Friday, September 23, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 4: In Theory

The Next Generation, Season 4
"In Theory"
Airdate: June 3, 1991

98 of 176 produced
98 of 176 aired


The Enterprise is tasked with charting the Mar Oscura, a dark matter nebula. While exploring the nebula, Data begins exploring another uncharted realm, romantic relationships. As the relationship begins to grow more serious, the Enterprise begins experience strange phenomena inside the nebula. Furniture is mysteriously jumbled in empty rooms, and parts of the Enterprise's hull seem to momentarily vanish.

Data makes out with Jenna, in the hopes that things will eventually move down to the torpedo tube.


Kevin: There are two science fiction stories here, and one is substantially more successful than the other. The first is watching Data explore romantic relationships. I really enjoyed how this story was put together. The friendship with Jenna felt surprisingly organic. It also helped to establish the Enterprise as a place where people live, insofar as people date and complain about the people they date to their co-workers. As a licenses Supportive Gay Friend, I enjoyed watching Data recite Jeff's flaws from memory, per Jenna's request. It was sweet, and a pitch perfect use of Data's literal nature.

Matthew: Indeed, there were a lot of sweet moments, as well as some really funny lines (especially about Data receiving a "passionate kiss in the torpedo bay"). I really think this material was strong enough to carry the whole episode, and the B story could have been dropped entirely. In addition  to the comedy, the sci-fi idea of having a relationship with an artificial intelligence is positively rife with possibilities - many of which were squeezed out by the dark matter story.

Kevin: The relationship itself played nicely as well. Like his explorations of fear with Dickens or authority with Shakespeare, Data has to, at least at first, engage human emotions by trying to mimic them. The scenes of him wooing then arguing with Jenna were comedy gold, and worked in terms of character development since it is in keep with his established approach to emotional interaction. I also liked Jenna herself. She was a fully developed character, and while possibly making some questionable relationship choices out of fear of being hurt, never came off as a stereotypical caricature of television women who make poor relationship decisions. The plot also led to some great moments with the other leads. Cataloging their approaches was genuine, and also had some comedy gold. Troi and Worf advising caution, Riker genuinely amused and supportive, and Picard's hilarious dismissal provided some great exploration of how 24th century humans, let alone androids view romance.

Matthew: I think these character interactions were the strongest part of the episode. We learn a lot about each cast member based on the sorts of advice, or lack of advice, that they give. This was an appropriate and organic use of Guinan, by the way, as opposed to just her mystically perfect buttinski timing. Agreed on Jenna. She was a real character with both flaws and strengths.

Kevin: I also kind of liked that no one brought up that they are coworkers as a stumbling block. I chose to interpret that as, given that the usual objection to dating a coworker, particularly a superior, there are issues of power dynamics, maybe in the 24th century, those power dynamics have changed. Like maybe, just maybe, we can trust Jenna's fellow security colleagues to not call her a slut in the break room or anything.

Matthew: I was concerned about that issue, precisely because it's been mentioned several times that superior officers, especially captains, should not canoodle with subordinates. There was a line establishing that Worf was her direct superior, so I guess that took care of it.

Kevin: The resolution was also done really well. It made me think more of Jenna that she actually thought about her feelings and how she acted on them. It made her instantly a well-developed character. Particularly for a woman introduced to be a love interest, she never felt two-dimensional, something that cannot be said for all such characters in the franchise. Their final scene together where Data can't immediately understand why Jenna wouldn't want to stay for dinner was lovely reinforcement of the problem Jenna had defined, and it was a refreshingly low-key way to punctuate the story. This was overall a very adult treatment of relationships, and it serves Data's character growth and this episode well.

Matthew: Well, you've pointed out what I think is a flaw, here. Is it really an adult treatment? I feel like some obvious questions were skipped over for the sake of propriety. What makes it odd is that they answered these very questions in "The Naked Now." Making this relationship so sexless is a missed opportunity, in my book - even if it's just to show that in fact, a woman might not want to be the recipient of a textbook recitation of "multiple techniques." I agree that the problem between them is a perfect illustration of the hurdles Data still faces as an artificial intelligence. I just think we should have gotten more. And not mentioning the emotion chip, even briefly? That seems like an oversight to me.

Kevin: Sadly, the stumbling block of this episode is the other science fiction plot. It's kind of a nifty idea, the notion that there are bubbles in the fabric of space, in which matter does not exist. I just don't think it would have manifested itself in that way. If it was disruptive enough to rearrange the chairs, wouldn't it have also ripped the chairs to shreds? Do the bubbles come in and out of existence themselves? Otherwise, how are there not just detectable straight lines of chaos through the ship? And why is Picard piloting the shuttle? I get Patrick Stewart directed this episode, and needed a plausible excuse to be off camera, but it just doesn't work. Why not have Data pilot it? Why not use a probe? The nano second it would take for the data to travel back and forth has to be better than Picard's reaction time, right? I would have preferred them staying on the romance plot, and jettisoning the obvious attempt to create tension altogether.

