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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Who Watches the Watchers? (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.

Who Watches the Watchers? continues a strong start to the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is the last episode of the third season produced by Michael Wagner. He would depart the show and leave Michael Piller in charge of the scripts for the rest of the season. It’s also the third-to-last credit for writers Hans Beimler and Richard Manning, who had both been around from the first season.

The writing duo would work on Yesterday’s Enterprise with Ira Steven Behr and Ronald D. Moore, but also finish Allegiance before departing the show at the end of the third season. (They were rather enraged by Piller’s tactless “writing 101” memo, sent later in the season.) Manning and Beimler would go on to write Paradise for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Behr would convince Beimler to return to the franchise for the fourth season of Deep Space Nine. Beimler would be Behr’s most faithful writing partner on that spin-off, teaming with Behr throughout the sixth and seventh seasons in particular.

In many ways, Who Watches the Watchers? returns to some of the themes that the duo had touched upon in their strongest script of the first season, Symbiosis. It’s a complicated morality tale about the ethics of Starfleet and the burden of the Prime Directive.

The answer, apparently, is Liko.

The answer, apparently, is Liko.

In many respects, this is obviously a script written before Michael Piller took over the writers’ room. Like The Survivors before it, Who Watches the Watchers? doesn’t really have a focal character. There’s no sense that this is a story that is inherently about any member of the senior staff or the bridge crew. If anything, it’s very much an ensemble piece – one which doesn’t really have a focus on character, but does allow the cast as a whole to do good work.

It’s worth noting that even the episodes of the third season without a focal character do tend to work a lot better than most of the first or second season episodes. Like The Survivors, Picard gets to demonstrate his leadership skills here. Indeed, Picard’s characterisation here is pretty much spot-on, particularly in the sequences where he tries to convince Nuria that he is not a deity. Picard gives voice to the humanism and optimism at the heart of the franchise quite effectively.

There are probably worse belief systems...

There are probably worse belief systems…

When Nuria points out that she and Picard are different, Picard responds, “Different in appearance, yes. But we are both living beings. We are born, we grow, we live and we die. In all the ways that matter, we are alike.” Patrick Stewart does wonderful work, but Beimler and Manning’s script is smart and sincere enough that this optimism and enthusiasm never feels forced or shoehorned. This is genuinely what 24th century humanity is about. The perfect encapsulation of the franchise’s philosophy.

Even the minor characters in this story get a chance to shine. Unsurprisingly, given their work with Crusher on Symbiosis, Beimler and Manning get her voice quite perfect here. Crusher is more emotional than Picard, more sympathetic to the suffering of a wounded Mintakan than Picard would allow himself to be. To Crusher, he’s not an alien from a primitive society, but a wounded man in need of medical treatment.

the Enterprise interrupted the outpost's mid-afternoon nap time...

the Enterprise interrupted the outpost’s mid-afternoon nap time…

In an early scene that recalls the conflict between the pair in Symbiosis, Crusher and Picard butt heads of the treatment of Liko. “Before you start quoting me the Prime Directive, he’d already seen us,” Crusher informs her superior. “The damage was done. It was either bring him aboard or let him die.” Picard rather coldly and clinically responds, “Then why didn’t you let him die?” Crucher replies, “Because we were responsible for his injuries.”

Even small banter sequences between Troi and Riker demonstrate an awareness of character – and a sense of endearing casualness – that simply wasn’t present in the show’s second season. Discussing local custom, Troi observes, “For example, Mintakan women precede their mates. It’s a signal to other women.” Riker suggests, “This man’s taken, get your own?” Troi clarifies, “Not precisely. More like, if you want his services, I’m the one you have to negotiate with.” When Troi informs him this means “all kinds” of services, Riker concedes, “They are a sensible race.”

The beginning of a rocky relationship...

The beginning of a rocky relationship…

It’s an exchange that only really work between these two members of the ensemble, and one which plays on the shared history between them. (While still leaving their relationship a little bit ambiguous – note that Riker does walk behind Troi, implying they are more than just business acquaintances.) It’s a lovely character moment in an episode about much bigger issues, but it adds a lot to the appeal of Who Watches the Watchers?

