Or The One Where The Cardassians Mistake Picard For A Fool
To sum up: A new bad-ass female character! Also, Guinan. Ugh.
Well, there's a bit more going on beyond that. "Ensign Ro" introduces us to the Bajoran race, the Space Jews (basically), who've been persecuted by the evil Cardassians (who are pretty darn evil this time around); these guys and this conflict are going to end up being a lot more important in Deep Space Nine. In fact, it's one of the fundamental conflicts of that show, to the point where I had to actually make sure "Ro" was the first time we'd heard of the Bajorans. The Cardassians first popped up in last season's "The Wounded," and the two alien species are so inextricably bound together in the franchise's mythology, I half assumed we'd heard about Bajor back then too. But we hadn't. So here they are, all bad feelings and refugee camps and nose bridge wrinkles. And, in the case of one Ro Laren, hot, hot hotness.
Okay, okay, that's a bit dick (word play!). It's not fair to turn one of the show's first really interesting and exciting recurring female characters into Hottie of the Week. And yes, you read right; five seasons in, and we're only now getting a woman who isn't either painfully underwritten (hi, Bev!) or just painful (hi, Troi!). There have been passable one-offs before (I think, right? There have to have been), and both Beverly Crusher and Deanna Troi have had their moments. Hell, Lwaxana Troi wasn't all terrible the last time she was here, although don't tell her I said that. But there's something new about Ro, something that makes her interesting from her first moments on the Enterprise on. Yes, partly that's because Michelle Forbes is a nice looking woman, but Forbes is also a terrific actress, able to give weight to even utter absurdity like her role as "Pagan Goddess of Sexing It Up" in the second season of True Blood. There's steel in her, which isn't really something you can say about the show's usual female cast; hell, the only male I can see standing toe to toe with her is Picard, and maybe Riker on a good day.
The last time we saw Forbes on the show, she was in the unenviable task of trying to convince her father to commit suicide in "Half a Life." Her character here is just as driven, but her internal conflicts are far more sympathetic. For one, she's actually conflicted about them, instead of playing a one note concept created solely to help prop up the episode's central argument. Ro is tricky. She arrives on the Enterprise with the chip on her shoulder pre-installed, and Riker's immediate order to remove her Bajoran ear-pieces doesn't improve the room temperature. (Riker is uber-dickish here, probably because of Ro's reputation. I doubt he'd dress down any other new ensign for having a bit of jewelry.) Ro comes with a past, which only comes clear gradually over the course of the episode, but her frustration is clear from the outset. This is someone who's been repeatedly instructed on the possible depths of betrayal, and she's learned her lesson very well.
Another point to recommend this episode is that it keeps the complicated politics the show has been slowly bringing to the forefront in the past few seasons, and it does so without belaboring the point or getting too tied up in the details. The situation is set down clearly and concisely. Once upon a time, the people of Bajor were super-advanced. Like, even better than humans, which, I know, is totally hard to believe, but I'm serious. Then they had the misfortune of meeting the Cardassians, who, having just had their reality show cancelled, weren't in a very pleasant mood. The Cardassian subjugated the race, eventually kicking them off their home planet, and now, the Bajorans live in isolated pockets through the galaxy, struggling to make ends meet. Some of them aren't particularly happy about this, and they've formed resistance groups. One of those resistance groups, led by a Two-Face wannabe named Orta, apparently just blew up a Federation outpost. As the Federation has done it's damnedest to stay out of the fight (Prime Directive again), this is a very big deal.
Which is how the Enterprise gets involved, as Admiral Kennelly charges Picard with tracking Orta and his Bajoran down to make some kind of deal. Kennelly assigns Ro to the ship as well, ostensibly to aid in the negotiations, but really because he's given Ro a secret mission to offer Orta equipment the Federation has no intention of delivering. Kennelly has actually made a secret deal with the Cardassians to draw Orta out of hiding, so that the Cardassians can take care of their problem and, in doing so, seemingly resolve a sticky situation for the Federation as well. It's up to Picard to untangle the situation, and things get really tricky when he meets Orta face to face and Orta denies ever attacking any Federation outposts. Which makes you wonder who would do such a thing; who might benefit from tricking an ally into believing they have a common enemy...
