Star Trek: The Next Generation

"The Ensigns of Command"


Air date: 10/2/1989
Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Directed by Cliff Bole

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

The Sheliak, who consider humans to be beneath them, order the removal of a human colony from a planet that, in accordance with the Federation/Sheliak treaty, they own. The colony of 15,000 was unknown to the Federation, and is made up of the descendants of a Federation vessel that crashed there more than a century ago. The Sheliak intend to colonize the planet in four days; they will likely eradicate the population if the Enterprise does not remove it.

One of the appeals of "Ensigns" is its two-tiered plot structure, in which both storylines document the problem-solving methods in an uphill climb to fix a mess of a situation before the ticking clock expires. Picard must figure out how to negotiate more time from the hopelessly obstinate Sheliak, while Data must figure out how to convince the prideful (and perhaps equally hopelessly obstinate) colonists to give up their homes and leave.

The results are mixed. This is a competent TNG story, but it has some evident problems in execution. Most notable is the depiction of the colonists in their extended dealings with Data. While Data's assignment gives him a new challenge (figuring out how to improvise while working a problem that requires extensive knowledge of human nature), a lot of these scenes simply don't work because of the belabored drama. The talky grandstanding of this kind of TNG effort requires actors that can rise to the challenge. Grainger Hines as Gosheven, the wrongheaded leader of the colony, is a wooden actor that sinks many of these scenes. In fact, a lot of the guest performances in these scenes are misfires. Data's interactions with Ard'rian (Eileen Seeley) are merely adequate.

Faring slightly better are Picard's dealings with the extremely inflexible Sheliak (whose homeworld is appropriately dubbed "Sheliak Corporate"); they continuously hang up on Picard when he tries to talk to them. Picard's bureaucratic solution to the bureaucratic problem makes for a truly funny and satisfying payoff.

Meanwhile, the scenes on the colony build to an effective demonstration of action by Data, but the ending only underlines (1) the obvious lack of communication up to that point and (2) the apparent stupidity of Gosheven and the colonists. Simply put, if the colonists know what a starship is (and they do), they should understand what kind of threat is looming without Data having to prove it.

Previous episode: Evolution
Next episode: The Survivors

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30 comments on this review

Tue, Apr 24, 2012, 11:10am (UTC -5)
I liked this episode. Picard's final solution to the Sheliak problem was very satisfying, as Jammer mentions. It was interesting to see Data adapt to the colonists resistance to his idea of evacuation. This is one episode I never skip when I re-watch the seasons of TNG. I have to agree with Jammer's assessment of the colonists. A 20th century weapon (atom bomb), looks like it would destroy the colony, much less 24th century weapons. When the colonists were "defending" the water hole (or whatever) they didn't have 20th century weapons equivalent!
Mon, Sep 10, 2012, 7:43am (UTC -5)
What I liked about this one is that there's a subplot about O'Hara, La Forge and Wesley trying to get the transporters to pick up the colonists. Now a lot of Star Trek episodes would have them succeed and thereby save the day in an all too convenient way. Here they fail miserably and it's up to Picard's igenuity to get the job done.
Mon, Jan 14, 2013, 12:50pm (UTC -5)
Kieran is right...only because Picard had a legal-based Plan B up his sleeve did the Plan A fail.

Had all the chips depended upon Plan A succeeding, it would have...Trek sees to it.
William B
Mon, Apr 15, 2013, 12:03pm (UTC -5)
I agree that the episode’s main problem is the weakness of the guest actors; the lack of conviction makes the premise of the community’s flat-out irrationality, already implausible, seem flat-out ridiculous. However, I think the episode succeeds despite this weak element, due to strong character work for Data and a nice thematic unity.

