If Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s new mission is to explore utopian themes through the interiority of its characters, than it’s reasonable to expect one of the first things it would do with this new mandate is to try and clearly reaffirm and rearticulate who those characters and what their accompanying positionalities actually are.
“Booby Trap” then is a good example of Michael Piller’s philosophy is it pertains to the show going forward and is very indicative of the sorts of things that are going to define Star Trek: The Next Generation in general and the third season in particular. Although kickstarted under Michael Wagner’s tenure, it’s a script that Piller and his team comprehensively rewrote and it passed through an impressive number of hands before making it to screen which is going to be kind of the norm from here out. But because of this, it gives us a fairly clear look at the creative differences between the two third season teams: Wagner’s version of the story would have had Captain Picard be the one involved with the holographic woman, perhaps because in the Original Series it was always the leading man captain who would get the girl of the week. But the very first thing Micheal Piller did upon getting this script was nixing that idea outright, figuring that it should be Geordi instead and the real story should be about him. As Piller himself put it
“It just said to me, ‘Picard should be on the bridge, not chatting with some woman.’ I said to myself, ‘It should be Geordi, because Geordi is in love with the ship and this is a story about a guy in love with his ’57 Chevy.’ That played into Geordi’s character, who’s always been a fumbling guy around women, but if he could just marry his car, he’d live happily ever after. He gets to create the personification of the woman who created the engine he loves. It’s sort of a relationship between he and his Pontiac.”
This is interesting, and I’m going to extrapolate a bit from Piller’s explanation if for no other reason than “Booby Trap” has been the butt of a seemingly unending stream of unfunny mechanophile jokes because of this reading, not to mention the fact that the behaviour that tends to get projected onto Geordi here hedges uncomfortably close to that of a certain kind of broken male genre fiction fan that’s frankly unbecoming of any member of the Enterprise crew, especially him (indeed, Star Trek: The Next Generation will tackle the issue head-on in a story at the other end of the season). Also, one wonders if by the time of that interview Piller hadn’t gotten the chronology of his episodes confused, as it had never previously been established that Geordi was unlucky in love. Sure, the only person he’d ever been shown to be interested in before was Tasha Yar during his non-starter romance with her in the first season (which this team certainly knew about, as they give it a touching nod in “Yesterday’s Enterprise”), but that didn’t mean Geordi was awkward around women in general.
But more to the point, the character Geordi interacts with in this episode is quite explicitly *not* Doctor Leah Brahms, nor even an idealized fantasy version of her. Piller himself almost hits on what’s really going on in the quote above: Leah here is nothing less then the guardian spirit of the Enterprise herself given form. This is quite strongly hinted at several times throughout the story, from the fact she gives a face to the ship’s computer (and in fact a key part of the climax hinges on Geordi remembering that Leah is “not human”) to Leah’s constant declaration that she *is* the Enterprise that’s conveyed through the metaphor of the real Doctor Brahms’ assertion that designers put so much of their heart and soul into their creations. Leah may not be Doctor Brahms (she’s no more her than Moriarty in “Elementary, Dear Data” was “that evil character”) and she many not even be human, but she is most definitely real, alive and sentient: Don’t forget that by this point in the show we already know the holodeck can summon conscious entities if you ask it to and we haven’t gone backwards to the point where the rights and sapience of holographic lifeforms are being called into question (if nothing else, “The Measure of a Man” has already set a strong precedent and no-one’s felt the need to re-examine that).
Geordi called upon the spirit of the Enterprise for help and guidance in a time of need, and she answered.
“Booby Trap” then is one of the earliest examples of a reoccurring theme on Star Trek: The Next Generation wherein the Enterprise itself is implicitly coded as a living, thinking thing. Normally anthropomorphism is bad, but throughout history there are plenty of examples of cultures who have recognised the spiritual energy of places and different living things and have given them humanlike characteristics. This is, after all, the core of animism: The idea that all things have a spiritual component and are interconnected in some way, and furthermore that shamans can sometimes call upon those spirits for aid and guidance. They recognised and respected the spirits and the land and knew it was alive, and so it is with the Enterprise. And if we stop and think about it, this isn’t actually that much of an intellectual leap given that even Gene Roddenberry always maintained the Enterprise should be seen as a character in her own right. Well, in this episode, we finally get to meet her and talk to her. And naturally it would be Geordi, the show’s heart and soul, who performs the evocation ritual and gets to kindle a romance with her, pushing this story comfortably into the territory of any number of mythological cycles involving mortal heroes joining with gods, demigods and spirits of place, particularly in the Gaelic tradition.
How lucky we are that our reclaimed faery queen is, as she says, with us every day because we can travel with her and her Otherworld court anywhere in the galaxy.
Given how fascinating this part of the story is, it’s easy to overlook the rest of the production this week, which would be a shame because it’s all terrific. “Booby Trap” is a fantastic ensemble show, and feels like one of the first times the natural camaraderie of the cast started to gel with the honed and refined structural elegance and symmetry Michael Piller and his team have brought to the series. Furthermore, it’s a great example of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s mature approach to science fiction: Not only do the “human stories” and the “sci-fi” stories all compliment each other flawlessly, there are a lot of really memorable moments sprinkled throughout that add to the richness of the show’s world. There’s Guinan’s speech about bald men, this time in its original context dating to a time where adding more mystery and wonder to the show, rather than explaining it away, was the order of the day. The “ships in bottles” subplot, apart from serving up some of the best believably, endearingly low-stakes small talk we’ve seen on the show yet, gives the rest of the cast ample opportunities to remain stimulated and engaged while the important stuff with Geordi and Leah is going on.
Speaking of, this is also allows the show to demonstrate how compelling storytelling can be done in a science fiction setting without getting bogged down in irrelevant world-building minutiae: As “technobabbley” as you could argue “Booby Trap” is, it’s still manifestly just window dressing: You don’t really know *what* Geordi and Leah are talking about, but you don’t need to because you can pick up on the severity of the situation by paying attention to the urgency in the way they act and speak. It’s not important *why* we might have to turn the ship over to the computer, only that this is something that we might be forced to do. In this regard, and entirely in spite of its reputation both inside and outside Trekker circles, Star Trek: The Next Generation actually *pushes back* against the genre of classical hard SF and all its accompanying technofetishism: The tech stuff doesn’t simply exist for the sake of existing, it’s there to prop up the human story and provide colour to the world the show is trying to sketch out for us.
(Indeed, as much as this episode would seem to end on an almost TOS-style “machines will never replace humans” tirade, in truth, the problem is only resolved by the human Geordi and digital computer-spirit Leah *working together*. It’s in fact *their union* that saves the day, reminding us both of how, in moderation, technology can help us to visualize the singularity while still retaining our connection to the rest of the universe as well as the situated cyborg affinity that by definition shapes our lives living in the spectre of modernity.)
“Booby Trap” is an episode I’m very familiar with, it being one of third season episodes I caught the most frequently, but I was concerned upon this rewatch that I might have a hard time articulating an unproblematic reading of it. Thankfully, I was wrong: It’s even better than I remember and without question a high water mark for the year, right up there with “The Bonding”. There are story arcs and ideas this episode puts into place that *will* prove to be more problematic than not, but those are later problems to be dealt with down the road that don’t actually have any bearing on the original work itself. No matter what subsequent stories might do with its concepts, “Booby Trap” itself stands alone, self-evidently another formidable proof of concept that Star Trek: The Next Generation should work, does work, and remains a very special sort of television.