"Aquiel" (season 6, episode 13, originally aired: 1/30/1993)
or The One Where Geordi Meets The Thing
Sometimes you make an emotional connection to a person, or a piece of art (or entertainment, if we want to avoid getting all snobby about it) that far outweighs that art's objective value. Admittedly, "objective value" is hard to pin down when it comes to stories, because there really are no hard and fast rules for setting standards. But if I were to tell you that I have a certain affection for Tango & Cash, a terribly silly Slyvester Stallone/Kurt Russell action movie in which Russell dresses in drag at one point and Stallone is supposed to be "the smart one," I certainly wouldn't expect you to rush out and buy a copy. Nor would I put much effort into defending the merits of the film, even if I've seen it half a dozen times at least. People always get awkward and over-contemplative whenever the subject of conversation turns to guilty pleasures, but I think the phrase really just means "this is something I like a lot, and I have no idea why."
I don't think I'd go so far as to say I like "Aquiel." It's a weird episode, one that establishes a mystery and that resolves it via a solution that comes perilously close to cheating. It's also another awkward electronic meet-cute for Geordi, and once again, the writers of TNG show themselves largely incapable of creating a romantic relationship that doesn't come off as really, really creepy. This is is probably the weakest I've seen of season 6, a bunch of awkward story ideas mashed together with some weird character behavior and an unintentionally funny ending. But I have to confess something; while I don't really like this episode, I also have a certain affection for it, for reasons that don't have a lot to do with the ep itself. I don't think that affection affected my critical judgment (if anything, I was harder on this because I remembered parts of it so well), but, hey I thought I'd mention it. "Aquiel" is the first show I ever remember stealing from.
Right, so I've mentioned I decided I was going to be a writer when I was eleven, right? Stephen King novel, wandering tortured genius, not much of a juggler--I'm sure you've heard a thousand times before. The first thing I ever wrote (okay, not the first thing, not even the first fictional thing, because I also did this great story when I was really young about a magic bat, only the magic was in the kid who had the bat the entire time, so I guess this whole digression is based on a lie, since I'd already stolen from Dumbo when I was, like, eight, but we'll just push forward anyway) was a short story called "Poe," about Edgar Allan Poe's typewriter, and his ghost who wanted to murder the descendant of the guy who beat him to death. It wasn't very good, but it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. But I didn't know what to do next. Until I watched "Aquiel."
The Enterprise is on a mission to deliver supplies to Relay Station 47, but when the arrive at the station, they find it empty of personnel. The station should have two Starfleet officers, Lt. Aquiel Unhari (Renee Jones) and Keith Rocha, but instead, there's a dog, and a strange blob of genetic material that may be someone's remains. There's also a suspicious absence of shuttlecraft. Beverly finds some dried blood, and determines that it's Aquiel's, but she doesn't know who the blob used to be. So Geordi, after poking around, gets access to Aquiel's personal logs, and he starts watching the logs to try and put together what happened to her and Rocha. And, because he's Geordi (and because this part of the episode is doing a little stealing of its own), he starts falling in love with what he sees.
That's the part that struck me, when I was twelve or so. Not the romance part, but the idea of someone trying to piece together a story through the subjective accounts of the people who were no longer around to answer questions. The idea isn't original to TNG, but I didn't know that. And for whatever reason, I decided that I was going to write my own story, stealing the set-up (guy comes to a seemingly empty space station, starts watching video logs), and then making up my own ending. There was a robot, and it was terrible. Just godawful, but I was 12, so that was my excuse, and at least ending made some sense within the context of the world I'd clumsily created. Sure, there were crazy plotholes, and nearly every idea was ripped off of Trek or Isaac Asimov, but at least you knew there was a robot on the station at the start of the story. I didn't pull that whole robot thing out of thin air, is what I'm saying.
"Aquiel" goes a different route, and that route makes an already uneven and forced episode appear even shoddier. The locked-room-ish mystery isn't a bad hook for a genre show, and while the possibilities of space travel make the intended claustrophobia of the premise less restrictive, I was curious throughout the episode as to how they would explain the absence of crew-members on the station, and the presence of that organic goo. And to its credit, "Aquiel" does do a decent job of keeping you guessing right up till the end. There are Klingons hanging around, which always complicates matters, and the information Geordi finds in Aquiel's logs doesn't clear things up one way or the other. He develops an almost instant attraction to the presumed dead crew-member, because, well, of course he does. This is Geordi, after all, and the show refuses to allow him even the slightest sliver of dignity when it comes to romance. But there are aspects of Aquiel's personal journal that are troubling. She had significant problems working with Rocha, and while she seems harmless enough, who knows where those problems might have led?
