Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Who Watches the Watchers"


Air date: 10/16/1989
Written by Richard Manning & Hans Beimler
Directed by Robert Wiemer

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

An anthropological research station overlooking a primitive society called the Mintakans suffers a catastrophic malfunction that allows the holographically shrouded station to become visible to its Mintakan subjects. A Mintakan named Liko (Ray Wise) witnesses the Enterprise's ensuing rescue mission and is critically injured in a fall. Rather than letting him die, Crusher beams him aboard, repairs his injuries, and erases his short-term memory. The memory wipe doesn't take, and Liko tells the story of what he witnessed aboard the Enterprise to his fellow Mintakans. He believes "the Picard" is a god who gave him back his life.

As an episode that dramatizes the purpose of the Prime Directive and the dangers of cultural contamination, "Who Watches the Watchers" is perhaps definitive. The question of whether you can study something without running the risk of affecting the results is answered here by a series of accidents that ultimately suggests an entire religion could eventually be formed around "the Picard" as based on Liko's experience.

But this episode is also definitive as an example of short-changing a concept by way of extreme microcosm. An entire planet's culture (and this has frequently been one of my complaints about Trek) is represented based solely on a dozen villagers who seem more like isolated nomads than part of a real, larger society. Meanwhile, characters in this story make sweeping assumptions that are almost absurd in their broadness. The idea that Liko's experience will "inevitably" lead to a religion worshipping Picard strikes me as an unlikely conclusion given what we know about the Mintakans. Surely there must be other societal factors in play in order for a religion to take hold and flourish. One man speaking secondhand nonsense cannot change the world.

For that matter, this episode's take on religion seems awfully simplistic. While it would be against the Prime Directive to allow Picard to be seen as a god, Picard has a speech here that seems to be against religion at all. The Mintakans left behind their supernatural beliefs generations ago, and Picard sees that as an achievement from the "dark ages" which he does not intend to allow they return to. Of course, there's no mention of the status of human religion. (I suppose the 20th century was still the "dark ages" because of all the silly human religious beliefs that persisted?)

In the latter acts, Picard tries to convince Nuria (Kathryn Leigh Scott) that he is not a god but simply part of a society that has more knowledge. This concept seems to arise from a what-if premise: What if you could show a person from 2,000 years ago what the world looks like today? The story does its best to create a sense of wonder in this, but never quite reaches takeoff velocity.

Previous episode: The Survivors
Next episode: The Bonding

Season Index

39 comments on this review

SirJonah - Sat, Oct 25, 2008 - 4:30am (USA Central)
"One man speaking secondhand nonsense cannot change the world."

In a completely rational, sane world without wishful or magical thinking that might be true... and there are always other societal factors at play, I agree. But just as Liko on Mintaka III revived belief in an "overseer", Saul of Tarsus (later Paul) on planet Earth did something similar... and I think that may possibly have been the writers' allegorical intent here. Saul never met Jesus of Nazareth in the flesh, so all of his information about his life and ministry was secondhand... but when he had that vision of the "messiah" on the road to Damascus (whatever the real nature or cause of it was), we are told that he was converted... and subsequently did more to spread the fledgling Christian religion beyond Palastine into the Roman world than did any of the disciples whom the Bible says new Christ personally.

So, according to the central text of the Christian religion anyway, one man speaking secondhand nonsense after a revelatory vision CAN change the world... apparently.

Great reviews, nonetheless!
Kiste - Thu, Jul 1, 2010 - 4:08pm (USA Central)
"One man speaking secondhand nonsense cannot change the world."

Saint Paul of Tarsus?
Elliott - Tue, Dec 28, 2010 - 9:42pm (USA Central)
The "What-if" premise in "Who Watches the Watchers" is about being able to show people that religious belief stems from a human psychological condition that is rooted in a world-view which lacks perspective; that in gaining perspective the tendency for a person or a people to adhere to those beliefs becomes less and less tenable.

Picard's speech is against religion, make no mistake. I find your tendency to be distrustful of anti-faith shows and praising of pro-faith shows displeasing. The strength of a story does not depend upon its philosophy.
David H - Mon, Jun 13, 2011 - 9:11pm (USA Central)
Elliott, you are absolutely right about the premise of "Who Watches the Watchers", and that is why it is my least favorite episode of an otherwise stellar season. I understand that any series will reflect the views of its creator, but I also find it ironic that the Trek universe that embraces tolerance and multiculturalism at every turn can also depict people of faith as less highly evolved. I also find it interesting to compare Picard's speech here with his answer to Data's question "What is death?"
Elliott - Sat, Aug 6, 2011 - 12:10am (USA Central)
RE: "Who watches..." again : Jammer "I suppose the 20th century was still the "dark ages" because of all the silly human religious beliefs that persisted?" Well, frankly, yes. If you can't tolerate this notion or at least some version of it, why in the world do you watch let alone review Star Trek episodes? The abandonment of religion is tied in with the other events which according to canon defined the future we see here. That Picard would have the same hope for a promising younger civilisation is totally reasonable. It seems that, because you are unwilling to grant this stance the validity it deserves, you turn your attention to a secondary aspect of the episode (namely this "wonder" idea) and criticise it for not being fully realised. But the real premise of the story is totally and wonderfully realised; you just don't like what it had to say.

