Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Parallels”/“The Pegasus”

Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Parallels”/“The Pegasus”

“Parallels” (season 7, episode 11; first aired Nov. 27, 1993)

Or The One Where Worf Gets Promoted, Married, And Geordi Killed 

The hardest part about starting a review—starting anything, really—is finding the opening line. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t even have to be all that good, but it does need to be something that helps you find a way into the rest of the article, or essay, or story. Sooner or later, I’ll figure something out, but whatever choice I make, I’ll be leaving something behind. Like: Worf has been well-served by TNG in the past, but almost exclusively in storylines that focused on his Klingon heritage. Or: Every great episode of television needs to have at least one unforgettable image, and the sight of a million Enterprises suddenly winking into existence in the same limited area of space is as unforgettably bizarre as anything the show has ever managed. Or: This comes as something of a shock—a week of two solid-to-excellent TNG episodes, and one of them even has a successful, if somewhat unexpected, romantic relationship. Or: We’re back to one of my favorite types of stories this week, something from the “mucking about with timelines” genre, and thankfully, we don’t have to deal with any irritating impersonations from iconic historical figures. (Can you imagine what Oscar Wilde would’ve looked like on this show?) Or I could just muck about with some meta-foolishness that people will assume is a technical error.

The point is, eventually I have to pick something. And when I do, that means all the choices I didn’t make will disappear forever. That’s life: a constant process of eliminating options. You have to wonder, though, what might have happened if you’d decided otherwise. As Data mentions in this episode, some scientists theorize that there’s a universe for each possible outcome of any given choice. It’s a daunting thought, and a little claustrophobic, but it makes you wonder, if it were possible to travel between all those universes, what might you see? What others of you are there out there, and how different would your life have gone if you had picked a different major in college (or if you’d gone to college at all); if you’d missed a phone call; if you’d opened a different door; if you’d gone left instead of right. Would you still be you, or are our presences in this world as much defined by what we have done as by what we have. “Parallels” is a fun, trippy bit of sci-fi that has Worf ricocheting through possibilities with little grasp of what’s happening to him. It has the good sense to take a great idea and push it to its logical extremes. The plotting leaves a little to be desired in the climax, but it’s a minor flaw, and the sight of Worf and Deanna Troi hooking up is not to be missed. 

Worf has been away from the Enterprise on leave to compete in a (unsurprisingly violent) Klingon sport. Worf won the competition (“Several contestants were maimed, but I was triumphant.”), the victory has him in a good mood; unfortunately, it’s also his birthday, and he knows from experience this means that his co-workers and friends among the Enterprise crew are going to throw him a surprise party. This assumption proves correct, but during the party, Worf starts experiencing dizzy spells. Worse, every time he recovers from the dizziness, he finds elements in his environment have changed. At first the shifts are subtle: a painting moved to a different wall, people standing in different places, Picard being present after Riker informed Worf that Picard was unable to make it to the festivities. But as the days wear on, the changes become more extreme. Complicating matters, the Enterprise is currently investigating the malfunctioning Argus Array, locating near the borders of Federation space. Geordi and Data have reason to believe that the Romulans may have reprogrammed the array to spy on nearby outposts, which is bad enough, but then Worf has a dizzy spell and, suddenly, no one but Worf remembers hearing about the Romulans at all. The jumps keep coming, and the changes keep getting more extreme, until Worf shifts on the bridge into the middle of a battle with a Romulan ship. This time, even the Enterprise’s control panels have changed, enough so that Worf is unable to bring the shields up in time to prevent a Romulan hit. 

So, clearly, this is more than just stress, or a concussion, or any other primarily medical cause. What makes the first half of “Parallels” so much fun to watch is how subtly the episode eases us into its premise. The first shift happens fairly early on, but it’s presented as a weird glitch, observed and then quickly forgotten. You suspect something must be up, since shows rarely have characters commenting on continuity errors for no reason, but there’s a long enough gap between the first few shifts that it becomes to doubt those suspicions. I’m not saying that I watched this episode and thought for a moment that it would turn into a low-key drama about Worf asking Troi to be Alexander’s godmother (sort of; it’s a Klingon concept), but I did appreciate “Parallels”’ patience in getting to the point. This makes it easier to empathize and even share Worf’s growing confusion. As outside viewers, well-trained in the cues and tropes of fiction, it’s easier for us to recognize that something’s happening, but by refusing to draw attention to the shifts beyond minor camera movement, the episode forces us to be more actively engaged in what’s going on. Plus, it also helps ground the fairly insane final act.

