Written by Marc Scott Zicree and Dennis Russell Bailey & David Bischoff and Joe Menosky & Ronald D. Moore and Michael Piller
Directed by Cliff Bole
Season 4, Episode 15
Production episode 40274-189
Original air date: February 18, 1991
Captain’s Log: A patient is brought into the crisis room of a hospital on an alien world. The aliens are humanoid, but with forehead ridges, and no fingers, just mitten-like hands with single thumbs. The patient’s interior organs seem to be all out of place, and when they remove his gloves and shoes, they discover digits on his extremities. “What are you?” one of the doctors asks his unconscious form.
Only then do we get a look at the patient’s face: It’s Riker, with a prosthetic forehead.
When Riker wakes up, he identifies himself to the doctors as Rivas Jakara from the Marta Community on the southern continent. He got caught up in the riots and was injured and knocked unconscious. He has no family, and he explains his physiological abnormalities as genetic anomalies shared by his father.
Doctor Berel, the chief of staff, queries him a bit more, asking about the device found on his person (his phaser), which Riker identifies as a toy bought as a present for a neighbor’s child. Riker also asks if they found a piece of jewelry, a metal pin (his combadge), but they didn’t find that, just the “toy.”
Outside, the doctors confer. They don’t entirely buy the genetic anomaly story. Nilrem wants to alert security, but Berel doesn’t want anyone called until they check “Jakara’s” story out more thoroughly. Meanwhile, he’s to be isolated and placed under 29-hour-a-day guard.
Elsewhere, a scientist named Mirasta Yale is trying to convince Chancellor Durken to give her approval to build a warp engine. The security minister, Krola, expresses a concern that all these new ideas and new technology are frightening to the people. Durken, however, approves the program — but then he promises Krola that after that, they will slow down, so everyone can catch their breath.
Mirasta returns to her lab, where she is frightened by two people suddenly appearing. They introduce themselves as Jean-Luc Picard and Deanna Troi. They explain where they come from, and that Federation policy is to initiate first contact with planets that are on the verge of faster-than-light travel. Mirasta was chosen for initial contact due to her prominence in the scientific community. At first she thinks it’s a practical joke, but eventually she agrees to go with Picard and Troi. (She agrees remarkably quickly to be kidnapped by aliens...)
They take her to Ten-Forward and she stares down at Malcor III, and it’s the fulfillment of her wildest dreams, going back to her youth going to the planetarium. Mirasta asks why they chose her, and Picard explains that they monitor the world, both from a distance and up close via covert teams of specialists that observe in disguise.
Unfortunately, they’ve had to step up their timetable. Riker was on Malcor to coordinate the preparation for first contact when he disappeared. Mirasta promises to do what she can to help locate him, but she warns that Malcorian culture has long been one that believes the Malcorians to be the center of the universe and the supreme life form. Many will reject what the Federation brings them, most of all Krola. She also insists that Picard not mention Riker or the rest of the undercover team to Durken.
Back at the hospital, whatever hopes Berel had that this would remain quiet are dashed, as the entire facility is now talking about the strange being in the isolation ward thanks to Nilrem. Berel has checked out “Jakara’s” story and none of it tracks. His address is an eating establishment, and nobody in Marta has heard of him. Berel asks if Jakara is an alien. Riker sorta-kinda denies it (he never actually says he isn’t an alien), and Berel cautions him that if he doesn’t tell the truth, the rumors will persist and it won’t go well for him.
Mirasta brings Picard to meet with Durken, who is rather shocked to meet his first alien. Picard brings him on board the Enterprise. After giving him a tour, they talk in private in the captain’s ready room. Picard opens the wine that his brother Robert gave him, and they toast to their new friendship.
Picard makes it clear that how they proceed is entirely up to the Malcorians. If they ask the Enterprise to leave and never return, the Enterprise will leave and never return.
Back on the planet, Riker tries to escape, but is caught in fairly short order, and Nilrem and hospital security beat the crap out of him, aggravating his injuries. That’s enough for Berel, who orders planetary security to be called.
Durken meets with Krola, Mirasta, and two other advisors. Krola is very much against any further contact with the alien conquerors, and accuses Durken of surrendering to them. Krola also reveals that they have captured a spy, at which point Mirasta tells Durken about Riker and the covert team (which Krola accuses of exerting influence on their children to further their agenda, while Mirasta insists they were simply gathering information). Durken is furious that Mirasta kept that from him.
Krola and Mirasta go to the hospital. Krola orders Berel to revive Riker, but Berel is convinced that that would kill him and refuses. Krola then says that he’ll replace Berel with someone who will follow orders.
Picard meets with Durken, who confronts the captain about Riker. Picard explains that doing surveillance is standard after disastrous first contact with the Klingons led to decades of war. Picard admits that hiding the surveillance team from Durken was a mistake, which Durken is pleased about — specifically that Picard is just as capable of mistakes as anyone.
Durken does not let Riker go, yet. Picard beams back.
At the hospital, Berel has been ousted as head of the hospital, replaced with Nilrem, who revives Riker. Krola then interrogates a woozy Riker. He has learned the truth of the phaser, that it’s a weapon rather than a toy, and places it in Riker’s hands, forcing him to fire on Krola — who’s willing to die to preserve his way of life.
Mirasta meets with Durken, who makes it clear how badly Mirasta screwed up. Mirasta insists that Riker be released, as he is likely to die under Krola’s ministrations.
Crusher beams down with Worf and a medical team into the hospital room. She beams Riker and Krola (who are both unconscious, the former from his wounds, the latter from the phaser blast) back to the ship and saves both their lives. Riker was near death, but Krola was never in any real danger (the phaser was on stun). Crusher establishes that Krola’s left hand was on the weapon; but Riker was in no shape to be struggling for it, so Krola had to be firing on his own — trying to martyr himself.
