I have a bad habit of writing reviews when I'm tired. Fatigue and sleep deprivation are taking their toll on me today, so let's hope I don't ramble on overmuch tonight. Tonight's episode is Contagion.
Contagion begins with Picard answering a distress call from Captain Varley of the USS Yamato, the Enterprise's sister ship. We encountered the Yamato in a previous episode ("Where Silence Has Lease," S2.E2, the one with the weird face performing experiments on the Enterprise), at least in the form of a mirage. This time we meet the Yamato face to face. Well, viewscreen to viewscreen. We don't have much time to make the Yamato's acquaintance, because the ship is about to explode spectacularly. Picard makes contact with Varley. Varley's complaining about some erratic and serious malfunctions on his ship. He hopes Picard can help. Before Picard can respond, these malfunctions escalate from lighting outages to a total and spontaneous meltdown of the Yamato's core.
The Yamato explodes spectacularly before the crew's collective eyes. After a few moments of shock and horror, Picard rediscovers his composure and orders a full investigation.
Wesley has a pretty nice scene with Picard. They talk about the destruction of the Yamato. Wesley's shaken. He's never seen death like that before. (It's true. I don't think he has.) Picard, unfortunately, doesn't have time to comfort him. Whatever caused the Yamato to malfunction spectacularly has now infected the Enterprise.
Here's where everything goes south.
We've seen episodes like this before. The Enterprise runs afoul of the remnants of an ancient, mighty civilization that perished thousands of years ago but left their dangerous legacy behind, either in the form of weaponry or some kind of ultra-powerful guardian. In Contagion, there is no antagonist. There are no aliens trying to subvert or destroy the Enterprise.
There's just a massive technological failure. In space.
And, you know what? I really liked that. I liked that the Enterprise isn't fighting against some hostile alien civilization, but trying to figure out how to save itself from accidental destruction from some sort of unknowable technological failure. It's like racing against the clock to solve an IT Helpdesk problem, except the scale is massive and if they fail the ship explodes. (I feel like there's reality show potential there.)
So let's take this episode apart one element at a time, because contrary to the relative simplicity of the premise, there's a lot happening. Captain Varley of the Yamato was investigating the Iconians when his ship began malfunctioning. He asked the Enterprise for help, too late. His ship explodes. Now the Enterprise begins to malfunction. To make matters worse, there's a Romulan vessel prowling around suspiciously at the time of the Enterprise's destruction. The Romulans are hostile to the Enterprise, and they're just waiting for any excuse to blow it to bits.
The Iconian arc felt very Mass Effect-ish to me, in a good way. Iconians were an ancient, almost-forgotten spacefaring civilization with technology well beyond the understanding of any comparable life-form. They disappeared thousands of years ago, but they left their markers across the galaxy on the planets they colonized.
They were known as the people of Air and Darkness. This is a reference to Arthurian Legend, specifically T.H White's Once and Future King. "The Queen of Air And Darkness" is Morgana LeFay, a witch, a sorceress. There is something arcane and sorcerous about the Iconians. Even the malfunctions that destroyed the Yamato and plague the Enterprise feel a bit like an ancient curse. It is the old, time-honored trope of a bold but foolish explorer (in this case, Varley) who finds an artifact of an ancient civilization and incurs its baleful curse.
Doesn't that sound a bit like the Protheans? I love it.
Anyway, whatever's plaguing the Enterprise has something to do with the Iconians. The rest of the episode resolves itself like an elaborate (and tense and nail-biting) computer science problem. I love how every problem introduced in this episode is a problem of science; I love how every solution discovered to these problems are solutions born from scientific knowledge, expertise, or experimentation. This is a remarkably down to earth, hard-science episode for such a high-minded, lofty concept.
