Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Clues"/"First Contact"

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Clues"/"First Contact"


Or The One Where We'd Tell You What Happened, But Then We'd Have To Kill You

I love mysteries. More to the point, I love mysteries that have definitive solutions, which is the sort of thing you only ever really find in fiction. Mysteries in the real world rarely, if ever, have clear answers, because in the real world, we don't ever know the whole picture. Murder is often inscrutably mundane, the end result of a series of choices and social pressures that only the gods themselves could reconstruct with any degree of certainty. And smaller puzzles are just as tricky. I'm exaggerating a little. The Mystery Of Who Drank The Last Beer isn't, y'know, one for the ages or anything. But mysteries in fiction, even of the most experimental, realistic sort, are always neater than their reality-based counterparts. In fiction, it's a puzzle with a solution that at least one person knows. In life, it's often as not just a culmination of coincidence. 

Thankfully, the Enterprise exists in the land of make believe, so when this series calls an episode "Clues," you can be reasonably sure there's a riddle coming, and that it will have an answer, whether we like it or not. I liked it, even if I didn't remember what was going on roughly halfway into the story. If a mystery can hold your interest even on a second viewing, after you know all the tricks, then it has to be doing something right. "Clues" isn't quite as thematically deep as the show's best episodes tend to be, but it's very clever, the premise is intriguing, and it's one of those stories where I find myself obsessing over the implications at the margins. And I get a pleasant rush of nostalgia off it, too, as this was always my favorite kind of plot when I was younger. Yes, yes, characters were all well and good, but when I watched a sci-fi show, I wanted weird sci-fi junk happening, dammit. 

As weird sci-fi junk goes, this is a good start: While gadding about the cosmos on their usual "let's poke things and see what happens" mission, the Enterprise finds a new Class M planet worthy of investigating. They set a course, but before they can get close enough to the planet to probe it, they come across a wormhole that knocks everybody on board the ship unconscious. Everybody except for Data, that is. We cut to the title sequence, and when we get back to the episode proper, Picard and the others are waking up. Data assures them they were only unconscious for 30 seconds, and here they are, light years away from that crazy planet they were going to investigate. So maybe it would be for the best to just to forget the whole thing ever happened. Space is really big. Nutty stuff like this is happening all the time.

Except Data's explanation isn't quite as airtight as one might expect from an android. And there are all these, well, clues that something strange happened and that those missing 30 seconds are actually a lot longer than half a minute. Beverly's attempts to grow cotton candy in the lab (oh sure, it's supposedly some kind of moss, but I know cotton candy when I see it, and I hope we'll see Bev running off to join the space carnies soon) have yielded far more results than the short time gap would allow. On a hunch, the good doctor makes use of transporter records to prove that the crew's internal clocks are off by at least a day. And with each new discovery, Data's attempts to explain away the situation become more forced. He is, as always, unfailingly polite, but there's a certain evasive quality to his tact that's impossible to ignore. Which is unsettling, because if someone tampered with Data in those missing moments ... well, who knows what else might've happened? 

Also, Troi keeps losing her shit. Which seems to be a regular occurrence for her, but in her defense, whenever Troi starts freaking out, there's always something going on. At least she isn't pregnant again. Man, I know I rag on the character a lot, but "Clues" just makes me feel really bad for her. Her abilities give her an edge in dealing with new species. (Although it's odd that emotions are somehow a universal language, isn't it? What, exactly, is she sensing? We just assume feelings are the same all over, because that's essentially the case here on Earth. For humans, anger is anger, even if it's colère or гнев or what have you. But that doesn't make it the same all over.) But those abilities also make her incredibly vulnerable to any force that needs a handy conduit for interacting with the ship. Maybe it's no wonder she seems so raw and nervous so much of the time. It's a wonder she isn't completely insane; every day offers a thousand new ways to get brain-raped. 

What makes this episode work, for me, is the way the solution to the big mystery plays off our assumptions. We've been trained by years of watching this kind of show to automatically believe that something bad happened in that missing time period, and Data is trying to cover it up; if everything really was on the level, well, there wouldn't be much of an episode here. (I suppose you could do a story about a character obsessing over a discrepancy that proved to be entirely irrelevant, but that would be very tricky to pull off. Audiences don't tend to like it when someone reminds them that Santa Claus isn't real. By which I mean we like the magic to be magical and not just a trick.) Which makes it all the more satisfying when we turn out to be right and wrong at the same time. Yes, the Enterprise lost more than 30 seconds, and yes, Data has been restrained from telling the true story of what happened. But the ruse was created by Picard and the rest of the crew, and Data's restrictions were put in place by Picard himself. It's just a Picard that the current Picard can't remember anymore. 

