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Star Trek: The Next Generation – The High Ground (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 High Ground is a rather earnest issue-driven episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, dealing with one of the big issues of the day: international terrorism. However, the moral ambiguity of terrorism was a decidedly more contentious and controversial issue in early 1990 than the plight of Vietnam veterans explored in The Hunted or the Cold War politics of The Defector.

The High Ground is an allegory for the Troubles in Northern Ireland at a point in time where the Troubles were on-going. 1990 saw a number of high-profile terrorist actions conducted by the IRA. They bombed the London Stock Exchange in July. Using an explosive device, they murdered Sergeant Charles Chapman in May. Nobody has ever been prosecuted for his death. In February 1991, the IRA launched a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street. So this was the context in which The High Ground aired.

And, to be fair, there’s something admirable about the show’s willingness to engage with a controversial issue, even if the end result leaves a lot to be desired.

Holding hands around the universe...

Holding hands around the universe…

The High Ground doesn’t even try to hide its inspiration. In the opening log excerpt, we’re told that the Ansata separatists are “demanding autonomy and self-determination for their homeland on the western continent.” Replace the word “continent” with “island” and it fits pretty well. Explaining the history of the feud, one anti-terrorist officer explains, “Seventy years ago we denied them independence. That gave them a noble cause. Now it’s just an excuse for more violence.” Given the episode broadcast in 1990, the timeline synchs up with the Irish War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish Treaty that divided the country.

Although The High Ground makes a number of nods towards other historical instances of political terrorism (George Washington’s rebellion, or Mexico’s campaign for independence), it is very much framed in terms of Northern Ireland. In fact, Data even gets an awkward line of exposition about “the Irish Unification of 2024” being the result of a successful terrorist campaign. Which is problematic for a number of reasons.

A cultural schism...

A cultural schism…

That line (and the obvious political subtext of the episode) led to The High Ground being banned on British and Irish terrestrial television during the nineties. On the rare occasion where the episode was broadcast, the offending line was trimmed. It wasn’t properly aired in Ireland and the UK until the mid- to late-naughties. It was a very daring line to slip into the show, but also quite a weird one. It’s very strange to think that – as far as The Next Generation was concerned – the grand legacy of the Irish people to Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future was as a counter-example; a demonstration of how, sometimes, might does make right.

Given the show’s traditional optimism, it feels strange to suggest that the only way of achieving peace in Northern Ireland was through bloodshed and violence – that the only way the population could ever be at peace was if terrorists were allowed to succeed in their agendas. It’s strange to see that The Next Generation could never imagine the eventual outcome of the Trouble in Northern Ireland – people willing to sit down with one another at a table and reason out a solution that satisfies everybody. It’s not only a line that dates the episode, but it’s one that feels quite calculated and cynical.

"What is terrorism?"

“What is terrorism?”

(It would arguably have made more sense to suggest that peace becomes possible when both sides are willing to engage and talk to one another, as eventually happened in Northern Ireland and as was happening in South Africa as apartheid finally came to an end when Nelson Mandela brought the formerly terrorist African National Congress to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, nobody in The High Ground seems to make this observation. There’s no indication that what happens after terrorism is generally what creates lasting peace. Instead, the episode is a somewhat clumsy look at moral relativism.)

The High Ground isn’t helped by the fact that everything is treated as incredibly simplistic. There’s no nuance. There’s a scene early in the episode where Picard and Troi have to sit Wesley down and explain to him how terrorism works. “We have no reason to believe she’s been hurt in any way,” Troi assures Wesley. Picard adds, “In fact, it’s more than likely that they will take good care of her, if they want to use her as a bargaining chip.” Wesley, despite being a genius, doesn’t understand. “Bargaining chip?” Troi has to spell it out. “The innocent often become the pawns in conflicts of this type, Wes.”

Finn isn't only a terrorist, he's a creep...

