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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Vengeance Factor (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.

The Vengeance Factor is an ambitious little episode that never quite manages to follow through on its potential. Something of a Riker-centric romance to compliment the Troi-centric romance in The Price, the episode is an exploration of vengeance and generational strife – the cost of feuds that last decades, even centuries. It’s a story where Yuta’s thirst for revenge keeps her young, and one that opens with Crusher tracking the acts of piracy back to the Gatherers using a blood stain on a shard of metal. Subtle, it is not.

However, there’s something almost endearing about The Vengeance Factor, from its very eighties leather Mad Max reject space pirates through to the way that channels the optimism of Star Trek quite well. Although the ending is unbelievably forced, at least it is striking and effective. Far from perfect, and not among the high points of this third season, The Vengeance Factor still marks a sharp improvement from The Price.

There will be blood...

There will be blood…

An interesting aspect of The Vengeance Factor is that the show’s central plot violates one of Gene Roddenberry’s core rules. One of the oft-cited rules applied by Roddenberry to the franchise – and one often referenced in discussion of the production of Gambit in the show’s final season – was an absolute ban on the concept of “space pirates.” While the concept had been used in The Pirates of Orion from Star Trek: The Animated Series, Roddenberry was apparently not too fond of the idea.

The original Star Trek‘s writers’ bible lists it as an example of “bad science fiction.” Harlan Ellison’s original draft of The City on the Edge of Forever featured space pirate on board the Condor, but it was a sequence cut for budget and timing reasons. While the existence of Orion Slave Girls in The Cage would seem to hint at some measure of lawlessness in certain corners of the Star Trek universe, the franchise generally steered clear of “space pirates” in its early iterations.

Riker's relationship enters a new phase...

Riker’s relationship enters a new phase…

So The Vengeance Factor represents a sharp violation of Roddenberry’s edict. Although the Gatherers are never explicitly identified as pirates of the galactic space ways, the episode clearly defines them as such. Indeed, Picard’s complaints make it sound like the Gatherers have become quite the galactic nuisance. “Their raids have made this sector unsafe,” he protests. “They’ve ransacked our research facilities, our trade routes have been disrupted.”

Unaligned to any planetary government, a threat to local stability, stealing what they need to survive, the Gatherers are space pirates in all but name. Their presence demonstrates the third season’s willingness to break away from Roddenberry’s restrictive edicts, and to allow Star Trek: The Next Generation to find its own voice. It’s not as big a deal as the subversions of the Roddenberry ideals in The Bonding, where Roddenberry’s stoicism was treated as unhealthy and repressive and the idea of having families on a starship was challenged, but it is another example of the show’s increasing willingness to do its own thing.

Hold me, maybe not thrill me, but definitely kiss me and kill me...

Hold me, maybe not thrill me, but definitely kiss me and kill me…

Of course, the Gatherers are a wonderfully cheesy creation. They are all stubble (but not beards!) and scars and mullets and leather. They really do look like the production design department decided to go with “a space biker gang” in the most stereotypical manner possible. I’m surprised that most of the Gatherers don’t carry around long chains or lead pipes. It’s quite a quaint design, and one that really dates The Vengeance Factor.

That said, there’s something very appealing about the design. It screams “late eighties!” in a way that the production and costume design for the original Star Trek screamed “sixties!” It’s just that sixties fashion has a particular cache to it, and that eighties fashion has yet to cultivate. The design of the Gatherers looks like something that might have appeared in Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon, had the movie been produced ten years later. It’s a very stylistic, and it perfectly captures the concept and the time. The Gatherers look exactly like you might imagine “space pirates in the late eighties!” would.

Also, I love how The Gatherers sound like an adorable race of aliens who star in cute children's stories...

Also, I love how The Gatherers sound like an adorable race of aliens who star in cute children’s stories…

Of course, the plot itself feels rather simplistic. The Gatherers never seem to big a concern or a threat. Watching Picard trying to bring the Gatherers’ home, there’s a sense of frustration – as if this sort of mundane diplomacy should really be a bit beneath the flagship of the Federation. In terms of problems the Enterprise should be tackling, the Gatherers are mild irritations at best. There’s no real sense of stakes in The Vengeance Factor, at least not for our crew.

We open with the Enterprise visiting the site of a Gatherer raid, but we’re promptly assured that the outpost staff survived. While this is necessary to ensure that the Enterprise remains a passive observer, it also undercuts the potential threat posed by the Gatherers. “Looks like these Gatherers weren’t too discriminating in what they steal,” Riker observes, examining one settlement. Much is made of how useless their pilfered technology is. Turning their ambush against them, Worf suggests, “Your ambushes would be more successful if you bathed more often.” Burn.

