In which Picard participates in a Passover play, duplicates all the miracles, and lets his people go.
We open with Data experiencing Dickens’ Christmas Carol, complete with holographic ghost. We come in on the scene where Scrooge refuses to accept the evidence of his eyes that Marley is there. Despite Picard’s compliments, Data prefers to do Method acting, which is odd because, y’know, he can’t. He’s attempting to go at it backwards – rather than using his own emotions to imitate fear, he’s attempting to imitate fear in order to create his own emotions.
Meanwhile, the Enterprise has received a distress call from a science station which is under attack by a planet in the grips of armageddon fever, who all believe that the world, Ventax II, is going to end tomorrow. This sounds like a job for the Interstellar Do-Gooder Bridage!
The people on the planet currently live in an agrarian society. In the past, they were full of superscience, but a thousand years ago they all went luddite and stayed that way until first contact with the Klingons 70 years ago. (Keep in mind that this would be prior to the peace treaty at Khitomer, back when the Klingons were still expansionist and aggressive. None of the Ventaxians are even interested in technology that has been made available to them. Until a few years ago, when someon started getting worried about Ardra – the Ventaxian Devil who is returning.
Picard has to negotiate the release of the rest of the science team, but apparently the planetary governor believes she’s coming back – there have been minor earthquates and visions of Ardra. A thousand years ago, Ardra had promised a thousand years of peace and prosperity, and now the time is up. Picard beams down with Data, Worf, and Troi to try to sort this mess out and then Ardra shows up, with a musical sting that sounds right out of TOS.
In fact, let’s think about this. This already seems like it’s right out of TOS, but possibly with a higher production value. It’s not exactly uncommon for energy beings to show up, turn out to be jerks, and then get told off by whoever is sitting in the captain’s chair. The question is, what makes this episode different from all other episodes? I get to ask that, even though Passover just ended, because it’s my website, so there.
Ardra has clearly taken a few pages out of Q’s book – she starts off as a very affiable evil, and honestly this episode is worth it just for her introduction scene, particularly when she starts playing dominatrix at Picard. And then claims to be the devil of dozens of different worlds, including Fek’Lar to the Klingons. In fact, she also claims to actually be The Devil from Earth, although she hasn’t shown up since the Enlightenment.
And to be fair to Ardra, she does order the release of the Federation hostages as soon as she learns of them. She seems a remarkably fair-minded Adversary figure, but Picard is having none of it.
The conference table scene starts out great. Riker’s first thought is that she’s another rogue Q. Crusher thinks she might even be Q, but Picard rates Q at least highly enough on the Trickster God scale not to bother with contracts or economic forecasts. It’s heartwarming to see that kind of professional respect. Also, none of the powers she’s demonstrated so far are out of the routine capabilities of a starship – transporters do the whole magical appearance thing, tractor beams can cause quakes if (im)properly modulated, holograms can make things take on different shapes. Once again, the opening scene has set the tone for the episode – we feel there is more gravy about her than grave. She has not yet, for instance, thrown the Enterprise several thousand light-years off-course.
Picard has Riker direct efforts to find her power source, only to find her moments later lounging in his chair. And if there is one thing you do not do on the Enterprise, it’s sit in Picard’s chair when he wants to sit in it. Then again, she does appear to be able to knock back Worf and, when transported off the bridge, reappear as a helmsman without even a flash of light to herald her arrival. She also claims to own the Enterprise now, because it happened to be near the planet at the wrong time.
Picard and Data start spitballing about what kind of con game Ardra is playing, puliing the Scrooge scene from the beginning back in. And Data is tasked with reviewing all Ventaxian jurisprudence for the last thousand years. I continue to feel bad for Starfleet captains that aren’t Picard and who can’t just order their LtCs to become Ventaxian legal experts overnight.
That night, Ardra shows up in Picard’s quarters wearing the sheerest thing you can show on network television. His comms and door are disabled, but sadly her target is a man who has been Q-bursted into a shuttlecraft billions of light-years from the Enterprise and once stepped out of a turbolift into empty space. Dude has a high standard for weird, is what I’m saying. Also, she offers to bone him while wearing Troi’s body. When he refuses, she zaps him down to the planet in his pajamas. What’s delightful is that this is embarrassing and inconvenient to Picard more than scary and unsettling.