@ David H. : Star Trek was never "multicultural" or "tolerant" as you imply--it was never some new-age hippy nonsense show-rather it made a point of distinguishing between doe-eyed idealism and the rational goal of bettering oneself-it was and for ever shall be a balance of forces represented most purely by the friendship between Spock and Kirk and which disseminates across most of the other series and movies. Regarding Data's question; the understanding that intelligent organisms must move away from religion and the denial of all things metaphysical are not one and the same. There can be (and perhaps must be) a higher plane which surpasses our ability to apprehend, but that does not imply such a plane is endowed with consciousness. In fact, Schopenhauer would argue that the point at which metaphysics reach their apex is a point of utter unconsciousness, ie death.
Paul - Fri, Sep 23, 2011 - 5:33am (USA Central)

For starters, let me tell you that I respect the passion and conviction you approach Star Trek with. From yor numerous comments it is obvious that its worldview (or is it Weltanschauung:) ) means much to you.

At the same time, I think you are spending way too much time on establishing ideological correctness and "truewayism" with regards to Trek. I get the feeling you watch it as prophetic ennobling vision of boundless human potential first, drama (art?, would that be pretentious?) a distant second.

Nothing wrong with that, of course.
Elliott - Fri, Sep 23, 2011 - 10:28am (USA Central)

Thank you for your lovely words. I find that you, like many, seem not to realise that first of all, coherence to premise is a fundamental factor in good drama--and I mean premise as defined by Lajos Egri as the core philosophical idea of a dramatic work (not an initial situation or "promo tagline" as many seem to define it).

Secondly, Star Trek in particular was designed with this in its hierarchy genetic code--the whole purpose of the thing was to espouse a philosophy founded upon a mythical journey. When that idea is removed, circumvented, denied or simply ignored, the drama becomes weak. Now, for many this was just a show about people travelling around in space (meaning either the show failed to prove its premise or even establish it or the episodic nature of TV meant that the thread of premise was ignorable). Both Voyager and DS9 in their own ways of course maintained something like a premise throughout their respective runs (although DS9's was reinvented twice, and was completely anti-trek), but TNG was a strange case. Overall, season 3 is the most philosophically consistent (and thereby strongest overall), but having peaked so early meant that by season 6 there was little left to prove or do, which led to a great deal of wandering in the final two seasons.

A drama must at all times strive to prove its premise; it must work constantly, and the machinations of that proof are the stuff of dialogue and plot. When this goal is ignored, it is precisely the artistic integrity of a work which suffers.
Paul - Fri, Sep 23, 2011 - 7:16pm (USA Central)

"...coherence to premise is a fundamental factor in good drama--and I mean premise (...) as the core philosophical idea of a dramatic work.

Agreed. That is one of the reasons why I could never fully support Voyager - its characterwork and plots are completely at odds with the established premise; the darn thing just won't let me get, what's the hip word nowadays, immersed in the setting.

But here's where I get off the train with regards to your definition of premise. Note that with Voyager I'm having problems with premise as conceived and followed through by *that* show. Voyager's premise, Voyager's (in)ability to live up to it.

On the other hand, you are critisizing DS9 for not being true to the premise of a completely *different* show, namely original Star Trek. Now, I'm not entirely certain even that's true, but for the sake of argument, let's say it is.

My question now is: why would DS9 have an obligation to TOS? That's what I was aiming at with my previous comment regarding your "Weltanchauung". Although it's absolutely your right to do so, I think you're imposing ideological boundaries on what a show can and can't do, what it can and can't *be*, establishing limits based not on internal dramatic considerations inherent to the show in question, but on external axioms or dogmas stipulated from above.
Sam - Thu, Dec 22, 2011 - 11:51am (USA Central)
Elliott wrote, "The abandonment of religion is tied in with the other events which according to canon defined the future we see here."

Actually, religion is treated unevenly in the Trek universe--sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. For instance, consider the TOS episode in which Kirk is defended in court against the death of a crewman ("Court Martial") and his lawyer speaks in praise of the Bible. Or, the episode in which the TOS crew battles "gods" and Kirk says we only need the one God. Or, perhaps the insistence by Kasidy Yates that her mother would prefer her to be married by a minister. Of course, then there is the ENTIRE series of DS9 with its treatment of faith.

