Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “The Ensigns of Command”

“The Ensigns of Command”
Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Directed by Cliff Bole

Season 3, Episode 2
Original air date: October 2, 1989
Star date: Unknown

Mission summary

Picard and Crusher attend Data’s first violin recital, but are called away almost immediately by a message from the Sheliak, a non-humanoid race with Javert-like punctiliousness for the rule of law. It seems the Sheliak have found humans on the planet Tau Cygna V, which they plan to colonize in four days. The humans’ presence is a violation of the Armens treaty, negotiated over 100 years ago. Picard is skeptical any life could exist on that planet because of its extreme radiation levels, but Worf confirms that life is on the planet. Riker can’t imagine more than a few dozen colonists, so Data takes a shuttlecraft to bring the strays back into the fold.

Unfortunately, it’s not just a few wayward humans: it’s a thriving colony of over fifteen thousand settlers. Data meets the leader, Gosheven, who explains that they are the descendants of an Earth vessel the Artemis, which launched 92 years earlier and crashed on Tau Cygna V after its GPS failed. A third of the refugees died from the radiation on the planet, but some were able to adapt and survive, bringing water to the desert and life to their new home. Though Data explains the threat–the space monsters think they’re pretty baller and will crushinate all life the first chance they get–Gosheven refuses to tell his people to leave their home, because they built an aqueduct this one time. Even if he had agreed to leave, though, it’s not clear any of them would survive anyway. Without transporters due to the radiation interference, shuttlecraft would take over four weeks to rescue all of the humans on the surface.

Picard hails the Sheliak to negotiate an extension, but they claim a rule’s a rule and hang up before Picard can make an argument to the contrary. He decides to intercept the colony ship that’s probably en route.

Back on the surface, Data’s met a robosexual: Ard’rien McKenzie. She knows that Gosheven’s just prejudiced against machines, but she’s not–she thinks Data’s superior, unclouded by emotion or other weaknesses. She’s very interested in cybernetics and would love a chance to get closer to his positronic…brain. She kisses him, to his utter surprise. She tries to help him persuade the townfolk to relocate, but most don’t even believe the threat of the Sheliak are real. Enough are worried, though, that Gosheven call a town meeting. But Ard’rien warns Data that he has to think outside the box here:

ARD’RIAN: A rational argument isn’t always enough. Maybe to be more persuasive, you need to use a little reverse psychology.
DATA: Elicit a desired behavior by advocating its opposite. That implies deception, does it not?
ARD’RIAN: A little. But if it helps us get our point across.
DATA: Perhaps this is a situation where excessive honesty can be detrimental.

Data runs with it. At the meeting he commends Gosheven’s passion, and applauds the people’s willingness to die so senselessly for their past and their ancestors. Gosheven bumps his own charisma for round 2, and eventually wins with a rousing cheer. But it’s clear that Data did have an effect, and enough of the townspeople are concerned about their certain doom to meet secretly in Ard’rien’s house for a meeting. The meeting ends badly when Gosheven shows up and zaps Data with some kind of weapon, thus winning the argument the old-fashioned way.

Picard and Troi, meanwhile, beam over to the recently intercepted colony ship and ask for a few weeks’ time to get the colonists off the planet. The Sheliak flatly refuse, saying they will kill all the humans still left, and abruptly beam both the captain and his sidekick back to their bridge without further discussion.

Data awakens and decides to take drastic measures–he tells Ard’rien to tell Gosheven that he’ll be destroying the aqueduct, the symbol of the community’s blood, sweat, and tears for all those generations. Data approaches the town square, zaps four guards with his phaser, and then zaps and destroys the aqueduct.

DATA: I can reduce this pumping station to a pile of debris, but I trust my point is clear. I am one android with a single weapon. There are hundreds of Sheliak on the way and their weapons are far more powerful. They may not offer you a target. They can obliterate you from orbit. You will die never having seen the faces of your killers. The choice is yours.

This finally gets Gosheven to relent. Data tells him that things can be remade, but people cannot, betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of human biology…

Picard, meanwhile, has put the Enterprise between the Sheliak and the colony. He decides to maybe look at that treaty the Sheliak seem to put so much stock in, even though it’s over five hundred thousand words. Despite the fact that this is about the length of Lord of the Rings,  he’s able to zero in on a helpful passage in no time and rings up the Sheliak to rub it in their face.

PICARD: Pursuant to paragraph one thousand two hundred and ninety, I hereby formally request third party arbitration of our dispute.
SHELIAK: You have the right.
PICARD: Furthermore, pursuant to subsection D three, I name the Grisellas to arbitrate.
SHELIAK: Grisellas?
PICARD: Unfortunately, they are currently in their hibernation cycle. However, they will awaken in six months, at which time we can get this matter settled. Now, do you want to wait or give me my three weeks?
SHELIAK: Absurd. We carry the membership. We can brook no delay.
PICARD: Then I declare the treaty in abeyance.

