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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Pen Pals (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.

Pen Pals is a pretty mediocre episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, one with a lot more potential than the episode actually delivers upon. Centring around Data’s unilateral decision to violate the Prime Directive and the consequences stemming from that decision, there’s a sense that Pen Pals might have been a lot more incisive in earlier version – a lot more willing to ask tough questions about the rules and regulations that our heroes uphold.

Sadly, Pen Pals instead ends with a massive cop out and an unwillingness to really commit to any big idea or to interrogate any of the show’s core concepts.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

Data is a fascinating character, and it’s easy to see why he became the break out character for The Next Generation. He’s an outsider who desperately wants to come inside, an android blind to his own humanity while seeking to emulate the humanity of his crewmembers. He is the most open and honest member of the crew, and the one with the most engaging character arc. Data wants to be more like his fellow crew members, not realising that his innocence and curiosity put him a lot close to humanity than he might think.

So there’s quite a powerful conflict at the heart of Pen Pals. Data disobeying direct orders should be enough to provide an interesting story. After all, Data is an incredibly innocent and idealistic member of Starfleet. So, it must take a lot to reach a point where Data chooses to ignore or overlook a fundamental principle or basic regulation. That’s why Data’s refusal to comply with Maddox’s transfer request was so striking in The Measure of a Man, and why his decision to assist the Exocomps was so powerful in Quality of Life.

Imperfect data...

Imperfect data…

Anybody watching Star Trek will be casually familiar with the Prime Directive – the rule that prohibits interference in the affairs of primitive civilisations. The Next Generation even offered a pretty solid exploration of the principle in Symbiosis, one of the stronger episodes of a rocky first season. So having Data choose to ignore that rule and to make contact with a member of a primitive pre-warp civilisation is a pretty great story hook.

There’s a sense that Melinda Snodgrass things of Data as a character more emotionally aware than even he realises. Snodgrass is writer of Pen Pals, but she also wrote The Measure of a Man and the third season’s Ensigns of Command. Talking on the commentary for The Measure of a Man, Snodgrass explained that her initial draft had met some resistance due to its portrayal of Data as a more astute and aware individual then he was typically portrayed.

Picard gets ready to throw the book at him...

Picard gets ready to throw the book at him…

Here, Data is presented as a character who is unable to ignore the “loneliness inherent in that whisper from the darkness.” Hearing a voice crying out for help over subspace, Data instinctively responds. He is canny enough to conceal his origins from the little girl on the surface of that dying world, but there’s a suggestion that Data’s reply was one driven by empathy. He could not bring himself to ignore the pleas for help echoing across the void.

Which should set up a nice debate about the morality of the Prime Directive, and whether such a hard and fast rule should trump such basic empathy. In the final scene, Picard reflects on his experience, explaining to Data why he eventually chose to bend the Prime Directive even slightly. “One of my officers, one of my friends, was troubled. I had to help.” There’s something very humanist in that sentiment, echoing Kirk’s suggestion in The City on the Edge of Forever that “let me help” are the three most important words in the English language.

Rocking the science lab...

Rocking the science lab…

Indeed, given that Snodgrass was quite critical of Roddenberry’s “everybody agrees all the time” utopia in The Measure of a Man, it’s no surprise that Pen Pals has basic human empathy trumping the Prime Directive. It’s an interesting suggestion, and one which hints at the show’s tendency toward humanising and developing the crew of the Enterprise so that they are more than just robots who blindly follow orders without any real essence of human feeling.

The problem is that Pen Pals seems to have met some resistance along the way. The argument for empathy is so heavily diluted that it becomes practically moot. Any of the ethical or moral issues raised by the plot are conveniently overridden by the Enterprise’s sudden ability to erase the memories from a young girl’s brain. The problems on the surface of the planet are also easily dealt with by the Enterprise, making the whole thing feel rather a bit too easy.

The red vial or the blue vial?

The red vial or the blue vial?

There are no dramatic stakes here. There’s no real compromise. Sure, Picard violates the Prime Directive, but in the most wishy-washy way that avoids any of the consequences you might expect from such a bold action. This isn’t a new problem on The Next Generation. The show has had serious trouble generating dramatic tension in the past. The Schizoid Man had to invent suspense with its transparent and unnecessary “near warp transport”, while The Royale made it clear that the Enterprise was willing to sit around however long it took Riker to solve the mystery inside the casino.

This an example of the sort of storytelling that would become all too common on Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. Instead of using the science-fiction trappings of The Next Generation to tell an interesting story, the show’s technology serves as a convenient deus ex machina to avoid any fall-out from the actions taken by the crew here. We’ve never heard reference to memory-wiping before. It’s very Orwellian medical technique for the Federation to keep on hand. It’s just a nice cheap way for the episode to tidy away any lingering ambiguity.

Where's her head at?

Where’s her head at?

