Revisiting Star Trek TNG: The Battle
James continues his weekly reappraisal of Star Trek: TNG's first season, and comes to the best episode so far...
This review contains spoilers.
1.9 The Battle
Everyone hold up! It's the return of the Ferengi! And after their disastrous introduction as crazed troll-men a few episodes ago, they've calmed down substantially. The episode begins with the Enterprise meeting a Ferengi vessel while Picard suffers a not at all suspicious headache (much to the surprise of Doctor Crusher, who claims that she rarely encounters them. As Star Trek's predictions about the future go, "no headaches" is a pretty weird position to take.)
The Ferengi, led by Daimon Bok, have requested Captain Picard personally. This is because they've got his old ride - the clapped-out (but still just about functional) USS Stargazer – and they want to give it back as a "gift", in a manner not at all similar to the Trojans. Picard had abandoned the recently-derelict Stargazer after the so-called "Battle of Maxia" years ago, where at a time when the species was unknown to the Federation, Picard fought (and destroyed) a Ferengi vessel.
Picard explains the events of the battle, including his invention of the Picard Manoeuvre, in which a starship uses short range warp-speed to "overtake" its own sensor image and appear to be in two places at once. An away team heads to the Stargazer, performs the twenty-fourth century version of a hotwire, and begins retrieving Picard's stuff from his old quarters. Meanwhile, as Picard's headaches worsen, Bok goes and plays with a giant glowing sphere identical to one that the crew have missed noticing amongst Picard's old stuff. At this point, the audience is left to groan their way through the episode as we wait to see how long it'll be before the crew discover what we already know.
More interestingly, the crew discover an old captain's log on board the Stargazer which indicates that Picard destroyed the Ferengi vessel on purpose. Clearly, it's nonsense (not least because the story hasn't given us any reason to doubt Picard's version of events) but the proper administrative channels must be respected and the incident properly reported. Riker returns to his quarters to fill out some forms in triplicate (presumably).
Bored with the lack of progress anyone is making, Riker phones up Kazago and tries to chat with him, "First officer to first officer", which is apparently a thing. He attempts to convince Kazago that Bok is being highly irrational (although recent episodes show that highly irrational behaviour from your captain is no barrier to following orders on the Enterprise…)
As Picard starts having flashbacks and succumbs to Bok's control, Data discovers the log is a forgery. No one cares because that plot thread only turned up about six minutes before. Picard makes a succession of crazy orders which the crew once again follow. In sickbay, Wesley points out that Picard's headaches are directly related to some weird transmissions from the Ferengi ship. For a change, no-one tells him to shut up. But they're too late! Picard has beamed onto the Stargazer!
Bok meets him there, then explains that the commander of the Ferengi vessel Picard destroyed was his son. He uses his spheres (which have the obvious placeholder name "Thought Makers") to force him to re-live the Battle of Maxia. Luckily the crew find the second sphere on board the Enterprise and ask Kazago to explain it, and he obliges. Picard is now in full crazy-mode (for the third time this series…) and moves to attack the Enterprise, but they figure out a defence to the previously-deadly Picard Manoeuvre, disable the ship, and convince him into destroy the brainwashing sphere. Bok is relieved of command, and no-one dies. Hooray!
TNG WTF: After his recent promotion, Wesley finally gets his own acting ensign uniform - and it's quite possibly the ugliest piece of clothing that ever appears in TNG. I get the symbolism of representing the three Starfleet disciplines, but what part of that required it to look like it was designed using a set of crayons?
Mistakes & Minutiae: For reasons related to the Stargazer being an older ship than the Enterprise, it exhibits the warp-speed effect from the TOS movie-era ships, which is very cute piece of detail. Of course, it also means that the Picard Manoeuvre is completely invalidated, because you literally see the ship move from point A to B before the original disappears. Ah well.
Time Until Meeting: 13:37. Picard relates the story of the Battle of Maxia to his senior officers. At one point he illustrates the Picard Manoeuvre using a pen. Which begs the question: in a world full of touch-screens and tablets, where the hell did he get a pen from?
Captain's Log: Despite the typical season one teething problems (senior crew confounded by simple phenomena, meandering plot structure, Wesley saving the day AGAIN) this is actually one of the series' better episodes. The conflict between Picard and Bok is strong and well-realised, the character work is good, and I personally enjoyed learning a bit about Picard's past (and getting a look at a Federation starship other than the Enterprise.)
Admittedly, it's not that impressive in the overall canon of Star Trek episodes, but it's the best we've seen from TNG so far, and the first indication that you can base an episode on a character-based dilemma instead of weird sci-fi concepts and tenuous moral quandaries and still have it feel like Star Trek.
Watch or Skip? Watch!
Read James' review of the previous episode, Justice, here.
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