"The Mind's Eye"
Or The One Where Reading Rainbow Gets His Wires Crossed
You gotta love the blind spots of the TNG writing team. On the one hand, there's the holodeck, perhaps the most perfectly insane entertainment device every created for a science fiction show; it can give you anything, simulate anything, and make you part of a story, and if you're really lucky, it can even generate a powerful artificial intelligence seemingly at random. I'm not sure it's the ultimate gaming experience (I think most of us enjoy sitting on our asses for extended periods of time too much—"perfect realism" in games is an overrated concept), but it does indicate a logical endpoint in the development process. It's a stunning achievement in design, programming, and execution.
And on the other hand, we have Geordi, sitting alone in a shuttlecraft for however many hours, listening to calypso music and playing trivia games against the computer. Awful trivia games, I might add. "The Mind's Eye" aired in May of 1991. The Game Boy had been around for 2 years; books for... quite a few centuries more than that. Surely, one of the writers on staff had had ample opportunity to pick up one or both.
Still, that cold open had a great "travel always kind of sucks" feel to it, as Geordi's stuck in, essentially, a small box, trying to make the best of it the only way he knows how: by being a huge freaking dork. And then a Romulan ship decloaks right off the starboard bow, and Geordi just about craps his pants. Because hey, who wouldn't.
"Eye" is a rock solid TNG episode, playing off of continuity for long-term fans (like us!) and, regardless of how well you know the backstory, delivering a solid, exciting, and sharp thriller. Last week's episodes were all about ambition, exploring high concepts which paid off more through ambition than actual execution. "Eye" is still ambitious, but the hooks here (brainwashing, political intrigue, betrayal) aren't quite so mind-bending. Well, okay, apart from the literal mind-bending part. What I'm getting at is that this episode isn't trying to challenge how you look at the world or make you rethink your views on sexuality and emotional attachments. It's just trying to kick some ass, and it does that very, very well.
For starters, Geordi gets tortured! In that he gets these crazy implants stuck in his VISOR equipment that put him under the control of some very not nice people. Ah, Romulans. Is there any evil they won't sink to? It's all part of a plot to upset Federation/Klingon relations; rebels on the Klingon colony of Krios are fighting for resistance, and the Governor of Krios, Vagh, is accusing the Federation of working with the rebels. This would be bad news for everyone, except, of course, the Romulans and those Klingons who kind of wish everything could go back to the way it was, with all the villainy and the gloating and the killing humans. The Romulans have been providing the rebels with Federation phaser rifles, but Geordi and Data are able to prove easily enough that those rifles didn't actually come from Starfleet. That's okay, though. The bad guys have other tricks up Geordi's sleeve.
It's impressive how much "Eye" manages to pack into a single hour, without ever feeling particularly rushed. We've got Geordi's time aboard the Romulan ship and his "training," we've got the political situation with the Klingons, which means a few references to Worf's disgrace, and we've got Geordi's attempts to solve a mystery that he himself is responsible for, even if he isn't aware of it. All of this fits together quite well, and there's no confusion here or convoluted plotting that I noticed. One of the benefits of TNG's somewhat casual approach to continuity is that, when the show does make references to it's past, it rarely seems forced or unnecessary. There's no "This is just like that time we fought that nest of Gundarks" moment here. Ambassador Kell references Worf's disgrace as a potential cause of discord in dealing with Governor Vagh, and Vagh references Picard's reputation among Klingons. Both these moments might pass under the radar of someone new to the show, but for those who catch them, it creates a sense of a greater story behind the story we're watching. We have to fill in most of the gaps ourselves, but it helps the illusion that all this time we've been watching Beverly hook up with space slugs, the Klingon Empire has been on the verge of collapse. That's efficiency right there, and that kind of smart writing (Rene Echevarria is credited with the teleplay) pervades the episode.
For example, we only get a couple of scenes showing us how the Romulans break Geordi's mind down, but those scenes are enough to convince us that he's a threat once he's back on the Enterprise. First, they explain how his VISOR makes him especially vulnerable to cortical implants, since the pre-existing tech can largely hide any new equipment. So Geordi gets hooked up to a freaky looking machine, and we're reminded how painful those white-eye contact lenses must be when they remove the VISOR. Second, we got a Manchurian Candidate style sequence in which the Romulans recreate Ten Forward on a holodeck and order Geordi to kill Chief O'Brien. Which he eventually does. We get some murky shots from Geordi's POV (the first we've seen of what the world looks like to him in a few seasons), and Geordi's casual "Can I sit with you guys" post-murder is appropriately chilling, but I think my favorite part of this scene doesn't happen till later in the episode. Once he's returned to active duty, Geordi seems largely okay, but then he wanders into the real Ten Forward, sees O'Brien sitting alone, and dumps his drink on the guy's shoulder. It's an appropriately weird moment, and it ties in nicely with Geordi's agonized conversation with Troi at the episode's end. While the Romulans are ultimately thwarted by Data and Picard, their plan nearly works, and it's impossible to know just how much damage they did to the Chief Engineer's brain.
