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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Peak Performance (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.

Peak Performance is a functional episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It doesn’t really stand out all that much, and it feels quite a bit average. Still, that’s not to dismiss Peak Performance. After all, this past season has seen The Next Generation advance considerably. During the first season, an episode like Home Soil or The Big Goodbye was a welcome relief. At this stage in the show, episodes like Peak Performance and Contagion are the average.

Of course, the third season would see the show’s quality improve even more dramatically, but we’re still just a little bit away from that. So we’re left with Peak Performance, a fairly standard piece of Star Trek that feels just a little bit too formulaic and a little bit too cliché. While it’s not among the strongest of the season, there are definitely worse sins.

Game on...

Game on…

Peak Performance is interesting, because it’s a relatively unconventional set-up. It sees the Enterprise engaged in war games. This quite a departure for the show (and, indeed, the franchise) – even Picard seems a little perturbed by the situation. We’re told that he “initially resisted” the assignment. “Starfleet is not a military organisation,” he insists. “Its purpose is exploration.” That’s a nice thought, and very true to the heart of the franchise, at least at this point in its history.

Of course, Kirk got embroiled with his fair share of conflict. Errand of Mercy saw Kirk stuck in the middle of a brewing war between the Federation and the Klingons. Balance of Terror saw Kirk attempting to hunt down a Romulan war ship so as to prevent the outbreak of interstellar warfare. Kirk and his crew were always ready for conflict whenever it occurred, and it wasn’t uncommon for Kirk to have to physically throw down with the adversary.

A model security chief...

A model security chief…

What is different about Peak Performance, at least outside the more peaceful framework of The Next Generation, is that it is an episode heavy on ship-to-ship combat. It’s a story about two Federation ships shooting at one another, engaging in war games. Ship-to-ship warfare is a staple of science-fiction storytelling. Indeed, George Lucas really redefined what was possible on film with the climax of Star Wars: A New Hope.

Star Trek could never quite compete with that level of special effects. When a Klingon armada attacked the Enterprise in Errand of Mercy, we didn’t get to see a single ship. The conflict between the Enterprise and the Romulan Bird of Prey in Balance of Terror consisted mainly of the camera shaking and brightly-coloured blobs occasionally appearing on the screen. While both the original Star Trek and The Next Generation features amazing model-work, it simply wasn’t feasible to do that sort of special-effects-driven storytelling.

The Data supports my argument...

The Data supports my argument…

It wouldn’t be until computer-generated imagery became feasible and affordable that Star Trek could have big epic space battles. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the subsequent spin-offs were able to benefit from this sort of approach to special effects. Computer models were easier to blow up and animate than the wonderfully and meticulously crafted models produced for the classic Star Trek and The Next Generation.

As a result, The Next Generation had to settle most for establishing shots of the Enterprise moving through space, with four or five different sequences that could be altered or re-worked to fit in a number of contexts. The more hardcore Star Trek fans will be able to recognise those sequences on flight, accepting the practical limitations of producing a weekly science-fiction television show.

It's worth noting that Picard is quite supportive of Riker this week. If a little enthused at the prospect of blowing him out of the stars. Metaphorically speaking, of course...

It’s worth noting that Picard is quite supportive of Riker this week. If a little enthused at the prospect of blowing him out of the stars. Metaphorically speaking, of course…

So, with the prospect of conflict between the Hathaway and the Enterprise, Peak Performance was ambitious.  As Melinda Snodgrass quips in Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, “it costs a lot of money to have spaceships fight.” Positioning an episode like this so close to the end of the season seems to have been a risky move. It seems quite likely that the budgetary demands of ship-to-ship combat here may have contributed to the decision to make Shades of Grey a clip show.

And while you can see that a lot of care was put into the combat sequences, Peak Performance is not going to cause George Lucas to lose any sleep. There are some nice shots of the Enterprise and the Hathaway manoeuvring, some nice shots of the Hathaway coming to life under Geordi’s magic touch, but there’s nothing here that really surprises the audience. There’s certainly nothing on par with the special effects work from the contemporaneous Star Trek films, even the notoriously cheaper ones like Star Trek III: The Search for Spock or Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Don't hate the player...

Don’t hate the player…

Still, even if the concept of “Star Trek does Star War Games” doesn’t quite come off, Peak Performance is still has an element of charm to it. One of the great strengths of The Next Generation was the ensemble. Even if characters like Geordi and Riker were never really developed as well as they might be, the crew had a wonderful chemistry together, and Peak Performance is at its best when it’s willing to just let the crew hang out together.