The wormhole wasn't actually a wormhole. It was a protective measure put in place by the xenophobic aliens that live on the Class M planet the Enterprise was intent on investigating. Normally, the faux hole would've knocked out everybody on the ship, and sent them on their merry way; they would've woken up, assumed the obvious, and never bothered going back. Unfortunately, Data monkeywrenched this. Because he remained conscious, he was able to revive the crew, which led to them pushing forward with their investigations. So the xenophobic aliens body-jumped Troi to say, "We're sorry, but we have to kill all of you to protect our secret." Past-Picard decided that the best course of action was to wipe everybody's memory and behave as though the trap had actually worked as intended. He ordered Data not to reveal the truth, which explains Data's increasingly unconvincing attempts at obfuscation. It's just that they weren't quite as careful in covering their tracks as they might have been.

I tend to mistrust absolute scenarios in fiction, situations that present heroes with a choice that allows for no gray area, and "Clues" relies on one to work. We have to assume that the alien race is so immensely powerful that the Enterprise can't withstand their attack, and that Picard's first choice, on being presented with such a threat, is to immediately bow to its wishes. This latter makes a certain amount of sense; it's not exactly a Prime Directive question, but the captain has demonstrated on more than one occasion his willingness to respect a species' wishes, so long as those wishes don't harm his crew. But this all seems a little too neat. As I've argued before, TNG is at its best when it's a show about consequences, and in a way, this episode is all about avoiding consequences. It's a closed loop. In the end, once they solve the mystery of the missing time, the crew goes re-creating that mystery, only this time, doing it so well that their future selves will never notice the discrepancy. The alien race is basically moot to the series as a whole. There's no character development here that will last (except for Data; who knows how many contradictions are stored in his synapses by now?), and the very nature of the solution dictates that we'll never hear about this again.

Still, I quite like this episode, because it's unsettling in a way that isn't really apparent unless you think about it. There's something creepy in knowing that Picard and the rest willingly brainwiped themselves, not once, but twice. It makes you question just how many gaps they've come across in their travels and if any of those gaps are as meaningful as this one. Will Troi still be troubled by bad dreams? Or even better, maybe there's another crewmember on-board, someone we never meet, but due to their genetic make-up, the memory wipes don't work quite as efficiently as they ought to. Maybe they're being driven slowly insane by the constant, nagging suspicion that reality isn't as consistent as it ought to be. And sometimes they'll pass Data in the corridors, and they'll try and ask him a question, but they don't quite dare to speak. Just because we don't see the consequences ourselves doesn't mean we can't imagine them.

Grade: B+

Stray Observations:

  • Also, I really, really like clever. Have I mentioned that?
  • Not much to say about that cold open. I'm just grateful we didn't spend the whole episode mucking about with Dixon Hill.  

"First Contact"

Or The One Which Doesn't Have The Borg, But Does Have The Bebe

If "Clues" is an episode which does well by a shallow concept, "First Contact" is one that takes a very important concept, one that is, in its way, key to the series as a whole, in its notions of respect and exploration and idealism, and doesn't entirely make it work. Although even that's not quite right. "Contact" holds together just fine overall, but I ended up respecting it more than I enjoyed it. More than anything, it feels like a homework episode, akin to the bloodless, Oscar-bait movies that plague cinemas in the late fall. It's not a failure, by any stretch, and I can understand why an episode like this belongs in the series, but too much of it plays out like an algebra problem. Here are our variables; here is our equation. Plug them together, and take careful note of what follows.

This sounds overly harsh, which means I get to spend the next paragraph trying to backpedal. I really do admire the idea here. We're seeing what must be a fairly typical "first contact" moment between the Enterprise and a race that's just on the verge of space travel; The Malcorians have finally developed sufficient technology to explore the stars, and it's Picard and company's job to try and make the transition an easy one. The entire episode is presented through the Malcorians' perspective. The cold open shows us that Riker is already on the planet, in disguise, but he's been injured, and the doctors are trying to make sense of his bizarre features. (I'm not really buying a humanoid race that develops hands with thumbs, but no fingers. Unless they were underwater, this wouldn't be  very useful.) Throughout the episode, we check in on Riker and the effect his presence has on the hospital staff, but apart from his one attempt to escape, we're not seeing what's happening from his point of view, even if he is the only character we recognize. 

The rest of the story follows an idealogical struggle for the direction of Malcorian society, between Mirasta, who pushes for exploration and advancement; Klora, a conservative who argues passionately for the importance of maintaining traditional values; and Chancellor Durken, who has the unenviable task of finding some kind of middle ground between the two. Their situation is approaching a crisis point, as the country's space program is nearing its crucial breakthrough, so tensions are high. The sudden appearance of Picard and Troi in Mirasta's office doesn't really make things easier, despite their insistent reassurance and offers of guidance. We've seen the transporter effect hundreds of times on the show by now, and there's no big surprise at it here, but the fact that we've seen Mirasta more than we've seen either Picard or Troi by this point in the ep at least makes us realize how impressive teleportation is. 

