"The Outrageous Okona"
People used to give me a lot of advice on how to relax. They were trying to help, of course, but there's no helpful way to explain, "Don't try so hard," because it draws attention to your self-consciousness that only serves to reinforce it. I wanted everybody to love me, I didn't think anyone possibly could, so I put every ounce of sweat and concentration I had towards making myself acceptable, pleasing, and, as is relevant to this week's first episode, hilarious. Now, I can be funny in person. I'm not any great wit or anything, but at my best, I get by. The trouble that it's hard to be funny when you're trying to be funny--some people can pull it off, but most of us can't, and when you're stuck in a position of desperately wanting to blow everyone away, you mostly end up fizzling out. Nothing kills comedy quite as dead as visible effort.
This delightful personal revelation comes as a way to try and explain why "The Outrageous Okona" is so goddamn painful. It's not the worst episode we've had, because the story makes a rough amount of sense, there's no blatant racism or sexism, and only one actor makes a fool of himself. It's lousy, though. The first warning sign hits you in the opening credits: "Joe Piscopo as The Comic." You have to be a certain age to see that name and be horrified, but even if you don't recognize the presence of one of the eighties worst break-out comedic actors, your heart is sure to break once you realize why "Okona" needs a "The Comic." Data wants to be funny. And now he's going to take lessons.
Before we get to that, the main plot of "Okona," the plot that inspires Data's latest attempts to be become human and also provides us with the only relief (here used in the loosest possible sense) from those attempts, centers on a guest star, William O. Campbell, aka Bill Campbell, aka The Rocketeer. ("The Rockawho?") Campbell plays a Han Solo-ish scoundrel who gets picked up by the Enterprise when his engine dies mid-trip. Troi clears him in advance, explaining to Picard that he's a good guy and a "rogue." (I actually wrote down "rogue" in my notes about ten seconds before Troi said it, which shows you how, um, distinctive Okona is.) Okona beams aboard, and immediately starts hitting on the super hot teleporter engineer. Played by Teri Hatcher, who I guess had some kind of a contract that required her to make at least one guest appearance on ever eighties genre show.
Anyway, Okona's charms work on Hatcher. And not just on Hatcher; we get the impression he's basically screwing his way through the female portion of the crew. It's hokey, and more than a little absurd, given that we have not one but two jokes based on someone watching an attractive woman hanging over the guy in their bedroom, but unlike the comedy sections, it's not painful. I'm not completely convinced that Okona's easy-going charisma is what's getting him laid. Campbell is a good-looking dude, and it probably gets boring on a space-ship, so while I'm not sure I buy the Enterprise is full of Leisure Suit Larry characters, I do think it's reasonable to think there'd been some screwing going on. If we choose to ignore the somewhat silly presentation (and we'll be doing more of that soon), I can appreciate the ethos behind it. This isn't a morality play. Okona doesn't turn out to be a bastard, and none of the women regret hooking up. I dig that. I dig the optimism of a free love society which still encourages committed relationships.
Sadly, this isn't just a mildly tone-deaf attempt at a sex romp. (While TOS had some great lusty sequences, TNG really isn't a sexy show. It's too deliberate, too reasonable, too polite. It's at its best when the characters discuss problems and work together towards solutions in a thoughtful, conscientious way. I'm not knocking that, either--I think it's one of the things that makes the show stand out, and one of the big reasons why the Borg threat is so effective when it arrives. The only problem is, it's really hard to want to rip the clothes off somebody when you have to fill out forms in triplicate first.) If that's all it was, "Okona" would be middling, a forgettable forty minutes of fluff notable only for the presence of two up and coming guest actors, and for Okona's Ice Pirates-style outfit.
Instead, after talking with Okona, Data decides he wants to learn how to tell jokes. He's been struggling with this before, but this is the first time we've spent scenes watching him make the effort. Theoretically, it's not a bad idea. Data's quest to become human has dramatic potential, because it offers writers a chance to get philosophical ("What does it mean to be human?") without losing the grounding of a likable, intelligent character. I've talked before about how break-out characters are often the ones who question social conventions that everyone else takes for granted, and that's essentially what Data is; the difference being that Data's questions are respectful and curious, which actually makes them harder to answer. Having him put some effort into understanding what makes a joke work could've been a great opportunity to show how impossible it is to explain some things, and how that translates to Data's quest as a whole, the way "being human" is such a nebulous concept that achieving it is as much about asking questions as it is about answering them.
