Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Survivors"/"Who Watches The Watchers"

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Survivors"/"Who Watches The Watchers"

"The Survivors"

We've been talking over in the X-Files recaps about how great X-Files was as an anthology show once it got a good head of steam going. The show's core concept--two FBI agents investigating strange cases that fell through the bureaucratic cracks--made it possible for episodes to vary wildly in style and intent, from the overtly horrific to the cynically comedic, while still maintaining a consistent world. There were mythology episodes that worked with continuity, but there were also one-offs like "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" or "Home" that played like short stories that our heroes just happened to brush up against. While X-Files could be hit or miss (especially in its later seasons), that freedom to explore the edges resulted in some absolutely stellar television, and it's something that genre shows do better than just about any other kind of TV.

TNG doesn't really work the same way. The cast is too large, and the tone is too consistent, for it ever achieve the same level of diversity. I don't think that's a problem with the series in any way, as a lot of my favorite shows are very consistent, and I'm not sure TNG could've sustained the same amount of self-parody without losing its soul. I mention The X-Files here partly because I just want to pimp out those recaps (Todd VanDerWerff and I are nearing the end of the third season, why not join us?), and partly because "The Survivors" is proof that, when it wanted to, TNG was quite capable of producing its own short-story style narrative. The crew of the Enterprise needs to be more directly involved with the action than Mulder and Scully ever did, but when the end results are as excellent as they are here, it's a great reminder of TNG's potential for exploration, and how it's possible to tell a self-contained plot that still feels connected with the rest of the show.

A few commenters complained about the lack of summary in these recaps, and I don't mind giving a little more info than I have been. (Although you should check out my recaps of TOS, which often devolved into plot-summaries-with-occasional-jokes.) To that end: The Enterprise responds to a distress call from a Federation colony on Rana IV. When they arrive, they find the colony wiped out and the planet nearly devoid of life (intelligent or otherwise), except for one small area of land that appears untouched by catastrophe. An away team beams down to find two life forms, a married couple, Kevin and Rishon, who seemingly have no idea that the rest of the colonists are dead. Both are pleasant and accommodating, but refuse to leave the planet, despite Riker's urging. Then the evil alien ship comes back, only it's kind of wussy, and Troi starts freaking out because of a music box tune. Something strange is going on here.

There's a lot that's great about this episode, and we'll hopefully get to all of it, but what I noticed most while re-watching it for this recap ("Survivors" is one of the TNGs I remember most strongly even though I haven't seen it in years, enough so that I was able to figure out which episode it was after the teaser--which isn't really that impressive, but it may be the first time that's happened since I started doing these write ups) is how wonderfully, elegantly logical it progresses from one point to the next. The central mystery doesn't really require the presence of the Enterprise to exist; Picard serves as a kind of audience surrogate here, asking the questions we want answered, albeit with a little more emotion behind them than we might have.

What's cool is that we get to see him figure things out, and in a way that doesn't make him seem slow for the sake of padding. It clear that something is going on, and it's not hard to figure out there must be a connection between the couple on the planet, and the alien ship that keeps trying to scare the Enterprise out of orbit. Once Picard realizes this connection, he tests it, first reasoning out the opposing ship's intentions, and then proving just how direct that ship's relationship with Kevin and Rishon must be by providing the couple with the one condition that would cause the Enterprise to leave the planet for good, just to see if they'd attempt to fulfill it. (Gah, clumsy sentence--basically, Picard says, ""We'll never leave, unless you two have been killed by, oh I don't know, that crazy creepy ship that keeps showing up," and bam presto, ten minutes later, the evil ship seems to do just that.) 

It's pretty clear something is up from the beginning. There's that weird unscathed patch of land, and then there's the fact that, when the alien ship first makes an appearance, it attacks the Enterprise with embarrassingly low power levels. Anybody who's watched their far share of sci-fi could probably start connecting the dots, especially with the franchise's frequent use of the god-like being, but by following each step in Picard's deductions, the delay between our understanding of the situation and our heroes' understanding is minimized. There's none of that tedious wandering around repeating the obvious that can make stories like this so boring. (The time to fill is usually a big factor. Stripped to its core, you could probably get the important pieces of "Survivors" done in about twenty-five minutes, or the length of a half-hour Twilight Zone.) The reveal is important, but the episode doesn't depend entirely on the reveal for it's dramatic effect.

