“Heart of Ice”: Silicon Avatar

(5 comments)

Time for another of our semi-regular “Everyone else hates this story but I like it” essays!

“Silicon Avatar” is an episode that, to my knowledge, does not have a terribly good reputation. To be fair, I don't get the sense it truly is outright hated; it's more like nobody really talks about this one all that much. Though that said, Brent Spiner doesn't like this outing, and Michael Piller said he was disappointed with the execution. I can't see the criticism myself: I'd hesitate to call “Silicon Avatar” a classic, but it's an incredibly solid effort and another very good “model average”. That is, this is the kind of story Star Trek: The Next Generation should be shooting for on a week-to-week basis. It works, and it doesn't horrifically betray the show's core values in any way. Which is kind of refreshing: We don't seem to get a lot of these in Star Trek.

But maybe that's telling. “Silicon Avatar” is, obviously, Moby-Dick in Star Trek again. What's notable about this is that it's the only time Star Trek will ever actually *succeed* in adapting Moby-Dick apart from the first, which was, of course “The Doomsday Machine”. The reason these two episodes work while “Obsession”, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek First Contact don't is because it makes Captain Ahab a guest character who comes to the Enterprise to work through their issues instead of saddling one of the main characters with this story. Also, they're not infuriatingly pretentious and don't feel the need to shove their perceived cleverness and self-absorbed middlebrow intellectualism down our throats every five minutes. And (if you can stretch your memories all the way back to the first book), just like “Silicon Avatar”, “The Doomsday Machine” was an exceptional episode that really shouldn't have been: It was the story that should have characterized the second season of the Original Series on balance.

It also probably says something, however, that “Silicon Avatar” is seen as middling and marks an important distinction between the Original Series in its second season and Star Trek: The Next Generation in its fifth. And what it says is that this is already shaping up to be one hell of a year: Yeah, last episode was something of a misfire and so's the next one (and the one after that, actually) but these are aberrations. From here on out all the way until 1994, Star Trek will pretty much be jumping from peak to peak.

Another mark of the maturity Star Trek: The Next Generation can and should bring to a story like this shows in the way Doctor Ahab Marr is depicted. This is a genuinely tragic character whose fall from grace here packs a true emotional punch. Jeri Taylor, who wrote the teleplay, felt that this was a very important story to tell and threw herself into the writing process so much she found it mentally distressing. Of Marr, Taylor says
“I wanted to do it because I felt – being a mother and a woman – I could identify with what would have to be the worst kind of loss anyone could ever suffer, which would be the death of a child. I was really able to tap into those feelings and tell a story about a woman whose vendetta over the loss of her son ruined her.”
The show has had great success hoisting the dramatic crux of its stories onto guest stars before (c.f. “Half a Life” last year), and really Star Trek itself always has (thinking back to this story's obvious antecedent in “The Doomsday Machine”). With “Silicon Avatar” though, Star Trek's diegetic and extradiegtic utopianism are in sync in a way it never was on the Original Series. Hell, even Star Trek: The Next Generation struggles with this.

The other angle is, of course, the utopian one. Namely that while the world of Star Trek is an idealistic one and while the Enterprise crew may be role models and teachers, the ship is still an enclave and sanctuary within its diegetic universe and it can't save everyone all the time. The crew go out of their way to help Marr move beyond her grief and self-loathing over her son's death and her hatred of the Crystalline Entity, and Marr even is able to shed her distrust of Data and form a close bond with him. But even that's not enough, and it's her very relationship with Data that sends up warning flares to us-Clearly, she's projecting onto him and is trying to visualize him as a replacement for Renny. So when she betrays them all in the climax by killing the Entity just when they had opened a line of communication with it, this hurts even more and stuns the crew into silence. The death of the Crystalline Entity remains one of the most memorable and tragic moments in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation for me.

Speaking of, I do think there's maybe a slight logical and thematic hiccup on this frequency in regards to Commander Riker. Obviously he's set up as the counterpoint to Doctor Marr here-He's lost someone close to him thanks to the Entity too, and while he agrees it's dangerous and the crew should be prepared to do whatever it takes, he doesn't specifically want to hunt it down and kill it. Problem is, I don't think this point is made quite as clearly as I think it needed to be, and I'm of course thinking of the ready room scene. Captain Picard questions whether Will is being biased by personal feelings in his judgment and Will...doesn't really have a comeback. I don't think he is, but the script doesn't really give him the opportunity to prove it. He needed a line somewhere where he clarified his position a bit better, something like “I agree we should attempt to communicate with the Entity, but I think we should keep in mind we're dealing with a very dangerous creature here with the proven capability to inflect death and destruction at an inconceivable level. I think we need to proceed with extreme caution”. Certainly, Will is just as shocked and hurt by Marr's betrayal at the end as everyone else.

