TNG: S2E15: “Pen Pals”

In which Picard likes a powerful beast between his legs, Wesley gets command thrust upon him, and Data violates the Prime Directive like… well, you can write your own tasteless joke here. I believe in you.

Must not laugh... at captain's stupid outfit...

Must not laugh… at captain’s stupid outfit…

The Enterprise is the first manned vessel to enter their current sector, and they’re following up on some probe scans that have indicated that at some point in the past, a planet broke up into an asteroid field, and another planet may be doing the same. Also, apparently ‘sector’ means ‘star system.’ Meanwhile, because nothing interesting is happening on the bridge, Picard is going riding. Now, I understand why you’d get dressed up to, say, play out a Sherlock Holmes mystery. You might need pockets or props. Dressing up to go out riding on an isolated trail on a holographic horse seems like pushing it, unless part of the goal is to play dress-up. It’s also worth remembering that Pulaski had never seen a holodeck as sophisticated as the one aboard the Enterprise, and prior to the upgrade it only seemed capable of doing landscapes so either she’s an incredible homebody or the phenomenon of the captain wandering around the ship dressed in riding leathers and a floppy hat is pretty new. Oh well, at least they don’t have a room set aside for horseback riding on deck 24 or something.

Brief aside, since I paused the episode to do that ruminatino, I unpaused it on Troi’s line “so you like horses for the romance.” I’ll just let that line exist without further context.

No, actually that whole conversation is great without context. I may be a bad person. It’s not even noon.

Just before Picard can get the horse under him, so to speak, Riker calls him to the bridge for something interesting. Sadly, he takes the time to change. It turns out that there used to be a thriving ecosystem on one of the planets, and now it’s all mottled red and gross.

The conference everyone goes into is run by Riker, in order to better mentor Wesley into the fine young officer he’s going to be one day. It takes a starship to raise a child. Riker decides to put him in charge of the planetary mineral survey, which turns into an argument about how much responsibility they want to give him. It’s a good opportunity, since the ship doesn’t seem to be in any danger and the senior staff is there to offer advice.

"Damn it, Data. Clean your room, you filthy targ."

“Damn it, Data. Clean your room, you filthy targ.”

Meanwhile, Data is changing the sensors to scan for things outside of their normal range. This is kind of our first real hint that the sensors have a limited bandwidth, and that some forms of artificial transmission wouldn’t be within that normal range. Worf asks because he thinks that an alien species is wandering around blowing up planets. Hopefully, Wes won’t be the one to initiate First Contact. He’s having enough trouble picking his team. As a point, the long-range nature of the Enterprise missions justifies its exceptional crew size. Aboard Kirk’s ship, the ~430 crewmembers were mostly functional, although a few had side-specialties in fields like ‘all of history.’ But more often than not, if you wanted a scientist to study something – anything, that scientist was Spock. Now, Wesley has several vulcanologists, meteorologists, and geologists to choose from for each slot on his team, such that he can work himself up into a tizzy about whether to choose the best in the field or the ones he things will balk less at taking orders from an ensign. With the bigger ships, better automation, and less fleet focus on fighting the Klingons, the Enterprise can afford to carry people who might otherwise have wanted to stay on Earth with their families.

Data detects low-level radio frequency waves, too weak for the Universal Translator to pick up until he dedicates further ships resources to locking onto the signal directly, at which point it appears to be a single child’s HAM radio SETI project. She asks if anybody is out there, to which Data, the emotionless android, walking database of Starfleet rules and regulations, replies “yes.” Note that the question was not “I’ve detected an object moving in ways that don’t match up with known cosmic phenomena. It appears artificial. I am speaking now to that entity with the intention of establishing peaceful contact with an alien life form, please respond.” It’s just a request that might be aimed at the next town or continent over but somehow made it into space. Maybe that possibility factored into why Data felt safe in responding.

Six weeks later, the same geology problems have been detected on every planet in the sector, and Wes gets gently bullied into not scanning for dilithium because the indication that there might be some there is faint and low-probability and it would be a lot of work for his team to set up. Data has also found something which requires he disturb the captain at riding. He goes on to explain to Picard how he answered the transmission, took up correspondence with a young girl whose society is not aware of interstellar life, to which Picard’s response is “oops.” Data has not actually revealed where he’s from, but young Sarjenka has revealed that her planet is experiencing the same geological stresses that are plaguing the region. Data hopes that they’ll be able to reverse the geological damage, but while they deliberate, Data is required to stop communicating with her.

Wesley is looking for advice on how to order his team to do things they don’t want to do. He’s still got those hangups that we saw him tested for in “Coming of Age.” When the chips aren’t down and nobody’s life is on the line, or when he has to order someone else to do something, he doesn’t have the pattern of success that gives him the confidence to trust his own judgement over someone else. Riker gives the sage advice: What Would Picard do. I would put that on a bracelet and sell it if Paramount wouldn’t sue me into oblivion. And it turns out that all you have to do is tell, rather than ask, your crew to Do The Thing.

