Friday, April 6, 2012

The Next Generation, Season 6: Descent Part I

The Next Generation, Season 6
"Descent Part I"
Airdate: June 21, 1993
151 of 176 produced
151 of 176 aired


When the Enterprise responds to a distress call from the outpost Ohniaka III, the crew is shocked to discover the Borg are its attackers. But these Borg seem different than those of their previous encounters - fast, violent, and emotional. Little do they know that Lore is leading them, and that he has his sights set on the kidnap of his brother, Data.
So a Jew, an Englishman, and a drag queen walk into a bar...


Matthew: This is a tale of two episodes. There are a number of very well written (and acted, discussed below) scenes that might lead a person to believe that this is an excellent episode. It's not. This excellence is sabotaged by at least two, and perhaps three, major problems, which can only be laid at the heels of the writers in terms of responsibility. But Let's start with the good news. Starting with the teaser, and proceeding through several scenes between characters, the character writing is top notch. The teaser scene with Einstein, Hawking, and Newton was a lot of fun to watch. Although I do question placing Hawking at the same level as the other two (Bohr or Feynman seem like better candidates), it's really cool that Trek can draw such big names to appear as themselves on the show.

Kevin: Well, I think it would have been hard to get Richard Feynman or Neils Bohr to guest star, as they're both dead. In any event, I agree the scene was charming, and for once was a nice organic, logical use of the holodeck for what I believe real people would use it for, and there were no disasters. I am, sadly, also forced to agree with your assessment of the episode as a whole. It starts strong and feels ambitious, but by the back half, it starts to fall apart.

Matthew: The return of Admiral Nechayev is most welcome. She's a great ball-busting character, and is even more respectable because she is not just the typical trope of petty or mean bureaucrat. She has good points, and she argues for them. It's great for the Picard character to be taken down a peg, and to not necessarily always be right. This is something that TOS failed at in my opinion, because Kirk was always proven to be wiser than his superiors. This is more realistic. It's a great continuity shout-out to make Picard question one of his most portentous previous decisions, during "I,Borg." Then, proving that "the shit always flows downhill," Picard snaps at Riker just as Nechayev did him. But this allows us a scene where Riker takes it with friendly patience, and Picard apologizes. Really good writing, all around.  

Kevin: I think what works best about the scene is on down the line, all the characters behaved as their positions and established character traits said they should, rather than simply being the crotchety Starfleet bureaucrat of the week. Nechayev has previously demonstrated her capacity to make tough or unpopular calls in the face of a security threat, and her position is, thankfully, slightly more nuanced than a simple ends justify the means speech. She artfully side steps it by asserting it wasn't Picard's place to make that kind of decision on behalf of the Federation, which is a much more interesting implicit argument. And the subsequent scene with Riker is just rife with their relationship history. It really serves as a credit to both characters that Riker doesn't shout back and Picard quickly apologizes. I wonder if Season 1 or 2 versions of these men would have done the same.

Matthew: The other set of really nice character interactions revolved around Data's apparent burgeoning emotional awareness. The friendship and concern that Geordi shows when they first discuss it is really cool to see. The Data/Troi counseling scene is probably the best Data scene in a long time. It totally makes sense for Data to have the sorts of doubts he's having, that anger and its associated negative emotions might be all he is capable of. Troi counters with very sound and solid advice - that emotions are simply feelings and impulses within us, and that we choose how to channel and respond to them. It really elevates her character to be portrayed as such a wise and measured professional, not to mention friend.

Kevin: This is right up there as one of the better explorations of Data's emotional awareness (at least until the halfway mark). The scenes with Geordi and Deanna really work, again, because they flow so naturally from established character interactions. We've seen Data go to both for advice, particularly on his growth as an emotional being. The mixture of concern for and about Data also works really well, which again up until the halfway point made everyone look really on the ball and professional.

