"Where No One Has Gone Before"
This is a little better, thank goodness. The Wesley Factor is in effect, and the storyline is more interested in throwing out cool-sounding ideas than following through with any of them, but the cringe inducing cheesiness is kept to a minimum, and the tension increases as the episode progresses, rather than peaking early and then draining away to nothing. (I considered making a joke here about my sexual inadequacies, but then I remembered: I've been writing Trek recaps for about a year now. I don't think anyone is going to believe I'm having sex.) Most importantly, the tone is more or less on target. "The Last Outpost" tried to achieve a sense of mystery and awe, but largely failed; "No One," despite its imperfections, at least gives us an alien space that can't be handily defeated by the regurgitation of bumper sticker wisdom.
Starfleet has a new propulsion expert making the rounds, and Riker isn't happy to welcome him aboard the Enterprise. He's not convinced the expert is legit, despite the demonstrable improvement shown in at least two other ships. The real issue is that the data which Kosinski, the expert, sent over to prep the Enterprise engine doesn't make any sense. Chief Engineer Argyle is just as skeptical as Riker (I guess we should just assume Wesley inadvertently murdered the last Chief Engineer during one of his science projects?), and when Kosinski beams aboard, he does nothing to alleviate either men's concerns. Kosinski is a pushy, arrogant ass, and while he's not exactly a Federation bureaucrat, he's reason enough to wonder if TNG is going to continue TOS's long tradition of assholes in uniform.
Kosinski brought a friend, though, an unnamed alien who is friendly, humble, and extremely unobtrusive. Which makes for rather clever camouflage, come to think. The alien, who we'll call The Traveler, is the one responsible for the warp drive upgrades. He comes from a mystical land of magic technology, and he's explored our universe by leapfrogging from ship to ship. Thing is, you can't tell people up front, "I'm basically a wizard, and I can futz around with your crap and make it brilliant" without getting asked a lot of tough questions that start with "Oh really?" and end with laser scalpels. So the Traveler uses Kosinski as a front to cover his own tricks. Kosinski is the perfect man for the job, because his ego allows him to believe he's making the changes himself (despite not being able to understand them), and his toxic personality means that anyone he comes in contact with will notice him first, last, and only. Plus, wouldn't you want to get this creep off your ship as soon as possible?
The con would've worked perfectly, but the Traveler is getting sick. After making goo-goo eyes at Wesley (I hadn't really noticed it till this week, but Wheaton is much too old for the part. It creates some creepy subtext, and makes the supposedly brilliant ten year-old look like an idiot savant), the Traveler goes through his usual moves, but this time, the effort is too much, and the Enterprise gets shot three galaxies off course. An attempt to fix the problem ends up with the ship stuck in a weird blue cloud full of floating sparks. The cloud affects the crew, and soon everyone on board is seeing physical representations of their desires and fears. Thankfully, we are spared the scene where Wesley finally gets some spooning-time in with the Captain.
The "thoughts made flesh" concept is a cliche, but not one so limited that it can't be effective, and while I was mildly entertained by the Traveller's story, I got the most charge out of the sight of the Enterprise hurtling through the cosmos. Gone are TOS's endless white-dots-on-black starfields. This is colorful, weird, maybe a little corny, but kind of awesome if you are willing to overlook the not always pitch perfect effects. I've always been a sucker for 2001's "going through the monolith" sequence, and while this episode is nowhere near that kind of mesmerizing terror and wonder, I'm gratified to see the series actually trying for something a little beyond their reach, this early in the game.
But since we're still in the first season, we can't really have nice things. The Traveller's insistence that Wesley is a kind of super genius doesn't play as it was intended, I'm guessing; instead of promising exciting future developments from "the boy," it serves as a reminder of Wesley's Mary Sue status, a wish-fulfillment character whose accolades are less earned then assigned. I don't want kids on the Enterprise. I don't mind the idea, although… All right, that's a lie, I do mind the idea, because it changes the ship into some kind of pleasure cruise, instead of a semi-military expedition. Really, though, I just don't want to see any children in story-lines because dammit, this is supposed to be a space adventure, not "Wesley's Big Day On The Bridge." Suggesting some kind of potential Chosen One style narrative (and don't kid yourself, that's what's happening here) threatens to graft on the worst kind of serialization, bringing an unlikable character even further to the forefront of the action simply because some writer didn't get enough pats on the head growing up.
Another problem with the episode is that it doesn't really have a third act. Once the Traveller's true nature is revealed, and we get a few scenes of the Enterprise crew dealing with their fears made flesh (my favorite: the guy scared of fire, although Tasha's rape gang memory was also delightfully inappropriate), there's a big speech about how everyone has to think nice things about the Traveler, he repeats the warp process to get them home, and then disappears. There's nothing illogical in this, since the Traveler's abilities are ill-defined enough for a Tinkerbell Solution to not be entirely ridiculous, but it's flat and unexciting. It has a scene where Wesley reaches out and takes the Traveler's hand to save everyone on the ship, and that only would've worked if Wesley was younger or there'd been some plotline about the two becoming lovers, which is frankly not a thought I wanted to be having. "No One" isn't horrid, but it's too vague to be honestly good.