Picard takes an away team down to the Iconian home planet and wanders into a ruined teleporter chamber. Data accidentally turns on a device that opens some sort of gateway into other worlds. Dozens of other worlds. Many of these resemble places on Earth. Stonehenge, the Peloponnese, the Caucus Mountains. I loved the subtle implication here, the idea that the Iconians were so ancient that they'd found a way to visit Earth long before any of us had even developed a system of government. This is thought-provoking science fiction. I wish we'd stuck around to learn more about the Iconians, because their civilization is just fascinating.
The episode resolves itself without much fanfare or drama.
In fact the solution got a chuckle out of me. In the end, Geordi figures out a way to stop the rogue Iconian program from completely rewriting the Enterprise's system: power down the entire Enterprise, dump the memory and reboot from a point just before contact with the Ionians.
In other words, the solution to this episode's problem is...
"Turn it off, then turn it back on again."
Good episode. Thought-provoking material. I *love* the absence of any kind of visible alien. I love that the Iconians are long gone. The civilization feels more mysterious for having disappeared. I love how tightly the episode focuses on solving a computer science problem.
Tomorrow I will try writing a review when I am not so tired.
"Now, my bright lance, precede me, and lead me to his head."
Your writers are talented and obviously picked up on the storytelling potential here. For the first time in TNG, Picard and the Enterprise encounters an ancient civilization the nature of which it can't begin to understand, the people of which no longer exist, and the technology of which could change the nature of space travel forever.
If I were trying to tell a new story using old material, I think I'd zero in on the Iconians too.
Plus it just feels Mass Effect-ish, so we know it works.
"Now, my bright lance, precede me, and lead me to his head."
Do you get the sense that Season 2 is beginning to retread the ground of Season 1? "The Royale" feels remarkably like Season 1's "The Big Goodbye," in which Picard and company are trapped in a malfunctioning holodeck simulation of a penny dreadful detective novel, complete with a full selection of bad accents and wiseguys, eh? In "The Royale," the Enterprise's away team finds themselves trapped in a neverending simulation of a very bad novel--the epynomous 'Royale'--and must find a way to leave.
This episode didn't go in the direction I expected. We open with a few compelling ideas whisked before our eyes as if to prepare us for some later payoff. I kept my eyes open for possible Chekhov Guns--plot elements introduced in the first few minutes of the episode, which only become relevant in the final act. Picard waxes philosophical about Fermat's Last Theorem. The Enterprise beams aboard a piece of space junk bearing the NASA logo.
I am captivated by the possibility of an entire Star Trek episode in which the resolution involves solving or confronting Fermat's Last Theorem. The Enterprise discovering a NASA logo in deep space is sort of like the Apollo Mission discovering Columbus's diary on the moon. The concept alone is so impossible as to demand my attention.
Unfortuantely, Fermat's Last Theorem never appears again in this episode. Neither does the NASA logo, except by accident, and without consequence.
An away team comprised of Worf, Riker, and Data beam down onto a lone building on a desolate planet with a surface temperature well below (???) absolute zero. Curiously the building is immune to the ravages of the planet's climate. Inside the building, Riker and company find a hotel and casino. The Royale, it's called. The concierge treats them with the same thinly veiled contempt he'd show to a convention of Trekkie Larpers who just showed up at Caesar's Palace in character.
Riker and company seem positively baffled by the sight before them: a fully functional, autonomous, wholly convincing simulacrum of a 20th century Las Vegas hotel, but without a single detectable life form anywhere. What could it be? It's almost like...like a hologram!
Why Riker is so flummoxed by what logic dictates should be a Holodeck Simulation is one of the big problems of this episode. Everyone seems so baffled and confused by an illusion so completely convincing, yet the Holodeck technology is ubiquitous enough that Riker's surprise is both unconvincing and uncharacteristic.
At this point I expect the away team to begin looking for some kind of Man Behind The Curtains. The Great Wizard Oz running this entire bizarre show for some unknown purpose, but we find no one. There is no antagonist in this episode.
