Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Who Watches The Watchers?

Review James Hunt 14 Mar 2014 - 07:12

Is Jean Luc Picard a God? The Mintakans think so in this week's Star Trek: TNG look-back...

This review contains spoilers.

3.4 Who Watches The Watchers?

Out in the deepest reaches of space, a group of Starfleet scientists is studying Mintakans, a proto-Vulcan species that has recently reached the Bronze Age. (In Star Trek lore, this means the next three ages are Roman Age, Gangster Age and Ruled By A Computer.) When a power cut threatens to cut off their holographic disguise, the scientists make a video call to the Enterprise just in time for the crew to watch all the scientists' stuff explode in their faces. Uh oh! Picard shifts the Enterprise up a gear, but things look grim.

When the Enterprise arrives, things look even grimmer. Some of the scientists are dead, others are injured, one is missing. But worse still, the holographic disguise is down! If any of the natives manage to see the lab, the prime directive would be violated in the most heinous way! Let's hope that doesn't happen, right?

Of course, it does. Not only that, one of the Mintakans – Liko - manages to electrocute himself too, because their society doesn't have any concept of live wires. Crusher, in true doctorly fashion, begins to treat him and beams him to the Enterprise. Unfortunately his daughter sees the whole thing. I'm sure that won't be too damaging, right?

After Doctor Crusher successfully out-logics Picard ("The damage was already done! I just ground the fragments into a fine dust!") they agree to try wiping his memory, Pulaski-style, before returning him to the planet. But it didn't work! That Pulaski has ruined things for the last time! Liko now has memories of Picard, and when he wakes up he dutifully sets about re-ordering society around the idea of a Picard-based afterlife.

Rather than face explaining to his superior officers that an entire society now worships him (and also because there's a scientist still missing) Picard sends Troi and Riker to the planet disguised as Mintakans. They also have magic communicators that only they can hear. After the pair make a big splash at the town meeting (subtle!) the town's leader, Nuria, argues with them about the concept of a Picard. Is he benevolent or petty? Why do bad things happen to good Mintakans? And is he a literal Picard or just the fictional central captain in a collection of morality tales?

Before we can discover this, another Mintakan drags the missing scientist into town. Having whipped themselves into a state of ritualistic bloodlust, the Mintakans decide to sacrifice the scientist. Riker and Troi attempt to intervene, but mostly just succeed in blowing their cover.

Tired of the incompetence of those around him, Picard beams Nuria onto the ship and attempts to level the situation with her. She's about as confused as you'd expect a woman from the bronze age would be if she found herself on a space ship, but eventually Picard convinces her that he's not a God, he just a regular dude with some really over-developed tools. She sort of understands, but then betrays her lack of understanding by asking if Picard would bring some Mintakans back to life for her.

Having run out of options, Picard brings Nuria to sickbay and makes her watch one of the scientists succumb to their injuries. She realises he's not a God, just a very advanced alien. Back on the planet the mob has turned on Troi when Nuria and Picard beam to the surface to intervene. Liko is so adamant in his beliefs that Picard has to invite Liko to shoot him with a bow and arrow to prove that he's mortal. Liko dutifully does just this and Picard is seriously injured.

Now everyone can see that Picard isn't immortal, and they all go home disappointed and wait for the day that their world becomes capable of space flight instead. Could take weeks. Months, even. It's safe to say that the Prime Directive has not been particularly upheld, but at least they did their best in limiting the damage. Another victory for the Enterprise.

TNG WTF: For the first time ever, there's no real WTF here.  Although the fact that these guys are "proto-Vulcan" is a little odd. Like, do they share a common ancestor with Vulcans (yeah, yeah, The Chase, I know) or is "Vulcan" just one of the few evolutionary paths a species can eventually go down? They even have proto-Vulcan haircuts!

TNG LOL: Maybe I just have a dark sense of humour, but I always find the initial video call hilarious. Partly it's the way the guy slumps over the console in front of him just before the call fades away, and partly the awkward silence that follows. Like everyone's thinking "Well, there go my plans for the weekend..."

Time Until Meeting: 13:01. No nonsense. Let's figure this mess out!

