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The Trek Nation - The Neutral Zone

The Neutral Zone

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at September 28, 2007 - 8:48 PM GMT

See Also: 'The Neutral Zone' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: While awaiting Picard's return from an emergency meeting at Starfleet, the Enterprise finds an ancient Earth vessel floating derelict in space. Data requests permission to examine it and discovers three preserved human bodies, which he beams back to the Enterprise when Picard arrives and orders the ship away at once. The ship has been directed to go to the Neutral Zone to discover why two Federation outposts have gone silent, which may presage new hostilities with the Romulans. While Picard, Riker and Troi try to guess what the Romulans might be up to, Crusher revives the cryogenically frozen humans, cures the medical conditions that caused their deaths in the 20th century and asks Picard and Data what is to be done with them. One is a businessman anxious to check on his investments and return to his position of power; one is a homemaker who misses her family; one is a musician who destroyed his liver with drugs and alcohol and is interested in learning about the uppers and downers of the 24th century. As the three adjust, with the businessman discovering that he can no longer be a capitalist success, the homemaker realizing that her only remaining family are descendants and the musician realizing he has new audiences to explore, Picard makes contact with the Romulans and learns that they too have had outposts destroyed. The Starfleet and Romulan officers uneasily agree to a truce and promise to keep one another informed if they discover who is behind the attacks.


Analysis: Usually, when an episode has an A story and a B story, there is some small thread connecting them...a character, a theme, a problem, a message. "The Neutral Zone" has moderately engaging A and B stories but they have so little to do with one another that the episode is in some ways more frustrating than it might have been if it ditched either of the stories to do a better job with the other. This is the first season finale for The Next Generation and one has the impression that the writers decided they hadn't really sold the show the first season, so they decided to throw in the Romulans to tantalize viewers into coming back...but then they couldn't figure out what they wanted to do with the Romulans in the future, whether they wanted them as villains or potential allies against a bigger threat not yet developed, so the Romulans simply appeared and disappeared again like a cloaked ship. From this twenty-years-on perspective it's fun to see the Romulans because Marc Alaimo plays Commander Tebok - the first appearance of the man who will later play Gul Dukat, one of the greatest villains Star Trek has ever known - but otherwise the presence of Romulans at this juncture is mystifying at best and a waste at worst.

The people-out-of-time storyline has more potential, but it skirts the edges of TNG's heavy-handed moralizing at the expense of giving the characters real personalities. There's a nice, creepy familiarity to the discovery of the sleeper ship - shades of "Space Seed" and hinting at the possibility that these humans, like Khan, were cast off from Earth as undesirables - but we quickly learn that they came out of the cryogenics fad, and are supposed to be representative of ordinary 20th century people - a homemaker (somehow it's unsurprising that these TNG writers consider this typical of a 20th century female candidate for cryogenics - not a female aerospace pioneer), a wealthy banker-type and a not-quite-hippie musician. The banker is by far the most vocal and that makes him by far the most interesting even though he's a walking cliche, demanding to see The Wall Street Journal and announcing that it's not possessions but power that he seeks. The homemaker doesn't seem to have any interests or needs beyond her sons and doofus of a husband - absolutely no sense of wonder that she'll get to see the future, the world her descendants built. And the musician, while a nice enough guy, is so bland that I actually miss the crazy hippies from "The Way To Eden."

In general, the structure of this episode just seems off. Data rushes off in excitement to check out the historic ship, taking Worf with him, when this is something I would expect to be much more up Geordi and Troi's alley. Then it's Riker whom Picard sends to talk to the awoken survivors, not Troi, who apparently only shares her skill as a counselor with the woman - not the businessman who's completely lost his sense of identity and not the musician asking Crusher for a pick-me-up. Troi instead gets to try to psychoanalyze the Romulans, whom no one has seen in decades and who end up being so transparent that the businessman invading the bridge is able to read them as quickly as Picard can. (The reason the businessman has the opportunity to offer this analysis is that Picard has the two most incompetent bridge security officers in the history of Starfleet...first they fail to stop the guy from marching onto the bridge in the first place, and then, when ordered to escort him away, they drop him to gape at the Romulans onscreen!)

So we have two potential Cold War era allegories, neither of which makes any effort to be allegorical, and three potential guest stars who are supposed to mirror people from our own lives, except they all seem completely blind to the wonder of it all. If this is what the Star Trek writers think their audience is like, why do they think we watch their show at all? We get the heavy-handed news that there's more to life than family, money and entertainment, but we don't get one glimpse of someone looking out a viewport and gasping at the thrill of seeing space, or looking into a computer file and rejoicing at how far people have come. It's somewhat condescending and pretty boring, and a very good thing the next season is on its way.


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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.