TNG 2.15 – Pen Pals

TNG 2.15 – Pen Pals

Carrot fingers. That is all.

Memory Alpha says: Data makes contact with a young girl from a pre-warp civilization on a planet facing imminent annihilation. The Enterprise must wrestle with the moral dilemma of violating the Prime Directive or standing by while Data’s friend dies. (Please click the Memory Alpha link for detailed information.)

My Review

I just sneezed and now everything smells funny.

Okay, whatever that was about: this episode is one of those ones that makes you think how absolutely weird it is that Data is not only a Starfleet officer, but is considered mature and competent enough as a Starfleet officer to be third in command of the Federation flagship, and yet nobody seems to have any real cognitive dissonance about how much like a young child he behaves in this story. Data was, what? Twenty-eight or nine by now? It makes sense for him to have an odd way of looking at the world, but not for him to completely overlook the number one rule of his job just because he was curious. Innocent and naïve, yes, but this goes beyond innocence into tomfoolery. Meanwhile we see an actual child, Wesley Crusher, being put in charge of adult officers.

Also, this episode is about the Prime Directive, so it’s going to be annoying. Here we go.

They’re going to investigate some geology!
‘These planets live fast and die hard. The question is, why?’ Because they’re rebels, man.
Riker gives no reason for believing that the shattered planet wasn’t blown up by space jerks. True, it wasn’t, but that type of thing does happen in this show sometimes so it’s not silly of Worf to wonder.
Meanwhile, Picard is going riding, and for no reason I can discern, Deanna is hanging out with him at the same time (even though she doesn’t want to try riding, just to watch him). I wish Beverly were here; this could have been a nice scene for the two of them.
There’s a weird exchange as Picard says that the Arabs believed Allah gathered the south wind and made the horse, and Deanna says ‘On the holodeck we’ve made that legend come true.’ Which… what on earth does that mean? Just that the holodeck can make a horse appear out of thin air? Because holodecks don’t involve wind or gods as far as I can tell. What is Deanna saying? WITH OUR TECHNOLOGY WE ARE AS GODS? Later in this episode she’ll be arguing against hubris. I’m just sayin’.
As they go into the holodeck the conversation only gets weirder:
Troi: So you like horses for the romance?
Picard: It goes deeper than that. A fine war mare would sleep in a Bedouin’s tent, carry him into battle, feed his children with her milk. There’s a bond which is created by mutual need. (to the horse) Hello, beautiful.
Maybe it’s lucky Bev isn’t here; she’d feel she couldn’t compete. She hasn’t lactated in years.
Now this episode was written by Melinda Snodgrass, who was also responsible for the excellent ‘Measure of a Man,’ and who included the horse scenes basically because she loves horses. I do like showing another hobby for Picard, and I do like his special outfit for the occasion (he’s wearing a cardigan! Yessssss!) – but this dialogue really is peculiar.
And she says ‘You don’t want the comfort of a pet, you want a companion.’ Which… does Melinda Snodgrass have pets? Pets are companions. That’s why they’re sometimes called ‘companion animals.’ And honestly, it still sounds to me like Picard wants a wife. Just… a wife that he can feed sugarlumps, and curry-comb.
In fairness, the horse in this scene is a very pretty horse. It has nice pointy ears.
Did… Lwaxana get rid of Deanna’s kitten? She looks so sad thinking about it. That’s kind of horrible.
Anyway, Interrupting Riker interrupts Picard just before he can get his leg over.
They see a planet going right to heck, nobody knows why, and then there’s a conversation in the conference lounge where the biggest thing all these adults are focused on is Wesley, Wesley, Wesley. Because Riker thinks it would be a great learning experience for Wesley to lead the mineral survey team to study the Heck Planet. It just seems too weird to me to put a boy in his mid-teens in charge of grown-up scientists purely because he’s smart and ambitious. And there are sword metaphors, and it’s like they’re all trying to prepare Wesley to be King one day. (I think someone has to pull him out of a stone.)
I do like how when Wes goes into the lounge and sees all the grown-ups sitting there looking at him, he has a momentary look of guilt and panic, as if he’s wondering how he screwed up and how much they’re going to yell at him. But of course, since Wesley bears a charmed life, nothing of the kind ensues, although Picard squelches him slightly when he seems too excited.
