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Random "Star Trek" Episode Flashback #1
2007-04-05 06:26
by Mark T.R. Donohue

When I wrote parts one and two of my big "Star Trek" think piece, it was my original intention to proceeed immediately into a third part about what I think would be the best move to restore the franchise's fortunes at this point. But when I started to write it, I realized that I really didn't know. Now my plan is to watch and reflect on several of my favorite episodes from "Trek" series past, and see if I come across any common threads that ought to be the founding concepts of whatever the next "Star Trek" show will end up being.

The first episode I watched, to this end, was from the seventh season of "The Next Generation." "The Pegasus" is an interesting episode for a lot of reasons. It's one of the few standouts in a lame final season where both the actors and writers seemed stressed by the preparations for both the finale and the debut movie for the "Next Gen" cast, Star Trek: Generations. It's one of the best-ever "TNG" shows written by Ron Moore, and it deals in the same sort of material that Moore has made hay with on "Battlestar Galactica." It's all about political intrigue, broken treaties, and divided loyalties. "The Pegasus" also features a terrific guest performance by Terry O'Quinn, now a household name on "Lost." According to my official guide, this is the first appearance of a black Romulan. (Of course, since the Romulans are genetically identical to the Vulcans and Tuvok is black, we could infer the existence of black Romulans anyway, but it's nice to know for sure.) And for good measure the teaser features Jonathan Frakes' deadly Patrick Stewart impression.

The plot of the episode involves the appearance of the captain under whom Riker first served when he was fresh out of the academy. O'Quinn plays the character, now an admiral, and obsessed with recovering their old ship, which was lost with most of its crew dangerously close to Romulan space. As it turns out, Captain Pressman was experimenting with a cloaking device (forbidden to Federation starships by treaty) when his crew mutinied and caused the ship to become ungainfully wedged into the same space as a large asteroid. (There's an "X-Files" episode, "Dreamland," that deals with the same basic scientific idea.) Even though knowledge of what it is they are searching for would greatly assist Picard and the Enterprise crew, Pressman forbids Riker to tell them about the Pegasus's final mission. Picard's attempts to open the sealed records of the incident meet with resistance from Starfleet HQ at every turn. In the end, of course, Riker sides with the Enterprise crew, but not before a pair of excellently matched scenes where Frakes faces down O'Quinn and Stewart in turn.

Maverick Starfleet officers were hardly a rarity on any of the "Star Trek" incarnations, including the original series. Frakes himself spun off Riker's "brother" (not exactly, but we haven't time enough to explain their precise relationship) Thomas as a Maquis turncoat for a very good "Deep Space Nine." Systemic coverups like the one in "The Pegasus," however, are very rare indeed for "Next Generation." Gene Roddenberry was strongly against there being serious tension between crew members on the Enterprise and as the legend of the original series grew he developed a somewhat overblown belief in the heroism and reliability of future humans. The Great Bird had passed away by the time of "The Pegasus," but for the most part the "Next Gen" writers respected his wishes. Had he been alive, though, it's hard to imagine him comissioning an episode where the highest powers in Starfleet deliberately and covertly violate a treaty while risking the lives of its officers with dangerous experimental technology. But Roddenberry would have been wrong. "The Pegasus" paved the way for some of the best "DS9" moments ever, including the marvelous Section 31 episodes and the watershed "In the Pale Moonlight," where the pressures of war turn even a "Star Trek" captain into a knowing liar and murderer.

Terry O'Quinn, with his quiet voice and intense gaze, is perfectly suited for playing Captain Ahab types. Before "Lost," the role I most associated him with was his brief turn in X-Files: Fight the Future. At the beginning of the film, Mulder and Scully are investigating a bomb threat that turns out to be a deliberate coverup. It's never explicitly established, but it's strongly implied, that O'Quinn's bomb squad officer is in on the plan. When Mulder spoils things by locating the bomb before its scheduled explosion, O'Quinn's character sacrifices his own life, clearing the area and then sitting down patiently in front of the explosive device and waiting for his doom. There's just something about villains who are so absolutely, unquestionably dedicated to their cause that they hardly ever even raise their voices. Chiwetel Ejiofor's Operative, from Serenity, is a great example. So was William Sadler when he played Section 31's Sloan on "Deep Space Nine."

The "Trek" movies have not been notable for understated performances from their villains. Cast folks like Ricardo Montalban, Christopher Lloyd, Malcolm McDowell, and F. Murray Abraham, and that's what happens. Examples from the television series demonstrate plainly that dividing all aliens neatly into white hats and black hats doesn't work. On the original series, the Klingons were uninteresting bullies; "Next Generation" put one on the bridge of the new Enterprise and as a result they now have their own internationally recognized language and a whole "Simpsons" episode of their own. The best villains from the 60's series were the Romulans, whose big shock introduction revealed them to be in reality cranky Vulcans. This was interesting because it played off of the already existing tension between Spock and the human crew. "Next Gen" tried many times to develop new recurring villains on its own and kept botching it. What's great about "Star Trek" (or what used to be great about "Star Trek") is that every weird idea gets a second chance eventually, and on "Deep Space Nine" the Cardassians and Ferengi developed into distinctive and interesting cultures with both positive and negative aspects. Gul Dukat is the best villain "Star Trek" has ever seen not because he's evil to the bone, but because he's given so very many chances to prove he isn't.

For some reason, though, the movie franchise has oversimplified things time and time again. Perhaps Paramount's reluctance to dedicate a whole film to the subject of established Alpha Quadrant politics stems from the relative lack of success of Star Trek VI, a pretty decent movie that only completely works if you go in with a firm background in the history of Klingon/Federation relations. By contrast First Contact was the most commercially and artistically successful of the "Next Generation" films because it found a way to marry two huge fan-service concepts (the Borg and Zefram Cochrane's warp flight) to the plot from Under Siege.

That's the problem with Rick Berman and J.J. Abrams' plan to kickstart "Trek" with a big motion picture event. If it's true to what made the TV shows great, it won't pull in a mass audience. But if it's a popcorn flick like Wrath of Khan and First Contact, it's hardly going to be substantial enough to get a critical mass of viewers (meaning, way more people than watched "Enterprise") excited about a new "Trek" small-screen project. But just launching a series out of the blue wouldn't work either, because not a single one of the "Star Trek" shows, not even "Deep Space Nine," was particularly good in its first season. Like "Enterprise," a bunch of folks would tune into the pilot and tune out by the next week, like Opening Day and the day after at Coors Field. So what's to be done? I think we're going to have to watch some more old episodes to find out.

2007-04-05 21:16:09
1.   das411
Wow. I just stumbled onto this mini-series, Mark, and it's interesting to see where I agree and where I disagree with you. For now though, I definitely suggest bearing with Voyager until, oh, around Season Five or so, then it starts to get far more interesting...
2007-04-06 07:53:20
2.   Ali Nagib
1 - Now there's an endorsement for a series if I've ever heard one!

"Well, the first 2/3 or so of the seven seasons are crap, but boy, that last third is....less crap."

2007-04-06 07:53:58
3.   Ali Nagib
2 - Just to be clear, I'm not making fun of you, just the show. Sometimes I'm a little snarky first thing in the morning.

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