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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Defector (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.

The Defector is the script that earned Ronald D. Moore his place on the writing staff of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The writer had contributed the first script produced by Michael Piller, The Bonding, but it was his second pitch – improvised in the heat of the moment – that cemented Moore’s place with the franchise. He would stay on The Next Generation until it finished, before moving on to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and eventually Star Trek: Voyager, although he departed Voyager quite quickly.

Although Moore retains the credit on the finished episode, apparently – like so many third season scripts – the final draft of The Defector was a collaborative effort involving the whole writing staff. The episode, the first instalment of The Next Generation to air in the nineties, turned out surprisingly well. Indeed, The Defector is one of the strongest episodes of a very strong season.

A defective defector?

A defective defector?

In theory, The Defector should be a mess. It’s the first script produced by Piller that doesn’t feel like it has a focal character. Instead, it’s a true ensemble piece. Is it about Picard weighing the consequences of his decisions? Is it about Riker interrogating the Romulan defector? For a brief spell in the middle, it seems to be about Data learning to trust his “gut.” Apparently, according to The Next Generation Companion, there was even a subplot involving a romance between Crusher and the defector.

You would imagine, given all this, that The Defector is a disjointed and uneven episode of television. And, yet, despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of focus on a single member of the ensemble, it has a surprisingly epic scale. After so many episodes focusing on individual crew members and their own individual problems, The Defector pulls back and puts the entire Enterprise into the middle of a crisis of galactic proportions.

This sort of Cold War melodrama is hardly Picard's cup of tea...

This sort of Cold War melodrama is hardly Picard’s cup of tea…

The Defector feels like an update of the third season classic Star Trek episode, The Enterprise Incident. The Enterprise Incident was a tale of Cold War espionage that had Kirk and Spock infiltrating behind enemy lines in order to recover a Romulan cloaking device to help cancel out that tactical advantage. It very much spoke to the political anxieties of the sixties, with the Enterprise meddling in the short of black ops shenanigans that were very popular in pop culture at the time.

As we’ve come to expect, The Next Generation adopts a somewhat more intellectual approach to the problem. The Enterprise Incident opened with the Enterprise veering into the Neutral Zone, with Kirk and Spock already committed to their course of action. The bulk of The Defector is focused on Picard and his crew debating whether to violate the sanctity of the Neutral Zone and commit an act of aggression that may ultimately prevent a war.

A crew de-briefing...

A crew de-briefing…

In a way, this is a result of the distance that existed between The Next Generation and the Cold War. The Romulans always felt a bit dated in The Next Generation, cold warriors in an era where the Cold War was rapidly thawing. The Klingons were handy stand-ins for the Russian, the enemy who had become cautious friends. This left the Romulans stuck in a holding pattern – a metaphor for an era already fading into history.

Moore has described the script as “the Cuban Missile Crisis at the Neutral Zone”, which gives an indication of just how dated the story is. At the same time, however, The Defector is written with the sort of distance and objectivity that simply wasn’t possible at the height of the Cold War. The original Star Trek was too close to the conflict to ever be truly objective. It’s scathing commentaries on militarisation tended to critique the conflict in general.

A chill pill...

A chill pill…

While episodes like Day of the Dove and Balance of Terror would occasionally attempt to humanise the Federation’s adversaries, the Klingons and the Romulans generally remained generic stand-ins. It wasn’t possible to really delve that deeply into Romulan or Klingon culture in the context of the time. In contrast, the Romulans of The Enemy and The Defector can be written as adversaries with a bit more nuance and depth than they were in the classic show.

Like Bochra in The Enemy, Jarok is portrayed as an ultimately decent sort. He is motivated in his actions not out of pettiness or hatred, but out of love. He is a hero to the Romulan people, a people he has served with loyalty and honour, and he only wants a better world for his children. “There comes a time in a man’s life that you cannot know,” Jarok assures Picard. “When he looks down at the first smile of his baby girl and realises he must change the world for her. For all children. It is for her that I am here. Not to destroy the Romulan Empire, but to save it.”

This cold war is heating up...

This cold war is heating up…

Jarok is portrayed as entirely selfless in his actions. He might fight against the Federation, but that does not preclude the fact that he is a decent man. He made this choice knowing full well the cost of his actions. “This is my home now,” he tells Data, staring at the walls of the holodeck. “My future. I have sacrificed everything.” Once he has completed his task, Jarok commits suicide – refusing to live in disgrace. His final act, providing Picard with a note to pass to his daughter in the future, betrays a sense of hope and optimism.

Of course, there’s a hint of the same naivety as we saw in The Enemy. It turns out that Romulans are all decent sorts. They are just exploited and abused by their sinister leaders. Like Bochra in The Enemy, it turns out that Jarok is just a pawn of Tomalak’s schemes. Tomalak was ready to let the loyal Bochra die to save face, but here he’s willing to manipulate Jarok into sacrificing everything as part of a perverse power play.

Staring at unfamiliar stars...

Staring at unfamiliar stars…

“All the communiqués, all the timetables, all the records,” Jarok realises, on the bridge of the Enterprise. “They were all fiction, written for my benefit. A test. A test of my loyalty. And you used me to lure the Enterprise into the Neutral Zone.” This is a very nineties outlook – the notion that all the people on the other side of the Berlin Wall are really all decent sorts; it’s only the leadership that are the problem.

This is a very simplistic world view, the kind that suggests “regime change” as a one-step solution to dealing with enemy governments. It doesn’t seem to take into account the possibility that hostile foreign governments could legitimately represent the will of a significant portion of their people, or that it might be possible for the subjects of a foreign government to hold different values or outlooks. This was a perspective that was very common on The Next Generation, but Deep Space Nine was generally willing to accept that politics could be a lot more complicated than people like to believe.

I love that - for all the Enterprise's optimism - they still have an interrogation room.

I love that – for all the Enterprise’s optimism – they still have an interrogation room.

To be fair, The Defector contains a wonderful amount of ambiguity. It hints that the Romulans may have legitimate problems with the Federation. When Jarok arrives, he rigs his Scout Ship to self-destruct to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. The Enterprise crew are disappointed at this potential loss, and Jarok rightly calls them out on it. “All you can see is the opportunity to exploit me. The Federation credo, exploitation. You couldn’t get aboard my ship fast enough. Strip it down. What secrets might it reveal that we can use?”

(This is consistent with Riker’s interrogation of the captured Romulan in The Enemy. In the Enterprise’s Sickbay, Riker immediately starts questioning the injured survivor. He tries to phrase his questions to make him appear friendly, but his questions are very clearly constructed to glean tactical information from the captive. “We need to know if there are other survivors on the surface,” Riker explains. “Do you have a mother ship who should be advised of your condition?”)

Chula out there...

Chula out there…

When Picard accuses Jarok of being a war criminal, Jarok quite rightly points out that the world is more nuanced than that. When Picard makes reference to “the massacres in the Norkan outposts”, Jarok corrects him, “What you call massacres were called the Norkan Campaign on my world, Captain. One world’s butcher is another world’s hero. Perhaps I am neither one.” Perhaps the universe is more complex than we might like to believe. Perhaps the Romulans have reason to be nervous about Federation advancement. Perhaps the Cold War is the result of mutual rather than unilateral aggression.

The Defector is a very shrewd piece of writing, even allowing for the rather convenient arrival of the Klingon Birds of Prey at the climax of the episode. It’s dutifully set up with a few cryptic lines earlier in the episode (“Captain Picard, priority message from security officer, Klingon vessel Bortas”), but it’s still a save that comes out of absolutely nowhere. Indeed, had The Defector aired after Sins of the Father, it would be easy enough to write off the Klingon ships as an attempt by K’Mpec to return a favour to the Enterprise. As it stands, they stick out like a sore thumb – pay off to events that we never saw unfold.

Is it all an act?

Is it all an act?

Still, The Defector is strong enough that this final cheat can’t undermine the episode. It helps that the confrontation with Tomalak isn’t the emotional climax of the episode. The showdown in the Neutral Zone provides some nice tension, and explains Jarok’s defection, but the episode closes with Jarok’s suicide in his quarters. That is a powerful closing image, one properly set up and foreshadowed and logically consistent with what came before.

