Nov 14 2011 2:00pm

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “Who Watches the Watchers?”

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “Who Watches the Watchers?”“Who Watches the Watchers?”
Written by Richard Manning & Hans Beimler
Directed by Robert Weimer
Season 3, Episode 4
Production episode 40273-152
Original air date: October 16, 1989
Stardate: 43173.5

Captain’s Log: The Enterprise is en route to Mintaka III, a planet populated by Vulcanoids whom Troi describes as Bronze Age, but who are actually medieval. A three-person anthropological team is observing a community on the planet from behind a holographic “duckblind,” but the generator has failed. It overloads as the anthropologists are talking to the Enterprise.

Upon arrival, the away team finds that the duckblind is filled with loose electrical currents. La Forge is able to replace the malfunctioning generator, but before they can reinstate the duckblind, a Mintakan named Liko sees inside the station. He’s then electrocuted and badly injured. Crusher beams him back to the Enterprise, not realizing that Liko’s daughter Oji sees it all.

Picard is furious at Crusher doing so, but she says that she can use the same mindwiping technique on Liko that Pulaski used on Sarjenka in “Pen Pals.” Unfortunately, Liko wakes up from sedation and hears Picard giving orders. Crusher sedates him again and uses Pulaski’s technique, but it doesn’t take. After he’s beamed back down to the planet, he speaks of a supreme being who sounds very much like the Overseer from Mintakan myths.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “Who Watches the Watchers?”

Complicating matters is the fact that one of the anthropologists is missing. Riker and Troi beam down disguised as locals to try to find Dr. Palmer, discovering that Liko’s mindwipe failed, and the Mintakans are starting to believe that there is a supreme being, whom Liko refers to as “the Picard.” Some Mintakans find Palmer, injured. Riker and Troi trick the Mintakans into leaving Palmer alone with just the village elder, whom Riker easily overpowers and takes Palmer away. He can’t just be beamed back up because they’re trying to avoid further cultural contamination by exposing the entire village to the transporter.

However, the damage is done. Even Nuria, the village leader—who was the most skeptical of Liko’s claims to have seen a supreme being—now believes in the Picard. To make matters worse, Troi has been captured.

Still unwilling to use the transporter to rescue Troi — because, y’know, heaven forfend the people who have already been exposed to the Federation be exposed a little bit further to save the life of a crewmember — Picard, Riker, and the chief anthropologist Dr. Barron discuss options, with Picard eventually deciding to beam Nuria up and convince her that he’s not a god, but a mortal being just like her.

He does so, explaining to her how she — with her huts and her bow and arrow — would look to one of her cave-dwelling ancestors who would see a bow as magical. Even that doesn’t entirely convince Nuria of his lack of divinity — but seeing Dr. Warren, one of the anthropologists, succumb to her injuries and die does the trick.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “Who Watches the Watchers?”

Picard and Nuria beam back down just as Liko’s about to shoot Troi with an arrow to please the Picard. When the captain “refuses” to bring Liko’s wife back from the dead (she and five others died in a flood the previous winter), Liko loses it, and shoots Picard. Oji spoils his shot, so Picard is only wounded in his shoulder, but seeing him bleed is enough to convince the Mintakans that he’s not divine.

La Forge dismantles the duckblind, and Picard promises to leave them in peace. He is given a tapestry as a gift, and wishes them well.

Can’t We Just Reverse the Polarity?: This whole thing starts because of a catastrophic generator failure which makes me wonder why the anthropologists went to a primitive planet off the beaten path without any kind of backup equipment? Or without checking the existing equipment sufficiently thoroughly? Seriously, this entire mess should have been avoided by simply stocking the duckblind properly.

Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi, along with Riker, tries to minimize the cultural contamination by playing skeptic with regard to “the Picard.” Troi’s distraction succeeds in getting everyone but the easily subdued old man out of the room so Riker can rescue Palmer, and it’s only discovered because Oji goes back to read the sundial (her main duty for the village) and sees Riker taking Palmer away. So it would’ve worked, if it hadn’t been for that pesky kid…

No Sex, Please, We’re Starfleet: Troi explains that women precede their mates when walking. Riker interprets it as “this one’s taken, get your own,” but Troi further explains that it’s more like, “if you want his services, I’m the one you have to negotiate with.” WOO HOO!

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “Who Watches the Watchers?”

