“We don't negotiate with terrorists”: The High Ground


A sizable portion of Star Trek fans would, if you polled them, likely state that the franchise's biggest strength is in its ability to do so-called “social commentary” on the issues of today in a futuristic science fiction setting. When they say this, what they're referring to is the interpretation of Star Trek that I've somewhat flippantly chosen to call “Roddenberry's Fables”. This is the kind of story where our crew beams down someplace, encounters an alien civilization that either operates under a structure or is facing a situation that very closely mirrors a social debate in the real world. Back in the Original Series, this usually took the form of quite literally punching the moral of the week (typically Gene Roddenberry’s Opinion on something) into the guest cast, but with the advent of Star Trek: The Next Generation. we've by and large been more interested in helping our one-off characters work through their problems in a constructive way.

How interesting it is than that the one time the creative team did explicitly decide to Say Something Important about a major social issue of their time is largely considered to be a disaster.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, Paula Block and Terry J. Erdmann compare “The High Ground” to “The Hunted”, by saying both involve a dangerous, violent man whom the Enterprise crew nevertheless find some manner of sympathy for, but point out that “The High Ground” was far more controversial, being banned in several countries for varying lengths of time. What they're too polite to say is that of fucking course “The High Ground” was more controversial, because it deals with terrorists and openly, diegetically draws comparisons to several real-world terrorist campaigns. It's a brazen move to be sure, and the show comes dangerously close to endorsing violent uprising as a valid form of material social change, even while it justifiably tries to stay ambivalent about the ethical underpinnings of it. Where things go wrong, naturally, is that the script ends up a little *too* ambivalent and, apart from making the dramatic crux of the plot hinge on yet another kidnapping of a female main character, basically just ends up reciting a bunch of vague platitudes about terrorism and violence that don't actually *say* anything. As Michael Piller says:
“Another show that I wasn't particularly happy with. We set out to do a show about terrorists. What was the statement we made about terrorism in the show? Was it the point where the boy puts down the gun and says, 'Maybe the end of terrorism is when the first child puts down his gun?' It was effective in the context of that show, but is certainly not a statement that provides any great revelation. You must be prepared to say something new about social issues.”
While Ron Moore puts it more bluntly when he calls it
“an abomination. It's our one terrorist show. We didn't have anything interesting to say about terrorism except that it's bad and Beverly gets kidnapped - ho hum. They take her down to the caves and we get to have nice, big preachy speeches about terrorism and freedom, fighting and security forces versus society. It's a very unsatisfying episode and the staff wasn't really happy with it.”
The pitch sounds interesting on paper at least: “The High Ground” is another offering from Melinda Snodgrass, who wanted to do a story featuring an analog for the United States Revolution with Picard and the Enterprise slowly realising they're on the “wrong” side: Snodgrass wanted to put Picard in the General Cornwallis role with the Romulans as the French before the Enterprise crew suddenly figured it out during the climax and switched sides accordingly. And Snodgrass very probably could have pulled it off, just going by the level of ethical nuance she afforded Picard in “The Measure of a Man” and the better parts of “Up the Long Ladder”. So what went wrong?

Rewrites, mainly. Someone, somewhere along the line, decided that the story would be better if the analogy was shifted from the United States in 1776 to Northern Ireland in 1989. At which point, the entire narrative took several drastic steps backward (probably so as not to seemingly come out in outright support of the IRA which, regardless of your personal political take on the issue, we can all agree would likely not have flown especially well on primetime US television in 1990). Given that the writing staff seems to outright hate “The High Ground”, I'm going to hazard a guess and presume Gene Roddenberry was the one who called for the revision (although I grant it could have been Rick Berman too), because it sounds like something he would do. I can see the reasoning: Roddenberry likely had it in his head that Star Trek should be in the position of Saying Important Things about social issues, like we said above. Having learned his lesson over the past twenty years or so, he no longer feels like he must proselytize his White Male Opinions from on high, but rather recognises that people like Star Trek when it's being timely and relevant. And Roddenberry is just idealistic and blinkered enough to think Star Trek: The Next Generation could get away with doing the IRA on primetime television.

