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

Story by Robert Lewin
Teleplay by Robert Lewin, Richard Manning, and Hans Beimler
Directed by Win Phelps

Season 1, Episode 22
Original air date:  April 18, 1988
Star date: Unknown

Mission summary

This week, on a Very Special Episode of ST: TNG…

The Enterprise is investigating some unusual solar flare activity in the Delos system when they receive a distress call from an Ornaran freighter. The freighter turns out to be the galactic equivalent of a Volkswagen minibus and the occupants onboard seem awfully mellow for people whose lives are in danger. The Enterprise‘s bridge crew is dumbfounded by the Ornarans’ lack of initiative to solve their crisis or expertise about the basic ship repairs necessary to save their vessel. The freighter is going to be destroyed as a result of sheer incompetence. The Enterprise beams them over to save their lives, but the Ornarans beam over their cargo first. By the time Yar can lock onto the passengers, only four of the six made it: two died because their cargo got priority. Harsh, dude.

No one seems upset, though: the two surviving Ornarans and the two surviving Brekkians both want to see their cargo right away. The Ornarans claim it’s theirs, because they paid for it, but the Brekkians claim it’s still theirs, since the payment was destroyed with the ship. The two get into a lightning match Pokémon-style, because apparently both races have a natural electric charge. The cargo turns out to be felicium, a medicine for a plague exclusive to Ornaran that affects all inhabitants. Without it, the Ornarans will die. In fact, the two Ornarans who have beamed aboard–T’Jon and Romas–quickly begin suffering from the loss of the drug. Dr. Crusher can’t find any infection, but the symptoms are most certainly real. The Brekkians refuse to relinquish the cargo because Brekka has no other industries and supports itself exclusively with sales of felicium. The Ornarans’ dependence on this medicine means they export anything the Brekkians could ever need in exchange for the felicium. However, with T’Jon and Romas suffering, the Brekkians Sobi and Langor decide to give them each a single dose, to get them as far as Ornara for continued negotiations.

Crusher doesn’t bother testing the dose to find out what’s in it, but she notices the effects right away. T’Jon and Romas aren’t sick, they’re addicted to a narcotic. Their symptoms were those of withdrawal from a potent drug. The felicium acts as an immediate chill pill and the Brekkians have obviously spent their years “purifying” the so-called plague treatment to increase its addictive properties, making the entire Ornaran population dependent on the felicium. Picard and Crusher, in private, confront Sobi and Langor. They figure out that while the felicium did cure the plague many moons ago, the plague has been gone for centuries and now the Brekkians are just drug peddlers. Unfortunately, Picard claims there’s nothing he can do to stop them. The two planets have developed a symbiotic relationship, and to interfere would be a violation of the Prime Directive. Crusher could formulate some space methodone to help the Ornarans with their withdrawal symptoms, but that, too, would be interfering. Then this happens:

WESLEY: Data, I can understand how this could happen to the Ornarans. What I can’t understand is why anyone would voluntarily become dependent on a chemical.
DATA: Voluntary addiction to drugs is a recurrent theme in many cultures.
TASHA: Wesley, no one wants to become dependent. That happens later.
WESLEY: But it does happen. So why do people start?
TASHA: On my home planet, there was so much poverty and violence, that for some the only escape was through drugs.
WESLEY: How can a chemical substance can provide an escape.
TASHA: It doesn’t, but it makes you think it does. You have to understand, drugs can make you feel good. They make you feel on top of the world. You’re happy, sure of yourself, in control.
WESLEY: But it’s artificial.
TASHA: It doesn’t feel artificial until the drug wears off. Then you pay the price. Before you know it, you’re taking the drug not to feel good, but to keep from feeling bad.
WESLEY: And that’s the trap?
TASHA: All you care about is getting your next dosage. Nothing else matters.
WESLEY: I guess I just don’t understand.
TASHA: Wesley, I hope you never do.

Eventually the Enterprise reaches Ornara, and the Brekkians, fearful of the Ornarans’ surviving withdrawal from the drug and no longer requiring the felicium, decide to “gift” the cargo to the Ornarans and work out a payment plan later. Picard sees through this and comes up with the only way he feels he can help: he refuses to repair any of the shuttlecraft that shuttle the cargo back and forth, knowing full well that soon the supply line will break down, and with it, the drug addiction.

