Or The One Where Tasha Gets What She Deserves
What if something was wrong? I don't mean a broken heart or a lost shoelace. I mean something major, something so big that it's impossible to step back and look at the big picture because anywhere you step, you're still buried inside the mess. So you just feel it, the way a great conductor can tell if a single instrument in the orchestra is off-key. You can't eat, because you can't get the oily sick taste of wrongness off your tongue, and it's impossible to form lasting emotional connections because everyone you talk to is as wrong as everything else; misplaced, out of step, on loan from the Island of Misfit Realities. Then one day, you figure it out--you realize what's been causing all the problems. Once you fix the cause, you can right all the wrongness, and the universe will be set back on its proper course. Everyone can go home.
Everyone except you. Because as it turns out, you're supposed to be dead.
I had high hopes for "Yesterday's Enterprise." I've heard it praised often enough, and, given the title and the few facts I knew about the episode, I knew I was in for some alternate reality fun. I live for that stuff. There's time travel here, paradoxes, anomalies, great action sequences, sterling performances. And Tasha Yar. I was expecting all kinds of goodness from this, but what I wasn't expecting is for the series to somehow find a way to absolve itself of its most ignoble sin: the pointless death of a main character from the first season. "Skin of Evil" is an awful hour of television no matter how you slice it, and Yar's death scene in it is an insulting end for someone who was just beginning to come into her own. That happens sometimes. Shows, especially long running ones, can hit rough patches, and, unlike with the rough draft of a novel, they can't go back and edit out a bit because they realize it doesn't work. And yet, that's basically what "Yesterday's Enterprise" does. It works beautifully. Even at her best, Tasha was a problematic character, but by the end of this episode, it's impossible not to feel her loss.
Emotional aspects aside (and, of course, I'll get back to those in a second, because I am a soppy son of a bitch), "Yesterday's" is a wonderfully efficient piece of science fiction storytelling. The teleplay (written by what looks like half the show's writing staff) wastes no time at all in getting down to business. The Enterprise comes across a time displacement floating in space. While Data struggles to get a reading on it, and Picard debates the best course of action, a ship comes through the rift. Before anyone can figure out what's happening, the universe--shifts. I'll admit, I misread this when it happened; I was assuming that the ship coming out of the rift, which looked like the Enterprise, had the alternate reality versions of Picard and everyone else aboard. I thought the rift wasn't a break in time but a gateway to another dimension, sort of a "Mirror, Mirror" deal.
The situation a good deal more clever than that, though, as the episode soon makes clear. The rift is a time warp, and the ship that comes through it is actually the Enterprise-C, the previous model of our Enterprise that was destroyed over twenty years ago. The shift on our Enterprise, the shift that changes the bridge design, uniforms, and puts Tasha back in command of security, is actually a result of the Enterprise-C leaving its own time period, changing the past, and creating a new present. It's a complicated concept. While time travel stories have been playing this kind of spin since Ray Bradbury's "A Sound Of Thunder," this is a lot of information that needs to be unpacked quickly, in order to set up the conflict that will drive the rest of the episode.
What's impressive, then, is how much "Yesterday's" manages to convey without ever becoming belabored. The episode does a terrific job of laying down its basic concepts in an efficient, easy to follow way. In addition to the dialog (which is often expository but never tediously so), there are all kinds of brilliant touches to show just how screwed up this world is. This Other Enterprise is severely over-crowded, and you hear a steady stream of announcements playing over the ships intercom about combat training. The Captain's Log is now the "Military Log." Guinan's outfit changes color. (Okay, that last one probably doesn't count for much.) Even some of the performances have changed. Stewart's Other Picard is harsher, angrier, honed to a furious point by years of ceaseless conflict, and he and Riker don't have the comfortable camaraderie that their regular counterparts share. And there's no Troi on the bridge or, indeed, anywhere that we ever see. It isn't mentioned, but her absence tells as all we need to know about the change in the Enterprise's on-going mission; nobody gives a damn about feelings anymore.
Another point in the episode's favor is how quickly it comes to its main crisis--what to do with the Enterprise-C and her crew. As soon as the shift between potentialities occurs, Guinan knows something is wrong. She tells Picard that the Enterprise-C will have to return to its own time, that it's their presence in the future (and absence in the past) that caused the twenty year war with the Klingon Empire that's already cost millions upon millions of lives. Picard objects to this, but he doesn't waste too much time on these objections. It's very easy to imagine "Yesterday's" spent with Guinan struggling to sway the minds of an increasingly irritated crew, of her having to sneak around and find others who also somehow sense what she senses, of their brave efforts to set right what once went wrong. But that's not what this episode is about. Sure, Riker isn't happy; the idea of sacrificing a whole crew on someone's hunch doesn't go down easy, so somebody has to speak up. Riker's unhappiness doesn't stand in the way of what needs to get done, however.
