Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Ensigns of Command   Rewatch 
September 21, 2020 5:41 AM - Season 3, Episode 2 - Subscribe

Data does diplomacy when the powerful Sheliak vow to exterminate a human colony.

Memory Alpha has no feelings of any kind:

• Melinda Snodgrass commented, "I wanted to take Data one step further in his development as a Human being. I wanted to stress him and have him face a situation where logic isn't enough, to show that in order to command you have to have charisma. You have to learn how to wave your dick and hope your dick is bigger than the other guy's."

• The title of this episode is from the poem "The Wants of Man" by John Quincy Adams. In the context of this poem, the term "ensign" means a flag or symbol, not the Starfleet rank.

• Melinda Snodgrass's original version of the teleplay had some noticeable differences from the finished episode. In particular, the Sheliak were named the "Hrathan," Kentor was named "Noe" and had a much smaller role in the story (as did Haritath), Gosheven and Ard'rian were implied to be in a relationship, and the hyperonic radiation did not affect phasers or tricorders, with Data simply not wishing to resort to violence to resolve the situation, rather than being unable to use his phaser.

• Despite Snodgrass's own name being used on both the earlier draft and the finished episode, the final draft teleplay credits "H. B. Savage" as the writer.

• According to director Cliff Bole, US$200,000 was cut from the episode "at the last minute". The most prominent result of this was that more romantic overtones between Data and Ard'rian McKenzie were removed.

• During filming, the entourage of the 14th Dalai Lama visited the sets and had pictures taken with Brent Spiner. One of these pictures appeared on the original UK VHS release of this episode. While the Dalai Lama had been touring the western US, his schedule precluded him visiting the set in person.

• Grainger Hines' dialogue as Gosheven was dubbed by another actor. At his request, Hines' credit was removed from the final episode. After filming was completed, it was decided that Hines' voice didn't have the presence the producers wanted in the episode – they thought it sounded too much like John Wayne.

• O'Brien plays the cello on screen in this episode. This skill is not seen again, although it is referenced in dialogue – most notably, in "Shadowplay".

• There was a complication regarding the involvement of Wesley Crusher actor Wil Wheaton (and his character) in this episode. Even though he'd been cast in the film Valmont, which would be shot in Paris, during the hiatus since the second season and although the movie's production schedule was due to run over into the first week of filming TNG Season 3, Wheaton didn't anticipate a scheduling conflict. That was because this episode was scheduled to be produced first, instead of starting with third season premiere "Evolution". Wesley's participation in "The Ensigns of Command" was therefore in question. "One of the producers told my agent that they could not write me out of that episode," Wheaton remembered, "because it was a Wesley-focused episode, and I couldn't go work [in a movie] […] He called my house and told me, 'It's a Wesley episode, and I'm writing a scene with you and Gates that's going to move your mother-son relationship forward, and it's really important to the series,' and he just lied to me […] A few days before we began production on that season of Next Generation, this producer wrote me out of the script entirely, and it was appalling to me. The message was very clear – we own you – and it was a move to sabotage my career." Wheaton was extremely upset and felt very betrayed about the situation, which led him to want to quit the series.

"Gentlemen, we're giving you an assignment. The one thing we don't want to hear is that it's impossible."
"I need the transporters to function despite the hyperonic radiation."
"Yeah, but that's im– yes, sir."
- Riker, Picard and La Forge

"Any objections? Good, because here… we stand."
"Then here, you die."
- Gosheven and Data

Poster's Log:
There's something verrrry Western (as in the Old West) about the planetside plot, likely by design. Data is the wandering lawman, Prefect Gabe Kapler is the corrupt local boss, Robot-Lover Lady is the warmhearted schoolteacher, and Data is all but shown flying off into the sunset.

The Sheliak were always more interesting to me than the Data side of the story, at least in the VHS era, when they looked more freaky and mysterious. It's not that I was too young to recognize how they were achieving the Sheliak's physical appearance back then; rather, the hi-def streaming version makes it less easy to ignore. All the same, it's such an interesting concept—nonhumanoid Lawful Evil aliens who neighbor, and are more powerful than, the Federation!—that it's unfortunate they're never seen again.

Anyway, the story is tight and interesting, and feels like a prototypical TNG outing—possibly the first one of which that can be said? And considering the rewrites and the budget cut, it's easy to imagine it turning out a lot worse.

Poster's Log, Supplemental: Greatest Gen episode.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil (19 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Cards of the episode from the Star Trek CCG:
Q-Continuum(1996): The Sheliak, Space.

The Sheliak provides an existential threat to planet missions somewhat similar to the Borg Ship for space missions. Often used in combination with Dead End to try to negate an opponent's expected choice of the first mission they'd want to solve.

I find the placement of Space in this episode a bit dubious but it's as good a place to discuss as any! One of the first non-unique space missions, and one of the first missions not worth any points. it's just there to stall your opponent, possibly with a Black Hole to eat their missions outright.
posted by StarkRoads at 7:40 AM on September 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Once I read about the replacement dubbing of that actor's voice, I saw why this episode feels off-kilter. The replacement sounds like somebody from a costume drama of the 1950s and the overall plot and story are almost more TOS than TNG, if you swapped in Spock for Data.
posted by zadcat at 7:45 AM on September 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

Here's the thing that I got from this episode: this could be considered the prototype of the Maquis storyline across three different series. (They'll get a name in DS9, and be a major part of the origin of VOY, but will also appear in TNG in S7--I don't think that they appear in this series before then.) All the elements are there: the feisty, scrappy colonists, the implacable foe who means to wipe them out, and of course the well-meaning Starfleet guy who Just Doesn't Get It. There is an element of the Western here, although I don't think that Gosheven is corrupt except in the abstract sense that he probably guesses that he won't be the big frog any more if they all get relocated to an even slightly larger pond. He seems to be tapping into a sentiment that's genuine, if misguided. The colonists did have to overcome a lot of adversity, they did put in a lot of work, they should feel proud of their little colony and not want to give it up that easily.

The problem is, the ep has a lot of the same issues as "The Measure of a Man": it has a decent goal in mind, and eventually hits that goal, but how it gets there isn't that great. The bit with the hyperonic radiation is effective in making sure that Data is the only one who can go down, plus shutting off the transporters as an effective route of evacuation, but it also means that the crew member with the worst people skills (maybe with the exception of Barclay, if he's on board already) is handling the negotiations for the evacuation. When Data contacts Riker, all he gets in response is "well, git 'er done, it's your job." If they have apparently unimpeded ship-to-surface communication, then why couldn't Riker or Troi or someone else have listened in and given Data feedback, maybe even some Cyrano de Bergerac-type prompts via an earpiece? It's not like they don't know that Charisma is his dump stat.

It's also kind of weird that the 24-year highly-decorated Starfleet veteran seems to know nothing about working with recalcitrant local populations. Instead of getting into a dick-size war with the local grand poobah, he could have just politely inquired as to what their civil defense plan was. Did they have an alternate site, hopefully with more than one route of evacuation to it, for when the Sheliak turned their colony into a parking lot? Did they plan to wage guerilla warfare on the Sheliak once they'd landed? (At least the Maquis had some weapons, vehicles, and a lot of disgruntled ex-Starfleet people on their side, not that it helped them much in the long run.) Don't even let Gosheven complete another "here we shall make our stand" speech before asking about field medical capabilities. And when Gosheven calls in the taser-stick goon squad, show him that he lost the dick-size war before it began; Data may have used CHA and WIS as his dump stats, but that's because the rest of them are through the roof--those guys should have been wearing those taser sticks as necklaces. Then, he could ask them what their defense is against photon torpedoes. The only way the ep really could have worked as is would have been to have the population a) either be indigenous, and not know that there were other hegemonic civilizations out there that would steamroller over them given half the chance, or b) they've been so concentrated on surviving and getting the irrigation system in and whatnot that they sort of forgot to teach their children about potential bad guys, and you'd eventually have one super-old guy totter out on a cane and go, "Yeah, if these assholes are half as bad as the Klingons, we're screwed." Let Gosheven try to tell Grandpa that he was wrong.

The Sheliak are, again, OK, although a little oversold--if they consider humans an "infestation", would they have negotiated a complex treaty with them? (Imagine the Federation negotiating a treaty with, say, the neural parasites of "Operation -- Annihilate!", then delaying the sterilization of Deneva after the parasites found a loophole.) Also, Ard'rian's just up and swapping spits with Data (well, Data doesn't really have spits to swap, AFAWK; you know what I mean) seemed kind of clumsy; they could have stuck with just having her fascination with him turning into an instant crush. Finally, outside of the story, the whole thing with telling Wil Wheaton that he couldn't do Valmont and then cutting him out of the story was just churlish on their part.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:04 AM on September 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I really don't like elements of this one. The negotiations with the Sheliak are fine. But the Data stuff is pointless.

All Data had to do was at the first meeting talk about how the Sheliak could take out the entire colony from orbit. Give Gosheven and his dreams of fighting eye to eye with the enemy nowhere to go. Instead Data tried to negotiate and talk about treaties and stuff.

"The Sheliak own this planet. They will have no compunction about nuking the entire site from orbit. Come with me if you want to live."

If Gosheven manages to talk his way out of that and tell Data to take a hike, then fix up the phaser and start blasting stuff to get their attention. All the intermediate way points were just filler. One would think given what we've seen of Data before that he would be too blunt rather than too subtle.

he probably guesses that he won't be the big frog any more if they all get relocated to an even slightly larger pond.

The guy has to be corrupt or something. The colony is supposed to be thousands, but he is able to rule over it just fine all by himself. I mentioned a long time ago Star Trek not doing colonies well. This the perfect example in that we only ever see the same handful of people making decisions for everybody.
posted by Fukiyama at 8:38 AM on September 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Soft spot for this one- I was once assigned to Onizuka Air Force station.
posted by davidmsc at 9:05 AM on September 21, 2020

All Data had to do was at the first meeting talk about how the Sheliak could take out the entire colony from orbit. Give Gosheven and his dreams of fighting eye to eye with the enemy nowhere to go. Instead Data tried to negotiate and talk about treaties and stuff.

