Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Star Trek: TNG S1 Ep12: The Big Goodbye

"Maybe we should be getting back to the Enterprise." -Picard-

"We are on the Enterprise." -Dr. Beverly Crusher speaking with Picard on the very seemingly real Holodeck-

Writer Tracy Torme (Fire In The Sky) steps up to deliver a second script directly following his contribution to the wedding story that never was for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Episode 11, Haven.  Torme delivers a more interesting visual picture at first glance, but is Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season One, Episode 12, The Big Goodbye, as good as it looks on a substantive level. Does The Big Goodbye deliver or fall into the big snooze territory of some of ST:TNG's weakest Season One moments?  The Big Goodbye looks promising, looks amazing on Blu-Ray and even won itself a Peabody Award reflecting quality and excellence over commercial success.  Such an award certainly bodes well for a series that launched with its share of struggles. Kudos to the folks working on the series to pull that off.  Viewers had to wonder if ST:TNG would sustain this direction going forward.  At the very least they had to be optimistic.  We say hello with a new look at The Big Goodbye.

Once again I can't underscore enough the significant difference between the DVD and Blu-Ray release. The impact is sizable on these Season One stories.  It's truly remarkable.  It's night and day. The Big Goodbye, in particular, is a production dream and is all the better for it and a wonder for the viewers eyes and ears.  Blu-Ray has done for ST:TNG what it accomplished for Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969) and also accomplished for Year One of Space:1999 (1975-1976).

Honestly, I once took a less than enthusiastic approach upon my initial viewing even to The Big Goodbye but seeing the episode again with this color and sound is like seeing a new show.  It's pretty damn exciting.  It's nice to see a classic series receive this kind of care and attention.  We often see our favorite vintage movies or shows get a nice new packaging makeover, but the actual content of the film itself remains very much the same.  That's simply not so with ST:TOS or ST:TNG.  The information transmitting through the television is phenomenal.  I can can only account for my initial, less-than-enthusiastic response to this first season entry as a combination of the DVD transfer coupled with a disappointing start to the season on a creative level particularly the writing and story content.

The Big Goodbye begins.  Captain Jean-Luc Picard is clearly overworked in preparing to meet an insect-like race known as the Jaradan.  He's weary over linguistic studies of the difficult Jaradan language. The greeting must be cited accurately or so much for establishing relations. It is noted a previous Federation exchange with the Jaradan decades prior did not end well.  We never see the creatures in the episode, though Torme had spent considerable time creating them.  We are left with our imaginations.  In my mind's eye one could imagine a race of praying mantis-like creatures more than willing to attack like a female beheading a male after mating should this greeting go wrong. The greeting must go well.

The Holodeck is an extraordinary new resource and recreational playground for the new ST:TNG.  The options and potential for ideas with something like it are limitless.  Granted, of course, science fiction generally speaking offers that kind of flexibility. If I'm not mistaken this is the first complete immersion into the Holodeck program outside of its introduction for ST: TNG, Season One, Episode 1, Encounter At Far Point.  When Picard first enters the Holodeck, he comes alive with child-like excitement.  He's the proverbial kid in a candy store eager to see the era created by his programming commands.  He has selected a childhood hero, 20th Century private investigator Dixon Hill.  He even looks out the window to the street below to witness the vintage automobiles.  Picard's British annunciation on the series is a pleasure to the ear as long as he avoids sounding overly self-satisfied.

Later, Picard reports back to his crew in a meeting and is vigorous, passionate and engaged as he describes with an almost Shakespearean rhythm the wonders of Dixon Hill, the period established by the Holodeck and his encounters therein.

Picard will return with the ship librarian, Whalen, Gates McFadden's Dr. Beverly Crusher and an equally curious Data who has since voraciously read and assimilated all Amazing Detective Stories (1934 first appearance of Dixon Hill) and other pertinent facts surrounding fictional character Dixon Hill.

The camera work in The Big Goodbye is also exquisite made only better by the wonderful enhancements provided by the new transfer.  Gradual close-ups and gentle dolly shots really give The Big Goodbye a classic feel along with its approach to history and expanding the universe of ST:TNG.  The characters are genuinely enthralled by the make-believe experience.

