Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 5: Silicon Avatar

The Next Generation, Season 5
"Silicon Avatar"
Airdate: October 14, 1991
103 of 176 produced
103 of 176 aired


The Enterprise is called to a nascent colony world when it is attacked by Data's old nemesis, the Crystalline Entity. Though they are unable to save the colony, they are presented with another opportunity to interact with the entity, and are faced with a choice - do they attempt to communicate, or do they destroy it out of self-defense?
Poor Carmen. We never got to see her pineapple upside-down cake.


Matthew: People often ask me (well, not really) "What makes TNG so great?" And usually this is answered with a long-winded dissertation on all things Star Trek. Well, I should just answer "episodes like this." This episode has so much going for it, it's kind of nuts. Good sci-fi story? Uh, I think "silicon-based people killing space whale shaped like a crystal" counts. Good emotional story? "I blame you for killing my teenage son" checks out. Ethical debate? "Should we kill a creature that seems to be simply fulfilling its natural imperative?" Yup. This episode develops all of these ideas, develops them thoroughly and in a satisfying way, and I think a great deal of credit is due Jeri Taylor for this. She has demonstrated time and again since her ability to weave sci-fi with character stories. It's a perfect marriage here.

Kevin: I think we can tack on "Uses continuity in a way that gratifies long term fans without alienating casual viewers?" Check and double check. Enough information is given about Omicron Theta that a casual viewer will not be lost, where a long time viewer is thrilled to return to such an interesting story. This episode is really a great example of the show firing on all cylinders in a very efficient way. This episode doesn't try to present itself as one of the Great Episodes, but that's almost to its credit. This is what the current creative staff can reasonably expect of an "average" episode.

Matthew: It's gratifying to see a realistic colony set-up. No, it's not a faraway place that needs drug X within timeframe Y, instead it seems like a place with real people who want to build a life. Personalizing the story with Carmen and Commander Riker was a really effective way to achieve this. I wish we had gotten a little more of them, instead of just "As you know, I prepare the most memorable desserts." But I acknowledge the fact that the teaser had to end with the Crystalline Entity looming in the sky, which means its damage needs to be done quickly.

Kevin: I appreciated the frank, almost progressive way Riker's libido is presented here. There's an obvious attraction, some almost explicitly frank discussion of the awesome sex they'll be having, contained in a conversation where Carmen acknowledges this is a one (maybe two, depending on how long it takes for the Enterprise to get there) stand, and that's fine. I appreciate the depiction of an adult woman expressing sexual agency. It gives me hope for the future. Her death was a bit of a gimmick, but it worked well enough I can't really ding the writers for it. I love the expression on Riker's face, torn between what his training tells him to do, and the paralysis caused by the tragedy he just witnessed.

Matthew: The Dr. Kila Marr character is a similarly well-done story idea, personalizing the Data back-story from Omicron Theta. There's a very real thread of humanity in this episode, the emotional tolls that these big deeds and exciting adventures exact upon the people living in this world. So not only does it help this story work, it also helps the world work. Anyway, Marr's antagonistic dialogue was a great way to illustrate these consequences, as well as giving Data the opportunity to act in character, not being hurt at all by her cold demeanor. Her unhinging at the end was realistic enough, but I do have to wonder how an old lady could create an encryption code that Data couldn't crack in 10 seconds, enough time to save the entity.

Kevin: Like Half-a-Life, the arguments on both sides were presented with both intellectual and emotional veracity. Picard's desire to see all life peaceably coexist in conflict with Marr, and neatly tying plots together, Riker's desire to exterminate a threat leaves no one with the clear "right side." What if the entity had dodged the attempt to kill it and killed again? Picard is gambling with pretty high stakes. On the other hand, the patterned response indicates at least rudimentary intelligence elevating Marr's crime from mere violence to murder. And the best part in terms of story is that despite ultimately being the villain, Marr ends up being a sympathetic character. This is something the writers have gotten increasingly good at. They don't present the story in black and white terms, and they don't necessarily solve the ethical conundrums by the end of the episode, but it never feels like a copout. It just feels like nuanced mature storytelling.