Matthew: So it's all been roses so far, yes? Well, to be frank, all of these scenes occurred in the first 20 minutes of the show. Things kind of jump the rails thereafter. The notions that the Borg should have already become fast and vicious if it would be more effective battle strategy aside, and leaving arguments be that this type of show inevitably waters down the Borg, what bugs me the most is their seeming "plan" looking to capture Data. Crosis has been equipped with a specific piece of machinery that can hijack Data. This leads me to believe that he has been chosen to abscond with Data by Lore. But then, why do the Borg beam two drones over to the bridge, warp away, leaving them to be destroyed by the Enterprise crew with no escape route? Crosis could just as well have been fried by Worf's phaser on the bridge.

Kevin: The previous Borg appearances all felt far more natural, like they started with a good story about the Borg. Here it felt like they decided that since it was a cliffhanger, to go with the Borg and work backwards from there. It's like a guest character brought on just to justify the portraying actor's appearances. I always implicitly accepted that the Borg zombie-ness was an affect of assimilation. If they actually can move fast, why don't they? The plan is not only somewhat incoherent, it also drags down the episode. The last half of the episode is spent vaguely exploring Data's anger issues and the episode never really gets back on track.

Matthew: I think the biggest problem of this show is the outright character assassination of Data implied by the plot. The way it is portrayed, the Borg modification simply implanted negative emotions into Data, and weakened his ethical subroutine enough to make him want to act them out. This basically makes it seem as though that one thin line of code was the only thing preventing Data from DESTROYING ALL HUMANS. Doesn't Data have plans? Goals? A rational faculty capable of channeling his emotions, just like Counselor Troi suggested not 10 minutes prior? He goes from "I want to have positive emotions to "sure, I'll kill Geordi" in about 30 seconds flat of conversation with Crosis (within full earshot of the idiot security officer on duty). If I were Data's commanding officer, this would be the straw that broke the camel's back in favor of me just firing his ass. Get this walking, talking, killing machine off my ship, for heaven's sake.

"Yep, here's your problem. Somebody set this thing to evil."

Kevin: This is a problem with how the show seems to understand ethics. My ethics are not the only thing that keep me from a murderous rampage because I don't have a preexisting desire for a murderous rampage. Even without ethics, Data would still have to find some utility in committing these actions. Crosis seems to suggest that Data would do anything for the chance to feel emotion again, which is an emotion in itself, really, but if that's the path they wanted to take, they still missed. A slower burn of Data becoming addicted to flashes of emotions supplied by Lore would have been interesting. The alternate, and I think more interesting way to process this was to see Data navigate his wants, which are normally good, without ethical restraint. Would he suddenly not flinch at the use of violence to protect the Enterprise? That could have been a really fun episode. Put Data back in the same situation as, say, the climax of "The Most Toys." What would Data do without restraint? Instead we get a murky misunderstanding of the relationship between morality and action. 

Matthew: Less severe than the Data issues, but still awful, is the dum-dum plot progression. Picard allows Data to be relieved from duty owing to his severe emotional problems. Picard also questions whether Data was a captive or the initiator of the escape, which indicates his suspicions of potential problems. So WHY IN THE HELL did he leave Data alone with the Borg prisoner? Answer: because the plot required it. Similarly required were the shuttle theft (yet again) proceeding with no possible recovery option. A reasonable person might think that, when capturing a Borg prisoner, you might take steps to lock down the shuttle bay and post tons of security around it. Or, you know, just disable the damn door. I also have serious issues with the idea of basicaly putting the entire crew of the Enterprise off the ship to search some planet, when there is still a GIANT BORG SHIP flying around the sector somewhere.

Kevin: We seem to get this problem when Lore comes around. In a way, his character typifies the problems of the episode. Everyone likes the idea of Lore, but can't find a way to organically introduce him in the episode, so it ends up getting contorted into something less than special.


Matthew: Brian Cousins, who previously played the creepy Romulan in "The Next Phase," plays Crosis here. Although I don't think this belongs in the annals of guest performances we rave over, Cousins did an adequate job. He didn't overcome the writing, which kind of didn't make sense. The other guest star of note of course was Natalija Nogulich as Admiral Nechayev, and she did her usual bang up job. She has to be a ball-breaker without being a "bitch," and I think she accomplishes the task. I respect her character, regardless of gender.

Kevin: Yeah, Crosis wasn't exactly being handed A material. And I agree on Nechayev. With a competent (or better) actor and a little fleshing out of their position, the hard-nose superior officer can really shine.

Matthew: This was a Spiner-heavy episode, and he delivered the goods. Again, I think the first half of the episode was much kinder to him than the second half. But there were no bad choices, really, as far as Data goes. Lore is a sneering jerk as usual. I've never really liked Lore, which I suppose is how he's written. But I always kind of wonder if he could have been played in a way that would have rendered him likable despite his villainy. John De Lancie's Q, for instance, is every bit as slimy, but for whatever reason is so much more enjoyable to watch.

Kevin: We'll come back to this issue in episodes like "Masks," but even in "A Fistful of Datas," I always found Spiner to do a good job in a vacuum. The material may not support him, but I always enjoyed watching Data himself. The most annoying i ever found him was Season 1 Lore, but even that I chalk up more to the era and creative decision making more than him.

Matthew: Marina Sirtis stands out for her interaction with Data. She could have come off as simply empahtic and wishy-washy, but she still seemed professional and strong in her emotional support. LeVar Burton also did a good job helping Data through his quandary. Too bad he gets rewarded with "Descent Part II"...

Production Values

Matthew: The Borg ship is really cool looking, and I can't wait to see it in high definition. The space efects overall were strong, with weapon blasts, warp effects, and the transwarp conduit, which looked somewhat reminiscent of the vortex in "Time Squared." Speaking of opticals, there were apparently only 11 Borg extras, but they were doubled using split screen effects to make them appear legion in the final scene. It worked, and I didn't really detect any glaringly obvious seams. The dark color scheme helped, I'm sure.

Kevin: Like with the standard cube, they did a really good job of giving a great impression of size. I'm preemptively drooling over the shot of the Borg ship sweeping over the Enterprise over Ohnianka III. Yeah, I would never have guessed that they didn't just get a ton of extras in Borg make up for that last scene. Oddly, the most jarring shot for me was one using a practical effect, not an optical one. The scene in the brig with Crosis and Data uses a split diopter (go listen to our podcast for The Motion Picture) to keep both in focus, and for some reason the shot looks like a poorly patched green screen to me.

Matthew: The location shoot was really nice. The hilly field was last seen in TOS "This Side of Paradise," but it was shot with what looked like a gel color filter on the lens. There were also some optical effect moons added into the sky backdrop. It all looked nice. The building, which belongs to the American Jewish University, was neat looking, which has led to its being used in untold sci-fi productions in addition to Trek.

Kevin: I would put the building a respectable second behind the water reclamation plant they use for Starfleet HQ as one of the most used buildings in the franchise. I wonder if the students get a kick out it. It's pretty much a guarantee that if you walk by the right building on University of Chicago's campus, you'll always be able to hear someone point out its presence in Indiana Jones, so if it were Star Trek related, I think the nerding-out would be even more intense.

Matthew: There were some nice Okudagrams that matched the story pretty well, such as the transwarp conduit schematic. The matte shot of Ohniaka III was a re-use from "Unnatural Selection," but hey, it's a great matte, so no biggie there. The outpost appeared to be cobbled together from other set pieces from past shows (such as "Aquiel," "The Quality of Life," and maybe "Second Chances") but it was a nice set for the firefight early on.

Kevin: There's a great shot of the Borg ship with some moving data overlays in the first part of the episode. I really liked it because it was really put together well, and while not overly possessed of bells and whistles, looked really neat and looked like a display someone might actually use to get information.


Matthew: Had the second half been as good as the first, this would be a 4 easily. But it's not. It's riddled with problems in the second half, problems that ought to annoy any nit-picking Trekkie. But it cannot be denied that the acting is at least competent and the production values are pretty high. So I think it's a 3 overall.

Kevin: I agree with the 3. This is the beginning of the end of the Borg and the plotting of Data's story begins to offend the intelligence of both the viewer and the other characters. Still, the character moments in the first half of the show were lovely, and definitely keep a 2 off the table. That makes a total of 6.


1 comment:

  1. The House of the Book (that building they used from BBI) is up a hill, and not something you'd pass every day. That said, the building itself is magnificent, and (if possible) even more beautiful on the inside.