Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Skin of Evil" (April 25, 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 this post, 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 season programs 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 rewrite 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 2018, let alone 2363, 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 encounters an absolutely implacable foe.  Armus can not be reasoned with or negotiated with.  You cannot appease him by "asking" what he wants and then "mediating" a way to give it to him.  On the contrary, he is a creature who exists only to oppose, only to obstruct, only to negate.

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

Killing Tasha as he does is 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 too

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 encountering 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 is 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 thirty 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 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. I greatly admire this episode because it showed that death could be cruel, not glorious or noble. Tasha didn't go out in a blaze of glory or sacrificing herself or anything that would have made her heroic. She died while on assignment and on duty. Dying so quickly amplifies the idea that the mission of the Enterprise can often be dangerous. The threat of dying is constant, whether it be from something as trivial as a loose rock along a path or a oil-slick alien decides its your time to leave this mortal coil. I thought the funeral scene was very well handled too. The thought that people need to keep a "last will and testament" at the ready is a fascinating idea because again death is a real possibility in space. It makes you think that every one of these characters has a little hologram they've already recorded just in case the worse happens, which certainly gives every mission they go on a certain gravitas.

    I never quite understood the dislike for this episode because I thought it perfectly captured the randomness of death and the impact it has on those who are left behind. As a first season episode, I'd certainly count it in my top 5.

  2. I remember seeing this episode during the initial broadcast and being quite affected by it.

    I liked it for many of the reasons you pointed out, particularly the dark, menacing aspect of it. For once I actually felt like these characters were in serious danger. It felt more like a "Space 1999" episode, particularly year two. I also found the holographic funeral quite moving, especially Data's reaction.

  3. Great write-up, John.

    It was well known at the time that Denise Crosby had tired of the show and wanted out, and many fans were upset that she was killed instead of sent away somewhere to return at some later date. The fact that the show was able to bring her back demonstrates how far it had evolved when it chose to do so.

    I'm gonna go out on a limb here, so indulge me if you will. The character of Armus was, for me, very reminiscent of a similar one in Lost In Space. Specifically, the third season episode "Space Creature." A being of pure id, seen as a man with a sheet over his head - very similar to Armus - who attempts to manipulate the crew of the Jupiter 2 in much the same way, instilling fear and attempting to gaslight them into "feeding" it with the negativity it needs to live.

    Of course, that funeral scene was remarkable, regardless of how cheesy parts of it may seem. There was a real sense of "This is death in the 24th Century" and humans are still vulnerable, and relatable, and have yet to solve the greatest mystery of all...to quote Doctor Smith quoting Shakespeare, "That undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns."



Cult-TV Blogging: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Return of the Fighting 69th" (October 25, 1979)

In “Return of the Fighting 69 th ,” Colonel Wilma Deering ( Erin Gray) finds that her past has caught up with her in two ways. Fi...