Friday, September 18, 2015

TNG Flashback: Descent, Part II

The seventh season premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation wrapped up the "Descent" cliffhanger at a breakneck pace. But that wasn't a good thing.

Data's evil brother Lore has seized control of the Borg group torn asunder by Hugh's "infection" of individuality. He has also exerted a different form of control over Data himself, by erasing Data's ethical programming and feeding him only negative feelings from Dr. Soong's emotional chip. Now Picard, Troi, and LaForge are prisoners, with Geordi the target of twisted experimentation. Riker and Worf's efforts at rescue take an unexpected turn when they encounter Hugh himself, the de facto leader of a handful of Borg trying to resist Lore's megalomania. Meanwhile, Dr. Crusher commands the Enterprise, trying to outwit the Borg ship in orbit.

Writer Jeri Taylor had worked on The Next Generation for years, and swore that if she were ever calling the shots, any season ending cliffhanger would have its concluding script written before the show's summer hiatus began. Despite those noble intentions, this script was once again written after the break, chiefly by her and credited writer Rene Echevarria. If they'd had time to plan ahead, they might have been able to do something about the problem they both later acknowledged: this episode has "too much story" for just 44 minutes of television. This was a lesson not learned from the two-parter "Birthright." There too, the second half was loaded with story (with nearly 10 minutes left on the cutting room floor), just so that the first part could end on the cliffhanger of Worf being captured. Here, the original story idea was to present Lore as a cult leader exerting control over Data... yet Lore hadn't even been revealed until the final seconds of season six.

To be fair, there are actually a lot of compelling ideas in "Descent, Part II." It's just that each of them gets about two scenes. We get only the barest taste of Crusher's command style, marked by gentle bedside manner. (And what we see makes me even sadder at what an unreasonable hardass Janeway was written to be on Voyager.) A conflict between two junior officers on the bridge -- Taitt and Barnaby -- is reduced to one taunting the other with a testy quip, and the other later throwing it back. The confrontation with the Borg feels minimal after the apocalyptic import of "The Best of Both Worlds," and their vessel is defeated far too easily.

The presentation of "evil Data" gets even shorter shrift. The stripping of his ethical programming feels like a dramatic moment that should have been played on screen, rather than left off-screen for the sake of surprise. (And it feels more like contrivance than surprise.) There isn't enough time to really establish "evil Data" as being any different from Lore, and his torture of Geordi is far too cerebral (pun not intended) to elicit much of a reaction from the audience.

Lore's role as a cult leader is compressed into a single scene, in which he uses charisma to manipulate a wayward Borg named Goval. (He shows more tenderness toward Goval in this scene -- even if it isn't genuine -- that he ever shows Data.) The opportunity to explore how this kind of brainwashing can happen is missed entirely. And worse, the defeat of Lore is anti-climactic. After his escape on two prior occasions, Data seems to disable him with implausible ease

Worst of all is the subplot involving Hugh. Part I managed to get by without him appearing at all, and perhaps they should have just left well enough alone for Part II. Hugh gets one scene to complain about the consequences of what was done to him, in which he declares that he won't help the Enterprise crew. Then, the next time we see him, he has a completely unexplained change of heart. That's his abbreviated character arc for the episode. He doesn't even get to reunite on screen with his friend Geordi. I have to wonder if consideration was ever given to making a three-part episode out of "Descent," in order to give the whole story proper space. Were the writers just feeling like it was best to cut their losses, or did they imagine they had a lot more stories to tell and just one final season in which to tell them?

At least even in the crush for time, a few nice moments shine through. Data gets to throw Troi's words about "negative emotions" (from Part I) back in her face. Picard and Troi get to take advantage of these relatively brainless Borg by running an obvious escape ruse on one of them. Crusher gets a major callback to her last big episode, by saving the ship through metaphasic shielding. Brent Spiner paints a convincing anology to a junkie's withdraw when Lore threatens to take emotion away from Data. And Lore's final ploy to save himself -- telling Data "I love you" -- is brilliantly manipulative. (Though don't think about it too carefully; Data has no positive emotions to be moved by the plea.)

It turns out that this episode represents some major connective tissue between the TV series and the Next Generation movies. First, great pains were taken (at Michael Piller's request) to make it explicit that only these Borg -- not all Borg -- had become individuals. This left the road clear for First Contact. Meanwhile, Data's emotion chip would return in Generations. Just don't expect much continuity on that subject -- here we're told the chip is damaged; in Generations we're told it's permanently fused into Data's brain; in First Contact we're told he can disabled it when he wants to; and in Insurrection he can physically remove it when he wants to. But really, my big complaint about the emotion chip is that they didn't just pull the trigger and give it to Data here, for the last season of the show. I feel like Deep Space Nine would have had the guts to tamper with the status quo like that.

Other observations:
  • Barnaby, the lieutenant who expresses skepticism over metaphasic shielding, was played by James Horan -- the very actor who, as Jo'Bril, tried to steal metaphasic shielding in "Suspicions."
  • Ensign Taitt, Barnaby's verbal sparring partner, was originally intended to be Reginald Barclay. Dwight Schultz's availability and price tag put the brakes on that idea. (Though Rene Echevarria observed it wouldn't have made much plot sense either; Barclay was a senior enough officer to have been sent down to the planet in the ill-conceived "empty the ship to carry out a search" plan.)
  • Emotions aren't the only upgrade Data gets between now and the movies. Here, Geordi tells a story about Data trying to swim and sinking straight to the bottom of the ocean. By Insurrection, the android is anachronistically able to serve as a "flotation device."
  • Riker has a quick communicator conversation with an off-screen Lieutanent Powell. This is probably the same man that Nurse Ogawa is engaged to later on in the season.
  • The shrinking of Lore's irises as he deactivates is a wonderfully subtle visual effect.
  • The Blu-ray collection of season seven includes a couple of deleted scenes from this episode. One is a few deleted lines in which Data justifies his claim that positive emotions don't exist. (The express mention of "love" in those lines would have made for a nice bookend with the Lore "I love you" moment.)  The other scene shows Riker and Worf rescuing Troi and Geordi from their cell.
"Descent, Part II" comes off like the abridged version of a story we'll never get to see in its proper full length. I think it started the show's final season off on a rocky C+.

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