Friday, September 9, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 4: The Drumhead

The Next Generation, Season 4
"The Drumhead"
Airdate: April 29, 1991
94 of 176 produced
94 of 176 aired


Two startling incidents, an accident involving the warp core and the discovery of a Klingon spy on the Enterprise, spur Starfleet to bring famed investigator Admiral Nora Satie out of retirement to get to the bottom things. Initially, Picard is honored and pleased the Admiral, the daughter of a famed Federation jurist, is abord. But her investigation quickly spins out of control, finding conspiracy theories around every corner. The Admiral begins to suspect everyone on scant evidence, threatening all their careers. Even when faced with proof the damage to the warp core was merely an accident, she refuses to stand down. Will the crew be able to weather this latest crisis from such an unlikely source?
Picard's one-man reading of "A Christmas Carol" receives some unwanted attention.


Kevin: I'm going to be making this argument quite a bit come our reviews of Deep Space Nine, so I'm practicing now. This is not a directly science fiction concept. Unlike even other more philosophical sci-fi offerings, like Half a Life, there's just humanity and human society as the focus of the episode. The science fiction angle for me is how the fictional world, now 30 years old, responds to pressure. Instead of the usual dystopic fiction of ordinary humans in extraordinary situations,  the episode explores an extraordinary people with an ordinary, understandable stressor, in this case, fear. Using that rubric, the science fiction here is pretty good in my opinion. It's interesting watch the characters grapple with the dark side of human nature and its fallout.

Matthew: Yeah, this is very much reminiscent to DS9's  "Homefront/Paradise Lost" and "Let He Who is Without Sin...", two of which are great episodes and one of which is terrible (guess which!). I would put this somewhere in the middle. What distinguishes the DS9 shows is the long-term build-up of a credible fear, the fear of shape-shifter infiltration. In this episode, there is mention of "many signs of a potential Romulan Klingon alliance, but that just isn't as scary as an outright invasion and subversion. Thus, Satie's hyper-vigilance just seems a bit out of place, and one wonders how it ever got this far in the first place.

Kevin: The parallels to the McCarthy hearings are obvious, and I have to believe intentional. The arc from concerned investigator to Witchfinder General occurred a little quick for me. I would have enjoyed an arc of this story, like the Klingon story arc, but I understand a 43 minute show is a finite amount of time. I think they did a pretty good job of displaying the fundamental flaw in Satie's approach, that there was a conspiracy to find, but also how easy it was to get swept up in it. I loved the continuity of this show with a series of references to previous episodes. They were particularly effective in painting the picture Satie wanted to paint. Obviously, our insider view affords us greater knowledge, but on the surface, it's not hard to start connecting dots.

Matthew: I agree on her quick transition. She went off the deep end quite quickly. Maybe a scene of exposition in which she had found something in the past, or suffered a profound personal loss, would have given some emotional background to her behavior, rendering it more believable.

Kevin: The character moments were also quite nice. Picard questioning the way he uses Troi's skills was interesting. I only wish they had gone farther in discussing the precise mechanism of Betazoid telepathy. Picard's interrogation and speech was chilling and awesome by turns. I also really enjoyed the Simon Tarses scenes. I like that they never quite resolved it. He could have been helping J'Dan, but that's not quite the point. Satie only made a case of innuendo, not of fact. I also liked the reminder that just because someone is hiding something doesn't mean they're hiding what you think.

Matthew: Well, see, the way you put it there isn't quite how we got it in the episode. It would have been great if, under a separate, non-related, line of questioning, Tarses invoked his 5th amendment/7th gaurantee rights against self-incrimination to protect the secret of his heritage. Then, we would learn that, while not a conspirator, his desire for privacy and to not be subject to bigotry was motivating him to exercise his right, not a desire to hide criminal activity. That would have been an object lesson in why we should not immediately suspect people who invoke such rights. But the way we got it, everyone in the story knew what he was hiding, too. It's a weak demonstration of the importance of such a right to show without a doubt what the answer is and then have the character withhold it.

