Saga of the Jasonite

The continuing adventures of that eternal man of mystery…

Review of Episode 40: Pen Pals

Always holding hands, never making plans...

Always holding hands, never making plans…

Plot Synopsis:  Data makes contact with a young girl from a pre-warp civilization on a planet facing imminent annihilation. The Enterprise must wrestle with the moral dilemma of violating the Prime Directive or standing by while Data’s friend dies.

Plot A and B Analysis:  The teaser here involves the Enterprise investigating a solar system for purely scientific reasons, to solve the mystery of the “unusual geologic activity” in all of the planets. In the meantime we see Picard for the first time as a rider of horses, talking with Troi about his love for the animals. The Arabian just looks magnificent, too. It ends with a second planet that has died fast from its own geologic processes. Plot A revolves around Data and his ‘pen pal,’ plot B involves Wes and his first leadership role. Plot B kicks off right after the teaser, with Wes being put in charge of the planetary mineral survey. Then we learn Data is playing around with the sensors to pick up things outside their normal range and in the course of it he hears a little girl’s voice asking, “Is anybody out there?” He talks back. The only problem is her civilization doesn’t know about interstellar life, thus violating the Prime Directive, and both plots are off and running. Plot A is the more ethically compelling, but plot B isn’t dull unless you’re a Wesley-hater, in which case you probably feel more like this. Both plot lines resolve to our satisfaction, though I think there was a little bit of a cheat at the end. I’ll discuss that further down in the review.

Favorite Scenes:  There are a couple. The first takes place in Ten Forward, with Wes asking some advice of Riker about command. This picks up toward the end of the conversation:

Riker:  …if you don’t trust your own judgment, you don’t belong in the command chair.

Wes:  But what if I’m wrong?

Riker:  Then you’re wrong. It’s arrogant to think you’ll never make a mistake!

Wes:  But what if it’s something really important… what if somebody dies because I made a mistake?

Riker:  In your position, it’s important to ask yourself one question:  what would Picard do?

Wes smiles:  He’d listen to everyone’s opinion and then make his own decision. But he’s Captain Picard.

Riker:  Well, it doesn’t matter. Once Picard makes his decision, does anyone question it?

Wes:  No way!

Riker:  And why not?

Wes:  I’m not sure.

Riker:  When you figure it out, you’ll understand command.

I’ve always remembered that exchange for some reason, all these years later. I’ve even used it myself, helping another counselor who was nervous about making mistakes. It’s true, everything we need to know about life we learn from watching Star Trek! My favorite scene takes place right after, in the Captain’s quarters. It’s unusual, because these kinds of discussions almost always take place in the observation lounge. I like the kind of informality that it engenders though. They are discussing whether they should intervene to try and stop the planet from dying, killing Data’s friend and millions of others on it. It’s a great conversation about whether to violate the Prime Directive, and there are several good arguments here. I have to insert one exchange; they are debating whether they have the right to interfere, whether the Dremans are ‘fated to die.’

Data:  But commander, the Dremans are not a subject for philosophical debate. They are a people.

Picard:  So we make an exception in the deaths of millions.

Pulaski *with certainty*:  Yes.

Picard:  And is it the same situation if it’s an epidemic and not a geological calamity?

Pulaski *with equal certainty*:  Absolutely.

Picard:  What about a war? If generations of conflict is killing millions, do we interfere?

*they all hesitate*

Picard:  Well, we’re all a little less secure in our moral certitude. And what if it’s not just killings? If an oppressive government is enslaving millions? You see the Prime Directive has many different functions, not the least of which is to protect us. To prevent us from allowing our emotions to overwhelm our judgment.

It continues on from there, and is a great conversation piece if you watch this with some friends. I wish there were more moments like this in Star Trek. There aren’t as many as I would like.

Well, this planet has seen better days...

