ST:TNG in 2018 : Season 7 (Part 1)

phoneAttention all decks. This is the final season. I get contradicting readings from different articles I read, but it appears that: As soon as The Next Generation started being quite successful (already in season 1?), all the actors were contracted all the way to season 6. Contracts were negotiated for season 7 and 8, but on the one hand costs were growing and growing for everyone involved, and Paramount was anxious to launch the Star Trek TNG movie franchise which it considered would have a higher return on investment, while DS9 was already underway. So season 8 was scrapped — apparently to the surprise of the actors! — and plans to do the movies were accelerated — to the dismay of the writers, who were dealing with TNG s7 and DS9 s2 and at the same time had to develop Generations and Voyager, both to be launched immediately after TNG wrapped! Season 7 is, according to everyone involved, a weak season. There are hits and misses (and I haven’t seen the real misses, so let’s say there are more misses than hits), at times you can feel there is less budget available despite still a good photography, and in general it looks as if not many people complained it ended when it did. There is a sense that the writers want to give closure to some character arcs, and those arcs were rather loose; at times it feels as if they are opening new chapters instead of closing them. Still, the hits are really great!

So let’s look at some season 7 (1993-1994) episodes:


 

“Descent, Part II”: Meh

Picking up from Part 1: There were some interesting parts here, with the effects of Picard’s decision to return Hugh to the Borg (I, Borg): the Borg became confused with individuality, the Collective broke down, and when Lore came the individual Borg were willing to trade their freedom with a newly found sense of purpose. And so Lore created his cult, where the Borg are again brainwashed, it’s just that they are brainwashed in a different way (Lore encourages a lost Borg to reconnect with the Collective…but inside their local Collective they also have individual names?). There are some interesting parallels with the way human group dynamics work, from religious cults to fascism.

There is also Hugh himself, who is not the leader, and his underground resistance. But if there is a Collective to which all Borg plug in, then how does Hugh’s resistance even exist? And ultimately, it seems that this group of Borg is not the whole Collective but just a faction that broke off after the Hugh incident: so even if the episode ends with Hugh at the head of a group of “free Borg“, the main part of the Borg Collective is still a menace out there. Picard’s decision was justified after all, at least in part.

I also liked the parts onboard the Enterprise, with acting Captain Crusher and a group of unknown Ensigns escaping the Borg by diving in the sun’s corona.

BUT there are many things wrong with this episode.

There’s so much backstory here that it is simply told to us in very long dialogue scenes. Not much seems to happen over the whole episode, it takes place in a single location. Interesting trivia: the Borg compound is actually the same place where Camp Khitomer was shot in Star Trek VI!

Data, for all his touching Pinocchio quest to be “a real boy”, is reduced here to a mere slave of his circuitry. Lore turns a knob up, he feels dizzy and behaves badly; Geordi emits some different waves, he feels different. There is little real development here, rather there is regression: we are reminded even more that he is nothing more than a machine.

Troi points out that there are no negative feelings or emotions, only negative actions; yet in this second part the concept of negative feelings is brought up again and again.

The Borg used to be this superhuman technological force that was completely alien. Here they are reduced to fist fighting among themselves, like in any random dumb brawl.

Lore plans to destroy the Federation (with no good reason) and his plan is to turn everyone into an artificial being, from human to cyborg to android. It would be much simpler to kill everyone and create artificial beings from scratch, no? This gives rise to Data experimenting on Geordi, who used to be his friend, which is interesting emotionally. In the end, Data is able to deactivate Lore, so that menace is done for good.

So I can’t say I liked this two-parter much. I think both Lore and the Borg offered better story possibilities than what we got.

Alumni-spotting:
One of the one-time faces we see on the Enterprise in this episode is a young Benito Martinez, who went on to become a major character in The Shield, David Aceveda!

 

“Interface”: Good

Geordi is plugged in a simulation suit and sees and feels what a remote probe senses, very Matrix-like and something they could use more I think. While exploring an endangered ship he sees there his mother, who has just gone missing and is believed by everyone else but him. Everyone questions Geordi’s account and his sanity but Geordi persists. It turns out that Geordi was not crazy: desperate mind-reader aliens were taking the form of his mother to convince him to help them. What I liked in particular was that, while Geordi did feel strongly about what he saw in the face of doubt, when he was indeed proven right he did not go about victoriously telling everyone about it, he just coolly continued carrying on and even put himself in danger so that the aliens could be saved. I was surprised that after all we didn’t get a clear confirmation of Geordi’s mother’s fate at the end, Star Trek rarely leaves things open like this, but the episode did give Geordi the chance to say his goodbye. A solid episode.

