Wednesday, June 29, 2016

TNG Flashback: Preemptive Strike

With just one more episode to go, "Preemptive Strike" was the last one hour installment of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Ro Laren has returned from advanced tactical training at Starfleet to a position on the Enterprise. But that job is shortlived when she's tapped to infiltrate the Maquis. Living under cover with these people (and their struggle against the Cardassians) awakens memories of her own fight during the occupation of Bajor, and her loyalties are soon tested. Will she betray Captain Picard and Starfleet, or the freedom fighters that remind her so much of herself?

According to show runner Jeri Taylor, this episode did not come as you might expect, from a desire to bring Ro Laren back one last time. In fact, after actress Michelle Forbes turned down the chance to take her character to Deep Space Nine (in the role that became Kira Nerys), her relationship with the show quickly soured. Taylor recalled that efforts to bring Ro back after her final appearance in "Rascals" had wound up with Forbes' agent saying, "Please leave us alone!" But yet again, the series found itself rushing toward a deadline with no other workable story idea but this one, which depended on getting the actress back. Taylor was able to get on the phone directly with Michelle Forbes, where she pitched an emotional story with Ro at the center. Forbes went for it.

I imagine it's because Forbes was promised an episode all about her that the main characters don't appear very much. Ironically, the one regular featured most is Captain Picard -- despite the fact that this episode was directed by Patrick Stewart. This was his fifth and final Star Trek episode, and the first one that didn't have Data as one of the focal characters. Given that the story is all about a character's inner turmoil, though, Stewart was a natural choice.

I'm torn on what to make of Ro's arc in this story. On the one hand, the writing is very carefully constructed to justify her final choice to betray Starfleet. She expresses sympathy for the Maquis even at the beginning. Her character history supports the choice. And she's given a father figure in the character of Macias, who not only reminds her so much of her real father, but who stands in opposition to the other father figure in her life, Picard. When Macias is killed by the Cardassians, Ro's decision is made -- she can't let down her father a second time. It all tracks.

On the other hand, does this at some level compromise Ro's character, her fierce determination, by reducing her to a little girl with lingering daddy issues?

Even with those doubts, I can be glad that the show did go for an "unhappy" ending like this. Classic Star Trek, and early Next Generation, would surely have had Ro choose Starfleet and duty in the end. (That's what they made Wesley Crusher do.) But factors had piled up here to allow for an alternative choice -- factors like the existence of the darker Deep Space Nine, the fact that Ro was an established character with moral ambiguity, and the fact that the show was ending.

As I noted, this is also a big episode for Picard, though in far more subtle ways than it is for Ro. The opening scene in and outside Ten Forward tells you a lot about how far Picard has come in seven years. He recognizes that Ro is feeling awkward at her own party, and gives her cover to leave it. Younger Picard would never have noticed her discomfort, much less have done anything to alleviate it. More than that, Ro in particular means a lot to him, as we see in the bar scene where he calls her by her given name, Laren. (That's a very interesting scene, by the way, in which the characters must exchange dialogue about one thing -- her second thoughts regarding the Maquis -- while portraying the physical actions of something else -- a romantic encounter.) In the final scene of the episode, we see Picard's loss, his quiet rage, when he doesn't say a word to Riker. To underscore the moment, the episode takes the highly unusual step of fading out on Picard's face, not cutting to an exterior shot of the Enterprise before the final credits.

Yet the episode isn't just about the character moments; it actually serves up some of the biggest action scenes of the entire series. The opening battle between the Maquis ships and the Cardassian vessel has some amazing complex visuals for pre-CG effects, putting the most ships on screen at once that ever appeared on The Next Generation. And the phaser shootout at the Maquis colony is similarly impressive, with many more visible phaser blasts than we normally get in a battle scene. It's also the only time the series ever staged a phaser fight at night, which required the use of interactive lighting on set during the filming.

Other observations:
  • Gul Evek and Admiral Nechayev get one last Next Generation appearance (though both would appear again later on another Star Trek spin-off).
  • Ro mentions her instructor in advanced tactical training, who defected to the Maquis. The writers intended this at the time as an oblique reference to Voyager's Chakotay -- though he would say later on that series that he resigned his commission years earlier than this.
  • Actress Shannon Cochran, who plays the Maquis character of Kalita, would reprise the character in the Deep Space Nine episode "Defiant" (which also saw the return of Thomas Riker).
  • The Blu-ray collection of season seven includes a deleted scene and a scene extension from this episode. In the former scene, Maquis member Santos approaches Ro about Kalita's distrust; after Ro tells him a story from her time in the occupation, he invites her to the "inner circle" of the local Maquis cell. In the latter scene, Ro expresses concern to Picard that the Maquis won't surrender once trapped, as he expects they will. Both scenes provide good character moments for Ro, though neither feels like a vital cut from the episode as originally aired.
  • The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track for this episode, by Michael and Denise Okuda, and episodes writers RenĂ© Echevarria and Naren Shankar. There isn't much insight there, though. They mostly just crack (lame) jokes and make lots of comments about hair. They also completely misremember the situation surrounding the availability of Michelle Forbes, claiming that she was in a signed deal for this episode where they had to use her or pay her anyway. (Jeri Taylor's version of the story, which I related above, is corroborated in several places.) The most notable aspect of the commentary is some discussion of the Blu-ray remastering process, and where the line was drawn between upgrading old visuals and honoring original artistic intent.
Though I might have wished for a penultimate episode that felt less like a "please watch Voyager" advertisement, Ro is a compelling enough character to make something more of this story. I give "Preemptive Strike" a B.

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