Well, that was an absolutely awful episode. Let's move on.
Season 7, Episode 14 - "Sub Rosa," or "For Real This Time"
Okay. I'm not allowed to walk away from a review just because the episode was absolutely terrible. This episode is what happens when the cast of TNG are forced at gunpoint to perform a fanscript written by the author of Fifty Shades of Grey. This episode was so bad it makes Harlequin Romance look like Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The memory of this episode will haunt me for as long as I live. Sub Rosa is not an episode; it is a Saturday Night Live sketch gone on far too long. This episode was less popular than E. Coli.
Right. Now that I'm done venting.
Sub Rosa is the kind of horrendously campy episode unseen in TNG since season 1. And in a way, I'm glad Season 7 features such an atrocious episode in an otherwise thought-provoking lineup, lest we forget that TNG (and Star Trek, really) has its roots in the hopelessly ridiculous and campy. Nothing about this episode makes sense, and if you just give up as early as possible, Sub Rosa becomes a hilariously unintentional farce.
In "Sub Rosa," Doctor Beverly Crusher attends her grandmother's funeral on the Planet of the Scots. Governor Manbearpig Maturin runs the colony in a kind of Epcot-esque imitation of the Scottish Highlands. I imagine kilts and nightly bagpipe performances are tourist attractions here. Crusher discovers her grandmother's journal replete with sumptuously erotic confessions of a centenarian woman with her thirty year old lover.
Unlike most well-adjusted adult humans, Beverly Crusher is deeply intrigued by her hundred-year-old-grandmother's Late Night Cinemax confessions and takes to reading her journal before bed. Vivid sex dreams follow. She confesses her dreams to a nonplussed Deanna Troi. Crusher sounds like a fifty year old spinster discovering Fifty Shades of Grey for the first time in her life. She's fascinated by the erotica of her own dreams, in which her grandmother's lover--played here by Viggo Mortensen's creepy and possessive cousin--touches her in ways she never imagined possible.
Even though she's a doctor.
Sigh. Come on, Silver. You can get through this.
Now, this is where a normal episode written by well-adjusted adult humans would realize it's gone far off the rails and needs to toss its teleplay into the shredder, thereafter consigned to apocryphal rumors whispered between hardcore fans. "Did you know there was almost an episode where Beverly Crusher was seduced by a Scottish Alien Ghost with a thing for sleeping with her centenarian Grandmother, left her practice as a successful and brilliant starship medic, and decided to live a spartan life as a Scottish healer-milkmaid serving her Heathcliff-esque man? It's true."
In any reasonable, rational timeline governed by benevolent powers, this episode would have lived and died inside the alcohol-addled brain of one overstressed writer, never to have seen the light of a projector. But this is 2017 and we are in the darkest timeline, so, this episode exists.
I don't know what happens next, but it involves Groundskeeper Hitler warning Beverly to stay away from a haunted candle for...reasons. Our man somehow finds his way aboard the Enterprise while a mysterious fog "just rolled in" (I swear to Elune this is a real line in a real show in real life), sabotages the Enterprise's weather regulators (the Enterprise has those?) only to get Blanka-shocked to death by this evil incubus-alien.
Whose name is--did I mention his name?--Ronin! I swear this guy is the erotic self-insert Mary Sue character of every thirteen year old Star Trek fan ever. Ronin. What was the second choice for his name? Naruto?
So Ronin and Beverly consummate a creepy relationship punctuated by sharp, breathy moans and virginal bewilderment from Beverly, who doesn't seem to understand the concept of physical pleasure. Beverly. An actual doctor.
I don't really know what happened after this, because I was spritzing ants in my kitchen and folding laundry, but I overheard Picard confronting Ronin man to man, getting knocked out by green electric magic, and then peeking around my wall just in time to see Beverly's actual grandmother's corpse rise from her coffin, possessed by Ronin.
