Realm of Fear
While season six undoubtedly contains some disappointing two-parters,
it does have an exceptionally strong line-up of single-episode stories.
Here, "Realm of Fear" kicks off the real beginning of a season that
remains one of my favourites in the Next Generation's run.
The central premise of showing a character in mortal terror of
using the transporter is an idea so basic and obvious that you have to
wonder why it took so long for us to get to it. And who better
to be the protagonist of such an adventure than Dwight Schulz's Barclay?
He can play all the hypochondriac beats entertainingly and with great humour,
keeping the audience on side. Brilliant. I thoroughly loved this concept,
and went with the episode 100%.
The transporter has been a signature aspect of the Star Trek franchise
since its very first pilot, usually taken for granted and remaining in
the background for 8 years of live action episodes, 6 movies, and an
animated series. Finally it gets its due as a sci-fi process that is
put under the microscope for an episode.
Granted, the science is quite hokey in this tale, but it's impossible
to fault this episode specifically because we've seen the transporter in nearly
every episode before and since, and heard enough of the core scientific oversight
in transporter operation many times before. Star Trek's standing theory of
how the transporter works operates on the flawed materialistic approach
that it's only the molecules that matter in making a person who he or she is.
In that sense, Barclay's fears are actually well-founded. If the beam
took your body apart and put it back together elsewhere, would your soul
and your energy still be attached? Reports from our own
Philadelphia Experiment indicate there could
easily be a world of problems not covered here.
On the other hand, because Barclay is surrounded by hosts of characters
who use this form of transport successfully all the time, is he just
being silly by refusing to do what everyone else is doing? This episode
enjoys a nice dichotomy of being able to play on both sides of this equation.
It gives the episode a strong archetypal hook into a debate that could
continue on in fandom for a considerable time.
But the episode also builds towards solving a very specific mystery
involving the fate of the crew of a science vessel for its conclusion.
Somehow it doesn't surprise me that Brannon Braga has an unknown cloud-like
substance at the heart of this, but at least this time it takes the form
of matter being pulled off of one star by its companion. Sadly, this
involves primarily re-run footage from the season 3 story "Evolution",
but it still looks cool. It's also not too surprising that we get the
good old "It's alive!" cliché as well. I don't mind the facts of it,
but it is tiresome to see the crew so surprised by it. It should be
standard procedure to assume unknown phenomena are alive until proven otherwise,
if you really can ever prove otherwise.
Quite a lot of this episode hinges on the ideas of what a person might
perceive or be able to do while in the midst of undergoing the transporter
beam process. If your molecules really were being taken apart, chances
are your eyeballs wouldn't be seeing anything at all, and nothing you might
think you saw could or should be taken seriously. Also, particularly
when watching the original effect on 1960's episodes, there was an implication
that a person could NOT move at all during the process and that it would
probably be very wise of them not to. In fact, remaining still could be
critical to the process's success.
However, on the flipside that postulates that the transporter could never
actually work as a molecules-only reassembly project, if there was a better
way to actually make people teleport from one place to another, their continuing
perception of the event while it's happening is perfectly good territory for
science fiction to explore. This episode dives right in and gives us
the generous helping of that which Trek fans might have expected much, much
sooner. In that sense, this episode does a pretty good job of making do
with the molecular explanation Trek already had for its transporters while
delving into the perceptual aspects and possible emotional responses to it.
Besides, who doesn't like a Barclay episode? Dwight Schulz works well with the
entire cast of TNG, and both he and Colm Meaney's character of Transporter Chief
Miles O'Brien are truly integrated members of the cast here, with everybody
getting lots of good things to do. Two thumbs up.
Yes, season six had a good episode under its belt, and would quickly
pile on a steady stream of many more....