Tuesday, 10 February 2015

TNG Season Six

Time's Arrow Part II written by Jeri Taylor and directed by Les Landau

What's it about: Picard meets Guinan for the first time...

To Baldly Go: Picard proves to be quite a charming rogue when it comes to seducing battleaxe hoteliers with promises of fame and acting glory. Look at his face when he first lays on Guinan, there is an unspoken love for this woman that crossing the centuries.

Alien Empath: Listening to Troi mouthing the usual platitudes of the Federation is as dreary as you can imagine. I just don't buy into Gene Roddenberry's human condition of the future...and anybody who understands the human condition as well as Troi professes to should have their doubts too. 

Brilliant Bartender: Any focus on Guinan is welcome, not just because she is a fascinating character in her own right (we never quite learn everything about her in the series which kept her mysterious and interesting right up until the point where her appearances fizzled out) but because Whoopi Goldberg is such an assured actress. I wonder if Steven Moffat of Doctor Who fame was paying attention to this episode and the temporal jiggery pokery that allows Guinan in the 24th Century to know what was going to happen in this episode and for Picard to meet her for the first time in the past whilst having already had a relationship with her. It screams of River Song and I wonder if this was his inspiration. It is certainly handled more warmly, less smugly and much more simply than Dr Song's scattered timeline.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I've heard you silver tongued devils before. I'll have my rent tomorrow by one o'clock or you'll be out performing on the street!'
'I just want you to know that I have the utmost respect for the law...'
'A werewolf!'

The Good: Mrs Carmichael is exactly the sort of local colour that is needed to make a trip back in time more bearable. It does say something about the quality of this debut episode that she is practically the best thing about it, very funny when she is on screen and great antidote to all the sober material elsewhere. She should team up with Judge Renora, Mullibok and Solbor for their own Trek spin off series. The Irish housekeeper brings the best out in the crew too, forcing them into some improvisational humour. Jack London is another character who is irrelevant to the pot but sweetens the overall experience. I've heard some pretty harsh criticisms of Jerry Hardin's portrayal of Mark Twain, saying that it lacks any subtlety and depth and instead he hams it up. These aren't entirely unjustified claims but I still found the character pretty amusing and certainly more enjoyable to spend time with than the over earnest TNG crew (which he highlights against wonderfully when he ends up in the future). There is a wonderful (and rare) moment of criticism about the Federation, it's lifestyle and principles when Twain walks around the Enterprise and is distinctly unimpressed by the future. Conquering this corner of the galaxy with politeness, luxury to the point of indolence, no personality and a lack of any vices...he declares the future a very bland place to be. Perhaps on TNG, had he wound up on DS9 it would have been a very different prospect.

The Bad: After climaxing on the least exciting cliff-hanger on record (effectively keeping the audience on tenterhooks by having the crew walk through a door), this episode had very little to live up to. Opening a new season of TNG with a historical character delivering a nonsensical lecture not only gives a false indication of what this series is about...but it's also pretty dull. Reducing the villains of the piece to a non-speaking upper class couple taking in the town was also a mistake. They hardly pose the sort of threat of the Borg or a Klingon civil war, the two powerhouse hazards at the beginning of seasons four and five. What was needed was a villain that the crew could interact with, so we could understand their methods and motives a little better. Even the snake cane doesn't snap and snarl as much as it should to really frighten. Whilst I buy into the idea of aliens coming to a planet where their appetites can be sated and use the local plagues as a cover for their developing pile of corpses (it is almost exactly the same premise as Doctor Who's The Mark of the Rani), I don't see how this connects to anything in the Star Trek universe. It is a random implausibility (Data's head) that brings these characters centuries back in time to deal with these creatures. It is far to disconnected from the rest of TNG's oeuvre to be anything other than a mild diversion. It comes as a great disappointment that the mystery that kick started this whole affair, Data losing his head in the past, is resolved in such a cack handed and inconsequential way. The aliens show up in a middle of the scene, Data makes a grab for them, his body is surrounded by energy and he explodes. It is as simple as that. Here was me thinking his incapacitation would be at the end of some brilliant plot to save the world. I suppose the thought of losing Data is supposed to be vital enough for this to make an impact but I never thought the explanation would come in such a throwaway sequence. Plus we've reached a stage on our TNG journey now where we know that the status quo will be maintained by the end of the episode. I had no doubt that Mister Data would be back to his old self thanks to a quirk of technobabble before the episode was out. Whilst the climax is quite neat (Twain returning home, Guinan meeting Picard, Data's head waiting in the cavern), it also takes place entirely without incident or drama. Everything just sort slots into place like an especially plain puzzle. Right up until the climax the aliens simply stand around doing nothing, lacking menace.

Moment to Watch Out For: Mrs Carmichael reading Shakespeare. Just about the funniest thing in TNG's entire run. The pained look on Patrick Stewart's face (famed for his work with the RSC) whilst trying to convince the woman that she is some kind of undiscovered thespian is just hilarious. Sign her up.

Fashion Statement: Gates McFadden looks wonderful dressed up in Victorian medical garb. Perhaps she should transfer that look to the 24th Century. Marina Sirtis has either been in sun during the holidays or has been slapping on a bit too much fake tan.

Moral of the Week: The future is a place of smiley happy people who have abandoned prejudice and all vices. How dull. Can't wait for the Dominion War to come along and remind us of our base instincts again.

Result: 'My God it's an invasion!' Charming in spots, but mostly Time's Arrow Part II is too lightweight and inconsequential a way to start a season. The best scenes feature the characters from the 19th Century, whether we are the in the company of the hammy and judgemental Mark Twain, the very sweet Jack London or the bull in a china shop innkeeper Mrs Carmichael. What they expose however is how under-utilised the TNG crew are in this episode and you could easily do without Geordi, Troi or Riker going back in time.  It also highlights how bland the regulars can be, that they are completely swamped by a much more colourful guest cast (put Twain and Geordi in a scene together and I know where my attention fixes). I still have no real idea (or interest) in the aliens and their dull as dishwater plot to exploit the cover story of plague victims in the 1900s and I don't think Jeri Taylor was either since she simply uses it to get our characters into history and having fun. Guinan's back story is worth exploring and Whoopi Goldberg automatically raises every scene she is present in but I have to say I was a little disappointed about how uneventful her first meeting with Picard is, given the build up in the previous episode. The dialogue is enjoyable for the most part but the climax is entirely lacking in drama. Time's Arrow II is a perfectly watchable episode. It's okay, but I think in your sixth season you should be aiming higher than just okay: 6/10

Realm of Fear written by Brannon Braga and directed by Cliff Bole

What's it about: Reg Barclay has a paralysing fear of the transporter...

Alien Empath: I just knew as soon as any member of the crew exhibited behvaiour that was out of the norm that the next scene would open in Troi's therapy boudoir. If that isn't a reason to pretend you are sane I don't know what is. To be fair Troi does sympathise with Barclay's condition and offers a form CBT.

Maladjusted: Reg genuinely believes that his career in Starfleet would be over because he has a psychological disability. Frankly I can understand why he might think that given the sheer perfection that the confederacy seems to strive for. Confidence after one therapy session isn't unheard of and Reg acts as if he is cured after one chat with Troi. I was counting the seconds until he realised that he was wrong.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'What about transporter psychosis?' - I love the fact that something like that could even exist.

The Good: The opening FX shot is gorgeous. TNG was at a stage now where CGI and model effects blended seamlessly to create some striking visuals. Are the creatures inside the transporter beam a manifestation of Reg's fear or a genuinely malign presence within the system? I had a real problem when certain members of the crew gave Barclay such a hard time in his debut episode (particularly Riker, whose behaviour went beyond a superiors expectations into outright abuse) and it pleases me to see that they try and work with him as much as possible now (Troi, O'Brien and Geordi are all very gentle with Reg's anxiety). The resolution to both plots dovetail in a very neat way (much like Time's Arrow) but it is hardly a thrill minute in doing so (just like Time's Arrow).

The Bad: O'Brien offers a few supportive words to Barclay before he has to face the transporter but I still feel that he is wasted in this role. On DS9 he would be at the centre of the entire operation and his personality would be able to shine at every turn. On TNG he stands in the transporter beam and is only of use if somebody is visiting or returning to the ship. It must be the most boring job in the universe. 'Although I am loathed to believe the Ferengi about anything' - blatant racism from a Starfleet Admiral. There's nothing worse than a society that supposes they are above such xenophobia and put such a winning smile on their propaganda about such things...and yet stab over races in the back behind closed doors. No matter how perfidious that race has proven to be in the past. Whilst it is nice to see his crew mates discussing the technology of the transporter system with Reg to calm his nerves, it doesn't make for the most riveting of dialogue. We've entered Technobabble City. This episode is nowhere near as psychologically probing as it should be. Reg's anxiety is clearly affecting his work but I have witnessed people suffering anxiety to a point where it cripples them from living their lives. TNG tentatively touches on the subject when it should have jumped in with both feet and explored it much more intensely. The creatures in the transporter beam seem to be a direct relation from the Bandrils in Doctor Who. And just as convincing. What the hell happened to O'Brien's pet spider?

