"Shades Of Gray"
Clip shows are con games. Really, all narrative fiction is, but whereas most episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation respect that the audience is in on the game (these are actors, those are sets, costumes, that dialog is scripted, Riker's beard can't possibly be so luxurious in real life, etc), "Shades Of Gray" is one hour long middle finger at all us rubes. It suckers you in with maybe ten minutes worth of new plot, and then it turns into a "previously on" reel. It's not even a collection of truly great scenes, either, just random moments with enough tenuous connection to the so-called "real" crisis to let the writers sleep at night. I understand the justification behind a clip show. It's a way to stretch a budget to produce one more episode the producers can't really afford. That doesn't make it any more enjoyable to watch, and it doesn't really excuse its existence. I'd rather see even the worst episode of the series--even "Angel One"--again before I'd willingly watch this.
The excuse here is that Riker is injured by a strange life form, and the poison from that injury presents a mortal threat. Pulaski is stumped, Picard and Troi are concerned, and Riker makes jokes and tries to hide his own worry right up until he falls into a coma. Then the parade of flashbacks begin. There's a rudimentary attempt at justification: all the clips feature Riker (of course), and as the "story" progresses, Pulaski learns that Riker's emotional state is crucial to stopping the spread of the infection that's killing him. So she and Troi talk about negative memories, and Pulaski uses her fabulous medical science skills to dredge up some of Riker's worst moments of the past two seasons. I'll give them points for bothering here--they could've just put everyone in Ten-Forward and had them reminisce for an hour. At least there's an illusion of suspense, right?
Not really. The script is god-awful, and the low-budget nature of the episode means we barely see anyone outside of flashbacks: there's Picard, Geordi, Data, Pulaski, Troi, and Riker, and an extra or two. Everything is too artificial, which makes sense, considering that the whole premise behind the episode is forced. At least a "let's swap stories about things we all remember" plot would've been more up front about the contrivance. I'll give everyone the benefit of the doubt that they were trying to create some kind of acceptable storyline to tie together all the reheated footage. It just doesn't work, and what's worse, the reveal is delayed for so long ("Wait, why doesn't Riker have a beard in this scene? Son of a-"), it's actually more frustrating than if it'd been handled directly. Crappy as the first act of "Shades" is, at least it's a legitimate episode. Then the memories roll out, and that goes away.
So, in honor of this episode, here are some excerpts from my earlier reviews, arranged in order of the clips we see on the show:
"This combines a couple things we saw on the original series (and I promise I'll stop bringing that up, eventually), the mysterious other alien race, and the mysterious technological doohickey left behind by a long extinct, incredibly powerful civilization. It has some strong elements, as the mystery surrounding the Enterprise's apparent capture and build-to-reveal on the Ferengis make for good hooks. But the final wrap-up is disappointing, relying on easy moralizing and, to quote Bill Hicks, "back-slapping, 'Ain't humanity great' bullshit." The episode has a semi-god-like being, and it resorts to the sort of expediency that makes those creatures such lazy devices. Plus, the Ferengi suck." -"The Last Outpost"
"Data is overly smug, and Brent Spiner occasionally smiles (which doesn't work at all), but the character is striking, and leaves more of an impression than, say, Riker's genial blandness." -"Encounter At Farpoint"
"Sure, I'll admit it: I found Wesley's stabs at wooing mildly charming. His awkwardness in engineering didn't work (Wheaton is not what I'd call a gifted physical comedian), but I got a kick out his attempts to glean advice from his co-workers. Worf's description of Klingon mating rituals is hilarious ("He reads love poetry. He ducks a lot."), and watching Riker hit on Guinan is actually fairly funny." -"The Dauphin"
"Maybe I've been too spoiled by a run of decent to good episodes, but "The Icarus Factor" really killed my good buzz from "Time Squared." It's pedantic, treacly, and uninspired, and despite the occasional bright spot, plays way too much like a generic TV drama, full of hand-holding music cues and predictable psychology. Which is a shame, because the idea behind "Icarus" actually isn't half-bad." -"The Icarus Factor"
""Justice" looks to correct this oversight with a massive dosage of morons in lingerie, and the effect is more campy and awkward than erotic. The Enterprise is studying a new class M planet, and the away team has discovered the natives are half naked, generically attractive, and extremely willing to make a stranger feel welcome. The doctor says the crew could use a shore leave, and where better to take one than the land of Pizza Delivery Boys, Copier Fixers, Suggestible Coeds, and Hitchhikers With Neither Grass Nor Gas." -"Justice"
"Surprise surprise, the Bynars are up to something, which doesn't become evident until Riker makes a trip to the holodeck and meets a lovely computer simulation named Minuet. Minuet easily wins Riker over (my favorite part of this is how Number One acts like it's true love, when she's just a program designed to feed him exactly what he wants to eat), keeping him on the 'deck until Picard comes to see what's going on." -"11001001"
At this point, Riker moves from random memories to sexy thoughts. The arrangement of clips at least makes sense in the tenuous logic of the story itself. The problem is, because the clips are chosen for emotional content and not coherency, most of them aren't really scenes, just moments. The only real enjoyment in watching is trying to identify where the clips came from, and that's pretty fleeting.
