Revisiting Star Trek TNG: The Big Goodbye

The Enterprise's holodeck is causing trouble in part 11 of James' weekly Star Trek: TNG look-back...

This review contains spoilers.

1.12 The Big Goodbye

And so, a mere twelve episodes into Star Trek: The Next Generation, we reach the first ever Holodeck Malfunction episode. The first in a long, long, long line of episodes that involve the Holodeck breaking in such a way as to render the occupants (invariably the principal cast) in immediate mortal danger.

It all starts when Picard is struggling with his homework, which consists of memorising a ridiculously complicated greeting for the Jaradan race, who are sticklers for correct procedure. After being told to take it easy, he decides the best recipe for success in this area is to head down to the holodeck. Clearly, this is an insane decision for anyone wanting a little R&R, but because it’s only season one he doesn’t know that yet.

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Playing the role of Dixon Hill, a Chandler-esque private eye, Picard gets involved in all manner of hilarious 1940s-style scrapes involving gangster syndicates and a femme fatale, although he’s more interested in looking out of the window and actually seeing some “automobiles”, the massive nerd.

Of course, the problems only start when, having re-entered the program in the compant of Data, Crusher and Fodder McRedshirt, the Jaradans scan the Enterprise with their Holodeck-Malfunction beam, which causes the safeties to turn off, which (unknown to the users) renders holographic bullets as deadly as the real thing. We’ll push past the complete stupidity of making that feature so flimsy for now, because things get dire when Fodder McRedshirt catches a holo-bullet in the torso, and with communications down, Picard & co find themselves at the mercy of some surprisingly deadly mobsters.

The trapped crew’s attempts to explain the nature of the holodeck to the semi-intelligent AI go about as well as can be expected, but outside the holodeck something more worrying has happened. Wesley and LaForge realise that they can’t shut off the program because it’ll magically disappear the people inside the holodeck too! Wait, what? It’s okay, just go with it.

Still, eventually Wesley (sigh) opens the doors and Picard allows the mobsters to leave the confines of the holodeck, watching with bemusement as they slowly disappear in slapstick manner. The adventure ends on a weirdly philosophical note as Picard assures an astonished holo-cop that there’s not guarantee none of us are living in a computer simulation just like he is. Which is a nice idea, but doesn’t really resemble anything the previous episode has been about. Rushing to the bridge, Picard delivers his greeting to the Jaradans perfectly, and everyone, bar the guy who got shot in the chest, can be pleased with a job well done.

Despite some really odd mechanics for the holodeck (which clearly hadn’t been thought through in any great detail before this episode, and thus were substantially revised afterwards) this episode is a lot of fun, with much of the TNG cast essentially encouraged to play dress-up. Even Crusher gets a character moment or two. As is typical for TNG season one, the story is flabby and struggles to pick a direction – at various points it’s about solving the disappearance of a holodeck character, saving the life of the injured crewman, or convincing the holodeck characters that they’re fake – but ultimately, the sets, costumes, ideas  and characters make up for the lack of plot. 

TNG WTF: The idea that the Holodeck would disintegrate anything inside it were it to shut off is, frankly, insane. This “feature” was later removed, presumably because you couldn’t get anyone in their right mind to step inside a computer game that could actually kill you if you so much as tripped over the power cable.

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Who’s that Face?: Lawrence Tierney (Cyrus Redblock) is a prolific “tough guy” actor. You’ll probably recognise him either as Joe Cabot from Reservoir Dogs, or the store detective in that Simpsons episode where Bart steals a copy of the computer game Bonestorm (“Marge be not proud”).

Mistakes and Minutiae: Picard has holo-lipstick on his face, even though holodeck matter is supposed to disintegrate if it leaves the holodeck. Still, it’s not like that’s the first (or last) time that mistake gets made. If anything, it demonstrates why leaving technical matters open to interpretation is a smarter move than trying to establish constraints. As soon as you set limits, people start accidentally breaking them.

Time Until Meeting: 9:03. An unusually early one, this episode! In it, Picard entertains his somewhat-bemused senior staff with how great the holodeck is, like he’s delivering some kind of sales pitch. It’s actually supposed to be about the Jarada delegation, and really only exists to establish a ticking clock for the misadventures that’ll follow. Still, at least they’re getting to the point quickly.

Captain’s Log: This is the prototypical holodeck malfunction episode (doors locked, safeties off, no communication with the outside and a life-threatening situation inside) and for that reason alone it’s probably one of the few season one episodes that truly stands out. The holodeck will break again and again over the years, but rarely in a way any more interesting than this. Not that The Big Goodbye was particularly interesting, but it has the rare fortune of being first.

Watch or Skip? Watch! It’s pretty fun.

Read James’ look-back at the previous episode, Haven, here.

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