Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 1: Symbiosis

Airdate: April 18, 1988
22 of 176 produced
21of 176 aired


While investigating stellar flares in the Delos system, the Enterprise receives a distress call from a freighter traveling between two worlds in the system. On board, they discover representatives from the two worlds, and a large cargo of a drug called Felicium, destined for "plague relief" on the destination planet. But things are not as they seem, as Dr. Crusher witnesses the use of the drug and sees hat it is more a potent narcotic than an anti-viral drug. Will Picard and the Enterprise intervene in this apparent case of exploitation, or will they adhere to the Prime Directive?
I swear, if you make one more preachy speech, this person DIES!


Matthew: This is one of TNG's first "allegory" episodes. This is a grand tradition in Trek, giving us some classic TOS episodes (A Taste of Armageddon) and some less-than-classic ones (A Private Little War). The question becomes how good an allegory we are presented with - and this is problematic whenever the allegory veers into direct preaching, as this one does on several occasions. If we're going to get preached to this much, I'd have preferred something a little more controversial. The aborted AIDS episode from David Gerrold, for instance. It would have been especially effective given Merrit Butrick's own infection. Composing a screed against narcotic use is about as controversial as writing about the awfulness of wife-beating. The drug sermon that Data and Yar deliver to Wesley is so unbearably, painfully lame, it almost defies description.

Kevin: I don't know if it ameliorates or aggravates the sin of this episode given that it would have taken place at the apogee of Nancy Reagan's Just Say No whatnot. Is it better or worse that it's such a product of its day. The homily on drug use was unnecessary. The addiction and its effects are obvious. Layering on the lecture detracts from the point. The real meat of the episode is the Prime Directive issues it raises, but we'll get to those in a second.

Matthew: The solar flares in the Delos system set up the problems for the two societies. But I really have to wonder why the Enterprise needs to get so close to study this star. Riker says "we've never seen anything like that before," but solar flares seem pretty pedestrian. Why not send a probe? Why would the brightness of the sun be a problem on a viewscreen, necessitating masking out the photosphere? Does the viewscreen really get as bright as a sun? They must have made some serious advances in TV technology... I did like, as a side note, to laud Riker's proper use of the word "awesome," to describe the flares as giant and terrifying. 

Kevin: The set up was essentially a framing sequence and a largely unnecessary one. They could have simply been hailed by a stranded freighter about to suffer some catastrophic accident. That being said, at least it's dispensed with in the teaser.

Matthew: The "reveal" was dragged out a bit too long. More investigation of the actual moral issues of interfering vs. non-interference would have been more interesting.  I would have liked to see both cultures developed more. The Brekkians could have been humanized considerably - maybe a scene of them indicating that this is their job, and that they hate being away from their palatial drug-money estates and children for so long out of the year. The Ornarans could have been developed into something other than junkie boobs. The scene in which Crusher and Picard "deduce" the actual relationship of the two cultures is way too cute. They discover by pure argumentation that Brekka had the plague, the true nature of the refinement process, and so on.

Kevin: Part of my problem is the set up is too extreme. How can there be no native industry on Brekka? Forget a planet's worth of drugs, you know what fills more than five cargo bays? Food and blankets for an entire planet.

Matthew: The Prime Directive is slippery here. Picard readily agrees to fix the remaining Ornaran freighters, but then reneges, apparently in order to satisfy the Prime Directive by not interfering - allowing the Ornaran freighters to break and the drug trade to cease. Why was it OK before? Just what qualifies as "interference?" Completely propping up a planet's economy is OK when it involves rutabagas, but not when it involves high-grade smack? In his closing sermon on the PD, Picard says that any interference with a less developed civilization, however well intentioned, is invariably disastrous. So either he broke it by intercepting and rescuing the freighter in the first place, and was trying to "unbreak" it on the back end, or it's all open to interpretation, and doesn't amount to a whole hell of a lot. What is the magical threshold for "less-developed?" Why don't the Brekkians just help the Ornarans fix their freighters, or at least prevent Ornara from slipping too far from the technical expertise that provides for both their worlds? You'd think the pushers would realize the importance of the freighters and work to ensure their viability. Can't the Ornarans trade for coils with some other galactic power that isn't bound by the PD? 

