WARNING: The following article contains spoiler information regarding the TNG episode "Interface". Those not wishing contact with these spoilers should calmly avoid the article.
Briefly: After "Descent, Part II" and "Liaisons", both fairly disappointing, I'm feeling better about TNG's new season with "Interface". It wasn't top-notch, but it was a good, solid character story.
So, without further ado, let's get into (and out of!) the synopsis:
The USS Raman is in jeopardy, trapped inside a gas giant, and the Enterprise is naturally called in to rescue them. They plan to do so by using a new piece of technology, a probe that Geordi uses via a direct neural interface, letting him experience the probe's responses as if he were actually where the probe is. Although the gas giant's atmosphere is very turbulent, the probe should be able to transmit without problems. All is well -- until Starfleet calls Picard with a message of bad news. The USS Hera disappeared four days ago, along with all of her crew -- and her captain, Geordi's mother.
Geordi does not respond well to the news. Not having seen her for months or even communicated with her in weeks, he feels somewhat guilty for not having done so. However, he insists on carrying out the Raman rescue himself anyway, insisting to Riker that "the Hera is missing; that's all." As the interface is brought on-line, everything works like a charm, although the input levels need to be very high (75% of neural tolerance levels) to get through the atmosphere. Geordi finds the crew in a sealed cabin, but all are dead. He prepares to move to a new location, but a fire suddenly appears from nowhere -- and not only does Geordi "feel" it, but the real Geordi is burned as well!
Fortunately, Beverly decides that a lower input level, while cruder, should be safe for Geordi to use, and in a few hours, Geordi will use the probe to bring the Raman out of the atmosphere. In the interim, however, he talks to his father, who is planning funeral arrangements, and suggests that everyone's jumping to conclusions about his mother actually being dead. He also talks to Data about it (after some helpful prodding by Data), but Data's recitation of the likelihood his mother is still alive doesn't help matters any.
Later, he works on the Raman at lower levels, and prepares to pilot the ship, but he suddenly stops dead -- seeing an image of his mother in that very control room. She tells him that he needs to pilot the ship down -- "we're dying." Geordi wants to know more, but his nervous system goes into shock and Beverly and Data quickly break the connection and help him.
He has no permanent damage -- at least, not yet -- but Picard forbids the use of the probe again, citing the danger and convinced that Geordi probably imagined it. Geordi, however, insists he wasn't hallucinating, and that the Hera is trapped on the planet's surface. Even after talking to Troi about his mother and about Troi's theory that he's invented this hallucination to stop himself from believing that she's really dead, he still believes -- and won't back down.
In fact, in a few hours' time he invents a very plausible story for how the Hera could have gotten to the planet's surface in the first place, and insists that the Hera is down there and needs rescue. Data admits the idea is possible, but adds that it is extremely remote. Picard cites too great a risk, despite his sympathy for Geordi, and opts instead for a safer strategy to simply bring the Raman up. Geordi is most upset, and even a talk with Riker about the death of Riker's mother doesn't lessen his bitterness.
Geordi prepares to engage the probe himself, when Data enters to stop him. Data threatens to confine him to quarters, but when he realizes that Geordi won't stop without such an action, he turns to help, saying "I cannot confine you to quarters for something you have not yet done." Geordi "returns" to the Raman, where the image of his mother confirms his suspicions about what happened to the Hera.
Jubilant, he begins to descend -- but the probe's signal begins to flicker as the atmospheric interference grows. Data slowly increases the input levels until they verge on near-tolerance limits. As the bridge detects the Raman's motion, and Picard, Riker and Beverly head to the lab, Geordi descends until the input goes past tolerance levels, refusing to stop -- and Data cannot simply sever the interface without killing Geordi from the shock. Despite the pain and despite orders from Picard, Geordi descends until he should be able to detect the Hera -- but it's not there. He is puzzled, as his "mother" suddenly attacks him. He repels it, only to find that "mom" is a subspace creature, one of many that was accidentally picked up by the Raman and mistakenly killed the crew by trying to read their thoughts. Geordi continues down just far enough to free the creatures, then prepares to ascend. The ship is destroyed, but Data and company manage to trick Geordi's nervous system into "thinking" it's still receiving high input levels and successfully break contact with the probe. Picard puts a stern reprimand on Geordi's record, which he accepts -- and Geordi goes on to say that his experience felt so real that he had a chance to say goodbye to his mother.
There, that takes care of that. Now, the comments.
"Interface" was a very technical show on many levels, since the virtual-reality probe was a crucial part of the plot. As such, you'd think it would be extremely prone to the Technobabble Virus that seems to have infected so many TNG episodes in the past year.
Amazingly, however, it didn't. In fact, "Interface" was delightfully surprising in that it got back to what TNG does best: focusing on the characters, not the gee-whiz techspeak. While "Interface" had a strong technical component, what it was about was Geordi dealing with loss, something we haven't seen any regular do on this particular level before. I quite liked it.
