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Best of TNG: The Drumhead

January 23, 2014

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Plot: A klingon language exchange that we’ve never seen before is accused and convicted of causing a warp core breach [or something similar]. Starfleet sends one of the Golden Girls to see if there are any more saboteurs on board. Ten minutes in, she decides that there’s a huge conspiracy on the Enterprise that could engulf the whole Federation. Picard disagrees. Worf gets an erection.

Subplot: It’s mostly plot, but I suppose the idea that Worf is the one who’s most enthusiastic about the witch-hunt acts as some kind of counter-balance to the prudence and tea-based diplomacy of Picard.

What’s so good about it?

By Season Four, TNG was pretty much in full swing. There were no truly awful episodes any more…at least I can’t think of any off the top of my head…but at the same time, there hadn’t been any really great ones since ‘First Contact’…

Actually, I’ve just checked the episode list for Season Four and ‘First Contact’ was episode 15…The Drumhead was episode 21…not a huge gap between them. But when you look at the episodes sandwiched between them [Galaxy’s Child, Night Terrors, Qpid], you realise that The Drumhead was probably needed to steady the ship again.

Maybe that’s an exaggeration…I’ve heard some people like ‘Qpid’…but even the fiercest fan of that ep would probably agree that it doesn’t have much depth to it…or much of a budget [welcome back, medieval California, we’ve missed you. Foam castle, take a seat. Sorry, shitty costumes, didn’t see you there.]

So, The Drumhead…why is it so good?

Let’s run through all the pieces, torturously, one by one…

1] Plot

It starts in the middle of an investigation, with the Klingon exchange being interrogated by the fearsome combination of Riker’s neck swivel and Troi’s gentle voice. The guy survives and is taken back to his quarters by Worf, who ends up punching the guy in the face for requesting a shuttle.

Most episodes begin on the bridge, or with Data taking a class with primary school kids, so starting anywhere different is always welcome. The first episode that springs to mind when I think of ‘different starting location’ is ‘The Enemy’, one of the best episodes of Season 3.

Is there a pattern here?

Possibly, but it could go the other way too. An episode could start somewhere else and still be shit. The thing that elevates ‘The Drumhead’ is the fact that we’re starting in the middle of an episode we’ll never get to see. The Klingon has already been caught, his guilt is not in doubt…but there is still tension as a] you know it’s only the start of the episode, and b] what’s the Klingon going to do next?

Also, it’s suggested that there’s another saboteur on board the ship and that’s what brings Admiral Satee into the mix.

Does the plot move too quickly?

No. It starts fast, but then settles down as the admiral sets up her investigation. There’s a weird sort of tension built up, even in a simple scene like the one in Picard’s quarters, where the Captain and the admiral share tea and conflicting views on their working methods. The admiral likes to work alone, Picard doesn’t.

Admiral: I find that working alone is great.
Picard: I don’t.
Admiral: Really. I heard you were a loner.
Picard: Nope.
Admiral: But you never play cards with your senior staff, right?
Picard: That’s different.
Admiral: You often keep your feelings to yourself and hide in your ready room rather than hang out with the others on the bridge. You rarely go to Ten Forward. You refuse to talk about your love life. You ask for opinions from Lieutenant Worf and then ignore them.
Picard: Get out.

Basically, the tension is character-based. The Admiral is clearly not a villain at the start of the episode, but there are little signs that something is a bit off about her, and slowly Picard begins to pick up on them.

Is it disappointing that the bad guy is an old woman who can’t fight?

Nope, because this is a battle of wits. The admiral lays out her credentials quite clearly in Picard’s quarters. Her father was a famous judge, her brothers were always out-argued by her, she has no friends, she’s only there for one episode. From this point on, we can probably guess she’s gonna try and take down Picard, and, strangely, she’s gonna try to use Worf to help her do it.

Why Worf?

Because he’s the closest there is to an ideological opposite for Picard amongst all the Bridge crew. Or he’s the most likely character to hunt people down and enjoy it.

Basically, just like ‘Platoon’, two sides are clearly marked in the plot: the admiral vs Picard, with Worf as the naïve soldier caught in the middle. In effect, they are battling for his soul, but only in a remote sense. Physically, they’re battling for their careers and the future of Starfleet, but if they can bag Worf’s soul too, that’d be great.

The only difference between ‘Platoon’ and this episode is Worf initially allies with the more authoritarian participant [the admiral], whereas Charlie Sheen preferred the idea of smoking lots of weed and sometimes murdering people as opposed to smoking some weed and always murdering people.

Another nice touch is the way Worf’s views are delineated in the intro tag…when he holds the Klingon saboteur by the throat, he tells him that Klingon justice will be swift and brutal [a slow death, apparently] and it is clear from his huge eyeballs that this is something he relishes, probably because it doesn’t involve either talking or intelligence…

I suppose we already know how Worf feels about security issues from four and a half seasons of Trek, but it’s still nice to see it advertised so clearly, though also quite naturally, in the same episode that it’s challenged in.

Anything else?

The theme of the plot is laid out well and early, so the last ten minutes or so are put aside for the final courtroom showdown between Picard and the old witch.

As much as I love this episode, I sometimes wonder if it would’ve been better in two parts instead of one. But then I counter-wonder that, no, two parts would’ve been too much…there just wouldn’t have been the same sense of tension, not unless they started more slowly and extended a lot of scenes, inserted more shadows, some never-ending corridors, high tables etc etc…

Anyway, the final showdown is just pure, good writing, especially for Picard. He is given an adversary with an equal intellect and absolutely no respect for him as an officer or a man, and you can see Patrick Stewart is alert all the way through. For him, this was probably as close to grand theatre as TNG ever got, so obviously he’s a few levels above everyone else in the room, except perhaps the admiral, who also delivers some good lines.