The problem is of course that it can't. Not without obfuscating the issue with a lot of vague finger-wagging and unsatisfying platitudes, and even *that* got the show banned. Although it must said there are moments here were it does genuinely try, for what it's worth. One of the bravest and best bits of dialog in the episode, in the series to date, really, is during the scene where Data is asking Picard about the merits of terrorism. It goes like this:
“Sir, I am finding it difficult to understand many aspects of Ansata conduct. Much of their behavioral norm would be defined by my programme as unnecessary and unacceptable.” 
“By my programme as well, Data.” 
“But if that is so, Captain, why are their methods so often successful? I have been reviewing the history of armed rebellion and it appears that terrorism is an effective way to promote political change.” 
“Yes, it can be, but I have never subscribed to the theory that political power flows from the barrel of a gun.” 
“Yet there are numerous examples where it was successful. The independence of the Mexican State from Spain, the Irish Unification of 2024, and the Kensey Rebellion.” 
“Yes, I am aware of them.” 
“Then would it be accurate to say that terrorism is acceptable when all options for peaceful settlement have been foreclosed?” 
“Data, these are questions that mankind has been struggling with throughout history. Your confusion is only human.”
This takes serious chutzpah to lay out for a number of reasons, not the least of which is positing a unification of Ireland thanks *directly to* the actions of the IRA years before Ireland did in fact get a manner of independence. The show deserves massive props for not only having the gall to come out and say this, but putting the entire matter about as eloquently, aptly and succinctly as it can be put. The rest of the episode may be trite and insulting, but this one scene almost redeems the whole production, and goes down in history as one of the series' finest moments even without it.

Aside from uncertainties over armed rebellion, one thing that's interesting about “The High Ground” is that it's functionally the first “Doctor Crusher Story” in the series. Gates McFadden was all too often shafted in the first season, and we won't even go into what happened in the second. Michael Piller did the best he could to reintroduce her in “Evolution”, but that was still primarily a “Wesley Story” (to its great detriment). Since then she's had a number of moments to shine this season, but hasn't actually had a story that's in large part about her character until now. And this is doubly interesting because this is a Melinda Snodgrass script, who you'll recall hasn't actually ever really written for Doctor Crusher: Sure, she gave her a small part in “The Ensigns of Command”, but her lines there could just have easily been delivered by Diana Muldaur's Doctor Pulaski, which makes sense as Pulaski is the CMO character Snodgrass would actually have been most familiar with. And that's interesting, because, the subplot with Wesley aside, this episode almost does feel more like a Pulaski story.

Remember one thing we've been establishing over the course of the third season (and even as far back as the first, looking at “Home Soil”) is that Doctor Crusher actually works best as a life sciences officer, where she gets the chance to sink her teeth into some juicy scientific mystery that she can investigate and piece together. Gates McFadden plainly loves this, and she sells Beverly's innate scientific expertise gleefully and effortlessly: She adores playing a professional scientist. But “The High Ground” is a story about a “Doctor Without Borders” as it were; a healer who is dedicated to healing the sick and injured on any side of a conflict, even if she doesn't quite agree the conflict is a just one. This dogged, stubborn refusal to ignore a patient in need, even if it means acting irrationally or impulsively, is a character trait that can be traced directly back to Doctor Pulaski (and really Doctor McCoy if we're being honest)-It's not really Doctor Crusher’s forte as a character, even if she is technically the ship's chief medical officer.

But this is a thread that's *also* being worked into her character over the course of the season by other writers: Look at how Doctor Crusher acts in “Who Watches The Watchers” and “The Enemy” for a stark contrast to what I'm describing and advocating here, or the way she acts in, say “The Vengeance Factor”. Whether this is the lingering influence of Diana Muldaur or just the various writers once again forgetting they're writing for Star Trek: The Next Generation and not the Original Series and probably ought to broaden their character templates a bit is debatable, but what I want to emphasize for the moment is how kind of schizoid this ends up making Doctor Crusher seem: Obviously a nuanced, multidimensional character ought to have several sides and facets to her personality, but for a show like this to work each person does need to fill a specific role and represent a specific set of ideals, and this sort of thing will only serve to confuse and muddy the waters in the long run.

