The First Part of the Tragedy
Out in unexplored space, the Enterprise comes upon a class M planet heretofore unknown to the Federation. Taking a landing party down, Kirk learns the planet is called Naterra, and is invited by the locals to meet their beloved ruler, an elderly and highly agitated man by the name of Zxolar the Blessed. However, he is met by evasion and confrontation, as Zxolar keeps going on about the end of the world and someone named Komether and continually insisting the “contract is not yet up”. After he realises Kirk and his party have no idea what he’s talking about, Zxolar explains that Naterra is about to be destroyed and begs Kirk to help, but Kirk recites the Prime Directive at him. Soon though, Zxolar collapses and an energy form appears in the room, causing McCoy to disappear. After Kirk and Xon beam up to the Enterprise with Zxolar and call for search parties to locate McCoy, the energy form reappears in sickbay and attacks Chapel.
Eventually, it is revealed that the energy being is the aforementioned Komether, who was summoned one night many years ago by Zxolar and his five philosopher colleagues, who prayed for help to avert Naterra’s destruction due to its unchecked pollution. Komether agreed to save Naterra and grant it a thousand years of prosperity on top of that, but also promised to return after that time had elapsed to destroy the planet himself and subjugate it to his will. Zxolar and the other philosophers had hoped the millennium would give the Naterrans enough time to develop space travel and escape their planet before Komether returned, but that never happened. Realising Komether is a potential threat to the Federation and needing to locate McCoy, Kirk decides to find the contract (an actual document Komether and the philosophers signed) and challenge Komether’s legal right in a trial, with the fate of not just Naterra, but the Enterprise in the balance.
Fundamentally, “Devil’s Due” is really just Faust in a science fiction setting, which is simultaneously terribly interesting and not interesting at all. It’s trite because Faust is a stock story archetype, so adapting it for Star Trek amounts to nothing more then going through the literary motions and doing something just because it’s easy or you feel obligated to do it. In her first, and what remains one of her most landmark, works, Avital Ronell describes Goethe, who wrote arguably the most famous and influential version of Faust, as an intangible, monolithic force that defines, frequently unconsciously, everything considered “good” and “admirable” in German culture. Though this is best summed up in the fact that Goethe’s best friend believed he embodied a kind of “classical” (meaning Greek) “totality”, Ronell also describes how Goethe was massively influential on essentially every German-speaking writer and thinker.
Sigmund Freud saw Goethe as the “father” of psychoanalysis in every sense of the word (which means Freud also often feared Goethe’s disapproval). Walter Benjamin would frequently have dreams about Goethe, night terrors, in fact, as he would wake from them sobbing. Freiderich Nietzsche, argues Ronell, admired Goethe’s strength and dedication of purpose: Goethe was harshly critical of others, yet always able to rebound from his own failures and possessed the uncanny ability to walk away from personal relationships with no reprisal or consequences. Nietzsche, who struggled with many of the same things himself, likely saw in Goethe a kind of Übermensch. For every German intellectual, Goethe is transformed from mortal human to intractable national mascot, a ubiquitous, untouchable, “monstrous” thing that exerts its will over an entire tradition.
This in spite of the fact that many of Goethe’s works, far from the singular visions his readers project onto them, were most often the result of collaboration with the willfully marginal Johann Peter Eckermann, an illiterate schizophrenic who hero-worshiped Goethe and fashioned himself into essentially his personal ward. Indeed, it is the book Conversations with Eckermann, written after Goethe’s death, that is the source of most of what scholars know about Goethe’s personal beliefs. But Eckermann has been erased from the Goethe narrative, partly of his own volition, but also because of Goethe’s own formidable personal will and the desire of generations of Germans to preserve the singular purity that Goethe has become. But Goethe was himself a very marginal and transgressive writer and thinker: This continues after death, as the monolithic force of Goethe essentially grants itself its own kind of twisted immortality, an undead ghost who haunts the imaginations and mindscapes of anyone who works in the German tradition.
