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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Skin of Evil (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.

Skin of Evil is a mess of an episode. It’s a whole bunch of concepts thrown together, and executed in the most ridiculous and banal manner possible. There’s a lot of the disparate elements of Skin of Evil that could easily work if handled properly. Most notably, the idea of a character dying in the line of duty rather than as a hero is a fascinating one, and the eponymous monster could be an interesting twist on the “god-like beings” we seem to stumble across once every couple of weeks in the Star Trek universe. However, Skin of Evil winds up feeling the one thing it should be impossible for an episode like this to be. Despite all the different stuff happening involving all the different characters: it’s boring.

A slick operator...

A slick operator…

Skin of Evil is best known for the death of Tasha Yar. I know that might catch a few latecomers by surprise, but a figure a show that is a quarter-of-a-century in age has very few surprises for the modern audience member. Indeed, even those watching Encounter at Farpoint for the first time all these years later will probably figure that Yar is not long for this world. After all, she’s the only member of the ensemble who wasn’t part of the crew when the show broke into the pop cultural consciousness.

Crosby opted to leave early on in the series because she felt that Yar wasn’t getting enough development of the franchise. It’s something that seems strange, looking back over the series, given that Yar has the first character-centred episode with the dire Code of Honour. Although, I suppose, if that were the episode driven by my character, I probably wouldn’t be too happy about it either. Still, the vast majority of the ensemble was still undeveloped at this point. Worf had only just had his first character-centric episode in Heart of Glory, and Geordi had been relegated to bit-parts. Symbiosis had given Beverly Crusher her most significant role to date, but Gates McFadden would also leave the series at the end of its first year.

Funeral for a friend...

Funeral for a friend…

Reflecting on the decision, though, it’s hard to fault Crosby for leaving. She was clearly unhappy on the show:

For me, I was miserable. I couldn’t wait to get off that show. I was dying. This was not an overnight decision. I was grateful to have made that many episodes, but I didn’t want to spend the next six years going “Aye, aye, captain,” and standing there, in the same uniform, in the same position on the bridge. It just scared the hell out of me that this was what I was going to be doing for the next X-amount of years. I think you have to take your chances. I was really young. I didn’t have to make house payments or put kids through private school or support people. I was free to make those kinds of decisions.

Then again, nobody involved in the show seemed particularly happy with that first year, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. You wonder if things might have improved for Crosby had she stayed.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

Still, it’s not my place to second-guess Denise Crosby’s career choices or to wonder how things might have been. Yar’s death really wasn’t as big a deal as it should have been. I am not talking about the decision to randomly kill her by the threat of the week. I can understand the appeal of such an approach, even if the execution has its problems. I am talking about how Yar’s death shaped the rest of the series, and the impact that it had on the crew of the ship.

Of course, it has absolutely no impact on the rest of the show. There’s no indication in any subsequent episode that the crew treat space exploration as more inherently hostile because their friend died in the line of duty.In Yar’s next appearance, in Yesterday’s Enterprise, Guinan makes it quite clear that her colleagues don’t really talk about her that much. Even when Yar’s daughter, Sela, appears in the show, nobody seems to reflect too much about Yar.

Crash and burn...

Crash and burn…

Compare this, for example, to the passing of Jadzia Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There, Dax’s passing had a massive impact on those around her. Her oldest friend was so deeply shaken that he returned to Earth to find himself. Her husband went into prolonged mourning. The station was never quite the same, and a large portion of the following (and final) season was spent exploring about how her replacement fit into her niche aboard the station. I’m not ecstatic about Jadzia’s death in Tears of the Prophets, but it’s a far better example of a random act of violence have repercussions than anything in Skin of Evil.

Yar is relegated to minor appearances whenever the show wants to remind us that Data is most certainly not a virgin, or when the episode is trying to convince us that an adventure is set in the past. Indeed, the most significant impact that Yar’s death had was pushing Worf to the fore. Worf was lucky to be a regular character. Thanks to Yar’s death, he was suddenly pushed into the role of Chief of Security. If Yar had never left, I can’t imagine that his character arc would have flowed quite so perfectly over the following years. It’s a sad state of affairs when the only thing really notable about the death of a major character is the room that presented for another member of the ensemble to develop.

Truth be told, it's a bit of a drag...

Truth be told, it’s a bit of a drag…

Then again, Yar always felt like a missed opportunity. Up until this point, Star Trek had always had a bit of difficulty with gender roles. Indeed, none of the female characters on the original Enterprise seemed especially well-developed or essential. In fact, Nichelle Nichols had considered leaving the original Star Trek until Martin Luther King convinced her that her role was important to a generation of young African-Americans.

While Crusher was a doctor and Troi was a counsellor, Yar was the Chief of Security of the new Enterprise. Explicitly based on the character of Vasquez from Aliens, she really should have been a strong female character in a show that really needed more of them. Instead, she became a mess of a character who was defined by a back story featuring the perpetual threat of sexual violence and continual shown to be even more incompetent than most of her colleagues in a first season that treated the crew as idiots to advance the plot.

