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Shades of Gray

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at February 29, 2008 - 9:26 PM GMT

See Also: 'Shades of Gray' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: LaForge finds Riker with a minor injury obtained from a swamp plant during a routine planetary survey. The transporter detects unknown microbes in Riker's body and refuses to transport him aboard, but after beaming down and deciding that the infection is likely not contagious, Pulaski authorizes an override and takes Riker to sickbay, where she concludes that the microbes are spreading from his sciatic nerve throughout his nervous system. The microbes have already caused Riker to lose feeling in his leg, and if they reach his brain, they will kill him. While LaForge and Data return to the planet and conclude that the vines on the planet are predatory, Pulaski tries to find a way to disrupt the microbes and discovers that stimulating different memories triggers the release of endorphons that affect the microbes. Memories involving pleasure or romance seem to encourage organism growth while frightening or unhappy memories suppress it, so Pulaski stimulates centers of Riker's brain that force him to recall basic survival fears. Riker's dreamlike fight for survival echoes the struggle of his body, which ultimately prevails, and the infection disappears.

Analysis: "Shades of Gray" is widely reviled as the worst-ever Next Gen episode, with good reason. This isn't an episode that makes anyone look good, and I don't just mean Pulaski, Troi or LaForge - I mean the writers, director and producers of the series. Even Marina Sirtis and Diana Muldaur seem to be trying to hard to make the paper-thin storyline work, over-emoting and making absurd faces. The only person who deserves any kudos is Jonathan Frakes, who somehow manages to keep Riker his usual charming self.

One gets the distinct impression that the writers were in a hurry to wrap the second season and get out of the office, coming up with this absurdly flimsy storyline that incorporates so many flashbacks, they couldn't have had more than a couple days' material to add. The producers must have been delighted to shoot on the cheap - besides the canned material and sickbay set, the only other scenery is a fake-looking swamp with silly swinging attack vines. And the director couldn't be bothered to cut the flashbacks so that they look like memories rather than badly patched-in bits of previous episodes. Riker couldn't have remembered Tasha Yar and Picard discussing Armus on the bridge of the Enterprise because he wasn't there, having been a prisoner of Armus at the time!

As far as I'm concerned, the only thing "Shades of Gray" does right is make Riker the injured party, because I'd rather watch him in flashback than anyone else at this point; he's had more dynamic storylines than anyone besides Data, and we've already gotten a bit of Data retrospect this season in the vastly better "Measure of a Man," in which the android reflected on his human experiences. We get to see some of Riker's heroic Kirk-like moments, meeting new crewmates and exploring new planets, but we also get to see all the women he's added to his collection thus far (tough alien leaders, seductive Irish lasses, slinky holograms, et al) and all the times he's nearly died under embarrassing circumstances (threatened by drug addicts, assaulted by Klingons, self-destruct sequences, etc.). It doesn't make Riker look terrible but it doesn't really show off his strengths as a team player and leader, either.

Because of the construction of the story, nearly everyone looks reckless or emotional: Pulaski beams a potentially infectious Riker aboard before she has an real idea of what she's dealing with, Troi stands around in sickbay sniffling, Picard sends LaForge with Data in search of whatever infected Riker, LaForge nearly allows himself to be attacked to demonstrate to Data that the vines are predators. Most of the sickbay dialogue is inane technobabble about stimulating Riker's brain, while far too many of the flashbacks are from terrible first-season episodes. Of course we don't get so lucky as to see something new in Riker's past - a recollection of the mother whom his father accused him of barely remembering, or anything from before Riker's time on the Enterprise - it wouldn't have been difficult to film a few seconds of the Riker-Troi romance that we all know happened yet have never seen.

One need only look at the original series' "Operation: Annihilate!" to know that Star Trek can produce a decent alien-infection episode. Or, for that matter, Voyager's "Resolutions," which has A and B stories with Tuvok taking the ship in search of a dangerous cure from evil aliens while the captain and first officer try to adjust to life on an alien planet they can never leave. "Shades of Gray" just feels lazy on every level. No wonder people remember the second season so poorly, with such an ending...which is a real waste, because there's so much that was good in it, from Data's development as a "person" to Worf's emerging sense of humor to Picard's sharpening command style. I will miss Pulaski, but I won't miss mediocrity like this episode.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a former news writer for TrekToday. An archive of her reviews can be found at The Little Review.

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