“The world we want to transform has already been worked on by history”: The Ensigns of Command
It’s become accepted fandom opinion that Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s third season was when the show first “got good”; the beginning of the series’ golden age, if not the show’s single best year by far, *period*. This is, obviously, far more complicated than testimony this glib would imply it is. For one thing, I maintain that Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s early years were not entirely without merit, especially the first season. And while things most assuredly change this year and there are a number of reasons for this we’ll discuss in turn as we go along, the third season’s import and legacy comes mostly when taken together in restrospect. In the moment, the show’s production was no more or less chaotic and turbulent than it had always been.
Nowhere is the gap between the fan-esposued master narrative for what the supposedly near-”legendary Season 3 was and what it actually felt like for those who were in the trenches working on it more apparent than in the season opener “The Ensigns of Command”. Though aired after the story that actually went out as the year’s first episode, “Evolution”, “The Ensigns of Command” was actually put into production first, and it feels for all the world like an uncertain time of transition. Onscreen we get a number of fairly noticeable changes: There’s a new intro sequence, new costume designer Bob Blackwell, (hired at the recommendation of the departing Durinda Rice Wood, who herself replaced William Ware Theiss) was finally able to redesign the Starfleet uniforms by ditching the unfortunate spandex jumpsuits for cloth two-piece ensembles with pipped collars that are both far more fetching and far less destructive to the actors’ spinal columns and new director of photography Marvin Rush begins to reconceptualize the show’s lighting to great effect…Though he was actually only on hand for part of this episode, with key bits of it needing to be helmed by Thomas F. Denove.
But behind the scenes, it starts to feel depressingly a bit more like business as usual. Head writer and executive producer Maurice Hurley has long sense departed, him basically having checked out during the final third of the second season, and with Hurley goes the last tangible link to the creative team that was around when Star Trek: The Next Generation was originally conceived. Hurley left absolutely nothing behind that was in the remotest sense usable, and the only remaining actual writers on staff were Richard Manning, Hans Beimler and Melinda Snodgrass, the latter of whom had only been with the show (and writing for TV in general) for about half a season. With Gene Roddenberry starting to walk away from the show for health reason, the only person in a position of leadership left was Rick Berman, who was faced with the unenviable task of stringing together a functioning television production with roughly the same amount of resources and sense of preparedness as me. Whichever poor sap took Maurice Hurley’s place would be essentially responsible for the lion’s share of the creative work and would have on the order of weeks to get Star Trek: The Next Generation-quality material on actual television.
The poor sap in question was one Michael Wagner, an Emmy-nominated writer and story editor largely known for his work on Hill Street Blues in the early 1980s. Upon getting his new office, Wagner promptly discovered a paltry handful of scripts all in various stages of unworkability and a behind-the-scenes culture he was entirely unprepared for and had no idea how to interact with. Lacking a story of necessary weight for the season premier (which, among other things, needed to reintroduce Gates McFadden and Beverly Crusher, whom Rick Berman diplomatically invited back the moment Hurley was out the door. By astonishing coincidence, Diana Muldaur just happened to decide to quietly resign around about the same time), Wagner called up a friend of his to help flesh his idea out. In the meantime, he put the story that was closest to completion into production ahead of the premier. This one: “The Ensigns of Command” by Melinda Snodgrass.
This being a Snodgrass script, there’s an odd familiarity about it that one might not expect from the first episode of the supposedly milestone, era-shifting Third Season. Apart from the way it looks, there’s nothing specific about it that couldn’t have been done before now, and in fact Snodgrass plainly returns to a lot of themes here she’d already enjoyed exploring in her second season submissions: Legal jurisprudence, colonists’ rights and Data. By her own admission, “The Ensigns of Command” is pretty blatantly about how Snodgrass figured Data would react when confronted with a situation where, as she so memorably colourfully puts it “…logic isn’t enough, to show that in order to command you have to have charisma. You have to learn how to wave your dick and hope your dick is bigger than the other guy’s”. There are some other little bits that are reminiscent of last year too-In particular, while I’m sure she’d watched episodes with Gates McFadden in it, Snodgrass clearly hadn’t written for Doctor Crusher before, and many of her scenes here one can imagine working very well for Diana Muldaur’s Doctor Pulaski. Although that said, “The Ensigns of Command” is very possibly the first time somebody *other* than Gates McFadden decided to do something actually interesting with Doctor Crusher, paving the way for some great joint Crusher/Data stories down the road.
