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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Allegiance (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.

Allegiance is a solid episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It just has the misfortune to follow three of the strongest episodes the show ever produced, and to come directly in front of one of the franchise’s better-received “light” episodes. It would be a tough situation for just about any episode, and the biggest problem with Allegiance is that it’s very much “traditional” Star Trek. It’s very safe, it’s very standard, it’s very familiar.

Allegiance is really a bunch of Star Trek clichés put in a blender. A doppelganger arrives on the ship to allow an actor a chance to flex their muscles; powerful aliens are keen to learn a lot about humanity; radically different people work together in order to overcome an obstacle; there’s even a lovely coda on just how well-oiled the Enterprise crew have become. It’s all executed quite well. Allegiance is a charming piece of work, one that feels intentionally light and breezy. It’s just naturally a bit of a step down from the phenomenal run of episodes that came before it.

Yep, it's a bit of a light week for the Enterprise crew...

Yep, it’s a bit of a light week for the Enterprise crew…

This is the last writing credit on The Next Generation for the writing team of Hans Beimler and Richard Manning. The duo had been working on the show from the first season, and had carved out something of a niche for themselves. They tended to produce big archetypal Star Trek scripts that really really ran off the essential and familiar clichés associated with the franchise. Indeed, in the show’s first two seasons, the duo seemed to be the writers most consistently capable of channeling classic Star Trek.

While The Arsenal of Freedom was far from the season’s strongest episode, it was very clearly cut from the same allegorical clothe as A Private Little War or Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Symbiosis was a lot stronger, the strongest episode of the first season to engage with that most classic of Star Trek concepts, the Prime Directive. Beimler and Manning would explore the same theme a bit more thoroughly (and successfully) in the early third season episode Who Watches the Watchers?

"Oh, I forgot that I'm not supposed to be here for another four years..."

“Oh, I forgot that I’m not supposed to be here for another four years…”

Quite simply, Manning and Beimler were very good (and getting consistently better) at writing episodes that fell into the traditional Star Trek mould. That’s not a criticism or a dismissal. After all, Manning and Beimler revived and developed a host of concepts that have become essential ingredients for the franchise. While they built on tropes from the original Star Trek, they very carefully codified them and refined them for this new generation of the franchise.

So Symbiosis and Who Watches the Watchers? are very direct descendents of episodes like The Apple and A Private Little War, just updated and reinvented for the late eighties and nineties. Allegiance fits in the grand tapestry of “powerful aliens experiment with the crew to learn about humanity” subgenre that can be traced back to The Empath or Return to Tomorrow. As much as incorporating Diana Muldaur into the past, or featuring DeForrest Kelley in Encounter at Farpoint, this sort of approach established a thematic continuity between the original Star Trek and The Next Generation.

Picards new CGI living room feature was surprisingly relaxing...

Picards new CGI living room feature was surprisingly relaxing…

The pair were very good at taking classic Star Trek episode templates and re-working them for a contemporary audience. Although they don’t get enough credit, their influence on the franchise can be judged by the fact that these templates remained an essential part of Star Trek long after Manning and Beimler had moved on. A lot of these are considered “traditional” Star Trek subgenres and episode types, without much need to substantially revise the updates done by Beimler and Manning.

Who Watches the Watchers? became the new gold standard of “first contact” and “prime directive” shows, the kind from which Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise got a lot of mileage. Allegiance really codifies the “powerful aliens mess around with the crew for their own amusement” subgenre that would inform episodes like Scientific Method from Voyager and even The Observer Effect from the final season of Enterprise. Given one of the major briefs of Voyager and Enterprise seemed to be “try to shamelessly imitate The Next Generation”, it seems fair to argue that Beimler and Manning’s work was a fairly essential part of The Next Generation.

Looks like Picard Chalnoth pass...

Looks like Picard Chalnoth pass…

So it is worth reflecting on the influence that Beimler and Manning had on Star Trek before departing the show at the end of the third season. Beimler would return to write for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, working as Ira Steven Behr’s writing partner. Manning would go on to become an executive producer of Farscape. But this is the last time that the duo would be credited as writers on an episode of Star Trek together.

Of course, all of this is writing around the fact that Allegiance is a fairly sturdy episode of The Next Generation, but nowhere near the quality of the episodes preceding it. One suspects the episode would be better received had it been broadcast earlier in the season, perhaps at the start of Piller’s tenure as executive producer. At the very least, and from the most cynical perspective, it’s a welcome reminder of how clearly the show’s standards have risen. Allegiance is far above the average quality of the first or second seasons of the show.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

However, that sort of attitude does Allegiance a disservice. In a way, it’s nice to have a no-frills episode of The Next Generation that doesn’t really reinvent the wheel. Both Yesterday’s Enterprise and Sins of the Father were striking because they offered a pretty breathtaking departure from what audiences had come to expect from Star Trek. They were very ambitiously stretching what Star Trek could do. Turn the Enterprise into a battleship? Explore the inner workings and corridors of power on the Klingon home world?

Even the intimate family drama of The Offspring was fairly far removed from the type of adventure associated with Star Trek. (Though Picard pointedly suggests that seeking out “new life forms” is much about philosophy and introspection as aliens and funny foreheads.) Although nowhere near as ambitious as the original pitch made by Ira Steven Behr, Captain’s Holiday will also represent a break from the norm for The Next Generation.

That's not a knife...!

That’s not a knife…!

As fun as all of these episodes are, there’s some measure of comfort in a good old-fashioned stew of Star Trek clichés. Aliens abduct Picard so they might learn about humanity! Picard is replaced by a duplicate on board the Enterprise! Picard needs to teach a bunch of very different people to come together in order to help themselves! It is a very paint-by-numbers Star Trek plot, but that’s not so bad in the midst of all those more ambitious episodes. Voyager and Enterprise only became truly vexing when they started doing these week-in and week-out.

And Allegiance is executed with considerable charm. Patrick Stewart always relishes being given stuff to do, and seems to be having a ball as alt!Picard. Stewart makes alt!Picard subtly different, but without resorting to pantomime. It’s a delightfully charming performance. Even the script seems to be in on the fun. alt!Picard does a bunch of stuff that really makes very little sense as an alien studying leadership, but which is incredibly fun for long term fans of show.

Um... where exactly does Worf keep that dinky phaser on his uniform without pockets?

Um… where exactly does Worf keep that dinky phaser on his uniform without pockets?

After all, one assumes that the most logical way to study Picard’s leadership style would be simply to live through it, to try to offer an imitation of Picard and enjoy the experience. Acting wildly out of character would sabotage the experiment, as it’s no longer a true exploration of how Picard leads his crew and how his crew respond to Picard, but just a bit of wacky hijinx. The crew don’t stand up to alt!Picard because he’s pushed them to the limits of loyalty, as one would assume to be the point of the test; they stand up to alt!Picard because they (correctly) suspect an alien influence at work, which is the exact opposite of what one assumes the aliens want to study.

Instead, the episode works because it’s fun to watch, rather than because it makes a lot of sense. Sure, alt!Picard offers a half-hearted explanation for how his flirtation with Crusher is an important part of his research. (“Would it be simpler if I were not your commanding officer?” he asks, in what sounds quite like a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen.) That said, it’s clear that alt!Picard is flirting with Crusher because it’s fun to see Picard flirting with Crusher. Similarly, alt!Picard standing in on the poker game is a fun juxtaposition and his decision to sing shanties in Ten Forward is delightfully out-of-character.

Rubber chin aliens...

Rubber chin aliens…

There’s something endearingly functional about Allegiance, and it’s reflected in the script and the production. The room in which Picard finds himself trapped is suitably nondescript and bland, perfectly functional and utilitarian. The mystery is structured as a fair play mystery, allowing Picard and the audience to deduce the identity of the alien infiltrator at the same time. However, Picard doesn’t figure out the infiltrator’s entity using conventional information – there’s no scans, no biological tell, no obvious set-up and pay-off.

Rather, Picard figures out that the Starfleet cadet is a fake using the structure of the episode. He pick up on a plot hole that clues him in. Haro has access to information she shouldn’t, because it makes no logical sense in the narrative. It could easily be a logical gap in the script, with a character speaking to events of which they could not possibly be aware, but instead it’s a vital clue to her true nature.

Taking a stab at diplomacy...

Taking a stab at diplomacy…

“I found it unlikely that a first year cadet would know of the Enterprise’s visit to Mintaka Three,” Picard explains, spotting a logical flaw that would have occurred to the more hardcore members of the audience at home, “so I tested you. Starfleet has classified the Cor Caroli Five plague as secret. No cadet would have knowledge of that incident.” Of course, ironically, this seems like something of a plot hole itself.

It feels strangely out-of-character for Starfleet to “classify” information about a plague. It’s certainly at odds with the generally benign portrayal of Starfleet from The Next Generation – inept and ineffective and maybe misguided, perhaps, but generally well-meaning. Classifying information about an illness on an alien planet seems a little paranoid for the Federation. In fact, the episode would arguably have worked a bit better had Picard questioned how Haro could know about events that unfolded literally right before the episode started, covered in the episode’s expository log. Haro could not have that knowledge.

Chewing it over...

