While pursuing a strange archaeological mystery, it appears that Captain Picard has been killed by a group of mercenaries. As acting captain of the Enterprise, Riker takes it upon himself to track down the killers and bring them to justice. Instead, he himself is captured by the mercenaries... only to find Picard alive, working undercover inside the group to uncover the reason for their raids. Riker is quickly positioned as a disillusioned Starfleet officer with negotiable morals, and he and Picard start working together under their assumed identities -- all the while pretending to hate each other in front of the mercenaries' dangerous captain, Arctus Baran.
The idea of "Gambit" was first pitched during the sixth season, by a college student named Christopher Hatton. It was set aside because the premise demanded breaking an edict Gene Roddenberry had established going all the way back to the original Star Trek series: there was no such thing as "space pirates" in his universe. Still, some of the writers couldn't quite let go of the idea, sensing in it the opportunity for something less talky and more more action-packed than Star Trek could usually manage. Ideas for the episode piled up to the point where Michael Piller even suggested it could be a two parter.
At last, executive producer Rick Berman had to make the call whether to pursue the episode in violation of "what Gene Roddenberry would have wanted." The story goes that Berman actually tied a bandanna as a blindfold around the bust of Roddenberry he kept on his desk, then invited showrunner Jeri Taylor in to argue for doing the episode. She made her case, and Berman gave his permission to move forward.
A "less talky" romp is indeed what resulted. From the very first scene of the episode, Crusher and Troi are threatening people with phasers. Later, Riker manhandles a reluctant informant and slams him into a wall. The real triumph is the most exhilarating phaser fight ever presented on the series. As Jeri Taylor joked, director Peter Lauritson must have "saved up all the favors ever owed him," somehow getting VFX for 70 phaser shots in a sequence filmed in a real outdoor location -- a sequence filled with running, jumping, and explosions. (The explosions are all VFX as well; fire bans at the location prohibited the use of practical explosions.)
The plot of the episode builds toward a question that isn't answered here in part one: what is it the mercenaries are looking for? It's good to have that suspense drawn out, because the "suspense" at the start of the episode is really the one weak element. There's no way the audience is going to believe that Picard has been randomly killed off four episodes into the season -- and off-screen, to boot. Indeed, script writer Naren Shankar thought this element of the story was so weak that he felt it should never have been made into two episodes. He felt the plot was "just marking time until the captain's revealed." But I do think he's not entirely right -- to me, the story actually feels shortened, not lengthened. We don't follow Picard's initial investigation, nor the establishing of his covert identity, lending a subconscious feeling that chaff has already been trimmed from this story and that what's left is vital.
It also helps that it's not all about action; character plays a big role too. There's a nice dramatic scene in which Riker refuses to attend a memorial service for Picard. (Well, Jonathan Frakes' performance is nice; Marina Sirtis veers a bit into melodrama.) It's a great episode for Data, with him first stepping into the first officer's role (trying to protect Riker from dangerous missions as Riker protected Picard), and then later into the captain's chair (whereupon he immediately adopts some of Picard's mannerisms).
Character is also important when the story shifts to the mercenary vessel. There are a number of reasonably interesting characters there, most especially the menacing captain Baran and the mysterious Tallera. Those two characters in particular benefit from solid casting. For Baran, there was some concern that Richard Lynch would come across too campy thanks to roles in films like Alligator II, Puppetmaster III, and Trancers II. Still, he'd worked on stage before with Patrick Stewart, and director Peter Lauritson lobbied that he would convey the power and presence needed to be a reasonable adversary for Picard.
Meanwhile, for Tallera, the show recruited Robin Curtis, who had memorably taken over the role of Saavik in the Star Trek movies. Here, as in those movies, she makes the most of limited screen time, presenting a nuanced character to the audience. (And she would have even more to do in Part II.)
- Not all the episode's guest stars were part of Baran's mercenary crew. Once Data rises to first officer, and then captain, the helm is crewed by Ensign Guisti, played by Sabrina LeBeauf. She was quite recognizable at the time from her role as oldest Huxtable daughter Sondra on The Cosby Show.
- This episode really showcases how completely the Star Trek universe had been established by this point. Both Picard and Riker adopt aliases that incorporate bits of past episodes -- Picard using his mentor's name, and Riker's supposed Starfleet disgrace stemming from his being relieved of duty in "Chain of Command, Part II." Deep Space Nine is referenced too, with "gold-pressed latinum" being mentioned on The Next Generation for the first time, and an Admiral (Chekote) from that series reappearing here.
- Earlier, I mentioned Naren Shankar's reservations over his own final script. Fellow writer Brannon Braga was even less convinced of this episode's merits. He thought the core idea had too many "campy, swashbuckling elements," and feared it would look "very corny." He thought the finished episode "came off like Buck Rogers: The Series and why do that? Is that good? We try many different mediums. I was curious as to why we were involving ourselves in a medium that is not usually a respected one."
- The Blu-ray collection for Season 7 features one deleted scene and several scene extensions from this episode. The missing scene (covered by a Riker log entry in the final episode) has Crusher confirm that Picard is dead. Excising this for time has the added benefit of making it less obvious that Crusher has made a major professional error here. The other deleted lines within scenes show Troi having fun as she works a bartender for information, Riker taking a bit more time interrogating the alien Yranac, and (most effectively) showing Picard as he improvises to prevent Baran's intended attack on a Starfleet base.