Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Gambit, Part 2”/“Phantasms”
B

Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Gambit, Part 2”/“Phantasms”

B

Star Trek: The Next Generation

“Gambit, Part 2”/“Phantasms”

Season 7, Episode 5
B

Star Trek: The Next Generation

“Gambit, Part 2”/“Phantasms”

Season 7, Episode 6

“Gambit, Part 2” (season 7, episode 4; first aired Oct. 16, 1993)

Or The One Where Everyone Empties Their Minds, Although I Think That One Ensign Was Imagining J. Edgar Hoover

I forgot to mention last week: Tarella, the Romulan-who-turns-out-to-be-a-Vulcan hanging with the space pirates, is played by Robin Curtis, who previously replaced Kirstie Alley in the role of Lt. Saavik in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. This isn’t particularly relevant to anything, outside of pointing out the Trek franchise’s willingness to recycle actors in different roles (something which, while occasionally distracting, is actually pretty cool). While it’s supposed to be a surprise that Tarella is a Vulcan, not a Romulan, there’s no indication her character has any connection to Saavik, which is for the best. And hell, I wasn’t really surprised that Tarella was a Vulcan—given her cool, composed behavior through much of both these episodes, I’d just ignored the telltale forehead ridges and assumed she was Vulcan from the start. There’s some double crossing at work here, and Curtis is fine in the role, but the main reason I mention her so early in this review is that, well, once again I find myself at something of a loss. I promise I won’t spend the rest of this season constantly complaining about having nothing to say, but man. This is… passable. It’s moderately entertaining, it has a scene or two I loved, and an ending that was reaching for the profound but was ultimately just very, very silly. Everything else seemed kind of childish. 

But I’m paid to blather, not to whine (there is a subtle difference), so let’s do this: Remember that cliffhanger? It was, like, a week ago, so you probably should, but to refresh: Under orders from Riker (who’s currently hanging out on Baran’s ship), Data lowered the Enterprise’s shields, allowing Picard to fire Baran’s ship’s phasers on them unprotected. The bad guys scored two direct hits on one of the Enterprise’s nacelles, but we learn this week that the phaser power had already been sufficiently lowered, and the attack did minimal damage. Captain Data responds to this by making his own fake attack on Baran’s ship, which allows the space pirates to escape with the impression that they damaged the Enterprise, but lack sufficient power to damage it further. As cliffhanger resolutions go, this is… fine. It makes story sense, and while it doesn’t keep tension high, let’s be honest with ourselves: Tension in this two-parter was never that high to begin with. 

The most interesting idea raised in this entire two-parter doesn’t hit till roughly halfway through the episode. Tarella, having deduced Picard’s true nature through careful observation (she realizes he was the one who lowered the ship’s phaser levels and then pretended as though they were too damaged to continue firing), tells him her real name is T’Paal, and she’s actually a member of the Vulcan intelligence, sent to infiltrate Baran’s group. The relics Baran has been hunting for are pieces of an ancient Vulcan weapon designed to amplify its users’ thoughts, which sounds scary enough; back on planet Vulcan, an isolationist movement is growing which believes that the Vulcans need to rid themselves of interference from all other outside influence, and they’re willing to pay big money for a weapon they believe will make them the most powerful force in the universe. T’Paal explains that she’s trying to figure out exactly who is offering Baran money for the relics, and Picard readily agrees to help, but she warns him: She has to make sure the weapon doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, and she’s willing to blow up everyone on board just to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Only—and here’s the twist—T’Paal (or Tarella, or whatever the hell her real name is) is lying. Oh, there’s an isolationist on Vulcan, but she’s not working to track them down—she’s one of them. In fact, she’s the only one we ever see, so it’s entirely possible that the “group” she tells Picard about is just a product of her deluded, fevered ambition. But I always enjoy some political intrigue in my Trek, so it’s nice, at least for a while, that the episode pretends to be about more than just a bunch of greedy mercenaries raiding ruins for cash. We haven’t hard about much going on at Vulcan for a while now, maybe they’re going through a period of hardship, or maybe some people are having bad reactions to the attempts to broker peace with the Romulans. Who knows. Sadly, this episode doesn’t really give us much in the way of answers, because the “Vulcan isolationists” plot is just a hook to hang the episode’s climax on. T’Paal gets the pieces of the device she needs, she puts them together back on Vulcan, and is able to use the device to kill two members of the space pirate crew. But when she goes to attack Picard, she tells him to pick up his weapon first (sadly, Curtis does not bust out a Jack Palance impersonation here), and Picard is able to quickly deduce the resonator’s one weakness: peace.

