STTNG – Disaster (Review)

Disaster is where they do "shallow but fun." It’s not an Airplane!-style parody of disaster flicks, but it doesn’t take itself all that seriously either. Mostly, it’s just having fun with the franchise by (a) doing something a little different and (b) confining cahracters in spaces with people they’re uncomfortable with.

The Enterprise is cruising along minding its own business when it slams into not one, but two quantum filaments. Troi helpfully asks if these are like cosmic strings (possibly building up to asking whether they attract two-dimensional space fish). They’re not.

Anyway, slamming into quantum fillaments is pretty serious stuff, and it shuts the whole ship down. Emergency bulkheads close to prevent hull breaches, trapping everyone in isolated sections of the ship. Which makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is that communication is out. Apparently those chest badge communicators they use can’t transmit independently of the central computer – I mean, except when they’re on a planet and the ship is away, but that’s totally different, mkay? But whatevs, let’s roll with it.

The schtick here is that they throw people together in inappropriate pairings. Picard is trapped in the turbolift with a bunch of kids. Worf is stuck in Ten Forward delivering Keiko O’Brian’s baby. Data and Riker are somewhere near, but not in, Engineering. Geordi and Crusher are trapped in a shuttlebay with some radioactive leakage. And Troi is on the bridge with Miles O’Brian, Ensign Ro, and a Token Ineffective Black Dude where she’s unfortunately in command. Hillarity, naturally, ensues.

Well, actually mostly in Ten Forward and Engineering. Can’t have a disaster movie without someone going into labor and someone wholly unprepared for the job acting as midwife. So, Keiko and Worf oblige. And sure, we get a couple of good chuckles, as when Worf says "Congratulations, you are fully dilated to ten centimeters. You may now give birth." But mostly these scenes fall flat. We’re tired of the Miracle of Birth being deliberately inconvenience on television as some clueless male stands by to look stupid. At least I am. I dunno, maybe this works for the mothers in the crowd? Much funnier are Data and Riker’s scenes. There’s a Wall of Electricity (don’t ask) separating them from Engineering, and the only way to get through it is to have Data just walk through and absorb the charge. But not before they’ve removed his head to protect his brain. So, Data then spends the rest of the episode with his head wired up to the wall talking Riker through various repairs. The situation is wonderfully absurd, and I loved it.

Picard’s scenes in the turbolift with the winners of this year’s science fair are not nearly as tedious as you’d expect. Picard starts out his normal gruffy, impatient self, getting irritated that he can’t just reason children into not crying. But he quickly adapts to the situation and learns how to motivate them – which is a neat way of showing us that he really is a good leader, it isn’t just that everyone says so. They end up singing Frere Jaques together in yet another one of those annoying reminders that the writers still expect us to believe Picard is French. I really wish they had just retconned him into a Yorkshireman at some point. Patrick Stewart makes just enough effort with the pronounciation to draw attention to the fact that he’s not really a French speaker. Awesome.

Geordi and Crusher’s scenes are probably the least engaging – mostly because they feel so contrived. There are some barrels of goo that absolutely can’t be exposed to radiation, so of course there’s a radiation leak caused by a plasma fire. Owing to the danger of plasma fires in the shuttlebay, the Federation decided not to put any sort of hand-held extinguishers anywhere, because the job’s just that much more fun if there’s pointless danger. So, they’ll have to ventilate the shuttlebay into space – killing two birds with one stone by ejecting the barrels of goo and also depriving the plasma fire of oxygen. Of course, Beverly and Geordi will have to hold on real tight, and also hold their breaths, while they’re exposed to vacuum for a couple of seconds. Because again, in someplace like the shuttlebay, which is regularly depressurized, it’s a terrible idea to have emergency suits. Or something. Moreover, it’s awesome that the shuttle bay doesn’t automatically repressurize itself when the doors close. That has to be done manually. Apparently. And the control to do it is halfway across the room frmo the control to DEpressurize. Apparently. I’m beginning to see why Dr. Brahms was so put out with Geordi’s modicfications! These scenes are ultimately boring: the tension is manufactured, and Geordi and Crusher have no meaningful character interaction – because Geordi is emotionless and Crusher is uninteresting.

The most gratifying scenes in the episode, really, are on the bridge, because we get to watch Troi be mostly unfit for command. She knows shockingly little about the ship or any of the science involved in running it, and she’s uncomfortable ordering people to do things, doubly so when, as is often the case here, she’s just ordering the person who suggested it to do what he suggested. Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, this scene is really implausible too. Command isn’t determined solely by rank in most military organizations – there’re separate protocols for various situations. You don’t put the ship’s counsellor in charge of the bridge in an emergency! But then, neither do you really promote the ship’s counsellor to Lt. Commander in the first place – not without bridge command training for sure. Realistically, Troi would probably have designated command to someone else – Ro or O’Brian. But I don’t mind too much because this is actually important character exposition. Marina Sirtis apparently complained to Ron Moore that these scenes made her character look like an idiot. But these scenes aren’t telling us anything we didn’t already know. Troi IS uncomfortable giving orders, because she’s a manipulator type. She likes power, but not responsibility, and ordering someone to do something means accepting responsibility for what they do. Furthermore, we’ve seen before that she’s kind of a brat who doesn’t adapt to meet challenges well. Sirtis might not have liked Troi looking like an idiot, but the truth is that Troi at this point in the series is kind of an idiot. This continues what I see as kind of an extended apology on the writers’ part for the series not really having developed this character. It’s good for the people who think that there are always pat psychobabble solutions to any problem to watch this.

None of which is to say they didn’t go a bit over the top with it, because they did. The writers also screwed this one a bit by sticking to the cliche that everyone in the credits who ends up in command has unfailing instincts. When Counsellor Troi takes a risk with the engines that Ensign Ro strongly advises against, the egg should really be on Counsellor Troi’s face in the end. But even if it’s not, it rings false to have Ro apologize to Troi for having been "wrong," even though her risk assessment was informed and Troi’s wasn’t. Ensign Ro is technically right whether or not events went Troi’s way. Troi consoles her by saying "you just as easily could have been right," but that’s garbage. She was right. And the odds of things going as Ro predicted were ALWAYS greater. Troi got lucky. Not that I doubt that Troi would say just someting condescending like that in this situation – that’s wholly in character for Troi. I dont’ think it’s in character for Ro to apologize for having presented the facts of the situation accurately and made a good jugement call. I certainly wouldn’t have.

Bottom line – nothing too deep about this one, but it’s a lot of fun to watch all the same. We get a couple of truly good moments of characterization, but we pay for it by unnecessarily revisiting a lot of disaster movie cliches largely unironically. And speaking of disaster movies – you know what I’m about to say but I’ll just say it: this isn’t science fiction. Which isn’t a terrible thing, but on a show that claims to be a science fiction show, you’d really like, I dunno, something north of half of the episodes to be the kind of thing that you can’t do as well, preferably at all, in another genre. I think this one would’ve been better as a novel, when the writer(s) could’ve taken more time with it. As it stands:

Overall Rating B+

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