Friday, May 22, 2015

TNG Flashback: Aquiel

"Aquiel" may be the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode about a coalescent organism, but pretty much nothing else about the episode coalesced.

Investigating an abandoned subspace relay station, the Enterprise crew finds evidence of a murder. Geordi begins going through the logs of the presumed victim, a Lieutenant Aquiel Uhnari. But when Lieutenant Uhnari is found alive by a Klingon ship, presumptions are upended -- she begins to look like the culprit rather than the victim. Complicating matters are her inability to remember what happened on the station, and her emerging romance with Geordi.

Reading behind the scenes stories about the creation of this episode, it becomes apparent why it's rather flat in execution: nobody really seemed to know what they wanted. Showrunner Jeri Taylor apparently first pitched the idea of giving Geordi a recurring love interest. She was concerned that the only committed couple on the show, the married O'Briens, had just left for Deep Space Nine. With no "attached" main characters, The Next Generation seemed to be unintentionally sending the message that long-term relationships were rare or not valued in the future.

But then Michael Piller made a suggestion to mimc plot elements from the classic 1944 film Laura, and have Geordi fall in love with a woman he first assumes to be dead. The writing staff, generally feeling that the series had never solidly executed a mystery episode, got behind the idea. But in laying out that story, the character of Aquiel transformed from long-term love interest to cold-blooded killer: she was indeed going to be responsible for the murder. Suddenly, the writers worried that they'd wound up in a place too similar to the then-recent film Basic Instinct, so they scrambled to resolve their mystery in another way. Dismissing Aquiel's crewmate Rocha and the Klingon character of Morag as "too obvious," they finally landed on the idea of making the killer be the dog.

By this point, the core idea that once motivated this episode was sufficiently lost in the weeds that no good episode could likely result. The finished script reflects a lot of these flaws. We don't get any sense of what it is about Aquiel's messages that rouses Geordi's interest in her. Consequently, he comes off as a bit of a creep in his pursuit of her, the way he sadly seems to be with every love interest he pursues.
The episode works too hard trying to present Aquiel as a potential femme fatale who might be out to kill Geordi. It doesn't work hard enough to make credible suspects of the people the writers had dismissed, especially the only-seen-on-camera-in-a-blurry-computer-photo Rocha. The ending awkwardly writes Aquiel off to some other adventure, so as to specifically not leave Geordi a recurring love interest.

The already shaky story got even worse when it went before the cameras. Actress Renée Jones is woefully flat as Aquiel, stilted and unnatural. Worse for the romance angle, she has absolutely no chemistry with LeVar Burton. You get the distinct impression that the script played faster than anticipated, because there are lots of awkward pauses in the way the episode is edited together -- gaps in dialogue, and odd silences at the ends of scenes. Plus, the visual effects are pretty terrible. The quivering jell-o that kinda-sorta attacks Geordi in the final act was subcontracted out to another FX house, who delivered their work too late for some much needed touchups that might have better integrated it into the environment.

Other observations:
  • In all the machinations to be like Laura and not like Basic Instinct, the writers wound up aping another movie possibly without even realizing it. The "coalescent organism," which copies living beings and devours the original, is essentially the monster from John Carpenter's The Thing. It even hides as a dog! Interestingly, more than a decade later, episode co-writer Ronald Moore wrote the first draft for what became the 2011 prequel film The Thing. (Though his script was completely re-written, and he ultimately received no credit on the finished film.)
  • Ronald Moore acknowledges the poor result here. In a 1997 AOL chat, in response to being asked what he would have done differently while working on Star Trek, he answered that he would not have written "Aquiel."
  • In the version of the episode where Aquiel was to have been the killer, Geordi was to have ended up owning her dog. A final scene would have had Data visiting Geordi's quarters, noting the dog's bad behavior, and declaring, "Geordi, I think I am a cat person."
This episode is narrowly better than some of The Next Generation's worst. It has a great scene, for example, where Picard manipulates Klingon Governor Torak into helping him. But overall, "Aquiel" is a clear disappointment. I give it a D+.

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