Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Outrageous Okona   Rewatch 
July 13, 2020 10:30 AM - Season 2, Episode 4 - Subscribe

It all happened during that magical summer of 2365. A roguish freighter captain drew the Enterprise into an interplanetary dispute. A holographically-resurrected Joe Piscopo taught Data the human concept of comedy. And the new ship's doctor wisely stayed out of it all.

Memory Alpha's surprisingly thin on this episode. Too outraged?:

• William O. Campbell (sometimes credited as Bill or Billy Campbell) was the second choice for the role of William T. Riker on TNG, but Jonathan Frakes won the part. Campbell is now best known for his role as Jordan Collier in Ira Steven Behr's hit show The 4400. Campbell also portrayed the Rocketeer in the film of the same name.

Joe Piscopo is a stand-up comic, actor, and radio show host who was part of the Saturday Night Live cast from 1980-84.

• According to Joe Piscopo, he was allowed to improvise much of his own jokes and dialogue as the holographic comic, including the Jerry Lewis impersonation.

• Jerry Lewis himself was approached to play the comic, but there was a scheduling conflict caused by Lewis' guest role on Wiseguy.

• This is the first of two second-season episodes in which Dr. Pulaski doesn't appear. The other is "Q Who".

• The holodeck terminal lists the name of the comic as Ronald B. Moore, a reference to Visual Effects Supervisor Ronald B. Moore, who helped assemble the graphic. He is not to be confused with writer and producer Ronald D. Moore, who had not yet joined the staff.

"A Klingon security officer?"
"No wars available, eh?"
- Okona and Worf

"So… if you put funny teeth in your mouth and jump around like an idiot, that is considered funny!"
- Data

"Life is like loading twice your cargo weight onto your spacecraft. If it's canaries and you can keep half of them flying all the time, you're all right."
- Okona, making a joke to Data

"Take my Worf… please!"
- Data, making a bad joke

Poster's Log:
I avoided rewatching this one for a long time. I even waited until I had a good amount of alcohol in me. Didn't help. Really almost nothing redeeming here at all, except possibly the absence of Pulaski. …wait, shit, no: Pulaski SHOULD have been in this. She would've been as grumpy about Piscopo as I was.

I guess it could be argued that we do get a little blip of character/"human" development for Data in the scene where the audience laughs at anything he does. But thinking back on the rest of the series, it doesn't seem relevant enough to future Data stuff to justify actually watching this episode.

Bit too on-the-nose, Okona, naming your ship the Erstwhile. Why don't you just operate under a rakish spacer-name like Zap Starworthy or Vic Vector or Rakey McRakish. Hey, FF friends, let's all come up with rakish spacer-names for Okona in a heavy-hearted effort to inject some actual amusement herein, whaddya say?

Culturally, being "edgy" was definitely seen as desirable in the late '80s, and I believe that by this point the show was self-aware enough to recognize its own lack of edginess. Okona may have been (this is me speculating, to be clear) an attempt at establishing a recurring Mudd-type for TNG, albeit less gross—and I mean, it could've worked, and Campbell is likeable enough to have fit. I DMed an "all-rogues" Trek RPG campaign one time, and have run plenty of scofflaw NPCs who cause trouble for Starfleet PCs, and it seemed refreshing to all involved; the squeaky-clean TNG-style Starfleet persona invites that sort of nose-thumbing-atting, as DS9 demonstrates. But where they erred here, if they wanted Okona to be recurring, was making him so morally upright. The audience would've been more eager for his return if he'd caused more actual trouble than this. I think creating a charming but mischief-making rogue that fits well into this show is a tall order, and this downright '30s-style plot isn't up to the task.

One wonders how vastly different the Riker character would've ended up being if it'd been Campbell playing him. Perhaps the show overall would've been less stodgy; this is right around the time that Riker stops wisecracking, which ultimately makes our two highest-ranking officers kind of somber dudes, if you think about it.

Poster's Log, Supplemental:
Teri Hatcher (the transporter operator that Okona lays it on so thick with) has to be one of the most famous one-shot "extra" guest stars on TNG, but amusingly, she appeared in the same Seinfeld episode as Kieran Mulroney (the father of the baby in this episode): specifically, "The Implant." It took me about ten minutes but I finally remembered his face as the "You double-dipped the chip!" kid. An older Mulroney was also in a first-season ENT, in which I either didn't recognize him or didn't care enough to think it out.

I really, REALLY thought Rosalind Ingledew (Yanar) was Law & Order and License to Kill's Carey Lowell. This is right before License to Kill so it made perfect sense. Ingledew WAS, however, in the Seinfeld marine biologist episode. At this rate, I just oughta have a "Poster's Log, Seinfeld Supplement" ferchrissakes.

