What is is about Season 2? It’s got a special something sauce that makes it more enjoyable than Season 1, even when it shouldn’t be. Case in point: the episode under review. Where Silence has Lease is everything that’s wrong with Star Trek in a 45 min. package – and yet I wouldn’t necessarily change the channel if I came across it on TV.
Here’s the plot – and stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The Enterprise encounters a mysterious spacial anomaly that turns out to be a vastly superior alien presence that doesn’t understand basic human things like dying (in this case) and so wants to use the crew for study. It announces this intention to them by killing That Black Guy Sitting in Wesley Crusher’s Chair, which has the crew visibly, if not actually, upset. Like a good villain, it gives the command staff enough time to have a meeting about it. Picard decides they’ll blow themselves up rather than be lab rats (any resemblance to Vyvyan’s plan to thwart the council in the pilot episode of The Young Ones is purely coincidental), which seems like the wrong choice considering that the alien estimates at least 2/3 of the crew will survive. Couldn’t he just order everyone isolated to quarters instead? You know, so they don’t know who’s dying and how and don’t give any reactions? But the thing that really bothers me is that the alien needs to talk to the crew at all. I mean, if I go experimenting on rats to find out how well they can be trained to, say, run a maze, I don’t typically sit them down and explain to them what I’m going to do! And fair enough, that’s mostly because I don’t expect them to understand me – but here’s the rub. If I DID expect them to be able to understand me, I wouldn’t run experiments on them AT ALL. Not without their consent, anyway. I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that when you can explain the purpose of an experiment to the thing being experimented on, you’re sort of obligated to get a waiver? And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I can hold conversations with rats and am going to experiment on them anyway. And let’s say that the rats say back to me “you know what? No. Keep your cheese. We’d rather starve than run through mazes for you.” Do I then smirk and say “well, humans aren’t as emotional as you, so you’re just not worth my time anyway!” And yet, the alien in this episode’s reaction was precisely analogous to that!
As usual, Star Trek‘s imagination is limited to a degree that borders on criminal. You know, it starts with its Big Idea – in this case a species so advanced it doesn’t even understand what dying is – and then refuses to do anything challenging with it at all. And it’s illogical besides: the alien clearly understands something about death or he wouldn’t feel the need to reassure the Enterprise crew that he would keep the losses from his experiment to a minimum.
So why do I kinda like it anyway?
Well, I suppose in part because it’s another unacknowledged Space: 1999 rip-off. In this case, the parallel is Missing Link which, unlike Alpha Child (which I’ve argued was the template for the previous episode), actually is one of Space: 1999‘s finer moments.
In Missing Link, Koenig believes himself separated from the rest of the crew after having survived a crash. In reality, he is dying in Medlab, and the empty station he wanders around is part of an experiment conducted by an alien(?) scientist name Raan, the “foremost anthropologist” on the planet Zenno. Raan believes that humans are a missing link between his own species’ present state and their primitive ancestors, and so he wants to experiment on Koenig. Koenig won’t stand for it (of course), and plays a similar strategy to Picard’s on one level: he goes on a hunger strike. But he has a more interesting plan as well: he will seduce Raan’s daughter as inducement to send him home.
Now, let’s catalogue the similarities. Protagonists are being experimented on by superior aliens. Check. The alien is more interested in the commander than the rest of the staff. Check. Said aliens are less emotional than humans and find human emotiveness offputting. Check. Humans refuse to participate even to the point of suicide, a fact with the alien captors find puzzling. Check. There is a scene in which the alien presence tries to trick the person being experimented on with illusions of his colleagues, and the human sees through the illusion because his colleagues are uncharacteristically willing to give in to the alien’s demands. Check. So, superficially quite similar.
