This year is the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994), though truthfully, I find that fact nearly impossible to believe. In the past few months, I've been looking back at Next Gen episodes that I suspect are better than their reputations indicate, and thus far I've featured the first season stories "11001001" and "Skin of Evil."
Last week, I defended Apollo 18 (2011), a found-footage horror movie everyone seems to hate. In keeping with that theme, today I'm going out on a limb again to remember a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that nobody seems to like either, but which I nonetheless enjoy and believe boasts some merit.
Everything seems too easy for this team. Specifically, the Enterprise crew often defeats the bad guys without too much difficulty, and usually through extended "talk." Riker convinces an Ancient Guardian, Portal, not to be hostile -- through talk -- in "The Last Outpost." Picard resolves a dilemma with a silicon life form -- again by talk -- in "Home Soil."
And even more importantly, the Enterprise isn't always the big man on campus. Other forces out there in space may be superior in terms of their understanding of the universe and technological capacities. The upshot of many of these episodes is that the crew's smugness is kicked off rather dramatically. And that's a very good thing for the development of the series, which would hit its stride (and apex) in Season Three.
Episode writer Tracy Torme hates it. Fans despise it. Critics don't like it either. You may even find it named on lists for the worst ten episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
And yet, I'll be honest, I've always enjoyed "The Royale" given the parameters of the "kick in the complacency" second season. This episode fits that recurring theme well, and more than that, adheres beautifully to the Star Trek tradition of presenting "fish out of water" comedies.
Though human in appearance, the beings inhabiting the structure are not authentic life forms. And yet they seem to be marching along on their own bizarre story lines.
Richey's diary reveals that aliens interfaced with his vessel and accidentally killed all the Terran crew members save for him. Apparently in payment over their accidental actions, the aliens built Richey a world based on a book -- The Hotel Royale -- they found aboard the NASA ship. Then, they deposited Richey in that world....where he would spend the rest of his days.
They thought they had built him a paradise, but it turned out to be Hell...
Trapped in the Royale, Riker, Data and Worf realize that the key to escape rests in resolving the (bad) novel's major plot points. From the Enterprise, Picard and Troi help out by reading the novel...which proves trying.
After the away team escapes, Riker wonders about the whole incident, and Picard concludes that some mysteries simply have no logical resolution...
The first and most significant thing to understand about "The Royale" is how well the episode fits into Star Trek convention. The franchise boasts a long tradition of bewildered crew members interfacing with other time periods from human history. We see this in programs such as "Tomorrow is Yesterday" and the film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). The fish-out-of-water humor in such tales allows us to see our confident Starfleet heroes from another perspective; from a perspective of vulnerability. They are truly strangers in a strange land, trying to account for human culture at an earlier stage of development.
What's commendable about "The Royale" (in the same way that "Spectre of the Gun" is kind of cool) is that the writer has not relied on the commonly-seen Trek tropes of either time travel or the "holodeck adventure" to vet this particular fish-out-of-water story. Instead, Torme (Keith Mills on screen) wraps the human adventure inside an alien-based mystery.
In specific terms, "The Royale" finds humor in Worf and Data's responses to the hotel/casino staff and clientele. Already out of place among 24th century humans, the Klingon and Soong android are even more baffled (and in Worf's case, irritated...) by human behavior inside the strange structure. The future depicted in Star Trek is not a hedonistic one (usually, save for Risa...), but this casino is a den of hedonism. Here, humanity is at his worst: avaricious, thieving, gluttonous. It's a strong contrast to the Utopian world we see on the Enterprise.
Some good character humor also emerges from Picard, aboard the Enterprise. This is the guy who is, for lack of a better word, a dedicated scholar. The good captain knows Shakespeare backwards and forwards (as "Hide and Q" demonstrates), and considers James Joyce light reading ("Captain's Holiday.") Here he's forced to dive into a bad dime-store novel, and it's clear he's impatient with the process...and the subject material.
But in addition to "The Royale's" sense of humor (which involves Worf using a 20th century telephone and Data playing blackjack), the episode works admirably as a kind of spine-tingling mystery.
"In our arrogance, we feel we're so advanced," Picard notes early in the episode, and that's the "theorem" of "The Royale." The crew encounters an alien "shrine" that seems to make no sense because it is based entirely on a limited, alien understanding of our culture.
