Well now…that headlining screencap alone just speaks volumes, does it not? I was forewarned ahead of time by several parties that season one’s penultimate episode would be something out of the ordinary…but I would never have expected this.
“Conspiracy” is a tremendous shift from Next Generation norms for many reasons, which can be broadly categorized in two parts. One is that it’s the first episode of the series to have such a strong dependency on continuity: its story feeds off of foreshadowing introduced in the prior episode “Coming of Age”, and its ending seems to foreshadow stories to come that will hinge off of its critical events. For a series that has, up to now, been rather stringently episodic, the idea of a far-reaching and central narrative element that could potentially bind multiple episodes together into woven story arcs is a pretty huge change.
The other way “Conspiracy” differs can be seen above: its sinister and graphic nature. The conspiracy in question turns out to be the infiltration and overthrow of the Federation by a race of invasive parasites, and that lends to a great deal of body horror and “who can be trusted” suspicions seemingly more akin to John Carpenter’s The Thing than a Star Trek production. The climactic final confrontation against the mother parasite is so grotesquely over-the-top that the episode was initially banned from the air in the United Kingdom, and was aired with a warning in Canada.
“We’ll Always Have Paris” is an utterly disposable, forgettable hour of television…and that is a huge breath of fresh air. After all, following the gut-churning one-two punch of “Symbiosis” and “Skin of Evil”, even the most mediocre of showings could be considered a wild improvement. “We’ll Always Have Paris” is indeed mediocre at best, not exactly befitting of something that borrows its title from a line in the classic Casablanca…though had it not been for a unique set of external influences, perhaps that might not have been the case.
Much has been written, recorded and made transparent about the production of these episodes, most of which I merely bring up in passing throughout these write-ups as they become relevant. This episode in particular, however, had its production truncated by an event far outside the control of the producers themselves: the 1988 Writer’s Guild of America strike. Not only did it result in the script being rushed out the door in a mere five days, but it caused further disruption when it was discovered that an entire scene (the climax in which Data corrects the time anomaly) had been left incomplete.
Well, it had to happen eventually: it’s time for one of the show’s principal characters to kick the bucket. It’s not the first casualty the Enterprise has seen, nor is it even the first time that behind-the-scenes shakeups have been reflected in the on-screen roles (I’ve already lost count of the number of chief engineers we’ve had so far, and there’s even a new one in this episode). But Lieutenant Tasha Yar has been a fixture of the series from its very outset, and “Skin of Evil” marks her last breath, in accordance with actress Denise Crosby requesting to be released from her contract.
If you’ve been following along up to now, it shouldn’t be difficult to fathom why Crosby would wish to quit. The show, to put it charitably, wasn’t up to snuff: not in scheduling, not in budget, not in the ratings, not in abject quality. And amongst the nine-or-so main characters jostling about for screentime, Yar had easily drawn the shortest straw; she was relegated to the sidelines most of the time and was placed in even more degrading positions when she wasn’t, ranging from being kidnapped by barbaric warlords to giving children remedial drug abuse prevention lectures. Still, Crosby struck me as someone who tried her hardest with what little she was provided, and Yar herself carried great promise that future writers could have easily eked some compelling stories out of. It’s a shame to see her leave this soon, and the writers would have been well served to create an appropriately respectful exit for the character.
Or, y’know, they could abruptly kill her off within the first ten minutes and proceed to gloss over her demise. That works too.
In 1981, U.S. President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech to America on the topic of drug trafficking and abuse. The next few years would see a tremendous cracking down on the illegal drug trade…and not just in terms of the long arm of the law. Culture itself was impacted, with even our children’s cartoons and video games geared towards teaching America’s youth to say “no”. And if you thought that adult-oriented science-fiction television might be exempt from these sweeping reforms…well, then you probably haven’t watched “Symbiosis”.
This episode, to be blunt, is an embarrassment. Not in the same way that the racial stereotyping of “Code of Honor” or accidental misogyny of “Angel One” are embarrassing, of course, but rather in a manner that insults you, the viewer, on a more direct level. To imagine that the writers of “Symbiosis” would think so little of their audience so as to devote an entire episode to a transparent drug abuse allegory is a depressing thought, and the execution somehow torpedoes it even further down.
There are many disparaging adjectives I could use to describe the first season of The Next Generation (in fact, in case you haven’t been following along thus far, I already have. Repeatedly). “Mindless”, however, would not fairly be among them; typically, even its bone-headed decisions are born from a desire to be far more than that, to imbue their shoddy world-building or contrived scenarios with a deeper sense of purpose. “The Arsenal of Freedom”, however, might be the closest approximation of “mindless” that we’ve encountered thus far, in that meditations on the conflicts facing are the characters are minimal and even the explanations for their questionable behavior are not just insufficient but absent. It’s among the most straightforward of episodes the series has yet had, seemingly guided on autopilot.