Wednesday, January 22, 2014

TNG Flashback: Future Imperfect

In my many reviews of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I've come upon great episodes that the writers didn't really know were great at the time; in the rushed schedule of production, they simply didn't know exactly what they had. This time out is a case where I think a pretty good episode could have been great if they had known what they had: "Future Imperfect."

After falling unconscious in a gas cloud during an away mission, Commander Riker awakens 16 years in the future. He's the captain of an Enterprise where everything is changed. He's about to negotiate a important new treaty with the Romulans, and he has a young son named Jean-Luc. But telltale flaws in the reality build up to a big reveal: things are not as they seem, and the Romulans may be trying to trick Riker in an effort to gain sensitive information from him.

"Future Imperfect" was a pitch from an outside writing team, J. Larry Carroll and David Bennett Carren. Their suggestion for this episode was so well liked that the two were hired on as staff writers for the rest of the season. There's obvious creative potential in the idea of the alternate future, and the episode does mine it exceptionally well. There are all sorts of changes to sets, costumes, and lighting. And there are fun visual changes to the main characters, from removing Geordi's VISOR to putting Data in a red uniform to putting Troi in a uniform, period. (There's extra fun in watching the episode now, 23 years later, when we know what the actors all really look like "in the future.")

But as enjoyable as all this is, it's not the dramatic core of the episode. That, unfortunately, gets a rather light touch. First, there's the reality of what it might really mean to have such severe memory loss, taking away 16 years of your life. An entire episode could dwell on this, but instead the focus seems to be on pushing Riker forward into Romulan machinations.

Still more important is the idea of Riker's son. Chris Demetral as "Jean-Luc" is rather good, more natural than most of child guest actors the show used over the seasons. There's a particularly great scene between him and Jonathan Frakes, set in the turbolift, where Riker recalls how his own father wasn't there for him growing up, and how he means to do better with his own son. Not only is this a fine callback to an earlier episode, but it articulates very emotional stakes for Riker in this story. But it's really the only scene between them to get so personal.

There's a reason for that, it turns out. Halfway through the filming of this episode, the scenes shot to that point had run faster than expected, and the episode was going to come up short of its required run time. The writers scrambled and wrote a scene that night to be filmed the next day, and the turbolift scene was the result. It's the scene that most articulates the main character's stake in the story, and yet it was an afterthought that almost didn't exist.

There might have been more time for scenes like that had the episode adhered to its original concept. But as the writers developed the script from its original pitch, they decided it needed a little something more, and decided to introduce the twist of a "fantasy within a fantasy," of making Riker believe he was a prisoner of the Romulans for an act. It doesn't add much to the story, other than to give us a larger than ever taste of the character Tomalak, played by Andreas Katsulas.

Interestingly, Katsulas himself said in subsequent interviews that he preferred to play Tomlak only on the Enterprise viewscreen. Here, he said he felt "unsupported" in the story, which I take to mean that he found Tomalak to be a rather cartoonish character that only worked when he wasn't actually playing a scene directly with other actors. Perhaps he even voiced this concern to the producers, as he would not appear again until the series finale (and then, on the viewscreen only, of course).

Katsulas was not the only notable guest star in the episode. Carolyn McCormick returned to play Minuet, the character she originated in the first season. But it's a truly odd appearance. She's on screen for no more than five seconds, and hasn't got a single line of dialogue. She's there only as a plot device to puncture Riker's illusion. It's a potent 5-second appearance, story-wise, but certainly an interesting job for an actor to be offered.

Other observations:
  • In another callback to the first season episode in which Minuet first appeared, Riker's trombone playing returns here. And, from the same episode, the game Parrises Squares is mentioned again, and the uniform Jean-Luc Riker wears matches what we saw before (which in this case was hardly a given, since they'd had to have made a all-new costume for the young actor).
  • The regular actors seem to be having a lot of fun in this episode, particularly in the birthday party scene in the teaser.
  • Marina Sirtis is notably strong in the scene where she talks about Riker's wife. She shows an appropriately subdued but palpable sorrow talking about Min's death.
  • The scene where Riker confronts the future illusion, knowing it's a lie, is wonderful fun. It's hard to know what's a bigger laugh, when he tells Picard to "shut up," or Troi's states-the-obvious comment that he's "angry and impatient."
  • This is the first appearance of the character of Nurse Ogawa, albeit in an imaginary future and without a name.
  • The Romulan ship name in this episode, Decius, comes from a Romulan character name in the original series episode "Balance of Terror."
I do wish this episode had embraced its dramatic potential more fully, but the fun of the science fiction premise here is undeniable. The end result is still pretty good. I give it a B+.

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