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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Hunted (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 Hunted is a piece of allegorical Star Trek. Like The Defector before it, there’s a sense that the show is a little behind the curve – that it’s really dealing with issues that aren’t at the peak of their relevance. The Cold War with the Romulans felt like a bit of a throwback in the era of glasnost, and the ghosts of Vietnam raised by The Hunted feel like echoes of a national debate that had already taken place in the mid- to late-eighties.

And yet, despite that, it works. Like The Defector, there’s a sense that The Next Generation is distant enough from the issue that it can engage objectively. The treatment of Jarok in The Defector or Roga Danar in The Hunted feels infinitely more nuanced and sophisticated than the portrayal of Finn in The High Ground, when The Next Generation was rather consciously trying to engage with a more relevant and topical issue.

Effectively The Next Generation‘s Vietnam story, The Hunted serves as a startlingly effective piece of television. It might be the best action-driven episode of the show to date.

Keep soldiering on...

Keep soldiering on…

Vietnam is a war that left a sizeable scar on the American psyche. It is, in many respects, the first war that the United States lost since it became a superpower. So it’s understandable that Vietnam would become something of a pop culture focal point. In the immediately aftermath of the war, it was difficult to talk about. Veterans returning home were not met with parades or welcoming committees. Many found that they had returned to a different country, and wound up alienated and isolated.

It wasn’t until the late seventies and eighties that popular culture began to explore that experience. The Deer Hunter was a pivotal moment in the discussion. Taking home the Best Picture Oscar, the film offering a harrowing (if not entirely factually accurate) account of the veteran experience. In the eighties and nineties, Oliver Stone produced a trilogy of films offering an account of the conflict. While Platoon explored the war itself, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth explored the aftermath.

Jazz hands!

Jazz hands!

In the eighties, television began to wade into the aftermath of the conflict. It was not uncommon for procedural shows to incorporate the war into the back grounds of its leading characters. Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice and Thomas Magnum from Magnum P.I. were two of the more high-profile survivors of the conflict – their past experiences often impacting their present circumstances.

This exploration of the impact of Vietnam on American popular consciousness really continued into the nineties. The X-Files‘ paranoia and mistrust of authority was informed almost as much by the legacy of Vietnam as it was by Watergate. Gary Sinise picked up an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a down-on-his-luck Vietnam veteran in the 1995 phenomenon Forrest Gump, which swept that year’s Academy Awards.

"Not in my transporter room!"

“Not in my transporter room!”

In The Films of the Nineties: The Decade of Spin, William J. Palmer argues that popular culture played a significant role in convincing the public to engage with these veterans:

After the Vietnam War, American veterans of that confusing and dividing and controversial conflict were the worst victims. All America wanted to do was forget about that lost war. All America wanted to do was deny, avoid, and move on from the war that had torn the country apart. As a result, the veterans who had fought in that war and came home to none of the parades that had welcomed the veterans of America’s earlier winning wars were rendered invisible. No one wanted to acknowledge them, congratulate them on a job well done, or even recognise them on an equal footing with veterans of other wars. Even worse, Vietnam veterans were reviles as losers, dopers, psychos, and baby killers. Then, from 1976 to 1979, Hollywood made a string of movies about the war, about Vietnam veterans coming home, about the problems of reintegration into American society of those veterans. The movies were the mass medicine that cured the blindness of the American people.

The Hunted was broadcast in early 1990, coming on the tail end of this popular culture discussion of veterans and the role that they play within society.

Far a field...

Far a field…

You could make an argument that the third season of The Next Generation is making a genuine effort to engage with the same big issues that the original Star Trek would tackle. The Defector feels like something of a spiritual successor to The Enterprise Incident. In Trek Versus Next Generation, author James Van Hise suggests that The Hunted is an epilogue to original Star Trek‘s Vietnam analogies:

In one sense The Hunted seemed to be The Next Generation’s Vietnam episode just as A Taste of Armageddon was Classic Trek’s Vietnam episode. Whereas A Taste of Armageddon dealt with endlessly fighting a war out of habit wherein no clear goals exist any longer, The Hunted is like a Vietnam aftermath story. When men are trained to kill and be the perfect soldier, where is their place in a peace time society when the war is over? This is a question that Vietnam veterans are still wrestling 20 years after the end of that conflict.

