Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Next Generation, Season 7: Descent Part II

The Next Generation, Season 7
"Descent, Part II"
Airdate: September 20, 1993
152 of 176 produced
152 of 176 aired


Lore has Data held in thrall by the use of Dr. Soong's emotion chip. Lore has been performing gruesome experiments on some of the Borg drones, in an attempt to turn them into purely synthetic creatures. He has ordered Data to continue those experiments on Picard, Troi, and LaForge, now his captives. Riker and Worf mount a rescue effort and encounter an old friend. Meanwhile, on the Enterprise, Acting Captain Crusher has her hands full fending off the latest assault of the Borg ship.
Data is aghast at the poor body double he's been assigned.


Kevin: For those of you who don't know, in addition to being a huge Star Trek geek, I am also a huge theater geek. I've recently begun reading Stephen Sondheim's two-volume compendium of annotated lyrics "Finishing the Hat" and its sequel "Look, I Made a Hat." I highly recommend them, even to non-theater geeks, as reading about any master discussing the nuts and bolts of his craft is usually pretty damned interesting. I bring it up because, having read them, I have been thinking a lot lately about characters and stories and how you develop them. Sondheim's overriding thesis in discussing how he writes a lyric is that everything else must be in the service of Clarity (Sondheim capitalized that, so will I). I'm glad I read the books before sitting down to write this review because it allows me to crystallize problems I've had with this episode since I first saw it: it lacks clarity in a few major areas. We'll start with the story. What the hell is Lore doing and why is he doing it? In his two previous outings, we get variations on a theme of filial and fraternal jealousy and resentment. It was better portrayed in "Brothers" and is of course the far better of his two appearances. Villains need motivations, even two-dimensional ones, and jealously of one's brother has propelled narratives since (literally) the beginning, so had the writers made that the focus, it probably would have really shored up the episode. Instead, Lore seems to be taking a demented stab at brotherly bonding, and none of it really comes together. What is his endgame with the Borg? He seems to have a no more than a few hundred drones at his disposal, and is not interested in assimilation, so is he really a threat to all life everywhere? And then what? Lore is simply EVIL because the canon established long ago he is the EVIL twin. It's unfocused, and worse, it's boring. The result is number of scenes of Lore twirling his metaphysical mustache, but without an underlying credible (or even explicated) motive, I really don't care.

Matthew: In watching this again, I was surprised at how slow the episode is, and how little happens. There were a plethora of slow, talky scenes - and the talking was never saying anything interesting. Picard and Geordi tried to dissuade Data from following Lore. But we never received a robust explanation for why he was in the first place. I agree heartily that Lore's plan and motives are very hard to make sense of. Destroy the Federation? With one ship? They could have at least given us a super-weapon or something to back up this threat - and I should say that this is an option I find incredible in the extreme when it is used in stories - but at least it's less incredible than Lore really thinking he could succeed, and Data being convinced by this plan. But there were other dumb portions of the plot, as well. When Worf and Riker are captured by Hugh, they indicate a knowledge of Lore's involvement. Ummm... did they read a copy of the script that Lore left lying around or something? There is no way their characters could have known this. Sloppy.

Kevin: The second area that lacks clarity centers on Data. As we discussed in our review of the first part, is it really just a few lines of code that keep Data from being a killing machine? Even without ethics, there has to be want. A sociopath doesn't harm for the sake of harming or because they necessarily derive pleasure from it, they just don't care about the incidental suffering they cause in seeking their own pleasure. So what is Data's independent motivation for joining Lore, or for wanting to hurt Geordi? If the answer is he is being overtly controlled by Lore, that is not clearly displayed in the story. If the answer is that Lore is controlling Data vicariously through an addiction to emotion, that also doesn't hold much water. If Data were suddenly experiencing less emotion, shouldn't he be less concerned about that? And even if I accept the "Data as addict" motivation, the episode did not lay enough ground work to make that credible. Despite what 1950s film reels would have you believe, no one actually goes from wholesome citizen to drug fiend literally overnight. The writers did not have a clear picture of what Data wants or is getting out of all this, and they did not have a clear picture of the mechanism for how Data processes emotions or thoughts. When they do, scenes or episodes really sing. Take for example in the first part of the episode, the conversation between Geordi and Data about Data's ability to recognize emotions. It was an interesting, credible exploration and in keeping with previously established canon about Data's abilities, and as a result was one of the best scenes of the episode.

