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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Symbiosis (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.

After Arsenal of Freedom, I was wary of Symbiosis. Star Trek has always liked exploring socially and morally relevant ideas through the vehicle of science-fiction. I can understand the appeal of it – science-fiction allows us to divorce basic arguments for all manner of clouding context and to address them in the purest or terms. I think Star Trek is at its most powerful exploring these themes (as The Next Generation would do in episodes like The Outcast), but there’s a risk involved. Nobody wants to be lectured about a simplistic moral principle for forty-minutes, and nobody wants to see a complex issue boiled down past all recognition.

So it’s pretty nice that Symbiosis works quite well. The show is a bit bumpy in places, but it does a lot of things well enough that it’s an entertaining watch. Indeed, it feels like the kind of episode we should have seen a lot earlier in the year.

Star gazing...

Star gazing…

As a show produced during the eighties, it seemed inevitable that The Next Generation would have to tackle drug use at one point or another. Nancy Reagan was pushing the “just say no” campaign at the time, and it seemed that any television show looking to explore social issue would have to handle the notion of narcotics at one point or another. Handling that sort of social problem – particularly one affecting young kids – is very hard for a show to do. It’s very easy to patronise the audience or to simplify the issue.

There is one point in Symbiosis where the show seems a little on the nose in a “knowing is half the battle” sort of way. Wesley, our teenage character and occasional failed audience stand-in, discovers that the plot of the show is centred around the abuse of narcotics. “Data,” he remarks, “I can understand how this could happen to the Ornarans. What I can’t understand is why anyone would voluntarily become dependent on a chemical.” Just in case we weren’t sure that this space-age mystery had some modern relevance, Data assures his colleague, “Voluntary addiction to drugs is a recurrent theme in many cultures.”

Current affairs...

Current affairs…

Luckily enough, Wesley never utters the words “tell me more”, but the cringeworthy exposition continues. Yar provides a vehicle for the writers to provide essential information. The fact that Yar was the survivor of a failed colony was never really developed enough, although nothing really was at this point in the show. Still, given what little development we had consisted of “rape gangs”, that might not be a bad thing. Seriously, Yar’s colony had been discussed twice, and we know little more than that – which perhaps reflects some of the problems in the writers’ room.

Still, at least here we discover that the failed colony also had drug problems. Denise Crosby remains one of the weakest members of the ensemble, and pairing her with Will Wheaton to provide an earnest discussion about the nature of drug addiction seems unfair to both actors. Patrick Stewart, the best member of the ensemble, would struggle with dialogue this clunky, so Crosby and Wheaton don’t stand a chance. That said, the conversation is brief enough that it doesn’t sink the episode, even if it dents an instalment that is otherwise quite strong.

They're in a bit of a fix...

They’re in a bit of a fix…

Part of the reason that the rest of Symbiosis works so well is because it avoids too many moments like this. Indeed, the show is cleverly structured as a sort of a mystery. Drugs aren’t revealed as the central plot point until about half-way through the episode. Instead, it begins with a wonderful hook, as the Enterprise tries to rescue a freighter that is in dire need of assistance, although things immediately become intriguing.

Like the introduction to Minos in Arsenal of Freedom, the opening here works because the Enterprise seems a little out of its element. Trying to save the freighter, Picard and the crew are confronted by an entirely clueless crew. “We have lost, I don’t know, something,” T’Jon communicates to his rescuers. “I am no longer able to maintain this orbit, nor am I able to use the main thrusters. It’s all, you know, dead, I guess. It’s all shut down?” Picard gets so frustrated by the lack of useful information coming from the ship that he commands, “Data, can you tap into their computer and clarify the situation?” It also prompts the first Picard face palm that I’ve noticed.

Admit it, you've been waiting all month for one of these.

Admit it, you’ve been waiting all month for one of these.

The sequence is a bit heavy-handed, but it’s no less effective for it. It’s only a tiny bit more subtle than having T’Jon complain about the munchies or waffle about existential philosophy, but it’s so different to what we usually see on the show that it can’t help but seem effective. There’s something very disconcerting about the comfort with which T’Jon faces his potentially inevitable death. When the Enterprise fails, he tells them, “I understand. Thanks for trying.”