Beverly then realizes the exact thing Groundskeeper Hitler warned us about in the first ten minutes of the episode. The candle she carries is cursed. She destroys the candle with her phaser, then destroys Ronin with her phaser, then breaks down crying because she realizes she only has about eleven more episodes to scrub away the stain that is this episode.
Sub Rosa was absolutely terrible, and if it has a single quality to recommend, it is that aspiring writers must have been galvanized after watching this episode. If someone got paid actual money to write "Sub Rosa," then maybe they, too, have a chance at a career.
Now let us never speak of this episode ever again.
"Now, my bright lance, precede me, and lead me to his head."
You gonna do the movies? At least do First Contact, the only good TNG movie.
I will watch the movies, but I don't know if I'll review them. Reviews take a lot out of me, with 150+ reviews in total and less time in the evenings than I once had. I'd like to review at least one movie though.
I do have a short, surprise review series happening after TNG. Stay tuned.
"Now, my bright lance, precede me, and lead me to his head."
Season 7, Episode 15 - "Lower Decks," or, "The B-Team"
After six seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I'm confident I can fit any given episode into a familiar category. There's the science episode, the negotiation episode, the romance episode, the mysterious-figure-from-a-character's-past episode, the Wesley Does Something Stupid episode, the Uphold-The-Prime-Directive-or-Let-A-Species-Die episode, the Energy Creature episode, the Romulans-hate-the-Klingons episode, the episode where Geordi makes a fool of himself in front of a woman...
But I've never seen an episode quite like Lower Decks. It feels familiar enough to be a TNG episode. There is a central plot, an overarching narrative about the duties and responsibilities of a Starfleet officer, a morality lesson on the importance of being true to oneself, all rendered on the backdrop of life aboard the Enterprise. But where "Lower Decks" distinguishes itself is by its emphasis entirely and almost exclusively on minor, unheard-of characters.
This is an episode about the ensigns of the Enterprise. It's never occurred to me that an ensign should have her own episode. Ensigns with their own episodes usually stop being ensigns. Look at Ensign Ro, for example, or Ensign Wesley. These characters are regular parts of the show in their own right, and "Ensign" is usually just a title given to them to illustrate how dramatically under-ranked they are. Ro is obviously officer material if she learns to put the Enterprise above her own prejudices, and Wesley...well, I haven't heard from Wesley in ages.
Most of the characters in Lower Decks are completely new to me, barring Ensign Sito (who backed Wesley in a disastrous scheme to cover up the death of a fellow academy pilot) and Ensign (is she an ensign?) Ogawa, Dr. Crusher's dependable right-hand. Lower Decks is about the lives of these ensigns, and their perspective on life aboard the Enterprise. If you'd pitched an idea like that at me a few days ago, I would've rolled my eyes. I don't have a lot of patience for gimmicky, "very special" episodes.
But if I'd skipped Lower Decks, I would've missed out on something special. The episode is wholly unlike anything I'd seen in TNG until now. Its structure, its storytelling, its sense of humor all set it apart from a familiar episode of a familiar series. Lower Decks is...
...it's Whedon-esque is what it is. We have five young characters, completely different and yet lively and passionate each in their own way, contending with some common problem. The episode runs on the chemistry between these ensigns. They're friends and rivals, full of youthful exuberance and nervous energy in equal measure. In a show so close to the end of its life, it is refreshing to see an episode about youth and, in a literal way, the next generation of Starfleet officers.
Actually, I think the appropriate term is junior officers. Let's call them that. There are five of them--well, four, plus a young male version of Guinan named, simply, Ben. Ben's not super important here, although I did like him. He had energy and life, and I like any character with energy and life.
Sam Lavelle and Sito Jaxa are both up for the same position of operations officer. Riker's in charge of promoting one of them. By word of mouth, Sam and Sito both realize they're being considered for the same position. Sam is horribly nervous about his own candidacy. He frets and fusses over his odds, practices weird alien mindfulness tricks to try to bring about his promotion by cosmic juju, and skulks around looking for tips on schmoozing his way into Riker's good graces. What I loved about Sam was his likeability. Sam combined cocky, youthful pride with the anxiety and uncertainty of a young man wanting very badly for a big break.
Sito has problems of her own. By all accounts, she's a competent young officer and well-suited for her job as a security officer. She doesn't look especially intimidating, but Worf obviously sees something in Sito deserving of a promotion. Worf becomes Sito's spokesperson, arguing on her behalf to a recalcitrant Commander Riker. Sito has another problem. She has a black mark on her record. We first met Sito Jaxa at the academy. Wesley got involved with a band of reckless kids whose dangerous maneuvers killed one of their own teammates. Wesley stepped forward and confessed (after much pain to his conscience), but Sito didn't. She tried to cover her own tracks, and paid for it by becoming a social pariah in the academy.
Sito and Sam are friends with Taurik and Nurse Ogawa. In one of the finest examples of a poker scene in TNG, the four of them sit around a table playing cards and talking about their problems with their officers. Poker is a traditional game of leisure aboard the Enterprise. It's not uncommon at all to see a few officers huddled around the table, bandying cards about and chewing the fat over this or that rumor. But it never occurs to us, as an audience, that junior officers should also play poker.
What I absolutely love about this episode was the problems each character faced. They were all problems of success. Every single junior officer is great at his or her job, and their problems come from being good at their jobs. We often equate problems with failure, but there are problems of success, too. And when you're young and doing something well for the first time, you run into these issues. Take Taurik, for example. His problem is that he's far too good at his own job, and doesn't know when to shut up about it. Compounded by his tin-eared Vulcan psychology, Taurik fails to realize he's being inadvertently rude to his mentor Geordi whenever he tries to show him up.
Taurik thinks he's being sincere. He's the classic smartest-kid-in-the-class that no one really likes. Ogawa's problem is the exact opposite of Taurik. If Taurik's pushing his officer away with his intelligence, Ogawa is way too close to hers. Ogawa and Crusher have a relationship bordering on mother-daughter, where Crusher will routinely pry into the affairs of Ogawa's personal life and draw bad conclusions or give bad advice. Ogawa's problem is that she can't compartmentalize superior officer from personal mentor. She has her priorities all mixed up, so when Crusher asks Ogawa to keep some information confidental--information pertaining to her friends--she's torn between her loyalty to her friends and her loyalty to her mentor.
Meanwhile, Sam's problem is a problem of lacking confidence. Sam is so convinced he'll fail his test and lose his promotion that he projects his poor confidence on Riker, convincing himself that Riker has it in for him. He constructs a weird, paranoid delusion in his head whereby Riker doesn't like him and specifically wants him to fail. It's a very common insecurity, and one we've all experienced from time to time. Sam has a hard time admitting the problem is his own lack of confidence, so he's trying to create an excuse for his own impending failure by blaming Riker.
Sito's problem seems like it should be the hardest to understand. I mean, how many of us are responsible for the death of a classmate? But that's not really Sito's problem. Her past is not her problem, because she's come to term with her past. Sito's problem is that she can't fight back. She doesn't know how to stand up for herself. She's so busy hating herself for what she's done that she can't square her shoulders and push back against Captain Picard's biting criticism. Sito is convinced she deserves all the unfairness in the world, so when the Captain treats her unfairly, she just hangs her head and takes it.
And you know what? I totally sympathize with every single one of these characters. I've been all these people before. I've been the smartest kid in the room so eager to impress my teacher that I come off obnoxious. I've been the overeager student far too attached to my mentor. I've been the anxious, insecure newbie convincing myself that my colleagues or superiors don't like me. And I've had my moments of spiritual self-flagellation where I just didn't fight back against criticism because I felt I deserved it.
What's important is that these qualities don't define us. That's just who I was at a moment in my life, not who I am as a person. And these characters are not defined by the problems they have; they're defined by the way they meet those problems.
