Season 2, Episode 11
Watchers: Mike & Damian
I hand picked today’s episode, “Contagion” for my friend Damian. A long time Star Trek fan, like me, Damian loved TNG when he was a kid. We both had extensive collections of VHS tapes from recording the show off to TV– carefully hitting pause to cut out the commercials. Ahh, the 80s & 90’s. Those were the days. Damian has some pretty strong opinions about “Contagion” so let’s jump right in.
Right off the bat, Damian felt cheated by the fact that we get to see another Federation starship and it’s an obvious reuse the Enterprise D model. Meet, the USS Yamato– but don’t get too used to her cause she’s not going to make it out of the pre-credit opening. BOOM! I feel like they just did this so they could show it in the commercial and make us think “Did they just watch themselves explode?!
Damian: “I also remember it being very upsetting that the Enterprise had a sister ship. That the Enterprise is widely billed to be the awesomest ship in the fleet. How is it the awesomest if there is an exact copy?”
Soon after the Yamato goes ka-boom, the Romulans show up– which is nice! They are a fascinating race and are very underused up until now. We see them at the end of Season 1– teasing that they are going to be the main villains of the show. Finally we are reunited with them here. And right off the bat, guess what– they’re not as evil as we think. They are not the antagonists of the episode but are just a complication adding pressure to an already stressful situation. They are victims of the same Iconian technology that destroyed the Yamato.
As we watched the scene in the observation lounge, Damian pointed out a difference between Kirk and Picard. TNG is much more of an ensemble show. Picard asks his staff to work on the problem and report back to me in an hour in a staff meeting. D: “Picard relies on his people much more than Kirk did” . Really the difference is Kirk used McCoy and Spock as his sounding board. As I’ve said before, those three characters make up one complete, well rounded commander. Whereas, Picard is much more of the manager– like the head of a company who uses his entire cabinet for support. It’s a very different 1980s rather than 1960’s approach to the character of Captain.
Back on the Enterprise, the ship is falling apart. The crew suspects a “design flaw” in the Galaxy class ship was the cause of the Yamato’s destruction and the Enterprise may have the same problem. Really?? As Damian pointed out “Your audience doesn’t believe that.” We feel very much ahead of the characters at this point. Clearly, our hero-ship, the USS Enterprise is NOT flawed! Clearly the problem is external so why would they even consider this? No, the real culprit is the Iconian probe and our heroes tell us exactly what to think about it.
Damian: “I love that how you’re supposed to perceive the sci-fi elements is guided by the actors. Like Riker looks at the screen and says ‘What the devil is that’. So this probe is supposed to be something that we’re afraid of. But just by looking at it, it isn’t necessarily scary on its own.”
Mike: “Right. The characters give us our frame of reference for anything we’re not familiar with already.
Meanwhile Enterprise continues to have malfunctions all over the place. Geordi figures out that it’s best not to scan the probe but destroy it! Of course the comm goes down (bad cell service?) and poor Geordi jumps into a turbolift for the roller coaster ride of his life! Oh, Geordi… Dude can’t get a date, he get’s kidnapped, gets weird things put in his brain, is transformed into a chameleon, is brainwashed into being an assassin… he’s basically the Harry Kim of TNG.
Let’s take a moment to discuss Mr. Crusher. As Damian pointed out “That’s got to be biggest problem on Star Trek The Next Generation, the entire series is putting Wesley Crusher at the helm of the ship.”. This even more clearly drives home that the ship is so advanced that it basically drives itself. But surely, on a ship of 1000 people, many of them graduates of Starfleet Academy and now ranking officers– surely there is someone more qualified to the helmsman. Don’t you think? Damian: “If it wasn’t for weirdo Gene Roddenberry dealing with his own issues of his childhood, I don’t think we would see Wesley Crusher at the helm of the ship.” Of course, he also had one of those “SHUT UP WESLEY” buttons that used to sell at conventions back in the day. 🙂
FINALLY we get to one of my all time favorite Dr. Pulaski scenes. With the tech on board going crazy, she has a practical approach to getting the job done. She doesn’t need some crazy “knitter” to set a broken bone. What’s wrong with a good old fashioned splint? Her staff seems to disagree:
Nurse: “That’s crazy! That’s not practicing medicine!”
Pulaski: “Oh, yes it is! It’s a time honored way to practice medicine: with your head, and your heart, and your hands. So jump to it.”
YES!! And THAT is why I love her. As Tina Fey said “Bitches get shit done!”
We need to beam down that planet! Picard insists on leading an away team himself- as he is the resident expert on Iconians. He leaves Riker behind to deal with his counterpart on the Romulan ship. Subcommander Taris played by the amazing Carolyn Seymour. More from her soon!
Down on the planet, Picard, Worf and Data discover that the Iconians had a really cool mode of transportation. A series of portals that lead to distant & near worlds and locations. Today it reminds me of Stargate. Data sets one of the portals to “shuffle” and we see stock images scroll by as the team discuss the dangers of such a device if it were to fall in the wrong hands. Well, we have to destroy it. Not only because it’s dangerous but because it’s trying to destroy us by making out tech go crazy!
In the end, Picard destroys the gates and they repair ship by using a paperclip to press a tiny “Reset” button on the back of the Enterprise. Well, not really– but it seems that simple. Ultimately, this is the downfall of this episode. It’s like the writers have us 40 minutes of drama and then a quick easy solution at the last second. Just reboot it!
So, my standard question. Does this episode hold up? If were made today, what would be different?
Damian: “I think it holds up. I would say this is among the first few that would hold up. You know, I feel like this whole section of Season 2- I know that on the same disk is “Measure of a Man” which definitely holds up. No one is going to stop and say that “Contagion” is their favorite episode. You know, some of the things that we pointed out in this episode as stupid or inconsistent would be different if it was done today [like Wesley Crusher at the helm]. I think the cool part about this episode, that is under explored, is this long dead civilization… how they concurred the galaxy… and all that stuff is very cool. I would think that if this was revisited we would get a more of the iconians in there.”
Agreed– today we would focus less on the ship going haywire and more on the aliens– both the Iconians and the Romulans. It brings to mind a later episode called “The Chase” where we learn that a long dead civilization explored great reaches of the galaxy and planted the seeds of early evolution for many races. Basically it explains why the Enterprise keeps encountering aliens that basically look like us. That’s fascinating. Much more fascinating than worrying about computer glitches. As Damian pointed out that from a writer’s perspective, the computer glitches are “random enough that it’s cheap. So you’re like: of course the shields are going to come up at the right time. It empowers the writers to have a built-in bail out at any moment. It’s a great way to get to see your characters panic, but you as the audience has total faith.”
“MJ: Right. And also I think the final solution is to easy. It’s the reboot problem. That feels very pedestrian. We’ve all hit rebooted a computer. It’s just boring– and was only set up to add pressure.”
MJ: “So, If you were introducing Star Trek to someone– if you sat Colby down to watch his first episode, would you pick “Contagion”? “
Damian: “I would not but if it happened to be the episode that was on I still would think that it serves that purpose just fine. It’s a terrific episode because it shows every character doing their part. There’s really good Data stuff. Geordie gets beat up and tossed around and gets to be smart. Troi gets the willies because of that whole thing. You get that Pulaski moment. Worf has moments. Riker as the Captain, which is always fun to see. Literally every character gets their due in this episode. That being said I wouldn’t say its like “Blink” in Doctor Who. You know how everyone says that if you like “Blink” you’ll like Doctor Who. This is not that episode. But if you happen to sit down with someone who hasn’t seen [Star Trek] you get the idea.”