Oct 27 2011 1:00pm

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “Shades of Gray”

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “Shades of Gray”

“Shades of Gray”
Written by Maurice Hurley and Richard Manning & Hans Beimler
Directed by Rob Bowman
Season 2, Episode 22
Production episode 40272-148
Original air date: July 17, 1989
Stardate: 42976.1

Captain’s Log: While on an away mission to a jungle planet, La Forge finds Riker sitting with a cut on his leg. O’Brien tries to beam him up, but the transporter detects unidentified microbes that the biofilter can’t screen out. Pulaski beams down and examines Riker’s incredibly fake-looking wound. He says there’s no pain, but it’s a bit numb. When she overrides the medical lockout, they beam up, and Riker’s leg goes dead.

Riker’s nervous system has been invaded by microbes that act a bit like both a virus and a bacteria, but it’s tied so closely to his nervous system that surgery’s out of the question.

Data and La Forge beam down to try to find a sample. They come across a vine that appears dead, but which has thorns on it that seek out warm-blooded life and attacks them. There are fossilized remains near the vines that suggest to Data that it’s predatory.

Pulaski can’t find a way to stop the infection. Riker is being philosophical about it, and still joking with the nurses and with Troi. While sitting with the latter, he lapses into a coma. The microbes have spread to his spinal column, and it’ll hit his brain within an hour, killing him.

The doctor’s solution to delaying the inevitable is to stimulate the nerves with electrical impulses to keep them pootling along. This requires sticking lots of needles in his head, which makes Riker look like a rejected victim from A Clockwork Orange.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “Shades of Gray”

We then get the first clip of the clip show: Riker remembers beaming down all alone in “The Last Outpost,” which is a nice bit of cute symbolism.

Pulaski finds a method of neuron stimulation that is at least keeping the microbes at bay. Troi senses that he’s dreaming, and he recalls his first meeting with Data on the holodeck in “Encounter at Farpoint,” followed by his attempt at giving advice on meeting women to Wes (with Guinan’s help) from “The Dauphin,” followed by his goodbye to Troi when he thought he might be going off on the Aries in “The Icarus Factor.”

Troi senses that he’s relaxed, and Pulaski says that he’s remembering things intensely, a side effect of the neural stimulation. Pulaski also notices a change in the microbes from the intense memories, so she stimulates other memories, starting with the away team’s arrival on Edo in “Justice,” followed by his first meeting Minuet in the holographic New Orleans jazz club in “11001001,” then his liaisons with Mistress Beata in “Angel One” and Brenna Odell in “Up the Long Ladder.”

Unfortunately, making him feel good has made the microbes grow faster. They’ve made things worse — but Pulaski now theorizes that they feed on endorphins. She tries stimulating different emotions, more negative ones, including Yar’s death in “Skin of Evil” and Troi’s “son” Ian’s discorporation in “The Child.”

The negative emotions slow the organism down, so Pulaski triggers more: Riker beating the snot out of Klag on the bridge of the Pagh in “A Matter of Honor” and the parasite-enhanced Admiral Quinn beating the snot out of Riker in “Conspiracy.” It’s slowing the organism down, but not enough. He needs to have memories that prompt even stronger, more primal emotions than the ones he just experienced.

So Pulaski hits him with T’Jon threatening his life in “Symbiosis,” the Ferengi attacking them in “The Last Outpost,” Armus The Sadistic Oil Slick sucking him into himself in “Skin of Evil,” Picard and Riker setting the auto-destruct sequence in “11001001,” and the rescue of the Klingons from the exploding freighter in “Heart of Glory.”

