Star Trek The Next Generation: Who Watches the Watchers?

"Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the Dark Ages of superstition and ignorance and fear?"

Anthropologists on a world covered by the Prime Directive experience technological issues. Their holographically-concealed station becomes exposed to the Mintakan primitives, potentially upending their civilization. A rescue mission to fix a malfunction now faces a problem far bigger than a few men and a replacement battery.

I love Prime Directive episodes because they critique one of the more important ethical dilemmas of future Earth: how to handle contact with alien races. And not just the powerful alien races which come to destroy us: races that are equal to, maybe even not quite where we are technologically yet. This episode shows what could happen if things go wrong, gives us a reason for the Directive to exist. In each attempt to repair the damage from the initial accidental revelation, the problem escalates. The shocked locals are injured. Dr. Crusher tries to wipe their memories and cure their bodies, but the locals remember scenes from the Enterprise. Picard becomes worshipped as a healing God. Riker and Troi take disguise to visit the locals and are somewhat revealed instead. The net effect of this comedy of errors is to turn a Vulcan-like, rational society back to superstitious ideas they thought they'd outgrown, with an uncertain religious element thrown in.

Instead of allowing the misunderstanding, Picard chooses to confront the problem head-on by kidnapping Nuria. He tries to explain what the Mintakans saw in terms she can understand. It's an interesting solution which doesn't resolve everything. Doesn't the mere knowledge of technology's existence - teleportation and medication etcetera - change the development of a society? Picard's speech, however, is persuasive. Nuria listens, and he makes the right analogies for her understanding to take a new course. He has power and more technology, but his abilities aren't limitless. Conveniently, one of the members of the anthropological crew dies, giving Picard the opportunity to do nothing and show how good he is at it. Throughout Nuria makes the progression from superstition to logic to acceptance realistic, believable, and even heart-wringing. It's a stretch to develop that much in what amounts to fifteen minutes of ship-time, but Scott pulls it off and makes us believe it.

During all of this, Troi's been left behind on the planet with the secondary plot. Despite her empathic abilities, she's been utterly unable to work with the Mintakans and help them see the truth. A sudden and unusual thunderstorm strikes the Mintakan folks as being representative the anger of Picard. In true superstitious form the Mintakans plot to sacrifice Troi with a bow and arrow. Rescue comes all at once when Picard arrives with Nuria, but Picard has to take an arrow and an injury to prove he's only human and save the larger situation.

Yes, the Mintakans were willing to kill for their beliefs, but it was with the wild, uncontrollable wish that they could somehow conquer death. They were willing to stop at nothing on the off chance they could bring those six dead Mintakans back. And I kept thinking, yes, how horrible, how normal, how human, how many wars have we had out of the desire to see our loved ones one more time? It makes their actions forgivable–but how much damage was still done, simply by revealing the existence of Starfleet and other races? And how will the Federation see this particular Prime Directive violation?

Bits & Pieces

The look Crusher shoots at Picard when he chastises her about breaking the Prime Directive, right after asking her to wipe the memories of Mintakans. She clearly thinks he has no grounds for claiming to be ethical.

The moment when Jean-Luc tells the truth to Nuria about his name and where she is. He looks so sheepish! And he should: it was his off-hand "just use the damn memory wipe" that resulted in the partial memory which turned him into a god. He has very personal guilt in this matter. Patrick Stewart pulls off a sterling performance throughout.

And a few minutes later: when Picard comments Nuria on her leadership skills. The dude is smooth. 

Scruffy Alien-Costume Riker. This episode gives a great example of why I'm fond of men with beards.


Troi: I am Troi and this is Riker. You've had a very interesting dream.
Liko: Dream? It was real!
Oji: My father and I both witnessed these beings.
Troi: If you are father and daughter, you may well have shared the same dream.
Liko: That is not reasonable.
Riker: Is that any less reasonable than being magically transported to another place by the Picard?

Nuria: I do not fear you any longer.
Picard: Good. That's good. You see, my people once lived in caves. And then we learned to build huts and, in time, to build ships like this one.
Nuria: Perhaps one day, my people will travel above the skies.


Maybe it's sentimental, but I think this episode speaks really to the heart of the Trek audience and the Trek dream of the future. "Who Watches the Watchers?" reflects some of Trek's most deeply held principles about what civilization and duty can mean.

Four out of four hologram malfunctions


Juliette said...

I hate this episode, largely because it subscribes to a 19th century notion of humankind somehow 'evolving' from magic to religion to science that I fundamentally disagree with academically. Great review though Joseph - I'm glad there are fans who enjoy the Prime Directive episodes, even if they always give me a sinking feeling when I realise they're coming!

Billie Doux said...

I liked this one a lot, too. Maybe it was because the situation started by accident and then just got increasingly messy, much like it would in real life. Maybe it was the wise young female leader Nuria, who was finally able to grasp the situation. The character played by Ray Wise under a lot of make-up kept going for the superstitious answer, but it was only because he wanted his dead wife back. It was a complex story and there really was no pat solution. Well done.

They filmed the Mintakan village at Vasquez Rocks! I actually recognized it from other Star Trek episodes. A Buffy episode was filmed there, too. When I was living in L.A., I kept meaning to go there one day, but never got around to it.

drnanamom said...

Loved the review and kind of like Prime Directive episodes because they focus on ethics and not just joy-riding around the universe but I get where you are coming from Juliette. So being the picky person I am I started this episode thinking - why don't they just keep the guy sedated the whole time? These are proto-Vulcans so they know the physiology. I know, that would have ended the episode rather abruptly but sometimes I wish the writers would try a little harder.