Seeing ST:TNG enter the 1930s certainly pays homage to one of the very best Star Trek: The Original Series episodes, Harlan Ellison's The City On The Edge Of Forever (1967), but the episode pays tribute without being a lifeless retread like The Naked Now or Code Of Honor.  In other words, ST:TNG finally delivers an entry with a wink back to the original series that doesn't feel like a mere evil twin.  The set and production work on the episode is outstanding from costume design to established sets.  The simple Holodeck effects of entering and exiting these worlds is an incredibly impressive effects touch and still looks amazing today.

And speaking of looking great, previously the transfer shined on Marina Sirtis in Haven. This time out The Big Goodbye shines its vibrantly sharpened lens on the gorgeous Gates McFadden as Dr. Beverly Crusher.  McFadden is an incredibly beautiful woman.  I remember enjoying her terrific turn in a guest spot on Party Of Five, Season One episode, Something Out Of Nothing.  She's a sexy woman without playing sexy.  Crusher joins Data, Whalen and Picard in the Holodeck.  She discovers Data is speaking the local gangster dialect and hamming it up with relish. "What's cookin'? He's on ice. He's bein' grilled." It turns out Picard is being interrogated for murder.  His business card was found on a client the night of her death.  Crusher, Data and Whalen are not at all concerned.  In fact, it's a hoot. They'd all love to be interrogated.  Remember this is supposed to be fun.  It feels real, but it's not real.  This is the bloody Holodeck.  Why should they be concerned?

Unfortunately following a probe of the Enterprise-D by the Jaradan the Holodeck malfunctions affecting the Dixon Hill program.  Contact is lost with Picard, Crusher, Whalen and Data by Number One and the crew.  Young Wesley Crusher is called in to help find any programming anomalies and help repair the Holodeck and extract the missing crew members.

Following the interrogation Picard sees Crusher for the first time.  It's easy to see why she would make any man's heart flutter.  She does for Picard to be sure.

Returning to the Dixon Hill office, the foursome is held at gun point by a Mr. Felix Leech. What's so amusing is watching the performers smile with one another essentially undeterred or concerned given nothing is real or is it? It's quite good.

In a stunning surprise, Whalen, the ship literary historian delightfully played by David Selburg (also plays a character in ST:TNG, Season Six, Episode 21, Frame Of Mind), is suddenly shot by Leech.  Whalen is the proverbial red shirt without that shirt, but the beauty of it is that he's given a real face in the episode.  We have a sense about this man.  When he is shot we are taken aback simply because we like him.  He isn't a red shirt vaporized by a phaser never to be seen again, but rather a human being of flesh and blood who lays before his comrades bleeding and dying.  It is a powerful, unexpectedly human moment. The shooting of Whalen is a game changer.  It's no longer a foolish computer game.  The moment marks a change in Picard.  What is equally impressive is to see Picard leap into action no longer subdued by the idea this is merely a program of pleasure.  Picard realizes his crew is in jeopardy and despite Leech holding a gun directly at his head leaps toward him smacking him and sending him scurrying like a rat.  It was as if Picard grew a set of balls, channeled the physical action hero that was once James T. Kirk and took charge. He confronted the conflict head on rather than talking the man to death. It was refreshing.

The final confrontation with mobster Cyrus Redblock, played by the always professional Lawrence Tierney, is gripping and filled with tension to the final minute.

There is a poignant moment as Picard's one true ally, Lt. McNary, within the Holodeck program asks the Captain existential questions before he exits.  The moving questions makes us consider the value of living even if that existence is of an artificial but sentient nature.  He asks Picard if he will no longer exist once he leaves.  He asks if his wife and child will still be once he is gone.  Picard answers honestly that he doesn't know.  And he doesn't. All of this is even new to Picard proving that the crew of the Enterprise-D which often responds with knowing superiority is clearly still in its infancy when it comes to learning about the universe and even the abilities of humankind to create life.  As advanced and smart as the crew of this next generation is, and it is, it still has much to learn and explore even looking inward toward itself and not just out to the various races like the Jaradan.  Once again, it is refreshing to see Picard offer no explanation and nothing more than an honest I don't know.  Questions of existence and life persist throughout ST:TNG and The Big Goodbye is a great example of the show's ability to raise philosophical questions without preaching.