It’s nice to think that The Next Generation has finally figured out how best to relate to its predecessor, after two years of struggling to get the balance right. It’s not about carbon copies of iconic characters, or retreading familiar plots. It’s about engaging with social issues and telling powerful allegorical stories.

Ain't nothing going to break his stride, ain't nothing gonna hold him down... except Riker, apparently...

Ain’t nothing going to break his stride, ain’t nothing gonna hold him down… except Riker, apparently…

That said, there are some aspects of The Hunted that are problematic. To be fair, these are in no way unique to The Hunted‘s portrayal of the legacy of Vietnam. It just plays into a wider pop culture trend, as contented by Palmer in The Films of the Eighties: A Social History:

Whereas in the seventies the “violent Vietnam vet” was perceived as a threat to society, in the eighties the “violent Vietnam vet” has become a “heroic” and “mythic” figure, but not in the classical literary terms of Greek and Roman myth. Rather, the Vietnam vet stereotype has undergone a pop-culture mythicisation, has been turned into a comic book hero right up there with G.I. Joe and Sergeant Rock.

Although broadcast in the early nineties, the portrayal of Danar does fit that profile. He is very much a larger-than-life killing machine, with borderline super-human abilities. He’s pretty much John Rambo.

Well, he certainly knows how to make an entrance...

Well, he certainly knows how to make an entrance…

That isn’t too much of a problem though. One of the beautiful things about allegory is that it isn’t constrained to literal truth. Danar is a stand-in for the forgotten veteran, a hero of a past conflict “given to bouts of uncontrollable violence” and exiled from society for the greater good. Danar is a very good soldier, a man turned into an efficient soldier with little regard for how he might be de-programmed if he returned home.

Another benefit of allegory is that it’s never as firmly tied to historical fact or circumstance as a more direct exploration of events. While episodes like A Taste of Armageddon, Errand of Mercy and A Private Little War are all inexorably linked with the conflict in Vietnam, with countless direct references and parallels, they are also broader moral statements. They remain relevant to events beyond those that directly inspired them.

Stuck in transport...

Stuck in transport…

A Private Little War could work as a cautionary tale about American involvement in Afghanistan in the eighties, with Americans arming and training local militias to help in their struggle against Soviet expansion. In some cases, the metaphors get more potent with age. Broadcast in the mid-nineties, Home Front and Paradise Lost arguably work much better as a discussion on the War on Terror – an ideological conflict barely conceived when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was actually on the air.

The Hunted aired in early 1990. In August of that year, the Americans would deploy armed forces to the Persian Gulf. Over a decade later, America would be engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although not quite as common as it was for veterans of Vietnam, post-traumatic stress disorder is quite common in veterans of the Iraq War. Vietnam veterans are using their experience to help reintegrate soldiers returning from the Middle East.

Crom's well that ends well...

Crom’s well that ends well…

Every war leaves its marks, and the veterans of every war face difficulty reintegrating. Comparisons were made between Gulf War Syndrome and Agent Orange, and while lessons have been learnt from Vietnam to help in reassimilating veterans, reintegration is always difficult. As Wilbur J. Scott discusses in the afterword of his Vietnam Veterans Since the War, every war has its survivors:

This is not to say that some Gulf War veterans did not experience indelible moments of hell or that there are no similarities with the Vietnam experience. Serving and sacrificing, taking untold risks, recuperating and readjusting – these are the commonalities of the veteran experience.

So The Hunted remains a powerful allegory about the toll that war takes upon a society, and the responsibilities owed by a society to those who fought in order to preserve their liberty.

Under cover...

Under cover…

Danar’s experience is pretty universal, and quite recognisable. “Roga Danar was an idealistic young man who answered his people’s call to service,” Troi tells us. “He joined the military to fight for the Angosian way of life. What he didn’t realise was that by doing so he would have to give up that way of life for ever. He’s not the same man who left home to go to war. He’s been through intense psychological manipulation and biochemical modifications.”