"Greatest Gen" episode link.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil (28 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A while back, when we were doing VOY, I wrote up an episode featuring holo-Leonardo da Vinci as a Meeting of Minds episode with the subjects of some of his paintings. I probably would have done this one as a roundtable discussion with Jim Kirk, Han Solo, and Zapp Brannigan (Mal Reynolds being unavailable due to an emergency retcon of his origins due to Recent Events) regarding whether Okona made for a decent Captain Sexyboots; basically, no, since the character is both absurdly exaggerated (yes, even for Zapp Brannigan) and because the attempt at rounding him out and/or mitigating his reprehensible qualities doesn't really stick the landing. For the former, we not only have Troi making goo-goo eyes at him on the bridge, but he barely gets off the transporter pad before the panties commence to dropping. (I think that I didn't recognize Teri Hatcher because I was just sort of cringing through that whole we're-tracking-him-in-three-different-crew-quarters-and-oh-by-the-way-isn't-that-an-interesting-thing-to-find-out-that-the-ship-keeps-track-of-that-wonder-if-Riker-had-a-moment-upon-hearing-that scene.) I mean, Billy Campbell is a handsome enough man (I found his acting a bit diffident, possibly because of the character he was given), and maybe after being on the ship for a while some of the crew are a bit, ah, thirsty, but jeez. The bit about him being the runner-up for Riker is funny, because I think that the person who would have been perfect for the role would have been Jonathan Frakes, at least about up to this point when the beard is still (literally and metaphorically) coming in; he can establish seriousness of purpose when he wants to, but he's also got fantastic swagger, you have to admit. Also, I didn't really buy Okona's revelation that the whole mess he was in was part of his plan all along; having the two planets go to war over Space Romeo and Juliet wouldn't have been any worse than their going to war over who gets to hang, draw, and quarter Okona, and what if the Enterprise hadn't happened along? Plus, the king-dads seem pretty chill when they find out the truth anyway.

And the B plot. I just imagine the writers' room of TNG having a big corkboard with DATA DISCOVERS/INVESTIGATES: at the top, and anytime anyone has an idea for a Data B plot, they pin it up: [Sex--non-space virus] [Humor] [The violin] [Having a daughter] [Musicals] [Buddy-cop movie with Geordi on the holodeck], and when they're desperate for a B plot, they just grab one at random. I mean, even if the A plot needed work, [Sex--non-space virus] would have tied into and reflected it, but instead of that, we get a former SNL player known mostly for his impressions doing a routine that only has one impression, and that's of another comedian's cringiest character. I mean, Whoopi Goldberg is right there, and even though she's involved in the B plot, she probably could have handled it by herself. (I don't hate Piscopo, but his post-SNL career has been pretty underwhelming: some beer commercials and, speaking of buddy-cop movies, Dead Heat, in which he reveals that he became surprisingly jacked since his days at 30 Rock--he's been on the cover of Muscle & Fitness at least twice.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:07 AM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's always a bad sign when the writer makes the characters say things the audience doesn't believe. We get a double dose from watching our space navy stalwarts fawning over 'a man who plays by his OWN RULES!' And having characters claim things are funny which...aren't very. (you're a droid and I'm annoyed? Is that the best you can do? As Hallowwn Jack mentioned, Whoopi Goldberg is _right there_. She's completely hilarious in the outtakes, if you have a chance to see her in those.)

Okona (aka: Han Solo) in particular, reads to me like a bad fanfic character which your main characters are uncharacteristically deferential towards and who is pure yet good and is awesome at everything and...yeck. I may not be the intended audience for this kind of character, dunno. Their next attempt at something similar is Vash.

Given the topical gags and the appearance of the character of The Comic, may one infer that SNL existed in the Star Trek universe? If you like...

Card of the episode from the Star Trek CCG:
Teri Hatcher's character makes in appearance the 9th full set, The Trouble with Tribbles, from 2000. By this time, players had access to a huge number of Federation personnel, but only Scotty, Miles, and Robin Lefler were available with Transporter Skill. You might throw her in for your Runabout Search.
posted by StarkRoads at 12:20 PM on July 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

The thing that jumped out to me was Okona expecting Picard to be mad about finding Okona with Teri Hatcher, only to have Picard say that what she gets up to in her own time is her own business.

I get a bit of a backdoor-pilot vibe, with the way Okona swaggers his way through this episode. Doesn't look like anyone was actually considering an Okona spinoff at this point, though I expect he was intended as a recurring character.

