Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “The Royale”

“The Royale”
Written by Keith Mills
Directed by Cliff Bole

Season 2, Episode 12
Original air date: March 27, 1989
Star date: 42625.4

Mission summary

A Klingon cruiser alerts Enterprise to some strange debris orbiting around Theta 8, an unmapped, poisonous ball of nitrogen and methane. They beam a chunk of the debris over and it’s a panel from a 21st-century spaceship, with the American flag and NASA’s logo emblazoned on it. But we’re too far from home! How can this be?

PICARD: We’ve got ourselves a puzzle, Number One.

Do we? Must we? Can’t we just tape the pieces together, pat ourselves on the back, then maybe dissolve it in acid over a live flame?

Wesley finds that the surface of the planet contains a large physical structure–a building, encased in breathable air. That seems legit so a small away team consisting of Riker, Data, and Worf beam down, probably just so they don’t have to listen to Picard go on about dead French guys. On the surface all they see is a dark desert highway… and an antique revolving door. As they enter, communication to the mothership cuts out entirely, otherwise we’d never get a B-plot.

The away team finds that the building is… a casino! Too bad they no longer believe in money. They approach the front desk clerk who says that he’s been expecting them, but the check-in takes longer than it should (doesn’t it always) when a bellboy interrupts asking after “Rita.” The receptionist tells him he should fear Mickey D–do you know how much trans fat is in that stuff??–and apologizes to the “foreign gentlemen” for the interruption. He gives them a stack of casino chips and wishes them the best.

Riker and Worf go around trying to talk to (or rather, at) various gamblers, who behave as if they’re not there. Data has more luck, and sits down to a game of Blackjack with a Texan and the cute, dumb blonde he’s trying to manipulate. Riker and Worf decide to hell with this place, but the doors just pop them back into the casino, and their phasers are useless against the structure itself. Eventually Worf picks up some kind of human DNA trace, and they reclaim Data to go search for it. Up the elevator and down the hallway is a hotel room… with a nice corpse in it.

DATA: Definitely human. Male.
RIKER: Looks like the poor devil died in his sleep.
WORF: What a terrible way to die.
DATA: He has been dead for two hundred and eighty three years, sir.

He’s got a flight suit with “Col. S. Richey” written on it, too–an early astronaut. Just in time the landing party re-establishes communications with the Enterprise, who look the guy up. Yep, an astronaut, lost in space. Good thing he left behind a diary:

I write this in the hope that it will someday be read by human eyes. I can only surmise at this point, but apparently our exploratory shuttle was contaminated by an alien life form which infected and killed all personnel except myself. I awakened to find myself here in the Royale Hotel, precisely as described in the novel I found in my room. And for the last 38 years I have survived here. I have come to understand that the alien contaminators created this place for me out of some sense of guilt, presuming that the novel we had on board the shuttle about the Hotel Royale was in fact a guide to our preferred lifestyle and social habits. Obviously, they thought this was the world from which I came. I hold no malice toward my benefactors. They could not possibly know the hell they have put me through, for it was such a badly written book, filled with endless cliché and shallow characters. I shall welcome death when it comes.

Thank god it wasn’t 50 Shades of Grey, eh?

They don’t want to be housekeeping nightmares themselves, so they head back to the casino to investigate other options. They’re already at the climax of the book–Mickey D shows up and shoots the bellboy. But hey, why does he get to leave?! Picard says it’s just part of the story, which will end shortly when some foreign investors buy the hotel for $12.5 million. Hey… maybe they can be the investors! All they need  is a dirty gambling robot and bad dialogue. Check and check.

Data wins enough money to break the casino’s bank, they buy the hotel, and walk out of there happily ever after.

Analysis

You can check out any time you like, but you can never leeeeaaaave….

I’ve got it stuck in my head, can you blame me? This is essentially a 45-minute YouTube mashup of “Hotel California” and “Copacabana.” Are there any other top 1970s songs that the writer failed to mine? How about throwing in some “Love Will Keep Us Together”?