Meanwhile on the bridge, Data is fiddling around with one of the workstations. He has part of its guts open, and he keeps a much messier workspace than I would have expected – isolinear chips are scattered over the floor, where people could step on them, and not in any sort of order to help put them back in the right places. I mean, I’m a messy person so I don’t really know, but doesn’t Data seem like the type to put things in neat lines and stacks without even thinking about it?
And sure enough, after discussing the technobabble he’s doing, Worf accidentally steps on some of the mess, which is strewn clear across to the back of the wooden horseshoe. He gives Data a Look that’s equal parts ‘For God’s sake Data’ and ‘was that important?’ Data says he’ll be moving the junk to his quarters, Worf says ‘GOOD’ and Data turns back to his work with an odd little face as if Worf intimidated him for a moment there. At least he didn’t BEGONE you again.
Super awkward transition into a scene where Riker and Deanna are walking together; she giggles, as if he just said something funny, but if he did, there was quite a pause before she reacted. I almost prefer to read it as ‘Deanna giggled at nothing.’ Perhaps at the memory of Picard wanting a horse wife.
Boring walk-and-talk about Wesley’s responsibilities. It’s very bland. At least Wesley does seem to be humanly daunted by a managerial role. He asks what to do about personality conflicts, and Riker says ‘Completely irrelevant! These people are professionals. If there’s a personality conflict, you’re in charge, you settle it.’ He says nothing about how. Then, a dullish scene with Wesley and some science guy called Ensign Davies who doesn’t like married couples to work together (why???). Davies is doing some fantastic Fake Science that involves destroying rocks in a glass tube. I actually don’t believe he has any scientific justification for this; he’s just having fun. He offers to take over for Wesley if he can’t cope, which is both kind and slightly underminey.
In his quarters, Data is still fiddling with the ship’s sensors (he’s trying to make them super-duper sensitive and accurate). Because he is a little gentleman, he follows most instructions to the computer with ‘please.’ After further adjustments, including the characteristic TV use of ‘enhance’ to make something illegible or inaudible magically come into a usable resolution, he picks up a faint, tinny little voice asking ‘Is anybody out there?’ Looking surprised and pleased, he answers ‘Yes.’
Odd corridor shot whose low angle seems intended to draw attention to Wesley’s thin grey legs. He’s jittering around outside the room where his team are waiting for him. Dr Pulaski is encouraging and nice to him.
And suddenly, it’s six weeks later! Six weeks of poozing around this solar system, finding that the same weird shit is happening to all the planets. What are the odds? I think Team Wesley are getting a bit bored and feeling tempted to do a half-assed job, because they pooh-pooh his wish to do some more thorough testing, and Davies undermines him again, implying that if Wesley were a good officer he would agree with him that the test is a waste of time.
Data goes to see Picard, who is riding his horse in the holodeck, just to make the most of the fact that they rented a really pretty horse and did an outdoor location shoot for this week’s show. I kind of like to think that he’s been doing little else for the past six weeks: drinking tea, riding horses, reading books. Oddly, Data says he has been talking to his little ham radio correspondent, Sarjenka, for eight weeks. Picard’s eloquent response to hearing that Sarjenka’s people don’t know about interstellar life: ‘Oops.’ However, he really doesn’t get cross with Data at all, which you’d think he might, given that Data has been carrying on like this for two months (or a month and a half, depending on who you believe) before mentioning it to anyone. It’s an incredibly silly thing for an adult and a senior officer to have done.
How have Sarjenka and Data managed to have frequent conversations for over a month with Data keeping his real identity and location ‘somewhat vague’ but without Sarjenka getting fed up with that and demanding that he tell her something? Do they only talk about her life? Do Sarjenka’s parents know she’s talking to adults on her radio? Do they not have the concept of ‘dodgy people’ on her planet? I know we didn’t have the concept of ‘Internet predator’ when this episode was made, but it was an absolute boom time for ‘stranger danger’ fears.
How did Data find out that Sarjenka is humanoid, anyway? Has he been asking questions like ‘How many limbs do you have? Mm-hm. How about heads?’
Anyway, Data hopes that there might be some way to save Sarjenka’s planet without violating the Prime Directive. I love Picard’s equestrian cardigan so much. He is wearing a cardigan over a sweater. He must be toasty warm! Picard agrees to have a staff meeting about it, but tells Data he has to stop talking to the kid.
