Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 3: The Ensigns of Command

The Next Generation, Season 3
Airdate: October 2, 1989
48 of 176 produced
49 of 176 aired


The Enterprise is summoned to the Tau Cygna system by a mysterious former foe, the Sheliak. The Sheliak wish to colonize a planet in the system, but a wayward human colony has taken root there. Now, this group of humans is threatened with destruction by the Sheliak if Data cannot convince them to evacuate, and Picard cannot convince the Sheliak to delay their arrival.
"Let 'dem bitchez wait..."


Matthew: Certain aspects of this tale are confusing. We get a teaser which sets up Data's lack of "soul" in playing the violin at a recital. Apparently, this is to be contrasted with his learning experience on the planet, in which he moves beyond mere attempts at verbal persuasion in moving the colonists. But I'm going to say that this aspect of the story really isn't emphasized or dramatized well. He meets a woman who sincerely wants to bone him, but this plot goes nowhere. At the end of the story, it doesn't seem like Data has changed all that much. It was just a kind of weak "development" story for the character. Then, you have the Sheliak - a race fundamentally different from humanoids, who apparently are extremely difficult to communicate with... except they're not. It turns out that they're just really good lawyers who are sticklers for contract language. So there are two potential themes here, neither of which are really developed. Later Data episodes would actually explore the nature of his artificial consciousness, and later shows would explore alien communication in greater depth, too. The C story, of Geordi, Wes, and O'Brien trying to modify the transporters, is very funny, and I wish there had been more of it.

Kevin: I like the implications on Data's character in this episode, but they don't go far enough. I don't think we've gotten an extensive study of Data's ethics before. Assault and destruction of property are pretty big moves to take, and you can make the ends justify the means speech, but it's not one Data has made before. To say that Data springs from the works of Asimov is a bit of an understatement, and while I'm not asking for an explicit discussion of the Rules of Robotics, it could have been fun to see how Data weighs the harm he caused versus the harm he prevented.

Matthew: All that said, this episode is sort of mildly enjoyable all the way through. The colonists are pretty well realized, and I found myself caring about them. It's a story that's going to be developed more later - treaties putting colonies on the wrong side of a border. It's not particularly sci-fi, but it's easy to identify with the brave and hardy colonists against those darned bureaucrats. I enjoyed the basic puzzle of how Data can persuade these hidebound colonists to uproot. I must say I found their tale of "Adapting to radiation" to be a bit unbelievable. A little more detail could have gone a long way, and actually could have boosted the "sci-fi cred" of the story. Humans altering their own genome in order to survive on a new world is an interesting idea. How might it change them, both physically and mentally? Perhaps that could have been the sticking point for relocating them - they can't live on a class-M world any longer. C'est la Vie.

Kevin: I like this episode on the balance, but I agree, it has issues. Neither of the main plotlines gets the full development they should. The conversation between Troi and Picard was nice. I particularly like her line about she and Picard "conceive of the universe in the same way." It would have been nice to see some real evidence of that in the Sheliak. Likewise, the colony felt a little undercooked. A few scenes of the colonists at work or, like Matt said, some more history of the early colony would have made it a more real place, and therefore more interesting. The comedy of the transporter was a quiet highlight of the episode. It's always nice to see comedy achieved cleanly and neatly in a way that doesn't derail the episode or make anyone stupid or demeaned.

Matthew: The title is another confusing bit - apparently it's from a poem by John Quincy Adams, and the "ensigns" he is referring to are signs or indications of authority, not literal ensigns. But in a show with plenty of ensigns, it's an odd choice, if the poem itself is not actually referenced on screen.

Kevin: I liked the bookending scenes with Data's violin playing. It's a hair shy of the overarching unifier of an episode that stuff like that should be, but the scenes taken as a pair are really nice, and a nice note on the nature of creativity.


Matthew: Actor Grainger Hines as Gosheven was pretty good - except for the fact that his voice was dubbed over by an unknown actor. Sources are conflicting over whether this was his choice or someone else's. But despite the disparity between physical and audible presence, both performances were quite adequate and believable.

Kevin I always found the dubbing distracting. It was well done, but the microsecond lack of sync that is inevitable is enough to give me linguistic vertigo. I agree the actor really threw himself into the part.