Because that's straightforwardly the correct mindset to approach this situation with, and it was the intended meaning of that subplot according to director Cliff Bole. Responding to the argument articulated by Doctor Marr (and apparently a good deal of fans) that Captain Picard's plan was “wildly optimistic”, Bole said
“It's not, if you can control the fact it won't happen again, and I think Picard made it clear that he wouldn't destroy anything until it was explored. And it did finally show that it had another side, and I think that's what he was saying. It can be characterized with modern society's attitude, 'Let's make sure we're not making any mistakes,' knowing full well they can handle it if they were wrong.”
(I'll also point out that, the fridging of Carmen aside, my other issue with Will's plot here is that he's back in Space Age Sex Tourist mode, which for me stings a bit coming so soon after “Thin Ice”.)

But even taking all those quibbles and complaints into account, “Silicon Avatar” is a damn fine outing as far as I'm concerned. If this is going to be the average quality going forward, which it is, we're in remarkable shape indeed.

Comments

K. Jones 1 year, 9 months ago

It's funny with Will, because you get the sense that he "thinks" he wants the thing dead, because his loss is so fresh in his mind. But given a little time, he would have leveled off and gotten back into the proper Enterprise state of mind. But Marr still wanted it dead after 30 years since her loss, and 30 years of studying the creature and coming to understand it more than anyone else. That's a hell of a contrast in itself - and again, it would only have required someone like maybe Deanna stating the comparable amounts of time involved.

This episode is otherwise interesting for being a bit bipolar. It begins very much as a Riker episode. Sure, there's the quick fridging of a love interest - probably lazy writing there, the easiest way to make us like a character so we'll feel their death is to make them flirt with the eminently likable Riker. But holy hell did they bring the opening sequence. It's unlike anything they've done before, really.

The actual ground team is interesting and play off each other nicely, as we haven't really seen Riker and Crusher interact since The Host (retch!) and Riker's friendship with Data is never highlighted as much as the Geordi/Data pairing, so it's nice to see both it in play here as well as his friendship with Worf when the Enterprise rescue party arrives.

But anyway, it feels a bit bipolar. It starts as a Riker episode, remains a Riker episode about until Picard forces Marr to work with Data, then becomes a Marr/Data show (though it at least makes an effort to give Riker's beats conclusions).

Picard is very much the epitome of the Enterprise ethos. Troi is there to give funny looks to people when they go mad with vengeance, giving the audience an early warning. Worf is there to be stern. Geordi to give tech specs. And so on and so on. And last of all, the narrative structure - the heavy start on a colonial planet, as Enterprise is gone off and returning from a distance - is very Original Series.

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K. Jones 1 year, 9 months ago

Haha, just noticed now - the structure being very Original Series is essentially confirmed by the makeup of the landing party - who could effectively be stand-ins for Kirk, Spock and McCoy.

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Jacob Nanfito 1 year, 9 months ago

This episode exemplifies the kind "of meat and potatoes" ST: TNG that stands out in my mind and memories. This is the sort of episode that was played again and again on late night repeats throughout my adolescence -- so this sort of average feels very comforting to me.

I've always enjoyed this one and I'd gladly watch it anytime (even though I've seen it about 100 times). In the Netflix age, I often choose these types of middle-of-the-road episodes over groundbreaking, big event, or "classic" episodes.

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Adam Riggio 1 year, 9 months ago

I've always enjoyed this episode, for all the reasons you and K. mention. But the story involving Marr and Data hits me hardest every time, precisely for the same reasons Jeri Taylor discusses. I'm not a parent myself, but I am an only child, and I can see some flashes of that soul-shattering parental grief that drives Marr over the edge whenever my mother discusses some of my early childhood health crises (short version: pertussis isn't fun).

The real power of the narrative comes in those final scenes. Just as the communication breakthrough is about to happen, Marr ruins everything. In killing the entity, she essentially declares herself an enemy not just of the Enterprise's values (and the professed, if not practiced, values of the Federation), but of Star Trek. And Data tells her as much, through his knowledge of her son's thoughts and character. She committed a killing to avenge her son, but he wouldn't have wanted vengeance.

That's always been my take-home from this story.

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Daru 1 year, 8 months ago

"The death of the Crystalline Entity remains one of the most memorable and tragic moments in all of Star Trek: The Next Generation for me."

Yeah me too. This is one episode I really still enjoy as a good standard - I never had any idea there was any hate for it, but then I have never spent any time with Trek fandom in any way at all.

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