I frequently forget just how bad the first season of TNG actually was, as John Flowers reminded us last week. “The Big Goodbye” is remarkable both because it marks the very first “holodeck malfunction episode” and the only Star Trek episode to win a Peabody Award and indeed the first hour-long drama to do so. While it doesn’t necessarily stand up to later episodes that would play with what would become a major franchise trope, there’s a great deal to be said for starting at the beginning.
The A-story for this episode is technically the issue of the Jarada and the relevant negotiations, but in reality, the actual focus of the episode is the holodeck, in which Picard, Historian Whelan, Dr. Crusher, and Data become trapped due to some sort of anomaly because of course there’s an anomaly. Don’t get too attached to Whelan as Star Trek is generally hard on historians. Troi convinces Dr. Picard to take a break and go play in the holodeck, which he does, and frankly, watching Picard shamelessly fanboy over being able to play in the world of Dixon Hill, a detective from the pulp novels Picard loved in his childhood, is unexpectedly charming. There’s a great moment in which Picard exits the holodeck with lipstick smeared across his face, and the reaction of the various crewmembers he encounters is hilarious.
Picard is so thrilled with the holodeck that he uncharacteristically takes time out of a conference with the senior staff to talk about how great it all is before getting to the real business of dealing with the bug aliens who are apparently offended by literally everything. The Jaradans really only serve to create dramatic tension as predictably, they arrive far too early and refuse to speak to anyone who isn’t the captain. Beardless Riker attempts to reach the Dixon Hill contingent, but he and LaForge discover that they cannot access the holodeck or communicate with those inside. Picard and Co. are shamelessly enjoying themselves, completely ignorant of the Jaradans’ irritation.
However, they have their own problems, of course, because Felix Leech, as stereotypical a gangster as you could want manages to shoot Whelan, actually wounding him. This is clearly why Dr. Crusher is present, as she pronounces that Whelan’s fate is dire to the assembled crowd. Cyrus Redblock then appears and demands the item, the nature of which is never specified and is largely unnecessary. Picard and Co. attempt to reason with Redblock who becomes convinced as to the accuracy of their claims of being from a different world but does not accept that he is not real. After Wesley manages some technological magic to get the door open, Redblock and Leech waltz into the Enterprise corridors only to disappear.
Overall, the episode has some real problems, not least of which are the terrible gangster accents employed by not only the extras but also Brent Spiner’s Data, who has managed to read ahead. The script also borrows heavily from a wealth of pulp novel and film inspirations, not least of which being the Maltese Falcon. Cyrus Redblock is nonsensical as a character, but Lawrence Tierney’s demeanor renders him somehow more believable, even as he disappears from the knees up. Furthermore, the episode’s bizarre conceit, appropriately placed in Wesley Crusher’s mouth, that an aborted program would result in the dematerialization of the actual people in the holodeck as well as all of the characters, makes little sense either in terms of how the holodeck functions but also thematically as well. The entire resolution of the episode concerns establishing what is real and what is not, and Redblock’s mistaken belief in his own realness results in his dissolution. McNary asking Picard at the episode’s conclusion whether the world will continue is meant to be poignant, but considering how shallow the relationship between McNary and Picard necessarily is, the effort falls flat. The Jaradan issue seems arbitrarily tacked onto the story; the Enterprise leaves immediately after Picard issues his greeting. If Picard is indeed the Federation’s emissary, why does the Enterprise simply leave orbit after the Jaradans accept the greeting?
Regardless of these issues and the extremely overwrought dialogue, the episode stands out as being simply fun. The cast offers great touches—from Dr. Crusher’s delight in potentially being interrogated to Data’s confusion regarding electrical plugs. In the context of being a story derived from a pulp detective novel, even the ridiculously over-the-top characters and performances by the extras make sense, and the newsstand operator simply steals the show with what is clearly tongue-in-cheek remark regarding Data’s South American tan. Plus, watching Sir Patrick Stewart attempt what is meant to be an insectoid language is hilarious. I have no doubt that he had a moment in which he wondered if he had sunk to an all time low when in reality that nadir will occur in eleven episodes, with the “Skin of Evil.” I’m not reviewing that one, so if you want to suffer through it, that’s up to you and your Netflix account. Still, despite the silliness, the episode lives up, even if only because we meet Dixon Hill, without whom we would not have Picard using a tommy gun to blow away Borg drones. Sure, this episode constitutes a rocky introduction to the holodeck, but it has lost none of its peculiar charm over the years.
Rating: Three Cups of Earl Grey Tea
Stray Thoughts from the Couch
1. I realize that the first season was building up Wesley to be a genius, but I feel that this episode gives LaForge short shrift.
2. I do appreciate Riker’s shortness with Wesley because it spares us more technobabble.
3. Watching Dr. Crusher try to apply makeup and swallow gum was fantastic.