Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Pen Pals"


Air date: 5/1/1989
Teleplay by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Story by Hannah Louise Shearer
Directed by Winrich Kolbe

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

In what's another somewhat low-key but palatable episode, Data makes radio contact with a young alien girl named Sarjenka (Nikki Cox) on a nearby planet, and they become "pen pals" for eight weeks. Data then learns the girl's planet is facing an ecological catastrophe that will destroy their entire civilization, and now the senior staff must decide whether to break (or at least bend) the Prime Directive to save them.

The subplot involves Wesley being put in charge of a mineral survey team. Considering he isn't even commissioned by Starfleet, I can see his trepidation about not being respected by those on his team. For that matter, I wouldn't necessarily blame those skeptical of his abilities since he hasn't had any training. But I suppose part of being brilliant means you don't necessarily need all the certifications. Riker's advice to Wesley about leadership and authority is surprisingly credible — even useful — despite the fact it sounds like the sort of advice dispensed at corporate seminars.

The central point of interest to me is the fact that it's Data — the emotionless android — who makes the initial case for Sarjenka's people's survival, and that he formulates his argument based on logic but also — make no mistake — based on his own personal feelings. The story paints an intriguing paradox: Data might not have any explicit emotions, but he does have a sense of compassion for Sarjenka. Just what does this paradox mean? How much humanity does Data possess? (It would seem a great deal.)

In true TNG fashion, there's a scene where the senior staff debates the Prime Directive, and this scene is played not as drama or high emotion, but as reasoned, intellectual debate based on opinion. Picard ultimately decides to save the society but erase Sarjenka's memories of Data — a solution that poses an interesting question (is it right to deny Sarjenka the knowledge of the truth?), but at the same time feels like too neat (and tech-contrived) a way out of the dilemma.

Previous episode: The Icarus Factor
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24 comments on this review

Immanuel - Sat, Sep 15, 2007 - 4:34pm (USA Central)
"Pen Pals"

One thing I really like about this episode, is that Sarjenka and her homeworld actually look pretty...alien. I tend to roll my eyes at the blues skies, white clouds and Earth-like plant life found on far too many Trekkian worlds. This is definitely one of the better season two episodes, and I agree with your rating.
David - Thu, Oct 7, 2010 - 10:24pm (USA Central)
One quick thought on "Pen Pals," which is one of my favorite episodes. The scene in which the senior staff debate what to do about Data's friend on the surface, and how to apply the prime directive, is what Star Trek is all about, and it's the kind of debate that Star Trek does better than any other TV series. Those are the moments that make me proud to be a Trek fan.
Brandon - Tue, Jul 10, 2012 - 3:25pm (USA Central)
The senior staff debate is also the sort of thing that has given Trek crew its reputation as a collection of "preachy, pretentious, self-righteous jerks". Nobody with any kind of compassion would even stop to have that debate, especially if memory alteration was at their disposal. There's not even an argument here - how is any properly predictable outcome better than letting the people die? JUST HELP THEM, for crying out loud.

When Picard first mumbled back in 1988, "We cannot turn our backs", millions of TV viewers leap out of their chairs, scream "Wellll, glad you finally found your humanity, you hypocrite - I arrived at that conclusion after the first act" and turned their televisions off.
William - Wed, Aug 29, 2012 - 7:18pm (USA Central)
I liked this episode -- I guess for the reason some people don't. I liked the PD debate, and I found the Sarjenka/Data friendship heartwarming.
Rikko - Sun, Mar 17, 2013 - 11:16pm (USA Central)
I was a bit put off by Sarjenka's vivid orange color, but other than that Data-Atomic Tomato Girl's relationship was the crux of Pen Pals.

Wesley was still "S1 Annoying Wesley" at this point, so I didn't particularly like him.

It was fine for me, but nothing special.
Lewis - Wed, May 1, 2013 - 4:01pm (USA Central)
Wasn't Data's original communications with the planet itself a violation of the PD?
Sintek - Tue, May 14, 2013 - 5:15am (USA Central)
Data was wildly out of character the whole episode. I think there's a throwaway line that Data knows what he is doing is wrong, yet still he plows on for no reason other than the plot demands it. Even the setup is lazy: Data is actively looking for RF signals in space, detects an artificial one, and works to clean it up so he can reply.
Peremensoe - Tue, Jun 11, 2013 - 10:20pm (USA Central)
If, as Troi argues, the Enterprise's presence and ability to help is as much a part of the 'cosmic plan' as the planet's crisis... then why can't Sarjenka's first contact be part of it too? That happened because of *who she was*. And then Pulaski lied to her, drugged her, and zapped her brain to steal it from her.

