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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Ensigns of Command by Melinda Snodgrass (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.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

One of the benefits of the internet age is the wealth of material that it makes available with comparative ease. Interviews are widely distributed, clips are circulated, and it’s often not too hard to find primary or well-sourced secondary materials available with a simple search. As such, it’s a lot easier to pry into the history and legacy of cult film and television than it has ever been before. Leaping back in Star Trek: The Next Generation more than two decades after it originally aired allows the viewer more insight than they would ever have had back then.

The third season of The Next Generation is widely (and rightly) regarded as one of the strongest seasons in the history of the franchise. Only the first two seasons of the original Star Trek, a few more seasons of The Next Generation and couple of years of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine can claim to compete on a level of quality and consistency with this twenty-six episode rejuvenation of the series that had faltered in its first two years.

Watching The Ensigns of Command, it’s hard to fathom how deeply troubled the production was. The episode was plagued by problems from scripting through to post-production. Writer Melinda Snodgrass has made no secret of her dissatisfaction with the episode. Although her name appears on the finished script, the episode had been heavily re-written. Snodgrass has made her original script available on-line via her website, and it makes for an interesting glimpse at what might have been.

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It’s worth some context here. Snodgrass was a published novelist who got her big break into the business with the publication of The Tears of the Singers. She went on to write a number of other novels, including Runespear and High Stakes, before submitting The Measure of a Man to Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is impossible to over-emphasise just how important The Measure of a Man was to the development of the show. It changed the rules for The Next Generation, arguing that a willingness to challenge those in power was a necessary part of utopia.

In a very real way, The Measure of a Men helped to knock down (or at least dent) the Roddenberry Box that was fencing the show in. It blasted apart Roddenberry’s famous “no conflict!” rule be demonstrating that conflict is sometimes necessary, even in paradise – the individual and the group must be separate, and the individual must be willing and able to assert his or her rights in order to vindicate them. Otherwise, utopia is pointless, it’s just oppression with bright lights and some nice catchphrases thrown in.

Snodgrass was quickly recruited to work on the show full-time. She was a story editor for the show, and quickly became a senior member of the writing team. On the third season, for example, she did passes on both Ronald D. Moore’s The Bonding and René Echevarria’s The Offspring, the two scripts that introduced two young writers to the show – writers who would go on to have a massive influence on the franchise. Although her name doesn’t appear on any of the season’s stronger episodes, her influence was vital to the evolution of the show.

So it is somewhat frustrating that Snodgrass never really got a chance to properly follow up The Measure of a Man. On the special features for the third season of The Next Generation, she talks about the “triptych” she originally planned for Data. The Measure of a Man would have been the first story, and it seems to have come off completely as planned. The Ensigns of Command was to be the second instalment, but it underwent a painful production process. The third, undeveloped story would have seen Data committing premeditated murder to save a life.

That third story is pretty gutsy, and Melinda Snodgrass’ original script for The Ensigns of Command is quite gutsy too. The finished episode turned out surprisingly well, considering the production turmoil that it endured, but it’s clear that Snodgrass wanted the story to have a bit of a harder edge to it – a bit more bite. The core premise of the story doesn’t alter too heavily in Snodgrass’ draft – it’s still about Data learning to command – but it’s also a bit more cynical and darker.

The final scene of Snodgrass’ script reflects on the burdens of command. “In Data’s case, innocence has been tarnished.” This makes a great deal of sense in context, but it is also very hard to reconcile with the aired version of the episode, where Data has simply learned a valuable life skill. Indeed, Snodgrass’ The Ensigns of Command feels more like a companion piece to The Measure of a Man, exploring the idea of Data’s innocence in a mostly cynical universe – Data has to compromise and accept the universe’s flaws in order to get the job done.

The final script reduces this down to “Data’s logic is superior to Gosheven’s emotionalism”, which isn’t a bad angle. The filmed episode works quite well. However, the script is filled with a sense that (for all his physical perfection) Data is at a fundamental disadvantage when dealing with people. Even Riker’s conversations with Data on the surface seem terser in the draft, as if Riker is growing impatient and dissatisfied with Data’s lack of results.

