Monday, September 10, 2012

And the winner is ...

The Inner Light ... is not on this list

What? This is the classic Picard-has-a-heart episode! (Well, uh, no that would be the next one.) It won a Hugo! It introduced this awesome song?

How can you not include it?

Well while the episode has oodles of heart and is very well made, there are a couple things I don’t like about. The main one is the Macguffin. The idea of that this satellite just happens to beam its memory ray into Picard, through their shields and everything, stretches plausibility too much for me – and it doesn’t have any character significance.

Here’s what the narrative device should have been: they find the satellite and beam over a lot of artifacts from it. Picard, Beverly, and Data are examining them and Beverly is going on about what Wesley is learning at the academy or something. Data notices Picard seems uncomfortable or something and, once Bev leaves, he admits that he often wonders about his “life that could have been but wasn’t” and family and children et al. Then Data makes some comment that’s insipid but full of child-like wisdom and leaves him alone. Then Picard finds some artifact which hits him with the memory ray.

Or something – just a little better context methinks. Maybe it’s nitpicking.

An episode that does have a great narrative device (the near death experience) is Tapestry:

Picard and Q demonstrate that they work better as friends than they ever did as adversaries, as the two (plus a pitch-perfect script by Ron Moore) carry the best episode in the franchise’s history. This episode also sets the stage for the series finale.

For more watch SF Debris’s review here. I own a signed copy from Ronald Moore!

Trek Top 20: #2 In the Pale Moonlight

So I should mention the episode The Visitor. While it usually tops any DS9 list, I am not as big a fan of The Visitor as others because it cheats the audience twice: first, by replacing Cirric Lofton with another actor as Jake Sisko and second, by pulling an “it was all a dream” business at the end. Sure, Ben Sisko has a memory of what happens, but no one else does: noticeably not the protagonist of the episode.

Also the girl who seeks Jake Sisko out is completely unimportant to us because we’ve never seen her before and we never see her again. They should have made it another one of the regulars or recurring characters (or perhaps a grown-up Molly O’Brien). Or perhaps the next bearer of the Dax symbiont. 

Vastly outstripping it is the following:

Regarded widely as one of – if not the very best – of DS9, this episode (like the next one on our list) shows that all you need is a great script, a commanding lead, and a cunning recurring character to make Trek gold. This episode is vintage DS9: a host of complicated characters, shadowy agendas, and a pyrrhic victory.

Kind of an odd title, since it takes its cue from Batman.

My bro suggested once that it should have been called “The First Brick,” referencing the Mark Twain quote “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” – which Sisko actually quotes in the episode. But whatevs. This episode is also renowned for introducing the popular Internet meme “it’s a fake”

This review by SF Debris nails the episode.

Trek Top 20: #3 The Enterprise Incident

My favorite TOS episode, The Enterprise Incident is remarkable for several reasons. One is that the dynamic between Kirk and Spock is just perfect: these guys really are the world’s finest team, even when they reverse roles, with Kirk playing the brains of the duo and Spock playing the ladies’ man.

Second, this episode is unusual for Star Trek in that the heroes are acting rather than reacting. Typically it’s “we are charting a gaseous anomaly and then a thing happens and we have to deal with it.” No. In TEI, they go on a mission to bust up the Romulans and steal their stuff.

Third, of course is this:

A friend of mine emailed me his reaction to this episode:

 think I may have had the VHS episode of that as a kid.  I went back and re-watched it.  Very good episode for Season 3.  What struck me particularly was how every single one of the Romulans' actions was entirely reasonable, defensible, and humane.  If anything, the Romulans are too naive and trusting.  It was like a role-reversal of Data's Day.  They try to make the Romulan commander out to be this femme fatale, but there's nothing at all treacherous about her.  Consider:

- A federation ship crosses into Romulan space for no apparent reason.  They do not treat it as an act of war, but open hailing frequencies to negotiate and discuss.

- When Kirk and Spock beam aboard the Romulan vessels, the Romulan ship sends two of its own officers as exchange hostages.  I saw no reason for them to do this other than to foster trust.

- When Kirk has his little psychotic episode aboard the Romulan ship, they not only allow him to have medical treatment, but they allow Kirk's own doctor from Kirk's own ship to come aboard and treat him.

- Presumably, the Romulans had their shields down to allow all the transporter beaming that happened in this episode.

- The Romulans only held Captain Kirk responsible for the incursion into their space and made it clear that the rest of the crew would be released.

- After the Enterprise returns to Federation space, the Romulans make no attempt to retaliate.

- The Romulan commander appears to have harbored genuine feelings for Spock.  She was hurt by his betrayal and since she had no way of knowing in advance that the Enterprise was coming, this couldn't have been some plot on her part to ensnare Spock.

