TNG: S5E16: “Ethics”

In which Worf is bad at dodging, standing, and parenting. Happy Father’s Day, everyone!

Remember kids - if something heavy falls on you, always take the blow with your spine!

Remember kids – if something heavy falls on you, always take the blow with your spine!

There is not enough tequila in the world for this episode. Let’s just get started. Worf and Geordi are in the cargo bay discussing Worf’s last ignominious defeat by Troi at the last poker game. And apparently Geordi can see the cards. As it’s a friendly game and they’re all Starfleet, he probably only looks at other people’s cards after the hand is over, but that’s still a major advantage. Geordi’s questionable poker ethics aside (heyo, title drop!) the real issue here is that one of the cargo pods is leaking, deforms, and drops a 55-gallon drum of whatever right on his back. It does this because rather than jump backwards, he turtled.

He wakes up in sick bay and can’t move. He assumes it’s because of a restraining field, but in fact it’s because seven of his vertibrae have been pulverized – an irreperable injury even in the 24th century. This was the episode that Michael Dorn left the show and the franchise forever, setting off a chain of cause and effect that ended with the absorption of the Federation into the Dominion in one timeline, the assimilation of Earth in the early 2060s in a second timeline, and the total existence failure of the entire universe in a third. Damn it Worf, can’t you do anything right?

Fortunately, the Enterprise wasn’t doing anything so urgent that they couldn’t divert to bring a specialist, Dr. Russel, and devote 46 minutes of airtime to this. Interestingly, Crusher has written a paper on cybernetic prosthesis, which poses a bit of a problem for my headcanon. Given the level of technology everywhere else in the Federation compared to their relative lack of medical technology and ban on several lines of research (from the lack of research into age-reversing therapies to the general lack of VISORS in use by everyone) I have always more-or-less assumed that human augmentation was a taboo area left over from the horrors of the Eugenics wars and subtly reinforced every time someone makes a horrible mistake in a genetic manipulation lab. With the recent discovery of the Borg one would assume that the taboos against human-machine augmentation would be reinforced, but not so strongly, apparently, that Beverly can’t write a paper about it and get it distributed.

Still, they’re better off than the state of Klingon medicine. The Klingons generally let crippled patients die in such cases, ‘cuz Klingons. And speaking of Klingon culture, Worf has called Riker in for a favor. As one of the two other people on the ship closely familiar with Klingon culture, Worf has asked Riker to assist his traditional, ritual suicide. The ceremony exists, according to Worf, to prevent a warrior from becoming a burden to their friends and family. As with most things that wind up being called tradition, it’s not really applicable in a society with replicators and anti-gravity. Worf could have the most amazing hoverchair ever. 

This is your infrequent reminder that free-floating holographic displays exist outside the Holodeck.

This is your infrequent reminder that free-floating holographic displays exist outside the Holodeck.

While Worf tries to convince Riker that death is the only answer, Crusher and Russel go over the medical facts of the case. Klingon biology is, according to Russel, ‘overdesigned,’ Given that they evolved on basically a death world and say hello by headbutting each other, I would hesitate to say that the extra hardiness doesn’t server a purpose. Of course, that begs the question of where they keep all those extra bones and organs, but I guess that’s why they tend to be physically larger than humanoids that aren’t Jonathan Frakes. Also, Russel introduces her speciality equipment – a replicator that prints organs and other body parts using the patient’s own DNA. Now, I don’t know about you, but I get a delightful frisson that, 23 years ago, this was barely-imaginable future technology. And that four years ago, this happened:

Watch it. Let me be clear – four years ago, it was presented that 3d-printing organs was already a tested and successful procedure. The Star Trek vision of the future is, in this case, a pessimistic one.

That said, nerves are difficult. They need to cut out the existing spine and then implant the new one, and Crusher doesn’t like the ~30% odds from the simulator, and denies the procedure. Then she gets called away to get a triage center set up for a resuce mission the Enterprise suddenly gets called into, leaving Sick Bay unattended and Russel with nobody to slap her hand away when she starts the surgery.