Picard cuts off the call, just long enough to make them sweat. Or ooze. Or whatever they do. Eventually he accepts their hails, and asks again for an extension on the evacuation, lest they all dick around for six months. The Sheliak reluctantly agree to a three week extension, thus ensuring that this entire fight will play out again in two weeks and six days.

Data says goodbye to his lady friend with a kiss. Picard welcomes the android back to the ship, where he’s been listening to the concert on tapedeck:

PICARD: Your playing is quite beautiful.
DATA: Strictly speaking, sir, it is not my playing. It is a precise imitation of the techniques of Jascha Heifetz and Trenka Bronken.
PICARD: Is there nothing of Data in what I’m hearing? You see, you chose the violinists. Heifetz and Bronken have radically different styles, different techniques, yet you combined them successfully.
DATA: I suppose I have learned to be creative, sir, when necessary.
PICARD: Mister Data, I look forward to your next concert.

Analysis

I vaguely remembered this one, mostly because of Data’s crush, but it’s a little eerie watching it now that I’m in law school…

My prevailing thought throughout was that it’s absolutely unforgivable that Picard doesn’t read the treaty as soon as he gets the message. He looks up the reference, maybe, but doesn’t give the thing a good read until the brink of annihilation. And maybe this is the law student talking, but doesn’t the Enterprise have at least one lawyer? Where’s space JAG?  In the modern army lawyers accompany troops everywhere, to advise on the rules of engagement and handle common legal disputes. (You know who needs to write wills? Redshirts!) I guess not, since no one can seem to settle on a common interpretation of the prime directive…

In any case, Troi made an excellent case for why such a detailed treaty was necessary, and in the process had a standout scene demonstrating the difficulty of communicating across languages, even with a universal translator. The complexity of language as a theme reminded me of brighter episodes, like “Loud as a Whisper” and “Darmok.” This doesn’t quite match either, but it’s a solid conceit that even has a clever twist I had entirely forgot (the Grisellas).

Unfortunately, I feel the Data plot bogs the rest of it down. The scenes on the surface are slow and repetitive, and make me wonder why Data doesn’t just drop a sedation bomb and apologize later (isn’t that what a robot would do?). Of course, this is where Data learns more about being human–including the utility of lying–but that felt too much like a Spock story shoehorned into a Data story. The robomance just doesn’t work for me, especially when the whole town looks at Ard’rien like some kind of filthy kinkster. I actually like Ard’rien, but she’s barely on this side of manic pixie dream girl and her charm grates by the end of the episode. I never thought I’d long for more episodes with crazy scientists, but I think that might have worked better here, and have added the benefit of a subtext about the ways in which governments can pervert, undermine, and suppress scientific discovery for their own ends. Alas, we get a star-struck young woman who mostly follows Data around like a puppy.

But these are minor quibbles. It’s the scene after scene of Data trying to convince these idiots to leave that I can’t stand. It doesn’t make sense in the first place for Data to be the only cultural contact, and it seems strange to me that he can’t easily obtain persuasive evidence–perhaps an archival video or microfiche!–of the terror the Sheliak will bring. It’s boring! You know it’s boring because the episode required a meeting! What exactly do the locals think they’re going to do? These people haven’t even learned how to get back into space. Are they going to throw rocks at spaceships? Do air raid drills for lasers? When Picard has such a great resolution to his A-plot, one can’t help but be disappointed by Data’s solution, which all of us at home were yelling at the TV screen from the moment Gosheven showed up. The show isn’t even bold enough to take on civil disobedience. Instead, Data puts on a quick little show and everyone falls in line because resistance in this case is patently absurd.

It’s a solid episode, and not a terrible beginning for Data’s Pinocchio arc, but it’ll probably fade from memory by the season wrap-up.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 3 (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread Alert: I kind of like Gosheven’s buckle-cape, and everyone seems to have the high-waisted, deeply unflattering disco pants, so I have to go with the poor guy wearing the Kermit-green turtleneck.

Best Line: PICARD: Excessive honesty can be disastrous, particularly in a commander.
DATA: Indeed?
PICARD: Knowing your limitations is one thing. Advertising them to a crew can damage your credibility as a leader.
DATA: Because you will lose their confidence?
CRUSHER: And you may begin to believe in those limitations yourself.

Trivia/Other Notes: The title is a line from the poem “The Wants of Man” by John Quincy Adams. It does not refer to military rank but the second definition of the word: a flag or emblem.

The entourage of the 14th Dalai Lama visited the set while on tour.

$200k was cut from the budget at the last minute, restricting the available sets.

The actor who plays the Sheliak was also Armus. Grainger Hines, the man who played Gosheven, had a voice the production team wound up disliking. All of his lines were dubbed by another actor. As a result, he goes uncredited in the episode.

Melinda Snodgrass commented, “I wanted to take Data one step further in his development as a human being. I wanted to stress him and have him face a situation where logic isn’t enough, to show that in order to command you have to have charisma. You have to learn how to wave your dick and hope your dick is bigger than the other guy’s.” This insight has eluded many a Ph.D.


Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 1 – “Evolution.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 3 – “The Survivors.”

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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.