I think we're supposed to find the character charming, but I didn't. She has all the earmarks of someone who's supposed to be quirky and offbeat and passionate, which in real life would mostly just translate to insufferable and unstable. But hey, maybe that's the intention. We're definitely supposed to suspect she's capable of murder, or at least some kind of violence, and it is, admittedly, hard to create a character out of thin air who has chemistry with one of the ensemble and also appeals to the audience. I guess my problem here is that I found Aquiel off-putting throughout the episode, and not in an entertaining way. I wanted her to be the killer at the end, even though I was pretty sure she wouldn't be; not because that would necessarily make for a better story (although it certainly would've made for a better story than what we ended up with), but because I wanted some sort of justification for her creepiness. Instead, she gets a friendly send-off from Geordi, after the two of them have Demoliton Man-style sex.
Oh, right, I forget to mention: Aquiel isn't dead after all! She just passed out, and was rescued by the Klingons, who return her to the Enterprise as proof that they didn't murder her. Only, she doesn't remember what happened in her final moments on the relay station, which doesn't exactly clear her name, and when Riker goes digging into personnel records, he finds she has a history of causing problems and rejecting authority. Rocha's record, on the other hand, is spotless. So here we do get some justification for all the bad vibes Aquiel was sending out earlier. Her personality type is clear enough, and it's one I'm sure we've all had to deal with at some point or another: the "free-spirit" who's basically just irresponsible and flighty and prone to blaming other people whenever her work isn't done on time.
Okay, that may be the stodgiest sentence I've ever written. We don't ever see Aquiel working with anyone, so it's possible that she's been misunderstood or ill-represented. At the very least, though, the records Riker finds suggest Aquiel isn't particularly stable, and her behavior around Geordi doesn't contradict this. After being initially bothered that Geordi went through her private recordings, Aquiel quickly (and accurately) realizes that Geordi is the only person on the Enterprise willing to defend her from accusations of murder. Either that, or she's charmed by his directness and honesty--either way, she starts getting closer to him, which in turn makes Geordi even firmly on her side, reservations or no. And that, of course, means that at some point, someone has to pull Geordi aside and tell him that his emotions are clouding his judgment; in this case, it's Riker, but it really could've been anyone.
This whole plotline is an odd fit for the show--it's basically Basic Instinct or any of a dozen other movies where a lawyer or a cop got too close to his or her potentially guilty client. (The writers themselves realized this, as they changed the ending of the episode to avoid direct comparisons.) Only, Geordi isn't a prosecutor, and he certainly doesn't have any legal obligation in this case. Really, who does at this point? How does Starfleet handle murder investigations, and is it Picard's responsibility to make some kind of final call regarding her guilt or innocence? I'm sure there's some procedure built in, and I suppose the Enterprise is obligated to investigate once they realize potential Klingon involvement. But that still can't really support the sort of sexy, tense shenanigans this scenario is designed to create. Much as I dislike Aquiel, it seems out of character for everyone on the ship but Geordi to side against her. Our heroes always err on the side of trust, so their eagerness to jump to conclusions comes off more as an attempt to generate false tension between Geordi's obligations and his desires. Which isn't to say that his relationship with Aquiel is healthy or reasonable. Almost as soon as she's on board the ship, she's sneaking back to the station to delete some of her more incendiary logs. Geordi finds out, and lectures her how bad this looks, and her protestations sound hollow--the entire conversation could've come from something like Double Indemnity or Body Heat. And then the two of them hook up using this magical stone which is supposed to increase the mental and emotional connection of a couple, because that's normal, right?
All of this would make a decent amount of sense if it turned out that Aquiel really was the killer. It still wouldn't work, mind you, but at least we'd have some justification for the off-putting nature of these scenes if we knew Aquiel was hiding a guilty conscience. Instead, in the last ten minutes of the episode, Beverly discovers that the puddle of goo on the station floor didn't actually come from a human, or from any other traditional sentient life form. It's actually cast off from a kind of body-snatcher organism--presumably, it had taken Rocha's shape before Rocha arrived at the station, and then decided it wanted to jump to another host. There's some hemming and hawing as to what form the coalescent (as Beverly describes it) eventually took, but it's the dog. Not Aquiel, not one of the Klingons, but the dog Geordi found on the station at the start of the episode. So, yeah, the weakest choice there, on a plot twist which comes to late to be anything but tacked on. Geordi and Aquiel have one last conversation, in which she turns down his offer to join up with the Enterprise crew. It's all supposedly to be very pleasant, but the subtext screams, "You did what I needed you to do, but I'm moving on now."
