Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Skin Of Evil

Review James Hunt 15 Mar 2013 - 07:40

Senseless tragedy strikes in this week's TNG season 1 look-back, as the Enterprise crew faces off against a malevolent puddle...

This review contains spoilers.

1.24 Skin of Evil

The Enterprise is proceeding towards a rendezvous with Shuttlecraft 13 (both ships travelling on impulse power. Er, you might want to read a book while you wait) when it receives a distress call. Troi and the pilot are in trouble, and the pair crash-land on the nearby planet of Vagra II. The Enterprise arrives, not knowing whether Troi is alive or dead. Of course, she's alive. You didn't think they'd kill off a major character in such a pointless and perfunctory manner, did you? Oh. Yeah. Never mind.

After arriving at the planet, the Enterprise sends down an away team only to discover a pool of tar-like liquid refuses to allow them near the shuttle. They spend what seems like forever scanning it to see if it's alive, before it decides to put them out of its misery by rearing up in humanoid form and saying hello. The entity (why is it only Star Trek that requires us to describe things as "entities"?) calls itself Armus, and after engaging Riker in some philosophical debate, it zaps Yar when she tries to run past him, killing her. OH NOES.

The away team beams back up and Yar is rushed to the sickbay where Crusher attempts to revive her by repeatedly electrifying her brain. But it's too late! She's dead. Too much synaptic damage, apparently (although to me, that sounds like something you might get from having your brain repeatedly electrified. Luckily for Crusher, she can do the post mortem herself).

Back on the planet, Armus has a chat with Troi, revealing himself to be petulant and irritating, although to be fair you would be if your first conversation in several hundred years was with a woman who kept describing your own emotions to you. Armus' origin is revealed: he's coagulated goo made out of negative emotions. Oh, right, something sensible at last.

Yar's chair has barely even gone cold before Worf gets promoted to acting head of aggression, and to demonstrate the seriousness with which he's taking this task, he declines a potential Klingon Vs. Oil Slick rumble in favour of strategizing on the Enterprise. While the second away team has a chat with Armus, who eventually gets so bored of their incessant questioning that he envelops Riker, before going back to Troi and trying to negotiate his way off the planet.

Back on the Enterprise, Worf and Wesley use a graph to discover Armus' weakness (psychotherapy) and Picard beams down so that they can get real for a moment. Armus manipulates Data into trying to kill his friends, but everyone's so enlightened that they accept their death/murder with cold, detached logic. Picard negotiates Riker's release by promising to take Armus away from Vagra II, and gets a chance to talk to Troi, who reveals Armus' backstory.

Armed with this knowledge, Picard psychoanalyses Armus (his one weakness!). Eventually he becomes so sick of the Enterprise crew's overly pious, holier-than-thou shtick that he loses the will to keep going and they manage to escape his grip and beam back to the Enterprise. Picard destroys the shuttle (or so he says – someone must have decided that this would be too exciting a scene to actually show) and then the main cast retires to the holodeck for Yar's memorial service, which is held against the familiar Windows XP desktop for extra poignancy. She praises all her friends in very general terms "I admire your, er, …dedication. Yes, that'll do." And finally, Data learns a little bit more about what it's like to be human. Wait, was that was this episode was about?

TNG WTF: Oh, where to start. Basically everything about Armus counts. The effects, for a start. I'll go out on a limb and say that any scene where you've got Patrick Stewart trying to negotiate with a puddle is a bad idea. Even his very nature is just bizarre. He's composed entirely of negative emotions. What does that even mean? And even if you assume that it's true, why does that mean he can talk? Let alone give him the near-omnipotent powers and invincibility he demonstrates. As usual, this is a part of TNG that you're not supposed to think about too much.

TNG LOL: Picture the scene: Jonathan Frakes is about to do what is very clearly a one-take plunge into a pool of a tar-like substance. All you have to do is run to his side as he disappears, stop, and let Brent Spiner say his line. Frakes' head goes under. You run towards the tar pit. You come to a sudden halt on its edge – and as you do, your phaser drops out of its holster, falls right into the tar and ruins the shot. It'll take three hours to scrub Frakes down and try again, so the director has no choice but to put it in the episode. Twenty five years later, people on the Internet are still making fun of it. Congratulations, you are Levar Burton.

