Sunday, August 9, 2015
“No, it's not 'just a phase'”: The Next Phase
Yes, it's very, very good. Thank heavens. This is my favourite Geordi episode. It's also my favourite Laren episode. It may well be my favourite Ron Moore episode. But I have to stop myself, because I'm perfectly liable to spend the entire essay just squealing about Geordi and Laren, and that's going to entertain nobody but myself. So I'll save that for the end and get all of the other things that are good about “The Next Phase” out of the way first.
And there are quite a lot. Dealing with themes of coming to terms with death and loss is nothing new for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and certainly not for Ron Moore. No surprises from him there. What *is* new, at least to this show, is the idea of looking it it from beyond the veil, so to speak: It doesn't go too far down this path, of course, but even so “The Next Phase” does leave open a few tantalizing possibilities for those inclined to read what happens here critically and laterally. It reminds me in this regard a bit of “Power Play” (coincidentally another story where Geordi and Laren featured relatively prominently together, but again I'm getting ahead of myself) where a seemingly supernatural phenomenon (again, ghosts) is explained away by some form of technobabble...But the show never actually goes so far as to debunk the supernatural explanation or claim that the two forms of situated knowledge are not in truth describing the same thing.
And again just like in “Power Play” the story is very good about choosing which specific kind of technobabble to invoke. In the previous episode, the entity possessing Deanna's body claims that consciousness can live on in the ionic storms of a planet's atmosphere which, even though it's technically a lie to mislead Captain Picard and accrue his sympathy so she can take advantage of him and the Enterprise crew, still opens up some particularly interesting avenues of thought. To me, it was a very appealingly animistic way of conceptualizing things fittingly translated into Star Trek: The Next Generation's blend of sci-fi fantasy. This time it's a kind of “interphase cloaking device” developed by the Romulans that renders the user not just invisible but immaterial, existing on a different “phase” of being and therefore able to pass through solid objects, including people and particle beams.
Now, I believe there's a special kind of significance in the fact that it's the Romulans in particular who developed this kind of technology (as Geordi says, the Klingons were working on the same idea but abandoned it after deciding it was untenable-The Romulans didn't) and it isn't because the Romulans are sneaky backstabbing bastards, but this isn't the time or place to properly go into my theory as to why. Instead I'll talk about the ramifications being phased like this has for Laren as a character. One of the things that strikes me as interesting about her when compared to her kinsfolk, whom we'll be meeting a great many of very shortly, is that she's basically an atheist Bajoran, or at least starts out as one. Granted the overwhelming majority of Bajoran culture and society has yet to be fleshed out by the time “The Next Phase” airs (though a lot of it was being feverishly worked on behind-the-scenes), but with foreknowledge this marks Laren as a dreadfully fascinating person as a result.
Like Reg Barclay in last year's “The Nth Degree”, “The Next Phase” is on one level about Laren undergoing a spiritual or shamanic experience and trying to make sense of it after the fact, but unlike Reg we also get in this episode a framework for what Laren's pre-existing spiritual beliefs, or rather lack thereof, happen to be. This is why she spends the first half of this episode trying to make peace with her past life, because, like a great many people who undergo similar experiences in the real world, Laren is filtering what she's seeing and experiencing through the lens of the belief systems she's been brought up with and trying to reconcile them with what she was taught growing up. So when she tells Geordi things like “Don't you get it? We're dead, Geordi. It's as simple as that” and “Why can't you just accept that we've died?”, she's really trying to convince herself as much as she is him. This comes back at the end during the denouement, where she essentially confesses to Geordi that she's now gone from being an atheist to an agnostic as a result of the experience, admitting that she now realises dismissing things outright without a second thought is somewhat arrogant.
You could argue that Laren is being portrayed as a bit misguided and ignorant here, especially given how right it turns out Geordi was about everything. And Geordi, understandably, reacts like a scientific rationalist first and foremost, even though he does start to tune in to how weird the whole thing is the longer he stays phased. But remember that's not actually made explicit for the majority of the episode: From a narrative structure standpoint, it's pretty up in the air for most of the time who's actually right, and it's entirely possible for a good amount of time that Geordi is simply in denial. Granted this only works if you take the episode solely within its own context: There were certainly no announcements that LeVar Burton and Michelle Forbes were leaving the show, so it is pretty clear even from the beginning something else is going on. And anyway, reading this as the show belittling Laren would also require you to disregard how strong of a team she and Geordi make here and how its both Geordi and Laren working together (with some help from Data) that brings them back, and...
Dammit no, not yet!