Patrick - Fri, Jun 28, 2013 - 1:11am (USA Central)
David's response is a bit adolescent and unenlightened. Picard's monologue was important, and has a lot of resonance especially in the United States, where we have one to many times interfered with other countries and it has turned out HORRIBLY.
M.P. - Wed, Aug 7, 2013 - 11:46pm (USA Central)
This episode in itself does not really earn much respect in my opinion. (When watching I skip over all of Wesley's scenes.) What it represents in the Star Trek universe, however does.

Anyone who understands the expanded Trek universe knows that the Federation has allowed hundreds of species to die. There are great arguments on both sides of this debate, so I will give my personal opinion.

I believe (and this has nothing to do with the current debate on abortion) that any species in this universe deserves the chance to exist. I believe in modern times that an individual who knows of a crime and does nothing to prevent/help solve it is just as guilty as the perpetrator.

What I am saying is that I find it reprehensible that the "morally superior" Federation knowingly allows entire species to become exist when they had the chance to save them in a non-interventionist way. Should they be scorned if a species dies and they could do nothing? No, of course not. But to know that millions if not billions of people are suffering and dying and do nothing is tantamount to destroying them themselves.

The argument that "another Dominion" might be created doesn't hold water; as these cultures will be centuries if not millenia behind the Federation. In all likelyhood they will be saving potential future members.

That's my $0.02.
SkepticalMI - Mon, Sep 23, 2013 - 10:59pm (USA Central)
Kudos to the writers for not making any of the science team Wesley deals with gratuitously antagonistic. I was fully expecting it from the moment this subplot appeared; it's such an obvious cliche yet one that is absolutely omnipresent (it happened in Arsenal of Freedom, for example). I kept waiting and waiting for the cocky blue shirt to get upset and to argue and intimidate Wesley so that he could eventually stand up to him... but it never happened! Instead, he gave his professional opinion calmly and in a friendly matter, and when Wesley eventually overruled him he had no problem with it. Very pleasant surprise there.

Of course, Wesley second guessing himself, getting advice, then changing his mind, and having that decision be the key to the whole problem is a cliche in itself too... But it was a 15 minute B plot which was, on the whole, fairly intelligently written. I'll grant them one plot shortcut.

I was pleasantly surprised by this episode as a whole. It's low key and talky, and Data is wildly out of character, but was a decent observation of the Prime Directive as well as a case of Duty vs Conscience. Good acting all around, particularly Patrick Stewart (I quite enjoyed his scenes with Riker and pointing out how deep they were getting in all of this).

As for the Living Room Debate (great idea to locate it there, by the way), it was reasonably well done, regardless of whether I agree with it or not. Two parts did bug me though:

- Riker's obsession with fate. Huh? That seems out of line with the secularist world of Star Trek. Where did that come from? I suppose they're trying to mirror possible debate topics that would come up in the real world, but it did seem out of place. And, of course, it was shot down easily enough, as well it should be.

- I get the point, but I think it is very wildly out of Picard's character to make a decision and then reverse it after hearing the voice of a scared little girl. If it was an adult male calmly requesting help, would Picard have ignored it? So the Prime Directive is absolute unless a cute voice tugs at your heartstrings? Puhleeze.

In fact, it's a particular pet peeve of mine. And unfortunately it's one that finds its way into way too many of our debates today, which is the appeal to raw emotion. It's cheap, it's unfair (especially if sidelined in public with it), and it should have no place for impersonal decisions like government or business or whatever.

To avoid any contentious examples, I'll head straight to Godwin. The US and her allies were unified politically, socially, economically, and militarily in a goal that had a unavoidable side effect of making cute innocent little 4-year old German and Japanese girls cry because their daddies would never come home. It happened, and it was our fault. But we did it anyway. And that was to prevent little British girls from crying and little French girls from crying and little Chinese girls from crying and little Jewish girls from dying.

If Eisenhower had heard a little German girl over the radio pleading for her daddy's life, would it have tugged on his heartstrings? I hope so, because I would like to believe he was a good man. Would he have cancelled D-Day? Undoubtedly not, because that is the epitomy of intellectual cowardice.

Huge, sweeping political statements like the Prime Directive have bad consequences. But going against the PD has bad consequences as well. And making your choice based on an emotional appeal from one side (when the other side is conveniently not present) is incredibly stupid. And it's incredibly un-Picard like.

