Or The One Where Rambo Beats The Crap Out Of Worf
We like to pretend that war makes sense. Or we used to, anyway. There are times, we'd say, when men and women have to take up arms in the defense of their country, and in doing so, these men and women become heroes willing to make the greatest sacrifice necessary to preserve what they love. But it's trickier than that. We spend our lives being taught that killing, that really any kind of extreme violence, is wrong, and that in order to be the best human beings we can, we have to learn to empathize with strangers. To be an efficient soldier, though, you have to short-circuit that teaching; you have to embrace impulses that civilization has spent centuries trying to submerge. Then there's the chaos of the battlefield, the horrors and destruction and despair that can't really be put into recognizable human terms. And then you come home, and some jerk starts picking on your girl outside a bar, and because your instincts have been altered to the point where your first response to a threat is a permanent one, you kill the idiot, you get put in jail for murder, and when you finally get free, you're sent home on a plane with John Malkovich, of all people.
Okay, so not maybe not every problem eventually turns into Con Air (although I have statistics here that would surprise you), but my point is, war is just one of those things we pretend can fit into the world, and society has a hard time dealing with the warriors it no longer needs. That's what "The Hunted" is all about. It's a simple story with some dark undercurrents, and it's probably familiar if you've watched your fair share of action movies. I mentioned Rambo above—Roga Danar (Jeff McCarthy), the ultra bad-ass who drives the conflict here, shares Rambo's instincts and ability for making the most out of the circumstances, as well as Rambo's problems playing nice. But Rambo is only the first thing that comes to mind. This is a story that's been done a hundred times before, in movies and on TV. (There's also a William Friedkin movie that shares this episode's title; it basically takes the First Blood arc and gives it a darker, and arguably more honest, spin.) TNG isn't the most flexible show out there, but the basic, "Let's fly our ship around and see what happens" approach means that it doesn't take too much effort to throw our heroes into something archetypal and see what happens.
What happens here: the Enterprise is visiting Angosia III. The planet leaders (headed by James Cromwell!) want entrance into the Federation, and it's Picard's job to poke around and see if they're ready to become members in the galaxy's coolest club. He and Riker pay their respects, and everything seems on the up and up (Riker finds the place stuffy, which makes sense; along with Worf, he represents the Enterprise's most battle-ready contingent, and while we never really get the sense that Riker has difficulties playing friendly, the fact that he's not comfortable with the Angosians is a subtle piece of foreshadowing that a more aggressive individual might find it the planet even harder to cope with), until a prisoner escapes from a maximum security facility on Lunar V. Cromwell protests that his people aren't prepared for the escaped prisoner's aggressive behavior, and Picard offers to help catch the villain and bring him to justice. So far so good.
Except the prisoner proves a lot trickier to catch than even Picard expects, showing a grasp of tactics and a willingness to take bold actions that turns what should be a routine hunt into something a lot more exciting. And then, once Roga Danar is safely in the Enterprise's most secure holding cell (after nearly beating the crap out of an entire security detail), the situation becomes more complicated, because Troi gets one of her feelings and chats up the prisoner. Roga is dangerous in all kinds of ways. He's ruthless, cunning, and nearly unstoppable; and worse, he may be the victim of his government's arrogance. In the conversation between Picard and Cromwell at the start of the episode, we hear about a war that everyone on Angosia is eager to forget. Roga, and those like him, is a product of that war, a super-soldier with advanced psychological conditioning and genetic enhancements, designed to be the perfect killing machine. (One of those enhancements renders him invisible to the Enterprise's scanners, which makes him impossible to track, as well as serving as a reminder of how his life has essentially been stolen from him.) Once Roga and the others did their job, attempts were made to reintegrate them back into normal society without removing the conditioning or the enhancements. Unsurprisingly, those attempts failed, and Cromwell and the rest of the government tried to push everything under the rug.
TNG sometimes has difficulty presenting this sort of conflict without becoming didactic. (See for example this week's other episode, the fascinating but deeply problematic, "The High Ground") And once it becomes clear what's going on here, there is a tendency to put up Cromwell and the others as easy bad guys. We're never really told what sort of problems Roga and his cohorts caused in polite company, and while we know he's killed some guards, it's easy to justify those murders, or at least view them in a semi-sympathetic light. We're on Roga's side here, partly because Troi and the others are, and partly because he's such an unbelievable bad-ass that it's hard not to root for him. Cromwell and the others (and yes, I realize Cromwell has a character name, but that's just how I think of him) are the sort of hand-wringing, cowardly weaklings that always stop the Real Men from doing their job. There's a hilarious implication in the Rambo series that we never would've lost Vietnam if the government hadn't wussed out and gotten in the military's way, and thankfully, "Hunted" doesn't go that far, but it's still obvious who's side we're supposed to be on by the end.
Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. If I had a criticism of this episode, it would be that it's a little too simple to pin all the blame on government forces that used Roga so callously; but the episode does make an effort to spread the blame. We hear over and over again that it wasn't just the government, that the "people" were asked how they wanted the soldiers treated, and the "people" decided that kicking them off planet was the safest course of action. Again, though, the "people" make just as obvious scapegoats as Cromwell and his cronies. We see Roga's ruthless efficiency, but Troi and Data are both quickly convinced that Roga would never take another life unless absolutely necessary, so it turns into a question of all those evil, weak-willed civilians, using others to do their dirty work and then discarding them as soon as it becomes convenient. It would've helped if Roga had seemed just a little less reasonable, a little less charismatic; the episode might've made it's point more clearly if it'd been more obvious why Roga and those like him were so difficult for regular folks to stomach.
Yet I'm still giving this one the full "A," and I don't have any reservations about the grade whatsoever. "Hunted" may not entirely succeed in applying its metaphorical point to real world situations (that's obviously the intent here, though—there's a lot of very serious, "When will they ever learn?" dialog throughout the episode), but that's not really why I watch TNG. Or any Trek, really. Specific political messages in fiction are always going to be hit or miss, because when you're telling a story, the story should come first, the lesson second. Otherwise, it's just a lecture with icing. If you want, you can leave "Hunted" with a lot of important concerns over the debt a society owes those who defend it, and the way that society can fail to meet that debt once the immediate crisis has passed. These are big questions, and they're questions worth asking, however clumsily the show manages them. But you don't have to think about them too much to enjoy the episode. The message is there, but while it probably wouldn't stand up under too much scrutiny, it's not so clunky as to distract from the good stuff.
And there is a lot of good stuff here. Roga makes for a terrific anti-hero/threat, nearly Borg-like in his ability to outthink Picard and the others. The first chase sequence is a great teaser, as what seems like an easy hunt (the whole Enterprise after one guy?) turns far more taxing than initially assumed, but the real fun begins once Roga manages, in arguably the show's greatest non-main-character moment of bad-assery, to break out of a transporter beam, escape the security detail, figure out how to overload the phasers, beat up Worf, out-manuever Data (who figures out Roga is a big fan of the diversionary tactic, but is unable to use that knowledge to actually prevent Roga's escape), disrupt the Enterprise's power systems, beam himself over to the ship sent to take him back to Lunar V, take over that ship, and then lead a contingent of super soldiers to successfully storm the capital of Angosia III. This takes about ten minutes, and it is incredibly fun to watch. What's so striking is that the episode has us actually rooting against our heroes, not because they're wrong, but because Roga is just so damned good at what he does. Troi and the others spend some time trying to decide the best course of action, but they're mostly just as much an audience to what's happening as we are. Jeff McCarthy does solid work as Roga, balancing the character's frustration, intelligence, and intensity well-enough, but it's Robin Bernheim's script and Cliff Bole's direction that really pulls this together. The action set-pieces in this episode are really effective; I can't think of another ep that worked on quite this level of adrenaline rush.
Still, this is Star Trek: The Next Generation not Star Trek: That Fighter Guy On That One Planet. The action makes this a good hour of TV. What makes it great is how it ends. After Roga escapes, he gets in touch with his people and they go for their end game, an all out attack on Cromwell and the rest of the government. Cromwell calls Picard, desperate for help, and Picard, troubled over the situation and maybe a little annoyed that Roga managed to turn the tables on the Enterprise so efficiently, takes an away team down to the planet to presumably help fight off Roga's assault. Data and Troi come with, and both ask Cromwell why more effort wasn't made to de-program the soldiers after the war. "We didn't think it would work" is the unconvincing, nervous response, one which fails to satisfy anyone. Roga's men break into the room, holding the city effectively hostage. Cromwell looks to Picard to bring the full weight of his ship, and of the Federation that backs that ship, to bear on the rebels.
And Picard says, essentially, "Thank you for your time, but oh, hey, look at the clock, we have to be going now." He leaves, giving the locals the choice between facing the consequences of their actions—or death. (Or both, really.)