Kevin: The episode does, I suppose necessarily, get a little talky. After it's established that the accident was an accident, it tilts the drama a little too hard against Satie's tactics. Leaving it an open question a little longer would have kept the viewer uncertain as to the necessity of her tactics a while longer. In Half a Life, they do a really good job of presenting the opposing viewpoint, here, it feels like Satie is wrong and always wrong and that makes it a little less interesting.

Matthew: Yeah, there was a lot of moralizing, and they got to it a bit too quickly. I was somewhat perplexed by Picard's final homily to Worf - "vigilance is the price we must continually pay." Umm, isn't someone else's hyper-vigilance exactly what must be avoided? I didn't mind the talkiness, because the writing/dialogue itself was interesting and well-paced.


Kevin: Jean Simmons was awesome as Satie. She had screen presence honed by a long film career, and it showed. Far from the officious, interfering bureaucrat, she was stately and sharp as a tack, and it made her threats to Picard genuinely, well, threatening.

Matthew: Simmons is most memorable to me as Varinia in "Spartacus." That was a very different role, and it's gratifying to see her range here. I really believed her stories about the dinner table debates with her family, and I really felt her emotion as she defended her vision of the sanctity of the Federation. As I said above, I'd have liked even more of her back story.

Kevin: The rest of the cast got some nice work. Worf in particular has some great conflicted moments. I liked that Troi was again on the interrogation team for J'Dan, and it would have been nice to see her go toe to toe with Sabin about tactics.

Matthew: Some telepathy between those two characters would have been cool, yes. For me, this was a bit of a phone-in from Patrick Stewart. I think the writing was a bit heavy-handed, and he underplayed it by choice. Dorn was indeed very good. His simmering anger at J'Dan, his zealousness when confronted with the task of rooting out collaborators, and his eventual realization that he had gone too far, were all good.

Production Values

Kevin: This was intended to be a bottle show, to the point where the producers suggested a clip show. Michael Piller rightly had those producers summarily executed, shredded copies of Shades of Gray stuffed in their mouths before being buried in shallow graves. Instead, Jeri Taylor developed an idea of Ron Moore's. The serial references to other episodes might be a nod to that initial desire for a clip show. The biggest scene is the warp core accident which I really loved. The surveillance footage adds a nice detached effect, and prevents the need of staging a whole scene. The hearing room has those interesting blue wall lights, but other than that, I found it a tad dark.

Matthew: Yeah, the two main effects were what I presume was a re-use of a space ship shot of the Enterprise next to an Oberth class ship, and the warp core explosion. This is the way to do a bottle show/budget-saver right. "Shades of Gray" was such a disaster, and this was such a well-executed if subtly flawed talker. Kudos also should go to Jonathan Frakes for his able direction. The scenes were framed well and never felt visually boring. I liked the hearing room, it was a dramatic set for these sorts of scenes. I'm assuming it's a re-dress of either the battle bridge or the computer core, or both.

Kevin: I seriously loved Satie's outfits. They were dramatic, but somehow understated, and felt "futuristic" while still being something someone would wear. And kudos to Jean for being able to pull of form fitting, off the shoulder, or plunging neckline at her age. Take notes, Lwaxana's costume people.

Matthew: I would have liked to see two or three more outfits. The first one lasted a bit too long in  the episode, making it feel like many scenes took place all in one day. More outfits would have extended her stay, making it apparent that she was taking up residence as a spy hunter. I like J'Dan's non-warrior Klingon ensemble, by the way.


Kevin: I'm going with a 4. It's a neat idea, and it's well executed. I think it falls a tad short in how it engages Satie's motive and tactics, but still, it's a high tension episode, and another in a string of really gripping, but still low-action episodes. Topped off with some great acting from a veteran actress, and you have a damned good episode.

Matthew: This is a tough one for me. I went in expecting to give it a 4, but I'm going to go instead with a 3. The sermonizing, while on target, was just too pat. The antagonist was too much of a straw man, blunting the force of the lesson. The way it unraveled so quickly was disconcerting - would Admiral Henry really completely shut down an investigation simply because the chief investigator became unhinged? Picard's riposte was really more of an ad hominem - showing Satie's flaws, not the flaws of the conspiracy theory itself. I agree that the acting is above average, but the sum of these parts puts it in the fat portion of the bell curve for me. Entertaining, but not exceptional. So that's a 7 from the two of us.

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