But the Star Trek Phase II team was not, to my knowledge, working from a German perspective, nor was it in the habit of poking around abandoned and haunted mindscapes, so one would not necessarily expect standard-issue Goethe worship from their version of Faust. And this is where “Devil’s Due” gets more interesting, because it does actually offer a number of welcome twists to the otherwise-hackneyed plot structure. First of all, the six philosophers are intriguing characters: After they sign the deal, they become heralded as heroes who brought Naterra into a new golden age, and become known as “The Circle of the Wise” and “The Prophets of Hope”. It’s a kind of subversion of the Asimovian Church of Science motif: The priests responsible for ushering Naterra into a new era didn’t actually do anything, and history is anything but teleological as the philosophers have only really bought their planet a brief reprise and everything is destined to end in fiery catastrophe eventually (eschatological, yes, but the implication is that Naterra’s demise was entirely preventable).
But the philosophers are also literal priests, or at least straightforwardly spiritual figures as well as they summon Komether through communal prayer. This is a further departure from the Foundation format as Asimov, at least at first, seemed to hold philosophers with some disdain, while in Star Trek they become keepers of a sacred truth, even if it is a terrible one. But this is also very Goethe: In his version of the story, Goethe sees Faust as a philosopher frustrated with the limits of Earthly knowledge and wishing to comprehend singular cosmic Truth and Happiness. What he wants, essentially, is transcendental knowledge, which falls outside the realm of strict philosophy, and this is what he bargains Mephistopheles for. Interestingly, Faust also agrees to the deal because he feels the moment at which Mephistopheles says he’ll take his soul, “the zenith of human happiness”, is impossible to reach. Eventually he does, however, in the second part of the story when he manages to bend the forces of beauty, human behavior and nature itself to his will (perhaps a very Western fantasy), leading to angelic intervention.
This is also the point in the Phase II version of this story when Star Trek interjects itself. The major innovation here is that the Faust archetype isn’t among the Enterprise crew, which is nice as that would have been the instinctual thing to do, but Star Trek rightly doesn’t work like that. Instead, they take the form of the angels in Goethe’s original: But, instead of intervening on the behalf of a singular patrician God, they instead take Komether to trial and force him to defend his claim. This is where the episode gets a bit iffy in this regard, as there’s really no case to press against Komether as the contract is perfectly legal so it’s less like a trial and more like Kirk is challenging him to a debate and betting the Enterprise and Naterra on his rhetorical skills. But even so, Kirk does take the position that Naterra has a right to exist in spite of its past transgressions, thus in essence granting them “mercy”.
Ultimately though everything is rendered moot when it’s discovered that Komether is actually a psychic manifestation created by the six philosophers and is promptly disposed of by tapping into Zxolar’s “will”. Much like Goethe, Zxolar imposes himself on his parallel and consigns him to the dregs of the historical narrative. What caught my attention the most though was the reveal of the devil figure being, essentially, a thought-form: There’s a particular strain of spirituality and occultism that posits what we think of as “demons” or “evil entities” are actually creatures that are basically willed into existence by intensely powerful negative emotions and negative emotional states. I’d figured it was a fairly recent innovation (like in the past two decades) and this is the earliest Western depiction of this kind of theory I’ve yet seen, at least in popular culture.
As rushed as the ending feels though, the biggest problem I have with “Devil’s Due” is the same one that I find plagues many of these Star Trek Phase II episodes: It doesn’t do enough to take advantage of the new setting and characters. Ilia and Xon are part of Kirk’s first landing party (and note that Kirk is once again back to leading them), Xon doesn’t act much like Xon and Ilia does nothing. Will Decker is once again missing in action, Janice Rand disappeared again and Chapel is incapacitated for the majority of the episode. Aside from misusing the characters and giving us precious little in terms of drama, “Devil’s Due” just feels far too much like an Original Series episode on the whole: Kirk gets to make a bunch of big moralizing speeches, debates a non-corporial lifeform and mulls over the Prime Directive. This is the same story we’ve seen at least seventy times before. It’s like despite all the strides Star Trek Phase II has made to differentiate itself from its illustrious predecessor, it can’t quite escape its looming, ever-present, monolithic shadow.
