Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Pen Pals

James' Star Trek look-back comes to a philosophy and Wesley-heavy episode that's well worth a watch...

This review contains spoilers.

2.14 Pen Pals

The Enterprise enters the Selcundi Drema system, where they must attempt to crack the mystery of catastrophic geological upheavals afflicting its planets. While meeting to discuss the issue, the crew finally realises that Wesley seems to solve their problem every other week, so this time he’s put in charge of the investigative team. Smart move!

Crusher assembles his team, but worries about his authority. Riker and Troi assure him he’ll be fine. Meanwhile, Data has got his CB radio out and is scanning for RF signals. In a moment of staggeringly unlikely coincidence, he picks up a signal from a young girl asking “Is anybody out there?” – to which he immediately replies “Yes.”

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Eight weeks pass off screen. Yes, that’s right EIGHT WEEKS. Wesley’s team keeps questioning his judgement, causing him to cave in faster than the planets they’re investigating. Data realises that his friend, a girl named Sarjenka, is on one of the planets which is going to be destroyed – and furthermore, she’s from a pre-warp civilisation, so he’s basically shattered the prime directive, broken first-contact protocol and is probably due for a court martial any day now.

Picard doesn’t really mention any of this when Data comes clean, though. Instead he takes the most serious action he can: calling a meeting. Elsewhere, Wesley is asking Riker for advice commanding his team, and Riker tells him to stop crying and just do what Captain Picard would do. Wesley interprets this as a suggestion to shout orders slightly forcefully at his team, and luckily that does the trick even though he didn’t call a meeting to do so.

Wesley’s team discovers the cause of the seismic cataclysms (it’s because of Dilithium thingies) and even though they’d have to violate the Prime Directive to save the planet, Data’s defense of Sarjenka and her people convinces Picard agrees that the Prime Directive probably isn’t that important and he commits to helping the kid out. (Hey, it’s not like it’s THE Prime Directive, right? Oh, it is? Well, there’s some wiggle room in every law.)

Unable to get back in touch with Sarjenka, Data gives up any pretence of following protocol and beams down to the planet to get her somewhere safe. He does find her, but it’s too late to take her to a safe location, so instead he beams her back to the Enterprise, causing Picard to have an absolute screaming fit, although he eventually gets won over by her weird alien little girl cuteness. The Enterprise saves the planet, and then Sarjenka gets taken to sickbay where Pulaski wipes her memory. Because y’know, it’s that easy.

Data returns Sarjenka to the surface, then goes to apologise to Picard, who lets him off completely and makes some vague points about friendship and remembrance and humanity. Makes you wonder if a non-robot crew member would’ve gotten the same treatment, really. Positive discrimination in action?

TNG WTF: One of Wesley’s team is called “Prixus”. What kind of name is that?! Sounds like something from a porn version of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. (Admittedly it would be difficult to do a porn version of a show that’s already 95% nudity.)

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TNG LOL: You can’t help but laugh at how Picard keeps getting interrupted while trying to pursue his leisure activities. He’s interrupted twice while trying to go horse riding and once while trying to read in his office. Poor guy can’t catch five minutes to himself!

Who’s That Face: Sarjenka is played by Nikki Cox, and unlike most of the weird child actors that end up on TNG, she’s still acting today. She also got engaged to Bobcat Goldthwait and later married Jay Mohr. Hollywood!

Time Until Meeting: 6:01. Straight in there with an important meeting about whether to give Wesley his own team to command or not.

Captain’s Log: I found this episode surprisingly good, even though it appears structurally weak in places. Data’s behaviour is flatly unacceptable a lot of the time and it’s a huge omission that we don’t get to see Data and Sarjenka’s friendship develop on screen, because without it he just seems irrational. Nonetheless, it’s great to see the crew in a situation where they’re not being screwed with by someone or placed under massive pressure. They’re never in danger, and as a result they just sit around discussing philosophy. It’s great!

There’s an almost languid pace to much of this episode, but there are also some great character moments along the way. Riker chatting up some woman in Ten Forward, Picard’s “We’re up to our neck in it” gesture, Worf tripping over Data’s computer parts and the crew having an “off the record” meeting in Picard’s quarters. It’s like someone decided to actually write the characters as if they were actual people, for a change.

It’s not the most exciting episode and there’s a lot of Wesley that probably does it out of most people’s favour, but I’d go so far as to say it’s an overlooked gem. Worth watching for the scene where they debate the Prime Directive alone.

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Watch or Skip? Watch. An unusual episode, but in an interesting way.

Read James’ look-back at the previous episode, Time Squared, here.

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