Season 2 was off to a really bad start. First we get Troi being raped by a magical space star, we have Geordi being a complete kindergartner to Data and we get an entire episode dedicated to the black hole that is Okona. It's funny how out of the first four episodes of this season, it's the series dreaded "bottle show" that manages to turn a cheap premise into a really special episode. Episode five of Season two finally gives Star Trek something that I personally think wasn't done enough. A story about culture, communication, and the pursuit of understanding. It's refreshing, well acted, inoffensive and, believe it or not, I found it to be quite up lifting in the end.
The episode starts out pretty routine with the Enterprise arriving at a planet to pick up a deaf alien named Riva. He's played by actor Howie Seago who is actually deaf in real life. Riva's role in this is to help bring peace to a war torn planet. What almost seemed silly turns out to be tolerable when Riva communicates using a so-called "chorus" of three individuals who he telepathically communicates his specific emotional thoughts through. It's a neat idea, I just hope that one chorus member that Riva needs doesn't go on a bathroom break during a crucial moment.
Without a doubt, the number one thing that came out of this episode was how Troi finally managed to be a valuable crew member. This is really the first episode I watched with Troi that really solidifies her high ranking position onboard the Enterprise. When you have a planet with two warring factions and the only one who can stop it loses all confidence, it's Troi that helps bring everything back together. The relationship between her and Riva is also handled very well without ever crossing into the "romance of the week" angle. And while Riva himself certainly has some goofy elements about him, Howie Seago gives a really good performance. For a character with no dialogue played by an actor who cannot hear, he really sells all of the emotions that his character conveys.
Another element that I enjoy is how the crew try to communicate with Riva when his Orchestra are killed. At first I thought that it was kind of silly that no one knew or understood sign language (even Data), but considering how far medical technologies have come in Star Trek, it wasn't hard to conclude deafness and the inability to speak can be treated and universal translators would render sign language obsolete. Thankfully not obsolete enough that there are still records of sign language in the computers detailed enough so that anyone can learn how to use it properly. It's a nice instance where the writers actually want to do something good with Star Trek's technology that can be useful rather than showcase how freaking awesome we are ("The Neutral Zone" where the ship's security pretty much allows anyone to go anywhere).
But by far my favorite moment in this episode is the last scene with Picard and Troi in his ready room.
Troi: You wanted to see me?
Picard: Yes. You read me well enough to sense how I feel about you and what you do on this ship. But I just wanted to say the words. Thank you. Well done.
Anyone who's been watching this series from the start should know how rare it was for Picard to do a thing like this. When Geordi got his promotion to Chief Engineer in "The Child", Picard didn't even crack a smile. It's nice knowing that when your episodes aren't written by Maurice Hurley, the characters are allowed to act like humble and decent people. Speaking of Maurice, I wonder what he thought of this episode...
Maurice: An okay episode. I had higher expectations than the way it turned out. It should have been more effective.
Oh, just give us the Borg already and go back to Baywatch.
Picard: "Oh, cluck, cluck, cluck, Number One."