“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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.