STTNG – Silicon Avatar (Review)

Silicon Avatar is another one of those episodes that makes you feel like you’re living in the Twilight Zone. I don’t mean the epiosde itself, but the fact that so many core Next Generation fans seem to hate it. Hillariously, it’s a lot of the same people who like Darmok. Remember Darmok? That was the one where the writers decided all of a sudden to remember that communication between alien species shouldn’t be a cakewalk, and rather than giving us a thoughtful exploration of just what interspecies communication means, they instead gave us a contrived brainfart featuring a bunch of humans in costume who only speak in allusions, i.e. are easier to communicate with than most foreigners here on Earth. THAT one all the fans like. But this one, which involves attempts to communicate with an entity that’s actualy alien and actually doesn’t communicate in anything like the way humans do, this one they hate. As so many times before, I’m left scratching my head trying to figure out what subspecies of human would actually rather watch two hours of Worf grunting made-up words than this? But they’re legion.

Anyway, we open on an idyllic planet where Riker is busy macking on the chief colonist. They’re setting up camp for a bunch of colonists, actually, but the conversation is mostly about Riker visiting her tent later. Glad to know he’s still got it. Before they can get it on, though, the sky darkens and a crazy storm happens. They can see from the ground that it’s the Crystaline Entity (from Season One’s miserable Datalore), which indeed begins to systematically raze the surface. Riker’s girlfriend is killed, but everyone else makes it to some caves. Riker and Data seal the entrance and are immediately warned by Dr. Crusher that the air supply will now be a concern. So of course the first thing they do, in the sealed-off cave with the limited air supply, is phaser a bunch of rocks to generate some light. Good thinking, guys! If you’re already dead, the Crystiline Entity can’t very well kill you, eh?

Presently the Enterprise comes to the rescue and all’s well that ends well. Riker didn’t get laid, but the planet did … as in laid to waste if you knowwhaddahmean, right? Right? Da-dum-CHING!

In fact, the Federation does have a Crystaline Entity expert – a Dr. Marr – so they have her over for a visit. She immediately makes it clear she doesn’t like Data. We’re talking, so obvious that even Troi isn’t going to try to use this one to pretend her powers are worth a damn: she tells Picard he doesn’t need an empath to know that Marr doesn’t like Data. And he doesn’t. So, we get some uncomfortable scenes on the planet while they’re surveying the caves where Dr. Marr pointedly ignores anything Data says, to his confusion, giving us anohter opportunity to see some fan double standards in action. Read the comments section to most reviews on this one, and you’ll get a lot of people complaining that they don’t like the "pick on Data" scenes. Mysteriously, none of these same fans had any problem with similar scenes in Redemption. But then, Redemption didn’t have any of that pesky science fiction they hate in it.

For what it’s worth, I agree that the android-hating bigot cliche is a little too shayed for my clee, so she mercifully warms up to him pretty quickly, albeit for all the wrong reasons. As the episode opens, she suspects that Data is in cahoots with the Entity; this is the only explanation she can come up with for how this is the first known attack where there are survivors, and after all, Lore really was in cahoots with the Entity. Of course, it’s still irrational: Lore specifically helped the Entity kill the colonists on Omicron Theta, which doesn’t really square with Data supposedly saving them here, but as we’re soon to learn, this isn’t a stable individual we’re dealing with. Her son (ugh – you know where this is going, right?) died on Omicron Theta, killed by the Crystaline Entity, and she feels guilty for having abandoned him there to pursue her scientific career. Not helping her mental stability at all is the fact that Data turns out to have been programmed partially with memories from the colonists, and in fact he can access some of the son’s journals verbatim and repeat them to her in his voice! Definitely NOT what this woman needs, and in fact she’s pretty much completely bonkers by the end of the episode.

I’m not going to try to deny that this plot thread was grating, nor that the actress hammed it up to the point that what was difficult to take entirely seriously crosses into impossible. No one’s claiming that Silicon Avatar is a great episode! Just that it’s actually good, where Darmok wasn’t. Damnit. People.

Anyway, using the power of Treknobabble, they’re able to locate the Entity, and possibly even communicate with it? Assuming it can be communicated with. No one’s entirely sure it’s sentient (although they should be, given that Lore was able to help it destroy the colonists on Omicron Theta in some unspecified way that probably involved communication?), but Picard’s willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Riker and Marr, by contraste, sensibly argue that it hardly matters whether the Entity is sentient, the point is that it has killed, and will continue to kill, thousands of people. So, yes, in a sense this is another example of Star Trek indulging in some ethics porn – you know, that thing it likes to do where the characters are so much the good guys that their behavior is actually implausibly self-destructive. The level of ethical you can only be in fiction.

But it’s only "in a sense." There really doesn’t seem to be any harm in trying to communicate, provided you’ve got your finger on your blaster trigger under the table the whole time Han Solo style, and there’s no reason to think Picard wouldn’t.

But he never gets the chance, because Dr. Marr of course locks everyone out of the conn just long enough to blast it to bits herself, despite Picard having warned her not to. Picard orders her confined to quarters, and Data is sensitive enough to suggest that he should be the one to take her there. However, all sensitivity has vanished by the time they arrive, and he coldly tells her her son would not have approved of what she did, even though she clearly needs to believe he would have. It’s another one of those wonderfully jarring scenes where we’re starkly reminded that Data isn’t human – he’s just answering her questions factually. Too bad it doesn’t entirely work here, since we just saw him being more sensitive than Captain Picard in the previous scene in suggesting that he should replace the security detail escorting her to detention.

Lest there be any confusion, yes, this episode is deeply flawed. A lot of the common complaints about it ring true. Yes, I agree that we could’ve dispensed with the picking on Data scenes. Yes, I agree that there’s no need for Dr. Marr to be quite this crazy. Yes, I agree that some more consistency in her character would’ve helped – like a lot. And yes, the actress could’ve been better – or at least not so hammy.

The point is that none of the usual suspects who like Darmok, or Yesterday’s Enterprise, get to make these criticisms. This was real science fiction. Unlike Darmok, this one posed a real communications problem – with real (not contrived) stakes. The Crystaline Entity is actually interesting, unlike the stupid Tamarians. The ethical question of killing it is NOT just the standard Star Trek ethics porn, even though it superficially resembles is, because the choice here isn’t an either/or so much as a risk assessment. We know that we’re justified in killing the entity, but there’s a potential gain in making contact, and the question is how to balance the known risk of it attacking again against the unknown gain of making contact. This, unlike the endless Klingon political intrigue, is an interesting episode. It may be flawed, but at least it isn’t stupid.

Overall Rating B+

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