TNG: S3E04: “Who Watches the Watchers”

In which holography is pretty amazing, the Prime Directive is in danger, and who among us doesn’t worship The Picard?

I remember this one as being one of my all-time favorite episodes of Star Trek, in any franchise. I’m interested to see how I feel about it now, but I’m going to spoil it for you. This is the case study that goes in Starfleet Academy textbooks for ‘why the Prime Directive is important.’

The Enterprise is en route to Mintaka III to resupply and repair an observation outpost. The outpost needs a powerful reactor, over four gigawatts (which can power a small phaserbank, a subspace relay, or a hologram generator) to power their (drumroll please) hologram generator. This is in service of keeping their research and future technology hidden from the ‘proto-Vulcan humanoids at the bronze age level.’ Anyone remember where we’ve seem primitive instances of known advanced species before? I’ll give you a hint – Kirk got married. Oh, those wacky Preservers.

Well now they're just defacing a natural treasure.

Well now they’re just defacing a natural treasure.

Interestingly, the Mintakans do not seem to fall prey to the historical problems Vulcans had of being emotional and savage. Lucky them. Although one can suspect that the sudden appearance of a futuristic cave in let’s face it probably the Vasquez Rocks again will throw a bit of a wrench in the works. You’d think if they had a generator that could fail that catastrophically the least they could do is put up some potted plants when it starts getting unreliable. Sadly, the catastrophic failure of the power plant means that moving a couple of bushes after the fact is not in the cards, and one of the researchers goes tumbling out of the window and down the mountainside. How you say? Womp womp.

"What the fZZZOT AAAAAHHHH!"

“What the fZZZOT AAAAAHHHH!”

A short time later, a young woman and her father are taking solar measurements when she sees the power fluctuations coming from yup those are definitely the Vasquez Rocks. Those suckers are everywhere. The team from the Enterprise fixes the generator and heals the anthropologists just as the Mintakans make it to the duck blind, but not quite soon enough to prevent the dad from getting a good close look and then shocked by the ungrounded electricity running all over the window.

Okay, a couple of things. First, that’s terrible design. Second, I get that they were kind of busy, but why didn’t anyone have a life-form proximity detector up? I get that there’s not a whole lot of options in this particular scenario, but they might have stunned him before he started climbing so he wouldn’t fall twenty feet down a cliff face and wind up with ribs coming out of his neck. Crusher goes and saves the guy and beams him up while his daughter watches. As we go through this, then, a quote.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke

So now the hologram field goes up and the girl is left all alone. She climbs up to see the thing, and it is apparently solid. Now that’s cool and tells us a lot about the capabilities of holograms. This thing, in order to function as a duck blind, has to pass visible light from the outside to the inside (otherwise, you might as well have a remote and inaccessible cave which gets relays from hidden cameras and aerostatic drones). But if it passes some percentage of visible light from the outside in, then it would appear as a darker patch on the rocks. From far away, you might be able to get away with tinting it brighter so it reflects a greater quantity of what interacts with the hologram field, but from that close it would be detectable. So it must also emit light in carefully controlled quantities that match precisely to its surroundings. Also, the girl Oji doesn’t seem to be able to tell it from the surrounding rock, indicating not just an irregular force field to match the expected contours of the rock, but a textured irregular force field that also *feels* like rock. I wonder if the illusion is good enough to convey the fading residual warmth of a cliff face that’s recently gone under shadow. Either way, force field technology is baller when the Prime Directive is on the line. If they can do that I have to presume they can give force fields basically any characteristic they want.

Picard is Not Pleased that Crusher fixed up the Mintakan dad Liko, and asks why Crusher didn’t just let him die. To be clear, this is Picard asking. The Prime Directive is Important. In “Justice” he had the plausible excuse that the Edo people knew about aliens. This is Picard saying there is something more important than innocent life. But not, apparently, important enough to kill the dude themselves, beam him back down and remove all the evidence. This, to me, is a lack of conviction or evidence of moral cowardice, on the part of Picard, but I doubt I could make that decision in his place. Instead, they’ll try to remove his memory of the incident… and he woke up and is watching Picard give orders to the air and have the air respond with deference in Michael Dorn’s voice. The only logical conclusion is that Picard is a god, a conviction he seems to have retained despite the attempt at wiping his memory.

To be fair,if god doesn’t speak in the voice of Morgan Freeman, than it’s in the voice of Patrick Stewart.

Tragically to a Star Trek watching audience, Liko immediately correlates his experiences with ancient tales of animistic nature spirits, the superstitions of his ancestors. While it’s not wholely unreasonable, compare this to the feeling we get when Kirk meets Apollo in “Who Mourns for Adonais?” Kirk’s immediate reaction is that great power isn’t evidence of anything other than great power. That said, it’s even better to watch this episode after seeing the ‘petulant gods’ theme having been beaten to death in TOS. It’s a nice inversion of the trope so far.

