Not only have a not quit this yet but I’ve actually got to the end of the first series. The last six episodes of season 1 can be broadly summed as Arms Dealers Are Bad, Drugs Are Bad, The Abstract Concept Of Evil Is Bad, Picard’s Love Life Is Bad, This Episode is Bad, and The Romulans, The Borg and Capitalism Are Bad.
The Arsenal of Freedom
The Enterprise arrives at a planet that was once populated by a race of arms dealers where they receive an automated message saying “hi, do you want to come and check our arms? We’ll do great deals for you on our arms and they definitely won’t destroy our entire civilisation.” Various members of the crew beam down to the planet, where they find that there is nothing active except for a number of automated drone spheres things that pop up at exactly 3 minute 18 second intervals (or something, I can’t remember the precise timing) and try to kill everyone. The crew make various efforts to unravel the mystery of what happened to the planet of the arms dealers, even though it is screamingly obvious from the word go. I mean seriously, do they know nothing about the history of their own galaxy. Gee, I wonder what happened to this ancient and extremely technologically advanced civilisation? Do you think maybe it was destroyed by its own technology just like all the others?
This episode has a slightly weird structure in that the crew are split into three groups with Riker and the soon-to-be-late-soon-to-be-lamented Tasha Yar running around on the ground, fighting drones while Picard and Crusher fall in a hole and have sexual tension, and Geordi and the rest are on the ship fighting another ship. The whole situation gets resolved when it turns out that the hole into which Picard and Crusher have fallen is essentially the showroom of the ancient arms dealers and they succeed in persuading the computer running the whole shebang to stop the demonstration by agreeing to buy some arms from them. And that does sort of make me wonder how the hell this wiped out their civilisation in the first place. It has an off switch that they control – were they just so committed to making a sale that they sat there going “how good is this weapon, why strong enough to destroy our entire society, watch”? Anyway, they turn off the killer machines and everything is okay again.
And while we’re here can we talk about what happened to Geordi’s career? The sole redeeming feature of this episode is that it includes one of my favourite Star Trek arcs which is the “Character X is placed in command of the Enterprise, Character Y doesn’t think that Character X is ready to be in command of the Enterprise, Character X takes tough decisions, performs well in a crisis and learns to believe him/her/oh who I am kidding him self, and everyone lives happily ever after” arc. I mean, Geordi gets that arc which is why that observation is relevant to the “what happens to Geordi’s career” conversation. In this episode, as with most of the first series, Geordi is wearing red, sitting on the Bridge and serving as Conn Officer. Somewhere between now and Troi’s magic space baby (which kicks off Season 2) he re-trains as an engineer, puts on a yellow tracksuit and bogs off to spend the rest of TNG playing with dilithium crystals. So why did he get the “learning to trust yourself arc?” That’s pretty much exclusively reserved for people who you’re theoretically supposed to accept will wind up as a Starfleet Captain one day.
Sheesh, it’s almost as if they were making it up as they went along.
Four bobbins, only saved from five by Geordi having quite a cool bit and by the fact I know Conspiracy is coming up.
I originally heard this said of Doctor Who episode’s but I think it is also very much true of Star Trek: that the difference between a viewer and a fan is that a fan calls episodes by their names and a viewer calls episodes “the one where…” This is the one where they think it’s medicine but really it’s drugs.
The Enterprise responds to a distress signal or something and goes to the aid of a ship crewed by people who look really out of it, who are more keen to save their cargo than their crew members. It turns out that this cargo is “medicine” that their people desperately need because of a “plague”, the symptoms of which happen to look exactly like someone going through withdrawal on TV. Oh, the “medicine” is Felicium, by the way. To give the crew their due, Beverley Crusher does work this out relatively quickly and I do appreciate she doesn’t have the benefit of knowing she’s in a TV show and, therefore, being able to spot a Very Special About Drugs a million miles away.