I can forgive a sloppy plot that skips steps from point A to B. But I can't forgive whatever the hell the writers thought they were up to with Data's character here. Apparently some aspect of the plot turns on the "carrier wave" that Lore was broadcasting to Data. But this carrier wave only contained emotions, not actual instructions, which, in concert with the deactivation of Data's ethical subroutine, has him... wanting to destroy the Federation and nuke Geordi's brain. Uhhh... why? I agree with your thoughts on it. Data has no motive. Even if I had become profoundly angry for some reason, I have a hard time believing that I would attempt to murder my single best friend in the world. I can think of about 50,000 drivers on the Kennedy Expressway who would come first. If they had established that Lore was feeding false information into Data's memories, then a motive might have arisen. But no. Flip a switch, Data becomes evil. That's it. This dramatic flip-flopping of personality has me questioning how in the world Data could be so easily accepted back into the crew. You know, after mutiny and attempted murder. Again.

Kevin: And lastly, the Borg themselves have the most muddled plotting, possibly in the entire franchise. The Antican/Selay conflict got a little more fleshing out then the two sentences we got from Hugh about what happened after "I, Borg." I'm not saying I needed a graphic, minute-to-minute explanation, indeed, a little mystery can help set the mood. But too many questions are left unanswered. Why were the defective Borg not simply destroyed? Why didn't Hugh's individuality actually infect the entire Collective? Are the Borg floundering in their new found individuality or failing at some proto-Collective, as there is textual evidence for both ham-fistedly written into the episode. Is Picard really okay leaving a group of Borg alone on the planet, particularly in light of Nechayev's "genocide is okay this one time" speech? Essentially, this could have been any hostile alien in the franchise that Lore seduced, and it would have been as credible. It feels like they picked the Borg because it was a cliffhanger and like a Nazi uniform in a WWII drama, the Borg carry a certain cachet that you don't have to do any work to benefit from.

Matthew: I actually thought the Hugh scenes were among the strongest in the episode, and I liked the idea of the Borg reaching out for a Svengali. If only they had found one that made sense. I just want to focus on another element of stupidity here - the notion that Troi can sense emotions from Data. Yikes. This is a BIG problem for me. I can accept that telepaths exist in the Trek universe, if and only if their telepathy is explicable by some sort of physical means - presumably, that their brains have evolved structures that can respond to energy or particulate emissions from other life forms. Far-fetched? Sure. But at least it comes close to being science fiction, as opposed to a fantasy out of Lore of the Rings. But this revelation implies that thought, and emotion particularly, has some sort of special mystical status - since no other explanation could be possible for why Data would emit whatever particles or energetic emissions biological beings do (it was established after all  in a previous Lwaxana episode that she, a particularly powerful telepath, could sense no thoughts from Data). It's just awful, stupid, and incomprehensible that an editor or producer allowed this sort of thing to creep into the script.

Kevin: All is not woe and destruction, though. I thought the scenes on the Enterprise were surprisingly good. And it's for pretty much the same reasons the scenes on the planet fail. We have a clear problem: the attacking Borg. It had a build-up, a climax, and a resolution, in that order. All the characters have clear motivations: save the ship, plus show up/not be shown up by a competing officer. Competing egos and basic survival instinct are very understandable motivations, and they got the room they needed to breathe to be credible. The lead character got to mine her history in a nice continuity nod that both credibly saved the day and made her look awesome. The supporting characters were drawn with slightly broad strokes of the stereotypical dismissive security officer and the doe-eyed, unsure science officer, but at least there was some actual drawing going on here. Sure, none of it hits the narrative heights of "Tapestry" or "Yesterday's Enterprise," but I'll take what is essentially a one-act play on the bridge of the Enterprise that is simply, but competently executed over the dreary mess with the Borg any time.

Matthew: It was definitely very cool that Crusher was allowed the opportunity to play a role other than caregiver. And I appreciated that it didn't devolve into yet another "jerky officer with command experience tries to railroad inexperienced commanding officer" plot. I did kind of have an issue with how easy it was to implement metaphasic shielding, since it was depicted as a simple computer program, as opposed to massive refits of equipment.

