Episode of the Week: 2x15 "Pen Pals"

Discussion in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' started by Jeyl, May 6, 2013.

  1. Jeyl

    Jeyl Commodore Commodore

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    [​IMG]
    Memory Alpha Entry
    Chrissie's Transcript

    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.

    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.

    :klingon:

    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.

    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.

    CONCLUSION: 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.

    STINGER:
    [​IMG]

    Thanks to Trekcore for the screencaps.
     
    Last edited: May 7, 2013
  2. Third Nacelle

    Third Nacelle Captain Captain

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    The whole discussion among the senior staff about the merits/pitfalls of the Prime Directive was one of the best moments of season two. Pulaski really shines in conversations like that. I wish she had stuck around longer.

    I never understood Picard's initial resistance to helping the Dremans. They were not at war with another species or amongst themselves, they were not dying off due to a genetic disorder - they were dying off due to a geological instability that the Enterprise could easily fix without "interfering" in their society.

    From what little we know about Dreman technology (dematerializing doors and long range RF communications), they seem to be a few decades away from discovering warp drive for themselves. If they were already a spacefaring race, Picard wouldn't hesitate a second to assist them. Why is lack of warp drive the one thing that defines a society as primitive and untouchable?
     
  3. PeachyA

    PeachyA Ensign Newbie

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    Agree that this was a fine moment for Pulaski, one of the few where I agreed with her, I generally really disliked her character.

    I sometimes feel like they're mentioning the Prime Directive for the benefit of the audience, just to make sure that we don't think they've forgotten about it or something like that. They answer distress signals all the time, why would it be any different now, just because the call didn't come from a ship in space but rather an entire planet? I feel that that's a bit discriminating.

    That question is so relevant, for the entire series in general.
     
  4. Mad Jack Wolfe

    Mad Jack Wolfe Commander Red Shirt

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    I kept expecting Picard to say something along the lines of, "I'll tell you what, Mister Data. We have a gas. It smells just like applesauce. I promise they won't feel a thing."
     
  5. Jeyl

    Jeyl Commodore Commodore

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    That whole reasoning got even more ridiculous after "Star Trek: First Contact" where the human who developed his own warp drive engine was nothing but a drunk living in a hut in Montana who only did it for money and sex. And when Starfleet and the Vulcans began working together on the NX-01, the Captain spent most of his time berating and insulting his Vulcan officer on a routine basis. Now when they got to the pre-warp civilization known as the Valakians, the whole "non-interference with pre-warp civilizations" reached whole new levels of idiocy before it was even supposed to exist.

    Pen Pals was a good episode in showing how you can use the Prime Directive to help others with out falling back on it as a means to determine who lives and who dies. What was more refreshing was that no one debated on what the consequences of their actions would be. They simply wanted to help in the end.
     
  6. Crisp Crinkle

    Crisp Crinkle Admiral Admiral

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    Ninja'd.
     
  7. jimbotron

    jimbotron Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    I've always hated this episode. It's one of the "Prime Directive = let them die" scenarios that we see again in Homeward and briefly in Who Watches the Watchers. At least in Pen Pals, they finally decide to help the people. In Homeward, Picard blatantly refuses, and Worf's brother has to force the Enterprise to save a civilization using subterfuge. And the only reason Picard did choose to help this time was that it was a cute little girl asking for help. Had it not been for that, they would have gawked while the planet destroyed itself and wiped out all the people.

    Was it this episode where Picard says that the primary purpose of the Prime Directive is to protect themselves? Not to protect civilizations from interference, but to protect the Federation from making matters worse, pretty much. What harm is it for the Enterprise to stop the volcanic activity high from orbit without any person-to-person contact? Data and the girl complicated things, but ideally, the Enterprise did everything without the people on the planet realizing it.

    This sends a bad message that primitive societies have no choice but to die unless they call out to the heavens for help and hope to catch an android's radio frequency.
     
    Last edited: May 7, 2013
  8. JirinPanthosa

    JirinPanthosa Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    Pen Pals is one of those 'Good for season 2' episodes.

    But it did establish the ridiculous precedent of the prime directive meaning 'We can't interfere with the deaths of millions', a precedent which created a good part of the series' biggest facepalm moments. Dear Doctor is this episode's fault. For a society based on science and rational thinking, they were sure superstitious about the 'Plan of the universe'. As if they, by their decisions, are big enough to single-handedly defy the universe's great plan.
     
