Jammer's Review

Star Trek: The Next Generation

"The Drumhead"


Air date: 4/29/1991
Written by Jeri Taylor
Directed by Jonathan Frakes

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

The crew discovers that visiting Klingon officer D'Jan (Henry Woronicz) has been stealing technical secrets from the Enterprise and transmitting them via quiet and clever channels to the Romulans. There also has been an explosion on the ship's warp core, leading D'Jan to become the obvious suspect of sabotage. Admiral Norah Satie (Jean Simmons), a renowned Starfleet prosecutor, comes aboard the ship to aid in the investigation of the matter. "Aid in" quickly becomes "take over," and soon she's presiding over a sprawling paranoid inquiry involving unconfirmed speculation, serious allegations, and public hearings. Picard strenuously objects to what becomes a witch hunt.

It starts small and builds slowly: Just a few questions of a few people. Satie seems to be doing her job, and even I thought Picard was being overly naive when fussing over the fact that her second chair is a Betazoid. But soon the investigation has narrowed in on Crewman Tarses (Spencer Garrett), suspected merely because he worked in sickbay when D'Jan came in for routine procedures. Satie continues to press on, and ultimately presses Picard for not clamping down, despite the lack of incriminating evidence on Tarses and, further, with strong emerging evidence that the explosion in engineering was actually an accident. The details of the episode are solid, but it's the message that really works here. It's painful to watch Tarses destroyed over the mere fact that his grandfather was Romulan (rather than Vulcan, as he claimed). It's presumed guilt by national ancestry.

Ultimately, Picard is called to testify, in what raises the stakes to a witch hunt while, in narrative terms, serves to turn the story into a battle of wills between Satie and Picard. (Hint: Never bet against Picard.) The way Satie twists the facts is deplorable; I liked the story's invocation of continuity where she essentially attacks Picard for being abducted by the Borg.

There were numerous "courtroom episodes" on Trek throughout the years, and "The Drumhead" is one of the best. With the threat of terrorism and the ensuing questions of curtailed individual rights at the forefront of today's sociopolitical discussion, "The Drumhead," like DS9's "Homefront," is even more relevant in America today than when it originally aired. In a way it seems eerily prescient — until you consider that these issues have repeated themselves in cycles as a result of whatever the paranoia of the moment may stem from, whether it was the Japanese during World War II, suspected communists during the Cold War, or terrorist "persons of interest" post-9/11.

"The Drumhead" is a bit theatrical at times; one wonders if Satie, supposedly such a seasoned professional, would so easily be baited into a meltdown at the end. Or that she'd so easily have been able to lull Worf into her camp. But perhaps that's the point: The law has been hijacked by an overzealous individual whose judgment is suspect. (You can insert your own current-day political commentary here.)

Previous episode: Qpid
Next episode: Half a Life

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21 comments on this review

Chris - Fri, Mar 21, 2008 - 7:24am (USA Central)
"The Drumhead" is one of my favourite episodes of all time - it has a wonderful slow build, with things becoming more and more sinister as the episode progresses. And as you said Jammer, it touches on continuity very well, referencing "Best of Both Worlds" and "Data's Day". The episode also contains one of my favourite epilogues. "Vigilance, Mr. Worf. That is the price we must continue to pay".

"The Mind's Eye" is another favourite - I think the music during Data's investigation is very effective, as it slowly dawns on him what is going on. It's also a funny example of the "no running" rule on Starships - Data finds out that his friend is about to kill a high-ranking Klingon official, possibly plunging the Federation and Klingons into war, and he walks quite calmly to the cargo bay. Still, it's a great episode with a very exciting climax.

"First Contact" was one of those episodes which I thought showed a different side of the Federation. Their use of deception in learning more about races is really playing with fire, if you ask me, and in this case they were found out.