Obviously, not all religion was abandoned by the 23rd and 24th centuries in the Star Trek Universe. Q.E.D.
Elliott - Sat, Jun 30, 2012 - 7:19pm (USA Central)
@ Sam :

I'll grant that Trek's treatment of economics is a bit botched with unnecessary references to "expense" and "gambling" but the religion issue throughout TNG's run was crystal clear.

In "Court Martial," Cogley brings up the bible as an example (one of many) of documents which define morality and list "human rights." It does in no way indicate a validation of Christianity as a religion and most definitely not evidence that it is practised in the 23rd century.

The second episode you mention is "Who Mourns for Adonais?" and the line is a bit perplexing given the episode's message seems rather clear that the worship of deities is counter to modern human culture. But, it is there, so I'll give you that one example.

The example from DS9 is something I and others have criticised as totally disrespectful of Trek reality. It's a slap in the face by René Echevarria of all people (the episode is "Penumbra"--a word which under a positive spin revels in DS9's signature "shades of grey" and spun under me is a poetic figurehead for "subversive uncertainty").

Religion was not purported to be abandoned by all people in the 23rd/24th centuries, but by humans and most of the Federation. Klingons, the Dominion (sort of), numerous Delta Quadrant species and of course Bajorans are quite undeniably religious. The issue isn't that religion shows up, it very well should being such an important part of human legacy and history. But the depiction in "Penumbra" is akin to doing a show set in 2012 with people worshiping Zeus or Bacab. It's historically inaccurate.
Elliott - Sat, Jun 30, 2012 - 8:56pm (USA Central)
@Paul :

My apologies for the tardiness of my reply :

1) Voyager ;
In a dramatic work, the premise can only be known by the end. Yes, the premise may be more or less stated in the beginning (this was done in BSG for a related example by way of Adama's 2nd speech to the fleet in the miniseries). Janeway said very clearly in the pilot that they would be "one crew: a Starfleet crew" which would continue to uphold the principles of the Federation and the goals of Starfleet whilst pursuing a course home. Now, many people wanted to see a conflict between the Maquis and Starfleet crews which led to a kind of warped or abandoned Trek philosophy which was radically different from TOS and TNG, but that was never the premise of the show. If it had been, it would be as guilty as DS9 of disrespecting the franchise. There were significant story-telling problems in Voyager, but it never violated its premise.

2) DS9's lack of respect for the franchise :

Let me use as a parallel case, the Prequel Trilogy from "Star Wars." While "fanboys' as their often derided will soak up and love absolutely anything which inhabits the Star Wars universe, most agree the films were regrettably awful. I have a few good things to say about them, but they are pale shadows of the originals. However, far worse than the fact that, on their own, they make pretty lousy movies, the philosophical inconsistencies ruin much of what was great about the Original Trilogy. That The Force became the product of sci-fi microörganisms, light sabres became stand-in plot devices and the entire mythology of Vader's character was proved to be false (that he was ever anything other than a terrible, selfish and murderous person is doubtful). Now, on the one hand, the prequel films catre to a different audience--they're rife with special effects and lots of fan-wanking that appeals to certain demographics. In terms of quality, the films did not have to exist in the same vein or appeal to the same audience as the original films did and do. Take, for example, the newest Indiana Jones film. It was horrendous, but because of the timeline and the way those films are structured, there is no way, no matter how awful, any new film can detract from the originals. In Star Wars' case, this is not so. It wasn't just that the films were poor, it is that the information they provided contradicted on a fundamental level the *premise* of Star Wars as a unified entity of art.

In that way, by calling itself Star Trek and inhabiting the Universe called "Star Trek," DS9 was responsible for adhering to the über-premise of Star Trek, as defined by the original creators, including Gene Roddenberry. That does not mean that "his word is law," and that there is little or no flexibility allowed in the writing, but veering so far away from the original premise was detrimental to the franchise.
Drachasor - Sun, Jul 8, 2012 - 4:05pm (USA Central)
To me this is one of the best episodes of TNG. Now, I might be biased because I'm an atheist, but I do think Picard's stance against religion in this context most definitely makes sense.

When you start trying to explain that which is hard to explain by invoking gods, you've entered a dangerous place in terms of trying to understand the universe. This sort of explanation is paper thin, because it doesn't really explain anything at all. Yet, as our history shows entire organizations and complicated dogmas can arise out of the most ridiculous declarations. So I think Picard is reasonably dismayed by this and understandably concerned how this might affect the Mintakan development. And let's not pretend that various religions on Earth has not repeatedly gotten into petty fights with people simply doing basic science that harmed no one. The danger is real enough.