Bonus points for threatening him with an actual phaser burn...

Bonus points for threatening him with an actual phaser burn…

Indeed, very few of the supporting characters seem real or well-developed. Marouk is initially reluctant to make peace with the renegades, but she is quickly talked around. Chorgan opens negotiations by reminding Picard that he could still be a threat (“you know, Picard, I could take you prisoner”), but he comes on-side fairly quickly. The reunification plotline seems to be running mostly on autopilot, to provide fodder for the subplot with Riker and Yuta.

That said, the character of Brull does get some hint of development. Indeed, Brull is the best developed member of the guest cast, much more than Yuta. Brull is full of bluster and bravado, but he’s also surprisingly optimistic. When Wesley asks him why he has agreed to take part in these talks, he answers, “Maybe because I want something better for me, and for my children.” It’s a wonderful expression of the optimism inherent in Star Trek – the belief that a better future is possible if people are simply willing to try. It’s not the most original or complex motivation, but it fits.

Food for love...

Food for love…?

And that’s a large part of the charm of The Vengeance Factor. It is essentially a story about generational rifts can be easily solved if people are simply willing to sit down and talk about it. There’s no divide so raw or so fundamental that a leap of faith and some good intentions can’t make it all better. That’s a wonderfully upbeat story, despite the tragic ending of Riker’s subplot. Yuta might be obsessed with revenge and unable to let go of the past, but The Vengeance Factor suggests that those sorts of people are relics far outnumbered by people who are willing to act in good faith to make a better world for their children.

Which brings us to the Riker subplot. Riker’s relationship with Yuta works as something of a mirror to Troi’s relationship with Ral in The Price. Indeed, both episodes feature a scene where one of the duo welcomes a new lover into the other’s life. Riker is happy that Troi is happy in The Price, and Troi politely excuses herself from dinner to allow Riker and Yuta some privacy in The Vengeance Factor.

Talk about getting a green light...

Talk about getting a green light…

One of the more interesting aspects of The Next Generation as I got older was trying to make sense of the dynamic between Riker and Troi. Do they still love each other? We see them hang out in contexts normally associated with couples, so is there a bit of the old spark there? It’s a lot more complex than the typical “they are a couple” or “they used to be a couple” dynamic that you usually see on television. There’s a warmth and friendship there, and maybe something more.

Even The Price was a little ambiguous on their relationship. Ral still senses something between Riker and Troi, and even tries to use the fact that he is dating Troi to mess with Riker’s head. She tells Ral that they are “good friend” but “once a little more than that.” It’s interesting that calling each other “beloved” is only “a little more” than the friendship they currently share. It’s also interesting that Troi is still talking about Riker in her bedroom during intimate moments.

Girlfriends of main cast members have an unfortunate tendency to do that...

Girlfriends of main cast members have an unfortunate tendency to do that…

While attempts to portray The Next Generation‘s cast as hyper-evolved can feel arrogant or condescending, the relationship between Riker and Troi is just ambiguous enough – and heart-warming enough – that it works. It’s possible to believe that these two people can work professionally together, even after all they had. There’s the indication that they are occasionally something more than friends during the run of the series, but never to the point where it interferes with their duty.

Still, the relationship between Riker and Yuta works a lot better than the relationship between Ral and Troi. There are a lot of reasons for this, and not all of them reflect well on the show. The most obvious is that the outcome of Riker’s plot affects the outcome of The Vengeance Factor. Whatever the problems with the climax (and we’ll come to those in a minute), Riker gets to change the way that the story plays out, and gets emotional pay-off.

Bringing everybody to the table...

Bringing everybody to the table…

In The Price, by the time Troi decides to “out” her boyfriend, the main plot has resolved itself. Ral has purchased the wormhole. The only reason that Ral doesn’t “win” has nothing to do with Troi’s decision; it is a result of the coincidental plot point that the wormhole is a “lemon.” Troi’s big decision to screw over her manipulative and sleazy boyfriend has absolutely no impact on how the plot plays out. Ral even boasts about how his employers will completely understand and his career is probably safe. Things would have turned out pretty much the same way had Troi not been involved.

In contrast, The Vengeance Factor allows Riker to make a material difference to how the plot unfolds. His intervention saves the life of Chorgan and secures the peace talks. Had Riker not turned up at exactly that moment, things would have played out rather differently. Sure, you could argue that Riker’s involvement with Yuta is irrelevant – that the Enterprise crew would have identified and stopped her anyway – but that misses the point. Riker saves the day by making a very tough personal decision. In contrast, The Price sees Troi taking a sleazy negotiator down a peg after the plot has been resolved.

