“The Neutral Zone”

“We are back. And if we knew what ‘mic-dropping’ was, we’d do it here.”

In one of the weirdest story combos ever, the Enterprise happens upon a sleeper ship containing three humans who’ve been frozen since the late-1980s. Meanwhile, the Enterprise must head to the Neutral Zone to discover if the loss of several outposts was caused by the Romulans, who (ahem) have been unseen for several decades. Most of the episode is spent explaining the 24th century to the three humans while en route to the Neutral Zone. There, a Romulan warbird appears  — apparently, as part of an investigation into what happened to the outposts on their side of the zone, which met the same fate. As neither side has committed a transgression, the Romulans turn around and go home — but not before telling Picard and Co. that their absence is over. “I think all of our lives just got more complicated,” Picard says. Meanwhile, the three 20th-century humans are sent on a slow ship back to Earth, in search of low-mileage pit woofies.

“Say it with me. ‘Low-mileage pit woofies.'”

Why it’s important

Well, this is the first look at the Romulans since way back in “The Enterprise Incident”, other than a stray ambassador and appearance of blue ale in the movies. Their intentions to re-emerge change the math in a major way for the Federation, and started the Ferengi (clearly, the creators’ initial bad guys when TNG launched) on a glide path to comic fodder. Oh, and this is the first time in Star Trek where an actual date is attached to the “current” timeline. Data tells the 20th-century humans that it’s 2364 — even though, back in “Encounter at Farpoint”, he told Riker he graduated in the “class of ’78”. So, either Data is really, really old (he’s not) or the creators flubbed.

“Romulan ale? No, we’re gonna give you a cold glass of ‘shut the hell up.'”

What doesn’t hold up

The destruction of the outposts appears to have stemmed from a Borg attack. This is stated pretty clearly next season in “Q Who?” — in which the Enterprise finds planets with the same patterns of destruction, in a distant part of the galaxy. How the Borg were around the Neutral Zone and why we didn’t see them again (in Federation territory) until “The Best of Both Worlds” was never really explained.

Stranger still, the Romulans’ long absence sure seems at odds with what we learn later — and even some of what we’ve seen in the first season. Allegedly, the Enterprise was off to face some Romulan battle cruisers at the end of “Angel One.” Of course, we never learned what happened with that. But we know that the Klingons (who likely would have shared intelligence with Starfleet) had somewhat recent dealings with the Romulans, based on Worf’s dialog in “Heart of Glory”. In that episode, we learn that the Romulans attacked and destroyed Worf’s home colony (Khitomer) about 20 years earlier. We learn later that the Romulans and Klingons were allies prior to the attack. There are plenty of other things we learn in TNG, DS9 and Voyager that make this episode fall short (the Romulans’ attack at Narendra III, Picard’s statement that the Romulans have been working to destroy the Federation/Klingon alliance for 20 years, etc.) that don’t work at all with what we see in “The Neutral Zone”.

The real problem is that the creators decided to up the stakes in this episode by making the Romulans more mysterious than they really should have been (if only based on first-season mentions). This actually harks back to the introduction of the Romulans in TOS (“Balance of Terror”) when no one in the Federation had ever seen a Romulan. That didn’t make a ton of sense, either, because it relied on the premise that visual communication wasn’t possible in the 22nd century (when we know there was such communication in “Star Trek: Enterprise”). But at least in “Balance of Terror”, the idea that the Romulans hadn’t been around for a century held up.

Final thoughts

This is really a sloppy episode. The 20th-century human shtick actually isn’t awful — it gives Troi something to do and the interactions between Data and one of the humans is somewhat entertaining. But to mash that story up with something as big and important as the re-emergence of one of the Federation’s most notorious enemies? Who thought that was a good idea? I suppose it sort of works because the episode didn’t appear willing to have the Romulans actually do anything — except some saber-rattling — and something needed to fill the rest of the hour.

And, really, the Romulans’ re-emergence doesn’t amount to much for at least a year, as they only appear in one second-season episode (“Contagion”). Granted, what happens in the galaxy isn’t limited to what happens to the Enterprise, but we don’t really see much of the Romulans again until the third season. So, as far as being “back” …

Coming next week …

We already know Data’s fully functional. But is he a toaster?

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