Thursday, January 20, 2011

Writing Home To No One: "Pen Pals" Flounders!

The Good: Good acting
The Bad: Problematic use of characters, Moralistically heavy-handed, dull
The Basics: In an awful episode, Data's communications with an alien life form prompt moral debates on the ship about non-interference.

And then, there was "Pen Pals." In the Star Trek The Next Generation season two pantheon, "Pen Pals" is often cited as the philosophical overkill episode. That is to say, just as the first season's "Justice" became too much of a moral debate, "Pen Pals" stops moving along in any way, save becoming a moral back and forth.

"Pen Pals" is a fractured episode that takes place over a month, wherein the Enterprise is monitoring a solar system on the verge of destruction. In separate plot lines, Picard explores his love of horses, Data makes contact with an alien girl and Wesley Crusher gets his first assignment commanding a science team. Wesley's plot is quickly resolved as he develops a backbone and gives an older person an order. And then the episode focuses on Data. Data has made contact with Sarjenka, an alien girl on a planet soon to tear itself apart. Data makes the argument that he ought to be allowed to save the girl because she is his friend.

Plaguing the already obvious episode is a recurring bit of hand gestures between Riker and Picard whereby they illustrate just how far they are into the situation. Eventually, and obviously, they wave their hand over their head, indicating they are in over their head. Thanks for being completely obvious. The problem with this is that it is below the characters and makes no sense in that it is not sustained throughout the series. Why do they resort to such a petty form of expression in this piece?

Further complicating an already simple plot is the convenience by which things occur. When Data needs Sarjenka to plea, without him telling her anything, she conveys her fear about the conditions on the planet, ending all debate and spurring the crew into action. It's too much. It's impossible to suspend our disbelief on this one. It's too obvious, it's too convenient.

What isn't present in this episode is a strong sense of purpose. The episode wanders between the threads, insulting our intelligence in each one. None of the conflicts are particularly exciting, none of the characters actually develop, save Wesley.

In fact, Data is written horribly. For the first time, Data seems not simply naive, but genuinely stupid. The impetus for the action of this episode is Data's witless communication with a native and the Prime Directive (We Will Not Interfere order) issues that result as such. Up until this point, Data has been eager to share everything with his crewmates. Why is this thing something he keeps to himself on? It makes no sense. And the juncture that it is finally revealed to his peers, the episode uses the opportunity to spout different philosophies.


The episode has the main crew members sitting around giving opposing viewpoints on the issue of the Prime Directive and the Data/Sarjenka communication in specific. It reads like people reading off a "pro" and "con" list and it's not performing, it's pathetic.

The only thing that makes this episode bearable, in fact, is the acting. Brent Spiner, especially, plays Data as best as the script might allow him. Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher also gives it a good effort.

But this episode is not worth your time. It is inaccessible to non-Trek fans as the explanation for the planetary break-ups is very tech heavy. And the utter lack of character in this episode would never make you want to watch another episode. And we wouldn't want that, would we?

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


For other Star Trek franchise episode or boxed set reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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