Or The One Where Riker Gets A Reverse Crying Game. Sort of. Er, that's not really all that funny. It's actually sort of tacky, when you think about it.
I'm not a fan of "message" entertainment. And I'm not exactly sure why. I thought I had very clear reasons coming into this piece; I don't like it when someone puts making a political or ethical point ahead of storytelling, because it nearly always makes for bland stories, full of shallow characters who exist solely to espouse a certain position. The Trek franchise is well known for this sort of holding forth; the original series was full of broad-stroke, lecture hall foolishness, and many of those episodes were enjoyable in their way, due to TOS's willingness to commit entirely to a premise, no matter how absurd. But I'd still rather watch an episode that wasn't supposed to work as a direct metaphor for some real-life situation, and that goes doubly true for TNG. Now, I love this TNG, as much in its way as I love TOS, but this is not a series that can pull off camp. So when it tries a message episode, it's generally pretty dire.
All of which is reasonable enough, but then something like "The Outcast" shows up, which is basically terrific throughout and has something to say about the real world, and I'm not sure how to respond. Because really, isn't all great writing about more than just story? Sure, there are movies or books or shows that function as pure entertainment and are all the better for it, but you can't tell me The Godfather is just a simple family drama, or that 2001 is just about a crazy robot and some lights and a giant space baby. Trying to apply across the board rules to art is basically a bad idea, at least if you pretend those rules won't eventually be broken by some really talented people. So let me simply say that whenever a show tries to put some kind of direct statement about political or human rights into a plotline, it's tricky business, and you should tread lightly. Stories work best when they're character/world specific but morally generalized. But don't hold me to that.
"The Outcast" is, on one level, a treatise about how horrifying it is when a culture decides a certain portion of its population is "sick" and takes steps to punish them for being outside the norm. Specifically, it's about how the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered are often badly treated by the so-called mainstream, viewed as unhealthy abberations that are "sick" and need to be "cured" through psychological conditioning. It's a scary, depressing, and unsettling subject, and if you'd asked me before if I thought TNG could handle this idea with the compassion and honesty it deserved, I don't think I would have given you a very optimistic answer. So I was pleasantly surprised here and more than a little shocked by an ending that ranks up there with one of the grimmest the show has ever done. For once, the real world connection actually adds to the drama instead of distracting from it. This feels less like a lecture and more like a cry of rage, and that's a good thing.
The Enterprise is working with the J'naii, a race of androgynes who've lost a ship in what turns out to be a pocket of null space. Null space is hella dangerous (actual scientific term), so Riker works with one of the J'naii, Soren, to determine the best course of action to rescue the crew of the missing ship. While they work together, eventually deciding that the only real course of action is to fly one of the shuttles into the pocket with some advanced hardware and hope for the best, the two form a strong connection. Soren is charming, intelligent, and brave, and he/she's more than a little curious about all that "he/she" stuff Riker is such an expert on. The two banter, it gradually gets more serious, and finally, Soren tells Riker that he/she has feelings for him—and that "he/she" actually identifies specifically as "she," which is a bit of a problem in J'naii culture.
Before we get into the heavy drama, it's worth noting that, right up until Soren comes clean about her crush and her particular "abnormality," this is a terribly charming episode and easily one of the show's best efforts at giving us a believable, appealing romantic relationship. It's maybe stretching to believe that Riker would be so thoroughly and passionately infatuated with Soren after knowing her for such a short amount of time, but then, that's how infatuation, and sometimes even love, works, and Frakes does a great job of selling his transition from friendly, to interested, to invested. I've complained in the past about how often Troi and Beverly's romantic entanglements read as bland, Harlequin romance novel versions of actual emotional connection. With Riker and Soren, we're allowed to see a connection build over more than just a scene or two. It may not be the romance of the century, but it is very well done, especially for this series, and that's a good thing even beyond saving us the agony of bad poetry; the ending wouldn't work if we didn't care for Soren nearly as much as Riker does.
