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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Survivors (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.

Michael Wagner remains something of a forgotten figure among Star Trek fans. While anybody familiar with the behind-the-scenes workings on Star Trek: The Next Generation is aware of the contributions made by the wonderful Michael Piller, and quite a few would be familiar with the work of Maurice Hurley during the first two seasons, Wagner’s four-episode tenure as executive producer and head writer is something of a mystery.

Situated right in the middle of that four-episode run, and the only Star Trek script on which Wagner does not share a credit, The Survivors seems like the most obvious indicator of what Wagner’s version of The Next Generation might have looked like. Of course, it’s impossible to extrapolate from a single episode of television, let alone a single episode of an era that was over before it already began, but it is interesting to look at how Wagner’s work here differs from the style that would be imposed by Piller.

The Survivors is a decidedly high-concept science-fiction mystery, feeling almost like an episode of an anthology featuring the regular cast. Built around a guest star, The Survivors is very much radically opposed to Piller’s vision of character-driven Star Trek.

"Nice house. Can't see much about the neighbourhood, though."

“Nice house. Can’t see much about the neighbourhood, though.”

It is worth noting that Michael Wagner’s tenure was over by the time that The Survivors went into production. His successor, Michael Piller, notes in Fade In that Wagner had departed before Piller had finished writing Evolution, the second episode produced (and first episode to air) in the third season:

We first met at a lunch with Gene Roddenberry and Maurice Hurley, the head writer of The Next Generation during its first two seasons. Hurley was leaving the show and thought I might be a candidate to replace him. I wasn’t hired at that lunch (Rick and Gene had already hired another friend of mine, Michael Wagner), but I did agree to write a script for the coming season.

As I was writing that first episode, Wagner and Roddenberry were not getting along and by the time my script was turned in, Michael had decided to resign.

So Wagner’s vision of The Next Generation was dead on arrival. It was moot. It was something that simply never happened, and would never get to happen.

"Remind me to talk to Mister LaForge about all those exploding circuits..."

“Remind me to talk to Mister LaForge about all those exploding circuits…”

Wagner is credited as a writer on three episodes of the third season. He helped draft the story for the premiere, Evolution, with Michael Piller providing the final script. Wagner’s final credit of the season was on Booby Trap, where he developed the story with Ron Roman. Roman wrote the first draft of the script, which was then polished by both Michael Piller and Richard Danus. So The Survivors is interesting as it is the only script on which Wagner does not share a credit, and the only teleplay he is credited for writing.

Still, it’s worth noting that all three episodes come with high-concepts built into their storylines. Evolution involves the development of self-aware nanites, while Booby Trap involves the eponymous trap. Both stories are more character-driven than The Survivors, but Michael Piller takes a lot of the credit for the character work in Evolution. In Fade In, he joked that the baseball conversation between Wesley and Stubbs won him his job. In Captain’s Logs: The Unauthorised Complete Trek Voyages, he suggested that he drew from his own concerns about kids in drafting Wesley’s plot line.

Looks like they nuked the site from orbit. It was the only way to be sure...

Looks like they nuked the site from orbit. It was the only way to be sure…

It’s undoubtedly a bit much to conjecture about Wagner’s vision for The Next Generation based on one single teleplay and two story ideas. However, it’s interesting that The Survivors is the first episode of the third season without a clear focus on our lead characters. Sure, Worf gets some good lines; Picard gets to lead; Troi suffers. However, The Survivors is an episode very clearly built around a mystery, and built around a guest character.

Much of the episode is built around figuring out what the Uxbridge family are hiding, and why their house and garden survived while the colony around them was reduced to rubble. “Are they collaborators?” Picard ponders. “Did they provide the colony’s assailants with something that abetted the total destruction of Rana Four in order to protect their own lives?” Beverly cuts in, “What could two botanists in their eighties possess that could possibly aid whoever attacked the planet?” Geordi suggests, “Maybe they’re being held hostage in some fashion?”

Music to his ears...

Music to his ears…

The Survivors is structured like a mystery, with reveals built up and expectations subverted. The mysterious alien ship is a clue, as is the fact that Kevin Uxbridge is unwilling to talk, while Rishon is more than happy to accommodate their guests. Possibilities are alluded to, hinted at, and dismissed – there’s a sense that the Enterprise crew is a team of professionals working to get to the bottom of the case.

The Survivors almost feels like an instalment of an anthology show, some sort of science-fiction mystery theatre into which our leads have wandered by accident. You can imagine an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits built around the same set-up and even the same resolution, making it feel like Picard and the Enterprise are somewhat incidental to the unfolding plot. The original title of the episode, The Veiled Planet, sounds like something from a sixties science-fiction anthology.

