"The Big Goodbye"
Being on a star-ship must be stressful. You're floating in a big box in the middle of thousands of miles of emptiness, there's the constant threat of alien tomfoolery to muck up your day, and every so often, Picard yells at you just to prove he can. Shore leave is nice enough, but there are long stretches of time when the closest planet is too dangerous or too far away to serve as a vacation spot, in which case you have to make due with what's at hand. So you play some video games and you watch movies to pass the time. You lock Wesley in a closet and record his sobbing to play over the ship's intercom. That only goes so far, though. What happens when you get tired of high scores, conversation, and tormenting twerps?
Preventing stress and insanity are the only real justifications possible for the holodeck. It's a thoroughly ridiculous piece of technology, because there are so few limits on its abilities. Nothing created in the 'deck can exit it, but apart from that, there's no space restriction, no programming gaps, and the computer-generated characters seem just a hair's breadth away from conscious awareness. I can understand creating environments, and even letting people walk around inside their favorite film, but the level of interaction here is astonishing. There's no repeated conversation. Everyone on the Enterprise talks about how amazing Data is, but compared to a magic room that can bring your wildest fantasy to life, I'm not sure what the big deal is. Maybe Tasha Yar has been telling stories.
Or maybe it's just that Data's a reliable chap, and having a holodeck around is a little like owning an X-box that periodically eats your cat. All that amazing technology comes with a price, and that price is that any outside interference whatsoever causes the internals to go haywire and put people's lives at risk. This makes for a reliable, if hokey, plot generating machine. All you have to do is overlook the fact that a non-essential device is allowed to remain on the ship even after repeatedly causing widespread havoc.
"The Big Goodbye" is the first episode to lean on the 'deck for story purposes, and because of that, we get a lot of talk from characters waxing rhapsodic about its wonders. Most of this comes from Picard, whose mind is apparently blown by technology that has to be at least a decade old. (The first holodeck episode was in the animated series, but since that was focused on environments, we can give them the benefit of the doubt here and assume that "living" characters are a relatively new development.) It's pretty ridiculous. The best way to convince an audience of the wonders of some made-up future tech is to have the heroes treat it like it's no big deal. The more you try and impress upon us how amazing this all is, the more likely we are to notice that, well, it's not that amazing. Here, the holodeck does some '30s detective novel pastiche, and while the concept is impressive, the "reality" of the environment is as real as another studio set.
As for the pastiche, I'm big on Raymond Chandler, so I can appreciate the effort. "Goodbye" gets its title from two Chandler novels: the first Philip Marlowe book, The Big Sleep, and the best, The Long Goodbye. (Random: Robert Altman did a terrific film adaptation of Goodbye. If you haven't seen it, check it out.) However, the actual plot details crib mostly from Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. You've got a Joe Cairo stand-in, a Gutman stand-in, and everybody's looking for some mysterious object that Picard, as detective Dixon Hill, supposedly hid someplace. The suits are nice, and it's always fun seeing Dick Miller pop in, and Lawrence Tierney is certainly imposing enough. But there's a flatness to all of this, because for large chunks of time, we're watching characters enjoying themselves more than we are. We get the usual "Gosh wasn't the past quaint?" talk, and Picard even invites in an expert from the 20th century to accompany him. Of course, the guy's only there so somebody can get shot in the third act, but given how much passion Picard supposedly has for the books, why the hell doesn't he know all the important information already?
In order to give the episode some dramatic tension, the Enterprise is rendezvousing with the Jarada, an insect-like race with a highly unusual language. They consider even the slightest mispronunciation a grievous insult, so there's a lot of so-so comedy about Picard trying to properly memorize the greeting, in order not to put off trading negotiations for another twenty years. This makes barely any sense. If the Federation knows the Jarada are so touchy, and if they've been waiting this long to get the greeting right, wouldn't they have a specialist who was prepared in the language to complete the ritual? There has to be someone more comfortable with it than Picard. In our first scene of the episode with him, Troi is teaching him basic Jaradan grammar rules, which doesn't instill a lot of confidence. When it finally comes time for the exchange, Picard triumphantly delivers his lines, and then the Enterprise... leaves. I appreciate the effort to give the diplomacy missions a "been there, done that" vibe, and to give the crew duties to fulfill without completely explaining them. It helps the environment of the show to spill out over the edges, to give the illusion that there are all sorts of interesting things happening between episodes. But this doesn't make much sense.
There's also the fact that a Jaradan probe fries the holodeck, briefly trapping Picard, Beverly, Data, and Professor Dead Meat inside. This should be interesting, and it's not terrible, but it does come off half-baked. Once the Professor is wounded, Picard negotiates with the villains, trying to explain the situation to them, and the villains decide in some dim way that they want to escape to the real world. So when the doors to the holodeck finally open (it's hilarious how, after all that effort to find Picard and fix the machine, nobody's waiting for them in the hall. How many exits does the holodeck have?), the villains try and escape and, for some reason, slowly disappear. It's not the disappearing I object to, mind. It's the fact that it happens so gradually. Very silly.