I think Season 4 was the best season of TNG. It had one of the best mixes of stand-alone episodes and arc episodes, and contained a number of classic shows. Thanks once again for the reviews Jammer - I look forward to your views on season 5, which I think contains one of the worst, if not the worst, episode of TNG I've ever seen. It's a Lwaxana episode, so no surprise there.
Brendan - Fri, Mar 21, 2008 - 1:40pm (USA Central)
In my mind, The Drumhead was probably the best episode of the season and top 5 of the series for sure...

Not sure how you can give First Contact 4 stars... it was decent but a bit boring, and the conservative minister was a total caricature.

I agree with everyone on Remember Me too. On subsequent viewings however I found myself wondering how I didnt know what was going on right away, when Crusher vanished from the room after Wesleys experiment made a flash.
Eric - Wed, May 16, 2012 - 10:51pm (USA Central)
I didn't believe Satee's meltdown at the end either, but hey, the episode had to end dramatically somehow.
Glenn - Mon, Jun 18, 2012 - 12:52am (USA Central)
The bit about the Borg was nice -- I'd been wondering if such suspicions would ever be raised, especially since the episode immediately following the Borg episodes contained no such worries about Picard's "reliability". In our society, there's no way Picard could be trusted again.
Cormacolinde - Mon, Dec 31, 2012 - 2:45pm (USA Central)
I love this episode, one of my favorites of TNG. The inspiration from The Crucible and the HUAC activites (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_Un-American_Activities_Committee) are obvious.

And Picard's speech clearly reminds me of Joseph Welch's "Have you at last no decency sir" speech at the Army hearings.
William B - Mon, Jul 8, 2013 - 3:47pm (USA Central)
I just watched this and I think I need to watch it again to decide what I think of it. This is an episode that I think is on the border between excellent and weak -- which sounds bizarre, perhaps. But on the one hand, it is dramatic dynamite, a slow build in which Satie's slow freight train of an investigation slowly accelerates until it seems as if it'll be impossible to stop, and only Picard's cool-headed but passionate defense of civil liberties as the core of the Federation remain. It's also an episode which avoids the shadings that could make this story that much more compelling.

Part of what works about "The Wounded" is that it does not go as far as to make Maxwell wrong in his suspicions, "only" his methods. What that episode -- and others mentioned, including "Data's Day" -- demonstrate is that the cost of upholding the principles that Picard represents is real. In order to avoid starting a war, spies get away; to avoid going on a mission of total destruction, Cardassians get away with beginning to build up weapons. There is a sacrifice to be made, but the sacrifice is one that is worth making.

Clearly, Satie is wrong about Picard, and she is also (ultimately) wrong about the conspiracy on the Enterprise. There is some non-zero chance that there is a conspiracy we are unaware of, but it is so close to zero, which means that Satie comes across as ultimate unhinged from fairly early on. When it's ultimately fairly clear that Tarses' loyalty is to Starfleet, it's easy to agree with Picard that he should not be assumed to be a traitor because of his ancestry (and because he lied about it). Much harder is to defend Tarses as innocent until proven guilty of sabotage or treason when it seems genuinely plausible that he be a traitor, or that it's left an open question. Standing up for civil liberties, as Picard does here, I support fully, but the episode makes it just a tad too easy to support it. One must be willing to support civil liberties, the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty of a crime, even when that will sometimes lead to genuine security breaches. As a result, the episode misses a chance to go to a level beyond what it actually was, and be (really) about defending civil liberties even when -- *especially* when -- it is potentially very costly.

The episode gestures toward this and there are pains to make Satie, while still ultimately a villain, at least one who does seem to be motivated with a genuine desire to protect the Federation. I do think that she brushes aside the implications of the fact that the supposed sabotage in the warp core was an accident too quickly to be fully believable; her insistence that there *is* a conspiracy on board is not entirely credible. But for all this, there is a great deal of effort to make her credible and this makes her an effective antagonist overall.