Teaser-tastic: Poor Reg, the magnet for every neuroses and anxiety you can imagine. Dwight Schultz plays the creeping dread at having to use the transporter very well, getting snappy with his colleagues, the nervous energy and the paralysing fear of having to confront something that you aren't comfortable with.

Moment to Watch Out For: Seeing the transportation sequence from the POV of somebody going through it is novel and goes some way to explaining why Reg has such a morbid fear of the device and what it is doing to his body.

Moral of the Week: Sometimes people aren't crazy, sometimes they are talking a lot of good sense.

Result: An adequate exploration of a sci-fi inspired phobia, my one serious complaint is that they chose Reg to be the victim of this particular fear. He seems to be the attraction for every neuroses going and it is starting to feel like he is the go to guy every time the writers want to explore an uncomfortable aspect of the human condition. It is okay for the holier-than-thou rest of the crew to have personality flaws too, you know. It works anyway because Dwight Schultz is such a good actor and he brings anxiety to life with consummate skill. What doesn't work is the b plot featuring the Yosemite and it's dead crew. It fails as either a decent mystery or a dynamic narrative in it's own right. Coming off the back of the relatively placid Times Arrow two parter what was really needed in this slot was a vibrant action adventure that got the pulse racing once again. Bear in mind the opening episodes of DS9 were airing at this stage and provoking far more drama and excitement out of the Alpha Quadrant. Had she stuck around (and I wish to God she had) I think this episode would have belonged to Pulaski (who has a similar phobia about the transporter) and it would have been a much different beast. She would have torn off Troi's head and strangled the beast within the transporter beam single handedly. Reasonable viewing, but TNG needs to re-discover its pulse: 5/10

Man of the People written by Frank Abatemarco and directed by Winrich Kolbe

What's it about: Troi fondles Alkar's rocks and undergoes a terrifying transformation...

Number One: Riker is the one who spots the differences in Troi first, although given she is dressed like her mother, her hair has gone grey and she is preying on every man on the ship it is hardly a blinding revelation. However he cannot resist a kiss with her even though he knows there is something deeply wrong. It's shockingly unprofessional as her superior officer and appalling behaviour by a friend (even if he does have the hots for her).

Alien Empath: I don't buy that Troi would be so easily worked by Alkar. This is a woman who is usually cautious to a fault and sees hidden layers in the simplest of actions. For him to so readily convince her to perform the 'funeral rite' after the death of his 'mother' without any warning signs going off means one of two things. Either Troi has taking leave of her senses or this is written by a scribe who has little familiarity with the series. Either that or she is willing to give him a pass because she wants to let him get his leg over. She is curious about his serene qualities and the fact that she doesn't sense any negative emotion in him but not enough to do anything about it. Obviously she thinks Alkar's mother has dementia, which is why he is trying to warn off prospective partners...when she is offering a genuine warning. There is perhaps a message in there about not giving the elderly a chance to speak. Like in The Loss, it is interesting that when Troi is thrown into a situation where she is out of control with her emotions that she turns into somebody who is deeply unlikable. That might not be a fair comment to make about this episode, given that Alkar imbues her with his worse qualities...but it is astonishing how like the snappy, unreasonable and unpredictable whiner from The Loss she becomes. I think Troi is secretly only a few steps away from being this person anyway and she has managed to convince herself otherwise. She slips far too comfortably into it whenever it is required.

Dancing Doctor: Crusher is supposedly a competent medical Doctor and yet she doesn't associate Deanna's remarkable transformation with her relationship with Alkar but instead her proximity to her mother. It takes an autopsy for them to realise that something is afoot with the mediator.

Dreadful Dialogue: 'Have you mated with him yet?'
'I will go with you! Take me with you! Please Alkar! Don't leave me! Don't do this! Noooooo!' - yep, things get that desperate.
'Don't try and stop me....let goooooooo!'

The Good: I like the idea of Worf's exercise class on board the Enterprise, especially when you see people like Maggie from the Bridge taking part. It really feels that they are part of a community and not just work mates on a ship. Within his spiritually advanced state of mind Alkar unapologetically explains how he leeches on the woman who are drawn to him. I thought that was quite a nice touch, calmly explaining how he does so much good at the expense of a few individuals.

The Bad: We get a chance to spy on one of Troi's typical counselling sessions. My word they are boring. No wonder she has to turn to chocolate if that is the sort of drivel she has to listen to all day. When Troi mentions that she is tired of listening to everybody complaining, I couldn't help but agree with her. I've seen ageing make up that has subtly added years to characters and layers of prosthetics that looks unconvincingly like a mask. Unfortunately Man of the People displays the latter with Troi's accelerated ageing getting more unpersuasive as the episode progresses. By the end it literally looks as if Troi has been through a supernova and her entire face has melted about two inches downwards. Since when has anybody within the Trek universe been dead for 30 minutes and then been able to be revived through a quirk of medical-babble? I can think of dozens of time when that time frame of survival might have been achievable. It's the laziest of climaxes, one that revolves around somebody waving a magic wand and achieving the impossible. After a slothenly last fifteen minutes the climax feels rushed with Alkar desperately reaching out to his next victim and completely unaware that he is being set up. Somehow his latest mug is even more wet and gullible than Troi, exhibiting no autonomy outside of what the script requires her to do. Killing Alkar off lets him off Scot free for his crimes. It's too simple a solution in a too simple episode.

Teaser-tastic: As soon as Alkar's wrinkled 'mother' started acting jealously around Troi my warning signs started going off. Enter here only if you can stomach b movie Trek.

Fashion Statement: After Troi is under Alkar's spell and starts fingering her body seductively in the middle of one of Worf's exercise programmes I thought that had wandered in on a very different type of programme.

Moment to Watch Out For: The truly hilarious moment when Troi, looking like somebody has made silly putty with her face, brandishes a knife and attacks Picard in the transporter room. Up there as one of the most unintentionally uproarious moments in Trek.

Moral of the Week: Beware aliens bearing glowing rocks.

Result: Camp tosh of the highest order that turns Deanna Troi into a sex obsessed wizened old harridan. In what universe was this a script that was considered filmable? An emotional vampire that sucks the life out of people to conduct peace talks? Killing off a character for ten minutes and bringing them back to life again? Season six is a year of TNG that I have always rated highly but on the evidence of the first three episodes it might have to come in for some major re-evaluation. Plenty of people might find the vampish, sexually frustrated and argumentative Counsellor Troi a revelation but I think she is only a few steps removed from this person anyway, hiding away under a cloak of respectability that the Federation demands. To her credit Marina Sirtis doesn't hold back and despite some seriously dodgy make up she embraces the chance to play a right bitch without a shred of restraint. It is the writing that is at fault, the situation isn't remotely believable and utterly predictable and it takes far too long for her ship mates to cotton on to the fact that something is wrong. Everything plays out so evidently, in easy to digest stages without a single challenging moment and the climax is written around an absurd medical miracle that lacks sincerity. The peace talks are a side issue compared to Troi's transformation so there isn't the chance to get involved with the overall situation either. If Man of the People was dragged out of the bin as a lat minute replacement it might just be justifiable but if this was a script that had been nurtured by a script committee at the top of their game (with Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga and Rene Echeverria amongst them) then they should all be ashamed of themselves: 3/10

Relics written by Ronald D. Moore and directed by Alexander Singer

What's it about: There is a special surprise waiting in the transporter buffer of a ship that has crashed into a Dyson Sphere...Mr Scott!

To Baldly Go: Whilst acknowledging that the Enterprise is by far the superior ship, Picard would give anything to command the Stargazer again. There is something very seductive about looking back on your first love.

Mr Data: 'It is...it is...it is green.' The only person who seems to be able to give Scotty the time of day is Data and they strike up a rather wonderful relationship, the engineer is awe of Mr Data and Data able to have the appropriate patience with the old timer. 

Mr Wolf: Given their predilection for being portrayed as the bogeymen of the Original Series it isn't surprising that Scotty is shocked to see a Klingon serving in Starfleet. Doonan's reaction to Worf is a scream.

Blind Engineer: He's just so...Starfleet. Duty bound, wrapped up in technobabble and no fun to be around. Comparing him to Scotty does LaForge a massive disservice because he comes across as more serious and rule bound than ever. It's very telling that Geordi doesn't even realise off his own back how appallingly he has treated Scotty, he has to be gently reminded by Picard. Given how this show goes to great lengths to push that its crew displays the finest of qualities, it seems like a shocking aberration that one of it number should need to be reminded how to behave like a human being.

