The Neutral Zone (TGN Rewatch: Season 1, Episode 25)

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

Unfrozen humans from the 21st Century annoy the crew while the Enterprise investigates the destruction of several Federation outposts near the Romulan Neutral Zone.

The episode begins and ends with the cryonics story, so technically it’s the A plot, but there’s little at stake. Nobody gets trapped on the holodeck, nobody gets twinned by technology or taken over by an alien intelligence, there are no fist-fights, and Wesley doesn’t save the ship. While the pieces don’t ever quit fit, I do appreciate the effort to make an intelligent episode. I recall reading that this episode was intended to set up the arrival of the Borg, but a Hollywood writer’s strike delayed the development of that plotline, so while rewatching, I was conscious of the missed opportunity.

Picard gives a speech that loomed large in my memory, about what is there to do in a post-scarcity society: “The challenge, Mr. Offenhouse, is to improve yourself. To enrich yourself. Enjoy it.” That’s it… that’s the whole speech. I remembered this moment well, but was surprised it was so brief.

Unfrozen arrogant 21stC financier Ralph Offenhouse asks for a “phone” and “a copy of the Wall Street Journal,” which dates the episode (he’s supposed to be a businessman from the early 21st Century but he’s asking for tools of the mid 20thC). On the other hand, when unfrozen hedonistic musician L.Q. “Sonny” Clemonds asks for “television,” Data tells him “That particular form of entertainment did not last much beyond the year 2040,” which seemed like a wild prediction way back in 1988, but appears very much on target now. It’s a nice touch that unfrozen homemaker Clare Raymond keeps referring to her centuries-dead family members in the present tense. She has a few good scenes with Troi as she adjusts to her new life.

Riker seems annoyed when Data requests permission to investigate the “ancient capsule” from Earth; Crusher thaws them out because “I didn’t know what else to do,” and when Data defends rescuing the frozen survivors from their failing ship, Picard gripes, “They were already dead. I mean, what more could have happened to them?” Riker says “From what I’ve see of our guests, there’s not much to redeem them.”

By dismissing the past, the show is gently poking fun at the audience, and also generating audience sympathy for the unfrozen civilians, but it still seems a little harsh.

This episode does a good job building tension, and Picard has a good character-defining moment resisting the aggressive advice of Worf and Riker. Troi gives Picard useful background about the psychology and motives of the Romulans. (Useful to the story and to the audience; realistically, it’s hard to believe that Picard doesn’t already know these basic details.)

The episode makes no attempt to explain how a solar-powered pre-warp space capsule made its way all the way to wherever the Romulan Neutral Zone is, apparently on the fringes of Federation space.

Instead of answering a call from the captain using his comm badge as people do in every episode, this time of all times Riker uses a wall console, because the script requires unfrozen arrogant financier Offenhouse to use it later to bother the captain.

Even though the ship is on alert, Offenhouse can wander through the corridors and ask the turbolift to bring him to the bridge. And even though there are two goldshirts on the bridge, and Picard orders them to take Offenhouse off the bridge, the goldshirts just stand there, immobilized by Offenhouse’s unfrozen 21st Century arrogance.