Technically, they do try this, and I very much liked Guinan telling Data at the end of the episode that there's more to humanity than just an ability to tell jokes well. The real problem here is that it's an episode about humor with no good laugh lines. Worse, it's an episode about humor with no good laugh lines that thinks it's really, really funny. Data's attempts at stand-up are supposed to fall flat, (although I don't think they're supposed to be quite as wince-inducing as they actually are; once again we're reminded that Brent Spiner trying to act "human" is really loud. I think, as a friend reminded me, it's because Spiner's background is in theater, and none of the episode directors have made an effort to tone him down) but the scenes with Piscopo are equally terrible, and there's a bit with Piscopo and Data both pretending Jerry Lewis that kind of made me want to die. The idea that Piscopo, who's basically just Jay Leno with muscle tone, is one of the best comedians of the 20th Century is, well, horrifying. Was there some kind of apocalypse that left the future with nothing but thousands of copies of Dead Heat?
At least we have Whoopi Goldberg on hand, and I heard she might have done some stand-up at some point. Data goes to Guinan for advice, which is a nice meta-moment that the episode never overplays. (Actually, that may have less to do with subtlety and more to do with me occasionally forgetting that Goldberg made her name as a comedian. I'm old, sometimes I forget things.) That's ruined, though, by the fact that Guinan's few attempts at humor are as bad, if not worse, than Data's. "You're a droid and I'm a noid"? Seriously? It's hard to remember this show ever being intentionally funny. Whimsical, sure, endearing, definitely, but intentionally hilarious? I'd say it happens occasionally, but right now, the idea of a purely comic episode (like, say, TOS's "Trouble With Tribbles") here gives me the shakes. I suppose "Okona" could've been worse. The discovery at the end that the title character isn't quite as immature as he appears to be is a nice twist, and, even better, it indicates that the writers are getting a handle on how to tell a story that's paced reasonably well. Too bad so much of that pacing is given over to pain. Data learns a valuable lesson that humor can't be forced, and we learn the same, albeit in a far less friendly way.
"Loud As A Whisper"
There's something about TNG's tone that always makes episodes like this harder to take. I've been trying for years to figure out the best way to describe it, but every time I do, all I can think of is one word: pastel. That's not enough, really, but it's close. I love TNG, I love the cast, and I love the great stories we eventually get, but right now, so many of these episodes are like getting stuck in a doctor's waiting room, flipping through copies of Readers Digest, staring at renderings of landscapes and abstract designs hanging on the walls, lost in a sea of light brown, gray, pink. Great ideas are important, but the wrong presentation can make even the greatest idea fall flat, and sometimes that's what these early seasons sometimes feel like: smart writing and some great acting buried under a sea of surface mediocrity.
For an experiment, I tried to separate "Loud As A Whisper"'s concept from its execution. It's not a bad episode for that approach. "Whisper" is often painfully earnest in its philosophical meanderings, and it's nearly impossible to watch without snickering in places, but it's also thoughtful, sincere, and, if you can stop rolling your eyes long enough, inspiring. I'm not saying it's successful at those things, at least not completely. I am saying, though, that this is the kind of storytelling that will eventually develop into true greatness. Sort of like "We'll Always Have Paris." (Note to self: Try and come up with a different way to be optimistic for next week. They may be catching on how much of these reviews are copy and paste.)
The Enterprise is on transport duty, assigned with bringing a diplomat named Riva to Solais V to negotiate a peace between two warring factions. Riva is a really big deal, although no one seems to know much about him, except that he has a reputation for resolving seemingly irresolvable conflicts. While this mystery does give us a chance to figure out the situation at the same time as Picard and the others do, it's implausible. Riva's "secret" is so fundamental to his character, and so immediately obvious to anyone who meets him, that I can't believe it hadn't come up before. Like, I dunno, Starfleet saying, "Hey, could you go pick up this guy? Oh, and FYI, he's deaf, and he's got three friends who communicate for him." It's a small point, and I won't harp on it for much longer, but this sort of thing does damage to the show's universe, because in trying to oversell a twist, it undercuts continuity. In order for surprise situations to be be effective, we need to feel like the Enterprise crew generally knows what's going on. As it is, too often Picard seems to be wandering into someone else's play.
Right, Riva's "secret." It is, no denying it, goofy. Riva can't speak for himself (y'know, "deaf" doesn't automatically mean "mute"), so he's got two guys and a girl to do the work for him. Each member of the trio represents a specific element of Riva's personality. One guy's the thinker and artist, the other guy's the warrior and lover, and the woman is harmony and balance. (So, the two men are active, while the woman just sets a reasonable bedtime. Sounds fair to me!) Each can read Riva's thoughts, and which ever one is most indicative of his emotional state is the one who expresses those thoughts aloud. So if he's musing, it's the Dork, if he's horny, it's the Stud, and if he's, I dunno, in sort of a warm-milk-and-tedium mood, it's the Mom.