The second half of “Paralells” is fun because it’s a treat to see the different variations the show can put Worf through without ever fundamentally changing who he is, or his place on the Enterprise. This isn’t the sort of mirror-universe style storyline in which we get to see familiar faces cast in entirely different lights; Worf’s wild ride is more akin to something like Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory,” in which one small change (who goes for pizza?) leads to seven different iterations, with characters remaining consistent even while their situation does not. “Parallels” has more time to play with, and a larger area to play with, and the episode has fun with trying out different directions without having to bust out the agony booth. In this universe, Worf’s painting is on a different wall. In this universe, Worf and Troi are dating. One more dizzy spell, and now Worf is married to Troi. I’m not sure there’s a logical story reason for it (maybe the shifts are cumulative somehow, and each one brings him to a more substantially altered timeline than the last?), but each time Worf jumps to a different universe, the change is more drastic then before, building to the final shift in which Worf is First Officer, and Riker is captain of the Enterprise, having been officially promoted after Picard’s death during the Borg attack of “Best Of Both Worlds.” Oh, and Wesley’s hanging around, so that’s nice.

There are a number of small but effective dramatic moments in “Parallels”; on the whole, this is a nicely balanced episode, changing timelines enough to keep us disoriented, but still managing to find room for some effective emotional beats. The most obvious of those are the increasingly passionate exchanges between Worf and Troi: they begin the episode with Worf asking Troi to take a slightly largely role in his son’s life, and before the end, he’ll learn there’s a universe in which he and the counselor have had two children. (In this universe, Alexander doesn’t even exist; if it wasn’t for Picard’s death, I’d think it was tragic Worf couldn’t just stay there.) The Worf/Troi connection is a little out-of-left-field, but it works, by and large. The two actors have great chemistry together, and while I wasn’t moved to tears by Wife-Troi’s protestations of love, I was impressed at how well the episode sold the idea of the two of them being together. It also gave us a hilariously awkward scene in which Girlfriend-Troi undoes Worf’s hair and attempts to massage his back to ease his tension—Worf’s shocked reaction demonstrated once again how terrific Dorn’s comic timing is. (He and Patrick Stewart are arguably the funniest actors on the show, because neither of them overplay the jokes.) Beyond the romantic scenes, Other-Riker gets a few great exchanges as well, once the Alternate Enterprises show up; the first, when he talks to Picard (our Picard), and then, when he meets a version of himself from a far more disturbing universe. It’s nothing huge, but it a sign of a great episode when it can allow for moments of character work in the midst of the action.

Criticism-wise, it’s unfortunate that the finale has as much tech-babble as it does. As mentioned, the shot of thousands of Enterprises popping into one timeline is a great visual, but by relying on a sort of sci-fi MacGuffin to explain everything and resolve the crisis, “Parallels” takes Worf away from the center of the plot for a while, reducing him to a piece on a game board while Riker, Data, and Wesley discuss the best way to solve his problems. As well, it’s almost too bad that it takes so much time to get the multiple Enterprise section, as once that starts, there really isn’t time for much more than a mention or two of the other timelines. But these are minor complaints. This is an exciting, clever, and well-written hour of television, and one that finds the heart in what might’ve been dry concept. Worf may not be responsible for getting himself out of his predicament, but in the last scene, he does take a sort of action based on his recent experiences. It may not lead anywhere, but by inviting Troi to dinner (after she kindly helps him get out of that much hated surprise party), Worf is acknowledging that there are choices we don’t make simply because it never occurs to us to make them; and that some possibilities are worth exploring in any universe. 

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • It’s surprising that Wesley shows up here and has so little to do; he gets a couple lines, but really, it could’ve been anybody.
  • Worf’s freaked out look at Lwaxana potentially being his stepmother is hilarious
  • Forgot to mention: Geordi’s VISOR is at least partly to blame for what happens. Funny how nobody seems too broken up when he “dies.”
  • Here’s something I don’t understand: what happened to the other Worfs? You know, the ones our Worf is supplanting as he goes hopping around from place to place. Wife-Troi seems to think that her Worf is never coming back, and no one contradicts this. 
  • “Captain, we’re receiving 285,000 hails.”

