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.