Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “The Big Goodbye”

“The Big Goodbye”
Written by Tracy Tormé
Directed by Joseph L. Scanlan

Season 1, Episode 12
Original air date: January 11, 1988
Star date: 41997.7

Mission summary

The Enterprise is en route to meet the Jarada, an insectoid species whose punctilious nature makes it difficult for the Federation to establish friendly relations.  The Jarada must be greeted by the captain (and the captain alone) in their native tongue with no errors. Any failure on Picard’s part will result in unspeakable consequences. Despite another lengthy cram session with Counselor Troi (reknowned exolinguist?), Picard is at an impasse. Troi suggests he take his mind off the Jaradans for a while and try out the latest holodeck upgrades. Recess! Picard brightens immediately and agrees that a 1940s hard-boiled crime game is just the thing to take the edge off.

He begins the program of  “Dixon Hill,” a sort of 1940s Philip Marlowe-cum-Sherlock Holmes, and discovers a beautiful woman sitting in Hill’s–his–office. Picard’s mildly interested in her flirting but is more fascinated by the cars zooming by outside the window. He only half-listens to her pleas for safety; she’s convinced she’s about to be murdered. But Picard’s really got to be getting back, so he puts the program on hold and calls a staff meeting to tell everyone what an awesome show this holodeck thingy is and I guess there’s some diplomatic thing he should be worried about but LOOK CARS DID YOU SEE THEM? He invites a 20th century historian and Dr. Crusher to join him next time. My instincts tell me it still doesn’t excuse them from the company retreat, but maybe it’ll look good on next year’s review.

Picard, Mr. Whalen, and Data (because why not?) return to the Dixon Hill program. Hilarity ensues (sort of) until Picard discovers that the femme fatale he met previously has been murdered. Two police officers bring Picard into the station to interrogate him about the woman but eventually the lieutenant, who seems to be an old friend of Hill’s, lets him go. Meanwhile, the Jaradans have sent a long-range probe to the Enterprise which disrupts pretty much every computer system aboard, including the holodeck. Dr. Crusher, about to enter the Dixon Hill program, notices the doors opening and closing randomly but doesn’t think this is remotely dangerous and manages to get into the program anyway. She meets up with her friends and they head to Dixon Hill’s office only to discover a gang of–well, gangsters–waiting for them.

In reality Riker, who has been struggling with computer malfunction after malfunction, tries to contact the captain but he can’t get through. La Forge goes down to the holodeck himself but the doors are locked, so Wesley is enlisted to try to bypass whatever protocol is keeping our heroes trapped inside. Riker tries to stall the Jaradans but they won’t even listen to a puny inferior like him, so all he can do is wait.

Back in 1940s San Francisco, the gangsters hold Picard and the crew hostage, referencing some “item” that Dixon Hill has in his possession. Mr. Whalen confronts the gangsters and is shot for his efforts. This wouldn’t normally be a big deal with all the holodeck safety protocols, but the Jaradan scan disabled them and now Mr. Whalen is lying bleeding on the floor of Dixon Hill’s office as Dr. Crusher attempts period first aid. Picard and Data try to find an exit but the way is shut. Lieutenant McNary, from the police station, shows up with some wine, but his timing is pretty terrible and he winds up a hostage, too. Ultimately Picard goes with the truth, and tries to explain to the gangsters that they’re imaginary creations in a 24th century game. This does not go over well, and soon Dr. Crusher is chosen as the next assassination target.

Outside the door, Wesley works his magic and discovers one way to save them–but a wrong move would mean that everyone inside the holodeck would disappear forever. The Enterprise has reached the rendezvous point with the Jaradans and time is officially up so Riker tells Wesley to do it no matter the risk. Wesley does, and soon Picard and his friends are zoomed to a freezing ice planet. They blink back in Dixon Hill-land with a wide open holodeck door. The gangsters are intrigued that this futuristic world does in fact exist and try their luck there, only to be dematerialized right outside the door.

Data and Dr. Crusher head to Sickbay with the dying Mr. Whalen, and Picard says goodbye to Lt. McNary, who is now having an existential crisis about the certainty of his own reality. Picard takes his leave and hurries to the bridge in time to deliver the Jaradan greeting perfectly, and all’s well that end’s well.


This is the first episode of the season I had really been looking forward to, as I’ve always had a soft spot for the Dixon Hill plots (and noir in general). Watching it now was a huge disappointment. What had in my fondest memories been a fun and exciting crime story turned out to be a jumble of absolute nonsense.

The frame story of the Jaradans might have been an interesting one if a) there was any reason at all for Picard to learn their language; and b) we had actually seen these guys. I am utterly baffled as to why Picard is learning complex grammatical rules when all he has to do is memorize a standard greeting. Couldn’t someone romanize it?! Why does he have to learn the whole language? Is there going to be a quiz? And contrary to popular belief, abandoning your homework altogether does not give you a preternatural ability to absorb it airborne, through osmosis, or in this case I guess, magically.