"Lonely Among Us"
It must be difficult to fill all forty-five minutes. I've never written a teleplay before, but I have to imagine that the timing isn't always as organic as you'd like it to be. "Lonely" is a very obvious example of two disparate storylines thrown together to no real purpose. Obviously, the presence of two warring alien races on the Enterprise is supposed to raise the stakes when things start to go wrong, but that never really happens. After meeting the Anticans and the Selay, hearing about their enmity, and marveling at the make-up work (which is quite solid, really; the Anticans are sort of a walrus/cat hybrid, and the Selay are snake men, and both would've fit right in at the Mos Eisley cantina), there are a few short scenes reminding us that the delegates aren't too happy being around each other, Riker gets hit with a kind of glow-stick noose, and, well, that's it. Oh, there's a distinct possibility that a snake guy gets murdered and cooked, which is cool, no question.
None of that adds much to the episode's other, more central plot. While ferrying the Antican and Seleya to a neutral planet to vie for membership in the Federation, the Enterprise runs afoul of a mysterious dark space cloud, and takes some time out of its busy schedule to investigate. As we've learned time and again from science fiction, curiosity of the unknown is nearly always a terrible idea, killing cats and then raising them from the dead through a combination of cyborg technology and nanobites that results in super sentient felines and a lot of thoroughly dead, moderately singed rodents. Or maybe that's a little too pessimistic than intended. After all, this is Star Trek, not Star You See From Your Bedroom Window After The Doors Are Bolted. Exploration is encouraged, but that doesn't mean you can avoid the consequences.
The consequences in "Lonely" amount to a heady shock of blue lightning that gets sucked aboard via ship sensors, first possessing Worf, then Dr. Crusher, and finally (and most dangerously) Picard. The lightning, a conscious entity that really only wants to get back home, futzes around with the Enterprise computers, there's some suspicion of sabotage that Riker immediately lays at the aliens' feet, and then Picard makes a big speech explaining the situation, before beaming himself back into the space cloud.
The idea is familiar, but not terrible, and give "Lonely" credit for attempting to make the alien simultaneously sympathetic and dangerous. The creature kills a member of the crew while interfering with Engineering, and while the death is "unintentional," that's not much of a comfort. One of the reasons "No One"'s climax isn't very satisfying is that our heroes don't have to do much to resolve their situation. Thinking happy thoughts isn't particularly courageous or exciting, but compared with "Lonely," it's downright dynamic. While Troi manages to uncover the possession problem, and we get an interesting conversation between the higher ups about how to handle a potentially compromised captain, the ship's contribution to the plot is largely a passive one. The alien takes over, pulls the Enterprise where it wants, and then beams itself home. The biggest contribution Riker and the rest make is to successfully rescue Picard after he gets turned into an energy pattern.
In fact, through all three of these episodes, we see characters enduring hardship without doing much to rise above it. It's a change of pace from Kirk's two-fisted approach to strange civilizations, and while the more thoughtful approach has potential, it's still playing overly conservative right now. I want to see Picard and the others interacting with the universe, not doing their best to muddle through unnoticed. We need more adventure, and bigger stakes. Here, even the supposedly touchy diplomatic mission is given over to bad jokes and "Gosh, aliens are crazy, huh?" eye-rolling. Combined with the slow pace and a number of dialog scenes that can be charitably described as "character development" (or more accurately as "padding"), this is an unmemorable episode that shows a series still unsure of its greatest strengths.
It's been, what, seven episodes now, and we still haven't delved into one of Trek's greatest traditions: the fuckable alien. Oh sure, we've talked about sex. Tasha and Data fooled around, which I guess sort of counts as aliens screwing, and there was that scene when Beverly unzipped her uniform a bit, and, of course, Troi's cleavage. (Plus the random guy who wanders through the background in a skirt.) But we really haven't had an episode where Picard or Riker or the others engaged in interstellar hanky-panky. That's just not right, you know? What's science fiction without half-naked green-skinned women and questionable gender politics? Nothing I'd be interested in, that's for sure.
"Justice" looks to correct this oversight with a massive dosage of morons in lingerie, and the effect is more campy and awkward than erotic. The Enterprise is studying a new class M planet, and the away team has discovered the natives are half naked, generically attractive, and extremely willing to make a stranger feel welcome. The doctor says the crew could use a shore leave, and where better to take one than the land of Pizza Delivery Boys, Copier Fixers, Suggestible Coeds, and Hitchhikers With Neither Grass Nor Gas. Admittedly, this is a relatively primitive culture, and the Prime Directive gets touchy whenever you poke one of those with a technologically advanced stick, but what harm could there be in investigating further? And send Wesley down, too. There's no way a young man could get into trouble around so many nubile and extraordinarily willing wet dreams.
