Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Next Generation, Season 1: The Big Goodbye

Airdate: January 11, 1988
12 of 176 produced
11 of 176 aired


En route to a critical diplomatic meeting with the insectoid Jarada species, Picard takes the advice of Counselor Troi and relaxes in the holodeck. Choosing a favorite genre fantasy from his reading, Picard portrays the character of Dixon Hill, a hard-boiled detective from the early twentieth century. He is so excited by the experience that he invites Dr. Crusher, Data, and Earth Historian Whelan along for his next visit. Fate deals them a wild card, though, when a Jaradan probe sends the holodeck into malfunction - trapping them inside, and putting them in mortal danger. Will Picard escape the holodeck in time, and intact?

 And will Beverly ever forgive the rest of the crew for the grievous cock-blocking they perpetrate against her?

Before we jump into the full review, a quick note of introduction. We are joined for this review by friend and contributor Glenda. You can read Glenda's "Why I Love Star Trek" essay here. She joined us for the podcast and contributed to the written review as well. It was a lot of fun having another voice and opinion, especially for such a fun episode. Look forward to more guest contributors in future episodes. Now, on with the review.


Matthew: I want to get two conceptual problems with this story out of the way first thing - the unbelievability of the holodeck malfunction in the first place, and the inconsistency of the holodeck's uses and attributes. As presented in this episode, we do not have much ground for believing that Starfleet or Federation scientists have done a whole hell of a lot of testing. This thing gets thrown out of whack by what is essentially a power surge in your house. If my TV and PC can handle an electrical surge caused by weather, shouldn't the most complex piece of machinery ever devised by mankind do almost as well? Why in the hell would anyone step into this thing, if nudging the control panel just a little bit will "turn the safeties off," and a rebooting problem with the OS will threaten to erase you from existence? In essence, the holodeck's dangers are treated in a magical, rather than a technological way, and it has bugged me since the first time I watched this show. As far as other inconsistencies go, we have lipstick smudges that can make it all the way to the Conference Room, characters that dissolve slowly whilst their shouting echoes down the hallways, extremely sophisticated interaction and character algorithms that haven't been installed yet ("11001001"), and so on. The holodeck should have been better described in the series bible, editors should have horse-whipped the writers into compliance, and the whole approach to it should have been nailed down before this can of worms was opened. The precedents set by this episode may have led to any number of other holodeck misuses over the run of several Trek series.

Kevin: Much like time travel, this is one of those science fiction concepts that is very easy to abuse, but also very satisfying when thoughtfully executed. The problem with both is the same, and you hit the head of the naill, Matt, when you said the problems were "magical" not technological. Both time travel and the holodeck give the writers a cheat. We have discussed at length the pitfalls of time travel and the same ideas apply here. It allows the writers to do what they want without having to get there logically in the script. The biggest problems for me are how space in the holodeck works. Regardless of perception, it's still a finite room. Is it a treadmill where you remain relatively centered and the projection is what moves around you? What about when actual people are in two different rooms? The other issue, as Matt pointed out, is what objects survive and for how long outside the holodeck. In later episodes, objects range from physical permanence (like Moriarty's drawing of the Enterprise) to vanishing at the door instantenously (the book in "Ship in a Bottle"). My favorite faux-explanation is from a DS9 book trilogy "Millenium" written by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, an awesome set of books I highly recommend, by the way. It posits that objects below a certain size or complexity are simply replicated in the holodeck, not projected. Food would actually be food and knick-knacks would survive the exit from the holodeck. It's a neat idea, and had the writers used to explain how Wesley's snowball in Angel One survives to hit Picard, I would have bought it. It's even internally logical. Constantly projecting and updating the object would be harder than simply replicating it once. It doesn't solve every problem with holodeck logic, but I am going retroactively give the writers the benefit of my internal ability to ret-con.

Glenda: Describing this as a writing cheat hits the nail on the head, Kevin.  Here we see what happens in a lot of sci-fi writing: keeping a scientific idea in its simplest form to exploit it totally.  If sci-fi is written well, it's the details that help bring out the dilemma in the story, and this obviously doesn't happen in this episode.  You can blame that on the fact that the writers weren't sure of writing any kind of consistent rules because they wanted to make sure there was a second season first.  The same goes with the phaser differences and the uniform colors and so on.  However, that excuse can only go so far.  Later on in the series we'll see the kinks worked out in better detail, as both of you have mentioned, but in the first season when all the new tech is still getting figured out, you have sloppy moments.  And a good chunk of this script is a sloppy moment on the Holodeck.

Matthew: OK, despite the plethora of perfectly cogent criticisms, there's no denying that this episode gives the characters a welcome opportunity to spread their wings, to be comedic, and to develop relationships. We get a nice portrayal of Picard as a student of history, someone who has hobbies and interests, and as someone who can have a "gee whiz" attitude about something. This really broadens him from his stiff command persona. We get a chance to see Data in comedic scenes, also. Dr. Crusher is the real tragedy here - Gates McFadden is a very good comedic actress, and her scenes are well done here - but the potential for a Picard/Crusher romance is completely and utterly wasted here. Were this leading to a drawn out, teasing, but ultimately successful courtship, that would be one thing. But knowing how ineffectually the Trek staff will punt on the Picard/Crusher romance in the future just totally sours this for me. Sigh.