Even the moral dilemma concerning the Prime Directive is decidedly less abstract than it was in Symbiosis. In the earlier episode, the Enterprise was told repeated of the stakes involved in the crisis – of an entire world caught in the throes of addiction, and their sister planet profiting from their despair. However, it all remained decidedly impersonal and relatively abstract – even with two of those addicts caught on board the Enterprise.

That said, Picard did always like the idea of his birthday being an interstellar religious holiday...

That said, Picard did always like the idea of his birthday being an interstellar religious holiday…

It’s to the credit of Who Watches the Watchers? that the question of intervention is decidedly more involved. Both sides are emotionally invested in affairs, rather than the Enterprise serving as an objective arbiter of an abstract set of circumstances. The Enterprise is motivated by its need to recover the lost research team member (and later Troi) from the surface. the question of whether Picard would allow his observance of the Prime Directive to kill a member of the Federation or his crew gives it a great deal more weight.

“Picard,” the leader of the research team insists, “you must beam Palmer aboard immediately. Without medical attention…” When Picard points out the consequences of beaming up the survivor right out from under the noses of the Mintakans, the leader of the team insists, “It will slightly increase the cultural contamination which already exists. A small price for saving Palmer’s life.” It generates real stakes.

Legolas has nothing on these guys...

Legolas has nothing on these guys…

For all the strength of Symbiosis, it suffered because there never seemed to be any cost to Picard’s decision. It affected two planets we would never see again, but neither choice had any real consequence for the Enterprise or characters we are familiar with. Even with the two addicts on board the ship, there never seemed to be a tangible quality to the ethical dilemma that Picard and Crusher were arguing about. Who Watches the Watchers? gives the audience that tangible element.

Indeed, even the Mintakans themselves are defined as characters. Their faith in “the Picard” is not merely abstract. Liko’s faith isn’t something that occurs in a vacuum – it isn’t an aspect of his character that is conveniently pushed to the fore so we have an episode. It’s clearly linked to the loss he feels over the death of his wife. When the Mintakans discuss the powers wielded by “the overseer”, Liko is the first to suggest the possibility of “favours in return” for worship. While Fento talks about climate control or the power to help the entire community, Liko wants something more personal. “He could even bring back those who have died.”

Probably not a good idea for Picard to talk about leaving Liko to die while the poor guy is in earshot...

Probably not a good idea for Picard to talk about leaving Liko to die while the poor guy is in earshot…

It’s also worth noting that Who Watches the Watchers? is built upon the fallibility of the main cast. For all their optimism and humanism, for all their enlightened values and good intentions, the situation is one that arises because our lead characters are not perfect. Though the Mintakans might see them as gods, they are very clearly not. It’s worth comparing Who Watches the Watchers? to the show’s last “Prime Directive” episode, the second season’s Pen Pals.

There, Pulaski was able to undo any potential damage with a wave of her magic wand some judicious application of techno-babble. When the Enterprise can conveniently erase the memory of anybody who sees something they shouldn’t, it’s hard to worry too much about making mistakes. It was a lazy resolution to an ethical dilemma, and Who Watches the Watchers? cleverly avoids falling into that same narrative trap.

A little tied up at the moment...

A little tied up at the moment…

There is no easy way out of this problem for Picard and his crew, and that makes it all the more compelling. Picard saves the day by convincing the Mintakans of his mortality, not by playing god and wiping their memories of him. It’s a much more satisfying resolution to the plot’s central dilemma, one which is organic and logical – and one which is a lot easier for the audience to relate to than magic brain-wiping.

It’s hard to tell whether this increased focus on character motivation as a way of grounding these abstract issues was a development that occurred organically, or whether it was the result of a more definite shift. It’s entirely possible that Beimler and Manning are just a lot better at constructing an episode of The Next Generation now than they were when the how first started – and they would have been writing from the series bible and a few other scripts with little practical to guide them.