The A/B plot structure has rational Data on the planet, trying to convince the irrational humans to leave their planet, which they are attached to for its sentimental value, while out in space, Picard attempts to find a way to communicate the value of human life to the hyper-rational Sheliak. In essence, both plots are about “emotion vs. logic” (though logic here is closer to strictly deductive logic with no possibility of creative inspiration or induction), but Our Heroes are on opposite sides in each plot. The Sheliak are so coldly rational they have no regard for anything outside their stated agreements, and thus are totally unmoved by Picard’s pleas. (I don’t think that one has to be emotional to believe in the value of human life, of course, but I think there is a sense here that lack of feelings for humanity make it much easier for the Sheliak to exterminate them.) Similarly, Data’s sensible arguments fall completely on deaf ears, because the colonists in general and Grainger in particular simply ignore logical thought entirely. The structure of both plots is that the Enterprise crew, who ultimately are able to combine the emotional and the rational, must stretch themselves to find a way to communicate entirely on the myopic terms of their antagonists. Picard cares about treaties in general but the extreme inflexibility and precision of the Sheliak treaty bores him, but he figures out how to use that to his advantage, just as Data would not be affected particularly by the dramatic flourishes he uses, but recognizes their value in influencing others. Note that Data is not at all defeated by his being attacked/deactivated the way Grainger immediately relents at Data’s display of force later in the episode.

So part of the theme of this episode is that one needs both—deductive and inductive logic, understanding of coolheaded reason and emotional connection—to be a good person and to be whole and to coexist with others. Ultimately, while very entertaining (Picard’s casual stroll to wipe the dust off the Enterprise plaque is a scream), the Picard material is mostly an inverse/reflection on the Data material; Picard has no trouble being rational, for the most part, though it does require him to stretch to deal with a species as rigorous as the Sheliak. Data has a problem with emotions. The primary things that distinguish Data from the Sheliak are that Data is capable of thinking creatively (which perhaps the Sheliak are, but of which we have no evidence) and that he has an ingrained respect for life in all its forms, which is (as we discover in future episodes, unless it’s been mentioned already) part of his programming. Data’s creativity is a subject of many episodes going forward, and previous episodes by this episode’s writer, Melinda M. Snodgrass, include “The Measure of the Man” and “Pen Pals,” both of which suggest that Data has wells of childlike compassion and something like feeling that perhaps go beyond what his programming suggests (but also perhaps do not). This episode has Data re-establishing himself as emotionless at the end, unmoved by romantic feelings for Ard’rian, but has Data learning human emotion from the outside-in and learning the necessity of understanding human emotional reactions if he’s to interact with humans. Because his shipmates are nowhere near as irrational as the colonists, it’s been possible for him to get by in his duties while keeping his attempts to understand human irrationality as mostly a hobby; here he learns how necessary it is to understand people and to have respect for how their feelings work, in order to be able to save them, even if he can’t feel what they feel. I think it’s a natural progression for the character and I think this is an important episode for him.

The gentle sadness of the end of the Data/Ard’rian scenes speaks to the tragedy associated with Data and with people around him. He wants to be human, and he is a unique form of life, worthy of regard and even love even if he is incapable of returning emotional love. His good qualities are obviously overwhelming, and Ard’rian thinks he’s wonderful because she’s fed up with the irrationality of those around her. But while Data is not the Sheliak, he’s still distant and intractable in his own way; she loves him for his absolute rationality and can never be loved in return, and resents him, for the same reason. Data’s kiss at the end is not about him, because he has no romantic desire, but for her because he recognizes she needs it, the culmination of what Data has learned in the episode about the necessity of (sometimes) communicating with humans on emotional terms while his own feelings do not exist. There is the slightest inkling that there’s something more to Data, that he has something closer to feelings than he is capable of recognizing, but it’s too deeply buried for him to conceptualize it otherwise.

The poor acting and implausible stubbornness of the colonists hold this episode back from greatness, but I think it is good. 3 stars.
Sun, Jun 9, 2013, 1:08am (UTC -5)
Just rewatched this one. I agree with pretty much everything you say. The actor who played Gosheven actually had all of his lined overdubbed by someone else at his own request, citing unhappiness with his performance. Even if the overdub was better (no way of knowing), This probably led to a nevertheless poor performance. The two lackies who meet Data at the start (Kentor and Haritath) are played very well (especially the latter), imo.

I love the Picard plot (and they have an unreasonable immovable villain here, but at least they've couched it by giving us the background and telling us the Sheliac think of Humans as a lower life form - It's not a villain who ought to be reasonable who is just being difficult for no reason.

I also love the LaForge plot.

