Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Next Generation, Season 2: Pen Pals

The Next Generation, Season 2
"Pen Pals"
Airdate: May 1, 1989
40 of 176 produced
40 of 176 aired


The Enterprise has been sent to the Selcundi Drema sector to explore why the planets in its five star systems seem to be tearing themselves apart. Worlds that held thriving ecosystems a few years ago have turned into volcanic wastelands. As part of his training aboard the Enterprise, Wesley is assigned to lead the team that will investigate the phenomenon. Complicating matters, Data has been in contact with a child from a pre-warp civilization on one of the threatened worlds. Captain Picard must now balance the demands of the Prime Directive against the little girl's cry for help.
Captain, I'm sensing unusually icky fingers. With my regular senses. Eew.


Kevin: There are two stories here, and they function largely independently of one another, so let's take them one at a time. I really liked the Wesley storyline. I was reading through TV Tropes today, as Matt has been linking to it recently in his reviews, and I saw a comment that made a lot of sense. When the show is about Wesley, it's usually pretty good. It's when he horns in on someone else's spotlight you kind of want to throttle him. This episode bears that out. A (presumably) science focused mission would be a good wading pool for Wesley. It's a serious job, but not one with lives on the line, at least at the start. His enthusiasm and trepidation were well played and well balanced. The resistance of the elder officers on his team stayed on this side of the line of being a two-dimensional jerk. My only minor complaint is that there were one too many conversations between Wesley and command staff about the nature of command. Also, did the whole senior staff need to be in on this decision? I think it would have been more effective as a conversation between Picard and Riker in his ready room.

Matthew: The Wesley story was great. Definitely his best so far. And I thought it married well with the A plot, inasmuch as it shows that there is something for the other 990 people on board to do when the Enterprise visits planet X and culture Y. The board meeting about Wesley did seem like a bit of padding, but I didn't mind it too much. The dialogue was even pretty good, what with the sword metaphor and all. The conflict on the team was realistic and identifiable. The lovely thing about this episode in general, and this B story in particular, is that it's a story about smart people trying to grapple with a big natural problem. Nobody is dumb in this episode. Nothing dumb ever has to happen. It's like soul food for intelligent nerds.

Kevin: The more complicated, and more weighty plot is obviously the one with Data and Sarjenka. On the one hand, I did enjoy the staff meeting about the Prime Directive and its implications. I liked Picard's use of the Socratic method to walk Pulaski down from her certainty. Like most episodes that center around the Primer Directive, I think it didn't go far enough. This seems like a situation the Prime Directive isn't quite designed to handle. Especially since, save for Sarjenka, their interference is completely hidden, how does the PD stand up against the their moral imperative to not let people die?

Matthew: Picard dismisses an argument as "sophistry." Yup, I'm enjoying this. I can't imagine a prime time television show today using the word sophistry in a sentence. This whole scene, as I mention above, is what kind of gives me a little nerd-gasm over this episode. Smart people talking about smart stuff. Good, pointed dialogue. Philosophical content. Issues of free will and determinism. Deontological vs. utilitarian ethics. Sigh. I love Star Trek.

Kevin: I have a major problem, though, with this episode's application of the Prime Directive. How is wiping Sarjenka's memory not a violation of the Prime Directive, let alone assault? Pulaski's line about Sarjenka being the person she's "supposed to be," seems to evidence the kind of paternalistic know-it-all-ness that Prime Directive is supposed to prevent. Sarjenka's life is as valid with these experiences as before she had them and is as worthy of protection. One other issue I have, and it's more a nitpick, is I don't get Data doing this in the first place. It would have made more sense for me to have Wesley make contact, during his scans of the planet. His inexperience and wanting to the right thing might more credibly lead to this conundrum. It also would have been a more interesting test of his command skills. Also, as it stands, there's never really a denouement of his storyline. He comes up with the solution, does some mild pumping of his fist in the air, and that's that.

Matthew: My problem with the Prime Directive here was the very nebulous distinction between "we can't talk to them no matter how endangered they are" to "that's become a plea." Who cares if it's a plea? It's a plea from a pre-warp civilization with no inkling of alien life. I'm sure in the days of HAM radio, many a nerd has pleaded to the heavens for remuneration, intervention, stimulation, whatever. Does that mean you should answer it? It just seemed like a convenient prevarication in order to advance the plot. It undercut a lovely scene in which smart people argued passionately for their viewpoints. Why does being slightly more pathetic than a minute before change things?

Kevin: I did like the holodeck scene. The idea that Betazoids are aware of non-sentient life forms emotions is interesting, and reinforces the idea their telepathy is biological and not magical. Aside from some of the size of the holodeck issues we have discussed before, those scenes played really well.

Matthew: It's another in a line of scenes turning Picard from snooty Frenchie into suave Brit. I'm down with it. The scenery was lovely, the dialogue was good, and I only found myself pondering the physics of the holodeck for a little while - how can one person ride a horse over distance while a stationary observer watches?


Kevin: I think the main cast did a pretty good job overall. I think some of their positions on the Prime Directive, save Pulaski and Picard, were dictated by the desire to have lots of viewpoints rather than having ones consistent with their established characters, but they all committed, and well done ensemble scenes are always nice. Wil Wheaton also did a good job with his scenes. His indecision was credible, and I liked the way he managed to tell Davies to run the test without sounding petulant at all. It's a long way from "Adults."

Matthew: I didn't find their positions to be out of character at all. The doctor was the compassionate one, Geordi was emotionally motivated, Troi was arguing for a more interventionist approach, Worf was a hard ass, Riker was annoyed at having to make a choice, and Picard was trying to find the balanced, consistent position. Sounds pretty much like their characters to me. I thought the actors all did well. The horse riding scenes were nice, both on Stewart's part as well as Sirtis.

Kevin: Brent Spiner was good in his scenes with Sarjenka. He's always infused Data with a child-like innocence of his own, and it played well in his scenes with her. It's hard to judge Sarjenka. She was supposed to be a scared child and she was. Chief O'Brien gets another few good lines when ordered to take a nap in the transporter room. Lastly, I never really thought about it before, but the two scientists who were supposed to be married were finishing each other's sentences in the briefing room. It's a nice touch and it's nice they didn't feel compelled to talk about it.

Matthew: The guest actors were fun, especially Nicholas Cascone as the annoyingly smug Ensign Davies. He played the role of supercilious snot very well. The dude's an ENSIGN, and he's pontificating on how he likes to break up married teams? I think Nikki Cox was pretty good as Sarjenka, actually. She definitely wasn't an annoying kid actor. She just had annoying lines. The actress now looks something like this:
So... still pretty orange. Just saying. It came up when I did an image search for this episode.

Production Values

Kevin: I liked the shots of the Dreman worlds from orbit. It was reminiscent of the later stages of the Genesis Planet from search for Spock. I also liked the Okudagrams charting the progress of the torpedoes on Drema IV. The landscape on Drema IV was a little disappointing. It's didn't look like a place where people had actually lived, it looked like a generic backdrop from a movie about dinosaurs.

Matthew: The "lab" set gets used here, and it will be a go-to set for a few "we need science but not sickbay" kinds of scenes from here on out. I like it, generally speaking. I can't quite tell if it involves a wall set from another location, with some consoles wheeled in. But I like it either way. Any new room on the Enterprise is great for me.

Kevin: I always found Sarjenka to be a little overdone, for lack of a better word. Her skin looked like a pound of orange make-up, not skin. The elongated pinky fingers were too ET for my tastes and the modulated voice was odd and a little grating. It seems like they just tried to do too much with the design.

Matthew: Sarjenka's house was interesting. There was a lot of detail, and some digital matte work with the volcanic backdrop out the door. Ive always been kind of... bugged by the optical effect of the door. Not that it looks bad on its own, but when they tried to paint a shadow for Data on it, the shadow doesn't move in synchrony with him. It's the kind of thing that leaps out in my mind and screams "FAKE!"


Kevin: On the strength of the philosophical discussion the episode engendered and Wheaton's solid performance, this gets a three. This could have easily been a four with a more complete and satisfying discussion as well as a more consistent application of the Prime Directive. As it stands, this is still a good episode, and another point in a trend line showing that an "average" episode in Season 2 is nothing to be ashamed of.

Matthew: I think it's a 4, and that brings it to a 7. Both A and B stories work. The A story is the most thorough discussion of the Prime Directive yet. If it falls short, it's not because of any fault of the actors or the overall story - more likely it is due to an overall vagueness among the production staff powers-that-be (up to and including Roddenberry). The debate scene totally makes this episode. But then the Wesley B story comes in and... doesn't suck at all. In fact, it really humanizes Wesley and turns him into a nice kid that we can root for. The actors all deliver here, and production values are good. I think this episode deserves to be considered in the upper quartile of Trek shows.


  1. This debate about the Prime Directive, along with all of the different views by both the different characters and this site's different commentators, brings me to one conclusion: Maybe you guys should have a section on the site that deals with the Prime Directive and allows follower discussion about it. :-)

  2. That would interfere with the natural development of the blog, and thus violate the Prime Directive.

    Though seriously, we should do a roundtable discussion post on it. It could be fun.

  3. Can we just agree that the Prime Directive is just a hippie/beatnik/liberal position that prevents the
    Federation from mining and taking advantage of the natural resources of all these planets with primitive cultures who don't know what they have! Step 1 Announce presence and wow the natives with your technology. Step 2 Sign "treaty" and ply natives with cheap trinkets and booze(holodecks in the case of the federation) Step 3 Break treaty and kick out natives Step 4 Rape the wilderness. If we Americans can do it well so can the Federation afterall isn't the federation supposed to be the U.S.A

  4. I definitely think that story explains the PD for TOS era Trek. The contrast was of course the Klingons, who were blatantly imperialistic and were not concerned at all about the native culture who owned the resources.

    But it seemed to morph into a more philosophical position by TNG, with the more "cosmic fate" implications that the characters discuss here.

    I do believe Glenda is going to be doing a top ten list of prime directive episodes. I'll email her and tell her to speed it up in response to the public clamor...

  5. The cosmic fate stuff always annoyed me. As I have argued before, the culture that is aware of the Federation is as valid as the one that doesn't; neither deserves special protection over the other. I understand though that knowledge of extraterrestrial life is a bit of a gear shift, and it's as functional a bright line as any for deciding if even contact is appropriate.

    TNG prime directive goes farther than that, and I think you see it in episodes like Symbiosis. The Brekkians and the Onara are space faring cultures aware of the Federation, but it's that without the omniscience to know all the consequences, it's inappropriate to act, even with the best of intentions.

    And I that interpretation of TNG prime directive is set in a larger non-interference policy. Refusing to enter the Klingon Civil War, or do so only in an attenuated way is not a Prime Directive issue. I think putting the show in historical context, the writers were children of the Vietnam era. America intervened anywhere and everywhere in the name of stopping communism. I'm not surprised they would conceive of a political body that while certainly not isolationist, as that would go against the grain of exploration, certainly more prudent in how they chose to interact with other people.