Or The One Where We Meet The Cardassians, And The Warden Of Shawshank Prison Makes Some Bad Calls
As though to prove me wrong after all my talk about closed episode continuity, the first entry in this week's Star Trek double feature picks up essentially where "Data's Day" leaves off. Oh, we don't deal with the ramifications of a Romulan spy infiltrating the Vulcan government (although I agree with the commenter who pointed out last week that you'd think this would be a pretty big deal). Nor does Data do much in the way of soft-shoe. But we do check in on O'Brien and Keiko, and their interactions suggest a couple still in the early stages of matrimonial bliss. Actually, they seem more like two people fumbling through a third date, one that isn't too likely to lead to a fourth. Keiko is less crazy this week, but there isn't a lot of chemistry between her and her apparent husband. (So maybe this episode takes place three or four years after "Data's Day"?) Maybe this is some kind of mail-order bride scenario or an arranged wedding.
Whatever the reason, O'Brien has more chemistry with his former captain, Ben Maxwell, then we ever see him having with his wife, but that works to "The Wounded's" advantage. This isn't an episode about marriage, or love, at least not of the romantic kind. This is more about trying to find honor in situations that require more subtle responses and how trauma can warp the judgment of even the best of men. It's an episode I enjoyed, although this is a story that's been done and been done to death many times before. I'm fairly certain we've seen some variation of this on TNG already and in TOS and half a dozen other genre shows besides. Hell, this is basically Space Rambo, only Bob Gunton isn't 'roided up, and there's no Space Brian Dennehy getting in his face and thinking he's a hippie.
Stripped to its basics, this isn't a plot I automatically have a lot of interest in. It's one of those concepts (the warrior who can't find peace) that makes so much inherent sense that it becomes almost too familiar. Like, say, a Christmas episode when everyone has to be reminded that the holidays should be about everything but freaking out over buying the right toys. Once a theme or moral becomes a common part of our cultural experience, it becomes a sort of unwritten requirement or fall-back position for TV show writers. It's fertile material, but it also allows for lazy writing, because the structure is so readily identifiable. That means that nearly all of these stories follow the same arc, and it means that once you've seen a few of them, it can seem like you've seen them all. Not every show can support a storyline about a soldier unable to come in from the cold, but enough of them can, so that it's easy to recognize the signs.
When we learn that Maxwell, as Captain of the Phoenix, destroyed a seemingly unprotected Cardassian science station, did anyone really think it was an innocent mistake, or that his behavior had been justified? I know I didn't. That's partly because a morally questionable Maxwell makes for a more interesting story (if the Cardassians were just flat out lying bastards ... well, okay, we'll get to that), but also because the minute we learn about the massacre Maxwell and O'Brien witnessed, and how Maxwell lost his family, it doesn't take much effort to follow the lines. The only way to make this work is by finding a new angle to play it from. It doesn't have to be shockingly original, but it has to surprise us out of our expectations just long enough to get our attention.
"Wounded" mostly worked for me, and, as always, the details are the crucial difference between a decent episode, and a very good one. It's great to see O'Brien get so much attention; this is (if I'm remembering correctly) the first episode where he's been actually crucial to the resolution of the main storyline and not just in a "Well, somebody has to push the button that activates the transporters" kind of way. Colm Meaney is more than up to the task. His scenes with Keiko are enjoyable (although weirdly tense, as I kept expecting casual conversation to break into a soul-shredding, George-and-Martha-style argument at any moment), and his final scene with Gunton, as O'Brien tries to talk his former captain out of killing again, is understated and all the more moving for that.
Understatement is really the key word for Meaney's entire performance, and it's most crucial in his transition from pretending he's fine seeing Cardassians on board the Enterprise, to admitting he's not all that happy to have to deal with their race again. There's subtext in his scenes here, always a welcome presence, and while we've seen characters denying their issues before (just last week, in fact), rarely have they seemed so utterly divided in their circumstance. O'Brien repeatedly tells everyone he has no problem with the Cardassians, and he never sounds all that defensive when he says it. And yet the instant he's left alone with the aliens, he's stand-offish to the point of rudeness, and it's not the kind of calculated rudeness you see from a man who quite realizes the depth of his disquiet. It's a small point, but an important one; instead of milking his internal conflict for more obvious drama, Meaney stays on the level throughout.
In addition to helping make that final scene (which ends with Maxwell and O'Brien singing a song together, which could've been mawkish, but is instead one of the most striking moments I've seen on the show, as it's just so simple and direct) work, unexpected subtlety benefits the rest of the episode as well, primarily in our introduction to the Cardassians. This is the first we've seen or heard of the race, and while it helps to know how important they'll become to the franchise in the future, specifically on Deep Space Nine, the few we meet here are interesting enough in their own right, with or without context. We've met warlike races before, and initially, that's what the Cardassians seem to be. There's a treaty between them and the Federation, but it's only a year old, so things are still tense, and when the Enterprise moves into Cardassian space, a ship fires on them without provocation or warning. Not a good sign. When the Enterprise takes out the attacking ship's weapons and finally makes contact, we get our first glimpse of the Cardassians, and they don't look friendly. It's one of the coolest alien designs we've had on the show, really. They just look like monsters.