Captain's Log: Okay, see, THIS is what Star Trek should be about. Science, philosophy and morality all wrapped up in a single story. About the risks of going boldly into the universe, and the responsibility you have in doing so. If you wanted to give someone a single episode that encompassed Star Trek's entire ethos, you could do much worse than this one.

The plot is pretty compelling, as the crew work to find a solution that doesn't do even more damage, and Picard gets almost offended that he might have accidentally led them back into a dark age of superstition.  Troi and Riker's infiltration of the Mintakans gives us a good look at a developing society, and the Mintakans are all pretty well-developed as individuals. The scenes where Nuria is on the Enterprise are particularly poignant.

Obviously you wouldn't want every episode to be as morally didactic as this one, and it's a shame it comes just two episodes after a similar one about aliens interfering with a primitive culture. But this is good stuff any way you look at it.

Watch or Skip? WATCH. That's an order.

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

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Disqus - noscript

An interesting aspect is the humanist, anti-religious stance it takes ("Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? No!"). I wonder if it would be allowed today...

Seeing as beings of Qs power exist I don't see the problem. If you the techology/power to change the gravational constant of the the universe you the man. You have a spaceship ? I click my fingers and deny species existence mon capitan. So bit of worship probably wouldn't be misplaced and Picrad and Q are mates after all.

It's a fantastic episode and goes hand in hand with First Contact (the episode, not the film) well. It is in my top ten TNG stories :)

Oh, Picard and Q are hardly mates. In 'Tapestry' Q tricks Picard into believing he's in the afterlife, after which Picard exclaims 'You are NOT god!'. And after everything he's done, and how he annoys him, I doubt Picard would worship him. Which leaves the philosophical question of whether Q's count as 'gods', or whatever you would wish to define 'gods'.

They argue but they love it. Q goes to Picard in his hour of need and Picard saves him. Picard actually is grateful for the tapestry experience. But who is to say that wasn't the afterlife ? Picard telling Q is not god is a bit arrogant on Picards part really. Can Picard prove Q didn't create the universe? No ? Then it's a valid theory I would say. If you do get to meet Q in the afterlife that would be so cool.

TNG WTF: For the first time ever, there's no real WTF here...really? Picard with his artifical heart allowing himself to be shot and possibly killed just after a Federation scientist dies counts.

At least they did their best in limiting the damage....why did he beam Nuria onto the ship instead of beaming down to reduce another prime directive violation? Picard beaming down is a less of a violation than beaming Nuria onto an advanced spaceship with other aliens she hasn't already seen.

Pretty sure wiping aliens minds isn't in the prime directive either.

One prime directive violation followed by another, just digging themselves deeper.

What happened to the "Who's that face" section? I always liked that.

Uhm, a hypothesis isn't valid just because you can't disprove it...

And when Q lost his powers Picard aided him reluctantly, after having been badgered into Robin Hood re-enactments, war games, killing and reviving his crew and using all of them as his personal playthings, but I do think by the end of 'All Good Things...' there is a measure of respect between the two, also 'Tapestry'. Picard had every reason to be upset though, that Q kills him and makes him think he's dead when it's just another of Q's experiments and games.

Wait... so... Picard isn't actually a god?!?! Best start re-thinking my life then I guess...

Especially for this episode, since Nuria is played by none other than Kathryn Lee Scott - the original Maggie Evans of "Dark Shadows", geek royalty if ever there was.

Actually, I was referring to the conservative elements of the audience out there. It feels like people are more likely to complain about an "Atheist Agenda" in a "kid's show" now than in the 80s.

The Mintakans are sure quick to believe Oji when she says that Liko disappeared into thin air, despite Picard's claim that they abandoned their "belief in the supernatural" more than a thousand years ago. I find it more likely that they'd think Oji hit her head or is making up stories, rather than instantly believe that Liko was taken away by magic.

In the grand scheme of things, it's highly unlikely that there would be any lasting consequences for Mintakan society *as a whole* if Picard and company had simply retrieved the scientists and disassembled the duck blind in the first place, rather than make those unbelievably clumsy attempts to "fix" the problem.

