Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Peak Performance”

“Peak Performance”
Written by David Kemper
Directed by Robert Scheerer

Season 2, Episode 21
Original air date: July 10, 1989
Star date: 42923.4

Mission summary

Enterprise is assigned to participate in a game of laser tag under the supervision of Sirna Kolrami, a Zakdorn master strategist. The scenario will pit the state-of-the-art flagship of the Federation against a decrepit eighty-year-old starship, the Hathaway, under the command of “Captain” Riker. So that’s fair. Picard had initially rejected this proposal because it’s a waste of time, but he figures maybe they could use the extra practice in tactical combat, what with the Borg gunning for them and all.

Riker is allowed a skeleton crew of forty, and Picard allows him to select his own motley away team for this mission—as long as he gets to keep Commander Data as his temporary first officer. So Riker grabs every other useful member of the Bridge crew—La Forge and Worf—plus Wesley, for educational purposes. With a little time to spare before they begin the exercise, he challenges Kolrami to a game of Strategema, which is no challenge at all to the Starfleet observer, who is the “best ever” at the game. Riker knew he had no chance against the third level grand master, but it’s an honor just to play against him—even if he was beaten in only twenty-three moves. “That’s it?” Pulaski exclaims, surprised at Riker’s lack of staying power. “I’m afraid so,” Riker says.

When Enterprise meets up with Hathaway, it’s time to get down to their real business: Riker and his crew has forty-eight hours to breathe some life into the derelict and give them a fighting chance against Enterprise’s superior… everything. Riker selects Worf as his first officer, while La Forge tries to coax the engines online. They have a few fragments of dilithium crystals to work with, but they’re useless without antimatter.

Wesley the boy genius remembers that his science experiment back on Enterprise uses antimatter, so he beams back aboard and manages to sneak it off the ship in clear violation of the rules of the scenario, even under the watchful eye of the ship’s crack security team. Thanks to the teen’s willingness to cheat, Hathaway may be capable of an adolescent two-second burst of warp speed, which could provide a key tactical advantage… or they might be capable of stalling at an inconvenient time. Worf also cooks up a scheme to use his access codes to turn the Enterprise’s sensors against them.

Meanwhile, back on Enterprise, Pulaski convinces Data to play Strategema against Kolrami, and they’re both stunned when the android loses. Data immediately assumes he is malfunctioning—the equivalent of a crisis of confidence—until Picard orders him not to be so ridiculous and come back to the Bridge to do his job. With that sorted out, it’s time to play!

Both starship commanders and their crews demonstrate their common knowledge of basic military maneuvers as they test out each other’s strategies and capabilities. Worf fools Enterprise into thinking a Romulan warbird is attacking, which allows Hathaway to strike some significant simulated blows with their pretend weapons. So when a Ferengi ship seems to appear, Picard ignores it—and Enterprise takes real damage when they attack. The Ferengi commander is convinced there’s something of value on Hathaway because of the odd situation they have happened upon, and gives Picard ten minutes to give it up.

With defenses down and only Nerf guns at their disposal, they consider their options. Picard is unwilling to retreat and lose forty of his crew on Hathaway to the Ferengi, so Riker offers another alternative. He tells them his ship might be able to warp for two seconds (surprise!); with Enterprise’s newly-restored photon torpedoes, they’re going to try to trick the Ferengi into thinking they’ve destroyed Hathaway by firing and detonating the torpedoes to mask their warp-out. If the ship can’t warp after all, they’ll really be destroyed. Riker shrugs. Sure, why not?

Fortunately, the ploy works, and Worf manages to drive off the Ferengi before they figure out they’ve been played by faking their sensors into detecting another Starfleet vessel approaching.

Kolrami is pleased by the outcome of his little game and promises to give them a good grade on their report card. Before he departs, he agrees to a rematch with Data, who has vastly improved his game. When he has Kolrami on the ropes, the gamer stops playing and leaves in a huff, complaining that the sun was in his eyes or something.

LAFORGE: What did you do?
DATA: I simply altered my premise for playing the game.
RIKER: Explain.
DATA: Working under the assumption that Kolrami was attempting to win, it is reasonable to assume that he expected me to play for the same goal.
WESLEY: You didn’t.
DATA: No. I was playing only for a standoff, a draw. While Kolrami was dedicated to winning, I was able to pass up obvious avenues of advancement and settle for a balance. Theoretically, I should be able to challenge him indefinitely.
PULASKI: Then you have beaten him.
DATA: It is a matter of perspective, Doctor. In the strictest sense, I did not win.
DATA: I busted him up.
ALL: Yes!


