TNG Rewatch: “Pen Pals”

TNG Re-Watch

Season 2, Episode 15

Watchers: Mike & Erin

In today’s episode Data makes a new friend!  But it doesn’t go so well since he never should have talked to her in the first place. Erin and I sit down to watch “Pen Pals”.

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A man and his holographic horse.

Right away we’re lulled into a sense of calm.  Captain Picard is hanging out in the holodeck to do some horseback riding leaving Riker in charge on the bridge.  Riker seems a bit hung over– or maybe I should say Franks seems a bit hung over.  Anyway, Picard doesn’t get to hang out with his holographic 4 legged friend very long before he’s called to the bridge.  We’ve discovered a dying planet and want to investigate it.  Sounds like a job for Wesley!  Wait, what?  Yes– they decide to give young acting Ens. Crusher “a big role with a lot of responsibility.”  They ask him to assemble a team and soon that team to.. analyize… or something the geological… something… anyway, the point is there’s giving the kid a lot of responsability and he’s going to be in charge of several real officers who actually have graduated from the academy.  As Erin put it: “it’s insane that they put a … what 16 year old? … in command of a research mission. Wouldn’t the better experience for him to be a member of the team?”  But hey, it’s a Wesley episode.  The premise is going to sound silly when you say it outloud.

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You did what?!

But wait, is it a Wesley episode?  No!  It’s a Data episode!!  That’s right!  Soon Data confesses to Picard that 2 months ago he received a transmission from the planet and he’s been corresponding with a little girl.  That’s right, Data is a creeper.  Erin adds: “And, how is this little girl communicating with a space ship? And, Data (being an android) is breaking with protocol and potentially the Prime Directive. Wouldn’t this be a little against his programming?”  All good questions that are left unanswered.

Instead of having a more official meeting in the observation lounge, Picard decides to gather the senior staff in his quarters.  I think this is really in an attempt to keep this problem on the down low– you how quickly gossip can go around a Starship.  Also, I mean how often does he get to entertain?   I really wanted him to be serving finger foods.  Anyway, they argue over what to do about Data’s pen pal.  The conversation soon gets heavy– as does my conversation with Erin:

Erin: Do you impose your will over nature to save the lives of millions, or allow them to reach their story’s natural end?

Mike: It really is.  This is good Star Trek.

Erin: Very good. This is the episode that really hammers out the importance and the cost of the Prime Directive.

Mike It boils down to “We are going to allow her to die, are we not?”  —- damn.

Erin: Freaking heartbreaking.

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“Your whisper from the dark has now become a plea, we cannot turn our backs.” – Picard

Mike: I literally got chills when we hear the child’s plea coming thru the intercom!

Erin: You just cannot hear the voice of that child and not feel compassion. But it’s a terrible situation.  You are playing with the idea of exposing a culture that is probably not ready for it to interstellar, intergalactic cultures.  Very very very squidgy stuff. Very grey area.  As they discussed.  When you start down this path, you assume the position of being able and allowed to determine the fates of others – millions and billions of others. Hmmmm. I don’t know. I think there needs to be some brandy in Picard’s tea.

They decide to help the little girl.  Well, more than that, they decide to save the planet from  geological disaster saving billions of lives.  Of course Wesley’s team comes up with the plan cause he’s smarter than anyone else on board included Data somehow.  Data is dumb enough to bring the little girl back up to the ship and basically throw the prime directive is out the window.  Not to worry though– they have Dr Pulaski and SHE IS AMAZING!  She’s like “Oh, yeah, I can remove her memories”.  Boom.  Problem solved.

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Thanks for saving my planet!

So the little girl will wake up and somehow her planet is magically better- no more earthquakes and no more volcanic eruptions.   In the Data learns a lot- not just about protocol but about human nature and right and wrong.   He also seems a little sad that the girl won’t remember him.

Erin: The Data stuff usually hits me the hardest.  I just feel like that, for someone without a “heart,” his is broken more than anyone else’s on the ship.

Mike: Right

Erin: In his quest to be more human, he experiences such pain in his own way.

Mike: In many ways he is a mirror to us– his exploration of humanity reflects our own journey to better understand ourselves.

Erin: That’s true. He’s the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. And Pinocchio, aching to be a real boy

Mike: Right!  So– does this episode hold up?

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Erin!

Erin: Absolutely yes. The questions they discuss in this episode are still incredibly relevant today…. The idea of playing God and how wrong it is. For instance, the way the US inserts itself into situations in other parts of the world, interfering to impose our will and our values upon others. It’s not right…. And, yet, innocent people are dying…. women and girls are being kidnapped, raped, murdered…. Children are dying from lack of access to clean water. So, you cannot simply do nothing. Where is the line? How much can you interfere to help before your are playing games with the fates of others?

I think they we (as they did in the show) can talk about it philosophically and abstractly, until it becomes personal. Then, everything changes.

Mike: So- in the end did they make the right decision?  If there was no message- no little girl– if they were just flying by this planet and saw billions of people dying from earthquakes and volcanos, should have stopped to help?

Erin: God, that’s a tough question. I think that, when you can help someone, save someone, you are morally obligated to do it. But, it’s a dangerous thing to make sweeping declarations about what must or must not be done in these situations.

Mike: The Prime Directive is clear.  No.  Document it, observe it maybe.  But no interference

Erin: The prime directive is so important – it has protected the Federation, and planet bound civilizations for centuries. But, how can you allow people to suffer and die needlessly when you have the technology to help Especially if you can do it discreetly and have no one know you were there? But, I can see the other side as well. If the planet was dying and it was just time for it to go, who are they to try to stop it?

Mike: I think the Prime Directive needs to be interpreted on a case by case basis.  It shouldn’t be an absolute.  It’s just not that simple.  This episode shows that really well.

Erin: I agree. The prime directive is and should be their guiding philosophy. What they generally strive for. But exceptions must be allowed. Life has inherent value and it is worth preserving if it is possible to do so. That’s my two cents.

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The smartest boy ever.

And, the moral of the story is, Wesley is going to be captain someday.

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