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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Price (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.

Well, the streak had to end some time. After seven episodes ranging from “flawed but still interesting” to “pretty great”, the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation hits a bit of a snag. The Price is the weakest episode of the show’s third season to this point, and confirmation that the writers really have no idea how to write for Deanna Troi. It’s still the best episode to focus on the ship’s half-Betazoid counsellor, but being better than Haven or The Child is hardly an accomplishment for the ages.

All that glitters...

All that glitters…

The Next Generation had a lot of trouble with its female characters. In the first season, casting Tasha Yar as the ship’s security chief and tactical officer was a nice way of subverting gender conventions, but all the show ever did with her was have her get all hot and bothered about sexy men. The fact that the first two episodes with any focus on Yar were Code of Honour and The Naked Now doesn’t help matters, but Yar was hardly professional in Justice. And that’s without getting into how tone deaf Yar’s characterisation was when paired with the show’s decision to make her a survivor of sexual assault.

However, once Denise Crosby departed the show in Skin of Evil, the only two female members of the ship’s senior staff were the ship’s therapist and the medical officer. It’s hard to imagine more stereotypical gender roles on the Enterprise. Again, this wouldn’t be a problem in and of itself; it’s the combination of all these different factors. While Crusher (and even Pulaski) have headlined episodes that treat them as characters in their own right, and play particularly well in the ensemble, Troi is a character who is defined as stereotypically feminine.

Tabling the talks...

Tabling the talks…

Her first character-centric episode concerned her arranged marriage and domineering mother; Troi was so incredibly passive in Haven that the episode’s plot seemed to happen around her. Then, in The Child, Troi was used by an alien intelligence as a walking incubation centre. The Price at least escalates Troi to the role of romantic lead, but the whole episode seems to be built around the fact that Troi’s defining character attribute is that she’s “the girl” on the bridge, in the most sexist manner possible.

The Price opens like any terrible romantic movie, with Troi returning home unappreciated after a hard day’s work. She discovers that her domineering mother has been sending her emails and that she can’t have any chocolate. She’s just about to try to relax when her thoughtlessly jovial emotionally inattentive boss (who happens to be British) imposes on her to come to a work function. Patrick Stewart seems to realise that he’s playing a quirky romantic supporting character, so he plays up the scene beautifully, instructing Troi to show up. “Just throw on any old thing!” he insists, playfully, which might be the least Picard moment ever.

Surprisingly, the Ferengi are the least of the episode's problems...

Surprisingly, the Ferengi are the least of the episode’s problems…

And all this is before we meet Ral. Who is the first proper indication of just how terrible Troi’s taste in men happens to be. In his introductory scene, he is introduced with a beautiful woman draped over his arm. On meeting Troi, he promptly sends his girlfriend packing, which is always a good sign in a romantic partner. Ral goes into full on creep mode, and it’s incredible how Troi seems to respond to Ral’s aggressive flirtation and terrible lines. The Price‘s idea of romance is cringe-inducing. “Am I moving too fast for you?” Ral asks at one point. “No,” Troi responds, “I’m moving too fast for me.”

There are lots of problems with this basic set-up. Ral is a pretty unlikeable character. He’s pretty much the archetypal eighties capitalist douchebag, which means that he’s really just the Ferengi with a more handsome exterior. His seduction technique is basically to walk into Troi’s office, insult her a bit, grope her, mess with her hair and then invite her to dinner. He seems to be The Next Generation‘s version of the classic romantic “bad boy” archetype, just sterilised and safely desexualised for the sexless Next Generation.

Through the wormhole...

Through the wormhole…

It’s very weird that Troi seems to respond to him. There is interesting drama to be written in having a smart character make dumb romantic choices. Love is something that blinds people, and makes it possible to catch them off-guard. However, as with so many of Troi’s other romantic choices, her attraction to Ral makes absolutely no sense. It’s impossible to see why she would be remotely drawn to him in the first place, save that he looks sort of handsome. For a character whose place on the ship relies quite heavily on her advanced emotional intelligence, that is not good characterisation at all.

There is nothing to like about Ral, which makes the whole plot feel a little pointless. In the final act, we’re supposed to believe that Troi’s unilateral decision to “out” Ral is – in some small measure – for his own good. “I’m very grateful for what you did, in a way,” Ral tells her in the final scene. “It’s made me take a hard look at who I am. I don’t like what I see.” The implication is that Troi saw something in him that was worth trying to save. Unfortunately, due to the scripting and performances, it plays more like a fit of pique from Troi, as if she’s decided to lash out at Ral for sabotaging Riker.

From Patrick Stewart's delivery, I suspect that is not Picard's first champagne flute...

From Patrick Stewart’s delivery, I suspect that is not Picard’s first champagne flute…

After all, Ral is presented pretty consistently and thoroughly as an amoral capitalist. What rationalisations he might provide to Troi, the audience gets to see Ral trying to use his girlfriend as emotional leverage on Riker. “It’s just that, well, she’s an extraordinary woman,” Ral boasts. “Brilliant. Lovely. Very passionate. And she could have been yours, Will, but you just didn’t do enough to keep her. And now, well, I’m here, and I’m going to take her too.” Because there’s nothing sexier than a man who treats a woman like property, am I right?

