Too Short a Season (TNG Rewatch: Season 1, Episode 15)

Rewatching ST:TNG after a 20-year break.

I was underwhelmed. The Enterprise delivers an elderly Admiral Jameson on a mission to negotiate with terrorists on a planet where he brokered a hostage release decades ago. The regular cast has very little to do because the story follows the visiting admiral, who ends up being rather unlikable. When we meet him, he’s obviously played by a much younger man in heavy make-up.

The story asks us to spend a lot of time with a character we’ve never met before, who pulls rank and annoys the captain, who spars with the first officer in a way that might be intended to be endearingly crotchety, who invokes some serious smoky eye from the counselor (who this week is required by the script to be unable to articulate her concerns), who lies to the medical officer, who misleads and alarms his own wife, mysteriously youthens before our eyes as the result of a vague “process” involving alien “drugs,” and as a handsome young man seems way too eager to abandon the plan to negotiate and instead wants to lead a tiny assault party.

Anyone not living under a rock at the time the episode aired would have recognized the “arms for hostages” plot as a reference to the Iran Contra Affair of the Reagan presidency, and more specifically the televised testimony of Lt. Colonel Oliver North, a boyishly handsome and highly decorated Marine who helped orchestrate the illegal transaction, and who defended his actions as patriotic.

Some clunky details suggest this show was put together haphazardly.

The cold opening seems to present Picard informing Jameson, for the first time, that the Enterprise is here to pick him up so he can negotiate the hostage situation. Jameson says he and his wife will beam aboard “at 1500 hours.” Immediately after the conversation ends, Data tells Picard “Nearly fifteen hundred now, sir,” so Picard immediately head for the transporter room, where Jameson and his wife materialize.

Why didn’t Jameson just say “We’ll beam over right away?”

Was his wife standing in the room with her 85-year-old husband, already packed, just in case a Federation starship shows up to whisk them off for an adventure?

I guess they didn’t want to do a dissolve to indicate the passage of time in the teaser, and I guess they wanted the surprise reveal that Jameson uses a wheelchair.

I noticed the transporter platform has steps — I didn’t see a ramp. (I suppose they could just beam a ramp in from a storage room.)

Given that so many of the regular cast members voice their suspicions about Jameson, it’s hard to identify with him. Yes, we see an old man who’s happy to be in space again, and we see him flirting with his wife, but those sympathetic details are undercut by the ominous music and the fact that several scenes place his face in shadow —  obviously so that we get a dramatic reveal of the next phase in his age regression. As a viewer, I just had no reason to care. We  hear a bit about the hostages, indirectly through Karnas, but the episode makes no special effort to dramatize their plight.

When we first see Jameson on the bridge, his wheelchair is to Riker’s right, opposite where Dr. Crusher sometimes sits when she visits the bridge. Later, his wheelchair is up behind the curved security console, so that when Picard for some reason suggests Jameson take the navigation station, the admiral is far enough away that he can stand dramatically and walk down the ramp. If he had been seated next to Riker, as he was before, he’d only have to walk a few steps — and we’ve already seen him hoist himself out of his wheelchair into a regular chair, so seeing him move from sitting next to Riker to sitting in LaForge’s seat wouldn’t have been very dramatic.

Near the end of the episode, a rejuvenated Jameson argues with Picard about the landing party tactics, and dramatically Picard steps up onto the transporter platform to announce he’s going along.

There just so happens to be an empty space on one of the six transporter circles, in the front row, right next to the admiral. Obviously this is so Picard can step dramatically into the frame, but it meant that before they knew Picard was coming, everybody else on the platform would have to walk past that pad and not use it, which doesn’t make sense. I suppose they might have left it free on the theory that Riker would use it, but when Jameson is ready to go, Riker is still on the ground, standing next to Picard. He doesn’t seem to be ready to join the landing party. Perhaps Picard had briefed Riker about his plans, because this time Riker doesn’t even voice a token objection to the captain going on a dangerous mission, and Picard lampshades the issue with a hasty bit of dialogue.

It’s another awkward bit of staging detail, like the shadowy lighting and the relocated wheelchair, that probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but called a lot of attention to itself.

I’d like to have seen more about Jameson’s relationship with Karnas, the one who informs Jameson the terrorists want him and only him to lead the negotiations. I say I want to have “seen more,” not “heard more,” because this is a very talky episode, and I think the story calls for us to be more impressed by the make-up transformation than we really are.  (Yes, it was good for TV in the 80s, but this is Star Trek — we’ve seen aging in better stories such as TOS “The Deadly Years” and even the cartoon episode “The Counter-Clock Incident.”)

Anne seems to exist only to humanize Jameson. It’s not her story, so we can’t expect much from her character arc, but perhaps she could be from the planet where the crisis is happening, and perhaps Karnas is ruling now because he displaced Anne’s faction? Even if the episode was too crowded to add a scene featuring the terrorists, if Anne had some connection to those terrorists, and Troi sensed Anne had her own mixed feelings, that might have been an interesting complication.

I found myself feeling embarrassed for guest actor Clayton Rohner, who had to say lines like “The herb and drug combinations are self-administered slowly over a period of two years” and “Aliens are seldom allowed to obtain the process, but I managed it.” Meanwhile, Crusher says, “I found traces of chemical substances in his blood and tissue samples, but none of them are in our pharmacopoeia.”  It’s as if, this early in the series, they weren’t even trying to come up with plausible technobabble.

My favorite moment in this episode as a brief character moment when Picard barks, “Get me some answers, Doctor.” After Crusher looks a little startled, Picard softens all the way down to an actual smile, adding, “As soon as possible.”

At this, Crusher perks up, and with a knowing smile of her own, tuns to her console with renewed energy.

Stewart’s unexpected shift in tone and McFadden’s delivery of “Yes sir” turned the scene into a delightful character moment. Together they created a subtext that suggests Picard had said, “I see you’re already making this the priority, and there really was no need for me to order you to do your job — carry on, I trust you.”

Oh, and I always enjoy a hand phaser skirmish. I liked that Yar was questioning Jameson’s hard-press tactics, suggesting instead they use the transporter a bit more strategically.

Overall, a weak episode.