Sunday, December 6, 2015
“No, I won't sit idly by as you hurl clichés at me”: Suspicions
I was originally planning to criticize “Suspicions” for being grimdark-Just another boring and juvenile “lengths they will go”, “doing that which must be done” exercise in false depth. But in reality if it's grimdark, it's only halfheartedly so, because “Suspicions” is halfhearted everything. The grimdark stuff feels like going through the motions, as if there's just this assumption that any story about a murder investigation simply has to be grimdark for the portagonists to have any stake in solving it (tracing grimdark's lineage back to Frank Miller is almost a cliché these days, but the comparison does need to be drawn in this circumstance as those are his signature beats to the letter, albeit really watered down and done in a middling fashion). And, for that matter, that we need token “character development” every week to hold the show together. Which, if we're being perfectly honest, is precisely the kind of assumption it's reasonable to guess was floating around this production team's offices, even if it's not as dogmatic as it might be amongst their colleagues across the street.
But more to the point, “Suspicions” is just a boring and inept production. The flashback and voiceover stuff is resoundingly pilloried in fandom (which is something of a surprise for me to learn, as I'd always figured this episode was rather well liked for the aforementioned grimdark), and there is something to be said about the hackneyed use of such noir staples to the point it's become an almost instantaneous signifier of the parodical. However, given that this precise format is going to be used to astronomical success and wild acclaim in little under a year just with Odo instead of Beverly, I'd be careful about writing that off as a fault of “Suspicions”. Maybe then Star Trek: The Next Generation is just bad at this kind of story: While writer Naren Shankar doesn't say that, he does say that he didn't think he was very good at writing murder mysteries.
While I can't speak for Shankar, I do think it would be silly to argue this crew can't do murder mysteries. It's true that given its setting Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a little better poised to handle a brief like this, but it's not impossible to do it over here. “Aquiel” from earlier in the year was a damn good one as far as I was concerned, and it was successful because it remembered the major strength of Star Trek, and especially this version of it, is competency porn and that this crew shines the brightest when you let them do the things they're good at in service of working together to solve the mystery. And that the best way you do that is essentially write a kind of procedural, but the most naturalistic and engaging procedural you've ever seen. The problem with “Suspicions” is that it's effectively the opposite of that, showing Beverly screwing up and wallowing in it. Granted she's not screwing up in her investigative techniques, but she's violating all kinds of regulations and ethical standards to get at the truth, and the story is more interested in how she feels about that then watching her be clever and figuring things out.
Normally I applaud any kind of rule-breaking in Star Trek, but this isn't rule breaking in service of any kind of grater good. I mean it kind of is, at least in terms of the diegetic plot, but the story isn't about vindicating Beverly's actions, its about forcing her anguish at having done what she did. Now that I think about it, this is precisely the kind of voyeuristic conflict spectacle that the various undercurrents of “Frame of Mind” were looking at and rebelling against: Just like Will in that episode, Beverly is subjected to a kind of psychological torture for our amusement, but “Suspicions” lacks the necessary extra level of higher metatext that made “Frame of Mind” work because “Frame of Mind” was a masterpiece and “Suspicions” is boring crap.
I suppose it's interesting to note how the plot of this episode deals, at least in passing, with Ferengi culture and tradition shortly after another episode that deals with them in quite intricate detail. One wonders how much the two teams were communicating with each other in that respect, however, as the depiction of Ferengi funerary rites seems to pretty explicitly contradict what was established in “The Nagus”. People have tried to handwave it this away, but (and you know I'm straining for material here if I start poking at continuity) really it just seems to be a contradiction born out of carelessness. If you're going to build an established universe that spans two concurrently running television series shot across the street from one another that are freely viewable to any and all parties involved at any given time, it seems to me you'd be a bit more behooved to make things like this click together a little tighter than at times they seem to.
I mean there are a few good moments here and there, mostly due to, as always, how astonishingly good the cast is. Beverly is as entertainingly witty and sardonic as ever, both in Gates McFadden's delivery and in the script itself. That's worth taking note of because it's indicative of how the actors' unique takes and personalities have become so well known and so accepted as part of who the characters are by this point that scripts are even written specifically with them in mind. And it's especially telling that we're talking about Gates McFadden here, and actor well-known for not getting on astonishingly well with various production teams over the years, so there's positives to be found in that if nothing else. And there really is nothing else.
Well...There is one thing. Because “Suspicions” is notable as the final appearance of Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan. This is assuredly due to coincidence and scheduling conflicts (she was even tapped to appear in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Rivals” but Goldberg wasn't available during filming), but still, this is sort of an ignominious note for the character to go out on. Star Trek loses something from her absence here, even if a lot of her narrative role is now filled by Jadzia Dax. Guinan had a unique kind of folk magic all her own: Jadzia may be every bit as mystical, but her power takes a different form. As much as Jadzia is an Emissary to the Prophets, we can't quite imagine her staring down Q with the same kind of imperious power Guinan exudes. Star Trek: The Next Generation without her feels like Star Trek: The Next Generation without Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Tasha Yar and Ro Laren.
That is, inconceivable.