The Defector is interesting because it really cements the idea that The Next Generation is a show that will have casual internal continuity. Episodes have built off one another before (Coming of Age led to Conspiracy), but The Defector is remarkable for the casualness of its internal continuity. The Defector is not a direct sequel to The Enemy, but there are a number of rather direct references towards it.

Geordi's welcoming fireworks display went a bit askew...

Geordi’s welcoming fireworks display went a bit askew…

These range from explicit to relatively subtle. Tomalak references his last encounter with Picard. “Captain Picard,” he boasts, “I hardly expected to see you again so soon. It seems this time you are the one who has made an aggressive move across the Neutral Zone.” When Crusher makes a casual reference to having a chance to become familiar with Romulan physiology, Jarok notes, “Ah, yes. The incident at Galorndon Core. The two officers.”

However, despite these overt references to Galorndon Core and the plot of the episode, there are some smaller and nicer little nods of the hat. When Crusher references her familiarity with Romulan physiology, she exchanges a quick glance at Worf, suggesting that his actions are not forgotten. It’s a nice character moment that builds off the events of past episodes, without directly acknowledging them. The Next Generation isn’t a show that has evolved to the point where Worf’s decision can have true long-term consequences in his relationship with the rest of the cast – and it arguably never would – but this is nice step.

Soldier of the Empire...

Soldier of the Empire…

It’s also worth noting that Moore’s script is relatively similar to Diane Duane’s 1984 tie-in novel My Enemy, My Ally. In that novel, a Romulan defects to the Federation to help prevent a plot to launch the Empire and the Federation into war. Moore was a Star Trek fan, albeit one who wasn’t engaged with fan culture at large. However, he was familiar with Duane’s work, as he admitted when asked whether the insult “veruul” originated in his work or the work of Diane Duane:

To be honest, I don’t recall whether I got the word from Diane or vice versa. I was a fan of Diane’s books before ever writing my first script and I might have borrowed it from her, but I don’t recall if her Romulan novel came before or after The Defector.” I still think the world of Diane and her husband, Peter and I hear they’re both doing well in beautiful Ireland.

Incidentally, Ronald Moore has also admitted a familiarity with the other influential 1984 Star Trek novel, John M. Ford’s superb The Final Reflection, suggesting that it did influence his initial work on the Klingons. It is nice to see the novels having some influence on the television shows, a demonstration that the novels where a vital part of the Star Trek experience for an entire generation of fans.

Jarok goes off the grid...

Jarok goes off the grid…

For what it’s worth, Diane Duane herself has commented on the similarities between her work and The Defector, when asked about the plot similarities:

Ron Moore is a good friend of ours. We’ve been his houseguests (Peter experienced his first earthquake at Ron’s) and he’s been ours: we’ve enjoyed each others’ work: I’ve pitched to him, and I would love it if in the fullness of time he might pitch to me. … So if something Trekkish of Ron’s looks like something Trekkish of mine, I think it could safely be taken as a colleague’s graceful (if covert) acknowledgement of something he liked

That’s quite a nice sentiment, and taken very much in the best spirit.

He is dead to the Romulan Star Empire...

He is dead to the Romulan Star Empire…

The Defector also opens with a scene of what might be described as “Piller filler.” Of course, there are different definitions of what “Piller filler” actually is. In Fade In, Piller himself describes it as “technical dialogue” and it has become an accepted use for the term. However, in the documentary Resistance is Futile, producer David Livingstone used it to describe character-driven scenes added to extend shows that ran too short.

“The amazing thing about Piller filler was that it wasn’t Piller filler,” Livingstone contends. “It actually added to the drama, and it filled in holes and made the drama better.” Using that description, the opening sequence of The Defector fits the bill. It’s a nice character bit involving Data and Picard that segues into the episode itself. You could start the episode with Picard arriving on the bridge and lose no plot, which seems strange for an episode teaser.

You know when you've been Klingon'ed...

You know when you’ve been Klingon’ed…

After the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had threatened the show with legal action over the use of Sherlock Holmes in Elementary, Dear Data, the writing team had to come up with a different introduction for Data. Using a modified version of a popular scene from The Life of Henry V, The Defector very cleverly manages to set the mood for the episode ahead. This sort of foreshadowing is often clumsy or forced, but The Defector is shrewd enough (and the foreshadowing broad enough) that the scene works.