Drunk Scotsman: It's really hard to not like Scotty. Like O'Brien from DS9 he displays all the vices of a 20th Century human being albeit planted in the hyper politically correct world of the 24th Century. James Doonan wears his heart on his sleeve in every scene he films and it is impossible not be drawn to the warmth of such a performance. As soon as Scotty wakes up and is beamed onto the Enterprise he wants to start taking the ship apart piece by piece to see what advancements in technology have been made. He is an engineer through and through. He's a bit overwhelmed by it all and he calls the Enterprise a fine ship, personalising her in a way that LaForge never has done (and perhaps should have done). Scotty wants to talk about old times, to reminiscence about the highlights of his career and the fun capers they got up to. I think the young of the current Enterprise could do well to remember that the elderly have the experience and the knowledge to help in a crisis. Scotty has a reputation amongst his peers as a miracle worker because he always adds extra time to his completion of any engineering job. What a guy. Scotty does not know what Guinan's mysterious green drink is but he swigs it down all the same. Imagine the stories that a man has to tell who has served aboard 11 Starships? You could spend weeks with him and never get bored. He might be a Captain by rank but he never wanted to be anything but an engineer.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Starfleet Captains are like children. They want everything now and they want it their way but the secret is to give them only what they need, not what they want.'
'Oh laddie! You've got a lot to learn if you want people to think of you as a miracle worker!'
Listen to the glorious way that Doonan says 'diapers.'
'Synthetic Scotch. Synthetic people.'
'There comes a time when a man finds that he can't fall in love again' - what a poignant sentiment.

The Good: TNG has reached a stage in its gestation now where it has built up its own mythology of planets and cultures that it (rightly so) feels the need to explore them wherever possible. That leaves little room in the later seasons for the exploration of the wonders of the universe that the ship originally set out to explore. The Nth Degree looked to redress the balance in season four and they have followed that up reasonably quickly with the discovery of a Dyson Sphere in Relics. It is a fantastic idea and one that is rooted in reality and the model on display truly manages to capture the ambitious nature of the structure, literally dwarfing the Enterprise and dragging it inside. There is a stirring score as the Ship approaches the technology that was originally postulated in the 20th Century, a real effort to suggest that stumbling across this kind of find doesn't happen every week. Hearing the Original Series sound effects brings with it all kinds of nostalgia. The theme of obsolescence is a vivid one because it is one we can al empathise with. Scotty is something of a relic in the 24th Century, not at the hub of where it was all happening like he was in the 23rd. He slaps a smile on his face and medicates with Whisky but he cannot escape the fact that he is of no use here and that's painful to endure. Perhaps it is a little too convenient that the solution to the problem in this episode relies on technology from Scotty's time but I will let that pass for once because it allows Mr Scott the chance to show what a wizard he is under pressure. He shows Geordi that sometimes you have to think outside the box and go for the most insane notion.

The Bad: Wrong series, I know but it would have been great to have paired up Scotty and O'Brien. Their scenes together would have been an absolute riot of un-PC dialogue, Scotch and technobabble. Instead we get the Geordi/Scotty pairing which because he is such a goodie two shoes just consists of technobabble. In fact Geordi is highly intolerant of the old timer with about as much passion as O'Brien would have embrace his archaic methods. With Scotty in Engineering he just exposes how cold and clinical the place is, completely devoid of personality. In one wonderful scene Mr Scott manages to capture everything that is wrong with the 24th Century with his reaction to a synthesised Scotch. It is a century without bite, without a kick...without character and flaws. The conclusion might give Scotty a chance to strut his stuff but it is essentially just the Enterprise driving through a pair of cargo bay doors. Hardly the most thrilling of set pieces. What is the point of Troi turning up in the last scene for one line (one word, actually).

Moment to Watch Out For: Scotty visiting his Enterprise on the holodeck. Lovingly recreated, beautifully score and you just want him to somehow be able to get back there and have some jolly adventures again. It is achingly nostalgic.

Moral of the Week: A good engineer is always conservative on paper...but far more liberal with their imagination in reality.

Result: 'NCC-1701. No bloody A, B, C or D...' Glorious for the most part but worrying in what it says about the current state of the 24th Century, Relics re-introduces the wonderful James Doonan as Mr Scott back to the Trek universe. There is a real nostalgia rush for the time that he came from, not only because he is eager to get back where he feels useful but because he comes from a TV show where all the characters are as colourful and engaging as he is. The truth of the matter is that spending an episode with Scotty is far more appealing than spending an episode when any of the lifeless TNG crew. Contrasting him to Geordi is a particular cardinal error because the dull as dishwater engineer comes across as intolerant, ageist and too engrossed in his work to see the stories and assistance this man has to offer. Scotty's colourful presence only serves to remind the audience just how sanitised the Trek universe has become. Fortunately this plot is tethered to an intriguing technology of the week narrative featuring an impressively realised Dyson Sphere. It has been a while since TNG really pushed the boat out and wowed us with something alien and unknowable and the fact that this is a technological find gives Scotty a fine excuse to be on hand and sort everything out. The scene on the Original Enterprise bridge is possibly my favourite in TNG's entire run. Relics is massively enjoyable but I have to knocked it down a few points because it pales in comparison to DS9's kiss to the Original Series, Trials and Tribbe-ations. They might be completely different beasts (one brings the past to the future, the other brings the current to the past) but they are both trying to achieve the same thing. To get you aching for more Original Trek and the DS9 episode does it with far more panache (and a better crew). Overall though, strong stuff: 8/10

Schisms written by Brannon Braga and directed by Robert Wiemer

What's it about: Why are some members of the Enterprise crew not able to sleep?

Number One: The only thing that I can envisage being more boring than a Counsellor Troi therapy session is a poetry reading by Mister Data. Functional, rigidly structured and read without emotion, I can empathise with Riker who can barely keep his eyes open. 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Think more about what you are trying to say rather than how you are trying to say it' - LaForge has pinned down the secret of poetry.
'Whoever sent that thing was more than simply curious...' - it feels like this should have been followed up on somehow.

The Good: Whilst there are some of the usual suspects suffering the disturbing effects of bad dreams (Riker, Worf, Geordi), it is nice that some of the people in Troi's dream session are complete strangers that we have never met before. There is no reason to say that horrific things occurring on the Enterprise would happen solely to the regulars. The creeping terror that sets in as the crewmembers slowly start to build the picture of their nightmares is excellently handled. Like the episode it starts off slowly, changing the specifications of a table but as soon as they lower the light levels and start adding clicking, unknowable aliens to the picture it becomes something genuinely skin crawling. For a show that is always so over lit and atmosphere draining it is nice to have a sequence that is really trying to be moody as hell. The idea of being alone in the dark, held down and experimented on by some alien, unknowable presence. It is a stifling, claustrophobic scene, preying on fears. How disturbing is the notion that Riker's arm has been severed and re-attached?

The Bad: There is an ungodly amount of technobabble in this episode that really turns me off. Listen out for the scene between Picard, Data and Geordi in the cargo bay about halfway through the episode. The conversation is so saturated with technical jargon I'm not sure that it even counts as dialogue. Between the time travel goofiness of Time's Arrow, the phobia exploration of Realm of Fear and Schisms and the nostalgia fest that is Relics there doesn't seem to be anything going on in the Alpha Quadrant at all. With DS9 I always got the sense that the universe was ticking over in the background, that what was going on on the station somehow affected the wider universe. And yet in seasons five and six of TNG the show is utterly insular, just concerned with the efforts of a group of characters trapped inside a tin can flying about in space. There's nothing wrong with that...but TNG has proven to be particularly adept at exploring the wider universe it has built up (The Best of Both Worlds, Redemption, Chain of Command coming up...) and it seems a shame that the standalone episodes should be in the majority when the ones that juggle empires are so much more interesting. I have a nagging feeling when I am watching ship bound episodes that there are far more engaging things going on outside. There is a dreary technobabble solution to the episode, of course. I wish the climaxes to TNG episodes were more rooted in character. Waving a technical magic wand fails to satisfy me.

Moment to Watch Out For: The scene where we finally get to visit the ship. Stunning camerawork and atmospherics.

Teaser-tastic: There is no tension and no real interest in the open scenes of Schisms. The tensest moment comes when we sit on the edge of our seats waiting to see if Riker can stay awake through one of Data's poetry recitals. Hardly the stuff that great drama is made out of.

Fashion Statement: Riker is having the ultimate bad hair day at the beginning of this episode. Has he not heard of a brush?

Moral of the Week: Picard's Aunts insomnia remedy doesn't always work. Especially when there are big fingered nasties committing experiments on you when you are sleeping.

