WARNING: This article contains large amounts of spoiler information for TNG's seventh-season premiere, "Descent, Part II." Those not wishing to be unduly exposed to those spoilers should back away, slowly. A short spoiler-free comment is ahead, to be followed by 30 blank lines and a second Ctrl-L.
Briefly: A good deal better than either of the last two season premieres, but still far weaker than the setup. A few moments of glory, but also a lot of signs that the technobabble level is increasing beyond the limits of all decency.
That should be ample room. As a reminder to old readers and an education for those new to the net: Hi there. :-) The pattern these reviews fall into is one of a synopsis, followed by commentary on whatever parts of the episode seem to catch my attention for good or ill. [In response to a host of requests last year, there will be a line of ten dashes following the synopsis that you can use as a flag if you would like to skip over the synop.]
So, on with the show:
Lore boasts to his captives about his new followers (the Borg) and about the emotional awareness he's managed to give to Data in return for loyalty. He says that after finding these Borg wrecked by their new individuality, "I know now why I was created." He plans to make them completely artificial life-forms, much as he and Data are, to complete the Borg's sense of purpose. "The age of biological life-forms is coming to an end. You, Picard, and those like you -- are obsolete."
Meanwhile, Dr. Crusher commands a skeleton crew on board the Enterprise. Riker reports that the ground teams have lost track of Picard's group after Picard reported the existence of the Borg "castle". A search from orbit proves no more fruitful, and then Ensign Taitt, currently at tactical, spots the arrival of the Borg ship. Crusher begins beaming up as many personnel as possible, but both Riker and Worf insist on remaining below. At the last second, the Enterprise raises shields and flees -- without pursuit, but also with 47 of its crew still on the planet.
Back on the planet, Data leads Picard, Troi and Geordi to their cell. Telling them that "my life aboard the Enterprise was a waste," and that the actions Lore is taking will involve "sacrifices" for the greater good, he takes their communicators and Geordi's VISOR. When asked if he's felt any emotions beyond anger and hatred, he responds brutally, "There are no other emotions..."
The Enterprise reaches the transwarp conduit established by the Borg, but only sends a buoy through with emergency information, with Bev instead deciding to return to the planet. Taitt is relieved by Lt. Barnaby at Tactical, but remains at a science station to help. To gain enough time to potentially beam up all remaining away team members, Barnaby suggests staying in warp until the last possible second. Despite the dangers of such a move, voiced strongly by Taitt, Bev orders it done.
Lore receives the VISOR from Data and suggests that Geordi might make an excellent test subject for his experiments. Data demurs slightly, noting that the tests have caused brain damage on most of the Borg tested, and that it might well kill Geordi. Lore, however, comforts him by pointing out that the test may prevent future Borg deaths. As Data agrees to this, Lore speaks to a Borg who had severed his link to Crosis, Lore's aide-de-camp. Lore tells this Borg that his doubts could be overwhelming him, and that he should stay connected to Crosis and the others to let their strength ease the burden.
In the cell, Geordi notes that before the VISOR was taken, he saw that Lore was using a carrier wave to manipulate Data. The feeding of negative emotions cannot easily be stopped, but it might be possible to reactivate Data's ethical program and give him a line of defense. A "phased cadion pulse" would do the trick -- now, the real trick is simply to find a way of making one. Before they can do more than give it a moment's thought, however, Data arrives to take Geordi away.
Riker and Worf, having tracked Picard's team, finally see the Borg castle, but are quickly captured by a group of Borg on patrol. They are led to an underground catacomb, where they find this group's leader -- Hugh. "Why are you here, Commander Riker? Hasn't the crew of the Enterprise done enough damage already?"
Hugh tells Riker and Worf angrily that it was his encounter with the Enterprise that left the Borg vulnerable to Lore's manipulations. Wracked by doubt and confusion after becoming individuals, they would listen to anyone who came and promised change. At first, they followed Lore's promises of a glorious future gladly -- but then, when Lore had no way of fulfilling his promises, he talked of sacrifice instead. Hugh leads them to the result -- brain-damaged, pitiable Borg quivering on the floor of the shelter. Despite his continued friendship with Geordi, Hugh nevertheless refuses to help them rescue him -- but he does consent to show them a way into the compound.
Data begins his experiments, implanting fibers into Geordi's brain that should mimic neural function -- if it works after the existing brain cells are destroyed, then it should replace the brain. Geordi tries to reason with Data, but cannot. Troi and Picard, meanwhile, trick a Borg guard into entering their cell. They then incapacitate the Borg and prepare to flee, only to be caught by Data as he brings back Geordi. Picard, however, managed to keep a small piece of the Borg he disabled, which Geordi says can be modified to make a cadion pulse. Picard begins working under Geordi's guidance.
