Star Trek: The Next Generation: Pen Pals   Rewatch 
August 21, 2020 7:32 AM - Season 2, Episode 15 - Subscribe

"In a situation like this, we have to be cautious. What we do today, may profoundly affect the future. If we could see every possible outcome..." "But, sir, it's an adorable child." *sigh*

Get that Memory Alpha off my bridge!:

- The story for this episode was pitched by Hannah Louise Shearer. Maurice Hurley was instantly fond of the premise, calling it his second favorite premise of the series, after "The Last Outpost". He remarked, "Somebody's out there, some little kid on some little planet sending out a CQ. Just like I did in my bedroom when I was ten years old with my little crystal sets, sending out CQs and never getting it back. But here somebody says, 'Anybody out there?' and a voice replies, 'Yes.' Wait a minute!"

- The teleplay was then assigned to Melinda Snodgrass. During story meetings, the writers considered various characters who could interact with the child. Snodgrass was successful in convincing the other staffers that Data was the best fit for the tale. She later explained, "[Y]ou can picture Data becoming entranced in answering [the] question, 'Is there anyone out there?' First, he's an android and if you ask him a question, you're going to get an answer. Secondly, the whole thing would be so charmingly intriguing to him, that he would do it [...] You never could picture any of the other characters doing that, but Data can make the mistake, and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, and step out of his careful Starfleet training because he's really just growing up. He's more of a child than Wesley."

- Despite his love of the premise, Hurley was only lukewarm to the final result. "[T]he rest of it kind of got muddled around, mucked up and lost its purity, although it worked okay."

- Director Winrich Kolbe remarked, "An intriguing episode, though I'm not quite sure I did it justice". Kolbe felt that the premise didn't go far enough. "It was one of those situations where I said, 'Come on, guys, let's push the damn thing. The relationship between this little girl and Data is something you want to explore. Data is a machine, how far can he go before he becomes a threat either to himself or the little girl or somebody else?'" He concluded, "I don't think it ever came through and I don't consider it one of my better shows. I think we all did a damn good job, but it could have been better." Winrich Kolbe also remarks, "If I remember correctly, that was the one of those cases where I felt the original script I got, the white pages, the first draft, was very, very nice. It was a very personal story. Rick [Berman] or somebody else, maybe it was Gene [Roddenberry], I don't know, felt we needed more of a technical surrounding story in that one. Suddenly, out went more and more of the character issue, and in came more and more tech talk. That, to me, is a problem. I don't necessarily agree with the assessment that more technical jargon enhances the stories. These stories should be left alone. I think 'Pen Pals' could have been a better show than it was."

"In your position it's important to ask yourself one question: 'What would Picard do?'"

- Riker, giving Wesley Crusher advice on taking command

"There are no options. The Prime Directive is not a matter of... degrees, it is an absolute."
"I have a problem with that kind of rigidity. It seems callous, and even a little cowardly."
"Doctor, I'm sure that is not what the lieutenant meant but in a situation like this, we have to be cautious. What we do today, may profoundly affect the future. If we could see every possible outcome..."
"... we'd be gods, which we are not. If there is a cosmic plan, is it not the height of hubris to think we can or should interfere?"
"So what are you saying? That the Dremans are fated to die?"
"I think that's an option that we should be considering."
"Consider it considered and rejected!"
"If there is a cosmic plan, are we not part of it? Our presence at this place at this moment in time could be part of that fate."

- Worf, Pulaski, Picard, Riker, La Forge, and Troi discussing how to proceed after Data's revelation

"O'Brien, take a nap. You didn't see any of this. You're not involved."
"Right, sir. I'll just be standing over here dozing off."

- Riker and O'Brien, as Riker enters to take the transporter controls

Poster's Log, Emergency Posting Hologram posting even though it's not really an emergency:

So, basically another Prime Directive episode, and like S1's "Symbiosis", I'm not really happy with it, for different reasons. The discussion, which MA only quoted part of, is actually a good one because they're debating the PD for once, actually considering the ethics of it, and that's good. The thing is, Worf isn't wrong: it is the Prime Directive, and there aren't really any exceptions, for cute kids or whatever, baked into it. (As far as we know. I used to say that there was some wiggle room because the text of the PD was never stated in canon, but then, during the rewatch of TAS, I found out that it was--in "The Magicks of Megas-Tu", it's stated as "No starship may interfere with the normal development of any alien life or society." Kirk may be paraphrasing there; certainly he seemed to honor it mostly in the breach.) Not that it's been applied evenly even in this series; Picard doesn't hesitate to not only contact the Ornarans in "Symbiosis" but even save most of the crew of that drug freighter, but balks at curing their planet-wide addiction. Here, it's OK to save the planet, just not to let them know that there are people with starships out there, even though Sarjenka seems to be directing her SOS out into the ether. Memory-wipe or no, though, I have little doubt that the Dremans will figure out that their suddenly-cancelled planetary apocalypse was due to some sort of outside intervention, once they get their geology scores leveled up sufficiently, so even that aspect of trying to skirt around it doesn't hold water.

