I’ve been reviewing TNG series for several years now and have just started season 3 – meaning I am actually writing these reviews more slowly than the episodes were originally made. So that’s … an accomplishment.
This one has Dr Kelso from Scrubbs in it, which is nice. Also, anyone whose Star Trek bingo card had “the entire plot revolves around a piece of Wesley’s homework going wrong” scratch that off if you haven’t already.
So, yes. In this episode Dr Kelso from Scrubbs is on the Enterprise because they’re helping him do Science to a weird stellar phenomenon, where, like, a solar flare goes into a black hole or something, and this only happens once every hundred and twenty-four years so if he doesn’t do it now his entire life’s work will be ruined. I mean, I do have to wonder what he’s been doing his whole life if it all comes down to this one thing. Like most academics I know kind of work on more than one thing and also don’t devote their entire lives to the study of a single time-critical event that they’ll only get to observe once. Like, how did this guy even get a doctorate if the thing he studies could not previously have been studied, including by him. Also how is anyone going to replicate his research?
Anyway, the plot kicks into gear when the Enterprise starts experiencing unexplained malfunctions and it turns out that these were caused when Wesley took two nanobots from sick bay and decided to let them modify each other to see what happened.
Which I suppose sort of makes Wesley God?
What happens, of course, is that they immediately become sentient (sentience evolves incredibly fast in fictional universes. If real biology ran off Star Trek principles we’d be overrun with sentient bacteria) and when Dr Kelso from Scubbs tries to wipe them out so he can carry on doing his experiment they get personally offended and try to kill the Enterprise.
Because this is TNG, not TOS, the solution to this is, of course, for them briefly inhabit Data’s body, then have a diplomatic exchange with Picard in which he apologies, surrenders, and gives them everything they want. Although given what they want is just to … leave the Enterprise (and also, thinking about it, a whole planet) this is kind of fair enough (apart from the planet thing, which Picard was able to swing surprisingly easily).
This is actually quite a good episode. The core nanotech principle is sound(ish), there’s a very Star Trekky bit where they all sit around and debate What Life Is TM, and I’m always here for episodes where the solution is Picard makes a diplomacy check. That said, I giving it an extra bobbin for being a Wesley’s Homework episode.
The Ensigns of Commands
I’m not sure why this episode is called what it’s called, partly because I only really know the term ‘ensign’ as a rank on a ship, although from context or etymology it seems like it mean signs or symbols?
Anyway, this is a Data Has No Game episode—which are surprisingly common because everyone wants to do Data. This is also one of those episodes that makes you ask what the fuck is going on in the Star Trek galaxy.
The core conflict is that there a planet called Tau Cygni V which a decades-old treaty signs over to a species of enigmatic murder aliens called the Sheliak. (Also I just want to take a moment to note that my completely unmodified copy of Word apparently recognises ‘Sheliak’ as a valid proper noun. Do I think someone at Microsoft just dumped the whole of Memory Alpha into the dictionary? Yes. Yes I do). This should have been fine because Tau Cygni V is bombarded with generic Star Trek radiation that should make it impossible for humans to live on it, except it turns out some humans are living on it.
Sidebar: this is going to come out as quite a low bobbins episode because I genuinely like it but it will gain at least one bobbin for how handwavey this set up is. Like, the conversation goes roughly “How can there be humans on it, it’s bathed with radiation so deadly that it will kill anyone who goes down there?” / “I dunno, they’ve adapted I guess?” Basically it’s a premise designed specifically to make it so that only Data can go down the planet’s surface because a human away team would be killed by the radiation. If the radiation is that dangerous there is no way a off-course colony ship could possibly have survived.
This episode has quite a nice A plot / B plot structure, or I suppose really a split A plot structure in that half of it is Data on the planet, trying to convince the Tau Cygni V-ians that they really do seriously have to evacuate because the Sheliak will just nuke them from orbit, while the other half is Picard negotiating with the Sheliak for time to complete the evacuation.
Second sidebar: although what the hell kind of treaty is this where one of the clauses is apparently “and if you do find humans on any of these planets, you’re just allowed to kill them all?” I’m going to come to back to this next episode but there are some elements of TNG’s moral relativism that have dated quite badly, and I think “we just have to let them commit actual genocide because it’s their culture” is very … 1990s liberalism.
Anyway, Data enlists a hot chick (who is like super into robots, like really super into robots) to help him with the negotiations and, tragically, he never tells her how fully functional he is, despite having ample opportunities to do so, and her being clearly up for it. There’s one scene where he basically does the Mark Anthony speech from Julius Caesar in a really “no this is really just the Mark Anthony speech from Julius Caesar” way, but I sort of enjoy that the final solution to the stand-off is for Data to just blow up their aqueduct with a phaser and then be all like, “bro seriously, I’m one guy with one gun and you couldn’t stop me, what the fuck are you going to do about an army of murder aliens frying you from a low earth orbit.”
