Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Identity Crisis"/"The Nth Degree"
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Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Identity Crisis"/"The Nth Degree"

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Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Identity Crisis"/"The Nth Degree"

Season 4, Episode 18
B

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Identity Crisis"/"The Nth Degree"

Season 4, Episode 19

"Identity Crisis"

Or The One Where Geordi Gets An Injection That Doesn't Agree With Him

Space must be absolutely filthy. At least, that's what I've always suspected. Neither TOS or TNG have spent much time dealing with the potential dangers of alien environments, or the seemingly inevitable difficulties involved in interspecies contact (hey, remember the bio-suits in "The Naked Time"? Yeah, nobody else on either show did). And probably that's for the best. There's a potentially amazing hard sci-fi show about what interstellar travel might be like that focuses on the strict realities of the situation, but the Trek franchise isn't about hard sci-fi. It's more concerned with adventure stories and characters, and problems with varying degrees of plausible foundation. There's nothing wrong with that; I have fun poking holes in the absurdities (seriously, the holodeck is insane), but generally speaking, those absurdities don't diminish my enjoyment of the show unless they get really, really egregious. It's like Larry Niven's famous essay, "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex," about the impossibility of a sexual relationship between Lois Lane and Superman. It's interesting to think about, but it doesn't really damage the narrative itself. (Superman Returns did that just fine, thanks.)

Still, I enjoy those few episodes when TNG does decide to dabble in the complications of exploration, and "Identity Crisis" fits quite well in this mini-genre. We're not talking Stanislaw Lem levels of ambiguity here, but the story is thoughtful enough that it stands above many of TNG's other mystery-based eps. An alien life form is causing problems for Geordi and some old shipmates, and that life-form doesn't turn out to be the latest variation on the godlike-being. Just the opposite, in fact. There's some clever writing here, and Geordi gets to look smart instead of creepy. Plus, there are cool invisible monsters who glow in the dark, and not one of them attempts to psychically violate Troi. Seems like a win in my book.

A few years back, Geordi was on an away team that investigated some disappearances on planet Tarchannen III. They weren't able to find anything (and while it isn't very dramatically satisfying, it would be nice if the Enterprise occasionally stumbled upon a completely inexplicable mystery--although, again, that's the sort of plot that would better suited to a more serious show), but now, here in the present, something's gone wrong. Three people from that original group have vanished, two of them stealing a shuttle to escape. Now Susanna Leitjen, the commander of the away team and Geordi's former superior officer, has joined up with the Enterprise to return to Tarchannen and see if there's any sign of the missing.

In talking about "Night Terrors," I criticized the show for making the crew's hallucinations so impersonal and generic. That's a fine line to walk, however, because not every crisis on the series needs to be unique for the individuals in question. There's no particular reason why Geordi should be the main character here. It makes sense given his station on the ship, and his relative youth, that he had an  experience in his recent past working under another captain, and Geordi does seem more vulnerable than, say, Worf or Riker. (And Data, of obvious reasons.) But it's possible to imagine an iteration of this story with Riker going through the same problems. The biggest difference is that Geordi busts out some computer science to try and figure out the root cause for what's going on, but the actual issue itself isn't character specific. 

Which is cool, really. "Crisis" could've maybe done something with how Geordi's affliction, caused by an alien spore that changes him into a different species, reflects his own occasional alienation from the human race, but that would've been a stretch. This is an episode in which the story is the primary interest, and the characters serve largely to move that story around, as opposed to, say, "Family," in which the characters come first. TNG can do both kinds of show. The key difference that sets "Crisis" above something like "Night Terrors" isn't that it's more personally connected to Geordi; it's that the plot is just more interesting. That's really the only requirement here. If you're going to make the story the focus, so long as our heroes aren't breaking out of character or anything, all that matters is that the story be worth our attention. 

This one works, for a couple of reasons. The aliens, who never get an official name, are appropriately cool, creatures capable of camouflaging themselves to the point of near invisibility (the effect we see is basically the Predator), and then going all glowing veins and bugged out eyes when you hit them with a black light. It's ridiculous, but I'll be honest with you: I like ridiculousness in alien design from time to time. These are still humanoids, albeit with fewer fingers, but at least we didn't get the standard "slap some laytex on the forehead and call it good" make-up. As for the cause of the transformations, the idea that these creatures procreate by infecting other life forms with their genetic code is, well, even more ridiculous than those glowing veins. It's the biological version of the Borg, and while I'm not sure how practical it would actually be (we never really know anything about the life forms on Tarchannen; are there other humanoid races? And what happens when one of these guys tries to infect something significantly smaller than itself?), it doesn't actually need to be that practical. Maybe this is just some bizarre genetic experiment gone wrong. 

