Wednesday, June 22, 2016

TNG Flashback: Emergence

With the final episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation focusing on various recurring characters, it seems only fitting that one episode, "Emergence," serve as a "finale" for the Enterprise itself.

What appears to be a handful of malfunctions aboard the Enterprise is discovered to be something else: a network of new system nodes are appearing all over the ship, and seem to be joined as an emerging intelligent life form. The crew must balance their respect for life in this strange new form with the risk the out-of-control ship poses to their own survival.

Though serving somewhat as an "Enterprise farewell episode" (with the ship's destruction just around the corner in the movie, Star Trek: Generations), "Emergence" was actually born from the desire to visit the holodeck one last time. After an early attempt at another Dixon Hill installment that the entire writing staff judged as "too familiar," Brannon Braga pitched "the ultimate holodeck show." From the desire to, as he put it, see "Dixon Hill crossed with King Arthur's Court crossed with the Old West crossed with Modern Day New York," he came up with the idea to give the ship a developing psyche that could be manifested on the holodeck.

That core concept is admittedly pretty fun. But the results are considerably less so. Part of it is the surprising lack of fan service in the final script. Had the episode literally shown us pieces of past holodeck episodes -- returning Dixon Hill villains, the Hollander brothers from Alexander's Western scenario, a character from Sherlock Holmes, a snippet from Barclay's holodiction archives, monsters from Worf's calisthenics program, and so on -- the episode could have been a "greatest hits" of seven seasons, and something truly memorable. Instead, we get a pastiche that gets most specific in elements we've never actually seen on the holodeck in any previous episode: the Orient Express and the streets of 20th century New York.

But to be fair, it's possible that those callbacks I was looking for were there in the original concept, which was greatly pared down before filming. With Brannon Braga busily working (with Ronald Moore) on the upcoming season finale, he wasn't able to develop his own script here. The story was instead given to staff writer Joe Menosky, and the result were reportedly what you'd expect when the show's two most "out there" writers (who gave us "Darmok" and "Masks," and "Frame of Mind" and "Timescape") finally collaborated on something. The first draft was reportedly an unproduceable beast that couldn't have been filmed with five times the allotted production time. So another staffer, Naren Shankar, did an uncredited pass to scale things down, a rewrite certainly driven by budgetary concerns.

Budget cutbacks are why the episode takes place mostly on a train: because Star Trek was able to rent the train car from the Paramount film "Bram Stoker's Dracula," saving over $100,000 in construction costs. They were even able to steal exterior shots of the train from another Paramount film in the archives: Murder on the Orient Express. Budget cutbacks are why there's a stop in 20th century New York: because Paramount had that standing outdoor set on their lot, and Star Trek had easy access to it. I certainly don't begrudge the cost cutting that left money for a bigger series finale. But here, it certainly diminished the presentation of "the ultimate holodeck show."

Another problem came from the conceit used to give us the holodeck mash-up, the idea of the Enterprise evolving an intelligence. The images presented on the holodeck are very much like a dream; Counselor Troi even says as much. That makes this awfully similar to the recent episode that delved into Data's nightmares. In fact, that episode also used the holodeck as a way for the main characters to interact with dream characters. So to me, this episode winds up engaging in bad recycling of ideas while avoiding good recycling (of past holodeck episodes) that could have happened.

There's plenty of other awkwardness in the episode too. There's the convenience of the Enterprise becoming intelligent just in time to save itself from a disaster the crew knew nothing about. There's the fact that no one seems to recognize the distinctive look of the ship's new nodes when they appear on the holodeck on the faces of the playing cards and in the puzzle being built. (Worf apparently doesn't even know how puzzles work, asking if it's done when it's clearly not.) There's a weird need to overcomplicate the metaphor by giving "Vertiform" City a different name than the "vertion" particles the intelligence is seeking out. And it caps off with some ham-fisted exposition about life that exists only to reproduce, just to quickly explain what we've just seen.

Still, the episode isn't a total loss. The mystery of the ship's malfunctions is actually intriguing (before the cause is actually revealed). The appearance of one last scene from Shakespeare is welcome -- and "The Tempest" is well-matched thematically to this story, with what Picard describes as a desire to complete "one final creative act." There's also some fairly interesting music from composer Jay Chattaway, who is given a lot of room to play here in several scenes that are noticeably light on dialogue.

Other observation:
  • Just one, actually. This episode was the last directed by regular series director Cliff Bole, his 25th installment of the show. That puts him at about one out of every seven episodes, enough that basically one entire season of the series (collectively) was directed by him.
"Emergence" is perhaps not bad as much as it is disappointing, a missed opportunity. I'd grade it a C.

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