Which makes it all the more interesting when they don't actually act like monsters. Like I said, warlike races are a dime a dozen on the show, and it's been so long since I watched DS9 that I fully expected Gul Macet, the Cardassian captain of the ship that attacks the Enterprise in the first scene, to start yelling and posturing and making a fuss. He's icily polite, however, and he maintains that detachment throughout the entire episode. Of the three Cardassians that beam over to the Enterprise to help Picard, et al., on their hunt for the Phoenix, only one ever really displays an emotion, and he's quickly reprimanded and dismissed by his commanding officer. Clearly, this is a race that prides itself on maintaining equanimity whatever the cost, and the tension this creates between the intensity of the situation and Macet's measured response helps keep the audience off-balance.
Another point in "Wounded's" favor is how far Maxwell goes before the Enterprise is able to catch up with him. We hear that he destroyed the science station, but we get to "see" (in a science fiction kind of way) him take out a Cardassian battle cruiser and a supposedly un-armed cargo ship as well. It's not a huge point, but destruction does raise the stakes, and it's effective because it's a strong choice from a dramatic perspective. We don't see the Cardassians dying, and we certainly don't know anything about them before they explode, but their deaths can't simply be waved away as a mistake or tactical error. I also like that Picard eventually caves and provides Macet with the Phoenix's transponder codes, thus, theoretically at least, opening Maxwell's ship up to attack. He's forced into a situation where he has no other choice, and that he accepts this, rather than blustering, fits in with his character. That the codes prove ultimately worthless is just a bonus, plot-wise.
I'm not sure what to make of Picard's deduction that Maxwell really was on to something and that the Cardassians aren't being entirely forthcoming about their plans in the end. It does allow Picard to make some strong, difficult choices; he argues that Maxwell was still in the wrong, since his actions would've eventually led back to war. The only way to hold to the peace treaty is to keep an appearance of surface friendliness and hope everybody calms the hell down. Which is all very Cold War of Picard and so forth, but while I appreciate the attempt to add another wrinkle of moral complexity to the story, I'm not sure how well it works that the Cardassians really do turn out to be kind of evil. Although making them perfectly good would've been an over-simplification the other way. Hm.
Maybe it's better to focus on O'Brien's conversation with a Cardassian officer in Ten-Forward. It hits just the right tone; O'Brien is attempting to make up for his rudeness earlier, and the Cardassian, while uncomfortable aboard the Enterprise, is likable and clearly trying to make a good impression. Things get awkward when O'Brien explains his bad feelings towards Cardassians, describing the massacre that killed Maxwell's family and led to O'Brien killing a Cardassian in battle, but what I love about the scene is that it doesn't get too awkward. O'Brien doesn't end his speech screaming or in a rage, and there's no fighting between him and the other officer. It plays less like something that's supposed to teach us a lesson about how war messes with people's minds and more like just an honest conversation between two individuals trying to find some mutual understanding in an impossible situation. This isn't the dramatic highpoint of the episode, but it works very well. It's moments like that which make "The Wounded"'s familiar ideas still seem fresh.
- "Maybe I'll have something special for you tonight, too." OMG, guys! I think Keiko is talking about S-E-X! Tee-hee, snicker, blush, etc.
- "I hate what I became because of you."
- Another nice touch: The song Maxwell and O'Brien sing is the same song O'Brien was singing earlier at dinner with his wife. A dead comrade used to sing it.
Or The One Where Picard Plays Daniel Webster
Well, that was fun. And a nice change of pace after the somberness of "Wounded," to boot.
Did you know there was supposed to be a second Star Trek series with most of the original cast? Of course you did, because you know pretty much everything. But in case your memory is hazy, Star Trek: Phase II was planned in the late '70s, after numerous attempts to bring the Trek crew to the big screen had failed. The show folded before completing any episodes, but it gave us Will Decker and the bald babe Illia, who both popped up in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It also gave us a handful of story ideas that would eventually get recycled into episodes of TNG. This includes "The Child," which means I have someone else to blame for that one, as well as today's far more palatable entry, "Devil's Due." (This brief history lesson provided courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Even if we didn't know this, it would be easy to mistake "Due" for an episode of the original series. It has the same broad tone, the pushy sexuality that's more than a little campy, the parable-style morality. Once we understand the central conflict, there's no real effort made to deepen that conflict or subvert our expectations for where the story will go. A thousand years ago, the people of Ventax II made a deal with Ardra, their version of the Devil, for a millennium of peace and prosperity. At the end of that millennium, Ardra would come back to take ownership of the planet and everyone on it. Funnily enough, that millennium is just about over when the Enterprise arrives to help a beleaguered science station (man, science stations are like the red-headed step-children of TNG). And a few minutes after Picard and a few others beam down to try and talk some sense into a paranoid government, a woman arrives claiming to be Ardra, demanding what's rightfully hers.
