Sunday, January 30, 2011

Got A God Complex? Watch "Who Watches The Watchers?"!

The Good: Interesting plot, good philosophies, Good acting, fun character development
The Bad: Moments of foolish underdevelopment in the guest aliens
The Basics: The idea of not interfering with other cultures is put to the test when a concealed outpost reveals itself to some natives.

When the Prime Directive is thrown around on Star Trek and Star Trek The Next Generation, it's usually because someone is considering breaking it for a reason and the episode revolves around the reason. In "Who Watches the Watchers?," the viewer receives probably the best argument for the non-interference directive. The essential idea behind the Prime Directive is that advanced cultures, like the intrepid heroes of Star Trek, have a responsibility to less developed cultures to not interfere with how they would normally develop and grow.

When a Federation cultural outpost on Mintaka has an energy short out, the Enterprise rushes to its rescue. It finds the outpost burnt out, its holographic generator (which disguises it from the locals) non-functional and some of the personnel missing. In search of the lost sociologist, Riker and Troi disguise themselves as Mintakans and infiltrate the tribe. Unfortunately for them, one of the Mintakans witnessed the Away Team in the outpost and when Dr. Crusher attempts to wipe his memory, she fails. This Mintakan is now of the belief that he was dead and he was resurrected by The Picard. Captain Picard, desperate to restore order, attempts to convince the natives he is not a god, until the only obvious way out presents itself.

"Who Watches the Watchers?" creates a pretty fundamental ethical debate: what is the value of truth vs. the value of principle. The truth is the Federation - in this instance - is simply a bunch of explorers who blew their cover. The Mintakans believe them to be gods and attempt to beg favors from them, some of which Picard could actually provide. The truth, however, also is that technology does not make a man into a god. While less developed cultures might witness technology and concepts as godlike, it does not bestow godlike powers on those who simply use technology that is of an advanced nature.

That is an ethical concept that is explored in depth in this episode. "Who Watches The Watchers?" is well-written in that the theme of the episode - responsibilities of advanced cultures, not the simple rescue mission - is well-developed and explored from every significant angle. And the exploration is valuable and well-conceived.

The unfortunate aspect of the episode involves the tribe's leader, a wise woman who Picard actually brings up to the Enterprise. There he shows her that he is not immortal, nor all powerful. In a scene that works quite well, he illustrates that he does not control life and death and that he is simply in a different style hut than the ones she lives in. Unfortunately, after she witnesses these things and makes this leap, she has some stale dialog wherein she again begs the favor of The Picard. Weren't we just through that?!

In short, she is given the most potent example of Picard failing to control life and death and the actress has such a beautiful expression of epiphany on her face as the example plays out. So, why then does the character revert to her ignorance almost immediately after that? That's sloppy and it's a shame the director did not catch that or re-edit the episode to make it make more sense.

Fortunately, it's the only bit of stale dialog in the piece. Riker and Troi have a chance to develop as characters as they go undercover and are forced to improvise. Troi, especially, stretches her legs, infusing the situation with wry humor. This is one of the episodes where the Riker and Troi episode is more explicit (for all the love of the relationship that the fans have, much of their relationship in the actual series is implicit), with the characters relying on one another that uses a level of trust many of the officers do not necessarily have with one another.

This also gives actors Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis the opportunity to play off one another as performers and they seem to enjoy it. Frakes makes his eyes light up with amusement - through decent prosthetics - as Sirtis delivers lines about Riker's place as a man in the Mintakan's society. Frakes looks like he's having fun.

Some of the character work that works best in the episode, I credit to the actress. Marina Sirtis has, historically, been given a dreadfully serious character with Counselor Deanna Troi. The actress is nowhere near the morose, restrained woman Troi is (see her at one convention and you'd know!). In "Who Watches the Watchers?," a moment of Marina escapes and it works quite well. Even when she is not letting her own personality through, Sirtis gives Troi a very different embodiment of strength in this episode and it works well.

This episode is a must for anyone interested in sociology as it quite vividly portrays what may happen when a culture becomes contaminated by outside influences. It also marks the last - to my knowledge - mention of Dr. Pulaski. Accessible to all, "Who Watches the Watchers?" is a captivating ethical dilemma that is an ideal bottle story.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Third Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the third season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek DVD, episode and movie reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here! (Lots of good stuff there!)

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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