The problem is the Data plot. As you say, why the hell isn't the first thing out of Data's mouth "they will fire phasers from orbit and vaporize the colony"? He doesn't mention this once in the 2nd encounter where Gosheven announces that they will stay and fight. My response would have been "what weapons do you have to fight a starship in Orbit?" Completely pointless plot on that end, unforutnately. That and the way-too-overeager computer-doctor lady made for Data's plot to be poor.

It was just poorly written. Data consults Riker at one point and Riker basically snaps at him "I don't know these people. I haven't talked to them. Use your positronic brain to figure it out." Riker doesn't usually lose his cool that quickly - esp. with Data. Usually he'd have some helpful general advice. Then, Data asks "How angry are the Sheliac really going to be when they get here?" Data is a walking encyclopedia. Doesn't he know more about the Sheliac (a species that hasn't contacted the Federation in a hundred years) than Riker?
Mon, Jul 15, 2013, 9:17pm (UTC -5)
Why doesn't Data just find an ant hill and step on some ants to demonstrate how worthless the Sheliak consider human life? Or just use it as a prop and not kill any ants. This analogy seems too obvious to miss.
Wed, Aug 7, 2013, 1:45pm (UTC -5)
I only liked the Picard bits on this one. I wanted to like Data's part but the acting of everyone but him was real bad. If we got better actors, then it'd have been one hell of an episode since Data ended up learning a lot.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong but I think this was the first time that Picard actually acted like "The Captain"(tm). He have just beaten the Sheliaks at their own game, and enjoyed every bit of it.

Back then, I thought Picard became a smart ass, but it was in fact him becoming a stable character with a defined personality. Totally different from S1's Picard, that'd have surrendered at the first five minutes.
Sun, Sep 29, 2013, 8:01am (UTC -5)
I liked this one much better than The Survivors, which most of you all seem to prefer. The script wasn't the best - Data could have and should have made the threat much clearer early on, and why didn't Picard talk to Gosheven?

But one thing Star Trek taught me is to overlook things like that and still enjoy the stories. There are a lot of plotholes or seriously bad story-writing and acting or unbelievable solutions in many Star Trek episodes, and it's still enjoyable. I can't exactly say why but it is. I don't think this particular episode was one of the worst offenders in terms of plotholes or bad writing.
Tue, Oct 8, 2013, 8:58pm (UTC -5)
I think I liked this one better than most, although only slightly. It's not all that special, but I think it does come together well. I don't really feel like doing a review of it, so just some random comments:

- O'Brien in a string quartet? I thought that was a bit funny, given his later DS9 role as the quintessential blue collar man. How many average guys do you know play the cello?

- I think this is the first example of Picard indulging Data in his witless exploration of humanity. Yes, he has passionately defended Data before, but not been involved in his growth (the only previous example I can think of is Where Silence Has Lease, and that was an illusion). Given that this becomes such a huge part of the show that even Q comments on it, I feel it's worth a mention.

- I didn't think any of the other guest stars besides Geshoven were that bad. And yes, Geshoven was terrible. I didn't know he was overdubbed, but I'm not surprised. The voice and mannerisms were just so far off it felt unnatural.

- I did not have a problem with the colonists refusing to leave. Did Data provide any proof of his claim? Did he bring a copy of the treaty? Do the colonists know anything of the Sheliak? Why should they immediately believe him and uproot themselves? While Geshoven himself was not believable as a popular strong leader when he was obviously so obstinate in this episode, I can see uncertainty in the people as being a reasonable portrayal of the colonists. And the episode did make great pains to show the colonists as being very uncertain.

- Speaking of which, I wonder how many people complaining about the colonists' refusal to leave here also complain about creating the Maquis? After all, it's the same concept.

- Speaking of Gosheven being such a bad character, his anti-robot attitude was gratuitous and pointless. Did we really need another arrow pointing to him that said "bad guy"? That should have been excised. I thought the girl being obsessed with androids was also unnecessary at first, but it actually worked well within the confines of the episode.

- I agree with TH; that scene of Data calling Riker was bad.

- The Sheliak were a cool design. It's nice to see that it wasn't just another rubber forehead alien, and having such a weird bridge and being unable to see their face just served to reinforce their alienness.