The growth rate is slowed to almost nothing, but the microbe’s still there, so Pulaski’s solution is to start a montage! We get clips from “Conspiracy,” “The Last Outpost,” “Symbiosis,” “11001001,” “The Naked Now,” “Skin of Evil,” “A Matter of Honor,” “Loud as a Whisper,” “Unnatural Selection,” and “Heart of Glory,” and after being subjected to a second and third iteration of Riker screaming, “Data, something’s got meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” from “Skin of Evil,” the organism — overcome by the dullness of the clips — finally runs screaming from Riker’s body.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “Shades of Gray”

Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi’s mental link with Riker helps Pulaski judge his emotional state while remembering things.

If I Only Had a Brain…: Data tries to talk La Forge into not beaming back down with him, as the microbes would be less likely to hurt him than La Forge. La Forge’s very unconvincing argument is that they might like androids, too. Yeah, that makes sense.

I’m a Doctor, Not an Escalator: Pulaski gets to take the transporter for the first time since “Unnatural Selection.” O’Brien jokes about it, to her annoyance.

Welcome Aboard: The only guest this week is Colm Meaney as O’Brien, since the idea is to save money, so no real guest stars.

I Believe I Said That: “Of course I know who I am. I’m Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise!”

“I’m delighted that you’re feeling better, Captain — the admiral and I were worried about you.”

“Captain, I do not believe you have the authority to promote me to the rank of admiral.”

Riker being silly, Picard playing along, and Data totally missing the joke.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “Shades of Gray”

Trivial Matters: Because the season went over budget, in particular “Elementary, Dear Data” (with its elaborate sets and costumes) and “Q Who” (with the Borg and space battles), Paramount demanded an episode that could be shot in three days. The solution was to do a clip show. Lucky lucky us.

Pulaski asks a nurse to keep “tri-cordrazine” on hand in case of a seizure, which must be a fancier version of the cordrazine that McCoy used in “City on the Edge of Forever.” So it’s like cordrazine, only three times better!

Make it so. “The snake died.” Okay, I totally get that the show had gone overbudget, and it was certainly worth seeing “Elementary, Dear Data” and “Q Who” in their full glory, but holy cow, was this a train wreck of an episode.

Put it this way: I’ve been a huge Star Trek fan since birth, and a professional Star Trek writer for over a decade. When TNG first aired, I recorded the episodes on VHS tapes, and kept them even after I got the whole series on DVD.

With all that, the viewing of this episode for this rewatch was the first time I watched “Shades of Gray” since it first aired in the summer of 1989.

And honestly it was worse this time than it was then, because we’ve had shows like Xena, Hercules, and Stargate SG1 raise the bar on how to do a clip show. On top of that, the clips weren’t even that interesting. I mean, seriously, focusing all the clips on Riker, who’s, like, the fourth- or fifth-most interesting character on the show? And doing a lame-ass medical “drama” with a cheap excuse to give Riker memories that would serve as clips? Gah.

In all honesty, they’d have been better off doing one fewer episode — the season was shortened by the writers strike anyhow — and upping the budget on one of the other 21. Just an awful, awful episode.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “Shades of Gray”


Warp factor rating: 0

Keith R.A. DeCandido has a story coming out in November called “Ragnarok and Roll” that will be in Tales from the House Band, edited by Deborah Grabien. His most recent critically acclaimed novels are Guilt in Innocence, part of “Tales from the Scattered Earth,” a shared-world science fiction concept, and the fantastical police procedurals SCPD: The Case of the Claw and Unicorn Precinct. Find out more about Keith at his web site, which is a portal to (among many other things) his Facebook page, his Twitter feed, his blog, and his podcasts, Dead Kitchen Radio, The Chronic Rift, and the Parsec Award-winning HG World.

1. Rootboy
What I hate most about this one is it kind of looks like a real episode in the beginning. So when you go "wait a minute, this is a clip show!" you've already wasted 15 minutes watching the bloody thing.

And I'd rank Riker 4th, after Picard, Data, and Worf, and above Geordi, Crusher, and Troi.
2. Mike S.
Well, I don't watch any of the other shows you mentioned, so I can't compare as far as clip shows go.

