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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Too Short a Season (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.

Too Short a Season falls back on one of those classic Star Trek stand-bys, the story of a dangerously obsessed senior officer who proceeds to put the lives of the crew at risk in order to feed his own ego. I’ve always found it hilarious that Starfleet seems to have truly terrible psychological screening, or maybe they just kick the more unreliable officers upstairs. After all, while Admiral Jameson is clearly a sandwich short of a picnic, at least he’s out of the line of fire. Too Short a Season winds up seeming like quite a trite episode, despite the fact that some of the elements are arguably intriguing on their own. It feels a little too safe, a little too comfortable, and far too predictable for its own good.

A shady character...

A shady character…

From the moment Jameson appears, it’s immediately obvious where the plot is going. Regardless of whether the audience is familiar with guest star Clayton Rohner from decades of bit parts and supporting performances, it is instantly clear that the actor introduced in the wheelchair is wearing several pounds of caked-on make-up. It was obvious in the broadcast version of the episode, and it is even clearer in high-definition. The make-up department isn’t going to spend that much money (and reduce an actor’s use of his face) “just because”, so we expect that the make-up will come off at some point over the episode.

As an aside, on a purely cosmetic level, Too Short a Season represents the flipside of the remastered version of Star Trek: The Next Generation. For the most part, the remaster has been pretty fantastic. It’s like seeing the show fresh again, after a quarter of a century. Episodes like Where No One Has Gone Before and 11001001 look better than ever, the remastered film stock and carefully constructed special effects holding up remarkably well. However, the strings become quite clear in watching Too Short a Season.

"I borrowed Professor Xavier's chair..."

“I borrowed Professor Xavier’s chair…”

The make-up on Rohner was fairly effective for the time, but it hasn’t aged badly. Even watching the original footage on repeats in the nineties made it quite obvious where the seams were. In high-definition, the problem is compounded. Admiral Jameson should look impressive. He should arrive on the ship like a body on the verge of collapse, likely to crumple in the face of a strong breeze. In contrast, it just looks like Clayton Rohner is doing a dodgy impression of a camp horror monster. I bet he does a mean Thriller.

Rohner’s performance is certainly at fault, but the make-up looks ridiculous. Then again, it’s not as if I can offer a plausible alternative. I can imagine the uproar (and cost) had the team decided to re-do the sequences using CGI or some other wizardry. And, purely pragmatically, the time and effort (and money) spent on such an update would be better spent polishing Q Who? or a similar classic.

I think I played quasar with these guys...

I think I played quasar with these guys…

It isn’t just Jameson that makes the episode a bit awkward to watch twenty-five years on. The special effects for combat sequences on The Next Generation improved as the series went on, but the early episodes looked only one or two steps up from the laser battles in Doctor Who. Phaser fire is lovingly rendered, but enemy blasters tend to look like somebody streaked crayon across the film stock. It’s a bit of a shame that the blasts weren’t touched up, even a little. (That said, the sound mixing is excellent.)

However, perhaps it’s for the best that Too Short a Season serves to demonstrate the potential faults with the loving remaster. After all, it would be worse if these problems impeded on the enjoyment of a classic episode of The Next Generation, wouldn’t it? Here, it’s unlikely that the silly laser effects or the dodgy ageing make-up will ever be considered the worst of the episode’s not-inconsiderable problems.

The young and the reckless...

The young and the reckless…

The main plot revolves around a Starfleet Admiral who has discovered a way to reverse his ageing. He joins the Enterprise to take command of an urgent diplomatic mission to a planet he visited four decades earlier. The character arc is fairly predictable. Jameson is looking to atone for a past wrong, but he’s also going to suffer for meddling in nature. Initially, his fate doesn’t look to optimistic. From the moment we discover that he is reverse-ageing thanks to his own meddling, it seems unlikely he’ll have a happy ending.

However, the inevitability of Jameson’s demise is all but set in stone with the revelation that he took twice the recommended dosage of the reverse-ageing medicine. The Next Generation was, at this point, a young show. Taking the focus off the ensemble and centring an episode around a guest star is a very risky concept that early in the show’s run. After all, Worf hasn’t had a character-focused episode yet. That risky move becomes reckless once it’s obvious to the audience that the character in question is going to die. It feels like a bit of a waste of space to devote so much time and effort – at this point in a show’s run – to a character with a predictable and relatively trite arc.

How did he Conn his way onto the Enterprise?

How did he Conn his way onto the Enterprise?

Even if it didn’t all feel rather pointless, Jameson is hardly the most interesting of characters. Clayton Rohner chows down on the scenery like he is worried the production team might start charging. It’s the kind of performance that would probably work on the original Star Trek, with the cheesy cardboard sets adding a surreal sense of heightened reality to everything. On this more sterile and pristine version of the franchise, however, Rohner looks to have dramatically misjudged the role.

Outside of Rohner’s ill-judged performance, though, Jameson boils down to a relatively simple character. He is a man who has transgressed and must be punished for it, and he’s also a bit of a blowhard yearning to relive his glory days. These two character traits don’t mesh well. Either Jameson is trying to atone for his past actions, or he is self-righteous. He can’t be both at the same time. It seems that Jameson wants to set things right, but it doesn’t gel with the scenes where the character stubbornly refuses to listen to reason. It’s hard to believe the arrogant blowhard of the early part of the episode would confess his sins to Picard, let alone be willing to offer up his life in order to make some small measure of atonement.

He's not a Rear Admiral, at any rate...

He’s not a Rear Admiral, at any rate…

On a simple storytelling level, Jameson needs to have some epiphany in the middle of the story, some revelation, something that changes his outlook and his position – but he doesn’t. His mood tends to vary from scene-to-scene. One moment he’s arrogantly cutting Picard out of the loop, and the next he seems to be almost pleading for the Captain’s forgiveness. If you’re going to centre an episode around a guest character, he has to be well-formed.

I almost suspect that you would end up with a half-decent episode if you cut out the relatively trite “stubborn admiral reliving his youth” and “old man getting younger” plot elements. At its best, somewhere in the muddled script, Too Short a Season is a fairly interesting character drama. The problem is that The Next Generation isn’t a show that feels comfortable doing character drama, at least not at this point. So, instead of developing the more interesting ideas, they are shoved into the background for classic sci-fi high concepts and old Star Trek archetypes.

His career is dead, at any rate...

His career is dead, at any rate…

Nevermind the questions raised by the sci-fi morality tale of the week. Would Jameson have died if he had been patient enough to take one dose instead of two? Is there really a planet out there that can reduce ageing? If so, how come people aren’t all over that? Also, the “you can’t mess with nature” moral falls apart if there’s an entire culture that does this sort of thing routinely and safely. So far The Next Generation has preached tolerance and understanding of other ways of life, so wouldn’t it make sense for the Federation to embrace this reverse-ageing miracle? Certainly it seems like a cultural practice more worth of passive endorsement than “eighties gym of death!” or “step on the flowers and die!” Best not think about it too much.

Elements of Too Short a Season draw from the infamous Iran-Contra Affair of 1986, a political scandal that would also have influenced Tracy Tormé’s original pitch for Conspiracy. I like solid allegorical science-fiction, as it allows the writers to deal with philosophical and moral issues without getting too tied down in the particulars of the moment, and it would have been very bold for The Next Generation to grapple with that sort of abuse of power head-on. It’s not as if Star Trek was a stranger to this form of allegory.

He's not quite the man he used to be...

He’s not quite the man he used to be…

On the original television show, The Enterprise Incident had been ripped from the headlines, and Private Little War was very clearly influenced by Vietnam. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like The Next Generation was quite ready to tackle that sort of political issue head-on. As a result, the interesting moral questions broached by the episode are pushed to one side, and the consequences of Admiral Jameson’s dodgy negotiating tactics are somewhat over shadowed by the fact we’re slowly peeling make-up off Clayton Rohner’s face.

The back story for Jameson is actually quite interesting. Like the US government, Jameson sold weapons to a dangerous foreign power in return for the safety of hostages. The parallels with Iran are quite clear. When diplomats are kidnapped at the start of the episode, they are even explicitly acknowledged as “the embassy staff”, in case the viewers didn’t get it. What is interesting is the notion that Jameson wilfully subverted the Prime Directive, what has been seen as the golden rule of intergalactic politics. This is another element the plot shares with Tormé’s pitch for Conspiracy, which would have seen several high-ranking officials conspiring to subvert the Prime Directive and provide weapons to developing planets.

Cue ageist driving joke...

Cue ageist driving joke…

Confessing that he supplied weapons to Karnas, Jameson adds a nice little stinger. He explains, “I gave the same weapons to his rivals. My interpretation of the Prime Directive. Let them solve their problems with those arms on an equal basis.” It’s a fascinating twist, and it adds a bit more to Jameson’s character than “swapped guns for hostages.” In his own way, Jameson can morally justify his actions as more than the result of expedience. He tried to outwit the rules, to mitigate his damage in his own way.

While he still provided the guns and abandoned the planet, his actions seem to at least have had some measure of thought about them. He tries to justify his decision, “I didn’t know that would happen. I thought it’d be over in a year. How would I know it would take four decades?” It’s an interesting moral idea, and Too Short a Season actually has a pretty solid dramatic hook right there, one it could easily fashion into a compelling dramatic episode.

What lies beneath...

What lies beneath…

Unfortunately, The Next Generation isn’t quite capable of that nuance yet. It’s easy to imagine this playing out quite differently on Deep Space Nine, with Jameson coming across as a genuinely tragic figure rather than a fool who got what was coming to him. Jameson here remains so brash and unlikable that it’s hard to really accept anything that the character says at face value. His arrogance and clashes with Picard over control of the mission don’t really portray him as a man trying to make things right. When Picard makes an attempt to suggest Jameson did what was necessary to save the lives of the hostages, there’s no sense that Picard (or the show) accepts that. It’s an idle pleasantry, and the subtext is clear: “he’s dying anyway, so a court-martial would be redundant.”