It’s easy to understand why the veterans were exiled. “When the first soldiers returned to Angosia, they had trouble,” Troi explains. “The rules changed too quickly. A lost temper could result in murder.” So the people decided. The Hunted is reasonably balanced in its treatment of the culture that exiled Danar and his soldiers. They are not abused or mistreated. Asked about the conditions on the colony, Danar explains, “I am comfortable, well fed and housed. Oh no, the Angosians take good care of their prisoners. It’s simply a matter of never being able to leave.”

Warped core values...

Warped core values…

Nor can the decisions be dismissed as the manipulations of a corrupt ruling class. It isn’t just the leaders who want the veterans banished to an “orbiting gulag.” It was a democratic decision, made through democratic process. “There was a referendum,” Nayrok explains. “The people weighed the costs involved. They chose the resettlement solution.” This is not some barbaric parody of democracy – this is a system that very rationally and logically decided to exile a problem instead of dealing with it. In short, it’s a rather scathing reflection of the United States’ treatment of its veterans.

(Of course, there is a large philosophical argument to be had about the nature of democracy. Democracy is, after all, more than just the tyranny of the majority. It cannot be crass majoritarianism. The Hunted pretty much confirms that much, with Picard refusing to sanction an immoral decision simply because it was reached through legal means. It is possible for a government to make immoral decisions, just as it is possible to for the public to ratify them. Consensus does not make a moral abhorrent decision justifiable. There is that oft-quoted truism that you can best judge a society by how it treats its weakest members.)

Everybody's in the dark...

Everybody’s in the dark…

The Hunted is a deftly constructed morality tail that is beautiful woven together. It’s a rather insightful allegory about the way that societies tend to disenfranchise and dismiss those who were willing to die in their service. Picard’s contempt is palpable, and the script benefits from not trying to hide that raw outrage. “You are dangerous,” he informs the planet’s rulers. “They’re only victims. You made them what they are. You asked them to defend your way of life and then you discarded them.”

Of course, part of the charm of The Hunted is the way that it isn’t too heavy-handed. As well as being a scathing social commentary, it is also probably the best action episode that The Next Generation has produced to date. Cliff Bole is probably the franchise’s best action director. He’s responsible for Conspiracy, but also Starship Mine. On Deep Space Nine, he directed the underrated Dramatis Personae, and on Star Trek: Voyager, he was responsible for Future’s End, Part II and Dark Frontier.

Everything is ship-shape...

Everything is ship-shape…

Whatever problems those episodes may have had in scripting, Bole was always well able to provide a sense of tension and adventure, producing some of the most dynamic Star Trek ever shot for television. It’s no wonder that Bole is one of the most prolific directors to work on the franchise, and – as much as I admire Yesterday’s Enterprise and The Enemy – I am surprised that David Carson was offered Star Trek: Generations ahead of Bole. (And, as much as I love Frakes’ work on the show, I’m surprised Frakes was offered Star Trek: First Contact ahead of Bole.)

A significant portion of The Hunted is devoted to action sequence. We get nice deep space action sequence at the start of the episode, involving Danar’s escape from the alien penal colony. It’s the type of model work that you rarely see on the show, because it is very expensive. Danar’s brief confrontation with the Enterprise is still more effective than anything in Peak Performance. At the same time, there are some wonderful action sequences on board the ship, where Danar handily schools the Enterprise crew with his deft warfare skills.

An armed weapon...

An armed weapon…

Interestingly, Danar’s mid-episode escape was the first piece of Star Trek written by Ira Steven Behr. It turned out pretty phenomenally, but Behr has discussed just how troubled the writing was:

The funny thing, not unlike what Ron was saying – the first day I got there, I thought, “Man, I’ve got to brush up on my Shakespeare here, gotta learn what this show is.” I’m barely there, Michael calls me into his office, gives me a script called The Hunted, and says, “Rewrite Act 3.”

