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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.