Thu
Aug 4 2011 1:00pm

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “The Neutral Zone”

Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Neutral Zone“The Neutral Zone”
Written by Deborah McIntyre & Mona Glee and Maurice Hurley
Directed by James L. Conway
Season 1, Episode 25
Production episode 40271-126
Original air date: May 16, 1988
Stardate: 41903.2

Captain’s Log: Captain Picard has been summoned to a conference, so the Enterprise is hanging out. They find a capsule from late-20th-century Earth that has drifted and will fall to pieces soon. Since they’re waiting around for Picard in any case, Data asks to beam over to investigate it further. He and Worf beam over to discover that a) it’s inexplicably got atmosphere and gravity even though the former is unlikely to have lasted this long and the latter would be impossible with the tech of the time and b) it’s filled with capsules containing cryogenically preserved humans. Only three are still alive, the others either having had their seals broken or empty.

Picard returns and orders the ship to go to the Neutral Zone, warp eight. Two Federation outposts along the Neutral Zone have been destroyed. The assumption is the Romulans are responsible, though the Federation has heard almost nothing from them since the Tomed Incident 53 years, seven months, and 18 days earlier (according to Data).

Crusher, meanwhile, awakens the people in the cryo chambers. They all paid to have their bodies frozen upon death so that they could be revived in some future when what killed them was no longer fatal. They include Clare Raymond, a housewife, “Sonny” Clemonds, a musician, and Ralph Offenhouse, a financier. Clare is confused — the procedure was, it turns out, paid for by her husband — while Ralph wanted to continue living, and Sonny took a flyer on it, figuring it beat giving money to his ex-wives.

Data says that the cyronics fad died out by the early 21st century. Ralph and Clare have trouble accepting the reality, while Sonny just rolls with it — trying to score drugs from Crusher and looking to party with Data. (Once a musician….)

The Enterprise arrives at the Neutral Zone. The outposts have been destroyed, with no evidence of conventional weapons. Worf says that it is as if some great force has scooped it off the planet. The other outposts have similar damage.

Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Neutral Zone

A Romulan ship decloaks. It turns out that Romulan outposts along the Neutral Zone have been destroyed in exactly the same manner. They have no more clue who the responsible party is than the Federation. Picard proposes a sharing of information with the Romulans, to which the Romulans very reluctantly agree.

The Enterprise sends the 20th-century trio home on the Charleston, and set off for the next season.

Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi provides a profile of the Romulans that Picard finds useful, and she also helps Clare trace her family tree.

If I Only Had a Brain...: Clemonds takes a shine to Data and tries to get him to go partying with him, and even offers for him to be his sideman for his new, revived career.

There is No Honor in Being Pummeled: Worf’s antipathy for the Romulans comes to the fore here, as he tells everyone on the bridge that the Romulans were responsible for the Khitomer Massacre that killed his parents.

Welcome Aboard: Gracie Harrison, Peter Mark Richman, and the always-delightful Leon Rippy do quite well as the time-displaced humans. Marc Alaimo returns, this time as the Romulan commander, and his distinctive voice makes Tebok quite menacing — ditto Anthony James as his second.

I Believe I Said That: “You and me can find us a couple of low-mileage pit woffies and help them build a memory.”

Sonny trying to convince Data to paint the town red.

Trivial Matters: Sonny asks if the Braves are “still findin’ ways to lose,” which made sense when the episode was written, but would not have made any sense coming from someone in the 1990s, since the Atlanta Braves won their division throughout the decade, including a World Series victory in 1995, and have remained a top team in the National League to the present day.

Obviously, the late 20th century came and went with no cryonics fad. And the world is probably a better place for it.

While the Romulans were mentioned in “Angel One” and “Heart of Glory,” this is the first time we’ve seen them on TNG.

The destruction of the outposts would be followed up on in “Q Who” in the second season.

Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Neutral ZoneRalph Offenhouse would return in the novels, Debtor’s Planet by W.R. Thompson, as the Federation ambassador to the Ferengi Alliance, and then later in the Destiny trilogy by David Mack and my own A Singular Destiny as the Secretary of Commerce for the Federation under President Nan Bacco.

Clare Raymond would return as a counselor for the Department of Temporal Investigations, helping time-displaced people adjust to a new era in Department of Temporal Investigations: Watching the Clock by Christopher L. Bennett.

Greg Cox had pre-cryo appearances by Ralph, Clare, and Sonny in his two-volume The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, which takes place in the late 20th century.

The Tomed Incident was dramatized in the Lost Era novel Serpents Among the Ruins by David R. George III. Despite Data’s statement that there’d been no contact with the Romulans since that incident, there were a few, most notably the attack on the Enterprise-C shown in “Yesterday’s Enterprise.”

Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Neutral Zone

Make it So: “We are back.” An episode that desperately wants to be a menacing return of an old foe at the same time it desperately wants to be a humorous fish-out-of-water tale, and doesn’t work in either regard. It’s fun to see the Romulans come back, especially as played by Alaimo and James, but they’re mostly just sitting there in an episode that tries to echo “Balance of Terror,” but which has none of that episode’s snap. Worse, the smug moralizing with regard to the three 20th century refugees is laid on a bit too thick. Plus, of course, watching the episode now when all its predictions about the rise of the cryogenics fad ten years in the future turned out not to be true 15 years ago in reality makes the episode look silly.

And ultimately nothing actually happens. It’s all setup, the payoff of which was scotched by the writer’s strike, finally haphazardly followed up on in one line of dialogue in the second season’s “Q Who.” Indeed, the writers strike of 1988 results in a lot of the issues with the last few episodes of this season (many of which could have been fixed with rewrites that weren’t possible) and affected the second season as well (shortened to 22 episodes and starting late).

Thus the first season ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Next week, we start off the second season with “The Child.”

 

Warp factor rating: 4.


Keith R.A. DeCandido’s Star Trek fiction includes a dramatization of the Khitomer Massacre Worf mentions in this episode in his novel The Lost Era: The Art of the Impossible. His more recent novels are Unicorn Precinct, SCPD: The Case of the Claw, and the upcoming Guilt in Innocence, 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.

30 comments
Sara H
1. LadyBelaine
If nothing else, this episode showed the mind-blowing new direction that Romulan spaceship design went... I just love these Romulan ships to pieces. There is prodiction art that shows that they are much larger than Enterprise class vessels, but the disparity was never made clear on the show.

Ah, the Romulans.
don3comp
2. don3comp
"The outposts have been destroyed, with no evidence of conventional weapons. Worf says that it is as if some great force has scooped it off the planet. The other outposts have similar damage."

"Scooped off the planet" sounds familiar, and it's interesting that this episode was followed up in "Q Who?" Do we know the extent to which the creative staff had conceived/developed the Borg at this point in the series' evolution?

I happen to remember enjoying this episode, if nothing else for the comic contrast in the characters from our time. And while I'm not devoted to the "we are back" line, I liked the chilly "you leave us alone and maybe we'll leave you alone" diplomacy.
Michael Poteet
3. MikePoteet
Clearly, the freezing process affected Sonny's memory of baseball. And, just as clearly, the "cryonics fad" was not public knowledge at the time, per the terms of Walt Disney's will establishing a global cover-up of the nascent freezing industry. Q.E.D.

:-)

Haven't read the DTI novel, but I have to say, the idea of bringing Clare back as a temporal investigator is a stroke of genius. Ditto putting Offenhouse in contact with the Ferengi -- at least, people in the future he can relate to!

