Wednesday, January 30, 2013

S1E19 Coming of Age

Season 1 Episode 19: Coming of Age

Watchability: Skip
Short Answer: A couple interesting points, but nothing you are going to miss.
Notables: Serves as a sort of precursor to "Conspiracy"

There are two main threads running through this episode. The first one is about one of Picard's old friends who is now an admiral. He comes to the Enterprise and investigates Picard's record for reasons unknown. By today's standards has a fairly predictable twist. The more "interesting" part of this plot line is continued in the episode "Conspiracy" later this season, so I won't go into it here. We'll see how I feel when I get to it, but I recall that episode being one of the strangest episodes in the entire series. If you watch this one, definitely watch "Conspiracy". It's not good, but it will probably be good for a laugh.

The second plot line follows Wesley Crusher as he applies to Starfleet. It's interesting for a couple reasons. The one that piqued my interest is that the Starfleet application process is very selective. Of all the children on the Enterprise, Wesley is the only one allowed to take the exam. The plot diverges a bit into the story about another teenager who does not get accepted. I suppose he is intended to be a foil for Wesley, but I have a hard time seeing the purpose. He seems to exist solely to let Picard give him a heart filled pep-talk about trying again.

Having the exam be so selective definitely seems to drive home the point that the Starfleet is "the best and the brightest" (which later plot-lines are happy to contradict). We already saw that it is difficult to even be allowed to take the test. In addition, only one person from the test is accepted. It's understandable that Starfleet wants people of a certain caliber, but having the applicants compete against each other seems a little contrary to the principles of the show. It seems at odds with a world that talks about how there is no unemployment and everyone is able to do what they set out to do. If all the applicants were capable of being a Starfleet officer, I would think that they would accept them.

As per usual, I am probably over analyzing it. This aspect of the plot is probably exists just to facilitate the moral (see Spoiler Section below). If any of the discussion above sounds interesting, go ahead and watch it. Otherwise, it is pretty safe to skip.

By the end of the exam, it is clear that Wesley and Mordock, another candidate, are neck-and-neck. Wesley takes a moment during one of the tests to help his opponent, which causes him to fail to get accepted into Starfleet. Picard delivers what I assume is the moral of the episode in this statement: "You have to measure your successes and failures within." Written down it's a little bit trite, but it is no worse than the life lessons that other shows of the time dole out (I'm looking at you Full House...).

Side Notes
(1) A few episodes back, I talked about a gesture that Patrick Stewart often makes which is jokingly called "The Picard Maneuver". In this episode, we almost see "The Riker Maneuver" (I think it is called that). As you continue to watch the show, you may notice that Riker often straddles a chair. This action denotes to us, the audience, his laid-back persona. He doesn't quite do it here, but he does swing his leg over the chair like he is going to, but without turning the chair around.

(2) This episode also features the first instance of Riker ALMOST getting to command the Enterprise. Picard tells Riker that he has been offered an admiralty, and you can see the excitement in Riker's face until Picard tells him that he has turned it down. Throughout the show, there are a number of times where Riker seems to waiting for the chance to command the Enterprise. Sometimes he gets to command of the ship for a little while. At other times, he is offered a position somewhere else and turns it down. He just can't seem to catch a break.

S1E18 Home Soil

Season 1 Episode 18: Home Soil

Watchability: Skip
Short Answer: Nothing really wrong with it, but doesn't really add anything either.
Quotation: "That would require the talents of a master programmer"

I made this episode a Skip because it didn't really grab me. The plot was decent and the writing wasn't bad, but I would say that it didn't offer a lot that other episodes don't already do. For someone that has limited time, I would say skip this one.

Side Notes
(1) There is one scene of this episode that I remembered as a kid. When Dr. Crusher is first examining the rock crystals (or whatever they are...), someone asks if it is alive. That sparks a little mini-lecture about what characteristics are required for being a living organism. I remembered it well enough to recite it years later in my biology class. I thought it was cool that I actually learned something from the show.

(2) Apparently you can put images on webpages... Why didn't I think of this before? Back in my day the web was just text... and other text that blinked...

