Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 4: The Nth Degree

The Next Generation, Season 4
"The Nth Degree"
Airdate: April 1, 1991
92 of 176 produced
92 of 176 aired


The Enterprise is tasked with fixing the Argus Array, a massive subspace telescope on the border of Federation space. The Enterprise quickly finds the cause of the malfunction, a mysterious alien probe that manages to disable any computer system it interacts with. Investigating by shuttle, Cmdr. LaForge and Lt. Barclay are scanned by the probe. The shuttle is disabled, and Barclay suddenly begins to transform into a more confident, capable version of himself. How far will the transformation go? What will happen to the Enterprise as a result?
People, it's got frickin' laser beams in it. There's not much more to be said.


Kevin: The thing I love most about this episode is they picked the perfect character to make the centerpiece of the story. The writers were apparently looking for a way to bring Barclay back, and they did it pretty well. Like we said in our review of Hollow Pursuits, we liked that there are people in the Federation universe that aren't super-humanly capable. Watching what happens when we he suddenly has those skills thrust upon him is really interesting. Having one of the main cast get juiced wouldn't have been as fun. They're already super-human. I'll get to the science fiction aspects in a minute, but the reason the episode works so well is that at the core there is a very human story, watching Barclay try and, ironically, fail, to adjust to his new superior abilities. My only complaint is that the follow-up discussion doesn't get much of an airing beyond the chess scene denouement. It would have been nice for Geordi to discuss his experience from Transfigurations, or even Riker his from Hide and Q.

Matthew: I am an unabashed Broccoli-lover. Indeed, it is for many of the reasons you mention - having the vulnerable every-man amidst the best and the brightest really gives us someone to root for, and maybe even identify with (Fantasy-obsessed nerd who has a hard time relating to his peers in middle/high school? Check!).But what is especially nice in this episode is that the character goes through real growth. This is the sort of episode that they usually give to a regular - in fact, they gave a very similar story to Geordi in "Transfigurations." Do either set of changes really stick? Well, no. But that's the fault of later writers and editors, not of the production staff of the individual episodes.

Kevin: The science fiction elements are familiar ones, but they're largely well done. Star Trek has certainly explored the notion of what superior abilities do to human ambition, and this is one of its more nuanced outings. Barclay is not, nor does he become a super-villain, like Khan. He more subtly starts to care less and less about the wishes of people he used to obey or at least respect. A successful element of the episode is how genuinely creepy Barclay's eventual transformation feels. Watching them disable audio feeds, or hearing his slightly emotionless voice speak through the computer is chilling. You could practically hear Reg tell Dave that he's sorry and he can't let him do that. Other ethical concerns get touched upon but not really explored. Picard understands disconnecting Barclay would kill him, and I would have liked some explicit discussion of at what point that becomes an acceptable option.

Matthew: Of course, there is the direct reference, when Barclay tells Picard "I'm afraid I can't do that" with respect to disconnecting himself from the computer. I admit, I would have liked more exploration and follow up on this concept - he says "I wish I could convey to you, what it's like for me now..." yeah, Reg, so do we! He says "I perceive the universe as a single equation, and it is so simple." Well, now I get how and why they can't actually tell us what that is, but it would have been nice to mention the space/time/thought equivalence of "Where No One Has Gone Before," and to show us some hints of what this kind of understanding might mean for a human being. Also, come to think of it, if Barclay is the computer, then why doesn't it have a record of this exceedingly simple equation? Tell us it's not simple, maybe, and that the computer couldn't store it (I've always been suspicious of this bias towards simplicity - it's great some times, but then, some things are actually just really complex). Anyhow, this is the kind of episode, very much like "Where No One Has Gone Before," that just throws heady concept after heady concept at us. I appreciate that in a Star Trek tale. There are just so many ways this story could have gone, it almost seems inevitable that we're a little bit disappointed with the one track they took. There were enough ideas for 4 or 5 episodes here. One about super intelligence; about a human becoming a computer; about a type 3 or type 4 civilization making contact with us; about having to kill a boy with super powers without him catching on; about how gaining access to extreme future technology would change us.

