Ensign Ro

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at May 30, 2009 - 10:22 PM GMT

See Also: 'Ensign Ro' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise intercepts a message from a Bajoran terrorist who claims to have destroyed a Federation colony. When the Enterprise takes survivors from the colony to the nearest starbase, Admiral Kennelly comes aboard, tells Picard that he sympathizes with the Bajorans whose planet is occupied by the Cardassians, and asks Picard to find the Bajoran leader Orta, offering him amnesty for terrorist activity if he will return to a Bajoran refugee camp so that peace can be negotiated through diplomatic channels. Kennelly also orders Picard to accept the transfer of Ensign Ro Laren, a Bajoran who had been in prison following a court-martial for disobeying an order that cost the lives of eight Starfleet officers. Picard reluctantly accepts Ro's advice to meet with Bajoran resistance leader Keeve, who agrees to reveal Orta's whereabouts once Picard offers his people blankets and food. Ro receives a secret message from Kennelly aboard the Enterprise and beams down to meet Orta without notifying anyone. Furious, Picard follows with an away team, all of whom are taken prisoner. Orta and Ro both apologize for their secrecy, but they insist that Picard has been deceived, for the Bajorans did not attack the Federation colony. Orta warns Picard that someone is using him to threaten the Bajorans, but Picard is initially too angry with Ro to believe either of them until Guinan intervenes. Then Picard learns from Ro that Admiral Kennelly offered to release her from prison so that she could make Orta a secret offer of Starfleet weapons. Guessing that Kennelly, too, is being used by the Cardassian contact who gave Kennelly a Cardassian virus, Picard tells Kennelly that the Enterprise will escort the Bajorans to the camp, then alerts Kennelly when a pair of Cardassian warships demand the right to destroy the Bajoran ships because they are terrorist vessels. When Kennelly orders Picard to withdraw, Picard allows the Cardassians to destroy the ships, then informs the admiral that no one was aboard, since Ro had alerted him to Kennelly's plan to deliver the Bajorans to the Cardassians. Kennelly insists that he was trying to preserve the peace with the Cardassians, but Picard warns him that the Cardassians destroyed the Federation colony and blamed the Bajorans, using the admiral to attempt to wipe out the Bajoran leaders so that they could occupy Bajor unopposed. Picard then tells Ro that Kennelly will face a board of inquiry and asks Ro to remain in Starfleet.

Analysis: I had remembered "Ensign Ro" as being a good episode - a terrific start to the arc that ultimately formed the background for all of Deep Space Nine. But in my memory, it was eclipsed by several brilliant episodes of the later series that complicated the Bajoran-Cardassian-Federation relationships and created more nuanced characters like Kira and Winn. Upon rewatching, though, I want to move "Ensign Ro" onto my Next Gen top ten list. This is an absolutely terrific installment: complex plot, great pacing, terrific performances, and a dramatic theme that seems more timely now instead of less. I remember that when I first watched "Ensign Ro," I was frustrated trying to figure out the real-world parallels. Were the Bajorans supposed to be more like the Jews under the Nazis before the Final Solution, or Palestinians in the West Bank during the intifada? What did it mean that the duplicitous admiral had an Irish name? I thought that the episode wouldn't age well, since the situations in Ireland and Israel would surely change -- indeed, Star Trek's prediction in "The High Ground" that it would take a successful terrorist campaign to bring the IRA to the table has proven incorrect. However, "Ensign Ro" seems more universal now that it's harder to draw direct comparisons.

