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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Lonely Among Us (Review)

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also next year’s release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I’m taking a look at the recent blu ray release of the first season, episode-by-episode. Check back daily for the latest review.

Lonely Among Us actually embodies quite a few of the problems with these early episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. While it’s hardly the worst episode of a season, it is certainly not among the stronger episodes. It’s a story that doesn’t really have a centrally defined conflict, and plays into the worst of the smug “humans are special” subtext that pervades episodes like The Last Outpost. At one point, possessed!Picard observes, “The search for knowledge is always our primary mission.” Based on episodes like this and The Last Outpost, it seems more likely the ship’s primary mission is lording it over alien cultures they deem inferior.

However, more than that, Lonely Among Us simply lacks a compelling narrative drive to make it entirely worthwhile. The ideas here aren’t half-bad, but the execution is downright dull.

Has Picard’s judgement been clouded?

There is a great idea at the heart of Lonely Among Us, and it is something that has been tackled on Star Trek a few times, and often better. What happens when alien cultures interact in such a way that they can’t directly communicate? Isn’t there some grand tragedy borne of the interaction between two forms of life that are entirely alien to one another? Misunderstanding drives the plot of Lonely Among Us as the Enterprise accidentally abducts an alien which accidentally kills a member of the crew in the quest to get home. There’s a great story to be told there, but Lonely Among Us fudges the delivery.

There are a lot of interesting questions to be asked about the situation, but none of them are articulated. Like the electric bolts that possessed!Picard uses to suppress the senior staff, the episode follows the path of least resistance. Picard is taken over by an alien lifeform desperately trying to survive. That lifeform claims that the two of them have found an equilibrium and that they are in harmony – it isn’t merely using his body for some sinister purpose.

It’s nice to know Picard reacted to most of the first season the same way that I did…

The show never really explores that question. Riker refuses to let Picard beam into the cloud, but he never suggests it’s because he doesn’t trust the alien lifeform. Indeed, the episode goes out of the way to confirm that the alien is acting in good faith. After the creature returns to its own kind, Troi notes that the creature has left Picard. Riker assumes the worst, demanding, “The entity, has it abandoned him?” Troi quickly shoots the idea down, “No, but the combination wasn’t possible out there.”

I can understand the urge to avoid playing into the “it’s different so it must be evil” trope, but this raises a number of questions the episode can’t be bothered answering. Most obviously, was Picard actually happy to potentially spend the rest of his life floating as a cloud of gas? How did he feel about having what was (at least) a co-pilot within his own body? Was he simply willing to sacrifice himself to save the ship, or was he driven by a more primal curiosity about what life might be like in another form?

O’Brien gets an early taste of what Deep Space Nine will be like…

More than that, though, the entire episode skirts around the issues it raises. The creature arrives on the ship and attacks several crewmembers. It kills the first member of the staff to die on-screen. Picard argues, convincingly, that none of this was intentional. It was a misunderstanding, much like the Enterprise’s inadvertent capture of the creature:

Frantic at being carried from its home world, and recognising you as sentient beings, it pleaded for help, but in ways you couldn’t understand. Desperately going from person to person, and then discovering the computer intelligence in this ship’s memory circuits. Oh, simplistic intelligence, but it furnished it enough to slow this Enterprise thing that had captured it. And it very much regrets the accidental death of Engineer Singh.

That’s very interesting, but the episode tries to have it every which way. Despite the fact that the Enterprise crew and the entity seem to be at odds with one another, everybody gets a happy ending. Picard was never going to die, but resurrecting him using technobabble transporter magic feels especially cheap.

Boy, Engineers sure have a short shelf life on this ship…

It might have been a bit more fascinating to explore whether that innocence could excuse the violence and destruction. It is great that the creature doesn’t want to cause harm, but it’s far too convenient that nobody important dies. Even acknowledging the creature’s innocence, would Riker or Picard have been willing to kill it to prevent further loss of life? It’s tragic, and it’s horrible, but the episode seems to gloss over the fact that this innocent entity kills one member of the crew and almost kills another in its quest to get home. Would it have been willing to kill more? And would Riker have been justified in using force to stop it? That is an interesting moral debate, but the episode cheats by killing off a character we’ve never seen before and giving us a happy ending.

