Or The One Where Worf Won't Give Blood, and Geordi and a Romulan play Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr.
So you have Superman. He's faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, he can fly, he's got the heat vision, the ability to re-build the Great Wall of China should the need arise, that super creepy amnesia-inducing kiss. (Or maybe Lois just has a reset-button in the back of her throat--but in that case, Superman would need a really long tongue...) There isn't much he can't do, and that's a problem, because if you want to tell stories about Superman, you have to put him in situations he can't immediately resolve. The Case Of The Burning Building loses its flare (ha!) if a quick puff of super breath extinguishes the flames. A bank robbery isn't all that thrilling when it's two jittery guys with hand-guns against an invulnerable alien who can punch really, really hard.
That's why you need kryptonite. And that's why, he said, hoping no one would remember that he'd used the same metaphor in a TOS review months and months ago, the writers on TNG keep coming up with new ways to render the massive technological and tactical capabilities of the Enterprise just useless enough to last out the hour. We've had glitches, we've had beings with powers that the make warp drive look like a power walk, and in "The Enemy," we have a planet where natural conditions make traditional exploration nearly impossible. Galorndon Core (dig that name; it sounds like the title of some obscure cult science fiction novel form the late sixties) is full of all kinds of crazy atmospheric and ground-level conditions that make it difficult for the Enterprise to beam down an away team, let alone for that away team to get much work done. Add that to the fact that the Core tends to damage synaptic function after prolonged exposure, and it's probably not a place anyone would want to visit for long.
But here come Riker, Worf, and Geordi to do some poking around, because a distress signal was sent out, and that's what our heroes do: heroic, rescue-type stuff. Geordi's visor can't make much headway in all the chaos (which makes me wonder why they brought him along at all--he's the Chief Engineer, so I guess they thought he could gauge the condition of whatever wreckage they found? Or else they didn't know his visor would have some problems, or else they watched last week's episode and decided the poor nerd really needs to get out more), and the three officers split up to assess the situation. Because, yeah, when you're someplace where you can't see more than five feet ahead of you, splitting up is always a good idea.
While Worf and Riker find a Romulan bleeding out on the rocks, Geordi manages to fall into a pit. So he gets left behind when Worf and Riker beam back up to the Enterprise with the injured captive. Two things to note here: Riker gets incredibly frustrated at stranding one of his men, and that frustration will hang over him through most of the episode. It's tremendously endearing, even if it doesn't make him all that easy to work with--this is someone who doesn't just get upset when things go badly, he takes it personally, and he's not happy until Geordi is back where he belongs. The other point to note: Geordi's repeated cries of "WOOOOOORFFFFF!" reminded me an awful lot of Michael's endless "WAAAAAAAALLT!"ing on Lost. Now that Lost has left us, I say we change the meme up, and throw down old school geek props.
It's here that "Enemy" breaks into two storylines. The first, and more predictable, one follows Geordi on the Core. He meets another Romulan survivor from the crashed ship, and the two have to find some way to work together in order to get off the planet. The second storyline stays with the Enterprise, as Beverly Crusher fights to save the dying Romulan, and Picard enters a battle of the wits with a Romulan commander, Tomalak (Andreas Katsulas, who had a major role on Babylon 5, but who I remember as the one-armed man from the movie version of The Fugitive), who's demanding his men be returned to him. Both plots are about how we deal with the people (in the broad sense) we hate, and how some circumstances force us to compromise that hate in the name of survival; and how some circumstances do not. What makes "Enemy" so good is that neither story becomes pedantic, and that the plot developments in both are largely character driven and respectful to all sides of the issue. It's an exciting episode that doesn't cheat to give us easy answers, and while the tone is generally optimistic, there's enough darkness here to balance the sunlight.