Durken tells Picard that Malcor III is not ready for contact with the Federation. Mirasta, however, requests that she go with the Enterprise. She will not be able to bear the restrictions Durken will place on her. Picard sends Durken back to a Malcor III that will remain the center of their universe for a little while longer.
Thank You, Counselor Obvious: Troi is by Picard’s side during the first meeting with Mirasta, a fitting role for the counselor.
No Sex, Please, We’re Starfleet: A nurse named Lanel agrees to help Riker escape, but only if he’ll make love to her, as she’s always dreamed of having sex with an alien. Riker is reluctant, which would be a lot more convincing if a) it wasn’t Riker (remember “Angel One”?) and b) Lanel wasn’t played by Bebe Neuwirth (two words, both of them “hubba”). Apparently Riker acquiesced, since Lanel does help him (after a discreet cutaway) — for all the good it did him, as he was caught in about six-and-a-half seconds.
I Believe I Said That: “This morning I was the leader of the universe as I know it. This afternoon, I’m only a voice in a chorus.”
Chancellor Durken realizing the enormity of what has happened to his world.
Welcome Aboard: Some truly outstanding guest stars in this one. Carolyn Seymour — who plays two different Romulan ship captains in “Contagion” and “Face of the Enemy” and a holographic matron in two episodes of Voyager — is excellent as Mirasta, whose enthusiasm for space travel is infectious. Michael Ensign plays the first of four roles on modern Trek (one role each on Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise after this), and does the best he can with Krola. Bebe Neuwirth is amusing as the alien groupie nurse (for all that her scene is ridiculous), and Steven Anderson (Nilrem), Sachi Parker (Tava), and especially George Hearn (Berel) do quite well as the doctors.
But the episode belongs to George Coe, always a superb actor, who does a brilliant job with the complexities of Chancellor Durken.
Trivial Matters: For the third of four times, Picard brings a woman from a pre-warp culture to the ship and impresses her by letting her look out a window. The others were in “Justice” and “Who Watches the Watchers?” and it will happen again in the very similarly named Star Trek: First Contact. (And my apologies — I had forgotten about this one when discussing this phenomenon in the entries for the previous two episodes.)
The disastrous first contact with the Klingons mentioned by Picard to Durken was dramatized in the Enterprise pilot episode “Broken Bow.”
When Robert Picard gave his younger brother a bottle of Château Picard at the end of “Family,” he told him not to drink it alone — so it’s fitting that he opens it to share with Durken here.
Trek will again dip into the crew-as-seen-through-the-eyes-of-an-alien-culture well on Voyager’s “Distant Origin,” also co-written by Joe Menosky.
Make it so: “It’s far more likely that I’m a weather balloon than an alien.” Where last time we had an episode I liked less upon rewatching, I find myself liking this one more this go-round than I did the first time.
Having said that, it’s still not an episode I think very highly of, mainly because the “alien” culture of the Malcorians so totally isn’t. It’s basically 20th-century Earth. The similarities are beyond ridiculous: Durken talks about having dinner every night with his nuclear family (something he considers important to do every night despite how busy he is as chancellor), Berel cites an oath he took as a doctor to do no harm, most of the medical jargon is the same, there are stories of UFOs that turn out to be weather balloons, and so on and so forth.
Riker’s capture and subsequent inability to be found also strains credulity. He lost his combadge when he was injured — but why do they rely on an external device? Why not a subcutaneous transceiver of some kind? (We’ve seen that technology before.) And why does he have a Malcorian backstory that’s so easily penetrated by hospital staff? If the first-contact team really was filled with specialists who know their stuff, why couldn’t they create a better backstory? Or at least know which hospital was closest to where Riker was hurt so they could find him sooner?
Plus we again have the characters falling into the habit (seen mostly in the first season) of discussing their culture as if reading from a textbook, in particular Krola when he bitches to Durken about how he’s too progressive, and Durken when he talks to Picard at the very end. Krola in general is horribly written, a straw bad guy for everyone to hate to represent the more conservative elements of Malcorian society. The script doesn’t trust us to make decisions for ourselves, so the progressive character is likeable and pleasant (if impulsive), and the conservative one is a flaming jackass. How much more nuanced the story could be if the security minister had the same passion for traditionalism that Mirasta had for space exploration.
Having said all that, it’s nice to see the Federation’s first contact procedures, and it’s especially nice to see how flawed they are. The crew screws up here, more than once, and even cop to it. Having POV characters other than that of our heroes is a welcome change of pace. And I appreciate that the good guys don’t actually win in the end.
Best of all, though, is that we get George Coe’s Chancellor Durken. Coe’s long been a favorite of mine (in particular, I have fond memories of him as one of the recurring judges on L.A. Law, he had a magnificent supporting role on two episodes of The West Wing as a senator, and he’s currently the voice of Woodhouse on F/X’s Archer), and he brings depth and complexity to the role of Durken. He does a fine job of trying to accomplish the compromises necessary to be the leader of a nation, and find the balance between what’s right for his people and what his people want (not always the same thing).
It’s a deeply flawed episode, but it’s one that has some good ideas and strong thoughts in it as well.
Warp factor rating: 5
Keith R.A. DeCandido is pleased to announce that his thriller -30-, in collaboration with Steven Savile, is now available for all non-Nook eBook platforms, as are the other three novellas in the “Viral” series. Do check them out, along with Keith’s other fiction like SCPD: The Case of the Claw, Dragon Precinct and Unicorn Precinct (the third book, Goblin Precinct is due out next month), and Guilt in Innocence. You can order those books, as well as go to Keith’s blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and various and sundry podcasts at his web site.