Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Neutral Zone   Rewatch 
June 29, 2020 8:02 AM - Season 1, Episode 26 - Subscribe

The Enterprise is hit by blasts from the past: three unfrozen 20th-century civilians, and an interstellar power nobody's heard from in decades—the Romulans. (Season finale)

Memory Alpha can't be neutral:

• While writing this first season finale, Maurice Hurley intended for it to be the first part of a trilogy that would continue in the second season, in which the Borg would be formally introduced and an alliance would be formed between the Federation and the Romulan Empire to counter the new threat.

• Although he was careful to ensure the audience first accepted the then-new Star Trek: The Next Generation on its own grounds, Gene Roddenberry felt comfortable enough, by the time this episode was written, to bring back the Romulans to Star Trek.

• The writing of this episode was abruptly ended by the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike. With the writers' strike ongoing, the shooting company simply had to film what unfinished story material they had of this episode. James L. Conway remembered that this episode was considered one of the weaker first season shows, speculating, "If there hadn't been a strike, I think it would have been a better script."

Leon Rippy (Clemonds) appeared in the acclaimed HBO series Deadwood.

• The skanted science division ensign who left the turbolift was played by Gene Roddenberry's assistant, Susan Sackett. She wore Marina Sirtis' uniform from "Encounter at Farpoint".

• This episode marks the first time a specific year is mentioned as the setting of a Star Trek series, when Data cites the current year as 2364. This year served as the fixed reference around which subsequent timeline data were placed. Prior to this, Star Trek: The Next Generation had generally been placed in the early 24th century, per Data's line in "Encounter at Farpoint", where he established that he was from the "class of '78."

• This episode also marks the first appearance of the D'deridex-class warbird, which is seen numerous times throughout the series as well as in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager.

• After this episode, the attacks the Romulans complain about in "The Neutral Zone" dangled as an unresolved plot device for quite some time. In VOY: "Unity", Commander Chakotay of the starship USS Voyager encounters liberated Borg drones in the Delta Quadrant nearly a decade later; among them was a former drone named Orum who identified himself as Romulan. Several episodes of Star Trek: Picard, most notably "The End Is the Beginning", also feature Romulan ex-Borg drones on board the Artifact.

• This is the last episode until Star Trek: Insurrection in which William Riker is clean-shaven and the last episode where Geordi La Forge and Worf wear the command division uniforms, which were first seen in the premiere episode, "Encounter at Farpoint". For season 2 onward, Riker sports a beard and La Forge and Worf switch to the operations division uniforms, although in DS9: "The Way of the Warrior", Worf switches back to the command division uniform.

• This is also the last episode until season 3 to feature Dr. Beverly Crusher, as she leaves the Enterprise to become the head of Starfleet Medical throughout season 2. For the entirety of that season, she is replaced (both in the ensemble of main characters and as the ship's chief medical officer) by Dr. Katherine Pulaski.

• Most episodes in the first season end with a bridge scene. The only episodes that do not are "Lonely Among Us", "The Battle", "Datalore", and "Skin of Evil".

• Near the end of the series, Jonathan Frakes described the first season as a time when "we took greater chances than we do now."

• According to Rick Berman, Hurley was the reason behind Gates McFadden's departure from TNG in its second season, as he disliked her acting and "had a bone to pick with her." McFadden states that she was fired. She was too vocal to the show's staff regarding some of the writing on TNG being sexist, and was unsavvy at the time regarding studio politics. Patrick Stewart described the entire cast as being "horrified and appalled," that they had never expected that her comments would lead to it, and it having been a terrible shock. McFadden herself was stunned, as Gene Roddenberry had told her that her character was the third most popular on the series. But thanks to a letter-writing campaign, support from Stewart, the departure of Hurley, and a personal invitation from Rick Berman, McFadden was brought back to the TNG cast for the third and subsequent seasons.