Riker enjoys hanging out...

Riker enjoys hanging out…

Of course, there is a snag here. Science-fiction mysteries are very hard to pull off, because the possible resolutions are not grounded in the rules of physics or biology as we know them. The resolution to the mystery of what happened at the colony is that Kevin is actually a Douwd. The Douwd are an alien species that have never been mentioned before (and never again) and which were first mentioned by name in the last five minutes of this episode.

It’s hardly a fair play mystery, because there’s no way the audience could have reached that conclusion. After all, it’s very hard to bring an audience up to speed without giving the game away. Having Data provide early exposition about the Douwd in the first act would clue the audience into the resolution – due to the law of conservation of detail, and so it’s impossible for the viewer at home to solve the mystery except in the most general of terms.

Wife as we know it?

Wife as we know it?

“Kevin is up to something” is a valid solution the audience could reach, but that’s obvious from the first act. The audience can’t really extrapolate much further than that until we reach the exposition scene at the end of the episode. That’s the problem with trying to construct a science-fiction mystery. In a universe where absolutely anything is possible, and it’s not grounded in the same world that the audience takes for granted, it’s very easy to cheat.

Wagner’s script manages to avoid feeling too much like a cheat, but only barely. It helps that Wagner changes lanes at the last minute. The Survivors begins as a science-fiction mystery, but it ends as a deeply tragic story about lost love. The reveal of Kevin’s true nature becomes moot in that final scene, as the story is more interested in what Kevin has experience and what he has done. The fact that he is a Douwd is incidental; he’s a man with a broken heart who happens to have the power to reshape the cosmos.

Worf to a "tea."

Worf to a “tea.”

For all that Kevin is presented as a god-like being, The Survivors suggests that he is only human. He is flawed and damaged and wounded. For a man who can resurrect his dead wife and commit genocide with a stray thought, Kevin is surprisingly vulnerable. John Anderson’s performance helps sell the moment beautifully, as Kevin Uxbridge talks about the burden of having all of that power and being unable to use it. When Picard points out that he could have saved the colony, Kevin responds, “I refused to for the same reason I refused to stop the Enterprise. I will not kill.”

It’s a powerful moment, one that packs a punch largely missing from The Next Generation‘s other meditations on power and responsibility. For all that Symbiosis and Justice dwell on the burden of being a hyper-advanced race with the power to meddle in the affairs of others, there’s nothing quite as raw as Kevin’s confession that his pacifism allowed his wife to suffer and die. That’s a harrowing commitment to a philosophical principle, and Kevin’s own impotence is affecting.

As if there were any Douwd...

As if there were any Douwd…

Anderson’s performance is so good that Kevin’s bitterness and rage is perfectly understandable. Despite his disproportionate response, it’s hard not to pity the lonely god-like being who watched the love of his wife die fighting while he refused to raise a hand to stop the bloodshed. (Of course, the bitter irony is that his own attempts at pacifistic intervention backfired and made things worse. “I tried to fool the Husnock as I tried to fool you. It only made them angrier. More cruel.”)

Picard’s response to all of this is intriguing, fitting his characterisation as a philosophical and thoughtful man. “We’re not qualified to be your judges,” he tells Kevin on reflection. “We have no law to fit your crime. You’re free to return to the planet and to make Rishon live again.” While the first clause presents an interesting expression of the moral relativism that The Next Generation championed quite well, there is one slight problem. The whole “no law to fit your crime” seems a little strange. One would imagine that the Federation would have lots of laws condemning genocide.

Thinking fas--- er, at a reasonable speed...

Thinking fas— er, at a reasonable speed…

It seems like Picard got a bit caught up in the romance and poetry of the moment. Leaving aside the questionable wording, it’s worth conceding that the Federation certainly has no laws that it could enforce against the Douwd, certainly no more than it could enforce any laws against Q. Of course, this rises all sorts of philosophical questions about how the law works in a universe where beings like Q and the Douwd exist, who simply cannot be governed or controlled or restricted by laws written by mere mortals.

Even overlooking the difficulties of enforcing these laws on people like Kevin, there is a larger philosophical issue here. Is mankind capable of judging the actions of those so powerful and so ancient? Who is mankind to decide to judge the conduct of races with that sort of control over the fabric of the universe? Our norms would describe Kevin’s conduct as genocide and mass murder. However, from Kevin’s perspective, is it any different from hiring an exterminator to deal with a mound of termites?

Crusher's Troi-ing to make her feel better...