One final scene also serves to put those who have been dubious about the Captain's leadership until now on notice.  That group includes me.  But beyond his ever thoughtful, cerebral and deliberative nature Picard also exemplified himself to be a man of action fitting the A Piece Of The Action (ST:TOS, S2, Ep17) look.  In the final moments, he is a man in a period suit taking the helm of the Enterprise like the executive leader he should be to greet the Jaradans.  Picard takes the proverbial bull by the horns, taking charge, establishing relations with the Federation greeting and knocks it out of the park.  Personally, The Big Goodbye  acts like a big hello for this Captain Jean-Luc Picard.  It is a welcomed sight.

About the only thing one might complain about is the susceptibility of the Holodeck to risk the life of a crew member, even the Captain of the ship included.  That's a rather large and unidentified risk for a computer system. I suspect it won't stop future visits to the Holodeck and perhaps its the calculated risk of life aboard a Federation starship.  It's like riding a bike I suppose.

This is indeed the big goodbye in the spirit of mobster dramas and the episode is handled as such. The Big Goodbye is a respectfully delivered homage to past Star Trek glories and mobster-inspired cinema with new ideas and the right mix of conflict and humor complete with an exciting new transfer.  The Big Goodbye takes a meticulous approach to period adventure handled with a studied touch and offering deeper philosophical questions on whether being self-aware is true existence.  Does Data not exist? These are the kinds of potent stories that permeated the Star Trek: The Original Series that we loved.  Smart, big ideas on a science fiction canvas without all of the answers.

Writer John Kenneth Muir notes some of the problems to date with ST:TNG in his analysis of ST:TNG, S2, Ep12, The Royale.  He wrote looking back at the flawed Season One, "The crew of the Enterprise-D appears rather smug and self-satisfied ... in too many episodes, these 24th century humans lecture, preach and harrumph about how man overcame his age of 'barbarism'...  There's a looking-down-their-collective noses at races … that is, frankly, unappealing, and a bit too self-congratulatory... a real sense of drama and conflict bleeds away from many first season installments. Everything seems too easy for this team. Specifically, the Enterprise crew often defeats the bad guys without too much difficulty, and usually through extended 'talk'... Over and over, a spirit of danger and adventure -- a core element of the Star Trek series -- seems missing from the first season of The Next Generation."  Fortunately, The Big Goodbye remedies some of these issues for a tale.  All of the problems mentioned by Muir are omitted from the latest release.  Ideas, adventure, danger, drama, conflict, humor and humility or a sense of imperfection are woven together beautifully here to tell a story worth telling.

Note the Original Series Enterprise in the background.

The Big Goodbye is a far cry from some of the Picard pontificating that took place in the first half of Season One.  He actually declares to the computer construct "I don't know." Hallelujah.  You are human.

TV Guide recorded a "Jeers" for the episode in its Cheers And Jeers section dubbing it derivative of A Piece Of The Action, but that simply isn't fair and is based exclusively on the period look of the costumes.  This is much more respectful in its homage.  Spock is dubbed "Chinese rice picker" in The City On The Edge Of Forever while Data is referenced as South American in The Big Goodbye. These are aliens and androids and the creators either give a knowing nod or wink to the classic while offering a logical explanation for the notable skin coloration.

The creative team takes great pains to capture the method approach of the acting of the period through performance, the use of shadow, lighting and the framing of shots to mimic period films and elements of film noir. Torme even pays tribute to The Maltese Falcon (1941). It's a smart work delivered within a fascinating time capsule recreation of 1941.  Ultimately the two story front dovetails nicely toward its inevitable conclusion.

The Big Goodbye offers terrific camera work and a much stronger script from Torme. But I'm telling you, the series looks so good, I may go back and re-watch the first ten episodes.  Come on now, that's crazy talk!  Truly The Big Goodbye is the most successful and effective Star Trek: The Next Generation episode of the mostly uneven first season to this point.  It is splendid in its execution of ideas, performance, humor, conflict and resolution.  It's easily deserving of its Peabody Award for distinguished achievement and now, finally, we can say hello again and see it as it was intended.

The Big Goodbye: B+. Writer: Tracy Torme. Director: Joseph L. Scanlan.

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