This is another strong example of how quietly powerful Star Trek: The Next Generation can be when its writing and directing are working in tandem, and David Carson's work behind the camera here deserves special note. It's not quite as striking as what Jonathan Frakes pulled in “Cause and Effect”, but it's revealing in its own subtle ways: I love all the little times when Geordi and Laren are blocked into the background with the rest of the cast out front, especially during the party in ten-forward. I also really like how Geordi anticipates what Data is going to say in the transporter room and the shuttlecraft, as if Data is subconsciously picking up on advice he's giving him from another plane; phantom messages from the ether. Then there's the truly wonderful scene where Laren tries to thank Captain Picard (who can't hear her) for “believing in [her] when no-one else would”...which is immediately followed by Geordi coming in to tell her that he wants to follow Data and Worf to the Romulan vessel and that if he's right about what's happened to them, he's going to need her help (no, stop). And then once they get to the Romulan ship, it's incredibly clever how Carson shoots the phased Romulan out front so that while he manages to blend in with his crewmates, the viewer still gets a niggling suspicion something's not quite right with him...and then he walks through the centre console.
Speaking of body and direction, I also want to get something off my chest here. Well, something else. It's not a fault of this episode, but throughout this season Laren has been portrayed as the problem child because she doesn't always follow orders. But Captain Picard told Data in “Redemption II” that Starfleet, or really him, isn't looking for officers who will “blindly follow orders” and praised Data for his actions in flushing out Commander Sela's fleet in disobedience of Picard's order to withdraw. But then you have him and Commander Riker constantly berating Laren for doing what essentially amounts to the exact same thing in episodes like this one and “Conundrum” (although to be fair to the Captain he did give Laren something of an echo of his speech to Data in her first episode). I mean first and foremost it's ethically the wrong thing to advocate (even Captain Picard said “The claim, 'I was only following orders' has been used to justify too many tragedies in our history), but it's also pretty bloody hypocritical and borderline sexist.
(I know Laren can be pretty sarcastic and standoffish, but that's no excuse. And come on, Worf, Geordi, Doctor Crusher and Doctor Pulaski aren't?)
Nicely, “The Next Phase” gives Riker a scene where the narrative seems to be calling him out on this by having him listen to Worf's concern about giving the Romulans access to a Federation computer core when he had earlier snapped at Laren for questioning the wisdom of beaming over to a Romulan ship unarmed. But I'm not satisfied with that either. Yeah, it plays into Will's character arc here, as you can tell he feels guilty that potentially the last exchange he had with Laren was hostile and that he's been thinking about what she truly meant to him, which is likely the reason why he wants to give her eulogy at the ceremony. But I don't want Star Trek: The Next Generation characters to be depicted as hypocrites-They're supposed to be better than that. Moore and his colleagues may not like the main cast very much, but I do.
Yeah OK that's good enough. Time to talk shipping.
So Geordi La Forge/Ro Laren is basically my Star Trek: The Next Generation OTP. I used to go to bat pretty eagerly for Worf/Deanna Troi too, but as I've been rewatching this season I'm discovering a disturbing amount of that ship hangs on Worf's questionably professional relationship with a person who is essentially his psychologist and therapist (and again, this is the fault of the writers, not the characters: no-one who wasn't this insular and sheltered would have thought that was a good way to introduce a romance). I had remembered it as a far more organic evolution of their shared interest in Alexander, but we've now just seen what I had considered the only two really good Alexander episodes go up in smoke, so this ship is kind of on shaky ground for me now. As of this writing the only pairing I will put in remotely the same league as my unwavering loyalty to Geordi/Laren is Will Riker/Lyrinda Halk, and that only happens in the comic book line.
But Geordi/Laren is canon to the TV series. I'm going to go that far, yes. But more importantly it *works*. Prophets does it ever work. The first reason I'm into this couple so much is of course because it's a reimagining and reincarnation of Geordi's ill-fated romance with Tasha Yar from way back in the first season that we hadn't heard anything about since “Yesterday's Enterprise”. The rest of the third season after that episode kind of screwed Geordi over in terms of romance and the show understandably hasn't wanted to go near that since. But “The Next Phase” is a sort of return to form to the way Geordi used to (and should) be: He still does his usual tech mystery solving stuff that we've come to expect from him too, but his emotions and personality are able to be centre stage here in a way the show hasn't been letting them be in a long time. And so it's only fitting that his partner here be Laren, a reconceptualization of the Tasha Yar concept who fills the narrative role that's been glaringly empty since “Symbiosis”.
But Geordi's relationship with Laren isn't merely a reboot of the relationship he had with Tasha. For one, the circumstances are a lot different: Geordi admired Tasha for her confidence and beauty and looked to her for strength because of that, but he treats Laren as far more of an equal and a valued teammate. This in itself is telling, because it shows how, perhaps paradoxically considering what I just said in the above paragraph, Geordi is actually a much stronger character now then he was in the early first season. So while on the one hand I would have liked to see a little bit of that old tenderness back here, I can't deny this type of characterization plays far more to LeVar Burton's strengths. In fact, the way Geordi works with Laren is a stark contrast with the way he works with Data-The person everyone but me seems to prefer to ship Geordi with.
