Jul 21 2011 1:12pm

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “Symbiosis”

Written by Robert Lewin and Richard Manning & Hans Beimler
Directed by Win Phelps
Season 1, Episode 21
Production episode 40271-123
Original air date: April 18, 1988
Stardate: none given

Captain’s Log: The Enterprise is studying solar flares in the Delos system, which are playing merry hell with ship’s systems. They also pick up a distress call from the Ornaran freighter Sanction. Its orbit around the fourth planet is deteriorating, and they need help. Picard orders the Enterprise to assist, which proves problematic, as the Ornarans don’t seem to know how to operate their own ship.

After a rather hilarious sequence of events that reminds me a great deal of the last phone call I had to make to tech support, they manage to rescue four of the people on the freighter, as well as their cargo. In fact, the Ornarans send their cargo over first, which confuses Picard, as he can’t imagine why they’d send cargo instead of people who are about to die. This shows a staggering lack of imagination, as I can think of a dozen reasons off the top of my head why the cargo would be more important — if, say, it was medicine or valuable parts for a life-support system or any number of other things.

The arrivals include two Ornarans and two Brekkians — two other Ornarans didn’t make it. The Ornarans — T’Jon and Romas — are less concerned with their two dead comrades than they are with the safety of their cargo. It’s called felicium, and the Brekkians — Sobi and Langor — point out that they never received the goods in exchange for the felicium and refuse to release the cargo to T’Jon and Romas.

Felicium, it turns out, is medicine, the only treatment for a plague that all Ornarans suffer. The Brekkians are healthy; the Ornarans have all the symptoms of a disease, but Crusher can’t find a cure.

Their symptoms are worsening, and Picard asks if they can at least provide two doses for T’Jon and Romas for their immediate needs, which Sobi and Langor reluctantly agree to.

As soon as the Ornarans take the medicine, they feel much better — Crusher (and the viewers) instantly recognize this as a couple of druggies taking a hit.

Felicium was a medicine once, but it’s also an addictive narcotic. It cured the plague two centuries ago, but the Ornarans are completely hooked. So, in a sense, are the Brekkians, as their world has no other industry save for the harvesting, refining, and distilling of felicium.

Sobi and Langor Langor and Sobi decide — oh so generously — to give them the felicium and let them pay when they can. The other shoe drops — the Brekkians know damn well what’s going on, and their refining has just made the narcotic more potent. Picard won’t tell the Ornarans the truth — but he also won’t provide them with the parts they need to fix their two remaining freighters, which are in almost as bad shape as the one that blew up. Which means that eventually the felicium trade will stop due to the lack of transport.

The Ornarans and Brekkians both beam down to Ornara with the felicium, both pissed at Picard for completely different reasons.

Thank You, Counselor Obvious: “The level of tension on the ship is mounting.” Yeah, they’re moving closer to a flaming ball of hydrogen that’s causing the ship to malfunction, can’t imagine why there’d be tension.

Can’t we just reverse the polarity?: Wes at one point says the EM readings are off the scale — which is a neat trick, since the readings are digital. “Off the scale” only applies if you’re using an analog gauge, like something with a needle. It’s not possible for a digital reading to be “off the scale.” (Sorry, pet peeve.)

The boy!?: Yar gives Wes a depressingly clichéd “just say no” speech that I’m sure had Nancy Reagan dancing a jig when it aired, explaining how drug addiction works and Wes talks about how he doesn’t understand it and Yar says she hopes he never does and the entire viewership goes screaming to the restroom to throw up.

T’Jon and Romas

If I Only Had a Brain...: Data tries to pull a Spock and provide a precise number of felicium doses in the cargo, but Picard cuts him off before he can finish.

There is No Honor in Being Pummeled: Interestingly, most of the scanning work in the opening is done by Worf rather than Data.

Welcome Aboard. It’s a Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan reunion, as Merritt Butrick and Judson Scott, who played David Marcus and Joachim, respectively, in that movie, return as T’Jon and Sobi, with Richard Lineback and Kimberly Farr rounding out the quartet as Romas and Langor. Butrick and Farr are the most effective — the former anguished and desperate, the latter with a steely charm and sleaze that works nicely. Lineback is a bit too histrionic, while Scott is completely wooden.

I Believe I Said That: “It’s all, y’know, dead, I guess. It’s all — shut down?”

T’Jon, giving a damage report.

