Or The One Where Pinocchio Laughs And Worf Considers The Dietary Value Of Good Literature
Human beings spend a lot of time standing around talking about what it's like being human, you ever notice that? It must be a function of consciousness; we have all these brains, and we're aware of all these brains, and that's just so weird and stuff. And there are feelings, too! Man, don't even get me started on feelings. In the face of all that sloppy passion and unchecked desire, the intellect responds in the only way it can: by cataloging, by dissection, by engaging in a study of why we're sad or happy or whatever. There's no one to compare us to, but sometimes I get the suspiscion that that our race must look impossibly self-absorbed to any outside observer. Unless, that is, the observer is even more self-absorbed than we are.
Which brings us to Q, which brings us to the first episode of this week's double feature, "Deja Q." I don't think either of the eps I'm writing about today are classics, but "Deja" is definitely the better of the two--it's intermittently funny, deals with some major themes on the show, and comes perilously close to hitting the emotional marks it's aiming for. It doesn't entirely work. Some of the jokes fall flat, the themes we look at aren't explored in a way that's all that exciting, and the drama is undercut by a scene near the end that, while structurally inevitable, works mostly to undermine what we've seen so far. After our last Q ep, the brilliant "Q Who?", it's hard not to be a little disappointed to see the character rendered as impotent as he (mostly) is here--and I don't just mean because he's lost his powers. But get past the high expectations, and there's fun to be had. I mean, Picard is tormented by a mariachi band. That is a thing of wonders.
I appreciate a good pun as much as the next guy (unless the next guy is Gallagher, in which case I'm probably in the wrong line), but I can't help thinking that "Deja" is ill-served by its title. Because this episode doesn't start out like a Q episode; it starts out with the Enterprise in orbit around Bre'el IV, working on a way to prevent that planet's asteroid moon from breaking orbit and crashing through the atmosphere. Such a crash could potentially throw Bre'el into its very own ice age, and as much as we all love mammoths that sound like Ray Romano and freaked out squirrels, that isn't a good thing. Tempting as it would be to just blow the moon to pieces (or perhaps call Bruce Willis, the best oil-rig guy in the world, to do the job), those pieces would do as much damage as the big rock would as is. Geordi suggests using the tractor beam to try and slow the descent; problem is, the Enterprise's tractor beam wouldn't be enough. So they're stuck.
That's when Q shows up on the bridge, naked and floating. One commercial break later, we find him dressed in one of the ship's boring-ass unitards, complaining about the color and claiming to've lost all his powers. Of course no one believes him, and they also assume he has something to do with the falling moon. Q protests, gets a little snippy, and eventually, Picard throws him in the brig. So now we have what the episode is really about: is Q fooling? And if he is fooling, what's his game? And if he isn't, just how can he possibly fit in as a normal person, after spending countless years pissing everyone off?
It's funny, I don't think I ever considered even for a second that Q was faking, and you get the impression that Picard's response is more based on irritation and an unwillingness to deal with the situation than anything approaching logic. After all, this kind of play doesn't seem like Q's style--he doesn't do humility, not even of the fake variety. It could get irritating that no one else on the ship seems to realize this, but it's not, mostly because the crew's reaction doesn't play as unbelief; it plays as antipathy. If Q was some respected, much loved figured on the ship, then his problems would be relevant. But he isn't, so they aren't. Plus, his timing is terrible. The whole moon thing would be stressful even under the best circumstances, and Q just adds in an unnecessary complication.
As for how he's lost his powers... That's one of the things about this episode I'm mixed on. I know there are stories down the road that make good use of the Continuum (I remember a pretty decent on one Voyager, of all things), but here the concept seems poorly-defined. Normally, that's not a huge problem for me. When it comes to characters who are basically magic-based, I don't need a lot of specifics to make the story work; in fact, those characters work better when we don't question the "how" of what they're doing because we're too busy focusing on the "why." Still, we gotta have rules, right? "Deja" would be a great time to set down some of those rules, because if we're going to keep bringing Q back, at some point, we're going to need more of a sense of where he comes from than, "some place some where." Instead, all we're told is that Q lost his powers because his fellow Q weren't happy with the way he's been behaving.