Part of the drama comes from Picard's work; Patrick Stewart's indignation at being even temporarily fooled gives him an emotional investment. Obviously he can't simply leave, given Troi's condition, but you get the sense that even if Troi wasn't suffering, Picard would've kept poking around. One of the difficulties in trying to pull off this kind of anthology-style approach is coming up with convincing reasons to involve the Enterprise with the action. Here, we have Troi, whose agonies give us another emotional undercurrent (and while I don't think making her a victim every week would really improve the character, it is nice to see her abilities used in a way that isn't simply her commenting on obvious subtext), and the need to figure out just what killed everyone else on the planet, which are both good enough reasons. I like that the more character-oriented motivation from Picard is there, too. 

Of course, the real core of "Survivors" is the deep dark secret behind just what the hell is going on with Kevin and Rishon. Both the guest actors are solid, and both are faces that should be familiar to TV fans. I don't really associate Anne Haney, who passed away in 2001, with any one role, though I've seen her in a bunch of stuff, but despite his long and distinguished career, John Anderson (who died in 1992) will always be MacGyver's grandfather to me. Haney gives you a clear sense of Rishon in a handful of scenes, nothing remarkable but a very warm and likable presence, and Anderson, who gets the episode's big reveal monologue, does some heavy lifting with a nicely underplayed weariness. I like the general thread of irritation that runs throughout his performance, too, because it's the frustration of someone who knows they're about to be caught, and knows they deserve to be caught, but can't bear to let go of the moment. 

All right, so let's get into the big secret: Kevin, contrary to appearances, isn't human. He's actually a Douwd, an immortal being with the ability to create illusions and trickery and all kinds of wonderful god-like being magic. Rishon, at least the Rishon we see, is a phantom, created by Kevin to replace the real Rishon, who died in the attack on Rana IV just like the rest of the non-Douwd colonists. Already, this is heartbreaking. The issue I've always taken with the GLB plotlines is that GLBs are so powerful and ill-defined that there's no reason to invest in them as characters. They're either a justification for an otherwise inexplicable storyline, or else they're obstacles to be defeated. There's no real grounded personality, so it's hard to get that emotional about what they do. Crazy stuff happens, then after a certain point it stops happening, and we all move on our lives.

Kevin is different, because his connection to Rishon, who was human, and therefore mortal and vulnerable, shows the limits of his power. He can't bring her back from the dead, not really (she's there enough to register on life scans, but the soul is gone), and when she decided to go fight alongside of the rest of the colonists when the planet was attacked, he was unable to stop her, because he loved her. His own moral code prevented him from fighting the enemy--he tried his tricks to fool them, but as we've seen, those tricks aren't impossible to see through. So eventually, the alien threat, a group of Husnocks, figured out his ruse and struck back. Hard.

So that's terribly sad, and it's a terrific image--a powerful being haunting a planet with the memory of his lost love and the home they shared together. What makes "Survivors" really great, though, is that it approaches Kevin's character with the same careful deliberation that it applies to Picard's deductive efforts. Kevin's pacifism is, apart from his powers, the character's defining trait. It's what makes the tragedy of this story possible, and it determines the nature of our heroes' investigations; if Kevin was more willing to fight to defend his position, he might never have lost Rishon, and even if he had, he would've easily been able to repel Picard and the others from discovering his secret. It's only natural, then, to wonder if he's really justified in his commitment to principle. Shows like this often deal in absolutes, and while that can make for powerful moments, it also tends to fall apart in the aftermath. (Which is another reason why the half-hour format worked so well for Twilight Zone; it didn't give you much time to ask questions.)

Here, though, we're given a reason why it's so important Kevin stick to his principles. After the death of Rishon, Kevin was angry. Very, very angry. So he killed the Husnock. Not just the aliens who had attacked his planet, or a portion of them, or everyone over a certain age; he killed every single Husnock, obliterating an entire race with the power of his brain. That's... well, that's messed up. It's maybe a little more over-the-top than the series can really support, but it works for me. I'm not sure Picard's decision to leave Kevin alone with his misery at the end of the episode is the right decision, because the genocide of 50 billion sentient beings for the sake one lost love is impossible to justify. And yet, I can't think of any other option. Like Picard says, there's no way to judge Kevin for his actions, because what he's done is so immense it can barely be conceived of, let alone understood. This is the first great episode of the new season, because it's easy to imagine it standing on its own as a terrific science fiction story, but it also manages to incorporate the Enterprise without straining too hard. Plus, it's really sad, and I'm a total sucker for that.