The Enterprise, meanwhile, drops out of warp virtually into orbit and gets everyone back from the planet that they can find (not, unfortunately, including Picard's or Riker's teams). However, the Borg get in one successful hit before shields go back up, and warp drive is lost. They evade on full impulse, and with nowhere else to turn, head for the sun and prepare to implement a "metaphasic shield" technique that Geordi had been putting together. Although it's untested on this ship and untried beyond the basic theory, they try it -- and it works. The Enterprise hides in the sun's corona, with the Borg lying in wait outside.
Picard finally gets the cadion pulse ready and activates it in the cell's forcescreen. Data, preparing to destroy Geordi's brain, claims anomalous readings and postpones the test. He lies to Lore about the encounter, and then expresses some regret over what has happened, saying that he has betrayed his crewmates. Lore maintains Data's loyalty for the time being by threatening to cut off Data's supply of emotions, but worries publicly to Crosis that Data may not want to join them on their great journey.
Back in the sun, the Enterprise's shields are failing. With only a few minutes left, Taitt suggests inducing a solar prominence to engulf and destroy the Borg ship. Despite the dangers of such a move, voiced strongly by Barnaby, Bev orders it done. It works, and the Borg ship is destroyed. The Enterprise heads back to the planet.
Data returns to the cell, but this time takes Picard with him rather than Geordi. Picard attempts to argue with him about wrong actions leading to an alleged "greater good", but Lore appears in the audience chamber before he can get very far beyond convincing Data to access his ethical program. As Riker and Worf prepare their attack, Lore tells Data to "close the door on the past" and prove his loyalty by killing Picard. Data prepares to, then refuses.
Lore says, sadly, that he didn't think Data would be able to do it, after so many years among humans. He addresses the assembled Borg, including a secretly-arrived Hugh. He tells them that although he has asked sacrifices of them, he too will make a great sacrifice -- that of his own, "dear brother." Hugh, however, shouts defiance and prevents Lore from firing. An all-out battle commences between Lore's Borg, some of Hugh's Borg, and Riker and Worf. Lore flees, with Data in pursuit.
Data finds Lore planning an escape. Lore offers to forgive and forget, and take Data with him -- "just the two of us." He even offers Data the emotion chip Soong made, but it quickly is revealed as a ruse, as Lore removes all emotions from Data. Lore tries to pounce as Data reacts, but Data reacts faster and shoots Lore down.
Dispassionately, Data proceeds. "Lore, I must deactivate you now."
"Without me, you will never feel emotion again."
"I know -- but you leave me no other choice." Data begins deactivating Lore, who says only "I ... *love* you ... brother." Data responds with a simple "Goodbye, Lore."
In the aftermath of the battle, Geordi and Troi are returned to the Enterprise, and after Data reports on Lore's fate, Hugh wonders what will become of them. "We can't go back to the Borg collective -- and we no longer have a leader here." Picard, however, is not so sure, and wishes them well.
A long time later, the Enterprise is back in Federation space. Geordi, still recovering, goes to see Data, who is examining the emotion chip.
"Does it work?"
"No. I am pleased to say it was damaged when I was forced to fire on Lore."
Geordi is surprised. "Pleased? Data, you've wanted emotions your whole life."
"Yes -- but emotions are responsible for what I did to you. I would never risk letting that happen again. My friendship with you is too important to me."
Data prepares to fire on the chip, but Geordi stops him. "Data, I wouldn't be very much of a friend if I let you give up on a lifelong dream, now would I? Maybe ... someday, when you're ready..."
And as the remainder of the thought goes unspoken, the Enterprise heads for home.
There, so much for that. Whew -- it's been three months since I've had to do any summarizing. Now, on with the commentary.
"Descent, Part II" displayed a lot of what there is to like about TNG's last year or so, and a lot of what there is to dislike about it as well. It made for a pretty frustrating package.
One thing it wasn't was predictable, or at least predictable based on part 1. I reread the predictions I'd made back in June on the subject shortly before part 2 of "Descent" aired. While some of the very broad strokes of what I expected did in fact come to pass (Data's "perversion" to Lore's side would be blocked from outside and Hugh would be revealed as still a good guy, more or less), the details were wholly different from what I expected. "Descent, Part II", if nothing else, managed to surprise me several times -- and I'm just jaded enough to think that that's a good thing in and of itself.
