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The Trek Nation - Up the Long Ladder

Up the Long Ladder

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at February 1, 2008 - 10:54 PM GMT

See Also: 'Up The Long Ladder' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise receives an old Earth style distress call from the Ficus Sector, where they find two lost Earth colonies - the Bringloidi, a society of people who work the land and shunned spacefaring technology, and the Mariposans, who have devoted themselves to the life of the mind. Solar flares are threatening the Bringloidi, but though the Mariposans are safe in their underground city, they suffer from a different dilemma: because only five crew members survived their ship's crash landing, they reproduce by cloning, and the DNA has grown sufficiently weak that only a few more generations can survive. While Bringloidi leader O'Dell and his daughter Brenna try to organize the people and animals of their agrarian culture on the Enterprise, Mariposan Prime Minister Granger asks Riker and Pulaski to contribute their DNA for cloning, and, when they refuse, steals it. Furious, Riker and Pulaski beam to the Mariposan lab to destroy their gestating clones. Picard tells both cultures that since they face extinction, it is in their best interest to combine and interbreed. Though the Mariposans in particular are reluctant, the leaders of the group agree to try it, even though each woman will have to bear children by three different men for maximum genetic diversity.


Analysis: "Up the Long Ladder" is one of the episodes that gives The Next Generation's second season a bad reputation. It's packed full of obnoxious stereotypes and terrible humor at their expense, and what might have been an interesting science fiction dilemma is thrown aside in the interest of wrapping up the story in a neat package. As Brenna points out, the success of any future colony lies in the cooperation of the women, yet Brenna herself is constructed as a combination soul-destroying shrew (though it's a father, not a husband, who's at her mercy) and a gratuitous sexpot love interest (for Riker, who is not on the list of men available to her for breeding at the end). Meanwhile O'Dell is characterized as a drunken buffoon - specifically Irish, since he identifies O'Brien as a fellow - while Granger is an uptight, selfish leader whose willingness to use violence to protect his people suggests that he may well do the same to protect their values against the Bringloidi culture for which he has no respect.

In the midst of all this, some nice character moments get thrown away. At the start of the episode, Worf is suffering from the Klingon equivalent of the measles and is so grateful to Pulaski for not telling his crewmates that he has a children's disease that he agrees to share a (potentially deadly) Klingon tea ceremony with her. One expects this to connect somehow to the coming together of different cultures later in the episode, but no...it's a throw-away scene. One also expects it to matter that Riker is intimate with Brenna, that their bonding will give her context for getting together with someone from a culture even less like her own, but no...apparently it's just to demonstrate that she'll leap in bed on the first date and shares her father's desire for her to track down a wealthy husband who'll take care of their material needs. This is, to put it politely, dreadful storytelling. The point of the first half of the episode seems to be entirely watching the sophisticated Enterprise crewmembers ridicule the Bringloidi because they take care of animals with their hands and they don't realize they can get food on the Enterprise without making a fire in the cargo bay.

Then the Mariposans show up, and for a moment it looks like the episode may be about something after all - the ethics of cloning, the question of who owns genetic material, with parallels to 20th century debates over abortion, stem cell research and what to do with embryos created for in vitro fertilization that are not ultimately gestated by their biological donors. But no...again, it's reduced to an oversimplified declaration by Riker that he wants to be unique and a thirty-second verbal battle when Granger calls Riker a murderer for destroying his own clone. There's no pause to consider whether Riker is a murderer for shooting a human being at the level of development his clone had achieved, nor the implications of having had his epithelial cells stolen...is this crime akin to theft or akin to rape? If the Mariposans had cloned him from hair and skin cells deposited on their equipment in the course of giving him a tour, would that be more ethical or just make the question of who owns genetic material even more complicated? The episode doesn't bother to engage questions like that.

Instead Picard solves his dilemma by destroying two societies in one. Admittedly the Mariposans are dying out on their own and the Federation can't be blamed for its inability to solve their cloning woes, but how about the Bringloidi? What gives Picard the right to suggest to O'Dell that he farm his people out as breeding stock, without any consultation of any of those people beforehand? Brenna has a brief snit about not having been asked first, but it's hardly a feminist tirade, more a tantrum that daddy's already staking out his three women before she's had a chance to ensnare the most powerful man. How the rest of the presumably traditional Bringloidi will feel about being told that they can no longer be monogamous but must breed with several partners to save the Mariposans from extinction isn't addressed, but talk about a potential rape scenario. What happens to women who don't want to bear children, or men who prefer other men? And then there are the Mariposans, who have evolved away from sexual reproduction as a survival strategy; it's played for laughs that they're just going to have to get down and dirty with the Bringloidi with no sympathy for the idea that all sex may feel like violation to these people, and they may view prospective mates with horror and loathing.

Because Riker is in her debt after their encounter, Brenna is offered the choice of going to a starbase and choosing a different life, but O'Dell seems to be calling the shots for the rest of the Bringloidi who are treated as either too stupid or too apathetic to contribute anything themselves. It's a very offensive characterization; Kevin Riley singing "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" on the original series is a much kinder portrayal of a drunken Irishman. Considering Troi's initial reservations about beaming the people up without so much of a warning, pointing out that centuries of isolation have left them unprepared for such an eventuality, it's hard to fathom that she goes along with Picard's plan to merge their culture with the condescending, heavily armed Mariposans. How can the Enterprise crewmembers possibly believe that the well-armed Mariposans won't simply take Bringloidi DNA to produce and rear more clones while letting this generation of Bringloidi die out doing menial jobs?

The Prime Directive is never mentioned in this episode since the Bringloidi and Mariposans are each descendants of humans with spaceflight capabilities, but this seems like a prime opportunity for a discussion of the limitations of the Federation. When Picard responds to the distress call, what are his obligations, and what constitutes crossing the line and interfering? Does Pulaski really have the right to gloat to the Mariposans that if they keep cloning themselves, soon they'll be dead and the Federation will have a planet ripe for colonization? Is it Troi's place to suggest using an autonomous people as breeding stock? As O'Dell says, whatever their weaknesses, the Bringloidi are decent, hardworking people and they deserve better than such dismissive contempt. And for all their selfishness and snobbery, the Mariposans don't have lust, jealousy or any of the elements of sexuality that a highly intellectualized society might find distracting. If Riker is so passionate about his individuality, where's that passion on a cultural level? Two unique cultures are ended in "Up the Long Ladder," and it's played for laughs.


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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.