Kevin: As with most episodes which turn on the Prime Directive, the discussion falls a little flat. In a way, the Prime Directive is a cheat. It allows us to compensate for our fears of making the wrong decision by taking the decision out of our hands. We can comfort ourselves that even if the consequences of inaction are horrible, we couldn't have acted differently if we wanted to. In the case of a pre-warp civilization, the PD's applications are bright-line and easy to see the benefit of. For more advanced civilizations, it gets murkier. I also think there's needs to be a distinction between mere interaction and "interference with the natural development" of a civilization. Merely being in their star system to observe the star, merely allowing them to confirm the existence of extraterrestrial life could both be construed as violations if the PD is interpreted too strictly. In that case, saving the ship in interacting: the intergalactic equivalent of helping change a tire. Even giving them the coils wouldn't be "interfering." Consciously doing so with the goal of affecting their society would be. So, in the end, Picard's hands are tied only insofar as overriding the local legal system in how it handles ownership of the felicium. Both giving and not giving them the coils will have profound implications for this set up, and it's a dodge to pretend the decision is not his to make because of the Prime Directive. He could have easily have decided that a sufficiently advanced civilization asked for technical assistance which he is free to provide; the Federation is in the habit of being altruistic. Picard chose the interpretation of the PD that happens to best comport with what he thinks is ultimately best. It would have been more interesting to discuss that in the show, even if only have Crusher call him on his actual decision making.

Matthew: It is weird how Picard says "we may never know" what the resolution of the Brekka-Ornara struggle is. Why the hell not? The Federation finds this star interesting enough to divert the flagship there, and one would certainly think that Starfleet will be following up on this Prime Directive case. The final line by Geordi is also strange. Can the ship just go to random places simply out of curiosity, upon the suggestion of a junior crew member?


Matthew: The guest stars were a split. The Ornarans were quite good - their "junkie" acting was very convincing, and the way they prepared and used the drug was very effective. You could totally imagine it being a fix of heroin or cocaine. The Brekkians were a little less enjoyable. Their characters were rather flat and two dimensional - just a pair of ingratiating drug dealers with no depth. Merritt Butrick and Judson Scott, were both veterans of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan by the way, as David Marcus and Joachim, respectively.

Kevin: I liked the Brekkians a little more than you did. I think the deficiencies were more writing related than acting. Based on WOK, we know Judson Scott can deliver with a better script to read.

Matthew: This is a standout episode for Gates McFadden. She did the "compassionate doctor" schtick quite well. Her disgust upon watching the narcotic reactions was good, too. She had good chemistry with Stewart, who had to play the more duty-oriented "philosophical" role. Their scenes were enjoyable.

Kevin: I agree. A little piece of trivia, and it relates to one of the actors, so here's a good a place as any. When Picard and Crusher leave the cargo bay, Tasha waves goodbye to the camera in the background. Skin of Evil airs next, but this was filmed after, so that was actually the last scene she filmed.

Production Values

Matthew: We get a re-use of the light effect from "Lonely Among Us" on the flare-affected panels. The Electrical bio-field looked pretty good. We also get a re-use of the Batris model from Heart of Glory. The "guest quarters" has a flat wall screen that plays host to a pretty ho-hum optical effect of their communication with the planet of Ornara.

Kevin: The optical effect on T'Jon's hand oddly stretches his fingers. It freaks me out.

Matthew: The aliens were pretty weak in this episode. The nose appliances were quite understated, and the  costumes were a little on the nose - rich slick dealers vs. poor addicted hicks. Langor's pink leather skirt costume was a bit strange, and quite unflattering. It make the actress appear much flatter and boxier than she probably should have. If your actress is not voluptuous, cutouts and big shoulders aren't going to help her.

Kevin: Even though the story elements didn't quite make sense, I thought the production team did a pretty awesome job rendering the solar flares and the corona of the sun. And I thought blocking out the photosphere made sense and it would make it easier to see the corona, like during an eclipse.

Matthew: Are the Brekkians drinking tranya in the guest quarters? I really liked the dosing device and injection set, they looked like real machines, and real drug paraphernalia. 


Matthew: This is a 2. The story is too straightforward and sermonizing. It doesn't develop in any particularly interesting ways. The pacing is sluggish and boring. Some decent acting saves it from utter terribleness. This is the sort of Season One story that might have been saved in later seasons with some better editing and script breaking ("The Outcast" comes to mind as a similar story). But it is ultimately forgettable, and I almost never think of it when I ponder the wonders of Season One. YAWN.

Kevin: This episode just squeaks into a 3 for me. I enjoyed the Ornarans' performance and Picard and Crusher's discussions enough to push this into average territory. The problem is the episode tries to make everything to clean and neat from the set up for this drug trade to the application of the Prime Directive. A little more ambiguity and actual moral dilemma would have been more effective, but I still enjoy watching the episode. That makes for a total of 5.


  1. HD Highlights from the Blu-Ray:

    The shots of the flaring sun were really nice looking. Overall, this was a good looking episode, given its "bottle show" nature. Everything was well lit and detailed.

  2. I dont understand how letting these people know that there was no plague and that they were basically being drugged and lied to constituted a violation of the prime directive? It is not like Picard decided to intervene in any material way or would have promised a fleet of Federation ships to help the Ornarans in their fight against the deceptive Brekkians. All he would have done was inform them that 'hey, this is what is happening, just so you know.' why is that interference? He kept saying that he didnt want to impose federation principles on them but just telling someone what is happening is not imposing anything. I found that to be a very strange rationale for his actions and Crusher had every right to be frustrated.