongly when he hears an emergency transmission from a Dr. Paul Manheim. Manheim is married to a former flame of Picard's—the good captain abandoned her in a cafe in Paris years and years ago, and is now feeling all nostalgic about leaving her behind. He even re-creates the setting on the holodeck, to once again impress us with the computer's astonishingly vast resources, as well as remind us that whenever people aren't wearing uniforms on TNG, they look very, very silly. Troi, in one of her less helpful moments, tells Picard she senses an intensity of emotion in him, and offers counseling. There's something very off-putting about this, although that might just be my own damage talking—I can understand Troi's value when dealing with strange species (although do they ever address the possibilities that different races my have different emotional responses? Is "secrecy" translatable?), and also as an on-board therapist, but for her to go out of her way to poke people is, well, irritating. Picard hasn't shown poor judgment yet, and he never actually makes a bad call the entire episode. Sometimes preventative care can go too far.


Then again, this could just be another indicator of how stable and sane everyone is in the future, because Picard certainly doesn't take offense at Troi's questions. "Paris" could've benefited from a little more rawness, I think. It sets us up for an emotionally complicated reunion, but Picard's scenes with Jenice are middling at best. Stewart is charming, but Jenice (Michelle Phillips, from the Mamas and the Papas) is uninteresting and, at times, actively annoying, fixating on her and Picard's history even while her husband lays near death in sick bay, and the whole universe is in danger from her husband's experiments. Thematically, the relationship here makes sense: the episode is about the past regurgitating itself after all, and trying to give us a more personal connection to that regurgitation by reminding us why it's usually better for the past to stay dead makes sense. Unfortunately, the relationship is too bland, and the actress to banal, for that connection to have any weight. Instead, it plays like what it essentially is: filler.

As for Manheim's experiments, we're faced with a distinct lack of follow-through. He's trying to disconnect himself from the natural flow of time in order to make contact with other dimensions. Which isn't, y'know, evil or anything, but considering the cost of his first real success—the death of much of his team, and a disturbance whose affect can be felt light years away—why isn't anyone more concerned at his state plans to push forward? There's no clear gain, apart from discovery, and the risks are enormous. He's managed to do what no one else in history has accomplished, and not in a "Oh hey, sliced bread!" kind of way. TNG's brand of utopia can be bland and dramatically flat, but every so often, it exposes a blind side that's almost astonishingly short-sighted. No one expresses concern that Manheim might somehow create a rift that causes more serious damage that can be fixed via android. No one says, "So why, exactly, are you risking the Billy Pilgrim-ization of the galaxy?" It's just smiles and hugs and warm appreciation. I'm all for science, but I also have a certain fondness for cause-and-effect, and, were I on the Enterprise, I would've made a case for making sure they stayed in that order.


Grade: B-


Apart from the pilot and "Skin of Evil," this may be the only first season episode I had clear memories of coming in to this project. It's a very hard episode to forget, and it's often singled out as one of the high points of the season. I can see why: it's exciting, scary, and much, much grosser than anything else we've ever seen on the show. (Including Data's "fully functional" and that shirt Riker wore in "Angel One.") It's striking, ambitious, and there's no secondary plot to distract us from the main concerns. And yet, watching it again now, I don't think it's quite as good as I remembered. It shows some of the same problems we've seen throughout the first season, and often plot logic is sacrificed in the name of "oh cool!" moments. Most importantly, "Conspiracy" doesn't really fit. It's a bold experiment, but it reaches too far, and makes it more difficult to support.


Picard gets a special super-secret message from Walker, an old friend (thankfully not a ranger of any kind), and Walker wants to meet up. Walker seems troubled, and when Picard arrives at the rendevous point, he has to pass an interrogation to prove he's himself, much to his frustration. It's a familiar scene, with lots of memory checks and bluffs, but Walker goes to surprising lengths to make absolutely sure Picard is trustworthy, before explaining the problem: something's wrong with Starfleet. It's the same vague "something" that Quinn talked about all the way back in "Coming of Age," but the danger has increased. Orders are being sent to consolidate power and put key personnel in harm's way, all with a subtlety and deftness that indicates infiltration at the highest levels of power. Walker, and the people he trusts (including Michael Berryman, from The Hills Have Eyes), want to put a stop to this, but they aren't quite sure how. Then Walker's ship gets blown up with him on it.

Clearly, we're dealing with some raised stakes. The idea of a vast secret organization gnawing at the heart of the Federation is intriguing, and Walker's paranoia about Picard makes it difficult to dismiss his concerns. The problem is, it's all so sudden that it's hard to really grasp the full implications of the problem. We've had a bare minimum of dealings with Starfleet personnel; Picard explains this by saying the Enterprise has been at the outer rim for a while, and that's fine, but it also means that this new development is less like a twist on our expectations than it is like walking into another story that's already three-quarters finished. We know the situation is dangerous for our heroes, because Walker dies, and that's serious, but beyond a few comments, it's difficult to feel the weight of the danger the system is in. When Picard beams down to Starfleet Headquarters—and by the way, for all his intelligence, Picard makes an incredibly stupid call here—he just happens to beam into the head group of the conspiracy, and they immediately go to work on him. All that careful world-building the season has been working towards gets tossed aside in favor of a bunch of smirking old guys who eat worms.


