Nov 7 2011 1:00pm

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “The Ensigns of Command”

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “The Ensigns of Command”“The Ensigns of Command”
Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Directed by Cliff Bole
Season 3, Episode 2
Production episode 40273-149
Original air date: October 2, 1989
Stardate: unknown

Captain’s Log: Picard’s attending a string quartet concert that includes Data, O’Brien, Ensign Ortiz, and another crewmember (a Vulcan) and is interrupted by a message from the Sheliak Corporate, who haven’t contacted the Federation in 111 years. They claim there are humans on Tau Cygna V — a neat trick, considering that the world’s atmosphere is filled with hyperonic radiation, which is fatal to humans. The Sheliak instruct the Federation, per the very lengthy and detailed treaty between the two nations, to remove the humans. Tau Cygna V belongs to the Sheliak, so they’re within their rights, and they will exterminate the humans if the Enterprise doesn’t evacuate them.

When the Enterprise arrives at the planet, they detect humanoid life, though sensors can’t determine how many. The hyperonic radiation renders both phasers and transporters inoperative, so Data — as the only crewmember immune to the radiation — must take a shuttle down. He learns that there is a thriving human colony of more than 15,000 people. They are descendants of a colony ship, the Artemis, that was presumed lost 92 years earlier. Instead, they crash-landed on Tau Cygna V after their guidance system failed, and managed to find a way to live with the radiation.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “The Ensigns of Command”

Without transporters, it will take four weeks to evacuate the colony, and the Sheliak has given them three days. Picard attempts to negotiate, but the Sheliak refuse. To make matters worse, Starfleet can’t send a colony transport for another three weeks.

Unfortunately, Data is having a hard time convincing the colonists of the need to evacuate. The colony leader Goshevin insists that the planet is theirs, that they fought too hard to make a world here. They believe that they can fight back. Data’s words are unconvincing. Some of the colonists agree with Data, but most are willing to stand with Goshevin and fight.

Picard takes the Enterprise to find the Sheliak colony ship, which must be nearby if they’re colonizing in two days, in the hopes of negotiating. His concern is that the treaty is 500,000 words long, and the negotiation included 372 Federation legal experts. And, in fact, Picard’s attempts to explain the situation and ask for an extension of the deadline fail rather spectacularly.

Data realizes that, since words have failed, he’ll have to try actions. He uses his own circuitry to modify a hand phaser so that it will work in the hyperonic radiation and attacks the aqueduct, stunning several colonists on the way. The damage he does has an immediate effect. He is one android with one weapon, and he could reduce the pumping station to nothing — the Sheliak will wipe them out from orbit. (It is, after all, the only way to be sure.)

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “The Ensigns of Command”

Poring over the treaty, Picard finds a paragraph that can help him. He contacts the Sheliak and requires third-party arbitration of their dispute. The Sheliak grudgingly admit that he has that right, and then Picard nominates the Grizzelas to serve as arbitrators. However, they’re in their hibernation cycle, and won’t be out of it for another six months, at which point, the whole thing can be settled. Picard gives them a choice — wait six months for the Grizzelas, or give him the three weeks he needs for the colony ship to arrive. The Sheliak refuse at first, at which point Picard declares the treaty in abeyance. That’s enough to get the Sheliak on board, and they give Picard the three weeks.

Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: La Forge, O’Brien, and Wes work for three days on trying to get the transporter to function in the radiation. At the end of the episode, La Forge happily announces that it can be done — and it’ll take 15 years and a team of specialists. Picard sagely suggests that they postpone.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “The Ensigns of Command”

Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi has a wonderful scene where she demonstrates to Picard how difficult it is for people to communicate without a common language.

If I Only Had a Brain…: Data, last seen playing the violin as Sherlock Holmes in “Elementary, Dear Data,” is now part of a string quartet. His violin playing would continue to be a recurring motif throughout the series (notably in “Sarek” later this season). He also gets to work on using reverse psychology and improvisation.

Of particular note is the fact that Data uses a part from his right arm to modify the phaser. From that moment forward, Brent Spiner never uses his right arm, letting it hang uselessly at his side, a nice touch.

