OVERALL RATING: D+. ACTING: Frakes, C. Stewart and Spiner, B. Gomez and Henriques, D. WRITING: D. PRODUCTION: Whoever thought of the Chinese finger puzzle bit, A. SPECIAL NOTE: Notice the three-dimensional, holographic cartography system in the Enterprise conference room--with globe appearing in the middle of the table--a bit of dazzling, futuristic special effects that is subtly and nicely downplayed. The crew hardly pay attention to it; they get distracted by the dilemma of the Chinese finger puzzle, a more primitive, simple, ancient bit of technology made of paper. For this, the writers and director receive the "plus" on the overall rating of "D"
THE SHOW: The most charming moment in the episode is when Data gets his fingers caught in a Chinese finger puzzle. This is the beginning of a long tradition of Picard-Data by-play in "Next Generation" scripts. After watching Data struggle over the puzzle, Picard, in frustration, finally grabs Data's hands and shows him how to extract his fingers (by reversing the pull)--a thing that any ordinary human child learns by about age 3.
The set-up for the scene is a little contrived. Some children happen to be playing in a conference room where an officers' meeting is about to take place (where are the Enterprise security systems?--this simply can't have happened!). They get shooed out. They leave the Chinese finger puzzles behind. Data picks one up, out of curiosity. He's never seen one before--an unlikely proposition, but a tolerable one, given the pay-off. The writers maintain their wits about them (as, so often, they do not, in Star Trek), and they actually remember this bit about the Chinese finger puzzles all the way to the end of their script.
The Ferengi, who make their first appearance here, are stand-ins for all the "lesser" races of humanity--that is, the shorter, non-white, non-European, mostly eastern races such as Indonesians, Indians, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese and Phillipinos--about whom white Euro-Americans have become paranoid, in the 1980s, due to the native industriousness and imagined crassness of these other races. They are taking over the Pacific Rim, ye gods! They own half of California!
The Ferengi, besides being ugly little suckers with huge ears and pointed teeth, always have the motive of greed, and can be--and often are--outwitted by their adversaries keeping this in mind. They are like children. As a consequence, they sometimes supply low, vaguely racist-type humor, but do not constitute worthy opponents for our noble Enterprise crew. (The tall, Nazi-like, leathery Cardassians and the ferociously alien Borg Collective have yet to make their appearances.) So, the adventure at the "Last Outpost" has a somewhat silly quality: noble, high-minded Riker versus these nasty greedy little Ferengi mites.
The Enterprise is in pursuit of the thieving Ferengi ship (they've stolen a Federation energy converter). A "Portal" to an ancient civilization, who had slept through its downfall, awakens, and traps both the Enterprise and the Ferengi ship near its planet. When the two ships' crews realize their dilemma, they beam down together to seek the source of their entrapment. The "Portal" nearly extinguishes them both--but Riker convinces the "Portal" of the superiority, nobility and great promise of the human race (as opposed to the vile Ferengi) and saves the day. Data has the best moment in this encounter, however, as he attempts to ply the "Portal" with logic, truth and reality. Its time is over. Its civilization is extinct. It ought to go back to sleep--so says Data.
Riker doesn't really cut it, as Odyssean hero, and these early efforts to make him over into such a hero--in lieu of Captain Picard, who cannot be put in jeopardy on "Away Missions" (a new Federation policy)--make for a certain dullness in the story-telling. Riker is too ordinary for a hero. He is an Everyman--a "second in command" who forever demurs from the several captaincies that are offered to him; an ordinary skirt-chaser; with no cultivation, nor any particularly heroic or unusual characteristics. His voice is ordinariness itself. He has a nice smile, that's about all. Later, he becomes a more complex character--at times, a rather sour, angry, paunchy and somewhat thick-headed middle-aged officer; at other times, displaying surprising warmth and humor. Jonathan Frakes has difficulty with the part, but we do see considerable effort and progress from first season to last. (Compare his performance here with "First Contact" (Season 4) and "Frame of Mind" (Season 7), two excellent Riker episodes.)
Here, all he has going for him are his youth and earnestness. Picard would have been a far better foil for the ancient "Portal." Data certainly has a more interesting conversation with the dangerous old being.
Keep yours ears open for the fate of the Chinese finger puzzles. (And awaken your mind to the meaning of this devious, inscrutable toy.)
TERGIVERSATION METER READING -2. Subliminal racism.
Tergiversate (tur-ji-ver-sat): 1. To use evasions or ambiguities; equivocate. 2. To change sides; to defect; apostatize. The Tergiversation Meter scale runs from -5 (very defective) through +5 (unambiguous, true blue philosophical humanism with no negative subliminal messages).
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