Ultimately, I think that the justification boils down to Sarjenka, who is the alien equivalent of Tinny Tim from Futurama, and Data being the Woobie [TVTropes] of the series. We've mentioned in a previous thread that a lot of people don't like Pulaski because there's an interpersonal power imbalance between her and Data, because of the latter being perceived as childlike, that isn't there between Spock and McCoy (or Tuvok and Neelix, for that matter), and I still maintain that much if not most of the fan appreciation for "The Measure of a Man" is due simply to that episode reaffirming Data's right to exist. And then you have Melinda Snodgrass, as quoted above, saying, "You never could picture any of the other characters doing that, but Data can make the mistake, and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, and step out of his careful Starfleet training because he's really just growing up. He's more of a child than Wesley." That's a very odd way of talking about a 24-year, heavily-decorated Starfleet veteran, and it rubs me entirely the wrong way that part of the justification for this plot rests on allowing a violation of the [blink]PRIME[/blink] Directive just because the charmingly naive android really, really wants it; he's got more than a bit of the aspect of Tinny Tim himself, really. As with TMoaM, if you're going to make a case for something (in this case, if not ditching the PM outright, making it a bit more nuanced--and, as a fan of Iain M. Banks' The Culture, I am not at all completely opposed to that), then by the Prophets make the damn case, and do it up right.

Poster's Log, supplemental: And as long as I'm getting my rant on (ahem), I think that Wesley's B-plot could have been beefed up a bit, with maybe just a bit more pushback from the older officers at taking orders from a teenager. I also wonder at the assumption on the older officers' part that Wesley will be command track; not all of them are.
posted by Halloween Jack (13 comments total)
 
The most memorable thing about this one to me, honestly, is the set for Sarjenka's house. They really went all-out with that.

Re: your A-story comments, Jack, I largely agree. It seems like one or more folks in the writers' room straight-up forgot that Data isn't some just-activated Pinocchio, and I look forward to when/if that ceases. I would add that his actions in this episode not only raise yet more questions about what his Starfleet Academy training must have been like (was it purely physical training? Did he have a really robotic walk that everybody thought looked too dorky for a Starfleet officer, and so there was no time for actual classes?), but also raise concerns about his future as a senior staff member (did he accidentally flick on his "Get Court-Martialed" switch? Is he stuck in some kind of Asimov's-laws logic loop, but instead of killing everybody like HAL he just acts out by breaking protocol repeatedly?).

Re: your B-story comments, I actually disagree. I appreciated that Wesley's team didn't behave like Hobson (minor spoilers) from the Sutherland; one of the elements of Trek's escapist competence porn that I particularly favor is that they can work together smoothly without a lot of ego or office politics getting in the way, at least at the sub-Admiral level ^-^ (This is also something that Lower Decks is doing very nicely at so far.) OTOH, a case could be made that his team seemed so nice and accommodating as to be almost suspicious. On, say, the Galactica or even the Serenity, you'd get paranoid if your team was that free of resistance or snark.

I'd guess that they assume Wesley is headed for command because (A) he's not in medical and yet his mom is the HEAD OF Starfleet Medical, at least for a few more months, and (B) Picard letting him have a bridge station smacks of grooming (and nooo I don't mean that kind).

Anyway, I consider it a decent episode overall in spite of the PD weirdness. It has that later-season feel in many respects (I suppose the horse scenes help), and any time a Trek episode even tries to sort out the Prime Directive, that's deserving of note. Here, for instance, they had the good sense to show us that Picard and Riker knew how much they were pressing their luck (it all comes off as less serious consequences-wise than we might expect, but maybe that's got to do with their frontier assignment…maybe a patrol ship in some core sector would be much more careful about the PD because of the higher odds of getting busted). I feel like the writers intended for the PD breach here to be reflective of the essential humanity of these seemingly-perfect futuristic space people. And I think I'm pretty willing to be forgiving of PD breaches—even those that are never addressed by characters in the story—because they're a tradition as far back as TOS, which these writers may also have been factoring in.

The hilarious thing about all of this is that later in the series (and thus, this is not a reflection against "Pen Pals") Picard at least once is shown to be a goshdang PD evangelical literalist. E.g., "Homeward," which is an ep I have referenced before and find myself repeatedly thinking of during this rewatch. (There'll be another really important, and IIRC stronger, PD episode early in season 3.)

