“What are you, that you could do this?”: The Enterprise Incident (TOS) vs. Face of the Enemy (TNG)

Star Trek: The Original Series – “The Enterprise Incident” (season 3, episode 4)

Written by D.C. Fontana; directed by John Meredyth Lucas; first aired in 1968

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

An irate and erratic Kirk orders the Enterprise crew to cross into Romulan space, for no apparent reason. They’re soon surrounded by Romulan ships, and Kirk and Spock are beamed aboard one of those ships to discuss surrender. The Romulan Commander takes a liking to Spock, and he admits to her that Kirk isn’t in his right mind … and then seemingly kills the enraged Kirk in self-defence! But it turns out that the whole thing – Kirk’s strange behavior, Spock’s “Vulcan death grip” – was all part of an elaborate ruse to get hold of a Romulan cloaking device. And the ruse only gets more elaborate as Kirk is made up to look Romulan, and Spock cozies up to the Commander.    

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Face of the Enemy” (season 6, episode 14)

Teleplay by Naren Shankar; story by Rene Echevarria; directed by Gabrielle Beaumont; first aired in 1993

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

A disoriented Counselor Troi wakes up aboard a Romulan Warbird … wearing a Romulan face. The ship’s Sub-Commander, N’Vek, eventually informs her that she’s been abducted from a conference to help the Romulan dissident movement smuggle a high-ranking Romulan defector and his aides out of the Empire. To do so, she must assume the identity of Major Rakal – a member of the Empire’s sinister intelligence agency, the Tal Shiar – and order the ship’s Commander, Toreth, on a mysterious mission. But Toreth is no fan of the Tal Shiar, and pushes back against Troi’s cryptic orders, forcing her to play the role of fascist secret police more convincingly than she might like. Meanwhile, on the Enterprise, a former defector from Starfleet to the Romulan Empire has returned with a message for Captain Picard … from Ambassador Spock.

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As I noted when I wrote about Voyager’s “State of Flux”, characters passing themselves off as other species has become one of the quintessential tropes of Trek, like the holodeck turning deadly, or those transporter accidents that just happen to create ethical or philosophical dilemmas. The fact that these tropes push the boundaries of what’s plausible in the Trek universe can make them controversial among fans, and can make them perfect examples of how silly Star Trek can seem to the uninitiated. And, make no mistake, it is silly to think that inter-species cosmetic surgery, no matter how advanced, could be done (and, later, completely reversed) through a short procedure, and yet be so completely convincing that it fools not just other members of that species, but presumably their ship’s sensors, too. It’s absolutely silly, but that silliness doesn’t bother me, because – let’s be honest – Trek is supposed to be silly, at least a little bit.

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Or, to sugar-coat that a little, Trek has often tended more towards metaphor than towards realism in its story-telling. The alien races we encountered in the Original Series and in The Next Generation, for the most part, were rarely meant to be plausible, in-depth explorations of what other species might actually be like, or how their cultures might actually function; expectations of such tended to be imposed retroactively by fan communities, or further fleshed out by later writers, in later seasons (and later series). As I’ve written before, I think most early aliens of Trek were only ever meant to embody certain isolated aspects of human history, or of the human condition. The fact that the physical appearance of almost every alien ever encountered in Trek can be described by some variation of “humans with X on their faces” (with X being something as simple as “beards”, in the case of the early Klingons) speaks not only to the budget constraints of early Trek, but also to the role of most Trek aliens as “humans as Y”, or “humans if Z”.

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Which is why I think there’s more to the trope of inter-species face-changing than just the (undeniable) fun of seeing Trek’s iconic makeup and prosthetics applied to unexpected cast members. If alien cultures in Trek – and the facial features associated with them – are often meant as short-hand for some statement about humanity, then having characters switch facial features ties into one of Trek’s most foundational themes: that in spite of our differences, we all have more in common than we might think, making coexistence and cooperation always at least possible. But more than that, I think that these face-swapping stories can, at their best, say something about the nature of individual identity as well. In both the Original Series’ “The Enterprise Incident”, and The Next Generation’s “Face of the Enemy”, we watch as characters walk the line between performing an assumed identity, and testing the unexplored limits of their own identity. Both Spock, in his flirtation with the Romulan Commander, and Troi, in her attempts to emulate the fear-mongering authority of a Tal Shiar agent, force us to ask where the performance ends, and where they begin.

