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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Where Silence Has Lease (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 (and a tiny bit of the second), episode-by-episode. Check back daily for the latest review.

If we ignore The Child as an aberration, a recycled script necessitated by the Writers’ Guild of America Strike of 1988, Where Silence Has Lease actually makes for a much stronger starting point for the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. We’re not quite at the point where we’re getting consistently good episodes on a weekly basis, but episodes like Where Silence Has Lease and the following Elementary, Dear Data demonstrating that the show was at least learning what worked and what didn’t in the bets of the first season episodes.

In particular, Where Silence Has Lease allows the show to tell a straight-up science-fiction exploration story that provides commentary on the human condition, but in a manner that isn’t as clumsy as first-season efforts like Lonely Among Us. It’s not a classic episode, but it’s a solid one. However, a solid episode of the second season can stand alongside the best episodes of the first season, demonstrating that the show is making significant progress towards the consistent quality it would eventually maintain.

Into the void...

Into the void…

There are obvious problems with Where Silence Has Lease, issues that do hold the adventure back from becoming a true early classic of The Next Generation. For one thing, the pacing seems a little screwy. Indeed, we’re through a significant chunk of the episode before stuff actually starts happening. As a result, we get a teaser that is relatively unrelated to the action in the rest of the episode. The only real relevance the teaser has to anything later on is that it demonstrates Worf might have some impulse control issues, perhaps foreshadowing his lashing out on the Yamato later on.

Still, even the pacing isn’t a fatal flaw. I remarked in my review of the first season that the cast of The Next Generation feels like much more of an ensemble than the crew of the original Star Trek ever did. We know how particular characters relate to one another, and it’s fun to watch casual interactions between the crew because each of the cast has their own voice already. One of the highlights of the first season was the occasional character-centric moment like Data and Geordi trading jokes in Code of Honour, or Geordi teaching Data to paint in 11001001, or the entire crew discussing shore leave in Conspiracy.

Taking the rough with the smooth...

Taking the rough with the smooth…

It seems that the writing staff learned from the success of those little moments when it came to preparing the second season. Or the writers’ strike forced scripts to be padded out with extra character moments. Either way, one of the defining features of the second season, and something that would remain with the show throughout its run, was the notion of the teaser introducing us to the crew engaged in various leisure activities.

The second season would introduce the poker game that would remain a part of the ship’s social life until the final episode, All Good Things… It would also allow us to see Riker cook for the staff, to watch Geordi work on a model ship, and spend some time with Picard and Riker at the shooting range. I am curious whether the decision to emphasise these personal moments was a conscious decision in the writers’ room, or something forced on them by the reality of the writers’ strike, as they were forced to pad out the episodes a bit.

The Jean-Luc of the draw...

The Jean-Luc of the draw…

Either way, it’s a nice way of expanding and developing your cast. The introduction to Where Silence Has Lease has less to do with the main plot than most of the other “crew at leisure” openings, but it still provides a number of nice character beats. I like the idea of Worf trying to share something of himself with Riker, and I admire that Riker is willing to partake in the exercise without judging Worf. Riker seems to accept that this sort of bloodlust is just part of Worf’s identity, and it represents a subtle, but important, step forward for The Next Generation.

In a nice moment before we even join Riker and Worf, Picard admits to his bridge crew that Worf’s Klingon instincts make him uncomfortable. “I think it is perhaps best to be ignorant of certain elements of Klingon psyche,” he admits. However, he doesn’t think less of Worf for them, and he doesn’t consider himself to be inherently superior. So much of the first season of The Next Generation featured the crew travelling around the galaxy feeling smug and superior, so it’s nice that Worf’s crew mates actually treat his Klingon heritage with respect.

Again with the Romulans!

Again with the Romulans!

