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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Booby Trap (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.

Booby Trap is a bit of a mess. The writing credits for the episode, featuring four different writers credited with getting the idea from basic story to finished script. This wasn’t at all unusual in the show’s third season – consider the writing credits for Yesterday’s Enterprise – but it gives an indication of the chaos unfolding behind the scenes on the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

It’s Michael Piller’s second credited script, and his first writing credit since he took over the writers’ room. (Although he did, along with Melinda Snodgrass, do a pass on Ronald D. Moore’s script for The Bonding.) As such, it is written with a very clear idea of where Piller wants to take the show, one that shines through a somewhat uneven and all-over-the-place plot, which often feels like several different scripts blended into one.

Building on what came before...

Building on what came before…

One of the most important changes that Piller made on assuming control of the writers’ room was to insist that all plots should be character-driven. He discussed this philosophy in an on-line chat in the lead-up to Star Trek: Insurrection, responding to a query about whether he felt “constrained” by this philosophy:

I don’t know how to answer that question, because I don’t  know how a writer ignores characters.  I feel that too often in movies and  television shows these days, that we see thrills and SFX take the place of  stories about characters.  As a viewer I find it impossible to care about  “stuff.”  As a producer, the first question I always ask a writer is  “What is this story about?’  And if it’s about space battles then I’m not  going to be interested.

That feels like a particularly appropriate comment in light of Booby Trap. On the surface, Booby Trap seems like it should be an episode about high-concept science-fiction “stuff.” The Enterprise is trapped in the strange phenomenon of the week. Every attempt to escape is counter-productive. That’s the making of a mediocre first or second season episode right there.

A well-played game of chess...

A well-played game of chess…

The difference with Booby Trap is that the script is less interested in the high-concept mystery-of-the-week than it is with all the character stuff that flows from that. The snare that has trapped the Enterprise is reduced to pseudo-logical techno-babble, but the episode never seems too engaged with the mechanics of the trap. It drops the right buzzwords (“radiation” and “lethal exposure” mostly) to ensure that we know the stakes, but it’s honest enough to accept that an episode about how Geordi saved the ship by “[tech]ing the [tech]” is not going to be compelling or engaging in its own right.

So Booby Trap pushes that fairly stock Star Trek plot into the background, so that it can focus on the character interactions between the crew. This is a great idea, and it demonstrates how Piller’s approach to Star Trek pays off. There are quite a few generic Star Trek plots that tend to get recycled and reused. “The Enterprise encounters a trap left by a long-dead race” has already been done by The Next Generation twice (The Last Outpost and Contagion), with a few slight variations on that theme (The Arsenal of Freedom, for example). However, running through that plot while focusing on characters keeps things fresh.

Romance, thy name is Geordi...

Romance, thy name is Geordi…

There’s only one slight problem. The focus on character is great, but Booby Trap suffers because it can’t seem to decide which character it’s about. As Michael Piller explained in Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, the episode was originally exclusively a Picard episode, with the Captain falling in love with holo!Brahms:

“It just said to me, ‘Picard should be on the bridge, not chatting with some woman.’ I said to myself, ‘It should be Geordi, because Geordi is in love with the ship and this is a story about a guy in love with his ’57 Chevy.’ That played into Geordi’s character, who’s always been a fumbling guy around women, but if he could just marry his car, he’d live happily ever after. He gets to create the personification of the woman who created the engine he loves. It’s sort of a relationship between he and his Pontiac.”

Piller is, of course, entirely correct here. Picard falling in love with a hologram in the middle of a crisis is a terrible plot, and Geordi is a much nicer fit. The problem is that the episode has difficulty splitting the focus between Picard and Geordi.

Dead space...

Dead space…

Barring a horribly awkward first date for Geordi in the teaser, Booby Trap begins as a Picard-centric episode. Discovering a relic floating in an asteroid field, Picard’s love of archaeology is pushed to the fore. He gets giddy about visiting the alien ship, even refusing to pay heed to Riker’s security concerns. He discusses building model ships as a boy. Booby Trap is really an excuse to see Picard cutting loose and having fun. “It’s just a rare pleasure to see this side of your personality,” Troi remarks, and she’s right.