The show moves rapidly from there, and it gives us something approaching a real mystery to solve. The clues seem obvious in hindsight, but I wonder if I grapsed the concept any quicker than Beverly the first time I watched it. Curiously, this time around, I found myself wondering if the Ornarans at least suspected they were addicted to a narcotic (rather than using a treatment). They seem quite cagey on the issue.

Oh no! Space yuppies!

Oh no! Rejects from the Space Eighties!

In the early part of the episode, they’d allay a lot of suspicion if they immediately described their “cargo” as “medicine”, rather than dancing around the words. They seem to want to avoid explaining anything to Picard, which doesn’t make sense if they believe it’s a treatment for a plague. Indeed, you would imagine that explaining that the cargo is medicine would help the Enterprise to understand why they beamed it over immediately, before even themselves.

Symbiosis also gives us one of our more interesting explorations of alien sociology so far in the series. Even before we know that it is a drug, the relationship between the Ornarans and the Brekkians seems somehow surreal and more complex than they would like Picard to believe. “Fascinating,” Data observes. “Your society is dedicated exclusively to the production of a single product.” Picard clarifies, “A product for which you have no use, but which the Ornarans can’t live without.” It might not seem the most practical arrangement, but it’s a far more nuanced portrayal of a diplomatic relationship than we’ve seen before. (Well, if you discount the commentary on Klingon-Federation politics in Heart of Glory.)

Difficulties are flaring up...

Difficulties are flaring up…

The history of both cultures suggests a lot more development than most aliens have received so far. Indeed, the Ferengi have appeared a couple of times, and we have little more than idle gossip about how incredibly crap they are as an alien species. The gradual revelation about the nature of the relationship between the Brekkians and the Ornarans feels earned in that respect, and there’s a sense that the aliens existed before the Enterprise arrived, which grants weight to the episode’s conclusion, as we can believe that both societies continue to exist even after the Enterprise goes on its way.

One of the hallmarks of good writing is a willingness to allow characters to lie – and to trust the audience to pick up that what these people are saying is not true, a distortion or interpretation of the facts to suit their own agenda. There’s a nice moment towards the end of the episode as the Brekkians claim to have been touched by the suffering of the Ornarans and agree to donate them the shipment. While Picard explicitly calls them on it, it’s a nice moment because it is immediately clear to the audience that they’re lying through their teeth and their change of heart is not genuine.

Dealing with a workplace Crush(er)...

Dealing with a workplace Crush(er)…

Picard figures it out as quickly as we do. “They know that the Ornarans no longer have the plague. They know that felicium is no longer a medicine. So, of course, they are willing to give this shipment because they don’t want to take the chance that the Ornarans will lose their addiction. They don’t want to lose their only customers.” The fact that Symbiosis feels the need to steer clear of the shallow exposition-laden dialogue that Star Trek occasionally takes for granted is a good thing.

It’s also the best and most thorough exploration of the Prime Directive to date. Episodes like Code of Honour and Justice used the rule in a rather clumsy way that made the Federation look like morons who allowed themselves to be bullied by anybody with a crazy belief system in the name of “tolerance.” Sure, the characters weren’t happy about it, but it was still quite a bit silly – after all, vowing not to interfere was a bit different than allowing another culture to execute a member of your crew for some silly and arbitrary reason.

Also: Space Yuppies!

Also: Space Yuppies!

Here, things are handled with a bit more nuance. There are no stakes for Picard or the Enterprise, which means the argument might as well be purely theoretical – and it works much better that way. It also helps that it makes it clear that the Prime Directive can frequently benefit the least deserving of people. After Picard has figured out the scheme, Langor drops any pretence of being concerned about the Ornarans and gets right to exploiting the rules tying Picard’s hands. “If you can’t interfere, then you are going to allow the Ornarans to have the Felicium?”

Justice and Code of Honour portrayed it as inherently virtuous to adhere to the Prime Directive, while feeling free to condemn the cultures in question – which is a strange way of adhering to the letter, but not the spirit, of the law. There was no hesitance from Picard to look down on Ligonian customs even as he was mandated to observe them, showing up to condescend Lutan. The Prime Directive implies some sort of moral relativism, but The Next Generation has been reluctant to concede that foreign cultures are worthy of respect – mostly they are worthy of lectures or pity or grudging tolerance. It seems like, based on earlier adventures, the Prime Directive said more about the Federation’s virtue than an acceptance of alien cultures.

A hands-on approach...

