In search of comfort TV, I recently stumbled onto three episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation fondly remembered for different reasons. Then I decided to pick them apart.
SOME WEEKS AGO, I NEEDED SOME COMFORT TELEVISION. A FILM WOULDN’T DO: IT HAD TO BE TV. BUT WHERE TO START?
Well, it wasn’t going to be ‘period’ unless my synapses were so slackened I could tolerate an ITV two hour abridging. Soaps and serial drama were out, The Crystal Maze counted as period, so genre it was. That in itself is a big pool and fraught with difficulties.
Frankly, Doctor Who’s generally too long or too annoying (that’s how much I adore it), anything American, post-X-files, is too arc-filled. Cumulatively great, but you can rarely choose one episode of American TV series from the last 20 years without it being damaged by its decapitation from an overall arc or, well, shit.
One of the few exceptions is ratings smashing Star Trek. Only twice did Star Trek wander into immersive, deeply plotted arcs (the conclusion of Deep Space Nine and the third season of Enterprise). That was partly why, after a few light years worth of continuous episodes, Star Trek was rather beleaguered by the time the early 2000s saw it meet a sorry end on the small screen. So long leading the way, it was always going to be pure volume and ‘reset button’ arrogance that did it in (and to some minds, JJ Abrams).
Of course, it’s easy to ignore a wealth of other TV series signed off by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in that search for real comfort television (Andromeda, Andromeda and Andromeda). Even so, it was a short stumble back through the time-vortex and various quadrants before I fell upon Star Trek: The Next Generation and I knew that was the place to be.
Yes, another and definitive piece of the Star Trek universe that will never happen thanks to 2009’s reboot. We’re now left with just two films and Enterprise in the chrono-canon – who would have thought? Guinan probably. And fortunately she hasn’t told home entertainment or Netflix.
Star Trek: We’re now left with just two films and Enterprise in the chrono-canon
ST:TNG offers something different to everything else however, most easily encapsulated as brilliance. As much as there’s varying levels of merit in the subsequent Star Trek series (well, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise from the final scenes of the second season anyway), ST:TNG really is the franchise’s crowning achievement. It overcame a rocky start after several aborted launches of its own Genesis device to reboot and reignite, a failed 1960s programme that was quickly fading on the big screen. Had development come a year later perhaps The Final Frontier would have altered Paramount’s patience far more than television networks’ infamous disdain for the property when it was pitched.
One of the pinnacles of first-run syndication, within seven seasons the show was supposedly generating over $1billion a year. An inevitable conclusion was, thanks to Trek’s lineage and crucial financials, an accelerated push to the crew of the Enterprise-D onto the big screen.
Why was it so successful? The idea was great, but took a painful few seasons to work. The crew was superb but struggled walking the line between the new and old. The shoddy uniforms and The Original Series remakes shine enough light on the difficulties posed by 1980s visionaries like Michael Piller joining the show less than a year after significant TOS alumni D. C. Fontana and Gene Roddenberry had scripted for the first season. It was troubled, but that only highlighted its killer arsenal: the fine casting. Spiner, Frakes, Stewart… All of them – they quite simply make the show.
It was Piller’s seminal Season Three cliff-hanger that cemented the franchise and secured the franchise’s future. It can’t be said enough: The first part of The Best of Both World’s is not only one of Trek’s finest hours, but television’s. That the conclusion, which American audience’s famously had to wait three months for, is not a total let-down is almost as impressive.
It’s no surprise then, that the three comfort episodes I chose came after that Borg-bar was set.
Classics such as Season Five’s The Inner Light had to be dismissed; this was all about youthful nostalgia.
Unfortunately, that nostalgia coincides with an undeniable fact. These three episodes cover all three story-writers of Star Trek: Generations. That doesn’t provide any redemption for that film, if anything it exposes some of what went horribly wrong with this crew’s first cinematic outing. Rather I’ll hide behind the fact that those same three crafted the impeccable First Contact.
And so, those episodes:
The first of these came immediately after Piller’s cliffhanging revelation: Star Trek could be everything. Unfortunately that also meant that new-found confidence was matched with some budget clawing. Aside from immediate follow-up ‘Family’, most of the first half of Season Four was a thematic arc around friends and family.
Brothers, Season Four
Or… The One Where Data Takes Over
This is all rather more Greek myth and Dickens’ Two Cities than the simple metaphors represented by Abdul Abulbul Amir
Of course, Brothers is an episode of two-halves – and three performances for Brent Spiner. From my first viewing I remember Data’s excellent Enterprise hijacking, the android-heavy plot, a rather ticked off Picard, the (rather gratuitously shoe-horned) Abdul Abulbul Amir and a horrible homicide.