So we get a whole host of thematic foreshadowing. There’s a king passing as a commoner. There’s the question of the duty to state and higher ethical obligations. (“If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.”) There’s the realisation that even figures of legend are ultimately just real people – no matter how far removed from us they might be. (“For though I speak it to you, I think the king is but a man, as I am.”)

Out, out, brief holodeck...

Out, out, brief holodeck…

One of the wonderful things about Moore as a writer was his ability to take these larger-than-life alien civilisations and make them seem positively Shakespearean. This is most obvious in Sins of the Father, but it’s also apparent here. In fact, according to director Robert Scheerer in The Star Trek: The Next Generation Magazine, that informed James Sloyan’s performance:

The actor who played the defector, James Sloyan, was excellent. His feeling about The Next Generation was that it’s the only place left where you can do Shakespearan acting and make it work for you on television. Because of the characters’ nature and size, you can bring something to it that you can’t do anywhere else on television.

While the Shakespeare comparison might be a little pretentious, it isn’t too unreasonable; Star Trek is a show about a few people in a few rooms deciding the fates of empires and kingdoms, often through use of language and reason.

When in Romulan space... warp very, very quickly...

When in Romulan space… warp very, very quickly…

In fact, this is Sloyan’s first guest appearance on Star Trek. The actor would go on to guest star on both Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Sloyan’s performance is a large part of why the episode works as well as it does. Jarok is a well-developed and nuanced supporting character, played with a wonderful sense of pride and tragedy that lends the episode a potent ambiguity. The Defector relies on its central guest star.

The Defector is an episode that really works on just about every level. A superb instalment of a superb season.

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

11 Responses

  1. Wonderful write-up for one of my favorite ST:TNG episodes, Darren. Well done.

  2. Great review of a underrated episode. Matt Mckinney,who has youtube channel on Star Trek,voted this his favorite Next Generation episode. While that is debatable it could easily make the top ten.

    • I think this was probably my favourite episode about five years ago. My favourite changes from year to year, reflecting where I am at the moment in my life. There’s just too much goodness to restrict yourself to one absolute and unalterable choice. Oddly enough, most of my choices are Ronald D. Moore episodes. During a rough spell a few years back, it was Chain of Command. At the moment, I’d probably go with Tapestry. (Although I have a long list of other episodes to suit various moods.)

  3. The information about Diane Duane and Ron Moore was fascinating. Here is something you might find interesting. I read that in her final Romulan book she tries to tie her Romulans with the Next Generation ones. The problem that I pointed out is that this episode makes this nearly impossible. Picard says that a Romulan defecting is practically a contradiction in terms. If the events of My Enemy,My Alley,happened then the crew would not be as shocked by the concept of a Romulan defecting to the Federation if the Ael’s actions were known to Starfleet.
    Unless they were kept top secret it is hard to see how you could fit the two continuities together.

    • Yep.

      Then again, the shows generally ignored the novel-verse. Although Moore himself has conceded that they did try to make some concessions to Pocket Books at various times in the run of the franchise. Moore was influenced by Ford and Duane, but he also promised John Ordover (I think) that Peter David could have exclusive use of the Shelby character for New Frontier. That said, he did forget about it one point, referencing Captain Shelby in a bit of throwaway dialogue, but I think that’s as close to canonicity as the novels ever really came.

      (Although there is some interesting stuff around Jeri Taylor’s two Voyager books which were clearly her own personal canon at the time they were written; since she was an executive producer on the show, they could arguably be considered part of her vision of Voyager. Then again, once Taylor left the show, her books were treated with the same respect afforded other tie-ins – ignored and overlooked completely.)

  4. Hmm, can’t believe how many episodes I’ve forgotten of TNG that are awesome. This is one of my favorites, yet forgot it. I think its the first episode since “The Neutral Zone” to have the Romulans and introduced them as a threat in the series?

    • The TNG/DS9/VOY era Romulan ships still look incredibly awesome. I’d shutter to see the Abrams Trek redoing…

    • Contagion is also a Romulan-involving second-season episode. It’s very underrated in general. Features Carolyn Seymour as a Romulan Commander and a cript by the great Steve Gerber.

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