While waiting for the Enterprise to arrive at an important diplomatic ceremony, Captain Picard takes some well-earned time off inside the ship's holodeck. There, with Data and Dr Crusher in tow, he assumes the guise of 1940s Californian detective Dixon Hill. For a while it seems like a lot of fun - but then the holodeck malfunctions, and they can't stop the program.
I remember Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodeck as an appaling sort of running joke, probably unintended, in which nearly every time the characters use the thing something goes wrong. They get trapped inside ("The Big Goodbye"), or create an evil artificial intelligence ("Elementary, Dear Data") or even accidentally allow it to give birth to an entirely new life form ("Emergence"). Quite frankly the entire technology seems so dangerous that I'm surprised that the Federation didn't ban its use by the end of Season 1.
Despite my misgivings about the holodeck in general, "The Big Goodbye" is actually quite charming. 1940s Los Angeles is recreated to marvellous effect, filled with pulp archetypes and great sets and costumes. For the most part it's a very amiable, relaxed episode, with Picard getting to loosen up and indulge in one of his hobbies, Data being intellectually fascinated by the detective genre, and Dr Crusher acting like a naive, enthused sort of tourist. (Her complaint that she doesn't get to be interrogated by the L.A. police is one of the funniest moments the series has had so far.)
It's also great that the episode introduces another element to Picard: so far we know he's grumpy, he doesn't like children and he has a history with Dr Crusher. Now we also get his love for 20th century detective fiction. It grounds him nicely, and makes him a more relatable person.
The cast do a great job with a fairly difficult task. Since they're role-playing inside the holodeck, each actor is required to play one character who is playing another in turn. It's hard enough just acting, but trying act as someone else acting is a hell of a challenge. They pull it off brilliantly; with this episode we're finally seeing some authentic comraderie and friendship between the leads. Lawrence Tierney, a former star of 1940s film noir, makes a guest appearance as crime boss Cyrus Redblock. His character's a one-dimensional cypher, but it's still fun to see him there and it was a nice touch by the production team to include someone with his resume.
Sure the holodeck will come to be overused, but for this first attempt it works like a charm. "The Big Goodbye" is not only a great episode, it's the first glimmering of the sort of series The Next Generation will become. It was such a wonderful relief to watch it.
11 episodes in. Four good ones. 36%, but rising.