“I don’t like what we have become”: The Drumhead (TNG) vs. Tribunal (DS9)

Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Drumhead (season 4, episode 21)

Written by Jeri Taylor; directed by Jonathan Frakes; first aired in 1991

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

When a Klingon exchange officer aboard the Enterprise is suspected of sabotaging the ship and passing on sensitive information to the Romulans, the retired Admiral Satie and her team are sent to the Enterprise to conduct an inquiry. Lt. Worf is eager to help Satie expose a possible conspiracy on board the ship, but it soon becomes clear to Captain Picard that Satie is determined to find a conspiracy whether it exists, or not.


Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Tribunal (season 2, episode 25)

Written by Bill Dial; directed by Avery Brooks; first aired in 1994

(IMDbMemory Alpha )

Chief O’Brien’s vacation is interrupted when he is arrested by Cardassians and taken to Cardassia Prime. There, he experiences the dystopian nightmare that is the Cardassian justice system, in which the charges against him aren’t revealed until his trial begins … but his execution is scheduled in advance. Constable Odo and the crew of DS9 work to find evidence which will exonerate O’Brien, despite the fact that, in the eyes of the Cardassian court, his guilt was determined the moment he was arrested.

The Drumhead

I started this blog, in part, to explore what these episodes of Star Trek say to us when we watch them now, decades after they first aired and, for some of us, years or decades after we first watched them. I strongly believe in treating Trek not as a sacred text, but as a living document. Its popularity has persisted, I believe, because its best episodes are both products of their time, and still applicable to ours. They had something to say back then, and they still say something now, even if the message may have changed, somewhat, over time.

And The Drumhead and Tribunal are two episodes that have a lot to say to us now.

The Drumhead is classic, dictionary-definition Trek, a story that could just as easily have aired on TOS, decades earlier, or on Star Trek: Discovery when it debuts this year, decades later. I’m skeptical of the term ‘timeless’, but I can certainly see how someone could be tempted to use it here. This episode of TNG is just the kind of story Star Trek was created to tell: a socially conscious cautionary tale, complete with real-world historical references, personal obsession, and a road to hell paved with good intentions. Admiral Satie and her team would seem right at home in the explicitly-mentioned Salem witch trials, or the implicitly-referenced McCarthy hearings of the 1950s.

The paradox of real-world Senator McCarthy’s crusade against ‘un-American activity’ – oppression justified by the need to safeguard against oppression – is mirrored in Satie’s obsession with rooting out threats to the Federation. As she tells Captain Picard, she was raised to believe that the Federation was “the most remarkable institution ever conceived,” and that “this extraordinary union” must “be preserved”. But when Picard protests Satie’s treatment of a member of his crew on the basis that, under Federation law, the accused is innocent until proven guilty – “I won’t treat a man as a criminal unless there is cause to do so” – Satie easily dismisses his concerns: “While you’re being so generous, you give a saboteur a chance to strike again.” In the face of possible future threats to the Federation, she writes off one of its most fundamental principles as unwarranted generosity … as a silly, dangerous indulgence. For Satie, for McCarthy, and for any number of politicians and public figures who have held influence since – and who hold influence today – the need to protect our way of life makes a handy distraction from any discussion of what it is about our way of life that’s actually worth protecting.

In Satie, the episode also explores something else which has only become more relevant with time: the use of conspiracy theories to justify the violation of rights, or the abuse of power. In the course of Satie’s investigation, it’s discovered that the damage done to the Enterprise had nothing to do with the Klingon officer’s collusion with the Romulans; that it was nothing more than a coincidentally-timed mechanical failure. On re-watching this episode, my first thought was that this was a weak plot point; coincidence doesn’t generally make for strong storytelling. But I’ve since changed my mind. It’s crucial to this story, I think, that Satie and her team develop their theory of a conspiracy – their theory that the Klingon officer couldn’t have been working alone – based on the assumption that the Enterprise was sabotaged … but then continue to pursue that theory even after it’s proven to be just a coincidence. “Just because there was no sabotage,” Satie says, “doesn’t mean there isn’t a conspiracy on this ship,” and when Picard points out that she no longer has any actual evidence of a conspiracy, she counters by saying, “We will have clear evidence.” To truly believe in a conspiracy theory must be terrifying, but I imagine there’s also something satisfying about it, even comforting. It gives you license to assume that whatever feels true, is. It grants you permission to start from a conclusion, and work backwards to justify it. And it assures you that you are, somehow, special … that you see connections where the sheeple see only coincidences.

If there’s one weak point for me in this very strong episode, it’s that Satie’s witch hunt is blamed almost entirely on her own private obsession. Her conspiracy theory doesn’t really catch on with anyone else, and she’s only able to carry it as far as she does because of her position and her reputation; once the audience at the inquiry sees the side of her that Picard has already seen, she immediately loses support, even from her own team. It might have been interesting to see her conspiracy theory be embraced by some of the crew, and to see her claim that their support justifies her abuse of power.

Worf’s role in the investigation does allow a brief opportunity to explore the way that otherwise rational people are made complicit in Satie’s obsession. In spite of his father’s reputation as a Romulan collaborator, Worf is told that he has nothing to prove to Satie … but it turns out, unsurprisingly, that he does. Satie values his help until the moment he questions the investigation, at which point his father’s reputation is immediately used against him. When anyone can be declared an enemy of the state without evidence, the trust of someone like Satie is entirely dependent on how loyal, and how useful, you are to her.