Indeed, it’s clear that Picard values Worf’s insight. When Worf feels uncomfortable about the strange hole in space, Picard is far more willing to hear Worf’s theory than Worf is to share it. “Mister Worf,” he instructs his tactical officer, “this starship operates best when my officers share with me what is their minds.” There is a sense that Worf is perhaps a little embarrassed by the more primal and superstitious aspects of his heritage (“these are thoughts hardly worthy of a trained and practical security officer”), but the show makes it clear that his crew members still respect it.

More than that, though, the show as a whole respects Worf and his culture a great deal. This is a significant improvement over the way the writing treated the Ferengi in The Last Outpost. Worf is presented as legitimately different from us, but never as inferior. He feels insecure about his place on a ship that seems largely populated by humans, but the show emphasises that his beliefs are merely different than ours, and that they deserve respect. Even when Worf goes through a bit of a breakdown with Riker on the Yamato, the show doesn’t make fun of Worf’s claustrophobia or aversion to captivity. It just makes Nagilum’s experiments seem all the more cruel.

Looks like somebody got a peak at the script for The Outrageous Okona...

Looks like somebody got a peak at the script for The Outrageous Okona…

Still talking about the cold open, it served to remind me that I haven’t paid nearly enough credit to the fantastic work that Michael Westmore did on the franchise week-in and week-out. It feels weird to praise him for the make-up on an imaginary demonic character in a holodeck simulation, given that he has produced numerous iconic Star Trek aliens, but watching Worf brawl with “skull-head”, part of me marvelled that Westmore had managed to create a more convincing version of Ghost Rider than either of the two feature films. And he had done it using practical effects.

If the somewhat relaxed pacing can be considered as much of a strength as a weakness, the episode has a more significant problem. Picard seems to forgive Nagilum’s experiments far too easily at the end of the episode, engaging in banter on what seems like relatively friendly terms. I know Picard is an enlightened individual, but it seems a bit much to sincerely discuss the human condition with an alien who threatened to kill up to half your crew and was responsible one death on the bridge.

An ugly creature, no bones about it...

An ugly creature, no bones about it…

The closing conversation allows the episode to develop some nice Star Trek philosophy, but I can’t help but imagine that Picard would be a little more forceful and righteous. I’d at least expect him to warn Nagilum not to try this sort of thing again, or perhaps to let Nagilum know that he’ll be sharing information with all space-faring cultures in the region. After all, while there’s not really that much the Enterprise can do to a god-like being, I’d expect that Picard would have a great deal more contempt for Nagilum’s complete lack of scientific ethics.

Still, aside from that, Where Silence Has Lease is a remarkably solid episode, and one that builds upon the strengths of some of the better first season instalments. For one thing, it is very true to the core concept of Star Trek, the notion of exploration. There’s a sense, early on, that the void is something entirely new and strange – even to these more advanced humans. There’s a sense that the cosmos has much to teach us, and that we can never know absolutely everything. The trip to the stars is about the journey, rather than the destination.

Face-to-err... I guess that's a face...

Face-to-err… I guess that’s a face…

“Incredible,” Riker notes, “It’s like looking into infinity, sir. Remember the course in ancient history at Starfleet Academy? About the time men still believed the Earth was flat?” There is a sense that the Enterprise is still learning about the world that they inhabit. It makes the characters seem much more compelling than they did at points during the first season, when the show made it seem like humanity already knew everything that it needed to. Here, the crew find themselves facing what they deem a physical impossibilit, something that might even redefine physics as they know it.

However, once trapped inside, Where Silence Has Lease actually has a bit of fun at the expense of the crew. We’ve been watching the crew for a year now, and they’ve often seemed far too smug. Here their casual arrogance is portrayed as a flaw rather than a virtue. Trapped inside a mysterious realm, it seems that the bridge staff are less than fazed. It’s very clear that Picard and Riker both believe that they’ll be able to just wander out of this phenomenon as easily as they stumbled in.

Insufficient Data...

