Friday, June 16, 2017

ST: TNG - Enemy Defectors

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: 3.07
The Enemy

Oh noes! Geordi's trapped on The Planet of the Cliched Dark Stormy Night with a mean old Romulan! Can you kids at home teach our heroes a valuable lesson about cooperation?

Whoa, time out. First off, that is some Tom&Jerry level resilience there. I don't care how Romulan you are, unless you're visiting a planet with the gravitational pull of the Little Prince's asteroid, half a ton of (suspiciously rounded and even-sized) boulders falling on your head will require more than an engineer to pick you back up. Even just one of those falling off a cliff would snap a humanoid spine.

But never mind, technobabble aside...
Wait, did someone say technobabble? As in, wounded Romulan #2 aboard the Enterprise "is going to need a transfusion of compatible ribosomes in order to recover?" Ribosomes. Right. I can just picture one of the writers flipping through the dictionary and thinking "huh, lookit dat, rye-bow-sowmes, that sounds biomological-like!" Ribosomes are too complex to be replicated aboard the Enterprise... which routinely fabricates whole steaks to exact molecular specifications and can re-assemble entire humans from teleporter records.
Also, a few hours' exposure to magnetic fields breaks down your synaptic connections. That's why chemists just take off their rings, car keys and wristwatches before wading into an NMR lab like they own the place. They're sick of having synapses and ribosomes. Particle accelerators routinely liquefy everyone that comes near them. Also, those magnetic balance bracelets? Those totally work! (*wink-wink*)

I know most complaints about Star Trek "science" center on its insane physics but at least on the physics side they had the sense to insert pretextium crystals and other yet-to-be-discovered 24th-century scientific principles. Whenever it came to biology the writers seemed perfectly comfortable rattling off medical jargon as though they had invented these mystical incantations themselves. On the scale of Trekkish insanity, ribosome-eating magnets rank pretty low but it probably still prompted Gates McFadden's doctor to wash her mouth out with soap.

Okay, technobabble aside, this episode seems to serve two main purposes: to continue the more coherent character development which started with season 3 and to expand on the goings-on in the universe outside the Enterprise's shield radius. Toward the first end, Geordi as gadget-goading chief engineer gradually supplants Wesley's messianic nose-twitching to address technical issues, and their indirect interaction in this episode in particular, with the eager young space cadet coming up with a beacon to help the more experienced, trained professional, reads a lot like a bad character passing the neutrino torch to a better one.

The issue of politics is represented by larger-than-life Romulan bombast.
If TNG was to move past original series tropes to a more fleshed-out universe, it needed some more believable alien races. The Ferengi were much too buffoonish, the Betazoids more or less a fantasy race ill-suited to a SF setting, the Q more so. Vulcans epitomize progress, a race of cold-blooded introspective monks, but that leaves little room for other drama. Klingons work well enough as Federation foils, though you wonder how those drooling jocks manage not to blow themselves up at every turn and overusing them would've gotten old quickly. What Star Trek needed were some good believable antagonists so as not to keep resorting to singular aliens with godlike powers at every turn. The Romulans fit the bill as Vulcans-gone-bad: imperious, calculating, disdainful of lesser races. Uncreative as a concept but honestly so (down to their name) they simply work within the series, not because they're particularly interesting but because the developing Star Trek universe desperately needed a go-to evil empire or two.

Amazingly, the show's writers managed not to render them too cartoonishly, baby-eating evil. Albeit indoctrinated in their manifest destiny as rulers of the cosmos, this story already establishes them as capable of cooperation and placing some value on the safety of their subordinates.

The episode's main flaw is leaving Worf's refusal to help a Romulan (by donating ribosomes) unresolved, dedicating several scenes to grandstanding about eyes for eyes then dropping the matter abruptly.
Like I'm doing now.

Seriesdate: 3.10
The Defector

A thematic continuation of The Enemy, the plot here has the Enterprise pick up a Romulan defector warning of impending war. Despite some weakness (pauses too pregnant, monologues too monotone) the script does an good job of portraying the larger political background in which the Enterprise floats, the sort of thing utterly lacking in the original series. We get to see chains of command, treaties and traps and interplays of allegiance.

None of it is particularly sci-fiyish. The opening, an unreasonably extended Shakespearean interlude, kind of sets the tone. One gets the feeling that in 1989 there was still a serious shortage of screenwriters, actors and other professionals comfortable with SF. In many cases, TNG resorted to trite, recycled plots and settings from detective or romance novels, especially when it came to the cheap cop-out of holodeck episodes. The Defector achieves its effect mainly by being played as a historical drama, SF as written by Alexandre Dumas: intrigue, posturing, loyalties and a lot of blathering about fighting good fights and family ties but not much in the way of boldly going or strange new worlds / civilizations. It better suited the actors' training, at least.

Still, while not one of TNG's high points these two episodes filled a necessary quota of overdue world-building, laying out the backdrop against which the more dramatic conflicts played out. The level of power and conventional villainy of the Romulans serves as a measure for the later, more dramatic and creative Borg. The discussions of cloaking and stealing technological secrets set up the plots of many other episodes in later years. And hey, at least The Defector contains that memorable scene of the Enterprise being ambushed by two cloaked Romulan ships... which are in turn ambushed by three cloaked Klingon ships escorting the Enterprise.
This was TNG finally reaching its version of maturity: special effects fitting their purpose, characters developed, limitations established, political universe mapped. When the phasers go pew-pew, you finally have some idea why they're pew-pewing.

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