  9. Crisp Crinkle

    Crisp Crinkle Admiral Admiral

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    No, it didn't. That goes back to TOS. See A Private Little War. In that episode, Kirk broke the non-interference directive only because the Klingons were already interfering.

    That conference scene in Pen Pals praised upthread took the debate going on in fan circles since TOS and upped the ante.
     
  10. Captrek

    Captrek Vice Admiral Admiral

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    The Prime Directive is a poorly thought out product of the Vietnam War era from which it emerged. It kind of saddens me that over the decades it has become so fundamental to Trek yet remains as poorly thought out as it was from day one.

    It's good that they acknowledged some of the problems in this episode. It would have been nice if the writers had taken the opportunity to develop a better reasoned and better articulated form of the directive.
     
  11. Marsden

    Marsden Commodore Commodore

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    Yes, and an android that has more heart than it's supposed living captain.
     
  12. Jeyl

    Jeyl Commodore Commodore

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    That's... a very good point.
     
  13. Timo

    Timo Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    This just proves that Pulaski's memory wiping technique is something that Crusher never quite understood... Which is consistent with how Crusher lagged behind Pulaski in several other fields of medical proficiency, including Pulaski being aware of several options for LaForge's sight problems that came as complete news to the patient.

    What possible relevance could it have? It's a straw man.

    Neither "Pen Pals" nor any other episode mentions that warp drive would be a relevant consideration in PD application. "First Contact" suggests that species on the verge of going to warp are ripe for contacting, but this has no connection to the PD question.

    Yup - and the same rationale can easily be applied to all the other PD plots. Who cares what happens to millions in a universe overflowing with trillions already? If the Feds don't help them, there are dozens of cultures who could do it if they really cared.

    However, this episode is a good example of why Picard should be saying "yeah, you all see the obvious arguments - but let's remember why the PD exists in the first place, so that you won't go play god the next time without again having this conversation and thinking it through". Saving people left and right has the effect of corrupting you into thinking you can do anything, and the negative consequences of that probably far outweigh the deaths of billions.

    Many episodes establish that the PD is only hobbling Starfleet, not the Federation or its civilian citizens. Often enough, the government orders Starfleet to interfere (say, in virtually every episode of TOS, where Kirk meddles because that's his appointed mission) - it's just that safeguards are in place to prevent Starfleet from ordering anybody else around.

    One can see this episode describing how Picard caves in to pressure, after being heartless for most of the running time. But that's not really what happens. Picard starts out pissed off because his underlings are acting unprofessionally; specifically, Data is breaking regulations left and right and hiding it from his CO. He then clears the table for open discussion and pondering of options without bias. If anybody has bias there, it's Riker, who brings up the "cosmic plan" possibility, probably half in jest as he seems unsurprised when nobody else agrees with him in the slightest. Quite possibly, Riker has had discussions like this dozens of times before, only not with these particular officers.

    Picard's only objection here is to Data's unauthorized communications, a profound display of unprofessional defiance. He never expresses the sentiment that the Dremans should be let to die. Nor does any other character.

    I see no problems with the description and dissection of the PD in this episode, or with the characters' attitudes towards it. But somebody must have viewed "Pen Pals" with very different eyes if he saw it as the precedent on which to write "Homeward"...

    Timo Saloniemi
     
  14. Jeyl

    Jeyl Commodore Commodore

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    But the thing is, no one knows what the negative consequences will be. Basing all of your decisions solely on the possibility that there "may" be negative consequences is not a form of good judgement. After all, the Prime Directive is not some holy scripture written by the gods that is perfect and absolute. It was created by flawed beings, so it's reasonable to conclude that following the Prime Directive in the most absolute way possible will lead to flawed results.

    But one element that never seems to be brought up is the possibility that their actions could yield positive circumstance. What if this species from Pen Pals was to becomes a valuable member of the Federation in the future? There always possibilities, so why resort to a lose/lose solution by falling back on just "We don't know what the consequences will be"?
     
  15. Timo

    Timo Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    Which is why each and every such decision warrants at least seven and a half minutes of soul-searching - and Picard should fall like a ton of bricks on any officer who tries to skip that part. The discussion we saw took care of that for the case at hand, after which Picard could give his okay to the rescue plan.

    It's not like anybody fell back on that in the episode, though.

