Thursday, June 25, 2015

TNG Flashback: Starship Mine

After high science fiction concepts, thought-provoking morality plays, and emotional character studies, Star Trek: The Next Generation served up something different in "Starship Mine": a slice of pure action-adventure.

The Enterprise is docked at the Remmler array, where all personnel are being evacuated for a maintenance procedure. When Picard makes an impromptu return to the ship, he finds a gang of thieves attempting to steal trilithium resin from the ship's engines. While most of the senior staff is held hostage on the planet below, Picard enters a game of cat-and-mouse with the thieves aboard the ship. And the clock is ticking for them all, as the baryon sweep being conducted will kill them all if they don't escape in time.

You'd never guess it, but this script came from the same man who wrote "The Inner Light." His idea here, as he once described it, was to do "Die Hard on a spaceship." (Though later, trying to distance the episode from Die Hard, he'd note that the concept had been iterated on many times, including Passenger 57 and Under Siege.) Perhaps it was only the goodwill he'd earned selling "The Inner Light" that led to him selling this one. Showrunner Jeri Taylor remarked that this episode was so far from the series' norm that they probably wouldn't have even attempted it in an earlier season.

Executive Michael Piller would later acknowledge that "it's good to have one of these kind in the mix." Yet he also maintained that "it didn't feel like Star Trek to me." He worried that it was derivative and too violent, and he tasked Ronald Moore with doing a late, uncredited rewrite on the script. A very late rewrite, as episode director Cliff Bole reported that as many as 10 new pages a day were coming in while he was filming it!

Perhaps it's only because something needed to be in front of the camera that this episode was made at all, because it's hard to imagine Moore's rewrite satisfying Piller's concerns. Moore acknowledged that this was "just straight run and jump," possible only because of the character focus the show had developed otherwise. And he was constantly reigning in his own instincts to make it more brutal, with more killing... an instinct he would one day let fly in his Battlestar Galactica.

That said, the script does go out of its way to keep Picard on the moral up-and-up. When he is forced to kill some of the invaders on the ship, he only does so indirectly, and we see him pause for a moment to mourn what he's had to do. Still, he sees plenty of action, which Patrick Stewart was reportedly thrilled to do. (He'd even call this one of his favorite episodes in the run of the show.)

If it were just mindless action, the episode wouldn't work nearly as well as it does. But the setup is quite well concocted. The baryon sweep serves as both a ticking clock and a physical restriction that corrals the action aboard the Enterprise. Little details count for a lot too. There's the fact that phasers don't work, serving to make the action more visceral. Worf is carefully excluded from the reception on the planet, to avoid putting him in another situation where he'd look bad at his job. The villains trying to steal the trilithium resin are led by a woman -- and the script doesn't shy from putting her in a fistfight with Picard in the episode's climax. (Plus, it's another woman who captures Picard. Twice.)

Plus, it's not just the action that's fun. Before the hostage situation develops on the planet, we get a wonderful bit of comedy involving the character of Commander Hutchinson, and Data's attempt to mimic his "small talk." Brent Spiner gives a hilarious performance, while just about every member of the main cast gets an opportunity for a funny joke or two. (My favorites are Marina Sirtis' scowl when Troi knows Picard is lying about needing his saddle, and Jonathan Frakes' dumbfounded line reading about how long two people can talk about nothing.)

Director Cliff Bole brings a lot to the episode with great staging and pace. He pulls off a really entertaining single take during the teaser (that includes Riker and Data appearing in different "cars" in the same turbolift). And he completed the whole episode under very adverse circumstances. Besides the late rewrites I noted earlier, he had one entire day knocked off his shooting schedule as a budget saving measure. The same cuts kept him from having enough extras to make Hutchinson's reception feel like an actual party, and forced simplifications in some of the makeup designs Michael Westmore had planned for the various aliens in the episode. All these cuts definitely hurt the episode overall, but thanks to Bole, they don't sink it.

One area where time and expense couldn't be trimmed was the lighting. With the ship supposedly shut down in this episode, none of the established lighting setups could be used. Director of photography Jonathan West was eager to play though, free from the restriction of using the looks established seasons earlier by Marvin V. Rush.

The episode has a handful of notable guest stars in it. The alien Orton is played by Glenn Morshower, best known for 24 (though he also appeared in another, earlier role on The Next Generation). Patricia Tallman, a frequent stunt performer on The Next Generation, would later play telepath Lyta Alexander on Babylon 5. Then, of course, there's Tim Russ, who would become Tuvok on Star Trek: Voyager.

Other observations:
  • The area most clearly lacking in this episode is the music. It really calls attention to executive producer Rick Berman's unfortunate mandate for bland musical wallpaper. This is one of the most action-packed episodes of the series, yet Jay Chattaway was forced to provide a lifeless drone of a score for it.
  • Morgan Gendel originally wanted to call this episode "Revolution," continuing on his own private joke in naming "The Inner Light" for a song by The Beatles. The producers vetoed this, feeling the title was too similar to the earlier episode "Evolution."
  • After Hutchinson is shot at his own reception, he's not seen or talked about again for the rest of the episode. Some dialogue in the script reportedly indicated that he'd been killed, but it didn't make it into the end product. (Though you can see a purple sheet that appears to be covering his body.)
  • When he dispatches Devor, played by Tim Russ, it appears (appropriately enough) that Picard delivers a Vulcan nerve pinch. According to the script, this was intended to be a more conventional carotid-artery block.
Morgan Gendel's own opinion of the finished episode essentially mirrored mine. He said in an interview that the "first time I saw it, I wasn't sure how well it worked. But when I went back to watch it a second time, I really like it, and thought it was true to what I was trying to do." I too recall not liking this episode too much when I first saw it during the series' original run. But now, I find it a rather fun break from the norm. Made today, with what can be achieved on television now, it would have been worlds better. But I still think it's worth a B.

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