That seems unimaginative to me. It seems like what you'd expect--because Picard and the others are so irritated by Q, of course his fellow god-like beings would be too. But it's too... easy somehow? Like, we're being told information we already know, and it reduces Q somehow by giving us an apparently moral force that can keep him in his place. But we don't know what drives this force's decisions, and when we finally meet another member of the continuum at the episode's climax, it's not exactly a satisfying experience. (That's the scene I was talking about above, by the way.) Corbin Bernsen overacts as much as de Lancie, only de Lancie knows how to modulate his haminess so that its distinctive; Bernsen's performance is just this wave of smirking, self-satisfied smarm. This should be a triumphant moment, as our Q has decided he no longer wants to live as a human, and will sacrifice himself to an alien ship (the Calamarains, who apparently have good reason to dislike Q) to save the Enterprise. This selfless act wins him back his powers. It's an old story, but de Lancie manages to invest his decisions with enough gravitas that it could've worked. Then Bernsen shows up. It's not just that he's hammy, it's that his performance is basically just a mediocre imitation of de Lancie's own--so if everybody in the continuum is so nutty, why did Q get booted out? I can almost make it fit in my head: that this is some dark joke, that while we're led to believe early on that Q is facing the consequences of his behavior, it really comes down to a bunch of crazed super-beings who follow a system of laws more for entertainment's sake than any actual morality. That, I could buy, because then Q's return to power would play as a gag, instead of as an indication that he's learned his lesson. But the scene is just too clumsy and misjudged for my interpretation to work, and it robs some power away from the episode's few moments of effective pathos.
Still, "Deja" can be effective, and that's largely based on the one brilliant choice: pairing the powerless Q off with Data. The Q/Picard relationship is one the show has gotten great mileage out of in the past, but with Q unable to torment the captain with anything beyond sarcasm and whininess, the power balance is wrong. It's hard to imagine him fitting very well with most of the other regular cast-members, either. Riker is too square-jawed, Worf would tear Q's head off ("What must I do to convince you people?" "Die." "Oh, very clever Worf. Eat any good books lately?"), Wesley is too much of a naive idiot, Troi would probably lecture him--and so on. Data is perfect because he never gets annoyed, never loses his patience, and because he takes everything Q says with such straight-forward seriousness that he forces Q to actually talk with him, as opposed to just delivering a monologue with pauses for the expected outraged responses.
There's also this line from Data: "An irony. It means that you have achieved in disgrace what I have always aspired to be." Q spends much of the episode complaining about the limitations of his human form, from back pain to hunger to the need for sleep. (I vaguely remember reading a story once about a creature who was forced to sleep after a lifetime of wakefulness. It's played for laughs here, but it would be a terrifying experience, wouldn't it? "Okay, for eight hours, you'll pretend to be dead, and you might hallucinate.") It wears thin, because it's one of those surface-level gags that falls apart when you think about it. Humans aren't the only sentient beings that eat or sleep or suffer, and surely, in all his time as a sub-space Loki, Q would've noticed these things happening even if they weren't happening to him. I can buy that he's self-absorbed, but he's never been portrayed as an idiot, and he's supposedly still in enough command of his mental faculties to help Geordi figure out a way to stop the moon. But I'm getting off-track; pairing Data with Q is the only plausible way to have Q learn some humility, because Data values everything that Q hates, in a way that's steadfast, sincere, and unforced.
What disappoints me the most about this episode is that its basic ideas are so cool (what would it be like to lose omnipotence?), but so much of the scripting is shallow or under-explored. I mostly buy Q's decision to sacrifice himself at the end, and I think it's not unreasonable that Data's sacrifice helps push him to that point (it doesn't hurt that Q's is driven as much by his unwillingness to stay mortal as anything more noble), but I do feel like we're missing a scene in here. The falling moon isn't a terrible plot device, but it also works as a distraction, preventing the main storyline from ever getting much past surface impressions. The ending is nice, though. Q, for the moment chastised, saves Bre'el IV, and gives Data the perfect gift: one great big belly laugh. Brent Spiner is, as ever, more than a little creepy when trying to convey human emotion, but it's still a great send-off, and leaves me with a better impression than the episode, perhaps, deserves.
- Another line that could've been in a much more interesting episode: "Because in all the universe, you're the closest thing I have to a friend, Jean-Luc." Stuff like that really does make me want to know more about Q, even if it does rob him of some of his impact.
- I always get suspicious when people insist on telling on me something is great, which is maybe why I always get bored when the show goes on one of its, "It is so freaking cool to be human!" tangents. Q's biological sufferings could've made for a nice deflation of that conceit, but they weren't, really; he just whined about a lot of goofy, easily solved concerns.