Sito quickly became my favorite of the bunch. There's an amazing scene between her and Worf in a martial arts class, where Worf blindfolds her and expects her to parry all his attacks, and then berates and verbally abuses her every time she fails. He keeps this up, over and over again, until she become so frustrated and angry that she refuses to participate, because she's being asked to do something completely impossible.
Worf congratulates her on learning the lesson. It's a hard lesson to learn: how to stand up for yourself and say 'no' to a superior, how to refuse to follow a rule because you know it is wrong. I really admired Sito for standing up for herself. I don't know if I was ready to forgive her for being complicit in the death of a fellow student, but I was willing to give her a chance to earn that forgiveness.
In the end, Sito earns that forgiveness. She signs up for a dangerous mission piloting a Cardassian turncoat through hostile territory and into Federation space. Sito is a Bajoran. She has to overcome tremendous personal and cultural taboos in order to justify trusting, let alone helping, a Cardassian. But she volunteers without a second's hesitation or so much as a scowl of contempt. (Ro could learn a lesson from her.)
In the end, Sito doesn't survive her mission. It's a harsh reminder that not everything goes the way of the heroes in life and in Star Trek. The mission fails. Sito is discovered and killed, and the Cardassian turncoat--for all we know--never makes it to Federation territory. Sito's death is shocking partly because we never see it. We hear of it secondhand. The effect is startling. I am exactly as divorced from Sito's final moments as her dearest friends.
I'd almost forgotten that these kids are officers in the military. Death is a constant companion, and losing a friend on a mission is one of those things you never want to see happen, but inevitably will happen. It's a sad and bittersweet ending to what may be my favorite episode to date in this season, and one of my favorites of the entire series.
"Now, my bright lance, precede me, and lead me to his head."
Season 7, Episode 16 - "Thine Own Self," or "The Philosopher's Radioactive Stone"
I'm beginning to like the second half of Season 7. We've had some very intelligent, entertaining episodes in The Lower Decks and Homeward. Even Sub Rosa was entertainingly atrocious in that old school Season 1 sort of way. Thine Own Self feels like an early season episode. It doesn't have anything profound to say about the human condition, doesn't explore some strange or exciting idea in science, doesn't introduce some great twist to a character's story. "Thine Own Self" is a classic problem-of-the-week episode. It introduces and solves its own problem in a single, self-contained story with very little continuity with the rest of the series.
In fact, barring a forgettable side-plot involving Troi taking the Bridge Officer test, "Thine Own Self" could have appeared in any season, at any point of the show, and make perfect sense. It's that rare last-season episode a new viewer could watch, enjoy, and not feel horribly confused.
In "Thine Own Self," Data crash-lands on an alien planet with no memory of himself or his mission, carrying nothing more than a box labeled RADIOACTIVE. He has no idea what the word means. The planet's culture is roughly equivalent to the European Renaissance: scientifically minded, but still using the language of alchemy and pseudoscience in order to understand the world.
Meanwhile, back on the Enterprise, Deanna Troi decides it's time to take the Bridge Officer's exam. Encouraged by a bout of midlife crisis and her own memory of briefly commanding the Enterprise ("Disaster," one of my favorite Troi episodes), Deanna wants to prove she can handle working on the bridge.
Deanna's plot has absolutely nothing to do with Data's plot, and functions as a distraction at the worst of times, and an interesting exploration of Deanna's inner character at the best of times. Deanna does well in absolutely every aspect of the Bridge test, but fails miserably whenever it comes time for the technical field test. In the field test, Deanna has to find a way to save the Enterprise from a massive technical failure threatening the ship's total destruction. She tries and she tries and she tries, and she fails and she fails and she fails.
Data's story is interesting in the way amnesiac stories tend to be interesting. We watch Data put together the pieces of his identity and rediscover who he is, but the story doesn't have any surprises. As an audience, we're always several steps ahead of Data. We don't have his amnesia, and we know that he's brought some dangerous radioactive material into his community.