Oddly, all I initially recalled about this episode, once I saw Kolrami, is his face-off against Data, so I was surprised by pretty much everything else surrounding that scene. This is a mildly entertaining episode with a flawed premise: Given the constraints of the proposed scenario, there’s no reason why the simulation can’t be run on the holodeck or even under more controlled conditions at a starbase, a la the Kobayashi Maru test seen in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Even if Starfleet is now skittish about performing combat exercises via software, because it’s susceptible to cheating, Wesley and Worf prove that this method is just as vulnerable.

It’s interesting that in Star Trek, cheating isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it’s often worthy of admiration and reward because it shows the capability to think outside of the box. Kirk became a legend at Starfleet Academy for changing the rules of the no-win scenario, which is similar to Data’s revelation at the end of this episode—by not playing to win, he has changed the rules of Strategema, and this might be construed as another way of cheating. Even in “Coming of Age,” Mordock cheats and is given a coveted Academy spot, and Wesley—who helped him with his test—kind of scores points as well.

And it is by cheating and trickery that Enterprise ultimately escapes the Ferengi, though it doesn’t make sense that Worf is able to hack into their ship’s systems to fool their sensors. He was only able to pull that off on Enterprise because he was their tactical officer and knew the proper command codes! Still, this is another nice nod to Star Trek II, where Kirk is able to get into Reliant’s computer using the same tactic.

There is another troubling trend that crystallized for me in this episode, and that’s the tendency for the various series to portray geniuses as unsocialized jerks. Part of this is because they serve as antagonists for the main crew, and there needs to be some conflict there, but Kolrami is the latest in a long line of jerks like Graves, Manheim, Kosinski, and Daystrom who are obsessive with bristly personalities, who are usually disdained by the Enterprise crew and treates as though their life’s work has been wasted. Looking ahead, this happens again and again, notably with Dr. Zimmerman (creator of the Emergency Medical Hologram) on Deep Space Nine. This is playing to the stereotype of the mad scientist, and on some level, the awkward geek who doesn’t play well with others. It really doesn’t sit well with me, because how often does a brilliant scientist come aboard who is treated with the respect she deserves? They are always treated as inconveniences and distractions getting in the way of the ship’s more important work of exploring stuff.

Moreover, this is the first episode where I began to see why so many people dislike Data and his character arc of discovering how to be human. I grew impatient with him myself, and the childlike tantrum that Picard thankfully did not indulge—this time. Although the A-plot was much more substantial, it felt like it was all tied together in Data and his attempts to learn how to think and strategize like a human—ie. illogically—but he was not a key player in events. It all feels off-balance somehow, like the cobbled together warp core of the Hathaway: capable of a two-second burst of fun, but occasionally stalling out. I enjoyed most of the character moments, and the dialogue is finally being written consistently well (still with too many lapses into exposition and treatises on humanity, now part and parcel of Star Trek), and there’s a sense of continuity with the reminder of the impending Borg threat, which comes with the promise of better episodes ahead.

This would have been a decent episode to end the season on, but unfortunately, we still have to get through “Shades of Gray”…

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

Thread Alert: I don’t actually mind the costumes in this one. Kolrami’s is alien and inoffensive, and the Ferengi are beginning to sport their familiar, zany business suits which work a lot better than the fur outfits from their first appearance. But while looking for screenshots, the outfit in the background of this frame caught my eye. What’s going on there? Who is that, anyway?

Best Line: Picard: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

Trivia/Other Notes: This episode was rewritten by Hans Beimler and Richard Manning, then revised by Melinda Snodgrass.

The bridge of the Hathaway is a redress of the Enterprise-D’s battle bridge set, which originated as the bridge of the refit Enterprise from the first three motion pictures.

Armin Shimerman returns to TNG as another Ferengi, Captain Bractor.

This is the only time the warp drive is referred to as a “lightspeed drive.” Those wacky Ferengi.

This is the first appearance of the infrequently seen Zakdorn race.

Actor Roy Brocksmith (Kolrami) may be most familiar to SF fans from his role in the original Total Recall, though he has appeared in many movies and TV shows, including Tales from the Crypt, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Scrooged, Arachnophobia, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and others. He also returns to Star Trek in DS9’s lamentable season four episode “Indiscretion”.

Glen Morshower (Ensign Burke) played a recurring role as Secret Service Agent Aaron Pierce on the long-running series 24, which is basically science fiction. He also returned for another episode of TNG in a different role (“Starship Mine”) as well as Voyager, Enterprise, and Star Trek: Generations, and shows and films including The X-Files, Millenium, Dollhouse, and most recently, Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 20 – “The Emissary.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 22 – “Shades of Gray.”

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.