My issue with the Data/Geordi ship is that it jars horrifically with the way I read Geordi's narrative role. Geordi is basically the LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow translated into a Star Trek: The Next Generation context, which means he's a very specific kind of children's educator. Data, meanwhile, is Star Trek: The Next Generation's child analog, the show having long ago figured out that his exploration into the value of emotions and human experience is a far better allegory for that kind of growth than sticking Wesley Crusher on the bridge. So the relationship Geordi has with Data is the same one that LeVar has with the kids he reads to on Reading Rainbow: He's a fun adult friend who can take Data on adventures and help open his mind to new things. This manifests in the way Geordi interacts with Data in this episode, constantly goading him on to apply what he's learned and figure things out on his own. He even explicitly tells Data at one point to “stop being so rational” and “Try using your imagination once in awhile”. So with all that in mind, shipping Data and Geordi romantically feels...Very wrong to me.
But Laren on the other hand is something else to Geordi entirely. She's an equal, but with a whole different positionality and operating from a completely different situated knowledge-space (albeit one that has strong parallels with his). She can open his eyes to new ideas and new ways of thinking just as much as he can open hers. Geordi wasn't even thinking in terms of spirituality until Laren mentioned it to him, and even though he technically turned out to be right in the end he still wound up granting it as a possibility (“Look, if you're right, then we're dead and none of this matters”, and also slowing down for a bit to to listen to what their friends thought of them and enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being a guest at your own funeral). She's the first character who isn't a fellow scientist-engineer or actually the Enterprise who can keep up with Geordi and work alongside him.
And because of this, they make an incredible team. Just like in “Power Play”, Laren is immediately on Geordi's wavelength when it comes to engineering wizardry. She may not know everything about interphase devices, but she knows enough to converse intelligently with him, and it's only through them working together that they're able to get Data and Captain Picard's attention at the end (and indeed, the idea to set the phased disruptor on overload, which is what ultimately does the trick, was hers). But that alone isn't enough. Geordi has a similar relationship with Doctor Crusher, of course, so in order for Laren to be his true love interest she needs to be more than just a scientific partner for him, which she is: Throughout the course of “The Next Phase” Geordi and Laren don't just work competently and effectively together, they bond with each other at a very deep and intimate level. Remarkably, it's almost entirely due to LeVar Burton and Michelle Forbes themselves, who together have possibly the most incredible chemistry of any two actors on this series before or since.
Although Ron Moore's script does give them both a good deal of material to work with, it also still more or less tries to reinforce the pre-existing Data/Geordi and Will/Laren relationships, the latter being noticeable with Will volunteering to give Laren's eulogy, her freaking out about what he was going to say and the final scene where he sort of kisses her neck when she comes back. But the actors don't seem to give those scenes the weight Moore maybe had intended, particularly LeVar Burton and Michelle Forbes. I've already talked about how the way LeVar plays Geordi asks us to read his relationship with Data a certain way, and Michelle Forbes plays Laren more irritated and indignant at what Will might say about her than desperate and pining.
But it's the way Burton and Forbes act around each other that makes this episode truly sing, and their body language all throughout is some of the most heartbreakingly adorable physical acting I have ever seen. The performances they give bring to life two characters who deeply, profoundly and passionately care for one another: They're genuinely happy and excited to be in each other's presence, and perhaps just a little nervous too. My heart skips a beat whenever Geordi and Laren glance and smile at each other, and it practically melts whenever they embrace. The tenderness when they touch in engineering and the mixture of indescribable joy and awkward trepidation on their faces when they grasp each other's arms in ten-forward...I just...ugh. There's a danger of getting spoiled with how unbelievably talented this cast is, but an episode like this made up of these sorts of exchanges still manages to leave me utterly speechless.
I can see Geordi and Laren being comfortable enough together to actually confide in one another, and neither character has really had that kind of relationship with another person before. Geordi tried to confide in Tasha, but she was always baffled and confused and didn't know how to react to his openness. Data confides in Geordi, but not the other way around. Maybe Laren could confide in Will in some parallel universe somewhere, but certainly not in this one. Laren's too intimidated by Captain Picard to talk to him, and everyone confides in Guinan. But Geordi and Laren are both confidant and outgoing, yet also vulnerable at the same time, and after this episode they've shared something together nobody else on the crew will ever be able to truly understand. Their personalities are as complimentary as Will and Lyrinda's are, and each one is able to support the other with what he or she needs because they both need the same things. They're poised to be as perfect a couple as it's possible to get on Star Trek: The Next Generation, so naturally their relationship is promptly forgotten about and never mentioned again.
(Well actually, there is one more story that picks up this plot thread. It's a minor subplot that's part of a larger story arc, but it's sold with enough respect and conviction that it evokes the actors' real-life chemistry in this episode. And yes of course it's a Michael Jan Friedman comic book, why would you ever think otherwise?)
The image that I remember most vividly from “The Next Phase” is the final one, with Geordi and Laren alone in ten-forward with the lights down after the party's over. I remember it playing out differently than it does; I remember them having more of a heart-to-heart dialog, whereas in the episode itself Laren does most of the talking while Geordi eats everything in front of him. Geordi even ends things with a flippant comment about Laren finally learning humility, but the warmth with which LeVar Burton delivers it takes off any and all of the edge that line could have had. Once again my memory distorts meaning and once again the writing of a scene isn't quite as good as I remember. But in this moment, right now, none of that matters anymore.