(None of that is relevant to whether or not the PD as stated in this episode is a just law or not. Just that it should be honored or not based on its merits, not based on how cute the alien is).
MyComputerMan (John) - Thu, Mar 27, 2014 - 11:25am (USA Central)
I liked this episode very much, and wondered what happend when Sarjenka woke up with the singing stone in her hand. So I wrote a sequel script, got an agent, submitted it to Paramount, and, well they didn't buy it, but it is a pretty good read. I leave it for all the universe to enjoy on this fan site: trekfanfiction.net/the-next-generation/john-comeauxgmail-com/faith-a-televi sion-screenplay-for-sttng/
Tom - Fri, Mar 28, 2014 - 2:29am (USA Central)
Another Prime Directive debate. I find the ethics of the Prime Directive highly debatable, but at the same time they're realistic. The Enterprise can't save everyone in the galaxy. They have, arguably, something better to do, though at times it seems like they're just cruising around the galaxy going from perilous situation to perilous situation. Still, this highlights the privileged situation of the crew of the Enterprise. At the end, Picard hints that he saved the entire planet for the sake of Data's emotional well-being: "One of my officers, one my friends was troubled". I find it a bit troubling that the emotional health of one member of the crew is considered more important than the fate of an entire species.

I think that there's also an ethical debate to be had about wiping people's memories without their consent.

For me, this episode highlights the fact that the crew of the Enterprise are highly privileged citizens of the galaxy and that they don't view themselves as equals to other species.
Jack O - Wed, Aug 6, 2014 - 5:34am (USA Central)
So, 3 Starfleet officers, graduated from Starfleet Academay, accept being bossed by a teen whose mom is a friend of the Captain? Very unlikely.
Brennan - Thu, Sep 4, 2014 - 9:06pm (USA Central)
I understand the grounds of the Prime Directive. If a species, who is completely unaware of life outside their galaxy, suddenly is saved by a different, more advanced species, it could completely throw off the geopolitical structure of a society. I think this is outlined really well in "First Contact" because it shows a society, that is intelligent but believes they are the center of the universe, starts having citizens break down in the most fundamental ways (crisis of faith, anti-progression, etc.) A species might even 'worship' said saviors because of the technology they couldn't understand saving their lives.

I think the Prime Directive is more about that we don't have all the details of a society, and we don't know what will happen if they realize they are just a piece of a vast universe full of aliens more and less advanced than them.

To me that is what this episode represents. The fact that in a time of dire need, when every hour counts, and you don't have all the details, do you risk the chance of completely throwing apart a society or accidentally empowering it to save it? Some would argue yes, but think of it in the most basic sense: Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection, would the death a species just be the ultimate form of natural selection? The inability to adapt in a very violent universe wipes a species out before a million other things do? Who knows, because we can't see the future and we have to assume Star Trek doesn't believe it does either. "The Ensigns of Command" is a good episode to display that - the original survivors of the downed ship had to adapt to the radiation, adapt to the environment and get water, supplies, and other necessities, and in the end they had to adapt to leaving all of that in order to survive; Albeit in this situation with the help of the federation, but the existence of the federation was not unknown to the survivors.
Grumpy - Thu, Sep 4, 2014 - 11:00pm (USA Central)
Brennan, you equivocated in a very interesting way. You started talking about cultural contamination but shifted to evolution and extinction. That's okay; the episode mixes them, too. But they are very different considerations, which your comment (and not the years-long "Dear Doctor" debate) revealed to me for the first time.

Last year, Lewis asked, "Wasn't Data's original communications with the planet itself a violation of the PD?" No, not unless he revealed himself as an otherwordly alien. If he responded simply as someone from "far away," that's no different than other undercover contacts we see with pre-warp cultures. The PD doesn't forbid all contact, just disclosing the existence of space travelers (per "Bread and Circuses") or interfering with natural development (as in "Patterns of Force," where the contamination had nothing to do with John Gill exposing himself as an alien).

Ah, but what is natural development? Does it include extinction? Think of saving Bre'el IV in "Deja Q": we didn't hear Riker pontificate about hubris then. Does it matter if those asking for help are warp-capable or UFP allies? Not if "fate" wants them dead. But our heroes defy fate all the time. They saved Bre'el IV like they saved countless others. And in "Pen Pals," they saved Drema II without interfering with the native culture. The PD was appeased.

Suppose an anthropologist studying a remote Amazon tribe saw they were dying of a disease she could cure (say, by treating the water supply) with the tribe none the wiser. Should she? If she let fate take its course, few would applaud her restraint, her ethical commitment to observe but not interfere. Contra Picard, such an ethic is not meant to protect the observer; it is, quite obviously, to protect the observed. If the rule permits their destruction, it protects nothing.