His wife might have served to humanise him, but she’s just a bland guest star – there’s no real hint of intimacy between them, save some groan-inducing friskiness in an early scene. She just seems passive – she regrets that they’ve never been able to spend time together, hinting that she remained at home while he toured the galaxy. It’s disappointing to think that she’s really just a one-dimensional accessory that Jameson carts around with him. It’s hardly the most damning gender issue on the show, but it’s an indication of some of the problems with the early writing of female characters.

Jokes about his dodgy make-up never get old...

Jokes about his dodgy make-up never get old…

We also get a very odd sequence with Picard and Crusher that seems a little out of place. Along with the scene where Picard proves that Jameson is really Jameson – despite the fact he would look about the same age he was when he met Karnas – it seems like padding, but the dialogue seems a little tone-deaf. In particular, Picard seems more than a little patronising in dealing with Crusher, “Doctor… I do respect your opinion… and I’ll want you on the bridge for a few days. The Admiral must remain in the best of health for these negotiations, and he might require your services.” It’s very strange to hear Picard actually say that, as if he feels he needs to play to Crusher’s ego after ignoring her concerns about Jameson.

It’s a shame, because it seems like The Next Generation could use an episode like this. The Prime Directive has been used throughout the season to make Picard jump through the most awkward and contrived of hoops, so it would be nice to see a story that justifies the non-interference, demonstrating the consequences of even the most well-intentioned meddling in the affairs of another planet. Jameson did what he felt he had to, and he suggests that he lived with the blood on his conscience, but there’s little indication of it in the episode itself. There are no shades of grey. Jameson is a bad guy who must be punished for his crimes against the Federation and against nature.

"Sir, I spot a plot hole, right ahead!"

“Sir, I spot a plot hole, right ahead!”

Which feels like a bit of a waste. There’s actually something a little heartbreaking about Karnas’ anger at Jameson for the decades of death and destruction left in the wake of the Admiral’s intervention. “I want to show him this world he helped to make,” he boasts. “The scars on old soldiers’ bodies. The graveyards of our young dead. The wasted cities that we are still rebuilding.” It helps that Michael Pataki is a much stronger presence than Clayton Rohner, and makes Karnas seem almost grandly tragic.

Sadly, Too Short a Season ends up as more of an intriguing failure than any kind of success. Director Rob Bowman famously dismissed the script as a “sit-and-tell” story, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. One of the key differences between The Next Generation and the original Star Trek came in the way that the younger show often approached its concepts more intellectually, rather than viscerally. That’s not to praise one over the other, but to acknowledge a difference in styles.

Cut down in his youth...

Cut down in his youth…

However, Too Short a Season falls apart because the concepts aren’t executed nearly well enough. Jameson isn’t a strong enough character to justify hijacking the show from our leads, and his story is too trite to make it workable. There’s the essence of an interesting moral dilemma here, but it gets lost amid the science-fiction trappings. Too Short a Season might have been one of the stand-outs of the first season, but instead it is just a mess.

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

2 Responses

  1. You said:

    “Would Jameson have died if he had been patient enough to take one dose instead of two? Is there really a planet out there that can reduce ageing? If so, how come people aren’t all over that? Also, the “you can’t mess with nature” moral falls apart if there’s an entire culture that does this sort of thing routinely and safely. So far The Next Generation has preached tolerance and understanding of other ways of life, so wouldn’t it make sense for the Federation to embrace this reverse-ageing miracle?”

    Don’t forget that Jameson stated that even when one follows the prescribed regimen of the drug it’s dangerous with a high probability of death, and that the people who make the drug don’t normally allow off-worlders to use it.

    • Thanks Mark. Fair point.

      However, it’s one thing to have Jameson take the drug as it is regulated and die anyway. That proves that man should not mess with nature, which would seem to be what the story’s aiming at. Even if it was risky if taken in regulated doses, in which case Jameson dying would prove that somethings you just can’t tamper with, the fact that Jameson overdoses on it undercuts that by making him seem like a moron. You can kill yourself by overdosing on bananas. (Well, you’d have to eat a phenomenal amount of bananas – 244 for a 75kg person.)

      As for the off-worlders thing, I know that he explained it was a special deal, but it’s very strange that nobody on the Enterprise or Starfleet makes a deal of it. Given how the Federation reacted with the Baku, it is weird that this never came up again.

      Then again, if it did, it would de-rail the story. The abundance of questions that “magical de-ageing space medicine” raises (for me, at least) suggests that it was a bad choice to drop into a story like this. It’s an incredibly lazy plot device which is clumsily used and generates far more questions than it answers. It distracts from what might have been a workable plot and laughable even by the standards of Star Trek’s fairly soft science-fiction.

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