Welcome Aboard: Most of this episode’s guest stars are pretty awful. Ray Wise — just before his infamous turn on Twin Peaks — is two-dimensional as Liko, which is one more dimension than Pamela Segall has as Oji. James Greene more or less exists in the role of Dr. Barron.

But this is all made up for by a stellar performance by Kathryn Leigh Scott, probably best known as Maggie Evans on Dark Shadows, who knocks it out of the park as the compassionate, intelligent Nuria.

I Believe I Said That: “Dr. Barron, I cannot, I will not, impose a set of commandments on these people.”

Picard refusing to stand on the rock where Moses stood.

Trivial Matters: The Mintakan tapestry that Picard is given at the end of the episode continues to be seen in Picard’s quarters for the rest of the run of the show, as well as in most of the TNG movies.

This is the second of three times that Picard will bring a woman from a pre-warp society onto the Enterprise and wow the heck out of her by letting her look out a window. The first was Rivan in “Justice,” and the next will be Lily Sloane in Star Trek: First Contact.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “Who Watches the Watchers?”

The title comes from Juvenal’s Satires: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” The same phrase — with the last word translated as “watchmen” — was used by Alan Moore for the title and epigraph of his landmark comic book Watchmen. Variations on the phrase have been used throughout pop culture, ranging from novels by Terry Pratchett and Robert A. Heinlein to episodes of The Simpsons and Justice League Unlimited to songs by musicians Underoath and the Prize Fighter Inferno.

This is the last show done under Michael Wagner’s brief reign as showrunner. Michael Piller officially took over with the next episode.

The location scenes were done at Vasquez Rocks, a location that was used many times on the original series, and would be used again on its spinoffs, most recently in the 2009 J.J. Abrams Star Trek film.

Make it So: “She has never seen a bow!” I hated this episode when it first aired, and I actually hate it more now. I’ve often seen it cited as a favorite of the third season and of the show in general, and to this day I will never understand why.

We start on the wrong foot when Troi and Picard carry on about how rational the Mintakans are, which only makes sense because their evolution has paralleled Vulcans. Except, as established way back in “Balance of Terror,” and reemphasized any number of places, most notably “All Our Yesterdays,” Vulcans used to be savage and brutal, and only within the last few thousand years adopted logic and suppressing of emotions — not because they’re an orderly, rational people, but because they most assuredly weren’t.

The episode continues in an unsubtle and unconvincing manner, with the characters falling into the old first-season habit of describing themselves like they’re reading from a textbook about their culture rather than talking about their own lives. Worse, is the constant use by the Mintakans of the word “reasonable,” employed as a cheap substitute for “logical” to show that they’re just like Vulcans but not quite.

This episode firmly makes clear that TNG’s interpretation of the Prime Directive will be a little too absolute and all-encompassing, to the point of absurdity. Picard asks Crusher why she didn’t let Liko die, dismissing her point that it was their fault he was injured, an appalling and despicable lack of compassion on the part of our theoretical hero. Several times, Barron points out that the cultural contamination already happened, so Picard’s obsessive insistence on avoiding any appearance by Federation technology from that point forward borders on the ridiculous (especially given that it endangers the lives of both Palmer, who needs medical attention that’s delayed by this insistence, and Troi, who is held prisoner).

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch by Keith DeCandido: “Who Watches the Watchers?”

Both the rush to superstition and the reversal of it happen so quickly that the gears are stripped from going into reverse so fast. Barron’s claim that the Mintakans will inevitably descend into holy wars and inquisitions because one guy in one village thinks he saw God is incredibly specious, especially coming from someone who’s supposed to be an anthropologist, and therefore should know better than to speak in absolutes. Admittedly, plenty of religions have been born of less, but a lot more became short-lived cults that burned out in fairly short order.

The one place where the episode shines is when Picard brings Nuria to the Enterprise. Scott beautifully plays her wonder and amazement, and Sir Patrick Stewart does magnificently in explaining Clarke’s Third Law to her.

Finally, how seriously can you take an episode where one of the characters (Liko’s daughter) has a name that sounds like that of the girl on Magilla Gorilla?


Warp factor rating: 3

Keith R.A. DeCandido has written many books and comics, and you can get autographed copies of some of them (such as his Star Trek novel A Singular Destiny) directly from him. Autographed copies of the print editions of his fantastical police procedurals SCPD: The Case of the Claw and Dragon Precinct (the latter a trade reissue of the 2004 novel) are also available for preorder. 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 podcasts, Dead Kitchen Radio, The Chronic Rift, and the Parsec Award-winning HG World.

