“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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.