Time Until Meeting: 17:01. A very special "Yar is dead so it's time to hand out promotions" meeting.

Captain's Log: There are two camps regarding Tasha Yar's death. Those who believe it should've been more heroic and inspiring, and those who find its senselessness part of the charm. I'm firmly in the latter camp, although it does strike me that there's a good twenty minute chunk in the middle of the episode where the crew doesn't really react to what's happened, which is a bit of a misstep. It's very much an incidental part of the story, rather than the point of it.

Also, given that Armus was quite clearly limited by the technology of the era, it's a shame the production crew didn't use the remastering to turn him into something a little more threatening than, alternately, a puddle, a smudge and a guy in a really awful costume depending on the form he was taking. Ah well. It honours the original, but if anything about season one needed updating, Armus was it.

Still, Yar's holographic goodbye is the first time TNG actually managed to inspire any genuine emotion from its audience, so it has to be praised on that level. Data and Picard's final exchange might be a little cliché, but it really makes the episode. It's basically a lot of standing around and talking, but Yar's death gives it just enough spice to be more interesting than most other episodes in season one.

Watch or Skip? Definitely watch.

Read James' previous TNG season one look-back, Symbiosis, here.

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Disqus - noscript

I'm on the side of the "senselessness" debate regarding her death.
In fact, it was really in keeping with the classic Redshirts' deaths, most of whom died because they were impulsive, reckless and/or overly eager to look good. I mean, Armus, an obviously exotic and powerful alien creature, literally warns them not to interfere, and Tasha responds with, "Enough!" and ignores him. Personally I think she got everything she deserved.

I think the senselessness was about right at the time. Dont forget it was only in season 1 and nowhere near the classic series that it is thought of now. For all they knew at the time, there might not have been a season 2 so an episode dedicated to a glorious death of what at the time was just one of a large ensemble would have been a wasted attempt at sentimentality. Only once the show matured and found its footing did they realise that it could have been handled better and was addressed (and vindicated I think) with the episode "Yesterdays Enterprise".

The cynic in me has always figured something else was going on the background with this episode.
Crosby jumped ship when the future of TNG was far from secure - a main cast member leaving could've sent all kinds of messages to the viewing public and done the show some pretty serious damage. So the producers gave her the middle finger and said "Ok, you want to go? Go. But no hero's death for you!" They wrapped that up in a convenient 'senseless death' storyline and hey presto.

I recall TNG having big ratings from the beginning.

Remember that reruns of the original show had become a sensation, the subsequent movie series was a big hit and there was a huge audience yearning for Trek on TV.

This was before there was much to cable and TNG was one of the first big syndicated shows. Between Trekmania and the lack of competition, TNG prospered from the beginning.

Which accounts for why this mostly dreadful first season didn't kill the show dead in its tracks.

TNG was very secure. Denise Crosby's departure was about her dissatisfaction with her role, and one of the most disastrous career decisions an actress has made.

Tasha was a bigger part of the show when it began, but slid out of the limelight as it went on. Obviously, there were some negative dynamics, for her, at least, at work.

But I've never heard anything indicating she had to leave. She just decided to.

Oops.

This episode shows how thoroughly imbued with the psychotherapy mentality TNG was.

The villain is an agglomeration of negative emotions!

I watched Best of Both Worlds again recently and was struck by Troi countermanding an order from Acting Captain Riker. What??

The ship's counselor not only had a seat on the bridge next to the captain and was part of the Enterprise executive staff, she had the ability to block decisions from the captain!

Bonkers.

I think you misunderstood part of what I was saying - not that she was pushed, but that after she decided to leave, the character was given a pretty poor send-off. Much like writing a bad reference for someone.

