Arsenal of Freedom (TNG Rewatch, Season 1, Episode 21)

Rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation after a 20-year break.

With an A-plot that comments on the Cold War arms race, a B-plot that tests LaForge’s command skills, and a C-plot that explores the Picard/Crusher dynamic, I wanted to like this episode more than I did.

As with much of the first season, I don’t recall having seen the full episode before. (I was living in an apartment-style college dorm, and the TV in site common lounge belonged to someone else.) I caught parts while channel-surfing over the years. I remembered being underwhelmed by how the show executed a clever premise (a security drone that learned from its opponents and upgraded itself every 12 minutes).

I didn’t remember any of the subplot involving LaForge struggling with command, probably because the random Chief Engineer of the Week was obviously conjured up just to give Geordie crap. I did like the focus on the two random crew members who fill in at LaForge and Data’s stations, but I do find it strange that the Enterprise apparently doesn’t have a B or C shift of experienced officers — other than the randos in Engineering. (The second episode of Orville does the “young officer takes command for the first time” plot much better, giving Alara brief relationship arcs with a chief engineer who patronizingly calls her “kid” and a friendly ensign who is later injured by her command decisions.)

Another reason the LaForge subplot didn’t work for me was because it came about only after Picard ignores Troi’s lamp-shading protest and heads down to the planet surface after Riker gets encapsulated in an energy field. Instead of taking a few of those stray chief engineers along with him to figure out how to deactivate the energy capsule, he asks Dr. Crusher to join him. Within a few minutes, they have fallen through a hole, their communicators conveniently no longer work, and Picard and Crusher spend a few scenes together.

Though the setup for both subplots was equally contrived, the payoff from the Picard/Crusher scenes was satisfying. I think it was good storytelling that it’s Crusher who’s injured, and Picard has to follow her directions in order to treat her. After Picard almost gleefully splinted the doctor’s fractured arm and cheerfully kept her awake, I felt a little cheated when Crusher tells him by the way, I’ve also losing a lot of blood from an injury you didn’t notice and that I haven’t mentioned yet.

I was struck by the disjointed pacing, highlighting problems with the script and perhaps the rearrangement of scenes. After the landing party has spent an act or so dodging and weaving and exchanging ray-gun zaps with a sentry drone, Yar observes that it’s kind of pointless for them to strategize against a system that has already wiped out all the intelligent life on a planet. Yet the characters still peek through the bushes at the wobbly floating plastic menace, and leap out of the way of its space-zapper ray gun blasts, because TV.

The dialogue tells us that the planet is overgrown with vegetation, but we can regularly see the cherry red sky backdrop where we expect to see rows of trees extending to the horizon. Could they have at least faked a distant forest with some little Thomas the Tank Engine landscaping on the forced-perspective horizon?

I can understand why, for the sake of making the political commentary on the Cold War arms race, the writers have the AI hologram run a sales demonstration that involves attacking the potential customers. It’s a stupid sales pitch, and that’s the political point that the episode is making — selling arms for a profit is unethical and dangerous, and anyone who deals with such sellers becomes a target.

But the plot that delivers the message ought to make coherent sense, and this one does not.

After the landing party manages to “defeat” the surface sentry drone by telling the AI salesman they’ll buy it (corny, but in keeping with the political message), LaForge still has to contend with the drone that’s attacking the Enterprise. LaForge’s low-tech trick to reveal the cloaked drone is perfectly in line with Trek’s people-first philosophy, and the atmospheric effects were cool, and the sequence makes a rousing climax to the episode. However, that scene takes place after the landing party has turned off the automated sales demonstration. Some dialogue could have established that the sales AI and the planetary defense AI were separate systems, but that seems unnecessarily complicated.

I rather liked that the show began with Picard, Riker and Troi huddling about the character of the captain whose vessel disappeared, because it tested that this episode might be about a Starfleet captain who went rogue; however, the idea that the drone could holographically impersonate people was underdeveloped. I had absolutely no memory of Riker telling a hologram of his old Academy friend that he’s from the Lollipop. (“It’s a good ship.”)

Overall, this episode was a mishmash of moments, some of which worked on their own, but ultimately I wanted them to fit together better.