Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Q Who?"/"Samaritan Snare"/"Up The Long Ladder" 
B+

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Q Who?"/"Samaritan Snare"/"Up The Long Ladder" 

"Q Who?"

It's easy to get lost in the wild. Call it the arrogance of the path. You see the trail under your feet, you follow it for miles through thick forest growth, and after so many steps, you get to feeling sure of yourself. The path is important, but surely it's your native wit and instincts that have gotten you this far. You are prepared for the occasional crash of branches in the distance, the stray rocks, the signs pointing forward so caked in moss and sun baked it takes careful detective work to read them. You brought a good supply of snacks, you're wearing proper shoes, and the blister on your left heel, well, that's the price of having an adventure. After a while, you look through all the greenery and you think, I don't really need the trail, do I? There's a hill over there I wouldn't mind seeing the other side of, or that maple tree a few hundred yards off that looks like easy climbing. What's a day in the woods without a little risk.

So you step off the path in the boots you bought mail order and your good thick slacks are stained brown in seconds. You trudge through mud you didn't notice, and the moisture seeps into your wool socks and you sweat. The swarm of flies around you grows so thick that you can taste bug whenever you open your mouth and the buzzing becomes a never-ending howl. The hill is taller than it seemed, the maple tree is dead inside and groans at your touch, and you're getting sick of this. You already finished the Gatorade and the granola bars you brought, and the pack straps rub your shoulders. The path really was important, because the path was the way back, and having it beneath you meant all these difficulties were simply irritants to be endured. Now they're something else. And then you realize you aren't entirely sure what direction you started out from, and when you try and backtrack you go at least twice the distance you came in without finding your own trail. The crashing sound is closer now. You want to run, but you're already sinking. 

I love the moment when a good show becomes great. I love feeling all your investment and increasingly desperate optimism suddenly pay off. We've had good TNG episodes before this, but "Q Who?" goes that one extra step, and finally, finally takes the show out from behind TOS's shadow once and for all. There'll be backtracking in the weeks to come, no doubt (and we've got one fairly painful episode to look at in a few paragraphs), but before now, it was possible to legitimately question if TNG could ever stand on its own feet. That is no longer an issue. From now on, even when the writing sucks and the characters are annoying and the special effects insult our ocular abilities, we know for certain that the series is at least capable of kicking some serious ass.

Admittedly, "Who?" doesn't start with a bang. The title is cutesy, and our first scene is all about introducing the new hottie ensign in Engineering, a motormouth named Sonya who talks Geordi's ear off before spilling hot chocolate on a less than amused Captain Picard. Given that the episode marks our first introduction to the Borg, I half-wondered if this wasn't all a set-up to kill Sonya in the third act and create some pathos, but she's actually a semi-recurring character. (I think "Who?" is a rare case where such a cliched structure might've worked, given how rarely people die on the show by now. Still, the almost incidental horror of the crew deaths we do get works fine on its own.) Intentionally or not, a scene like this provides a false sense of security, because it's nothing we haven't seen before. Geordi is friendly, the new personnel is gawky and excited, and Picard is just barely polite. Quell surprise.

It gets interesting fast, though. Q reappears, snatching Picard off the Enterprise and onto a shuttlecraft in order to follow the letter of the law of his previous "stay away from this ship!" promise. Q has been booted out of the continuum, and wants to join up with Picard's crew. He argues that he'd be a valuable, even essential asset, with all his crazy semi-magical powers and willingness to insult Worf. Picard understandably balks at the idea. Q insists, "You're not prepared for what awaits you." Picard disagrees, and what makes this scene (and the rest of the episode) work so well is that we're fully on his side. We've seen the Enterprise struggle against all manner of aliens, god-like beings, and internal strife, and while there's been the occasional tense situation, no challenge has ever proven insurmountable. In fact, that's one of the central tenets of the Trek universe: intelligence, compassion, and force of will are enough to solve any problem. As Guinan points out, that's what human's do--we adapt, and we learn, and sooner or later, we will kick ass. 

So Q decides to prove his point, by throwing the Enterprise 7,000 light years off course and forcing the crew to face an enemy they can't beat. And you know why "Who?" is brilliant? Because for once, Q is right.