Ah, it's not gone, I leave it out if there are no interesting guest stars but just forgot to put it back in this week!

Reminds me more of the Insurrection film with the federation observation going wrong, holographic disguises, violations of the Prime Directives etc...

Where should I start if I want to get into Star Trek? Should I start with the Original series or should I start with Next Generation?
I've seen some of the original movies and I have to say I was really intrigued. They looked really cool. Loved the way everything looked in those movies.

"Uhm, a hypothesis isn't valid just because you can't disprove it..."
Sigh what would Spock think ? That's pretty much exactly how it works if can't can disprove it ,it's valid. What science based on feelings and whether we like the idea of something or not ?
Q isn't god because Picard who in grand scheme of things has moved about in a tiny bit in one of the universeres for any incredibly short amount of time doesn't think so ?

well Picard is the better Captain, but OS has Spock. and Spock beats all hands down.

I would have to suggest going with Next Generation first. The production is just so much more technically advanced, although the special effects in the Original Series has been updated recently on the DVDs. But besides that, the original still comes off as very much a product of the 1960s. Not that that is such a bad thing, but it's a whole lot more a "Western In Space" which is how Gene Roddenberry sold the show's concept to NBC all those years ago.

I'd also suggest starting TNG with the Third Season, watching through to Season 7, then going back and watching how it all began with the first two seasons. Though there are some great episodes in those first two seasons, the show was definitely struggling to find it's voice in those years.
I would say after TNG to then go back and watch the original series.

Deep Space Nine seems to be a bit of a "Love It/It Doesn't Go Anywhere" situation.(You thought I was going to say a "Love It or Leave It" situation, didn't you?) I myself don't find any of the DS9 characters very compelling, certainly not on the levels of Picard, Data, Riker or Spock. Also, the design of the station makes no sense, but it is a Cardassian design, so Starfleet can be forgiven for that.

After that, Voyager and Enterprise are sort of, kind of, somewhat rather, uh... weak. Still some great episodes in both shows, but they're far and few between.

It also has Ray Wise in it (Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks).

One of my most favorite episodes of TNG. As said in the article, this story is what Star Trek is really all about.

No, that's not how burden of proof works and Spock would know that. He understands logic. You can't disprove that Picard is god, so therefore it is likely? Nope. Because it doesn't work that way. Just because Picard hasn't been everywgere doesn't mean he can't rule Q out for being a deity, given the definition of a deity and his past experiences with this omnipotent extraterrestrial, which he did not love to suffer through.

Bhammer100: watch everything! every series, season and movie that's ever been made.

This episode was a breath of fresh air back in the day, purely because of the extensive location footage, which was so rare for TNG at the time. And another great Ron Jones score.

no if it has evidence it's valid. if it's plausible it's valid. not simply making up sentiments that suit your personal beliefs.

Right so in the episode the initial evidence supports Picard as god theory. Seeming resurrection and afterlife. Picard presents further evidence and exposes his mortality the theory is disproven. Q has the suggestions of enough power that he could be god and that is never disproven, logically he could be god, Picard can't rule it out and it's really just a bit if arrogance that makes him say it, it's that arrogance that ultimately leads him to end up with a laser pointer for an ear. It's all about the evidence.

Q having done nothing to prove that he is God. He's a trickster if anything, and Picard has come across entities similar to Q that could make the same claim. If the courts worked like this, people would be guilty until proven innocent. It's no different here. The arrogance would be Picard claiming to what a God would be like (if there is one) and agreeing with Q. The arrogance is pretending one is a god. There's nothing unreasonable about wanting proof.

Q having done nothing to prove that he is God. He's a trickster if anything, and Picard has come across entities similar to Q that could make the same claim. If the courts worked like this, people would be guilty until proven innocent. It's no different here. The arrogance would be Picard claiming to know what a God would be like (if there is one) and agreeing with Q. The arrogance is pretending one is a god. There's nothing unreasonable about wanting proof. He just alters reality, doesn't create it.

Picard, no...Stewart, maybe...

Well he can make women's clothes fall off and he sees everything.

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