The highlight is undoubtedly the part where Picard squirms when explaining his fuck up with the Vulcan ambassador who turned out to be a Romulan spy.

No, wait…it’s the bit where he stops Worf from eviscerating the Betazoid guy with only a nod.

Isn’t it over a little too easily?

Yup, that’s the only complaint. The way the admiral loses her shit as soon as her father’s name is mentioned is a convenient way to wrap things up before the forty five minute mark, even though it’s been clearly established that this is her weak point.

Look:

Scene in Picard’s quarters:

Picard: So how do you like your tea?
Admiral: I loved my dad, he was great.

Scene in Picard’s ready room:

Picard: I heard the Children of Tama have applied for Federation membership.
Admiral: Grrr…irrelevant. I love the Federation and so did my dad.

Scene in washroom:

Admiral: [Holds Betazoid aide by the ass] Yes, Daddy, harder, harder…I love you, harder, harder…show me how it’s done, show me, show me…

It doesn’t really matter how established the weakness is though, as intelligent characters simply shouldn’t be so open to this kind of attack…the admiral would surely be aware of her weaknesses and have sufficient restraint, especially as she’s brought down bigger men than Picard…

2] Characters

As written above, Picard is great. This kind of episode deals with all the traits we know he possesses – intelligence, patience, compassion, knowledge of legal system, patronising junior officers as if they’ve just shot out of the womb.

But Worf is pretty great too. Michael Dorn really is undervalued as an actor when you think about how readily you associate him with Worf. There are no other Klingons like him, and he plays his zeal for security perfectly in this episode, and also his sense of honour/disappointment when he realises he’s been used and the admiral is in fact out of her fucking tree.

Another thing you notice about Worf and Picard are their positions in each scene.

At the end of the episode, Worf stands behind Picard in the observation lounge, almost as a naughty schoolkid waiting to be punished. It’s a nice contrast with an earlier scene where Worf sits in Picard’s usual chair, dishing out orders to ensigns without asking for input…Picard walks in and Worf doesn’t move an inch. He sits there as if it’s where he’s supposed to be. It gets even better when Picard and Worf openly, aggressively disagree with each other for the first time in TNG…I don’t want to sound wanky, but the actors don’t just sit in random places, they are given marks for a reason, and this scene shows a lot of thought…Picard and Worf are both at the head of the table, as far away from each other as it’s possible to be…both standing by their opposing view…

Any other decent positioning?

Yes, several:

i] When Picard is given orders to report to the interviewing committee, the camera frames him alone on his Captain’s chair.

ii] It’s quite basic, but Picard sits alone on one side of the courtroom, trapped in slightly brighter light

iii] When the Admiral walks down the corridor and Picard has to catch up with her, as if she’s the captain of the ship.

iv] Err…when Riker sits at the back of the courtroom…

What else?

Admiral Satee…I don’t know if that’s how you spell her name, but the character itself is one of the best written ones in the history of Trek, which is particularly surprising as she’s only a guest star in one episode.

But really that’s what makes it so great. Just like Michael Myers from ‘Halloween’ she’s given a history but not a lot of critical exposition that expands on it. We are given glimpses of her past from dialogue, mostly, and the bits in between that are left unsaid.
For example, the line ‘I’ve brought down bigger men than you, Picard’ tells us that she’s been doing some sinister shit for quite some time before this episode. This is not her first crack at it…not even close.

Also, it is strongly hinted that she has an inferiority complex towards powerful men, stemming from her relationship with her father. Most other episodes would spell it out, but The Drumhead doesn’t – it makes you think about what exactly makes this woman tick and which part of that ticking makes her a monster. Did she love her Dad? Why does she target powerful men? Why wouldn’t she be trying to date them instead of taking them down? It’s like the opposite of the ‘daughter wants to marry someone like Daddy’ complex.

Yeah, they’re only writing the Daddy issues in to give Picard a weakness to exploit at the end, but it doesn’t matter because it works. This is a kind of character we haven’t seen before, and the fact that it’s a female only makes it more interesting. The only other female admirals on Trek are faces on screens and that blonde shrew who likes to abuse Riker every time she sets foot in the observation lounge.

Anything else?

The other characters don’t have much to do in this episode – it was directed by Jonathan Frakes so that’s why Riker sits out most of the action, and the other characters aren’t really connected to the plot. Geordi and Data do their engineering shtick for a couple of scenes and then disappear, which is the way it should be.

Can’t remember if Beverly was in the episode…can’t say I care much either.

Anyone else?

Chief O Brien?

Guinan?

Nope…thank God.

Actually, I think Trek works better this way…when the characters are used for a reason, instead of popping up for contractual reasons.

What happened to the Klingon exchange after this?

A slow death, I guess.

Why doesn’t Worf understand Picard’s ‘villains who twirl their moustache’ line?

I don’t know. The writers seem to forget that Worf grew up on Earth and understands human references. Making him pull the confusion face in the end scene is a bit condescending towards the character. He’s in Starfleet, for fuck’s sake, he’s not stupid.

Did Admiral Henry leave the hearing because he needed a shit?

It looked that way.

Why do some people not like this episode?

I don’t know. I suppose they think it’s all a little convenient in its plotting. And it is, at the end, but this is the price the writers must pay when making forty-five minute long, episodic television.

Is it the best ever episode of TNG?

It’s definitely in the Top 5.

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