WARNING: This article contains extremely large amounts of very detailed spoiler information regarding TNG's "Parallels". I strongly suggest that anyone not already privy to this information avoid the article for the time being.
Two words: "Schrodinger's Klingon." Great, great fun.
Well, it took a number of shows last year for TNG to really kick in -- and with "Inheritance" being pretty decent and "Parallels" being superb, I think we may be in for history repeating itself. More details to follow, of course, but first this friendly synopsis:
Worf is returning from a bat'leth tournament on Forgus Three, in which he won top prize. He is looking forward to rejoining the Enterprise, but also somewhat jumpy.
This is because it's his birthday, and as Riker briefs Worf it becomes more and more clear that Worf is expecting Riker to have arranged some sort of celebration. "A surprise party?" says Riker, aghast. "I hate surprise parties; I would never do that to you." Worf, relieved, bids Riker farewell. He heads into the second room of his quarters, only to be surprised by a number of his friends. Riker comes back in, grinning. "I love surprise parties."
At the party, everyone is present except for Picard, who sends his regards via Riker. Worf grudgingly puts up with happy songs and having to cut the (chocolate) birthday cake. He receives his gifts, including an expressionist painting from Data that Troi insists on hanging prominently in the front room. Geordi comes in, compliments the painting, and extends his own best wishes to Worf. Worf staggers very briefly, but insists it's only because Data's painting is making him dizzy.
"Cake?" Worf and Data accept the pieces offered, but Worf seems surprised to notice that the cake is yellow. "The cake was chocolate..." "Oh, don't I wish," chimes in Troi helpfully. Worf receives more gifts, then hears Picard ask him how old he is. Worf again seems surprised, this time because he didn't think Picard could attend -- but Picard says he wouldn't have missed it for anything.
The Enterprise arrives at the Argus Array, which has malfunctioned recently for the third time in a year. However, they find that it's functioning perfectly normally -- it's just that someone else has reprogrammed it to no longer send information back to the Federation! A repair crew goes over to readjust it, and to find the imaging logs in hopes of discovering what happened.
As those repairs continue, Worf talks to Troi in Ten-Forward. He thanks her for caring for Alexander during his absence, and after complimenting her ability to get along with Alexander, asks her to formally assume the role of "so'chim", Alexander's surrogate mother. In human terms, Worf says, the closest analogue would be Worf's stepsister. Troi notes, "That would make my mother your stepmother." Worf's eyes bulge out of his head briefly, but he acknowledges that he is willing to take that risk. Troi accepts.
Later, in Engineering, Worf, Data, Geordi and Picard are viewing the imaging logs. They show that the Array's recent scans have centered on many key Federation sites, including the Utopia Planetia shipyards where many new advances in starship technology are made. The logs dated just as the Array was reprogrammed clearly show a Cardassian vessel approaching, lending even more credence to the idea that the Array is now "in enemy hands." Geordi hands Worf a report, and Worf briefly sags against the console. Worf claims he's fine -- but suddenly notices that Data and Geordi appear to have switched places, and that Picard is nowhere to be found. Befuddled, he goes to sickbay.
There, Dr. Crusher says that his situation is normal, and to be expected after that concussion he's had recently. Worf is now really confused; what concussion might that be? Crusher, patient as ever, explains that he came in complaining of ringing in his ears that morning, and that her scans showed he had a concussion from when someone hit him on the head in the bat'leth tournament. "That's why you lost the match." "But ... I won that tournament -- and I can prove it to you!" The two quickly go to Worf's quarters, and Worf grabs his memento -- only now, it shows he came in ninth place...
Worf, sure someone is playing an elaborate trick on him, checks his personal log from the shuttlecraft, only to find that it too says he came in ninth. Worf is no longer sure whether reality is wrong or his memories are wrong, and is more than open to Bev's suggestion that his memories are briefly fading as a result of the concussion. She reassures him that it should only be temporary, and he heads for the bridge.