Well, Wesley does get in trouble, naturally, although the trouble comes from clumsiness rather than horniness, but before we get to that, does this set-up strike anyone else as unbelievably stupid? It's similar to the opening of "Shore Leave," with the crew spending free time on a new world, but in "Leave," at least there was no obvious civilization in place for Kirk and the others to interfere with. In "Justice," Picard and his crew have made contact with a native race for the first time in Federation history, and instead of following strict protocol and moving on, he lays plans for, um, laying. Now, I appreciate a more devil-may-care approach, and it's nice to see an open attitude towards sexual morality, but given what happens latter in the episode, and given what we already know about Picard's devotion to the PD, this makes no sense. I don't give a damn if Troi does assure us the locals are all sunshine and buttercups. Beaming down groups of variables to a supposedly controlled environment is a really excellent way to start chain reaction, and once that happens, god help you. That's not even taking into account all the touching and hugging and screwing and so forth. Regardless of how open-minded and sensible everyone in the Enterprise is about making the beast with two backs, there's too much uncertainty here, even before we get to "Punishment Zones" and God.
Obviously, there's more going on here than meets the eye, because you can't ever have an idyllic paradise that doesn't involve some sort dark underside. The Edos (ie, all the goofy blond hotties) are all friendliness, but Wesley soon discovers that rule-breaking is about the only place they don't screw around. Basically, the city is full of secret "punishment zones," and if you have the misfortune of breaking a law inside one of those zones, the mediators show up and execute on the spot. The Edos justify this by citing a history of violence and horror, and I guess if you wanted to create the Penthouse Forum Planet, you should follow their lead. The problem is, poor Wesley doesn't really know what's going on, and after resisting the advances of a girl his age (it's sad; his obvious uncomfortableness is one of the few believable moments we've had from the character, but it still annoys me), he tries to get a game of tossing-the-ball-around going, and manages to fall into a small greenhouse and trample some flowers. Cue the mediators, and cue the ep's philosophical conflict: is Picard justified interfering with the locals and breaking the Prime Directive in order to save the boy?
God's watching, too, so make sure and show your work. Much like "The Apple," a presence keeps watch on the Edos and protects them from outside influence, and it's telling that Picard never questions this, or takes steps to break the aliens' hold. We know how Kirk handled a similar situation, and while the God entity here doesn't demand the same kind of servitude that the computer system of "The Apple" did, there's still a question of how much Big Brother In The Sky is dictating the pace of development down below. However Edenic the Edo's culture appears at first glance, it's childlike, and their unquestioning devotion to a Draconian system of law enforcement doesn't encourage much in the way of creative thought. (It's hard to evolve when you're too busy trying not to trip and be murdered.) "Justice" ends with "God" still in control—in fact, Picard and the others implicitly accept that there's nothing wrong with this.
It all comes back to the Prime Directive, which I'm sure we'll be examining quite closely in the months to come. Here, Picard has to puzzle out a way to save Wesley's life that doesn't violate his obligations to the Federation, and while the conflict is contrived (I can't imagine an organization as seemingly benevolent and peaceful as the Federation not having a "you can save your own kid" clause), it's interesting to see the situation taken so seriously. The problem is, the more seriously the situation is viewed, the more ridiculous it becomes. This isn't a question of Wesley inadvertently killing or even injuring anyone. I could've bought the debate if, say, the Boy Blunder had befriended a local, and the local had gotten in trouble and Wesley decided to save her at any cost. That's not what's happening here: annoying or not, the poor kid tripped, and I have a hard time believing in a Prime Directive that doesn't allow for at least a little perspective.
This is roughly the same conclusion Picard reaches. He argues, in a weirdly abrupt finale, that "there can be no justice so long as laws are absolute." It's a dramatically sound speech in an episode that hasn't really earned it, but I appreciated the moment nonetheless. The God entity that keeps watch on the Edos is to MacGuffiny to be effective (the only reason we see it at all is to prevent Picard from simply beaming Wesley back on the ship after he's captured), and the Edos are too clearly symbolic to be dramatically compelling. "Justice" strives for profundity, but its too absurd to be taken seriously. I imagine that's a phrase I'll be using be quite often.
- It's not a good sign when I have to keep reminding myself of an episode while writing about it. "Lonely Among Us" is deeply unmemorable, although Picard's rescue does bring up one of the problems I've always had with transporters: the question of just what's being created in that haze of sparkling lights. The Picard that beams in at the end is based on the pattern from before he left the ship, which means he has no memory of actually going out into the energy field. So does that mean this is Picard 2.0? Or is every character on the show who's ever beamed anywhere simply a copy of a copy of a copy to the nth degree, iterations of a physical being whose original presence hasn't existed in decades?
- Data's getting more likable as time goes on, thank goodness. Picard doesn't have a Kirk/Spock type relationship with anyone on the ship (he's friendly enough with Riker, but there's no sense of near-equality), but his interactions with the android aren't bad.
- Picard mentions a fondness for detective fiction in "Lonely." This leads to an awkward monologue and Data being goofy, but expect to see more of the concept soon.
- I mentioned this on my Twitter feed, but if you'll allow me a brief digression: I've read a ton of reviews of the iPad, and I understand the criticisms. It's beyond my price range right now, and I admit, I'm not sure I'd have a huge need for it even if I could afford it. But I want one because it's the closest we've come yet to the junk Geordi and Data and the others use on TNG. I want Star Trek technology in my living room.
- Next week, it's "The Battle," "Hide and Q," and "Haven."