This is James Sloyan's first appearence in Star Trek. He would go on to play K'mtar in "Firstborn" Jetrel in Voyager's "Jetrel", and Odo's "father" Dr. Mora Pol in DS9's "The Alternate" and "The Begotten".
On the bridge, they find that the approaching ship is a Romulan scout. It hails the Enterprise and the pilot requests asylum; a Warbird decloaks behind him, firing as he races towards the Enterprise.
Picard takes the ship to red alert and warns the Warbird off. The scout is damaged by disruptor fire but manages to limp into Federation space, and Picard extends the shields around it and again warns the Warbird off. It hovers menacingly for a long moment, then slowly turns and silently departs.
With power failing on the scout Picard orders the lone occupant beamed aboard. He is injured, but refuses treatment, asking for asylum and saying he has information vital to their interests. He subsequently claims to be a low ranking logistics officer; he states that reports he has seen show the Romulans have built a base on Nelvana III, a planet in the Neutral Zone. It will be operational in two days, and from it they plan to launch a war into Federation space.
Picard has the man taken to sickbay and they discuss his story; they are dubious about it, but look forward to the intelligence coup of being able to examine his ship - but even as they speak it explodes into fragments. Riker questions "Sublieutenant Setal" in sickbay and he admits that he deliberately set the ship to destruct to keep any secrets from Federation hands, claiming that he does not want to betray his people, only to stop the oncoming war. He crosses words with Crusher and Worf concerning the recent incident at Galorndon Core, in which they allowed a wounded Romulan to die, but after Worf leaves he confesses that he likes him, or at least understands his attitude. Setal is assigned quarters and find himself rather lost and alone in the space.
The ship is scanning the Nelvana system but can find nothing unusual. Picard receives a message from Admiral Haden, informing him that the Romulan government has officially demanded the return of Setal but this has been refused. He orders the Enterprise to proceed along the border to a position close to Nelvana. Picard calls Worf to the ready room.
On the bridge they go over the sensor records from the Warbird's pursuit of the scout. Geordi notices that at two points the scout reduced speed - and the Warbird slowed to remain well behind it rather than catching up. Data also notes that the Warbird is capable of aiming weapons accurately just as they can, meaning it could fire to deliberately damage rather than destroy the ship. Crusher even speculates that their defector could have inflicted his wounds on himself.
Picard receives another signal from Admiral Haden informing him that the USS Monitor and USS Hood are on their way, but that they are some distance off and will take a while to get there. All outposts and ships along the border are on yellow alert, he says. Starfleet wants to avoid war if possible, but they are prepared to take on the Romulans if they force the issue.
Picard orders a class 1 probe sent to Nelvana to scan the planet in detail. He also asks Data to keep a detailed record of everything that is done on the ship to give an unbiased account for history, and questions Data about the mood of the crew; like King Henry in the play, Picard wonders if the people he commands are committed to the cause, but unlike Henry he doesn't have the option to disguise himself and move amongst them. Data reports that the crew are all fully behind whatever Picard decides to do.
Riker and Troi interrogate Setal. Riker takes a very skeptical tone, more or less refusing to believe anything Setal says, much to his irritation, and the session ends badly. On the bridge a message arrives from the IKS Bortas, and Worf leaves to deal with it as Data launches the probe. It picks up low-level subspace radio and ionization disturbances from the planet, but there is no sign of a base. The results are inconclusive, and only a direct clsoe range examination will say for sure.
In Ten Forward Data talks to Setal, who is missing his home planet. The discuss the lack of Romulan food and drink on the ship, and how he will never again experience such simple things from his former life. Data takes Setal to the holodeck to show him a simulation of Romulus, which he is duly impressed with but ultimately dismisses as artificial and meaningless. Setal angrily states that he must stop his world from being destroyed, and announces that he is in fact Admiral Jarok, a famous Romulan fleet commander.
Admiral Hayden confirms in a message that the defector is indeed Admiral Alidar Jarok, a man known for the massacre at the Norkan outposts. Picard meets with Jarok, and questions his credibility now that his lies are revealed. Jarok defends his record, insisting that he only wants peace and refusing to betray his people. Picard angrily lays it out for him - he is already a traitor, and cannot have it both ways. Walking onto the bridge, Picard announces that Jarok has agreed to provide them with whatever information he can on Romulan weaknesses. He orders the Enterprise into the Neutral Zone at warp speed.
The ship meets no resistance on the way to the planet, which they find suspicious. On arrival they find no trace of a base, no sign of any Romulan presence. Jarok is confused, as he has seen countless orders relating to it. It slowly dawns on him that this whole situation might be a setup. The Enterprise sets course back to Federation space, but as they begin to depart two Romulan Warbirds decloak and hammer the Enterprise. They are hailed by Commander Tomalak, who gloats over the situation - he has Picard badly outmatched, caught in a clear violation of the Neutral Zone for no reason. Picard offers to apologise and depart but Tomalak states that he requires a surrender, and may return the crew whilst keeping their ship. Picard calmly informs him that he will fight if he must, and that his crew are perfectly willing to die in a just cause... and wonders if Tomalak is so willing. When the Commander scoffs at the idea as an empty threat Picard has Worf broadcast a signal - and three Klingon ships decloak. Now outnumbered and outgunned, Tomalak angrily declares that he can still take Picard's ship down, which Picard calmly accepts - but informs him that he will certainly not survive either. A furious Tomalak backs down and allows the little fleet to depart.
Afterwards, Jarok is found in his quarters, dead, apparently having taken poison. He leaves a letter behind for his family, and Data remarks that he must have known they had no way to deliver it. Picard muses that if other men show the same courage that Jarok did, then perhaps there will be peace one day and the letter can be delivered.
A couple of small missteps along the way, the most notable one the one I pointed out above - why on Earth would Picard ask Data of all people what the mood of the crew is? Data simply isn't competent to answer that question on any level. Meanwhile Troi's very job is to assess and monitor the mood of the crew, and she's only a comm line away. It just seems like it would have been better for both her and Data to be in on this conversation.
Jarok is an interesting character well played; it's entirely believable that he could talk himself into crossing the line whilst hoping that he'd be able to hold back from really betraying his people, and his increasing anger and bitterness at having to lie in the bed he made for himself is well done. Picard's final insistence that he's already turned traitor and he'd better get on with it is just the kind of thing that he is best at.
The final confrontation with Tomalak is cool, and I love the moment when the Klingons decloak. There are little clues through the episode to tip you off to what's going on, which is a nice touch.
Overall a great episode.
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