T’Jon attacks Riker

Trivial Matters: Guest star Butrick would die of AIDS less than a year after this episode aired, and you can kinda tell watching the episode, as he’s lost a ton of weight in the four years since Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

LeVar Burton used behind-the-scenes footage from this episode for an episode of his kids’ show Reading Rainbow.

And, for a wholly irrelevant bit of trivia, this episode aired on my nineteenth birthday.

Make It So: “What is the matter with these people?” The most unsubtle “message” episode of Star Trek since “Let That be Your Last Battlefield,” this episode is middling at best. The best part of the episode is actually the opening rescue sequence, which is pure padding, but also hilariously funny, as the Enterprise tries to rescue the hippy dippy freighter crew.

The episode might be more tolerable if it didn’t grind to a halt so Yar could deliver the drugs-are-bad-mkay? speech to Wes, and if the moral wasn’t later delivered with a sledgehammer by an unusually histrionic Gates McFadden.

Having said that, this is one of the better uses of the Prime Directive on Trek, getting right what, say, “A Private Little War” got wrong. Picard’s decisions, while frustrating and annoying (especially to Crusher), are very much the right ones, but the episode doesn’t softpedal how incredibly annoying and maddening those right decisions are.

Oh, and the Ornarans and Brekkians have bioelectric superpowers that add precisely nothing to the plot. Seriously, remove that, and the episode doesn’t change at all, save for Riker and Yar’s incredibly uninteresting discussion of how to defend against a weapon you can’t confiscate.


Warp factor rating: 4.

Keith R.A. DeCandido has never taken drugs. You wouldn’t believe that to look at him, I know. He’s written a ton of fiction, including dozens of Star Trek novels, comics, short stories, and novellas, plus the new novels Unicorn Precinct, SCPD: The Case of the Claw, and the upcoming Guilt in Innocence, Innocence in Guilt, part of the Scattered Earth shared-world science fiction series. Go to Keith’s web site, which is a gateway to his blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

Christopher L. Bennett
1. Christopher L. Bennett
I've never had a problem with Tasha's speech about drug addiction, because to me it's clear that Tasha is speaking from first-hand experience. She's all but admitting that she was a drug addict once, back on her hellhole planet. So it's not just empty moralizing, it's a personal revelation, and that makes it meaningful for me. (Although it was left to the novel Survivors by Jean Lorrah to make Tasha's backstory of addiction explicit.) And metatextually, odds are that Roddenberry wrote the speech himself, which also would suggest it comes from sincere personal experience.

Otherwise, I've never found this episode very memorable. Sure, it has two TWOK cast members in it, but two of the dullest ones. The one thing that really stands out for me is the shot where Tasha waves goodbye in the background just before the turbolift doors close, because it was the last scene Denise Crosby filmed (since this was shot after "Skin of Evil").
Fredrik Coulter
2. fcoulter
A digital readout can go off the scale if the readout doesn't automatically switch to scientific notation. My job ran into that problem when we had to recalculate the proposed budget on the fly and didn't bring computers to the board meeting. Turned out the calculator we brought only had nine digits, and the total budget was slightly over one billion dollars.

If Wes said that the readings were pegged, then you'd have a real complaint.
James Felling
3. Maltheos
I'll say this -- off the scale certianly can work for digital equipment -- it is possible that the sensor can only read up to a certian point after which it will return a value of "higher than that"( a sign that there is either a practical limit to the sensing tech, or a design engineeer somewhere that said that this tool will never need to deal with a reading higher than....)
Christopher L. Bennett
4. John R. Ellis
The best part of that Reading Rainbow episode was Michael Dorn hamming it up for the kiddies at home after his makeup was finished.
Christopher L. Bennett
5. HeWhoComesWithTheNoon
Or, off the scale can be understood more in a metaphorical sense. For instance, you can work "around the clock" without there being an analog clock anywhere at your job.
Keith DeCandido
6. krad
Christopher: It isn't at all from the heart, because it's the EXACT SAME anti-drug speech that is always done on the "very special" episodes except for one or two mentions of Yar's upbringing. Snore. It's a badly written PSA sledgehammered into the story to make a moral point that the plot itself makes much more effectively.

