Written by Brannon Braga and Tim de Haas
Directed by Winrich Kolbe
For a long time I have referred to this episode as “the one where Geordi turns into a smurf.” Funny how all of my fellow fans always know exactly the one I am referring to.
Years before his tenure on the Enterprise, Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) was part of an away team which investigated the mysterious disappearance of colonists on the planet Tarchannen III. A former crewmate and close friend, Susanna Leijten (portrayed by Maryann Plunkett) has come aboard the Enterprise to inform Geordi that one by one the members of that away team have been disappearing.
In a race against time, the Enetrprise travels back to the planet in an attempt to intercept other members of the team who have been tracked heading to the planet. Unfortunately, they are too late. One shuttlecraft is vaporized in the atmosphere, and on the planet all that can be located is one downed shuttlecraft and two torn Starfleet uniforms.
As Geordi and Susanna investigate the disappearances, she begins to exhibit strange behavior. A scan by Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) indicates that something is happening to alter her body chemistry. They theorize that whatever happened to the other members of the away team is happening now to Susanna, and probably will happen to Geordi as well.
To investigate what is happening, Geordi uses the holo-deck (which is a virtual reality room that makes current technology look like the stone age) to recreate the visual records from that mission all those years ago. This is a terrific use of that setting and the effects. Watching Geordi walk around a room as the other characters move in forward and reverse through a scene is pure genius. The reason for his doing this is natural in the flow of the story as well, and doesn’t have the feeling of being there just to show off the wonderful effects.
Likewise, there is great makeup effects as Susanna – and later Geordi – begin to undergo a transformation into a different species. The use of makeup and black-lighting to create an iridescent creature which under normal lighting has a chameleon effect is great effect.
What carries all of this is some terrific acting on the part of LeVar Burton and Maryann Plunkett. One problem with series television is bringing in people from the past when it’s convenient to the storyline. Often it does not come off as being believable to the story for two reasons. One is the fact that during the entire series run to this point the “close friend” was never mentioned. The other is that there often doesn’t seem to be any real rapport between the characters that would make the prior relationship believable.
In this case, Burton and Plunkett make the camaraderie between Geordi and Susanna seem natural, even though viewers have never seen nor heard of her prior to this episode. They talk together in the Ten-Forward Lounge like old friends and their mannerisms indicate familiarity. The script could have been a bit better during this time with a more weighted conversation. However, as they both realize that whatever happened to the rest of the team is also happening to them, they draw closer and rely on each other in a way that is consistent with a long-time friendship. They also manage to pull off both the investigation and what is happening to them with amazing conviction.
If there’s one problem I have with the episode, it’s that with all the implications of what this could be, only Geordi and Susanna seem to be truly searching for the reason. If this were as serious a matter as it appears to be, wouldn’t Starfleet have assigned others to investigate? At least, when it becomes apparent that something is happening to both Geordi and Susanna, wouldn’t Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) have other crewmembers working alongside them to figure out what the mystery is and to monitor what they are doing? Instead, they seem to be treated with a sort of “hands off” attitude as other characters (such as Dr. Crusher) work on the mystery peripherally around them.
However, the special effects, make-up and terrific acting by the principals involved save this episode from its few writing flaws. It’s terrific fun for fans of the series, and casual viewers will be captivated by the great use of effects and the holo-deck.