So, good job to writer Jeri Taylor for making so much of this work. It's also just a fun episode to watch, until it suddenly stops being fun and becomes really, really sad. The "null space" concept is cool, even if I didn't take thorough enough notes to describe it in detail, and Soren and Riker's rescue mission is exciting and suspenseful. We get some fun scenes between Worf, Data, Beverly, and Troi over the poker table (did you know that Worf is, like, crazy sexist? At least he is this episode, which is unfortunate, considering how often he's talked about his appreciation of strong women). After everything goes to hell, there's a great conversation between Worf and Riker before the two join forces on a rescue mission to save Soren. Oh yeah, the plot: Despite their best efforts to hide their attraction (i.e., walking away from a party a few yards before making out), Soren and Riker are discovered by her people, and Soren is jailed. She's tried for her "crime," she gives a speech about how messed up all this is, and then she's sentenced to "psychotectic therapy," which is what prompts Riker (despite Picard's neutrality and the Prime Directive) to try and save her. He fails.
Yeah, we'll get to that. But first, Soren's speech in the courtroom is the closest the episode comes to becoming overly preachy. It's the character's second big monologue in the episode; the first comes when she reveals her feelings and true self to Riker for the first time, and that monologue is aces, a well-written, intimate, and deeply unsettling account of just how thoroughly messed up poor Soren's life has been and how horribly she and others like her have been treated by their kind. It's that second speech that's a little much, because it's by and large boilerplate "If you prick me, do I not bleed?" holding forth. This is nothing you haven't seen before in a dozen other social issue movies or shows, and it could have been a disaster, but it's saved largely by Melinda Culea, the actress playing Soren. She's low-key throughout the episode, quiet but not precisely shy, underplaying most of the emotional beats so that when she does raise her voice, it's very powerful.
The other reason the courtroom defense doesn't hurt the episode as badly as it might have is that it falls on deaf ears. When Soren finishes her plea, we cut to a commercial break, confident that by the laws of TV drama she's managed to earn herself a reprieve, but when we come back to the trial, the judge simply pities her for being "sick" and sends her away. Riker begs to be allowed to take Soren back with him to the Enterprise, but the judge explains that they really do believe she's sick, and they care for their citizens, and Soren is going to have her treatment no matter what. And she does. When Riker and Worf beam back down to the planet and take out Soren's guards, it's too late; the psychotectics have done their dirty work, and "she" is now "gender neutral," her past self essentially murdered by science. Soren apologizes to Riker for the inconvenience, and he returns to the ship, back to work, haunted by what he (and she) have lost.
There are ways of reading this last scene that make it not entirely brutal. The judge who explains the J'naii position to Riker does sound legitimately sincere, no matter how misguided, and we're told that people who've had the "therapy" lead happy lives afterwards. Maybe Soren is fine now, and "Outcast" was trying, in some stupidly misguided way, to be fair to both sides of the sexuality wars. But I refuse to believe this. For one, Soren's speech, heavy-handed or no, is inarguable in its basic message, and while the "fixed" Soren doesn't twitch or show any obvious signs of discomfort when Riker finds him/her, that doesn't mean that Soren is better off post-treatment. It's shocking when Riker finally realizes what's happened, and it's not shocking because you can't see it coming. It's shocking because TNG never does this, it never punishes a complete innocent in such a cruel, irrevocable way. We've had downbeat endings before, but there's nearly always some mitigating factor to cushion the blow, and if there isn't, it rarely feels this brutal. When a Romulan defector commits suicide after realizing he's been played by his own people for a fool, it's sad, but there's a pleasing completeness to the moment, as though that story couldn't have any other ending; when an older scientist returns to his people to die as he's told, it's disappointing, but it's still his choice.
And there's the rub right there: choice. Soren's choice is stripped away from her, and we're given no comfort in that, no compensation, no balancing sense that the universe might somehow reddress this wrong. "Outcast" avoids the usual pitfalls of social metaphor eps through great performances and writing, and also because, in the end, it doesn't gives us the catharsis of a happy ending. There's no relief here, no lie that, "Well, our world sucks, but at least everything's fine on my favorite show!" This is an ugly, awful situation, and it happens whenever the majority decides to impose its view of morality without thought, mercy, or compassion. The real tragedy here is that this episode first aired almost 20 years ago—and it still stings.
- Is it just me, or is Picard's adherence to the Prime Directive really turning into a drag? Seems like every week he has to give someone a speech about how they can't meddle in blah blah blah. I appreciate that TNG has a more nuanced approached to interstellar politicking, but I hope we get to see Stewart kick some ass soon.
