Feb 28, 2020
Star Trek: The Next Generation “Power Play”
Welcome to a surprise bonus edition of…
Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to stumble across a great essay by Nicasio Andres Reed talking about a particular detail that sets the Star Trek franchise apart from its peers. He says that a lot of Star Trek plots use a boilerplate sci-fi/fantasy premise involving someone having some weird subjective experience, e.g., seeing aliens in the transporter, hearing disembodied voices no one else can hear, or waking up baselessly but overwhelmingly convinced that you’re on the wrong timeline. What’s remarkable about the way Star Trek does these plots is that if this happens to you on Star Trek, you don’t hesitate to go right to your friends and coworkers, or even your boss, with this information. Why shouldn’t you? No one’s going to mock you or question your sanity. They’ll hear you out and they’ll try their best to figure out what’s going on. “In more than 750 episodes of Star Trek,” Reed writes, “it is vanishingly rare for a plot to hinge on a crew member being automatically disbelieved or shunned.”
It’s one of those details that says so much about the setting of Star Trek, precisely because it’s so alien to our way of thinking. The future it describes is almost unthinkably radical; humanity hasn’t just built spaceships and clean energy and machines to furnish all life’s necessities, but we’ve made people better. Our descendants are more selfless, more open-minded, and more trusting. They have too much faith in the sound judgment and good faith of their peers to doubt one another’s subjective experiences. They believe one another even when it’s hard.
The plot of “Power Play” might seem to belie that principle: Troi, Data, and O’Brien are possessed by aliens and hijack the Enterprise. They claim to be the ghosts (they make it sound science-y, but yeah, they’re ghosts) of a Federation starship that crashed two centuries prior. In a bit of a break with tradition, Picard doesn’t believe them. What’s telling is why he doesn’t. It’s not that ghosts are beyond the pale—Q conjures ghosts as a bit sometimes. Rather, Picard reasons that if they really were dead Starfleet officers, they wouldn’t feel afraid to be believed, and would never feel that hijacking the ship was their only option.
Today’s stardate finds us on the uninhabited moon of “Mab-Bu VI” (where the Mab-Bu series really hit its stride, IMO). It can support human life, just like 95% of the planets they find. And like many of the planets they visit, it’s got intense plot-friendly magnetic activity in the atmosphere, making it difficult to operate sensors or beam down.
Despite the magnetic storms, Data is picking up a faint distress signal. He uses his android super-memory to determine that the particular call is standard to a Daedalus–class starship, which has been out of service for 172 years, of which one, the USS Essex, disappeared in this area and was never found. The camera zooms in meaningfully on Troi, who uses her lady-senses to pronounce that someone is alive down there.
After the intro, Captain Picard, following protocol, jams three of his most senior officers in the same shuttle and flings them right into the deadly storm. Riker curses the weather and doesn’t see how anyone could have survived on this moon for very long. Someone drops a quarter into the ride and they all start to rock. Forward thrusters soon fail and the ship crashes.
The three clamber out. Riker manfully notes that his arm is broken. They peer at some clouds in the distance that look like a snowy TV. Troi is more certain than ever that someone’s alive in there, a notion Riker scoffs at.
Meanwhile on the ship, they’re brainstorming ways to get them all out. La Forge says the EM interference prevents a transporter lock. O’Brien volunteers to beam down there himself, spinning a cunning plan to punch through the clouds by boosting the fremulon borker, and then once he’s there, using a phase-barching gurrbledorf to flooble the other three out. La Forge estimates his chances of survival at 50/50. Picard dryly relays this to O’Brien, then gives the Make It So.
O’Brien survives the trip and arrives, carrying several elephant suppositories. He hands them to the gathered party and tells them to plant them in the ground around them at regular intervals, rather like a magic ritual. He tells them to hurry it along, as he’s supposed to be feeding his baby daughter right about now. Even in the future, people with children have to work their babies into every conversation.
All of a sudden, lightning strikes O’Brien, and the other three decide to fall down too.
They lie unconscious for a moment, at which point four glowy bits float down. They enter Data, O’Brien, and Troi, but Riker’s flies away. Groaning, Riker gets up off the ground while everyone else is still lying around, and turns on a suppository to make it light up, and makes a triangular light grid that lets them beam up.
Later in Sickbay, the camera zooms up an unconscious Troi’s nose. Her eyes dart open and she screams and bolts upright in bed. Dr. Crusher rushes up and Crushes her with her soothing bedside manner.
They walk and talk with Picard. A method is devised by which they might be able to scan hard enough to punch through the death cloud to try to locate the Essex. Troi asks to talk with Picard privately in his ready room. Data takes his place at his console, and tries to convince Riker to start scanning at the planet’s southern pole. Riker shoots him down because he likes to feel like a big man.