Peak Performance places Riker in command of the Hathaway, but it’s surprising how little it tries to milk this for character drama. Given that “Riker wants to be captain one day” is the closest thing that Riker has to a hook, you’d imagine his first command would be a pretty big deal. Then again, given that the show produced The Icarus Factor the last time the show delved into Riker’s desire for command, perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Still, it pretty much completely neuters the only character hook Riker has.

Riker looks like he's trying really hard to fight the urge to order a lazyboy installed as his command chair...

Riker looks like he’s trying really hard to fight the urge to order a lazyboy installed as his command chair…

It’s not really a problem, because Peak Performance isn’t too interested in character work. Instead, it’s willing to give enough space for the actors to have a little fun. Jonathan Frakes is charming enough that it’s hard to be bothered about Riker’s blasé attitude towards the Hathaway command. It doesn’t matter that Geordi is given little to do, it’s just sort of nice to hang out with LeVar Burton. Any episode that allows Worf to demonstrate his managerial skills (“where am I going to get the opti-cable?” (yank) “anywhere”) can’t be all bad.

Interestingly, the best character work in Peak Performance is actually for the more troublesome characters in the ensemble. Wesley gets to be cool, for once – he gets to be portrayed as a bit more cunning than simply intelligent, and a character who isn’t afraid to bend the rules in order to win. More than that, though, Wesley is actually able to channel his own typically boring techno-babble to distract Ensign Burke while he pulls a quick con. This is the sort of Wesley that the show needs to give us more often.

A hands on approach to leadership...

A hands on approach to leadership…

Similarly, Pulaski has grown into a character who no longer seems so rough around the edges, and who no longer seems at odds with the rest of the crew. While Data’s subplot is a little trite here, it does give the script a chance to demonstrate how Pulaski has grown fond of Data. Far from the bullying in The Child or Elementary, Dear Data, Pulaski actually seems conscious of Data’s personality and ego.

She’s no longer dismissive of him. In fact, she’s the member of the crew who seems most aware of Data’s damaged ego after he loses the game of Strategema to Kolrami. “How long are you going to sit sulking like Achilles in his tent?” she asks. When Data replies that his conducting diagnostics, Pulaski is having none of it. “You may be able to sell Troi that story, but not me. You’re smarting because you were beaten.”

The next level...

The next level…

Indeed, Pulaski seems more open to the possibility that Data is having a crisis of self-esteem than the rest of the crew. In fact, Picard accuses her of anthropomorphising Data. “Don’t you think you both might be overreacting? Data is not capable of the emotions which you are assigning to him.” Pulaski’s response is characteristically pragmatic. “The effects are the same, whether they’re caused by human emotions or android algorithms.”

It’s actually a much more flattering portrayal of Pulaski than we’ve had before – a character whose discomfort around technology leads her to over-anthropomorphise Data. Given how poorly Data responds to barbs and witticisms, which can make Pulaski seem a bit mean-spirited, it’s a shrewd move from the writing team. Indeed, Peak Performance seems to suggest that Pulaski’s reading of Data is entirely correct, even if he would not agree with her reasoning.

"Worf, do you like movies about gladiators?"

“Worf, do you like movies about gladiators?”

That would itself offer an interesting angle on Pulaski. She would work quite well as the member of the ensemble most sceptical she is of Data’s claims of stoicism. Given that there’s a lot in The Next Generation that suggests Data is capable of feeling emotion, but simply incapable of recognising it, that would offer a refreshing character dynamic for Pulaski. Unfortunately, this is Pulaski’s penultimate appearance in Star Trek, so it’s quite frustrating that the show seems to have figured out an angle that might work for her.

Peak Performance also plays into some of the stronger recurring themes of the season. In particular, it’s another story about arrogance and over-confidence, which feels appropriate given that these war games were organised as a response to “the Borg threat.” There’s a sense that the Enterprise is far too comfortable in itself, just as the visiting Zakdorn strategist is far too comfortable in himself – an arrogance borne of living a life without challenge.

LaForge packs light...

LaForge packs light…

Worf is unimpressed by Kolrami’s swagger. Data explains that the Zakdorn have gone unchallenged for “over nine millennia.” Worf responds, “So no one is willing to test that perception in combat?” When Data informs him that he is correct, Worf acerbically responds, “Then the reputation means nothing.” In a way, it seems to be a discussion about the cast of The Next Generation itself, a show with far too much confidence that hasn’t quite been earned yet. The show needs to throw a few more challenges like Q Who? at the Enterprise before that confidence can be earned.

