Skip to content

Go fuck yourself, Prime Directive #1: Pen Pals

September 9, 2013

Episode: Pen Pals

Season: The one that wasn’t quite as bad as Season 1. Also referred to as ‘the one with the angry doctor’.

Plot: Data checks random frequencies for someone to talk to [24th Century version of online dating] and comes across a small girl who lives next to a volcano. Picard forgets about 40’s noir and picks up a new hobby – horse riding. Riker prepares for the line, ‘what a perfectly vicious little circle’. Dr. Polaski disagrees with everyone and everything. Troi shows off her counselling skills by terrifying a small child. Wesley skips being an ensign and goes straight to commanding a group of superior-ranking adults who have all been through the academy and got where they are on merit instead of just hanging around the bridge and having the ship’s doctor as a mum and being called a child genius by everyone even though he’s emotionally and mentally still very much a child and my God they must be fuming they must think the whole ship is a joke I know I would and where are all the admirals don’t they know what Picard’s doing with this fucking kid? Worf trips over some wires.

How is the Prime Directive broken?

In myriad ways.

First of all, Data keeps talking to the girl on the radio. You can’t do this in Starfleet, not unless the girl knows about warp and nacells and Star Trek V.

What if you don’t tell her who you are?

Then it’s kinda creepy. Data doesn’t tell her who he is, informing Picard that ‘I was vague on the details’, which then brings up the question: why is he talking to her at all?

Data has never shown an interest in radio frequencies before, so why now? It’s been established that he’s curious about what and who is around him, but this seems like a bit of a stretch.

But stretching is what Trek does best, especially with character hobbies.

Remember Tom Paris and his spontaneous interest in 19th century ships?

Back to the point…

The Prime Directive is only truly broken when Data tries to help the girl.

I think I got it wrong above. Data can talk to the girl, as long as he doesn’t tell her who he is, but he cannot change her culture or interfere in her society.

This is where things get slippery.

The reasoning behind the Prime Directive is fairly simple: The Federation doesn’t want to get dragged into wars all over the Alpha Quadrant. It also doesn’t want to become a ‘God’ to primitive cultures. Both points are valid, but problems occur when the upholding of the Prime Directive turns Picard and co into cold, immoral twats.


The Prime Directive forbids the crew from trying to stop the natural disasters happening on the girl’s planet, even though they know a culture is going to be wiped out if they do nothing.

The scene in Picard’s quarters [why not the Observation lounge? A reflection of today and armchair critics casually debating third world problems maybe?] puts forward four reasons:

i] It might be fate for this planet to be wiped out.

ii] The volcanos erupting will look fucking spectacular.

iii] They can’t be bothered flying the ship that far off-course.

iv] The culture is so dumb they live next to volcanoes

The second reason is probably the most valid as it’s not every episode you see a planet go supernova. But the more obvious first reason for non-interference is clearly bullshit.

Think about this: Trek is generally against religion, fate and superstition, especially with primitive cultures. The Bajorans and Klingons can keep their Gods and prophets because they know about warp speed and nacells, but in the episode ‘who watches the watchers’, Picard refuses to play along as a God to primitives because it is a regression of their culture.

Actually, that episode’s a little different as the primitives of that planet have already seen the Starfleet crew on their planet…but still, the point is clear: superstition is not welcome in Trek.

Therefore, what exactly does fate have to do with science? In this episode, they refuse to save a species because it might be the will of the universe? Sounds almost superstitious to me.

Also, Troi, in a rare moment of insight [counterbalanced later by her creepy handling of the little girl on the bridge situation], suggests that maybe it’s fate the Enterprise is there to help.

Okay, fate is still bullshit, but they are there and they can help. In fact, the resolution of the episode suggests they could do this more often with other planets in danger and that the Prime Directive needs some urgent revision.

Really, not saving this planet from annihilation is like the US refusing to help Africans fight HIV.

Isn’t it?

Maybe that’s too harsh. Analogies are often bullshit/misleading, but this one seems quite powerful and makes my point seem stronger than it probably is, so I’ll keep it there.

Still, the point does stand. The Prime Directive is clearly immoral if it allows an entire species to die just because it might, maybe, could fall under the umbrella of fate.

Fuck’s sake, Picard, you’re supposed to be a moral man. Save the damn planet.  

Only when he hears the little girl’s voice does Picard change his mind. This is the sum problem with our society right now. People in comfortable lives don’t want to/can’t hear others crying for help. Star Trek, for all its future goodness, often reflects this.

