Riker discovers that Picard, whom the crew believes dead, is working as a mercenary on a vessel raiding archaeological sites.
Plot Summary: The crew of the Enterprise has been investigating Captain’s Picard’s disappearance, eventually reaching a bar where they learn from an alien that Picard was shot and vaporized while inquiring about an artifact. Crusher’s examination of the DNA evidence suggests that this is true. With Starfleet’s permission, Riker begins to investigate Picard’s murder by visiting a planet known for its archaeological treasures, recently robbed by unknown mercenaries. While exploring the surface, the Enterprise crew is attacked and Riker is abducted. He wakes on a merchant ship under the command of Baran, who has had a device implanted into each crewmember allowing Baran to cause them pain or kill them. While trying to negotiate, Riker is shocked to find Picard alive and recommending that Baran kill him since, according to Picard, Riker has a bad reputation and will cause as much trouble among mercenaries as he did in Starfleet. Meanwhile, Picard – who is using the name of his onetime mentor, Galen – triggers a malfunction in the warp drive so that Riker can save the ship and impress Baran. When Picard is alone with Riker, he explains that he had been studying a damaged archaeological site and was captured rather than killed in the bar, using a weapon modified to work as a transporter. Because the mercenaries believed him to be an archaeologist, they sought his expertise in tracking ancient artifacts valuable to the Romulans. Picard asks Riker to get close to Baran and express disdain for Starfleet, then punches Riker when Baran comes looking for them. The Enterprise crew has guessed that the mercenaries are looking for Romulan artifacts and finds the mercenaries at the planet with their next artifact as well as with a Starfleet outpost. Riker sends Data a signal to drop the Enterprise’s shields, and he and Picard stage a mock-battle with low-strength weapons so that Baran’s ship can be delayed for repairs.
Picard realizes that the artifacts are not Romulan but Vulcan in origin, a fact confirmed by the mercenary Tallera, who admits that she is not really a Romulan criminal but an intelligence officer from the V’Shar, trying to stop the artifacts from being delivered to a Vulcan isolationist group. Together, the artifacts make up the Stone of Gol, a powerful weapon from Vulcan pre-history controlled by telepathy, which the group hopes to use in terrorist attacks to free Vulcan from the influence of Starfleet and the Federation. Baran learns that the Klingons who have one of the artifacts have been detained by the Enterprise and asks Riker to board the ship and retrieve the artifact…and to kill Picard once they have it, since “Galen” has become insubordinate. Riker warns Picard of the plan and Picard shoots Riker during the escape, allowing the other mercenaries to believe that Riker had turned on them and is now dead. Picard also switches the transponder codes in his implant so that when Baran tries to kill him for attempted mutiny, it is Baran who dies. Now in command of the mercenaries, Picard goes to retrieve the final artifact, but he has become suspicious of Tallera, who reacts angrily when Picard says that he has told the Vulcan authorities of their progress. Meanwhile, Riker learns that Tallera has never been a Vulcan intelligence officer and has the Enterprise follow the mercenaries. Tallera promises the rest of the crew that they will be paid if they help her retrieve the artifact and subdue Picard, but once she has reconstructed the Stone of Gol, she uses it to kill the remaining mercenaries. Guessing from the glyphs on the Stone that the telepathic resonance will not work against peaceful people, Picard clears his mind and orders the arriving Enterprise crewmembers to do the same. Tallera is unable to use the Stone of Gol and is quickly subdued, after which the Vulcan government promises that the pieces of the ancient weapon will be destroyed. Data insists on remaining in command of the Enterprise since Picard is technically dead and Riker is technically a defector, and Picard jokes that Data should throw Riker in the brig.
Analysis: I’m of two minds about “Gambit.” On the one hand, it’s a well-produced action story that lets us see Picard and Riker acting far outside their usual roles, with an enjoyable subplot about Data and Worf trying to get along as acting captain and first officer of the Enterprise. On the other hand, considering that it’s a two-parter and therefore eats up a significant chunk of Next Gen‘s final season, it gives Troi, LaForge, and Crusher very little to do, plays fast and loose with our understanding of Vulcan history and politics, and ultimately reverts everyone and everything back to the status quo – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, after the epic changes wrought by the events of two-parters such as “The Best of Both Worlds,” “Redemption,” “Unification,” and “Descent,” but it does make the entire storyline seem rather insignificant. It’s hard to know how to feel about Picard and Riker’s apparent easy dismissal of a crewmember’s death at the hands of the mercenaries, let alone Baran’s death by his own hand after Picard’s trickery with the transponder codes. There are some nice, memorable character moments, but overall, “Gambit” ends up being a pretty forgettable episode, and that makes me wonder whether it really needed to take up two installments when the dropping of some of the messier subplots (Klingon pirates, agonizer buttons, a hunt for artifacts that’s awfully reminiscent of the one in “The Chase”) could easily have compacted the story into one episode.
