Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Up the Long Ladder”

“Up the Long Ladder”
Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Directed by Winrich Kolbe

Season 2, Episode 18
Original air date: May 22, 1989
Star date: 42823.2

Mission summary

This episode begins with an S.O.S. This is your only warning.

The strange signal, whose nature Riker instantly guesses despite it taking Starfleet a month, is a call for help used by Earthlings over three hundred years ago. Even though the distress call’s a month old no one has bothered to check it out yet, which winds up having been a strangely prescient move. Alas, Picard decides to save humanity’s “lost sheep,” in between healing some lepers and turning water into synthehol. Worf wants out of this episode and collapses to the floor of the bridge, thereby cementing his role as the most sensible person on this godforsaken boat.

To Worf’s everlasting resentment, Dr. Pulaski comes to his aid and diagnoses him with rop’ngor, or Klingon measles. Since we’ve long established that Starfleet has no HIPAA laws, Picard asks what happened over the intercom system. Pulaski covers for Worf by saying his condition is excessive manliness a Klingon fasting ritual. Worf thanks her with a Klingon tea ceremony, which is either really sweet or really cruel given that it’s poisonous. She gives herself an antidote and they bond in a Precious Moment never to be referenced again.

Back in hell, Data finds a cargo manifest for a ship that set out to this sector of space at about the right time. Onboard it had two very different sets of equipment: one highly advanced, the other quaintly self-powered. The advanced equipment needs no explanation, but as for the spinning wheels Data guesses it’s Neo-Transcendalists, or twenty-third century throwbacks longing for a simpler life. Because we must, the Enterprise reaches the source of the distress signal and learns that the sun is having solar flares which threaten to scorch the planet. The people below have been in isolation for three hundred years, so Picard decides to send Riker down as the sacrificial goat intended to make first contact. Riker does so and communicates that something is wrong, but is necessarily vague for Maximum Hijinks Purposes. When the colony begins beaming aboard we see…

…a bunch of space Irish and farm animals. At least the whole planet only had 223 of them. The leader is Danilo Odell, who seems pleased by the ship and more pleased by the fact that Picard is single and thus an eligible match for his daughter. Olde timey laughs, yessir. He puts them in a cargo hold where they promptly try to burn the place down, and the captain gets a righteous emasculation attempt from Ms. Odell, who’s supposed to be a strong female character but is actually a Strong Female Character. Predictably, she takes a shine to Riker and asks him “where can a girl go to wash her feet on this ship?” I won’t belabor the suspense: the answer is in his pants, but not until after she tries to clean his quarters (not a euphemism; rather, a sexy opening move!) and he says something horrendous:

RIKER: I can see why your father wants to marry you off.
BRENNA: Oh, and why is that?
RIKER: So he can have a pipe and mug of beer in peace.

And then she lets her hair down and they make out. Romance! It just brings a tear to the eye. More than one, really. A lot, actually. Oh god.

Meanwhile, Daddy Odell asks Picard about the other colony. What other colony? Well you can’t find out until after an “amusing” interlude in which Odell a) bitches about the lack of real booze; b) drinks Klingon booze; and c) gets harangued by his harpy daughter who I guess is a quickie because she’s already back in the cargo hold.

A hail! Maybe it’s the Borg! No, sorry, it’s Wilson Granger, prime minister of the Mariposa colony. He’s happy to see some humans after all these years and alludes to some kind of catastrophe affecting his people. Riker, Pulaski, and Worf beam down to the surface. Maybe it’s just deja vu, but there are an awful lot of Walter Grangers here… and some identical women. Someone left the DNA copier on, because Pulaski does a secret scan of one of the lackeys and discovers they’re all clones.

The bad news is that the Mariposans had a hull breach on their way to the planet and only five survived. But they were scientists, and egomaniacal, so they decided to clone themselves. Over and over again.

GRANGER: We had no other option. Two women and three men represented an insufficient gene pool from which to build a society.
PULASKI: How did you suppress the natural sexual drive? Drugs? Punitive laws?
GRANGER: In the beginning, a little bit of each. Now, after three hundred years, the entire concept of sexual reproduction is a little repugnant to us.
PULASKI: How did you overcome the problem of replicative fading?
GRANGER: We haven’t.
PULASKI: You have got a problem.
RIKER: Wait. I don’t understand replicative fading.