In Ten Forward, Wesley interrupts Riker on a date to ask for his advice about Davies the Underminer. Because everyone on the Enterprise is unfailingly kind, patient and encouraging to Wesley, even when he totally cockblocks them, Riker takes time to talk about it and delivers the perfect advice for all situations: ‘It’s important to ask yourself one question. What would Picard do?’
Oh, and when Riker excused himself from his date to talk to Wesley, he said ‘Family emergency.’ Okay, that was adorable.
In a nice bit of continuity, Wesley harks back to his big fear from the psych test: what if somebody dies because he makes a mistake? Not that he expects anyone to die if he fucks up in a mineral survey, but this is what underlies all his doubts about his own judgement and authority. Anyway, Wesley decides he’s going to tell Davies to run the goddamn test like he wanted. So he goes and tells him firmly and Davies is like ‘You got it!’ because all you have to do is belieeeeeeeve in yourself.
Everyone gets together to have a big old Star Trek debate – oddly, in Picard’s quarters, not the conference room. I’m on Geordi (I know!) and Pulaski’s side: we shouldn’t let people die if we can help them. Worf is like ‘fuck ’em, we’ve got a rule.’ The argument I find most irritating and beside the point is advanced by Riker and Troi, that there might be a ‘cosmic plan’ that we shouldn’t interfere with, because it would be ‘hubris.’ Since we don’t know if there’s a cosmic plan and can’t know if there’s a cosmic plan, I think we morally have to proceed as if there is none and how things turn out is up to us. Agnostic ethics.
This next bit from Picard strikes me as odd. ‘How about a war? If generations of conflict is killing millions, do we interfere? Ah, well, now we’re all a little less secure in our moral certitude. And what if it’s not just killings. If an oppressive government is enslaving millions? You see, the Prime Directive has many different functions, not the least of which is to protect us. To prevent us from allowing our emotions to overwhelm our judgement.’
But… why does that change matters? Because intervening to stop a war or oust an oppressive government would involve taking sides, and you might misread the situation and choose what turned out to be the wrong one? Or you might think you were making a difference but really only perpetuate the status quo, like Tintin and the Picaros? Or you might just find yourself bogged down in a situation from which you can’t withdraw, because your presence is always needed to prevent the original conflict arising again? Or is it because by intervening you would deprive the people of the troubled world of their free will and the achievement of solving the problem themselves? Picard’s lines seem to assume that the drawback is obvious, but it’s not to me.
Anyway, Pulaski says ‘My emotions are involved. Data’s friend is going to die. That means something.’ Anyone who thinks she didn’t like him can just stick that in their pipe and smoke it. Pulaski frickin’ loves Data. ‘To Data,’ mutters Worf, and Pulaski, oddly, replies ‘Does that invalidate the emotion?’ Does she mean her emotion or is she ascribing one to Data?
The debate turns to whether they could consider Sarjenka’s expressions of fear and concern about what’s happening to her planet as a distress signal, and stalls. Data gets up and asks ‘We are going to allow her to die, are we not?’ Picard, evidently feeling like a giant heel, tells him to ‘sever the contact’ with Sarjenka’s planet.
And here’s something interesting. I would very, very much like to know whether Data did this deliberately, if he can be that manipulative (in this case, in a good cause, but still, this is some sneaky shit if it’s on purpose). He goes to a control panel behind Picard’s desk and starts pushing buttons, and oops! instead of just cutting off the connection, it plays Sarjenka’s voice to the room (conveniently, she is apparently trying to send Data a message right at this moment, unless of course he’s playing part of a message he recorded earlier), pleading for her friend to talk to her, because she’s afraid.
Data used Tug at Heartstrings. It’s super effective!  As always with Picard. They’re going to look for a way to save Sarjenka.
Staff meeting, and of course that extra test Wesley ordered is just what it took to establish what’s really going on with the planets. It’s something to do with dilithium and that’s all you’ll get out of me. Apparently Sarjenka’s planet is more loaded with dilithium than any other known world (nobody, of course, talks about the possibility of mining the place to fuel all their dilithium-hungry starships, but you’d think it would go on the ‘To Do Someday Maybe’ list). Alans and Hildebrandt, the married couple, finish each other’s sentences as they explain how it works, which is a nice touch. They think they’ve got a way to stop the planet dying, but they have to do some more figurin’ to make sure. Picard and Riker talk about Data’s efforts to find the safest location on the planet, and Picard gives permission for Data to take Sarjenka there. The thing is, if Sarjenka survived because Data managed to get her somewhere safe but her family and all her friends and their whole community died, well, what then? He’d have himself a very traumatised, shell-shocked new adopted daughter.
