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

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

The second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation might be a bit rough around the edges (among other places), but there’s still a sense that the show is trying to improve itself, struggling to find its own voice. Most of the first season seemed content to offer a pale imitation of the classic Star Trek show, ignoring the fact that a lot had changed in the two decades since Kirk and Spock took to the air.

A Matter of Honour is an example of The Next Generation engaging the late eighties instead of trying to evoke the lost spirit of the sixties. Taking the “Klingons as Communists” metaphor as far as it could logically go, and serving as a companion piece to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, A Matter of Honour is a tale of deep space détente.

Guess who's going to dinner where?

Guess who’s going to dinner where?

Star Trek is a show about exploration, but not necessarily about the exploration of deep space. Sometimes it’s about exploring culture, and – quite often – about delving into ourselves as well. The Next Generation seems to be grasping this, with Picard drawing attention to the fact that Riker’s trip to a Klingon ship is really the perfect expression of the Enterprise’s mission statement: exploration. “We know so little about them. There really is so much to learn. This is a great opportunity. I envy you, Mister Riker.”

The moral at the heart of A Matter of Honour is rather basic. People are really alike all over; those monsters you spent years hating and cowering from? They are just people too. In the episode’s most on-the-nose moment, a Klingon officer assures Riker, “Like you, I have a mother and a father. They look like me, I look like them.” It’s a story about encountering the enemy and discovering that they really aren’t all that different.

Prey tell, what's afoot?

Prey tell, what’s afoot?

Riker transfers over to a Klingon ship as part of a cultural exchange, and gets to witness life among the Klingons first-hand. “Look around you,” Klag advises Riker. “There are no old warriors.” Riker replies, “No, sir, I’m sure they all died with honour.” Klag seems almost impressed. “Exactly. You may live long enough to learn about us.” Like Heart of Glory, there’s a conscious sense that Star Trek is trying to move away from the rather alarmist (and possibly even racist) portrayal of Klingons on the classic show.

The educational experience works both ways. As much as Riker learns that Klingons are not monsters, Klag has a similar revelation about human beings. At the episode’s climax, Klag’s new-found understanding of human values allows him to plead Riker’s case to Captain Kargan. “Captain, I’m not convinced Riker knew of any plot against us,” Klag argues. “If he did, why would he have come on board?” Kargan replies, “It’s the expectation of any officer to be ordered to die at any time.” Klag responds, “For a Klingon perhaps, but Riker’s people do not volunteer for death so easily.”

Chewing it over...

Chewing it over…

That said, the show’s next Riker episode, The Icarus Factor, does make Riker out to be a bit of a hypocrite in his advice to Klag. When Klag recounts the gulf that has grown between the officer and his father, Riker urges Klag to reconcile with his flesh-and-blood. “He’s your father,” Riker insists. Klag merely offers, “Klingons do not express feeling the way you do.” Unable to muster the sort of cultural relativism you might expect, Riker is quick to champion human values. “Perhaps you should.”

It’s an interesting sequence in light of The Icarus Factor, and I’m not sure whether it was intended as foreshadowing when A Matter of Honour was written. Burton Armus wrote A Matter of Honour and is credited on the teleplay (but not the final episode) of The Icarus Factor, so it’s possible that Armus had the idea in mind when he wrote the scene, suggesting that Riker is quick to offer Klag advice that he’d never take himself.

A quick shooter...

A quick shooter…

Either way, it’s not a bad character beat for Riker, who is fairly consistently characterised as being a just a bit of a jerk. Advising Klag to reconcile with his father while being unable to forgive his own is a far cry from the idealised humans that Roddenberry wanted to staff the Enterprise, but it does add a bit of depth and nuance to the character. It makes Riker seem a bit more nuanced and conflicted than he might otherwise, and that reading of this small scene might be the best thing to come out of The Icarus Factor.

A Matter of Honour is a show that couldn’t have been done on the original Star Trek. Kirk’s Enterprise might have been a ship of science, but it seemed to exist constantly on the brink of interstellar war; carving out a niche in galactic politics. This very much reflected America’s self-image in the sixties, in the wake of the Second World War, as the nation tried to find its place as the leading global super-power, but always wary of conflict.

An ideal to dine for...

An ideal to dine for…

Kirk might encounter alien cultures and ferry their diplomats, but he’d never make a serious attempt to integrate fully. He’d never venture to a Klingon ship for the sake of a mutual exchange of ideas with the Klingons. Tellingly, the only time Kirk boards a Romulan ship is to steal a cloaking device in The Enterprise Incident. Kirk hijacks a Klingon ship in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

A Matter of Honour is a story that plays off the changes that have taken place since the original Star Trek went off the air. The Cold War is winding down. It looks like America might be the last super-power standing, with an established function in global politics. In The Next Generation, the Federation seems more firmly established and more influential than it was in the classic Star Trek, and A Matter of Honour relies on that shifting status quo to tell its story.

Not phased in the slightest...

Not phased in the slightest…

The second season of The Next Generation is on a learning curve. It’s a pretty steep learning curve from the troubled first season. Indeed, while there’s a fairly clear leap in quality between Unnatural Selection and A Matter of Honour (and between A Matter of Honour and The Measure of a Man), the second season struggles in places and almost loses its footing several times. The production team are struggling – but that’s a good thing. Ideally, this growth and experimentation should take place during the show’s first year, but it’s never too late.

(Star Trek: Enterprise is perhaps the poster child of this philosophy. The show struggled through two bland seasons before making a conscious effort to experiment and evolve during its third and fourth seasons. While the results were not uniformly triumphant, they were strides in the right direction, betraying a lot more ambition than Star Trek: Voyager ever seemed to have.)

Bridging two very different cultures...

Bridging two very different cultures…

In this second season, there’s a conscious effort to figure out how to tell stories for this show, rather than trying to capture the voice of a piece of pop culture history. There are little touches here and there, scattered across the season. The second season seems more interested in character than the first season ever did, although we’re still quite a distance from Michael Piller’s shrewd decision that every story on The Next Generation should be a character story in some shape or form.

Still, we get scenes of the crew relaxing together, enjoying one another’s company. In Where Silence Has Lease, we see Worf and Riker relaxing in the holodeck together. In The Measure of a Man, we’ll see the first poker game on the show – something that became so much a part of The Next Generation that the series’ closing scene was dedicated to that recurring activity. Here, we open with Picard and Riker enjoying a trip to the ship’s phaser range.

Hard to beat...

Hard to beat…

Riker is an interesting character, if only because he’s a member of the crew who seems to coast through most of the series. Jonathan Frakes has a roguish charisma that lends the character a bit of an edge, but many of the show’s stronger Riker episodes treat him as something of an “every man” – you just drop him into a crazy situation and watch the results. (For example, Schisms or Frame of Mind or even A Matter of Perspective.)

Even in his strongest character-driven episode, Pegasus, the surprise reveals of Riker’s shady dealings and his past compromises aren’t shocking because we always thought Riker was a boy scout. They catch us by surprise because – in the show’s final season – Riker seemed the cast member least likely to have a skeleton hiding in his closet. Riker just sort of is, serving as a constant on the bridge of the Enterprise.

The great Bird of Prey of the Galaxy...

The great Bird of Prey of the Galaxy…

This is part of the reason why A Matter of Honour works so much better than the other Riker-centric episode this season. The Icarus Factor tries to make Riker more interesting by heaping daddy issues on to the character. Ignoring the fact that “male lead character has difficulties with male paternal figure” is one of the laziest characterisation tropes in popular culture, it doesn’t work because we’ve never really believed that Riker was in any way maladjusted or troubled.

Of course, it’s worth conceding that Riker does have a character beyond “the bland one.” In fact, Riker has a very clear character arc over the first three years of The Next Generation, it’s just filled with painful exposition and conveniently wrapped up before the show reaches its half-way point. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time being told that Riker is an ambitious go-getter without seeing any evidence for it.

A shot in the dark...

A shot in the dark…

Later this season, The Icarus Factor and Peak Performance are built around the idea that Riker really wants to be a captain, even though the show has never offered any evidence supporting this beyond having characters tell us that it’s what Riker always wanted. Michael Piller builds a significant portion of The Best of Both Worlds around dismissing this idea as nonsense, and effectively tying up that loose character thread once and for all.

Still, A Matter of Honour plays well to that side of Riker’s character, perhaps serving as the only episode where we really get a sense of Riker’s ambition as something fundamental to his character, rather than something that others conveniently project unto him. It’s the only episode where we really get a sense of Riker as a character who wants to be a bit more than just the first officer of the Federation flagship. Which, it should be noted, is still a hell of an accomplishment.

Pressed on the issue...

Pressed on the issue…

Again, there’s a bit of a conflict here between the type of character that we’d expect Riker to be, and the type of character that Gene Roddenberry was willing to allow on his show. The dynamic between Picard and Kirk was clearly written to invert the classic Kirk and Spock relationship from the classic series. Frakes himself has argued that Roddenberry saw Riker as the “Kirk” character on the show:

And Roddenberry… I think… related to Riker. I think he saw some of himself in Riker. I think what he did was he saw a little Kirk in Riker. And I think that he had created a character in his own image. And, he had an awareness of who he wanted Riker to be, and what the twenty fourth century would be like.

However, there are limits to what a “Kirk-like” character can do on a show where he is second-in-command and the writers have been very heavily warned to avoid any hint of conflict. Riker was never going to challenge Picard openly, let alone defy his superior’s wishes. This does a lot to take the edge off what the show clearly wanted Riker’s personality to be.

At least Riker knows that a rescue will come at Worf speed if he needs it...

At least Riker knows that a rescue will come at Worf speed if he needs it…

In the first season, as much as Riker is presented as quick-thinking and ambitious and confident, his most significant shared attribute with Kirk is the extent to which the character is driven by his libido. In Justice, Riker’s interest in the fairer sex almost gets Wesley killed; in 11001001, it helps get the ship hijacked; in Angel One, it deescalates a planetary conflict.

There’s still the occasional hint of jerkishness and arrogance to Riker’s persona, which Frakes seem to enjoy playing up whenever he gets the opportunity. In 11001001, he rather jerkishly jokes about “a blind man teaching an android to paint.” In Chain of Command, Riker proves that that he doesn’t play well with others. In Lower Decks, we get a sense that Riker can be downright unpleasant if you don’t know him.

This is what happens when you don't rust proof your space ship...

This is what happens when you don’t rust proof your space ship…

Still, it remains an aspect of Riker’s character that – while consistently hinted at throughout the show’s run – is hardly his defining characteristic. While we’re repeatedly told by characters about Riker’s ambition and desire for the big chair, we never get any sense of that from Riker himself. If anything, it seems like Troi and his father (and, apparently most of Starfleet) have misread him. This is pretty much at the core of Riker’s character arc for the run of The Next Generation, and Michael Piller succinctly deals with it in The Best of Both Worlds. Actually, it suggests, Riker can be awesome without wanting the big chair.

Still, there’s just a hint of that Riker swagger, ambition and arrogance here. He’s introduced competing with Picard in a recreational activity. Continuing along those lines, The Measure of a Man will put him in more direct conflict with higher stakes. When Picard wonders why Riker might want to sign up for the exchange with the Klingon ship, Riker doesn’t offer any pleasant-sounding philosophical sentiments about expanding knowledge or preserving peace.

Riker really floored his commanding officer...

Riker really floored his commanding officer…

When Picard questions his motivations for volunteering, Riker replies, “Because nobody’s ever done it before.” Indeed, sending Riker to the Klingon ship actually provides a nice opportunity for the writers to play up the character’s “alpha male” tendencies. These tendencies would normally be quite incompatible with Roddenberry’s ban on conflict between main characters.

On a Klingon ship, surrounded by loud and boisterous Klingons, Riker can assert himself in ways he’d never dream of on the Enterprise. When two separate Klingon women consider taking him to bed, Klag asks whether he could “endure” it. “One?” Riker asks. “Or both?” The episode allows us to see an ambitious and risk-taking version of Riker, free from the burden of his unquestioning loyalty to Picard, or responsibilities to the officers beneath him.

