Well, the obvious joke to make is that the title is incredibly fitting.
But aside from being facile, that would also be a bit unfair. This episode isn’t a complete hangar fire: It’s got a cool setup and a few memorably defining moments for Captain Picard. A Star Trek: The Next Generation genre romp send-up of disaster movies had a lot of potential, even if it is still the sort of thing the Dirty Pair TV show could do way more intelligently in its sleep on an off day. There’s a discussion to be had about how challenging this series is finding it to do just plain “fun” episodes every once in awhile, both due to external fan pressure to be “serious” and due to the fact that, frankly, I think this creative team is pretty poor at comedy (which is almost criminal considering the cast are comic geniuses). That’s not the discussion for today though, because that’s not the main problem. There are, however a *lot* of things conceptually wrong with “Disaster” on a number of different levels, and the combined weight of them all sadly scuttles it.
Let’s talk about the good first. Captain Picard’s scenes where he’s stuck in the turbolift with a group of little kids are genuinely heartfelt and touching. It should be said the subplot is not quite as originally conceived: Ron Moore (who didn’t write the story, but liked the idea and adapted it into a teleplay) said he had them stranded in the turbolift because he actually wanted it to be raining. Moore had been reading about the hangar where NASA built the Saturn V rockets, which were so tall that clouds would actually form in them and start raining. Moore thought that the Enterprise turbolifts were of comparable height and that, with no power, it might start to rain in there too and that lightning might arc across the metal siding. Unfortunately, doing live water special effects on set is a logistical nightmare, so that part of Moore’s treatment had to get cut.
But even though the segment isn’t as dramatic and impressive as it could have been, it’s still an unquestioned highlight. You would think, the way the episode is set up to put the crew in situations they’re uncomfortable with so we can watch them fail (more on that later) and Picard’s famously known dislike of children, that it’s going to end up a comedic runaround of forced awkwardness, and there is a little of that. But what there’s a lot *more* of is Picard slowly coming to respect, understand and actually *like* these kids. Patrick Stewart can’t help but play gentle and supportive, and it’s impossible not to smile at the sweetness of Marissa becoming the new “Number One” or Patterson becoming “executive officer in charge of radishes”. For a show that we’re trying to claim works by children’s television logic on at least some level, it’s nice to get a kind of diegetic nod to that here.
There are some other nice bits here too. Commander Riker carrying Data’s head around is obviously a laugh riot, but what struck me more was Geordi and Beverly’s subplot. Namely, that it’s bloody fantastic, and you honestly have to wonder why the show hasn’t thrown these two together before. René Echevarria can talk all he wants about not knowing what Geordi and Beverly would have to talk about to each other, but the evidence is clearly against him because they make a terrific team here. And why wouldn’t they? Geordi is the chief engineer and in a fair and just world, Doctor Crusher would be the Enterprise‘s science officer, because when she’s used to her potential that’s the role she effectively plays anyway. Putting them together nets you no less then Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s scientific power couple, and this kind of thriller plot is practically custom tailored for them. Actually, a good 70% of Data’s plot responsibilities on this series as whole, especially vis a vis interacting with Geordi, could just as easily be handled by Doctor Crusher.
Then, sadly, there’s the bad. Which is everything else. Firstly, Worf’s plot with Keiko O’Brien is unwatchable, I don’t care how iconic it is in the fandom. Keiko is once again a stock sitcom wife archetype in an embarrassingly stereotypical and sexist giving birth story. One imagines that had it been Miles instead of Worf she’d be saying something along the lines of “You did this to me!”. Worf is no better, mind: He may not be a trained midwife, but I have a hard time believing someone of his age and experience would be entirely clueless as to how this process works. If Keiko is the stereotypical sitcom wife, than Worf is the stereotypical sitcom husband: Comically baffled by the strange and mysterious workings of the female body. Ugh.