Same goes for Mirasta's trip aboard the Enterprise. This is a little reminiscent of "Who Watches The Watchers," in that we once again have a stranger experiencing the technology of the Federation for the first time, but it's easier for us to identify with Mirasta, as the Malcorians are closer to our stage of development. And of course, she's amazed by everything, just as Chancellor Durken is when it's his turn to pay a visit. Sequences like this only really work because we, as an audience, have come to trust the crew of the ship; it's easier to take the wonder and awe of, well, a bunch of stuff we're all familiar with, when we know that Picard and the others really are as good as their word. This is the ideal, and over the course of three-plus seasons, we've seen that the ideal is pretty solid. There's something vaguely Mary Sue-ish about all this but in a fun way. It's hard not to wish we get a visit from an Enterprise of our own.

Which isn't to say that Picard doesn't make his share of mistakes. On Mirasta's advice, Picard doesn't tell Durken about Riker's presence on the planet and about the reconnaissance mission that had been studying the Malcorians in preparation for this moment. Which means that when Klora finds out about Riker and tells Durken, things get a little awkward. It's a sound piece of drama, as it allows everyone involved a respectable level of intelligence. Mirasta is a bit arrogant in deciding she knows what's best for her people, but given the reactionary response at the hospital to Riker's alienness, it's hard not to sympathize with her attempts to control the information flow. Picard is simply trusting that she knows her business better than he does, and Durken is understandably frustrated by the subterfuge. There's even an attempt to find sympathy for Klora; his behavior, infuriating as it is (and I really can't stand his kind of argument), is driven both by his fear of what may happen next, and his commitment to doing right by his people. He does some foolish things, but it's still possible to sympathize with him, provided you aren't in the same room.

So, if there's so much to like in "Contact," what are my objections? I can think of a couple, apart from the general bloodlessness I mentioned above. (I like my drama messy, which doesn't really fit with TNG's utopian ideals.) The silly one first: Bebe Neuwirth as the Malcorian with a jones for some alien loving. Now, Bebe Neuwirth is awesome, don't get me wrong, and if any Malcorian were going to successfully sex up Riker, I can believe it would be her. But the scene is woefully misjudged, a broad comedy beat that belongs more in a parody of a Trek episode than in an actual Trek episode. Like everyone else in the hospital, she's not so much a character as a potential response to a situation. It's just easier to stomach the reflexive violence and paranoia than it is the played-entirely-for-laughs lust. It's not the worst thing ever, but it isn't funny. Thematically, I suppose it serves to show that not everyone on the planet is terrified of aliens, but in practice, it comes off as goofy padding.

My other objection is more serious. The ending is a little too neat. When Krola learns that they have one of the terrifying aliens captive at the hospital, he goes to question Riker, and when Riker doesn't answer his questions, Krola attempts to kill himself, using Riker's phaser and framing Riker for the crime. After learning of this, Durken decides his people aren't ready for the future that the Enterprise represents and that they need more time before they open themselves to the universe. So he asks Picard to leave, and Picard agrees. 

I appreciate that this isn't the expected resolution and that it's fairly well-justified. Apart from a small handful, most of the Maclorians we meet are irrationally terrified of outsiders, so it follows that Durken would want to protect them. I don't object on a character level, but philosophically, it feels wrong. Social change never happens at the pace we'd like it to happen. It's either slow and fumbling or immediate and explosive, and the idea that Durken can single-handedly repress the scientific development of his race and that he's right to do so seems both naive and misguided. If the Prime Directive is all about prohibiting outsider influence (and I'm not sure how it'd be possible to establish working relations with a planet when you can show them all your shiny toys but refuse to share), there should also be the understanding that one person alone can't decide the course of a species, no matter how noble his intentions. I didn't need "Contact" to necessarily change Durken's decision, or even show it in a negative light, but more ambiguity would've helped. 

Which I guess comes back to the bloodless problem I was discussing above. I've come to appreciate TNG's more family-friendly approach to conflict resolution, and this may just be a situation where my personal tastes come into irresolvable conflict with the show's overall goals. But this all felt a little too easy, even with Riker's health problems, as though it were less an episode, and more an hour-long "How To" video for prospective starship captains interested in contacting new civilizations. I wanted Durken to be a little less perfect or Klora to be a little more effective. Of the bunch, only Mirasta seemed really distinctive, perhaps because she was easier for the writers to understand. And it's nice that she got to leave with the Enterprise, because at least then their mission wasn't a total wash. Otherwise, it's a little too close to the end of "Clues," just another closed loop, but for a situation that, in a slightly less perfect galaxy like our own, couldn't possibly have been contained. 

Grade: B+

Stray Observations:

  • Very curious to hear what you all think of "Contact."
  • Didn't realize the war with the Klingons was started by a disastrous first contact. Is this the first official confirmation we've had?
  • Riker's "I'll call you the next time I pass through your star system." is essentially all my problems with that scene in a single line. 

Next week: Geordi meets his holo-hottie in the flesh in "Galaxy's Child," and our heroes suffer from some "Night Terrors."

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