This is the episode where Wesley falls in love.
Still here? I'm impressed!
It's been a while since we had a Wesley-centric episode, hasn't it? He had a few scenes in "The Child" focusing on his decision to remain with the Enterprise, but apart from that, he's largely served as background noise, a familiar face at the helm or someone to trade jokes with Data. I have to admit, I no longer find him as intolerable as I once did. Maybe it's the fact that Wheaton has grown up a little, or that the writers are less interested in forcing Chosen One narratives down our throat, but when I learned that "The Dauphin" was going to focus on young Crusher's throbbing biological urges, I wasn't immediately filled with self-loathing and despair. I expected it would get rough at times, and the episode does have it's weaker moments, but I figured it'd be watchable, which is not something I would've said about an ep with a similar premise back in season one.
"Dauphin" is watchable, and I'd even go so far as to say it's not half bad. Wesley is still somewhat problematic. His super genius status makes it understandable that he wouldn't have the sharpest social skills, but he's never weird or awkward in a way that seems distinct. He's both too generic and too odd to really cohere as a character; his sensitivity and nonthreatening nature should be charming, but instead come across as vaguely inappropriate. You can imagine when the smell gets too bad and they finally bust down the door of his quarters and find all those missing ensigns (well, their skins at least), all Wesley's co-workers will be able to tell anyone is that he had a nice smile, and his uniform was always clean.
Regardless, Wesley hasn't suddenly became one of my favorites on the show, and I'd still rather watch a Picard or Riker or Worf or Data (or Geordi or O'Brien or Troi or… or… Ah screw it, or Pulaski) focused episode that one centered on the Boy Blunder. But that's less to do with my antipathy towards the character than it is with my disinterest in "coming of age" style stories on a big-ass, galaxy-surfing space-ship. I want adventures, and if we're going to focus inward, the character work better justify my attention. Going on past evidence, there wasn't any reason to believe that, with Wesley at the helm, the writers would be capable of justifying anything.
So "Dauphin" was a mildly pleasant surprise. It's a familiar story arc, especially for a sci-fi or fantasy show: a regular character develops an instant, passionate connection with a stranger, then has to deal with the fall-out when that stranger is inevitably killed/sent away/turns into a sentient mass of light at the story's conclusion. Partly that's the "nothing changes" style of most television of TNG's era, but it's also done for dramatic effect. Romeo and Juliet is about a pair of teenagers who get the hots for each other and screw around. It only becomes a grand tragedy when people start dying. Not every show merits a body count, but they can exploit the closed nature of their conclusions. We know that Salia, the pretty young woman who catches Wesley's attention via her keen interest in magnetism (not a pun), will be leaving soon, and that makes their brief affair all the sweeter.
Sure, I'll admit it: I found Wesley's stabs at wooing mildly charming. His awkwardness in engineering didn't work (Wheaton is not what I'd call a gifted physical comedian), but I got a kick out his attempts to glean advice from his co-workers. Worf's description of Klingon mating rituals is hilarious ("He reads love poetry. He ducks a lot."), and watching Riker hit on Guinan is actually fairly funny. Even better, the scenes between Wesley and Salia are clumsily endearing. Once he stops falling over himself and stammering, Wesley manages some decent conversation, and Salia's obvious and immediate affection for him make their brief relationship believable, if not exactly one for the history books. (Am I waffling enough here? I don't feel like I'm waffling enough.) I could watch most of the moments between them without wishing harm on either actor, or wishing I could change the channel. It's just that hot.
Of course, "Dauphin" isn't only about sweet, sweet Wesley love. The Enterprise is escorting Salia and her guardian, Anya, from the terrible Klavdia III, where the two have lived for most of Salia's life in preparation of her adulthood. Now Salia is on her way to the equally terrible Daleb IV, where she's expected to create peace between warring factions in a way that no one on the Enterprise really grasps. Indeed, one of the more notable elements of the storyline here is just how little Picard and the others know about who (or what) they're escorting, and while that makes for some excellent reveals, it does bring into question why the ship is involved in the escort at all. Anya is so paranoid about her charge's safety that it's no surprise when tension arises between her and the crew. Was travelling by a ship with this many aboard really the best option? And why does the Enterprise always get stuck with this kind of duty? You'd think there'd be certain Federation vessels specifically designed for this, given how often it occurs.
