Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"The Survivors"

****

Air date: 10/9/1989
Written by Michael Wagner
Directed by Les Landau

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"The Survivors" is one of TNG's most unsung gems — a slowly building sci-fi mystery that thinks big while all the time going to painstaking efforts to keep the drama small and intimate. It starts as the mystery of two people and slowly and implacably marches toward a revelation that's haunting and universe-shaking in its exceptionally quiet way.

The Enterprise races to answer a distress call from the colony at Rana IV; when they arrive, they find the world has been completely destroyed by an unknown alien attack. There are no survivors ... except for Kevin and Rishon Uxbridge (John Anderson and Anne Haney), whose house and a few acres of land have survived the complete scorching of the rest of the planet's surface. Why has this elderly couple survived while the rest of the 11,000 colonists perished?

This story belongs to a subgenre that might best be called "Twilight Zone Trek." Strange things are afoot. The Uxbridges say they do not know why they were spared, but Kevin is obviously hiding something. He's adamant that Picard and the Federation simply leave them alone. An unknown, heavily armed, and mean-looking alien vessel appears and attacks the Enterprise. Its actions are erratic. Troi begins hearing a repeating song in her mind that gets louder and louder and will not go away. Her disturbed mental state starts off as a small, percolating problem, but like the rest of the episode, it slowly and steadily builds until her mental anguish pushes her to insanity.

This story is pitch-perfect in tone. The behavior and method of the attacks from the alien vessel hint that its real goal is simply to coax the Enterprise away from Rana. The clues lead us to the inevitable truth that all of this has to do with Kevin and his pacifist stance when the aliens attacked the colony. Why didn't he fight when the rest of the colony was trying to defend itself? All the answers lie in a revelation that is truly one of TNG's more unsettling concepts: Kevin is actually a superbeing called a Douwd, capable of boundless power, but assuming human identity to live with his human wife Rishon. He put the music in Troi's head to keep her from learning the truth: Great power requires great restraint, which Kevin exercised until Rishon was killed in the attack, at which point he lashed out and killed the Husnock — not just the attackers, but the entire race of 50 billion. Kevin's confession is a stunning revelation of frightening power, profound individual guilt, and audacious sci-fi imagination. If you stop and think about a being with cosmic power like that, humanity seems but a speck of insignificance.

For once, there's no humanistic preaching that Picard can possibly make. Concerning a being of such limitless power, Picard simply concludes, "We are not qualified to be your judge." The episode ends with one of Picard's most memorable voice-over logs: "We leave behind a being of extraordinary power and conscience. I'm not sure whether he should be praised or condemned — only that he should be left alone."

Previous episode: The Ensigns of Command
Next episode: Who Watches the Watchers

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19 comments on this review

Dan L again - Fri, Aug 5, 2011 - 11:03pm (USA Central)
I'm looking back at my comments from July 27, 2008. Still feel the same way about the scene with Guinan and Picard. I didn't pass the exam then, but did pass, finally, and was admitted this year. The episode was in my thoughts for the two days where things worked out.

Jammer, you are quite right that "The Survivors" is an unsung gem. To me, the greatest mystery about the episode is why it is unsung.

The acting: The acting was the best it has ever been on TNG (the story somehow gains a bizarre poignancy by the fact that John Anderson and Anne Haney are now both gone). The final scene between Picard and Kevin - the direction, acting, writing, lensing, staging, sound and lighting came together to produce two perfect minutes of television.

The staging: Often it is said that a script's level of ambition counts for little if the level of execution is found wanting. "The Survivors" was an enormously ambitious episode whose execution matched the ambition.

The mystery and build-up of suspense: A mystery is only as good as is how good the placement of clues are throughout the story. Although the ending of course was a "Twilight Zone"-whoa type of ending (one wishes that Rod Serling, who had denigrated the original Star Trek, had been alive to see it, as it was as well-written as anything Serling came up with), when one rewatches the episode, one realizes that it played fair and did not cheat, in much the way "The Sixth Sense" played fair.