“I’ve never felt anything like it,” Troi tells Picard. “It was like they were calling to me.” What an absurd line; of course you’ve felt people call to you before, that’s basically all you do on this ship! Picard asks what they were trying to communicate. Troi doesn’t know, but thinks they were calling from the southern pole, and suggests they look for the Essex there.
On the bridge, Ensign Ro tells Riker that her commands have been overridden, and they’re moving into a polar orbit. Riker approaches Data suspiciously and Data backhands him with a Rock-em Sock-em punch right to the solar plexus, making strings zing on the soundtrack. Worf tries to hit Data with a phaser, but falls victim to the Worf Effect at the hands of… ha ha, that can’t be right… O’Brien, who then shoots Ro.
Riker ekes out a voice command to transfer command to Engineering before O’Brien shoots him too. The console Data’s typing on goes blank and his face screws up in frustration.
Picard goes to the door to see what the racket is outside. Troi balls up both fists and lays him out with a light tap to his back. “What happened?” she asks. Data says, “He would not move to a polar orbit.” Troi grouches that she was seconds away from convincing the captain with her cleavage. Once they’re gone, Riker re-enables bridge control and locates the three would-be commandeers on the turbolift. They stop the lift and send security extras over to capture them, but they’ve ditched the place and taken off their comm badges.
We catch up to them in a hallway, where they’re quickly trapped in a force-field. Not-Data zaps the paneling with his robot arms and breaks through. They arrive in Ten-Forward, and tell everyone at phaser-point to get down on the floor, including Keiko O’Brien, currently holding a crying infant Molly O’Brien.
Worf bursts in and phasers O’Brien in the midsection. This doesn’t seem to affect him, and he phasers the wall behind Worf, showering sparks everywhere. Not-Data is phasered next, and he just grimaces and fires back. A huge gunfight later, Worf is on the ground, staring down the barrel of Not-Troi’s phaser, with a panicked Picard on the communicator.
Ten-Forward is sealed off, the computers are locked out, and a force-field is erected to stop scanners and transporters. Riker suggests flooding the room with nerve gas, but that won’t affect Not-Data. No plan will work that doesn’t take out all three at once. Meanwhile, Not-Data menaces the room evilly (Brent Spiner never, ever turned down the chance to do some scene-chewing villainy). He doesn’t like how Worf is looking at him, and wants to go, brah.
Not-Troi demands that Picard move the ship to the south pole of the planet before they’ll negotiate the release of the 17 prisoners in Ten Forward. She gives them 30 seconds to change their heading, and Picard orders it done just to buy time. Crusher comes back with the news that the transporter patterns of the three mutineers showed strange synaptic activity, as if another lifeform were imposing its own neural patterns on them, and that Riker didn’t get infected or possessed or whatever because he was in pain from his broken arm.
Picard, jumping at the chance to indulge his tightly leashed sadistic impulses (you know I’m right), spitballs driving out the ghosts with pain. Ro and La Forge discuss modifying a plasma burst to cause the three a lot of pain, which would also work on whatever passes for pain receptors in Data. With the ship moving toward the pole, Picard reopens communication with Not-Troi. She has Worf tell Picard that five prisoners need medical attention. He tries to tell Picard that the possessed people aren’t affected by phasers before being cut off by an angry Not-Data. Picard tells Not-Troi that he’s willing to trade himself for the prisoners. Riker protests thunderously. Picard says, “As long as they are on this ship, I am a hostage, no matter where I am.”
While getting possessed has turned Data into a mustache-twirling pulp villain, O’Brien appears to have been turned into some kind of dumb evil cow. Molly is still crying in the corner, and Not-O’Brien trains a phaser on Keiko and lumbers over to her. “I know you,” he says. He fixes a walleyed, malevolent gaze on the baby. “And I know what this is,” he says, dumbly pawing at the baby. Keiko urges him to leave. “No, make it stop,” he says.
Picard is outside the door of Ten Forward now. Not-Troi orders the force-field lowered. She introduces herself to Picard as Bryce Shumar, erstwhile captain of the starship Essex. Not-Data and Not-O’Brien are her (his?) first officer and security chief. “But you’re a man who would never believe in ghosts, Picard,” Not-Troi says. “You see, Troi knows you, and so I do, as well.”
She says she never wanted to harm anyone, but she was forced to take drastic action after being stuck on the planet for two hundred years. Captain Shumar, along with the rest of his ship, were “absorbed” into the magnetic currents of the planet, kind of like how you can hold a magnet real close to your head and suck all your childhood birthday parties out. Picard wants to know why the deception and violence were necessary, and Not-Troi says, “Because I knew you would not believe us.” All they’re looking for, according to Not-Troi, is “rest”.