As in The Measure of a Man, there are some rather unsympathetic inferences made about Starfleet. Reflecting on his career, Data muses, openly, “I have hypothesized that my commission is an elaborate experiment on Starfleet’s part. But do they really plan to have me command a vessel?” Given the organisation was quite happy to carve him open to see how he ticks, there’s a sense that Starfleet may honestly be taking advantage of the android.

One of the aspects that changed most dynamically between the early script and the finished episode is the portrayal of Ard’rian. In the finished episode, she’s Data’s advocate. It is implied that she has a crush on him, but the episode never takes it particularly far. Apparently the relationship varied wildly in various drafts. Gene Roddenberry apparently wanted another demonstration of how “fully functional” Data could be, while that subplot was stripped from the episode completely when director Cliff Bole had to make compromises to get the show to air.

As it stands, Ard’rian (“Ardy” in the script) is a sweet young woman who has a bit of a soft spot for Data, until realising that he has yet to reach the stage where he’s capable of loving her back. It’s very wholesome stuff, particularly when their romantic interaction consists of two chaste kisses from two characters who both have a different idea of what a kiss like that means. It’s a decidedly safer take on the dynamic than Snodgrass originally had in mind.

In fact, Snodgrass’ original version of The Ensigns of Command features Ard’rian taking advantage of Data’s programming for her own ends. Kissing and holding her, Data innocently inquires, “Would a continuation of this behavior increase the level of comfort?” Ard’rian confirms that it will, with Data making it quite clear where all this holding and kissing is going to end up. And although the romantic scene in the script is as sterile as that Worf and K’Ehleyr’s hook-up in The Emissary, it’s definitely there.

Snodgrass isn’t really pushing any boundaries here. After all, Tasha Yar took advantage of Data’s child-like innocence in The Naked Now. However, that episode treated Yar’s seduction of Data as a joke – as a comedy routine built around a stereotypical “ha! she’s beautiful and he’s clueless!” gag. Snodgrass is a lot more interested in the questions raised by using Data in such a way. It’s a very definite attempt to push the character of Data forward – perhaps not as far forward as The Measure of a Man did, but still further on than he had been.

That’s the most substantive difference between Snodgrass’ Ensigns of Command and the aired episode – there’s a much greater sense of conflict between Data and the rest of the universe. Data’s innocence is very sharply contrasted against the more cynical motivations of the people around him. There’s also a clearer sense of growth here, a much more palpable sense that Data has advance his understanding of humanity, and the suggestion that this might not be a good thing.

You can see why the changes were the made. Network television of the nineties was not big on the idea of characters actually changing. Data remains in something of a status quo for the entire television series, before his quest moves forward leaps and bounds in Star Trek: Generations. While there are some wonderful Data-centric episodes, the show favours ambiguity over linear progress. There’s always the inference Data has grown, but no significant proof of that.

Indeed, when Data creates a daughter in The Offspring, even the most innocent of viewers must suspect that something bad will happen; they know that Data must revert back to his status quo at the end of the episode. As emotional and as powerful as The Offspring is, it doesn’t feel like a step forward for Data as a character. It’s a nice shuffle sideways, just like In Theory or Quality of Life or even Redemption, Part II.

It’s a shame, but this is very much a result of The Next Generation airing as a syndicated television show in the nineties. You can’t evolve the characters too much or upset the status quo, because the show needs to be easy to jump into for new viewers, and possible to air out of sequence. “Data wants to learn more about humanity” is a nice hook for the character, and easy enough to maintain for a series running seven seasons. “Data learns a little more about humanity each year” means that the character will change from year to year.

It’s easy enough to look back on this as a mistake on the part of the executive producers, but it makes sense in context. This rigidly episodic structure is something that was changing even as The Next Generation was airing. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, for example, would embrace serialised storytelling quite well for a mid-nineties network television show. Compare the actual evolution of Deep Space Nine‘s outsider character (Odo) to that of The Next Generation (Data), for example.

