Thursday, September 24, 2015

TNG Flashback: Liaisons

Some great hours of Star Trek: The Next Generation came as the first episode after a season premiere, episodes like "Family" and "Darmok." The seventh season's entry in this #2 position, however, fell far short.

The Enterprise is receiving a trio of diplomats from a newly contacted alien race, the Iyaarans. Plans are made for Troi and Riker to host two of them aboard the Enterprise, while Picard travels with the third to the Iyaaran homeworld. But those plans quickly come apart. As Troi is tested by the gluttonous demands of one delegate, the other rejects Riker as his escort and strong-arms an unwilling Worf into the role of diplomat. And meanwhile, Picard's shuttle crashes on a seemingly uninhabited planet, where he is rescued by a mysterious woman named Anna. She's been alone there for seven years after a crash of her own, and is less interested in escape than in striking up a romance with Picard.

This might be the most forgettable hour of Star Trek: The Next Generation ever produced -- not memorably bad, but certainly not memorably good. I recalled the episode title before re-watching it, though almost nothing of the contents, not even after starting off with its 30-second preview. But then, some associated with making the episode might prefer it was forgotten entirely.

Even though the season had just started, this idea came in under the gun. Back in season six, outside writers Roger Eschbacher and Jaq Greenspon sold a pitch, basically to adapt the story of Stephen King's novel Misery for Star Trek: a crazy woman would hold one of the crew hostage. Several times in season six, when the writers had been desperate for a script, they'd tried to map out the beats for this story. Each time, they'd failed to make it work. As a last ditch effort, they gave it to sixth season interns Jeanne Carrigan Fauci and Lisa Rich, who came back with the beginnings of what would eventually go before the camera.

But there was still more work to do. Fauci and Rich had fleshed out a subplot for the script about Troi going after a promotion. Though the idea would be used later in season seven, it was thought here to be incompatible with the A-story. So in a late week-long uncredited rewrite that ran right up to the start of filming, staff writer Brannon Braga added the two other Iyaaran delegates for Worf and Troi to wrangle. Show runner Jeri Taylor was convinced the oddball humor Braga had introduced would make the episode popular. Director Cliff Bole, who would later express disappointment with the finished product, blamed these late rewrites.

Braga may or may not have been conscious of it, but his script polish made the whole episode feel very much like 60s-era Star Trek. The Iyaarans feel like a race ripped right from the original series. They have no children, and they don't understand our strange human concepts of love, antagonism, and pleasure. They apparently also lack for communication skills, as their method of learning about these things is to put our heroes through the wringer testing them.

Some of the moments to work to some degree. It's nice to see Worf in this "fish out of water" story line. Picard is perfectly delicate in deflecting Anna's early advances. We get a little taste of what went largely unexplored in "Second Chances" -- a look at what it might be like to be marooned alone on a planet for seven years.

But then there are other aspects of the episode that truly don't work. For example, if Misery really was the inspiration for this story, the "threat" of a person wanting to love you hardly seems to compare to Annie Wilkes. The opening gag involving Worf's sexism about Starfleet's literal "dress" uniforms plays strangely, as Riker's chastisement is so tongue-in-cheek that it seems almost equally sexist. And the resolution of the story has such an "oh, you wacky aliens" quality that you almost expect to hear a sad trombone play.

Other observations:
  • I might be mistaken, but I don't think a single card in Decipher's Star Trek CCG was ever taken from this episode (in the First or Second Edition). And there were certainly many other designers who worked on the game over the years, which leads me to think it was as forgettable for them as it was for me. Then again, Worf's very first personnel card did have Diplomacy, which almost has to be a nod to this episode. (Star Trek CCG fans, please weigh in with any game-related thoughts you have.)
  • In the final act, it's revealed that Anna is in truth the alien ambassador Voval in disguise. This finishes up the story with a retroactive and quite subtle gay undercurrent. I wonder if the writers even realized this. If so, they wisely chose to make no comment on it at all.
  • The season seven Blu-ray set includes one deleted scene from this episode, in which Worf's belligerent alien charge rouses him from bed at 5:00 in the morning, claiming that this is the hour Worf said they would meet. It's not a particularly necessary moment, though it does further test Worf's ability to hold his temper.
As I said before, this episode is forgettable precisely because it's not that terrible. But it's certainly no prize. I grade it a C-.


Chris Lobban said...

"I might be mistaken, but I don't think a single card in Decipher's Star Trek CCG was ever taken from this episode (in the First or Second Edition). And there were certainly many other designers who worked on the game over the years, which leads me to think it was as forgettable for them as it was for me."

And you would be correct:

When I read your title I recognized it, and from looking at the picture I could start to recall what it was about (at least the few major points, the three ambassadors trying to experience three new experiences that they didn't really have in their culture). But it certainly took a lot more effort than recalling most other TNG episodes. Which is too bad, because I'm sure we could do something interesting with those Ambassadors, or make a good Anthropology dilemma from the situation, or something like that... if only we could actually remember the existence of the episode when we were making cards. ;-)

(goes to write down some card ideas now before I completely forget the existence of this episode again... ;-) )

Anonymous said...

I want to say that there were other diplomatic situations previous to this that Worf had been involved in, but I'm sadly unable to recall specific moments at this time. Perhaps it might be the first episode where being a diplomat, or being involved in diplomatic relations, is explicitly talked about by Worf.