Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 4: Identity Crisis

The Next Generation, Season 4
"Identity Crisis"
Airdate: March 25, 1991
91 of 176 produced
91 of 176 aired


Geordi has occasion to reminisce about his time on the USS Victory, when his old friend, Lt. Commander Susanna Leijten, visits the Enterprise, investigating the disappearance of several of their former colleagues. Things go from mysterious to frightening when Leijten undergoes a sudden and dramatic physical change, and tries to lose herself on the deserted colony that the Victory had visited. Will Geordi be able to unravel the mystery before he undergoes the change and loses his identity?

Woo hoo! I finally got out of the VISOR. Oh wait... Crap!


Matthew: What we have here is a Brannon Braga story in sore need of a polish. The basic concept, as in most Braga tales, is solid. The idea of a species propagating itself by re-writing the DNA of another creature is interesting.  A mystery involving disappearing crewmen is interesting. Having Geordi encounter a former colleague is interesting. So why is this episode so boring? The sad fact of the matter is that all three of these interesting ideas experience critical failures of development. First off, the idea of a species hijacking other bodies. Cool! But it's kind of boring when we get no impression of what life is like for that species. It's just a generic illness if we find out nothing about them. It would have been much more interesting if there had been an argument for letting it happen. Maybe these hybrid creatures are blissfully happy? Super intelligent? Members of an old, wonderful culture? Nope. They're little scaredy-cat twerps who mill around on some planet. Also, how could this method of reproduction persist over time? If they act on instinct only, they would not be space-faring, and would run out of humanoids to convert.

Kevin: This always felt like one of those times where the science didn't quite support the fiction. There's a whole genre of science fiction in the 1950s that treats radiation as capable of doing whatever the plot needs, and it was a little like that here. I can understand a parasite converting an organic body for its own use, but I don't quite buy it would register a conscious desire in the host to go or do some specific action. I agree with Matt, this problem could have been solved or at least rendered interesting enough not to matter if we learned more about the end result. A sentient species doing this to survive is more interesting. It will get a horrible return in Voyager's "Favorite Son" and a fucking awesome one in "Ashes to Ashes," where the portrayal of the new life for the converted crew member is sufficient to justify her conscious decision to go back.

Matthew: The investigation leads to some nice acting moments for LeVar Burton. But overall, I've got some big problems with the logic of how it proceeds. For one thing, Geordi heads off on his own, against the better judgment of the Doctor and the Captain, to try things out on the holodeck. He fails to report his shaking hands, despite having promised both of them to do so. He is being "tracked by the computer," which ends up doing absolutely nothing to stop him from beaming off the ship. Crusher has placed head monitors on patients before. There are over one thousand other people on board, INCLUDING DATA, who could just hang around with Geordi to make sure he doesn't go apeshit. Something about this species' cloaking ability seems off. If it blocks or reflects light at all,  you should see something. If it passed light, bent light around it, or mimed the color of said light, it should emanate or project that light instead of a shadow. Either way, the creature should have either been visible on the recording, or its shadow should have been invisible. Also, can Geordi see as one of these creatures? That might have been an interesting wrinkle to the story.

Kevin: The idea of the holorecording is awesome. It's a neat set up to see Geordi on a previous mission without merely having it described. And that shadow thing has always bothered the hell out of me. Even if it were bending light to camouflage itself from the perspective of the crewman taking the recording, it shouldn't be able to do it to every vantage point simultaneously. And does it not give off any kind of radiant energy? Heat? Given that it glows in UV light, shouldn't Geordi have picked up a distortion in the UV range in his VISOR? The first fifteen minutes of the mystery play really well. Both Geordi and Leijten discuss the other crewmen as if they were real people, and it effectively ramps the tension. At about the point where Geordi started hiding his symptoms, it falls apart. It's not a mystery anymore. It's a "Will they save Geordi in time?" story, and that's not as interesting, since it's neither the season finale or a two-parter, and the show isn't run by Joss Whedon, and we therefore know the answer is yes.

Matthew: The personal story suffers, too. Geordi tells Commander Leijten that "he enjoys the bachelor life too much." What? I had gotten the impression, you know, from previous episodes, that Geordi hated the bachelor's life, and wanted a girlfriend. Geordi's relationship with Leijten was under-developed. It would have added more tension to the story, and more veracity to her eventual appeal for him to come back, had they had a stronger connection demonstrated on screen, whether it was sexual-romantic, unrequited love on one of their parts, or just a deep, Platonic friendship. Instead, we hear that Leijten gave Geordi loads of advice on women, none of which worked, and then they lost touch for years, with Geordi not even knowing that she married some guy with a skinny porn-stache.

Kevin: I understand people grow apart, but you have instantaneous, intragalactic communication. Would Geordi really have not have heard she was married? Maybe he has some PTSD trigger where when he finds out a woman is married, he represses the memory. It explains Leah Brahms, too. I liked that they didn't try to make this a failed romance. I like that Geordi had a mentor figure before coming to the Enterprise. The actors did their best to sell it, too. It should have been given more meat. Ideally, I think the plot should not have locked her in a room so soon. It would have given more time for their relationship to be displayed.

