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Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Matter of Perspective (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.

A Matter of Perspective is a bit of a disappointment. However, it’s a disappointment for the same reason that The High Ground is a disappointment. The third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is at least trying new things, and playing with big ideas for a syndicated television science-fiction show in the late eighties and early nineties. There is some charm to the episode’s basic premise (Rashomon in space… with the holodeck!”), but the script never quite manages to deliver on that wonderful set up.

Instead, we end up with a show that lacks the nuance to follow through on its central themes, and a mystery that confuses techno-babble for a satisfying solution.

Painting a pretty picture...

Painting a pretty picture…

To be fair, there are some nice ideas here. The introductory sequence, for example, is a nice demonstration of something that the third season has been getting better at. The second season of The Next Generation gave us a whole host of character-centric introductory sequences. Worf and Riker chill out on the holodeck in Where Silence Has Lease; the crew play poker in The Measure of a Man. It’s quite possible that these little character moments were added primarily to pad out scripts that were running under time, or as fluff to help fill gaps left by the Writers’ Strike, but they worked.

Unsurprisingly, then, the third season retained these introductions. However, the show added a twist. These character-centric little moments were used to play into the themes of the episode. The Defector opens with Picard and Data acting out a Shakespearean scene involving a king posing as a commoner, before finding a Romulan war hero posing as a logistics clerk. Here, we get a little sequence about Picard painting at the start of an episode about how various characters might perceive events differently. It’s hardly subtle, but it’s effective.

"Damn, we're just out of warranty..."

“Damn, we’re just out of warranty…”

And then we hit the main plot. Well, at least the window dressing for the plot. A space station blows up, killing a note scientist. Riker is the only suspect. And the scientist’s planet have decided that they want to extradite Riker to face trial for murder. More than that, though, the dramatic stakes are raised when we discover just how justice works on Tanuga IV. “Investigator,” Picard explains, “in our system of jurisprudence, a man is innocent until proved guilty.” The suitably-named Krag responds, “In ours, he is guilty until he is proved innocent, and you are under our jurisdiction.”

It’s an effective – if slightly lazy – way of raising the stakes. However, it does invite all sorts of questions about Federation jurisprudence. We’re told that Riker beamed to the station as “an official representative of Starfleet.” It’s also implied that the Tanugans have diplomatic relations with the Federation. Doctor Apgar is using a Federation space station, and receiving supplies from Starfleet. So one imagines that Riker’s potential extradition would primarily be a diplomatic affair – that it would involve a lot of wrangling between Tenuga IV and the Federation Council, with lots of lawyers and paper work.

Riker hates to shoot and leave...

Riker hates to shoot and leave…

Ignoring the sort of procedural questions raised by Riker’s potential extradition, it does seem a little strange that Picard would be so willing to hand Riker over to the local authorities, particularly to a system of justice where Riker will be forced to prove his innocence rather than forcing the state to prove his guilt. It’s hard to argue that such a trial could be considered a “fair trial”, and – as such – it seems strange that Picard would consider turning over his first officer to participate in a mockery of Federation justice.

Given how important the concept of a “fair trial” is in the current legal system, it seems reasonable to suspect that these concerns would continue into the idealistic 24th century. While international law is a much-contested subject, to the point where some theorists debate whether or not it exists at all, the right of the accused to a fair trial is a frequent point of contention in extradition proceedings. While, it’s a hard argument to make in practice, it’s hard to believe that Riker could get a fair trial in a system that believed he was guilty by default.

Picard really hopes this doesn't get blown out of proportion...

Picard really hopes this doesn’t get blown out of proportion…

Of course, none of this really matters too much. It’s just a way for A Matter of Perspective to set up the episode ahead. Picard has to arbitrate Riker’s extradition proceedings, and those extradition proceedings have to really matter – so making the trial on Tenuga IV a foregone conclusion is just a nice way to raise dramatic tension. However, it’s also a nice indication of just how thoroughly the Federation (and Picard) seem to have embraced moral relativism. It doesn’t matter that such a legal system is an affront to all that the Federation represents, Picard will still respect it.

However, in a somewhat surreal twist, Picard doesn’t seem to have too much respect for the Federation’s own due process. Although he spends most of the episode serving as an arbitrator between Riker and the Tenugans, the climax thrusts Picard into the role of Riker’s advocate. He starts proactively building a case in defence of Riker, as if prosecuting the late Doctor Apgar. “He said he needed more time. He was upset by our early arrival. But in fact I maintain he already had made that breakthrough and that he was lying to us.”

That's the second iconic facepalm in two days...