 

“Gambit”, Part I and II: Very good

In this two-parter, nothing is as it seems! Space pirates, Picard pretending to be an archeologist/artifacts smuggler (named Galen, after his beloved Professor from The Chase!), Riker pretending to be a Starfleet officer gone rogue, an undercover Vulcan who is an undercover-undercover Vulcan isolationist, a pirate captain worried that his crew is mounting a mutiny!… And then there’s all these undercover people trying to send a hidden message to Data hoping that he will figure it out. These episodes are like a poker game and figuring out who is bluffing! There’s even Data becoming Captain; he puts First Officer Worf in order when he complains in front of the crew, and does the “Picard maneuver”! I really enjoyed these episodes, they kept me intrigued throughout and many scenes with a lot of tension were excellently written, acted and edited.

The reason why all this is happening is ultimately revealed at the end of the second episode: a sort of psychic weapon that is effective only on people whose mind is not “at peace”. The “wave” of the weapon truly crosses Picard and leaves him unaffected because he is zen-like. This really is an idea straight out of TOS, it seems to me! Psychic things and teachings of peace are always around when we are talking about Vulcans, it is all very 1960s! What was more interesting in these episodes was the idea of a Vulcan isolationist movement, who would rather have Vulcan retire from all interstellar affairs and close in on itself in magnificent peaceful isolation.

TNG has given us episodes that are denser, even if I didn’t find the two parts excessively long. It’s possible that they could have said this story in a single episode, for instance by accelerating the beginning (Picard thought dead, Riker looking for him, undercover Picard is revealed only in the middle of the first episode; and did he really spend several weeks off-duty doing archeology before the start of this episode?). Overall, a good two-parter. They are not episodes with a deep message, they are a good fun adventure. There is little more to say about them.

The quote:
Troi: “He’s all right. He’s only stunned.”
Data: “I must admit, I am experiencing a similar sensation.”
Riker: “This is going to take a little time to explain. “

Alumni-spotting:
Robin Curtis, the Vulcan Tallera, was another well-known Vulcan before: she was Saavik in Star Trek III and IV!
Caitlin Brown (one of the pirates) had a recurring role in Babylon 5, as G’Kar’s attaché Na’Toth (unrecognizable under that make-up)!
Cameron Thor (another pirate) was Dodgson in Jurassic Park!

 

“Phantasms”: Excellent

Data has dreams and nightmares (in continuation with last season’s Birthright), and since he is an android a classic freudian interpretation (with holodeck! Freud himself) is not valid. There’s some weird stuff going on in his dreams, like a Troi made out of cake (with mint frosting!), an old style telephone inside Data’s chest (Android OS?) and early 20th century coal miners working on the warp drive… This is the most sexually explicit episode of TNG so far, it’s as if circumstances want to force Data fantasizing about Troi! There’s even a horror film vibe when Data stabs Troi (Psycho!). Is Data going mad?

It all turns out to be less robot psychology and more invisible alien bloodsuckers that only Data can feel. It’s all neatly explained at the end — too neatly perhaps, compared to the craziness that came earlier, but clear-cut answers is how Star Trek usually operates. A lot of humor, original weirdness, and scifi to top it off: this was an excellent episode! Also, written by Brannon Braga (Cause and Effect, Timescape) and directed by Patrick Stewart! (this is the season of the actors directing)

The quote:
Data (giving Spot to Worf): “He will need to be fed once a day. He prefers feline supplement number 25.”
Worf: “I understand.”
Data: “And he will require water. And you must provide him with a sandbox. And you must talk to him. Tell him he is a pretty cat. And a good cat.”
Worf: “I will feed him.”
Data: “Perhaps that will be enough.”

 

“Attached”: Good

This is the final season and it looks like the writers decided that it’s time to address remaining open issues and wrap things up. Namely here, the Picard and Crusher relationship. The problem is that the show and the entire episode build up to something and the last scene backs off as if it was still necessary, a few episodes before the finale, to return to the status quo.

Picard and Crusher are captured in a planet with two warring factions. They even get devices that slowly allow them to read each other’s thoughts (for no plot reason), which is either the most romantic idea possible or the most annoying thing possible! While they make their escape, Riker has to deal with the aliens: I absolutely enjoyed the caricatures they made of these aliens, how incredibly paranoid or uncommunicative they were, and naturally the end result is that none of them would be eligible for Federation membership. (Two people marching towards the border in a remote planet with a Cold War situation? I get feels of Ursula Le Guin‘s Left Hand of Darkness!)

This brings Picard to admit that he has had feelings for Crusher, that he purposefully set aside either because of her relationship with Wesley’s father or because his captainship of the Enterprise (in line with the outcome of his last relationship with the astrophysicist in the recent Lessons). It’s unlike The Picard to have lowly basic human needs like companionship, but Picard is not an ideal, he is still human! On the other side, we have seen at various points that it’s rather Beverly who has unstated feelings for Jean-Luc (e.g. all the way back to season 1’s The Arsenal of Freedom, or when they were captured in season 3’s The High Ground). So it’s surprising that at the end of the episode it’s Jean-Luc, not Beverly, that asks for this to go one step further, and it’s Beverly who pulls back, yet everything that came before would have us expecting that it would have been the opposite! At most, they could have both agreed to postpone this further as they seem to have done for years — they start the episode with one of their breakfasts together, which shows that already their relationship is close, comfortable, mature, without the need for it to be anything more. Like an old married couple! There’s buildup and then a return to the status quo as if there was a need to continue the status quo beyond the end of the series. This would have been fine if it was a step in a larger whole, but the end of the series is approaching fast.

What, is this series turning into a soap opera? I am not necessarily expecting romance everywhere, especially in Star Trek, but if it’s nicely written I am not allergic to it. The TNG writers don’t appear to be the best relationship writers (see here, or Second Chances), so I liked it that they kept this in the background throughout the series and still showed us a strong Captain and a strong Doctor. But here it’s an odd decision to spend the most exceptionally relationship-focused episode of the whole series on something that ultimately stalls progress. Either don’t progress and leave it in the background, or feature it and allow it to go forward. Still, the writing and acting is otherwise very good in this episode!

The quote:
Crusher: “I’m not sure whether we should go over this hill or that one. The topography on this map is a little vague.”
Picard: “Let me see. This way.”
Crusher: “You don’t really know, do you?”
Picard: “What?”
Crusher: “I mean, you’re acting like you know exactly which way to go, but you’re only guessing. Do you do this all the time?”
Picard: “No, but there are times when it is necessary for a captain to give the appearance of confidence.”

Alumni-spotting:
Robin Gammell (the paranoid alien) was Mike Atkins, the one who recruited Frank Black to the Group, in Millennium!
And it’s impossible not to mention this: this episode was written by Nick Sagan, yes, the son of The Amazing Carl Sagan!

 

“Inheritance”: Just OK

Another crew member meets his mom — this time Data. By a big coincidence, the Enterprise finds the ex-wife of Dr. Soong, Dr. Tainter, and she is very excited to reconnect with her son. But how, why? An avalanche of expository dialogue and revelations ensues. There were some good scenes: between Data and his mother, or when he starts sensing that something is wrong. The episode is at times successful in what it tries to do, at times not. It goes through huge pains to make us believe in this story, but it’s quite a stretch. His mother was afraid that Data would turn out like Lore, so she didn’t want to take him with her and Soong when they evacuated their planet, then she died, but in the meantime Soong made the perfect human-like android and transferred her memories (all that by a single person, what a genius!), so she lives on as an android without knowing she is one (her new husband can’t tell? she never bled or had an injury?), then they separated with Soong (and yet the message Soong hid inside her mentions that, so when did he find the opportunity to insert it? the timeline is a bit confusing), and she turns out to be a geologist (quite a leap from an AI expert). Ultimately, Data’s dilemma is either to tell her the truth about herself or not. Wouldn’t Dr. Maddox and the Federation (The Measure of a Man) gain enormously from studying an even more perfect android? Isn’t Data all about being as human as possible, but with the knowledge that he is an android? Not telling her she is an android robs her of that achievement, but I guess there is some beauty to not telling her at all, a tribute to Soong’s creativity. Overall I found this episode to be trying too hard to recreate the excitement of the episode where we discovered Soong was alive, season 4’s Brothers.

Alumni-spotting:
Data’s exuberant mother, Fionnula Flanagan, was also the very cold Eloise Hawking in Lost!


 

But what is this straight ahead? An anomaly that distorts the space-time continuum? It seems we will have to interrupt our coverage, before time starts running backwards—sdrawkcab…


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