In discussions about what to do about Data’s little screwup, Pulaski calls Worf a coward and Riker says that they’re not gods and can’t see how their decisions will turn out. This is actually where we get some of the philosophy behind the Prime Directive. Of course, Riker is appealing to a cosmic plan that requires the people on the planet to die. Geordi rejects this utterly, as do Data and Pulaski. Picard isn’t making decisions just yet, but mediating the discussion. If it’s right to save the planet from a geological disaster, is it right to save them from an epidemic? In several years when I get to the Enterprise series and the episode “Dear Doctor” I’ll try to remember to come back to this one as a reference point. It’s also at this point that Pulaski has finished her transformation from heinous bigot, by making the argument that just because Data doesn’t want someone to die doesn’t mean the sentiment… the emotion, “don’t want them to die” is invalid. She’s actually sticking up for Data’s humanity and emotions. After being ordered, at the end of the conversation to sever contact, he doesn’t refuse, but he does let everyone hear the plea in the dark. He’s about to obey orders, which is important in the context of this episode. It’s all about authority – Wesley is learning to wield it by understanding that nobody argues with Picard when he makes a decision, while at the same time Data changes Picard’s mind after he made the decision, but not by arguing.

That said, it says something terrible about the human decision-making engine that Picard’s mind can be cahnged about important policy and precedent on literally the single most important (non-classified) rule in the Federation by listening to a single child asking for help. To invert a famous saying, a million deaths is a statistic, one death is a tragedy. Scale insensitivity is alive and kicking in the future.

When you're up to your parietal bone in piranhas, today is the first day of the rest of your life.

When you’re up to your parietal bone in piranhas, today is the first day of the rest of your life.

The fantastic news is that they figured out the cause of the instability and it’s all thanks to Wesley insisting they be thorough. The difficult test they wanted to do revealed that the planet is full of dilithium which is tearing the planet apart due to science. Wesley is now in charge of a team tasked with saving a civilization, while Data has located a safe spot on the planet’s surface in order to maneuver Picard into either ordering him to withhold the information, or permitting him to reveal it. Not content with this, when it turns out he can’t punch through the interference he requests permission to go down to the surface personally. Picard is not happy about this, but accedes. Yes, they are now going to provide tangible, visual evidence of extraplanetary life and technology. It’s easy to be a two-and-a-half-decades-later quarterback, but the decision Picard is making here is literally the first contact for the species. Even if Data doesn’t get seen by anyone in a position to affect high-level policy, there are ramifications. Decades later, when the scientists on the planet (who, remember, have at least enough understanding of science for children to build radios that reach interstellar space) discover what was causing their planet to shake itself apart, there’s a reasonable chance they’ll deduce that they would have all died if something didn’t save them. At that point, the best possible outcome is that they make contact with the Federation and have their culture respected and slowly absorbed into the cosmopolitical structure complexities of the larger galaxy.

Other options include them getting contacted by the Klingons or the Breen or something and becoming a slave planet, turning into a race of religious zealots and embarking on a stellar jihad that ends very badly for them, or killing themselves in civil wars over the name of the god that saved their planet. Some of these options are better than the planet tearing itself apart, and some are roughly equivalent, so the average is probably a net gain, but keep in mind that this is the decision Picard reversed just because a single child asked him to.

"Ohcrapohcrapohcrapohcrap HOW DO I CLOSE THIS THING?!"

“Ohcrapohcrapohcrapohcrap HOW DO I CLOSE THIS THING?!”

Data beams down (with Riker on the controls so that nothing will blow back on O’Brien if it ever comes to court martial) into a house on a volcano-strewn plain with more sophisticated doors than on the Enterprise. Sarjenka shows up and sees Data in person. In order to save her, Data has her beamed up to the ship.

This will go over well. Amusingly, Picard appears to be more upset about the fact that there’s a child on the bridge than that Data violated the Prime Directive even more so than he already has. The Enterprise gets ready to launch the probes that will save the planet, and it seems as though it’s worked pretty quickly and without any disastrous side effects or any kind of violent transition period.

Picard’s best idea so far is to erase her memory of being on the ship. Of course, since she’s been corresponding with Data for over a month, it shouldn’t be possible to totally remove her memories of Data as a whole. Unless they have the machine from “Dagger of the Mind” built into the medbay and can adjust it for the brain structure of a previously unknown species, they’re either going to have to leave her with a memory of talking with Data, or no memory of the last month and a half of her life. Either way is going to leave some sort of trace. Also the rock from the Enterprise that Data left with her. Well, still better than letting a planet burn and shatter. The balance between understanding the potential consequences of a thoughtless action and taking it anyway because it feels right is a very human thing for Data to have done.


3 thoughts on “TNG: S2E15: “Pen Pals”

  1. Pingback: Worlds in a Blender | TNG: S7E13: “Homeward”

  2. Pingback: Worlds in a Blender | TNG: S5E09: “A Matter of Time”

  3. Pingback: Worlds in a Blender | TNG: S3E16: “The Offspring”

Did we miss something awesome?