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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Transfigurations (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.

In way, what is so interesting about Transfigurations is how incredibly generic the story is. It’s a cookie-cutter Star Trek story, a collection of the narrative elements one associates with the franchise – mysterious aliens, energy beings, metaphors about tolerance and fear of the unknown – all loosely sorted into something resembling a linear story.

There’s none of the cheeky subversive charm from early in the third season. This isn’t a deconstruction of “energy being” stories in the way that The Bonding was a deconstruction of “red shirt” deaths. This is just a straight-up story about an alien species learning an important lesson about tolerance, dressed up in a science-fiction mystery, with a romantic subplot thrown in for Beverly because the show hasn’t really done much with Gates McFadden since she returned.

The result is as bland as you might expect, with a sense that everybody involved was just exhausted by the production difficulties that had haunted the third season, and desperately trying to make it to the hiatus. Transfigurations is nowhere near as bad as The Price or Ménage à Troi. It’s just forgettable and average.

Mellow yellow...

Mellow yellow…

That’s not entirely fair. There are some interesting concepts at play here, but they really require a bit more work than the show is willing to put in at this stage in the third season. Star Trek: The Next Generation might have been producing a ground-breaking pieces of television, but the production staff were also emerging from a year of hell. Most of the writing staff would jump ship at the end of the season. Ira Steven Behr and Hans Beimler would return to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but the band was breaking up.

There’s a sense, watching Transfigurations that the show is trying to maintain a holding pattern, just filling space between now and the big season finalé. It’s a very conventional Star Trek episode, in terms of plotting and in terms of structure, and it’s decidedly messy. For example, we get a rather superfluous subplot involving Geordi somehow developing some mojo after an energy transfer from our rapidly-evolving John Doe.

Lighting up the crew's week...

Lighting up the crew’s week…

It’s worth pausing to reflect on this surreal plot thread. While John’s ability to heal the sick and resurrect the dead makes a certain amount of sense, given we’re going for a thinly-veiled Jesus analogy here, his ability to turn Geordi’s romantic luck around is just weird. The third season has a strange fixation on Geordi’s relationship with women. The Booby Trap was built around how the engineer had to create his girlfriends in the holodeck, while Sarek featured Wesley (!) offering a variety of insults on that theme.

In theory, this sort of character continuity is good stuff. While The Next Generation never became a truly serialised show, it was great that the show could suggest these character attributes and then follow up on them. Geordi was never going to be the show’s most developed character, but we know a lot more about him now than we did at the start of the season, and that’s a testament to how far Michael Piller has taken The Next Generation. Even Geordi is defined.

Scarred tissue...

Scarred tissue…

However, the plot line is a bit problematic. Even if we get past the strange logic whereby a divine deity gifts Geordi self-confidence like a tin woodsman, the show seems to be falling into familiar patterns here. Romance on The Next Generation had an uncomfortable tendency to assume that the male character had to be assertive or domineering. This was most obvious when The Price and The Vengeance Factor aired back-to-back, both episodes about how women apparently can’t resist domineering and sexually aggressive men.

Geordi’s “confidence” inevitably falls into that sort of pattern, where the character simply has to show that he’s perfectly capable of taking charge. “Christy, you’re not leaving, are you?” he opens with, practically following her out of Ten Forward. When he offers to accompany her to the arboretum, Christy is immediately unable to resist his sheer masculine charisma. “I didn’t think you were interested in that kind of thing,” she observes, insinuating that the previous unassertive Geordi must clearly have been asexual and not a “real” man conforming to the sort of trite gender stereotypes of the twenty-fourth century.

He can't stand it no more!

He can’t stand it no more!

Of course, it’s worth noting that Christy exists as nothing but an object to be won by Geordi. She is a character who recurs from The Booby Trap, but the character is hard to reconcile with the woman who appeared briefly in the teaser to that episode. In The Booby Trap, she simply wasn’t into Geordi at all. The problem was that Geordi was too keen, trying too hard. So, in Transfigurations, it seems weird that the relationship has so dramatically reversed. Now Geordi can’t bring himself to try at all, while Christi is clearly infatuated with him.

It’s a little unfortunate, reducing this recurring female character to little more than a plot device with no real consistency between her two appearances. Apparently, actress Julie Warner has joked that she was cast because she was shorter than actor LeVar Burton, which adds another uncomfortable suggestion. It seems the show might have been afraid to hire an actress taller than her romantic interest. Either way, it seemed like Christy Henshaw was a disposable character. This would be her final appearance, despite Geordi’s infatuation with her. (He confesses that he saw her “every night this week.” And, apparently, never again.)

Love in a turbolift...