- Jonathan Frakes objected to casting a woman as Soren, arguing that man-on-man kissing would've backed up the episode's thesis stronger. I'm not sure he's right. We've never seen any indication that Riker is bisexual on the show, and to introduce that at this late stage, just for thematic purposes, would probably have been pushing it. But it might've been interesting.
- I am amazed that I got through this entire review without mentioning Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. It's a great science fiction novel about a man who visits a planet of people who change their genders as they see fit. I haven't read it in years, so I couldn't really use it in the discussion here, but you should check it out.
- "Commander, tell me about your sexual organs." The rare TNG pick-up line that is both intentionally hilarious and meant to be a pick-up line.
- Riker's scene with Troi was... interesting. Riker's had plenty of romantic partners on the show before, and this is the first time I can remember him warning Troi that he was seeing someone. It's done to show us just how serious his feelings for Soren are, but I'm not convinced it was necessary. Both Frakes and Sirtis handle it well, though.
"Cause and Effect"
Or The One Where The One Where The One Where
Well, somebody up there must like me, because after all my griping in last week's review about season five, this week I got one of the best double features yet. "The Outcast" is some high-minded, surprisingly powerful drama, and "Cause and Effect" is what, at heart, will always be my favorite Trek flavor, even though I'm now old enough realize other types can be just as good. We have ourselves a good old fashioned piece of sci-fi trickery here, one with time travel that doesn't telegraph its plot, that trusts its audience enough to blow up the Enterprise in the cold open and not immediately explain why, and, hell, Kelsey Grammar shows up. Sure, not till the very end, but it's kind of awesome anyway. (This means that Frasier is now officially a captain in the Trek-verse. DO NOT TRY AND ARGUE THIS.) I knew just enough about this episode going in to have some very high expectations indeed, and I was not disappointed.
I wasn't kidding about that cold open, by the way. It's one of the shortest I've seen on the show. When we come in, we find the Enterprise is already seriously damaged, and the situation goes from bad to terrifying in seconds. Picard starts shouting for everyone to abandon ship, and then we pull back to space just in time to watch everyone we've spent the past four-and-a-half seasons caring about explode. (All at once. I mean, it's not like each cast member steps up, introduces himself, and then blows up. Although that would make for a cool end credits sequence.) BOOM. Opening credits. That's a hook, my friends; cold opens are designed to grab an audience's attention and hold them through that first commercial break, and this one's a shocker. Obviously, we know that everyone isn't actually dead, but that doesn't make the urge to find out just what the hell's going on any less potent.
It's a good thing that cold open is so strong, too, because a good chunk of the episode which follows, while fascinating in its way, isn't as immediately gripping. Picard records a new captain's log. Beverly, Data, Worf, and Riker play poker. Geordi has a minor accident, and Beverly does what she can for him, though neither quite know what's going on. Beverly hears some voices in her room, and she's not the only one on the ship who experiences this. No one knows what to make of it, though. One of my favorite aspects of TNG's approach to a mystery is that other characters always take the afflicted person's problem seriously, but while Picard and the others grant that whatever Beverly experienced was real, that doesn't mean any of them are capable of understanding what's going on. The usual staff meeting is interrupted when Ensign Ro gets some readings off a space-time anomaly. (You gotta spray for those.) Everyone heads up to the bridge. While they're investigating the anomaly, a ship pops out in front of them. In order to prevent a collision, Data suggests using the tractor beam to divert the new ship's path. Picard "makes it so," but the new ship still hits the Enterprise, and, well, remember that cold open? BOOM.
And then we're back to the same place we started. Picard's brief narration. The poker game. Only this time, Beverly has this feeling she's done this before. The feeling persists, and she starts asking questions, but none of those questions come fast enough to prevent the same basic pattern from recurring, and, again, BOOM. Now, you could argue this is boring. We're seeing the same basic outline of scenes playing again and again, and while there's variation, there's none of the sense of power that usually comes from time loop stories. One of the charms of Groundhog Day is that Bill Murray is aware of what's happening, and when he realizes the parameters of his situation, he can take advantage of it. Everybody has had fantasies about knowing exactly what was going to happen on a given day and being able to use that knowledge to construct a perfect afternoon.