(I also find it fascinating that the creature can use Picard to deliver a stirring monologue to the Bridge, but had difficulty communicating otherwise. Perhaps Picard’s gift really is diplomacy and the creature was only able to tap into it with Picard, rather than with Worf or Beverly. As an aside, I like how the episode plays the old “beat up Worf to make the threat seem real” card so unapologetically. The guy doesn’t even realise it’s happening. He is just checking a console before he gets knocked around. At least Lore would knock the phaser from his hand before delivering a beatdown.)

The outside looking in…

Then again, as with a lot of these first season episodes, this plot might have worked a bit better with the more dynamic cast of the original Star Trek. I love Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the show generally wasn’t quite as good at doing internal conflict and melodrama as well as Kirk’s crew. It’s not a criticism, just a reflection on the different dynamic. The attempted mutiny (and Data does use the word) would play much more effectively on Star Trek or even Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Given how everybody on The Next Generation already seems to work so well together, it seems like the friendliest attempted coup ever. I am not even convinced that the words exchanged could really be deemed to be stern. Even at this early stage, the cast and crew of The Next Generation seem astonishingly comfortable with one another. Even if they aren’t, we know they are far more likely to reason out any internal differences. So Riker’s half-hearted attempted mutiny really doesn’t carry any dramatic weight, and seems to exist to pad out an episode that really doesn’t have a central conflict driving it.

Are Picard’s friends electric?

The diplomatic subplot involving the Anticans and the Selay is another example of padding, but it’s padding of the worst kind. It allows the first season of The Next Generation to indulge in the human-centric racism that makes so many of these early episodes uncomfortable. We aren’t expected to treat the Anticans and the Selay with respect. The Enterpise crew certainly don’t. Yar opens the episode observing, “Neither seem like very promising Federation candidates, sir.”

Naturally, our leads are so hyper-evolved they can barely understand how two races could… y’know, hate each other. Maybe if the Anticans condescended to the Selay, maybe that they could understand. “No sir,” Riker awkwardly remarks at one point. “I didn’t understand that kind of hostility even when I studied Earth history.” Picard counters, bluntly, “Really? Oh, yes, well these life forms feel such passionate hatred over matters of custom, God concepts, even, strangely enough, economic systems.”He might as well be looking at the camera and explaining that such a war might be called a Cold War. Like in… gasp… the twentieth century.

Treat another culture with respect? Don’t be Selay!

Sadly, it goes downhill from there. Rather than dealing the ramifications of what seems to be a generational conflict, the show reduces the Selay and the Anticans to the roles of squabbling teenagers. Yar and Riker essentially play the hall monitors catching those pesky kids sneaking around the corridors and getting ready to play pranks. The episode treats all this as a source of humour. Consider the final exchange on the matter as Yar arrives into the transporter room after Picard has returned to the ship:

Sorry, Commander, but Security Team Two reports they’ve discovered a puddle of blood outside the Selay Quarters and they can’t find one of the delegates and so–

Lieutenant. This couldn’t have waited a moment?

It’s good to see you, sir. The problem is that one of the cooks has just been asked to broil reptile for the Anticans, and it looks like the Selay delegate.

The episode even plays a nice comedy sting, so we thing “oh, those pesky Anticans are at it again!” A diplomat travelling on the Starfleet flagship has just been murdered (and is possibly going to be eaten), but it’s okay because he’s just one of those stupid snake people, am I right? Again, this is one of those moments that just seems horrendously misjudged.

There are easier ways to get Riker to come back to your quarters…

On the plus side, though, Lonely Among Us does provide me with ample opportunity to praise the special effects work. The portrayal of the Anticans is… less than nuanced, with the creatures whining and panting like beasts, but I like the make-up on the Anticans and the Selay. One thing I really liked about the early seasons of The Next Generation was the conscious attempt to portray aliens that looked alien. The Selay might look a bit like an upper-class Doctor Who monster, but they certainly stand out a bit. I’m a bit disappointed the design of the Selay was never really used again.

(I also love how the Selay are so matter-of-fact about the way they are trying to kill the Anticans. When confronted by Riker, the Anticans make all manner of veiled threats that really don’t fool anybody. However, when the Selay accidentally lasso Riker in the middle of the corridor, they coyly apologise for the mistake. “Sorry. Wrong species.” It’s just one of the moments where the episode’s tone – treating the delegates as spoilt teenagers – actually works. It might be the only such moment.)

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it…

The special effects are still a little eighties, even after the remastering, but the sets look fabulous. I wonder if part of the reason that these attempts to do classic Star Trek plots fell apart because the show’s aesthetic was so different. The original Star Trek looked like a light wind might knock down the set, but The Next Generation presents a world that’s a lot more convincing. The result is that we’re more likely to want to take it seriously, and so the classic convenient plots and plot elements don’t get the same level of suspension of disbelief. The world seems more convincing, so the plots should be too, maybe?

