Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Descent, Part 1”/Sixth season wrap-up
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Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Descent, Part 1”/Sixth season wrap-up

B+

Star Trek: The Next Generation

“Descent, Part 1”/Sixth season wrap-up

Season 6, Episode 26

“Descent, Part 1”

Or The One Where Data Seconds That Emotion

The poker game that opens this episode may be one of the most memorable scenes in TNG’s history. People who are even vaguely familiar with the series are aware that Picard was Borg-ified at one point, but understanding what that means requires a fair amount of knowledge of the show’s world. Knowing Data played poker with Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton (John Neville, for some reason) and Stephen Hawking, on the other hand, is easy to grasp straight off. Oh sure, it helps if you know that Data is using the holodeck to recreate these famous scientific geniuses from the (his) past, but the names themselves carry enough weight on their own to be memorable. Plus, Hawking plays himself, which must’ve earned a few news stories. It’s a neat concept, and I don’t have any trouble believing Data would try it, but in practice it’s a mixed blessing. Hawking is fine (really, he doesn’t have to do anything but show up), Newton’s pissiness is amusing, and there are some fun nerdy Easter eggs. But Einstein’s make-up is distractingly hideous, and there’s no real point to the scene beyond a cutesy “Hey, look what we can do.” The conversation isn’t relevant to the plot or the themes of the rest of the episode, apart from the fact that Data’s present. We’ve had unconnected cold opens before, but in the past, they featured multiple characters from the regular ensemble, which made for some nice character moments. Here, Data doesn’t say a whole lot. Plus, this is the first part in a two part episode, and like I’ve said before, two part episodes have to be even more careful about how they use time. 

The rest of “Descent” toes the same good/bad line, generally staying more to the good (or at least interesting) side, but ending with a cliffhanger that doesn’t give me huge hopes for part two. The Borg are back, although they aren’t really the Borg anymore. Data feels an emotion, which should be a huge moment for the show, but isn’t. (It doesn’t help that “Data with emotions” is just “Lore.”) But at it’s best, the show does suggest a sense of the epic, and the impression that the Federation as a whole is in danger, not just the Enterprise. It ain’t art, but it at least feels like a story that needed two episodes to cover. Data’s struggles are actually very relevant to the plot, and past that cold open, there’s not a lot of aimless wandering around. There is also a very silly scene in which a member of the Borg essentially seduces Data to the dark side. So, there are some problems. 

The Enterprise gets a distress call Ohniaka Three. They arrive to find a strange ship orbiting the planet, and no life signs from the outpost below. Riker, Worf, Data, and Dead Meat Ensign #1 beam down, and after getting a good long look at all the dead bodies in the place, open a door to find a live Borg standing behind it. And he’s not the only one. A fight ensues, in which two important events occur: One of the Borg expresses anger at seeing another Borg shot, and then refers to the dead Borg by name (sort of a “His name was Robert Paulson” type moment); and Data, upon being attacked by another Borg, gets angry, first wrenching the Borg’s hand from his throat and then beating the creature to death. (Also, Dead Meat Ensign #1 gets herself shot and killed. Get used to that sort of thing. It happens a lot this episode.) While the away team is struggling to stay alive, the mysterious ship orbiting the planet opens fire on the Enterprise

Our heroes win the day—the Borg and their ship escape after a few minutes fighting—but they’re left with a few unsettling questions. The Borg have always been about assimilation, not outright murder, but these Borg offed everybody on Ohniaka Three for no apparent reason. And they have names? Names (and pronouns) mean personal identities, and the only Borg with a personal identity that the Enterprise crew know of is Hugh, the lovable ship mascot from “I, Borg.” Hugh developed a distinct sense of self from his time with Beverly Crusher and Geordi, and, when it came time to release him back into the wild, instead of programming him with a virus which could theoretically destroy all the Borg in one fell swoop, Picard let him go without alteration. Except he’d already been changed, and that change was downloaded into the Borg hive mind, and who’s to say what happened next? Somethinggoing on, anyway, and Picard alerts the Federation, and puts the Enterprise on continuous alert.