Example: The Cardassian occupation of Bajor

This one’s a little trickier than the incident in ‘Pen Pals’ as interfering on behalf of the Bajorans would inevitably lead to war with the Cardassians…but really, how can a supposedly moral organisation stand by and do nothing?

It’s always bugged me, and I understand why some of the Bajorans on DS9 never saw the Federation as saviours. A truly moral organisation would have intervened despite the human cost, whereas a truly benevolent species like the Vulcans would have left them to their slaughter.

Morality and benevolence aren’t the same thing?

I’ve never given it much thought, but when applied to an episode like this or the occupation of Bajor, it seems not. Which is weird as I’m not conservative, I’m socialist on most issues…

I don’t know…does stopping the occupation of Bajor fall under a socialist or conservative ideal?

Was Roddenberry socialist?

I’ve gone off track…

The discussion in Picard’s quarters

All the main cast is there, apart from Wesley. This is a small mercy. All of them have an opinion, with Worf perhaps standing alone as the unfeeling asshole of the group.

Yup, I’m pretty sure Troi, Polaski, Geordi and Riker try to argue for breaking the Prime Directive, while Picard seems to be somewhere in the middle. He’s knows the Prime Directive is there for a reason, but he’s definitely conflicted.


1] The Prime Directive is an absolute, not a matter of degrees.

The opening salvo, spoken by Worf obviously. Ultimately this is the argument Picard settles on [before the little girl tunes in on her little radio], making the whole discussion pointless.

Is the Prime Directive absolute?

It probably should be. In fact, it’s strange that Picard is even having this discussion at all – isn’t this kind of topic the domain of admirals and Vulcans? Why the fuck would they follow the opinions of the ship’s engineer or the tactical officer?

Anyway, if it’s a rule, it should be adhered to. The problem is…why would such an important rule not have amendments? It’s been active for 200 years or so, surely some of the other ships in the fleet had come across some morally dubious situations like this before?

2] The ship is capable of helping, it is nearby, it is aware of the impending disaster.

I think it’s Polaski who brings this up. She makes the argument more emotional by relating it to ‘Data’s friend’ as if it’s someone they all know. And doesn’t she have a point? Most of the others seem to agree with her, and most of the audience probably does too [depending on your politics and whether or not you’re an uncaring motherfucker].

How can her point not be valid? This isn’t a hypothetical debate, it’s a real culture on the edge of a very hot and lava-y abyss. Ignoring them and, in effect, watching them die is not something that should be discussed in the Captain’s tea room. Even having the discussion is immoral as it’s wasting time that could be used for designing a volcano-neutralising device. The fact that Worf is the only one severely opposed to the idea probably means it’s the right thing to do. No offence to Worf, but if he were alive in present times, he’d be a member of the Tea Party [or the BNP, for UK people].

3] Fate vs fate

Riker: It could be fate for this planet to die.

Troi: It could be fate that we’re here to stop it.

Riker: Well, it could be fate that we have a Prime Directive to stop ourselves interfering in fate.

Troi: Or it could be fate that Data talked to the girl and told the Captain who in turn called this meeting and has shown in the last season and a half that he’s prepared to break the Prime Directive if the opposite action makes him look like Chairman Mao.

Riker: Shut up.

When you start arguing over what is or isn’t fate, you know it’s time to do the moral thing, not what you think the universe or evolution might want. The simple fact is: Troi is right. If fate truly was something that ran straight and didn’t factor aliens into its equation then it really wouldn’t be fate, would it? It would be something that wasn’t aware of alien life in the Universe and therefore something not worth treating with any kind of respect.

Fate = aware of every possible thing/action/fuck up in the Universe

Also, what the ‘fate to let them die’ argument fails to mention is that the discussion centres on a human ruling, not a natural one. The Prime Directive was not a product of fate, it was a human decision. A Scott Bakula decision even, based on intuition, experience and the scripts sent to him by Rick Berman. If there were no Prime Directive, would they be having this discussion? No, they’d be fixing the damn volcanos already.

4] Beam down weapons and let the natives fight the volcanos hand to hand

This one’s from a DVD extra. To be fair, I think Worf’s joking, but his face never changes shape so it’s hard to tell.

What else?

