The Chase (#StarTrek #TNG Rewatch, Season 6, Episode 20) Planet-hopping archaeological DNA mystery

Rewatching ST:TNG

A well-done mystery that could have, *should* have, redefined our understanding of intelligent life in the Star Trek storytelling universe, but did not.

Picard’s beloved archeology professor shows up after 30 years with an invitation to join a mysterious expedition. 

I respect that the writers don’t ask us to believe that Picard is seriously tempted by the offer; instead, Picard is worried about having to say no to his mentor (once again).

Not too long after he leaves the ship in a huff, Galen sends a distress signal. He’s rescued just in time to utter a last dramatic statement before promptly dying, because what’s a hero’s quest with a mentor still around?

Picard ditches his diplomatic duties and starts investigating. Riker and Troi each push back, and Picard insists he’s not in any way taking the Enterprise on a wild goose chase to purge himself of his guilt and remorse.

As the clues start to fall into place, the crew learns Galen had been collecting DNA fragments from life forms on various remote worlds. When assembled, the fragments create a “program” (according to LaForge), part of which has been in every DNA strand on Earth since life began (according to Crusher). 

The story takes another turn as the Enterprise-D heads to a planet that Galen mentioned to Picard, and encounters a Cardassian warship that happens to be in the area, but won’t admit why. While the two are talking it out, a Klingon cruiser decloaks, and mutual suspicions arise. 

Picard diplomacizes his way through all the posturing, and soon the three parties are sharing what they learned about the DNA mystery (Picard cheerfully, the others reluctantly). A comic scene involves the Klingon commander arm-wrestling and head-butting Data, then trying to bribe him, but it’s the Cardassians who are the real stinkers. After a few zigs and zags, the three parties are reunited on what seems to be a lifeless world, and the Romulans join the party.

As the tiny, TV-budget-friendly landing parties squabble in a cramped corner of the oft-reused cave soundstage, Picard gives Crusher advice about where to look for organic material (because what does a chief medical officer know about scanning for organic material) and completes the “program,” which somehow manages to re-configure his tricorder to project a hologram (a feature we’ve never seen on a tricorder before) of a smooth-headed alien who says her race seeded the galaxy with genetic material to direct the evolution of life on multiple planets to reflect the bipedal form she displays.

Her speech is a good payoff, and the story has epic potential, but it’s hampered by the limitations of episodic TV. 

In the real world, the reason most of the aliens on Star Trek look just like humans is because, as Gene Roddenberry used to joke, there aren’t many real aliens who are members of the Screen Actors Guild. This episode provides an in-world explanation that seems intriguing — the many humanoid alien races are not only related, but artificially created; but I haven’t seen that idea explored anywhere else in Star Trek. The visual evidence (the appearance of the alien) suggests perhaps these DNA-seeding aliens are related to the Founders (shape-shifting aliens we will get to know, gradually, in Deep Space Nine). 

This week’s star-hopping adventure seems custom-made for the skills of a stellar cartographer, but sadly last week’s guest star (the stellar cartographer Picard fell in love with) is nowhere to be found.

And not too long ago, Picard disappeared from the Enterprise for a two-part archaeological mystery featuring artifact smugglers. 

How much fun would it have been….

  • What if Picard and Daren, while falling in love with each other, had to role-play being enemies on the artifact raider ship, the way Picard and Riker did?
  • What if that relationship developed over several episodes, and The Chase played out over a series of stand-alone stories with A-plots that focused on each of the major Star Trek races, while the B-plot featured gradual developments in the DNA mystery?
  • What if the Q-focused “Tapestry” happened right in the middle of that story arc, with Picard inured during a confrontation directly connected to the DNA puzzle, rather than resulting from an unimportant off-camera random event?
  • What if Data’s dream vision, Worf’s leave of absence to track down his father, Worf’s upcoming leave of absence due to his crisis of faith, LaForge’s vision of his mother, Crusher’s retreat to her grandmother’s settlement, Troi’s undercover mission on a Romulan ship, were all part of a planned, multi-episode, even a series-long story arc…
  • ….and all that provided humanoids with a bargaining chip that helped them deal with the Borg?

But TV didn’t work that in the early 1990s.

During the mid-90s, Babylon did just that sort of thing. Deep Space Nine (which would run for 7 years) was planned from the start with a rough story arc. I remember at least one three-parter of DS9; recurring characters whose motives changed and whose allegiances shifted and whose backstory developed over years, and a final season that was mostly devoted to setting up and completing a large number of story arcs for recurring supporting characters.  

I enjoyed The Chase when I saw it, and it’s still a good story, but the epic revelation seems hollow now because it had no impact on the kind of stories Star Trek told.