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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Samaritan Snare (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.

To describe Samaritan Snare as a step down from Q Who? feels like an understatement. Q Who? was Star Trek: The Next Generation realising that it needed to improve its game if it ever wanted to measure up to its predecessor, interrogating some aspects of the series that had been taken for granted, calling the crew out on their arrogance and offering an opponent that could really push the Enterprise crew for all that they are worth.

It was really the logical culmination of themes running through the second season, themes that seem to faintly echo into Samaritan Snare, another story about the arrogance and ego of the Enterprise crew. Unfortunately, while it does seem to acknowledge many of the same weaknesses and flaws that Q Who? hit upon, it can’t help but seem a little disappointing. Here, the Enterprise are not thrown against an impossible-to-defeat adversary. Instead, their arrogance turns them into interstellar marks.

His heart just isn't in it...

His heart just isn’t in it…

Samaritan Snare is hurt by a particularly clumsy script. It seems somewhat questionable that Starfleet would engage in a complicated surgery without somebody on hand who knew what to do if something goes wrong. Picard’s complications feel like a contrivance – the script throwing a nice final act twist that serves to raise the stakes in the most forced manner possible. (Of course, it’s not the first episode of The Next Generation to have trouble with dramatic stakes.)

Similarly, it seems a little convenient that Riker happens to send Geordi over to the Pakled ship, rather than – say – Gomez. Again, there are scripting reasons for this. It’s a bit weird to build an entire episode around the capture of a character we only met briefly in the last episode. Since you have lead actors, it makes sense to use them. Of course, it’s hard to write “Geordi, you go over to that ship because the audience know and care for you” into the plot.

"Try not to lose any members of the senior staff while I'm gone."

“Try not to lose any members of the senior staff while I’m gone.”

Indeed, Worf gets to call Riker out on the surreal decision to send his Chief Engineer over to hang out with a bunch of strangers without an escort or assistance. “Commander, do we truly need to send our Chief Engineer over to them?” Worf asks. “Why do we not simply give them the information they need to make their own repairs?” Or even send an engineering and security detail. “Because then the plot would be over in ten minutes,” Riker doesn’t answer.

Watching so much of The Next Generation so close together, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Worf. Worf is probably the most sensible member of the bridge crew, the one who is a little worried about their own safety before they start poking and prodding the unknown. It’s no wonder that YouTube was able to edit together a fifteen minute supercut of Worf being ignored by the senior staff.

"Oh, Wesley! I didn't notice you over there!"

“Oh, Wesley! I didn’t notice you over there!”

Then again, if the senior staff followed Worf’s advice, most episodes would be a lot shorter and bloodier. And it would violate the ethos of the series, the curiosity about strange new worlds and wonder about the galaxy. At the same time, Samaritan Snare does suggest that Worf might be the only sane man on the bridge of the Enterprise, and it’s hard not to pity him a little. At the very least, Worf’s security department seems to have considerably fewer casualties-per-episode than his equivalent on the classic Star Trek. (That said, whoever is in charge of the navigation department needs to tell engineering to stop wiring the consoles with C4.)

Still, these plotting problems – contrived as they might be – are easily explained by the core theme of Samaritan Snare. It’s about arrogance, and the comfortable arrogance of the Enterprise crew – the assumption that nothing will ever happen that they are unprepared for. The episode opens with Pulaski calling Picard out for his ego, and features Riker misunderestimating an alien species, landing the Enterprise in a bit of hot water.

A bit of a fix...

A bit of a fix…

The whole situation is treated so casually by the crew. Even Worf is relaxed. “Ship; unidentified; distress,” he relays, not bothering to construct a full sentence. “Nothing more.” When Troi starts to sense that something has gone horribly askew, Riker assures her the situation is under control. “Well, our help is all they’re going to get. They can’t force us into anything, can they?” Even the question is an after-thought, offered so smugly from a position of strength. Troi responds, “You think they’re weak.”

And the Pakleds are weak. They are stupid and they are slow. They are fat, just because the series seems to be aiming for a whole bunch of lazy clichés. And yet, despite their slowness and their stupidity, they are almost able to outwit the Enterprise. The Enterprise which arrived in a position of strength and presumed itself invulnerable. It’s weird to have this happening directly after Q Who?, which taught the ship the same lesson in more brutal terms, but I guess it’s good to reinforce these sorts of ideas.

"Dammit, this would have been so much easier if it happened back when we had a new Chief Engineer every other week."

“Dammit, this would have been so much easier if it happened back when we had a new Chief Engineer every other week.”

Of course, there are no real stakes here. There’s never an real sense of peril. For all the Pakleds exploit the arrogance of the Enterprise, there’s never any sense that Geordi and Riker won’t be able to properly outwit them. Having Geordi captive is a nice way to create suspense, and seeing a member of the crew so casually phasered is quite shocking, but the Pakleds are just too dumb to take seriously. They are like an even more exaggerated version of the Ferengi. It’s quite telling that the writing staff have Lore brutally massacre a bunch of them off-screen in Brothers.

And yet there is something vaguely fascinating about the concept of the Pakleds, even if the execution leaves a lot to be desired. A species unwilling to “grow into” their technology, so hungry for the stars that they steal their advanced technology. In a way, the Pakleds could have easily seemed like a less advanced version of the Borg, impatient consumers, over-estimating their own intelligence and strength. Unfortunately, that’s not what Samaritan Snare actually does.

