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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Royale (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

“None of it makes any sense, sir,” Riker succinctly states before the credits role on The Royale. The Royale is a decidedly nonsensical episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where an away team find themselves trapped inside an atrocious casino melodrama and have to figure out how to return to the ship. The episode is packed with interesting visuals and a bizarre situations, but it never quite comes together in the end.

And, yet, despite the obvious problems, The Royale is intriguing. Visually, it’s one of the most striking and memorable episodes of the show’s first two season. The rotating door to nowhere is a beautifully strange image, and the sight of the Enterprise away team wandering around a twentieth century casino is enough to prevent the episode from ever becoming boring. The Royale isn’t the best constructed episode of the show’s first two years, and it has more than its fair share of problems.

However, it’s also a wonderfully bizarre and adventurous piece of science-fiction, as if Riker has beamed into a cheap imitation of The Twilight Zone. That’s enough to make it well worth a watch.

The whole plot revolves around absurdities...

The whole plot revolves around absurdities…

The version of The Royale that made it to screen was written by Tracy Tormé and extensively re-written by Maurice Hurley. Tormé and Hurley probably the two strongest voices in the show’s writers’ room during the series’ first two years, but they seemed to be pulling the show in opposite directions. Tormé was the writer responsible for the subversive and unsettling Conspiracy, and seemed to want to push The Next Generation in strange and uncomfortable directions. Maurice Hurley was a more conservative voice, and seemed to be writing for The Next Generation as if he were writing for the original Star Trek.

Both writers would leave the show at the end of the second season, so neither ever really got to develop their unique vision for the show. One of the more frustrating aspects of the first and second seasons of The Next Generation is this strange tug of war between the more radical voices that want to create something new and striking with the first and second seasons of The Next Generation, and the more cautious and traditional voices that want to be working on the fourth and fifth seasons of the classic Star Trek.

JJ Abrams didn't start product placement in Star Trek...

JJ Abrams didn’t start product placement in Star Trek…

As you might expect, these approaches aren’t really compatible with one another. The combination of both writers working on The Royale produces quite an exotic cocktail – something strange and surreal and yet weirdly familiar. On the surface, The Royale feels like a spiritual successor to those classic “planet from Earth’s past” plots that the classic Star Trek would do every so often, with Kirk and his crew stumbling across an alien world modelled on a particular part of Earth’s history. Patterns of Force gave us “planet of the Nazis”, Bread and Circuses offered us a glimpse at a modern-day Rome.

The biggest influence on The Royale would appear to be A Piece of the Action. In that episode, a book left behind by a visiting Federation ship led the planet to model its entire culture on gangsters, patterning their society around Chicago Mobs of the Twenties. The Royale has a similar hook. A bunch of aliens happen across a piece of trashy fiction and decide to create an artificial world modelled on the rules of that book, “presuming that the novel we had on board the shuttle about the Hotel Royale was in fact a guide to our preferred lifestyle and social habits.”

A reading from the bad book...

A reading from the bad book…

It’s worth pausing here to note how crazy that entire plot point is. In fact, the concept of an alien world that just happens to perfectly resemble a period of Earth’s history was so decidedly absurd that The Next Generation created the concept of the holodeck to get around it. Indeed, Tormé won a Peabody Award for writing The Big Goodbye, which amounted to an update of that whole “planet of the gangsters” schtick from the classic series in a slightly more believable manner.

So, having introduced the holodeck as a narrative device that allows the show to tell those sorts of stories, returning to the classic model feels like a step backwards. It’s a consciously regressive step. As an aside, it’s worth noting that “holodeck malfunction” episodes are hardly the most convincing stories in modern Star Trek, as much as they all the show to play in a particular sandbox without requiring the appearance of a planet with a history that mirrors our own to a ridiculous degree.

Rolling with it...

Rolling with it…

To be fair to Tormé, his original pitch for the episode was a lot more adventurous. The writing process on The Royale led him to take his name off the finished product:

I really felt it would work. I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be a mind bending show’. I loved the surrealism in it. They made a big point at the time – ‘We don’t want to do big guest roles. We want to concentrate on our characters.’ So the astronaut became a skeleton and everything about him in the piece was gone. That was the biggest thing I had a problem with in the rewrites; he was the heart of the story for me. Piece by piece, when I would see these rewrites on this draft, I just thought, ‘oh, my God’ because it was so different. That’s where ‘Keith Mills’ came to life. I found it very painful. I don’t think I’ve ever watched the whole episode, because I don’t think I could make it through it.

