First Contact (#StarTrek #TNG Rewatch, Season Four, Episode 15)

Rewatching ST:TNG

This flipside episode, told entirely from the viewpoint of a civilization on the verge of discovering warp drive technology, documents a visit from members of a federation of space-faring aliens who wear brightly colored pajamas.

An ER team with serious forehead bumps admits a patient with serious head injuries. They are first confused, then shocked at how different he is from them. (It is a bumpy-headed Riker, in disguise.)

Yes, the writers took a risk; but because these aliens are so very much like us, this story ends up preachy and predictable. We are not the Malkorans, so we never for a moment do we fear that the Federation crew has any violent intentions; yet the script has the surgically altered Riker bring a huge dust-buster hand phaser on a covert mission, so that the Malkorans can tragically misinterpret his intentions. It’s like watching an ABC afterschool special when you’re well into your teens, or sitting there politely while your bubbly youth pastor tries to rap the beattitudes.

When I first saw this episode, in my apartment with about twenty or thirty friends, a friend we nicknamed “Bubbles” burst out laughing when the digit-less alien medics gape at the toes on Riker’s foot.

At the time, I was thinking of the homage to a classic Twilight Zone episode, which creatively conceals the faces of medical personnel in order to set up a big reveal. It has the feel of a backdoor pilot, with our familiar characters relegated to the B story.

This is Star Trek at its preachiest, with Picard explaining why the Federation first reveals itself to scientists, bypassing the politicians. When the scientist Mirasta learns the Federation has embedded agents on her planet, she advises Picard to conceal the truth from the political leader, Chancellor Durken (played by George Coe).

Durken comes across as intelligent and wise. Scientist Mirasta rolls her eyes and huffs at the paranoid and reactionary objections of security chief Krola. Bebe Neuwirth does a great job in some amusing (but, from a storytelling perspective, unnecessary) scenes as a nurse with a thing for aliens.

None of those embedded Federation agents seem to make any effort to assist Riker, or relay information about his whereabouts. Technically this is not a plot hole, in that this entire story is told from the viewpoint of this alien civilization who presumably don’t know what those embedded agents are doing; so it makes sense the writers couldn’t dramatize it on screen.

On my rewatch, I appreciated how sympathetically the series depicted a just leader whose major flaw is caution. Durken is not depicted as a blustering rube — though the hospital staff doesn’t come across so well.

The props people put a lot of effort into making realistic devices that could believably be designed for a species with no fingers. For instance, at one point, Durken is stamping papers, and medics use things that are recognizable scanning equipment with curved cathode ray tube displays (which were the standard in the 1990s) and telephones with handsets that have curly cords, but they’re all just a bit off.

We know that in the Star Trek universe there exists a device called a universal translator, but most episodes pay no attention to the fact that beings from different planets can talk to each other without any trouble. For storytelling purposes we can perhaps imagine that the communicator pins have a built-in, always-on translator. This episode goes out of its way to establishes that Riker was separated from his communicator, yet he has no trouble speaking with the medical teams.

In the opening scene the alien medics use the term “cardial organ” instead of “heart” and “octares” instead of “cubic centileters,” presumably to help sell the idea that we are listening to people from an alien civilization. Of course I know I’m just watching a story, but my “willing suspension of disbelief” has trouble here. If I’m watching a World War II movie, I have no problem hearing German officers talk to each other in accented English.

The dialogue also refers to watching Riker “29 hours a day.” It’s definitely true that not every day will be 24 hours long, but why would any advanced civilization divide its day up into a prime number of hours — how useful would a 29th of a day be? When they use the term “hour” do they mean the same thing we mean — roughly 1/24th of the time it takes for the planet Earth to rotate on its axis?

So, whatever storytelling convention is letting us understand what these aliens are saying doesn’t translate “cardial organ” to “heart” doesn’t translate “fifteen octares of quadroine” into the equivalent in cubic centiliters, and uses the term “eating establishment” instead of “restaurant,” doesn’t similarly generalize the alien phrase “27 hours a day” into something logical like “continuous.” Yet it also has a medic from a finger-less species casually use the word “digit” (Latin for — wait for it —  “finger”). Similarly, Durkin refers to “panic,” which tells us that this same storytelling translation mechanism has no trouble with a word that comes form the Roman god Pan, which is even more culturally specific than “finger.”

Picard describes wine as something his brother made from “a fruit known as grapes.” I liked the reference to s4e1 “Family,” and I’ve already mentioned the Durken character is handled well; the scene works. But if the universal translator can figure out how to translate “fruit” and “panic” and “digit,” why does Picard feel he has to offer his own translation for “wine”?

Yes, I am overthinking this — but that’s kid of the point. Star Trek is at its preachy best when it pokes fun at how dumb we are back here in the past. If I’m distracted by this nitpicking, then the story didn’t hold my interest on my rewatch.