I never did care for this episode itself, though. Yes, the Romulans' return is cool; but it never really "pays off" (except as indirect set up for the Borg -- and I've read somewhere that even that was happy happenstance, that the Borg really hadn't been developed fully by the end of season 1).
Jay Hash
4. JYHASH
One of the things that I dislike about the episode is how blasé (and kind of dickish) Picard acts towards the displacees. I know the personality aspect wasn't quite developed yet, but for a man that has an intense love for archaeology, he looked like he couldn'tve cared less about getting to speak with an historical primary source, much less 3 of them with different specialties (Offenhouse with his Business knowledge, Redmond with her Home life knowledge, and Clemons with his Pop Culture/High Society experience). Sure, a Starfleet Earth Historian may have been more interested, but Picard treats them like a nuisance almost the entire time. I know, he had the Romulans on his mind, but it just felt out of character. I guess that such is the foreknowledge of what his character ended up becoming, that we see the growing pains of the character devolpment here.

It's also a shame that Sonny has never reappeared again in any of the novels. Seemed like he was the one most apt to roll with the punches and adapt to the future. Sure, his personality as a lothario may have been a bit contentious in the Federation, but it seemed like he was mostly talk (in the episode). I'd like to see where he went: did he go back to making music on backwater alien planets and scoring the local drugs, or instead realize that he could still be an artist and not have to poison his body along with it.

Clare's storyline in DTI is very well done (Kudos to you, Christopher, when you come here to comment) and I had no idea that Offenhouse was the SecCom for Bacco's Administration, which makes a great deal of sense, as that would be where he's the most useful.

As for the Romulans, being a fan of Trek Costuming, it is interesting to note that this is one of the only times that we see their uniforms styled like this. The sash that they wear over the shoulder is a direct holdover from TOS, and by their next appearance evolves into the belt harness we've come to recognize. Tebok also is very menacing, but man, for all the buildup they were SO under utilized. Alaimo as a Romulan? Who DOESN'T want to see more of that?! I wonder if he's come back in anything that's worth reading...
Keith DeCandido
5. krad
JYHASH: AFAIK, the only time Tebok was used is in a cameo in the Vulcan's Soul trilogy. I could be wrong about that, though.

And it was obvious that Picard's dismissal of the three humans was directly related to the fact that he'd just been asked to deal with a situation that could very well lead to war. Archaeology is his hobby, but being a starship captain is his job, and it was a rather important job right at that moment. Yes, this is Jean-Luc Picard the archaeology buff, but it's also Captain Picard who castigated himself for self-indulgence just a few episodes ago in "We'll Always Have Paris." In the right time and place, you're right, he would've been curious about their experiences, but that was very very very very much not the right time or place.

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Rich Bennett
6. Neuralnet
Isnt this the episode where Data has to explain how to use the bathroom to the thawed out trio... something about using the three triangles? - It was the first(and maybe only) time we heard about it I think.. (now I will have to go back and rewatch since its been a while)
Chris Hawks
7. SaltManZ
@6: You're not confusing that with Demolition Man's "three seashells" are you? :)
Keith DeCandido
8. krad
Neuralnet: No such scene appears anywhere in this episode.

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Rich Bennett
9. Neuralnet
Wow, I cant believe I would get Star Trek and Demolition man confused - LOL - Guess it has beeen too long since I have seen these trek episodes
don3comp
10. John R. Ellis
The most frustrating thing about the "Let's all roll our eyes at the silly primitives" episodes is that whenever the Enterprise crew meets a life form that's more advanced in some way than them, the result 99% of the time isn't "Hmmm, we too have much to learn" but "HAW! You only -think- you're more advanced! We've got HEART and GUT LEVEL SMARTS!"

Kind of a mixed message.

So-called "primitive" people often had a lot more going on than we can understand from our modern perspective, so any judgements of them should be done with care.

And some decades from now, the things we see as advanced and enlightened will seem utterly mad and ridiculous. The Federation only rarely seemed to remember that.
don3comp
11. JoeNotCharles
I could have sworn that Conspiracy was the season finale of Season 1, and was intended to lead to the parasites as a recurring threat for Season 2 in the same way the Borg was. (And I was always happy that that idea got scotched and they went with the Borg instead, because I always thought Conspiracy was ridiculously cheesy.)

