TNG: S6E14: “Face of the Enemy”

In which some days you’re just not yourself, cloaking devices are fun, and I should have made more Nicholas Cage jokes. 

I had visions, I was in 'em, I was looking into a mirror To see a little bit clearer The rottenness and evil in me

I had visions, I was in ’em, I was looking into a mirror
To see a little bit clearer
The rottenness and evil in me

The episode opens on the Romulan Imperial Crest. A shadowy figure with Troi’s voice wakes up and demands the lights, but apparently Romulan overhead lights aren’t voice operated. This surprises me. Derisive remarks about soft human concerns for convenience aside, is this just a technology that the Romulans never researched, or do they have voice-activation but refuse to use it for anything so trivial as lights?

Oh, also Troi had no idea she’s a Romulan now. One can but wonder what the plan could possibly be if your agent is taken completely by surprise. Unless it’s to barge in on her in the next ten seconds, reveal her as a spy, and get concessions from the Federation.

In fact, in the next ten seconds, a Romulan barges in but he seems to be her co-conspirator. Is that the right word? Anyway, he explains the situation, that she’s aboard the Warbird Khazara. Also worth noting that her weird studded bondage sash looks different than his weird studded bondage sash. Rank insignia? He’s a Sub-Commander, N’Vek, and is responsible for abducting her from a neuropsychology conference. And she is Major Rakal of the Tal Shiar, the imperial intelligence service, and with a mandate that allows her to give orders to a ship commander without explaining them. Those orders are supposed to be to proceed to the Kaleb sector.

Point. The comms comes on and Commander Toreth gives an order, N’Vek responds and then without any kind of official channel-closing immediately says out loud that she’s a Starfleet officer disguised as a member of the Romulan Stasi. No wonder he was never chosen as a member of the Tal Shiar.

Pointless thought of the episode: Those holsters are huge. And they have spikes on.

Troi’s cover is that she’s new to the Tal Shiar, which is at least good cover for how ‘Rakal,’ the terrifying secret police agent, is speaking like a shrinking violet. At least until she realizes that the commander isn’t going to respond to niceness.

He's been around Romulans so long even the civilian clothes he replicated have a Romulan collar.

He’s been around Romulans so long even the civilian clothes he replicated have a Romulan collar.

Meanwhile, back on the Enterprise, they’re picking up someone who seems to have defected twenty years ago and then repoted. Ensign DeSeve is beamed aboard in his fully-shoulderpadded Romulan regalia and placed under arrest. He appears to be back because of something important enough to face treason charges. He’s delivering a message from Spock regarding cowboy diplomacy – and that message is that the Enterprise has to pick up some cargo front he Kaleb sector – a cargo vitally important to the future of Federation-Romulan relations.

DeSeve, in explaining to Picard why he went to Romulus in the first place, tells us of how the Romulans have a ‘strict clarify of moral purpose’ or somesuch. They have very strong ideas about right and wrong and don’t really waste much time dithering about it. They just know. Zealots, in other words. Basically, DeSeve defected from the Federation to join North Korea because they just know that Fearless Leader is always right. Then he grew up.

Aboard the Khazara, Troi gets to find out what’s in the three cargo containers – some Romulans in stasis. A high-ranking member of the Senate getting ready to defect. He got on the government’s bad side by saying something like ‘maybe we shouldn’t imprison and kill everyone who disagrees with us’ and is now in danger of being imprisoned and killed, as is utterly predictable. N’Vek is therefore part of Spock’s underground movement and trying to set up an underground (or, I guess, sub-space) railroad. The real Major Rakal of the Tal Shiar was killed so that Troi could take her place. They needed a Starfleet officer in case the plan goes wrong, but of course he has no plans to explain what that contingency is.  Now we watch to see if the thing that gets Troi caught and Plan B engaged is something that would have happened with a real Romulan in the role.

"ay bby u wan sum fuk?"

“ay bby u wan sum fuk?”

Toreth is telling war stories that end with intelligence officers being executed for poor performance around the Officers Table. Troi nearly gets caught because she didn’t get a chance to study Romulan food. Strike One. She also gets the classic quiz on ‘did you train at X, did you know person Y’ but it seems at least that Toreth is not throwing fictional names into the mix as a trap. Troi sidesteps the whole thing by being testy and belligerent.

Actually, I kind of love this scene. The Romulan military officer, whom we are supposed to dislike because she’s opposing our regular cast member, is saying things like ‘old men who complain about the government aren’t worth hunting down and executing,’ which is positively enlightened from what we’ve seen of Romulan culture so far. Troi, in order to not blow her cover, is forced to argue that a secret police is absolutely essential. Toreth probably would never have been an ally to Spock’s movement, but being willing to mouth off to a Tal Shiar agent is nothing to sneeze at. This is literally like inviting a Gestapo agent to dinner and asking them… well… the same exact questions, really. Toreth is speaking from a place of personal hostility – her father was dragged out of his house in the middle of the night and disappeared.