The Second Part of the Tragedy
Let’s first take a moment to examine how bizarre it is that this episode exists at all, let alone exists where it does, because it makes even less sense here than it did the last time this show did this sort of thing.
Like “The Child” before it, “Devil’s Due” is really an old Star Trek Phase II script dolled up and adapted for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Apparently, both were pegged to help make up for the dangerous lack of content the creative team had during the second season thanks to the extended writer’s guild strike of 1988 and 1989 and the fact Gene Roddenberry drove away his entire writing staff after the first season. It’s curious that these were the two Phase II stories seen to be the most acceptable and easiest to translate to the new show: “The Child” was an unmitigated misogynistic disaster to put it mildly, and it’s hard to see how anyone could have seen it fit to produce in any context, let alone debatably the freshest and most exciting show of 1988. As for “Devil’s Due”, it wasn’t even especially unique or memorable in 1978, retreading a lot of old ground the Original Series had already trodden on. It doesn’t belong to its own show, let alone Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Just off the top of my head, I can think of a lot more worthy unused scripts than these that not only would have made far better stories, they’d fit Star Trek: The Next Generation just as easily as they would have Star Trek Phase II: “Practice in Waking” would have been a delight, though you’d have to remove the Kirk/Xon story, and even “Deadlock” could conceivably have worked with some significant overhaul, though it would have probably have made a better sixth or seventh season story than a second season one. But either way, whatever the reason, “The Child” went out as Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s second season premier, while “Devil’s Due” bounced around in writers’ room limbo for years before finally seeing the light of day…in the fourth season.
I really have a hard time wrapping my head around this. Typically if you have a script that’s been languishing for that long, that’s usually the sign that it’s probably not worth the time and effort to mess around with it anymore, especially if it’s a script that isn’t from your show in the first place. I do understand how hectic things were in the Star Trek: The Next Generation camp: Typically the team was stretched so thin they were struggling week to week to get something on the air, especially in its first three years. But “Devil’s Due” is coming at a point where the show is entering into some semblance of stability: This is long after Michael Piller instituted his famous submission policy change, after “The Best of Both Worlds” guaranteed the show wasn’t going anywhere, and after the writing staff settled into the form it would maintain, more or less, for the remainder of the show’s run. Hell, it’s the very next episode to air after “The Wounded” essentially rebooted the entire show. I really can’t find a reason for an episode like this to be here: While it would have come across as an obvious and understandable sign of desperation a year or two ago, it now feels like a curious afterthought.
Especially given how out-of-time the finished product feels. “Devil’s Due” is essentially the same story you remember from Star Trek Phase II: The Enterprise comes across a planet whose populace is in a state of mass panic as they fear the end of the world is upon them due to the return of a devil archetype who came to them when their society was on the verge of collapse due to pollution and war, promising them a thousand years of peace and prosperity, but to also extract a price when that time was up. However, several key details have been altered: In the original story, the devil is a male energy being called Komether willed into existence by the concentrated emotional turmoil of six philosophers praying for their planet’s salvation who wants to destroy the planet himself. Here, the devil is a female being named Ardra who just wants to enslave the populace, but she’s purely a mythical figure from the planet’s ancient history, and the character we interact with is an interstellar con artist who’s using the legend to try and take over the planet for fun.
Another difference is in the way the trial plays out: In the original there isn’t really much of one as Kirk basically challenges Komether to a debate, betting the Enterprise in the process, to stall for time until the rest of the crew figures out a way to dispose of him. In this version, the Enterprise is already forfeit due to the terms of the original contract, which give Ardra claim to anything in orbit of the planet as well as the planet itself and the trial is actually a trial, as Picard suspects Ardra (she doesn’t get any other name in the script, so that’s what I’ll call her) to be a fraudster from the beginning and holds an arbitration hearing with Data presiding as an impartial judge in order to expose her. Also, Ardra has a serious crush on Picard, and wants him to be her permanent companion if he loses (as Picard tells Geordi, “…my reputation as a litigator, not to mention my immortal soul, is in serious jeopardy”, a nice nod to the original Goethe), which actually gives her an incentive to agree to the trial.
