Friday, May 6, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 3: The Defector

The Next Generation, Season 3
Airdate: January 1, 1990
57th of 176 produced
57th of 176 aired


A mysterious Romulan defector fights his way to the Enterprise through a gauntlet of Romulan warbirds. Although he claims to be a lowly military functionary, he also claims to have detailed knowledge of a Romulan plan to begin a major new offensive against the Federation. But as the crew of the Enterprise investigates his claims, things start failing to add up. Who is the defector, and is his story a fabrication? A devastating war between two great powers hangs upon the answers.

Eff Yeah!


Matthew: Ron D. Moore follows up his first script, "The Bonding," with something a bit more in his weelhouse - tense political thrillers. He nails it, as the story of a mysterious Romulan defector does a lot to both develop the Romulans as well as keep us guessing with a nice mystery - is Jarok a fraud, or is there really an impending war brewing? The scenes in which the crew debates whether he is faking or not were fun, and Picard's confrontation with Jarok allowed for very nice dialogue and acting moments. Picard conscripting Data to keep an objective record was a nice touch, but should have been developed further. The standoff scene between Picard and Tomalak was wonderful, and it makes me wish there had been a bit more of it. The same goes for the interrogation scenes with Riker and Troi grilling Jarok.

Kevin: Everyone responsible for Nemesis, take notes. This is how Romulan stories are done. It's the perfect marriage of character development and good storytelling. What I particularly enjoyed about the scenes with the crew debating Jarok's reliability is that they weren't merely rehashes. The all approach a different part of the problem, the characters explore them in different ways tied to their character's viewpoint, and especially in the scene with LaForge and Data, they slip in little bits of information that actually advance the plot. I liked that Troi would be on the interrogation team and that she didn't just sit there or play good cop. The communiques from Starfleet were also well done. The effect of distance on a real time conversation has always been a little vague, but I liked just these bursts of information that do nothing but confirm Picard's worst fears, and leave him solely responsible for what happens.

Matthew: The Shakespeare scene from Henry V was a novel and interesting teaser. It gives us a chance to see both Stewart and Spiner performing Shakespeare, which was most welcome. But more than that, it was a good tie-in with the main story, which is a feature of the best teasers. Jarok of course is masquerading as someone far below his station, and Picard wishes he could be more connected with his crew in a similar way.

Kevin: The scene was originally supposed to be another Sherlock Holmes adventure, but they couldn't secure the rights, and I have to say I'm really glad they went with the Shakespeare. Not only do you get to avail yourself of one of the highest caliber of Shakespearean actors around, it does tie in nicely with the main story.

Matthew:  Random notes - I'm really glad they ditched the romance between Crusher and Jarok. It really would have sullied her character to have her fall for a potential enemy, especially on such a short timetable. Right after he says that the Federation's knowledge of Romulus is extremely limited, Data programs an instantly recognizable holodeck recreation of it. huh?

Kevin: I agree the romance would have been a mistake, but I am less bothered by the holodeck. It was a fairly static program of a pretty big geological feature. We knew what the Kremlin looked like throughout the cold war, and there have to be enough neutral worlds with enough relations with both for at least something to come through. Had it been a busy street in the Romulan capital, authentic down to what the daily special in the cafe is, I would be bothered, but I think this falls in the penumbra of "extremely limited." Romulus has valleys. That's all we know.

Matthew: I think a few things hold this script back from unadulterated greatness. There is no real sci-fi to speak of. Moore himself called it "The Cuban Missile Crisis in space," which indicates the lack of hard sci-fi right there. Now, I guess there is room for some episodes that aren't sci-fi extravaganzas. But the fact that this episode is also a bit talky indicates that certain scenes could have been pared down and replaced with sci-fi elements. "Contagion," for instance, is similarly tense and loaded with intrigue, but has enough time to develop the Iconian story. So as much as I enjoy "The Defector," I feel I can't give it a total pass on this score.

