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Retro Review: The Pegasus

Posted by Michelle - 01/10/10 at 12:10 pm


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Star Trek: The Next Generation

Season: 07 Episode: 12 (s07e12)

Original US airdate: 01/10/1994

An admiral who was once Riker’s captain orders him to keep the nature of a salvage mission a secret from Picard.

Plot Summary: Riker is shocked when his onetime commanding officer Admiral Pressman comes aboard the Enterprise for a secret assignment. He is even more astonished to be told that the ship on which he and Pressman once served – the Pegasus, whose destruction they believed they had witnessed – may have been found by the Romulans. Because the ship was a prototype with covert technology, Pressman has orders to make sure that the Romulans do not recover the equipment. Picard asks Riker what happened before the Pegasus was lost, but Riker is uncharacteristically evasive. Pressman tells Riker that his orders from Starfleet security are to find the Pegasus and restart the experiments that caused the crisis more than a decade earlier, which troubles Riker. When LaForge finds the ship’s resonance signature emanating from an asteroid, Riker suggests destroying it rather than letting the Romulans track them there, but Pressman is outraged and Picard suggests instead masking the Pegasus’s radiation by ionizing the area around it. Picard also calls up sealed records and learns that there was a mutiny aboard the Pegasus just before it was lost. When questioned, Riker tells Picard that the senior crew mutinied when they believed Pressman was jeopardizing the ship and Riker defended his captain. Pressman orders Picard to take the Enterprise into a fissure in the asteroid to try to recover equipment from the Pegasus and Picard has no choice but to obey – nor can he persuade Pressman to take a larger away team than just Riker to the other ship, half-embedded in the asteroid. Inside the engine room of the Pegasus, Pressman finds the device he has come to retrieve, which Riker admits he had hoped was destroyed; not only did people die because of it, but its very existence violates a Federation treaty. While Pressman is defending the device, a Romulan warbird seals the Enterprise inside the asteroid along with the Pegasus. With few options remaining, Riker suggests using the experimental equipment, which he reveals despite Pressman’s order for secrecy to be a prototype phased cloaking device that will allow a ship to transport through solid matter. Picard agrees to use the device to escape because in doing so, he will also reveal its existence to the Romulans, which he hopes will keep intact the treaty banning Federation cloaking technology. Once the Enterprise is free, Picard arrests Pressman for violating the treaty and Riker insists that he must be taken into custody as well. When the Enterprise approaches a starbase, Picard says that because Riker told the truth and faced the consequences, he believes Riker will be allowed to keep his commission.

Analysis: “The Pegasus” doesn’t have the most logical of storylines; in fact, it plays like a much older Evil Admiral episode like “The Doomsday Machine” or “The Ultimate Computer,” in which a senior Starfleet officer makes decisions so rash and dangerous that the captain must find a way to sabotage the senior officer’s orders. But it’s one of my favorite Riker episodes, so I’m willing to let the petty details go. The question of why Riker hasn’t fought harder for his own command has been floated since the first-season episode “The Arsenal of Freedom,” and it’s now six years later; of course, the non-diegetic answer is that the series writers need to keep the first officer on the ship, but it’s hard not to look for some psychological reason in the character for the choices Riker makes, and “The Pegasus” fills a big gap. Riker recalls that when he served on that ship, crewmates called him Ensign Babyface, and Pressman is impressed that Riker stands more firmly behind his decisions now, though he’s afraid that Riker’s sense of duty and loyalty may have weakened in the process. Of course, Pressman means Riker’s sense of duty and loyalty to Pressman himself, when in reality, Riker has shifted allegiance to a better leader. It seems very clear, particularly in “The Pegasus,” that although Riker is capable of command and of making hard decisions in a crisis, he’d rather not have to do so. He admits to hoping the Pegasus was destroyed 12 years earlier just so he doesn’t have to make a decision about what to do about the cloaking technology – whether to follow Pressman’s orders or do what Picard would expect. Riker knows exactly what the issues are, and doesn’t need a heart-to-heart with Counselor Troi about his conflicted loyalties, yet the conflict keeps him so distracted that he is badly injured during bat’leth practice with Worf. When Riker tells a sympathetic Crusher that he knew what he had to do, but failed to do it – resulting in a broken rib – he is furious with himself.

On more than one occasion, Riker has said that he serves on the finest ship and under the finest captain in the fleet. At the start of this episode, the children on the Enterprise are celebrating “Captain Picard Day,” which mortifies Picard, though it’s clear even when Riker mimics Picard with a stuffed doll made by one of the students that Riker looks up to the captain just as much as the children do. (Picard, in turn, threatens to arrange for a “Commander Riker Day” and says he may enter the art show himself.) Contrast this warmth with the expression on Riker’s face when he sees a smiling, overenthusiastic Pressman in the transporter room: shock bordering on horror. Yet Pressman recalls Riker as one of the most loyal officers he ever knew, and is surprised when Picard says he chose Riker to be his first officer when Riker displayed a different sort of loyalty aboard the Potemkin, refusing to let his commanding officer beam down into a hostile situation even though he knew he would be placed on report. Pressman believes subordinates must obey orders without question for the command structure to work, and Picard nods, indicating that in principle, he agrees. Then we find out how completely Pressman abused Riker’s loyalty, something he hopes to do again even as he’s praising Riker for having learned to stick with his own decisions. We know from “The Icarus Factor” that Riker has had issues with paternal and authority figures since he was a child, and we’ve seen those issues being exacerbated in “Conspiracy,” “The Drumhead,” and “Chain of Command,” to name just a few. If anyone in the audience has any doubts, “The Pegasus” makes clear that Riker’s devotion to Picard is at least as much personal as based on a sense of duty, and that Riker’s had the experience to be able to tell the difference. He loves having a commanding officer whom he trusts absolutely positioned between himself and the various megalomaniacs and fools who’ve risen above their abilities at Starfleet Command. He also very much enjoys the level of friendship and joint decision-making he share with Picard. Why would he want to give that up, far more than the comforts of the Enterprise, just to have his own ship?

