Rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation after a 20-year break. Another episode that I had never seen before (so this is technically not a “rewatch”).
The Enterprise traces time blips to the laboratory of a brilliant scientist on a remote research station, where a woman Picard stood up in Paris 22 years ago re-enters his life. The script was written by two women, but that doesn’t fully excuse the presentation of Jenice, who has no identity other than the beautiful, supportive wife of a great man who (and this is the point of the story) is not Picard.
The teaser opens with a fencing match that presents Picard as a kind of country gentleman. The science-fictiony thing of the week is a “time loop” (a blurry VFX shot, after which the actors repeat a few lines, then look puzzled about having done so).
The buildup to the reveal of the Paris cafe set is delightful, as it shows Picard still remembers the exact date and time he was supposed to meet Jenice. After a few minutes it became very clear the set was actually very small, but the matte painting of futuristic Paris, with airborne traffic, was nicely done, as was the device of having Picard spill his own backstory by chatting with the NPCs. As soon as the audience has learned all we need to know, and just when this bit of emotional introspection (prescribed by Counselor Troi) seems to be working its therapeutic magic, Picard stops playing along and marches back to duty.
The episode proceeds through the familiar progression of picking up strange things on the sensors, hearing an incomplete audio message, establishing two-way communication, then in a dramatic moment using the transporter to facilitate a face-to-face meeting.
The details of Dr. Manheim’s time-distortion invention are vague, and the time the rest of the crew spends trying to figure out what’s going on and how to get through the lab’s defense systems is pretty much filler, adding some sci-fi ambiance to the story of the reunited former lovers. Gates McFadden does a good job presenting Dr. Crusher as being completely professional (despite very weak dialogue about “some tests” and “his neurochemistry’s been affected but I don’t know how or why”) and at the same time reacting personally (“I can’t compete with a ghost from his past… No one could.”)
After the crisis, when Dr. Manheim gives a speech about re-dedicating himself to his effort, we see Jenice looking at him adoringly, and we see Picard taking it all in. This exchange was well acted and directed, without too much talkiness. At this point in the story we know that everyone else on the research lab died in an accident a few weeks ago, meaning that every other person Jenice has spent the last 15 years with is gone. We see that she feels it has been worth it… but I don’t buy it.
But this episode is not focused on the guest star. (Unlike, for instance, Too Short a Season, which puts the guest star’s struggle front and center.) Jenice is just a vehicle to present Picard as a brooding romantic hero. How much more drama might this episode have carried if, instead of being dumped by Picard and marrying a brilliant scientist whose dangerous experiments threaten the fabric of time, she herself became the scientist — in part because she married someone who supported her career (something Picard wouldn’t have been able to do).
While the action sequences were tacked on and superfluous, this episode feels like the characters had set nicely. Troi’s suggestions usefully drove the plot, and the holodeck was a useful device instead of a plot gimmick.
I’d have gladly sacrificed the “how will we solve this technological puzzle” subplot for more time developing the relationship between Picard and Jenice, but I guess it’s good that the romance plot left me wanting more. I want to feel that Jenice is heroically pretending to be happy with Manhiem, just as Ilsa went back to Lazlo for the sake of the cause (in Casablanca, the source of the episode’s title), but Manheim doesn’t seem to be trying to solve any particular problem — he’s not trying to invent a way to see through Romulan cloaking devices, or cure a plague on a farm planet, or develop a transporter beam that works through shields. He just seems to be fooling around making time bubbles. The script seems to requires us to take it at face value that Jenice really is happy.
Picard doesn’t linger in his memory of the past, but in the final scene cheerfully invites himself along on a shore leave outing with Riker and Troi. I kind of wish he had invited Dr. Crusher along too.