But like I said, it makes for some excellent reveals. Anya's shape-shifting talents are demonstrated indirectly at first, in that we see Salia talking with various people and creatures in her private rooms before we see the "original" Anya (a middle-aged woman who looks like a nun who just bit on a lemon) change form herself. It's a disorienting choice that helps heighten the mystery and alien-ness surrounding the two; we know something strange is going on, but we're not sure what, and even once we've confirmed that Anya is an "allasomorph," we don't know what that bodes for the future. I like how little exposition we're given to understand what's happening. Salia is important, and by the end, we have a certain idea of just why she's important, but we're never told what she's going to do when she arrives on Daleb IV. We also don't know how her relationship with Anya began, and I found myself wondering if Anya comes from a race of creatures trained to serve as guardians. (It's at this point during the episode that I made a reference to Elfstones of Shannara in my notes. I only mention this here because I still feel guilty.) The forms Anya takes are context-determined, in that she changes to meet the demands of the moment, but not all of the context is explained. I especially dug the brief appearance of a pre-Twin Peaks Madchen Amick, as Anya's younger, more sympathetic shape.
We also get some great scenes with Anya playing against Picard and Worf. Anya's rigid insistence that even the slightest possibility of harm to Salia be eliminated puts her at odds with other ship's personnel (most notably, she wants to kill one of Pulaski's patients for having a potentially communicable disease), and we get one of those "Let's show how strong the alien threat is by having it kick Worf's ass" fights you guys have been talking about. This pays off later, though, as Worf and Anya's conversations finally reveal a mutual respect, from one security officer to another. (Also gotta love how furious Worf gets at losing.) My favorite moment in the episode, though, comes from an exchange between Picard and Anya, after Anya does her quick-change routine in front of the crew for the first time. "Your powers are infinitesimal compared to mine," she sneers. Picard's response: "Yes that may be, but you will obey my orders."
Salia and Wesley make goo-goo eyes at each other in the holodeck, and over chocolate mousse, but of course it isn't meant to be. In fact, the show goes out its way to make Salia's final departure from the ship as definitive as possible, short of killing her outright. We're informed that Daleb IV is so hostile that human life couldn't possibly exist there, and it requires a prohibitive amount of energy to send a message from orbit strong enough to contact the planet's surface. There's something cowardly in this, I think. Relationships end all the time without needing dramatic contrivance, and Wesley's uneasiness about Salia's shape-changing abilities could've led to an interesting sequel down the road: how do you make things work with a different species? (I'm not entirely kidding here.) "Dauphin" is a little too sweet for its own good, spending too much time on romance when it could've been dealing with more interesting questions, but for what it is, it's not bad. Given it's subject, that's more than I would ever have hoped for.
Well, this one is really just a more developed (and better structured) retake on the first season episode, "The Arsenal of Freedom." We've got a mysterious planet, incredible technology, and deadly danger, but we also have a third act, so I don't mind a second try. At least this one isn't a fable about how weapons are bad and the more deadly we become, the more we risk self-destruction. In fact by the end of the episode, Picard theorizes that the Iconians, the mysterious race that Captain Donald Varley gave his life (and the lives of everyone about his ship, the Yamato) to find, were actually a peaceful people who've been slandered by history. Sure, an Iconian probe is responsible for the Yamato's destruction, as well as the near-destruction of the Enterprise and a Romulan vessel, but that's more of a software glitch than any deep-rooted hostility. Sort of like if Microsoft ran a planet—it would only force its software down the throats of neighboring systems out of love.
After the intermittently drippy "Dauphin," it's nice to have some wall-to-wall action again, and "Contagion" starts fast. Picard gets a distress message from Varley: the Yamato is suffering severe technical problems, and they're in bad need of assistance. Unfortunately, the Yamato is in the Neutral Zone, which means riding to the rescue entails a certain level of risk. (Hey, remember the Kobayashi Maru?) Picard takes the chance, though, and risks the Enterprise, arriving just in time to chat briefly with Varley before the afore mentioned technical problems cause the ship to explode.
I've gone on at some length about TNG's more thoughtful storytelling approach, but there's a brief scene here that's worth pointing out. In just a few seconds it manages to convincingly demonstrate how good Picard is at his job, and how thoroughly his crew is prepared to support him. (You can also see this in "Where Silence Has Lease," but in that case, it's the focus of quite a few scenes, whereas the moment in "Contagion" is delivered almost incidentally.) Picard has already explained that Varley is a good friend, and their final conversation is, if not really warm, the sort of open banter you'd expect from old comrades. Then the Yamato explodes, and in the next instant, as debris hurtles outward, Picard orders the shields up.
