Wednesday, June 15, 2016

TNG Flashback: Bloodlines

The final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation could be said to have two recurring themes: family, and tying up loose ends. "Bloodlines" is an episode that tries to bring both of those themes together.

Ferengi DaiMon Bok has spent his life seeking vengeance on Captain Picard for the Stargazer incident in which Bok's son was killed. Now he's found the perfect revenge: he's learned that Picard has a son of his own, and means to kill the young man. Now Picard must protect the son he never knew he had. But the young man wants little to do with a father who has never been there for him.

This episode's origins came from a visit to the set that show runner Jeri Taylor made during the filming of "Masks." She asked Patrick Stewart if he felt there were any unexplored aspects of Picard he wished they'd touch on in the few remaining episodes. Stewart recalled Bok from season one, noting that "it's always fascinated me that there is this creature running around the universe even now who despises me."

Sometimes, the aspects of a character that fascinate an actor are far less intriguing to an audience. For me, this is one of those times. Staff writer Ronald Moore thought so too, commenting in a later interview: "I wondered if the world knew or cared if DaiMon Bok came back again." (Probably not. Few even noticed that a different actor was playing the role of Bok this time around.) Even more astutely, Moore noted, "I didn't see the point of repeating 'Suddenly Human' where we really nailed an interesting arc with Picard having a sort of father/son relationship." And while I don't know that he's right that that episode "really nailed" much of anything, it certainly already covered this territory, the idea of Picard being a father to someone who is not actually his son.

Which brings me to a big problem at the core of this episode. The only way to really approach any new material with this story would be for Jason Vigo to actually be Picard's son, not a fake as it's ultimately revealed. But to do that, you would basically end up retelling Kirk's story line in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: having Picard discover an adult son he knew nothing about. Except that because the episode chooses to withhold this detail as a final act plot twist, it ends up playing out like a retread of Wrath of Khan anyway.

The timing of it all is lousy too. This comes at the end of a season overflowing with previously unseen family members, to a degree that even Nick Sagan, the writer of this episode, later joked: "Oh no, who's next? Is it Guinan's third cousin?" Adding to that, the script for the coming movie, Star Trek: Generations, was already set by this point. The writers knew that the film was planning to kill off all of Picard's family members. (As a rather throwaway plot point. What the hell?) So certainly in this episode, Picard can't get all that close to Jason Vigo -- whether they're biologically related or not -- lest that forthcoming "all alone in the universe" detail be compromised.

So the story certainly doesn't serve Picard -- or any character -- particularly well. Indeed, its primary value may have been therapeutic, for its writer Nick Sagan. After the staff responded well to his previous freelance submission, "Attached," Jeri Taylor gave him this idea to develop. Sagan drew on his then estrangement with his own father, Carl Sagan (yes, that one), as inspiration. Occasionally the episode brushes up against some interesting character-driven interactions, such as Picard having to deal with the revelation that his son has a criminal record, or the scene where he goes to Crusher for parenting advice. (Or, in non-Picard moments, when Troi has to rebuff Jason's flirtatious advances.)

But the plot twist undermines a lot of that. And it's a twist that scarcely makes any sense. We're to believe that Bok was able to mine Picard's personal history deeply enough to find a woman with a son that could be Picard's, that he could alter that man's DNA without his knowledge, and that he could do it without side effects a lot more severe than occasional shakes. It's so far-fetched.

And it's not helped at all by the casting. Actor Ken Olandt looks nothing like Patrick Stewart. Of course, that need not be a requirement. Yet if not for that reason, I can't imagine why they cast him. Jason Vigo is supposed to be 23 years old here, but Olandt looks every bit of the 35 he was when this episode was made. He doesn't act like he's in his early 20s either, delivering a quite restrained performance. (Wil Wheaton wasn't winning awards for his work on Star Trek, but at least "moody Wesley" of a few episodes prior actually conveyed some level of resentment.)

Other observations:
  • It strains credibility that Jason Vigo isn't more concerned about his shaking hands. With all the rock climbing he does, you'd expect that would have given him at least one close call in the last few months.
  • Nick Sagan chose the name Vigo from a bridge officer mentioned on the Stargazer in "The Battle." He intended for Miranda Vigo, Jason's mother, to have been that officer's sister.
  • A deleted scene on the Blu-ray collection of season seven shows Jason trying to bargain with Bok for his life. It's a good deletion, as the moment adds nothing to the plot and involves none of the main characters.
It ultimately falls on Patrick Stewart to sell this episode. Of course, because it is Patrick Stewart, he's able to lift the troubled script a fair amount. But even he can't save it single-handedly. I give "Bloodlines" a C-.

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