It would also be nice if the threat wasn't quite so idiotic. Quinn, who's been infected by the alien parasite that's causing all these problems, beams aboard the Enterprise intending to get the infection ball rolling. He gets into a fight with Riker, which makes no sense; if these creatures are such experts at staying undetected, surely they would realize that picking a fight with a ship's first officer isn't the best way to go about a secret invasion? Wouldn't it have made more sense to find a way to beam aboard a mess of the parasites and then let them do all the heavy lifting of infiltration? Quinn acts like he just wishes he had a mustache to stroke. He manages to put Riker down, and nearly takes out the security team Riker calls to his aid (note how the "team" is just Geordi and Worf. I'd like to think rank means privileges like, "Taking a distress call seriously enough to send more than two guys," but apparently not), so I guess his plan is sort of working. Although he seems to only have the one bug, so was he planning on killing the two people he couldn't infect? It's irrelevant, anyway, since Beverly arrives to save the day with a phaser.

Back on the planet, Picard is hanging out at a Bond Villain Convention, suffering through some painfully wink-heavy dialog. ("What do you know about conspiracies, Picard, eh? Eh? Do you like gladiator movies? Would you enjoy having a pink dung beetle shoved down your throat and affixed to your spine? But perhaps I've said too much…") It's too blatant, but still creepy, and there's something thrilling in seeing the supposed symbols of authority turn malevolent. The dinner sequence that follows is nightmarish, and I give "Conspiracy" all due credit for its willingness to embrace the unpleasantness. A group of old men eating maggots is icky enough, but the truly unsettling element here is the way the dominant group shifts our expectations of what's "acceptable." Picard isn't just seeing his friends and colleagues behaving strangely, he's watching some of his most trusted assumptions of how life works throw into question, and it's deeply unnerving.


Then Riker shows up with a fake bug tail sticking out of his neck for street cred. Again we witness first hand the invaders' imbecility, as the fake infection is immediately trusted, and Riker manages to hold the con just long enough to start firing phasers. (Anybody else think it would've been cooler if he'd actually eaten some maggots?) The dinner scene is "Conspiracy"'s first big set-piece, and its second follows soon after, as Picard and Riker track down the head of the colony, disguised in the body of poor old interrogating Remmick. (I'm assuming Remmick was "himself" in "Coming of Age," which makes him a minor tragic figure. Sure, he was a jerk while he was questioning everyone, but his enthusiasm and appreciation for the Enterprise at the end of that episode gave him just enough humanity to make me sorry to see him die.) There's a brief, villainous exchange, and then Riker and Picard open fire—and Remmick's head explodes. Not just that, either: his whole torso bursts, and we see the giant mother bug sitting in his chest.

There's nothing like that in the rest of the season, nothing to prepare you for it, and I think that's part of the reason why people speak so highly of "Conspiracy." I think that isolation is a drawback, though. The episode should serve as a culmination of a variety of incidents, but instead plays like a one-off, which robs it of most of its potential power. The ending, which implies that the Remmick bug was able to send a message home before dying, has been criticized for never being brought up again, and that's reasonable, but the show really isn't ready for this kind of story yet. Like the bugs themselves, this is one that works on the spine, but that's as far as it goes. So hurrah for raised stakes, and fingers crossed that next time we encounter a danger this sinister, the writers know how to handle it.


Grade: B

"The Neutral Zone"

Speaking of handling things… Whatever my concerns with it, I do think "Conspiracy" should've been the last episode of the season. While the tone may have been off (it's one of the few Trek episodes I can think of that treats an alien race as completely, inarguably monstrous), its a memorable, risky piece of work, and the ending naturally leaves enough unanswered questions to encourage people to return for season two. In fact, before getting started on these recaps, I'd long assumed "Conspiracy" was the finale, so when I realized there was another episode left to watch before moving to the next set, I was curious. "Neutral Zone" brought up no memories from me, apart from what I knew about the Zone itself from TOS, but given that we'd been told the Federation hasn't had contact with the Romulans in half a century, there were some possibilities here.


Then came that moment. If you've watched a show before, you'll have certain episodes that don't sit right with you, and when you go in for a re-watch, you can forget just what those episodes were… until That Moment. Here, it's Data and Worf stumbling across a bunch of cryonic tubes. Most of the bodies inside are long rotted away to nearly nothing, but the android and the Klingon (coming this fall to NBC) find three viable human bodies—and I realized what was coming next, and I kind of wanted to give up the whole project.

