Quirky aliens, awesome stock footage, holodeck weirdness, and a self-destruct sequence - one of season one's few great episodes
The Enterprise-D rocks up to some stock footage of a Starbase and proceeds to take aboard a gang of Bynars, who are computer nerds from a permanently paired species with some awesome latex make-up. They look shifty. You know there's going to be trouble because Wesley is suspicious. Riker bums around the ship observing all sorts of leisure activities before checking out the Bynars' upgrade to the holodeck. His first idea? Why don't I summon up a date. Oh Will, you just got laid on Angel One, surely you don't need a digital sex toy! Anyway, don't come a knockin' when the holodeck's a rockin', but Picard barges in anyway and oddly expresses his approval. Without warning, the anti-matter containment field starts to destabilise - oh no, whatever shall we do! Let's evacuate, even though we're inside a Starbase and an antimatter explosion would almost certainly destroy the entire space station.
Fortunately, it's all a ruse by those devious Bynars to steal the Enterprise-D along with its Captain and First Officer. Picard is pissed that they nicked his ship, has a hissy fit, and then tries to blow it up rather than let anyone else get it. But they suddenly realise that the Bynars actually need their help since their internet has gone down and they need the Enterprise's senior officers to turn it off and on again. Fortunately, it all turns out nice again, except for Riker who loses his photonic lover and has to go back to moping in his chair.
This is the first script by the writing team of Maurice Hurley and Robert Lewin, who by the end of first season are handed the role of head writers, taking over from classic Trek veterans D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold. The second season is shaped by this team, and they are to a great degree responsible for the step up in quality. Likewise, their departure at the end of that season brings in new head writers and another huge step up in quality... but that's all to come. For now, let's just enjoy the rather excellent work on their debut episode. Actually, Hurley and Lewin had in fact already worked on the scripts for "Hide & Q" and "Datalore", it's just that this episode is the first that is 'all their own work'.
A fascinating aspect of Hurley's role on TNG was his commitment to maintaining Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future. An interview in the March 1990 issue of Starlog captures both this conviction and Hurley's view of the preposterousness of Roddenberry's imagined future:
"That's just the way it is. Star Trek is not like any other show because it is one unique vision, and if you agree with Gene Roddenberry's vision for the future, you should be locked up somewhere," Hurley declared at the time, "It's wacky doodle, but it's his wacky doodle. If you can't deal with that, you can't do the show. There are rules on top of rules on top of rules... Gene sees this pollyanish view of the future where everything is going to be fine... I don't believe it, but you have to suppress all that and put it aside. You suspend your own feelings and your own beliefs, and you get with his vision... or you get rewritten."
I admire this commitment to principle and the authenticity of a vision... you will not find it very often among contemporary writers, I'm afraid.
There's so much fun with the words in this story, but I find it odd that the writers went for 'Bynars' rather than 'Binars', since it is obviously derived from 'binary', and they are named in binary. Actually, this is also really odd since they only get two digits in their names... so are there only four different names on Bynus...? Some generous fanonising can hand-wave this away (they might have multiple components to their names, and this is only the equivalent of a forename), but we aren't going to get away from the astonishing coincidence that the people from planet Bynus happen to operate on binary without a real stretch of the imagination.
This is one of the first appearances of the concept of an 'electrical magnetic pulse' in televised science fiction... By the 90s, this becomes so common that people would just say 'EMP', but this script has to lay it out word-by-word. Kudos to Hurley and Lewin for having some scientific knowledge to apply, because in fact the two had never worked on science fiction ever before, and were only brought onto the show because Roddenberry's lawyer, Leonard Maizlish, snuck them in through the backdoor despite having absolutely no authority to do so.
Carolyn McCormick's Minuet is the character centrepiece of this episode, and her scenes with Jonathan Frakes and Patrick Stewart have a sparkle to them that's hard to pin down. It's not that we're witnessing a brilliant performance by any of these three, it's rather that there's a hypnotic quality to these scenes that draws you in... it's like watching a car crash in motorsports - you know you shouldn't be enjoying it, but there's just something about it that stops you from turning away.
I’m afraid it’s all rather sexist - Minuet epitomises the objectification of women in far too many ways - but if you can bracket that away, the idea of creating a holodeck character that is intuitive and compelling purely as a diversion has something going for it. It's practically a digital Mata Hari.
Hat-tip to the first appearance of 'Parrises Squares', a throwaway idea that, like so many throwaway ideas in Trek, becomes part of the canonical lore and never goes away. It also provides one of the best examples of playing Worf for comedy in the first season, a role that Michael Dorn takes on less frequently than Brent Spiner but knocks out of the park every time.
But isn't it odd that Majel Barrett does not provide the voice of the Enterprise computer in the self-destruct sequence...? Who provides that other voice? Why, none other than Michael Dorn! I am at a complete loss as to why we need the second voice for the ship's computer, but perhaps the production team felt that Dorn's gravitas was required in the context of blowing up the ship. Who knows!
There's a black bit part actor who gets to speak in this episode: Abdul Salaam El Razzac's holographic bass player gets four lines. I mention this because the ethnic diversity in season one is rather forced and uncomfortable... I find it a little troubling that we need to have a holodeck simulation of a Bourbon Street bar to justify a black guest actor. Still, this is something that dramatically improves over the run of TNG, and arguably culminates in the breakthrough decision to cast Avery Brookes as the commanding officer in DS9.
And why oh why does it ever happen that Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher gets to answer for the bridge?! I mean, I realise that they're at a Starbase, but it's not that long since Mr Crusher imperilled everyone in his quest for extra dessert, and now he's effectively in command...?! Disturbing times.
Models, Make-up, and Mattes
What a spectacular opening sequence! It is, of course, all re-used stock footage of the Earth Spacedock from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which had some of the greatest model and matte work in Star Trek history.
In gifting TNG with its incredible Starbase stock footage, Industrial Light and Magic's work on this movie contributed to the future of Trek far more than anyone could have known at the time. As you'd expect from such spectacular imagery, this was neither cheap to make nor small in stature - the largest of the two studio miniatures (for the interior) was a thirty-foot model.
Andrew Probert also contributes one additional matte painting, of the docking clamp, to complete the illusion of the Starbase, and this is one that we'll see many times in episodes to come.
Finally, the latex work on the Bynars is first rate, exemplifying the willingness to invest in make-up for season one that, sadly, will not survive much further into the show. As the Trek franchises progress, it becomes more and more important that expensive make-up will definitely get reused and so we see fewer elaborate alien designs.
As for the poor Bynars, we will never see them again, alas. On the plus side, that does make this episode all the more special.
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