Friday, October 02, 2015

TNG Flashback: Interface

It reportedly wasn't planned as such, but season seven of Star Trek: The Next Generation saw a large number of never-before-seen family of the main characters appearing on the show. Writer Ronald Moore later dubbed the trend The Year of Lost Souls. It began here with "Interface."

The crew has been testing a new technology, by which Geordi can directly control a sophisticated probe via neural interface; he sees what it sees, and controls its movements with his mind. An opportunity to field test the system comes when the Enterprise must recover a ship trapped deep inside a gas giant. But then Geordi receives some terrible news: the starship commanded by his mother has gone missing. He insists on going through with his mission, only to be shocked when he discovers his mother alive aboard the trapped ship!

Joe Menosky had pitched this story idea two years earlier as a staff writer. It originally put Riker in the VR suit, coping with the death of his father and seeing visions of his childhood cabin in Alaska. But in the intervening time, Riker had been the centerpiece of another "hallucinated reality episode." Plus, according to showrunner Jeri Taylor, "an order" had come down from on high to flesh out LaForge. He was literally the only main character who had never had a family member appear on the show, and it was deemed necessary to show, as Taylor put it, "that he didn't spring isolated from Zeus' forehead."

The chance to show both of Geordi's parents made for a reunion of sorts for the classic TV mini-series in which LeVar Burton starred, Roots. Ben Vereen (who here is LaForge's father) played Burton's character's grandson in Roots. Madge Sinclair (LaForge's mother) played the wife of his Roots character as an older man.

Technology plays a key role in the story. It's one of those not-uncommon cases where Star Trek either seemed prescient about future tech, or inspired someone to actually create it. While we don't have computers you control with your mind (yet), drone technology and virtual reality have developed a lot since 1993, and this is essentially a combination of those two ideas. In fact, staff writer (and former science advisor) Naren Shakar worried that the premise wasn't futuristic enough. "From a gee-whiz standpoint... we weren't looking at technology four hundred years in the future. ... The technology seems out of proportion to the other technologies that we use on the Enterprise." Perhaps he's right, but the result was certainly quite plausible.

Unfortunately, what doesn't feel plausible is the behavior of most of the characters. You may recall just a few episodes back that when Troi made the fantastical claim that time had stopped for everyone but her, everyone took her at her word until proof was found. That's how they roll in Starfleet; no idea is too far-fetched. Except, apparently, the idea that Geordi's mom could be trapped on a ship inside a gas giant.

Everyone tells Geordi he's simply in denial, and demonstrates a rather callous response to his understandable emotions. Troi gives him a counseling session, but she comes off unusually frigid and harsh with him. Picard doesn't even offer him a chance to find supporting evidence for his claims, simply dismissing them out of hand. Only Data seems to respond in character, deciding that his demands as Geordi's friend require him to break the rules. (But how much better would this have played if Data had been wrestling with not-yet-fully-understood input from his new emotion chip? I still maintain that a final season with an emotional Data would have been good for the show.)

Now don't get me wrong; while I don't like how everyone treats Geordi with skepticism, I actually like that he really is wrong in this episode. It's a fun change from the Star Trek norm that his wild theory about his mother is incorrect. I just question if Geordi, even allowing for wishful thinking, really wouldn't notice the decidedly stiff and alien behavior of his "mother." At least the script (which received an uncredited final polish by René Echevarria) does telegraph from the very beginning that not everything Geordi experiences in the interface is real.

Other observations:
  • Actually, the best scene in this episode wasn't originally part of the script. During the editing process, the episode was coming in several minutes short. So Jeri Taylor wrote the scene where Riker tries to console Geordi by speaking of the death of his own mother. It was filmed three episodes later, and Jonathan Frakes gives an outstanding performance. The loss Riker speaks of still feels raw.
  • Staff writer Ron Moore was especially critical of this episode. "We were talking about bringing Geordi's mother in, and we all kind of looked at each other and we were like, 'This is sad. This is the best we can do? Is this the best we can do, is Geordi's mother?' It was such a 'who cares' idea that we were just sort of, 'Oh man... This show has got to end.'"
I'm not sure it was that bad. But it wasn't great, certainly not enough to lift season seven out of the doldrums in which it began. I give "Interface" a C.

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