Crusher’s Troi-ing to make her feel better…

The classic Star Trek wouldn’t hesitate to argue that it was very different, that mankind’s level of awareness was inherently special and that beings on this level of existence are absolutely the most important beings in the cosmos. The Next Generation is a bit more ambivalent and ambiguous on the matter – mankind simply cannot comprehend the universe as it exists to a being on the scale of Kevin Uxbridge. It’s an example of the moral relativism that The Next Generation handled so well. (And it’s to the credit of Wagner that he leaves the audience to form their own opinions on Uxbridge’s conduct.)

That said, Picard’s closing log entry does lay it on a bit heavy. “We leave behind a being of extraordinary power and conscience,” Picard offers. “I am not certain if he should be praised or condemned. Only that he should be left alone.” The last line quite brilliant, but it seems a bit weird for Picard to contemplate praising a being that wiped out an entire species in a moment of mental anguish. It’s easy to understand Picard’s reluctance to judge or condemn Kevin Uxbridge, but it seems almost certain that his conduct does not merit “praise.”

Those which survive...

Those which survive…

Despite the anthology feel of the episode, it’s worth noting that there are some nice moments for the ensemble. Picard gets be a shrewd leader, quickly deducing at least the gist of what is going on. Riker gets caught in a snare. Worf actually gets quite a few nice character moments, from his embarrassment when the enemy ship shows up after “staking [his] reputation” on the fact that they were gone through to his complement to Kevin on trying to hold the away team at bay with a broken phaser. “May I say your attempt to hold the away team at bay with a nonfunctioning weapon was an act of unmitigated gall?” he offers. “I admire gall.”

Of course, Worf also provides the best visual gag of the episode, enjoying afternoon tea on the planet surface. “Good tea,” he politely offers. “Nice house.” Like Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn is a performer with wonderful comic timing. Due to the fact that Worf was the last regular cast member added to the show, he got relatively little focus in the first two seasons. That changes in the show’s third year, but Dorn has already proven himself an invaluable part of the ensemble.

Kevin lightens up...

Kevin lightens up…

Also of note is the episode’s small nod towards “Andorian pirates” operating in “the Triangulum System.” This seems like a shout-out to the FASA Star Trek roleplaying game that imagined “the Triangle” as an area of interstellar lawlessness that existed along the borders of Romulan, Klingon and Federation space. The FASA role-playing game actually had a surprising amount of influence on these later Star Trek productions, influencing the portrayal of the Andorians in Star Trek: Enterprise and even having elements included in various set decorations and image displays throughout the franchise.

Still, The Survivors feels like a strange instalment at the start of the third season, rather different than the two episodes directly proceeding it, and radically different from a lot that would follow. That said, it’s an intriguing science-fiction story, one thoughtful and well-constructed.

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

7 Responses

  1. Good analysis, although I do have a few comments, something of a little critique for your critique:
    • On the episode being a mystery, and how that is something different/somewhat unique, how mysteries in sci fi and hard to pull off- this surprised/confused me and made me wonder if our definition of “mystery” is the same. I strongly associate TNG with mystery episodes and feel that is something I really like about the series. Granted, there are varying degrees to how much a given episode could primarily be described as a mystery (ie. “Evolution” for about half the episode has as the mystery what is causing the strange malfunctions, but we learn the answer about halfway through and how they respond to that situation is just as important as determining what the situation is), but surely there are plenty that deserve to be called mysteries and the inclination to make them is shared by Pillar as Wagner; quick examples, “Clues” in season 4 (What is up with Data/ what really happened on the missing day?) “The Mind’s Eye” (different in that the audience knows the answer, but still much of the episode involves watching the grew investigate and finally thanks to Data determine who is aiding the rebels and why – Laforge, in the big picture the Romulans), Allegiance in season 3 (Why was the captain kidnaped and placed in the prison with the other aliens, why was he replaced, what do the aliens want, how to escape), “Frame of Mind” (the audience and Ricker’s struggle to figure out what the hell is going on with his apparent shifts in identify/location, what is real and what is not, how and why this came to be), “Schisms” and “Night Terrors”… I could go on but I think my point is clear.