Thematically, this fits in well with TNG’s fundamental assumption that dialogue, mutual respect and tolerance are sufficient to defeat just about any form of violence. This is an optimistic show, and it makes sense that the so-called ultimate weapon would prove insufficient against the force of that optimism. In terms of plot, however, it’s a little weak. It’s not so much that I object to the weapon ending up as something of a dud; it’s a smart way to undercut the rest of the two-parter, and a way to bring the whole story into something more in keeping with TNG’s basic philosophy. It’s just that, as it plays out here, I don’t really buy it. I found myself thinking of gags from Ghostbusters, and much as I love Ghostbusters, I doubt that’s what the writers were going for. When the away team beams down to Vulcan to rescue Picard, the captain quickly warns them that the only way to defeat T’Paal and her machine is to empty their minds of violent thoughts. And somehow, Worf manages to do this, enough to survive a direct shot from the brain gun. I love Worf, but—really? A Klingon who always seems one bad day away from going Keith Moon on quarters, Worf has never struck me as someone capable of calming down—from a position of full alert, mind you—so immediately. It comes across as too easy.

Really, the whole episode is like that, from the resolved cliffhanger to the plotting on-board Baran’s ship. Baran actually asks Riker to get closer to “Galen,” (Picard’s assumed name) in order to betray him down the line, which allows Riker and Picard to chat at their pleasure without fear of raising suspicion. And Baran’s downfall comes when he uses his pain-control remote on Picard without realizing that Picard has “switched the transponder codes” beforehand. When it’s that easy to accomplish everything, why bother making it a threat in the first place? “Gambit” didn’t need to be brilliantly insightful to work, but it did need suspense, and it seems like every moment in this episode is about reassuring the audience that there’s no real reason to be concerned. The most intense moment in the whole thing comes when Riker learns that T’Paal isn’t actually working for the Vulcan government, because for once, it means that Picard is in danger without anyone able to directly inform him he’s in danger. Only, T’Paal doesn’t take advantage of this edge for a long time, and by then, Picard has taken over as captain of the ship, which means he could’ve hailed the Enterprise at any time just to check in, and gotten the information. There’s no danger here at all, and that kills most of the fun. 

The best scene in the whole episode has nothing to do with the main plot. In the absence of Riker and Picard, Data has taken command of the Enterprise, and he does a fine job of it. But he’s a little too conservative for Worf’s taste, and the Klingon (who is now acting as the ship’s first officer) repeatedly makes sarcastic or disparaging comments about Data’s leadership style. In response, Data takes him aside to Picard’s ready room and, in effect, tells him either to do his damn job, or be replaced. It’s a great exchange, because it takes what we know about the characters—Worf’s impatience, Data’s attention to duty, the friendship between the two—and it exploits that knowledge in a believable, affecting way. For my money, Data’s firm, but regretful, “Mr. Worf, I’m sorry if I have ended our friendship” is more thrilling than anything that happens with Baran or T’Paal or her silly resonator, and Worf’s apology, and his efforts to work with Data later on, are more rewarding than realizing a millennium-old doohickey isn’t quite as powerful as everyone thought it was. All I really got out of either part of “Gambit” (which, I will say, is far from the worst two-parter this show has done) is how much I’d love to watch a show about Captain Data and First Officer Worf exploring the galaxy. And since that won’t be happening any time soon, I’d say we should move on.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • Why even bother to introduce the neural device? (The pain-inducing one, I mean.) It doesn’t serve much plot function, apart from making Picard and Riker yell a couple times and making sure Baran gets a just-desserts ending. 