A hands-on approach…

Symbiosis allows Picard to put his money where his mouth is. The system is exploitation, and it is revealed as such. However, Picard’s unwavering faith in the Prime Directive means that he has to accept that this is a situation where he doesn’t hold absolute moral authority. “This situation has existed for a very long time,” he tells Beverly. “These two societies are intertwined in a symbiotic relationship.” Crusher is having none of this, “With one society profiting at the expense of the other.” Picard, to be fair to him, points out how relative that value is. “That’s how you see it.”

“You can’t let them have the Felicium,” Cursher implores at one point, and it’s very easy to understand where she’s coming from. In fact, Symbiosis isn’t really ambiguous on this point. It would be very hard to find an audience that wouldn’t consider the relationship is “exploitative”, at best. However, such judgements are relative, and applying the Prime Directive means that you have to accept that relativism. “Why?” Picard counters, “Because it offends against our sensibilities? It is not our mission to impose Federation or Earth values on any others in the galaxy.”

Staying on point...

Staying on point…

It’s funny. The show’s bible explicitly states that the series doesn’t exist to export American and European values, but this is the first time we’ve actually seen Picard have the courage to philosophically defend the position, instead of simply adhering to the rule. It’s not something that’s easy to agree with, but I respect it precisely because it isn’t easy. Indeed, the clever application of the Prime Directive at the end of the episode works precisely because it’s not easy and convenient. Unlike so many early Next Generation episodes, the ending doesn’t leave every character happy, and it doesn’t even assure an ending that is necessarily happy. It simply represents the greatest contribution Picard can make to this troubled relationship.

Indeed, the episode explicitly points out that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that magically makes everything better for everybody in the system. “When the Felicium runs out,” Beverly advises Picard, “the people of Ornara will suffer horrible withdrawal pains.” Picard acknowledges as much, while maintaining a slight hint of hopefulness. “No doubt, but they will pass.” It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not necessarily the most noble possible. As Beverly argues, “That seems so cruel. We could have made their burden easier.”

I'm just disappointed we never got a Space Wire spin-off featuring these characters.

I’m just disappointed we never got a Space Wire spin-off featuring these characters.

The best part of Symbiosis is the fact that Picard finally allows the Prime Directive to make sense as a practical guideline, even in the most dire of situations:

Beverly, the Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilisation, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.

It seems to be something that the show has been trying to do since its earliest episodes, and it’s a bit disappointing that it took so very long to get that basic bit of the show’s lore figured out. Still, Stewart and McFadden are great, and they seem to relish the meaty philosophical debate they are given.

Yar out, eh?

Yar out, eh?

The episode ends with the hope that this is the correct course of action, while acknowledging that it’s impossible to know – a rare moment of moral uncertainty at this point in the show. The Next Generation‘s first season often traded in Picard’s moral fortitude, and the idea that the Enterprise crew were always inherently correct in what they decided to do. It’ part of what made a few of the early shows so awkward, as the Enterprise seemed more interest in touring with moral superiority than exploring strange new worlds. A happy ending is normally all but assured, but here Picard expressly confesses, “We may never know.”

All this is pretty great, but I also like the fact that Symbiosis reinforces the idea that the Enterprise is on a mission of discovery. Too many earlier episodes instead suggested that the crew really knew everything that they needed to know, and could effectively lord it over aliens like the Ferengi, the Anticans or the Selay. Here, we get a sense of genuine curiosity from Picard and his crew, as he puts the ship in a reasonable amount of risk to see unusual solar activity.

There is absolutely nothing Freudian in this image.

There is absolutely nothing Freudian in this image.

“We will be pushing the shields to the limit, but we are getting a splendid view of this phenomenon,” he assures the crew, and it’s great to see that this post-Star Trek universe is still filled with wonders and mysteries and the crew are still dedicated to exploring and probing. In fact, at the end of the episode, the only bit of comfort that Picard seems able to draw is the fact that the ship is venturing into the unknown, to see what the universe can offer.

Asked where he wants to go, Picard responds, “I don’t care. Let’s just get some distance between us and this system.” It’s a rather cold statement from a character who is normally better able to mask his discomfort and unease. Geordi sets a course for the Opraline System, prompting Riker to inquire why the navigator picked that particular destination. In a moment that reaffirms the enthusiastic thirst for knowledge of Star Trek, Geordi simply responds. “Curiosity. We’ve never been there.”

They can quite quite touchy when pushed...