Not that hard to unpack, really, but the implications here are potentially devastating. For one, by the end of the episode, it's clear that the Cardassians were responsible for the destroyed outpost, which at the very least throws their relationship with the Federation into question. This isn't the sort of situation where everyone can just shake hands and agree mistakes were made; there's a question of proof, but if the folks at Starfleet are able to provide any, the whole balance of power might shift. (I realize I could look this up on Wikipedia, as Deep Space Nine does a lot with the set-up, but I'd rather go on with vague memories and fingers crossed.) There's also a definite questioning of the value of the Prime Directive, as the Bajorans suffering is unequivocal, and their persecution at the hands of the Cardassians is impossible to justify. Besides, it's not like the Bajorans were significantly less advanced than the Federation. This isn't "let's not mess with a still developing culture." This is "Well, Vietnam sucked, so maybe we should not do that." Well, roughly. The problem is, there are clear good guys and bad guys here, which makes non-interference increasingly difficult to justify. You can see even Picard struggling with his convictions. Sure, he stands by them, but he's clearly satisfied at pulling a fast one on the Cardassians in the end.
So, we've got a straightforward conflict with engaging undercurrents. And we've got Ro, who, as I said, is terrific. Antagonistic characters on this show are too often strident irritants or morally corrupt bureaucrats, so it's great to have someone who, at least at first, doesn't much care for the Enterprise and doesn't immediately worship Picard or Riker or anyone else. Ro's surliness, while it lasts, is one of the rare times that TNG has managed to have a frustrated character who doesn't immediately seem overly hateful or falsely confrontational. Generally, the Enterprise crew is such a swell bunch that whenever someone shows up and doesn't immediately drink the Flavor Aid, that person almost always comes off as exaggeratedly unreasonable. Ro doesn't. There's something almost refreshing in her unwillingness to be chums.
Of course she has to warm to Picard eventually, and the reason why is the episode's big stumbling point: Guinan. The character has been used well before, but lately, every time she shows up on screen, she drags the episode to a screeching halt, churning out cringe-worthy, pat dialogus that belongs in the climax of some terrible children's film. Here, she forces her friendship on Ro, which somehow leads to Ro trusting her, which then leads to Guinan bringing her to confess her problems to Picard. Once Guinan leaves the room, it's a fine scene. In fact, everything in this episode that doesn't feature Guinan works very well. And yet, there she is, dragging us down half a letter grade. There are half a dozen other, better ways to handle Ro's transition from skeptic to reluctant believer, and the hand-holding we get here is probably the worst. (Well, I guess she could've fallen in love with Riker and/or Barclay. That would've been worse.) Thankfully, the rest of the episode is strong enough that this is just a blip in an otherwise excellent hour.
- I think the Enterprise's commitment to quality occasionally goes a little too far. I mean, do they really need "The Best Barber in Starfleet"! (That said, I'm always amused by Picard's complete inability to deal with the overly gregarious. It's not hard to relate.)
- Ro uses the word "assimilate" in reference to her unwillingness to let go of Bajoran customs. That has to be a loaded word for Starfleet, and Picard especially.
- Ro's shame: She was on an away team, and she didn't follow orders, and eight people died. Unless I missed something, we don't get more than that.
Or The One Where Data Talks Like A Teenager
So we're in the fifth season, right? The longer a show like this goes on, the more likely the writers are to bring back characters or threats from earlier episodes. We've had a handful of recurring faces. Every year seems to bring us another Q episode or some more face time with Lwaxana. But "Silicon Avatar" is a call-back I wasn't expecting at all, pulling a creature from way back in the first season episode, "Datalore." And it's not the one who had any lines. I spent a good chunk of "Silicon" wondering if Lore would show up, but the show here belongs to his old pal, the Crystalline Entity, and a deeply, deeply disturbed woman named Dr. Kila Marr. Like "Ensign Ro," this isn't a perfect episode; I'd rank it lower than "Ensign," as the guest actress here (Ellen Geer) isn't quite up to the task. But "Avatar" is still strong, and refreshingly bleak in its conclusions.
Speaking of bleak, as cold opens go, this one is uncharacteristically dark. Riker is helping some colonists settle into their new home; said help involves letting Data and Beverly do science-y things over yonder, while chatting up the cute colony leader. Their conversation leads to what has to be the most blatant double entendre on the show in a while ("I provide the most memorable desserts,"), and it's pretty clear Riker is going to get lucky, at least until the Entity shows up and kills the poor woman. (I suppose I could make a joke here about how she escaped a fate worse than death, but I'm sure Riker is perfectly adequate in his romantic duties. The beard does most of the work, probably.) Riker, Data, Beverly, and most of the rest of the colonists hide in a nearby cave while the Entity lays waste to the countryside. Once the danger passes, the Enterprise arrives and pulls the group out of their hole. The damage is catastrophic, and an official decision is made: The Entity must be dealt with, once and for all.
