Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Next Generation, Season 6: Realm of Fear

The Next Generation, Season 6
"Realm of Fear"
Airdate: September 28, 1992
127 of 176 produced
127 of 176 aired


Introduction


When the Enterprise finds the errant science vessel Yosemite trapped in a stellar plasma stream, the crew must devise a means of transporting over to investigate. Lieutenant Barclay is forced to confront his fears of molecular transport - only to have those fears confirmed and amplified by the strange perceptions he experiences while doing so. Has Barclay finally lost it, or is there something to his "hallucinations?"


Lt. Barclay is attacked my a space worm in the Land of Beaming. Wait, whaaa?!?





Writing


Matthew: I think there are several areas of solid, enjoyable success in this story. The first is psychological - it is refreshing and interesting to have someone actually being afraid of all this fantastic technology, and the transporter seems the obvious choice. It is definitely science fiction to posit that a cutting edge piece of technology would have profound psychological effects on the people using it. If Jules Verne had written a story about fear of flying in airplanes, we'd certainly consider it science fiction. It has a nice modern analog in terms of fear of airplanes, which is perhaps even more current now than in 1992.

Kevin: The elements exploring Barclay's phobia were certainly really well done, and the most credible exploration of fear of transporting the show has done. McCoy's discomfort read (presumably intentionally) as being a curmedgeon opposed to new-fangled gadgets rather than genuine fear, and Pulaski's read (sadly presumably intentionally) as copy of that.

Matthew: The other successful element of this show is the interactions of the crew. I loved seeing Counselor Troi back in her "crew psychologist" role (with one caveat mentioned below). I also enjoyed the medical scenes with Crusher and Ogawa. Come to think of it, Geordi, Barclay and Data investigating the malfunction was really good, too. I liked seeing Barclay trying to sell his theory to the senior staff. This was just a great show for seeing the crew as competent professionals who can solve problems.I loved it when Data, having observed Barclay's seeming hypochondria, reports the behavior to his supervisor, Geordi. Those are the sorts of details that make this world feel real.

Kevin: Agreed on both counts. Troi pitched just the right balance of "I have seen it before so I know I can help you" with "That's not to say what you're going through is not valid just because it's common." I'm not gonna lie. After watching this episode, I totally tried tapping behind my ear in stressful situations. I don't think it actually helps, but there's totally a Star Trek-boosted placebo effect going on. And while I didn't find the streamer plot too interesting on its own, I agree watching the crew suss it out was enjoyable. The scenes with the body in sick bay were creepy and well done. I will say I think this episode is leaning a little hard on Barclay's established problems. The matter stream creatures and the crew trapped in the buffer just never really gains momentum. It's almost like they decided to do a Barclay episode and built around him, rather than have him organically in an episode. While certainly not as disastrous as the Lwaxana outings, the backwards writing still showed a little.


Matthew: I've got two relatively big problems with this episode. First is how Troi relieves Barclay of duty, but then he proceeds to use the transporter room, order Chief O'Brien around, and call a meeting of the senior staff in the middle of the night - which Troi attends, no less, and does not bust his balls for. Is being relieved of duty meaningless? Or perhaps worse, is Troi not a figure of respect aboard the Enterprise? My second problem is what I see as punting on the metaphysical issues of transporter use. Barclay's fear seems centered primarily on dissolution or death. OK, fine. But is no one really concerned over whether they are being destroyed on one end and merely replicated on the other? Barclay utters a line which seems to confirm that this is what is happening - he states that a person is "converted" into "billions of kiloquads" of DATA. This seems to belie the previous "matter-energy-matter" conversion story given to us in TOS. I for one would not really like for the matter that my body consists of to be annihilated, and to have my pattern reconstructed out of matter thousands of miles away. I feel like some sort of continuous stream of my consciousness, my personhood, would be broken by this. Well, I guess I'm the only one, because it's not touched on here. I would have thought that Barlcay's neuroses would be more thoroughgoing than simply being afraid of death.

Kevin: I have a problem with the relieving of duty as well, insofar as it seemed too summary and arbitrary. Normally, Troi (or Crusher as the case may be) usually give the person an out before bringing down the hammer. I think it would have felt more credible to have her offer returning (and sticking) with sessions and using his refusal to justify the relieving. Also, there's got to be paperwork here. For such a drastic remedy, you'd think there would have to be a specific process with specific findings well documented for both practical and ethical reasons. The episode definitely seems to muddy the waters of what exactly is happening in a transporter. I'm bothered that you are apparently conscious and somehow mobile when your body has been converted to data or energy for that matter. Where exactly were these people hiding, anyway? Why and how do they manifest as physical beings in the pattern buffer? It just seemed like they used the transporter as it was the most amenable to magical additions to its powers.

Matthew: There is a lot of technobabble in this episode, there are no two ways about it. We get "quasi energy microbes,"  "biomagnetic energy," "pattern buffers," "nucleonic particles," and all other sorts of gibberish. Well, Kevin and I have never been ones to shy away from technobabble, as long as it has a certain internal sense and rule-following. The babble here pushes the boundaries but doesn't break them in my opinion, though it is flatly contradicted not two episodes later, in "Relics" (the bit about patterns degrading in the buffer). But either way, I don't think it derails the episode here, and we shouldn't punish an episode for the sins of shows that follow it.

Kevin: I agree the babble is not overly problematic to the episode, but it doesn't rescue a ho-hum story either. Over two series and a collective nine seasons, we should know by now that amorphous ill-defined beings who live in nebulous clouds don't make for the most gripping of stories.

