Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Justice
After a brief interlude, James' weekly Star Trek: TNG season one look-back returns with an episode that's best avoided...
This review contains spoilers.
If you grabbed someone off the street and said to them “Hey, remember how bad the early TNG episodes were?” they’d probably shout at you for touching them without invitation. But if they didn’t, there’s a good chance they’d instantly think of this one. The episode where Wesley Crusher receives the death sentence for accidentally trampling some flowers. And if you think that sounds stupid, wait until they start debating the ethics surrounding it later on…
Now, to be completely honest, there’s a good idea at the centre of this episode. Considered objectively, this is a story about the strength of the death penalty as a deterrent, and the balance between personal freedoms and enforcing the law. Unfortunately, this potentially rich vein of moral exploration gets squandered on a premise so stupidly reductive that it ceases to bear any logical relation to arguments for or against capital punishment.
At the very least, killing people who break the law does not, under any circumstances, lead to an idyllic and utopian peace. Even at its most basic level, history has shown that there are always things people care more about than their lives. And let’s face it, if you can’t trip over a greenhouse without being killed by the state, there’s a fair chance you’ll spend a lot of time cowering in your house rather than risk catching a severe case of lethal injection on the way to the newsagent because you accidentally loitered next to a “no loitering” sign while trying to read what it said.
As for the episode itself, it makes even less sense than its own arguments. The events that I will dub The Trial of Wesley are predicated on the idea that allowing Wesley to escape death will lead, inexorably, to the collapse of the Edo civilisation as they know it. It’s not really explained how. Presumably the thinking is that if one person gets away with a crime, anyone can, and instantly will attempt to do so – but Wesley isn’t really part of their society, and everyone in that society seems horrified at the idea that the law might be broken at all. So even as I struggle to make the logical connection between Wesley being killed to preserve the peace, none appears.
And that’s not even the dumbest thing about the episode. Because, this being Star Trek, the unwritten rules state that A) any Utopian society hides a dark secret and B) is probably being run by a computer. Admittedly, in this case it’s a giant space computer with a booming voice that is also part-ghost, but… well, no buts, that’s all we get. Why does it care about its “children”? We don’t know. Why do the Edo regard it with such fear? Again, no explanation.
Picard spends much of the episode debating whether or not to violate the Prime Directive in order to save Wesley’s life, while Beverly Crusher, cast in the role as “an irrational female being ruled by her emotions” spends the entire time pointing out the obvious: this debate is completely insane and Wesley should be rescued immediately. And having set up the violation of the Prime Directive as a Rather Big Deal, Picard eventually listens to Beverly and beams Wesley back to the ship… at which point the episode ends. Right at the point where the first interesting thing occurs.
TNG WTF: Okay, so… according to this episode’s premise, no-one knows where the enforcement zones (where breaking the law results in an instant death penalty) are located at any given time. But as soon as Wesley breaks the law, two dudes in grey jumpsuits (called “mediators”, even though they don’t so much “mediate” as “immediately execute people”) run out and grab him.
So what are we to assume? That dudes in grey jumpsuits stand around looking nonchalant and everyone pretends not to have noticed them patrolling what is obviously an enforcement zone? Or that they hide in the bushes until they spot someone breaking the law? This is the sort of thing that makes it clear no-one involved with the episode had a clue what they were doing or why.
TNG LOL:LIATOR: Rivan, perhaps they can’t run.WESLEY: Can’t run?! Sure, we can run, right commander?[TROI: I can’t, on account of this ridiculous outfit no-one but me ever has to wear.]*RIKER: That’s the custom here? running? Lead the way!THEY ALL RUN. TROI TROTS AWKWARDLY BEHIND.
*line cut from broadcast version.
Who’s That Face?: Rivan (Brenda Jean Bakke) is fairly prolific, and amongst other things, played Michelle (the Sharon Stone spoof character) in Hot Shots! Part Deux.
Time Until Meeting: Another meeting-free episode! Although to be fair, great swathes of time are devoted to characters sitting around discussing legal minutia. Still, it’s on an alien planet rather than in a meeting room, so I’ll let it pass.
Captain’s Log: At this point it feels like the production staff isn’t even trying. By now the cast were firing on all cylinders, acting the hell out of their roles – but the writing? Sheesh. And let’s not even say how awful the costume design in this episode is.
To be fair, the credited writer effectively disowned the episode following extensive rewrites, but someone, somewhere did a real hack job on this. Luckily, things start to improve from the next episode onwards, but based on the episodes that have aired so far, it’s hard to imagine the series being well-received at the time…
Watch or Skip? Skip-skip-skippety-skip. Just don’t skip into any flower beds by accident while you’re doing it.
Read James’ look-back at the previous episode, Lonely Among Us, here.
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