I will say that, only a couple of lines prior to when we get to the clips (the story about Riker's great-grandfather, and O'Brien "hoping he has the right coordinates") is the only thing of redeeming value.

Not sure if it's the worst episode TNG ever did, but it's certianly bottom 5 along with "Genesis", "Sub Rosa", "Force of Nature" (man did season 7 have some bad ones - some great ones too, fortunatly) and "Aquiel." "The Outcast", "Cost of Living", and "Imaginary Friend" are also candidates (I include nothing from season 1, because that's a whole different level of bad). I'm sure I've left out quite a few others.

I suppose a TNG clip show could have been done well, but not as a money-saver. You'd need to spend more money, and right around this time in the show's life, maybe have some Borg drones study the Enterprise's missions (since this is all they know of 24th century Earth at this point in the show), in preperation for the upcoming invasion. That's all I could think of that would make a clip show work.
Alan Courchene
3. Majicou
I'm of two minds about this one--is it TNG's worst episode, or does it just not qualify as an episode?
One key to doing a passable clip show is, of course, having a decent library of things worth showing. Doing it just before your series really kicks into high gear (and only two years in) is colossally bad timing. Or, of course, you can go the route of Clerks: The Animated Series or Community and do a show of clips that never existed before, but that'd be tough to pull off in a drama.
4. Christopher L. Bennett
I don't think I've watched this episode more than once -- or maybe twice -- either.

And to the list of series that have raised the bar on how to do clip shows, I'd add Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda. "The Unconquerable Man" is perhaps the cleverest clip show ever, incorporating its clips not as flashbacks but as portions of an alternate-timeline version of the series' past events which is, in some ways, cooler than the original version and totally transforms our assumptions about the entire series up to that point. (Like most of GRA's best episodes, it was written by Zack Stentz & Ashley Miller, now famous as the screenwriters of Thor and X-Men: First Class.)

Heck, they even did good clip shows on the '88 syndicated Superboy series, a contemporary of TNG. They did a couple that rather cleverly used the flashbacks and reminiscences as a means of advancing the character arcs. So even by the standards of clip shows at the time, "Shades of Gray" was weak and uninspired.

But if it has one thing going for it, it's the fact that it was so bad that Trek's producers became determined never to let a clip show happen again. So later on, when they needed to save money, they'd write small, intimate stories driven by characters and ideas and featuring a bare minimum of visual effects, action, new sets, etc. And as a result, we got superlative episodes like "The Drumhead" and DS9's "Duet."

It's also worth dispelling the myth that "Shades of Gray" was a result of the '88 writers' strike. A lot of people think that, but they've got their timing wrong. The strike affected the end of the first season and delayed the start of the second. By the time this episode happened, the strike was long over. And there's no reason a writers' strike would result in a clip show anyway, because a clip show still needs a writer to create the connecting material and figure out how to incorporate the clips. Clip shows are done to save money, plain and simple.

Though it's odd that this season, which was already running 4 episodes short due to the strike delaying its start, was the one that ran out of money. You'd think they would've had 4 episodes' worth of extra money to play with. But I guess the budget for the season was cut in proportion to its length.
5. Edgar Governo
In terms of the series I've watched, I'll agree that both Stargate and Andromeda found really clever ways to produce clip episodes which also manage to have an actual story advancing the overall plot of the series.

I can't fault TNG too much for this, though, since it seemed like every show in the late Eighties had at least one gratuitous clip episode in the pipeline. I know it felt really standard at the time, so that Star Trek would be no different.
6. Bob Ahrens
Dry this one out and you could fertilize Yosemite for a year. PEEEEYEEEWWW! The term "clip show" always makes me reach for the remote. It reminds me that though the Original seventy-nine(?) had it's share of fecal matter as well (Spock's Brain anybody? Tastes like chicken...), I don't remember Gene ever sinking THIS low.
BTW, is anybody doing a TOS rewatch with the new digital enhancements?
7. Pendard
"Data, somethings's GOT MEEEEEE....
"Data, somethings's GOT MEEEEEE....
"Data, somethings's GOT MEEEEEE...."

