Monday, August 10, 2009

Star Trek: The Next Generation--"Skin of Evil"

We have reached the lowest point of TNG’s first season. It is a bad episode for many reasons, but the most prominent is the poor send off of Denise Crosby as Tasha Yar. Yar suffered an unceremonious death to punctuate a less than stellar character.

The powers that be at Trek have done a fine job keeping set tensions quiet until long after the show has ended. It is one of the reasons the “making of” documentaries and books on VOY were so few and anemic when TOS, TNG, and DS9 got the full treatment. There was so much tension on the set, with Kate Mulgrew hating the show, Robert Beltran hating complaining about obsessive fans, Roxanne Dawson divorcing Casey Biggs, Ethan Phillips upset fans did not like his character, the refusal to allow Garrett Wang to direct an episode (He is the only Trek actor to request a directing and be turned down.) and Jeri Ryan stealing the spotlight at the same time sleeping with Brannon Braga. They just could not keep all that under wraps. No wonder that show was such a mess.

But they have done a fairly good job with the public relations regarding Crosby’s departure from TNG. We can speculate based on what wedo know. The official line is Crosby was upset yar was becoming window dressing like Uhura with little to do. Gene Roddenberry decided he would take the opportunity of her departure to show how dangerous space exploration was and have her killed. In a superficial way, all that is probably true, but it is not the whole story.

Was Crosby upset her character had fallen into the background? Maybe. The third episode, ’Code of Honor,’ was the only episode to focus on her and it was incredibly bad. I would daresay the characters of worf and Geordi LaForge were even less explored than Yar’s, however. Unless Crosby had gone Hollywood believing she deserved to be a bigger star than she was, that is a weak argument.

Look at the character instead. She was poorly written. Particularly early in the season, yar was prone to emotional outbursts, uncalled for violent acts, and some of the most stilted dialogue of any of the characters. When the high point of your character is having drunken sex with an emotionless android, your character is not only undeveloped, but degraded. Falling into the background is the least of it.

Whatever Crosby’s actual motivation, she was unhappy with the role. Roddenberry is not famous for handling friction with his actors well. Witness grace Lee Whitney’s departure from TOS after her alleged sexual assault by a network executive presumed to bea buddy of Roddenberry’s. it would be perfectly reasonable to take the opportunity to kill off a major character to prove space exploration is dangerous, but to suddenly be cast aside violently by a talking oil slick before the second commercial break is a deliberate insult.

Yar’s death is not the main focus of the episode. It literally serves to get rid of Crosby while providing a cliffhanger for the second act. Her death has no meaning. It is true the memorial service that ends the episode is moving, but it is only the character lamenting the loss of life. Yar did not go out in ablaze of glory or sacrifice herself to save anyone else. She was just randomly killed. It was a missed opportunity caused by personal, behind the scenes issues.

But that is not all that makes "Skin of Evil” a disappointment. Armus is an awful character. There is just no way to make a trash bag covered in Metamucil and India ink a plausible villain. If Armus’ sole motivation is leaving the planet, it seems rather stupid to torture the only people who have arrived in heaven only knows how long who can actually take him away. Admittedly, Armus was insane because of his long solitude, but he should still have known he would catch more flies with honey than vinegar. His motivation should have been changed to make his sadistic actions more plausible.

There is another point I hear very little about, but raised my eyebrows. After Armus learns he has killed Yar, he says he gets pleasure from knowing it. He asks Data what he thinks about him being happy over Yar’s death. Data remarks, ’I think you should be destroyed,’ and starts to aim his phaser before Riker stops him. It is a very brief scene, but disturbing. Data has said before he has an ethical program not to injure humans except in defense of others or himself. Yet here he makes an ethical decision to kill a living being he decides has no redeeming value. Chalk it up to a continuity glitch, but is it not disturbing to know data has the capability within his ethical programming of murdering anyone he deems morally irredeemable?

I have rattled on long about “Skin of Evil” without even touching on other absurd moments. Picard replaces Yar with Worf before her body is even cold. Later, he sits and has a philosophical debate with the oil slick that is Armus. Riker does not drown when absorbed into Armus. Why does Troi never get out of her seat to check on the unconscious shuttle pilot/ she is not injured. Yar has only known her crewmates for a few months, yet talks about them in her hologram message as though she has known them for years--at least long enough to get so connected and attached to them they are the most important people in her life ever.

There is so much wrong with this episode, I am sorry the great Joseph Stefano, of The Outer Limits fame, has his name attached to the script. Surely none of this travesty is his fault.

Rating: * (out of 5)

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