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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Arsenal of Freedom (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.

I suppose that Arsenal of Freedom could be worse. At its heart, it’s the sort of issue-driven story that the classic Star Trek did so very well. The original Star Trek was fond of constructing clever (and not so clever) explorations of the issues of the day, giving the audience a relatively simplistic morality play about the dangers of certain vices and the risks that they might pose to a civilised society. Later on its run, Star Trek: The Next Generation would handle its own morality plays with just a bit more nuance and sophistication, favouring deliberate and considerate probing rather than its predecessor’s endearing brashness. Like so much of the first season, Arsenal of Freedom feels like it is an attempt to capture the flavour of those sixties episodes.

At least, though, the show concedes that time has passed, and that social mores have shifted. The social issues of the day are no longer hippies (The Way to Eden) or simplistic racism (Let That Be Your Last Battlefield), and Arsenal of Freedom is a “message show” for the eighties. It is a morality tale about the dangers of unchecked capitalism and the risks of weapons development. It’s clumsy, awkward and a little forced, with The Next Generation not quite suited to this particular form of heavy-handed moralising, but it could be a lot worse. Which, I suppose, is something.

Looks like we've got a Minos problem here...

Looks like we’ve got a Minos problem here…

The show opens with the Enterprise assigned to investigate the disappearance of the USS Drake near the planet Minos. This first season of The Next Generation seems particularly concerned with unchecked and immoral capitalism, so the fact that Minos turns out to be an amoral intergalactic weapons bazaar doesn’t seem too unusual. After all, the Ferengi – the bold new enemy of the show – are little more than “Yankee traders.”

This isn’t an aspect new to Arsenal of Freedom. It seems to run through the first year of the show, much like the Cold War heavily influenced the original Star Trek. The trend would continue into later episodes. In The Neutral Zone, the Enterprise thaws out a yuppie to sanctimoniously lecture him about how money doesn’t matter. Symbiosis, the following episode, would focus on a planet full of drug dealers. In a way, I quite like the attempt to explore a consumerist culture that was much stronger in the eighties than it was in the sixties, but it’s also an issue the probably needs a bit more delicacy.

Compensating for something?

Compensating for something?

The clumsy ham-fisted moralising doesn’t quite work as well for The Next Generation as it did for the original Star Trek, probably because The Next Generation existed in a world that wasn’t divided as neatly into two opposing ideologies. Heart of Glory explored the ending of the ideological conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire by asking what that meant for the veterans of those older conflicts. How did they adjust to a new reality? It’s an approach I really liked. Arsenal of Freedom doesn’t work quite as well, because it amounts to little more than a repeated lecture that “guns are bad.”

That’s an appealing philosophical position, but it is overly simplistic. Weapons aren’t necessary inherently evil. Force can be used to inflict suffering on others, but it can also be used to prevent that same suffering. As a result, Arsenal of Freedom feels a little bit overly simplistic in its moral message, completely missing the nuance of Symbiosis. While it isn’t quite as suffocating as The Last Outpost, there’s the same sense of condescension there.

Worf would do well to lighten up a bit...

Worf would do well to lighten up a bit…

Nobody on the show seems to mourn the genocide on Minos, and the episode goes out of the way to present the planet as a world destroyed by its own rampant capitalism – to the point where it takes the disappearance of the Drake to make it seem tragic. Star Trek has always been about tolerance for other life forms, and Arsenal of Freedom seems clumsy. Nobody on screen actually states that the galaxy is a better place for having Minos destroyed, but you can’t imagine anybody is sad, mourning a culture of weapons manufacturers that are repeatedly portrayed as amoral throughout the episode. (Selling weapons to both sides, refusing to call off drone strikes against human targets and so on.)