Unfortunately, my surprise at finding out that was Teri Hatcher resulted in me looking up the character on Memory Alpha, which gives this bit from her description in the episode script: "the very feminine and graciously endowed Transporter Commander B.G. Robinson. Everything she has two of are perfectly matched, coordinated, and move with a wonderful grace that is called 'woman.'"

Whenever Okona's not on screen, all the other characters should be asking "Where's Okona?"
posted by ckape at 12:53 PM on July 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

I get a bit of a backdoor-pilot vibe

I'd gotten that impression previously as well, which led to this comment on "Haven", but I don't think that this episode was put together well enough for that, if that was the intention.

Unfortunately, my surprise at finding out that was Teri Hatcher resulted in me looking up the character on Memory Alpha, which gives this bit from her description in the episode script: "the very feminine and graciously endowed Transporter Commander B.G. Robinson. Everything she has two of are perfectly matched, coordinated, and move with a wonderful grace that is called 'woman.'"

I wonder if that was put in by Roddenberry; note, for example, his note on J.M. Colt from the TOS proposal.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:54 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

You know, Piscopo is quite funny in Johnny Dangerously.

He is also in this episode.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:23 PM on July 13, 2020 [6 favorites]

I suppose for the full backdoor pilot effect they needed to find a way for The Comedian to transfer over to Okona's ship, so he could be Okona's wisecracking sidekick. In case you didn't find the prospect of an Okona spinoff series bad enough on its own.
posted by ckape at 2:55 PM on July 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

...and that’s the genesis of the La Sirena. Okona and holo!Piscopo.
posted by hijinx at 5:37 PM on July 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

You know, now that I seriously think about it, that Okona guy wasn’t really all that outrageous after all.
posted by Servo5678 at 6:24 PM on July 13, 2020 [10 favorites]

According to Joe Piscopo, he was allowed to improvise much of his own jokes and dialogue as the holographic comic, including the Jerry Lewis impersonation.

That explains why it's so bad, at least.
posted by sugar and confetti at 6:33 PM on July 13, 2020

The thing that's outrageous is that neither of these kids say anything until the very end, supposedly because their parents would start a war over the affair, but then both ragedads are fine with it.

Struck me as funny that Okona wears a vest under his vest for some reason. Gotta work those puffy sleeves!
posted by rodlymight at 6:57 PM on July 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I spend a lot of time thinking about Data and the Enterprise computer, and this episode is a lot of the reason why. It's been a while since I've watched it, so I can't remember if asking a holo-comedian for advice is Data's idea or someone else's, but really what it boils down to is Data asking the Enterprise computer for advice on being a human. It's one AI talking to another AI about those weird humans, but it's done in the stupidest way possible. I get why Data wouldn't just plug himself directly into the computer or interface wirelessly or whatever, because his core desire is to be more human and talking is how humans give each other advice. But what is actually happening is the computer is simulating an intelligence that understands humor. It's basically explaining to Data in a funny voice what it could have explained to him while he was sitting at his desk in his quarters.

We can presume the Enterprise computer utilizes an incredibly dense form of computation, something on the order of photons interacting with individual molecules, and it's still the size of an office building in the middle of the saucer section. The Enterprise computer is very, very smart. Or rather, the computer is a substrate that can run incredibly smart programs. Geordi asks it to make an intelligence as smart and dangerous as Data and it doesn't bat an eye. Presumably this is the gift the Bynars gave the Enterprise. There has to be a Holodeck operating program that generates the simulations of whatever you ask for, and I don't think there's ever a time it balks at a request. Barclay uses it to make realistic (and unrealistic) recreations of crew members. Geordi uses it to make a simulation of Leah Brahms that he ends up falling in love with. These simulations can be generated almost instantly, and are accurate to the limit of the Computer's knowledge of the subject.

So what does that make Data? The show occasionally likes to talk about Data like he's the only synthetic life form in the Federation, which is patently untrue. He's not even the only synthetic life form of his KIND in the Federation. And the holodeck is perfectly capable of making synthetic life forms that are as sentient and sapient as you want. Data tries and fails to make another android like himself in The Offspring but I could walk into the Holodeck and ask for a perfect recreation of Data, which could easily say and do anything the real Data could. It probably wouldn't be perfectly simulating his positronic brain, but it would be running some form of simulation that reasonably matches its output let's say 99.9% of the time. Could the computer fully simulate Data's positronic brain? I suspect it could. Data's main claim to fame seems to be the fact his brain replicates a brain in a physical space the size of a brain, presumably a less efficient computational medium the size of an office building could do the same.

