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Star Trek: The Next Generation – We’ll Always Have Paris (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.

It’s hard to believe that we got this far into the show without a Picard-centred episode. Sure, the original Star Trek was reluctant to probe too deeply into Kirk’s background, but Star Trek: The Next Generation had already demonstrated that it was more willing to probe the histories of characters like Data (Datalore), Worf (Heart of Glory), Yar (Code of Honour and The Naked Now) and Troi (Haven). Star Trek shows, by they nature, tend to gravitate around their leading actor, and Patrick Stewart has been shown to hold the show together through sheer force of will at certain points. However, We’ll Always Have Paris marks the first time we’ve really delved that deeply into the character of Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

While we don’t peer nearly deeply enough, it’s fun to base an episode around Patrick Stewart, and time-travel was always a fun story-telling device on The Next Generation.

Picard's love life is solid as a rock...

Love on the rock…

Patrick Stewart is incredible. He really is. The actor doesn’t get enough credit for the charisma and weight that he brings to genre television shows and films. There were times in this very rocky first season where Patrick Stewart was the only reason to keep watching. With amazing material, Stewart is out of this world, astounding and nothing short of awe-inspiring. However, as this year has demonstrated, even with sub-par material the actor finds a way to shine.

So it’s no surprise that we actually have a pretty good grasp on Picard as a character at this point. Sure, the character is the touchstone of the show. He makes all the decisions that plot the episodes, and he gets to deliver the grand moralising monologues at the end of each adventure. Even when the show isn’t about him, he is still a major part of it. And it is to Stewart’s credit that you can almost determine everything you need to know about Picard from any episode of the series, no matter how small his role.

Three positronic brains are better than one...

Three positronic brains are better than one…

As an aside, Shatner was the same in his portrayal of Kirk, perhaps the only other leading character in Star Trek who could so immediately be understood. In contrast, Avery Brooks made sure that Sisko was less of a “fixed character” than either Kirk or Picard, so Sisko evolved from hour to hour. While the character remains the same, there’s a marked contrast between first season Sisko and third season Sisko, and fourth season Sisko and fifth season Sisko. However, the less said about Kathryn Janeway and Jonathan Archer the better, although Archer improved in the final two years of Star Trek: Enterprise.

However, back to Picard. The fact that Stewart so perfectly channels Picard means that a lot of We’ll Always Have Paris doesn’t seem that shocking. It all fits perfectly with what we already know about Jean-Luc, but the problem is that the episode doesn’t necessarily dig deep enough to show us something new like the best Picard-centred episodes do. Sure, we might not know specifically about Jenice and the café, but we know from the way that Picard deals with Beverly that he’s a character who places his duty and obligations above his own personal needs.

Staying sharp...

Staying sharp…

We might not know the specifics of the story in question, but it seems like something like that must have happened to Picard at some point in his past. The only really marginally novel aspect of this glimpse into Picard’s past is the fact that he was a coward. As Jenice notes, he left the planet rather than deal with the emotional fallout. “I went to Starfleet headquarters looking for you, but you’d already shipped out.”

Then again, even this isn’t really a surprise. It has been heavily implied that Picard is especially uncomfortable around Wesley because the character reminds Picard of his old friend Jack Crusher. (And, possibly, Picard’s unspoken attraction to Beverly.) While Picard projects a measure of supreme confidence throughout the season, his interactions with children (superbly realised by Stewart) suggest some deep discomfort interacting on a “human” level.

The smile on his face let's you know that he needs you, there's a truth in his eye saying he'll... probably ship out on the next Starship.

The smile on his face lets you know that he needs you, there’s a truth in his eye saying he’ll… probably ship out on the next Starship.

He admits to Jenice that he lacked the courage to end the relationship in person, “It was fear. Fear of seeing you, losing my resolve. Fear of staying, losing myself. Fear that neither of these choices was right, and that, and that either would have –“ It’s a nice moment, and it’s one that fits quite well. In a lot of ways, Picard is very much Roddenberry’s idealised human. Even more than Kirk, he represents the virtue of a more highly-evolved sensibility, a character who favours reason above other more petty and base motivations.