Geordi's plight the episode's most obvious hook, since it's the kind of conflict that most shows of this sort trot out at some point or another: the stranded cast-member, alone in a hostile environment. While most of the Enterprise kryptonite we see on the series is introduced to create a viable threat against the ship, something that can't simply be waved away with a few quick photon bursts, here, the conditions on the Core revolve around making sure La Forge's abandonment (however unintentional) isn't an easy fix. The planet's turbulent atmosphere means that the crew has to wait for a window before they can beam down to search for the engineer. So Geordi's stuck, and it's not a nice place to be stuck, and that other Romulan he finds, Bochra, isn't exactly friendly.
Much like the stranded cast-member is a familiar stand-by, the "enemies overcoming mutual mistrust" conceit is not exactly breaking new barriers. But Geordi and Bochra's growing bond also fits in with one of TNG's core philosophies: that, in general, conscious life forms can reach an understanding with each other if they can manage not to shoot each other in the head long enough. I like Geordi a lot more here than I did in "Booby Trap," because here, his genial, cheerfully sarcastic nature doesn't seem nearly so forced. His dorkiness is an asset; where someone like Riker might've been more vehement about forcing Brocha to listen to reason, Geordi lays out the problem, makes some jokes when the Romulan won't bend, and then gives up. Geordi doesn't have the force of personality to try and bend someone to his will, and that makes Bochra's eventual capitulation, and the pride the two of them share at their eventual success, charmingly low-key. There's no big revelatory moment here, no speeches about how everyone needs to get along; it's just some sarcasm, some obstinacy, and then business. (It's also nice that neither of them turn out to be pregnant.)
This is the optimism side of the "Enemy" coin: two individuals finding honor and mutual respect over common ground. Also, we get Picard taking that Romulan commander to town, which always puts me in a good mood whether it's optimistic or not. (I guess it's optimism in the sense that smart, strong-willed people can defeat jerks?) But it's not all good news. The Romulan that Riker and Worf found is dying, and he needs a blood transfusion if there's any chance he'll survive long enough to be returned to his own kind. Beverly determines that Worf is the only crew-member aboard the Enterprise with plasma a close enough match to the Romulan's own, and she asks him if he'd be willing to give his blood. Worf, who lost his parents to a Romulan attack, refuses. The decision is a difficult one, so he talks it over with Riker. Picard calls Worf in and asks him to donate the blood, since the Romulan's survival might be key in forestalling an a battle between the Enterprise and Tomalak's ship. Worf still refuses. Then the Romulan dies.
That's pretty huge. Picard manages to hold off Tomalak anyway (and the sudden appearance of another Romulan survivor from what Tomalak assured Picard was a "one-man vessel" doesn't hurt), but that doesn't change the fact that Worf is faced with a moral decision; he opts for what we would term as the understandable, yet still immoral option; and there's no reversal. He doesn't change his mind after the last heart-to-heart with Picard, he doesn't soften towards the Romulan when Beverly asks Worf in to Sick Bay. (This is actually a tactical error on the good doctor's part, since the dying Romulan tells Worf he'd rather die than than be polluted with Klingon blood.) Beverly doesn't come up with some new cure in the last minute, and Worf is never shown to regret his decision. It's almost as if the writers were speaking when Picard refuses to order Worf to do the transfusion, even though Worf freely admits that he will obey such an order, if it is given. Conflicts may work themselves out in the long run, and there's hope in the quick friendship that develops between Geordi and Bochra, but that hope doesn't heal all wounds. Not everything can be forgiven, not even by the best of us.
- Worf's subplot here could be a shot at the stubborn rage of his species, but it doesn't play that way. It's really more a testament to the respect he's earned for himself, and the respect he has for his commanding officers,
- "I never lie when I have sand in my shoes, Commodore."
- I'm sure it was helpful in the long term trust-building-wise, but I can't help but think Geordi is kind of an idiot when he rescues Bochra without taking away his phaser first.
- Picard actually begs Worf to give the Romulan his blood. Everybody seems friendly afterwards, but if there's a KP duty on the Enterprise, I'm guessing Worf will be stuck on it for the next decade or so.