Result: 'I've been in this room before...' Schisms is a slow burn mini horror movie without a resolution that takes ages to get going. It's not Brannon Braga's finest work, if I'm honest. Most of the effective scenes comes from a director who is working overtime to ensure that the holodeck scenes are seriously creepy. The first ten minutes are a day in the life of a Starfleet Commander who hasn't had any sleep...vital to the plot but hardly the most stirring of material. The second half of the episode is much better than the first and I can't help but wonder if we should have gotten there a little quicker rather than experiencing such an unhurried escalation of dread. It might make the dawning realisation of the crew being experimented on more realistic but it stunts the progress of the episode too. The best of Schisms is the moody sequence in the holodeck where the crew recreate their nightmares in reality, one of the most memorably discomforting scenes that TNG ever put out. Most TNG episodes I can hardly remember anything about but this dark sequence of twitching, clicking aliens and their clinical experimentation device really sticks in the mind. Horror doesn't always provide a satisfying resolution because it would only be a let down after the premise has conjured up all manner of nasty reasons in your mind. Fixing on one and providing an out only serves to make the horror safe. I'm in two minds as to whether that is effectively handled in Schisms. Is Braga trying to suggest that the horror is still out there...or that he just couldn't be arsed to think up a reason behind all this? A few haunting scenes aside though, I did struggle a bit with this episode. Braga would have another go at perfecting the mini horror movie in Frame of Mind (again centring around Riker) to much more disturbing effect: 6/10

True Q written by Rene Echeverria and directed by Robert Scheerer

What's it about: A student on an internship to the Enterprise has some surprising abilities...

To Baldly Go: Patrick Stewart makes the most of the few opportunities he gets to be the moral centre of this episode. He makes the scenes discussing Amanda's parents worth watching.

Number One: Remember when Troi declared Riker 'seasoned' in The Best of Both Worlds? There was a time when the thought of conquering a beautiful young lady like Amanda would had him puffing his chest out and cocking his leg up. Maybe the fact that Amanda is calling the shot is what upsets him. Perhaps he feels emasculated. 

Dancing Doctor: Q could do with being on hand in every episode to puncture the pomposity of this crew. He whisks Crusher away with a parting comment that she gets more shrill every year. Turning Dr Bev into a barking red setting gained this episode a whole extra point. This is another glazed over performance from Gates McFadden. Somebody teach this woman how to emote.

The Good: Amanda as written is a tech geek, a child genius and shamelessly naive...she should be unbearable to spend any length of time with. Thanks to a warm performance from Olivia D'abo the character transcends these irritating qualities and is somehow immediately likeable. That's some acting talent given the weight of writing faults against her. With her Bewitched style hand movements that can prevent a crisis in a moment, it would have been handy to have had Amanda hang around on the Enterprise. She even manages to have a couple of tantrums, teen style, and still stay on the right side of annoying. Mind you each episode would have been over with in about five minutes giving nobody a chance to show off their technobabble prowess or learn something about the human condition. To be fair to the Echeverria it is an original take on the Q and it is nice to see them trying something a little different, taking the focus away from DeLancie for a change. Pleasingly he is the only character that walks around with any kind of attitude, treating Amanda like a raw young cadet at Starfleet Academy that isn't performing well. The question of having these powers and questioning whether you should use the to impose your will on events is well addressed in a conversation with Dr Crusher. I wish we could have seen it in the flesh in some dramatically satisfying scenario but I'll take a gentle chat if that is all that is going. The two Qs playing hide and seek throughout the ship is worth a giggle but given they can go anywhere it might have been fun to stretch to some exotic backdrops and had Amanda chase Q throughout the galaxy. It would have driven home their ability more effectively. Interestingly, Q has been going along with this charade in the full knowledge that Amanda doesn't have a choice. She'll either return with him as a Q or be elimated as some kind of human/Q hybrid. This isn't driven him in an especially dramatic fashion (it is a casual chat between Picard and Q) but I appreciate the black and white nature of the situation. I'm always complaining that this series concludes episodes with a wave of the hand resolution. True Q is the ultimate expression of that but in this case it is the point of the episode. It might not be remotely exciting but at least it forces Amanda to make a decision.

The Bad: Unfortunately the tone is so sugar sweet it might rot your teeth whilst watching. If you were having a particularly awful day and were looking to watch something completely unchallenging and luxuriatingly twee then this would be the perfect remedy. My problem is that I expect far more than this level of predictability and congenial viewing, I want to see something that really pushes the boundaries and makes the actors work. In a few episodes time we will reach Chain of Command, a genuinely innovative, dramatic, thought provoking piece of work. That shouldn't be the exception in the first half of season six, it should be the rule. Looking at True Q objectively it had the chance to be a really probing examination of the Q and their nature, however obscurely, in the same way that Death Wish managed so beautifully over on Voyager (that's me praising Voyager...make a note of this day). But it fudges it by going for the melodrama angle. It's not searching, it's reducing the most interesting species in the Trek universe to the level of a daytime soap opera. Surely to goodness there is a more absorbing way of showing how tempting Amanda's powers are than speeding up some dreary medical experiment that Dr Bev has cooked up. There is something seriously wrong with the dimensions of Qs head and body when he is superimposed on the exterior of the Enterprise. He looks like that creature from Beetlejuice hanging out in the waiting room, a tiny head and enormous body!

Moment to Watch Out For: Amanda being able to bring her parents before her eyes. In an episode that is so saccharine, it is nice to have a moment of poignancy.

Moral of the Week: Be careful what you wish for...especially if you have omnipotent powers.

Result: Not terrible but hardly a riveting watch, I find myself wondering once again if TNG has completely lost its bite. Whilst Amanda's coming of age story was passable enough filler, it was also a little too cute and gentle to make any real kind of impact. The dilemma that faces both Amanda and the crew whether to allow her to embrace her true nature is rendered irrelevant by the fact that nobody has much of a choice in the matter. They are arguing for a hopeless outcome. The episode itself misses out on pretty much every possible dramatic beat, presenting this situation in a series of informal conversations with nobody getting even slightly passionate about any of it (except perhaps Dr Bev and her ruined medical experiment). Amanada is well cast but the script presents her in as mundane a way as possible and despite DeLancie's efforts this is hardly the most stirring use of Q either. After Q-Pid and True Q it appears that the character might have exhausted his worth. The less said about the disaster of the week the better...did anybody give a damn about this uncharacterised planet and its ecological calamity? Surely it wasn't my imagination that in season three there were an awful lot of shows that dug deep psychologically and provided some really punchy action? Remember The Survivors, The Enemy, The Defector, The Hunted, The High Ground, Yesterday's Enterprise, Sins of the Father, Sarek...all within arms reach of each other. Since mid season five TNG feels cleansed of anything truly challenging and dynamic, aside from a few rare examples. True Q is another tolerable episode but I'm still waiting for something spectacular. Maybe that's coming up next: 5/10

Rascals written by Alison Hock and directed by Adam Nimoy

What's it about: Picard, Ro, Guinan and Keiko get turned into kiddiewinks. Yep, that made it past the script stage.

To Baldly Go: 'And be Wesley Crusher's roommate?' Picard is boring everybody rigid in the shuttle with his archaeological finds from the planet they have just visited. I swear I saw Keiko check out the airlock to see if she could activate it from where she is sitting. If this really is what Picard was like when he was younger then it would appear that he was always a snobbish, pretentious old swot. I mean that in the most affectionate of ways. David Tristan-Birkin gives a rousing performance, uncannily capturing Patrick Stewarts physical mannerisms and encapsulating that haughty tone of his. I can't help but smirk every time he opens his mouth. Mini Picard's ranting has to be seen to be believed ('I need to see me father! Now! Now! Now! Now!'). This stuff is gold. 

The Kids: Young Guinan is a wonderful character and I feel we should have found a way for her to stick around and get the older version back too. I hope Isis Carmen Jones went on to do some good things because she has all of Goldberg's charm and charisma in that wonderfully underplayed way of hers. Mini Ro is slightly less fun but more complex. She's torn between being able to re-live her childhood in a slightly more fun way (she spent most of hers in a labour camp) and staying true to the fact that she is a right grumpy mare. Heaven forbid she should enjoy herself. I jump on the bed as an adult so if I was transformed into a child heaven knows where my immaturity would take me. Ro considers her makeover a violation and needs a damn good prodding from Guinan to get her to have some fun. As for the awkward conversations between O'Brien and his new teenage wife...perhaps that was better left to the imagination. What on Earth would have happened had Keiko been trapped in the body of a child forever? Imagine those domestic scenes on DS9 with mini Keiko in the mix? At least Colm Meaney knows that anything he experiences on the new show he has signed up cannot be any more ridiculous than this. And that includes Our Man Bashir. Mini Keiko even moans 'Meowyllles!' in exactly the same way as our Keiko.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Tactical advantage? Jean-Luc, look at your team for a minute...we're children!'
'He's my Number One Dad!'
I wont quote it because I can't get my head around all of the words but Rascals features some of my favourite technobabble in Star Trek. Riker makes up a load of impressive sounding nonsense words to confuse his Ferengi friend and somehow makes it sound plausible. Check it out.
'That's the wonderful thing about crayons. They can take you to more places than a Starship.'

Dreadful Dialogue: 'I assure you I am Captain PEE-card' - try again, Birkin-Smith.

The Good: You have to give the casting crew some real credit, the child actors all look exactly like younger versions of their characters and do a reasonable impression of the older actors too. Even more essential is that they can all act and the average with child actors and acting ability is not great. Chances were that this bunch should have been dreadful but they all acquit themselves well. And I thought it couldn't get any more twee than True Q. The idea of exploring a second childhood without the pain of growing up again is an intriguing one but the idea is mooted in one scene and then dropped in favour of Ferengi shenanigans. Mike Gomez gives a wonderful performance as Damon Lurin, he's pure panto villain but has been given permission by the script. If anybody was going to storm the Enterprise in such a ludicrous way you would want it to be somebody as nutty as this.

The Bad: There is absolutely no way that Picard would be able to pick up his post as Captain of the ship looking like a 14 year old kid. It just wouldn't happen under any circumstances. The fact that the writers bother to go through with the charade is rather sweet and completely humiliating for the show. I don't like to take the mickey out of child actors that have to live up to actors of the stature of Patrick Stewart but just watching Birkin-Smith when he walks off the Bridge. That couldn't be a more swottish walk if it tried. Ickle wickle Molly O'Brien asking her mum who has recently been transformed into a fresh faced pre-teen practically redefines twee. All we need to do now is add Alexander into the mix...oh wait. How patronising is that childhood computer programme? 'Would you like to some pictures of interesting plants and animals?' It's any wonder the kids of the future aren't stunted of growth if this is the level of engagement they receive. Fortunately wily Guinan is on board to manipulate her way around the denigrating curriculum. Alexander shows up to aid with his remote controlled toy. Isn't that kid annoying? Can't we keep one of these new kids instead? You know, the ones who can actually act? Watch the Ferengi when they are all gathered up in the transporter room and are puzzled by the force field and keep bumping into it. This bunch managed to take the Enterprise? How embarrassing. The take over and take back are so slight that it may as well have not happened at all. And then by a magical quirk of medical and technobabble the kids are transformed back into adults. It's so unreasonably tidy but you have to let it slide because it is so goofy.

Teaser-tastic: What a wonderfully random bunch of characters to share a shuttle. What on Earth could be happening in the universe to bring together Picard, Ensign Ro, Guinan and Keiko O'Brien in one place? 'There's a forty percent drop in mass...I may have lost one of them!' says O'Brien as he beams them aboard. Fortunately only one character on that shuttle is essential to the continuation of the series. The moment when the four children materialised on the transporter pad it was one of the few moments when my jaw literally dropped. My residing thought? Surely their not going to do this?

Fashion Statement: What is up with Troi's hair this year? It looks like somebody has dropped a soggy mop head on her head.

Moment to Watch Out For: The whole episode. Sheer insanity. Isn't it extraordinary that this can exist within the same series (let alone the same season) as Chain of Command? I never said TNG wasn't versatile...

Moral of the Week: Being young isn't quite as bad as you remember. Oh and too much tweeness is a very bad thing. After watching this I want to go and do something very unpleasant to somebody.

Result: 'It's just so ridiculous...' Be careful what you ask for...check out the last line of the review of the previous episode. What can you say about Rascals? A handful of the Enterprise crew are turned into spotty little herberts, the Ferengi manage to take over the Ship and said children take it back off them using toys and comm badges. It jettisons believability in the first five minutes and things get less credible with each passing scene. It's such a melding of two utterly outrageous concepts that the only thing to do is go with it and have some fun otherwise you will be tearing your hair out at the painful idiocy of it all. At least there is some action involved after the lethargy of the previous run of episodes, even if it is of the most baffling kind. Ferengi's with Klingon Birds of Prey attacking the Enterprise? I still can't help but wonder what is going on in the rest of the universe so that this madness takes priority. The truth of the matter is that Rascals is slight but entertaining but make no mistake, it is Trek for pre-schoolers. It's the sort of material that makes The Game look demanding. Despite its inanities, quite pleasurable. I just know that challenging episode is coming up next: 7/10

A Fistful of Datas written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe & Brannon Braga and directed by Patrick Stewart

What's it about: Worf gets some downtime with his son...in the (not so) Wild West!

Mr Wolf: What do you think Worf is more upset about, having to spend time in Alexander's holodeck programme or simply having to spend time with Alexander? Worf begins to understand the appeal of this programme when he can start cracking heads together although he has more trouble with the buxom babes that want to slide him between the sheets. Michael Dorn seems to appreciate the chance to have some fun, I just wish he had had a better vehicle than A Fistful of Datas.

Alien Empath: What's this? Counsellor Troi is letting her hair down? Whilst I question the authenticity of her cowboy accent (she sounds a bit like somebody who has had a stroke), it is great to see her out of the therapists office and engaging in something a little frivolous that doesn't consist of a chocolate sundae.

The Good: Aside from a cigarette chomping Troi, Annie is my favourite character in this episode. Where Patrick Stewart fails to conjure up the atmosphere of a western, he at least manages to drag a sincere performance out of Joy Garrett and she has great fun flirting with Michael Dorn. The western back lot that Stewart has to play about on looks highly authentic...it's just a shame that he forgot to play. How wonderful for Brent Spiner to have the opportunity to stretch his acting muscles and play several parts within the episode. It adds an element of tension to think that all of these characters have Data's strength and agility. Watch out for the stunning final effects shot, the Enterprise heading off into the sun.

The Bad: The crew are enjoying a chance to have some time off. Are you kidding me? Surely that is all they have done throughout the first eight episodes of the season. Nothing seems to be happening in the slightest in the Alpha Quadrant and we have had time for time travel romps, nostalgia romps and even child bearing romps! What exactly this crew needs a rest from baffles me. Having studied the western genre (one which I am not particularly enamoured with and never have been) in great depth during my media studies course with the Open University I have to say that Patrick Stewart misses the mark on several conventions in his direction. Whilst he has found a realistic looking western town to play in he never once stresses the sense of wide open spaces, the riotous activity on the streets or the sense that every vice is up for sale. In both of Doctor Who's attempts at a western (The Gunfighters and A Town Called Mercy) I would say that they hit these points far more effectively. I would even say the set up on DS9, a western in space if ever I saw one, promoted the stronger aspects of the genre better than A Fistful of Datas. It's a bit too quiet for my tastes. Even the score is a little too subtle. Spending an entire episode in the company of Alexander is something to be feared, not because he is written for badly but because Brian Bosnell comes from the Matthew Waterhouse school of acting. He finds talking to the computer a difficult task to sound natural. Seriously, did they screen this kid for his acting ability?

Teaser-tastic: All Picard wants is a little peace and quiet to learn to play his whistle and every man and his dog comes to visit him. It is an enjoyable sequence, watching Picard getting more and more exasperated by the interruptions, if not as riotously funny as it could be. That description pretty much describes the episode as a whole. I was especially amused by Dr Bev's reaction to Picard's suggestion that he would be playing one of the leads in her play.

Fashion Statement: Remember when Rory in Doctor Who thought he was more interesting because he had grown one of those horrid rats tail ponytails in Amy's Choice? Probably the most interesting thing Geordi does in his entire tenure is grow a beard and that really says something profound about the long term viability of his character.

Moment to Watch Out For: The final showdown set piece is well shot on location but still a little too ponderous for its own good. Check out the violent, quick cut shoot out that Doctor Who managed to pull off in the 1960s. Why a western pulled off in a creaky BBC studio should be more pacy and dramatic than one pulled off in a genuine western town on location baffles me. The music works a treat here, though.

Moral of the Week: Don't spend time with Alexander, it only leads to pain and suffering. And don't plug your head into the Enterprise computer.

Result: 'Shooting someone as ugly as you couldn't be considered a crime, could it?'  A sanitised TNG version of a western, never as thrilling, funny or dramatic as it could have been. Who wants to watch that? Add in more Alexander than I can stomach and another episode in a long line of romps that drives home the sheer indolence in the Alpha Quadrant in the latter seasons of TNG and you have an episode is far more weary than it has any right to be. What really sabotages A Fistful of Datas is a leaden pace, a sense of talkiness and a lack of action...all of which epitomise TNG in the 24th Century but are absolutely deadly when transferred into the Wild West. When the best thing you can say about a western production is that the lighting is atmospheric then you have missed the point by several miles. I've never known a western town to feel so devoid of life as the one Patrick Stewart brings to life here (or barely raises a pulse is more accurate). The biggest pluses are Brent Spiner's multiple performances (is there nothing that that man cannot do?), the appearance of Counsellor Durango the mysterious stranger and Miss Annie the love struck bartender. What should have been a riotous experience turns out to be a plodding exercise. Proof, if it was needed, that TNG needed to pull its socks up in its sixth season, stop arsing about and get on with something a bit more demanding: 5/10

The Quality of Life written by Naren Shankar and directed by Jonathan Frakes

What's it about: A new form of technological life? 

Dancing Doctor: Would a Doctor really want to learn the art of the Bat'leth? Surely somebody who has devoted their life to healing would want nothing to do with a weapon whose very existence is to hack and slash people to pieces. Maybe things are so quiet on the Enterprise that she is trying to drum up some business by causing a few minor flesh wounds. As Dr Bev says, trying to determine the meaning of life is a big question. Data should no better than to ask a philosophical question on this ship. We could be here for years. She gives the medical response, which very cold but doesn't factor in the soul. Gates McFadden seems very comfortable in The Quality of Life, she always does when she is directed by Jonathan Frakes. Dr Bev suggests that is how we struggle through life that defines our place in the universe. That seems like a fair statement to me.

