Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 4: Devil's Due

The Next Generation, Season 4
"Devil's Due"
Airdate: February 4, 1991
86 of 176 produced
86 of 176 aired


Introduction

The Enterprise is summoned to Ventax II by a group of Federation anthropologists working there. Apparently, the Ventaxian society is in a state of near collapse because its people are convinced that the mythical Ardra, the Ventaxian equivalent of the devil, is coming to enslave them. Picard is skeptical, and seeking to diffuse a volatile situation when a woman claiming to be Ardra herself appears. Picard is doubtful that this woman is who she claims, but her powers are compelling, even if they aren't supernatural. Claiming to now own the planet and people of Ventax II, and even the Enterprise in orbit, Picard must find a way to free his ship and these people from the grip of a woman who can't possibly be what she claims. Or can she?

We're living in a powder keg and GIVING OFF SPARKS!!!


Writing

Kevin: I love this episode. It has some issues, which we will get to, but this episode is always fun to watch. Star Trek's central core of secular humanism is displayed well here. Picard never once believes Ardra is who she appears to be. He firmly believes that the Ventaxians were capable of enacting the changes she claimed to be responsible for, nor does he think people should submit to her will, regardless of her powers. Given that he has actually met beings as innately powerful as Ardra claims to be, like Q, it makes the position, and Star Trek's general take on gods more credible. Even if a being as powerful as a god exists, he's not supernatural, he's natural. His existence and powers are an observable, explainable part of the same universe, and it certainly doesn't entitle anyone to worship.

Matthew: Although I am quite amenable to a secular humanist story, I kind of wish there had been a bit more doubt as to Ardra's nature on the part of our principals. Having them dismiss the prospect of her divinity outright ratcheted down the tension. Also, knowing from the outset that Ardra is a sham calls into serious question some of her character's motivations. Why, when she knows that Federation technology and inquisitiveness could be her undoing, does she make a play to take possession of the Enterprise? That strikes me as insane for someone running a competent confidence game. She should release the hostages (which she did) and tell them to GTFO (which she did not). Why does she bargain for Picard's eternal, willing devotion to her if he loses the arbitration? She is a mortal, and surely a mortal con artist doesn't want a pesky Starfleet captain hanging around. Why in the name of all that's holy does she personally choose Data as arbitrator? He is absolutely the worst choice, given that she is lying, and given that she cannot intimidate him as she might any other Ventaxian. Finally, Ardra's powers seemed wholly too wide-ranging. If you could cloak your vessel, hack into a Galaxy Class ship and render all of its defenses ineffective, beam through shields, make a starship disappear, make a planet quake, and so on, why would you bother with a con game as difficult and complicated as the one shown here? Why not just sell all of this technology for a King's ransom, or take over your own world, building an empire?

Kevin: Where the episode fails for me on a Grand Ideas level is that it doesn't reach far enough into these ideas. The conference room scene is great, and everyone gets to contribute something. It would have been more fun and interesting to really explore the impact of both the Ardra myth and its debunking on the people of Ventax. Taking the Enterprise out of the equation, what if the people, or specifically the leader of Ventax has asked him not to interfere? Would the Prime Directive apply? How would people react to the discrediting of their religion? The broader implications of this story are fun, and their discussion would have elevated a fun episode to a great episode.

Matthew: I also was wondering whether Picard's course of action constitutes a grand violation of the Prime Directive. It sure as hell seems to. I would have liked more about the effect of the prophecy on the Ventaxians. Given their knowledge of a precise date, why is it just now that the Ventaxians are rioting, having orgies, looting, etc.? Acost Jared is portrayed as "obsessed with the prophecy - was he the only one who had access? Anyway, what I wanted was more anthropology. It would have been nice if the writers had worked in a mention of Earth's own Neo-Transcendentalist movement, last referenced in "Up the Long Ladder."

Kevin: Where the episode excels is the interactions between Ardra and the main cast. I think the acting has a lot to do with it, but there's definitely an energy and a vitality to the dialogue. The comedy, some really revealing outfits aside, is pretty good. If American comedians know anything, it's that discomfiting a stuffy Brit is comedy gold. My favorite line in the episode is when Picard introduces himself and Ardra casually dismisses him, "Keep up the good work." The look on Picard's face is priceless, and it really credits the conmand aspect of Ardra's character. She knows she can't intimidate Picard, and trying would tip her hand. The only way to win is to not engage him like his status is important, and for a moment, Picard is a little annoyed at that. Even Tomalak sneering from across the viewscreen acknowledges his co-equal status on the intergalactic chessboard. Being outright dismissed is something Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise must have to deal with very often.

