There is, of course, a bit more to it than either of those interpretations might lead you to believe. Not much, I'll grant, but some. “We'll Always Have Paris” is essentially Star Trek: The Next Generation doing Casablanca, with Captain Picard as Humphrey Bogart, Michelle Phillips as Ingrid Bergman and a great big fuck-off mad science experiment with time distortion in place of World War II and Nazis. This is all, of course, fairly standard operating procedure for the show at this point: The Manheim Effect, which causes one specific point in time to repeat itself, is rather transparently supposed to be a metaphor for Jenice meeting Captain Picard again and the latter's subsequent re-examination of his past life choices. In this regard, it doesn't bring much new to the table in terms of maturation themes then the likes of, say “The Battle”, “Too Short a Season”, “Coming of Age” or “Heart of Glory”. It does, however, handle romantic relationships a hell of a lot better than “The Naked Now” did.
What I love about this episode is how emotionally honest everyone is, especially Captain Picard. There was room here for the character to be played very gruff and uncomfortable, as if he's unwilling to own his past mistakes (“Enough of this self-indulgence!” springs immediately to mind for me here), but Patrick Stewart, as usual, plays against this, and infuses his lines with a delicate balance of remorse, nostalgia, affection and acceptance. But due to the script's stronger moments and the actors' considerable skill (Michelle Phillips is, perhaps surprisingly, quite good as well), “We'll Always Have Paris” comes across as a very emotionally mature story about two adults coming to terms with their past lives and past selves. In that sense, while it doesn't particularly *add* anything to the themes Star Trek: The Next Generation has been working with over the course of the past year, it does very clearly build upon them. It's a story the Original Series not only wouldn't do, but was flatly incapable of doing, and its another sign that in spite of its occasional missteps, Star Trek: The Next Generation genuinely has transformed Star Trek into something newer, fresher and better in its inaugural season.
There's a lot of subtler moments outside of Patrick Stewart's and Michelle Phillips' turns that make this clear as well. The fact that we *can* so casually and dismissively say the sci-fi plot and the human story are meant to be allegories for one another means we've reached the point where we can take that for granted, and that's extremely telling. Star Trek: The Next Generation doesn't do dumb pulp action tales or self-indulgent, self-absorbed Golden Age Hard SF logic puzzle plots: It compares its outer space setting with its inner space heart and shows them to be the same thing. It's a very quiet, yet noticeable, statement of purpose that was definitely needed coming in the wake of the most tumultuous section of a very tumultuous year. In that respect, I love how Captain Picard can call up a setting clearly similar to, but not the same as, his infamous date with Jenice on the Holodeck, and the Holodeck itself seems to know what he needs and provide him with a situation where he can, in some way, make peace with his memories. The Holodeck is basically role-playing with him and helping him work out his feelings through art, and I think that's rather lovely.
(Also a great deal of fun is when Picard, Riker and Data run into their alternate universe counterparts in the turbolift. But that also just makes me miss Tasha Yar again, because I try to imagine how she'd flippantly react to running into another one of her. I'm still hurt she was cut down just as she was starting to come into her own as a character.)
As good as this all is though, this does raise a concerning motif about Star Trek: The Next Generation that begins here and becomes a reoccurring issue throughout the rest of the series. That is, I don't think this show is prepared to handle romance all that well. Every time it does, I find it to either feel very forced, stilted or off-putting in one way or another. I've mentioned my dislike of the Picard/Beverly ship before, and there's some of that here too. However, I will say Gates McFadden reacts brilliantly here as usual with one of her most memorably hilarious exchanges:
For real, any story that does not let Gates McFadden play Doctor Crusher as essentially a comedy character is missing out on a huge opportunity.Troi: "Are you all right?"Bev: "Why wouldn't I be? I've got one of the medical wonders of the galaxy dying in my sick bay!"Troi: "That's not what I meant."Bev: "I don't think I want to talk about what I think you mean.”
But there are other aspects to this episode's, and this show's, handling of romance that bug me. One, putting Patrick Stewart in anything resembling a romantic male lead part is a rather tragic and disturbing misreading of his considerable talents. This episode gets a pass because it's about a past relationship from his youth, but once we get further into the series things get dicier. But it's not just Patrick Stewart: I am phenomenally uncomfortable seeing this cast and these characters engaged in romance and/or sexuality. For me, it's a bit like listening to your relatives going on about their sex lives. That's simply not the kind of relationship I have with these people and I have *no* interest in allowing it to become that kind of a relationship. I'm all for these characters having active love lives well into middle age and seniority, but, as with much about this show, I prefer a slightly different tack then the scripted drama norm. And really, we ought to be well beyond the point where we're dealing with girls-of-the-week. Again, this episode skirts by (barely), but it doesn't exactly set a great precedent.
(Oh and apparently the writers wanted Captain Picard to “do the wild thing” with Jenice during a commercial break at some point during the episode. Patrick Stewart was quite vehemently opposed to this idea.)
There's also the small matter that the infamous 1988 Writer's Guild strike broke out midway through production of this story, and it quite clearly shows. The strike would drag on for an obscene season and a half, and is going to utterly cripple the remainder of Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season and the entirety of its second. In the case of “We'll Always Have Paris”, the strike impeded revision of the script such that it had to go out before the ending was finalized. So, if this story feels like nothing is really accomplished and it doesn't really have an ending, that's because it doesn't. Which is a shame, because there are a number of interesting paths it could have gone down: Doctor Manheim could have escaped into another dimension, calling back to themes the show dealt with at the opposite end of the season about transcendent states and the nature of reality, leaving Jenice to start a new life, possibly aboard the Enterprise, to explore the concept of travelling in her own way. After all, Manheim did tell Captain Picard (in his own moment of making peace with his past), that he's not done well by Jenice and that he feels she deserves better. To be fair, Michelle Phillips likely wouldn't have signed on as a regular, but there are some fun and tantalizing ideas here to think about.
But that aside, “We'll Always Have Paris” is decent and solidly enjoyable in its own right, which is more than I can say about a lot of the episodes submarined by the Writer's Guild strike. I also have to give special praise to Rod Loomis, who plays Doctor Manheim as the most gloriously bug-eyed and deranged B-movie mad scientist imaginable and who my sister and have affectionately nicknamed “Doctor Crazy-Eyes”. He elevates every single scene he's in and makes an already solid production all the more enjoyable. He goes above and beyond, determined to have fun even when circumstances are against him, which means he's done right by the Enterprise if no-one else.