"The Vengeance Factor"
or The One With the Touching and the Killing and the Lady Riker Shoots
As a kid, Riker and Troi's relationship always puzzled me. To me, relationships were essentially binary; either you were with someone or you weren't. I could understand a situation where two people wanted each other but were kept apart by the vagaries of fate and bad choices, but there's no hoary plot device standing between Number One and the Enterprise's counselor. They're both comfortably aware of how the other one feels, and while we don't have a clear sense of their history (and, honestly, I'm not sure we need one; I'm not clamoring for a "When William Met Deanna" flashback episode), we understand them well enough to know that neither is a bad person, or would've hurt the other through cruelty. Younger Me thought that was enough for a relationship to work, and I was baffled whenever the pair would exchange some intimate glance before embarking on an affair with a random stranger. It's not even a "will they/won't they." It's a "they did, and who knows?"
I'm older now, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm wiser, I do have a slightly better grasp of how complicated a relationship can actually be. I like the Troi/Riker dynamic quite a bit now, because I like how it's underplayed. Whatever angst may have gone down between these two is mostly over at this point, and when Riker says, "I'll be happy if you make her happy" to a potential paramour of Troi's, there's no insincerity in the statement. The selflessness on TNG can get tiring, especially in the show's first two seasons when we were repeatedly reminded just how wonderful humanity is, but it works very well in these smaller moments. So often in television, we see characters at their worst because that's where the drama lies. It's nice to have a show that's willing to say, "These are all good, smart people," and then not immediately have Wesley cheating on an exam, or Picard struggling to hide his secret addiction to Substance D.
"The Vengeance Factor" isn't really about Troi and Riker--it's about the Enterprise trying to broker a settlement between a race and its outcasts in order to protect Federation property, and about the lengths that people will go to in order to create meaning out of horror. (That's what revenge is, at least partly: the attempt to create structure in a senseless act by giving it a story arc, and by giving yourself agency inside that arc. It's not just "everyone I loved was horribly murdered," it's "When the people I loved were murdered, I became a ruthless killing machine, and devoted myself to finding justice." The difference between News At 11 and a miniseries.) Riker does have a tentative romantic relationship with an alien, though, and it just got me thinking that whatever the differences he and Troi must've had when they parted ways (friendly or not, there had to've been some disparity), they've found a way to make an effective peace between them. It's nice to see people acting like adults, even as we watch others follow through on self-destruction.
Yeah, that's pretty tenuous, even for me. I liked "Vengeance" okay, but I had a hard time connecting to its main plot. Yuta, the seemingly young woman with the killer touch, had her share of interesting moments, but this is the sort of familiar story that people have been telling ever since we realized that rocks were harder than skulls. Strip away the science fiction, and it's just a revenge tragedy, and in order for a revenge tragedy to work, it has to grab us in some way. There has to be a new angle, some hook that can distinguish this one from all the ones that came before it. Either Yuta's pain is distinctive, or her chosen method of vengeance is so unusual, or else there's a whole lot of unexpected bloodshed. Or maybe there's a talking horse, I dunno, something. I go to this well a lot (hmmm, maybe I need a talking horse), but it's important, and it's probably the most important on TV. Given how episodic shows work, every series is invariably going to visit well-worn ideas, because you need something to riff off of, and because there's a certain charge out of seeing new characters dealing with old concepts. But there needs to be personality there, or else it's simply a matter of marking time.
"Factor" tries to spice things up, I'll give it that much credit. It's hard to connect Yuta's thirst for revenge with the goofy looking bad guys she targets (I'm really sad I already made an Ice Pirates joke in an earlier review, but I will say that the costume designers for this show must've raided the set of an Italian Mad Max rip off), and since we never see any of the people who die, it's hard to get all that worked up at how sad their loss is. Yuta is an odd one. She's genetically modified to be practically immortal (our heroes find out that's she's been at her work for decades), and she murders her enemies via a biological contagion designed to be fatal only to the clan she's targeting. She can kill with a touch, but only if she's touching certain people. This is fun concept, but it also limits the kind of collateral damage that revenge storylines usually trade in.