It doesn't sound like much, but shocking as that explosion is, there's something wonderfully cold-blooded in Picard's response. We don't see him break down over Varley's death, although his willingness to continue the man's quest is probably connected to their friendship, and we don't get a passionate outburst in the moment. Later in the episode, Wesley comes to see the captain for a chat about the tragedy, and Picard explains that grief and duty don't often make comfortable bedfellows. The unhesitating, flat inflection of that "Shields up" demonstrates this more clearly than any monologue, though. In its way, it's a gutsy choice. The Wesley scene tries to soften this, but the main reality stands: we don't see Picard weaken. We don't see him stagger back, and we don't see him react as we ourselves would when confronted with such disaster.
Obviously, there's a lot more episode after this (in fact, that entire scene takes place during the cold open!). Varley was searching for Iconia, and going by his logs, he found it. There's amazing technology available for the taking—if only he could've found some way to beam to the planet itself. Unfortunately, a probe launched from Iconia's surface just as the Yamato made orbit hit the ship with some new operating software, and the resulting crash between the existing system and the invading one created the resulting glitches and eventual explosion. The Enterprise nearly gets hit by the same probe when it follows in the Yamato's footsteps, but thankfully Geordi figures out the problem before it's too late and is able to tell Picard to destroy the probe. (For a series of supposedly random accidents, the trials that Geordi goes through attempting to get to the bridge are both improbable and hilarious.) Too bad that in downloading Varley's logs, our heroes have already managed to infect their ship…
While the main storyline here is too similar to earlier episodes to stand out, the consequences of the Enterprise's slow meltdown make for fun viewing, especially once Picard beams down to the planet with Worf and Data, leaving Riker in charge of the ship. Riker's increased frustration at his inability to successfully defend against potential Romulan attack is hilarious without defusing the tension, and the scene in which the Enterprise fails to fulfill any of Number One's commands is a nice piece of farcical suspense. It's always good to have the Romulans back, even if their uniforms still look silly. The strained diplomacy between Riker and the Romulan captain, neither one exactly operating on the level but both unwilling to admit they might be at fault, makes a good dynamic. (I could be wrong there. Do we know what the rule is on rescue missions into the Neutral Zone? Obviously it's risky, but is there official regulation against it? At the very least, Picard's justification for hanging around is suspect. I'm not sure there's that much danger of an inter-stellar incident, especially once Varley's logs show the probable connection between the Yamato's malfunctions and that probe.) I love the ending, too, with Riker passing on the secret to beating the probe programming to the Romulans, then prudently ordering the Enterprise into warp in case the Romulans aren't able to act on this information. This would've worked better if we hadn't had that last shot of the Romulans leaving orbit, though; I'd rather have their survival be more ambiguous.
I wasn't as thrilled about Picard, Worf, and Data's Iconian adventure. Wandering what's basically a haunted house for an entire civilization is a neat idea, albeit a routine one for this show and TOS, and Picard's decision to risk everything in order to make sure the Iconian tech doesn't fall into Romulan hands is sound. It's just that the Iconians themselves don't have a whole lot of personality in their absence, and their magical doorway machine is too much of an afterthought, created as a form of nonviolent, but potentially incredibly dangerous, equipment to justify Picard's decision to blow everything up. The problem is that, as entertaining as the episode often is, the explosion of the Yamato is the undeniable high-water mark, and that happens before we get the opening credits. It doesn't ruin "Contagion," and the knowledge that the probe's infection has already taken so many lives does raise stakes through the episode, but it makes the solid plotting seem uninspired. Still, Picard winding up on the Romulan bridge near the end was pretty genius.
Now this one, I remembered. Much of the first two seasons of TNG is a blur to me now. I'm sure I watched most of it growing up, and I know I marathoned the first season at least once, but only the occasional stray detail sticks out. That evil oil slick, or Moriarty, or the alien phasing in and out in "Where No One Has Gone Before," I knew I'd seen those before, but I couldn't remember how they fit into anything. This one, though, I remembered: the mystery, the setting, the big reveal, those revolving doors that kept spinning you back to where you started. Whenever I thought about TNG, I always wound up thinking about "The Royale," not because it was the best episode I'd seen, but because something about it just stayed with me long after other, better storylines faded. Watching it now, it's a lot smaller than I remembered. The heroes are never all that worried about their safety, the "fictional" people who inhabit the Royale aren't that threatening as they once were, and the setting is less a claustrophobic trap than a minor inconvenience. "The Royale" in my mind was a leering carnival of meta-commentary and the damned. "The Royale" on my television is a moderately entertaining diversion.
