Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Samaritan Snare”

“Samaritan Snare”
Written by Robert L. McCullough
Directed by Les Landau

Season 2, Episode 17
Original air date: May 15, 1989
Star date: 42779.1

Mission summary

It’s Starfleet exam time again for Ensign Wesley Crusher. While Enterprise looks at some stars, he’s going to take a shuttlecraft to Starbase 515 to justify his existence on the Bridge crew. But the boy gets quite a shock when Captain Picard announces he’s tagging along. Everyone’s curious about his mysterious personal business, but he plays it close to his chest. Anyway, road trip! (Er… star trek?)

As soon as they leave, Riker and the others throw a wild party receive a distress signal and render assistance, even though the detour takes them farther away from the captain. They encounter a drifting vessel crewed by slow-witted Pakleds, who explain:

Our ship is the Mondor. It is broken. We are far from home. We need help.

Trying to get anything more out of them is an exercise in futility. Apparently, their sole mission is to “look for things that make us go.” Chief Engineer La Forge volunteers to fix their ship, though Worf objects to sending him over to a strange vessel. But they seem harmless and stupid, and hey, they’re far from home and need help. La Forge beams over and starts patching them up, with little assistance from the Pakleds, who seem to know precious little about how their ship works.

Meanwhile, on the slowest shuttle ever constructed, Wesley and Picard make stilted conversation. The captain would much rather read his book, but gradually his companion draws him out and Picard reveals that he is going to Starbase 515 for his 1000 light-year tune-up—he needs to get a new cardiac replacement. A parthenogenetic implant, of course.

Back on Enterprise, Counselor Troi expresses her own concerns for La Forge’s safety: She senses that the Pakleds are not as helpless as they appear to be. She might even use the words “grave danger” a few times to better outline the predicament he may be in. La Forge laughs it off, but he does run into some puzzling delays while trying to repair the Pakled ship. The worst of them occurs when he tries to leave and they zap him with his own phaser, then raise shields so he can’t beam away.

“Worf, Deanna, you were right.” No one says this.

While they sort that out, things are getting rather personal on the shuttle.

WESLEY: I guess you would have preferred Commander Riker as a travelling companion.
WESLEY: It’s okay. You’re not too comfortable with me. I understand.
PICARD: Ensign. Wesley, that’s not true. You’re a fine young man.
WESLEY: You don’t have to say that, sir. It’s pretty obvious how you feel.
PICARD: Is it? How so?
WESLEY: Everyone knows. You don’t like kids. That’s too bad. You’d have made a good father.
PICARD: Thank you.
WESLEY: Didn’t you ever wish you had kids of your own?
PICARD: Wishing for a thing does not make it so.

No, you have to say “make it so” to make it so. Soon Picard relates a heartbreaking story about a nasty run-in with some surly Nausicaans in his misspent youth, which left him on the wrong end of one of their swords. Eventually they reach the starbase and Wesley makes sure that Picard actually checks in for surgery. The surgeon actually says “I anticipate no complications… We’ll all be home in time for dinner,” thereby ensuring there will be complications.

Speaking of complications, Riker comes up with an elaborate trap for the Pakleds and communicates their true intentions to La Forge in code, counting on the Pakleds to be too dumb to pick up on it. La Forge barely gets it himself, but he dutifully plays along, preparing some photon torpedoes for the Pakleds while waiting for Enterprise’s cue.

Picard’s medical team starts shouting nonsense medical jargon like “metabolation occlusions” and “heterocyclic declination” with dour expressions to express the seriousness of his condition, which is serious. They need some kind of biology expert to save his life, stat. But where, oh where, can they find a specialist like that in all the known galaxy? In true O. Henry style, the closest candidate is one Dr. Katherine Pulaski, inconveniently located on Enterprise. They have to get La Forge back fast so they can deliver her to Starbase 515.

To that end, the Enterprise’s ruse unfolds: They pretend to attack by venting some harmless hydrogen exhaust from the nacelles, what La Forge calls their “Crimson Forcefield.” Convincing the Pakleds that they are outgunned, he disables the torpedoes he just built them and beams the hell out of there.

They get to Picard in time for Pulaski to save his life, to his utter disgust. So much for his pride. But at least all is well once again on the ship.

LAFORGE: Looks like things are back to normal.
PICARD: I’m pleased to report that Ensign Crusher’s Starfleet exam results permit him to continue his studies onboard the Enterprise. Furthermore, any rumors of my brush with death are greatly exaggerated. Is that clear?
RIKER: Yes, sir.


“Samaritan Snare” really takes stupidity to heart. Consider this scintillating dialogue:

LAFORGE: Relax, Wes. You’ll do fine on your exams.
SONYA: Yeah.
WESLEY: It’s not my exams I’m worried about. It’s Captain Picard.
SONYA: Why? He’s not taking the exams.

The demonstrated low intellect of the Pakleds, and Sonya Gomez, only reflects the dumbness of the overall script, which is entertaining at times, and even strives for some deeper meaning, but is ultimately as disposable as a broken starship–sure, you can fix it up, but why bother if you can’t keep it going? If you give a Pakled a photon torpedo, he can kill for a day, but if you teach a Pakled to build torpedoes, he can kill for a lifetime. Or something like that.

