Tuesday, November 08, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #146: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Skin of Evil" (1988)

"... death is that state in which one only exists in the memory of others; which is why it is not an end..."

- Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) in "Skin of Evil."

In anticipation of Star Trek: The Next Generation's 25th anniversary in 2012, I've begun to look back at some early episodes of the program which -- while largely unpopular -- actually seem better and more ambitious than their reputations indicate. 

My first review in this series of posts was for the first season installment "11001001," featuring the Bynars. 

And again, I'm not featuring retrospectives of the episodes everyone seems to agree were terrific ("Best of Both Worlds," "Yesterday's Enterprise" or "The Inner Light," for instance), but rather the unheralded or unappreciated treasures that might deserve a re-evaluation, or at least, a second look. 

Today, I remember the controversial first season effort "Skin of Evil" written by Joseph Stefano and directed by Joseph Scanlon.  It's an episode that has been widely termed an "unmitigated disaster."  In fact, "Skin of Evil" is often considered one of the series' worst installments.  That's an honor I would more readily reserve for early first seasoners such as "Code of Honor," "The Last Outpost," "Haven," Too Short A Season," "Home Soil," or the second season clips show "Shades of Gray." 

The reasons for the generally low-opinion of "Skin of Evil" are clear and definitely understandable.  

First, the episode kills off a popular regular character, Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) and more than that, does so in a purposefully random or "meaningless" fashion. 

In short, the beloved Enterprise security chief dies the ignominious death of a red shirt. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation itself attempted to un-write this apparently unworthy demise in the excellent third season episode "Yesterday's Enterprise," by granting the character a more noble and meaningful second send-off.

Beyond this character exit, there are certainly other grounds by which to deride "Skin of Evil" too, if that's the game.   For example, the episode relies heavily on repeat footage of the central threat, the oil-slick monster, Armus. One shot of him rising from the muck is repeated three times in less than an hour.

Seemingly routine scenes are not staged very well, either.  To wit, Deanna Troi is trapped in a shuttle craft for the duration of the episode with an injured pilot named Ben.  We never even see Ben until the last act, wherein Picard beams into the shuttle, checks him out, and concludes he is very weak indeed.  Why wasn't Deanna tending to him herself before this moment?  She may be injured, but is she physically paralyzed?  Why don't we see her limp over to the poor guy (he's two feet away, at most, for goodness sake...) and just check for a pulse?

In another scene -- right after Armus takes Commander Riker -- we get a blooper.  We see Geordi's phaser "plop" into the black muck, visible to the naked eye.  Again, this moment is indicative of the fact that the episode -- and the physical creation of the alien Armus -- was likely a nightmare to vet.

Also, it's difficult to deny that at least a few lines of dialogue are real groaners.  The holographic Tasha's comment during her funeral that Deanna taught her she could be "feminine without losing anything" was horribly antiquated-sounding even back in 1988. 

Would that really be a concern of a Starfleet officer in the 24th century? I don't think people even worry about this in 2011, let alone 2311, or whatever.

Finally, an early scene in the episode that features Tasha discussing an upcoming martial arts competition with Worf is so sentimentally scored and so overplayed by the actors that it telegraphs immediately what is bound to happen next: Tasha's untimely death.  A little more subtlety would have been nice here, rather than a neon sign which seems to shout out "SHE'S GOING TO DIE!"

Yet -- going out on a limb -- I have always really enjoyed and appreciated "Skin of Evil" for the things it gets right rather than the things it gets wrong.  Therefore, I'm going to focus on those positive elements in this review, having already at least paid lip-service to the admittedly-numerous complaints Trekkers might have regarding this segment.

First, a re-cap. 

As the Enterprise is en route to rendezvous with shuttle craft 13 and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis), something goes terribly wrong.  The shuttle crashes on apparently uninhabited Vagra 2 and both Troi and her pilot, Ben, are injured.  A force field seems to be blocking the Enterprise from beaming up the injured.

When an away team consisting of Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), Lt. Data (Brent Spiner) and Tasha Yar beams down to attempt a rescue, it is deliberately blocked by a sentient oil slick, a sadistic and hostile creature called "Armus."

When Tasha attempts to circumvent Armus to rescue the wounded, the creature strikes her down in an instant; murdering her. The away team returns to the Enterprise immediately, but there's nothing Dr. Crusher can do to help save the fallen security chief.  Though now in mourning, the crew turns its attention towards rescuing the downed shuttle crew.

