Friday, January 28, 2011

An Awkward Time For Production . . . "The Ensigns Of Command"

The Good: Character, Expansion of the Star Trek Universe
The Bad: Acting, Plot
The Basics: Produced before the third season premiere, "Ensigns Of Command" acknowledges that our Trek heroes may fail.

And then there was an awkward period on Star Trek The Next Generation. Diana Muldaur was not coming back. Actress Gates McFadden was returning from her one year sabbatical to take on the role of Dr. Beverly Crusher again. The third season was under production and the sense of purpose that marked the third season was begun. Well, almost. Before the season premiere was filmed, the episode "The Ensigns Of Command" was produced. If you're a fan of the series, watch "Evolution" first; it marks the return of Dr. Crusher and this episode makes more sense, I suppose, as a result.

"The Ensigns Of Command" finds the Enterprise preparing to extract colonists from a world recently ceded to the Shelliak Corporate. The Shelliak are basically the ruthless lawyers of the galaxy and when Data, who is the only one who may survive on the colonist's planet due to some stellar ray or such, discovers the colonists number several thousand more than expected, the crew has a real problem. Superior in firepower, transporters and nitpickiness, the Shelliak are going to colonize the world in three days time. Data, on the planet, faces a mission alone where he must convince the colonists to leave their age old home or be destroyed. The colonists need convincing.

"The Ensigns Of Command" is a fairly unremarkable episode that has only two extraordinary facets. The first is that it opens the Star Trek universe up a little more. The Shelliak are an interesting addition and it's always fun to meet a new Trek species. Moreover, it's frequently wonderful to see that the Federation is not the all-powerful mechanism everyone suspects it to be. (As an aside, it's too bad the Shelliak were never referenced in Star Trek Deep Space Nine during the Dominion War.)

The other remarkable thing about this episode is that the characters, as a general rule, do not grow. Rather, here they acknowledge the limits of their knowledge, experience and existence. When a colony scientist displays affection and more than scientific interest in Commander Data, he is unable to return her affection because it is beyond his programming. Geordi and O'Brien struggle for days trying to get the transporters operational on a problem no one has heretofore solved. And in a refreshing change, they are unable to solve the problem. And that reads as very real. It makes sense. "The Ensigns Of Command" is an episode that acknowledges that field engineers on a ship cannot suddenly solve scientific problems that researchers in a laboratory might have been working on for years.

It's too bad the script did not support the episode beyond that. The plot, convince a bunch of colonists to leave, lacks a compelling nature to make us care and find the character faults acknowledged in this episode. Sure, it would be more difficult to do an episode where Geordi and O'Brien can't solve a transporter problem in three days and someone of import, say the Captain, dies as a result, but it would be far more meaningful. And it's a shame the writers didn't take this fascinating aspect and apply it to a more dreadful situation.

That is to say, lacking real consequences, the failures of Data to emote and Geordi to solve a technical problem, lack any real growth or depth. Perhaps I am advocating an episode where Picard's diplomatic efforts failed as well and the Shelliak exterminated the colonists. Dealing with the ramifications of that could have made an interesting story arc.

But that's not this episode. Instead, this episode cowers when it ought to leap boldly. Data illustrates his emotional ineptitude and delays the plot with observation and a recognition of the obvious in his inspection of the colony. Picard's attempts at negotiation are often too skilled for someone who claims ignorance.

And the breaking point here is in the acting. Had the acting supported this episode, it would have thrown it over into the recommend. Instead, the guest actors are lackluster (indeed, the man who played the colony leader had his lines ADRed in in post production so bland was his reading), the romantic lead is emotionally detached (she would have made an excellent Vulcan), and the regulars are phoning it in (Brent Spiner, for the first time in the series, seems uncertain as to how to play Data here). I would like to blame it on the uncertainty of the transition of seasons.

Regardless of the blame, "The Ensigns Of Command" fails to be worthy of a recommendation. It tells a fractured Data/Picard/Geordi story and none of the plot lines come out smelling good. There's certainly not anything for a non-Trek fan to enjoy. As for fans of Star Trek The Next Generation? Well, at least you get to hear them say they're not infallible.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the third season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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