Blind Engineer: It is nice to see Geordi get passionate about something. A shame it should be about some innovative technology, but the point still stands. He does have a pulse. Geordi is left carrying the equipment whilst Data and Dr Farallon talk business. I guess she finds him as interesting as I do.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I have reason to believe the Exocomps are alive.'

The Good: The design of the Exocomps epitomises everything about this episode. They are innocuous and sweet. It genuinely looks as though they are being operating as puppets on strings rather than by remote control (they wobble a little) but that just adds to their appeal. The scene where one of them thinks 'bugger that' and turns away from a task that has been assigned that would get it damaged, possibly fatally, always makes me smirk. Recognising new life is the principle mission of the Enterprise. I'm pleased to see that being explored again, in however an safe way. Sweetly, Data reasons with the Exocomps rather than ordering them into danger.

The Bad: Data is brought up, albeit briefly in the defence of considering the Exocomps a life form but the content of A Measure of a Man isn't referenced in any way. That is a shocking oversight given that it was the definitive treatise on the topic. They are trying to test whether a piece of technology is alive and to do so they choose to threaten its survival to see how it reacts. I see that there is a massive gulf between the treatment of technological and biological life because this kind of test would never be considered with the latter. But it is just a simulation, I hear you say...but the Exocomp doesn't know that. Or rather it does, which quite cleverly sabotages the test. There is an attempt to brew up some drama in the last ten minutes when the particle fountain is sabotaged and Picard and Geordi have to try and bring it back under control. Since we are not that invested in the technology (it has no impact on the show whatsoever) and we know that two of the regulars aren't going to be wiped out in such an quiet episode it is delivering little more than false tension. Interestingly, because Data is such an emotionally unreceptive character the director calls upon the other actors to emote in his place and so Picard and Riker seem more forceful in their commands than usual. It doesn't work because they are banging their heads against an emotionless brick wall. They can't reason with him emotionally, they have to try and reason with him logically. When it comes to the Captain and the Exocomps, the ethical argument is thrown out the window. Is this ship really about exploring new life then? Farallon seems completely unfazed about the fact that her project has been set back a couple of years because of Data redefining the Exocomps as a life form. Why does everybody have to be so damn amiable on this show? Picard declares Data's choice to save the Exocomps over his life the most human decision he has ever made. It is an old argument of mine but why is it that every character on TNG has to be defined by human terms. Why can't they be judged on their own merits as an alien, android, omnipotent entity or whatever?

Teaser-tastic: See below. Hardly a rousing introduction to the episode. That and the introduction of the Exocomp, the stubbiest little robot since Doctor Who unveiled the Quarks.

Fashion Statement: Geordi's beard continues to be the hottest conversation on the Ship, which goes to show just how exciting things are around here at the moment. Beverley's point about beards being an affectation are valid, I feel (I have one myself). And I would really like to see Dr Bev as a brunette.

Moment to Watch Out For: Data making the insubordinate decision to save the Exocomps at the risk of losing his Captain and best friend. Alas he does not have to deal with the emotions of that decision and so it is gutted of drama but it is still a momentary shock.

Moral of the Week: Life comes in all shapes, sizes and component parts. Never judge by appearances.

Result: Nice. Cute. Inoffensive. Does this sound familiar? That is because it is the same review I have written eight times already since the beginning of season six. I'm starting to sound like a broken record. In some ways The Quality of Life is an improvement on the previous episodes because it is exploring themes that are inherent to Star Trek - what makes something truly alive? However in others it is inferior because it lacks the humour and quirks of the episodes that surround it. It's no fun to be lectured without a knowing wink. It's also true that this subject was covered far more effectively in A Measure of Man and really wasn't going to be bettered. Whilst Data's defence of the Exocomps is sweet, it isn't a patch on Picard's passionate defence of his android Lieutenant Commander in the season two classic. As you can imagine a story that examines whether technology can be considered a life form it would have to come with plenty of the ultimate Star Trek curse...technobabble. Once again Brent Spiner delivers a superb performance and whilst the material might highlight Data at his most thoughtful, the rest of the crew are barely given any consideration (except for perhaps their beards). Unfortunately Data cannot drive his argument home with any kind of passion which makes The Quality of Life a remarkably passive piece of drama. It presents a case clinically rather than emotionally. I would have preferred something a little more racy, perhaps dealing with a biological life form and a member of the crew that could really engage with the dispute. This is alright but let's not pretend that in terms of content and tone that this anything more than a filler episode in the grand scheme of things. The trouble is it is the last in a long line of filler episodes. It's time for some real meat: 6/10

Chain of Command Part I written by Ronald D. Moore and directed by Robert Scheerer

What's it about: Are the Cardassians developing devastating biological weapons?

To Baldly Go: I have to say I rather like the way that Admiral Nechaev keeps Picard on his toes. He can be relaxed to the point of indolence at times at it is nice that there is someone there to remind him to straighten his uniform and take things as deadly seriously as she does. He is genuinely uncomfortable around her because she is constantly scrutinizing him. He's also not used to watching his crew being perturbed and not being able to do anything about it. When he does approach Jellico on the subject the man as good as tells him to piss off on his mission and that he doesn't have a say anymore. You cannot help but feel sorry for Picard, pushed into a physically demanding mission and stripped of everything that makes him feel important. He's impotent on his own ship now.

Number One: I think Riker assumed that he would be in command of the Enterprise if Picard was ever re-assigned. The look on his face when he realises he is going t be supplanted by Jellico is priceless. Remember when he gave Barclay such a hard time when he didn't come up to scratch? Well it is payback time and with Jellico on board comes a whole new ethos and set of rules. Do it my way or get out. Riker doesn't take kindly to this approach and can barely keep up with the demands of his new Captain. I hate to say it is amusing to watch him flounder like this but I think everybody needs pushing from time to time so they raise their game. Things have been so quiet around here lately I am not surprised that this sudden call to attention is such a shock. In a wonderful moment of 'asking the other parent', Riker turns to Picard rather than having it out with Jellico.

Alien Empath: One of the most satisfying scenes in the entire run of TNG is in this episode. I just knew as soon as the crew started moaning about Jellico's no-nonsense approach that Troi would duck in his door to let him know about their feelings. Wonderfully, he doesn't give a shit and tells her as much and sends her out with a flea in her ear whilst also commenting that she is dressed unprofessionally for her job. What a joyous moment, she is so thrown by the comments that she literally does not know how to react.

Dancing Doctor: Apparently Dr Bev was brought along for her medical expertise but her feminine wiles come in pretty handy too. Against my better judgement I found myself concerned for Dr Bev as she was swallowed up by a rock fall. Perhaps it was Picard's panicked distress that I was mirroring.

Blind Engineer: Remember when Geordi was impatient with Scotty who was trying to cope with technology far beyond his understanding in Relics? How amusing to watch him bitch and gripe about Jellico because he is expecting great things of the Engineering crew. They could potentially be going into a battle scenario and all systems need to be at peak efficiency in order for them to enter with absolute confidence. Geordi is a good Engineer but he is also used to his creature comforts on this ship and when Jellico suggests the Engineering team works around the clock for two days to get the job done he objects.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Oh...and get that fish out of the Ready Room.'
'Forgive me for being blunt but the Enterprise is mine now.'
'I'll say one thing...he's sure of himself' 'No, he's not.'

The Good: How wonderful to see TNG and DS9 working together to create a joint mythology whilst they are both on screen together. Frankly ever since DS9 came on the scene (Emissary and Times Arrow Part II would have aired around the same time) it feels as though the responsibility for dealing with the overall mythology that powers these shows has fallen on them, whilst TNG has been free to take a back seat and play out some filler episodes. We should have been in this position a lot sooner, both shows working together to strength a joint mythology. Since Voyager would be hurled into the Delta Quadrant, seasons six and seven of TNG and seasons one and two of DS9 are the only time when this has been able to happen. It was quite an exciting time to witness the events of one show impacting on another. A unique time for Trek. Jellico beams onto the Enterprise and it is like chucking a bucket of ice cold water over the crew. They are used to Picard's softly softly approach and Jellico is a very different of fish, demanding, expecting maximum efficiency without pleasantries and not making allowances for mistakes. Whilst his approach is ultra professional and impersonal, it is exactly what this crew needs in order to pull its socks up. Do things his way or get out of the way. Isn't it interesting to see that this crew doesn't respond well to being put through physical and psychologically punishing work. Perhaps they are only the best crew in the quadrant if their bellies are full, their holosuites are working and everybody is being nice to one another? The department heads and personnel are bitching and whining about changing to a four shift rotation and Jellico cuts through all that mothering and demands that they do as he requests, No ifs or buts. Jellico is asking a lot but I thought this crew was supposed to be the best? Would you put the Cardassians above creating a metagenic weapon that could destroy an entire eco system? I can see why Starfleet is taking this intelligence so seriously because I could absolutely see them grubbying their fingers with such technology. The Ferengi that Picard extorts the shuttle from is played by one of the actors who appeared in DS9's The Nagus - some nice exchange of characters too. For a while it seems like Jellico is only there to put peoples noses out of joint (which he does spectacularly) but once negotiations with the Cardassians start you can understand precisely why Starfleet wanted him in command. There is no way that Picard would have approached these negotiations at such a psychological angle, willing to get the participants riled up to the point of potentially kick starting war. This job needed somebody who behaves like a blunt instrument but is thinking like a grand chess master. The rock climbing sequence is complete superfluous but it looks incredible. I like the inference that underneath all that arrogance and bluster, Jellico is a desperately unsure man. Underground tunnels are tenapenny in modern Trek but the efforts of the set designers are a cut above the rest in Chain of Command. This network of tunnels feels vast and cavernous and they are atmospherically lit to highlight the oppressive nature of the setting. The cliffhanger is not your typical moment of jeopardy but the realisation that Picard is in a terrible situation that will no doubt get much worse. Trapped at the hands of a sadistic interrogator, he is going to be put through the psychological wringer.

