OVERALL RATING: D+. ACTING: Rohner and Pataki, D. Stewart and Ensemble Crew, B-. WRITING: D. DIRECTION: D.
THE SHOW: It is the rare guest star who does well on Star Trek. Episodes that focus on guest roles often flounder. Perhaps it's the make-up and/or costumes which so often are cumbersome and unflattering. Or the undisciplined, party atmosphere on the set (described by Patrick Stewart in an interview on the Joan Rivers Show in 1993). While guest stars may have had fun, and felt welcome, perhaps the lack of discipline on the set undermined their concentration.
Clayton Rohner (as Admiral Mark Jameson) is no exception. Although his character is supposed to be undergoing a painful transition from an old man to a young man, through overdoses of a de-aging drug, Rohner's behavior nevertheless comes across as over-acting. His head jerks and twitchy body movements (trying to be a crotchety old man) become tiresome. After a while, we cease to care much about his problem--a story of old grievances and old sins. Jameson is decorated with a wife--as are so many of these Star Trek guest heroes. She is merely there to react to his tragedy. We don't care about her either; nor about Jameson's enemy Karnas (Michael Pataki) who lures the Admiral into a trap, out of revenge for an old outrage. The outrage itself is kind of interesting. Interpreting the "Prime Directive" in his own way, Diplomat Jameson had supplied armaments to both sides in a civil war, which had led to four decades of strife with millions dead. Karnas (one of the disputants) wants to punish Jameson for this.
If you take Jameson as a metaphor for the United States of America which was, at the time that this episode first aired, in February 1988, busy supplying armaments to Iran, Iraq (Saddam Hussein), Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Kurds and the Somalis, as well as to several other potential tinderboxes around the world, and which, one might say, is a culture that is obsessed with preserving individual youthfulness, then you might distract yourself from the bad acting and find some entertainment in this episode.
"Star Trek: TNG," which does something to promote the idea that weaponry will always be needed and which certainly promotes the notion of eternal youthfulness--through its commercial sponsors as well as through its character-imaging (those red lips of the Counselor)--appears to hold the view that these two things are evil and deserving of death. Jameson is punished for his effort to stay young--he suffers and dies from it. The implication is that his desire for youth is linked, sin-wise, to his supplying of armaments to the Mordan IV civil war. In a very popular movie that came out during TNG's final seasons--called "Ghosts," starring Patrick Sweazey and Whoopi Goldberg--a similarly backward and superstitious view of life is presented, with the gloss and glitter of Hollywood to distract one's mind from the message. In "Ghosts," the message is that sinners will suffer eternal damnation; that there is no forgiveness; that the good should avert their eyes from the suffering of the condemned and should merely pursue their own personal happiness and salvation, and for this they will be rewarded with ascension into Heaven. In Star Trek, the message is that "sins"--"sins" against nature, sins against the Federation--will be punished with death.
The creators of "Ghosts" might forgiven, since they do not pretend to be presenting something that is forward-thinking (although I have not forgiven them). The creators of Star Trek, on the other hand, pride themselves on their progressive thinking and purport to be presenting the higher development of human civilization several centuries into the future.
Admiral Jameson's painful death, just as he is trying to right the wrong that he committed so long ago, is merely a reiteration of the old tragic thinking that brought us the deaths of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Anna Karenina, Camille and a host of other tragic heroes with troubled consciences and tragic flaws who bring destruction down upon themselves.
The philosophy that science fiction is inspired by--the philosophy of the Enlightenment, born of such thinkers as Nicolo Macchievelli, Augustus Montaigne, Thomas Jefferson, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell and others--is that human beings make whatever world they want to live in, with whatever gods they want to worship and whatever rules they can all agree on. This is the humanistic basis of science fiction, which is created by writers who know science and who tend to think things out in a rational fashion. To promote the idea of spiritual retribution is anti-humanistic. To punish a character for his "sin against nature" and/or his armaments trading is to promote superstitition. Plenty of people get away with such "sins" every day and are rewarded with great material wealth and long happy lives.
There is no justice, neither in this life nor in the next, according to Enlightened thinkers, and anyone who thinks there is, is a fool. This is not to say that the thinkers of the Enlightenment advocate being immoral or amoral. There are good reasons for everyone to agree on an ethical system, and societies whose ethical systems break down are in very big trouble. But there are no absolutes; no Great Judges in the sky; there is no such thing as God inflicting spiritual retribution.