The writing and plotting is so hackneyed that I could list the faults all day. Picard acts as if he’s never been in a holodeck, whereas everyone else seems to use it all the time. After his first encounter he walks out of the program with lipstick on his face, and yet when the gangsters try to leave they disintegrate (slowly, for effect… for some reason). How can the lipstick make it outside? Why does Picard not know what Halloween is when Kirk and McCoy identified it right away in “Catspaw“? How is it the lead gangster doesn’t know the word “computer,” which dates back to the 17th century and had a contemporary meaning of young women number-crunchers? And then of course there’s Data, who could take every one of those gangsters in a split second with his super-human strength and reflexes, but instead just sits there and stares. Don’t even get me started on Wesley saving the day–there’s absolutely no logical reason why ANYTHING about the holodeck program should make the real, living, breathing people inside the room just vanish. And how is Picard, a lifelong fan of these stories, totally lost in the plot of the very first one? He seems shocked the woman is murdered and has no idea what the gangsters are referring to with “the item.” (Really? The “item”? They’re not even trying! They should just call it “the MacGuffin.”) It would have been a million times more fun if Picard were in on all the jokes and twists and turns, and instead was fighting against the inevitable conclusion that he knows the story will reach. (Though I suppose that would have been “Spectre of the Gun,” a much better episode.) To have him wander wide-eyed through a story he has absolutely no familiarity with but we’re told he loves through and through not only strains credulity, but is boring to watch.

My least favorite scene is the staff meeting. We have Picard calling an officers’ meeting to discuss his holo adventure. That’s the equivalent of someone’s boss calling the bigwigs together to tell everyone how he just discovered this amazing TV show. You should all watch it but you know it’s totally voluntary. No pressure or anything. It’s one thing to chat these people–his friends–up informally. But to call a meeting? About antique cars in the holodeck? What’ll he discover next, texting? And why is Wesley invited to this meeting, except to make us all squirm when Data has that line about teen mating rituals? Ecch. There, I just squirmed again.

Most frustratingly, there’s no noir here. Did anyone notice that the Dixon Hill story doesn’t even contain a story? You have the femme fatale who dies about five minutes later, some gangsters who want something, and then it ends. Does the woman even have anything to do with the gangsters? There’s no plot at all, nothing to figure out. There are no clues, no surprises, no discoveries. Some things happen. None of them mean anything. Then it ends. What the hell kind of mystery novel is this? I know The Maltese Falcon influence is there and maybe we’re just supposed to fill in the blanks, but it seems unfair to compare the hodgepodge of events in this episode to that film. I would have liked to see something a little more coherent. It doesn’t have to be the crutch of “Look! The real life story is paralleling the holodeck story!” but I would have appreciated a Dixon Hill mystery that wasn’t just a setpiece for 1940s costumes and bad gangster accents.

The biggest surprise of the episode came at the end, though. Picard’s “big goodbye” is to Lieutenant McNary. My hazy memory had associated their dialogue (“I wish I could take you with me”/ “So this is the big goodbye”) with a sexy lady, so I was honestly taken aback to see the two of them exchanging such intimate (and, let’s face it, homoerotic) words.  The scene would have had such a different tone if Lt. McNary had, for instance, been Picard’s favorite character. If Picard boots up this program next time, will McNary remember this conversation? There’s a hint at a more interesting theme–isn’t it kind of creepy to use realistic imitations of human personalities as playthings for amusement? But the episode doesn’t really go there, so I’m left wondering what that scene is meant to accomplish.

In the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to enjoy this one. There are too many gaping holes with no payoff whatsoever. Maybe it was the modicum of expectation I had, but it’s no fun to watch a bunch of idiots lumber around in a time period they don’t seem to know anything about in which they act out a plotless series of seemingly unrelated events where no one learns anything (except, arguably, Lt. McNary, who isn’t real) only for everything to be magically resolved in the end. And now I’m worried about the other Dixon Hill episodes…

Torie’s Rating: Warp 2 (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread Alert: I love, love, love the costumes here, and I wasn’t the only one: William Ware Theiss won an Emmy for Outstanding Costume Design.

Suits and fedoras look great on just about anyone, but Gates McFadden just blows the boys out of the water.

Best Line: PICARD: What a language!
TROI: But you spell knife with a “K.”
PICARD: I spell knife with an “N.” But then, I never could spell.

Trivia/Other Notes: The title is a mix of The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, two Raymond Chandler detective novels.

This episode won a Peabody Award for Excellence in Television Broadcasting. It must have been a slow year.

This is the first (of many…) holodeck deathtrap episodes. I cannot fathom why anyone would ever go into those things. When the days since your last catastrophic, potentially fatal malfunction remains consistently in the single digits, maybe they should just stick in a pool table and call it a day.

Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 11 – “Haven.”

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 13 – “Datalore.”

About Torie Atkinson

Torie Atkinson watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.