I hope the reason he insisted on Data fetching him in the shuttle is so that they can discuss law, and not because he considers his ensigns and enlisted so useless they can’t even pilot shuttles. In fact, this is accurate. Some ancient Ventaxian case law regarding the Klingons determined that alien claimants are to be resolved using arbitration. As they pull in towards the ship, it vanishes. Back on the planet, Geordi finds a burst of Z-particles at about the right time, which means that if they can make her do more large-scale miracles, they can probably pinpoint her power source.
Picard demands arbitration, and when Ardra asks why should should possibly accede to his request, he offers a secret lost ruin. Her counteroffer is that if she wins, he has to willingly server her rather than just being her cabana boy and meat popsicle. Of course, the only acceptable arbitrator is Data, since he’s the only one who can be impartial. Data requests that he be rejected as a choice, but he’s the only one within a parsec or two who can be intimidated into a biased verdict by neither Picard nor Ardra.
THUS BEGINNETH THE DRIAL. History shows that Ventax II was overpopulated and overpolluted until Ardra came along. There’s some brief legal drama that establishes Ardra as the being a thousand years ago that delivered peace and prosperity. There is one moment that makes perfect sense until you think about it. Ardra makes some comments that are not quite kosher, and then withdraws them without a fuss. In trial by jury this is fine, because humans can’t actually disregard statements just because they’re ruled irrelevant. But Data can. If she withdraws an observation, he can literally weight that comment as irrelevant or simply delete it, so her comment must instead be intended to get Picard riled up.
Which it does.
Ardra then seeks to verify her bona fides conveniently using the very powers that Picard has said could be reproduced by a starship – making an earthquake, vanishing Picard, turning into Satan… you know, the usual. Picard cannot explain how those are accomplished.
Luckily, there’s a Federation science station nearby which now has coordinates on the location of Z-particles, which is in orbit above the “western magnetic pole.” I would love to point out how absurd that is, except that it’s easily feasible that Ventax II has a planetary rotation perpendicular to its orbit around the sun which makes it more convenient for Federation (human) personnel to think of it as an east-west axis rather than defining north-south by it. Which the graphic even supports. Well done, set design team.
Picard’s counterargument begins with asking how Ardra actually instantiated the peace by systematically narrowing the gaps that their god could live in. Did she magic up some peace? No. Did she advise the planetary council? No. Did she destroy all the weapons with a wave of her hand? Nope. Did she clean up all the polution? You get the idea. That said, the planetary governor still believes that without Ardra the planet would still be in ruins, and that he still believes that she fulfilled the terms of her contract. In comes Geordi with the good news, and Picard requests a recess.
Geordi has identified Ardra’s cloaked ship, how they extended the field to cover the Enterprise, and come up with a plan. A plan which is more complex and narratively satisfying than “have the Enterprise blow her ship out of space and take the crew prisoner” but not nearly as simple.
Back in court, Picard claims (to the planetary governor) that he has stolen Ardra’s powers and starts the quakes, and offers to allow Ardra to stop them. She can’t, of course, because she has no control over the Enterprise tractor beams. Then Picard vanishes her, then shows up as Fek’Lar, thus duplicating all of her feats. In fact, as it turns out, an Enterprise boarding party has taken control of Ardra’s ship, thus proving that Starfleet Security forces can be effective as long as they’re not on camera.
So Picard and the Enterprise have delivered the Ventaxians from their slavery and Ardra is escorted to… prison, I guess? I’m not actually sure what they’re going to do with her. Regardless, one more story for the ‘seriously consider whether your god is worth worshipping’ file, although
God-like Beings That Are Really Petulant Children With Too Much Power Count: 7, I guess. I like the spin that, unlike Trelaine or Apollo or any of the others, the methods of Ardra’s godhood are actually within the technology of the day. It’s a neat twist.