“Interface” (season 7, episode 3; originally aired Oct. 2, 1993)
Or The One Where Geordi Puts On A Cyber-Gimp Suit and Talks With His Mother
I got excited seeing Ben Vereen’s name in the opening credits for “Interface.” Vereen is a terrific actor—a little crazed if he doesn’t have strong direction, but brilliantly talented and unique—and I was curious to see what kind of energy he’d bring to the show. I was even more interested when I realized Vereen was going to be playing Geordi’s dad. The story was, in part, driven by Geordi’s concerns over his missing mother, and maybe there was going to be some estrangement or difficulty between him and Vereen that the two would have to overcome together to deal with the disappearance. Maybe halfway through the episode, Geordi talks with his dad via Future Skype. It’s a bit awkward, as La Forge Sr. has already given Mom up for dead, and Geordi isn’t ready to let go. Not a terrible scene, but there isn’t much to it; and that’s the only appearance Vereen makes. In fact, its his only appearance (so far as I can tell) in the entire franchise. I suppose he might not be quite as big a star to the rest of the world as he is to me (although surely everyone has seen him in All That Jazz?), but it seems like a waste. Much like everything else about this episode.
We’re into season seven now, no turning back. That’s over twice the number of seasons as the original Trek, and the stretch marks are starting to show. Seven seasons is an impressive number for any series, and however bad this end run gets, I’m going to leave TNG with a favorable impression on the whole. But man, if “Interface” is the mean for what’s to come, I’m not looking forward to the next couple of months. This was by turns boring, poorly constructed, and frustrating, a hodgepodge of half-considered ideas tossed together in an ill-advised hope that they might add up to more than the sum of their parts. It takes on a major issue—the potential loss of Geordi’s mom—and thoroughly bungles the delivery, treating behavior which in any other episode would be rewarded (i.e. Geordi’s refusal to believe that his mom is gone for good) as unstable, and throwing some magical aliens into the mix just to make everything worse. We’re not quite in the dregs of the first season here, as the episode isn’t badly acted, and characters behave roughly as they usually do, but man. This was a whole lot of not good.
To begin with, the level of coincidence required to make the story possible is a bit of a stretch. Geordi, Beverly, and Data are testing out a new virtual reality-esque interface, via which Geordi can physically control a probe from a distance, allowing him to study close-hand problems that would be otherwise fatal to human beings. (I thought this is what Data was for?) The Enterprise is on its way to check out what happened to the Raman, a science vessel currently trapped in the atmosphere of a gas giant, and Geordi plans to use the probe-suit to investigate the ship as directly as they can. It’s a little odd that, after so many years and God knows how many rescue missions, we get a mission that requires the use of a specific technology, and it just happens to be the episode that specific technology is first introduced, but it’s not like the show hasn’t played that card before. What really doesn’t work is that just as the Enterprise enters orbit around the gas giant, the word comes down that Geordi’s mother’s ship, the Hera, has vanished. Silva La Forge’s disappearance is what creates much of “Interface”’s dramatic tension, and it’s what ultimately puts Geordi in serious danger, when an alien race assumes the form of Geordi’s mom to try and get him to let them go. The heightened emotions of the situation make the interface process a highly unstable one—which means it’s awfully convenient for the episode that Geordi just happens to be hit with a crisis. And such a specific sort of crisis, too. His mom isn’t “dead,” she’s “vanished,” a plot hook that could have easily served as the foundation of an episode on its own.