The original pitch for the episode involved setting the adventure inside the head of Colonel S. Richey, which would have been decidedly more avante garde than anything in the finished episode.

The Theta 116 shuffle...

The Theta 116 shuffle…

To be fair, there is a nice hook to The Royale. The characters aren’t trapped on an alien world or in some strange foreign culture. Instead, the crew are trapped within a narrative – wrapped up inside a story. The clichéd supporting cast of the novel wait until the crew are within earshot to advance their plot threads, and the only way out for the crew is to actively step into the narrative and push the story onwards towards its eventual climax and end.

(It’s a motif that recurs in the next episode, Time Squared. Like in The Royale, there’s a sense that the worst possible fate is to get caught in a loop repeating yourself – the only escape is to press boldly forward and try to break the cycle. For a show undergoing something of an identity crisis, The Next Generation seemed to be unconsciously playing out its own uncertainties. That’s one of the redeeming facets of this troubled second season, the sense that the show is really trying to figure out how to get out of its rut.)

Boning up on his space history...

Boning up on his space history…

Indeed, The Royale teases the idea that being trapped inside a terrible book must be some incredible source of torment. Reading the last entries of Richie’s diary, we get a sense of how frustrating it must be to live out the same looping and repeating plot threads again and again and again. “I awakened to find myself here in the Royale Hotel, precisely as described in the novel I found in my room,” the diary explains. “And for the last thirty-eight years I have survived here.” Thirty-eight years trapped on the same page of the same book? That is an existential nightmare.

Unfortunately, this is where The Royale really falls apart. There’s never any real danger. There’s never a sense that Riker and Worf and Data will be trapped in the hotel for more than a few hours. As striking as the revolving doors that lead nowhere might be, The Royale lacks the sense of frustration and desperation that the premise really needs. Perhaps including Colonel Richey may have raised the stakes slightly, giving us a more concrete sense of what living through that loop for years would do to a person’s sanity.

Hitting a wall...

Hitting a wall…

Instead, the episode seems surprisingly blaise about the whole situation. Even when the away team are cut off from their ship, there’s no real unease. “Sir, without communication, we should beam up immediately,” Data states, matter-of-factly. Riker is less than concerned about the whole thing. “We’re here, there’s no danger. We’ll look around then leave.” If the cast can’t get too worked up about all this, it’s hard for the audience to worry too much.

Then again, I do like the suggestion that Riker is just a little bit reckless. Riker is the member of the cast who has the most obvious sense of ego, and so it would be entirely reasonable to believe that the character had just blundered blindly into a trap through sheer over-confidence. Even Picard points out that Riker is hardly following procedure. “It’s unlike Commander Riker not to follow procedure,” he muses. “When he lost contact with the Enterprise, he should have returned immediately to the beam down coordinates.”

Deal with it...

Deal with it…

However, the show never suggests that Riker might have miscalculated or over-estimated the away team’s security. There’s nothing as effective as Worf’s claustrophobia in Where Silence Has Lease to underscore the sense of creeping insanity about the hotel. All that Worf contributes to the away time is a rather understated note of “some curiosities.” Despite the fact that the team are trapped on a foreign planet with no way out, there’s never a sense of urgency or desperation.

Indeed, even Picard seems perfectly willing to wait this thing out from orbit. After detailing a risky plan to phaser the hotel from orbit, Picard doesn’t seem too bothered. “You must understand, Number One, we’ll wait here for months if necessary. We’re just considering options.” It sounds like he’s just waiting for an excuse to catch up on his reading. While this set-up feels a lot more honest and convincing than the false urgency of something like the “near-warp transport” from The Schizoid Man, it hardly makes the threat seem particularly serious.

Riker always goes by the book...

Riker always goes by the book…

After all, the team figure out what they have to do pretty quickly. The hotel’s story doesn’t even have to “loop” or “stall” waiting for the away team to take their role. Once Riker and his team figure out how to escape, it’s pretty much determined. The only minor obstacle to their escape is the fact that the dice are rigged, and Data manages to fix that with a simple (and convenient) clench of his fist. It’s all far too easy.

