“Genesis” (season 7, episode 19; originally aired: 3/19/94)
Or The One Where Worf Sprays Beverly With His Venom Sac And No I Am Not Kidding
I’m not sure if anyone’s noticed, but these reviews have been getting shorter as we approach the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Given that my regular review length tends to be a tad on the self-indulgent side, I really shouldn’t see this as a problem, but it does bother me a little. Partly it’s because I’ve stretched myself too thin this fall, and when I get tired, it gets that much harder for me to find clever ways of poking holes in the adventures of Captain Picard and friends. But if that was the only reason—hell, if that was even the main reason—then it wouldn’t be happening with such regularity. The real issue here is that the worse the show gets, the more difficult it is for me to find ways to comment on it without either repeating what I’ve said in the past, or just giving in to outright sarcasm. The former would be pointless, and the latter, while initially entertaining, would get old fast. (I’m just not funny enough to sustain a season-long riffing session.) Once upon a time, bad episodes could inspire as much passion in me as good ones, because it’s fascinating to understand what separates a failed hour of television from a successful, or even passably mediocre one. But with hours like “Genesis” and “Journey’s End,” I’m sorely tempted to just shrug, roll my eyes, and move on.
Sadly for us all, I doubt my overlords would pay for me for contempt alone, so I’ve got to muster up a few words for “Genesis,” a very silly, irritatingly lazy episode of the “Crazy stuff happens to the crew!” variety. (And for what it’s worth, I don’t include the above as a complaint, or not exactly—I think it’s as much a commentary on the episodes as the reviews themselves that I’m, if not actively dreading the show now, then at least not embracing it with the excitement I once did. If I had to characterize season seven in one word, that word would be “flailing.” There have been a few good-to-great episodes in here, but for the most part, it’s almost like we’re stuck back in the first season, when no one working on the show had any idea what kind of stories they wanted to tell. Only now, it’s more a matter of creative ennui than confusion.) There are a few fun bits scattered here and there throughout the episode, but the ridiculous central concept, combined with an ending that doesn’t so much justify what just happened as it does flip off the audience and dare them to object, doesn’t make for good Trek. Or good anything, really.
The plot wouldn’t be out of place in a Captain Planet episode: While Picard and Data are off in a shuttlecraft to pick up a rogue torpedo, the crew of the Enterprise begin acting strangely. Worf becomes more violent and intense, snapping at his fellow officers and leering at the womenfolk; Troi is convinced the temperature controls on the ship are off, as she’s constantly cold and thirsty; and Riker starts doing some third thing that, um, wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue… (He’s forgetful and slow-witted.) Also, Barclay is super-hyper. Things continue to generate, climaxing when Worf, clearly in the grip of some kind of fever, attacks Troi and bites her. Then he spews disfiguring venom in Dr. Crusher’s face. Clearly, something is amiss, but before we can find out what that something is, the story cuts to Picard and Data returning to the ship, the rogue torpedo successfully captured and deactivated. They find the Enterprise floating dead in space, the engines shut down, the computer deactivated. Riker is a caveman now, and Troi is some kind of weird frog monster; Barclay’s a spider-thing (eek!), and Worf is, well, a psycho, horny rock monster. No, really. Data and Picard have to figure out what happened to the crew, and how to cure it, before Worf kills them, or Picard himself succumbs to the disease.
All right, do I have anything nice to say about this episode? It is, after all, directed by Gates McFadden, marking the first time a female cast member directed a Trek episode, and I like McFadden (as a fellow Brandeis alum, I think we’d get on quite well). Well, I was too busy snickering and/or cringing at the writing to notice the direction much, so I’ll give it a pass in that respect. I did like the way the episode split in two, the first part showing the initial stages of the de-evolution process, the second part jumping forward in time to show us the end results through Picard and Data’s perspective. It’s a bit like “Timescape” in that respect, but just because the structure is familiar doesn’t make it any less effective. And as goofy as all of this is, the monster make-up is impressively freaky.