Or The One With The Wormhole, The Ferengi, And A Smarmy Sonofabitch
Early in "The Price"--during the very first scene, in fact--I got worried. Deanna Troi is checking her mail, and she finds she has multiple letters from her mother. When I heard this, the flashbacks hit: I saw Lwaxana Troi hitting on Riker, I heard her shrill, petulant voice, and the full, agonizing weight of every one of her awful, awful guest appearances washed over me until I nearly lost the will to go on. It was too soon, I shouted at the screen. Didn't I just have to review the episode where she hits on the holographic bartender? I thought of writing my resignation letter, realized that wouldn't be permanent enough, and I wondered how hard it would be to fake my own death. But, y'know, I've got a girlfriend now, and she'd probably want to come with, and who knows if she could get the time off work...
While I went tried to find some way out of the apparent apocalypse, I left the episode playing, and I realized fairly quickly that it was all a false alarm. Lwaxana's appearance here is in name only, used to try and remind us that Troi has a personal life, and, presumably, make us care what happens in that personal life. But that didn't mean I was out of the woods yet. "The Price," like "Enemy," has two concurrent storylines, both revolving around a single event, and while the time we spend watching Riker dicker over a wormhole, and watching Data and Geordi investigate the stability of that wormhole, is entertaining, staple TNG stuff, the time we spend with Troi isn't. Oh, it's still a staple of the series, but it's not much fun. Troi takes a lover, everyone! Time to strap in.
I'm never happy when I have to bash Troi-centric episodes, because I don't object to them at all in theory. Every major character on the show deserves their time in the spotlight, and if anything, that goes doubly for the under-used, under-represented women. With Tasha Yar nearly two seasons gone, we've only got three recurring females left on TNG, and one of them, Guinan, spends most of her time being mysterious and wise. Dr. Crusher stays in the Sick Bay, flirts with Picard, and occasionally gets mopey about her dead husband; Troi as the ship counselor is called in whenever a writer wants to explain what a character is feeling without having that character come out and say it themselves. (That tends to make people so ANGRY.) Picard, Riker, Worf, Data, Geordi, hell, even Wesley--these are clearly defined, iconic figures. Crusher and Troi are vaguely feminine blurs.
So yes, by all means, please give Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden more to do, but for god's sake, that doesn't mean providing Troi with yet another overly aggressive love interest. This woman is a competent professional who's spent her life confronting emotions, working to understand them, and working to help people be as sane as they can be. Shouldn't she at least have a spine by now? Whatever problems I had with "The Bonding," at least Troi was granted the dignity and respect of her position. Here, she's reduced to a whimpering mess by some jag-off negotiator, and it happens almost exactly the same way it happened in "Loud As A Whisper." She sees the guy, is clearly instantly smitten with him, he comes to her room uninvited and unannounced (catching her in the 23rd century equivalent of googling his name), gropes his way into a dinner invite, and before you know it, we're getting into the massage oil and pillow talk.
It's distressing, and the more I think about it, the more frustrated I get. There's nothing wrong with a smart character making stupid romantic choices. It happens, and it helps us to identify with the character, because everybody's done dumb stuff in the name of love. It becomes a problem when those stupid choices make up most of what we see of a character's personal life. If Troi were better defined, if she weren't simply a generic stand in for "chicks get feelings and stuff," this wouldn't be as much an issue. But because she spends so much of her time on the show simply stating the obvious and looking concerned, her apparent vulnerability for greasy dudes with wandering hands is difficult to endure. (To be honest, I'm not sure how much I'd enjoy these scenes even if Troi was the next Ellen Ripley or Starbuck. But then, I think Ripley would've taken one look at this guy and shot him out an airlock. Then she and Starbuck would've gone and played pool. And had adventures!)