• Noted for his loyalty to co-workers he implicitly trusted, Roddenberry brought back the following TOS veterans, all of whom opted to leave at the end of the first season: producers Robert Justman and Edward K. Milkis, writers D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold, costume designer William Ware Theiss, composer Fred Steiner, assistant director Charles Washburn, and set decorator John Dwyer. Justman, Milkis, and Gerrold attested that Roddenberry's uninitiated attorney and business partner, Leonard Maizlish, was the main reason for these departures. While Maizlish was arguably too overzealous in looking after the interests of his client (who was desperately battling over the creative control of his new creation – and over his vision of Star Trek in general – with studio and writing staff alike), the eventual outcome came as a shock to Roddenberry, as Gerrold later related at the 2010 Necronomicon convention in St. Petersburg, Florida: "Gene was crying because all of his friends were gone. It was because Maizlish chased them away."

"They are the most unusual Humans I have ever encountered."
"Well, from what I've seen of our guests, there's not much to redeem them. Makes one wonder how our species survived the 21st century."
- Data and Riker, discussing Clemonds, Raymond, and Offenhouse

"They haven't got a clue! They're hoping you know, but they're too arrogant to ask!"
- Offenhouse, deducing that the Romulans don't know who attacked their outposts

"Your presence is not wanted. Do you understand my meaning, Captain? We… are back."
- Tebok

"There's no trace of my money. My office is gone. What will I do? How will I live?"
"This is the twenty-fourth century. Material needs no longer exist."
"Then what's the challenge?"
"The challenge, Mr. Offenhouse, is to improve yourself… to enrich yourself. Enjoy it."
- Offenhouse and Picard, describing life on 24th century Earth

Poster's Log:
The reference to the bases having been "scooped" up is followed up on at the start of "Best of Both Worlds" part 1 [spoilers!], though the connection with this episode isn't directly mentioned.

My poking around on MA, and the guys from "Greatest Generation," both suggest that this is the first time we see a replicator used. Kind of surprising, this far in.

Anyway, "Neutral Zone." On its face, this episode is a bit of a mess. It doesn't so much have an A/B structure as it has two A-stories, fused awkwardly together and with no apparent (intended) connection or resonance. The Cryo-Gang story doesn't really go anywhere, and never even seems like it's going to. The Romulan element feels like it needed a lot more screen time, even if it was intended as more of a cliffhanger for season 2 than anything. The discussions of death in sickbay don't make a lot of sense any way you examine them (Bernd at Ex Astris Scientia seemed to be more bothered by it than I was). Not surprising at all that the script was slapped together in haste.

ckape rightly pointed out in the previous thread that "Conspiracy" feels more like a season ender than this does…so much so, in fact, that for a good year or two I was convinced that "The Neutral Zone" was season 2's premiere.

But in spite of all that, I really like this episode; it's probably my favorite from the first season. It's a reminder of how well TNG handled the Romulans, IMO, and it's great to see the first big reveal of the D'Deridex. I always look forward to a Marc Alaimo episode. I love how Picard, surprisingly but IMO plausibly, just wants nothing to do with the Cryo-Gang (he's probably had enough of old-school-Earth after Q's courtroom). And I like that the performances of every guest actor (save perhaps for Alaimo's XO) are pretty nuanced.

I could've done without Sonny Clemonds, but at least he provides a good foil for Offenhouse. I really could've done without his twangy music cues, which feel like something from a 1970s comedy show. I really really could've done without him smacking Crusher's ass, which by the way is the last we see of Crusher until season three. One wonders if McFadden's thinking, in that moment, "Okaaay, I'm outta here."

And on that topic: I've heard disparaging remarks about McFadden's acting from sources other than Hurley, and I've never understood it. Mrs. CoB says it could have to do with her stiff physicality, which, yeah, she does often look like a light breeze could make her teeter, but she must have chosen to do that—she's a freakin' choreographer. Not to mention almost everybody else on this show moves similarly. Is it the mid-Atlantic accent that sometimes seems to waver? Is it that she's basically never callous in the fashion that we've come to expect of our own medical professionals, and that makes her manner somehow less plausible? Or is it (as I suspect) blaming the performer for the fact that she so seldom got good material?