And yet, despite that, there is a lot to like here. For one thing, The Royale revels in the decidedly cliché setting of the trashy novel. There’s a beautiful sense of irony in an early script for The Next Generation calling out bad writing. “I don’t believe this dialogue,” Deanna Troi observes. “Did humans really talk like that?” Given that Troi’s stock phrase is “I sense great [something]”, I don’t think she’s in any position to criticise dodgy dialogue.

Some cowboys in here...

Some cowboys in here…

That said, The Royale seems decidedly self-aware, and the episode’s willingness to embrace the cheesiness of the setting, and to have the crew so openly disdainful of the novel, lends the whole episode an endearing charm. Coupled with Ron Jones’ wonderfully over-the-top score and a decidedly deadpan supporting performance from Sam Anderson, The Royale winds up far more entertaining than it really should.

Riker seems to be loving it when he’s asked to play the role of the “flamboyantly generous” out-of-town investors. “When the train comes in, everybody rides,” he boasts after earning “some spreading around money.” Naturally, being Riker, the first recipients of his profits are the cocktail waitresses, although he also finds an opportunity to personally hand some chips to the beautiful blonde at the table.

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

Similarly, Data seems to really “get into character” rolling the dice. “Papa needs a new pair of shoes.” It’s hard to reconcile the android’s glee with the argument that he’s incapable of experiencing emotions, although he could simply be acting out his character’s motions from the climax of the book. Either way, Brent Spiner goes gleefully over the top, which feels strangely in keeping with the bizarre tone of the episode.

Appropriately enough, the episode ends without any real conclusion. We’re provided with a rough outline of what happened, but with no real sense of closure. The Enterprise crew never meets the aliens responsible for constructing the Royale, there’s no explanation of why the Royale continued to exist after the death of Colonel Richey, or even how the aliens came under understand so much of the book they found on the shuttle. Are the creators of the scenario still out there, watching? Are they all dead?

Talk about leaving us in the dark...

Talk about leaving us in the dark…

(Personally, I like the possibility that they might actually be Caretakers, from Star Trek: Voyager. Certainly, their methods seem quite similar to those witnessed by the Voyager crew in Caretaker. They abduct a bunch of people from across the cosmos, taking them on a trip that nearly kills them. When these aliens arrive, the Caretakers put them into a virtual reality taken from their personal experience. There’s not too much to support this theory, and the Caretakers obviously didn’t exist at this point in history, but it’s a possibility that fits reasonably well with what we know of the Star Trek universe.)

The Royale is quite explicit about how little of this episode makes sense. The show is book-ended with scenes where Picard contemplates the mysteries of the universe – mysteries that humans will likely never have the answer to. In this case, he pick Fermet’s Last Theorum. “Also, it puts things in perspective. In our arrogance we feel we are so advanced, and yet we cannot unravel a simple knot tied by a part-time French mathematician working alone, without a computer.”

Patching it all together...

Patching it all together…

It’s a nice sentiment, and it underscores why The Royale works so much better than it should. It’s an episode that calls out the characters on The Next Generation for their arrogance – questioning the assumption that mankind has evolved to the point where they can understand absolutely everything. The whole point of Star Trek is that there must be some mysteries left in the cosmos, even when those mysteries take the form of twentieth-century hotels on the surface of hostile alien worlds.

In away, this string of episodes without any easy resolutions seems to be building towards the discovery of the Borg in Q Who? After all, the wonder of the Borg is that they prove a threat to the Federation’s understanding of the universe. They exist to threaten our heroes in a way that they assumed they were beyond being threatened. Q Who? is a story which reiterates how little mankind actually knows about the cosmos, and it’s about attacking the complacency of the Enterprise crew. The Royale and Time Squared are necessary steps on that road.

"Let's get the hell out of here..."

“Let’s get the hell out of here…”

Star Trek geeks will most likely remember The Royale as one of the episodes that immediately dates The Next Generation. Picard seems to be spending his spare time trying to solve a Theorum that Sir John Wiles proved in 1995. Which is understandable for a show made years earlier. Still, apparently the writers of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine felt so bad about it that they threw a line into Facets suggesting that Wiles’ solution is somehow incomplete.

The Royale is an episode that works a lot better than it should, if only because it demonstrates just what a strange and surreal universe the Enterprise explores. It’s a deeply flawed piece of television, and a reminder that The Next Generation is still in the process of evolving, but it does indicate that there’s still hope for the show.

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

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