Then there’s the bridge crisis story, and that’s where things *really* start to go wrong for “Disaster”. The implicit point for this whole episode is to put the crew in situations they’re uncomfortable with so we can watch them screw up and fall on their face. There’s that Ron Moore cynicism and mean-spirtedness again, but that’s a given at this point. Most of this episode actually hedges against this rather well: Most notably in that Riker and Data work together all the time and Geordi and Beverly turn out to make an absolutely killer team. And Patrick Stewart turns a bit that could have gone a different way entirely into a really touching and resonant character moment among an ensemble vignette. But the skeleton crew on the bridge do not get this luxury, and Deanna gets it the worst: Continuing our theme of “let’s shit on Deanna Troi”, the ship’s counselor is depicted as being haplessly and woefully incompetent in a command situation, her feeble feminine mind apparently incapable of handling things like hard science and being forced to make stressful decisions. This would lead Marina Sirits to angrily fume and openly wonder if Troi slept through the command classes at Starfleet Academy.
The obvious mud-slinging and sexism aside, Deanna’s not the only one who gets badly shafted here. So does Ro Laren who, in her first regular appearance, takes it upon herself to whine and complain and just be an insubordinate pain in everyone’s ass. It’s strange, as in “Ensign Ro” she was pushing Mary Sue territory, but here she basically exists to be wrong and make Troi look underestimated. Had this been another character, like Christopher Hobson from “Redemption II”, Logan from “The Arsenal of Freedom” or the conspiracy theory nut from “Night Terrors”, and had Deanna herself not been given the humiliation conga this *might* have worked, but as it stands “Disaster” manages the impressively dubious (and clumsy) feat of assassinating two major female characters with one sleight while trying to develop them both, one of whom is a brand new addition.
Michael Piller himself actually spoke out about this issue, but was apparently shot down. Of Ro’s plot here, he says
“We gave her the role of the disbeliever who had nowhere to go but lose in the end because she didn’t believe Troi. I think, as I wrote in a memo, it would have been much better if she’d been around a year with some victories before we threw her right into that situation to look rather foolish. And I didn’t like the moment where she had to come back and say, which was almost the same arc as that character [sic: Hobson] in the opening [sic: “Redemption II”] who apologized to Data, ‘Gee, you were right, Counselor and I was wrong, and I respect you.’ To me, after Troi made the right decision in a crisis, Ro’s character, and I’m not sure if anybody would agree with me on this, would have said, ‘You still could have killed us and I still think I was right and you’re just lucky it came out this way.’ That’s the way I would have ended it with her. The bridge sequence was my least favorite part of the show because it seemed very predictable to me.”
Well, *I* agree with Micheal Piller, at least this time. As much as I don’t like to have the crew fighting with each other (there are other ways Ro could have been made “edgy” apart from the rote and facile one), that is how her character would have responded given what we’ve seen of her thus far.
The other little added level of irony is that, no matter how you look at it, Ro is actually right, and furthermore, she probably should have been the one in command. Even Moore himself points out in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365 that Deanna technically shouldn’t have been next in the chain of command because she’s a medical officer, pointing out how we never saw Doctor McCoy in command on the Original Series even though he outranked Sulu (Doctor Crusher is, as we will eventually learn, an exception, as she’s both a medical officer *and* a command officer, as well as the Enterprise‘s designated night shift captain). Given Miles O’Brien is a chief petty officer, Ro is the next highest ranking officer in that scenario so, realistically speaking, command should fall to her. The writers bent the rules for dramatic effect, and everyone turned out worse off for it.
The only positive I can tease out of Ro’s portrayal in this episode is that here begins the somewhat delightful trend of making her the Enterprise‘s resident deadpan snarker. Though it has a whiff of 90s-ness about it, the part suits her well. And I did chuckle at her exchange with Miles and Deanna:
Miles: “If it falls to 15%, the field will collapse and we’ll have a containment breach.”Deanna: “Which means?”Laren: “Which means the ship will explode.”
It frustrates me that this part of the episode is as bad as it is, because there’s actually a lot to like here. In a lot of ways “Disaster” really is showing how seasoned and comfortable Star Trek: The Next Generation has become, but only to a point. A lot of the same provincial mistakes and assumptions this creative team have making over the past year are still plainly evident, and this is becoming a real concern for me going forward. Something to remember about this team is that, apart from the producers, everyone on staff is extremely young, no older than their late-20s. None of them have had professional writing experience before Star Trek, and you have to wonder how much of what’s going on is due to inexperience and a general lack of worldliness. But there’s an undeniable abundance of raw talent too, and we can only hope that will win out in the end.