Memory Alpha Entry
Our episode opens with the crew of the Enterprise studying a solar system where some of it's planets have somehow been destroyed. The reason? Unknown, but it's a good thing our heroes are open to speculation.
WORF: Is there any indication that this is the work of an unknown intelligence?
RIKER: This is geology, not malevolence. These planets live fast and die hard. The question is, why?
What a way to start an episode by giving us shades of "Angel One" and "The Neutral Zone". I've probably beaten this dead horse enough already, but it's exchanges like this that not only justifies Denise Crosby's decision to leave the show but also how nothing has really improved since her departure. I know our lead heroes are supposed to take the more casual, diplomatic approache to further distinguish them from the original series, but why does it have to come at the expense of the other characters? Every time Tasha or Worf brought up something that could have potential, they're always shot down like they had just said something stupid or terrible. You're not really doing any character any favors if the only way you make your characters look good is by having them treat other characters like they're incompetent.
Speaking of not doing any character any favors, Riker's response to Worf's speculation is just.... unprofessional. Since Riker has not only encountered god like beings capable of destroying whole worlds at this point (including himself), he's also studied historical missions in Starfleet. I mean, how does one forget about the Doomsday Machine incident where a force of unknown intelligence destroyed many planets and almost destroyed the original Enterprise? When you look back at "The Naked Now" where Riker states that he had studied up on historical Enterprise missions, the only thing that he remembers that's similar to the situation the crew are in, it involves someone taking a shower.
So with that out of the way, let's move onto more important parts of the story.
Riker: As you know, I've been given the responsibility of overseeing Wesley's education. To further that goal, I would like to put him in charge of the planetary mineral surveys.
We're not even done with the teaser and already this episode is giving me urges to outright skip it and move on to next week's big episode "Q Who". It's not until seconds before the teaser ends when Data stumbles across an alien transmission of a little girl's voice asking a simple question that makes me want to stick around for this episode.
"Is anybody out there?"
And Data responds with a yes. Later on Data talks to Picard about this discovery and despite the crew's mission statement being "To seek out new life and new civilizations", Picard doesn't seem at all happy about Data's new discovery. Despite Picard hearing Data out and calling a meeting with the other crew members, he orders Data to cease communication with the girl. That's kind of abrupt, no?
So we get to the meeting where our characters talk about the good old, never wrong Prime Directive and how they must follow Archer's brave example by letting an entire species die out rather than allow them to continue living a productive existence..... Oh, wait. That's not what's going on here at all because our characters are acting like real compassionate people who care about the well being of others! Pulaski, a character who I never really liked, finally gives us her crowning moment of awesome by calling Worf's "The Prime Directive is absolute" stance as callous and cowardice. Riker tries to go all philosophical on the situation by suggesting this "cosmic plan" thing that is thankfully shot down by pretty much everyone, including Troi. Where this whole discussion goes wrong in the writing stand point is when Picard chimes in.
PICARD: So we make an exception in the deaths of millions.
PICARD: And is it the same situation if it's an epidemic, and not a geological calamity?
PICARD: How about a war? If generations of conflict is killing millions, do we interfere? *silence* Ah, well, now we're all a little less secure in our moral certitude. And what if it's not just killings. If an oppressive government is enslaving millions? You see, the Prime Directive has many different functions, not the least of which is to protect us. To prevent us from allowing our emotions to overwhelm our judgement.
While Picard's point about not interfering with a species that's in the middle of a war is an important point about why the Prime Directive exists (although they did just that in "Loud as a Whisper"), there's a bit of a problem with it in regards to the context of this discussion. THE DREMANS ARE NOT AT WAR!
They're in danger of a planet wide catastrophe and they're just trying to survive. Helping people who are going through a natural disaster and taking sides in war are not the same thing. At all. It's a good point to make in talking about the Prime Directive, but it shouldn't negate everything else that the Prime Directive would also apply to.
So after Picard makes his point and tells Data to cease communications with the planet, Data isolates her frequency and the crew finally get a chance to listen to the very life form that they've just decided to let die. And when Picard hears the fear in Sarjenka's voice, he makes his final decision. They're going to help.
After a bit of interacting with Sarjenka on her homeworld, bringing her onboard the Enterprise, saving her planet and wiping away her memory, the crew depart the system confident in what they've done. While I didn't like the whole memory wipe thing Pulaski did to Sarjenka, I'm hoping that she still remembers everything that's happened. After all, next seasons "Who Watches the Watchers" establishes that Pulaski's memory wiping technique does not always work and we never see Sarkenka awake after Data leaves. I can just see her keeping this sort of thing to herself and how whenever things begin to look down for her and she finds herself in tough situations, she would at least know that whenever she looks at the piece of rock she was given or looks up at the stars, she knows that she is not alone and that her friend who helped save her entire planet is still out there somewhere. That's how I choose to see it anyways.
Until the very last seconds of the opening teaser, Pen Pals has the makings of a dreadful episode. Where this episode does get things right is how the characters actually think outside of the "Prime Directive is Absolute" box. That is something that the franchise would move away from much of later on and be almost completely abandoned in other series like Voyager and Enterprise. It's also refreshing to see our crew actually argue about something with each other rather than agreeing with everything the Captain says. In the end, this is probably the best Prime Directive episode of the whole franchise.
Thanks to Trekcore for the screencaps.