Just a weird, weird episode all around, and normally one I wouldn't give a second thought to. It sticks in my mind now because I associate it with an important time in my life, but even viewed through the lens of nostalgia, this is weak, with all the hallmarks of bad writing: characters behaving against type (why the hell is Geordi so drawn to Aquiel, anyway?), and a story in which the most interesting concepts are ill-defined.
- It seems like whenever someone on TV says, "She has a quirky sense of humor," it translates to, "I would like to have sex with that, please."
- We do get a nice scene in which Worf stares a Klingon Governor down.
- Aquiel is Haliian, an alien race so different from humans that they have slight bumps on their foreheads.
"Face of the Enemy" (season 6, episode 14, originally aired: 2/6/1993)
Or The One Where Troi Meets The Enemy And She Is It
This is another frustrating episode--more so, even, than "Aquiel," because where "Aquile" seemed misguided from the start, "Face of the Enemy" had a fair bit of potential. And it manages to achieve quite a bit of that potential, really. Troi gets to take a much more active role in the proceedings than she usually does; we get to hear more about Spock's efforts to bring peace to Romulus, albeit without any commentary from the Vulcan himself; and the episode resolution is clever and unexpected. Really, that Troi is the main character here is the big deal, especially considering that at no point in this episode does she fall in love with or become seduced by an ambassador. Hell, she doesn't establish a romantic interest in anyone, and she's even called on to be forceful, quick-thinking, and driven.
So why don't I love this episode? Looking back at it now, a little less than two days after watching it, I feel like I should have loved it, or at least liked it more than I do. The episode tries to make Troi credible, and Sirtis certainly isn't terrible at doing what she's called on to do here. But "Face" just wasn't plausible enough for me to buy into the story, and I spent most of the ep expecting a final twist that never came. Arguably, that's more my fault than the episode's; it's not responsible for my expectations, after all. But I'm the reviewer you're stuck with, so all I can do is try and explain my reaction as best I can. If "Aquiel" benefited (marginally) from nostalgia, "Face" suffers for not being as complicated as I hoped it would be--although the fact that I was hoping for those complications may tell you something.
Troi wakes up in a dark room, and when she finally gets the lights on, she sees from her reflection in the mirror that she's been surgically altered to look like a Romulan officer. (And a terribly cute one at that.) Before she can get her bearings, another Romulan, a real Romulan, bursts into her room, telling her she's part of a vital mission, that he works with Spock and that they kidnapped Troi from a conference and altered her so she could help them get some precious cargo off a Romulan warbird into Federation space. All Troi has to do, this N'Vek (Scott MacDonald) tells her, is pretend to be one of the elite Romulan officers known as the Tal Shiar, and order Commander Toreth (Carolyn Seymour, whose played a Romulan before, as well as the head scientist back in "First Contact") the warbird's captain, to take them to the Kaleb sector, and everything else will fall into place.
Understandably, Troi doesn't quite know how to handle this situation, especially given that she knows little about the Tal Shiar, or about Romulan culture in general (at least I think she doesn't; if I remember right, Romulans are still fairly unknown quantities to the Federation?). As well, Toreth is a stern, unforgiving leader, and one not accustomed to being ordered around on her own ship. But Troi catches on quickly, and, in a nice change of pace from the character's usual behavior, takes control of the ship as best she can, barking orders and using intimidation tactics when the rest of the crew shows reluctance to follow her. And it's a good thing she works fast, too, because the cargo N'Vek is using her to transport is especially critical: a high-level member of the Romulan government who has chosen to defect to the Federation.
So far, so good, and like I said, I really feel like I should appreciate this more than I do, after all this time complaining that Troi is by far TNG's most useless character. Only--I don't buy her involvement here. It just seems like such a random, poorly thought out plan, to the point that I spent most of the ep expecting to learn near the end that N'Vek was actually playing Troi for a fool. I suppose the justification that it was easier to grab her than anybody else on the Enterprise, given that she was attending a conference, should be enough. And it makes sense that Spock would want them to find someone from Picard's ship, given that he already has a relationship there. But... Troi? And to not give her any sense of what she was doing until maybe five minutes before she actually had to pull it off is bizarre. I suppose it's to create more suspense, that Spock and the others' efforts are so tenuous that they need to resort to this kind of desperate play to have a chance of working out. But it's all very artificial, like one of those dreams when you wander into a class final without being able to remember ever having been in class before.