Poster's Log, Supplemental:
In what may be my favorite bit of expanded-universe extrapolation, Ralph Offenhouse becomes the Federation ambassador to the Ferengi according to the novel Debtor's Planet. That's so perfect. Largely because the actor played the lead in Agent for H.A.R.M. (MST3K #815), I brought Ambassador Offenhouse into one of my RPG campaigns as an NPC, where if memory serves I portrayed him as having shed a lot of his 20th-century shittiness. His line, "Then what's the challenge?", is what made me like the character.

More EU fun, from MA: the novel "Watching the Clock reveals that, after finding trouble adjusting to life in the twenty-fourth century due to the limited activities available for her, Clare [Raymond] goes on to become a temporal displacement counselor for the Department of Temporal Investigations, helping people who have been the victim of time travel from the past to the future, such as the USS Bozeman, adjust to their new lives."

"Greatest Generation" episode link.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil (19 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm fond of this episode, perhaps more than any other of the whole series. I remember being really into the cryonics plotline, and loving the replicator, and enoying Clemonds, who seems to be the only person in the history of the show who is impressed by all the technology around him.

On rewatch, this is really, really disjointed and finding out that it was interrupted by the writer's strike makes a lot of sense. People's motivations were super unclear, actions were out of character, big ideas were introduced and given really crappy development.

In the opener, Riker just seems annoyed as hell that he even has to be on the bridge. Worf makes a suggestion to adjust the derelict's course to avoid destruction, Riker is all "OMG Worf, why are you even talking to me? Just forget about it!" Then Data wants to explore the derelict, Riker has zero idea why anyone would ever want to explore something, what's the point? Jesus, Data, okay, just make it quick! They're trying to play up Riker being nervous and not wanting to annoy the captain, but it comes off very stiff and strange.

Then Picard acts like Data brought home three puppies from the pound or something, rather than saving three human beings from a ship with failing life support.

Then the attempted discussion about the fear of death and how that is behind us all now seemed like complete bullshit even when I was 12. Is there anything in the show that suggests that they wouldn't freeze someone who was about to die of some uncurable disease in hopes of bringing them back later if they thought that would work? Don't we have like 20 episodes that are about finding/rescuing some McGuffin to save so-and-so from an exotic death? They have explained like 8 times just this season that they believe all life is precious. I guess they had to explain why cryonics, which is apparently 100% viable, is no longer a thing. Which is probably too difficult to do even when the writers aren't on strike.

But the interactions between Picard and Offenhouse were worth all that weirdness, and the tension around the Romulans is quite good. I also think that this episode was shot really well, the opening scene with Data wiping the frost off the casket windows is really evocative.
posted by skewed at 9:03 AM on June 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

The three cryonics characters really seemed to have walked out of a late 1970s/early 80s hour-long adventure/drama TV show. Excuse me, folks, but The Dukes of Hazzard and Master Ninja film over there.
posted by Servo5678 at 9:23 AM on June 29, 2020 [6 favorites]

I guess that I can forgive the episode some of its shortcomings knowing that the writers had to drop their pens mid-episode, but I still like the Romulan parts much more than the ones with the Cryo-Gang. Starting with Riker's seeming indifference to their ship (old 20C ship? What on earth could possibly go wrong?), and the gang themselves seemed like one-note characters, mostly: Raymond fainted and seemed to worry about her family more than herself, Clemonds is like a parody of what northerners think that southerners are like, and Offenhouse may as well have been Mr. Moneybags from Monopoly. Their function in the episode seemed explicitly to be yet another excuse for Picard to talk about how much better humans were in the 24C than they were in Roddenberry's own time. (While, again, failing to say or even suggest how they attained this exalted state.) skewed's observation that "the attempted discussion about the fear of death and how that is behind us all now" is basically bullshit is spot-on. I would not be surprised if that bit was another one of Leonard Maizlish's unauthorized and unacknowledged rewrites. (I will say that Offenhouse did have a decent moment in spotting the Romulans' motivations, and I like the idea of his being the ambassador to Ferenginar, not to mention Raymond being a temporal displacement counselor; again, beta canon fixes things. As for Sonny, there's a somewhat better version of the character in William Gibson's Bridge trilogy, in Buell Creedmore.) There's a certain air of self-congratulation around the Cryo-Gang bits that wasn't really earned by the show at this point.