Matthew: Well, I agree 100% that the science didn't make a whole lot of sense. Dark matter isn't like "holes in space," it's just "stuff with mass that we can't see with our current radio telescopic technology. Which raises the question - how can we "see" a "dark matter nebula?" As far as the observation lounge chairs, I believe the conceit was that the wall itself had been blanked out of existence, causing the exterior vacuum to suck the chairs towards the hole. Which I like as an idea, but wasn't there dark matter between the hole and the vacuum? And yes, by far the biggest logic problem with the episode was Picard piloting the shuttle. Not having Data, or Riker, or the presumably dozens of other pilots on board with more recent and germane experience, was just dumb.


Kevin: I liked Michele Scarabelli as D'Sora. She actually portrayed someone I could actually see someone else wanting to date. She was sweet and warm and maybe a little disorganized, but in an adorable way. More than anything, she wasn't just a projection for Data to play off of. I genuinely believed her attraction to Data, and I found her self-exploration of that credible and interesting. Her only flaw was not hanging on long enough to actually have sex with Data...'cause come on, just for the story.

Matthew: Definitely a nice performance. She also really nails the "being in the world" aspect of a guest actor that we've been harping on so much.

Kevin: Brent Spiner did a masterful job with this one. Given the subject matter this could have gone off the rails easily. His impersonation of a smooth seducer and alternately hothead were great. They were just enough, and never too much either in intensity or duration. He really managed to walk this fine line of displaying academic but not genuinely romantic interest in Jenna.

Matthew: Spiner definitely keeps things balanced and fun, I agree. Marina Sirtis played her counseling scene really well, too. She seemed to have genuine enthusiasm for Data, exploring a new aspect of life as a conscious being, but understandable reluctance and caution for Jenna's end of things. Riker's lascivious reaction was funny. And as you mentioned above, Stewart's discomfort over giving romantic advice was palpable and really funny.

Production Values

Kevin: The dark matter nebula looks like a reuse of the Mutara nebula from WOK. I really liked the torpedo lab sets. For such a small space, there were a lot of neat angles. I found the shots of Picard in the shuttle a little overly claustrophobic.

Matthew: Yeah, I was really pleased to see a new set, and one that we had never seen before to this point but had been represented in TOS material. Torpedo tubes seem like the last vestige of old-timey stuff on a starship, and it's nice to see them on the Enterprise. I enjoyed the effect with the woman split in two. It was really gruesome, but pretty restrained. The little thread of blood coming from her nose totally sold it. I enjoyed the nebula shots, even if they were re-used. The planet looked cool against the backdrop.

Kevin: I liked the civilian wear on display in this episode. Jenna went with a bit too must mustard for being a blond Italian, but still, it was flattering, and looked liked actual clothes, and I liked her hair, on and off duty.


Kevin: I'm going with a 3. The episode is genuinely entertaining, and has some great moments all around with Data and Jenna. The fairly tacked on space bubble plot was really annoying. It's not as bas as the artificial tension of Samaritan Snare or Final Mission, but still. So, in the balance, it works out to be average.

Matthew: Yeah, you know, in my relatively uncritical recollection, this was a 4. But I think I was letting the fun moments outweigh the kind of mundane and interrupting B-story stuff, when in truth, they are there, and they do slow things down. This could have been great, but ten minutes were wasted on what was sort of just junk science without any real interesting story teeth. This episode could have been a 4 or a 5 if it had really dived headlong into the ideas surrounding a human-machine romance. But as it stand, it's a 3 from me, which makes the total a 6. 


  1. Kevin, I appreciate that you, and the TNG writers, want to believe that sexual politics are different in the 24th century, and yes, maybe it's true that things could/would change when a female dates a male who is her superior. But, I still think a warning about dating a coworker might be in order. Basic human nature doesn't change that much that quickly, and whatever Roddenberry wanted to believe might happen, people will still have real feelings. So, maybe Jenna won't face the kind of problems she might face today, but it could still be distinctly uncomfortable to have to work day in and day out with someone you used to be in a relationship with. (Although, we never see her again, so maybe that's not a problem!) I recognize that they all live together, as well as work together, and options are limited, and of course they're going to date people on the ship, but I think Star Trek as a whole doesn't really address the human aspect of that. I love Riker and Troi, but their friendship with apparently *no* resentment always seems a little unbelievable to me. I believe they could get there, but I just don't see them being able to start that way.

  2. I agree, it is somewhat unrealistic, and I am forcibly choosing the most optimistic of interpretations, but I kind of have to for sanity reasons. If I believe that the horrible relationship and gender politics I work with every day continue to the 24th century, I might not get out of bed in the morning.

  3. Also, Star Trek has such a hit or miss relationship with relationships, I tend to overpraise the good stuff to try and encourage them to do it again.

  4. It could well be that because it's Data, it's not an issue. If anyone can keep both worlds completely separate, it's Data.

    It just rated a mention by the script.