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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Code of Honour (Review)

To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also next year’s release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I’m taking a look at the recent blu ray release of the first season, episode-by-episode. Check back daily for the latest review.

Remember how yesterday I said was hesitant to throw around adjectives like “worst” or “mind-numbingly” or any other similar sounding pejorative term? I was doing that so that when I did string them together to form a sentence or a description, it would carry a bit more weight. After all, Star Trek: The Next Generation didn’t have the strongest first season, as I keep noting apologetically in these opening paragraphs. However, Code of Honour is pretty dire by any measure, and it remains one of the low watermarks of the troubled first season.

Yes, I did type “one of”, but that doesn’t make Code of Honour any easier to manage.

Not quite steps to greatness…

You know you have a stinker when everybody involved kind of agrees publicly that it was a stinker. Brent Spiner himself has singled out the episode as the worst the show produced:

There is that one episode that we all knew was bad very early on. The one where Denise [Crosby] was captured by the tribe of space Africans [laughs]. It ["Code of Honor"] was just a racist episode. Maybe not intentionally but it felt that way and looked that way. It was the third episode so it was fortuitous that we did our worst that early on and it never got quite that bad again.

Tracy Torme was quoted in Captains’ Log, offering a similarly to-the-point criticism of Code of Honour. “I felt like it was a ’40s tribal African view of blacks. I think it was kind of embarrassing. Not only was the ending like [original series episode] Amok Time, but it came dangerously close to Amos ‘n’ Andy.”

Making sure you have the relevant Data…

This is the point in the review where I would typically mount an impassioned defence of the episode, arguing that it’s just a misinterpretation of what the show was about. If I couldn’t find the energy to do that, I would instead try to qualify the negative criticism of the episode, graciously conceding a few weaknesses and then suggesting that it wasn’t really all that bad. However, you know it must have been pretty terrible when I couldn’t even do that.

There is a lot of racism here, but that’s not the only problem. To be entirely fair, the original Star Trek contained its fair share of ill-judged moments, but we forgive it those problems as a product of its time. Code of Honour came from the late eighties, so such racism is completely unforgivable. It’s also unforgivable because it is completely avoidable. The reason the story seems racist is because the Ligonians are entirely black.

Judo, flip!

Being perfectly reasonable, I would concede that tribal cultures have popped up (and would continue to pop up) in the franchise for years. It’s the decision to cast everybody on the planet as black that sheds a particularly uncomfortable light on Code of Honour. Adding to that the fact that the plot revolves around a this culture kidnapping a white woman (seeing her as exotic and “interesting”), it becomes even tougher to watch the episode without shuddering internally.

While the racist portrayal of the planet of the week would normally be enough to sink an episode entirely, Code of Honour seems to persistently refuse to hit rock bottom. It’s a physical impossibility. It just keeps going. Even three episodes into the show, Tasha Yar was already a troubled character. She wouldn’t last the full season, but it’s fascinating that she was the first ensemble player to get an episode focusing on her. It’s just really bad luck that it happens to be this episode.

I do like Tasha’s eighties headband of power…

Yar clearly posed a bit of bother for the writing team. Encounter at Farpoint had her bluntly state her origin before getting herself frozen – hardly an auspicious start for a Chief of Security. The Naked Now revealed a few more details of that personal history in the most clumsy way possible. Nothing kills an already creepy and awkward flirtation scene like dropping in the words “rape gangs.” To be entirely fair, Yar wasn’t entirely broken. The other troublesome ensemble members – Wesley and Troi – would go on to anchor several good episodes each during the show’s tenure, and there’s no reason to believe that Yar couldn’t be salvaged as a character at this point.

In many ways, Ro Laren feels like the concept of Tasha Yar done right. Ro is a strong female character with a troubled past. There’s a sense that she is a lot of what the writing staff must have wanted Tasha Yar to be. However, it doesn’t work – the writing serves to make Yar seem like the worst possible choice for Chief of Security. While Ro was feisty, Yar seemed to lack self-control. Ro was righteously angry, while Yar seemed indignant.

I like to think this was Patrick Stewart’s reaction on reading the script…

Star Trek Chiefs of Security were never the most efficient characters, I’ll acknowledge that. Worf would often be physically overpowered to prove the credibility of the week’s threat. However, Yar seemed to always get in a bit more trouble than that. The first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation seemed to be powered by the bridge crew’s incompetence, and Yar suffered a bit from that. The crew were more incompetent than they would eventually become, so Yar ended up being spectacularly incompetent.

That said, I can’t pretend that none of the issues with Yar were unrelated to gender. Code of Honourrevolves around the fact that she is a woman who is Chief of Security. The Ligonians are shocked by such a concept, and the episode uses that to enforce the idea that they are space savages. Which is grand, of itself. However, one gets the sense that the writers weren’t entirely sure how to write a woman in such a role.

The show isn’t exactly firing on all the thrusters yet…

In case we needed more proof of how messed up Yar is, Troi points out that she is attracted to Luton as “a basic male image.” Because, you know, it’s secretly every strong woman’s fantasy to be kidnapped from your home and married to a self-righteous schemer. The implication is slightly uncomfortable. Especially as the episode goes out of her way to point out Yar is still attracted to Luton after it’s revealed it’s a property scandal and after he sulks about “witchcraft” on the Enterprise. (The only reason she doesn’t marry him then is because “there would be… complications” and not because, you know, he used her as a political tool to strike back at his wife.)

