Sunday, February 8, 2015
“That would take us in the wrong direction”: The Vengeance Factor
It starts out with what is, for my money, one of the most unforgettable opening sequences in the series: Commander Riker, Doctor Crusher, Worf and Data make up an away team beaming down to an imposingly alien looking planetary settlement. There's a palpable sense of mystery and foreboding perfectly accentuated by the terrifically eery green stage lighting as the team picks through the rubble of the bombed-out research centre. There's no Captain's Log to provide blase exposition, just a cold open with the team already on a head-start to a situation they know more about than we do. “The Vengeance Factor”'s opening moments really are a design triumph: That matte painting actually has a famous pedigree, as it's the same one used in the science fiction classic The Forbidden Planet. Mike Okuda had wanted to use it in Star Trek: The Next Generation for a long time, and when he finally got the opportunity, he rented the physical piece for this episode. And the research centre really feels like it's been built around that painting: The set design matches it so perfectly and so seamlessly it's a shock to learn they don't come from the same place.
From this point “The Vengeance Factor” doesn't let up on the visual front, but like all good Star Trek: The Next Generation episode it's got a solid story to tell as well. One perhaps gets a little worried early on upon learning we're going to be dealing with a group of displaced people who've become nomads forced to plunder remote settlements to get vital supplies: This is an area of politics Star Trek is historically shaky on, and while this episode maybe doesn't go quite as far as we'd really like, it does manage to take a stand that's admirably not a reactionary default. The Enterprise crew, especially Captain Picard, are the most overtly sympathetic to the Gatherers' plight and are in the position of constantly reminding the Sovereign to keep her decades of bitterness over the conflict between the two factions in check by reminding her that were she in their place she'd be demanding the same things (there's even a terrific bit of 1980s design on display when we first meet the Gatherers, who apparently reside in world of fantastic postmodern cyberpunk urban decay and who resemble a cross between 1980s chain gang street punks and Mad Max-esque road warriors-I absolutely love it).
Then there's Commander Riker's plot, which is lovely. The episode plays an interesting sort of skip when it comes to diegtic information: At first, the characters know far more about the situation than we do, but, as soon as we move the action to Gamma Hromi II, they suddenly start to know far less as it's revealed to us in one shot how Yuta is an assassin whose actions will work against peace talks and that she kills using some kind of biotech interface. We'll leave the details and motives of her killings for Doctor Crusher to figure out, but the point is we learn the story's big “twist” fairly early on, thus leaving us free to pay more attention to the character story. Which is, of course, Riker's interest in and culture clash with Yuta and their inevitable tragic falling out.
(It's worth mentioning just how good this episode is for Doctor Crusher, in fact, which is as good for her as “The Enemy” was bad for Deanna Troi: She's in the thick of things from the very beginning, working hand-on-hand with Riker to solve the mystery of the murder plot threatening the Acamarian treaty. In fact, it's her unmatched expertise at scientific deduction, a side of Bev we haven't seen much of since “Home Soil”, that provides the key to ousting Yuta's plot. This episode is an important step forward in defining what Doctor Crusher's role on the team actually is: While Doctor Pulaski may have been a better surgeon and healer, Doctor Crusher is an unparalleled biologist and scientific investigator.)
Will's position here is tremendously admirable: What he's espousing tends to get bandied about rather crassly as “free will” and “individuality”, but what he's really advocating is something a bit more nuanced than that. What Will values is self respect so far is it allows a person to pursue their true callings in life and egalitarianism such that everyone has the opportunity to do the same.
It's a very anarchist-friendly message, and, returning to the plot with the Gatherers, it's Will's elegance and energy here that sets the tone that allows the peace talks to happen. Picard's great at mediating, of course (and note how Patrick Stewart plays this here: Picard's clearly a talented mediator only inasmuch as that's the mission he has in front of him at the moment and he's doing it to the best of his abilities. One gets the sense he's a much more comfortable explorer), but it's Riker who voices the soul of the story here. We might wonder if it's ultimately a good idea for the Gatherers to re-acclimate to Acamarian society: After all, it's not inherently a bad thing that they're nomads, and it sounds as like the deal would have them become subject to rule by whatever statist governing authority resides on Acamaria, and that *is* a bad thing as far as I'm concerned. But look again at the one group of people the Gatherers trust almost immediately: The Enterprise crew, who live in a world of neverending voyage and where replicators can cater to your every need or desire. Brull wants a better life for his people, and maybe we're supposed to wonder whether he'll get that by signing the deal with the Acamarian Sovereign.
The one weak link is, of course, Wesley Crusher. He's the *only* character in the *entire production* who is nothing but contemptuous to the Gatherers, looking down his nose and sneering at them from the moment they come aboard the Enterprise. Sure, Brull was a bit short with him on the bridge, but, as we later learn, that was more due to pleasant surprise at the opportunities life onboard the Enterprise offers to people his age. Opportunities that Brull's own children, also Wesley's age, have been denied. And yet even then, Wesley never relents in his condescension: You can simply *feel* the elitist, privileged, classist disgust in his voice when Brull tries to talk to him in Ten Forward, disgust Wil Wheaton sells alarmingly well. It feels like a corner has finally turned for Wesley Crusher here: It feels like Wheaton has finally decided that if his character is going to be written as a insufferably smug asshole, he'll play him as an insufferably smug asshole. And Wheaton is way, way too good of an actor for this to be watchable or palatable. Really, it would be best for everyone involved if he made his way off the ship as quickly as possible now.
Returning to Yuta for a moment, the climactic scene with her and Riker, while memorable, also gives us another glimpse at the difference between this production team and the preceding ones. Yuta shows Riker she's incapable of changing and casting aside her subservience to her programmed mission. She gives into her role as basically a biological weapon, forcing Riker to kill her. In previous seasons, a character like Yuta might have been considered redeemable: The story might have shown her as having grown from her experience with Commander Riker's idealism and become a better person as a result, deciding to spare Chorgan of her own volition. Indeed, Gene Roddenberry himself was opposed to Yuta dying, but he was out of town the week of production so the creative team literally snuck the scene into the show while he wasn't looking. So now, in this season, Yuta fails and must die because that's tragic and tragedy breeds conflict, which is now valued above just about everything else, even utopian idealism. And it's only going to get worse from here.
Marvin Rush is back in top form this week after his somewhat less-than-captivating efforts last time. He once again uses a lot of shadow and vivid contrast, which I happen to think always looks good on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Particularly outstanding highlights for me are that final scene on Chorgan's ship, any shot in Ten Forward or Riker's quarters, the battle on Gamma Hromi II, which Rush lights to perfectly compliment the awesome dystopian 1980s chain gang vibe that scene's got going for it and, of course, the opening scene in the bombed out Forbidden Planet base. The special effects team also pull out some cool party pieces, with some great viewscreen shots and some really memorable one-off set and starship design. I also want to take special note of the six-foot Enterprise model, which has been looking particularly nice the past few weeks (especially here and in “Booby Trap”), especially as this is the last time we're going to see any non-stock footage shots of it. I love the way it's been so darkly lit (oxymoronic, I know) this season: Because the exterior studio lights on the hull have been turned down, it sort of blends into the starfield behind it with only its running lights, deflector dish and windows standing out from the vastness of outer space. It's a unique look I wish we got to see more of.
“The Vengeance Factor” is definitely a standout for me: It's an episode of firsts and lasts, which in many ways makes it an archetypical story for the third season. Given that I've tended to stumble across it so frequently, I'd call it one of the easiest to revisit from this year's crop of episodes too. I like it even more now that it looks as good as it always could have: It was never this striking when I was watching it through several generations of shitty 1980s VHS decay. And in a decade when images hold such power and weight, that's almost the most important thing of all.