She's dead, Jim...

She’s dead, Jim…

You could argue that a lot of Yar’s potential would be realised four years later with Ro Laren in Ensign Ro. It wouldn’t be until we met Kira Nerys in Emissary that we had a truly strong female character as a regular on a Star Trek show, which feels far too late. Gates McFadden would be forced out at the end of the season by behind-the-scenes pressures, and Marina Sirtis (the only surviving female cast member) would be treated to The Child as the opening story of the next season.

Given that Diana Muldaur, the female lead who joined the show in McFadden’s absence, would also leave after only a year on the show, it feels reasonable safe to suggest that The Next Generation had some very serious gender-related issues both in front of (and behind) the camera. It’s hard not to feel that Yar (as a character) was a victim of these difficulties, as the writers seemed to struggle to find a voice for most of the female cast. Crusher didn’t really get a character-centred episode this year, and Marina Sirtis was absent quite a bit.

Oil handle this...

Oil handle this…

Still, regardless of what one might think about Yar as a character, it’s hard to get too excited about her death. The death of Yar is – in theory – a fascinating plot point because it should serve to teach the audience that death is random and sudden. It doesn’t just arrive in sweeps months or at season finales. Not every character gets to go out in some grand blaze of glory. The universe is cold and uncaring, and sometimes good people die bad deaths, and that is just terrible. Skin of Evil should be shocking because Yar’s death just sort of is. She’s fine one moment and dead the next.

Except, unfortunately, that doesn’t work. For one thing, we barely know Yar. It’s too early for her death to have meaning. For another thing, it doesn’t impact any of these characters that much after that final shot of Data. Finally, The Next Generation is just not that kind of show. The series never quite embraced the idea that space was that randomly hostile, and it was too smart to expect us to believe that the main characters could die at any moment. The death of Yar doesn’t raise any stakes or mark a turning point for the series.

It's on the rocks...

It’s on the rocks…

Indeed, her death is probably the least indicative moment in this run of episodes. Heart of Glory proved the writers could tell new stories with old races. Symbiosis justified the Prime Directive and proved “messages shows” could work. We’ll Always Have Paris centred on Picard as a character. Conspiracy subverted Federation ideals. The Neutral Zone resurrected the Romulans and teased the Borg. Yar’s death should be an important moment – whether it is random or not – but it ends up feeling largely hallow.

A lot of that is down to the conceptual framework, and the fact that the audience knows Yar is dying because Crosby is leaving, rather than because the stakes are being raised. However, a great deal of it is down to the execution, which is just terrible. I mean, she has a ketchup stain. On her face. It looked dodgy in standard definition, and I’m disappointed that the remastered edition didn’t touch it up. I’m not sure how, but it looks just plain goofy.

The only bloodstain I have ever seen that looks like a Batman! sound effect...

The only bloodstain I have ever seen that looks like a Batman! sound effect…

On top of this, the sequence where Beverly tries to revive her is more awkward than intense, despite the fact that the actors do the best with the material. And then there’s the funeral, which attempts to make Yar a much deeper character than she actually was, but showing rather than telling. It’s just absolutely terribly written, as much as “friend dies in random and pointless act” should be a fascinating story beat.

Reportedly, Skin of Evil received a bit of a re-write from Leonard Maizlish, Roddenberry’s lawyer. Roddenberry hadn’t been in the best of health working on the show, and Maizlish had tried to take control of the production, causing much friction with the crew. In fact, David Gerrold, the respected author and Star Trek veteran, explicitly states that it was Maizlish who forced him to quit the series:

I left Next-Gen because Gene Roddenberry’s lawyer made the working conditions untenable. Gene’s health was failing and the lawyer told him not to trust his own staff. Over thirty other people left the show that first year (a television record) because of the office politics. Even today, if you mention the lawyer’s name on the lot, people roll their eyes and say, “We don’t mention him.” (Like what? Is that going to whitewash something?)

It’s worth noting that Maizlish wasn’t a writer by trade, so it might explain some of the clunkier plot elements. It should also be acknowledged that Maizlish’s actions were expressly in violation of the rules of the Writers’ Guild. It’s interesting that the next three episodes (the final three of the season), would end up impacted by a writers’ strike.

It's a dirty job...

It’s a dirty job…

That said, it isn’t as if the death of Yar ruins an otherwise fantastic episode. Armsu is an interesting idea for a villain, if only because the Star Trek universe is so densely packed by god-like beings that encountering something vaguely like this was almost inevitable. It’s not the most graceful of metaphors for purging the darkness inside – what with creating a literal “skin of evil” that you can shed – but that doesn’t mean it can’t work as a story. And, for the record, I actually quite like the visual of Armus, even if making him a puddle of black goop is a little on the nose.