“Can I read what it is?” He says, “Well, yeah, read it, but it’s basically a chase. The whole act is kind of a long chase. So, you know, put him in the Jefferies Tubes and stuff like that.” So I walk outside and I go to my buddies Beimler and Manning. I ask them to help, and it’s like, “Oh, we’re in our own hell, get out of here!”

So then I go to a guy I don’t even know, this guy Richard Danus, who is literally a dead man walking. The first thing he says to me is, “I’m on a ten week contract; they’re not picking up my contract; I’m gone in like two weeks. I’ve never met Rick Berman, I’ve never met Gene Roddenberry, don’t talk to me, I’m dead.” I said, “What’s a Jefferies Tube?”

Ira Steven Behr’s first challenge was route a chase through an unfamiliar ship.

So he explained what a Jefferies Tube was, and I went back and literally banged out by hand on a yellow pad, Act 3, scared out of my mind. There was some dialogue obviously in there, but I was just like throwing it up in the air and hoping there was a parachute attached. I gave it to Danus to read, and I said, “Is it English? Does it make sense? Does it have anything to do with the show?” And he said, “You’re a writer!” He goes, “There’s no doubt. I read it. You’re a writer.” I said, “Well, I think I knew that, but that’s good!”

I gave it to Mike, and I walked out of his office, and I just sat in my office alone, thinking, “Oh my god, am I off this show day one? Is he going to be SO disappointed?” And he just, after whatever it was, twenty minutes or a half hour, he just strolled in, and said, “Great, perfect. I made a couple of changes, terrific.” And that was it.

To give you an idea of how chaotic the writers’ room was, the “lame duck” Richard Danus had become story editor after helping out on Booby Trap, and would be credited on the script for Deja Q. There was phenomenal turn-over happening on The Next Generation, and Behr, Snodgrass, Beimler and Manning would all depart before the start of the show’s fourth season.

Last transport of call...

Last transport of call…

Given all these behind-the-scenes difficulties, it’s amazing that the third season turned out watchable, let alone that it became so consistent and high quality. The Hunted is an example of the sort of superb storytelling that The Next Generation was doing as a matter of course at this point, with the disappointing episodes being more the exceptions than the rule. It’s a superbly crafted allegory that isn’t too heavy-handed, and turns out the best action the show has managed to date.

The action sequence is also notable because it serves to humble the crew somewhat. The second season was filled with episodes like Q Who? or Samaritan Snare that were built around proving that the Enterprise was vulnerable. Far from being invincible and well-equipped for every scenario, it’s nice to know that our heroes can wade in out of their depth or get caught off guard. It’s a nice way of raising the dramatic stakes and creating a sense of tension that was sorely lacking in the early episodes.

A tough cell...

A tough cell…

The High Ground has a similar sequence where a low-tech adversary manages to knock the crew off-balance a bit, and it works almost as well there. There’s a sense that the Enterprise isn’t quite as secure as well-protected as we’ve been led to believe, and it opens up all sorts of dramatic and storytelling possibilities. A show about a flying fortress that is completely impenetrable is hard to get excited about; a show about a ship that isn’t as safe as its crew would like to believe is much more compelling.

Part of the beauty of The Hunted is the way that it doesn’t count on our crew acting like idiots. Once Danar fools the Enterprise once, Data adapts to factor in his diversionary tactics. Worf outwits Danar in the cargo bay. Picard figures out where the soldier is heading. The Enterprise crew aren’t portrayed as stupid or ineffective, it’s just that Danar is that much better. Even Worf gets to put up a better showing than he normally does. (In The High Ground, he’s the first to be downed on the bridge.)

"Let's get the hell out of here..."

“Let’s get the hell out of here…”

The Hunted is a superb piece of television, and a demonstration of just how far The Next Generation has come.

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

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3 Responses

  1. In relation to late seventies and eighties pop culture exploring the Vietnam War there is Stanley Kubrick’s movie “Full Metal Jacket”.

    • Yep. There’s a lot of viable worthy stuff out there. I just picked the examples that jumped immediately into my head. (I’m actually less fond of Full Metal Jacket, personally, than I am of Apocalypse Now or Platoon.)

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