Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Star Trek:TNG Episode Review – The Defector

Star Trek-The Next Generation

Star Trek: The Next Generation
Episode Title: The Defector
Episode #: 58
Season: Three
Star Date: 43462.5
Original Airdate: January 1, 1990
Written by: Ronald D. Moore
Directed by: Robert Scheerer

Admittedly, I delight in the back and forth my blogging friends and writers John Kenneth Muir and Will (on his old and new blogs) get into when it comes to discussing one sci-fi series, in particular. As I’ve said, a program I once adored, Star Trek: The Next Generation, has not aged as well as I’d have hoped since it initially hit the analog airwaves back in September 1987.

Star Trek, the original series, fares far better in retrospection, but even that shouldn’t be lauded after blindly (see Sci-Fi Fanatic’s recent post discussing SciFiNow magazine’s Best & Worst for the progenitor of it all). Case in point for opinions about ST:TNG:

“Specifically, I’ve often derided the writing of the Captain Picard character, who was made to surrender the Federation flagship two times in the first four episodes of the series. I’ve also complained about the “tidy” story wrap-ups, which tended to rely on nonsensical techno-babble rather than the intricacies of character development and motivation.” ~ John Kenneth Muir from his CULT TV FLASHBACK #140: Star Trek: The Next Generation: “11001001”

“When it comes to Star Trek: The Next Generation, I tend to view it as it was and not how it is perceived now. Many see TNG as limiting in storytelling, light on complex characters, and behind the times. And while I won’t get into specifics here, TNG, during it’s initial run, was revolutionary and helped change the shape of science-fiction television.” ~ Will from his Nostalgia Bath #2: Star Trek The Next Generation: ‘Starship Mine’

Both of my friends make very eloquent, valid points. And Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart in ST:TNG) being the lightning rod of contention (as each of their fine blog post examinations explore). Some of the early TNG seasons have too many episodes in the groaner category for me to re-watch. Yet, my southwestern friend Will cut to the heart of the matter, if you maintain the context of the period and the re-awakening of the Star Trek series dynamic in the sci-fi genre The Next Generation brought with it.

Even given some of the startling sub-standard installments of the first season, I’ll gladly take them in as a viewer (albeit with some talk-back to the screen) since a good many attempted to be relevant to their time as the original series did with its decade. Whether Next Gen followed too closely in Star Trek‘s footsteps remains open to debate, but it was the original mid-60s series closest sibling in the franchise. The latter show couldn’t help but inherit traits from its big brother. It could simultaneously buck at the one who came before, in varying degrees of success.

So, for the recent 45th anniversary of Star Trek* and the upcoming 25th for ST:TNG next year, I decided to highlight another episode which may not be high on some of the best of inventories, but it certainly made mine. The third season The Defector episode was a throwback of sorts to the Cold War chapters from the classic 60s sci-fi series. However, it showed the kid brother could indeed (from time-to-time) hang with his elder (even at this early stage of development) when it came to military/espionage encounters in their sector  of the galaxy.

Even, give it all its own spin.

“Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king, who led them to it.” ~ Jean-Luc Picard quoting Shakespeare’s Henry V

Synopsis: A lone pilot in a scout ship makes a dash across the Romulian Neutral Zone to Federation space seeking asylum. Damaged and pursued by a Romulian Warbird, the fleeing ship barely reaches sanctuary as the U.S.S. Enterprise, patrolling nearby, intervenes to warn the warship away from their side of the ever contentious boundary. The wounded logistics officer, who may or may not be of dubious intent, wishes to defect. That he wishes to pass along vital intel to prevent another galactic war between the two rival powers is at issue.

It will be up to Captain Picard to find the truth of the Romulan’s claim. Whatever action he takes may well demand military action and start or prevent bloodshed for both sides. Everything will come down to what Picard can discover about the enigmatic turncoat he’s presented.

Why It Sticks With Me: Star Trek, though marketed as a “western for outer space”, was a progressively forward thinking program, yet one very much of its time. Which meant while birthed in the groovy, free love 60s, it was conceived through the Cold War and the subsequent Space Race of the period. The effects and scares of the Cuban Missile Crisis were only a few years old when it arrived in ’66. Even though it would tackle racism, religion, human rights and technology in its story-lines, the tensions and threat of the world powers suddenly blowing themselves (along with you and I) to kingdom come were never far away.

Anyone watching the series firsthand, or its initial repeat syndication, knew the ‘Federation’ was emblematical for us. As in U.S., and our allies (let’s think NATO shall we?). The Klingons and Romulans represented our U.S.S.R. and P.R.C. rivals, respectively (as only stern and intimating acronyms could denote). So such great episodes in the original series like Balance of Terror and The Enterprise Incident came to hold special significance and angst for fandom of the era.

