Rewatching TNG after almost 20 years. (Yes, I know the show is older than that.)
When the show first aired in 1986, I was living in an apartment-style dorm. When this episode first aired, the guy who owned the TV in our common room was flipping back and forth between it and a sporting event. When I went to the TV lounge in the basement, someone else was watching the same game and wasn’t interested in Star Trek. So I only saw bits and pieces of this episode when it first aired, and frankly those bits didn’t interest me enough to catch it in reruns.
This episode involves the Enterprise crew in an alien culture’s ritualistic hand-to-hand battle to the death, for the sake of a love match that turns out not to be what it seems (very much in the line of TOS “Amok Time”). It gave us an early glimpse of the TNG Federation as powerful enough to take what it wants, but constrained by its belief in the Prime Directive (not interfering with the natural development of alien cultures). Unlike its TOS counterpart, we aren’t that emotionally invested in this culture because instead of Vulcans it’s the Planet of Sexy Black Stereotypes. Ramping up the stakes are reports of an off-screen plague; catering to the cultural whims of PSBS means a delay in acquiring the antidote they have promised.
As leader Luton, Jessie Lawrence Ferguson does a good job chewing the scenery with his Alpha Male speeches, offering enough in-world charisma and bombast to carry his role, while occasionally transcending the one-dimensional material he was given.
Likewise, when Picard interrupts himself to apologize for lecturing to his own officers, his own tendency towards bombast is lessened, leaving us to ponder the value of Picard’s ideas rather than admire his rhetorical prowess. A scene where Picard gets friendly with the patriarchy and hangs with the bros for the sake of gathering intelligence could have been awful, but was actually watchable, which is high praise for this overall weak episode.
I didn’t care for a scene in Troi gets Yar to admit she’s attracted to Mr. Alpha Male (“I thought we were friends. You tricked me!” says the highly trained, no nonsense chief of security). I did like a moment where we see Yar stretching in her quarters, and other scenes in which she nervously paced and and perked up when she predicted her chances of winning the match.
On the Enterprise, we have glimpses of a computer display showing a top-down map of the environment around the landing party — a standard feature of most RPG games these days, but pretty futuristic at the time. We also see LaForge shaving with a glowing blue cube, a technological innovation that remains futuristic. I don’t remember the rest of the series making much use of the fact that LaForge’s VISOR can identify and analyze poison like a medical tricorder. And we have another cringeworthy scene in which Picard softens a bit and lets Wesley sit at a bridge station. (I have no complaints about actor Wil Wheaton but I do shudder thinking of all the Wesley ex Machina plot resolutions to come.)
I was a little surprised early in the episode to see Riker encouraging Picard to be patient; he is acting on what he has learned about the Ligonian’s culture, so his advice is strategic rather than personal. And while it was enjoyable watching an angry Picard spit out a “please,” the Picard I know as a master diplomat and seasoned starship captain would have no trouble being, you know, diplomatic.
Another character bit I thought was unusual was Troi’s surprisingly cold endorsement of the battle to the death, on the grounds that Yar has a good chance. Yes, they are jumping through hoops to acquire this episode’s McGuffin and justify the girl-fight, and we soon learn that all along the plan was to beam away the combatants and deploy medical technobabble to counter the effects of the poison, so I can understand the plot contrivance. I just don’t remember this darker, pragmatic side of Troi being a big part of the later series.
While this episode was overall dated and cringeworthy, I did enjoy an unexpected double-cross, which in retrospect I should have seen coming since there was a similar double-cross in “Amok Time.”