Friday, August 28, 2009

Star Trek: The Next Generation--"Pen Pals"

Remember the mantra I have repeated since my TOS reviews that Trek never does episodes centered on children well? I think “Pen Pals” is the sole exception in all forty years of the final frontier. It would pain me too much to admit the constant does not hold, so I am going to call this one a data-centric episode instead. The little girl, Sanjenka, is a catalyst for a character study of data, whom kids seem to get attached to easily, and a a more mature moral debate over the Prime directive than what we have seen before. Wesley saves the day, too, without being the obnoxious wedgie in the lock room waiting to happen he normally is.

The Enterprise is investigating geological disturbances in a sector of planets which no manned ship has ever visited. These planets are self-destructing due to crystalline growths underneath the surface. Wesley is put incharge of a geological survey team to study the phenomenon.

In the meantime, Data inadvertently answers a call from a little girl who has no idea there is life on other planets. He keeps up a conversation with her for six weeks. When he realizes her planet is about to suffer the same geological disaster as the others, he pleads with Picard to intervene.

A debate among the senoir officers ensues regarding fate, moral clarity, and intervention. It is one of the few times in Trek the concept of a Grand Plan might exist, although God is never mention as the originator of that plan. It is fate for an entire planet to day or is the fact the Enterprise just happens to be there with the capability of saving the planet a sign the grand plan requires them to intervene?

It is an interesting debate, one I have , as a good Calvinist, had on a number of occasions. But it falls by the wayside here as the discussion turns to the purpose of the Prime Directive. It is supposed to prevent the Federation from becoming involved in internal matters of non-warp cultures.

Here is where I think Picard’s rationale goes wrong. He is one who does not want to intervene at all because he does not know where to draw the line. Should they intervene in a war or overthrow a brutal dictatorship committing genocide? Obviously no. . Data, Pulaski, and Troi want to intervene because they argue there is a moral certainty involved. The planet will be destroyed in a natural disaster. I agree with their argument. If the prime Directive is supposed to prevent the contamination of cultures from outsiders, how can a race that is about to be destroyed be considered contaminated when the Enterprise can act anonymously?

Picasrd decides no up until he hears Sanjenka calling for Data. He realizes she is making a plea for help. He decides he has to answer the call.

The solution comes rather pat. Data inconveniently has to bring Sanjeska onboard. He decided to do so solely because she was alone and scared. It probably was not necessary, but it is a neat character moment for Data. Throughout the episode, he was learning more about friendship than he has ever demonstrated before. The process was more than just him running through a string of social obligations for which he is programmed. Indeed, he will prove to be incredibly socially awkward at times in the future. He has built up a genuine relationship with Sanjeska. It comes naturally.

It is a bit disturbing that her memories of data and the Enterprise are wiped under Picard’s orders, but much less so than allowing for genocide under some principle that non-intervention to prevent a race of people from being wiped out is aiding in their natural development. Picard still cannot hide his hatred for children. It was kind of nasty for o’Brien to refer to Sanjeska as an “it,” as well. I guess those two know kids and trek do not mix well.

On a final note, I am confident it was established in TOS’ “The Paradise Syndrome” the Prime Directive does not apply when a pre-warp race can be saved without them knowing the federation intervened. If so, that negates the whole moral argument here. Data never told Sanjeska who or where he was. As far asshe knew, he was another member of her race. But it would rip the heart out of the story if that moral conflict was not there, so I am going to overlook it.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

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