Well, the whole point of the episode was about Data figuring out that he needed to do that, and that is indeed how he eventually convinces the colony to leave. Also, we're in TNG-land. Everyone in Starfleet goes around negotiating so much that it's practically a joke to anyone outside the Federation. It's not so unreasonable that Data, whose defining characteristic is not understanding how organics think and are motivated, might take a while to figure out that he needs to kick some asses to get his way.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 12:36 PM on September 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

I loved everything about the Sheliak. The visual design was wonderful, the buildup was great, and their attitude is priceless. It's like, every interaction they have with the Federation is this elaborate eyeroll. It's not that they're evil in any real way; it's more like they're a bit callous but fundamentally they really just don't care. The only reason they made a treaty with the Federation is because it doesn't matter either way and they just don't want to have to think about it. When they finally roll in, the vibe is of a family starting a vacation just trying to get settled in to their hotel after a long, sweaty day on the road, what do you mean "the room's not ready", we made our reservation months ago, we have the confirmation number right here, I don't care if your other guests overstayed, we just want to unpack and start our vacation, just, just, ugh, fine, we'll just find a motel six or something for the night, uuuuuugggghhh. Of course the treaty has a loophole, it's just boilerplate, no one reads these things, look, just, just, just click "accept", ok?

TL;DR I would completely watch a series about exasperated Sheliak, the end.

also: kind of liked the on-planet plot but Dubbing Bad and the 'hot for Data' subplot was nonsensical and creepy
posted by phooky at 2:16 PM on September 21, 2020 [9 favorites]

commenter's log, addendum: in light of the Sheliak mostly just being sort of pouty and inconvenienced by the whole thing, Picard's little "oh, let's let them sweat" bit just felt kind of embarrassing
posted by phooky at 2:22 PM on September 21, 2020

I would luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurve to see "Sheliak Vacation" as a Short Trek.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:28 PM on September 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Well, the whole point of the episode... Also, we're in TNG-land...

I know. It's just frustrating to watch.
posted by Fukiyama at 2:48 PM on September 21, 2020

Totally fair. This episode has some pretty wooden acting.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 3:12 PM on September 21, 2020

I feel like if this episode had gone off better the Sheliak might have shown up again. Like Phooky said the way they interact with the Federation is interesting. I feel like "powerful but largely apathetic alien culture" is a touchstone that comes up again, most notably the Breen. In general I wish there were fewer throwaway species in TNG, I get they want the galaxy to feel big and populated but it makes all the individual species thin and lifeless. The Cardassians and Ferengi are both aliens that were well-served by showing up repeatedly.

If the Sheliak had shown up more than once maybe costuming could have made them look less like a guy covered in trash bags, even. Oh well, they live on as the name of a character in one of my stories.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:12 PM on September 21, 2020

I like this episode, mostly. Data bringing the heat is one of the most delicious flavours of trek. The romance angle felt forced, maybe because it was largely excised, or maybe the other way around. Relieved to hear that Gosheven was ADR’d, his voice was was bugging me the whole episode. I bet they did that because Richard Allen’s Kentor was out-gravitasing him by miles.

Also really like the matte painting for the colony, with the aqueduct going all the way up the purple mountain in the background. A real prog rock album cover.

Rotten what they did to Wheaton. The producers of this show were some pieces of shit, huh?
posted by rodlymight at 6:53 PM on September 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I had to actually pause this a little bit in because I was like, "Wait, did they loop that dude's voice for the entire episode? Did they dub it?" and was surprised that they'd decided to do that. Especially the reasoning of it sounding too much like John Wayne, because what they got instead is incredibly distracting and wooden. It really didn't help this episode in any way. I can always spot ADR anyways, but full dubs are just almost unwatchable for me. It also didn't help when it was for a character as awful as Gosheven.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 8:11 PM on September 21, 2020

So does Colm Meaney really play cello? Google is unclear about it.
posted by zadcat at 8:56 PM on September 21, 2020

If you pause the show when a section of the Treaty of Armens is on screen, in the HD version of the episode you can read the text and, boy, if this is indicative of the usual Federation treaty, it's a wonder anything goes well for the UFP.
posted by Servo5678 at 5:06 AM on September 22, 2020 [13 favorites]

posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 6:24 AM on September 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've always liked this one, perhaps because I also have a less than stellar understanding of human nature and find it difficult to get people to do the clearly logical thing.
posted by ckape at 9:09 AM on September 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Sheliak were a great villain - it's definitely a shame we never see them again.

Even before we get to know what their deal is, I love the idea of an alien species bordering the Federation, that has a treaty even, that just hasn't said anything to Humans in more than 100 years. The show talks a lot about how isolationist the Romulans have been at times, but they show up too frequently and are too big a player in the space version of geopolitics for it to feel like they were really all that isolationist.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 7:58 PM on September 23, 2021

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