(It’s to Riker’s credit that he doesn’t rise to the bait and allows Deanna her own choices. “If you can bring happiness into Deanna’s life, nothing would please me more,” he concedes. “Deanna is just the woman to bring some meaning to your sorry existence, if you’re smart enough to take it. I doubt that you are.” Still, the entire sequence exists just to reinforce the idea that Ral is a sexist selfish sociopath with no regard for anybody but himself. If only there were a skilled psychiatrist on board who could read the signs.)

Good talk.

Good talk.

Then there’s Star Trek‘s first sex scene. It generated some small measure of controversy when it was first suggested, but Michael Piller has proudly boasted about how the final cut managed to avoid offending anybody. Given how poorly The Next Generation does sensuous and sexual, it’s no surprise that the entire sequence is horrifying. It’s very eighties, with terrible dialogue and lots of very tasteful night clothes and absolutely zero passion. Marina Sirtis is not the strongest member of the Next Generation ensemble, and she has absolutely no chemistry with Matt McCoy. There’s none of the heat of any of Shatner’s make-out scenes.

To be fair to Ral, he suffers because he’s written as a generic amoral capitalist in Roddenberry’s socialist utopia future. This is the show that thought the Ferengi might be a credible threat to the Enterprise. So, naturally, a man who uses his gifts for the purposes of commercial trade is the worst sort of villain in the world. In a way, The Price feels like an artefact from the first or second season, where any value system that does not match that of the Federation is treated as inherently hostile. “You know, you’re really not such a bad sort, Ral,” Riker offers, “except you don’t have any values, beyond the value of today’s bid, that is.”

Oh, I'm shaking in my little space boots...

Oh, I’m shaking in my little space boots…

When Troi discovers that Ral is part Betazoid, and thus empathic, she is appalled. “But you’re reading their emotional states, their inner selves, and then using that to manipulate them,” Troi protests. Ral responds, “Well, people have been doing that for thousands of years, just by listening carefully, by watching body language. I just happen to be better at it. You do it.” That’s a very valid argument, particularly when Picard compares negotiations to high-stakes poker.

Surely the same principle applies to Troi’s empathic abilities at the poker table? Or Geordi’s VISOR, which can tell if people are lying? Or Data’s perfect poker face and mathematical abilities? Troi glosses over that, and jumps straight to the high moral ground. “I do it to help my crew, not outmanoeuvre them. And I don’t hide that I’m an empath.” Ral cuts across her, “Oh, so you announce it to every alien culture you encounter? Or do you use it to give your side an advantage. Do you tell the Romulan that’s about to attack that you sense that he may be bluffing? Or do you just tell it to your Captain?”

"Yeah, Deep Space Nine's is way more impressive..."

“Yeah, Deep Space Nine’s is way more impressive…”

“That’s different,” Troi responds. “That’s a matter of protection.” In other words, her actions are justified because they are in service of Starfleet’s agenda. Which is a disturbingly partisan way of looking at the universe. “Yes, protection,” Ral repeats. “Your protection, your Captain, your crew, your edge. Yes. Now it’s a matter of life and death when you take the advantage. Me, I deal in property. Exchanges. No body gets hurt. So you tell me, which one of us would you say has more of a problem with ethics?”

The problem is that Ral isn’t inherently wrong here. His position is valid. He uses his gift in a way that is not too different from the way that Troi uses her gift. Who is to say that financial and economic expansion is any more or any less valid than the Federation’s approach to galactic peace? It is willing to pay for use of the wormhole, so it’s not as if the Federation has gone beyond such bartering and negotiation.

Following the empath of least resistance...

Following the empath of least resistance…

Troi’s own mother is a respected Federation diplomat, and Manhunt features her using her powers to read the minds of some delegates without their permission. She saves the conference in doing so, but doesn’t that give her an even more unfair advantage than that held by Ral? The Price can’t really make that argument, so it instead suggests that Ral is an amoral sleazy selfish manipulative self-righteous sociopath. There’s a sense that he’s being portrayed as a jerk primary because he adheres to a value system slightly different to that of the Federation. It’s the same problem the show faced with the Ferengi in the first season.

It’s a shame, because The Price does have an interesting plot outside of Troi’s awful romance. Indeed, two of the core concepts of The Price would go on to drive the next two Star Trek spin-offs. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would be built around the discovery of the first stable wormhole known to exist, linking the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants. Star Trek: Voyager would feature a starship lost in the Delta Quadrant. It even produced a sequel to The Price.

What does Riker bring to the table?

What does Riker bring to the table?

At the heart of The Price are the negotiations over the Barzan wormhole. Barzan itself is presented as a backwater planet with no real political influence or galactic importance. “And as you all know, the environment on my planet is completely inhospitable to most other life forms,” Bhavani explains. “So I’d like to express my appreciation to you, Captain Picard, for hosting these negotiations.”

However, Barzan’s ambitions extend beyond this. “The Barzan has been a society dependent on others for generations. We want that to end. The appearance of this stable wormhole in our space provides us with our first true natural resource. We have neither the experience nor the technology to exploit it. But you do.” It’s a nice metaphor for the exploitation of natural resources in the third world by more “developed” countries – oil or gas or forestry.

The chair man...

The chair man…

Given the dialogue that existed in the late eighties about third world debt and the “oil glut”, this is quite a potent metaphor. The Federation is frequently used as a stand-in for the United States, so this would be the perfect opportunity to explore the relationship between the Federation and less advanced species who have materials that the Federation might require. How does the Federation determine a “fair price”? Can the organisation be as altruistic as it claims?

Unfortunately, The Price isn’t interested in this rather weighty subtext. Instead, it spends most of its forty-five minutes as a romance with a comedy subplot involving the Ferengi. The Price is interesting in this regard. In one sense, The Price represents the best use of the Ferengi to date. We’re well past the point where the Ferengi can be used as credible villains, and it makes sense that a bunch of ruthless capitalists could prove a threat to the Federation around the negotiation table. The Price feels like a much better fit for the Ferengi than Peak Performance.

I wonder if Picard feels the same dread that the audience do whenever they see that ship...

I wonder if Picard feels the same dread that the audience do whenever they see that ship…

On the other hand, the comedy involving the Ferengi doesn’t quite work. They are portrayed as a little too comedic, a little too buffoonish. “Idiots!” Geordi protests, and it’s hard to disagree. The Price gives us a couple of gags that work – Goss showing up and demanding a chair, for example – but quite a few more that don’t. Most obviously, there’s a sense that the Ferengi are miscast. The actors don’t really seem to have the necessary timing.

In particular, Scott Thomson seems to struggle to articulate through his prosthetic teeth, which kills lines that might have worked otherwise like “I have no wish to kill anyone – a short term crippling will suffice.” This isn’t the biggest problem in the world. After all, the cast of The Next Generation used to joke that Michael Dorn could never nail a first take through Worf’s prosthetic teeth, and he was wearing the same teeth for seven years. We can forgive a guest actor for messing up a few line readings under those conditions; it’s just one more disappointment in an episode that never quite works.

Kissing romance goodbye...

Kissing romance goodbye…

The Price is the one of the weakest episodes of the third season, but it stands in sharp contrast to the shows constructed around it. By this point, the first season had given us The Naked Now, Code of Honour, The Last Outpost, Lonely Among Us and Justice. The second season didn’t fare too much better, producing The Child, The Outrageous Okona and Unnatural Selection in its first eight episodes. If The Price is the only true misfire at this point in the thirds season, something must be going right.

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

11 Responses

  1. This is off topic problem I need some help for. My ebook copy of the Final Reflection might be missing some passages. Is there anything going on between Vreen going to bed and the description of the Romulan being tortured in chapter 3? There is another odd gap with Vreen walking with the commander to the turbo lift and then talking to the new roommate. That can’t be right. Are there missing scenes?

    • Sorry about delay. Had to go digging.

      On the first one, my ebook copy has the lines:

      He was instantly asleep.

      Security had a Rom in the cube.

      There’s definitely a gap there, but I don’t think there’s anything missing. It’s just a scene transition.

      However, my ebook does have a weird line format on the lift scene:

      he saw one of the Bridge crew flash him the spread fingers

      course . . . of the Roms around it.

      of the Captain’s Star, and then another, and another.

      That second line shouldn’t be there, but the scene reads fluidly without it. I suspect my ebook edition may have needed more rigorous editing. (Although it is quite an old copy.)

  2. ‘It’s very eighties, with terrible dialogue and lots of very tasteful night clothes and absolutely zero passion.’

    The eighties had zero passion? Obviously someone never watched Dallas – Larry Hagman and Linda Grey could set fire to the scenery from ten paces away. 😉

    I do find it depressing going back over the show to be reminded how sexist TNG was in the early years, even by the standards of the decade it was created in.

    • Yep. And it gets a little better, but it’s never entirely cured. The last season features Sub Rosa, an episode about Beverly Crusher’s sexy Scottish ghost, in which she masturbates with a candle. (As tastefully as one can do so on television in the mid-nineties.)

  3. In the first sentence in the paragraph above the photograph titled “Oh, I’m shaking in my little space boots…” the sentence needs to be changed to “To be fair to Ral, he suffers because he’s written as a generic amoral capitalist in Roddenberry’s socialist utopia future.”

  4. When Ral first came to Troi’s room, I assumed that they used to know one another and had been lovers back then; otherwise, Ral would have been acting like a creepy jerk. But no, they’ve never met before; he really IS a creepy jerk. And THIS is the guy they give Troi who’s supposed to curl her toes? This guy would make ME curl my fingers — so that I could punch him in the face. 🙂

    • I read a lot of (TOS) fan fiction, and while much of it is dreck, some of it is really quite fine. If FAN FICTION authors can write better romantic dialogue than this, what is wrong with the supposedly professional writers who wrote this episode? It’s as if they’ve never gone on a date before or never met an actual female. No wonder Data was the breakout character, because the writers of this episode showed his level of understanding of humanity.

      Marina Sirtis sure was beautiful, though, especially with those Betazoid eyes.

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