Oh yeah…

Bringing the little girl onto the ship

It’s true, this isn’t a good idea, but there’s no need for Picard to be such a dick about it. It’s like Data’s just brought Pol Pot onto the bridge. The way he refuses to even look at her makes him come across as petulant, especially when he later tells the doctor to erase her short-term memory so she can’t remember the ship [or his dick-ish behaviour]. Would it kill him to smile and say ‘hi’?

Erasing her short-term memory

After the planet is saved, Dr. Polaski wiggles a torch near the little girl’s forehead and makes her forget everything that’s happened in the previous 45 minutes, including her creepy but ultimately non-sexual friendship with Data.

This is problematic for two reasons:

i] Like I wrote earlier, the fact that they can do this means they could save other primitive cultures from disaster or death [like the alien who falls down the mountain in ‘Who watches the watcher’ – I think it’s Ray Wise [the dad from ‘Twin Peaks’], actually, though I could be wrong]. The Prime Directive would have to be amended and the Federation would have to re-evaluate its policy towards aliens with spears and grass skirts.

Do they do this in later episodes?

No, it’s never mentioned again. I assume Picard filed a report with Starfleet, but he never seemed to get any shit for it. If the Prime Directive really were absolute, he should’ve been court-martialled, especially as he never consulted any admirals about his decision.

ii] They alter a girl’s memory, which is a direct interference in her experiences. It is understandable why they did it, but also cruel.

Data: She will have no memory of me or our friendship. I find this troubling.

Polaski: You will remember, Data.

This is the tag-line of the episode and a little mis-guided. Data will remember and the girl won’t – this is not something to be celebrated, it is actually quite sad. To remember someone or something that does not reflect your memories is kinda similar to the film ‘L’amour’ by the miserable fuck, Michel Haneke, where the wife slowly succumbs to altzheimers.

The alternative was to let the girl keep her memories. What would the damage have been? Not much. She might’ve told her parents or friends, but they probably wouldn’t have believed her. In time, she would’ve learnt to keep the story to herself. Perhaps she could’ve been declared mad and sectioned by her parents under some version of a Mental Health Act, but going by the hut next to the volcano they called home, I don’t think that would’ve happened.

Maybe they would’ve thrown her into the volcano?

Perhaps, I don’t know. It just seems cruel to fiddle with her brain like that. Data argues against it, and in this episode he’s arguably a more reliable barometer of what is morally right than any of the human characters.

There’s probably some irony in that, somewhere…

Anything else?

This might sound a bit wanky, but the way Picard controls the horse [primitive animal] at the beginning of the episode is in [Robb] stark contrast to the cold [mountain] approach he takes to [nto] the little girl/volcano planet [primitive aliens].

The horse = a companion that has an almost symbiotic relationship with its owner

Little girl = something to be discussed and then left alone to die

This is the only possible explanation I have for the five minute scene of Picard and Troi talking about a horse on a science-fiction TV show.

Sub-plot: Wesley takes command

Picard, Riker, Troi, Polaski and Geordi sit in the Observation Lounge discussing whether or not grey jumpsuit kid is ready for command. No-one mentions that, hey, this kid hasn’t even been through the academy. No-one mentions the detrimental effect it may have on the rest of the crew when they see the Captain giving a kid command of a mission. No-one mentions the blatant breaking of Starfleet regulations. No-one mentions the casual nepotism of giving neat gigs to the ships doctor’s son.

No-one mentions this because Wesley is a fucking genius, apparently.

And clearly the best way to encourage a child genius is to coach them to feel special and totally above the rules that everyone less special has to follow.

Okay, that’s not entirely accurate. Picard is quite stern with him still…but…

Man, remember that Indian engineer in Season 1?

The poor guy was basically told how to do his job by Wesley. Then when he asked Wesley to go do his homework, an alien entity came through the console and killed him.

What does that mean? Tell Wesley to piss off and the next scene you’re fried?

I’m amazed the science ensign in Pen Pals survived the episode.

This whole subplot is a joke. Not the execution, but the concept of it. It’s quite well done, the way Wesley doubts himself…if he’d been ten years older and fresh out of the academy it might’ve worked.

But he’s a kid.

Honestly, the character of Wesley in the first four seasons was possibly the biggest miscalculation Gene Roddenberry ever made.

The episode with the academy fuck up [First Duty?] couldn’t come soon enough.

Note: the scene with Riker was a nice touch though. ‘What would Picard do?’ he says to Wesley. Then in the very next scene, Picard decides [initially] to let an entire culture be extinguished by volcanoes.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: