Written by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky
Directed by Cliff Bole
Season 7, Episode 23
Production episode 40276-275
Original air date: May 9, 1994
Captain’s Log: Data is performing Act 5, Scene 1 of The Tempest for Picard, the discussion of which is curtailed by the pair of them almost being run over by a locomotive. Data discovers a malfunction that linked Data’s theatrical program with Crusher’s re-creation of the Orient Express and takes all the holodecks offline pending repairs.
The Enterprise is performing a survey to search for sites for Federation colonies when the ship suddenly goes to warp. Neither the bridge nor engineering has helm control. Just as La Forge is about to start an emergency warp-core shutdown, the ship goes back to impulse.
Data and La Forge discover that there was a disruption at their previous location that would have destroyed the ship if they hadn’t gone to warp when they did. They go into a Jefferies Tube and find a large, colorful silly straw that is connecting the sensors to the warp drive, and which is protected by a force field. They find a bunch more after that, and they seem to be centralized in Holodeck 3, which is running despite Data having shut it down. Riker, Data, and Worf enter the holodeck to find several programs running at once. At first, they’re on the Orient Express, but with an armored knight cutting up pieces of paper with a pair of scissors, some Old West characters, people putting a jigsaw puzzle together, and more. A conductor comes through to collect tickets—and tries to stop Riker and Data from depolarizing the nodes, which are centralized under the train. The engineer tries to convince the conductor to let them do their work, but he’s then shot by a gangster, who retrieves a brick from the engineer’s overalls. The conductor urges the gangster to take good care of the brick.
The navigational relay overloads, the explosion from which nearly kills La Forge, and then the ship goes into warp. On the train, the conductor is pleased to announce that they’re going in the right direction. Riker, Worf, and Data leave the holodeck for the time being, as the safeties are disengaged, and so the gangster’s pistol is potentially lethal.
At this point, the nodes are all over the damn ship, and Data recognizes the configuration of them as similar to that of his own positronic brain. There is an emergent consciousness forming out of the ship itself, which seems to be using the holodeck as a platform for exploring its new intelligence.
Worf and Data return, this time with Troi, who will attempt to interact with the characters and maybe learn what this new intelligence wants. The occupants of the train remain bizarre (I think my favorite is the gangster playing cards with a tied-up cowboy). Two people are continuing to put the jigsaw puzzle together and both the puzzle and the playing cards have the same image on them: a helix that resembles the nodes La Forge and Data found. The gangster also is guarding the brick closely, saying it’s incredibly valuable. He gets off at Keystone City (“The beginning of everything,” he calls it) and Troi, Data, and Worf follow him to what looks like New York City in the 1940s or so. Data takes another shot at depolarizing the nodes while Troi and Worf follow the gangster to a building. He places the brick in the building, saying he’s laying the foundation, at which point it glows briefly, then becomes part of the wall.
Cargo Bay 5 depressurizes, forcing everyone to leave. When La Forge brings a team inside, they find another colorful helix design like the ones on the jigsaw puzzle and the cards. When Data starts depolarizing the nodes, the ship starts to go crazy, endangering everyone until Data, at La Forge’s urging, stops the depolarization, at which point the ship settles.
Troi thinks that something is being constructed, based on the imagery on the holodeck, and the object in the cargo bay is being created using the ship’s power. Attempts to curtail the beings have failed, so Picard suggests cooperation. Troi, Data, and Worf return to the train, and they offer to help. Worf shovels coal into the engine, which improves warp power somehow. They arrive at a star from which the ship then absorbs vertion particles, which are absorbed by the object in the cargo bay, but the ship uses up the sun’s supply of particles before it can finish what it’s doing.
The ship then goes to warp 9 to find a new source of vertion particles, but all ship’s power—including life support—is going to propulsion, and their destination is distant enough that they’ll all die before they get there. La Forge might be able to create vertions using a nebula, but they need to stop the ship. When Data, Worf, and Troi try to go to the engine, everyone on the train tries to stop them. Troi convinces them that they want to help, but they’ll only let one person through—as the one least likely to be affected by gunfire, Data goes, insisting to the gangster and the conductor that he knows a shortcut. Reluctantly, and against the gangster’s advice, the conductor gives Data control of the train.