But across the board these changes are for the better and improve the story dramatically, and I’ll chalk that all up to the sublime talent, skill and professionalism of the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast and crew. Because of them, it starts to become clear why Michael Piller kept this story around as long as he did. First of all, I really want to tip my hat to the actors here. The regulars are all absolutely outstanding-just sublimely excellent. They always are, but the mere fact that they always are means it’s dangerously easy to take for granted how unbelievably, overwhelmingly talented all these people really are. I mean the Original Series cast had talent but, with all due respect to them, this is in a different league. While the episode is mostly centred around Picard and Data (mainly to show off Brent Spiner’s versatility and knack for comic timing, which I’ll get back to), everyone gets at least one scene to themselves.
There’s a great moment where Ardra is trying to seduce Picard in his quarters, insisting she can come back from his each and every rejection because she can be any woman he wants her to be. This is a fantastic moment on a bunch of different levels. Firstly, there’s a bit where Ardra, after cycling through a number of different bodies, outfits and personas, suddenly adopts the form of Counselor Troi of all people saying that Picard might be yearning for a “professional woman” in a “Starfleet uniform” who is someone “close, but out of reach”. The moment she says this, you expect she’s going to turn into Beverly Crusher, because this show has in the past been extremely unsubtle about shipping her with Picard, so when Marina Sirtis appears instead it comes as a genuine surprise. And Sirtis does absolute movie magic with one solitary line of dialog: “I can do anything for you, Captain”.
She’s doing a recursive performance, playing Ardra playing Troi, which is a conceit the Original Series would have given William Shatner an entire episode to run around with, but Sirtis conveys the exact same amount of power and presence in four seconds. Furthermore, Patrick Stewart plays right into her hand, instinctively playing off of his longtime friend and castmate’s cue like the consummate professionals they both are: You know Picard will never submit to Ardra, but you can see Stewart convey him balking a bit when Troi appears in front of him just through his expression, as if Ardra unintentionally touched on something, for however brief a moment. I never would have dreamed of shipping Picard and Troi before this episode, but that one tiny scene is enough to get a person thinking.
(And lest you think I’m intentionally shortchanging the other actorsXcharacters, who have considerably more minor roles in this episode, Jonathan Frakes is as affable and commanding as he always is, Michael Dorn is taciturn, loyal and lovably awkward and gets a great scene when Ardra takes the form of Fek’lhr, Gates McFadden has beat-by-beat comic timing when Ardra crashes the bridge and LeVar Burton is just inimitably LeVar Burton and makes me smile every time he comes onscreen.)
Theatrical performance is a major part of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and this episode is a really stellar example of how. The opening holodeck scene where Picard coaches Data through a performance of Ebeneezer Scrooge in The Christmas Carol (which first of all looks *gorgeous*, I’d just like to point out) is clearly meant to telegraph the basic “moral” about how fear can control a person’s actions, but it also works really well to introduce the kind of performativity “Devil’s Due” works with. In one of the story’s most charming moments, Data explains how he’s trying to adopt Method techniques to his acting, by using the character’s emotional states to help him understand his own, instead of the other way around. Tellingly, Picard isn’t very familiar with the concept of Method acting (which, of course he wouldn’t be: Patrick Stewart is a veteran thespian trained with the Royal Shakespearean Company) and doesn’t understand at first why Data would be interested in such an “archaic” and “antiquated” style of acting.