Bobbins as I think this episode, I feel like it’s nearly saved by the fact that it almost explores its central science fiction concept in an interesting way. It turns out that the clearly out of it people come from the planet Ornara and they buy Felicium from the planet Brekka. The Ornarans are the only people in their star system who have access to advanced engineering and space travel, technologies that they developed before they all got hooked on Felicium. Brekka produces Felicium and only Felicium. So the entire economy of Brekka relies on knowingly keeping the entire population of Ornara addicted to this terrible narcotic. The central conflict of the episode arises from Beverley’s desire to tell the Ornarans of her discovery and Picard’s desire to conceal it from them in the name of the Prime Directive. I’ve mentioned before how much I love Prime Directive episodes.
I think what makes this episode more or less work for me is that, unusually, I feel like the Prime Directive has real value in this situation, in that it is a scenario in which there appears to be an obvious, morally good course of action but, in fact, when you stop to consider the fact you are talking about whole frikkin’ planets it suddenly gets a lot more complex and ambiguous.
Put simply: assuming the situation is as the characters in the episode present it as (and if we don’t assume that, then we can’t really have any useful discussion about this episode) then Felicium is the only thing that Brekka makes. No matter how immoral you might think that is, you’re talking about a planet that relies entirely for its survival on another planet that only wants one thing it produces. If the Enterprise does as Beverley suggests and blows the gaffe on the whole “Felicium is drugs” thing, then there is a pretty good chance that everyone on Brekka will literally starve to death. So rather than the choice being the typical Bioware or Fable 3 dynamic of “stop the people being addicted to drugs / make the people addicted to more drugs” with good and evil points awarded for each the choice is more like “intervene in an obviously immoral situation knowing that your intervention will have far reaching consequences beyond anything you can predict or understand and may potentially cause the deaths of millions / don’t do that.”
Of course, the episode sort of undercuts this by having its cake and eating it. At the end of the episode it is revealed that the freighter the Enterprise rescued was the last ship capable of transporting Felicium between Brekka and Ornara, and, ironically, Picard declares that the Prime Directive prevents him from helping to fix the ship. So the Felicium trade will necessarily die away and we’re asked not to think too much about the inevitable social chaos and mass starvation likely to result on both planets. But, then again, that would probably have happened anywhere if the Enterprise hadn’t come along, which is sort of the Prime Directive’s whole point.
And, although I’ve just said it handles its central science fiction concept fairly well, the moment you stop to think about the setup between Brekka and Ornara makes no sense. How the hell are these people who when we see them on the show are completely incapable of walking in a straight line or stringing a coherent sentence together the only people in their star system with space travel? Why, for that matter, does no-one on Brekka think that maybe, just maybe, relying for all of your needs on the skilled craftsmanship of a bunch of strung out addicts might not be the best idea in the history of the Alpha Quadrant. And, obviously, part of the point is that very exploitative situations are unsustainable (this seems to be a central tenet of the early TNG worldview and it’s not one which I think is entirely borne out by observation, I think exploitative situations are bad because it’s bad to exploit people, not because they inevitably lead to everyone getting killed) but it just seems very convenient that the Enterprise arrived at exactly the point that this absurd and unworkable state of affairs was about to collapse under the weight of its own absurdity and unworkableness.
Oh also, this episode contains a truly awful speech about why drugs are bad from Tasha Yar (to Wesley, obviously, because Wesley is the teenager and therefore represents the cool kids). To be fair, every single person involved with the show thought it was a bad idea but Morris Hurley (who I think was a producer of some kind) made them put it in because, in his words, “no, there are kids out there, if we’re going to make the message, let’s make the message.” I can only assume Morris Hurley knows nothing about kids.
Skin of Evil
Oh dear me. So this is the one where Tasha Yar dies. My understanding is that there are a lot rumours about why Tasha Yar got such shitty, shitty send off in such shitty, shitty episode. Whenever the characters portrayed by people who want to leave TV shows are killed off in ignominious ways one always suspects that ego has more to do with it than anyone will admit. Although perhaps less to do with it than we like to speculate.