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Of course, in “The Enterprise Incident”, we don’t get much of that exploration of Kirk, the TOS character who actually takes on a Romulan face to play the role of a crew member on the Romulan ship (after already playing the role of a Starfleet Captain no longer fit for duty). Kirk’s erratic behavior at the episode’s beginning, no matter the thin justification provided for it by the plot, seems to serve mostly as misdirection for the audience; and likewise, his Romulan makeup job seems to be meant mostly as some meta-level fun (‘Look at Shatner in Nimoy’s makeup!’). Deep-cover espionage stories in general, I think, have a tendency to push the boundaries of believability in service of what would be dramatic, or engaging, or fun for the audience to watch. Kirk and Spock’s entire plan makes little sense when you really think about it, with each convoluted step only succeeding because the plot of the episode needs it to (Kirk’s damn lucky, for example, that the Romulans didn’t decide to do an autopsy after he faked his death). Which, to some extent, is fine; as I said above, some level of silliness is to be expected in Trek, and doesn’t bother me as long as the episode, as a whole, is enjoyable, and hopefully meaningful, to watch. But in an episode exploring the affinity Spock might feel for Romulan people and Romulan culture – in an episode that repeatedly reminds us that Vulcans and Romulans have common ancestry, and are, for instance, difficult to distinguish from each other in scans – it’s a bit weird that human Kirk, and not half-Vulcan Spock, tries to pass for a member of the Romulan crew.

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But beyond the fan-service of making Kirk up as a Romulan, it has to be Kirk who goes undercover, so that Spock can spend most of the episode with the Romulan Commander … which is, I have to admit, the right choice. Their scenes together can certainly verge on cheesy from a modern perspective, but there’s something interesting underneath that cheesiness. Any episode of TV from the 60s is of course going to be problematic in its approach to gender, and “The Enterprise Incident” is no exception; the fact that the Commander is a woman is presented as one of her defining characteristics in a way I find uncomfortable, watching now in 2018. But if we can look past that, I think there’s actually some impressive depth to her character, as written by D.C. Fontana and portrayed by Joanne Linville. Even if we’re meant to be surprised that her ship is commanded by a woman – as viewers at the time might well have been, I suppose – she communicates an air of relaxed, effortless authority which both defies gender stereotypes, and defies expectations we might have of the ‘hostile alien commander’ character type. And what’s more, I believe her flirtation with Spock, not just as attraction, but as a genuine interest in his in-between existence as a Vulcan – almost a Romulan, but not quite – serving in Starfleet, where he is almost human, but not quite. Though we know very little about her, autobiographically, I think it’s implied that there’s something about Spock’s in-between existence she can, personally, relate to; that she, too, feels caught between worlds, in one way or another. Spock’s observation that her name – which we never hear – is “beautiful” but “incongruous when spoken by a soldier” has sexist overtones, of course (which, again, we can explain, if not forgive, as an artifact of its time). But underneath those overtones, I think, is an interesting comment on life under a militaristic, imperial regime (a subject “Face of the Enemy” will return to, and expand on).

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A question hangs over each of Spock’s scenes with the Commander, until nearly the end of the episode: how much of their flirtation is an act – on both their parts – and how much of it is genuine? Once Spock is caught out as a spy by Sub-Commander Tal, the Commander’s reaction shows pretty clearly that she wasn’t just trying to win Spock over to the Romulan cause and advance her military career. Her words to Spock – “Why would you do this to me? What are you, that you could do this?” – are biting, not just because of the genuine emotion they show, but because she has a point: how is it that someone who prides himself on being unable to lie could be so good at deception? His answer, that he is, simply, “First officer of the Enterprise”, mirrors his description of the Commander’s “beautiful” name as being “incongruous” with her duty to the Romulan Empire. This is supported by the episode’s final scene, as Spock escorts the captive Commander to her temporary quarters aboard the Enterprise, and admits that his side of their flirtation was genuine, too: “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all. I hope that you and I exchanged something more permanent.” Again, we see how Spock’s infiltration of the Romulan ship – though not as flashy and dramatic as Kirk’s – exposed both the way that cold war politics forces both Romulan and Federation officers to lead double lives, and the way Spock’s daily life onboard Enterprise forces him to compartmentalize himself.

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If “The Enterprise Incident” uses Spock’s subtle role-playing to reveal something surprising about his real self, “Face of the Enemy” forces Troi to play a much more extreme role, and pushes her to the limits of what she’s capable of. Like Kirk, Troi is altered to look Romulan, and is implanted on a Romulan ship. But where Kirk was there to blend in, Troi is put in a position of authority; fading into the background isn’t really an option for her. Her interactions with the Romulan crew – and particularly with Commander Toreth, played perfectly by Carolyn Seymour – are a far cry from Kirk’s light-hearted, spy-movie adventure. The scenes of Troi, as Major Rakal of the Tal Shiar, giving orders on the Warbird’s bridge, or dining with its officers, are impressively tense, and often surprisingly dark. Toreth is presented almost immediately as a credible threat to Troi’s cover, perceptive and shrewd, and it’s riveting to watch Marina Sirtis’ performance, as Troi adjusts her own performance as Rakal to keep Toreth from finding her out. Troi is initially unconvincing as a Tal Shiar agent, leading Toreth to question how long she’s been serving, and to dismiss her as an inexperienced junior agent; but when Troi compensates – knowing that she can’t just maintain her cover, but must also be taken seriously, so that her orders will be followed – she embraces her role as secret police boogeyman almost too convincingly.