But for the most part, The Drumhead isn’t telling a story about structural, systemic problems. As Picard himself sums up at the episode’s end, it’s a cautionary tale, a reminder to be vigilant against people like Satie when they pop up, from time to time, in an otherwise functional system. Tribunal, on the other hand, is very much about systemic problems; you could say it’s about what happens when people like Satie run the system, unopposed.

Where The Drumhead referenced witch trials and the McCarthy hearings, the setting and imagery of Tribunal are more explicitly dystopian, making me think of George Orwell’s 1984. The episode invites these comparisons in the first establishing shot of Cardassia Prime, in which passersby watch state propaganda on an outdoor, wall-mounted video screen. The image evokes the ubiquity of Big Brother, and of video screens and surveillance, in Orwell’s novel. It’s also, of course, reminiscent of the propaganda used by real-world dictatorships. It seems likely to me that when this episode first aired, in 1994, audiences might have associated O’Brien’s experience with ethnocentric horror stories of Western tourists mistreated by foreign police, or imprisoned in foreign jails. But when I watch it now, this episode hits much closer to home than that.

Every point Picard makes in The Drumhead, about the importance of treating suspects as innocent until proven guilty, is turned on its head in Tribunal. This is telegraphed early in the episode, in Gul Evek’s reading of O’Brien’s ‘rights’ during his arrest: “You have the right to refuse to answer questions, but such refusal may be construed as a sign of guilt.” This is an ironic reversal of American Miranda rights, which even a Canadian like myself practically knows by heart after a lifetime of watching American television; it also contrasts with a scene in The Drumhead, in which a crew member is granted the right to decline to answer a question, in order not to incriminate himself (which, again, any American, or anyone who’s watched a lot of American TV, will recognize as similar to the Fifth Amendment). Near the end of Tribunal, during his trial, O’Brien tries to invoke that same right to avoid incriminating himself, and is told that he has no such right in Cardassian court. The Cardassian justice system seems to be the embodiment of Picard’s fears (and of fears we should all have about our own justice systems): a system in which it’s not the state’s responsibility to prove a suspect’s guilt, but the suspect’s responsibility to prove themselves innocent.

And of course, the suspect never actually gets the chance to prove themselves innocent, since they aren’t notified of the charges against them until after their trial begins. During the arrest, Evek’s exchange with O’Brien continues:

O’Brien: I demand to know what I’m being accused of.
Evek: You deny all knowledge of this crime, then?
O: How the hell am I supposed to deny something when I don’t know what you’re talking about?
E: So you do not deny all knowledge?

This scene, and many others in this episode, can feel a bit exaggerated. But as in all good dystopian fiction, that exaggeration is based on something more plausible – in this case, on the fear of a justice system in which the very act of being accused of a crime makes you guilty in the eyes of the court. We see this dramatized throughout the episode, when, for instance, the defense is not allowed to introduce evidence at trial, and when O’Brien’s Cardassian lawyer tells him, “Whatever you’ve done, whatever the charges against you, none of that really matters in the long run.” When O’Brien asks him what does matter, he’s told that the purpose of his trial is to “demonstrate the futility of behavior contrary to good order”. Elsewhere, the Cardassian judge states the importance, in the Cardassian justice system, of efficiency and “swift justice”. Their justice system serves only the state, not the people, and justifies that imbalance through the assumption that all who are accused are guilty, and that the state is, therefore, making society safer by quickly, decisively punishing them.

Again, we could view all this as a dramatization of problems in other places – other countries, other political systems, ‘over there’ – if we wanted to. But as I said above, this hit much closer to home for me when I re-watched it in 2017. I found myself thinking of a phrase I’ve heard over and over in the real world of today: ‘If you’ve done nothing wrong, then you’ve got nothing to fear’ from the police, from government surveillance, and so on. Because that’s how oppressive systems, like that of the Cardassians, are sold to the public. We’re told that the only rights being violated are rights that good, decent people don’t actually need; we’re told that suspects’ rights are ‘criminals’ rights’, and that the only way to safeguard the rights of decent people is to violate the rights of ‘criminals’ (a ‘criminal’, of course, being anyone who happens to be accused of being one). And when this violation of rights is called into question, we’re shown unflattering images of the accused, we’re told unflattering things about their past, we’re assured that they’re ‘no angel’. We see this in Tribunal as well: during the trial, the judge confronts O’Brien with anti-Cardassian remarks he has made in the past, in order to make him look even guiltier of a crime that, given how the episode ends, she must already know he hasn’t committed. O’Brien’s attitude toward Cardassians is problematic, of course, and I wish this episode had taken some time to explore it in more depth. But his prejudice, ugly as it is, doesn’t make him guilty of a crime he hasn’t committed. Still, it’s easy to imagine the people of Cardassia Prime watching their viewscreens, and feeling more confident than ever that this unpleasant human, with his unpleasant past, simply must be guilty. I mean, look at him, listen to him. He’s no angel.

Picard’s insistence that being accused of a crime must not be considered, in itself, evidence of guilt, is echoed in a touching line from Odo, when he tells a despairing O’Brien, “Being accused of a crime is not a disgrace.” In the context of The Drumhead – in the context of a justice system that generally works, and must be preserved as it is – Odo’s words would sound almost obvious, self-evident. But in Tribunal, and in the real world, his words sound a lot more radical than they should.

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