Actually, you know, this can be educational. I had a hard time coming up with anything to say about this foul beast, so instead I was procrastinating and reading up on The Eagles on Wikipedia. (Hear me out, I’m getting there.) I came across a quote from an interview Don Henley gave music critic John Soeder just a few years ago, and I swear to you this will be relevant to my discussion of the episode (and even if it’s not, it’s fantastic):

Soeder: On “Hotel California,” you sing: “So I called up the captain / ‘Please bring me my wine’ / He said, ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.'” I realize I’m probably not the first to bring this to your attention, but wine isn’t a spirit. Wine is fermented; spirits are distilled. Do you regret that lyric?

Henly: Thanks for the tutorial and, no, you’re not the first to bring this to my attention—and you’re not the first to completely misinterpret the lyric and miss the metaphor. Believe me, I’ve consumed enough alcoholic beverages in my time to know how they are made and what the proper nomenclature is. But that line in the song has little or nothing to do with alcoholic beverages. It’s a sociopolitical statement. My only regret would be having to explain it in detail to you, which would defeat the purpose of using literary devices in songwriting and lower the discussion to some silly and irrelevant argument about chemical processes.

Not only is that possibly the most brilliant takedown I’ve ever seen, but it’s exactly the problem with “The Royale.” Here’s an episode that thinks it’s just so clever in asking, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if aliens thought our culture came from trashy novels? What would that Say About Us?” But actually, it has nothing to say, because it doesn’t even have a sociopolitical statement; it’s just a silly and irrelevant series of dull, pointless, idiotic drivel.

Books are powerful cultural indicators. They’re important, they transport us to other worlds, they let us feel and live and breathe the lives of other people in situations we’ll never face. And sometimes those lives are cheap and simple because our own lives aren’t and that can feel good, to pretend, to imagine. So what if aliens had taken a trashy novel and deduced from that a whole culture? What would that say about us? Anything? Everything? Should we be ashamed? Proud? But the episode doesn’t care enough to even ask those questions1. Instead it chooses to reduce what could be a devastating satire to its most superficial layer of meaning–a bunch of blank stereotypes playing out a tired story, with the occasional ho ho ho wink wink. It’s not that I think the writers missed their own point. I don’t think they even saw that a point could be made, thanks to a gigantic lack of awareness of the potential social commentary lurking beneath the surface of this idea.

It’s aggressively superficial. At first I thought it was trying to be meta–bad dialogue and incoherent plot elements, amiright?–but no, it’s actually just bland extruded science fiction product, probably reprocessed “A Piece of the Action” sausage that only bears resemblance to a smarter, savvier idea because this reviewer’s self-preservation instinct kicked in by the “it’s a puzzle, wrapped in an enigma” bit and she’s trying to hold onto something worth holding onto2. Maybe it was just supposed to be a lighthearted comedy, you say. Well, it’s not funny.

This episode is empty. Not meaningfully, existentially empty, but hollow. There are no characters. There is no theme. It’s not even shiny in a Michael Bay kind of way. It’s just nothing.

1 Futurama played with this idea, and did an infinitely better job.
2 OH NO THE CLICHES ARE CONTAGIOUS

Torie’s Rating: Dead in Space (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread Alert: I actually like the lady and her dress, but Tex here is just two guns away from the Rich Texan. I like to think he made just this face when they showed him the outfit.

Best Line: COL. RICHEY’S DIARY: They could not possibly know the hell they have put me through, for it was such a badly written book, filled with endless cliché and shallow characters. I shall welcome death when it comes.

[SO SAY WE ALL.]

Trivia/Other Notes: The script was originally Tracy Tormé’s, but he had a pseudonym tacked on in protest of Maurice Hurley’s rewrites. It was originally a surrealist satire. Tormé was so angry he left the active staff and took on the lesser role of creative consultant.

Oh how times have changed! There’s no longer a reason for Picard to puzzle over Fermat’s last theorem–someone did find the proof just a few years after this aired: Andrew Wiles.

Geordi must be dyslexic, or else Theta 8’s surface temperature (-291 °C) is below absolute zero.


Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 11 – “Contagion.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 13 – “Time Squared.”

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks

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.