There, Data asks him for the results of the metallurgical scan on the Array -- a scan Worf knows nothing about. A Cardassian ship then appears, and Picard trades diplomatic barbs with Gul Nador, who is curious about the Enterprise's mission in the sector and about the purpose of the Array. Picard reassures him that it is used only for scientific study, not surveillance. Nador, apparently placated, leaves.
Worf, now back on comfortable ground in security, confidently tells Picard that Nador's ship is the same one they saw in the imaging logs. "Imaging logs?" asks Picard, clearly unaware of any such beasts, or of any implication that the Array was sabotaged. Riker claims not to have been informed either, and Data has no memory of the logs. Worf again wonders what's going on.
In his quarters, he complains about the incongruities to Counselor Troi. She points out, rather sensibly, that it makes more sense for him to be misremembering things than for everyone else to be. Geordi then enters with news that the Argus Array had simply suffered a mechanical failure. Worf protests to Geordi, then briefly collapses. Geordi steadies him, but then Worf finds everything changed. Data's painting is now on the opposite wall, and is also a completely different painting. He turns to Troi and finds her hair and clothing have changed as well! Geordi suggests Worf go to sickbay, and reaches over to give him a hand. Worf sags again --
"Now, Mr. Worf!" Worf, shocked at hearing Picard's voice, suddenly finds himself on a very different-looking bridge of the Enterprise, with a Cardassian vessel approaching menacingly...
Picard again orders him to raise shields, but Worf is unfamiliar with the different layout of the tactical panel, and the Enterprise takes several nasty hits. Riker manages to raise the shields and returns fire, but another Cardassian bolt does real damage. The Enterprise flees, and the Cardassians leave them alone, instead destroying the Argus Array utterly. A call to Engineering to check damage reveals that Geordi is in sickbay, gravely injured with plasma burns. Picard, quite miffed, asks Worf what happened, and neither he nor Riker have any idea what Worf means by "another memory lapse." Worf requests to be relieved of duty, a request Picard quickly grants.
Worf broods in his quarters, where his bat'leth trophy is now a vase of flowers and a check of his personal logs reveals that a malfunction on board prevented him from being able to go to the tournament in the first place. The door rings, and when Worf answers it, Troi enters, rather annoyed that he'd lock the door. She seems to make herself quite at home, and expects Worf to be comfortable around her -- far more comfortable, in fact, than Worf has ever been around Troi in the past. Accepting that Worf doesn't want to talk about what just happened, she at least manages to get him onto the bed for her to massage away some of his tension. Worf is a bit surprised by this, but is outright shocked when Troi leans over and kisses him. "Counselor, I do not believe this is appropriate behavior!" "Even for your wife?" "WIFE?" If Worf was confused before, he's almost catatonic now; however, he describes enough of his experiences that Troi says she believes him, and they determine to get to the bottom of it.
Data, in engineering, agrees to set up a scan for temporal anomalies. After Troi is called away, Worf asks about his romantic history with her and finds out that they've been married for about two and a half years. When Data suggests Worf think back to find common elements to all the feelings of discontinuity he's felt of late, Worf realizes that Geordi was present and nearby on all three occasions. They head for sickbay to talk to Geordi -- but he, Data, and Troi find out from Dr. Ogawa that Geordi is in no condition to talk: he's dead.
A scan of Geordi reveals nothing that might link him to Worf's changing perceptions, so they theorize the VISOR might be responsible. They hook it up to a scanner and power it on, and Worf again sags.
He is steadied, as usual -- by Dr. Crusher, who wasn't there a moment ago. He finds himself now in red, with a different combadge, and quickly discovers from Troi that he's first officer of this Enterprise. As Worf deals with this new situation, Data discovers "quantum flux" in his RNA and studies the phenomenon.