The intangibles: The moment where Picard informs the Uxbridges that Troi's mind is gradually being destroyed is followed by Richad's saying, plantively, "Kevin.... no...." in a voice that suggests controlled anger, frustration and fear all at once... so many nice little touches like that. The story was essentially free of contrivances and plot gimmicks, did not have to rely on pyrotechnics to compensate for lacklustre direction (which BBW Pt.1, as great as it was, did).

Great character drama, great action, seeking out new life (something TNG rarely did), thought-provoking... what more could a fan want?

Apparently the answer is "The Inner Light." That episode, although great, was nothing more (and less, i suppose) than a terrific example of audience manipulation and an attempt to manufacture poignancy that should have (and did come from, to some degree) come from the characters, not from the music or the speechifying. In this episode, one could feel the gears grinding. "The Survivors" unfolded so naturally, with such elegance and grace, as to, I am afraid to suggest, be simply too "reserved" to be considered great. And that's a shame. The episode is as fine as ANY hour of TNG.
Jay - Thu, Jun 14, 2012 - 4:03pm (USA Central)
How would Wesley know w62 degrees E is without knowing the reckoning point of zero?
dustwy - Tue, Jul 3, 2012 - 4:45am (USA Central)
What a great website! Thank you! How in the world have I not known about it until now? Oh, it may be because I've been busy re-re-re-watching TNG...

I find Kevin's confession one of the strongest moments on TNG, without it necessarily being a "classic TNG". His pain, his awareness of the illusion he has created, his love... "I killed them all". "We have no law to fit your crime", Picard says, and then I cannot help but for a fraction of a moment think: "this man was robbed of love; whose crime was truly greater?"
Corey - Thu, Mar 14, 2013 - 11:45am (USA Central)
Wholehearted concur with Jammer's rating on this one. I always enjoy this episode, it's a nice mystery, some interesting dialog, such as when Worf says to Kevin "It took guile to hold us at bay with a non-functional phaser...I admire guile.". I think all the actors involved did their parts well.
Patrick - Fri, Mar 15, 2013 - 12:24am (USA Central)
@Corey

It was "gall" not guile. It's an OCD Trekkie thing.
William B - Wed, Apr 17, 2013 - 5:44am (USA Central)
I like that the exchange between Worf and Kevin about the gall of holding the Starfleet crew up with a non-functioning phaser has been brought up already. But rather than being just a neat bit of dialogue (which is certainly sufficient reason for its existence already), this moment is actually head-spinning once the entire episode has unfurled. Kevin is a superpowered being dedicated to appearing powerless, having used his powers to create an illusion in which he has a nonfunctional phaser which he pretends is functioning to keep the Starfleet crew at bay. It captures the complexity of the situation very well: Kevin Uxbridge the Dowd has the power to do nearly anything, but is devoted to pacifism and to his human identity, and then tries to work within those confines and to use the threat of force which he will not back up. Until, of course, he does.

As with many great episodes, I find it harder to talk about “The Survivors” than I do about “merely good,” or average or weak episodes. Unlike the first two episodes of the season, this is not really a (main cast) character outing, though everyone acts consistently and the episode does give some time both to Worf’s pride; even more so, the episode is devoted to the crew’s in general and Picard’s in particular curiosity. The episode is a great one for Picard’s tenacity and bravery as an investigator and careful observer of psychology; he is several steps ahead of the audience without seeming, at least to me, to make any leaps that are impossible for him to have made (though I admit that I would not be able to make the gambles that he made). And partly because Picard believes what he does, we believe it: that Kevin Uxbridge *means* his pacifism and that despite his bringing the Husnock ship out repeatedly to scare or trick the Enterprise away, he will not kill. The advantage of this structure—spending most of the episode with the Enterprise crew coming closer and closer to Kevin’s secret, and Kevin trying to shoo them away as best he can—is that it helps to underline how much Kevin is a man of peace, how unwilling he is, even *after* his act of genocide, to use force on others even when they become a personal and emotionally devastating nuisance to him.

(That is, except for the force that he uses on Troi—and I think the one potential weak spot in the plot is that Kevin doesn’t remove the music-box block on Troi when the Enterprise seems to leave the system for good, though it seems as if Kevin is not really thinking clearly about how torturous the music-box is for Troi.)