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Christopher L. Bennett
7. Bill Leisner
I have to agree with Christopher here: having rewatched this ep not too long ago for a ST Magazine piece, I think dismissing the speech as just a Reagan-era PSA is totally unfair. This is not a 70 year old First Lady warning Gary Coleman about the demon reefer; this is a character speaking from personal experience about a world she was a part of, and about the effect narcotics had on her and people she knew. And, after all... felicium addiction actually IS bad, mmkay?
Christopher L. Bennett
8. skretky
Felicium? Was it originally made of concentrated Felicia Day?
Sydo Zandstra
9. Fiddler

A digital readout can go off the scale if the readout doesn't
automatically switch to scientific notation. My job ran into that
problem when we had to recalculate the proposed budget on the fly and didn't bring computers to the board meeting. Turned out the calculator we brought only had nine digits, and the total budget was slightly over one billion dollars.

Heh. When I was working as a developer on financial systems I experienced something similar. Our Client's System Administrator had been called to the Head Manager in order to explain how 2 Million Euros could disappear. (The answer was to be found in the number of digits the system could handle, obviously ;-) )

OnTopic: I had even forgotten about this episode...
j p
10. sps49
Yeah, my digital multimeter would blink it's display rather than peg, but it's the same thing.

I felt the opposite about the Prime Directive justification for not telling the suckers they were being suckered. Starfleet personnel are being interacted with, they are on a starship, you can give them a medical exam, but you can't tell them they don't suffer from the plague?
Daniel Goss
11. Beren
I remember watching that Reading Rainbow episode at the tender age of nine, and if this is the episode of TNG that he used, then it was by far the biggest influence on me. At the time, I was not watching any Star Trek, and my parents were worried about the violence in Star Wars, so I hadn't watched that either. In fact my extremely conservative family took a very dim view of all genre fiction at that time. This episode inspired me to beg and plead until I got to watch TNG, which led to harder stuff later like Star Wars, Heinlen, Bradbury and beyond. Because of this, I also ended up going to the SF section of the local library, which is where I saw a little book called "The Hobbit" which I convinced my fourth-grade teacher to read to us every day before recess. And the rest, as they say, is history.

That Reading Rainbow episode also (I think) showed how the transporter effect was achieved with glitter swirling in a jar of water, which inspired my lifelong love of behind-the-scenes breakdowns of movie effects.

So as for the TNG episode itself, a huge "meh." For everything that came of this episode . . . for me, life-changing.

Christopher L. Bennett
12. De
The Delos system? Surprised no one encountered any robot cowboys. Would have made the episode much more fun.
Nick Eden
13. NickPheas
Annoyed the hell out of me this one. The drug is observed to have a euphoric effect. The idea that a drug with a euphoric effect can only be an addictive narcotic is absurd. The idea that denying addicts (if they are addicts and if the drug they are taking does not in fact mitigate a serious disease as the patients believe) their drug is always survivable is equally absurd.
Presented as a medical case, Crusher allows her medical judgement to go out of the window because she has a knee jerk assumption that an unknown species physiology conforms to huan defaults. She should be struck off...
Daniel Goss
14. Beren
Umm, of course they have human physiology. I should think that the electric superpowers are evidence enough that their systems work exactly the same as ours. Duh.

Does anyone even say "duh" anymore?

Apparently I do.

rob mcCathy
15. roblewmac
do they ever give a WHY every bad thing in the universe ended up on yar's home world?
James Whitehead
16. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
@15roblewmac, I always assumed it was a way to show the viewers that not everything was sunshine & roses in the 24th & a half...23rd century.

Adrian J.
17. LightningStorm
Not to beat the digital "off the scale" thing too much more but I'll offer a real-world technobabble (but accurate) explanation of why it absolutely is possible for anything digital to be "off the scale".

Every numeric value in every computer has a maximum value that can be stored in it. Even if that maximum is limited only by the amount of memory in a given system. No computer can store an infinitely large number, while sure floating point numbers in systems today do have the concept of "Infinity" that is not an actual number it is merely a way of saying it's some number greater than my maximum.

For example the maximum size of a double floating point value is 1.7976931348623157E+308. Which is a sickeningly large number, but if something measured greater than that it'd be "off the scale" if the scale was represented by a Double. It'd be much smaller if it was some other data type like a 64-bit integer whose maximum is
9223372036854775807 or
18446744073709551615 if it is an unsigned-64-bit integer. :)
Christopher L. Bennett
18. John R. Ellis
Well, it wasn't known at the time, but later seasons of TNG did establish that most of the humanoid aliens in the Milky Way do conform to the same defaults, because apparently there was this ancient wise race of bald people who were disappointed that the other life forms of their era dared to look different from them, so they visited countless planets, warping and reshaping so many ancestral Trekverse species across the galaxy into their own form!