The final thing to talk about here is that “The High Ground” is Melinda Snodgrass' final contribution to Star Trek: The Next Generation, resigning from both her position as story editor and staff writer after this fiasco. I'm not surprised she was disappointed in the final product, but I hear the real reason was that she didn't get on with Michael Piller and had massive creative differences with the policy changes he instated. In particular, she took umbrage to the list of beginning writer's tips he passed around, taking it personally as an attack on her abilities as a writer. I'm not prepared to speculate any further except to say that Hollywood is a town and an industry that runs on ego and wonder how much different or better the original draft of this episode might have been.

The sad reality about Melinda Snodgrass is that talented as she is, all of her Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes are incredibly rocky (yes, even “The Measure of a Man”). From the unfortunate implications of the Bringloidi fumbling in “Up the Long Ladder” to the uninspiring “The Ensigns of Command” to the shallow melodrama of “The Measure of a Man” and, well, this, there's always a gem of a good idea sullied by botched execution and callous drama somewhere. I *want* to like all of them, but I always find it hard to completely tolerate any of them. But damn if Melinda Snodgrass didn't leave us with some killer moments: That exchange between Data and Picard in this episode I highlighted and that gut-punching “you're talking about slavery” reveal in “The Measure of a Man” are undeniable classics that simply define both Star Trek: The Next Generation's attitude and its ideology. Perhaps that should be her legacy, and it would be a legacy well earned if so: Each of our lives is merely a succession of present moments, and one of the greatest assets of art is its ability to get us to remember and explore how those moments feel and what they mean to us.


them0vieblog.com 5 years, 11 months ago

Maybe not her final final contribution.

She and Michael Piller heavily revised The Offspring, I believe. According to Echevarria's commentary. Although she is not too fond of the episode, arguing (perhaps reasonably) that it covers a lot of the ground associated with Measure of a Man.

Have you heard about her "Data triptych" pitch? Which sounds like it would have been interesting. (If controversial.)

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K. Jones 5 years, 11 months ago

Interesting. The Offspring always felt to me like the only Data episode to feel like a real "sequel" to Measure of a Man, so that tracks.

The High Ground is a fascinating episode. It's hard to draw a nuanced line between being brazen and a bit of a fortune-teller about the near future ... and yet to still be kind of cowardly in the telling. But I figured Finn's line about "moral cowardice" when dealing with "non-aligned worlds" would be ripe for discussion here, just because it's really on the nose and really addresses a lot of questions that have naturally arisen over the last two seasons of analysis when we think of everything from Prime Directive worlds.

It's like even the writers recognized what we were talking about and had somebody call the Federation on their bullshit. The problem was, they leveled the argument at Doctor Crusher, life science mystery solver ... and possibly the least political member of the crew.

You're right though that Pulaski might've turned the episode, indeed turned captivity into something different and more redeemable. But honestly this should've been an episode focused on Picard, maybe Riker and Worf, a lot more Troi (given that she functions so well in an anthropological/ambassadorial role) and maybe with a "Federation Bureaucrat" along for the ride the way the Original Series used to do, to represent that moral cowardice compared to our crew.

It sounds like the original concept is way, way stronger of an idea. Using the Romulans as Napoleonic France seems genius to me, and would certainly still have been relevant (it's not like military powers have ever stopped "backing" revolutionaries trying to revolt against their military imperialist rivals)

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Daru 5 years, 11 months ago

"This takes serious chutzpah to lay out for a number of reasons, not the least of which is positing a unification of Ireland thanks *directly to* the actions of the IRA years before Ireland did in fact get a manner of independence. The show deserves massive props for not only having the gall to come out and say this, but putting the entire matter about as eloquently, aptly and succinctly as it can be put. The rest of the episode may be trite and insulting, but this one scene almost redeems the whole production, and goes down in history as one of the series' finest moments even without it."

This exchange stands out as one of the finest bits of dialogue with the questions it raises across TNG for me.My memory of this moment is strong and it eclipses the rest of the episode.

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SK 5 years, 6 months ago

positing a unification of Ireland thanks *directly to* the actions of the IRA years before Ireland did in fact get a manner of independence

What, before 1922? Really?

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