Thursday, May 19, 2016

TNG Flashback: Eye of the Beholder

It's a story I've told before... a long 26-episode season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was barreling along without reprieve. The writers, strapped for ideas, had to get something in front of the cameras. The result this time was the weak "Eye of the Beholder."

When crew member Daniel Kwan commits suicide by hurling himself into the plasma stream inside one of the Enterprise's engine nacelles, Captain Picard wants an explanation to send back to his family. Counselor Troi undertakes an investigation, and soon experiences potent telepathic images suggesting that a violent murder took place in nacelle control room years ago, when the ship was being built. By the time that it has become apparent that Kwan was driven to suicide by having seen these same "empathic echoes," Troi herself is under their spell -- and may become the next victim.

As show runner Jeri Taylor later recalled, this episode was culled from a year-old pitch from staff writer Brannon Braga about a "haunted room" on the Enterprise. The whole staff rushed to flesh out the idea, then gave the rough notes to staffer Rene Echevarria to draft the script. The result falls short on virtually every level.

For starters, the episode lands in a sort of uncanny valley of emotion. Because it wants to honor the late Gene Roddenberry's notions of future perfection, it can't fully embrace a story that makes sense. No one reacts to Daniel Kwan's suicide in a plausible way. Either suicide is so unthinkable in Starfleet in the 24th century that everyone should be utterly aghast and immediately suspicious of an outside influence, or they shouldn't spend so much time talking about how they can't understand why anyone would do such a thing. The closest you get to genuine emotion, ironically, comes when Data likens suicidal thoughts to a period from his "childhood," when he was developing new neural pathways... yet it still feels like a pretty strained analogy.

The suicide itself isn't a very compelling scene. First of all, it's asking too much of a "day player." Actor Tim Lounibos, playing Daniel Kwan, is called on to make the audience care about this character we've never seen before. He has to do it with over-the-top, soap operatic dialogue. And he has to do it wearing one of the more goofy forehead makeups the show ever served up. The staging is awkward too; Riker is standing right there next to him, yet makes no attempt at even a desperate lunge (though Kwan gives him ample warning). I doubt even an actor of, say, Patrick Stewart's caliber could have spun gold out of this straw.

But poor guest star Lounibos is hardly the only one giving a shaky performance here. Mark Rolston plays the murderer Pierce, and either by script, directorial advice, or personal choice, is hitting every cliche of "TV murderous sociopath." And one of the victims, Marla Finn, is played by Marina Sirtis' longtime stand-in, Nora Leonhardt. She gets just a line or two, one of them repeatedly shrieking "NO!" at the top her lungs before a comical scream. (And I hear a bit of a Texan accent slipping in there, which is quite incongruous for a Starfleet officer, absent any actual character development to set that up.)

Not that the main actors are doing their finest work here, either. It turns out that most of this episode is happening inside of Counselor Troi's head, and much of the cast took that as a cue to behave more broadly than usual. And because some of them were confused by the slapdash script, they didn't confine their broadness to "dream sequence" scenes. According to Rene Echevarria, Jonathan Frakes believed that the scene where Worf awkwardly approaches Riker about his emerging relationship with Troi was part of the hallucination. There was brief talk of reshooting the resulting strange performance.

The few scenes that work are the ones that seem like they could have been lifted from this episode and dropped into any other. Troi's story about sense memories, and Worf's response of likening it to his fire vision quests, is a nice bonding moment between the characters. I'm not sure it paves the way to a believable romantic relationship between them later in the episode, but I chalk that up more to the surrounding soap opera than the absence of rapport between the characters.

Perhaps knowing that he had ground to make up on a deficient script, director Cliff Bole really pulls out the stops in his camera work. There's an unusually large amount of conspicuous handheld camera here for a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. And there are several odd setups, from the rack focus/pan off the red alert signal that opens the episode to the cockeyed glimpses of murderous Pierce's memories. These visual tricks hardly save the episode, but they do generate a modicum of interest along the way.

Other observations:
  • What is the logic of having a one-way force field in the nacelle control tube? I would think you wouldn't want anything getting in any more than you'd want anything getting out.
  • Troi should know immediately that her vision shows the killer looking at his own reflection; the communicator on the wrong side of the chest is an instant giveaway.
This scattershot mess of an episode has one or two moments to raise it above the series' all-time worst efforts. But it's still an unfortunate misfire. I give "Eye of the Beholder" a D.

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