“Paint me like one of your French girls”: Ménage à Troi

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"ahahahahaha I have no idea what's going on"
Possibly the kindest thing I could say about “Ménage à Troi” is that it perfectly encapsulates the entire third season in one convenient package. If you want to know what Star Trek: The Next Generation looked and felt like in its third year of existence in soundbite form, look no further because this one episode runs the entire tonal gamut.

It is a comedy episode, or at least a decent stab by the creative team at what a comedy episode should maybe look like, it ticks off the “bring in Majel Barrett for her annual guest spot” box, it gives certain actors room to relax and clown around a bit, it had Gene Roddenberry pop in to make a minor tweak to the script, it's an episode prominently featuring both the Ferengi and a surplus of silly and embarrassing costumes, has some clumsy attempts at world-building and art direction that manage to completely ruin the wonder of a Star Trek alien society, it's built around a few surprisingly touching and well done (and obviously Michael Piller inspired) character moments that echo each other (yet that don't *quite* manage to get a real hold on the people involved) and it shoves Deanna Troi in a box to shut her up for twenty minutes while men talk over her.

Let's talk about the good first. Namely, this is the first proper “Lwaxana Story” the show has done, meaning the first story actively invested in looking at who she is as a character rather then wheeling her in either to shake things up and set the show straight (like in “Haven”) or to take part in a tragically unfunny sexist runaround (like in “Manhunt”). And true to form Barrett runs with it, delivering a wonderfully interpolated and multi-layered performance that manages to be poignantly sympathetic and broad-strokes comedic all at the same time. Here's where we get the first glimpse of precisely *why* Deanna and Lwaxana have such a strained relationship, and it's painfully relatable: There's an actual “generation gap”, as it were, in play here where mother and daughter have two conflicting and irreconcilable views of what makes for a fulfilling life. And I will say this is sort of the first time this year the show has tried to do something like this and has actually managed to pull it off, as this feels like a genuine extension of what we knew of Lwaxana before that adds genuine depth to her character as opposed to just kind of throwing all of that out in favour of generic angst. The way her unwavering love for her daughter and her well-being shapes all the decisions she makes is actually really touching and heartwarming.

(Although that said, it is a bit weird in hindsight to have the notoriously vivacious and flirtatious Lwaxana Troi suddenly so interested in heteronormative domestic wedded bliss-Thankfully this doesn't manage to completely take for her later appearances.)

It helps Majel Barrett is such a knockout performer: This is the first time we get to see the full extent of her range hinted at in “Haven”. She's obviously grown a *lot* as an actor in the decades since “The Cage” and brings an earnestness and a heart to Lwaxana that really adds a lot to the character, unsurprising as there seems to be so much of Barrett in her by design. She really is the highlight of this episode and the primary reason to watch it if you happen to be so inclined: Barrett is wonderfully, flamboyantly theatrical here, telegraphing her every move and reaction with delightfully exaggerated performativity that never manages to lose sight of an inherent honesty. In a sense, perhaps she really is setting Star Trek: The Next Generation straight again because this is precisely the sort of thing this show can do so well at a production level, and precisely what this creative team has absolutely no idea how to work with. And, to top it off, this lays the groundwork for more sophisticated and nuanced Lwaxana stories down the road that, well, happen to be better than “Ménage à Troi”.

Lwaxana's scenes with Deanna, particularly early on in the episode, are equally good. Marina Sirtis is as terrific as she always is when the creative team is actually considerate enough to fucking give her material, of course, and that material she gets this week (well, in this one scene at least), is especially excellent. I love how the script has her angrily stand up to her mother for not recognising that the Enterprise isn't a job, but a lifestyle and a family and for not respecting her life choices as an adult (which the story so wonderfully has Lwaxana echo back to her in refrain during the climax with the Ferengi DaiMon). The story actually gives Marina Sirtis the words to express what's so special about Star Trek: The Next Generation on a textual level, which is something of a minor godsend after a production year so fraught with anxiety an unfulfilled potential.

What “Ménage à Troi” is not so good at, however, is handling Deanna's relationship with Will. When I would see screenshots of this episode back in the day, I always got the sense this was the first episode that tried to move things toward getting Deanna and Will back together. It does feel uncomfortably like the show has become a shipper on deck now and, like Lwaxana, is trying to push Will and Deanna back into a romantic relationship by having them go back to the site of their past life romance. They even actually kiss, although Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis thankfully play it more casually then they could have, and the story doesn't ever go too far with this because all of this character stuff that I sort of thought we were supposed to be paying attention to gets interrupted midway through by a dumb fucking kidnapping plot that takes up the rest of the episode. And then we get to sit around for the next half an hour watching an insufferably stock pulp serial runaround (with a mad scientist torture chamber porn scene for bonus inanity!) while Wesley Goddamn Crusher heroically drops of out the wild fucking blue to commandeer the narrative back on the Enterprise.

