Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Who Watches the Watchers”

Who Watches the Watchers“Who Watches the Watchers”
Written by Richard Manner & Hans Beimler
Directed by Robert Wierner

Season 3, Episode 4
Original air date: October 16, 1989
Star date: 43173.5

Mission summary

The Enterprise hurries to Mintaka III, where some Federation anthropologists secretly observing a proto-Vulcan race are in jeopardy. Their sooper sekrit compound blows up when the generator fails, exposing their little observation tower to the natives below–a girl named Oji and her father, Liko. The scientists and Liko are injured in the explosion, and Crusher decides to beam them onboard for medical treatment. Oji watches all this from a hiding place, wondering what the hell is going on…

When Picard finds out a Mintakan is onboard his ship, he flips out at Crusher, who’s tired of this plot:

CRUSHER: Before you start quoting me the Prime Directive, he’d already seen us. The damage was done. It was either bring him aboard or let him die.
PICARD: Then why didn’t you let him die?
CRUSHER: Because we were responsible for his injuries.
PICARD: I’m not sure that I concur with that reasoning, Doctor.

Your hero, ladies and gentlemen! He says the least they can do is mind-wipe the guy like they did with Sarjenka, but if that worked we wouldn’t have an episode. Crusher beams Liko back to the surface, assuming he’ll just think he was on a bender I guess, and Picard sends Troi and Riker–disguised as Mintakans–to the surface as well to find the last scientist who was injured but missing when they last looked.

Naturally the mind-wipe didn’t work, and so Liko goes back to his village telling stories of the great healing power of the supreme being who rescued him: The Picard. His daughter is a little skeptical, but they have no other explanation for what happened so this’ll do. Some men drag in Palmer, the missing scientist, and Liko gains a few new believers. Soon Riker and Troi show up to try and plant a seed of doubt, but the Mintakans are starting to really come around to this Picard. Because the away mission is for Palmer more than damage control, Troi creates a distraction and most of the Mintakans leave the unconscious Palmer passed out with Riker and a village elder. Riker gets one over on the old man guard pretty quickly (um, yay?) and fireman carries Palmer to… someplace else to beam out. For reasons I still don’t understand, having seen this many times.

He does manage to get away with Palmer, but Troi is stuck with the locals who are none too pleased about losing their leverage with The Picard. They threaten to punish her, hoping to please their god. The Picard doesn’t want to beam her out in the middle of a group, because that’d be sooooo much harder to explain than the fact that she mysteriously appeared with a guy who kidnapped an alien.

So The Picard has a new idea: he’s going to convince the leader, a woman named Nuria, that he’s not a god. His plan looks a little like this:

Step 1: Beam her to his spaceship.
Step 2: ????
Step 3: Understanding!

Poor Nuria is completely baffled by her experience. The Picard shows her space and her planet and explains using patronizing metaphors how backwards she is, and in the end she still thinks he’s a god, for some reason. Finally, to prove his impotence, The Picard lets her watch one of the scientists die in Sickbay. Rather than being a deeply traumatic experience and sending her into a whirlwind of despair about the inevitability of death across time and space, she politely accepts that The Picard is either the lamest supreme being ever, or just a dude, and vows to return and explain it all to her people.

Meanwhile, Liko has been going a little zealous on them all and threatening to kill Troi, who is for reasons unknown to this reviewer still on the planet. Nuria and The Picard arrive just in time to explain that The Picard is a powerless little man, but Liko decides to fire his arrow (because savages?) at The Picard to prove he’s immortal. His daughter deflects the shot just in time to only get The Picard in the arm. And as the Overseer once said long ago, “If it bleeds, we can kill it,” so The Picard must not be a god.

Later, the Mintakans feel kind of sheepish about the whole thing and offer Picard a tapestry so that he’ll remember them. If only we could forget…

whowatchesthewatchers2

Analysis

There are two ways to do this story: make it a farce, with a series of progressively more hilarious misunderstandings; or make it a serious contemplation of the nature of religion and scientific understanding. The episode chose the latter, and did it poorly enough that it feels like the former.

We all laugh at “The Picard,” but Troi and Riker are ludicrously incompetent and should be the real targets of derision and shame. They claim to be cloth traders yet don’t seem to have any cloth; Troi’s “ruse” involves pointing vaguely and saying “Look! A distraction!”; Riker uses the good old “Does this rag smell like chloroform to you?” trick with the “Let me show you a real knot…” scene, only to stumble awkwardly through Vasquez Rocks carrying an unconscious guy for absolutely no reason to…what? Avoid detection? None of this makes any sense. The contamination is done, yet they let Troi’s life hang in the balance to have a contrived threat. Even the anthropologist can’t believe this stupid plan! Honestly, if they had cut that entire Troi/Riker/Palmer subplot I think this episode would have benefited enormously, and not just because we wouldn’t have to hear Riker muse not-at-all-hilariously on local mating habits.

But it made me wonder about a lot of “contamination” episodes in TOS. If Picard had found the Nazi planet, would he just say “Oh we can’t interfere,” despite the fact that interference is happening all around him? There’s no consistent vision here–no articulated argument for his application of the PD in this instance. I remain baffled at his choices and the main conflict. As far as I’m concerned, once they think you’re a god, you should go in, rescue your d00ds, and then discuss next steps for damage control. Why does he just abandon Troi to the we’re-totally-not-Native-Americans?

One of the real strengths of the conceit (in theory more than execution) is that given how wacky this all plays out, the conclusion that some powerful being is at work is, paradoxically, the most logical answer. And it’s absolutely correct in many ways, though of course wrong in the most essential one. But there is no serious examination of religion in this way. The Mintakans aren’t coming to a logical, but inaccurate and inadequate conclusion after much debate and analysis. They’re morons who en masse take up the banner of a long-dead mythological figure, and in just moments become a bunch of wildly emotional nativist stereotypes who break out the bow and arrow to pointlessly execute a stranger. I can absolutely believe that some “primitive” race out there would, upon seeing Picard, assume he was a god. In fact, I bet it happens all the time. But that doesn’t explain their mysterious de-evolution into babbling zealots. Since when does a post-Enlightenment Bronze age (whatever the hell that would be) equal monotheistic chauvinism? And as for the “religion,” we get some cheap, offensive shots at theists for being such foolish dupes and yet another pat on the back for the Federation. The show could have pulled off that idea with a lot more grace and thought than it did here.

I would have given this a Warp 2, but the ending where Picard essentially offers to die to prove he’s not a god ranks as one of the lowest TNG moments for me. I can’t think of any other time in which he feels like less of a leader. Maybe it’s supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek Christ inversion? Yeah, thought not.

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

whowatchesthewatchers3Thread Alert: If this band of merry men is supposed to be Bronze Age, I highly recommend a visit to the designer’s local library and/or internet. But seriously, this looks like a community theater production of Macbeth where the director said “make it look oldie-timey” and the designer looked around in a panic shouting “VESTS! VESTS! I CAN’T LOSE!”

Best Line: LIKO: I believe I have seen the Overseer. He is called the Picard.
RIKER: Uh oh.

Trivia/Other Notes: The Mintakan tapestry will live in Picard’s ready room from now on. Look for it.


Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 3 – “The Survivors.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 5 – “The Bonding”

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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.