She is not acting for personal gain, except insofar as she has a strong sense of pride which eventually gets in thew ay of her judgment, when her confrontation with Picard (eventually) becomes personal. Her Betazoid aide is right that Tarses is hiding something (and while it is sad to see his career ruined, it does make sense that lying on one's application and perjuring is a serious offense). She's not wrong when she calls Picard out on using Troi's talents as a guide, the way she uses her aide's. Her greatest weapon through most of the episode is her supreme confidence in her own rightness, and when Picard attempts to block her investigation she can come to no possible conclusion but that he is part of the conspiracy.

Best of all is the use of Worf -- whom we know is a man of extreme integrity, but who lacks the conviction that Picard has in the value of personal freedom. The great irony at the heart of Worf's story here is that he buys into Satie's line of thinking even though that line of thinking condemns him. He has always believed that Duras is a traitor because his father is a traitor, even though he *knows* that other people wrongly think the same of him (falsely believing about his father, i.e.). Tarses refusing to speak further is *exactly*, in fact, what Worf did in "Sins of the Father" -- Worf *has his reasons* for refusing a challenge even though from an outsider with a suspicious nature the only possibly cause he could have for refusing said challenge is because he is hiding his own (or his father's) guilt. That Worf is unaware of the irony, even though it is subtly suggested in an early scene with Satie's aide, makes the story all the more compelling, especially when he is attacked in the final courtroom confrontation.

The real difference, in fact, between Worf's reaction to the interrogations of Tarses and to Picard demonstrates part of the key to this episode. Worf knows Picard and he knows that Picard had his reasons -- he was there and saw those reasons. Things that look suspicious on paper and can be twisted, around and around, again and again, are clear when seen in their proper context. Worf has that context for Picard; he doesn't have it for Tarses, and so he naturally assumes the worst. Satie, who has that context for no one on the ship, eventually believes the worst of everybody, focusing on the worst possible interpretation of each event, using the Borg incident against Picard (!), implying that Picard must be a terrible man because he dares to continue to sleep at night. Picard's attempt to get to know Tarses is part of the thing that separates him from Worf and Satie.

Satie's emotional breakdown I struggle with. By making Satie look especially unhinged, the episode continues to stack the deck against her a little too strongly in order to make Picard (who is already right) look more transparently right. But it still fits in with the episode's themes, suggesting that Satie operates by preying on people's emotions -- fear, anger, and finally hatred -- rather than on their reason. On some level, the ending suggests, Satie knows that she has strayed from the standard set by her father, and her inability to deal with this causes her to lash out at Picard as strongly as she can, because if she can prove that he is not a righteous man she can go back to being secure in herself.

Overall, I do think this is a very strong episode -- and yet.... If Satie were just a bit more justified, it would have been a much stronger show, and perhaps a classic instead of "merely" a very good show. Probably 3.5 stars.
Josh - Mon, Jul 8, 2013 - 7:28pm (USA Central)
@William: Count me as a "fan" of your reviews here. This may be the best yet, particularly because "The Drumhead" is both very strong and very frustrating since Satie is just a bit too obvious an antagonist. Still, the courtroom scenes manage to transcend cliche, and it's pretty hard to argue with the use of the "Picard speech" device.
William B - Tue, Jul 9, 2013 - 12:36am (USA Central)
@Josh: thanks. I can't remember another episode which left me as conflicted as this one, and it's pretty hard to sort through.
Latex Zebra - Wed, Jul 17, 2013 - 6:59am (USA Central)
Some people complain that TNG was not episodic but certain themes were carried for quite a few episodes. Klingon/Romulan alliances being one of them.

I love this episode. Satie's meltdown is a bit full on but it wasn't a surprise as you start distrusting her quite early on.

This is probably in my top 10 TNG episodes.
Jay - Sat, Nov 16, 2013 - 5:09pm (USA Central)
Star Trek has a tendency to affix added unlikability to people they want to come off as villainous...it tends to be proportional to how much of a claim on being right the "villain" has.

