Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 2: Contagion

The Next Generation, Season 2
"Contagion"
Airdate: March 20, 1989
36 of 176 produced
36 of 176 aired


Introduction

The Enterprise is rushing to the Neutral Zone to aid their ailing sister ship, the Yamato. The Yamato's captain has risked war with the Romulans to chase down rumors of an ancient but powerful civilization, the Iconians. The Enterprise arrives just in time to watch helplessly as the ship is destroyed by the mysterious malfunctions that stranded it in the Neutral Zone. A Romulan warbird shortly appears and demands an explanation for the Federation's presence. Captain Picard must now solve the mystery of the Iconians and prevent war with the Romulans before the malfunctions that destroyed the Yamato claim the Enterprise as well.

Data would have been a big hit in Ancient Greece...




Writing

Kevin: This episode is one for some reason that doesn't really crack a lot of people's top 10 or spring to mind when they think of Great TNG Episodes, but I've always liked it a lot, and watching it again to prepare for the review, there's a lot to recommend this. Much like Season 1 highlight "Conspiracy," there's a well-developed credible mystery that creates some genuine tension. The sci-fi backdrop is a bit of a trope, the ancient, lost civilization sitting on some uber technology. Had that been the sole focus of the episode, it would have been pretty dull, I feel. Fortunately, they managed to keep the primary tension between the Enterprise and the Romulan ship or the Enterprise and her increasing malfunctions. I care about the Enterprise. I find a credible threat in the Romulans, so in concert they make me feel background tense while exploring the Iconian plot.

Matthew: Well, this one always makes my best-of list. But then, I'm a discerning, intelligent, and insightful Star Trek fan, aren't I? Is it Top Ten material? That remains to be seen. But I am unfailingly entertained by this episode, no matter how many times I've seen it. And believe me, I've watched it plenty. I actually don't find the "ancient civilization" angle to be too much of a trope. Despite being listed on tvtropes.org and all.OK, fine. It's a trope. But tropes are tropes for a reason - because they can be really cool. It just depends on how you use them. And it was used to great effect here. Once I heard that the Yamato was searching for the ancient civilization, and now the Enterprise and the Romulans were in a race to complete the search in the wake of the Yamato's destruction, I was like "aww yeah, I'm glad I put this tape in."

Kevin: This episode might have one of the best teasers in TNG, maybe the franchise. Making the Yamato a Galaxy-class starship is obviously a cheap way to reuse a model they already have, but like a lot of Star Trek's budget tricks, it does a great job of expanding continuity and making the story better. First, there's the continuity callback to "Where Silence Has Lease" as this time we get to see the real Yamato. It also ratchets up the tension because the Enterprise tends to survive crises a number of times by being the Enterprise. Smaller, less capable ships understandably don't stand a chance against the Threat of the Week. Here we have a crew presumably as able in a ship as well equipped, and they got blowed up in the first five minutes. It gives a real veracity to the idea that the Enterprise is facing something that it has a decent shot of losing to.  The banter between Picard and Varley was well done on both sides. This is the first time we get to see Picard's amateur archaeologist, and it's a nice tie in that he would be friends with another starship captain with similar interests.

Matthew: Archaeology is definitely a brilliant idea that totally fits the character to a tee. That is, the character of a British nobleman who rides horses and investigates lost cities while wearing khakis. Why did they ever try to make him French, again? I liked the Varley/Picard relationship because it felt like they respect each other, but didn't actually like each other all that much. It's nice when there are more complex relationships hinted at besides "this was my oldest, dearest friend (this week anyway) and now he's DEAD!"

Kevin: The Romulans were well used here. Taris doesn't take provocative action, but she doesn't leave either. As a kid, I always wondered why the seeming constant violations of the Neutral Zone by both sides didn't just precipitate war, but looking at real world examples, like the 38th parallel or the Strait of Taiwan, even in the presence of overt hostile acts, there's still a sense that despite the posturing, both sides want to keep the pin in the grenade one more time. Taris can't back down from a fight, but that doesn't mean she wants to start one, and it makes the scenes on the bridge between Riker and Taris more tense. A little shoutout for Troi here. Riker gives her the task of reigning in the crew's nerves, a task both related to her training, and of vital importance in the tense moment. The writers really are giving her a lot of little moments in the episodes this season that in concert make her far more competent and credible as a bridge officer.

Matthew: The Romulans are at their best when they are wily and unpredictable. How far will they go to secure this technology? Will they trust Riker? This, in my opinion, is why the sci-fi plot, trope or not, works. The drama revolves around whether or not well-established antagonist Y will obtain super-powerful technology Z, and whether Protagonist X can thwart them. It doesn't really matter what the technology is (even though it is totally cool), so long as the drama is sound. And it is. It's sort of a classic Cold-War-Style chase drama. If it had been a super code generator or a biological weapon, it could have been a story set in the present.

Kevin: The Iconian plot was really good. Enough information was given to satisfy my curiosity without bogging down the episode, and this may be one of the more credible "highly advanced technologies" I've ever seen. The gateway is not merely a souped up version of something the Federation or Romulans already have. It's a complete game-changer. Both their technology and more importantly their tactics are completely useless against this. Coupled with some nice moments with Picard playing amateur archeologist, this part of the plot was well developed, and his regret at having to destroy the gateway palpable.

