Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 3: Who Watches the Watchers

The Next Generation, Season 3
Airdate: October 16, 1989
51 of 176 produced
51 of 176 aired

Introduction

The Enterprise races to rescue a duckblind installation on Mintaka III, a hidden anthropological observation post that is about to be revealed for all to see. When they fail to prevent the revelation of their technological superiority to the Bronze-Age level Mintakans, the potential for cultural contamination is vast. But even more perilous is one Mintakan's violent response to the interlopers.

Troi negotiates with the Mintakan women for Riker's hirsute "services."



Matthew: I really like this episode. It has a great concept - the duckblind anthropological research station. It has a great theme - is the prime directive against interference more important than a crewman's life? And it takes a hard "secular humanist" stand on the issues, when Picard refuses to masquerade as a deity in order to defuse a tense situation. It's a well written tale (for the most part anyway) with themes that stand among the best of Trek. This story is one that really separates itself from TOS as "something they couldn't have done."

Kevin: There's a few pacing and logic problems I'll get to in a second, but this for me works as both a highlight of season 3 and the series as a whole. It's a quintessentially Rodenberry story and (finally) a thorough exploration of the Prime Directive as an actual rule of law, not merely a set of principles. It was also nice to questions of violating the Prime Directive in a setting where the set up did not make the debate feel one sided. Wesley's death in Justice or the Dreman extiniction in Pen Pals spring to mind as examples where the consequences of not violating the Prime Directive are so bad it makes the question moot. Here, there's a lot more gray about how to handle this and the writers handle it pretty well overall.

Matthew: I do have some questions about the story. Why would the duckblind be in a mountain? I understand that it's secluded - but isn't seclusion kind of a problem for close anthropological study of a society? What does Proto-Vulcan mean? Are we to take it that they are genetically related somehow? Do they have green blood? Geordi asking why the research station has a reactor was an inelegant exposition method which made him look kind of dumb. Why wouldn't he have all the specs before they got there? Does the UT work for semi-conscious Vulcans in sickbay? There are UT questions all over this story - Riker and Troi talk to this society with no issues whatsoever. How many people are on the planet? It seems like about 50, tops. What would the big contamination be? It might be on the order of a small religious cult that dies out over time. Yet the researcher claims that the foundation of a gigantic religion is "inevitable." Why aren't all communicators subcutaneous? It would come in really handy. Why wouldn't Riker have a hypospray or phaser with him to stun whoever he needed to, as opposed to tying up the old dude and lumbering outside? Why wouldn't Riker beam out immediately after tying up the old dude, instead of going outside and getting caught? Why was there no security in the transporter room as Picard beamed up a Mintakan alone? Vulcans are awfully strong. The timing of Warren's death to make a dramatic point to Nuria was a bit cute.  Finally, Liko's logic in shooting Picard was kind of difficult to believe - though his willingness to sacrifice was nice.  In the end, all of these questions are about things that served the drama of the story, if only a tad artificially. None of these problems were fatal, but they chipped away at an otherwise rock solid edifice of a story.

Kevin: The proto-Vulcan thing bothered me too. Wouldn't they be more violent, not less, if they were akin to pre-modern Vulcans? I think the episode establishes Riker needed to get outside to beam out, but that's a fairly obvious plot device in any event. I would still have liked a discussion of the ethics of memory wiping. Liko with the memory of the Enterprise is as valid and as worthy of the protections of the PD as the Liko without the memories, and performing surgery on him beyond what is necessary to save his life borders on assault. I agree as to the small number of Mintakans shown, but I will say they felt like a real people, not a pastiche of Earth cultures nor a two-dimensional trait given form for the sake of the story. Lastly, the scenes before and after Nuria is on board drag just a little. It's an occupational hazard for a talky episode, and it's not  really bad, it's just something I noticed.

Matthew: The whole sequence of Nuria on the ship was terrific. The way Picard walked her through the revelation that her people were not alone in the universe was superb. His explanation of the evolution of technology was perfect. His recognition of the Mintakan's abandonment of religion as a great achievement really warmed my secular humanist cockles - and probably could not have been done on TOS. There is a truly engaging ethical question - if the PD has already been violated, how should you minimize the damage? Is the  truth (that there is no reason to be superstitious and religious) more important than lives?

Kevin: Picard's solution to the problem is pretty ballsy, and it almost flies in the face of the logic underlying the Prime Directive, but that's almost why I like it so much. I like what it says about Picard that he regards these people enough to tell them the truth. It's a nice hearkening back to City on the Edge of Forever, watching Edith Keeler wax poetic about atomic energy. Lesser technology does not mean lesser minds, just lesser technology. The minds that will invent the better technology are always there.

Matthew: I just want to add that it was great to reference "Pen Pals" and Dr. Pulaski's memory erasure  method. I would have liked a bit more explanation of why it might fail - Dr. Crusher ends up looking a little incompetent.

Acting

Matthew: This is an unambiguous Picard show. He is the star. His scenes with Nuria were quite well done. I think this is his best performance on the series so far. He seemed so emotionally involved and legitimately proud of the Mintakans, it was really affecting.

Kevin: The scene in the observation lounge in particular was really moving. It helped that Picard and Nuria seemed to have genuine rapport. Layered beneath the admiration was a little regret that Picard couldn't come back to watch their progress.

Matthew: Frakes and Sirtis should have their own show. Apparently they pitched one to CBS/Paramount. They were denied. But, even though I think the concept might water down the brand, their personal chemistry is so good that I'd still tune in every week. And hell, it couldn't be worse than something run by JJ Abrams.


Kevin: I would so watch that show. I'm picturing a futuristic How I Met Your Mother with Jonathan Frakes narrating to the future Riker/Troi children.

Matthew: Kathryn Leigh Scott was really good as Nuria, as was the rest of the guest cast as other Mintakans. They all seemed very believable, even Ray Wise as Liko. Whoever is casting TNG has really started to hit their stride in Seasons 2 and 3. No longer do we have the Edo or the Ligonians. The acting in this episode is really top notch.


Kevin: Like I said, despite the small numbers, the Mintakans really felt like a people, and the individuals were all fully developed. Oji didn't exactly get a lot of lines, but I still feel like I know a lot about the girl who lost her mother and is responsible for checking the sundial. It's the little details like that that really make an episode sing.

Production Values

Matthew: This is a Diablo canyon show, to be sure. All the Mintakan homeworld scenes take place there. You can't fault it - it's a great location. The interior sets of the Mintakans were good, too. Their wardrobe was solid, as well. Everything read very bronze age - except for the bow and arrows. Other touches included the Mintakan sash that shows up again in Picard's quarters. Also, Crusher's cardigan loses its lapels for some reason.

Kevin: I'll add that the camera people really nailed the outdoor shots. The colors were rich and nothing felt washed out by the abundant sunlight. Going back to episodes like Arena in TOS, the desert shots could be a little overbright. The color and detail really stand out. I agree the costuming work deserves praise. The transition to fabric from spandex really pays off here.

Matthew: The music in this episode really stands out. We get a lot of really lovely music for Liko's  "revelation" and Nuria's onboard scenes. It really underscored the mystical elements of the story and the triumph of overcoming that mysticism. The only real visual effect was a great one - the planet through observation lounge windows. It looked good, with very little of the picture degradation that usually accompanies composited effects shots. It even reflected off the table. Really well done.

Kevin: I loved that planet shot. Nothing annoys me more than a gas giant from orbit looking like a Class M from the ground. Mintaka III looked like an actual world that supports life.

Conclusion

Matthew: This is really close to a 5. But I just can't do it - the story had too many little nagging issues. The theme is wonderful, the acting is top notch, and the production is effective. This is a great show with a few problems, and really speaks well to the maturing of TNG. It's a high 4.  


Kevin: I agree wholeheartedly on the 4. It a most Star Trek of stories and the actors really nailed it. Everything about this episode shows how far TNG has come. That makes for a well-deserved total of 8.

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