Star Trek The Next Generation: Pen Pals

"If there is a cosmic plan, is it not the height of hubris to think we can or should interfere?"

Data befriends a little girl on a doomed planet, prompting a moral dilemma for Picard.

If you ever wanted to choose just one episode from each series of Star Trek that would encapsulate what made that particular branch of the franchise its own thing and gave it an identity beyond and in addition to being part of the Star Trek universe, you could do worse than choose this one to represent The Next Generation.

This episode comprises three main constituent parts; an A story about Data experiencing and developing the beginnings of emotions, a B story about Wesley training to be an officer and a central debate in which our main characters sit around the conference table and argue out a difficult and apparently unsolvable moral problem in which there is no clear right answer, and the Federation's principles come into conflict with the personal ethics of its officers. There's also a couple of random scenes on the holodeck that add to the central characters' characterization but has no bearing whatsoever on the plot, a random shot of Riker doing his thang in Ten Forward with a giggling and otherwise unidentified crew-member, and a moment of wish fulfillment with a character who represents us on Earth as we are now coming into contact with the universe, as a little girl asks "Is anybody out there?" and Data replies, "Yes". It is the quintessential Next Generation episode.

I don't know whether that comes across as negative or positive, but really it's neither. To say this is The Next Generation in a nutshell is certainly not a criticism - we love the show, that's why we want to watch and talk about it. Data's story is nicely done. His friendship with Sarjenka is very sweet, with two good performances and some lovely moments. Wesley's story is relateable and nicely tied in to the A plot, and doesn't rely on him being a child genius, though you have to sympathise with the people he's put in charge of who must be wondering why they're being ordered around by an honorary (or is he field-commissioned?) ensign who hasn't even been to the Academy. The moral dilemma suffers a bit from the usual Prime Suggestion problem in which the Prime Suggestion prevents the offering of humanitarian aid, which seems rather cruel, but it's effectively argued and it's always fun watching them try to get around it.

On the other hand, the fact this episode is more or less what you'd get if you fed the ingredients of The Next Generation into a computer and asked it to spit out an episode is not entirely a compliment either. The best episodes, those that stand out and that we remember and go back to over and over again, almost inevitably are those that stand out in some way. Here, no character does anything unexpected or shocking. Data changes and develops but only in the way we expect from his overall Pinocchio story, as does Wesley - both are evolving, but along fairly safe, predictable lines. The holodeck and Ten Forward scenes are nice but they don't really tell us anything significant we didn't already know. The best moments are probably those involving Chief O'Brien's cheerful willingness to turn a blind eye to a Good Samaritan on a mission, and the scenes in which Sarjenka and Data are able to meet and talk in person.

One thing's for sure, though - this is a Next Generation episode through and through. Kirk would have run off to save the little girl and the planet without worrying too much about the Prime Suggestion; Sisko probably wouldn't have come across the situation because he wasn't on a mission of exploration; Janeway's attitude would have depended which of her senior officers was arguing to save the planet and whether she was ticked off with him that week, but she'd probably have got very cross and demoted the officer involved, and I haven't seen enough Enterprise to know what Archer would do but he probably wouldn't have had the technology to save the planet in the first place. Certainly none of them had such a beautiful beige conference room to argue it out in. If you're in the mood for some true TNG nostalgia, you could pick worse episodes than this one to indulge it.

Bits and pieces

 - I like Picard telling the holodeck computer he'll control his horse himself - like deciding whether you want manual or automatic gears on a racing game.

 - The fact that Picard looks much more upset about Data bringing a child to the ship, more than an alien from a pre-warp civilization, is very funny and a nice character beat.

 - Does it worry anyone else that a) Starfleet has the technology to wipe people's memories and b) they're ready and willing to use it?

 - Picard calls Data his friend. Aw.


Troi (re horses): I prefer a mode of transportation that doesn't have a mind of its own.

Riker: O'Brien, take a nap. You didn't see any of this. You're not involved.
O'Brien: Right, sir. I'll just be standing over here, dozing off.

O'Brien: I just woke up, sir.

O'Brien: Oh, there's gonna be hell to pay.

Picard: He's brought a child to my ship. And on my bridge.

Data (to Sarjenka): I will require my hand.

Wesley: Does it get any easier?
Riker (cheerfully): Nope!

TNG in a nutshell. Three out of four well-timed naps.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.


Billie Doux said...

I was surprised at how good this one was. Perhaps a little boring, and who could be cruel enough to make a little girl so ugly and give her a mullet on top of it? But I really appreciate that they made a serious attempt here to debate and analyze the Prime Directive, what it really means, what's *wrong* with it, and specifically how it applies to a civilization in danger of annihilation from something the Federation can actually fix for them. There are so many issues and problems with the Prime Directive as a concept, but I liked that when it came down to actual decision-making, it was all about one specific individual -- Sarjenka.

One thing, though. If Sarjenka's people are so primitive, how come they have holographic doors that appear and disappear with the wave of a hand? Wouldn't that make them pretty advanced, even if they don't have warp drive yet? (I assume?)

Juliette said...

Billie, you'd think so - to be honest the whole Prime Directive thing seems kinda daft to me anyway so I don't pay attention to the details! There are episodes where they explain why it's there but surely they could just have a rule about not selling weapons, or taking over planets and turning them into expys of Nazi Germany, rather than a rule preventing all contact. There was quite a fun episode of Stargate SG-1 where they came up against aliens with a similar rule from the other side though, which has to have been inspired by Star Trek!