Before they became the vampires of the Trek-verse (I would totally read a Twilight-esque series about a whiny teenage girl and the cyborg who wants to utterly erase any vestige of her individuality. You wouldn't even have to change much from the original books), the Borg were terrifying. They're zombies, which is part of it--each individual body is valueless, they can't be reasoned with directly, and whenever you kill one, another follows soon after. It gets worse, though. Zombies don't work together, they don't handle tools well, and they don't have a philosophy beyond grabbing and chewing. The Borg have a purpose that is at odds with nearly everything we value about life. They don't parlay, or conquer, or even massacre. They assimilate. They homogenize. And they learn very, very fast.

It's scary to watch how thoroughly ill-equipped our heroes are to deal with such a threat. They try peaceful communication, with no response. There's a great sequence when one of the Borg beams aboard and starts trying to take over the ship. Picard attempts to reason with him, then someone moves to physically restrain the creature, then Worf fires his phaser, first on stun, then on the kill setting. The first Borg dies. Another beams aboard and takes over where the first left off, and this time, when Worf fires his phaser, the Borg has a shield that blocks the beam. It's an exciting, tense scene, but what really matters is how little attention the Borg pay to any of the Enterprise crew. They are irrelevant to the process. Picard asks Guinan, who's had dealings with the Borg before, how to defeat them. "You don't," she says. Given how generally positive her character is, that brutal two word negative is dark stuff indeed.

Things get worse. There's a brief hope when the Enterprise manages to do some damage to the Borg ship, but considering the ship's design, it's not surprising that even 20 percent destruction fails to slow them down that much. So we get to the big climax, and we have our expectations. This is when Picard pulls out the big guns, or Data comes up with a clever technical fix, or Wesley is annoyingly perfect, or any of a dozen possible solutions we've come to expect from our heroes. If that had happened, this still would've been a strong episode. The Borg are a creative and effective threat, Q is at his most entertainingly obnoxious, and the stakes are very high indeed.

Instead, though, Picard turns to Q and he begs for help. There's really no nice way to put it. He admits that the Enterprise isn't ready to face this danger, and he pleads with Q to save them. You could argue this is a cheat, a weak resolution that betrays an inability on the part of writer Maurice Hurley to come up with a clever twist--and you'd be wrong. "Who?" isn't the best TNG episode. It lacks an emotional impact that later storylines would manage. It is, however, the first great episode, because it admits that these humans, who have been walking that path for so long that they seem to have forgotten there ever was a wilderness, can be arrogant, and weak, and that they can be bested. It introduces us to an alien force which for once truly is alien, and it doesn't cheapen the introduction by engineering a conclusion just to let Picard save face. The 18 crewmembers who die here stay dead even after Q brings the ship back home. In the end, Picard learns that there are some dangers that the human spirit can't overcome through ability alone, and that their escape is a temporary one. The Borg know the Enterprise is out there. And they're not ones to forget a name.

Grade: A

Stray Observations:

  • Q is really at his best here--his motives are plausible, his theatrics are enthusiastic without becoming overly flamboyant, and De Lancie is gets the most out of some really excellent lines. "The hall is rented. The orchestra engaged. It's now time to see if you can dance," could've been corny, but it plays very well.
  • Hey, Guinan has a purpose! The hand gesture stand-off between her and Q is hilarious, and we have a very different look at her character here: she's still wise and Yoda-esque, but there's a deep sadness behind it, and, once the Borg show up, her resignation is as unsettling as any histrionics would've been. (Come to think of it, that's also Yoda-esque.)
  • Speaking of arrogance, how cocky do you have to be to beam over to an enemy ship with a phaser you already know is ineffective? Riker, Worf, and Data's brief trip to the Borg cube is worth it for the view of all those resting bodies, and the creepy as hell Borg nursery, but Riker puts a lot of faith in his and his men's ability to protect themselves. Which fits in with the rest of the episode, really. (And you gotta love Picard beaming them back to the bridge immediately upon realizing that the Borg ship is regenerating.)

"Samaritan Snare"

The other two episodes this week aren't anywhere near the same class as "Q Who?", although I suppose I should be grateful for the order I watched them in. "Snare" is decent, and deals with some of the same themes as "Who?," albeit on a much smaller, less effective scale. "Up the Long Ladder," on the other hand... Well, I appreciate decompression as much as the next man, is what I'm saying. If I'd had to face the Space Irish after hanging out with the Borg, I think I would've stapled a fax machine to my chest and told everyone to call me Locutus. 

