Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Symbiosis

James' weekly TNG look-back comes to a thinly veiled social allegory feat. sweaty aliens. Here's his review of Symbiosis...

This review contains spoilers.

1.22 Symbiosis

Discovering a ship trapped in a star’s magnetic field, the Enterprise attempts to rescue the crew from certain destruction and is surprised to discover that they appear to value their cargo more than their life. Managing to save four of the six crewmen – and a barrel of the ship’s cargo – the Enterprise now finds itself mediating an ownership dispute between the two factions within the rescued freighter crew.

Naturally, when faced with such confusion, there’s only one option, and that’s to give everyone a timeout and wait for a solution to present itself. After a brief friendly chat, everyone catches up on the backstory: the two factions represent the Ornarans and the Brekkans, a pair of civilisations found on opposing planets. Each claims ownership of the contents of the barrel, which turns out to be “Felicium” – the only cure for a deadly plague wracking the Ornaran civilisation. The Brekkans are the only people who can make it, and they sell it to the Ornarans.

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However, because the transaction was not properly completed (on account of one half of it exploding in a sun) the Brekkans want to hang onto their drugs. Understandably, the Onarans aren’t quite so keen. Picard, belatedly realising that he’s exposed his entire crew to danger once again, sends the Ornarans to sickbay where they start sweating – the most instantly-recognisable symptom of TV illnesses. (For reference, sweating = generic ill, sneezing = allergies, coughing = lung cancer). But what’s this? Crusher can find no source for the so-called “plague”, even though it affects everyone on the Brekkan homeworld.

To help relieve the symptoms, the Ornarans agree to let the Brekkans chase the Felicium dragon, explaining that their entire economy is based on manufacture of the drug. The Ornarans, in return, give them everything else. Yes, that’s right, everything else. Cars. Computers. Houses. Biscuit tins. Silica Gel. Wallpaper. Blu-tack. Submarines. Clothes horses. Both double and single glazing. HDMI cables. Those cardboard sleeves that fit around plastic DVD cases for no apparent reason. Everything. As a result, they can barely even fly their own ships, and ask Picard to give them the replacement parts their aging freighters need.

But after watching the Ornarans take the drug, Crusher immediately realises the truth: the Brekkans aren’t ill. They’re addicts. Their “plague” is merely a manifestation of their withdrawal symptoms. She explains it to Picard, and he declares that although he disagrees with what the Brekkans are dong, they can’t help the Ornarans, citing the Prime Directive for about the fifteenth time this series (in later series it transpires that the Prime Directive only applies to uncontacted pre-warp cultures, which suggests Picard has been misinterpreting it throughout season one. That’s probably why he finds his job so hard to do.)

Reluctantly, he must let the Brekkans and the Ornarans leave. However, he has a last-second brainwave and denies the Brekkans the parts they need to fix their ships, once again citing the Prime Directive (what? They ASKED for help! Oh, whatever, forget it.) With the trading unable to resume, the Ornarans will go through withdrawal and eventually realise that there is no plague and that they’ve all been had. With this issue solved, Picard transports the four men back to Ornara and gives  Dr. Crusher a speech that amounts to little more than “Well, we’ve fixed that problem forever with no further issues left to resolve. We’d better leave immediately.” And they do.

TNG WTF: Leaving aside Picard’s complete misunderstanding of Starfleet’s top rule and the misunderstanding of its application (If he can’t interfere even to the point of pointing out to the Ornarans that they’re a planet full of crackheads, why did he interfere by saving their lives in the first place?!) this episode has massive WTF issues. Not least the idea that NO-ONE on Onara has actually tried to discover another cure for their symptoms, or even establish a cause. What? Really? Come on…

TNG LOL: Wesley Crusher gets a good laugh from this episode out of the line “Captain, my console seems to be overloading.” It’s nice that he gets a warning, most of the time the things just explode right in people’s faces.

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Also, Tasha Yar’s speech to Wesley about how drugs are bad, mmmkay is about as subtle and well-written as a 1980s anti-drugs infomercial. “Tasha, is it true that if I eat some cocaines I’ll become immediately addicted?” “Yes, Wesley, that is exactly the case. Also everyone you know will die as a result.”

Mistakes & Minutiae:  This episode contains Tasha Yar’s famous “goodbye” to the fans. It was the last episode Denise Crosby shot (filmed after Skin of Evil in which – SPOILER ALERT – she dies). If you’ve never seen it before, watch the cargo bay doors as Crusher and Picard leave about 42 minutes in.

Time Until Meeting: 17:50. Now that everyone has turned on one another, there’s only one way to solve the problem: third party arbitration.

Captain’s Log: This is one of those episodes which exemplify all that is awful about Star Trek in general. I’m not talking about season one’s dubious production values (which, to be fair, are considerably more even than they were when the series began) but about the episode’s very fabric.

It begins with a thinly-veiled social allegory, which is then simplified to the point of irrelevance. This idea is then made the centre of a society that can only function if you don’t try and actually think about it in any practical sense. They then apply one-dimensional morality onto a set of two-dimensional characters, and in the end Picard, embodying the voice of 1980s US Socialism, gives everyone a stern talking to and declares the situation resolved.

So, by the end of the episode, the Enterprise has basically brought down the economy of both planets, inflicted untold withdrawal-based carnage on the Ornarans, fostered much badwill between the two cultures and then buggered off before anyone on either planet thinks to ask them to help clean up the mess they just created. Morally, the Enterprise has done the right thing in freeing the Ornarans – but they’ve done so in a massively unhelpful way. One can only imagine how many Ornarans lost their lives as the result of what the Enterprise did, whether they were unwilling or unable to face withdrawal. Remember, this was an entire planet of people so dumb they never checked to see if there was another cure available. Or even a disease to cure. Sheesh.

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Watch or Skip? Bleuurgh. Skippable, if I’m honest.

Read James’ look-back at the previous episode, Arsenal of Freedom, here.

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