"Schisms" (season 6, episode 5, original air date: 10/17/1992)
Or The One Where Was I
During the cold open, Data gives a poetry reading, and it goes about as well as you'd expect. His rhymes are impeccable (well, except for "effects" and "perplexed"), but the content, while conceptually adorable—"Ode to Spot"—is dry and emotionally flat. I suppose you could do an episode that devoted more time to Data's struggles with his cybernetic muse, but the real point of this scene is to see Riker struggling to stay awake. Data's recitation isn't particularly gripping, but Riker's dishevelment and clumsy attempts to cover for a brief nap are signs of someone who really hasn't been getting as much sleep lately as he should. Riker's woes are what get the ball rolling, story-wise, but watching this, I also couldn't help noticing the presence of two strange women in the audience, with short haircuts; one gets a close up or two, the other is sitting surprisingly near to Picard. The former is connected to episode's plot, but not in the way I was expecting. In fact, seeing these two glorified extras, I wondered if we wouldn't learn in the final reveal that the aliens who were kidnapping various members of the Enterprise crew for all sorts of unsavory tests hadn't slipped a pair of sleeper agents on board. I'm used to seeing unfamiliar faces wander around the background of the series, but surely the director wouldn't put these women out front and center if not for some reason.
There really is no reason, though. One of the women, like I said, is important; she turns out to be a former abductee, and, along with Riker, Geordi, and Worf, helps to reconstruct her experience in one of the episode's best scenes. But there's nothing malevolent about her, and the other woman, the one sitting so close to Picard during the poetry reading that their shoulders appear to be touching, is never seen again. I mention her here because there was something off about her, in the same way that something is off about all of "Schisms," both to the good and to the bad. Nothing is quite as it should be. For much of its running time, the ep keeps you off balance, and even once the mystery of the missing time is resolved, this never really feels like TNG. It's more like an ep from earlier in the show's run, when the series was still trying to find itself. The main difference being, it's not terrible. The cast chemistry is solid, the characters behave as you'd expect, and, although it has its problems, "Schisms" never collapses in quite the way that early TNG often did. It's just—odd.
The oddness begins right off. There are those two ladies (and now I have a Cabaret song stuck in my head), but they aren't important. What is important is that the cold open doesn't have much in the way of drama, even if, plot-wise, this is one of the more intense outings the show has ever done. That's one of the elements that doesn't quite work, in retrospect; not the cold open itself, but the fact that, thinking back, "Schisms" never manages to have the impact it ought to have. This is an episode in which monsters from some subspace domain (sure, we can call them "aliens" all we like, but we've seen aliens before on this show, and these things are something new) abduct crew-members from the Enterprise and perform awful, occasionally fatal tests on them, for reasons that never become entirely clear. Our heroes never make contact with these creatures, or even really defeat them. Riker hits one with a phaser blast, but in the end, the biggest victory is closing off the gate the monsters have created, although not before the monsters send something into our universe. That something is never referenced again, much like the alien threat in "Conspiracy" back in the first season. But it's still a pretty big deal, right?
And yet the balance is off. The build up is fine. Riker's confusion, his growing inability to concentrate, are convincingly done, and never over-played. I like how much comes across from the simple fact that his hair is a mess—the Riker we know would never let himself be seen in such a state, not if he could help it. The Enterprise is investigating the Amargosa Diaspora, an "unusually dense globular cluster," which leads to a lot of tech talk, and, eventually, a strange glowing rift on a cargo bay wall that's apparently chock full of tetryons. Geordi and Data can't figure out what's causing the rift, and while they investigate, Riker and others on the ship experience bizarre fugue states, during which some object or angle will remind them of a moment from their past that they can't completely remember. It's obvious that these two stories (the tetryons and the fugue states) are connected—that's how this always works. But "Schisms" does a decent job of not showing its hand too quickly, and never belaboring its premise. As well, some of the trances are deeply unsettling, like Riker's weird caress of the helm, or Worf's brief fixation on his barber's scissors.
This all comes to a head when Riker tells Troi about his experiences, and Troi tells him that she's had other crewmembers reporting similar problems. She gets everyone together in a group, and after they all decide something is going on, they head to the holodeck to work together to re-create whatever event has warped their minds. This is a great scene, although it doesn't exactly play fair. The idea is, Riker and the rest suggest an object for the computer to create, and then adjust that object until it fits whatever it is they've forgotten. Which is cool, and it's nice to see the holodeck being used for something other than improbable vacations, but the computer does way too much of the work. Someone will say "the table was made of metal," and all of a sudden a slanted wooden structure (which didn't look particularly table-ish to begin with) transforms into a sort of nightmare dentist's chair. I realize that some short-cutting is needed, given the time constraints of the episode and the patience of the audience, but surely the scenario could've been handled a little more smoothly. As is, it works largely because it's an excellent idea, and because the "table" that starts the session grows increasingly more frightening as our heroes get closer to the truth. However implausible that journey is (and I'll be curious to hear if you think I'm picking nits), it's an episode highlight.
