The Game is another one of those episodes where the complaints are instructive. Fans don’t like this one, and for a lot of reasons that seem convincing … until you think about it a bit.
As we open, Riker’s on Risa indulging in some playful foreplay with a rubber forehead type. It’s all fun and games until she throws his communicator out the window. He seems miffed – and not just play-miffed – so she gives him a headset that beams red shit into his eyes and tells him it’s a game. Doesn’t look like a very fun game, though. You see a field of red disks, and a tuba-like Dr. Seuss plant sprouts out of one. Then a Tim Burton disc comes out of another and hoves in the air. Apparently the trick is to will the disc into the tubaplant’s opening. If you do, you get a brief orgasmic pleasure shock. Now there are two discs and two tubaplants. And so it goes.
Next up, Wesley Crusher’s back! Yay! He’s on leave from the Academy, so naturally he’s dropping by to help Geordi prepare for … actually, I kind of forget what the background "no seriously, guys, we really ARE a science fiction show!" thing that’s going on this week is. Some kind of convention where a lot of scientific teams are studying something I believe. And Wesley’s going to use his break to help with this. Dork. They throw him a surprise party in the observation lounge where Worf has made a cake and Data gets in an awkward fake-it-till-you-make-it laugh. And also Crusher and Troi mention the game Riker picked up on Risa, confirming our suspicion that it’s an Evil Game. I mean, it would hafta be right? Discs in tubas alone can’t hold our attention.
Wesley goes down to Engineering to start helping, and he meets Robin Lefler, the hot chick ensign from Darmok we definitely noticed in the background but who didn’t actually say anything. This is a ridiculously cute Ashley Judd, making what would unfortunately be her final appearance in Next Generation. This is almost certainly because she will end up sharing most of the episode’s screentime with Wil Wheaton, therefore looking like a dramatic genius by comparison to casting directors everywhere.
Welp, pretty much everything you expect to happen from here happens. Crusher summons Data to sickbay to help with something and then clobbers him (deactivates, whatever). Riker and Troi step out, confirming that we’re seeing the effects of the Evil Game in action. Clearly, it’s a mind-control game of some kind. But then, you knew that, didncha?
Wesley and Robin flirt a lot. She has an annoying character affectation where she has a list of rules that help her be self-reliant. And this is actually a minor fan gripe that turns out to be wrong on examination. People have complained that for someone who has rules reminding her to be self-reliant, Robin actually falls for Wesley pretty easily and hard, trusting him completely and almost immediately – which is, you know, like the opposite of self-reliant. I would counter that that’s actually pretty accurate psychology. You don’t read a self-help book unless you need help, you know? It’s the guys who suck at getting girls who read "game" books – since they are, after all, the guys those books are aimed at. The kind of person who is really emotionally dependent on others is exactly the kind of person we would expect to have a list of numbered cliches she repeats to herself to remind her not to get too attached. Not that that makes it any less annoying.
In between flirts, they notice that the crew is slowly going Invasion of the Body Snatchers on them. Well, they notice that a lot of people are peer-pressuring them into playing the Evil Game, when what they really wanna do it go calibrate each others’ engines. Wesley then comments that it’s odd that Data got injured right when this game he would be immune to started going around. At which point the writers might’ve just thrown us a good shattering glass sound effect, for this is indeed the moment where they switch into action mode. Hey, I never claimed everything about this episode was good, mkay? Just that it’s better than the fans think it is.
Meanwhile, on the bridge, Riker’s girlfriend from Risa shows up in a ship, and the enire bridge crew is there to tell her they await her orders. So, a brainwashing Evil Game, then?
Wesley and Robin make some plans to take the ship back and then immediately split up for no reason, because that’s what the Horror Scriptwriters’ Guide requires them to do. Otherwise, how will Robin get forced to play the game? Which, by the next time we meet her, she has been. So Wesley’s on his own. Fortunately, he set up a site-to-site transporter gadget, so he gets one Mr. X black card – but only one, because the writers mercifully don’t try to pretend that his overrides are so clever they can’t immediately be overwritten. Wesley eventually gets caught and forced – Clockwork Orange-style – to play the game.
Just then, the lights in the bridge go out, and Data walks in and starts flashing a flashlight in everyone’s eyes. The cure!
And that’s that. Wesley and Robin kiss and hug and Wesley leaves. The end.
The complaints here write themselves, but then so do the responses.
