Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Drumhead [4.21]

A visiting Kilngon is discovered to be a spy working for the Romulans, just a mysterious accident effects the Enterprise engines.  Retired Admiral Nora Satie comes on board to assist Picard in tracking down potential saboteurs, and soon finds a suspect in a low ranking crewman.  However, the investigation turns into a witch hunt, even after the damage to the ship is shown to be just an accident.  Picard objects to Satie’s methods but she becomes more obsessed to track down potential Romulan spies, eventually accusing Picard himself.  Satie’s own hysteria proves to be her downfall.

Written by Jeri Taylor . Directed by Jonathan Frakes.

Previous Episode: Qpid • Next Episode: Half a Life

Comments:
The Drumhead really has everything going for it to make for a great Star Trek episode.  You’ve got an intriguing premise that benefits from building off of the Romulan storyline, you’ve got potentially gripping courtroom drama, you’ve got lots of opportunity for Patrick Stewart to make some good speeches, you’ve got Jonathan Frakes directing, you’ve got Jean Simmons in the guest cast…you’d almost have to try to to make it not work.  And yet sadly, it doesn’t.

I didn’t remember The Drumhead like that, and my impression is that this episode is considered generally to be a good one.  But it suffers from what I would consider to be a fatal flaw, especially 25 years after the fact:  it’s so incredibly obvious.  The beginning material with the Klingon is strong, and Admiral Satie’s arrival is fine.  But once they set their sights on Crewman Tarses, the moral quandary of the story is blatantly put forward for all to see.  Of course the guest Admiral and her entourage are over the top in their pursuit of “truth”.  Of course Picard sees this instantly, and alone stands as a voice of reason as paranoia increases around them.  Of course it’s Worf who is semi-whipped up by the hysteria.  Not for an instant are we in the audience unsure of who is in the right.  There’s no “wrestling” with the issue.  There is only the Admiral’s increasingly apparent madness, and Picard’s unflappable moralizing. The courtroom scene at the end therefore doesn’t add anything to the story.  Even with the strength of Patrick Stewart’s acting, It just confirms what we’ve already been seeing the rest of the time.

And the episode really doesn’t offer anything else to buoy it up.  There’s no strong characterization, no interesting action, and no humor to note (again, aside from that strong opening with Worf and the Klingon J’Dan). It all rises and falls on how compelling we find the issue that’s being discussed.  And of course it is a compelling issue:  the suspension of human rights for the sake of national (or interplanetary) security.  Its still relevant today.  But it’s not a compelling discussion.  And if you’re going to make an issue like that the lynchpin of an episode, than you’ve got to present it in a way that really tackles it, and not just use the main character as your mouthpiece.  And this episode doesn’t really achieve that.

Shout Out to the Past:
• There are references to the events of The Best of Both Worlds and Data’s Day during the inquiry.  Also, it mentions that Admiral Satie is the one who exposed the alien conspiracy to infiltrate Starfleet, as seen in Conspiracy, I assume.  There was no reference to Admiral Satie back then, so I’m not sure when that was supposed to have happened.

• J’Dan makes a reference to Worf’s discommendation from Sins of the Father.

• The whole issue of the Romulans has been building up since the end of the first season, and the idea of a Klingon-Romulan alliance also had its seeds sown in Sins of the Father.

Guest Cast:
• Bruce French (Sabin Genestra) has had roles in Voyager, Enterprise, and Star Trek: Insurrection.  He also is credited in over 500 episodes of the soap opera Passions and played the minister who married Ethan and Julia Hunt in Mission: Impossible III.

• Spencer Garrett (Simon Tarses) has appeared on a two part episode of Voyager called “Flesh and Blood”, and in small parts in the movies Air Force One and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and in uncredited roles in the movies Iron Man III and Captain America: The First Avenger.

• Jean Simmons (Admiral Nora Satie) is an actress with many credits, including Oscar-nominated roles in Hamlet (as Ophelia, opposite Laurence Olivier) and The Happy Ending.  She featured in TV miniseries North and South, North and South Book II, and The Thorn Birds.

Observations:
• According to the opening the story, Picard hasn”t mention in his logs the Klingon exobiologist who is on board for several weeks.

• Worf’s silence at the exobiologists attempts to bribe him, followed by his abrupt beating, is very effective.

• A message delivered via inert proteins.  That’s some good spying.

• J’Dan provides an interesting alternate point of view to Worf and other Klingon warriors that we’ve met, in giving us a rationale for why the Klingons might ally with the Romulans:  “The blood of all Klingons has become water. Since the Federation alliance we have turned into a nation of mewling babies. Romulans are strong. They are worthy allies. They do not turn Klingons into weaklings like you.”

• Satie is quite over the top much of the time.  For example, she says, “…spies and saboteurs don’t like the bright light of an open inquiry. They’re like roaches, scurrying for the dark corner.”
• Picard has violated the Prime Directive 9 times!  Has anyone ever worked them out before?
• Picard quotes Judge Aaron Satie eloquently, but perhaps again a the comment is a bit too obviously on target.  “You know, there some words I’ve known since I was a school boy. ‘With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.’ Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie as wisdom and warning. The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged.”

Crazy Talk: Captain Riker (Huh?)
It’s hard to say if this episode could have worked without Picard.  Fans of it will certainly think not, but I would have been just as happy to watch a less experienced Captain Riker have to cross paths with the supremely confident Admiral Satie.  It might have allowed a bit more tension in the conflict.  And maybe then Commander Shelby could have fulfilled some of Worf’s role, and cut the guy a break.

Dialogue High Point
There are a lot of lines in which Picard gets to talk with foreboding about what is happening, but this is my favorite:

But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think.

Previous Episode: Qpid • Next Episode: Half a Life

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