This was an episode I always rather liked, being fond of both Data’s relationship with Ar’drian and the exasperated remaining Enterprise bridge crew trying to deal with the unreasonably immovable Sheliak. Upon rewatching it this time though, I unfortunately have to say this is probably the weakest of Snodgrass’ efforts I’ve looked at so far, even counting the questionable and awkward Irish stuff in “Up The Long Ladder” (which wasn’t her fault anyway) and the egregiously nonsensical legalese of “The Measure of a Man” (which I’m in an extreme minority on). The Enterprise crew are plainly in the wrong here, or rather Snodgrass seems to be telling the wrong story. There’s no defensible ethical or narrative reason why we ought to be opposed to Gosheven here: The colonists may be unable to fight back against the programatically lawful Sheliak, but they shouldn’t have to. Tau Cygna V is unquestionably their planet as they’re its aboriginal settlers: I don’t give a damn about what treaties say in this kind of situation and neither should the Enterprise crew: Treaties like this are precisely what have cheated indigenous people out of their homes and turned them into victims of coerced relocation and genocide throughout history, and this episode, thanks in large part to Snodgrass privileging Data’s personal story above everything else, quite frankly puts them on the wrong side of both history and basic ethics and turns them into corporate-state lackeys.
(That aside for a moment, it’s also appalling that the creative team decided to dub over Gosheven’s actor, who went uncredited by request, because he sounded “too John Wayne”. It’s incredibly noticeable, offensive and horrible to listen to.)
As big a critic of the Federation and what it stands for as I am, I’m strongly opposed to a lot of the actual diegetic criticism of Starfleet and Federation ethics from here onward. So much of it, especially once you get to the Dominion War era, will actually go so far as to tacitly equate the moral positions of the Enterprise crew, and Star Trek: The Next Generation itself, with that of the Federation party line. This strikes me as spectacularly wrongheaded given any number of episodes we’ve seen so far, in particular “Too Short a Season” and literally everything having to do with the Borg, but the reason this line of criticism exists is *specifically because* of episodes like “The Ensigns of Command” because Star Trek has a very particular cumulative approach to character development that really starts to show itself here.
Way back in the “Journey to Babel” essay I called this essentially “character development by fanwank”, in which character’s positionalities are defined by building off of throwaway lines in previous stories
regardless of whether this was ideologically a good idea or not, as opposed to thinking critically and internalizing, as an actor might do, about how a specific character views the world and how they might respond to a certain situation. Snodgrass actually doesn’t do this here, but the existence of reactionary and ethically reprehensible stuff in stories *like* this enables *future* creative teams to build a case against Star Trek: The Next Generation that actually *will* manage to misrepresent it and shift public opinion on the series in a negative direction, at least for a time. This is going to be a continuous problem for this show, and it’s this season where it starts to get particularly bad and noticeable as we start to give more weight to how characters *textually* acted then we do the ways they probably *should* have been acting.
(It’s also kind of interesting and weird, if you think about it, that the story has a female character call out the “irrational” and “illogical” behaviour of humans, but it’s still ridiculously problematic because this lands the series back into the jaw-droppingly banal and anti-humanist “logic versus emotions” debates the Original Series traded so heavily in.)
I mean apart from this there’s a lot to enjoy here: This is a solid episode for the regulars, though Geordi and O’Brien are frustratingly wasted, and the bridge scenes in particular are *extremely* good: I always get a kick out of Picard and Troi debating the Sheliak in the climax, and Riker’s bemused reaction when Picard starts to troll them. It just makes me wish the crew were acting in a more proactive and ethically sound manner. This is also the story where it becomes painfully obvious what Deanna Troi’s job *should* be: Ship’s anthropologist. The scenes where she and Captain Picard discuss language, communication and cultural differences are all absolute gold-There hasn’t really been anything like this since “The Big Goodbye”, and there’s vanishingly little of it going forward either. Naturally *this* isn’t what the creative team decides to run with in regards to Troi’s character.
Picard himself is in great showing too: All that much-touted “warmth” that supposedly doesn’t enter into Patrick Stewart’s performance until “Family” is perfectly and blatantly on display here, especially in his scenes with Data. The Sheliak Corporate itself is an inspired and memorable bit of design from Rick Sternbach, and their “We will eradicate the human infestation!” is one of the most impossibly badass lines in the show’s history. But none of this really makes up for the fact that the episode’s basic moral underpinning is as half-cooked and worrisome as it is. Given that “The Ensigns of Command” seems so confused and chaotic, it’s perhaps no surprise that incoming head writer and executive producer Michael Wagner…walked off the set in the middle of production.