Also consider:

- The Enterprise had entered Romulan space in violation of the treaty to engage in a brazen espionage mission.  Romulan suspicions of Kirk's motives were entirely correct.  The commander says "if a Romulan ship entered Federation space without good explanation, what would a starbase commander do?"  An entirely valid question.  Her first officer says "but it is you who violated our territory.  Should it not be we who distrust your motives?"  Again, an entirely valid question.

- Spock lied to the Romulans, violating his own ethical precepts against doing so in order to further a treaty-violating espionage mission.

- The Federation sent the Enterprise into Romulan space to steal technology from the Romulans that the Federation promised by treaty not to develop.

- It is the crew of the Enterprise, not the Romulans, who threaten to blow up their ship to prevent its capture.

- Kirk was willing to risk the lives of 400+ members of his ship's crew to engage on this very illegal and treacherous espionage mission.  The Romulans had no interest in killing the crew of the Enterprise; their own captain was a bigger threat to their safety than the Romulans were.

Picard would be appalled.  It's no wonder that the Romulans in the TNG era don't trust the Federation.

Trek Top 20: #4 Amok Time

So Space Seed, the episode which introduced Khan, is not on this list, although it is on every Trek top 10 list. I excluded it because I don’t feel it stands on its own. While it’s certainly good, it’s the follow-up movie 15 years later that makes it retroactively great. And even then, the emotional core of Wrath of Khan (and the rest of the film franchise) isn’t inspired by that episode – it’s inspired by this one.

I also think Amok Time inspired this line in Galaxy Quest:

Our goals, our values had become scattered. But since the transmission, we have modeled every aspect of our society from your example, and it has saved us. Your courage and teamwork, and friendship through adversity.

… plus this scene from Futurama:

The fight scene – friends forced to kill each other! – has been done and redone so much that it ranks as among the most iconic scenes in all of TV, not just sci fi.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Trek Top 20: #5 The Wounded

For more than three years, TNG tried to develop a hostile alien race that could occupy the same space in the firmament as Klingons and Romulans. Everything they tried until this episode failed. (The Borg could never be a regular threat; they were only good for one episode a season.) Cardassians hit the right note, and this episode became the inspiration for DS9 and ultimately VOY. Pretty good impact for an episode where none of the three leading characters (O’Brien, Capt. Maxwell, Gul Macet) are regulars: the only Picard himself plays is to coax O’Brien, question Maxwell, and chastise Macet.

And this scene is one of the best in the franchise’s history:

The episode's only flaw the title: should have (obviously) been called "The Minstrel Boy." 

Trek Top 20: #7 Balance of Terror and #6 The Defector

OK there are a lot of Romulan episodes on this list (seven) and the one that started them all definitely deserves a place. Not only did it introduce Romulans to Trek, but Mark Lenard as well. While they would not prove as iconic to TOS as the Klingons, the TOS concept of the Romulans would endure through the franchise much better than the TOS Klingons did. The battle of wits between Kirk and “the Romulan Commander” (He is never named.) keep you on the edge of your sofa, with the one crewman’s antipathy toward Romulans/Vulcans (so soon after World War II) the most plausible space racism in TOS.

An unofficial companion piece to BoT, The Defector is the quintessential TNG Romulan episode: treachery, continuity, strategy, a Romulan admiral lecturing Picard about the importance of family, and some great Shakespeare crap. Andreas Katsulas cemented his role as Tomalak with this one, which had the twin-bladed effect of landing him G’Kar on Bab 5 while regrettably taking him away from TNG.

Also Picard owns the crap out of them in this scene here:

Trek Top 20: #8 Trouble with Tribbles and #9 Troubles and Tribble-ations

Ah you all knew this would be on the list. This episode has only improved with age and rightly belongs on every Trek fan’s top 10 list. Among the best scripts in the franchise, and certainly the funniest:  

Capt. Kirk: How close will we come to the nearest Klingon outpost if we continue on our present course?
Chekov: Ah, one parsec, sir. Close enough to smell them.
Spock: That is illogical, Ensign. Odors cannot travel through the vacuum of space.
Chekov: I was making a little joke, sir.
Spock: Extremely little, Ensign. 

Korax: Kirk may be a swaggering, overbearing, tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood, but he's not soft.

Baris: In my opinion, you have taken this important project far too lightly.
Kirk: On the contrary, sir. I think of this project as very important. It is you I take lightly.

My favorite bit is how Kirk and Koloth are bending over backwards to be so polite to each other that they’re practically flirting. 

KOLOTH: Ah, my dear Captain Kirk.
KIRK: My dear Captain Koloth.

And as for the episode’s nostalgic companion piece? C’mon.

