Who Watches The Watchers?
Overall Ep :
First Aired :
16 Oct 1989
Season Ep :
Dr. Crusher pulls off an amazing job of swift-fingered surgery in this episode. When Riker escapes from the Mintakans by beaming back to the ship, he goes to the bridge to see what's going on down below. The action makes it clear that only seconds have passed, a minute or two at the most - yet Riker's proto Vulcan surgery is completely reversed when he arrives on the bridge!
Great Moment :
My personal favourite is Picard's condemnation of religious belief as superstition. Yeah, I know, I'm biased.
Body Count :
Picard and one of the proto-Vulcans are injured, but survive. One Federation scientist dies.
The Mintakan surface scenes were shot at the Vasquez Rocks, where the original series episodes "Arena", "Shore Leave", "Friday's Child" and "The Alternative Factor" were filmed.
The Enterprise-D is on the way to Mintaka III, a planet which is host to a primitive proto-Vulcan species called the Mintakans. A Federation outpost there is studying a Mintakan village and is in need of supplies and help repairing a malfunctioning fusion reactor. The reactor is vital as, in order to avoid interfering with the Mintakans, the outpost is concealed behind a holographic projection of a rock face.
As the ship approaches the outpost experiences an explosion which causes the holographic "duck blind" to fail. The ship steps up speed and races to the rescue. On the planet two Mintakans, Liko and Oji, spot the outpost and go to investigate. They peer in and witness the Enterprise crew treating the outpost staff. However, Liko touches a wall and receives a large static shock which makes him fall. Dr. Crusher, rushes to help the injured man and decides to beam him up to the Enterprise sickbay - unfortunately Oji is watching as the pair beam out.
Crusher is able to treat the shocked Liko, and in order to prevent him from returning with stories of the Enterprise she tries a memory wipe on him before beaming him back down.
However, Mintakan brain chemistry is not very compatible with the memory wipe technology, and Liko retains hazy memories of the event - including "Picard" as some sort of authority figure in the magical place he was in, and the fact that they are seeking "Palmer", one of the outpost staff who is missing.
Riker and Troi are disguised as Mintakans and beam down to investigate the degree of contamination. Each has a subcutaneous communicator implanted to enable the ship to listen in on them. They arrive in the village to find Liko telling everybody all about "The Picard", who he has taken to be a supernatural authority figure akin to a god. Riker and Troi attempt to convince them it was all just a dream, suggesting that since Liko and Oji are related they might share the same dream, but the Mintakans are unconvinced by this. When some Mintakans bring the wounded Dr. Palmer in, Liko is thrilled as he thinks this will please the Picard.
Aboard the Enterprise the outpost leader, Dr. Barron, advises Picard to simply beam Palmer aboard and leave the Mintakans to make of it what they will. Picard declines, preferring to wait for some chance to rescue Palmer without compounding the cultural contamination.
The Mintakans agree to hold on to Palmer, keeping him prisoner on the theory that he might be trying to escape from the Picard. Troi creates a distraction by announcing that she has seen another, similar man nearby, and Riker overcomes the guard and carries Palmer from the village. He is seen and pursued, but manages to get out of sight for long enough to beam up with Palmer. Troi, however, is captured by the Mintakans and help prisoner. They rationalize the events by assuming that Palmer was indeed a fugitive from the Picard, and that Riker and Troi are assisting him in this endeavour - essentially, that they are enemies of god!
Dr. Barron suggests that since the damage is done Picard should accept the title of god which has been forced on him and try to at least use it for good - recovering Troi and giving the Mintakans a few healthy guidelines to lead their lives by. Picard utterly rejects this idea and instead decides to try and show the Mintakans the simple truth. He waits until one of the Mintakan leaders, Nuria, is alone and has her beamed up to the Enterprise. She is shocked and awed to find herself in the "magical" realm confronting the Picard directly. He gently explains the truth - using the example of the Mintakan's own progress from living in caves using clubs to living in huts and using bows, he suggests that they will continue to advance and one day will have powers and abilities that they can't grasp now - and that this is all he and the Enterprise are. Nuria initially accepts the idea but quickly relapses into worship of Picard as some divine being - the gap is simply too great for her to make the mental leap. Picard takes her to sickbay where she watches one of the outpost staff, Dr. Warren die despite Dr. Crusher's best efforts. By seeing that Picard is as limited as she is in this respect Nuria finally comes to accept that he is not magical in nature, but just another person.
