Now that we’re living comfortably(?) in a post-“Q Who” universe and we all know who the Borg are, this leaves Star Trek: The Next Generation with the troublesome task of figuring out what to do with the Romulans. Their reintroduction in “The Neutral Zone”, after all, was not exactly the most graceful of affairs, and they are hampered somewhat by having their one big story arc scuttled by the writer’s strike. Even if it hadn’t been though, the simple fact is that decoy bad guys aren’t really needed anymore once the real bad guys show up.
The thing is though, we have to be extremely careful when we talk about the Borg in this context, because even this early the creative team was keenly aware that they were something you only bring in on very rare and momentous occasions to preserve the impact that goes along with their presence. More esoterically though, it’s still the case that even though they seem like they were envisioned as such and all the official literature will say they were, the Borg are not actually villains for Star Trek: The Next Generation: They’re villains Star Trek is fated to face not in this incarnation, but at some point far in the future, and the show makes this very clear at both diegetic and extradiegetic levels. So not only do the Borg have to be held back for special occasions, those special occasions *also* have to involve some element of metacommentary on the state of the show and its parent franchise. The problem is though that because Star Trek: The Next Generation is action sci-fi (I don’t actually think it is personally, but we’ll presume it is for the moment for the sake of argument because that’s how it tends to get read) it needs to have reoccurring bad guys. And with the Klingons out and the Ferengi a laughingstock (as ill-warranted as that may be and even though people will doggedly, and successfully, continue to redeem them), this means the show sort of defaults on the Romulans.
And in spite of some roughness in “The Neutral Zone”, the Romulans have actually been depicted pretty well up until now, with Subcommander Taris and her crew being depicted as complete intellectual equals to Commander Riker and the Enterprise crew in “Contagion”. By “well” I mean “in keeping with the culture we saw established in the Original Series that values aesthetics and sensuality controlled by a crumbling empire”, or at least as a (n ironically) logical evolution of that culture given the span of a generation or so. With “The Enemy” though, we get the first symptoms of the Romulans drifting more towards the “programmatically shifty” characterization that will unfortunately come to define a lot of stories about them from here on out. Bochra stupidly refuses to trust Geordi at every turn, even when his life starts to literally depend on it, while Tomalak strategically withholds information from Captain Picard concerning the true nature of their venture on Galordon Core which accomplishes little but stalling the rescue of both crewmembers. We’re back to diplomatic posturing and a lot of hemming and hawing about preventing the outbreak of another war, but this time there’s very little political weight behind this because the Romulans are so clearly being irrational. There’s absolutely no ambiguity about the Enterprise crew being in the right anymore.
(Tomalak himself, played by the delightful Andreas Katsulas in shades of his later famous Ambassador G’Kar character from Babylon 5, is another example of the show’s shifting focus in regards to the Romulans. He was written to be a reoccurring “friendly nemesis” foil for Captain Picard, but only manages to show up a few more times after this. The first of his return appearances is, predictably, in two weeks, and then he drops off the face of the narrative for a year. He only returns again for the series finale four years later.)
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the Enterprise crew being unambiguously right, in fact I tend to think Star Trek: The Next Generation loses some of its effectiveness when they’re not, but there’s a trick to doing that without making the regulars out to seem smugly high and mighty, and mastering that is part of the challenge for this show going forward. Given the copious amounts of criticism this show gets for being smugly high and mighty (unfounded as most of it it may be), it’s perhaps reasonable to deduce that the various creative teams did not do as outstanding a job with this as we might have liked. But just looking at the plot the episode gives the Romulans here, there was plenty of opportunity to do this a bit more delicately: The thing about the Romulans is that they only work if you view them as a reflection of us. In the Original Series, they were us-but-better because, as surprising as that may seem, the Original Series was very capable of being incredibly cynical, especially if D.C. Fonatana was writing.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the roles have switched a bit: Now they’re us-but-a-little-bit-worse, or at least they *should* be. Forcing the Romulans onto the back foot is actually a perfectly reasonable tack for this show to take, especially given its more overtly textual emphasis on the utopianism of the Enterprise crew, the presumably declining state of the Romulan Star Empire and the fact the Federation themselves are certainly no saints. There are plenty of opportunities here to play with these ideas and to meet Romulan characters who do and don’t live up to those generalizations in what must be an incredibly fragmented society. What becomes so frustrating for me then is to watch the show constantly lay out ideas and potential avenues like this and than dial back on them to the extent its weaker stories can occasionally feel like little more than glossier pulp film serial runarounds.
