Counselor Troi awakens in a strange place, quickly learning she's been kidnapped and surgically altered to appear as a Romulan! Spock's dissident movement is working to sneak a high-ranking Romulan official into Federation space, and is using Troi to support the effort. She must pose as "Major Rakal," an operative of the feared Tal Shiar -- forcing a Romulan commander to do her bidding, and drawing on her own Starfleet knowledge if anything goes wrong. Completing the mission and maintaining her cover becomes a delicate balancing act.
Executive producer Rick Berman shot down the first "spy movie" pitch from the writers -- but on this occasion, he was probably right to do so. Apparently, that first idea was to have Q put several main characters on board a Romulan ship, where the rest of the crew would perceive them as Romulans, a la Quantum Leap.
When the focus then narrowed to a single character, the result was the strongest Troi-centric episode of the entire series. But she wasn't the first character they had in mind. The writers originally envisioned Dr. Crusher at the center of the story. (Perhaps because of their Hunt for Red October inspiration; Gates McFadden had made a brief appearance in that film as Jack Ryan's wife.) When someone realized that Troi's empathic abilities would be a huge boon to espionage, they made the switch.
An even better reason for the switch is that the story played to Marina Sirtis' strengths. As in "Power Play" and "Clues," she got to play cold and ruthless. Troi must conceal the emotions she usually displays so easily. She must also come out of her shell and throw her weight around. She asserts herself more and more throughout the story, ultimately even wresting control of N'Vek's plan away from him.
Indeed, watching this episode really makes me wonder about the road not taken. Marina Sirtis originally auditioned for the role that became Tasha Yar, while Denise Crosby auditioned for Counselor Troi. Gene Roddenberry himself decided to switch them, but I can't help but think Sirtis -- who was at her best in these tougher moments -- would have shined as security chief. Ah, but then what would Worf have ended up doing on the show? Quite the "butterfly flapping its wings," that scenario.
Speaking of switching roles, this was the episode where (behind the scenes) Naren Shankar officially moved from science advisor to staff writer. With writer Frank Abatemarco not working out, the staff was far behind schedule. They assigned this script to Shankar as a freelancer, giving him just six days to turn in his draft. By the end of that six days, he'd been promoted into his new full-time job.
Shankar stuffs his script with lots of small details. He named the Tal Shiar for the Vulcan martial arts technique "tal-shaya," from the original series episode "Journey to Babel." He retcons an explanation for why Romulan warp cores implode rather than explode, by explaining they utilize a quantum singularity. But far more importantly, he presents what may be the most well-rounded, multi-dimensional Romulan character ever presented on the series. Commander Toreth deplores violence, an attitude supported by the back story involving her father and the Tal Shiar. Interestingly, though Troi-as-Rakal bowls over her throughout the episode, Toreth is fundamentally right about almost everything -- in both her attitudes and her strategic thinking.
Shankar originally wrote Toreth as a male, imagining all the dialogue spoken by Sean Connery as Captain Marko Ramius. The gender was changed when the potential was realized for a strong female-female conflict -- though the dialogue was left exactly as it was. There was brief talk of casting Joanna Linville to reprise her role as a Romulan commander from the original series episode "The Enterprise Incident," but she was unavailable. (I think I would have felt bad anyway to see that same commander get duped twice by Starfleet.)
In the end, the role of Toreth went to Carolyn Seymour, who had previously played a Romulan commander in "Contagion." There was brief talk of renaming this character, but the writers decided that Taris had likely been killed in the aftermath of that episode. In any case, Seymour gets a lot more room to play here, and makes the most of the meatier role.
And helming this clash of wills between two women? Another woman! Recurring director Gabrielle Beaumont was in charge in this installment. She brings several interesting moments to the episode, including the moody single take in the teaser where Troi stumbles around in the darkness, and a taut game of cat-and-mouse between the Enterprise and the Romulan ship in the final act. She also went with the suggestion of VFX supervisor David Stipes, who lobbied to make N'Vek's death by disruptor death more grisly than usual.
Other production departments stepped up for the episode as well. The Romulan costumes are surprisingly detailed; though all of them use the same spectrum of greys, each has a different, distinct pattern. The sets for the Romulan ship are also interesting, though here Naren Shankar was disappointed that things didn't end up as his script specified. (He'd wanted the Romulan commander standing at the back of an elongated bridge with her back to the wall, where no one could sneak up on her. He felt that the episode instead ended up with a "Romulan Pizza Kitchen.")
The score for this episode was written not by either of the series' two regular composers, but by Don Davis. He would later go on to score The Matrix and its two sequels. His music here similarly lacks discernable melody (just how Rick Berman liked it), though there are a lot of interesting runs up and down the scales that evokes the feeling of the Romulan music Fred Steiner composed for the original Star Trek series.
- Though I mentioned liking the episode's long opening shot of Troi discovering her predicament, it does go a little too long. Marina Sirtis is left hanging, gawking open-mouthed at her Romulanized face for an awkwardly long time.
- The defector Stefan DeSeve has an interesting tick of pausing before longer words, which convincingly depicts a person who hasn't spoken a language in several decades. In fact, there's a deleted scene on the Blu-ray where he can't remember the name of the drink he wants to order, though the scene is a good cut for time. The moment doesn't really do anything that wasn't done better in the third season episode "The Defector."
- The episode cleverly builds on the established back story of Spock and his dissident movement on Romulus. The writers very briefly talked about having Spock himself be the person smuggled out in this episode. But knowing that they couldn't get Leonard Nimoy to appear, the only ending they could come up with involved a Romulan informing us that "Spock didn't make it." Knowing they could never kill such an important character off screen like that, the writers quickly abandoned the idea.
- This episode marks the first appearance of Worf's ponytail, a hairstyle that would persist for the rest of the character's existence (including Deep Space Nine and movies). Hairstylist Joy Zapata had been lobbying for the change for a long time, with support from actor Michael Dorn himself. She said the old style looked far too salon-crafted for a Klingon, and looked a lot like Donna Reed too. (And she's right. And now I can't not see that.)
- This is the first episode to establish that a cloaked ship cannot maintain its shields. It seems like somehow this was always true, but that's possibly just because (going all the way back to the Romulans' first appearance on the original Star Trek) cloaked ships have never been able to fire their weapons.