This isn't the worst episode of the season, but it may possibly be the most frustrating, because it has two storylines. One follows the Enterprise's investigation into the destruction of multiple Federation outposts along the Neutral Zone. The suspicion is that the Romulans are involved, but there's no confirmation of this, because, again, nobody has any idea what the Romulans are up to at this point. This leads to a lot of discussion, and it's the kind of discussion I'm really coming to appreciate on TNG, the debates between officers on the best course of action which lack the heated name-calling aspect that so often undermined attempts at reasonableness in TOS. I enjoy watching smart people decide what to do next, and these scenes really work to the show's advantage, because while not everybody gets a line, it does seem like everyone's participating. Contrast that to similar scenes in TOS, where you get the feeling that Sulu is only in the room to fill a chair.


It's not incredibly powerful, but it's solid, and definitely enough to hang an episode on. Sadly, though, there's another plot in "Zone," and it has to do with those bodies Data and Worf discovered. Beverly brings them back to life, and what follows is a lot of extremely painful comic relief, as three citizens of the 21st century try and adjust to life in the 24th. There are… oh god, there comedy music cues. Because the jokes are so subtle, we have to highlight them. Augh.

I tend to have strong emotional reactions while I'm watching a show, and those reactions aren't always the easiest thing to remember when it comes time to write these reviews. So, looking back, I can't completely recapture just how vehemently opposed I was to Rich Guy, Housewife, and Texan (they get names, but they don't deserve them), but I do know their segments kept threatening to throw the episode completely off the rails. Fish-out-of-water storylines are used and re-used in genre fiction, because they offer an easy way to deliver exposition. Obviously we don't really need exposition at this point with the TNG-universe, or at least not the kind of shallow, first contact style exposition our three stooges get. The other reason to use fish-out-of-water is to throw the main characters into sharper contrast. We get a clearer sense of how Picard and the rest operate if we see them through someone else's eyes.


Weirdly enough, that doesn't happen here either. We do get reminded again of how neat all the technology is, and how nobody uses money anymore, and how pathetic and foolish everyone in the past must've been, but it's all information we already know. Rich Guy is an irritant who keeps trying to order people around, which is about as funny as it sounds, and Texan is a former musician who takes a liking to Data and slaps Beverly on the ass, which is even less funny than it sounds. RG does get a little redemption when he tries to explain to Picard why he's so frustrated—and hell, he even busts onto the bridge and does Deanna Troi's job for her, odd as that sounds. The Housewife is, astonishingly, the weepy one of the group. Troi helps her track down some of her descendants, which makes logical sense, at least.

There's no reason to tell this story that I can see, though. None of these characters rise much above their stereotype, and the series doesn't have the dramatic weight to really do this kind of thing right. Hell, the first episode of Futurama managed a similar plot with more emotional depth. These are people we'll never see again. They get the bare minimum of arc, and then they're dumped off on another ship, and there's no satisfying resolution or knowledge gained.


This is doubly painful because the other plot—you know, the whole thing about outposts and Romulans—is so much more interesting, to the point where every time we cut away to follow up on the latest antics from traumatic triumvirate, it's actively painful. It's terrific seeing Picard decide to take a more peaceful approach to a potentially deadly enemy, and how much that approach pays off. The actors playing the Romulans aren't very good, but Picard's conversation with them is pretty cool. And after all that build up, and the discovery that the Romulans weren't responsible for the destroyed outposts—that, in fact, the Romulans have suffered their own mysterious losses—the episode ends with the question unanswered. Picard says something about "more work to be done," and that's the final note of the season. The main problem of the episode is unresolved, and while that could've worked dramatically (especially after something like "Conspiracy," which implies there's all sorts of nasty happenings we don't know about or understand), it instead feels like we just ran out of time. Which makes all those precious minutes squandered on the human popsicles that much more infuriating.

Grade: C-

That's it for season one. Overall, I don't think it was quite as terrible as I was expecting, but if this was as good as the show ever got, I don't think we'd still be talking about it today. So far, we've had a definite downturn in the number of GLB ("god-like beings"), an increased sense of community aboard the Enterprise, and a lot of unfocused third acts. The cast is likable enough that I want to see more from them, and the growing emphasis on Picard's more deliberate approach to captaining has helped to establish TNG as its own show. It still hasn't lived up to the original series, but it no longer feels like it's trying to simply re-copy the old magic, and that's promising. Still, we've got a long way to go. Fingers crossed for Season 2.


Season One: C+

Stray Observations:

  • Jenice to Picard, "This is not how I imagined seeing you again." Yes, I'm sure you didn't expect to run into an ex-lover who beamed you aboard his ship after your husband broke the laws of time and space and nearly killed himself. Maybe now isn't the best time to mention it, though, seeing as your ailing husband is two feet behind you.
  • After the mother bug is killed in "Conspiracy," all the infected are immediately cured. I guess the bugs operate on the Lost Boys approach to monster societies.
  • I was really hoping somebody was going to connect these mind bugs with the one Khan used in Star Trek II.
  • Next week, we begin the second season with "The Child," "Where The Silence Has Lease," and "Elementary, Dear Data."

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