If two undergrads from different departments have restraining orders against each other, and they both applied for the same divisional scholarship, would I put them in a Winnebago for an overnight trip to a neutral location in order to decide who gets the money? I guess I would, if I were a character in a fledgling TV series trying out a mystery trope.
One of my favorite moments of classic Trek is a moral dilemma posed by an empathetic alien shapeshifter that kills people by sucking all the salt out of their bodies. In the form of kindly Dr. McCoy, it carefully points out that the creature everyone wants to kill is simply doing what it does naturally to survive. This was Star Trek at its best.
We do get a little of this — but only a little — in “Lonely Among Us,” a “bottle” episode that takes place entirely on the Enterprise. Conflict between two species who petition for membership in the Federation turns out to be the B-plot. On its way past a mysterious optical special effect, the Enterprise picks up a strange glowing spark via the sensor array, and as such entities tend to do in Star Trek, it starts wreaking havoc. We get a lot of exterior shots of the ship, some alien character designs that would have worked better in background shots, a glimpse at a sensor relay room we’ve never seen before (though it’s pretty obviously a redress of Engineering), and some glimpses of the Crushers at home.
When the spark-possessed doctor wanders into her quarters, Wesley is excited by her sudden apparent interest in his warp theory homework. This was, I think, a good use of Wesley — I felt sad for him later when, no longer possessed, his mother says she doesn’t remember their previous conversation. She’s clearly enjoying his company, smiling at him and patting his leg affectionately, but she’s like the parents in “The Music Man” whose affection is laughable because it renders them incapable of objectively assessing talent (“Linus, play to me son!”). Knowing how many “Wesley saves the ship” episodes are coming, I thought this was a well-done, subtle depiction of Wesley’s isolation.
As with many of these early episodes, the pacing is just off. Even as threats to the ship mount, the conflict between the reptilian Selay and the feline(?) Anticans is treated as comic relief. Riker and Yar barely tolerate them, and Picard gives one of his speeches about “all that nonsense” that used to cause violence over “differences in customs, God concepts, and even, strangely enough, economic systems.” Though Riker professes he “didn’t understand that kind of hostility even when I studied Earth history,” he picks up right away on Picard’s references to Sherlock Holmes, which sets up the C plot of Data smoking a pipe and looking at things through a big magnifying glass. Overall I was not impressed with the Holmes bit. In order to set up the line, “Indubitably, my good woman,” the writers force Yar to play Watson and deliver the banal line, “We can learn something from non-disclosure?” (What kind of training does a security chief get if she needs an android to channel Holmes to tell her how investigators deal with partial truths?) I did chuckle at Spiner’s delivery of Data’s line, “Elementary, my dear Riker. Sir.”
I was also unimpressed by a hokey scene in which Troy uses “hypnosis” on Crusher in oder to recover her memory of what happened just before the alien took her over. It’s almost as if the writers were recycling a scene they had written for Spock to use a mind-meld.
I’d rather have learned a little more about the sparkly blue alien, and how much of Picard was behind the speech about merging with an energy being to explore the unknown. Troi’s oddly specific “feeling” that Picard was planning to use the transporter to beam him into a cloud isn’t terribly consistent with what we know of her emotion-sensing abilities, especially since we just saw her use “hypnosis” to get similar specifics from Crusher. And the idea that we can use the transporter to restore Picard from a backup opens up a can of worms. Why didn’t they reconstitute the dead assistant chief engineer from his latest transporter backup? The episode doesn’t spend enough time establishing that there’s something special about these circumstances that make this unusual use of the transporter possible.
In the sensor room, LaForge is holding a thin plastic rectangle as if it’s a tablet computer, but I still haven’t spotted one of the PADDs that becomes such an iconic part of the show. At home with the Crushers we see Wesley using a desktop computer and a few chunky handheld device. In a later scene, Wesley is carrying a very thin tablet whose surface we only barely glimpse, while Beverly is curled up on the couch reading from a chunky tablet. In an earlier scene, Dr. Crusher wears a futuristic doctor’s headband, only instead of an iconic round mirror it’s a lens that presumably augments her vision in some way. I don’t recall ever seeing that prop again. I like seeing the characters using these props very casually, without saying things like, “Let me show you that file on my hand-held wireless telescreen device.”