Hijacking a Klingon ship. Like a boss.

Hijacking a Klingon ship.
Like a boss.

Riker takes a trip to an alien ship and promptly winds up deposing the captain and claiming the ship for his own. Hailing the Enterprise and demanding Picard’s surrender from the command chair of a Bird of Prey might Riker’s best moment on The Next Generation. In fact, it seems like the only time that we really believe that Riker would dream of replacing Picard one day.

A Matter of Honour actually has a pretty firm grip on character, and that’s part of the reason that it works so well. Even supporting characters are used well. For example, it builds of Heart of Glory‘s characterisation of Worf to suggest that Worf’s engagement with his own culture is purely theoretical. “I have studied and know everything about my heritage,” he boasts, underscoring the idea that Worf has little experience with his own people outside of books.

Winging it...

Winging it…

He’s nervous about sending Riker to a Klingon ship, perhaps aware that – despite the depth of his knowledge on his people – he is unfamiliar with the practical realities of working on a Klingon ship. He seems more anxious about Riker’s trip than Picard is. In a way, this sets a clear direction for Worf’s character arc over the next couple of years. Worf is a character who knows a lot about the ideals and values of Klingon culture, but with little understanding of how it works in practice.

A Matter of Honour even finds room for a nice Wesley subplot. Wesley is a character that the show never really figures out; he’s been the focus of some of the weaker episodes of the show to date and he’ll be the focus of some of the weaker episodes to come. However, here we actually get a Wesley-heavy subplot that works reasonably well, giving Wesley a fairly simple plot function (help an outsider fit in) and devoting no more time than necessary to it.

Standing up to the Captain...

Standing up to the Captain…

Although it’s far from the focus of the episode, the subplot humanises Wesley a bit by allowing him to interact with somebody just as awkward as he is, and it doesn’t hinge on the character appearing to be a miracle worker or a genius. Wesley doesn’t save the ship here, he just helps out a person who needs some assistance fitting in. In short, it’s a pretty efficient story beat to give your teenage cast member, and it’s not too different from the types of plots that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would do with Jake and Nog that worked better than “remember that time Wesley saved the Enterprise?”

Even O’Brien, a supporting character who only got a name in the last episode, is given a bit of personality. He’s afforded a small personal exchange with Riker before beaming him over to the Klingon ship. “I wouldn’t want to go,” he concedes. “You’re not afraid, are you?” Riker replies, “No, I’m not.” O’Brien deadpans, “I would be.” It’s a nice character moment for Riker, but also for O’Brien, and it demonstrates what this second season is learning. Again, this notion of character would be at the heart of Michael Piller’s reinvention of the show during its third season, but you can really see the seeds at work here.

The fall guy...

The fall guy…

It’s worth noting just how much Rob Bowman’s direction enhances A Matter of Honour. In particular, the scenes shot on board the Klingon Bird of Prey have a wonderfully oppressive atmosphere, with Bowman shooting the sets so that they look particularly alien – the rust and the dim lighting in stark contrast to the more sterile surroundings of the Enterprise.

Bowman was one of the strongest directors to work on The Next Generation, and it’s telling that two of the show’s strongest episodes to this point are credited to him. Bowman would go on to become one of the guiding directors on The X-Files in the mid-nineties. Bowman became such a significant part of The X-Files that he even directed the feature film. It’s a shame that he didn’t work longer on The Next Generation, particularly given the quality of his output.

Command decisions...

Command decisions…

Still, A Matter of Honour is one of the better episodes of the show so far, and a clear indicator that The Next Generation is in the process of improving, and of figuring out what it wants to be. It’s not quite there yet, but it’s closer than ever before. As the next episode indicates.

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

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4 Responses

  1. LOVE this ep. Great breakdown! I may watch it this weekend. Thanks!

  2. Are the new star trek films any good? I heard they are

    • Depends.

      They aren’t as deep or profound as the television show. They lack the depth of The Voyage Home or The Undiscovered Country. But in terms of technical craftsmanship, they are superb and great fun.

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