Our textbooks always generalize history and make it all seem much cleaner than it really is: A torrid cycle of life reduced down to big, monolithic, yet easy to digest bits and pieces. Here’s where this Age ends. Here’s where this Age begins.
Even though “Evolution” is the big watershed debut of Michael Piller, it’s nowhere remotely near the case that everything after it can be safely called part of the “Michael Piller Era” or that we’re now comfortably in the period of Star Trek where everything is Right and Good and Doesn’t Need To Be Talked About Anymore. For one thing, Piller isn’t even on staff yet: Michael Wagner is technically still head writer and co-executive producer, him having managed to get two other stories after “The Ensigns of Command” and “Evolution” into production before fleeing the scene-This one and the next one (as well as banging out an *extremely* early rough draft of “Booby Trap”). Essentially, even though we’re now in the period that’s frequently cited as the Big Star Trek Golden Age…None of Piller’s trademark innovations are actually visible yet, at least not as standard operating procedure, and won’t be for another month at a conservative estimate (there’s another episode coming up in a couple of weeks that’s similarly held up as a transformative milestone, but, as we’ll see, there was no reason at the time to see it as anything other than a complete fluke).
So what we get with “The Survivors”, and for the next two weeks or so more generally, is a curious dead end: This is as close to a glimpse at the abortive “Michael Wagner Era”, or as much as such a thing can be said to exist, that we can get. If we’re going to try to tease out any sort of influence, if any, Wagner might have had on the unfolding text of Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is the most opportune moment to talk about it with him not only still technically on the payroll, but writing the script for “The Survivors” as well. This episode is also interesting for me personally, as it’s one I actually have no recollection of: “The Survivors” is among a handful of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes that I at once never saw when it originally aired, but also somehow managed to miss whenever it was rerun during any of my numerous revisits of the show. So finally seeing this on Blu-ray was an education for me in a number of respects, as it both filled a gap in my personal history of Star Trek and also gives me insight into how Michael Wagner and his team might have conceptualized Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Unfortunately, that seems to be “A very TOS-like sci-fi mystery superficially updated for modern sensibilities”. It’s a bit uncanny how well this ticks the necessary boxes: The Enterprise shows up somewhere where something weird is happening, the away team beams down to discover a baffling mystery with locals who are being suspiciously obtuse and evasive, more stuff happens including, but not limited to, at least *one* major space battle and ship-shaking scene, some telepathic chicanery, the captain bluffing his way to victory on an assumption while leaving his co-workers in the dark, something deeply shocking and unpleasant happening to one of the female crewmembers, and it all ends with a trademark Hyper Evolved Being of Pure Consciousness engaging the captain in a philosophical debate about a weighty moral dilemma that’s entirely removed from anything that there was the slightest chance of being construed as applicable to actual terrestrial morals and ethics. And, of course, the whole conflict hinges on something as eye-rollingly bombastic and cheesy as “The Love Of A Woman”. It’s not purely for dramatic effect that Captain Picard tells Kevin Uxbridge “We are not qualified to be your judges. We have no laws to fit your crime”.
(Even the denouement, where the Enterprise mopily warps away from Delta Rana IV with Picard recording a somber Captian’s Log entry ruminating on pop philosophy could have come straight out of something like “Requiem for Methuselah”. In fact, the whole thing kinda feels like a Jerome Bixby script.)
What’s immediately interesting this time, as opposed to all the previous times people have thought Star Trek: The Next Generation is just Star Trek with better acting, better special effects and nicer set design, is the specific version of the Original Series Wagner seems to focus on. When the first season team got lazy and did this, they quite explicitly emphasized the version of the Original Series that was Roddenberry’s Fables: That is, the crew drops into some idiosyncratically quirky and backwards planetary society to teach them the Proper Way To Do Things, typically by way of a big Moral Lesson delivered with the subtlety of the average blunt instrument. Wagner, meanwhile, seems to have hit upon a paradoxically more idealistic version of the Original Series, that is, the Original Series the way it was under Gene Coon. Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say “the way it was trying to be”: “The Survivors” is no less held back by its ageing body and structure and is thus ultimately no less retrograde, but it does hide this remarkably well, with Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s ultra-modern production elevating the source material considerably and laudably.