    Picard doesn't sound as if he's pondering a death warrant for these folks at all - he calls for a senior staff meeting, apparently to the exact opposite purpose. And he orders Data to cease and desist with his communications infraction even before the conference, proving that when he repeats that order, it has nothing to do with condemning the Dremans to death!

    Timo Saloniemi
     
  16. Crisp Crinkle

    Crisp Crinkle Admiral Admiral

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    Just for the heck of it, from the Star Trek Writers/Directors Guide, third revision, April 17, 1967:

     
  17. Timo

    Timo Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    In the actual episodes, the issue only appears to arise twice: in whether or not to interfere with the pseudo-Romans in "Bread and Circuses", and in whether or not to meddle with Vaal's disciples in "The Apple". Elsewhere, the Prime Directive or the General Order 1 either is not quoted as part of the ponderings, or has a slightly different impact on the story.

    It is perhaps unfortunate that the pseudo-Romans were so explicitly a "primitive society", suggesting the PD applies to those only. The Gamma Trianguli humanoids were not explicitly primitive or advanced as such, but they certainly weren't technologically on the same lines as the Federation, so the impression again was of the PD regulating how our heroes look down on cavemen.

    It really looks as if this "PD stops at warp drive" thing was purely a fan invention from the very get-go...

    Timo Saloniemi
     
  18. Captrek

    Captrek Vice Admiral Admiral

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    The slippery slope argument, that we must take an extreme position because it's the only way to avoid the other extreme, is a lazy, unsophisticated and fallacious argument. It's unfortunate that this is presented to us as an example of thoughtfulness and insight. It's not as bad as the seminar on humor and charisma in Okona, but it's another uncomfortable sign of Dunning-Kruger afflicting the writers.

    It's not the position of government and law enforcement to tell parents how to raise their children, but in cases of abuse or neglect they do intervene. It's not the general policy of the US to use military force to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations, but in cases of genocide or crimes against humanity, it does intervene. We've evolved a rather complex system of standards and procedures for determining when to intervene, and sometimes bad decisions are made, but making it easier by adopting "Don't intervene" as an absolute is lazy and potentially catastrophic.

    In this particular story, "Don't contaminate the Dremans with knowledge of us," is nonsense because of the colossal footprint the Enterprise is leaving. The tectonic crisis and its sudden abatement will be the most studied event in the planet's geological record. Scientists who assume a natural explanation for the abatement will try to shoehorn it into every natural theory, setting science back greatly. Others will interpret it as a miracle from God, completely changing the nature and role of religion in every culture on the planet. How is that better than telling the truth?
     
  19. Crisp Crinkle

    Crisp Crinkle Admiral Admiral

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    I thought the actual high point in the debate was this [http://www.chakoteya.net/NextGen/141.htm]:

     
  20. Timo

    Timo Fleet Admiral Admiral

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    It avoids all the hassle of wading through planetary resistance when saving the primitives, for one thing. If Picard told them he'll be firing biblical-level weapons at their world, he'd quite possibly be facing a wall of human(oid) shields waving placards saying "Aliens go home!" in various degrees of misspelling...

    My gripe with the "solution" is more with its unlikeliness of lasting success. A powerful natural phenomenon was blowing up planets left and right in a relatively quick and recent wave of destruction. Picard's team stopped this from happening on one world by "reducing tectonic stress". Well, supposedly this phenomenon is building up tectonic stress somehow - such stress is not a prevailing state on the planet, as its civilization is unaccustomed to it. Picard has not stopped the phenomenon, nor investigated it properly. He has reduced the susceptibility of Drema IV to it by fiddling with local dilithium deposits, but clearly the phenomenon has destroyed other worlds as well, worlds whose level of susceptibility or status of dilithium deposits Picard does not know.

    I could see Picard and pals going for such a feel-good "solution" if they unthinkingly "saved" planets left and right for a hobby. But they thought this one through, in a conversation that sort of suggests they routinely think through things like this. Why go for instant satisfaction if there's no proper plan on how to proceed from there? The Dremans did not die on Picard's watch, but Picard would be a fool to be satisfied with that. It'd be like Kirk's inexplicable decision to divert an asteroid from meeting a planet in "Paradise Syndrome" when he fully well knows that another rock is already coming, and then another, and another...

    Of course, we can speculate that plans were made, reports were written full of recommendations, etc. Surely the Federation would want to contact this species that sits on a wealth of dilithium ASAP...

    Timo Saloniemi