Kevin: May the advanced beings masquerading as Earth gods forgive me, but I am going to have to blame the problems with relationship development squarely on Gene Rodenberry. Several writers have said in interviews that Rodenberry expressly forbade character conflict on the show in its early seasons when he was running things on a day to day basis, some going so far as to cite it as their reason for leaving. A similar missed opportunity will come in Arsenal of Freedom, when Crusher and Picard are trapped in a cave. Setting that aside, the moments we get are pure gold. The little notes between Picard and the command staff, Picard and Data, and especially Picard and Crusher are lovely and engaging and make me want to watch more of the show.

Glenda: It's great to finally see that these characters are human with quirks and slight imperfections.  Just the way Crusher checks her makeup is endearing because of the fact she seems so uncertain about it.  I think also this was a crucial point in the series to show that not every episode was going to be techno-jargon and alien attacks, which at this time was what most people thought of sci-fi.  To show that these are genuine characters that are not here for cookie-cutter script needs helps us get attached.  The Picard/Crusher romance is extremely awkward, especially watching it knowing it never gets developed.  In this episode you can see why it wasn't going to be anything substantial--there was nothing substantial put behind it writing-wise.  However, everything else helps makes the characters a lot more personable, which is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Matthew: Some dialogue goes too far. Picard struggles to describe "a... city... block!" Come on. Do we live in some sort of gelatinous proto-blobs arrayed in a honeycomb superstructure in the 24th century? His inability to come up with the word "automobile" is equivalent to one of us being unable to spit out "horse and carriage." Are people that out of touch with their recent past?

Kevin: That always bothered me too.  It's an off-shoot of the general "those wacky twentieth century types" dialogue that litters the first season, and it's silly and it discredits Picard's chops as a history buff.

Matthew: The story within a story is relatively interesting. It's great to have a "heavy" like Cyrus Redblock to pit against the protagonists. The setting affords us plenty of opportunities to see fun caricatures of film noir stereotypes - the mysterious wealthy woman, the simpering toadie Felix Leach, the gruff news vendor - it's all a lot of fun. We also get a nice baseball reference, to boot, something I always enjoy.

Kevin: I have to say, I still want to know who murdered the girl and why. I love film-noir and this story has all the basic parts in the right place. CBS should authorize a series of Dixon Hill novels. They'd be a hoot. Separately, I want to discuss how annoying the framing story was. Without visual communication, why not just have Data do an impression of Picard? It was (and I am really starting to see this as an endemic problem of Season 1) artificial tension. Just having your crewmen trapped in a room with men with guns is tension enough, giving Wesley an artificial clock to work against was silly and distracting.

Glenda:  I'm definitely with you on this one.  There are several ways they could've done the treaty without Picard, things they could've thought of even before there was the monkey wrench of Dixon gone wrong.  With something that has to be that precise to begin with, why in the world wouldn't you use a recording beforehand?  You don't see the aliens and they don't see you, why is singing it live necessary?  Especially if the specificity of the song so crucial?  It was completely unnecessary to the plot.


Matthew: The regular cast standouts are Patrick Stewart and Gates McFadden. Stewart cuts a fine figure as a 40's gumshoe, but treads a careful line between having fun and going too far. McFadden is very funny in this episode. Her physical comedy skills are top notch, especially her high-heeled pratfall down the police station steps. The gum scene, various clothing adjustments, she is just a delight to watch, and it cements yet again my utter befuddlement at her leaving for season two.

Kevin: I always wondered if that slip on the stair was intentional or not, because if it's not, Gates McFadden deserves an award for not breaking character and if it was, she deserves an award for being a gifted physical comedian. She and Patrick Stewart again demonstrate some serious chemistry in the police station. Aside from issues of character development, what production staff doesn't look at them and go "Oh, we should do that more often because they are so good at it."? Putting the two of them in a room together is a shortcut to good television, even if the writing is less than stellar. Separately, Gates McFadden deserves another award for telegraphing with a single facial expression "I will totally do you. Right there on your desk." That's not an easy thing to telegraph. Also, Data and Whelan's epic double cock-blocking still cracks me up.

Glenda: Definitely the crew on the holodeck did a fantastic job, keeping everything lively and fun and engaging.  They are the ones that shine this episode.  To make a brief mention of the rest of the crew, they all did a good job dealing with the Jarada issues convincingly, trying through the frustration of diplomatic formalities with annoying extraterrestrials. But this is merely a nod, since we all know the gem parts are the Dixon Hill scenes.