“Phantasms” (season 7, episode 5; first aired Oct. 23, 1993)

Or The One Where Data Cuts A Slice Of Troi

Every show has a line it can’t cross. Like most simple declarative sentences, that’s something of a simplification, because most shows have a lot of lines they can’t cross. In fact, series are defined as much by what they can’t be as by what they are, and as time goes on, the more the former category begins to solidify. In the first season of TNG (I know, I don’t like thinking about that anymore than you do, but I’ll try and make this quick), if the series’ creative team had decided to question Data’s programming more, if they’d wanted to make him substantially more ambiguous as well as a potential threat to the crew, they could’ve done that. I’m not sure it would’ve worked artistically, especially given how much that season feels like a lot of flailing with very little forward motion, but it wouldn’t have been violating any promise the show had already made to its audience. The ensemble was still in the process of being defined. Data could’ve had more sinister intentions; Riker could’ve been sent by Starfleet to keep an eye on Picard; Wesley Crusher could’ve been an alien who’d taken the place of Beverly’s real son. Everything was up for grabs.

Now? Not so much. Really, about as far from that as you can imagine, because it’s been a few years, and one of TNG’s big pulls now is that it tells stories about people we like to think we know. Yes, those people are all made up and don’t really exist beyond the illusion of dialogue and costume and performance, but that illusion has been going on for long enough that it feels as close to solid as it ever will. When I sit down to a new episode, I don’t know exactly what to expect story-wise, but I do know that Picard and the rest of the ensemble are going to behave in a fashion logically consistent with everything that’s come before. If Picard suddenly goes psychotic, well, I’d have a hard time believing it unless I had a really good reason for doing so. And if Data suddenly up and stabs Troi in the lift, I’m going to need enough justification to straight the Leaning Tower of Pisa. (Too silly? Yeah. I worked on that one for a bit, but… yeah.)

“Phantasms” comes very close to screwing that particular pooch, but while I think it does bend one of the show’s defining lines about as far as it can go, the rest of the episode is strong enough that I’m willing to overlook it. Data’s dreaming again, only now, for the first time in his life, he’s experiencing nightmares. And what nightmares! I’m a sucker for dream imagery (I think I’m one of the only people who really loved the first half of The Sopranos’ sixth season), and the stuff we see here is top-notch, as deeply creepy as anything we’ve ever seen on the show before. Nearly everything we see turns out to be directly symbolic of some experience or danger in Data’s real life, but where in other shows (or movies) that would make the experience too literal, here, it makes sense. Data is, after all, a machine, running a program, and that program is only able to translate events into dream logic to a certain point. So we get “cellular-peptide cake” as a stand in for actual cellular peptide, and we get 19th-century coal miners as stand-ins for the invisible insects currently devouring every member of the Enterprise crew. Which is actually quite creative, come to think of it. Data should be proud.

Most of “Phantasms” revolves around two mysteries, which, as is often the case with such things, turn out to be one mystery. The Enterprise has a new warp coil, but whenever Geordi tries to get the thing up and running, it dies almost immediately. Despite his best efforts, he can’t figure out the problem, and he’s dodging the attentions of a new ensign who has a crush on him. (It’s fun to see Geordi on the opposite end of unhealthy obsession, although I’m not sure what this adds to the rest of the episode. Ensign Tyler gets to be moderately helpful once, leading Picard away from Engineering when the captain decides to take a more hands-on approach, and then she disappears. Maybe Levar Burton just really wanted his character to be a smooth operator for once.) While Geordi sweats over a proverbial cold stove, and Picard makes his apologies for being late to an admiral’s banquet he’d rather miss, Data starts having nightmares, and he doesn’t know why. Which is the episode’s other mystery, and by far the more interesting of the two. 

TNG isn’t a fantasy show, in that it needs slightly more grounding than “Magic!” as explanation for the seemingly inexplicable. It doesn’t always succeed in this, mind you, and I’m not really trying to get into a sci-fi/fantasy debate; all I mean is, “Phantasms” is the sort of episode that uses an ostensibly natural phenomenon—in this case, those invisible bugs which came in with the ship’s new warp coil and proceeded to infest every deck and crew-member—as justification for all kinds of craziness. You combine the bugs with Data’s dream program, you get nightmares. Where, exactly, those nightmares come from is something the show leaves unexplained, although the fact they’re intended as a warning which Data doesn’t immediately understand suggests he has some sort of functioning unconscious mind. Although when you think about it, while the nightmares would be helpful in a human being (who wouldn’t have nearly as total access to his mind as Data does), in Data, they’re a curious sort of malfunction. If Data is able to perceive the creatures infesting the Enterprise, wouldn’t it be easier for him to just realize he’s perceiving them? Either he has to become less efficient to be more human, or else realizing the creatures are on board requires a level of intuition that he’s not normally capable of. 