In addition to this, while Kevin knows that the current Rishon is not real and that she’s an illusion, and is partly consoling himself with that lie because it’s the only way he knows how to continue living, he pointedly does not create an idealized version of her: besides not going to fight with the others (and even on that, Rishon seems uncertain as to why she decided to stay with Kevin), she seemingly is as Rishon was, friendly to outsiders, shocked at Kevin’s having hurt a woman on the ship.

All this adds up to a devastating conclusion. When we learn that Kevin Uxbridge committed genocide, wiping tens of billions of people from the universe, we recognize the depths of his guilt and pain. Beings with power far beyond humans’ are seldom portrayed as having pacifist tendencies (though the Organians from the original series come to mind), and humans who get godlike powers almost instantly become corrupted by them (ask Gary Mitchell, or I suppose “Hide and Q” Riker). Here is a seemingly all-powerful alien who voluntarily represses his powers for decades, refuses to use force, is dedicated to pacifism far beyond what we could imagine—and then the consequences of that pacifism is that his wife is dead, and for a moment afterward he loses his conviction long enough to become a mass murderer. He’s a tragic figure, but I think the episode asks us to do as Picard does: to neither condemn him nor praise him; the thing that strikes me watching this is to be glad not to have the kind of power he has, of being able to act in an instant of emotion against everything he believes in and to know for the rest of his days that this emotion came just too late to save his wife.

The episode’s tone, which builds up from an intimate chamber drama, captures in a way this show can every so often, but only rarely (“The Inner Light” comes to mind) the way the whole universe is perceived through the personal—here we see that it works in reverse (a moment of loss of emotional control over a personal injury can make men in positions of power do untold, unimaginable damage).

To be honest, I hadn’t remembered this episode being extraordinary and Jammer’s 4 star rating surprised me, but watching it again and its slow burn story, coming to a gripping conclusion with implications that the episode itself admits (through Picard) are too great to be contemplated and yet are presented, without sentimentality or devoid of their import, it did work very well. Yes, 4 stars seems right.
The Romulans - Sat, May 18, 2013 - 2:23am (USA Central)
I also could not recall this episode as being exceptional, but after watching it recently I can't see where I can take any points away. Every puzzle piece slots together brilliantly. The concept of killing billions of people in an instant is absolutely great. A truly solid piece of science fiction.
Rikko - Tue, Aug 13, 2013 - 10:24pm (USA Central)
Well, I have to politely disagree with all of you guys.

I didn't love this episode, but didn't hate it either. It's funny, because I don't have many complaints about it. It's just left me feeling a bit apathetic.

The acting was fine, the plot was revealed slowly and the story is pretty cool but at that time I was coming from two terrible TNG seasons, and that hurt my perception of the episode.

Instead of looking at all those good points you mentioned (the responsibility of being super powerful yet a pacifist) all I saw was yet another god-like creature of the week. Q is my favorite among them, but there were oh, so many "Gods" that didn't work after him: The skin of evil, the nebula of energy in "Lonely Among Us", the sentient cube at certain episode which name I can't remember, etc.

When this episode's guy revealed the truth my line of thought was like "Oh, so he's like a God...again. And he killed an entire race I never heard anything about. Ok. Moving on, next episode".

I'll try to keep an open mind and re-watch it sometime later, now that I've become a Trek fan. Back then I wasn't.
janka - Sun, Aug 25, 2013 - 12:23pm (USA Central)
My favorite moment is when Worf goes "Good tea. Nice house."
Jack - Sun, Sep 1, 2013 - 11:42am (USA Central)
Are the Douwd a race, or is it just this individual with that name? If it's a race, they would seem to rival the Q; if it's an individual, he would seem to perhaps be a Q.
Nick P. - Fri, Sep 6, 2013 - 8:01am (USA Central)
This is my second favourite episode. I love this one! The acting, the pure sci-fi mystery, the balls to have the number of dead be 50 BILLION instead of the usual trek planet-killer getting 3 million or thereabouts.

