Friday, September 06, 2019

Star Trek Week 2019: "The Royale"

The main problem that plagued Star Trek: The Next Generation during its first season, as I perceive it, is that the crew of the Enterprise-D appears rather smug and self-satisfied.

In various episodes our heroes rail against patriotism ("Encounter at Farpoint"), eating red meat ("Lonely Among Us"), patriarchy and matriarchy ("Angel One,") and even capitalism ("The Last Outpost," "The Neutral Zone.")

I have absolutely no beef at all with any of that social commentary, or any of those particular ideological stances.  I welcome the gadfly approach to exploring issues of the late twentieth century.

Rather, my problem is in how the social commentary is often broached.  I realize the humans of The Next Generation are "evolved" ones (and I like that idea too...) but in too many episodes, these 24th century humans lecture, preach and harrumph about how man overcame his age of "barbarism."

There's a looking-down-their-collective noses at races like the Anticans and Selay, or the denizens of "Angel One" that is, frankly, unappealing, and a bit too self-congratulatory.

When this smug vibe is coupled with the fact that the Enterprise is the flagship of the Federation, and therefore technologically superior to almost all comers (including the new enemy, the Ferengi), a real sense of drama and conflict bleeds away from many first season installments of Star Trek: The Next Generation

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."  

Over and over, a spirit of danger and adventure -- a core element of the original Star Trek series -- seems missing from the first season of The Next Generation.  Getting through some of these early episodes (like "Haven," or "The Battle," or "Code of Honor," or "The Last Outpost") is really a tough slog.

But I give kudos to the creators and writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation because, by the end of the first season, they were clearly working out the kinks in the less-than-satisfactory format.  Episodes such as "Heart of Glory," "Skin of Evil," and "Conspiracy" ramped up the danger level in the stories, and boasted a more unpredictable aura than the first segments.

And if you had to give Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season catalog a name or theme, I would call it, simply, "A Kick in the Complacency." 

That's the term Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) famously coined in the stellar episode "Q-Who," which introduced the cybernetic organisms, the Borg, to the series.  Surveying the episodes of the second season, you can detect how a number of the stories explicitly involve pulling the rug out from under the Enterprise crew, and showcasing the fact that outer space may be wondrous...but it's also dangerous and mysterious.

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.

The "Kick in the Complacency" episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season include "Where Silence Has Lease,"during which the Enterprise explores a black spot in space that seems to twist and defy the principles of physics.  Then there's "Elementary Dear Data," wherein Starfleet technology and a slip-of-the-tongue on the part of a fallible human being (Geordi) create a deadly menace for the Enterprise.  Similarly, "Unnatural Selection" showcases how Dr. Pulaski's (Diana Muldaur's) hubris nearly gets her killed, vis-a-vis a deadly disease. 

The "Kick in the Complacency" segments reach their pinnacle with "Q Who, " which finds the Enterprise outmatched in every conceivable way during that initial encounter with the Borg.   But two relatively unpopular episodes are also necessary steps in that journey towards this zenith.  These programs are "Time Squared" and "The Royale." 

In "Time Squared," the crew is  asked to solve a life-and-death riddle that involves "anti-sense," to put it mildly.  No easy answers are provided regarding the hows and whys of the story.  In this tale, an incarnation of Captain Picard from six hours in the future returns to the present, with a warning of the Enterprise's destruction.  The incident is baffling, but Starfleet officers should occasionally be knocked for a loop by a WTF moment in outer space, and that's what "Time Squared" gives a pensive, traumatized Picard.

But for today, I've picked "The Royale" as the tale of this nature I wanted to focus intently upon. 

As I mentioned above, it seems everybody hates "The Royale."

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.

To briefly recap the plot, "The Royale" commences as the Enterprise, on a clue from the Klingons, discovers the debris from a 22nd Century NASA ship in orbit around remote Theta 8.   While studying the mystery of Fermat's last theorem, Captain Picard orders Cmdr. Riker to take an away team to the planet surface, where a single structure has been detected in an oxygen-nitrogen envelope (beneath planet-wide ammonia storms).

Riker, Data and Worf soon discover that the structure is a 20th century hotel and casino, the Royale.

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.

Riker, Data and Worf find a clue regarding this mystery in one of the hotel state rooms. They discover the skeletal remains of Colonel Richey, an officer on the destroyed NASA ship.

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 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.

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