It's not hard to see where this is going. "Ardra" is a con-woman, and it's up to our heroes to prove she's a con-woman in a way that nullifies the contract with Ventax II. Science versus superstition, and all that rot. On the one hand, well, it's somewhat difficult to justify the Enterprise giving over so much time to such a silly conflict. The episode does its best to pretend that Ardra is a real threat, but given the sort of the threats we usually encounter on the show, I'm not really buying it. She mostly an irritant, and her ridiculous claim that she owns the Enterprise along with the rest of the planet only makes sense if you don't think about it too hard. Really, Picard is just picking a fight because he's annoyed, and while I'm not sure that would work as a long-term policy for Starfleet, Patrick Stewart is entertaining enough while irritated that that doesn't, ultimately, matter. (Maybe he's just happy to finally get a Q-like being whose ass he can kick.)
Past this, we already know Ardra is a fake, which means that in order for the episode to have any real tension at all, it has to spend most of its running time trying to make us doubt our assumptions. So we get increasingly impressive displays of Ardra's power. She can transport herself pretty much anyplace she likes, seemingly change forms, and cause earthquakes. Oh, and she can seemingly make the Enterprise disappear, which isn't too shabby. None of this is ever really convincing. It might've worked in TOS, where the rules were looser and the frontier more wild, but on TNG, reality is too well established. There's civilization. There are systems intact, and these systems don't allow for the existence of anything as tacky as the Devil. (Although it does allow for Picard's horrible beachwear, so maybe the laws of wardrobe are exempt.) Picard never doubts that Ardra is a sham, so why should we?
So, without any real drama, "Due" has to fall back on charm. How well that works depends on how much of a kick you get from seeing Picard playing Captain Kirk for most of the running time. Actually, Picard behaves much as he always does: smart, capable, and not much one for shenanigans. But Ardra is instantly smitten with his cue-ball good looks and general air of contempt and goes to great lengths to seduce him. She even makes him the prize in the bet that drives the episode's climax. Now, arguably, part of her efforts here are to try and get him to back off his investigations; if Picard was a little less scrupulous (and Ardra a shade hotter), he might have compromised himself and thus let Ardra go about her con without interfering. But Picard is so clearly disinterested that any strategic advantage to be gained from seducing him is basically moot. There's no way Ardra could have gotten away with her game for long, but she might have been able to maintain it long enough to rob the Ventaxians blind if she'd timed her efforts better. Maybe she could have waited until after the Enterprise left. At the very least, claiming the ship belongs to her means she's a "flimflam artist" with a perilously overstated notion of her own abilities. It's especially telling that, when she zaps herself into Picard's bedroom and starts trying on different bodies to please him, she turns into Troi (the Enterprise female crew member she's most familiar with), rather than the more appropriate-to-Picard Beverly.
Ardra isn't much of a threat, nobody's really in danger, and it's not hard to see how all of this plays out. But it's silly, goofy fun for the most part. Not remarkable and maybe a little disappointing in its unwillingness to bring TNG's now-expected complexity to the situation. (Wouldn't it have been cool to get more of a sense of how the Ventaxians were dealing with this? Maybe have a religious leader helping to fund Ardra's efforts as a way of grabbing power?) But it's nothing to be embarrassed about. And yes, I'm including Picard's ridiculously short .. what the hell is that, anyway, a bed dress or something? "Due" resolves in the expected manner; Picard and his crew managed to trace Ardra's powers back to their source, and they used that source to prove she was a fake by duplicating her effects. (I did like Picard's arguments that Ardra didn't really do anything to give Ventax II peace.) It's satisfying, in a "bazooka taking down a housefly" kind of way. The whole thing is a lark.
By happy coincidence, "Due" begins with Data and Picard engaging in theater games on the holodeck; this time, instead of Shakespeare, Data is playing Scrooge in a "production" of A Christmas Carol. So what do you know? An actual Christmas moment on a show that generally avoids references to specific holidays or seasonal charms. (Generally to their credit.) "Due" isn't a Christmas episode, and arguably, the episode's main theme, the rejection of superstition in favor of logic and reasoning, is in direct conflict with pretty much every Yuletide-themed TV episode ever made. It almost makes me wish we did get a TNG Christmas show, although I'm sure it would have been awful. Anyway, it was a cute bit, and offers me the chance to say: Happy holidays, everyone. If you get presents, I hope you get what you want. And if you don't exchange gifts in your family, I hope you have neighbors who do, and that they don't always lock their doors. See you next week.
- Picard tells Data that "flimflam artists" (I really can't get enough of that term) use fear. It's an interesting point; most stories about confidence artists focus on how they build trust with their marks, but I suppose fear also creates a bond. The drawback is that if your mark is afraid of you, they have every reason to want to end your relationship. If the mark trusts you, though, you get to decide when to move on.
- "On the contrary. I find you obvious and vulgar." Picard burn!
- Next week, we send off the old year with "Clues" and "First Contact."