Thursday, June 9, 2011

Adding Conflict To The Mix Of Star Trek The Next Generation: "Ensign Ro" Works!

The Good: Good character development, Excellent acting, Special effects
The Bad: Weak plot
The Basics: Star Trek The Next Generation adds some conflict in the form of a new character who rubs everyone the wrong way in the political intrigue episode "Ensign Ro."

By the time the fifth season of Star Trek The Next Generation was underway, there was the idea around Paramount that there would be another Star Trek series and while Star Trek Deep Space Nine was being developed, the series that was on the air did what it could to set up the new series. While Star Trek Deep Space Nine would use the Trill from the fourth season's "The Host," it would retune that race. While "The Wounded" was essential to understanding the origins of the Cardassian and Federation conflict, the first true, direct allusion to what Star Trek Deep Space Nine would be was "Ensign Ro." Here we have two elements that would be integral to the new series: conflict between characters and the Bajoran Occupation.

"Ensign Ro" begins with the Enterprise responding to the destruction of Cardassian property, a terrorist act claimed by the Bajorans. The Enterprise enlists the aid of Ro Laren, a Bajoran who had once been a member of StarFleet, but was cashiered from the service for disobeying orders. Ensign Ro leads the Enterprise to a planet where Bajoran refugees have been stuck to try to help Picard find those responsible for the terrorist acts. But Picard's mistrust for Ensign Ro quickly becomes a liability in the larger plot all of the principles find themselves in.

It's unfortunate that the DVD versions of the Star Trek The Next Generation episodes do not contain commentary; one of the most insightful statements ever made about "Ensign Ro" comes on a bonus disc where one of the producers reveals that Guinan's instant bonding with Ro is an attempt to help the audience accept the character better. It makes so much sense and yet, after years of watching this episode, I had not picked that up and it works so well. By the end of this episode, despite Ensign Ro's brusque manner and irritated demeanor seems to fit in with this irritatingly homogenous group we've been watching for four years.

Ensign Ro adds something that was needed in Star Trek The Next Generation; the sense that not everyone, even in the 24th Century, gets along. Riker's instant prejudice against Ro reads as very realistic and very human. It's refreshing to see after years of philosopher kings running around space that they actually do still have feelings and moods. Much of the sense in the series before Ro arrives has been that everyone is on a constant high and gets together within the crew.

Part of what makes this episode worthwhile and accessible is the acting. While Jonathan Frakes is completely overshadowed, his performance as someone with an instant dislike works quite well. He has a talent for using his body language to clearly convey his moods and in "Ensign Ro" he uses that expertly. Whoopi Goldberg's portrayal of Guinan is earnest and without humor and it reminds us of what a great actress she is. Knowing her comedic talents, here it is impressive to see how well she is able to immerse herself into the role.

Patrick Stewart manages to very convincingly play Captain Picard as suspicious, wary and disappointed without having an over-the-top feel to him. That balance is quite difficult to maintain and it's a testament to the greatness of Stewart's acting. The real pleasure to watch is Michelle Forbes, who plays the title character. Forbes has an immensely difficult task of assimilating into a very established cast and she manages to insinuate herself in masterfully. In scenes with Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes, she holds her own, maintaining a screen presence that would cause most actors to recoil. She convinces us that she has a right to be here and we ought to open up to her presence. That's no small task and Forbes' movement and voice aid greatly in getting us there.

What does not work so well here is the plot. There's a rather contrived bit of activity involving political intrigue and the journey the Enterprise takes to try to find the true terrorists feels like an attempt to introduce a new character and keep it interesting. The plot feels a little contrived, like they are stretching to do something. Star Trek The Next Generation has a problem with attempting plots that are unnecessarily complex and here the viewer is forced to ask, "Why is the Federation involved?" We need to know "Why don't the Cardassians just deal with this themselves?"

The second episode with the Cardassians introduces the Bajoran/Cardassian conflict and it is enough to set up "Star Trek Deep Space Nine." It's a good thing Ensign Ro stuck around, because she added something to the cast and made the new series much more believable.

Unfortunately, this episode is not as accessible or interesting to those who are not fans of the series. This is a payoff for fans of the Star Trek universe and people who are not already there find this episode confusing with the specific allusions that are permeating this episode, even though most of the information is new to all of the viewers. "Ensign Ro" has a great deal of information in it and if you're not used to the Star Trek lingo, it can be overwhelming.

In the end, this is a nice addition to the Star Trek The Next Generation story and it does a necessary bit of work which is, essentially, to add a realistic sense of conflict that has been lacking to the series. Refreshingly, this is not an entire retooling of the series, merely an experiment and a successful one at that.

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


For other Star Trek episode and DVD set reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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