As a fiction writer, I am aware that language--the words we use, the way we use them, the stories we tell--is linked in some mysterious way with a tragic view of life. It is very difficult to tell stories or write poems without the plot devices of sin and retribution. There is something in the language itself that makes this so--evil is more colorful; it has more words to describe it; it is more interesting, and it creates conflict. But overcoming this handicap of the language is the very accomplishment that makes the works of such writers as Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, Ted Sturgeon, Ursula Le Guin and others, so compelling. They often succeed at presenting progressive, forward-thinking, "enlightened" views and utopian visions while fighting against the inherent concepts of tragedy that are embedded in language itself.
Star Trek writers, on the other hand, often use "enlightened" views as window-dressing. Such views are not fundamental to the thinking of most Star Trek writers. Racial tolerance, feminism, democracy, free inquiry, free speech, et al, are consistently undermined, in this show, by contrary, subliminal messages. The writers generally utilize science as a mere "story prop," a device. They are not scientists; they are not rigorous thinkers. This is why they so often fail in the effort to present the "enlightened" world of the 24th Century, and why the show so often sounds like the silly chatter one would hear at a Malibu expresso bar. They don't really believe that everyone is "created equal" (notice all the kings, queens, nobles and potentates in Star Trek). They often present other races as ugly and/or inferior to our own. And they very often fall back upon the tragic view of life--martyrdom, warfare, "honor," tribalism, sin and retribution--because it's easiest.
There are exceptions--and I will point them out, as we go along. And, of course, sometimes tragic struggles can be magnificent in and of themselves, and can be successfully combined with science fiction themes. On the whole, Star Trek writers can hardly produce a coherent story, let alone one which accomplishes the goals of the Enlightenment.
The present story suffers from the lack of a subplot (a needed distraction in this case). It contains a couple of noteworthy scenes, two of them noteworthy for their oddness. Here's one. Early on, Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) tells Captain Picard, in a discussion of Jameson's physical condition, that she has "a gut feeling" that Admiral Jameson is lying about something. Picard replies, "Now that's an observation I would expect from Counselor Troi." Crusher thereupon pouts. We don't know why. It's rather strange, actually. She's silent; she's hurt; she's pouting. Picard then goes over to her and tells her that he respects her opinion.
It is a scene without a point and without much sense to it. Was it a cut subplot? A misfired attempt to develop the Picard-Crusher relationship? A stab at creating "character" by having a Crusher-Troi rivalry? It's just one of those things that a thinking television viewer doesn't miss. Stewart makes the scene work--he can make almost anything work. Then, when you think about it, you say, "Wha-a-a-at?"
Here's another. Picard and Riker comment about the youthfulness theme, in a stilted exchange on the Bridge at the conclusion of the episode--an exchange that is only barely saved from absurdity by Stewart's authoritative and well-trained voice. (Kirk and Spock this is not.) Picard: "The quest for youth, Number One...so futile. Age and wisdom have their graces, too." Riker: "I wonder if one doesn't have to have age and wisdom to appreciate that, sir." The end. Cut to commercial about skin care.
Non sequiturs, dear reader...so peurile.
And, finally, the only scene in the entire episode worth watching: Jameson has insisted on leading the Away Team down to the planet to rescue some hostages Karnas is holding. His strategic planning is based on 45 year old information. The Away Team--which includes Picard and Data--gets trapped by phaser fire from Mordanite soldiers. The Away Team has set its phasers on "stun," a general Federation procedure to avoid unnecessary injuries and deaths. Phasers can be set on different levels of "stun," depending on the danger of the situation, as well as on "kill" (in very rare circumstances). Data does a quick floor roll--a nifty stunt--under a rain of fire, over to Picard's position. (Data is always fun to watch in action scenes, because he moves before anybody else and there is always an interesting combination of calculation and great precision in his movements. Don't know if Spiner did this one, though he sometimes performs his own stunts.)
Anyway, the following exchange occurs: Data: "Their phasers, sir...set on kill." Picard: "Thank you... Mr. Data. I have heard the sound before." Kirk-Spock this is. Cool, calm, ironical, funny.
I wonder if one would have to have age and wisdom to appreciate it.
The lack of verbs in sentences ("The quest for youth, Number One...so futile." "They're phasers, sir...set on kill.") will soon be dropped as a style of dialogue, thank the Lord.
TERGIVERSATION METER READING: -3. Retrograde religious notions of sin and retribution.
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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