Troi calls this form of expression "elegant," which is one of the more ridiculous things she's said lately. It's certainly interesting, but there's no simplicity to it, and it's hard to imagine how such a system would develop naturally. Yet the concept is dramatically interesting for what it tells us about Riva's intentions, and just plausible enough that you could sort of see it working. It raises questions--how are the people chosen? Does he work with the same three all his life? Do they get time off when he's not on diplomatic missions, or is this a lifetime gig?--but leaving those questions unanswered means we've got less plotholes to worry about, and more encouragement to figure it out for ourselves. Also, it makes sense that this could help Riva make peace, because the communication is so striking and odd that it could serve as a distracting from heated emotions. In order to understand what was happening, the feuding parties would have to pay attention, and that's the first step towards a dialog.
Of course, in practice... Riva is immediately attracted to Troi, and she to him, so when he starts putting the moves on her it's supposed to be romantic. I think. It plays as creepy and overly forceful, possibly because there's something unpleasant about a large, full-bearded man staring at you with a smile that wonders if your empathy goes all the way up. The relationship becomes more palatable as the episode progresses, which is good because it's fairly important to the plot, but that initial vibe lingers, and I think that's because Riva's intentions are so blatant from the start. Whenever he "speaks" with Troi, it's the Stud who does the talking, and it's like they're ganging up on her. Things only really work once the Stud exits the room, and Riva starts speaking to Troi via sign language. At least then, they're equally matched.
Apparently the Solari agree with me, because when Riva and the Rivettes beam down for some negotiating madness, somebody shoots and kills the Rivettes. It's a really smart twist, too, the kind that in retrospect seems obvious (how else could they raise the stakes?) but comes as a shock at the time. Given the whole pastel-vibe, I hadn't been expecting this, and the deaths are appropriately disturbing, very quick, but you see skeletons and stuff. (Makes you wonder of the bad guy had stole a laser from a Mars Attacks Martian.) Riva's self-confidence is shattered, which means for the first time in the episode, it's possible to actually kind of like him, and Troi gets a chance to be active and tell Riva to man up. Oh, and Data learns sign language.
I don't precisely like "Whisper." There's that tone problem again, and Riva himself annoyed me, but once I was willing to look past my initial reservations, I can at least respect what I saw. Again, this episode is well-constructed, and lacks the egregious padding we've seen in some earlier first season work. We are presented with a scenario, we arrive at the scenario, the scenario becomes something else, and everything is resolved at the end. I'm not sure how well Riva's "I'm gonna teach them sign language!" plan would actually work, but I believe that it could work. Oh, and this is our second episode in a row where the guest star essentially does all the heavy lifting, story-wise. Troi gives a pep talk, but it's Riva who drives the action here, much like Okona did. That the show can do this, and not have the main crew seem like passive observers, is essential.
"The Schizoid Man"
It's becoming readily apparent this week that Data-centric episodes are much more difficult to pull off than I'd thought. "Elementary, Dear Data" was quite fun, although not entirely because of the android's presence, and "Okona"'s forgettable goofiness suffered whenever Data took central focus. "Schizoid" doesn't exactly deal with the Robo-Pinocchio's quest for real live boydom, but it does give Brent Spiner a chance to go over-the-top, and that's never good. He's supposed to be creepy here, at least, but the result is more cringe-inducing than suspenseful or thrilling, and we've got a climax that, while somewhat justifiable character-wise, comes to a conclusion that falls to pay off dramatically.
Ira Graves is a very smart man. He's so smart that he has a whole planet named after him, but now he's dying, which means his vast intellect isn't really much of a comfort anymore. (The smarter you are, the more difficult it becomes to lie to yourself that everything will work out okay.) When he gets his terminal diagnosis, he considers downloading all this knowledge into a computer, but with Data around, maybe there's a better option. Maybe he can put not just his brains but his heart into this Tin Man, live a second life, and get a chance to put the moves on the young hottie who he's been crushing on for years.
There are things to like here. After hearing the distress call from Gravesworld, the Enterprise also gets a call from a ship with a hull breach, and Picard is forced to decide between attempting a rescue for one of the great minds of the age, or addressing a more immediate, clear problem with a higher potential body count. What's cool here is that the problem isn't presented as a one or the other scenario. Writers often try and squeeze drama out of putting characters in situations with impossible choices: save A or save B, but you can't save both. It's a very powerful structure, and when it's done effectively, it can be pretty brilliant. (Recent last week's Breaking Bad for a complicated, but astonishingly rich example.) The problem is, those scenarios have to be earned. You can't cheat, since the entire point of the dilemma is its inexorableness. If an audience can easily see a third solution that solves both problems, the question falls apart. So here, instead of trying to manufacture false conflict, Picard and his crew find a reasonable answer to both distress calls. It requires a "near-warp transport," which is a neat sounding idea, and there's a little danger in it (Troi, who's never experienced it before, talks about how she thought she was beamed into a wall for a second), but everybody gets what they need.
