Monday, July 11, 2011

I watch "Who Watches the Watchers"

In case you didn't know, Star Trek: The Next Generation has been added to Netflix "Instant View" queue, which is neat, so I have been watching it. Sad to say, I just can't enjoy it as I used. The characters are one-dimensional, the story resolutions contrived, and the almost complete lack of dramatic tension is just, well, dull. That being said, yesterday I watched my favorite episode, "Who Watches the Watchers", and I'd like to share.

Plot summary: Enterprise has been dispatched to Mintaka III to help repair a technological duck-blind that some Federation anthropologists are using to observe a proto-Vulcan, Bronze Age society. What makes the Mintakans interesting is that, despite their lack of technological sophistication, they have discarded nearly all their superstitious beliefs in gods, spirits, magic, etc. Just before Enterprise arrives, the duck-blind suffers a power surge that injures the anthropologists and disables the holo-projector that is hiding the site from the Mintakans. One of the scientists, Palmer, wanders away from the station in an injured daze, just before two Mintakans, a father and daughter, arrive on the scene and spy the cliff-side station. The father, Liko, climbs up the cliff wall to investigate and is just in time to see the Enterprise away-team materialize from thin air and then beam the other injured scientists to sick bay. When the officers discover him, Liko panics and falls, landing injured and unconscious. The selfless Beverly Crusher, MD, climbs down to tend him and, realizing she cannot effectively treat him in the field, beams up with him to the ship. From hiding, Liko's daughter watches this in horror. Last spring she lost her mother to a flood, and now she's watching her father teleported away by some alien woman.

Back on Enterprise, Picard is displeased to find that Crusher has brought Liko aboard, and instructs her to erase the Mintakan's memory of what he saw. She says she's not sure that will work, but before she can explain Liko awakens and witnesses Picard speaking over the communicator, which of course to him appears as getting answers from thin air. Crusher sedates him, does her memory thing, and beams him back down to the planet. He reunites with his daughter and tells her how he was killed in the fall from the cliff, but was taken to a magical place and brought back from the dead on the order of a supernatural being called "the Picard." They return to their village and spread the word.

Meanwhile, Picard is having no luck locating Palmer with the ship's sensors, so he sends Riker and Troi down to the planet, disguised as Mintakans, to continue the search on foot. They arrive in time to hear Liko telling Nuriya, the village leader, about the Picard and his resemblance to the mythical Overseers in whom they once believed. Nuriya is skeptical at first, but when two Mintakans enter, dragging the injured Palmer between them, she is convinced. The Mintakans decide that Palmer must have angered the Picard in some way, and they resolve to keep him prisoner until the Picard can make his wishes known.

Troi distracts the Mintakans and Riker drags Palmer off to a private location where they can be beamed away without witnesses. Troi, however, is not so fortunate, and the Mintakans decide to keep her in Palmer's place, to placate the Picard in case he is angry with them for letting Palmer escape. Picard, at wit's end, rejects a suggestion that he give the Mintakans a set of commandments, and instead decides to try leveling with the Mintakans. He beams Nuriya aboard and, in a great exchange, sets about trying to explain to her why he is not a god:

Picard: Nuriya, your people live in huts. Was it always so?

Nuriya: No. We've found remnants of tools in caves. Our ancestors must have lived there.

Picard: Well, then why do they now live in huts?

Nuriya: Huts are better. Caves are cold and wet.

Picard: Then why did they once live in caves?

Nuriya (considers): The most reasonable explanation would be that, at one time, we did not know how to make huts.

Picard: Just as you once did not know how to weave cloth, how to make a bow.

Nuriya: That would be reasonable.

Picard: Someone invented a hut; someone invented a bow, who taught others, who taught their children, who built a stronger hut, who built a better bow, who taught their children. Now, Nuriya, Suppose one of your cave-dwelling ancestors were to see you as you are today. What would she think?

Nuriya: I don't know.

Picard: Well, put yourself in her place. You see, she cannot kill a horn-buck at a great distance. You can. You have a power she lacks.

Nuriya: Only because I have a bow.

Picard: But she has never seen a bow! it doesn't exist in her world. To you, it's a simple tool; to her…it's magic.

Nuryia: I suppose she might think so.

Picard: Now how would she react to you?

Nuriya (the dawn breaking): I think…she would fear me.

Picard: Just as you fear me.


With Nuriya convinced, Picard beams down with her to Mintaka, where he confronts Liko, who at this stage is ready to kill Troi to avert the wrath of the Picard. When Picard tries to reason with him, Liko goes bananas and begs him to resurrect his wife from the dead. Picard points out that such is outside his power, and Liko, half-mad with grief, shoots Picard with the same bow he was going to use on Troi, to prove that the Picard is incapable of being affected by mortal weapons. The arrow strikes Picard in the shoulder, and when he sees the blood Liko is finally convinced that the Picard is as mortal as the Mintakans themselves.

I think "Who Watches the Watchers" is one of the best episodes of the series, and here's why. On too many TNG episodes, and in fact in the entire Star Trek franchise, the super-technology the characters possess becomes an easy way out of any problem. Got an incurable disease? We'll run you through the transporter buffer and cure you in three seconds. Federation losing a war? Just zip back in time and correct that one error that made every battle go bad. It's ridiculous, and not at all conducive to good drama. "Who Watches the Watchers" avoids all of this because no matter how much technology the characters bring to bear, the problem just keeps getting worse. Not transporters nor miraculous medicine nor long-range sensors do a damned thing to resolve the problem, and things are only put right when Picard bites the bullet and faces the problem with nothing but his mind. We as viewers are lost when Geordi LaForge starts babbling about re-routing power through secondary deflector systems, but we can understand perfectly Picard's pitch to Nuriya about why she shouldn't worship him. We may not know anything about chronoton surges, but we can directly relate to Liko's plea for the resurrection of his wife. Good drama does not rely on a bunch of tech-talk we don't understand; it draws us in with the commonality of human experience and the power of human emotion.

So that's why "Who Watches the Watchers" is my favorite episode.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Tim said...

That's funny ... I feel much the same about old Doctor Who. I loved it when I was a kid, but I find it hard to sit through now ... with a few exceptions, of course. That's probably what's kept me from starting the new series so far, even though I hear a lot of positive things about it.

I still have a soft spot in my heart for TNG, though. It may not stand up to the newer more plot-driven series, but it's still a classic. The human element was definitely the best part about the show, and I think there were a number of episodes in that vein. Off the top of my head, maybe one of my favorites was the one where Picard re-lives another man's life on a planet already long dead from drought, IIRC.

Of course, there were a lot of stinkers, too. :)

10:50 PM  

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