And that’s another problem with this episode—the handling of Silva’s disappearance is unusual, and while it’s possible to view that unusual quality as a sign of the writers trying to take risks, it plays instead as sloppy storytelling. The Hera vanishes, and seemingly within hours, everyone is telling Geordi he needs to accept that she’s gone for good. There’s nothing wrong with drama that deals with the difficulties of overcoming grief, but the balance here is all wrong. Until “Silva” shows up on the Raman, Geordi seems like the sane one, and there’s something almost suspicious in the ease with which everyone—including the afore mentioned Vereen—is willing to let go. We’ve been trained by decades of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy stories on the principle that no body means no death, and while there’s a tale to tell that uses that need for closure to good purpose, “Interface” is not that story. Geordi’s grief and confusion are really just a means to an end, which makes his emotional responses throughout seem less a natural response to his situation, and more something that has been dictated by the needs of the story. That does a disservice to the character, and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to really care about anything that happens here. At the end of the hour, Geordi says that his experience with the magic shape-shifting aliens has allowed him to find closure regarding his mom’s probable death. Which is nice for him, but there’s no closure or catharsis for us, no transition from “Wait, her entire ship vanished? Leaving no trace? Okay, something has to be up with that,” to “Aww, she’s space vapor.” As far as I can tell, the issue is never resolved, and it’s not some sort of “Pine Barrens”-esque commentary on the essential mystery of life. It’s basically just half-assed. (If I had to guess, I’d say Silva’s hotshot engineer pulled something that destroyed the ship, but what’s bizarre is the cavalier attitude everyone has towards a vanished-without-a-trace starship. Any other time this happened, the Enterprise would be investigating. Here, it’s treated like this sort of thing happens every week.)
Then there’s the aliens. When Geordi uses the probe-suit to project his mind on-board the Raman, he finds a damaged ship full of corpses—and then Silva shows up. She tells Geordi he needs to bring the Raman down to the surface of the planet somehow, claiming that the Hera is down there, and Geordi believes her. He spends most of the episode believing her, and doing his best to explain to everyone else how her ship could’ve somehow teleported itself onto a planet where the atmospheric pressure would easily be enough to crush its hull. At least in these conversations, Geordi comes across as actually off-kilter, as opposed to the other points in the episode where we’re simply told he’s being unreasonable. It’s silly, and it’s the sort of silly that could’ve maybe worked if they put a little more effort into making it work. All you’d have to do is make “Silva”’s story just a little more plausible. Like, have her claim her crew is trapped on the gas planet instead of saying her whole ship. Sure, the idea is that the alien pretending to be Silva is just pulling things off the surface of Geordi’s mind, and that Geordi is so desperate for some sign of his mom that he’ll believe it, but in order for the episode to work, I think we need to be able to believe it too. At least at first. This isn’t “Interface”’s worst crime, but it’s such a needless one that it’s hard to accept.
Turns out, the aliens are the reason everyone on board the Raman is dead. Oh, they’re nice aliens to be sure, but they tried to communicate with the ship’s crew in the same way they communicate with Geordi-in-a-Probe, and that killed ’em. For some reason. Now they’re trapped on board the Raman, and they’re dying, and they need to get back to the planet. So that’s enough to give us some conflict—only thing is, that’s all we get. These aren’t sentient beings, they’re a plot device, as nakedly anonymous as they come. Everything about them is convenient to the needs of the episode and nothing else. Which is not a first for TNG (or Trek in general), but I’d be more willing to accept this if it was in the service of a story that actually earned a level of expedience. Here, we have mind-reading aliens to exploit Geordi’s grief; and we have Geordi’s grief to make sure the interface with the probe becomes dangerous, and that’s as far as it goes. Once you clear away all the interference, there’s barely anything left.
There are other complaints. The virtual-reality probe system is pretty ridiculous—I’m not sure why it’s necessary for Geordi to be fully immersed in the system, in a body suit and everything (when we see the probe, it’s basically a floating trash can), and I certainly don’t understand the physics that go into a system that can create physical burns on its users hands simply because he’s really feeling it. (Maybe the aliens psychic powers caused it? Sure, let’s go with that.) And there is some good here as well, mostly in the interactions between Geordi and Data. It’s also great to see Geordi getting reprimanded for his behavior here—he’s irresponsible and directly disobeys Picard, and at least this doesn’t just get swept under the rug. Still, that doesn’t go very far. This is a weak effort, and while it’s possible to imagine various elements making for good television, the way they’re combined here mostly makes for a tedious, unrewarding hour.