I think we should also bear in mind that the Mintakans aren't given to flights of fancy the way humans are. So an eye-witness account of something might well carry more weight with them. For what it is worth.

Regarding the DS9 talk (and I don't think it is fair to judge this episode by a show that came quite a bit lateR), I feel that DS9 really let us down in how it portrayed religion. Here we had the objects of the religion as beings one could actually meet (with perhaps some difficulty). At first they seem unaware of Bajor. Throughout the show it is unclear if they want worship, how much they care about Bajor (see the Occupation), and whether they respond to prayer -- though they do respond to Sisko yelling at them, but that's a bit different. These issues aren't ever looked at carefully. Heck, as best I remember they don't even look at the issue of whether the prophets DESERVE worship (or if any kind of being ever deserves worship). "Who Mourns for Adonis?" at least did that. The treatment of religion in DS9 was distinctly lacking in thought.
Peremensoe - Wed, Jul 18, 2012 - 2:10am (USA Central)
"...a dozen villagers who seem more like isolated nomads than part of a real, larger society."

They're not nomads; they have obviously permanent structures. Nor do they seem particularly isolated; Troi and Riker's arrival is no great surprise, which means there must be travel and trade with other communities. No, the Mintakans have a perfectly solid society, just one that hasn't gotten past perhaps a Bronze Age-equivalent technology.
Ospero - Mon, Dec 17, 2012 - 5:28pm (USA Central)
@Peremensoe: Also, they explicitly state at the beginning that the duck blind is to observe an extended family unit. The microcosm might not really tie in with the fear of massive cultural contamination presented in the episode, but it is established right at the very beginning.
Patrick - Mon, Feb 18, 2013 - 8:23am (USA Central)
If this episode was rated on the curve of Star Trek Voyager or Star Trek Enterprise, I think it would have been rated at least 3 and a half stars.

It's take on the Prime Directive being considered definitive is well said--because it's a smart story that is beautifully told.

The scene where Nuria holds up her hand in anguish with Picard's blood to Liko is one of the best single shots of TNG.
Josh - Mon, Feb 18, 2013 - 3:15pm (USA Central)
Really? I always thought her anguish was overacted. The real strength of this episode are the earlier chase/action scenes which are tightly shot and interestingly scored. I do like this episode, of course, but its strength is certainly not in the acting by the guest stars.

I've said elsewhere that the star ratings need not mean very much, but two-and-a-half - on the same level as "The Ensigns of Command" - sounds about right.
William B - Wed, Apr 17, 2013 - 6:18am (USA Central)
This episode is primarily an episode-long elaboration on Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. In this case, however, “magic” is specifically religion. To begin with, I am an agnostic who borders on atheism, but I generally do not oppose art or writing which argues for a religious perspective on principle; I like this episode a great deal, but not because I automatically approve of an anti-religious stance but because this episode argues its case well.

The Mintakans being identified as Vulcan-like species is a detail which is used primarily to establish that these are not unreasonable people (though this might have been a self-defeating decision, since we know that Vulcans were highly emotional before they devoted themselves completely to logic), and that it is not a matter of the people themselves being irrational but of the people attempting to make logical deductions from insufficient data. People (and Mintakans are meant to be stand-ins for people within our past) are pattern-seeking creatures, and it’s this pattern-seeking that allows for logical deduction (and induction) as well as our great advances. However, sometimes the patterns are false (the correlation between Riker and Troi rescuing the anthropologist and the thunderstorm is not causation) and the necessity of relying on the supernatural to explain certain events diminishes as knowledge about the natural world grows (i.e. Picard et al.’s life-saving abilities). The episode proceeds with everyone making generally well-reasoned arguments, if sometimes laced with a great deal of fear, and the structure of Picard et al. attempting various means to quell the consequences of “Gods” entering the Mintakan community’s consciousness and being confronted with the resiliency of the newfound belief makes for a good (if talky, which is not really a problem) series of debates.

It’s true that we are being shown only one small community, but I don’t think that this episode is really suggesting that this is a microcosm of the entire planet, or anything like that. Rather, this group is the group that was being observed, and the people that saw remarkable apparently supernatural happenings. As others have pointed out, Saul’s experience spread around the world given enough time, and it’s not impossible that something similar would happen here. Moreover, even if only a small community changes its worldview as a result of the interference, it is still a big deal and one which Picard understandably wants to correct if he can. The movement into fanaticism as a result of the possibility of an Overseer is obviously a jaundiced take on what religion does to people, but it does flow naturally from the Mintakans’ characters, wherein the belief that one’s fate is largely governed by one’s own actions and random chance is replaced by the belief that one’s own moral code becomes irrelevant in the face of attempting to adhere to the whims of an all-powerful being.

Picard’s dedication to the Prime Directive really shines through here, in ways that reflect both positively and negatively on him. The hint of a standard Picard/Crusher conflict comes up when he indicates that he would have preferred Crusher let Liko die, and his severity is nearly unsympathetic, but this is a man who puts his money where his mouth is, and is willing to risk death himself, particularly after he intuits (from his experience with Nuria) that only blood and death will establish that they are not Gods.

The episode’s real weakness, it seems to me, is that the ending, while somewhat sombre, doesn’t emphasize enough how much contamination has already been done. Picard bleeds, but he doesn’t die (or if he dies, he is revived immediately); it’s enough to communicate that he is not a god, but it doesn’t seem like his arm in a sling will really communicate his relative powerlessness the way it should. Additionally, these people have been shown a glimpse into the future—they know that there are alien life forms, that the technology exists to disappear into the air and to fly into the stars and to heal seemingly unhealable wounds. This doesn’t hurt the episode all that much, but the ending does feel fall a bit short of what came before and this keeps it firmly out of the 4 star range for me; I’d put it on the low end of 3.5 stars.
William B - Wed, Apr 17, 2013 - 8:41am (USA Central)
The other thing I want to add, in reference to the title: one big aspect of the Prime Directive is designed to limit Federation power, to curb imperialistic impulses. The Federation are much, much more powerful than many of the cultures in the galaxy, and any interference would end up being an attempt to remake these cultures into versions of the Federation, as is suggested by one of the anthropologists jumping on the idea that Picard could take the opportunity to give some guidelines. Non-interference except in extreme circumstances is the best way to avoid imposing their values and essentially frightening others into compliance.

This does make Picard's speech indicating that religion is something that all species shake off as they become more advanced, and also his statements that Nuria will certainly explore the stars eventually, a little ironic -- part of the reason Picard believes as strongly as he does in minimizing interference is because he assumes that all cultures will, if left to their own devices, evolve into the 'correct,' i.e. Federation-esque way. I'm not saying Picard is a hypocrite exactly; he certainly maintains respect for the Klingons, who are religious(-ish) and run counter to many Federation values. But it's an interesting (unexamined?) wrinkle in the episode.

This is of particular note in that it builds on the themes from "The Survivors" in the previous episode (in addition to many in other seasons) -- one could say that Kevin was following his own Prime Directive in refusing to use his power and maintaining his human identity as tightly as he can.
Elliott - Wed, Apr 17, 2013 - 11:53am (USA Central)
@William B:

May I just say, sir, how much of a pleasure it is to read your comments. Your criticisms, while never shallow and rarely betraying bias, demonstrate a firm grasp of the Trek genre as opposed to a more general literary criticism.

Regarding the ending of this episode, I found the final scenes a demonstration of how, even without or *especially* without religion, the inspiration to grow and discover the Universe is is present in the Mentaken's culture. The grand mystery of the unknown is not lost upon them (made manifest by their brief and legendary interaction with the Federation), but does not demand caving to the fearful instinct to deify said unknown.
William B - Wed, Apr 17, 2013 - 5:26pm (USA Central)
@Elliott: Thank you! The high level set by Jammer and many of the commenters (yourself included) are an inspiration to write well. My girlfriend is currently watching TNG for the first time, and it's providing an opportunity for revisiting the show for the first time in, I don't know, more than a decade (and it was a pretty formative show for me, and I'd rewatched those episodes ad nauseam back then), and it's a pleasure to think about these in a way I was a little too young to at the time.

" Regarding the ending of this episode, I found the final scenes a demonstration of how, even without or *especially* without religion, the inspiration to grow and discover the Universe is is present in the Mentaken's culture. The grand mystery of the unknown is not lost upon them (made manifest by their brief and legendary interaction with the Federation), but does not demand caving to the fearful instinct to deify said unknown. "

Ah! Thank you. There was something about the ending to this episode that seemed to elude me, and I think this might be it -- I was so focused on the narrow resolution to the is-Picard-a-God question, but the sense of wonder at the unknown/the future and the response to it without fear (something Jammer also mentions) is there. I do especially like how the way to avoid fearing Picard et al. is to see the limits of their power, and to bond over the knowledge of death (first the anthropologist/observer, and later Picard's injury) -- which also suggests that there are some mysteries of the universe left to explore even after they get to the stars.

I still think there's a slight sense that Picard, by encouraging their sense of wonder at the unknown, is still trying to steer them toward (basically) human evolution in contrast to the spirit of the PD, but it's possible that it simply can't be helped after the initial damage is done.
Alex - Thu, May 9, 2013 - 5:12am (USA Central)
Some great comments here. My own personal feeling is that this is one of the episodes most true to the ethos of TNG. Spirituality (the belief in something greater than yourself that you are a part of) and Religion (dogma, supreme beings, etc), are NOT the same thing.

