I always get nervous when I talk about a show's big themes. It's something I really should do more often. My favorite television critics are the ones who can take a full season of a show and discuss it as unit, making confident statements like, "The third season of Breaking Bad is far and away the show's best," or "This last season of 30 Rock had some serious problems," and teasing out how individual episodes work together in service of a larger picture. Obviously 30 Rock doesn't have the lofty goals of a serialized drama, but it's inevitable that a group of twenty-plus episodes, written and filmed as a rough unit, are going to have some kind of connective tissue, especially if there are stabs at continuity and a common writing staff. Part of my job as a TV reviewer is to try and tease out that tissue, even when it's not obvious. Especially when it's not obvious. And it always makes me nervous, because, y'know, I'm just this guy. How do I know anything?
Still, a pattern is emerging in The Next Generation, and it's worth talking about as we move into the third season. TOS was a space Western, focused on exploration, and the danger and excitement of living life on the edge of civilization. TNG is about the next step: what happens when civilization has moved in and the paperwork begins. Which sounds boring, and let's face it, sometimes TNG is boring. Sometimes it feels like every exciting new discovery gets buried under hours of discussion and deliberation and debate. Yet that careful consideration arguably creates greater opportunity for drama. The best TV shows of the last few decades have been shows that have embraced the drudgery of second guessing, of realizing that no action can exist without consequences, and one of the elements of the show that excites me the most as we move forward is its willingness to deal with the aftermath. It doesn't always work, but when it does, the impact is incredibly powerful. (And really, aren't the best episodes of TOS the ones that embrace the idea that heroes don't live in a vacuum? "The City On The Edge of Forever" wouldn't work if Kirk and the others had found a way to save Edith Keeler; "Amok Time" wouldn't resonate if it didn't contrast Spock's stoicism against his temporary fury.)
"Evolution" isn't a great episode, but as a premiere, it is so much better than "The Child" that I'm in danger of overrating it. Beverly Crusher is back! That means we get more face-time with Wesley, but it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make. The plot is a riff on the standard "alien force messes with the Enterprise systems," and it all comes down to Wesley not putting his toys away properly, which is the sort of storyline that would've worked a lot better if he was 10. (No, wait, I take that back, precocious kids are far more irritating than immature teens.) Plus, the ending resolution solves everyone's problems without any cost. I don't need every episode to be a tragedy, but in order for an upbeat ending to work, there needs to be more of a sense that it won't work, and that never really happens here.
It's never embarrassing, though, and there are enough good ideas thrown out that it's never boring, even if it fails to hit the high notes. It might just be my lingering affection from Scrubs, but I dig Ken Jenkins as the prickly Dr. Paul Stubbs. He hits the line between off-puttingly arrogant and vulnerable, and Picard always gets more interesting when he's forced to deal with someone who doesn't immediately bow to his orders. (Glad as I am to have Beverly back, there was a potential in the Pulaski and Picard relationship that was never really fulfilled. I'm not sure it could've been with the show as it was, but the current crew of the Enterprise can be a little too friendly.) The series has dealt with the problem of determining what constitutes life before, but there's something to be said for its commitment to its principles. Once Dr. Crusher raises the possibility that the force that threatens the ship could actually be more than just a technical glitch, the discussion over what to do changes without hesitation.
Basic plot: There's some science stuff going down (I appreciate the show's attempts to bring more hard science into the franchise, and I think it works, but I sort of zone out during those bits—I like knowing they're there, but I don't understand them well enough to summarize), and Dr. Paul Stubbs is on the Enterprise to complete an experiment he's spent a good portion of his life working towards. Wesley, being a dork, inadvertently lets some nanites loose on the computer systems of the ship, and those nanites breed, and gain sentience, and cause all kinds of havoc, inadvertently endangering Stubbs work and the rest of the crew. Stubbs and Wesley exchange some words about the dangers of being a child prodigy, Troi tries to break through Stubbs' arrogant shell, and Data lets the nanites used him as a puppet. Oh, and Beverly is worried that her son is too stressed. Happy endings all around, though.
There's conflict in the episode, and some minor suspense about whether or not the main problem will be resolved in time for Stubbs to complete his work, and yet… Well, it's very pleasant. I really don't have a problem with pleasant, and there are lots of times the show can use pleasant to its advantage; it makes the characters more immediately appealing, it helps carry us over the weaker writing beats, and it means we definitely pay attention when we get a legitimately serious threat. There are also times, though, when I wouldn't mind a little more edge. "Evolution" is a good example of an episode that starts to tighten the screws, and then leaves off a few turns too soon. Stubbs is pushy and single-minded, and a decent character—his obsession with using old baseball statistics to recreate plays could've been overly quirky, but Jenkins sells it well enough. His decision to take care of the nanites himself (or a portion of them, anyway) has potential, but it doesn't go anywhere. When Data lets himself be infected by the tiny robots, it's a little creepy, but that creepiness is half-realized. The nanites aren't particularly interesting, and the danger they represent never distinguishes itself.
