Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Where Silence Has Lease”

“Where Silence Has Lease”
Written by Jack B. Sowards
Directed by Winrich Kolbe

Season 2, Episode 2
Original air date: November 28, 1988
Star date: 42193.6

Mission summary

Worf invites Riker to the Klingon’s ultraviolent “calisthenics program,” a lengthy and pointless opening sequence that winds up being the most exciting part of these 44 minutes. The actual plot1 begins2 when the crew stumbles upon a “black void,” or what Data calls “nothing”: no sensor readings, no life signs, just a “hole in space.” This threatens to be interesting but it’s actually just Act I of an absurdist tragicomedy featuring a bridge with no exit.

They send some probes, which disappear. Eventually the nothingness consumes the Enterprise3 and attempts to flee are futile4. No matter how fast or far they appear to travel, the Enterprise and her crew “remain like a fly in amber, trapped in the void5.” Suddenly a Romulan ship appears and fires on the Enterprise, but our heroes6 dispatch it with a single shot–too easy! Then a Federation ship appears, the USS Yamato. It seems to be empty so Riker and Worf beam over to check it out. The ship is whack! There are no people, but multiple bridges and an unexpected, contrary-to-facts layout. They decide to return to the Enterprise but lose contact for a while until they don’t anymore because that’s what tension means. They beam back and on the Enterprise bridge the crew has been noticing gaps that keep appearing in the void-prison. However, every time Wesley lays in a course, the gap disappears. Suckers.

Pulaski, who is on the bridge for some reason, is a one-woman sensitivity training seminar waiting to happen. She calls Data “it” and a “device” and then laughs about how she did read his little Facebook profile that said he was alive, but that’s just too quaint for her. Luckily she makes up for it by being the only useful being on the ship, theorizing that some alien intelligence is treating them as rats in a laboratory and playing games with no intention of letting them go. This is correct, and Troi is pretty embarrassed that she missed it.  A creepy space douche head appears onscreen and asks questions about mating7 and then says it wants to learn more about death and kills poor, doomed Ensign Redshirt. The screaming and stuff was pretty cool so the alien–Nagilum–decides about ⅓ to ½ of the ship is going to die so he can fully explore the proud human tradition of bloodsport.

Picard doesn’t want to play, so he initiates the auto destruct sequence with Riker before peacing out in his quarters to listen to some tunes8. Data and Troi join him and try to convince him not to kill them all–but he sees through their totally unlikely instinct for self-preservation and calls them out as illusions of Nagilum. He tells the void that “it won’t work!” and heads up to the bridge for the final moments of the countdown. Only at the very last second does he cancel the self-destruct. Wesley jokes that it was a close bluff but Riker doesn’t think Picard was bluffing at all. This is a Serious Character Moment in which we Learn Something.

Finally, Nagilum appears as Picard’s laptop screensaver and says humans are too violent and militaristic for his tastes, but at least they’re both curious so hopefully both Picard and Nagilum will go around poking wasps’ nests for time immemorial.


1 “Plot.”
2 “Begins.”
3 And our souls.
4 For this reviewer as well.
5 If it’s like amber, the void must be devoid of…void?
6 In dark times we cling to bright memories.
7 Why write new jokes when the old ones work just fine?
8 It sounds kind of like this.

Analysis

These are the things I did while watching this episode, in this order: (1) Checked my watch; (2) Realized I needed to buy some milk; (3) Checked my watch; (4) Looked up the Memory Alpha summary of Miles O’Brien’s confused rank history; (5) Argued with myself that it doesn’t make sense for Starfleet to have enlisted men anyway because it’s a class system that doesn’t translate to this future; (5) Read up on the U.S. military ranking system; (6) Checked my watch; (7) Stared at the ceiling with my mouth open.

I also made this face.

This was the single most tedious episode of Star Trek I’ve ever sat through. (I can’t really say “watched,” given the previous paragraph.) Once we got through Riker pole-dancing in Worf’s little exercise program I was primed to dismiss the black spot on the viewscreen as a dirty windshield and wait for the real episode to start. Of course, it never did, and they wasted over half an hour sending probes and fooling with the space equivalent of trying to drive out of a ditch. Ladies and gentlemen, compelling television! “Quick, more pressure on the gas! Wait, that doesn’t work? Try it again! Did you check the oil levels? What about the tire pressure? Well gee I guess we’re stuck. Doot doot doot.” You could have interrupted this episode with Jersey Shore Shark Attack and it still would have been dead in the water.

It’s not like the parts that weren’t boring had any redemptive qualities anyway. We finally get a chance to see the private side of Worf, and he’s actually just a brute animal whom Starfleet has rightly caged. The “calisthenics” program is one thing–having him attack Riker and then lose his shit on the USS Yamato for no reason was another. There is a nuanced and sophisticated approach to showing that Worf’s two identities are reconciled only with difficulty; this is not that approach. Similarly, Pulaski’s hatred for Data goes beyond all sense and reason. She calls him a device, but then acknowledges that she has read his bio and the conclusion that he is a living being. She’s trolling. “Oh Frank, can you–oh I’m sorry, it’s Francine now, isn’t it? I did know that, yes, of course, Frank–Francine.” It’s a shame she’s the only one who figures out what’s going on. I especially liked that Picard calls out Troi on that front. She has to be prompted by him–“Are you SURE you didn’t sense ANYTHING?”–to sputter up an admission that she’s incompetent.

Finally, the big self-destruct standoff is complete amateur hour. We never believe for a moment, especially at the beginning of the new season, that Picard is going to blow up the ship. So it’s a huge “reveal” that Picard wasn’t bluffing. So what? I’m more troubled by his instant resignation in the face of difficulty. As a captain, who wouldn’t take 50% odds over 0%? How is he not court-martialed for needlessly endangering every life on board? Nagilum is powerful, sure, but so was Q and they didn’t turn tail and light themselves on fire there. Shouldn’t they be concerned that if they kill themselves, Nagilum is just going to find out where they’re from to finish his experiments on other humans? If your rats die, you don’t take up accounting–you find more rats.

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

You will kneel!

Thread Alert: There are basically no costumes in this episode (not even a funny hat or weird scanning device) so I guess I’ll go with Skeletor.

Best Line: PICARD: Abort auto-destruct sequence.
COMPUTER: Riker, William T., do you concur?
RIKER: Yes! Absolutely! I do indeed concur! Wholeheartedly!

Trivia/Other Notes: The title is from a poem by Robert Service called “The Spell of the Yukon“:

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

The name Nagilum is “Muligan” backwards, referring to Robert Mulligan, who was originally going to play the role. Earl Boen, who did play the role, is best known as Dr. Peter Silberman from the Terminator movies.

This is a strict bottle show, and the director’s first Star Trek outing. To make things “interesting,” Kolbe had the actors constantly moving and tried many unusual camera angles.

Picard is listening to “Trois Gymnopédies” by Erik Satie, a Dadaist. Perhaps that’s not a coincidence.

Patrick Stewart quoted the conversation he has with (fake) Data on death at Gene Roddenberry’s memorial service three years later.


Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 1 – “The Child.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 3 – “Elementary, Dear Data.”

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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.