"The Arsenal of Freedom"
Here's a problem I'm having with TNG. The first season has been improving. Nothing exactly, y'know, Emmy worthy yet, but I find myself looking forward to new episodes rather than preparing for them. (Admittedly, my good will is often defeated by the second commercial break, but at least I start off in a decent mood.) The pacing is stronger, the characters are fleshing out, and it's easy to see that this is a show with potential in it. And yet a trend has developed that, if it continues, may always keep the series from being great: our heroes are too perfect.
I understand that Gene Roddenberry wanted a utopian future, but dramatically speaking, that doesn't work, because it means that all conflict becomes external. Every week, a new threat presents itself, and every week, Picard and the rest band together, plan their options, and behave accordingly. It's—well, okay, I'm not saying no storyteller has ever used this approach. But it's shallow and strangely smug, like a filmstrip on proper hygiene and grooming. We care about characters when we can relate to them, and it's hard to relate to someone who's never selfish, never gets angry when they shouldn't, never wants what they can't have.
Take "Arsenal Of Freedom." It's a mediocre riff on the sci-fi staple, "the perfect weapon," featuring a planet where all intelligent life has been destroyed because everybody went to bed one night and forgot about Off switches. There are all kinds of problems, the biggest being that the episode doesn't really have a third act, but the moral superiority of the crew is on full display, and it's frustrating. "Freedom" is a fable about the dangers of the arm's race (although here it's not so much a race as a really aggressive game of solitaire), and how the ultimate killing machine would be really, really good at killing. That's fine. But this isn't a lesson the heroes need to learn. Not a single crew-member expresses a desire to see these amazing weapon systems, or suggests outfitting the Enterprise with some high tech equipment, which reduces the conflict to simple black and white.
The plot is straightforward, and, getting past the didacticism, creepy: the USS Drake disappeared in the Lorzeno Cluster while investigating Minos, home of what had formerly been the galaxy's foremost weapons manufacturers. The Enterprise is sent in to investigate, and an away team made up of Riker, Yar, and Data learn that things on the planet are very bad indeed. Paul Rice, captain of the Drake and a former friend of Riker's, appears and starts asking pointed questions—except it's not Rice, but a hologram. The Drake has been destroyed, and its crew dead, and the reason this is unsettling is that it all happens off-screen and the viewer is forced to draw their own conclusions. Those conclusions aren't difficult to arrive at, but the fact that an entire ship could be blown up by what amounts to a computer error is effective enough in making the point. Our toys sometimes have minds of their own, and when we design those toys for murdering people, well, things can get out of hand fast.
As they do here. Riker gets enveloped in an energy field, Picard and Beverly beam down to lend a hand (in both this episode and "Skin of Evil," you'll notice that the show mostly ignores the supposed necessity of keeping the captain out of harm's way), Data and Yar manage to bust Riker free but then things get worse. Beverly and Picard wind up in a pit together, and Yar, Data, and Riker are forced to face off against a series of opponents who keep getting smarter. Meanwhile back on the Enterprise, Geordi is in command, and he's got problems of his own: a machine is attacking the ship, and it's impossible to beam the away team back without lowering the shields and leaving everyone vulnerable to attack.
The Picard/Beverly subplot isn't bad, mostly because the actors are effective (really, I could spend each week turning this into the Patrick Stewart Appreciation Society), but because of the cutting to other story-lines, the potential for claustrophobia and emotional intimacy is largely squandered. The fact that the killing drones learn from their mistakes is intriguing (and will be put to much better use when the Borg show up), but it's used here as a narrative dead end, creating suspense by implying that an undefeatable threat will soon arrive, and then defeating that threat in the most mundane manner imaginable.
Geordi's mini-arc could've been good, because it nearly addresses the concern I mentioned above. Geordi is put into a highly stressful situation, he's got the head of engineering telling him he's made the wrong choice (the best part is when La Forge decides to follow the jerk's advice, only to have the jerk immediately question the wisdom of choosing a course he himself said was necessary), and he's never been captain during a battle. And yet, Jerk-Face aside, it's all hugs and sunshine. Troi reassures him he's doing a great job, reminds him to encourage the newer staff (which, honestly, it seemed like he was already doing), and everything is aces.
Then there's the ending. We get another hologram, this one of basset-faced Vincent Schiavelli, so that's nice. But all it takes to shut down the system is saying, "Sure, we'll buy this." No re-wiring of circuitry, no re-programming, no explosions. Which makes you wonder how this civilization died out in the first place. Were wires crossed? Did they all start stabbing each other, just to see if they'd bleed? Who knows. We all know the moral to this story anyway. It would've been nice if we'd had at least a little discussion, though. On TOS, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy would've hashed out the appeal of an unbeatable weapon as well as its drawbacks. Here, we're all supposed to know that violence begets violence, and that's it.
Now this is more interesting.
The Prime Directive is a non-interference rule, because if there's anything that stories tell us, it's don't get involved. (Except for those times when you should. Or those times when you should get a little involved, but hey, let's not get crazy and go buy-the-whole-house committed.) When you interact with others, you create uncertainty. The better you know the people you interact with, the more you can hope to control that uncertainty, but it's not always possible to vet your encounters ahead of time. The girl at the grocery story won't respond to my letters, but I have to keep buying rat poison and toothpaste. That's why we have a society—it gives us rules and boundaries for when we deal with strangers, and provides us with reasonable expectations for how those dealings should go. It's not perfect, but it's better than nothing, and it's definitely better than facing a group or race that doesn't share any of the same values. That's gotten everyone into enough trouble on this planet, and when you consider that our differences, on the whole, are remarkably small, it gives you chills to imagine how rough it'd be trying to find common ground with, say, an alien life that communicates via weather patterns.
That's where the Prime Directive comes in. It makes the kind of exploration that Picard and his team routinely engage in possible, because without it, the Federation would nearly always be at war with someone. It also works as a convenient hook to hang a plot on, since it basically takes the entire Enterprise out of the equation. There are a lot of reasons why TOS kept giving us god-like entities, but I'm betting one was that it's a pain in the ass to keep inventing on-planet threats that would really make someone with the power of a space ship at their backs all that concerned. The god-like entities have been few and far between this season of TNG, so we've had more problems that could've been solve via phaser or photo torpedo. That's too easy, so we need some reason not to just get up in everybody's grill with our superior technology, and that's where the Directive comes in.
"Symbiosis" is an interesting case, because it's the first time I can remember Picard (or Kirk) actually using the PD to manipulate a situation to his liking. If you'd asked me which Trek captain I preferred before I watched TOS, I would've said Picard, and it's episodes like this that still gave him an edge. While Shatner was well-cast as Kirk, and I don't think anyone else could've done the role as well as he did, Patrick Stewart is an undeniably better actor, capable of multiple shadings on a single line, and more than talented enough to rise above the material when necessary. I wouldn't say he's holding the show together, but TNG simply would not work without him. He makes all this silliness plausible. Beyond Stewart's talent, though, is the fact that Picard has more careful, thoughtful approach to his job.
That shows here. The Enterprise rescues some people off a damaged freighter. There's a lot of shouting and back and forth: on one side, there're Ornarans, who desperately need a drug called felicium to combat a plague that's laid waste to their world, and on the other, there's the Brekans, whose entire culture is devoted to producing felicium for the Ornarans, in exchange for the goods and materials they need to survive. Not just survive—the Brekans we meet are clearly wealthy, while the two Ornarans are, well, hicks. (One of whom is played Merritt Butrick, aka David Marcus, aka Kirk's son.) It's a curious set up, and it's difficult to imagine an entire planet devoted to the production of a single good, especially considering how frankly inept the Ornarans seem. What does it benefit the Brekans to have a race of decent but dull-witted serfs who all live across the solar system? If the plumbing backs up, you'd be better off moving than waiting for a house call.
