Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “The Neutral Zone”

“The Neutral Zone”
Teleplay by Maurice Hurley
Story by Deborah McIntyre & Mona Clee
Directed by James L. Conway

Season 1, Episode 26
Original air date: May 16, 1988
Star date: 41986.0

Mission summary

Because Picard has to attend an emergency conference on Starbase 718, Riker commands the Enterprise when it stumbles upon a decrepit little capsule headed for a mine field. With a few hours to spare before the boss returns, Data suggests investigating the capsule. He and Worf beam down and discover several preserved meat popsicles (and a few corpses) within.

Data has the survivors, such as they are, beamed back to the ship. The three people–a woman named Clare, and two men, Sonny and Ralph–were cryogenically frozen in the late twentieth century after they had died. This apparently presents no difficulty for Dr. Crusher, who awakens them. Clare faints at the sight of Worf, and it’s clear these three will need some adjusting to the future.

Picard, meanwhile, returns in a hurry and has La Forge lay in a course for the Neutral Zone. Several Federation outposts have been destroyed, and the Enterprise is being sent to investigate. Though conventional wisdom says it’s the Romulans and Worf and Riker think the ship should come in guns blazing, Picard is skeptical that the Romulans intend to be hostile. Naturally, Picard is shocked to learn that in the midst of this crucial mission a bunch of frozen hillbillies are on his ship. Clare won’t stop crying about her dead kids, Sonny keeps looking for his next booze fix, and Ralph constantly demands to see the captain regarding his “accounts” which he’s sure are of great value now. Picard finally goes down there to talk to them:

PICARD: I don’t think you are aware of your situation, or of how much time has passed.
RALPH: Believe me, I’m fully cognizant of where I am, and when. It is simply that I have more to protect than a man in your position could possibly imagine. No offense, but a military career has never been considered to be upwardly mobile. I must contact my lawyer.
PICARD: Your lawyer has been dead for centuries.
RALPH: Yes, of course I know that, but he was a full partner in a very important firm. Rest assured, that firm is still operating.
PICARD: That’s what this is all about. A lot has changed in the past three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We have grown out of our infancy.

I’m not buying it, but all right.

Picard returns to the bridge to find that the Federation outposts aren’t just destroyed, they’ve been completely obliterated. There’s no trace of them at all. Soon a “disturbance” appears in the area: a Romulan ship, complete with improved cloaking technology. Ralph has picked up that something weird is going on and decides to sneak onto the bridge just as Picard makes contact with two Romulans from the other ship: Tebok and Thei. They claim they are investigating the destruction of their own outposts, and when Picard asks them if they know who or what is responsible, Ralph blurts out that the Romulans haven’t got a clue–they’re bluffing hoping the Federation knows. Picard, furious at Ralph but acknowledging that he’s right, calls them on it:

TEBOK: We do not know who is responsible. Why entire outposts on both sides have been carried off.
PICARD: I would like to offer a proposal.
THEI: An alliance? Between the Romulans and the Federation?
PICARD: Nothing so grandiose. Just this. Cooperation. There was an intent here. Whoever or whatever did this is more powerful than either of us. Let’s collaborate. Let’s share whatever we learn about what has happened here.
THEI: Agreed. On this one issue. And only if it is convenient and appropriate at the time.
TEBOK: Captain Picard, because your actions are those of a thoughtful man, I’ll tell you this. Matters more urgent caused our absence. Now, witness the result. Outposts destroyed, expansion of the Federation everywhere. Yes, we have indeed been negligent, Captain. But no more.
PICARD: Commander, we have made some progress here. Let’s not ruin that with unnecessary posturing.
TEBOK: Your presence is not wanted. Do you understand my meaning, Captain? We are back.

And just when you thought the episode was over, we have to return to the soap opera of the frozen hillbillies. Counselor Troi helps Clare look up her relatives, Picard teaches Ralph a valuable lesson about the uselessness of money, and Sonny decides to embark on a new musical career.

But wait, there’s more! Back on the bridge, Riker laments that the visitors won’t be staying long on the ship.

PICARD: That would take us in the wrong direction. Our mission is to go forward, and it’s just begun. Set velocity. Warp six, Mister La Forge.
LAFORGE: Aye, sir. Warp six.
PICARD: There’s still much to do. Still so much to learn. Mister La Forge, engage.