It’s a shame, because the “salesman” is the one part of the episode that seems to be alive – that has an energy. Played by the late Vincent Schiavelli, the hologram of the chief arms dealer is the only charming part of the episode. We are supposed to mock his stupid capitalist outlook (knowing that it led to the extinction of his people), in the same way that The Last Outpost asked us to join in ridiculing the capitalist Ferengi, but Schiavelli is almost charming enough to make the character endearing. And his profiteering – although shallow, shameless and trite – at least puts the crew on edge.

Worlds apart...

Worlds apart…

There’s something quite amusing about Picard struggling to deal with an infomercial. It is always fun to see a cast pushed outside their comfort zone, and it’s immediately clear that Starfleet has no idea how to relate to something as gloriously tacky as this. “Something has scanned our language banks and is hailing us,” Data explains, which actually makes me envy the efficiency of the Minosian operation. It helps that the ridiculously eighties sales pitch seems to have its tongue rooted firmly in its cheek.

“If you need a little something special, be it for one target or multiple targets, we got it,” the salesman entices. “You’ll see it here on Minos, where we live by the motto ‘peace through superior firepower’.” I love that he closes his automated sales pitch with the instruction, “So lock on to my signal and beam on down…” We really should see more space advertising. Unfortunately, the episode begins to come apart once they reach the planet and we realise that the writers actually didn’t mean to have their tongues in their cheeks – that this is an earnest moral lesson to be imparted with deadpan seriousness.

Tough sale...

Tough sale…

I should also note, at this point, that Yar actually makes perhaps her first tactically sound decision of the year. I’ve been tough on Yar, which isn’t necessarily fair. All the characters were a bit rough around the edges in the first year, and they all dramatically improved. Yar is an easy target because she never got that chance. Given that a lot of the first season required the crew to act like idiots, Yar’s position of Chief of Security meant that she came off worse than most. If the Enterprise had a competent Chief of Security, Datalore would have lasted half-an-hour, The Battle could never have unfolded and Justice would not have seen a kid beaming to a planet that practises zero tolerance capital punishment.

Here, Yar actually acts like a reasonably competent tactical officer. When the crew reach Minos, she’s the only member who seems to advise caution, despite the fact that a Federation starship disappeared in the region. “We’ll keep the first landing party small and mobile, until I’m confident that whatever killed the inhabitants of this planet isn’t still down there.” It’s a sound policy, and seems far more prudent than Yar’s best efforts to create a potential hostage crisis in Heart of Glory. Credit where credit’s due, and it demonstrates that perhaps the character could find a way to work had Denise Crosby remained on the show.

Time to split...

Time to split…

We also discover that Riker was offered the command of the Drake, which is the first real suggestion we’ve seen that Troi’s appraisal of him in Haven was completely off-base. There she argued that Riker really wanted a starship command, but The Next Generation would repeatedly feature Riker declining command to remain on the Enterprise. However, I had forgotten that the show implied it so early. “You gave up your own command to take this assignment?” Yar asks him, and it makes me wonder how effective Troi is as an empath if she can’t even read her imzadi.

Arsenal of Freedom features two major character threads, but it’s telling that neither feels quite as significant as a one- or two-line revelation about Yar or Riker. The first sees Geordi given command of the Enterprise, and locking horns with Chief Engineer Logan. You’d imagine, given the relatively high turn-over of the position, Logan would try his damnedest to keep his head below the parapet. Instead, the guy acts like a massive and unprofessional dick towards Geordi. Even if his criticisms are legitimate, one imagines that officers are trained to voice these sorts of objections in private. Or, you know, at least out of earshot of the crew.

Riker isn't phased in the slightest...

Riker isn’t phased in the slightest…

This would be the last time we’d see Geordi in command of the Enterprise, and we don’t really know enough about him to get that this is a big deal. After all, he’d handled the Bridge fairly okay back in Angel One, during a catastrophe that was just as potentially destructive as the example seen here. Worf had to advise him to be a bit hands-off, but there’s no real inherent conflict in seeing Geordi in command.

