The original Star Trek may be best known for episodes like “Balance of Terror,” “Arena,” and “The City on the Edge of Forever” — all of which are classic examples of televised sci-fi. But The Original Series also featured episodes that were, for lack of a better term, just plain weird — and are beloved and acclaimed precisely because of said weirdness.
“Spectre of the Gun” finds Kirk, Spock, et al. transported to the Old West where they must re-enact the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, while “Catspaw” puts the Enterprise crew at the whims of magical powers. And then there’s “A Piece of the Action,” in which the Enterprise visits an alien planet modeled after the 1920s and Kirk and his crew must face off against Tommy gun-wielding gangsters.
One of my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes is cut from the same strange cloth. In “The Royale” — which originally aired on March 27, 1989 as the second season’s 12th episode — the Enterprise-D discovers the debris of an Earth spaceship orbiting a distant and inhospitable planet. To their surprise, the debris is apparently from a ship that left Earth and subsequently disappeared centuries ago, in the early 21st century. The fact that no ship from that era could’ve traveled so far from Earth only adds to the mystery.
As they continue to explore the planet, the Enterprise crew detects an area that’s somehow capable of supporting life. Commander Riker, Lt. Commander Data, and Lt. Worf beam down to the area, which contains a strange revolving door. Passing through the door, the trio inexplicably find themselves in a luxurious and bustling hotel/casino called The Royale.
Cut off from Captain Picard and the Enterprise, Riker and his team must investigate on their own, and make several startling discoveries. First, it’s impossible to leave The Royale. Second, none of the people in the casino are actually alive. And third, they discover the remains of the Earth spaceship’s lone survivor, a NASA astronaut named Col. Steven Richey, and a copy of an old Earth novel titled Hotel Royale.
As it turns out, aliens were responsible for both the disappearance of Richey’s ship and the deaths of his crew. Out of remorse, the aliens created The Royale as a new home for the surviving Richey using Hotel Royale as their basis, having assumed that the novel was an accurate depiction of how humans lived. Unfortunately for Richey, Hotel Royale is, as he notes in a journal entry, “a badly-written book, filled with endless cliché and shallow characters,” and so rather than a refuge, The Royale became a living hell — a living hell in which the away team now seems to be trapped.
As episode concepts go in Star Trek, it’s a pretty goofy one — and I absolutely love it.
As goofy as “The Royale” is, however, it does succeed in creating a suitably surreal and even eerie atmosphere given the premise, an atmosphere no doubt helped by the show’s budgetary constraints. The sight of a revolving door in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by blackness, is strangely compelling. The episode’s casino and hotel sets, which were constructed specifically for the episode, have a cheap, superficial look that feels quite appropriate for something constructed by aliens that only had a tawdry pulp novel to go on.
Then there are the episode’s minor inconsistencies. When Riker finally manages to describe the casino setting to Picard, he mentions that it’s late 20th century, which makes sense given the computer terminals on the front desk. And during my most recent viewing, I saw at least one background character rocking an awful lot of ‘80s style acid wash denim.
However, there are characters — like the nameless bellboy who’s become hopelessly infatuated with the girlfriend of infamous gangster Mickey D, as well as Mickey D himself — who speak like they just stepped out of a 1940s noir film. Such discrepancies might seem like plot holes — except that “The Royale“ ‘s crux revolves around the storyline of a terrible, cliché-riddled novel, so plot holes seem pretty par for the course.
As Keith R.A. DeCandido writes in his review of the episode, “Maybe it’s because I’ve been a professional book editor for 15+ years, and so have read a lot of bad prose in my time, but the notion of the away team trapped in a really bad novel is hilariously appealing. It’s a total goof, but a fun one, especially since the dialogue really is that dreadful.”
Indeed, what I love most about “The Royale” is that it fully embraces the ridiculousness of its premise, and has a good time doing so. (Interestingly, the episode’s writer, one Tracy Tormé, ultimately disowned “The Royale” because he thought it became too silly and ridiculous after being rewritten.) Eventually, Riker and his team decide that in order to leave the casino, they must help the novel’s events play out to completion, even becoming characters within its narrative, i.e., the mysterious “foreign investors” who ultimately buy The Royale. Which sounds awfully meta and pretentious, but in reality, is quite a lot of fun to watch unfold.
I find great delight in watching Data use his ultra-advanced android abilities to fix a pair of loaded dice and then make an epic run on the craps table, or seeing Riker fully embrace the persona of an ultra-generous casino patron. “When the train comes in, everybody rides!” he proclaims with that trademark Riker grin as Data’s winnings begin to pile up and overflow.
Picard’s pained reaction to the novel’s opening line (“It was a dark and stormy night”) is a nice, subtle bit of humor as are the away team’s reactions to The Royale’s various and colorful occupants, which include the snarky assistant manager; a loud-mouthed and overly amorous Texan gambler (named Texas, of course) who serves as a foil for Data’s gambling efforts; and Vanessa, a hapless blond bimbo that Texas takes under his wing.
Of course, try not to ask too many questions concerning the episode’s internal logic, lest it crumble. (OK, just one question: How detailed, exactly, were Hotel Royale’s descriptions of various gambling games such that aliens could recreate them so faithfully, thus allowing Data to play craps so confidently and competently?) But truth be told, even with any such inevitable questions wriggling around inside your head, “The Royale” is still a hoot to watch, if only to see Data’s swagger when he makes yet another perfect roll.
The only part of the episode that falls a bit flat is using Fermat’s Last Theorem — which Picard and Riker discuss in the episode’s pre-opening teaser — to help frame the mystery surrounding the aliens who built The Royale.
For starters, while Fermat’s Last Theorem was presented as unsolved even by the 24th century, it was actually solved in 1995, just six years after the episode aired. Which, I suppose, is the risk one takes when including real world references in fictional settings.
But as much as I like Picard using the theorem to put the 24th century in its place (“In our arrogance, we feel we are so advanced. And yet we cannot unravel a simple knot tied by a part-time French mathematician working alone without a computer.”), it ultimately feels like an attempt to attach some profundity to an episode that doesn’t really need any, but rather, gets along just fine being goofy and bizarre in its own way.