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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Manhunt (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

There’s a strange sense of fatigue as we come towards the end of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as if the effort of producing Q Who? has really just drained the show of any ambition or drive. To be fair, there are probably more banal motivations at play. The 1988 Writers’ Strike had taken the entire industry by surprise and has been credited with dropping television ratings by ten percent. It damaged the tail end of the first season, causing an improvised conclusion to We’ll Always Have Paris and is probably responsible for the mess that was The Neutral Zone.

The damage also bled into the second season. Even closing with a clip show, Shades of Grey, the second season wasn’t able to meet the average quota of twenty-six episodes per season. The season premiere, The Child, had to be hastily repurposed from an aborted script for Star Trek: Phase II. Even with the shortened orders, the second season of The Next Generation frequently saw episodes coming in behind schedule and above budget. This is one of the reasons that Rob Bowman, despite being responsible for two of the season’s strongest episodes (Elementary, Dear Data and Q Who?), did not become a regular director.

"It's a good time for nap time..."

“It’s a good time for nap time…”

Behind the scenes, the show seemed to be threatening to pull itself apart. Tracy Tormé and Maurice Hurley were frequently at loggerheads with one another over all manner of issues. Tormé was only allowed to register two pseudonyms with the Writers’ Guild of America, he used both on the second season of The Next Generation, protesting over modifications made to his script. It’s no wonder that the writers’ room pretty much exploded at the end of the season, with both Tormé and Hurley departing. When Michael Piller was put in charge on the third season, he had to pretty much start from scratch.

All of which explains why the tail end of the second season seems so lifeless and limp. The Emissary is really the only second season script with any life in it once the show gets past Q Who? Most of the rest of the season seems to trying to limp across the finish line. Still, even with all of that in mind, Manhunt feels a little mean-spirited. It’s an episode designed to mock at Lwaxana Troi, to reduce a middle-aged woman going through a process explicitly compared to menopause to the butt of some particularly harsh joke. It’s hard to find that all that amusing.

Starlit dinner...

Starlit dinner…

There really aren’t that many roles for older women in television. And those that do exist typically conform to a set number of archetypes. There are mothers and grandparents, primarily. Even in the twenty-five years since Manhunt aired, it’s uncommon to come across a truly empowered older woman on television. Those who exist remain the exception rather than the rule, and for every Patty Hewes or Claudette Wyms, there are still countless nagging or doting mother figures intended as nothing but support for more important younger characters.

This particularly the case with science-fiction, where it is very hard to find dynamic roles for older women. And heaven forbid that those women should be sexually active. In recent years, Steven Moffat has generated no small amount of controversy through the character of River Song, as played by Alex Kingston on his version of Doctor Who. In the show, the character is brazen and flirty, but also involved in a passionate love affair with the show’s lead actor. When that lead actor was Matt Smith, there were nineteen years in difference between the pair.

Working under cover...

Working under cover…

And it sparked all manner of protest from on-line fans. One fan site described it as “Mrs. Robinson-esque.” Of course, it doesn’t matter that the Doctor’s character is centuries older than his lover. It doesn’t matter that she is still relatively young in terms of the show. It doesn’t matter that they are both well past the age of consent. All that matters is that Alex Kingston dares to get flirty with a character played by an actor who is not in her age bracket. And this is the state of science-fiction in 2014.

So it feels unfair to get particularly upset with Manhunt and its gender issues. It is a product of 1989, which might as well have been a lifetime ago. In theory, the way the story treats Lwaxana should be an artifact of its time, much like some of the unfortunate moments from the classic Star Trek. Unfortunately, it’s not. While The Next Generation is undoubtedly a product of its time, it’s not too difficult to imagine all of this playing out on a modern television show. Certainly, we all remember the unfortunate gender issues that were present even in the final years of Star Trek: Enterprise.

Glory to you, and your house...

Glory to you… and your private detective’s office…

So Manhunt is a decidedly unpleasant watch. It’s the second story to feature Lwaxana Troi, who is essentially the sit-com mom of the ship’s mostly useless counsellor, Deanna Troi. Indeed, Manhunt plays up this aspect of the relationship, with Deanna growing increasingly exasperated and embarrassed by her mother with each passing second. “Oh, my God,” Troi states in the opening scene, sensing her mother’s approach to the Enterprise. “What’s she doing here?”

Lwaxana is a difficult character to like at the best of times. She’s a shrill stereotype, Troi’s nagging mother and Riker’s aggressive would-be mother-in-law. She claims that she knows everything that’s going on, is decidedly stuffy, and insists on dominating the lives of those around her with little regard for anybody else’s wants or needs. And all of this is played as hilarious. It suffers because (a.) it is not, in fact, hilarious; and (b.) it is incredibly trite and cliché.

Over the Hill?

Over the Hill?

While I’d be hard-pressed to count any of her appearances as truly classic (though Half a Life comes closest), the best Lwaxana episodes at least allow the character some measure of dignity. They respect Lwaxana as a character with her own hang-ups and her own insecurities. That’s part of the reason her relationship with Odo worked so well when she appeared on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The Forsaken and The Muse are pretty mediocre episodes, but at least they treat Lwaxana as more than a walking punchline.

Manhunt might be the cruellest Lwaxana story the show ever produced. It’s based around the idea that a middle-aged sexually active woman is absolutely frightening for anybody stuck in the room with her, and hilarious to anybody watching the episode on television. So Lwaxana proceeds to spend the episode lusting after Picard, shooting down Worf, remarking that Wesley might make a fine man one day, getting engaged to Riker and flirting with a holodeck character.