"The point, anyway, is that matriarchies in fiction are often built around powerful women who would perfectly happy hanging out at home if they ever met a real man. "Angel One" doesn't do a damn thing to buck this trend, despite its pretensions towards depth. Beata, the elected leader of the only society we ever meet, is forceful, direct, and calm. She's also immediately turned on by Riker's masculine charms, and while she doesn't go quite so far as to abdicate power, she does sleep with him, and pay more attention to his big speech at the end of the episode than she otherwise might've." -"Angel One"
"Everything is terribly convenient. Riker bangs an attractive woman, we get a lot of horrid comic relief, and we learn Riker really hates clones." -"Up The Long Ladder"
"Yar's death isn't nearly as bizarre. I can't imagine how it played at the time. We know now that no other major cast member will die during the show's run, which means this isn't a daring raising of stakes or a way to show that everyone's in danger. It's more about junking an actress, and while I'll give them credit for trying to create a memorable murderer, well, that credit only goes so far. Yar's death manages to be both too sudden and too drawn out, and it's still the only interesting aspect of a disappointingly crummy hour." -"Skin Of Evil"
"What it translates to is: an alien hitches a ride without permission, rapes a woman, knocks her up, saddles her with grotesque body changes, attaches itself to her post-birth to gain information, endangers everyone on board the ship with its thoughtless selfishness, and then orchestrates an exit in the most emotionally manipulative fashion possible by forcing its "mother" to witness the death of her child. That's not how it's presented, of course. It's presented as a joyous life experience, but no amount of tears and lies make this anything less than a travesty." -"The Child"
It's at this point that we learn the the organisms in Riker are suppressed by the endorphins created by negative emotions. This gives us an excuse to start hitting up the violent or unsettling beats, like a fight scene from "Matter of Honor," or Riker getting the crap beaten out of him in "Conspiracy," or Riker getting sucked into the black tar alien in "Skin of Evil," and so on. The treatment works (and points where they're due, the final montage of rapid fire clips is effectively thrilling), Riker is saved, and, well, really, is this any way to end a season? Finales mean more now than they used to, but that's still no excuse for leaving such a bad taste in my mouth. I don't even feel like I can even grade this like I would a regular episode, but if I did, I'd have to say,
That's it for the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. We're still experiencing some turbulence, but in overall quality, we're getting closer to the sweet spot. There are episodes here I'd be willing to show anyone without a long string of caveats beforehand, and the characters who started developing in the first season have, by and large, progressed nicely. Wesley is tolerable (and, thankfully, minimized), the universe of the show is cohering, and even the worst spots by and large feel like they belong here somehow, like the writers have an idea of what they should strive to achieve, but can't always great reach it. The first season was often clumsy and spastic, and the clumsiest elements were so clearly ill-considered and out of place that they hurt the series as a whole. I don't think that's the case anymore, and that has me excited for where we go next. I've heard season 3 is a great one. Fingers crossed.