Didn't mean to ramble and sorry if this adds little to well-trod PD ground.
Shannon - Sun, Feb 1, 2015 - 1:49pm (USA Central)
The senior staff debate is what Star Trek is all about, and probably something Roddenberry opposed because he thought "conflict" would be a thing of the past by the 24th century, which is absurd. This debate showed that conflict can still exist, but it can be resolved through reasoned arguments, and that once the captain makes his/her decision, the debate is over... David, your comment is irrational, and demonstrates an ignorant attitude about the Prime Directive. History has proven that despite our best intentions, interfering in another society tends to have disastrous consequences (the old cliche "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"). During the debate I found myself on the fence, not sure which way to go, which shows how brilliant the writing was. It's not our place to interfere with the laws of nature, but then again, could we just sit back and watch an entire species get wiped out if we have the ability to prevent it? Tought one, but ultimately Picard made the right decision in my opinion... Great episode!
Grumpy - Sun, Feb 1, 2015 - 5:46pm (USA Central)
By definition, to say Roddenberry opposed "what Star Trek is all about" is a contradiction. It was his baby, after all. We don't know if he endorsed the debate scene or not, but I suspect it was an allowable conflict.

The dramatic conflict excluded by the "Roddenberry box" would've been the common grist for any other TV show. However, he decreed his 24th century characters to be beyond prejudice, ego, or immaturity (...and grieving or smiling). That doesn't rule out reasoned disagreements. The debate in "Pen Pals" is exemplary because it perfectly fits within Roddenberry's box.

Of course, there's plenty of room in that box for characters to be smug, conceited, and arrogant about how evolved they are, and that's on display in the scene, too.
Nic - Tue, Mar 17, 2015 - 8:31pm (USA Central)
In this episode, Riker says "These planets live fast and die hard." The episode aired less than a year after the movie Die Hard was released. Coincidence? I think not!
Kahryl - Tue, Apr 21, 2015 - 10:03pm (USA Central)
That senior staff debate made them all look like spoony morons swayed by the worst excuses for poetic one-liners. Not a moment of clarity or logical thinking from any of them.

The Wesley subplot on the other hand was very well done and showed a side of the Enterprise we rarely see.
Pam - Tue, May 12, 2015 - 7:00am (USA Central)
Even though it had its moments, I found myself rather unimpressed as a whole with this episode. It didn't start well, with Riker stating that he'd like to give Wesley some command experience (eye roll), then it moved on to Data rather inexplicably pulling a console apart, at his own behest. (And considering that Data happens to be third in command of the ENTIRE SHIP, how is it that Worf is looming over him in a most disapproving manner, even grilling him as to what he is doing? At least in the last episode, he ended his command to "BE GONE!" With a "...sir.")

As others have stated, the hand-wringing over whether or not they should help, since they have the technology to do so AND cover their tracks at the same time ready to hand (or nearly so) just seemed like time-filler to me. And seriously, I'd have thought Troi would be better with kids, being an empath and all.

To be fair, I did enjoy the acting in this episode, especially from Stewart, Spiner, and Frakes. Even though Data was out of character in regards to his new "friend," I felt perhaps it was intended to signify his continued growth beyond being just a machine. I would probably give this 2 1/2 stars, mainly for the little asides between Picard and Riker, and also for watching Data's struggle between helping his friend and following orders, which is very human, indeed.
Diamond Dave - Thu, Aug 27, 2015 - 7:12am (USA Central)
This episode does indeed give an interesting spin on two issues - the philosophical imperative of the Prime Directive, and the nature of command and authority.

I agree with others that Data's behaviour seems odd from the start - if his curiosity is overriding his programming it would suggest he's pretty human already... But this behaviour is required in story terms to effectively present Picard with a fait accompli - everyone recognises it's the wrong choice, if the morally right one. Telling O'Brien that "this never happened" suggests to me that the command staff are indeed up to their necks, and then over their heads.

But the fact there is no consequence to their actions acts to deflate the conclusion - although I can't help feeling that Data, by leaving the stone, pretty much spits in the face of his superiors.

The Wesley B-story is handled well, and by not making his team the usual reject everything protagonists it reaches a much more grounded resolution. 2.5 stars.
Mike - Sun, Sep 20, 2015 - 12:14am (USA Central)
I think, unfortunately, the debate is not very often what Star Trek is about. Normally Star Trek is about one character preaching to another, instead of weighing two strong arguments. All of the greatest episodes (Measure of a Man, Pen Pals, Tin Man, Survivors) have unresolved dilemmas.

Even though this episode has a banal B-plot and naive season 2 dialog, I'd still recommend this just before the likes of Lower Decks, Drumhead or First Duty. You don't need Star Trek to write Lower Decks. To write Pen Pals, you must first invent Star Trek.
Jay - Sat, Sep 26, 2015 - 11:34am (USA Central)
It seemed that there had been no contact whatsoever with this civilization...they seemed pre-warp. So how was it that the universal translator could instantly translate Sarjenka's 4 word "is anybody out there" distress call with absolutely no context? It should have sounded like gibberish.

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