Love in a turbolift…

As strange as this plot element seems, it’s not a total wash. For one thing, Crusher’s romantic entanglement manages to avoid the “assertive male/submissive woman” dichotomy, even if it does fall into a familiar pattern where the male characters on the show seem to drive the relationships. Transfigurations also gives us Worf as a source of relationship advice, coaching Geordi in the art of romance. Worf is one of the show’s secret weapons, with Michael Dorn a master of deadpan delivery.

Still, outside of the strange Geordi tangent that seems to exist to eat up time in the first half of the episode, Transfigurations is a solid piece of Star TrekThe Next Generation always had trouble with its female leads, with Troi in particular accruing a considerable volume of “bad romance” stories across the show’s seven seasons. Crusher tends to fair a bit better, with stories more willing to focus on her profession or her character. (Then again, Sub Rosa is a Crusher episode… so…)

I bet Bashir wishes he could do that...

I bet Bashir wishes he could do that…

Looking at the outline of Transfigurations, it seems like an episode constructed around the fact that Crusher is a female cast member and the show’s doctor. As a result, the only logical thing to do was to construct an episode where she falls in love with her patient. To be fair, the episode works a lot better than that pitch makes it sound. Gates McFadden was always sorely underused as part of the ensemble, and she rises quite well to the material on offer.

Crusher’s interest in John Doe seems more professional and mature than most the ill-advised romantic entanglements featuring Troi in episodes like The Price or Man of the People. John Doe is a decidedly bland character, likeable and yet vague, which makes sense since the episode is pitching him as space!Jesus. While this hardly makes the episode’s romantic subplot exciting or engaging, it does mean that Crusher doesn’t end up looking like an idiot with extremely questionable taste in men.

Into the wild grey yonder...

Into the wild grey yonder…

From the point of view of storytelling mechanics, Transfigurations is quite fascinating. On paper, several of the ideas are quite interesting. It’s nice to have an episode based around futuristic medicine that doesn’t border on magical and isn’t incredibly convenient. In Pen Pals, the crew were able to conveniently escape the consequences of their actions by wiping the memory of a young girl. Here, however, John Doe’s full recovery from his injury takes weeks.

The episode doesn’t necessarily capture the feeling as well as it should, but there’s something quite fun about an episode of The Next Generation that unfolds across weeks with no real sense of urgency. “This routine assignment has made for a refreshingly quiet time aboard the Enterprise,” Picard tells us in his opening log. It takes the Enterprise three weeks to reach John Doe’s home world. This creates a sense that this what happens between all the big missions featuring the Enterprise, a glimpse at business as usual.

A touching encounter...

A touching encounter…

There’s also the fact that Transfigurations is based around an instantly recognisable Star Trek narrative convention, but that it’s focusing on a novel aspect of that tried-and-true trope. God-like energy beings have been around since the very first episode of Star Trek broadcast, with the Enterprise frequently stumbling across entire species that have ascended to a higher plane of existence. The climax of John Doe’s story sees John transforming himself into a floating ball of pure energy, is Star Trek short-hand for “hyper-evolved species.”

The novelty in Transfigurations is that we’re actually getting to watch that leap in evolution take place. Those hyper-advance beings (like the Organians or the Q) are typically presented as a fully-formed race – they’ve already moved well beyond existence as we might understand it. As such, building a story around a race preparing to make that leap to a higher form of life is a neat narrative hook, cleverly playing with Star Trek storytelling conventions. (Even if I remain somewhat skeptical of the science involved in such an evolutionary leap.) Transfigurations doesn’t really do much with this idea, but it’s a nice hook.

Talk about a warm fuzzy feeling...

Talk about a warm fuzzy feeling…

Then again, it does feel like Transfigurations owes a conscious debt to Marvel’s X-Men franchise, telling the story of a strange person with strange powers who is ostracised by his own people for being different. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the book only really became a massive success when Chris Claremont took over in May 1975. The book quickly became one of the most popular comics published by Marvel, and Claremont would write on the franchise for seventeen years. (Even today, the writer is occasionally drafted back in to write X-Men comics.)

Transfigurations comes as the X-Men were enjoying a surge in their popularity. Released a few months after Transfigurations aired, the September 1990 issue of Uncanny X-Men (no. 267) would see future superstar Jim Lee become fully-time penciller on the book, leading toward Claremont’s departure and the solidification of the X-Men as Marvel’s premiere franchise into the nineties – the decade that would see comic books explode (and then implode) in a wave of speculation-fuelled marketing. Released in October 1991, Jim Lee and Chris Claremont’s X-Men #1 would become the biggest-selling comic of all time.

Worf's been working flat-out...

Worf’s been working flat-out…

All of which is just a round-about way of pointing out that the X-Men were an aspect of popular culture that would have undoubtedly informed Transfigurations. Just as The Next Generation brought science-fiction to the masses in the nineties, paving the way for all manner of science-fiction television in the second half of the decade, X-Men brought comic books to the masses and played a massive role in the medium’s brief ascent to mainstream attention. (Crusher even repeatedly stresses the word “mutation.”)