On the topic of character development, the other thing I really like about this one is the aforementioned PD debate scene in Picard's quarters. That's just a gripping scene, even though they're just sitting around talking (which TV writers have an allergic reaction to) and even though they seem to flub the whole line of inquiry. I bet the actors enjoyed the scene. Similarly, Wes came off well here, which is maybe starting to become more common (though he does have a stinker of an outing coming up soon).

Thanks for the pinch-posts, Jack!
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 8:27 AM on August 21 [1 favorite]


Star Trek CCG Cards of the episode:

Sarjenka from Premiere was one of my first rare pulls! Like the Royale Casino games, this is another dilemma you might play on yourself, and send one crew member to pick up the bonus points.

Sarjenka's planet is represented by Survey Instability. I think there's a joke in the flavor text which I don't totally get.

This episode was the source of the popular and horribly short printed Second Edition dilemma Whisper in the Dark. In 2E terms it has challenging requirements and a powerful effect. 2E also included Davies, a relatively useful common in TNG decks with a cool image.

Next time: a powerful dilemma from Premiere and a whole new card type.
posted by StarkRoads at 8:40 AM on August 21 [1 favorite]


I imagine there has been some scholarly writing attempting to analyze (and maybe deconstruct) the Prime Directive, both as a philosophical idea and as a cultural phenomenon and literary device. For me, as a watcher in 2020 (who also watched this series when it aired), the Prime Directive seems fairly outdated. I felt that were I there, actually existing in that fictive scene, I could poke holes in Picard's arguments quite easily. His switching of his analogy to whether the crew would intervene in a war felt like sophistry - in almost any argument if you switch the core terms around you might come to a different conclusion. In fact, his own reasoning in the episode 'Justice,' revealed exactly how this changing of terms changes the conclusion. If the Edo's punishment for Wesley had been one minute of tickling, it seems very likely the whole crew would have said "Well, Wes, looks like you're going to have to be tickled. When in Rome, right?" But it was exactly because the Edo had sentenced Wesley to death that Picard violated the PD and beamed them all away. So, yes it's Philosophy 101 that intervening after a natural disaster (or to stem off the effects of one) is very different than intervening in a violent conflict. In a violent conflict, both the causes and consequences of the conflict might be considerably more complex than a natural disaster, which could make it much more difficult to know how to intervene. That being said, one might feel the same moral imperative to intervene to protect others in both cases.

I think the invention of the Prime Directive may have been a way for the writers of the original series to deal with American intervention in Korea and Vietnam, in the 50s and 60s. One would imagine that neither war would be particularly popular amongst a liberal or left Hollywood writer group. Both wars were ostensibly efforts by the American government to stop the spread of Communism, so they were both arguably about the country interfering in the development of other countries and cultures. Given that some of that intervention was on behalf of native populations of those nations, it would oversimplify things to only describe the wars as colonialist, but ultimately as a watcher in 2020, that's how the Prime Directive feels: as a very blunt way of avoiding entanglements in colonial initiatives. As I mentioned at the outset, I am guessing there are scholarly articles out there already that deconstruct the Prime Directive in this way.

But as someone watching the episode, it seemed that Picard's reductio ad absurdum ('would you intervene in a war?') could actually run the other direction just as effectively. In fact, it would have been great if Pulaski had asked Picard "Should we have signed the Khitomer Accords, then? Were we interfering with the development of Klingon society by pressuring them toward peace?"

In some ways, the B-story was a sly rebuttal to the A-story. Riker was surprisingly patient with Wesley. The bridge officers all agreed that it was important to aid Wesley's development. Heck, they were structuring Wesley's development and taking away an opportunity from another crew member by giving him a plum assignment!

Where the Prime Directive might have worked in this episode (and where I thought it might go for a teeny moment, since I haven't seen this episode in twenty years) is that the mineral survey team could have discovered something that the Federation could really use. "Captain the planet's explosion will produce the very rare Mega-Dilithium! We could offer Federation membership or to resettle them on Ceti Super Seven!" That's what the real problem with contemporary international cooperation often turns out to be - that it's being done for the secret, extractive benefit of a very few. Perhaps a more 21st century Prime Directive might be more about avoiding the exploitation of the power imbalance rather than simply 'not interfering.'
posted by Slothrop at 9:05 AM on August 21 [3 favorites]