Data's taken in by a community after wandering in, lost and confused. He doesn't really know what to do with himself, but he trades his box of radioactive metal to the local blacksmith. After the blacksmith fashions a few fashionable trinkets with this metal, the people of the village begin falling sick. They show all the familiar signs of radioactive poisoning, but Data doesn't know this (memory loss) and the village doctor doesn't know this (primitive science), but we know this.
Because we know the problem's radiation poisoning, there isn't really a lot of suspense in our story. We know Data's going to figure out the problem's radiation--not fever, not communicable disease, not the "evil eye,"--and because we know how the story must end, the story loses some excitement. Data isn't threatened by the people around him either. He's a hyper-intelligent android with tremendous strength surrounded by villagers in a renaissance/medieval society. What are they going to do? Run him out of town?
I spent most of this episode watching Data mill about in fancy Shakespearean outfits, trying to figure out who he is. It's sort of like being a DM and watching a player fuss with a puzzle you've made. You know the answer; the pleasure comes from watching them try to figure it out. I always love watching Data be Data, and while I enjoyed watching him lock horns with the local doctor or save a blacksmith's leg by casually lifting a massive anvil off his ankle, I also knew nothing was at stake. Data was suffering a temporary memory loss, but he wasn't in any real danger.
Deanna's story was likewise fairly boring, but it had the benefit of a twist ending. I didn't know how Deanna would solve the Bridge Officer test; I didn't even know if she could. It turns out that the technical exam is actually a Kobayashi Maru. It's an impossible situation, and the only way to solve it is by sacrificing her officer. Deanna runs the simulation and asks Geordi to save the enterprise by crawling into a shaft and manually fixing a dangerous malfunction, thereby dying from radiation in the process.
Speaking of radiation, Data does eventually figure out the secret behind the radiation poisoning. With a wave of a narrative hand, the episode shows us Data holding a magic vial with a cure for radiation. Eventually the Enterprise's crew track Data down, infiltrate the planet in disguise, take him back to the Enterprise and fix him right up. He's a bit battered, but none the worse for wear. He hasn't learned anything new or lost any part of him; he hasn't gained any real insight into the nature of humanity and he hasn't changed in any appreciable way.
And that's okay, really. Not every episode has to change our characters in meaningful ways. Sometimes an adventure is just a day in the life.
Thine Own Self was a perfectly serviceable and harmless episode that did nothing wrong at all, and yet did nothing particularly great. It was simple, easy watching.
"Now, my bright lance, precede me, and lead me to his head."
I actually enjoyed the Bridge Officer test portion of this episode quite a lot, because it directly challenged Deanna in an interesting way.
Deanna is a competent and intelligent person, but as an empath and the ship's counselor, we know that she's also an incredibly compassionate and sympathetic person. So the Bridge Officer test asks her to do something that is abhorrent to her, something almost unspeakable, but something that an officer has to be able to do: You have to be able to order someone to die for the sake of others.
Deanna is clearly shaken by this, and you can see the doubt in her mind about whether she even wants to be a Bridge Officer after figuring out and passing the test. The fact that the holographic simulation features Geordi makes it even harder, because she's friends with Geordi. Asking him to sacrifice himself would have been a harrowing and difficult moment even if it was just a simulation, because Deanna realizes that there are real scenarios where she might have to do that to him, or other friends she has aboard the Enterprise.
The point of the test isn't to see whether someone is capable of ordering a friend to die, but whether they want to have the responsibility of doing that in the first place. You walk away from the episode with the feeling that Deanna probably doesn't.
I enjoy the Lower Decks episode, though I noticed you didn't bring up the Riker side of the story, where he kinda thinks Sam is "too eager to please" and Deanna kinda goes. "Hmm, that reminds me of a younger version of you." and Riker kinds goes. "Ok, maybe I've been too hard on him."
I think that was a cool little throwback to the Riker of earlier seasons who very much the big man on campus. That alone could have been a full subplot.