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The Trek Nation - Pen Pals

Pen Pals

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at January 11, 2008 - 9:29 PM GMT

See Also: 'Pen Pals' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: When the Enterprise is sent to study a solar system where unknown forces are causing the planets to break up, Data responds to a radio signal and begins to communicate with a little girl on one of the planets at risk. Meanwhile, Riker chooses Wesley Crusher to oversee the planetary mineral surveys to study the volcanic activity in the system. Once Data tells Picard that he has been communicating with someone in the pre-warp civilization on Drema IV, Picard orders Data to sever all contact, citing the Prime Directive. But when the entire command crew hears the child Sarjenka's pleas for help, Picard concludes that they have an ethical obligation to assist her. Though Wesley has been struggling with the older members of the scientific team, who don't want to perform a lengthy micro-analysis, he orders the study to be completed. It reveals to them that the system's rich dilithium deposits cause the sun's heat to break apart the planets. Wesley and the geologists are able to come up with a plan to stabilize Drema IV. When Data is unable to make contact with Sarjenka to tell her of the plan to aid her people, he beams down and takes her aboard the Enterprise to protect her from the planet's eruptions. She watches as the Enterprise launches torpedoes targeted to break up the dilithium below the planet's surface, thus preventing further geological upheaval. But Pulaski and Picard agree that the child must not be allowed to remember what she has witnessed, and Data reluctantly returns her to her home after her memory has been purged.


Analysis: "Pen Pals" is another episode that plays much better than I had remembered; it's one of the better installments in the education of Wesley Crusher, a lovely moment of growth for Data and one of Pulaski's finest outings, though really I'm finding that I like Pulaski almost without exception during her brief tenure on the Enterprise. Mostly, though, I really love Picard in this episode, now that I have later storylines like "Homeward" to compare it to. In "Homeward," Picard insists stubbornly on the unpalatable argument that allowing an entire civilization to die because it's their time - their planet is about to be destroyed - in the name of the Prime Directive, which once upon a time was supposed to prevent interference in the internal affairs of other cultures, particularly pre-warp civilizations. As Troi and Data argue in "Pen Pals," saving a people from obliteration isn't quite the same thing as introducing them to advanced technology or trying to reshape the culture in the Federation's image. Yes, the balance of the universe is changed when Starfleet officers prevent a world's destruction and who's to say Sarjenka's people won't someday come looking for a fight with their neighbors, but that's the same risk the Vulcans took when they made first contact with the barely warp-capable humans of Earth. The cerebral Prime Directive argument is defeated in "Pen Pals" by Data, the crew member for whom emotional reasoning is in theory impossible.

Unlike in "Homeward," where Picard gets to be entirely too smug when some of the after-effects of saving a civilization are panic and suicide, here the captain is ready to concede that following what he perceives as the letter of the law would have been a mistake. Throughout the episode, Riker is trying to teach Wesley that to become a commander, he can't second-guess himself or let himself be pushed around by the experts on his team, but at the same time he must be ready to admit his errors and go forward from there, and here's Picard giving a lovely demonstration. I wonder whether putting Wesley in charge isn't a way of putting senior geologist Davies in his place - Davies pretends to be a team player, but questions nearly every decision Wesley makes and very nearly talks him out of the analysis that ultimately saves the planet. Even if Davies is as affable as he claims, it must rankle a bit to take orders from an officer who never went to the Academy, received a field commission and has privileges on the bridge that most senior crew members lack. Wesley may be brilliant in the testing arena, but most of the people around him have put in years of hard work on top of qualifying for Starfleet in exams. Similarly, I can't help wondering whether Riker's crash course in leadership represents Riker's attempts to remind himself of as well as teach Wesley the Principles of Command 101 so soon after Riker's decision not to accept the captaincy of the Aries.

It seems rather unlike Data not to have told Picard about his pen pal project - one suspects he knows from the beginning that he is doing something not-quite-proper, but allows himself the luxury as part of his self-training in becoming more human. He figures out that the girl is from a pre-warp culture, which makes even a small greeting a violation of Starfleet's guiding principle. What inspires Data to confess to Picard is less concern about this technicality than concern for Sarjenka and her people. Picard understands the loneliness inherent in a whisper from the darkness, but when he calls a meeting of the senior staff, he seems to want and expect to be bolstered in his belief that all communication with this life form must cease. Instead, though Riker and Worf seem to agree with him, he finds that Troi and LaForge both believe that perhaps they have a responsibility to help. "These are a people, not a subject for philosophical debate," Data says plaintively, and Pulaski agrees with him. Then Picard pulls out some big rhetorical salvos - oh fine, if we're going to get involved in geological catastrophes that could end in genocide, what about wars or oppressive governments on other worlds, isn't the Prime Directive to protect us from overwhelming emotional involvement just as much as it protects developing worlds - only to find his rhetoric silenced by a tearful little girl's voice. "We are going to allow her to die, are we not?" asks Data, preparing to sever all connection, but Picard holds up his hand: "Your whisper from the dark has now become a plea. We cannot turn our backs."

Maybe it's the wrong decision, an emotional instead of a rational one, but the rest of the episode strongly backs it up as the right one while at the same time demonstrating the slippery slope: having spoken to the child, Data then wants to meet her, to keep her safe, to take her aboard the ship, to explain that he is an android, to suggest that perhaps someday she could take a journey among the stars, and finally to wish that she could remember him. Picard insists that she must live the life to which she was born, and Pulaski, who can often be swayed by an emotional argument, backs him up firmly, telling Data that the memory alteration will protect Sarjenka as well as the Enterprise. I'm not entirely sure whether the impulse to help save Sarjenka and her people comes from Data's programming - some version of Asimov's first law of robotics, "a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm" - or from what he has learned watching Picard, Riker, Troi, Pulaski, LaForge, et al. How fascinating that Data can form such an attachment to the child despite lacking emotion in his programming; is the attachment the cause or the symptom of his compulsion to save her entire race? I find it extremely moving in either case, and I love the suggestion that compassion and friendship between individuals stem from rationality as much as emotion. It's the equivalent of the scene in "Whom Gods Destroy" when Kirk announces that the dream of galactic peace has made himself and Spock brothers, and Spock adds that, although Kirk speaks with undue emotion, Spock nonetheless finds Kirk's conclusion logical and he does in fact agree with it.

The bittersweet ending makes up for the too-easy technical solution, in which a planet magically goes from tearing itself apart to stable tectonics while Wesley exults that his team's solution worked. Having made a connection with Sarjenka, Data is reluctant to let it go; though he has saved her life and her planet, he cannot save their friendship. One thing he and Wesley have both certainly learned from Picard is the value of having comrades as well as colleages around them. There are lovely moments in which Picard gestures to Riker to indicate that they're up to their necks, then in over their heads, and Troi seems deliberately not to be trying to connect with the child on the bridge so that Data can keep her with him. In the end, Picard will not accept Data's apology for involving the ship in the fate of a planet that might no longer exist if he had not; "You reminded us that there are obligations to go beyond," Picard explains, saying that he had to help an officer and a friend. Like Data, Picard has moved beyond the esoteric principle of the Prime Directive and done what I am quite certain both Kirk and Spock would have done: the human thing to do.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a former news writer for TrekToday. An archive of her reviews can be found at The Little Review.