A sense of vastness and cosmic wonder. One almost expects a haunting synthesizer remix of “Space...The Final Frontier” to play over this resplendent scene of the Great Interstellar Dark. But instead, it's a caption box reciting John Masefield's “Sea-Fever”. Slightly stilted and hokey, but perhaps evocative in its own way.
A comforting sight, as the starship Enterprise slowly materializes for us out of the night, just as we remember. And alongside it another ship, resembling a giant dragonfly with weblike lattice wing-sails on either side.
On the Enterprise bridge, Captain Picard exposits to us that the crew has been assigned to serve as referee and security for the eighth leg of the Centauris' Cup solar sailing yacht race around GC 2006. Will and Deanna tell us about how solar sail craft were once the workhorses of the cargo merchant trade, but are only used as pleasure craft now. Deanna remarks on the romance of it all, but Data doesn't understand why anyone would want to willingly pilot a “fragile and technologically primitive” ship. Captain Picard explains the appeal lies in the subtle way solar sail ships handle, the prospect of friendly competition with other enthusiasts in races such as this one, and in the idea of being alone with the forces of nature. In doing so he reveals that solar sailing has been a lifetime passion for him too, though one he's had to give up as the Enterprise's captain: He's simply become too valuable to Starfleet for them to allow him to participate in such a dangerous hobby, though he keeps up with new developments when he can.
The craft sailing alongside the Enterprise belongs to the Mestral, the hereditary leader, and absolute ruler, of a matriarchal planet called Edelis friendly to the Federation. She is, in fact, one of the “security risks” the Enterprise is here to keep an eye on, because the Federation is very nervous about behaviour on her part they consider “reckless”. Such as personally competing in solar sail yacht races and flying within spitting distance of a Galaxy-class starship, whose deflector fields and thrusters alone could wipe out the delicate sails of a light-powered vessel. Furthermore, it's been theorized that previous attempts at sabotaging this race in earlier legs were due to reactionary factions on Edelis objecting to the Mestral's involvement in it. Another concern is the Carrighae, who are known to resort to any kind of trick, no matter how underhanded, unethical or violent, to achieve success, as they believe the entire universe was built for them and that they alone are entitled to it (amusingly, Deanna explains to us that their society is based around “insult diplomacy” and their physiology is based around an ulcer). Right on cue, the Carrighae hail the Enterprise with their usual brand of formalities.
Even so, Captain Picard stresses that the crew must be tolerant of other cultures and not pass judgment, no matter how hostile and confrontational others may be with them. Furthermore, he confesses that the Carrighae are likely not even the worst of the problems they'll have to deal with, as some competitors are racing for political motives, such as a proxy for war with other competitors. Following that, he has Worf call up the Mestral to pay their respects...And because they're obligated by Starfleet to ensure her and her crew are properly protected. The Mestral assures the Enterprise crew that they are, and Captain Picard invites her to a pre-race reception to be held in ten-forward that evening, to which she accepts. Will, Deanna and Worf discuss how headstrong the Mestral is, and Captain Picard says she'll need that and skill both in this leg of the race. Data elabourates by explaining that GC 2006 is an unusual “flare star” that becomes visibly brighter (and thus more intense) at regular intervals. Furthermore, it's the only known example of such a star to be blue instead of red.
At the reception, Captain Picard muses on how sports have become a socially acceptable form of warfare, reiterating the same power structures and political conflicts that go back millennia. He wonders if they have always been like this and he was just too young to notice before. The Carrig Captain intercepts Jean-Luc, and, praising the Enterprise skipper on his deft handling of insult diplomacy earlier, offers him a hefty bribe if the Enterprise were to fix the race on the Carrighae's behalf. Captain Picard takes enormous offense and flatly, though politely, refuses. Captain Picard shares his frustration and confusion with the whole situation with Commander Riker, who points out that in a way, he's just been complimented: After all, “People who feel they 'own the universe' don't dicker with inferiors”. Captain Picard remains unimpressed though, and both express interest in what Deanna Troi will make of the whole sordid affair.
Worf is entertaining the Mestral, and is concerned about the fact she sent her tender away, which leaves her ship vulnerable should one of its parts require replacing. Captain Picard arrives and continues the train of logic, pointing out “There are some parts of your racing team for which there are no spares”. But the Mestral sees herself as expendable: Even though her planet is ruled by a system of heredity, her family is large, and should anything happen to her a replacement will quickly be selected. Deanna wonders if the Mestral ever gets lonely, since yacht racing takes her so frequently away from home. But the Mestral, quoting Lord Byron, claims she prefers “To mingle with the universe”. This surprises Captain Picard, but the Mestral assures him her first love was literature, though Byron typically depresses her. Her consort Rav, meanwhile, is far more interested in engineering and astrophysics, so Captain Picard sends Data to entertain him with some indecipherable technobabble.
Captain Picard is concerned about how close the Mestral sailed to the Enterprise, but she assures him that she knows her ship as well as he knows his. Then, as a fellow sailor, he asks her how the new type of mast struts she's been using are holding up. She says they're terrible; a closed-box system that shuts down when it gets too hot. She wants hers replaced with old-fashioned mechanical masts which, while they require maintenance, are still things that a person can fix themselves. And before the Captain can protest, she acknowledges Starfleet's concern and promises “I will take no unnecessary risks, but I intended to enjoy the necessary ones to the fullest”. Commander Riker asks Captain Picard if he achieved “the desired result”, to which he answers in the negative. Jean-Luc is frustrated at not being able to reach the Mestral because she's a constant target of assassination, and he fears she's not valuing her life highly enough. Commander Riker quips that this is “The best reason not to go into politics”, to which the Captain quips back “I have news for you Number One. We're in it now”.
Just then, Deanna pops by to share what she's learned about the competitors. And it isn't good: The Alkamins are all planning sabotage, while one of the Cynosure team is attempting to seduce the Kihin navigator so she'll be emotionally and hormonally compromised. The Thubanir, on the other hand. are plotting to assassinate their own captain, but because their species' life-cycles are governed by a regeneration system such an act would be merely an inconvenience. As Deanna grimly points out: “Greed, rage, pre-race butterflies, envy, hatred and terror...Excitement, good cheer, calculation, indigestion, jealousy, sadness and spite...The usual”. As an example of hatred, she indicates the Sauch and Lorherrin teams, who “loathe everyone here on a general basis, but their real loathing is saved for each other”. As if to prove the truth in her words, a bar brawl between the two crews breaks out, necessitating an intervention from Will and Worf.
Captain Picard expresses remorse that almost none of the racers are competing for the joy of the sport. But as he ponders the forgotten romance of leaving worldly cares behind to be intimate with nature, a shadowy figure breaks into shuttlebay 13, leaving behind a suspiciously ticking electronic device.
In July 1988, shortly after Star Trek: The Next Generation had completed its first season, TV Guide's Gary D. Chistenson had this to say:
“STAR TREK depicted us in reckless youth, with a Starship captain who tamed space as vigorously as we laid claim to the future...STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION reveals the child grown-A little more polished, but also more complacent. And if there's a bit of gray and a wrinkle or two, so much the better.”