1. Gettysburg7

+5 just for the Magilla Gorilla reference alone!

I agree, I always thought this episode was way overrated, and considering what Picard went through with Sarjenka ("Pen Pals") it just This episode just seemed to alwyas be a step out of synch for me for some reason.
2. Mike S.
I didn't hate this episode, but I agree, it's overrated. Nothing really stands out here. It's one of those episodes that I watched, got a semi-enjoyable hour out of, and totally forgot about afterwards.

Rewatching it made me feel pretty much the same way.
Keith DeCandido
3. krad
Gettysburg: When I was rewatching the episode, and I heard Ray Wise refer to his daughter as "Oji," I heard "Ogee," and started singing, "We've got a gorilla for sale!" It was pretty much over then.... :)

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
4. scotty45
I've never liked or hated this one but it really does bang the atheism drum to a ridulous degree. It almost seemed like they were trying to make believers stop watching.
Thomas Nesslage
5. aerathi18
"This is the second of three times that Picard will bring a woman from a pre-warp society onto the Enterprise and wow the heck out of her by letting her look out a window."

I'd count Picard and Troi bringing Mirasta Yale onboard the Enterprise in "First Contact" (the season 4 ep, not the movie), too. And it was a better episode to boot.
6. Christopher L. Bennett
I agree there are valid criticisms of the anthropology in this episode; I've discussed my problems with TNG's take on the Prime Directive during the "Pen Pals" review. The idea that any exposure to outside ideas constitutes "contamination" is silly in the extreme, since no culture exists alone on its planet, and indeed interaction between cultures is a necessary and healthy part of the process of cultural development. And yes, the Mintakans are shown as rather too labile in their readiness to shift from rationalism to murderous religious fervor.

Still, aside from the oversimplifications, the episode works well for me. Maybe it's because I found it refreshing to see a strong pro-secular message on commercial television for once, however heavy-handed it may have been. Maybe it's because I really like the Picard-Nuria interaction. But I think it's mainly because I like it that the standard "Keep them in the dark" approach doesn't work and the solution ultimately lies in setting aside the standard Prime Directive rules and assumptions, actually talking openly to the Mintakans, and respecting their ability to understand and adapt to new ideas in a healthy way. Ultimately it's saying that honesty works better than deception and communication works better than secrecy, and it's a shame that subsequent Prime Directive episodes forgot that lesson.

The excellent Ron Jones score and the nifty location shooting at the familiar Vasquez Rocks also helped. I love that serendipitous bit where a hawk or something just happened to fly into frame, and the sound effects editor inserted a hawk cry to make sure we'd notice it.

And though I grant the episode's message was secular, I don't think it was necessarily saying "religion is always wrong." I think it was just warning against the way religion can be used to justify any arbitrary policy or action, so it's important to examine any belief system critically rather than embracing it blindly. Or at least, it can be taken that way -- not so much against religion as against blind faith and superstition.

As for the Vulcanoid/reason thing, I choose to interpret it as being that Vulcanoids have an innate potential for high intelligence and analytical thinking alongside their potential for intense emotion. After all, just adopting logic and emotional control wouldn't make Vulcans the geniuses they are by itself. Maybe the reason Surak's logic worked as a means for the Vulcans to reform their civilization is that they already had an inborn inclination for it. It was just a matter of favoring one side of their nature over the other. (Romulans seem to be pretty smart too, always inventing stuff like telepresence ships and holographic camouflage and cloaking devices and plasma torpedoes, or devising intricate master plans.)
7. Pendard
I love this episode and think it deserves its hype and then some. I think it is one of the best Prime Directive episodes. It shows the dangers of contact between a technologically advanced race and an unadvanced race, driving home the fact that contact of any kind can be destructive. BUT it also shows that it isn't always necessary for the Federation to be secretive and keep "primitive" races in the dark -- the Federation is not a "superior" civilization, just a different one, and the Mintakans can interact with it as equals, once they truly understand it.

For a long time, I felt Picard was crazy to beam Nuria to the Enterprise and tell her the truth -- if he had beamed down himself, and explained he was a traveler with a greater knowledge of medicine, it might have been a lot less trouble. Beaming her to the ship, he risked dazzling her with all of the Enterprise's "magical" technology, and that's very nearly what happened. But on repeated viewings, I have realized that it is important that he respects her enough to tell her the truth about what is happening, rather than placating her with a half truth.