The Bad: The one aspect of Chain of Command that is lacking is the score which, as is the norm for this period of Trek, is desperately unexciting. The music perks up for a moment just before Picard and his team reach their objective but on the whole it is like some terribly bland wallpaper hanging up around the episode.

Teaser-tastic: No time for pleasantries, Picard is being stripped of the Enterprise. Now that is how you open an episode of TNG to get the audiences attention. No cat poetry or eclectic crewmembers being turned into children. Shocking, straight to the point and sharp in its delivery. Great stuff.

Moment to Watch Out For: The moment that you realise that the whole set up has been a trapped to kidnap Picard. TNG doesn't often go for big bold shocks like this and it is genuinely fantastic example. Heart in mouth time.

Result: Bold, intense and dramatic, Chain of Command Part I is exactly what I have been asking for. It almost feels like the past nine episodes have been deliberately gentle to give this piece of drama the impact it has. After watching The Quality of Life, Chain of Command is like a slap around the face and a reminder of what this show can do when it focuses on its greatest strengths; brave storytelling, uncompromising dialogue and razor sharp character interaction. Ronald D. Moore later commented that he found it tricky to write for this perfect, goody-two-shoes crew and Chain of Command almost feels like his reaction to having to write for such a pleasant bunch for so long. I get the impression that he would Jellico to hang around permanently, to inject some real drama and tension into this show. If he cannot do it long term he can at least do it for this 45 minutes and the resulting drama is more gripping and attention grabbing than anything TNG has thrown up since The Best of Both Worlds. The crew of the Enterprise are exposed as mere children when it comes to truly physical and psychologically demanding situations and I feel like that is something that should have been addressed once the dramatic events of this two parter are dealt with. You know from experience that things will just go back to normal again but I do appreciate the effort to show them floundering in the lead up to a potential war. TNG has well and truly pulled its socks up and reminds us that at its best it is one of the greatest shows on TV, this would have been a much better bridge between the seasons than Time's Arrow. Just when you think it can't get any better, David Warner turns up at the climax: 10/10

Chain of Command Part II written by Frank Abatemarco and directed by Les Landau

What's it about: Picard is trapped in the tender mercies of a Cardassian interrogator...

To Baldly Go: Perhaps I should watch what I say in the future. I have always been rather hard on Picard for throwing the rule book in peoples faces when they have had difficult situations to face, even when the Prime Directive does not allow them to take the moral stance. He has often been dictatorial and unflinching in his support for an idealism that preaches a humane attitude but often forgets to put it into practice. I have often wished that somebody would take that rulebook off him and shove it down his throat. Well that is exactly what happens in Chain of Command and the resulting scenes are extremely uncomfortable to watch. To see such a proud, man of robust character reduced to a naked, pathetic victim in the space of 45 minutes is almost as torturous for the viewer as it is for Picard. Nobody is coming to help him, the rules have gone out of the window and he is going to suffer pain and humiliation that would test the soul of the strongest of men. It's unjust, uncompromising and gripping to watch. It is in episodes like this (and Tapestry later in the season) that Patrick Stewart comes into his own and outshines any of his contemporaries (I couldn't see Shatner, Brooks, Mulgrew or Bakula pulling off an episode of this magnitude as convincingly). As far as I understand he did his homework before embarking on such a challenging assignment, studying the treatment and psychological consequences of prisoners of war. The result is one of the most pain examinations of torture that I have ever watched on television made all the more affecting because Stewart usually adopts such a pompous tone on this show. When Picard thinks that Dr Bev is going to be tortured in his place he surrenders to his treatment to spare her, a cruel trick that preys on his feelings for her. In one of the most revealing moments of his tenure, Picard admits to Troi that not only would he have said anything to make the torture end but for a moment he could have sworn that he genuinely saw five lights. Such was the extent of his persecution. Stirring stuff.

Number One: Wonderful, we haven't seen Riker this riled up in ages. This is the sort of tension I would like to see in TNG in every other episode, some real juicy drama. He and Jellico might wind up respecting each other grudgingly but they are never going to like each other or their styles of command. Riker cannot believe that any plan that involves Picard being forgotten as a Cardassian prisoner of war is being considered and he is relieved of command for saying so. Jellico sums him up as arrogant, insubordinate, wilful and not a particularly good First Officer. It's an unfair assessment for somebody who has only been around for five minutes and has seen what this guy is like during the lax periods of the show (about 90% of the time then). Riker only displays these (I would call them admirable) qualities when things heat up. Frankly I wish we could see more of this side of him. Had he transferred to DS9 with O'Brien we might just have given the greater proportion of character conflict on that show. Riker's assessment of Jellico is equally harsh but probably much more justified. Mind you the qualities he states are ones I quite admire too. What is it about this show that I just want everyone to behave more like a bastard? 

Sparkling Dialogue: 'There are four lights!'

The Good: David Warner gives an extraordinary performance in this episode. He's an actor I have long admired and as a jobbing actor has turned up in so many cult programmes that I have enjoyed over the years. This is easily his most accomplished role in science fiction though, a powerhouse performance of intensity and terror. Les Landau is one of the less appreciated Star Trek directors and yet he is one of the mot prolific and the episodes that he did helm are often some of the very best. The Survivors, Deja Q, Family, Ensign Ro, Tapestry, Progress, Whispers, Second Skin, Accession and Counterpoint are all his.  He was known as a director who could deliver great results on time and on budget. He might not produce the more dynamic efforts like David Livingston, Allan Kroeker and Mike Vejar but give him a strong character study and he will direct the hell out of it, often coaxing some of the strongest performances out of the actors. Chain of Command Part II is one of his finest instalments in that respect as he is given the chance to give real focus on two very strong actors delivering challenging material. The resulting drama is astonishing to watch unfold. Let's not even pretend that the allusions to the treatment of prisoners during the Second World War is even slightly disguised. Picard is put through the physical and psychological hell in this episode, including sensory deprivation, sensory bombardment, forced nakedness, stress positions, dehydration, starvation, physical pain and cultural humiliation. He has always been shown to be the stalwartiest of Starfleet Captains, only breaking once before the last time he was physically and psychologically stripped of his identity (when he was turned into Locutus of Borg). This time the Cardassian interrogator almost finishes the job up for them. The thought that prisoners of war were put through this kind of ritual humiliation and torture is discomforting to acknowledge and it exemplifies Trek at its best, holding up a mirror to the worst excesses of humanity (where TNG normally focuses on the more pleasing side of our nature). Like all Cardassians (except Marritza of DS9's Duet) Madred is extremely proud of his culture and their attempts to educate the Bajoran people. The arrogance of this race in their efforts to excuse the raping of a planet and its people as an education is jaw dropping. What a shame that we didn't see more of John Durbin's slimy Gul Lemec, the very picture of Cardassian arrogance. I love the aesthetic of this race on TNG. For a show that often promotes very bland aliens and pretty imagery it provides an unsightly counterbalance. The contrast between Madred the family man and Madred the torturer really drives home the complexity of this race, how a man can go to work and torture a man and then come home and play with his children that he loves a great deal. The fact that he doesn't hide his work from his children, that he exposes her to the sort of horror he inflicts is appalling but it drives home their xenophobic attitude, showing humanity at their weakest. He can push aside all the horror that Cardassian military has inflicted on other races because it has made them a strong force in the quadrant and has provided a superior social, intellectual and creative infrastructure for their society. It's a passionate argument, not one that I agree with because it forgets all the suffering, but a persuasive one from his point of view. I have a feeling that Jellico would be the perfect Captain to helm a ship in the Dominion War, like Sisko he simply knows what has to be done to protect the Quadrant and damn the consequences and whining of his crew. What a shame we couldn't have caught up with him during the conflict. Madred shows his real character when he knows he has to release Picard and he uses his last opportunity to twist the knife in one last time, to try and convince Picard to admit that there are five lights instead of four just he can score the victory of breaking him. You can tell he likes to achieve results and for Picard to be taking away from him with his dignity intact despite everything he has put him through would irritate like a permanent itch under the skin. Jellico is so wonderfully arrogant that he hands the Enterprise over to Picard with the little observation that it is exactly as he left it, perhaps a little better.