“The Pegasus” (season 7, episode 12; first aired Jan. 8, 1994)

Or The One Where Terry O’Quinn Plays A Man Whose Obsessions Drive Him Close To Madness—No, The Other One

Two high-quality episodes in one week—I feel like I won a lottery. (Or else that someone is softening me up for the kill, considering that “Sub Rosa” is coming next week.) And two very different episodes as well. “Parallels,” for all its occasional darkness, was essentially a lark, a trippy genre exercise with some fun, good-natured character development. “The Pegasus” is quite a bit heavier, featuring an actual villain (Terry O’Quinn, playing another in a long line of psychotic admirals), a ship full of corpses stuck inside an asteroid, and a compromised Will Riker. There’s also shouting, drama, yelling, and a very, very pissed-off Picard—and if you’re guessing this is a Ron Moore episode, good show. “Pegasus” allows our heroes to end things on a far more positive note than Battlestar Galactica ever did, but there’s still that same fundamental belief in the corruptive influence of power, and how a military mind can have a difficult time grasping that the arms race doesn’t really have a winning side. Plus, there’s Riker having a past that makes him a few shades less than perfect, and if there are few things Moore loves more as a writer than tarnished heroes.

Before the grimness gets going, however, we get a rather delightful cold open: The school children of the Enterprise have made a variety of arts and crafts to celebrate the annual Picard Day, and the captain, Troi, and Riker are looking over the results. Picard is, unsurprisingly, extremely uncomfortable about all of this. The only way the situation could possibly be worse for him is if the children where there right then, watching as he judged their efforts—and you just know that any decision he makes is going to require him praising the winner personally. Troi argues in favor of the display, and Riker’s there to make jokes. It’s all quite hilarious (neat to see how far this show has come; I can’t even imagine how botched this would’ve been if they’d tried something similar in the first season), until Picard gets a special message from Starfleet. The Enterprise has new orders: It’s to pick up Admiral Eric Pressman (O’Quinn), and head out in search for the Pegasus, Pressman’s former ship. The Pegasus had been assumed lost for years now, but pieces have turned up recently indicating that the ship may still be intact somewhere, and now it’s of crucial importance that the Federation find it before the Romulans do. 

There’s something else, too, although we don’t find out about it for a while. The Pegasus was Riker’s first tour of duty, and Pressman his first commanding officer. The two keep exchanging looks, Pressman’s avid, Riker’s uncomfortable, and whenever they talk in private, the conversation is heated; there’s an “experiment” that may still be on board the Pegasus, a piece of equipment that makes Riker very, very uncomfortable to talk about. We also get telling hints about their former relationship when Pressman has an informal chat with Picard. Picard explains that the reason he picked Riker as his first officer was that he respected Will’s confidence and ability to follow his own judgment. To him, Riker is a man who can obey orders without sacrificing his own moral compass. Pressman is surprised by this. On board the Pegasus, he tells Picard, Will was a very different sort of officer. Clearly, there’s a past here, and it’s one which has definite relevance in the present, especially now that the dread Romulans have arrived. One of the many highlights of “Pegasus” is watching Picard chat with Commander Siral, captain of the Terix. They are both excessively polite, but the threats are unmistakable. (You almost wonder if part of Picard’s fury at the end is due to the fact that he’ll have to apologize to this creep for Pressman’s actions.)

Eventually, the Enterprise crew is able to track the Pegasus to where it got stuck so many years ago—the inside of an asteroid. (We’re in the Devolin System, in case you were wondering.) The ship is half stuck in the rock, and that turns out to be a big clue as to exactly what’s going on here. Picard does some digging, and discovers that there were suspicions of a mutiny on board the Pegasus, and that no one did much in the way of investigating what really happened on the ship that led to Riker and Pressman (and a few others) escaping. Picard confronts Riker with this, and if there was any doubt that this was a Moore episode to the bone, that disappears here: Picard is frustrated, and he’s especially frustrated at the way his first officer and an outsider are seemingly conspiring together to keep him in the dark. He doesn’t know exactly what kind of danger he’s putting the Enterprise in, and Pressman’s determination to push forward (or press—wow, the name’s practically Dickensian, isn’t it) without providing any new answers is making the worst out of a bad situation. The fact that he can’t even completely trust Riker to keep him informed during the crisis is clearly getting to him. It’s easy to accept Pressman as the villain. He’s new, and we’ve had a long history of Starfleet creeps from all over the chain of command. But Riker? Finding out Riker has a blemish on his record stings a little, as it was clearly intended to, and watching him and Picard fight is unsettling. Everybody’s chums on board the Enterprise! Quick, somebody make ’em hug.