Rather, we discover a rotting cadaver lying in one of the guest rooms. A quick search of the cadaver's effects reveals this to be S. Richey, a NASA astronaut who participated in one of Earth's earliest extrasolar missions. He disappeared mysteriously and was never heard from again.
Richey has a novel in his possession called The Royale. He also has a convenient diary, which Riker reads (his Quest Log is updated appropriately) and discovers that a race of unknown aliens killed the entire NASA crew except Richey (why?), and then felt so guilty for killing Richey's friends (why?) that they made a perfect simulation of the novel The Royale (why?) which they assumed was a depiction of the ideal human life (why?) and then left him in that simulation to spend the rest of his miserable life watching it over and over and over and over again (why why why why?)
None of this makes sense, but that's not what bothers me.
I am troubled by the profound wasted potential of this episode.
We have seen episodes in the past in which a character's dreams manifest into reality. "Where No One Has Gone Before" in Season 1 has the Enterprise far beyond the edge of the known universe; here their every thought becomes reality. "The Royale" could have easily gone in a similar direction. Aliens destroy the NASA ship. Richey survives. They allow him to live in a perfect simulation of his deepest, happiest dreams. The simulation goes on and on and on and on until the happiness just drains from it like a centrifuge, and in the end Richey is a miserable man trapped in his own garden of Eden, wishing for some kind of release from his endless joy.
Tracy Torme originally wrote that story for Episode 12. His story didn't make the cut. The abbatoir of editorial red pens turned his original vision into this soggy, unambitious episode; Torme changed his names in the credits out of embarrassment.
I would've loved to watch Torme's original story story. Instead the story was re-written, Richey's dreams substituted for a bad novel called the Royale. Richey is forced to watch the events of the novel repeat themselves ad infinitum. Fortunately, I only had to watch it once.
This episode wasn't awful, but it suffers from a strange absence of ambition. I recognize the seeds of extraordinary storytelling planted somewhere in the loamy soil of this episode's ideas, but those seeds never really sprout. They want to, but it is like the writers were so afraid of what this episode might have become that they intentionally sold themselves short and decided on something plain, unambitious, where nothing was really ever at stake. The episode is a rather lovely series of vignettes and set pieces. By the Captain's own admission however, The Royale is a tedious exercise in second-rate storytelling. Like Picard, I was just waiting for the whole thing to end so we could move on.
I don't know guys. Maybe I'm being excessively mean-spirited today. There is legitimately quite a lot I liked about this episode, but my inner critic seems to have taken control of my consciousness this evening, and its voice is controlling my keystrokes.
Episode 13 on Monday!
"Now, my bright lance, precede me, and lead me to his head."
This review was written while listening to the TTGL Soundtrack. This does not work with Star Trek at all.
So, Time Squared opens with Commander Riker inviting his friends over for a home cooked meal. There's something bizarrely off-beat about Riker in an apron whistling something tuneless while serving up a dish of scrambled alien eggs. I didn't get a look at his apron but I'm sure it had some kind of funny 24th century witticisms. Like "Set Phasers For Fun" or "Prime Rib Directive" or something.
Anyway the food is hilariously awful to everyone except Worf, who gives Riker the Klingon equivalent of a Dickensian please-sir-I-want-some-more look. Frankly I'm disappointed they didn't use this opportunity for a "worfs his food down" pun. Anyway this episode isn't about Riker's disastrously bad cooking. This episode is about Captain Picard shooting Captain Picard.
It is also one of the most unconventional episodes I've seen in a while.
So, the Enterprise gets a distress signal from one of its own shuttles, except no one reported a missing shuttle. The crew dock the shuttle, open it, and discover inside an unconscious Captain Picard. So at this point I'm suspecting a few possibilities: there is some kind of bizarre Ben Reilly-esque plot twist in the works in which we discover that Picard was created from a vat of clones designed to be the perfect Gallic gentleman and officer, or that there are some time travel/alternate dimension shenanigans about to take place.
