Every once in a while there's an episode of ST:TNG which somehow manages to personify one of its themes in impressive harmony. After the barely-humorous disappointment that was "Menage a Troi", this episode was a semi-revelation.
That in itself is impressive. We've been here before in the Trek universe. The superpowered, or suddenly powered individual? In one way or another, these changed individuals have arguably been outside the natural order, ever since the accidental evolution of Gary Mitchell. The twist in this episode is the concept of natural evolution–of an entire race becoming beings of light and energy, a concept not too dissimilar from ideas expressed in the later Babylon 5. The show introduces this concept with a sort of messianic vibe. When Beverly discovers "John Doe," he's the meekest of the low. She brings him back to life if not to himself, from literally nothing but body parts. The Enterprise medical crew invests what looks like a tremendous amount of energy and even special equipment to regrow limbs and keep his brain functioning. John's progressive development and evolution is made entirely believable by Mark La Mura. He somehow manages to pull of bewildered benevolence and steely resolve, and his eyes are entirely too piercing, and the tyrannical Zalkonian hold on power and privilege at the expense of the freedom and life of others speak to an entirely too human theme. Picard ought to sound trite by now when he reiterates that the purpose of the Federation is to seek out new life: instead Patrick Stewart breathes new life into the phrase, keeping it with some of its original wonderment. Overall, the theme of finding the bright and wonderful and worthy in the lowliest of places comes across strongly. And new life is often very, very lowly.
While I like the episode, I can't deny it has some very glaring loopholes and weird flaws. The story itself seems pretty slim, and there just isn't much challenge for the crew. The Zalkonian commander is so cardboard and one-sided he even has black gloves; all he needed was a white cat and he could have come from an Austin Powers movie. At times the episode feels slow and (except for the initial goriness of the accident in which they find John) is relatively free of any action; even Worf's fall is unremarkable. And they could have tightened this up, for example, by having John talk about trying healing intentionally instead of just instinctively, and having that accelerate the process. Aside from the medical help, and trying to salvage the wreck-ords, the crew doesn't seem to do much to help John; I don't understand why we don't see more scenes with Troi giving John therapy so he can deal with his amnesia, or O'Brien maybe working out... with John, to help his muscles recover from a month of sitting around. Loose writing. Finally, why isn't Picard more worried about John's powers and at least willing to give credence to the Zalkonian viewpoint? I mean, he's had encounters at far points with godlike beings, and one constant theme is how often godlike powers seem to lead to tyrannical cackling.
Where this episode really shines is in how it displays the supporting characters. Worf's romantic coaching, Riker grinning at Geordi in the elevator, O'Brien getting way too physical, Data's willingness to help analyze available evidence... Even Wesley's casual poking about his mother's potential romantic interest in John Doe and Picard's peripheral not-quite-jealousy. It feels like a comfortable shoe of characterization. Which is why I guess I like this particular episode so much. It's not the best episode of Trek by far, especially given what's coming next. It's not the deepest; it doesn't strike the depths of Data's trial for sentience, for example. But it says there can be a better world, a world in which healing and renewal can exist, and it gives us a glimpse of the camaraderie which makes that better world believable.
Bits and Pieces
This absolutely perfect moment.
|Worf: "You must let her see the fire in your eyes."|
|LaForge VISORs at Worf incredulously.|
|Worf: "I have much to teach you about women."|
I don't get the no-breathing weapon. It's a little bit 60's Batman villain, isn't it? "But how will we attack this powerful starship?" "I vill make them... unable to breeeve! MUAHAHAHA!" And how would something like that work anyway?
Everyone seems to want Crusher to be interested in John. While she likes him, she's clear throughout and states repeatedly that she values his friendship. I liked that, and her stated interest in having saved his life (and how much exactly did all those limb replacements cost? Mind you, I bet she gets some papers published out of it.) But then there's that moment at the end where she rubs against his hand like a sort of cat. I refuse to believe she suddenly turns from medical professional to randy sex kitten, so my explanation is that John simply creates warm, happy feelings in the people he touches; everyone he's healed with his golden light smiles and seems to have some sort of peace or boost in confidence.
For some reason people keep going to Worf for love advice. He was counseling Wesley way back in "The Dauphin".
Fashion watch: John's white costume looked like a highly bleached version of Wesley's previous uniform. The glowing-man costume at the end is a little hokey under re-watch; today I think they'd remove a lot of the shadows.
LaForge: We found it near the escape pod's instrumentation assemblage. This capsule might process the ship's dynamic motions and augment its manual control inputs. We could send it a few test signals, make it think the entire assemblage was awake and operating.
Data: An intriguing experiment. The capsule might provide us with information without the need to decode the storage medium itself. Perhaps we should examine your theory immediately.
Worf: Less talk, more synthehol. We came here to relax.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder if this isn't, while being somewhat slow, maybe one of the better episodes for introducing people to the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It has flaws, but these are outshined by the good moments. Three out of five biochemical dish detergent ship's computers, as an episode.
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