- I did like Guinan taking Q down, though. Do we ever find out the specific history between them on this show?
- Hey, I could change the gravitational constant of the universe. If I really wanted to.
- "Data, why are you laughing?" "It... I do not know. But it was... a wonderful feeling."
"A Matter Of Perspective"
Or The One Where He Said, She Said, And Things Go Boom
Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon is an amazing film. I've been sitting here for fifteen minutes trying to figure out a way to explain it to you in a few sentences, but I can't. It's not that complex, apart from its structure: a man is murdered in the forest, and the three witnesses to the crime, the bandit, the wronged (?) woman, and the murdered man (his ghost is called back for the trial--and pardon the brief digression, but that always struck me as the most nihilistic gesture in an incredibly cynical movie; that the dead could speak, and they'd still lie as bad as the living, is horrifying), tell a court their version of the crime. Each version varies wildly, and even after hearing all testimony, it's impossible to know exactly what happened. That's the heart of things, right there, that swirling mystery of the past, and what makes the film so unsettling is that it never gives you the "real" account. It never settles your mind by treating you, the audience, to the truth. You can watch Rashomon like a puzzle waiting to be solved, but you'll never find an answer that satisfies you, because there isn't one.
Countless television shows have homaged (or stolen) this format, but hardly any of them remember that the whole point of Rashomon is that none of the stories we hear are any more true than any of the other stories. Everyone has something to gain or hide or protect, even if they aren't consciously aware of it, and that need trumps their abilities as objective observers. The rip-offs always have to give us a cheat sheet by the end. It's always easy to watch each fake version and realize what makes it fake, because the fakeness always stems from one of the narrator's obvious flaws. Like, the guy with the huge ego will give an account where everyone worships him. It flatters the viewer that even though these imperfect characters can't really see what's going on, we can, because we're quite clever, and because ultimately, buried under all those exaggerations, there is one core Truth that only we can figure out completely. It makes Rashomon safe, in a way the film was never intended to be.
Another way to make the Rashomon story "safe" is by including a main character as one of the narrators, like Riker in "A Matter Of Perspective." The Enterprise is visiting a space station to check in on the research of Dr. Nel Apgar. Riker beams over to the station, along with Geordi, but Geordi beams back first the next day, and tells Picard that there's some kind of unpleasantness going on between Riker and the doctor. Then Riker beams back, but as he leaves the station, the place explodes, and O'Brian is just barely able to get Will's pattern on the transporter beam. No one knows what caused the explosion, and soon after, a Tanugan official, Chief Inspector Krag, arrives on the ship, wanting to arrest Riker on suspicion of murder. Given that Federation law puts the Enterprise liable to the laws of the planet below them, Picard has negotiate a deal in which, via sworn testimony and voice logs, they can use the holodeck to find out what happened on the space station, and whether or not there's sufficient evidence to send Riker below.
Already there's a problem with this: Riker is innocent. Everyone may put on their serious faces, Krag may be a complete dick about the whole thing (it's funny how guys in that kind of role are always dicks), and the episode may try and play coy about just what happened on the space station, but there isn't a chance in hell that the Enterprise's first officer murdered that scientist. That's just not the kind of show this is--all the leads have very clear, very powerful moral codes, and while there are circumstances that could theoretically drive them to bend those morals, I can't imagine any situation that would require outright breakage. "Matter" makes a few plays towards throwing suspicion on Riker in the beginning, first by having his final scene with Apgar played off screen, then by holding back his account of events till after the holodeck simulation is set up, and while it's effective enough in making us want to find out what happened, it also seems a little cheap. If you've been playing along at home, you might remember "A Wolf In The Fold," an episode from the original Trek that had Scotty accused of a murder he didn't commit. That episode also tried to play around with ambiguity, and once again, it doesn't really work; and let's be honest, it's much easier to imagine Scotty as a killer than it is to imagine Riker. (Although Frakes is so laid back all the time, you kind of wonder how he relieves his stress, especially when he doesn't have his dad around to re-enact episodes of American Gladiator.)