There were certainly other things to like about "Descent, Part II" as well. One of the top draws can be summarized in two words, those being "Brent" and "Spiner". Spiner had more of a challenge than usual this time, even for the times he's played both Data and Lore. This time, since Data was corrupted, he had to play Data as being much closer to Lore than usual, and still keep the two very distinguishable.
And he did. Boy, did he ever. Lore was a fully realized human for the first time with Soong's added emotional package, and Data, although nasty and vindictive, was somehow a great deal more formal and dutiful about it than Lore was. Lore, no matter what he was doing, was relaxed about it -- and that's something we almost never see Data as being, no matter what the circumstances. Seeing the contrast between these two has always been a treat (particularly in "Brothers"), and this was no different. I think the Data/Lore end of the show was easily the strongest part of the episode, and represents a lot of what makes TNG a good show.
Another thing that's a bit rarer for TNG was a side effect of the "Bev in command" subplot. While the subplot itself was fairly mixed, it did give us a chance to see more of the regular crewfolk on the Enterprise. Both Taitt and Barnaby were fairly well realized characters, though Taitt was better done (by design, I suspect). With Taitt, in particular, we saw someone on her first posting who was nervous, but still professional, and more than capable of contributing her own significant talents to help in a crisis. That was a welcome change of pace. I wonder if Taitt is supposed to be a recurring character this year -- I certainly wouldn't mind.
I had somewhat mixed feelings about the re-use of metaphasic shielding, but much of it was positive. Beyond giving "Suspicions" some vague reason for existence (something which it did not have on its own merits), it also showed the return of important technology. All too often, Trek debuts some advance that should have significant implications and then ignores them for all future shows to come. Given the constraints of the plot, I'm very glad they decided to go with a previously noted and working technology rather than invent something new.
On the other hand, the use of the metaphasic shields was one part of something I spoke out against last year and didn't like at all here. In short, the technobabble level appears to be increasing to still higher levels, and it's being used as a substitute for any sort of drama.
To be blunt, I was utterly unaffected by the technological solutions we saw, particularly on the planet. On the ship, it was somewhat reasonable -- when you're overmatched, sometimes you need technical wizardry to get what you need. On the planet, however, the drama came from the moral conflict between Lore and Picard's group, with Data in the middle. Having a quick-fix "cure" make everything all better suggests that Data learned nothing, and that that everything is simply back where it started. That's a cheat.
It was also incredibly contrived on several occasions. I find it a little implausible that they could trick the Borg guard so easily (though that's more an objection about the Borg throughout this show than a plausibility point). I find it somewhat implausible that Data and the guards wouldn't make sure nobody had grabbed anything potentially useful -- but since Lore wasn't there, that might be justifiable. However, there is *no* justification whatsoever for setting things up so that the tiny little scrap of Borg material Picard grabbed just happened to be the exact thing that could be used to free Data from Lore's control. As a friend suggested later, the odds are better that Picard could have used it to suddenly make a nearby garage door close. What we were getting with this part wasn't drama, it was MacGyver-esque sleight of hand -- and I for one wasn't buying into it in the least.
However, lest I seem too annoyed at that, there were a lot of things in the freeing-Data subplot that made up for it. Although the chip-as-miracle-cure idea was pretty bad, the fact that it *wasn't* a complete cure helped a great deal. Data didn't suddenly turn good -- what that chip managed to do was bring the moral dilemma he faced into sharper focus. I wish that could have been accomplished without the technical mumbo-jumbo, but the effect it did have was just fine. The Data/Geordi scenes were the "good" counterpart to the Data/Lore scenes, and were just as powerful. (Data imitating Picard as a joke on Geordi was rather shocking, actually. Brrrrr.) The final scene of the show, in particular, went a long way towards making up for the magic chip.
However, there were also two implausibilities in the shipboard plot, one of them major. I had no objections in part 1 when Bev was left in command, because I figured she'd have enough warning time to get people back if an attack was looming. That was true. It is, however, incredibly stupid to leave her in command during the attack. She should have flat-out *ordered* Riker or Worf (either would do) to take charge once the Borg ship arrived, and one of them should have agreed to go on the spot. Yes, I realize that then we couldn't have had the dramatic evidence that "look, Bev really can be a forceful and strong character when necessary", just as Troi had it in "Face of the Enemy", but it didn't make any sense. Along similar lines, if only 47 people were left behind I have some difficulty believing there were no more qualified people on board. That, however, is a much lesser point, as there was a fairly experienced tactical officer there being used.
