This review contains spoilers.
4.15 First Contact
We open in the hospital on the planet Malcor III, as several alien medical staff rush an incoming patient in for treatment, only to discover that his organs aren’t in the right place, and that he has fingers, and also that it’s Commander Riker. Only they don’t know that because he’s been surgically altered to look like an alien.
When he awakes, Riker dutifully dispenses his cover story about how his abnormalities are a genetic condition, but the staff of the hospital are immediately suspicious that he might be an alien attracted by their world’s increasing forays into spaceflight.
Elsewhere, the Malcorian Chancellor Durken, his minister for security (Krola) and his chief scientist (Yale) discuss this very topic, with Durken arguing that spaceflight goes against their species’ cultural nature, and Yale pushing hard to test her new warp drive. Durken ultimately agrees with Yale, breaking a long tradition of every new culture the Enterprise encounters having an evil and regressive person in charge of it. After the meeting, Picard and Troi appear to Yale in her office and announce that the time has come for her people to join the wider galaxy, then transport her to the Enterprise for coffee.
In Ten-Forward, Yale explains how she always dreamed of spaceflight while Picard and Troi tell her about the Federation’s attempt to contact their culture, and how their chief beard has gone missing on the surface. Yale agrees to help find Riker, and insists that they don’t tell Durkan and Krola about this.
Back in the hospital, rumours are spreading that Riker is not a Malcorian at all, and holes are appearing in his story. They find Riker’s phaser and he tries to explain that it’s a toy (with many diverse and exciting settings). The staff tell Riker he can’t hide forever.
Meanwhile, Durken is rubber-stamping documents when Yale arrives with Picard and gives him a formal introduction. Picard takes Durken back to the Enterprise, lets him gawp at Data (while ignoring Worf, the racist) then plies him with wine, and tries to explain that the Federation is a great place to live. Durken seems cautious but optimistic about the Federation’s friendship.
Unfortunately, back on the planet Riker is getting desperate. A nurse named Lanel tries to bargain for sexual favours to release him (what?!) and although Riker agrees, he still gets caught and beaten senseless by Malcorians, only saved by the intervention of the hospital’s adminstrator.
Back in the Chancellor’s office, Durken, Krola and Yale are discussing what to do about Picard’s offer as friendship. Krola is sure that it’ll destroy their culture to reveal the existence of aliens and that the Federation is probably a conquering force, while the others are cautious but keen. Then Krola reveals that they’ve captured an alien spy, at which point Yale reveals that she knew Riker was there (but presumably hasn’t had time to actually look for him like she promised), which angers Durken.
Durken confronts Picard, who holds his alien digits up like “yeah, you got us” and tells him that they were just trying to avoid an incident. Luckily Picard is talking to the most reasonable man in the universe, and Durken is actually reassured by their deceit, saying he’d probably have done the same. He agrees to hand Riker back – once they’ve spoken to him.
Back in the hospital, Krola decides to inject Riker with coma-reducing drugs so that he can interrogate him. He asks why a peaceful race would carry phasers, and doesn’t believe Riker that they’re for self-defence (and heating up rocks, and cutting through doors, and detonating aqueducts). Eager to prove that the aliens are a menace, he turns Riker’s phaser on himself and presses the trigger-button. Riker passes out again and the Malcorians discover Krola’s body moments before Crusher and Worf arrive to take Riker back to the Enterprise.
Picard and Durken meet them on the Enterprise, where they also have Krola. Luckily he’d only got the phaser set on stun, and Crusher’s previously unmentioned energy-ballistics training means she can prove he was holding it when he fired. Realising that he was trying to make himself a martyr, Durken decides that his people probably aren’t ready to interact with other cultures and decides to reinvest his budget in a program of education instead of spaceflight. Picard is disappointed, but accepts his wishes. Meanwhile Yale asks to remain on board, which everyone agrees makes sense given the restrictions she’d face on the planet. Sounds fair. Let’s just hope she didn’t have any family or friends or colleagues or neighbours who might wonder where she went, I guess?
TNG WTF: Just when you think TNG has settled into a fairly comfortable zone of not being totally insane, they throw in a scene where Nurse Lanel (a member of the Malcorian medical staff) attempts to seduce Riker in exchange for helping him escape, with dialogue that literally could’ve been taken from a low budget pornographic parody of Star Trek. “I’ve always wanted to make love with an alien.” REALLY? Could he show you some more of this human thing they call hotdogging too?
TNG LOL: I like the medical administrator whose quite genuine reaction to finding an alien in his hospital is to essentially ask “Why now, why here, why in my hospital!?” like he can smell the amount of paperwork this is going to land on his desk.
I also love the scene where Troi and Picard appear to the woman in her office and Troi tell’s her not to be alarmed at their appearance. She means their very non-Malcorian faces, but I imagine she interpreted it as “our sudden appearance out of thin air”.
To Boldly Go: The Enterprise is scoping out the Malcorians in advance of their first warp flight. Which, for a change, seems quite like something a ship on the frontier of exploration might actually do. So naturally you would send your first officer, who’s a specialist in… you know, trombones and stuff.
Who’s That Face?: Nurse Lanel is Bebe Neuwirth, who played Frasier’s Wife/Ex in Cheers and Frasier. Apparently the part was written with her in mind. I’m not sure that excuses how utterly bizarre the tone of it is.
Time Until Meeting: 6:56. WOAH! Atypical! It’s a meeting between aliens which doesn’t include any of the regular cast members. Truly, they are an advanced culture.
Captain’s Log: Largely this isn’t a bad episode. There are a few plot holes in there, like why Riker seems to be the only person observing the Malcorians when Picard says they only use highly-trained specialists. And I’m not sure it’s ever explained what put Riker in the hospital in the first place (which doesn’t detract much from the plot, but it’s still a weird omission).
The thing that helps it stand out as a story is that it’s written from the perspective of the Malcorians, such that when Picard and Troi finally turn up you get a genuine sense of surprise, and while the Chancellor is talking to Picard you can understand how he might be suspicious of what he’s seen.
Of course, none of this excuses a scene where Riker is essentially forced into having sex with someone to win his freedom, despite being seriously injured and fearing for his safety. Only the fact that you don’t see even a hint of what actually happens (or even learn whether the plan is to hook up later on) beyond a suggestive look at Riker’s alien digits gives the scene any leeway for being taken in the comedic spirit they think applies. But frankly even Riker, whose Starfleet Academy dissertation was simply a list of all the administrative staff he’s had his way with, would probably have felt a little violated by that.
Still, it was over two decades ago. It’s safe to say they’d probably be a little more sensitive with that idea now. And if you discard that scene entirely (which, to be fair, is what the plot does) then the episode is a nice idea, decently executed, and something we haven’t really seen in Star Trek before.
Read James’ look-back at the previous episode, Clues, here.
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