The other reason "Crisis" works is that that the story takes some unexpected turns. There aren't any huge shocks; once you find out that three members of the away team disappeared, and see Susanna succumbing to the same condition, you know it's only a matter of time before the symptoms start hitting Geordi. But before that happens, we get to watch Geordi using old footage of the away team to try and find any clue of what went wrong. His focus, and the smart way he goes about his search, are engaging and, in their way, quietly thrilling. Weirdly enough, if you look back once the ep is over, Geordi's discoveries are basically irrelevant. Via the holodeck, he determines that someone else was hiding in plain sight on the planet, but it's Beverly who determines the real cause of the problem, and once she cures Susanna, Susanna is able to tell everyone what happened, and what needs to happen next. But Geordi's efforts are entertaining enough to justify their existence. It's arguably padding, but it's the best kind of padding. Once Susanna collapses, nothing critical really occurs until she's human again, and leads an away team down to the planet to try and find Geordi before his transformation becomes irreversible. But seeing that shadow come to "life" is compelling and creepy, so the scenes between those two points don't feel like wasted time. 

There are nits to pick here. We don't really know much about Susanna, and her relationship with Geordi becomes so dramatically important by the end that it would've been nice to have a better sense of her. (It might've made more sense to have someone from the Enterprise talk Geordi back down off the genetic ledge; the idea of Data struggling to make an emotional connection with his friend would've been more dramatic, and would've had some nice thematic depth as well.) It's odd that the infection takes different amounts of time to finish people off, since everyone in the away team was hit with the spores at roughly the same time. Also, why this many years? It's clear that the missing personnel who prompted the original away team search had completed their transformations before Geordi and the others arrived. Does that mean that Starfleet just ignored their disappearance for long enough for the infection to take hold? 

But really, "Crisis" is the kind of solid, intriguing TNG that I've come to expect from the series at this point. It uses technology in a smart way, it gives us a problem that the ship hasn't encountered before, and it moves at a good pace. Plus, it's nice reminder that other worlds can be dangerous even if you don't see what's coming. I doubt anyone on the Enterprise will be that much more careful when beaming down into unknown territory, but maybe they'll count the shadows on the walls around them a little more often. 

Grade: B+

Stray Observations:

  • Funny, I don't remember anyone ever video taping away team missions before. 
  • Further evidence in the "Data is developing emotions on his own without the benefit of a special chip, thankyouverymuch" file: he's clearly worried about Geordi.
  • Anybody else get Blade Runner flashbacks while Geordi was going through the videos? 

"The Nth Degree"

Or The One Where Barclay Gets A Brain, A Heart, And The Noive

Ah. Barclay episode. Unleash the awkward!

Y'know, I don't get why I don't like Barclay. I should like him; I generally like characters who don't fit into their fictional worlds properly, and Barclay is the only character we've ever seen on the Enterprise who doesn't. I appreciate him conceptually, I appreciate the honesty of having someone like him around on the ship. Everyone on board just seems so perfect and smart and resourceful, it would be tremendously stressful to not quite live up to those expectations. I don't have any problems with Dwight Schultz. But man alive, I can't translate that theoretical appreciation into anything approaching actual entertainment. Much like Geordi's run in with Brahms last week, there are interesting ideas here that keep tripping over TNG's basic unwillingness to acknowledge the darker undercurrents of its characters. Barclay is supposed to be pathetic, but endearingly so; in practice, he's just pathetic, a middle-aged man who acts like a fourteen year-old boy, stammering around women, retreating into a terrifyingly vivid fantasy life. 

Thankfully, that fantasy life has been put aside for "The Nth Degree," which opens with an effective fake-out: Barclay playing Cyrano De Bergerac to Beverly's Roxane. At first, it looks like he's engaging in some more holodeck creepiness, but while Barclay was confident in his electronic delusions, here he's as clumsy and forced as ever. We pull back to see this is a bit of theater, being performed for some of the ship's crew. Which makes it less creepy, but still not much fun to watch. I have an aversion to cringe comedy, but even if I didn't, this doesn't strike me as a great example of the genre; Barclay's fumbles and miscues are as obviously phony as the lines of poetry he spouts, so it's like mixing bad jokes with embarrassment, and, well, ugh. About the only funny bit here is Data's bafflement when the audience applauds the scene's conclusion. 