All the clever writing here is much appreciated, and there's an elegance to it that you don't always see on genre shows. For example: note how Other Data explains how the death of the Enterprise-C in the past could've prevented the Klingon War. We know the ship isn't going to survive in the past for long, so we need a clear reason why its sacrifice will be enough to right history back on course. By having Other Data present a possible theory, we're saved the wasting time at the end of the episode--without his explanation, one of the "real" members of the Enterprise crew would've had to say something like, "Gosh, remember how the deaths of everyone aboard the previous model of this ship twenty years ago stopped a war?" It would've been a clunky piece of housekeeping that distracted from the episode's emotional denouement. Even if all "Yesterday's" had was smart, risky plotting, it would stand as a series highpoint. But we go one step further here, with Yar's brief return to the bridge.
Denise Crosby isn't an amazing actress, but she's better directed here than she ever was in the first season, and she's given far, far better dialog. Her relationship with Lt. Richard Castillo (Christopher McDonald), a crew-member aboard the Enterprise-C, is one of the stronger romances we've seen on the show, without any of the smarmy aggression that's bogged down similar plotlines in the past. Really, though, it comes down to Yar's conversation with Guinan in Ten-Forward, and her final exchange with Picard. It's not enough that Guinan tells Yar she's supposed to be dead--Guinan goes so far as to tell Tasha that her death was "empty" and "without purpose." It's a terrific acknowledgement of one of the series' worst moments, and provides the episode with its strongest emotional beats. Tasha's determination to die with meaning by the end of "Yesterday's" transforms her from a misstep into something more noble and sad. Characters die all the time in stories, and sometimes we care, and sometimes we don't, but here's one who knows that she's doomed, who knows that in order for the story to be told properly, she has to leave. It's not really a sacrifice, since whatever happens, she's dead. But at least this way gives her back her dignity.
So yeah, this is brilliant. The space battle at the end is appropriately thrilling (alternate timelines are a great excuse to kill off leading character consequence free; in that spirit, please enjoy Riker's gaping neck wound), and the story flows from beginning to end with an amazing amount of confidence and grace. The best testament to quality I can give here is that, when Guinan sits down with Geordi in the final scene and says, "Tell me about Tasha Yar," I wanted to hear more.
- Given that the Federation is getting its ass kicked by the Klingon Empire in the alternate timeline, it's understandable that Worf wouldn't be on the Other Enterprise. But at least we get that opening scene between him and Guinan. "It's an Earth drink. Prune juice." "A warrior's drink." Followed by an in-depth discussion of why Worf doesn't date.
- Is Garrett the first female captain we've seen? I can't remember.
Or The One Where It's A Girl
What a horrid title. It sounds like the name of some miserable, grimy Omen knock-off from the late '70s: "Terror is heir apparent in The Offspring!" ("The Child" might've fit better, but we already had an episode with that name, and it sucked.) It's easy enough to imagine "The Offspring" as a horror flick without changing that many of the plot details, and if this were a different kind of show, this episode might've been played for scares. A sentient robot builds a child. The government wants to take that child away from the robot, possibly for military purposes. The sentient robot objects. The child refuses to leave, and then it suffers a psychotic break. The third act would've been the killing spree, plus maybe a lightning storm. And lasers!
Since we're talking about an episode of TNG, though and not something from The Outer Limits, it should come as no surprise that "Offspring" goes in a different direction. Data builds himself a kid, but instead of terrifying the audience with the dark implications of android self-replication, the ep focuses instead on what it's like to be a parent, and the difficulties in raising a child who perform millions of complex mental calculations in an instant, but can't tell the difference between kissing and biting. (Admittedly, some relationships make this more challenging than others.) And yeah, a representative from Starfleet shows up and starts acting like a creep, and yeah, the child is caught in the middle, and malfunctions. But the malfunction doesn't turn her into a murder machine. Someone ends up dead at the end, but it's far from horrific.
In many ways, "Offspring" is as a sequel or companion piece to season 2's "The Measure Of A Man." Once again, we have Data's status as a full citizen of the Federation called into question, and once again we're faced with bureaucratic unwillingness to see Data as anything but a potentially invaluable machine. Once again, all this oppression is represented by a single guy: here, it's Admiral Haftel, played by character actor and Santa Barbara staple, Nicolas Coster. Coster manages to make the role, if not sympathetic, at least believable, and Picard gets his usual good shots in defending Data from the mean people who want to steal his kid. I don't think I'll ever get tired of watching Data calmly standing up for himself, either. It makes a terrific contrast against Stewart's intensity--neither overplay their hands, but both represent different approaches to aggression, and watching Spiner even-handedly making his point after Stewart speechifies strengthens both performances.