Neither do we! Layman’s explanation: that Michael Keaton movie, which is looking pretty good right now.

Granger is desperate for a fresh tap of DNA, and the Enterprise is looking sexier by the minute. Hey baby…can I get your tissue samples?

RIKER: No way, not me.
GRANGER: How can you possibly be harmed?
RIKER: It’s not a question of harm. One William Riker is unique, perhaps even special. But a hundred of him, a thousand of him diminishes me in ways I can’t even imagine.
GRANGER: You would be preserving yourself.
RIKER: Human beings have other ways of doing that. We have children.
PICARD: I think you will find that attitude prevalent among all the Enterprise people.
GRANGER: I see. Well, if you are not willing to share your DNA, will you at least send some people to repair our malfunctioning equipment?

Yeah, because anyone would believe that a society on the brink of collapse would settle for some duct tape. Picard agrees and sends down Riker, La Forge and a technical team, and Pulaski, who’s basically just curious about these freaks. But it’s a trap! Riker and Pulaski are knocked out and needles are stuck into their abdomens. La Forge eventually finds them and asks what happened. They don’t remember, but a medical scan reveals that both Pulaski and Riker are missing some epithelial cells. To the cloning bay! There, in tubes, are replicas of both Riker and Pulaski (fully grown, of course). With a silent nod from Pulaski, Riker phasers them, which raises absolutely no moral qualms whatsoever. Granger rushes in indignantly but Riker’s in a rage, calling their behavior assault.

In the ready room, Riker’s still got the jitters about this whole thing:

RIKER: I want the cloning equipment inspected. Who knows how many tissue samples were stolen. We certainly have a right to exercise control over our own bodies.
PULASKI: You’ll get no argument from me.

Huh. That’s… dare I say it… almost… feminist?

TROI: I know the Mariposan culture seems alien, even frightening, but really, we do have much in common. They’re human beings fighting for survival. Would we do any less?
PICARD: Are you saying we should give them the DNA samples they require?
PULASKI: That’s just postponing the inevitable. If they get an infusion of fresh DNA, in fifteen generations they’ll just go back to the same problems. Cloning isn’t the answer. What they need is breeding stock.
PICARD: The Bringloidi.
TROI: Yes. They have the energy and drive, and the clones possess the emotional maturity and the technological knowledge.
PICARD: They started out together. It seems only fitting they should end up together.
PULASKI: It’s a match made in heaven.
RIKER: Unfortunately it will have to be a shotgun wedding.

Oh. Right. Nevermind.

They propose the idea to both groups, who bristle. The Mariposans think the Bringloidi are primitive anachronisms (check); the Bringloidi think the Mariposans are sterile weirdos (also check). But desperation is the mother of, um, a society?, so they give the proposal some thought.

PULASKI: Now if this is going to work, you’re going to have to alter your society, too. Monogamous marriage will not be possible for several generations.
DANILO: I don’t quite understand.
PULASKI: Thirty couples are enough to create a viable genetic base. But the broader the base the healthier and the safer the society. So it will be best if each woman, Bringloidi and Mariposan, had at least three children by three different men.
DANILO: I think I could handle that, yes.
GRANGER: Oh, God, it’s so…
PICARD: Frightening?
GRANGER: Repugnant.
DANILO: So, it’s a done deal? And here’s my hand on it. Right, now, let’s go and stake out my three women. Send in the clones.

And just to make sure we all know it’s OK, Brenna starts ogling the clones and thinking about her three mates.


Donations to the Viewscreen Psychological Rehabilitation Fund may be made in cash or credit. No checks, please.

If I had to list my bottom five episodes before this re-watch, this episode wouldn’t have factored. I remembered it as shitty, but only generically so, like all the other “comedic” episodes. This time around I’m convinced this is the worst episode of Star Trek ever made. Let’s look at the problems starting with the least offensive and working our way down.

