Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Contagion"

***

Air date: 3/20/1989
Written by Steve Gerber & Beth Woods
Directed by Joseph L. Scanlan

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

Opening with a great hook, "Contagion" has the Enterprise rendezvousing in the Romulan Neutral Zone with its sister ship, the Yamato (established in "Where Silence Has Lease"), only to have the Yamato suddenly explode, killing everyone aboard. A Romulan Warbird subsequently, and ominously, arrives on the scene.

What happened here? Were the Romulans responsible? And why was the Yamato in the Neutral Zone? Yamato Captain Varley's (Thalmus Rasulala) mission was an urgent archeological chase, looking for the homeworld of the legendary Iconians, an advanced society that went extinct thousands of years ago after being besieged by its many enemies. Varley ventured into the Neutral Zone to find the Iconian world and their surviving technology, lest it fall into Romulan hands. Widespread malfunctions aboard the Yamato, however, made the ship virtually inoperable and, ultimately, doomed it to its destruction. Varley said he suspected possible design flaws, which leads the Enterprise on a hunt through its systems to find its own possible problem. The answer: a computer virus infected the Yamato when it was scanned by an Iconian probe. The Enterprise itself becomes infected when it downloads the Yamato logs.

As TNG procedural tech stories go, "Contagion" is a fairly entertaining one, with its blend of ancient archeological mysteries, ominous Romulan threats (this marks their first real appearance since season one's finale), computer tech talk, and sometimes-amusing system malfunctions (the Enterprise as well as the Romulan ship become unmanageable messes). The notion of the Iconian "gateway" technology is fascinating, even though I found myself wondering how an Iconian automated launching bay manages to continue functioning (not to mention being so dust-free for the away team) rather than falling into ruin after all these centuries.

What doesn't hold up is the plot advancement surrounding the computer virus and the Enterprise's solution, which is to essentially wipe the affected hard drives and restore them from backup. In a word: Duh. Shouldn't that have been the first course of action? And doesn't the Enterprise computer have virus-protection software? I also find it doubtful that the Yamato crew wouldn't be able to figure out what was going on when they had just as much information as the Enterprise crew. But I quibble on a basically solid show.

Previous episode: The Dauphin
Next episode: The Royale

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15 comments on this review

Rikko - Mon, Mar 4, 2013 - 10:01am (USA Central)
This was fun, not as much as with "The Measure of a Man", but still. I liked the last third the most, and it's actually the only part I remember off-hand.

I can cut them some slack when it comes to computer technicalities, since the mainstream PC market was fairly recent back then and I don't think the idea of a backup was so "natural" for the audience. Of course, I'm guessing from stuff I've read and what I can make out of that period, since I was just a few years old back then.

Even in the late 90s (When I got into Pcs) backups weren't that common because big hard drives were a luxury.

Anyway, one last thing regarding "Contagion". On my comment of S1's finale I said the Romulans wouldn't appear until S3, but I seem to have forgotten this particular episode. Even then, they weren't central to the plot here, so maybe that's why I didn't recall them to begin with.


Corey - Wed, Mar 13, 2013 - 1:33pm (USA Central)
I second Jammer's opinion on this one, a solid 3 star show. Very entertaining. As always some plot holes. The shuttles on both sides didn't incur damage, right (they didn't download anything)? So send them out and when the opposing shields of the enemy shields drop, fire! Simple.

I always like seeing other Federations ships, it makes the universe seem more real. It's a real stretch to say that Captain Picard knows EVERYONE in Starfleet though (Kirk had the same trait).

The Iconian gate was also a rather cool technology, too bad it had to be destroyed. It would be fantastic tech for civilians ("Hey going to visit Aunt Mary, will go through Iconian gate to Betazed."). It seems a bit odd though how the neutral zone border would be established between the Federation and Romulans without at least one side completely exploring the intervening worlds, what if you blocked off a world full of resources?

Anyways, I never skip this episode when watching TNG so I think that says something.
William B - Fri, Mar 29, 2013 - 3:18am (USA Central)
Jammer's description of this episode as "solid" is just right.

