"Redemption, Part II"
Or The One Where Tasha Yar Gets Screwed Again
Well, that was a bit of a let down.
To be fair, season premieres on TNG have always been hit or miss. "Encounter at Farpoint" was one of the stronger episodes of the first season, but that's due as much to novelty and the general suckage of the rest of the season, as much as it is the quality of the episode itself. "The Child" was flat out terrible, the sort of awkward cul-de-sac that's probably necessary for a show's development (in a "Yeah, let's never do that again" kind of way) but a disappointing, off-putting episode on its own. "Evolution"... wasn't terrible. A bit dry, maybe, but the story was coherent, and Troi wasn't forced to embarrass herself any more than usual. "Best of Both Worlds, Part II," while not as strong as the first part, was still a fine way to open the fourth season, however, and given that "Redemption, Part I," seems to be following the same pattern—strong opening, big changes, bit of a cliffhanger ending—well, it wasn't unreasonable to expect that "Redemption, Part II" would keep the streak alive.
It doesn't, though; it's not terrible, but there are some frustrating missteps here, and Worf, who should've been the centerpiece of the storyline, spends too much of his time as a frustratingly passive bystander. In a way, this makes sense. We need to get Worf back to the Enterprise, so he has to have some kind of change of heart. A logical way to do this is to show him being increasingly disenchanted with the way the Klingon Empire does business and how its supposed ideals, when put into practice, turn into a lot of pointless back-stabbing and fighting. And that's basically what we get, except there isn't a whole lot of Worf in there. We see him struggling to make his brother see reason, then getting kicked around a bit (sigh); the Duras sisters kidnap him and try and win him over to their cause. He refuses, and then, when Gowron finally solidifies power, Worf refuses to execute Toral, the Duras heir. Then he asks Picard if he can return to duty on the Enterprise, and Picard says sure. All the pieces are there, but it's as though no one working on the episode realized that Worf is really the key part of this story and not some ridiculously convoluted twist involving Tasha Yar's daughter.
Yeah, so about that "bit of a cliffhanger"... "Best of Both Worlds, Part I" has one of the best cliffhangers in the history of genre television. "Redemption, Part I," has a little loved former cast member revealing that—gasp!—she's not dead. I mean, that we character isn't dead. Except the original Tasha Yar is, in fact, dead, and Denise Crosby is actually playing Tasha's half-human, half-Romulan daughter, Sela. Which makes Crosby's presence here even less justifiable, seeing as how most people don't look exactly like their parents. I'm getting ahead of myself, though; my first point is that as cliffhangers go, this was lukewarm tea, and not very good tea at that. The reveal was handled in such a way as to make us think something exciting was happening, and it sort of was, but, well, is anyone really missing Yar at this point? Or Crosby? Worf quitting the Enterprise to stand by his brother's side, Worf regaining his family honor, Picard seemingly abandoning the Klingon Empire to destroy itself from the inside: These are plot points worth getting excited about. Except none of those really yielded the same level of shock as Riker's "Fire." Sela doesn't either, but she is a question that has to be answered, and her presence is striking in a way that Worf wearing a Klingon uniform can't quite match.
Still, I should've trusted my gut reaction to her return more, because Crosby is all over "Redemption, Part II," and the more we learn about her, the less we want to know. I had this weird idea that it was all going to come down to some nonsense about cloning; somehow, maybe when Tasha from "Yesterday's Enterprise" traveled back in time, the Romulans got a sample of her DNA, and then decided to make a copy. (I also had thought it might turn out that Toral was a clone as well, since it seemed awfully convenient that the sisters would have him on hand just when they needed a legitimate heir to the throne.) This would've been ridiculous, yes—why the hell would anyone want to clone Tasha Yar?—but no more ridiculous than what we got. At least my way, Yar's sacrifice in "Yesterday's" would remain relatively unscathed, a satisfying conclusion to an abbreviated character arc.
Instead, we learn that Tasha survived the initial battle, that she was taken back to Romulus, where she was forced to be the consort to a Romulan official; that she bore his child, and four years later, tried to escape captivity with the toddler in tow (where should escape to is never made clear, but this is Tasha, after all, and long games were never her strong suit); and that the toddler, Sela, realizing what her mother was trying to do, called out, thwarting the escape plan and leading to her mother's execution. On its own, that's a strong back-story. It lets us know straight off that Sela is a troubled, nasty piece of work. Unfortunately, this doesn't exist in isolation, and by trying to merge this character with what we already know about Tasha, Sela's childhood and, let's face it, frankly irrelevant ancestry become pointlessly distracting at best, and insulting to one of the show's strongest episodes at worst. Now, instead of Tasha getting to go out on a high note, fighting for what she believes in alongside someone she loves, she spends four years getting raped, and then she's betrayed by her own child and killed. She was better off getting murdered by the Pudding Skin Monster.