Pressman’s behavior makes less sense, though of course we only get to know him for half an hour. He still feels both angry and guilty about the deaths of nearly the entire Pegasus crew, and he’s determined to prove both that he was right about the cloaking device and that their deaths were justified. He seems easy enough to like at first — a leader more in the mold of Jellico than Picard, yet calm and competent. I don’t know how much to think of him as a villain when apparently the chief of Starfleet security has known about the cloaking device for years, covered up a mutiny to keep Pressman in the chain of command, and sent Pressman back out after it when they learned the device might have survived. Are we supposed to believe that Pressman is pulling everyone’s strings, as he tries to do with Picard and Riker, or that he in turn is just following orders and demonstrating loyalty to those at the very top of the command chain? He’s not an admirable figure in either case, and he treats Riker horribly even after Riker has made it clear he won’t be swayed from doing what he thinks is right – “I made you and I can break you” is the kind of line only a bully would utter – but like Picard, the audience is left with a muddled sense of what happened on the Pegasus and who’s behind this latest conspiracy. I gather that Picard intends to make the higher-ups at Starfleet give a full accounting of responsibility for the development of the cloaking device – he’d have to in order to save Riker’s job – but I wonder whether arresting Pressman will allow the real villains, the people who decided to break the treaty in the first place, to make Pressman the fall guy, seeing that he’s now an admiral and he’s likely to insist that he did what he thought was right regardless of what his orders were. And what about all the engineers and technicians who built and tested the device? Some of them must have guessed what they were designing. Are we to believe they all died aboard the Pegasus, a very convenient clean-up for Starfleet? The first time I saw this episode, I expected to learn that Pressman had destroyed the ship rather than accepted the mutiny, and I still wonder if it was just luck that made the Pegasus materialize inside solid rock.

Picard gets caught in the middle this time out, even though it’s ostensibly Riker whose loyalties are tested. The captain knows almost from the start that the visiting admiral is hiding something, and that his first officer knows a lot more than he’s telling. Picard never actually asks Riker to violate Starfleet secrecy – he doesn’t order Riker to tell him about the mission of the Pegasus – but he makes it clear that he’s not merely curious when he observes that Riker never mentioned something as shocking as a mutiny. Riker gives a perfunctory report on the crisis in engineering that led to the first officer and chief engineer trying to take command of the Pegasus, blaming his own youth and inexperience for not being able to explain better; when Picard doesn’t buy it, noting that a Starfleet judge thought Riker might have been part of a conspiracy to cover up the truth, Riker admits that he’s under orders not to discuss it and Picard practically bites his head off, suggesting that he’ll get rid of Riker as first officer if Riker lets any admiral put the Enterprise in danger. It’s hard to tell whether Picard’s feelings are really hurt – as he points out, Riker has shared most of the unpleasant incidents in his past with Picard by now – or whether Picard is playing that up to try to sway Riker’s loyalties. He’s nowhere near as manipulative as Pressman, so it’s forgivable even if it’s just a strategy for finding out what’s going on with the mission. The Enterprise is supposed to be Picard’s responsibility, yet even Admiral Blackwell tells Picard to shut up and do what Pressman tells him, since that’s what Starfleet Intelligence wants.

Much to Picard’s credit, he remains calm, though it’s surprising to me that he doesn’t call LaForge and Data in for a private meeting once they find the Pegasus to ask for theories about what in heck happened to make a ship materialize inside an asteroid. I bet the two of them have a pretty good idea. Perhaps the least convincing element of the entire story is Picard’s quick decision to use the cloaking device – he gets lucky in that the warbird doesn’t start a phaser fight as soon as the Enterprise appears, but more than that, he puts the Enterprise at even greater risk than Pressman did when he ordered it into the asteroid fissure. The device is still experimental and they have the dead bodies of dozens of Starfleet officers aboard the Pegasus to indicate what may happen when it’s used incorrectly; LaForge has never seen (nor in principle imagined) anything like it before, yet Picard assumes he can plug it into the Enterprise’s newer-than-the-Pegasus engines and whoosh, fly through solid rock. And to think Picard was afraid Pressman would put the ship at risk! The Romulan who seals them in seems fairly reasonable – the fact that he gives them time to think is strongly indicative of that – so I’d think Picard would stall and come up with some other options before resorting to this crazy fly-through-stone maneuver. It makes for a good way to tie up the story, but it seems awfully out of character, unlike the speed with which he forgives Riker for putting at risk not just the ship but a treaty that has kept the Federation at peace with those sneaky Romulans for decades.

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