(Yeah, I know the glowing bald lady claimed that all they did was seed some genetic material around here and there and hope that random chance would mean -maybe- races in their image would result, but somehow, that struck me as insanely unlikely, even by the loose and sloppy standards of Trekverse science.)


And yet, this is portrayed as something stirring and wondrous. Not one of my fav revelations about the Trekverse.
Christopher L. Bennett
19. Christopher L. Bennett
"Felicium" is a pretty on-the-nose name for an addictive drug, particularly a euphoric, since it's from the Latin for "happy."

10: "I felt the opposite about the Prime Directive justification for not telling the suckers they were being suckered. Starfleet personnel are being interacted with, they are on a starship, you can give them a medical exam, but you can't tell them they don't suffer from the plague?"

The Prime Directive doesn't just mean "don't tell people about aliens." It fundamentally means "don't impose your will on local politics." It means you respect other societies' right to make their own choices and their own mistakes, to solve their own problems or not, because well-intentionedly imposing your own solutions on them would usually do more harm than good (either because you don't truly understand them and your solutions wouldn't work for them, or because it would make them too dependent on you). The part about not revealing the Federation's existence to prewarp civilizations is just because it's assumed that with such a great technological disparity, the locals would be very vulnerable to any attempted interference, so it's best to avoid it altogether just to keep the Federation free of the temptation to meddle.

18: "apparently there was this ancient wise race of bald people who were disappointed that the other life forms of their era dared to look different from them, so they visited countless planets, warping and reshaping so many ancestral Trekverse species across the galaxy into their own form!

(Yeah, I know the glowing bald lady claimed that all they did was seed some genetic material around here and there and hope that random chance would mean -maybe- races in their image would result, but somehow, that struck me as insanely unlikely, even by the loose and sloppy standards of Trekverse science.)"

Actually they found no complex or intelligent life other than their own, since they were the first to evolve. And the genetic material they seeded was not dependent on random chance; it was a genetic program designed to direct evolution on the seeded worlds to produce life like theirs (and really, since that was the only example of complex life they had, what else could they have based it on?).
Christopher L. Bennett
Wasn't it made federal law (as per info gleaned from "The Venture Bros.", yes I know, a veritable well of factual information) that there had to be at least one epidsode of a TV series attributed to some sort of public service announcement starting with the Reagan Administration? This may have been what TNG thought was its only way out. Also, as I remember, didn't this one originally start as a Phase II script called "Blood & Fire" with an AIDS type issue and Gay Crewmembers, but the censors balked, so it had to be changed to drug use (I know that the New Voyages actually ended up making the originally imagined episode of "Blood & Fire" last year)? I think I remember reading that somewhere, but perhaps I'm getting it confused with the fact that Merritt was in it and he fell victim to the disease.
Christopher L. Bennett
21. John R. Ellis
"to direct evolution"

But evolution is not an active force. It's a term used to describe various processes that occur, not something that is itself a shaping power. So again, I'm suspicious. There's just be an insane amount of power and control required. And since they weren't portrayed as nigh omnipotent ala' the Q, it's just troubling.

Treating evolution like an active force leads to episodes where the Captain becomes a giant salamander "because of evolution, LOL!" At least it's something Trek has consistently has gotten wrong.

I don't remember her saying they found no sentient life at all, just no life "like us"....I'll have to watch the episode again.
Christopher L. Bennett
22. John R. Ellis
20) According to wikipedia (so take it with a grain of salt), the story you mention was originally pitched as a TNG script, but no mention of it having any connection to "Symbiosis", though the fan-series that adapted it was was called "Phase II"
Christopher L. Bennett
23. Christopher L. Bennett
21: "I don't remember her saying they found no sentient life at all, just no life "like us"....I'll have to watch the episode again."

The exact words were, "Life evolved on my planet before all others in this part of the galaxy. We left our world, explored the stars, and found none like ourselves. Our civilisation thrived for ages, but what is the life of one race, compared to the vast stretches of cosmic time?"

So yeah, technically she said "none like ourselves," but in the context of the surrounding sentences, the most likely interpretation of that is that they found no other intelligences, no other civilizations to interact with, because they evolved before everyone else.

