Star Trek: The Next Generation: Who Watches the Watchers   Rewatch 
September 28, 2020 4:39 AM - Season 3, Episode 4 - Subscribe

When a pre-warp people begin worshipping Picard as a god, he just figures it's the Pasadena Star Trek convention all over again.

What if Memory Alpha was one of us?:

• The title of this episode is taken directly from the Latin phrase, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?", first used by the poet Juvenal, a 1st/2nd century Roman satirist. Juvenal also provided the title of "Bread and Circuses".

• Rick Sternbach based the design of the duck blind on the video cameras used by the TMA-1 team in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park, a familiar filming location from Star Trek: The Original Series, was used again for this episode. This is the only Next Generation episode to use the site. The cast and crew spent two days shooting in 100°F (38°C) heat. Due to the presence of local snakes, scorpions and bees, no attractants such as deodorant or perfume could be used.

Ray Wise later appears in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Hope and Fear" as Arturis.

• This episode also marks the final reference to Dr. Pulaski on the show. She is henceforth never mentioned (by name) on the series again, although she is alluded to by Professor Moriarty in "Ship in a Bottle". Moreover, she does get a brief mention in the closing episode of Star Trek: Voyager, "Endgame", where she receives a page from Starfleet Medical.

• The Mintakan tapestry that is given to Picard by Nuria and the villagers was seen on Captain Picard's chair in his quarters in many subsequent episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and in all of the "Next Generation" films except Star Trek Nemesis.

• This is the first episode of the series to feature Riker participating in an undercover mission on an alien world. Riker's later covert missions in episodes such as "First Contact", "Frame of Mind", and "Preemptive Strike" would have mostly disastrous results.

• This marks the second of four times Picard shows a native female her home planet from orbit. This happened previously with Rivan in "Justice," and later with Mirasta Yale in "First Contact" and Lily in Star Trek: First Contact. This approach clearly has meaning to Picard as he tells Anij in Star Trek: Insurrection, seeing his home planet from space for the first time was a moment when time stood still.

• Ira Steven Behr commented that he thought "Who Watches The Watchers" was "a good hour of television. I thought it was a pretty good show, but it was in and out, as ST:TNG was prone to do, because it was about boldly going forth. If the writers had had five seasons to work with that thread, who knows how many twists and turns Jean-Luc could have gone through. That opportunity just wasn't there."


"I believe I have seen the Overseer. He is called 'The Picard.'"
- Liko

"Horrifying… Dr. Barron, your report describes how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? No!"
- Picard

"Are you sure this is what he wants? That's the problem with believing in a supreme being: trying to determine what he wants."
- Troi


Poster's Log:
This is one of my true favorites of this show, and IIRC it's THE episode that made me into a devotee of the show (and thus a budding devotee of the franchise) when it aired. The Mintakans are likeable, the story moves quickly and overall smoothly, it's a good mix of stuff-happening + thought-provoking discussion, it's got legendary Business Hugs spokesman Ray Wise, and the Prime Directive clusterfuck is rich and interesting.

On the latter point, this may be the best handling of a PD-CF that we will see on TNG, which is not to say it's flawless. It's hard, first off, to justify the lead scientist arguing for Picard to actually become their god; dude should probably lose his job over that conference meeting. It's also easy to see how the crew's handling of this incident could have failed catastrophically with aliens any less reasonable than Mintakans. But I at least am struggling to come up with a way in this one to accuse Picard et al. of crimes against huma—er, sapien…ity. You know what I mean.

Behr's "what might have been" remark is interesting in that he was EP and showrunner of Deep Space Nine, the entire run of which follows the story of a Starfleet officer considered to be a religious figure by aliens—and yet I'm pretty sure the Sisko-is-Emissary element came from Piller and Berman, not Behr.