I remember a lot of excitement at the time of launch, but I didn't think that translated into viewing figures outside geekdom... but then I was 16, I guess I had no idea :)

I wasn't replying to you in saying that, I was explaining the situation.

The viewing numbers were big. No competition in those days.

Today, the show would have to be much better from the start.

I wish I'd seen it without knowing she was gonna die. Damn BBC for broadcasting it three years after the US, and TV Zone for having 'Tasha Yar's Final Stand' on their front cover.

Aliens can be bizarre - I like how Armus is conceptually alien and he works well.

The big WTF for me is Tasha's death message, which merrily assumes the same bridge crew will be there when she snuffs it. Maybe she would re-do it every few years, but it's a trifle convenient... yet it doesn't fail either, not even with the Windows XP wallpaper in the background.

It's nice they don't mewl for the entire story about her demise. But they do give it time, which is atypical for a gold shirt's (nee red shirt's) death. Oh, they can change the shirt color but the command function is still the same. Will the next Trek series make the security dudes blue shirts? How about the franchise after that? Just dress 'em in black, so when they're offed they're pre-dressed for the funeral. No fuss, no muss.

Being senseless is almost unique in sci-fi, and in SoE it almost works. It did elevate Troi's character somewhat, and made the psychology work in favor of the story as opposed to against ("I sense something captain". "Yes Troi, and the audience sussed all that out 5 minutes ago, long before this scene was viewed by them")...

I didn't know about the LOL retake moment - poor old Jonathan Frakes...

I actually like this story and it has a certain grab, because of all the weird things about it. A non-humanoid baddie that clearly is malevolent, Troi is genuinely useful and valuable as a character and it's not season 3 yet, and Picard tries to be the evolved 24th century self for a moment by dealing with this slick critter that hurts people for cheap thrills. It's one of season 1's better stories, and works well with the "bloodless horror" theme... other 80s shows would get gory, but rarely would TNG... and for one obvious case when they had, more power to them - but there's not much of a conspiracy behind that story *snicker*...

A counselor is a doctor - even a doctor can override a captain in Trekville. :) As I recall, Crusher did try in "Lonely Among Us" when he started to emit blue laser beams (can an energy entity using his body as a host be so powerful?))... But heck, McCoy could override Kirk at times (not many, since the show was about how butch and better Kirk was to the rest of humanity and all...)

The other side of the coin is typecasting - too successful a show or persona and you're stuck.

When "Dragnet" got remade, Ed O'Neill, who was very passable as a character actor, was just seen as "Al Bundy but as a cop".

And Yar often did get some lazy dialogue - it's a shame she didn't stay on, but TBH - at that time - nobody would have expected Michael Pillar and season 3 to radically reinvent the show. Seasons 1 and 2 often have good moments, but season 3 is - no question - what makes TNG its own cultural phenomenon rather than trying to continue TOS'.

Hindsight being 20/20, she may have missed out. But one can only do so much in the present and hope it's the right thing. In a society that forgives, we would respect that philosophy. Given what she had to do at the time, and Tasha rarely had anything really good, and ditto for many other characters, I couldn't blame Ms Crosby for leaving. The show could have been canceled if other actors gave up on it as well... I'm surprised more hadn't quit on it...

Troi is an MD? First I've heard of that. McCoy certainly didn't have a chair on the bridge. The only times he ever pulled anything like that, very few and far between, were in cases of Kirk's purported incapacity. That wasn't the situation with Riker.

I don't recall from the real world Navy that doctors over-rule captains. I may have been passed out at the time, of course ... :)

One of the things I always found curious about this episode was the conceit that Tasha had pre-recorded her own eulogy. She was Chief of Security, so it's possible that many officers in high-risk positions do this. But the eulogy is so specific to each of the crew members present. Did she constantly update it? If so, how often? Every time she has a pleasant conversation with a new crew member? Ok, maybe just the senior officers, but why is Wesley there? Ok, maybe just the bridge crew, but hey, weren't there plenty of nameless ensigns on the bridge? I agree this is one of those things that makes sense the less you think about it.

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