Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Contagion”

Written by Steve Gerber & Beth Woods
Directed by Joseph L. Scanlan

Season 2, Episode 11
Original air date: March 20, 1989
Star date: 42609.1

Mission summary

Enterprise risks entering the Neutral Zone to rendezvous with her sister ship, the Yamato, which is suffering serious system malfunctions. As her dour captain Donald Varley tells them that he’s lost an engineering team and the Yamato is continuing to fall apart, Data downloads her ship logs and notices one tiny, insignificant hiccup in the process that probably doesn’t mean anything.

Varley explains that he’s discovered the homeworld of the legendary Iconians, a technologically advanced race whose high-tech ruins would be a strategic advantage to the Romulans if they should reach it first. Once this key piece of exposition has been delivered, the Yamato explodes, leaving no survivors. With impeccable timing, a Romulan warbird decloaks. The Romulan commander demands they leave at once, but Picard refuses until they have proof that the Romulans had nothing to do with Yamato’s destruction. Time for a staff meeting.

La Forge reports that the magnetic shields of the Yamato’s warp drive failed, and the backup safety mechanism failed, leading him to agree with Varley’s theory that there’s a showstopping design flaw. While he puzzles that out, Picard checks Varley’s logs for exposition they might have missed, and learns that not only was Varley obsessed with finding the Iconians, but that one of their probes had scanned Yamato. He tries to rush out of his ready room to tell Data, but the automatic doors don’t open at first. Eh, these things happen. No need to mention it to anyone. He decides to take Enterprise to the planet where Yamato was probed.

It’s only while Picard is comforting a quietly freaking out Wesley that the captain realizes something is amiss with Enterpriseinstead of giving him “tea, Earl Grey, hot,” he gets a beautiful flower. Now that his tea supply has been cut off, he realizes that the ship is experiencing the same malfunctions that led to Yamato’s demise. La Forge confirms: The ship isn’t flawed. The problem actually originated with the Iconian probe, which looked a lot like the one headed for Enterprise. Picard decides to capture it so his engineer can study it.

La Forge flips out and tries to warn the captain, but the comm system fails and numerous doors don’t open, so he runs flailing down the corridors. He reaches a turbolift, which bounces him around like a pinball before spitting him out onto the Bridge in an impressive pratfall. He tells them to destroy the probe, which they manage to do just in time. Apparently the probe’s scan would have installed an Iconian computer program that could wreak havoc on their systems far more quickly than the malware they downloaded with the Yamato’s logs.

Their problems mount, and Picard beams down with Data and Worf to the Iconian probe launch site to search for a solution. After they depart, the Romulans decloak and seem to threaten Enterprise, which is unable to defend itself due to more malfunctions. Fortunately, the Romulans also seem to be having trouble with their systems, and the false tension is deflated.

Data and Picard manage to translate basic Iconian in one of their control rooms, enough to be able to activate a mysterious holographic image that provides an instantaneous portal to various locations in the galaxy, including the bridges of the Enterprise and the Romulan warbird. Unable to contact their ship, this might be the only way home. Then Data gets zapped by the console and infected with the Iconian malware, rendering him blind and incapacitated as it rewrites his programming.

Data talks Picard through the command sequence to trigger a catastrophic explosion to destroy the Iconian base. Worf carries Data through the Iconian gateway to Enterprise while Picard stays behind to blow everything up.

On Enterprise, La Forge is unable to save Data, but just when it looks like he’s dead, he wakes up with only temporary memory loss and his trademark wide-eyed innocence; his “self-correcting mechanism” rebooted his system and wiped the affected memory, rolling him back to a previous state. They complete the same system restore on Enterprise, just in time to lock on with their transporters and rescue Picard—who had escaped the planet by going through the gateway onto the Romulan bridge. They send over instructions to the Romulans on how to save their ship, which has triggered an autodestruct sequence, and get the hell away from them in case it doesn’t work.

Picard awkwardly laughs the whole thing off:

Well, Number One, I can see why you want to keep the away missions to yourself. That’s where the excitement is. So, what’s been happening here? Same old routine, I suppose?


This episode really only has one idea: What if the Enterprise were infected with an alien computer virus? I think even in 1987, we knew how to deal with situations like this: CTRL-ALT-DEL to start with, scrubbing the registry, or wiping the computer and reinstalling the OS. And even if this fabricated dramatic tension worked twenty-five years ago, it sure doesn’t hold up now when we have things like Apple Time Machine and Windows System Restore and the like.

