Wednesday, June 01, 2016

TNG Flashback: Genesis

As Star Trek: The Next Generation marched on, more of its principle cast members expressed an interest in directing and were given the chance to helm episodes. "Genesis" marked the first time a female main cast member took the reins, as Gates McFadden sat in the director's chair.

Picard and Data depart in a shuttlecraft to retrieve a photon torpedo that malfunctioned during a weapons test. During their absence of several days, a strange virus sweeps through the Enterprise crew, causing everyone to devolve into more primitive lifeforms. When Picard and Data finally return, it's to a ship gone wild, infested with amphibians, cavemen, spiders, lizards, and monsters still more peculiar (and dangerous).

In some surveys among Star Trek fans, "Genesis" has been dubbed the "Spock's Brain" of The Next Generation. That's meant to say it's the series' worst episode, and with that I don't really agree. Still, it's certainly a spiritual successor of that famously dopey classic episode, in that it swings for the fences with an inherently over the top concept -- an idea that probably never could have been made credible.

Staff writer Brannon Braga had first pitched this story all the way back season four, only to have it vetoed by executive producer Rick Berman. The "devolving virus" story would not be considered, Berman said, until a plausible scientific explanation for it could be found. Three years later, series science advisor Andre Bormanis suggested introns, dormant genetic material, as a justification for the virus, and so the episode got the green light. (Everyone was willing to hand wave the fact that such rapid mutation should probably have been fatal to the infected.)

The script might have been inherently hokey, but Gates McFadden has said she was happy to get it. And it actually made a great deal of sense to give it to her. Throughout the 1980s, before ever being cast as Beverly Crusher, she had worked extensively with Jim Henson, serving as choreographer for The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and more. Her background was in dance in particular (used occasionally on Star Trek) and movement in general. She was the perfect choice to shepherd a cast through a highly physical story that would see everyone transforming into a different animal.

The work here isn't subtle, but it probably shouldn't have been. As Troi, Marina Sirtis is gulping down glasses of water clutched in two hands. As Barclay, Dwight Schultz is skittering about with manic energy. As Riker, Jonathan Frakes is growing ever slower. As Worf, Michael Dorn channels even more primal aggression than usual.

The staging of it all is reasonably good. Data and Picard return to find the Enterprise a veritable haunted house, with trashed sets and moody lighting (wisely leaving much of the creatures to the imagination). Off camera animal sounds imply more than the episode could afford to show.

But let's be realistic for a moment about just how silly this whole premise is. This whole virus gets started because Dr. Crusher's remedy for Barclay's mundane disease goes haywire. It would be like you taking an aspirin in the morning, which causes everyone at your work to contract ebola by the evening.

And could any amount of makeup actually have sold the story here? According to head makeup artist Michael Westmore, his team worked all through Christmas break to develop the creatures seen here (getting an Emmy nomination for the work in this episode, in fact). But you've still got human actors running around trying to literally be frogs, spiders, and armored snake monsters.

Still, the ways that specific characters devolve is fairly inspired. Riker, here hitting on his second female crewmember in two weeks, becomes a caveman. Barclay, who has always been mentally sharp but socially outcast, becomes a spider. Worf, who has been tiptoeing around the woman he likes, becomes a predator in heat.

And there are plenty of fun, light-hearted moments in the episode too -- most surrounding Barclay, who is here making his final appearance on the series. Barclay indulges his hypochondria on the ship's medical database, in a precursor to WebMD. He undergoes an ordeal so strange that Troi declares: "I think I'd better clear my calendar for the next few weeks." And along the way, he's revealed to be the only person on the ship that Data's cat Spot actually likes.

Speaking of Spot, writer Brannon Braga was pleased to finally include the cat in an episode for something other than comic relief; her pregnancy here actually serves as an important plot point. That said, Spot has been male in every appearance up until now, becoming female only to serve that point point.

Other observations:
  • Poor Worf. The captain finally lets him do something fun with the ship's weapons, and they immediately malfunction and make him look bad.
  • The crumpling of the Sickbay door as Monster-Worf pounds on it is a fun visual gag. That said, when we see the outside of the door just a moment later, the damage is gone.
  • The moment in which Spider-Barclay appears and scares the crap out of Picard was scripted as a "full spider" moment -- Barclay was to have descended from the ceiling. Actor Dwight Schultz had even agreed to perform the stunt himself. But time ran out during filming to actually pull off the gag. Instead, Barclay just jumps up against the glass from behind the wall.
  • Part of that time crunch may have been due to two full days of production shutdown during the making of this episode. An earthquake hit Los Angeles, causing minor structural damage at the studio and setting off a sprinkler system that soaked the Jeffries tube set.
Yes, "Genesis" is a rather ridiculous episode. Still, I give them some credit for at least trying something, as opposed to what for me is the far greater sin: just being boring. I give the installment a C+.

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