|Data tries to understand romance.|
Data has befriended Jenna D'Sora (Michele Scarabelli), a security officer who has recently broken up with her emotionally unavailable boyfriend. Jenna quickly becomes infatuated with the eternally kind and attentive android. When she gives him an unexpected and passionate kiss, Data decides to pursue a relationship, attempting to create a program to navigate his way through a romance. But the complexities of love (along with his choice of a perhaps overly needy girlfriend) are too contradictory for a computer program to untangle.
Meanwhile, the Enterprise finds itself experiencing odd incidents while exploring a nebula. These are minor, at first: an unlocked door that allows Data's cat, Spot, to escape; a smashed ship-in-bottle that Picard was working on. But as the disturbances become more frequent and serious, the crew realizes that the ship itself may be in danger!
Capt. Picard: Gets the punchline to the "Data's advice" montage. Patrick Stewart is terrific in this scene - a hilariously strained expression when Data approaches, followed by his blunt-yet-polite reply. His initial response to the incidents on the ship is to "be cautious" but take no action. Only when one incident causes the (nastier than usual) death of a crew member does he finally decide to get the ship out of the nebula.
Data: Another Data episode, another terrific performance by Brent Spiner. One of the best decisions of Joe Menoski and Ronald D. Moore's script is to emphasize from the outset Data's lack of emotion. He can emulate human interaction, but he does not actually feel. This leaves him attempting to emulate romantic emotions, which goes over about as well as faking romance ever does. When he attempts to be a solicitous boyfriend, he mainly comes across like a cheesy waiter ("What can I get you? ...An excellent choice"). When Jenna calls him on this, he is perfectly honest: "When it comes to romantic relationships, there is no real me."
Geordi: The sum total impact of last week's harrowing experiences... are nada. As I feared would be the case, Geordi is exactly the same as he was before. A limitation of the "standalone episode" format: Events that should change characters forever are emotionally reset the following week, with Picard's Borg experience being a rare exception. It doesn't harm this episode as such, but I would at least have liked some reference to Geordi dealing with what happened rather than it being completely ignored.
Hot Space Babe of the Week: Michele Scarabelli is suitably appealing as Jenna. She's attractive and likable enough for the viewer to care about, at least enough to be interested in her feelings during the episode. She is also able to project enough neediness to make it plausible that she would attach herself to Data, even after he reminds her that he is incapable of emotion. I get the sense that the relationship would likely have lasted longer had Data not attempted to emulate romantic behavior - though it's equally apparent that Jenna's neediness would make her entirely unsuited to an unemotional suitor.
ZAP THE REDSHIRT!
Geordi strides down a hallway with two engineers in tow: Thorne (Gary Baxley), who has previously had a line, and Van Mayter (Georgina Shore), who does not speak. Van Mayter is sent down a hallway. There's a scream. When Geordi and Thorne run back to investigate, they discover her fused to the floor, her arms and upper body sticking out like a particularly ghastly car hood ornament. It's a striking visual, and probably TNG's most memorable redshirt death in the midst of an episode that otherwise has little external threat.
"What were you just thinking?"
"In that particular moment: I was reconfiguring the warp field parameters; analyzing the collected works of Charles Dickens; calculating the maximum pressure I could safely apply to your lips; considering a new food supplement for Spot..."
"I'm glad I was in there somewhere."
Late Season Four has seen a number of romance episodes, none of which has quite worked. Qpid suffered by playing the comedy so broadly that the Picard/Vash relationship never had a chance to be explored. Half a Life presented a convincing romance, but sabotaged it with ham-handed social commentary. The Host presented a solid "B" plot, but suffered from a central relationship made up entirely of romance novel cliches.
In Theory somehow manages to succeed where those episodes failed. Much as I'd love to credit Patrick Stewart's direction in his debut directorial outing - and he does a very competent job - I think the bulk of the credit goes to the script. Joe Menosky and Ronald D. Moore wisely focus on Data's unemotional state throughout the story. He may look forward to his time with his friend Jenna D'Sora, but he isn't capable of returning her affection - something he bluntly tells her from the very start. The result of this is that anything artificial in the Data/Jenna interactions is simply part and parcel of Data's attentions being artificial.
There are two great scenes demonstrating this. The first is the one I quoted above, as Data demonstrates that he is a machine. He may look more or less human, he may have a personality of his own. But his mind works so much faster than the human brain that he pretty much never is absolutely focused on simply one thing - He will never give a prospective mate his full and undivided attention, simply because it isn't possible for him, nor does he give any more weight to his thoughts of Jenna than to his thoughts of the warp field, the works of Dickens, or the food supplement for Spot. It's all of equal importance, with his list enumerated (presumably) by complexity of the calculations.
The other great scene is the episode's closing. Data and Jenna's relationship reaches its inevitable close, as she realizes that she has moved from an unemotional man to a man incapable of emotion. Data asks if they have broken up. When she confirms it, he considers and states that he will "delete the appropriate program." No expression of regret or sadness, because he simply cannot feel regret. She leaves him alone, and his cat approaches and jumps on his lap. He strokes the cat, and the camera cuts to a close shot of his mechanical fingers, imitating the motion of stroking a pet with no accompanying feeling. The final shot sees Data in darkness, stroking his cat, feeling nothing: a situation that may satisfy a cat, but would never satisfy a human being (at least, not for very long).
The ship in jeopardy "B" plot is serviceable, doing its job of creating some dramatic structure to an episode that otherwise would have little. The nebula shots are some of the most visually striking effects shots TNG has yet presented, in an episode that otherwise is one of the least effects-oriented. And just as the threat appears to be too abstract to really build tension, we are presented with one of the most memorable Random Crew Member deaths to date.
Overall, an episode that holds up surprisingly well, given that "relationship" Trek episodes are usually either painful or, at best, merely dull.
Overall Rating: 8/10.