On the planet a large storm blows up. Liko convinces the Mintakans that it is a sign of the Picard's anger with them for not holding on to Palmer, and that they should appease him by sacrificing Troi. Picard beams down with Nuria, shocking the Mintakans. Liko begs him to restore his dead wife to life, and is blind to both his and Nuria's explanations of why he cannot. Distraught, Liko attempts to prove Picard's magical nature by aiming a bow at him, reasoning that no weapon could harm him. Picard faces the danger and says that if his death is required to set things right then he will accept it. Liko fires and wounds Picard - seeing his blood finally convinces him that he was wrong all along.
Dr. Crusher is able to treat Picard successfully and they decide to dismantle the outpost as there is little point in further studying the Mintakans from it. Now on good terms with the Mintakans, the ship proceeds on to the next mission.
Prime Directive shows can be a little preachy, especially in TNG, but I rather like this one. Everything about it flows in a pretty logical manner - if you're going to have outposts like this then sooner or later you are going to screw up, and then you are going to have to deal with that. If there's one flaw it's probably the idea that this hasn't happened before often enough that they have guidelines already in place as to how to deal with it! Still, that's a minor flaw.
It seems somewhat odd that it is Dr. Barron who says that they just beam Palmer out in front of the Mintakans, and then that Picard willingly assume the role of god to these people - you would think that as the leader of an observation outposts he would be more dedicated to non-interference than anybody else present. However, whilst it would make logical sense that he be the one advising maximum caution it would put Picard in the role of wanting to step in and act - essentially making him "the bad guy". Naturally they aren't ever going to do that since Picard is the hero. And if we have both men committed to the idea of non-interference, much of the drama evaporates.
The attitude to religion presented here is typical for Trek. Like it or not Trek has generally pushed the idea that religion and what may be termed "religious thinking", by which I mean accepting claims on faith rather than evidence, is not a good thing. This is especially so in TOS and TNG, though there are exceptions both then and more so in later Treks. It also pushes the idea that people have a right to live their own lives how they think best without interference. Is this a contradiction? Perhaps, but I don't see it that way.
In a sense, what Trek usually attacks is not religion so much as a strawman version of religion, in that the religions they tackle are generally demonstrably false. We know
Picard is not a god and the Mintakan belief that he is is simply factually wrong - and a large majority of Trek stories along religious lines are like that. Vaal, Kirok, Ardra, etc - both we the audience and the characters always know, or at least suspect, that these are not genuine gods or devils, and we always turn out to be right about that. It's hardly controversial to say that worshipping a false god is a bad thing.
More controversial is the implication - or outright statement in a few cases - that what I termed "religious thinking" is bad or wrong. Does this fall in contradiction to the Trek viewpoint about tolerance and acceptance? No, I don't really think so. One can tolerate and accept an idea without believing it to be a good idea, after all. I can simultaneously believe that green is the best colour and blue sucks, whilst believing that you have the right to foolishly and wrongly think the opposite. It's not a contradiction. Kirk, Picard and the others can and have fought against false gods, but they rarely if ever take the view that a society should be forced to become secular rather than religious in overall outlook.
It it true
, though? Is Trek right to think that being secular is better than being religious? That's a question so big that I'm certainly not going to settle it here, or even outline the issue here! People can and have written books on the subject. History is certainly replete with religious people doing bad things and good things, as it is with secular people doing bad things and good things. I suppose my own views approach the line Christopher Hitchens uses occasionally - that whilst good people can do good things for both religious and secular reasons, and bad people can do bad things for both religious and secular reasons, religion can and has motivated good people to do bad things. Secularism hasn't and I don't really see how it could.