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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Battle (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.

The Battle represents a curious midpoint in the evolution of the Ferengi. When they first appeared in The Last Outpost (after being mentioned in Encounter at Farpoint), the aliens had been considered as viable replacements for the Klingons and Romulans as the primary antagonists of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Despite the presence of Worf on the Bridge, the bible for The Next Generation expressly forbade plots involving the Klingons or Romulans, with the creators afraid of returning to that particular well. (It would be towards the end of the season that both races would make a comeback, in big ways.) With neither of those races available, there was a void, and the Ferengi had been created to fill that void.

However, their introduction in The Last Outpost had been an unmitigated disaster, reducing the species to failed comic relief in their very first episode. The Battle is the second story to feature the aliens, and it never seems quite sure how to handle them. Does it present them as a credible threat, or merely as an awkward annoyance not to be taken seriously? The Battle can’t decide, and that’s just the most obvious of the episode’s fundamental problems.

They have yet to figure out an angle that works for the Ferengi…

I discussed it in The Last Outpost, but it’s worth repeating here. Part of the reason the Ferengi never worked on The Next Generation was because the show never really respected them as a culture. Given that Justice saw Picard tolerating arbitrary death squads for petty vandalism, that’s strong condemnation. The Ferengi are a bad joke, with the show (and the regulars) trying to convince us to laugh at them. “Look at their funny ears!” the show seems to say. “Look, they’re short and have difficulty with words and are greedy! Ha!”

Given that Star Trek has traditionally been built on tolerance and respect, that can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable. The Ferengi would slowly regain their dignity over the course of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, if only because the show gave them a sense of credibility. Their greed didn’t make them inherently inferior, it just represented a very different value system. In The Jem’Hadar, Quark would argue that the Ferengi were – in their way – a lot more civilised than humans. They might turn their own relatives upsider down, shake them and collect what falls out, but they have never committed acts of genocide. They don’t believe in force as a doctrine. After all, there’s no profit in it.

Beware Ferengi bearing gifts…

It’s a fascinating attempt to salvage the Ferengi as a species, and it’s a shame that it is about six years away. To be fair, The Battle offers an opaque hint towards the idea that Ferengi values might be different rather than inherently flawed, but it feels like more of an afterthought. When Bok is arrested by his own First Officer for his unprofitable course of action, Riker explains the situation. “Removed from command, sir. Placed under guard for his act of personal vengeance. Seems there was no profit in it.” Picard philosophically responds, “In revenge, there never is.” Sadly, the idea seems to be just a nice way to end the episode, rather than an interesting evolution in how the crew perceive the Ferengi.

Of course, Bok himself seems like a bit of an afterthought. He is a character who lost his son in an anonymous space battle years ago, and has been nursing the wounds ever since. There should be some element of tragedy in that. Despite his intention to murder Picard, his motives should at least be understandable to the audience. The show can’t seem to bring itself to embrace the avarice of the Ferengi, but the desire for revenge seems like such a basic emotion that it must be difficult to mess that up.

Ghost ship…

Unfortunately, the show doesn’t invest any development in Bok as a character. He is a plot device. He exists to look snivelling and cowardly, and to make sinister and ominous comments as we rapidly cut back and forth between his quarters and Picard’s seizure. We’ve never seen a Ferengi with facial hair, but the episode might as well give him a moustache to stroke. However, the show also treats him as nothing more than a plot device. His thread is resolved off-screen. We don’t see him receive his just desserts. We just allow the plot to wrap up everything relatively neatly.

I know that this is Picard’s show, but one senses that a bit more time with Bok might have brought some of the show’s themes into sharper focus. There is a mood lingering over The Battle that doesn’t feel quite like The Next Generation, one that suggests space is still some truly untamed and wild frontier – but one that’s cold and dark. So far, The Next Generation has been fairly organised and structured, at least compared to the original Star Trek.

