Or The One Where Alien Jesus Helps Geordi Get Laid
It always bugs me on TV shows when cute girls are really obvious about liking a guy, and the guy doesn't catch on. I mean, sure, I'll buy it if the guy is a creep, or if he's not interested, or if he's so paralyzingly shy that any interaction is beyond him. But when the guy like the girl back, and is just too insecure to make his move … I dunno. I've been insecure most of my life, like any sensible person would be (I mean, have you seen yourself naked? What the hell is going on there?), but if somebody I had a crush on kept going out of her way to talk to me and smile at me and leave me gigantic openings in the conversation for me to make my move, I would at least acknowledge the opportunity existed, even if I was too much of a wuss to take it. "Transfigurations" opens with Geordi whining to Worf about his romantic problems (note to TNG: if you've gotta keep coming back to Geordi not getting laid, I approve of including Worf in the conversation), and the object of his affections is so painfully interested it's hard to feel any sympathy for Geordi at all. Suck it up, man. Worst she can do is laugh.
Although technically, Christy already rejected Geordi way back in "The Booby Trap," so maybe he's just worried she's been taken over by aliens or something. I'm not sure what's changed in Geordi between those two episodes (maybe he's been working out?), but whatever it is, Christy likes it. It's just our poor blind Chief Engineer can't spot the signs, and not even Worf's helpful advice can reach him. Then the Enterprise gets a distress signal while charted a previously unexplored region of space, and they find a shuttle crashed on an unknown planet, a seriously wounded alien on the ground beside it. Dr. Crusher connects Geordi's brains to the alien's to help regulate the severely wounded stranger's vitals, and in the exchange, somehow Geordi gets a piece of something that gives him a boost of self-confidence. He starts making out with Christy in the turbo-lift. But just who is this alien? What is it he does? And is it possible to bottle up his mojo and sell it as some kind of over-priced body spray for men?
Judging by the title of the episode and by the effect the alien (who doesn't ever get a real name in the episode; they just call him "John Doe," and I will follow their lead) has on Geordi, I assumed that sudden surge of bravado was going to turn sour soon enough. That's how these stories play out, generally: The geek finds some magical shortcut to coolness, they get to enjoy the shortcut for a few days, and then they sprout fangs and murder everyone. Or else there's pig's blood at the prom or the magic box has to go back to the shop because the switch is stuck on "Stabbing." (If you're trying to figure out what movies I'm referring to, don't kill yourself; only one of those is actually real.) Characters very rarely get exactly what they most desperately need without having to pay a very steep price, and it seemed reasonable to assume that Geordi's brief trip to Real Live Boy Land wouldn't last out the hour. I expected the confidence would turn sour and he'd get violent. That seems to happen a lot.
That's not what happened here, though. "Transfigurations" is a largely conflict free episode—there are arguments, and one major character even gets killed, but he doesn't stay dead very long. (It's Worf. As always, his job on the ship is show how dangerous the danger is by getting his ass kicked. In this episode, he's defeated by a wave of yellow light; next episode, a forcefield takes him out. Stay strong, my Klingon brother!) John Doe isn't a threat, although he puts the Enterprise in a couple of tight spots. He heals very quickly, which is vaguely suspicious, but he's also quite nice, and Beverly is quickly taken with him. (Which once again raises the question: How the hell would you ever get romantically involved with a member of another species? Just because they're all vaguely humanoid doesn't mean the genitalia matches up; we've seen the faces, it boggles the mind what might be going on below the waist. If below the waist is even a place where things go on for Doe's people. Ah well. Beverly's a doctor. I'm sure she knows more about all this than I do.)
John also makes a habit of healing people on the Enterprise, first inadvertently with Geordi, then fixing O'Brian's dislocated shoulder. (Sorry for another parenthetical, but: O'Brian injures himself on the holodeck. He's kayaking, so it's not like he was attacked, unless he kayaks with bears, but—what about the safety protocols? Surely the system would be designed to prevent any but the most minor injuries. Because if you have a program that can dislocate your shoulder, however accidentally, you have a program that can kill. Join us next week for our latest installment in Why The Holodeck Don't Make No Damn Sense.) Later, of course, he brings Worf back to life after inadvertently breaking his neck. It's emblematic of the short-sightedness of this episode that Geordi's cure, the first one we see, is also the one with the weirdest implications that nobody ever recognizes. There's a big difference between curing a physical ailment and boosting someone's self-esteem, and while the positive effect John has on everyone around him is probably connected to Geordi's good vibes, there's something strange about treating insecurity like a wound. Does this mean that Geordi's passed some personal threshold, or is he just on an adrenaline high that won't last him past third base?