While this is going on, Data has removed himself from active duty because of his outburst. This makes sense; it deprives the Enterprise of one of its most valuable officers in the midst of a serious crisis, but that crisis means that everyone needs to be working at their best. If Data is suffering under occasional bursts of psychosis (and since he has no idea why he’s suddenly experiencing anger, and apparently doesn’t have control over himself when the feeling hits, “psychosis” would seem to apply here), there’s no guarantee he won’t behave irrationally at a moment when irrational behavior would endanger the lives of himself and others. Picard takes a lecture from Starfleet command about his handling of the Hugh Incident, and Data does everything he can to recreate his experience on Ohniaka, discussing his experience with Troi and using the Holodeck to simulate the Borg attack. These two plot threads come to a head when the Enterprise catches up with the Borg ship they’ve been chasing (which, by the way, doesn’t look anything like a Borg ship, at least not one we’ve ever seen before). A small group of Borg beam onto the Enterprise’s bridge, in a scene reminiscent of Picard’s kidnapping in “Best Of Both Worlds, Part 1,” but instead of grabbing Jean-Luc and beaming away, the Borg here are quickly defeated. One survivor is left. Beverly fixes him as best she can, and then it’s time for some interrogating--although the answers Picard and Data get aren’t exactly what they’d hoped for.

The pressure on both to get those answers is intense. Picard is dealing with the aftermath of “I, Borg”; his momentous decision to release Hugh without using Hugh as a weapon against the Borg is coming back to haunt him. First, there’s Admiral Alynna Nechayev, who beams onto the ship to give Picard his marching orders along with a very pissed-off lecture about how much he’s upset everyone by not committing genocide. It’s a complicated issue, no question, and I appreciate the show’s willingness to question its hero’s behavior. “I,Borg” was a tricky episode, and while it made sense that Picard would do what he did, it wouldn’t be realistic if his decision hadn’t caused some problems back home. What doesn’t work, though, is the way Nechayev delivers the rebuke. She’s yet another in a seemingly endless parade of jerkwad officials, and the sadistic pleasure she apparently gets from lecturing Picard--it has an “Oh, you think you’re so smart” vibe--changes the scene from a discussion of ethics to a one-sided rant. It’s important that Picard feels threatened and guilty, as that motivates his behavior through the rest of the episode (and, hopefully, part two), but there are better ways to achieve this than what we see here. 

Data’s storyline may be the most interesting of the episode, right up until it goes off the rails. (And even then, it’s interesting, just not good interesting.) When Data snaps at the Borg attacking him, it’s unsettling for (mostly) the right reasons. Sure, Brent Spiner’s displays of emotion remain, as ever, over-the-top and way too smirky, but this is Data we’re talking about. Data isn’t supposed to get pissed off. It’s one thing if he laughs (which he did back in “Deja Q,” an incident this episode apparently forgets), but getting angry? And not just angry, seriously, thoroughly enraged; he doesn’t just fling the Borg off him, he smashes the creature’s head into a wall multiple times. Later, when discussing the incident with Troi, he says he felt another emotion as well, after seeing the Borg dead on the floor, an emotion he can only describe as… pleasure. Really, really not good. It’s an interesting direction for the character, and one that could’ve been a great culmination of Data’s development over the course of the series. As he says to Troi, if he ever realizes his dream of becoming human, if these emotions he’s suddenly experiencing are signs that he’s at a crossroads, where’s the guarantee he’ll be a good man? Troi waves this away, but people feel ugly feelings all the time. Given how much Data has struggled to grasp simple idioms, I’m not sure I want to see how he handles enraged jealousy or frustrated desire.  

On the page, “Descent” is putting two of TNG’s most reliably stalwart characters, the two of the ensemble who have always been the most trustworthy and dependable in a crisis, and putting them through the wringer. Picard is faced with the possibility that one of his choices—a choice he made himself, with no Borg modifications to blame it on—may have resulted in making the Borg an even more dangerous threat than before. Data is confronted with the fact that the thing he’s wanted most for his entire life may not be such a good thing after all. That should lead to some intense drama, but it doesn’t. Patrick Stewart makes the most of it (he looks haunted for most of the episode), and Data’s quest for answers is compelling enough, but whatever depth the story has gets tossed out the window once the Enterprise gets ahold of the Borg prisoner. Identifying himself as “Crosis,” the Borg tells Picard that he has a new mission: to kill all inferior life, at the order of “The One.” Picard plays the Locutus card, and gets no response, as much confirmation as anything else that this not the usual Borg. Then, when Data goes to study Crosis, Crosis fiddles with something on his arm, and Data starts getting angry again.

This is a very silly scene, partly because we get a lot of Brent Spiner trying to do “growing rage,” and partly because it’s just so blatant and forced. Crosis actually asks Data if he would kill his closest friend to be able to “feel,” and Data says, “Yes.” Which is terribly silly. I suppose there is a way this could’ve been played that would’ve made it believable; after all, Data has been struggling for emotions for a long time, and TNG has never completely shied away from the essential other-ness of the character. His decision making process is close enough to our own to make it easy to assume Data is, for all his protestations, basically human--but he isn’t. The scene between Crosis and Data could’ve been a great chance to exploit this, but it instead plays too overtly, almost comically villainous. Which makes it harder to be shocked when Data winds up freeing Crosis and helping him escape aboard a shuttle. Clearly, events are being manipulated to reach a predetermined outcome.