Riker's ideas of romance are simply stunning...

Riker’s ideas of romance are simply stunning…

There are other reasons that The Vengeance Factor‘s romantic subplot works better. The Price had Deanna Troi behaving passively and submissively as Ral aggressively courted her. At one point, he walks into her office and starts stroking her. Troi spends most of the episode rather swept up in her handsome lover’s charms. Her character conflict is obvious from the moment that Ral reveals he is empathic, but she spends half of the episode agonising over what to do. Troi is the lead character in the show; she really should be more proactive and engaging, rather than simply reactive.

The Vengeance Factor allows Riker to be more assertive. He initiates the relationship with Yuta. While he’s decidedly less creepy than Ral, he is very much the aggressive partner in this romance – which, given he’s a regular character on this show, makes it more interesting to watch. However, Riker is never defined by his relationship with Yuta in the same way that Troi was defined by her relationship with Ral. All Troi seemed to do in The Price was get all hot and bothered about Ral. Here, between flirting with Yuta, he leads action-packed away missions and head investigations into mysterious deaths.

All the Gatherers are missing is a catchy musical number...

All the Gatherers are missing is a catchy musical number…

Although it works much better than The Price, The Vengeance Factor does raise some rather unfortunate implications. As far as The Next Generation is concerned, it seems that gender roles are firmly set. Men exist to romantically pursue women; women exist to be romantically pursued. Men seem to be dominant in the romantic relationships unfolding on The Next Generation, with the female characters more submissive.

“Tell me what you want, William; I will do anything you wish,” Yuta asks Riker, adopting a submissive position immediately. “Don’t you want me to give you pleasure?” Riker has to grant Yuta equal footing in the relationship. “Not as a servant,” he insists. “I told you, I prefer equals.” In some rather woeful dialogue, Yuta inquires, “Even in the matters of love?” Riker, not missing a beat, responds, “Especially in matters of love.”

Warped love story...

Warped love story…

So in essence, many of the same problems exist in The Price and The Vengeance Factor. Both have a rather questionable perspective on gender roles in romantic couples. The only difference is that The Vengeance Factor works better because the romance is based around a male character. It makes for a more satisfying story to have a proactive romantic lead; even if the lead is only allowed to be more proactive on account of his gender. This is something that Ira Steven Behr would work to fix in Captain’s Holiday. For all the problems with that episode, it’s the healthiest romance of the third season.

Which brings us to the climax of The Vengeance Factor. Riker is forced to vapourise his lover in order to ensure peace. In keeping with the rest of The Vengeance Factor, it’s decidedly heavy-handed in execution. It’s mock epic storytelling, that classic emotional climax where our protagonist is forced to choose between duty and love. There are a number of reasons that the climax shouldn’t work.

Around the camp fire...

Around the camp fire…

On a storytelling level, we (and Riker) barely know Yuta; so it’s hard to get too caught up in her death. It might be a little sad, but the romance is so casual that it’s hard to describe it as truly “heartbreaking.” On a more practical level, there are any number of ways to stop Yuta without killing her. Given that Chorgan is the only person in the room in any danger, somebody could simply restrain Yuta. Or the Enterprise could beam Yuta out. Or the Enterprise could beam Chogran out. Or Riker could just keep prodding with “stun” until she’s restrained.

Instead, Riker has to kill Yuta. It’s a decision that doesn’t really work in the context of the episode, but it’s one that is necessary to give the episode its pseudo-operatic size. The Vengeance Factor is perhaps best understood as a big and bombastic opera about love and space pirates. Its characters are relatively thin and under-developed. Its internal logic is not entirely consistent. It lacks subtlety and nuance.

Worf gets all fired up...

Worf gets all fired up…

And yet, despite all these things, it has size. It is trying to be this grand story about blood feuds and reconciliation and love and hate. It is, as befitting the last piece of Star Trek released in the eighties, an overblown space opera about space pirates dressed in leather. It doesn’t quite succeed. In fact, it doesn’t come particularly close to succeeding. And yet, despite that, it has an ambition and enthusiasm that makes all of this easy enough to forgive.

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

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2 Responses

  1. Need your help. I think that my copy of Final Reflection is missing sections. Between the scene when Vreen goes to the turbolift with his commander and then he is talking to his new roommate. Are there scenes between these two? There were at least two other places that had abrupt shifts. Please help.

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