On Riker's trip to Risa, a mysterious woman shares a strange but simple VR game that he takes back to the Enterprise. It soon spreads like wildfire through the crew, and is ultimately revealed to be a brainwashing tool invented by an alien captain to seize control of first the ship, and then all of Starfleet. The only people that stand in the way are Wesley Crusher, visiting from Starfleet Academy, and Robin Lefler, the clever engineer with whom Wesley has struck up a relationship.
This was another episode with a long gestation period. The original idea to do an episode about video game addiction was pitched more than a year before this aired. It went through several permutations, and two complete written drafts, only to be scrapped each time. Show runner Michael Piller was starting to think the idea simply couldn't be saved, but producer Rick Berman pushed him to keep at it. Piller himself, Berman pointed out, had been saying the show needed more inherently sci-fi concepts. (A criticism Piller had leveled at the immediately prior episode, in fact.)
So Piller decided to give it to "the new guy," new staff writer Brannon Braga. Braga decided to go in a darker direction, influenced in part by Invasion of the Body Snatchers. What if Wesley came home for vacation and everyone was out to get him? And how fun would it be for all the adults to become addicted to a video game while the adolescent looked on from the sidelines?
I think the real success in this reconception was giving up the notion of saying anything deep about video game addiction -- it instead just embraced a fun story. But some of the production staff still talked about this episode in interviews as the "video game addiction" episode. It's kind of hilarious to think about writers in 1991 trying to forecast the future of video gaming anyway, in an age before MMOs or cell phones.
Piller rightly praised Braga's finished script -- for while the episode may not be profound, it is certainly well written. It finds room for many good character moments amid the action. Picard and Wesley share a wonderful conversation about the Academy and the groundskeeper Boothby, first mentioned in "Final Mission." (Patrick Stewart is especially brilliant, making you really believe in the memories Picard is recalling.) Data gets to recall Wesley's mom teaching him to dance. We get to see Riker's idea of a good time on Risa. (And how appropriate, by the way, that his horndog nature makes him Patient Zero for this crisis.) Even a minor character like Nurse Ogawa gets her most substantial appearance to date. Or, as Michael Piller neatly summed up, when Troi can talk about chocolate for half a minute and not slow down the story, you've done something right.
Braga also wrote the character of Wesley better here as a guest star than in any episode where he was actually a main character. Braga deliberately tried to relax the uptight character, believably making him a college prankster with, in his words, some "spunk" and "savvy." The romantic relationship is good too. (Immeasurably better than Wesley's last girlfriend episode.) It helps that Robin Lefler is also well-written. Her "Lefler's Laws" imply an untold personal history in which those life lessons were for some reason learned in that order. (And they're perhaps a spiritual precursor to the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition on Deep Space Nine.) Plus, the fact that she ends up using a medical scanner to run tests on a first date really makes her a great match for Wesley.
The performances are good too. Wil Wheaton is so much more confident in this episode that he's been in past Wesley episodes. Plus, we get the return of future star Ashley Judd. The staff had liked her so much in "Darmok" that they'd been looking for an opportunity to bring her back. They liked her so much here that they wanted to bring her back a third time when Wesley reappeared later in the season, but that didn't work out. (Perhaps her career was already starting to take off?)
Yet the episode does have its share of misfires. There's the dopey look of the video game itself, with the not-all-at-subtle metaphor of guiding a disc into a cone to provoke an orgasmic reaction. (Jonathan Frakes, though a fan of the episode overall, noted hilariously in an interview: "They told me it was going to be this incredible graphic, and all it was... was a tuba on a checkerboard.") There's also a bit of "been there, done that" in this episode, telling another brainwashing story so soon after "The Mind's Eye."
But probably the biggest stretch is the implausible virality of the game. For one, there's the scientific unlikelihood of a single device being equally effective on aliens of different physiologies (Worf, Troi, who knows who else) and even somehow the blind (Geordi). Then there's the question of how certain crew members would ever even try it in the first place. Braga indicated in an interview that this was his ulterior motive in the Troi-Riker chocolate scene, to illustrate that people tried the game because they were encouraged to do so by the people they trusted most. Maybe so, but that really makes me want to see how Worf or Picard tried it. (Troi and Beverly, respectively?)
- In the opening scene on Risa, the set department took great pains to recreate the look established in a previous episode. There's even a horga'hn visible on a table in the background.
- I'm not sure I buy that a Sadie Hawkins Dance would even be a thing in the future. Surely there's true gender equality by then, such that women asking men out doesn't have to be a special occasion.
- Wesley totally fails his perception roll when talking to Picard about the game, by not noticing that the captain has one sitting there on the table right behind him, in plain view.
- Costuming highs and lows in this episode: the "cadet uniform" makes its first appearance here, and is something of a precursor to the Deep Space Nine uniforms. But Wesley's civilian clothes and hairstyle somehow manage to make him look instantly five years younger.
- I like the chase scene in the final act. Wesley believably eludes capture for a time. But also believably, he can't keep it up forever and is soon caught.
- Wil Wheaton proudly noted that he was Ashley Judd's first on-screen kiss.
- In the scene where Dr. Crusher knocks Data unconscious, Brent Spiner slammed down so hard on the medical bed that he cut his chin and had to be rushed to the hospital. When he returned to the set, they had to complete the scene, and he was obviously much more cautious -- look at how slowly Data lowers himself onto the bed after he's switched off.