I’m wiling to give the episode the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re going for the latter case (although really, I’d be just as interested in a storyline with Data realizing that imperfection is part of being human), even if I’m not quite sure how that would work. “Invisible bugs” isn’t the deduction of the century, and the amount Data knows about them in his dream—where the bugs are biting Troi, Riker, and Geordi; that they’re eating cellular peptide; that they’re going for the warp core; and that Data’s brain can emit a pulse that can destroy the lot of them—seems like it should’ve been information that he could’ve put together without the need for an unconscious mind. But, again, I’ll accept it, because it’s freaky and fun and I enjoy it when the show dabbles in a bit of Lynchian horror. And it brings us to a terrific scene in which Picard and Geordi, having realized that Data’s nightmares might be the key to the problem, use the Holodeck to experience a Data dream alongside him. While this is significantly less unsettling than when Data walked through his dreams alone (mainly because we know that Picard and Geordi are safe in a way dream-Data wasn’t; hell, dream-Data got torn to pieces by the miners, in a moment that probably gave 10-year-olds country-wide fits), it’s such a cool, just-plausible-enough idea that it makes for a great climax to the episode. 

The big problem here is, well, Data goes a bit mad. More than a bit, actually. He can’t stop thinking about his bad dreams, he starts experiencing those bad dreams while in a supposedly waking state, and then, he stabs Troi in a turbo-lift. Oh sure, he has his reasons. The part of his brain that understand what’s happening also knows that one of the bugs is gnawing on Troi’s shoulder, and he attempts to remove that bug the most direct way he can think of. But while it’s possible to come up with story and character reasons for the scene, it’s such a deeply disturbing moment that it throws everything else in the episode, and, for a moment, the whole show, out of whack. It exposes the dark side of the core of what Data is: a machine, and unlike The Pirates Of The Caribbean, when Data breaks down, he could eat the tourists. Yes, it’s possible for human beings to malfunction just like machines, and yes, accepting Data as a crewmember and sentient being means granting that he could possibly have bad days. And yes, what he does to Troi is, in the long view, a good thing. But—well, imagine if someone else in the crew did this. Imagine if it was Riker in the lift. It would still be creepy—especially considering their history—but it wouldn’t be as creepy. We could still trust Riker to go back to his usual self. Data, on the other hand… The episode is trying to capitalize on the horror of seeing our most trusted character behave like a psychopath (whatever his intentions), much in the same way “Descent” did, and once again, there’s no effort to deal with the consequences of his behavior.

Really, this could have been a better episode if it had either found some other way to accomplish what the turbo-lift scene accomplishes, or if it had been more thoughtful about the implications of that attack. But without those approaches, the scene sticks out like a sore thumb, scary in a way that isn’t fun—it’s too much like a something out of a slasher movie, and that’s not a kind of storytelling this show can support. In the end, the day is saved, the bugs (which are also really, really scary) are destroyed and Data and Troi are back to being friends again. They conclude the episode eating a Data-shaped cake, which is cute and all, but I can’t help wondering just comfortable Troi is when she hands Data that knife. She doesn’t flinch—but maybe she should have.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • The Freud stuff was funny, although I kind of doubt that three centuries from now therapists will still use Freud as their main (and, at least according to this episode, only) talking point.
  • Data’s attempts to study Spot’s sleep patterns are basically adorable.
  • In a few of Data’s nightmares, he sees Troi in cake form. The video for Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” came out eight years before this episode aired. Homage, or friendly rip-off?

Next week: We encounter Lwaxana Troi once again as we turn a “Dark Page,” and figure out why Jean-Luc Picard and Beverly Crusher are so “Attached.”