Still, if you can buy into that (and this could very well be something that irks me in particular, and not a more general flaw of the episode), it is exciting to see Troi bashing in heads. The episode milks a lot of tension out of her butting up against a suspicious-but-can't-prove-anything Toreth, and there's something to be said for having two women vying for power without their gender being relevant in the slightest. (Troi doesn't mention chocolate. Not once.) And as improbably as the set-up is, the seat of the pants feeling works well for "Face" as a whole, because there's a definite sense of risk here. We know intellectually the show isn't going to kill Troi off, but her mission could easily fail, and the fact that she's working without a safety net, on a mission that no one back on the Enterprise even knows about, raises the stakes considerably.
There's also the fact that Troi never really knows how far she can trust anyone, not even the ever-demanding N'Vek. Halfway through the ep, the Romulans encounter the Corvallen ship that's supposed to take N'Vek's cargo and deliver it to the Enterprise. Within a few moments of conversation, Troi realizes the Corvallens are lying, and when she whispers this to N'Vek, his response is to fire on and destroy the ship. This upsets Toreth, because no commander likes having someone else fire her ship's weapons without her authorization, but if anything, it's even more upsetting to Troi, who had no idea N'Vek would react with such immediate violence. At first, I thought this meant we were going to find out later on that N'Vek was working some other angle, but he stays true to Troi right up until the moment he gets phasered out of existence.
Which, the more I think about it, is actually cool. I mean, how often do shows acknowledge that just because everybody is working for the good guys, that doesn't mean they all have the same idea of how to get the job done? N'Vek reacts like he does because he's a Romulan, and that's what Romulans do--they don't have maybes, just "save" or "destroy." We get this helpfully explained to us in "Face"'s other plotline back on the Enterprise. The ship picks up a Federation member who had defected to the Romulans twenty years ago, before realizing he'd made some bad choices and defecting back. (Re-defecting? De-defecting?) Ensign Deseve is a stiff looking dude, with larger breasts then you usually get on a man, but he's able to articulate the appeal of Romulan culture, as well as his disenchantment with that culture, very clearly: the Romulans answer every question "yes" or "no," and that's appealing when you're a young man, stuck in a Starfleet full of people constantly trying not to step on each other's toes. But when he got older, Deseve realized that "maybe" has its place as well. It's a pleasantly complex idea--while Deseve is carrying his own message from Ambassador Spock, there's never any suggestion that he's going to go unpunished for his defection. But he came back anyway, knowing the cost.
If it sounds like I'm talking myself into liking this episode more than I thought I did, well, I'm pretty sure that's what's happening. Which must be terribly exciting, I know. But the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that my false apprehension of where the story was headed did "Face" a disservice. I haven't even gotten to the cool ending. Toreth's ship finally runs into the Enterprise (after Troi cleverly works out a way to let the Enterprise track the ship even while it's cloaked), and Troi takes the bridge to communicate to Captain Picard directly. She says some things that sound like they may be code words, but don't have to be, and convinces Picard to lower his ship's shields. Then Troi orders N'Vek to fire on the Enterprise--only the weapon he fires is at the lowest setting, and really serves as a smoke screen so N'Vek can transport the Romulan cargo directly to the Enterprise's bridge. It works beautifully, only Toreth immediately recognizes the ruse, and N'Vek is killed. Troi survives only because the Romulan ship has to drop its shields when it cloaks, allowing Worf to beam the counselor back to the Enterprise at the last second.
I'm sure there are problems I'm overlooking, just as I was almost certainly overly hard on the episode the first time I watched it. That happens from time to time. But really, I think we can all agree that it's a relief to see Troi getting to be more than a victim. While the episode never explicitly stats it (that I can remember), her empathic abilities would be helpful for this kind of espionage work, as it would allow her to fine-tune her performance based off the emotions of the people she was trying to fool, so for once, that power seems useful rather than an after-thought. I'm going to grade this conservatively, as I can't shake the feeling that it didn't entirely work, but I would like to watch this one again sometime. At the very least, it shows that Troi really isn't useless, even if the way the show uses her so often is.
- According to Memory Alpha, this is the last time Spock's efforts on Romulus were mentioned in the franchise until the 2009 Star Trek movie. This seems like a waste.
- I'm going to go out on a limb and assume we never hear about the defecting Romulans again, either.
Next week: We trip the light fantastic with "Tapestry," and Worf investigates his "Birthright, Part 1." (There are a lot of two-parters this season!)