Pen Pals (ST:TNG Rewatch, Season 2, Episode 15)

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

A new-to-me “Data Hears a Who” character story, featuring a multi-layered philosophical jam session in Picard’s quarters, a substantial B-plot for Wesley, and some tacked-on science-fictiony frippery for the groundlings.

I started watching the show late at night, and lost interest when Wesley was steeling himself in the hallway before addressing the geological survey team he had assembled. When I restarted the episode the next day, I was pleasantly surprised when the scene ended as soon as he walked through the doors. That was a good call — we didn’t actually need to see the meeting he had been fretting about. (The Orville episode “New Dimensions” seems to include a brutally comic parody of this scene, showing us LaMarr steeling himself in the hallway before addressing his first team, and then showing us every cringeworthy moment of his abject failure.)

The teaser had some good character moments between Picard and Troi, as the two discuss Picard’s love of horses and Troi’s attitudes towards the holodeck, animals and empathy.

Because Picard states with confidence that “all five planetary systems” in the sector are geologically unstable, it stretches credulity to accept that the first sign that any of these planets is inhabited comes from Data’s accidental encounter with a child playing with a transmitter in her bedroom.

The rising action in both the A and B plots depend on the audience not noticing that the script doesn’t specify whether the Federation knew about Sarjenka’s civilization. Based on what the series has clearly established about Federation technology, I felt manipulated by the deliberate obfuscation.

If Data knew one of these geologically unstable planets was inhabited by a technologically advanced pre-warp society, he shouldn’t have been so surprised by encountering a transmission from one of those planets. And if the Enterprise knew that one of these planets was inhabited, it seems callous that Picard would put an untested ensign in charge of investigating the planet-threatening puzzle.

Plot holes aside, the scene in Picard’s quarters is a taut morality play. Actors who in other episodes have to throw their bodies around pretending to be zapped by alien ray guns get to deliver weighty lines that would fit right into a fair-to-middling Alan Sorkin drama, or a really good graduate Humanities seminar.

In a single scene, the senior officers debate moral absolutism; whether the universe has a cosmic plan; whether the Enterprise’s potential to act is hubris or a means of fulfilling that cosmic plan; and whether interfering to save millions from a geological disaster is morally equivalent to stopping a war or overthrowing an oppressive government.

Because the series established that Pulaski thinks of Data as a clever but cold device, it was striking to hear her invoking and validating Data’s emotions. (Has she changed her mind, or is she just desperate to win the argument?) The scene was great Star Trek, in an otherwise mediocre episode.

I was less thrilled by the explicitly science-fictiony bits (volcanoes! photon torpedoes! close-ups on computer displays! technobabble dialogue that explains what the displays mean, thereby making the close-ups redundant! a visit to a little alien girl’s bedroom, complete with a little alien dolly! a brain-wipe scanny thing!).

It was hard to swallow that, when Picard orders Data to sever communication with the alien girl, she just at that moment happens to be online, transmitting, so that everyone in the room hears her voice. Instead of actually carrying out Picard’s order to cut off the communication, Data seems to do just the opposite, yet nobody comments on his actions.

The story would have been gutsier if the Enterprise’s had been only partially successful, and Picard had to send the girl back to a world that was fated to break apart eventually. (Perhaps his final speech could have expressed the hope that a Federation task force would reconsider the matter, or that at least they’ve bought this civilization a few more centuries to discover interstellar life on their own.)