O'Brien's day off...

O’Brien’s day off…

It’s also possible that Michael Wagner’s influence was at play, as you can feel Maurice Hurley’s influence on the second season or Michael Piller’s on the rest of the third. Very little has been written about Wagner’s time on The Next Generation, with his quick departure reducing him to a piece of trivia. The fact that he only wrote one teleplay (while generating two more stories) means that there’s very little material to inform any real analysis of his vision for the show.

This is compounded by the fact that the first two episodes of the four produced by Wagner came from writers with their own very strong voices. Evolution was very much a template for how Michael Piller would drive the show, and The Ensigns of Command was something of a spiritual successor to The Measure of a Man written by Melinda Snodgrass. Both are very character-driven pieces, and both fit quite well with Michael Piller’s approach to the franchise.

Dialling it back...

Dialling it back…

The last two episodes produced by Wagner are more ensemble pieces, as interested in the guest cast (and planet) of the week as they are in our main characters. Kevin Uxbridge is the main character in The Survivors, and Liko is just as important to Who Watches the Watchers? as Picard. At the same time, both scripts have a keener understanding of character dynamics than most of the first and second seasons. Wagner’s Survivors features a nice small moment for Data, examining the Uxbridge home, and two lovely comedy character bits for Worf.

As much as one can extrapolate anything from four episodes quickly brought together at the start of a season, under conditions so turbulent that the executive producer couldn’t stay on, it does appear that Wagner’s approach to The Next Generation was more character-driven than that of Maurice Hurley, but less character-driven than that of Michael Piller. Wagner seems to share Hurley’s fascination with high-concept science-fiction ideas (nanites/the Sheliak/the mystery of Kevin Uxbridge/Picard-as-god), something that Piller was markedly less interested in (but not completely disinterested in).

Blood on her hands...

Blood on her hands…

Of course, all this is extrapolated from four episodes that aired after Wagner departed. It’s hardly the strongest indicator of what Wagner might have wanted to do with the show, or his approach to the franchise. Still, it’s worth remarking that these four episodes still represent a significant increase in quality over the average quality of the first two seasons of The Next Generation, even if they are overshadowed by what followed.

There are a number of other interesting aspects of Who Watches the Watchers? In a way, it feels like something of an affectionate throwback to the classic Star Trek show. This was the first time that The Next Generation shot at the iconic Vasquez Rocks, and so it seems appropriate that this episode should feel like a twist on an old familiar story. This is really one of the quintessential Star Trek narratives, involving a primitive society, first contact that goes horrible wrong, false religion and a moral dilemma.

He's unarmed...

He’s unarmed…

In many ways, Who Watches the Watchers? feels like a companion piece to The Bonding. Both episodes offer a twist on a familiar Star Trek plot device. The Bonding is an episode that spends twenty minutes having the crew mourn the loss of a “redshirt”, a minor disposable character who died on an alien world. Redshirts had become a Star Trek in-joke, and The Bonding offered a clever twist by building an episode around the death of a random crew member instead of simply treating them as disposable.

Who Watches the Watchers? features another classic Star Trek trope. There’s a primitive culture with a religious system built upon a misunderstanding about advanced technology – in essence, an exploration of Clarke’s Third Law, but with a decidedly religious bent. Kirk would frequently stumble across evil computers claiming to be gods, and would have liberate cultures from the influences of false gods. The twist in Who Watches the Watchers? – and it’s a doozie – is that Picard and the Enterprise are are the entities mistakenly identified as gods.

Out of this world...