I actually like Ron Jones’ musical score for the episode, complete with eighties synthesiser of doom. It’s a little overblown, but it does give a decidedly b-movie sci-fi movie feel to thinks. The score would get a bit more serious as the show went on, but I think the cheesy music at this point suits the somewhat corny plotting. I also really like the incidental music used in Datalore, another example where the hokey plot is elevated by a score that is a little over-the-top, but still evokes the surreal galaxy that our heroes find themselves exploring.

Shocking…

I won’t pretend that any of the character work here is good, but there’s some interesting stuff. The most interesting character moment comes from Wesley, of all people. When his mother inquires about his homework, Wesley goes into his “gee whiz!” mode, getting hyper-enthusiastic. “Really?” he gasps. “You never seemed that interested in warp theory before.” Suddenly, Wesley makes a bit more sense at the character. With his mother acting as Chief Medical Officer and his father dead, Wesley’s desperate need for accomplishment is perhaps the result of emotional neglect. The characterisation feels a bit harsh on Beverly, but probably no worse than the more heavily implied “he needs a father-figure like Picard” interpretation that some of the series pushes.

The show hasn’t done much with Troi yet, so I haven’t had a chance to discuss her. Don’t worry. We’ll get to that. However, Lonely Among Us goes out of the way to suggest that Troi probably isn’t very good at her job. When she references “the feeling of duality that [she] sensed earlier in [Worf and Beverly]”, Picard asks a question that occurs to most of the audience. “Why didn’t you report it?” Troi attempts to justify a fairly fundamental mess-up from the empathic member of the senior staff, suggesting, “Because, sir, I assumed at first it was the kind of duality we Betazoids feel in all of you. Even you, sir. When you approach a decision and ask yourself which way to go, who are you talking to?”

Full of hot air…

Of course, all of this is pretty speculative, but Troi is probably a bit of a waste of a spot on the Bridge if she can’t tell the difference between “what should I do?” and “I am a sentient energy life form trapped inside a Klingon.” The fact that she noticed enough to tell Picard about it after the fact raises the question of why she didn’t raise the issue sooner. Even if it was just a “feeling” with no evidence to back it up, that is kinda why she is on the ship in the first place. Right?

Still, Data gets to smoke a pipe. And it foreshadows his fondness for Sherlock Holmes. That actually makes Lonely Among Us seem far more entertaining than it is, and Brent Spiner is really getting the hang of Data. The character suits Spiner’s exaggerated performance, and he’s probably the first member of the ensemble apart from Patrick Stewart to fully settle into his role on the show. Data smoking a pipe and delivering a Holmes-ian monologue could potentially be a disaster. The fact that it isn’t is only a very good sign for the character and the actor.

Statistical fact: Data smoking a pipe makes an episode twice as cool as it would otherwise be. That’s scientific.

Oh, and we get confirmation that Argyle is still the ship’s Chief Engineer. That has to count for something, even if the guy seems too lazy to attend staff meetings. It seems a bit cheeky to send Singh in his place, given he knows that his assistant is likely to get an earful of some kind. After all, every other section chief generally reports directly to Picard. Maybe Argyle just figured that the position of Chief Engineer wasn’t the most stable job of the ship and is keeping out of harms way. If he had appeared this episode, after all, he would have been the first crewmember of the Enterprise to die.

Lonely Among Us is disappointingly substance-less. It’s just a collection of missteps that feel somewhat typical of this struggling first season. In any other season of the show, even the second season, it would be a lowlight. Here, it feels like it approaches average.

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

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4 Responses

  1. A decent premise with bad writing. The delegate sub-plot was oddly enjoyable, if only because the season is was so weak that I was already treating it as a joke.

    • Yep, but the delegate thing is so terrible because it’s like anti-Star-Trek. It’s like the opposite for what Star Trek wants to be at this point, a treatise on tolerance and respect for other cultures. Again, I need to lighten up a bit – but TNG (for me) always had a bit of difficulty with tone when it came to comedy.

  2. The Chief Engineer’s name is Argyle and not Argoyle. Robert loves the beer TENNENT’S. This beer is from Scotland. Argyle is a name from Scotland. Perhaps the reason LeVar Burton became the Enterprise’s Chief Engineer is because Argyle consistently came to work inebriated on TENNENT’S. Although there is something called Synthehol.

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