Not that "Transfigurations" is really about any of this. We're more concerned here with John's ascension into godhood or whatever. This is the sort of episode that starts off fairly interesting, gets a little more interesting as it goes, and then just falls apart once it actually has to start answering the questions it's raised. It's all terribly symbolic and reads a little like somebody's a big fan of his X-Men comic books: John is one of the last survivors of a race that's been systematically destroyed because his race is reaching a new level in evolution, and that scares people. It scares them real bad because eek, change! And newness! There's a confrontation with one of the bad guys who does all the killing, the bad guys use their mind power to choke everybody on the Enterprise, and then John saves them, and turns into one of the aliens from Cocoon. It's pretty stupid. TNG works best when it's specific in its stories; it can do more archetypal fare (like, say, "The Survivors," in which we're less interested in the mechanics of how everything works than we are in the tragedy of it), but too often, these kinds of vaguely symbolic plots come off as weak and reductive. That's the case here. There's a reason I spent most of this review talking about the edges of "Transfigurations" rather than dealing with its main arc head-on. It's because there's not much to say about another episode in which our heroes are largely passive and in which everything gets tied up in a neat little bow by the end.
- I would watch a show of Worf giving dating advice. Hell, I'd watch a full series.
- "I'm going to hook up your nervous systems with this tricorder." Um, no?
- Late in the episode, there's a shot of everyone on the bridge, and it shocked me to see Troi in her usual spot. I'd completely forgotten about her. Given that John suffers from amnesia for much of the episode, wouldn't it have made sense to consult with her earlier?
- Oh, hey, there's Wesley.
"The Best Of Both Worlds, Part 1"
Or The One Where We Meet Locutus Of The Borg
I've probably mentioned this before, but I write fiction. It's my first love, writing-wise, and one of my favorite aspects of it is the satisfaction I get from fitting the pieces together of a really excellent climax. See, the thing about writing characters is that if you want them to seem real, you can only have them doing things that that sort of person could be expected to do. If your hero is a doctor, it's not a stretch that he'll see a patient or two or that he'll drive a car around or talk to people or maybe even have a drug addiction or be a werewolf. These are varying degrees of possible, but none of them inherently violate who that character is—we accept fantastical elements in stories, but what we don't accept is when characters behave in ways that violate their nature simply to facilitate plot. So if we spend a whole story hearing about how great this doctor is, and then he intentionally murders a toddler, and we're still supposed to believe he's great, only now he's really, really upset about that dead toddler, well, we're not going to buy that.
Or for a better example … I'm about to spoil the hell out of the ending of The Mist, so if you haven't seen it yet (and you should, as it's one of the best horror movies to come out in the past decade or so), better skip to the next paragraph. At the end of the movie, Thomas Jane, distraught over the loss of his wife and the apparent destruction of his entire world, shoots his companions, including his own son, to save them from a more horrible death at the hands of whatever monster lurks around the next turn. He then walks around for maybe three minutes, screaming for something to kill him next, because he's all out of bullets. Then the mist clears away, and the military rolls by, carting survivors from the town he just left, the world restored to some relative version of sanity. None of the individual pieces of this ending are unworkable. Given all the ugliness that happens over the course of the movie, it's possible to accept that he and the others might be driven to group suicide. The arrival of the army, the sudden reveal that everything's okay after all (except for poor Jane, who probably sucks a shotgun 30 seconds after the scene fades to black), that's not inherently bad either. The problem is the abrupt conjunction of the two and the way it forces us to re-examine the shootings in the car. In order for this ending to work, we need to believe the trap that Jane and the others are in almost as much as they do. Given the rush of the rest of the film, we're in the moment when it happens, but by having the rescue arrive less than 5 minutes after the deaths, the scene becomes less about Jane's awful mistake and the way fear corrupts our judgment, and more about how obvious the strings are. Whether or not the characters in that moment would've believed they were trapped, we no longer believe they were, and it becomes nearly impossible to empathize with their choice. Instead of walking away shell-shocked, I kept making jokes about how the next time I shot my son in the face, I'd wait 5 minutes first.
The point of all of this is that plotting means the creation of a succession of plausible events. The greater the stakes of an event, the greater a violation of a character's internal code it requires, the more thoroughly the trap must be set. By the end of "The Best Of Both Worlds, Part 1," Riker orders the Enterprise to fire and theoretically destroy a Borg ship. That's not much of a stretch—except the Borg ship has Picard. A good portion of this episode is devoted to getting us to a point where we'd be willing to believe that Riker would knowingly give an order that would kill his captain. Sure, Picard has been Borg-ified by now, but Beverly insists she could still save him. Doesn't matter. Riker speaks his final line in the episode without any hesitation whatsoever, and what's even more amazing is that we don't doubt his conviction for a second.
"Worlds" isn't complete in and of itself, but it makes a terrific way to close out the third season, and as TNG's first attempt at a finale cliffhanger ending, it's deservedly iconic. Ask anybody what they most remember about this series, and I'm betting 7 or 8 times out of 10 (presuming you can ask that many strangers before they kick you out of the mall), that most will mention this episode. Not the only episode, mind you, just that final, awful scene: most of the cast on the bridge, aggressive newcomer Cmdr. Lt. Shelby insisting that Riker contact Starfleet for advice, and Riker having none of it. Then Picard's robo-zombie gaze filling the view-screen to inform them that hope is dead, meet the new boss. And, of course, Riker's response. This is not a show that's given to taking major risks with its cast. Tasha Yar is the only main character to die, and that was way back in the first season, before we really cared that much about any of these people. To suddenly throw the show's most important character into the cybernetic meat grinder, and to do so in such a way as to imply that he could very well be gone for good? That's heady stuff.
I don't think I watched "Worlds" when it originally aired, so I have no idea if people actually believed Picard was lost. I kind of doubt they did, given Beverly's comments, and seeing as how we never actually see Worf firing the Magic Bullet that will supposedly take out the Borg cube; most cliffhangers don't resolve by just giving us the most obvious next step. But this was back before everyone knew about actor's contracts, before every casting development hit the Internet before the ink was dry. Plus, the episode is structured in such a way as to strongly indicate that Picard is on his way out. Nobody ever suggests it, but there's a lot of talk about Riker getting a promotion, about how he needs to move on and take command of his own ship, and about how his time on the Enterprise, as much as it means to him, may have robbed him of something in himself he once valued a great deal. Moxie, I guess, or boldness. This is all partly to help us understand his determination in that final order and maybe suspect he might be trying to prove that he hasn't entirely lost his spine, but it also works to suggest a future for the series in which Riker is seated in the captain's chair, with Shelby slotted into the Number One spot.
Really, this is more Riker's episode than it is Picard's, which is one of those sideways choices that seems counter-intuitive but actually works to the show's advantage. Much of the running time is given over to Riker debating what he should do next, and sparring with Shelby over her mildly aggressive manner (which of course reminds everybody of how Riker himself used to be). The investigation into the recent Borg attack is suitably chilling, but the threat remains in the background for the first half; there are poker games to attend, after all. So it's wonderfully effective when the Borg cube makes its first appearance. The Enterprise is en route to the cube's last place of attack when they're ambushed mid-trip by that old classic, an unidentified vessel. Ten seconds later, there it is in the view screen, all bulky and hideous. I don't often get unnerved by TNG episodes—it's hardly ever a truly scary show—but that reveal gave me chills. For a long time, the Borg were the threat to beat in the Trek-verse, and while countless iterations have diminished the threat (as is understandable since you can't have an unbeatable foe bent on destroying you and your civilization hang around forever), at this point in the franchise, they were still, so far as we knew, unstoppable. And for some reason, they were gunning for Picard.
And it's not just the Enterprise; they specifically want Jean-Luc Picard because the Enterprise is the strongest ship in the fleet and he is its captain. Which is one of those compliments that I never know quite how to take, honestly. Picard does get a few nice scenes before the Borg finally grab him—his conversation with Guinan is great, as she essentially tries to console him by explaining, "Well, most everyone in your race will be killed, but a few will get away, so that's cool, right?"—but the show does a great trick of giving us a passing-of-the-torch style episode without ever openly admitting that's what's going on. I highly doubt there was any intention to do away with Patrick Stewart; you don't get rid of the best actor on your show just when your show is actually becoming excellent. (That is, unless Stewart was holding out for more money, in which case this would have to be the best episode-inspired-by-contract-negotiations ever.) Still, just seeing him with that zombie make-up, his voice flat, merciless, dead … Whatever logic tells you, there's a part of the mind that believes he's gone, same as it believes the shadows behind the closet door have teeth. Hell, I know he'll be fine, and I'm still a little concerned.
I should probably point out the trap I was going on about earlier. It comes down to this: The Enterprise is chasing the Borg cube, which is headed for Earth. They need to slow the ship down long enough to use their big guns on it—a weapon that can only be used once, by the way, although that's basically true of every weapon when it comes to the Borg—so an away team beams aboard the cube to find some way to force them to drop out of warp. They shoot some distribution nodes, which has the desired effect, and they find Picard's empty uniform, which freaks everybody out. Back on the Enterprise, everything's set for the magic bullet weapon, except when the away team beams back, they tell Riker that Picard is still alive, only he's been turned. Shelby begs for a chance to go back to get him, but the problem is, the Borg cube is already regenerating the damaged components. It'll be back at top warp speed momentarily, and the Enterprise engines have been so drained by the chase that they won't be able to retake the ship. And they can't just go back and destroy some more nodes, because the Borg will be prepared. This is the only chance to stop the cube before it reaches Earth.
So Riker makes his choice, and, at least for now, sacrifices Picard. It's really very elegantly done, and all of it is built on information we already know about the threat and the characters. We know the Borg adapt quickly and that they represent a nearly insurmountable threat, and we know that the crew of the Enterprise is trained to keep going about their duties even after losing one of their own. I love cliffhangers, because I love how they feel—like someone pausing in the middle of a sentence, staring at you, grinning, driving you out of your mind. ("SAY IT!") The resolutions are nearly always disappointing, so I'll be curious to see how this one plays out. (Other than the fact that Picard goes back to being human soon enough, I honestly don't know what comes next.) So let's just savor the moment, shall we? We—and the show—have earned it.
- I really, really wish the "Data takes adages literally" would die. I understand that he doesn't do metaphors very well, but given the amount of memory he has and the information about humans he's acquired during his lifetime, surely he would've heard "The early bird catches the worm" before?
- All right, change of plans—because YOU DEMANDED IT, on Thursday, I'll be doing a season three wrap-up, and then moving on to "Best Of Both Worlds, Part 2."