Acting

Matthew: The more Dwight Schultz in TNG, the better, as far as I'm concerned. The guy is relatable, funny, endearing, and just a lot of fun to watch. I wish he had been in more episodes. The thing is, though, he never quite goes over the top, at least in his TNG appearances (Voyager is another matter). Schultz's choices really add color to the TNG universe, color that might not have been there with the sort of super-heroic characters we're often presented. His scene with the computer (a la WebMD) was very funny, as was the "more birds" line.

Kevin: I did enjoy Dwight Schultz quite a bit in this episode. His phobia manifestation were really well realized. Either he has one about something else (Since transporters don't exist. Yet) or he really did his homework. And like Hollow Pursuits, it's nice to see him power through his anxiety in the end. It really makes the character well rounded, and not a caricature.

Matthew: Marina Sirtis got a juicy part for once, with her counseling scenes. She nailed them.She is so good at mixing empathy and charm with authority and confidence. It's too bad she was undercut by the script. Her scenes with Schultz, both in her office and storming around the hallways, were great. As I mentioned in the writing section, there are oodles of fun little bits for each of the main cast. They prove their worth by really being the perfect ensemble. I think Burton and Spiner are the standouts among them, but everyone was pulling in the same direction here.

Kevin: The walk/run scene was genius and makes me think I've been underrating Marina Sirtis as a physical actress. I also liked Crusher and Ogawa's scenes in sickbay. They are not only good actresses but have a good rapport. It's not just their use of dialogue or props; it's how they trade the lines back and forth like two experienced colleagues would.

Production Values


Matthew: Well, the "plasma streamer" was a straight up re-use of the stellar effect from Season 3's "Evolution." For some reason, it looked better there. We also get the Oberth model again, which is always welcome. The interior of the Yosemite was kind of so-so and was later re-used with few changes as the Jenolen in "Relics." Overall, I would call the space effects shots, model work, ans sets merely average.

Kevin: It seemed that given the the location and recessed lighting, the Yosemite would be eerily under-lit even when functioning properly. Overall, I agree with "average" assessment. Nothing was distractingly bad; it just didn't stand out, either.

Matthew: The transporter effect was OK, and you could see they were going for a Hitchcock-ian "first person perspective" camera shot (i.e. showing the character's face, switching to their perspective, then going back to their face for a reaction shot)... but it didn't really work for me. The way they visualized it made it seem as though beaming is a place, where you're standing, surrounded by shimmery lights. I'm sorry, but that just doesn't square with what we know about the transporter. How can you see anything when your optic nerve has been disassembled? The goober hand puppets also were not particularly impressive. On the other hand, I did really like the views of transporter pad hardware. It really looks like an intricate and heavy duty piece of machinery.

Kevin: That drove me crazy too. I could tolerate the idea that you are semi-aware in the reconstruction process just as the beam covers and uncovers you, and that your brain would sew those two moments together into a single transition, but it was that even though the transporter beam is seen to restrict movements in other cases, you can move around inside the "matter-stream." And the puppets didn't do it for me, either. I agree though that the circuit boards under the pads were nifty, and well realized. It's a shame we never see them again.

Conclusion

Matthew: In the balance, I guess I have to give this a reluctant 3. I love, love, love Barclay as a character, and Dwight Schultz as an actor. But there are plenty of holes and missteps in this script that keep it from scaling the heights of his other episodes. It's a strong premise that just falters a tad, but it's still loads of fun and I always enjoy it.

Kevin: I think the idea of exploring fear is an interesting one, and using our favorite omni-phobe was a basically good call, but like I said, I think the episode is leaning on Barclay's quirkiness to carry an episode without any real plotting or tension. I never really care about the Yosemite or the energy beings in the streamer, so while I'm always happy to watch Barclay be Barclay, I'd rather do it in his previous outings which were set in much stronger episodes. Still, Barclay is, at least in TNG, entertaining enough to make an episode "not bad," so this gets a 3 from me as well for a total of 6.

3 comments:

  1. I never really had a problem with the relieving of duty here. I'd always assumed, esp. with the kinds of issues a ship's counselor has to manage, that there are various levels of relieving of duty.

    Like:

    Level 1: This guy needs some time to recoup and work stuff out.

    Level 2: This guy's behavior is getting careless to the point that he shouldn't be around heavy equipment.. better inform not just his supervisor but his department head, too.

    Level 3: This guy is an active danger to himself and/or others around him... need to inform the department head, the 1st officer AND the captain.

    Level 4: This guys is a cause of immediate danger.. contact security THEN the captain.

    There was likely no way O'Brien would know he was relieved of duty. And, for example, even when Jellico relieved Riker of duty, every officer on that ship would have done exactly what Riker told them (as a general matter of course).

    I typically assume being "relieved of duty" for the most part means that you are no longer at your duty station.

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  2. I think your scheme is fine and could work, but it isn't supported by the episodes.

    The way I see it is that there are two non-incarcerated statuses aboard ship: officer/crewman and civilian.

    Officers (or crewmen) have access to whatever equipment, materiel, personnel, and so on dictated by their rank and specialization.

    Civilians only have access to the common areas of the ship, such as their quarters, and the various educational/health/recreation facilities.

    To be relieved of duty (but not incarcerated) means to be reduced from the former status to the latter. Once you're relieved, you're effectively a civilian, who no longer has access to whatever you did have permission for while on duty.

    Either way, it could have been addressed with a line of dialogue, in which either Barclay hacks his way into the transporter room, or O'Brien acknowledging that though Barclay is not currently his superior, he is willing to help out of friendship.

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  3. All I can say is that I'm glad I'm not the only one that tried to solve problems by plexing when I was younger.

    ReplyDelete