It's a decision that's both perfectly in keeping with everything we know about Picard and about the dictates of the Prime Directive, and yet still manages to come as a complete shock. This isn't what good guys do, we've been taught; good guys defend the defenseless, even at the cost of their lives. But really, Cromwell and the others have no one to blame here but themselves. They created these monsters, and then they tried to cast the monsters aside, and that never works out well. Picard's role on the planet was to see if they were ready to enter the Federation. He informs them that, given their attitude towards Roga and the rest, they still have a ways to go, and assures them that once they find a way to resolve the situation, the rest of the galaxy would love to return their call. I fully expected that Cromwell would win in the end here, because short of joining the rebellion (which I couldn't imagine Picard doing, given his commitment to upholding the law), I couldn't see a way that would force the Angosian people to take care of their mistakes. That "Hunted" finds a solution to the problem that doesn't rely on cheating or giving us the obvious tragedy, is laudable. That the solution also manages to bring the action back home to Picard is flat out brilliant. The fact that it makes you feel like cheering isn't bad, either.
- "In your own words, this is not our affair." God, the willpower it must've taken not to snicker after that line.
"The High Ground"
Or The Once Which Was Banned In The UK
I have this British friend. (Hi, Dave!) I was talking with him on Skype over the weekend, and he's been keeping up with my TNG reviews, god only knows why. (Maybe Brits have a higher tolerance for typos and obscure references. I'm like the Monty Python of criticism over there.) He told me, "Oh, so one of the ones you're doing next week, it actually didn't air over here when I was a wee lad." (Dave speaks Brit, which really classes up the place.) And I was like, which one? And he was like, the one about the terrorists. And I was like, whoa.
So, not doubting my friend's word but realizing this was the Internet and any mistake I might make would kill at least a thousand adorable puppys, I looked "The High Ground" up on Wikipedia and there it was, plain as day: because it presents terrorism in a not entirely negative light, and because Data mentions "the reunification of Ireland in 2024," the episode didn't air along with the rest of season three in the UK. Figuring I might as well do some really thorough research, because this review was going to be late no matter what and you guys deserve that extra mile, I went back to my Google search and hit the link to the Memory Alpha entry on the episode. Not only did it confirm what my friend and Wikipedia had already told me, it also quoted some writers on the show (including the person who's name is on the episode, Melinda Snodgrass) as not really caring much for how the ep turned out. I didn't despise this one as I watched it, but it's definitely nowhere near the same level as "The Hunted," and that's a problem. It's a problem because, hey, we want our TV to be good TV, but it's even more a problem because when you're dealing with a subject this tricky and complex, you really need to bring your A game. "High Ground" is B-/C+ game, at best.
Welcome to Rutia IV. It's not a bad place, really, not yet a member of the Federation (weird how these two episodes seem to bookend each other), but still friendly enough for trade relations. "Ground" opens with Enterprise already in orbit around the planet, delivering medical supplies. See, friendly and generically futuristic thought it may look, Rutia has some problems; not everyone here is happy. A group of separatists is demanding to be allowed autonomy from the ruling power, and when the ruling power refuses to acknowledge them, the separatists have turned to bombing and assault. They're terrorists, now, and as Beverly sits sipping coffee in an outdoor cafe, a nearby building explodes. The good doctor rushes to provide aid to the fallen, despite Picard's orders to return to the ship, and while her moral fortitude is impressive, her common sense isn't. Quick as it takes a terrorist sympathizer to see what she's doing and report back, a bad guy (or… is he?) teleports in, grabs Bev, and then teleports her away. The separatists have a hostage now, and we have ourselves a storyline.
Might as well get this out of the way first: I don't like hostage stories. I get why they come up as often as they do—it's a dramatic situation that's easy to convey, and it's also a plot hook with a very clear beginning, middle, and end. The character relationships are immediately established, and the set-up is a suspense generating machine. Except, really, it isn't, especially when you have a major character in an on-going series involved. There's never any danger that Beverly will be killed, and while that's to be expected (have we lost a major character since Tasha? Will we ever?), without even a pretend danger, we're left with a series of hoops we have to jump through before we can see anything resolved. Beverly will be rude to her captors, then the captor will slowly win her over to his side, and then Beverly will have some sort of moral dilemma, and eventually somebody from the Enterprise will show up and throw that dilemma into crisis. I just find this structure boring, because it's been done so many times, and because the strength of the situation—the way it's basically a pre-fab arc, with all the beats laid down before the writer even has to put pen to paper—is also its greatest weakness. It's like watching a new version of A Christmas Carol. You have to work overtime to make me care.
"Ground" is competent enough to avoid a place among the dregs of the first and second seasons. Let's not lose all perspective here; it's overly talky, and the debate at its core never rises above platitude-level, but everyone here is competent enough that we can get through everything without embarrassing ourselves. The final assault on the terrorist compound is reasonably exciting, and I did like the magical "dimensional teleportation device" the terrorists use to get from place to place. You had to have some way of preventing the Enterprise from simply tracking down the sort-of bad guys and taking them down, and inventing a weird work-around that's also slowly killing anyone who uses it is some pretty decent sci-fi jerry-rigging.