Grade: A

Stray Observations:

  • The rest of the main crew is sidelined here, but Worf does get a great beat with Kevin: "I admire gall." (Also: "Good tea. Nice house.")
  • This is shallow, but man, I really prefer Beverly's new haircut.
  • It's interesting how you could tie this episode in with the next, in that both deal with the difficulties of maintaining principles, and the problems that can arise when commitment to an absolute ideal is forced to cope with the real world, which is hardly ideal and never absolute. Maybe if Kevin had fought alongside his wife and neighbors, the catastrophe might've been avoided.

"Who Watches The Watchers"

I think I know what's best for everyone, really I do. I'm reasonably intelligent, I've been through my share of crap, and I've learned some lessons. It's so easy to listen to my friends talk about their lives and point out the obvious mistakes they're making. Aren't I obligated, then, to take a hand and try and make their lives better? If I have this wisdom (and oh my god, you guys, it's crazy how smart I am about this stuff, I could be a therapist if it didn't require all those classes and text books and professional ethics), surely it's my job to do everything I can to use that wisdom to help the less fortunate. Couldn't be more clear cut, really. Except, well, okay, sometimes I'm wrong. Sometimes I misread a situation, sometimes I over-simplify, and I do have a tendency to favor stabbing as my go-to. But really, that isn't so bad, because, hey, worse case scenario, if I tell my friend that she should dump her boyfriend because he has a last name ending in "e," and she does, and then she freaks out... Hey, she's not me. I get to walk away, and go spread some love elsewhere.

It's easy to think you know what other people should do to be happy. And I think when we're younger, you can even be right occasionally, but that doesn't last long. Anyway, being right or wrong isn't the point here. I'm not saying that advice is a bad idea, or that you can't help (or be helped by others in turn). I'm more getting at that specific arrogance that sometimes hits us when our lives are going well, and one of our friends isn't doing so great, and suddenly you get this brilliant idea that you can fix them. The reason this hardly ever works is that, well, you can't. You can't make somebody be what you think they should be, and the more you try, the more you struggle to control a situation that isn't directly connected to you, the more difficult it becomes to see the outcome. 

All of which is a more roundabout than usual way of saying, The Prime Directive? Yeah, that's a good idea. I mean, a ruined friendship is one thing. At least the relationships I've destroyed didn't have a body count. (That I know of.) We've seen what happens when Federation personnel ignore the rules and try and impose their will on less advanced civilizations, and it's never pretty, even if those personnel are motivated by the best intentions. "Who Watches The Watchers" shows how badly things can go when accidents happen, when a string of bad luck hits good people, and how quickly events can spin out of control. It continues the excellent run of "Survivors" by following a problem from creation to resolution and taking each step with careful consideration, often moving the story in a surprising direction, but never sacrificing character for the sake of plot. 

So, we've got ourselves another distress signal, this time coming from Mintaka III--or, more specifically, from a research outpost on Mintaka III. The natives of the planet are a pre-industrial race that look Vulcan and share the Vulcan's love of reason, pointy ears, and bowl haircuts. (The Vulcans were actually super passionate when they first started out, which I initially assumed was something this episode forgot or overlooked. However, given how much in sway of their emotions the Mintakans reveal themselves to be, the characterization makes a lot more sense than I'd given it credit. These are people who are struggling to follow the dictates of logic, while still being vulnerable to their insecurities.) The outpost is full of scientists, hidden behind an electric shell, watching the locals and taking all kinds of notes. Only now they've been having problem with their machines, and they need the Enterprise to come down and fix everything.

It doesn't go so great. The batteries powering the holodeck-style illusion that keeps the scientists hidden fail, and two of the natives, a girl named Oji and her father, Liko (Ray Wise!), see behind the curtain. Worse, Liko is badly injured, and Dr. Crusher makes the call to beam him up to the Enterprise Sick Bay for treatment. Oji sees him disappearing, and Liko, in his dazed state, sees Picard giving orders and decides that Picard is a god. Which, you have to agree, is a reasonable assumption to make. Beverly tries to do the standard mind-wipe, but it doesn't take, and when Liko returns to his people, he starts spreading stories about the great Picard, and how He can do anything, maybe even bring back the dead. (Like Liko's wife...) This is bad enough, but during the catastrophe at the outpost, one of the scientists was thrown clear, and is now wandering the countryside, seriously injured and unable to contact the ship.