"Matter" doesn't go deliriously off the rails in the final act like "Wolf" did (we don't find the space station was destroyed by the reincarnated spirit of Guy Fawkes), which is both a relief and something of a shame. The explanation we get for Apgar's death is clever, science-based, and fits the established facts. It also conveniently exonerates Riker, which, while expected, makes the earlier uncertainty even more pointless. But it does make sense, and it doesn't feel like a cheat, which counts for a lot. Plus, you could argue that whatever suspense the episode is shooting for is generated not from trying to make us doubt one of the show's leading men, but in worrying about whether or not that man will be sent down to the planet, where he'll almost certainly be imprisoned or, worse, executed. Krag explains to Picard that, on Tanuga, the accused are guilty until proven innocent, which doesn't speak well to Riker's chances in a Tanugan court. (It doesn't speak well to anyone's chances, honestly. Proving a negative is nearly impossible.) Geordi is able to prove that Apgar is basically responsible for his own demise, killed in an attempt to kill Riker, which means that not only is the Beard One in the clear, the dead guy was a whiny bastard who deserved what he got. No reason for caution, everyone: we are entering a Tragedy Free Zone.
Even before we get to the decent but toothless ending, "Matter" is a mixed bag. Much like "Deja Q," we've got a lot of potentially interesting ideas (the Federation's relationship with working scientists, middle-aged aliens hitting on Riker) which aren't handled all that successfully, and sadly, there's no goofy performances or core of solid emotion to help smooth over the rough patches. Once the episode gets down to its Rashomon-ing, there's some interest to be found in matching up the various versions (we hear from Riker, Apgar's wife, Manua, and Apgar's lab assistant), and seeing how they contrast, but that only goes so far. Again, it comes down to the problem of Riker being a major cast member. While it's possible he exaggerates Apgar's wife's amorous advances, nothing we've seen of him so far on the show indicates that he's so arrogant or insecure that he'd have to imagine aggressive attraction when there is none. Besides, Manua's version of events requires Riker to be such a leering, one-note villain that'd it be difficult to take seriously even if we had every reason to believe her. (That said, the best laughs in the episode come from comparing the three versions of the Riker/Apgar fistfight: Riker's, which has Apgar throwing the first punch, Manua's, which has Apgar getting beat down for no good reason, and Apgar's own version, relayed to his assistant, which has Apgar kicking Riker's ass.)
All of this would've been better served by putting a guest actor in the Riker role here, pulling some formerly anonymous crew-member out of the Enterprise's halls and making him the suspect. If it was somebody we didn't already know, we'd have more reason to wonder just what actually happened, more reason to doubt the crew-member's story, and more reason to watch all the other versions of the tale that play out here. I'm not sure why we didn't get this. It might be a budget thing, or it might be that they wanted to do another Riker-centered episode, or maybe they chose to put the unabashedly heroic Riker on the stand because even the hint that someone on the Enterprise might be capable of murder would tarnish the show's Up With People image. Whatever the reason, it seems like a missed opportunity.
We got what we got, though, and credit where it's due: "Matter" goes to a great deal of effort in the final act to make every version of the story we'd seen relevant to the final reveal, as Picard uses threads from each as evidence in his accusations against Apgar. It's a smart piece of writing that I can respect without really enjoying all that much. The episode makes a few stabs towards the original movie's despair. At one point during Manua's account of events, Riker becomes so frustrated by what he's seeing that he interrupts the re-enactment, insisting that none of what they're being shown actually happened. Later, he insists to Troi that he's telling the truth, and she tells him she believes him, but that she senses no falseness from Manua, either. And since the real villain here is Apgar himself, none of the other characters had reason to consciously lie, which means the fact that Riker and Manua's stories don't match up is an example, however unsophisticated, of how no one remembers the same past.
Only, this is the future, where there's high tech machinery, computers, and a million different ways for bringing that past back to life. That should make this all the more poignant; even with all that technology, the truth remains elusive. Instead, all doubt is swept away in Picard's final speech (and let's be honest, if you have to have someone sweep away doubt, you could go worse than Picard), and the discrepancies between Riker and Manua's memories are rendered irrelevant. Rashomon is a deeply unsettling film that questions our basic understanding of reality, and only provides some minor comfort in the final moments by showing that however uncertain the world is, human connections still matter. "Perspective" is a decent mystery that ties everything up nicely, with only some minor uncertainty left over. Each represent their own version of the truth--but in this case, it's pretty easy to figure out which one is worth remembering.
- Forget to mention, there's a funny scene at the beginning when Data finds Picard painting, and is unable to hide his low opinion of Picard's work. It plays somewhat into the "eye of the beholder" theme of the rest of the episode (especially since there are three people painting the model, all producing different results), but it's mostly just for fun.
- Next week, it's that "Yesterday's Enterprise" all of you keep going on about, followed by "The Offspring."