And yes, of course evolution doesn't work that way, but if you want to be realistic, there shouldn't be any humanoid aliens at all. Given the unavoidable absurdity of humanoid aliens in the Trek universe, a genetic program manipulating evolution is as good an explanation as any. I mean, we are beginning to understand that DNA can be used to store computer information or as a basis for nanotechnology, so it's not completely implausible that DNA and its associated enzymes and proteins might have some sort of inbuilt program that influences evolution. No, it doesn't make perfect sense, but neither do warp drives or universal translators or phasers or transporters or mind melds or the Q Continuum or just about anything else in Trek.
Amir Noam
24. Amir
Regarding the end of the episode:

1. Christopher @1: Thanks for reminding me that this is the episode with Denise Crosby waving goodbye in the background :-) It's been a while since I've seen it.

2. So, Picard's solution is to keep the secret and give the Felicium to the Ornarans. However, he won't fix their ships, and so their inter-planetary commerce cannot continue, and there will be no further Felicium shipments. The assumption is that the whole planet will go through withdrawl and then they'll discover that they don't actually need the drug anymore. Given that - if you were the two Brekkians in this episode, would you be willing to beam down at the end to Ornara? :-)
Justin Devlin
25. EnsignJayburd
I don't remember this episode too well. I was high when it originally aired. I do remember that the felicium reminded me of Rice Krispies and made me hungry, though...
Christopher L. Bennett
26. USER
History shows that when a civilization imposes its will on a less advanced civilization, the results are invariably disastrous, says Cap'n Baldy, which is true, except for all the times when it isn't. India now has a thriving middle class becuase of British colonization, and the results were less disastrous at the time for widows (who were prevented from being traditionally burned alive) and children (who were prevented from being brides). But this type of stuff is too complicated and ambiguous for the simplistic, sanctimonious pap that often is 'BLEEDING-HEART YAP YAP YAPPERS IN SPACE : TNG'.

It would be up to Deep Space Nine to deal with the contradictions and complexities of our multiverse.

I don't mind The Drug Dealeroid - Junkeyoid premise of the show, I mind the gaping plot holes and again the feeling that the script is a rough draft. You'd think at least one person on the Junkeyoid planet would be a shut-in or get trapped in their tool shed and go through the drug withdrawal process, and realize they don't need Gleemonex. And once the Junkeyoid freighters broke down, don't you think the Dealeroids would figure out a way to peddle the Gleemonex, since their entire economy depends on it?

27. jlpsquared
You know what, I loved this episode. I still do. Again, I was 8 when I first saw it, so maybe some stuff hit home in that sense. Watching again, the script probably could have been polished a bit. But the premise I think is soooo intriguing. An entire planet of drug adicts...Their neighbor planet whose sole industry is the manufacture of the narcotic....A mutual symbiotic relationship that is destroying one culture.

And further this is one of the few times the prime directly was employed correctly, and to it's proper use. to PREVENT us from meddling. I still think it is a great episode. This is one of picards greatest speeches.

"... Beverly, the Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy... and a very correct one. History has proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.

It's hard to be philosophical when faced with suffering.

Believe me Beverly, there was only one decision.

I just hope it was the right one.

And we may never know.
28. jlpsquared
One more quick point. The last conversation of this episode is the kind of conversation we got all the time in TOS and in this show up to around season 4-5 and just DISAPEARS...

"Destination, sir?

I don't care. Let's just get some distance between us and this system.

Course 970, Mark 318, Speed: Warp Three.

Where will that take us, Mr. La Forge

The Opperline system.

An interesting choice. Why?

Curiosity. We've never been there."
Christopher L. Bennett
29. Electone
Probably the best episode that deals with the Prime Directive in season one. Yes, Yar's anti-drug speach is vomit-inducing drivel, but overall, this one is pretty interesting. I can't think of a character I disliked more than Sobi. Her irritating, slimy smirking drove me nuts. I thoroughly enjoyed when Picard denies the Ornarans the parts to fix their freighters. The look on her face is priceless.
Christopher L. Bennett
30. ellisk
As far as I can tell, every person commenting on this episode has missed it's obvious and intentional parallel to the British/Chinese opium trade, in which Britain, for a period of centuries, paid for almost all of it's imports from China through the sale of opium that was exclusively grown in British-controlled India (as memorialized in the novel "Tai-Pan", written by James Clavell). The British traders intentionally acted during this time to turn the Chinese population into opium addicts, which reached its peak around 1905 with approximately 25% of the male population addicted to the drug. Other reviewers have criticized the episode for it's lack of realism without realizing that it has a remarkably similar historical precedent.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment