Saturday, March 11, 2017

ST:TNG - The Bonding Revolution

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 3.01

Ah, Season The Third at last.
Were it not for its highly interested no, make that dedicated... no, y'know what, make it "obsessive" horde of trekkies, I very much doubt TNG would have survived its own overwhelming tide of gibberish cluttering season 1 and most of 2. Still, somewhere around the middle of the previous year it seems the writing team realized its errors and season 3 starts out in a coordinated attempt to re-establish main themes and bring the show back on track. Well, not so much "back on" but moving toward the track it hadn't managed to stumble onto so far.
For one thing, they remembered the Enterprise is supposed to be an exploration vessel, not merely a vehicle for magic tricks, planetary romances or moralistic grandstanding, so we start out with futuristic gadgets and interstellar phenomena, which action is interrupted by nanobots chewing up the Enterprise's computer.

Turns out Wesley fell asleep while working on a school project and let two nanobots go forth and multiply, eventually (as everything must on Star Trek) spontaneously achieving sentience, adopting a staccato nasal voice and invading Data's brain.
Y'know, I never realized just how often this series was carried by Spiner's aptitude for playing the stereotypically awkward little green man archetype of pulp SciFi. Mmmmeeep-meep! We. come. innn. peace.
In any case, Wesley fucked up, which brings us to the second point of order: attempting to find a cure for Wesleyitis. The wunderkind is now capable of making mistakes... except nobody seems to bother so much as scolding him for almost blowing up the ship. Well, ok, baby steps.

As usual, Star Trek's technical jargon's a hoot. At least we're past utter nonsense phrases like "subatomic bacteria" or immune systems which proactively seek out disease outside the body. Now we're faced with "nanites" which the pop culture at the time interpreted as minute versions of macro-scale robots. Presumably they'd be made of "extremely tiny atoms" a la Futurama. The plot also displays that indefatigable popular misinterpretation of the term "evolution" as advancement, when in reality evolution is a subtractive, reactionary process, anything but linear and by no stretch of (sane, non-religious) imagination, teleological. Wesley's nano-jerks are, much as Michael Crichton's, simply fated to stage a machine uprising.

Aside from a guest appearance by the future Dr. Bob Kelso of Scrubs fame, Evolution also tries to integrate Wesley into some sort of family dynamic, but for that let's move on to the next episode.


Seriesdate 3.05
The Bonding

The third item on the season-opening agenda was character development, utterly lacking in season 1, haphazard in season 2 and only now being undertaken with some degree of foresight. Unfortunately it partly takes the form of building a nuclear family unit out of Picard and the two Crushers, an unproductive dynamic foisted on the viewer from the start but (perhaps thankfully) never followed through to its logical conclusion. It sets Picard up to act in loco paternis for Wesley's dead father and become romantically entangled with Beverly through the old "comfort the grieving widow" routine. Aside from being undermined by Welsey's larger than life Messianic schtick, the whole notion overshoots whatever coherence it might lend the characters' interactions into outright melodrama every time it's dredged up, eating away at screen time fruitlessly.

Nevertheless, the series desperately needed to better establish the cast's intra and interpersonal workings, and this episode manages that quite well by sacrificing a redshirt and using that less relevant but nonetheless poignant drama as point of reference. Unfortunately it sacrifices actual plot in order to focus on character development, dooming these forty minutes to that tired old Star Trek routine: a planet-bound energy being which pursuant to some abstract abortion of logic decides to take human form and torment the Enterprise in passing. Redshirt dies, alien decides to adopt redshirt's son out of guilt, Wesley airs old resentment toward Picard to teach redshirt's son to deal with grief and embrace reality. Not terrible, but not Star Trek "A" material. It was dull enough that I have no recollection of this episode from my youth.

Nevertheless it was necessary, as the show played catch-up with its own overblown dramatics. Worf gets some welcome development not only as a Klingon but an individual with a real life history. Wesley actually holds conversations with other crew without requiring them to genuflect before him. It was not to last and came too late to rescue the character, but a worthy effort nonetheless.

Dull but still interesting from a storytelling standpoint, these attempts to condense what should've been seasons' worth of gradually fleshing out basic archetypes like "leader" and "boy wonder" and "mother" rapidly enough to claim legitimacy as a coherent narrative. More interesting because the main dynamic being built up here, the Picard/Crusher(s) family unit, eventually had to be abandoned. Even if Wesley hadn't been written out of the show, there was simply no room in a cast as large as TNG's for the level of family drama this would have entailed, especially when it concerns the captain of the ship, whose interactions must needs fan out to the crew as a whole, not focus on his wife and kidneys.

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