Friday, January 28, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 2: Where Silence Has Lease

Airdate: November 28, 1988
27 of 176 produced
27 of 176 aired


On a charting mission in the Morgana Quadrant, the Enterprise encounters a "hole" in space that appears to be completely contentless, non-dimensional, non-existent. As they investigate further, the ship is engulfed by this anomalous region of space. Things only get stranger from there, as weird things begin happening to the ship, as if the crew is being experimented on. Can the crew of the Enterprise escape the cluthces of the mysterious entity, Nagilum?

"Sweet. I'm actually getting a day where I can sit at the helm instead of that brat Wesley. Looks like I'm finally working my way up the ranks... Wuh... WAH... WAAAARGGLHHFBBSSPPAAAARRRGLLGHHGGG...[dead]." 


Matthew: I really don't get the teaser. In addition to nothing really happening that is germane to the plot (with the possible exception of Worf's emotional state on their away mission to the fake Yamato), it just doesn''t make sense. If Worf were really this dangerous (practically psychopathic), why would he be allowed to practice with fellow officers, and why would he even be in Starfleet? Worf's behavior (menacing a superior officer with a giant axe) towards Riker certainly crosses some boundary of propriety and gets into disciplinary territory. What about the holodeck safeties? Essentially, the teaser is both nearly pointless as well as credulity-straining. About the only nice thing I can say about it is that it sets up later episodes in which Worf works out with K'Ehleyr. That's a stretch.

Kevin: Yeah, even accepting the warrior ethos they are trying to develop with the Klingons, the inability to focus and contain it would seem to be a problem. Do Klingon warriors in the midst of bloodlust attack allies after winning a battle? A far more subtle and effective version of this would be Riker startling Worf after a workout, and Worf spinning around and starting to react, but stopping himself. It would give us a glimpse of the warrior within, but not strain his credibility as an officer.

Matthew: Once the episode proper gets going, we have what is really TNG's first "anomaly" show. Now, I should just put it out there that I really like these sorts of shows. I like the "weird spot in the universe" type of plot. It feels scienc-ey and strange and new, and it gives the crew something to act against. This plot, of course, ends up involving a villain. But some anomaly shows do not. I think both types of tales can succeed, it's just a matter of how interesting the situation gets for the crew. Season Two in general has more of these kinds of stories (Time Squared gives us another anomaly, while shows like Pen Pals give us natural disasters), and I think it benefits from them. We get fewer boring "faction A wants to fight faction B, oh no!" stories, and more of our crew facing up to the weird and the unknown. All right. All that said, how interesting is it? We end up meeting Nagilum, who seems rather similar to other "near omnipotent" entities that toy with a Trek crew for unknown reasons. The most interesting part of the episode, for me anyway, is when Picard decides to destroy the ship rather than submit half of the crew to Nagilum's death experiments. However odd this choice is from an ethical standpoint (when I do the math, 1000 dead usually ends up being more than 500), it precipitates some nice dialogue. I love the scene in which Picard listens to music and then discusses ideas about death. It's this sort of dialogue that really elevates TNG to a higher philosophical level, and it impacted me as a kid. In general, there is a nice creepy feel to the show before the Nagilum reveal (despite some choice dialogue like "One Riker, One Bridge!"), as well as creepiness from the scene I just mentioned above. I think this episode failed to deliver on the Nagilum concept overall. What exactly is he testing? First, Nagilum seemed to be testing humanoid behavior with the star fix escape lures. Then it moves on to humanoid deaths? Why does it give up after Picard's destruct bluff? These things, however, don't really take away from an interesting episode, as much as just prevent it from attaining anything greater.

Kevin: I agree the set up is well done. Rather than simply state the weirdness of the thing, they spend some time exploring its nature, and that makes it more effective. "The laws of physics don't apply," is a crutch, but this has observable behavior that contravenes our known rules in the ways is good science fiction. I think Picard's actions are understandable in the context of the bluff. He's hoping that by depriving him of any fun, Nagilum will lose interest all together. Even assuming he would have gone through with it, there's an argument for its ethical, even merciful, qualities, if you consider quality of life and self-determination arguments. The swift, relatively painless death of antimatter annihilation versus the fifty percent chance of a slow torturous death? I don't know how I'd decide that one. It all, as ever, comes down to what you value. If any life is better than any death, then Picard's position is flawed. If choosing how your life ends instead of another being matters most, then he made the correct one.