So it's more interesting to view all of this craziness in how it affects the Enterprise and its crew. The reason Picard and everyone get involved here is that the Gatherers, a violent group of exiles from the Acamaran race, have been laying waste to Federation outposts. The only way to deal with the problem is to try and get the Gatherers back to Acamar, where they can hopefully be re-integrated into their old society. But that means peace talks, which makes me wonder once again if Enterprise isn't Starfleet slang for "shit detail." Yeah, I know, it's prestigious and important and they wouldn't send anyone but they're most trusted yada yada, but it doesn't seem like anyone on the ship really enjoys this kind of work. Or maybe I'm just projecting. It's safe to say Picard isn't having a fun time, at least. He makes an excellent negotiator between the two parties, once everyone is in place, but I think if he had his wish, he'd be out exploring.
At least Riker tries to have some fun. He puts the moves on Yuta, who comes aboard the ship in the guise of one of Sovereign Marouk's attendants. (The Sovereign is a big Acamarian VIP whose change of heart towards the Gatherers never comes across as particularly character driven. Obviously Marouk has to be more amenable to a settlement in order for Yuta's actions to have consequences; if Marouk refused to entertain the possibility of a truce, then the murders wouldn't really be threatening anything, and we wouldn't have that really excellent final confrontation. But while I like to be an optimist about the capacity of intelligent life forms to change their opinions when faced with superior reasoning, I'm suspicious when it happens as instantaneously as it does here.) Riker is yet another aggressive move-putter-onner, but in his case, the aggression never rises above forthright friendliness. I like that--I'm not sure how well it would work in the real world, but in the sexually egalitarian universe of TNG, there's something sensible about being friendly and encouraging to someone you find attractive, and letting them come to whatever conclusions they like. Maybe that's what Riker gets out of his friendship with Troi--he knows there's at least somebody on the Enterprise who's still into him, whether or not they're together, so why sweat over individual assignations?
One might question the logic of becoming romantically entangled with a member of a diplomatic party during a tense, potentially life-threatening negotiation, but that never becomes an issue. Riker cares about Yuta, but that caring doesn't extend towards sacrificing his better judgment. After Yuta kills a Gatherer named Volnath, Riker and the others work to find out what caused the death, and when he's finally forced to confront Yuta directly, during a meeting between Marouk, Picard, and Chorgan, the leader of the Gatherers, he ends up killing her to stop her from killing Chorgan. It's a tense scene in an episode that, considering the stakes, is generally not all that thrilling. Riker explains the situation to everyone in the room, Yuta makes a move towards Chorgan, and Riker hits her with the phaser on stun. She falters, then stands straight and takes another step forward. Riker fires again, Yuta fumbles, but she keeps going forward. Riker begs her to stop. She doesn't listen.
There are some things in "Vengeance" I liked quite a bit--I liked that Brull, the Gatherer who joins the Enterprise in order to lead them to Chorgan, starts off as kind of a moron but forms an oddly charming attachment to Wesley, sharing with the Boy Blunder his desire for a better world for his own children. I like Picard's frustration at the tedium of diplomatic work. And I like the the concept of the episode overall, though I suspect it may have been better served by jettisoning the Yuta plot entirely, and dealing more with the difficulties of trying to form a lasting peace between two parties on uneven ground. But dropping Yuta would've meant losing Riker's final shot, a kill shot, one that vaporizes his brief paramour into nothingness. It's not a scene that works all that well if you think about it (why not beam Yuta back to the Enterprise where she'd be harmless? Why not keep shooting her with stun until she collapsed?), but in the moment, it's intense, shocking stuff. Everybody's friendly on the Enterprise. Until you take that one step too far.
- For a slow-aging, Typhoid Mary, last of her race murderess, Yuta is really boring. Maybe Riker has a thing for forehead ridges.