Counselor Troi, meanwhile, uses her gifts and talents as an empath and psychologist to learn the truth about Armus and his motives.  She learns that his world was once home to a race of "Titans."  In order to become beautiful, these aliens cast off their darkest, most evil qualities and created Armus...literally a skin (or shroud) of evil. 

Once free of him, these aliens abandoned Armus on the desolate planet and headed off to the stars to meet their great destiny.  Alone and miserable, Armus now wishes only to strike out and hurt those who rejected him.  Troi determines he is "empty," and worse, wants to fill that emptiness with acts of pure malevolence and sadism.

Ultimately, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is able to defeat Armus by reminding him that although the creature may boast the capacity to control and hurt the crew, only Picard possesses the ability to command them.  After the final confrontation, the shuttle crew is rescued, Armus is abandoned, and aboard the Enterprise,the bridge crew attends Tasha's funeral, an event meant to "celebrate" her life.

One of the reasons I admire "Skin of Evil" so much is that --  up to this point in Next Generation history, at least -- the series was kind of...well, soft. 

Although I love and respect the Star Trek ideal of peacefully broaching contact with alien life forms, the very heart of good drama remains conflict.  In Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season, the Enterprise crew had already met aliens who wanted to debate philosophy (Portal, in "The Last Outpost"), or worked matters out peaceably with other races ("Home Soil," "Encounter at Farpoint.")  Some episodes even featured no overt "alien" conflict at all, but played merely as standard soap operas set in an idealistic future ("Coming of Age.")  The show felt perilously like a space adventure without the adventure.

This "safe" approach changed radically with "Skin of Evil" as the crew encountered an absolutely implacable foe.  Armus could not be reasoned with or negotiated with.  You could not appease him by "asking" what he wanted and then "mediating" a way to give it to him.  On the contrary, he was a creature (like so  many similar ones we find in the U.S. Congress today...) who existed only to oppose, only to obstruct, only to negate. 

If he was not pure evil, then certainly Armus was hostility and id personified.  On a program that so often pitched soft ball alien interaction,  Armus -- the piece's villain -- really played hard ball. He was dangerous and capricious, and explicitly did not share the Starfleet belief that "all creatures have a right to exist."

Killing Tasha as he did was brutal, nasty and unmotivated, but the unnecessary and savage act reminds our stalwart crew that not everyone in the galaxy thinks in the same way as they do.  And this fact, I submit, brings out the steel in their spines, and makes the characters actually reconsider and re-evaluate their noble beliefs.

In particular, I love the moment in the episode wherein Armus asks Dr. Crusher if she is "scared" and she admits that she is, but doesn't back down.  That's a wonderfully human character touch, and McFadden is magnificent in that moment. 

Another great character moment sees Data refusing to help Armus taunt Geordi, and then conclude that Armus should be destroyed.  Armus scoffs at this "moral judgment" from a machine, but the matter is of great import. 

By killing Tasha and mocking Geordi, Armus has made Data reconsider Starfleet's core belief, that all creatures have the right to exist.  Again, this is a pretty powerful moment for Data and for the show.  A big complaint about Star Trek: The Next Generation is that the characters can afford to be magnanimous and noble because they live in a utopia, one where they are the most powerful folks on the block.  In this case, however, Data is not insulated by the paradise of the UFP, and must put those morals to the test in practice.

In a flash -- when his friends are hurt -- he abandons noble principle for expression of blood-thirsty vengeance, actually advocating murder.  An interesting shade of gray for the child-like android, no?  A very human (and understandable) response...

I also believe Riker is developed well here.  Worrying for Deanna's safety,  he allows himself to be absorbed by Armus.  Will goes from shouting to Data for help as he is dragged across the dirt to actively forbidding help and facing intense personal danger.  This selfless decision speaks volumes about his character, and how he applies his own sense of morality to conflict.

This is also likely one of Troi's strongest episodes in the first season, and perhaps the series in totality.  Instead of offering up blatantly obvious information about alien commanders such as the tiresome bromide "he's hiding something," she sharpens her psychological skills in "Skin of Evil" and really dissects -- effectively too -- Armus's mental weaknesses. 