Yet there's a certain ring of familiarity to all this. The implacability of government machinations, the way institutions can grind the individual to dust by the sheer inertia of their assumptions--okay, that's always going to be an important theme in fiction, so long as we have people who get together in big groups and do stupid things. More to the point is that we've seen this specific conflict before. In "Man," Maddox argued that Data was the property of Starfleet; he wasn't alive, which meant he didn't have rights, and it was for the good of everyone if he was simply viewed as a very powerful tool. Picard defeated this argument handily, so it's loses some of its impact when it's used again here. Oh, no one is saying Data is property anymore, but Haftel argues that Lal, Data's daughter, should be placed in other hands because of her singularity and her potential. Boil away the pretty words, and the theme is the same: Lal is a machine, and machines don't the same rights as a biological child.
These scenes remain dramatically effective, but they aren't as interesting as Data and Lal's interactions, and Lal's attempts to follow in her father's footsteps by becoming more human. "Offspring" starts on the right note by opening with Data introducing his daughter to Geordi, Wesley, and Troi. The episode could've spent the first scenes exploring what inspired Data to procreate, and then going through the difficulties of acting on that inspiration, but this is a much more interesting approach. The nuts-and-bolts of how Lal came to be are largely unimportant, and what we need to know about them, and about what's driving Data, can all be conveyed after the fact. Lal's initial form is alien, unsettling in appearance despite Data's pride. Data explains that he made the child initially sexless because he wished to give it the opportunity to select its own gender, but that strange, not-really-anything body doesn't shy away with how odd all this is. Picard's utter shock when he learns what has happened is logically unmotivated (as Data and Troi both point out), but it also comes from some deep, irrational part of the brain that isn't comfortable with new species popping up out of nowhere.
Once Lal chooses to be a young woman, Data sets to work showing her around the ship, and trying to satisfy her endless curiosity. This can get a little corny. Lal starts working in Ten-Forward to study human interaction more closely, and her and Guinan's conversation about flirting is on the twee side, although the pay-off, with Lal grabbing a just-returned Riker and kissing him, is funny enough. (I don't buy Guinan dodging the sex question, though. It plays more like a sitcom joke than a character decision.) Besides, these sequences mostly work because they deal thoughtfully with all the potential problems that could arise from trying to integrate a new android into even such a welcoming small society as the Enterprise. Troi convinces Data that he should enroll Lal in school, but when he tries, she's incapable of fitting in; she doesn't understand human interaction enough to function with teenagers, and young children are terrified of her because she's different. While Data's request that he be treated like any other parent is justified, that doesn't mean that his child can be treated like any other child.
Given the nature of TNG--light continuity, but generally avoiding significant changes that would require cast changes or additions for more than an episode or two--it's no surprise that Lal doesn't last on the Enterprise forever. I suppose it's possible that Data and Haftel could've arrived at some kind of compromise, though, so it is a surprise when Lal dies. Her death is softened when Data downloads all her programs into his own brain, but that still doesn't eliminate the loss, especially considering how she dies. Haftel's refusal to acknowledge her wishes leads to Lal experiencing an actual emotional response; and since she doesn't have the equipment to process such an experience, she shuts down. Data's progeny had achieved in a few days what he'd spent his entire lifetime reaching for, and it kills her.
TNG has never been afraid of melodrama, and "Offspring" does go overboard on a few occasions. Most problematic is Hallie Todd's performance as Lal. The actress tries, but can't convincingly match Brent Spiner's ethereal calm. It made me appreciate Spiner's work more (he's able to get a surprising amount of drama without ever changing his vocal tone), but it also diminishes Todd's arc from clumsy toddler to tormented heroine. The episode works, though, because it doesn't exploit Data's latest attempt to become more human either for horror or easy jokes. (We get a few gags at the expense of Lal's naiveté, but they're never mean spirited.) Lal lives just long enough to surpass her father, and in doing so, enriches his life forever. Positronic brains or not, I'm sure there are human parents who could relate.
- Riker's absence for most of the episode has an easy enough explanation; "The Offspring" is Jonathan Frakes' directorial debut.
- Gah, the score! Never have I have been forced to endure so many sobbing violins.
- Troi is really well-used in this episode. See? I can say nice things.
- "Commander, what are your intentions to my daughter?"
- "I love you, Father." "I wish I could it feel it with you." "I will feel it for both of us. Thank you for my life." See, "The Child"? That's how you do a damn death scene.
- Next week, it's "Sins of the Father" and "Allegiance."