But, as I said, the 24C version of the Romulans worked for me. I've always liked the design of the D'deridex class, and just its size looming over the E-D contributed to the air of menace. And, sorry to disagree with you again, COB, but I thought that Alaimo was fine. Tebok was a sort of preview of Gul Dukat (arguably more than Gul Macet, when the Cardassians eventually debut), and if for whatever reason the Cardassians hadn't been a thing, I could have seen Tebok filling in for a lot of what Dukat eventually ended up doing. The reluctance of the Romulans to provoke the E-D directly also speaks to their becoming established as the less overtly aggressive menace of the show, even as the ep starts laying the groundwork for the very aggressive menace.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:33 AM on June 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Watching the episode this time around, I was taken aback by how mean & dismissive Picard and crew are of the cryo-people. Like, my main memory from watching the episode before is of Troi helping Clare locate her descendants. But the way they shit-talk them in sick bay at the beginning, I had totally forgotten. And the idea that they'd just be left sitting around unsupervised - like Troi is the only counselor on the ship? Nobody from ship sciences or whatever department that Dixon Hill-era history buff is on was assigned to help the 3 with adjusting to their new lives, they're just on their own until they get transferred to a starbase or other ship? Not to mention all the 'we've evolved beyond your petty bullshit' stuff, most of which was pretty cringe-tastic.
posted by oh yeah! at 9:52 AM on June 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

Cards of the episode from the Star Trek CCG:
Cryosatellite allowed you to retrieve Artifacts in space, and also find three crew from the past (or future, or an alternate dimension, or illusionary, or in disguise...) upon completing a mission.

The Romulan ship of the line D'Deridex arrived in the Premiere set.

The speaking Romulan parts Tebok and Thei also are also from Premiere, where you'd almost have to use them to fill out your limited selections for a Romulan crew.

1999's Blaze of Glory expansion included two more Romulan characters, D'Vin and Jenok. No closeup footage of these characters exist in the episode, presumably the images are taken from background photography on the set.
posted by StarkRoads at 9:58 AM on June 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

The three cryonics characters really seemed to have walked out of a late 1970s/early 80s hour-long adventure/drama TV show. Excuse me, folks, but The Dukes of Hazzard and Master Ninja film over there.

LOL, maybe that's why I like this episode so much.

There's a certain air of self-congratulation around the Cryo-Gang bits that wasn't really earned by the show at this point.

Very fair. If this same story had come about in a later season, it could've been a highlight of the series.

And, sorry to disagree with you again, COB, but I thought that Alaimo was fine.

No no, me too. I was referring to the other, non-Alaimo Romulan (on preview: Thei, apparently). Hell, you can see a direct connection between Alaimo's menacing yet restrained performance here to basically all subsequent Romulans in TNG.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 9:59 AM on June 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

The cryogenics plotline is pretty much a straightforward explanation of what Roddenberry was trying to accomplish and depict in TNG. It's far from subtle, but after seeing far too many people defending Thanos and whatnot, I've come to the conclusion that maybe subtlety is overrated. Plus I love it when Picard tells unfrozen businessman that he wasted his life. Anyway, this outcome is better for him than if he had been unfrozen in Futurama, in which case he probably wouldn't even have gotten his boneitis cured.

The D'deridex is a great design, and the new Warbird that shows up in Picard is such a disappointment in comparison. Picard also ignores the implication from this episode and The Best of Both Worlds that the Borg took and assimilated the Federation and Romulan outposts.