The real problem, however, is that Armus never seems evil. He just seems like a douche. He kills Yar, but his other notably evil acts include mocking a blind man and pulling a cheap “psyche” on Beverly. “You ask nicely. I will allow it. Wait! I’ve changed my mind. Talk to her from here.” Typing that out, I need to clarify I am not paraphrasing. That is literally what he says. Despite killing Yar, he never seems like that much of a threat to the crew, because he seems more like a petulant child than a being of pure evil. He could take lessons from some of the other villains of the franchise in that regard.

Pooling resources...

Pooling resources…

It doesn’t help that he is eventually defeated through the generous application of psycho-babble. I suppose that it is a better way of resolving the episode than relying on techno-babble, but it’s still pretty disappointing. “Save your compassion,” Armus advises Picard. “It’s revolting. You offer it like a prize when in fact it’s an insult.” Picard twists the knife, “Because you feel unworthy.” The villain’s weird filtered voice sounds more ridiculous than threatening when delivering lines like this. More than that, though, it continues the season’s trend of presenting the Federation as smug and superior, which means they never feel threatened.

That said, the creature’s interactions with Data were fascinating. I love how Data is logical enough that he simply doesn’t play along with the creature – making him no fun. When the creature toys with Geordi, Data refuses to entertain Armus by helping his friend when he knows the monster won’t let them retrieve the VISOR. “You will just move it again, and I will not help you hurt him.” When Armus threatens to use Data to shoot Picard or Crusher, Data refuses to feel guilty about it, logically stating, “I have no control over what you do with the phaser. Therefore, I would not be the instrument of his death.”

Kicking and screaming...

Kicking and screaming…

One of the best scenes of the episode sees Riker dragged into the puddle, kicking and screaming. The creature tells Data that if he helps Riker, Riker dies. Riker, naturally, doesn’t see things this way and screams for help, but Data is logical enough to just stand there. It’s a surprisingly effective five-second sequence in an episode that is otherwise quite shallow, and it’s a moment that works because you know Riker would rather take the chance, but Data’s mind doesn’t work like that.

However, the effectiveness of this sequence is undermined by the fact the fact that it seems like Armus gets to Data in some small way. Of all the main cast, Data should be the one who rises above it all, but there’s something unnerving about the moment where Data suggests, of Armus, “I think you should be destroyed.” We’d see later in the series, in the Most Toys, that Data was capable of violence and murder, but it seems strangely out of place here. The main thrust of the scenes involving Armus and Data is that Data is so innocent as to be beyond Armus’ manipulations, so the revelation that Data wishes to destroy Armus erodes that idea a bit.

Apparently the definition of "truly evil" includes "sublimely dickish"...

Apparently the definition of “truly evil” includes “sublimely dickish”…

There’s not really too much to Skin of Evil beyond that. It is interesting to see that the Enterprise has yet another new Chief Engineer. I keep wondering what happens to these characters as they tend to wander into (and out of) the series with no real reason given. After all, it’s not like Chief Engineer should be an especially lethal job. (Well, discounting the occasional engineer-related fatality like in Lonely Among Us.) Here it’s Lynch, who keeps introducing himself as “Leland T. Lynch.”

It’s weird to hear a character repeatedly use his middle initial to people who should already know him. Perhaps he’s just trying to get the name to stick in Picard’s head. Or maybe he just wants to stress the fact that he totally shares a middle initial with both William T. Riker and James T. Kirk. “T-buddies for life!” Either way, we never see the character again, so I guess we know how this works out. Lynch is, I believe, our last new Chief Engineer of the season, so Skin of Evil sort of stabilises the roster, with Yar departing Security and the last of the rotating Chief Engineers showing up.

Keepin' it handy...

Keepin’ it handy…

I don’t hate all of Skin of Evil. I actually quite like Ron Jones’ ethereal score. His music for the early years of The Next Generation actually evoked a sort of a weird science-fiction landscape that slowly became something a bit more conventional as the series went on. I like the strange aural landscape of these early episodes, and Skin of Evil is no exception. It is, to be entirely frank, the best part of the episode.

Still, Skin of Evil is perhaps the last truly terrible instalment of the first season, so I guess we’ve passed some sort of important turning point. Conspiracy would be a muddled mess, but one with good ideas. The Neutral Zone would see the crew back on top patronising form, but did feature the promise of better stuff ahead. So, Skin of Evil feels like the last truly irredeemably bad episode of a first season that has been less than smooth.

It's okay, Data, you never have to watch Skin of Evil again...

It’s okay, Data, you never have to watch Skin of Evil again…

Don’t worry, though, the second season is just around the corner, with The Child and Shades of Grey.

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

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3 Responses

  1. Skin of Evil holds a special place in my heart, as it was my first exposure to any Trek ever. I must have been 3 or 4 and this was on right before dinner. Armus haunted me for some time.

    • I can see it. I love the design of Armus, but not so much his voice. Apparently the suit kept dissolving, I believe.

  2. That’s the worst review of Skin Of Evil I have ever read and I really don’t agree with the majority of it at all. I cried my eyes out during Tasha’s eulogy at the end and I agree, the basic musical theme that runs through this episode is haunting and sombre. I still love the episode and it’s a shame you find it so terrible.

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