As for Wesley, I like the idea of what they're doing here—I can't imagine him ever getting the full Quiz Kid Donnie Smith treatment, but I appreciate the awareness that being the smartest guy in the room has its downside. Yet, again, there's no follow-through. Wesley freaks out when he realizes that it's his fault that the ship is in danger (I do like that we start with him sleeping, presumably moments after his science project made its escape), he has a eye-rollingly on the nose conversation with Guinan, and he gets in a minor spat with his mom. There are no sanctions, and no one yells at him for his mistake. Even Beverly's concerns are pointless. She talks to Picard about being worried that Wesley isn't behaving like a proper 17 year old (when I was that age, I had no girlfriends, and I read a lot, and look how I turned out)(er, check that), but it turns out he's fine. He even has a girlfriend.
"Evolution" is very passable. It isn't great. While none of its plots are terrible (only the Beverly story comes close, as her conversation with the captain is kind of ridiculous), there's no risk. The characters are all where they need to be, my favorite doctor is back, and the show feels like it's ready to take that next step. It knows the way. It just needs a little push.
- Seriously, this is so much better than "The Child." I'd also put it higher than "Encounter At Farpoint," season premiere-wise. ("Farpoint" has great moments, but is too clumsy to be consistent.) Whatever the episode's problems, it's comforting to know the show is strong enough now that it can pull through a weak-ish script without embarrassing itself.
- The look is different, too. The effects are better (which I'm assuming is due to more money being spent on the first episode of the season), and the whole thing is shot on film.
- The Troi/Stubbs interactions never get into second gear, but it's good to have someone calling her on her invasiveness. "My dear counselor, no insult intended, but please turn off your beam into my soul."
- An actually, legitimately good Wesley moment: "I always get an 'A.'"
- Actually, the worst beat in the Beverly scenes is the comedy music cue at the very end.
"The Ensigns Of Command"
How many problems in this world come down to land? It can be a difficult concern to relate for those of us who don't identify strongly with our homes (I mean, I like Maine, I really do, but if somebody was throwing grenades at me to convince me to leave, I wouldn't be all that torn up about doing so), but that doesn't make it any less powerful or real. Identity is hard work, and one of the ways people figure out who they are is knowing where they came from. The threat of losing that, of being uprooted and thrown into an unfamiliar environment, one that doesn't have the same connections or memories… well, that can have a powerful effect on people. The threat of losing home can change normally peaceful men and women into, well, whatever they need to be to protect their piece of the world.
It's that desperation that drives the story in "Ensigns," and while I don't think the emotion is as well-developed as it could be, it's clear enough to create the sort of conflict that "Evolution" lacked. I really liked this episode, and while it's come down slightly in my estimation since I watched it, I still think it's got a lot to recommend it. The stakes are higher, the resolution forces characters to make strong choices, and the episode makes some smart observations about Data that aren't compromised or softened. There are weak spots—the colonists aren't as developed as they should've been, and their leader, Gosheven, is sort of a lump. (An aggressive lump, but still a lump.) Plus, the Sheliaks look like they belong in a Dr. Who serial from the '70s, although that's not really a bad thing in my book. Anyway, weak spots and all, this was exciting and clever, and I especially appreciated how the best parts were the ones you had to think about a little to really grasp the implications. "Ensigns" connects most of the dots for you, but not all of them, and that's important.
Let's put the issue of property aside, and take a look at Data. I don't think the question of his nature has been this prominent in an episode since "Measure Of A Man," and where "Measure" was primarily about proving what we all knew, "Ensigns" goes a step deeper, and questions whether or not Data's quest for self-actualization can ever be achieved. We tend to assume certain things about the character because humans tend to ascribe emotional content to actions, even when there's no proof of it. When Data should be happy or sad or excited or proud, it's nearly impossible to accept that he isn't those things, even when we're repeatedly told that the android is incapable of feeling the way we understand it. Partly that's because Data is played by a human actor, and he's written by humans, and given the natures of on-going television drama, there's going to be some occasional seepage. Really, though, we see what want to see. Data is polite, helpful, and calm, so it's easy to assume that must mean something more than programming.
But does it? "Ensigns" doesn't spend all its time on the issue, but it opens with Data preparing to perform in a concert, and the relationship he develops with one of the colonists on Tau Cygna V makes it more than just a matter of curiosity. That Data wants to be more human makes sense, because it's inherent in his design. I can't remember if he's brought this up himself, but the fact that he was built to look like a man, and given the basic tools required to interact with other men (and, hubba hubba, women), at least implies that his purpose is to be as human as possible. How exactly he goes about that is by getting better and better pretending to be a real live boy, with the hope that eventually there will be a transition between pretending and simply being. I never really liked the emotion chip he gets in Generations. (Which is otherwise an absolutely perfect movie that I have no problems whatsoever withahahahaha, who the hell am I kidding, it stinks) It's a shortcut to the solution that actually makes him more robotic than before. Here, at least, when he doesn't feel anything in the face of Ard'rian's affections, it's honest.