What compounds the frustration here is that there is no reason for any of this. We need a Romulan bad guy for Picard to square off against, sure, but pulling Crosby back on the show doesn't add some new drama to the situation, and it certainly doesn't enhance the conflict which already exists. Instead, we get a few scenes in which everyone on board the Enterprise is shocked to see Yar's face again, Picard has a conversation with her about her past, and then... that's it, really. The climax of the episode focuses largely on Data figuring out a way to detect Romulan ships while they're still cloaked, and while Sela is in charge of the fleet, there's no emotional component to her defeat. Two-parters should only happen when you can't possibly fit all the story you need to fit into one episode and when all that story needs to be told in one basic unit. Here, it just seems like they wanted to find a hook for the end of last season and then didn't bother to think how that would really work with the Klingon Civil War.
As for the Civil War, well, it all gets resolved awfully quickly, which is the problem with this kind of tenuous approach to serialization; two episodes isn't really enough to do it justice, but TNG isn't designed to devote much more than that. Even under those conditions, though, this feels pretty abrupt. Picard's justification for getting Starfleet involved is sound, and Data gets to kick some righteous ass as the captain of his own ship, which, honestly, is another plotline that really deserved its own episode. We see Data displaying emotion to win the attention and begrudging respect of his First Officer, and while it's clearly a choice he's making based on what he's seen Picard do, it's fascinating to wonder what effect this could have on his development. Plus, it's just nice to see him put yet another dickish officer in his place.
Weirdly, Data's quick-thinking, struggles in the face of prejudice, and final conversation with Picard are the dramatic and emotional high-points of the episode. And that, quite frankly, isn't right. Worf gets precious little to do on TNG as it is, and when offered a perfect opportunity to give him the spotlight, "Part II" seems more interested in needlessly re-opening old wounds. Individual scenes are still strong, but they fail to combine to any greater effect, and after the potentially rousing set up of "Redemption, Part I," this is mostly a disappointment.
- My problems with this episode can really be summed up by this is exchange between Kurn and Worf: "But it's our way. It's the Klingon way." "I know. But it is not my way." That is what the episode should've been about.
- I forgot that Guinan comes to see Picard to give him some vague "Yesterday's Enterprise"-related exposition. Now that I've remembered this, I'm going to try and forget it again. They managed to get away with using Guinan's intuition to drive the plot in "Yesterday's." They really shouldn't go back to that well ever again.
- Still, I can't grade this too low, since Picard's "Mr. Data, nicely done" was terrific. Especially the grin on Stewart's face when he said it.
Or Handlen at the AV Club, Where The Words Flowed
How much you enjoy "Darmok" depends a great deal on what kind of sci-fi fan you are; in fact, it depends on how you approach stories in general. It depends on how far you're willing to go to meet a concept half-way, and how "realistic" you demand that concept to be. Because, yes, we can get all picky and point out that there are all kinds of things on TNG that don't really make sense, or are improbable, or bend disbelief. I've had a great deal of fun making fun of the holodeck for this reason, and I still have a hard time taking the replicators entirely seriously. But we can overlook those, because we're in Future Land, and we're willing to accept certain basic concepts. We don't need to know how they work. We see how the society around them functions, and that's enough. Besides, we're traveling the galaxy here in hours and days, not centuries. Unless we accept a little of Arthur C. Clarke's "magic" technology, we're never going to get anywhere.
No matter how much you're willing to swallow, though, the Children of Tama are a stretch. At least, their mode of communication is. It sounds English-y enough, but instead of declarative sentences, we just get a constant stream of references. "Shaka, when the walls fell" and "Darmok at Tanagra" and the always popular "Sokath! His eyes uncovered!" That sort of thing. It's ridiculous when you first hear it, until you piece together what's happening; each phrase (and most are repeated multiple times throughout the episode) represents a specific emotion or circumstance. "Shaka. When the walls fell" means failure or disappointment; "Darmok at Tanagra" is a warrior making a stand; "Sokath! His eyes uncovered!" indicates someone who finally understands the truth. It's not just random words meant to confuse poor Picard and his crew. It's a different way of thinking, which leads to a different way of communication, which means Picard's usual offers of peace and friendship are going to be a little more complicated to convey.
Now, here's the tricky part. Once you get the core concept of "Darmok," it is very, very easy to dismiss it entirely. Organically, it makes no real sense at all. A language based entirely in metaphor would still need some way of conveying concrete facts; you can't build a starship by saying, "Solo! At the Kessel Run!" And seeing as how the Tamarians clearly have words beyond names, it's hard to understand why they don't start with simple, straightforward exchanges when they're dealing with a new race. Picard spends most of the episode stranded on a planet with the Tamarian captain, Dathon (the inimitable Paul Winfield, who once again learns that the Star Trek universe is hazardous to his health), struggling to find some common ground, and the Tamarian language is so absurdly conceived that it often seems like Dathon is being willfully obtuse. This is a plotline that practically begs to be nitpicked and mocked, and the show's target audience, by and large, are people who get a lot of self-worth out of doing just that. It's almost worse than the God-Like-Beings, because at least those, you can wave away any absurdities with "Eh, wizard did it." Here, the episode needs us to believe that the Tamarians are powerful but not omnipotent, and that neither side has complete control over what happens next.