Kevin: If the episode has a soft spot, it's the nature of the Cytherians and their method of exploration. They seem unconcerned about the destruction their probe causes, or that they hijacked people for two weeks at time. Was Starfleet freaking the fuck out when they got back? What happened to all that civilization-altering knowledge they learned? Was it on someone's iPhone and they lost it? What?

Matthew: I understand that the Cythereans are under-developed. But I guess it comes down to what story you want to tell. Is it the story of what happens to a guy who is given a super brain, or the story of a super-advanced race and how they reach out and touch someone? Which story is more interesting? I think the answer is probably the former, not the latter, at least given the restriction of a 45 minute teleplay. And I agree, some throwaway mention of "Cytherean upgrades" a season down the line would have been great. But we can't fault this episode for the failures of future ones.


Kevin: Dwight Schultz hits it out of the park, no two ways about it. His transformation is pitched perfectly. At first he is inspired and creative, but still halting and nervous. He eventually becomes suave, and finally smug. Little acting notes like his hands shaking when he comes off the turbolift after being disconnected were really great. I also loved both of his Cyrano scenes. Acting well at acting badly is not easy, and the first scene achieved Fraiser-esque levels of vicarious embarrassment for me.

Matthew: The only off note for me was when he shows up Geordi in the briefing, over-enunciating "one by one." I felt the smugness came on too quickly. But that could just as well be a director choosing one particular performance. It really says something when a peripheral character, with only one previous appearance, commands the screen so well and holds out interest to this degree. This is a credit to Schultz's layered, charming performance. It's a shame he didn't come back more often.

Kevin: The rest of the crew gets some nice scenes with Barclay at various point of his transformation. Particularly Geordi and Troi, who at first, want to applaud the change, but then are unnerved by it. Picard gets some good scenes of being authoritative and frustrated. And as always, every fucking thing Gates McFadden does is gold. Her rehearsal scene with Improved Barclay was awesome.

Matthew: It sounds like all my Gates-love has rubbed off onto you. She's a really good actress! I really liked that they gave her character this hobby, because it gives her a great chance to stretch, in this and future scenes. But yeah, Marina Sirtis was great as a counselor. She seemed real and professional.

Production Values

Kevin: I love the Argus Array. I even love the name. The design choice of the repeating hexagon made it look like a modern array of radio telescope dishes. The design department usually does a pretty good job of anchoring a design in a real world counterpart to lend it veracity, and this is a great example.

Matthew: Yeah, a great model build all around. They really did a super job of making something that was probably pretty simple to construct look like it was meticulously detailed.

Kevin: The probe was okay; the lighting effect were certainly well done, as was the explosion. The Cytherian himself was a little odd. It's clearly a humanoid head, so having him express shocking over the crew's humanoid features was weird. I want that holographic forehead decal, though.

Matthew: I really liked the probe, actually, and there was a totally killer optical shot of it through the windshield of the shuttlecraft that pretty much made my day. The Cytherean's cephalic nature may have been a construct for the benefit of the crew. Either way, the effect looked neat, having his giant head float there on the bridge.

Kevin: The holodeck scenes were fantastic. The laser were real lasers, and the effort pays off. The layout had a feel of classic 50s science fiction, which is so different from even the 60s Star Trek aesthetic that it looked great while looking completely alien, if you'll pardon the expression. The warp effect was good, and I like the red nebula-like material, but the slo-mo camera work on the crew was silly. Not The Motion Picture wormhole scene silly, but still...


Kevin: This is a high four, just shy of the five for me. A little more direct engagement with some of the philosophical and science fiction issues we mentioned would have nudged into the 5, but all in all, this is a highly enjoyable, thought provoking episode that well produced and exquisitely acted. Welcome back, Mr. Barclay.

Matthew: This is a borderline 5 from me. Were there flaws in the story? Yes, but probably only flaws endemic to the format, as opposed to outright mistakes or blunders by the writers. I'm willing to give a pass to an episode with so much ambition and verve. This show just leaves me absolutely entertained every time I watch it. Come to think of it, so does "Hollow Pursuits." It goes to show you what great acting and rock-solid production values can do. I think on our 3 axis rating system, this would be a 4-5-4. So it's borderline, to be sure. But the sum of the parts is pure entertainment. I think it's in the top 10% of TNG episodes somewhere. So I'm going to throw caution to the wind and give it a 5, which brings our total to 9.

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