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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Big Goodbye (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.

I actually enjoyed The Big Goodbye on a lot of levels. It’s not a great Star Trek episode, but I don’t think that the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation produced a great episode. Even those episodes I do not actively hate are still significantly flawed. The Big Goodbye has more than its fair share of problems, but it does several things right. It never pretends to be more than it is, and it allows Patrick Stewart to do a lot of the heavy-lifting. Stewart is effectively charged with selling the episode to the audience, and he does a tremendous job. The result is something quite similar to the eponymous holonovel – something diverting and entertaining, but hardly profound or essential. Given the quality of the surrounding episodes, “diverting and entertaining” seems like just what the doctor ordered.

Over the Hill?

Over the Hill?

There’s something wonderfully weird about Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s recurring fascination with Dixon Hill. He is a French captain, played by a British actor, fixated on an American private detective. If that doesn’t perfectly embody the optimistic “we are all one” future of the Star Trek universe, then I don’t know what will. Again, you would imagine that the execution might look a bit silly or awkward, but Patrick Stewart really tries his hardest to convince you, and it works.

The Big Goodbye is the first in a long line of what would become known as “holodeck episodes”, which tended to happen whenever the writers of Star Trek didn’t want to write Star Trek. It allowed the writers to indulge in parodies and pastiches of many genres from westerns to romantic dramas to science-fiction serials. While by no means the best of these episodes (in my opinion, Our Man Bashir is also one of the best James Bond parodies ever made), it certainly isn’t the worst. The novelty also helps the episode quite a bit.

The holodeck certainly opens new doors for writers...

The holodeck certainly opens new doors for writers…

The Big Goodbye runs into the same problem that confronts a lot of early episodes of The Next Generation. There’s never really any dramatic tension. Sure, the show makes a few clumsy nods, but they seem perfunctory at best. When the hitherto unheard of Whalen joins the team, we know that he’s going be used to generate suspense that the show could never pull off with the main cast. You wouldn’t kill Crusher, but you’d probably kill anonymous-fiction-expert-dude.

Even when Whalen gets shot, he never seems to create an impetus to resolve the situation. He’s just sort of almost-dead weight. I do find it interesting that Picard orders Data to carry him to Sick Bay. I would have thought that Crusher would send a medical team to the holodeck, or beam him out, rather than move him in that condition. Either way, it seems to suggest that Whalen’s wound wasn’t exactly the most pressing of concerns. It feels more like a minor inconvenience in a “we should do something about that” sort of way.

Shoot him, does he not bleed?

Shoot him, does he not bleed?

Similarly, the story also sees the Enterprise making contact with the insect-like Jarada. I’m actually a little disappointed we never get to see them, and that they never came up again. Given that an insect-like race was one of the proposals for what eventually became the Borg, I’d be fascinated to see them realised. Anyway, the Enterprise is tasked with making contact with the species. The fact that Picard gets stuck in the holodeck is supposed to make us worry about what might happen if he doesn’t get to communicate the precise greeting required.

Indeed, even within the holodeck, Picard never seems expressly stressed by the fact he might miss the greeting. During an interrogation by the police, he politely notes, “Actually, I do need to get out of here.” He doesn’t think to actually pause or stop the programme – the failed attempts to do so only come much later. I also love how oblivious Beverly is to the malfunctioning doors. You’d imagine that you’d probably want to inform engineering about that, but she has her sights set on Picard.

No need to be a Dixon about it, Jean-Luc...

No need to be a Dixon about it, Jean-Luc…

Even the stakes concerning the Jarada are left ambiguous. We’re told that this is “a brief but necessary contact” after a “twenty-year rift”, but it seems to end with the Enterprise saying hello and going on their way. The episode doesn’t end with negotiations or communications opened, it ends with them completed. So why is the Federation trying to contact them? And what exactly is the cost of failure? Insult? War? An attack on the Enterprise? The destruction of the Enterprise?