If we assign any validity to Spock's "the needs of the many...", then the So'na POV from Insurrection was actually the more inherently virtuous (actually, I agree that it was), which is why they had to be made into mustache-twirling villains in other ways, like having subdued two other races into essentially indentured servitude and otherwise being presented as inherently hostile and even grotesque. It even was done post-Insurrection, when in DS9, Damar indicated that the So'na had joined the Dominion.
SkepticalMI - Sun, Apr 6, 2014 - 7:10pm (USA Central)
The last scene with Picard and Worf, where Worf is apologizing to Picard, is emblematic of the problem with this episode. Picard is giving his 50th speech of the episode, and sums up our Very Special Lesson for Worf: "Villains who twirl their mustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged." Well, that's a nice lesson. Too bad mustache-twirling villain is exactly how they made Norah Satie.

I get a bit annoyed when writers and producers have to prop up their own views by making the characters with the opposing viewpoints evil. This is especially true when they out the opposing viewpoint in a way that makes all the other characters notice. Yet that's exactly what they do here, having Satie's suspicions overrun into a crazy witch hunt, ending with her breaking down in the court room and everyone leaving her. Hurray for straw men!

I mean, let's look at things rationally here. J'Dann DID have an accomplice. That much is known. He injected that genetic sequencer thingy into someone who left the ship and got it to the Romulans. Worf suspects some random diplomat, true, but he hasn't confirmed it yet. Yet Picard wants to consider the matter settled immediately. Why? There was a serious security breach on your ship. It behooves you to be a little more thorough then just saying "oh, it was probably that guy. Everything's all wrapped up now!" Yes, it was probably just that other diplomat and no Starfleet officers involved, but you should still check!

And if a trained investigator (who can read minds) tells you that someone is acting very suspiciously during the interview, it makes sense to look into the matter further. And to find out he was hiding his ancestry, well, again, it makes sense to look into the matter further! No, that's not enough to throw him in the brig. But that's not what Satie was suggesting! Yes, she was probably going too far in immediately declaring that he should be restricted from sensitive areas, but Picard was too quick to declare further questioning off limits. Besides, shouldn't sensitive areas be restricted anyways? Sigh...

Of course, the episode had another moment of lack of awareness with Worf. He asks Picard if Tarses was innocent, why would he not state everything openly? Gee, I don't know Mr. Accept Discommendation Rather Than Reveal the Treachery of Duras' Father... OK, so maybe Worf might not have realized it. But why didn't Picard bring that up? The answer, of course, is that Worf is TNG's straw man unenlightened crew member, and thus must always be in the wrong. Given how much I like TNG's cast, it's annoying when they're set up like caricatures rather than realistic officers.

The reason I'm harping on this so much is that this is almost a great episode. It's very well paced, has quite a bit of tension, and deals with some meaty issues. The directing is excellent. All the pieces are there, but they're unfortunately spoiled by Admiral Straw Man.
Kuwanger - Wed, Apr 9, 2014 - 8:45pm (USA Central)
@Jay: As far as the So'na go, on the one hand you're definitely right about the whole moralizing of characters turning them into figurative devils or angels. Having said that, I don't see the collection of metaphasic particles being a "the needs of the many" win. In the short term, yes, the particles could be immediately used to benefit the many more Federation citizens for perhaps a couple hundred years instead of a handful of Ba'ku. In the long term, doing the actual study of the natural extant ring of metaphasic particles would likely produce benefit to near all life indefinitely. Instead, the needs of the few--the So'na--are taking a lead because they can--in the short term--harvest the particles when the Federation can not and the Admiral wants all the credit. Which brings back to the original point, the reason the So'na end up being so monstrous is they want to live forever but not be trapped to a planet in the middle of nowhere. If only they had enough medical knowledge, they'd just do the harvesting and self-regeneration all themselves. The real shame was the unwillingness to face that the Ba'ku were had their own sort of guilt, to live forever and yet waste that life--very much against the ideals of human self-improvement of Star Trek. That seems the bigger sin.

