In the twelfth episode of the seventh season of The Next Generation, Riker’s old commanding officer brings aboard a secretive mission. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Goddamn, this was a great episode! With surprise Terry O’Quinn, too! I think sometimes I just accept that this show has the military framework built into it without thinking too much about it. But this episode makes it a lot more clear how this organizational system affects so much of the storytelling on The Next Generation. The Federation exists in this nebulous grey area that’s between a purely science-based organization and an imperialistic force. While they’re not out in the universe, conquering nations for an empire, there are elements to the Federation that are about defensive maneuvers, political power, and physical growth.
Granted, “The Pegasus” provides us with an extreme example of that. But I don’t want to ignore that what is eventually exposed by Riker is part of something deeper than just one dude messing things up for others. Given that there are multiple species and cultures that want nothing to do with the Federation or who have a hostile opinion of them, the Federation was inevitably going to have to take a more militaristic stance within the galaxy. I think that culture is what created Admiral Pressman, who believed that all officers must be obeyed. That there are enemies in the universe who must be thwarted and destroyed at any cost. That the role of an Admiral is one of absolute authority. The man had support in the upper parts of Starfleet Intelligence, so there were others who enabled him in this behavior.
The conflict, aside from the horrible trap that the Enterprise gets caught in, surrounds Riker’s own moral crisis within this very system. Ronald D. Moore’s script brilliantly hides the “experiment” that Riker witnessed (or participated in) twelve years prior, and thus, the tension comes from the unknown. We know that Riker is being ordered to keep the real reason for the Pegasus mission a secret, but we don’t know why. We hear Admiral Pressman refer to an experiment, but neither he nor Riker will spell it out. And then, in a rather stunning scene, Picard confronts Riker about a possible mutiny on the Pegasus, AND EVERYTHING FALLS APART AND IT’S ALL SO TERRIBLY AWKWARD.
In that sense, I wonder if this episode was intended as an exploration of the downfalls of this kind of structure. If Picard and Riker had not defied the Starfleet code, would Admiral Pressman have been victorious in violating the Treaty of Algeron? Would the Federation have turned into something far more offensive and violent? This episode doesn’t answer those questions, but what it does demonstrate is how someone like Pressman was able to exploit the absolute nature of Starfleet’s military-esque code in order to get exactly what he wanted. The frustrating thing is that even with valid concerns at hand, Picard and Riker couldn’t use the system to defend themselves or protect the Enterprise. Simply because of his status as an admiral, Pressman was able to take control of a ship that wasn’t even his, risk the lives of everyone on board (INCLUDING ALL THOSE CHILDREN!!! That must have been the point of Captain Picard Day: to remind us who else lives on the ship), and pursue an illegal end.
And he almost got away with it.
I think Moore’s script is exciting, thrilling, and a really clever examination of power. It’s always uncomfortable to see the crew argue with one another, but Moore pushed this further than I expected by having Picard openly defy his orders and express distrust in Riker, which is A HUGE DEAL. There’s that scene early on where Picard explained why he chose Riker as his First Officer, and I now realize that was Moore’s way of hinting at what would eventually happen: Picard would challenge his superior. The clash that we witness here is over the way these men view command. But it’s just as much about the failings of Starfleet in some quiet way, too.
I know I’m reading a lot into this, but I just didn’t think we’d get such a critical reading of command structure from this show. There’s no denying that the phase-shifting cloaking device that Pressman tried to create would have been valuable to the Federation, but the whole point is that it would have violated a key treaty that led to sixty years of peace. But to someone like Pressman and the people who support him, it’s worth it to break that law if it means that they can gain a “tactical advantage” against the Romulans and other races/species.
And what of the phase-shifting device? What becomes of it? I think that’s not the point of this episode. As far as I could tell, the court-martial sent a message throughout Starfleet: the Treaty of Algeron matters, and those who violate it will be punished. How will this affect Riker, who still disobeyed a direct order? Perhaps his record will be forever altered, but you know what? It was worth it, and both characters know it. Perhaps Riker made the “wrong” mistake twelve years earlier, but at that point, fresh out of the academy, all he had to base his decisions on was the rigid framework of command. He made the best decision he could, and, as Picard points out, he made the best decision right now.
Whew, this was a complicated, uncomfortable episode. And I loved it!
The video for “The Pegasus” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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