And really, that's all this is. I'll give it points for being inoffensively silly, and for at least having a tenable central idea, but the pacing is lousy, and the last ten minutes or so just kind of happens.
I always forget that Data is a mystery. I can't decide if that's good or bad. I think it's good. I mean, I was just talking about how the best way to introduce future tech is to treat it as a given ("Mom, I'm off to the Tashi Station to pick up some power converters!"), and the way Picard and the others act around their mechanical man is about as straightforward as possible. So when we find out the Enterprise is making a side trip to visit the planet where Data was discovered years ago, it's a nice moment of acknowledgement that doesn't arrive over-dramatized. Sure, Data's origins are uncertain, but there are a lot of weird things going on in the galaxy, you can't get too hung up on any of them and hope to get by.
Except there's a difference between acceptance and apathy, and I'd say the line gets crossed here. Data was found on a stone platform by a Federation ship (the Tripoli, for trivia enthusiasts). There had been a farming colony on the planet, but everybody was dead, which is already a warning sign, one that no one on the Tripoli felt compelled to investigate, because they just grabbed the newly conscious Data and vamoosed. Hell, Geordi manages to discover Dr. Noonien Soong's hidden lab after roughly three minutes of looking aimlessly around. It stretches credibility to think that the Federation could find a fully working positronic brain--housed inside an animatronic body, to boot--and not do any follow-up.
Ah, but if anyone had bothered, they might've started wondering about all those missing farmers, and then, when they discovered the disassembled Lore in Soong's lab, they might have not have quite so excited to build Data 2.0. Or maybe they wouldn't have had any concerns. Picard certainly doesn't seem to. His biggest worry is that Data's loyalty will transfer from the Federation over to this new found "brother." (It's a scene that seems out of place, but in a fascinating way. Would Picard give this speech to any alien member of the crew who came in contact with others of their kind? Obviously not; the singularity of Data's case makes him unique. Still, the conversation is at odds with the well-scrubbed geniality of so much of the series. "We welcome you," says the captain, "but only if you remember what your priorities are.") In order for Lore to work as a villain, he has to be unexpected, and in order for him to be unexpected, Data's origins have to be indeterminate but non-threatening. Our heroes are curious, but unsuspecting, and that makes them the perfect dupes.
As villains go, Lore is a good one. Partly it's seeing the normally reliable Data behaving like a dickhead, and partly its Spiner's impressive talent for throwing smarm. The actor gets a good showcase for his talents here, especially the scenes with just Lore and Data talking to each other; it never feels overly gimmicky or contrived. Lore serves as a subtle rebuke to Data's quest for humanity, because Lore is gifted with a full arsenal of human emotion, and it's rendered him childish, arrogant, and essentially mad. Of course, Lore was the first android model, so Soong had some kinks to work out; maybe the scientist decided that the only way to build a thinking machine that could feel in a responsible, mature fashion would be to design one that had to earn emotion as opposed to being "born" with it. Whatever the story-reasoning, the in-episode effect is to give us a character who is capable of exploiting the trust Data has earned from everyone around him to nefarious purposes. There's a lot of potential there, even if "Datalore" only scratches the surface.
That's really been the trademark of season one so far. Even the episodes with potential don't do enough with it, and the clumsiness in the writing is a constant distraction. We're told Data can't use contractions. I wouldn't mind if this was a "one-episode-only" loophole, as it's a small concession, and there are ways to work around it if you're clever enough. Unfortunately, Data uses multiple contractions before Lore is discovered, and worst of all, at the climax of the episode. Lore pretends to be Data, Wesley finds him out, Data beams Lore out of the ship, Picard asks Data if he's all right, and Data replies, "I'm fine." The line actually punishes you for paying attention, because now you'll be half-convinced that the wrong robot was beamed away, and that Lore somehow won out in the end.
Gender politics on Star Trek have never been very cutting edge. For all their grand visions of the future, genre writers have often struggled with an inability to create convincing female characters, or give them a role to play beyond "pretty, pretty princess" or "shrew." In the sixties, this was forgivable. Different times, different values, and maybe the Sexual Revolution hadn't really caught up to Prime Time quite yet. We can accept this as a flaw inherent in the design, mention it when it becomes impossible to ignore, but generally get on with our lives. I expected more from TNG. Not because the '80s were a hotbed for feminism (maybe they were, I'm not all that well-educated), but because that now is closer to our now. I mean, I was alive in the '80s! Women had jobs and everything back then.