Which would have put this episode in Season 2 to kick off the Borg plot - but clearly I was wrong. So were they planning to have BOTH the Conspiracy parasites and the Borg in Season 2? Or was the payoff to this supposed to be something different and it got rewritten into the Borg?

Probably the latter, as that would explain something that always bugged me about this: the point of Q Who was that the Borg were still far from Federation space, and Q let them know where we were. But how do you reconcile that with this episode?
don3comp
12. JasonD
I say that the whole of Season 2 was just a glimpse into a strange alternate dimension, where Pulaski was always the chief medical officer and they never got rid of the terrible early uniforms. Or they just retconned a ton.
don3comp
13. critter42
JoeNotCharles:
It got rewritten into the Borg - a good old-fashioned 1980s-style retconn :) - though not perfect. I always liked Phil Farrand's analysis of it: http://www.nitcentral.com/shamplug/nextgen.htm (Q Who is being analyzed, scroll down to the "Changed Premises" section, 3rd bullet point).

Basically, this was retconned to be the Borg, but if it was the Borg, then it invalidates what Q told Picard - that they're coming after the Federation now that it knows about them - if they'd already assimlated the outpost in The Neutral Zone, then the Borg already knew about them. Of course, expecting Q to tell the truth about anything is a stretch at this point :)
don3comp
14. Christopher L. Bennett
Actually there was a cryonics fad in the '80s and '90s. It was a real thing that inspired this episode. Several cryonics companies went into business in the '90s and started freezing people's heads or whole bodies after their death. (The preservation of heads without bodies -- the cheaper of the two available options -- is what inspired Futurama's talking heads in jars.) It's still happening today, though not getting the publicity it once did. It was never a hugely widespread fad, and they haven't yet started sending corpsicles up in satellites, but it was kind of a fashionable idea when this episode was written.

As for the Borg, my interpretation is that while the Borg had "sampled" the Federation briefly in 2364, they just filed the information away for later study, i.e. "We'll get around to them in due course, but for now they're too far away and we've got other stuff we need to devote the resources to." But once Q flung them into Borg territory, the Borg were suddenly curious about how they'd gotten there, so it diverted more of their attention to the Federation.

"The Neutral Zone" is an episode that badly needed rewrites it didn't get due to the strike. (I gather it was shot from a first draft.) The crew's lack of curiosity about the cryonic patients is unbelievable. How the satellite got so far from the Solar System is never addressed. And Crusher's ability to essentially resurrect the dead and heal lethal damage in a matter of minutes is implausible and inconsistent with the rest of TNG-era medical science. "Code of Honor" did establish that people could be revived shortly after death, but as "Skin of Evil" showed, it wasn't a sure thing, and in this case it should've been far harder. Heck, after nearly 370 years in deep space, the cumulative damage from cosmic radiation would've probably been worse than whatever killed them in the first place.
Pamela Adams
15. Pam Adams
Actually, Robert Ettinger, one of the founders of the cryonics movement died a few weeks ago, and was apparently frozen.
http://www.cryonics.org/
don3comp
16. lex47
Are you sure you're a fan of this series? Judging by the way you've rated the first season, you apparently hate this show.
don3comp
17. Mike S.
Keith,

Congrats on completing one season (especially this season, which I think we all agree, was the worst of the 7).

One part where this episode fails: I STILL think Picard let the Romulans off too easily. Once the Romulan commander says "our outposts have also been destroyed" the first thing I would do would be to ask for permission to send a ship to their side to investigate, make sure the Romulans are not bluffing. What have they done to really earn Picard's trust, other then not fire on the Enterprise? I would have asked, just to be sure. Probably would have been met with a lot of resistance, though.

Looking forward to your reviews of a vastly improved Season 2 (though not the beginning of the year, the first two episodes of the year really sucked, IMO - probably a casuality of the writers' strike).
don3comp
18. Christopher L. Bennett
17: "(though not the beginning of the year, the first two episodes of the year really sucked, IMO - probably a casuality of the writers' strike)."

