Thursday, April 29, 2010

Album for the Young 2

Although its title isn't exactly "Album for the Young," the intent is obviously the same. Here we see another attempt by a great Russian composer (well, Soviet actually) to create piano music specifically for young musicians. The music itself is wonderful. But will the kids receiving my musical care package be equal to the challenge?

Music for Children
Twelve Easy Pieces for the Piano
, op. 65
by Sergei Prokofiev

My edition of this book comes from the same publisher as the Tchaikovsky book I reviewed yesterday. It has half as many pieces, but it costs 50% more. On the other hand, all 24 Tchaikovsky pieces put together constitute only 5 pages more than the 12 in this book. So our first comparative observation will be that that the pieces, on average, are longer and more developed. Only one piece is confined to a single page; several are as long as three pages. So one skill this book will require Junior to cultivate is the quick, unobtrusive page-turn.

Another thing to note is that this music was composed in 1935, so it will expose Junior to some of the broader harmonies and expressive techniques of 20th century music. Not to worry, however! There isn't a bar of "ugly" music in this book. If the sound of your child practicing it sets your teeth on edge, don't blame the composer; and be patient! It takes time for these skills to develop! As to the pieces...

1. Morning is a gentle, lyrical piece requiring mastery of a wide range of notes, from a low G below the bass staff to a high G above the treble staff. There are a couple of hand-crossings, spots where (for example) the left hand reaches above the right hand. In the middle of the piece, there is a passage where the L.H. "gravely" intones the melody while the R.H. plays wide-open arpeggios with repeated notes requiring finger-substitutions. The dynamics are delicately shaded, with such expressive terms as cantabile, dolce, and pochis. rit., which means "the tiniest slowing-down imaginable." Not exactly what you'd expect of Lesson 1 of a child's primer, but it's gorgeous!

2. Promenade depicts a quirky sort of parade or procession in which the observer seems to view those passing by with just a hint of dry wit. At first it doesn't sound like it's going to be very interesting, but things pick up as Prokofiev piles on unexpected harmonies, some unembarrassed dissonance, a few hand crossings, and passage of L.H. melody where, at times, Junior will have to wrestle the R.H. part into the background with all his strength. Plus, it may take some work to keep the rhythm rock-steady with all those triplets in the L.H. part.

3. A Little Story is a slow, minor-key melody over an accompaniment that has an insistent rhythmic pattern. The hands briefly switch parts, execute a 16th-note run in octaves, play cascading sixths, and cross each other. Junior will have to learn to read ledger-line notes more than an octave above the treble staff, play repeated notes without pounding them (or separating them too much), and execute a two-octave arpeggio in the final bars. Prokofiev's genius is such that even with all these problems, it is still a piece that a diligent fifth-grader could learn and love.

4. Tarantella is a quick dance in a compound meter (6/8, which is to say 2 groups of 3 eighths to the bar). Parts of it are a good exercise in the type of rolling arpeggios frequently required of the L.H. This piece may be a young musician's first acquaintance with such chords as A-flat minor. And not only does it have the first key signature in the book (following 2 pieces in C major and one in A minor, neither of which has any sharps or flats), but it actually calls on Junior to watch out for changes of key signature, from D minor to D major and back again. The piece ends with a short coda (again in D major) with its own tempo marking whose vocab-building Italian terms mean "not quite so fast."

5. Regrets, also in D minor, challenges Junior (not for the first time) to keep an eye out for clef-sign changes. The R.H. charts a course from the A below the bass staff to a B-flat more than an octave above the treble. The piece also involves "8va" brackets, tenuto marks, and eerily effective moments where both hands are playing the same notes two octaves apart. And there are several instances of the type of arpeggios for which fingering exercises were invented.

6. Waltz is a butter-won't-melt-in-my-mouth graceful piece in the three-sharp key of A, complete with "oom-pah-pah" figures in the L.H. which must, at all cost, be kept in a gently flowing wavelength. The melody is pure Prokofiev, an inimitable combination of smoothness and angularity, sweetness and oh-so-delicate irony. The last note of the R.H. part is within an octave of the top of the keyboard. If something about this piece doesn't make you breathe a melancholy sigh, you're not doing it right.

7. March of the Grasshoppers, a brisk 2/4 march in B-flat, abounds in the eighth-note/sixteenth-rest/sixteenth-note figure that long acquaintance with Chopin has taught me to think of as "Mazurka-dotted eighths." At this rapid tempo, there is no time to be precise about the placement of that sixteenth-rest. It's really more about the character of the articulation: crisp and springy. The piece has some humorous touches, passages in which the two hands double each other at the octave, a couple of contrasting tempi, and a startling key change to B major (5 sharps!) for the central section.

8. The Rain and the Rainbow is the book's sole one-page piece. It introduces Junior to the wonderful world of note clusters, such as the F-G-A-B chord in Bar 2 -- mostly clusters of either all-white or all-black notes, though with a couple of sharp minor-second dissonances as well. One bar asks young maestro to sustain two neighboring black notes while repeatedly playing the white note between them. I tell a lie; two bars do that, actually. Beat 3 of the second-last bar features a ninth chord with an augmented fifth, something you don't hear every day.

9. Playing Tag is another galloping 6/8 piece whose main challenge is the rapidly running eighths in the melody, runs in which repeated notes are a frequent road-hazard. That's the main challenge, I say, unless you count the quick hand-crossings and hand-substitutions, the rapid alternations between loud and soft, and a final chord in which the L.H. strikes the high F an octave above the R.H.

10. March makes frequent use of grace notes. After the first two bars create a false impression of simplicity, the R.H. enters and immediately displays Prokofiev's penchant for the unpredictable. Again, there are hand-crossings, curious harmonies, and even a chord that has both a G-flat and a G-sharp. Keep your eye on the clef-sign, kids!

11. Evening opens in F major with 4 bars of L.H. accompaniment before the R.H. brings in yet another weirdly lyrical Prokofiev tune. Part of the first page of the piece has both hands answering each other with 16th-note arpeggiated patterns. By the end of the page, the key changes to the as-yet-undiscovered world of A-flat (4 flats!), only to shift a couple of phrases later to the key of C. By the time the F-major key signature comes back, Junior will have to know how to use the pedals in order to play all the notes as written.

12. The Moon Strolls in the Meadows is a breathtakingly delicate, tender melody over a gently rocking accompaniment, each hand accompanying the other by turns. To me there is something poignantly Russian about this tune. If anyone but Prokofiev had written a piece with this texture, it would be insufferably cute and saccharine, but Sergei Sergeyevich knows just how to bend the line so that you sense a shadow of sadness behind the silvery shimmer. Junior will have to work out a finger-substitution technique for an L.H. figure covering two octaves. Again there is a key change (from D to B-flat); again there are note-clusters (some necessitating the invention of a Y-shaped stem to hold them). The piece ends, and with it the whole book, with a "Neapolitan-sixth" chord progression that will furnish Junior with an aid to memory for his second-semester music theory exam.

Obviously, Prokofiev's idea of "easy pieces" isn't the same as most people's; but then, he was a child a prodigy. If your child is a prodigy, or you're a child prodigy yourself, you may find these pieces easy. The average child will have to work at them, but I believe the music will reward his or her effort. For the rest, this may be "music for children" in the sense that pianistic parents can play it to their children, with equal pleasure at both ends of the bench.

So, no worries. I'll keep the book and enjoy playing it myself. When my friends' kids are ready, I'll get a copy for them. Till then, it would only serve as a benchmark to aim for--and I have better uses for the "buying piano books for non-biological nieces and nephews" fund in my personal budget.