To aid this, Dr. Kila Marr comes aboard the ship. Marr is an expert on the Entity; her 16-year-old son was killed by the creature, during the same attack that killed the colonists on Data's home world. Unsurprisingly, she doesn't particularly like Data at first contact, lumping him in with Lore as a potential threat because of Lore's relationship with the Entity. Data deals with this as he always deals with emotional assault: patiently, but with a slight look of confusion on his face, like a man who isn't quite sure what language he's hearing. So we get an act's worth of one of my least favorite recurring TNG motifs, the "let's be mean to Data" plot. It's fairly ridiculous here, as it always is; while Marr's bad feelings aren't impossible to understand, her refusal to hide them in any way is at best unprofessional and at worst downright foolish. None of it bothers Data, of course, but it makes her come off as a narrow-minded fool.
Admittedly, she kind of is a fool, and it's not like super-smart people of any era are always going to be the most emotionally unstable. It's just not much fun to watch, because it's all one note, and whether or not Data is offended, it's unpleasant to see a character we care about so openly despised. Thankfully, Marr comes around to the android, and it doesn't take her all that long to do so. Points to the episode, then, for recognizing that it's very difficult to hold a grudge against someone who refuses to gloat or wince at your insults. (In fact, it seems like Marr loses her interest in baiting him after realizing just this.) Instead of taking the full hour to show Marr gradually softening her hostilities, we change tacks before the midpoint, when the doctor learns that Data has memories and records from all the colonists on Omnicron Theta. That means he has her dead son's journals floating around inside his skull. And then things get awkward.
Really, Geer is the weak link here. Given the consequences of her increased obsession with Data's stored memories and the way she uses those memories to try and recreate her connection to her son, it's hard to argue that anyone involved on the episode thought that Data speaking in the dead kid's voice was a good thing. And yet Marr's reaction goes beyond grief-stricken madness into something disappointingly close to camp, undermining the scenes to the point where their creepiness is so obvious, it's uncomfortable to watch. In order for "Silicon" to be completely effective, we need to feel some sympathy towards Marr. Instead, she's just an overly obvious crazy person, which makes it far more difficult to take the ethical problem at the heart of the episode seriously.
Which is a shame, because it's a problem worth taking seriously. Marr assumes (and it's another mark in favor of the episode that, until we hear otherwise, her assumptions seem entirely reasonable) that the Enterprise's mission to track down the Entity will result in a battle and the Entity's destruction. But Picard insists that she and Data work out some way to communicate with the creature. He argues that it has as much right to live as they do, and it's possible to both see where he's coming from and still believe he's wrong. Given that most people in the audience would be siding with Marr at this point (or, because she's a nutbag, they'll be siding with Riker, who also has serious reservations about not killing the Entity on sight), the episode goes a little too far in sticking by Picard's point of view. After all, this creature has killed hundreds, if not thousands; at a certain point, "right to live" becomes questionable in the face of all that death.
And yet it's refreshing to see the show so willing to stick to its guns that whether or not you agree with Picard, his position is still obviously consistent with his character. He is a man who persists in demanding the best of all possible worlds, of acknowledging the limitations of the universe, while still insisting that he and his crew strive to rise above them. This nobility makes the climax of the episode surprisingly affecting. The Entity itself is an instantly dated bit of CGI wizardry, and it has little in the way of personality, apart from its structural beauty. But when Marr betrays Data and Picard and the others, and kills the creature while pretending to "speak" to it, it's unsettling. The Crystalline Entity had killed, yes, but there was no way of knowing it had any understanding of what it did, and in those initial moments, Data had gained whatever trust it had to offer, and then that trust was betrayed.
Then Data asks to escort Marr back to her room, and for a moment, you think he'll offer some word of reconciliation, some final thought from her dead son to give her peace of mind. Marr has gone around the bend at this point, actively (and, one guesses, willingly) mistaking Data for her dead child, and you assume that, since this is TNG, there'll be an attempt to mollify the harshness of the previous scene. Instead, when Marr begs Data to tell her how her son would approve of her actions, Data tells her he believes her son would be unhappy with what she'd done. That her son valued her scientific passion and her respect for life, and that, in destroying the Entity, she betrayed this integrity. "Yes, I believe your son would be very sad now," he says. And that's the end. You'd think I would've gotten used to Data episodes ending this way, but it gets me every time. There are few things more powerful, and more devastating, than an inarguable truth.
- Out Of Context Theater Presents: "You handle that unit like a veteran, doctor."
- Hey, remember how Troi's an empath? Remember how she's spent her life learning to read emotions and understand how people think? It's too bad she wasn't on the bridge when Marr killed the Entity, or else she could've warned... oh wait, that's right, she was on the bridge, and she didn't say a damn thing. Admittedly, Marr was so clearly unstable that everyone should've been on their guard anyway, but this is just absurd.
Next week: We take a trip through the imaginatively titled "Disaster" and learn where Angry Birds really started in "The Game."