Matthew: I agree, and this is what elevates the episode for me. As I said above, the plot is sound regardless of the sci-fi element. But the fact that the sci-fi element is totally cool, and it leads to interesting ideas (history is written by the victors, technology changes the balance of power, some cultures aren't ready for super power based on their ethical-political development), makes this episode really sing.

Kevin: The breakdown of the Enterprise was mined nicely for both tension and comedy. What could be more shocking to the crew of the Enterprise than the idea that the ship carrying them through the vacuum of space is failing in some unstoppable way? What could be more offensive to Starfleet officers than the idea their ship is designed badly? I do have a few nitpicks, though. Can Geordi really not gain control of the automated parts of the Enterprise? I understand not being able to control them all on manual at once for the long term, but he made it sound like he was powerless to turn stuff off. Also, I refuse to believe medical staff in the future have forgotten what a splint is. They are called emergencies for a reason. Immobilizing a broken limb would be field medicine 101. It's one of those times in an attempt to show it's The Future (uture...uture), they go too far and make people look silly.

Matthew: Yeah, the splint line was dumb. But I don't mind the Enterprise being depicted as beyond the possibility of manual control. I mean, if a computer failed on the space shuttle, it might be beyond saving. And the Enterprise is even more complex on a level of several orders of magnitude.

Acting

Kevin: The teaser scene is an awesome ensemble piece. Most of the cast get a brief shot of their horrified reactions, and they all nail it. Troi looks like she might actually vomit. Wesley looks successfully shell-shocked. There's really no misfires from the main cast. The guest cast shines too. Varley did a good job with logs, and Taris struck the perfect balance between confronting the Enterprise without spoiling for a fight.

Matthew: You can't go wrong with Carolyn Seymour. This was the first of her four Trek roles, including another Romulan, Mirasta Yale from "First Contact," and the headmistress from Janeway's holo-novel. She just brings it every time, and it's clear the producers agreed as well. There's something about her voice that really sells it, and she has a tall, somewhat willowy, but still imposing frame. I wish she had become a regular somehow.

Kevin: Picard and Data should get singled out for the scene in the gate room. "That was not manual override," still cracks me up, and anytime Picard gets to indulge a hobby, it's good viewing.

Matthew: Yeah, Spiner did a good job of being incapacitated. I also liked Dorn here. There was an understatement to his performance on the planet that portends good things for the character moving beyond a caricature.

Production Values

Kevin: The warp core breach on board the Yamato was well done. I found the saucer section dissolving to be quite effective and horrifying as a child. Assuming they survived the radiation and the shockwave, they lived long enough to have the room melt around them. Still gives me the creeps. I did like that even though we only got to see a small part of the Yamato bridge, there were some nice touches, like the tactical railing to indicate a custom design scheme.

Matthew: Explosions on TNG have evolved, and this is the best so far (that isn't a movie re-use, anyway). The saucer disintegration was definitely cool. I liked all of the computer panels and guts we saw when they were trying to fix things. Definitely some good Okuda (also, as you mention below, on the planet). The sequence with Geordi in the turbolift was fun, and I can't imagine it happening on TOS. It helps a space feel real when you can plaster your character to the ceiling, you know?

Kevin: The blue orb was a nicely realized, and I am guessing here, early CGI effect. I also really dug the Iconian gate room. The controls has some nifty Okudagrams, and the gateway itself was really well done. The layered mirror-like effect at the edges was a neat way to cover the artifacts of the effects shot. I also thought they did a good job with the vistas.

Matthew: Yes, while of course I would have liked to see more about the Iconians (a miniseries perhaps? A two parter?), the matte shots and models and sets we got were nice. I was definitely intrigued and tickled in that sci-fi way by the visual design of this show.

Conclusion

Kevin: I wouldn't have guessed going in, but I think I am going to give this a 5. This is a good story that is tightly-paced and well-acted and the production values are top notch. By anchoring the ancient civilization in the middle of a modern conflict, it avoids the trap of so many other episodes with conflicts between races I don't care about. This is certainly a favorite of mine and I always look forward to watching it. It may get outclassed later on by the heights of other, grander episodes, but if the goal is an entertaining, engrossing hour of television, this succeeds with flying colors.

Matthew: 5 all the way. This is a no-doubter. I am never, ever bored by this episode because of the solid dramatic story, but it also works as good science fiction. The story is scintillating, the concepts are cool, the acting is solid, and the visuals are great. What's not to love? This is a 10.

4 comments:

  1. just watched it on the web. What a great episode. And yes there is some great humor in this episode!

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  2. I'm a little inspired to watch this episode today.

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  3. I love this episode! Also, for no other reason needed that I love seeing other starships on kewl-ass universe saving missions that don't involve an Enterprise.. AND the other captains and crews don't know anything about their missions, at least until after they've happened!

    And really.. yeah.. the splint. Hellllooo! They drop every cadet on some godforsaken planet with nothing but their uniforms and say "Survive THIS and we might let you in". Each of them needs to know what a splint is.

    And don't forget, people in the 20th century were just terrified of dying! BLEH!

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  4. Have you seen the unforgivable and obvious black cardboard they taped onto the aft bridge computer screens to cut out the glare behind the characters?? So poor.

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