Well, this planet has seen better days…

Use of Cast/Characters:  Picard has some character development here in the form of his interests, and has to make some very difficult decisions regarding their situation. He comes across very well, IMO, and highlights why you would want to serve under him. Riker has some to do also, and we see a bit more of his relationship with Wes in a mentoring role. Data, of course, is the catalyst behind plot A and his subtle acting comes shining through. He’s well-written in this episode as well. Does he have emotions? Why does he respond to that “cry from the dark?” Is it intellectual curiosity or something more? For that matter why does it matter to him if she, or the Dremans in general, die? It’s another good discussion piece. Worf has very little to do, contributing a few lines and not much more. “I have a problem with that kind of rigidity. It seems callous, and even a little cowardly.” That’s Pulaski calling Worf a coward, and would’ve been responded to if Picard hadn’t stepped in. It doesn’t exactly raise her likability quotient, though she defends Data in a backhanded way a few minutes later. Either the writers don’t have a great handle on how to use her, or she is failing at making the audience like her–or both. Wes is on display in plot B and I think does a good job. He’s not going to earn an Oscar any more than Marina is, but we get to see a significant step in his development as a character and as a young man. Thank goodness at this point in the season the writers aren’t afraid to use him. Speaking of Troi, she and Geordi have about as much to do as Worf, contributing a few lines but not a lot more. The guest stars do a competent job here, nothing bad but nothing exceptional.

Blu Ray Version:  The planets are on full display here, from the one shown in the teaser through the changing one we see in the episode. They’re very good.

Nitpicks:  Picard pretty clearly mispronounces the word Allah. The ending I think is a bit of a cheat, simply erasing her memory. It would have been more interesting if they couldn’t, and ultimately I don’t see how preserving it would radically alter the civilization…she’s just a little kid, and kids have active imaginations don’t they? The only other nitpick is watching Frakes doing that dumb Riker Maneuver pretty prominently around the 35th minute. This isn’t exactly a fast-paced episode either, if you’re one that needs action.

Overall Impression:  This episode is something of an oddity in TNG. There’s not much action, there is no “enemy” to generate conflict or tension, but it’s not boring and it turns into a character piece. I think this is an under-appreciated episode. The philosophical versus the human element is really interesting. On the one hand we have the Prime Directive, one of the founding principles upon which the entire Star Trek franchise is based; on the other hand, even though we are in the right can we sit back and watch others die? This is a situation in which, had the crew decided to do nothing, it would have been the “right” thing but we would have felt wrong about it. Why did it feel acceptable to intervene here but not in other episodes, such as Symbiosis? This is a discussion episode, and I like those. Having said all that, I’m not quite sure this episode delivers, if it went far enough. It seems like there could have been more, somehow, and it would have been even better. I’m having a difficult time determining a rating, but I will rate this episode 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Oh please, what's a few active volcanoes?

Oh please, what’s a few active volcanoes?

Behind the Scenes/Trivia:  This is where I first learned the word “anthropomorphise.” Not bad for a guy who hadn’t quite turned 14 yet! Picard’s riding will be referenced in Starship Mine but won’t come into play again until the Generations film. This is the second time that Picard outright violates the Prime Directive, the first being back in Justice. This episode had the only location shoot in the entire season, for Picard’s horseback riding scene which was filmed near the L.A. suburb Thousand Oaks. Ann Gillespie, who played Ensign Hildebrandt will also go on to be in several DS9 episodes as Nurse Jabara, but most folks will know her as Jackie Taylor from Beverly Hills 90210 (well, not me, I had too much taste to watch it, heh). Nikki Cox, who played Sarjenka, grows up to have a pretty decent acting career, and she also happens to look like this.

Missable/Unmissable?  It’s an interesting entry into the Star Trek universe. It is missable, but if you’ve got time I would recommend it. The next episode is one of the most pivotal of the whole series.

Previous:  The Icarus Factor                                         Season Two Menu                                       Next:  Q Who?

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