Saturday, July 26, 2014

TNG Flashback: Devil's Due

Rarely since the second season had Star Trek: The Next Generation produced an episode as bad as "Devil's Due." But that's not surprising when you learn that the origins of the episode can be traced back to that season... and earlier.

The Enterprise rescues a science team from Ventax II, a planet whose people turned away from technology a thousand years ago and established a global peace. Legend has it this was because the citizens sold their souls to their "Devil" figure, Ardra, in exchange for this peace. And now, a woman claiming to be Ardra, and wielding powerful abilities, has come to collect her payment.

I've written before about how the 1988 Writers' Guild strike sent Star Trek (and other shows) scrambling for scripts to put before the cameras. I also wrote about how one of the places they looked was "Star Trek: Phase II," the late 70s attempt to reboot Star Trek with most of its original cast (which ultimately spawned the first Trek movie instead). Thirteen scripts were written for that aborted series, and when times were tight, The Next Generation recycled one of them to produce "The Child." Other possible candidates for adaptation were earmarked at the time.

What became "Devil's Due" was one originally of those. Reportedly, the Phase II version featured Kirk going up against a male Devil figure, and ultimately resolving the dispute in a trial arbitrated by the Enterprise's computer. It sounds to me like you can be thankful that never got made. Unfortunately, what did get made was scarcely better.

In my view, the chief problem of this episode is one of tone. One of the many writers to take a crack at adapting the old Phase II script opted for a comedic approach, and Next Gen show runner Michael Piller loved that angle. He responded and advanced it by switching "the Devil" to a female character, throwing in flirtatious elements with Picard and still more opportunities for humor. The end result is an episode that can't be taken seriously. And that's a shame, because the core idea here is deathly serious.

Imagine if a whole society thought the literal Devil was coming to claim their planet and all their mortal souls. We're talking literal, Biblical armageddon here. The planet's leader, Acost Jared, seems rather nonplussed (or certainly, not frightened) to be face-to-face with his concept of Evil Incarnate. Troi mentions in this episode that some Ventaxians are on the brink of suicide, but it seems to me in this situation, you already would be dealing with mass suicides on a global scale.

Then there's Ardra. In reality, she's a con artist posing as a demonic figure, but she really doesn't seem to have a "then what?" to her plan, beyond establishing her alias. Ardra makes no attempt to use the subjects she has conquered for any meaningful purpose. Shouldn't she be living the high life, extorting everything from her victims? Shouldn't she be using the cowering Ventaxians as weapons to stop the efforts of Picard and the Enterprise crew from exposing her ruse? A few forced suicide bombers, for instance, might get the doubters to back off.

Ardra's behavior may be inexplicably dumb, but that of Picard and our other heroes is scarcely better. Grant them points, I suppose, from disbelieving the con right from the beginning. (But as an aside: Why? Picard has seen things much stranger than this woman claiming she's the Devil. They even mention the Q Continuum a possible source of her powers.) But even doubting Ardra's claim, the crew hardly makes an effort to disprove it.

When Ardra boards the Entperprise -- on multiple occasions -- they don't even so much as raise the shields to try to prevent it. They don't try to use phasers to stun her or force fields to confine her. Picard almost immediately believes that her "powers" could be the product of technology: transporters, holograms, and so forth. But rather than using that exact technology, already at his disposal, to demonstrate how, he's utterly a loss until his crew locates and seizes Ardra's ship.

If you keep picking at this story, it breaks into even more jagged pieces. Apparently, Ardra is a low grade con artist wanted on other worlds. Yet the Enterprise crew aren't able to search any records or anything to learn this; they only discover her true identity when they take her ship. So apparently, she's doing the equivalent of driving around in a car with printouts of her arrest warrants in the passenger seat.

Yet somehow, this low rent con artist has managed to get her hands on technology that, while similar to Federation gadgetry, seems to be superior. Her transporters work faster, her hologram generators can generate substance outside of a holodeck, and she has a cloaking device that can be extended to envelop other ships! Our gang is lucky this criminal didn't come up with some much more nefarious use for her super-cool ship. But then, if she were actually smart at all, she wouldn't make her attempt to control a planet anywhere near Federation space. She'd find some undeveloped planet of relative savages somewhere and subjugate them.

Perhaps worst of all, this implausible plot filled with foolish characters is resolved in a peculiarly dry way. Who settles armageddon with a legal arbitration? What writer thinks that's satisfying television?

Other observations:
  • Very (in)conveniently, Troi is unable to sense the emotions of Ardra to provide evidence of her deception.
  • I noted in the previous seasons that Data's study of Sherlock Holmes gave way to Shakespeare, thanks to copyright issues. Here, it changes again to be more generally a study of acting. The episode writers are trying to draw a connection between Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and the events of this episode. I feel it's a suspect connection, since in the scene, Scrooge is dismissing a real haunting as a fake, while the episode is instead about a fake Devil pretending to be real. Later dialogue instead tries to play the connection as one of "what fear can make people do," but since none of the aliens seem convincingly fearful, this only serves to underscore how the episode is not taking armageddon seriously enough.
  • For some random reason I can't possibly understand, this episode brought in the highest ratings of any Star Trek: The Next Generation since the series premiere. Why couldn't all of those people have tuned in for a better episode?
The one kind thing I will say about the episode is this: even though I didn't think it should have been funny, it is funny. Thanks to the skills of the actors, particularly Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner, the lighter moments of this episode really do bring a smile to your face. For that reason, I won't shove this one in the basement of the truly worst Star Trek episodes. But I still can't bring myself to rate it higher than a D+. I'll be amazed (and disappointed) if I come across a worse episode in season four.

1 comment:

Ian said...

I have to admit, I didn't hate this episode. Yes, it was cheesy and full of holes, but it was entertaining and the actual pretext to the story (distantly superior technology used to imitate godhood) was a good one. Unlike you I actually liked the arbitration at the end. I would give it a C+ or something. It's a YMMV situation I guess.