Droll Stroll

Occasionally, weather and workload permitting, I take a nice long walk up or down Hampton Ave. in the city. I can always use a dose of sunshine, more-or-less "fresh" air, and a chance to look around at things other than a computer screen and a book (though I often bring a book along). But mostly I need the exercise, because the "fat" part of a certain "fat stupid jerk" is becoming more and more prominent.

When I walk southward on Hampton, my route takes me past the front window of an exercise club. And here is the thought I often find myself thinking as I stroll past rows of leg-warmer-clad fitness junkies marching on their stairsteppers and treadmills:

HERE, BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD, GOEST THOU.

It's nice to think that I, too, can be an inspiration to the physically fit.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Album for the Young 1

Here is a new thread of book reviews focusing on piano music for young players. It's an area I am keen to explore, first because I started playing at an early age, and also because I'm trying to put together a care package for some friends of mine on the Left Coast whose kids are starting to play. I hope these reviews will help others choose the right albums for their young.

Album for the Young
Twenty-Four Easy Piano Pieces,
op. 39
by P. I. Tchaikovsky

This is a fine set of "easy" piano pieces suited to young players of an intermediate level of skill -- like, say, a fourth-grader who has been diligently practicing since second grade. It is not for beginners, and nor for gormless klutzes. Its 24 brief (1-2 page) pieces are full of charm and ethnic character, and touch lightly on a variety of moods.

1. Morning Prayer is a slow, Romanticized chorale in G major (1 sharp) and 3/4 time, and it is fairly easy. In playing this piece, however, the young musician will show his mastery of correctly-counted dotted-quarter and dotted-eighth figures, cresc. and dim., dynamics ranging from pp to f, musical accents, and a "pedal" G in an eighth-note pulse that throbs through six of the last nine bars. The harmony is mildly chromatic and requires the youngster to be able to attack, for example, a first-inversion F#-major chord.

2. Winter Morning is in a moderately paced 2/4 and B minor (2 sharps), though the key only gradually becomes apparent. To learn this piece, a kid will need to develop a keen eye to read four-voiced chords, many of them with dissonant notes and unexpected chord progressions. On a less technical but more broadly musical level, he or she will also practice the art of phrasing a musical line in which virtually every bar ends with an eighth rest. Musical terms to learn will include smorzando, which is not a marshmallow snack.

3. The Hobby-horse is in a brisk 3/8 and D major (2 sharps), a continuous run of four-voiced chords in running eighth notes, staccatissimo, and mostly quite soft. Besides (again) an exercise in shaping musical line, this piece calls for a lightness of touch and tightness of control. Done well, it will reward the player with music of magical delicacy and good-humored warmth.

4. Mamma is a sweet, pretty, music-box-like number in a 3/4 G major, with rocking eighth-note figures running throughout the left-hand part and a quarter-note-pulse melody. Technically, the challenge will be to sustain the first of each pair of eighths for a full quarter-note value (observe the stem direction and fingering!). Musically, the challenge will be to shape the line so that the strong beat isn't necessarily Beat 1 (observe the accents and dynamic markings!). It can be a very touching and expressive piece.

5. March of the Tin Soldiers is in 2/4, D major, and "Tempo di Marcia," which isn't a Ford belonging to the eldest Brady sister. It needs to sound like toy music, which calls for a certain imaginative touch. Accurate rhythm, especially regarding the rests, is essential to the articulation and character of the piece. The youngster at the keyboard may need to work especially on distinguishing between dotted-eighth figures that do and don't have a rest in them.

6. The Sick Doll asks Kiddo to play in G minor (2 flats) and a slow 2/4. The rhythm of the broken-chord figures in the left hand is the key technical feat to achieve, while musically it is creating an expressive line out of melodic notes that are surrounded by equal parts rest.

7. The Doll's Burial, with the totally appropriate tempo marking Grave, switches to C minor (3 flats) and has lots of three- and four-voice chords, many dotted-eighth figures requiring finger-substitution to play repeated notes, and a bit of chromatic harmony to negotiate. It's a solemn funeral march, building from pp to sf (is sforzando a new word for you?) and returning to pp again in a dramatic arch that poses the main musical challenge for our youngster.

8. Waltz calls for left-handed nimbleness, with the bass note on Beat 1 alternating with L.H. chords in a lively 3/4 tempo and E-flat Major (3 flats). The right hand has its own share of challenges, with frequent Beat 2 accents, rests that are intended to create "lilt" without making the line wilt, and rapidly alternating phrasisngs of slurs and staccati over what may be kiddo's first encounter with the word leggiero ("lightly"). Can he keep it graceful, light, and lively? That's the trick!

9. The New Doll moves to a more moderately-paced 3/8 time and B-flat major (2 flats). The L.H. has a "one-two" accompaniment figure, to be played in a light, detached way and attention to the dynamic marks. Meanwhile, the R.H. alternates between two rhythmic groupings that both require a certain independence between the two hands. And, of course, there's the challenge of the chromatic harmony again!

10. Mazurka, a dance of Slavic character in 3/4 time, is in the key of D minor (2 flats) and requires a technique similar to, but distinct from, the Waltz. Again, observe the rests that regularly separate the key rhythmic figures, the unexpected accents, the strange intervals (like C# to Bb, and A to B#), changes of clef and ledger-line notes in the L.H. part.

11. Russian Song is a very short piece in an easy-going 2/4 time and the one-flat key of F major. Nevertheless, it forces Master or Miss to be think carefully about phrasing musical sentences of uneven lengths. And though it is pretty much all loud, the trick is to avoid pounding the brains out of it.

12. The Peasant Plays the Accordion is a piece in the Mixolydian key of F that, frankly, I just don't get. I suppose if I had heard a Russian peasant playing an accordion in a similar style, I would understand the humor of this piece. As it is, I don't see much appeal in it. Mostly it alternates between two thickly-voiced chords, most notably (and finally) the F major-seventh chord. There is some tricky fingering though, as the two main chords rapidly alternate at a couple of points.

13. Folk-song is a gentle piece in 2/4 D major with a perky melody line. The first quarter of it has a drone bass (D) and a chromatically-descending tenor line. Then it goes into a sort of "middle section" where the L.H. provides a crisp, chordal accompaniment while the melody goes perky one better. The third quarter of the piece is all strong, cleanly-articulated chords; then the melody comes back, only with a new L.H. part that adds a rhythmic kick to the end of the piece. Getting the rhythm and the touch right is what it's all about - but it sure sounds neat!

14. Polka, in a fastish 2/4 and B-flat major, is a jaunty little dance exercising the nimbleness and independence of the L.H. and requiring both hands to play "grace notes." Notice how the melody and accompaniment switch hands in the middle of the piece, then switch back again in a most ingenious way. It's such a fun piece that I reckon it will be a favorite for a lot of kids.

15. Italian Song, a D-major number in a fast 3/8, calls for rapid L.H. work of a waltz-like nature, rhythmically tricky R.H. phrasings, and a couple of brief passages of bubbly sixteenth notes. All this for a piece very much in the "popular style" of Tchaikovsky's time.

16. Old French Song is a short, melancholy piece in G minor and a very measured 2/4 time. Cookie crunchers will be challenged to interpret such dynamic markings as the "alligator teeth" in bar 7 (kind of a musical sob, I think) and the double-dotted quarter in the same bar. Similar effects come later in the piece, but by then you'll be worrying about wide staccato arpeggios in the L.H. part.

17. German Song doesn't actually sound like something you could sing, but it certainly does remind one of German culture. As you play its relaxed 3/4 time in E-flat, try not to let thoughts of lederhosen and wooden shoes distract you from waltz-like L.H. figuration and the accented staccati in the R.H.

18. Neapolitan Dance-song brings lass or lad to the next level of difficulty, with a a crisp, fiery rhythmic figure in the L.H. and a very delicately articulated melody in the R.H. At times the runs of sixteenths, against the continuing L.H. rhythm, may lead the young player into difficulties that can only be escaped via hours of practice - hours well-rewarded by the sheer joy of hearing this piece!

19. The Nurse's Tale is a quirky 2/4 piece in C major which, for all that its key signature has no sharps or flats, is loaded with accidentals. Phrasings include slurs, staccati, and combinations thereof. The main cadences include cascades of octave and unison C's. The middle section features a pedal C in the R.H., repeated on the accented last eighth-note of each bar and tied across to the next bar, while the L.H. ratchets up the drama in chromatic steps.

20. The Witch, possibly a character in the nurse's tale, is an unsettling little E-minor (one sharp) piece in a rapid 6/8 time, i.e. with two beats to the bar each subdivided into three pulses. I called it unsettling because the tonality is left somewhat vague, thanks to weird harmony and a lack of root-position triads. The hands trade back and forth between the weirdly dancing melody and its spare accompaniment. It's got a hint of twisted ritual in it, but the spell seems to take hold toward the end.

21. Sweet Dreams begins to induct the youthful pianist into the world of music where he will find, for example, Tchaikovsky's The Seasons (a more advanced book of pieces depicting the months of the year). A lyrical C-major melody, at first in the R.H., yearns forward in 3/4 time against a L.H. accompaniment that is part countermelody, part off-the-beat strumming. Then the hands switch roles for a while. The technical challenge is to do two things "in character" with the same hand, while the musical challenge in the central part is to make the L.H. sing while the R.H. stays in the background.

22. Song of the Lark, a slow 3/4 piece in G, strikes me as the most advanced piece in this set. It presents more than one technical problem for young problem-solvers to puzzle over. First, there is the rhythm in the R.H. part, with its frequent sixteenth-note triplets. Then there are the frequent "tweety" grace notes, often preceding a note in ledger-lines high above the treble staff. There are also "8va" brackets to deal with, some interesting "5-4-2" chords, and a few brief hand-crossings at the end.

23. The Handorgan Man is a comparatively relaxing 3/4 piece in G, with some L.H. waltz figuration in the first half and, later, an exercise in the R.H. accompanying itself with both a the melody and a strumming accompaniment at the same time. For much of the piece, the L.H. has to do two things at the same time too: holding down a pedal G while oscillating between D and E in the tenor range. I suppose this is the part that is supposed to sound like a hurdy-gurdy.

24. In Church is another slow, pious piece, this time in 2/4 and E minor. Compared to the first number, however, this one is distinctly more sacred-sounding, possibly based on an Orthodox chant tone. Since there isn't much technically challenging about it, the task for the young pianist will be to give expression to its dynamics, which cover a range from mf to ppp and include a new vocab word: perdendosi (dying away, lit. "getting lost"). The final bars are a steady drawing down into darkness and silence over a steadily throbbing pedal E.

Tchaikovsky's piano music for the young would, in my opinion, appeal greatly to an imaginative child who has a couple years of piano lessons under his or her belt, and who is either a reasonably good note-reader or willing to spend time working out problems. The music is very rewarding, reminding anyone who plays it that the same Tchaikovsky wrote The Nutcracker with all its characteristic dances. The music is not at all patronizing, and I daresay even an adult learning to play piano would enjoy it. And, as we shall see as this "piano" thread progresses, it's a lot more kid-friendly than many another "Album for the Young."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book Binge

I've been fairly good about avoiding bookstores for a while. But yesterday and today, I went on a book-buying binge. I feel so dirty!

At Borders, on my way home from work yesterday, I picked up The Singing by Alison Croggon (#4 of the Books of Pellinor); Savvy by Ingrid Law (a recent Newbery Honor book about a family whose members all come into unique magical powers at age 13), and Graceling by Kristin Cashore (a highly acclaimed fantasy about a princess with the power to kill at a touch). I'm guessing the Harry Potter set will enjoy my reviews of those books.

Today, using a discount coupon at Abebooks, I shopped for some used books that had been on my "shopping list" for way too long. Would you believe that I got all of the following for under $50, including shipping? First, the set of Norse folk tales called East of the Sun and West of the Moon by P. C. Asbjørnsen & J. E. Moe, translated by G. W. Dasent, as well as Popular Tales from Norse Mythology by the same authors. Then Roger Lancelyn Green's Cavalcade of Dragons and Cavalcade of Magicians, as well as The Luck of Troy. Also Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates and The Garden Behind the Moon. Plus The World's Desire by H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang. And finally, A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce.

There were other books I wanted to get, but I had to stop somewhere and $50 seemed like a good place. Although, I was almost sure I had also ordered Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring. I don't know what happened to that, but it didn't turn up on my order confirmation. On the other hand, John Morressy's Dudgeon and Dragons can't be had for less than $150.00. For similar reasons I was deterred from buying Lancelyn Green's Tale of the Lord High Tiger. Bummer.

But as you can see, if I can stir my stumps a bit more than lately, my blog this summer will be aswim in reviews of excellent books, many of them classics in the world of folklore and fantasy. Oooh! It's going to be soooo fattening!!

Random Quotability

"Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think" (John Stuart Mill, 1806-73).
This is an interesting statement. Translated into today's English, it means the mistakes of those who earnestly seek knowledge do more to advance the cause of truth than the correct beliefs of those who merely think what they are told to think. Or, it is wiser to be misled by your personal quest for truth than to conform to someone else's dogma.

I think there is both truth and falsehood in Mill's dictum. Consider, for example, what Paul says about the matter: "For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

Again, "If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain" (1 Timothy 6:3-5).

And again, "Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you" (2 Timothy 1:13-14).

And finally: "In the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; and avoid such men as these. For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 3:1-7).

So submission to a pattern of received doctrine is not altogether foolish, according to St. Paul. Nevertheless, I would agree with Mill that a constant inquiry into the basis of what we believe is essential for engaging the faithful and defending the faith. The Beroean Christians are therefore commended for "examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11). And certainly the content of our common faith should rest on a surer foundation than a mere parliamentary record of what the church, as a human institution, has voted to call its "official position." The official position must always be subject to inquiry... and that inquiry, to the "standard of sound words" that exists prior to our church body.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

TNG Season 7

The television season of 1993-94 brought Star Trek: The Next Generation to an end. It also happened to be my junior year in college. And although I was a very studious, responsible guy, I took advantage of an abundance of dorm lounges with cable TV to make sure that I didn't miss a single episode of TNG's seventh and last year. Though in quality it did come down a bit from the high-water-mark of Season 6, TNG Season 7 holds up as a fairly solid year of visionary storytelling, ensemble acting, and gosh-wow production values.

"Descent, Part II" picks up where the Season 6 cliffhanger left off, with Data turning evil and joining his brother Lore in a fiendish plot to destroy the Federation. Their henchmen are the Borg, who have become individuals as a result of the Enterprises sending their mate Hugh back to the collective in the classic episode "I, Borg." Hugh himself (played by Jonathan Del Arco) appears as the leader of an anti-Lore resistance cell. Worf and Riker join him in preparing to spring Picard, Troi, and Geordi from Lore's clutches. The prisoners, meanwhile, find out that they have to act fast to break Lore's control over Data (whose "ethical program" has been deactivated), in order to stop the cyber-villain's plan to replace humanoid brains with artificial intelligence. Talk about a positronic brain-fart! Oddly, this leaves Beverly in command of the Enterprise, where she uses the interphasic shield introduced in Season 6's "Suspicions" to elude a Borg ship. Ironically, the tac officer to whom she explains this technology is played by the same James Horan who, as the killer alien Jo'Bril, tried to steal it in that previous episode. The young ensign who spars with Horan's character is played by Alex Datcher, best known as the female lead in Passenger 57.