The last angle of "Descent, Part II" that I suppose should be mentioned is the way Hugh was handled, and in a broader context what this all meant for the Borg. Well, I liked the surprising way in which we met Hugh, but not the implications for the Borg as a whole.
The way we met Hugh was surprising, at least to me, because I was expecting to see him as the leader of a rival faction, not of a broken underground. It was established that there was only one group of Borg that severed from the collective, and that Hugh himself followed Lore for a short time. That came as a big surprise, and not a wholly unwelcome one. In addition, Jonathan Del Arco did a good job as Hugh again, so I certainly had no problems on that score.
However, all this did was strengthen my feeling that, in terms of the effect on the Borg, "Descent" was a significant mistake. As I said back in June, everything that made the Borg menacing or frightening as an enemy is now gone. Here, there was no real intelligence, no relentlessness, no adaptation, no seeming invulnerability (except perhaps on the ship) -- they're just badasses with guns. There's more than enough of that, thanks all the same. After every Borg show up to this one, I've been left feeling there was more about the Borg I'd like to see, and was waiting for another chance at a Borg show. I have to say that now, I'm not interested in them, really. They've had their time, and they're done.
In addition, the whole ethical question of "was what Picard did right?" was dropped flat in part 2 of "Descent". Given that that was an interesting point and one I was very interested in seeing the "answer" to, I'm more than a bit put off by that.
I think that pretty much does it. As a Data and Lore story, this was a very good piece which could have been better without the tech. As a Borg story, it wasn't nearly as strong. However, except for the really tech-heavy bits it was quite entertaining, and everyone did a good job with the material, especially Spiner. Not bad for a season opener, but not even a shadow of its predecessor.
Now, some short takes:
- First, a note about a truly mischievous casting coup. It was an incredible conceit to cast James Horan as Barnaby, who implemented the metaphasic shields on the Enterprise. Why? Because he *also* played Jo'Bril, the Takaran trying to steal that same technology when it debuted in "Suspicions" last year. It's a nasty little coup -- but I have to admit, the irony works quite well. :-)
- Credit-watching notes: There's been some promoting and reshuffling in the writing and producing echelons. Jeri Taylor has moved up to full Executive Producer status, Ron Moore has become a full producer, Brannon Braga has moved up from story editor to co-producer, Rene Echevarria is now executive story editor, Naren Shankar has become a story editor, and Andre Bormanis has joined up as the new science consultant. Congratulations to all, and to Andre -- let's avoid another "The Chase", okay? :-)
- Lore calling Picard "obsolete" was a nice reminder of BOBW2 in some ways. As you might recall, Picard-as-Locutus used the same word there, but in reference to Data. What goes around comes around...
- With all the Data/Lore mingling, a contraction goof would have been easy to make. I looked, and there is one. When Data stops the escape attempt, he tells Troi "I'll break [Geordi's] neck." Whoops -- but more than understandable in a show like this.
- Obligatory talking-back-to-the-screen quote: When Barnaby talked about his plan to enter orbit on the far side from the Borg ship, I couldn't resist: "The Death Star will be in range in thirty minutes..."
- I don't know if I was the only one, but I detected a very blatant political parallel when Hugh was talking. When Hugh said that they were willing to follow anyone promising change, and that after problems started the talk turned to sacrifice instead, I at least thought I was picking up a not-so-subtle swipe at President Clinton. Now, I may be misinterpreting that, but whether I am or not I think things could have been more subtly done. (The general idea of what Lore had created, however, was far more like a cult than anything else, which certainly does not fit the Clinton analogy.)
- Nice FX with the space-based scene. We got a wonderful sense of scale when the Enterprise fled -- man, but that Borg ship is *big*. Yow.
That should do it.
Normally here, I'd say "and now, the numbers", and try to give some sort of breakdown. However, I've grown very disenchanted with the three-tier approach, so I'll just give some comments and then a single rating.
Plot: It relied on too many contrivances and too much technology, but the simple Data/Lore issues helped it a lot.
Plot Handling/Direction: Not bad. Alexander Singer made even the contrived parts a pretty nice ride.
Characterization: This was quite strong, but aside from Data, Bev, and the guests on the Enterprise there wasn't all that much to be done.
Overall, I think I'd call this a 6.5. Not what it could have been by any means, but not bad.
Picard is trapped on a planet with a lovesick psychopath. It seems the preview staff hasn't improved...
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"There are no other emotions."
-- Copyright 1993, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...