The Enterprise investigates a remote system where planets are being torn apart by their won geology. Data begins to communicate with Sarjenka, a young girl on one of these worlds (who know nothing of extra-terrestrial life), and asks Picard to find a way to help her and her people, even though doing so would violate the Prime Directive. At first, Picard is reluctant, until he hears the girl for himself. In the end, a survey team led by Wesley Crusher (on his first command assignment) comes up with a way stop her world from destroying itself. Data must bring Sarjenka on board the Enterprise in this process, but later the crew is able to erase her memories of Data and the ship.
Teleplay by Melinda M. Snodgrass. Story by Hannah Louise Shearer . Directed by Winrich Kolbe
Pen Pals is a decent little story that affords some interesting discussion about the implications of the Prime Directive, similar in some respects to Season One’s Symbiosis, but on the whole a lot better and more satisfying. Part of this is because it has the advantage of Season Two’s superior production values, but a lot of it comes from the way nearly the entire main cast is involved in the discussion – conducting it civilly but with radically different opinions. Points brought up include the idea of a general grand design that the Enterprise crew may or may not be part of, the role of emotion in such a significant decision, and the Prime Directive as a protective measure for Starfleet officers. However, effectively, all the discussion is made a bit irrelevant in the face of the sound of a little girl crying for help. It’s refreshing and encouraging for the show’s development to see the crew act so humanely, even in the face of the trouble they could face as a result.
Data is put into an interesting position in this story. His relationship with little Sarjenka is played without emotion as you’d expect, but he firmly adopts a position of extending compassion, acting in a sense as a sort of conscience for Picard. Picard even tells him, “You reminded us that there are obligations that go beyond duty.” It’s the second time we’ve seen him fulfill this role – the first being in The Measure of a Man where Data’s ethical stance forces Picard to reconsider his position. The difference of course is that in that case, Data was protecting himself, where here he seems to act out of mercy and care, and thus (as Picard points out) takes strong steps forward in his display of humanity. This “mercy heart” takes Picard from at first referring to Sarjenka as “this life form” to the place where he says, “Your whisper from the dark has now become a plea. We cannot turn our backs.”
It’s also interesting to see what is revealed about Picard’s command style in this story. Data points out that he chooses to not be unilateral in his decisions, and Picard mentions that he could not help but to consider other options in the face of the convictions of one of his officers – even one of his friends. Not talked about is the fact that to work through the implications of this issue, Picard calls for a conference amongst the senior staff, not in the conference room, observation room, or his ready room – but in his quarters, while he serves refreshments. We’ve heard from time to time that Picard welcomes input from his officers but this is the first time that I recall him seeking it in such a non-threatening and relational way. It shows great wisdom when dealing with such a emotional issue.
In fact, now that I think of it, “emotions” are in a lot of ways a theme that the episode is dealing with. Picard and Troi have an interesting conversation about Betazeds being too emotionally attuned to the emotions of animals to be very good with them. Pulaski brings up the relevance of emotions in the discussion of how to respond to the Dremans, while Picard cites that one of the functions of the Prime Directive is to protect them from acting on emotions. Even Wesley’s story (discussed below) is dealing with this to an extent, as it pertains to command. And yet at the heart of it all is Data, who reveals, rightly, that mercy is not necessarily fueled by emotion. In fact, he very logically points out that, “The Dremans are not a subject of philosophical debate. They are a people.”
Fortunately, the writers followed some good advice I once heard and didn’t tell their characters what the themes of the story were, so they don’t go out of their way to point them out (something that certainly does happen with this generationof Star Trek), so one doesn’t feel beaten over the head about them.
The subplot, with Welsey commanding a little squad of planetary surveyors, works well enough. It’s an all-too-rare reminder that Wesley is in fact still a student, as well as to the fact that it’s more than just the Bridge crew of the Enterprise who are involved with important work. Wesley is appropriately insecure about it all, which is subtly tied into the death of his father and his greatest fears as revealed in Coming of Age. The scene where Riker gives him input and counsel in Ten-Forward is particularly well-written. (“But what if I’m wrong?” asks Wesley. “Then you’re wrong,” Riker replies. “It’s arrogant to think you’ll never make a mistake”) The sub-plot also doesn’t take up too much time, which is nice, though it’s funny that so much of it happens before things really begin moving with the main story – giving the impression for a bit that maybe this is the main story. Gladly, this proves not to be true.
Shout-Outs to the Past
As mentioned, Riker talking about being responsible for Wesley’s studies is a welcome recognition of the status quo that was established at the start of the season.
Dr. Pulaski arguing strongly for the humane response to the issue of Sarjenka’s world reminds me a bit of the way it was Dr. Crusher who argued similarly in Symobiosis.
Picard mentions not being fond of small animals – this is consistent with the fact that he’s never played with puppies (mentioned in The Child).
There is a brief reference to Troi’s mother (from Haven).
Setting up the Future
Picard’s love of horses will be mentioned again. He will also be seen riding again, notably in Star Trek Generations.
• Ann Gillespie plays Enisgn Hildebrant, also played Nurse Jabara in several episodes of Deep Space Nine
• Picard says of animals, “It seems that some creatures have the capacity to fill spaces you never knew were empty.” For Picard, this sort of applies to Data as well – I don’t know if that was intended by the writers, but it’s a nice, relevant connection.
• Nice looking location footage on the Holodeck
• It’s funny that when he’s called to the Bridge, Picard takes the time to retether his holographic horse.
• I really like it when Data first hears Sarjenka’s transmission. His line, “Yes,” in response to her query, “Is anyone out there?” is quite a good moment.
• Wesley is pacing outside the door to start working with his team. How does the door know not to open for him?
• Though it takes a while for the main plotline of this story to get going, it creates a reasonably effective build up. Data’s story sort of just emerges in the midst of all this fairly routine activity.
• It’s been eight weeks since Data first heard from Sarjenka? That’s got to make one of the longer periods of time that an episode has taken place over, right? I’ll have to start paying attention to that.
• Riker does his “stepping over the chair maneuver” again – how many times has that happened and I’ve missed it?
• It’s nice to see in the end that Ensign Davies is not a complete jerk
• Nice moment between Picard and Riker with the whole “You know where we are now?” comment.
• This is the second episode in a row to have a really good O’Brien moment in it. I like how easily he responds to Riker’s telling him that he didn’t see what is about to happen with Data beaming down to the planet. “Right sir, I’ll just be standing over here dozing off.”
• It’s a nice touch that the child’s make up extends to her hand – it adds to her “alienness”
• Cute moment between Data and Sarjenka: “I will require my hand.”
• The actual scientific solution to the issue with the planet, as well as to the little girl learning of the Enterprise, proves to be quite simple and quickly accomplished. The debate about robbing her of her memories is quite brief, but it’s nice that it’s there.
Dialogue High Point
There are quite a few good lines, as I’ve mentioned, but my favorite goes to Geordi. During the debate about what to do about the Dremans, after Riker says they should at least consider the possibility that they were “fated” to die and the Enterprise should not interfere.
Consider it considered and rejected!