- Picard outlawyering the Sheliak at the end was great fun.
Mon, Aug 25, 2014, 3:22pm (UTC -5)
Actually I always liked this episode for the Data part. Data learned that logic and reason aren't always enough. Presentation is just as important.

Regarding the complaints that it was unrealistic that the colonists weren't "getting it", I tend to disagree.

Recall that they had not encountered any visitors in multiple generations. They had not had any contact with anyone off planet at all in over 90 years. The generation of people in charge were intelligent enough to understand the concept of spacefaring races and capabilities, sure, but they had never witnessed such capabilities firsthand in their entire lives. They didn't even get stories of this from their parents, since those parents had not experienced such things.
The problem with expecting them to just "get it" when Data explained is that the people he is explaining it to do not have the right frame of reference. Their reference was the challenge they and their ancestors went through to survive. And hey, they figured that out, didn't they?

The visceral demonstration Data gave at the end did the trick, and properly so. Makes sense to me.
Sat, May 23, 2015, 11:54am (UTC -5)
I agree with just about everything Jammer has to say about this episode.

The B-plot on the Enterprise is more satisfying than the A-plot with Data, mostly due to Gosheven's idiotic stubbornness. It gets the point where this supposedly elected leader starts acting like an autocrat and anyone who disagrees with his decisions just needs to be silenced. At least the Sheliak have legitimate reasons to be obstinate. They're sitting in a position of power while the colonists are hopelessly outgunned - a fact that the viewer is all too aware of right from the get-ready.

I'll disagree, however, on Data's interactions with Ard'rian. Those scenes are what really buoy up the A-plot for me. It's nice to Data in something of a subdued romantic relationship which isn't bogged down by constant references to the fact that Data is completely unfamiliar with human romance - which is a problem I remember having with "In Theory."

Diamond Dave
Mon, Aug 31, 2015, 1:49pm (UTC -5)
I always have an aversion to plot devices that nullify the simplest way of dealing with the problem - evacuate 15000 people with no transporters because of a radiation effect that never gets mentioned again? Boom, there's your episode.

But these naked plot contrivances aside, I found the Data story to be interesting. Here he is having to improvise and be creative - and yet, really, he makes no progress, simply trying a number of menu options until finding one that works. And in Data's relationship with Ard'rian, even the final kiss is something he computes is required, rather than intuits.

The B-story also reaches a satisfactory conclusion, as the Seliaks are hoist with their own legalistic petard. And the C-story reaches a conclusion with a miracle not being completed, highly unusually, and the transporters remaining unfixed. Overall, a solid 2.5 stars.
Fri, Sep 18, 2015, 5:02pm (UTC -5)
I'm sure glad that I don't serve under Picard and Crusher... Dear lord, can you imagine it? Your ship is being wrecked and everyone's life is at risk - but you mustn't do anything about it because there may be "life" there. So do nothing and risk the entire crew.

Serving on the Enterprise would be a death trap. No one would take a captain like that seriously. It's even worse that the motive of these machines is totally unknown, so leaving them because of some hippy dippy morality may in fact still cost everyone their lives, and leave no time for any action.
Fri, Sep 18, 2015, 5:05pm (UTC -5)
Oops... wrong episode. Evolution >>>>
Fri, May 6, 2016, 12:47pm (UTC -5)
Great Data episode. I found the Sheliak to be one of the most memorable one appearance species in all of Trek.
Thu, May 26, 2016, 9:26am (UTC -5)
One of the best things about this episode is that it shows something the audience rarely sees, and that's things not going so well for Data. Data is an extremely powerful tool, an asset to the Enterprise and particularly to Picard. But here, we see that Data, without anyone to guide him through social nuances, struggles. Riker's line to Data shows the frustration, "I don't KNOW these people, Data. Use that fancy positronic brain of yours and get the job done!"

It's also nice to see a piece where Picard fumbles a little in diplomacy. Usually we're treated to these grand speeches, but the Sheliak markedly cut Picard off before he has a chance to finish any. So basically we have Data in a situation where Picard's ethos would've been better, and Picard in a situation where Data's logic would be better. So this deserves at least 3 stars for that.

