Monday, February 10, 2014

TNG Flashback: The Loss

With the season four departure of Wesley Crusher, Star Trek: The Next Generation was now down to the core cast of seven characters that would carry them for the rest of the run. The first episode with that smaller ensemble was "The Loss."

When the Enterprise is caught up in a mysterious interstellar current, Counselor Troi suddenly experiences the loss of her empathic abilities. As she tries to cope, the crew tries to escape from the colony of two-dimensional lifeforms that is carrying the ship along to certain destruction in a cosmic string fragment.

According to head writer Michael Piller, somebody was pitching the idea of "Troi losing her powers" every single season. Here, feeling that the show was overdue for a Troi-centric episode, he decided to pursue the idea. Unfortunately, the episode was a bit of a misfire -- and Piller himself even acknowledged as much in later interviews. There's a lot of "air" in the episode, scenes that seem to linger a little too long, a mark of loose editing necessary to pad a fast-running episode out to the necessary run time.

But the core problem with the episode is the difficulty in relating to the situation. Producer Rick Berman was fascinated by the idea of Troi losing a sense that no one else around her could appreciate losing, but the trouble is: neither could the audience. And the writing just doesn't handle the idea credibly in any case.

Everyone rushes to the conclusion that Troi's loss of empathic powers is a permanent condition. Even though the characters acknowledge that this happened at the same time the ship became trapped by the two-dimensional creatures, no one seems to seriously entertain the notion that breaking free from the creatures might restore Troi's empathy. It's difficult to say exactly how much time passes in this episode, but it seems no more than 24 hours after Troi's loss that she's pronouncing herself "disabled." Now sure, there are people out there who find a mole on their shoulder and immediately suspect cancer, but it diminishes Troi's character to make her such a person, and undercuts Crusher's expertise that she can't offer any insight one way or the other. (Troi makes her pronouncement before Beverly has come anywhere close to exhausting any search for a remedy.)

But even if you grant all this overly dramatic behavior in such a compressed time frame, the episode still doesn't quite work. The analogy is laid out for us very clearly in the episode -- Troi has lost one of her senses; it would be like one of us suddenly losing our sight. Yet she doesn't even realize it for a while. I know for damn sure I'd notice if I suddenly couldn't see! And once she does realize it, no one seems to take her panic seriously. Everyone plies her with pep talks and platitudes: she can still do her job, she'll get used to it in time. Are these the things you'd tell a person who was struck blind? In time, absolutely. But mere hours after it had happened? This isn't a skinned knee; you don't tell someone to dust themselves off and play through the pain in a situation like this.

Come to think of it, with all this talk about comparing the situation to losing one's eyesight... what if the episode had actually been that? Sure, it was conceived out of a need to have a Troi story, but wouldn't it have been more relatable as a Geordi story? All the other story beats could have been exactly the same. The aliens' presence could have overloaded Geordi's VISOR rather than Troi's brain. Where Troi was forced in the end to reason through the behavior of the aliens without her empathy, Geordi could have been forced to figure out a technical solution for the ship without the benefit of his sight. (Although I suppose they already did a "blind Geordi" subplot in the episode "The Enemy.")

Despite the problems, the episode is rather notable for featuring real conflict between recurring characters. Gene Roddenberry was generally against such writing, despite that being the core of good drama. For a while, the writers had been sneaking conflict in through guest characters clashing with the regulars. Here, they flew in under the radar by making Troi understandably "not herself," panicking in her circumstances and lashing out at the other characters. She snaps at Riker, rebuffs two attempts by Picard to give one of his typical encouraging speeches, and has a great exchange with Guinan. Her most overt clash is with Beverly Crusher, though given the usual lack of conflict between the show's characters, this scene might go too far. Even though Troi's situation warrants sympathy, even though she apologizes for yelling at Beverly at the end of the episode, Troi ends up coming off badly for doing it just because it's so unusual for the series.

Other observations:
  • Picard's horseback riding hobby gets a brief mention in the teaser, a nice callback to an earlier episode.
  • Fans of The Next Generation will know that Worf is always making suggestions that Picard shoots down. Here, for once, when Worf suggests shooting something as a solution to a problem, Picard actually agrees!
  • Marina Sirtis has said that she received very positive feedback on this episode from fans with disabilities. Perhaps my lack of empathy for Troi's... uh... lack of empathy... comes from my own privilege and good fortune?
  • Michael Piller said in later interviews that the writers briefly considered the idea of making Troi's sensory loss permanent. Perhaps this explains why the writing seems so fatalistic in this regard. Although I'm usually a fan of a show shaking things up, I think they made the right choice in not doing so here. There simply wasn't much to Troi's character beyond her empathy, and I think losing that would have made her less interesting in the long run (as they struggled to find uses for her in stories), rather than more interesting.
An obvious idea, seized on only because the writers had no better Troi idea, resulted in, well, an obvious episode that felt like it had no better idea. Some of the good character moments keep it from being a total (ahem) loss, but the episode is still definitely subpar. I give it a C-.


Jared said...

I like what DS9 did with Odo. Took his "powers" and seemed permanent.

Anonymous said...

Well it WAS permanent... for a while.

All jokes aside, Odo had a lot more going for him than just being a shapeshifter. Not so with Troi, as the good doctor has pointed out.