I loved this episode, though, because it's the sort of episode that you have to love to enjoy it at all. If you can get past the improbability of the core concept (all language is, essentially, metaphor, words used as stand-ins for something else, and that the Tamarians would get this, and yet not refine it past the broad concepts we see them expressing here, is bizarre), the episode is carried by terrific performances, particularly Stewart and Winfield, a freaky monster, and a suspenseful climax. Just as importantly, it's carried by that concept, which, absurd or no, actually looks to address one of the most powerful, and unsettling, aspects of communication: Namely, how do you successfully exchange ideas with a different species? How do you find common ground when you come from different worlds? The best way to look at the Tamarian language of metaphor is to view the language as a metaphor itself, for demonstrating in easy to grasp terms how two sides can find understanding nearly impossible, even when both are striving for the same basic goal.
Basic story: The Children of Tama have sent out a signal that they'd like to try and open relations with the Federation. Attempts have been made in the past to communicate with them, but these attempts have all failed. (In retrospect, we have to accept a little bit of a stretch here. While the Tamarians' grammar is certainly confusing and difficult to grasp for an outsider, I'm not sure I buy that no one had ever made the basic leap that Picard makes here. Again, it works better if we assume this is just symbolic of a more complex issue. The Tamarians represent a different kind of thinking, and the only way to really connect with them is to be placed in a situation where understanding is vital to survival.) The Enterprise follows the signal, meets the Tamarian ship, and talks break down almost immediately. After a heated conversation between Dathon and, presumably, his first officer, the Tamarians beam Dathon and Picard down to the planet and put up a disrupter force field preventing the Enterprise from beaming Picard back, or contacting him in any way.
At first, Picard believes that Dathon intends to fight him; the knives Dathon keeps waving around would seem to support this theory. But it turns out the knives are actually protection against invisible-ish beastie that eventually attacks both men. It's all about trying to force a friendship in the heat of battle, of risking everything to try and make contact, and while Dathon eventually pays the full price for his commitment, the connection is made. Picard is able to save the Enterprise and make peace with the remaining Tamarians at the last minute, speaking to them in a way they can understand.
So in one way, this is a story we've seen many times before: Two enemies (or, in this case, strangers on uncertain terms) slowly find a way towards mutual agreement in the face of death. What makes this is work is that it forces you to think about why you say what you say and how we take for granted that our method of communication is the "real" one. It's one thing to meet a race that uses different words, but the Tamarians view language in a completely different way than we do. I think I've mentioned the great Stanislaw Lem here before; he's a science fiction writer who dealt with these ideas often in his work, and one of his central tenets was the very real possibility that, were we ever to meet an actual alien race, we'd have no way to exchange ideas with them at all. In Solaris, his most famous novel, a small group of scientists try and study what might be a living planet, and that planet sends up avatars in the form of people from those scientists lives. In most sci-fi stories, those avatars would helpfully explain what was happening, and everybody would have a good cry, ala Jodie Foster and her dead dad in Contact. In Solaris, the avatars, like the hero's wife, who committed suicide before he left Earth to join the expedition, have no idea what's happening. No one does. The planet might be trying to study them, maybe it's trying to help them move on, or maybe it's just a reflex reaction, of no more meaning than a sneeze.
"Darmok" isn't quite at Stansilaw Lem levels of brilliance, but it, at least, is willing to admit that the Federation's open-hand policy towards new species isn't always as easy as it sounds. The Trek universe tends to be tediously homogeneous when it comes to creature design. There are occasional exceptions, and I don't think it's quite fair to hold an on-going television series to blame for being budget conscious. But while the Tamarians are visually the same humanoid type creatures we always get, there's at least an effort here at trying to convey the potential gulf between our expectations and the actual possibilities of alien contact. In the end, the best Picard can manage is to convey his grief over Dathon's death to the Tamarian crew and stave off a potential war. There's no serious treaty established, no negotiations begun. But he has taken the first step towards accepting that there are more things in Heaven and space than are dreamt of in Starfleet's philosophy. It's not a bad place to start.
- I considered dropping this down to an A-, as I really do wish that writers Joe Menosky and Philip LaZebnik had put a little more effort into the language concept here, but then, "Darmok" is an hour long, and they needed something that was strong enough to get across in a short period of time. One episode isn't really enough time to go full Tolkein.
- Also, it would make me terribly sad to give any episode where Patrick Stewart relates the story of Gilgamesh less than an A.
- Worf comes back to duty, and immediately, everybody starts reminding him how he's wrong about everything.
Next week: We meet everybody's favorite "Ensign Ro," and I try not to make any Pamela Anderson jokes during "Silicon Avatar."