There are parts of this episode that are slow, and were well into season 3 so timing shouldn't be an excuse for TNG here. At least there is some good dry humor, like the bit at the beginning where Picard gets called out of Ten-Forward, and Data thinks Picard is walking out on his poor performance.
michael J
Sun, Jul 10, 2016, 7:50am (UTC -5)
The story is interesting because Picard and Data are finally in situations where their strongest talents don't work. I need not reiterate the theme -- stubborness -- and everyone gets the parallel in the two tiers.

What completely kills it is the awful acting of the colonists. How bad? It's it like porn except nobody takes their clothes off and nobody has sex. Things go a bit better on the Enterprise on the Picard side but it's a little exasperating listening to Riker talk in expositionary phrases. Worf has to have his grumble, Crusher has to explain Made up Medicine(tm) and Troi has to have her Little Chat With the Captain (tm). What completely uncalled for was sending LaForge off to do busywork on something impossible. Why?

The only thing that salvages this episode is the way Picard and Data resolve their parallel dilemna. Data goes BAD ASS and Picard flings the treaty back in the Shelliak's face. Delicious.
Thu, Oct 6, 2016, 4:37pm (UTC -5)
I realise I'm four years late pointing this out but, Kieran, Chief O'Hara? Really?
Sat, Nov 26, 2016, 9:55pm (UTC -5)
I'd say three stars just because the ending was so genuinely amusing. I finished watching it fifteen minutes ago and I haven't stopped chuckling yet.
Sat, Jan 28, 2017, 1:48am (UTC -5)
That ending when Picard completely owns the Sheliak was hilarious - well worth the 45 minutes! Goes to show that you don't always have to end an episode with a full phaser barrage to be satisfying!
Tue, Jan 31, 2017, 6:39am (UTC -5)
The colonists deserved to die because they were terrible stock characters: wooden and unbelievable. The smurfette should have died last (forced to watch the others go before her as her punishment for being boring, useless and silly). Only the idiot leader should have been rescued so he could see the full outcome of his irrational leadership.
Thu, Feb 16, 2017, 9:22pm (UTC -5)
The colonists are rather unbelievable because their position is so blatantly hopeless. They don't seem to have any weapons of consequence. Even if every last man woman and child has a phaser, it's hard to imagine a colony of 15 thousand beating the plain old army of a small real-world country like Peru, nevermind beings capable of dropping anti-matter-bombs from orbit. Their position is just so blatantly preposterous that it detracts from my ability to suspend disbelief.
Orion Slave Guy
Sun, Feb 19, 2017, 5:04pm (UTC -5)
I liked the way Data gets trapped in an impossible situation, being pushed way beyond his comfort zone. The other story lines all play out well. Troi seems to be Picard's top advisory now, though I don't think that's what the producers had in mind when they created her character.

It's also nice there's a race that lives on non-Class M planets. What I don't like is how Data blows up the aqueduct. It looked like it was still working afterward. I also don't like how Picard always assumes colonists are willing to re-locate on a whim.

Still, 3 stars for me.
Mon, May 8, 2017, 11:55pm (UTC -5)
There's way too much to like about this episode to get hung up on a few guest character performances. The production alone is a cut above just about anything in the show up to this point, from the sets to the costumes to the sound design. The colony is so well done.

And this is some quintessential Data. We're past the dead-end stuff like "Is Data sentient?", "Can Data learn to have emotions?" (Questions without answers insofar as TNG is willing to engage with the philosophy and hard science of them), and onto the real fun of Data's character which is watching a unique personality learn and adapt and use his strengths to overcome his limitations.

The ship stuff is great too, most of all in the way that it feels like everyone is being challenged. It gives the plot a real sense of urgency and stakes. And the Sheliak are wonderfully creepy in how alien and indifferent they are (it works to their creepiness that we never see them again). I can't believe this episode isn't more appreciated.
Wed, May 10, 2017, 2:36am (UTC -5)
Over the past however many months, I've rewatched TOS, DS9, VOY and ENT, in that order. When I decided to go back to TNG I started with season 3 (I never bought the first two seasons, as I recall how slow it was to find its feet.) I skipped the first episode, since I caught most of it recently on TV, and began my binge with Ensigns of. Ommand.