There's also the nice touch of having Geordi put in charge of investigating his own crimes (his ultimate assignment is to assassinate Governor Vagh, but before he does that, he beams some weapons down to Krios to pin more blame on the Federation). As he has no idea that his mind has been tampered with, he investigates to the best of his abilities, and there's something darkly funny in the way he keeps casually mentioning himself as one of the few people who could've been responsible for what happened and how no one suspects him until it's nearly too late. The only real reason the Romulans' scheme doesn't work is that Data and Riker happen to notice some strange transmissions on an unusual frequency. Data investigates, and the episode climaxes with him looking over the shuttle Geordi was abducted from, while Geordi goes to take out Vagh. We know Data will figure out the danger before it's too late, just as we know something will prevent Geordi from committing murder, but it's to the episode's credit that this knowledge doesn't hinder the suspense. It's also nice that we don't get the "But Geordi, it's me, Data!" scene that seems par for the course for brainwashing storylines. Nobody talks Geordi out of firing the phaser; he's been programmed to do a job, and if not for Picard's quick reflexes, he would accomplished his objective.
For all its soppy nobility and utopian ideals, TNG can often be surprisingly stark in its conclusions. Here, it's the knowledge that part of what makes Geordi unique also makes him vulnerable and that even after the Romulan's efforts to control him have been detected, he's still left to struggle with memories (including a girlfriend named "Jonic") he can't believe are fake. There's also the fate of Ambassador Kell; once his treachery is revealed (he's been working with the Romulans and was Geordi's handler on the Enterprise), the ambassador requests asylum. Picard says sure—once he's cleared his name of all charges. So basically, our captain sentences the bastard to brutal torture and execution at the hands of the people he betrayed. It's a long shot from the darkest the show has ever been, but it is good to remember that here, just like everywhere else, if you come at the King, you best not miss.
- All right, so that Wire quote was a little forced.
- There's a Romulan commander who stays cloaked in shadow during Geordi's kidnapping. She only has a couple of lines, but her voice sounds familiar. I wonder...
- I really hate that Geordi's headpiece is called "VISOR." It makes me think he belongs on a Saturday morning cartoon, fighting the forces of M.E.A.N. or something.
- I like that the Romulans gave Geordi a make-believe girlfriend. It's just that added touch of cruelty that makes them absolute dicks.
Or The One Where Data Dates
"In Theory" is difficult to watch in spots. There are cringe-worthy moments aplenty here, from Data's love interest's attempts to flirt with a machine, to Data's attempts to respond to that flirtation in an appropriate manner. The episode's B-plot, which has the Enterprise trapped in a field of reality-distorting clouds, isn't anywhere near as odd, but it's also not particularly compelling, either. It doesn't tie into Data's storyline at all, and it ends with Picard piloting the ship to safety, which, while undeniably cool, is something we've seen before. As such, this is another episode that raises a lot of fascinating questions but doesn't quite have the knack of giving us enough answers to be satisfying or even completely realizing the complexity of the issues it raises. But while I didn't exactly love it, I'm happy it exists. I took some flack months ago when I said TNG was a good, not great, series. I'm not sure if I still stand by that; I am sure such a statement is largely irrelevant in the context of these discussions, since it doesn't really change my appreciation or my critical opinion of individual episodes. I do think, though, that if you wanted to make a case for this as a great series (and really, that's a case that could be very well made), a flawed, intermittently ridiculous episode such as this one would belong as much in your argument as undeniable classics like "Yesterday's Enterprise." "Theory" doesn't entirely work, but the fact that it was made at all, that this is a show that's willing to devote over half an episode to whether or not a robot can love and not give us a happy ending, is laudable.
Romantic relationships are strange, often uncomfortable, occasionally transcendent, and incredibly difficult to capture in fiction, because fiction, no matter how well-realized, tends to simplify human interactions. When we watch characters on a show, we know something of their history, and we can see actors reacting to each other and draw conclusions, but there are limits to our knowledge. So we draw certain conclusions. If two people seem to fit well together, if they have a certain level of chemistry, well, they should be a happy couple. If they're both good people, why wouldn't it work? We reduce emotional exchanges to algebraic equations, on the pretense that there's a cause and effect in matters of the heart that should be recognizable to everyone. But that's not really how it works. The difference between liking someone and loving them is incalculable, and it rarely makes practical sense. It's one of the few opportunities we mortals have to witness the sublime, as no matter how much we try to break ourselves down to a series of psychological stimuli/responses, we'll always miss that moment, that infinitesimal shift, that binds us to another. Dating sites will provide us with questionnaires establishing our type, and they'll have a certain degree of statistical success, but there's no precise calculation that can fathom the workings of the heart. Or, rather, the neuro-chemical reactions in our brain which we label as "heart."
Which is both profound and mundane in practice, I think, and most fiction tends to focus on the former, while inadvertently heightening the latter. "Theory" isn't really an exception, as TNG has never been a show that does relationships very well. What makes this work better than, say, the overheated goofiness of "The Host," is that we really aren't interested in an actual love affair here. We're more interested in how Data attempts to mimic what a love affair should be, and what he learns—or fails to learn—in the process. We've never seen Lt. Jenna D'Sora before now, and we won't see her again. She's not all that interesting in her own right, which is one of reasons "Theory" doesn't work quite as well as it should. We have no rooting investment in seeing her and Data make anything work; it's mostly just curiosity as to how it will fail, which is fun as far as it goes but takes some of the sting of an otherwise excellent final scene.
