Sent on assignment to infiltrate the Maquis, Ro Laren finds her loyalty to the Federation pitted against her hatred for Cardassia.
Plot Summary: Ro Laren returns to the Enterprise after attending a Starfleet advanced tactical training course. Soon after she arrives, the Enterprise receives a distress call from a Cardassian ship under attack by the Maquis and goes to its aid. Gul Evek warns Picard that the Cardassian military will intervene if the Federation does not put a stop to Maquis terrorism, and Admiral Nechayev arrives with a plan to send Ro to root out the Maquis cells hiding in the Demilitarized Zone. Because Ro is a Bajoran who spent time in a Starfleet prison, Picard believes the Maquis will accept her as one of them. Ro finds it ironic that after fighting Cardassians throughout her youth, she must now help them, but she wants Picard to be proud of her so she accepts the assignment, posing as a fugitive wanted for killing a Cardassian. She is taken to a Maquis settlement, where the leader, Macias, immediately accepts her as a kindred spirit. Ro offers to help steal needed medical supplies and goes on a dangerous mission to obtain them, taking along Kalita, who doubts Ro’s loyalties. After sending a secret message to the Enterprise, Ro is able enlist Picard’s help and beams the supplies away successfully while her crewmates make a show of shooting at her transport. When Picard and Ro next meet, she thanks him for his help, but expresses reluctance when he asks her to help set a trap for all the Maquis in the region by having them pursue a convoy carrying weapon materials right to a Starfleet attack force. Returning to the Maquis, Ro sets the plan in motion, but she is increasingly unhappy, particularly after a group of Cardassians attack the colony and kill Macias. When Ro suggests to Picard that the Maquis won’t take the bait, he accuses her of trying to sabotage the mission and orders her to continue with it, sending Riker along to pose as her brother and keep an eye on her. When the Maquis head out in pursuit of the convoy, Ro fires a particle stream to polarize the nearby nebula where the Starfleet force is hiding, revealing them to the Maquis. With a phaser pointed at Riker, Ro asks him to tell Picard that she is sorry, but she is Maquis and intends to keep fighting with them to protect their homes from the Cardassians.
Analysis: “Preemptive Strike” doesn’t have a well-written script and the pacing is uneven, yet it’s my favorite Ro Laren story, in large part because she reminds me so much of my favorite Bajoran, Kira Nerys. In many ways this feels more like a Deep Space Nine episode than a Next Gen episode and even contains a reference to Voyager, since I’m betting we’re supposed to assume that Ro’s tactical training instructor who quit to join the Maquis was Chakotay. I love episodes that have self-contained storylines and good character development while at the same time tying into the series’ and franchise’s larger arcs, so although most of the incidents in “Preemptive Strike” are predictable and a lot of the dialogue is clunky, I really enjoy watching it.
Ro’s a character we never got enough of, though she showed up quite a bit during the fifth season. The writers took away her edge early on, like Voyager‘s Maquis; she was still sometimes angry and impulsive, but the demons of her youth were put away somewhere, mentioned only in passing when they were relevant to some larger plot. Her turnaround from criminal to bridge officer was never as inspiring as it should have been, in large part because it wasn’t very convincing; we just didn’t see enough growth to make us believe that she had changed so completely. So “Preemptive Strike” offers a nice bit of realism, and although I think we’re supposed to feel sorry for Picard at the end, feeling betrayed and let down by his protegee, I’m actually quite angry at him for the position in which he put Ro. Starfleet may never have understood what the Bajorans went through, but he does. Asking her to go undercover and sabotage people living under circumstances so similar to those under which she grew up – when Starfleet then as now refused to see their suffering in the name of a larger good that was, to them, theoretical – is a betrayal of who she is that’s far more cruel than her decision not to justify his letters of recommendation.
Patrick Stewart directed the episode, and I suppose it’s not surprising that the episode’s best scene is the messy, uncomfortable meeting between Ro and Picard in which she pretends to be selling him sex so that they can converse privately in a public place. Considering that he’s always acted as something of a father figure to her in addition to being her captain, it’s creepy to watch them stroke each other’s hands and run their fingers over each other’s faces, and that gets much worse when it becomes obvious that Picard is, in essence, asking Ro to sell herself for Starfleet. There’s something desperate in the way she clings to him, so unlike the way she is with Macias, another replacement father figure. On the surface, he has much more in common with Ro’s own father, who was tortured to death in front of her, a fact for which she blamed herself. We’re supposed to believe that Picard is attuned to Ro’s feelings – it is he, not Troi, who realizes how uncomfortable she is at her own welcome-back party and gives her an escape route – yet it doesn’t seem important to him to ask her for details about the Maquis, by which I don’t mean their numbers or their weapons but how she’s connecting with them, why they trust her, whether she feels a bond. He makes a lot of foolish decisions that are at least as much to blame for Starfleet’s failure to contain the situation as is Ro’s decision to switch sides.
Considering that this is the second-to-last ever episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I wish it were more of an ensemble story. Ro had relationships with most of the main crew, she was lost in an alternate phase with LaForge, she had an affair with Riker when they’d had their memories wiped; if the script had been tighter, we could have had a much better exploration of those relationships and seen more of her difficulty defining herself as a Starfleet officer even among longtime colleagues who wish her the best. I don’t love the extent to which this is a war of Ro’s father figures, Picard and Macias, for possession of her loyalties, though I have no trouble believing that Macias is the one she’d choose to follow in the end, even after such brief acquaintance. It’s an awfully clean episode about the Maquis, considering that all the shooting is done by Cardassian thugs; the Federation never has to fire on their former citizens, and Ro never has to make a choice about whether in a crisis she’d save Riker or Kalita. But it’s nice to see her become someone she’s fully comfortable being, even if it’s not who Picard wants her to be.