Friday, January 29, 2016

TNG Flashback: The Pegasus

I remember the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation as loaded with lackluster, disappointing episodes. But there was one moment where the series delivered two great installments back to back: "Parallels" and "The Pegasus."

Admiral Erik Pressman, Riker's former captain aboard the U.S.S. Pegasus, comes aboard the Enterprise with a special and secretive mission. The Pegasus, long thought destroyed, may in fact still be out there -- and about to fall into Romulan hands. Since the ship was lost during the testing of highly secretive technology, it's imperative that the Federation finds it first. But tensions between Pressman and Riker raise suspicion in Captain Picard, who uncovers there's more to the story: there was a mutiny aboard the Pegasus right before the end. Now Riker is once again in the position of having to choose sides.

The script for this episode was written by Ronald Moore, whose starting inspiration was Clive Cussler's novel (and the movie it spawned), Raise the Titanic. The Macguffin aboard this missing ship led to a moral dilemma for Riker, which Moore acknowledged was similar in ways to his earlier episode, "The First Duty." (Albeit with Riker getting off more easily, thanks to a longer, distinguished career.) I find "The Pegasus" to be the more compelling rendition of similar themes, for a number of reasons.

First, the stakes here are much higher. The secret of the Pegasus is an illegal cloaking device, which puts espionage and the threat of war in play. (It also canonically explains the lack of Federation cloaking technology, a question Moore says he was really sick of answering at conventions. Fan of classic Star Trek though he was, Moore particularly hated Gene Roddenberry's explanation: "our people are scientists and explorers – they don't go sneaking around.") This business with the Pegasus plays out like a U-2 incident, a Cuban missile crisis, a moment of going to the brink of war. Riker's decision to continue hiding the truth here would have very potent consequences. And the script is incredibly clever in handling this secret. It's rare in Star Trek for one of the characters to have information that the other characters -- and the audience -- don't have. This makes for great, coded exchanges between Riker and Pressman (that play perfectly on a subsequent viewing), and also sets up a plausible, powerful conflict between Riker and Picard.

Second, the guest character here is fascinating. Erik Pressman is one of the few morally dubious Starfleet personnel ever on The Next Generation. His moral grey makes the story more interesting; he's a character more like what you'd expect on Deep Space Nine. (More on that in a moment.) There's a great scene contrasting Pressman's command style with Picard's, when Jean-Luc tells the story of choosing Riker to be his first officer. Which is more important -- integrity (Picard) or loyalty (Pressman)? Plus, there's an unspoken but present undercurrent of Pressman being a father figure to a young, fresh-from-the-Academy Riker. We know Riker had a bad relationship with his actual father, which makes taking a stand against Pressman that much harder.

Third, the acting in this episode is fantastic. Under the directorial guidance of fellow actor LeVar Burton, Jonathan Frakes and Patrick Stewart are both in top form. The scene where Picard threatens to demote Riker is tense and shocking. Frakes tells the story of the Pegasus mutiny so vividly, you can almost envision the scene in flashback. They even nail the comedy of the opening "Captain Picard Day" scene (which was written specifically to use Frakes' spot-on Patrick Stewart impression, but which also fits the episode's themes of role models and integrity).

But of course, the make-or-break performance comes from guest star Terry O'Quinn as Pressman. This was a full decade before he'd become widely known as Locke on Lost, but his reputation was already solid enough to earn him on screen credit here as a "Special Guest Star." Here, he makes a very war-minded admiral understandable, almost even sympathetic -- not at all the caricature presented in, say, Star Trek Into Darkness. The production staff was reportedly so blown away by O'Quinn's performance that Deep Space Nine showrunner Michael Piller wanted to reuse him (and the character of Pressman) over on that show. (It would have been a perfect fit; what a shame that never came to pass.)

Other aspects of the episode seem a cut above normal too. There are fantastic visual effects throughout, from the crowded field of asteroids to the dark journey the Enterprise takes inside one of them. The lighting and camera work in the scene aboard the Pegasus is perfect: all brooding shadows, with arch Dutch angles on Pressman and low angles up at Riker as he makes his defiant stand. Also, a different composer comes in to provide a more engaging score than usual; John Debney had previously worked on a couple of Deep Space Nines, but this was his first (and only) Next Generation episode.

Other observations:
  • I suppose this episode creates some slightly strained continuity with "The Next Phase," since the idea of a phasing cloak first appeared there. I credit Riker for being able to keep a secret back then, though everyone else's incredulity here at the technology feels a touch amnesiac.
  • In the opening scene, the conference table is a treasure trove of hilarious tributes to Captain Picard. They feel authentic because they are: students from two local elementary schools produced the art.
  • Brent Spiner must have had an easy time memorizing dialogue for this episode. Data doesn't say much, and every other sentence is: "Theoretically, it is possible."
  • I mentioned above the brilliance of guest star Terry O'Quinn. The episode's other significant guest star is Michael Mack, who plays Commander Sirol and in doing so became the first "non-Caucasian" Romulan. Interestingly, he had to film his scenes three times. The first re-shoot happened because of confusion across the production; the makeup department hadn't been informed that they wanted Mack's natural skin color, and he'd been made up to look like all previous Romulans. The second re-shoot happened to soften his earlier performance, which was judged to be a bit too sinister.
  • This episode was later linked to the notorious series finale of Star Trek: Enterprise, "These Are the Voyages..." When the Enterprise producers decided they had to craft a sendoff for all of Star Trek and not just their one TV show, that episode was framed as a 24th-century holodeck simulation, run by Commander Riker as he sought moral guidance in this "Pegasus" dilemma. It's hard to know which is more awkward, the St. Elsewhere-ish packaging of Enterprise's finale as a flight of Riker's fancy, or watching this episode and trying to imagine Riker stopping to visit the holodeck and talk to Troi.
A great episode that presents Star Trek morality without getting high and mighty about it, "The Pegasus" stands out amid The Next Generation's final season. I give it an A-.

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