Right now, and once again, Star Trek: The Next Generation is a ship without a captain.
January 21, 2015 @ 2:43 am
I do not remember this one very well. Just two scenes really. Data murdering an innocent aqueduct to prove a point, and Picard rules-lawering the vaguely-anthropomorphic-coal-pile-standing-in-the-middle-of-the-1996-TARDIS-collumn. I remember that I enjoyed both those scenes at the time. But I am no longer 10 and looking back now, I have so much less tolerance for dick-waving and rules-lawyering that it rubs me wrong to have Picard pat himself on the back for working out a technicallity he can exploit to screw over the Shelliak's legitimate claim.
January 21, 2015 @ 4:30 am
Although I get and agree with your positionality with regards to aboriginal peoples – I think in this case the treaty had been signed prior to the colonists crashing on the planet – so I'm not sure the situation here is entirely analogous. In fact it could be argued that here the settlers, having established a colony on Sheliak land, actually puts them in the position of colonials, albeit unwittingly in this case.
Moreover there's no reason to believe that the Enterprise has the freedom here to make a stand for the colonists' right to remain here, even if they wanted to. While other stories do indicate that the crew has significant latitude when it comes to interpreting and bending the rules, certainly there are limits – they still ultimately have to follow the edicts of the Federation or they'll presumably be simply removed from command.
Undoubtedly these are themes that we'll be revisiting when we get to the Maquis. I'm looking forward to that.
January 21, 2015 @ 6:20 am
So much of it, especially once you get to the Dominion War era, will actually go so far as to tacitly equate the moral positions of the Enterprise crew, and Star Trek: The Next Generation itself, with that of the Federation party line.
I think "party line" is particularly apt here; there are plenty of times across the whole of Star Trek where the Enterprise crew comes off as "The people who genuinely believe and live up to the comforting lie the Federation tells itself about its nature."
January 21, 2015 @ 7:06 am
Did you notice the Kei&Yuri reference in this episode? It is in the middle of the actual text of the Treaty – "cute girls with big guns" that Okuda places everywhere. Which is, when you think about it, a strangely ironic place for the Lovely Angels: a text which is basically a bureaucratic nightmare (and it is also very ironic that the text actually shown on the background screen is a little anarchy of randomness).
January 21, 2015 @ 10:40 am
Specific shades of things to come; this is the preface to things like the Enterprise forcibly relocating colonies on the Cardassian border – though at least in those later cases they do interesting things like play the Enterprise as unwilling relocators and portray the inevitable terrorists that arise from the situation as entirely sympathetic.
This episode has a lot in common with Journey's End. And like … DS9 Season 3 …
Key things I remember about this episode are familiarity with that kind of provincial stubbornness … empathy with Data's confusion and frustration at it … and just how nice it was to see an alien as … well, "alien" as some of the wild TOS alien designs. I always like it when TNG brings in a bit of designwork that feels like an updated TOS concept.
We'll certainly get more into the Troi-as-Enterprise-Anthropologist beat later, I'm sure. It's really a perfect job for her, when you factor in everything not just about her (like the logic behind her being Picard's confidant), but how she comes from a family where her mom functions in an ambassadorial way as well.
January 21, 2015 @ 2:31 pm
This is an excellent catch, and an even better interpretive analysis. There are a lot more of these than fans have ever been able to tabulate, and I'm still finding new ones myself. Evidently not every one, though: Looks like I know where I'm going to start with my revisions.
As I've said before, this is why I need commenters.
January 21, 2015 @ 10:55 pm
I thought too that it looked like the Tardis central column in that picture above! (couldn't recall episode vividly)
January 23, 2015 @ 1:05 am
You make a great point Josh about how Troi's character was lot more empowered and interesting in the role of anthropologist – that makes a lot of sense and I would love to have seen her in that role. I did have difficulty with her character when I previously watched the show, and I admit I was watching with little or no analysis. Reading your character backgrounds in previous essays and everything else you have said tells me that I simply didn't get that she really was poorly served in a lot of ways and that Sirtis did a mammoth job under difficult circumstances.