Out of this world…

Who Watches the Watchers? is quite consistent with Gene Roddenberry’s attitudes toward religion. As Ross Kraemer, William Cassidy and Susan L. Schwartz argue in Religions Of Star Trek, the episode fits quite comfortably with the treatment given to religion in episodes like The Apple:

Although far more sophisticated in plot, dialogue, and set than The Apple, Next Generation’s Who Watches the Watchers? Takes essentially the same stance on the same issues. Belief in capricious divine beings, seemingly justified however it may be in actual experience, deters natural and beneficial “human” progress. Left to their own devices, intelligent humanoid life-forms will eventually renounce such superstitions in favor of rational scientific understandings of the universe. Belief in such beings leads to communal strife and conflict and the willingness to commit barbarous acts. In The Apple, the previously peaceful people of Gamma Trianguli VI, when commanded by Vaal, prepare to murder the crew of the Enterprise by bashing them over the head with rocks, whereas in Who Watches the Watchers? the inability to discern the will of the Picard prompts frightened people to undertake the execution of innocent Enterprise crew members. At the very least, evolutionary progress requires the abandonment of false beliefs in false gods, with no indication that there are any true gods in whom it would be better to believe.

Indeed, Who Watches the Watchers? is surprisingly firm in its secularism for a piece of television produced in the late eighties. The episode takes the Federation’s atheism for granted, and quite heavily portrays religion as a negative influence on culture and society.

Liko was always such a straight arrow...

Liko was always such a straight arrow…

Picard’s passionate response to the regression of the Mintakans is worded very strongly. “Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural,” he informs the leader of the observation mission who so very sorely wants to take advantage of the Mintakans’ religion to ensure the safe return of a colleague. “Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the Dark Ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? No!”

That said, it’s hardly a very nuanced look at religion. The Mintakan’s faith is portrayed as barbaric and savage. It seems like the tribe has barely begun to embrace the old religious views before they are willing to offer sacrifice to their gods. There’s no suggestion that religious belief could be more complex or nuanced than that. The situation escalates phenomenally fast, even considering the incredible amount of information that the Mintakans have to process.

Luckily, Riker's "space pirate" outfit was perfect for this undercover mission.

Luckily, Riker’s “space pirate” outfit was perfect for this undercover mission.

To be fair, this is undoubtedly down to the constraints on The Next Generation. The show was doing a series of stand-alone forty-five minute episodes. Picard and the Enterprise would never return to the planet. There would be no opportunity to develop these themes or ideas beyond what could fit within a single episode of television. So the Mintakan religion has to be simplistic, so it can be developed in the space afforded; and it has to be violent, because the episode needs dramatic stakes and a sense of tension.

Religion is a big issue, and one that really requires a lot of nuance and delicacy in how it is handled. On Deep Space Nine, Ira Steven Behr would get to develop and guide the Bajoran faith to the point where it seemed like a belief system need not be regressive or violent or brutal. Faith need not lead to fanaticism and sacrifices and martyrdom or any of the unfortunate stereotypes that are all too common in the modern world; it can simply be another way of perceiving the universe.

The veil has slipped...

The veil has slipped…

Who Watches the Watchers? simply doesn’t have the necessary room to explore those big ideas, and so its view of religion seems a little simplistic – religion is presented as a force in direct opposition to rationality; it leads peaceful people to do truly horrible things. At the same time, it was still quite daring for Star Trek to offer such a boldly atheist perspective. Picard’s rejection of religion is far stronger than anything offered by Kirk, who still had to reference Christianity in episodes like Who Mourns for Adonais? or Bread and Circuses.

It’s also interesting that the Mintakans are essentially “proto-Vulcan humanoids at the Bronze Age level.” They aren’t an original design. instead, their make-up is one of the most iconic make-up designs in the franchise. While it’s a shrewd move that probably saves the make-up department some time and money while also offering make-up that isn’t too distracting to the viewer, it’s also a nice contrast to all the suspiciously human-like civilisations that the Enterprise seems to encounter all the time. (Consider, from this season alone, the alien cultures in The Hunted and The High Ground.)

Taking a bow...

Taking a bow…

Aside from all of that, it’s interesting how influential Who Watches the Watchers? seems to have been on the franchise as it developed. Star Trek: First Contact features another scene where Picard tries to explain to a female character that she is on a space ship by showing her her planet from orbit, with the dynamic between Picard and Lily loosely resembling the dynamic between Picard and Nuria. The method of observation used by the Federation here would also come into play towards the start of Star Trek: Insurrection, although in a decidedly different context.

