I’m not sure whether it’s the soft jazz or Carolyn McCormack’s chemistry with Jonathan Frakes, but I am a sucker for this episode.
True, the basic premise is not particularly progressive from a feminist standpoint: fantasy woman (Minuet) distracts Riker and Picard while aliens called the Bynars take control of the Enterprise. And yet after the crisis is over, Riker returns to the holodeck to see if Minuet is still there, and tells Picard that she’ll be difficult to forget. So the overall message can’t simply be boiled down to a cliched warning to men against letting women distract them from their duties.
There are also a few really interesting moments in this episode, and those are what I’m going to discuss in this review.
1. Riker picks out his fantasy woman
I actually have no problem with the idea of someone creating their fantasy partner in the holodeck, and it’s not necessarily wrong for that fantasy to include a certain hair colour or overall “look.”
But it’s a little cringe-worthy to watch Riker objectify the women and make immediate assumptions based on their appearance.
On the blonde woman above he says: “Great job, boys. But, computer, blondes and jazz seldom go together.”
Riker: Now that is truly exceptional. But more sultry.
It’s calling the woman “that” that gets me.
Then they create Minuet and Riker replies: “Gentlemen, if this is what you call enhancement, you’ve got a gift for understatement.”
2. Riker’s also a little racist
I think one of the few storytelling failures with this episode is Riker’s knee-jerk racist reaction to the Bynars:
Wesley: You act like you don’t believe them.
Riker: I’m not sure that I do. Maybe it’s probably nothing.
Wesley: Perhaps it’s just how another species behaves.
Riker: Maybe. I’m going to stroll the ship. You’ve got the Bridge. Keep your eye on them.
This exchange serves no purpose in the plot other than to warn the viewers to watch out for the Bynars, and it seems like a bad message for Riker to be passing on to Wesley: “Please join me in being suspicious of these people who are different from us.”
3. Picard as a third wheel
Picard is a bit of a third wheel in the holodeck and I find it both odd and amusing. He comes in on his First Officer’s date, stays because he’s impressed with how adaptive and real Minuet seems, and spends an awkward amount of time staring at her while she and Riker gaze at each other. He seems to be motivated by fascination and a desire to figure out how she works as a piece of technology, speaking about her in the third person rather than conversing with her as Riker has been doing.
Picard: I suppose it’s an understandable progression. Computers make decisions based on inputs and we humans give off a multitude of subtle signs that communicate our emotions.
Riker: It’s uncanny. I could develop feelings for Minuet, exactly as I would for any woman.
Picard: Doesn’t love always begin that way? With the illusion being more real than the woman?
4. Minuet is more than she seems
Minuet pushes the boundaries of a stereotyped, one-dimensional male fantasy. She is designed by the Bynars to manipulate Riker, by flattering his ego and appealing to his desires; and Picard, by charming him and fascinating him with her complexity. She is adaptable and sophisticated and extremely close to being intelligent, artificial life. So close that Riker harbours feelings for her at least through “Future Imperfect” in Season 4.
She also has a second function – acting as a “note” from the Bynars once Picard and Riker discover what is really happening.
So she has her own (programmed) motivations, but what she does lack is an independent character outside the desires and interests of Picard and Riker. She enthralls Riker by wanting to know everything about him, but she has no background, no stories of her own.
5. Background diversity
While it’s not the same as casting diverse people with names and lines, just wanted to note this woman we are shown working in Engineering near the beginning of the episode. I feel like she totally deserves some fanfic or fan art.
6. The Bynars are binary…except for gender
One of the things I find most interesting about this episode is the Bynars. Picard, explaining how they function, says: “Over time they have become so interconnected with the master computer on their planet that their language, their thought patterns have become as close to binary as it’s possible for organic beings.”
And yet, the Bynars appear to have no gender binary. The Bynars were all played by women, but I’d argue their appearance and voices are actually more androgynous than the J’naii in “The Outcast.” The only time they’re gendered is by Riker referring to them as “boys” and “gentlemen” when they create the women in the holodeck for him. But otherwise they’re referred to as “they” because they are always in pairs. This would’ve been really interesting to explore given how taken-for-granted a human gender binary was at the time, and still is to a lesser degree today.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Fail. Yar and Crusher speak in the same scene but not to each other.