"Liaisons" is the first seriously dumb episode in Season 7, and by no means the last. In a classic display of that "stupid, self-defeating behavior" of which only Trek aliens are capable, three Iyaaran "liaisons" study different aspects of human existence in an absurdly contrived sort of cultural exchange. Shown here is sci-fi cartoon voice-actor Paul Elding, playing Loquel, who is in charge of experiencing pleasure. Another ambassador focuses on aggression, and thus wears Worf out in a series of combat simulations. The third, played by Alien Nation star Eric Pierpoint in his first of five appearances in all four Trek spinoffs, attempts to mate with Picard (ew!). In order to experience love, his character deliberately maroons Picard on a desert planet, then morphs into a psycho woman (played by Spenser for Hire star Barbara Williams), a sort of female Robinson Crusoe whose desperate clinginess unnerves the captain. This method of studying a culture is so obviously ridiculous that even the characters comment on it, as when Picard tells Voval, "In my society, what you have just done to me would be considered a crime."

"Interface" is the one where Geordi plugs his brain into a space probe, using its sensors, thrusters, tractor beams, etc. to explore the wreckage of a ship trapped in the atmosphere of a gas giant. In a cross between remote-control and virtual reality, he experiences a version of what the probe experiences and guides its actions. It would be a pretty cool way to explore space, except that sensory-overload constantly threatens to fry Geordi's brain. Predictably, he gets hooked on it when he sees a vision of his mother, a Starfleet captain whose ship has gone missing, telling him that her crew is also trapped in the gas giant. Geordi's mom actually turns out to be an alien who needs help getting back to a depth where it can survive. The guest cast includes Warren Munson, who in Voyager would play the recurring role of Tom Paris's admiral father, here playing another admiral; and, appearing all too briefly as Geordi's parents, Ben Vereen and Madge Sinclair, both of whom co-starred with LeVar Burton in the classic miniseries Roots.

"Gambit, Part I" brings the concept of space pirates into the Star Trek universe, in such blatant disregard of Gene Roddenberry's wishes that producer Rick Berman reportedly blindfolded the series creator's bust whenever this script was discussed. They went ahead and made it anyway, and since they were indulging in a two-hour detour into camp, they apparently decided to go whole hog and hire horror maven Richard Lynch (pictured) to play pirate captain Arctus Baran. His performance combines beady-eyed shrewdness with the bad-boy glamor of an ambiguously gay hair-metal singer. The episode begins with the Enterprise officers going way out of character to question denizens of a seedy bar about Picard's disappearance, culminating in the shocking (but unconvincing) revelation that the captain has been killed. Actually captured by Baran's pirates, Picard has assumed the identity of Galen (cf. Season 6's "The Chase"), an expert on ancient artifacts, and goes undercover to find out why Baran is stealing every ancient Romulan or Vulcan artifact in the sector. Eventually Riker joins the charade, pretending to be a renegade Starfleet officer and proving his loyalty by firing on the Enterprise. Oooh, lawks! Could this be the last one they ever made?

"Gambit, Part II" continues where Part I ended, with both Riker and Picard apparently betraying their Starfleet comrades and taking up with a gang of space pirates who, for reasons that only gradually become clear, are snapping up Vulcan and Romulan artifacts everywhere they go. Long story short, the real villain is a member of a fanatical Vulcan separatist movement, who plans to cleanse her planet of alien influences using an ancient "psionic resonator" (don't you wish I had said "insert technobabble"?) as the ultimate weapon. The episode ends by lightly brushing off the never-resolved ethical issues of the captain's and Riker's behavior. Guest stars in this two-parter, besides the unforgettably campy Richard Lynch, include Robin Curtis (who played Saavik in the third and fourth Trek feature films), Caitlin Brown (a recent DS9 guest who also played Na'Toth in B5 Season 1), Bruce Gray (who had played the same admiral in the DS9 episode airing a week earlier), four-time Trek guest Alan Altshuld (previously seen in "Starship Mine"), Stephen Lee (previously seen in "The Vengeance Factor"), and Sabrina LeBeauf of The Cosby Show.

"Phantasms" is the episode where Data starts having nightmares. This gives the android an opportunity to explore his developing subconscious, complete with a humorous session on Sigmund Freud's couch. But the lighthearted fun takes a dark turn when, bewildered by waking dreams and hallucinations, Data stabs Deanna in the neck. This turns out to be a clue, however. The weird and disturbing imagery of Data's dreams are actually based on *insert technobabble* lifeforms, visible only on a wavelength that lies below Data's threshold of conscious perception. Whatever these thingies are, they are sucking the *even more technobabble* out of the crew's bodies, and the only way to stop them is by emitting a high-frequency sound, as the Enterprises find out when they enter a holodeck world based on Data's dream imagery. With scenes of Deanna as a cake, Riker with a straw in his head, and Data as a walking telephone box, it is an unforgettably weird episode. I don't know whether I would call it good or bad; it's just unique.

"Dark Page" guest-stars future star Kirsten Dunst (pictured) as an alien girl whose resemblance to the older sister Deanna never knew triggers a psychic crisis for her mother. Lwaxana Troi, last seen in Season 5, makes an unusually serious appearance as the ambassador to a society that, until recently, has only communicated only by telepathy. She is the first outsider to learn their peculiar telepathic language, and to teach them how to communicate verbally. In the process, however, she has come face-to-face with a "dark place" in her mind, a loss so profound that she has erected mental barriers to hide it from herself. The last TNG episode featuring Lwaxana (though she subsequently appeared on DS9), it also gives us our only look at Deanna's father, played by singer Amick Byram (Prince of Egypt). Norman Large appears as his third of four Trek characters, playing the ambiguously attractive/spooky/innocent character of Maques.

"Attached" describes the two characters shown here in more than one way. Their long-standing friendship, including breakfast together every morning, is put to the test -- and possibly begins to become much more -- when alien mind-control implants give them the ability to read each other's thoughts. While they escape from detention on a planet divided between two paranoid, xenophobic factions, Jean-Luc and Beverly can't escape each other. If they move more than a few paces apart, the implants cause severe nausea. It's sort of like one of those jail-break movies (The Defiant Ones?) where the two escaped convicts are handcuffed together, only with technobabble and a touch of romance. The security-obsessed aliens are hysterical. It may have its bumpy spots, but overall it's fun episode to watch.

"Force of Nature," on the other hand, is quite possibly the worst episode of the season. First off, it suffers from the fundamental flaw of being about so many things that it's hard to work out what it's really about. It's about Data's cat, and then it's about a search for a missing ship, and then (briefly) it's about a brush with the Ferengi, and then it's about an environmentalist zealot who isn't willing to wait for a scientific study to prove her belief that warp-speed travel is destroying the environment. Which, to be blunt, is a jaw-droppingly stupid premise for a Stark Trek episode. I mean, without warp travel there wouldn't be a star trek. So basically Ms. Environmental Wacko blows herself up for nothing because, after all is said and done, the show must go on as if this episode never happened. It's another instance of this series sacrificing all semblance of good storytelling in order to make a statement on a political issue, like the similarly flawed terrorism episode "The High Ground." Boo! Hiss!!!