So Picard, like Stewart, isn’t a Method actor, but he is performing here. What is he performing? The key to answering that lies in remembering this story’s origins. “Devil’s Due” isn’t a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. It’s not even a Star Trek Phase II episode. It’s an Original Series episode, and, as a matter of fact, following all the rewrites to it, it’s become even more of an Original Series episode. This is noticeable in a number of the details changed between the first draft for Phase II and the final draft that got filmed for The Next Generation, in particular the shift of making Ardra female and having her be a con artist instead of an actual evil entity. This is the other thing worth noting about the scene in Picard’s quarters: Ardra’s declaration that she “…can be any woman” the Captain wishes is basically a straight lift from any number of identical Original Series episodes featuring Kirk and manipulative paramours (off the top of my head I’m reminded of specific bits from “The Cage”, “Catspaw” and “By Any Other Name” amongst probably a whole bunch of others I’m forgetting).
But where Kirk would have sputtered defiantly, or bedded the woman and then sputtered defiantly, Picard just looks awkward, as if this isn’t a situation he should really be involved in. And it isn’t: In spite of Gene Roddenberry’s ramblings to the contrary and Patrick Stewart’s own (likely joking) comments about how he “doesn’t get to do enough shooting and screwing on this show” this is really not a scene that belongs anywhere near Picard or Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even at the trial Picard feels like he’s in the wrong scene, giving big, shouty, bombastic speeches that are far more commonly associated with Kirk (and Stewart, to his credit, plays them with a Shakespearean flair and flourish that calls attention to the inherent silliness of the whole thing). But the show is actually *aware* of this, and plays it as a kind of Shakespearean comedy of errors: “Devil’s Due” is about Star Trek: The Next Generation accidentally crashing into Star Trek and watching the shenanigans that spring from the ensuing mix-up, and I’d be willing to bet that’s what Michael Piller liked about this story.
(Piller has said as much, saying his favourite rewrite was done by Phil LaZebnik, who turned it into an outright comedy. Piller adored that draft, but as not everybody liked it, he toned the humour down, but tried to keep as much of LaZebnik’s submission in as possible.)
And it’s not just Stewart: Ample credit must be given to Marta Dubois, who plays Ardra, and is an absolute crowd-pleasing sensation. She’s a camp delight, channeling her very best 1960s vampy seductress and cranking everything up to ludicrous levels. She delivers the exact same kind of performance William Shatner was aiming for in “Turnabout Intruder”, meaning it’s straight out of a cartoon, and it’s amazingly hilarious. Like Picard, Ardra reognises what kind of story she’s in, but, unlike him, she thinks it’s fantastic and just runs totally wild with it, clearly relishing each and every opportunity she gets to strut around pouting and giggling impudently in between bouts of maniacal scheming. So this is what we have then: Just as Star Trek: The Next Generation begins to come into its own and seriously engage with its past, it happens upon the Original Series and turns it into a pantomime, fondly poking fun at its heavy-handed naivete, as well as itself.
But there does remain another side to all this. Upon researching this episode, I happened to find that, somewhat astonishingly, “Devil’s Due” was the highest rated Star Trek: The Next Generation episode since “Encounter at Farpoint”. Yes, even higher than “The Best of Both Worlds, Part II”. And it seems somewhat disquieting to me that this episode should be one made out of a script that wasn’t even a Next Generation script and that was so consciously an Original Series story, even if it was also in some sense a parody of one. And then I remembered how popular and beloved “Unification” is going to be next year, and “Relics” not long after that. And how “Trials and Tribble-Ations” became so iconic it’s practically the only episode featuring the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine cast anyone remembers anymore. And how “In a Mirror, Darkly” is considered not just the best episode of Enterprise‘s already fanwanky and already beloved fourth season, but possibly its entire run.
You get my point, I take it.
Season 4 was the point Star Trek: The Next Generation made it eminently clear for the last few people who didn’t already understand that it was it’s own show and its own phenomenon now. Even “Devil’s Due”, an episode that is so self-consciously retrograde, becomes a kind of farce about the inherent absurdity of limiting Star Trek: The Next Generation to the style and structure of the Original Series. But as wonderful a play as it is and in spite of how exquisite and charming the satire may be, I wonder if any Star Trek fans actually bought tickets to see the show…and how many of those that did actually got the joke.