- One positive: The cold open, which starts with Geordi already using the probe (instead of showing us the probe, we see Geordi himself, VISOR-less), is odd and fun.
- Oh, and one more: While Geordi is getting the real story from the alien during the episode’s climax, we’re watching Picard, Data, and Beverly trying to come up with a way to save Geordi. Which means we only hear Geordi’s half of the conversation. It’s not a bad way to get the information across without resorting to flat exposition.
- “You may experience the emptiness with me if you wish.” Best pick-up line ever?
“Gambit, Part 1” (season 7, episode 4; originally aired Oct. 9, 1993)
Or The One where Picard And Riker Are Menaced By Richard Lynch’s Forehead Bumps
Oh hey, another two-parter. Joy.
Actually, “Gambit: Part 1” isn’t as bad as I was dreading it would be. In fact, once you get past the opening 15 minutes, it turns into a fun, goofy romp along the lines of “Starship Mine.” Only it’s a bit better than “Mine,” because Data ends up as captain of the Enterprise, which hasn’t happened in a while. “Gambit” plays a bit like a cheesy ’80s sci-fi flick, something Canon might’ve made in between churning out ninja and Chuck Norris pictures; the presence of ’80s B-movie fixture Richard Lynch as the episode’s main villain doesn’t alter this impression. It’s not amazing or anything, and as always I question the need to spread this out over two episodes. (We’ll see how part two works out, though.) But it’s less bad than “Interface,” and, at least right now, probably better than anything the seventh season has had to offer. I’m slowly coming around to the idea that the thoughtful, challenging stories that TNG told in its best moments might be a thing of the past, but if this is what’s replacing them, well, there are worse ways to go.
Speaking of “worse,” the first act of “Gambit” is something of a slog. The cold open in the space bar, featuring Riker, Worf, Beverly, and Troi trying to find out what happened to Picard, is decent—I especially enjoyed Beverly’s kicky beret—but once the crew learns that Picard is dead, things take a turn for the painful. (No, Picard isn’t dead. But they think he is.) Really, it’s just this one scene, when Troi confronts Riker on his behavior in the wake of Picard’s purported demise. It’s amazingly bad. Like “high-school students doing a play that somebody in creative writing class wrote after watching ‘“A,” My Name Is Alex’” Full of tortured, overly direct sentences and actors so desperate to justify their dialogue that they overplay everything. It’s an unnecessary scene as well; it exists to show how Riker and Troi are dealing with their grief, and how Riker is determined to track down Picard’s killers. The latter information is proven redundant when Riker tells a Federation admiral of his intentions (to the episode’s credit, we don’t waste a lot of time on authority figures arguing against Riker’s decision, although I’m fuzzy on exactly what happens to a ship’s command when its captain dies), and the former… well, since Picard is, in fact, not dead (Gasp!), this is pointless. It’s necessary to indicate that the ensemble has been affected by what happened, but a whole scene about how to properly deal with the tragedy is wasted time when the object of their mourning pops back on screen in the next act. If the Riker-Troi argument had been well-written, if it had been even competently managed, I wouldn’t object so much—but this one scene threatens to derail the entire episode.
Which is a shame, really. Once Riker gets himself kidnapped by a group of relic-hunting space pirates, things get a lot more interesting. The bad guys are straight out of the genre playbook, a motley crew of scum and villainy who serve at the pleasure of Arctus Baran (Lynch). And I’m not kidding about the pleasure part; each crewmember has a neural servo implanted in his or her neck, and if they go against Baran’s wishes, Baran can transmit great waves of pain with the touch of a button. (Which is somewhat reminiscent of “Chain Of Command, Part 2.” I was initially worried the episode would lean too heavily on the servos as a way of breaking Riker—torture isn’t something this show can do casually anymore—but the devices are more an obstacle that Picard and Riker will eventually have to overcome than anything designed to unsettle us too badly.) Picard’s already on board. In an explanation that only just lands within the bounds of plausibility, it turns out that Baran and the others have a special device that allows them to beam people onto their ship by shooting them. Which is why the snitch at the bar thought Picard was dead; instead of being “shot,” he’d been transported to Baran’s ship. As for how that worked out, well, Picard was doing his archaeology routine, and the space bandits are hopping around the galaxy looking for a very specific relic. Since Picard was off-duty when they found him, he was able to fake his way onto the ship and join up. Now he’s processing relics looking for a certain signature that Baran wants (for reasons we don’t know quite yet), and Riker shows up to lend a helping hand in bringing the bad guys to justice.
