OVERALL RATING: B-. WRITING: C. ACTING: B, all around.
THE SHOW: As previous episodes have suggested ("The Naked Now," "The Big Goodbye"), Star Trek writers want to get something going by way of romance between Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher. Here, they try one of the oldest tricks in that fleabitten bag that hack TV writers carry around with them in Hollywood along with their cellular phones and their little black books--isolate the two characters by force of circumstance--say, have them fall into an underground cavern, with one of them injured. That way you get intimacy, bodily concerns, drama and suspense all in one shot, without the characters having to actually fornicate.
The Enterprise stumbles upon a notorious arms bazaar called Minos, while searching for a missing starship. The chief arms salesman (played by Vincent Schiavelli) comes on the main viewer with an obnoxious commercial for armaments--quite as obnoxious, in fact, as those loud, insistent, awful sales pitches you can catch between the various acts of this Star Trek episode, on your very own TV set. The cleverness is almost too much to bear.
It turns out that the Minosians are all dead, but they've left their greeting card to the universe turned on--the hard sell armaments tape which gets triggered by any visitor. They've also left in place a deadly ultimate weapon that sends wicked little killer machines through the air to attack anything that moves. The machines adapt to whatever weapons are thrown at them. The weapons have the ability to improve themselves, and proceed to do so in a deadly automated arms race that threatens the Away Team. Picard and Crusher fall into a cave, while under attack from the menacing machines. Riker, Data and Lt. Yar try to fight the machines off. Data takes note of just how long the little monsters take to re-program themselves--a matter of minutes--and warns his comrades as the even more deadly next generation of killing machine arrives. This highly sophisticated Minosian weapons system figures out how to attack the Enterprise. The situation seems desperate....
Meanwhile, Captain Picard gets to touch Dr. Crusher's leg and empathize with her suffering down in the cave. It may not be as good as fornication, but it's all that these early, prissy Star Trek: TNG writers can bring themselves to portray, and it'll have to do.
Every starry-eyed, infatuated adolescent dreams about getting stuck in a cave with a broken leg, and being given tender loving care by some object of their affections who would otherwise be unattainable--a movie star, a favorite teacher, an upperclassman. I used to have such fantasies about Elliot Ness, believe it or not (the Eliot Ness of the old "Untouchables," played by Robert Stack). It's a common adolescent theme, along with other rescue fantasies of the same genre--getting-stuck-in-an-elevator-together fantasies; kidnapping fantasies, etc.
Star Trek: TNG re-uses this theme a couple of times--in "Final Mission" (where Picard gets stuck in a cave with Wesley, with Picard being the one who is injured); in "Disaster" (Picard getting stuck in an elevator with a group of children); and elsewhere, along with a whole lot of kidnapping fantasies.
The problem with using archetypal fantasy images is that you have to be a good writer to create something that doesn't come out icky or contrived. Joe Menosky succeeds with the archetype, in "Hero Worship" (Season 5)--the ultimate rescue story, wherein a young boy is rescued from a collapsing starship by Commander Data. Menosky, one of Star Trek's best writers, carries the theme through, showing the many aspects of hero worship, including a thoughtful consideration of both the uses and dangers of fantasy, to the conclusion, in which the boy chooses his own humanity over play-acting at being an android.
Manning, Beimler, Hurley, and Lewin, who wrote the present episode, simply don't have this sort of writing talent. They never rise above a hack use of fantasy, in the cave sequence, nor a hack use of progressive ideas in the main plot. Maybe that's why it took so many of them to write it.
The main plot never becomes more than a "neat idea" somebody had in a story conference: "Let's go after the arms traders." After they skewer the arms traders, with their clever little commercial bit, then they have to figure out what else to do, and proceed to manufacture a plot to prove their point. I'm not saying it's not a good point. It is. The trouble is that you can hear their thoughts ticking as they contrive a plot to illustrate just how bad arms trading is.
They never question the armaments that the Federation manufactures and where they might end up (although other TNG writers do tackle this issue). They don't address any of the core issues of weapons manufacture. Our own country (the good old U.S. of A.), for instance, routinely uses our tax money to manufacture and sell weapons all over the world. The stock portfolios of many of our fellow and sister citizens contain investments in chemical weapons, military uniforms, assault rifles, tanks and bullets that are sold to every tinhorn dictator on the planet. "Arsenal of Freedom" presumes that the good old Federation is clean in this respect. The evil associated with selling armaments is all projected onto another species, on another planet, in a far distant solar system, in the far future.
There is no self-reflection in the script. It is pure propaganda from a psuedo-progressive point of view. Later on, in Season 5, in "I, Borg," written by Rene Echevarria, we get a progressive message on race relations--but what a difference there is between the way that message is delivered and the way this one is delivered. In that script, we are taken through the experience of prejudice from the point of each member of the cast. The issue of racial prejudice (against the race of Borgs) is given a thorough airing, is fully examined by people who have good reason to hate Borgs, and is beautifully resolved. In this script, the issue of arms trading is merely separated from us--that is, separated from "the good guys"--with fingerpointing at the "bad guys."
There are a few clever turns to the script--among them, that the commercial for armaments is automated and can be merely switched off, in the end. The fight against the ever-improving killing machines has some good dramatic moments--and the idea of self-improving weapons is interesting, as a science fiction premise. Geordi, representing Star Trek's handicapped constituency, gets to make some heavy-duty command decisions, while the captain and other senior officers are stranded on Minos. It's not a bad adventure tale; it's watchable. But beware of the pretentiousness and the oversimplification of the anti-armaments message (and do review your stock portfolio).
TERGIVERSATION METER READING: -1. It's not enough to wish to promulgate a progressive message. If the method of promulgation is propaganda, or highly contrived, manipulated morality tales, the message is thereby undermined. Propaganda and manipulation--forcing your audience to accept your message--is anti-progressive.
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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