Thursday, September 25, 2014
“For in her dark she brings the mystic star”: Lonely Among Us
Part of the reason why the Anticans and the Selay got action figures that early is surely because they were likely the only new extraterrestrial characters created for Star Trek: The Next Generation apart from Q Galoob would have had access to when they were prepping designs. But I personally think it may have been at least partly because the Anticans and the Selay are genuinely well-done and memorable creatures. Makeup artist Michael Westmore credits them as his favourites among the characters he designed for the first season, in spite of a few of the Selay masks being a bit too rigid to be able to properly emote. And it really is entirely due to Westmore's work: Culturally speaking, neither group is “something to write home about”, as Data would say-They basically exist to hate each other and serve as suspects when the cloud starts wrecking shit in the ship's internal systems. The show's not quite gotten to the point where it can portray an entirely alien culture with conviction and nuance. What is interesting about the diplomacy part of the story is how it's used as another showcase for the show's progressive post-scarcity utopianism. In this case, the crew's unfamiliarity with disputes over territory, resources and religion (and memorably “economic policy”, as Captain Picard points out) are contrasted with the latent mutual hostility between the Anticans and the Selay. We also learn from Riker that humans no longer need to domesticate animals for food (the word he uses is “enslave”, which is wonderfully loaded).
But even though the script paints them as entirely forgettable and one-note, the Anticans and the Selay still stick in my mind. They're among the most iconic images and signifiers of this part of the show for me: Later on in the year, the show will throw out some truly questionable material on the aesthetics front, but this time the imagery and mood is more than enough to carry the story. Aside from the delegates themselves, there's also the cloud tank trick that were used to create the Beta Renner being and the straight-out-of-Star Wars lightning bolt effects (clearly, ILM were showing off). Whenever I think of season one, I immediately think of the Anticans and the Selay, and indeed this episode on the whole.
“Lonely Among Us” is not terribly captivating from a narrative standpoint. It's a bottle show of the sort the show is going to find much better and much more effective ways of handling later on, and the plot is standard-issue science fiction fluff. There's some delegates, a murder mystery, and a weird alien thing that takes over people's brains. But all that said it's worth commenting on how well-executed and professionally the show handles the brief here: Nobody can be argued to be phoning it in here, it's a very capable ensemble story for the time with every major character getting something important to contribute, nobody gets talked over, shouted down or ignored, which was frustrating to watch in some earlier scripts, and there are some very memorable performances on display. Brent Spiner is so obvious it's not even really worth mentioning: It's his first opportunity to do his Sherlock Holmes routine that will go on to be so important to Data's character in the future, and he predictably leaps into the role with flamboyant gusto. But I mean, seven episodes in and it's already clear we can expect no less from Spiner. LeVar Burton gets some nice cracks, Colm Meaney is back, Michael Dorn gets something to do and Marina Sirtis, Patrick Stewart and Gates McFadden all get a chance to show sides of their range they weren't able to before.
But for me the highlights of the week are Denise Crosby and Jonathan Frakes, who between them basically have to run the ship when their crewmembers star acting erratic and the delegates start eating each other. Denise Crosby play Tasha visibly harried and exasperated by the goings-on and her inability to keep them in order. Her understated performance works in her favour this time, and her subtle irritation at life in general actually allows her to steal the comic relief role from Spiner's mugging: She's a delight to watch here. This is also the beginning of Crosby's genial rapport with Jonathan Frakes, as their characters spend a lot of time troubleshooting together. As for Frakes, gets to play Riker commanding and competent for really the first time, and the scene where he conspires in secret with Geordi, Doctor Crusher and Data to relieve Captain Picard of duty is a frankly stunning example of how well this cast understands and gels with one another even at this comparatively early stage: The actors play off of each other wonderfully and you can sense the genuine, heartfelt concern and trepidation in their voices and body language.
The cast had long since become fast friends, of course: Everyone has their own story of how they met each other the first day filming “Encounter at Farpoint” and immediately felt a deep and powerful connection with each other and how they quickly became best friends and remain so to this day. Doug Drexler tells Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann In Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 how the bridge set was like a “futuristic night club”, with bowling, slam poetry sessions, impersonations, wrestling matches, singing and dancing and copious amounts of general screwing around. It's extremely rare not just in Star Trek, not just in television, but in any kind of production or life in general, to get that level of camaraderie and friendship. It sounds like an absolutely magical time, and reminds me of the few times I would travel to camps or workshop seminars and meet people who shared my interests and positionalities and with whom I too felt an immediate and intense kinship. The only difference is that I eventually fell out of communication with all of my friends, but these actors all remain soulmates. Star Trek: The Next Generation and its cast were both truly blessed.
But the one production-level factoid about “Lonely Among Us” that really seals it as an iconic story for me is the cinematography. It's uniquely dark, which I simply love. There are entire sections of the set blacked out at a time, and the scenes with Riker, Tasha and the delegates all feature a lot of moody light and shadowplay. To me, this is the definitive look of Star Trek: The Next Generation's inaugural year, and why this episode is always at the forefront of my mind when I think about it. While later seasons are maligned (unfairly, I might add, go watch the restorations), for being too brightly lit and looking washed out, it is true that the ambient light gets turned up a bit when Marvin Rush takes over from Edward R. Brown as director of photography in the third season. This means that the show's earliest years, in particular this one, have an unmistakeably distinctive moody and filmic (but not cinematic) look about them, and this episode is a masterclass example of that. Which is, bluntly all it needs. Between the Anticans, the Selay and the cinematography, “Lonely Among Us” has far more to offer that's worth remembering apart from its rather passable plot. If it's mediocre, it's mediocre in a very Long 1980s way, and that's not a bad thing, because images and emotions are more powerful than words anyway.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is still intractably evocative and still looks like absolutely nothing else, and that's all that matters.