The series should have permitted the character to do more of that kind of thing; to counsel not just in treacly, touchy-feely terms, but in pointed strategic ones as well.  A counselor to a captain on a star ship would need to demonstrate his or her practical value in times of danger, and not merely belabor off-point opinions about how the crew is coping with stress ("they're anxious" or "they're inexperienced.")  Kirk had Spock to (logically) analyze situations and tactics on the bridge, and one can see from "Skin of Evil" how Troi might have served the same useful purpose if the writers had not been so blindly committed to featuring her in the tiresome "caregiver" mold.

Another quality I appreciate in "Skin of Evil" is the absence of techno-babble.  Over the years, The Next Generation descended into a mind-numbing morass of meaningless science fiction jargon.  Any alien, any phenomenon -- anything at all -- could be justified, explained, and ultimately defeated by the mealy-mouthed, nonsensical tech-talk. 

"Skin of Evil" sidesteps this dramatic plague and writer's crutch, and instead forges a chilling sense of mystery about Armus. 

As Data reports, the alien has "no proteins known to us, no circulatory system, no musculature, and no skeletal framework."  And yet...it lives. 

Star Trek is supposed to be about the countenancing of alien life forms, and Armus, at the very least, is not the routinely-seen bumpy-headed humanoid.  There's a real sense of alien menace -- and difference -- about this being.  In short, the crew really deals with something unknown and horrifying here, and I appreciate that dedicated sense of ambition, that imagination to go beyond the conventional.

And "Skin of Evil" works overtime to terrify.  There are some great compositions of Riker's tortured visage, subsumed inside Armus, and terrifying views of the alien rising from the black bile, looming over the crewmen in the screen frame and appearing truly illimitable.   Perhaps we do see some of these shots one too many times, but again, I appreciate the risk-tasking that's on display here, the concerted effort to show us something we had not seen before.

In terms of style, I can also admire how the camera-work goes hand-held once Crusher reaches sickbay with Tasha, and attempts to revive the fallen officer.  The immediacy-provoking, jerky camera-work is much different from the program's typically formal approach to visualization, and it lets us know -- viscerally -- what's at stake.  The scene's final punctuation, Picard's disbelief that Tasha is "gone," thus proves gut-wrenching.

In fact, Picard gets a pretty good makeover in this episode.  He brilliantly outmaneuvers Armus and brings his people home safe, without firing a single phaser shot.  But his talking here is not for consensus-building or to convince an enemy of his peaceful ways.  Rather, Picard uses words to weaken Armus, to trick and deceive him, and that's a nice twist on the perpetually action-less hero. 

I also appreciate the fact that Picard doesn't lecture Data about mortality at episode's conclusion.  Instead, Picard is magnificently terse.  Data asks Picard if by thinking of himself and his own feelings he has missed the point of Yar's memorial.  Picard replies, "No Data, you got it," and the episode ends.  It's a sharp comeback that makes the episode's point without explanation or excessive spoon-feeding. 

I suppose there's ample reason to dislike this episode because it dispatches Tasha the way it does. And yet, I suspect that the decision to kill the under-utilized  character  in such fashion was a brave and worthwhile one. 

God knows, we don't all get to end our lives the way we wish, and exploring the stars is exceedingly dangerous business.  On top of that, Tasha selected a dangerous specialty.

 Accordingly, Yar's death may be the most realistic character death in Star Trek history.   And that's an important distinction.  We're not immortal supermen, even in the 24th century.  We're humans...and we die, sometimes unexpectedly.  Tasha's death reminds the audience of its own mortality, and again, that's a good thing, a bold move in a show that too often played things safe.  I appreciate the moment in the episode when the away team reports Tasha's death, and we see Worf's reaction, just for a few seconds.  He doesn't say a word; he doesn't over-emote.  He just silently gives this look...and it speaks volumes of his emotional state.  Another nice character touch.

I still remember watching "Skin of Evil" for the first time in 1988, and being pretty impressed by it.  The episode is thrilling, dangerous and emotional...and anything but soft. I suppose these qualities render it out of step with other installments, but for me, that's all to the good too.

You see, a problem I discern too often in Star Trek: The Next Generation, even twenty-five years later, is that the characters are too comfortable.  They possess too many resources with which to meet the unknown, and too much discipline in controlling their fear and anxieties.  

