Revisiting Star Trek TNG: The Neutral Zone

Review James Hunt 12 Apr 2013 - 08:01

James reaches the finale of TNG season 1, which sees the Enterprise go through a rainbow of alert levels dealing with the Romulans...

This review contains spoilers.

1.26 The Neutral Zone

At the start of the episode, the crew is waiting for Picard to return from a meeting (of course) at Starbase 718 when they stumble across an old ship form Earth. Riker, apparently uninterested in history, insists they "let nature take its course" but Data points out they've got nothing better to do and is allowed to beam on board with Worf. Although confused by the simple handle-operated doors, the pair discover a selection of cryogenics pods – some containing some well-preserved people! As Picard returns, they bring the pods back to the Enterprise.

Picard's first order is for the Enterprise to journey into the Neutral Zone! If you're confused, think of the Neutral Zone as a sort of space version of the Iron Curtain. And if you don't remember communism, the Iron Curtain was kind of like the M25, only for the USSR and Europe instead of London and the rest of the UK). Anyway, someone has been destroying outposts around the Neutral Zone, and they think it's probably the Romulans. Uh-oh!

Meanwhile, Crusher has thawed out the frozen humans, curing them of their previously fatal ailments. They're from the late twentieth century, or thereabouts. They are Sonny Clemonds, a substance-ravaged musician; Ralph Offenhouse, an evil eighties businessman (I think he has boneitis) and Claire Raymond, a woman who died of an embolism. Her occupation is listed as "homemaker" ("some form of construction worker?" ventures Data. Apparently in the future, looking after the family is not considered work.)

While the crew tries to figure out how to respond to the Romulans, if they meet, Offenhouse calls Picard and demands he get down there. Picard belittles his concerns, mocks his value system, and explains that he appears foolish in the eyes of others. Then Raymond spontaneously starts crying, so he asks Counsellor Troi to take over and runs off. Troi helps Raymond investigate her current living family, proving that episode of Who Do You Think You Are? will be much duller in the future, but the trade-off is that occasionally they find your frozen family members floating in deep space. Throughout all this, Clemonds is just stumbling around wondering where he can get a guitar and asking how to operate the TV, unaware that in the future, TV doesn't exist and that the only entertainment is the Holodeck, which might kill you, and watching miniature holographic women play the harp which we saw Riker doing once.

Back on the bridge, things are getting tense. They discover that outposts have definitely been destroyed, but in a strange way. Scooped off the planet! Ben and Jerry's Interstellar Empire is assumed to be the primary culprit. Picard, Worf and Riker argue over whether to go to Red Alert or not, before compromising on Yellow Alert. Because naturally, the correct colour of alert is the most important issue on the ship at the moment. Suddenly, a Romulan vessel decloaks! Picard refuses to shoot it, trying to avoid starting a war, and the gamble pays off. He moves the ship to Ochre Alert just as Offenhouse stumbles onto the bridge, having noticed that the situation had become tense. Riker orders him to be escorted away, but the security officers are distracted by the appearance of the Romulans (absolutely useless. Who hired these guys?)

Picard moves everyone decisively to Terracotta Alert as he and the Romulans circle one another's arguments, searching for weakness. It turns out they've also found some of their outposts destroyed, and having ascertained that it wasn't the Federation, they're willing to share information in the future. Picard is just about to step down to Tangelo alert when the Romulans casually mention that they plan to be a lot more active within the affairs of the Federation, having been absent too long. A cautious Picard declares Tenné Alert, reassuring the bridge crew with his fast action.

Finally, the Romulans leave. No-one knows what happened to the missing outposts but we'll probably (definitely) find out what happened next season. The Enterprise arranges passage for the three defrostees, and Riker says that it's a shame that they can't keep that around because it was like having a visit from the past. Primarily because that's exactly what's happening. Picard declares that the past is no good, and that humanity must move forwards, not backwards, upwards, not forwards, and always twirling, twirling towards victory, before announcing a state of Jonquil Alert, much to the bemusement of the crew. END SEASON ONE!