And then the sci-fi plot kicks in, and the focus shifts to Geordi and his make-believe girlfriend. We occasionally get snippets of conversation featuring Picard, allowing us to see how frustrated he is by the situation, but Geordi drives the meat of the episode. He is the one who works with Brahms to find a solution, he is the one who faces a slight complication when the holodeck goes off-line, he is the one who figures out exactly what is going on.

Back to the drawing board...

Back to the drawing board…

And yet, despite the fact that Geordi carries the bulk of the episode, the climax still belongs to Picard. Circling back to the Captain’s interest in archaeology and his romanticism for the past, Picard is the officer who navigates the Enterprise through the asteroid field and home free. Picard gets the big heroic moment of the episode, despite the fact that most of Booby Trap is about Geordi working to understand and solve the problem.

It’s not a fatal flaw. After all, Picard’s interest in “seat of your pants” technology is foreshadowed in a conversation with Riker a few minute earlier. It just feels a little inorganic. It feels like something that might have been smoothed over a bit better had the production team had a bit more time to figure out what they wanted to do with the episode. The show begins and ends as Picard-centric episode, but the middle is solidly focused on Geordi. This isn’t a simple split between a-plot and b-plot; this is the same episode plot, it’s just driven by two different characters at different points. It’s a little disconcerting.

Ship-shape...

Ship-shape…

Still, it’s a slight problem in execution rather than a problem with premise – which seems to be the most significant problem in some of the weaker third season episodes. That’s a testament to how far the show had pushed forward since the end of the second season, and a credit to the production staff working behind the scenes. The pace on the show’s third year was incredibly demanding, but the result is impressive. The third season is already the strongest season of The Next Generation to date, and it has yet to really kick into high gear.

Piller’s focus on character is interesting, because the producer immediately worked to flesh out the ensemble. He didn’t pad out his early episodes with Data-centric stories or Picard-driven episodes. Piller’s immediate concern seemed to be expanding the show’s focus and offering a bit of insight into characters who had been overlooked during the earlier two seasons. Barring Melinda Snodgrass’ Ensigns of Command, written before Piller took over, the third season doesn’t really start to produce episodes focusing on Picard and Data until Deja Q.

Picard is feeling bottled in...

Picard is feeling bottled in…

(It is worth noting that Piller also tends to shift the focus away from Riker a bit. The second season had its fair-share of Riker-driven episodes – The Icarus Factor and Peak Performance standing out, with Riker even the focal point of Shades of Grey. While Piller would write the best Riker story in the history of the show – The Best of Both Worlds – he did tend to shuffle Riker back into the middle of the pack a bit. Instead, Worf was pushed much more to the fore, remedying Michael Dorn’s observation that Worf had been “Tail End Charlie” during the scripting of the first two seasons.)

Piller’s first credit was on Evolution, an episode about Wesley, one of the show’s problem characters. The first script of his tenure as executive producer was The Bonding, built around Worf – who was still under-developed at the time. Booby Trap is focused on Geordi, one of the least well-developed of members of the ensemble. The Enemy would feature two plots – one for Geordi and one for Worf. The Price would focus on the character of Deanna Troi. There’s a conscious effort to diversify the focus of The Next Generation, and choosing to make that shift in focus so early in his tenure was a risky move – one that paid off.

The Enterprise is still coming together...

The Enterprise is still coming together…

Geordi’s characterisation is hardly ground-breaking. He’s presented as something of the stereotypical nerd – a geek with an aptitude for technical work, but with difficulty in social situations. “I just don’t get it, Guinan,” he complains early on. “I can field strip a fusion reactor. I can realign a power transfer tunnel. Why can’t I make anything work with a woman like Christi? It’s like I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to say.”

This is really the first time we’ve really delved into Geordi’s character, which is remarkable for a show that has been on the air over two years at this point. Booby Trap didn’t really have a lot to work with in coming up with this characterisation for Geordi, but it does perhaps explain why he is the member of the crew who has developed the strongest relationship with Data. Not only does Data have the same social difficulties, but Geordi is able to related to him as a piece of technology as well as a person.

