Thursday, June 04, 2015

TNG Flashback: Tapesty

The story conceit of "Tapestry," revisiting past decisions that could have gone differently, is hardly an original idea. It nevertheless resulted in one of the series' strongest episodes.

A malfunction in Picard's artificial heart has led to his death and apparent transition into an afterlife... where he finds Q, eager to test him for regrets over the way he lived his life. When Picard admits that a brash incident in his youth led to him having an artificial heart in the first place, Q gives him the chance to go back and change the outcome. But Picard soon learns that hindsight is not 20/20, and that his youthful "mistake" was in fact a key event in shaping the man he became.

Though episode writer Ronald Moore acknowledges similarities with the movie Peggy Sue Got Married, and writer/executive producer Michael Piller compared it (critically) with It's a Wonderful Life, "Tapestry" actually had a different inspiration. Patrick Stewart had performed a one-man version of A Christmas Carol on Broadway, to great acclaim, sparking a conversation among the writing staff about whether they could tell that sort of story on The Next Generation. Realizing that Q could serve as Scrooge's "ghosts," the writers crafted an outline for an episode they called "A Q Carol."

In the Blu-ray commentary for this episode, Ronald Moore goes into some detail about what that episode would have looked like. There would have been a visit to his France childhood, eavesdropping on his parents' conversation about the contrasts between Jean-Luc and his brother. There would have been an event on the U.S.S. Stargazer, possibly the death of Jack Crusher. It all would have culminated with Picard refusing Q's offer to change his past, having learned the lesson that his life unfolded the way it should have.

Michael Piller (showrunner of Deep Space Nine and supervisor on both it and The Next Generation) was not impressed with the outline. He thought the idea amounted to a pointless surveying of scenes from Picard's life, lacking any emotional resonance. He was also critical of going to the It's a Wonderful Life well, a trope he felt all long-running TV series did when they got, in his words, "tired." But Ronald Moore felt that the real problem was a lack of focus. He persuaded Piller to let him craft a new outline, dealing with just one incident in Picard's past. To his credit, Piller let Moore see the episode through to completion, even though he still thought the end product was "talky" and lacking a "fresh slant."

Even before he'd begun working on the series, Ronald Moore had been intrigued by Picard's back story of being stabbed in a fight with Nausicaans (established in "Samaritan Snare"). The contrast between Kirk and Picard had always appealed to him -- that the original series had described Kirk as a bookworm who later found his wild side, whereas Picard was staid and responsible after wilder, younger days. Moore coupled that inspiration with his own past. Just a few years earlier, he'd bombed out of college (losing a scholarship), and wound up sleeping on a friend's floor in Los Angeles. He thought at the time that his life had taken a horrible turn, but it turned out that being in L.A. allowed him to sell his first Star Trek script and begin his career.

Everyone has a story like this in their own past (often more than one), which is what makes "Tapestry" so powerful and relatable. We have all wondered about the time we'd turned left instead of right, sometimes questioning that choice, other times knowing that we made the only choice. There are other messages that can be read in the episode too. That you're supposed to make rash decisions in your youth. That leadership requires the ability to take risks. That the length of a life is not nearly as important as the quality of the life lived. (One message inferred by some fans sparked angry letters, according to staff writer René Echevarria. They thought the episode glorified violence in a very un-Star Trek way, because Picard's attempt to resolve a conflict calmly led to him living a bland life.)

Ronald Moore's script is filled with many nice touches. There are several great transitions between times and places. There's an expedient dismissal of whether altering the past will cause any time travel problems the episode doesn't want to deal with. There's a wild strangeness in Picard's old friends calling him "Johnny," and also in seeing him wear a blue uniform. The brief glimpse of Picard's disapproving father (a sort of holdover from the "Christmas Carol" version of the episode) helps place the episode where we met Picard's brother in a better context. Q's motives aren't overexplained; indeed, the finale leaves ambiguity as to whether he truly interfered at all. And there's Picard's final speech about unraveling the tapestry of one's life by pulling on loose threads, a powerful summation of the episode, and one of the things Ronald Moore says he's most proud of writing.