Another thing I really like is that everything keeps going wrong for the crew. The duck blind fails. Liko sees them. The mind wipe fails. Troi is captured. Picard initially convinces Nuria he is a god while trying to tell her he isn't. In the end, Picard has to put his own life on the line to save the situation. The crew definitely isn't having a good day, and it's refreshing because too often on Star Trek the crew has a brilliant plan or a novel piece of technology that can fix everything. Not this time.

@scotty45 (#4): I don't see this episode as advocating atheism -- the crew are just trying to restore the Mintakans' status quo, which happens to be that they don't believe in gods. If they had believed in gods and the crew had changed that, they would have had to correct that as well (which would have been a very interesting episode).
8. scotty45
Pendard, I was referring not so much to the plot as to the dialog in, say, the briefing/conference room scene. It very much describes religion in general as being primitive superstion.
Marcus W
9. toryx
scotty45 @ 4:

I actually was a believer when I first saw this episode and the bits that seem to be bothering you were my favorite parts.

Actually, I think I viewed the secular message pretty much the way Christopher does @ 6. It's a little heavy handed but it did have some very good points that were not in any way discouraging faith so much as demonstrating how influential a faith can be on a society.

On the other hand, I'm no longer a 'believer' so maybe my viewpoint isn't a very valid one. On the other other hand, Star Trek had absolutely nothing to do with my change of opinion.
10. Scavenger
@Pendard I dunno..the whole "The Mentakans are starting to believe in G-d. This will lead to holy wars and's inevatable." is a tidge bit on the anti-religion side, I think.
11. Christopher L. Bennett
Actually what Dr. Barron said was that it was inevitable that the rekindled belief in the Overseer would grow into a full-fledged religion, and that "without guidance, that religion could degenerate into inquisitions, holy wars, chaos" (emphasis added). He was arguing that now that the belief had been created, Picard needed to go down and direct it in a positive way. That is, since they were responsible for starting the faith, they had a responsibility to make sure it didn't get twisted into something harmful through their neglect.

Granted, Picard's reply comes off as somewhat hostile toward religion -- saying that the Mintakans' abandonment of supernatural belief was an achievement that he didn't want to sabotage by sending them back into the "Dark Ages." But maybe what he meant, although this is admittedly a selective reading, was that he didn't think it was right to take action to undo whatever a species regarded as a great achievement.
raymond bray
12. twisteddman
This episode is one of those ones I try to skip. Its not terrible , I just dont find it a fun watch. I do like the message of it though. Its odd that picard almost gets shot through the heart with an arrow and no one seems too worried. I guess the med tech makes it mearly a flesh wound.

Picards remarks were very anti-religious, and rightly so considering Picard the character is not a fan of them. Maybe those Theists who watch the show should lighten up about what characters on a Sci-fi TV show express on the subject of religion.
13. Pendard
@twisteddman (#12): Med tech indeed! Picard's heart is made of metal. The arrow probably would have bounced off.
14. Chessara
Well, this was a surprise...I remembered this episode as being quite good, but this time around I found myself leaning more towards Keith's appraisal. I actually mis-remembered the Sickbay scene and thought that it was Liko who saw the woman die and not Nuria...

And I agree that it was not very likely that out of one single story of the Overseer, the whole world would embrace a revival of their religion or superstitions...or that it would necesarily turn into an Inquisition-like society...
Keith DeCandido
15. krad
aerathi18: I don't believe that the bringing of Yale to the ship in "First Contact" included the all-important look-out-the-window scene, but I could be wrong -- I haven't watched "FC" in a while.....

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
16. euphbass
For some reason, this one really stuck in my mind from when I was a child watching them, out of all the ones my Aunt videod for me and sent over from Dublin!

On re-watch, it was OK, but not amazing. Still fun, at least to see Riker and Troi in disguise. I also thought the female anthropologist's death (Dr Warren?) was one of the better death scenes on the show - understated, and not overacted or cheesy.
17. Anony
The holographic wall disappearing and Picard taking an arrow were memorable for me. Unfortunately, I don't remember much of the rest.