In many ways, Who Watches the Watchers? is the archetypal Prime Directive story for the Star Trek spin-offs. It certainly sets the mood for the two other 24th century television shows, and it would seem to have been a bit of an influence on the approach taken by Star Trek: Enterprise as well. That’s a testament to the fantastic work done here, crafting what is truly an iconic piece of Star Trek and one of the stronger episodes of The Next Generation to date.

Peace and long life...

Peace and long life…

Things are about to change on The Next Generation again, but at least this intermediate stage of evolution means that there isn’t so radical a climb in quality necessary. Wagner’s Next Generation is a show lost to history, with no real way of knowing what it might have been under slightly different circumstances. However, for the four shows overseen by Wagner, the executive producer helped cement a sense of efficiency and quality in constructing a Star Trek story. Michael Piller would push the series to new heights, but Wagner’s brief tenure helps provide a strong base to build from.

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

18 Responses

  1. I felt conflicted about this episode. On the one hand, it has a strong story structure, evoking the mythological death-rebirth cycle. On the other hand, I didn’t like the deliberate anti-religious ideology.

    I get it, Picard’s an atheist. Nearly all 24th-century Star Trek humans may technically be atheists, but not all of them are completely non-spiritual, materialistic secularists. Picard pretty much is, and I think it becomes one of his lesser defining characteristics. I accept that as a character beat in this episode.

    However, I can’t get over the irony that by trying to crush any trace of the Mintakans’ religion, Picard becomes a prophet of his own worldview, leaving the Mintakans with a vision of a glorious anticipation. The Mintakans could renounce the supernatural but still create a liturgical tradition around the revelation of The-Picard-Who-Definately-Was-Not-A-God. Even more ironically, Picard’s proof of his own morality by allowing himself to be bloodied carries strong parallels to the death-resurrection themes of Christian Gospel (and more universally, to the Monomyth).

    The fact that the Mintakans had already discarded religion before the accidental breach of the Prime Directive is the justification for the explicitly atheistic message. It’s a legitimate plot point, but it carries a lot of implications. You can’t assume that a society that abandoned religion at a pre-Industrial stage of their history would develop the same objective morality.

    • That’s a fair point. I think religion was one of Roddenberry’s blind spots, and something that TNG and TOS occasionally fumble with. On the one hand, you get stuff like The Apple which is plainly anti-religious and, on the other, you get The Changeling and TMP, which are essentially about searching for God. (Big “G.”)

      I quite like Who Watches the Watchers?, but the strange fanaticism of Picard’s atheism is quite striking (and the way that religion is unequivocably bad feels a little narrow-minded and stereotypical). I think that Deep Space Nine would do a much better job presenting spirituality and religion in a nuanced way. Sure, you get people like Kai Winn and Emissary Mark I, but you also get people empowered and enabled by faith like Kira or Bareil. (Although I have some problems with Bareil as played by Anglim, he’s a pretty nice – if bland – character on paper.)

  2. Here is a continuity problem. If they are gentically related to Vulcan’s then they should be far more aggressive. Remember the aggression is why Vulcan’s chose to follow logic and not embrace emotion. However Picard says this is a peaceful balanced society. Has anyone mentioned let alone addressed this?

    • I don’t know. I mean, you could argue that Romulans are fairly well-balanced on an individual basis. Their culture is consistently portrayed aggressive and expansionist, but the franchise never really suggests that they are inherently violent on an one-to-one level. And they left during the schism, as I recall, refusing to embrace logic.

      It’s a nice observation, but I’m not sure it bothers me watching the episode. (Then again, continuity is something that comes and goes with me on a personal basis. I really dislike some of the modifications made to the Borg, but I don’t sweat the switching of Romulan and Klingon roles between TOS and TNG. The use of the Ferengi in Enterprise, even if framed in such a way as to avoid causing an obvious continuity error, really irritates me. So I accept I’m not entirely consistent in my attitudes.) I can accept the Mintakan culture as it is presented.

