Plot Synopsis: The Enterprise responds to a distress signal from a science station on Ventax II, where the planet is in chaos over the return of a being who claims to be that culture’s “devil.”
Plot A and B Analysis: The teaser opens with Data portraying Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. It’s a good scene, with Data trying to act out emotion in the hopes of evoking it in himself. It also establishes a theme of uses of fear, which is part of the subtext for this episode. On the bridge, an emergency transmission is received from a science station on Ventax II where we learn they are under attack from the population. They’ve all gone nuts, thinking their planet is coming to an end. Plot A is about Ardra, there is no plot B.
Picard beams down to negotiate with the leader of the planet for release of the hostages, in the wake of worldwide chaos. Ardra suddenly appears and says in return for the 1000 years of prosperity she’s provided, she’s back to collect on her half of the bargain: enslavement of the planet. This pisses off Picard, and the rest of the episode is a pretty well-paced battle between Picard and Ardra. The plot does a good job of not revealing whether Ardra is a supernatural being or a fraud, right up to the last 10 minutes.
Favorite Scenes: The scene where Ardra first appears and puts on her show is one of the better ones in the episode, I like it. The conference room at the 16 to 18-minute mark is a very good example of how Picard organizes a plan to deal with each aspect of the dilemma they are facing. He involves his officers, breaks down what we’ve seen in the previous scene involving Ardra and gives everyone something productive to do. Finally, the moment in the seduction scene where Ardra invokes Deana to entice Picard is cool. I frankly have a pretty good time watching every scene Ardra is in, she’s a wonderful guest star.
Use of Cast/Characters: Picard is one of the two centers of this episode, and his total confidence that Ardra is a fake anchors the audience. In this case I wouldn’t have minded some doubt, as it may have enhanced the ride the audience was on as to whether or not she was a supernatural being. Riker, Beverly, Worf and Geordi don’t do much more than their jobs, though Geordi is the one that makes the breakthrough. Deanna is completely useless. Brent Spiner doesn’t do anything spectacular in terms of performance, nor is his character given significant development outside of the teaser, but Data is used well in this episode. He’s asked at one point to “check every Ventaxian legal precedent for the last 1000 years.” Consider the enormous undertaking that would be for anyone but Data. The standout performance in this episode is Marta Dubois as Ardra. She is wonderful to watch–consider the supreme confidence her character projects, and the fun she is obviously having. Makes me think of a female Q. Given her character’s personality, it seems to naturally follow that she would get a little greedy and go after the Enterprise as well as the planet. In fact if she had let Picard go after releasing the hostages, could the Enterprise crew have even justified staying, given the Prime Directive? Like Picard says to her, “I’m only here to secure the release of the Federation hostages.”
Blu Ray Version: There’s not much that’s special to be mentioned here. I’d recommend watching the 30-second promo for this episode, so you know what the viewer was being promised going in.
Nitpicks: One nitpick here is regarding the style of going to commercial breaks seen through a lot of TNG. After the announcement that a Federation science station is under attack from an angry mob which cuts off abruptly, we go to commercial on Picard’s face. Is it too much to ask to have him command the Enterprise to head there at Warp 8 or something? The impression I get now is that he does nothing. Then there’s Deanna not being able to sense much, due to an “incredibly focused mind.” Really? Would it be too hard to say she’s someone she can’t read at all, like the Ferengi? Finally, what I really wanted was to see eye movements and such from Ardra throughout the episode, that we only notice upon re-watching. Instead they don’t happen until the very end.
Overall Impression: I don’t know about other people, but I’ve always enjoyed this one. It’s not a finely-written episode, and it does hark back to the Original Series a bit (which makes sense given the script’s roots) but it’s a good 45 minutes for me. Watching Marta have a blast as Ardra is the highlight here, and she is what makes the episode work. I frankly wish Marta had done other Star Trek things. Her “magic tricks” are pretty impressive too, at one point making the entire Enterprise disappear. There wasn’t a consistent tone, and instead of being dramatic or funny we end up somewhere in between. It’s not too serious, but I’m always up for a lighter-toned episode. I’m probably being a little too generous, but I rate this episode 3 out of 5 stars.
Behind the Scenes/Trivia: Interestingly, according to Larry Nemecek this episode got higher ratings than any TNG episode before it, including the pilot! If true, what could account for it? The only thing that comes to mind is the promo the previous week. It starts out, “From the gates of Hell comes the ultimate evil” and a shot of Fek’lhr, followed later by a shot of the devil with horns, the whole bit. Everything that follows implies the Apocalypse and a showdown with Satan. I’ve got to think this is a factor in the high ratings. If people tuned in expecting a battle versus Hell, there were a lot of disappointed people out there.
This episode was originally written back in the 70’s for a failed Star Trek sequel series. If you think about it that way, it really does have some of the Original Series feel. When Michael Piller gave it to the writers to turn into an episode it went through six rewrites involving at least 15 people, and in most of them Ardra was male.
Missable/Unmissable? Missable. It’s an enjoyable enough episode, but not amazing or especially memorable. The next episode is about the same.