Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Booby Trap”

Booby Trap“Booby Trap”
Teleplay by Ron Roman and Michael Piller & Richard Danus
Story by Michael Wagner & Ron Roman
Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont

Season 3, Episode 6
Original air date:  October 30, 1989
Star date: 43205.6

Mission summary

La Forge is weirding out his first (and last) date by laying it on way too thick in a Margaritaville holoprogram (probably came with the machine, surely the designers didn’t expect anyone to use it), and soon his date can’t take another second and begs off.  Just another day on the love boat…

At least Picard is having some fun, exploring a Promellian ship from a forgotten battle waged over 1000 years ago that’s still broadcasting its distress signal. After he beams down, there’s a slight energy blip on the Enterprise–clue #1. The dead ship is full of corpses who have died at their posts–clue #2. But what could possibly go wrong out here in space, isolated, and as lonely as Geordi on a Saturday night? And the law of television says you need three clues, so they’re probably fine, right?

Geordi sulks Charlie Brown-style and turns to Guinan for advice, who tells him to tone down the romance-o-meter and just try being himself. But what does she know, she likes bald men… His talk session is about to be cut short anyway, because when Picard returns to the bridge from his boy scout adventure he discovers that neither warp nor impulse drive are working. It’s a trap! Something around them leeches energy, and in just a few short hours there won’t be enough power left on the ship to run the deflectors, the only thing standing between them and a fatal dose of radiation. It looks like the Enterprise has fallen into the same booby trap the Promellians did.

La Forge discovers that each command to the ship to engage the engines prompts an equal but opposite reaction, and that’s why they can’t get out of there. So like any good nerd, he consults the manual, and discovers that most of it was written by an “L. Brahms”–Leah Brahms–the principal designer of the Enterprise‘s engine. Realizing that neither text entries nor audio logs are going to give him the hands-on tinkering he needs, he tells the computer to gin up a holodeck simulation of the drafting room of the engine’s prototype dilithium crystal chamber. The computer also conjures up a lifeless facsimile of Dr. Brahms, but she’s creeping everyone out so La Forge asks the computer to synthesize a personality profile of her based on some public appearances and lectures stored in its database. Dr. Brahms comes to life as a confident, talented engineer, ready to help La Forge understand the capabilities of the ship’s engines and get out of the trap. They make some initial progress and sustain the shields to buy time, but things look grim, and a new problem develops as La Forge’s enthusiasm for the ship’s engines is starting to transfer to the ship’s creator: the fake Dr. Brahms.

Picard, meanwhile, tries to summon up some phaser power and only plunges them deeper into trouble as the radiation increases with the burst of energy they just fed it. Nice going, captain. They have less time than ever–just two hours–and La Forge is at a dead end. Dr. Brahms thinks that if they hook the computer up directly, she can make the thousands of necessary minor adjustments a second to stay ahead of the energy loss effect and get them out of there. But the simulations come out 50/50, and La Forge thinks that maybe he should ditch teching the tech and just row the boat to shore.

With only ten minutes before radiation levels become lethal, Geordi cuts all power to the ship (minus some life support) and Picard takes the Conn and navigates it himself, relying on his desperate human desire for self-preservation to do better than the computer simulations. Unlike the rest of us, desperation and fear manifests itself in Picard as accuracy and badassery, so he is able to slingshot on an asteroid’s gravity and steer them clear to the other side, safely. With a solid middle finger, he orders the relic ships and the whole booby trap blown to smithereens, to save other luckless travelers.

La Forge goes back to the holodeck to say goodbye to Brahms, telling her that he’s Learned His Lesson About Women and will now go forth a better man. He gives her a kiss and turns out the lights.

boobytrap2

Analysis

I make no apologies: I love this episode dearly and it’s probably one of my favorites of the series. The same is true for the next one, so I’m feeling especially warm and fuzzy right now.

It gets me right from the start as they tour through the space battleground and imagine the history that played out there. 1000-year distress signal? Ship full of doomed crewmen who died at their posts, and a final captain’s log praising his crew? You got me, Star Trek, right where I’m weakest. Interstellar history is such a beautiful idea and I’m so glad to see it take center stage here. I’m sure if they hadn’t blown it up it would become a tourist attraction, like civil war battlegrounds. Funny that the only tourism that seems to exist in the Federation is beach tourism like on Risa. Where do all the history nerds go?

Speaking of nerds… Oh, La Forge. Of course it’s awful to watch him be such a bad date, but I think it works because you get to see the transformation from that Geordi–the one who’s awkward and completely out of his depth trying to court women–to the other Geordi, confident and brilliant behind an engineering panel.  Leah Brahms obviously serves as an object lesson in how to talk to girls (i.e. just talk to them, rather than try to win them like prizes), but she also provides him, for the first time, with an intellectual superior who can as a result bring out his strengths and genius for demonstration. It’s hard to show that La Forge is talented and clever when he’s the smartest guy in the room and he tends to solve problems off-screen, but watching two geniuses work out a complicated problem is just delightful. It reminds me of those fabulous scenes in Apollo 13 when the engineers sit at a table with a box of parts and you watch them work through the options one by one. When I see things like that, I get all wrapped up in the excitement and invested in the solution. It’s great fun and even if it’s technobabble I enjoy their exchanges and all the little successes and frustrations. Brahms also allows a different tension to play out, which is the tension between the ideal and the practical. Designers operate in a vacuum of theory, while engineers have to work with whatever they have. Scotty constantly complained about this in TOS. That conflict works for me and I don’t think I noticed it the last time I saw it.