First, neither of these cultures make any sense. Why would the Bringloidi have only 223 people after 300 years? Let’s say their seed population was the 30 couples mentioned as the minimum necessary to create a society (DUBIOUS SCIENCE ALERT). That’s sixty. Let’s say on average they started having kids at 25 years old and had, oh, three each. The population should be at least in the low thousands. And I’m sorry, but a population with pre-industrial technology would be seriously lacking in birth control and as such these people have way too few kids, or else are recent survivors of a plague. In any case, if they’re seriously committed to a non-technological life, there should be absolutely no incentive to pairing up with the Mariposans. Any culture that insists its goats and pigs are essential to its future success would wait for the next Class M planet to start from scratch, not jump to the future it worked so hard to avoid.

As for the Mariposans, I still cannot wrap my head around this cloning idea. Granger claims that it was the only way to create a “society.” Why was creating a society so important? Earth is still out there chugging away. They’re not the last of their kind. They can probably survive, the five of them, for the rest of their natural lives. Why perpetuate that natural life? And how is it that the clones spring forth fully formed? And why are they all the same age? Do they just create them in batches, like a bunch of flavorless muffins? And how is it that their technology made it to this planet mostly intact, and they have the ability to clone, yet they aren’t capable of space travel. Just leave! Get out! Find some other humans! Jump on a different colony ship! Also, the “we’re so advanced we don’t need sex” line is absurd given that these clones are still genetically 23rd century humans. Cultural suppression can kill a lot of things, and while I think they’d feel guilty and dirty and otherwise buy into the puritanical tyranny at play here, they’d still be doing it.

Then there are the women. Or should I say, the one woman, Eve. She cooks! She cleans! She nags! She drops her panties for an insult! Brenna Odell is one of the worst TNG characters ever, in the running with the king of black savages, the holographic lounge singer, the incubus, and Tuvix. She’s not independent or sassy, she’s a berating bitch who finds the need to assert petty power and yet, of course, is secretly vulnerable and likes to be belittled by arrogant jerks. If the episode made her out to be a conniving little Napoleon it’d be bad, but at least you knew you weren’t supposed to like her.

But even the puritanism and sexism are blemishes compared to its treatment of free will. It brushes right up to something ballsy–abortion and the right to control your own body (remarks smartly made by Riker and not Pulaski)–but the resolution relies entirely on eliminating choice and turning the peasant ruffians into breeding stock for a future society of, well, slaves to an alien culture that perceives itself as superior. First, it’s utterly appalling to me that Picard sets up a “shotgun wedding” between these cultures. He should be taking every one of these people–the Irishmen and the clones–to the nearest Starbase, and let each person or family choose their own fate. The fact that no one gets a vote sends a chill down my spine. Why is Picard trading slave stock instead of allowing them to choose? I’m sure some if not all of the Bringloidians would want to start anew on a quiet world. Some may want to integrate with the future. Maybe a few will go to Mariposa after all. But that is for them to decide–not Picard, not Granger, and not even Odell.

As for the Mariposans, isn’t there a serious risk to allowing thousands, or tens of thousands, or even millions (remember there are whole cities) of identical genetic materials to proliferate in the galaxy? Even if it takes a few generations, shouldn’t there be some discussion about the ethics of allowing one genetic line to overpower all others in a twisted manipulation of Darwinism? And why is it so important to preserve the genetic material of these five individuals anyway? They’ve existed long past their time. Not everyone has a “right” to continue his or her DNA. Plenty of people fail to pass on their seed and the human race has survived, by some miracle of miracles! If they don’t want sex and don’t have a distinct culture to speak of (they seem pretty Earthy to me), why not just let them live their lives and die off, naturally? Stop making clones! Problem solved.

But what do I know, I’m just breeding stock anyway.

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

Thread Alert: This is totally what I’d wear on a space farm. Good thing she has time for those ab exercises between emasculations.

Best Line: PICARD: Sometimes, Number One, you have to…bow to the absurd.

Trivia/Other Notes: The title refers to the line “Up the long ladder/ and down the short rope,” an Irish rhyme about the gallows. How appropriate.

Riker’s comment about how special and unique he is will be challenged in “Second Chances.”

Snodgrass says the original concept was for this to be a commentary on the benefits of immigration. Her boss, Maurice Hurley, decided to make them Irish. Rewrites and budget cuts made them awful. Irish-Americans criticized the episode for being so stereotypical, and the Right to Life Coalition didn’t much like the subtle pro-choice remarks.

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 17 – “Samaritan Snare.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 19 – “Manhunt.”

About Torie Atkinson

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