No Sex, Please, We’re Starfleet: Ard’rian McKenzie, the colonist who is most receptive to Data’s cause, totally flirts with Data and he totally doesn’t appreciate it.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “The Ensigns of Command”

Welcome Aboard: Eileen Seeley is incredibly charming as Ard’rian. Richard Allen and veteran character actor Mark L. Taylor do fine as two other colonists. Grainger Hines was so unhappy with how his performance as Goshevin turned out that he took his name off the credits and insisted his voice be dubbed by another actor. Colm Meaney appears as O’Brien, but doesn’t have a word of dialogue.

I Believe I Said That: “He wants the impossible.”

“That’s the short definition of ‘captain.’”

Wes in response to Picard’s insistence on them making the transporters work, and La Forge’s retort.

Trivial Matters: This was actually the first episode of the third season filmed, but “Evolution,” while filmed second, was written as the season premiere.

The episode’s title is pretty dreadful, but it does at least have a nifty literary source: John Quincy Adams’s poem “The Wants of Man.”

This is the only time O’Brien is seen playing the cello, though it will be mentioned again, most notably in the Deep Space Nine episode “Shadowplay.”

The 14th Dalai Lama visited the set during the filming of this episode.

Data’s shuttle is the Onizuka, named after Ellison Onizuka, one of the astronauts who died on the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “The Ensigns of Command”

Make it So: “Who’ll be left to bury you?” I have always liked this episode. I know that plenty of people don’t, and the complaint I’ve heard most often is that the colonists are too stupid to live. Well, I spent two years working public service at the New York Public Library, another two years working for the U.S. Census Bureau, and I currently work at a high school, and I can assure you that, in fact, most people are that stupid. In fact, a lot of them are stupider. That Census work also exposed me to quite a bit of bureaucratic nonsense, which made the Sheliak scenes resonate as well. So this episode rang just right for me on every level.

Also, it does a wonderful job of turning expectations on their ear. Picard uses the Sheliak’s own bureaucracy against them in a magnificently clever turn — the bit where he cuts the Sheliak off and keeps them waiting for an answer is classic, and Sir Patrick Stewart plays it briliantly — and the miracle workers actually don’t fix the transporter.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “The Ensigns of Command”

On top of that, it’s a wonderful showcase for Data, who gets a true command situation, since he’s literally the only person who can accomplish his mission, and it proves more difficult than expected.

Just a wonderful episode.


Warp factor rating: 7

Keith R.A. DeCandido’s first ever Star Trek fiction was the comic book Perchance to Dream, which will be reprinted later this month by IDW in the trade paperback Enemy Unseen. His most recent critically acclaimed novels are 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 this web site, which is a portal to (among many other things) his Facebook page, his Twitter feed, his blog, and his podcasts, Dead Kitchen Radio, The Chronic Rift, and the Parsec Award-winning HG World.

Sam Mickel
1. Samadai
I always liked this episode as well. Data does an excellent job when given a task that seems impossible.
Michael Burstein
2. mabfan
I too liked this episode. It's not the greatest one they did, but it does have its moments.

I never noticed that bit about Data's arm hanging useless from his shoulder. I'll have to look for that.

-- Michael A. Burstein
David Stumme
3. grenadier
I'm surprised we've never had a novel or story about first contact with the Sheliak, and the eventual creation of the treaty. Given the 2255 time frame, I imagine Sarek and other TOS Ambassadors (Fox? Hedford?) being among the negotiators, and maybe Pike or Matt Decker making first contact.
Christopher L. Bennett
4. Christopher L. Bennett
This episode always bothered me for the way it solidified what became a permanent change in how Data was portrayed. Originally, the intent was that Data had the capacity for emotion, but it was undeveloped and limited. He showed definite signs of emotion in episodes like "The Naked Now" and "Skin of Evil." By the second season, it was sometimes implied that emotion was rare for him (e.g. "The Schizoid Man"), but I think "The Ensigns of Command" was the first time he overtly came out and said he had no emotions at all, and the first time that lack of emotion was really made a big deal of, treated as a defining trait of his character. And I always hated that about his characterization. It's foolish to claim that emotions are harder to program in an AI than intelligence. Emotions are the closest thing we have to programming -- they're inbuilt, automatic responses to stimuli. By themselves, as in animals, they're rather simple and predictable. It's their interaction with intelligent thought that makes them complicated, like when people's desires clash with their beliefs or obligations. So it should be far easier to give an AI emotions or the equivalent than to give it consciousness. The "emotionless robot" notion is a silly sci-fi cliche and I always regretted seeing it descend on Data. And this was the episode where it was first made blatant. The Data here, who's completely uncomprehending when Ard'rian kisses him, is not the same Data who talked to Tasha about being "fully functional" exactly two seasons earlier.