Kevin: One nitpick, but this is a bit of a holdover from Datalore: How does the whole memory thing work? Who would volunteer for that? You know what I wouldn't want when I was 16? A digitized transcript of my thoughts, for fear of pretty much what happened here happening, it one day being read to my mother.


Matthew: Ellen Geer is really good as Dr. Marr. She has a great voice that never ceases to be interesting to listen to. She effectively portrays bitterness towards Data, as well as her softening towards him. Her sorrow and anger over losing her son seemed real. But that's something lots of actors can do. What Geer also achieved was fitting into the TNG world, delivering technobabble well and really sounding like a scientist.

Kevin: I do love me a good breakdown, and boy does she deliver. Between the scene where she hears Remy's voice, and the final scene when Data cuts down her reasoning for her actions, she really displayed a combination of emotions and reactions that left me just feeling sad, both for her and about what she did.

Matthew: Frakes and Stewart had a really nice scene debating the pros and cons of killing the Crystalline Entity. Frakes has dialed down "shouty Riker" and seemed both wounded and resolute in his belief that it should be done. Stewart also portrayed his conviction well, both to Frakes and Geer. One cast member I'd like to single out is Marina Sirtis. She should have been given more to do in the foreground, but I kept noticing her acting in the background. When Data talks, Troi looks right at Marr and is obviously picking up a torrent of hatred from her. It's a detail that many might let slip by, but she obviously cares about the character and the teleplay.

Kevin: I really loved the little bit of dialogue between Picard and Troi after the first meeting. "Maybe you pushed them together too soon." She basically said "You fucked up." Picard had a succinct and plausible response, and Troi remains understandably unconvinced. It speaks to the actors' abilities and the characters' relationship they can so basically disagree, and feel safe in expressing it.

Production Values

Matthew: The Entity looked good, and was used in some really neat composite shots. The one looking up from ground level, with colonists running, and energy beams destroying life, was particularly good. It's a neat design, either way. Something about the colony shots really oozed realism. There was a great use of extras, as well as extraneous props, to really sell the idea that these people were going to set up a city.

Kevin: The layering of the absorbing effect was really well done, and the compositing really portrayed a sense of scale. The gaffer (or lighting guy) earned his paycheck today. The diffused light played really well. It was like watching one of those horror films from the 70s where everything gets eerie lighting right before Satan or something comes out of the TV.

Matthew: This was an effective use of the "Planet Hell" set, for the caves. I always enjoy when phasers light up rocks, though I did kind of wonder whether they'd be heated like tater tots under a cafeteria lamp. When they stepped out, we got a nice pseudo-3D matte painting portraying the devestation - a similar effect to the one used in Best of Both Worlds.

Kevin: What I liked about the whole Melona sequence is that one outdoor set, one cave set, and one matte painting are combined to give the very real impression of a planet sized area that suffers a planet sized event. It's one of the easily most fully realized planet sets and stories TNG has ever done.


Matthew: I was going into this thinking 4. But I've talked myself into a 5 for this episode. I just have to reward such a consistent blend of solid storytelling, good acting, and nice production values. It's episodes like this that are the meat and potatoes of the franchise, and their radiating humanity and realism, married to good hard science fiction, make all the imitators (including the recent Abrams movie) pale by comparison. I enjoyed this one quite a bit on rewatching, and my estimation of it is correspondingly increased. I think it's top decile material.

Kevin: I was also pretty ready to say "4" and have done with it, but like Half a Life, there's no reason not to give this a 5. The effects are extremely well done, and the acting and story worked on both personal and philosophical levels. Like I said above, it lacks the self-possessed opinion of a typical Top Ten contender, but that doesn't change the fact that everything about this episode works extremely well. That makes a 10 from the both of us.

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