Kevin: Lastly, one more Sondheim reference: anyone so interested should go find a copy of the Original Broadway Cast Recording of "Sunday in the Park with George." Brent Spiner has a supporting role, and is unsurprisingly, pretty good. If they ever bring TNG back in any form, there totally needs to be an episode where Beverly stages a musical that we (1) actually get to see and is (2) not something by Gilbert and Sullivan.


Kevin: It's becoming a bit of a refrain here, but the main cast certainly knows what they are doing. Like I said, I really loved Dr. Crusher's scenes on the bridge. I was particularly impressed by a bit of her space acting. She was walking toward the captain's chair and the ships shakes and she spins around and falls into the chair, and without actually shaking the sets, that was really something to pull off so seamlessly. Her theater background really shows in how she uses the full space around her.

Matthew: I enjoyed her interactions with Ensign Taitt, who was ably played by Alex Datcher. It's too bad she wasn't brought back for "Lower Decks." I can't help but think James Horan was miscast as Lt. Barnaby. If you look at his other Trek roles, you'll find various exotic aliens and shadowy mystery figures. I think this is because he is kind of strange looking and has a spooky sort of voice. Not my first go-to guy for "random crew member X."

Kevin: Picard and Troi didn't get a lot to do, per se, but I thought their scenes in the brig were nice enough. Competent Troi is always welcome. I think LeVar Burton did the best he could with the scenes with Data. I really bought his fear and his attempts to sway Data. I think the character was a little too quick to forgive, though. It would have been fun to watch Burton act a little differently around Data, at least for a while, even if it he acknowledge it wasn't actually Data's fault. Acknowledging an emotional response is irrational doesn't make it go away, and I trust Burton could have really sold that, at least for a scene or two of denouement.

Matthew: Yeah, the script was a big miss on that point. Geordi should have had PTSD around Data for a while. It would have been a much better ending to the episode to show Troi counseling him. Anyway, LeVar Burton knows how to portray Kunta Kinte being tortured. He does it here. No fuss, no muss. It was an adequate performance, and I liked his reminiscing scene, trying to engage Data's memories. Which were apparently completely unimpaired. Sigh.

Kevin: This is the least interesting Brent Spiner has ever been. Even in "A Fistful of Datas," there was some scenery-chewing energy. Here, the shoddy plotting bleeds into the performance. Lore never feels menacing, just hammy, and Data's trying for an array of emotions, but without the story to back up why he's feeling it, it all gets jumbled together into the emotional equivalent of that off color of brown you get when you mix all the paint colors together.

Matthew: Spiner's Data just seemed sort of... constipated. I thought his hammy Lore was of a piece with previous performances in the role. Which might explain why Lore is such a dud in my book.

Production Values

Kevin: Like acting, production values have not been a problem for a while on this show. In a way, it's nice, because they are so consistently good. It's bad in that with consistent acting and production, the quality of writing is the only thing on which the success of a show hinges. The solar flare effect was solid, and I imagine should look pretty awesome on Blu-Ray. And I can only envy the students of the Brandeis-Bardin Campus at American Jewish University because it must be fun to go to school in an obviously Star Trek building.

Matthew: I thought the Borg brig set was really good, as was the energy effect on the force field. The failed Borg "experiments" were creepy, but could have been more gruesome, in my opinion. The space battle looked pretty good yet again. Basically, these effects and locations seem like a complete hold-over from the last episode. So there's not much to talk about here.


Kevin: I hate to say it, especially for a season opener, but shorn of the interesting character interactions of the first half of the first part, the story really deflates like a souffle in a sonic boom. No ones' motivations are clear or credible, and the result is sluggish and uninteresting action. This gets a 2 from me.

Matthew: Without the Crusher scenes, this is a 1. But just like "Samaritan Snare," a Crusher saves the day yet again for a slow, ineptly plotted, train wreck of an episode. "Descent" is aptly titled. It represents the low point for the Borg, for Data, and for season cliffhangers in the franchise. I grudgingly agree with a 2, for a total of 4.

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