The Sheliak were cool, though. We could've used more such truly alien cultures in modern Trek, the kind of weird nonhumanoids that were paradoxically more common in TOS. The concept was better than the execution, however.
Christopher L. Bennett
5. Pendard
This is definitely a good episode, by the standards of TNG up to this point -- great conflict and suspense really help it dramatically -- but some of the scenes with Data and the colonists are just painful. KRAD's point that people really are that stupid is well taken, but the acting just seems bad and the dialogue contrived.

I love episodes where Data has to get creative. He normally functions by collecting and analyzing information -- inspiration is something he is incapable of, on paper at least. Episodes like this one, "The Most Toys" and "Redemption, Part 2," are great because you really get to see the character develop towards humanity. I wish the TNG writers had been more deliberate about showing this ability develop -- all through the show he seems to be on a plateau where he doubts his ability to be creative at first, and then he succeeds brilliantly. You would think that eventually he would become a little more confident.

I never noticed Data's arm either. One thing I love about TNG actors is that there's always something new to discover in their performance, 20 years later.
Christopher L. Bennett
6. Rootboy
This one's pretty good, though I find the obvious dubbing of the colony leader's lines kind of distracting. And man, is the "the whole population of the planet seems to be about 20 extras" thing ever on display here. They got better at hiding that in later seasons when the production values went up a bit.
Christopher L. Bennett
7. ChrisG
Thanks for the observation about the arm; I'll look for that.

Sure, the colonists came off as a bit silly, but given that this decision was tied up with their self-identity and their motivating traditions, it's not that hard to believe that people would be irrational about it. I actually liked the overall conflict that embodied. I also liked that both A and B stories resolved their problems with realistic cleverness rather than techno-babble. I think it was essential that the transporter team not succeed.

So, I agree that the ep was a bit clunky at times, but I've always enjoyed it. An accurate rating, I'd say.
j p
8. sps49
Sheliaks are asexual, doughy blobs created by Federick Pohl, to me.

The title always makes me think the episode is "Lower Decks".
Captain Hammer
9. Randalator

Crowning Moment of Awesome and Crowning Moment of Funny all rolled into one. For that alone the rating of 7 is well deserved.
Nate Shouse
10. MnemonicNate
It's enjoyable to see how transporter problems translate 75+ years after Classic Trek, especially on the flagship of the Federation. Episodes like this and "The Enemy" and "Power Play" are always interesting to me, as we see how advancements in technology don't always allow for ease of transport.

I don't think it necessarily translates into 'emotion,' per say, but I like when Data goes from his typical carefree state into a more forceful, commanding presence (as he does later in "Chain of Command"), showing that his leadership training paid off...and that'd he be a great first officer. And even though it's a simple trick, I always enjoyed the exploding water lines at the end of the episode. Pursuant to Paragraph 145, sub-section B-7, I name this a great review, krad.

(BTW, does anything exist of Hines' original dialog?)
Christopher L. Bennett
11. Christopher L. Bennett
By the way, a bit of astronomical trivia: Sheliak is the proper name for Beta Lyrae, the binary star system where the TAS episode "The Slaver Weapon" (and the Known Space novella it was adapted from) took place. It was an uninhabited system in that episode/novella, and is quite unlikely to support life (since it consists of blue giant stars that would be very short-lived in astronomical terms). Perhaps the Sheliak are from the vicinity of Beta Lyrae rather than the system itself, and the Federation calls them that because Beta Lyrae is in their space.

@8: The title isn't using "Ensigns" in the sense of "the lowest-ranking naval officers," but in its earlier sense of "badges or tokens of office." See the John Quincy Adams poem that Keith linked to above:

"I want the seals of power and place,
The ensigns of command..."