But man oh man is this goofy. Data’s explanation to Picard is that some kind of virus is causing inactive genetic codes called “introns” to reactivate in the crew, leading to the de-evolution. The virus is semi-random, so even people who share the same race won’t necessarily fall back into the same earlier species, which is how the episode justifies both Spider-Barclay and Will “I like rocks” Riker. And that’s it. There’s no alien intelligence running this as a test on the Enterprise (which would be dumb, but still less dumb than the explanation we eventually get), and once we get the main idea of the episode, there’s really nothing else we need to see. Data and Picard wander around for a while, Data figures out the problem, then he figures out how to solve it. There’s some suspense, both in the early goings (when characters behave strangely for no apparent reason), and later on, when Picard has to distract a hormone-addled Worf, all while suffering from a sudden attack of the scaredy-cats. But while that final chase scene isn’t awful, and gives Picard yet another opportunity to demonstrate his quick thinking in a crisis, the earlier tension isn’t really an enjoyable kind of tension, because so much of it plays on Worf’s ancestry as a dangerous, violent animal. While it’s explained (to a point) by the narrative in a way the excuses him from his behavior, that doesn’t make it less creepy to watch him leering at waitresses, snapping at Riker, or assaulting poor Troi and Beverly. Plus, there’s every indication that he murdered the ensign Picard and Data find on the bridge, and the way this is casually tossed off is troubling to say the least.
The real kicker comes in the final scene, however, when we learn that the root cause of all this trouble was a dormant gene in Barclay that someone transformed into an airborne virus when Beverly tried to reactivate it. Seriously, that’s the reason. The entire ship was thrown into chaos, people died, genetic structures were realigned, Troi turned into a freakin’ frog thing, and it’s just because oh hey, Barclay has weird genes. This is weak, weak sauce, a half-assed explanation that falls apart the moment you think about it, and makes an already dumb episode look even more foolish in retrospect. Even beyond the fact that “Oh, you just have weird genes” is a stupid reason for anything, the cavalier way Beverly handles the situation—a situation that left her severely (if temporarily) disfigured, and, again, cost the life of at least one crewman. Bad enough that the show is resorting to corny, shallow storytelling as it winds down its final hours, but it’s insult to viewers (and to the characters we’ve come to respect) to see the show implicitly acknowledge the shallowness of its writing without making any effort to correct it. Of this week’s two episodes, I was more openly frustrated with “Journey’s End,” for reasons we’ll get to shortly, but in retrospect, “Genesis” was the greater sin. At least “Journey’s End” bothered to have ambition. “Genesis” just decided to take its de-evolutionary theme too much to heart.
- Riker rolled into a cactus while hooking up in the arboretum. Awww yeah.
- This was Barclay’s last episode on the show. Which is odd, because even though he’s technically responsible for what happens, it’s not really a Barclay episode. (Although I did like the fact that Data asked him to take care of his cat, because Barclay is the only other person on the ship Spot will tolerate.)
- Data’s cat Spot de-evolved into a lizard. No comment here, just putting that out there.
- Oh, and Data’s solution to the problem was to use a pregnant woman to create a cure. SCIENCE.
- Random: Picard is supposedly spared the effects of the virus until he and Data return to the Enterprise, but he’s on the ship earlier when Worf’s new guidance system for the photon torpedoes fails. I’d assumed that this was due to Worf slowly losing his mind, but I’m not sure the timing works out: Either Picard just got lucky, or Worf is (sigh) incompetent.
“Journey’s End” (season 7, episode 20; originally aired: 3/26/1994)
Or The One Where Wesley Turns Into Jonathan Livingston Seagull
There’s an episode from the third series of the original Star Trek with Indians in it. It’s called “The Paradise Syndrome,” and judging by my review, it was rather absurd. It posits that a group of preservation-focused aliens (named, astonishingly, “the Preservers”) grabbed a sampler of Native Americans off our Earth and transported them to a sort of a planetary national park, there to be free to be all Native American-y and in touch with nature and so forth. Kirk gets zapped and starts calling himself Kirok, and he marries a local princess, and there’s an obelisk—anyway, like I said, absurd. (Man, there are only so many different words for “silly.”) But then, while TOS certainly had far, far better episodes than “Paradise,” it’s not like the silliness was unprecedented. The original Trek was a broad-stroke show, more interested in big moments and bigger emotions than in anything so subtle as “basic plausibility.” I cringed watching the horrifically stereotyped representations of Native Americans, but I wasn’t exactly surprised by it.
