Monday, August 10, 2015

TNG Flashback: Suspicions

In re-watching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (some for the first time since they first aired), I've found that a few which I remembered as bad were actually somewhat better than I first thought. But "Suspicions," an episode I recalled as decent, was a surprising disappointment.

Beverly Crusher's career may be at an end, and she recounts to Guinan the decisions that led her there. Hoping to boost credibility for the work of a Ferengi scientist named Reyga, Crusher invited leading figures in the field aboard the Enterprise to test Reyga's "metaphasic shield," a device he claims can protect a ship even inside a star. When a test of the shield results in the death of one of the scientists, Reyga is crushed and soon dies of an apparent suicide. But Crusher suspects murder, and risks her career to prove it.

As with "The Chase," this story was first pitched and shelved during season five, only to be revived as the press for scripts intensified near the end of season six. But unlike "The Chase," this episode went through significantly more rewrites.

Writer Joe Menosky's original idea revolved around Worf, and was pitched in the film noir style. The writers even persuaded producer Rick Berman to allow (for one time only!) the episode to be shot in black-and-white, and to feature heavy narration. But when the script didn't come together and the idea was scrapped, so was that vision for a stylistic departure.

The newest staff writer, Naren Shankar, took up the writing duties when the idea was revived in season six. He liked a late revelation in the original story, and wanted to focus on that -- an environmentalist metaphor in which it was discovered that warp speed travel was causing damage to the fabric of space. Ironically, when troubles perfecting the script returned once more, the other writers prevailed on him to ditch that element that had most appealed to him. (Even more ironically, it would become the entire basis of a later season seven episode.)

But the tinkering continued. It was felt that Worf had had enough scripts in season six, so writer Ronald Moore suggested maybe it could work as a Beverly story. ("Beverly as Quincy," the staff called it, which appealed to supervisor Jeri Taylor, who had actually worked on that classic TV series.) But the mystery still felt dull to Michael Piller, who insisted on more rewrites. As in the case of another mystery episode, "Aquiel," this led to a rather wild scheme for the identity of the murderer -- there, the dog; here, the victim himself, revealed not to be dead!

Still more rewrites were forced when the production learned that this episode would be filming in the one slot Whoopi Goldberg had free in her schedule. This would in fact turn out to be Guinan's last appearance on the series, and feels every bit as shoehorned in as it was. Beverly is probably the character with the least prior connection to Guinan, and the bartender's concern here doesn't play quite right -- in part because Guinan actually behaves so much against her nature, pretending not to listen.

Ronald Moore summed up the winding path of this script quite well: "It was just a never-ending, never-waking nightmare. Keep the murder mystery, lose the warp thing, move Worf out, keep the flashbacks, lose the filmnoir, insert Beverly -- it was just arrgh!" And yet the script still didn't really "get there." There's surprisingly little tension to the mystery, in part because the flashback structure reinforces for us that Beverly's own life isn't at risk. Her extensive voice-overs (a holdover from the original noir concept) drop off entirely when the story reaches the present, which makes the last third of the episode feel full of awkward silences.

And then there are the parts of the story itself that kind of don't make sense. Why does the metaphasic shield test need an impartial shuttle pilot? Either the shield works and the pilot lives, or it doesn't and the pilot dies; where's the room for subjective interpretation in that? What's with this supposed "Ferengi death ritual" that contradicts what Deep Space Nine had already established by this point -- that Ferengi parcel their remains out to be sold on an open market? When Crusher vaporizes Jo'Bril at the end of the episode, doesn't she eliminate the way to corroborate her story? And corroboration or no, how does being right get her off the hook with Reyga's family, whose objection was that an autopsy was performed without their permission?

There are a few nice character moments in the episode. Nurse Ogawa's stalwart support of Crusher is nice to see. So is Picard's reaction when Crusher confesses to disobeying his orders; he first asks what she found before chastising her, and even when he gets to that, he doesn't really raise his voice. But offsetting these good moments for other characters are the ways in which Dr. Crusher is made to look truly foolish in this episode: she can't tell whether Jo'Bril is alive or dead, and can't even tell that Guinan is faking her "tennis elbow."

Other observations:
  • The Klingon Kurak is played by Tricia O'Neil, who memorably played the captain of the Enterprise-C in "Yesterday's Enterprise."
  • More than the usual number of scenes in this episode are shot with a handheld camera, a technique often used in film noir movies.
  • The doors have a keen sense of drama in this episode. In two scenes, they fail to open even with Beverly standing right next to them, apparently aware that the scene isn't over yet.
  • The shuttlecraft Justman is not only identified on its hull, but in dialogue. It's named for Robert Justman, producer of the original Star Trek (and season one of The Next Generation).
  • The climactic fight with Jo'Bril uses the "hole through the body" effect presented memorably one year earlier in the film Death Becomes Her. (Though it is a good nod to the alien's resilient physiology.)
  • Perhaps a reason I remember this episode being better is how prominently it figured in the early days of the Star Trek: Customizable Card Game. Three of the most commonly played characters from the game's first set came from this episode: Jo'Bril, Reyga, and (if you played Klingons) Kurak.
The episode is far from a disaster, but it's simultaneously overcooked and not cooked enough. I give it a C+.

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