Understandably, Picard is troubled to discover himself unconscious in one of the Enterprise's own shuttles. Most of the crew is cautiously optimistic. They're confused but no one's panicking, because they've all been through worse and there is a collective understanding that this weirdness will resolve itself in time.
It does. We discover that this Picard is from six hours in the future. Logs datamined from the shuttlecraft depict the circumstances of Picard-Beta's arrival: the Enterprise, six hours in the future, will be trapped in some kind of wormhole and then destroyed; he alone survives.
The crew doesn't know what to do except wait. Picard-Alpha is increasingly distraught, because the presence of Picard-Beta suggests that he abandoned his own ship, which is unforgivable and totally uncharacteristic of him. Our good doctor discovers that Picard-Beta's internal clock is still synced to some alternate future reality, and as the two timelines converge (i.e., as time passes and the Enterprise 'catches up'), he will begin to feel more like himself.
The crew can do absolutely nothing but wait. This is one of those rare episodes in which the entire premise of the episode and its resolution is revealed in the first ten minutes.
In six hours, the Enterprise will be caught in a wormhole and destroyed. Only Picard survives, flung back in time in a solitary shuttle pod. There is nothing they can do to avoid this fate. They can try to change their behavior, diverge from their path, do something different, but their future seems deterministic.
Real suspense happens when we know exactly what's around the corner. This episode is built on suspense. We know the Enterprise will be destroyed. We know Picard will escape in a shuttle and then be picked up by the Enterprise six hours in the past, and then the Enterprise will be destroyed again, over and over and over and over again, forever, in an endless Moebius Strip of time repeating itself interminably.
The payoff finally comes when the Enterprise falls into some sort of vortex in the space-time continuum. Within it resides some kind of malevolent extradimensional "presence" targeting Picard. At this precise moment, Picard-Beta wakes up. We discover that he recognized himself as the entity's prey, and abandoned the Enterprise in a noble but misguided attempt to sacrifice himself for his safety. Except we know it didn't work.
There is really only one solution. We realize what that solution is before Picard does. That's what makes it so grim. We know what's coming.
The creature is hunting him, and as long as he keeps fleeing the Enterprise, time will repeat itself over and over again. In order to break the time loop, Picard-Alpha has to completely diverge from the set course of events. Time is like a train on a looping track. The only way to derail it is to destroy it. So he shoots himself.
I mean, not himself himself. Alpha shoots Beta. But is it really so different. They're the same person. Picard-Beta is Picard. I realized with a kind of dull, painful certainty that I'd just witnessed the death of Captain Picard and the destruction of the entire Enterprise. In some alternate timeline only somewhat divergent from our own, this is actually how it all ends.
I'm a fan of time-loop mechanics in science fiction. Primer is one of my favorite works of Hard-SF. "Time Squared" raises a lot of fascinating metaphysical questions about the nature of time. Is time deterministic? If we enter into a timeline, are we like boats rushing downstream a river? Paddling this way or that way, we are nonetheless consigned to whatever shore the river deposits us.
That's the kind of problem Picard had to deal with this in this episode. Every decision is potentially meaningless if they all resolve themselves the same way. This reminds me a little of Steins;Gate, in which every attempt to create a divergent timeline ends in exactly the same way.
There is a story in the Arabian Nights.
There is a merchant in Baghdad who goes to the marketplace and bumps shoulders with Azrael, the Angel of Death. Azrael gestures at him balefully. The merchant, terrified, flees to the palace of the shah. The merchant begs the shah for his fastest horses, and then he flees to Nishapur.
Intrigued, the Shah goes to the marketplace and finds Azrael.
"Why did you threaten my merchant?" asked the Shah.
"Threaten?" said Azrael. "I did not threaten him. I was surprised. I was astonished to discover him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him in Nishapur."
When Star Trek has me thinking about metaphysical science fiction, then I believe it has done its job. What a very fine episode. But then, this episode had two Picards. How could it ever have disappointed me?
"Now, my bright lance, precede me, and lead me to his head."