Or The One With Painless Suicide and The Romulan Sting
I'd like to think I have a code. Maybe not a code, exactly; I don't pretend I have any set rules to getting through my oh so stressful life as full-time librarian's assistant, part-time Internet snarkologist. But I'd like to think that there are lines out there, and that, with someone of them, were the situation to arise there I'd have to make a choice between one side or the other, I would be able to choose between the two based on some internally consistent ethics and morality. Like, if I wanted to join some kind of a club, and the club told me in order to join, I'd have to shoot a homeless person, I think it's safe to say, I would say no to this club, even if they had a really cool tree fort and were offering me a free gun. Or to make it a trickier call, if I was being offered money to, say, give something a favorable review, I would totally never do that, even if I could use the cash because of student loans and everything else, and it's not like anybody cares about my opinion in the long run, so maybe give me a call sometime and we can work something out?
Anyway, what I'm saying is, I like to think that I could be a good man if I was ever thrown into a situation where being a good man meant more hardship than just not running over slow people in the crosswalk. (My favorites are the ones who wait till the No Walk signal goes up before crossing directly into traffic. I think they are all Satan.) In "The Defector," a Romulan commander betrays his race because be believes that, in doing so, he can help make the universe safer for his children. It's a monumental decision, an attempt by an individual to take a moral stance not just against an action, but against the general philosophy of his entire government, and in doing so, the Romulan leaves behind everything he's ever known and loved, forever. Then he finds out that his actions have all been planned out by the ones he sought to sabotage, rendering his sacrifice pointless. It's a dark, dark episode, despite the occasional moments of levity, and it ends with a suicide. So, no huge surprises that Ron Moore is the main writer.
If you reverse the perspectives here, and look at the situation from Picard's perspective, the Moore-ian themes become even more clear. "Defector" is about trust, and how difficult it is to define "truth" even under ideal circumstances--not that Starfleet's shaky relations with the Romulans are anything close to ideal. I love how "Defector" plays with our expectations. Whenever I watch an episode like this, my impulse is to assume the truth is the opposite of whatever the narrative is currently pushing on me. It's something a lifetime of watching shows and reading stories have taught me; you go against the flow. The least obvious suspect in a murder mystery stands a good chance of being the killer. Unless you're dealing with a clever writer, in which case the least obvious suspect might simply be a red herring designed to catch you off-guard, and it's really the most obvious suspect who's responsible. Unless you're dealing with a writer that's even more clever than that, and it's some kind of double bluff, and then it turns out everything's this crazy fat guy's hallucination and the whole movie turns into a piece of shit!
Ahem. All I'm saying is, the more you watch this stuff, the more patterns you start to suss out, and the more prepared you are to recognize those patterns before the story really wants you to be aware of them. It's not something I do on purpose. I'll admit, I get a certain thrill of pride when I figure out a twist ahead of time, but I've been burned by this before too. (I was very pleased with myself for figuring out the big reveal of A Beautiful Mind based on the trailer, but I also spent the last hour of 12 Monkeys really hoping I was wrong about the ending. I wasn't, and that meant I was too busy getting pissy to really enjoy the movie.) Which means I really get a kick out of a twist that catches me off-guard. "The Defector" does a great job at this, by providing us with a mystery: is Admiral Jarok, the titular turncoat, telling the truth about Romulan operations? Or is he part of some larger scheme designed to trick the Enterprise into fumbling into an ambush? The episode spends so much time focused on this issue, letting us spend time with Jarok to decide if we trust him, following Picard and the others as they pick apart the holes in Jarok's story, that it fools us (or fooled me, anyway) into thinking this was, like my adolescent thoughts on relationships, a purely binary issue. Either Jarok was telling the truth or he wasn't. That was all that mattered.
