Episode no. 113
Season 1
Entertainment rating: A-
Tergiversation meter: +2


THE BIG GOODBYE



FEATURING: Patrick Stewart, Gates McFadden and Brent Spiner, with Lawrence Tierney and Harvey Jason as the gangsters, and William Boyett as Lt. Dan Bell. DIRECTOR: Joseph L. Scanlan. WRITER: Tracy Torme. STARDATE: 41997.7. EARTHWEEK: 1-11-88.

OVERALL RATING: A-. ACTING: A. WRITING: B DIRECTION: A-. SPECIAL NOTE: By far the best episode of Season 1--rather like a Fourth of July fireworks rocket that suddenly takes off after a whole row sputtering, fizzling, almosts. Among a whole bunch of cameo gems--beautiful little bits of acting that stand by themselves as Star Trek collectibles--perhaps the best is the silent Laurel & Hardy lampcord routine by Stewart and Spiner on the holodeck during the Dixon Hill fantasy.

THE SHOW: TNG takes a big leap forward with their twelfth episode, "The Big Goodbye," which involves a holodeck game about a 1940s detective named Dixon Hill that Captain Picard uses for recreation. We get a look at what 24th Century starship inhabitants do for fun. We get to see Picard, Crusher and Data in gorgeous 1940s clothing. We start getting a feeling of expansiveness and humor and possibilities that has been heretofore absent on the Enterprise.

The set-up is that Picard must deliver a flawless greeting in the native tongue of the Jarada in order to establish diplomatic relations with this highly touchy race of insects. One mistake, and, well.....the last time it was tried by a Federation emissary, something horrible happened to the emissary. Data wants to review the details, so as to better prepare the Captain for this difficult mission. Troi shuts Data up. Data doesn't understand that reviewing the gruesome details will just make Picard more nervous. What the Captain needs is to get away from it all Thus....

Picard escapes to the holodeck where he has designed an authentic historical environment, complete with automobiles and newspapers, of 1940s San Francisco, where he can play detective and solve mysteries in the role of Dixon Hill--a Sam Spade type character in a Dashiell Hammett type setting. Picard is so excited by the fantastic detail and reality of the environment that he goes back into the Enterprise and gets Dr. Crusher and ship's historian Whalen (David Selburg) to return with him, along with Data (who invites himself). They all don 1940s clothing--with Crusher and Data looking particularly smashing in the period piece attire--and accompany Picard back to San Francisco on the holodeck.

In order to get himself invited on this romp, Data quickly reads all of the works of Dixon Hill and becomes an expert on the period. Unfortunately, this research isn't put to much use. All Data gets to do, really, is correct Captain Picard's pronunciation of Joe De Maggio's last name and predict when De Maggio's winning streak will end. It's just filler. It has nothing to do with the plot. The writer is are just doodling around with possibilities and filling in "local color." This would be okay--it is a recurring Data schtick, and a very successful one, to have him providing irrelevant information--except that the "doodling around" aspects of this script extend into the main plot line and to other characters.

Crusher puts in an especially dazzling performance as a sexy redhead flirting with a cop in the police station, while Picard is in a back room being grilled about a murder by two police lieutenants. Picard is very turned-on by Crusher's1940s persona but then finds himself encumbered by Data and Whalen who tag along back to detective Dixon Hill's office. Picard can't shake them--but, in any case, he soon has a far more serious problem. One of the gangsters who arrive in Dixon Hill's office shoots and greviously wounds Whalen, for real. Our game players find themselves locked into the holodeck with holodeck gangsters using real guns.

The Jarada had been scanning the Enterprise (for weapons, etc.) and, in doing so, have glitched the holodeck computer system, overriding its safety controls and its communications system, so that Crusher has to use old-fashioned first-aid on Whalen--she can't get him to Sick Bay. One wonders why they don't call a 1940s ambulance and take Whalen to a 1940s holodeck hospital--if the thing is so damn authentic. But, anyway, meanwhile....

Engineer Geordi La Forge and boy wonder Wesley Crusher are trying to repair the holodeck systems--but, of course, they've got real flesh and blood inside, including Wesley's mother. They can't just trash the program. They have to be careful what they do.

Picard is forced to negotiate with a gangster who resembles "the Fat Man" in "The Maltese Falcon." Indeed, gangster Cyrus Redblock (played by Lawrence Tierney) demands that Picard produce a mysterious, unnamed "item" that could be anything, including the famous black, jewel-embedded statue from the original story. The details of Picard's game-story are a little vague. One gets the feeling that Picard hasn't worked it all out yet--or perhaps the scriptwriter hasn't worked it all out.

Picard needs to get Whalen to Sick Bay. He is thus forced to tell Redblock and the other holodeck figures--including Dixon Hill's friend, Police Lieutenant Dan Bell (the nicer of the two policemen)--that they are part of an artificial environment. Gangster Redblock immediately starts scheming to invade the Enterprise and commit theft, while Hill's friend Lt. Bell agonizes over the unreality of his wife and child, not to mention himself.

In a touching final scene on the holodeck, Picard says good-bye to his holodeck buddy, Lt. Bell, who wonders if his life will continue once his friend "Dix" is gone. The style and lighting of this final holodeck scene--as well as the acting and direction--give Captain Picard a startling new aura of softness, friendliness and heart-rending, Bogart-like romanticism. (It has the emotional impact and style of the final scene in "Casablanca.") .