Great, another Wesley saves the ship epsiode. Yeah, maybe, but it’s finally a plausible one. First and foremost, because it’s technically Data who saves the ship. All Wesley did was reactivate him and then act as a decoy. Reapeat that to youself until you get the point: no boy genius superpowers were involved. We didn’t get another groanworthy Naked Now moment with Wesley "inventing" repulsor beams by just reversing the polarity (or whatever) on a tractor beam. Nope, all Wesley did was notice what was probably obvious to a lot of people and act on it. What’s more, I can even buy why he’s so special that he succeeds where other potential resistors failed. For one thing, he’s not expected to be on the ship, so whatever plot’s going down wouldn’t have factored him in. For another, he’s … um … precoccupied with orgasmic pleasure of his own. OK, granted, this is Star Trek. And Wesley. So there’s probably no actual sex going on. The point is still that the game is masturbatory and Wesley is actually chasing a girl. He’s plausibly less interested in the game than others on the ship.
The game is lame. True, but then that’s the point. Everyone’s first thought on seeing the game in action is "oh, geez, COME ON! Couldn’t you guys put even a LITTLE imagination into this?" Once again, I’m obligated to point out that a lot of these people are the same people who will defend Darmok by telling you to get over yourself and just imagine the writers had come up with a plausible communication barrier instead. The difference here is that the lameness of the game actually works. Remember earlier when I said that the game would hafta be Evil because tubas and discs alone can’t hold our attention? Yeah, that. There’s somethig really unsettling about how trivial it seems. You the audience know it’s evil because the characters themselves look at it and are kinda like "wtf? What’s so great about THIS?" The complaint is that the implausible simplicity of the game takes us out of the narrative, but the complaint has it backward. The narrative depends on the implausible simplicity, because stories like these never work if the trap is so clever that no one could’ve seen it coming. It only works if, in retrospect, the characters all think to themselves, "yeah, I probably should’ve known something was up the moment I learned that everyone was obsessing over putting discs into tubas!" The fact that the game is so seemingly pointless signals that something is wrong with it, creating an atmosphere of uneasy unreality. If you filmed this episode with some mindblowing graphics instead, it wouldn’t work. More than that, for me anyway, it enhances the not-so-subtle commentary on video games. I frequently have exactly this reaction when watching a friend play a video game and get all wrapped up in it. I’m thinking, "your this worked up over THAT? Honestly?" No game ever seems all that absorbing until you’re in it.
This takeover plot is implausible. This one I grant. The writers at least remembered to take Data out of comission, but somehow Worf is affected? Not only is he not human, he’s also not the type to strap on a trivial discs-in-tubas distraction for however long it takes to work. Data really shouldn’t be the only one on board immune to the game. Furthermore, as takeover plans go, this one really belongs in a children’s cartoon. So, fine, the plot is a little silly. I maintain that the suggestions on how to resolve it are revealing. Writing for the AV Club, Zack Handlen asks whether "a better episode might’ve considered just what the hell you do with a race that’s invented a device that can spread mind control this easily and efficiently." Put differently: "you know how we could fix this? Add more politics!" As if we needed more proof that Star Trek fandom doesn’t actully like science fiction that much. Again, the fans have it backward. The problem with this episode isn’t that it doesn’t have enough politics but rather that it has too much. Making the game an explicit takeover plot was stupid. Its origins should’ve been left mysterious – or maybe it could’ve been implied that it got out of a psychological research lab somehow, ending the episode with the crew unable to locate the lab or get confirmation from StarFleet that any such project exists. I mean, if you have to try to explain it at all.
As always, while the fans were busy nitpicking, they failed to notice how thematically satisfying this is. Brannon Braga described it as "Wesley’s come home and his family’s out to get him." (soucre) Which is actually a kind of common fear in Wil Wheaton’s, and my, and to some extent Braga’s generation, though Braga’s 10 years older than me. My parents specifically were good, but a lot of people who grew up in the 80s’ parents were pretty much absent and irresponsible. The Baby Boomer generation never really grew up, and episodes like this resonate – especially the scene where Beverly is trying to get Wesley to play the game but he’s too busy doing grown-up things. Then, to repeat, there’s the fact that the game itself doesn’t seem that interesting. And the fact that it’s taking over in an atmosphere where everyone’s supposed to be stressed out and preoccupied – what with that science conference thing that’s supposedly going on. That’s precisely when you fall victim to stuff like this – when you’re procrastinating because of stress. And best of all, there’s the implication that it gives a specifically sexual pleasure – another common fear in the modern world being that we’re getting so good at stimulating ourselves that we’ll forget how to form normal human relationships, especially sexual ones.
No, it’s not Next Generation‘s best moment – but it’s one of the good ones all the same. It’s science fiction, it’s thematically solid, it actually makes good use of Wesley Crusher – what’s not to like? That there’s not enough politics, apparently. SMH.
Overall Rating A-