They present Galaxy-class starships like Enterprise and Yamato as “the most sophisticated piece of machinery ever built.” And yet the ship’s ninety-percent automated system is incapable of automatically dealing with a software issue that Data is seemingly designed to handle. Varley was right: It is a design flaw.

The implications of a fully automated ship now needing to run entirely on manual isn’t even explored in an interesting or compelling way, especially with a sworn enemy to Starfleet looming in front of them. Much of the episode is played for comedy, relying on slapstick antics more than most. (As Deanna says, “In another time or place, this could be funny.”) I did laugh a few times, but I was more prone to making fun of it. The entire tone of the script is off. Jokes fall flat or are ill-timed, and Picard in particular is more flip than he should be, cracking awkward jokes at inappropriate moments. The actors can only make up for some of the script’s shortcomings, but I felt like we had slipped back to the character dynamics we had earlier in the season. And Picard’s arrogant moralizing even returns briefly, with his comment, “There is an unfortunate tendency in many cultures to fear what they do not understand.” Sigh.

The jokes aren’t the only problem. The pacing is also way off. It’s incredibly tedious with a lot of talking that was ninety percent exposition. There are only a few character moments, the most believable of which was Wesley’s reaction to the loss of the Yamato, which is barely a blip in the narrative. Unfortunately most of that scene was given over to still more exposition, but I appreciated the attempt to acknowledge and kind of reflect on the shocking death. It’s just as telling that Picard is interrupted in the midst of saying, “But if the time ever comes when the death of a single individual fails to move us—” Trained to deal with this sort of thing or not, I would have liked more than just some extended reaction shots to gloss over the explosion.

Alas, this episode continues to misfire in all directions, from terrible acting from Captain Varley to logical inconsistencies and the crime of making characters do things to move the plot forward, and not because they are believable. While I’m not shocked by a Starfleet captain exercising poor judgment in the name of a personal crusade, I am worried about doctors that can’t provide basic medical assistance without machines, and someone at an archaeological site allowing someone to walk off with a precious, irreplaceable alien artifact.

But the biggest disappointment is that this episode wastes a cool idea like the Iconian gateway, which is albeit reminiscent of Harlan Ellison’s™ Guardian of Forever but still remains one of my favorite concepts in TNG.

Though there are many lines that are memorable because I used to like them, they don’t really work for me anymore as real dialogue in real situations. (Eg. “Fate protects fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise.”) Ultimately, this episode had a high nostalgia factor once I remembered which one it was, but it just doesn’t live up to my expectations.

Eugene’s Rating: Warp 2 (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread Alert: Not a lot to choose from in this episode: Do we make fun of Wesley’s faux uniform or the square Romulan shirts? I decided to go with Wesley, because no matter how many times I see him in that thing, I discover new ways in which it’s terrible. I mean, check out what happens in his crotch area. Why? It’s like the director even took a page out of Marc Daniels’ book and tried to use the chair to strategically spare us. Wesley’s expression pretty much says it all. The caption on this one would read, “Sir? May I please have some more exposition?”

Best Line: LAFORGE (face down on the floor after being electrocuted and flying across Engineering) : Data?
DATA: Yes?
LAFORGE: What happened?
DATA: Any answer would be mere speculation. This is yet another example of how our actions have random results.
LAFORGE: Thanks, Data. I noticed.

Trivia/Other Notes: Gene Roddenberry initially resisted the idea for this story on the grounds that Federation technology is so advanced, it never malfunctions. So how do we explain the holodeck?

This is the first time a Galaxy-class starship explodes onscreen. We’ll see that footage again, many times. This is also the first time Picard orders, “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” We’ll also see that many more times. We are also introduced to his love for archaeology, which is explored in more depth in later episodes of the series.

The Iconian gateway is referenced again in the DS9 episode “To the Death.”

Guest actor Carolyn Seymour (Romulan commander) has appeared in many other SF television series in the US and UK, including Quantum Leap (with Scott Bakula) and the original Survivors, as well as video games Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins. She returns as a different Romulan commander in the sixth season TNG episode “Face of the Enemy” and other episodes of TNG and Voyager.

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 10 – “The Dauphin.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 12 – “The Royale.”

About Eugene Myers

E(ugene).C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts. He has published four novels and short stories in various magazines and anthologies, most recently 1985: Stori3s from SOS. His first novel, Fair Coin, won the 2012 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult SF and Fantasy. He currently writes for the science fiction serial ReMade from Serial Box Publishing.