Monday, February 15, 2016

TNG Flashback: Sub Rosa

Classic Star Trek was always a bit more willing to "break format" than The Next Generation. Take perhaps the most comedic episode of The Next Generation (maybe "Qpid"?) and compare how much lighter "A Piece of the Action" or "The Trouble With Tribbles" were willing to be. Look in The Next Generation for anything as broadly camp as "Catspaw" (the "Halloween episode") -- you won't find it. Still, every now and then, The Next Generation did depart from its own more rigidly defined norm. And arguably one of the biggest departures of all was "Sub Rosa."

The Enterprise has traveled to Caldos II, a colony modeled after Scotland, for the funeral of Beverly Crusher's grandmother. In settling affairs after the service, Beverly finds a journal left behind by her grandmother, and learns of her intensely passionate love affair with Ronin, a man seven decades her junior. When Beverly meets Ronin herself, she is instantly swept up in an intense romance of her own. But Ronin is not what he appears to be.

"Sub Rosa" is straight-up, bodice-ripping, gothic romance. It divided the series' staff. Producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller were against it, and actually believed it would come out as an embarrassment. Showrunner Jeri Taylor "just knew it would work" and persuaded them to give it a shot anyway. Among the writers, Ronald Moore thought it was good to "mix things up a little." René Echevarria thought it was "campy fun." On the other hand, Naren Shankar simply said, "Either you buy it or you don't buy it at all, and I was sort of in the latter category."

After Taylor developed the story from outside writer Jeanna F. Gallo's submission, she handed the actual script work to staff writer Brannon Braga. He and Taylor shared a love of the classic movie The Innocents, and used it (not Anne Rice's The Witching Hour, as some fans accused) as the core inspiration around which to load in "every sort of Gothic ghost story trick one could imagine." The result divided the audience as much as it did the writers. According to Taylor, men hated it, while women loved it, responding to the romance as she had hoped. (Braga wasn't as willing to chalk it up to the gender gap; he felt that "hard-core fans" were "short-circuit[ed]" by the sexual themes.)

I'd love to hear from someone -- man or woman -- who did like this episode. I most certainly did not. There are so many half-baked ideas at play. The idea of a colony trying to recreate a specific Earth community (Scotland) seems like it could be interesting, but is really just an excuse to shoehorn Gothic storytelling tropes into the episode. The danger Ronin represents is murky; Dr. Crusher's grandmother lived a very long and very happy life even while being "cursed," as the over-the-top character of Ned Quint puts it. And why does the episode that was ostensibly for the women in the audience barely even pass the Bechdel test? (Deanna and Beverly scarcely talk about the Doctor's grandmother before turning to the subject of her mysterious lover -- the first of many scenes where Ronin is all they talk about.)

Even the more fully formed ideas are too ridiculous to come off well. Gates McFadden tries her level best in this episode (and episode director Jonathan Frakes praised her efforts), but the script just asks so much. We have to believe Crusher would abandon her career after a few minutes of screen time with a ghost. That ghost, played by guest star Duncan Regehr, has little charisma, and even less chemistry with McFadden. And how can she not look silly writhing around as she's pleasured by a voice-over? (As René Echevarria put it, she was basically "having an orgasm at 6 o'clock on family TV." Which he thought was great, something that by itself made the episode "worth doing.")

Interestingly, Gates McFadden's own opinion of this episode seems to have shifted over the years. At the time, she called it a highlight of the season. But at a convention a few years ago, she ridiculed it. "I was basically in love with a lamp! This woman is a doctor and falls in love with a lamp! How the hell does that work?" Personally, I think past enthusiasm at being given something to do -- anything at all (as Crusher was one of the least used characters on the show) -- gradually eroded as she encountered more fans who told her they thought the episode was bad.

Other observations:
  • The episode does at least follow continuity from one of the better moments from season one, letting us learn more of the grandmother Crusher spoke of in "The Arsenal of Freedom."
  • Brannon Braga named Crusher's grandmother, Felisa, for his own then-recently deceased grandmother. He even used parts of his own funeral eulogy as dialogue for Beverly. (However, much of it was cut from the finished episode. You can see the deletions on the Blu-ray version of the episode.)
  • That funeral also provides one of the few examples of real world religion ever seen on Star Trek, as the colony's governor speaks slightly modified lines from the traditional Anglican burial service.
  • How and why are the environmental systems on the Enterprise even capable of producing fog? I mean, when your thermostat breaks, your house doesn't suddenly turn into the Scottish moors. Even technological advancement has to give way to practicality.
  • Actor Duncan Regehr didn't impress me much here, but the producers evidently took notice enough to hire him back for Deep Space Nine in the recurring role of Shakaar Edon. (He was better there, for sure.)
  • Say Ronin had established a permanent bond with Beverly. What would have happened when she died? There were no further female Crushers/Howards for him to move on to. (Though I suppose some fan out there might have penned some Wesley/Ronin slash fiction.)
The writers of this episode would say I wasn't its target audience. Still, I have to call it like I see it -- which is a D. It's definitely a low point in the final season.

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