I wonder why the researchers needed to be positioned in such a vulnerable location with Federation technology available. Surely they could have installed discreet sensors and retreated to a more remote hiding spot, such as a ship in orbit. But lack of commonsense surveilance and exploration techniques is endemic to Star Trek, so it's not worth singling out here.
Kristen Templet
18. SF_Fangirl
Cool title, apparently mediocre episode. Do you think people remember the cool title and assume the rest of the episode was good too?
19. Edgar Governo
"In all the ways that matter, we are alike."

I'm on the side of those who really like this episode, mostly for the Picard-Nuria interactions. One of the things that really draws me (and so many others) to Star Trek is its constant reinforcement of the idea that we're all fundamentally similar, and their conversations are a great example of that.

In light of what you've mentioned about Michael Wagner's run on the show, it's interesting to look at these few episodes early in the third season and wonder what "his" TNG might've developed into--a much more cerebral, idea-based series without a lot of things like ship-to-ship battles or typical action scenes, it seems.

I also had the same impression as Christopher, that Vulcanoid species are predisposed to develop highly analytical thinking and thus (potentially) a focus on logic versus emotion. Spock's belief in "Unification" that the Romulans are developing in that direction tends to reinforce this notion.
Nate Shouse
20. MnemonicNate
I find it interesting that Picard is so willing to sacrifice his own life to prove that he's a mere man...something that I think would wreck havoc with starships across varied quadrants if captains had to do that to prove a point. I wonder if that, coupled with several memorable moments of Kirk's away team adventures, helped put an end to captains routinely beaming down to planets. Interesting to note that Oji's interference is what ended up saving Picard's life.

And this, from Picard: "I deserve neither your obedience nor your worship." Interesting admission from a man trained to demand obedience from others. I think it speaks volumes to Picard being able to fill appropriate roles at a variety of situations.

Not a great episode, but better than some from the first two seasons. Nice review, krad. And Chris! Love the arrow shot. ;)
Justin Devlin
21. EnsignJayburd
I don't agree with the 3 rating, but I do agree that this is an overrated episode. I really loved it when it first aired, but it has become a bit stale over time.

The head anthropologist's idea that Picard impose a set of commandments is absolutely ludicrous and is only in the script so Picard can dismiss it as being absolutely ludicrous. Seriously, that guy needs to get into a new line of work.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
22. Lisamarie
I am a very religious person myself, so the whole "GASP! They are going to believe in something SUPERNATURAL!!!!!" was a little irksome, but I actually do agree with the others in that it is an important message about blind faith and the lack of reason, and what happens when individuals try to determine what God wants (but I come from a faith that values both faith and reason highly).

I also agree with Chris's thoughts on the Prime Directive - I found this episode rather insulting and condescending. If the Mintakans are so rational, why not just TELL THEM THE FREAKING TRUTH from the start! Yes, it violates the Prime Directive and perhaps influences their cultural development in a way it wouldn't have, but by now they already know you exist, so all the future deception is like closing the barn door after the cow's gotten out. If they're so smart, they'll be able to deal with the truth and learn from it, and you can interact with them as equals - just like other cultures on Earth have learned from each other.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
23. Lisamarie
Also, just wanted to point out that in this case I DO agree with Picard about the ludicrous suggestion that he pretend to be a god. I do not favor religion for religion's sake, I belong to my religion because I think it is true and the things actually happened. So I totally agreed with his vehemence there - the thing that bothered me was the implication that they seemed to view all beliefs in the supernatural as something only unenlightened people do...I bet they probably get headaches too! Again...can't believe it took them so long to realize they should just tell them the TRUTH!
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
24. Lisamarie
Oh yeah, and sorry for comment bombing, but this actually pissed me off:

"Troi explains that women precede their mates when walking. Riker interprets it as “this one’s taken, get your own,” but Troi further explains that it’s more like, “if you want his services, I’m the one you have to negotiate with.” WOO HOO!"

See, I found this really sexist and exploitive. I hate the idea that it is considered 'enlightened' for women to act just as boorish as men. And declaring that a man's 'services' are something that can be 'negotaiated' for by other people is, frankly, disgusting.

Despite my complaints in the previous posts, I actually enjoyed this episode quite a bit!
25. JoeS
As someone who believes in God, I just view Star Trek as a fictional universe in which the supernatural has been proven not to exist and anything that appears supernatural has simply evolved further than we can understand.

