Friday, April 22, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 3: Booby Trap

The Next Generation, Season 3
Airdate: October 30, 1989
53 of 176 produced
53 of 176 aired


Investigating the tantalizing remains of a Promellian battle cruiser, the Enterprise trips a millennium-old booby trap. In order to extricate themselves from its diabolical grip, Geordi uses a holodeck simulation of one of the Enterprise's original designers in order to test various escape strategems. But even if he succeeds in rescuing the ship, will his heart end up just as trapped by pangs of romance?
Arr, matey. You do know what women like, don't you?


Matthew: This is, to my mind, the best B story so far in the series. It explores one character (Geordi) and his emotional development. Then, it dovetails almost perfectly with the A story. It even has a good science fictional angle - how involved can someone get with a work of artificial intelligence, and how close can that AI come to approximating the existing intelligence of a real person? Of course, we wouldn't see the payoff to this question until the real Dr. Leah Brahms appeared on the series, but the question is asked here, and it is tantalizing.

Kevin: I agree. Episodes like this work for me because the science fiction angle is an organic part of the story. You don't even really realize you're thinking about these things until after the episode. The episode is tightly paced and stays focused on the immediate crisis, and it works in these issues pretty neatly. Especially given the slight heavy-handedness of other AI episodes, this is executed quite cleanly.

Matthew: So how good is the A story? Pretty good, but not great. It's a nice conundrum, being caught in an ancient booby trap. But outside of the fact that it was set by alien space combatants, it's not exactly a big piece of science fiction. Nonetheless, it offers opportunities for several set pieces. We get the alien ship and bridge, with its stoic old captain. We also get the Utopia Planitia shipyards on the holodeck, which offers nerds like us a great peek at the history of the Enterprise. I suppose the most science fictional question is how to decode an obsolete storage technology. In the end, I never was truly worried that the Enterprise would be trapped forever. A better illustration of what losing power means to the ship might have helped. Somebody could have been frozen, or killed by radiation. A discussion of cosmic rays and how deadly space really is would have gone a long way here.

Kevin: There were enough emotional notes alone to carry the A plot for me. Picard's excitement is tangible. Despite happening on a viewscreen, there's almost rapport with the Promellian captain. Picard's fear and, frankly, surprise at being caught in the trap is tangible. Setting aside the issue of Picard piloting the ship, the tension is well achieved.

Matthew: Apparently Michael Piller had the (absolutely correct) instinct to change the romantic involvement from one with Picard to Geordi. Thank goodness! I am not claiming that TNG to this point had fallen into a TOS level of supporting cast misuse, but there is always a danger of it. Data had carried a few episodes, but he could be seen as the Spock analog. This episode establishes that the "supporting" cast can completely carry an episode. There really aren't a ton of scenes for the others, but the quality of Geordi's scenes completely makes up for this.

Kevin: We haven't really gotten a Geordi-centric episode yet, and it's a crying shame. Pre-TNG, LeVar Burton might edge out Wil Wheaton for having the most securely established acting credentials, at least in television or film, of the cast, and it's sad they haven't given him the same material to work with. Piller describes it as a love story, and of course, Geordi's love is the ship, so he would fall for the woman who personifies it. I think it would have been great to explore that more. The opening scene on the holodeck was well done, and it's certainly easy to empathize with the nice guy who gets all thumbs around women, but it eventually hamstrings the character. Pretty much everyone else gets at least one unalloyed success in the romance department over the course of the franchise, except for poor Geordi. Still, here, he is warm and engaging and it's easy to root for him.

Matthew: A few notes - How can the universal translator translate a recording? There are no brain waves to scan and compare to "universal concepts." Some more discussion of how the personality simulation was created would have been nice. It seems a bit cute. Picard piloting the ship was dumb. Just plain dumb. There are 1,000 people on board - no one was a better pilot than this 50-something guy who hadn't been behind a stick for decades?

Kevin: Yes, the piloting was dumb. I also can't believe Picard thought of the slingshot maneuver before Data did. That bothers me too. Still, they are relatively small complaints in a well achieved story arc. For me, I got the impression that the Promellians were a real people and the conflict a real thing. The episode doesn't depend on it like others have, but the combination of an awesome model and some good writing and acting by the Promellian captain lend a veracity to the story that helps make the current trap seeming more threatening.


Matthew: This is LeVar Burton's best showcase so far, and possibly his best in TNG. His Geordi here is both competent and vulnerable. It is easy to get swept up in his character's emotions and to really identify with him. He also made what could otherwise be dry, plot-serving treknobabble into exciting television. Perhaps he did his job too well - it would tempt future writers to abuse this ability.