Basically what starts off as an episode with a really big hook (PICARD IS DEAD OH NO) shifts soon enough into a bit of escapism, and is all the better for it. Picard and Riker make a great team, but it’s not a pair the show usually throws into action together; usually Riker is off on the away team, and whenever Picard is directly involved with the action, it’s because Riker has already been incapacitated or Picard has been separated from the crew. But this is one of the foundational relationships of the show, and while this episode isn’t particularly deep, it’s great to see captain and first officer making plans and kicking ass and so forth. It’s also amusing how readily Picard takes to hating on Riker whenever any other member of the crew is around to hear. (Picard is so committed to this that I briefly worried this was going to turn into a mind-control episode; thankfully, it’s just that Jean-Luc is nearly as good an actor as Patrick Stewart.) Obviously establishing open antagonism against his real-life friend is the easiest way to try and prevent Baran from suspecting anything, but Riker’s pained look after Picard belts him one is hilarious.
While all this is going down, Data has become captain of the Enterprise, and I’m not gonna lie to you: it’s awesome. The main focus of the story is Riker and Picard, but every scene with Data running the ship is gold—it’s not showy or particularly dramatic, but he’s super efficient, and basically unstoppable. If you’ve ever seen the original Trek, you know that every once in a while, Spock would be in the command seat. Sometimes this didn’t work out so well, but by and large, he made a terrific commanding officer, because he was über-competant. Spock made logical, sensible choices, and while that isn’t always the source of great drama, it can be very satisfying to watch. Data is basically in the same boat here. Picard and the rest of the organic crew aren’t the hormone addled adult-teenagers of TOS, but it’s refreshing to see a story move forward without being hindered by doubt or bad instincts.
Arguably that takes some suspense out of the cliffhanger that ends the episode. The Enterprise catches up with Baran’s ship while Picard is doing his best to stop Baran from destroying a science vessel that stands in his way. There’s some talk, and Riker sends Data a message to lower their shields. Data considers this, nods, and then obeys the order—which, apparently, allows Baran to fire on the Enterprise while it’s unprotected. The fact that Riker set this all up, and Data allowed it to happen, means that it’s hard to get too worried about anything happening to the Enterprise before we watch part two. But then, it’s hard to believe that anything would’ve happened to the ship regardless, and what Data and Riker are working together to accomplish is to create a different kind of suspense. I’m not wondering if the Enterprise will survive; I’m wondering how it survives. Which, really, is the question at the heart of all cliffhangers. It wouldn’t be a cliffhanger if it was going to have an unhappy ending.
I don’t really have a lot to say about this one—can’t say yet if the two-parter justifies itself, or if the cliffhanger resolution makes sense, or if Baran gets a dramatically satisfying end. I doubt the second part of the episode is going to be amazing television, and I’d guess that, super-sizing aside, “Gambit” isn’t going to try for quite as much as “Interface” did. (For all its faults, “Interface” did have a certain kind of ambition.) But it’s entertaining, and it makes a lot more sense than “Interface” did, and, that one scene aside, I didn’t hate this. I just don’t have a whole lot more to comment on, so hopefully that’s enough.
Next week: I hopefully find something more compelling to talk about with “Gambit, Part 2,” and hold Data’s hand through some bad dreams in “Phantasms.”