When two factions on a warring planet are looking for an end to centuries of conflict, they ask the Federation to deliver to them a famous mediator named Riva. The Enterprise picks him up for transport to the peace talks, learning that he was born deaf, and communicates telepathically through the use of three interpreters that serve as his "chorus." When that chorus is killed during opening negotiations by an angry dissident, Riva is left with no means to complete his mission, or even to communicate with the crew.
The idea for this episode came from Howie Seago, the actor who played Riva. Deaf himself in real life, and an advocate for other deaf actors, he approached the Star Trek team in the hopes of finding a place to portray a character who would help dispel stereotypes about the limitations of deaf people. The writers were quite receptive to the idea, and created this episode for that purpose.
But Seago's key role in the creation of the story didn't end there. I have read that in the first draft of the script, the connection with Riva's chorus was technological in nature rather than telepathic. The crisis of the episode was not the murder of the chorus, but the malfunctioning of the device that facilitated their communication. And in response, the character of Riva was to have learned to speak in a day to carry on his negotiations. Howie Seago himself suggested the alternative ending -- just one day before filming on the episode began -- that was ultimately used: that Riva comes to realize he can teach the warring factions sign language, helping them learn to communicate with one another as they learn to communicate with him.
This is really the essence of Star Trek right here: overcoming personal obstacles to serve the greater good, in this case to literally make peace. These are the "Roddenberry ideals" often praised in academic discussions of the original series, and this subject really is tailor-made for an episode of The Next Generation.
That said, the integrity and power of the concept is a bit loftier than the results. A lot of that stems from some strangeness in the character of Riva. He's supposed to be a great diplomat with a long track record (which, despite his apparent age, somehow includes negotiations between the Klingons and the Federation, we're told). But he's quite arrogant and a bit of a horndog. He doesn't ever seem to show much interest in what anybody else wants to say to him, even interrupting people with regularity. It's hard to believe a man of such character would have any kind of successful career as a diplomat.
And then there's the matter of his deafness, which somehow isn't mentioned in his profile, and isn't known to anyone despite his supposed fame; our heroes are all quite surprised to learn of it. (Though they do deal with it and immediately move on in a refreshingly nonchalant way.) Riva's chorus is also a bit awkward, coming off a bit more science fiction than it really needs to be. Does he really have to have three people, each one to represent a different aspect of his personality? Wouldn't one interpreter have been fine, both practically within the story, and for the realities of producing a television series? (Certainly, it would have been more believable to depict one person getting killed rather than three all in one shot.)
Still, Riva is at least a real enough person to be sympathetic when his chorus is killed. It's easy to imagine his frustration and isolation at that point. It's actually an intriguing mental exercise to imagine an analogous situation. Would it be like a hearing person suddenly being struck deaf? Something even more traumatic?
Of course, my perennial complaint about episodes with major guest characters is that they often lose sight of the main characters. Fortunately, this installment steers mostly clear of that hole by including a good story arc for Troi. It starts off weak, appearing to be a romantic storyline between her and Riva, but transforms into something much better after the chorus is killed. Troi gets to show off her counseling skills, pushing Riva's buttons in just the right way to get him excited to try for peace again. This pivotal scene is even set up and paid off well in the episode too: an earlier scene has Troi noting how difficult it is to restore someone else's self-confidence, while the concluding scene of the episode is a nice moment where Picard compliments Troi on a job well done.
Brent Spiner has some good moments in the episode as well. This isn't a big Data episode, but the character does learn Riva's sign language and becomes an interpreter after the loss of the chorus. Spiner walks a very fine line that sets up a moment where Riva notes that the android can't convey the emotion of his words adequately; Spiner's delivery has in fact been more monotone and emotionless than usual for Data, but not to an extent where it feels suddenly out of character. That said, there's also some bad editing that leaves Brent Spiner hanging in some scenes, as it often appears that he's "translating" words that Riva hasn't actually signed yet.
There's also a go-nowhere subplot for Geordi, a scene where Dr. Pulaski advises him about the possibility of a surgery to give him normal eyesight. You'd think as long as Pulaski has been on the ship by now -- having specifically interacted with Geordi in that time -- she'd have mentioned, "by the way, I can cure your blindness." (Unless it's not just Data she enjoys being a jerk to.) We're denied any wrap-up moment of Geordi making a decision; he just says he'll "think about it," and then nothing ever happens. Perhaps worst of all, in my Pulaski-hating mind, I feel like the scene is a roundabout way of spitting on the "grave" of the departed Dr. Crusher, who specifically told us in the first episode of the series that she could do nothing for Geordi's condition. (Pulaski's a better doctor, get it?)
Actually, I've read that the truth of this scene is that Levar Burton was actively lobbying the writers and producers to let him stop wearing a hair barrette on his face, so that he could make use of one of an actor's most powerful tools: his eyes. This scene was a way of setting up the possibility of actually curing Geordi's condition, and was placed in this episode because of its dramatic reflection on the main story involving deafness. Burton would ultimately realize the inspirational power of this aspect of his character, however, deciding to keep the VISOR through the run of the series.
- There are bizarre pacing issues in parts of the episode. The teaser, for example, ends not on a moment of tension, but on Picard, Troi, and Worf simply beaming down to find an empty room. Is that supposed to be spooky? There's also an odd bookend device of Picard geeking out over the strange orbital path of some random planet. It leads to a truly bizarre discussion of astrophysics between he and Riker than neither goes anywhere nor has any metaphorical connection to anything else that appears in the episode.
- There's another Picard/Riker scene that's as neat as the planetary orbit scene is strange, though. It includes Picard accusing Riker of being a "Mother Hen," and later has Riker delivering a rather lofty soliloquy that prompts Picard to comment: "isn't that my speech, Number One?" Very fun character moments for both.
- There's a moment where Worf says that Klingons didn't even have a word for "peacekeeper" until Riva came along. I can't decide if I think that's silly, or a cool commentary on Klingon culture. I'm less on the fence about a later moment where Worf admires sign language for its possible uses in communicating covertly. That's just fun. That's our Worf.
- In most of the scenes involving Riva's chorus, the chorus stands behind Riva himself. It's a purposeful staging used to remind the audience of who is really supposed to be speaking. And yet, remembering that actor Howie Seago is actually deaf, I had to marvel a bit at the "choreography" involved. He's very expressive with his face throughout the episode, and is having to time those expressions to match dialogue he can't even hear or follow because the speaker is behind him.
- There's a moment in the episode where, on a planet surface, Worf orders "seven to beam up." This totally geeky part of me just wanted to see what the arrival -- on the six person transporter pad -- would have looked like.
- The warring aliens are armed with almost comically large weapons. Just sayin'.