I don't know about that. The first season's last few episodes suffered from the strike because the strike began after their initial drafts were written but during the time when they would normally be getting refined in rewrites. But they couldn't even begin writing story outlines for the second season, let alone scripts, until the strike ended. In fact, the second season was postponed by a month, and shortened by four episodes, because of the strike. The only way I can see that the strike would've affected the quality of early second-season scripts was if they were rushed into production to make up for lost time. But I'm not aware of any evidence that that happened.

The one effect the strike had on the second season was that the season premiere, "The Child," was adapted from a 1978 script for the abortive Star Trek Phase II series. However, Maurice Hurley wrote a new script based on that episode's premise, so most of the process there was post-strike. (The strike was resolved early enough that shows didn't have to do as much recycling of old scripts as they feared. Also in 1988, Paramount revived Mission: Impossible with the intention of reshooting old episodes' scripts with new actors, but since the strike was resolved early in the process, they only did four remakes and the rest of the series was original.)
don3comp
19. another_name
I think you're being unfairly critical of this episode, and doing so either willfully or blindly for 3 reasons:

1) As others have noted, the 'scooped off the planet' was our first hint of the Borg, and the one-line mention in Q Who was in fact not the only reference to it. The Borg actually did it to the Enterprise later in Q Who, AND we see the impact of it on a planet at the start of "The Best of Both Worlds, Part I". It seems like you're being critical just because there wasn't a piece of dialogue with someone explicitly stating "hey, that scooping thing. It was the Borg!!" I think viewers made the connection just fine.

2) You're being critical of the show's version of history for being silly when the "history" took place a decade later. Really?? Does the fact that there were no Eugenics Wars make the entire Khan character and storyline (including movies) "silly"? Repeat after me: IT'S FICTION. At some point, a show based in the future has to create its own history. If you can't allow the show some leeway in this regard, then don't expect much credibility as a sci-fi critic.

3) I actually quite enjoy the dialogue between Picard and Offenhouse about money and power. The change in how humanity perceives those two things the central societal/cultural evolution that fictional humanity experienced between the present and the Star Trek universe. It's an ongoing theme all through the Star Trek canon, most notably for TNG in the conversation between Troi and Mark Twain in "Time's Arrow, Part II". I agree it borders on condescending, but the fact that Offenhouse gives as good as he gets in the conversation stops it from crossing that line.

Your criticisms leave me feeling that you a) have unrealistic expectations of the writers, and b) aren't giving the audience enough credit.
Michael Poteet
20. MikePoteet
@14 Christopher - Your theory on the Borg "sampling" the Federation/Alpha Quadrant and filing them away for later had not Q intervened is a good one. I would buy that, but (realizing this is not your fault, but the writers of a later series), is that undone by the fact that Anika Hansen's parents were Borg-chasers (as established in "Dark Frontier")? I always hated what "Voyager" did with the Borg, not least of which was that attempted retcon. (And then, of course, the Borg would show up in "Enterprise," wouldn't they?)

So, if the Borg had decided to put humanity on the back burner, they'd been making that decision several times by the point of "Q Who," unless I'm misremembering my Trek history (which, I admit, and have even demonstrated on this site, is entirely possible!).

@19 -- I can't speak for Keith, of course, but he's a professional Trek author many times over and a fan of the show, as most folks are around these rewatches, it seems. Nitpicking is just something fans do. It doesn't always imply malicious intent or having "unrealistic expectations." As the Sherlockians would say, It's all part of The Game. :-)
don3comp
21. John R. Ellis
#19= I'll put it this way...does enjoying something mean pretending its flaws don't exist?

I don't think it should.