The cast of The Next Generation doesn’t include a Vulcan, because Picard would make that character redundant. However, Picard has a weakness and a significant blindspot as a character, something that many of the stronger writers on the show would realise and exploit to great effect. Picard is, for lack of a better word, vain. He invests so much in his self-image that it represents a chink in his armour. It’s not that he has to appear to be infallible (after all, he is smart enough to beg Q to help him in Q Who?), but that he completely fears the idea that he might lose that composure he takes for granted.

Bright sparks...

Bright sparks…

It’s that fear which made The Best of Both Worlds so powerful an experience for the otherwise unflappable commanding officer, and why the future of All Good Things… was so terrifying to Picard. It’s also why we can believe that he would prefer not to speak to the woman he loved, and just abscond off the planet. To admit any of this to her would be a sign of emotional weakness. Picard can accept not being in control of a situation, but to lose control of himself is unfathomable.

Troi continues her trend of telling us things we figured out a while ago, advising Picard, “Confronting deep personal issues is not easy for you. You tend to suppress them.” There’s a nice sequence early in the episode where he tries to work through these feelings in the holodeck before meeting Jenice. Once again, nobody is watching (except us), and nobody will see Picard’s moment of weakness. However, he simply can’t lower himself to acknowledge it. “Enough of this self-indulgence,” he mutters, ending the programme.

And they STILL haven't taken it down...

And they STILL haven’t taken it down…

To its credit, We’ll Always of Paris suggests that there’s some measure of ego involved in Picard’s decision as well, in a way that doesn’t paint Picard in the most flattering of lights. “I’ve thought a lot about this over the years,” Jenice advises Picard, “and perhaps you’re leaving out your greatest fear. The real reason you left.” When Picard follows up, Jenice replies, “That life with me would have somehow made you ordinary.” Picard effectively concedes the point. “You’re wonderful. And am I that transparent?”

It’s a nice moment that seems to exist to subvert some of the heavy-handed arrogance of the early first-season episodes. Picard and his ship acted with incredible arrogance towards the Ferengi in The Last Outpost and the Anticans and the Selay in Lonely Among Us. Watching a lot of this first season, there’s a clear sense that Picard and his crew consider themselves superior to virtually everybody else in the cosmos. In the season finalé, The Neutral Zone, the crew would point that moral superiority towards the audience itself.

"Well... this is awkward..."

“Well… this is awkward…”

However, shows like Heart of Glory and Conspiracy gently needle that assumption, and it’s nice to see We’ll Always Have Paris call Picard on it. He does consider himself to be “better” because of his rank and his job. He feels “special” in a way that a more mundane profession would never allow him to be. Even if he were happily married, he would deem any other existence to be somehow less “important” than the work he does in the Enterprise. And that – the fact he is somehow “more” than merely “ordinary” – is important to him, as a character.

However, there is a sense that Patrick Stewart knows Picard better than writers Deborah Dean Davis and Hannah Louise Shearer. The script was the first of the three this season to suffer due to the 1988 writers’ strike. Apparently there was quite a bit of behind-the-scenes back-and-forth about whether Picard would do “the wild thing”, with the writers pushing for Picard to hook up with a married woman. Patrick Stewart apparently managed to veto the idea, and I am grateful for that.

Homing in on lost love...

Homing in on lost love…

Picard’s reserve is far too strong to even acknowledge those sorts of needs – and it almost makes the reunion with Jenice more tragic because Picard simply could not think of her in those terms. He is bound to Starfleet, and she is married. Picard’s story isn’t sad because he struggles to do the right thing. Picard’s story is sad because he would never allow himself that fleeting moment of weakness. It’s undoubtedly the best thing for all involved, but to know that Picard can’t even bring himself acknowledge his feelings makes them all the more tragic.

However, the show runs into a bit of bother with Jenice. Quite simply, Jenice isn’t an intriguing enough character to convince us that she is worthy of Picard’s affection – certainly not to the extent where she might present something approaching legitimate competition to his Starfleet career. This isn’t a problem with Michelle Phillips, although she has little chemistry with Stewart. Instead, the script seems to treat Jenice as little more than a walking plot device. Despite suggestions of a troubled marriage and her husband’s contribution to the strange space phenomenon of the week, there’s really nothing substantial there.

Still on the fencing about the whole thing...

Still on the fencing about the whole thing…

To be entirely fair, Beverly hints at the idea that this might be intentional. Discussing the situation with Troi, Crusher suggests Picard is more attracted to the “ghost” from his past than to Jenice Manheim. However, since we never get a sense of this “ghost” which claimed Picard’s heart, all we have to go on is the character presented to us on screen. Jenice Manheim doesn’t really seem like the kind of woman who could have stolen Picard’s heart, although the first season has demonstrated that the writers on The Next Generation had a great deal of difficulty writing female characters.

There’s also a fairly interesting subplot unfolding in the background here, involving time travel. I’ve already remarked a few times that The Next Generation was more of an “intellectual” show than its pulpy predecessor. I would argue that you can see that distinction in the way that both shows approach the issue of time travel.

Happily married...

Happily married…

In Star Trek, it was generally a plot device to get the characters to a particular setting (Tomorrow is Yesterday, All Our Yesterdays, Star Trek: IV: The Voyage Home). Even when the science of time-travel and distortion were brought up (like in City on the Edge of Forever), it still involved sending the crew to a point in the past. To be fair, The Next Generation did a couple of similar plots (like Time’s Arrow or Star Trek: First Contact). However, The Next Generation felt more comfortable playing with time-travel as a more elastic concept, in stories like Time Squared, Cause and Effect, Yesterday’s Enterprise, and so on.

Here we’re presented with the idea of “non-linear time”, effectively the literal expression of deja vu, which is a nice reference in a very French-themed episode. Here the crew of the Enterprise don’t have to worry about wiping out their ancestors or causing the universe not to exist. Instead, time simply trips over itself, like a record skipping on a bad player. To be entirely fair, the resolution to the crisis is a bit convenient, with the script needing at least another draft to get ready for the screen. That said, the image of three Datas working simultaneously to resolve a very Tron special effect works well enough to earn the episode a pass.

Twice the man he used to be...

Twice the man he used to be…

I even like that Jenice’s explanation and reasoning for her husband’s experiments sorta makes a bit of sense if you look at it right, more from a meta-fictional perspective than any sort of scientific background:

Paul’s always been interested in time. He’s never believed that it was immutable, any more than space is immutable. Over the last decade, he came to believe that we reside in one of infinite dimensions, and what holds us here is the constancy of time. Change that and it would be what he called opening the window to those other dimensions.

The notion of voyaging through time as one voyages through space is an interesting one, and it feels nicely relevant in an episode about a character reflecting on the road not chosen. One wonders if Picard’s subconscious opens a “window to these other dimensions” when he considers how things might have gone.

Still, I bet his date conversations are always engaging...

Still, I bet his date conversation is always engaging…

I have complemented Herman F. Zimmerman’s production design before, talking about the hyper-real design of some of the alien landscapes seen on the show. I generally like the cheesy aesthetic that defines those early landscapes, like a conscious attempt to emulate the studio sets from the sixties. However, We’ll Always Have Paris looks legitimately great. The touch-up work done by the team on the holographic version of Paris looks wonderful, and Manheim’s base looks suitably sterile and futuristic. (With the mandated amount of neon and glow-lights.) Ron Jones’ score is, as ever, superb.

We’ll Always Have Paris isn’t an exceptional episode. It’s a bit clunky in places, Jenice doesn’t exist as a character, and it doesn’t delve deeply enough into Picard’s character. However, it does allow the show to focus on Patrick Stewart, and to play with the notion of elastic time. That’s enough to make it well worth a look, and to help it rank quite a bit ahead of the majority of what has been a fairly rough year.

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

3 Responses

  1. Ah, don’t be too hard on Janeway or Archer. They are both very specific characters who did a fine job leading their own shows, even if those shows were weaker entries into the “Star Trek” lore.

    • It’s a fair point. I’m rewatching the fourth season of Enterprise now, and I think Archer is a lot better there. With regards to Janeway, Mulgrew was always great – I’d argue she’s as strong an actor as Brooks and stronger than Shatner – but the scripts were all over the place. If Janeway were three different characters (for example, the Janeways typified in Night, Counterpoint and Equinox, to pick a smattering of great Mulgrew performances from across a single season), I think I’d like her a lot better.

      That said, watching the first season of The Next Generation reminded me how damn lucky the show was to have Stewart.

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