Tuesday, May 5, 2015

“Piecing it together”: Clues

This is an episode that has always been noteworthy to me for being one I keep feeling as though I should like a whole lot less than I do. On paper, it sounds like it's setting up an irritating “Shocking Betrayal!” plot involving Data supposedly lying to the crew, which is the kind of story I hate (and compounding the obnoxiousness, we've already been made to watch Data do something similar earlier in the season in “Brothers”). But it's an episode I've always found to be perfectly enjoyable, and all of my hypothetical doubts are always assuaged every time I watch it.

I think what saves “Clues” from the hackish melodrama quagmire that sinks so many other productions in the fourth season is that it goes out of its way to hedge against the stock dramatic conventions this kind of setup would otherwise use as a crutch: The story takes extreme care to ensure we never once think Data actually is attempting to maliciously mislead or betray the crew-In fact, he makes a point of never technically lying (at least not any more than he has to, depending on your reading of the probe scene and the “30 seconds” bit), just withholding specific bits of information, dancing around some topics by answering in hypotheticals and speaking the literal truth that he cannot answer certain questions. And even when the, erm, clues, start to stack up, the crew never once suspects Data is willfully turning against them, but rather that he might be physically compromised in some manner or is being coerced not to participate in the investigation. Which, of course, turns out to be exactly what's going on. Because of this, “Clues” gets to dodge the flak canon of hackneyed drama tropes to instead become a story about how much the crew really does trust and respect each other.

This was an important point for the show to emphasize, given “Clues” is technically speaking the first “regular” episode of our new Star Trek: The Next Generation, following the two-part premier event of “Data's Day” and “The Wounded” and the strange, if fun, aberration of “Devil's Due” (which was if nothing else a polite, but firm, declaration to any new viewer that Star Trek: The Next Generation is not Star Trek, which does in a sense follow on from "The Wounded" in one respect). It's a reinforcement of the themes those earlier episodes introduced and a reminder of the commitment the show has finally made to being about utopian conflict resolution. It also might be interesting to take note of how structurally “Clues” is an inverse of “Data's Day”: In that episode, we shared Data's perspective looking in at the rest of the Enterprise crew from the outside. Here, that situation is reversed, with us being in with the rest of the Enterprise crew looking at Data with uncertainty and concern. But most importantly of all, that tension is resolved at the end with the crew being symbolically reunited at last.

Body-wise, “Clues” is an eminently straightforward mystery plot. It's fun because it's such a good translation of that structure into the context of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but there's not a ton more to say about it than that. It even has the big climactic reveal where one character grinds the action to a halt to explain everything in front of everybody else for half an act. It's certainly no Dirty Pair: One could make the argument that the show's signature lyricism is present here as we get an echo of the clues and deduction themes in Picard and Guinan's Dixon Hill holodeck programme, but I'm personally more inclined to read that as basic blunt-force foreshadowing. But as is so often the case on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the sublime talent of the cast and crew manage to elevate something that would otherwise be middling and forgettable-It did it last week with the Original Series, and it does it here with Poirot. “Clues” is certainly a far better average baseline to be shooting for than “The Loss” or “Suddenly Human”.

(It's also the first episode largely centred around a figuring out some cosmic mystery or puzzle that we've seen since the second season, and the first one where the entire crew gets to contribute something to the investigation. This is going to become a staple of numerous memorable Star Trek: The Next Generation Mark II episodes, so it's neat to see it finally arrive.)

Speaking of the cast, this is another standout episode for them. As something of an enjoyably (if maybe a bit counterintuitively) low-key story, we get a lot of really nice scenes of the crew mulling about and being social with one another. I especially love Worf leading the crew in martial arts lessons and Doctor Crusher playing around with plants and chatting with Alyssa Ogawa and Miles O'Brien. Its Bev who I think is the standout of the main cast for me here-it helps that this is a story that's in her wheelhouse already, and she always seems to shine when you put her in a more casual situation. But while Bev might be the standout of the characters and even though the story hinges on Brent Spiner's Data (who is predictably excellent, of course), it's Marina Sirtis who stands apart from the players, assuming the role of the Paxan spokesperson.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann sort of poke fun at Deanna Troi's tendency to get possessed by alien consciousnesses, a theme that begins to pick up starting with this episode. It's not a joke that originates with the historians; it's something fans (and “fans”) have laughed about for years. But there's actually a very tangible, material reason why this becomes such a theme, and for once it's actually not sexism. Rather, it's because of how criminally underserved Marina Sirtis was in the part of Deanna Troi: In the post on “The Loss” we touched briefly on how the creative team pretty much didn't know how to write for Deanna whatsoever, and, to be fair, it's not a part that gives anyone a whole lot of room to play as originally conceived. Like everything, there was room for a functional character here, but circumstances have sort of put a handicap on that for the time being and it'll be another year or so before the team finally comes up with a solution for Deanna that works.

