Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Search For Vulcan Artifacts Is A Gambit That Pays Off In "Gambit, Part 1!"

The Good: Interesting plot, Good acting, Nice character work
The Bad: In the End, it feels like a setup episode
The Basics: When Captain Picard is killed, the investigation puts Riker in the hands of mercenaries who are hunting for ancient Vulcan artifacts.

As Star Trek The Next Generation came out of a rut in the beginning of its seventh season, it began to take interesting risks. In the first successful episode since the sixth season's finale, the producers succeeded in making the show interesting by opening an episode with Captain Picard's death. It's enough to get the viewers attention. What follows is enough to keep it.

While investigating the apparent death of Captain Picard in a barroom brawl, the Enterprise crew turns up few answers and only one vague lead. As the crew mourns the loss, they ship encounters a raider that engages the ship in battle and the Away Team on a nearby planet in an ambush. In that attack, Riker is abducted by the mercenaries and finds himself in the company of a rogue's gallery of interstellar pirates, including Galen, a loosely disguised Captain Picard. At the earliest opportunity, Picard reveals that the ship is held together by a cruel captain whose control over the "officers" is a pain-inducing device. Picard enlists Riker in helping him discover the nature of the mercenary's mission, which appears to be assembling a device of ancient Vulcan origin.

What makes "Gambit, Part I" work is the shakeup of a pretty tried and true formula. Occasionally, one crew member will go missing and be presumed dead. In this case, both Picard and Riker appear lost and Data is put in temporary command of the Enterprise, with Worf as his first officer. This is a very different command dynamic than the crew is used to and it works quite well at keeping the viewers engaged.

The guest cast works quite well to make the mercenary ship have a very different feel from the Enterprise. Julie Caitlin Brown plays the brash Vekor opposite a cool Robin Curtis as an apparent Romulan mercenary. Curtis is best known to fans of Trek as Saavik from Star Trek III The Search For Spock (reviewed here!) and the opening scenes of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (reviewed here!). Here, Curtis is given the task of playing Tallera, a very different character, a mercenary. Curtis pulls off the role quite well, keeping Tallera different from Saavik using a completely different speech pattern and body language.

The support actors work well as well because they are playing interesting characters. For six full years, the viewers have been captivated by a group of people who solve their problems through long-winded speeches and philosophies. On Baran's mercenary vessel, conflicts are solved through action and torment. It's a different dynamic, yet it keeps the viewer quite interested to make the contrasts between the two ships.

Much of the episode ultimately hinges on the performances of Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes, who play Picard and Riker. For the first time in several seasons, Stewart and Frakes play the captain and first officer with a bond that is evident and based on mutual trust and support. It's refreshing to see it return and both actors make it appear easy, despite its absence for so many years.

Further kudos must go to Stewart, who makes the task of Picard pretending to be Galen look easy. Playing a character playing someone else is a difficult task; many actors end up playing themselves by the second separation. Stewart, instead, pushes his range with making a character who is abrasive and unlikable.

While clearly the first part of a larger story, "Gambit" works well as the story of two ships in contrast: an orderly somewhat militaristic, yet enlightened crew, and a crew of ruffians out for profit. The cliffhanger has the feeling of being somewhat added, as if the writers got to the forty-three minute mark, were still writing and had plenty more to write, but wanted something of note to come before "To Be Continued . . ." That works to the episode's detriment, but it is not enough to not recommend it.

"Gambit, Part I" may be enjoyed by anyone who likes a good mystery or a good action/adventure story with some intelligence to it. The viewer ought to be prepared to watch the resolution soon after, however.

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


For other Star Trek episode, movie or DVD set reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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