I'm making it sound like the episode is dryer than it actually is, but one of the reasons I liked this one so much is that it manages to balance all this heaviness with a gripping, well-paced story arc. The core conflict is very clear: an immovable object (15,000 colonists who've made their home on Cygna through years of sacrifice and struggle) meets an irresistible force (the Sheliak, to whom the planet technically belongs). The Sheliak want to colonize Cygna immediately, and threaten to wipe out anyone who gets in their way, while the colonists, led by uber-dick Gosheven, want to stay and defend their home. Against an alien race with vastly superior technology. Maybe it's an arrogance born out of decades of struggle, but the colonists aren't really making smart choices.
The ep is split between the sides of this struggle: on the one hand, there's Data trying to convince everyone to run for their freaking lives, and on the other, there's Picard, negotiating with the Sheliak to buy enough time for the evacuation. (The atmosphere of the planet prevents easy transport.) Both sides are great fun to watch. Like I said, Picard does well when faced with a strong adversary, and he's besieged on multiple fronts here. The Sheliak are inflexible and contemptuous, and Starfleet isn't much help in the deliberations; when Picard asks for assistance, they tell they can get him the extra ship he needs… in about three weeks. Even the normally reliable Geordi is unable to solve the transporter problem in time. Picard is only able to get the time by relying on the Sheliak's obsessive attention to detail, putting them in a corner and forcing them to accept his demands.
The emotional core of "Ensigns" comes from Data's struggles on Cygna. As with everything, his approach is logical, and the solution he eventually settles on is striking while still being consistent with everything we know about the character. I do think the deck had to be a little stacked to force him to the point of violence. While we don't see every conversation Data has with the colonists trying to convince them of the dangers of the Sheliak threat, what we do see is more vague than it needed to be, and if he'd done a better job of explaining the nature of the danger, the episode probably would've ended a lot sooner. (It seems like he doesn't actually say, "They have really, really good weapons" until the very end.) I like his progression, though, from direct honesty, to reverse psychology, to shock value, and I like how his decision to shoot some of the locals (with the phaser on stun, of course) is both perfectly sensible and surprising. It's not like Data is in danger of becoming an anti-hero, but he takes a risk here that a human character might not have taken, and it's an excellent reminder of Data's potential to make the right choices the rest of us might not be capable of. (I worked very hard not to have that sentence end in preposition, but it was not to be.)
Another reminder of Data's oddness comes in his relationship with Ardy, a geeky tomboy who's first fascinated, then emotionally drawn to the android. This is the first time we've seen Data dealing with romance since (shudder) "The Naked Now," and it could've been disastrous; it's easy to imagine the writers trying to soften the character or wink at the audience. (I didn't really get into it at the time, but one of the disappointing elements of "Pen Pals" is that it relies on Data having an emotional connection with someone, and it reduces him. He's more interesting if he's pretending to have feelings, not losing his judgment to them.) I wouldn't call their final scene together stark, exactly, but it does show there are certain limits to Data's development, even while his conversation with Picard at the end of the episode argues otherwise. Ardy kisses Data, and he analyzes the action, and then tries to respond in kind—not because he shares the emotional connection, but because he's designed to mimic appropriate behavior. Ardy realizes this, and while you could argue that she's a little naive to think she might've won the android over, her self-awareness mitigates this. She knows she's being foolish, but she tries anyway, and Data comes as close as he can to reciprocation.
It's a nice scene that only gets better in retrospect, because it's the sort of touch this show needs to jump from good to great. It goes back to the idea of consequences I mentioned earlier. TNG has tried to achieve the same levels of pulpy fun that were TOS's stock in trade, and never quite managed it. Our new leads are more thoughtful, more deliberate, and that means it's harder to buy them as two-fisted, hormone-crazy action stars. (Obviously TOS was capable of thoughtfulness, but it's a much rawer show than TNG is.) That's something the series needs to embrace, and both "Evolution" and "Ensigns" are good examples of the returns the writers can get when they know what kind of show they're working on. "Ensigns" is the better of the two, because the compromises it reaches to arrive at a semi-happy ending are organic and satisfying. Bring on the rest of the season, please.
- Nearly gave this one an A-, and I'm still on the fence. If I'd seen this late S1 or early S2, I definitely would've graded higher, and I'm not entirely convinced I still shouldn't.
- So are Beverly and Picard dating now?
- "Here we stand." "Then here you die."
- How awesome is Picard's stalling?
- "But nothing more?" "I do not understand."
- I didn't really get into Picard's pep talk to Data at the end, but it's a nice way to temper the bleakness of the Ardy goodbye scene without denying it's truth.
- Next week, we get into "The Survivors" and "Who Watches The Watchers."