"Inheritance" gives me an opportunity to complain about all the one-word titles that make certain Trekisodes difficult to distinguish by name. I mean, we've already had "Birthright," "Rightful Heir," "Legacy," and "Descent," and by the end of this season we'll also have "Firstborn" and "Bloodlines." How are you supposed to remember which is the one where Data meets his mother? Played by Fionnula Flanagan (late of The Others, etc.), Dr. Juliana Tainer claims to be Noonien Soong's ex-wife and to have assisted in creating Data. Data is at first skeptical, having never heard of this woman, but her story holds up. Then, when Dr. Tainer is injured during a mission to (oh, who cares?), Data discovers that she is actually an android, Dr. Soong's final and most perfect creation. A holographic message from Soong reveals that he created the android to replace his beloved wife, whose death had devastated him. But then he made the mistake of not expressing his love for her, and she left him. Logically, it's hard to explain how Soong could include this information on a chip that must have been programmed before she left him, but aside from that it's a touching episode in which Data is faced with a unique and poignant dilemma: should he tell his "mother" that she is an android like him, or let her remain blissfully ignorant?

"Parallels" introduces a recurring gag that tantalized Trek fans throughout the remainder of this season: the prospect of a romance between Worf and Deanna that turns out, in every instance, to exist only in an "alternate timeline," a hallucination, or a sequence of events triggered by *insert technobabble*. This first time around, Worf finds himself jumping from one alternate timeline to another, and in several of them he is married to Deanna. (Mercifully, you never actually see their kids.) There are timelines when Wesley Crusher is a lieutenant on the Enterprise. There are timelines where Riker is captain because Picard is dead. There's even one where the Enterprise is all that remains of the Federation because the Borg are everywhere. But the important thing is for Worf to get back to the reality where he won the bat'leth tournament, because losing is never fun. Besides, when the ship arrives at the center of the time anomaly, different versions of the Enterprise start popping into space, and unless something is done, the whole universe will be packed solid with them! It's another fabulously weird and fun episode.

"The Pegasus" is the highly popular episode that suggests that Riker has a taste for serving under bald captains. Terry O'Quinn, late of TV's Lost, plays Admiral Erik Pressman, who captained the starship Pegasus on which Riker served as a young Ensign. The Pegasus was lost after Pressman, Riker, and a handful of others abandoned ship during a mutiny on a top-secret mission. Now they have to work together again to recover the wreckage before the Romulans do. Why? Because the Pegasus was testing an illegal cloaking device, in blatant violation of the treaty that maintains peace between the Federation and the Romulan Empire. And this forces Riker to reconsider whether he did the right thing when he chose to stand by his commanding officer and follow orders. There's just something about the line "Will, you've just ended your career" that sounds right coming out of Terry O'Quinn's mouth. I'm guessing it would have sounded equally good spoken by Ronny Cox, but the writers missed their chance in "Chain of Command."

"Homeward" introduces another character who complicates Worf's family life: his human foster-brother Nikolai Rozhenko, played by Law and Order's Paul Sorvino. Actually, Nikolai complicates everything he touches, as Worf frequently complains. Their bickering relationship has an authenticity that many other family ties depicted in this series have lacked; though perhaps I say this because my brothers and I haven't been on civil speaking terms since, like, birth. Anyway, the current complication Nikolai has brought into Worf's life has to do with his work as an anthropologist studying a culture on a dying planet. Determined to save at least a handful of the inhabitants, Nikolai exploits his relationship with Worf to beam a whole village onto the Enterprise. They then use the holodeck to make the villagers believe that Nikolai is leading them to a new safe place. Computer glitches cause some mishaps, including a particularly tragic one resulting in a young villager's suicide, but eventually the Enterprises succeed in settling Nikolai's friends on a new planet without them knowing anything about it. The suicidal historian is played by Brian Markinson, whose three other Trek appearances (on DS9 and Voyager) were equally striking; while the mother of Nikolai's child is played by Penny Johnson, who later held the recurring role of Kasidy Yates on DS9.

"Sub Rosa" is an episode so daft that it's hard to watch without squirming. I simply can't improve on the Pensive Citadel's review of this episode, which calls it "cheesier than the day shift at the Velveeta plant." It has appalling footage of Beverly writhing in the arms of an invisible lover. It has a dead grandma who sits up in her coffin and shoots green lightning out of her eyes. It has an entity that has survived for hundreds of years, sometimes taking the form of a romantic, Heathcliff-type (played by the same Duncan Regehr who played Shakaar in three episodes of DS9), and sometimes embodied in the flame of a candle that has been passed down through generations of Beverly's family. And after asking you to believe in reanimated corpses, a village in the Scottish highlands that has been exactly transferred to an alien planet, and an alien governor who talks with a slight brogue, it finally abandons all semblance of believability by presenting an energy-based creature who must die, though he is mainly guilty of making sweet love to a succession of strong-willed redheads, because Beverly is willing to resign from Starfleet to be with him. Even knowing that he had slept with her 100+ year old grandmother (ew!) doesn't make this a reason to destroy a possibly unique life-form. The threat to the planet's weather grid is too far-out, and the death of the annoying character of Ned Quint is too welcome, to soften the shock of seeing Beverly kill Ronin, when even she goes on to admit that the future he had in store for her wouldn't have been so bad. How did this rubbish get past the guardians of all that is Trek? It's as if the franchise momentarily regressed to its first televised episode ("The Man Trap"), where killing the last creature of its kind, even on better grounds, contradicted the fundamental values of the show.

"Lower Decks" is an interesting episode in that it looks at the Enterprise's mission from a novel point of view: that of a group of junior officers, most of them non-recurring characters. On the other hand, it is perhaps a sign that the show's writers were growing tired of writing for the regular, ensemble cast. One might spot similar signs in Season 6's "Rascals" (where three of the four child guest-stars represented recurring, rather than regular, adult characters) and in DS9's final-season show "It's Only a Paper Moon" (focusing entirely on two recurring characters), to name only a couple examples. In this look at the below-decks officers and their ambitions, friendships, sacrifices, and problems, we meet a civilian bartender, a young Vulcan engineer, and two friends who are both up for the same promotion. One of them, played by Dan Gauthier of Tour of Duty, Ellen, and All My Children, is an ambitious young man who fears that Riker's personal dislike for him will hurt his chances. The other, the same Bajoran Ensign Sito who as a cadet shared Wes Crusher's disgrace in "The First Duty," gets sent into Cardassian space on a dangerous, secret mission. Dr. Crusher's recurring nurse, Alyssa Ogawa (played by Patti Yasutake), gets a larger role here, as well. But as effective as this episode may be, you have to wonder: "Why am I supposed to care? Are we looking at a pilot for another spinoff series?" The answer, apparently, is No.

"Thine Own Self" is another fine episode that, nevertheless, suggests that the writers were slowing down. For it's also one of those "vacation episodes" in which all but one of the regular characters probably filmed their parts in one day. The one who put in a full week's worth was, as you see here, Data. His current mission is to retrieve radioactive bits from a probe that crashed on a planet inhabited by a Renaissance-era society. Somehow or other, Data loses his memory, with the result that he staggers incoherently into town with a box marked "RADIOACTIVE" in tow. A kind man and his daughter take Data under their wing, call him Jayden, and help him sell the radioactive bits to a blacksmith, who uses them to make jewelry. Naturally, people start to get sick from radiation poisoning. Data applies scientific reasoning, together with the technology available locally, to search for a cure. But some of the townspeople, led by the same nasty blacksmith, decide that Data is some type of monster and "kill" him just as he is pouring lifesaving medicine into the village well. Again, it's a fascinating episode that stretches the limits of the Trek formula. The guest cast includes Ronnie Claire Edwards of The Waltons, Michael Hagerty of Friends, and two-time Young Artist Award-winning actress Kimberly Cullum.

