Friday, June 10, 2016

TNG Flashback: Firstborn

Continuing the "farewell tour" at the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation's seventh season, the episode "Firstborn" is a pseudo send-off for Worf's son Alexander, and Klingons in general.

Worf, concerned that his son Alexander shows no interest in becoming a warrior, decides to take the boy to a festival at a nearby Klingon outpost. There, father and son are attacked by Klingon assassins, and rescued by K'mtar, a trusted advisor to the House of Mogh. Together, Worf and K'mtar work to rouse young Alexander's interest in Klingon heritage and tradition. Meanwhile, the Enterprise crew works to track the culprits apparently behind the assassination attempt: the Duras sisters, Lursa and B'Etor.

I feel there's a lot working against this episode. Much of it, I suspect, comes from how far the story was contorted from its original vision. The series first bought a story pitch from outside writer Mark Kalbfeld, about a Romulan ship that appeared from a future where the Federation and the Romulans had made peace. In the end, the ship (and the William Riker aboard it) were exposed as fakes, not time travelers at all and part of some nefarious Romulan plot. Even show runner Jeri Taylor couldn't specifically recount how they got from there to Alexander coming back from the future to pose as "K'mtar" and interact with his younger self. She recalled only that the idea was hit on during a brainstorming session.

But according to interviews, the idea that really excited the writers was that Alexander had come back to kill his younger self, and that notion is almost a footnote in the finished episode. Because the story instead chooses to make a surprise of K'mtar's true identity, it leaves just one post-revelation scene in which to truly explore Future Alexander's psychological state. That leaves the bulk of the episode as a retread of the same "Worf wants Alexander to be a warrior, but Alexander doesn't want to be a warrior" material already well worn in previous episodes. It doesn't bring much new to the table.

And it seems particularly stale, coming as it does immediately after the episode "Journey's End." Both episodes are an attempt to wrap things up for a recurring character who is feeling pressured to follow in his father's footsteps despite wanting something else -- there Wesley, here Alexander. Both have subplots that are meant to set up future iterations of Star Trek -- there Voyager, here the next Star Trek movie.

Lursa and B'Etor were about to be featured in the movie Generations. But someone probably realized that while the Duras sisters may have been somewhat interesting characters, they certainly weren't recurring. They'd vanished completely from The Next Generation after their original two-part appearance, resurfacing only once on Deep Space Nine (and failing to impress there). Their entire subplot in this episode seems intended to position them as villains of movie-worthy status. But they aren't actually behind the assassination attempt, their ore smuggling plot feels like Ferengi-level scheming at best, and the revelation here than Lursa is pregnant is never picked up on again (thus amounting to nothing).

The pursuit of the Duras sisters isn't particularly compelling either. Quark's cameo seems like one last plea to people who gave up early on Deep Space Nine: "won't you come back and try us again next fall when we're the only Trek show on the air for a few months?" The rest is a procession of wacky aliens, and some inexplicable behavior by Commander Riker: when he tracks down the stolen ore, he steals it himself and then has it destroyed rather than returning it to its rightful owners. (As for why Riker is leading this hunt instead of Picard, Patrick Stewart was given time off to go host Saturday Night Live during the production of this episode.)

But there are a few aspects of the episode that save it from being a total bust and elevate it into "average" territory. For one, there's a different take on Klingon society. Most Klingon episodes were written by Ronald Moore. Don't get me wrong, I generally like his writing -- but I also found the warrior mindset to be a bit relentless over time. This episode was instead scripted by René Echevarria, who injects a bit of art in support of Klingon culture. Moore himself praised Echevarria's inclusion of "mock opera singing, heroic fights and re-enactments of things in the streets." (Though the actual singing was re-recorded in post-production. The actors originally grunted their dialogue on set, and then composer Dennis McCarthy was asked to make it all sound more melodic.)

Most effective of all is the casting of actor James Sloyan as K'mtar, who conveys relatable anguish rather than just resting on the belligerent Klingon trope. Sloyan made multiple Star Trek appearances both before and after this episode, most notably on The Next Generation as Romulan Admiral Jarok and on Deep Space Nine as Odo's "father" Mora Pol. The latter role almost cost him this one; the DS9 episode "The Alternate" had aired only a few months earlier, making executive producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller reluctant to use the actor again here. Jeri Taylor lobbied hard for the man she thought best for the role, ultimately convincing Berman and Piller that James Sloyan would be unrecognizable anyway in the Klingon makeup. Certainly, the episode would have been worse without him.

Other observations:
  • Twice in two episodes, Picard comes out of nowhere with solid parenting advice. Here, he advises Worf on how he might jump start Alexander's interest in Klingon culture.
  • The universal translator is intelligent/considerate enough not to translate Klingon opera for any of the Starfleet spectators.
  • Because stories of Kahless have previously been positioned as religious allegory, Alexander's questions in this episode about the plausibility of those stories feel a lot like a budding atheist starting to question religious dogma.
  • Interestingly, this wasn't the first time the writers had considered putting Alexander at the center of a time travel plot. Earlier in the season, staff writer Joe Menosky had pitched a story in which Alexander fell into a time portal and returned having aged 15 years. Executive producer Michael Piller killed the idea, feeling that it was "a hideous thing to steal somebody's youth from them." But a few years later, Deep Space Nine would tell that very story with Molly O'Brien as the victim.
  • Where does Future Alexander go at the end of this episode? His time travel method is intentionally vague, but what little we get doesn't suggest the possibility of a return trip. Is he just kicking around, disrupting the timeline?
  • RenĂ© Echevarria originally imagined that Alexander's mother K'Ehleyr would actually show up to rescue him at the end of the episode. We were spared any convoluted explanation of such time travel when actress Suzie Plakson, despite expressing initial interest in reprising the role, was unable to do so due to other commitments.
  • A pair of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray collection of season seven provide a preamble to Alexander's holodeck training session, and a heart-to-heart between Worf and Troi. The latter scene in particular could have added some needed pathos to the episode; in it, Worf expresses his fears that because of how he has raised Alexander, there may be no one to take over the House of Mogh after his death.
Being in so many ways a twin of the previous episode, each viewer's preference between the two is likely to come down to their love of Klingons. I tend to prefer Star Trek stories without Klingons, and so I prefer "Journey's End" to this episode. I give "Firstborn" a C.

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