Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “Pen Pals”

“Pen Pals”
Written by Hannah Louise Shearer and Melinda M. Snodgrass
Directed by Winrich Kolbe
Season 2, Episode 15
Production episode 40272-141
Original air date: May 1, 1989
Stardate: 42695.3

Captain’s Log: The Enterprise is the first staffed ship to explore the Selcundi Drema sector. Probes detected geological instability, which is an understatement. One planet had a thriving ecosystem when the probe scanned it, and now is seemingly on the verge of exploding from geological stress.

After a lengthy discussion with Picard, La Forge, Pulaski, and Troi, Riker decides to give Wes command of the planetary mineral survey. He gets to put a team together and everything. Riker and Troi give him good advice about dealing with the team and personality conflicts, Pulaski bucks him up, and he goes to it.

Data, meanwhile, engages in a personal project to expand the Enterprise to sense wavelengths and frequencies it can’t normally pick up. In the process, he finds a weak RF signal from Drema IV: a little girl trying to find out if there’s anyone out there.

Many weeks pass, and Data has been communicating regularly with the little girl, named Sarjenka. Her planet is suffering the same geologic instability. Picard calls an informal meeting in his quarters among the people in the opening credits to discuss what to do — resulting in quite possibly the best discussion of the Prime Directive ever on a Star Trek episode. Ultimately, Picard orders him to sever communication with Sarjenka — but when he isolates the frequency, they all hear Sarjenka’s pleas for Data to talk to her again. At that point, they can’t turn their back on her.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido:

Officially noting Sarjenka’s communication in the log as a distress call, Picard orders the Enterprise to Drema IV. Wes’s team is able to determine the reason for the geological catastrophes — a ridiculous amount of dilithium — and come up with a solution — firing harmonic resonators into the surface.

Data is given permission by Picard to inform Sarjenka of the danger to her home and to give her instructions on where to go to be safe, but communications can’t get through. He manages to rationalize to Picard that he can beam down to the surface so he can tell her, doing so in that manner of Data’s that is just like a puppy, and Picard gives in. Data beams down to find Sarjenka alone amidst terrible quakes. Data beams her back to the ship — to Picard’s annoyance — just as the resonators are fired. Drema IV is saved. Picard asks Pulaski to erase Sarjenka’s memory, and Data deposits her sleeping form back home.

Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: Apparently a type of UV absorption indicates Tracer deposits, and in turn that indicates dilithium. You find dilithium with an icospectrogram, which takes five hours to set up. There’ll be a quiz on this later.

Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi had a kitten once — her mother and the kitten didn’t get along. When Picard tries to convince her to join him in horseback riding, she says she prefers a mode of transport that can’t think for itself — as an empath, she risks getting lost in the animal’s emotions.

She also makes a pig’s ear out of taking charge of Sarjenka.

If I Only Had a Brain…: Just a few weeks after proving he has sentience, we now find out that Data’s a sentimental bastard, too.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido:

No Sex, Please, We’re Starfleet: Riker has a chat with a hot chick interrupted by Wes having a leadership crisis.

I’m a Doctor, Not an Escalator: Pulaski, in an interesting reversal, argues for the importance of Data’s emotions. She even compliments Data on what he did, right before she mindwipes Sarjenka.

The Boy!? Wes gets his first command. When they discover the possibility of dilithium, Wes wants to order an icospectrogram. Davies points out that it might be a fool’s echo and that an icospectrogram takes five hours to set up. Wes has doubts until he talks to Riker, who points out that he needs to make command decisions. Sure enough, when he goes back and orders Davies to run the scan, Davies does it without question, just like Riker said he would.

What Happens on the Holodeck Stays on the Holodeck: Picard goes horseback riding on the holodeck, which is mostly a feeble excuse for Patrick Stewart to wax rhapsodic about equestrianism.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido:

Welcome Aboard: Nicholas Cascone is suitably smarmy as Davies, and Ann H. Gillespie and Whitney Rydbeck are amusing as the husband-and-wife team of Alans and Hildebrant. But the standout here is this episode’s Robert Knepper moment: a very very very young Nikki Cox, probably best known as Mary Connell on Las Vegas, playing Sarjenka.

I Believe I Said That: “O’Brien, take a nap. You didn’t see any of this, you’re not involved.”

“Yes, sir, I’ll just be standing over here dozing off.”

Riker trying to keep Data’s beaming down to Drema IV as secret as possible, and O’Brien playing along.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido:Trivial Matters: Sarjenka would return in the Starfleet Corps of Engineers series. The story Progress by Terri Osborne has a flashback to Pulaski returning to Drema IV four years after “Pen Pals,” and also after the world was invaded by “the Exiles” and then made contact with the Federation. At the end of the story, Sarjenka enlists in Starfleet Academy, intending to become a doctor. In the frame of Progress, she becomes the assistant chief medical officer of the da Vinci, remaining in the cast throughout the rest of the series run. This culminated in Remembrance of Things Past, also by Osborne, a TNG crossover in which Sarjenka gets her memories back and confronts Picard.

Another Corps of Engineers story — that, like Progress, is collected in the trade paperback What’s Past — Many Splendors by your humble rewatcher, has a chapter that tells the engineering side of this story.

Make it So: “Data, where are you?” A delightful episode, one that showcases Data’s depths and exploration of the human condition through the simple method of curiosity and sentiment. That same exploration is seen in the rest of the crew, who ultimately try very hard to justify helping Data out because the alternative would be too awful to contemplate.

The heart and soul of the episode is the scene in Picard’s quarters, which is, as I said above, the best discussion of the Prime Directive Trek has ever done, and director Kolbe’s blocking of the scene makes it a tour de force: Worf standing rigidly, arms folded, who sees the argument solely in black and white; La Forge and Pulaski, whose emotions are churned up, constantly getting up and sitting down; Riker and Troi, the more philosophical ones, sitting calmly; Picard behind his desk, the center of it all; and sitting off to the side, unusually quiet, is Data. Simply wonderful stuff.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido:

All the actors do a superb job, from Wil Wheaton’s excellent turn portraying Wes’s baptism of fire leading a team to Jonathan Frakes’s relaxed confidence as Riker playing multiple roles (guiding Wes, berating Data, flirting with the hot chick, etc.) to Sir Patrick Stewart’s usual magnificence to Nikki Cox’s wide-eyed innocence and curiosity to Brent Spiner’s equally delightful wide-eyed innocence and curiosity.

Finally, the script is first-rate. The dialogue crackles, and it’s full of little natural touches, from the husband-and-wife team who finish each other’s sentences to Riker flirting in Ten-Forward to Picard and Riker’s gesture-filled discussions of how deep they’re in it to O’Brien’s “nap.” Just a wonderful job by scripter Snodgrass, based on a story by Shearer that every space nerd can appreciate: the desire to stare out into the stars and wonder if there’s anyone out there.

 

Warp factor rating: 9


Keith R.A. DeCandido has a story in a new anthology called Liar Liar that is filled with stories about lies, and also is the author of new novels Guilt in Innocence, part of “Tales from the Scattered Earth,” a shared-world science fiction concept, and the fantastical police procedurals SCPD: The Case of the Claw and Unicorn Precinct. Find out more about Keith at his web site, which is a portal to (among many other things) his Facebook page, his Twitter feed, his blog, and his various podcasts, The Chronic Rift, Dead Kitchen Radio, and the Parsec Award-winning HG World.

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