More than that, though, there’s something very strange about the banter between Yar and Troi over the attraction. It reads like the showrunners were writing for teenage girls:

But it was a thrill. Lutan is such… such a basic male image. And having him say he wants you…

Yes, of course, it made me feel good, when he…

Troi, I’m your friend, and you tricked me!

Only so you’d think about it, completely and clearly.

Sirtis and Crosby aren’t the strongest actors, but the dialogue seems so shallow. “I’m your friend and you tricked me!”isn’t given any weight. It sounds like it is followed by gratuitous pillow-fighting.

Keeping the Ligonians at Bay…

There’s also the fact that Yar seems actually giddy about the prospect of fighting Lutan’s wife. The implication being that she’s excited to show off for the man who kidnapped her. Or something. Yar seems decidedly non-fazed about the whole thing, and her thinking is less than tactical. Her motivations don’t even seem to be about the concept of honour or anything like that. Instead, it’s more about sticking it to that pesky wife, who she’d never met before. “Not that I’d take her life, of course. But I’d be glad to embarrass her.”

Of course, there is an episode around Yar. I just tend to get a bit distracted, because I know that I won’t have a full seven seasons I can use to discuss the current Chief of Security. A lot of the dodgy early episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation rely on the crew acting like idiots for the plot to work. Here, however, it asks us to not only treat the crew as idiots, but also to suggest that giving in and pandering to bullies is the right thing to do. Star Trek has always been a very moral show, but that’s hard to reconcile with Code of Honour.

Surprisingly, the holodeck doesn’t try to kill anybody here…

We’re told that Picard can’t act to save Yar because of the Prime Directive. Which is strange, to say the least. If an away team comes under fire from arrows and slings, is it a violation of the Prime Directive for them to defend themselves? To be fair, the Prime Directive also seems a bit of a technicality that Lutan hides behind. The rule limits interference in pre-Warp cultures, but the Ligonians have advanced vaccines (“vacksines”) and shield technology. It’s not too far behind the Federation, and Picard would certainly consider a rescue if the Klingons or Romulans took Yar.

Instead, the episode makes Picard look sort of impotent. When Yar is taken, it seems like the most he can threaten the Ligonians with is stern words. Now, Patrick Stewart can deliver sterner words than most, but it feels a bit nonsense. “You have committed an unfriendly act. We insist that you reply immediately.” I bet they are quaking in their space boots. “But you have now committed what our laws regard as an attack upon us. Since you have visited our vessel, you know the power of it. We insist that you reply to this message.” All that’s missing is the “… or there’ll be consequences, young man!”

Stewarting the negotiations…

(You could argue that Lutan is holding the vaccine over Picard’s head, and that makes a bit of sense. Taking Yar back would cost thousands of lives. However, that’s a very different – and much more pragmatic – principle than the one that we here cited again and again over Code of Honour. Dwelling on the potential loss of life if they don’t play along wouldn’t have allowed for so much hand-wringing, but it would have made a lot more sense.)

The plot also devolves into a lame clone of Amok Time in its final act, right down to the final twist. The eighties jungle gym is kinda cute in a retro kitsch sort of way, but it all feels a bit tired. Continuing the trend for the first season Code of Honour is swimming in original Star Trek tropes, even drawing attention to the most obvious one. “Lutan, we are aware of many of your planet’s achievements, and its unique similarity to an ancient Earth culture we all admire.” The show would wisely steer clear of that sort of obvious “civilisation from Earth’s past”plot device in future, but it’s hardly the biggest problem here.

This isn’t stereotypical at all…

There are a few good elements of Code of Honour, but not nearly enough – and even those nice moments are heavily qualified. Patrick Stewart is, as ever, fantastic – even with a terrible script. However, there’s a moment or two when Picard seems uncharacteristically condescending toward Lutan. (“You are a truly clever person, Lutan,” he states. “I will order Lt Yar to fight. And may your cloak bring you all you deserve.”) Given this guy holds the life of an entire planet in his hands, and Picard has been going out of his way to accommodate Lutan, it seems strange he’d run the risk of provoking the guy by patronising him and condescending to him.

There’s also a nice short scene between Data and Geordi before they deem down. It doesn’t add anything to the episode, but it’s a nice bit of character interaction that works well – I wonder if it’s scenes like that which led the writers to pair Geordi and Data like they did. That said, the idea of Data have a “tongue slip”seems more than a little odd. The dude is an android with complete control of every part of himself. However, since the alternative is that he has secretly mastered humour, we kind have to accept it.

Number One Wesley fan…

It’s also nice to see Riker consistently pushing Picard towards accepting Wesley on the Bridge. Picard is less than pleased to return from the surface to find Wesley manning the Conn, but Riker cuts in, “Young Wesley has been manning that station for me. I forgot.” Like hell he did. I actually forgot how much I liked these little Riker moments, much more than the larger Riker-focused episodes. It’s a recurring theme throughout the season, and I like these little threads that add up.

Still, these are hardly redeeming features in a mess of an episode. Looking at things positively, at least that means the next episode has to be an improvement, right?

Read our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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2 Responses

  1. I rate The Naked Now as a worse episode, but this one isn’t exactly better. I think maybe I find it a bit more laughable, which makes it feel less awful. But it’s still a terrible, offensive episode.

    • I’m not sure about laughable. I can think of TOS episodes that are crap but kinda awesome in their audacity. (Think The Omega Glory, that sort of thing.) In contrast, TNG always seemed to take itself so seriously that its failures weren’t even absurd – they were just so straight-faced.

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