Alastair Reynolds, in his "Revelation Space" series, has "Beta-Level Simulations" that are essentially computer simulations that deterministically replicate a specific person's consciousness. Perhaps you'd have your beta-level simulation take your calls for you, and you could rest easy knowing it would speak and reply exactly as you would, because it's based on data of every interaction you've ever made. These are understood to be, like holodeck simulations, a sort of philosophical zombie which speaks and acts like a sapient intelligence but lacks any internal monologue. There are also "Alpha-level simulations" that perfectly simulate someone's mental processes and presumably is perfectly accurate, and Gamma-level simulations that are more or less Beta-levels with less processing power behind them. It's clear that even Alastair Reynolds doesn't buy the notion that Beta-levels are less than their original hosts, in one book a beta-level survives the person it was simulating but carries on creating new original artworks in the style of the deceased. I feel likewise, Philosophical zombies are an interesting thought experiment, but I don't think there is a meaningful difference between a perfect simulation of a person and a real person.

Anyway, this isn't the only example of Data consulting with the Holodeck or other aspects of the Enterprise computer, and I don't think it's ever treated the way it should be. The computer itself is just a medium, but it runs artificially intelligent programs all the time. Programs that understand human movements and can open doors one cue. Programs that understand human speech and behavior and can tell when a crewmember wants something to happen that the computer can do. Programs that can perform almost any function that the crew normally performs. What do these programs think of Data? What does Data think of these programs? Do they see Data as another human crewmember? Do they see him as a kindred spirit? Does Data consider the other artificial intelligences that surround him constantly, making his life easier the way they make every other crewmember's lives easier? Thanks to the very weird blindered way Star Trek deals with artificial intelligence, all the way through and past Voyager's Doctor, none of these questions ever get explored.

But we do get that weird episode where the Enterprise spontaneously creates a child and launches it into space, and everyone just sort of shrugs.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:18 PM on July 13, 2020 [17 favorites]

Mr.Encyclopedia does a far better job than I could of writing up my thoughts on my Data is a confused concept.

Where does he stand versus the ship's computer and the holodeck?

As I noted last season, Data is pretty much whatever the writers need in a given episode. That post above where the writers use Data + X for whatever is needed for a B plot is so on target.
posted by Fukiyama at 7:40 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Mr.Encyclopedia, that's a great framing of the problem. Couple of things: the Enterprise's computer, which runs on optronics, is overclocked by a miniature warp drive that lets it run computations at FTL speeds. Also, in "The Measure of a Man", one of the arguments against giving Data autonomy and control over his own destiny is that it's as absurd as giving the ship's computer the same rights. I wonder what the Minds of Iain M. Banks' Culture would have to say about that.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:16 PM on July 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yeah I'd need a visit to the local dispensary before I watch this one again. Luckily as with all the really bad episodes the podcast on this one is great. I never got the feeling that this was a back-door pilot- though I did get the feeling that it was kinda written for another show.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 9:20 PM on July 13, 2020

And the holodeck is perfectly capable of making synthetic life forms that are as sentient and sapient as you want.

THIS holodeck is, for now. And later ones will be too—e.g. the ones Dr. Zimmerman uses to design the first couple of EMHs. (I won't cite Holo-Piscopo as an example here because, even though understanding Human humor would seem to be quite a leap for a ship's computer, he's…not good at it. Watching that character try to teach Data comedy is about as enjoyable as a road trip with a 7-year-old who brought along a Book of 1001 Jokes.)

But I think the assumption underlying the specialness of Minuet, Moriarty, Vic Fontaine, and Voyager's EMH is that, sometime prior to right about now in the Trek timeline (2365), holodecks basically never did that. Otherwise (A) if any holodeck is capable of it, then it would've already been done, a lot, and (B) the casts of TNG, DS9, and VOY wouldn't remark upon the realism of such holo-persons.

Man, this Bynar retcon is seeming more and more plausible. Consider: after Picard promises to help Moriarty out, he must in fact submit a report up the chain at minimum, because he's not the type to just snicker and ignore Moriarty for the next few years. Somebody up the chain must then have a "holy shit" moment when they realize the implications of holodecks generating actual thinking beings, and yet most or all other holodecks (likely even those in Zimmerman's lab at Jupiter Station) can't do that. The next step therefore is to collect data on the Enterprise's computer and holo-system, which, having endured not just unauthorized Bynar modifications but something like four god-creature-visitations already, could easily have changed somehow. Whenever they get that data—perhaps during the Enterprise's extensive refit two years later?—it presumably leads to a leap forward in holo-AI engineering, though maybe not immediately because (as of 2369, Moriarty's next appearance) Picard says that Starfleet's best minds still don't know exactly how he came to be how he is. (EMH Mark I starts getting installed on ships by 2371, which is when Voyager's commissioned; the first Vic Fontaine episode takes place in 2374.)