The Bad: This is exactly the sort of work that Garak would have been performing back in his days with the Obsidian Order. It is such a shame that we didn't get to see more of his interrogative side like this (although what we did see in The Die is Cast is quite terrifying enough).

Fashion Statement: Data in a red uniform. Just no. Troi in the blue uniform? Should have been done years ago. She's looks fantastic.

Moment to Watch Out For: The moment that most took my breath away was when Madred reveals a little about his childhood and Picard uses that to build a pitiable version of his Cardassian torturer. Madred is appalled changes his tactics, going from somebody who is manipulating Picard to somebody who simply wants to hurt him. Patrick Stewart's agonised reaction to the pain is extraordinary.

Moral of the Week: There are four lights.

Result: One of the most disturbing hours of Trek, the second half of Chain of Command is in a league of its own when it comes to examining emotional and bodily torture. The humiliation and pain that Picard is put through in this episode highlights his strength of character like no other. It confirms that old adage of mine - put two strong actors together in a room with a good script and you can produce absolute magic at relatively no cost. It goes to show that the flashes and bangs of a regular Star Trek episode mean very little when compared with real human drama. Patrick Stewart gives a television career best (which, in TNG terms, is very, very good indeed) and David Warner must take the crown as the most impressive guest star that this series has ever featured. Together they produce electrifying moments of drama, pathos and discomfort. The Enterprise half of this episode doesn't slough either, with Jellico continuing to be a whirlwind presence on the Ship. It's such a shame that he and Guinan didn't get together as I could imagine some real sparks flying but aside from that I cannot fault this ship bound section. Riker is a passionate character again and Jellico is such a wonderful bastard I wish he could have stuck around longer (oh my...imagine a scene between him and Pulaski? The King and Queen of bastard!). Chain of Command has compelling drama running through it like a stick of rock, it is as good as Star Trek comes in any of the shows and proves that this particular branch can be as hard hitting as DS9 when it wants to be. I was floored by the quality of the script, the powerful performances and the intimate direction by Les Landau. It holds up all these years later as if it were being transmitted today: 10/10

Ship in a Bottle written by Rene Echevarria and directed by Alexander Singer 

What’s it about: A self-aware hologram that wants to leave his fantasy prison? 

To Baldly Go: Picard has clearly been dragged out of bed, his uniform is open and he looks ready to fire a torpedo at Moriarty, as he is summoned to the holodeck. I really love how Patrick Stewart plays his scenes with Davis; refusing to let Picard patronise or talk down to him, accepting him as an individual with his own rights and decisions to make. It’s funny how awkward Stewart was in the first couple of seasons and how he is the most effortlessly comfortable actor on this show now, delivering one sublime performance after another.

Dancing Doctor:
Why is it left to Dr Bev to point how romantic this situation is? Is she good for nothing but to provide a feminine perspective?

Nobody does bafflement and nervousness quite like Barclay? So leave it to him to entertainingly stammer and frown his way through the first appearance of both Moriarty and the Countess. Barclay is crippled with enough anxieties, let alone Picard adding a further one to his armoury of them at the climax. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘If my will is strong enough, perhaps I can exist outside this room.’
‘Policemen, I’d recognise them in any Century.’
‘My God! We’re adrift in the heavens!’
‘He’s also an arch criminal’ ‘Only because he was written like that.’
‘All this might be an elaborate simulation running inside a little device sitting on someone’s table.’

The Good:
This does rather dismiss my feeling that TNG forgets continuity past for continuing adventures…but who would have ever thought that they would have picked up the thread of Elementary Dear Data from season two? Just wait, season seven gets even more arbitrary with it’s follow up episodes. This works mostly because Daniel Davis gives such a star turn as Moriarty; one-part silky menace, two parts charm machine and because the script allows the character to surprise the audience as well as the regulars, constantly defying expectation. After the artificially designed Enterprise and the wealth of futuristic worlds that the ship visits, it must be the ultimate nourishment for the designers of this show to head back in time and bring to life a Victorian study. It’s a beautiful set, packed with detail. Can you imagine being a self-aware holodeck character who is aware of the passage of time when the device is switched off? That sounds like purgatory, and gives Moriarty’s desires to escape some credence. In the future, Voyager would introduce the mobile emitter which would make an episode like this moot but it just goes to show how the holo-technology evolved in across the three series (on DS9 it was essentially a knocking shop). Gosh, the idea of a fictional character choosing to walk away from the ‘scribblings’ of his author and choose his own path is an inspirational idea. Do characters have a life beyond that which the people that bring to fruition give them? Stephanie Beecham gives a delightfully warm and amiable performance. She’s quite stunning, but it’s her charm that that radiates the most. The idea that had Data not figured out the illusion that he, Picard and Barclay would have continued to live inside this charade appeals to me. It’s not something the writers would ever consider but imagine taking this across several episodes, having all kinds of odd developments happen in the series and THEN reveal the twist? I guess DS9 tried that in The Search Part II and the second you try and shake things up too fast it becomes instantly obvious that the scenario itself is a ploy. The concept of these two characters from Victorian literature heading off into the great unknown in a shuttlecraft to explore the universe is so delightful, how can you fail to love this episode? The Countesses’ reaction to the stars all around her captures that feeling of wonder that Star Trek prides itself on better than any episode in an age. I guess its easy to feel commonplace this late in the shows life. It takes a character that is a fish out of water to remind you of how wondrous this all is. That this isn’t a cheat and they get to go an a genuine series of adventures from within the holodeck is beguiling.

The Bad: In hindsight it does make you wonder why the crew don’t ponder the possibility that they are still on the holodeck because that is the easiest explanation for why Moriarty can exist on the Enterprise. However, when I first watched it the idea never entered my head until it was presented much later in the episode, so compelling was the case made for his existence in ‘our’ world. Imagine if this had been real and Picard had had to write up the fact that Moriarty took control of his ship? And just a few weeks after the Ferengi managed it too! Held to ransom by a holodeck character? This wouldn’t have happened in the days when Wesley Crusher saved the ship on a bi-weekly basis. It’s bizarre how English-speaking actors sound their most ‘good golly gosh’ British in American shows. Somebody should do a study on the effect. It might have nice to have seen some of the crew having an identity crisis once learning that they aren’t real. I love the look Geordi gives Picard when the idea is mooted that they are still on the holodeck and he isn’t real. 

Teaser-tastic: Brent Spiner is so good at these moments where he steps into the shoes of Jeremy Brett and takes on Sherlock Holmes. Mind you, at this stage I think Spiner might take on any role in TNG and do it justice. In contrast, Levar Burton is completely at sea with his hybrid English/American accent. I think that’s why Spiner does most of the talking. It’s a full five-minute teaser, recalling the fun of Elementary Dear Data and promising more holodeck chicanery to come. This was at a time where holodeck malfunctions had started to get a little tiresome, so it was with guarded caution that I proceeded into the episode.

Fashion Statement: The Countesses get-up has to be seen to be believed. How did women sit and walk comfortably in so many layers of chiffon?

Moment to Watch Out For: I can still remember the first time I saw the scene where Moriarty ‘thinks’ himself off the holodeck, walking onto the Enterprise through his sheer force of will. I physically recoiled at such a notion.

Moral of the Week:
You’re as real as you think you are. Don’t except the confines of your reality.

Result: ‘Computer end programme…’ Utterly beguiling, a script that is loaded with charming ideas, wonderful characters and enjoyable dialogue. Ship in a Bottle plays out in an unpredictable fashion, where it’s twists are only obvious in hindsight because the presentation of the surprises is so enjoyable. I love how the title works so magnificently once the big twist is revealed, twice over. As this is early 90s Star Trek there is an awful lot of talk but I prefer that to the action-packed madness it has become of late. Could the dialogue be a little more probing than it is here focussing on the nature of existence and self-awareness? Probably, but this is still a Star Trek episode so instead of turning this into a psychological exercise we enjoy a labyrinthine plot that involves multiple layers of duplicity. There are little clues littered about as to the nature of what is reality and what isn’t (the lack of cuts to the exterior of Enterprise is telling) but what makes this work so well is the characters of Moriarty and the Countess, how engagingly they are played and the fact that you are rooting for them throughout. This really isn’t the character that Arthur Conan Doyle envisioned, and he’s all the more interesting for having broken free of his writer’s vision and evolving into a man who can exist in the 24th Century. This is exactly the sort of thing that TNG did best; quirky, offbeat, one off episodes that commit to their premise and deliver entertainment in spades. The final scene always leaves me with a smile on my face: 9/10


Anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Chain of Command the ONLY 2-parter in TNG you gave back-to-back 10/10s?

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