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Star Trek The Next Generation: Contagion

Fate protects fools, little children, and ships called Enterprise. -Cmdr. Wm. Riker

An alien operating system clashes with the Galaxy-class Enterprise computer, causing the ship to be next to stranded in the Neutral Zone... And when the Romulans are around to notice, too. A nice set up for what turns out to be a somewhat eccentric episode that misses more than it hits.

As the episode opens the Enterprise is downloading a log from its sister ship Yamato, captained by Picard's friend, Donald Varley. It turns out both Picard and Varley share a penchant for illicit archaeology, and Jean-Luc's old friend has been dabbling. Varley's ship, a twin of the Enterprise, has been experiencing malfunctions since it got back from investigating the home world of the Iconians, which happens to be in Neutral Zone territory. They've already lost eighteen lives to the malfunctions, which Varley worries might be a design flaw. He irrationally refuses evacuation, however, calling it premature. While his ship is having Problems, Varley's far more worried about what the Romulans might do if they find the Iconian artifacts of great power that he's discovered. The Enterprise crew manages to download the log off the Galactic internet using BitTorrent, but then, boom, the Yamato explodes, leaving no survivors in a crew presumably the size of the Enterprize's crew. And there's signs of incoming Romulan activity.

This is a great set up but leaves me with some questions already. What the hell are these two starship captains, heads of the most powerful weapons of the fleet, doing playing Luke Skywalker like this? Varley first, going into the Neutral Zone without permission, then Picard, heading after? I get that the technology at the site is potentially Galaxy changing and could seriously affect the balance of power, but it seems like neither Captain is willing to trouble Starfleet… even though their behavior could potentially affect the delicate balance of power governing the Neutral Zone.

But I digress. The Romulan activity resolves into a patrol demanding to know why the Enterprise is there; Picard rebuffs them, cuts the channel, and the Romulans inexplicably just sit there quietly. There's no time to grieve; Picard demands answers in an hour. As a sister ship, they might wind up having just the same exact problems as the Yamato. Geordi discovers the antimatter/matter mixture chambers had a catastrophic failure, resulting in Ship Go Boom. They all need to keep investigating the data. Picard's examining Varley's personal logs, and starts tracking down mention of a Probe from one of Varley's archaeological experiences. This proves fruitful, but the malfunctions increase and come to a head when Wesley comes in making one of two Contributions this episode. First they talk about the Iconians, and supergenius Wesley doesn’t realize that people moving from place to place without the benefit of ships sounds like transporters, or possibly whatever he did with the Traveler last season. Maybe we can forgive him: he needs to grieve for the crew of the Yamato. The Captain utters Wisdom or at least loftily declares the benefits of training, but the Wisdom makes him, and us, thirsty. Picard orders tea, and gets a potted plant from the dispenser (I had a very Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy moment-was this an homage?) This, he informs the world, is unexpected, even though there’s been a couple of hiccups already in the ship’s systems.

Picard decides to pursue Iconia and trace Varley's footsteps (or starship exhaust) to Iconia, a world destroyed hundreds of thousands of years ago. One of its few live places sends up an alien probe which Picard plans to tow in and study. Geordi Discovers Something in the Data, and immediately tries to tell the Captain to destroy the probe. Unfortunately the communications systems cut off, leaving us to watch LaForge play Run Lola Run all the way to the bridge and warn the Captain to shoot the damn thing. And lucky they did: it would have sent the alien operating system that destroyed the Yamato to all of the Enterprise systems instead of keeping it contained to the portion of the ship connecting to the Yamato logs. Not that they're not already suffering enough: Pulaski is teaching people to make splints.

This is I feel one of the failures of the episode. It could be a story about what a Starship’s crew does when a Starship fails. Pulaski should be leading a competent team that knows what to do in battle conditions. Instead everyone is horrified about performing surgery with stone knives and bearskins. It should be about a command crew capable of managing a crew in an emergency. Instead, it turns into a game of Where’s the Picard? In what seems to me an irrational decision, Picard goes down to the planet leaving Riker in charge. He takes Data and Worf, and together they deduce information about the Iconian equipment and discover some miraculous technology. I get it’s his “hobby” but surely the Enterprise has archaeologists and linguists who have had time to make a career of it? But the Romulans have followed the Enterprise, and when Picard beams down, they begin to attack; they’re saved only by accident. In a lesson on the dangers of piracy, the Romulans also downloaded the Yamato logs and got infected by the same operating system.

Down on the planet, Picard and Data make some exciting discoveries. The Iconians can teleport from planet to planet using Stargates! All this must be destroyed before the Romulans get it. Picard somehow manages to figure out the self-destruct even though Data can’t figure out the manual override; apparently humans work better with simplistic keyboards composed of three colors. Data’s overtaken by the Iconian program, and Picard directs Worf to save Data by Stargating onto the Enterprise before he blows up the last of the Iconian technology.