On a different topic, did it bother anyone else that the bronze age Mintarans had a 2oth century bow?
26. silhouettepoms
I remember liking this one well enough. But notable in that Mintaka III makes an "appearance" in Farscape when Crichton dismisses it as a boring name for a star. ;)
27. Dschultz
I don't think that Picard would have considered it backward for the Mintarkins to have a religion, so long as it was one that they developed by themselves. What was improper was for them to worship Picard as a false god, without understanding that Picard was just as mortal as they are.
28. Ashcom
I remember enjoying this episode when I first saw it. Rewatching it now I am reminded why, although I can also see why you didn't enjoy it.

The episode itself the first time (and this time) put me in mind of Brian Aldiss' Helliconia trilogy, a similar idea where technologically advanced humanity is studying a pre-industrial society on an alien planet while trying not to interfere with their development. Obviously it is an idea that can be tackled in a great deal more depth in three long novels than in a 45 minute TV show, and therein lies the problem for me. The episode tries to be too ambitious, but I still think that is better than aiming too low.

One thing that always annoys me, and did here, is the presentation of a self-contained, self-sufficient community which seems to consist of around 8 and a maximum of about 12 people. I realise it is a budgetary constraint, but it's just not believable. Having said that, as prime directive episodes go, I think the presentation of what seems like a well rounded society is still a vast improvement on the likes of Justice or Angel One's societies that are entirely defined by a single characteristic.
Kerry Engelhardt
29. geniusscientist
One thing that always drives me crazy about this episode is the idea that the Universal Translator can actually trick the Mintakans into thinking that Troi and Riker are speaking their language. That seems a little absurd.
30. NutiketAiel
I don't get why everyone is so bothered by the minor anti-religion comments in this episode. The Federation is an advanced and enlightened society that values reason, exploration and compassion. Of course they're atheists.
31. koinekid
@30 It's that assumption, that enlightenment and advancement invariably lead to atheism that is bothersome. Not to mention that compassion leads to the same? Hardly.
32. Sam0
Perhaps I'm being a little too generous to the writers for this episode, but I never saw it as particularly anti-religion overall, but rather more anti-superstition, and dealing with a very particular case that required a solution to try to adhere to the Prime Directive.

To me, the most essential information is given near the beginning of the episode, in the line which the reviewer here interprets as some sort of continuity error. Except, the episode only makes sense if we understand this background.

The people are identified as "proto-Vulcan humanoids." Troi says they are "quite peaceful and highly rational," to which Picard agrees that this is "Not surprising, considering how closely their evolution has paralleled Vulcan." The first time I watched this episode, I too was confused by this line -- it seemed like it might be a continuity error, since, yes, we know that early Vulcan history was quite violent.

But what if we read this exchange slightly differently -- i.e., Picard is remarking that the "peaceful" and "rational" traits in this culture have both developed hand-in-hand, which is why Troi mentions them together. That is consistent with what we know about Vulcan history -- it was only by adopting a very rational philosophy and suppressing emotions that the Vulcans were able to overcome all of their warlike tendencies. This culture is different from Vulcan in that it appears to have developed this rational philosophy at an earlier stage of technological development ("Bronze Age") than Vulcan did, which perhaps all the more justifies why they have anthropologists there to study it. (Star Trek in general seems fascinated with transitions from warlike cultures to united societies at peace.)

I've interpreted this exchange this way for years, and it's the only way I've ever made sense of the rest of the episode. After all, why make them "proto-Vulcans" rather than just "very rational people, somewhat like Vulcans" unless the rest of the episode is going to depend on some background here? Namely, if we remove these rational tendencies and introduce emotional actions, the society will inevitably devolve into a warlike state, as happened on Vulcan over the millennia it took from the time that emotional control began until it was finally adopted and stabilized under a rational philosophy.

With this interpretation, all of those later scenes start to make a lot more sense. Why would a peaceful Liko be willing to torture and perhaps kill Troi, unless those primitive Vulcan emotions (over the death of his wife) were bubbling up? Surely it isn't a coincidence that the person who is now willing to take the ancient legends of the Overseer most strongly is also one who is ready to advocate extreme violence out of concern for a fickle, emotional god who needs to be placated!

This also completely changes the interpretation of the scene between the anthropologist and Picard. Recall that the conversation begins by Picard asking whether the Mintakans are capable of harming Troi -- he's not asking to have a conversation about religion in general, but rather what effect this specific religion will have on this specific people.