In "Cause," nobody gets to play a god, because nobody really realizes they're repeating. Beverly comes the closest (and it's an unexpected, pleasant surprise that this episode relies largely on her as the main POV character), but the most she gets to show off is when she predicts what cards Data will deal during the second to last iteration. This cuts down on the episode's fun factor as a power trip fantasy, but the amount of respect it shows for the viewer is gratifying. Given its unusual premise, "Cause" is wonderfully realistic in its plotting. There's no reason for anyone onboard the ship to be aware of what's going on, just as there's no reason to let us in on what's happening apart from simply letting it happen over and over again. Of course we figure out the problem fairly quickly. We have an edge, because we get to watch each repetition, but it's not like there's an exposition dump from some external source to bring us up to speed.
I appreciate that; I said this was "old-fashioned," but the way content dictates form (in that this episode doesn't really play like a standard TNG episode) here seems fairly modern. I also appreciate how short a time period our heroes have to realize their predicament. It seems like roughly a day, maybe less, and crises on the Enterprise rarely happen this quickly. Usually there's at least some window of days between suspecting something's amiss and everyone dying. So Picard can take Beverly's concerns about voices seriously, and he can tell her to keep an eye on it, but it's meaningless, because they'll all be exploded and reset in a few hours. They do accumulate knowledge between jumps, but it's not like taking notes or remembering mistakes. The real trick of the episode, once the central problem is established, is finding a way out of that problem that doesn't cheat the rules established in the first few loops. In a very real sense, that's where the suspense comes from; not in whether or not the Enterprise will eventually survive, but whether or not the writer (Brannon Braga) will provide that resolution fairly.
I'd say he does. The idea that each trip through the loop leaves echoes that can be sensed as they intensify may not have basis in scientific fact (or maybe it does, I don't really know). I do know that it makes enough intuitive sense to work within the episode, especially because in and of itself it's not a cure-all. The only way Geordi and Data are able to use these echoes to save themselves down the line is by sending a simple message that only future-past Data can perceive. The message can't be very long, though, and there's no guarantee as to how Data will respond to it. Ultimately, Data opts to send back the number 3, which turns out to be the number of pips on Riker's collar, signifying to the next Data iteration that in order to break the pattern, they need to follow Riker's plan for pushing off the other ship.
"Cause" has some flaws. Given the rules established for what scenes we could see during each loop, the repetition does get old by the end. While there's excitement in seeing what effect Data's message will have on events, the final, definitive course of events does feel padded in spots, as we start re-seeing sequences we're already familiar with in ways that don't provide us with any new information. (We also watch scenes that've been described to us before, like Picard sitting and reading a book. I'm a Picard fan, no question, but I'm not sure I need visual proof that he wasn't making up his evening just to convince everyone he was literate.) Once Geordi and Data's plan works and Data manages to save the day (by, um, not suggesting a course of action that will get everyone killed), there's a little more exposition than I needed about what happened. Although that's probably just me being picky. I did love the idea of Data sub-consciously littering the entire Enterprise with secret "3"s for them to discover.
Once the day has been saved and time is no longer out of joint, Picard has someone check the ship's clocks against a Starfleet time-base beacon, and they learn they've been looping for 17.4 days. It's a smart twist, as I've often wondered what happened to the Enterprise when it got stuck in some sort of temporal mire; one could imagine them wasting decades on a five-year mission without realizing it. And of course, that's what happened to Captain Kelsey Grammar and his crew on the Bozeman. Without their knowledge, they've been shot forward in time roughly 90 years. Once again, TNG does what it does best: You take an ostensibly goofy idea, and then you make it sting by thinking through the consequences.
- I'm curious as to why the time loop only occurred when the Enterprise exploded. It's not like the explosion created the anomaly; it was already there to let the Bozeman through. Was someone just giving them a do-over?
- I love Beverly's constant references to "10 other people" on the ship who've been experiencing the same voices she hears. The crew must be very well-conditioned to immediately reporting any symptoms of potential distress, no matter how minor.
Next week: We visit Wesley at Starfleet Academy for "The First Duty" and spend some time with (sigh) Alexander in "Cost of Living."