Although September 8th, 2011 is Star Trek’s 45th anniversary, the upcoming year 2012 offers a milestone that’s almost even more difficult to believe: the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994). Wow…I’m really growing old, folks.
Anyway, in honor of this landmark date in Trekdom, I’ll be gazing back over the next several months at TNG episodes that I remember especially fondly. These selections won’t necessarily be the familiar or expected ones (“Best of Both Worlds,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,”) merely installments that I feel contributed overall to the series’ success and remain somewhat underrated.
And, as you may recall, I’ve been pretty tough on Star Trek: The Next Generation over the last few years. Specifically, I feel that the series hasn’t held up as well as the original Star Trek (1966 – 1969). In fact, it often lacks the color, charismatic performances and powerful, clean writing that made the original Roddenberry series such an important title in television history.
Specifically, I’ve often derided the writing of the Captain Picard character, who was made to surrender the Federation flagship two times in the first four episodes of the series. I’ve also complained about the “tidy” story wrap-ups, which tended to rely on nonsensical techno-babble rather than the intricacies of character development and motivation. Many Star Trek: The Next Generation stories also wasted time on the Holodeck, or featured tales that I termed “Love in Boat in Space,” with crew member families coming aboard the Enterprise for a visit and, naturally, some manufactured interpersonal drama.
The stories that I remember and appreciate on The Next Generation the most, however, are those that truly took great risks with the familiar format. And again, these aren’t always the ones you might expect, or the so-called “popular” installments. They aren’t always the “epic” shows; merely segments which stretched the format and did a lot of with the characters and solid scientific concepts. Sometimes these ambitious episodes failed (and were consequently derided), but at least it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Given my general dislike of the Holodeck as a story ingredient, my first Next Generation flashback in this retrospective series may come as a surprise. “11001001” indeed features the holodeck in a prominent role, but this tale by Maurice Hurley and Robert Lewin doesn’t merely send a crew member on vacation in another time and place instead of dramatizing an important and valuable “real life” story.
On the contrary, “11001001” is all about the human impact of the holodeck technology, particularly on the character of William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes).
As “11001001” commences, it is stardate 41365.9, and the Enterprise D. arrives at Starbase 74 for a routine computer upgrade.
Performing the upgrade is a team of diminutive aliens known as “Bynars” from the planet Bynaus.
Over time, the Bynars have grown so “interconnected” with computers and computer language that their “thought patterns” have become almost binary in nature.
As the Bynars work, the Enterprise crew relaxes, off-duty. In a nice bit of characterization, the extroverted Riker seems at loose ends without his usual crew mates to pal around with, and so spends the first portion of the episode attempting to stave off boredom by visiting Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) in sickbay, watching Data (Brent Spiner) and La Forge (Levar Burton) paint in the conference room, and conversing with Worf (Michael Dorn) and Yar (Denise Crosby) about a competitive game called Paresi Squares.
There’s a slightly desperate quality to Riker here, and I appreciate this peek at his human frailties. He’s not a deep thinker (like Picard), and he needs other people around him. When Riker tells Crusher that it looks like she’s “packing up” to “leave forever,” there’s a vulnerable side to the character exposed, and it’s good to see. Frakes does especially well with this material, and carries this portion of the episode effortlessly.
Soon, Riker happens to the holodeck, where he find more Bynars working, and they ask him to test their upgrades to the system. Almost immediately, Riker conjures a Bourbon Street bar in New Orleans, circa 1958, and indulges in a little trombone playing.
His audience consist of one: a sultry but engaging woman named Minuet (Carolyn McCormick). Riker plays “The Nearness of You” for Minuet, and soon comes to realize she is anything but a cipher. In fact, Minuet seems responsive and intelligent in a way that no computer simulation ever has. She seems to possess life itself; sentience.
Outside the holodeck, the Bynars manufacture an emergency for the crew to disembark, leaving only Picard and Riker aboard. They the aliens steal the Enterprise and make for their home world, where a supernova has imperiled their civilization. An EM pulse threatens to destroy their main computer, unless the Bynars can use the Enterprise — with its computer — as a repository for all their culture’s knowledge and information.
Once Riker and also Picard realize that Minuet is merely a distraction, they set the Enterprise’s auto destruct sequence, and reclaim the bridge. There, they find the Bynars incapacitated and assume their mission: saving the Bynaus main computer and therefore the civilization itself. When the crisis ends, Riker returns to the holodeck and finds Minuet gone, only a “piece” in the now-ended Bynar tactic. When Picard notes that “some relationships just can’t work,” Riker responds that, nonetheless, Minuet shall be “difficult to forget.”
Like the original Star Trek’s “Devil in the Dark,” “11001001” concerns desperation, and an alien race that is so desperate to survive that it undertakes what could be misinterpreted as hostile action; here the theft of the starship Enterprise. An enduring element of Star Trek — and one that I love — is that of mercy. The men and women of Starfleet don’t greet every challenge as an existential threat, and — if able — will demonstrate compassion and empathy for aliens in jeopardy and danger.
This is a facet of our culture that is nearly extinct today, and such compassion and empathy is often viewed as a sign of weakness or vulnerability, not as a strength.
Specifically, our culture encourages us to meet violence with violence, greet aggression with aggression, and target purported enemies for payback. A wrong is not forgiven, it is cause for attack and reprisal.
Not so in the overtly idealistic universe of Star Trek, where the Bynars — though acting poorly — are treated fairly, and their world is saved.