"Masks" is another weird episode in which the entire Enterprise undergoes a process similar to what Picard experiences in "The Inner Light" -- only with more of a menacing twist. An 87-million-year-old alien library, initially concealed in the core of a rogue comet, zaps the Enterprise with an energy beam that starts to replace parts of the ship with artifacts from a long-extinct culture. Data's positronic matrix is also affected, with the result that he develops dozens of personalities. A mytho-historical drama seems to be playing out, focusing on a character named Masaka who was either a fiendishly cruel queen or the goddess of death. Like Season 6's "A Fistful of Datas," only without being at all funny, this episode exercises actor Brent Spiner in playing a multitude of characters, including a female one (Masaka). The solution to the dilemma (how to keep the Enterprise from being completely transformed into an alien city) proves to be surprisigly low-key: Picard puts on a mask, fakes his way through an interview with Masaka while pretending to be her legendary lover/rival, and finally talks her into taking a nap. As soon as Masaka goes to sleep, Data and the Enterprise go back to normal. What's interesting is what this episode tells you without saying a word about it: clearly, the tragedy played out by all the people in Data's head signifies that their world perished in a solar event, like a supernova.

"Eye of the Beholder" guest stars Mark Rolston of Aliens, The Shawshank Redemption, and Robocop 2 as an Enterprise crewman who turns out to have murdered two co-workers and committed suicide before the Enterprise was even launched. How can this be? This can be, perhaps, a hallucination on Deanna Troi's part, as her romance with Worf would suggest. It's almost a law of nature in the Star Trek universe: any changes as thought provoking as two regular characters getting together must be the result of a one-time glitch in reality and/or someone's perception thereof. Never mind that this particular glitch became a season-long tease all the way to the series finale! Rolston's character, Lt. Walter Pierce, was a little bit empathic. So his suicide, by jumping into the *insert technobabble* and being instantly vaporized, left a psychic imprint on the *really, just look it up in the Starfleet Technical Manual*, with the result that a young empathic crewman with everything to live for suddenly did the same thing eight years later. And then, while investigating the crewman's death, Deanna almost does it too -- but only after reliving the entire mystery leading up to the unsolved disappearance of three shipyard employees. It's an eerie episode, though it takes some liberties with the rules of "point of view."

"Genesis" is almost as daft as "Sub Rosa" -- daft enough to qualify, without reservation, as one of Season 7's most disappointing episodes -- but at the same time, it has a certain gruesome fascination. Directed by Gates McFadden (let's not go there), it explores what might happen if a certain string of medical mumbo-jumbo triggered an epidemic of rapid, backward evolution. In a matter of hours, everyone on the Enterprise reverts to some evolutionary ancestor or other, except fortunately Picard and Data, who are off chasing a stray torpedo. Boy, do they find a surprise waiting for them at home! While Picard begins to revert, he and Data try to figure out what caused this to happen and how to reverse it -- all while being menaced by spider-Barclay (pictured here), a venom-spitting, scorpion-like proto-Worf, and a violent, stupid, hairy Riker. Deanna grows gills, and (naturally) proto-Worf imprints on her scent. The key to the scientific and medical hogwash turns out to be a litter of kittens, Nurse Ogawa's unborn baby, and the insulating properties of a hatch-cover in the crawlspace where a predatory proto-Worf corners Picard in the climactic moments. A part of me wishes that the lighting in this episode were better... but then again, I should probably be thankful that I couldn't see it more clearly!

"Journey's End" burns the character of Wesley Crusher to a charred cinder -- though some TNG fans may be disappointed to learn that I'm not speaking literally. The once-promising cadet comes back for his last school break from the Academy with a shockingly bad attitude. Here you see him shooting his mouth off to Geordi, not exactly what you would wish for their last scene together. In due course he flushes his whole Starfleet career and goes off to explore other realms of existence, guided by the Traveler (last seen in Season 4's "Remember Me"). In the meantime, Picard is under orders to remove, by whatever means necessary, a community of American Indians that has settled on a planet that, under the terms of a recently concluded treaty, now belongs to the Cardassians. The Indians don't want to go, and (absurdly, in my opinion) the episode portrays Picard's brief to relocate them as tantamount to replaying the Trail of Tears. The only intriguing aspect is the Indian leader's theory that Picard drew this mission as an opportunity to make up for a stain that has been on his family since the time of the conquistadores. Guest stars include Ned Romero (who played one of the first Klingons on TOS and, later on Voyager, appeared as Chakotay's grandfather), Richard Poe (who appeared six times as Gul Evek in three different Trek series), Canadian singer-actor Tom Jackson, and Natalia Nogulich in one of her six appearances (TNG and DS9) as Admiral Nechayev.

"Firstborn" is the one where James Sloyan appears as a sort of associate member of Worf's Klingon clan, who claims to have been sent by Worf's brother Kurn to protect Worf and Alexander during a visit to a Klingon colony. Actually, K'mtar is Alexander himself, come back in time from 40 years in the future, where his failure to follow the ways of a Klingon warrior resulted in Worf being murdered before his eyes. K'mtar/Alexander has come back, either to persuade Alexander to become a warrior, or to kill him (and thereby himself) in order to save his/their father's life. Oh, it's so confusing! What makes it harder to describe than to watch is that you don't find any of this out until the last moment, by which time Lursa and B'Etor have made another sexy appearance as the co-matriarchs of the rival clan of Duras. Seen for the last time, and the only time this season, is Brian Bonsall as Alexander; his character appeared only a couple times on DS9, played by a slightly older actor. But not as old as James Sloyan! The Yridian freighter captain is played by Joel Swetow, who also played a Cardassian on DS9 and an Andorian on Enteprise. John Shull (the Klingon actor playing Molor in the ritual reenactment) played five other characters, including two more Klingons, between DS9 and Voyager. Rickey D'Shon Collins here completes the last of his three Season 7 appearances as Enterprise youngster Eric. Armin Shimerman crosses over from DS9 to appear as Quark. And FYI, the wryly comical alien named Gorta seen in this episode belongs to a race called the Dopterians, evolutionary cousins of the Ferengi, who appeared four times in DS9 but only once in this series.

"Bloodlines" guest-stars Ken Olandt, formerly of TV's Riptide and more recently a producer of low-budget sci-fi and horror films, as Jason Vigo -- who, according to a vengeful Ferengi and Dr. Beverly's more reliable DNA test, happens to be Captain Picard's son. Whoops! Now the most confirmed bachelor in the galaxy must come to terms with being a Dad. And having a petty thief and fiercely independent adventurer as his son, to boot! Meanwhile, an old nemesis who blames Picard for his own son's death has sworn to kill Vigo, and ex-Daimon Bok shows every sign of being able to do it, no matter how hard Picard tries to protect him. Yes, this is the same Bok who played with Picard's mind in Season 1's "The Battle," though played by a different actor (Lee Arenberg, who played four other Trek characters, including two other Ferengi). Other guest stars include master puppetteer Michaelan Sisti (Dinosaurs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Men in Black II, etc.), Amy Pietz (Caroline in the City), and the always-smiling Peter Slutsker in his last of 3 Ferengi characters on TNG. For the most part, it's a decent episode, though letting Picard off the hook of being Vigo's father was frankly a cop-out.