This, like "Arsenal," is allegory, so it helps to give them a little leeway in terms of common sense. The twist, which Beverly uncovers soon enough, is that the "plague" the Ornarans suffer from is nothing more than the agonies of withdrawal. The actual disease was cured two centuries ago, but the Brekans, learning what a cash cow a planet full of junkies could be, refined the felicium to increase its addictive properties, all the while selling the lie that the plague could only be cured by regular doses of happy pills. Again, this doesn't really work. It's been two hundred years, and in all that time, we're supposed to believe that no one on Ornara went without felicium, either by accident or suicidal impulse or sheer stubbornness, long enough to realize they were being had? I realize that pushees aren't really the best long-term planners, but surely mere happenstance would've shown them the truth at some point, unless members of their government were in on the con. (This is never indicated.) Besides, how productive can a society of people aching for their next fix really be? They may have some great rock bands, but their practical industries must be in a shambles, and it's hard to imagine them capable of keeping their own kind alive, let alone keeping Breka afloat.
Again, though, allegory, and while the scenario could've used refinement, it does have an effectively cynical bite. Beverly, who serves as the audience stand-in, is outraged at her discovery, and begs Picard to help the Ornarans, especially once Picard determines that the Brekans are running the con on purpose. But his hands are tied. He was barely able to justify saving Welsey from Planet Fredericks of Hollywood, so how can he justify interfering here when none of his own crew is in danger? We spend the whole episode half-convinced he'll leave the situation exactly as it is, and that's essentially what he does. It's the way he does it that counts. The Ornarans aren't great mechanics, and some solar flare activity is wrecking havoc with their freighter engines. The parts needed to fix the ships were readily available on the Enterprise, and Picard had been initially willing to provide them, but in the end, he refuses, citing the PD. This means that the Ornarans can't fix their freighters, which means they can't send payment to the Brekans, which means the parasitic relationship is over.
We could quibble over details, but Picard gives what appears to the Ornarans to be a death sentence for their whole world; and while it's not quite so bad as that, he did just damn the lot of them to months of painful, panicked detoxification. If it'd been Kirk, there would've been punching, and he almost certainly would've forced the Brekans to reveal their treachery. Picard's solution is subtler, more calculated, and, arguably, more effective. He's not giving them the truth, he's just making the lie impossible, and all without violating the Prime Directive. "Symbiosis" has some problems, but Stewart shines, and he even manages to make a lecture to Beverly in the turbo-lift thrilling. (Sadly, "lecture in the turbo-lift" is not a euphemism.) There's a victory here, but it's not without cost, and just knowing the thousands who will be cursing Picard's name in the near future gives the conclusion real weight.
"Skin of Evil"
I've been making jokes about Tasha Yar's exit from TNG since my first recap, and I'm not going to tell you I'm sad to see her go. I'm not happy, though, not like I expected I'd be. While Yar was never in danger of becoming a favorite character, she did get increasingly inoffensive as time passed, and in "Skin," I'd go so far as to say she was likable.
TV shows can deal with character deaths in all kinds of ways, and I was not expecting the out-of-nowhere approach we got here. If you'd asked me beforehand, I would've guessed that Yar would sacrifice herself to save her friends, because it seems like that's how TNG works. This isn't a gritty crime drama, it's nihilistic or intentionally cruel, and it isn't actively trying to undercut how we watch and appreciate stories. Everyone goes to great lengths to comment on nearly every significant event, but while we do get a (fairly uncomfortable) wake scene for Yar, her actual demise is what I'd call shockingly unshocking. It just sort of—happens.
I remember getting into an argument last season of House, when a character committed suicide between episodes. It didn't work because it was too abrupt and out of context, but some commenters argued that suicide (and, by extension, death) is like that. It can just happen, without any way of predicting it. Art isn't life, though, no matter how thoroughly it's deconstructed, and whenever a story kills someone, that death needs to make sense within the world of the story. The suicide on House had the cast talking about how senseless it was, but the decision had been motivated by the actor's departure from the show, and not part of the plot, and it played out that way. I can imagine situations in which in an abrupt death like this character's could've worked, but on House, it was a cheap gimmick, on show which relies increasingly on shock value hold its audience's interest.