Matthew: Question time: Why does Troi sense nothing from the hole beforehand, but then does feel something unusual from the hole later on? How can "sensors" show "something" to be the "absence" of "everything?" How can an absence like that look like an inkblot? How can it block the view from something behind it if it is "nothing?" If the "Yamato's" hull is "close" to tritanium, how can it be "beyond" Federation technology? Is it like one year away or something? Why is Wesley so conspicuously absent from about 23 minutes in, except to allow our first red-shirting of the series? Did the Enterprise computer get an upgrade that allowed its self-destruct mechanism to have a variable timer? Why aren't there riots on the ship for the last 20 minutes? Orgies? Why don't we hear the announcement that Picard is presumably obliged to make to the crew, informing them of their impending doom? I would think that would eat into the 20 minutes quite significantly. Why didn't Nagilum off anyone else in that 20 minute span? Haskell only took about 30 seconds... Why don't we see or hear about Counselor Troi's post-trauma counseling of all the little children who were informed that mommy and daddy and their house were going to go boom? At the end of the episode, Troi "no longer feels" Nagilum's presence, yet it then communicates with Picard. Huh?

Kevin: This is the risk with anomaly episodes, and the reason I hate sentences like the aforementioned "The laws of physics don't apply." It allows the writers to essentially do magic. The world is contorted to the needs of the script rather than finding a way to tell the script's basic story in the confines of the existing world. Every line becomes crafted only to evoke the idea or emotion the writer wants in that scene, but doesn't become a part of a cohesive whole.

Matthew: Philosophy shout-out: Data paraphrases Plato with "The beginning of wisdom is 'I do not know.'" We also get our first "engineering transfer to bridge," mainly to put Geordi on screen, I guess.

Kevin: I think the episode could have gone somewhere interesting with Data. What if Nagilum turned him off? Erased his memory? Maybe erased it then restored it by fiat? Would it still be Data? If Nagilum's stated goal is to understand human life, how humans view artificial life would be an interesting addition.


Matthew: Although this is a pretty low-key effort for our crew acting-wise, I'm going to have to say that Patrick Stewart turns in the best performance. He imbued his lines about the nature of death with a philosophical, and even a bit Shakespearean, vibe. It was clear from his line reading that he took the line about the universe being complex and more complicated than either simple view of death to be analagous to Hamlet's  "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Kevin: Agreed. Picard really shone in the scene in his quarters. This is a great scene for me because it harkens the kind of captain the character will become. First season Picard was more..curmudgeonly..I suppose is the word I'm looking for, and it was nice they let Stewart expand the character with more empathy and thoughtfulness.

Matthew: Although there were no "bad" performances, per se, no one else really excelled. Dorn seemed too touchy as Worf, Frakes too irritable as Riker, and Mulduar too bigoted as Pulaski. You can say that the dialogue wasn't on the page to be done well. But the actors didn't transcend the material, either. The main cast was decidedly average overall.

Kevin: Agreed, again. While "One Riker, one bridge," doesn't quite achieve the levels of Troi's PAIN and LONELINESS, it's not great. It didn't make sense, give what we already know of this null space that Worf would melt down so quickly. Maybe if they had been there for days by their perspective but minutes for the Enterprise, the break would feel more organic.

Production Values

Matthew: Although this is a "bottle show," I enjoyed seeing views of the ship while completely deserted. This episode was also filled with optical effects, with multiple bridges through turbolift doors, and oodles of viewscreen shots. None were terrific, but they didn't pull me out of the drama.

Kevin: The lighting guys did an awesome job on the ersatz Yamato. The bridge particularly felt like a creepy old attic.

Matthew: The effect on Nagilum wasn't bad, but it wasn't great. I wonder if the "cloud" effect was in defiance of the script, as opposed to fitting with the writers' intentions. It was quite "visible" for a completely non-existent thing. 

Kevin: I think it's just one of those times the written word achieving what visuals couldn't. I don't think there is a way outside of your imagination to conceive of what nothingness looks like. It's the design equivalent of one hand clapping. I was not overly impressed with Nagilum himself. The optical effect was really obvious and his face seemed too flat as a result.

Matthew: The music was pretty good in this episode. There was a plethora of creepy music cues, as well as some good dramatic ones during tense moments.


Matthew: I think this is a 3. It's got its problems, to be sure. But it never fails to entertain me when I watch it. I think it's all about atmosphere on this one. There are enough concepts and enough creepy moments to make this average. The pacing is pretty decent, too. Maybe I'm soft on "anomaly" episodes. But we've all got to be soft on something, right?

Kevin: I think this episode had more potential than payoff, but I'm hard pressed to identify a sin that merits giving it a 2. I agree, it's a 3, for a total of 6. Still though, we're two episodes in, and we're really seeing stories that if nothing else have more ambition than season 1, which is great.

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