And this is where I have to draw my line, because this is ridiculous and juvenile. This show should be way way beyond this by this point. I don't know what it is about crap pulp film serial tropes that seems so appealing to so many goddamn science fiction creators, but I had my fill of them in 1960s action cartoons and don't ever need to see them again, least of all here. I guess I should also mention the stonking great Dirty Pair reference, which even I admit I was impressed by the chutzpah of. The Ferengi commander's access code, which he actually verbally speaks onscreen, is *literally* “Kei, Yuri, Dirty Pair”(or rather ダーティペア, that is, Dāti Pea, the Japanese transliteration of the series' English-derived name). And as much as I loved seeing that, I had to ask “Really? Now? *This* of all episodes is when you decide to do your first Dirty Pair evocation since 'Evolution'?” Although I guess it makes some sense as Kei and Yuri certainly have their fair share of Ferengi admirers in their fanbase.

Because all I could think about now that they had done this was how much I'd actually *rather* be watching Dirty Pair than this. And it has to be said, Dirty Pair, a series that, I remind you explicitly came out of pulp science fiction magazines, would never do something this stock and pulpish. In fact, on balance, animated Dirty Pair has been *kicking this show's ass* for the past few seasons. As much as I've liked Star Trek: The Next Generation over the past few years and as many wonderful moments I've seen and remembered so far, there is quite simply nothing this show has done that comes anywhere near comparing with the understated magic of Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia, the sublime confidence of Original Dirty Pair, the bravery of “Love is Everything. Risk Your Life to Elope!!” or the bold, mad ambition of Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture. And it says something that what we're comparing here is a niche sci-fi comedy cartoon and a big-budget Hollywood primetime smash hit.

And yet there is one respect where it's more than fitting that Kei and Yuri re-enter the narrative here, albeit briefly. As much as “Ménage à Troi” may embody the entire spectrum of the third season, it's also the last “average” episode of the year. The remaining two episodes in the filming block for this year are transformative in every sense of the word. Something very big is on the horizon, and it draws ever nearer with every breath we speak. The Lovely Angels have been dispatched, which can only mean something is about to burn to the ground to make way for a needed change that will make the universe a better place.

And quite honestly, for Star Trek: The Next Generation, change has never been more badly needed.

Comments

K. Jones 2 years, 3 months ago

Now's as good a time as any to reflect on the unevenness of Season 3. I've stated in the past that for me the aesthetic and often narrative high point of TNG begins in Season 2 and runs somewhere into Season 5. But that shouldn't really imply that Season 3 is hitting them out of the park every week.

In fact it's probably the most 1-for-1 season yet (and that's thinking of TOS, too). It feels like it actually alternates, having a good episode one week and a bad one the next. There are few (or no? checking now) "runs" of good episodes. The quality gets a little heavier toward the midseason mark - a cosmic convergence where all points head toward Yesterday's Enterprise. And as I'll remark in the next post, there's been noticeable lack of O'Brien which is due to be amended.

As far as Menage is concerned, I do think there might be merit to at least one element of the Ferengi, and that's the association with sort of immature, stunted "pervert" behavior being linked the the possessive nature of a hyper-patriarchal, hyper-capitalistic society. There's a real streak of gender and sexual immaturity in the human sphere that deserves to be poked fun at just as much as it deserves more serious dialogues and stories to be told about it. And it's an issue that's not partisan here on Earth, it's equally abysmally true for males of all kinds of mainstream ideological persuasions.

It could have been incredibly potent to contrast that in the Ferengi with a planet of sensitives - empaths with open, and rarely one-sided sexual relationships and a general lack of possessiveness. And Will, ironically has been set up since his inception as the perfect male POV human character for this story to be told about. His candor and charm and noncompetitive, unjealous nature make him a perfect role model.

So when we talk about this being a season of missed marks, this is actually a huge missed chance. But god forbid they try to package an actual object lesson about sex politics on long-80s network TV. Cheeky jokes, sure. Human decency protocol? Nah.

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Daru 2 years, 3 months ago

Yeah as you say there's quite a few problems with this Josh, but I do love and utterly adore Majel Barrett as Lwaxana Troi - when she's given the chance to shine she's brilliant. Not so keen on the hetero-normative stuff, as I have always really appreciated the open aspect of the Betazed sensuality, and particularly how those ideals affect subtly the rest of the Federation. It would have been lovely to have the real, simple character based tale without any sub plot, not so keen on that habit they have to feel there always has to be one.

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