The success of the story hinges on how well Ro Laren herself comes across, and the producers hit gold in Michelle Forbes. At this point, of course, she's a genre icon, having gone on to appear in Battlestar Galactica and True Blood, but most Star Trek fans knew her only from a brief appearance on the series before as Timicin's daughter in "Half a Life." We have to believe that she's an angry, bitter, antisocial rebel, a Starfleet screw-up who may very well have terrorist leanings, and at the same time we have to sympathize with her. In other words, Ro has to be admirable, temperamental, harsh and likeable all within the space of barely half an hour. And she is. She wins sympathy points within moments of arriving on the ship when Riker, in the unusual role of heavy, orders her to remove her Bajoran earring in accordance with Starfleet dress code (which somehow doesn't seem to apply to Worf's sash or Troi's catsuits). Then she grouses at Picard about not wanting to be there and thinking it's only a slight improvement on prison. She rejects friendly overtures by Crusher and Troi (the latter of whom gratefully never utters anything about her hiding anything or being miserable, two things we can observe for ourselves). Guinan forces friendship upon Ro practically against her will, using their common position as outsiders, and Picard decides to trust Ro because Guinan asks him to, though she has violated his orders and possibly sabotaged his mission.

Around all this, we have an unusually colorful cast of characters...no pun intended in the case of Mot the barber, though I doubt it's an accident that the episode starts off with a reminder of how diverse are the people in the Federation and even aboard the ship. It's often been observed by fans that Starfleet is very human-centric and even the prominent aliens tend to have human ties (Spock's human mother, Worf's adoptive human parents, Troi's human father). It would be hard to blame Ro for feeling a bit like an outsider in Starfleet to begin with. Add to that the fact that her people have no homeland, that she grew up ashamed of her Bajoran father because he seemed weak to her, that she took the blame for a mistake that killed eight of her colleagues on the Wellington, and that Kennelly got her released from prison specifically to do his dirty work, and it's easy to see why she's isolated and defensive. It's interesting that not one Starfleet officer has a viable plan to make her part of the team, not even Troi, who accepts Ro's declaration that she wants to be alone at face value. Riker is openly hostile and Picard is frostily arrogant in dealing with Ro. Their initial prejudices might have led to disaster for everyone involved if Guinan hadn't suspected there was more going on than anyone else could know.

The Bajorans (or Bajora, as they're called at this point in Star Trek history, though I've used the designation by which they'll be known for the following decade) are sketched in only the broadest strokes here. Everyone agrees that there are terrorists among them, but we don't see those; we see the aging leader desperate for basic supplies, the fugitive guerilla who pleads innocence in the Federation attack, and dozens of displaced children and families, none of whom ask for anything, though it seems somewhat unbelievable that there wouldn't be aggression and suspicion when armed Starfleet officers appear among them. Only Kennelly is a fully-realized character, though he's a despicable one, claiming sympathy for the Bajorans whose homeworld has been "annexed" by the Cardassians while setting up a group whose guilt he cannot prove for execution by the Cardassians, all without approval by Starfleet Command. What is he thinking, promising Orta to his Cardassian liaison rather than asking Picard to bring the man home for questioning about the attack on the Federation colony? Does he truly believe this is the only way to keep the peace with the Cardassians, rather than getting embroiled in the bureaucracy of a trial over the colony's destruction? If Kennelly really believes that the current peace with the Cardassians is the most important thing, it might not even matter to him that the Cardassians destroyed the colony, which is surely an act of war. As the episode concludes, no one is ready to talk about reprisals.

It might seem like an unsatisfactory ending if we didn't know that the issue here would be central to the franchise for more than a decade. Though we got glimpses of the duplicitous Cardassians in "The Wounded," the central issues of the Cardassian arc are laid out in "Ensign Ro" with sufficient subtlety and sophistication that they remain relevant long after Ro Laren has disappeared from Starfleet.The Maquis come into existence over similar attacks by the Cardassians that Starfleet refuses to challenge, and the Maquis form a significant portion of the crew on Voyager. Captain Sisko becomes the Emissary to the people of Bajor, marries a woman who supports the Maquis, and ultimately leads all his people to war against Cardassia and its allies. So much that I love about second-generation Star Trek is born or made possible here...and even putting that aside, it's an engrossing, moving stand-alone story.

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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.