Line from my notes: "God, I hate the Ferengi."
Were any alien races from TOS this bad? I'm sure some were annoying or unfunny, but I can't remember a recurring species as one note as this. Even the Klingons were allowed a modicum of dignity, for all their warrior posturing and villainy. (Side note: Funny how Worf's Klingon is so much more feral than his supposed ancestors. I'm not even talking about the head ridges, which are an interesting visual choice at least. The Klingons we saw on TOS differed from the Federation largely on ideological grounds, but on TNG, the only Klingon we've dealt with behaves like a barely restrained attack dog who stumbled across the gift of speech. Or better yet, a werewolf learning how to be a man.) The Ferengi in "The Battle" aren't quite as one note as the ones we saw in "The Outpost," but there's still no real empathy for them on the part of the writers. They're more orcs from Middle Earth than an alien race capable of space travel, and while the orcs worked in their context, the effect here is laughable. In a way, TNG is actually less progressive than TOS, a show two decades its senior, because TNG is willing to apparently dismiss an entire culture out of hand because it allows them to impress us with humanity's moral superiority.
What does all this mean for the actual episodes? Whatever its faults philosophically, an adventure show with one-note bad guys isn't automatically boring. The problem here is that the Ferengi are so irritating and clearly beneath contempt that they become ludicrous as figures of intrigue or deception. "Battle" relies on Picard and the Enterprise bridge crew to accept a Ferengi gift, at least initially, at face value. They catch on to the trickery before its too late, and Picard has his own problems to worry about, but it takes them an embarrassingly long time to put the pieces together. Put it this way: if somebody showed up at your door and said, "Hey, we want to give you this weapon you used to murder a bunch of guys we knew years ago," wouldn't you be a little suspicious? And that's without the Ferengi's established worship of monetary gain.
"Battle" does provide Picard with some back-story, and while it's a pretty generic back-story overall (in that most of it could've happened to any of the characters we've met without much change), it does give us a sense of Picard's intelligence and quick wit in battle. Out of all the characters, Picard's the hardest to get a hold of, because he holds the audience at arm's length in the same way he holds his crew. In TOS, while Kirk stood apart from the others, he was always easy to relate to, a familiar hero figure that anchored the series and was always getting into one emotional scrape or another. So far in TNG, Picard is more like someone we observe than someone we identify with. (Although really, right now, who is the identification figure? Wesley is too precocious, and, much as it annoys me whenever he's on-screen, he really isn't central enough to the narratives to get close to. Data, maybe? Or Riker. While a cast this large offers more story potential, it also makes it harder to single anyone out, and given the ineptitude of the scripts we've seen, I don't really feel like I know any of these people yet.) Learning about the Battle of Maxia and the famous "Picard Maneuver" fleshes him out, and watching him struggle with Daimon Bok's manipulations makes him vulnerable, which gives Stewart a chance to do some heavy-lifting, acting-wise.
Ah yes, the "thought maker," a wonderfully ridiculous piece of equipment whose existence is nearly justified by Stewart's commitment, and the eerie hallucinations we see of his former bridge crew. Really, though--it's a big ping-pong ball with a red bulb inside, and you run it by turning it back and forth. There needed to be some justification for Picard's mental breakdown, but Bok, the Ferengi captain seeking revenge for the loss of his son, isn't really much of a plan maker. Strip away all the camp and the bad acting, and the real problem with this season so far is a serious inability to make story-lines pay off in meaningful ways. Bok has the brain bomb to lower Picard's defenses, and he has a falsified log on Picard's old ship to, well, what, exactly? Data sees through the hoax in about ten minutes (although it's still long enough to be annoying, because why on earth would anyone trust information that could so easily have been tampered with? For crying out loud, we saw Wesley's magic Picard voice-box six episodes ago!), and apart from serving as a minor distraction, there doesn't seem any point in making the effort.