"Emergence" is the episode where the Enterprise gives birth to a sentient life form. The birthing process is as painful and traumatic as one would expect, with the ship locking the crew out of its own navigational controls, and drawing on a surreal blend of holodeck programs to form a quasi-conscious interpretation of its experience. Troi, Worf, and Data risk their necks entering that dreamlike world, since the holodeck safeties are off. So they are menaced by a gunslinger whose bullets can really kill, shaken around by a train conductor who uses the engine room of the Orient Express to steer the Enterprise, menaced by speeding taxis and buried under a collapsing brick wall. But what's really surprising is that Picard puts up with it, and lets the ship go about its own business -- including flying at maximum warp to suck the *insert technobabble* out of a pulsar. The crew only really interferes when they realize that they have to help the ship finish its birthing process before the power drain causes them to run out of air. It's another typically weird outing from the pen of Joe Menosky and Brannon Braga, both of whom could be counted on to steer the Enterprise into really far-out realms. This episode guest-stars David Huddleston of Blazing Saddles and TV's The Wonder Years, and Thomas Kopache as his second of seven Trek characters spanning all 4 spinoff series and the feature films, including two appearances as Kira's father on DS9.

"Preemptive Strike," TNG's last one-hour episode, guest-stars the late British actor John Franklyn-Robbins as Macias, the leader of a Maquis cell. A who cell, you ask? Well, if you were watching DS9 around the time this episode aired, you would have learned that the Maquis were a motley collection of terrorists and guerillas fighting to resist the Cardassian occupation of colonies handed over by the Cardassian-Federation treaty referenced in "Journey's End." Their activities played a role in the middle seasons of DS9 (which I haven't reviewed yet) and were instrumental in launching Star Trek: Voyager. Now you remember them? The Voyager crew was half Starfleet, half Maquis, right? Right. And this episode is TNG's contribution to setting up that concept, even though Voyager didn't go on the air for another eight months. Meanwhile, this episode also allows Michelle Forbes's recurring character of Ro Laren to go out in a blaze of glory; which is to say, in her only TNG appearance this season, it burns her to a crisp just like "Journey's End" burned Wes Crusher. And I mean just like. Nothing Ro does in this episode can possibly surprise you after what Wes does in that one. But it still surprises Picard; the episode ends with him struck literally speechless by his disappointment with Ro. All the same, her exit has a certain poigancy that Wesley's lacked. It was, let's be frank, a more fitting close for her character's arc. By the way, the character of Kalita (played by Shannon Cochrane) crossed over to appear on the DS9 episode "Defiant," along with Thomas Riker of Season 6's "Second Chances." Cochrane also played Martok's wife Sirella on DS9 ("You Are Cordially Invited") and a Romulan in the last TNG feature film, Star Trek: Nemesis.

"All Good Things..." concludes TNG with a two-hour telefilm bringing together Enterprise past, Enterprise present, and Enterprise future. As a bewildered Picard jumps from one time-frame to another, he relives his first day on board the Enterprise (complete with Denise Crosby's "Tasha Yar" and Colm Meaney's "O'Brien," an unbearded Riker and a frizzy-haired Deanna). He also jumps 25 years into the future -- a possible future, that is, and one contradicted by the feature films -- where Data is a Cambridge don; where Geordi has eyes, kids, a wife, and a writing career; where Beverly answers to the name "Captain Picard"; where Deanna is dead, and where Worf and Riker are both haunted by their feelings for her. In the past, no one knows the new captain well enough to trust him when he starts issuing bizarre orders. In the future, no one is sure all this isn't a symptom of a degenerative neural disorder that afflicts their old captain. Only the present-day Picard has the full confidence of the crew, but it's small consolation when Q appears with taunting hints that whatever Picard is about to do may erase humanity from existence. In the final payoff, Picard finally sees fit to join the regular staff poker game, thereby furnishing the series' parting line: "Five card stud, nothing wild, sky's the limit." The episode is directed by Winrich Kolbe, whose 48 directing credits from all 4 Trek spinoffs include the pilot episode of Voyager. Andreas Katsulas ("G'Kar" on B5) makes his last of four TNG appearances as Romulan Cmdr. Tomalak, three of which (including this one) didn't really happen. Clyde Kusatsu makes his final of three appearances as Admiral Nakamura. Pamela Kosh of Saved by the Bell puts in her second of two TNG appearances, this time as Data's servant Jessel. And Tim Kelleher (Lt. Gaines) makes his first of four appearances across three Trek series.

Season 7 demonstrates that TNG ended at the right time. The show had already put in its strongest season and begun a downward curve. In year 7, TNG showed early signs of losing momentum and becoming mannered; its writers, especially, seemed to be growing tired of the formula that had worked so well for so long. In fact, Season 7 has some of the worst TNG episodes since the shaky first two seasons, albeit mixed with some of its mature masterpieces. So, mercifully, the series ended before it made a complete travesty of itself. And it went out on a strong note, with a satisfying feature-length episode that netted Star Trek's fourth Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (after TOS's "The Menagerie" and "The City on the Edge of Forever" and TNG's "The Inner Light"). And it made way for a handful of fun feature films, a third spinoff series (Star Trek: Voyager, 1995-2001), and an ongoing fandom that could now appreciate TNG as a complete series.

Want to brush up on your Star Trek? See my reviews of TOS seasons one, two, and three; of TNG seasons one, two, three, four, five, and six; and of DS9 seasons one, six, and seven. As a control group, see also my review of Babylon 5 seasons one, two, three, and four.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Little Patience

My third sermon in two weeks will be coming to a St. Louis LCMS church this coming Sunday, Easter 4 (Jubilate), based on the one-year-series Gospel from John 16:16-22.
"A little while, and you will no longer behold Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me." Some of His disciples therefore said to one another, "What is this thing He is telling us, 'A little while, and you will not behold Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me'; and, 'because I go to the Father'?" And so they were saying, "What is this that He says, 'A little while'? We do not know what He is talking about." Jesus knew that they wished to question Him, and He said to them, "Are you deliberating together about this, that I said, 'A little while, and you will not behold Me, and again a little while, and you will see Me'? Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned to joy. Whenever a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she remembers the anguish no more, for joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too now have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one takes your joy away from you."
Listen again to the last verse of today’s Gospel: “You now have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one takes your joy away from you.” These words, in Luther’s German translation, form part of a beautiful aria for soprano and orchestra, inspired by Brahms’s grief at his mother’s death. This music from “A German Requiem” has comforted many who have lost loved ones. Forgive me if I am boring you. Have a little patience, and you will see that I am coming to a point.

Later in the same piece, Brahms quotes from the Apocrypha. In Martin Luther’s translation, Sirach 51:27 says: “A little while I had trouble and labor, and have found great comfort.” This echoes what Jesus says in our Gospel: A little while, and again a little while; sorrow and anguish, like when a woman gives birth, and then joy that will swallow up all memory of sorrow! In John 16, Jesus is predicting his arrest, suffering, and death, when He was taken away from His followers. He is promising His return from the dead.

The same words could apply to Jesus’ ascension, when He went away to His Father in heaven. For a little while—that is, until the end of this age—Jesus will no longer be visibly present. Either way you cut it, Jesus is saying exactly what I said a few moments ago. His message is simply this: “Have a little patience.”

The same Brahms piece also has a bit of Isaiah chapter 66: “As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you.” This is like Jesus’ promise in John 16, the promise that makes it possible to have patience: “You now have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one takes your joy away from you.” So when Jesus asks His disciples, when He asks us, to have a little patience, He isn’t demanding the impossible. With His request for patience, He also makes a promise: He will comfort us.

