Monday, July 06, 2015

TNG Flashback: Lessons

"Lessons" was the second Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in a row to focus on Jean-Luc Picard. But where "Starship Mine" had been an action-oriented affair, this was a quiet romance.

Captain Picard meets Nella Daren, the new head of the ship's Stellar Cartography department. She's brilliant, assertive, an accomplished pianist and lover of music... and she knows how to coax the reserved captain out of his social shell. A romantic relationship develops between the two, and they carefully negotiate the awkwardness of an "office romance" between a superior and a subordinate. But their "office" often journeys into dangerous situations. And when the Picard orders a rescue of people from a deadly planetary firestorm, putting Daren into harm's way is a greater strain on the relationship than either could have anticipated.

Taken as a piece of episodic television, "Lessons" isn't all that extraordinary. One of the series regulars falls in love, only to play out an entire relationship and then break up before the end credits (all to keep the character available for future episodes). But then, "Lessons" isn't quite a piece of episodic television. It draws heavily on the series' best episode, "The Inner Light," and from it is strengthened tremendously.

The episode was pitched by an outside writing team, Ronald Wilkerson and Jean Louise Matthias. They'd previously sold the ideas for "Imaginary Friend" and "Schisms," but here were actually given the opportunity to write their own script rather than see their premise handed to a member of the writing staff. (Though there was still a minor final draft polish by Rene Echevarria. Brannon Braga was originally to have drawn the assignment, but a switch was made in light of his poor showing in the series' last romantic episode, "Aquiel.")

Nella Daren is really well written as the perfect love interest for Picard. She doesn't back down easily when confronted, but is also able to charm without seeming insincere. Yet the big key to the episode is the way the two characters bond over a love of music.

For a show generally loathe to do sequels, it's a brave thing to so completely embrace the history of "The Inner Light." Picard summarizes the plot of that episode in its entirety (and fittingly, is circumspect about it before finally opening up). And when the actual Ressikan flute melody is reprised, it's hard not to tear up at the connection. Yet this episode is doing more than merely trading on the goodwill of that past one; it's actually raising the stakes on this relationship, knowing how much Picard's last one meant to him.

Actress Wendy Hughes has a fine line to walk here as Nella Daren, but she's equal to the challenge. She's not just likeable, she's likeable even in the face of scenes where Doctor Crusher (who we also like) is essentially positioned against her. (Jean-Luc doesn't want to tell Beverly where he got his new tea blend from, nor does Beverly want to let on to Nella how she and the captain really know each other).

Any hesitancy about this relationship is dispelled in the scene where Daren first encourages Picard to play the flute for her; her advice to "just enjoy it" is as infectious on the audience as it is on the character. I mean, just look at the child-like, enthusiastic grin on Picard's face as he takes her compliment.

I find it interesting how the episode manages to present a convincing relationship despite operating within Gene Roddenberry's restriction of "no conflict between 24th-century humans." Picard and Daren talk through several relationship pitfalls, including the instinct to hide it from the crew, the commitment not to let work intrude, and the question of whether "the captain's woman" is expecting any favors from other superior officers. True, there's little friction in any of this, but that fortunately doesn't mean it's uninteresting.

Actually, if there's any awkwardness in the story, it comes from compressing the relationship into the span of a single hour. It's just the nature of the television beast. You have to accept that the very first time Picard sends Daren on an Away Team mission, her life is put in danger. Then you have to accept that after just this one incident gone bad, the two decide to end their relationship. But at least the break-up makes for a touching scene. When Picard confesses his momentary fear that his music would never again bring him joy if he'd lost her, it feels like a profound loss indeed.

Other observations:
  • This is the first appearance of Stellar Cartography on the show, and it's a modest one. The movie Star Trek: Generations would present a much more grandiose vision of this part of a starship, as would Star Trek: Voyager.
  • There are some great little moments involving Counselor Troi. My favorite is a subtle look Marina Sirtis gives in the background as Picard listens to Nella Daren play at the concert. Troi is picking up on the positive emotions Picard is feeling.
  • Looking at Daren's keyboard, I'm not sure it has enough texture on its surface to be played by touch.
  • In the pivotal scene set in the "acoustically perfect" Jefferies Tube, director Robert Weimer staged a super long, super slow pullback that went to the very edge of the dolly track (and the set). Unfortunately, it had to be trimmed for time.
  • It's interesting that after Jay Chattaway scored three straight episodes of The Next Generation, he didn't get this one. He was the one who composed the Ressikan flute melody from "The Inner Light" that figures so prominently here. Still, Dennis McCarthy does a good job of fleshing out his colleague's beautiful tune with piano accompaniment.
Admittedly, this episode wouldn't be as good without the background of "The Inner Light." But "Lessons" has that background, and the result is a solid B+.

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