All right, so arguably, this is a little contrived--but that's sort of the point. Given the existence of the Prime Directive, and the fact that the Federation still makes the effort to send scientists out to do this work regardless of the risk, crises like this one are going to pop up from time to time. I doubt the events of "Watchers" are a complete anomaly, and instead of using the confluence of unfortunate events simply to drive the plot, it works as part of the episode's main theme: the importance of maintaining the right kind of boundaries, and the way life often works to make that separation nearly impossible. So yeah, it's weird that they don't have a working back-up system at the outpost, since it's not like the situation is impossible to foresee, and it's also pretty unlucky that one of the scientists goes missing, and that Beverly's attempts to wipe Liko's mind clean don't really work. (Kind of makes you wonder what happened to the little girl in "Pen Pals.") But all of these things could have happened, and that the Enterprise would get involved in this particular case just means we get to see the results first-hand.

One element that does serve to mitigate the perfect storm of suckiness here is the Mintakans themselves. I'm not a huge fan of Trek's habit of ascribing broad personality traits to alien races (one of the few aspects of "Survivors" that doesn't quite work for me is the attempt to write off the Husnocks as warlike and aggressive, to make them a little more "bad guy"-ish and mitigate Kevin's crime. Although since Kevin is the only one who knows anything about them, I suppose it's not a stretch to think he wasn't completely truthful in his description), but the peaceful, agrarian culture we see here works well enough, and it does a nice job of both minimizing the damage that Federation interference might've caused, it also helps back up the story's point, that even under the best circumstances, everything can fall apart. Ray Wise is great as Liko; Wise plays "open wound" emotional situations well, and watching him go from friendly dad to fervent apostle, he never hits a false note.

This is another swell Picard episode, too. I love his outrage when the head scientist suggests he play God; Stewart takes what could've been a question of philosophy and turns into a conviction, a stand against the irrational and superstitious and backward. And I love his reaction to Beverly bringing Liko to the ship, telling her she should have left him to die. Here's another way that Picard differs from Kirk: if it'd been Picard in "City On The Edge Of Forever," he would've let Edith Keeler die with a minimum of angst, because being a starship captain isn't simply about adventure and phasers and punching. Kirk wasn't immature or anything, but Picard has a sense of responsibility that weighs down all his actions and relationships. With a lesser actor, this could've been boring, but Stewart makes it work, and his attempts to communicate with the leader of the Mintakans are really beautifully played, full of hope and sadness and risk. (We'll see the "check out your planet through this window" trick again in First Contact, where it's used to decent, if lesser, effect.)

Again, we spend so much time with the guest characters this episode that the rest of the cast doesn't get a ton to do, but Riker and Troi do end up infiltrating the Mintakans in an attempt to calm everyone down. Their banter is fine, and, for once, the series finds a good excuse for Troi's presence on the ship. Given her training and abilities, she should be used more often as an ambassador to new cultures, but while you sometimes see hints of that, her emotion-sensing talent is too often as a cheap way to foreshadow betrayal or twists. Here, though, she's an informed, valuable crewmember, and if she ends up as a hostage for most of the second half of the episode, well, that's not really her fault. (Although it would've been cool to see her use her empathy to play off people more, but that's just my personal pipe dream.)

It all ends in a confrontation on the planet, when Picard is finally forced to reveal himself, and gets shot by Liko for his pains. The final scene is definitely the optimistic take on the situation, showing that even when everything goes horribly, it's still possible to find common ground. I think "Watchers" earns this optimism, though. I'm not entirely convinced that the Federation's efforts to study primitive life are worth the potential catastrophe those efforts create, but I'm willing to accept the premise. I'm generally not a fan of farce, because I hate conflict that arises from unnecessary dishonesty, but this is basically farce played for drama, not laughs, and it works very well. I may be grading this and "Survivors" too high, but I think I'm just grateful. For the first time since I started these recaps, I got a week that was just about perfect. I think my standards may be rising already, but if season 3 keeps shooting for this level of quality, I'm not too concerned.

Grade: A

Stray Observations:

  • Next week, we do "The Bonding" and investigate "The Booby Trap." 

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