But this is a problematic episode, to be sure. The hostage situation is just a part of that. Beverly is supposed to be slowly won over by Kyril Finn (subtle, guys), the leader of the terrorists who speaks of killing, dresses like Lionel Richie, and draws like the comic in that Aha video. Whenever you get this kind of storyline, either the kidnapper is a psychotic, or else he's sympathetic enough to earn some trust from his captors. In order for this episode to have any ideological impact at all, Finn has to be the latter kind of kidnapper, but while he's not raving or anything, he's not exactly sane, either. The episode does an all right job in making sure we understand that Beverly is conflicted between what she's seeing and what she knows; my problem is, after hearing Finn's explanations and speeches, I don't really get why we're supposed to be on his side. It's clear he's willing to sacrifice everything for his cause, and it's clear he cares about his people, but there's no sense of why he thinks their struggle is so necessary. From what we see of Rutia IV, it doesn't look like that unpleasant a place—why the big objection to being part of it?
Maybe I'm being naive, or maybe I'm just betraying my natural tendency for group hugs, but in order for the debate at the heart of "Ground" to have any meaning, both sides need to have positions the audience can sympathize with. I don't see that here. Despite the various conversations about the effectiveness of terrorism, Finn himself comes across less as a good man driven to evil by an impossible situation, and more as an egotistical bastard who was just charismatic enough to convince a lot of other idiots to join him in the pointless destruction. On the other side of the coin, Alexana Devos, the Rutian police chief that Riker befriends, seems driven to extremes but still inherently decent. There's a lot of lofty debate about justified violence, but what this really boils down to is that a bad guy kidnaps somebody we like, and is eventually punished for it. We don't get to know anybody in Finn's camp beyond Finn (nor do we get to know anyone in Rutia beyond Devos), apart from Beverly's brief conversation with a boy; and that conversation is used for cheap drama at the end, when the same boy points a gun at Riker.
Whatever side of the line you fall on here, this is all a lot of heated talk that starts exciting (and I do give the episode some props for being willing to engage in this kind of discussion at all; for all our talk of freedom of speech, there's a curious vocal paralysis that falls over Americans when it comes to debating this sort of thing honestly. We're content to simply mouth the expected lines and move on, because it's dangerous to have real conversations, isn't it? Some sentences come with their own blast radii) but eventually collapses because it's all largely irrelevant to the plot. Unlike "The Hunted," no one in the main cast here is ever forced to make to a decision based on what they learn. Sure, Beverly has some sympathy towards Finn by the end, but who cares? It's not like she's ever going to betray Picard. (Really, the closest thing to emotional honesty in the episode probably comes from her nearly confessing her feelings for him.) We have connections to real life issues, and it's a little shocking (especially these days) to hear any heroic characters coming as close as these do to admitting that terrorism might not always be ineffective, but those connections never pay-off as they should. Instead, we just get a lot of very serious speeches about very serious issues, and occasional phaser fire.
Stripping away the politics, "Ground" has some exciting scenes. The terrorists assault on the Enterprise is well-done, giving a good example of just how much disruption such a group could cause if it was able to circumvent the ship's basic defensives. It also gives Geordi a chance to do some quick thinking and save the day. The science of the dimensional jumping is good enough idea that I kind of hope it comes up again (it's always good to have an established way to get around the Enterprise's high tech tracking systems), and I liked watching Wesley, Data, and Geordi working together again, however briefly. And hey, Finn's strategy—by kidnapping Beverly, he's forcing the Federation to acknowledge his cause—isn't terrible, and I like how our heroes are implicated by the lie of their apparent neutrality.
Really, though, I have to agree with the critics: this was a weighty topic handled in a sterile and unconvincing fashion. "Ground" did eventually air in the UK, and of course my friend has seen it by now, but I feel like the censorship actually makes the episode sound more compelling than it really is. When the end message is just, "We'd be better off if kids didn't pick up guns," it's hard to be too offended, but it's also hard to care.
- "History has shown us that strength may be useless when faced with terrorism." …it has?
- "You should be drawing, not killing people." "I can do both." Well, maybe not at the same time, but sure.
- "You know what scares me the most, Finn? It scares me that you might win this fight and gain real power." And yet, when Picard arrives, Beverly tries to find some way to help Finn. I'm not sure that makes sense in a way that makes sense.
- When Finn beams onto the bridge, Picard immediately decks him. It's pretty sweet.
- Awfully convenient power outage, huh?
- Up next week, it's "Deja Q" and "A Matter Of Perspective"