Sunday, October 9, 2011

4-22. Half a Life

Dr. Timicin (David Ogden Stiers) faces
the prospect of his imminent death.

















THE PLOT

The Enterprise hosts Dr. Timicin (David Ogden Stiers), a scientist from Kaelon II, a world that has not previously had any substantial contact with the Federation. Timicin has requested Enterprise's resources to run an experiment that he hopes will revive his planet's dying sun. Modified torpedoes will be fired into a sun that is experiencing similar conditions to Kaelon II's as a test. But the test fails, resulting in the explosion of the test star and the destruction of Timicin's hopes.

Also aboard is Lwaxana Troi (Majel Barrett). She quickly sets her sights on Timicin, who seems to actually enjoy her attentions. But as their relationship grows, Timicin must tell her a terrible truth. Kaelon II has found an efficient yet terrible solution to dealing with the elderly. At age 60, all citizens are expected to commit suicide in a ritual known as "The Resolution." Timison is days away from his 60th birthday - which means that he is returning home to die!


CHARACTERS

Capt. Picard: He stands up to Lwaxana when she urges him to ignore the Prime Directive and stop Timicin's "Resolution." He refuses to use his influence to interfere with another planet's social order. However, when Timicin comes to him to directly request asylum, he is unflinching in facing down the representatives of Kaelon II. When Timicin ultimately decides to return, Picard neither encourages nor discourages the decision, save to make sure that he isn't doing so simply "to ease diplomatic tensions."

Troi: Though early scenes see her reacting to her mother as usual - with exasperation - a softer side of their relationship shows in the episode's second half. Once Troi's mother becomes genuinely emotional, Troi is equally genuine in being supportive. A decent showing for Troi, and a good performance by Marina Sirtis.

Dr. Timicin: David Ogden Stiers' performance as Timicin is a huge asset. Though a one-shot guest character, Stiers invests Timicin with such a sense of quiet dignity that it's easy to become invested in him. There's a superb moment, right after the test fails, in which Timicin is visibly knocked back by the failure. His entire life's work has just gone up in smoke before him, and for reasons which will soon be made clear he will never get another chance. And yet he take a moment to thank Picard for the attempt, even as it is obvious that his expression gratitude is choked out through barely-suppressed tears.

Lwaxana Troi: It's that dreaded time again: The time of the annual Lwaxana Troi episode. Thankfully, writer Peter Allen Fields digs past the obnoxiousness of the character's previous appearances to examine the much more thoughtful woman underneath. The script is flawed, but this is still the best characterization that Lwaxana has received in TNG to date. We see that she can show restraint if she thinks it might be called for. After Timicin's test fails, Lwaxana goes to him with her usual bombast. But when he doesn't respond, she offers to leave him be, staying only because he asks her to. It's a nice moment, and she receives several others as the episode progresses - none better than in the final scene.


THOUGHTS

When I realized this was a Lwaxana episode, I cringed. Visibly. I relaxed fairly quickly, though, when I saw that this was scripted by Peter Allen Fields. Fields would go on to wrtie many of Deep Space 9's best early episodes. Half a Life, his first Trek script, is not at that level. But it's a lot better than either Manhunt or Menage a Troi. Even in his first run through the Trek-verse, Fields is already reaching for a substantial examination of a genuine issue cast in a science fiction setting. He would get better at it, but at least one is never in doubt that this episode is actually trying.

The episode gets a lot of mileage from the guest performance by David Ogden Stiers, and features some good work by Majel Barrett, finally allowed to show a more human side to the overbearing Lwaxana. The two of them have some very good scenes, and Lwaxana's moments of obnoxiousness are fairly few, mostly confined to the opening Act. Les Landau directs with accustomed proficiency, and it's all very competent.

But unlike Fields' best Deep Space 9 episodes, there really aren't very many shades of gray to this situation. First is the choice of cutoff age. Even when this episode was made, 60 wasn't really considered very old. Even in the early 1990's, more people were vital and active at 60 than not. Timicin's vigor is hardly the exception at age 60. The entire episode would make more sense if the age selected was 70. Even then, arguments for the "Resolution" would seem wrong-headed... but at least they wouldn't seem stupid.

Then there is Timicin's 11th hour discovery of Technobabble, which pushes him to seek asylum because he now sees a way to finish his work. Prompt melodramatic hysteria, as his world refuses to even look at his new research. Arguments that his work may save his world fall on deaf ears... which strikes me as unlikely. Any government in history has found exceptions for their rules. In a situation such as this, surely such an exception could be justified. Also, in a society in which it is known that a person's vital work will be cut off at age 60, wouldn't there be a younger apprentice working closely with the elder for a period of years before that age, ready to step in and take over? Timicin being "the only person" with the knowledge is a way of melodramatically loading an already loaded situation.

An honest effort, with strong guest performances and some good individual scenes. But I think the main thing notable about Half a Life, within Trek circles, is that it led to much stronger and more shaded work later by writer Peter Allen Fields. This is a far cry from DS9's Duet - but at least it's a first step down that road.


Overall Rating: 5/10.







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