MAN, this was bad! I'm happy to see you rated it 0 out of 10. You would have been justified in doing negative numbers!

And it's made doubly bad by the results the next time TNG was in a budget crunch. Originally, "The Drumhead" was supposed to be a clip show too -- that's why there are so many references to other episodes. Instead they decided to do an episode without clips, made only on standing sets, with a minimal guest cast and only one effects shot. That's how you save money, morons!

@Mike S. (#2): I guess there's no accounting for taste, because "The Outcast" and "Cost of Living" would probably be in my top 25 episodes from all Star Trek series.
8. JoeNotCharles
The best clip show of all time was Robotech's Phantasm (available on Hulu, and probably Youtube), which had a pretty similar plot to this one - lead character dreams while injured and under medical care - except that they took clips from earlier episodes and redubbed them with different dialogue so that while they're immediately recognizable they're also surprising. It feels like the dreamer is going over memorable things which happened to him recently while filtering them all through his mind's current obsession - I've had dreams just like that!

They threw in some surreal linking animation involving people floating unprotected in space and planes appearing out of nowhere, and used it to tell a barely coherant story with just enough continuity surrounding the sudden scene shifts to feel like a real dream. Includes the immortal line, "Rick Hunter was shot down today while trying to fly a bicycle."
9. JoeNotCharles
(Oh, and as a bonus, one of the sequences makes more sense when re-used in the dream than it did in the original episode!)
Jenny Thrash
10. Sihaya
"Riker’s nervous system has been invaded by microbes that act a bit like both a virus and a bacteria, but it’s tied so closely to his nervous system that surgery’s out of the question."

That sounds like a phage - I think it's actually called a bacteriophage. I had it in high school about the time this episode came out. The doctor had to give me sulfa drugs instead of penicillans. I hallucinated a deadly rockslide rather than a clip show, though, so I consider myself lucky compared to Riker.

"La Forge’s very unconvincing argument is that they might like androids, too. Yeah, that makes sense."

Actually, the first thing you made me think of was crazy ants. They love electrical devices and often overwhelm them. If the electrical device kills the ant, its body leaves a chemical signal that causes the other aunts to swarm and "attack." They die, attracting more ants, and the device is broken simply by the inundation.
11. Mike S.
#7 Pendard:

Disagreeing on episodes is what being a Trek fan is all about, IMO. WRT the TNG world, while I liked "Family" and "The Inner Light", I don't regard them as the classics that most fans do, while I loved "Qpid." I'm also one of only about 6 people alive that liked "Nemisis", so I don't take disagreements on episodes personally.

I'll go in to this more when we get there, but I will say that "Cost of Living" was great to look at, that's what keeps it out of my bottom 5, IMO
12. Pendard
@Mike S. (#11): I totally agree! I didn't mean, in any way, to criticize your opinion. And, when it comes to "Cost of Living," I admit I have a special fondness for it because it was made a few months after Gene Roddenberry died, and it was about Lwaxana (Majel) feeling lonely, old and vulnerable, and shaking it off and realizing how fabulous she is. It may have a coincidence, but I think it was a beautiful thing to do for Majel at that moment. Objectively speaking, it's probably not such a great episode but I love it for that and enjoy it every time I rewatch it -- which, unlike "Shades of Gray," is pretty often! (See, I said something about "Shades of Gray." This comment is totally on topic!)
13. Cradok
Aah, poor Shades of Grey. Sure, it's a clip show, and a *really* bad one to boot, but I still find I'd rather watch it than Too Short A Season, Time Squared or The Icarus Factor, just to name TNG episodes that have gone before it. And that's not getting into Ferengi in drag, quaint little Irish villages and dogs peeing on sacred trees... It's the little things, like O'Brien and Pulaski, and that last sequence of clips that move it past some other bad stuff.

I'm surprised you didn't mention that one of the clips is of The Genesis Project's proposal video, there's a quick flash of the Cleansing Fire across the planetoid from the animation.
14. Chessara
Darn Pendard!! You beat me to the brilliant line:

"Data, somethings's GOT MEEEEEE...."

That was going to be the only thing I said regarding this episode, since it's sooo bad and the delivery is even worse I at least chuckled a couple of times...but by the third time it was said I was ready to throw something at the TV. 'Nuff said about this episode!

Now, SG-1 did do great clip shows, my favorite one is "Citizen Joe" (8th season I think), which was kind of a sweet nod to the fans, specially moments like when Joe is crying over Daniel's death and then is overjoyed when he comes back...aaawww :)
15. Shard
The great thing about this episode is that it's Pulaski's last one!
Keith DeCandido
16. krad
On my blog, I was reminded of the best part of this episode -- which was nowhere to be found in the episode itself. It was the promo from the week before, where the voiceover guy declaimed, "It's attacking his BRAAAAAIN!!!!!!" w/r/t the virus on Riker.

It was awesome....
17. Athena28
Dreadful. Dreadful in '89, dreadful forever after. And embarrassing.
18. Seryddwr
'Data, something's GOT MEEEEE!'

Ah, TNG's 'back and to the left' moment. Cheer up, everybody - season 3's about to start...
Alan Courchene
19. Majicou
Okay, wow. I just went and watched that preview on Epic delivery. I'll always remember those early previews for the narrator saying "Next time, on STAAAAAAAAAR Trek: The Next Generation!" The previews for seasons 4-7 are clearly done by Don LaFontaine, but I don't know who the season 1-3 guy was.
Michael Ikeda
20. mikeda
krad@16 It's attacking his BRAAAAAIN!!!!!!

So it's a zombie virus?
21. Sanagi
This review reminded me that there were a few worthwhile moments in Shades of Gray, like the joke at the end. Though Geordi's determination to serve as parasite bait on the away mission is even funnier.
22. Anony
I believe this episode contained an original shot of Riker grunting with pleasure as his beard was stroked, which the jandrewedits team repurposed many times for extraordinary comedic mileage. So there's that. Otherwise, thankfully, entirely forgettable. I literally did not remember it existed until a second viewing.
23. RanchoUnicorno
I finally got around to rewatching this episode over the weekend. It wasn't all that bad.

Of course, I fell asleep right around the moment they shifted to the first clip and woke up to the Netflix episode selection screen. I must have made up the rest of the episode in my head as I was dreaming. Lots of pain for Pulaski, as she died from the organism. Riker survived but only thanks to the last minute heroics of Data.
Justin Devlin
24. EnsignJayburd
This episode was unfortunate right down to its title, that it references Riker's trip down memory lane. Everything was pretty black & white - pleasure vs. violence. If they wanted to incorporate "shades of grey" they should have included the discussion of the Prime Directive in Pen Pals or something...
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
25. Lisamarie
I have to comment - why didn't anybody think of AMPUTATING HIS FREAKING LEG???? Surely Starfleet can grow a new leg for him, given Picard's artificial heart and Geordi's visor.

Also, love how they don't want to beam up Riker because of the foreign microbes, so Pulaski just beams down...thus risking getting infected. And then they all beam up anyway.

And at 10 - bacteriophage are not at all that. Bacteriophage are viruses that infect bacteria. I highly doubt you were infected with one.
26. NullNix
You all missed the worst part. Pulaski says 'a bacteria'. Naturally a Pluralization Enforcement Order was enacted and she was killed off immediately afterwards, along with the planet she was on at the time. (Anything more would be extreme.)
27. Tom Green
I'm doing the rewatch in its entirety (if not late), so of course I went through this episode as well. For what it's worth, it was 19 minutes of clips out of a 45:30 episode (which includes opening and closing credits). So over half of the episode was actually "new" material. I know it's a clip show, but my point is that I normally think of a clip show as being 75% clips, 25% new.
28. Garret Hiller
This is the worst episode simply for being a clip show which reflects the lack of imagination by the writers and producers. They avoided budget crunches to much better effect in later seasons such as with "The Drumhead" and "Chain of Command II"". Even the fresh material in this episode isn't compelling enough to make me ever bother watching the whole thing again. Although the last scene with everyone standing around a cured Riker is kinda cute.
Christopher Bennett
29. ChristopherLBennett
@19: Realllllly delayed thread bump, but the narrator for the TNG promos in the first few seasons was the late Ernie Anderson, who was also the ABC announcer at the time.
30. Christopher Mark John
At the risk of being socially ostracised forever, I'm going to break rank and say that although this episode stinks it isn't completely without redeeming features, and I would personally rate it higher that 0.
For me one thing I look for in Trek is whether it's good Sci fi in the sense of containing original or interesting ideas. The premise of this episode seemed to be an organism that infects the nervous system and is reactivate to the intrapsychic activity of that nervous system, which is imo an interesting (if implausible) idea. Maybe I was giving it more attention than it was worth, but I thought the way they played the clips was representative of a kind of psychic war against the parasite, with Riker saving himself by virtue of his stoic character as much as Pulaski saved him (Riker's humour and stoicism before he fell unconscious seemed to be mirrored in the progression of the clips from the start, where he was alone and lost, through finding refuge in pleasure and comradeship, to a moment of almost slipping away, to a miraculous last second save). Also as others said, the ratio of clips to new material was pretty good, all things considered.
31. Katyara
I only recently came across this blog series and I am loving it! I am re watching TNG myself again and I have to say there was always something that bothered me about this episode, something that really stood out in my mind.
If the 'plant' is hunting live animals by injecting this bacteria into the prey and then after the animal is dead, having whatever nutrients is needed decay in the water for the root system, that's all well and good. That can make sense. However, if a prey animal was injected and then paralyzed (rather like Riker's leg was and assuming the prey is smaller) why oh WHY would a panic response/ primal thoughts of survival and the chemicals that the brain produces as a side affect, kill the organism? Wouldn't ANY prey animal exhibit the same response? "Happy good feels" would seem to be the adverse effect needed. Basically, if any prey animal was injected it would always die out before being broken down because even if physical movement was impaired the prey would probably be freaking out.
I agree the episode, sans the cute lines at the end, was pretty bad but this always stuck out in my mind even as a kid. I always held a fascination for animal science. Maybe I am thinking to far into this but I was wondering if anyone else noticed.
Keith DeCandido
32. krad
Katyara: Glad you're enjoying the rewatch! Feel free to comment elsewhere.

And I'm ashamed to say that I never even thought of that. But then, this isn't an episode that bears thinking about..... *laughs*

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Kat Ybarra
33. Katyara
Thank you! I am trying to catch up where I am even if some of the posts are dated they have been wonderful 'behind the scenes' guides and fantastic insights from the other commentors. Quite a few your quips and a ton of other people on here have gotten me laughing pretty hard. To which I add, you are so right, it doesn't deserve a second thought :)
34. SethC
I always though "Shades of Gray" referred to Riker having matured and become more seasoned since joining the Enterprise crew after two years, not the good vs. evil nature of the clips. I also haven't seen the episode in years, so I don't know what the title is supposed to refer to.
Christopher Bennett
35. ChristopherLBennett
@34: The expression "shades of gray" never refers to age or experience, but to ambiguity and doubt -- the gray areas between the black and white extremes. I suppose the point is to refer to the fact that they have to do something bad to Riker -- forcing him to relive painful memories -- to achieve something good -- saving his life. But it's still a weak title for a terrible episode.
MaGnUs von Tesla
36. lordmagnusen
We can all be grateful that it wasn't 50 "Shades Of Gray"... :) Bad Joke, I know, but someone had to make it.

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