“A Romulan defector is almost a contradiction in terms.”

Decades later, ST:TNG became heir to those same military/espionage-flavored yarns. And why not? Even by its third season, the Cold War was still in effect. Although, it was beginning to wane and break fresh ground as the new series progressed. At least, the new kid on the block knew enough to continue Star Trek’s lack of mustache-twirling villainy when it came to such parables, mostly. Certainly, that sophistication was a hallmark of the series.

The Defector used all of that to garner early deserved praise — even though its fans are a smaller lot, we are a steadfast group — for that achievement in its writing and direction. Keep in mind, the similarly military-shaded and rightly acclaimed Yesterday’s Enterprise episode would arrive the following month that same year. It’s the reason I think this chapter in season three was overshadowed.

Still, this one stands out due to the remarkable work of a particular pair of actors. That it was the program’s chief dramatis personae, the same one that attracted all that criticism then and now, and a noteworthy guest character actor (who I believe performed his best work in this), made it so.

You could tell a Picard-centered episode when the writers put Shakespeare in the mix right off (given the actor’s stage career). Even though Data was in the Halodeck at the beginning, play acting a scene from Henry V, a bit of character misdirection was in play with the android as the program’s reference. It really calls into account the wages of war and leadership, both Picard’s and the Romulan in question, before the real crux of the story kicks in. As some Star Trek episodes would show, the preamble and the epilogue could end up strikingly different.

Credit goes to writer Ronald D. Moore for layering and peeling away a tale filled with suspicion and intrigue effectively for a science fiction program that ran less than 60 minutes in length. The viewers doubt the motives almost immediately upon seeing the defector, and it’s enough to warm a 60s-era hawk’s heart. Thus, the old cold warrior mindset was used to set the hook.

Director Robert Scheerer, too, was also adept at using a good portion of the ensemble cast to move the account along, all the while never losing focus of the two characters at its core. Both the captain and the renegade are central to the drama unfolding through them.

“Yes, yes, yes. Peace in our galaxy.”

It’s clear now Jean-Luc Picard was always intended by producers to be the anti-Kirk (as in James T., that is). For better and/or for worse. Cerebral, methodical, and maybe consciously leery toward being too aggressive in foreign power matters, and alien lifeforms (especially the female variety), than his predecessor. Still, he did manage to carve out a following (when he wasn’t surrendering the ship or losing all too often at hand-to-hand combat).

Nevertheless, those traits could be used to an advantage… if the writers let them, like here. And the situation, with all its scheming and subterfuge, called for someone analytical, and maybe one more forward thinking. The hedge Picard pulls off against the Romulans at the end was nothing short of brilliant. I doubt ol’ kick ass Kirk (knowing his Cold War history) would have ever deployed it.

Picard, and Patrick Stewart especially, really shined in this chapter, and the dialogue Ronald Moore granted the character was enough to afford me a mental fist pump for the guy. The line above, a play on Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 infamous words, delivered by Picard was not only a stern warning to the Romulan traitor that he was no one’s fool. Let alone someone who’d appease, but also a shot across the bow to those in the audience who thought he had no business in the command chair.

“One world’s butcher is another world’s hero. Perhaps I am neither one.”

Add to this James Sloyan (as Sub-Lt. Setal/Admiral Alidar Jarok), who gave an absolutely powerful performance as the defector (principally after he reveals his true identity and intentions). Sloyan was a multi-time guest performer in the Star Trek franchise, but I think it’s in this episode his distinct voice and gravity gave the show a timely and wrenching portrayal. In this case, of someone trying his damnedest to protect a future (as well as his family), even if it means finding a way to side with his bitterest of enemies.

Certainly one willing to suffer the betrayal of his own via his pleas — the same undertone this episode shared with the Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country film. Patrician and inpatient in the utmost come demeanor. What happens from beginning to end ultimately being noble and finally heartbreaking. The series writers displayed a maturity with this character and type of story that showed they could match those of the original, and still give it their own flavor and 1990 context.

As it happened, the verbal interchanges presented, principally by Picard, Jarok, and even Cmdr. Tomalak in a welcomed cameo, were not only key to the episode, but in my opinion an example of simply splendid character writing. And easily, along with the performances and direction, the strong point of this the tenth episode in the third ST:TNG season. The installment showcased another key difference between the sib series. A distinct advantage the Next Generation enjoyed that the Original Series rarely did was serialization.

Star Trek came from era that was almost purely episodic. Nothing inherently bad with that, but story-lines seldom carried over to later installments. The Defector was a clear example of this changed technique in television series writing and production decades later. This #10 show was a convincing sequel to the fine earlier chapter, three episodes back, The Enemy. Expounded on it one better, in fact. ST:TNG writers would refer to it again, and carry it even further later. They’d flip the Federation-Romulan confrontation which occurred at the surprising climax of The Defector the very next season with Data’s Day‘s culmination. It made for great viewing, and occasional gems, for loyal followers.