The most ardent fan of any story has bits they feel don't quite live up to their expectations. It doesn't mean they hate it.
don3comp
22. Pendard
So ends the first season on TNG. It may not be the best year of the show, but it isn't the worst. All in all, it's a pretty good beginning, and while it is undeniable that it's uneven in places, it is also undeniable that the subsequent seasons owe a great debut to the groundwork that was laid here. There are a lot of moments when you can see them begin cooking with the ingredients that make TNG a great show, but they don't get the proportions quite right and the result tastes a bit funny. Still, if you can forego comparing it with what came later, it's a very good season in its own right.
rob mcCathy
23. roblewmac
I like this one! By the end I was pretty tired of a whole episode of Starfleet patting itself on the back and CHEERED at the "he's lying!" bit. That alone makes this one of my fave TNGS.
rob mcCathy
24. roblewmac
I like this one! By the end I was pretty tired of a whole episode of Starfleet patting itself on the back and CHEERED at the "he's lying!" bit. That alone makes this one of my fave TNGS.
don3comp
25. Lore
What I liked about this one (which is what I most love about Star Trek) is the touch of futuristic human living values, specifically when money is mentioned and then Picard goes on a very small but very intriguing (to me) schtick about how one fulfills his/her life. Makes the episode for me
Nicky Kay
26. NickyKV2
Bizarre and inferior, and showed R's sadistic streak. And the clothes? Blimey!

As for Toy's useless info to the bald bloke...I am surprised he didn't thump her.

And then all the patronising "We are so much better than you were". Sickening.

Slightly saved by the Romulans, but still minus twenty out of Warp Ten!
Justin Devlin
27. EnsignJayburd
I still want to know what a "low mileage pit woofie" is...
don3comp
28. crzydroid
When exactly are these people supposed to be from? The late 80's? Because they seem like they come from an earth that is pretty well-off in terms of development...after the Eugenics Wars, when Khan & co. leave the planet in 1996 (aboard a DY-100 class freighter with artificial gravity) I get the impression that Earth is not in great shape. Spock describes the people as "war weary populations." Then we have World War III sometime after that (is this supposed to be the same as the Eugenics Wars? Spock also says they are the last of the so-called World Wars). This leads to the courts that Q recreates, which last until the 2070's, unless that's a retcon. First Contact in 2063 and the Vulcans presumably help to reverse some of the badness that was happening up until then, though I'm not sure when the Bell Riots were supposed to have taken place.

Wow, after some considerable flexing of my Star Trek fake history, my point is when do these guys come from. They don't seem like they come from a period of "post-atomic horror."

Anyway, I always find these first season episodes talking about how much more advanced they are to be a bit condescending. I get that it a lot of it was because of Gene Roddenberry's hopeful vision of the future, and that they wanted to draw attention to the fact that things could be better, but honestly, some of the lines grate as being too in-your-face. Especially since "First Contact" sort of blows the lid off of the "evolved sensibilities." I appreciate the fact that society as a whole may have changed, but the fact that people would simply assume that no one will ever be greedy is a bit obtuse. I guess the thing that really bothers me is how they judge 20th century people as all being uncivilized and bad. Obviously there have been people of great virtue over the centuries and in this day and age.

I always appreciated Khan's line, "Oh, there has been technical advancement, but, how little man himself has changed." I think this will be somewhat true...you can read descriptions of ancient Egyptian societal/class workings and think they could describe life today.

I did find Picard's line about people exercising self-restraint in using the comm system rather amusing. It might also explain the general lack of security on the Enterprise throughout the series.
don3comp
29. cheeseonearth
At least there was no Amelia Earhart that in itself deserves a higher rating.
don3comp
30. Lupin, Arsene
I've always hated the assumption (taken to it's moronic conclusion in the Greg Cox novels referenced) that Star Trek's history is EXACTLY THE SAME as our history.

Is it really that hard for fans to concieve of Star Trek as an alternate reality? Is it really that to imagine the whole thing as an alternate universe?

Of course, canon (and interpretations of canon) seem to be the bane of geekdom. Personally, I subscribe to Kawamori-style canon when it comes to, well, everything--basically that what we see in a given media is an interpretation of the "real" events, and therefore not of complete, unquestioning accuracy. You know, instead of a rigid, unfliching dogmatic, well, canon.

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