Before we get there, though, here's a run-down of the best and worst from season 2:
Most bad-ass moment: Captain Picard murders his future self, "Time Squared"
We already knew Picard was capable of deliberation, study, compassion, and wit, but it wasn't till "Time Squared" that we realized how ruthless he could be when the situation demanded. A rift in time sends a future version of Jean-Luc back to "our" Enterprise. The poor guy is nearly comatose when he arrives, but the logs on his shuttlecraft promise a horrible end for our heroes unless they can figure out just where they went wrong two hours from now. (Time travel is hell on grammar.) Once "our" Picard realizes his duplicate's mistake, he decides that the only way to save his ship is by ending the cycle--and that means shooting his future self. It's shocking, and logical, and what really makes it work is Patrick Stewart's unflinching determination. Others might call it suicide. For this captain, it's simply getting the job done. Runners up: Klingon courtship in "The Emissary," Riker killing his clone in "Up The Long Ladder," pretty much any Riker scene in "Matter Of Honor"
Most Improved Character: Worf
I always wanted to like Worf, and he had one of season one's stronger episodes ("Heart of Glory"). Still, it's only in the second season that Michael Dorn has had a chance to be both a physical threat and a deft comedian. Worf only has one focus-episode in S2, "The Emissary," but it's again one of the best of the season, and he is much more of a central player throughout, ably demonstrating his abilities as a tactician in "Peak Performance," serving as an entry point to Klingon culture in "Matter of Honor," and being one of the few voices of sanity in "Samaritan Snare." He gets what's easily the best scene in "The Icarus Factor," and that scene is key to understanding why his character has grown so much--in addition to Dorn's natural gifts, the show's willingness to treat Klingon culture, and Worf's struggles to fit into it, with respect means that whenever Worf is the butt of a joke, we're always laughing with him. Runners up: Dr. Katherine Pulaski, Wesley Crusher
Most Problematic: Deanna Troi
Quick: name a storyline featuring Troi that didn't suck. It's okay, I'll wait. She got saddled with one of the season's worst episodes, "The Child," and the series treats her as an exposition shortcut and emotional cipher. Do you need to convey tension on the Enterprise? "I sense the crew is upset." Need to imply that some strange aliens might be up to something? "I sense they're hiding something." Need to give Riker an emotional moment? Troi is always available for hugs and indeterminate longing. "Loud As A Whisper" tries to give her some autonomy, introducing a temporary love interest and allowing Troi to influence the action in a way that doesn't just rely on her stating the obvious, but it's not enough. On a show with a dearth of strong female characters, in a genre where women are too often simply objects to be carted between scenes, TNG could be doing so much more. And don't even get me started on her mother.
Weirdest Concept: Riva, the Mute Hostage Negotiator
I still can't decide if the focus of "Loud As A Whisper" is a great example of science fiction exploring new ideas, or just a completely ridiculous misstep. It's probably both. "Whisper" isn't a great episode, but it's notable for trying to give us a new idea: Riva, who relies on other people to do his speaking for him. The show's willingness to stretch itself is one of the things that makes the second season better than the first, and while Riva is too touchy-feely for my tastes, I can't help but think that if TNG wasn't willing to risk looking silly, we never would've gotten... Runners Up: Salia and Anya from "The Dauphin," the never-ending hotel in "The Royale"
Best New Alien Race: The Borg
No real contest here. They're scary, threatening, mysterious, and unique. They have potential for symbolism (their relentless quest for assimilation is a little like Manifest Destiny from a toaster), but unlike so many of the aliens on Trek, that potential doesn't override them as actual characters. Which is funny, really, since the Borg don't have "characters." They are the sci-fi version of The Nothing, a force of destruction and implacability that offers no purchase for Picard's notions of empathy and compassion. They are raised stakes personified, and there isn't a false note in their debut. Runners up: The Antedeans, the Pakleds
Worst Alien Race: Tinkerbell the Rapist from "The Child"
The Tasha Yar Memorial Award (ie, the Character I'd Most Like To See Eaten By An Oil Monster): Lwaxana Troi
The Worst Guest Star In The History Of Everything: Joe Piscopo as The Comic in "The Outrageous Okona"
The Scene That May Have Inspired American Gladiators: Riker and his dad play an Oedipal tension-filled round of "anbo-jytsu" in "The Icarus Factor"
The Best Reason To Get Rid Of The Holodeck Once And For All: Moriarty achieves Sentience in "Elementary, My Dear Data"
The Best Excuse To Keep The Holodeck A Little Longer: Worf goes to "level two" and gets laid in "The Emissary"
Worst Episode (excluding "Shades Of Gray"): "The Child"
It's tedious, simple-minded, and it ends with a shrug. Even worse, it treats the poor, mishandled Troi with a baffling lack of respect, manipulating her emotionally without taking into account what the consequences of those manipulations might be. An alien forcibly impregnates the Enterprise's counselor, using her as a vessel to get a brief taste of human life before voluntarily offing itself before Troi's horrified eyes. The blandly awestruck tone inspires neither awe or reverence, introducing a potentially offensive plotline without any acknowledgement of its emotional complexity or sketchiness. If the second season ended with a cough, it started by going the wrong way up a one way street. It's hard to imagine a clunkier, less promising premiere. Runners up: "The Schzoid Man," "Up The Long Ladder"
Best Episode: "Q Who?"
Solid from beginning to end, and, for once, living up to the series' tag line by boldly going where no Trek had gone before. Q arrives on the Enterprise to once again mock Picard for his arrogance, but instead of playful games, this is strictly Old Testament style god-like being behavior, with consequences and death and horror, and the only salvation lies in humility. Previous episodes had strong scenes, or well-done plot-lines, or great character beats. "Who?" manages a near perfect run from opening to end, showing everyone at their best, and offering the tricky lesson that sometimes, being at your best isn't enough to stop the space zombies. Runners up: "The Measure Of A Man," "Matter Of Honor"
Season Grade: B
That's it! Tune in next week when we start exploring season three. Should be a blast.