LaForge falls in love with a Starfleet officer whom he is supposed to be investigating as a murder suspect.
Plot Summary: The Enterprise is sent to investigate the silence from a subspace relay station near the Klingon border and finds that the crew has disappeared, though a friendly dog remains on the station. Crusher discovers humans remains fused to a deck plate and concludes that they belonged to Lieutenant Aquiel Uhnari, whom the crew suspects must have been killed by a Klingon weapon. A shuttlecraft is missing and the crew surmises that the other missing Starfleet officer, Lieutenant Rocha, may have tried to flee the Klingons. While Worf and Riker investigate the station, finding Klingon DNA on some of the equipment, LaForge watches Uhnari’s logs and learns that an aggressive Klingon named Morag had repeatedly threatened the station. He also learns that Uhnari and Rocha had a tense relationship in which the young woman was sometimes insubordinate. Klingon Governor Torak arrives, bringing Uhnari, who is not dead after all. She explains that she fled on the missing shuttle after Rocha attacked her, though she cannot explain what happened to him since she claims she never fired a weapon. Though Riker doubts this is true and evidence suggests that someone broke into the weapons locker and fired a phaser, Picard wants to question Morag, who admits that he visited the station when he discovered that it was deserted but denies attacking either Starfleet officer. Certain that Uhnari could not have melted Rocha to the deck plate even with a phaser set on full, LaForge agrees to share thoughts with her amplified by a crystal, a technique used by her people. Meanwhile, Crusher finds that the DNA on the deck plate comes from a coalescent being that can mimic the properties of other beings. She hypothesizes that the coalescent killed Rocha, then attacked Uhnari. While Uhnari and Morag are both placed in isolation to see whether either takes on a new shape, LaForge tries to work in his quarters with Uhnari’s dog, which suddenly begins to change shape. He defends himself successfully and invites Uhnari to stay aboard the Enterprise, but she believes her recent insubordination makes her undeserving of such an appointment now and tells LaForge she hopes to get there on her own merits.
Analysis: This episode has the best of intentions – it was intended by writers Jeri Taylor, Brannon Braga and Ron Moore to show that serious romantic relationships developed for crewmembers besides the O’Briens, and had a film noir twist in which LaForge’s new love interest may also be the murderer for whom he’s hunting. But its execution is quite simply a mess, which is particularly noticeable after the nearly perfect “Ship in a Bottle” – also based on a classic mystery framework, so airing the two episodes back-to-back was a terrible idea in the first place. I’m all for intimacy and relationships in the 24th century, and poor Geordi deserves someone besides the inaccessible Leah Brahms, but “Aquiel” feels like a paint-by-numbers love story, like so many of Star Trek’s attempts at one-shot romances. It doesn’t do any atrocious damage to LaForge’s character the way Voyager‘s one-shot romances “Unity” and “Unforgettable” did to Chakotay, but neither does it give us any insight into what interests or attracts him, nor even into his loneliness. Riker – who doesn’t have a lot of room to talk – gives him a brief lecture on keeping his emotions out of his investigation, but it doesn’t make sense for Uhnari to be the murderer; as LaForge asks, even with a phaser on full blast, how could she have melted Rocha into the deck plate, then made it look as if it was her own DNA? She’d have to be some kind of powerful alien shapeshifter, and then Starfleet, not just LaForge, would have looked pretty foolish for not realizing her capabilities. It’s a little sad that LaForge seems to fall in love more easily with holograms and recorded logs than live women, but he puts up well with Uhnari’s flaws as a person once he gets to know her and discovers that she’s hardly a model Starfleet officer. I wish there had been more substantive interaction about their families and backgrounds; he knows all about her sister and her nightmares, but doesn’t really share at the same level in the time they have together.
The Klingon subplot gets far less time than the romance, which makes it feel arbitrary, like Klingons were chosen as the potential alien adversary because their costumes were easy to get. We’re told that there have been Klingon raids on the Federation as recently as seven years ago, and Picard drops Gowron’s name when Torak is initially reluctant to assist him in questioning Morag. But when something as critical as a Klingon having raided and intercepted Federation messages through a relay station seems like a real possibility – and Starfleet officers may have been murdered as a cover-up – it’s treated like a local crime rather than an incident that could cause interstellar war. We just get no sense of any high stakes. There should be a couple of lines telling us what messages may have gone missing, and what the broader implications should be for Starfleet, which after all thought it was important enough to send its flagship to check out. Apart from episodic convenience, what reason is there for Morag to be harassing this relay station? How come only two officers and a pet dog are running the station, with one of the officers being someone who has already shown problems working well with superiors? I’d say it seems like Starfleet really dropped the ball, but that wouldn’t be fair to Starfleet; it’s the writers of “Aquiel” who don’t seem to have worked out logistics very well.
The idea of a mimetic alien is awesome and creepy, and therefore it should have been introduced early in the episode to let the suspense about it build – particularly since there isn’t much suspense about Uhnari’s innocence, so no reason to hide the fact that a coalescent was responsible all along. Think of the fun if the crew believed it was loose on the ship and everyone suspected everyone on the away team might be an evil twin – Worf, Riker, LaForge, even Crusher were alone long enough for an alien to have infested any of them. And it would be a lot harder to guess that it’s the dog who’s the villain; as it is, it’s pretty obvious five minutes into the episode that there must be some reason for a pet to get so much air time. The potentially interesting science fiction hook feels like it was stuck on the end when the writers couldn’t come up with another way to resolve the mystery; I remember reading that Braga and Moore wanted Aquiel to be guilty, but Taylor thought the ending would then be too much like the then-recent movie Basic Instinct, and Morag seemed too obvious while Rocha was hardly even a character in the story. But we just don’t get enough time to find out how the coalescent works, so the whole business about it sort of taking over Uhnari long enough to make her black out just seems silly. The creepiest moment of the whole story is when the leftover coalescent DNA mimics Crusher’s hand. We never get any skin-crawling sense that either Uhnari or Morag might be a deadly alien, and the dog’s morph into a giant floating peanut-shaped blob is simply laughable. The original series’ salt vampire is much scarier.
Things end up status quo: LaForge doesn’t get into trouble for leaving the ship with a murder suspect and performing an intimate bonding ritual with her, but neither does he get her phone number, so far as we can tell from that last scene. So the big romance that inspired the story fizzles out, which is just as well because Uhnari and LaForge both have more chemistry with the dog than they do with each other. Ah well, every season of Next Gen has one stinker, and this is unquestionably the leading contender for the sixth year.