This was an episode that only DS9 could do – if TNG had done it, it would have undermined their efforts to spread their own wings; if VOY had done it, it would have looked like they were trying too hard; if ENT had done it, no one would have noticed. 

Also the whole idea of time travel becoming soooo commonplace for Starfleet that it needs its own X-Files-esque investigation team is a delightful bit of self-parody. 

Trek Top 20: #10 Deja Q

This is the watershed Q episode, where the character goes from menace to friend (so to speak). While he’s truly evil/heartless in the three Q episodes preceding this one, he’s actually on Picard’s side in the four that follow it.

TNG didn’t try humor as much as it should have, but it succeeded with this one brilliantly.

This episode also does high-falootin' well too: 

Q: Don't be so hard on me, Jean-Luc. You've been a mortal all your life. You know all about dying. I've never given it a second thought. Or a first one, for that matter. I could have been killed. If it hadn't been for Data and that one brief delay he created, I would have been gone. No more me. And no one would have missed me, would they? Data may have sacrificed himself for me. Why? 

PICARD: That is his special nature. He learned the lessons of humanity well. 

Q: When I ask myself if I would have done the same for him, And I am forced to answer no, I feel, I feel ashamed. 

PICARD: Q, I'm not your father confessor. You will receive no absolution from me. You have brought nothing but pain and suffering to this crew. And I'm still not entirely convinced that all this isn't your latest attempt at a puerile joke. 

Q: It is a joke. A joke on me. The joke of the universe. The king who would be man. As I learn more and more what it is to be human, I am more and more convinced that I would never make a good one. I don't have what it takes. Without my powers, I'm frightened of everything. I'm a coward, and I'm miserable, and I can't go on this way.

Deja Q is also the origin of the Internet face-palm meme:

Trek Top 20: #11 Peak Performance

This is episode is my unsung hero of TNG, yet it doesn’t make a lot of “best of” lists and isn’t otherwise remembered for much other than the pre-Quark cameo by Armin Shimmerman.

The reason this episode is so good is that they find great character moments for EVERY member of the crew: Riker is the awesome leader, Picard is the wise mentor, Worf is the cunning warrior, Data deals with an insecurity complex (!), Wesley’s shtick for saving the day makes perfect sense, and Pulaski isn’t remotely annoying. Add in a great fight scene and the Strategema business and you have a 10/10 episode.

Also Worf’s line “Guile!” set the standard for his gruff one-liners. 

Trek Top 20: #12 Yesterday’s Enterprise

The whole “the time line has been changed and we need to restore it!” shtick has been so done and overdone that it is indeed unusual that such an episode made it on my list (though of course Yesteryear has that same plot hook). Indeed I did not include City on the Edge of Forever, despite its hallowed status as the best in all of TOS, because the trope has been so overdone. Also I never bought that Kirk would fall as hard as he did for Edith Keeler – she’s too much of a Mary Sue for him. (“Listen, kiddo, Jim Kirk was many things but he was never a Boy Scout.”)

But this one works, and it works brilliantly. Great Guinan stuff, great Tasha stuff, and introduction of Worf’s fondness for prune juice. This battle where Picard says “That’ll be the day” – while unimpressive visually by today’s standards – is nonetheless the best action scene from TNG.

Trek Top 20: #13 Journey to Babel and Honorable Mention Yesteryear

Let’s do these two together, since they’re so well connected.

The only episode of The Animated Series on this list, Yesteryear is a classic and a great hook for introducing someone to that show. The story, so human and tender, served as the inspiration for the Spock backstory in the wildly successful 2009 reboot. I particularly love the fat little Vulcan child in this.

For a show that’s supposed to be about a space navy and not a space diplomatic corps, Trek does an awful lot with space diplomats. And Journey to Babel is the episode that started it all. The introduction of Spock’s parents (ahem) humanize the character and prove that he’s more interesting than anyone else on the show. (We didn’t meet Kirk’s parents until 2009, and they play no real role in the movie besides dying and giving birth.) 

JtB also introduces "Live long and prosper," the second-most famous line from all of Star Trek. 

Trek Top 20: #14 Family

The TNG episode "Family" is something of an anomaly. It's basically the third part of the "Best of Both Worlds" two-parter, but it's really more of a "coda" than a trilogy. It is the only episode of TNG without Data. It doesn't really have a plot, it's just three small stories about Picard, Worf, and Wesley. It's so unusual for Trek, that SF Debris didn't even give it a rating when he reviewed it.

Now after BoBW they had to stop and take a break - it would have been dumb to rush into another big adventure while we're still catching our breath. (They did the same thing on DS9 during the Dominion War with the Worf/Dax marriage episode.)

The real power of this episode is how it "changed the game" on BoBW. If you watch those two without "Family," BoBW are Riker episodes. But everyone remembers them (see "I, Borg," Star Trek: First Contact) as Picard episodes, thanks to this episode.

