Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “A Matter of Honor”

“A Matter of Honor”
Teleplay by Burton Armus
Story by Wanda M. Haight, Gregory Amos, and Burton Armus
Directed by Rob Bowman

Season 2, Episode 8
Original air date: February 6, 1989
Star date: 42506.5

Mission summary

It’s National Brotherhood Week here in the Federation and one byproduct is the Officer Exchange Program, meant to foster understanding among the various Federation fleets. A Benzite ensign named Mendon, whom Wesley initially mistakes for Mordock (tact: he does not have it), beams aboard to join the crew. Picard summons Riker to some virtual skeet shooting and suggests that a Starfleet officer should probably participate in the exchange, too. There’s a nearby Klingon vessel, the Pagh, and he’s hoping for a volunteer. Riker raises his hand.

PICARD: Any particular reason?
RIKER: Because nobody’s ever done it before.

That’s the spirit!

Riker decides to prep by reading up on Klingon military customs. He’s a little disturbed at what he finds, and approaches Worf for some clarification:

WORF: When and if the Captain becomes weak and unable to perform, it is expected that his honorable retirement should be assisted by his First. Your second officer will assassinate you for the same reasons.
RIKER: The method of attrition must take a little getting used to.
WORF: The Klingon system has operated successfully for centuries.
RIKER: It is different.
WORF: Many things will be different.

Oh they will be. To begin the transition, he heads to Ten Forward and feasts on Klingon delicacies: heart of targ, pipius claw, and of course, gagh, serpent worms. He offers some to Pulaski, who shudders at the thought. Picard, too, backs away, though he claims he envies Riker because “we know so little about them. There is so much to learn.” Eventually he makes his way to the transporter room, where O’Brien expresses reservations about the assignment, and Worf slips him an emergency transponder, just in case.

Meanwhile, Mendon is settling right in on the bridge, where he systematically harasses random crewmen about ways in which he could improve the ship’s performance. It’s apparently a Benzite trait to be “eager to please,” but his behavior puts off the rest of the bridge crew. He even manages to piss off Worf with his commentary–never a good move. The Pagh approaches and prepares to accept Riker onboard. During the beamover, though, Mendon notices something on the wing hull. It’s a bacterial colony eating away at the ship. He does an analysis but doesn’t mention it to anyone onboard. Rather, he feels this is a good time to waltz up to Picard to bring some line items to the captain’s attention. Picard politely but firmly instructs him to observe the chain of command and speak to his superior officer, Worf. Oof.

Riker settles into his new gig on the dimly lit Pagh with some male dominance rituals. Captain Kargan makes Riker swear to die for his new ship, but the second officer doesn’t believe he will and challenges his authority. With a gut punch (so honorable) Riker asserts his dominance and takes his place as the First. In no time, he becomes just one of the guys, eating gagh and joking about sex. Both he and the Klingons are surprised by how much they have in common:

KLAG: Commander, would you say you’re a typical Federation officer?
RIKER: I suppose so. Why?
KLAG: Well, it’s just you’re not what I expected.
RIKER: In what way?
TACTICS: You have a sense of humor.
RIKER: I was thinking the same thing about you. In all my dealings with Klingons, including our Lieutenant Worf, the thought never occurred to me of Klingons laughing.
TACTICS: There is much about us you do not know.
RIKER: That’s why I’m here.
KLAG: You should ask.

The Enterprise isn’t having such a thoughtful moment. Worf has discovered a microbial infection on the ship’s hull, and it’s growing rapidly. Mendon finally volunteers that he noticed it earlier on the Klingon ship, and Picard and Worf are baffled at why he didn’t mention it before. He says he was only following regulations: in the Benzite fleet, one does not mention a problem unless it has been fully analyzed and a resolution determined. Picard informs him that this is not so here, and urges him and Worf to come up with a solution and locate the Pagh to inform them of the problem. Alas, they’ve already discovered it, and Kargan immediately assumes it was an attack by the Enterprise. Despite Riker’s protestations that that’s paranoid delusion, Kargan engages the cloaking device and heads on an intercept course to destroy the offending flagship.

The two ships “meet,” but the Klingons refuse to reveal themselves and prepare for an attack. Riker is given another test: an order to betray the secrets of his former ship, to aid in its destruction. He refuses, and earns a little respect. The Enterprise, meanwhile, has discovered a way to eliminate the microbes and transmits that information over hailing frequencies. For some reason Kargan still believes this is an elaborate act of war and prepares to fire. In a last-ditch effort, Riker retrieves the emergency transponder from his boot and suggests the Pagh get a little closer–within transporter range, say. They do, the Enterprise picks up the emergency signal, and Riker attaches the transponder to Kargan so that he and not Riker is beamed directly to the Enterprise bridge.

Riker takes command of the Pagh and orders the Enterprise to surrender. They do. Everyone wins!

When Kargan is beamed back to the Pagh, he’s understandably furious. He orders Riker back to his station but now-Captain Riker stands his ground–and gets backhanded for it. Kargan, having now officially regained his command, kicks Riker off the ship. Klag seems impressed with Riker’s handling of the situation such that all saved face. The injured Riker returns to the Enterprise, where Worf of all people welcomes him home.


Finally, we’re starting to get to the series I know and love!