Medicine and technology can bring back the dead and dying  ("Shades of Gray," "Lonely Among Us," "Unnatural Selection").  All life forms can be reasoned with ("Home Soil," "Encounter at Farpoint," "The Neutral Zone" etc.) and our unchained technology makes life a virtual paradise, a world of material wealth and plenty.

For all of its flaws in terms of execution, "Skin of Evil" proves a dramatic reminder that there are some dark corners of outer space where reason can't save the day, where logic doesn't hold sway, where medicine can't bring back the lost, and technology can't give Starfleet an easy win.  A later episode "Q Who," gave the series a similar "kick" in its complacency with the introduction of the Borg, but "Skin of Evil" -- regardless of all its bloopers and drawbacks -- aimed the show in that very direction too, and courageously so. 

In my opinion, it's still a pretty worthwhile and imaginative course correction.


  1. Very good to see an ST:TNG analysis. I agree John this is NOT the worst of Season One.

    In fact, I actually liked the ending most if I recall.

    Still, you do recite a number of flaws or weak spots in the story and these things are largely reasons why it's hard to endorse this one. It is memorable still.

    Your note about the kooky dialogue is a good one. How many times in Season One did we cringe at some of the writing. It felt so forced at times to get across some kind of political point. Terrible. Fortunately, the writing improved and the ideas continued to get stronger.

    I think your defense of the story ideas here and how Skin Of Evil was a dramatic turning point is accurate. The abrupt approach to this enemy made for some stark contrast to those earlier "soft" episodes as you put it.

    The random nature of death here is startling and I certainly didn't have a problem with it. I normally more emotionally connected to characters though.

    There's an amazing loss in Stargate SG-1 in Season 7 that really struck me, because I didn't see it coming and there was an emotional tie to the character that was built up over seven seasons. I mean it was a loss and the effect of that loss was much more profound because it occurred in a wartime scenario. It was random and unexpected. Skin Of Evil has the right idea here, but truthfully, whether she was a popular character or not [and I have no idea here], she really wasn't a well-developed character or one that I grew fond of or made any real connection to. I hear Yesterday's Enterprise is a classic. I look forward to seeing that one.

    On the whole, I think your explanation and dissection of all of the episodes strengths makes a strong argument why Skin Of Evil does alter the direction of the series. That's a great point.

    Having said that, and I do like certain moments and ideas here better than many of the episodes in this first season, but it still has problems that prevent it from reaching the entertaining heights of Heart Of Glory.

    Still, your points are entirely valid and Skin Of Evil would rank among my top 10 for the first season episodes. Cheers for a great look at ST:TNG!

  2. Excellent examination of the episode, John (along with an equally insightful comment by our friend, SFF). It certainly does have its weak moments. But the aspects you point out, and the senseless death of Tasha used so well to emphasize the story, make this a memorable early chapter for ST:TNG. If it pops up on cable, it is one that I'll sit and re-watch without hesitation (and I won't do that ever for things like CODE OF HONOR--bleh). The other thing about this ep is what I imagine it took to pull off the black oily tar effects for the creature Armus (and any crew member who came in contact with that effects material). It still gives me goose bumps to think of having any on-set interaction with that mess (I give Jonathan Frakes and the guy in that suit full credit and respect for dealing with it all).

    Looking forward to future under-the-radar episodes in this series, John. Thanks for this.

  3. The two thing I most remember about this episode are:
    1. When Beverly is trying to revive Tasha with a "neural stimulator," she has it set to deliver a charge in microvolts. However, neurons fire on the millivolt level, or, 1,000 times stronger than the power level Crusher was using. At the time, having recently taken a neurobiology class, I remember thinking "No wonder it didn't work!"
    2. Tasha, until that point, had been such an underdeveloped character, that her death meant nothing to me, as opposed to the same-season death of Cpl. Jennifer "Pilot" Chase on the short-lived "Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future," which left me in shock for the rest of the day. The difference is that Pilot had been deliberately built up to be the most complex character in the show over the course of the season, so that her death would be meaningful.

  4. Great comments on Skin of Evil here, by all.

    SFF: I also admire the hell out of "Heart of Glory," and agree that it is probably the finest episode of TNG season one. What a great show. I also agree that regardless of her popularity, Tasha Yar was not very well-developed as a character...which is why Denise Crosby left the series, I suppose. Still, I don't think that "Skin of Evil" is the disaster some people claim it is, and in fact, it's a pretty effective exit for the character. Her memorial scene is quite moving.