Everyone seems so casual about it. It’s implied that something horrible happened at the last meeting, but we don’t know what. Data helpfully offers, during a meeting, “We are all aware of the tape of the last Federation starship to come in contact with the Jaradan. It graphically demonstrates what happened when that Captain offended them.” That could mean anything from “he got an earful” to “he ended up a mouthful” – although if the ship were attacked or destroyed one imagines the crew would be a little more on edge. (Though, if it isn’t a problem on that scale, the word “graphically” seems out of place.)

Suited to the task at hand...

Suited to the task at hand…

In any other episode, these problems would be major flaws. Here, they simply serve to hold the episode back from being “great” or “excellent.” The lack of stakes allows us to accept Picard would go to the holodeck before a meeting like this, or that he’d hold a meeting to rave about the wondrous technology. “The subject of this meeting is the Jaradan rendezvous. Mister Riker, will you go ahead with the briefing,” he remarks after five solid minutes of raving about the wonderful new technology. The lack of any legitimate stakes makes it fun to see Picard excited about the latest future doo-hickey, whereas he’d seem negligent if the diplomatic meeting were more pressing.

There’s a nice short shot of Picard leaving the holodeck for the first time, smiling to himself. Some of the extras even seem to do a double-take, which is quite a nice touch. It’s fun to see Picard in geek! mode, as he admires how rigidly the narrative adheres to the source material. During one interrogation he cheerfully notes, “Oh, very good. I’ve read all this before, you know. It’s absolutely as it should be.” It’s great to see that Picard has his own continuity obsession.

Out of their world...

Out of their world…

It’s also nice to see Beverly and Picard spend some time together. Crusher was never really developed that much as a character over the course of the series, and it’s a shame as McFadden was actually quite good. Given the troublesome gender politics of the first season, it’s also nice that the show portrays the female love interest as more aggressive than the male, without playing it for cheap laughs.

Picard and Crusher had an attraction that was acknowledged in The Naked Now. Neither is sure they want to act on it, but she is a little more sure than he is. Indeed, Beverly seems to serve as Picard’s blind spot, one of the few areas – even at this stage of the show – where he’s not entirely certain of himself. At the briefing, he asks her, “Why not come with me?” She eagerly replies, “I’d like that.” Then Picard realises that his question might be misconstrued and immediately moves to emphasise he means that in an entirely platonic way.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

“I want to take that twentieth century historian,” he quickly follows up. The fact he can’t remember Whaley’s name suggests he was looking for the first third wheel he could find. Gates McFadden does a wonderful job of illustrating how disappointed Beverly is, without milking it. It’s immediately clear that the attraction is two-sided, and Picard seems almost caught off-guard when the good doctor inserts herself into his fantasy. “I must say, you wear it well. I’m glad you could make it.”

Later on, he seems to be working up a bit more nerve when he invites her back to his office. Again, Whalen and Data helpfully kill the mood. Picard seemed a bit more sincere in offering his invitation to Beverly that time, but he doesn’t look too disappointed. Once again, Beverly seems frustrated at Data’s recurring ability to kill a mood. I wonder if the android has a “mood-killing” setting, as he does this more than a few times over the rest of the series.

Fade out...

Fade out…

The set design for the holodeck sequences is fantastic, and it really looks great in high definition. The cast do a nice“people from the future confused with modern technology” schtick. Favourites include Data wondering why he can’t move a lamp across the room and Beverly nearly choking on a stick of gum. Tracy Tormé’s pastiche of private eye fiction isn’t exactly the most perfect skewering of the genre imaginable, but it’s fun for what it is. I like, for example, how the script goes out of the way to avoid explaining what “the item” is.

The casting of Lawrence Tierney, a veteran of film noir and a hugely recognisable character actor, as the villain Cyrus Redblock is a bit of fun. Redblock is not the most memorable foil for Picard, and certainly doesn’t measure up to the character of Moriarty in Elementary, Dear Data, but the script and Tierney do give him a bit more character than most of the paper-thin archetypes wandering through Picard’s detective fantasy.

A fatale femme?

A fatale femme?

