Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Contagion

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.

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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!

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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.

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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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