Once upon a time I enjoyed this episode, but on further inspection, there isn’t much to like here. “Samaritan Snare” represents a small stepping stone in Wesley’s maturation and allows him and Captain Picard to bond more closely than they have already, and it also fleshes out Picard’s character with a glimpse into his reckless past. His near-fatal encounter with the Nausicaans shaped the man he became, and we’ll actually see that pivotal moment dramatized in the sixth season’s “Tapestry.”

It’s interesting, perhaps even thematically appropriate, that a man who is ruled more by his mind than passion has literally lost his heart. It turns out his cardiac replacement was faulty, in fact, and now that he has a new one, perhaps he won’t dislike kids quite as much. Look at what fast friends he and Wesley have become already! It is perhaps unintentional foreshadowing, but I was struck by Picard’s comment to Wesley: “I learned a very hard, very painful lesson that day, but I learned it well. I hope you never have to learn it the same way.” Wesley does have to learn a difficult lesson on his own, though it doesn’t cost him his own life; the episode “The First Duty” will give us Wesley’s turning point, and Picard will be there to help him through it.

It may be a simplistic idea, that one moment can have such a profound impact on a person, but psychologically, it is our knowledge and experiences that form our character, and a life-threatening event would certainly leave its mark. Picard may be relaying this message, and indeed the shaky theme of the entire episode, when he says:

PICARD: There is no greater challenge than the study of philosophy.
WESLEY: But William James won’t be in my Starfleet exams.
PICARD: The important things never will be. Anyone can be trained in the mechanics of piloting a starship.
WESLEY: But Starfleet Academy–
PICARD: It takes more. Open your mind to the past. Art, history, philosophy. And all this may mean something.

The Pakleds have learned to pilot a starship, but without the intellect–beyond the ability to repair it–it doesn’t mean anything to them. They have perverted the real reason for space travel and are obsessed only with acquiring more technology and becoming more powerful. This is what often separates humanity and the Federation from everyone else: the desire to explore and help others versus the drive to gain wealth and expand territory. Or so they would have us believe.

And yet, there are undercurrents of meanness running through this episode. When Enterprise discovers the Pakleds, Geordi comments, “Let me guess. Their rubber band broke, right?” This could just be his weak attempt at humor, but there’s a kind of snobbishness inherent in that remark. When it becomes clear that the Pakleds are of limited mental capacity, a frustrated Riker growls, “Did you hear an echo?” on an open channel, no less. So much for diplomacy. When Troi is worried about Geordi’s well-being, he actually laughs at her. (That might be justified, considering what we’ve seen of her usefulness so far, despite Data’s valiant defense of her abilities. But still.)

There’s a lengthy video online in which someone has spliced together all of the scenes where Worf gets shut down on the show, making a good suggestion that is immediately rejected out of hand. Whenever I see them now, I laugh, but it’s an astute observation; Worf and Troi are the lone voices of reason in this episode—a frightening prospect—and Geordi should never have been in any trouble at all. Adding in the fact that Picard is inexplicably stubborn about having Pulaski perform what is supposed to be a routine medical procedure, just for the sake of the plot, and only to end up with her operating on him anyway, and it all feels a bit forced and slight, doesn’t it?

When you get down to it, none of this should ever have happened, and when it does, it should be simple for Enterprise to disable the Pakled’s shields and recover Geordi with some precision phaser blasts, but instead they go overboard in outsmarting the simple Pakleds with a bluff that they want to be as brilliant as Kirk’s corbomite maneuver, but is really just blowing a lot of hot air. It’s overly complicated and doesn’t even make any sense, creating tension as artificial as Picard’s parthenogenetic implant.

The show should be smarter than this.

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

Thread Alert: It was either the Pakled costumes or the Starfleet surgical scrubs, but we’ve seen those silly outfits before. There isn’t anything inherently wrong in the Pakleds’ design, and their uniforms actually kind of work: They look cobbled together from odds and ends, rather like this script. What gets me are their faces. Alternately dopey and creepy as hell, at first blush they sort of remind me of the makeup from the Twilight Zone episode “The Masks.” I doubt the similarities were intentional, but if they were, that homage would be a stroke of genius, as the masks in that episode changed the faces of the wearer to reflect their inner greediness. Deep down, the Pakleds too are caricatures of people, hiding their evil natures behind innocent faces.

Best Line: Picard: “Open your mind to the past. Art, history, philosophy. And all this may mean something.”

Trivia/Other Notes: This episode would have debuted the Captain’s yacht, the Calypso, but budget constraints forced Picard to travel coach.

The Nausicaans are named after Miyazaki Hayao’s manga and anime Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Actor Christopher Collins (Grebnedlog) returns to Star Trek as another weird-looking dude in DS9’s “The Passenger.” He previously appeared as Commander Kargan in “A Matter of Honor.” Collins built a career in voice work, famously as Cobra Commander on G.I. Joe and Starscream on Transformers. He was also the original voice of Mr. Burns and Moe on early episodes of The Simpsons.

This is the last time we will see Ensign Sonya Gomez.

This episode reportedly inspired writers  Dennis Russell Bailey, David Bischoff and Lisa Putman White to write the third season episode “Tin Man,” which has nothing to do with Picard’s search for a heart.

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

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 18 – “Up the Long Ladder.”

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.