Chewing it over…

Similarly, when the crew try to figure out what has happened to Picard, Data is able to figure it out by pointing to the loose plot thread. “Commander, there is still one fact we have not considered,” he politely explains. “The abnormal energy reading in the Captain’s quarters was never explained.” He’s referring to something from half an hour earlier that was dropped and forgotten about. Again, it’s like Data is aware of the rules of the narrative in identifying what is going on. The law of conservation of detail suggests that the strange reading was important, so it must be a vital clue rather than a loose end.

Data and Picard reach these conclusions not through techno-babble or forensics, but through simple logical causal analysis, as if nitpicking at the script for Allegiance. It seems like a rather sly approach to a fairly standard mystery, and it adds to the fun of the episode. Allegiance knows exactly what kind of story it wants to be, and it’s smart enough have the characters within the narrative work it out as well as the audience.

Nothing to wine about...

Nothing to wine about…

Still, there is an unfortunate aspect of Allegiances, and it really comes as a result of the episode’s adherence to Star Trek conventions. There’s something frustratingly essentialist about the episode’s aliens, where a bunch of god-like beings can capture beings from two different worlds and predict their behaviour based on the characteristics of their species. It’s something of a weakness of the franchise, where various alien races are treated as having one defining characteristic or baseline personality.

For example, Vulcans are logical; Klingons are warlike; Romulans are cunning; Ferengi are greedy. While the stronger episodes of the franchise subvert or explore these characteristics, a lot of Star Trek plays it straight. Sins of the Father, for example, had great fun with the idea of “Klingon honour”, by revealing that the Klingons weren’t necessarily exactly as outsiders see them. They could lie and cheat and scheme and conspire and cover-up, all of which worked so well in contrast to the stereotype of Klingon culture that Star Trek had been building up since Star Trek III: The Search for Spock or even Day of the Dove.

A guiding light...

A guiding light…

This is understandably problematic. After all, essentialism is a very common form of sexism and racism – assuming that all members of a particular group must share inherent characteristics, behaviours or attitudes by virtue of being part of that group. It’s a gross generalisation that reduces people to a label applied on some inherent aspect of themselves, rather than on any of their personal qualities. It de-humanises people, by diminishing a person’s individuality, attributing conduct or attitudes to the membership of some grouping or other.

So, in the context of Star Trek, essentialism is a bit self-defeating. After all, this is supposed to a show about overcoming differences and learning to accept everybody on the strength of their individuality. So an episode which hinges on a bunch of stereotypes – even stereotypes attributed to fictional alien races – sits somewhat uncomfortably with the grand tapestry of Star Trek. Here, there’s no sense that Tholl and Esoqq are individuals; they are more a collection of traits defined by their race.

Ask not for whom the bell Tholls...

Ask not for whom the bell Tholls…

“You’re uncivilised,” Tholl insists of Esoqq. “You have no laws, no system of government…” Esoqq speaks as if on behalf of the whole Chalnoth race, “The Chalnoth have no use for laws or governments! We are strong. We obey no one.” Similarly, Esoqq makes similar generalisations concerning Tholl, observing that “collaboration is what [his] species does best.” The whole set up of Allegiance seems almost absurdly absolute in its characterisation.

(This also plays out when Esoqq discovers that he can’t eat the food provided by the captors. “Esoqq, how long can you go without food?” Picard asks, sensing the situation is about to get out of control. It seems a weirdly specific question – “… until I get hungry” would seem to be the only proper answer. Instead, Esoqq replies immediately, as if he just calculated the necessary percentages, “Three days. Perhaps four.” And then both he and Picard double check that figure. “No longer?” Picard asks. “No longer,” Esoqq replies. It’s a weirdly specific measure of hunger, and there’s no sense of uncertainty or guess work.)

These aliens seem a little far afield... (It also seems a bit weird that they are all-powerful, but so easily contained...)

These aliens seem a little far afield…
(It also seems a bit weird that they are all-powerful, but so easily contained…)

Indeed, Esoqq and Tholl are so broadly drawn that Doctor Who would have an affectionate laugh at Tholl’s expense in The God Complex, an episode that sees the TARDIS crew trapped in an inescapable location. In what might also be a nod to The Royale, it is an unending hotel. That isn’t the only parallel with The Next Generation, one of the characters trapped seems like a parody of Allegiance‘s surrender-ready Tholl.

Like Tholl, Gibbis comes from a race known for surrendering and collaborating. He’s even a town planner, much as Tholl is a civil servent. The God Complex actually examines Gibbis’ collaboration, but it also has a lot more fun with the absurdity of the character. At one point, he discusses his current project. “We’re lining all the highways with trees so invading forces can march in the shade.”

Well, he certainly knows how to make an entrance...

