Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Pen Pals”

“Pen Pals”
Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass, story by Hannah Louise Shearer
Directed by Winrich Kolbe

Season 2, Episode 15
Original air date: May 1, 1989
Star date: 42695.3

Mission summary

Enterprise enters the Selcundi Drema sector to investigate unusual geological instabilities that are destroying its planets, and Commander Riker decides this would make a great test of young Wesley Crusher’s ability to command a survey team to study the problem. Wesley is eager as always, but apprehensive about his performance and whether he’s qualified to give orders to officers who are older and more experienced than him. Meanwhile, Data is experimenting with enhancing the ship’s sensors and picks up a troubling transmission: “Is anybody out there?”

He’s either picked up Pink Floyd on subspace radio, or he’s communicating with someone in the system. He strikes up regular communications with the alien girl, Sarjenka, but he doesn’t bring this to the captain’s attention until six weeks later, when he realizes that her planet, Krypton Drema IV, is inexplicably tearing itself apart. Picard’s response to this startling revelation of Data’s inordinately bad judgment: “Oops.”

Sarjenka and her people don’t know anything about space travel or the Federation, so Data is grossly in violation of the Prime Directive, a “strict” “policy” of “noninterference” with “developing” cultures. But he wants to do even more: He wants to save her by discovering what is destroying her planet and reversing the process. Picard grudgingly calls a meeting to discuss the matter.

WORF: There are no options. The Prime Directive is not a matter of degrees. It is an absolute.
PULASKI: I have a problem with that kind of rigidity. It seems callous and even a little cowardly.
PICARD: Doctor, I’m sure that is not what the Lieutenant meant, but in a situation like this, we have to be cautious. What we do today may profoundly affect upon the future. If we could see every possible outcome–
RIKER: We’d be gods, which we’re not. If there is a cosmic plan, is it not the height of hubris to think that we can, or should, interfere?
LAFORGE: So what are you saying? That the Dremans are fated to die?
RIKER: I think that’s an option we should be considering.
LAFORGE: Consider it considered, and rejected.
TROI: If there is a cosmic plan, are we not a part of it? Our presence at this place at this moment in time could be a part of that fate.
LAFORGE: Right, and it could be part of that plan that we interfere.
RIKER: Well that eliminates the possibility of fate.
DATA: But Commander, the Dremans are not a subject for philosophical debate. They are a people.
PICARD: So we make an exception in the deaths of millions.
PICARD: And is it the same situation if it’s an epidemic, and not a geological calamity?
PULASKI: Absolutely.
PICARD: How about a war? If generations of conflict is killing millions, do we interfere? Ah, well, now we’re all a little less secure in our moral certitude. And what if it’s not just killings. If an oppressive government is enslaving millions? You see, the Prime Directive has many different functions, not the least of which is to protect us. To prevent us from allowing our emotions to overwhelm our judgement.

Picard ultimately decides that they can’t get involved and orders Data to cut off communication with Sarjenka. But as he complies, her voice cuts in… and touches all of their hearts. (Maybe not Worf’s hearts.) The doomed little girl is scared, calling out for Data. And Picard’s resolve falls away. They have to help.

Despite some rocky interactions, and with a little fatherly advice from Riker, Wesley has successfully managed his team and convinced them that he’s every bit as awesome as everyone else thinks he is. Thanks to Wesley’s insistence on a time-consuming scan, they’ve discovered that Drema IV is lousy with dilithium—so much so that it’s turning the planet’s own heat into mechanical energy that is stressing its tectonic plates. They set to work on a way to get rid of the crystals. But Data, oh, Data… He decides to beam down to Mordor the planet to make sure Sarjenka is safe.

She’s happy to see her friend, but it’s too late to save her, unless he brings her back to Enterprise. So guess what he does next? Go on, guess.

Yeah, he beams up with her, to everyone’s dismay. She hangs out on the Bridge, to Picard’s great annoyance, while the survey team’s plan is put into motion: They fire probes in torpedo casings into the planet’s surface, where they shatter the dilithium crystal lattice with harmonic vibrations. The plan works, the planet is saved!

Picard determines that the only way to protect Sarjenka, to allow her to grow up the way she was meant to, is to selectively wipe her memories of Data and the Enterprise. Data carefully returns the unconscious girl to her home, leaving her a small remembrance: an Elanin singer stone that he pilfered from Pulaski’s desk. Dammit, Data.

There’s just one thing left for him to do when he gets back to the ship: fess up for his mistake. Or not.

DATA: I came to apologize, sir.
PICARD: No apologies are necessary. You reminded us that there are obligations that go beyond duty.
DATA: I appreciate your seeking other options, sir. Your decision could have been unilateral.
PICARD: One of my officers, one of my friends, was troubled. I had to help. Is Sarjenka safely home?
DATA: Yes, sir. She will not remember me, sir, but I will remember her.
PICARD: Remembrance and regrets, they too are a part of friendship.
DATA: Yes, sir.
PICARD: And understanding that has brought you a step closer to understanding humanity.