I do have one minor quibble. Picard (and most here) say "how could we judge". an @Dustwy above says Kevin lost love, which is the worse crime. I have an answer, killing 50 billion is worse. I realize us trek fans have to be good little liberals and make everything in the universe relative, but I will take a stand and say that killing 50 billion (mostly innocent) is slightly worse than killing one guys love. YES, it is a worse crime. And the crime is called genocide, and we have numerous times in the last century put humans on trial for it. It is wrong, no ifs-ands-or buts. If an arab terrorist accidentally killed a Dowd in a terror attack, is it then morrally acceptable for this dowd to kill every human on Earth? The answer is NO.

But anyways, I took Picards' speech at the end to mean we couldn't punish a god in any meaningful way, not that we can't judge him......

But I was always hoping TNG would have more episodes like this, and "CLUES" from season 4 comes close, but the slow-building sci fi mystery Trek really seemed to die around season 4.
Chris Harrison - Mon, Oct 7, 2013 - 11:45am (USA Central)
I like that someone inserted the phrase 'Lagrange point' into the script. But it seems a waste when it came time to shoot, no one told Frakes how to pronounce it.
SkepticalMI - Tue, Oct 8, 2013 - 8:21pm (USA Central)
Wow, I guess I'm in the minority here. Yes, it's a good episode. Perhaps even very good. But no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to move it up to "great" status, much less the elevation people here seem to put it at. Why?

- Marina Sirtis cannot act as if in pain. Period. Those scenes were painful to see for us; not because of our empathy for her, but because of how bad the acting is. I realize the music box is a plot point and not easily excised, but it's painful to get through.

- Speaking of which, the musical score went straight to creepy at the end of each Troi in pain scene. We already know it's creepy and linked to the mystery of the Uxbridges. That just seemed too much of overkill.

- The Dowd may seem to be as powerful as the Q, but Kevin's IQ was closer to 20 than 2,005. The fakeness of the Husnock ship, particularly its last scene, was glaringly obvious to me, and would have been glaringly obvious to Picard as well even if he didn't already suspect something was up. Reading the review and comments, I was surprised to see comments that the mystery was perfectly executed. It wasn't! The final Husnock appearance was so bizarre that there's no way Kevin would assume it'd fool anyone. Why allow it to be destroyed so easily after proving it could take on anything the Enterprise could dish out? Why suddenly attack the Uxbridge home 5 minutes after Picard told Kevin that that was the only thing that would cause him to leave? Did Kevin really think Picard was that stupid to not notice something was up?

- Well, maybe he did think that, because the rest of the crew certainly was. Sure, maybe Picard was the only one to catch on. But did everyone else have to act so dumbfounded at every twist in the last act even after A) so many bizarre twists already happened that they should start to expect the unexpected, and B) their captain, who they all trust, clearly expects these unexpected events to occur. And yet Riker and the rest of them continue to be shocked and bewildered at each oddity: the Husnock ship returning, firing on the Uxbridges, being destroyed easily, and the house returning. Doesn't speak much for their intelligence.

- But going back to Kevin for a second. So he has the power to find every single Husnock in the galaxy, but doesn't bother to peak up into orbit for a few seconds to see if his little charade worked? Unlikely.

- While I suppose it's reasonable that Picard would have deduced that the whole thing, including the Husnock ship, was a scam and that there were powerful beings at work. But how did he deduce that Mrs Uxbridge was not only a human, but died as well? There was never a hint of that. At best, there was a sense that she supported her husband completely and didn't take much initiative on her own (Except, of course, that she did take initiative with the first away team). But that's hardly a reason to suspect anything. There are plenty of couples today in which one person is more of the decider and the other is the follower; presumably couples like that exist in the future as well. The Uxbridge's relationship seemed perfectly normal to me, and I didn't see any hint that one was fake. So Picard catching that seems to come out of nowhere.