    Hi Michael: From what I've read and heard, creating Armus and the effects surrounding him was pretty much hell. I think that shows in the repeating of the footage and also in the blooper that shows up and here and there. And like you, I admire Jonathan Frakes for really "selling" that Riker absorption scene by going into the muck. Talk about taking one for the team (or the episode). But I've always liked Frakes, and I'm getting a deeper appreciation for Riker as I re-watch early episodes.

    Howard: I can't disagree with either of your points. On the latter front (probably the more important of the two), the issue is the development of the Tasha character. And again, you're right. She was not as well-developed as other characters, and losing her didn't have, perhaps, some of the impact intended.

    Great comments!


  5. Ha! Ha! le0pard13. I heard Frakes interviewed once that the "creature" effect was made from Metamucil and printer's ink, and yes, he did have to submerge himself in it! Yuck!

    Great analysis John! I agree with most of what you said, so I won't bother rehashing those points. I will bring up a couple things you didn't mention, one up and one down.

    The thing to me that is the biggest groan for this episode is the reuse of that same obviously phony planet set. I realize there are budget constraints but it's amazing that they resorted to the same techniques from TOS 20 years earlier. This episode and many others would have seemed much more polished if they had been shot on location instead.

    On the "up" side. I thought killing Yar was one of the most brilliant things NG ever did! I don't think you hyped it enough. I'm reminded of the series Blake's Seven which killed off main characters almost for sport it seemed at times. The result was a much more real feeling show.
    You referred to the "red shirt" treatment which I think really does a disservice to the viewers. You can only take tension so far, when fans know that at the end of the day their favorite characters will sleeping comfortably in their beds.
    Following this episode the gloves were OFF! While they never really went there again, you had to always keep this episode in the back of your mind never being 100% sure that they wouldn't do it again.
    (We won't get into what kind of stupid career move this was for Crosby!)

  6. Hi Brad,

    Good point about the Planet Hell set. Location work would have been (and is always...) preferable in my opinion too. But can you imgaine trying to photograph Armus (and get the various phases of the creature's physicality) to function in an uncontrolled, outside location? They might have never finished the episode at all!

    You're right about killing Tasha. That was a bold move, and up till that time, TNG was short on bold moves. So you're right, kudos there. And yes, what a bad move by Crosby, huh?

    Great comment!


  7. I liked Skin of Evil - in fact several of your well observed criticisms hadn't even registered. Yeah the phaser flop and repeat footage isn't one that, pardon the pun, phased me, have to say having been brought up on Doctor Who, but the reactions of Troi to her injured crewman was something I certainly hadn't considered.
    That aside, I thought it was a tense episode with an ambiguously powerful entity that carried a malevolence that the first season didn't seem comfortable with. It was a fresh change from the usual escort/duty missions of season one - and Tasha's death, while broadcast pre-emptively in the tone of the story, was nicely handled. Sharp, nasty and used to give the monster even more of threat.
    Can't say there are many in season one I felt really pushed the Trek product in any direction bar towards a mainstream soapy niche, but this one certainly did for me. Nice write up!

  8. Hi James,

    Great comment, and one that I agree with. "Skin of Evil" shows a tougher side to TNG, and one that was coming to the forefront at the end of the first season. Not just in Skin of Evil

    - but also in "Symbiosis," in which Picard used the Prime Directive as a shield by which to prevent helping a drug-addicted people. A real "tough love" and hard-edged decision.

    - but in "Conspiracy," when Picard and Riker blow away Remick, targeting his head (!). The episode ends on a spine-chilling note of uncertainty, that the parasitic aliens are "out there."

    - Heart of Glory was also tough-minded, with Worf forced to choose between his people and his Starfleet allegiance.

    These were all, in my opinion, amongst the better TNGs of the first season, just because space adventuring didn't seem so easy, safe and philosophically cut-and-dry.


  9. Yes, late return reply, Conspiracy was very memorable and one that really deserved two parts - which was a pity as for me, the compressed nature made it a disappointment when in fact it was a bold and interesting story (with an interesting backdrop of changes as I recall from the original pitch). A second episode would have made the threat larger, the actions more credible (why does the parasite host decide to take on the comm badge wearing Riker in a brawl, then the whole of security compromising their whole invasion?), but indeed a reminder that for all the mediocre that TNG suffered in its early years, you could see the potential bursting to escape.