In the ready room some time later, Data briefs Captain Riker: based on the quantum resonance signature in Worf's body (something basic to all existence, and unchangeable), Worf is not native to this universe. Although Worf never left the Enterprise for the bat'leth tournament in this universe, Riker orders the ship to backtrack along Worf's shuttle's alleged course to search for anomalies. As they prepare for this, Worf asks Riker how long he's been captain. "Four years," Riker responds, "ever since Captain Picard was killed during the incident with the Borg. You don't remember any of this, do you?" "I do remember it -- I just remember it differently."
Later, on the bridge, tactical Lieutenant Wes Crusher picks up traces of a quantum fissure along Worf's old course, and there is an ion trail coming from it suggesting a Federation shuttlecraft. Data immediately comes up with a theory. The fissure, it seems, is a "keyhole" between many different quantum universes: universes where events took a different path. The shuttle's warp engines punched a small hole through the fissure, propelling Worf into an uncertain state from reality to reality. Geordi's VISOR, by merit of its subspace properties, triggered shifts whenever it operated near Worf. Wes suggests scanning the fissure in search of the reality with Worf's own quantum signature in an attempt to get Worf back where he belongs.
As this search gets underway, Troi admits to Worf that she's a bit depressed by the concept of realities where they never fell in love. Although Worf says he had never considered romance with her, he does go so far as to say he "would not be opposed" to the idea. Even the revelation that here, he has two children by Troi and no Alexander, is just one more revelation of many.
As the Enterprise continues to scan the fissure, a hostile ship approaches. It's a Bajoran ship -- in this reality, the Bajorans overthrew the Cardassians and have become a dangerous force. They shoot at the Enterprise, screwing up the scanning pulse. The pulse creates a rip in the fissure, letting other realities come in. One by one, Enterprises upon Enterprises begin popping into existence...
The Bajoran ship, not surprisingly, disengages, and Wes reports a huge number of hails. Data suggests that if Worf's original shuttle can be found and sent back through the fissure with an inverse warpfield at the right moment, the fissure should seal and restore everything back the way it was. Riker sends out a general hail to all the Enterprises, relaying this information and transmitting the quantum signature to them. Worf's Enterprise responds, and agrees to send the shuttle over. Captain Riker cannot resist, however, telling Picard how good it is to see him again after such a long time.
The shuttle is made ready, and Data tells Worf that owing to the uncertainty principle, he should show up near the Enterprise in place, but may be several days early or several days later than he would normally have arrived. After Worf bids Troi a fond farewell, the shuttle leaves.
Before it reaches the fissure, however, it comes under attack. Riker finds that it's not the Bajorans attacking, however, but one of the Enterprises! A hail reveals a desolate bridge, with only Worf and a disheveled, frantic Riker on the scene. "We won't GO back," insists that Riker. "You don't know what it's like in our universe. The Federation's gone; the Borg is everywhere! We're one of the last ships left -- please. You've got to help us!" Although their presence sends a pang through everyone on board, Riker insists that the shuttle be protected, and a shot in self-defense accidentally destroys that desperate Enterprise. Worf enters the fissure, triggers the warpfield, and is surrounded by multiple images of himself --
-- and wakes to find himself on the floor of his shuttlecraft, alone and back in his usual uniform. He hails the Enterprise and hears Picard's voice welcoming him home. When Picard asks how the bat'leth tournament was, Worf's eye falls on his trophy. "It was fine, sir. I won champion standing..."
Later, Worf tells Riker that he knows a surprise party is in the works, but is really surprised to find no such party materializing. Instead, there is only Troi, who had promised to feed a pet of Alexander's. She tells him that she knows he wants to be alone on his birthday, and prepares to leave -- but Worf stops her, inviting her to share his dinner. Deanna happily agrees, and Worf orders champagne, as the Enterprise sails on.
Yow. One thing about these reality-bending shows: I love 'em most of the time, but they're hell on the fingers. :-) Now that that's over with, however, onwards to commentary.
