"Skin of Evil" is without question the most significant episode in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Most fans hate it, and many of the cast and crew who worked on the show have expressed the same sentiment in interviews over the years. But that doesn't change the monumental significance of killing off a main character in a Star Trek series for the first time. (You could argue that Spock gets that distinction, but he wasn't killed off during the original run of the series. More significant still, his death didn't stick.)
Counselor Troi is returning to the Enterprise via shuttle when an accident on board forces a crash landing on a barren planet. The only life form on the surface is a vicious alien named Armus, an intelligent "skin of evil" long ago scoured off by an advanced race looking to rid themselves of negative qualities. Armus frustrates the crew's attempt to rescue Troi, torturing Riker and tormenting the group with sadistic games. After it kills Tasha Yar, they must find a way to outwit it and overcome its powers to get everyone else safely off the planet.
Armus may have seemed like a cool villain on paper, but he's far from it in execution. He's a man in an amorphous full-body suit, so coated with a sludgy mix of (this is true) Metamucil and black printer's ink that not only can you not make out any of his features, he can't even really move. He's not menacing; at best he's just plain gross. (Which Jonathan Frakes bravely demonstrates by diving right into the stuff.) The cheesy animation used to "move" the oil slick around the set looks drawn by hand. Badly. And the silly mark it leaves on Tasha's cheek when it kills her makes it hard to take the following scene, in which Crusher attempts to revive her, seriously. From a technical standpoint, nearly everything about Armus is a disaster.
The actual death of Tasha Yar is also rightfully a sticking point for many fans. Gene Roddenberry was reportedly insistent on the "meaningless" death, unexpectedly occurring in the line of duty. No blaze of glory for her, and I kind of see the point. In the history of Star Trek before this, Starfleet security chiefs routinely died in such a manner; why would Yar be any different? Not to mention that Denise Crosby was choosing to bail on a show she'd worked on for just eight months, feeling frustrated that she wasn't getting enough screen time (in a cast of nine actors). Did she deserve a better exit? But in the bigger picture, Yar (and the rest of the crew) had already survived so many other situations that appeared considerably more serious and threatening. It made her sudden death here that much harder to believe.
But I think it's too easy to get focused on these weaker, cheap elements of the episode. It's certainly what I focused on back when it ran brand new in 1988, and I hated it then as much as anybody. But when I watched the episode now, I found it easier to see the elements of the episode that surprisingly do work.
The acting from the main cast is exceptional in this episode, across the board. Patrick Stewart has a battle of wills with a freaking mud slick, for crying out loud, and makes it look credible. Picard confronts Armus, quotes Shakespeare, turns the alien's rage upon itself, and it's not only believable, it's actually compelling. But at least Stewart had something to act opposite. Troi is trapped inside the crashed shuttle for the bulk of the episode, and Marina Sirtis has scene after scene where she confronts the creature only in voice-over. She sells every word, and is particularly strong in the scene where she senses Riker's torture as he's enveloped inside the creature.
And then of course there's Denise Crosby, who shines in her swan song. She has an excellent scene at the top of the episode, where she banters with Worf about his wager on Yar in the upcoming martial arts tournament. Plus, she absolutely nails her funeral monologue. It's the most moving material on the series to this point, a great delivery of some great writing. Perhaps recognizing that we don't know enough about Tasha to make her death truly hurt, the writers wisely crafted her final speech to acknowledge things about each of the other characters. Particular highlights include her callback to the Klingon death yell in addressing Worf, and her profound compliment to Data about his humanity. (And for his part, Brent Spiner perfectly delivers his final moment, when Data wonders if he understood the point of the memorial ceremony.)
Another element of the episode that absolutely soars is the musical score by composer Ron Jones. It's his strongest work of the first season. He crafts a wonderful theme for the Armus creature, initially full of ominous menace, but also mournful and unsettling in the scenes where Troi unearths his back story. The music has tremendous tension during the crash sequence at the start of the episode (making up for the fact that we don't see it on camera), as well as in the scene where Crusher attempts to revive Tasha aboard the Enterprise. But the crowning achievement is the lengthy six-minute cue underscoring that wonderfully effective funeral scene; it supports and amplifies the emotion perfectly.
- Director Joseph L. Scanlan employs some great camera angles in this episode. There are a lot of unusually tight close-ups in the teaser, and a particularly strong wide shot showing Picard alone at the conference table after everyone else leaves.
- Speaking of that conference, it was convened to reassess the situation after Tasha's death, and the scene begins with everyone talking over one another. Picard calls them all to order with a simple, forceful tapping on the table. I was struck particularly in that moment -- though it's demonstrated in other episodes too -- just how often Picard (and Patrick Stewart) projects authority without raising his voice. This is a quality I sorely missed on Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise; the writers of those series seemed to equate yelling with authority, always giving shrill dialogue to Captains Janeway and Archer.
- Worf is promoted to acting security chief in this episode, and his first official act is to suggest he not beam down to the planet with the team confronting Armus. He argues that he can better assist the team from the ship (and he does), but it's a very interesting moment. I found myself wondering if the proud Klingon warrior was actually letting fear show.
- I try not to pay too much attention to the technobabble used in most episodes, but it's noticeably bad here. A recent episode, "Coming of Age," just made a prominent moment of telling us that the only viable mix of matter and antimatter is in a 1:1 ratio. But when the chief engineer of this episode restarts the warp core, he sets the ratio at 25:1. Um, kaboom? Also, why is Worf using numbers that have two decimal points in them?
- The writers establish in the episode that the crash survivors can't be beamed out of the shuttle. But I don't think they ever address why the crew can't simply beam over to the other side of the oil slick that's giving them so much trouble.