Boldly Going

Descent Part II: Opening with a Whimper

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

Please be aware, there will be spoilers for Star Trek: Picard season one below. Read at your own risk.

I wrote that I found “Descent Part I” somewhat disappointing, and that attitude still spills over to Part II. The episode’s conclusion is somewhat muddled, thematically speaking, and there isn’t enough fun to rescue the episode from itself. That said, some stand out moments do shine brightly, just not enough so to overshadow the episode’s lackluster tone.

Plot Ahoy!

Picking up where Part I left off, Dr. Crusher takes the Enterprise and copes with what is clearly the B team—Ensign Taitt and Lieutenant Barnaby. She tries to evacuate as many Away Teams as possible before raising shields and speeding toward the Transwarp Conduit. On the planet’s surface, Riker and Worf attempt to be sneaky. Back at Borg HQ, Lore does some grandstanding before Data takes Picard, LaForge and Troi into custody and is generally awful to all three of his erstwhile friends while taking away their communicators. Data forces LaForge to turn over his VISOR.

Back on the Enterprise, Dr. Crusher orders a buoy released into the Transwarp Conduit that will transmit their log entries to Starfleet once it’s through the conduit, and she begins plotting as to how she can get around the Borg warship in order to rescue the remaining crewmembers stranded on the planet. While confined, LaForge explains to Picard and Troi that Lore likely ordered his VISOR removed because LaForge could see the carrier wave Lore transmits to Data, which surely must be how Lore is sharing emotions with Data. LaForge theorizes that Lore deliberately selects which emotions he transmits, ensuring that Data receives only the more negative emotions. However, to ensure Data acts on those emotions and pursuant to Lore’s wishes, Lore must have bypassed Data’s ethical programming, so LaForge suggests using a kedion pulse to reboot those subroutines. Unfortunately, before they can put this plan into action, Data comes to take LaForge away to subject him to the same experiments that rendered all Borg test subjects brain-damaged or dead. Data straps LaForge down after cruelly impersonating Picard and injects filaments into LaForge’s brain with the end goal being that these filaments will learn LaForge’s neural pathways and then replicate them. Once they’ve had sufficient time to learn LaForge’s mind, Data will irradiate LaForge’s brain cells in order to allow the filaments to take over LaForge’s brain functions.

Troi lures a Borg drone into the cell, and Picard incapacitates him. They escape only to be confronted by Data who has brought LaForge back to the cell. Threatening to kill LaForge, Data forces the officers back into the cell, but fortunately, Picard managed to obtain part of an interlink transceiver, which they use to create a device that will generate the pulse. Aboard the Enterprise, Dr. Crusher orders the ship to drop out of warp close enough to the planet’s atmosphere that Taitt worries they will actually brush the atmosphere. The ship does not, but though they were able to retrieve all but six officers, the ship engages with the Borg warship. Having taken a hit that disables the warp drive, Dr. Crusher directs the ship into the local sun’s corona, using the metaphasic shielding referenced in “Suspicions.” Ensign Taitt then triggers a solar eruption, destroying the Borg ship.

On the planet’s surface, Borg from another faction capture Riker and Worf and bring them to Hugh, their leader. Hugh blames the Enterprise crew for the entire situation, explaining that his individuality caused such chaos that Lore’s offer to lead them was clearly the better offer. He then shows Riker and Worf the results of the terrible experiments Lore has been conducting. Riker demands that Hugh show them how to access the compound, to which Hugh agrees only because LaForge is held captive. He offers no other help.

Picard activates the kedion pulse, and Data finds himself unable to finish Lore’s experiment, sparing LaForge. He speaks with his brother, revealing that he is wrestling with the morality of their actions, and Lore concludes that Data might not be fully onboard with Lore’s plan to turn every organic being into an artificial lifeform. Lore forces Data to bring Picard to him and then asks Data to kill the captain, which Data cannot do. Lore then steps up to kill data, and Hugh, who has been watching all of these developments, flings himself on Lore’s arm to stop him. Riker and Worf emerge, phasers firing, and in the confusion, Lore flees. Data follows to find Lore attempting to flee, and they talk. Lore attempts to fire on Data, but Data fires first, immobilizing Lore. He deactivates Lore. Picard suggests to Hugh that Hugh become the leader, and the Enterprise crew beam back up to the ship. On board, LaForge finds Data read to destroy the emotion chip but stops him, explaining that when Data is ready, they may still implant the chip.