Unsettling can make for great drama, though, and like other tense episodes on TNG, “Pegasus” makes the most out of bending the ties between its main characters without actually going so far as to break them. While this episode shares certain basic ideas with BSG, the essential safety of the core group—the belief that these are all inherently decent people and that they can work together to achieve common goals—remains intact. If anything, the occasional testing makes those ties even stronger, much like the eventual revelation about Will’s past sins serve to make his current steadfast decency seem wiser and more earned. After forcing Picard to take the Enterprise inside the asteroid to get closer to the Pegasus, Pressman and Riker beam aboard their old ship, where they find an engineering section half fused with solid rock. It turns out the “experiment” Pressman has been so keen to get back is a new kind of cloaking device, one that allows a ship to go invisible and phase through solid matter. This is a big deal—and it also violates the Treaty of Algeron which the Federation signed, prohibiting the development and use of cloaking devices. Pressman doesn’t care, and he also didn’t give much thought to his crew’s safety years ago, which is what prompted the mutiny. Riker, being young and inexperienced, sided with Pressman, and, as ordered, kept silent about what happened ever since. He’s not proud of this.

As horrible pasts go, this one ranks low on the outrage scale, and that’s smart. While this episode gets mileage out of the tension between Riker and Pressman and Riker and Picard, that tension isn’t about us discovering some awful thing that Will’s done that changes everything we know about the character. This isn’t the “drowned kid reveal,” or anywhere close to that. This is more about making a mistake when you don’t really know any better, and then having to deal with the consequences of that mistake; not because it’s punishment or because of karmic retribution, but because that’s just what happens sometimes. And more than that, it’s about how locking on to a single idea can be dangerous. On the Pegasus, Riker was lacking in self-confidence and confused, so he latched on to the principle that the people in power are always right, even when they aren’t. Pressman is committed to getting the most powerful weapon the Federation can develop, regardless of what that means in the long term. “Pegasus” could’ve been overly harsh or melodramatic; instead, it works towards reaffirming the basic principles of the show, and of Picard’s Enterprise, by demonstrating the behavior that arises when people put aside careful consideration in favor of knee-jerk response. It seems like a criticism directed at the military, too, both in young Riker’s foolhardy commitment to the chain of command, and Pressman’s fixation on militaristic goals above political and social ones. 

Or maybe it’s just reminding us once again that obsession (which has a tendency to short circuit common sense) is never a good idea. Pressman and Riker bring the cloaking device back on board the Enterprise, but when the Terix gets the drop on the ship, Riker tells Picard about the “experiment,” and offers the device as a way to cut through the asteroid and deal with the Romulans in open space. We get another great scene between two terrific actors, as Stewart and O’Quinn face off—but once Riker comes clean about what’s going on, Pressman has basically lost. He tries to take command of the Enterprise, but Worf refuses his orders, and Picard has Pressman arrested. Riker turns himself in, too. Oh sure, he gets off in the end—it’s Riker, and Riker always gets off (that one was for free, folks)—but it’s satisfying to see him turn himself in just the same. Not because we want him arrested, or because we feel he needs to get punished—well, I certainly didn’t want or feel either of those things. What I did feel, though, was a sense of justice being served, of an order being re-established. Again, unlike BSG, the good guys get to stay good guys at the end, and they still have a way to wash their hands clean of sin. I appreciate the darkness an edgier drama can provide, but there’s something to be said for a show where the only permanent crimes are committed by the guest stars.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • Not going to lie—I don’t know why I didn’t go for the full “A” on either of these. Just a gut feeling. (They’re both very good, though.)
  • According to Memory Alpha, (SPOILER ALERT ABOUT ENTERPRISE) the last episode of Enterprise takes place during this episode. Even knowing how Enterprise ended, that sounds bizarre. 
  • Also according to Memory Alpha, this is the first time we’ve gotten an explanation for why the Federation doesn’t use cloaking devices.

Next week: We get to re-open the Prime Directive debate when we head “Homeward,” and Beverly has a forbidden romance in “Sub Rosa.”

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