I've seen a great many complaints about TNG, often coupled with claims that it's "not science fiction." On many occasions, it's certainly true that the stories are human stories with SF trappings (and sometimes even the trappings are thin), but in general that doesn't bother me, so long as the stories are good ones.
"Parallels", however, is SF to the core, and it's the sort of thing I wouldn't have been surprised to read in Analog if it had been a written story rather than a filmed one. It took some basic theoretical ideas (the quantum-mechanical "many-worlds" hypothesis, in this case, which is one of the more fertile theories for stories and a great justification for alternate universes) and played with it a lot. The last reality-bending show TNG had was "Frame of Mind" [another Brannon Braga story -- now *there's* a non-surprise!], but that one was inwardly focused; in effect, all of it was Riker's hallucination. That worked beautifully, but this one tried to give it a more scientific explanation. All too often, that's been the kiss of death for TNG (such as "The Chase", to name a fairly nagging example), but here it made perfect sense.
Of course, given the nature of many Trek fans, at least half the fun of this show is tied up in two things: trying to notice every single change, and wondering what other universes we might have been able to spot had there been no limitations of time, money, or actor availability. :-) I'm not going to bother listing all the changes here -- I'll leave it to others -- but there are definitely a few examples I'd like to have seen. So, my "wish list" for alternates:
- A universe where Pulaski was still CMO
- A two-second cameo of a universe where all the regulars were dead and O'Brien was still on board as captain. :-)
- A universe with Tasha (though here people would be screaming "ripoff").
- A "mirror-Enterprise", though with the recent publication of Dark Mirror that could invite a lot of argument as well.
- A Borged Enterprise with Locutus in charge. A couple of people I've mentioned this one to don't think it's plausible, but in this particular case I wouldn't give a damn; it'd be bone-chilling.
Those are the broad universes I'd like to have seen. I completely understand why none of them would be shown, and think they worked beautifully, but hey, a man can dream.
It's difficult to mention a lot of specific good points about the show, because so many of them are tied up in very specific details. For starters, though, the plot seemed to hold together extremely well. Not only was the initial idea of "Schrodinger's Klingon" an inspired one, but having Geordi be the trigger seemed a consistent move. (I initially thought that there was at least one shift without him there, but I'd misremembered; every shift did have the VISOR activated in some way.) It was a slight plot convenience that once Worf's claims were accepted in one universe, he never went to one that _didn't_ believe him, but I don't see that as anything other than dramatic necessity.
I also liked the way the plot managed to build. Although it's almost a staple of things like this that things get weirder and weirder the further along you get in the show, in this case there was good reason for it. As I see it, the more shifts Worf made, the further back in time the initial change was. Think about it: in the very first shift [that we saw, anyway -- more on that later], the change was probably only minutes old: the cake was a different type and Picard managed to make it down. Next time, it was a few days old, during the bat'leth tournament. The next time, we don't really know: the universe with Troi's hair different and the shifted painting is one we only "inhabit" for a matter of seconds. The time after that, though, goes back at least three years, and probably back as far as when the Enterprise was designed. Then, the final shift into the Rikerverse (well, we've got to use something) places us at a point where the Bajorans' ascendancy is a far-back issue, probably a decade old or more. One wonders what would have happened if he went even further back: perhaps a universe where the Klingon/Romulan alliance never fell apart, or one in which some essential Trek culture never developed space travel. There's lots of ground for truly frivolous speculation here -- best kind. :-)
It's been a long time since we've had a good show dealing with Worf as a person, not just as a Klingon. This was one of them -- not just in the broad strokes of the show, but in lots of the little details. His Klingon-ness certainly showed through in those little details (his casual reference to the maiming of several contestants in the tournament, for instance), but the basic story is one that could have happened to really any of the regulars. What made it interesting was the intricacies of the plot and the almost universal set of reactions Worf had to it.