The official line is that Gene Roddenberry thought that being killed randomly by something random was appropriate for a security officer because being a security officer is dangerous so that kind of thing should happen sometimes. The problem is that kind of thing never happens on Star Trek. I mean, this is heroic space adventure. The crew of the Enterprise have fought the most malevolent, unstoppable and terrifying beings in the galaxy with a casualty rate of essentially zero. In DS9 they fight an entire war against an enemy that is, in a very real sense, the dark reflection of everything they stand for, and we lose exactly one recurring character. Star Trek characters talk about the dangers of putting on a Starfleet uniform but we have known since the mid 1960s that putting on a Starfleet uniform is only dangerous if your uniform is red (yes, I know that actually, in the later series, red shirts are worn by high ranking officers rather than disposable ensigns but the Star Trek redshirt is such an iconic image that I think the observation still stands).
So this episode just sucks. Tasha Yar dies. Troi spends the entire episode providing really bad 80s psychoanalysis to a pool of black goo. And its backstory turns out to be that there was race of being that cast off all their negativity and left it behind and that’s what this thing is. Apparently the monster, whose name was Armus, was originally designed for an episode of the Outer Limits and I honestly think it makes a lot more sense in that kind of context. I mean, you could almost imagine the Outer Limits voice over guy doing his crappy end of episode summing up: “In trying to rid ourselves of evil, do we not sometimes create … a greater evil?” And the thing is, in an Outer Limits episode, the random gloopy monster arbitrarily killing someone is completely fine because they’re just the character who is in that episode to get killed to show the monster means business. In a Star Trek episode, that’s what redshirts are for. And members of the Bridge crew, at least members of the Bridge crew we’ve met previously, are not redshirts. Even if they’re wearing red shirts.
Basically, it’s an episode that doesn’t fit the genre of Star Trek. And the fact that a major character got killed off in this episode makes it particularly hard to take.
We’ll Always Have Paris
This one, honestly, is forgettable. Something something brilliant but loopy professor something something spurious field or emission or wave or something something something time distortion something something.
The actual plot of this episode is that the professor is married to a much more attractive younger woman who, many years ago, Picard stood up at a café in Paris. I’d point out that she’s much younger than Picard but, then, as we have established at great length Picard has a type, and it’s “much younger than him.”
As if traditional for Star Trek character development, we discover in this episode that Picard has spent the rest of his life regretting and reflecting upon his decision to leave this young woman alone in a café in Paris and, instead, run back to Starfleet Academy. He has never mentioned this before. He will never mention it again. And perhaps because Picard is quite old and because Patrick Stewart plays him with such a sense of wistful melancholy (the hero of our space adventure series, ladies and gentlemen) the writers seem to pull this trick with Picard very regularly. You can barely go three episodes without it being revealed that something happened in Picard’s past that has profoundly affected in him in some way that barely ever gets talked about. The most extreme example of this, of course, being the episode in series two where we discover that, in his hot blooded youth, Picard was legit stabbed through the heart in a bar fight. And has had a robot heart ever since.
Oh do you see, because Data is a robot but, at heart, is he not in a very real sense a human. While Picard is a human but, at heart, is he not in a very real sense a robot.
I think the best way to sum up this episode is that, in writing this recap, I spent about ten minutes going “oh, is this the one where Picard’s on a horse” or “oh is this one where Picard shoots himself in a time loop” and, okay, I admit part of the reason for that is I’ll ask myself those questions about anything, even if it’s not a Star Trek episode. But partly it’s just that this episode is very, very forgettable.
I feel a bit bad for this episode because, throughout all of these recaps, I’ve been saying “well, at least it wasn’t as bad as Conspiracy.” Even though, about half the episodes in this series, were, in fact, as bad as Conspiracy. I mean, actually having done the recaps now I think the worst episode in the series is probably Skin of Evil or possibly Code of Honor.