Back on the ship, Riker and the crew are still struggling with the technology problems, which every culture apparently represents with dimming lights and sparks. Troi contributes some concern for the crew, whose training is running out; people are beginning to panic. Riker wants to get rid of her, and orders her to coordinate an evacuation (to where? The planet?) and not worry about diplomacy. Wesley makes his second contribution, letting Riker know the ship is defenseless. Everyone's grateful when Worf and Data appear but can do nothing as Data shuts down. Geordi shuts Data’s eyes in a very human gesture, and everyone looks stricken - but Death saved Data in a way humans can’t be saved; he was able to reboot his initial operating system and restore the iData firmware. They immediately figure out the trick is to do the same thing to the ship.

No time to do this and teleport Picard back though. He sets off the auto-destruct and jumps through the gateway, landing on the Romulan ship. The Romulans posture, but by this time the Enterprise is back in full gear and Picard is transported back aboard. They share the discovery as a gesture of good will, and agree never to share this embarrassment with Starfleet or the Romulan High Command.

Bits and Pieces

Thalmus Rasulala, who plays Donald Varley, also had roles on The Twilight Zone, What's Happening!!, Roots, and Sanford and Son.

The whole “tell me everything in an hour!” order from Picard. Weird. And his expression when he gets the potted plant. And the last scene when he jokes with Riker.

Riker’s beard is really giving him more gravitas than last season.

Iconian technology is robust and can take over three separate operating systems. You know, another writer-perspective: suppose this had been more than a throwaway episode and the Iconian technology was further developed? 


Picard: Donald, what's a nice Starfleet Captain like you doing in a place like this?
Varley: It's good to see you again, Jean-Luc, despite your antique humor.

Medic: Doctor Pulaski.
Pulaski: Yes.
Medic: I've got a problem here. The knitter isn't working.
Pulaski: Try a splint.
Medic: Doctor?
Pulaski: Splint. It's a very ancient concept. You take two flat pieces of wood or plastic, a bandage. The broken limb is kept immobile.
Medic: That's crazy, that's not practicing medicine.
Pulaski: Oh yes, it is. It's a time honored way to practice medicine, with your head and your heart and your hands. So jump to it.

(Troi twitches)
Riker: You're jumpy.
Troi: The tension on the ship is very high.
Riker: What's your recommendation?
Troi: Give everyone something to do, somewhere to focus their attention.
Riker: All right. Let's consider evacuation.
Troi: To the planet?
Riker: I know it's probably impossible with Taris sitting out there, but it would give everyone something to do. You go and organise it.
Troi: But you might need me if you have to negotiate with Taris again.
Riker: I'll manage.


This episode is fun but fairly insubstantial. The ship reboots and comes back good as new, just like Data. The loss of the Yamato is meaningful, and so is the Iconian technology, but there doesn’t seem to be any lasting change to the crew.

And what was up with the characterization! Wesley was off, gibbering about magic instead of making sense of alien technology; Troi was more than useless; Worf existed to carry Data around… Picard’s getting to know the crew better, and I can excuse the weird humor, but the whole episode feels off. I enjoyed the episode while watching - they pull off the action well and the crew has a coherent feel despite the plot - but when I write about it, I want to rewrite it so Troi and Wesley are working together to assuage the crew/people living on the Enterprise, Riker immediately evacs nonessential personnel, and Picard contacts Starfleet and picks capable people among the hundreds who can translate languages and go down to archaeological sites while he develops a connection with the threatening Romulan Subcommander.

Two out of four blue Iconian takeover probes.


  1. Repeat after me -- there is *never* a good reason to enter the Neutral Zone!

    For some reason, I kept thinking of the last time my laptop was infected with a virus. Hey, take out the virus and reboot. The end. I guess if we're going to review a show from the late eighties/early nineties, we're going to have plots like this one.

    For me, the best moment in this episode was Brent Spiner's face after Data accidentally threw Geordi across the room. Geordi's reaction was hilarious, too.

    Plus I bet "Donald Varley" was a salute to John Varley, who happens to be my favorite science fiction writer. :)


    Nice review, Joseph.

  2. I read the review - then watched the episode. I am reading all the TNG reviews in order.

    IMO, TNG would have been much improved if Deanna Troi had been the El Aurian bar-tender, and Guinan had been the half-Betazoid empath counsellor. Lwaxana Troi could have been re-written as Deanna’s mum with two totally distinct personalities, and otherwise remained the same.

    I was puzzled by the end of the episode, because I thought Picard had set the planet to explode. All the talk between him and Worf was as though it was going to. Then, nothing.

  3. Thalmus Rasulala! I saw pretty much all the shows you mention JRS, and looking him up, I immediately recognized him. Shame he died at 55, he was in some crazy stuff such as Blacula, and other TV shows like The Incredible Hulk.

    At first I was getting this mixed up with the episode with the Romulans and that artifact that made people have psychotic episodes, which I can't recall offhand right now, but this is a missed opportunity to be sure. Not awful, but not great.

    And for Pete's sake, would writers please stop making characters act completely out of character like with Wesley here? It ruins immersion and it makes it hard to tell which characterizations are supposed to be there and which are from writers not caring to keep the character believable and consistent.


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