Matthew: At the end of the episode, Geordi has been rescued, and Picard says that he will order beacons to be placed around the planet, warning all visitors off. Uh... isn't this a pretty major violation of the prime directive? This is the method by which these beings reproduce, and Picard is effectively cock-blocking them into extinction. Not cool, Jean-Luc.

Kevin: I would assume the beacons merely warn, not prohibit. If someone wants to go, I assume they could. The species may have a right to exist, but not a right to lure the unwary into a trap.


Matthew: We've been getting a lot of Geordi episodes lately, and LeVar Burton is up to the task. He does a great job here with fundamentally flawed material. His best scene was his solo work in the holodeck. He yet again sells a scene with a lot of technobabble and the potential for boredom, and he makes it the most entertaining episode in the episode.

Kevin: I agree on the holodeck scenes. Like in Booby Trap, he really does a great job of acting in an empty room. I enjoy watching him figure things out as opposed to spontaneously know the answer. It lends credibility to the actor, the character, and the universe.

Matthew: Maryann Plunkett does a decent job as Commander Leijten, imbuing her character's relationship with Geordi with a genuine warmth. I do think she was somewhat hog-tied by the script, and doesn't have 3 years of prior performances to build on, or coast on, as the case may be.

Kevin: There was something really sweet about the way she said she felt better having Geordi around, given the nature of the mystery. It made me feel like they had a real friendship. The writing didn't support it as it should have, but the actress did a great job. It would have been nice to see her at least referred to again. I always hate it when people allegedly really important to the characters either appear out of nowhere or disappear without a trace.

Matthew: I liked seeing Patty Yasutake again as Nurse Ogawa. She's a great character actor and plays a heck of a nurse.

Kevin: She and Crusher have a lovely rapport. They seem like actual colleagues and as close as friends as they could be given their positions. This is one female character who doesn't get Selar-ed into oblivion and I am grateful for it. Also, like McFadden, she delivers the techonobabble and handles the doodads with real verisimilitude.

Production Values

Matthew: The Tarchannen set looks a bit like a soundstage, but it was a visually interesting mix of matte paintings and practical sets, apparently with no optical compositing. I do have some questions about the set dressings, though. The lights were still on, after so many years. Are they solar lights? There seemed to be no overgrowth or creeping foliage. The set looked basically the same, in the flashback and in the present day.

Kevin: I imagine it would have been too hard to essentially design two sets. I liked the general layout. It felt expansive, and somehow, like a nice riff on the bare-bones science stations of TOS. Repaint it primary colors, and you easily have a TOS science station. I wonder if the design was conscious.

Matthew: Costumes were pretty good. TNG won an Emmy for the blacklight suits, and they were indeed neat looking.  I wish that the black "wet suit" material hadn't been as evident during those scenes, though. I like that they used collarless uniforms to denote the past. The shuttle explosion was kind of lame, appearing like a season one episode.

Kevin: The UV effects were good. I liked the Sickbay scenes. The odd lighting and makeup jobs really helped sell the severity of Leijten 's condition. I agree that remembering to use season 1 uniforms was a great touch. I was not a fan of Leijten 's hair, though. It was the inverse mullet, party in the front, business in the back. It's like they took Commander Shelby's hair and added a Swiss Miss braid. It didn't suit the actress.

Matthew: The holodeck scenes were pretty good, with optical effects depicting rewinding, and the shadow blob thing. The "Shades of Gray" head-antenna device makes a return, which is perhaps a bad sign for the episode.

Kevin: I love the idea of recording something and replaying it on a holodeck. It almost seems impossible that Geordi would have been the first to think of it. I would have liked it if were intended for holographic use all along. They could have added a second eyepiece to the recorder to indicate perspective was being recorded as well. I did think the shadow man looked a little too obviously CGI, though, and to the extent I was in a moment, it pulled me out of one.


Matthew: This was Brannon Braga's first solo writing job, and it showed. He failed to fix the problems with the submitted spec script. There is a general lack of conflict, excitement, and stakes. The sci-fi idea is under-utilized. The relationship content is anemic. It's a somnambulent snooze-fest as a result. Some decent acting and production values bring this to a 2.

Kevin: I almost hate to do it, but I agree with the 2, for a total of 4. A few tweaks to any of the main elements would have made this at least average, and there is an awesome episode in here. Like I said, "Ashes to Ashes" revisits this idea and mines it much more effectively. But, sadly, they can't all be winners.

1 comment:

  1. I felt the "shadow man" was quite obviously supposed to be CGI - it was a visual representation of a computer extrapolation of an unknown figure using an approximate size and perspective. In fact, I actually felt like the strangeness of it was actually appropriate in that heightened the tension by being so obviously "other" and out of place relative to the rest of the scene

    I always remember seeing this when I was a kid and finding the story device of narrowing down the shadows on the holodeck to be really ingenious. As an adult, I find it more artificial, but there is definitely a core of a good idea in there.