Picard suffers from headaches. (Which are apparently magical in the future, or something.) The headaches get worse, and then he starts having dreams of the Battle--dreams, by the way, which fail to contradict the official report, ie, the history in which Picard's destruction of a Ferengi ship was entirely justified, the history which Bok's fake log tries to disprove. If the machine is a thought maker, wouldn't it have made more sense to try and alter Picard's memory of the past? I wouldn't even have minded if Picard had had some culpability in the event. Nothing that would damn him, obviously, but this sort of plot is much more effective when the hero has lingering guilt over his past. Otherwise, there's no cost here. Bok is revenge-crazy, Bok tries to get Picard killed in a suicide assault on his own ship, Bok fails, Picard and everyone on the Enterprise go back to being smug. None of this holds very well together. It's not flat out embarrassing, which is a relief, but apart from a clever use of the warp drive, the most interesting moments are a handful of exchanges between Riker and the first officer of the Ferengi ship. The officers eventual willingness to treat with Riker on even terms ("First Officer to First Officer") gives us some hope that the Ferengi might be something more than caricatures down the line, but until that happens, the less we see of them, the happier I'll be.
"Hide and Q"
Yay, another Q episode! And it's... drat, it's not very good.
One thing that TNG has over TOS from the start is an origin story. TOS didn't ever show how its crew started working together, or what their first mission on the Enterprise was like. (Funny how obsessed we are with origins these days. If TOS was being made now, it would have to have a "getting to know you" style episode, even if that episode wasn't the pilot. Something akin to Firefly's excellent "Out of Gas.") Judging by the three seasons, despite the occasional cast change, it's easy to imagine Kirk, Spock, and the rest flying around the galaxy for ages before we met them, and for ages after we left them. With TNG, while we don't know everything about our heroes, we know how they first arrived on the ship. There's a clear beginning, and that beginning gives their adventures a stronger sense of connected narrative. There's advantages and drawbacks to that, which we'll examine as the series progresses, but for right now, it's enough to observe that the vast potential for audience investment is being kicked to the curb over and over again.
Think about it: we know next to nothing about Data, Tasha Yar, Riker and Deanna's relationship, Beverly's dead husband (who is Wesley's dead dad), what brought Worf to Starfleet, who the hell is running Engineering. And while I'm not clamoring for to know what makes Tasha such an emotional mine field, I am frustrated by a lack of connection with these characters, a lack that some sense of a past could provide. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were strong enough figures that I didn't need to know much about them to like them, but there's no one on the new Enterprise that has that same iconic presence, which means that we're forced to engage with the stories themselves, and, well, you know how that's going. To go back to Firefly, even though we didn't know everything about Malcolm Reynolds, or the doctor with the naked sister in a box, or the rest, their mysteries were teased along enough to give the impression that there really was a larger story at work. There's none of that here yet. What affection I have for the crew is dependent on memories of what the show will become, and on the relative likability of the cast.
I mention this because, while "Hide and Q" isn't a back-story episode, it's a perfect example of TNG's lack of proper characterization, squandering an opportunity to define one of its principals in favor of a ridiculous, Rod-Serling-at-his-most-pedantic morality play. While the Enterprise is on its way to bring medical equipment and aid to a disaster-stricken colony, Q pops by for a visit. The Q continuum (is this the first time we get the official title? I think so) is intrigued by humanity, and would like to offer our race a tremendous opportunity to make all our dreams come true. Picard does his best to negotiate out of the situation, but Q isn't having it. (While I generally like John De Lancie, his work in this scene crosses the line from playful to grimacing loon.) He transports Riker and most of the bridge crew to a strange planet, says a lot of philosophical mumbo jumbo, and then offers Riker the chance of a lifetime: the full powers of a Q.
It's hard to tell what Q is playing at here. Picard notes that Q has expressed interest in Riker (another missed opportunity: no Q/Deanna catfight. "Captain, I sense something. I believe it is an ass about to be kicked."), and Q explains how the continuum is interested, and a little afraid, of humanity's will to explore and survive. Which makes no sense, when you think about it, since it would seem an innate function of life to survive and expand outwards as far as it can. How would humans be any different than, say, Klingons in this regard? But even if we accept that humanity is somehow "special," what does giving Riker powers prove? Are they looking for a weak spot in our armor of awesome? Because if so, granting one of us some serious mojo doesn't seem like the best approach. Judging by the end of the episode, Q wanted Riker to accept his Q-ishness permanently, or at least accept that being able to give people what you think they want is a wonderful power. Even if Riker had done this, what would've been gained? If humanity ever became a threat to the Q's a thousand years down the line, would the continuum just say, "Ah, but remember... Riker," and the super special people would slink away, defeated?