TNG has no issues with spirituality, as Picard's answer to Data about death shows, but is against organised religion in all its forms.

DS9 and Battlestar Galactica for me almost ruined themselves with their poorly thought out religious nonsense.

I think the wonderful music from Ron Jones deserves special mention here. Watching on Blu-Ray just now the scene where Picard is in the observation lounge with Nuria looking down on the planet gives me goosebumps.
The Romulans - Sat, May 18, 2013 - 2:29am (USA Central)
I agree that Jammer seems to be a little harsh with his review here. I thought this one was quite good and nailed the Prime Directive concerns appropriately. Solid episode, an easy 3 stars.
Gary - Sun, Jun 2, 2013 - 3:53am (USA Central)
Does it bother anyone else that Liko is able to understand Picard at all in the sickbay, when no one is addressing him such that a universal translator would be in effect? Much as with the leaps to absolute certainty this episode makes, it feels like a convenient shortcut for the sake of allegory that doesn't make sense.
Alex - Wed, Jun 12, 2013 - 3:43pm (USA Central)
That's a good point Gary!

Also, even though I'm sure we will develop a universal translator one day, it still has to take what you say, convert it and then output the translation. Given some languages can phrase things in total reverse to others, it's not gonna work until after a full phrase has been spoken.

So even when we see advanced Star Trek races talking to each other, the depiction of the universal translator doesn't really stand up to scrutiny!
Rikko - Sat, Aug 31, 2013 - 1:44pm (USA Central)
Ugh! now I know how Trajan felt about "The Measure of a Man". An episode that's otherwise fine and praised by others is completely ruined by the fact that it goes against stuff you've been studying for a while now. And I don't mean the religious thing.

It's the anthropology aspect of it what drives me crazy.

First, did you guys noticed that we wouldn't have a problematic situation if that accident at the observation installation didn't happen? So, it seems to be ok to spy on other civilizations just because they are less technologically advanced. Great. They are studying them like they were a bunch of animals.

Second, that underlying concept of linear evolution. The Federation feels the need to study the Mintakans because they are thought to be representative of a former state of their own evolution history. Oh, really? Why does it have to be that way? The Mintakans aren’t a transparent window to the past like the federation thinks they are. This is an almost pure XIX century anthropology mindset (early XX being generous). Now, I’m aware this is something more or less present all the time in TNG, but it never took central stage until now. And sure, we’re talking about a show that’s more concerned with human drama and sci-fi than being anthropologically correct, but I can’t help myself here.

Now, even if I ignore that issue, this episode still doesn’t work to me. The guest actors are a bit stiff, and the events seemed to develop far too quickly to feel convincing. We move from first contact to religious fervor in 20 minutes. Plus, the only real good scene in my eyes is Picard saying that speech right at the end; but that’s a huge throwback to season 1 with episodes such as “Justice”.

Jammer rating seems about right to me.

Edit. - On religion: I don't see anything wrong with Picard's actions in the context of this episode alone. Maybe his line of thought is a bit anti-religion but he couldn't be more right about the importance of not being called a God.

Picard is a fine guy and he wouldn't abuse that sudden position of power, but any other guy has the potential to enslave the whole Mintakans civilization. What he did was the best course of action given the situation at hand.

Plus, he only has one episode to get it right, hah.
Moonie - Sun, Sep 29, 2013 - 9:21am (USA Central)
I TOTALLY disagree with Jammer about "one an speaking nonsense" not being sufficient as the foundation of a religion. Human history proves it is actually TOTALLY sufficient.

And I loved Picard's anti-religion speech. Yay for The Picard! :-)

This episode does a really good job of explaining and defining the prime directive and its importance!

"An entire planet's culture (and this has frequently been one of my complaints about Trek) is represented based solely on a dozen villagers who seem more like isolated nomads than part of a real, larger society."

is of course a common occurrence in Trek episodes. A budget issue? It's not limited to only this one.

I understand why this episode might hurt the feelings of religious people. Yes I figure we are still in the dark ages ;-)
Corey - Mon, Oct 14, 2013 - 2:09pm (USA Central)
Agree with Elliot's comments above. This episode is entirely in keeping with the Trek ethos.
Nissa - Thu, Jan 9, 2014 - 2:42am (USA Central)
I feel that today people are quick to speak in a bigoted manner against those who believe in God. In fact, the very two first comments on this page are clear examples of that. However, intelligence does not bar one from believing in God, nor vice versa. Nor is atheism a sure bet against ignorance or wild theories that spread. After all, communism is an athiestic political system, and it spread far and killed many.

Let us now all realize that when wild ideas spread, it is not due necessarily to religion in general. It can be the specific religion in question, but usually dumb ideas are simply the flaws of humanity itself, by being unnecessarily intolerant, controlling of others, or one society just plain wanting what someone else has.

