Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Code of Honor”

“Code of Honor”
Written by Katharyn Powers and Michael Baron
Directed by Russ Mayberry; Les Landau (uncredited)

Season 1, Episode 4
Original air date:  October 12, 1987
Star date: 41235.25

Mission summary

A devastating plague threatens millions of Federation lives and only one planet seems to have abundant supplies of the vaccine: Ligon II. The Ligonians, who are all black, are described as “proud,” “structured,” “ritualistic,” and “honor-based,” because I guess positive adjectives are supposed to make their African tribal vibe seem less racist.

Picard greets the leader, Lutan, and his first officer equivalent, Hagon, aboard the Enterprise. Lutan is immediately taken by Lt. Yar because on their planet “it is the duty of women only to own the land, and the duty of men to protect and rule it.” Picard gifts them some pottery and they get a tour of the Enterprise, then Yar gives them an aikido demonstration as a way to show off both the holodeck and her own physical skills. All seems to be going well, as Lutan appears both pleased by Picard and willing to negotiate for the vaccine. He politely says his goodbyes, but just as he’s beaming out he abruptly snatches Lt. Yar and transports her with them to the surface.

Rather than saying “good riddance,” however, Picard decides he has to have her back. Numerous hailing attempts fail to elicit any kind of response from the Ligonians, so the Enterprise is forced to do some actual research on their culture and figure out what’s going on. Data suggests this is a form of “counting coup“–a gesture of heroism meant to make Lutan seem brave. They must wait for Lutan to contact them, and when he does, politely request Lt. Yar back. Picard does so and Lutan invites the captain to the surface for a banquet in Picard’s honor, where he promises to return Yar. Picard, before all the Ligonians, requests the return of Yar as obsequiously as possible.

LUTAN: Your conduct in this matter has been beyond exemplary, Captain Picard, but now that the moment has come, I find I cannot part with her […] I want Lieutenant Yar to become my First One.

That slot is unfortunately currently occupied by a lovely lady named Yareena, who challenges Yar’s “supercedence” in a death match. Picard refuses to allow her to fight, but it becomes clear that there’s no way to avoid it if he still wants the vaccine, which has become more essential than ever as the plague spreads. Picard tries to reason with Lutan but Hagon lets slip that Lutan is poor without Yareena’s money and land, which are his by marriage. By their custom, however, if Yareena were to die (say, by ritualized combat…) he could claim her assets and marry someone else. Win-win!

Data and La Forge investigate the weapons to be used in this combat and discover that they are deadly sharp and tipped with poison, which Lt. Yar’s Starfleet training can’t save her from. Picard decides to hatch a little scheme, though. When it comes time to battle, the two women, armed with pointy ball spike gauntlets called glavin, poledance their way around each other. The kerfluffle ends with Yar poking Yareena with the poison-tipped glavin. She then hugs Yareena’s body and the two beam out.

Lutan is confused, but seems satisfied that his wife’s out of the way and agrees to hand over the vaccine. Picard then beams both him and Hagon back to the Enterprise where they find Yareena, alive and well thanks to Dr. Crusher’s antidote. Because Yareena technically died of the poison, her marriage to Lutan is dissolved, and she instead offers all her money and land to Hagon because he seemed mildly concerned for her life during the death match. Then, to further shame Lutan, she makes him her “second.”

And they all live happily ever after in a racist utopia.

Analysis

Have you ever wondered, “What if ‘Amok Time‘ were more like a racist 1940s serial?’” Well have I got great news for you!

I wish I could set this episode on fire. It was even worse than I remembered. The appalling racism is so casual, so thoughtless, it feels almost like a pulp satire.  I can imagine only a handful of ways this could have been more offensive (one of them involves jumping around like monkeys, which the next episode so helpfully will take care of), but I think the costumes really take the cake. The “ethnic” voice affectations and clapper sticks could conceivably be reinterpreted, but there’s no getting out of those Hammer pants and open-shirted tunics.1 If the all-black guest cast had been in suits, we could have least pretended, you know? But no, instead we get the planet of African stereotypes that features women in ’80s bodysuits facing off in poledancing death matches.