Picard’s plot, meanwhile, hinges on the fact that the Sheliak, as well as being murder aliens, are also one of those obsessively legalistic alien races who will insist on the absolute letter of the treaty being applied in all contexts. Of course, because this is Star Trek, the fact that being extremely legalistic and digging into the minutiae of complex treaties is literally this thing this species are best at Picard beats them at it. In particular, he demands third party arbitration, then selects as arbiters from a species that is currently in the middle of a six-month hibernation cycle. And, you know what, I bet when Picard was in school they did the lesson about how the Grizzelas hibernate for six months of the year and I bet he was like, “urgh, when are we ever going to use this in real life.” Pay attention in school kids.
I will also say that Picard is a total dick about the treaty loophole, knows he’s being a dick about it and is not only fine with that but actively relishes it. Which is awesome. I mean, well awesomely petty? Like basically what happened here was the Sheliak showed up and said “hi, we’re going to kill fifteen hundred people and there’s nothing you can do about it” and Picard was like, “oh yeah, well I’m going to very mildly annoy you.” Like, honestly he was this close to just telling them ambassador that his name was Admirable Butts.
Two bobbins (because of the aforesaid plot radiation).
This one is really sweet in admittedly quite a gender and heteronormative way. The Enterprise arrives at a planet that is under attack by an unknown alien threat to find the whole place dead except for an old man and his wife, who live basically in a nice house with a picket fence in a couple of acres of garden. Deciding that this is ever so slightly suss, the Enterprise hangs around to investigate.
Although I like this episode, I think it does have a little bit of the problem that you get in some RPG scenarios, where while the solution to the mystery is interesting there’s not much of a way for the players (in this case the crew of the Enterprise) to actually find it other than just wait until someone explains it to them. Because, sure, it’s weird that this old dude and his wife are all that’s left on this devastated planet but there’s nothing Picard can really do about it, he’s not willing to take them off the planet without their consent and they don’t want to leave. Plus, the one person who could figure it out—which is, of course, Troi, because Troi is amazing—has been incapacitated by a magic psychic earworm that, for some reason, no-one notices for ages. So you’ve got this incredibly weird dynamic where Troi is put in coma by exploding brain music and Picard ignores that while finding other excuses to keep bothering an elderly couple.
Of course, Picard does eventually work out what’s going on, which (spoiler) is “it’s an omnipotent being episode.” But it’s hard not to feel he does it primarily through genre savvy. Like, maybe it’s me but if I showed up at a devastated planet and found two survivors and, when an alien starship showed up to try to destroy me but mysteriously stopped short of destroying me and fled, keeping just ahead of me at all times, I don’t think go immediately to “omnipotent pacifist”. Unless I also knew I was in an episode of Star Trek. To be fair, Picard has spent way more time hanging out with Q than I have. So maybe he’s just used to assuming that an immortal dickhead is a viable hypothesis in any situation.
Anyway, this episode is a kind of melancholy romance if you are willing to gloss over the fact that the female character in that romance was fridged before the episode began and is an illusion that her husband created with his omnipotence powers. But I find it rather lovely that, despite being an all-powerful energy being who could have created literally anything and gone literally anywhere, the guy in this episode, on losing his wife, immediately recreates her exactly as she was. As a woman in her 80s who lives in a little house with a little garden. I think we’re so used to the idea that romance belongs to people in their 20s that it’s almost subversive that with the whole span of his relationship and, indeed, any other possible relationship he could imagine, to choose from he decided to go for a time in their lives when they’ve … already done it all? And are just living in quiet retirement on a planet somewhere.
Oh, also the twist of this episode is that omnipotent guy was an absolute pacifist so wouldn’t fight to defend the planet from the invaders. But when his wife was killed he had a moment of grief and rage in which he annihilated literally the entire invading species (which also neatly explains why we’ve never encountered them before and will never encounter them again). Picard’s response to this is “we don’t have a court that’s qualified to judge this” and, y’know what, fair enough? Because, don’t get me wrong, this gets really difficult in that genocide is simultaneously a real thing that happens in the real world and that ordinary people are complicit in for shitty reasons and for which, let’s be clear, ordinary people absolutely can be prosecuted. But in this context, it’s a lot more abstract and is kind of more about how you deal with an omnipotent being. And, yeah, it is reasonable that the Federation isn’t set up with an omnipotence court. Although they probably should because the Star Trek universe is fucking filled with omnipotent creatures.
Two bobbins. I’m afraid omnipotent energy beings automatically incur a one bobbin penalty.