Poster's Log, Supplemental:
The relevant TV Trope for this one is called Unwanted False Faith.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil (13 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I liked it well enough (first watch), although I seemed to detect the fell hand of Roddenberry in the implication if not direct statement (watched it a few days ago, can't remember how explicit this was) that religion is for primitives and it's one of the bad habits that humanity has allegedly evolved out of; it's of a piece with John Lennon slipping "Got no religion, too" into "Imagine". This might have stuck out to me because I came back to spirituality after being an agnostic/soft atheist for quite some time as part of my recovery from alcoholism. (Not that it's necessary to believe in some kind of Sky King or whatever; AA is very flexible WRT the "Higher Power"--my sponsor is an atheist and has been sober for over 40 years--and for a lot of people the H.P. is the program itself; as someone said in a meeting once, the most important thing to know about your Higher Power is that you're not it.) To me, one of the things that DS9 did was not only extend the consideration of the Emissary/The Sisko beyond a one-and-done episode, but also showed the Bajorans as being rational and advanced while still (mostly) following the Prophets; they weren't all human-sacrificey about it, even if some of them did skew toward the fanatical side occasionally. (Your posting of the commercial parodies from Tim and Eric led me to imagine Liko doing a commercial: "Find yourself inexplicably healed of mortal injuries? Afraid that you've offended The Overseer? Ask your shaman if human sacrifice is right for you. Some people may experience side effects, although that's mostly the sacrifice's problem.") In fact, Kira sarcastically called out Bashir's condescending comments about "frontier medicine" in the first episode. Kira would also be one of the people who had conflicts between her faith and the professional requirements of her job, a much more nuanced treatment of religion than simply "your gods are just computers or asshole aliens with superpowers or you're just not digging science, man." I did like Picard trying to explain the whole idea of their "miracles" just being more advanced tech, although I felt like the writers were trying to avoid saying or paraphrasing Clarke's Third Law.

Overall, the episode was pretty tight; I liked the structure of their trying to maintain the PD to some degree until the situation evolved to the point where they really couldn't do that. (The "duck blind" reminded me of the similar set-up in Star Trek: Insurrection, although that had a very different purpose.) Riker and Troi also looked good in their Mintakan get-ups; Troi will wear very similar make-up in a later episode for a very different purpose. Finally, I gotta say that those are some fancy-ass bows for a quote-endquote primitive people; MA identifies them as the Martin Dyna-Bow.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:27 AM on September 28 [2 favorites]


Cards of the Episode from the Star Trek CCG:
Premiere('94): Archer, Cultural Observation. Wesley's COTD for Archer.
Second Edition('02): Barron.

Fairly unremarkable cards this episode. As for the mission, in Premiere, there weren't too many Anthropologists around, and Strength wasn't the Federation's....strength. Data and Worf notwithstanding. Anthropology would come into its own later with cards like Primitive Culture and on various Bajorans. The Archer dilemma could really compromise your ability to solve this mission with its focus on your character's total attributes, which is nicely Trek Sensible. Ideally, you'd send a doctor and a security guard with every Away Team because of cards like this! Barron is typical of cheap (1 cost, common) skill fillers for your Federation crew in 2E.
posted by StarkRoads at 9:52 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]


This episode bugs the crap out of me. The musical score is weirdly unique to this episode, not sure where that came from. The Mintakans are soooooo lame, especially Ray Wise (who for me always just looks like he's gonna kill Laura Palmer). I find these kinds of enlightened take-downs of "how religions get started" frustrating and simplistic and patronizing. It's preachy in the extreme. And I'm an atheist, for crying out loud! So, yeah, not my fave.
posted by wabbittwax at 12:51 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


You really should have put a tag in here for Prime Directive Clusterfuck! (That should also be a tag on AO3 for Trek fanfic, now that I think about it.)

It's an okay ep for me, I didn't recall it at all, strangely, and I liked the scenes with Picard trying to reason with Nuria. I really liked her as a character. I had just rewatched Insurrection, so the duck blind idea was fresh in my mind anyway, and I'd completely forgotten that had happened in a TNG episode too. I'm honestly not sure how I feel about that whole thing, though--I guess I just don't have an inner anthropologist who wants to study people like they're zoo creatures. Like, I suppose it makes sense, and how else are you going to learn about other societies without affecting their development, but it has a tang of superior race vs. primitives that makes me anxious.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 1:32 PM on September 28


Wasn't really a fan of this one, partly because I felt like the actors playing the Mintakans decided the best way to express "rational" was "wooden", but mostly because the first act was just beating us over the head with the idiot stick. We've all sworn to lay down our lives to implement the prime directive, but you're just going to do... that? Does Starfleet not do any actual training on this? (And once again, a Crusher makes a huge, crew-endangering mistake, and is never called on it or has it mentioned again. What is up with that?)

I did appreciate that Patrick Stewart spending 2/3rds of his screen time massaging his temples and generally looking very frustrated. He's in his element, and that element is exasperated.
posted by phooky at 2:57 PM on September 28


Wasn’t it a Federation anthropologist who ‘accidentally’ recreated naziism in the old series? (Checks Memory Alpha) ah no, a historian. Still, these academics, eh?