Anyway, "Snare." We've got two main plots here which don't connect till the finale. There's Picard travelling with Wesley to Starbase 515; and back on the Enterprise, there's Riker and company meeting the idiotic Pakleds, who turn out to be not quite as idiotic as they initially appear. (Although even then, they're still pretty dumb.) It's a sign of how far the show has come that even plots as relatively straightforward and, well, uninspired as these go down painlessly. The Pakleds, who look like a bunch of fat clowns out of make-up, are less a race than a physical representation of a satirical construct, but it's not like that's new to the show, and they're less offensive than the Ferengi. As for Picard's story, it's mundane, and Wesley is as much a sap as ever, but it's always fun to see Patrick Stewart glowering at people.

All right, Picard first--he has a broken heart. Literally. Pulaski is demanding he get a replacement, but Picard refuses to have the work done on ship, because he can't bear the idea that anyone on board know about his weakness. So he hitches a ride with Wesley, who's headed to the Starbase for some kind of Starfleet Academy testing. (He has to prove his work on the Enterprise should count for course credit.) There's mild comedy in Wesley being nervous about having to make small talk with a clearly irritable captain, and the kid doesn't do himself any favors with comments like, "You might have made a good father." (That's the line I have in my notes. I can't help thinking "would" makes more sense than "might," but hey, a man has to trust his notes.) I've come to expect this kind of behavior from the character, and while it still makes me wince, it could've been worse.

At least it gives us a chance for back-story. Picard talks about duty and obligation, which isn't a huge surprise, but he also reveals the heart problem, and explains that it stems from his wild and crazy youth, when he got in a fight with some Nausicaans (apparently Robert McCullough is a Miyazaki fan) and wound up with a spear through his chest. It's a nice speech, well delivered, and it gives some context for Picard's obsessive image concerns which generally play as forced drama. Picard doesn't exactly regret his past, but he's aware of the separation between who he was, and who he is, and it's important to him to keep that distinction. Which makes you wonder how much he's still trying to prove, really. 

As for the Pakleds, once again we see a commanding officer's confidence getting him (and others) into hot water. The Pakleds show up with a damaged ship, Riker offers to send Geordi over to help with repairs, and when Worf, quite reasonably, objects to sending over the Chief of Engineering to strangers whose true intentions aren't clear, Riker dismisses the warning out of hand. We've seen the Enterprise offering assistance to those in need before, so Riker's behavior here isn't out of character, but it's nice that Worf gets a chance to be right for once. The TNG crew are far, far more trusting than they really ought to be, and while their willingness to help when they can speaks well of them as people, it's not the best policy to expect everyone else to return that kindness. Riker is all about the bold choices, and having a race as borderline mentally incompetent as the Pakleds briefly get the better of him makes for a solid reversal. 

Like the Borg, the Pakleds are more dangerous then they initially appear, because they "innovate" by stealing the technology they want from their intellectual superiors. But where the Borg's theft is done via advanced weaponry and utter ruthlessness (I'm not even sure "ruthlessness" is the right word, because it implies a disregard for morality, and the Borg are beyond even disregard), as far as we can tell, the Pakleds steal by taking advantage of others' kindness. While Riker is able to find a way to save Geordi without too much trouble (the complicated ruse he puts on was less impressive in action than I was hoping, given the Sting-like conning that precedes it), these are still some deeply creepy mofos. They blast Geordi with his own phaser multiple times without any change in demeanor, and I couldn't help wondering how many bodies they buried to get their own ship. Sure, they don't have much of a weapons system, but imagine three or four of the things just charging you at once, and... brrr. 

The two plotlines come together when Picard's supposedly safe heart surgery goes wrong, and only Dr. Pulaski has the necessary training to save the day. It's a little silly. The episode would've worked better without forced suspense, and really, might've been better served by jettisoning the Picard story entirely. I can understand needing him off the ship, as Picard would've been more cautious than Riker during the initial dealings with the Pakleds, but I wouldn't have minded a few more turns of the screw on Geordi's kidnapping. We've yet to see a really effective two-storyline episode, but I'll keep hope alive a little while longer.

Grade: B-

Stray Observations:

  • Picard gave Wesley a William James book. I was assigned James' Principles of Psychology in college, and much like Wesley, I didn't read much of it. (Although I hear it's quite good.)
  • Why do so many of the doctors on this show dress like Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers?