I think it's a good Picard show -- part of the way season two is expanding the character to show different modes. The first use of "Tea, earl grey, hot," the first reference to a love of archaeology, the first time Picard truly leads an away team (rather than being forced into beaming into a tough situation for negotiations); he gets a speech to Wesley about the nature of how to contend with death within a command structure, a chance to geek out over the discovery of the truth behind a myth, and to be the badass self-sacrificing hero at the end, destroying what could be used by the Romulans at great risk to himself and winding up on the Romulan bridge. It is not a *great* Picard episode -- the personal stakes are too low, despite the potential of loss of life. We do get to see Picard making a dangerous choice -- to go further into the Neutral Zone! -- and perhaps a more difficult choice, of destroying everything that remains of an extinct, conquered people people to prevent it falling into enemy hands, but it's a bit a shame we didn't get more chance to spend on those choices, especially the latter.

As the first encounter with the Romulans, I like how this plays out the dynamic we will often see in TNG -- both sides are equally wary of conflict but nearly equally ready to go toe-to-toe; Picard may be the cooler head (usually) but Varley doesn't seem to be as conscientious as he could be. Taris, as played by Carolyn "Toreth from 'Face of the Enemy'" Seymour, straddles the line well enough that we don't know where she stands for most of the episode, until we realize that the Romulans are as out of luck as the Enterprise is. Of course, the Enterprise crew are the ones awesome enough to solve the problem, not the Romulan warbird's crew; it's not truly a show where both sides are meant to be equally virtuous/talented, and we are meant to see our heroes as better in most ways. I still think that for a minor role Taris comes across well. It's easy to mock TNG's kind-spiritedness, but I find the fact that the last shot of the episode communicated that the Romulan warbird was probably making it out all right (powering back on and moving away) -- the generosity of spirit to make clear that the 'enemies' through most of the episode are probably okay is something that I do appreciate about this show.

In addition to the plot problem with the computer that Jammer mentioned, I balk at Picard's logic that they should stick around in the Neutral Zone until Geordi fixes a possible design flaw in the Enterprise to save them from the same fate as the Yamato. Um, no -- if it's a design flaw there is no reason that the two ships would destruct within days of each other, and the Romulans are a bigger threat. Perhaps Picard (on some level) knew that he wouldn't be able to leave the prospect of finding Iconia alone and was reaching.

The episode also gives good material to Riker in command, Geordi a big chance to save the day, some humour and pathos, some real mystery within the Iconian control room. The plot holes don't bother me all that much. What holds the episode back is some kind of deeper meaning or higher stakes -- the tech stuff is more interesting than it could be, but is not really novel enough to be thrilling, and while there are lots of nice bits of characterization and some good musings from Picard, it doesn't quite cohere. 3 stars.
William B - Fri, Mar 29, 2013 - 3:20am (USA Central)
*first REAL encounter with the Romulans on this show -- "The Neutral Zone" and the illusion in "Where Silence Has Lease" hardly count.
Jarndyce - Tue, Jul 23, 2013 - 9:35pm (USA Central)
Oooh yes this! I don't think it's an incredibly brilliant episode or anything, but very fun, well-put-together, with some nice mystery, characterization, especially regarding Picard's archeology hobby and level-headed but attentive approach to problems, and thought-provoking plot elements. Also, I remember when I saw this when I was little, I found the scene of Data having an android-stroke from the probe's attack to be very convincingly androidish, effective and worry-inducing, so nice job of keeping my little self engaged!
Mike S - Wed, Jul 24, 2013 - 4:24pm (USA Central)
My favourite part is when the Iconian portal cycles through the various "alien" worlds, you can see one of the stops is Toronto's City Hall! Too bad Picard didn't end up there. Would love to see how Starfleet would deal with a weird alien race like us Canadians!
SkepticalMI - Fri, Sep 20, 2013 - 5:42pm (USA Central)
Two things of note:

1) The Romulan Warbird appears twice in the 2nd season: as a mirage from Nagilum in Where Silence Has Lease and as the potential adversaries here. In neither case are they an actual threat nor the point of the episode. After simply saying they're back at the end of season 1, it is almost a pity that this is all we get. But only almost. I suppose it might have been upsetting if watching these episodes once a week; where's the payoff? Are the Romulans just as much of a overhyped pathetic villain as the Ferengi? Fortunately, looking back on it now, we know the payoff in season 3 and 4. So seeing the Enterprise crew react as if the threat were real, immediate, and dangerous each of the three times (including the Neutral Zone) just makes the final payoff when they are the focus of the episode that much better.

