Saturday, April 22, 2017

ST:TNG - Surviving Command

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: 3.02
The Ensigns of Command

Friends, Delta-Rana-Fourans, Federationmen, lend me your sneers!
Data takes to the agora, swaying the demos to his noble cause, which just happens to be saving their backward behinds from getting bombed to death by angry slime-blob aliens because they settled a planet in foreign space. The colony's leader would rather die than abandon all their grand works, and as his ardently, oratorically fallating his sunk cost is keeping most of the populace from accepting rescue, Data has to learn the true meaning of cheap patronizing demagoguery... I mean "leadership" sorry.

Kind of hard to say where this episode's production went wrong. It's most obviously flawed by some incredibly stiff acting, especially from the colony leader who unfortunately also eats up a fair amount of screen time. While I'm always ready to blame the instruments, I must ascribe it to more than the fault of one or two hams. Most everything planet-side and half the conversations shipside sound like disjointed one-liners, the big town square speeches so purple as to come across as parodies. When all the dialogue sounds equally wooden there must be something more to it. Fan comments are quick to blame budget cuts or the colony leader's lines being dubbed for the final cut. A minor script rewrite couldn't have helped the confusion, but given the original apparently tried to play up Data's romantic triangle with the local boss' girlfriend, the changes were likely for the better. As awkward as it was, the script could've been salvaged by some better redshirts and a bit of rehearsal.

There's something just hopelessly trite and primitive about the basic assumptions for how this sort of plot should progress, in terms of both writing and directing: the image of bigwigs manipulating the masses' emotions to get their way, the followers milling about the marketplace to get their opinions second-hand from leaders. "Two stags squaring off for leadership of the herd" as Melinda Snodgrass' original script so condescendingly put it. Such bronze-age tropes can't help but feel like subsentient backsliding for Data (though passed off as another step in his Pinocchio quest for humanity) and are just another example of Star Trek undermining its supposed egalitarian post-scarcity meritocracy setting.

Seriesdate: 3.03
The Survivors

Worf: "Sir! May I say your attempt to hold the away-team at bay with a non-functioning weapon was an act of unmitigated gall."
Kevin: "Didn't fool you, huh?"
Worf: "I admire gall."

See, a good writer could reinforce the Klingon warrior image without swashbuckling or roaring at the ceiling, and that is what were' talking about here: good writing and good acting, at least by Star Trek standards. Weird to say, because the basic plot's nothing more than moldy old original series Trek cheese. The Enterprise answers a distress call only to find the planet in question's been bombed to dust, leaving only a perfectly preserved patch of greenery around one house inhabited by an elderly couple best described as "24th century American Gothic" one of whom (naturally) turns out to be an omnipotent being masquerading as a human for no particular reason.

Ever notice how all the godlike aliens in cheap SF plots always dream of nothing more than becoming hormonally challenged knuckledragging plains apes? Don't that make you feel speshul, dear viewer?

Anyhoo, what follows is a half-hour morality play about nonviolence and responsibility which would've benefited greatly from a more believable one-shot character than some old coot who can nose-twitch entire species out of existence. Despite this major limitation, this episode turned out significantly more watchable than The Ensigns of Command, thanks to some tighter orchestrated and edited scenes but mostly to smoother flowing dialogue delivered by better actors.

Season 3 is where most people would say TNG finally hit its stride, but the first few episodes seem more an attempt to clean up the ungodly mess left over from the first season and a half, a process which started halfway through season 2 as far as I can tell with The Royale. Seems like before it could deliver decent Science Fiction plots, the show had to first reinvent simple fiction, relying on mastering their craft before they try innovating within it, building up characters, a consistent world and conventions for interaction. They're doing better, but only when they keep things simple for themselves.
Some might call that a valuable lesson for aspiring creators.
Not me though, I'm all about biting off more than I can chew.

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