@SkepticalMI: I don't think Satie was ever really portrayed as a mustache twirling villain. Just a self-important (her little speech of all her "sacrifice"), self-righteous (unwavering in her convictions of a conspiracy) motivation to do what she thinks is right regardless of her methods going near directly towards investing everyone to step through and prove their innocence--the core of a police state, really. Yet only near the is she painted as much of a villain as her exuberance doesn't seem to be ever perturbed by contrary evidence. I mean, that's the whole reason why Picard's little counterpoints are always about the moderation of taking reasonable steps and not about Satie being wrong or that there couldn't necessarily be a conspiracy.

@To everyone: At some level, I understand where the debate of a weak vs strong episode comes from, especially hinging on how the evidence of a conspiracy--the question of whether the dilithium chamber door was sabotaged--being possible revealed too early. But consider that later those at the hearing gasp when they hear of "evidence" of a corrosive on the door. We're looking at the investigation and the hearings from the inside. And we see that what has to be the truth today--there are numerous investigations led by the exuberant investigators who all see conspiracies where there are none and even under the best of intentions will actively ignore solid evidence to the contrary and lie in public towards their own ends--"a tactic; a way of applying pressure" that begins with lies and with paranoia can end in torture and death. You see, *you* the viewer see a monster while from a different perspective, without that breakdown in the court room, you'd never think twice about Satie being but a virtuous woman and it very odd that such a fruitful investigation was cut short. But then I ask you, how many terrorists have the NSA/CIA/FBI caught? How quickly are they to tout figures of success only when their programs are threatened to be cut off and yet the rest of the time, it seems very clear that at best they discover near nothing. Even under the best of circumstances, from the inside the virtuous are likely to appear as monsters. Meaning to or not, perhaps the lesson is one of how greater transparency is needed so we have a better grasp on "the inside"? Or, you know, Picard's general moderation of action because of a recognition of "The Drumhead".
SkepticalMI - Sat, Apr 12, 2014 - 4:19pm (USA Central)
The mustache-twirling part refers primarily to her courtroom breakdown. It's just so out of place and unrealistic.

I didn't want to bring it up earlier given how easily these comments veer off in a political manner, but I was reminded of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged while watching the end of this show. In the book (spoilers abound in case anyone cares), the characters are representative of Rand's Objectivist philosophy, so all the protagonists are 2-dimensional perfect paragons of rationalism while all the antagonists are 2-dimensional villains. That's ok, because it worked within the plot. The villainous qualities were greed, corruption, refusal to accept reality, and an overwhelming and flawed sense of self-righteousness. While it may be absurd to have everyone act this way, it was engaging on its own... until the end of the book. These self-righteous businessmen were now torturing one of the protagonists while becoming wildly unhinged, while said-protagonist was dealing with the torture and pontificating how awesome Objectivism is.

It took me completely out of the story. Just because you're a greedy self-righteous jerk doesn't mean you're also a sadist! It didn't fit the way the characters were presented for the first 80% of the book. And it didn't follow naturally from the events of the plot (at least to me). People just don't end up over-the-top like that. Furthermore, it makes it look like a cheat; a way for the author to turn the ratchet up on the opposing philosophy. Naturally, the author is right and anyone who thinks otherwise is clearly insane!

Have you ever composed arguments in your head while alone or in the shower or something, and imagined how devastating said arguments are? Of course, it's easy to win arguments in your head; you are calm and rational and understand everything perfectly, leaving your imagined opponent stuttering helplessly. Heck, I composed this reply while in the shower, and it was so awesome that the owner of Paramount read it and made me writer, director, and star of the next Star Trek movie... But seriously, most of us are smart and humble enough to know that we don't have all the answers, and that the arguments in our head are different than ones we might have in real life. But this episode reads like the sort of imagined argument you would come up with in the shower.

