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The Trek Nation - Symbiosis

Symbiosis

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at August 31, 2007 - 6:54 PM GMT

See Also: 'Symbiosis' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: While studying solar flares in the Delos system, the Enterprise witnesses a freighter flying much too close to the star. Communications reveal that the crew has no idea how to repair their damaged systems and is frantic to protect their cargo. The transporter room manages to rescue four of the aliens before the vessel is destroyed, along with the ship's cargo. The two pairs of freighter crewmembers are inhabitants of the star's two planets - Ornara and Brekka - and each promptly claims the medicinal cargo. The Ornarans explain that they need it to treat a deadly plague on their world, and the Brekkians do not argue this point, but insist that they must be paid, as their planet's entire economy revolves around delivering medicine to Ornara. They tell Picard that the plague first struck Ornara centuries ago, and ever since, the Ornarans have used their advanced technology to obtain the drug Felicium from Brekka, whose economy revolves entirely around producing the medicine. Although the intended payment for this shipment went down with the cargo freighter. Picard convinces the Brekkians to provide enough Felicium to treat the two Ornarans on the Enterprise, at which point Crusher realizes that the "medicine" no longer treats plague symptoms but acts as a narcotic. Picard believes that the Prime Directive prevents him from telling the Ornarans that the Brekkians have tricked them into dependency, but he refuses to help them repair their failing fleet of freighters, believing that this will break the cycle of addiction.


Analysis: With a less heavy-handed approach, "Symbiosis" could have been a very good episode. It has a wonderful guest cast that includes Judson Scott (Joachim in The Wrath of Khan) as one of the Brekkians and Merritt Butrick (David Marcus in The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock) as one of the Ornarans, and its storyline is well-paced and interesting until Boy Wonder Wesley shows up for the "hit the audience in the skull with a brick" moment that drags the entire storyline down. The original series was often pretty heavy in its moralizing, but it is a great virtue of William Shatner's acting style that his passionate, bombastic delivery always made him entertaining to watch, even when he was lecturing aliens on how they should live their lives. The Next Generation actors at this point simply come across as over-the-top, and in this episode the two Crushers suffer the most.

Really, the first half of the episode ticks along very nicely. There's some nifty shots of solar eruptions, the crisis with the freighter whose captain clearly doesn't have any idea how to fix her damaged systems, Picard's decision to beam out the survivors even though the transporter scans aren't working correctly because of the intense stellar interference, then the discovery that he's brought aboard two groups of people in lethal combat over their cargo, two of whom may be carrying a deadly plague. Butrick and Richard Lineback give fine performances as desperate addicts, hinting at the nature of their problem before Crusher explicates it yet not coming across as overly stereotyped or silly. The Brekkians aren't as impressive - they have smug, wicked smiles at moments when one would expect a more sincere performance to convince Picard that they are oblivious to the parasitic relationship of their people and the Ornarans, wanting only to help these victims without costing their own planet necessary supplies - but it's harder to see at the beginning that they're the bad guys in this After-School Special.

And then we come to the Wesley scene, after Beverly has figured out that the Ornarans need the drugs like junkies need a fix rather than because they have some mysterious illness she can't pinpoint. "I just don't understand why anyone would voluntarily risk addiction," he says, and poor Tasha Yar is stuck giving him the "drugs may feel good, but once you start, soon you'll be stealing from your grandmother" lecture. The dialogue is so clunky that I'm inclined to believe not even Shatner could have made it palatable. We already know that Yar has had a difficult past on a planet of violent gangs, and the writers could have taken a risk, given her a past as an addict and had her talk from the heart about the things people do when they feel hopeless and desperate, but instead they choose the high school health class approach, which doesn't work dramatically with adult viewers any better than it does talking down to real teenagers.

And because the issue is put in such black and white terms, the other characters suffer as well. Picard bounces on the trampoline of the Prime Directive where Kirk would have marched the Ornarans into a lab and shown them the evidence that they don't have any plague - this is a spacefaring race, they aren't primitives, and they're being exploited by their neighbors as surely as the Klingons were trying to exploit the Organians. Meanwhile Beverly Crusher is given the McCoy role, aching for the addicts in pain, but she hasn't developed anything like McCoy's trademark "Dammit Jim! These people are suffering!" approach; instead she seems near-hysterical, eyes filling with tears, raging against the Brekkians at one point and later against Picard for not taking a more active role in easing the Ornarans away from their addiction. It seems like a specious argument because Picard's decision seems so arbitrary in the first place - he was willing to help repair Ornaran ships to stop a plague, but he won't get involved to stop an addiction that has drained a planet of its resources as surely as any natural disaster.

There are a number of other silly first-season-writing moments - Troi announcing that the tension is mounting as the ship approaches the erratic star, thus breaking any tension that was actually mounting for the audience, Picard's risking the entire ship instead of sending a probe, Yar's failure to isolate aliens who start wrestling with each other the moment they're on the Enterprise, Crusher failing to perform any exams on the aliens after the rushed transport without a proper bioscan, Riker standing around helpless as for the second week in a row an alien has him in his power...the crew's not looking terribly impressive, and it's all unnecessary, little things that should have been written out so that the well-established pacing and the pathos of the storyline would have come across more strongly. The couple of lovely moments - Picard refusing to negotiate for Riker's life with the tearful Ornaran because "You're not a killer," the Brekkians falling victim to their own admiration of the Prime Directive when Picard refuses to interfere and repair the freighters - aren't as striking as they should be among the niggling flaws.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Michelle Erica Green is a news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.