Analysis

Rene Echevarria wrote this episode, and despite his many, many sterling contributions to the Star Trek franchise, this episode has got to be the absolute nadir of his oeuvre because it’s just not good. Lore clearly strings Data out on emotions like some sort of malevolent dealer, but because that entire plot only serves as a means of driving the plot, very little comes of it. Lore lacks his familiar mania, having stepped into the role of manipulative cult-leader, which while effective, does not allow the episode to capitalize on Spiner’s previous energy as the character. There is a brief sequence in which Lore convinces a random drone to renew his link to Crosus, which is how Lore controls the Borg, and while the overall tone is deeply foreboding, literally nothing happens, which is unfortunately a snapshot of the rest of the episode.

Though Lore ostensibly has a plan to take over the Federation, the episode shows us nothing of what that might be. While I am more than willing to accept that Lore is in over his head, as Hugh explains he was when he made grandiose plans for the Borg, Data would have required an actual, achievable plan. That’s just who he is, even with emotions influencing his cognition. The episode seems to forget about that part, cheapening the ending of the previous installment. Dr. Crusher, on the other hand, is all action in this episode. She relies on her bridge crew for information, but she jumps to conclusions with an ease that even Picard would envy. They end up defeating the Borg ship using not only the same technology that drove another Crusher-centric episode, “Suspicions,” but also Ensign Taitt’s quick thinking. The episode seems to think that the tension between Taitt and Barnaby should provide enough comic relief to keep the episode going, but there is precisely zero chemistry between James Horan and Alex Datcher. The result is that the entire sequence feels like filler, no matter that Taitt successfully neutralizes a significant threat.

LeVar Burton does a great job with LaForge when he observes that should Data return to himself, Data will regret killing his friend. I particularly appreciate that LaForge does not offer him absolution or forgiveness, and fortunately for LaForge, Picard’s timely activation of the kedion pulse in a completely different part of the compound has just enough juice to trigger Data’s ethical subroutines so that he finds an excuse not to turn LaForge’s brain into goo. I just find all of that a bit too pat, even for a TNG episode. Still, that’s a great moment for the episode. Data’s confrontation with Lore also has some emotional impact, in part stemming from the visual allusion to HAL’s deactivation in 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, Data’s simple acknowledgement that he must lose his only chance at realizing his dream of having emotions loses any bite it might have because the episode’s ending undercuts the enormity of that sacrifice as a way of hedging bets for future storylines.

Hugh’s reappearance should have been met with more fanfare because Del Arco’s Hugh really is the brightest spot in the dreariness of the episode. Gone is the compliant, nearly childlike Hugh from “I, Borg,” and in his place, we find a Hugh vibrating with justifiable anger. He calls out Riker for the decision to send him back, and Riker can say nothing because he’s correct. The Enterprise crew knew that Hugh’s individuality could have harmed the collective and indeed were counting on it, and Hugh had a right to be informed. Hugh justifiably feels used, and I wish the episode had taken the time to engage with the moral repercussions of the crew’s decision to send him back as he was. The episode skips over the possibility of discussing the ramifications of interference in other cultures and opts to play the friendship card.

LaForge’s friendship with Hugh in “I, Borg” is a beautifully realized relationship, but here, it’s just a way to explain Hugh throwing over his concern for his fellow Borg to swoop in to save the day. The episode even cheats Hugh out of the payoff for his actions, having Picard dump the responsibility for leading the Borg remnants on his shoulders without offering him the chance to see LaForge. All of the shots in which Hugh appears prior to that moment emphasize the smallness of his stature compared to literally everyone else in the frame, so I imagine that final shot is meant to elevate Hugh visually, supporting the action in that scene. Unfortunately, that arc lacks sufficient development to give it any depth. That said, we see Hugh taking the first steps on the path that will lead to his role in Star Trek: Picard as well as the same depth of anger that will later send Hugh to his death. Still, none of this is enough to save the episode.

Rating:

One cup of Earl Grey Tea and a saucer.

Stray Thoughts From the Couch:

  1. I mentioned the cinematography above, but Lore’s costume also merits some comment. The padded jumpsuit is clearly designed to mimic the more metallic elements of the Borg design, but at least on my television, the padding tends to fade into the overall black outfit, meaning that Lore just looks like he’s wearing really terrible shoulder pads. The idea was great, but it loses something in the effect.
  2. James Horan who plays Lieutenant Barnaby previously appeared in “Suspicions” as Jo’Bril, the episode’s villain. It’s a nice Easter egg to have him remark to Dr. Crusher that he’s familiar with the metaphasic shielding technology.
  3. The episode does make clear that Hugh’s individuality only affects a single ship’s worth of Borg, leaving the rest of the collective to continue harassing Voyager in the Delta Quadrant, for better or worse depending on your feelings about that series.

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