Or The One Where Troi Loses Her Shit
You know what? I don't think a therapist who could physically sense your emotional state would be all that useful. Therapy is a relationship based on trust, and one of the ways that trust is established (the primary way, I'd argue) is through an exchange of information. That exchange is somewhat one-sided; the counselor may share certain experiences from their own life if they feel its relevant to the discussion, but the sessions are focused on you and the problems you're dealing with. But it's still a dialogue in which the two of you working together establish boundaries, and then work to move those boundaries as necessary. Troi essentially shortcuts this process. Her Betazoid empathy allows her to get past all manner of subterfuge and stalling, and while that seems like it would be useful for her, I'm not sure it's that helpful to her patients. Instead of breaking down their own barriers, she just takes a peek and tells them what she sees. You can't write a very good paper on Ulysses if all you ever read is the last five pages. ("There aren't any periods or paragraphs, but the narrator seems pleasant enough. Maybe she's drunk?")
This isn't to say that a good therapist couldn't use Troi's abilities to focus their efforts and help them figure out potential suicide risks, but, well, Troi isn't what I'd call a good therapist. She's nosy, forceful, and generally useless, and while it's certainly possible that someone that grew up with her gifts wouldn't develop the more difficult ways of understanding others, there's no sense that the writers have really been willing to acknowledge that up until now. She's an amazing ship's counselor, we're told, because she's on the Enterprise, and because everyone else around her keeps saying she's amazing. And yet, so far as I can tell, she's about average when it comes to dealing with people, no more tactful or insightful than anyone else. Sometimes even less so. I keep thinking about her session with Barclay, when she invaded the personal space of a man who was deeply infatuated with her, without any notion as to how this might make him less comfortable or able to speak.
Ostensibly, "The Loss" is an attempt to deal with this problem head on, by forcing Troi to endure what must be one of her worst fears: losing her empathy. It's not a bad premise (some of my favorite episodes of classic Trek revolved around screwing with Spock's logical detachment; it's not quite the same thing, but both concepts are built from a classic dramatic concept, pushing a character outside of their comfort zone), and Troi desperately needs something to do at this point. By now, nearly every major character has had a chance to deepen and establish themselves as more than just a bland caricature, but the women on TNG remain under-done, more there because, well, it couldn't be a ship of all guys, right? Beverly is basically just a blur of non-threatening femininity, but at least she got her chance to shine in "Remember Me." Mostly, Troi just hangs around to point out the obvious and, if there's stuff with feelings involved, get up in everybody's business. She needs something to make her more than just a G-rated sex symbol.
It doesn't really work, though. While travelling on its merry way through the vast reaches of the unknown, the Enterprise comes across a cluster of, well, space thingies, and for some reason, their encounter with the cluster coincides with Troi suffering a bad headache, an onset of dizziness, and most importantly, a blackout of her psychic knack. So far, so good, even if it does seem like half the time the counselor spends on the Enterprise, she spends getting assaulted by some anonymous inter-stellar force. (Sorry, I'm experiencing sudden "The Child" flashbacks.) Troi is obviously upset about what happened to her. She repeatedly compares the experience to blindness, which is a decent way to help us in the audience relate to what's happening to her. She starts yelling at people. And that's where it gets tricky.
I love the concept here, although it presents certain difficulties even before you get to the Pale Purple Peril herself. TNG episodes tend to be self-contained. There are exceptions, yes: two-parters, and intermittent continuity references, which provide a fascinating example of how television was learning to develop long-form narratives while still maintaining episodic arcs. But these things are notable because they exist somewhat in isolation. In general, when the crew of the Enterprise encounters a problem, that problem will be resolved before next week's installment; and more importantly for this discussion, any emotional ramifications that problem might cause will be cleared away as well. Hey, remember how the love of Worf's life was brutally murdered in "Reunion"? And he has a son now? He gets a few lines in "The Loss" and "Data's Day," and this never comes up.