    •I do agree that some uniqueness can be seen in this episode in the darker sci theme of the Whose-Knock (haha I don’t know how to spell it but remember that’s how it was pronounced) showing up to a human colony out of nowhere and eradicating the population and surface of the planet (the Borg did something similar but a big deal was made out of them), the way they are described as an evil species (even the Borg are never simply called evil, they are more like a dark force of nature in how they behave) and of course the whole Dowd scenario. Like you I always admired the mystery of this episode and how curious it made me, but lost just a little respect for it upon reaching the end and learning that the solution was one we never could have thought of/put pieces of a puzzle together to get a good hypothesis for, but as a story I feel it works over all especially since unlike in TOS encounters with these types of beings never became routine. I have to disagree with you on the general idea that good mysteries are hard for sci fi to pull off; I feel TNG does this a lot (see my named episodes above, though some do this better than others, and more), but the key is to a) Keep the solution plausible and b) Keep the greater solution to the mystery (if not all the details) in the realm of what the fans know is possible in the universe of the show, and not just strictly “possible”, but operating according to rules, capabities and possibilities that have already been revealed. In Star Trek this should not be too hard, with its dedicated fans who know so much about the technology and what it can do and general Star Trek lore, and the great many possibilities allowed even while staying true to that. Sure we don’t need to have puzzle pieces that provide for us to guess all details (new species or whatever). And since the answer “Q or a being with similar powers is responsible for this!” could technically be the case for most any scenario, mysteries with that as their answer should be kept to a minimum.

    • Finally, on Picard stating that they have no law for his crime and that he does not know whether Kevin deserves praise of condemnation: I agreed with him here, unlike you. I saw it has with a being like a Dowd who can in a moment of extreme rage and grief with one loss of self control a single thought (or willed intent) can not only kill one being but an entire race, they cannot be judged the same as being like us who to kill even one must not only come to the desire to/form the intent but most also put a plan into works and then preform the necessary physical action to do it, it is clear our laws on killing and degrees of intent (Puropesely-Knowingly-Recklessly/Willful disobedience to legal standard of care-Negligently- Accidently/not legally at fault) can not apply. If for a split second or even 10 seconds our rage makes us desire the death of another, even to the degree that we form the momentary intent to kill, that intent cannot be carried out by thoughts/will in the mind alone. Only beings who face a similar existence and possibilities due to having similar powers as Kevin could fairly and justly judge him. On the next issue, granted wiping out an entire race is quite drastic, but he may well have done the rest of the Galaxy a favor if they are evil (I know, I know… “What is evil/how can you impose your belief of its definition to justify this”) as they are beings who slaughter an entire planets population for no provoked reason and in the process obliterated the surface of the planet, destroying its natural resources that were in the surface and possibly making it inhabitable- I will feel comfortable in simply saying that without taking this philosophical issue farther that that IS evil and a being with Kevin’s conscious and ancientness/presumed vast knowledge and telepathic insight into the character of those beings declared them to be evil and vile too. Now perhaps not every member of the race supported their military’s acts but still I think that is why Picard had ambivalence there.

    • While you seemed to appreciate how Picard pieced together the fact that Kevin was the only true survivor and his wife was not really alive and was his recreation after her death, the way the episode carried that out bugged me just as much or more as it not playing fair with the audience in the mystery being unsolvable by us. Why? Because Picard was not given enough clues to piece this together like he did and with such great certainty (would have been more believable if he expressed having a hunch something like that was the case, or a less specific realization, but the evidence for his revelation was far too slim. Now, if it had been because he had read about Dowds before and came to see how the whole situation suggested the hypothesis of Kevin being a Dowd (and explained why for the audience) that would be more fair, but no, from the way Picard refers to Kevin “creature of great consciouse) and how Kevin introduces his race to Picard is is clear Picard had 99% chance of never having heard of a Dowd.

    • Fair points.

      I particularly like your point about the nature of Kevin’s crime, actually. It’s something that I think would be stronger if it were explicit (or even more heavily implicit) in the text, but it does raise all sort of big moral questions. I think I’m more comfortable with Picard’s line now. Cheers!

  2. I love this episode, especially the scene of the destroyed planet, looks creepy and ominous.

    • The Survivors is great and underrated. Very Twilight-Zone-y.

      • Or Outer Limits. Star Trek, or at least TOS and TNG, actually had quite a few moments where they felt more like Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, but most of these episodes were actually good

  3. I just wanted to address the line about his conduct not suitable for praise.
    His killing of an entire species wouldn’t be something to praise, but he stuck to his principles during the attack and was so committed to those that he let his wife, the love of his eternal life, die. Would you put your life long principles override your love for someone? Could you turn into a killer to save your love?

    As far as not having a law for his crime. Well the federation doesn’t have control over the husnock. This murdering them outside of federation jurisdiction isn’t a crime.

    • Well, I mean, that is something that the world grappled with a lot in the twentieth century – the challenge of how to deal with atrocities outside of your legal or political framework. I don’t feel like “genocide is a crime” is a particularly provocative statement, ignoring question of how you enforce it or how you respond to it.

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