Monday, April 18, 2016

TNG Flashback: Thine Own Self

Many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation feature two separate, unrelated plot lines. But occasionally, the plot clearly intended as "secondary" is the more successful of the two. So it was with "Thine Own Self."

Data has been sent to retrieve radioactive material from a crashed probe, planning to avoid contact with the planet's preindustrial society. But when a malfunction gives him amnesia, he wanders into an alien settlement for help -- bringing a "plague" of radiation from the metal he's already recovered. Meanwhile, aboard the Enterprise, Counselor Troi has decided to test for a promotion to commander.

This was the second episode of the season (after "Gambit, Part I") to be pitched by outside writer Christopher Hatton. This time out, his pitch was simpler, yet irresistible: Data as Frankenstein. Staff writer Ronald Moore, who crafted the screenplay, noted how fully that premise was embraced: "He wanders into the medieval village, is befriended by the little girl, and villagers come out and chase him with torches!"

But Moore also would later acknowledge problems with the finished product. He noted this was a bad time in the season for him (possibly because he and Brannon Braga were hard at work developing the script for the coming movie, Generations, on top of their normal work load). Astutely, he observed that "I never figured out what it was about. I didn't know what I was trying to say with the episode." Certainly, things happen to Data in this story, but they don't amount to much. The episode is not even the clear statement on "fear of the new" that the original Frankenstein is.

It doesn't help that amnesia stories are one of the worst, desperate tropes of television writing. Or that Data's amnesia is so bizarrely, unaccountably specific. He remembers cellular biology, mechanical engineering, and scientific method... but not radioactivity. He forgets exactly enough to cause the problem, and remembers exactly enough to solve it. And then, lest he actually learn anything from his experience, he gets amnesia again at the end of the episode; in the end, only the audience knows the full story of what happened.

Yet with only half a personality in this episode, Data still has more personality than any of the villagers he encounters. Talur is perhaps interesting for being a strange amalgam -- she's both the town doctor and the school teacher? But the rest are decidedly one note in concept, and all the more so in lackluster performances.

But where the episode's main plot line disappoints, its subplot strives to fill the gap. It starts off on the right foot, with Ronald Moore's wise decision not to show the rest of the crew searching for the missing Data. Instead, he salvaged an idea originally jettisoned from the episode "Liaisons," to have Troi seek a promotion. His inspiration came not just Troi's temporary command in "Disaster" (which Troi recalls in this episode), but from the novelization that showrunner Jeri Taylor wrote for "Unification." As Moore explained in one interview, "Jeri had a line in there about tasting blood and wanting to again, and that stuck with me. I thought that was an interesting direction to take Troi." Indeed it was, and particularly for Troi instead of other characters you might expect in such a story line, like Data (who wouldn't have to work hard for it) or Geordi (who I think wouldn't "need it" as much).

The particular test we get to see is clever in that it feels like a Kobayashi Maru. It seems that no matter what Troi tries, destruction is inevitable. She even challenges Riker, asking if this test is a no-win scenario. Every long time Star Trek fan surely thinks by this point that it is, yet Riker insists it's not.

Throughout this story line, the interplay between Riker and Troi is wonderful. There's the playful conversation via trombone. There's Riker's use of "imzadi" (which Jonathan Frakes asked for on set, in one of the few instances where a Star Trek actor successfully lobbied to change a line). Particularly great is the moment when Riker reacts with what seems like uncharacteristic harshness, suggesting that Troi simply might not be cut out for command. We soon learn that this is Riker's way of giving her a clue without telling her the solution -- he is hard with her to hint that she must be hard, that she must order a crew member to their death. In short, this subplot contains all the emotion that the main plot is lacking.

Other observations:
  • You might notice that Patrick Stewart appears only in the final scene of the episode -- and has only one line in it. He asked for time off to perform his one-man version of A Christmas Carol, and the request was granted by writing him out of this episode.
  • The Barkon village set was a particularly large and expensive build for this episode, but the cost was mitigated when the set was reused in three more Next Generation episodes ("Journey's End," "Firstborn," and "Preemptive Strike") and one Deep Space Nine ("Shadowplay").
  • The Blu-ray release of Season 7 includes a few deleted lines in which the little girl Gia explains the inspiration for the name she gives Data, Jayden. Suffice it to say, these are not the crucial lines that would have saved the story line.
Though a couple of comedic moments with Data do land, it's Troi's quest for a promotion that makes this episode at all worthwhile. Overall, I'd give "Thine Own Self" a C+.

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