Meanwhile, Ro and La Forge are in a Jeffries tube, carrying a contraption they borrowed from Lt. Barclay’s secret sex dungeon that will fire off a salvo of pain rays. Ro aims it and waits for all three mutineers to wander inside the blast radius at once. Crusher, meanwhile, has figured out how to use magnets to trap the ghosts and is standing by to nab them once they exit their bodies.
Worf and Picard have a clandestine conversation. Unlike the credulous Worf, who’s only too ready to believe in ghosts, Picard doesn’t buy that the entities possessing their crewmates are really dead Starfleet officers. He reasons that a real Starfleet captain would be behaving much better. You know, even though every third villain on this show is a rogue Starfleet guy. Worf suggests that perhaps they’ve simply gone mad from being disembodied for two hundred years.
Not-Data breaks up their conversation. Not-O’Brien, meanwhile, has gone back to menacing Keiko over her bracelet. “I gave you this,” he says, leaning over her and grabbing her wrist roughly. He starts recounting the memory of the day he gave it to her. He leans in for a kiss, to her terror.
Not-Troi says they’re approaching the crash site of the Essex. Picard remarks that they didn’t find any evidence the ship had crashed in the region. Not-Troi insists they go there, and further stipulates that they beam all their skeletal remains on board the ship to be brought back to Earth for burial. Picard expresses his bafflement that they had to use such extreme means to secure so simple a request, and refuses to cooperate any further unless the hostages are released.
“You’ll cooperate, or someone will die,” says Not-Data. Not-O’Brien obediently raises his phaser. Not-Data points his phaser at Worf, and tells Not-O’Brien to grab Keiko. He backs up to get them all in phaser range, unwittingly stepping inside the circle on Ro’s monitor, which now contains all three conspirators. La Forge tells her to go for it. But at the last minute, Not-Data steps out of the circle. A green shower envelops Not-Troi and Not-O’Brien, and they scream and collapse. Glowing blue balls fly out of them and float up toward the ceiling.
Furious, Not-Data grabs Picard by the throat while the off-camera floor jack raises him up to the ceiling. Picard shouts to abort the mission as the spirits float back into their commandeered bodies.
They’re finally orbiting above the supposed crash site, but La Forge can’t find anything that indicates it’s there. It could be there and simply invisible to the scanners due to the storm, but Riker is implacable, saying, “I’m not going to just beam up whatever might be down there.” His line reading suggests there’s a long, nasty story behind that.
“Chief O’Brien was the one who enabled the safe return of the away team,” Picard says. “He’s the most qualified person to operate the transporter under these circumstances.” However, they’ll have to do it from another transporter pad. Picard offers them safe passage to one in Cargo Bay 4, if it means letting some of the hostages go. He tells Riker to transfer transporter controls to Ten Forward, while Not-O’Brien creates an access code to prevent his party from being beamed off the ship, and they each grab a hostage for protection.
Once in the cargo bay, Picard asks “Captain Shumar” how he plans on achieving this rest he spoke of earlier. Not-Troi says the trapped consciousness will fade as soon as they get away from the planet. Neil Picard Tyson questions the scientific basis of that claim. Back on the bridge, Riker gravely says there’s a reason Picard picked Cargo Bay 4. If the captain hasn’t done whatever he’s planning in two minutes, they are to blow a hatch outside the bay, sucking everyone to space.
Not-O’Brien fires up the transporter, and Not-Troi lays into her best Bond villain reveal-all. She says she’s a prisoner from a system called Ux-Mal, and she and her fellow prisoners have all been disembodied in the magnetic wind for five centuries. They almost escaped on the Essex, which wasn’t powerful enough to navigate the magnetic storm. She steps back to reveal that the transporter pad now contains the souls of thousands of fellow prisoners. Thinking quickly, Riker envelops the transporter with Dr. Crusher’s containment field.
“No!” Not-Troi screams. “Let them go or you all die!”
“Your threats are meaningless now,” Picard says, telling her that all the others will die when the cargo hatch is blown. Worf and Keiko affirm their readiness to die to protect the people on the Enterprise. Admitting defeat, the souls leave Troi, O’Brien, and Data. And then Worf hits Flush on the remaining spirits.
In the final scene, Troi explains that she was fully conscious of everything that was happening while she was possessed. Data commends Worf for not ripping his arms out of their sockets. Keiko takes O’Brien’s violent domineering behavior in stride. Hmm, I wonder why. “If I could have killed that thing inside me, I would have,” O’Brien promises. “I know,” says Keiko. “We both know.”