Kevin: This is a conversation we are going to have a lot when we get to Deep Space Nine, I think. I'm less bothered by the absence of Asimov-levels of hard science fiction in the foreground of a story. I think it's valid to say the universe in which these events are taking place is one sculpted by those science fiction concepts, so even if we just stage a political thriller, we're still seeing through the lens of that science fiction. I think it's interesting to watch how this fictional world we've created responds to a more identifiable problem. Essentially asking how Captain Picard would reaction to the Cuban missile crisis is itself a science fiction question, albeit a lightweight one, since the man Captain Picard is inseparable from the science fiction universe of which he is a part.


Matthew: James Sloyan was superb as Jarok, and it's easy to see why he was invited back for so many other roles in Trek. He has a great timbre to his voice, kind of reminiscent of David Warner's, just sans accent. He dove into his lines with gusto, especially those with alien place names. But he also gave a measured, complex performance of a conflicted character. This is easily in the top 5 guest starring roles in TNG.

Kevin: We've said it before, but any time you invest so much of your story in the guest star, he or she has to deliver, and this is the perfect example. I completely bought his internal conflict, and found myself feeling for him when the true deception is revealed. A lesser actor would not only have slowed the episode down, but robbed the story of its tension.

Matthew: Andreas Katsulas was great yet again as Tomalak. He was complex, both sneeringly arrogant as he taunted Picard, then icy upon learning of the Klingon double-cross. Has there ever been an episode with two such high quality guest starring roles?

Kevin: It's a shame Picard and Tomalak never have a scene together in person. Both Sloyan and Tomalak did a good job of acting like they knew each other. It may not have been in the script, but I definitely got the feeling both actors were treating each other like they knew and disliked each other long before this.

Matthew: Patrick Stewart shows why he was a successful Shakespearean actor with his "Henry V" scene. He puts on a great accent, and really makes the viewer identify with the character even in a small scene snippet. And then of course he kicks butt playing against Sloyan and Tomalak, with some really crackling scenes.

Kevin: I still get chills when Tomalak says he expected more than an idle threat, and Picard says "you shall have it." 

Production Values

Matthew: This episode features several great new ship models, including the more detailed Enterprise D and the cool looking Romulan scout ship. We also got some nice phaser/disruptor effects in the various space battle scenes. And then of course we get the killer shot of the Klingon BOP's de-cloaking behind the warbirds. All in all, a great display of spaceships for a TNG episode.

Kevin: What continues to delight me is how awesome and interesting and cool the space scenes are, but how they never overwhelm the story; they always serve it. The battle scenes and final double (double-double?) cross mesh perfectly with what the characters are describing as happening and last just long enough to not derail the narrative. It shows both a high degree of skill and restraint.

Matthew: There were two noteworthy optical effects - a really cool explosion of the scout ship through the observation window, which included a nice colored light effect on the actors to really sell it. The other was the ""Valley of Chula" holodeck scene - which looked kinda dumb for me. Not one of their better matte shots.

Kevin: The explosion was neat for both practical and story reasons, and it really came off. I think that was the moment you realize just how high the stakes are and that this is going to be a really high-tension episode. I agree the Valley of Chula was a little murky and too dark to really see, but maybe we can chalk that up to limited knowledge.


Matthew: This is definitely a good show, but it's a 4 for me due to the slight dragginess of some scenes, and the lack of sci-fi concepts. TNG has proven itself capable of telling both a tense action story and a good sci-fi yarn at the same time. Those episodes get the rarer 5 from me and land in the top decile. This episode is well above average, but falls from that rarefied height by just a tad in my opinion.

Kevin: This gets a four from me as well for a total of 8, for much the reasons Matt articulates. While I do not mind the absence of hard sci-fi as much, I still like to see it in an episode that we rank as the best. Still this definitely some of the finest acting in the series, and pretty close to the best in terms of effects, and this is in a neck and neck race with Unification for best Romulan story.


  1. Great podcast this week. Keep up the non-pg comments. Also I agree this is a great political episode.

  2. What were the "non-pg" comments? I assume PG means "parental guidance is suggested"...