“First Contact”

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Do you know Dr. Frasier Crane — I mean, Captain Morgan Batesman?

Riker, on an undercover mission to a planet about to make its first warp flight, is hospitalized — and his hidden human features freak out his doctors. Meanwhile, Picard and Troi introduce themselves to Mirasta Yale (Carolyn Seymour) the scientist leading the warp program and then, the planet’s Chancellor Avel Durken (George Coe). They explain how the Federation makes first contact, often after covertly studying worlds about to travel faster than light for years. Traditionalists on the planet, including defense minister Krola (Michael Ensign) were already concerned and almost paranoid about what lies ahead — even before they knew of the Federation and aliens who had been posing as the planets’ inhabitants for years. When Riker’s presence becomes known — the Enterprise hasn’t been able to find him — Krola visits him in the hospital and uses his phaser to make it look as if Riker shot him. Detecting the phaser fire, Crusher and Worf beam down and rescue Riker (who was about to go to the old poker table in the sky) and Krola (who was only stunned). When Durken discovers what Krola tried to do, he decides to hold off on the warp flight to let his people catch up with technology. Yale, unwilling to take a step back, decides to stay with the Enterprise.

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People of Malcor II, we’re proud to present … humanity! Oh, and a Beta-something.

Why it’s important

It’s unlikely that “First Contact” is among anyone’s most or least favorite episodes of TNG. While it has some interesting ideas, it’s talky, involves a lot of guest characters and a race — the Malcorians — who are never seen or heard of again (partly because of the episode’s resolution). In fact, if you might be surprised to find “First Contact” among the episodes we’ve chosen to review, if you remember it at all. It’s not bad, but it’s sort of a fair-to-middlin’ hour, in many ways.

But, this is an episode that really explains a large part of what the Federation does and how it deals with less-advanced species. Picard’s demeanor (and Patrick Stewart’s delivery) really conveys just how delicate first-contact missions can be. Picard explains the work the Federation puts into first contact by mentioning how badly first contact went with the Klingons (which doesn’t exactly jibe with what we see on “Enterprise” but never mind). If you want an episode that focuses on the high-sounding ideals of the Federation, this one definitely works.

It’s also an allegory that could have been right at home in TOS, as the Malcorians are clearly made to be very human-like. Not surprisingly, there are some logical problems and heavy-handed moments …

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Here’s hoping your species can drink alcohol, and that you don’t have substance-abuse problems.

What doesn’t hold up

Krola is just FAR too one-dimensional and poorly written. It’s unlikely that anyone so in favor of traditional values would actually use the kind of language he uses. His character speaks as if he was written by someone who thought a traditionalist stance was stupid. Part of the issue is that the arguments of someone actually in Krola’s position would take much longer to explain, as they’d be less direct (and probably less overtly at odds with the chancellor who likely appointed him). Krola’s necessary for the story, but I’ve got to wonder if he could have been more nuanced. Maybe there just wasn’t time?

There’s also the question of the observers who were already on the planet (whom Riker was presumably meeting). Did they go underground after Riker was taken the hospital? Were they trying to get him out? Were they communicating with the Enterprise? If they knew the planet — and they’d been there for years — and the area where Riker was injured, couldn’t they have helped the Enterprise find him?

Speaking of the hospital, I find it hard to believe that the administrator would wait as long as he did before reporting Riker’s presence. The rationale sort of boils down to the administrator not wanting the hospital to become a circus (and to provide Riker with proper care) but by waiting, that’s sort of what happens. The reason for the delay wasn’t all that necessary for the story, either, as Krola’s martyring act could have been delayed by impediments from the chancellor or something else.

Lastly, what the hell happened to Yale after this episode? Picard gets her quarters on board the ship and then, we never hear from her again. I guess she went the way of that weird alien in “Future Imperfect” and the warp speed limits from “Force of Nature”.

Final thoughts

We typically stay way from Universal Translator issues on this site. Complaining about them usually is like shooting fish in a barrel or like getting mad about the weather. The UT is a necessary conceit to make Star Trek possible — but every so often, an episode comes around where the goofiness of the UT’s near-magic powers stands out as a laughable.

In other episodes, we learn that the UT is housed in Starfleet communicator badges — and we know that Riker had his badge when he arrived on the planet but doesn’t have it in the hospital (he asks for it when he wakes up). Maybe Riker had another UT on him, but we never see the device other than comm badges in any episode or movie that takes place in the 24th century. Now, we see Quark, Rom and Nog with UTs in their lobes during “Little Green Men”, but I doubt Riker has something similar in his ear. Otherwise, the Malcorian doctors would have probably found it.

Of course, Riker’s pretense of having deformities (his hands and feet are different than Malcorians’) wouldn’t have stood up for a moment if he hadn’t been able to speak the normal language. And, in this episode, the apparent lack of a UT really stands out.

Lastly, the appearance by Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith from “Cheers”) as the freaky Malcorian who wants to have sex with Riker in the hospital was weird, but mostly welcome. The way the scene was shot makes you wonder just how far Riker went. My guess is, not very far, but you never know. This is Will Riker we’re talking about.

Coming later this week ..

Memo to Dr. Crusher: That Trill ambassador has a slug in his belly, and he’s not just happy to see you.

 

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