Monday, January 21, 2013

S1E17 When the Bough Breaks

Season 1 Episode 17: When the Bough Breaks

Watchability: Recommended
Short Answer: Well written episode, that has a couple interesting angles.
Favorite Line: "Things are only impossible until they're not."

Following a trail of strange sensor readings, the Enterprise finds a planet that has been cloaked for centuries. The crew realizes that they have found a civilization that was thought to be only a legend. The technology of the planet is much more advanced than the Enterprise and the people live in relative comfort. Of course, there is one problem. They can't have children, so they abduct some from the Enterprise.

Some Spoilers Below - Not that big in my opinion, but does give away the ending...

Overall, the episode is a rather heavy-handed moral parable about using technology wisely and not taking it for granted. And to that effect, it works fairly well. When Wesley is introduced to the computer that runs the entire planet, he asks several questions about how it works. The woman showing him responds by saying equivalent of "It just works." Surprise, surprise, it's the computer that has been killing off their race the whole time.

That plot line is interesting on it's own, but there is another thread that I found interesting. The children are sorted into "units" which appear to represent different trades. One of the boys is made to join a group of sculptors, even though he has no apparent interest in sculpture. At one point, Wesley asks why they are making the boy into a sculptor. The reply, predictably, is that he already is a sculptor. We see this effect pan out at the end of the episode, when the boy asks his dad if can be a sculptor.

I'm not really sure what it is about that aspect of the episode that strikes me. Perhaps it is that, despite how much they are in the wrong, the civilization does have something to offer. Or perhaps it is the idea that what we ultimately do in life comes from unexpected places. Given that the main plot is decent, I would probably give this episode a Extra Credit. Since it has a couple other thoughtful pieces like the one above, I gave it a Recommended.

Side Notes
(1) Why do they only kidnap five children? That's not enough to recreate a civilization! Apparently they forgot how genetics work...

(2) A humorous detail that bookends the episode is the kid that complains about having to go to Calculus. I don't know if his age is ever stated in the episode, but he seems to be at most ten years old. That seems really young to be learning Calculus. I wonder if the writers are positing that in the future we will be learning advanced concepts at earlier and earlier ages.

It certainly explains why everyone seems to know a lot about everything. I am continually surprised that the Command officers, for example, seem to know to fix the warp engines. It is like the CEO of Amazon, walking into their data centers and fixing the servers.

S1E16 Too Short a Season

Season 1 Episode 16: Too Short a Season

Watchability: Extra Credit
Short Answer: Decent story. Watch if you have the time.
Notables: I'm going to have be better about these...

I remember this episode (and the next one, When the Bough Breaks) as being fan favorites. I wasn't sure what to expect, because a lot of episodes from this season have surprised me. I know I have seen them before, but I don't really remember a lot about them. It was nice to watch them without knowing how they ended.

In this episode, the Enterprise is asked to escort an aging Admiral to a planet where a number of Starfleet diplomats are being held hostage. This incident is similar to one that happened 45 years ago, where Starfleet helped defuse another hostage situation. The Admiral is the same person that negotiated the previous incident. It was the first in a series of successful negotiations that made him famous.

Of course, there is more to the story. The two incidents are related in ways that are revealed over the course of the episode. I won't go too deep into the details, in case someone wants to watch it. I will say that the story is pretty good relative to others this season.

By the end of the episode it becomes clear that the two incidents are similar because the characters can't let go of the past. In some ways it reminds me of the The Last Outpost. In that episode, Picard was forced to relive his past by a Plot Device. In this episode, they go a bit further. Instead of it being a temporary condition, the characters are unable to move past by the mistakes they have made. And instead of hallucinating the events of the past, they recreate them. I don't know if the writers intended the comparison between the two episodes, but serve as a nice foil for Picard's character.

Definitely watch it if you have the time, but it is not essential.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

S1E15 11001001

Season 1 Episode 15: 11001001

Watchability: Recommended
Short Answer: The best written dialogue this season so far.
Notables: Watch out of Minuet, she'll come up again later.

I think this episode is the first one that has really surprised me. When I watched it as a kid, I don't remember it being notable at all. And while it has no over-arching message, I think it is the best written episode I've seen so far during these recaps.

