Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Lonely Among Us" (November 2, 1987)



Stardate 41249.3

The U.S.S. Enterprise proceeds to the planet Parliament after picking up delegates from the warring planets of the Beta Renner system: the reptilian Selay, and the canine Anticans.

En route to the diplomatic meeting, the starship encounters a strange space cloud. While moving through the cloud’s amorphous boundaries, a non-corporeal life-form composed entirely of energy moves inside the ship, briefly possessing various crew members, including Worf (Michael Dorn), and Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden).

The life form accidentally kills an assistant chief engineer, Singh (Kavi Raz), and Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) launches an investigation. Inspired by Sherlock Holmes' personality and methodology, Data investigates in the persona of the great detective, earning the irritation and bemusement of the command crew.

The strange alien life form moves next into Captain Picard. Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) attempt to learn more about the captain’s strange behavior once the change has occurred, but not before he acts unilaterally to beam out into the cloud, and join the non-corporeal life forms living there…


I am a huge admirer of D.C. Fontana and her work, but “Lonely Among Us” may not represent the author’s finest work in the Star Trek universe.

That is no slam against a brilliant writer, of course, because just consider the episodes this amazing talent has written: “Charlie X,” “Journey to Babel,” “This Side of Paradise” and “Yesteryear” (on The Animated Series) to name a few.  

The first three titles, all made my top 20 list during my 50th anniversary blogging last year.

Here, we are still early in the first season of The Next Generation and things are clearly still developing in terms of the characters, the performances, and even the kinds of stories being told. 

For instance, there is some funny  material in this episode about the Anticans and Selays, but the humor is largely diminished because of wooden performances from the likes of Stewart, Frakes, and Crosby. It’s not that the material is necessarily bad; it’s that the execution is weak. 

By contrast, Brent Spiner  absolutely shines in this episode, playing a manic Data/Sherlock Holmes combo that proved so popular it would be resurrected for stories such as “Elementary Dear Data.”  If the Antican/Selay antics had proven as humorous a fashion as Data’s subplot in “Lonely Among Us,” the story might feel a bit more lively, or surprising.



Fontana is also the author of “Tomorrow is Yesterday” a solid Star Trek episode that featured a confusing climax involving the transporter and its functions. There, as you might recall, people from the 20th century (Captain Christopher, notably) were beamed atop their already existing patterns, and were therefore superimposed over their old, pre-existing patterns. This procedure occurred so that the Enterprise’s interference in Earth’s history would go forgotten. 

However, the “new” (superimposed…) patterns were those that had knowledge of the Enterprise’s interference. It’s confusing to say the least.

“Lonely Among Us” has something in common with that transporter confusion. Here, the solution to rescuing Picard from his new life as a non-corporeal life form is to blend his “energy pattern” in space with his stored (pre-existing) physical pattern in the transporter buffer/computer.  Blend them together, and -- voila! -- restored Picard.

I’m not exactly certain how this is all supposed to work, to be frank. It seems like the right thing to do here is just bring up Picard’s stored pattern from the exact moment he left the ship, and restore that pattern to life. Why does the energy pattern need to be combined with it?



And, in calling all this up, has Star Trek accidentally discovered the cure for death?  Remember how angry and nitpicking Trekkers like to complain about how Khan’s magic blood in Into Darkness (2013) brought immortality to the Trek universe?  Well, the same thing rather definitely happens in “Lonely Among Us.”

Imagine, for a second, that you beam down with six crew-members to a planet, and things go wrong. You die on the surface, with all your teammates. Why couldn’t the starship in orbit just call-up your stored patterns from the moment before you beamed off the ship, and bring you and the rest of the away team back to life?

No one ever need die on a dangerous mission again! 

Just call up the last stored pattern, and pop it on the transporter pad! Instant resurrection!

Perhaps more genuinely troubling than the technology-miraculously-saves-the-day-ending here is the often-missed revelation that Picard joins with the cloud entity and willingly abandons his command, to “explore” the final frontier.  

So, just to be clear: it was partly his choice to leave.

This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in our captain. When possessed by an alien, he decides he wants to go with it.

Imagine, for a second, Captain James T. Kirk, Captain Benjamin Sisko, Captain Kathryn Janeway, Captain Jonathan Archer, or Captain Lorca making the same decision under the same circumstances.  

They all would have fought the alien presence, and the alien agenda, not willingly signed up.

The only reason Picard returns to the Enterprise at all in “Lonely Among Us” is because the joining with the alien entity wasn’t possible in space.  So he would have died had he stayed.

Here I will be blunt: I don’t at all like the writing of Captain Picard in the first season of The Next Generation. He surrenders the Enterprise twice in the first four episodes. Then, in the sixth episode, he willingly gives up command of the ship and his captaincy, on this flight of fancy to be an “explorer.” 

An upcoming episode (#8), “The Battle,” similarly reveals him to have lost his faculties.

I understand that Picard doesn’t and shouldn’t be an imitation of Kirk. But my god, any captain with this record should be court-martialed out of the service, and not allowed to continue as commanding officer of the Federation flagship.  I hasten to add, had these particular stories been spread out over twenty four episodes, this impression of Picard wouldn't stand.  But when you consider that Jean-Luc surrenders two times, and loses his faculties two times in the first eight stories (50% percent of the series so far!) the only word that can describe this captain is incompetent.

I want to finish this review by writing something nice: I love the Enterprise dress uniforms introduced here, and the alien costumes (for the Selay and Anticans) are terrific.  I always wished I had the Galoob action figures for these endlessly-bickering aliens.

Next week: “Justice.”

2 comments:

  1. Hi John,

    Dorothy Fontana has publicly stated in past interviews that she was not a fan of the writing process on the first season of TNG. Too many rules, too many cooks in the kitchen, no freedom to see ideas through to creatively satisfying conclusions. I think this episode is a reflection of her frustration. It certainly seems that way.

    As always, your points are excellent. Thankfully, Picard would become a better captain as the series progressed. Even by the first season's end, he was showing signs of greatness and respectability. Also, if I'm remembering correctly, doesn't one of the groups of aliens end up eating the other group? This was played for laughs, but all I could think was "My God! That's horrific!"

    Another Discovery shout out! Fantastic! A little off topic, but the latest episode of Discovery really messed with my head. I can't wait to see what happens next.

    Steve

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  2. To add upon the above post, I recall reading about a lot of friction between the writers and the powers to be. In the outstanding documentary made by Gene Roddenberry's son (the name escapes me) there is a revealing interview with Dorothy Fontana about that subject and how her and Gene parted on very bad terms.

    There were two great things about the first season - Data, and the Holodeck. I can't wait for your review of "The Big Goodbye" and "We'll Always Have Paris", two outstanding episodes in a pretty rough debut season.

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