Sunday, December 26, 2010

Classics: TNG 1:25 - Conspiracy (Cheers!)

Overall Rating: 8.0

Finally..something to be happy about in a HORRIFIC first season of what will become a great franchise. The reason Star Trek moves from cultish, juvenile and simplistic to engaging, thought provoking entertainment is captured in the difference between this story and most of the rest of the stories in the first two seasons of TNG. In a word...courage.

Plot Synopsis:

The details of this episode may be found here courtesy of Star Trek: The Episode Guide.

The Skinny:

Although the presentation elements of this episode are still corny and intrusive a la Roddenbury's usual style (thankfully, they'll begin dialing back the overdone scores and the insane close-ups of Picard's left nostril when Roddenbury mercifully retires), this story is very atypical for Roddenbury's Trek. Why? It shows courage.

It's not that Roddenbury's Trek was devoid of interesting plot concepts or that his writers on the original series or early in the history of TNG were incapable of executing a story with skill and evoking the desired emotions. There were certainly TOS episodes that succeeded fantastically. But The Original Series could never have lassted seven seasons, not because it was "ahead of its time" (though it may have been), but because those writers never attempted to tell "big" stories that tie together events from across the timeline. Ultimately, that's what keeps people coming back to see the next season. Signalling the future for Trek, Conspiracy actually manages to explain events from other episodes, tell a story with wide-reaching potential consequences, and resolve it with a confidence uncommon to other early TNG episodes.

What do I mean by confidence? In Roddenbury's world, there is plenty of confidence in the moral superiority of his utopian humanity, but no real confidence in how to actually apply the standards of that utopia to real dilemmas. We see our heroes wringing their hands over whether it is valid to reject an alien culture and assert their own belief system, even when lives were at stake (see: Justice, e.g.). Here, our heroes encounter an alien race claiming that it seeks peaceful coexistance (while robbing us of our individuality and freedom to achieve said coexistance), and, without hesitation, our response is to exterminate them! AWESOME! No wrestling with the moral dilemma, just appropriate actions to defend ourselves.

I also think this episode works because it throws to the wind the safety of the Federation womb. Most of the storytelling in Trek presupposes that the Federation is a secure, homogenous melting pot and that Star Fleet is well capable of repelling threats to that free and easy lifestyle upon which our prosperity is based. It's interesting to note that the various enemies the Federation encounters over the years are all historically relevant to the time in which they were created (Klingons were Japanese samurai and expressed our fear of the rising economic dominance of Japan in the late sixties...they became allies when Japan was no longer a threat, the Borg represented our fear of communist China and Russia during the end of the cold war when they were first conceived, the Dominion represents our fear of religious zealotry and terrorism associated with Islamofascism and other forms of radical fundamentalism, etc)...but that the parasitic organisms in this episode appear to be ahead of their time, making their usage genuinely surprising.

All in all, this is a well-written, decently-acted, still-somewhat-cornily-presented, creative story with a well executed twist (we think Riker is compromised, when in fact he is not...that whole sequence was well done), and a gigantic step forward for TNG storytelling that portends the good things to come. Bravo.

Writing: 8.5

This entire script manages to maintain a restraint and subtlety that the totality of the first two seasons of Trek (minus a few bright moments) cannot muster. Faced with a possible conspiracy, we do not see Picard or Riker gradiosely bellowing cornball dialogue...and the bad guys are sufficiently subtle as mustache twirling allowed. The big key, however, is that this story is actually suspenseful due to excellent decisionmaking on which information should be given to the audience and at what time it should be delivered. Roddenbury's gang usually fails at such things.

Acting: 7.5

Robert Shekkan (Remmick), Michael Berryman (Rixx) and Ward Costello (Admiral Quinn) were a bit on the amateur side of the scale, but Jonathan Frakes and Patrick Stewart (and even Marina Sirtis!) managed to appear very competent and I was actually pretty impressed with Jonathan Farwell (Walker Keele).

Message: 8.0

Star Trek is usually at its best when it's standing for individual liberty...whether we encounter the Borg, a parasitic organism or a group of humanoids suppressing our freedoms, most of the time, Trek writers do a good job standing up and saying "NO!" promises of peaceful coexistence will convince us that this race should be allowed to take us as hosts. A welcome change of pace from horrible applications of the Prime Directive.

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