In the dark...

In the dark…

And, somewhat interestingly, we get another slight subversion of Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic utopia. Who Watches the Watchers? skewed the traditional “primitive culture worships advanced technology as god” by making Picard himself the being worshipped by the alien species. The Bonding dedicated its first half to mourning the loss of a crew member who had never appeared before, playing audience expectations around the “red shirt” phenomenon. Booby Trap raises some probing questions about the holodeck.

The holodeck is one of the most divisive plot elements to feature in Star Trek. It is pretty much an excuse for the characters and writers to play in imaginary worlds within the Star Trek framework. Want Worf in a western? It can do that. Bashir playing Bond? Piece of cake! Voyager visits a quaint Irish village? Why not! Some of these diversions are a welcome change of pace, a nice way of getting away from the confines of the show. Some of the shows are clever and well-constructed.

Off the grid...

Off the grid…

On the other hand, it can also become a lazy and contrived storytelling tool, a way of telling a story that isn’t Star Trek within the confines of Star Trek. There’s also the simple fact that “the holodeck is broken” quickly became a tired plot device. In its second appearance, in The Big Goodbye, the holodeck tried to kill Captain Picard. In its first appearance in the second season, Elementary, Dear Data, the holodeck created a sentient supervillain who tried to blow up the ship. One imagines that health-and-safety would step in at some point.

However, the holodeck remained a fixture of Star Trek, and those tropes became more-and-more common over time. Gene Roddenberry was particularly proud of the concept, bringing it to The Next Generation from The Practical Joker, an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series. Roddenberry had been inspired by a meeting with Gene Dolgoff, a real-life holography expect, who insisted that holograms must be a part of any credible future. Roddenberry was so fond of the holodeck that Melinda Snodgrass’ suggestion of abolishing the holodeck drove something of a wedge between the pair.

It does look quite nice, but did Geordi really spend "days" designing this?

It does look quite nice, but did Geordi really spend “days” designing this?

Booby Trap does at least hint at some of the rather uncomfortable questions raised by the holodeck, even if these uncomfortable questions wouldn’t be properly addressed until Hollow Pursuits or Galaxy’s Child. Imagine the temptation of an artificial reality like the holodeck. You could live an entire fantasy life in there. You could re-write your own history. You could create copies of people and play god with them. If you are socially awkward, you could even invent a girlfriend.

How does that work? Do you need to give permission for your likeness to be used on the holodeck? Will the computer even inform you if your image is being used by somebody else? Just how much data is available to the computer, creating a facsimile version of your personality? Is this covered by image rights? Is there a conflict between your right to control your image and the freedom of thought of the person crafting the fantasy?

Does Geordi need a legal ad-VISOR?

Does Geordi need a legal ad-VISOR?

This is a rather questionable aspect of the holodeck, and one which becomes a recurring theme in how Star Trek views certain personal rights, as Paul Joseph and Sharon Carton argue in The Law of the Federation: Images of Law, Lawyers and the Legal System in Star Trek: The Next Generation:

The show suggests a strong right to privacy in one’s physical person, including, but not limited to, reproduction. ST:TNG also presents privacy in a broader context that considers whether a person can control his or her image, likeness and personality. In the 20th century, such issues are generally raises in the context of commercial appropriation of name or likeness, but in the 24th century, advanced technology makes other kinds of personal invasions possible.

Several episodes explore the appropriation of one’s likeness through use of the holodeck, which has the ability to create corporeal three-dimensional people closely patterned on real individuals. These episodes raise important questions about privacy and freedom of thought.

It’s certainly food for thought.

Picard is still steering the show...

Picard is still steering the show…

To be fair, Booby Trap never quite addresses the ethics of what Geordi is doing. That is something left for the fourth season to follow up on. Still, there are a number of suggestions that what Geordi is doing is not quite kosher. Although Picard says nothing, it’s quite clear he’s a little uncomfortable with Geordi’s use of the holodeck. When Geordi goes digging into her personal files to help create his holo!Brahms, the computer has to rebuke him.