When I watch each episode, I usually take notes. Sometimes I write down lines from the episode if I think that I might reference them later. Typically, there are only one or two quotations per episode. For this episode, almost everything I wrote down was a line of dialogue. Everything from Wesley commenting on a society where information is at your fingertips (*cough* *cough* smartphones...) to Picard making generalizations about love to Worf cracking a joke.

With these moments, we start see a little of the personalities of these characters; Worf as the deadpan comic, the mentor/friend relationship between Picard and Riker, Riker's love of jazz. I feel like all these are hints of what fans remember about these characters. Until this episode (and probably for a little while), I feel like the characters have been pretty flat. It's surprising to me that we get so much of it in a single episode. Hopefully, I haven't oversold it, since I definitely Recommend it.

Side Note: Watching this episode, it occurred to me to try to figure out if the title "11001001" had any significant meaning. Of course, being a computer science guy, I knew that it represents "C9" in hex or "201" in decimal. This didn't immediately produce a satisfactory answer, so I tried to figure out if it somehow connected to a "minuet" or had some significance in Jazz. All of my efforts came up empty. It wasn't until a day or so later, looking on Wikipedia, that I saw an explanation. Apparently, the number 201 can be seen on computer displays and other places repeatedly. This fact was was something I haven't heard of before. I'll have to look out for it in the future.

S1E14 Angel One

Season 1 Episode 14: Angel One

Watchability: Skip
Short Answer: More campy than it is fun. But still has some classic Star Trek themes.
Notability: Nothing...?

Looking at the synopsis for this episode, it seems pretty typical compared to other plots from this season. The Enterprise finds a planet is run by a society that values women more than men. Clearly it's intended as an allegory for our own male dominated history. A fact that is explicitly called out by Picard in the first half of the episode.

Often these types of episodes present the audience with a scenario that takes the mechanic to a logical extreme. The writers take one or more of the crew and stick them in the middle of that scenario. In the episode about honor, Tasha Yar had to kill or be killed. In the episode about the death penalty, Wesley faced death row.

This week, Riker is the lucky winner. And instead of his life being in peril, he is "objectified" and sleeps with the leader of the planet. Now, I put "objectified" in quotes, not because objectification is unworthy of discussion, but because it's never really treated with any gravity. Riker seems to rather enjoy it, even cracking jokes. And the female leader even praises his aggressiveness. If the premise is role reversal, that seems unintentionally ironic...

To really make this about gender roles, I think they needed to show how the men of the planet were being emasculated. It seems like they intended to go there, but the reversal is sidelined in favor of Riker's "ladies' man" persona. It's a central part of his character, so I am not criticizing that per se. It may just mean that he was not a good pick as the focus of this episode.

Of course, I've probably over-analyzed the episode more than the writers intended. I felt like they couldn't decide whether they wanted it to be a fun episode or a thoughtful one. It was actually not bad for the first season, so I hesitated giving it a Skip. In the end, the episode is a bit slow and I feel there are better "message" episodes.

Side Note: Riker at one point during the scene with the planet's leader says "Will you respect me in the morning?" I thought it was an homage to black and white movies where lines like these were used as a wink and a nod to what was going on. I found it a bit odd and I was curious whether it plays for anyone born after 1995. I couldn't find any specific reference to it, so maybe I made that up.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

S1E13 Datalore

Season 1 Episode 13: Datalore

Watchability: Recommended
Short Answer: Starts one of the best character arcs of the show that carries over to the movies.
Notables: Introduction of Lore. "Shut-up Wesley" internet meme.

As I have said before, TNG existed in an era of television before there were sweeping plot arcs. Most episodes are fairly self-contained and in large part can be watched in any order. That being said, there are a couple character arcs that run throughout the series. This episode begins one of the more involved story arcs and it is one of my favorites. Unlike a lot of other story lines, it reappears in season finales and it is even present in the TNG movies.

This particular episode delves into Data's backstory. Until this episode, I feel like Data is mainly a reboot of the Spock character from TOS. In every iteration of Star Trek, there seems to be a character that plays to the same story beats as Spock.