"Up The Long Ladder"

And then things just get stupid.

There are a handful of scenes I really enjoyed in "Long Ladder," and they're good enough that I would champion them even if they hadn't stood out in such stark contrast to the rest of this crap heap. Those scenes are: Worf faints, Pulaski treats him, they bond, and she takes part in a Klingon Tea Ceremony. It's excellent. Pulaski's coldness works to her favor, and her clear respect for Worf makes for a strong connection between the characters. The Ceremony itself is fascinating--the tea is poisonous, and while the poison isn't fatal to Klingons, drinking it isn't pleasant. Like most everything else the Klingons do in ritual, it's all about proving one's abilities as a warrior, and Pulaski shows herself more than equal to the challenge when she pre-doses herself with an antidote that makes it possible for her to drink the tea with Worf. In a few minutes, the scene does everything you want out of TNG, demonstrating respect for another culture, a sly sense of humor, and an eagerness to explore.

Then there's the friggin Space Irish, who eat up half the running time and plague us with comic relief and tedious stereotypes. I honestly don't really have a lot to say about this. I've been writing about Trek for a while now, and I've ranted at length about both TOS and TNG's lapses into cultural cliche. There's not much to add here, so this is probably going to be a short review. Go watch "Q Who?" again with the time you'll save. You can thank me later. 

All right, once upon a time there were two groups of people who traveled together to the stars in search of a new home. One group wanted to stick with the old ways, full of butter-churning and venereal disease and hateful, shrewish women who are also hot, so it's okay that they're evil. The other group was big on science. Group one ended up with Planet The Quiet Man, group two ended up with Planet Parts: The Clonus Horror, and it's up to the Enterprise to rejoin the disparate halves into one destined to implode after the first month whole. Everything is terribly convenient. Riker bangs an attractive woman, we get a lot of horrid comic relief, and we learn Riker really hates clones.

About that hot woman: yeah, Brenna (Rosalyn Landor), the daughter of the clan chief of the Space Irish (who irritated me so much I'm not even going to search through my notes for his proper name), is easy on the eyes, but that doesn't excuse her being a twerp. I suppose growing up with Paddy O'Predictable as a da would ruin anyone's outlook, but our first introduction to Brenna has her screaming at Picard because she's not happy with the Enterprise. Picard gets this look on his face like he's having a Private Moment, and when Riker stays behind to put the moves on the shouty Irish lass, he and Picard exchange a glance that seems to indicate both men know exactly what will happen next. Which could've led to a really nasty, In The Company of Men scenario, but instead is meant to convince us that Brenna is irresistible. I'm not seeing it. Sure, the midriff-bearing outfit she wears is striking, and sure, she seems to be fairly easy to impress, but this is a character with two settings: "YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG" and "kissing." I'm probably alone on this, but I find the unpleasantness of the former outweighs the promise of the latter.

The cloning storyline isn't awful. Riker and Pulaski's vehement opposition to the idea of donating their own DNA to the land of Xerox made sense, as did Riker's complete willingness to destroy his clone when he discovers his genetic material was stolen. (Another nice moment here when Riker checks with Pulaski before destroying her clone as well.) I guess there was some kind of point being made about the sterility of one colony needing the chaotic life force of the Space Irish to survive, and how both groups could stand for some moderation of their core principles, but it mostly just felt like two concepts grafted onto one another because neither was developed enough to fill a full episode. There's only so many times you can say that bad comic relief is always painful, and bad ethnic comic relief is worse than that. I'm glad someone working for TNG saw Darby O'Gill And The Little People at a young age and was forever haunted by it. Maybe if we'd had a few more leprechauns here, I might've had more fun.

Grade: C

Stray Observations:

  • Funny how Riker once again falls for the "we could use some help with repairs" trick. At least this time he's the one who gets screwed over and not poor Geordi.
  • Oh, and there's talk of how all the men will need to father at least three children with three different women, which everybody gets very excited about. If these Space Irish are supposed to be holding to the old ways, wouldn't some of them be offended by the enforced promiscuity? And is there any reason why, since the clone colony caves and allows the influx of new blood, that they can't just put the call out for more settlers so the romantic relations don't have to be quite so mathematical?
  • Next week, join me as I hopefully find some more interesting things to say about "Manhunt," "The Emissary," and "Peak Performance."

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