Monday, February 15, 2016

ST:TNG - Coming of Conspiracy

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: 1.19
Coming of Age

Everybody loves Wesley! The girls want him and the boys want to be him. No, seriously, this episode provides at least one of each.

Fawning; it comes in bulk now.

Also, his mother loves him. That, plus his boss, his teachers, the nerds and the jocks all put together. So yeah, severe Wesleyitis infesting this episode. The promised child is up for entry to wizarding school so we spend half the show in a series of Starfleet exams. In all fairness it makes for some nice background on the Star Trek universe and even the Weasely scenes aren't so bad except in dedicating half their air time to various characters standing around telling him how amazing he is. No, really. You are. You're amazing. Really and truly. And did we mention how amazing you are? But he doesn't win first place; awwww, poor Wesley. Doesn't that make you love the Wesley even more?  Sympathize, damn you! So, by the end of the episode we learn an important lesson about perseverance, right kids? Come on, love the Wesley.

The episode escapes utter triviality by introducing what was obviously originally intended as a major overarching plot for the whole series: a sinister alien race infiltrating Starfleet! In the non-Weasely subplot, an admiral and his aide come aboard the Enterprise on a top secret hush-hush mission to talk to the entire crew. After interrogating everyone and concluding that Picard still has his wits about him they ask for his help in uncovering the nebulous something-or-other. He declines, knowing full well he'll be an even bigger hero if he waits a few episodes for the conspiracy to grow and the explosions to start. That is how you curate your damn public persona.

Which brings us to:

Seriesdate: 1.25

Holy shit that guy's head just a-sploded!
Wait, back it up a bit. The conspiramacy sub-plot form Coming of Age continues, interrupting the Enterprise crew's spa day so Picard can beam down to a secret hush-hush futuristic space meeting with other space captains in a space... mineshaft. Okay. I mean that's not very sciencey for a TV show but I guess they can't all be winners. They inform him the infiltration of Starfleet has grown to appropriately megalomaniacal proportions so he won't lose any hero status for stepping in to save the day. Then they're off to get blown up or mind-controlled like good little redshirts to demonstrate just how mighty a foe our heroes will defeat.

After a weirdly lengthy, chatty, expository time-filler of an introduction (twenty minutes of a forty-five minute show) the Enterprise is finally off to Earth to investigate. Picard beams down into the blatantly obvious trap while the rest of the crew deal with the first of the infiltrators, the admiral from the previous episode. Turns out Starfleet's top brass is being taken over by insectoid brain parasites.
Wait, don't leave!
I know, it's an Animorphs sort of plot, in addition to having already been done in Wrath of Khan and so many other body-snatchers type stories.

This is about where I started seeing a strange dichotomy in the episode. On one hand, it's actually pretty tightly, professionally directed, acted and edited with good special effects for its time, more so than most of its predecessors. On the other hand, the writing, both in terms of basic plot and various small gimmicks, is pure first-season slapdash nonsense. It doesn't fit into either the pacing or general feel of Star Trek. Sharing a writer with two previous episodes, Haven and The Big Goodbye, it also shares their reliance on hopelessly pulpy contrivance.

Being infected with a brain parasite, as should happen, has only two side-effects. It lends a decrepit old admiral the incredibly hulky power to beat up Worf and throw Geordi through a closed door. Luckily the doors on the Enterprise are apparently made, instead of some space-age diamond-coated plasteel carbon matrix whatever, of 2mm wood paneling... just in case you wanna toss an engineer through them.
The second effect is unveiled when Picard sits down to dinner in the lair of the suspected enemies of all humanity, the very moment of the big dramatic reveal which confirms to the audience that the guys you thought were bad? Those guys? They really are bad guys! Really bad guys! You know how you know they're bad guys? They eat bugs!
Also, if you've ever read a comic book you know that's a villain grin right there. Muahahaha. I'm eating bugs and loving it 'cuz I'm evil! There follow a couple of minutes of close-up shots of perfectly harmless (and incidentally, edible) mealworms writhing in bowls alternating with disgusted reaction shots of Stewart and the other characters scooping handfuls of suspiciously inert noodly-looking (I'm guessing Chinese take-out) into their mouths. In any case, Riker shows up and passes his bluff check as one of the converted and we're narrowly cheated out of seeing Frakes eat a bug, which would've raised the gratuitous, childish ookiness of the episode to Fear Factor perfection. The two valiant space-men phaser their way through their lesser enemies to the boss encounter: the inquisitor from the previous episode, now host to the main swarm of bugs.

Screw the Prime, Secondary, Tertiary and all other directives. Sure he says "we seek peaceful coexistence" but fuck it, the guy's bulging with parasites and that's just creepy so eat phasers, bug-boy. They blow up his head (it's okay, the inquisitor was an unlikeable character from the start) then blow up the momma-alien inside his torso.
Wait, why and how was he walking around without any internal organs whatsoever?
Okay, so, for one thing that's probably the goriest single scene in the entire series... and despite the fact that I always loved this kind of thing, I cannot for the life of me remember the episode from when I was ten. Don't ask me how they got it past the censors. That is some X-Files level monstrosity right there.

For the other thing, what the hell were you people smoking?
It's not just a matter of pushing the limits of that sleek, clean, upbeat Utopian adventuring inherent in the Star Trek concept. The series did so on several other occasions much more successfully. The problem's just how utterly random a lot of the scenes were, culminating in the no-explanations-necessary bug-eating. From the parting comment about the brain-bugs having sent out a beacon, it's obvious they were originally meant as the recurring villains the Borg eventually became, and the show really dodged a bullet on that one. "It's been done" wouldn't begin to describe it. The Borg on the other hand merit their continued name recognition.

Even ignoring the physical nature of the conspiracy, the entire conspiracy plot, like many details from the first season, was simply introduced too early to mean anything. Okay, so there's a threat to Starfleet. So what? Starfleet meant nothing to the viewers yet. You have to define the status quo before you introduce a threat to it. It's not quite as bad as having all the characters stumbling around drunk before the audience has even seen them sober, but still along the same fault-line.

Also, if anyone should've been made to eat bugs, we all know it was Wesley.

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