Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Teaser Of War Is The Ultimate "Conundrum"

The Good: Interesting plot, Wonderful acting, Good character work
The Bad: Obvious if you've seen more than one episode of the show
The Basics: When the crew of the Enterprise loses their memories, the actors have a field day and the audience has a mystery that is solved from the beginning.

Star Trek The Next Generation is often quite good at being clever. It's a clever show and it was, for the most part, quite well written and well directed. As well, the actors were top notch and professional. Sometimes, they could even take an idea that was good with an obvious aspect and pull it off. "Conundrum" is one such episode.

When the Enterprise is out zipping through the galaxy, they encounter an alien ship that scans them. Suddenly, everyone has lost their sense of identity and there is a new officer, Commander Kieran MacDuff. After several attempts to get access to the computer, as well as reason things out for themselves, Geordi manages to get the interface online long enough to determine the names of the bridge crew and the mission of the Enterprise. They are led to believe that they are in a war with a race called the Lysians and the Enterprise has been sent on an important mission to destroy the Lysian Central Command. But when the Enterprise easily thwarts every Lysian ship sent against them, Picard begins to question the mission, much to Commander MacDuff's disappointment.

This was a pretty clever idea, but it had the one obvious flaw: Commander MacDuff. If you've seen more than one episode of Star Trek The Next Generation you know there is no Commander MacDuff. And if you're simply observant, you'll notice he's not on the bridge until after the scanning beam passes over everyone. So, we know the episode is going to hinge on his presence and he will move forth whatever agenda is at work here. And, no surprise, he does.

Even with that, there's a lot to commend in "Conundrum." One of the most clever aspects about losing the sense of identity among the various crewmembers is in the minutia. I don't mean the great fun we have in watching Riker seduce both Ro and Troi, but rather the attention to details the writers have in the little character twists. For example, the usually pessimistic LaForge whose estimates are usually phrased as "at least x time," become "I'll have it done no later than . . ." It's a clever change to the fundamentals of the character and it works perfectly.

This is a wonderful chance for the actors to have some fun with their characters by pushing them in different directions than they are used to. The great thing about the actors is they maintain pieces of their creations, but not the entirety of them. For instance, Michael Dorn infuses amnesiac Worf with some of the same wry facial expressions and pride that Worf usually has. Similarly, Jonathan Frakes maintains Riker's sense of boyhood charm and as a result, we do not feel as distanced by the altered characters as we otherwise might.

A great deal of the acting credit goes to Erich Anderson, who plays MacDuff. Anderson manages to insinuate himself into this group in such a way that makes him feel somewhat natural. That is, MacDuff seems like a StarFleet officer for the most part. Anderson deserves credit for creating a viable villain in the guise of a friend and fellow officer. So, while we always suspect MacDuff, there are moments where it seems like he could have been a member of the crew in some other time or place.

The real credit ultimately goes to Michelle Forbes. Forbes returns as the testy Ensign Ro and her performance is wonderful and convincing. She sells us on the idea of being in conflict with Riker and the crew through her abrasive tones and stern body language, something which Forbes' performances on Wonderland, Kalifornia, and now True Blood (season two, which she's in is reviewed here!) contrast. Forbes is an excellent actress and in one of her earliest outings she is already able to experiment in bold ways with her character comfortably and sell us on it.

"Conundrum" is a great piece for anyone who likes science fiction and it's clever enough that those who do not, traditionally, enjoy the genre, may find something to like in this one.

[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 reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

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

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  1. I believe that what you call a "flaw" because it's so obvious is not a's deliberate. We're SUPPOSED to notice MacDuff's sudden appearance and assume he's behind it all. This episode was never intended to be a mystery to the audience with a surprise reveal at the end. The audience is intended to know exactly what's going on, it's about watching the characters piece together the puzzle while we've been looking at the picture on the box all along.

  2. I disagree. I think the episode could have been done more cleverly, instead of putting such an obvious choice in there. As much as I shudder to think, "Allegiance" did the replacement idea better. If it had been someone we cared about, or if MacDuff had been around for a few episodes prior, the episode would have been far more interesting. Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment!