Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Virus Worth Coming Back To: "Contagion" Works Surprisingly Well!

The Good: Acting, Plot, Character, Effects, Pacing
The Bad: Minor Details, Simple Resolution
The Basics: In a surprisingly good episode from the second season, Picard discovers an ancient civilization and a threat to the Federation as the Enterprise collapses.

Star Trek Deep Space Nine tried to differentiate itself as often as possible from Star Trek The Next Generation. It did everything it could to make a more adult, clever and dangerous show than Star Trek The Next Generation. There were, of course, lapses. There were things Star Trek Deep Space Nine used from the earlier series, but always with good reason and in the attempt of expanding the Trek universe. "Contagion" is one such episode; Deep Space Nine alludes to it in the fourth season episode "To The Death.”

"Contagion" finds the U.S.S. Enterprise responding to a distress call from the Galaxy-class vessel U.S.S. Yamato. Launched at about the same time as the Enterprise, the Yamato is trapped in the Romulan Neutral Zone suffering from a catastrophic systems failure. The Enterprise arrives just in time to witness its complete destruction. Shortly thereafter, the Enterprise begins to experience systems difficulties (an out of control turbolift, problems with the power systems, transporter difficulties, etc.). Picard reviews the logs of the Yamato's captain long enough to determine it is worthwhile for him to assume his mission. So the Enterprise is going on a hunt for a mythical planet in the Romulan Neutral Zone. And as the Enterprise breaks down, Picard, Data and Worf become stranded. And, of course, the Romulans show up!

"Contagion" is one of Star Trek The Next Generation's second season's surprise hits. While "Measure Of A Man" (reviewed here!) is a philosophical masterpiece and pretty much a guaranteed grand slam in the Trek universe, "Contagion" does what it does very differently and with much more quiet grace. What "Measure Of A Man" did for philosophical drama, "Contagion" does for suspense. "Contagion" very effectively, consistently, keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat wondering what will come next. The nice thing about it is that it creates a suspense/adventure episode that is intelligent. This episode is not about a lot of things exploding or fast movements, it's an archaeological expedition and it works quite well as a suspense with the Enterprise failure and encroachment into the Neutral Zone aspects.

The writers of this episode very cleverly tie the external threat - the Romulans - to an internal threat - the potential destruction of the Enterprise through its systems simply degrading. The two elements very effectively create a compelling race against time. As well, the idea of the mythical Iconians is intriguing and the effect of their technology throughout the episode makes for more than just a convenient plot device. Here is Star Trek The Next Generation at its best dispelling the ethnocentrism that the Federation is the center of the universe and that it could never fall.

Part of what makes "Contagion" successful is that the actors all perform in this one. Stewart plays Picard in an awkward place torn between his own passion and the welfare of his ship. For the first time, we see Picard truly excited about an alien planet and his love of archaeology is introduced. What allows the viewer to buy this unquestionably is the way Patrick Stewart brings it in. He quietly brings enthusiasm into his voice and his body language changes as he becomes intrigued with the mystery on the alien world.

Frakes and Dorn give excellent supporting performances as Riker and Worf. And here we see Brent Spiner playing a wounded Data. It's a refreshing acting use of Spiner and given the opportunity, the actor does not waste it. Data's failure in this episode is played out as quite different from his suffering in "The Naked Now" or "Justice." Indeed, Spiner plays the malfunctioning Data in a way that pulls at the heartstrings of the viewer; we fear for his character, so masterful is Spiner's performance.

So, what prevents this from being a perfect episode? Mostly just the resolution. Data inadvertently brings about the episode's final solution and it seems almost too obvious, something that any one of us using computers today would have thought of when there is a computer problem. That is frustrating when the rest of the episode works so well.

But, it is enough to keep it from perfection. Fortunately, when Star Trek Deep Space Nine revisits the Iconian revelation from "Contagion," it manages to pull off something even better.

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


For other Star Trek episode and DVD set reviews, please be sure to visit my index page!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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