Kevin: I wonder what came first, LeVar Burton's competence with treknobabble, or getting made Chief Engineer. He has the same skill Gates McFadden has with her medical doodads. It's not just stuff in his hand. Particularly when he was examining the panels, and even behind the VISOR, I got the sense he was looking at the schematics in a way that indicated he was actually interacting with them. 

Matthew: Susan Gibney is one of the great "almosts" in Star Trek. She portrayed Dr. Brahms twice, and had a good turn in the "Homefront/Paradise Lost" storyline in DS9. But she was also screen tested extensively for the role of Captain Janeway, only to be rejected due to her youth. She also read for Seven of Nine and the Borg Queen. Based on her performance here, and those other episodes, I wish she had been a regular in some capacity. She takes the material seriously, delivers her lines well, has an interesting look, and radiates genuine emotion, whether warm or cool.

Kevin:  I liked her too. I think I like her more in "Galaxy's Child," if only because the writers seem to go out of their way to create a more three dimensional character, but you're right. She isn't just reading the lines, and it pays off, especially in tech heavy dialogue. I just realized this, but do you think they cast the actress who played Christy based on the fact that they look a great deal alike? Interesting little layering there. Also, according to Memory Alpha, the character was originally supposed to be the granddaughter of Richard Daystrom, but the casting department had hired a white actress before they realized the error. In the end, they reduced the Daystrom reference to the ubiquitous "Daystrom Institute." I actually kind of like it this way. Despite our progress, interracial relationships are still an issue (at least for the people responding to a recent poll in Mississippi), and the depiction of chemistry and connection, particularly between a black man and a white woman, on prime-time television, without any acknowledgement that it is noteworthy is pretty good. It's not as shocking as Plato's Stepchildren, but that's kind of what I liked about it. If nothing else, I'm happy they didn't gut the romantic angle when they found they had cast a white actress. I can easily imagine the lesser angels of the studio's nature prevailing on that issue.

Matthew: Patrick Stewart portrayed archaeological enthusiasm well, and though I question the story logic, was cool and collected while he piloted the ship. The rest of the cast all got good moments. Overall, even though Geordi is the star, the rest of the cast makes their presence felt in a nice ensemble effort.

Kevin: I want to take this opportunity to give a shoutout to Chief O'Brien for the awesomely executed exchange about the model ships. Riker's accusatory glare of "kiss-ass" and O'Brien defending himself always crack me up.

Production Values

Matthew: The asteroid field looked nice, especially out the Ten Forward windows. Geordi's beach program looked great, and really set the tone for the episode.

Kevin: It's pretty awesome to look at on the DVD. On my VHS copy, it always came off as too dark.

Matthew: The alien ship was a great model. Really detailed and interesting, with a good look of "oldness" to it. I'm glad they built a new one for this plot instead of reusing an old standby. If they talked about how cool a thing is, and then the model was lackluster, it would have hampered the episode. Not so here. The alien bridge looks like a mix of old set materials - but a good mix. I saw a warp tube in the background, the grating from the computer core, and what looked like some TOS movie-era round screens. The alien data storage device wasn't as interesting as the later ones we would see.

Kevin: The model department went all out and it shows. I was impressed by the huge amount of detailing and some of the camera pans around the ship, especially in concert with the asteroids looked awesome.

Matthew: Utopia Planitia was a fun set. The diagrams and schematics are a nerd's dream. We even got the little computer simulation of the ship flying out of the asteroid field. I would have liked to see a joystick for the precision flying scene out of the asteroid field.

Kevin: My nerd heart beats a little faster every time I see the half finished Enterprise in the window. It's a great model, and the best part is, it's not critical to the staging. A lab is a lab, and the okudagram sliding-panel overlay schematics were awesome on their own. The choice of and quality of work really enhance the episode. As for a joystick, it actually really annoyed me when they did that in Insurrection. It seems like with a ship that size in a vacuum, depending on sensory resistance to give information to the pilot would be less efficient.


Matthew: The story is just average here, but the very involving acting (both from regulars and the guest cast) and the neat sets bring this up to a 4 for me. Definitely a highlight. A bit more ambition with the AI aspect of the tale would have vaulted it into 5 territory. But it is very enjoyable nonetheless.

Kevin: This gets a four from me as well. The acting and production value are certainly above average, and the story has a few holes, like Picard at the wheel, but the tension is well achieved and well paced, so it's easy to forgive a few flaws. That makes a total of 8.

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