Remember that Picard is talking to an anthropologist who has been studying this specific people. And, in his opinion -- as an expert on these specific people -- the anthropologist thinks that reintroduction of the belief in the Overseer myths could lead to holy wars, inquisitions, etc., exactly as irrationality led to huge wars on Vulcan. Perhaps the anthropologist even knows that such things had already transpired in the world's history, back when the Overseer myth was dominant.

Picard sees the irrationality, and rather than agreeing with the anthropologist to try to "fix it" by making a code of laws or something, he probably also recognizes that this belief system seems fundamentally emotional in nature, and in a proto-Vulcan society, such emotional concerns will inevitably lead to disasterous results... no law code will be enough. He will not condemn these people back to their Vulcan-like "dark ages" of emotional "fear and superstition," where they have to placate a supreme being in the hopes of having "gentle winters, plentiful hunting, fertile crops," etc.

What's the first thing the Mintakans ask for of "the Picard"? Do they ask for technology (even when their leader seems to understand that's what really is on the ship)? No. They want their loved ones to be resurrected. This is not Spock-like rationality at all. When confronted with the myth of the Overseer, the Mintakans react by asking for emotional requests and threatening extreme violence -- exactly the things that might get out-of-control in a proto-Vulcan society.

I understand that a lot of people have read this episode as some anti-religion rant. But what was Picard supposed to do? Pretend to be God? That would seem to be an even worse critique of religion.

Instead, he recognizes the danger to this particular society posed by this particular religion with its anti-rational tendencies toward superstition, and he does everything in his power to be sure this doesn't devolve into the early Vulcan wars again, where they made it into a nuclear age without conquering their fear and emotions.

Also, this interpretation makes the concern about one person or small group all the more strong when read in parallel with Vulcan's history. Splinter groups who refused to accept the teachings of rationality on Vulcan ultimately led to the Romulans (for example), a type of civilization the Federation definitely wants to discourage.

Again, I may be giving the writers a little too much credit here. But why else make these people "proto-Vulcans" unless the particular background of that race might shed light on the problems encountered here?
33. JohnC
Heavy-handed anti-religious drumbeat aside, I thought the duckblind carved into the side of the desert cliff was sidesplittingly funny. I mean, with the surveillance equipment available to them, there would be no reason for the anthropologists to have to bring themselves into close physical proximity with the Mintakans at all, but presuming out of some old-school desire to see things with their own eyes they decided to build this hidden lair from which to observe goings on, they pick a spot out in the sticks where the native inhabitants rarely venture anyway? And just what kind of interesting native activity are they going to perceive in that environment? Someone kicking rocks? Silliness.
34. JohnC
Heavy-handed anti-religious drumbeat aside, I thought the duckblind carved into the side of the desert cliff was sidesplittingly funny. I mean, with the surveillance equipment available to them, there would be no reason for the anthropologists to have to bring themselves into close physical proximity with the Mintakans at all, but presuming out of some old-school desire to see things with their own eyes they decided to build this hidden lair from which to observe goings on, they pick a spot out in the sticks where the native inhabitants rarely venture anyway? And just what kind of interesting native activity are they going to perceive in that environment? Someone kicking rocks? Silliness.
35. Iydgiydgi
Boy! Reading all this stuff, I realized two things.
1. You people need to get lives.
2. I read all your stuff, AND am watching all of STNG, therefore, I am at least as badly off, and maybe worse.
36. Sara A
This is episode illustrates exactly what religion does, it was very brave! While it may pacify us in hard moments it is overall damaging.
37. Stargazer4
This is an excellent episode and I enjoy it every time I rewatch it.

It's fine (although a bit odd, since the entire show is based on it) to have a problem with the PD, but to accuse and scorn Picard every time he tries to ensure that everyone under his command follows it, is absurd. Whenever Picard points out that his officers should follow the PD, Keith hates and dismisses the entire episode as apalling and heartless.

Crusher's zeal to save everyone she encounters regardless of the circumstances, sometimes may do more bad than good. I get that she is the good doctor, but she has to remember that she is also a starfleet officer. She did the exact same thing with Hugh the Borg when she found him unconscious. She had no business doing that and thus jeopardizing the entire Enterprise crew by BEAMING A BORG on board.

Her actions force Picard to face situations that would have never arisen otherwise, so his initial reaction in this episode -although possibly wrong- is justified. Later in the episode he is willing to risk his own life in order to prevent further cultural damage to the Mintakans, so yea maybe he isn't so heartless after all eh.

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