But even that re-assertion of a great moral value is not the reason I appreciate this episode, even after almost twenty-five years. Rather, I feel that the holodeck aspects of the story work remarkably well, and point to the evolution of the EMH character in Voyager and other holographic characters as “sentient beings.” Here, Minuet is a fully-fledged individual, and Riker falls in love with her…regardless of her nature as a program.
I often write, with respect to Woody Allen, that the heart desires what the heart desires, and this doomed TNG love affair seems indicative of that human truth. Riker falls hard for a hologram, even though there’s no real future in such a relationship. She can’t even leave the holodeck, actually.
Yet Riker loves her. And that’s just how the human heart works. Once more, this idea carries tremendous relevance in our culture today, especially as some extremists seek to punish homosexuals for wanting what their hearts want. But, like Riker, that’s how they are wired. It isn’t a concious choice. Star Trek has taken a lot of hits in the media lately for not featuring a “gay” character amongst its dramatis personae, but I don’t think the attack is fair, or realistic.
In showcasing characters who brave love with holograms, androids, aliens and the like, the various and sundry Star Trek series very clearly put forward the argument that it is not right to judge others for whom they love, and for how they love.
To expect a gay character to appear in a major role in 1987 Star Trek is not, entirely…logical.
So in episodes such as “11001001” and “The Outcast,” Star Trek did the next best thing: it made a compelling argument for acceptance of “alternate” life choices. It paved the way for tolerance and compassion about such relationships. That’s pretty damn impressive, if you ask me.
Ultimately, this idea went further in Star Trek than “11001001,” but this episode lays the groundwork for the idea that holograms are people too, and also the notion that the human heart cannot, necessarily, choose who to love or not to love.
In terms of “11001001,” I also appreciate the fact that the episode doesn’t make the mistake of drifting into overt sentimentality or schmaltz. Jonathan Frakes underplays his last, heartfelt line of dialogue, and rightly so. His comment about Minuet being difficult to forget thus transmits as not some angsty, shallow admission of personal pain, but as pure statement of fact. As such, it resonates powerfully, and I commend Frakes and director Lynch for resisting the urge to make more out of the episode’s valedictory moment. It speaks volumes as it stands.
“11001001” is also one of the few Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes in the first season that seems to showcase an authentic and light-hearted sense of camaraderie and chemistry between the new cast. There’s a delightful moment here wherein Worf intentionally misunderstands the nature of sports competition to Commander Riker: “If winning is not important, Commander, then why keep score?”
And I also love Riker’s politically incorrect jibe to Geordi and Data about a blind man teaching an android to paint. That’s a priceless joke, and too often Star Trek: The Next Generation felt staid and sedate, instead of fun. These remarks are not merely fun, but fun in the jaunty spirit of the original series. They evidence a joie de vivre, and make the characters seem genuinely colorful. “11001001” also offers one of the great lines of the entire season, when Riker asks Minuet “what’s a knock-out like you doing in a computer-generated gin joint like this?”
I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but there’s a very…Star Trekkiness…about this brand of dialogue. It is both serious and creeping right up to the edge of camp. It is smart, and it is funny. And I wish Star Trek: The Next Generation featured much more of it. Star Trek is always at its best when its characters acknowledge the humorous aspects of their situation. Somehow, it makes the universe seem more real.
Another ingredient that works well in “11001001” is the concept of the Binars themselves. They make for a fascinating alien race, being so interdependent with computers, and one wishes they had returned to the series in a more dramatic capacity at some point.
Considering the nature of the Borg (representing the blending of biological and technological components), it seems there might have been a powerful story here to tell about the Bynars.
Would they have considered the Borg brethren? Would they have felt they could have changed the nature of the Borg…for the better? And how would the Federation feel with a kind of proto-Borg culture like the Bynars within their borders? In all, not revisiting the Bynars seems like a lost opportunity.
About my only quibble with the episode is – as usual – the writing of the Picard character. Here, he spends the first half of the episode thanking profusely his crew for a job well done, complimenting them over very, very little. I suppose his pervasive good cheer was an attempt to soften the stern character, but it plays as strange; like Picard has taken some brand of mood-altering drug like Prozac. Suddenly the good captain is spouting “thank yous” and “well dones” repeatedly, as if in some kind of euphoric state. Later in the episode, Picard also reveals his total lack of awareness of others, when he horns in on Riker and Minuet and just…won’t…stop…talking. Can’t he see that they would like to be, you know, alone? Eventually he realizes it, but only after quite a while. Again, I’m not criticizing the dignified Patrick Stewart, only the writing of his character.
Overall, however, “11001001” is a great early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation because it isn’t just about fun and games and getting out of a pickle on the holodeck. Instead, it’s about the human problems that the technology of the holodeck creates, and how those problems emotionally impact the characters In many ways, this episode may represent Frakes’ finest acting work on the series. Accordingly, “11001001”” is also one of the best episodes in terms of Riker’s character development. We see the extrovert growing lonely…and then answering that loneliness with a trip to the holodeck, and finding the unexpected specter of true love.
Certainly, “11001001” doesn’t make any “top ten” episode lists for TNG, but that’s because it isn’t epic in scope (like the Borg episodes or the Klingon episode). Instead, the episode achieves what the medium of television does best: it fosters a sense of intimacy and connection to a character. “The Inner
Life Light” is an episode that accomplishes the same thing for Picard (and it’s one of my personal favorites), but “11001001” is an early segment of The Next Generation that really hits on all thrusters.
This episode is all about interconnectedness: interconnectedness between the Bynars, interconnectedness between the Enterprise crew members, and finally, between Riker and Minuet. “11001001” reveals how we can succeed when we connect meaningfully to others and also, emotionally, how we can feel lost when that sense of connection disappears irrevocably.