We get a hot female Vulcan doctor, Lieutenant Selar, who Pulaski has "complete faith in." I'm not sure I agree. Her doctoring skills are passable, but she's not a very good actress, and has a tendency to overplay her condescending smiles. With Sela in the away team that beams down to see Graves is Worf, Data, and Troi. I don't really know why Troi is there. Given that the Enterprise was speeding off to rescue a ship with hundreds of potential casualties, you'd think her psychological gifts would've been better served at crowd control and handling a major crisis, rather than hanging out and getting leered at. (Admittedly, at this point in the show, that's kind of her thing. Every other episode it seems like somebody's trying to get in her uniform. I guess with Denise Crosby out of the picture, and with Pulaski as the doctor, Troi is stuck as the token hot chick.)
Graves is irascible and pissy, and pretty much exactly what you get if you tried to imagine "stereotypical super genius living in isolation with his hottie assistant." He's played by character actor William Morgan Sheppard, so at least the cliche is real enough that don't mind it so much. It's wonderful that, even with the attempts to raise the number of women in the regular cast, TNG is still sticking with the fifties stereotype of male mad scientists who get the job done despite the nattering of their loving but ineffectual female help. Well, not wonderful, actually. More like inane. Graves' co-worker, Kareen, is pretty and pleasant and terribly concerned, and Graves is in love with her. When Troi tells Kareen this--okay, hold up a second, did anyone on the writing staff ever take into consideration how insanely invasive Troi's empathy powers really were? Here she's revealing a long-hidden crush. In "Whisper," she badgers Worf about his frustration with Riva, despite Worf's clear unwillingness to discuss the issue. We've seen her bug Picard before, too. Look, being a person, or a sentient life-form, or whatever, means that you're going to feel things occasionally that you don't want other people to know about. What gives Troi the right to decide when and to whom to share that information with? She doesn't even take Worf aside to talk to him!
Ahem. Back on point. Kareen says maybe if Graves were younger, something might've happened between them, which is a lot less icky than her suddenly falling for the old bastard. Thankfully, there's ickiness to come, because once he realizes he can't escape his mortality, Grave downloads his essence into Data's positronic brain, and takes over. It's... I'm not really sure what it is, but I don't think it works. Data-Graves starts hitting on Kareen, he gives himself a hilariously unctuous eulogy, and then he gets really really pissed off at Picard. What's weird is how this all seems so predictable. I've seen my share of movies and shows where good people go bad, and there's nothing unexpected about Data-Graves' actions, and nothing all that exciting. Despite the attempt to play things on the down-low, it's obvious early on what Graves has done, and that means there's no real stakes here. Data himself isn't in danger, and the damage he does is easily fixable. We don't really care enough about Graves to worry about the actions of his post-mortem avatar. So really, it's just a series of checklist scenes, until Picard tries to talk Data-Graves down.
We've got an episode coming up, "The Measure Of A Man," that calls into question Data's rights as a sentient being, and I'm hoping that'll deal with some of the potential fall-out from what we see here. If "Schizoid" can be used to try and prove that Data as a machine is a potential danger to those around him (he's more vulnerable to this sort of attack, and he's more physically powerful than organic folks), at least then it could've served some purpose. As is, it's not that fun to watch (although Sheppard's enjoyable), not that interesting, and way more uncomfortable than it really ought to be.
- "That's a joke. It's funny." No. Not really in any way, honestly.
- There are probably a lot of typos in this one--it's been a weird week, and the write-up was already late. Enjoy!
- So, ladies: just how dreamy is Okona? Be honest, and show your work.
- Guinan claims that laughing is "uniquely human." It is? 'Cause I'm pretty sure we've seen other species laughing. In fact, isn't Guinan herself another species?
- We get some rare over-acting from Patrick Stewart in "Whisper." His pep-talk to Riva, post-Rivettes, is really oversold.
- I really liked Picard's last scene with Troi in "Whisper," though. He thanks her for her work, and it's rather sweet.
- Graves' "If I Only Had A Heart" whistling would've been cooler if the episode hadn't gone out of its way to explain the reference. (And I really don't buy that Data wouldn't be familiar with it.)
- Wesley has become a standard feature of the bridge crew, and I gotta say, he's doing a decent job. I especially liked him mocking Data's eulogy in "Schizoid."
- I'm bowing to the will of the collective: from now on, the grade at the top of each recap will be the average of the three grades episodes.
- Next week, it's "Unnatural Selection," "A Matter Of Honor," and, whattaya know, "The Measure Of A Man."