Star Trek: The Next Generation – Descent [6.26]

During a battle with the Borg, Data unexpectedly finds himself experiencing a flash of anger.  Confused and concerned by his newly discovered capacity for emotions, Data finds himself lured by a Borg prisoner to set him free and escape with him to join his mysterious leader.  Picard and the others track Data while trying to understand the way the Borg have changed, wondering if their previous encounter with Hugh could account for it.  Tracking his shuttle to a certain world, Picard, Troi and Geordi are captured by the Borg, discovering at the same time that their leader is Lore, and that Data has apparently joined him.

Teleplay by Ronald D. Moore.  Story by Jeri Taylor.  Directed by Alexander Singer.

Previous Episode: Timescape • Next Episode: Descent, Part II

And so we reach the end of Next Generation’s sixth season, and with it we have one of the better cliff hangers that the show has seen – certainly better than Time’s Arrow and Unification, possibly better than Redemption, though of course, not quite up to the level of The Best of Both Worlds.  The reason for this is not so much because of the threat of the Borg, but because of what’s going on with Data.  I’d forgotten that for this entire episode, there’s not mention of emotion chips, nor any hint of Lore until the show’s closing moments.  So Data’s “descent” into evil, even with the hints we’re given that something shady is going on, is very well played.  Brent Spiner gives his strongest performance of the season, bringing Data’s emotional wrestling to life, and giving the audience some genuine concern whether we are actually “losing” our friend in all of this.

Indeed, part of the success of the episode is how it makes the characters–and us, by extension–question their values and soundness of mind.  Could Data really turn out to be a “bad” person?  Was Picard wrong to let Hugh go?  The characters start off fairly sure of themselves, but as things go along they get less and less certain.  We see Picard wrestling with the possibility that he not only made a mistake in not destroying the Borg but may have even creating something worse with Hugh.  And with Data, the bit where Troi’s “emotion-centric” therapy fails to help, but only serves to make things more disturbing, is very effective.

That said, it’s not a perfect episode.  The return of the Borg is something of a disappointment, since they are once again not really here with their original chilling approach (we’d have to wait until Star Trek First Contact for that, and even then the introduction of the Borg queen dilutes the concept a bit).  Still, having them around at all amps up the tension since it gives our characters a lot to be stressed about and to wring their hands about.  Picard’s re-examination of his decisions in I, Borg are a welcome element, and leads to one of the episode’s best lines:  “It may turn out that the moral thing to do was not the right thing to do.”

This episode also has a lot of conspicuous “red shirts” (their actual uniform color notwithstanding), with various non-regular characters standing around in a way that you just know is going to lead to their deaths.  The worst offender is the final act of the story, when a four man search team means Picard, Geordi, Troi and Ensign No-Lines.  Having three of the four members of the search team be senior officers is already a bit absurd, but all the more because we know from the first time we see him that that last guy has is not making it out of this episode alive.  Oh well, I guess we might not know that the Borg were eeeevil without him being killed?

Indeed, the whole end of the story, with the procedural bits and pieces after Data disappears, feels a bit like filler propped up by a few contrivances.  Picard has to take part in the search parties, even if that means leaving the Enterprise in command of an officer  inexperienced in emergencies?  It’s Picard‘s three-, oh I mean four-, man team that finds the building (and not say, one of the shuttles)?  Picard fails to report to anyone that he’s found a building that for some reason is invisible to the ship’s scanners?  It’s all quite unsubtle of the script to drive Picard into the cliffhanger, as if the writer said, “I’ve got to get Picard helplessly surrounded by Borg being shocked by the twin reveals of Lore and evil-Data. Now how can I do that?”

But even after all that griping, I have to say I quite enjoyed re-watching Descent, and that it is a massive improvement as season cliff hangers go over the show’s last ho-hum effort.

Guest Cast:
• John Neville plays Isaac Newton.  He was the lead in Terry Gilliam’s film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.  He also appears as the Well-Manicured Man in a handful of episodes of The X-Files.

• Jim Norton makes his second and last appearance as the holographic Albert Einstein.

• Natalija Nogulich makes her second appearance as Admiral Nechayev.  She will appear two more times in the series next season, and a couple of times in Deep Space Nine.

• Stephen Hawking plays himself, his acting debut according to IMDB.

Shout out to the Past:
Picard is taken to task for his decisions in I, Borg.  There is even footage of the episode.  The Federation’s experiences with the Borg in The Best of Both Worlds is also referred to obliquely.

