We’ve reached the last episode of TNG’s penultimate season, “Descent part I“, and the episode’s overall unevenness is definitely a harbinger of season seven’s wild fluctuations in quality. As always, however, the story’s strength lies not in the big set pieces but in the quiet character moments as Data muddles through the confusing experience of feeling spontaneous emotion for the first time.
The Enterprise receives word of a Borg attack on a Starfleet outpost and warps to investigate. There, they discover a bizarrely quiet ship in orbit over the outpost on Ohniaka III. Riker, Data, Worf, and Security Officer Corelki beam down to the planet only to discover that all station personnel have been massacred by entities uninterested in any of the station’s technology or resources. Data discovers a Borg drone behind a locked door, sparking an immediate conflict. However, the attacking Borg behave strangely, including one who actively mourns the death of his comrade who happens to be named Torsus. Data kills the drone, and the Borg transport away.
Data, shocked that he became angry with the deceased drone submits himself to various tests, both mechanical and psychological, while the remainder of the Enterprise crew assumes patrol duties of the sector in hopes of offering protection in the event of a Borg attack. Admiral Nechayev beams aboard in order to dress down Picard for allowing Hugh to return to the collective without converting him into a weapon of genocide and orders him that in the event that he should stumble upon a way to destroy the Borg in their entirety, he is to do just that. Picard angrily acknowledges the order. Meanwhile, Data continues to worry, inasmuch as he is capable, that his experience of anger at the Borg drone’s attack and subsequent pleasure in his demise makes him a bad person. Counselor Troi assures him that she believes that should he become human, he will be a good one.
Panic in the sector runs high, and the Enterprise begins to respond to a distress call from the New Berlin colony, which turns out to be a case of mistaken identity. An uncharacteristically grumpy Picard orders the colony be sent yet another copy of Starfleet’s ship identification protocol with the recommendation that they actually read the thing this time. He also snaps at Riker for bringing tidings that an artificial transwarp conduit has been discovered, and they segue into discussing whether returning Hugh to the Borg was the right thing to do.
A distress call from the MS I colony brings the Enterprise into conflict with the Borg, who beam over to the Enterprise’s bridge. The crew kills all but one of the Borg, and Picard forces Dr. Crusher to revive the drone for questioning. He’s spectacularly creepy, but he does explain that The One has given him a name. Visibly rattled, Picard leaves the drone with Data, and the drone proceeds to talk Data about his experiences of emotions, while pressing on a point on his own arm. Data begins feeling emotions.
While LaForge briefs Picard about the conduit, Data and the drone escape in the El Baz, so the Enterprise follows them into the transwarp conduit. They emerge 65 light years away, and they track the shuttle to a planet. They deploy Away Teams to search for Data and the drone, leaving Dr. Crusher in command of the ship. The Borg ship reappears, forcing Dr. Crusher to take the Enterprise back into the conduit before they can retrieve all of the Away Teams. Meanwhile, the Borg capture Counselor Troi, Picard, LaForge, and a security officer. Lore appears and reveals Data, who explains not only that he has joined forces with his brother but also their plans to destroy the Federation.
Clearly, most of what happens in this episode is intended to be a set up for the intensity of the second part, and as a result, the episode has moments that feel a great deal like filler. At one point, LaForge walks in on Data attempting to induce feelings of anger by recreating the fight with the Borg drone, and while that moment could have been interesting, LeVar Burton’s initial contributions to the scene fall flat. Even Data’s efforts seem futile, which makes sense because they are, but however logical that choice may be, it doesn’t make for riveting watching. Furthermore, the story cuts the scene short before Data can have LaForge help him remove the Holodeck safeguards, an act which requires authorization by two senior officers solely in this episode. The scene literally robs itself of impact. The exploration of the planet takes far too much time spent under a strangely sepia filter, and really, the episode just falls flat.
There are some fantastic moments, of course. “Descent” opens with Data playing Poker with Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Professor Stephen Hawking appearing as himself. The writers and crew managed to squeeze SO MANY physics jokes into that two minutes of film from Newton’s inability to comprehend Mercury’s perihelion precession because Newtonian physics can’t explain it to Hawking needling Einstein over the number of Einstein’s theories he’s disproved. Also, John Neville as an incredibly grumpy Newton is a gem. So, too is Counselor Troi’s session with Data in which she explains to him that emotions themselves are neither positive or negative. What we do with them, however, can be. Data will throw her words back at her in “Descent Part II,” but here, we get Troi in her element actually doing her job competently. Sadly, that’s rare enough that it deserves some notice.
The sequence with Nechayev in which she actively demands that Picard take the opportunity to commit genocide strikes me as strange. On the one hand, the question of what happens when the need to feel secure runs up against one’s morals is a valid one, and it is also one that Star Trek attempts to answer, even as recently as Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard. The question certainly remains relevant in our contemporary political discourse, but her anger seems disproportionate, especially since they’re discussing the events from “I, Borg,” which aired a year prior. Picard remains calm while she rants, only commenting that he, more than anyone, understands the dangers. We’ll see a distinct reversal from him in Star Trek: First Contact.
Lastly, Data’s concern about his experiences with anger tells us everything we already knew about him as a character. The episode takes it to an uncomfortable place during the Borg interrogation scene with its focus on Data’s experience of pleasure after he kills the drone. There’s no question as to which kind of pleasure he experiences. However, despite the general discomfort surrounding the scene, Spiner’s acting here is very, very good.
Still, these moments do not quite salvage the episode from being a solid middle-of-the-road episode.
Three cups of Earl Grey Tea, tepid
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- Did anyone else wonder what the random security officer was doing to ignore Data’s conversation with Crosis in the brig? My personal head-canon is that he’s watching Andorian telenovelas.
- I take it on faith that the physics jokes in the teaser are funny because…yeah.
- The Borg stronghold building is the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, which among other Star Trek appearances also served as the command center for the first five seasons of the Power Rangers.
- I like that one of the ships mentioned in this episode is the USS Crazy Horse, and indeed, this episode marks the first time a ship was named after an Indigenous American. The other ship in Task Force 3 is the USS Gorkon, is the first starship named after a non-human.
- The hill seen just before they sight the Borg stronghold is actually the same shooting location used in “This Side of Paradise” for Spock and Leila’s conversation. Aside from Vazquez Rocks, which appears repeatedly throughout the franchise, this hill serves as one of the few shared shooting locations between TOS and TNG.
- I did like that Brent Spiner makes a clear distinction between emotional Data, for which he uses a voice much closer to his natural speaking cadence, and regular Data, whose voice remains the modulated tones we’ve come to know and love from the android. That said, I really, really, really never needed to know about Data’s…er…research into erotic imagery.