"The Big Goodbye" adds dimension to the characters of Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher. The rather tightly wound Captain is seen in a relaxed mode, having fun--and his sense of adventure and love of a mystery are engaging. Crusher's provocative femininity and sensuality seem more appropriate here, in 1940s San Francisco, than they do in Sick Bay (a woman out of her time?). And Brent Spiner has a wonderful time showing off Data's talent for mimicry--with his "lower East Side," "Mugsy" voice, his tough guy facial expressions, and stunts such as bending the barrel of a 1940s revolver between his fingertips as if it were made of wax.

Stewart and Spiner also do a very funny comic bit with an old-fashioned electrical lamp that comes unplugged from its wall outlet. It is done without words and is a small classic of silent comedy, reminiscent of comic geniuses Laurel and Hardy.

The energy of this episode, and its delightfulness, primarily derive from the actors, who absolutely relish their double-roles, and from the costuming and the authentic feel of the holodeck environment. The writing is not terribly satisfactory, however. For instance, Crusher's flirtation with the cop has no point at all in the story. It is simply there to show off Crusher's talents as a flirt. With a better thought-out plot, this could have been a nifty diversion. She could have been extracting information from the cop, in her own flirtious way--while the bad cop unsuccessfully grills Picard-Hill. She could have been flirting with the cop to find out where Picard-Hill is being interrogated--to sneak back there and rescue him. None of this. The scene has no relevant point to make.

While Crusher is flirting to no purpose, Data is gazing at the police station bulletin board. We never see what he is reading. He's just standing around, waiting. The trouble is that Data, as previously portrayed, is an inherently curious being, always coming up with odd bits of information and sometimes hilarious comments. We are drawn to the bulletin board because he finds it interesting. But we can't see it; and we're never told what's on it. It's a meaningless action on his part (made interesting by Spiner twirling his fedora).

The writer himself (Tracy Torme) seems so dazzled by the costumes and the decor that he can't get a story going--or doesn't think a good story is necessary. Dashiell Hammett this is not. Hammett plots are very tight, with narry a stray flirtatious glance that doesn't contribute to the story. Hammett would never have allowed a pointless flirtation or a meaningless scan of a bulletin board. These items would have some sort of motivation or some sort of result connected with the plot, and would have moved the plot forward in some way.

Star Trek writers sometimes get a bit too twisted up in their own mazes of plots within plots, and plots gone awry. Picard-Hill's holodeck plot has obviously gone awry when the gangsters start shooting real bullets. But what WAS the plot, before that? Where are we heading, when, suddenly, Whalen receives a real wound? We're never quite sure. And it isn't good enough to say that Picard himself doesn't know. He would likely have programmed a Dixon Hill novel into the holodeck. Was Hill such an unclear writer? What is the valuable "item" that Redblock wants Picard-Hill to cough up? We never know. (This may have been deliberate, but it doesn't quite work. The various descriptions of the thing--"a certain object," "the item"--come across as a bit too cute.)

The episode does have a satisfactory conclusion as to the viewers' emotional involvement (quite aside from plot logic). The notion of consciousness in holodeck figures, and the question of their ability to exist off the holodeck, will be used again--in "Elementary, Dear Data," and "Ship In A Bottle." It is a fascinating notion, first introduced here by writer Torme and used to good effect. Also, the Jarada plot line (the flawless diplomatic greeting that the Captain must deliver) is brought to a very satisfying conclusion. (The writer's conception of the difficult Jarada language, and Stewart's rendition of it, are hilarious.)

The style and sheer fun of this episode gloss over the vagueness of the Dixon Hill story, as well as major plot glitches--for instance, that the gangsters who leave the holodeck continue to exist for several seconds before they evaporate (this makes no scientific sense), while the lipstick on Picard's face from a kiss by a holodeck lady stays with him off the holodeck until Crusher wipes it off. Star Trek continuity people fail to monitor this business of objects existing off the holodeck. The inconsistencies among "Encounter at For Point" (the holodeck water on Wesley in the corridor), "Elementary, Dear Data" (Moriarty's drawing of the Enterprise, taken off the holodeck by Data, whereas Moriarty himself cannot leave), "Ship in a Bottle" (the book that instantly evaporates when thrown off the holodeck) and this episode, "The Big Goodbye" (with gangsters slowly evaporating, and lipstick surviving permanently) are real howlers. But who cares? The episode is great fun, all in all--and, not unimportantly, indicates what this cast can do given good direction and a half-way decent story idea. It is an omen of things to come in the second and subsequent seasons.

TERGIVERSATION METER READING: +2 (on a scale of -5 through +5). The message is that fantasy is not only an okay activity and great fun but also vital to human health--an imminently humanistic message. Even though Picard and friends get into trouble on the holodeck, the Captain's exhilaration with his fantasy comes across strongly, and his use (and, by implication, others' uses) of the holodeck for sexual stimulation is obvious and upfront. There is no ambiguity. There are no detectable contrary messages on this point. The Jarada subplot is amusing but, unfortunately, as with so many other instances of humor in TNG, the humor derives from the idea that an entire race of people can be characterized by certain negative traits, in this case, unreasonableness and violence--an inherently racist notion.

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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