Don’t worry, Mister Stewart, it gets better… eventually…

So far, there has a much greater sense that the Enterprise is really patrolling an increasing civilised universe, rather than adventuring off into the unknown – despite Picard’s promise of that they were venturing into “the great expanse of the galaxy.” In The Battle, however, space is presented as a lot colder, a lot stranger and a lot more hostile. The events here arise from a brief ship-to-ship conflict that occurred with no warning and no communication.

Forced to abandon ship in the wake of the attack, Picard seems to recall a vast emptiness that we never really see on the show. “We limped through space in shuttle craft for weeks before we were picked up.” Even today, the Enterprise is so far out that it will take a say to update Starfleet of their situation, and a day to hear a response. (In later sequences, there was never that sense that the ship was that far out.)

Riker’s ready…

At one point, Picard suggests that the Enterprise release the Stargazer from the tractor beam. Riker is curious, wondering if he is abandoning the ship. “No, but her inertia will carry the Stargazer along with us. Or did you sleep through the Academy lecture on conservation of tractor beam power?” It seems seems strange to hear a ship that runs several functioning holodecks complain about conserving power on a relatively more important function. It creates the impression that energy reserves on the Enterprise must be more tightly regulated than it would appear.

These small elements add up to create the impression that space is a truly hostile environment. Decisions need to be made quick to save lives. Picard acted fast in destroying an enemy ship. It was cold, it wasn’t personal. A sharper script would draw out that conflict with Bok – perhaps suggest that he can’t see the difference. It would compare and contrast Picard and Bok’s attitudes towards that sort of situation. Picard would accept that tough calls have to be made and that people die. Bok would be unable to accept this.

You can’t go home again…

The problem with this development, however, would be that it would cast Picard as a cynic. That is something that the early episodes of The Next Generation were reluctant to do. Not only were the cast and crew always correct, they were always optimistic. For Picard to accept that sort of unfortunate reality – and to portray Bok’s inability to accept the harsh truth – would make Picard seem more jaded than the murderous Ferengi. And the show seems unable to do that. So Bok remains nothing more than a cardboard cut-out, and the fascinating ideas about the tough calls necessary to run a starship are brushed aside far too easily.

There are other problems with the script. On a most obvious plotting level, it requires the entire cast to act like idiots. That isn’t unique to this episode – it’s a theme that runs through the first season. In Justice, for example, Riker left Wesley unattended on an alien planet so he could get some strange. Here, the plot requires that the crew take the Ferengi gift at face value. You might try to lump this under the “tolerance” I was talking about earlier, but “tolerance” is not the same as “stupidity.” Tolerance of Ferengi culture is not accepting a strange gift; it’s realising that Ferengi don’t give gifts.

Don’t worry, he’ll be Bok…

This is enough of a problem on its own terms, but the episode goes out of its way to illustrate how obviously this is a ruse. Bok mights well hand of “villain” business cards, as he sarcastically praises Picard as “the hero of Maxia.” His anger is palpable when Data omits the details of the skirmish. “That fine vessel was Ferengi,” he vehemently protests, before trying to seem more even-handed. “Such mistakes happen in space.”

As if that isn’t obvious enough, Bok makes sure to layer it on thick when Picard has a massive headache in the middle of the Bridge. “Perhaps it is his conscience,” the Ferengi goads. Because you would totally take a gift from the guy who just lost his temper over a ship you destroyed and has been passively-aggressively sniping at you the whole time. Even Bok’s crew seems to cotton on faster than the Enterprise staff. “Consider it an act of friendship,” Bok offers. One of his crew quite loudly protests, “At no cost? Ugly! Very ugly!”

This is literally the climax to the episode. There is nothing funny about that, sadly.

(And, to be fair, Troi does warn him about Bok. “Captain, I sense considerable deception on Bok’s part,” she advises her Captain. “And danger.” However, I thought that The Last Outpost established that she couldn’t read Ferengi minds? I’m not a stickler for continuity, but it’s been about five episodes? It just adds more evidence to my half-serious fan theory that Troi isn’t really empathic at all. She’s just a half-decent judge of character most of the time.)

