Monday, July 13, 2015

TNG Flashback: The Chase

"The Chase" was an idea so long in the making that episode co-writer Ronald Moore joked that the title referred to the effort just to get it on the air. The result was perhaps the most quintessential hour of "Star Trek" that The Next Generation ever produced.

Captain Picard's old archaeology professor Galen comes aboard, on the cusp of a great discovery and inviting Picard to join him in its pursuit. When Galen is killed in an attack by Yridian information dealers, Picard takes it upon himself to complete his mentor's work. Soon, the Enterprise is on a wild hunt to planets throughout the galaxy, the crew looking to complete an apparent computer program hidden in the very DNA of living organisms. And there are many alien rivals hot on their heels.

This late season six episode of the show was first conceived by staff writer Joe Menosky at a pre-season five writers' retreat. It was loosely inspired by a plot element from Carl Sagan's novel Contact, where hidden information was uncovered in a long calculation of the value of pi. (That element didn't make it into the movie adaptation.) Fellow staff writer Ronald Moore was immediately keen on the idea, and worked with Menosky to produce a script. Their approach was a comedic, madcap chase in the style of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." Then-showrunner Michael Piller killed it for being "too cartoony."

But more than a year later, the traditional late-season crunch happened. There was a lack of scripts ready for filming, and Menosky and Moore re-pitched the idea with some important changes: a more serious tone, and a more poignant entry into the adventure through the death of Picard's mentor. Now everyone was sold, and the episode went forward. In fact, Piller was suddenly so hot on the story that he suggested to now-showrunner Jeri Taylor that it could be the season finale cliffhanger!

Professor Galen really does add a great deal to the story, despite dying at the end of the first act. Picard's interest in archaeology had been long established on the show, but this was the first time it was portrayed as more than a mere hobby. Galen says Picard could have been the foremost archaeologist of his generation, and Picard explicitly acknowledges that career as a "road not taken." (Though, so soon after "Tapestry," it's fitting that he expresses no doubts about the path he chose.) It's also interesting to see the captain -- normally so in charge -- showing total deference to another person as he does with Galen.

Once the titular chase begins, the story takes on an impressive scope. The Enterprise probably travels to more planets in this episode than in any other. They encounter Yridians (just introduced in "Birthright"), Cardassians, Klingons, and Romulans. There's a mystery in play complex enough that both Crusher and LaForge (with their quite different skill sets) play a key role in solving it. And it all culminates in the very Star Trek, very Roddenberry-esque revelation that the people of different races really are the same at the most basic level. It's a clever choice to have the Romulans, of all enemy races, be most receptive to this message; that makes sense, sharing their own past with the Vulcans as they do.

The alien hologram delivering this message is played by Salome Jens, the actress who would go on to regularly play a similar looking character -- the female leader of the Founders -- on Deep Space Nine. It's a speech that not only delivers a moral, but provides a clever in-universe explanation for why all aliens on Star Trek look fundamentally human. Director Jonathan Frakes was particularly proud of the content of the speech, and said in a later interview that he thought it would have made Gene Roddenberry proud.

Producer Rick Berman (so often the wet blanket) was less thrilled with the finished episode. To him, the concept was "not Roddenberry-esque, it's very sixties Roddenberry-esque." And while I'd personally dispute that there was even a difference, he's not off-base noting that this episode felt like classic Star Trek. Ronald Moore was specifically thinking of an original series episode when working on this one: "The Paradise Syndrome." In that episode, an unseen race called the "Preservers" had relocated life from Earth to another planet. Moore had considered identifying the ancient humanoids in this episode as those Preservers, but ultimately opted not to specify, and just leave that connection "internally consistent." In any case, these aliens are certainly an interesting idea -- truly alone in the universe (at their time), as some people imagine humans might be in our real universe. (Call me skeptical of that.)

But in getting to its Trek-perfect ending, the episode does do a few bewildering things along the way. There's never an explanation for why the Yridian ship is destroyed in one hit (only Worf's assurance that it wasn't his fault). It's completely unclear how the Cardassians and Klingons found out about Galen's research when he was taking such care being secretive about it. (He refused to even explain it to his would-be partner, Picard.) And it's quite implausible that the ancient aliens, wanting their message to be discovered, would leave each piece of the puzzle in only one place -- risking destruction over billions of years (as almost happened accidentally at the final planet, or intentionally at the one the Klingons wiped out). I suppose the episode was too tightly-packed for explanations of these probably-unimportant details.

Other observations:
  • Perhaps harkening to the episode's originally intended comedic tone, the scene where Nu'Daq tries to bribe Data is full of well-executed humor. Another bit of humor was cut from the episode for time -- a deleted scene (available on the Blu-ray) in which Dr. Crusher gets a DNA sample from the self-important Mot the Barber.
  • Although Deep Space Nine would bring us seven more years' worth of Cardassians, this episode's Ocett is the only female Gul ever seen on Star Trek.
  • While the episode turned out well, Jonathan Frakes was disappointed that the scenes on the final planet were filmed on a set rather than outside. He groused a bit that "the money was being spent across the street" (on Deep Space Nine), though set designer Richard James observed that the script called for a salt flat devoid of vegetation, which couldn't be found within a reasonable distance of the studio.
This episode is a surprisingly effective blend of adventure, comedy, and highbrow Star Trek morality. I give it a B+.

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