Setting Up the Future:
Part Two coming soon!

• Opening poker game with Data, Einstein, Newton, and Stephen Hawking (being played by himself).  Of course, Stephen Hawking, as a real-life present-day scientist, has to win the game.  At least he has a good line:  “Not the apple story again.”

• Strangely, the episode credits appear during the teaser, before the opening title sequence.  At a guess, I’d say this was an editing decision.  Maybe the teaser originally ended with the poker game but was changed because that wouldn’t be as exciting.  The revelation of the Borg at the end of the teaser is indeed excellent, and either way it would have been distracting for the credits to run over the action sequence that takes place afterwards.

• Again like many (all?) of the season cliff hangers, the episode is called Descent, not Descent Part I or anything like that.

• Geordi is sitting in an odd place–the little chair to the Captain’s left–on the bridge during the battle with the Borg.

• The only Borg with a name was Hugh…other than Locutus, of course.

• Good line from LaForge that gets the tension-ball rolling:  “I’d hate to think that anger is all you’re capable of feeling.”

• I’m not crazy about Admiral Nechayev or the actress who plays her, but I like this exchange between her and Picard, where she–rightly or wrongly–puts him in his place:

Nechayev:  Of course you had a choice.  You could’ve taken the opportunity to rid the Federation of a mortal enemy, one that has killed thens of thousands of innocent poeple, and which may kill even more.
Picard:  No one is more aware of the danger than I am.  But I am also bound by my oath and my conscience to up hold certain principles.  And Ill not sacrifice them in order to
Nechayev:  Your priority is to safeguard the lives of Federation citizens, not to wrestle with your conscience.  Now I want to make it clear that if you have a similar opportunity in the future, an opportunity to destroy the Borg, you are under orders to take advantage of it.  Is that understood?

• Data asks an interesting question about himself – if he is only capable of experiences negative emotions, does that not make him a bad person?  His identification of his other emotion as “pleasure” is predictable, but still kind of chilling.

• During the red alert, Picard walks on board the Bridge in a very slow and mechanical way – I almost thought he was suffering under some sort of mind control for a moment or something.

• Data is concerned about how to disable the holodeck safeties?  You’d think there must be dozens of ways to disable the holodeck safeties.  I guess we’ve come a long way since all you had to do was say, “Computer, create an enemy capable of beating Data.”

• Oh, it’s a trap.  Ho-hum.

• That security guard in the back of the bridge…I don’t remember for sure, but I’m sure that he’s done for.  Yup.  Poor Franklin.   Actually, three crew members die in this story:  Franklin, security officer Corekli (killed at the beginning), and the unnamed fourth dude on Picard’s four-man search party at the end.

• Beverly, though unhappy with the choice to interrogate the captive Borg, sees that arguing with Picard is clearly a waste of time.

• The scenes with Crosis – the captured Borg – are good ones.  I like how cold he is.  And it’s effective that Picard is concerned that Hugh may have become their enemy.

Picard:  Tell me more about this One.  Does he have a name?  Is he called Hugh?
Crosis:  Klingon.  Shatter the cranial exoskeleton at the tricipital lobe.  Death is immediate.
Picard:  Why must this One destroy biological organisms?
Crosis:  Human.  Sever spinal cord at third vertebrae.  Death is immediate.

• Data is presumably compromised by the little button on the Borg’s arm, otherwise the scene with the Borg wouldn’t make any sense.  But otherwise, it’s a good scene.  “Yes, I would,” about killing Geordi.  Chilling.  Have we lost Data?

Another unauthorized shuttle launch??  For goodness’ sake, the Enterprise has got to do something about that.  Does nobody actually look after that shuttle bay?

• You’d think Dr. Crusher would be better on the search teams, and Geordi in command of the ship, but whatever.

• Picard comes up with an idea to look for Data that I’m guessing (though don’t remember) will probably come in handy later.

Dialogue High Point
I have a hard time looking past Data’s last line.  It’s a bit cheesy, but perfectly captures the nutty gravitas of what is going on.

The sons of Soong have joined together.  And together we will destroy the Federation.

Previous Episode: Timescape • Next Episode: Descent, Part II

One thought on “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Descent [6.26]

  1. This was a pretty good episode. I enjoyed it. It was neat seeing a follow-up on Hugh’s episode. And Data getting emotions, sorta, was neat.

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