Bottle Up and Explode
The Next Phase
Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.

"Captain, I'm right here! I'm not dead!"-Ensign Ro Laren (Michelle Forbes)

There is a conventional wisdom among Star Trek fans (at least the ones I know) that The Next Generation is the best show the franchise ever created. I am nowhere near capable of weighing in on this, having seen just two Star Trek episodes from any series, both for this column. Earlier in this feature we discussed "Balance of Terror" from the original series, a bottle episode that functioned basically like a submarine film set in space. "The Next Phase" takes a very different tact, sticking almost entirely to the sets of the starship Enterprise for a fairly standard, if well executed, pulp science fiction story.

The premise is fairly simple: The Enterprise has come across a disabled Romulan ship (the Romulans appear to be on better terms with the Federation in this series, but I'll avoid commenting since I have no idea what the hell I'm talking about) and attempt to help it repair itself. During the process, Ensign Ro Laren (Michelle Forbes) and Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton) attempt to beam back to the Enterprise from the Romulan ship and disappear, apparently having died due to a radiation spike. We quickly learn, though, that the two are not dead, they have just somehow become invisible and incorporeal and thus find it impossible to communicate with anyone on the ship.

The "one character is invisible to all other characters" plotline is something that comes up often on science fiction and fantasy shows, but The Next Generation handles it very well. Instead of simply focusing on the isolation and fear of the characters, the episode becomes a sort of ongoing debate between faith and science, as Ro decides she has died and begins to make peace with the crew while Geordi is convinced something else is going on and investigates the particulars. While this is going on, Data (Brent Spiner) takes it upon himself to plan a funeral for the two, and thus engages in many conversations about funereal customs and the way we mourn our dead, the most significant of which occurs with Worf (Michael Dorn).

Written by Ronald D. Moore and directed by David Carson, the episode ultimately serves as a bit of an atheists fable, as Ro is proved incorrect about her being dead, and in fact it is revealed that had Ro and Geordi taken the path of faith, both they and everyone else on the Enterprise would have died. This is certainly one of the morals of the episode, but it is never presented in an overly obtrusive way, and faith is given its due respect throughout. The episode also has an excellent flow to it, ensuring we never get bored with the status quo. Had it simply been a question of whether Geordi and Ro would become recorporealized there would likely have been little tension, as these are established characters unlikely to be killed off. Yet the episode begins with the rush to avert the explosion of the Romulan ship, moves quickly to the mystery of what has befallen Geordi and Ro, and then shifts again to a race to become corporeal again before the ship warps (and explodes due to Romulan sabotage. Damn those Romulans!), with an evil Romulan who is also non-corporeal thrown in to ensure a little action. The pacing is so well handled that I wasn't even all that irked that I had seen this plotline done many times before.

Some of the episode's decisions seem a little strange to me, though I also have difficulty deciding how weird they are because of my lack of experience in TNG continuity. It seems like the crew should trust the Romulans less, as there are several implications that relations are still uneasy between the two camps, but maybe these are rogue Romulans? It also felt like a few of the plot threads were a little rushed. I could have used a bit more of Ro saying goodbye, a tad more of Data trying to comprehend death, and maybe a bit more tension with the also phased Romulan, but the advantage to the brevity of these plotlines is that they remain fresh throughout the episode.

As a bottle episode, "The Next Phase" doesn't really set itself apart. Geordi and Ro are philosophically isolated and trapped, but the Enterprise still feels big and crowded, and the adjacent Romulan ship provides new sets before the dimensions of the old ones are worn out. Neither Star Trek episode I have looked at seems to use the ship as a bottle as much as I would expect. These people are trapped together in the far reaches of space all the time, and I feel like there's a great episode in the idea that they might get irritated with one another. But this is more nitpicking at the concept than examining the specific episode.

And for what it's worth, "The Next Phase" is a pretty fun episode of television. It never floored me, and again, I'm not rushing off to become a Trekkie, but it was a fun way to pass forty-five minutes, using an old plotline in ways that were inventive enough to keep me interested. It didn't set the world on fire, and it definitely didn't make me rethink my notions on bottle episodes, but sometimes all a bottle episode needs to be is a good way to pass an hour.

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

6/3: "The Beast in the Cage," One Foot in the Grave

6/17: "Objects in Space," Firefly

7/1: "Torando!," The United States of Tara

7/15: "Controlled Experiment," The Outer Limits

Tags: Star Trek: The Next Generation
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