And really, a lot of the interaction between Data and Jenna doesn't flow like it should. There's no compelling reason given as to why Jenna suddenly gets into her head to make a play for Data, beyond the fact that she's just gotten out of a relationship, and Data is a very nice guy. That makes sense as far as it goes, but Data is such an oddity, and his oddness is so constantly and clearly on display, that you'd think there'd have to be something else to drive Jenna to act, some oddity about her personality that we never get to see. Yes, Data is relentless kind, helpful, and supportive. But... well, either she's a techno-fetishist, or she's been through so many abusive relationships that she desperately needs someone she can trust. Either of those would've made more sense than the sort of, "Eh, well, I guess it's a rebound thing" that we get here. Admittedly, both those options are dark enough that I'm not sure the show could've pulled them off, but I'm not sure I buy that anyone would so casually embark on a romantic relationship with a machine.
But then, it is the future after all, and we've seen our fair share of inter-species hook-ups before. Data doesn't look like a machine, exactly, and the impression we've gotten of dating on the Enterprise is pretty much "have at." So in that sense, the casualness of Jenna's initial decision makes a certain sense. It just doesn't speak very well for her as a character, because we're never given a sense that she's thought any of this through. Data does; before making his decision, he consults all his friends on the ship, which is as entertaining as these consultations nearly always are. Geordi: "No idea." Troi: "I advise caution." Worf: "Klingons fight for what they want! But if you hurt her, I'll kill you." Riker: "Go for it, dude. And if she decides to swing, let me know." Picard: "Eh, I have a spaceship to run."
So Data takes the plunge, and we get a handful of one-on-one scenes which are very, very odd. Data's literalism makes things difficult, as always (although his continued inability to grasp popular idiom is a grating and ill-considered as ever), and Jenna seems to realize almost at once that she's gotten herself in over her head. But they press forward. Data devises a program to engage with his girlfriend in the appropriate fashion, which means that we get to see Brent Spiner's smarm on full display; much like the bizarrely exaggerated gestures he makes towards physical intimacy, his efforts at flirting or warmth are too obviously false. There are plenty of people perfectly capable of faking emotion convincingly, and while I think the conclusion "Theory" arrives at, that Data just isn't ready to date (or else Jenna just isn't an appropriate match), is a good one, it would've made more sense if the two had, at least temporarily, made it work. It's pretty easy to ignore the rough patches in the early phases of a relationship, even if only one half of the match is really feeling it.
There's also the show's unsurprisingly asexual approach to the two's courtship. We don't need to return to Data's "fully functional" days, but much of this episode plays like a couple of elementary school kids playing at dating, as opposed to two supposed adults. We don't see any of their dates, and apart from a couple of chaste smooches, there's no indication that anybody's getting past the hand-holding stage. This makes a certain amount of sense for Data, seeing as how (apart from <shudder> Tasha) he doesn't get out much, but Jenna has supposedly been in adult relationships before. If everyone is so egalitarian about sex in the future, why wouldn't they hook up? Data is, in a sense, the greatest sex toy ever created. Even if she didn't intend to spend the rest of her life with him, you'd think Jenna would've at least poked around a bit to see which buttons did what.
Really, though, all this silliness is largely redeemed by the end of the episode. Jenna realizes what all of us have known the whole time: Neat as Data is, she can't inspire in him the same passion he inspires in her. There's no risk of him ever breaking her heart, but one of the things they don't tell you about love is, you have to have that risk. That's what makes it special; each moment you're with someone, you have to believe that even though though they could betray you, they won't. With Data, there's no danger, so there's no reward. She leaves, somewhat upset, and Data sits in his apartment, staring at the door. His cat rubs his leg, and Data picks Spot up and pets him. His eyes never leave the door. You don't know if he's processing what just happened, if he's trying to understand it, if in some dim way he was hurt by the loss. Or maybe he's just staring at the door because there's no good reason not to. It's the sort of eerie moment that happens in all of the good Data-centric episodes, that moment when you expect to see the curtain pulled back, and the man behind the mechanical wizard who's really pulling the strings. Instead, it's just Data. Staring at a door.
- Didn't really talk about the B-plot here, but, well, there wasn't much to talk about. An interesting hook, but it doesn't go anywhere.
- Gosh, women are just super crazy, y'know?
- "It's my ship, Will. I've got to do this." Um, why? And what? And look, was Picard off having his own subplot while all this crazy relationship stuff was going on? Like, maybe he had a crisis of confidence because he was getting older, and all those weird poltergeist-activities were making him fear he meet be going senile, and now he needs to risk his life and the lives of everyone on board the ship to prove he still has it. Because if that was happening, show, it would've been nice if you'd let us in on it.
Next week: We finish up the fourth season with "Redemption," and jump right into the fifth season with "Redemption II."