Throughout 2016 we're celebrating Star Trek's 50th anniversary year by looking back at some favourite episodes, chosen by one of our team or by a guest contributor. Today Nick Cook shares his love for the Next Generation episode Who Watches the Watchers.
I’m not quite old enough to have watched Star Trek first run, but as a child of the seventies, I grew up exploring strange new worlds, romancing green alien women, and fighting Klingons, Romulans and Gorn with Kirk and company. It was always something special to me, and had an indelible impact on my developing mind. When Next Generation came around in the 80s I was adamantly against it. How could you possibly replace Kirk, Spock, and McCoy? This wasn’t my Star Trek. I know; it’s a familiar refrain. All this has happened before, and will happen again, to borrow from another popular franchise.
But somewhere along the line the (not so) righteous indignation of a spurned fan was replaced by appreciation (and I’d like to think a little maturity). I might have grown up with Kirk’s crew, but I matured with Picard’s.
By the time I left school, Next Generation hadn’t aired in the UK, but I’d seen a little of the first season on VHS video and hated it. At university though, long before the wonders of the internet and digital downloads (legal or otherwise) I encountered the grainy joys of bootleg videos and Next Generation’s second season.
Somehow that second season resonated with me in a way the first never did. Bizarrely, depending on your perspective, it was The Dauphin, a Wesley Crusher-centric episode that first pulled me in. There was something about the imagery; singing asteroid fields and shape-shifting aliens that brought back some of that old magic for me. And then after episodes like Pen Pals, and the excellent Q Who, I was sold. It wasn’t quite my Star Trek, but it was in the ballpark.
And then season three rolled around. I’ve always felt the Original Series was at it’s best in the first season, and specifically the first dozen or so episodes. By it's third season though, much of the charm had been lost for me. Ironic then, that season three is when Next Generation really hit its stride, truly becoming my Star Trek with the episode Who Watches the Watchers.
I've always had a fondness for planet-bound adventures. There's just something about exploring strange new worlds that’s quintessential Star Trek to me. And there's nothing that embodies those worlds better than Vasquez Rocks. Yes I know it's really a park in Southern California, but just work with me here. It's where Kirk beat up on the Gorn, and fled the Capellans. Where Lazarus struggled with himself and Sulu ran from a Samurai. Don't shatter my illusions.
As a location, Vasquez Rocks never fails to delight. With its bright blue skies and striking rock formations, this episode very much paints it as a place you’d want to visit. If you ever get the chance, go, you won’t be disappointed.
But I digress. Who Watches the Watchers starts as these things often do, with the Enterprise racing to answer a distress call. This time it’s from a group of Federation anthropologists studying the Mintakans, a bronze age proto-Vulcanoid race. As expected all does not go to plan, but then it’d be a pretty short tale if it did. In a nutshell, the Away Team are exposed and Picard finds himself being worshipped as a god.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time recapping the plot. I’m guessing if you’re a fan, you’ve probably already seen it. If you haven’t, or it’s been a while, go watch it now. In all it’s re-mastered glory if you can. I’ll wait.
Before we go any further, let’s get something straight; I like action. Star Trek has always had an action-adventure element to it, and I don’t think it’d be Star Trek without it. But it’s never been all action, and as much as I enjoy the phasers and the fist-fights and all the associated spectacle, it’s the quieter, more philosophical moments I love. Who Watches the Watchers is a textbook example of those quieter moments. The only explosions are from a malfunctioning generator, the hook that draws our heroes into the story. And barring a few Mintakan arrows, there are no weapons fired. At its core, this episode is very much a story about people, an approach previous seasons mostly eschewed, but one which would largely define the series by the time it wrapped. In an era where we’re increasingly prone to interfering in cultures we don’t truly understand, and thinking we know what’s best for others, Who Watches the Watchers is one of those rare Prime Directive stories that gets it right. To my mind anyway, I’m sure others will disagree.
There’s an interesting debate in the Observation lounge, when James Greene’s Doctor Barron argues for resolving the situation by giving the Mintakans a list of commandments. It’s an understandable reaction, and on the face of it seems like a reasonable compromise. But Picard won’t have it. He won’t lie to these people and “send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear.”
For many it’s a controversial statement, and one that resonates strongly, both for those with faith and without. Sure, it doesn’t really give us any answers, but it makes us think, makes us ask those questions. Something I think Star Trek at it’s best should do. It’s been nearly twenty six years since that scene first aired, and you’ll still find people debating it today. I think that says a lot.
Patrick Stewart deserves a great deal of the credit for making this story work. You can truly feel Picard’s struggle and his desire to protect the Mintakans. The stand out scenes are all his, especially those with Kathryn Leigh Scott’s Nuria. There’s a lovely exchange during their first meeting in the Transporter Room, when Picard tells her they are “both living beings. We are born, we grow, we live and we die. In all the ways that matter we are alike.” A simple, eloquent statement, but it’s one that lies at the heart of what Star Trek means to many of us.
It’s an engaging scene. You can feel Picard’s passion and Nuria’s wonder as she encounters his world. The performances are wonderful and carry through neatly to the Observation lounge, when Nuria first sees her own world from orbit. It’s a beautiful moment, and one I suspect most of us reading this would like to experience.
Despite his best efforts, Picard struggles to convince Nuria his existence is any less mundane than hers. But a call to Sickbay, and the death of Lois Hall’s Doctor Warren provides a point of clarity for Nuria, as she realises the truth of Picard’s earlier statement, that his people are not “masters of life and death.” Scott’s performance nails it, and you can see that moment of realisation in her eyes.
Ultimately, Picard’s choice to be open and honest with Nuria pays off in his eventual confrontation with Ray Wise’s Liko, saving Troi (but not himself) from a Mintakan arrow. Thankfully it’s just a flesh wound, but one that drives the plot to its resolution as Liko finally accepts Picard as just a man, rather than the supreme being he’d hoped for.
Star Trek has a habit of presenting us with disposable guest aliens of the week, but I think the Mintakans go deeper than that, largely thanks to the talents of Stewart, Scott and Wise. Pamela Adlon (credited as Pamela Segall) is also worth noting for her turn as Liko’s daughter Oji (she would later appear alongside X Files alum David Duchovny in Californication, but I digress again).
In an admittedly slightly preachy scene, Picard bids farewell to the Mintakans. Stewart sells it well nonetheless, and when we leave Mintaka III both sides are clearly richer for the encounter. Preachiness aside, there’s an optimism about this scene I’ve always loved. The idea that we all have to grow in our own way, in our own time, and nothing is truly beyond our reach is a powerful message. Much like Picard’s earlier statement that “in all the ways that matter we are alike,” I think it’s one we all need to hear.
Reluctant nurse, aspiring actor/writer, Dad, & Star Trek fan (in no
particular order). Nick is a maker of Star Trek fanfilms and other such nonsense.
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