Director Winrich Kolbe felt the same way. Talking to The Official Star Trek: The Next Generation Magazine, he argued:

If I remember correctly, that was the one of those cases where I felt the original script I got, the white pages, the first draft, was very, very nice. It was a very personal story. Rick [Berman] or somebody else, maybe it was Gene [Roddenberry], I don’t know, felt we needed more of a technical surrounding story in that one. Suddenly, out went more and more of the character issue, and in came more and more tech talk. That, to me, is a problem. I don’t necessarily agree with the assessment that more technical jargon enhances the stories. These stories should be left alone. I think Pen Pals could have been a better show than it was.

That said, the memory wipe is more than just a cop out, it also has some fairly unpleasant connotations.

Far from blown away by all this...

Far from blown away by all this…

After all, what right does the Federation have to tamper with Sarjenka’s memories? Memories are a thread that allow a person to form their identity. People are shaped in a large part through their experiences and the events of their lives. Tampering with those memories is tantamount to altering Sarjenka’s personality. “To remember you and this ship would complicate her future,” Pulaski justifies. “She has to be the person she was born to be.” This is less than convincing.

Adhering to that logic, Sarjenka should be dead. The Enterprise should not have interfered with her planet’s environmental problems, and her entire people should have been left to die. The Enterprise did interfere, and they have decided to alter Sarjenka’s memories in order to make them feel better. In the discussion about the ethics of interference, Riker argues against the Enterprise crew presuming to act like gods. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they do here.

Back in the saddle...

Back in the saddle…

As such, the central plot of Pen Pals is undermined. Instead of being a story about the humanism inherent in Star Trek, it becomes a creepy little story about how the Federation make people think whatever it feels they should think. With no dramatic tension or sense of threat, Pen Pals is the perfect demonstration of why the show needed to produce an episode like Q Who? before the end of its second season.

The episode has another one of those “Wesley learns a valuable life lesson” subplots, which again feels like it wandered in from some alternative young adult spin-off – something vaguely like “Wesley Explains It All.” Here, it’s particularly obvious that Wesley’s subplot exists to pad out the first half of the episode, to provide the show with something to cut to while the Data plot builds in the background. Once Sarjenka becomes an issue, the Wesley subplot convenient resolves itself, and we promptly forget that it ever happened.

There are still some problems in the show's Gene...

There are still some problems in the show’s Gene…

Here, the important life lesson that Wesley learns is one about authority, and how to order around individuals who are both older and more experienced than you are. You gotta stand up for yourself kid. The Wesley subplot is filled with all manner of obviously clichéd dialogue, as if we’re watching a twenty-fourth century after-school special. “Are we talking about a young officer on the fast track to the Academy, or are we talking about a young man that we are guiding through adolescence and into adulthood?” Pulaski asks, apparently quite new to these Wesley subplots.

When Wesley asks Riker for advice, the first officer responds with a bunch of very eighties self-actualisation non-sense. He assures the young would-be officer, “One of the reasons you’ve been given command is so you can make a few right decisions, that will establish a pattern of success and help build self-confidence.” It sounds like Riker sell self-improvement tapes to the crew in his spare time.

The sound... of silence...

The sound… of silence…

Of course, Roddenberry’s conflict-free future wins out here, and there’s clearly a limit to how much the show will allow Ensign Davies to behave like a jerk to Wesley. It’s not so much a clash of ideas as it is that one scene where Davies is condescending and then everything works out. He objects to one of Wesley’s decisions, and then Wesley asks him (politely but firmly) again and he agrees. He then appears at a staff briefing to compliment Wesley just make it abundantly clear to the audience that these people are consummate professionals who don’t have any ego.

There isn’t enough there for this to be a conflict or a growth experience for Wesley. He never has to put his foot down. He never has to stand up to a challenge. All he has to do is repeat himself, or even take a run at it. To be fair to Wil Wheaton, he does the best that he can with the material, and there are several endearing sequences – Wheaton creates a sense that Wesley is genuinely in awe of Riker, and there’s a lovely moment where he has to get a “walking start” towards the science lab doors in order to work up the courage to get through.

"Commander Riker is my Number One first officer!"

“Commander Riker is my Number One first officer!”

But the whole subplot feels a little limp. The Next Generation would revisit this sort of plot in the fifth season, with Data forced to deal with an insubordinate second-in-command during Redemption, Part II. There, at least, the writers are able to create a sense of real conflict and ego at play, and it works a lot better – even if it feels like it’s a subplot too many in an over-crowded episode. Apparently the writers quite liked this sort of plot, because Beverly brushes up against it in Descent, Part II as well. It’s not handled particularly well there, but at least it’s brief.

As an aside, I love that Picard is just as condescending towards Riker as Riker is towards Wesley. In fact, Picard explicitly empowers Riker to run the briefing about Riker empowering Wesley. “This is Commander Riker’s briefing,” Picard informs the senior staff, as if Riker is undergoing his own leadership examination. Ah, that Riker. He’ll make a fine officer. One day. Coupled with the ending of The Icarus Factor, I quite like the idea of Picard being a bit of a condescending jerk to Riker.

