Saturday, 29 December 2012

Another Chance to Play "The Game"

Lefler: Your neutrinos are drifting... 
It's not the first on my list to watch for a second time but my full re-run through of Star Trek: The Next Generation has brought me to "The Game".
What becomes quickly apparent is that they must have been saving the budget for "Unification" which follows this episode. Most of the installment is ship-based with only the pre-titles and any shots of Etana Jol being off the Enterprise - and these are in close quarters head and shoulder viewscreen clips so budget for that set wouldn't have been a massive drain on the available funds. 

So, what are we here to look at?

It would be hard to discuss this episode without mentioning two points - addiction and the return of Wesley Crusher.  Both are at the forefront of "The Game" which has a single A Story but neither makes it any more impressive. I sat down to watch this when I was probably about 14-15 years old and it certainly doesn't seem to have improved with the passing of time.  It's great to see Wes back don't get me wrong - and as the lead character - but the concept of the episode seems fatally flawed almost from the onset as everyone seems to want to over-induldge in this fleeting return and forgot to add any real depth to it.  Starfleet Academy is sprinkled over with only a few coy references (including Boothby who we will see later in the season) and some "hilarious" antics involving that cheeky chappy Mr Crusher. If that's all the Academy is about was it really worth the Borg/Klingons/Romulans et al even bothering with Sector 001? They could've just beamed a load of banana peels or buckets of shaving foam to HQ and everyone would have fallen about laughing...apparently.

I digress...

So, while I can believe that Riker would get addicted to the game very easily especially when introduced to it by the duplicitous/playful Jol on Risa, it's the return to the Enterprise that leaves me cold.  Troi is his first target and I'm glad she's one of the first addicted purely to avoid any more cringe-worthy scenes such as  that which I will term as "The Chocolate Monologue" in Ten Forward: 

Riker: Doesn't it taste good?
Troi: Of course it does but it's not just a matter of taste. It's the whole experience.  First of all you have to spoon the fudge around the rim, leaving only the ice cream in the middle.  Then you gently spoon the ice cream around the sides like you're sculpting it. Relish every bite - make every one an event and then, with the last spoonful, close your eyes.

Urgh. Sadly this is one of my top three most cringe-worthy moments of TNG.  Equally upsetting for Troi fans is the fact that I also accredit spots two and three to the Betazoid counsellor. The first being her sensing of "great joy and happiness" from the alien lifeforms at the end of "Encounter at Farpoint" and the second as Troi's blubbing at the end of Star Trek Nemesis following Data's death. I would ease off a little if she wasn't involved in the travesty that is "These are the Voyages...". Apologies Ms Sirtis but that's just my opinion.

While Troi, Geordi and probably a good proportion of the crew would be susceptible to trying the game I just don't get why Picard or Worf, for example, would readily have a go. The "reality" factor that only Wes and Lefler would not play is pushing it to the limit and this is where the whole premise seems to break down.  Suddenly the entire crew is playing Jol's game and if this is the case who is actually controlling the ship?! Why would the captain or Worf even want a go?  Surely this is a child's plaything for the Klingons and brings no honour? If it's that easy to get addicted the Empire must surely be the next target?! 

OK, I understand that this is an episodic analysis of addiction (the game, Troi's chocolate thing) but it takes it to the very edge of plausibility which is then wrapped up with a flashing light in a matter of seconds with the reappearance of Data. Again Wesley is lucky to be on the ship as he finds the breaks in Data's circuitry that EVEN LA FORGE can't find?  Seriously?  So does this mean that actually the Academy is breeding super-humans who play practical jokes most of the time?  Very confusing and inconsistent in my opinion. There are much better examples of addiction and its results namely the actions and loyalty of the Jem'Hadar in Deep Space Nine and I would refer readers to the episode entitled "Hippocratic Oath" in particular. (Am I being too harsh here???) I'm sure by this point we can see that this episode is hanging by a thread.

Notably this is one of the few occasions where Trek steps a little close to the innuendo line and that's not just the aforementioned chocolate scene. There's the undertones of the Wes/Lefler relationship but the biggest offender here is the titular game itself.  So, what exactly is the prize when you complete a level?! Wes discovers it's affecting the reasoning sections and pleasure centres of the brain.  I will say no more.

I do get the way in which Etana Jol chooses to take control of the Enterprise and then use the crew and ship to conduct acts of warfare. It's a neat little trick and certainly a new spin on the take-over scenario we would potentially predict to see. Even after is all revealed and Data saves the day with some assistance from Wesley,  I still can't bring myself to feel any differently  how I did back in the 90's on its first viewing. "The Game" is average and it focuses too much on a character who left a year previously in a fairly decent segment of the pretty good fourth season. Given the option I would jump at a chance to rewatch "The First Duty" over this.  It's a far superior Wesley installment post-"Final Mission" and most definitely a preference to "Journey's End" (I intend to cover both but this may be as a single blog about Crusher Jr). This isn't to say that having Mr Crusher back on board for a jaunt and the chance to get the girl isn't a good thing and in all truth it probably helps to bring this story out of being quite dull - indeed, Jol's plan would actually have succeeded if he hadn't! So much for the best crew in the fleet - after what they've been through, this kind of "attack" should surely have been picked up within a matter of seconds!!!

Perhaps the question to round off this blog should be around whether or not this episode manages to tackle addiction effectively. I would argue no because of the way in which Wes and Lefler are the only two left when surely they would be more susceptible to giving the game a go. Another point to raise here is the fact that not only are we seeing a story revolve around one returnee in the form of Wesley but he's accompanied by a character who was previously a bit part in "Darmok" and is never seen again although Ashley Judd would go onto much greater things following her appearance here. Notably there was the hope to bring her back for "The First Duty" but that didn't work out which is a shame as she could have become something of a recurring character in the Barclay/O'Brien/Ro/Ogawa mould. Perhaps it is with a retrospective eye that we can be picky around this character because of her limited (although it wasn't known at the time) appearances.  Could she have been a possible Wesley replacement for the final two years?  We know that originally the character Wil Wheaton played was going to be a girl!

Sadly it's one of Trek's failures to grasp the concept of addiction here and really explore it effectively when this could have been a great opportunity to utilise Troi in a more prominent manner. This is surely the kind of plot that the counsellor would be perfect for but once again she is sidelined and this time for two kids.  Also there is the fact that the game device is clearly a call-centre headset doesn't help its argument. It does feel like a space filler of an episode and that can only be justified even further by the fact that "Unification" follows hereafter and they spent up on filming outdoors for "Darmok" but for light entertainment during what has been a heavy start to the season it helps break up the enveloping nature of the greater stories surrounding it.

I'm fully intending a piece on the seminal two-parter and will probably cover the lesser episodes following it as part of a Season Five review when I finish off the box set after Christmas.(Half-way through so another month should nail it). I simply don't want to bore a lot of people with ramblings about Trek episodes week in week out. 

If there are any specific episodes you'd like to debate/see a discussion on please drop a note here/subscribe etc and I'll take a look.  Anything pre-season five can be done pretty much straight away and I'll bookmark anything ahead in six and seven! Thanks also to everyone who has read this.  Feedback is appreciated!

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