Well, he certainly knows how to make an entrance…

That sort of absurdity and self-awareness is sorely lacking from Tholl. There’s no sense that Allegiance acknowledges how absurd a race devoted to the philosophy of collaboration and surrender must be. At the same time, there’s no real exploration of the implications of that political ideology. Just how far does Mizarian pacifism extend? The implication is that they actively assist their enemies, but just how willing are Mizarians to compromise? Will they adjust their belief systems to comply with those of the occupying force? Will they participate in crimes against their own kind for the greater good?

We never get a sense of who the Tholl or Esoqq are, just as we never get a sense of what the Mizarians and the Chalnoth are like, beyond a brief one-line high concept for each. The Chalnoth are stereotypical warriors and the Mizarians are exagerated pacifists, but there’s never any depth or colour to the guest stars or any exploration of their cultures and values. Esoqq wants to escape, and is potential threat to the group. Tholl is willing to wait it out. That’s it.

Picard has been nursing this Crush(er) for quite some time...

Picard has been nursing this Crush(er) for quite some time…

That said, they really are two fantastic creations from Michael Westmore. Westmore really doesn’t get enough credit for his work, despite the cliché of “rubber forehead aliens.” The Chalnoth and the Mizarians look suitably alien and are quite striking designs. Westmore has quipped that the Mizarian design looks “almost like a villain from Dick Tracy.” The Chalnoth design was infamously difficult, with actor Reiner Schöne unable to wear the contacts for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s a shame that neither race was ever featured again, consigned to a number of background appearances in later episodes.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the episode’s essentialism is that Picard is a willing participant. Picard is one of the most wonderfully advanced leading characters in genre fiction, his occasional difficulties with artificial intelligence notwithstanding. To hear Picard actively engaging in this sort of behaviour feels a little unfortunate. When Picard finds himself trapped in a room with three people, his primary line of inquiry seems to be their racial backgrounds.

Continuing a recurring theme of the season: alien face palm!

Continuing a recurring theme of the season: alien face palm!

He does ask Haro about her studies, and whether her time at the Academy might have led to her abduction. However, he quickly siezes on her species. “The Bolians are maintaining an uneasy truce with the Moropa, are they not?” he asks, as if the fact that Haro is Bolian would be enough to justify her abduction. With Tholl, he immediately starts speculating about who might want to kidnap a Mizarian, long before he circles around to asking if there’s anyone who might dislike Tholl “personally.”

It gets even more uncomfortable towards the end. We’ve had two guest stars defined by their species, and we’ve had Picard using their species as a primary line of inquiry in his attempts to figure out who might have abducted them – despite the fact that, since there are four of them of different species, it seems unlikely that race is going to be the deciding factor. However, if all species are defined by certain intrinsic characteristics, what characteristics are intrinsic to humanity?

Picard seems happy. This cannot last.

Picard seems happy. This cannot last.

Well, according to Allegiance, morality is the definitive human trait. “This concept of morality is a very interesting human characteristic,” one of the observing aliens remarks. “We shall have to study it sometime.” That’s a little awkward, as it seems to suggest the humans are somehow inherently more moral than other species – that it’s something uniquely attributable to mankind, at least in the experience of these observers.

While Allegiance never strays as far into the uncomfortable “humans are inherently superior” philosophy that weighed down episodes like The Last Outpost or Lonely Among Us, it is lurking there in the background. It’s implied in that terrible line. It undermines a lot of the hard work that The Next Generation has taken in the past season, trying to move past that uncomfortable arrogance.

All ale the Captain!

All ale the Captain!

Still, these are problems that tend to come out of these sorts of stories. Inevitably Star Trek stories about aliens studying mankind imply that there’s something very special about us. It even comes up in the conversations between the two Q in Déjà Q. And identifying the personal trait of a guest star as a racial trait is a convenient storytelling short cut that helps the script cover a lot of ground quicker. It’s easier to explain that Tholl comes from a planet of pacifists than to bring it up in dialogue about his character, for example.

These aren’t excuses, but they demonstrate that the problems aren’t specific to this episode by any measure. They are just brought out in force by the use of these familiar Star Trek narrative tropes and storytelling conventions. Allegiance is fun enough that these problems never quite reach critical mass, even though they are visible around the edge of the frame. They aren’t deal breakers, even if they are uncomfortable.

"What...?! I'm engaging in wacky hijinx again next episode?"

“What…?! I’m engaging in wacky hijinx again next episode?”

Allegiance is a fairly standard episode of Star Trek executed very professionally, and adhering quite faithfully to one of the franchise’s tried-and-tested formulas. It suffers from the fact that so many episodes around it are being more adventurous and more exciting, while Allegiance feels more safe and comfortable. This isn’t a bad episode by any measure, in fact it’s quite a good one. It’s just not a great one.

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

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