Wednesday, November 18, 2015

TNG Flashback: Dark Page

I remembered "Dark Page" being a particularly bad episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Re-watching it, though I certainly didn't think it a series high mark, I did find it considerably better than I remembered.

Counselor Troi's mother Lwaxana has been establishing diplomatic relations with the Cairn, a species which until now communicated only telepathically. Teaching them spoken language has been a demanding assignment, but the extreme fatigue Lwaxana feels has a deeper cause. When she suddenly falls into a coma due to a repressed memory deep in her telepathic psyche, Deanna must venture inside her mind to unlock the secret and save her life.

Episode writer Hilary J. Bader had been pitching the same general idea for years -- that of a telepathic rescue mission. And while the writing staff and producers had always been on board with that core concept, numerous attempts to implement it had fallen apart. Reportedly, there were multiple early versions of the idea involving Dr. Crusher (both with a female guest star and Counselor Troi) and LaForge. Even the first draft using Lwaxana had the roles reversed, with Deanna in the coma and her mother going into after her.

Because this core idea was always what was being chased, the finished product minimizes some other interesting ideas that probably deserved more exploration. The idea of a species with no verbal communication is a really intriguing one, but the episode gives only the barest hints of their culture. And Deanna's encounter with her father (inside her mother's mind) feels like it should have been much more monumental. Getting a chance to reunite with the father you lost at age seven and having to turn your back on it? That's a powerful idea -- but it makes for only a short scene in this episode.

I'm actually not even sure the core idea feels entirely like Star Trek to me. There's something about telepathy that strikes me more as "magic" than science fiction, and there are other series that I think could have presented this idea better. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer for example. And Supernatural in fact did have an episode featuring a "psychic rescue.")

But something about the episode won me over all the same this time, and it's the part that reportedly took the most effort on the part of the writers. According to staff writer René Echevarria (who did an uncredited polish on the final script), the story's real challenge was figuring out what Lwaxana's secret was. It had to be dark enough to justify the repression (and thus, the entire story), yet not something that would paint the character in too unsympathetic a light.

The loss of a child certainly meets those requirements. It's just a chilling, horrible idea, so powerful that even in the mere concept overcomes some shortcomings in the actual execution. For example, it's ridiculous that all the scenes in Lwaxana's mind would take place somewhere on the Enterprise -- but that's the reality of a television budget for you. And can you really believe that a child would die of drowning with the medical capabilities we've seen in this future? But ultimately, the idea that a mother would have hidden for decades the secret of a dead daughter hits you on a deep emotional level.

There are some interesting guest stars in this episode. Of course, Majel Barrett returns for her final Next Generation appearance as Lwaxana Troi (but without loyal valet Mr. Homn, due to the unavailability of actor Carel Struycken). Kirsten Dunst plays Hedril, appearing here less than a year before the movie Interview with the Vampire would launch her to fame. Amick Byram plays Troi's father Ian, and unfortunately does not make any effort to adopt an accent. (Thus, the question of where Deanna acquired hers is quite a mystery; she sounds nothing like her mother or father.)

The most unusual guest star of the episode was the wolf brought on set for some of the scenes inside Lwaxana's mind. The wolf was "trained" in theory, yet still thought dangerous enough that no actors were allowed on set with it. (Any appearance to the contrary was achieved with split screen photography.) Unfortunately, there are very few closeups of the animal (again, due to the danger), which actually serves to make it seem not very dangerous. It actually lopes around a lot like a dog.

Other observations:
  • It's pure coincidence, of course, but the revelation of Deanna's sister Kestra makes the fact that Lwaxana has always called her "Little One" quite interesting.
  • Show runner Jeri Taylor noted that everyone was reluctant to do this episode back to back with "Phantasms," another episode largely set inside a character's mind. But with no other story ready to go, they had no real choice in the matter.
  • A few deleted portions of scenes can be found on the Blu-ray collection of this season. Mostly, it excises some rather poor, soap opera caliber acting, but there is also an added layer revealed to Lwaxana's repression -- she forced her husband to go along with hiding the secret.
"Dark Page" could have been a better episode. But the core revelation hits at a deep emotional level that doesn't get bogged down in the technobabbly trappings of the script. I'd say the episode just edges into a B grade.

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