Putting aside some of the dumb things (the duck blind doesn’t do anything that a hidden camera or even a satellite could not, but they just have to be there to fuck shit up in person I guess, that’s like the whole trek thing) I do like his one. The characters are pretty strong and it’s a much better exploration of the prime directive than uhh that other one.
posted by rodlymight at 8:42 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]


I sort of like this episode. But it also sticks in my mind because it has Ray Wise, and a good chunk of the episode revolves around a character named Palmer.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 9:37 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]


In the last scene on the planet, there's a captain's log in which Picard says:
Captain's Log, supplemental. Dr. Crusher has repaired my injury with her usual skill.
And then we see Picard wearing a cast on his arm/shoulder. In the era of magic science medicine wands, Picard is wearing a cast (which we never see anyone else use) after Crusher "repaired [his] injury with her usual skill". It almost sounds like Picard is being sarcastic.
posted by Servo5678 at 11:59 AM on September 29 [6 favorites]


I seemed to detect the fell hand of Roddenberry in the implication if not direct statement (watched it a few days ago, can't remember how explicit this was) that religion is for primitives and it's one of the bad habits that humanity has allegedly evolved out of

That may be part of why high-school me enjoyed it so much ;) but yes, you detected correctly. I really like Sisko's answer, which one of these days I may have to employ myself if asked: "There are things I believe in." And I'd never heard the line "the most important thing to know about your Higher Power is that you're not it" before, but that's really great.

A cursory review of the MA religion page seems to support my hunch that TNG tried to avoid the topic for the most part. I've definitely felt that it's a pretty staunchly secular show, though that might be my memory placing too much emphasis on this episode in the overall continuity. What's interesting about that, though, is the references in previous seasons to Us Federation Types no longer fearing death. How'd they get to that point? Or is it best that we dismiss those bits of dialogue as undercooked, never-finished Roddenberrianisms?

It's preachy in the extreme. And I'm an atheist, for crying out loud!

No doubt that TNG gets preachy at times, this being one of the noteworthy ones. ("Say no to drugs, Wesley" being another.)

the duck blind doesn’t do anything that a hidden camera or even a satellite could not, but they just have to be there to fuck shit up in person I guess, that’s like the whole trek thing

The only weak defense I can think of comes from Insurrection, where we see the staff of a duck-blind actually walking around among the Baku but cloaked or phase-shifted or something; that would seem to work better for cultural observation than stationary or orbital surveillance.

But actually, yeah, it seems like the duck blind concept arose because Federation scientists simply wanted to do that. Some form of a study abroad program.

In the era of magic science medicine wands, Picard is wearing a cast (which we never see anyone else use) after Crusher "repaired [his] injury with her usual skill".

Well, the wound WAS from a Martin Dyna-Bow.

The Archer dilemma could really compromise your ability to solve this mission with its focus on your character's total attributes, which is nicely Trek Sensible.

"Do you want arrow wounds, Jean-Luc?! Because that's how you get arrow wounds!"
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 1:11 PM on September 29 [3 favorites]


The Mintakans are soooooo lame, especially Ray Wise

You have angered The Picard!
posted by rocketman at 10:16 AM on September 30


What's interesting about that, though, is the references in previous seasons to Us Federation Types no longer fearing death. How'd they get to that point? Or is it best that we dismiss those bits of dialogue as undercooked, never-finished Roddenberrianisms?

That would be an interesting discussion to have in the context of the next ep, I think.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:20 PM on September 30 [1 favorite]


So, does this count towards the list of episodes with godlike beings in them?
posted by ckape at 8:31 PM on September 30 [1 favorite]


Nice tight opening sequence: Troi briefs Picard, mentions that this week's species are basically Vulcans, but bronze-age. Picard puts a bow on it "yeah, they're super similar to Vulcans, let's all keep that in mind!" Great, so we all understand.

I got a little chill when Picard has just scene the explosion on the viewscreen, pauses, and stage-whispers "increase to warp 9".

Troi's condescending attitude when they first arrive is kind of jarring. "Wow, that was a very interesting story." She sounds like the atheist from an evangelical tv drama.

The whole episode has a lot of condescending moments, you all are right. But that's probably why I loved the episode so much as a teenager.
posted by skewed at 6:53 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]


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