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Star Trek The Next Generation: Symbiosis

Picard: “Beverly, the Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It’s a philosophy and a very correct one. History has proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less-developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.”

In which Picard faces an ethical dilemma and Riker is electrocuted by a desperate junkie.

I think I will have to concur with some of the previous reviewers in saying that like many other episodes in this first season, in this episode there were a lot of interesting bits but the plot resembled Swiss cheese.

One of the things I admire about Star Trek is the writers' use of hypothetical other worldly problems to explore present day problems and issues. This episode was about drug addiction (or if you are feeling brave - capitalism) and how some people live lives of luxury and indolence while others work hard to provide the necessities of life for them. In this case a whole planet's population (Brekka) profited from the addiction of another planet's population (Ornara). The Ornarans created everything that was needed to live while the Brekkians only had one industry - felicium, the narcotic which the Ornarans believed was a treatment for the plague.

While this was an interesting idea which clearly showed the Brekkians as lying, amoral drug pushers (down to the eighties outfits) I did have some issues with this plot. First, it only showed the Ornarans as exploited dupes who appeared to be too stoned to fix their own technology. You would think that an Ornaran doctor would have figured the whole thing out years ago. It is unlikely that the symptoms of the plague would match withdrawal symptoms. I know that one of the messages was that the drug addiction had kept the Onarans from advancing technologically but if they were that messed up, how did they manage to meet all the needs of the Brekkians? The two crew members from the freighter were another loose end. It was never explained why their loss was just ignored. And then there was the whole electrical charge super power which could have been used more fully instead of just providing a comical picture of Riker. It sometimes seems that the writers were in a room and just throwing around ideas but didn't take the time to fully think them through or connect the dots.

What I did like about this episode was the opportunity for some character development. The 'Prime Directive' is almost a character in itself in the Star Trek 'verse and this was one of the better, as in more complex and difficult, examples of the ethical dilemmas it can create. I enjoyed watching Picard and Crusher hash out their relative positions and each person's stand made sense. Crusher as the doctor was sworn to relieve pain and suffering but Picard in his own way was trying to 'do no harm'. While I bristle a bit at the term "less-developed", the 'Prime Directive' is a commentary on colonial thinking and it might be useful for some present day powers to take it on as their own. Picard obviously struggled with the suffering in front of him but stood fast to his beliefs. He also felt it was important to explain his actions to Crusher, whose opinion he values. She also felt that she had a right and a duty to disagree with him.

My other favourite part of this episode was the discussion between Wesley and Yar. Wesley as the naive teenager can ask questions that others can't, and Yar did a nice job of explaining why people might become addicted to substances. I liked that she answered his questions honestly and with compassion.

Bits and Pieces

If your medicine only worked for 72 hours, don't you think you might stockpile some?

Langor had one of the smarmiest smiles I've ever seen.

What do the rest of the Brekkians do? They can't all just be working on felicium.

The other nice moments in this episode were the exchange between Riker and Yar and the ending where the Captain gives La Forge the helm and they get back to what they are supposed to be doing - exploring new worlds.


T’John: “It’s all you know... dead.”

Yar: “Behave yourselves, gentleman.”

Picard: “We’re losing our professional detachment, Doctor?”

Crusher: “T’John and Romas are feeling fine, in fact too fine. Felicium is a narcotic.”
Picard: “Then T’John and Romas and everyone on their world...”
Crusher: “Is a drug addict.”

Wesley: “I guess I just don’t understand.”
Yar: “Wesley, I hope you never do.”

Picard: “I will not be coerced.”

Crusher: “Jean-Luc, this is not a symbiotic relationship. This is exploitation, pure and simple.”


  1. Excellent review, Doc, of an awful episode. The addicts were unpleasant and the pushers even more unpleasant, and none of it made logical sense. It's even sadder that it included two of the supporting actors from the best Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan. I know they were trying to throw a little bone to the fans. A better episode would have been a better bone.

