There’s so much about “The Royale” that shouldn’t work, on paper at least. There’s Captain Picard relaxing with an ancient, seemingly unsolvable math theorem. Data delivering a primer on blackjack in a ten-gallon hat. Worf recognizing elevators as turbolifts but not the concept of “room service.” This Season 2 episode of The Next Generation is a wild grab bag of sci-fi curiosities that’s never included on any “Best Of” lists or fan homages, but it shouldn’t be counted out. “The Royale” drops its eclectic cast of characters into a wildly imaginative situation and lets them play. It’s a showcase of what The Next Generation did best, and why its popularity endures to this day.
Written by Keith Mills, directed by Cliff Bole, and premiering in March of 1989, the episode’s emphasis on mysteries and puzzles is present right from the start. The Enterprise is investigating strange wreckage in orbit around Theta VIII, a mysterious planet in an unmapped solar system. Now, I would be remiss (and tempting marital discord) if I did not relay my engineer husband’s chief objection to “The Royale”: Geordi’s claim in the first few minutes that Theta VIII has a surface temperature of -291 degrees Celsius, which is below absolute zero and not possible. I am a writer fixated on Data’s twanging use of the word “bidness” later on, and so I pass no judgment on this apparently egregious factual error.
From here, the mysteries multiply. The orbital wreckage is identified as pieces of an old NASA spaceship. When a structure of some kind is detected on the planet, a small away team is assembled. Once on the pitch-black, ammonia-stormy surface, Riker, Data, and Worf find yet another anachronism: a revolving door. But to where? To what?
A casino, of course! The away team passes through and finds themselves in a bustling, Vegas-style spot. Is it a different world? There are cocktail waitresses, bellboys, gamblers galore, and a hotel staff led by Sam Anderson, who memorably played Bernard on Lost. Unlike that character, though, this Sam Anderson is clearly an Other — and not a chatty one, either. Neither are the patrons. The away team gets nothing in terms of answers to where they are or how this lively casino came to exist.
Compounding everything, communications between the away team and the Enterprise seem to jam within the casino structure, and the beings populating the space fail to register as either man or machine on a tricorder. It’s enough to warrant a return to the ship. But not before Data delivers a thorough lesson on winning at blackjack. And how to say “business,” Texas-style. There’s that “bid-ness.”
After Data’s multilayered lesson, he, Riker, and Worf discover that leaving the Hotel Royale is going to be trickier than playing a hard 12 at the blackjack table. This time, those mysterious revolving doors lead not to a void of nothingness but instead right back into the casino. Where did the void go? Why can’t they leave the Royale? Why does the hotel’s bellboy have so much drama with his girlfriend? On-board the Enterprise, Counselor Troi is concerned. Riker is reading as “tense.”
With this, the main puzzle of “The Royale” is established, and around halfway through the episode. Compared to episodes like Season 5’s “Cause and Effect,” in which the ship is caught in an endlessly repeating time loop, the central problem to be solved on Theta VIII is a slow reveal. “The Royale” is kind of like a Russian nesting doll in this way, continually revealing new curiosities one after another, and it keeps with this pattern until the end. The stakes are just right. There’s a conundrum, but it’s not a Borg-level emergency. There’s tension, but Captain Picard is mostly miffed about the bad writing and clichés of the novel Hotel Royale that the away team finds in one of the guest rooms.
It’s very reminiscent of another TNG episode: Season 4’s “Data’s Day.” Data narrates a day in his life on the Enterprise, a day mostly spent preparing for Keiko and Chief O’Brien’s wedding. There is some intrigue involving the unusual transporter death of a Vulcan ambassador, but it’s the side stories that linger with you. Data and Worf shop together at what appears to be a replicator-based store on board. Do the crew members regularly replicator-shop? Is that a thing in the twenty-fourth century? Dr. Crusher also gives Data some dance pointers for the wedding. Does Beverly have a side hustle we don’t know about? Like “Data’s Day,” “The Royale” continually leaves you wanting more, right to the end. In keeping the stakes relatively low, there’s room for the main characters to reveal more about themselves and their universe by interacting with the inventive scenario they’ve been plunked into.
There’s a bit of melancholy in the second half of “The Royale” with the appearance of NASA pilot Colonel Richie, whose 283-year-old remains are found in a tidy room upstairs. His sad diary of his last days as a guest at the Hotel Royale is yet another story within a story, another curious puzzle likely unsolvable. This is where you’ll find yourself by the end of this Season 2 gem, surrounded by puzzles and threads leading here and there. That a good number of them are never resolved is part of the fun. How did Col. Richie and his crew make it so far out to Theta VIII? Did aliens of some variety construct the casino for the NASA team? Could the aliens actually be the casino-goers? Worf’s poker face is better than Data’s, right?
All that becomes clear is that to solve the main puzzle—how to get Riker, Data, and Worf back to the Enterprise—one of the stories within the story, the novel, needs to be wrapped up. Data, Worf, and Riker assume the roles of the novel’s “foreign investors” who win big at the casino and buy the place. This success, thanks mostly to Data’s not-very-subtle rebalancing of the weighted dice, wins them an actual exit from the hotel through that auspicious revolving door. But not before the amorous bellboy is shot dead by the gangster Mickey D, who delivers the age-old adage: “No woman’s worth dying for. Killing for. Not dying for.” Where was the hotel’s security? Is Mickey D some kind of mobster muse?
The added resonance of the casino motif stands out too, of a group coming together over a card game. It’s one of the recurring threads of TNG, and it makes the episode more enjoyable with repeat viewing. That’s the last scene in the last episode of the series, after all. “There is a certain degree of random fortune involved,” Data says as his team preps to win at the table and their mission. “I believe that is why they call it ‘gambling’.” There’s a charm to the random bits on display in “The Royale.” It’s not the most complex or the most memorable. Not every gamble pays off. You’ll end up with more questions than answers. But there’s something in it for everyone, and The Next Generation world is all the richer because of it.