The directing in a show like this needs to be top-notch: if the transitions between realities aren't done just right, everything falls down. I usually like Robert Wiemer's TNG work, and fortunately it held up here (which I was a little worried about after the problems he had in "Schisms" last year). The transition to Worf-on-the-bridge was particularly good, but all of them really did a nice job of putting us in Worf's shoes and getting his reactions. Good job there.
Then, of course, there's the last act. Yow. Putting all those Enterprises on screen at once must have been an effects nightmare (not to mention a really, really sick idea :-) ), but it made for one of the most jaw-dropping act closes I've seen in ages. It also led to a line I think is destined to be one of the single most memorable TNG lines ever: "Captain, we're receiving two hundred and eighty-five thousand hails." I was laughing so hard that I almost missed the next minute of the scene (in part because I was suddenly picturing Galactic Bell beeping at them with a quick "sorry, all circuits are busy now"...). And, given a marked penchant Braga episodes have to blow up the Enterprise, as soon as I saw all of them coming I started placing bets for just how many of the Enterprises would be toast by the end of the act. I'm a little surprised it was just one; after all, "Cause and Effect" managed to blow up the Enterprise, what, four times?
[That last act also had the quick scene with the Borg-ravaged Enterprise, and I wasn't kidding when I said it sent a pang through everyone on Riker's Enterprise; I may have been projecting, as it sent one through me, but I wasn't kidding.]
The other major issue, I suppose, is the Worf/Troi angle. While the whole thing feels a little incongruous to me, there are great numbers of real couples I see all the time that seem at least as incongruous. They seem to work, so why shouldn't this? And, taking the interest Worf had in "Ethics" in asking Troi to help with Alexander as a given, the possibility for attraction is a pretty logical conclusion. I actually have a lot more hope for potential romance here than I do with the Picard/Bev angle from "Attached"; this might have a lot more intriguing issues to work with.
And now, back to a point I made earlier: I don't think the first obvious switch was the first one. I think it makes perfect sense, in fact, to assume that the first shift happened when Worf first tripped over the rift. In THAT case, the birthday party never happened in "our" TNG reality, and the Enterprise we saw in the first few minutes was already a slight alternate. (That may play a little havoc with my "smaller and smaller time differences" idea, but maybe that's only with the VISOR pulses. Hey, I'm just whistling in the dark here anyway...)
Anyway, this is starting to get quite long, so I should wrap up. Suffice it to say that "Parallels" is one of the types of shows I watch TNG for, and an extremely good example of that breed. While it will undoubtedly work better for people who will notice lots of the little changes, I can't imagine anyone actually disliking this except those who don't like shows that make their head hurt. :-)
So, some short takes:
- Okay, time to be fair. I griped a little in my review of "Second Sight" about a time interval being off, and I have to say that I don't buy "Ethics" as being three years ago either. The "one season = one year" guideline appears to have been uniformly jettisoned, which is a little distressing. However, when the story's this good I don't care.
- One change people may not have noticed: in the next-to-last alternate universe we see, Data's eyes are blue. Definitely a neat sign.
- "The Bajoran ship is disengaging, sir." That was another line that cued a BIG laugh where I was watching. Somehow, if you saw a few hundred thousand copies of the ship you were firing on show up, you'd probably make a hasty exit too...
- It was nice to see Wil Wheaton back. I hope the rumors about another Wes show are true, particularly if it's one that actually follows up on "The First Duty". Although I've yelled at the season for "having the universe tie up loose ends", that's one thread I don't want to see left completely unresolved.
That about covers it. So, in summary:
Plot: Well-grounded, tightly woven, and loads of fun.
Plot handling: Excellent. Very, very gripping.
Characterization: Wondrous all 'round.
OVERALL: At long last this season, a full 10. About time, too.
NEXT WEEK: Speaking of "about time, too" -- I get a vacation. :-) Reruns for the next five weeks, starting with "Descent, Part II". Enjoy them!
Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
"Captain, we're receiving two hundred and eighty-five thousand hails."
-- Lt. Wesley Crusher
-- Copyright 1993, Timothy W. Lynch. All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...