On the other hand, I was surprised by “Journey’s End,” because this is TNG, and things are supposed to be, if not better, than at least better thought out here. I don’t want to harp on the Indians (who are called “Indians,” not Native Americans here—probably because that term hadn’t been invented yet, but it still sounds weird) in “Journey’s End” too much, because this is tricky ground. The episode does its best to be as respectful and open-minded as possible, and should be lauded for that. But I won’t lie—something about watching men dressed in recognizable Native America-in-the-’90s garb talking about how they don’t want to leave their home because the mountains speak to them rubs me the wrong way. I’m just not sure if my reaction is one that deserve legitimate critical analysis, or if it’s just me knee-jerking at what, to my cynical eyes, looks like a lot mystical bullcrap. I’ve always appreciated how hard TNG has worked over the years to treat all cultures (except Ferengi, because ew) with respect, and it’s not like the Indians we see here act that much differently than, say, the Klingons Worf visited when he went on a spiritual retreat. But it still feels like pandering.
Worse, it feels like treating an issue that’s relevant in modern times—guilt over the way white settlers and the American government murdered and stole land from an indigenous people—as though it will still have the same level of relevancy 300 years into the future. On the major dramatic cruxes of the episode is Picard’s guilt over having to moving a group of Indians. These Indians having been living on the same planet for 20 years, but now, due to a new treaty signed by the Federation and the Cardassian empire, that planet no longer belongs to them. The Cardassians are coming, and before they arrive, Admiral Necheyev tasks Picard and the Enterprise with making sure the planet’s current inhabitants have been moved to a less diplomatically desirable location. Unfortunately, the Indians don’t want to move, because the place has a special meaning for them, so now Picard has a big case of the ol’ White Guilt blues. It certainly doesn’t improve his frame of mind when the tribal leader tells the captain he’s convinced this is all happening because one of Picard’s ancestors was involved in a massacre of Native Americans centuries before.
Actually, I don’t really see how that should affect Picard’s frame of mind in the slightest, because it is ridiculous. The idea that he would feel some kind of racial culpability for a crime someone hundreds and hundreds of years dead committed is absurd, especially seeing as how he didn’t even know of the event until this episode. I realize that people are often motivated in strange ways by their family history, but this seems like an arbitrary attempt to drum up drama at best. The episode tries to frame the re-location of the Indians as a great tragedy, and it doesn’t play. This isn’t the Trail of Tears. There’s some irony in the fact that a culture that spent a long time being jerked around and betrayed is once again being asked to leave what it thought was home, but it’s not enough irony to build an episode on. The funny thing is, the basic premise is not actually terrible. “Journey’s End” does do a decent job of trying to make sure we understand the perspectives of every side involved in the situation, and the Indians’ refusal to leave should lead to some great drama, as Picard is forced to chose between obeying his orders, or following his conscience—if he even knows which direction his conscience is tending. But it just comes off as insufferable.
Still, if that was all this episode was about, I’d probably view it more favorably than I did. Get past the irritating trappings, and the conflict is decent. Even the ending isn’t terrible, as the Indians make a deal with the Cardassians to keep living on the planet. (Although I’m not sure this is a “happy” ending, mind you. Picard unequivocally states that once the Indians agree to this deal, they will no longer be under Federation protection. Gul Evek seems like a nice enough guy for a Cardassian, but it’s hard not to wonder what will happen the first time the Indians and their neighbors come into conflict.) What makes this truly laughable is a roped-in attempt to resolve the Wesley Crusher story arc.
