Revisiting Star Trek TNG: The Drumhead

Witch hunts, interrogation and paranoia feature in fairly straightforward space-court Star Trek: TNG episode The Drumhead...

This review contains spoilers.

4.21 The Drumhead

Sabotage! On board the Enterprise! D! Cue up the Beastie Boys! (Actually don’t, we’ve all seen Star Trek Beyond and the last thing we need is that being taken literally again.)

But regardless, a Klingon Exchange officer – J’Dan the Exobiologist – stands (well, sits) accused of trying to blow up the Enterprise’s engines and funnelling secrets to the Romulans. In an attempt to establish his innocence he tries to bribe Worf, who gives him the full Space Rodney King treatment in a scene which I can’t decide if I’m supposed to feel uncomfortable with or not.

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Luckily, one of Starfleet’s meddling Admirals is around to help investigate this potential espionage onboard the Enterprise. Not only that, Admiral Satie has her own Betazoid who can establish guilt with nothing but the power of a smug glance. After investigating, it turns out that J’Dan is injecting secrets into people using proteins and sending them to the Romulans – but he maintains that the explosion wasn’t anything to do with him.

Satie, who is openly paranoid and out for blood (even weird pink Klingon blood) insists that J’Dan did not act alone and that there must be a conspiracy on board the ship, then sets about interrogating the rest of the crew. As luck would have it, the second person they interview turns out to be their guy: Crewman Simon Tarses is shaking in his Starfleet boots when he’s being interrogated, and Sabin (Satie’s own Betazoid) insists “He’s hiding something” (an old Betazoid proverb, we can assume.)

Picard isn’t keen on convicting anyone entirely on the basis of Betazoid feelings, and even admits maybe relying on psychic intuition isn’t 100% reliable (I’m currently imagining Picard in an audience with Derek Acorah looking enrapt and impressed) and pledges to take less notice of his own Betazoid in the future. As if that were possible. But Satie makes sure to emphasise that Tarses is not yet guilty. Just not entirely innocent.

Meanwhile Data and Geordi turn up to establish that actually, the engine wasn’t sabotaged, it was just badly repaired (by someone else, they’re super-competent). This doesn’t interest Satie, though. She’s not interested in facts, only results. They call Simon Tarses back to the interrogation theatre with a full audience and grill him like Neelix’s famous Ocampan cheese toastie. Riker is defending him, but when Tarses is accused of having Romulan (rather than Vulcan) heritage his big play is that Tarses stop answering questions on the basis that the answer might incriminate him. I mean he might as well have said yes.

Tarses admits to Picard that his grandfather was Romulan and laments the destruction of his Starfleet career, and Picard decides that the trials have turned into a witch hunt, at which point Satie accuses him of being a witch and brings her boss in to oversee proceedings. Picard heads to the dunking chamber and Satie instantly declares that he’s a traitor, reminding him of all the times the Enterprise broke the Prime Directive in the last four seasons (nine, apparently, including that time Riker and O’Brien got drunk and starting beaming up people from a pre-industrial civilisation directly into Worf’s bedroom.)

Unfortunately for her, Picard is used to a courtroom fight. He has a bunch of quotes lined up from her father, a noted judge, and the invocation of his name causes her to have a paranoid meltdown accusing him of treason and vowing to destroy him. Her boss, Admiral Henry, sees that this is a waste of his time and leaves without speaking a word in the entire episode, blowing his big chance to get SAG accreditation. Satie’s credibility is shot to pieces, and the hearing is called off. Picard ruminates on the situation with a regretful Worf, who had aided Satie.

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Simon Tarses, meanwhile, is never seen again. Presumably he was fired. That’ll teach him to lie on his application form.

TNG WTF: Dare I say it, but this episode was pretty straightforward (other than the Admiral’s asymmetrical Space Fashion collar). Like okay, Satie was crazy and it was increasingly obvious that she was going off the rails, but that was the point of the story. It got a bit unlikely but never beyond the realms of believability. With the possible exception of having an audience section in your interrogation room, that is.

TNG LOL: Something I remember Phil Farrand’s Nitpicker’s Guides pointing out: a Klingon Exobiologist is an inherently funny idea, given that the society seems to mostly revolve around drinking, fighting, and dying with honour. I think we can maybe assume all that is the obsession of a specific warrior caste of society and J’Dan is just outside of it. Although he does suddenly start ranting about restoring the Klingon heart or whatever so maybe he was forced into exobiology because he’s just really bad at fighting.

To Boldly Go: Er, in this episode they ain’t going anywhere, boldly or otherwise. They’re just hanging around in the middle of space fighting amongst themselves. In fairness, their engines are broken but whatever they were doing it clearly wasn’t urgent.

Mistakes and Minutiae: This is the final episode scored by Ron Jones, who was fired for arguing with the producers over the type of music that the series should’ve had. Personally, I never noticed any real difference in the episode scores before and after, and The Best Of Both Worlds is the only time the score has ever registered with me beyond the level of background noise. More appreciative ears may differ, though.

Who’s That Face?: That’s Jean Simmons! From the rock group Kiss! And a lot of 1940s and 50s Hollywood films. I mean I had no idea who she was but just from her presence I could tell she was from that world. Apparently she was a big Trek fan who had been keen on guest-starring at some point. Could’ve gone worse, Ms. Simmons.

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And there’s a bonus face: Bruce French plays her Betazoid assistant, but he’s also the Caretaker, the guy we can thank (or, depending on your perspective, hold responsible) for the entirety of Star Trek Voyager.

Time Until Meeting: 25:48 is the first actual meeting, and what do you know? It’s only being held by Worf! To be fair, he learned from the master.

Captain’s Log: The thing about this episode is that it’s pretty good on a lot of levels. It’s tense, it’s got some good twists, it’s a very strong Picard episode and the guest star is really giving it some welly. And regular readers know that I love me some Space Court – at least, usually…

Because something about this one doesn’t really work for me. I’m not sure if it’s just that the McCarthyist allegory is lost on me because I’m a Brit, or if it’s the weirdly Kafkaesque tone, or if it’s just because Data’s barely in it, but… I just didn’t feel much jeopardy or urgency.

The part where Picard gets served to come for interrogation is the best bit, and the subsequent run down of his crimes referencing the events of previous episodes is fun too (“Says here several of your senior staff once got stuck in a space casino created by aliens from a novel, what the hell are you talking about?”) but generally? It just doesn’t work for me like it should. Some of the cast list it as their favourite episode, though, so what do I know?

Read James’ lookback at the previous episode, Qpid, here.

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