(That’s not a knock on how the show handled Data. There is a reason that Data became the breakout character of The Next Generation. “You can watch any Data episode in just about any order without missing more than some exposition” might sound like a criticism when reviewing the series in sequence, but it’s a nice hook for viewers looking to dip their toes into the proverbial waters.)

Snodgrass’ script is also a bit more tightly constructed than the final episode. A lot of the pieces that feel a little strange or displaced fit more snugly within the original script. Gosheven, for example, is a much more rounded character than he appeared on screen. He is involved with Ard’rian, which adds a more personal element to Data’s difficulties with the situation. It also makes for a rather nice deconstruction of Gosheven’s romantic attachment to the planet. When his possessive and entitled attitude is extended to Ard’rian, it’s a lot less sympathetic.

“Your interest does not translate into ownership,” Data observes of Gosheven’s conduct towards Ard’rian, in a rather wonderful moment for the android. The script has a fascination with the concept of ownership, which fits quite well as a follow-up to The Measure of a Man, which hinged on the question of whether Data was “person or property.” There’s a sense that the colonists in the script are not so much attached to the community they’ve built as to the land they own.

Riker even has to explain to Data why the concept of “owning” land is so important. “Could they not become viscerally attached to another plot of ground?” Data ponders. Gosheven’s attitude towards Ard’rian provides a concrete through-line for the script. The obvious connection to Gosheven’s refusal to leave is interesting – it seems to suggest the script is less than sympathetic to the plight of the colonists than the aired episode, which at least engages with the issues of displacement and authority that the aired episode skirts away from.

It helps that the script makes the Federation’s decision to hand the planet over was a direct result of the fact that it should be incapable of supporting life. There are also a rake of other fascinating concepts thrown into the mix. For one thing, the Sheliak (the Hrathan in the script) are rather consciously more alien than they appeared in the episode. (The production design was quite charming, but they ultimately just seemed like a race of grumpy bureaucrats.) There’s more of a fixation on how different the Hrathan must be.

For example, the script describes the Hrathan language as composed of “not symbols as we know them, but rather a pattern of lights.” It’s a small touch, but it helps to ground the difficulties interacting with the alien menace. It also ensures that Troi’s conversation with Picard (which is fascinating, but out-of-place, in the final cut) makes a great deal more sense. Watching The Ensigns of Command, it can seem like somebody accidentally sliced in a scene from Darmok two years early. The script helps fit that scene in just a little better.

(As an aside, and with no other context in which to mention it, the script also contains a reference to the “Higgs Boson”, a rare piece of Star Trek science that has actually dated quite well. Then again, it’s probably a nice coincidence that Melinda Snodgrass unveiled the script the same year that particle in question became a part of the wider pop culture landscape, pushed to the tip of everybody’s tongue by extensive press coverage.)

It’s nice to a glimpse behind the scenes at the workings of The Next Generation, and it’s wonderful to have insight into the process of one of the show’s most influential and formative writers. It’s also an interesting exploration of the kind of compromises that are mandated within the structure of network television, and how easy it is to strain against those restrictions without even attempting it. (In a way, Snodgrass’ The Measure of a Man came up against those same restrictions, trimmed down to fit a forty-five minute slot and losing quite a lot of wonderful stuff.)

The Ensigns of Command turned out to be a surprisingly competent piece of television, given all the trouble brewing behind the scenes. At the same time, the script offers a glimpse at the sort of ambition that sparked the story, demonstrating just how much can change between the page and the screen.

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

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2 Responses

  1. Hey I just read Snodgrass’ upload and was confused where exactly the difference was so stark that it drove to her to abandon the credits. Watching the aired episode in tandem, there were more identical moments than I expected.

    Your article really helped clear that up, and I appreciate you took the time to write it. I was relieved to find such a detailed response. It provides better context to the Measure of a Man as well, knowing her vision of data originally present in both episodes.

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