As the computer recounts an entry from her own log, Geordi asks, “What’s the inside story? Off the record.” The computer bluntly informs him, “Access denied. Personal logs are restricted.” Geordi’s response is a little creepy. “Great. Another woman who won’t get personal with me in the holodeck.” Given that he creates a copy of Brahms from her “Starfleet personality profile analysis”, this raises all manner of questions.

Talk about virtual dating...

Talk about virtual dating…

Although the computer informs him that there’s less than a ten percent margin of error, at what point does Geordi’s creation of a copy of Leah Brahms become unethical? At what point does this become just as immoral as the attempts to clone from Riker and Pulaski in Up the Long Ladder? What kind of rights to people have to protect themselves against this sort of thing in the future? When the real Brahms finds out about holo!Brahms in Galaxy’s Child, she is rightly furious.

These aren’t questions that the show is quite ready to answer yet, but the episode does at least find something interesting to do with the holodeck. It is a story actively interested in the potential of that sort of technology, and one that flirts with the possibility of dysfunction or abuse that is much more insightful and intriguing than “the holodeck breaks down and tries to kill the crew… again.” The show would revisit these ideas in more depth with Hollow Pursuits and Galaxy’s Child.

Also, although this episode is built around Geordi, I'm not sure I'd trust Riker with unrestricted holodeck access...

Also, although this episode is built around Geordi, I’m not sure I’d trust Riker with unrestricted holodeck access…

It’s worth noting that even the minor characters in Booby Trap get a bit more focus and development. O’Brien’s half-convincing assertion that he built model ships as a boy feels quite in keeping with the sarcastic bemused observer we came to know in the second season. When Riker seems to question whether the transporter chief was simply making that up to reassure the captain, O’Brien assures the ship’s first officer, “I did. I really did. Ships in bottles. Great fun.”

Even Guinan gets a nice little character moment with Geordi, as she explains that she has a soft spot for bald men. “Maybe because a bald man was very kind to me once when I was hurting,” she explains. “Took care of me.” She doesn’t confirm that it’s Picard, but it’s a nice bit of foreshadowing about their relationship, even if the pair don’t share a scene in the entire episode. It’s a nice demonstration of how far the show has come that it can so casually give us nice character beats for two minor supporting characters.

Rocking that trap...

Rocking that trap…

Of course, it’s also interesting that Booby Trap, the first script credited to Piller since he took the post of executive producer, sees Geordi taking the Enterprise back to the drawing board – going “right back where it all started.” Perhaps it’s an honest assessment of how fundamental Piller felt the repairs the show must be. Perhaps it was an attempt to add a sense of legacy and history to the show.

Booby Trap is a show steeped in history. Picard gets to indulge his enthusiasm for archaeology; Geordi visits the Enteprise during its construction; Guinan alludes to her first meeting with Picard. Perhaps it’s a confession that The Next Generation needs to be a bit more willing to engage with its own past, to delve into the histories of the characters and to connect with the franchise roots. After all, Geordi’s workspace does feature a rather prominent model of the Enterprise.

A model officer?

A model officer?

Perhaps it’s simply nostalgia at play, a way for the episode to touch on how sometimes you need to got back to basics before you can move forwards. The Next Generation is a show that has often struggled with the way that easy techno-babble solutions seem to present themselves, so it’s interesting that Booby Trap ends with the crew putting the fate of the ship in the hands of Picard rather than the computer.

Given that Piller was trying to make the show more human, and to push away from techno-babble nonsense and anomalies-of-the-week, it feels strangely appropriate. “You know, Number One,” Picard reflects at one point, “you missed something not playing with model ships. They were the source of imaginary voyages, each holding a treasure of adventures. Manning the earliest space craft, flying a aeroplane with only one propeller to keep you in the sky. Can you imagine that? Now the machines are flying us.” In essence, Picard is facing the same existential dilemma that bothered Piller about the show.

"The view is much better from up here!"

“The view is much better from up here!”

Whatever the reason for the focus on the past, Booby Trap is an episode that marks another step forward. It’s clear that Michael Piller knows where he wants to take the show, and it’s very quickly getting there.

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

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4 Responses

  1. I feel that our perception of the holodeck is often coloured by our modern view of technology. A lot of reviews tend to equate the holodeck with videogames and modern day computers but I don’t think that this is what the writers had in mind. TNG was written back before videogame and computer culture became as mainstream as it is now and I don’t think the writers were fully aware of how these concepts could be applied to the holodeck. For example, the concept of making an original Sherlock Holmes plot for the holodeck was so alien to the cast and setting of TNG that after their first failed effort they only succeeded in making an original plot while pushing the computer so far out of its normal boundaries that it created sentient life. However, in real life new plots have been created for Sherlock Holmes adventure games for some time as it was quickly realised by programmers that having players play through already known mysteries would have limited appeal.
    TNG was also written before the internet rose to prominence and the fears about having our personal images being released and altered by the public became a widely held concern. I tend to think that the holodeck might be better viewed by watchers (and used by the writers) as a glimpse into the character’s imagination. So Geordi’s creation of a holographic image of Brahms isn’t so much an illegal violation of her privacy (which the computer does with little to no warning based on an offhand comment) but his imagination getting away from him. It may still be disquieting and unnerving for the audience but it’s not an outright illegal act. Viewing the holodeck as a representation of the characters’ minds instead of a computer game also explains a lot of the later portrayals of the holodeck in TNG. The crew’s reaction at seeing representations of themselves in Barclay’s programs is that of finding out your co-worker has been bad mouthing you and Brahm’s reaction when she discovers Geordi’s image of her is similar to a woman finding out about a sensual dream you had about her. In both cases the people in question would be angry (and if you were in Geordi’s shoes you would be really embarrassed) as the characters were. However, if you apply a modern day view of technology and gaming to the scenarios then they break down and become infinitely creepier as both cases are illegal acts of someone stealing another person’s image, altering it, and placing it in humiliating scenarios for the users own self-gratification. While I think an episode of DS9 stated that you weren’t supposed to use a person’s image in a holodeck without their consent there is no sign of the law ever existing within TNG probably because the writers honestly never considered the legal ramifications of the holodeck in relation to privacy laws.
    Therefore, I feel that TNG holodeck centric episodes like “Booby Trap” work better when viewed as glimpses into the character’s imaginations. While I agree with your opinion that the writers intended for us to feel unnerved by Geordi’s creation of a holographic girlfriend I don’t believe that it was because they intended to portray Geordi as using the holodeck to impinge on someone else’s privacy but because he was imagining his ideal woman without every actually having met Brahms. While we may view the holodeck as a futuristic videogame platform I don’t think this viewpoint ever occurred to the writers of TNG.

    • It’s weird how your view changes as you get older.

      When I grew up watching The Next Generation, Riker and Geordi were easily the dullest male characters in the ensemble. (I liked and still like Crusher, while thinking she’s underused and underdeveloped, but I thought and still think the writing staff had no idea what to do with Troi.) However, revisiting the show, Frakes’ work as Riker makes him one of the more interesting characters on the show, because he’s really a bit of jerk if you’re not in his little circle of friends. And Geordi is a lot more dysfunctional than I initially remembered.

      That said, I’m not sure that it never quite occurred to them. They touch on it in Hollow Pursuits, later this year, and try to make it right with Galaxy’s Child. The only real problem with Galaxy’s Child is that it brushes against the issue before deciding that it’s too icky for a show like this to really deal with.

      Still, you do point out that Deep Space Nine handled the topic in Meridan. Given how terrible that episode is (on so many levels), maybe you’re right – maybe I am reading too much into it. 🙂

  2. In the sentence “Even Guinan gets a nice little character moment with Geordi, as she explains that he has a soft spot for bald men.” Darren means that Geordi has a tender feeling for bald men. Darren should have added an “s” to the term “he” so that the “she” would in fact mean Guinan. This is why Robert Bateman does not use pronouns and therefore texts and speaks in the third person.

    • Well, I think everybody who grew up watching The Next Generation has a soft spot for bald men. But you are correct. Typo noted and amended.

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