TNG WTF: Aside from the problem of how easy it is for anyone to just stroll onto the bridge (If you believe Picard, it's because in the twenty-fourth century, humans don't need security. They have SELF RESTRAINT.) the most baffling thing about this episode is everyone's apparent disinterest in the virtual miracle of several three-hundred-year-old individuals who have come back to life.

Admittedly, there's a difficult situation developing that demands more attention, but considering that the Enterprise is a science and exploration vessel, everyone except Data seems very reluctant to have anything to do with the defrostees. Riker doesn't want Data to bring them back. Crusher defrosts them because, in her own words, she's got nothing better to do. And Picard even goes so far as to complain that they were disturbed at all. "They were already dead!" he says, as if that's anything more than a technicality. In fact, Picard is particularly frosty in this episode. If they ever need to re-freeze themselves, they can just use his attitude to get the process started.

TNG LOL: It's hard not to be amused by Claire waking up after three hundred years, seeing Worf, then fainting again, but we know that was supposed to be funny because they play the whimsical variation of the TNG theme when it happens.

Something not intended to be funny is Riker's assessment of the Romulan's espionage capabilities. "The information [the Romulans] have about us is out of date." Says Data. "The positive side of that," says Riker, "is that they information they have about us is also out of date." Er, wait, what? That's not how knowledge works! As assessments go, this is roughly as sophisticated as burying your head in the sand to hide from an enemy. Someone needs to explain to Riker that information can potentially travel one-way.

Time Until Meeting: This is a GREAT episode for meetings. First there's one at 6:52, and while they're in that one, they organise another! That then occurs at 20:57. Twice the meeting = twice the TNG.

Captain's Log: Maybe I'm just feeling generous because it's the final episode, but I really liked this one. Sure, it labours its criticism of today's materialist, selfish, backwards society. Sure, it has Riker and Picard acting like the pursuit of knowledge is a distraction from the day-to-day business of improving yourself. And sure, the episode builds up to a big appearance by the Romulans and then wimps out of actually doing anything with them. However... wait, where was I going with this again?

I dunno. Something about this one seems charming. Picard's in a bad mood, Riker's in a bad mood, Data can't figure out why everyone's annoyed at his perfectly reasonable actions and the three people they defrost don't have context for anything and completely shatter everyone's comfortable twenty-fourth century boundaries. I quite like an episode where people are flexing a different character trait for a change. Even Troi manages to give Picard some actually helpful advice!

As legend has it this episode was supposed to be part of a two-parter that introduced the Borg, but a writers' strike and budget issues meant they were unable to do that. Obviously it feels nothing like a season finale. But it ends on a relatively optimistic note from Picard: "There's still much to do. Still so much to learn." If that doesn't describe the why Star Trek exists in a nutshell, what does?

Watch or Skip? At least we can end the season on a high. A definite watch!

INTERMISSION

And with that, we conclude our re-appraisal of TNG: season one. In the words of Captain James T. Kirk: it was… fun. There have been some highs, considerably more lows, and a lot of middle. And I'm not sure I'll ever get over watching Code of Honor. But still, more episodes were worth watching than skipping, and even on a bad day it's fun to spend time with these characters.

From now on things are going to be a little different. The original plan was to reappraise the Blu-Ray remastering of TNG season one and stop, but since we're all having fun I'm going to keep going as long as I've got the time and energy. However, the Blu-Rays are coming out faster than I can watch them and I'm struggling to deal with the prospect of twenty-plus episode of Dr. Pulaski. So from now on I'll be jumping around a bit. Still only reviewing remastered episodes, but no longer in order.

That said, I've currently got nowhere to go except season two, but season 3 is out at the end of this month so it'll open up then. With that in mind, feel free to suggest which episode I look at next. Anything from TNG season two, for now. Even Shades of Gray, you absolute lunatics. Oh, and if you've been at all amused this series of articles, please take a moment to look at A Brief History of Time Travel, the sci-fi audio sitcom I'm co-writing which is due out in August.

Right, that's the admin out of the way. See you back here next Friday for… well, whichever TNG season two episode gets the most requests, I suppose! Don’t be too cruel.

Read James' lookback at the previous episode, Conspiracy, here.

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