Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"The Ensigns of Command"

**1/2

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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9 comments on this review

Corey - Tue, Apr 24, 2012 - 11:10am (USA Central)
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!
Kieran - Mon, Sep 10, 2012 - 7:43am (USA Central)
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.
Jay - Mon, Jan 14, 2013 - 12:50pm (USA Central)
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 (USA Central)
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.
TH - Sun, Jun 9, 2013 - 1:08am (USA Central)
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?
Adara - Mon, Jul 15, 2013 - 9:17pm (USA Central)
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.
Rikko - Wed, Aug 7, 2013 - 1:45pm (USA Central)
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.
Moonie - Sun, Sep 29, 2013 - 8:01am (USA Central)
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.
SkepticalMI - Tue, Oct 8, 2013 - 8:58pm (USA Central)
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.

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