So the ensigns of command are the trappings that identify you as a leader, that prove your rightful authority. The title symbolizes Data learning to assert and exercise his authority as the mission commander, demonstrating to the colonists that he should be followed.
Valentin M
12. ValMar
How wonderfully smug are the crew in the last still :D
David Levinson
13. DemetriosX
Admittedly a good episode, but just how many colonists were on the original ship? First it crashed, probably killing some, then they had to learn to live with the radiation, which had to kill a lot more. And yet a mere 92 years later, not much more than a lifetime in the Federation, there are 15,000 of them!? I know they needed a sufficiently large number that bringing everybody up via shuttle would take a long time, but they must have bred like rabbits.
Keith DeCandido
14. krad
DemetriosX: My guess is that the Artemis had hundreds of thousands of people on board. Maybe millions.
j p
15. sps49
@11- Thank you, but I did know all of that.
Ian Tregillis
16. ITregillis
This episode changed quite substantially from Snodgrass's original script and original intent. She has posted the original version as a PDF on her website.

It's definitely worth taking a look.
Christopher L. Bennett
17. Andy Holman
As much as they state (repeatedly) that Data has no emotions, it always seemed to me that from Season 3 onward, there would be faint sparks of emotion playing under the surface. I assumed that Data did have the capacity for emotion, but he just didn't realize it. And, in fact, he was already experiencing them in understated ways --- I mean, how can you have friends if you truly have no emotions at all? When they gave him the emotion chip in the movies it felt like short-cutting the character's evolution.
Christopher L. Bennett
18. JMH
@17 I never thought of it as short-cutting it, so much, as...
I don't know. It seems kinda like giving a very hard-of-hearing person a cochlear implant. It was awful, when it was inflicted on him, but when it was a choice he made for himself? It is an interesting, and at times poignant, thing to be able to perceive clearly and identify better something that was always kinda there.

I agree that Data always had some muted ability to feel emotions. His problem was that he was so sternly told that he couldn't, possibly on a firmare level, that would make it hard for him to reconsider even in the face of such overwhelming evidence. And everyone else took his word for it, even while subconsciously treating him the opposite.
I always saw his confusion in this ep as, not so much he was incapable of attraction, he just wasn't attracted to *her*. And that could be terribly confusing for a Data who thinks he can't feel the emotion that would make the point obvious. "Why was I interested in copulating with the one girl who threw herself at me, and not the other?" Especially when, you know even for Data, there wasn't much time for deep thinking on the subject. Brent Spiner did such a lovely job of making it obvious that Data was considering things he never talked about, and it makes me sure that Data considered this issue at length.
If he didn't have some grounding in these questions, he couldn't've dealt so well with Madame Borg.
(But I'm a right proper Trek fan, and overthink and justify things all over the place.)
Christopher L. Bennett
19. Chessara new episode today? :(
Keith DeCandido
20. krad
Chessara: belated apologies for being late both last week and this week. Life got in the way on two straight Wednesdays. I'm going to try to use the break next Thursday (we'll be skipping Thanksgiving, so "Booby-Trap" will be Monday the 21st, with nothing Thursday the 24th, and then "The Enemy" on the 28th) to get a bit ahead so this won't happen again.

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Justin Devlin
21. EnsignJayburd
"Troi has a wonderful scene where she demonstrates to Picard how
difficult it is for people to communicate without a common language."

Which seemed misplaced. Communication with the Shelliac is convoluted at worst. This scene would have worked much better in "Darmok."
Phil Parsons
22. Yakko
@4 I don't think the intent was to suggest that Data didn't have emotions because they were too difficult to program. After all his prototype Lore had them in abudnance. In "Brothers" Soong tells Lore that with all the complexities of his programming emotions seemed simple by comparison. But since Lore turned out to be a sociopath he constructed Data to specifically NOT have emotions until he could work out how to avoid the same result. I always took the hints of emotional behavior Data exhibited before getting the chip in Star Trek: Generations to be either deliberately affected (as in "Reunion II") or a sort of emergent property that Soong didn't anticipate.

You're probably right that both the writers and Brent Spiner conceived the character differently the first two years which I think is why he's portrayed so oddly at times - particularly in the first season. And I've always detested that the intoxicant virus affects him in "The Naked Now" with no (even by Trek standards) remotely plausible explanation.
Christopher L. Bennett
23. Eben Brooks
This is the episode that made my friends and me say "Whoa! Now THIS is Trek!"
MaGnUs von Tesla
24. lordmagnusen
I definitely always took for granted that Data had the capability for rudimentary feelings... like when he says his circuits get used to someone's presence when Tasha dies... it's obvious he has some basic emotional ability.

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