The show would milk drama from Data commanding a starship (in Redemption), and it worked because he was a machine who had difficulty understanding people. Beverly (in Descent) and Troi (in Thine Own Self) also struggled because they came from outside the normal command structures. I promise I won’t make any comments about the show’s gender roles. However, it just feels a bit much to believe that Geordi – wearing a red command uniform – hasn’t been properly trained for this.

Acting Captain on the Bridge...

Acting Captain on the Bridge…

Indeed, while command is undoubtedly inherently stressful, Arsenal of Freedom fails to develop the plotline enough that it becomes an interesting exploration of the burdens of command. Geordi is a little insecure, but he gets over it. He is hassled by another senior officer, but he orders that officer to another part of the ship and then jettisons it. He isn’t reassuring his crew enough, but then he reassures them. It’s hardly compelling drama. It seems like more of an excuse to see the ship separating again.

However, more frustrating that the padded Geordi plotline is the one that unfolds on the planet surface involving Picard and Crusher. I am unsure why Picard beamed down to the planet. Surely having both senior officers on enemy territory is a bad idea? Especially where one of them has been incapacitated? And you don’t know what your security risks are? (You can’t be sure the ship is safe.) Still, Picard and Beverly needed to get trapped together to move the plot along, so I’d forgive it.

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

Except that they don’t need to be together. Apparently Robert Lewin planned to use the storyline to bring the romantic feelings between the pair to the fore. Unfortunately Gene Roddenberry vetoed the idea, and we ended up with seven years of unresolved sexual tension, resolving expressing itself in the final year of the show with Attached. However, to be entirely fair, given that The Next Generation typically did that sort of unresolved romance better than it handled actual couples, that might not be a bad thing in terms of the show.

Still, it’s a poor decision in terms of the episode itself. It means that Picard and Beverly get stuck in a hole together and nobody really talks about anything. There’s a bit of light banter, the mention of the grandmother from Sub Rosa, and Picard stumbles across a convenient deus ex machina to resolve the entire situation. It feels bloated and convenient, and unearned. More than that, the dialogue between Crusher and Picard feels a little neutered. Given the show repeatedly acknowledges the sexual attraction between the pair over the course of the first season (The Big Goodbye, The Naked Now and We’ll Always Have Paris), it seems a little strange that their interactions here are so sterile.

It's a pretty Minos trick to pull, if you ask me.

It’s a pretty Minos trick to pull, if you ask me.

Still, that perhaps sums up Arsenal of Freedom. Everything feels so neat and convenient that nothing seems to matter too much. The morality of the situation is drawn in loud primary colours, and there’s no depth to anything unfolding. It’s as if the episode was founded around a basic idea (“guns are bad”) and then the writers decided to pad a forty-minute episode around that, refusing to dig into the issue in any meaningful way.

I will confess a fondness for Herman F. Zimmerman’s production design. Minos never looks like a real alien planet, but it isn’t meant to. I like the design of the worlds in the first year or so of The Next Generation, because they seem so hyper-real, so bright and colourful and obviously set on a studio backlot. Like the world in Hide & Q, Minos is obviously built on a sound stage, but it looks so fake that it seems practically impossible – similar to the wonderful production design of films like Total Recall. Realism is overrated in science-fiction, and the worlds of the first year of The Next Generation seem almost stylised.

Tactical decisions...

Tactical decisions…

Still, that’s not a lot to love in Arsenal of Freedom. It’s not as bad as some of the stories this year, and it’s not actively terrible. It’s also not particularly engaging. The following episode, Symbiosis, would demonstrate that The Next Generation could produce an issue-driven story that worked a lot better (if still not perfectly). It’s not terrible, but it’s not great either.

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

14 Responses

  1. I am really enjoying your watch-through of TNG and This is the best review yet!

    I totally agree that the heavy-handed moralizing of TOS just doesn’t work on this show. And your closing thought, that. “Realism is overrated in science-fiction,” resonates with me. In fact, I think that very explains why so much sci-fi from the 90s and 00s bores me. Yes, even BSG is just of my interest’s reach for this very reason.