Either way, it’s quite tough to watch Transfigurations without feeling that this is all very familiar. The story beats, the character arc, the reveal that the amnesiac John Doe was running from a people who fear and hate him, it all evokes the X-Men, to the point where one might consider this as a practice run for Patrick Stewart’s tenure as Professor Charles Xavier in Fox’s big budget X-Men film franchise a decade later.

It doesn't quite scan...

It doesn’t quite scan…

Still, the fact that Transfigurations is so explicit in its religious imagery is striking for an early nineties syndicated science-fiction show. The episode doesn’t hesitate to cast John Doe as space!Jesus. “He apparently has the power to heal injuries with a simple touch,” Picard proclaims. “And even to reverse death itself.” Doe dresses in white as soon as he is recovered from his injuries. Even his polite rebuke of Beverly’s advances feels like a shout out to the fascination with the relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene that was the fixation of so much pop culture discussion in the wake of The Last Temptation of the Christ.

“The rapport that exists between us also means a great deal to me,” Doe tells Beverly, informing her that he has an obligation to a greater cause. “But I am on some kind of journey. Whatever brought me here, whatever is happening to my body, is all part of that journey. And I must complete it before any other consideration.” Even in the last sequence, he ventures off to spread to the word, keen to find “those who are willing will follow [him].”

He really knocked Beverly off her feet...

He really knocked Beverly off her feet…

It’s a very clever hook, because Doe’s space-age messiah is cast opposite a hard-line zealot afraid of change and unwilling to accept the possibilities. In essence, Transfigurations pits John’s space-age humanism, very much in line with the New Testament’s approach to the teachings of Jesus Christ, against a very conservative and close-minded opposition. This is obviously an effective mirror to the persecution that Christ faced from the religious establishment of the time, but it also feels like it lands a bit closer to home.

Sunad feels like a rather aggressive commentary on the more extreme elements of the religious right – those very vocal radical religious organisations that seem to have very little time for values like tolerance or temperance or compassion. As such, John is cast simultaneous as a religious figure and as the victim of religious persecution. The accusations leveled at John by Sunad sound like the type of hard-line narrow-minded nonsense often used to justify the persecution of individuals who are “different.”

A tough cell...

A tough cell…

“He is a disruptive influence,” Sunad warns Picard. “He spreads lies. He encourages dissent. He disturbs the natural order of our society.” It’s worth noting that there’s a relatively subtle suggestion here that John might be standing in for the LGBT characters so often overlooked by contemporary Star Trek. He’s an individual deviating from his society’s perceived standards of normality, who explicitly declines the romantic advances of a female lead. Perhaps reflecting transgender concerns, John is in the process of changing into something for which his society has little tolerance.

Unlike most religious character, John doesn’t threaten the established order through his philosophy or his actions. Instead, John’s very existence is deemed offensive to his people. The episode returns time and again to the idea that Sunad isn’t merely offended by John, he is somehow severely unsettled by him. “The Zalkonians are afraid of John,” Troi explains. When Picard remarks that John’s “existence has broader ramifications than that of a simple criminal”,  Troi responds, “Sunad thinks so. He feels personally threatened by John.” Crusher clarifies, “Sunad called John a disruptive influence.”

I would totally watch a remake of Hitch starring Worf.

I would totally watch a remake of Hitch starring Worf.

Keep in mind that John has actually done nothing at this point in the episode. Every indication is that he was actually fleeing persecution. He was not undermining the system, or seeking to subvert government authority. Though we get no real insight into John’s history, there’s little indication that he was a radical. However, his very existence was deemed offensive to the state. This can’t help but feel like (a very careful concealed) commentary on deep-rooted early nineties homophobia, the sort of sentiment that would be explored in films like Philadelphia.

There’s really not too much to support this reading, except the fact that writer René Echevarria has a history of dealing with LGBT themes within Star Trek – while skirting the restrictions imposed by the executives. After all, Echevarria’s first script for the show, The Offspring, featured a character choosing their own gender – a scene from the writer’s original pitch, and a sequence he seems quite proud of on the commentary. Echevarria would also go on to write Rejoined for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, one of the few episodes of the franchise to tackle homosexuality and homophobia in an almost direct manner.

A beacon of hope...

A beacon of hope…

Still, all of this plays out in the background of the episode, and there’s very much a sense that Transfigurations is just trying to make it out to the end of the season. Michael Piller asked Echevarria, who was not yet on staff, to write the first draft of the script from a basic outline. According to Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, the script was then divided up amongst the writing staff to polish off. This was the writing staff that would (by and large) be departing the show at the end of the season.

So Transfigurations is an episode with a wealth of interesting ideas let down by a perfectly competent execution. Don’t worry. The best is yet to come.

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

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