Little does Picard realise what happens when you leave Riker in charge...

Little does Picard realise what happens when you leave Riker in charge…

The subplot of Samaritan Snare is Wesley-centric again. Wesley tends to generate a surprising number of subplots, probably to account for the fact that he rarely gets to carry his own episodes. Still, as Wesley subplots go, Samaritan Snare isn’t all that bad. It’s not especially good, but at least it offers a bit of an insight into his character and gives us a glimpse at what happens beneath the surface.

Without a doubt, Wesley’s most interesting relationship is with Captain Picard. Picard has unresolved sexual tension with his mother and was best friends with his father. Picard was in charge of the away team that killed Jack Crusher. Picard is also the strongest male authority figure on the Enterprise, and Wesley’s need for a father figure makes it understandable that he’d be drawn to Picard. (Particularly given that his mother is absent this season.)

It is very difficult to play a challenging game of "eye spy" while travelling through empty space.

It is very difficult to play a challenging game of “eye spy” while travelling through empty space.

There’s also a sense that Wil Wheaton is a little intimidated by Patrick Stewart, as any actor his age would be, and so that bleeds into his performance. Wheaton works better with Stewart than he does with any of the other lead performers on The Next Generation, and not just because Stewart is so phenomenal in general. Locking Wesley and Picard in a shuttle together might not be particularly exciting, and it’s written in the most clumsy of manners, but it is a nice bit of character work for both characters.

While the scenes between Wesley and Picard don’t cut as deeply or as insightfully as they might, there’s still a strange (and a little uncomfortable) honesty to them. It’s quite clear that Wesley sees Picard as a distant and intimidating father figure, and that Picard isn’t entirely comfortable with having to fill a void that he created in the young boy’s life. Picard has never felt quite as uncomfortable as he seemed to be when trying to reassure Wesley. “You’re a fine young man.”

Picard's technicolour nightmare...

Picard’s technicolour nightmare…

Then again, it’s not like Wesley is any better at concealing his own awkward feelings around Picard. “You don’t like kids,” Wesley observes. “That’s too bad. You’d have made a good father.” Just in case the awkward subtext to that statement, Wesley follows it up. “Didn’t you ever wish you had kids of your own?” He stops short of saying “like me”, but the inference is clear. It’s pretty terrible dialogue, but it’s also in-character with all the social awkwardness we’ve come to expect from Wesley as a character.

The only other vaguely notable aspect of Samaritan Snare is the infamous continuity gaff where Picard suggests that the Klingons have joined the Federation. This – understandably – is hard to reconcile with a lot of the developments that follow, treating the Klingons as their own independent interstellar empire. At the same time, it seems like an admission that The Next Generation has been hinting towards.

Slice of life...

Slice of life…

In Heart of Glory, the Klingon ship broadcasts with a Federation emblem visible, for example. Towards the end of the second season, The Emissary will suggest much closer working ties with the Klingons than we’d see in later seasons – complete with the first appearance of a half-human half-Klingon hybrid. Naturally, doesn’t last. It’s pretty much completely ejected during the show’s third season. Still, it’s interesting to imagine how different things might have been.

(Plus, had the Klingons become members of the Federation, it would go a long way to explaining why the Romulans were so adversarial towards the Enterprise in episodes like The Neutral Zone and Contagion. Their fears about the Federation’s expansion would seem a lot easier to understand and relate to, had the Klingon Empire been completely assimilated into the Federation. As the last remaining classic “empire”, they’d undoubtedly feel nervous.)

I love how Picard comes so close, but still avoids touching Wesley on the shoulder...

I love how Picard comes so close, but still avoids touching Wesley on the shoulder…

Speaking of strange continuity, I do like that Ronald D. Moore went out of his way to follow up on Picard’s tale of misspent youth from Samaritan Snare when he wrote Tapestry four years later. It’s hardly a character plot thread that you’d expect to see followed up, but it’s a nice bit of continuity work for Moore to eventually explain precisely why Picard was laughing when that Nausican stuck that dagger through his heart.

It’s also worth noting that Samaritan Snare marks the second and final appearance of Ensign Sonya Gomez. Which is a bit of a shame. The Enterprise could really use a more developed and expansive supporting cast. According to director Rob Bowman on the commentary for Q Who?, the character had been introduced as a potential love interest for Geordi. While I’m not sure we need characters who exist purely to hook up with the main cast, The Next Generation does need a bigger ensemble.

I can't blame Picard for sleeping through this one...

I can’t blame Picard for sleeping through this one…

It’s great that Chief O’Brien has become a bit of a snarky supporting cast member, but there’s a sense that it might be a good idea to build beyond the core six or seven people working on the Enterprise bridge. It would at least help alleviate the “main cast do everything” aesthetic that leads to Geordi boarding an unknown alien ship alone. While it never had the same depth of supporting cast as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The Next Generation would eventually expand out its cast.

Samaritan Snare is a pretty weak episode, even if it isn’t completely terrible. Indeed, there are quite a few shockingly bad episodes left between here and the end of the second season, and Samaritan Snare is watchable, even if it’s far from engaging or exciting. Still, given what we now know the show is capable of, that can’t help but feel disappointing.

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

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