Tuesday, May 17, 2016

ST:TNG - The Neutral Zone

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: 1.26
The Neutral Zone

When I started these posts I'd set out to relive the unfolding of TNG's artistic and narrative progress from start to finish. That plan went out the window as soon as I started. TNG maintained a slightly tighter continuity than more comedic television shows but it was still largely episodic, with the status quo re-affirmed at the end of each episode... usually by Picard saying "engage" while pointing at the viewer. Worse still the quality of the show's first season was incredibly uneven from one episode to the next, an aimless parade of half-baked ideas, cheesy stock characters and plots written by people who were either obviously still stuck on pre-golden-age pulp scifi tropes about dashing space heroes lazoring little green men or else completely uninterested in SF material at all and kept trying to turn the show into a mystery or romance story.

So this is the transition point. The Neutral Zone marks the end of that hapless, aimless, artless first season, a last-ditch attempt at legitimacy before the audience can gather their first, second and third impressions into inevitable conclusions. Like many first and last episode season bookends, something about it doesn't feel quite... right. Maybe it's these three muppets.

From left to right: the bad, the good and the ludicrous
As the episode opens, Data compassionately rescues three cryogenically frozen 20th century humans whom everyone else including Picard repeatedly says they should have left to die in their derelict satellite. Even Dr. Crusher seems to take the decision to revive them (or not) as some sort of coin flip. Hippocrates? Never heard o' da mook. Ignoring the completely uncharacteristic reactions from the crew and everything else wrong with this scenario (like a derelict object casually and randomly drifting away from Earth would probably have barely cleared the Kuiper Belt in three centuries' time, much less get to however many light years away this neutral zone may be) this contrivance simply feels like ... intermission.

Usually, the sub-plot of individual TV show episodes is meant to somehow weave into the main action, whether complementing it, providing contrast or comic relief or providing a vehicle for minor characters' presence. The Neutral Zone nominally concerns itself with introducing the viewers to the Romulans, TNG's more dignified attempt at a race of recurring antagonists after the overly-clownish Ferengi. These three's predictable comic relief routine of culture shock at being catapulted into the future simply had no place here. A fatcat, a housewife and a clown walk onto a 24th-century spaceship and... even hilarity fails to ensue as the crew reacts with utter blase annoyance at their presence. Meanwhile, the half an hour dedicated to their antics would much better have been spent discussing with or about Romulans, whose appearance takes up a disappointing five to ten minutes of the show.

Weirdly enough though, I think this actually worked for its purpose. Though badly written (supposedly a rush job according to Wikipedia) it nonetheless contains all the appropriate elements meant to capture viewers' attention. The wistful pathos of ordinary people transposed into a strange, alien future and the finger-wagging social commentary at the rich man's power-lust and its meaninglessness in a post-scarcity society, though artlessly blunt, underscored the main draw of science fiction for the show's intended fans. On the other side of the plot, the Romulans in their warbird make a suitably pompous entrance to whet viewers' appetite for future seasons. Better still, the actors made the best of the shoddy script ... especially the three corpse-cicles who delivered unexpectedly nuanced characterizations of their flimsy stock characters. From cloaking devices to melodrama, klingon-romulan race relations, Data observing human quirks, tense negotiations and meeesteeerious hints of a major cosmic force scooping entire colonies off planets' surfaces, there's something trekky for every trekkie.

I think this episode should have failed in every way but despite its severe issues in writing probably did more to keep the audience's interest for a second season than most of the godawful first season put together. It's a bad job that served a good purpose.

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