Who Watches The Watchers
You know what’s a really good thing to talk about in a series of light-hearted reviews of 1980s science fiction shows? Colonialism.
A sort of joke but not really joke I often make about Star Trek is that it’s sort of utopia as imagined by a white American liberal man in the 1960s. Which is to say, it’s extremely progressive in some areas (especially when you get into the post-scarcity 24th century) but sometimes betrays assumptions that I think it’s important not to leave unchallenged.
In particular, TNG is the era in which the series formally codified the prime directive (something Kirk cheerfully ignored as he went around punching and doinking his way across the galaxy) and I think the thing about the prime directive is that it’s very easy to assume that it’s a good idea. When, actually, when you really really think about it … it’s, well, it’s a bit patronising and colonialist, isn’t it?
To be more specific, it’s what you might call second-iteration patronising and colonialist. I don’t want to oversimply an incredibly complex topic but the thing about the prime directive is that it seems enlightened when it’s actually just really Enlightenment. The idea behind it is laudable and well-intentioned, and it seems to have been intended to address the problematic implications of a series that has its entire premise that it’s about a group of people whose culture looks really western/European/American going out, doing exploration and interfering with other cultures. I mean, Rodenberry always described the original series as “Wagon Train to the stars” and the thing about Wagon Train is that it wasn’t exactly set in an uncomplicated era of history. The Federation are supposed to be the good guys, but if the good guys just go around imposing their values and beliefs on other people then, even in the late 80s / early 90s, that was beginning to be a bad look. In the 60s, sure, Picard could get away with blowing up a God computer because “man was meant to march to the beat of his own drums”. Twenty years later that seemed a bit gauche.
The problem is, the prime directive is grounded in some really specific, unexamined assumptions about why contact between European imperialistic powers during the age of exploration and indigenous cultures tended to be so bad for indigenous cultures. In particular, it’s fundamentally grounded in the assumption that there are “advanced” cultures and “un-advanced” (which is probably a better word to use than “primitive” here) cultures, and that the reason interaction between “advanced” cultures and “un-advanced” cultures is harmful to the “un-advanced” cultures is because they aren’t ready for the “advanced” ideas the “advanced” society exposes them to.
This, let us be very clear, is wrong.
We actually saw this idea in the Season 2 episode, Samaritan Snare, where there’s the race of “unadvanced” aliens who have stolen technology they weren’t ready for and that’s why they’re bouncing around space in a broken down ship and need to abduct Geordi. Again, it’s this really unexamined conflation of progress in very specific areas of technology (mostly long-distance travel and warfare) overall “intelligence” and moral worth. Which is … when you think about it … incredibly gross.
In this episode, there is a Federation anthropological team hidden by a holo projector observing a species with around about a Bronze age level of technology (although it’s hard to tell because everybody outside the Federation dresses exactly the same: leather waistcoats, grey puffy trousers). There is an accident, one of the inhabitants of the planet gets injured, Crusher teleports him to the Enterprise to heal him, then they send him back. They do at least remember that the mind-wipe thing from Pen Pals exists, but it apparently doesn’t work because handwave handwave differences in neurophysiology handwave handwave and he, of course, immediately decides Picard is a God.
And don’t get me wrong, the episode does actually engage with this topic in an interesting way. There are discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of several different approaches, and the episode does ultimately show the Mintakans are capable of accepting the reality of the cosmos in which they live. Which his, yeah, there are people out there who’ve got spaceships. What it never quite challenges is the underlying assumption that this “okayness” is unusual. Or not to be expected. They make a big deal earlier in the episode of how the Mintakans are kind of like Vulcans so they’re a remarkably logical people who gave up religion centuries ago, and therefore have the “right” set of values to be able to “cope” with … not being treated like children?
I appreciate that this review is mostly about the prime directive, rather than the episode, but this is a very prime directive focused episode and I’ve been wanting to talk about the prime directive for a while. It’s actually a really good episode, if you take it on its own terms. It’s just that its own terms, when you stop and think about them, includes the assumption that anyone whose boats aren’t as big as yours needs to be deceived about reality for their own good. And that it is the responsibility of the people with the biggest boats to make that call on behalf of everybody else. And that’s—as ever, not super my place to make this diagnosis as a white English person—but that still feels like a colonialist mentality to me?
But, of course, this rating system isn’t about what the implications of the world-building elements explored in this episode are. It’s about whether the episode is bobbins or not. And since this episode takes the prime directive seriously enough that you can meaningfully ask “hang on, shouldn’t you just be telling these people the truth?” And since it contains absolutely zero energy beings, holodecks, pieces of science homework gone awry or Ferengi it actually gets a 1 bobbin rating.