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Shades of Gray
It's the greatest threat the Enterprise-D has ever faced - they've run out of production budget!
Riker has been pricked by an alien thorn somewhere in Sound Stage 16. O’Brien detects some weirdo microbes, so Dr Pulaski beams down to check its safe to beam him up to the Enterprise - quarantine be damned! It seems these miniscule intruders are wed to Riker’s nervous system, putting him into a coma. To rescue him, Pulaski stimulates his brain to make him relive just about everything Riker has done from the first episode onwards in a tedious hodge-podge of stock footage.
Widely considered the worst of the TNG episodes (although there are, believe it or not, other contenders!), much of the hatred for this one lies in the fact that it’s a clip show, something nobody likes. The most I can say in defence of this screenplay is that there are few more thankless tasks than trying to make a television show where a large quantity of the material is recycled. I’ve never done it for TV, but I’ve had to do for a videogame once, and it was that rare combination - incredibly hard to achieve, but nobody cares even if you do it well.
The cost overruns were the direct result of two episodes - “Elementary, Dear Data” and “Q Who”, both of which were radically more expensive than a typical episode. As well as reusing stock footage (‘stock opticals’, as the screenplay says), the shooting schedule was reduced from the usual five days to just three.
That anything was possible at all for this episode is thanks in large part to Eric A. Stillwell, who was a production assistant at the time (and was credited in this show as ‘Researcher’).
Stillwell went through the tapes of the preceding episodes to find anything at all that might be useful. He spent some eighty hours in a week finding clips that revolved around Riker that could be put to use. He suggested, as a joke, calling the episode “Riker’s Brain” after the dismal classic Trek episode, “Spock’s Brain”, and it was Stillwell who proposed the eventual title “Shades of Gray”:
I decided it was a really bizarre episode that wasn’t black or white; it was just shades of gray.
But this is by no means Stillwell’s greatest achievement in Trek… one of his story ideas about the Guardian of Forever was later to be cross-bred with an idea about the Enterprise-C to make one of the greatest TNG episodes ever. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
The story revolves around terms like ‘microbe’ and ‘biofilter’, with Dr Pulaski remarking that the infection is “not a bacteria not a virus but with elements of both”. Of course, what the microbe does in the story is act as a deus ex machina to allow us to reuse the stock footage. I guess there are worse frameworks they could have chosen.
This was Maurice Hurley’s final episode as the showrunner. He has always been rather cagey about his departure, but it is widely understood that from being close to Gene Roddenberry they ended up butting heads, and there were numerous conflicts within the writing team too - as we’ve already touched upon, Tracey Tormé quit the show over disagreements with Hurley.
But this is a miserable episode to have as an epitaph - as Hurley himself remarked:
Piece of sh*t. It was supposed to be a bottle show. Terrible, just terrible, and a way to save some money. I was on the way out the door.
Hurley did good work on TNG, massively turning around the feel of the production, raising the quality of the storytelling, and of course introducing one of the most memorable Trek species of all time - the Borg. It’s a great shame he left with a whimper rather than a bang.
Although the script finds something for everyone to do, it is Diana Muldaur’s Doctor Pulaski who holds the story together, and her performance is perfectly solid given the flaccid material, and shows up Marina Sirtis’ melodramatic emoting by comparison. Again, it’s Muldaur’s last appearance (they never got her back as a guest star), and its a great shame that she had to leave like this.
However, she was able to use her time on TNG to advance her career, landing the role of love-to-hate litigator Rosalind Shays on L.A. Law, which was one of the most popular shows on television at the time. She received two Emmy nominations for playing Shays, but alas, no wins. Her final appearance on that show went down in television history as an absolute classic, though. That screenplay was co-written by David E. Kelly, who would go on to make quirky legal shows like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal (with William Shatner on incredible comedic form!). Thanks to Kelly’s wicked sense of humour, Shays accidentally plummets to her death down an empty elevator shaft in an episode amusingly entitled "Good to the Last Drop".
It remains to this day one of the most jaw-dropping moments I’ve ever seen on TV.
Models, Make-up, and Mattes
As a clip show, there’s not much to report in terms of what’s on screen. However, the set dressing for Sound Stage 16 is rather good and puts last season’s “The Arsenal of Freedom” to shame - I especially like that they had some running water underfoot.
There’s a planetary matte, but it’s one we saw before in “The Icarus Factor”, and we’ll see it again and again and again, so it’s hard to be excited. But then, that describes this episode in a nutshell: hard to be excited. The best thing about watching it in retrospect is that it marks the end of the patchy-but-promising season two, and heralds the commencement of the awesome run of episodes that is season three.
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