Norah Satie is a respected admiral and investigator. She is also a brilliant debater, and was trained by her father to be able to use logic as well as any Vulcan (at least that's what her tea break scene with Picard suggests). Given that, do you really see her spouting out a bunch of random insults at Picard's leadership, and then go on a rant when he gives one small speech? I don't.

Up to that final act, this was an excellent episode. But that rant kinda ruined it for me.
Kuwanger - Sun, Apr 13, 2014 - 8:37pm (USA Central)
I stand corrected about the mustache twirling. You're right. The episode would have been strengthened without the rant but would have left the episode with a more horrific truth, that Saties of the world keep on going and rarely do they go in and attack someone who has any chance of even debate. That's a harder truth to stomach, though. :/
NCC-1701-Z - Mon, May 19, 2014 - 1:09pm (USA Central)
SkepticalMI: "Too bad mustache-twirling villain is exactly how they made Norah Satie."

I never thought of it that way until I read the comments. But watching the episode again, I see your point. Still, though, she seemed reasonable enough in the beginning before graduating into hyper paranoia, which I thought did effectively illustrate Picard's point in the end despite her becoming too obvious a villain in the end.

Still, I think this is one of Trek's better courtroom episodes (also reminds me a bit of BSG's "Litmus"), although the ending rant seemed too staged.
Charles - Fri, Jun 20, 2014 - 4:48am (USA Central)
The meltdown was in no sense indicative of mustache twirling, but of the fact that Satie is not the paragon of objectivity she presents herself as through most of the episode. She's not evil, she's overzealous and a bit of an egomaniac.

The respect and awe she held for her father was well-established earlier in the episode. This combined with her manic conviction that it is up to her to save Starfleet from disloyalty, conspiracies and the like allows Picard to pull the psychological trick of showing that one defining part of her character (devotion to father) is in contradiction with another (devotion to Starfleet).

It's a massive case of cognitive dissonance, and thus not too farfetched to think it might draw her out of her ultra-rational shell. In fact, the breakdown helps establish her as a real three-dimensional character rather than a mustache-twirling foil exactly because it shows her increasing penchant for witch-trial style investigation to be a result of zeal rather than leaving her motives for a personal crusade against Picard and crew masked by a calm and collected demeanor.
Andrew - Sat, Aug 30, 2014 - 8:57am (USA Central)
This episode was good but mostly because of Stewart's acting. Otherwise there was too little doubt or misdirection about how Satie (just that she had been right about a past dangerous conspiracy and that as a child she enjoyed family table debates) or the episode would turn out; there was a bit that Tarses lying about being descended from a Romulan was portrayed as real bad but it was predictable (yet really rushed) that the crew would then feel bad about being suspicious. Picard and Taylor objecting to surveillance or duty-reassignment to someone under suspicion if not likely lying felt very extreme given the stakes involved.
dgalvan - Fri, Oct 3, 2014 - 3:24pm (USA Central)
Amazing the timelessness of this episode, filmed in 1991.

Watching it today all I could think about was the series of assumptions that led to the Iraq war, especially when Satie said something like "by the time we get well founded evidence, it could be too late!"

Also the Romulan-ancestor thing touched on the fear that American had for Japanese-Americans during WWII (leading folks like George Takei having to live in internment camps).
James - Fri, Oct 24, 2014 - 7:04pm (USA Central)
From the beginning of the episode I had a hard time reconciling how renowned and legendary Norah Satie that was being described in dialogue with the clearly lesser person standing before us in person. So pretty much the entirety of the episode was just an exercise in waiting for shoes to drop.
Yanks - Sat, Oct 25, 2014 - 12:41pm (USA Central)
Agree James. But we did get Picard's drumhead speech though :-)
Matrix - Fri, Dec 5, 2014 - 6:44am (USA Central)
I really enjoyed most of this but that ending was a little weak. The callbacks to prior episodes was nice. my highlight was the speech Picard gave about destroying a man based on the blood he carries, it feels as appropriate as ever.

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