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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Neutral Zone (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.

Watching The Neutral Zone, it’s hard not to feel that the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation should have wrapped up with Conspiracy. At least that would have represented a bold step forwards, even if it wasn’t the direction that the show would ultimately take. In contrast, a lot of The Neutral Zone falls back into the trite, patronising arrogance that we’ve seen our crew demonstrate repeatedly over this first year, treating three refugees from twenty-first century Earth as an excuse to lord their superiority over the viewers at home. It’s a rather strange direction to take, and it certainly doesn’t make for good television. Which feels like a bit of a waste, given that the B-plot is actually quite workable.

"We're back."

“We’re back.”

That background plot, which actually gives the episode its name, continues the theme of repurposing original Star Trek plots for the new show. I’m not complaining – The Next Generation has still to find its voice, and putting its own spin on classic (and superior) episodes at least allows an opportunity for contrast. Here, the race to the Neutral Zone almost recalls the wonderful Balance of Terror, as the Enterprise finds itself facing an enemy they know nothing about.

In Balance of Terror, Kirk and his crew found themselves confronting an enemy last seen during a deadly war. Here, Picard and his staff are preparing to encounter the same race – who are emerging from a period of isolation directly following “the Tomed Incident.” While there isn’t quite the same level of mystery – at least Picard knows what Romulans look like, and that they are related to Vulcans – but there is a significant overlap. What do the Romulans want? Will this meeting spark another devastating war?

Where there's a Will...

Where there’s a Will…

Indeed, Picard suggests that Romulan motivation might be the same as it was the time they locked horns against Kirk. “The general feeling at Starfleet is that they are seeking a confrontation,” he advises his colleagues. “They may want to test themselves in battle against a Federation starship. See how far we have advanced.” When the Enterprise arrives at various outposts to discover they have been destroyed, one could forgive a slight hint of deja vu. “Captain, there is nothing left of Outpost Delta Zero Five,” Data remarks. Geordi observes, “Must have been one hell of an explosion.” Data notes, “Sensors indicate no evidence of conventional attack.”

And yet, even as it treads a lot of the same ground as Balance of Terror, the episode does go out of its way to play to the strengths of The Next Generation and the aspects that distance this newer show from its direct predecessor. Kirk was far more likely to shoot from the hip, and Balance of Terror saw Kirk chasing the Romulan ship in an attempt to destroy it before it could reach its home base. In contrast, Picard’s mission is primarily one of diplomacy, even when it appears the Romulans may have attacked Federation outposts.

The Federation will be green with envy...

The Federation will be green with envy…

“No surprises,” he instructs his crew. “I would rather outthink them than outfight them.” He adds, “If force is necessary, we will use it, but that will mean we have failed.” It is a very clear attempt to embrace the optimism of Roddenberry’s future, and it’s hard to imagine that Kirk could have remained so even-handed when dealing with a threat like the Romulans. The Next Generation was a much more intellectual show, and the best sequences of The Neutral Zone are the dialogue-driven scene as the senior staff prepare to meet an old enemy who have been in isolation for quite some time.

More than that, though, the climax of The Neutral Zone hints at the idea that is a much bigger universe out there. The first season of The Next Generation had been reluctant to use old adversaries like the Romulans and the Klingons, preferring to introduce new aliens like the Ferengi. That view had softened towards the end of the season. The Romulans were mentioned in Angel One, and the Klingon Empire returned in Heart of Glory.

Way to wreck it, Ralph.

Way to wreck it, Ralph.

However, The Neutral Zone strikes an interesting balance, suggesting that it is possible for The Next Generation to look to both the past and the future. Looking to the past, the episode marks the return of the Romulan Star Empire, with Commander Tebok making a number of impressive boasts. (Or thinly-veiled threats.) “Matters more urgent caused our absence,” he advises Picard. “Now, witness the result. Outposts destroyed, expansion of the Federation everywhere. Yes, we have indeed been negligent, Captain. But no more.”

It is interesting how so much of the end of the first season has been dedicated to building up threats to the Federation – a force presented as unimpeachably powerful in the first half of the year. Heart of Glory made a compelling argument that Federation values could not be universal, while Conspiracy suggested a complacency and rot within Starfleet. Here, the Romulans are rallying to the expanded Federation, what they perceive as cultural imperialism.

Star (Empire) of the show...

Star (Empire) of the show…

When Picard proposes a diplomatic response, Tebok refuses to even consider it. “Your presence is not wanted. Do you understand my meaning, Captain? We are back.” It’s interesting that the Romulans are not aggressively belligerent. They don’t want war with the Federation, and they don’t even believe that Starfleet is behind the attacks against their outposts. “Once we realised the level of destruction,” Tebok states, “we knew it could not have been you.”

The Romulans are not preparing for war, but they merely wish to let it be known that they stand against the expansion of Federation values. Given the erosion of Klingon culture suggested in Heart of Glory, it is certainly a reasonable position for the Empire to adopt. I have to admit a certain fondness for the Romulans, to the point where they are quite possibly my favourite Star Trek culture. Well, of those developed within The Next Generation, at any rate.

Well, at least it looks like it held up better than the episode's plot...

Well, at least it looks like it held up better than the episode’s plot…

Part of that is due to the fact that they are one of the more developed cultures, but they also seem less likely to commit to open warfare. Given the cost of war, I was always surprised at how readily various cultures in Star Trek engaged in it. There’s something inherently pragmatic about the portrayal of Romulan culture in the show. As Troi explains to Picard, “They will not initiate anything. They will wait for you to commit yourself.” That just seems like common sense when dealing with the risk of warfare.

The Neutral Zone also hints at the arrival of something more. The writers’ strike of 1988 forced the production team to revise their plans for the show to lead directly into the second season, but The Neutral Zone still manages to provide some nice foreshadowing of the arrival of the Borg, perhaps The Next Generation‘s single greatest contribution to the mythos. There’s something quite daunting about an unknown (and unknowable) enemy that can literally scoop a city off the face of the planet. (It’s a shame they stopped doing that after The Best of Both Worlds.)

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

If this were the only plot in The Neutral Zone, it’s be a pretty solid Star Trek season finalé. There’s certainly enough material here to fill a single episode, and adding a bit more depth to it could easily have produced an episode that matched Conspiracy, and would make a fairly respectable close to what had been a very dodgy first year. Unfortunately, this isn’t all that there is to The Neutral Zone, as much as we might wish it to be so. Instead, despite the promising union of old and new in the storyline that gives the episode its title, the show decides to take several steps backwards and treat us to some of the smug superiority that we’ve clearly been missing these past few episodes.

I’ll try to control my enthusiasm.

I can't decide which is the great piece of space junk: that satellite or this script...

I can’t decide which is the great piece of space junk: that satellite or this script…

The opening sequence of The Neutral Zone sees Data discovering a satellite drifting in space, containing a bunch of humans frozen int he twenty-first century. With the cryogenics failing, Data takes them back to the Enterprise and thaws them out. He argues that he couldn’t leave them to do, but I think he knew the crew were just itching for a chance to make belittling remarks about their ancestors, and also had some original Star Trek style overalls lying around dying for a wear.

Sadly, this plot eats up more screentime than the Romulans. I’m not basing that off anything scientific, but man, it felt like it ate up a lot more screentime. The three archetypes, including “woman”, “rich dude” and “country music guy”, all adapt to life in the twenty-fourth century, setting up groan-inducing jokes like the notion of the woman fainting the first time she sees Worf. Oh, and this gem when Data explains the woman’s choice of career, “I was able to retrieve some information from the ancient disk I removed from the module’s computer. Her name is Clare Raymond, age thirty five, occupation homemaker. Must be some kind of construction work.”

I really hope we can put this condescending Enterprise crew to bed...

I really hope we can put this condescending Enterprise crew to bed…

And, being a woman, she’s the only member of the trio concerned that everybody she knows is dead, and she misses her family, and gets all emotional and yadda yadda yadda. I’ve reached the point where I’m no long that angry with the outdated gender politics of this first year of The Next Generation, I’m just frustrated by them. The show seems to take for granted that neither of the two men would be too concerned at the death of every single person they ever knew, and that woman would obviously be the only member of the group defined by her family (rather than anything else in her life).

Although perhaps Clare Raymond gets off a bit lightly. She’s an emotional wreck in the most trite of ways. There would have been a nice opportunity to demonstrate the sort of detachment we saw when Ripley woke up in Aliens, but the show swings and misses. However, at least The Neutral Zone treats her with a bit more respect than either of her two male colleagues. She might not be coping, but at least she’s worried about the “right” things in this episode’s value schemes.

Not quite a model ship...

Not quite a model ship…

Of course, Clare doesn’t have anything for the crew to get up on their high horse about. They lay into Sonny immediately. I know the guy’s annoying, but he has been frozen for some time. No need to be so harsh about it. “There was marked deterioration of every system in his body,” Crusher tells Picard. “Probably from massive chemical abuse. Unbelievable.” Picard goes into full faux!losipher mode. “That sounds like someone who hated life. Yet he had himself frozen presumably so he could go through it all again.” Sensing the need to raise he own patronising to meet the bar set by her commanding officer, Beverly adds, “Too afraid to live, too scared to die.”

Hold on, didn’t they just do an episode about drug addiction a little while back? So they understand that people who are addicted to drugs aren’t consciously thinking about killing themselves or hating life? It seems like, in Symbiosis, the Prime Directive was the only thing holding Picard back from being a massive judgemental dick. Then again, it is really hard to feel too sympathetic to Sonny. He doesn’t seem like a bad guy, he’s just all the worst clichés rolled into one.

Sonny is getting through the episode the same way I recommend you do...

Sonny is getting through the episode the same way I recommend you do…

“Well, what do you guys do?” he asks at one point. “I mean, you don’t drink, and you ain’t got no TV. Must be kind of boring, ain’t it?” One of the things that really gets me about The Neutral Zone is that the show seems to really hates its own audience. Sonny is treated as a moron because he enjoys a drink and nice bit of television. Obviously, he had no real sense of what’s truly important. Indeed, the entire show seems structured so that the crew can encounter a bunch of people who could be from its own audience… and then criticise them relentlessly.

Riker makes a dismissive off-hand comment about the trio, musing, “Well, from what I’ve seen of our guests, there’s not much to redeem them. It makes one wonder how our species survived the twenty-first century.” You’d imagine that there’d be some fascination in meeting his ancestors. Or, at the very least, finding something of worth in their character that suggested the seeds of something great to come. If Riker wants to find out how humanity survived the twenty-first century, the answer is right there on the ship. All he has to do is make some effort to uncover it. Instead, it’s just easier to mock and lecture them.

There's something Offenhouse about this one...

There’s something Offenhouse about this one…

While the crew can be dismissive and patronising to Sonny, they are downright aggressive toward Ralph Offenhouse, who makes the mistake of inquiring about a “copy of the Wall Street Journal” and wondering about his material wealth. When he wakes up and discovers that the State has probably confiscated it as part of a socialist utopia, nobody seems to understand how this could be a massive cultural shift for the poor guy. Instead, they ignore and belittle him. Yes, he’s a stereotypical entitled profiteering executive who might as well have been frozen with a pound of cocaine and a fan of fifty dollar bills in his hands, but it’s almost possible to feel sorry for the treatment he receives.

“This is the twenty fourth century,” Picard assures him. “Material needs no longer exist.” Responding to a massive shock to his own values and frame of reference, Offenhouse asks, “Then what’s the challenge?” Picard answers, “The challenge, Mister Offenhouse, is to improve yourself. To enrich yourself. Enjoy it.” It isn’t a bad idea, but Picard is so clearly just trying to get the stupid talking monkey to shut up that it feels trite. Troi works with Clare to help her grow accustomed, but nobody seems to give a whit about Ralph and Sonny. Nobody on the ship seems able to take the time to actually talk with them about any of the issues they might have after centuries of power napping.

Overall, a terrible choice.

Overall, a terrible choice.

The episode is supposed to demonstrate the moral superiority of Picard’s crew and of mankind in the 24th century. The trio are meant to be mocked and ridiculed as relics of by-gone era. At best, their needs and wants are portrayed as endearingly (and patronisingly) quaint. I know of television shows that talk down to their audience, but few go so far out of their way as The Neutral Zone does – featuring three time-displaced characters from close enough to the viewer’s own time.

In contrast, it makes the crew of the Enterprise seem callous. I know the ship is busy with the Romulans, but couldn’t a civilian on the ship have volunteered to babysit the newcomers? At the end of the episode, Geordi suggests a slight detour might get the trio back to Earth a lot quicker. “Well, at warp eight, we could have our guests at Starbase Thirty Nine Sierra in five days. Take months off their journey.” Picard is having none of it, “But they’ll benefit from the extended time. It will allow them to acclimate before returning to Earth.”

Play that not-so-funky music white boy...

Play that not-so-funky music white boy…

Being honest, I suspect Picard just really couldn’t be bothered being distracted by the three guests on the ship, and would rather just completely ignore them, rather than go out of their way. Surely it would be a lot easier for them to acclimitise to the 24th century on home soil? I’ll admit that I am not an expert on such things, but I’d imagine that being on a radically altered Earth is still much easier to adjust to than travelling in a hunk of metal through the cosmos at several times the speed of light. It seems like Picard is just rationalising his refusal to make even the smallest concession to the trio.

He’d rather not spend any more time with them than he has to. And, to be fair, I empathise entirely. The Neutral Zone is weighed down by this plot like a tonne of bricks, tying into the worst of the smug arrogance we saw in episodes like The Last Outpost or Lonely Among Us. Interestingly, that sense of galactic self-importance carries over to the other plot, as Troi notes of the Romulans, “For some reason they have exhibited a fascination with humans and it is that fascination, more than anything else, that has kept the peace.” Humans are special, you see. But not you reading at home. You’re just stupid. However, humans of the future are the best-est. Between that and her dialogue in When the Bough Breaks, it seems like the half-Betazoid has really drank the kool aid.

When in Romulan space...

When in Romulan space…

It’s disappointing, given how much progress had been made towards the end of the year, as the show tempered the smothering superiority complex felt by the ensemble. Still, the show at least ends with a hint of optimism. When Riker suggests keeping the trio on board, Picard is dismissive. “That would take us in the wrong direction. Our mission is to go forward, and it’s just begun.” Philosophically, The Neutral Zone represents a huge step in the wrong direction, and the show itself would do well to take Picard’s advice, and continue to press boldly forward.

It would be another rocky year before we’d get there, but at least The Next Generation would eventually find its own feet, and become one of the best shows on television.

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

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8 Responses

  1. Man, you said it. I think what’s particularly irksome to me, as I mentioned in a comment for a previous episode, is that the show is lecturing people about material want when the entire basis of Federation culture is a magical fantasy technology. Replicators are about two steps short of having Harry Potter show up and wish all want away. (It also reveals a rich man’s smugness, as Roddenberry naturally became by any reasonable very wealthy from the franchise; rich, if not uber-rich.)

    Talking about smug, why weren’t these people considered a resource rather than an easy generator of self-pleased scorn? Were there *really* no historians salivating to talk to people from the past? Offenhouse might have been a materialist jerk–heaven knows he was certainly written that way–but hey, how about making him the Federation emissary to the Ferengi, something like that? He grokked them and their values, which is more than apparently anyone in the Federation was able to do. God forbid, though; instead, Offenhouse and the others need to be squeezed into the same Federation box that everyone else in the future is molded in.

    Sad to say, Roddenberry couldn’t be hustled off the stage fast enough at this point. The Federation was never going to look forward as long as he was at the helm.

    • Yep, I’m 100% in a agreement.

      There’s just something so conceited about the way the crew act, it makes them seem like jerks – which is odd because the cast are generally charming enough that we like them. Rewatching the first season reminded me how great the TNG ensemble was. I don’t think (Stewart aside) it had the strongest actors individually (actor-for-actor, Deep Space Nine is the Trek to beat), but the ensemble dynamic on TNG is just fantastic.

      • I do wonder whether the crew of actors on TNG worked so well together because they had to slog through so much hardship. Honestly, for intelligent actors who worked at their craft, were (I imagine) thrilled to be picked for a re-boot of a classic and hoping for great (okay, good) stuff – having to act their way through stuff like Code of Honour and (yikes) Justice? Dear Gods. What little I know of the actors doesn’t hint at self-commiseration as preferred coping strategy, so I guess it would have been an industrial-sized helping of graveyard humor.

        The ham-fisted disdain for their own viewers and their primitive concern with money… seriously. Did the writers all live in huts at the beach? Even Gene Roddenberry can hardly have been that rich, for that long, that he forgot that in a system like ours money is everything – house, food, education, health, communication, any travel above walking distance, privacy, a warm bed, a roof that holds off rain, the future of your children. The B-plot could have been used to at least hint at questions about that system. But no: repeat it’s stereotypes, bash the cardboard cut-outs you wrote yourself for exhibiting the symptoms you also wrote, and ignore that you’re doing pretty well of that primitive capitalist system yourself.

        Fail: epic.

        On the bright side: that “frozen with a pound of a pound of cocaine and a fan of fifty dollar bills in his hands” had me laugh out loud for 15 seconds straight.

      • Actually, on that crew bonding thing, apparently Stewart was very much a father to the ensemble. Apparently he took a while to “loosen up”, but the rest of the cast seemed to have always looked up to him. In particular, there’s a wonderful story from Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis about Stewart taking the writing staff to task for some of the more sexist scripts. Which makes you wonder how terrible they were before Stewart objected.

        And thanks for the laughs!

  2. Excellent!

    This one borrows bits from better stories, but somehow leaves out all the good stuff. Space Seed is easily one of the best of TOS, and this one uses the same trick but leaves out the wonder and REAL difficulty of encountering a remnant of a culture long-dead.

  3. Offenhouse was written as not only a materialistic jerk, but cluelessly oblivious to anything that did not directly have to do with himself and his money. Like the should-have-been-obvious fact that no ship named “Enterprise”, even in his own time, had ever been a pleasure yacht.

    The show has had some really derpy writing, and this was among the derpiest episodes.

    • You’re right. Even then, you get a sense that even amassing and managing a massive fortune should have taught him some people-managing skills, instead of just jerkishness. The Neutral Zone was not a good moment for The Next Generation. It’s a shame that the season didn’t close with Conspiracy which – while flawed – was at least audacious.

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