I’m not sure if you remember this; I sure as hell didn’t. But way back in the first season episode, “Where No One Has Gone Before,” we learned that Wesley is a Chosen One. Not the Chosen One, because that would’ve required a lot more time and attention and possibly a wand of some sort, but he is a very special boy, so special that an alien being has to make a trip to the Enterprise just to tell him how cool he is. That alien, called simply The Traveler, left at the end of the episode, before making another cameo appearance in “Remember Me,” never clarifying exactly who he was or where he was from, but just giving a lot of vague hints about destiny and possibility and other planes of existence. This couldn’t have been easy on Wesley, who’s spent his whole life having people tell him he was remarkable, without ever knowing exactly what that meant. When he returns to the Enterprise at the start of “Journey’s End,” he’s in a lousy mood, and nothing his mother or his friends say will cheer him up. It isn’t until one of the Indians finds him and tells him he was destined to appear that Wesley—
Eh? Yes, I just wrote “destined to appear.” And yes, that is what Lakana, the Indian mystic, tells Wesley. Which sounds like someone got a little too much fantasy in my sci-fi (and it tastes improbable), but on the plus side, it turns out that Lakana isn’t actually an Indian. He’s The Traveler in disguise, because I guess it was easier for him to test Wesley by pretending to be someone else. Also, Wesley can stop time now, or move to those other fabled planes of existence in such a way as to create the illusion that he’s stopping time, and really, this isn’t any less improbable than it was before The Traveler showed up, it’s just that now we can pretend continuity lends credibility. Wesley, realizing that the reason he’s been so angry and depressed is that he’s trying to fill his father’s shoes, and that he was meant for something else entirely, gives up his cadet’s uniform, drops out of Starfleet Academy, and leaves the ship, and TNG, for good.
I appreciate the writers’ desire to wrap up loose ends, I really do. But some loose ends are best left forgotten, especially when they were initially introduced on a very different show. TNG’s first season was a mess, and while “Where No One Has Gone Before” was one of the first episodes that didn’t entirely suck, it wasn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination, and the “Wesley Is A Very Special Boy” storyline was never a good fit for this show. It’s puts too much emphasis on the wish-fulfillment aspects of the character, and it relies to much on what is basically magic to work with the series TNG finally (thankfully) became. If the seventh season had ended without ever referencing Wesley’s destiny or The Traveler, I’m sure some detail freaks would’ve complained, but I’d prefer to believe they’d be a minority. Building a story through television is (if you’re very lucky) a long and complicated process, and the writers are not omniscient gods. They don’t always know what plots will work down the line, and which ones will be the narrative equivalent of that week you wanted to be a ballerina. (Don’t lie.) I’m willing to cut slack.
But as much as I’m impressed with the obsessive-compulsive attention to detail this episode represents, no amount of slack in the world will make it worthwhile. Wesley was often a difficult character, smarmy, irritatingly over-smart, creepily dependent on Picard (remember when he built that robot that talked in Picard’s voice? <shudder>), but in the last few seasons, he’d come into his own. He made mistakes, some of them quite serious, but he learned from them, and I was ready to assume he would do great things, and that those great things would be almost entirely off camera. And then “Journey’s End” comes along, and it’s all “You’re ready to move beyond these puny mortals,” and putting on hippy clothes, and hanging out with a paternal—if somewhat unsettling—and mysterious bald dude. (Oh my God, that’s why he trusts The Traveler—the alien looks a little like Picard!) TNG has referenced episodes from the first season before, and used that reference as a chance to make up for past mistakes. It looks like that era of smart writing is gone, sadly, and now all that’s left is to wait for the end.
- One unequivocal good in all this is the attempted reconciliation with Admiral Necheyev. For once, she’s presented in a sympathetic light, and it’s a nice change of pace from the constant influx of jerky superior officers.
Next next week (December 1): We spend some time with Worf’s “Firstborn” (sigh), and watch as Picard tracks down his “Bloodlines.”