Star Trek: The Next Generation – Symbiosis [1.21]

After rescuing a distressed freighter, the Enterprise become involved in a dispute between representatives of two neighboring worlds who exist in a strange symbiotic relationship.  One world is victim to a plague that has a cure which is only found on the other world.  Their payments for this cure are key to the other world’s economy.  The representatives from the freighter are in conflict because though a shipment of the cure was saved, the payment was not.  Dr. Crusher discovers that the plague is actually an addiction, whilst the cure is a narcotic.  Picard then wrestles with the implications of the Prime Directive upon his ability to interfere with the situation.

Story by Robert Lewin.  Teleplay by Robert Lewin and Richard Manning & Hans Beimler.  Directed by Win Phelps.

Previous Post:  Arsenal of FreedomNext Episode:  Skin of Evil

Symbiosis is notable to me because it’s the first episode that I’ve run across in Next Generation that I’ve never seen before.  Or at least that I don’t remember ever seeing before.  I didn’t miss anything spectacular, but Symbiosis is interesting for a number of reasons.

First of all, it’s the last episode that Denise Crosby filmed as a regular for the series, and so includes her famous “waving goodbye to the audience” moment as Picard and Crusher leave the shuttledeck toward the end of the story.

Second, it features two alumni from Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan amongst its guest cast (see Guest Cast, below), and it turns out that Merritt Butrick in particular is quite good in the story as the desperate drug addict who doesn’t know he’s a drug addict.

Third, we have the famous, or infamous “just say no” speech that Tasha gives Wesley about drugs.  It’s easy to see why this scene is often derided, as it really does come across as a strange public service announcement, akin to what we’d get at the end of an episode of Superfriends or GI Joe, just about a more adult topic.  What makes it feel really strange, though, isn’t so much Tasha’s direct candor on the topic, but rather Wesley’s complete ignorance on the whole matter.  It’s one thing to have the Enterprise crew seem to be oblivious to the idea of racism, but the simplistic way Wesley asks questions (which are actually off topic for the episode – the story is about people who have been tricked into becoming drug addicts, while Wesley asks about why people would ever do so on purpose) makes it all feel a bit juvenile. Which is a pity, actually, as the content of what Tasha tells him seems to be spot on truth.

For me, the most interesting thing about this episode is also the most aggravating, which is the way the Prime Directive is treated.  Picard makes a big deal about how the Prime Directive applies – he doesn’t feel he’s allowed to tell the natives of the planet that they are not victims of a plague as they believe, but rather are actually unknowing drug addicts, being mercilessly exploited by a neighboring system.  He says this would be interfering with another culture.  He goes so far as to present an argument to a stunned Dr. Crusher that imposing their values upon another culture is not their mission.

Now keep in mind that we’re not talking about an internal dispute within one population or one government.  We’re talking about an exploitative, deceptive relationship between two cultures which have nothing else to do with each other except that they happen to be nearby one another.  To put it another way, one culture benefits (indeed, bases their entire economy upon) keeping another culture in a drug-dependent and thus progress-inhibiting state.  If interfering in this situation is violation of the Prime Directive, than how can the Enterprise ever interact with any non-Federation world without being guilty of a similar crime?  So if some war-mongering bumpy-nosed aliens were bombing the tar out of a world of non-aligned space babies, the Enterprise would be required to just sit and watch?  Actually, I guess it does, and other episodes of Star Trek will more or less support this.

It’s all based on an argument Picard makes that bad things always happen whenever a more advanced culture interferes with a less advanced one.  Picard says that history itself bears this out.  But it’s a weak argument.  Picard himself says at the end of the story that they may never know if they did the right thing.  Indeed, history never tells us what would have happened if we did something else, so how can we know that the consequences of advanced involvement are always negative (unless of course someone’s been doing extensive research with the Guardian of Forever)?

It all becomes very annoying.  Of course you don’t want to see the Federation flying around imperialistically imposing law upon every planet it encounters (except in those fun mirror universe stories).  And I can even understand the whole “not interfering with internal politics” argument, but that is irrelevant here.  Picard states that it’s not their mission to impose their values upon others, but taken to the extremes seen here it leads to a Federation that doesn’t seem to have any values at all, except to stay out of the way.  And if that’s the case, than what are they doing flying around visiting these worlds in the first place?  Just the presence of the Enterprise and their Federation-minded crew brings influence (or how else would any world end up joining the Federation?).  Indeed, how can Picard justify even saving the lives of the freighter crew at the start of the story – an obvious act of interference?

