September 13, 2016

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Cost of Living"

It is 20 April 1992, and time for another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

After the Enterprise destroys an asteroid about to collide with a populated planet, a strange residue covers the ship - and ultimate begins to damage its systems. Meanwhile Lwaxana Troi (Majel Barrett-Roddenberry) returns, intent on marrying a man she has never met, and immediately forms an unlikely friendship with Worf's son Alexander (Brian Bonsall).

This is ultimately a bad episode, but I think it is important to note from the outset that its poor quality is the result of a weak science fiction sub-plot and a very messy narrative structure. It is not because it pairs up Lwaxana Troi and Alexander Roschenko, two generally disliked characters whose team-up likely elicited shudders in many fans when this episode was first announced. Against all of my expectations, their friendship turns out to be the episode's strongest part.

There is something reassuring about seeing just how terrible a father Worf (Michael Dorn) has turned out to be. It's not that he doesn't love his son, it's that his son is the first challenge he has ever encountered that can't be resolved by shouting at it. In an early scene Worf and Alexander have reached a shouty detente in Troi's (Marina Sirtis) office. No sooner has she forced them to go away and learn to communicate more productively that she hears her mother has just boarded the ship.

By this point Marina Sirtis and Majel Barrett-Roddenberry have their characters' relationship down perfectly. We have finally hit a stage where it feels like the actors are leading the relationship more than the scripts. The comic timing is strong, and the editing emphasises Troi's frustration wonderfully.

Sadly the same cannot be said of Lwaxana's approaching marriage to an alien diplomat (Tony Jay) she has never met. The entire subplot feels under-cooked and arbitrary, and isn't actually required to inform the proper meat of the episode - which is Lwaxana and Alexander befriending one another. It is fascinating that Lwaxana, a woman who constantly projects an air of confidence, can only break down and reveal her vulnerabilities when talking to a young child. Her monologue about loneliness and grief is profoundly effective writing, and the best acting that Barrett-Roddenberry has done in the role so far. It must have been a difficult scene for her to perform - her own husband Gene Roddenberry had died only four months earlier.

As I noted, against expectations the Alexander/Lwaxana scenes are not the episode's problem. The plot structure is wildly all over the place. Nothing is smoothly blended together. The three story elements do not really reflect or inform one another. The subplot about a metal parasite eating into the Enterprise's systems feels arbitrary in the extreme. It all comes across so inconsistently that there's simply no drama to any of it. While the comedic scenes with Lwaxana actually work fairly well for once, they're incapable of propping the whole episode up. It's all just an undercooked mess.

It leaves Season 5 with 13 good episodes out of 20, with six more to go. The quality ratio slips down a little to 65 per cent.

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