So what's my problem? I'm just not sure TNG can support the kind of eerie, inexplicable terror that "Schisms" spends much of its time aiming for. The scenes where it works are effective, but once it's time for the heroes to face off against the main threat, the scares largely go away, and in their place are some spooky, silly lizard-men, a lot of techno-babble, and the sort of climax we've seen a dozen times before. When the truth is revealed, all the scares vanish, and with them, the main vibe holding the episode together. It's an alien abduction riff, nothing more, nothing less. Riker manages to take a homing beacon along with him during his last abduction, and by tracking the beacon, Geordi pinpoints the lizard-men's location, and closes the rift between their domain and the Enterprise. There's some suspense as to whether or not Riker will be able to rescue himself and Ensign Rager before the gap closes, but it's not that much suspense. None of this is badly done, and the alien ship is eerie, in an X-Files-ish kind of way. It's just not all that great.
See, if "Schisms" had tried to keep up the creepy, we-don't-know-what's-going-on-but-we're-pretty-sure-it's-awful feeling it manages with a fair amount of success in its first half, then the ending wouldn't have needed another level. The horror of the absurd is that it presents impossibilities with no explanation, showing events which can't be real but are anyway. (I remember reading "The Metamorphosis," and not understanding why it was so terrifying until I realized, hey, a giant bug is terrifying.) Think David Lynch movies, the way Lynch's almost childlike straightforwardness renders his audiences incapable of protecting themselves from what, in other contexts, would be laughable threats. "Schisms" never really gets that far, but it has its moments; only, because this is TNG, it can't completely commit to them. There has to be some sort of reason in the end, in which everything confirms to the basic rules of the show's reality. This also could've worked, if the lizard-men had had any character to them, any sense that they were anything beyond ciphers. But they didn't, and we're left with an ep that has moments of greatness, but never manages to do much with them.
- Troi was fun this ep—not a huge focus, but for once, her role on the ship was necessary and useful, and she didn't eat any chocolate that I could tell.
- "We've all been here before."
- So, Ensign Hagler died because the lizard-men did something to his blood. Whatever the reason, that can't be a fun way to go.
"True Q" (season 6, episode 6, original air date: 10/24/1992)
Or The One Where Q Comes Back For The Blonde
After a somewhat off-format episode, "True Q" brings us back to a TNG staple: a protagonist faced with a difficult moral choice. (All right, so that's a staple of all drama, but I needed a segue.) It also marks the return of John de Lancie's Q, who we haven't seen round these parts since "Qpid" back in season four. If you're having a hard time remembering "Qpid," it's the episode in which Q transports everyone to a simulation of Sherwood Forest, so that Picard, playing Robin Hood, can save his lady love from, well, who cares. Really, it wasn't a particularly good ep, apart from a handful of fun jokes; as TV comfort food, it was unobjectionable, but considering Q is the one who brought the Borg into the Trek franchise (and did so in one of the series' first great hours), it's hard not to be frustrated that he's been relegated to irritating comic relief ever since.
"True Q" isn't what I'd call a return to form, but it is significantly more interesting than "Qpid," because it knows the best way to use a character whose powers make him a tricky fit for the show. Q is essentially a call-back to TOS; his godlike being abilities are never explained or justified with anything even remotely approaching science, and, while I love de Lancie, his performance would be more suited to the munchable scenery of the first Trek, as opposed to this new Enterprise's less edible (but more nutritious) backgrounds. That doesn't mean Q can't work on TNG. The contrast between Picard and the rest of the ensemble's straightforward nobility, and Q's self-centered pranking, can be entertaining when done well. The trick, then, is coming up with a good justification for Q's presence before bringing him into a story. Either he's around because his powers have been revoked, like in "Deja Q," or else he's there to serve as a catalyst for another character's actions. He has to be part of some kind of problem, but, given his relationship with the Enterprise, it's hard to see him as much of a threat anymore. (One of the reasons "Qpid" didn't really work is that there was never any sense of what the stakes were, or why any of what we saw was happening, beyond "The writers wanted to do something with Robin Hood, but didn't want to use the Holodeck.") He needs to have a reason to visit, and there need to be potential consequences to that visit, and not just ones that Q can wave away.