The senior staff brief Picard on the location of the missing anthropologist and the difficulties of tracking him down. In order to find him, Riker and Troi are beaming down after having gotten temporary prosthesis to look like the locals while Troi lectures Riker on Mintakan custom. She’s apparently read up on all of the anthropological data of the researchers. She does her homework and there’s a reason she’s on the Enterprise. I have to confess I remembered her as being kind of a weak link on the crew, and I think in large part that’s because she doesn’t boast about technomagic, and therefore her contributions went way over my head as a child.

"Our ancestors once believed that locking eight people in a house and listening to them bicker was entertainment. Is that the kind of uncivilized ravbble you want us to return to, Liko?"

“Our ancestors once believed that locking eight people in a house and listening to them bicker was entertainment. But nobody has believed that for countless generations!”

Liko describes Picard as a mythological figure called The Overseer, but there are a few dissenters. It’s kind of glorious to see someone in a bronze-age culture ridiculing the idea of astrology and ghosts. If the Discovery Channel could get that memo, it might be worth getting cable again. Nuria has a level head on her shoulders and is not swayed by anecdotal evidence. Troi, though, could be a lot more tactful while pretending to be a visitor to a new village and ridiculing a local. Of course, then even Nuria is swayed when they find a real live alien, the missing anthropologist. Anecdotes are one thing, but this is proof. Riker has to give the bad news to Picard – that the Mintakans believe in him.

Riker is fighting a losing battle by just straight-up denyting the existence of The Picard. Troi’s plan is slightly better – sending all of the Mintakans out to hunt for another Servant of the Picard while Riker rescues the anthropologist. Sadly, Oji sees him before he can beam out and now Troi, as his companion, is suspect in helping the rogue servant of the Picard escape.

If you’re not already watching this episode, you should be just so you can see Patrick Stewart’s face every time someone says ‘The Picard.”

The lead anthropologist suggests that since the Prime Directive has already been breached, Picard has to act as a god and set a doctrine. Picard refuses, although the case is suggested that without solid doctrine they’ll devolve into holy wars. As Kirk before him, Picard seeks a better option. His best option is to bring Nuria aboard the Enterprise. After all…

Any Sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from SCIENCE!

Agatha Heterodyne

You really should have expected this, Jean-Luc.

You really should have expected this, Jean-Luc.

They prepare to beam Nuria aboard as soon as she’s alone, and Picard goes to meet her in the transporter room. The Picard diegns to beam her aboard personally, and greets her and introduces himself, with entirely predictable results. It’s a toss-up whether he’s trying to convince Nuria that he’s mortal or hitting on her. No, I take it back, he’s definitely hitting on her.

When he shows her a view of Mintaka III from the observation window, the planet is rotating relative to the ship. This opens a whole can of worms I don’t actually want to go into details about now, but suffice it to say I would have expected them to be holding a geostationary orbit that keeps them in range of the village, even if it meant using thrusters occasionally. If that were the case, I’d expect to see the stars moving relative to the planet and the ship, not the planet moving relative to the ship and the stars. But as much as I usually like those little details, that’s extremely secondary to the entire point of the scene as Picard tries to explain that the only difference between him and Nuria is the same as the difference between her and her cave-dwelling ancestors. A recruitment poster for SCIENCE!

Sadly, on the surface there’s an unseasonable lightning storm which the locals are interpreting as having unusual vehemence and that it must be a sign that The Picard is angry, even as The Picard is glorying in how quickly Nuria is picking up on science. Still, she thinks The Picard can heal all of the dead – his powers are still miraculous enough that she doesn’t have any way to conceptualize his limits. He has to bring her to sick bay to watch the third anthropologist die to really understand.

"Okay, how about this. I won't look, and if I shoot you, it's because The Picard wanted me to."

“Okay, how about this. I won’t look, and if I shoot you, it’s because The Picard wanted me to.”

On the surface, Liko is getting ready to sacrifice Troi using a really spiffy modern bow with some rawhide strapped around it to disguise the fact that it came from Dick’s Sporting Goods. Oh well, prop department. You tried.

Picard tries to give the same speech to Liko that he did to Nuria, but Liko, having been saved from death and having lost his wife last year, is a little crazed for miracles. He’s so crazed that he shoots Picard in the certain knowledge that The Picard is immortal.

That said, he misses the heart and who knows, even if he hit, the heart is artificial, so who knows. The blood, at least, proves that he’s mortal. As a wrap-up, Picard shows them the antrhopology station and they seem to understand the reason for the Prime Directive a lot faster than, say, Beverly Crusher or Leonard McCoy ever has. They’re pretty smart. The good news is, they might even be rational enough not to tell stories of these events and let the legend of The Picard die, rather than risk it mutating.

Yeah, this holds up. pretty good run of episodes so far, I can only hope it continues.

Did we miss something awesome?