Even Picard’s little “solution” at the end seems a bit crazy when you scratch the surface.  He denies the Onarrans the coils they need to fix their ships, assuming that will eventually cut off their drug supply and force them off of their addiction.  Of course this means that probably a bunch of desperate Onarrans will die as their coils fail, just like the guest stars of this episode nearly did at the beginning.  And it doesn’t even work as a solution if the Onarrans just figure out how to fix the coils themselves, or if the other race figure out how to build their own freighters to deliver their drug supply.

At least the story doesn’t have Dr. Crusher – the apparent voice of reason, come around to Picard’s point of view at the end of it.  Though she continues to be a professional and follow her commanding officer’s orders, she represents the 20th Century audience of the program when she tells Picard at the end that it’s hard to be philosophical in the face of suffering.  At this point in the series, the relationship between Dr. Crusher and Captain Picard is the most interesting one we’ve got.  She stands in a unique position amongst this crew:  she’s the only one who isn’t in awe of the Captain, the only one who can call him by his first name, the only one who can really stand up to him.

Shout Outs to the Past:
The episode is a bit reminiscent of the classic-Trek story, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, with it’s two opposing races fighting each other with energy powers.

Guest Cast
• Both Judson Scott and Merritt Butrick had major supporting roles in Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan.  Judson Scott (who plays Sobi) also appeared in Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, V, and a tv series called The Phoenix.

• The episode uses an announcement from Picard to the ship to give the opening exposition, rather than a ship’s log, so there is no Stardate.

• There are crew members in Engineering!  In most other episodes so far, Engineering is a dry and desolate place, devoid of crew.  But still, there’s no Chief Engineer.

• Tasha has a good moment as she takes over from the transporter chief and figures out a way to beam the crew to safety.

• These aren’t the first Next Generation humanoid aliens, of course, but they are amongst the first whose alien quality is defined entirely by having a small amount of make up on their noses.

• The moment when Data “estimates” the number of doses in the barrel is the first “awkward Data” moment we’ve had in a while.

• Both Brent Spiner and Jonathan Frakes give very effective, very subtle responses to the news of the drug addiction, with just a few eye movements.o

• On the other hand, Jonathan Frake’s facial expression when he is paralyzed is pretty funny

• Picard talks T’Jon down with a “You’re not a killer!” speech.  But how does he know?  Remember, this is the same guy who didn’t care about two crew members dying.

• Nice line of Geordi’s at the end, which unfortunately belies the rest of the episode.  When asked why he has chosen a particular course heading, he responds, “Curiosity.  We’ve never been there.”  Great, back to the central theme of the show:  exploration.  Unless of course we run into any injustice that we’re forced to just sit around and watch because of our beautiful Prime Directive.

Dialogue High Point
In spite of the fact that I disagree largely with Picard’s position and interpretation of the Prime Directive, I appreciate the irony of the exchange he has with T’Jon at the end after the denial of the coils which would have temporarily relieved their suffering but potentially allowed the dependence upon the drug to continue:

T’Jon: Captain, I hope you realize what you’ve done to us.
Picard: Of that you can be sure.

Previous Post:  Arsenal of FreedomNext Episode:  Skin of Evil

4 thoughts on “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Symbiosis [1.21]

  1. I vaguely remember that episode and probably only saw it once, but your vivid explanation of it puts me right back in the action and reminds me of some of the more annoying traits of that particular episode. Hi5

  2. I actually thought this was a good episode by the standards of the season. Weak by the standards of the series. I thought the Prime Directive was used well here, and McFadden put in a strong performance. So did Butrick. Unfortunately, the Yar and Wesley “Just say no” scene was stupid and awful. Just so awful.

  3. I agree that Butrick and McFadden did a good job, and that the Yar/Wesley scene was a poorly done insertion. But as I mentioned, I think the episode makes the prime directive look ridiculous. Or maybe just makes Picard look ridiculous.

  4. I think that if I was a Starfleet Officer, I would very deliberately violate the Prime Directive all the time. Like at the start of Star Trek: Into Darkness; Kirk saving that culture from extinction was 100% the right thing to do. If the Federation truly believes, as insinuated in Skin of Evil, that all creatures have a right to life (assuming this to mean sentient creatures), then protecting THAT right should be the Federation’s foremost responsibility. Especially in cases where no killing is required to secure that right; war is one thing–it is tricky to determine, when in war, whether you are actually saving lives in the long run or not–but in the case of helping a culture overcome a planetary addiction there is no such question.

    Maybe it’s just because I believe God ultimately works all things for the good of those who love him, but I think that if something wrong somehow comes of your good deed, you bear no more responsibility for that consequence than someone who commits an evil deed and accidentally causes something good.

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