Damn, that's a lot of question marks. All right, let's accept that Q is a weird one, that it's really difficult to grasp the motivations of a nearly immortal race, and examine how unimaginatively the episode handles the Riker side of the equation. Q selects him specifically, but judging by his actions, Riker could've just as easily been some random guest star, ala Gary Lockwood in "Where No Man Has Gone Before." At least then there'd be some risk that he'd accept the powers. Here, we have a main cast member given something we know he can't keep and stay on the show, and we get no sense of how Riker's approach to the gift is any different from how anyone else would've handled it. It's such a generic character arc: "Wow, this is nuts, I have magic!" to "Crap, I gotta use my magic to save my friends!" to "Huh, I guess I should avoid being tempted by the magic because I'm not ready for it," to "I could've saved a life, I'm gonna use the magic, and this instantly turns me into an arrogant douchenozzle," to "Wait, so I can't force people to accept my magical gifts? I've learned an important moral lesson in humility!"
The only distinguishing mark is the ineptitude with which the final stages are handled, and that has nothing to do with Riker (or Jonathan Frakes' performance). A story like this needs to show us power corrupting a hero in a believable, organic fashion; we need to understand how a nice guy can go from giving to insisting. We don't get that here. Oh, there's an outline. Riker decides not to use his powers, then finds a dead little girl his abilities could've saved (cue Data being overly pointed here), and then Riker decides to go full God-like being. The logic is there, but the timing is off. Riker's sudden references to Picard as "Jean-Luc" would only make sense after he'd been using his powers for a while. One of the few things we know about him is his commitment to duty, and his utter inflexibility when it comes to serving his captain's best interest, and we've never had any indication that he resents being second in command.
There's also the laziness of the screenplay's moralizing. We're supposed to assume that the power's of the Q are wrong without any good reason (beyond Q's own prankishness). What if Riker had brought the girl back to life? A better episode would've shown him doing just that, and shown some unforeseeable yet disastrous results. Instead, we get the frankly awful gift-giving sequence. Riker makes Wesley ten years older (loved Geordi's "Hey Wes, not bad."). It's idiotic. What kind of mental defective would believe stealing ten years from someone would be a good thing? Even worse, even once the lesson is clearly learned, Riker keeps on giving, because hey, we've got ten minutes left to fill. The monsters at the beginning are fun, and we get to hear Patrick Stewart delivering Shakespeare, but mostly, this is a mess.
I was going to say, there's nothing worse than heavy-handed moralizing, but that's not true. There are plenty of things worse. Paper cuts. Tax bills. (Did you know that there's a "Freelancer's Tax"? I didn't!) Dying alone and unloved. Lwaxana Troi.
I have a lot of positive memories of TNG, but even when I was a kid, even when my critical faculties were in their nascent stage and I thought movie novelizations were better than movies because they lasted longer--even then, I didn't much care for Lwaxana Troi. She was always in those boring "character-driven" story-lines, and she was loud and pushy and she hit on Captain Picard a lot, which was really gross. As an adult, I can say that my opinion on character-driven stories has changed significantly, and that loud isn't the problem it once was. But Lwaxana is just as one note as ever, the kind of shrill unfunny that tries to assault the audience into acceptance, and yes, hitting on Picard, still gross.
I didn't realize "Haven" was the first Lwaxana episode, and I'm going to blame all of you, even if you have mentioned it in the comments, because you clearly didn't prepare me. I have a habit of yelling at the screen when I'm annoyed or overly frustrated, and I yelled so much watching this you could imagine it was one of those television dramas from Fahrenheit 451, the kind where you send in for a script so you could play along at home. When I was a kid, I imagined every time I didn't like something I was watching, that was my fault, that I was missing out or having an overly emotional reaction to something other people could enjoy more fully. I'm still not entirely sure this isn't true. Maybe there are people who though this episode was entirely hilarious. Me? I've had more entertaining (and shorter) dental appointments.
