Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Contagion

Review James Hunt 5 Jul 2013 - 07:15

James' weekly Star Trek: TNG look-back revisits Contagion, an episode you may as well skip...

This review contains spoilers.

2.11 Contagion

Responding to a call from one of Picard's old friends, Donald Varley (seriously, is there a single starship captain or Admiral that Picard ISN'T best friends with? Seems like the old boy network is still up and running in the future…) the Enterprise is forced to enter the Neutral Zone. After performing a masonic handshake, Picard and Varley discuss why they're there.

It turns out Varley has discovered that the legend of the Iconion race is actually based in fact. Unfortunately his ship – the Galaxy Class Yamato – is malfunctioning, meaning he's unable to complete his investigation. Or, for that matter, his conversation, because the ship explodes right in front of them, killing everyone on board.

Everyone is briefly traumatised, but then a Romulan ship arrives. After determining that they didn't destroy the Yamato, Picard insists to the Romulan captain that he be allowed to complete his investigation into the Yamato's destruction. She allows him to, then cloaks her ship, leading everyone to assume they've probably left (as you would, right?)

As the Enterprise slowly begins to manifest the same malfunctions as the Yamato, Picard traces Varley's findings back to a planet where there is evidence of the Iconians. The Enterprise heads there, hoping to prevent the Romulans from getting the extremely powerful Iconian technology. Or, to look at it another way, leading their cloaked ship directly to it (does paranoia not exist in the future?)

The Enterprise arrives at the planet and an ancient Iconian probe is released to scan them. La Forge realises that the probe will essentially deliver a computer virus that'll wreck the ship completely, but can't tell anyone because of communicator malfunctions. He sprints to the bridge, arriving just in time to order the probe's destruction. Tense stuff! It turns out that the reason for the Enterprise's malfunctions is that they downloaded the virus with the Yamato's logs, but the probe would've delivered a more direct, and therefore deadlier version. Sounds plausible (even though it isn't really).

La Forge sets about trying to purge the virus, while Picard insists on leading an away team himself because he's an archaeology nerd. Worf and Data go too. As soon as they're on the planet, the warbird decloaks (told you…). It and the Enterprise try to fight one another, but neither of their weapons are actually working and they meet an uneasy truce. Still, Riker keeps the shields up, even though this means he can't beam the away team back!

On the surface, Data tries to translate the controls of an Iconian computer the away team has found. He unintentionally triggers it, opening a portal that cycles between various locations. This is the technology Varley was willing to risk war for! Unfortunately, Data is infected with a similar version of the Iconian virus and Picard instructs Worf to take him back to the Enterprise using the magic Iconian doorway. Before he goes, Data instructs Picard how to set the auto-destruct for the Iconians - he has to play a game of Simon: Blue, Yellow, Yellow, Red, Blue, Blue, Blue, Blue.

Back on the ship, Riker and Worf rush Data to engineering where he appears to succumb to the virus. Then he wakes up again, missing his recent memories but purged of the virus by his own defensive systems. "Of course!" says Geordi. "We can purge the infected memory and restore our software from the protected archives!". So it turns out the way to defeat this aggressive, semi-intelligent computer virus is to select all its files and press delete. What the hell have they been trying for the last half hour?! Don't forget to empty the recycle bin after, you useless thundering idiots!

On the planet, Picard sets the auto-destruct and jumps through the portal, ending up on the Romulan ship, who are in the middle of a crisis caused by their own auto-destruct arming (they stole the Yamato logs, and thus have the same virus). Luckily O'Brien is there to transport him back to the Enterprise while he delivers a snappy rejoinder, mid-transport (however that works). Once he's back on the ship, Riker and Geordi tell the Romulans how to save themselves, then they quickly leave just in case the warbird explodes anyway.

As the episode ends, Picard tells Riker he realises why he insists on heading away teams himself – he's trying to hog all of the fun! Well, at least he's over the sudden, senseless death of his good friend Captain Whatshisname. The final shot is of the Enterprise flying away, as explosions on the surface of the planet indicate the complete destruction of the Iconian portal. Er, mission accomplished, I guess.

TNG WTF: At one point, besieged by malfunctioning medical equipment, Pulaski instructs one of her underlings to use a splint. Then she has to describe what a splint is, much to the horror of the man she's talking to. My question is this: even given the advancement of technology, would you not expect a Starfleet medical officer to have training in basic, equipment-free field medicine, which (one assumes) would include the application of splints? Who is this guy and why is he pretending to be a medic?!

TNG LOL: After Troi suggests Riker finds some busy work to keep the crew distracted while the ship's falling apart around them, he tells her to organise an evacuation. "But you might need me if you have to negotiate with the Romulan Captain again!" she suggests. Yeah, how will he cope without such crucial insights as "She's extremely anxious."?! "I'll manage." Says Riker. Understatement of the year.

Also, there's a conversation where Picard is telling Wesley about how the Iconians could "travel great distances without a starship" and "appear from thin air", prompting Wesley to remark that it sounds like magic. Personally I'd say it sounds like THE TRANSPORTER, WHICH YOU FREQEUNTLY USE INSTEAD OF ALMOST ANY VEHICLE. He's clearly easily impressed.

Mistakes and Minutiae: I was surprised to see that this episode was co-written by the late Steve Gerber, star of 70s comics and creator of Howard the Duck. Nothing about it feels particularly Gerber-esque, based on what I know of his comics work, but presumably there wasn't a lot of room for individual expression.

Time Until Meeting: 7:55. After the destruction of the Yamato, Picard demands that his staff learn the cause and present it to him in a meeting, 1 hour from now! Which they then do. Serious business. (There's also another at 20:47 so that Geordi can explain the probe.)

Captain's Log: As episodes go, it's not terrible, but it isn't exactly gripping TV. The mystery of the Iconians is the interesting part of the episode, but it doesn't get played up enough. The Romulans, having announced themselves with sufficiently threatening intent at the end of the last series, turn up and prove themselves to be pretty ineffectual.

Similarly, the malfunctioning Enterprise gets old very, very quickly, mainly because it's represented by lights dimming and undimming and doors failing to open. Although Geordi's trip in a broken turbolift is pretty funny, especially if you try to figure out what direction it must have arrived from to spit him out onto the bridge like that.

As Trek episodes go, it's pretty standard fare. There are some interesting character moments for Picard (it establishes his interest in both archaeology and tea, early grey, hot) but there's no underlying philosophical point, bar one scene where Wesley is disturbed about witnessing the death of everyone on the Yamato and wondering how everyone else is coping. Picard gives him the old speech about hoping you never get used to it, although his upbeat manner at the end of the episode suggests that Picard has done just that. That besides, it's mostly an episode about an unengaging mystery that gets solved by techno-nonsense. Yeah, one of those.

Watch or Skip? Skip it, unless you're desperate to see some Romulans.

Read James' look-back at the previous episode, The Dauphin, here.

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Ah, good ol' Lt Commander Word, I remember him well. I think he used to serve under Captain Proof Read.

A few lines of writing would have cleaned up some of the nitpicks. That, and perhaps an extra scene or two in which the Romulans become far more menacing than they were in the episode. Otherwise, I remember watching it in its initial showing, and it actually was compelling television compared to what was on at the time.

Ah, yes, I remember this episode well. Er, actually, I remember thinking that the Iconian art looked pretty cool and I was sad that our heroes failed to secure their way cooler tech! And that this was a genuinely stupid episode.

* Yes, the application of the advanced med tech known as the "splint," something I was trained in while a member of the US Special Operations Force known colloguially as the "Cub Scouts."

* Yes, the brilliant Riker Maneuver known as leave-shields-up-to-prevent-awayteam-retrieval, even though the enemy vessel is demonstrably dysfunctional.

* Yes, the pressing need for a Counselor on the bridge to inform of obvious psychological insights. Which could be dispensed with series-long by the brief presence of Han Solo: "It's a good thing we have the professor here to tell us these things!"

* Yes, the sad loss of the magical Iconian transporter technology. Which thankfully was rediscovered in the JJverse Star Trek reboot by Scotty with the wonders of "transwarp transport."

Okay then, we're all good!

The Broken Turbolift should be a ride at a Star Trek theme park.

"Contagion" is one of my favorites from season 2, even despite the splint scene, and the horrible "Do we have any rocks we can throw at them?" line...

It's got some sci-fi goodness, a nice tale about malware (a fairly new concept at the time), instant transporting technology, linguistic and cultural etymology, and Romulans - there are worse episodes with the Romulans shoved in...

I do agree the Romulans could have been a bit more solid, but Carolyn Seymour was a coup...

I feel you're a bit harsh about this one. Can't disagree with many of the points you make, but overall I think this is a pretty enjoyable episode - it's always been one of my favourites from early TNG. I love reading these TNG retrospectives but in truth, if you break down the finer details of almost any sci-fi plot without giving it the benefit of the "if they had longer maybe they'd explain it better" doubt, you can make it sound stupid.

"If it should become necessary to fight, do we have any rocks we can throw at them" is up there with the best TNG lines!

This was the first episode of TNG that really got my attention. I loved it at the time but can see your problems with it. The Romulans have always been my favourite ST opponents ever since I first saw "Balance of Terror" back in the 80's.

The Iconian Civilisation gripped my imagination and has never let go. I loved it when DS9 repeated the storyline a decade later, I even wrote a slash spin-off set in the Gamma Quadrant riffing off those two stories amongst others.

I think this episode must have also spurred my latent interest in archeology. Oh & I think I started drinking Earl Grey at that time. What can I say, Picard was my childhood hero!

As always the writing in these reviews is excellent, if the review itself is a little harsh. I echo some of the sentiments mentioned in the earlier posts, that being that we have to take into account the decade these episodes were written in and the level of sophistication of the writers and the audience. This is another episode that I remember enjoying in eighties, even though when viewed now in 2013 some elements of it are a little silly.

However, when I'm watching something like, 'The Man of Steel' (which I enjoyed parts of, despite the grand canyon sized plot holes) and I see the status quo restored 5 minutes after Metropolis is essentially flattened to the ground, I can't get upset about Picard getting over the death of a colleague who he hasn't seen in years in the space of a 45 minute episode.

That said, if James Hunt manages to keep these reviews up for the entire run of TNG then I believe he will have produced the THE definitive critique on a ground breaking series.

Keep it up.

IMHO this episode hasn't aged well. I know the public didn't know about viruses, trojans and malware when this episode was aired. But today I always think: These are Starfleets best and brightest, serving on the federation flagship, and to reboot their computer with uninfected backup files is presented not like a standard procedure, but as an entirely new concept. But hey, the episode had a romulan warbird, an exploding galaxy-class-ship and the iconian gateways which got their own book-series and they reappeared many years later in DS9's "To the Death".

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