There's more going on here, thankfully, so I'm going to talk about that until everything stops being quite so red. The Bhavini have managed to acquire a singular galactic phenomenon: an apparently stable wormhole. Theoretically, travel via wormhole would be a tremendous boon to whatever race controlled it, as it cuts down on flight time to an incredible degree; the one the Bhavini are selling, for instance, can send a ship light years away, a hundred years worth of travelling at the fastest warp speed known to man accomplished in a few minutes. What makes this wormhole even more important is that it's apparently stable. That's unique; every other wormhole known to science operates too inconsistently to be of any use to travelers. So the Bhavini are selling theirs in an attempt to make their race self-sufficient, and their offer has attracted a number of interested parties, including the Federation (represented by Riker), the Caldonians, the Chrysalids, and, in a last minute twist, the Ferengi.
The Ferengi are their usual annoying selves, this time played largely for sniveling comic relief than any true menace. They get punished for their misdeeds and avarice, as always; when Geordi and Data fly through the wormhole to test it, a shuttle of Ferengi follow them, and they wind up stranded a century distant when they won't listen to Geordi's warnings that the hole is showing signs of instability. Really, though, the Ferengi here are more a tool of Devinoni Ral, the Chrysalids negotiator, Troi's eventual lover, and basic snide twerp. Ral is played by Matt McCoy, a character actor who I'll always remember as the man who took over for Steve Guttenberg in the Police Academy movies. He can be effective in the right role (he was great in a small part in L.A. Confidential), but his turn as Ral doesn't entirely work. I can buy him as a smart manipulator, as someone willing to use his quarter-Betazoid gift of empathy to make his job easier, but as flawed compromised individual with a soul worth saving, I ain't buying.
And that's a problem, because the climax of "Price" has Troi revealing Ral's questionable tactics to Picard and everyone else, and it should be a dramatic moment, as she betrays her lover both out of frustration at his misdeeds, and because of her desire to force him to better himself. Instead, it's primarily satisfying because it wipes the grin off Ral's face for a few seconds. Once that satisfaction passes, I couldn't help wondering why it took Troi so long in the first place. It can be difficult to convincingly show love in fiction, because the experience of falling for someone is both highly personal and curiously universal; the details and shared moments are what give the feeling texture, but the rush and elation of it are things that we all share. So you've got to find some way to make the small moments appear distinct and honest so that the big moments feel earned. Nothing about Troi and Ral's romance ever seemed more than writers using poor Troi as badly as Ral used his opponents--simply a matter of pushing her to the right place until she fulfilled their needs.
Plus, the one scene we get when we try and do some girl talk, with Beverly and Troi engaging in some hilarious aerobics while Troi gushes and Beverly nods appreciably, is about as dated as this series ever gets. (I love how we get the spandex outfits, which is so hot and everything, but the outfits cover more skin than their regular uniforms.) What of the subtler aspects of TNG's rise in quality in the third season is its increasing adeptness as this kind of multi-level storytelling. In "The Enemy," we have Geordi stranded, Worf's crisis, and Picard's battle of wills, and all revolve around each other, intricately connected but still managing to be distinct. It's an impressive balancing act, because it provides the opportunity for the ensemble to show off its individual parts while still maintaining that feeling of unity; there's no sense that we're pausing the "main" action to see how Geordi's doing, because each different subplot has equal importance to the central problem. "The Price" ostensibly works the same way, with Troi's relationship with Ral connecting back to the financial battle for control over the wormhole, but instead of creating a richer episode, the bifurcation reinforces how ill-used Troi is in comparison to the rest of the cast. We don't need to have an episode where she learns to stand up to a man, we really don't. If that's the best the show can give her, it might be better to leave her on the sidelines.
- I really, really don't understand why the TNG writers persist in the belief that extreme, unwarranted aggressiveness is a turn-on.
- How is it that the romantic interludes between Ral and Troi have all the tackiness of softcore porn but without any of the actual titillation?
- In her defense, Troi's last line to Ral is a really good burn: "I already have a job as a counselor."
- I'm on vacation next week, but join me on September 2, when we take a look at "The Vengeance Factor" and "The Defector."