But here though, we're beginning to see the show finally acknowledge that it's got a flat-out brilliant actor on its hands who's being unforgivably shafted. The fix they come up with for the time being isn't particularly an ideal one as it does make Deanna come across as a bit of a stooge, but it does at last give Marina Sirtis room to breathe in ways that don't totally assassinate Troi's character. She can be as fiery, passionate, dominant and commanding as she wants, and none of it matters in-universe because it's not actually Deanna who's speaking. “Clues” isn't the best example of this strategy in play, we'll have to wait another year to see the likely definitive take on it and then a few more months after that to see the team finally find a way to integrate this back into the character of Deanna. Here, the Paxan rep doesn't get a lot of scenes, though the few she does are pretty memorable (nonchalantly flinging Worf across the bridge by his wrist merely being the most memorable). It's not even technically the first time the show has experimented with this (just look back to last week to Marina Sirtis playing Ardra playing Deanna Troi). But it is an important turning point for the show regardless and, while maybe not the best possible outcome, it's not an altogether bad one either.

Another thing that's interesting about “Clues”, particularly in lieu of the reading we've been building over the past few episodes, is that it involves missing time. This is a theme we can trace back at least to the UFO abduction reports of the mid-20th century, possibly earlier (even the Original Series played with this on a couple of occasions), but what's the most telling about it showing up in the context of Star Trek: The Next Generation is that this means this is a story about, basically, a story not being there. The central thrust of the mystery here is that an adventure happened the crew cannot recall and, officially, never happened. This of course brings in all sorts of fascinating tangential threads about retcons and memory that seem altogether fitting in the wake of Star Trek: The Next Generation rewriting its own history. Our past in a sense always exists in memory; all we know about it is what we choose to remember, or what we are told to. It's up to us to, like the Enterprise crew in this episode, look at the clues and signifiers that have been left behind and piece together what that means for ourselves.

There are some things we remember that change with time and experience, and some things that are better off being forgotten. The meaning we attribute to our memories forms the shape of our identities, and its through them that we try to make sense of our pan-temporal existences. The past is always with us as part of the cyclical, ever-evolving present. I think we should strive to make the best of such timescapes as we can, because those are the ones in which we make our lives.


  1. Clues is solid. And I'd argue, like Devil's Due is actually another example of a Classic TOS plot being adapted to TNG, but leaving the baggage of the Sixties show behind and capitalizing on the actors in the Nineties to elevate the material.

    Beverly haranguing Miles could totally transfer back and be McCoy haranguing Scotty. Picard's growing frustration with Data could very easily have been Kirk growing frustrated with Spock. Spock as "outsider/observer" AND psychic, could have also served the Deanna role. And not to linger too long, the big for TOS cast could've knocked it out.

    But while it's subject matter, plot structure that could fit as easily in any given show, it means all the more right now, in the here and now, with the history - particularly the very recent history - built-in with these characters. With a Beverly who has been allowed to be the comic relief science officer lately. With a freshly married O'Brien, with a Data we've spent a day with, with a Picard who is starting to get a lot of these introspective learning experiences from his younger compatriots, who is growing, re-embracing minor good backbeats like detective mysteries and archaeology (and linking them) while shedding some of the lousier tendencies. With a Geordi firmly placed at the heart of the ship, and a Riker as the prime example of human openness and friendship, where trusting Data really finally means more than just trusting Data.

    1. I should say "A classic TOS-style plot", as Devil's Due is obviously an actual 1:1 lift from an unfinished script. The nearest analogy to Clues I can think of is maybe something like a hybridization of Balance of Terror, Mark of Gideon, and maybe the one where Scotty's accused of murder? Or the Sargons, where there's some psychic possession and mistrust of Spock's possessor.

      There's good magick here, though.

  2. I like Clues a lot, but, and again, this is going on the impressions of tween-me, it felt like there was a writer on board making everyone supernaturally dense for half an hour to stop the plot from resolving itself too fast.

  3. I do remember really enjoying this story as the Data plots were always a pleasure for me - don't have much more to add, but thanks Josh!