That isn't really a problem. It's not like we need to have everyone constantly referring to past traumas, and hell, Worf has always been a private guy. (Besides, the less we hear about Alexander, the happier we'll be.) But there's a curious sense of emotional reset here that shows the uneasy compromise between the essentially continuity-free TOS, and the serialized storytelling we've come to expect these days in our dramas. Picard's sojourn with the Borg created sufficient mental anguish in him to require a whole extra episode to process the experience, but this is rare. All of which is a roundabout way of explaining why Troi's suffering in "The Loss" is essentially inconsequential even before it really begins. We know it's not permanent, because this isn't the kind of show that does permanent; and we know it'll all be over before it really has much impact.
Again, this could work fine. Not all nods to continuity need to be overt; some events have on-going impact without ever being explicitly acknowledged, simply because we know they happened, and that colors our perception of characters from that moment on. (Which is one of the reasons why, once a character portrayal goes south, it's nearly impossible to recover.) But "The Loss" requires us to feel both appalled at Troi's behavior and sympathetic at the anguish she's experiencing, and it's so much better at the former that the latter is nearly impossible. Her jump from "Oh my god!" to "Screw you for your kindness" is nearly instantaneous, and there's not a strong enough base for her character for you to have a rooting interest in her regaining her self-esteem. We know she'll have her powers back by the end, but it should be a Magic Feather moment. There should be a sense that the power was in Troi all along, psychic peeping or no. Instead, the lie has been exposed; without her feather, she can't fly.
Basically, instead of solving the Troi Problem, "The Loss" makes it more acute. In arguably the episode's most effective scene, Riker tells his former lover that she probably deserved to get taken down a peg, that he's glad they're finally on more equal footing. It's a speech that will most likely inspire nods in the audience, but the underlying subtext is uncomfortable. If this was a show with stronger female characters, where women weren't routinely relegated to maternal roles, made into shrill harridans, or killed off to inspire their lovers to action, Riker and Troi's confrontation would be about what it should be about: them and no one else. As is, it's mostly about that, but you can't help thinking it's also about a woman being put in her place.
Whether or not you agree with that interpretation, this still isn't a very strong episode. The cluster of space thingies, their two-dimensional nature, the ship getting pulled towards a cosmic string … that's not bad sci-fi stuff. But the episode lives and dies on Troi's shaky shoulders, and there's not enough of her there to carry the weight. In the end, she gratefully tells her friends, "I've never really appreciated how difficult and rewarding it is to be human." This is a lie, one that the show is trying to sell as hard as Troi is, and neither is up to the task.
- I've been watching too much Trek. I saw a new ensign on the bridge with a large forehead, and I immediately assumed she was an alien.
- All right, Guinan needs to go away now.
Or The One Where O'Brien Gets Married
I guess this week's theme is "episodes that could've been great and really aren't." Because on paper, the idea of a Data-centric episode, one that follows him around his daily activities on the Enterprise, sounds terrific. TNG has a fairly consistent structural format. This format is loose enough that it rarely feels tired (certain plot developments get old, but not how the stories themselves are built), but it's there. The ship is going somewhere, a crisis occurs; generally, this crisis requires more from certain crewmembers than from others, but sometimes, the whole ensemble gets pulled in. We spend the hour trying to figure out the problem, various solutions are proposed, and then, finally, one of them works. Important life lessons may or may not be learned.
There's nothing particularly special about this. It's the way a lot of TV works, and unless you're doing a character drama or investing in more heavily serialized storytelling, this is basically the best engine for running a show. (Think of it as the Unreal of television.) That doesn't mean that we can't think outside the box from time to time. Off-format episodes have tremendous potential, because they force us to watch a series, and its familiar, soothing rhythms, in a new way. It helps strengthen the reality of the world, by shining a light into corners not generally explored, and it allows writers to comment on our expectations without breaking the fourth wall. Plus, there's a playfulness to a lot of these, even when the subject is dour. It's meta without the deconstruction. And it's fun. Who doesn't like fun?
I guess I don't like fun, because "Data's Day" is, while still telling a traditional TNG plot, off-format, and I didn't care for it. We see here some of TNG's worst crimes: its pastel emotional palette, the way it reduces men and women to childish caricatures, and its willingness to rely on stereotypes to get its point across. Data, who's gone from being a simplistic Pinocchio figure to something far more complex and unique, is once again forced back into the role of perpetually bewildered observer. We don't learn anything new about him we didn't know before this; we don't really learn anything about anyone. Oh, O'Brien is marrying a woman named Keiko. Also, a Vulcan ambassador turns out to be a Romulan spy in disguise. Also, also, Beverly can tap dance.
There's nothing as actively off-putting in "Day" as there was in "The Loss"; the episode isn't trying to invest new dimensions into a under-developed character or trying to justify Data in some way. Along with Picard, Data is one of the only characters on the show who's been strong nearly from the start, and he's just gotten stronger over time. "Day" even references one of Data's key episodes, "The Measure Of A Man." The android is writing down his experiences over the course of a singular 24 hour period to help Bruce Maddox (the guy who initially wanted to dismantle Data so they could figure out how to build more of him) better understand how his brain works. If you guessed this means endless repetitions of "Data is baffled by the illogic of basic human behavior," go buy yourself a Coke.
This all starts off well enough. We rarely get a sense of how scheduling works on the Enterprise; since everything is artificial, the "night" period has to be simulated by dimming lights. It's a small detail, but it fits, and it also fits that Data would be tasked with running the bridge crew during the early morning hours, given that he doesn't need to sleep. Then Data explains, via narration, that he's playing father-of-the-bride for O'Brien and Keiko's wedding, and he pays a visit to Keiko to see how she's holding up before her big day. She's not well at all, and demands that Data tell O'Brien that the wedding is off.
Sigh. Let's unpack this, shall we? We've never seen Keiko before, but that's all right. O'Brien is someone we know, but we don't spend a lot of time with him off-duty, and it's not that weird that he might've found a girlfriend and gotten engaged while no one was looking. Thing is, since this is the first time we're meeting Keiko, our impression is going to be based on her immediate actions, and, well, she doesn't make a whole lot of sense. She's decided she wants to call off the wedding, but she doesn't give any specific reason for doing so; she seems upset, but not distraught. The fact that she asks Data to tell her husband-to-be that she's having cold feet just serves to make her seem selfish, flighty, and barely substantial. This is all supposed to fall under heading of "Women, they so crazy!", and it doesn't work. Later in the episode, she suddenly decides that she'll go through with the marriage after all, and there's no sense to any of it. Data's confusion about emotional responses only works if the emotional responses are ones that make sense to us; part of the enjoyment of seeing him puzzle through things is realizing how absurd most of what we feel really is, and there's no fun in randomness being identified as randomness. Of course Data couldn't follow what happens. No one could.
The other main plot of the episode fares better. The Enterprise is doing an escort mission for a Vulcan ambassador, but she requests a change in course that takes them toward the Neutral Zone. She claims to be initiating negotiations with the Romulans, but it's all a ruse; once the Enterprise meets the Romulan ship, the ambassador beams over, faking her death in the process. This is b-grade political stuff (it could've been stronger if we know more about the ambassador), but it works well enough because it holds together, and because we're only privy to what Data knows, so we have to piece together the details as we go. Data's investigation into the ambassador's death gives him a chance to trot out the expected Sherlock Holmes reference, and the reveal that the ambassador was not who she appeared to be fits the facts. It's a bit of a stretch that all of this could happen in the course of one day, though.
Apart from Keiko's baffling behavior, "Day" is disappointing less for what it is, than for what it could have been. There's no effort here, no clever insights, nothing but supposedly crowd-pleasing pablum. The sappiness grates, and the comedy bits, like Data's dancing lesson with Beverly, fall consistently flat. We get an overdose of Data explaining irony, and we get Data not being able to smile properly. Frankly, I have a hard time believing either of these. The android's character arc is a slow progression toward developing a soul, and if we don't get the sense that's he's learned anything from the countless jokes he's heard before, than he becomes static. We don't need regular check-ins with Data to prove he's doing his homework, but those episodes that do focus on him need to show him capable of change. Nothing that happens in "Data's Day" couldn't have happened two seasons ago. That's a shame. That it's boring, too, makes the shame damn near a crime.
- Hey, check out Riker making time with the cute redhead on the bridge. A hero to us all, truly.
- I'm too lazy to check, but I think Picard's speech at the wedding is the same as Kirk's wedding speech in TOS.
- "I could be chasing an untamed ornithoid without cause."
Next week: We check in on "The Wounded" and find out just how much the "Devil's Due."