“We just get a fragment of a hint”: Future Imperfect

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This is the archetypal example of the problem I'm having with the fourth season. “Future Imperfect” is a perfectly straightforward and even enjoyable hour of television, but it doesn't leave me with a whole lot of room to craft a creative and entertaining critical analysis of it. I mean, pretty much everything that can be said about it is pretty obvious to anyone watching it.

I actually remember “Future Imperfect” quite well. I did tend to mix it up with “Parallels” a lot, which I like better than this episode, but “Future Imperfect” still sticks with me. The caves on the planet where Commander Riker spends the episode in particular, as well as Barash's design, reminiscent as it is of the stereotypical Grey aliens from abduction reports while also being endearingly cute and childlike at the same time. I guess if you're going to do an abduction, missing time and false memories story in a Star Trek: The Next Generation setting, that's the kind of character you'd naturally want to create for it. The illusory Enterprise stuff is obviously pretty fun in a sort of “lets play around with our stock programmatic conventions a bit” kind of way. I just don't have a whole lot to actually say about the episode itself, so this is going to be another one of those entries where I tell you how much I'm trying to fill space in this post as a way of filling space in this post.

“Future Imperfect” holds the distinction of being the one episode Michael Piller apparently thought was so good he told the team to buy it sight unseen without even hearing a formal pitch. At least, that's the story Brannon Braga tells: Piller himself says he thought the story was “a little flat” after the action got going and he, along with the script's writers J. Larry Carroll and David Bennett Carron, came up with the Romulan illusion misdirection subplot during a brainstorming session. With that kind of setup, “Future Imperfect” is obviously an extraordinarily good showcase for Jonathan Frakes, who gets to sink his teeth into a stylistic range as Riker he hasn't always gotten the chance to. To broadly generalize, in more mediocre outings Will has tended to be written as either a pallet swap of Captain Kirk from the Original Series, an affable everyman or a grumpy Starfleet lackey. This is one of the first episodes to really play up and play on where he really shines on the show, which is in his strong relationships with the other crewmembers.

Here, Will is confronted with the possibility that a huge chunk of his life is missing, so he defaults on what he knows best. And, Minuet notwithstanding, it turns out he knows his friends so well that this becomes the key to figuring out the illusion-One of my favourite exchanges from this whole year happens when Will confronts the illusory Geordi: “[You've been running a Level 1 diagnostic] For thirty hours? That would never take you more than four. You're incapable of that level of incompetence, Mr. La Forge!”. Though as much fun as that is, I do have to quibble a bit with some of the other clues the script tries to drop: Speaking of Minuet, as great as it is to see Carolyn McCormick again, it's a bit implausible to expect the audience to remember a one-off character from four years ago (two, if you want to count “Shades of Grey”), though the episode does hedge against this a bit by having Riker explain that she was a hologram. What it doesn't reiterate for the benefit of audiences who might not have been around in the first season is the fact Data can't use contractions: It expects us to remember that, and remembering that sort of arcane minutiae is the province of hyper-obsessed Nerd Culture viewers the show should not be courting anymore.

(I guess in that sense you could also read this episode as an early version of those later, frequently Riker-centric, psychological horror episodes that become such a signature of Brannon Braga's, like "Frame of Mind".)

Even though Will eventually sees through it, Barash's illusion does provide a somewhat compelling look at the potential future of the Enterprise crew. Which, I suppose, in a season about trying to piece together what the material future of Star Trek: The Next Generation is going to look like, is actually pretty fitting. Although Jean-Luc Picard becoming an admiral in hindsight should have been another clue for Will that this future is not an authentic one (Picard did, after all, say as early as “Coming of Age” that he would never accept promotion because he's a traveller and belongs on a starship), it's interesting to see Deanna Troi working with him and not married to Will as a lot of fans nowadays would probably expect. Picard and Troi have always been very close as characters, and this does seem like a logical extension of that, as much as it does annoy me a bit to see her as a subservient “aide” instead of, like, a renowned anthropology professor or something.

Speaking of Will's love life, can I just gush a bit about how Barash has him married to Minuet of all people? There are a not insubstantial number of girls-of-the-week he could have chosen from, but that holographic faery queen apparently made such an impact on Will that Barash assumed she was flesh and blood. Not only that, it's another in an increasingly long line of tributes to and invocations of the first season we've seen this year: I think its telling that while Star Trek: The Next Generation has been reflecting on its past quite a lot of late, so far it's made almost no direct references to the second or third seasons...

Well, except for that one really big one in “Ambassador” Tomalak. This is Andreas Katsulas's third appearance in the role, and his last for a very, very long time. Katsulas wasn't happy with the way his character was handled here, saying he much preferred it when he was only a presence on the viewscreen where he could act larger than life, and I think he's quite right. This reveals a lot of really subtle and admirable things about the kind of actor Katsulas was: For one, it paints him as someone extremely cognizant of how video technology and broadcast media can play a pivotal part in the efficacy of an actor's performance, which is a very laudably Long 1980s sort of savvy. On a more localized level, it also shows that he was well aware of how that viewscreen on the Enterprise's bridge really ought to be used: Katsulas knew Tomalak simply wasn't as cool if he wasn't lording over the scene from the other side of that titanic expanse which, again, is something the series since the first season hasn't always completely understood. Even Locutus in “The Best of Both Worlds” wasn't as imposing as DaiMon Tarr was in “The Last Outpost”.

But while Andreas Katsulas and Commander Tomalak effectively bring their tenure on Star Trek: The Next Generation to a close with this episode, someone else's begins here: “Future Imperfect”, somewhat strangely, in retrospect, is the first appearance of Patti Yasutake as Alyssa Ogawa. Who is for me, frankly, one of the most venerable and iconic characters of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Along with Suzie Plakson's Doctor Selar, Alyssa Ogawa has always been an evergreen staple of Doctor Crusher's “sickbay action team”, always on hand to help with whatever medical emergency the crew might find itself in and always there to be Beverly's own “Number One”: Someone with whom she could chat and hang out when she was still on duty. It takes future knowledge to fully appreciate her early bird cameo in this episode, but, well, this *is* “Future Imperfect”, after all. With Alyssa Ogawa now onboard, Star Trek: The Next Generation has taken one more huge step towards completing its transformation into the final form I'm so fond of.

So, it's like clairvoyance: A glimpse at a possible future to come. Imperfect though it may be, it's a glimpse nevertheless.

Comments

K. Jones 1 year, 10 months ago

That's a fair reading. This is a strong Frakes outing. The bummer there is that I think this and Best of Both Worlds II are like the only major Frakes spotlights of the season. (Though he's at least featured pretty well in Night Terrors and somewhat ironically in The Host.)

It's kind of a casualty of the fact that Riker, being a friendly soul and something of the glue holding the crew together, who can thus play well in everybody else's spotlight stories, kind of gets underutilized because of it.

Anyway, Future Imperfect is fun albeit low-stakes. Since it's a serialized show before anyone ever thought of doing a real time-jump, the stakes are relatively low, but it's neat then that we switch into figuring how Riker will solve the mystery and wake up out of what's essentially a few dream-puzzles. And he's even a pretty good choice for a character to afflict with this kind of conundrum - because while he's got adequate amounts of Enterprise curiosity and Starfleet know-how, his insight is the name of the game (and once again Riker kind of proves ironically to be as insightful as Counselor Troi.)

So it's an appropriate episode with enough interest and fun to be eminently watchable. This season has been alternating 2-to-1 good to bad ratios so far and we've got a bit to go before we start getting good runs.

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