Picard and Riker yell for a bit about Worf’s traditions. Well, Riker yells about how he doesn’t want to kill his friend and Picard calmly argues that Worf is an adult with freedom of choice. It seems that in the Federation, there may in fact be a right-to-die in their philosophy, but this is still a bridge too far for Riker.

"You promised there would be cupcakes. Where are my cupcakes?"

“You promised there would be cupcakes. Where are my cupcakes?”

Also, Alexander is a person who exists and ought to factor into Worf’s decision making. I kind of doubt that it does. Not that Worf is necessarily a bad father, but he’s definitely not a natural father. And Alexander doesn’t care about Worf’s ‘Klingon stuff’ and just wants to see his dad.

With the obviously-correct-but-risky surgery off the table, Crusher and Russel offer other alternatives – futuristic bracers. Rather than rely on his spinal column to carry neural impulses to his legs, they can use shocky-bracelets or implants that run off bluetooth to do it, and it offers him about 70% mobility. This is not good enough for Worf, and Russel seizes the moment to tell Worf about her procedure. Given that Worf would rather die that have implants, and there’s a 30% chance of success, it really seems like a no-brainer. I mean, by all means try to convince him to use a safer method first, but come on, Bev. You’ve met Worf, like, ever.

Worf lets Alex see him eventually, wearing the leg braces, and it seems to be going well until he suddenly collapses. For such a great warrior, he seems reluctant to put in the hard work to practice with the new tech. Meanwhile, in the emergency triage center, Russel has experimented with a new treatment and lost a patient, and Bevery is suuuuuuuper pissed. Russel sees Crusher as a hidebound enemy of progress, and Crusher sees Russel as Mengele and huts her down.

Picard now has to step up his advocacy for the patient’s rights by asking Beverly just how long she’s willing to keep him in a restraining field to keep him from killing himself. Picard is adept at talking sense into Beverly. Riker, meanwhile, tries to yell some sense into Worf by bringing up the courage of all of their fallen comrades who fought for life to their last breath. And he also finds a loophole that lets him refuse to take part in the ritual – it’s supposed to be done by a family member. Good luck convincing your six-year-old son to help you kill yourself, big guy.

There’s a fine line between bravery and cowardice. Every act of courage can be said to be borne of fear – if nothing else, than fear that not doing The Thing will have worse consequences than personal injury or death. Thus, Worf has decided he’s more afraid of looking his own son in the eyes and asking for help with a suicide ritual than he is of taking the chance on recovery, or of not living up to Klingon tradition. You know, I really thought I was going to hate this episode, but it is wonderfully multi-layered.



The time has come. Worf makes arrangements for Troi to take care of Alexander in case the procedure isn’t successful. By ‘arrangements’ I mean he asks her to be the kid’s godmother. And with that out of the way, it’s time to scoop out Worf’s spine with a room-sized laser. I still seriously question the red wool surgical suits… and the freehanded laser scalpel. Robots should really be doing that – you cansee Beverly’s hand shake as she cuts open his spine. They put it in a box and start scanning it to replicate new tissues in-place. Everyone is tense all over the ship, and the doctors carefully implant the biggest gummy worm you’ve ever seen into Worf’s back. There is, of course, a moment of panic when it looks like Worf is dead. In fact, longer than a moment. His brain is dead long enough for Alexander to come and view the body, and I’m really running out of ways to stretch this out before the ‘unnecessary Klingon redundancies’ restores Worf’s brain from backup. Or the tears of a forsaken child bring him back to life, depending on whether this is science fiction or anime.

Worf has also learned a valuable lesson about letting his son be a part of his life, but watch this last scene carefully. Alexander is still super useless.

One thought on “TNG: S5E16: “Ethics”

  1. Pingback: Worlds in a Blender | TNG: S6E06: “True Q”

Did we miss something awesome?