Matthew: Stewart was pretty good as a frustrated negotiator. His scene dusting the plaque while the Sheliak waited was good stuff. Yet again. Marina Sirtis is a good counselor and diplomatic aide. I also liked LeVar Burton's well-timed comedy as he protested the impossible task he was given. Spiner provided his usual competent Data. Nothing here was terribly challenging, though, with the exception of a slightly more aggressive demeanor. It represents some growth for the character, to be sure. But previous performances have been more noteworthy.

Kevin: I gotta say the acting this episode, like in the last episode, really showcase how comfortable the actors are with their parts and how nice even their low-key moments can be.

Production Values

Matthew: The matte work showing the colony and aqueducts was average, not great. Overall, the "city" suffered from a distinct case of the low budget blues. The number of extras was OK, but not impressive, and at no time did I think there were 15,000 people hidden away somewhere. The costumes were very nineties sci-fi, kind of like the future-Western aesthetic of "Firefly," actually.

Kevin: If nothing else, I like that the clothes looked like actual clothing. The switch to more natural fiber plays well. It moves better and looks more textural on screen. The lighting was odd for me. It seemed to be eternally dusk. It desaturated everything in a way that was not aesthetically pleasing.

Matthew: One oddity in this episode is the use of CGI ships. The Sheliak ship came off pretty well (despite seeming like a bit of a retread from the cargo vessel in STIII), but apparently the producers weren't happy with the level of detail on the CGI Enterprise, and the use of CGI for ships was tabled for quite some time. If you're curious, the shots are at 31:07 and 34:37.

Kevin: I never really noticed, but looking at the still shot, it does look a little "early 90s computer graphics." I liked the way some of the other shots looked, when the ships were moving around each other.

Matthew: The Sheliak alien, played by the same guy who played "Skin of Evil's" Armus, was interesting, to say the least. Sort of like a black bellows with shiny applique. The forward-facing angle of the Sheliak ship interior was OK, since the lit plastic "stalactites" were neat. But it was quite easy to see the soundstage wall on the rear shot, which took me out of the moment.  It was a good idea with subpar execution. Only the acting carried it.

Kevin: I always thought the headpiece of the Sheliak looked like Khan's mask from Ceti Alpha V in WOK.

Matthew: The other bit effects/props scenes were the transporters and their test canisters. The melty ones looked neat. That's all I really have to say about that.


Matthew: This one is a little half-baked in my estimation. We'll get better Data-growth stories and better radically-other alien stories. But there isn't really anything awful about this episode, either. It's a 3. In fact, it's pretty much the definition of a 3. Averagely entertaining across the board.

Kevin: I found myself struggling to come up with non-repetitive commentary and the fact that I had a bit of trouble should say something. Still, the episode is never bad. I enjoy this episode while I'm watching it and I never skip it when I watch season three. This get a three from me as well for a total of 6.


  1. I guess I have always liked this episode and found it fun and entertaining. I always enjoy watching Picard banter with the Sheliak.

    I am surprised that Data does not have a sex function. Like he can recognize when a woman or maybe even a man wants to have sex with him and he can turn on some program and relieve some stress.

    I agree btw that there is no way that there are 15000 people on the planet. You see like 50 in a small village.

  2. If Data was equipped in a variety of techniques as well as equipped with the equipment, shouldn't he have also been programmed to recognize when the guest star totally wants it, so he could put those techniques to work and continue attempting to become more human?

    Maybe Android's are just monogamous...

  3. The writer, Melinda Snodgrass, has posted an earlier draft of this script online, and indicated that she was not happy with the changes made during the rewrite. In it, there is a much more obvious attraction between Data and Ard'rian McKenzie (and a relationship with McKenzie and Goshoven). The director stated there was a last-minute $200,000 budget cut, the biggest casualty of which was the Data romance - which really doesn't make much sense to me.

    Taking into account the final draft of the script (though not the on-screen credits) bears a pseudonym, I think it was more a case of Executive Meddling on the part of Rick Berman or then-head writer Michael Wagner. Maybe they wanted to keep Data pure and innocent...

    1. Yeah this seems oddly inconsistent given the "fully functional" scene in the second episode of the series! I totally believe it, though.