Something that I cut from my post for brevity's sake were links regarding other SF treatments of Prime Directive-type things and possible justifications thereof. First, WRT the Culture, Banks acknowledges the likelihood of a more-developed society simply overwhelming a less-developed one in his definition of an Outside Context Problem; the definition occurs within the context of the Culture novel Excession, which has a whopper of an OCP. (I mentioned it in my comment for "Contagion"; the remnants of Iconian technology, both the virus and functioning gateways, may function as an OCP, and neckro23 mentions Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, which I haven't read.) Older examples of this concept would include "Liberation of Earth" by William Tenn and "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" by James Tiptree, Jr.; the links go to the full text of both stories, Tiptree's story uses "Polynesians" as analogies for where humanity finds itself WRT contact with several sentient species, and Tenn's story also maps closely to the analogy of a pre-industrial island society encountering an industrial civilization (think of how the Pacific Island societies were affected by repeated encounters with Japanese and American forces in WWII).

Finally, for a different kind of story involving a cute kid and a space traveler who's Got His Orders, there's Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations", which I'm not linking to, but instead will link to James Nicoll's scathing critique of the story, with copious spoilers, including the ending.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:42 AM on August 21 [1 favorite]


Simon Guerrier borrowed the title from Godwin's story for a pretty darn good Doctor Who thing.
posted by StarkRoads at 11:03 AM on August 21 [1 favorite]


Also, my new resolution: actually start listening to Greatest Generation podcasts, maybe I'll remember them if/when I guestpost again.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:01 PM on August 21


I really liked how during the meeting to discuss what to do about Data's friend, instead of their normal corporate meeting room, they booked a nice lounge with some easy chairs, sofas and snack tables. Then it becomes clear why they don't usually do this, because the conversation degenerates immediately into freshman-dorm bull session:

Riker: If there is a cosmic plan, wouldn't it be the height of hubris to think that we can or should interfere?

Geordie: So what are you saying, they're fated to die? (gets up, peruses snack table, ooh, is this a cheese plate?)

Riker: I think that's an option we would should be considering.

Geordie: Consider it considered and rejected! (settles on just a nice cup of tea)

Troi: Well, maybe our presence here could be fate--

Geordi: Yeah, it could be part of that plan that we interfere!

Riker: Well that eliminates the possibility of fate! (quite annoyed, unclear why)


Riker's argument here is colossally stupid, not consistent with his character, or the ethos of the show. Just struck me as very weird.

What's the deal with the scenes with the horse? They seem to go nowhere, just show how hard it is for Picard to get any free time? For a show that generally seems to avoid filming outside unless absolutely necessary, just wondering why they happened.
posted by skewed at 8:11 PM on August 21


Melinda Snodgrass is apparently an amateur equestrian.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:23 PM on August 21


What's the deal with the scenes with the horse?

Practicing for Generations?
posted by StarkRoads at 11:03 PM on August 21


I recall that David Gerrold in one of his Trek books said that the Prime Directive was a massive pain in the ass, because it interfered with the Enterprise's ability to play Cosmic Mary Worth. I mean really, it cuts out pretty much any story that doesn't deal with interfering godlike aliens.

And that's leaving out the immorality of the thing. The Federation solution to the Trolly problem is not to touch the switch at all, because that's interfering with the natural development of the society.

I mean honestly, this would really make a good Q episode, because this is the perfect morality play. "Oh go right ahead mon capitan. I brought some popcorn. And so you can appreciate it all the more, I'll display the last hour of the inhabitants of the planet. Over and over again. .."

Yeah. This whole thing of "let everyone die so we can be morally pure" pisses me of to no end.
posted by happyroach at 2:04 AM on August 22 [3 favorites]


David Mack borrowed the title "Cold Equations" for a pretty entertaining Star Trek thing.
posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 5:52 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


It would have been cool to see how Sarjenka and her people actually use their fingers.

This is another example of melding Data to fit the plot. "Let's do X, how to we make it happen. Why not Data?" Because yeah, as it has been mentioned, he's an android, Starfleet service record be damned.

Spoilers!
Data will disobey orders again and again in this one, but in later episodes, he will do things because he is required to obey orders by his programming. Until he isn't when another episode comes along where he has to serve as an advocate for some wayward lifeforms.
posted by Fukiyama at 7:58 AM on August 22 [1 favorite]


Agree with basically everything above.

Thought it was kind of funny that Picard brought the all senior staff together to decide whether to give Wesley a job. Real Council Of Dads vibe.

And I like the idea that Picard would bring everyone to his quartes for an intimate off the books chat about violating the Prime Directive, but shouldn’t they have got this all out of their system back in the academy? This seems like PD101 stuff, not something long experienced officers would be wrestling with for the first time.

O’Brien continues to be, like, the best.
posted by rodlymight at 11:03 AM on August 22 [3 favorites]


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