Revisiting Star Trek TNG: Who Watches The Watchers?

Is Jean Luc Picard a God? The Mintakans think so in this week's Star Trek: TNG look-back...

This review contains spoilers.

3.4 Who Watches The Watchers?

Out in the deepest reaches of space, a group of Starfleet scientists is studying Mintakans, a proto-Vulcan species that has recently reached the Bronze Age. (In Star Trek lore, this means the next three ages are Roman Age, Gangster Age and Ruled By A Computer.) When a power cut threatens to cut off their holographic disguise, the scientists make a video call to the Enterprise just in time for the crew to watch all the scientists’ stuff explode in their faces. Uh oh! Picard shifts the Enterprise up a gear, but things look grim.

When the Enterprise arrives, things look even grimmer. Some of the scientists are dead, others are injured, one is missing. But worse still, the holographic disguise is down! If any of the natives manage to see the lab, the prime directive would be violated in the most heinous way! Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, right?

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Of course, it does. Not only that, one of the Mintakans – Liko – manages to electrocute himself too, because their society doesn’t have any concept of live wires. Crusher, in true doctorly fashion, begins to treat him and beams him to the Enterprise. Unfortunately his daughter sees the whole thing. I’m sure that won’t be too damaging, right?

After Doctor Crusher successfully out-logics Picard (“The damage was already done! I just ground the fragments into a fine dust!”) they agree to try wiping his memory, Pulaski-style, before returning him to the planet. But it didn’t work! That Pulaski has ruined things for the last time! Liko now has memories of Picard, and when he wakes up he dutifully sets about re-ordering society around the idea of a Picard-based afterlife.

Rather than face explaining to his superior officers that an entire society now worships him (and also because there’s a scientist still missing) Picard sends Troi and Riker to the planet disguised as Mintakans. They also have magic communicators that only they can hear. After the pair make a big splash at the town meeting (subtle!) the town’s leader, Nuria, argues with them about the concept of a Picard. Is he benevolent or petty? Why do bad things happen to good Mintakans? And is he a literal Picard or just the fictional central captain in a collection of morality tales?

Before we can discover this, another Mintakan drags the missing scientist into town. Having whipped themselves into a state of ritualistic bloodlust, the Mintakans decide to sacrifice the scientist. Riker and Troi attempt to intervene, but mostly just succeed in blowing their cover.

Tired of the incompetence of those around him, Picard beams Nuria onto the ship and attempts to level the situation with her. She’s about as confused as you’d expect a woman from the bronze age would be if she found herself on a space ship, but eventually Picard convinces her that he’s not a God, he just a regular dude with some really over-developed tools. She sort of understands, but then betrays her lack of understanding by asking if Picard would bring some Mintakans back to life for her.

Having run out of options, Picard brings Nuria to sickbay and makes her watch one of the scientists succumb to their injuries. She realises he’s not a God, just a very advanced alien. Back on the planet the mob has turned on Troi when Nuria and Picard beam to the surface to intervene. Liko is so adamant in his beliefs that Picard has to invite Liko to shoot him with a bow and arrow to prove that he’s mortal. Liko dutifully does just this and Picard is seriously injured.

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Now everyone can see that Picard isn’t immortal, and they all go home disappointed and wait for the day that their world becomes capable of space flight instead. Could take weeks. Months, even. It’s safe to say that the Prime Directive has not been particularly upheld, but at least they did their best in limiting the damage. Another victory for the Enterprise.

TNG WTF: For the first time ever, there’s no real WTF here.  Although the fact that these guys are “proto-Vulcan” is a little odd. Like, do they share a common ancestor with Vulcans (yeah, yeah, The Chase, I know) or is “Vulcan” just one of the few evolutionary paths a species can eventually go down? They even have proto-Vulcan haircuts!

TNG LOL: Maybe I just have a dark sense of humour, but I always find the initial video call hilarious. Partly it’s the way the guy slumps over the console in front of him just before the call fades away, and partly the awkward silence that follows. Like everyone’s thinking “Well, there go my plans for the weekend…”

Time Until Meeting: 13:01. No nonsense. Let’s figure this mess out!

Captain’s Log: Okay, see, THIS is what Star Trek should be about. Science, philosophy and morality all wrapped up in a single story. About the risks of going boldly into the universe, and the responsibility you have in doing so. If you wanted to give someone a single episode that encompassed Star Trek‘s entire ethos, you could do much worse than this one.

The plot is pretty compelling, as the crew work to find a solution that doesn’t do even more damage, and Picard gets almost offended that he might have accidentally led them back into a dark age of superstition.  Troi and Riker’s infiltration of the Mintakans gives us a good look at a developing society, and the Mintakans are all pretty well-developed as individuals. The scenes where Nuria is on the Enterprise are particularly poignant.

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Obviously you wouldn’t want every episode to be as morally didactic as this one, and it’s a shame it comes just two episodes after a similar one about aliens interfering with a primitive culture. But this is good stuff any way you look at it.

Watch or Skip? WATCH. That’s an order.

Read James’ look back at the previous episode, The Survivors, here.

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