“I did it for nothing. My home, my family. For nothing.”

The Star Trek: The Original Series vs. Star Trek: The Next Generation debate will never evaporate. Not with the diverse views, let alone the number of sci-fi fan generations, out there. But, since the various examinations online argue with the best of each, how bad can that be? It’s well worth the clash of ideas if all we get are more reasons to explore extraordinary science-fiction that tell us more about ourselves in the here and now than any future imagined, I think.

* cool anniversary coincidence: the Cold War’s duration ran approximately 45 years (1946 – 1991).

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7 Responses to “Star Trek:TNG Episode Review – The Defector”

  1. John Kenneth Muir

    Hi Michael,

    I very much enjoyed reading your retrospective of “The Defector.” I first saw the episode while I was in college in Virginia, and I loved it. I still do. For me, this episode represents Star Trek TNG at its finest; firing on all thrusters. I still remember the thrill I felt when those Klingon Birds of Prey first decloaked in the finale. A brilliant tactic, and a brilliant climax for the show. I agree with you as well that Sloyan did a great job playing a noble but not-very-likeable character. He was quite a match for Stewart in the show.

    I have been engaging in my own re-watch of the first season of ST:TNG lately, and found there are still some things (and some episodes) to love. Certainly, when the show premiered back in 1987, I was in love with it…and even a very vocal defender. It’s only on retrospect, I think, that so many of the flaws seem so readily apparent. The difference, I think is between a program (Star Trek) that is ahead of its time, and one (ST: TNG) that is of its time, if that makes sense.

    I appreciate the shout-out here, my friend, and am always thrilled to see you tackle Star Trek in any iteration. I respect Will’s viewpoint and SFF’s as well, and it’s fascinating to see how we each view the program, and why we feel the way we do about it. I’ll be honest: after watching “11001001,” “Datalore,” “Conspiracy” and “The Arsenal of Freedom,” I’ve been having a lot more fun with TNG (season one) than I thought I might at this point. But then again, I avoided a few of the real stinkers, like “The Last Outpost.”

    One of my most important tasks as a critic, I believe, is to evaluate my own biases, and re-evaluate films and programs to see if my initial impression was correct. I have been going into these TNG programs with “an open mind” and been enjoying them more than I did on the last watch (a few years back). I still feel the Original Star Trek is superior, but I can also see the kernels of goodness in the first year of TNG. I imagine that when I reach third year episodes like “The Defector” and “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” my perception of the program will improve further.

    best,
    John

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    • le0pard13

      It’s great to hear about your initial experience with ST:TNG, and what’s come subsequent John. And I do understand your point regarding ST and TNG and their unique aspects. I’ve been staying in the safe zone, so to speak, with my re-screening of TNG seasons. But, you bring up a good point that perhaps I need to expand outside of my favorites and re-examine more episodes.

      I envy your ability at keen analysis for the subjects and genres you examine on a regular basis, as well. Your openness toward film and television, whether cult or mainstream, is beyond admirable. I can honestly say I’ve widened the programs and film I screen for myself (and sometimes, for my kids) because of your blog. Thanks very much for the generous words and comment, my friend.

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  2. The Sci-Fi Fanatic

    Michael,
    I am quite immersed in ST:TNG and I would tell you that:
    A. I loved your review.
    B. I loved The Defector. It is a highlight of Season Three. It’s exceptional.

    I would only add, and I know this is the debate that will rage on forever.
    Apart from Season One, and I may need to go back to the beginning again someday, Season Two and beyond have aged EXTREMELY well and the new Blu-Ray remasters are exquisite.

    Season Two really impressed me following Season One. That doesn’t take much after that inaugural season. Anyway, I just wanted to add to this post and tell you that The Defector was amazing.

    As you mention this is an early highlight in the development of Ronald D. Moore’s career.

    It also has the performances and Patrick Stewart finally shines through the character of Picard. Brilliant really.

    So, this would easily make my Top 5 for the first three seasons. Great selection on your part my friend. I would even give this episode an edge over the more popular Yesterday’s Enterprise which was still excellent and also from Season Three.

    I look forward to writing about this one myself one day.

    Anyway, checking on Star Trek through your search engine and never too late to visit an old post.

    Take care
    sff

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  3. le0pard13

    Hey, great to hear from you, G, and that you’re knee-deep into the series. Last year, I picked up the new high-def sets for ST:TOS in Blu-ray. I need to see new ST:TNG series in BD. I still watch them on occasion, but only on BBC America in standard definition.

    Love reading your thoughts on the series, my friend. Certainly, I look forward to your thoughts concerning this particular season. Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving another of your stellar comments, G. 🙂

    Like

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