I’m not a heartless person, but what the hell, Data? Although this is an intriguing premise that invites lively debate—much of which informs the crew’s discussion in the episode—it also seems unlikely. Data is an android who acts because of an emotional response, answering a lonely “whisper from the darkness,” even though his programming and training tell him that he is making the wrong decision. He compounds this mistake with worse errors in judgment, acting irrationally even for a human. He can offer no real logical justification for any of his actions except for wanting to help Sarjenka, unlike Picard who responds much more professionally and believably—to a point.

The problem with these Prime Directive episodes is they operate on the assumption that this is the first time this situation has come up, so obviously it doesn’t apply here, or surely the spirit of the regulation never intended… But these aren’t Kirk’s days, when he could get away with interpreting an early, incomplete version of the Prime Directive. And look how well that always turned out.

“Sophistry,” Picard calls it. He very astutely points out the reasons why a unilateral directive like this exists, and decides to uphold it, even if he ultimately fails to follow through. You can argue every side of this as the crew does, but in the end it comes down to whether or not you are guided by your head or your heart. Though they wipe Sarjenka’s memory, so no harm is done, they have still violated their own law. That may be the determining factor: no harm was done. At the end of the stardate, it’s much easier to live with breaking a rule and saving millions instead of having all those deaths on your conscience. I wonder if Starfleet would see it that way.

It was actually good to see the crew argue with each other, presenting so many diverse points of view, even if some of those perspectives included the idea that there is some “cosmic plan.” When did Riker become such a fatalist, first in “Time Squared,” now here? But I’m also shocked that we’re still debating this. The Prime Directive only works when it’s convenient for all involved; Picard is right when he says they should tread softly because they could be affecting the future. I assume he means setting a dangerous precedent, rather than messing up God’s plan. But I wonder why no one ever proposes doing away with the Prime Directive entirely, when most people seem to disagree with it.

I also might have been fine with Data breaking rules and them going along with it, but the other problem with the Prime Directive is there’s no penalty for violating it. Unless you’re breaking some kind of general order that demands the death penalty, you’ll never be court-martialed for interfering with another culture, and even then you can still talk your way out of it. Picard brushes away Data’s mistake, chalking it up to him learning about humanity and actually—unbelievably—doing a good thing by reminding them of their higher purpose.

As for the B-plot about Wesley and his first command… Would they have given any other ensign an opportunity like this? Would they really call a staff meeting to discuss one boy’s upbringing? On a ship where violating the Prime Directive is merely par for the course, any and all ludicrous behavior is acceptable. This subplot seems an odd juxtaposition with the central conflict, but I found myself considering one key point: Wesley listened to a member of his team instead of following his instincts and demanding that icogram, and Picard does the same thing when he allows Data and the others to convince him to help Sarjenka and her people when his instinct is to leave it all alone. What would Picard do? Looks like Wesley wins this round. It seems strange to me that Picard would let himself get in over his head when he knows every step of the way that it’s wrong, but in Star Trek, what you do out of friendship, loyalty, and compassion trumps all. I can’t really argue with that sentiment, but again, there need to be serious repercussions. Data doesn’t even get detention.

Along the same lines as the characters being forced to act a certain way in service to the plot, the dialogue is often bad, or the lines come across as forced and flat: “These planets live fast and die hard.” Right. How about extended metaphors about raising a boy being like riding a horse, or forging a weapon? But there are some other nice little touches that I appreciated:

  • Picard tying up the horse on the holodeck, even though he’s about to end the program
  • The married couple on the geological survey team completing each other’s sentences
  • Riker apologizing to his potential one-night-stand by claiming a “family emergency” to help Wesley

However, this episode also includes one of my biggest bugaboos in fiction: forced loss of memory for a character’s own good. This is the only time Data questions if they’re doing the right thing, and despite the reasoning, I don’t buy that anyone would take solace in the knowledge that at least they can remember what really happened for the other person. And of course he undermines this decision by leaving her the singing stone.

I was all set to give this one a Warp 3, but writing up my analysis has gotten me all worked up.

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

Thread Alert: This is more of a “head alert,” because Sarjenka’s makeup has always freaked me out. I mean, she’s very alien looking, so I guess that’s a good job, but I don’t know, maybe it’s the long fingers, or the hair, or her you know, face. 

Best Line: RIKER: O’Brien, take a nap. You didn’t see any of this. You’re not involved.
O’BRIEN: Right, sir. I’ll just be standing over here, dozing off.

Trivia/Other Notes: This episode featured the only location shoot of the second season, at a ranch near the Los Angeles suburb Thousand Oaks. It establishes Picard’s fondness for horses, which was inspired by Snodgrass’ own interests.

The spectral analyzer in the geology lab might be recognizable to fans of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai as the oscillation-over-thruster.

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 14 – “The Icarus Factor.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 16 – “Q Who.”

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.