Like Skin of Evil I think the basic problem with this episode is that it feels like it belongs in a completely different series. Interestingly, the original premise was for there to just be a conspiracy within Starfleet and for it to not necessarily involve brain-controlling alien slugs that came out of nowhere. Roddenberry nixed this because, in his view of the series, Starfleet should be (and I’m paraphrasing here) basically infallible. And, actually, I sort of stand by him on this in that the entire premise of the show is that it’s set in a Utopian society and if you start poking too closely into the institutions that underpin the Utopian society, and especially if you start asking questions like “who the fuck are these people accountable to anyway?” or “why do they put children on their warships?” or “if the Federation is a vast and, as its name suggestions, federated amalgam of dozens, perhaps even hundreds of worlds, many of which have had space travel for far longer than humanity … why are virtually high ranking Starfleet officials human and for that matter why is there only ever one alien on the Enterprise?” then the whole thing falls apart.
Unfortunately this means the episode winds up being something of a bitty compromise. You’ve got all the paranoid conspiracy stuff that you’d get in a gritty drama about the seedy underbelly of institutionalised power but set against the backdrop of this objectively perfect, benevolent organisation. The brainslugs vaguely paper over the gaps but, well, they don’t really. And it just leads to some awful sequences and terrible special effects. Also they blow a dude’s head up on screen.
Oh, hilariously, the reason they left the blowing the dude’s head up on screen in the episode is that when concerns were raised about that scene being potentially too disturbing for children, a member of the effects team showed it to his six-year-old son who—funnily enough—thought it was awesome and suggested that create an action figure with an exploding head. Now perhaps I’m wrong but I question the wisdom of making your decisions about to show children on the basis of what six-year-old boys are into. Because six-year-old boys are often into some nasty shit.
Aaaaand finally: The Neutral Zone
This episode was apparently based on a fanfic. Which, when you think about it for ten seconds about the plot (three cryogenically frozen people from 20th century earth wake up in an episode of Star Trek) well … of course it was. I was too younger to remember it at the time but there was a big writers’ strike in 1988 and this impacted quite a lot of the early series of TNG. The Neutral Zone was originally intended to be a two-part episode that sees the Enterprise journey into the neutral zone to investigate some mysteriously destroyed colonies only to encounter a Romulan warbird investigating the same mysteriously destroyed colonies and then, in the second part of the episode, to team up said Romulan warbird to fight the mysterious enemy responsible for the destruction of those colonies which would, spoiler, have turned out to be the Borg. I am super sad which didn’t get Picard And Romulans Versus Borg as the finale of Season 1 / opening of Season 2 and instead got Comedy Frozen Texan and Deanna Troi Impregnated By Alien Light.
The thing I take away most from this episode, apart from the fact that it provides the inspiration for the second verse of the song which provides the inspiration for the title of this recap series (that song being, What Would Captain Picard Do by Hank Green) is that it’s the episode in which it was made canon that the Enterprise has shit security. One of the three 20th century dudes, who wakes up on the Enterprise in this episode, is a rich, arrogant jerk from what would have been the present day at time of writing. While Picard is trying to deal with the whole “Romulan and mysterious enemy going to turn out to be the Borg” situation this dude constantly messages the Bridge and his messages just get through on the ship’s com. When Picard talks to him later he makes it very explicit that the com is completely unsecured because in the post-scarcity, post-human weakness Utopia of the 24th century people can just genuinely be trusted not to mess with that shit.
So taking this to its logical conclusion it seems very likely that the Enterprise’s entire security infrastructure basically runs on the honour system. Those aren’t forcefields in the brig – you’re just asked very politely not to walk past the yellow line and they flash some pretty lights up if you go near it.
I mean, I suspect you probably shouldn’t take it to its logical conclusion because the implications render much of the series farcical but it does also explain quite a lot. I’ve nearly finished series 3 and I’ll very frequently find myself looking at something and saying “why has that happened, surely that would only happen on a ship with really shit security” then I think to myself “oh no, wait, the writers cleverly established in the series 1 finale, The Neutral Zone, that the Enterprise does, in fact, have really shit security and that this, when you think about it, quite a reasonable world building point.”
Four bobbins. I mean, it’s not as bad as the worst episodes but it is the episode that establishes as canon that the starship Enterprise is terrible at being a starship.