Monday, October 12, 2015

ST:TNG - 11001001

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

Seriesdate: 1.15

The episode with the bulb-headed aliens who talk like modems (which had barely become a public technology at the time.)* Despite the Enterprise being hijacked, there's little or no high drama here. Though hampered by a major digression into another holodeck adventure (about half the episode being eaten up by Frakes making goo-goo eyes at an imaginary jazz fan) this whole thing seems to have been constructed to allow us to focus on the crew as they respond to a crisis. Characters were paired off so we could watch their interactions, which give off a good vibe of the well-oiled machine the Enterprise is supposed to be
The effect is largely supported by the casting and make-up choices in designing the aliens themselves to look non-threatening.
Oh, come on, they are frikkin' adorable! Making heavy use of human females' more neotenized features to prompt a favorable reaction in the audience, they cast short, slim, dainty young women to play the aliens and further enhanced the aspect through make-up until they're so baby-like that they induce an immediate and overwhelming protective response in the viewer. Even in acting the parts they seem to have been instructed to mimic neotenized movement patterns, toddling about and gesturing jerkily, uncertainly.

It's noteworthy to describe the make-up as a point of contrast. The Bynars are basically anti-Ferengi. Both are short with bulbous heads, but where the Bynars' features are smoothed and appendages minimized, the Ferengi's ears, noses, chins, teeth, etc. were enlarged and they were even given an old-man fringe on their back of their heads.
From The Last Outpost
The Ferengi sneer and growl while the Bynars whimper. The Ferengi are mean and vicious antagonists while the Bynars require our help, one demonized, the other exculpated. One is ugly, the other dainty.
One was designed to be hated, the other loved.
The Ferengi were defined as all-male.
The Bynars were cast as all-female.

That, however, is a matter of the overpowering undercurrent of human gender relations. I doubt the make-up crew or even the writer / director were fully aware of their own bias. In terms of conscious choices the episode was rather well orchestrated, holodeck filler aside. Yar and Worf in their sports uniforms, Data and LaForge working their engineering magic, Picard and Riker striding in lock-step to the armory to regain control of their ship, even ensign Crusher on guard duty, it all managed to show the crew in action while spotlighting the crew and not the action. This should have been the first episode after the pilot, not that idiotic drunken flirting nonsense. Here's the most noteworthy moment, though, turning off the self-destruct sequence which they'd started to keep the Enterprise from falling into enemy hands:
Look at that timer! One minute and fifty-three seconds. You know what that is, people? That's maturity.
By the late '80s, the last-second bomb defusal and "cut the red wire" were already cheap tropes. The active decision not to resort to an overused gimmick is not only gratifying to see in a Hollywood context but perfectly supported the episode's greater effect, the fake-out of the Bynars never having been a real threat and the focus on the functioning of the Enterprise and its crew instead of an external event. Bravo.

* Just realized that the younger generation probably doesn't know what a modem is. Look it up. Ah, for the days when people programmed computers via audio-tape.**

** Yeah, you should probably look up what audiotape is too. Oy, I'm getting old...

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