They can quite quite touchy when pushed…

Maybe my opinion is slightly coloured by the fact that I’ve been wading through a first season that has generally been fairly mediocre, but I actually enjoyed Symbiosis quite a bit. Like the other strong episodes in the season, it is held back from greatness by a certain stilted quality. Here it’s the awful scene where Yar explains drugs to Wesley, the kind of thing that feels like it came from a public service announcement. It’s a short scene, but it’s so painfully forced in an otherwise intriguing episode that it causes a great deal of damage.

In light of Yar’s impending departure (this was the last episode Denise Crosby filmed), it is worth noting that Yar gets perhaps her best moment of the season here, as she breaks up a physical altercation between the Oncarans and the Brekkians with a phaser blast. “Behave yourselves, gentlemen,” she coyly advises them, in a moment of confidence that the character rarely gets. (And, based on what we’ve seen, even more rarely deserves.) In a weird aside, you can also see Denise Crosby waving goodbye at the end of the episode as Picard leaves the shuttlebay. It’s a strange moment, but it’s quirky enough that I don’t mind too much. (It’s also in the background, so you have to look for it.)

Let's get the hell out of here.

Let’s get the hell out of here.

Symbiosis isn’t perfect. But it is better than the vast majority of the episodes so far, and that’s something. I suppose. The rest of the first year would show signs of improvement, but would also be hampered by outside factors. Symbiosis is perhaps the strongest indication of the evolution in The Next Generation, and a sign of things to come. The Next Generation would get a bit better at doing these sorts of morality plays, but Symbiosis is a good enough attempt in a year that is otherwise full of misfires.

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

5 Responses

  1. One thing that’s interesting about this episode is that it features two actors from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”–the late Merritt Butrick and Judson Scott.

  2. “The Next Generation‘s first season often traded in Picard’s moral fortitude, and the idea that the Enterprise crew were always inherently correct in what they decided to do. It’ part of what made a few of the early shows so awkward, as the Enterprise seemed more interest in touring with moral superiority than exploring strange new worlds.
    “Many earlier episodes instead suggested that the crew really knew everything that they needed to know, and could effectively lord it over aliens like the Ferengi, the Anticans or the Selay.”

    I’ll have to disagree on this point, this “perfect crew lording it over all alien cultures” made the show awkward, it made the show toxic. That perfection theme completely jackknifes with the theme that this crew is extreme incompetent and inept. Either of themes is about as enjoyable as a canker sore, but they combine together to making something truly wretched, to make the first 2 seasons of TNG the absolute worst in the franchise. ENT season 1-2 comes close to being worse, but they were at least able to balance out by not being so smug, and self-aware enough to have some of the crew point out when Archer is being a damn fool, or a terrible leader. In many ways, the TNG crew come off as villains, Riker in the Neutral Zone takes one look at a 21th century housewife, and immediately announces her irredeemable and wonders aloud how humanity managed to survive the century. I mean really? You’re going to treat a housewife as the scum of all humanity? Jesus. Even the Nazi’s weren’t this full of themselves. And what’s worse is that smugness is coming from the inept crew that is constantly causing incidents due to their incompetence, and is constantly being shown up by an insufferable teenager. And despite Picard’s pathetic attempt to dismiss Starfleet as not a military, and insist that they are explorers, they never do seem all that interested in exploring, more often they seem to only do it because that’s their job. Roddenberry really was the George Lucas of this series…

    It’s somewhat ironic that it would not be until years after Roddenberry had passed away that we got to see a true Roddenberry-idealized individual in the form of Kes on Voyager. Kes did not start out as perfect, she was young and naïve, but one of her earlier ambitions and achievements was to see the sun on her planet. When she was on Voyager, she was eager to explore new things, and she was always willing to learn more about other cultures and ideas, becoming a student of both Tuvik and Vulcan mental power and the Doctor over Federation medicine. She was lacking in the arrogance and smugness, and instead had a warmth to her that really puts her in stark contrast to the TNG we see here. I think that’s the key ingredient that Roddenberry missed when it comes to utopian individuals, the willingness to learn and respect from others.

    • That’s a very good point about Kes, actually. I was very fond of the character and sad to see her go. While I’d never wish anybody out of a job, I can’t help but wonder what Voyager might have been like if they’d decided to go with their first choice of cast member to cull to make room in the budget for Seven of Nine. Seven and Kes would likely have been a fun combination.

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