This episode brought to you by Nancy Reagan.


I had remembered this episode rather fondly. Maybe I had been taking some felicium myself, because this hasn’t aged well at all.

I still give points for a premise that I haven’t seen anywhere else, before or since. Can you imagine the pitch? A planet of drug addicts manipulated into believing their withdrawal symptoms are a kind of plague, whose obsession with the drug has meant seeing all other forms of progress, like science and technology, take second place to the need for the next fix…  and the drug addicts are the good guys? Yeah, okay. Watching this today, their “symbiosis” seems eerily prescient given the way incentives in the pharmaceutical industry favor long-term (and expensive) treatment of symptoms over short-term (less profitable) cures of conditions. Alas, that particular allegory is probably coincidental, as the obvious parallel is supposed to be to recreational drugs. Drugs make you dumb! Just say no! You’re being used! Yeah, whatever. Like most intelligent adults I’m allergic to the hard sell, and they’re trying oh so hard.

This has one of the better guest casts: Merritt Butrick and Richard Lineback make convincing druggies, and Judson Scott and Kimberly Farr effectively convey loathsome yuppie-ish dealers. Butrick in particular twitches his way to several stolen scenes, giving Judson Scott a run for his money. Alas, their deliciously melodramatic performances are undermined by one of the worst actual teleplays that’s aired. There are no fewer than three condescending diatribes, the worst of which is the notorious Yar speech. But the Wesley scene everyone remembers really detracts from just how dreadful both Picard’s and Crusher’s moralizing is, too. Dr. Crusher comes across as an emotional loon, and I’m surprised she didn’t go straight to “Won’t somebody think of the children!” As the advocate for the viewer’s point of view, she embarrasses. Then Picard–oh, Picard–has to actually sell us the idea that allowing a planet full of people to suffer BEFORE they find out their lives have been a sham is the truly humane alternative to cutting to the chase right now.

I understand the Prime Directive as a guideline for, you know, preventing the Fourth Reich, but this is ridiculous. These people aren’t just being exploited, they’re obviously suffering dramatically: a condition the Enterprise generally leaps at the opportunity of correcting. There’s just no precedent for this kind of wholesale back-turning on a people in obvious need. Picard’s “resolution” merely highlights the absurdity of the premise. If they can’t interfere when their own people are in danger (“Justice” or “Angel One“) or when other aliens are in danger (here), then what exactly are they supposed to do out there in the great big universe? Take notes in their travelogue and keep their uniforms neat? Surely Roddenberry didn’t intend this crew to have the most cruel hearts in the galaxy. Maybe all of these examples are just there to Teach Us A Lesson. Writers, if you’re going to write oversimplified morality tales, don’t insult our intelligence. Let us learn the lessons ourselves by showing your characters making mistakes and not just setting examples.

Ultimately, I leave the episode thinking of a hundred alternative directions in which this could have been more interesting. What if felicium had side effects? What if it actually was a necessary medicine, and the Brekkians were exploiting that in a slightly more honest, less villainous way? Is there something inherently evil about controlling the supply of a necessary medicine, or is business just business? And hey, seriously, what about the children?

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

Thread Alert: The ’70s are over! Why do they keep happening to this show?? If anyone looks like they’re going to snort coke off a disco floor, it’s these two.

Best Line: LANGOR: The Ornarans provide us with the necessities of life, and we provide them with the necessities of living. It is a fair exchange.

Trivia/Other Notes: This was Denise Crosby’s last episode before her timely death in next week’s “Skin of Evil.” (Though this aired first, it was shot after.) When Picard and Crusher leave the cargo bay at the end, you can see her waving goodbye in the background.

Merrick Butrick and Judson Scott are both Trek veterans, having appeared in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan together. Though Scott returned to the franchise in Voyager, Butrick could not: he died the next year of AIDS-related illnesses.

Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 21 – “The Arsenal of Freedom.”

Next episode: Season 1, Episode 23 – “Skin of Evil.”

About Torie Atkinson

Torie Atkinson watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.