Thankfully, "Degree" isn't the story of how Barclay takes a ragtag group of untrained actors and manages to bring them to the Federation Semi-Finals for Theater, or whatever. Instead, we have a Flowers For Algernon riff, something that's long been a staple of genre shows. While investigating a downed Argus Array, a subspace telescope, Barclay gets electrocuted by an alien probe, and starts to develop increased mental faculties--not just intelligence, but creativity, empathy, all sorts of wonderful things. Those special abilities which, after an initially difficult transition period, gradually win him the admiration of the crew, ultimately set him apart once again, as he becomes too smart for anyone around to keep up with him. Then he seemingly becomes a danger to the ship itself, merging with the Enterprise's computer and discovering a new form of faster-than-warp travel. Picard and the others try and talk him down, all efforts fail, and CyBarclay throws the ship 30,000 light years of course, where they meet the delightful condescending super genius floating head that caused all this mess in the first place.

Daniel Keyes left this last bit out his (somewhat more tragic) novel, but the episode shares with Algernon that initial rush of freedom in seeing a loser suddenly become a god, only to realize that godhood ain't all its cracked up to be. It's all about the disenfranchised finding power in an unexpected way, and the beats, while familiar, are still satisfying in their way. Whatever problems I have with Barclay, it was nice to see him finally getting to show off a bit, and equally nice to see Geordi's reaction to his showing off. It's the closest the episode really comes to admitting one of the reasons they keep Barclay around. When Reg saves the ship (after Geordi decides it's hopeless) from the probe's attack, Geordi is clearly frustrated. Partly it's because Barclay jumped around his authority to get the job done, but there's probably also a little bit of irritation that the twerp stepped out of his place. Geordi may have his problems socializing, but, in normal situations, he's a lot smoother than Captain Nerve Twitch. The resentment is a subtle, but effective, character beat. 

It all gets a bit goofy, of course. Barclay creates a simulation of Einstein in the holodeck to bounce a few ideas off of. He also turns into an amazing actor, charming the proverbial pants off his former teacher. (Schultz's "real" performance of the Cyrano monologue is all right, but man, Beverly looks like she's about to... I dunno. I doubt she'd jump him, but this episode did a very good job of reminding me why I kind of have a crush on her.) That it all turns out to be part of some alien plan to make contact is somewhat lazy, as it gives us one of the worst aspects of the god-like beings: a convenient, dry-erase board approach that, aside from a cute gag at the end, makes sure "Degree" is largely consequence free. (Actually, I can't say this for certain. Is Barclay notably more intelligent in later appearances?)

I don't have a whole lot to say here; I've ragged on poor Reg enough, and really, once he gets a hit of brain steroids, he's a lot more tolerable than normal. (Well, once he gets past the brain steroids and stops randomly shouting information at people.) As always, we have to look to the edges for the most interesting aspects of the episode, and this one has some surprisingly charming moments. The group discussion about just how dangerous CyBarclay is the expected, "Let's try and be rational" scene that happens a lot on TNG, and it's always appreciated; it creates a sense of community, and of organization, that helps foster world-building. Like, we deal with crazy shit all the time, we've got the protocols in place to deal with it. There's a great bit when Troi tells everyone that Barclay made a pass at her ("A good one,"), and Riker gets overly concerned. Y'know, charming. 

Lessee... It's somewhat embarrassing that it takes everyone as long as it does to realize that Barclay's electrocution did more than just knock him temporarily unconscious, but since he's such a weird one to begin with, that isn't that hard to understand. And besides, a Barclay who doesn't practically weep every time someone talks to him for more than five minutes is probably not something to be questioned too intently. While I wasn't a huge fan of the Cytherians (the one we see is so close to being a Muppet that I wish he had actually been a Muppet), it's great that the Enterprise spends a few weeks hanging out with them before moving on; I love the idea that, again, this isn't that big of a deal. The Cytherians are incredibly advanced, but our heroes run into advanced races all the time. You take what they give you, and then you move on.

Still, the Cytherians method of exploration--bringing other races to them, instead of the other way around--seems a bit rude, and it's hard to imagine it going over well with everyone. (The Romulans would freak out, I'm guessing, although they'd probably try to hide their displeasure long enough to steal whatever potential weapons tech they could find.) This is a passable episode, but it doesn't do much in the way of following through on its implications, and the few pleasures it has live entirely on the surface. Barclay's first episode, for all its many faults, at least tried to give us something we hadn't seen before on the show, a loser who was so pathetic that you had to work to like him. "Degree" doesn't have the same ambition. It's easier to watch, but harder to remember.

Grade: B

Stray Observations:

  • Someone mentioned it in the comments last week, and I agree: Barclay's "No problem, here's how you build it" to the computer was great.
  • "How do you feel now?" "Smaller."
  • Next week, we see some familiar faces in "Qpid" and learn to bang "The Drumhead."