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The Romulans are back! And they actually have something to do in this early season gem
Picard is hooking up with an old buddy, Captain Varley, who happens to be in charge of the Enterprise’s sister ship, the USS Yamato. Varley complains of systems malfunctions - and then the Yamato blows up - boom! - right before a Romulan ship uncloaks. The Romulan subcommander postures a little before cloaking and flitting off in a race to find the legendary planet Iconia. But now the Enterprise is suffering from malfunctions too. The Romulan ship and the Enterprise have a showdown over the planet Iconia... rendered comedic by the fact both ships cannot do anything useful at all owing to all the systems glitches.
Picard, feeling ambitious, takes an away team to Iconia to attempt to solve the puzzle without buying a vowel, and they manage to activate a shimmering dimension door. It seems the Iconians had their own Stargate, and they didn’t even have to develop flying pyramids. Data gets hit by the Iconian bug and shuts down, forcing Worf to carry him back to the Enterprise through the Iconian Stargate. And what’s this: oh no, Data’s dead! Wait, they turned him off and on again, and now he's fine. Maybe that works for the Enterprise too! It does, and it all turns out nice again, other than Picard having to hitch a lift from the Romulans.
What a great teaser this story has! And it’s all in the screenplay, coming to our screens exactly as written by Steve Gerber and Beth Woods. Gerber is best known for his work for Marvel Comics, most especially for creating the satirical antihero Howard the Duck, but Woods is a bit of a mystery, with her only other confirmed writing credit being for Captain Simian and the Space Monkeys. These two writers put together a cracking screenplay for this episode, though, with a brilliant story that is perhaps only marred by being stronger on plot than on character, but this is a niggle at best.
A key load-bearing concept in this story is ‘Iconia’ and ‘Iconians’, the ‘demons of air and darkness’... We've had dozens of long dead, highly technological alien species in Trek, but Gerber and Woods make theirs into a wonderful artefact by not having anyone of the race itself appear. Instead, they build a little archaeological puzzle using authentic terms like ‘language family’ and ‘root language’. It’s this thoughtfulness that infuses the story with much more than your typical long lost ancient empire tale. They also make great use of a universal translator fail (“Kandar qetar, Kandar jet, kandar piqe, kandar...”) to sell this alien culture to the audience.
This episode also marks the first time Picard orders “tea, Earl Grey, hot”, which becomes something of a catchphrase going forward. He only orders this for a sight gag - he gets a potted plant instead! - but it’s a lovely way of showing the onset of the ship’s malfunctions.
The best part of this script, however, is that it actually sets up a great cliff-hanger at the end of every act. Every Trek script tries to do this, but few succeed as admirably as this one.
Patrick Stewart gives a great performance this week, never better than when he is reacting to events.
This story is the first to really establish Captain Picard’s interest in archaeology, which steadily grows as the show progresses - yet I get the impression the writers only added this to get away from the need to add a character with knowledge of the past (although Data is always available for exposition-of-the-week, of course). Alternatively, they really wanted Patrick Stewart on the away mission.
LeVar Burton gets a lot to do in this episode too, and if it is mostly exposition, he also gets a dramatic incident in the turbolift, and saves the ship with a sudden realisation that encourages the crew to blow up the probe. But his greatest moment in this episode is as straight man to Data's joke…
Geordi is electrocuted by the malfunction, and is thrown to the ground. Data rushes over:
GEORDI: What happened?
DATA: Any answer would be mere speculation. This is just another example of how our actions have random results.
It’s a brilliant moment, and Brent Spiner delivers it perfectly. He also gets to play at being malfunctional in the last act, which is fun to watch - and serves as a convenient plot device too.
Captain Varley is played by Thalmus Rasulala, a character actor with a quite distinguished career, most famously as the police commissioner in New Jack City and as Omoro in Roots. His role here is small, and his performance understated, but he delivers it well, and the inclusion of the personal logs makes for an intriguing twist on the flashback as a way of filling in the backstory.
But the big guest star moment this week is Carolyn Seymour as Subcommander Taris. She’s somewhat of a side character in this story, but the actress will be back twice more for TNG in much more substantial roles. Heck, she’s basically the star of “First Contact”, and has the key supporting role in “Face of the Enemy”. They even get her back once for Voyager. Seymour will give us brilliant performances in later episodes, and is perfectly solid in this one, it’s just she's a bit player at most in this story. Only her later Trek roles make this one take on this extra significance for the dedicated fan.
And yet more O’Brien! We have him every week right now. He’s transcended his bit part origins and become a real member of the crew.
Models, Make-up, and Mattes
Welcome back Romulan studio miniature!
However, the Haakona is still not a Warbird. The screenplay calls it a Romulan Bird of Prey, which immediately tells us that either Gerber, Woods, or both know their Trek lore - and might possibly have played Task Force Games’ Star Fleet Battles (which licencing Franz Joseph’s classic Trek ship drawings). This game helped to popularise the name ‘Romulan Bird of Prey’ for nerds of a certain generation, although of course there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes literature engaged in canon-building as well that might apply. For all we know, ‘Bird of Prey’ was an official name for this studio miniature at this point, it’s hard to say. What we can say is that every shot here is stock footage taken from “The Neutral Zone”.
Delighted to say that there is a matte painting this week, and it’s not bad, although not a classic. It does good work as an establishing shot, though.
Hat tip to the Iconian gateway, a special effect that is simple in its design, and conceptually recalls the Guardian of Forever in classic Trek.
It is a fanonical belief of my friends and I that the reason that the Enterprise and Haakona appear in the gateway is that the Iconian program adds their coordinates to the gate system. We have no basis for this beyond speculation, and the screenplay doesn’t have anything to offer in terms of justification, but it is part of the fun of being a Trek fan to try and weave deeper meanings beyond the story.
But the special effect star of this week is the destruction of the USS Yamato in the teaser. It’s so great, you just have to see it again!
Now that’s how you kick off a story with a bang!
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