      • It is still a good episode,don’t get me wrong. It would not stop me from enjoying it one bit. It is merely something that could be explained. They never explained why they look Vulcans or how it is they are related. That would have been nice. The thing is Vulcan’s are warlike unless they embrace logic.

  3. The first sentence in the paragraph above the photograph titled “There are probably worse belief systems…” maybe should be changed to “It’s worth noting that even the episodes of the third season without a focal character do tend to work a lot better than most of the first or second season episodes.” Although the sentence “It’s worth nothing that even the episodes of the third season without a focal character do tend to work a lot better than most of the first or second season episodes.” could mean that the episodes in the third season are indeed worth nothing.

  4. The episode isn’t necessarily pure anti-religion. A major component of religion (or at least Christianity) is that people should not believe in false gods. If Picard allowed the Mintakans to make a religion in his name, he would be setting himself as a false god and promote ignorance, not because it’s a religion, but because it’s a lie.

    • But there’s also the assumption that faith is inherently destructive and antithetical to progress. It’s very Dawkins-esque hardline atheism that treats religious belief as something approaching mental illness on a societal level. Compare the portrayal of the Mintakans to that of the Bajorans on Deep Space Nine, to pick an example.

  5. I like this episodes atheism, and the episode overall. To my surprise, this isn’t on the top of a lot of peoples favorite Trek to TNG episodes, and a lot of people dislike it.

    • I think because it’s very much in keeping with a lot of the preachiness of the first two years, ironically enough for a show about atheism.

      I like it more than most, but it is incredibly heavy-handed.

      • It is preachy but most of Trek, well beyond TNG’s craptastic first two seasons, is preachy, it’s the point of Trek. Just matters how it handles the preachiness.

        I just happen to agree with its views on religion, even if its handled in a simplistic manner, but then again its a 45 minute TV episode in the late 80s, I’m not expecting the world.

      • Yeah, I don’t hate it by any measure.

        But part of that is probably down to the fact I much prefer DS9’s “you’re entitled to believe whatever you want, as long as you don’t hurt anyone” school of thought on the matter.

      • What’s more surprising to me is that this episode isn’t a fan favorite, I just figured it was, given a lot of memorable lines and how influential the episode was on later iterations (right up to Abrams Trek referencing it).

      • One of the (few) things I dislike about DS9 is its appeasement with religion. The Bajorans crazy beliefs are treated with kid gloves in it, and then totally embraced

      • Appeasement? You make it sound like a war.

        Religion is not at war with society any more that rationalism is. Extremism, in all of its forms, is something to be combated or rejected. But I always found something incredibly condescending in the extreme Dawkins line that anybody who harbours any religious faith deserves to be dismissed or ridiculed.

        I quite liked that Deep Space Nine was a show willing to take religious faith at face value and accept that Kira’s faith has intrinsic worth if it got her through the Occupation, and it is not Sisko’s place to tell her that she’s wrong. (In fact, it’s Sisko’s place to respect that.)

        I mean, the show does reject religious extremism. The violence in Accession doesn’t get a pass because Sisko respects the beliefs of the Bajor people, and the show even seems to question Sisko’s own faith in episodes like Rapture or The Reckoning.

  6. I can certainly see how religious people would be annoyed or offended at this episode, but as an atheist, living in a society (the US) where pro-faith messages in the media outweigh pro-atheism messages by probably about a thousand to one, I can’t help but feel a little turnabout is fair play. Besides, everything Picard said was, in my opinion, 100% accurate.

    • I am not necessarily offended by the episode, nor am I especially religious. And I grew up as an agnostic in a country that was at least as religious as the United States, with religion written into our constitution. I just find some parts of this absurdly heavy-handed. I’m much fonder of the more even-handed approach to spirituality with characters like Kira on Deep Space Nine.

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