BoBW is the zenith of the Riker character, who was essentially the show's main character -- until "Family," where Patrick Stewart stole not just a scene or an episode but the whole danged show from his younger co-star.


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Trek Top 20: #15 The Next Phase

Along with The Wounded, this episode informed DS9 by establishing the Bajoran religion and underscores how the show could have been even better with Ro instead of Kira.

This episode has some delicious treachery by Romulans, a unique science fiction premise, and both great action AND humor. While it doesn’t explore any “bigger themes” like space racism or, uh, more space racism, it shows that Star Trek is best when it isn’t about heavy-handed allegories and instead just tells good stories about the real bigger themes: life, death, love, friendship, humor.

There’s a scene in the sub-par Pre-emptive Strike where they could have called back to this episode, with Ro asking Riker what he was going to say about her at the funeral, but didn’t. (DS9 or Babylon 5 would have alley-ooped that one.)  Geordai’s closing line “… if we can teach Ro Laren humility, we can do anything” is a terrific conclusion to a great character piece between the two most human characters on the show. 

Trek Top 20: #16 Duet

So there’s a term used in Star Trek: “bottle” show, short for “ship in a bottle” show. So they can afford more expense episodes, they’ll do episodes which don’t require any real special effects or new sets. This episode proves that – if you have a dynamite script, actors, and music – a bottle show can number among its best.

And this episode will be on any “best of DS9” list. Kira, and the audience, learn that not all Cardassians are evil and not all Bajorans are good. Uh, if you haven’t seen it and want to, don’t watch the video.

It’s success is kind of double-edged though, because – coming in the first season – it hit the height of the Bajorans v Cardassians stuff and everything that followed wasn’t as interesting. 

Trek Top 20: #17 Lower Decks

Everyone thought this episode was setting up characters for Voyager. Alas that it was not. While the actor playing Taurik would reappear as his character’s twin brother in a couple episodes, they all sucked – and neither Tom Paris nor Harry Kim were as much fun or endearing as Lavelle or Sito. Terrific episode that shows how TNG, past its prime, could do great work – when it took its cues from DS9.

Trek Top 20: #18 Once More Unto the Breach

      A story about a Klingon general learning the importance of forgiveness? Beat that.

Also it has this great speech about faith from Worf here:

This episode from DS9 bumped out Far Beyond the Stars, which I think was intended to be Sisko’s The Inner Light. While I love how unusual and risky FBtS is, there wasn’t room for it on the list. Alas!

Trek Top 20: #19 The Pegasus

One of the rare highlights of TNG’s seventh season, this episode is most remarkable for featuring a pre-Lost Terry O’Quinn as Riker’s duplicitous former commander. That alone makes this episode sci-fi gold. Riker’s dilemma is a very human one: an older man realizing that by doing something “right” in his youth, he actually did something wrong – it’s the inverse of Tapestry. And we finally get the answer to why the Feds don’t have cloaking devices.

But the episode’s real brilliance is this golden nugget right here:

This episode was so good that it’s understandable that they picked it to revisit with the Enterprise finale. … But even its presence couldn’t save that hunk a junk. 

Top 20 Trek episodes

So a couple years ago I got some good traffic to Whitleypedia because of a top 10 list I did of the Star Trek films and two-parters (since about half the films are not great and many of the two-parters are phenomenal).

This year for the anniversary  of the airing of the first OS episode (Sept. 8, 1966), I wanted to do a top 20 list of the best single episodes. Note that this doesn’t include any episode that’s part of a two (or more) parter. So for example, I love the episode Rocks and Shoals of DS9, but it was part of the six-part Dominion War arc, which was on my top 10 list two years ago, so you won’t find it here. Truthfully and regrettably this keeps a lot of DS9 episodes off of the top 20 list.

Let’s start things off at the last place you’d expect: NCC-74656

20 Lineage

I’m torn on this episode because there are a lot of TOS, TNG, and DS9 episodes that you could argue are better. And you might be right. But this episode is here because, structurally, it is what every Star Trek episode should aspire to: a real-life dilemma is played out against a science fiction backdrop, causing believable conflict among the lead characters. Torres, ashamed of her Klingon half, wants to genetically alter her daughter so she’ll be full human. This causes conflict with Tom Paris and the Doctor, who believe this is unethical. Throw in some nice flashbacks and Lineage is so watchable it could have been an episode of Lost.

The only other Voyager episode that was in competition for this list is Learning Curve, because Tuvok’s perfect in it and it _actually_ deals with the fundamental dynamic of the show (Marquis vs Starfleet), but Lineage edged it out because it’s more endearing and the performances among the mains are so strong. 


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