Anyway, Data can’t get hold of Sarjenka because of atmospheric activity planetside. The Enterprise is going to shoot thingies into the planet’s crust to fix the dilithium problem. (Never mind what native geologists or miners who later discover them might make of it.) In comes Data to swing on Picard’s heartstrings again, pleading to be allowed to go to the surface to check on Sarjenka personally. And of course it works, because Picard is the biggest sucker where Data and his Earnest Innocent Slightly Sad Face are concerned. I think next Data should ask for a pony.
In the transporter room, Riker and O’Brien have some snappy patter about O’Brien ‘taking a nap’ while Riker and Data blatantly violate the Prime Directive. Of course O’Brien is fine with this; he’ll do the same for Tosk one day.
I feel I should pause to take in the set of Sarjenka’s home. Interestingly, either Sarjenka has a huge bedroom or her radio set is right in the family living room – so I guess her parents were around and able to hear her conversations with Data (and anyone else she made contact with – I mean, I presume there are other radio hams on this planet).
It pretty much looks like Hell outside and Data’s hair gets blown around when he opens the (nifty, force-fieldy) door. So he goes back inside and… looks at a sculpture.
While he’s doing that, Sarjenka comes running in and goes straight to try and pick up the radio set – which the prop people have built to look completely non-portable and too heavy for a kid to lift.
Data calls out to her and she initially scurries away, but comes back when he identifies himself. This is a bit that always feels weird to me, not because I feel she should automatically be afraid of him, but because I, as a kid, would have been so disappointed to see that my mysterious pen-pal was just a grown-up. Takes all the magic out of it somehow. All right, there are a few grown-ups who would be exceptions, like the Doctor or Mary Poppins, but still. Well, maybe he told her from the beginning that he was an adult, so this doesn’t come as a surprise. Still, because we didn’t get to see the development of their friendship, it’s hard to know how to read the dynamic between the two of them.
Sarjenka reaches up to Data’s shoulders and passes her hands down his arms, as if she’s sort of admiring and marvelling at him, but doesn’t try to hug him (realistically, they had to limit physical contact between the two actors because their makeup would rub off on each other, and Sarjenka had these silly prosthetic finger-extensions on that look like carrot sticks). They do hold both each other’s hands, though, which is rather sweet. Sarjenka also has some kind of chipmunk electronic filter on her voice – I had hoped that was just how she sounded on the radio through interference.
Anyway, somewhere Sarjenka’s parents must be out of their minds with fear and worry, because they’d already evacuated from their house, but she’s snuck away and come back to get her radio so she can still talk to Data! Jesus, Sarjenka! Okay, it is believable kid reasoning, but her poor parents don’t even know where she is. Well, that makes up Data’s mind – he’s taking Sarjenka home with him.
If you give Data an inch he will take a frickin’ mile.
O’Brien! Don’t call little girls ‘that’ just because they have carrot fingers! No wonder Sarjenka doesn’t want to be left with you.
On the bridge, Picard is pacing, waiting for it to be time to launch the magic solution devices, and Riker is hugging his own pecs, like he does. When Data arrives with Sarjenka, Picard turns to Riker like he’s too mad to even look at Data right now, and mutters ‘He has brought a child onto my ship –  and on my bridge.’ I honestly think the fact that Sarjenka’s a kid bothers him more than the fact that she’s here in, you know, FLAGRANT VIOLATION OF THE PRIME DIRECTIVE.
Picard tells Deanna to take Sarjenka to sickbay, and Sarjenka, who let’s not forget has been abducted by aliens, understandably freaks out at the strange lady trying to take her away from the only person she knows here. Unfortunately, she holds her hands up defensively in a way that lets us get a really good look at those stupid-looking carrot fingers. Deanna even tries to bribe her with a treat – that’s what strangers always try! Data manages to calm her down and to get permission to keep her with him on the bridge, and permission to stay up late and eat ice-cream whenever he feels like it. Or, you know, something an android might actually want but not normally be allowed. Smoke his pipe on the bridge?