Finn isn’t only a terrorist, he’s a creep…

To describe the script for The High Ground as a little stilted is something of an understatement. It features characters offering clichés and stock phrases, conveying its points in the most blunt manner possible. “I live in an ideal culture!” Crusher protests at one point. “In a world where children blow up children, everyone’s a threat,” an embittered security officer observes when Riker questions her methods.

Perhaps the most awkward aspect of the script is the terrorist leader Finn. He’s presented as committed and charismatic, which is what you would expect from the leader of a dedicated network. He believes in his cause, and one of the more unsettling aspects of The High Ground is how it buys into his romanticism. The episode suggests that Finn is really just a sensitive man who has found himself manoeuvred into a situation where he’s teaching children to kill children.

Tackling the issue...

Tackling the issue…

He’s really a very skilled artist, and a sensitive soul underneath it all. “You should be drawing, not killing people,” Crusher protests. “I can do both,” Finn grumbles, hiding his secret sensitive self away for the time being. He even sketches pictures of Crusher, as if to prove that he’s really a romantic a heart. We get a quick glimpse of Finn drawing two hands linking up, as if to suggest that Finn is a man who does believe in peace and mutual understanding.

It’s all terribly generic and blunt, with the script taking all manner of short-cuts to try and get the audience on side. The characters tend to talk in rhetoric and speeches, as if they’ve been waiting for the Federation to show up so that they might share their angst about the horrible world in which they are forced to live. Finn has even done his research, and offers the genre-mandated comparisons between himself and George Washington.

Not creepy. At all.

Not creepy. At all.

And Crusher just stands there and lets Finn do this, without qualifying or arguing or correcting. Washington did not plant bombs in restaurants, the Federation has tried to move away from the violence in its history. “Yes, but we regret that and we’ve moved beyond it,” would be an effective rejoinder to all of  Finn’s posturing, but nobody is willing to stand there and say that to him. They’re all too busy wringing their hands.

And yet, despite that, there are small elements of The High Ground that work. In particular, there’s a nice moment at the start of the episode where a local security officer cautions Crusher as she works on the wounded. “These Ansata, they’re madmen. There could be another bomb.” That’s a very sad bit of truth to the way that terrorists tend to operate. Often, terrorists will plant a second bomb to wound first responders. The technique is known as a “double bomb.”

Disrupting the Enterprise's scheduled programming...

Disrupting the Enterprise’s scheduled programming…

The High Ground also features another violation of the sanctity of the Enterprise, when Finn’s terrorists beam on board and try to blow up the ship. This isn’t entirely logical – one assumes that such an act would convince the Federation to proactively start assisting the authorities in hunting down the terrorists and possibly even supplying scanning technology and weapons – but it is a nice way of reminding the viewer that The Next Generation is no longer entirely invulnerable.

In particular, Patrick Stewart gets a nice moment here. When Finn shows up on the bridge, Picard just punches him in the face and starts grappling with him. It’s a different side of Picard than we’re used to, and one imagines Patrick Stewart was quite happy to play that scene. Then again, it is a little disappointing that the same sequence features Worf getting incapacitated incredibly quickly. After his respectable showing in The Hunted, it’s a bit of a step down.

War games...

War games…

And The High Ground does raise some issues about how the United States perceived terrorism before September 11th. As Nancy Reagin argues in Star Trek and History, The High Ground is a pretty effective demonstration of America’s attitude towards terrorism in the late eighties and nineties:

The High Ground marked Star Trek’s initial examination of terrorism by encouraging viewers to understand the positions of all of those involved. But Next Generation’s producers were somewhat disappointed in the final product, believing that the episode had nothing meaningful to say about terrorism. However, the ambivalence of this episode largely mirrored the mixed feelings that Americans had toward international terrorism in the early 1990s. Like the Federation, American leaders were reluctant to get directly involved in disputes that plagued the Middle East in the 1980s. When Riker wonders why the Ansata would choose to take a Federation officer when their fight did not involve the Federation, Worf responded, “It does now.” To the American public, the seizure of hostages and the bombing of public spaces occurred elsewhere in the world and did not directly involve the United States. Paralleling Finn’s suggestion about the Federation, Americans could not fathom that the presence of U.S. troops in places such as Lebanon or the United States’ long interference in the Middle East did in fact mean that they were, as Worf noted, embroiled in the fight.