So there's your plot of PIC season 2. Voyager's EMH recruits Picard to help him stop a hologram-hater who plans to go back in time and make sure the Bynars never get aboard the Enterprise, thereby preventing sapient holo-people from "terking our human jerbs!"

Thanks to the very weird blindered way Star Trek deals with artificial intelligence, all the way through and past Voyager's Doctor, none of these questions ever get explored.

Yes, and this is why I do seriously hope they at least address holo-persons in PIC season 2. It would make a lot of sense to do so, though the writers may possibly feel that making the entire season arc about it would be too much of a retread.

What episode were we talking about again? Oh, right.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 6:02 AM on July 14, 2020 [7 favorites]

I wonder what the Minds of Iain M. Banks' Culture would have to say about that.

In one of the Culture novels (I think the Hydrogen Sonata), there is an extended piece of description about how the Minds sometimes run detailed simulations of scenarios in order to predict an optimal course of action, and how, in the course of creating and running those simulations, they often end up creating artificial intelligences that stand in for other actors in the scenario, and how, as artificial intelligences themselves, the Minds are not altogether comfortable just shutting down these simulations when they have served their immediate useful purpose.
posted by gauche at 6:13 AM on July 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

"the very feminine and graciously endowed Transporter Commander B.G. Robinson. Everything she has two of are perfectly matched, coordinated, and move with a wonderful grace that is called 'woman.'"


"They're real and they're spectacular,"
posted by wabbittwax at 7:42 AM on July 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Speaking of women in Trek, io9 has a good overview of women's treatment by/in the franchise.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:14 PM on July 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

"the very feminine and graciously endowed Transporter Commander B.G. Robinson. Everything she has two of are perfectly matched, coordinated, and move with a wonderful grace that is called 'woman.'"

While that line is both sexist and howlingly inept, I don't think we need to go blaming Roddenberry for it and I don't think it even says much about how women are generally seen in the franchise. This is just a pretty crappy script all around, full of totally awkward, unsexy sex stuff and unfunny comedy stuff. (I mean, "You're a droid and I'm annoyed"?) It's like your uncle's bad fanfic, but as an actual episode.

I was going to crack a joke about how Burton Armus (the screenwriter) sounds like a Star Trek name, but then I remembered Armus was the name of the black oil creature from Skin of Evil. Memory Alpha doesn't draw a connection but I'd assume the creature was named after the writer.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:41 PM on July 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

All Trek is good Trek. Even bad Trek is good Trek. Except for this episode.
posted by jordemort at 6:48 PM on July 14, 2020

I looooooooved Okona when I first saw this episode. I am afraid to revisit the episode after reading your thoughts.
posted by rednikki at 7:35 PM on July 14, 2020

So, I uh.. enjoyed this one quite a bit when I was 11. I had no idea that the episode with Okona was the same as the one where Data meets Joe Piscapo.

Brent Spiner is such a ham. I enjoyed that.

For some reason, the way Data said bon mot has always stuck with me.
posted by skewed at 7:37 PM on July 14, 2020

Guinan headware watch: Red teardrop
posted by Kyol at 5:13 PM on January 10, 2021

I know that Starfleet is supposed to be all hip and progressive and open-minded about sex, and it's cool that Picard is all, "Hey bro, if she wants an f-buddy, it's all good!", but I find it implausible that Riker would just stand there and let Okona and an Ensign practically make-out WHILE SHE IS STILL ON DUTY IN FRONT OF THE 2ND IN COMMAND. If he wasn't irritated about the breach in protocol, he would be pissed that Okona is stealing his gimmick.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:11 PM on October 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Data and discount Han Solo are a lot of fun but the "this is funny" comedy and space rogue's renfaire meets pirate with a glue gun costume keep pulling me out of the story.

Data shines and Okona's solution to the dilemma is solid. I would love it if Okona were a recurring presence.

Now I'm imagining Okona as a crossover character connecting TNG, The Expanse, Star Wars, and Firefly.
posted by zippy at 11:19 AM on October 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Also Okona space-sexing everyone led to a epic outbreak of shipwide space crabs.
posted by zippy at 11:23 AM on October 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

For me, William/Bill Campbell is Dr Jon, Mouse's lover from Tales of the City (even though I saw him in The Rocketeer first). So I kept expecting him to reveal that he had also slept with the son, or make a pass at Riker, or something more interesting, before remembering that NextGen is utterly abysmal on queer stuff. Sigh.
posted by Athanassiel at 11:05 AM on December 8, 2021

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