I was prepared for the effects to be primitive, having just stepped back 16 years from the final season of Enterprise. What really surprised me was how superficial, naive, and generally poorly executed the whole episode was. This is the show I'd imagined ENT to be so inferior to? Hell's Bells, it'd better pick up quickly, because the better, later episodes of ENT make this episode seem horribly dated and silly.

The fact that the writers and producers still hadn't settled the show down was flagged almost straight away when we see O'Brien playing Cello. I suppose you could argue that at this point they had no inkling or intention of developing him into the fully fleshed out character he would become, but it does seem a bit emblematic of the series as a whole at this point.

Broadly I agree with most of what has been said: the shipboard moments generally worked much better than the planet-bound ones, though even they faltered, and most of the time were just decent. The whole way the plot unfolded from the moment Data landed was borderline embarrassing. "We saw your ship", says one of the colonists to Data. He might have added "In fact, I'm still seeing it. It's about four feet away." The dialog and planetside plot doesn't improve. As pointed out, Data should have made his point about the Sheliak's firepower as soon as it became apparent that the colonists were too stupid to figure it out themselves. The lady scientist with the android fetish (who looks and behaves like she just wandered in from 'Mork and Mindy') was pathetic.

Picard saves the episode (and you know it needs saving when Troi's performance is one of the stronger supporting moments).

This was a serious shock to the system after returning from the future. Perhaps it's largely an effect of my dislocation, but either I need to re-adjust to 1989 Trek, or it needs to lift it's game pretty quickly.
Tue, May 30, 2017, 3:25pm (UTC -5)
A rather unsatisfying episode - the guest actors who are the colonists are terrible and really let this episode down.
A female colonist falls for Data - interesting plot device, but she is a bit of a geek herself and that part about the interaction with the colonists is probably the most noteworthy.
Have to wonder why didn't Picard speak with the colonists via communicator before sending Data down to do the real work? Goshevin's arguments for staying behind are ridiculous and I suppose this is just another plot device for getting Data to think outside the box.
No issue with the Shelliac wanting to do their thing but shouldn't Picard & co. have had a whole bunch of legal eagles hammering through the treaty to find any way out? Finally Picard finds something and probably the best part of the episode is when the Shelliac are trying to reach him and he makes them wait.
This mostly dull episode is not worth more than 2 stars out of 4.
Wed, Jul 5, 2017, 3:59pm (UTC -5)
This story succeeds where the previous story fails.
It doesn't matter about the A and B plots-they are both pretty pedestrian.
Picard's solution to the problem is entertaining in a way I suppose but it isn't the reason for the success of the episode.
It all comes down to this:
Finally the program makers have grasped that we primarily are interested in the characters and treating two of its principals with care and precision is what this episode was all about.
Picard 's nature is expressed well here, pomposity notably absent and ,for once, Data's non-human nature is treated with some respect.
In that context who cares if the guest cast are lacklustre?
Four stars from me.
Daniel B
Mon, Jul 17, 2017, 1:52am (UTC -5)
Too many episode ends with a sudden brand new scientific technique being invented out of thin air to solve the problem at the last minute. The way a lot of episodes work, at the last minute Geordi would have found a way to transport through the radiation "technoblob the science through the plasma phase gibberish coupler" and they'd have - with fake tension - transported the last person off JUST before the Sheliak got there.

Instead, they try all episode to get the transporters to function through hyperionic? radiation and never can. It makes sense. If there was a way for transporters to do this then StarFleet's 743,204 scientists should have built into the transporter.

{ Picard's bureaucratic solution to the bureaucratic problem makes for a truly funny and satisfying payoff. }

That scene was AMAZING.

"You enjoyed that."
"You're damn right!"
Tue, Sep 19, 2017, 6:26pm (UTC -5)
2.5 stars. Average

Nothing really wrong with it. But not quite up there as far as being solidly entertaining

Everything works and makes sense just kinda mechanical. Data was best about episode and his ultimate approach to getting through to the colonists was good. The Sheliak were a welcome non humanoid race
Sat, Oct 7, 2017, 4:08am (UTC -5)
I actually enjoyed this one. I must be the only one who thinks Goshevin turned in a solid performance of portraying someone willing to die for his life's work, rather than run away.

And Data having to learn the hard way that simple logic is not always enough to persuade a group of people to relocate their homeworld... when emotion drives the debate. 3 stars from me.

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