La Forge’s modified torpedo fires into the nebula and creates vertion particles. The object in the cargo bay becomes fully active and pootles off the ship, while the nodes all deactivate, returning control of the ship to the crew.
Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: Apparently, the ship can create an intelligence. Well, the holodeck already did that with Moriarty, so what the hey, right? There’s nothing philosophically or morally problematic with that at all....
Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi has the huge challenge of deciphering the incredibly complicated metaphors on the holodeck, and never once mentions the significance of a train that has a destination.
If I Only Had a Brain...: Data’s attempts to understand the human condition via acting are still going strong, though his Prospero is a little stilted (his King Hal and Scrooge were far stronger). When the holodeck tries to stop him from depolarizing the nodes by running him over with a cab, he borrows from Superman and stops the car by holding it in place with a single hand, which is actually kind of awesome.
There is No Honor in Being Pummeled: There’s something inherently hilarious about Worf being goaded to shovel coal into an engine by the Big Lebowski....
What Happens on the Holodeck Stays on the Holodeck: A random collection of folks’ holodeck programs includes the Orient Express (which we know is Crusher’s), images from the Old West (Alexander?), a guy in a suit of armor, and a gangster. Apparently, the emergent lifeform only does PG-rated stuff....
I Believe I Said That: “But this rough magic/ I here abjure, and, when I have required/Some heavenly music, which even now I do,/ To work mine end upon their senses that/This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff.”
Data doing Prospero (Shakespeare provides the only interesting dialogue in the whole thing).
Welcome Aboard: Thomas Kopache returns as the engineer, having previously played Mirok in “The Next Phase.” He’ll be back in Star Trek Generations as well as episodes of Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Two of the other holographic characters are played by Arlee Reed and Vinny Argiro.
But this episode’s Robert Knepper moment is the great David Huddleston as the conductor. Huddleston’s probably best known for playing the title role in The Big Lebowski, though he’ll always be the bombastic Senator Lobell on The West Wing to me. I had totally forgotten he was in this....
Trivial Matters: The correlation between the acting careers of Data and Sir Patrick Stewart continues: after Henry V (Stewart is a longtime member of the Royal Shakespeare Company) in “The Defector” and A Christmas Carol (Stewart did a one-person ACC on stage for years, and also played Scrooge in a TV-movie version) in “Devil’s Due,” we now get Data as Prospero in The Tempest, a role Stewart would play in New York (both for Shakespeare-in-the-Park and then for a run on Broadway) in 1995, and again in London for the RSC in 2006.
This episode is the 25th directed by Cliff Bole, and the last, obviously, and makes the man after whom the Bolians were named the most prolific of TNG’s stable of directors.
Make it So: “Tickets, please!” If you want any more evidence that TNG had (you’ll pardon the expression) run out of steam, both in the writers room and in front of the camera, you need look no further than this dreary episode that has all the energy of a dead fish. Where early TNG would have had at least some awkward moralizing about the possibilities of a new life form, and middle TNG would’ve had some incisive philosophical and ethical quandaries, latter TNG can barely be arsed to make a fuss about the fact that the ship created a friggin’ lifeform! Aside from the occasional furrowed eyebrow at some of the holodeck combinations (like an Orient Express passenger repeatedly hitting the guy in armor with a gold chalice), nobody seems to be overly affected by this rather major thing that the ship is doing on its own.
To make matters worse, in the final scene, Data points out the biggest issue with the whole thing, which is that they just let this new lifeform bugger off without any notion of whether or not it’s harmful. (Keeping in mind that its creation endangered the ship.) Picard brushes it off with a very Roddenberrian bit of moralizing (it grew out of their ship, their experiences, their mission reports, their personal logs, and their holodeck fantasies, so it should be just as honorable as they are, a leap in logic I wouldn’t bet the farm on), which falls completely flat.
It’s painfully obvious that nobody really gave much of a damn about this episode while creating it, so I have no great reason to do so now (beyond the entertainment value inherent in the Big Lebowski being the conductor). I will only add that the nodes and the lifeform itself both look like a bunch of silly straws put together, which makes it that much harder to take them, or the episode, seriously.
Warp factor rating: 1
Keith R.A. DeCandido wonders if anybody ever reads the bio.