    • Thanks! Glad you’re enjoying it. I’m kind of wondering if I should continue in-line with future blu ray releases. I’d love to do Deep Space Nine. Thinking of doing the first year of TOS for Into Darkness in May.

      That said, Voyager would get repetitive, I think. Most of the episodes were flawed in the same routine way.

      I liked Battlestar, but I also love cheesy sci-fi. The highlight of the blu ray of The Next Generation has been the planet side sets. I love that sorta hyper-real stuff.

      • TOS, TNG, and Voyager mark the frontiers of my Trek knowledge. As much as I love Voyager, I’ve found that writing about it only reveals, as you say, the same faults over and over.

        A TOS review series would be great! DS9 is foreign territory that I just need to explore already.

      • Let’s just say I have something planned for the release of Into Darkness in May.

  2. I have always felt this episode would have been a lot more memorable had it been produced later on in the shows run. I agree with your review for the most part, Arsenal Of Freedom always loses my attention when Picard and Crusher wind up down that hole. Personally I have always loved Geordis story here and I lay that squarely at the feet of LeVar Burton. He really conveys the burden of command on a relatively green command officer. He is a fine underrated actor who did it all without one of his crafts main tools..his eyes. Later of course he went down to engineering and played that technobabble like Stevie Wonder.

    • Yep. LeVar Burton was pretty great. But I liked Geordi’s everymanness. The fact that he was an efficient and likeable chap who did his job with a minimum amount of fuss was one of the stronger parts of his character. (Certainly better than his creepy tendencies with women.)

  3. Oh also..as much as I agree with you on the many pat endings in first season TNG..in this particular instance I have always loved the resolution. It makes sense to me that a 24th Century man in the Trek universe wouldnt immediately think to simply purchase on the strength of a sales pitch and Vincent Schiavellis delivery in this scene is priceless in my opinion.

  4. In regards to “Certainly better than he creepy tendencies with women.” Darren can add a “t” to “he” to make the sentence “Certainly better than the creepy tendencies with women.” or Darren can change “he” to “his” and get “Certainly better than his creepy tendencies with women.”

  5. The title of the episode “Arsenal of Freedom” seems to evoke the real WWII program “Arsenal of Democracy” where America ramped up weapons production to supports its allies in the struggle against Fascism. Was this episode a delayed angered response to FDR’s polices? Is the episode’s message that building weapons as a capitalist nation was wrong, and would lead to America’s destruction? Given Roddenberry’s zeal to paint all capitalists as evil, I can’t help think that he is condemning America’s actions in WWII, and advocating a Stalinist approach, where infantry would be send into the meat grinder in human waves, barely equipped with weapons. The episode maybe trying to talk about 80’s consumerism, but with a parody episode title like that, it instead appears to be mocking the “Arsenal of Democracy”.

    • Good spot actually.

      Truth be told, I feel like I may need to go back and revise and edit some of these earlier reviews. I wrote them a long time ago, and some of them are very cringy in place.

  6. Bride of Chaotica! was somewhat mocking old sci-fi, but I just realized that the cheesy Death Ray from that episode is the same prop as the weapon covered by a bush in this episode. I’m sure there’s irony to be had from that.

  7. Honestly, I know the fandom consensus on this episode seems to be that it’s nothing particularly special, but I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for it.

    It’s undoubtedly not one of TNG’s strongest hours – hell, I don’t even know if I’d count it among the strongest episodes of the first season – but it moves at a fast enough clip that I never find myself too bored while watching it.

    Neither the character drama nor the moralising have much depth, for sure, but I found it a great deal of fun nonetheless. Last time around I even found myself enjoying it more than Symbiosis, but that may change the more I rewatch. I dunno. It’s fun, what can I say?

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