In TOS, Spock's character played the role of an outsider; an alien that questioned the strange tendencies of humans. Sometimes it was used for comedic value, but it was often used to examine what makes humanity unique or special (or at least as the writers saw it). That plot device was so successful it has become a de-facto part of Star Trek. Every show since the original series has a character that serves the same purpose (ex. Data, Odo, Seven of Nine, T'Pol).

Depending on the series, the attempt to recreate the Spock character has varying degrees of success. With Data's character, I think they do that successfully and even manage to build on it. Data has his own unique story lines. Some of them we won't see until later, but this episode marks the beginning of moving Data away from just a Spock clone. For that reason, and because it sets up stories and characters to come, I definitely recommend it.

Side Note: The scene where both Picard and Dr. Crusher tell Wesley Crusher to "Shut-up" has become an internet meme. You can see many clips of it on YouTube, and even a Tumblr or two, but if you want a T-Shirt, they have those too.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

S1E12 The Big Goodbye

Season 1 Episode 12: The Big Goodbye

Watchability: Extra Credit
Short Answer: More of a fun episode than anything else.
Notables: Introduction of the Holodeck episode.

This episode is the first in a long line of episodes that take place mainly on the holodeck. Picard has just acquired a holodeck program that is essentially an interactive novel of one of his favorite characters. The story follows a Private Eye, named Dixon Hill. Picard and a few of the crew participate in the program, and the episode takes place almost entirely inside the holodeck. As seems inevitable with these episodes, the "holodeck safeties" fail and what started out as a pleasant diversion, turns out to be a deadly threat to the crew (dun dun DUUUUN!).

It's hard to say whether this episode is an intentional commentary on video games, movies and other forms of entertainment. At the time the episode aired (1987), there were certainly games that involved interactive storytelling. Sierra, Infocom, and other companies were making the adventure games that made them famous. If nothing else, Zork had been out for over five years. Whether, intentional or not, I think this episode stands up as a being relatively prescient. At one point, Picard raves about how realistic and immersive the experience was for him. It is surprisingly similar to the way that people talk about the latest Xbox game or 3D movie.

Besides that aspect, I am not sure if there is any other serious point. There is an episode later on that explores the dangers of holodeck addiction in a much more obvious way. In large part, I think this episode is just a fun way for the writers/actors to explore the entertainment of the future. For that reason, though I like this episode a lot, I would say that it is not essential.

S1E11 Haven

Season 1 Episode 11: Haven

Watchability: Skip
Short Answer: Introduction of a re-occurring character, so purists may want to watch it, but otherwise it is a pass.
Notables: Introduction of Lwaxana Troi, played by Gene Roddenberry's wife.

I had a hard time deciding between a Skip and an Extra Credit on this one. On the one hand, it introduces one of the iconic characters of the show: Lwaxana Troi. She is the mother of Deanna Troi and shows up several times through out the show. She is played by Majel Barrett, who is not only Gene Roddenberry's wife, but also the voice of the computer. On the original show, she played Nurse Chapel. Her character is largely comedic in this episode, so if you are short on time it is safe to skip.

S1E10 Hide and Q

Season 1 Episode 10: Hide and Q

Watchability: Extra Credit
Short Answer: Q makes a second appearance. I'd recommend it on that alone, but it also shows a little more of Riker's character.
Notables: Q, 'nuff said.

This episode marks Q's second appearance and once again he is bent on testing humanity. The payoff for that comes at the end of the episode, so I am loath to spoil too much about it. If you enjoyed the quirky personality of Q, or you want to see a Shakespeare-off between Picard and Q, this episode is definitely worth watching.

I will say that unlike the previous Q episode, this episode tests Riker instead of Picard. What I really enjoyed about the episode is the trust that Picard places in Riker. Q threatens to tempt Riker with the ultimate gift. Picard's reaction is almost that of relief. His confidence in the people under his command is such a difference from a lot of SciFi. It mirrors the same same optimism that he expresses for humanity in general. In the end, Riker does grow as a character, and Picard does chastise him for some of his naiveté, but as his one-on-one conversation with Q demonstrates, he has confidence that Riker will get there.