Given there’s no excuse for stupidity, it just makes the Enterprise crew come off as somewhat arrogant, which is a major recurring problem throughout a lot of these early episodes. Roddenberry insisted that the crew should be idealised to the point where they were flawless – however, the show gives the characters a rather obvious superiority complex that can be quite grating at times. Riker even mocks Bok’s First Officer about the gift, implying that he should be smart enough to figure it is a trap. “Actually it was quite a bargain, Kazago,” he jerkishly teases the Ferengi. “I thought the Ferengi always made a profit on things.” It demonstrates that Riker should have enough evidence to be way ahead of the plot, but he’s too complacent to figure it out.

In space, all warriors are money-hungry greedy warriors…

It doesn’t help that Wesley is showing up the entire cast and crew here as well. When the kid (even the boy genius) is more competent than your trained officers, you might have a problem. Wesley is in “genius” mode here, which means that he gets to be right. And he gets to be incredibly condescending about it. He spots the Stargazer before anybody else on the ship. “I was in Engineering, playing around with boosting sensor output,” he explains. Apparently he is already more proficient than the people who designed the ship.

Later on, it is Wesley who provides Crusher and Troi with vital information to figure out what precisely is happening to Captain Picard. The problem isn’t that he’s hyper-smart. Okay. The problem isn’t just that he’s hyper-smart. He is so damn smug about it. “You’re welcome ladies,” he sleazily comments, to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised to see him creepily wink at Troi. Once they’ve left, he sighs to himself, “Adults.” (The problem is then compounded by the fact that Troi can’t seem to remember what he said to her about two minutes earlier. Because, you know, adults aren’t just idiots, they lack basic recall.)

Taking on Picard like this, he’s got some ball…

To be entirely fair, Picard does offer valid criticism of Wesley actions. When Wesley comes to the Bridge to alert the crew to the arrival of the Stargazer, Picard astutely points out that there was some measure of personal pride involved. “Bringing it here personally, perhaps with the idea of being on hand for the Ferengi beam over, might have imperilled this vessel had it been something hostile approaching.” However, it isn’t something hostile approaching, and the episode never develops that thread. Instead, it just makes Picard appear grouchy due to his mind-control headaches.

To be fair, there are a few nice moments. I like the Ferengi transporter effect. I know it’s less than important in the grand scheme of things, but you have to find something you like. And, again, Patrick Stewart does an excellent job with the material to hand. I know I complained about Roddenberry’s edict banning interpersonal conflict, but I do like that there is nobody who doubts Picard, even when Bok fabricates a recorded confession.

Never look a gift-giving Ferengi in the mouth. Their teeth are ugly.

It’s something the show did quite well throughout its run – it never turned the cast against one another for cheap drama, and everybody was relatively open-minded about stuff like that. Granted, it makes sense given how weird the universe is, but it’s nice to see the show avoid that old drama convention of the ensemble turning on a member in their moment of need. Later seasons would find a way to balance that with more nuance and character, but I do like that it shows up here.

Sadly, The Battle feels like another waste of an episode, despite some interesting ideas. The show has to start improving at some point, right?

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

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2 Responses

  1. Troi should’ve been a major presence in this episode. Picard should’ve talked to her about all the emotions he was feeling, seeing the Stargazer again. That’s why she’s on the ship, after all. So her not getting to do anything was disappointing. However, Patrick Stewart was excellent. The scene where he first goes over to the Stargazer was beautiful. He didn’t overdo it and make it cheesy. He kept it subtle, and kept it really, really touching.

    • I think you’re right on all points, but it seems like Troi is a character the staff weren’t sure how to write at this point in time. Stewart is great, but the writing is terrible – and I think there’s a limit to how much Stewart can do to redeem a terrible script, even if he does a lot.

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