Thursday, October 29, 2015

TNG Flashback: Gambit, Part II

After Star Trek: The Next Generation served up a rock solid action-adventure romp in "Gambit, Part I," the story stumbled a bit in its conclusion, "Gambit, Part II"

Working undercover aboard Baran's ship, Picard and Riker learn the object of the mercenary's search, a Vulcan artifact known as the Stone of Gol. If the pieces are all assembled, the resulting device will unlock powerful psionic abilities that could threaten the entire Federation. And it's soon revealed that Picard and Riker aren't the only ones on the mercenary ship concealing their true intentions.

Writer Ronald Moore was responsible for the script for this episode, fleshing out a story from staff writer Naren Shankar (who scripted Part I). Shankar had a core idea (inspired from Spock dialogue in the classic episode "Journey to Babel") that a Vulcan could kill for a logical reason: these were "people who very logically felt that Vulcan's 'problems' were linked to contamination by illogical people, so in a logical sense you say 'Get rid of them'... I just thought it was a very logical way to arrive at racism being the answer to your problems."

This idea is still reflected in the final episode. But Shankar's notion of how the Vulcan artifact would accomplish this isolation didn't go over nearly so well. He imagined a device that would actually phase the planet Vulcan out of our universe! There it could exist alone and avoid cultural contamination from other species. According to Shankar, "everyone was afraid it was going to be like a Space: 1999 episode," so that idea was rejected.

That left Moore to flail around a bit trying to figure out what the artifact would actually do. An early draft had it capable of genocide, slaughtering millions of people at a time. When that didn't pan out, he ultimately suggested, "maybe we should just go for it and make this a classic Gene kind of message and go for 'think happy thoughts' and make it something which tied into the backstory of Vulcan and of Surak and peace." Perhaps Moore was subconsciously drawn to such an ending as a sort of apology to Roddenberry for violating the "no space pirates" rule the way they'd done in Part I. But the result is a rather jarringly talky wrap-up to such an otherwise action-packed story. Or, as Moore summed up, "it might have just fallen in on its own gooeyness." He's probably on the right track; the moment when Worf (of all people) is somehow able to empty his mind of violent thoughts feels pretty trite.

There's even another too-talky confrontation before that ultimate climax -- the moment when Picard stands up against Baran and takes control of the mercenary ship. Rather than simply shooting Baran, Picard draws him out in a lengthy dialogue that ultimately ends in contrivance. Somehow, Picard has been able to hack the pain-giving neural servo device to work on Baran instead. When and how did Picard do this, and not get caught?

Still, there are also some fun moments throughout the episode. The scheming aboard the mercenary ship is generally good, with Picard, Riker, Tallera, and Baran all trying to outmaneuver each other. The subplot that sees Data disciplining Worf for insubordination is effective throughout, particularly in the moment where Data apologizes "if I have ended our friendship." There's plenty of great banter between Picard and Riker. Plus, there's a funny classic Trek type of final scene where Data is ready to haul Riker off to the brig.

The character of Koral, played by basketball star James Worthy, is also good for a few laughs. His appearance on the show reportedly came about thanks to his chance meeting on an airplane with Robert O'Reilly (the actor who played Gowron). Worthy mused about appearing on the show, and O'Reilly arranged the meeting to make it happen. Ron Moore actually was "not a big sports fan," and didn't even know who James Worthy was. (Me neither.) But he and the other writers were happy to accommodate the cameo, as they were already looking for a filler element to pad out the too-short two-parter.

The script gets good mileage out of Koral/Worthy's height, and deliberately makes him an untalkative character so as not to demand too much of someone who wasn't actually an actor. Director Alexander Singer was also quite happy to work with the Laker, saying that in his experience, athletes are usually quite comfortable in front of a camera. "They're in show business, they don't freeze, and they take direction well."

Other observations:
  • There are some fun hints in dialogue to Tallera's true Vulcan identity, such as the moment that she suggests a "logical" course of action to withdraw from battle.
  • Ronald Moore, ever one of the writing staff's biggest Star Trek fans, named the Stone of Gol from the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There, the place where Spock studied for his "kolinahr" ritual was a plateau named Gol. Naren Shankar (perhaps bruised by the alteration to his original story) mocked the name, joking that the artifact could thus be called a "Gol Stone."
  • There are a couple of deleted/extended scenes on the Blu-ray collection of season seven, in which Riker smoothly deflects Narik's execution by Baran, and Baran elaborates on his decision to board the Enterprise. They're neat to see, though neither really feels like much was lost from the final episode as aired.
"Gambit, Part II" merits a B grade. It's not bad, but it does fall short of the promise of the far better first half.

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