The misjudgment of the scene also telegraphs that outcome; if not specifically, then at least conceptually. The question, “Is Data being tempted?” becomes irrelevant; between the Borg fiddling with his equipment (heh), and the speed of Data’s fall, it isn’t hard to realize that Data’s “emotions” are part of the same game that’s got the Borg acting so strangely, a game presumably controlled by the mysterious “One” that Crosis keeps going on about. There’s a lot of hunting around, and some technically interesting details when Picard basically dumps most of the crew of the Enterprise on a strange planet to help search for Data and the rest of the Borg (Beverly is made captain!), but really, it’s all just waiting for that final, inevitable reveal. Picard, Troi, Geordi, and a bunch of Dead Meats find a building; they enter; the Borg surround them on all sides; and Lore, Data’s corrupt “brother” reveals himself as the mastermind. Data’s now working with him—another development so over-the-top that it has nothing to do with character—and Lore wants to destroy the Federation. I’m hoping next week will be some, crazy adventures, but I’ve given up hope on the story showing any of the depth or insight which TNG usually aims for. Which doesn’t mean I’ve given up hope that I’ll be wrong.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • This episode may have one of the most inadvertently hilarious background-character-mortality rates I’ve ever seen on the show. Whenever you see an unfamiliar face (or faces) in a group of regular cast members, and that group wanders into danger, the unfamiliar faces die almost immediately. I mean, I get that’s gonna happen from time to time, but you really shouldn’t pull the same trick multiple times in a single episode. 
  • Captain Beverly Crusher. Niiice.
  • If it turns out that Lore isn’t controlling the rogue Borg via his emotion chip, and somehow projecting his emotions onto Data to control him as well (maybe using some kind of emotional assimilation?), boy will my face be red.

That does it for TNG’s sixth season—and it’s been a good season by and large, certainly better than I was expecting. Looking over the episode list, season six gave us at least two outright classics (“Chain Of Command, Part 2” and “Tapestry”), several excellent episodes, some ambitious storylines that didn’t quite come to fruition and a few misfires. And even the misfires (“Aquiel,” “Time’s Arrow, Part 2,” among others) had a smart idea or decent performance to keep them from being complete wastes of time. Once a show finally clicks together, once the members of the ensemble settle into their respective roles and the writers get a handle on the environment and what sort of plotlines and themes that environment can support, even “bad” episodes feel like a piece of a larger puzzle. TNG’s first season was a wreck for a lot of reasons, but what made it such an unpalatable, distracting experience is the way it never really settled into anything approaching consistency of purpose. The series was already beginning to gel by its second season, and at this point, everybody knows what they’re supposed to be doing, and roughly how they should be doing it. We may be in for some bumpy road for the show’s seventh and final season, but I feel comfortable assuming that, no matter how bad it gets, that connective tissue, that sense of place will remain. 

Best character: Captain Jean-Luc Picard

Now, this almost feels like cheating—I’m not sure I could think of a season of the show when Picard wasn’t a stand-out—but given that he’s the focus of the season’s two best episodes, and given how much both those episodes depend on Patrick Stewart’s performance and the richness he and the writers have brought to Picard over the years, I wouldn’t feel right picking out anyone else. I theorized briefly in my “Tapestry” review that it’s possible to view TNG as a show more about Picard than it is about anyone else, or even the ensemble as a whole. Unlike TOS, which was defined by Kirk’s relationship with Spock (his Ego) and McCoy (his Id), on this Enterprise, the captain stands alone (as “Lessons” so politely reminded us), and it’s his narrative which has been largely responsible for the series’ greatest triumphs. In season six, Picard endured (and was broken by) torture, fell in love and had to let it go, accepted that his life was the sum of his failures and successes, and he didn’t have to deal with Lwaxana Troi. Not a bad run.

Runner-up: Commander William T. Riker. Season six spent a lot of time messing with Riker’s mind—“Schisms,” “Frame Of Mind,” and “Second Chances”—to great effect.