And then there’s the part everyone hates, which is when La Forge falls in love with her. I know I’m in the minority, but I have absolutely no problem with that. She’s brilliant, passionate, and gorgeous–who can judge him? Is it supposed to be sad that she’s not real, or creepy that she in a way is real? I watched it this time around with an eye towards the future (where the real Dr. Brahms makes her appearance), and I continue to be unmoved by claims that this is somehow untoward. I think there’s a qualitative difference between Brahms, who is specifically created for her expertise to get them out a problem, and, say, Barclay’s holograms, who are more… let’s say “personally therapeutic.” (I actually don’t have a problem with Barclay either, but we’ll get there.) Brahms does not exist in the episode or in the holodeck to be a sexy-time plaything for the idle crew. She’s there because she’s the only person who could figure this out. Geordi’s attraction is natural and genuine. As such, I don’t think there’s much in the way of unsavory or sexist undercurrents going on. If anything, her presence suggests numerous possibilities with the holodeck that no one has explored, like summoning up Lao Tzu for battle simulation advice or von Bismarck for diplomacy negotiation prep, all of which really excite me as a viewer and science fiction fan.  Assuming you can input all known writings and speeches and appearances into a computer to generate a personality, wouldn’t it be amazing to ask former captains, diplomats, or early drafters of the Federation bylaws what they would do? It’s like the EMH program, only for all of history. There is so much made possible by the events of this episode.

While Geordi gets his day in the limelight, this is just as much a great Picard episode. I can’t recall a single memorable character moment of his in the first two seasons (and I just watched them… again), but I still remember his joy as he goes through the old ship, his insatiable curiosity about the recordings and his counterpart, his wondering aloud if he’s making the same choices as the doomed captain, and of course, his final coup de grace as he pilots the ship himself using luck, intuition, and the will to survive.  It mirrors the Geordi story nicely, with the unbridled enthusiasm and both of them fully in their elements. Picard’s not a fighter, but a historian and archaeologist. It belongs in a museum! Stewart lets that joy fill Picard up like a balloon, and it’s obvious these are the moments the captain lives for, stepping through the past and trying to learn from it to inform the present.

There’s always some flaws–the creepy Brahms line at the end about Geordi is basically fondling her every time he uses a panel, the Data/Wesley gossip club, and of course Troi ruining moments by explicitly stating that which was implicitly obvious (that Picard is having fun)–but I forgive it. There’s enough humor, tension, and warmth that I think they deserve a pass.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 5 (on a scale of 1-6)

leahbrahmsThread Alert: Leah, we need to talk. What’s with the jolly green giant (including matching tights, natch) slash Romulan shoulderpad lovechild thing? And is that a nest of ferrets on your head?

Look, I know nerds aren’t always up-to-date on the latest sartorial splendors, but at least look like you weren’t dipped in a vat full of dye only a bridesmaid dress could love.

Best Line: PICARD: It is exactly as they left it, Number One, in the bottle. [Looks around.] The ship in the bot– Oh, good Lord. Didn’t anybody here build ships in bottles when they were boys?
WORF: I did not play with toys.
DATA: I was never a boy. [Picard sighs.]
O’BRIEN: I did, sir.
PICARD: Thank you, Mister O’Brien. Proceed.
O’BRIEN [to Riker]: I did. I really did. Ships in bottles, great fun.

Trivia/Other Notes: Early drafts had two important changes: first, it was Picard who fell in love with the hologram (chucked because the captain should be doing something other than flirt in a crisis); second, Brahms was intended to be a descendent of Daystrom himself (chucked when they hired a white actress… which seems to me about on par with forgetting that Obi-Wan needs to get the lightsaber so you can’t just lose it in the lava. Goddamn clowns).

Gabrielle Beaumont has a special place in Trek history: she was the first woman to ever direct an episode of the franchise. It only took 160 episodes and movies to get there…

Susan Gibney, who played Leah Brahms, was an early favorite to play Katherine Janeway, but was ultimately rejected as being too young for the part. She also auditioned for Seven of Nine and the Borg Queen but lost those as well, probably for the best.

Julie Warner, who plays Geordi’s uninterested date Christy, may be recognizable from Doc Hollywood, Mr. Saturday Night, and Tommy Boy.

Guinan says in this episode that she’s attracted to bald men, because a long time ago a bald man was kind to her. Three seasons early, they are referencing the events in “Time’s Arrow, Part II.”


Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 5 – “The Bonding.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 7 – “The Enemy.”

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About Torie Atkinson

Torie Atkinson is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.