After all, Peak Performance observes, there is some element of schadenfreude in seeing an over-confident character being humbled. When Data has difficulty understanding why Pulaski might want to see Kolrami lose a game of Strategema, she explains, “Because when someone is that smug, you occasionally have to deflate them just a little.” Geordi explains, “Yeah, Data, I’d like to see your neural flex tear him down a peg.”

Light 'em up, boys!

Light ’em up, boys!

It is more fun to root for the underdog. And the problem with The Next Generation is that the Federation and our lead characters seldom feel like the underdog. They always seem too relaxed in the face of danger, too at ease with the risks that come with the job. Peak Performance seems to realise this, consciously inviting us to root for the underdog. This is most obvious with the struggling USS Hathaway, but it echoes throughout the episode.

Data is over-confident in his first confrontation with Kolrami. So he is humbled by defeat and approaches his adversary for a rematch from a position of weakness. And then he wins. Kolrami boasts about how the Enterprise is in a position of strength and how it isn’t in any danger at all. “After all,” he assures everybody, “when one is in the superior position, one is expected to win.” And yet the Enterprise is put at risk by the arrival of the Ferengi. Yes, the Ferengi.

"Wait... I thought we had the Borg now?"

“Wait… I thought we had the Borg now?”

Over-confidence is the enemy, and Peak Performance seems to be playfully winking at the audience. One of the recurring themes of the episode – and a biting (but well-observed) piece of self-criticism – concerns how pointless conflict and drama are without stakes. Worf explains to Riker that he isn’t particularly enthused about these war games, precisely because there are no stakes. “If there is nothing to lose, no sacrifice, then there is nothing to gain.”

When Riker challenges Kolrami to a game of Strategema, Geordi has a hard time getting too worked up about it because there are no stakes involved. There’s no measure of ego, no chance of victory or upset, no potential for surprise. “So you’re going to beat him?” Geordi asks. “Nope.” Geordi follows up, “Well, then it’s going to be a close one?” Riker replies, “No.” Geordi continues to look for a reason to get excited, “But you have got a chance?” Riker honestly responds, “Nah.”

Where there's a Will...

Where there’s a Will…

Exasperated, Geordi asks, “Are you going to bother to show up?” Riker answers, “Sure.” He expands his answer, “Kolrami is the best ever at Strategema. Just to get to play him is a privilege.” So there’s nothing at stake here. Riker has accomplished all that he set out to do by asking for the match. Since he knows that he can’t win, and he isn’t too bothered, it’s hard for anybody else to care. “Other aside from your being privileged, is there anything else I can look forward to?” Geordi inquires. “Nope.”

This feels like a rather wry commentary on some of the problems with the second season of The Next Generation. Far too often, it seems like there really aren’t any dramatic stakes to the stories. In The Royale, Riker and the away team really don’t seem too bothered about being trapped inside a crazy hotel, while Picard is on hand to assure them that the Enterprise is willing to wait as long as it takes for them to get out. In Pen Pals, a massive philosophical dilemma is resolved through the magic of mind-wiping.

And that's what Picard thinks of Riker's first command...

And that’s what Picard thinks of Riker’s first command…

The key to good drama is stakes – it’s getting the audience to invest in the characters and their world. Those stakes don’t have to be massive; they can be personal or intimate. However, there does need to be something to draw us into the story. And Peak Performance is smart enough to realise that and also honest enough to playfully concede that the show hasn’t really been all that good at delivering dramatic stakes.

Of course, the dramatic stakes in Peak Performance feel just a little bit rote. Data loses a competition and has self-esteem issues. Riker is repeatedly told that he can’t possibly win. The Ferengi arrive and turn the war games into an actual conflict. These are all fairly cliché developments, and the Ferengi are no more convincing as adversaries than they were during the first season. Still, at least Peak Performance is trying, even if it’s not quite succeeding.

The play's the thing...

The play’s the thing…

So Peak Performance is far from an exceptional piece of television. Indeed, it’s all fairly rote. Still, it does seem aware of some of the shortcomings of this troubled second season, so it’s hard to be too frustrated by it all. There’s very little to recommend Peak Performance, save the opportunity to enjoy the company of the ensemble and a willingness to concede some of the show’s past mistakes. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s just about enough at this stage of the game.

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

2 Responses

  1. I was troubled that Riker was given the kudos for the Hathaway’s success, when it was actually Worf and Wes who made it possible for them to do so well. Riker just sat there and smiled.

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