It's over 31 years since Star Trek: The Next Generation aired an episode that, for the first time, killed off a leading character. Wikipedia describes "Skin of Evil" as the twenty-third episode of the first season of the American science fiction television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and originally aired on April 25, 1988, in broadcast syndication. The story premise was written by Joseph Stefano (who wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. The episode was directed by Joseph L. Scanlan.
The story involves the Enterprise crew receiving a distress signal from a shuttlecraft which was returning Deanna Troi from a conference. They find that the shuttle has crashed on a desolate planet, Vagra II, and while they can find the life signs of Troi and the pilot, Lt. Ben Prieto, they are unable to beam the two back to the ship. An Away Team beams down and discovers an animated pool of a tar-like substance, a malevolent life form that calls itself Armus.
When Lt. Yar attempts to approach the shuttle, Armus hurls her back with a psychokinetic blast, killing her instantly. The away team is brought back to the Enterprise but the damage to Yar is too great for Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) to repair, and they are unable to resuscitate her. A second away team is sent to the planet. Armus taunts the crew members and maintains his grasp of the shuttle. During this time, Troi has communicated with Armus and learned that it is a physical manifestation of evil from the bodies of an ancient race, abandoned on Vagra II.
The away team scans Armus' energy field, finding that when Armus engulfs the shuttle and speaks to Troi, expressing his remorse and pity, the field disrupting their transporter signals is weakened which could allow them to beam Troi and Prieto out of the shuttle. After Armus toys with Troi by completely engulfing Commander Riker, Captain Picard beams down to speak to Armus directly, sending the rest of the away team to the ship. Picard engages Armus in a heated discussion to discover its motive, which is to seek revenge on those that abandoned it on Vagra II.
Armus is riled to a point where the energy field is dissipated enough, allowing for Picard, Troi and Prieto to be safely beamed back to the Enterprise. After destroying the shuttlecraft from orbit, Picard orders a quarantine on Vagra II.
As they leave Vagra II, the crew holds a memorial service for Lt. Yar, with a pre-recorded simulation of Yar addressing each of the senior crew members telling them what they meant to her and what she learned from each of them. After the service, Data, who had previously become close to Yar, tells Picard that he is confused as to the purpose of the service. He says that his thoughts are not for Tasha, but for himself, because he can only think of how empty his life will be without her. He asks if he has missed the point, but Picard assures him he got it.
At the time, the episode was poorly received by critics and fans. Common critiques revolved around the “monster” Armus and how it was portrayed and how quickly Tasha Yar was dispatched. A lot has been written about these criticisms. I did feel the monster in a tarpaulin covered with Metamucil and printer’s ink was a little lame and agreed with the commentary at the time. Some argued that Picard should have destroyed the monster however this would not have been in keeping with Federation principles.
I had occasion to rewatch the episode recently and I was struck by how well it has stood the test of time. The premise of the story was excellent, combined with Denise Crosby’s desire to leave the show, created a perfect storm for our intrepid crew to deal with.
It’s often been argued that Star Trek: The Next Generation only hit its stride in Season Three with wonderful stories such as the trilogy brought about by The Best of Both Worlds and Family. I argue that even though Season One was a unpolished as cast, crew and writers tried to figure out the characters, Skin of Evil was, for me, when the characters were realised.
We get Troi, trapped in a shuttlecraft, helpless to watch as her shipmates are taunted and tortured. She has to endure Riker being swallowed up by Armus. She feels Tasha Yar’s death and yet remains composed enough to analyse the creature, understand how it came to be and ultimately expose its weakness. Yes, there are clunky lines of dialogue but she showed herself to be a real and valuable member of the crew who did more than tell Picard how the “alien of the week” was feeling.
We see Dr. Crusher helpless for the first time. None of her miracle-working technology can save the Head of Security. She has to face loss and her own unsuccessful attempts to revive Yar. Her role is not fully fleshed out and I would like to have seen her a little more “human” in her reactions, but still, a first for her.
Yar herself gets good screen time. Her interaction with Worf at the start of the episode showed humanity, humour and collegial spirit between the ship’s only Klingon and the ship’s “sure-thing”. I would have liked to have seen where that Work/Yar arc might have gone but it was not to be. Yar’s role on the planet played out exactly as one would expect from the ship’s Head of Security.The creature’s threatening posture was exposing her shipmates to danger. She acted. She paid the ultimate price.The swiftness of her death was shocking. Some have argued that it was too quick. I say it is this untimely, unexpected, sudden death that makes it more poignant. Her death was not drawn out. My only gripe is the changing stain on her cheek which belies poor continuity more than anything else. I thought it a swift, if shocking end to a character. One has to remember that up until then, no major character had ever been killed off on a TV show, least of all Star Trek where, within the one-hour episodic nature of the show, we know thy will triumph to return next week. In these post-Game of Thrones days, we forget how unusual it was to kill off a major character. It was brave and ruthless.
Riker is somewhat at sea in this episode. He is used to things turning out ok. He is used to finding the solution as leader of the Away Team. Not only does he fail, he gets captured and subsumed into Armus. For the first time he has to face his deficiencies as a leader and the loss of an Away Team member. For all Jonathan Frakes acting abilities, I felt this episode exposed those weaknesses.
Patrick Stewart, as Picard has all of the above plus more to deal with. This is the first time he feels helpless on the bridge as his team struggle to deal with Armus on the planet below. While watching this episode, I kept wondering why the Away Team did not have chest cameras to show the captain, back on the ship, what was happening. You experience Picard’s helplessness as never before. His beaming down to the planet to reason with Armus had echoes of Kirk trying to out-think the “alien of the week” or a mal-functioning computer. But this is different. Picard recognises that it is useless to negotiate with terrorists. It is self-defeating. So he refuses to do so, instead seeking to understand the creature and its motives.
Another strong, and simultaneously weak point of Skin of Evil is the ending; Tasha Yar’s emotional farewell to some of the crew. Forget the camera angles. Forget that she could not have known where everyone was standing. We see real emotion from Picard as he says “Au revoir Natasha”. Data, too, gets to grow and develop as a character as he experiences his first memorial service in which he finds that his thoughts are more for himself than for Yar. For me, the scene cemented the bond between Picard and Data.
It is this writing and Stewart’s performance that elevates Skin of Evil to one of the best episodes of Next Generation and when good writing took over. To quote Picard; “Comment is invited”.
Oh, and by the way, I cried. Again.