I think it comes down to the fact that I'm a sucker for stories built into stories. "Royale" is basically a holodeck episode: a group of characters is trapped in a fake environment based on a fictional world, and they have to figure out a way to follow the rules just long enough to find an escape hatch. What makes it different from, say, "The Big Goodbye" or "Elementary, Dear Data," is that the paperback noir that served as the inspiration for this particular fake environment is one that our heroes openly and repeatedly mock. Unlike Picard's Dixon Hill fetish, or the very real works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, nobody on the Enterprise considers Hotel Royale by Todd Mathews to be a good book. In fact, they go out of their way to tell us it's terrible, and it's awfulness actually serves as the punchline for the episode's grimmest joke.
While this may not seem like a huge departure from standard 'deck eps on the surface, it demonstrates a level of self-consciousness that frees Tracy Torme, the episode writer (who also gave us "The Big Goodbye," among others) from having to pretend that the fake world we're watching should be anything but laughable. One of "Goodbye"'s weaknesses is that its detective noir pastiche was never all that convincing or distinctive, and yet Picard never shut up about how amazing everything was. That meant getting distracted every time our expectations were disappointed, which happened nearly every scene. Here, though, all we see down in the hotel that doesn't center on Riker, Data, and Worf, is supposed be lousy. Sure, it's not demonstrably worse (or better) than what we saw in "Goodbye," but here its shallowness works to the story's advantage. It means we're all in on the gag.
The Enterprise gets wind of some strange ship debris in the upper atmosphere of an unmapped planet. Beaming a piece aboard, they soon determine it's part of an American space ship launched in the 21st century, a fact that amazes Picard, given that us lowly 21st century folks didn't have the technology for interstellar crafts. The planet the ship crashed on is incapable of supporting human life, but a scan finds one area that is safe to beam down to. Riker and his merry men do so—and, briefly, let us question the sanity of beaming down, without any protective suit, into such a hostile environment. Sure the scans say it's safe, by why not send a test drone out to be sure? Or wear a hat or something. (Or send a security officer…)
Anyway, the away team finds a black, empty space, surrounded on all sides by "ammonium storms," and, in the center of the darkness, a single revolving door. It is, unsurprisingly, a cheap looking effect, but I like it—sometimes cheap looking effects can be even spookier than a more realistic scene might be, although this is definitely a your-mileage-may-vary kind of moment. Through the door, there's a hotel, with gambling and a sinisterly smarmy concierge (Sam Anderson, aka Bernard from Lost) and some moderate intrigue. Everyone acts like this is perfectly normal, and Riker, Data, and Worf are labelled as "foreign gentlemen." Everyone acts like outside is just as normal as inside. No one seems to want to go home.
I was talking about a grim joke, right? According to Data's tricorder, none of the people in the hotel are recognizable "alive." He does, however, find human DNA in one of the hotel's rooms: a corpse centuries dead. It's an astronaut from the ship the Enterprise found earlier. Aliens grabbed the ship, killing all of its inhabitants but Colonel Richey, and then, either to study or to make up for their interference, the aliens tried to create some recognizable environment for Richey to live in. Instead of scanning his memories or asking him what he wanted, though, they copied the details of the crappy paperback somebody had brought along for the trip, trapping Richey in a hack novel for the last 38 years of his life. And even now, with Richey long dead, the illusion persists. The aliens themselves are most likely long gone, and there's no way of knowing if the phantoms in the Royale have any kind of consciousness, but they play out the same tired routines over and over again, with no audience to suffer through them.
"Royale," corpse-aside, keeps a light tone, with lots of bad comedy between Data and some of the gamblers, and lots of complaining about the crappy source material. So it's fairly easy to overlook the underlining premise, and it doesn't really work as well as it might've. The resolution is half-clever. Riker realizes that the only way out is to pass themselves off as the "foreign investors" who buy the hotel in the novel's climax. This makes sense, but it doesn't really go far enough. Apart from their inability to leave, the away team is never put in any danger, and the brief communications break between them and the Enterprise is solved much too quickly. In order for this one to have lived up to potential, there needed to be an obstacle to the "foreign investors" plan, something more compelling than "the dice are loaded and Data has to fix them." The way it now stands, we're relying too much on goofiness that isn't that funny, with a potentially poweful, unsettling plotline dangling off to one side. It's watchable, but I can't help wishing it had lived up to my dreams.
- "Fate. Protects fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise."
- Watching "The Royale," I kept hearing the line, "There is no way out of here!" in my head. Took me a second to realize my brain was quoting Manos: The Hands Of Fate at me for some reason.
- Troi gets nervous during "Contagion" because everyone on the ship is so tense. There's a probably a joke there, but right now I'm too tired to make it. Anyone?
- Next week, it's "Time Squared," "The Icarus Factor," and "Pen Pals."