“The Survivors” then is sort of what the Original Series would look like if all of its broad-strokes, sweeping grabs for greatness actually gelled with a production that was halfway coherent. As turbulent and crazy as things might be behind the scenes in 1989, it’s *nothing* compared to the cloak-and-dagger backstage politics of the TOS era. Every problem Star Trek: The Next Generation has at this point comes purely from the outside; people who don’t get this show don’t tend to last long (just look at, well, Michael Wagner), while Star Trek, at least as a material bit of media, was constantly let down by creative infighting and micromanagement. While the Original Series was insufferably po-faced thematically, it was at least po-faced with an earnestness and ambition that you have to respect at least a little, and had it actually come together a bit more frequently and maybe not been so appallingly morally repugnant with such alarming regularity, it might have managed to become a little endearing, if slightly pretentious, as a result and might just have had a legacy that extends beyond its pure aesthetic superficialities. In short, it probably would have looked a lot like “The Survivors”, so in that regard Michael Wagner really has hit on the ideological core of Star Trek: The Next Generation…at least as it was originally conceived. The major problem is, of course, that this is no longer what this show is and it hasn’t been this for years.
That ultra-modern production really musn’t be discounted, by the way. As standard-issue as the plot feels at times, “The Survivors” is a very visually interesting piece of work and is one of the first instances where we get to see how Marvin Rush has changed the look of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Firstly, this is a far brighter show than before: Rush’s predecessor, Edward R. Brown, used a lot of darkness and shadow, especially very early on in the first season (most notably in “Lonely Among Us”, which for me simply defines the look of the series’ early years). Rush, however, uses a lot of very bright lighting, especially in the interior shots of the Enterprise corridors. So much so, in fact, that he tends to be (wrongly) accused of giving the show a “bland”, “washed out” look: This is mostly due to the steady decay over the years of the original transfer from the VHS tapes all this was composited on back in the day, which makes everything look fuzzy and beige. Thankfully the Blu-ray restoration finally shows us what Rush was really going for, which turns out to be a very high-contrast look that emphasizes areas of strong light mingling with areas of murky shadow, thus giving the show a more cinematic lighting scheme and a much more vibrant sense of colour: Things like the maroon command division uniforms, Deanna Troi’s new teal sun dress, the carpeting in Picard’s ready room and all the little details on the LCARS displays look really, really stunning now. “The Survivors” is a particularly good showcase for this, considering a not-unsubstantial bit of it takes place during a perfectly beautiful summer location shoot at a Malibu beach house.
Rush’s touch is seen elsewhere too, I think, especially during the sequence with Data and the music box, Picard and Riker’s conversation in the ready room and Troi’s psychic torture scenes: In each instance, the camera slowly pans around the characters, dynamically going into and out of focus at key moments to emphasize specific expressions or important symbolic elements of the shot. In the past, especially last year, the show would have simply run with a bog standard two or three static camera setup and shot everything like a typical TV play (in fact, you can see this as recently as “The Ensigns of Command”). It’s not that the new approach is on the whole any more cinematic, if anything the 4:3 resolution Star Trek: The Next Generation forces itself into is going to preclude this by default, but it *is* a bit more visually creative and expressive. The director here is Les Landau, an old veteran of the show by this point, but I think I’m going to attribute a lot of this to Rush, as Landau’s previous efforts, which I’ve liked, I hasten to add (he did “The Arsenal of Freedom”, among other things) haven’t quite stuck in my mind the way this one has.
(Getting back to Troi’s scenes briefly, as uncomfortable as they can be they’re also early example, it must be stated, of the creative team deciding to experiment with new things to do with Troi’s character so Marina Sirtis can show off her acting range. This subplot, for example, was quite obviously done so Sirits could go into a full-on Ophelia spiel. It’s also sort of sweet that Captain Picard is the one who wants to know if she’s alright and who she confides in: There’s that Captain Picard “Warmth” again and it’s played as a nice extension of the special relationship they’re at least supposed to have.)
Incremental change is the name of the story tonight, I think. “The Survivors” is a surprisingly fascinating story to talk about and in some ways really is a bit of a watershed. But again, a lot of this is only clear through retrospect: We now know which changes and innovations here took, and which ones didn’t. And it’s a bit telling I’ve been able to go this long without actually talking a whole lot about Michael Wagner or his story in any significant detail. Almost all I could come up with to talk about are things that are going to prove important going forward, rather than what makes this story and this story in particular unique. So I guess in that regard I’m no different from anyone else who’s tried to write grand, sweeping historical narratives of shows like this.