In John 14, part of the same farewell speech to His disciples, Jesus promises to send a Helper, or Comforter, to be with us forever: namely, the Spirit of truth. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you,” He says. “After a little while the world will behold Me no more; but you will behold Me; because I live, you will live also.” Later in chapter 14, Jesus says of anyone who loves Him and keeps His Word: “My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him... The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things... Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.”

In chapter 15, Jesus gives us even more comfort. He explains that our sorrows are like how a vinedresser prunes a vine to make it more fruitful. He promises those who abide in Him, like branches in a vine, will bear much fruit. He promises that what we ask in prayer will be given to us. He declares: “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” He observes: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends... No longer do I call you slaves.” He states: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.” He commands: “Love one another.” He explains: “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before you.” The reason the world will hate us is that we are not of the world; rather, we are His. “A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.” He concludes, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness of Me, and you will bear witness also.”

These words held special comfort for the apostles. It was they who bore eyewitness testimony to Jesus. It was they who suffered hideous deaths because of it. But these same promises hold comfort for us, ample comfort to provide what Jesus desires us to have: a little patience. A little patience when we see God’s enemies pretending to obey to Him, as we heard in the Introit. A little patience when life seems to treat us unfairly, and we’re tempted to doubt whether God is paying attention to what we’re going through. Isaiah addresses this problem in our first lesson: “Why do you say... ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God’?... The Everlasting God... gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power... Those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.”

Jesus calls for a little patience when our flesh and its desires make war against the soul, as Peter says in today’s Epistle. A little patience, Peter says, may also be needed when we are mistreated for doing what is right, or when we are expected to submit to leaders and masters who behave unreasonably. A little patience in a world and national climate that hates Christianity. A little patience in a workplace where management treats you like scum. A little patience in a neighborhood where malicious gossips accuse you of bad things—patience enough not to sink to their level, and patience to do nothing to deserve their vile gossip. A little patience when people are just plain stupid, and when retaliating against them will only give more scope to their foolish talk and evil behavior. Patience, above all, when your struggle to hold on to faith, or to fight against sin and guilt and temptation, becomes so hard that you don’t know how you can keep it up. Patience, because Jesus isn’t visibly here to take your hand and smile and say the word you need Him to say right at this moment. Patience when you feel alone and helpless, or dirty and worthless, or just plain insignificant.

To ask us to have patience under such conditions is really asking a lot. How can we have even a little patience in urgent times like this? How can we have patience when the household of faith seems to be shrinking and sickening, if not dying? How can we be patient when false teachers offend us with their man-made doctrines, leading many to deny Christ? How can we be patient when schools, TV networks, and the internet are doing more to form our children’s minds than we are, and when the daily drumbeat of the secular world has almost lulled us into thinking that none of it matters? Patience?! Shouldn’t we rather be impatient? Shouldn’t we rather shake ourselves awake, and stoke the fire of urgency and passion that has burned down to a barely-smoking ember?

Isn’t “a little patience” asking for a lot? Christ has the cure for that problem. He gives us the assurance that God hears and answers prayer. He sends us the Holy Spirit to dwell in us and brighten our gloom with the light of truth. He even promises to come Himself, together with the Father, to make us flesh-and-blood temples of the Holy Trinity. Because of this promise Paul can write to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.” How will Christ come to dwell with us? Through the Word. As he explained in John 14, God’s indwellling takes place as we abide in His Word, and as His Word abides in us. So Paul writes to the Thessalonians: “We constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.”

An ordinary, human word is only effective while people hear it and understand it. God’s Word is different. It goes to work in you, and it grows in power while your attention is directed elsewhere. The letter to the Hebrews calls the Word of God “living and active.” Peter calls it “living and abiding,” an imperishable seed that causes us to be born again. John writes that the indwelling Word of God gives us strength to overcome evil. Paul tells the Romans that faith comes by hearing the Word. This gift of faith comes not only once, but is continually given while we dwell in God’s Word. Hebrews 6 rattles off a list of phrases that mean the same thing: to be enlightened, to taste of the heavenly gift, to receive a share of the Holy Spirit, to taste the good Word of God and the powers of the age to come. The more you dwell on God’s Word, the more the Spirit dwells in you. The more you drink of this living water, the more power God gives you to fight the darkness that is always around you, and often within you.

Patience is a fruit of the Spirit. It is akin to courage. Jesus tells the paralytic, “Take courage, your sins are forgiven,” before He healed the man’s paralysis. He could easily have said, “My son, bear this affliction with patience. God forgives you. His forgiveness would just as certain whether you were healed today, or whether you remained as you are. But now I’ll show you how certain God’s forgiveness is. I’ll show you that you can rely on my Word”—and, in that instance, he healed the paralytic. What if He doesn’t heal you? Can you live with the certainty of God’s forgiveness, even while you suffer? Listen to Jesus: “Take courage. Your sins are forgiven.” In this promise, Jesus gives you all that you need to be patient and courageous, come whatever affliction.

Jesus does not leave His disciples muttering in confusion and discontent. Yes, there will be wrestling matches between faith and doubt. Sometimes—as in John 16—Jesus lets these bouts go on for a little while, so He can then reassure us and strengthen our faith. There is an old saying: Hunger is the best sauce. The good Word of God tastes sweeter when we hunger for it. Forgiveness is most precious to the sinner who repents. The blowing of the Holy Spirit is most refreshing when your faith is a smoldering ember. But what if we become impatient because, for a little while, we do not see Jesus in person? What can fill that hunger? Only the promised presence of Jesus can. Jesus, who is present in the message preached, in the words spoken and sung in the liturgy, and in the sin-forgiving word of absolution. Jesus, whose very body and blood comes to us in the Supper we will soon taste. Jesus, who bids us be patient because He is coming back to give us everlasting joy. What could be sweeter and more satisfying?

Are you thirsty? Come to Jesus and drink. That is, receive His Spirit through Word and Sacrament. Are you weary? Come to Jesus and rest, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. How light is it? He has carried all for you. He asks of you nothing except to love one another, to abide in His Word, and to be patient. He asks us to have faith, hope, and love—and then He gives them to us through His divine Word and Spirit. We love Him because He first loved us. We obey Him because He has already obeyed all God’s commandments for us. We trust Him because He trusted God to the last, and then God raised Him from the dead. We cling to hope because of the promises He gives us. We have life because He lives. And we have joy that no sorrow can take away. Why this joy? Because our labor-pains are almost over. Though we cannot see it yet, we have it on the best authority—Jesus’ Word—that the joy to come will be so joyful, we will not remember today’s sorrow. Cherish that promise, little children. Refresh yourselves in it every week, if not every day, as you have opportunity to abide in Christ’s Word. And so treasure the gift Jesus hands you in today’s Gospel—a little patience.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sun Cups

I was impulse-shopping at World Market today when I came across an interesting candy concept: Sun Cups. Made in the USA, they are exactly like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups... except that, instead of peanut-butter-flavored filling surrounded by a milk chocolate shell, Sun Cups have sunflower-butter and dark chocolate. Plus, it's organic! It's nut free! It's gluten free! And it's fair traded!!!

Nevertheless, I decided to try one. It seemed like an acceptable risk at $1.50. But now I must express my regret. It really wasn't to my taste. It does for RPBCs what those candy-shell-coated sunflower seeds did for Reese's Pieces... which isn't much, really. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Sunflower seeds have never exactly lit up my taste buds.

If they light up yours, however, let me emphasize that there was nothing unpleasant in the flavor of this candy. You might actually like it. But I doubt that there's a big commercial future in store for Sun Cups. Not at their current price, anyway.