If I had any revelation on this viewing, it was that the racism was only one of many staggering flaws. I had entirely forgotten the laughably inept attempt to be feminist at the end by having Yareena gift her large tracts of land to Lutan’s right-hand man. If you look beneath the surface of patriarchal societies, you’ll see that it’s women who really control everything! Don’t you feel enlightened, now? And how does Lutan get to be her “second” anyway? How can both parties choose hierarchical polygamy? Does that mean Lutan can’t get remarried? Oh right, it doesn’t matter because you’re supposed to be busy admiring the sekrit feminism and not thinking about how ludicrously implausible this society would be. And let’s not forget the real kicker, here: Yar likes Lutan’s attention. Because women are totally turned on by harassment, kidnapping, and manipulation. You just can’t tell because they like to play hard to get. (True fact!)2

But none of that really hurts. After all, there are many works I enjoy despite their archaic notions of race and gender. The true turd factor—the irredeemability—comes from the flippant, reductionist treatment of the prime directive. Troi tells Picard that their job would be “so simple” if they did not have the prime directive. Actually, no. It wouldn’t be simple (I mean golly, first contact between cultures on this planet has always been sooo easy!), and the prime directive is not the problem here. The prime directive doesn’t say to allow your crewmembers to be kidnapped. It certainly doesn’t give you the right to upset the entire power structure on a planet by dissolving the leader’s marriage.  And it most certainly doesn’t command one to play along with every juvenile request an upstart dictator sends your way. The whole reason you have people—actual individuals—commanding ships, instead of just reference computers spitting out infractions, is so that one can exercise one’s own judgment weighing subjective factors. This is a balance the show took way too long to finally get right.

Like with “The Naked Now,” “Code of Honor” does no favors for humanity’s cheerleaders. One of my least favorite moments is when Picard denounces the Ligonians’ “pompous strutting” that “we” have “grown out of.” So what was that right there, if not pompous strutting of your own? The constant references to how the Ligonians are essentially backwards humans represent exactly the kind of self-satisfying smugness of superiority that makes the Enterprise‘s diplomatic efforts unlikely to succeed in this or any other mission. Granted, it’s justified here because the Ligonians are cartoons, but it’s off-putting nonetheless.

On a more mundane level, the plot just doesn’t make sense to me. Why would this planet—with no technological capabilities—have a vaccine to a disease that exists halfway across the galaxy? And what kind of soulless jerks are they that they don’t just donate the vaccine to people in need instead of dick around for ship tours and aikido demonstrations? And my lord, the “humor.” I love Geordi and Data’s friendship (or at least, as it appears later…), but that whole scene about shaving and jokes was agony. (I do admit to liking the French joke, though. That meme has not yet gotten old.) I never paid much attention to Wesley Crusher when I saw this the last time around, but his special treatment thanks to a needling mom is grating on me already.

To those of you who, like me, re-watched this episode, I’m going to quote Tasha Yar: “How sad for you.”

1 On the plus side, I got to use my first instance of the “planet of the hats” tag.
2 Not actually true or a fact.

Torie’s Rating: Full Stop (on a scale of 1-6)

Best Worst Lines: TROI: But it was a thrill. Lutan is such, such a basic male image and having him say he wants you…
TASHA: Yes, of course it made me feel good when he — Troi, I’m your friend and you tricked me!

TROI: How simple all this would be without the Prime Directive.

Trivia/Other Notes: James Louis Watkins, who played Hagon, was considered to play Lt. Worf but lost out to Michael Dorn. He’s perhaps best known now as Dr. MacIntyre on Smallville (where he’s credited as Julian Christopher, as he’s since changed his name).

In the script, only Lutan’s guards were described as African-ish. It was the decision of Russ Mayberry, the director, to make the entire planet black. Gene Roddenberry fired him for it (though allegedly Mayberry was also mistreating the actors) and Les Landau finished the episode uncredited.

Memory Alpha has a nice bit on some reactions to the episode from the cast and crew:

As noted in the TNG Companion, Tracy Tormé was embarrassed by what he called a “1940s tribal Africa” view of Africans in the episode. Jonathan Frakes referred to it as a “racist piece of shit” while Brent Spiner called it “embarrassing.” When asked what his least favorite episode of The Next Generation was at a 2007 science fiction convention in Toronto, Canada, Jonathan Frakes told the audience in attendance “The worst and most embarrassing and one that even Gene would have been embarrassed by was that horrible racist episode from the first season… Code of Honor, oh my God in heaven!” According to Wil Wheaton, “If the cast wasn’t arbitrarily decided to be African-American,” the idea of the episode being racist or non-racist wouldn’t have been an issue. Star Trek: Voyager actor Garrett Wang said this episode “stinks” to which LeVar Burton added “without question” at a Star Trek panel at DragonCon 2010.


Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 3 – “The Naked Now.”

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 5 – “The Last Outpost.”

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About Torie Atkinson

Torie Atkinson is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.