Yes, for the all the light aims of that season, Brothers had everything, ruined only by three quite major problems. Alright, they may be problems that manage not to ruin enjoyment of a damn fine story (rather surprisingly) from the pen of exec Rick Berman (the original JJ to many), but imagine if they weren’t there?
First, the Bridge evacuation scene. Several times, Data completely ignores Riker and Picard before sitting stock-still as the ‘breathing’ crew evacuate the bridge. The bridge crew of the Star Fleet’s flagship are awfully slow here (Life support cut? Oxygen streaming out? No reason? Alright then). There isn’t long to scream at the screen though. This was all about (riskily) making the crew we know so well look like completely useless idiots. And Data’s subsequent escape (to a foliage-heavy planet seemingly birthed by the Genesis device), all the way to Worf’s sluggish reactions, is superb.
Second is the third act ‘twist’. The structure doesn’t help, and it’s simply more noticeable after an epic pause in planet-side proceedings. One android operation to be exact. With no ‘other android’ around, it’s clear that Lore’s on the table rather than Data. Again, this is marginally saved by the tragic patricide and the other rhyme that goes with it. Spiner’s brilliant here in the hermetically sealed world of Trek acting. That he’s rather hammy as both Lore and the brothers’ creator Noonian Soong isn’t bad at all. I think it was something in the prosthetics. Tony Todd hit the same level in DS9’s excellent The Visitor and even Patrick Stewart couldn’t resist tugging his own beard in All Good Things. Here Spiner balances three distinct characters of which Soong is the most over-used and Lore under-powered. It’s not hurt by heavy-handedness though, far from it. In the story, with Lore’s final act of deceit made possible by the forgiveness of the father, this is all rather more Greek myth and Dickens’ Two Cities than a two archetypal metaphors represented by Abdul Abulbul Amir.
The third problem is a little trickier to overcome: legacy. There’s no sense in Riker’s response at the end. Data has proved himself incredibly dangerous, Star Fleet intelligence (albeit, or not, before Section 31) woefully inadequate. The Federation had all sorts of scrapes with artificial intelligence before, not to mention augmented technology, and here was Khan’s relative hijacking the flagship of the Fleet by proxy. That should have had red light bulbs flashing across alpha and beta quadrants.
Sadly, worse was to come. Brothers led indirectly to Descent. The next time we meet Lore, the most disappointing Borg story has the unstoppable foe confused in the unflattering surroundings of bright sunlight and tundra. Add into the mix every section of Star Trek: Generations featuring the emotion chip and Brothers’ legacy looks increasingly risible. Not for the first time, many thanks to First Contact for dealing with both Borg and emotion chip correctly.
At the end at least, there’s a brilliant and rather melancholy ambiguity. Which of the droids is Skavar and which Abdul Abulbul Amir? I think it’s the transporting echo of that song that stuck in my mind most. Only Lore would have the electronic gonads to sing while transporting.
Relics, Season Six
Or… The One Where Scotty Doesn’t Know the Ship Like the Back of his Hand
Satire on TNG’s treatment of engineering, but with room for poignancy…
Further delves into the past came in Season Six, a season that kicked off with Mark Twain (Time’s Arrow) before bringing in Trek stalwart David Warner for possibly his finest ever Star Trek role (Chain of Command), solved galactic genetics (The Chase) and put Picard in a TOS film uniform (at the same time giving Q appealing again, Tapestry). Relics can be easily overlooked, coming a season after ST:TNG’s real homage: the Spock starring two-parter Unification. But really, it’s another little gem from Ronald D Moore.
Scotty is the real strength here. He doesn’t bring the baggage of Spock, Kirk or even McCoy’s appearances in the new phase. Successfully embellished by the films (perhaps the real stand-out in The Final Frontier) Relics took the same line as the rebooted films. Scotty is a comic genius as much as an engineering genius.
Still, it’s not about forgotten baggage; Scotty’s legacy is positively overlooked. Perhaps in the fields of engineering, mastering modesty is as important as tachyon field dynamics. Picard’s just after a shot with him, La Forge’s a little too busy and Data seems totally oblivious. It’s all rather refreshing from start to finish, held together by James Doohan’s usual affable presence. Sure, Doohan’s accent slips as often as ever and it’s a standard out of place set-up.