Their mission is to go forward? And it’s just begun? And there’s still so much to learn? Hint hint whack.

Analysis

Today is my birthday, and it’s cosmically unfair that this is the episode I happened to land for review. I honestly remembered nothing about it. Zip. Zero. Nada. I didn’t remember the Romulans (though I guessed, based on the title), and I definitely didn’t remember the FroYo Gang.

I came close to liking the Romulan plot, mostly because I love the Borg and am excited for their appearance on the show. But even without the mystery threat, I like the setup of having Picard establish long-overdue diplomatic relations. It seems like the kind of thing Picard would be assigned to do a lot. I would have preferred it if Picard and not Ralph had figured out the Romulans’ bluff. But again, the show tells us instead of showing us everything. Do we see the Romulans behave arrogantly? Do we see them violent, then tender? Do we see a curiosity or a fascination with humans? No, no, no, no, and no, but we do get to hear Counselor Troi list all of these things, which as we all know is just as compelling.

But honestly, I’d watch those five minutes between Picard and the Romulans on loop for an hour rather than watch the excruciating scenes of the FroYo Gang again. Ralph and Sonny are jokes. The only person who could conceivably have been a real person is Clare, who I honestly felt sorry for. She didn’t choose this future. She has woken up to learn everything she knows is gone. If the Enterprise had found her and only her, I can imagine a really sad, bittersweet story of a woman learning to live all over again. Her scenes with Troi (look! They found a use for Troi that actually makes sense!) were some of the more compelling, and were certainly more interesting than watching Sonny make martini jokes with Data or Ralph go on and on about his galaxy-class load of privilege.

The only thing worse was watching the TNG crew walk around like the future’s gift to the universe judging the poor, backwards neanderthals, as if their own values as established by now are remotely praiseworthy. Take them talking about Sonny, for instance:

CRUSHER: There was marked deterioration of every system in his body. Probably from massive chemical abuse. Unbelievable.
PICARD: That sounds like someone who hated life. Yet he had himself frozen presumably so he could go through it all again.
CRUSHER: Too afraid to live, too scared to die.

Yeah, so “unbelievable” that alcohol dependence existed in the past. Obviously only people who “hate life” and are “too afraid to live” drink, not like us at all! Our Romulan ale is only for special occasions, and the holodeck, and cold, dark nights in space. Once the guy wakes up, it’s clear he’s just a hoopy frood who likes to party too much, not some hopeless degenerate. The best example of their awful arrogance, though, is when Crusher and Picard are discussing why anyone would freeze themselves: “People feared dying. It terrified them.” Yeah, back then, when people feared death, the dweebs. Not like now at all! What the hell? This is also a huge ship’s complement, and yet no one is available to help these people adjust to their new lives? Not a single historian or social worker can be found to ease the transition, to answer questions? Not even a computer terminal so they can learn about the world they’re going to be a part of shortly? No wonder they go crazy with boredom and anxiety down there.

I would have given this a warp 2, but the the hillbilly music cues knocked a whole warp point off. This is dreck.

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

Thread Alert: Nothing says “Welcome to the twenty-fourth century” like identical prison jumpers. The thing I love the most about this outfit, which I’m going to generously assume is supposed to be a throwback to the jumpsuits of TOS, is the turtleneck. Because turtlenecks are just so timeless.

Best Line: PICARD: This is the twenty-fourth century. Material needs no longer exist.
RALPH: Then what’s the challenge?
PICARD: The challenge, Mister Offenhouse, is to improve yourself. To enrich yourself. Enjoy it.

Trivia/Other Notes: Maurice Hurley intended for this episode to be the first of a trilogy that introduced the Borg (who are, of course, the real reason for the obliteration of the outposts). The writers’ strike, however, meant dropping these ambitions and saving the Borg introduction for next season’s “Q Who” (though this is technically their first appearance in the series).

Clare Raymond’s family tree consists largely of Doctor Who actors and a few muppets.

This is the first time an actual year is mentioned that situates the TNG universe. The year is 2364.


Previous episode: Season 1, Episode 25 – “Conspiracy.”

Next post: Season 1 Wrap-Up (after a short hiatus).

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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.