Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Is "Disaster" Worth Another Viewing?

With the recent acquisition of the DVD sets I've jumped headfirst back into what I always recall  as being an amazing series and I've not been disappointed in the least.  For a few years I had wandered from the path of Trek but I have now returned to the Fold and am seeing a little more than I did the first, second or third time around!

To be honest I'm probably overplaying that a bit. I've been a Trek fan for life. I was brought up on it and The Apple was the first episode - indeed the first programme - I saw on the first colour TV we owned in 1985. I watched it at 6pm, BBC2 in the UK on Wednesdays and then TNG when it premiered.  It wasn't until Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that I really got bitten and since then I've never looked back.  In fact I'll probably look back in some other blog shortly along with a few other Trek tales I'm sure.

Anyway...life's events drew me away but late last year while my partner was pregnant I introduced her to Season One of Picard and Co. Sadly Patrick Stewart now makes her feel a bit queasy but I've stuck with them and have made it to Series Five after what doesn't seem to be a particularly long time.

Which brings me to the point - I have a new found appreciation for the series, particularly some of the less popular installments.  The one in this case is "Disaster".

Never an episode likely to make it into a majority top ten, "Disaster" is still a fascinating episode which places most of the cast in fish out of water scenarios. Notably its a bottle show which is perhaps why it is overlooked with the action taking place on standing sets of the bridge, Ten Forward, Main Engineering, a turbolift and a cargo bay.

Here we gain some interesting insights into the crew; Picard trapped in the confines of a turbo lift with three children, Riker and Data attempting to make an obstacle-filled trek to Main Engineering, Geordi and Beverley about to be either poisoned or blown up in a cargo bay, Troi placed in a rare position of command and Worf acting as midwife for Keiko amid the medical centre/rescue area of Ten Forward.

So that's my synopsis and that's as much as you get because this isn't the TNG Companion. What I'm here for is to look at what is significant about some of the series' hidden gems and the things we might be able to get out of the lesser classics. 


Each of the characters is given a chance to shine here which is rare given the direction from 1989 to focus on a specific character each week instead of alien guest episodes as per the first two exploratory seasons. Picard's discomfort with children is an aspect of the captain's personality which has festered since "Encounter at Farpoint" and rarely revisited until now although it is nowhere near as difficult as before. Perhaps this is a by-product of his relationship with Wesley in the preceding seasons yet these children are significantly younger and present Picard with a diverse range of personalities to contend with. What is fascinating is that once the captain is forced into a position where he has to rely on the children and ensure their safety he chooses to relate to them within the structure of a crew. The relationship becomes much more aligned to something that the captain is more comfortable with. Indeed his discomfort actually pushes him into creating a comfort zone to deal with the challenge of managing three scared children. This makes Picard the only character who chooses to stray into familiar territory to bring about the resolution to his strand. Strange for a captain and a man who has had to deal with Klingons, Romulans, Q, the Borg (just). Maybe we should view children as J-LP's one weakness forever more.

Data and Riker's story is the most straight-forward of the threads within these 45 minutes.  Get to Engineering; fix the ship - with the added twist that the android ends up a little headless - or more precisely bodiless.  This is quite a basic thread and pretty necessary for the resolution of the story but it does give Riker the chance to play about with Data's circuitry for a second time ("The Measure of a Man"). Of course it's not the last time in this season that Data's head will be a feature of a storyline ("Time's Arrow"). The Geordi and Beverley aspect is perhaps a little on the bland side apart from getting to see the chief engineer auditioning for the Dancing Doctor.  Why doesn't one of them stay by the door and one of them remain at the control panel to shut the door?  We will never know. Perhaps the tension from this strand is diluted because we can be 100% certain that both characters are likely to come through this unscathed.  It's a physical danger which is not the case for the ship's counsellor.

In fact that line really fascinates me about "Disaster".  While it gives Troi the opportunity to spread her wings beyond sensing the emotional mood of the crew and sit in the command chair for one shot at least, Marina Sirtis is consigned to be the "What's that mean?" standpoint for the viewer.  While we are reminded of the rank Troi holds (Lt Cmdr) you have to wonder how she managed to get that far on the ladder with such little knowledge of the finer points of bridge etiquette - what's even more impressive is the wonders that two years can do ("Eye of the Beholder") where the counsellor has managed to assimilate everything she could possibly need to know about Starfleet to gain her promotion to Commander and its associated bridge privileges.

Troi's story possibly gives the most insight into the characters involved and genuinely there is conflict within the crew most notably thanks to the second appearance of Ensign Ro (still with early Bajoran spike-nose makeup). It would have been interesting to see how the relationship sparked here between O'Brien and Ro would have developed into Deep Space Nine although we could hypothesize that we still get to see it as Major Kira was the straight-replacement for Ro although with the Bajoran terrorist background and perhaps a more serrated edges. Neither do we get to experience it fully in TNG due to Ro's sprinkling of appearances between here and "Pre-Emptive Strike".


While we can see "Disaster" as a way to explore some lesser known aspects of our characters and provide another "comic" interlude for Worf I actually believe this is a rare TNG moment where the comfort zones of some characters are withdrawn and they are faced with the necessity of dealing with difficult situations whether they like it or not. Oddly the Worf plot line involving his delivery of Keiko's baby is perhaps the easiest to comprehend as Dorn usually ended up with the more off the wall moments within TNG. Perhaps that's a bit harsh but I would suggest the Klingon occasionally becomes the unexpected bearer of an episode's humour - see "Justice", "Qpid" et al for reference. Here it is once more pulled out and so while it is a difficult situation we get to experience it with a little light-heartedness which counters against the more dramatic and "life-threatening" events occurring elsewhere on the Enterprise . Little do we realise at this point that the O'Brien family would become such a focal point in the later DS9 even though it was already a possibility in the minds of the exec producers. While it makes for good TV, as with the Troi-in-command story, it does seem a very unlikely situation and maybe it's actually a step that edges TNG's believability factor just that little bit too far .  However it does classify in the section for a character doing something particular out of character as I'm not sure how many security chiefs would be around to deliver children!


In conclusion we can safely say this is not a character driven episode which is a distinct shift away from the ethos of seasons three through seven. Here it's the events that take centre stage thanks to that pesky quantum filament.  The plots all intertwine within the confines of the Enterprise and while separated by their locations are still linked by the nature of the ship-wide peril. "Disaster"  is a solid episode but in the realms of shipwide disaster-centric shows, Voyager's "Year of Hell"  does it a lot better with more destruction, more results and unfortunately the big Reset Button to void it all right at the end. DS9's two spins on this story through "Civil Defense" and "Starship Down" are good and thoroughly enjoyable but they don't work as well as the TNG episode basically due to the fact that they are much more action orientated and I don't sense that there is much opportunity for character development. VGR on the other hand character develops like mad and then wipes it all clean in the second half.

Of all the pieces played out here it's good to note that this does bring a recurring character into the Trek universe with the arrival of Molly O'Brien but there could have been more opportunity to play out what the characters learnt here especially Deanna. Troi merely gets an apology and a cast glance from Ro and then has to wait two seasons to  take the bridge officer's test. Had this been a DS9 installment then I firmly believe that the effects would have been played out over the next few episodes or seasons but the concept of ongoing plotlines was still probably just that; a concept (actually in "Starship Down" there are Dominion overtones due to the emerging arcs but again this is discussion for another time, place and blog).

Next for my viewing pleasure is "The Game".  At the moment I'm still wavering whether it's worth tapping the keyboard for that one but I'll get back to you!

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