As far as season-finale-ness goes, my understanding is that those didn't really become a big thing (both in Star Trek and also television in general) until Best of Both Worlds. It's certainly a better finale than we'll get in Season 2, and would've worked better as a season 2 opener than what we'll get for that, both for the set-up of future episodes and also because the actual premiere is, well, we'll get to it next time.
posted by ckape at 11:52 AM on June 29, 2020 [11 favorites]

Just chiming in to agree that the TNG Warbird is badass.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:19 PM on June 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I kind of feel this episode didn't need the cryo-B plot and more investigating what was going on?
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:25 PM on June 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think it’s funny that Captain Picard apparently went down to the 20th century lounge just to tell Offenhouse not to use the com-panel.

I’d like to think the writers strike explains how weirdly out of character people are acting here. Like, Riker and Picard have both been shown to be into 20th century stuff, and Dr Crusher is way into people not dying. Data, Worf, and Troi at least seem to remember who they are, and Dorn delivers the famous line about Humans and Klingons being a waste of skin. What are they doing with all that skin on Romulus, anyway?
posted by rodlymight at 7:45 PM on June 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Laugh line of the episode: "He's comparing the Enterprise to a cruise ship!" Hey, if the shoe fits....
posted by StarkRoads at 9:31 PM on June 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Oh great, now I’m imagining the TNG/Love Boat crossover....
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:41 AM on June 30, 2020

This one reminds me of a TNG-and-later idea that I only noticed as odd recently: when you want to wake someone up, you shoot them in the neck with a hypospray. I mean, OK if someone's been knocked out for any reason, but they use it a lot.

I noticed this when rewatching Enterprise, where at some point the doctor says he needs to sleep, then gives himself a hypospray in the neck. Were these people on a constant cycle of uppers and downers?

I guess it gives the doctor some business, but it's still odd.
posted by zadcat at 7:38 AM on June 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

If someone hasn't done so already, a doctor or pharmacist could have a field day with how drugs are used and misused in the franchise. In "The City on the Edge of Forever", McCoy accidentally injected himself with an overdose of cordrazine, which drove him berserk (and caused him to change history); in "Amok Time", McCoy supposedly gives Kirk a shot of tri-ox compound (to compensate for Vulcan's thinner atmosphere), but really gives him neural paralyzer to fake his death. The cadets in DS9's "Valiant" use space speed to stay awake.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:11 AM on June 30, 2020

Their function in the episode seemed explicitly to be yet another excuse for Picard to talk about how much better humans were in the 24C than they were in Roddenberry's own time.

Yeah, even back in my enthusiastic 20s, I was looking at that and going "Wow those are arrogant assholes. If that's how they treat their own ancestors, are we sure we want them making first contact?" This is also the episode where I got the idea that maybe Picard want chosen for his brilliance, but because he was a good political officer who seriously believed Star fleet propaganda.

I mean if you did this episode with the Gilligan's Spaceship crew as the main characters, it really sounds like the lead - in to a horror scenario. Rescued into a seemingly perfect future where the inhabitants are openly contemptuous of the main characters backwardness, you just wait for the other shoe to drop. "Of course we have no fear of death. How primitive. Because ONCE WE EAT YOUR Brains, you'll live on forever inside us."

And the Romulans thing just was awkward and didn't go anywhere. it sounded like one of those awkward introductions at a party.
"What we're saying is, we're back."
"And um....just that. We're back."
"That is to say...we're back."
"....So you said. You're back and um..."

It was a lead in to something dramatic where nothing really happened.
posted by happyroach at 3:30 PM on July 1, 2020 [6 favorites]

I liked the cryo-gang mostly because it let me fantasize how awesome it would be to get a new life in a better century. I mean, Raymond basically said she was only there because her husband spent too much money and implied he was kind of a fuckup.

What did get me was the lack of medical curiosity; surely the bodies of these three people from the past held data that researchers would want to look over. Unless they were always finding cryo-gangs floating around the solar system.
posted by emjaybee at 10:27 PM on July 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

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