Particularly strong in this episode is Moore's depiction of Q. The last Q episode was trying to move the character away from the incorrigible prankster he'd become, the character Moore says every outside writer pitched in the endless Q ideas they heard over the years. This episode continues the shift back to a more serious and menacing Q (which would culminate in the series finale), yet it's still full of wonderful comic beats. Moore acknowledges in the Blu-ray commentary that his plot is still fundamentally Q playing a prank on Picard, but he maintains that the important difference is that it serves to teach both himself and Picard something about humanity.

John de Lancie loved the script, and responded with his best performance as Q, more nuanced and subdued than his past, playful turns. Apparently, some of this came about unintentionally, when trying to film the scenes in the all-white afterlife limbo. There was concern from director of photography Jonathan West that the effect they were trying to achieve with Q's white costume would go too far, resulting in a floating head. In case that aspect of the scene went over the top, de Lancie reigned in his performance to avoid adding more silliness -- a fitting choice anyway, for the content of the episode.

Of course, the limbo environment came out perfectly, along with every other aspect of the episode's production. The bar set is lit wonderfully in a classic Star Trek style, with brightly colored spotlights in odd places. The Nausicaans have a perfectly imposing makeup design (possibly inspired a bit by the look of the Predator). The stunt team serves up a wonderful fight with the Nausicaans, with choreography duplicated exactly when we see "young Picard" and Patrick Stewart perform it to bookend the story. And Dennis McCarthy provides a fitting score with a few nice moments, particularly a soaring backdrop for the afterlife that's spoiled by the appearance of Q.

The episode depends largely on Patrick Stewart, who of course gives an excellent performance. Standing out among several great scenes is the moment when he laughs to see the knife jutting from his chest. That detail was always part of the story, even when he first told it to Wesley, but it takes on new meaning now that Picard understands it as a defining moment of his life. Other main cast members are also strong in the few scenes they get; Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis are perfect in delivering harsh truth to "Lieutenant Picard" about his command potential, and Frakes is strong again in the finale, wishing he'd known the younger, fiery Picard.

Other observations:
  • It turned out that the episode had one other inspiration, even before Patrick Stewart's performance of A Christmas Carol. An outside writer, James Mooring, had pitched the "near death experience" idea back in season one. He wrote a disappointed letter after seeing this episode on the air, but Ronald Moore and showrunner Jeri Taylor were both determined to make good. They apologized for what they assured him was an unintentional mistake, and paid him for the idea.
  • There was brief talk that the captain of the Enterprise in the alternate reality would be Edward Jellico. Though it might have been a fun nod to recent continuity, I think it ultimately would have undermined Q's promise that nothing in a changed timeline would be different for anyone other than Picard. We saw how different life on the Enterprise was under Jellico's command.
  • The Blu-ray commentary in this episode has several fun factoids, including talk of a "Quantum Leap" style mirror shot that was abandoned, and the realization that the Klingon-style cups that show up in so many episodes were originally made for the film The Ten Commandments! Appropriately, there's also a lot of talk about "what might have been"s in the life of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ronald Moore talks about what could have been done in a more serialized structure like what Deep Space Nine grew into, possibly including a more explored Picard-Crusher romance, or a longer arc for Wesley in which he decides not to join Starfleet. There's also talk about this episode in particular -- including a concept that might have used Guinan to intriguing effect. (Just seeing a world in which she and Picard weren't friends would have been interesting enough!)
  • The Blu-ray also includes some significant deleted scenes. An extension of Q taunting Picard in limbo doesn't add much, though a later scene in which Geordi rebuffs Picard's attempt to help in Engineering serves to further define how rooted Picard has become in his "other life." There's also a big chunk that was taken out of the "morning after" scene between Picard and Batanides, showing how Jean-Luc's cockiness was actually one of the things that first drew her to him as a friend. (Though actress J.C. Brandy reportedly liked that the scene had been cut, as she felt it made her character too self-pitying.)
It seems simple, but take a script with strong character exploration, trust it to Patrick Stewart, and excellence will follow. As with "The Inner Light" and "Chain of Command, Part II," this episode is a grade A effort.

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