Did you know Deanna has a mother? And she's fucking insane. The Enterprise is orbiting the planet of Haven, a planet which gives the episode its title but which we'll never actually see at surface level. While everyone else on the ship prepares for some R & R, Deanna is waiting to greet guests in the Transporter Room. There's Mom, and that's bad enough, but possibly worse is Deanna's potential husband, a man she's never met but who she's betrothed to via an arrangement that is never satisfactorily explained. I think we're supposed to assume it's a typical arranged marriage, but what does either side stand to gain? Wyatt, Deanna's temporary love interest to be, is a human, not a Betazoid, and since he's already a doctor I don't imagine his family is looking for some kind of social upgrade. Lwaxana clearly despises Wyatt's parents, and they her. Were names drawn out of a hat?
Like so much bad writing, too much is assumed, and it's only going to get worse. We get comic relief with Lwaxana's arrogance, comic relief with her meddling with Picard, and some tepid attempts at romantic intrigue between Riker and Deanna. (At least now we know why their first relationship didn't work out. Deanna claims it's because Riker wants to be a ship captain above everything, but I'm betting he had one look at his potential mother-in-law and jumped aboard the first vessel he could find with a warp drive.) Oh, and there's Wyatt's mild disappointment in Deanna because she doesn't look like the dream woman he's been obsessing over since he was a child. All of this should be dramatic but it isn't. The Riker/Deanna/Wyatt triangle is one conversation and a few pointed looks, and it doesn't even resolve properly because Wyatt leaves before there's any actual conflict.
Issues with Lwaxana aside, the script here is also so, so weak. While everybody's all a'flutter about the upcoming nuptials (to be held in the--gasp--nude!), a Tarellian ship appears and starts towards Haven. The Tarellians were thought to be extinct, wiped out by their own biological weapons, and this new ship isn't making contact with Haven or anyone, which makes the leader of Haven a little nervous. (By the way, if you're hoping for an explanation as to why the Tarellians were running silent, don't.) During the exposition dump, aka meeting of the main crew, we learn the Tarellians are a none-too-subtle criticism of modern war-mongering, but since the survivors we meet are peaceful and personality free, this revelation is as of little consequence as anything else.
Gah, let's get through this. Wyatt's dream girl is a Tarellian named Ariana, and the Tarellians, all eight of them, are actually at Haven to meet Wyatt. Why? How was this contact made? Why is the Tarellian ship full of sketches of Wyatt at various stages of development? No freakin' clue. The closest thing we get to an explanation is Lwaxana (who does the traditional, "Oh, I'll stop joking and be serious now" performance change) telling Wyatt that space and thought are one. Which, apart from being a sort of call back to Wesley's INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS COMMENT in "Where No One Has Gone Before," is meaningless. You might as well just come out and say, "Just because," or "A wizard did it," or "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Wyatt beams aboard the Tarellian ship, forever separating himself from all he knows and loves, and maybe there's a prophecy or something, I don't know. It's creepy, but no one seems to realize it's creepy.
Look, I'm sure Majel Barrett was a lovely human being, and her Nurse Chapel wasn't so bad. Hell, maybe Lwaxana calms down in later seasons. But here, in this episode, she is agonizing, and the fact that the episode which surrounds her is full of lazy shoulder shrugs and half-finished ideas. If I'd been watching this when it first aired, if "Naked Now" hadn't been enough to turn me away, this might've done it. The silver box that delivers messages was cool, and I laughed at Data's fascination with sniping during the dinner scene, but aside from that, I kind of wanted to die.
- I have no idea how Tasha Yar could've risen this high in Starfleet. She has no impulse control: one minute she's antagonizing a being of near limitless power, the next she's hitting on Captain Picard. She's less a human being than a YouTube comments thread.
- It's great how Q explains all that crap about a penalty box, sends Tasha away, and--that's it. Weak, guys.
- Out of Context Theater Presents: "I just caught my father practicing naked in front of the mirror."
- Up next week: "The Big Goodbye," "Datalore," and "Angel One."