  2. Oh, and that photo! What is that, Jonathan Frakes -- electrocution acting?

  3. This was another good idea/lousy execution episode. The moral grey area, and the philosophical implications of the prime directive here are just fascinating.

    Yet, the situation is beyond absurd and overly simplified. If the Enterprise hadn't saved that ship than the whole situation would've happened anyway exactly as Picard left it, except they would've been out of Felicium right away. Oh and four people would've died.

    What bothers me, is that the Enterprise did interfere, they saved that ship. Is there a marked difference between saving that ship, and refusing to repair their vessel? I guess when the situation became clear, there was a difference.

    The question then becomes, should they intervene in an extremely barbaric and exploitative relationship between two worlds that aren't really growing anyway? Shouldn't they influence that kind of culture? Isn't that a part of Federation, to lead as an example for the rest of the galaxy?

    Eh, I guess it's reading to much into a bad episode.

  4. David Marcus! My reaction to a certain scene in Star Trek III is basically how some people react to that bit in the Lion King when, as one of my former housemates always insisted, Mufasa goes on his holidays. It's so lovely to see him here, and so sad, since the actor died not long after. If only it was a better story - though by early TNG standards, it could have been worse.

  5. A terrible episode, both silly and distasteful, and one of several crucial episodes over the years of nu-Trek (culminating in the jaw-dropping awfulness of "Dear Doctor" on Enterprise) that demonstrates how wretched the Prime Directive is in practice. Eric Burns-White at Websnark has written about this far more ably than I ever could, flaying the Trek shows' depiction of Prime Directive wide open and exposing the nasty social Darwinism and bizarre pseudo-scientific hogwash about evolution (both biological and cultural) concealed within. Here's Burns-White's take on "Symbiosis" (forgive the long quote):


    This variable (and capricious) enforcement of a Prime Directive that states that the Federation must not interfere in “natural development of species and cultures” was highlighted extremely well in an episode of Next Generation. In this episode, it turned out that David Marcus from Star Trek II was an alien whose planet had a “disease” and Khan’s aide Joachim from the same movie was from a world whose entire economy was devoted to selling them medicine. Only, of course, we were actually talking about drugs. And their ships were breaking down. So, the Enterprise started rendering aid to fix the ships. Then, of course, the Federation determined that this was all a drug run and there was an entire planet of addicts on their hands. But Joachim laughed in their faces. “Your own Prime Directive says you can’t interfere with our development,” he laughed. “So you can’t tell David Marcus that we’re just pushers and they’re a planet full of bitches. Hah hah hah!”

    And Picard agreed with them, but then announced that they couldn’t actually fix the starships. Prime Directive, don’t you know. If they can’t fix them themselves, they can’t fix them at all.

    Are you seriously telling me this policy isn’t insane? These are two cultures who know about the Federation. If anything, Picard should never have been able to offer to help fix their ships in the first place, but should have been able to say “you know you’re not sick, right? I mean, you’re addicted to that medicine. That’s all.” Certainly, there’s no possible justification to perpetuating a lie against a culture aware of space and of the Federation to begin with.

    Except, of course, the cold justification of social Darwinism. If David Marcus’s alien race is strong enough, they’ll survive the withdrawal symptoms, and figure out they’ve been duped. Of course, if Joachim’s race is strong and smart enough, they’ll figure out how to fix their own starship, and the next thing you know it all starts back up again. That’s life in the cold universe!

  6. Lots of interesting comments here, and it is another one of those; 'great idea, not so great execution' episodes that we see all too often.

    On the Prime Directive discussion, I get where it comes from as far as where I believe Gene Roddenberry originally came up with it; you don't want to have Federation officers creating their own fiefdoms or choosing who lives and who dies like some errant deity, but it cuts both ways as well, and I would feel a moral duty to intervene in situations like this, putting me largely in the same camp as Doctor Crusher. Sometimes you really need to intervene, and this is definitely one of those times.

    That image of Riker is so dang funny too, what a great header image!


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