But from there, Space: 1999‘s approach is superior in every imaginable way. On a simple moral level, Space: 1999‘s version has Cmdr. Koenig separated from the rest of the crew, so there’re no thorny issues of deciding for everyone else that it’s time to die. Not that there’s anything wrong with thorny issues per se. It’s just that IF Captain Picard is going to make that kind of a decision, the show needs to give it a lot more weight than we’re shown. Instead, Picard goes back to his quarters and plays some hip 19th century tunes (Eric Saite’s Gymnopédie No. 1, if the so-called experts at Wikipedia are to be believed). Space: 1999 does the honorable thing here. If you, as a writer, are not willing/ready/able to do the heavy lifting of portraying a commander ordering his crew to fall on their swords, or if that is beside the point of what you’re trying to show, then at least have the decency to write the situation out of the script! The aliens are also more convincingly portrayed. They’re cold and calm, every bit what you would expect a civilization that has more or less purged emotion to be. And to the extent that they show very human emotions, which they do (Raan is disgusted by the idea of his daughter falling for an ape), we at least have an explanation for it: they ARE human. More precisely, they’re humans after 2million additional years of evolution. So it’s not surprising that the emotional modules are still there and functional. Indeed, the point seems to be to suggest that Zennite scientists are mistaken in thinking that they have really evolved away from their “missing link” all that much. They simply live in a more evolved society; the underlying machinery has changed very little. Contrast with with Nagilum, who is at least emotional enough to be smug, but without any good explanation. If he’s so all-frakking alien, he shouldn’t really be feeling these emotions. Furthermore, Space: 1999‘s revelation that the Zennites are themselves in some sense human gives us some context for the experiment. Koenig is not a wholly alien thing to them, and they’re not treating him exactly like a lab rat. Their insistence on using the phrasing “permanent guest” rather than “prisoner” betrays a certain discomfort on their part with the situation. And they discuss this directly with Koenig – since, after all, they can talk to him. The conclusion of the experiment is also better handled. The aliens acknowledge that it was a failure, and they openly admit that they learned things they didn’t expect to learn. Koenig likewise understands that his reactions were not ideal. He says that he still thinks that feeling is better than thinking, but it’s clear that given it to do over again, he wouldn’t act the way he acted. And finally, it’s stylistically superior. Space: 1999 is just a lot more fun to watch because greater attention is paid to atmosphere. Zenno feels alien. The softspoken monotone in which the Zennites speak is appropriate to invoking an emotionless society. Space: 1999 is not afraid to “waste” time having Commander Koenig walk around an eerily empty Moonbase Alpha. We see the crew under real stress at the loss of their commander – getting into pointless arguments and fights. And that scene of Koenig surrounded by horror-show freaks of his own imagination only to find himself screaming and covered in cobwebs … I mean, wow. I couldn’t say exactly what it means, but as visual expressionism it was right on point. They fit well with the theme and general feeling of the episode. Star Trek never does things like that.
So I think that’s something to do with it. Sure, Star Trek does an awful job retelling a story Space: 1999 had already knocked out of the park 15 years earlier, but at least they’re telling a science fiction story. I will admit to rewatching Star Trek out of a kind of morbid curiosity to see just when they went completely over the line into not being even remotely science fictional anymore. Based on my viewing of season 1, one could plausibly argue that it just never was SF, and yet there are these islands in the stream. If it isn’t as good as Space: 1999, it’s at least trying to tell a Space: 1999 story.
There are a couple of other nice touches that keep this one from being wholly awful. For one, there’s that scene at the begining in which Riker joins Worf on the holodeck for his daily exercises – which of course involves a lot of violent hack-n-slay. Riker is visibly shaken by the experience, especially as Worf finds it hard to separate fantasy and reality at the end, his bloodlust having gotten the better of him. Don’t get me wrong, I hate hate hate the actual scene – because I do not care about Klingon culture and I do not like Worf and I am really tired of everyone’s default “alien” culture being some kind of warrior race with its stupid warrior race code of killing people for fun. It was boring a long time ago, and there’s nothing new to see here. But they put it to interesting, and uncharacteristically subtle (for Star Trek) use at the end of the episode when Picard finds himself defending humanity to Nagilum. Nagilum is calling humanity too emotional and barbaric – precisely what Picard said, albeit in not so many words – about Klingon culture at the outset of the episode! So that was a very nice touch – and especially so since it was never explicitly mentioned. Also nice was Picard pointing out to Nagilum that Nagilum shares at least one emotion with humanity: that of curiosity. For whatever reason, this doens’t play out like standard Roddenberry fare (no, since you ask, Roddenberry didn’t write this episode – though he surely must’ve enjoyed it!). Instead, it feels like Picard is suggesting to Nagilum not merely that they have stuff in common, but also that Nagilum is not as advanced as he seems to think. That goes a long way to making things better for me – since if Nagilum were in any way as advanced as he seems to think, he would have behaved very differently.
So, even though it’s a laundry list of Star Trek‘s more tedious cliches, it has a couple of nice touches here and there that push it along. I’ll go with …
Overall Rating: B-