As far as Trek goes, an above person commented that Trek is pretty schizophrenic on the matter, and this is quite true. Roddenberry himself was an atheist, though probably he preferred atheism as he didn't like the idea of a supreme being having something to say about his promiscuity and theft. Seriously, Roddenberry stole film from Paramount to sell, took credit for other people's work, and wrote words to the TOS theme song so he could steal half the royalties from Sandy Courage. Certainly such a man would be uncomfortable with a moralistic God.

So, basically put, atheism is no guarantee that morality will exist.

Jons - Fri, Feb 14, 2014 - 12:52pm (USA Central)
"While it would be against the Prime Directive to allow Picard to be seen as a god, Picard has a speech here that seems to be against religion at all."

Interesting, that was one of the only interesting things in the episode, and with which I agreed.

If you can't understand why people believing in unproved (and unprovable) fables that dictate their behavior and thought, conveniently exploited by a few leaders, is a problem for science and the advancement of civilisations, then maybe you should give it some more thought...
Tom - Sun, Mar 30, 2014 - 10:29pm (USA Central)
This show started all right, but I lost interest about half way through. First, why is the Federation studying this civilization through a window (ceiling cat style)? It's creepy and as Rikko says, probably not very helpful for learning about the history of the Federation. And I felt like the Enterprise kept digging itself into a hole. If they had just decided to leave the system after the first guy had seen "the Picard", that would probably have minimized contact.

But no, the Enterprise needed to go back and eradicate the great evil of religion, "undo the damage it caused". They're laying it thick here. Just because one guy believes in "The Picard" doesn't mean "the inquisition, chaos or holy wars" are coming. Religion is a lot more complex than that and who knows what will happen or would have happened over centuries? The episode is extremely simplistic in suggesting that religious belief will automatically send them back into the dark ages.

The big failure of this episode, is that they end up violating the Prime Directive big time by letting them see the ship and telling them about the stars, etc. But of course, they won't share any of their technology with them. The creepy Federation scientists will just keep on spying on them through their window.
Elliott - Mon, Mar 31, 2014 - 1:12am (USA Central)
True, religion is more complex than "inquisitions, chaos or holy wars," but complexity is not a justification for Picard and the Enterprise to knowingly propagate a mistruth to an innocent population.

The historical events which get twisted and stuffed into holy narratives are not to blame when religious entities use their power to corrupt and manipulate their flocks, but the point here is the Mentakans developed sufficiently as a culture to draw their conclusions rationally and thus, credulity was minimal. Picard never told Nuria that "there is no God", simply that what she and Liko, et al. thought they were seeing was based on a misconception brought about by the extreme gulf in technology between the Mentakans and the Federation. When Picard was finally able to contextualise their interactions (via analogy and the very human limits of death), it was the Mentakans' OWN reasoning which led to their dismissal of Picard-as-God.

The Federation ideal--that eventually, all cultures evolve into atheistic, non-capitalistic problem-solvers--is ethically no different from the ideal that Americans and the west in general have about democracy; eventually, all nations will embrace this enlightened way of thinking and, while we mustn't *force* other cultures to accept our values, we ought to encourage their natural growth in that direction. It is no more or less arrogant of the Federation to believe/behave this way than for the US to support the Ukraine's advance towards western ideals.

Now, perhaps it IS arrogant, but again, that does not make it wrong.
Paul M. - Mon, Mar 31, 2014 - 2:28pm (USA Central)
@Elliott: "It is no more or less arrogant of the Federation to believe/behave this way than for the US to support the Ukraine's advance towards western ideals.

Now, perhaps it IS arrogant, but again, that does not make it wrong."

Fortunately for the Federation, Picard's strategy for dealing with the Mintakans didn't involve staging a coup on their planet while hiding behind grand ideas.
Picard from USS Phoenix - Mon, Apr 28, 2014 - 3:00pm (USA Central)
"One man speaking secondhand nonsense cannot change the world."

What about Christ, Mahomet, Buddha etc.? Religions often times started as teaching of a one man, who have ridiculous, supernatural claims. Unfortunately people believe them- and that's how all those "inquisitions, chaos or holy wars," mentioned by Jean-Luc, started in the first place. Yes, this episode - like most of "Star Trek" - is promoting atheist point of view so naturally religious people can be offended by it. Too bad I say, because there is nothing untrue about Picard's view on religion. In fact, this episode quite convincingly describes how religions could come to be. And unlike "TNG The Devil's due" it take itself seriously and it's even more friendly towards religious people, since it doesn't suggests that religions are simply work of a con artist, instead it suggests that it is a simple matter of misunderstanding and people's ignorance and naivete. There is no ill will in "Who Watches the Watchers".