I confess inordinate fondness for this episode. Maybe it’s just a rebound affair after the dreck of season 1, but I enjoyed this one more than anything else we’ve re-watched thus far. It’s thoughtful, it’s funny, it’s fun! The Officer Exchange Program is such a brilliant notion and one so likely to fail, and yet here it succeeds. The culture clashes are played for laughs, but never only for laughs, and the misunderstandings feel human and not absurd. It’s also just so funny. It was so difficult to choose a best line. What about Picard’s line that he would have chosen more palatable options, and Riker’s response that these were the more palatable options? Or Worf’s remark that his wanting to protect Riker was a matter of “efficiency”? The characters have finally come into their own enough to rib and joke with one another, and the writing has matured beyond Look I Am Telling A Joke.

What I love most about this episode (take note: this may be the only time I ever say this) is Riker. I love that he approaches his task with absolute relish. He’s not scared or even nervous. He’s thrilled at the prospect of doing something new, of meeting these people, and most importantly, he remains judgment-free about their culture. Where Picard and Pulaski cringe at the food, he eats it up with relish. He’s surprised by some of the Klingon customs, but he takes it all in stride. He plays by their rules, he refuses to be offended by their insults, and he shows a genuine curiosity about their lives and their families. He’s not slumming it. He considers them peers and equals. He doesn’t waltz around talking about how superior his own culture is or come home thanking the FSM to be back among the civilized, for once. He also never feels entirely at home, and in that sense gets closer to understanding Worf than anyone else ever will.

There are two things that really drive me crazy, though, and they’re why it’s not even close to a Warp 6 in my book. The first is the weakness of the Mendon story. Poor Mendon can’t seem to get things right, but I appreciated that no one on the bridge tried to make him feel badly about it. Mendon should not have approached Picard, but Picard apologizes to him, saying it was his responsibility to ensure he was familiar with protocol and he failed. Good, right? But that story never goes anywhere. It’s clear that Mendon gets something out of his experience on the bridge, but the bridge crew doesn’t get anything by Mendon being there. There is no exchanging, no learning, you just watch Mendon be awkward and screw up a lot and that’s not particularly edifying. Similarly, why is it that no one calls out Wesley for his totally racist welcome? (“Hey, Mordock! Oh you’re not Mordock? Well you all look the same to me, I mean how do you even tell each other apart?” *facepalm*) No one learns anything about the Benzites, and Mendon never gets a chance to prove himself–to show that Benzite discipline and protocol has a purpose, and it may seem weird to we Feddies but it makes perfect sense when you confront a situation that a Benzite would ordinarily confront (which the ship never does, of course).

The second is Kargan. He’s a fool. All of the interactions with Klag are great, and then you have Kargan, who’s an incompetent idiot. I really can’t fathom why the writers wasted this great opportunity to show a fantastic Klingon captain, and instead gave us another Kruge. Kargan’s fears are absurd. I love it when he wonders aloud what the Enterprise is doing, and Riker suggests: “Ask them!” I really wish we had been able to see a top-notch, impressive, admirable Klingon leader. What if instead of the Enterprise the Pagh had encountered some other ship, maybe Romulans or even other Klingons? And more importantly, demonstrated by their handling of the situation that the Federation approach isn’t the only one or even necessarily the best one, and that Klingons know their own territory and how to deal with their own people better? Where’s the lesson Riker could learn? The whole face-off with Picard is idiotic and I hate it more and more every time I see it. Maybe they were going for the “even great allies have total morons” theme?

Lastly, a question. So women obviously serve aboard Klingon ships. Yet when Riker asks after the crew’s parents, they all say their mothers are at home and care only about the deeds of their fathers. Are the women aboard anomalies, or is their “honor” not gained by glorious death? Is it like a required two years of military service before you go home and wear revealing clothes, scheme ineffectively, and pop out babies? (Oh Star Trek, you have so far to go on women. It’s okay, I’ll wait.)

Torie’s Rating: Warp 5 (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread Alert: Why is it that Mendon dons a Starfleet uniform for his assignment, but Riker does no such thing? Look at that smug smile from someone not willing to wear the tunic while in Rome.

Best Line: KLAG: Klingons do not express feeling the way you do.
RIKER: Perhaps you should.
KLAG: We would not know how.
RIKER: Yesterday, I did not know how to eat gagh.

Trivia/Other Notes: According to prop master Alan Sims, the gagh was actually long brown noodles, while the rokeg blood pie was turnips in pumpkin pies, dyed red.  He used chicken feet as pipius claw, animal organs as heart of targ, and other things such as fish, eyes, squids and octopus. So basically, dim sum.

John Putch, who played Mendon, is the same actor who played Mordock.

Christopher Collins (Kargan) is perhaps best known by my generation as the voice of both Cobra Commander and Starscream. He’ll return three more times in the Star Trek universe: once more in TNG (as the Pakled Gregnedlog in “Samaritan Snare”) and twice on DS9 (“The Passenger” and “Blood Oath”).

Brian Thompson (Klag) will forever be to me the Alien Bounty Hunter from The X-Files. He’s in Star Trek a lot: DS9’s “Rules of Acquisition” and “To the Death,” Star Trek Generations, and a recurring role on Enterprise as Romulan Admiral Valdore.

Previous episode: Season 2, Episode 7 – “Unnatural Selection.”

Next episode: Season 2, Episode 9 – “The Measure of a Man.”

About Torie Atkinson

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