This is one strange corner of the universe, both a little funny, a little scary and a little sad. And it suggests nicely that not all "first contacts" go smoothly, or as expected.
I also appreciate the idea portrayed here, and carried over from "A Piece of the Action" on the Original Series, that no one book should be used as a model for an entire culture; that no single tome should be taken literally as the guide to life.
And yes, I absolutely view this as a pointed commentary and critique of people who interpret The Bible (or any religious book) literally. Meaning that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and Jesus rode dinosaurs around the streets of the Roman Empire. In ways "subtle and gross," to quote Q, "The Royale" reminds us that no one book explains the mystery or wonder of human nature. Humanity is more complex than any one vision contained between two covers.
In that light, "The Royale" is one of the few Star Trek episodes that can be legitimately called surreal or absurdist. Here, you have the unexpected juxtapositions one expects of the surreal (a 20th century casino on an inhospitable planet, a revolving door in the middle of a black void, etc.), but more than that, a meditation on the human tendency to seek the meaning of life in a situation wherein such a conclusion is unknowable.
In "The Royale," a terrible, dime-store book becomes the basis for alien contact and the continuance of human life, but the book itself is a collection of conventions and cliches. How could anyone think life is really like a bad crime novel? Well, if you're an alien...you wouldn't pick up those nuances, I suppose. Cliches are cliches because we encounter them so often. Presumably, aliens would not recognize them as such because they've never read a book from Earth.
I also appreciate the episode's conceit that the aliens tried to inject some meaning into their accidental actions, but by doing so robbed Richey's remaining days of meaning and thus only compounded their error. It's a pretty deft formulation, I submit.
Why didn't Star Trek tread more often into the surreal? Well, that's the rub, and part of the reason that I suspect "The Royale" is disliked by many fans. Famously, Star Trek is about mankind mastering his destiny, discovering the meaning of life, conquering technology, medicine and space itself. Surrealism could be interpreted as an opposite philosophy. Absurdism suggests say that no such domination of existence is possible, because life is inherently meaningless. Magic in Star Trek is merely technology we don't understand yet, a point of development we have not yet reached, but the underlying message is that we WILL get there, one day. If the universe is surreal in nature, then this is not the case at all.
Ironically, Star Trek: The Next Generation is at its dramatic best when the paradise of the UFP is challenged, when there is an acknowledgment that the human equation has not been solved, and when the status quo is up-ended. The "Kick in the Complacency" episodes remember that the human adventure is merely "beginning" and not yet settled. Stories like "The Royale" are indeed about the human adventure just beginning; about the starting point of self-knowledge not the ending point. It's my bias, but I tend to prefer that point of attack in terms of sci-fi drama.
There was a great Twilight Zone episode entitled "Elegy," about astronauts encountering a planet of apparently frozen humanoids, carefully posed (by someone) in the midst of their daily routines. The planet turned out to be not a wax museum, nor a moment of frozen time. Instead, the humans were all dead and stuffed by a kind of galactic funeral director/taxidermist. In some sense, "The Royale" captures the same absurd vibe as that episode. It features a world that shouldn't be threatening...but is. And that threat exists because aliens are not always understandable.
Some mysteries just can't be solved, as Captain Picard reminds us in "The Royale."
I believe that in "Kick in the Complacency" episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation such as "The Royale," the series began to restore the necessary danger to the enterprise (ahem) of space travel. A core component of drama involves the notion that our heroes always must be endangered. They can't always possess the upper hand, or the most powerful phaser banks. Real drama is wrought from facing an enemy who is more powerful, or who holds all the cards, to use a "Royale"-based metaphor.
In the final analysis, "The Royale" is spiky and weird and funny, and a bit disturbing, and it reminds the audience that human beings -- no matter how advanced or evolved -- can't always see and understand the mysteries of the infinite.
No, "The Royale" certainly isn't one of the twenty-five greatest Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, but it fits in well with the second season's overall milieu. It's good for a re-watch on these terms especially in conjunction with "Time Squared and "Q-Who." That's the great thing about Star Trek existing as a long-lived TV series rather than a movie series. There's time to visit these strange, oddball corners of the universe, and no need to tell a "huge" story about universal Armageddon every week.
"The Royale" may be off-message, a narrative detour of sorts. But it's one worth taking, at least every now and again, especially when you a need a kick in your own complacency.