Redblock seems almost philosophical in a way that predicts Elementary, My Dear Data. “Senseless killing is immoral,” he suggests at one point, as if to hint that he’s more than a heavy with a gun. “But killing for a purpose can be quite often ingenious.” When asked about that purpose, he philosophically responds, “We are on a quest for knowledge, Mister Leech.” It’s a thread that might have been explored a bit more, as Redblock questions the world around him, perhaps mirroring the Enterpise’s own quest for knowledge. Instead, it feels rather shallow, but shallow in an endearing sort of way.

I also like the line where he praises Picard’s resolve. “God, man, you are a character you are,” he muses, and it’s fun to hear a fictional character within a fictional show refer to a character who is “more real” (but still fictional) as “a character.” Or maybe the episode had just put me in a good humour. That said, I’m not quite sure how Leech and Redblock sort of slowly fade away outside the holodeck, rather than disappearing the moment they pass the doors.

Smoke 'im, boys...

Smoke ‘im, boys…

Much like Hide & Q accidentally foreshadowed Q Who? in the conversations between Picard and Q about the nature and arrogance of man, you can almost see the threads of Elementary, My Dear Data forming here. As he prepares to leave, Picard is confronted by the existential dilemma facing one of the residents of the holodeck. “Tell me something, Dixon. When you’ve gone. will this world still exist? Will my wife and kids still be waiting for me at home?” What happens to the characters when the lights go out is a fascinating question, and I’m glad that the show returned to it. (Arguably more in Ship in a Bottle than Elementary, My Dear Data, but it’s still raised by Moriarty’s very existence.)

I really liked The Big Goodbye. In fact, I liked it so much that I’m going to save my rant about the holodeck for a later episode. It’s not essential viewing, and it’s not proof of all the show could be, but it’s still fairly solid entertainment, which puts it head-and-shoulders above a lot of the episodes of the first season.

A window into Picard's personal life...

A window into Picard’s personal life…

Computer, end review.

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

7 Responses

  1. I think with this episode, TNG finally established something that was truly its own and not a mere retread of the original series. Yes, the holodeck was used way too often as an easy plot device, since it seems like nearly every time the characters went into it, it malfunctioned. However, this episode clearly gave the audience something that was beyond what they saw before, using its own original technology in a storyline that could not have happened in the previous series.

    • Very good point. I find it hard to disagree, although if you’d asked me earlier where TNG came into its own, I’d argue with Home Soil. It was a rip-off of a TOS idea (The Devil in the Dark), but the execution was a lot more abstract and philosophical, making it the perfect point of comparison – for me at least.

      But you make a good argument for The Big Goodbye, and I think the above logic could also apply there. The Enterprise interacting with a 20th century subculture is a very TOS concept (A Piece of the Action, Patterns of Force), but the execution is a lot smarter (and less gimmicky) than randomly stumbling across “planet of the gangsters II.”

      • I always found it hokey that in the original series the Enterprise kept coming across relics from Earth’s past on other planets, even if there was a science fiction-y explanation. Oh look, there’s Lincoln! Gangsters! Greek gods! I’m glad TNG matured beyond that.

      • I think we’ve established a few years ago that I have a much higher tolerance for cheese than you, but that was one insane gimmick. However, it never got any sillier than The Omega Glory when the “Yangs” and the “Kohms” were fighting over a document that turned out to be the American Constitution. And there’s no reason given, except Spock’s bizarro logic that “Yangs” sounds like “Yanks” and “Kohms” sounds like “Comms.” It is legitimately crazy.

        Still I love space!Lincoln. The Savage Curtain is another of those insane concepts if only because it’s basically “good vs. evil” represented as “pacifists vs. psychotics” in a fight to the death. I tend to think one side has a bit of an advantage. Although reportedly real!Lincoln had mean upper body strength. And the episode is kinda worth it for the image of Lincoln flying through space on the Enterprise’s viewscreen and the crew only being slightly weirded out. Part of me regrets the fact we never got to see Picard’s reaction to something like that, though I suspect it might be:

        Facepalm

      • That’s hilarious.

  2. This episode had some stupid moments, and some that made me roll me eyes. But it also had a lot of fun moments. And the actors were clearly enjoying themselves. This was just a fun, silly episode, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable as a result.

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