Here we have a brand new cast, and we have women in leading roles, which is great. There's the doctor, no problems there, and the counselor who reads people's emotions... um. Well, maybe that will prove more useful later on. How about the head of security? That's undeniably bad-ass, right? I mean, once you get past her clear psychological problems and the whole "rape gang" issue, she's a strong, forceful character, one who flies off the handle at a moment's provocation, which is exactly the attitude you'd want in someone in her position. Er. Still, it's a step in the right direction. We live in a world, after all, when casting a woman as a star ship captain was somehow considered a big deal. Geeks don't really enjoy "change," especially when that change involves ladies who yell and order and don't charge by the hour.
So I'll give them some credit. Then "Angel One" shows up, and, gah, I don't even know anymore. It's not even as though the episode was that bad. It mostly made sense, or at least it made roughly the same amount of sense as everything else we've seen so far. Apart from Riker's ridiculous outfit, nothing here made me cringe with embarrassment ala "The Naked Now." But the concept is so thoroughly inane that I feel like I can't give this a passing grade.
The planet of Angel One is a matriarchy, because here, the women are physically powerful and the men are weak and wear lots of paisley. It's exactly like Earth used to be, only with the gender roles reversed. Oh wow, what a crazy mix-up! And you know, when the women get the power, they go absolutely nuts with it. Like, dictatorship and disagree-with-me-on-penalty-of-death style nuts. It's the sort of place the new Enterprise should avoid like the plague, given the dictates of the Prime Directive. I mean, a matriarchy is such an obvious affront to God and Nature that any red-blooded male wouldn't be able to stop himself from getting involved. Too bad, then, that Picard and the rest of his team of misfits have tracked three escape pods from the disabled freighter Odin to the Angel One. Looks like it's time for some red hot Riker interference.
Sci-fi nearly always gets goofy when it posits matriarchal societies. "Angel One" is a more modern version of movies like Queen Of Outer Space, which features a team of dude astronauts crash-landing on a planet ruled by, well, you follow the rest. In Queen, the men have to rescue the "good" women (all of whom are just aching for it, if you know what I mean, and I really wish you'd explain it to me) from the evil queen, whose evilness rests on the fact that she was horribly burned, making her physically ugly and therefore undesirable. She has the gall to hit on the hero of the movie, and even though the hero could save everyone's lives by sucking it up, he's overcome by the Butherface Blues, rejects her, and winds up with Zsa Zsa Gabor. It's an amazing picture, I strongly recommend checking it out.
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. There's a lot of hilarious sexual harassment, which is funny because, see, usually it's a man who does the harassing, not the woman! Ha! Crazy times. I'm not sure what the reversal is supposed to achieve, honestly. It's like when Disclosure came out, and to teach men a lesson because good lord, who'd want Demi Moore groping them at work?
Even worse is how completely the episode dismisses the male population of the planet. Beata is trying to put down a potential rebellion, which prompts Riker to give a lecture on evolution and progress and so forth, but the only reason Angel One is experience any civil unrest is due to those pesky survivors of the Odin. They crash-landed, and repaid the locals' hospitality by immediately seducing and marrying some of them. Going by the Prime Directive--the Directive that gets referenced multiple times in this episode--isn't this a bad thing? The "progress" here is being introduced by an outside influence, and not developing organically from within the society. The men of Angel One are largely background noise. Only one gets a name, and he doesn't seem all that keen on the revolution, to tell the truth. Really, this is just another version of the Queen fantasy world. These women aren't entirely alone, but the guys they do have are so obviously inferior to real men that they're willing to throw over their culture and betray their race for a chance at the Marlboro Man.
There's a sub-plot about a virus loose on the Enterprise. It's silly, although it does give us Geordi alone on the Bridge for a scene or two. (I like Geordi. Admittedly, his role on the show right now is mostly just comic-relief, but I like him.) The virus is used to make predicament of Riker and his away team more pressing, because Beverly refuses to allow anyone back on the ship once the infection starts spreading. This is absurd. The illness hadn't caused any deaths yet, and the Odin survivors were facing execution. Besides, how hard is it to quarantine people on a space ship? The Enterprise should have stronger protocols for potential contaminants, giving how often the crew members interact with alien races. To have everything collapse because of a bad case of the sniffles is absurd.
That's par for the course for this episode, though. As an attempt to approach real-life social issues from a different angle, it's a failure, and that makes it impossible to enjoy on a pure story level. I'm willing to put up with a lot, TNG, but you'll have to do better than this.
- After his flirtation with likability in "Datalore," Wesley returns to twerp status in "Angel One." Seriously, did you see that outfit? There's such a thing as over-crocheting.
- According to Wesley, if he doesn't handle the holodeck properly, "The program could abort and everyone inside could vanish." Sounds safe to me!
- "I think I may sneeze." "A Klingon sneeze?" "The only kind I know."
- Speaking of, I've been sick myself this week, so apologies if this recap is more scatter-brained than usual.
- Next week, it's "11001001," "Too Short A Season," and "When The Bough Breaks."