Dressed to impress...

Dressed to impress…

That last one seems especially mean-spirited. Ignoring that it seems unlikely Lwaxana would be unfamiliar with the concept of a holodeck, the way the episode (and the other characters) allow her humiliation to proceed feels decidedly unfair. Lwaxana might be bossy and shrill, but she’s never portrayed as mean-spirited or malicious. Playing her humiliation as a joke feels like the episode is delivering some sort of comeuppance. Since all Lwaxana does is aggressively flirt with the men on the ship, which is driven by a biological imperative, Manhunt comes perilously close to punishing Lwaxana for having a sex drive.

We’re told repeatedly that “the phase” is something that happens to every Betazoid female, with time. One of the better reaction shots of the episode come from Jonathan Frakes, with Riker’s wonderfully seedy (and totally in character) grin after Deanna warns him that her sex drive might more than quadruple with age. Lwaxana really has no choice in the matter. She can’t suppress it. It’s as natural as baldness in Picard’s case.

"Don't drink it all now! We've still got to get through Shades of Grey!"

“Don’t drink it all now! We’ve still got to get through Shades of Grey!”

The only real option that Lwaxana has would be to retire from diplomatic service and retreat back to Betazed. Which seems like a slightly worrying implication for the episode to make. For one thing, Lwaxana is described as a very competent diplomat – why should she have to give up her career and go home? For another, had Lwaxana not been on board, the Antedean delegates would have most likely been successful in sabotaging the conference. Since they were wearing explosive clothes, there would probably even have been massive casualties.

So, accepting that Lwaxana was right to go to the conference, it seems like the bulk of Manhunt is built around laughing at a middle-aged woman for daring to be sexually active and adventurous. In the very unlikely event that that this plot would ever be constructed using a male character, it’s worth noting that it would not really be a comedic subplot. If “the phase” were the same, and the character were acting the same way, it would be creepy rather than funny. Of course, Amok Time covered similar ground with Spock – and it treated his sexual imperatives with considerable respect and discretion.

There's something fishy about these delegates...

There’s something fishy about these delegates…

Instead, Manhunt feels like it was constructed as a sex comedy with “isn’t it hilarious when older ladies want to have sex?” as the central punchline. It’s something that The Next Generation really should be much better at at this stage of its development. That we’re still getting these plots at this point in the show’s life cycle is disheartening. Star Trek really should be aspiring for more, even when it comes to dodgy comedy episodes.

It’s a shame that the central plot is so weak, as there are some nice moments and gags here. In particular, Picard’s attempt to get away from it all works surprisingly well – discovering that play-acting a forties private eye really isn’t all that relaxing. It’s nice to see the holodeck presented as an interactive stage play with only so many variable parametres – obviously not programmed to infinite detail. Asked for his surname, Rex the bartender hesitates a moment. “Don’t think I have one.”

Riker does the heavy lifting...

Riker does the heavy lifting…

Also quite nice is Worf’s appreciation of the beauty of the Antedeans, and his awkward conversation with Wesley about inter-species aesthetics. Although it’s played for comedy, it’s a nice example of the show trying to do relativism – accepting that standards of beauty are not universal and vary from species to species. Just because Worf is not attractive to human eyes doesn’t mean that he’s not handsome as a Klingon.

Indeed, there’s something to be said for the casualness of Manhunt. It really just seems like the Enterprise crew lounging around while doing a boring ferrying mission. No strange anomalies, no alien attacks, no galactic crises. Just the Enterprise as an interstellar cruise liner. One thing the second season has been willing to do is to allow the cast room to breath in their roles – to give us a sense of the characters and the world they inhabit, as opposed to a universe driven entirely by the demands of a given plot.

Giving their relationship another Troi?

Giving their relationship another Troi?

It’s something of a shift in television between the sixties and the eighties, but the classic Star Trek could never have done anything quite like this. Even when the Enterprise ferried ambassadors to and fro, interesting things seemed to happen around them – exciting and compelling plots. The big plot about the conference (the Antedeans plan to blow it up!) is only hinted at and resolved in the last two minutes of the episode, a casual off-hand plot twist. The rest of the episode is a lot more relaxing, with the Antedeans hibernating for most of the journey, and Picard able to sneak off to the holodeck.

Manhunt also drops some interesting hints about Riker and Deanna Troi, which remains one of the dangling one-ended mysteries of The Next Generation. Just what exactly is going on between them? She cried when he was possibly leaving the ship in The Icarus Factor, and the show routinely treats Troi as Riker’s girlfriend, but the two aren’t explicitly dating and certainly aren’t beyond flirtations with other characters. We know they were together in the past, but The Next Generation seems to subtly hint that the two have been hooking up since they started serving together.

The life aquatic...

The life aquatic…

Manhunt is decidedly ambiguous and non-committal on the answer, even as it flirts with the possibility. Watching Riker lift her case, Lwaxana notes, “He has nice legs too, Little One. Is he still yours?” Deanna declines to answer the question, instead steering the conversation another direction. “Humans no longer own each other that way, Mother.” Later on, when Lwaxana tries to sink her claws into Riker, Deanna falls into the stereotypical role of the jilted girlfriend ready to fight for her man. Willing to joke with Pulaski about Picard, Lwaxana’s play for Riker is too much. “Somebody’s got to set her straight.”

Okay, that’s far from the proudest feminist moment that the show has ever had, but it’s in keeping with the uncomfortable subtext of Manhunt. It all feels like a mean joke on Lwaxana. And though she’s hardly the most beloved of characters, it’s still very unpleasant to watch.

Read our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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