Matthew: Yeah, all my logic questions aside, there is a lot of good comedy here. Worf bellowing "You are not Fek'lhr!" always makes me chuckle. Crusher shoots Ardra a look that could kill when she sidles up against Picard. It was pretty sad that the writers failed to throw us a bone by having Ardra appear as Dr. Crusher in Picard's quarters. Data as arbitrator had some very funny lines - especially when he rules that advocates should refrain from expressing fondness for each other.

Kevin: I liked the arbitration scene overall. When they aren't clearly trying to model modern American process as seen on TV, I get less annoyed, and the comedic moments, particularly with Data, were great.

Acting

Kevin: Marta Dubois was pretty great. She infused the character with some vitality and the right amount of sneering bravado. The episode would have really suffered if she played Ardra as a straight villain. Like all the best con artists, she has be a little appealing or slick, or it just doesn't work. I loved her final scene. She delivered the line, "You would have had more fun if you lost," and the accompanying smile with the perfect grace of someone who plays the game, but knows when she's beat. In spite of everything, I still kind of like her, and that's the mark of a good guest actor.

Matthew: Dubois was indeed very good. She has just the right amount of "sexiness" mixed with guile - kind of like Jennifer Hetrick's Vash, in fact. She had good chemistry with the main cast, as well, especially Spiner and Stewart. I wish she had been given more time opposite Marina Sirtis - the writers just seemed to dismiss the potential story implications of Troi's empathic senses.

Kevin: The rest of the guest cast was adequate. Dr. Clark certainly has bushy eyebrows, and Acost Jared was just a little too wishy washy to be interesting. Still, they didn't detract from the episode.

Matthew: I was just not a big fan of Paul Lambert's Dr. Clark. The line readings were halting and flat. I think he was mis-cast. He was much better as the Aldean musician in "When The Bough Breaks."

Production Values

Kevin: Ventax II is a bit of a backslide in the planet department. It doesn't look like the M-Class world depicted on the ground. It looks like a large blue rock. I liked the few scenes of Ventax we got, like the hall and the temple. The repeated use of the nested squares design was nice.

Matthew: My beef is one I've had with many planets of the week. The matte painting - which was very nice by the way, incorporating neat crowd movement along the boulevards - did not match up well with the interior sets. Ventax felt strangely inert and lifeless. We needed a few more extras besides the one or two security guards we got.

Kevin: The costumes felt very TOS, but in a good way. It fits the episode, given that this is a pretty TOS story as well. Ardra's daywear was pretty neat. Sheer in enough places to be appropriately tacky. The hair and outfits for her attempted seduction of Picard were god-awful. I did love the Fek'lhr get up, though the human Devil looked like she rented it from a costume store.

Matthew: Ardra's lingerie was a little nuts. I get that they can't show the real stuff on a family show, but her getup in Picard's quarters was just awful. Then, they compounded it with the red number from "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."

Conclusion

Kevin: This is a 3. I wanted to give it a four almost on the strength of the comedy and acting alone, but in the end the fact that I am really entertained shouldn't be enough on its own to elevate an episode into the upper echelons. A really entertaining hour should be what I normally get out of Star Trek. The absence of a deeper discussion of the philosophical or social issues, and whiffing on the Crusher/Picard opporunity keep this out of the higher tiers, but still, this episode is a hoot and a half. To the season 4 writing staff, I say, like Ardra, "Keep up the good work."

Matthew: Although I've been playing Devil's Advocate the whole way (click here for accompanying sound effect), I agree wholeheartedly that this is entertaining to a high degree. It just doesn't match the entertainment value with the kind of intellectually stimulating depth, or the logical story rigor, that the best Trek episodes have. So I agree with the 3 for a total of 6.

Podcast


Kevin: Joining us on this podcast is a friend of mine from college, and frequent commenter, Andrew, also known in the comments as sirkatzalot. It was great having him on the podcast. Enjoy, everyone.

5 comments:

  1. I've been reading every episode post, but have never actually listened to your podcast (or commented) until now.

    That is a shame because:
    The simultaneous watching is very interesting.
    You guys are doing a great job.

    Keep it up, guys!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well, thank you, nameless!

    We'd like to think our podcasts replicate that most fun and delightful of experiences - watching an episode of Star Trek with dedicated nerds.

    ReplyDelete
  3. So glad to help make someones inaugural podcast listening so enjoyable.

    ReplyDelete