In the fifteenth episode of the second season of The Next Generation, Wesley gets his first command, while Data unknowingly makes a huge mistake. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of consent and non-consensual medical procedures.
I certainly think this is a strong episode, yet another in a recent bout this season that builds up the character of Data, but holy shit, that ending is so horrifying! And look, I feel like “Pen Pals” does a fine job showing us the uncomfortable and disturbing implications of the Prime Directive, and then, when it comes to Sarjenka, no one seems all that upset about what the team does to her. It’s jarring, isn’t it?
But let me back up, since there are two plots unfolding here.
I definitely expected the title of this episode to be a reference to Wesley’s story, that somehow, he’d find a way to communicate with someone on Drema IV. Instead, Wesley’s story is about his growth as an officer in the fleet, and it’s pretty cool! It’s not an easy thing to suddenly be in charge of other people, and this episode does a fine job of addressing Wesley’s youth in a way that’s both respectful and not condescending. Yes, Wesley is younger than everyone he’s in charge of, and that creates an uncomfortable dynamic. That’s understandable! Everyone he works with is clearly more qualified than he is.
But that doesn’t mean that Wesley isn’t capable, nor does that mean he’s automatically right about everything. I mean… well, he does end up being right, but THAT’S NOT THE POINT. The point is that once given authority, Wesley starts questioning everything. That’s a big deal for someone like him, who is often more of a know-it-all than anything else. Right??? But if Wesley is going to ease his way into a command position, he has to learn how to speak with an authoritative voice. What I appreciated most about this episode was how the various crew members assisted Wesley in a way that wasn’t insulting. They obviously wanted the best of him, and sarcasm and rage weren’t going to bring that about.
I don’t think it’ll be much longer before Wesley outgrows the Enterprise. I think we’ll see that by the end of season four.
You know, I think that no other character could have been given this specific story because it relies so heavily on curiosity. If anyone else on the Enterprise had been presented with this same predicament, would they have responded to Sarjenka’s haunting question? Perhaps, but I would argue that none of them would have done so without consulting Picard or immediately notifying him once they got their first communication back.
Admittedly, it’s very weird that we go from that first exchange of Data and Sarjenka to, minutes later, the reveal that the two of them have been having an extended conversation. I get that it packs more of a punch when he finally does tell Picard, but it also makes it more difficult to understand Data’s attachment because we’re only told about his pen pal relationship. We see none of it. Still, that doesn’t make it worthless, and there’s a magnificent value in what happens after this:
Does the crew save Sarjenka and her people, or do they obey the Prime Directive?
Our gut reaction is, of course, to instantly respond with, “SAVE HER, WHY ARE YOU CONSIDERING ANY OTHER OPTION AT ALL?” However, the problem here is that Data’s “pen pal” conversation violated the prime directive in a pretty blatant way, so much so that Picard’s instinct is go into clean-up mode first. Again, that’s why I think this couldn’t have happened to any other character; all of them would have been far too terrified of breaking the Prime Directive in the first place. Data, however, is not like anyone else on the Enterprise. When he is asked a question, what does he do? He answers it. Therefore, he doesn’t have the ability to derive context from this behavior. Someone asks him if anyone is out there, and he responds with a resounding, “Yes!”
Thus, “Pen Pals” becomes a vicious philosophical experiment. What does the team do when faced with the fact that their own policy will guarantee that millions of people are going to do in the next few hours? Well, Dr. Pulaski and Geordi are both quick to say TO HELL WITH THE PRIME DIRECTIVE. And seriously, that was my initial reaction, too, given that Data had already violated it anyway, so… yeah. In for a penny, in for a pound. But is it that simple? The problem is that every step the crew takes in that specific direction, the more they risk irreparably ruining the future of the people on Drema IV.
However, it’s not lost on me (or people like Geordi, Dr. Pulaski, and Data) that the very idea of fate is largely redundant in this case. While some of the crew argue that they’re interfering with fate, most of them realize that perhaps their purpose was to intervene the whole time. Honestly, it’s a perpetual circle of logic if you accept the idea that there is a “fate” to the universe, so I don’t buy it that they’re just supposed to exist to fulfill this idea of a cosmic destiny. Isn’t the very act of exploration a defiance of this principle? How can they claim to be inventive and adventurous when a moral conundrum makes them want to run and hide, ignoring the problem?
Of course, I’m referencing the end of this episode, and it’s kind of impossible for me to think of this story without addressing that point. Data cares about Sarjenka, enough that he’s willing to continue his violation of the Prime Directive, his orders, and Picard’s wishes. (Never has Picard’s hatred of children ever felt so REAL and so ANGRY, y’all. HOLY SHIT.) I think that’s significant because it demonstrates that he’s continuing to grow. He’s got an intense morality here that is in direct contradiction to his training. Isn’t that a sign of some form of humanity?
I suppose that’s why the end of this episode frustrates me so much. Dr. Pulaski in particular seems so uncaring about what she forces upon Sarjenka. In the end, her justification for wiping Sarjenka’s memories amounts to, “Well, it’s best for her and for us.” Nah, it’s best for the Enterprise and literally no one else. How the hell was their intervention – one that saved the planet from annihilation! – so horrible to the fate of those on Darem IV that they had to erase it from Sarjenka’s mind? To me, this felt like the Enterprise cleaning up the legal mess that Data made and saving their asses in the process. There’s no charity or sympathy in their actions; it’s a nonconsensual medical procedure, plain and simple, and it’s horrifying. That’s especially so when Picard tells Data that Sarjenka’s continued trauma will help the android to understand humanity. Yeah, that’s really, really gross, isn’t it? How is someone’s life and memory fodder for character development?
The video for “Pen Pals” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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