That’s the second iconic facepalm in two days…

One imagines that it would have made more sense for a member of the regular cast – like Geordi or Data – to make that line of argument. However, A Matter of Perspective doesn’t seem particularly concerned with internal logic. It has an actor of Patrick Stewart’s calibre on the show, so it is going to take advantage of that fact. Similarly, it wants to do a bit of a clumsy homage to Rashomon, so it will step through whatever logical loops it needs to in order to get to that Rashomon tribute. Everything else in the episode is window dressing.

Including the resolution. Star Trek always had a bit of trouble with mysteries, and I suspect that’s down to the temptations inherent in the science-fiction genre. In most murder mysteries, killers are subject to the rules of biology and physics as we understand them. Speculative fiction removes these rules, and can modify them or twist them. As such, there’s an underlying temptation to be “clever” and to use techno-babble to try to dumbfound your audience, catch them off-guard.

Hardly a work of art...

Hardly a work of art…

A Matter of Perspective gives into this temptation, with the macguffin of the “Krieger waves”, named for scientific consultant David Krieger. Krieger was highly critical of the finished product:

I had even provided a suitable pseudo-scientific explanation for what “Krieger waves” actually were — a field that suppressed the strong nuclear force, making any matter exposed to it fissionable. This was inspired by a disintegrator used in Larry Niven’s Known Space series of stories that suppressed the charge of the electron. The dead scientist, Dr. Apgar, was supposed to be working on a power generator exploiting this phenomenon. However, the line that explained this ended up on the cutting room floor, and in the final version of the episode “Krieger waves” are an unexplained macguffin.

So not only does the resolution of A Matter of Perspective hinge on techno-babble, it hinges on completely nonsensical techn0-babble gibberish. (It’s also structured rather clumsily. “We also know who killed Doctor Apgar,” Wesley reveals at the last act break, which seems like a weird piece of sentence construction given the eventual revelations about Apgar’s death. It’s like he’s aware there’s an ad break coming.)

Riker gets knocked down a peg...

Riker gets knocked down a peg…

So, given how A Matter of Perspective messes up both the set-up and the landing, the Rashomon tribute had better be worthwhile, right? Sadly, it’s a massive disappointment. Most of this is down to the simple fact that The Next Generation seems to completely misunderstand its inspiration. It’s something that happens with surprising frequency, despite how iconic and influential Rashomon has been. (It has inspired episodes of shows as disparate as The Jackson 5ive Show, All in the Family, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.)

For those unfamiliar with the concept, Akira Kurosawa’s iconic 1950 film involves an investigation into the rape of a woman and the murder of her husband. Various parties all provide their own version of events, and each account of events conflicts with the others. It’s impossible to deduce exactly what happened, as everybody has their own account – including the spirit of the deceased, speaking through a medium. It’s a rather wonderful study of subjectivity and relativity.

Riker doesn't know himself...

Riker doesn’t know himself…

From the outset, the concept of telling a story like that within the framework of The Next Generation seems questionable at best. Rashomon is a very cynical story about how flawed everybody is; they are either lying or misremembering events. It’s a pretty damning indictment of the way that people perceive themselves, and a demonstration of how flawed and selfish memory can be. The concept is that people are self-absorbed and incapable of true empathy and honesty.

This is understandably at odds with the philosophy of The Next Generation. After all, Déjà Q is an episode about merely becoming human is enough to make Q become a better person. Gene Roddenberry’s 24th century is built on the assumption that his human characters don’t lie, and that they don’t disagree. They are – for all intents and purposes – perfect. While the third season has seen the show venture away from that sort of hard line approach to The Next Generation, the show hasn’t ventured far enough for A Matter of Perspective to work.

Drinking it all in...

Drinking it all in…

In order for A Matter of Perspective to work, we need to believe that Will Riker is lying… or, at the very least, misremembering. We need to believe that there’s something missing from Riker’s version of events that can only be explained by the account of the other witnesses. Naturally, Riker’s account is incomplete, but it is rounded out by some lazy techno-babble rather than a conflicting statement. (And there’s little point in having the techno-babble lie.)

Rashomon suggests that there is no such thing as objective truth, at least none perceptible to us. Everybody remembers everything differently. (In fact, everybody perceives everything differently.) So it makes sense that we can’t fashion one cohesive over-arching narrative. The problem is that A Matter of Perspective allows its audience to construct the narrative of the events too easily.

Thinking outside the box...

Thinking outside the box…

This is compounded by the episode’s somewhat smug self-confident attitude. “But isn’t it remarkable that with all the witnesses, all the different points of view of the events aboard the space station, we haven’t seen what really happened?” Picard asks the assembly in a moment of faux profundity. The problem is that we have seen pretty close to what really happened. The only thing missing is some pseudo-science that Riker could not have possibly known.

In order to work, A Matter of Perspective needs some ambiguity around Riker. It needs to make us question him. Revealing that Riker slept with Apgar’s wife – or at least actively flirted with her – would go a long way towards making us question the validity of his testimony. Of course, that could never happen within the Roddenberry Box. Instead, we’re left with Riker’s “true” version of events and everybody else’s patently absurd account. There’s no nuance here, no depth.

Riker court public opinion...

Riker court public opinion…

It doesn’t help that the other versions of event are exaggerated in contrast to Riker’s more grounded tale. Apgar’s wife accuses Riker of trying to rape her in the guest bedroom, which is an obvious indicator that her account is not to be taken seriously. Just in case the audience has any doubts, the episode comes out and has Riker say it. “Captain, you know I would never act like that,” Riker protests. “This isn’t me. I wasn’t the one who closed the door. I didn’t proposition her and I certainly didn’t try to rape her.”

The attempted rape is a somewhat thorny issue. Unfortunately, A Matter of Perspective chooses to insert some ambiguity around the rape allegations. Not that Riker is a rapist. Again, this is Star Trek: The Next Generation. Instead, it seems to suggest that Apgar’s wife isn’t actively lying about Riker’s attempt to rape her. “Will, I didn’t sense any deception from her,” Troi states. “It is the truth as each of you remembers it.”

Station-keeping...

Station-keeping…

There’s something decidedly uncomfortable about the fact that the rape allegation is one of the two primary points of divergence. (The other point being the varying comical accounts of Riker’s struggle with Apgar. These are the points where the episode comes closest to working; Riker remembers ducking a punch, Manua remembers a savage beating from Riker, and Apgar himself recalls beating Riker to a pulp.)

The insinuation is that Manua can be so casually mistaken about an attempt to rape her has all sorts of unfortunate implications. It’s a very smug and condescending dismissal of something that, by itself, should be enough to warrant a serious investigation into Riker’s conduct. Given how rare it is for rape victims to come forward, and how difficult it is to prove a rape allegation, insinuating that women can be simply “mistaken” about attempted sexual assault is hardly the ideal position for a popular syndicated science-fiction drama to take.

Hold steady...

Hold steady…

Still, A Matter of Perspective isn’t a complete write-off despite all its problems. For one thing, the episode has a fairly clever use of the holodeck. The holodeck is one of the franchise’s more over-used elements, and one that often feels a bit gratuitous or convenient. So having a use for the holodeck that is somewhat novel and doesn’t involve using it as a handy tool to change the show is a nice story hook.

On the other hand, the holodeck continues to be one of the least safe pieces of equipment in the history of Star Trek. Here, the holodeck replicates the laboratory so efficiently that it replicates a dangerous piece of technology. This leads to damage all over the Enterprise. It seems rather strange that there’s no equipment monitoring the holodeck for this sort of inadvertent side effect – some scanner or something to keep account of strange or anomalous readings generated while a programme is running.

A work of art...

A work of art…

When Riker points out that the holodeck should not be able to create anything dangerous, Geordi offers a wishy-washy explanation. “Well, it didn’t. When you get down to basics, the converter is nothing more than a complex series of mirrors and reflective coils. The energy from the field generator down on the planet simply reflects off of elements in the converter which turns it into highly focused Krieger waves.”

It still seems a little dubious, and raises all sorts of questions about health and safety in the twenty-fourth century. Given that people currently need “warning: coffee hot” signs, I’m surprised that humanity are given that sort of free reign with advanced holodeck technology. Does this mean that the holodeck safety routines only work directly, and it’s possible for the holodeck to generate all manner of secondary threats to the safety of the ship?

Apgar's threats just bounce right off Riker...

Apgar’s threats just bounce right off Riker…

A Matter of Perspective also features the only Star Trek guest appearance from veteran actor Mark Margolis. He does good work as the deceased scientist working on the space station. Apgar is a fairly one-dimensional character, but Margolis manages to make him seem surprisingly nuanced and complex. Unfortunately, the rest of the supporting cast is quite one-dimensional, and the script can’t make any of them particularly interesting.

So A Matter of Perspective is a bit of a misfire from the third season. It’s always a shame to see the show stumbling when it seems to finding its footing. However, it’s a misfire that arises from a surplus of ambition and a sense that the show is willing to experiment and to do more than simple and conventional Star Trek stories. Experimenting always involves risk, so it’s no surprise that A Matter of Perspective doesn’t work as well as it might.

It's not THAT bad...

It’s not THAT bad…

At least it is trying.

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

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5 Responses

  1. I have never heard of Rashomon and I absolutely loved this episode. I don’t notice you mentioning the absolutely gorgeous music – especially the melodious version that opens the episode. I am sorry you couldn’t appreciate this intelligent, thoughtful work of art.

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