Most-improved character: Counselor Deanna Troi

Seriously. I’m as surprised as you! But while Troi started off the season in a low place (with “Man Of The People,” in which she once again was seduced by an ambassador who wasn’t exactly what he appeared to be), she gained ground fast. By “A Fistful Of Datas,” she’d proven herself capable of keeping up with Worf; “Chain Of Command” finally gave her an excuse to wear a regular uniform, instead of the bare shoulder fan service outfit she’d been stuck with for so many years; “Face Of The Enemy” had her holding her own against a ship full of Romulans. This is less a case of a character developing and growing over time, and more a case of writers finally figuring out how to present Troi in the way she always should have been presented. Her empathic abilities, never clearly defined and almost always more distracting than useful to storylines, have been largely sidelined; she’s still doing counseling work and sensing things, but the focus is more on her intelligence and training than any innate, overly nebulous gifts. Troi still isn’t the show’s strongest character, or its second strongest, but after this season, she’s no longer an embarrassment. It’s just too bad it took the show this long to realize what the character, and Marina Sirtis, were capable of.

Runner-up: Guinan, but only because she’s leaving.

Best guest star: Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) 

TNG has done a good job of managing the occasional TOS guest star; Sarek’s two appearances arguably gave the actor more to work with than in all his other appearances on TOS and the movies combined, and while the Spock’s episode wasn’t nearly as strong as “Sarek,” the character’s legacy escaped unscathed. Seeing Scotty in “Relics,” one of the early episodes of the sixth season, was a minor revelation—James Doohan’s few Scotty-centric episodes in TOS weren’t very strong, and his spots in the movies reduced him to a benign set-up for Kirk’s jokes. He’s not as tormented as Sarek or ambitious as Spock, but the Scotty of “Relics” is smart, capable and fun to hang out with, and the episode itself manages to find a way to both bring the character into the show’s time period without cheating, and give him a send off he deserves. It’s a little corny, but it’s also a little great, and that’s what the original Trek was really all about.

Runner-up: Gul Madred (David Warner). Depending on my mood, I could easily give him the top slot instead of Scotty. Warner is incredible as one of the most unsettling and dangerous villains TNG ever produced.

Worst Historical Guest Star: Samuel Clemens (Jerry Hardin)

From “Time’s Arrow, Part 2,” a low point of the season. Every time I look at that screenshot of him and Troi, I wince.

Runner-up: Albert Einstein (see above—and I’m not going to single out the actor, because, again, it’s the make-up job)

Best episode that would work in a double feature with Inception: “Ship In A Bottle”

Best episode that’s a bit like a Bruce Willis movie: “Starship Mine” 

Runner-up: “A Fistful Of Datas.” (I’ve never seen Last Man Standing, but I’m assuming the two are very close.)

Best episode in which Picard gets laid: “Tapestry” 

Runner-up: “Lessons”

Most effective attempt to engender empathy for an inanimate object: The exocomp, “Quality Of Life”

Runner-up: The quick-rotting fruit of “Timescape”

Worst episode: “Time’s Arrow, Part 2”

The disappointing conclusion to a story that wasn’t all that well introduced at the end of season five, “Time’s Arrow, Part 2” is sloppy and dull, mismanaging a chance to finally give Guinan a purpose on the show beyond “mystical bartender in a weird hat.” It’s got the awful Samuel Clemens, it’s got bad science-fiction ideas, and it’s got an alien threat that never really makes sense beyond the fact that it kind of looks cool. What’s not to hate?

Runner-up: “Aquiel” 

Best episode: “Chain Of Command, Part 2”

There were a number of two part storylines in this season, and most of them weren’t so great; apart from “Best Of Both Worlds,” TNG has never really mastered the discipline and scope required to make long-form episodes work. “Chain Of Command” is not exactly an exception to this rule. “Part 1” is all right, but scattered, and it’s obvious throughout that it’s main purpose is to get us to the second half. This would be more a problem if “Part 2” wasn’t phenomenal. In one of the starkest, most horrifying hours the show ever produced, Picard is tortured by a Cardassian who asks for information, but really wants obedience. A powerful meditation on the power of mental and physical violence, “Chain Of Command, Part 1” has the rare honesty to admit that, in the face of some evils, heroism and will-power aren’t sufficient protection. Nothing is. TNG has never been this direct before or since, and that’s probably for the best—given what we’ve seen of the rest of the run, I’m not sure the show could manage to be this raw on a week to week basis. But that doesn’t make “Part 1” any less important, or less stunning.

Runners-up: “Tapestry,” “Frame Of Mind,” “Ship In A Bottle”

Grade for the season: B+

Next week: Before we jump into the seventh and final (sniff) season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, we take a look at the TNG crew’s second, and best, cinematic outing, Star Trek: First Contact