Horse play...

Horse play…

(I also like that Pen Pals takes the time to establish that Riker is quite a ladies’ man on board the ship. We shouldn’t be too surprised, given his conduct on away missions in episodes like Justice and Angel One, but it’s interesting to see that Riker doesn’t feel particularly bound by all those fraternisation guidelines that give Picard pause in episodes like Lessons. “I’ll get you a drink,” he flirts to an attractive female officer, before claiming Wesley’s crisis is a “family emergency.” Smooth move, Riker.)

Still, Pen Pals finds time for some character development. In keeping with the “regular cast chilling out on the Enterprise” motif that we’ve had in a few other cold opens this year, Pen Pals opens with Picard going riding on the holodeck. It’s a nice bit of focus on Picard, a character who normally maintains a very professional distance from the rest of the cast. After all, he only joins the poker game in All Good Things…

The child...

The child…

O’Brien also continues to establish himself as a member of the supporting cast. It’s nice to have a recurring face outside the senior staff and Guinan. Here, there’s a sense that he’s very much a working stiff who just does his job while the senior staff go about doing whatever it is that they do. He watches as Riker helps Data violate the Prime Directive. There’s just a hint of sarcasm in his response to Riker’s suggestion that he take a nap. “Right, sir. I’ll just standing over here, dozing off.” When Data returns to the ship with Sarjenka in hand, O’Brien mutters to himself, “There’s going to be hell to pay.”

While the show wouldn’t officially establish O’Brien as an enlisted man until Family, it’s interesting that the second season seems to establish him as a regular working joe who just happens to get himself caught up in the wacky hijinks involving the senior staff. Colm Meaney plays him as something of a bemused observer who is quite happy to sit on the sidelines and watch the latest melodrama unfold, while winding up Wesley or Riker for his own amusement. In essence, the second season casts O’Brien as the show’s snarky secretary.

Sensors indicate an improvement on the horizon...

Sensors indicate an improvement on the horizon…

Still, outside of these small moments, there’s little to get excited about here. Pen Pals is a demonstration of a lot of the problems still running through the second season of The Next Generation, and perhaps proof that a radical shake-up was well and truly necessary.

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

8 Responses

  1. I this write-up you’ve touched upon a major criticism that I have had of many early episodes of The Next Generation, as well as various other episodes scattered throughout the entire history of the franchise (and I’m not even going to touch upon Voyager here). It’s the idea of a neat, clean resolution of a conflict by technobabble, as well as the notion that the Federation and its human representatives know what is best and have all the answers.

    I have never been fond of stories where we are presented with a seemingly-impossible dilemma or conundrum, yet at the end the writers pull some sort of swerve that allows the protagonists to come up with the ideal solution to save the day, with absolutely no negative or long-term consequences. And, yes, you are correct, “Pen Pals” is a glaring instance of this.

    That’s one of the reasons why I have a fondness for Babylon 5. Quite often there would be some sort of crisis or seemingly moral quandry, and one of two things would happen:

    1) The characters would come up with a solution, and then maybe half a season later there would be some type of blowback, sometimes major, sometimes only minor, that served as a reminder that every action has consequences.

    2) There would NOT be a solution, and you would actually have an episode with a real downer of an ending. That didn’t happen all that often, but it did occur from time to time.

    Along those lines, I’ve really enjoyed the recently completed Series Eight of Doctor Who with Peter Capaldi playing the latest incarnation of the Doctor as an almost ruthlessly pragmatic individual who somberly states “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones. But you still have to choose.”

    • I’ve loved Capaldi’s Doctor too. And I loved Matt Smith, but it’s nice to have a more weighty, more sombre take on the character.

      I’ve been thinking about trying Babylon 5. Worth it?

      • Babylon 5 is very good but at times uneven, especially the early episodes when the show was finding its feet, and again in the final year of the show. JMS planned out a five year storyline, then believed he would only have four years. That resulted in him attempting to fit in as much material into the Fourth Season. At literally the last minute he was given the green light for a Fifth Season, which meant that the few unused stories and ideas he hadn’t been able to address had to be padded out to fit an entire year. But for all its flaws B5 is something I would recommend. I believe you would find a great deal of material to analyze in your blog.

      • I’ll keep it in mind. I’ve got a few recommendations now. So I might take a look at it when my plate is less full.

  2. “Commander William T. Riker: If there is a cosmic plan, is it not the height of hubris to think that we can or should interfere?
    Lieutenant Geordi La Forge: So what’re you saying, that, that the Dremans are, are fated to die?
    Commander William T. Riker: I think that’s an option that we should be considering.”

    At times, the way they treat the Prime Directive makes the Federation seem like a religious cult, gleefully allowing civilizations to die because it’s against their principles. Especially in this episode, where Riker goes on a tangent about a Cosmic Plan almost completely at random. It’s never even brought up again, so WTF?!?

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