2) The Enterprise finds itself facing a dangerous adversary while orbiting a planet from a long-lost civilization, before finding itself unable to defend itself. Fortunately, the enemy ship also faces the same problems. An away team beams to the surface to try to solve the problem before time runs out on the ship. Fortunately, they do, and save not only themselves but also the enemy ship. Now, was I just describing Contagion or The Last Outpost from the first season?

Normally I'd complain about rehashing a plot so quickly, but not this time. The Last Outpost was not a good episode, this one is. More importantly, while its similar on the surface, the details are quite different. Last Outpost focused on the Ferengi and mostly ignored the ancient civilization, this one is opposite.

On the whole, this was a very good episode. Plenty of great moments, both dramatic and humorous. Each character's moment in the sun was pretty good, except perhaps Geordi's turbolift adventure and Wesley bugging Picard. But Pulaski's short frustrated sickbay scene, Riker on the bridge dealing with the Romulans and the malfunctions, Data's malfunction and death, and even Troi were interesting. Good pacing too, despite lots of different things going on (Yamato's destruction, Enterprise malfunctioning, Romulan threat, and learning of Iconia). I was thoroughly engaged the entire time. Really, I just have to echo what everyone else said. It's a solid, fun episode.

I also won't fault the episode for having the simple "reboot" solution. This was the 80s, not everyone had a PC and no one knew much about computer viruses.
T'Paul - Sun, Oct 6, 2013 - 10:36am (USA Central)
The Romulan commander is the same actress who plays the commander on Face of the Enemy, although with a different fictional name...
T'Paul - Sun, Oct 6, 2013 - 11:12am (USA Central)
Ah, sorry, I see William B had already mentioned that.

Another thing though, it's one of the few times we hear Romulan spoken (the countdown on their ship).

I do love how Seymour does Romulans though...
Josh - Sun, Oct 6, 2013 - 12:02pm (USA Central)
Seymour showed up on Voyager in Janeway's excruciating "gothic" holonovel, and before that was Mirasta Yale in "First Contact" (probably her most memorable Trek appearance aside from "Face of the Enemy"). It's too bad she never had a recurring role, as she played an arrogant Romulan commander as well as a starry-eyed space scientist or an unhinged 19th century governess.
Adara - Sat, Mar 1, 2014 - 11:59pm (USA Central)
What a coincidence that the gateway just happened to have a door to the Enterprise and one to the Romulan ship. Was there any logical reason for this or are we just supposed to suspend our disbelief? Because that's a little too much disbelief for me. Very solid episode otherwise though.
Josh - Sun, Mar 2, 2014 - 1:27am (USA Central)
I'd say it's more bizarre that one of the destinations is Nathan Phillips Square - I suppose the Iconians were thinking ahead and wanted to get a photo with Rob Ford?

As for the doors to each of the only two ships in orbit of the planet... I'd say the reasons are pretty self-explanatory.
Grumpy - Sun, Mar 2, 2014 - 12:29pm (USA Central)
Permit me to explain anyway, Josh, because an idea just occurred that almost makes up for the primitive take on cybersecurity.

The destination options are the equivalent of a predictive search, with the gateway cycling through the most likely requests, given the limited input for context. We see this every day with autocomplete, but it was virtually unthinkable 25 years ago.

This may explain the other oddity. Picard didn't tell the gateway where he wanted to go, but we can imagine he began typing "To return to Enterprise" and his autocomplete answers were "To Romulan vessel" and "Toronto." :)
2piix - Fri, Jun 20, 2014 - 3:17pm (USA Central)
Where would the dust come from if there's nobody to shed skin on stuff?
BearHeart - Mon, Nov 24, 2014 - 1:47pm (USA Central)
"Tea. Earl Gery. Hot." I'm pretty sure this is the first episode with this line.

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