Matthew: Lawrence Tierney is fun as Cyrus Redblock, for the viewer, anyway. Wil Wheaton tells stories about how frightening Tierney was to work with on set. But he plays the heavy perfectly. The other guests were fun in their "noir" roles, too. Overall, this episode is cast very well.

Kevin: Weak guest stars drag an episode down, and happily that doesn't happen here. Everyone, particularly Tierney really committed to their roles and it shows. That's actually a complement that can be extended to the entire cast. Part of why this episode is so engaging because the actors have enthusiasm for the parts which translates perfectly into the characters. Before they realize the danger they are in, the silly grins everyone is wearing when told to "stick 'em up" is charming as it is tension building. Moreso than any other Trek cast, and possibly any TV cast generally, this cast has a reputation for having a ball on the set and it pays dividends in episodes like this.

Production Values

Matthew: Similar to "A Piece of the Action," TNG gets a lot of mileage out of period props and what were no doubt standing sets (or at least pre-existing portions of sets). I think everything looked great, and there are loads of little details to enjoy - portraits of FDR, magazine and newspaper covers, classic cars, and great clothes.

Kevin: The depth of detail is awesome. I saw stuff on my better television now that I missed the first time around, but even in lower resolution, those little details create a background my subconscious acknowledges as credible and it makes me more invested in what I am watching.

Glenda: From what theatre experience I have, it's super difficult to get props that get the feel of any time period you need.  There's almost an "uncanny valley" effect when you want to pinpoint a specific era.  The set crew made their transition to the Dixon Hill universe look effortless.  Kudos to the set and costume design team.

Matthew: Speaking of clothes, and speaking as a confirmed pervy leg man, I was digging the stockings on the female denizens of the holodeck. I'm guessing that Theiss did the designs since he is credited, and he nails it.

And now, because I can, let's pipe those gams!

Kevin: And speaking a confirmed homosexual, I can say, with authority, her outfit was fabulous. I love the hat. I love the little veil. I love the stockings, especially the seams up the back. And I love the shoes. I love this episode the way I love watching Mad Men. The 40s (or 60s) drag is just awesome.

Glenda: All I have to add is that as a woman, I would totally wear McFadden's costume.

Kevin: That's the fashion trifecta right there: the straight man thinks it's sexy, the gay man thinks it's fabulous, and the straight woman thinks it's wearable. Congratulations William Ware Theiss. I don't think we've lavished that much attention on an outfit since the Romulan Commander's evening dress in "The Enterprise Incident."

Matthew: Photography choices kind of put a damper on this episode. It's very dark and dingy-looking, which hampers enjoyment. Voyager's holodeck shows in similar periods did not display this kind of drab lighting. There's realism, but then there's "what looks good on TV." I think perhaps they erred on the side of realism here.

Kevin: I concur. There's gritty and then there's gritty. I had to turn up the contrast on my screen a little to catch everything. On a brighter, bigger movie screen, it probably would have worked fine, but whoever did the lighting and photography clearly know noir, just not necessarily how to translate it to television. DS9's Necessary Evil will really do the better job of that.

Glenda: Lighting is something that tends to be underestimated.  When it's fantastic, the audience never notices, and when it's horrible, only half the time can the audience figure out what's really wrong.  In later Dixon Hill scenes we can actually see what makes these sets so authentic ("Clues" is the first one that comes to mind) but it's too bad in the episode that focuses the most on that setting that you can only see half of Hill's office, and half of who's in it.  If the lighting designer made the shadows geometric and sharp, with the gaslight feel on the streets without it looking hazy, it would've captured the scene so much better.  Instead, we're just luckily enough to have actors who can shine through the dark.


Matthew: Overall, despite the level of fun present, the nit picker in me can't check its brain at the door and just go with it. So I think this is a 3. I kept getting pulled out of the enjoyable moment by nagging questions. Structurally speaking, the "thing breaks down" plot line also bugged me. But lovely performances and nice atmosphere keep this in "must watch" territory. It's just a shame it couldn't transcend its problems, as episodes like "Elementary, Dear Data" would in future seasons.

Kevin: I want to give this a 4, but I can't. The Jarada framing story and internal holodeck logic errors pull this down, but I can't help but smile when I see Dr. Crusher swallow her gum. It's too much. This is a 3 from me as well, for a total of 6.

Glenda: Although my score doesn't add to to the total score, I have to agree that it's a 3 out of 5.  The great acting compensates for the subpar writing and illogical dilemmas.  It's a fun episode if you're a fan of the characters, and like to see where they started to grow, but not something that is a pillar of the series' greatness.

Matthew: We'd add your score if you also reviewed every other episode of every other series with us :-) Either way, it was nice to have your input.

1 comment:

  1. HD Highlights from the Blu-Ray:

    This episode didn't have highlights so much as an overall upgrade in clarity, especially in the noir-lit scenes. They have gone from muddy on the DVD to grainy but clear on the Blu-Ray. Costume detail is the real boon, with nice houndstooth textures and fishnet stockings. Dr. Crusher's makeup is quite visually arresting color-wise.