Enter Amanda (Oliva D'Abo, who was actually in her early twenties when this was shot, which surprised me—she looks younger), an intern who's earned herself a spot on the Enterprise. Amanda is smart and studious, and she's determined to make the most of her time on the ship, but it might not work out the way she hopes. She has these amazing abilities that have recently begun to manifest in ways she doesn't understand. Like, she'll mention dogs, and a bunch of puppies will appear on her carpet. Or she'll see a heavy barrel falling on Riker, and she'll magic it away. Or the ship's engines will explode, and she'll have to pull everything back together. Amanda's parents died when she was young, and she was raised by step-parents, but her parents weren't just regular humans—they were Q. And that means Amanda may be Q as well, and that's when our Q shows up. He's been sent by the Continuum to determine just what Amanda is. If Amanda is Q, she can go back to the Continuum with de Lancie. But if she doesn't want to, and she can't refrain from using her powers, well…
"True Q" is reminiscent of the first season episode, "Hide and Q," in which Q gave Riker powers, and offered him much the same choice Amanda gets here. Both episodes are built around scenes of someone stumbling onto abilities they'd never imagined possible, and gradually coming to the realization that they can do anything—but that doesn't mean they should. "True" works better because, well, this is a much better show than it used to be; it doesn't look nearly as chintzy, and the regular cast is much more comfortable in their roles. The writing is better, too—not perfect, but better. Plus, the character who has to choose between Q-dom and a regular life in "True" is a guest star, which means her decision is entirely up for grabs. There was never any real threat that Riker would join the Continuum. But Amanda… who knows?
"True" benefits from a strong, self-assured performance from D'Abo, who invests Amanda with just the right amount of humbleness, determination, and immaturity to make her journey from human to being of unimaginable power understandable and sympathetic. From the start, she's presented as an exceptional young adult, someone who's spent her whole life working to get to where she thinks she wants to go, and that helps make the conflict when the Q powers hit her more dynamic; we don't necessarily need another lesson in how absolute power corrupts, but at least this one presents the case in a way that doesn't make Olivia look like an idiot for eventually being tempted. She also has to stand up to Q for much of the ep, and in order for this to work, she has to simultaneously be fascinated by him, and not particularly impressed, and D'Abo manages both side of the performance quite nicely.
She fits in well with the rest of the crew, or at least the ones we see while she's trying to make up her mind. She bonds most closely with Beverly Crusher, which may be because she's interested in medicine, or because Beverly had her own gifted child. Picard does his fair share of work as well. He's suspicious when he first hears the story of what happened to Amanda's parents, investigates further, and determines that they were killed by a tornado in Kansas (the tornado really should've taken the baby away to the Continuum, just to complete the reference). He pesters Q about this, learns the choice that faces Amanda, and makes sure Amanda knows for herself what the stakes are before things get too far. And then there's Riker. Amanda gets a crush on him, and, when she sees him spending time with another woman, tries to force him to love her. But it doesn't work out like she wants it to, and so she decides she wants to try and make a go of it as a human.
Only, conveniently enough, Amanda runs into the same sort of test Riker ran into back in "Hide": while it's easy enough to recognize the bad things a person can do with too much power, and reject them because they're hollow and dissatisfying, it's not quite so simple when you're faced with a situation in which using your abilities, even though you know you shouldn't, would save lives. So she gives in and magics away a disaster on a planet (saving Riker's life in the process), and decides she'll go the Continuum after all. It's not the ending I would've expected, but it works. It's a "real" ending, and not a TV ending (by which I mean an ending that conforms to the status quo, or makes us feel comfortable, even if it's not particularly realistic)—even if Amanda isn't a regular character on the show, choosing to continue being human would've been a safer story decision. It's not shocking, but there is a certain sadness to it. Going to the Continuum means giving up on the relationships she's established, and it means saying goodbye to her crush on Riker. Being Q means no more silly infatuations. She has to grow up very fast.
"True" doesn't entirely work for me. As strong as D'Abo is, and as much as I like de Lancie, I feel like the Continuum needed to be more clearly defined for all of this to hold together. Given Q's dislike of infants, I'm curious as to how Amanda's parents could procreate (in that procreating doesn't seem to be a Q thing), and how it was possible to kill them with a tornado, given that the reason they were executed was their refusal to stop using their powers. This can be explained away without that much effort, I expect, but while I appreciate the seriousness with which it's played, the conflict here just doesn't have the impact that TNG manages in its best episodes. Unlike "Schisms," this ep is in TNG's comfort zone, and it's consistent throughout. But it doesn't aim as high as "Schisms" did, and its conventionality makes it enjoyable, but hardly essential.
- "Well, if it isn't Number Two."
- I wish I could make puppies appear out of nowhere.
- I'm not sure making Riker love her is all that impressive a use of Amanda's powers. Pretty sure a stiff drink and that dress would've done the job well enough.
- There's a quick scene in which the Continuum contacts Q about his mission—just a talking shadow on a hallway wall. It's very cool, and I wouldn't have minded more of that.
- There's been some talk about getting rid of grades in TV Club Classic reviews. I don't mind 'em at this point, but I thought I'd throw it out to the group—should I stick with 'em, or junk 'em?
Next week: We realize we have to watch "Rascals" and "A Fistful of Datas."