Then again, looking at the episode as a whole, this seems more like an afterthought than a central argument. The Enterprise never really responds to Finn’s accusations that supplying and supporting the government makes them legitimate targets in a terrorist campaign, because the episode never really gets past basic moral relativism. It’s too busy wading through the simplistic rhetoric of “one man’s terrorist…” to tackle anything that might be more complex.

We've got a pretty (warp) core security breach...

We’ve got a pretty (warp) core security breach…

There’s a sense that The Next Generation isn’t far enough away from these issues to offer an objective exploration. Unlike Vietnam or the Cold War, this sort of international terrorism was a pressing on-going concern when The High Ground went to air. There isn’t the necessary distance to really be able to comprehensively delve into all the questions and ambiguities raised by the issue of terrorism, because it’s all just too fresh and too contemporary.

It’s also possible that The Next Generation is simply not a show well-equipped to deal with an issue this big or this complex. The Next Generation is still a largely episodic show, and it will remain that way until the airing of All Good Things… The Enterprise will never return to this planet and this conflict. This crazy terrorism stuff will just be a bad memory next week, when the series moves on to dealing with Q. Everybody will have forgotten about it (along with the rest of the timeline) when the Enterprise-C comes through the rift in Yesterday’s Enterprise.

But he's soooo sensitive!

But he’s soooo sensitive!

Terrorism is an issue with many different sides, and with many different causes, and many different effects. Trying to trim down all of those to fit neatly within the forty-five minute runtime of a network television series is foolhardy at best. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would do a much better job with the issue, primarily because the show couldn’t just run away at the end of the week. Those questioned lingered over the entire run, and the show was able to revisit them time and again. Kira was a former terrorist, but she was a character present for the show’s full seven-season run, so we got multiple angles on that complex issue.

In contrast, the episodic style doesn’t really have enough room to explore the nuances of a big issue like this. It’s worth noting that a significant proportion of the cast on Star Trek: Voyager were former terrorists, but the show never really bothered to look into that. It was an episodic television science-fiction show, and it seemed to realise that looking at any of the characters through that angle would effectively open a can of worms.

And Worf is out for the count...

And Worf is out for the count…

This is something of a recurring problem with The Next Generation, and an indication of the limits of the show. As Jan Johnson-Smith discusses in American Science Fiction TV: Star Trek, Stargate and Beyond, this is one of the limits of the “everything is perfect” status quo of the show:

The moral dilemma in The High Ground remains, for the most part, at a personal level rather than as a broader social issue: it is overcome relatively easily and the episode concluded. Yet, from The Next Generation onwards, a capitalist society apparently no longer exists and, given Tasha Yar’s horror at an alien group’s request for fresh meat in Lonely Among Us, everyone seems to be a vegetarian, there is little or no religious conflict within the diverse membership of the Federation and equality and justice are frequently reassured. However, because this achievement has been established a priori, the struggles necessary to achieve such a remarkable state are used as a structuring absence: we are merely shown the flagship of the new regime.

The Next Generation cannot deal with the causes and consequences of terrorism at this point in its run, because one of the founding principles of the show is that it’s set in a world where terrorism cannot exist.

A pretty dark place...

A pretty dark place…

The best the show can do in its third season is to intersect with a world where terrorism does exist, but then we warp away at the end of the episode and never have to come back. It’s a narrative cheat, and The High Ground suffers from the fact that The Next Generation is not a show that has the time or the capacity to dig into something this big and this messy. And, to be fair, it is nice that The Next Generation tried. There’s no small measure of ambition in attempting something like The High Ground. It’s just a shame it doesn’t come off.

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

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