And then, of course, it doesn't. It's that fabled extra step you hear about in reviews a lot, that final turn of the screw that takes a story from good (and this episode is very, very good) to spectacular, simply by throwing us in a direction that we don't see coming in a way that still works organically with what we've already seen, and that actually works to emphasize or throw into a new light all the details we've accumulated up to that point. Jarok, it turns out, isn't a liar. He believes that the current tense relations between his people and the Federation have to be put to an end, and he's willing to sacrifice his career and even his life in the name of that end. To find out that he was used the whole time is both effectively upsetting from an emotional standpoint (by the end of the episode, Jarok had become one of my favorite one-off characters on the series), as well as reinforcing the need for Jarok's actions even while rendering them moot. It's a devastating reveal, and Moore deserves credit for refusing to soften it with any kind of happy ending.
There are a ton of great scenes in "The Defector." The cold open is terrific: we start with a pair of random guys standing by a campfire, talking Shakespearean English, and then Data shows up, dressed to match them, and we listen to more of Henry V. Finally we get a cut to Picard, in his standard uniform, watching the whole scene with a tremendous enthusiasm, and it's not too hard to put the pieces together. (Figuring this out is made slightly more difficult by the fact that Patrick Stewart is actually playing one of the random guys. He's heavily made up, but you can still see the actor under the make-up, and his voice is distinctive enough that even if you missed the features, you'd recognize the tone. There's no reference made to the doubling in the episode itself. I can see making the argument that it's a distraction, but really, if there's any Shakespeare to be had in TNG, it's only fitting that Stewart should have some part in it, no matter how small.) The scene speaks of war, which is thematically appropriate, and it's a good reminder that Data is still striving to be human, but really, I think I just like this because it's one of those cool hang-out scenes that make the Enterprise feel more like a living, breathing world.
Data does some further research on being alive by spending some time with Jarok (who is played by James Sloyan. Sloyan does excellent work; Jarok skirts the edge of hamminess, but the character is an effective mixture of off-putting arrogance and charming directness. He's likable by the end because he makes no real effort to be liked). Unsurprisingly, Jarok is willing to open up with Data, and Data creates a program replicating a part of Jarok's homeworld in the holodeck, in order to provide some comfort for the Admiral for all he's left behind. The scene where Data shows Jarok the program is very smartly done. It's no surprise that Jarok would reject the illusion, because everything we've gotten to know about the character has told us this is someone who values plain-speaking and truth above all else. What makes this work is that Jarok is initially overcome by the sight of his past. It makes him more vulnerable, and easier to care about.
Picard gets some terrific dialog with Jarok as well, where Picard expresses his frustrations and the difficulties of knowing what to do with the information Jarok offers, and Jarok confesses he has a daughter, and how that daughter was the prime motivation for his decision to defect. Moore would show himself to be a genius on Battlestar Galactica in dealing with characters struggling to find common ground, even while we, in the audience, sympathize with both sides. You can get good drama out of a unified group working towards a seemingly impossible goal, but you can get great drama out of that group if unification is never taken for granted, if each individual is granted some measure of individual desire, and if cooperation relies as much on compromise and faith as it does on a common enemy. It's easy to understand why Picard is so suspicious throughout "Defector." By the end of the episode, it's just as easy to understand why Jarok did what he did. You want them to come to some kind of mutual truce, but there's no assumption that will happen, and when the truce does arrive, it's not a happy one.
So yeah, Jarok commits suicide at the end of "Defector." Has a character ever offed themselves at the conclusion of a TNG episode before? I don't think we've had many suicides on the series, and there's a difference between a death before the third commercial break, and one before the end credits. It's a bleak note to end on, and the letter Jarok leaves to his wife and daughter is a heartbreaking final touch. He knows there's no way that letter could be delivered as current relations between the Federation and the Romulan empire stand. But he leaves it any way, both as a symbol of why he sacrificed so much, and in the hope that maybe, someday, things could change. His voice may have been alone back home, but he won't be the last to speak out, and maybe, someday, there will be enough so that an individual need not betray all he knows to save all he loves.
- Hey, it's Tomalak again! We get a reference or two to "The Enemy." And how awesome Picard's trick of pulling two Klingon ships out of a proverbial hat?
- "I expected more than an idle threat from you, Picard." "Then you shall have it."
- Next week, we look at "The Hunted" and "The High Ground."