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It's a holodeck malfunction episode... without a holodeck... or a malfunction. But it has a casino
Everyone's in exposition mode as we orbit an awfully familiar-looking planet... Picard's exposition log is followed by LaForge's technical exposition of the planet's atmosphere. Then suddenly we're talking about Fermat's last theorem - anyone want to guess if there's going to be a mystery to solve this week…? O'Brien beams up a fragment of a ship that the Klingon's reported seeing here and - shock reveal! It's from a NASA spacecraft. It looks like we have a mystery after all.
Anyway, after the credits we beam down to the one safe spot on this hopelessly toxic planet and suddenly here we are in a Las Vegas hotel casino! So Riker, Data, and Worf get pulled into a silly story about a hotel owner, a bellboy, and... erm, actually, that's about it. But they can't get out - the revolving doors just lead straight back in! Eventually, they find a skeleton of an astronaut from Earth. The mystery thickens, although it's still rather thin. They discover that this hotel casino was made by aliens to house an astronaut who was contaminated by encountering them. Apparently, they mistakenly believed a terrible pulp novel was a guide to human life, hence the casino. Okay, but how do we get out? Why, by finishing the story of course. So the Away Team have to break the bank at the casino, and then buy the Hotel Royale, which they do and the episode ends with more of a whimper than a bang.
Firstly on the ‘Words’ front, I simply cannot believe that anyone would name a spaceship 'Charybdis', which is the name of the giant whirlpool that Jason and the Argonauts must get past in the Greek myth. This is a highly inauspicious name to choose! It's a bit like naming a Schooner 'The Shipwreck'.
Anyway, this is a divisive episode among the fans... some like it, some dislike it. For me, it doesn't help that it is sandwiched between "Contagion" and "Time Squared", which inevitably leaves this looking worse than it might. I feel it suffers in retrospect because it's hard not to compare it to "Badda-Bing Badda-Bang" from the final season of DS9, which has a great deal of parallels with the internal story (although with a very different framing story). But TV in 1999 is nothing like TV in 1989 - that decade in between made a world of difference to the practices of screenwriters and the expectations of the audience.
So, who is this Keith Mills who wrote "The Royale"...? Actually, this is a pseudonym, as the screenplay was written by Tracey Tormé. This episode marks the start of a feud between Tormé and the head writer, Maurice Hurley, that will eventually lead to both leaving the show. Tormé took his name off the script because he wasn't happy with the changes that Hurley demanded to the story... However, the draft screenplay is relatively close to the final episode, apart from minor issues - Riker delivers the opening log entry, for instance, and Tormé has a US air force symbol, not NASA, on the debris. However, since the draft script is credited to Keith Mills, I presume that Hurley's interference precedes it, so it's anyone's guess what Tormé was originally shooting for in this story.
However, a knowledgeable Trek fan divulged to me some conference Q&A scuttlebutt from Tormé suggesting that the falling out with Hurley may have had more to do with arc plotting than individual episodes. Apparently, Tormé had a two-part story featuring Spock and the Guardian of Forever, which was lost in the shuffle (possibly in part because of the writer’s strike), as well as plans to develop Doctor Selar as a love-interest for Worf. None of this ever happened on screen, of course, but it’s plausible this kind of interference was what drove a wedge between Tormé and Hurley.
There's a nice cast in this episode that it's a shame that they are intentionally given terrible dialogue in order to play out the conceit that the casino.
Sam Anderson, the Assistant Manager, manages to be rather creepy, which I appreciate. Sci fi fans are most likely to recognise Anderson as Bernard in Lost, but he has had a long and varied career with some 175 roles, most prominently in Forrest Gump.
Jill Jacobson as Vanessa might look familiar if you have a good memory for faces - she crops up as Chalan Aroya in the DS9 episode "Broken Link", where they were fielding her as a love interest for Odo. I have to say, I thought I recognised her as a Dabo girl, so I can't claim to have worked this one out on my own. She was a regular on power-soap Falcon Crest, apparently.
Honestly, though, there aren't really any roles in this episode. The plot just cranks along under its own steam, and does what it does. The people of the Royale can't be interesting because they're supposed to be from a badly written novel, and the Enterprise are given nothing to do - especially Michael Dorn's Worf who has literally no purpose except to hold a phaser and stay quiet. Data and Riker do everything of significance, and Worf is just along for the ride.
At least Colm Meaney is back as Chief O'Brien who gets the devastatingly engaging task of... beaming up debris.
Models, Make-up, and Mattes
So the story and the acting roles let us down, that means we got some great special effects, right? Alas, no.
Theta 116 VII reuses the planetary matte from "Angel One" - they don't even both to recolourise it, which is incomprehensible given LaForge's description of the atmosphere (liquid neon, incidentally, is colourless). This planet should probably look more like Saturn's moon Enceladus, which is white with blue streaks. I'm disappointed with the special effects team dialling this one in - honestly, any other colour than green would have been fine!
Nice skeleton, though!
And other than that, our big SFX moment is the revolving door in the middle of nowhere. Which is alright, I guess, but it hardly rocks the boat. The most I can say about it is that it reminds me of the classic Doctor Who serial "Warrior's Gate", and even then the white world of that story is eerier than the blackness we see here.
Oh well, at least we got a skeleton.
Special thanks to Therin of Andor for recounting Tormé’s conference remarks.
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