The booze has changed, as has tech, Klingons are running around – and so he finds solace on a Holodeck reproduction of the original (1701, that is) Enterprise bridge (where he exposes Picard’s old-school alcohol appreciation).
What’s great about the episode is the strong science-fiction background and the marvellous hook and future that carries for Scotty. The hypothetical megastructure at the heart of the plot was indeed postulated in the 1960s by Freeman Dyson. The rather sad fate of the abandoned sphere in this episode, though physically fascinating, no doubt added to its originator’s continual wish that it hadn’t been named after him (last stated in 2013 I believe).
In the fields of engineering, mastering modesty is as important as tachyon field dynamics
While preposterous that Scotty was marked off MIA so many years ago (the struggle to explore strange new worlds long hampered next gen Star Trek), the re-introduction is wonderful. It sums up Scotty-style engineering prowess while making a statement on ST:TNG’s dry treatment of engineering. After all, this was show that didn’t really feature a head engineer in its first season! The result is a satire, but one with room for a certain poignancy. That opening teleportation can’t help but reference the haunting beam-malfunction of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
And then at the end, the really desperate attempt to get into this writer’s affections. The core crew of the Enterprise happily dispatch Scotty off into the unknown galaxy in the Enterprise’s Shuttlecraft Goddard (I like to think named after this writer and not Robert Goddard, creator of the world’s first liquid-fuelled rocket). Scotty’s one of the franchise’s great survivors and more and more, that looks like a rather wonderful if unorthodox send-off. All the more so as he had the wonderful sense to forget or feel rather optimistic about the events of Star Trek: Generations.
Timescape, Season Six
Or… The one that kick-started Star Trek: Voyager
SFX smacked into your face until your left nacelle burnt out…
Both the hardest and easiest choice here. I’d so far ridden through family and nostalgia and Timescape was pure indulgence (bar a nod to the director, none other than Adam Nimoy). That indulgence is perhaps slightly hypocritical as it came to define everything I despised in the franchise, or am I being too unkind?
Timescape’s an anomaly in a very localised segment of space; my head. I remember in the early 1990s being wowed by the science-fiction. Blown away, like a human beating a Nausicaan at dom-jot. In hindsight, bubbles of time are no different to meteors, but saddled with fantastic, for the time, special effects, ambiguous scenes of real danger and some surprising twists it had me wound up.
Another big factor was that it featured Romulans and came one episode before the Borg were ruined (Descent). I’ve always had a soft spot for Romulans even though they popped up in ST:TNG (more than I remember) with their purple shoulder-pads and bizarrely retained Roman legacy. Not only Vulcans that get angry, but angry Vulcans with fantastic ships – especially when stuck in combat with the Galaxy Class Enterprise.
I remembered all that, but also the irresistibility of the episode’s technobabble. Timescape was not so much about good science-fiction, or even faction, basis – but one that took a word, a load of sfx money and smacked it into your face until your left nacelle burnt out. It’s rather spooky all round, one of ST:TNG’s better attempts at a haunted house in space.
But for all the good stuff, that’s alive and well, here was a significant step forward all the technobabble and minutiae of space-time that would dog the franchise from that point on. It was Star Trek: Voyager that bore the brunt of course, inheriting Braga as an exec without quite the same depth of cast while Deep Space Nine looked towards war and explored the effect on characters in spiritual, family and military guises.
The cast of ST:TNG showed that much of the show’s material could be elevated and Timescape’s a good example. I’d long forgotten the opening scenes, a good 10 minutes building with a simple emphasis on characterisation. Picard, La Forge, Data and Troi (now in professional garb), all too rarely stuck around a table having a laugh about their recent conference. That table is surely one reason for them taking a Runabout (the runabout laughabout – one of Deep Space Nine’s larger contributions to the franchise…) and it works wonderfully.
Rather than padding, although that can never be ruled out, it helps build-up to the inevitable plot onslaught that follows. The loss of Geordi (presumably cured at the end!?) is stronger than the static shot of Dr Crusher mid-disrupter attack as a result. In fact, this episode has one of the best 10 Little Indians-style build-ups of the whole series. And then there was… A trans-dimensional creche. Yes, shame they went with the space babies once again.
Despite the lazy plot device, there’s a lot going on here and it just about hangs together. It’s unfortunate that the franchise couldn’t retain the same balance. For the real reason behind that I’d have to fall back on the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. “[sighs] It’s going to take… a little time to explain, Number One”.
Next on Jokerside does Star Trek: My problem with the Star Trek reboot…