First contact is a subject that has been broached several times throughout the Star Trek universe, but this was the first time it was tackled from the alien's point of view. It was also an incredibly dense episode dealing with several fairly heavy plots.
First off, I loved the overt parallels between the Malcorians and our own culture, which has become a bit more unsettling given the current political environment. Xenophobia, arrogance, and at the same time a search for progress and a dream to go to the stars define the Malcorians, a society so close to touching a greater universe that the Federation is actively researching them in preparation of inducting them into the rest of galactic society.
Which of course brings us to the central conflict of the story. For whatever reason, Riker has gone undercover to oversee the final steps towards bringing the Malcorians into the fold. He is gravely injured and ends up in a medical facility where it quickly becomes obvious he is not Malcorian. This causes things to escalate, with the staff growing incredibly paranoid and the head of the hospital doing his best to keep the situation from erupting into violence.
The Riker side of the story was all about paranoia and being trapped. The episode carefully showed the various aspects of Malcorian society and how some of the people were absolutely ready to embrace a new world, while others were totally and completely incapable of accepting that kind of massive change to their world view. Each character in the hospital represented a different point of view, much like the other side of the story featuring Picard's struggle to save Riker and juggle first contact at the same time.
What's kind of fascinating is that the nurse spouting off conspiracy theories about aliens infiltrating their society wasn't entirely wrong. In a lot of ways the aliens did infiltrate their society, but not for any nefarious reason. While Riker's injuries do create an instant crisis, and Picard is forced to accelerate first contact with the Malcorians, it calls into question the very nature of this kind of introduction.
The Federation acting as shepherds to nascent cultures is a way of creating allies instead of enemies. While the Malcorians might've become a valued member of the Federation in time, and the Enterprise was a far better representative of the greater galaxy than, say, the Ferengi, was it right for them to jump in right at the beginning, before that culture had a chance to learn things on their own? Like the choice to withhold technology, it makes sense but it was very detached. Which begs the question: was the Federation doing the right thing?
I liked the Chancellor who represented balance and understood both sides of the Malcorian debate. He was almost too perfect as a leader, pushing progressive reforms and the new warp program, while trying to keep the traditionalists happy as well. It was established he was a bit of a controversial figure, but for all the right reasons. Surrounding him were the other sides of that political and philosophical coin.
Mirasta Yale, the science adviser working on the warp program, represented progress and the future, while Krola, the minister of security, favored tradition and the old ways. Mirasta acted as an entry point for Picard because scientists usually have a more open mind. She was easy to like, partially because she was in awe of the Enterprise like anyone her position would be. But more than that, she could see a real example of the life she had always dreamed of for the first time as a reality. She got to view behind the curtain, and found a friendly civilization living among the stars, waiting with open arms for her and her people. It's totally understandable that she couldn't understand why the rest of her culture didn't see it that way.
Krola, on the other hand, was instantly pegged as a villain. Willing to torture Riker and martyr himself for his world views made him detestable, but he did serve an important purpose by highlighting the issues still ingrained in the Malcorian culture. In the end it was clear that there were decades, perhaps centuries, of work still ahead of the Malcorian people to progress to the point where they could universally accept and embrace a greater galaxy. Which was bittersweet, but great short hand for the complicated nature of this kind of situation.
Although I loved the fact that Mirasta chose to leave her home and join the Federation, it was never established what she was leaving behind. I'd assume she had no close family or children for her to make such a quick and irreversible decision.
We had a hilarious cameo with Bebe Neuwirth playing a lascivious nurse who wanted nothing more than to be intimate with an alien. I simply loved the conversation she had with Riker, and the fact that she probably got her wish.
Riker posed as Rivas Jakara from the Marta community in the southern continent. This subtly hints that the Malcorians had achieved a level of peace that would appeal to the Federation.
The Chancellor's conversation with Picard was one of my favorites in the episode. It encapsulated why Picard is a wonderful character.
This episode breaks the rule of format Gene Roddenberry set down in the original Trek, showing the crew from an alien perspective.
Mirasta: "It's everything I ever dreamed of."
Riker: "Will you help me?"
Lanel: "If you make love to me."
Lanel: "I've always wanted to make love with an alien."
Riker: "... It's not that easy, there are differences in the way that my people make love."
Lanel: "I can't wait to learn."
Mirasta: "Chancellor, I think... you might want to clear your afternoon schedule for this."
Lanel: "Will I ever see you again?"
Riker: "I'll call you the next time I pass through your star system."
Riker: "It's far more likely that I'm a weather balloon than an alien."
Dr. Berel: "He is a living, intelligent being. I don't care if the chancellor himself calls down here. I have sworn an oath to do no harm, and I will not!"
Although not perfect, it was a unique and interesting example of Trek doing what Trek does best.
3 1/2 out of 4 Alien abnormalities
J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related.