- Picard's statement wondering if he should be praised or condemned is stupid. What, exactly, should he be praised for? Only exterminating one species? Telling the truth after being goaded and prompted by someone who figured half of it anyway? For feeling guilty about genocide? While we're all glad that he did do those things, none of it is praiseworthy, anymore than thinking it is praiseworthy that I didn't decide to go on a murder spree today. Sounds way too much like a particularly nasty kind of moral relativism to me. Same with Picard saying there is no law to judge him. Maybe there's no ability to judge him, and no way (or authority, perhaps) to punish him, but according to our morals genocide is a pretty awful act, whether committed by a super powered being or not, or committed as an act of "insanity" or not.

Some of those are minor points, yes. And this episode has lots of good points, which I won't reiterate. The mystery (until the end, at least) and Kevin's revelation were well done, and both guest stars did a very good job. But I just don't see this episode as being that much better than the previous two.
OKwhat - Sun, Nov 3, 2013 - 6:17pm (USA Central)
At one point early in the episode, Riker is warned to stop right before he steps on a booby trap. After being trapped, the away team runs across the field to help him. They have a conversation with the colonists and everyone walks all over the yard. Why was Riker the only one trapped and why did everyone assume only one booby trap was there to defend the place?
Nissa - Thu, Jan 9, 2014 - 2:26am (USA Central)
Huh. I think I figured out why Marina Sirtis' performance sucked. She comes across like a little child rather than a grown adult whose mind was dissolving. Patrick Steward was on point, though.
Kobi - Mon, Jan 13, 2014 - 6:39pm (USA Central)
I have two main qualms with this episode. First I totally agree with SkepticalMI in that we can and should judge Kevin for his act of genocide. It seems anti-Rodenberry to make such a subjective statement about right and wrong.

Secondly, Kevin says he couldn't help the colonists because he didn't want to kill. However, killing is not the only way to protect people. If it was then what is the point of defensive shielding and maneuvers? Kevin could have done a multitude of acts to prevent the colonists from being killed. Shields, camouflage, cloaking, I can't think of anything else right now but there would be other things a super powerful being could do that wouldn't break his code of pacifism. If Kevin was smart the colonists wouldn't have to know he was behind it either. Kevin did say he tried to lure the Husnock away, but if this is all he could think of then although he is powerful he isn't very imaginative.

On the plus side the acting by "Kevin" especially was great and the step-by-step build up of the mystery was great and this episode definitely got me thinking about morals, guilt and judgment and in that way is very Trek.
Latex Zebra - Mon, Jan 20, 2014 - 2:46am (USA Central)
Watched this last night, could have sworn I heard 15 billion and not 50... Anyway.

Yeah I remember this from the first time it aired and it was a firm favourite. Still a great episode. Like Kobi says it does seem strange given all his power that he couldn't better defend the colony but if he does we don't get our episode.
The Hussnock ship looks like my son made it in class and my other annoyance is them dancing to a music box/thing. Why? Is there not such thing as a music player/Hi Fi in the future...

3/4 for me, not quite a classic but fond memories.
Tom - Sun, Mar 30, 2014 - 5:14am (USA Central)
I agree with the rating and really liked this episode. Marina Sirtis' performance was convincing enough to me. She's not the greatest, but she tried.

The points that SkepticalMI brings up are good, but I didn't really think about that while watching the episode. Kevin curiously seemed to lack a way to see the results of his actions. This could make sense if it were not for the fact that he tracked every Husnock across the galaxy. That implies that he had an amazing "vision".

It's true that Kevin's strategies were not very clever. But if they had been super clever, then the Enterprise wouldn't have solved the mystery. The writers didn't have much choice but to make his plans flawed in some way.

I also agree that there was no way for Picard to know that Mrs Uxbridge wasn't real. It might be that he went with his instincts and bluffed to force Kevin to reveal himself. Still, he was very lucky to get it exactly right.

"What, exactly, should he be praised for?" I guess that it's implied that he exterminated an evil and dangerous race. If they were, say, as bad as the Borg then maybe he deserves praise? The only thing we know is that they savagely destroyed one planet, so it's hard to say. That being said, praising genocide seems taking things a bit too far.
Kahryl - Wed, Jul 30, 2014 - 2:54pm (USA Central)
WHY did Picard not get this guy's phone number??

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