"The episode is extremely simplistic in suggesting that religious belief will automatically send them back into the dark ages."

Funny, that beginning of secularism and enlightenment movements which diminished role of Church and rejected religious dogma, was the beginning of unprecedented, technological and social progress...
Sean - Thu, Jul 31, 2014 - 2:13am (USA Central)
I have a hard time accepting the premise that religion wouldn't exist at all in the Star Trek future. If anything, religion is notorious for its lack of ability to change. Knowing that there are alien races out there wouldn't stop religion from existing. Being able to explore the galaxy wouldn't stop it. WW3 wouldn't stop it. A nuclear war might even make MORE people religious.

I just can't see a point where religion just sort of stops existing. All of it, worldwide. It doesn't make sense. Indeed, you'd probably see aliens adopting human religion and vice versa. It just doesn't go away as easily as Trek wants it to. It never historically has. No matter how non-religious the population tends to be, religion is still there and pops back up again and again.
Elliott - Thu, Jul 31, 2014 - 2:34am (USA Central)
@ Sean :

If you consider human psychological evolution to increase in speed as much as the technological evolution the Trek-verse asks you to believe, it's not so difficult to conceive. Think about how much weaker religion's hold on us is now compared to 400 years ago. With the disappearance of money and corporate political institutions, religion serves to purpose in the Federation. I'm certain that people are still spiritual (there is evidence of this), but organised religion is anathema to the kind of civilisation we see.
Falconus - Thu, Aug 21, 2014 - 8:58pm (USA Central)
What is this "organized religion" that is being demonized?

It's nothing more than two or more people agreeing on a particular metaphysical premise. There's nothing sinister about that, nor much of anything to distinguish it from the vague "spirituality" that you find acceptable.

Now I'm disappointed because I don't know if this actually worth watching, or if evangelical atheists are just praising it because they agree with the message.
Elliott - Fri, Aug 22, 2014 - 12:51am (USA Central)
@Falconus: ironic that you would choose the word "demonised" since the concept of the demon is a unique product of religion itself. Religion has a way of damning itself, and bureucracies have a way of magnifying inherent faults. Granting political, bureucractic power to formalised collective wishful thinking is sinister in my book.
bhbor - Wed, Sep 17, 2014 - 1:43pm (USA Central)
I was really surprised by the low rating on this episode since it is easily my favorite in TNG.

People have made fine points back and forth about the consistency of atheism within the Federation here, and I don't really have the time to dig into that at the moment except to say that Sisko's role as Emissary in DS9 never, in my opinion, converted him from an atheist Star-Fleet commander into a believer. It seems that he maintains that the Prophets are some kind of 4th dimensional worm-hole aliens, incredibly intelligent but ignorant in their own way about corporeal life and certainly never regards them as gods. It is very interesting to ponder how such incredibly powerful entities could be so flawed in regard to their understanding of our universe. In this stage, Sisko's role is to define and defend "humanity" ie-corporeal beings by engaging in debate rhetoric was one of the most fascinating aspects of this show.

In regard to "Who Watches the Watchers", I found Patrick Stewart's interaction with the proto-Vulcan leader absolutely spellbinding. The musical score was perfect when Picard asked her to 'touch his face...flesh and blood', it gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. Picard's eventual answer to the question, "I wonder if we will ever travel the stars?" ... "of that I have no doubt" carries with it such a profound spirituality in itself, which I feel most true scientists today hold dear. Science is bad mouthed as a kind of religion in itself, but true explorers willingly except their own ignorance about the complexities of the universe through the profoundly limited lens of human perception, and carry on a question for knowledge despite the enormity of life's complexities.

Within this, religion was, and always has been a poor explanation for the wonders of life.
Josh - Wed, Jan 28, 2015 - 1:59pm (USA Central)
Changing gears from religion, I saw some of this episode while eating lunch today, specifically the portion from when Picard brings Nuria on board the Enterprise. The dramatic license during the scene in sickbay bothered me. I realize the point was to illustrate to Nuria that even "the Picard" cannot save everyone from dying (like the poor researcher in the scene), but you have to wonder about the lack of action from Crusher for someone who was, apparently, critically ill.

The woman is in fairly obvious distress (why?), so Crusher orders some sort of drug, which she oddly administers through her sternum. Now it's hard to assess given the black box of 24th century medicine, but no arrest code? No CPR? Intubation? It all looked very 19th century ("I think we're going to lose her"), as the staff hovered over the no-hope patient without actually, well, doing anything.

It's a fairly enormous contrast from how things work now, but then that's typical for TV and Star Trek in particular. Sick/dying people are always awake, distressed, or else able to carry on a conversation in a halting voice. Are there no ICUs in the 24th century?

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