As Data sits down at his workstation, he very sweetly asks Sarjenka for his hand back. She sticks close to him and watches as the aliens apparently shoot balls of light at her planet. But as Data explains, it’s all benign. And of course it works, incredibly quickly, because Wesley did such a darn good job. Wesley is totally stoked (although nobody says anything about it to him – he doesn’t even get a pat on the back or a Special Manly Shoulder Squeeze from Riker).
Data tells Sarjenka ‘Your parents will be safe now’ (he doesn’t mention her brothers, though she asked after them too a moment ago!) and she asks ‘You did this for me?’ Perhaps to forestall her developing an overblown sense of her own importance, Data calls up a view of the planet on the big screen, and tells her ‘There is your home.’ She steps slowly forward, gazing at it in wonder.
Picard, who is sitting up the back with a face like thunder, tells Data to take his pet kid to sickbay. After they leave, he goes into his ready room and comms Pulaski, telling her ‘Data and the alien’ are on their way to her and asking her to wipe Sarjenka’s memories of ever communicating with Data. Pulaski says she can do this ‘assuming her brain structure is similar to ours.’ Which is assuming a lot for a person with carrot fingers.
Data and Sarjenka walk hand in hand down the corridor, talking about the ship. Oddly, he encourages her to think that she could serve on the Enterprise when she grows up. When they get to sickbay, the cheeky monkey immediately picks up an ornament from Pulaski’s desk and asks about it. It makes a faintly annoying chiming tone as Pulaski explains it’s a ‘singer stone’ that produces a different song for each person that holds it. When Sarjenka asks Data about his song, he says it doesn’t produce one for him, and when she asks why, he says ‘Because I am a machine’ in a tone of mild surprise, like, you know that Sarjenka. Seriously? Either he has told Sarjenka before now that he’s a machine, or right now, she has absolutely no follow-up questions about that bombshell.
Anyway, Data lifts Sarjenka onto a bed and Dr Pulaski puts her under. Data has his doubts about the rightness of wiping Sarjenka’s memories, because he hated it when that happened to Donna Noble. Pulaski justifies it as protecting Sarjenka as well as them, because it would ‘complicate her future’ to remember the time she was abducted by aliens. I’ll say.
But look, they don’t have access to Sarjenka’s parents, so what is Sarjenka supposed to think when everything has calmed down and one day her mum or dad says ‘Have you heard anything from your friend Data recently, dear?’ Or her brothers tease her about her pretend boyfriend and ask if he pretend dumped her? Did they know about him or not? Do Data and Pulaski even think about this possibility? Maybe Data does think about this possibility and decides to keep quiet about it, and maybe he does want to give Sarjenka the chance to remember him (no matter how this might ‘complicate’ her life), because when he takes her, still sleeping, back to her home, he tucks the singing stone into her hand before he leaves her. For an episode that’s supposed to focus on Data’s innocence, that is some sneaky shit right there.
You know, I hope if Data and Sarjenka are ever reunited one day, maybe because some other interstellar power tries to occupy her dilithium-rich planet and mine the hell out of it and the Federation is forced to intervene openly before it gets all Avatar down there, it turns out she was just going through some kind of larval stage and those carrot fingers withered and dropped off. They make her look like an aye-aye that’s been eating Cheetos. I’m not even going to get into her forehead or her hair. That’s larval hair if ever I saw it.
On the bridge, Riker offers Wesley a sit in the Big Swivelly Chair, but Wesley humbly declines. Riker tells him he did a good job and he’s proud of him. No hug or Special Shoulder Squeeze though. Data crosses the room behind them, on his way to Picard’s office, and I think it would have been nice if he had spoken to Wesley too. I mean, if it weren’t for Wesley, it wouldn’t have been possible to save Sarjenka. Maybe they just couldn’t find time for it, but a quick ‘Thank you, Wes’ wouldn’t take long.
Data goes to apologise to Picard – perhaps realising that he has pushed his luck pretty far this week – but of course Picard is nothing but patient and kind and forgiving. And now that Sarjenka is safely the hell off his ship, he refers to her by name. Picard ties up the episode a little bit tritely, telling Data that this experience has brought him closer to understanding humanity.
Yes. Here’s what Data now understands about humans: they are suckers for pathos and will let you get away with pretty much anything as long as you are cute. If Lore had understood this, he would’ve been unstoppable.

Back to DS9 next time!