Insufficient Data…

They pretty much just casually sit around, oblivious to any hint of danger, engaged in abstract philosophical discussion. Data even has time to wonder aloud, “Could a lack of dimension be another dimension in itself?” There’s something very disconcerting about how completely oblivious our heroes are to the dangers that could lurk in the cosmos, and it is something that would pay off in Q Who? Here, however, it’s definitely portrayed as arrogance on the part of the senior staff.

The episode seems to have a bit of fun at their expense as they gradually realise that getting out might not be as simple as they had anticipated – perhaps they should have been more cautious or careful in the first place? While Picard and Riker don’t seem to panic, there’s a definite sense of unease and a hint that they have both been somewhat humbled by the fact that they were caught completely off guard. What began as a comfortable scientific inquiry becomes something quite a bit more sinister almost immediately, and Where Silence Has Lease shrewdly uses the crew’s established smugness to catch them off guard.

It's like looking in a mirror...

It’s like looking in a mirror…

While that’s a nice touch, and a hint of growth on the part of the show, Where Silence Has Lease also finds room for bold philosophical questions. The Next Generation arguably did abstract philosophy even better than its direct predecessor, and Where Silence Has Lease even finds a way to have Riker and Picard debate the self-destruct sequence. “What would be the least painful to our crew?” Riker asks, a question clearly not covered in Starship Ethics 101. “Move to it quickly, or allow them time to prepare for it thoroughly?”

It’s even suggested that Nagilum shares mankind’s philosophical curiosity. He impersonates Data in order to ask Picard, “What is death?” It’s implied that his tests are more psychological and philosophical than biological. His treatment of Riker and Worf on the Yamato is more psychological torture than anything excessively violent, and he is interested in whether or not Picard would sacrifice Riker and Worf to save the rest of his crew – is commanding a starship a simple numbers game?

Ghost starship...

Ghost starship…

Where Silence Has Lease even finds room to explore Picard’s philosophical outlook. There’s something delightfully humanist in Picard’s views about death as delivered by Patrick Stewart. The Next Generation is a show that occasionally ran the risk of being a little too cold or a little too sterile, so it’s surprising that Picard’s views on the undiscovered country (which is not the future, unless you are reading Klingon Hamlet) feel so warm:

Some see it as a changing into an indestructible form, forever unchanging; they believe that the purpose of the entire universe is to then maintain that form in an earth-like garden, which will give delight and pleasure through all eternity. On the other hand, there are those who hold to the idea of our blinking into nothingness – with all of our experiences and hopes and dreams merely a delusion.

Which do you believe, sir?

Considering the marvellous complexity of our universe, its clockwork perfection, its balances of this against that, matter, energy, gravitation, time, dimension, I believe that our existence must be more than either of these philosophies. That what we are goes beyond Euclidian and other practical measuring systems and that our existence is part of a reality beyond what we understand now as reality.

Very nice character moment. As is the idea that Picard will just sit in his quarters and wait for death on his own terms. He genuinely seems at peace while the timer counts down, and there’s never a hint of self-doubt, which is perfectly in character.

Sitting tight...

Sitting tight…

Which brings us to another area where Where Silence Has Lease actually builds further on a success from the first season. The last time we saw Riker and Picard activate the self-destruct came in 11001001, and it worked well there. However, the episode never really pushed the suspense as far as it could go. Riker and Picard aborted the sequence with a considerable margin, so things never really got too tense. Of course, they were never going to blow up the ship on the show, so you could argue that 11001001 was merely playing fair with the audience.

Here, however, Where Silence Has Lease does an excellent job milking the suspense. “Could it all be part of the illusion?” Picard asks as the ship is released from Nagilum’s grasp. As such, Picard pushes the ship to the limit, and waits until almost the last possible second to cancel the self-destruct. It’s a superb sequence, down to the swelling music and Riker’s emphatic response, “Yes! Absolutely! I do indeed concur wholeheartedly!” Director Winrich Kolbe would go on to be one of the best directors working on the franchise, and Where Silence Has Lease really demonstrates his potential.

"Hm. Getting a sense of deja vu?"

“Hm. Getting a sense of deja vu?”

However, the real kicker in Where Silence Has Lease emerges in the final scene, the conversation between Picard and Nagilum, where the latter offers to share his findings. Picard stubbornly denies his curiosity, but Nagilum knows better. “You are too inquisitive not to want to know,” he states. “You seem to find no tranquillity in anything. You struggle against the inevitable. You thrive on conflict. You are selfish, yet you value loyalty. You are rash, quick to judge, slow to change. It’s amazing you’ve survived. Be that as it may, as species, we have no common ground. You are too aggressive. Too hostile. Too militant.”

Ignoring Nagilum’s wonderful hypocrisy in those final lines, it also represents a pretty telling admission on the part of the writing staff. Gene Roddenberry spent a lot of the show’s first year insisting that the version of humanity presented in Where Silence Has Lease must be perfect. They must be better than we are today. They must be free of all our faults and flaws, our insecurities and uncertainties. A large number of the crew working on the show argued, and I agree, that this somewhat neuters drama.

The gloves are, eh... on...

The gloves are, eh… on…

Nagilum’s observations at the climax of Where Silence Has Lease carry a surprising amount of weight, and they seem to have our protagonists figured out. Picard and his crew aren’t quite as perfect as they pretend to be, as their blundering into Nagilum’s trap at the start of the episode demonstrates. That doesn’t mean that they are bad people, and it doesn’t mean they haven’t come a long way. It just demonstrates that perfection, like exploration, isn’t necessarily a destination. It is a journey. And I think that realisation is a key part of what made The Next Generation work as a show.

As such, Where Silence Has Lease feels like a big step forward. While it’s not a classic, it does make several important observations that are key to the show’s evolution. It’s a surprisingly solid show and, I’d argue, as good as anything in the first season. However, things are also about to get a lot better.

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

6 Responses

  1. Yes! The show’s philosophical arguments, though they may seem light now, provided a profound impact on me as a boy and then teenager.

    I totally agree that this episode is pretty solid – and what makes it solid is the huge leaps made in characterization. This single episode builds characters in more vivid ways than the whole of the first year.

    Also of note, before joining Trek, Westmore worked on the He-Man movie, starring Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella. So when this script called for some weird aliens for Worf to fight on the holodeck, he just borrowed the old Skeletor mask he made!

  2. I always found Will Riker to be an incredibly selfish individual. He knows Diana loves him yet is only interested in her at his own convenience. He refuses promotion after promotion in order to wait ‘old man’ Picard out for command of the Enterprise, while other ships in need of qualified captains are forced to take the “other” guy. Perhaps ship’s like the Drake and Melbourne would have survived their destruction if they had a better qualified skipper. But Riker can’t be bothered with that, he wants the Enterprise. When Ro Laren arrives Riker treats her like dirt, despite Picard being more than willing to give her a second chance. Riker only warms up to her after she allows him to have sex with her. There are many other examples. I absolutely loathe the Riker character.

    • One of the interesting things about rewatching the show as a grown up is that you pick up on things that you missed as a child. I think every adult has at some point in their lives encountered a person like Will Riker, and the experience was never pleasant. (Riker really doesn’t seem to feel obligated to be polite or respectful to anybody unless they happen to be his friend.)

  3. This episode, I believe, would be the start of the trope of the conn station on the bridge proving to be a deathtrap for almost anyone not named Wesley or Ro.

    While not as infamous as the unfortunate security officers who beamed down to a planet with Captain Kirk and never returned, the station would kill or at least injure a number of promising officers over the next fourteen or so years (usually by blasting them with a shower of sparks). We saw this in “Disaster”, “TimeScape”, “Genesis”, “All Good Things”, “Generations”, “First Contact”, and “Nemesis”.

    • Good spot. I think you might be right.

      “Do you think we should probably add a fuse to that console?”
      “Nah, how would we know when the stakes were suitably high?”

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