In this regard I also had something of an issue with Worf’s subplot-I always have, and this revisit did little to change my mind. It was an addition Michael Piller suggested and one Rick Berman enthusiastically supported and I do get where Piller was coming from. He tells us
“Rick Berman knew instantly it was the right thing to do. Once he was behind me, it was a race to the finish line. And it was absolutely the right thing to do. You knew the audience was waiting for Worf to come around, because they always do that in television. But the character wouldn’t do that and I think we made a really good decision. At first though, it was quite a shock and a controversial decision. But you end up talking about survival and survival among enemies. I think it was just a natural character development.”
Which…yes, but is it a *good* character development? I’m not entirely convinced that it was. The decision made pretty much everyone on staff except Berman and Piller incredibly uncomfortable, including Michael Dorn, who felt that Worf would have considered giving blood to be the honourable thing to do (although he did eventually come around to at least grant Piller’s perspective in later years). And Dorn does have a good point: There’s more to honour than Glorious Battle, a truth even Worf himself espoused in “Heart of Glory” by reconceptualizing battle as a jihad, an internal struggle to better oneself. The fact that Klingon culture seems to be ignoring this with more and more frequently is becoming so much of a theme that we’re even going to get an entire episode about it someday. Either way, the development here makes “The Enemy” extremely hard for me to watch even to this day, as strong a piece of work as it is. Of course, I’m sure Michael Piller would tell me that was the whole point.
Yet another big issue is Deanna Troi. She originally had a much larger plot in this episode, and was going to be stranded on the planet with Geordi. She was going to help him after he lost his VISOR and would have been the one to take out Pathak when he tried to jump the away team. In the finished episode, she gets a grand total of *one line* near the end, which was cut to add insult to injury. There is absolutely no way this wouldn’t have made “The Enemy” an infinitely stronger story, especially given Troi’s talents as empath and ship’s anthropologist and the episode’s emphasis on bridging cultural differences, and the only reason this didn’t happen is pure, unvarnished sexism. Star Trek: The Next Generation has, and always has had, an immense issue with letting women fill roles other than stereotypical nurturing and caregiving: It’s the very thing that killed Tasha Yar’s effectiveness as a character (well, that and Gene Roddenberry’s bewildering belief that Denise Crosby was a better fit for the part of a butch, crude, working-class action heroine than Marina Sirtis), and it doesn’t look like things have improved a whole lot under the new regime. In her reflections, Marina Sirtis makes it quite clear that this was precisely the sort of thing that kept happening over the course of the series leading to her long-standing dissatisfaction and sense of creative frustration with her role. I don’t blame her in the slightest.
“The Enemy” is another Big Third Season episode that’s hailed as a masterpiece: Brannon Braga openly cites it as the moment he started paying attention to Star Trek: The Next Generation and taking it seriously. LeVar Burton calls it a tribute to The Defiant Ones, it’s arguably better than the Dirty Pair tribute to The Defiant Ones (and also Creamy Mami, because Dirty Pair) and it’s fitting that Geordi is the one who teaches Bochra how to cooperate. But it hits one dissonant note too many for it to ever be something I’m going to truly enjoy. If “The Bonding” and “Booby Trap” are demonstrative of everything I like about this period of Star Trek, “The Enemy” is an early sign of everything I’m going to have much more of a problem with.