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The Trek Nation - The Drumhead

The Drumhead

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at March 28, 2009 - 12:11 AM GMT

See Also: 'The Drumhead' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: After an explosion damages the Enterprise's warp engines, a shipboard investigation alerts the crew to suspicious behavior by visiting Klingon officer J'Ddan. Legendary Admiral Norah Satie arrives to uncover the Klingon's accomplices. Worf discovers that J'Ddan hid stolen information about the engines in amino acids injected into people leaving the ship, which Picard believes was then passed to Romulan spies. Satie extracts J'Ddan's confession and begins interrogating crewmembers with whom he had contact. When Satie's Betazoid associate Sabin senses the terror of medical technician Simon Tarses, whom Sabin claims is hiding a big secret, Satie concludes that Tarses was involved in sabotage. Though LaForge finds that the engine explosion was caused by a substandard replacement part, Satie continues her investigation, wresting a confession from Tarses: he lied on his Starfleet application, claiming to be part-Vulcan when in fact he is part-Romulan. Tarses insists that he only knew J'Ddan as a Sickbay patient, but Satie tells Picard that she is bringing in Admiral Henry from Starfleet Security to ferret out other traitors. When Picard objects, Satie accuses him of being a traitor as well. Under questioning before Henry, Picard quotes Satie's father - also a famous admiral - about how the rights of individuals cannot be denied in defense of a free society or that free society will cease to exist. Furious, Satie accuses Picard of collaborating with the Romulans and being complicit in the murders committed by the Borg. A repulsed Admiral Henry leaves the room. During the recess, Worf notifies Picard that Henry has called off the hearings and Satie has left the Enterprise. Worf is troubled by his own role in trying to link Tarses to J'Ddan, but Picard says that fear-mongers like Satie are often clothed in good deeds.


Analysis: Though "The Drumhead" isn't quite as well-played as Next Gen's singularly brilliant courtroom drama "The Measure of a Man," it's still a terrific episode, and if the dialogue is at times heavy-handed, the performances of Patrick Stewart and Jean Simmons more than compensate. This is a bottle show, which are usually produced to save money - no locations, no new sets, action taking place entirely on the ship - and while those can feel stagnant or repetitive, the pace and the drama of this one make it one of the series' finest. It's a fairly simple issue: Could a witch-hunt like Eugene McCarthy's anti-Communist scare happen in the enlightened, peaceful Federation? After the conspiracy theory of the first season, the ending of which is credited to an investigation by Admiral Satie, it is sadly plausible. And once the Klingons and Romulans are involved, it becomes almost inevitable. Who can forget the suspicion of Spock expressed on the bridge of Kirk's Enterprise by Lieutenant Stiles upon getting his first look at a Romulan?

The taut, spare look of the major sets (engineering, the ready room and the chamber where the hearings are held) and tight close-ups on characters enhance the dramatic focus of the episode, directed by Jonathan Frakes (who says on the DVD commentary that he borrowed several shots from Judgment at Nuremberg, the fictional account of Nazi war trials in which a young William Shatner appeared). As in "The Measure of a Man," we're meant not to be distracted from the big speeches by any sort of background action; indeed, the visuals during the pivotal scenes are nearly as static as a stage play with only the actors in motion. A well-cast Spencer Garrett plays Tarses balancing idealism, guilt, and unalloyed terror; we don't need the Betazoid to tell us he's hiding a secret, we can hear it in his voice, though at the same time, it seems unthinkable that this young man could be a collaborator in sabotage that could have resulted in many deaths. For anyone familiar with Star Trek history, it's fairly easy from his pointed ears to guess the nature of his secret.

Satie and Sabin seem over-zealous, but even sitting in the audience, it takes a long time to accept just how vile they are. Which is how it should be. We're not supposed to identify not with the equally zealous Picard, who sounds like a hypocrite at first when he insists that he only uses his Betazoid to serve and protect, never to interrogate. ("Captain, he's hiding something.") We're supposed to understand how it feels to be frightened enough to think that the ethics of interrogation are less important than its results. Like so many Next Gen episodes, this one has only grown more relevant with time - I think of Japanese internment camps, Guantanamo Bay prison, Muslims brought in for questioning after 9/11, even some of the accusations lobbed at Barack Obama during his presidential campaign. To quote Aaron Satie, "The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably."

Norah Satie is nearly Picard's equal as an orator, which makes it all the more horrifying when she begins to describe events portrayed on this series in light of her own paranoia. It's merely unfair to suggest that Picard should have done something about T'Pel when all of Starfleet failed to guess the false Vulcan's true alliances. But the viciousness with which Satie asks Picard about the Borg is hideous. "How many of our ships were lost? 39?" She blames him for the 11,000 deaths in the Battle of Wolf 359 and adds, "One wonders how you can sleep at night." Then she questions his choices and his loyalty. I just wish we knew more about why. We're told that Satie came out of retirement for this investigation, but it's never clear either what's at stake for her. Are we supposed to believe she's become unhinged or deranged in her retirement, that she's just too old for this sort of thing? Her hysteria when Picard quotes her father seems very odd even coming after her accusations. Are we meant to believe she is obsessed with becoming more important than her father, with doing him proud, with protecting his legacy? Is this fear speaking, or jealousy, or some twisted form of trying to maintain family honor?

Most of the episodes big moments are reserved for Picard, who makes the best speeches as he takes on the expected role of mediator between Starfleet's demands and his crew's rights, increasingly coming into conflict with Satie and her interpretation of Starfleet security. But the more important character arc belongs to Worf. When J'Ddan is apprehended, the Klingon tries to appeal to Worf's sense of common heritage. J'Ddan expresses sympathy about the erasure of Worf's identity on the Klingon homeworld, offering to help him bear the warrior's burden if Worf will help him escape, which of course Worf won't consider. Initially considered a security risk by Satie's team because of his father's alleged role in the Khitomer massacre - a situation that Worf insists is his own business and nobody else's - Worf is later called an asset by Sabin precisely because he is so motivated to convict a Klingon accused of collaboration with the Romulans.

Indeed, when Worf hears that Tarses refused to tell Satie whether his grandfather was Romulan, Worf suggests that Tarses must be a traitor, though Picard angrily retorts that refusing to answer a question is not a crime. Worf challenges the captain, saying that if the man were not afraid of the truth, he would answer. What was that Worf said earlier about family history being nobody's business but his own? Naturally Satie and Sabin turn on Worf when he defends Picard, saying that the captain couldn't possibly have known Ambassador T'Pel was a Romulan when he escorted her on Starfleet orders to the Neutral Zone. Satie then demands to know what Worf was doing while T'Pel was on board, and Sabin asks Picard whether he doesn't think it shows questionable judgment to have security officer whose father was Romulan collaborator. Picard has to order Worf to sit down before someone gets hurt. This fourth season ends with the first half of the double episode that explains the truth about Khitomer and Worf's family, so although I didn't know it when I first saw "The Drumhead," Worf's discoveries and how he reacts to them are of crucial importance. Plus they're some of Michael Dorn's best moments of the season.


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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


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