I was concerned early on that virtual reality would be held up as a giant technical advance within the show itself, and have a strong "gee-whiz" component. Fortunately, I was wrong. Although there was certainly some shock value in seeing Geordi with eyes (and firing phasers out of his palms, but that's a different point), this was head and shoulders above any virtual reality program that's ever been done before on TNG, and so far as I know it's well ahead of anything people are even envisioning as workable these days. As such, I'm more than satisfied.
Interestingly, though, I thought that all of the best scenes did not take place on the Raman, but on the Enterprise, as we saw Geordi's denial dig itself in deeper and deeper. In particular, almost all of the fourth act was phenomenal. We saw Troi doing her job as well as she can, trying to get Geordi to realize what he might be doing -- and Geordi rejecting it. We saw Geordi seemingly doing his job on the surface, but then without warning we see that he's still locked into his pet theories and his convoluted explanations. Finally, we saw Riker get as personal as he ever has about his past (and Frakes's best performance since "Second Chances" last year), and really making an excellent point to Geordi -- and Geordi rejecting it out of hand as well. Those three scenes, back to back, were extremely effective in showing us just how much Geordi had invested in "keeping" his mother alive, and it was a good bit of storytelling on all counts.
And, as I already said, there was surprisingly little in the way of tech to slog through to get to the meat of the show. We had to take it as given that the probe somehow gave Geordi "regular" sight when he couldn't get it any other way; that's a bit of a stretch, but not bad. However, once we had that and the fairly easy addition of the "input levels" issue, which hung together nicely, that was it. We didn't hear every single detail of how the probe worked -- and *nor should we have*, because it's not the point. I know I'm harping on this, but since I've griped so much about technobabble lately I want to make it clear how pleased I am to see an episode which so neatly avoided it.
It was nice to see a role which finally let LeVar Burton show what he's capable of. He was a bit sub-par last time he had the focal role, but then nothing could have saved "Aquiel". The last time he had the crucial part in a show worth watching was over two years ago, back in "The Mind's Eye". That's too long for a character that still has a lot to learn, and for an actor of Burton's caliber. "Interface" is great, but since we've now met some of Geordi's family, I think we need another Geordi-centered show before too much time has passed.
Another very strong plus that the show had was that Geordi's vision on the Raman was not his mother. As a colleague of mine thought while he was watching it: "Okay, so if this show's any good, it won't be his mother; and if it's really really hokey, it will be." I completely agree. Had the Hera actually been trapped down on the planet, it would have been another case of Geordi LaForge, Technobabble Genius -- and it would have undercut everything the previous 40 minutes had built up. I'm glad that the Powers That Be decided not to go for the happy ending this time; there was no need to, and it made for a much more affecting story this way. (It also, by the way, brought the point home that space is a big place. Sometimes, things will just vanish without a trace. I won't be distressed at all if we never find out what happened to the Hera -- not everything in the universe is going to be immediately understandable. Leave it alone.)
I've already said that Burton did a good job, but I have to say that everyone really did. Frakes, as I've said, was at his best when Riker was talking about his mother's death. Marina Sirtis did a nice job as Troi *doing her job*. Brent Spiner did a very nice job as well -- in fact, the scene where Geordi basically blackmails Data into going past safety limits was well played enough to make me squirm as much as Data was. The rest of the regulars were somewhat less crucial to the show, but were all quite up to their respective tasks. I was quite pleased.
(Actually, one Picard-related scene worthy of note is the last one. It's rare that we see him really chewing someone out, and I happened to like the way he did it this time, a lot. "I am not happy," indeed.)
I was a little disappointed we didn't get to see more of Ben Vereen as Geordi's father, but with luck we'll see him again. For what it's worth, I thought he did a nice job with what little time he did have -- I had no problems believing the relationship. Then again, I've been a Ben Vereen fan for years, so my impressions are, as Data would have said, "biased". :-)
Madge Sinclair was fine as Captain LaForge in the letter to Geordi, and though I never got much of a sense of the character on the Raman, that's intentional -- it wasn't her. I feel vaguely as though something was missing, but nothing major.
Finally, a quick word on the directing. While nothing was as striking as DS9's "The Circle" was this same week, I thought everything was well done. In particular, one scene that struck me as very difficult to make work was towards the very end, when everyone's trying to figure out how to save Geordi, and at the same time we're hearing just Geordi's side of his conversation with the subspace being. That's a tough scene to manage, and I thought it came off as very tense and powerful. Good job to Robert Wiemer on that one.
That really takes care of it. "Interface" wasn't quite up with TNG's best (bits of it seemed slow, but I can't put my finger on any specific spot), but it was a very strong, very affecting character drama, which I've been waiting for for a while. I was glad to see it.
So, to wrap up:
Plot: Definitely strong. A good technical premise, but used only to move the strong character angle forward.
Plot Handling: Capable. Not stunning, but very capable.
Characterization: Exceptionally good, especially Geordi.
OVERALL: Call it a 9. Nice work.
Picard as a mercenary and a traitor? Most intriguing...
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"I cannot have you confined to quarters for something you have not yet done."
-- Copyright 1993, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...