There’s no denying that it’s fun to see both Picard and Riker so out of character, both by themselves and with each other. Picard is pretending to be a hard-edged, cynical relic hunter, and while the habits of command die hard, he’s not very good at convincing the other mercenaries that he’d make a strong leader. Baran puts up with him because of his scientific expertise but he’s itching for an excuse to get rid of Galen, and when Riker comes aboard, lacking Picard’s knowledge of artifacts but apparently making up for it with his technical wizardry, Picard makes sure to set Riker up as someone Galen can respect…meaning someone who speaks with contempt for Starfleet and is happy to adapt to these new circumstances, even with Baran holding a button that can injure or kill him. Picard picks plenty of fights with Riker, probably more than necessary, but Riker is so happy to see him alive that he doesn’t protest overmuch. It’s obvious at the start of the episode that he’s having the hardest time accepting Picard’s apparent death, even though Crusher has a longer, more intimate history with the captain and Troi is feeling the grief of everyone on the crew. It’s a good thing Starfleet gives Riker permission to keep investigating the circumstances of Picard’s disappearance because Riker makes it apparent that he’ll investigate without permission if necessary.
But that said, we deserved to see more reaction from the rest of the crew, particularly during an episode that’s overlong already. Data gets quite a bit of airtime since it’s the first time we see him fully in command, and it’s both interesting and enlightening to see someone as logical as Spock struggle with some of the same problems Spock encountered when he wound up in charge of emotional humans, though in Data’s case it’s a temperamental Klingon who gives him the most trouble…I really like the scene in which the two hash out their differences, with Worf explaining he had believed it to be his duty to offer alternatives to the captain and Data explaining that once an order is given, it is Worf’s responsibility to carry out that order, though the soppy “are we still friends?” denouement seems both out of character and silly. The bigger problem is that Data and Worf have both been very close to Picard and Riker, yet now, with one dead and the other missing, they seem more excited about the mystery and their new roles than they seem affected by these monumental losses. Previous two-parters involved Picard traveling in time and being captured by the Borg in order to try to save Data, who was less concerned about his own impending death than Picard. Data’s utter calm here, not needing to discuss human grieving rituals, not thrown off-balance while talking to Worf about their new roles about the officers he wishes to emulate, makes him seem even less human than usual. And we don’t get a single howl of grief out of Worf, whose impatience with not doing more to find Riker seems less like insubordination than normal emotional turmoil. I’d like Data a whole lot better if it had occurred to him to ask Worf whether the Klingon’s performance might not be affected by his mourning, just like Troi tried to ask Riker.
Speaking of Troi, this is a bad, bad episode for female characters. The first scene with Troi has her posing as a prostitute, suggesting she might do “business” with a bartender in exchange for information about the missing Picard (who allegedly owes her money), but it’s the second that’s an embarrassment, with Troi ranting and sniveling about how much Picard’s death has upset the whole crew to an overwhelmed, newly promoted Riker who’s having enough trouble keeping his own feelings under control. Meanwhile Crusher, who’s apparently okay with learning of the death of her late husband’s best friend, the man to whom she starts making “I have something to tell you” speeches whenever she’s in mortal danger, has her big moment early on playing an angry abandoned woman when Riker gives her the cue…apparently, in the bars of the 24th century, women are still either desperate for love or working for sex. Then there are the mercenaries, one of whom has the least-defined role on the pirate ship – she announces repeatedly that she’s only in it for the money, she has no particular expertise that we get to see (not archaeology, not engines) – while the other is the craziest Vulcan we’ve ever seen, so much so that I was sure the first time I saw the episode that she was going to turn out to be a Romulan, which actually would have made more sense than a Vulcan isolationist terrorist. It’s not that the male mercenaries are admirable or more successful, but given how little the regulars get to do, it would be nice if Tallera was at least a scary, memorable villain.
Really, the mercenaries as a whole should be much more interesting. They have excellent technology – an agonizer like the nasty necklaces of Triskelion’s Providers, an engine that can outrace the Enterprise, a transporter that can pinpoint items or people and make it look like they’ve been destroyed. Where did a thug like Baran get such impressive equipment, and how come Starfleet seemingly has never heard of him before? It should be because of how good he is at what he does, but we don’t see any real initiative or intelligence from him; as Picard says, he rules by fear, and when the others stop being afraid, he’s quickly gone. Everyone seems to know that Tallera is the real brains behind the operation, yet no one besides Picard seems interested in figuring out what her investment in the artifacts might be. For such a long episode, there are a lot of interesting avenues left unexplored while more obvious roads are taken…a space battle with no real tension because we already know Data knows the game, a device that kills using brain waves yet can be disarmed by thinking about peace, love, and kittens. (Actually, I’d love to know what Worf is thinking as the Stone of Gol turns on him, since Worf’s happy place usually involves decapitating dishonorable enemies.)
Don’t get me wrong…”Gambit” is a fun lark. But we’re in the end stretch of The Next Generation‘s run, and it seems like a two-parter at this point should be something more. It’s certainly better that the previous two weeks, and a huge improvement on some of the episodes to come, but held up against the fourth season’s finest, it’s apparent the writers are running out of new ideas.