Revisiting Star Trek TNG: The Ensigns Of Command

James' weekly TNG look-back continues with a Data-heavy episode that's well worth your time...

This review contains spoilers.

3.2 The Ensigns Of Command

Picard and Dr Crusher meet in Ten-Forward to watch Data play in his string quartet. Before he even starts, Data explains that his performance will be soulless and flat because he’s a robot. At least, that’s what the other quartet members tell him (the dicks). Picard and Crusher warn Data against being over-honest, lest he start to undermine himself. Data takes this on board and the recital starts, but it’s quickly interrupted when Picard is called to the bridge by Riker!

It transpires that the Sheliak, a non-humanoid race with a low opinion of humans, have discovered some humans on one of their planets and want the Enterprise to remove them before they settle the place in a few days. The planet is saturated with radiation that’s fatal to humans and blocks their sensors and transporter, so they send the radiation-immune Data down to the surface in a shuttle to investigate.

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Once there, he discovers a thriving colony of 15,000 people, who “adapted” to the radiation on the surface after their grandparents’ ship crashed there by accident (they keep the explanation of how they manage this suspiciously vague, to be honest. My fanon explanation is that they all just accept that they’ll die very young.) After explaining to their leader, Gosheven, that the treaty is in violation and the most sensible course of action is to evacuate, Data is kindly told they’ll take their chances with the landlords.

After being laughed out of the town square by the simple townsfolk Data bumps into Ard’rian, a woman who loves androids. Or rather, the idea of androids. In fact, she thinks androids are far better than humans and she’s eager to show Data around the colony. Feel free to make kissy noises at the screen now.

Back on the Enterprise, Riker and Picard realise that they’re facing an impossibly large evacuation task without anywhere near enough time to ferry everyone to the ship. They instruct O’Brien and La Forge to get the transporters working through the radiation. Meanwhile, Picard and Troi attempt to renegotiate with the Sheliak, who are sticklers for the agreement and keep hanging up on them.

Back on the surface, Data’s getting no traction and when he calls Riker to explain, he’s told to buck his ideas up and stop bothering the senior staff. Gosheven calls a meeting and makes a big deal of how many people died building the aqueduct that provides their life-sustaining (though irradiated) water. Data gathers a little support, and Ard’rian decides to kiss him (told you.)

After trying reverse psychology (“No, really, it’s great that you want to die for an aqueduct!”) Data calls a secret meeting of his supported, but loses the crowd when Gosheven electrocutes him. “True, he has a solid argument,” they say, “but he can’t even adapt to a little electrocution, so let’s ignore him.”

However, when Data wakes up, he decides he’s sick of talking and that actions speak louder than words. He adapts a phaser to work in the plot-device saturated atmosphere of the planet, tells Gosheven that he’s going to blow up the aqueduct and that they should stop him if they can. After cutting a swath through security, he sets his phaser to “blow up aqueduct” setting and shoots it in front of all 20 extras representing the entire 15,000-stong population of the colony. Then he points out that he’s just one robot with a glorified pistol, and that the Sheliak will probably just nuke them from orbit. That, and the sudden lack of fresh water, convinces everyone that it’s time to move house.

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But things aren’t over! Picard is facing down the Sheliak ship for a possible firefight when they discover a technicality in the treaty that means they can delay the incoming settlers for months. Rather than wait, the Sheliak agree to give them the three weeks they need to get the colonists off world. Another victory for the lawyers!

Back on the surface, Data prepares to leave and Ard’rian decides to ask whether he’s got any feelings for her. That conversation goes about as well as you’d expect. He goes back to the ship, and discovers Picard catching up with a recording of the recital. Turns out he thinks Data’s playing is actually very creative. Don’t you see? It was with you all along!

TNG WTF: As far as TNG goes, this episode was largely free of complete craziness. Although you do spot a bit of Patrick Stewart’s Yorkshireman charm coming through when he tells Troi that all they have to attempt a treaty renegotiation is “thee and me.”

TNG LOL: O’Brien’s in this episode, playing the cello and being forced to operate the Transporter while La Forge stands by idly. I can’t help but be reminded of the “Chief O’Brien at Work” comics, which I think any reader of these articles will enjoy.

Mistakes and Minutiae: A new Phaser setting! For those keeping track, we now officially have Stun, Kill, Cut Through Door, Heat Up Rocks, Head Explodey and Aqueduct Demolition.

Time Until Meeting: 12:30. O’Brien gets to attend, but he isn’t allowed to speak. Later in the episode, Ard’rian tells Data he should call a meeting to present his case, and then there’s a dramatic moment where Gosheven calls a meeting… to replace misinformation with cold, hard fact. A lot of this episode involves meetings. That’s probably why it’s so good.

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Captain’s Log: After this season’s middling opener, it’s a real joy to find that episode 2 is right up there with the best. Okay, they cheat a little by making it so Data-centric (but if that’s really cheating, lord knows how you’d describe the Seven/Doctor-dominated seasons of Voyager) but even then it’s an episode that works on multiple levels. Data gets a character arc, attempting to master improvisation and creative thinking. Picard is forced to flex his diplomatic muscles. And even though the settlers face a genuinely interesting moral quandary with no easy answer, the episode does reach a philosophical conclusion: things can be replaced, lives cannot. Agree or disagree, at least they didn’t chicken out with something open-ended.

That said, the episode isn’t entirely a hit. The sub-plot about Data’s new friend going a bit too far with her positive discrimination is interesting, but doesn’t get developed enough to really land. Part of me suspects that Ard’rian thinks she’s in some kind of futuristic robotic rom-com, which, frankly, is an episode I’d like to see.

Watch or Skip? Watch. Plenty of Data.

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

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