If each one of those lights is a full deck's worth of window, this ship is something like twice the height of the Enterprise.

If each one of those lights is a full deck’s worth of window, this ship is something like twice the height of the Enterprise.

The Khazara arrives at the rendezvous point and gets ready to transfer the cargo aboard. There was a line buried earlier that these are mercenary freighters, a fact which will suddenly become abundantly important when Troi senses the deception and N’Vek destroys the ship with all 18 hands. Toreth is really pissed about the loss of those lives, at least insofar as it gives her license to be pissed at the Tal Shiar.

The Enterprise arrives at the rendezvous point, obviously to find nobody there, and Picard demands an explanation from DeSeve. Questioning him gives Picard a lead to go on – at least a search radius. Troi is getting pissed at N’Vek for killing the merchants, and he’s panicked because his plan just fell apart. The second part of the plan is to take the warbird through the sensor net at the border to Federation space and to the nearest starbase. Where they’ll just show up and surrender? This is a terrible plan B.

Toreth points this out in excruciating detail, but Troi’s Imperiousness Shields are at full. Another thing to note is that Toreth, as a military commander close to the border, doesn’t simply accept the Romulan propaganda that the Federation is weak and stupid. Nor is she willing to start a war, even on the orders of the Tal Shiar. Before they can warp across the border, however, the Enterprise shows up in the area.

Sadly, now Troi’s cover story – that the freighter was run by a Federation spy – is fully accepted, and Toreth now believes the Federation is engaged in hostile espionage. The Enterprise, meanwhile, detects the weapons signature of Romulan disruptor fire and goes to full alert – an action which raises shields and thus broadcasting their battle-ready status.

The thing that I really love about the Cloaking dynamic is moments like this, when you can appreciate its use as a direct allegory to submarine combat. “Balance of Terror” did this essentially perfectly, but the cloak adds a level of deception and inference to ship combat that makes it so much more intellectual and dramatic than pew-pew-laser battles. It’s so much more satisfying.

When a Romulan ship is under cloak, it goes on automatic communications lockdown, so Troi can’t just call. She instead demands a way to compromise the cloak so the Khazara can be tracked. On pain of having N’Vek spaced. The way he comes up with is to misalign an engine component so it’s slightly out of phase with what the cloaking device can mask.

The Enterprise immediately picks this up, and DeSeve confirms that this could easily be a cloaked ship. Picard orders the Enterprise to follow the distortion. I’m struggling to think of an appropriate metaphor, but basically when Picard is on board the Enterprise and dealing with a cloaked ship, he often decides that there’s no reason to even attempt any pretense of not knowing where said ship is. Toreth is willing to entertain the possibility that the pursuit was coincidental, but is testing it with the old ‘fly on your nose’ gambit. She takes her ship on a near-collision course towards the Enterprise. If they’re being tracked, the Enterprise will react. Otherwise, they can go about their business.

What I love most about this is that everyone is stunned except Data (who can't be) and the helmswoman, who's just "ho hum, must be Thursday."

What I love most about this is that everyone is stunned except Data (who can’t be) and the helmswoman, who’s just “ho hum, must be Thursday.”

The Enterprise does indeed back off, and Troi has to put the kaibosh on the military option and tries to take command of the ship, via threats against the families of the command staff. It probably wouldn’t work if N’Vek wasn’t there to be her toady. However, he is, and she does, and communications are opened, at which point Picard and Riker are suddenly and unexpectedly made aware of the fact that Troi will not be bringing back stories about the neuropsychology conference afterparties.

With a dialogue open, she offers to beam over to the Enterprise – which gets them to lower their shields. After which she does actually open fire, doing no damage and beaming the Romulan defectors directly to the bridge. It isn’t quite as ridiculous as it seems at first, but it’s still pretty ridiculous. Sadly, the sabotage of the disruptors is easily detected, and now Toreth sees the shape of the plan and her loyal crew vaporizes N’Vek. Romulan Disruptors aren’t quite as horrible as the inside-out-boiling weapon that Fajo liked, or the successive-flesh-vaporization-lasers that those tribal fighters had, but they do give you time to suffer as you vaporize. Troi is now a prisoner and under quesioning, but on the other hand the Romulans also drop shields to cloak, and Troi is rescued as soon as the shields go down.

Problem is, it’s extremely clear that this is absolutely not a viable means of future transit. Hopefully the Romulan defectors have information that will allow an actually reliable network to be set up.

Did we miss something awesome?