Yar's death isn't nearly as bizarre. I can't imagine how it played at the time. We know now that no other major cast member will die during the show's run, which means this isn't a daring raising of stakes or a way to show that everyone's in danger. It's more about junking an actress, and while I'll give them credit for trying to create a memorable murderer, well, that credit only goes so far. Yar's death manages to be both too sudden and too drawn out, and it's still the only interesting aspect of a disappointingly crummy hour.
Deanna Troi's shuttlecraft crash lands on Vagra II, and debris makes it impossible for the Enterprise to beam her back to safety. Riker leads an away team to the planet, but they find their way to the shuttlecraft blocked by what looks like a pool of oil. They try to walk around the pool, it follows them, and, after they debate their options for a while, the oil starts talking. It's a monster named Armus, and it's, well, remember the title? Yar decides to push ahead anyway, and Armus knocks her back with some kind of energy blast, killing her.
It's just so odd. We've seen characters take similar hits on the show before, and those were never fatal. There's no real sense of serious peril before the event, and while Armus looks spooky, once he starts talking, he sounds like a Saturday morning cartoon. (Imagine how much better this episode would've been if it hadn't talked at all? Sure, you would've lost Troi's heart-to-hearts with the creature—yeah, I'm definitely not seeing a downside here.) That should make the sudden fatality startling, and I'm guessing when this first aired, it blew some minds. Hell, they even bring Yar back to the Enterprise for medical treatment, despite Beverly declaring her dead at the scene, and she still doesn't make it. The problem, I think, isn't so much how the death itself plays out. It's that, as a plot twist, it really doesn't fit in the world of TNG. It has an immediacy that the show can't support, and that makes a sequence that doesn't really resonate with the rest of the episode. Murdering Yar should make Armus seem much more dangerous, but he's just so whiny and petulant and bland that he could've killed half a dozen cast members without leaving an impression.
It's unsurprising, then, that "Skin" never clicks. It should be unbelievable suspenseful. We've got one regular crew-member in serious danger, another one dead to prove the danger isn't funning around, and we've got a monster, a flat-out, you-can't-solve-this-one-through-friendship monster. But there's too much here that doesn't work to build an effectively mounting dread. Riker getting pulled into the oil? That works. Troi endlessly discussing its "emptiness"? Gah, shut up shut up shut up. Armus's origin is ridiculous—he's all the bad vibes siphoned off of a race that abandoned him—and he's a waste of effects work. Picard defeats him by talking to him for a bit, which is cute, but mostly you're just happy to leave the thing behind. (Why the hell Picard beams down in the first place is beyond me. Time and again, we've had the crew resist putting him in harm's way. Did he decide to take a mini-vacation once Yar, Troi, and Riker were off the bridge?)
Then there's Yar's memorial service, which is awful. Apparently Yar was so morbid she took to recording a holographic version of herself to say goodbye to her friends, and the goodbyes are just specific enough that you wonder how often she re-recorded. (Which would retroactively make her much more interesting than she ever was on the show, come to think.) She doesn't make any direct mention of her and Data's "together time," although she tells him he sees things with the "wonder of a child," so I guess they played dress-up. Y'know, during. If her initial exit was oddly out of place, this overlong exit is fitting for a show that still hasn't reached a comfortable relationship with sentimentality, expecting us to be saddened by the loss of an acquaintance we hardly noticed. The only thing that saves it from being a complete waste is Picard. His "Au revoir, Tasha," is a mournful, dignified goodbye. It might not've been earned, but I can't deny its sincerity.
- Tasha makes actual security recommendations in "Arsenal." She really did have a purpose!
- After Yar's death, Worf is upgraded to head of security, and watching him consciously choose to stay behind for tactical reasons was a strong character beat. He's becoming a favorite, whenever they remember to give him lines.
- Notice how when he inspires his crew, Geordi only gives a reassuring pat to the female crew-member. Slick.
- Oh, the Ornarans and the Bekans have electricity powers. It's not really relevant.
- Armus calls Data "tin man." I had no idea Oz references were a galactic standard.
- Next week, we finish out the season with "We'll Always Have Paris," "Conspiracy," and "The Neutral Zone."