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The tensest, and most interesting, parts of “Face of the Enemy”, for me, are the moments when Troi pushes both the authority of her fictional Tal Shiar agent, and her own rarely (if ever) before seen ability to scare the crap out of people, farther than we might think she could … and maybe even farther than she should. In one of the later scenes of the episode, her dressing-down of N’Vek, the Romulan dissident who brought her on board in the first place, is both impressive and terrifying, partly because it happens in private, where she doesn’t actually need to play the role of Major Rakal. It’s Troi, not Rakal, who convincingly threatens N’Vek with being “ejected into space” if he doesn’t go along with her new, improvised plan to make contact with the Enterprise. I have to believe that Troi is bluffing in that scene, as much as I believe she is any time she throws her Tal Shiar authority around; where Deep Space Nine or Discovery might be inclined to explore how far someone in Troi’s situation would be willing to go in her actions, as well as her words, I doubt The Next Generation would expect us to believe, even for a second, that Troi would really have someone tossed out an airlock. But it’s still interesting that she falls back on her newly-developed Major Rakal mindset to convince N’Vek, rather than any leverage she might have as a Starfleet officer, just as it’s interesting, during her awkward dinner with Commander Toreth, that Troi deliberately continues to defend the role of the Tal Shiar in Romulan society, even when she has an opportunity to let the matter drop and dine in silence. Presumably, she suspects (or senses, with her empathic abilities) that Toreth might be suspicious of a Tal Shiar agent who didn’t argue, emphatically and self-righteously, that the people need to be secretly policed. Still, it’s fascinating to watch Troi decide, in the moment, to err on the side of overplaying her role as Major Rakal, rather than underplaying it.

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Like “The Enterprise Incident”, “Face of the Enemy” does suffer a bit from the kind of too-convenient spy-thriller plot that starts to unravel as soon as you think too hard about the details; it doesn’t make much sense that N’Vek would pin the success of his entire plan on a disoriented, terrified outsider with little in-depth knowledge of the Romulan military or the Tal Shiar (and it’s never made clear why a ship’s counselor would have the kind of security access codes that Troi, apparently, does). But personally, I find the plot-holes here easier to ignore than those in “The Enterprise Incident”, because “Face of the Enemy” adds a level of complexity to its undercover espionage setting that makes it, for me, a much more compelling episode. Part of that complexity comes from a side plot involving Ensign Deseve, a human Starfleet officer who finally returns to the Federation after defecting to the Romulan Empire twenty years earlier. It’s interesting that this episode makes a point of showing the reverse of those Romulan defectors Troi and N’Vek are trying to deliver safely, and I only wish the concept of a defector from Starfleet to an alien military force could have been explored further, as it’s something I can’t recall Trek ever really dealing with, before or since (with the Maquis in Deep Space Nine and Voyager being the closest thing that comes to mind). But while it’s not given the time it might deserve here, Deseve’s defection and return at least serves to muddy the political waters, moving this story away from the cold war era, our-interests-versus-yours spy narrative of “The Enterprise Incident” towards one in which the politics are a little more complicated, a little messier, and a little more personal.

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And while the Deseve storyline contributes to that complexity, nowhere is it accomplished better than in the character of Commander Toreth. One of the strongest elements of this episode is the irony of having Troi impersonate not just a high-ranking military officer, but a member of the Tal Shiar, the organization that most directly represents exactly the sort of oppression the Romulan dissidents oppose. Troi’s cover, then, forces her to argue – in moments like the above-mentioned officers’ dinner scene – for the oppression she is covertly working against. This allows Toreth to serve both as Troi’s greatest obstacle in her mission to help the dissidents, and as a voice for dissent, if not quite for the dissidents themselves:

Troi: We ensure the loyalty of the people. Do you believe the Empire would be better off without our protection?
Toreth: Protection? From what? How is the Empire threatened by the words of an old man, a devoted citizen who was merely trying to speak his mind? How did the Tal Shiar protect the Empire by dragging him – my father – out of his home in the middle of the night?
Troi: Clearly, your father was a traitor.
Toreth: No, he was just an idealistic old man. I never saw him again.
Troi: I don’t need your devotion, commander. Just your obedience.
Toreth: And that’s all you have.

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It’s much more powerful, I think, to have Troi’s most dangerous enemy onboard the Warbird not be someone like the Major Rakal she’s impersonating, but instead someone like Toreth, someone who is driven to serve a status quo she doesn’t believe in because she does believe in serving the Romulan people (and also, I’d imagine, wants to avoid the same tragic fate as her father). Opposing an unjust status quo doesn’t just mean opposing bad people; sadly, it also puts you at odds with decent people who aren’t yet willing or able to oppose that status quo – those who see no choice but to work within the status quo, whether they approve of it or not. As Toreth herself laments, “People blame the military for the wars we are asked to fight”, when it’s the Tal Shiar, and those who empower them, who decide who the enemies of the Empire are at any given time, for their own self-serving reasons. But, sadly (and importantly), this fact doesn’t make Toreth any less of a danger to Troi, and to N’Vek, and to the defectors they’re trying to protect. As the antagonist of this episode, Toreth nicely serves to illustrate that political liberation isn’t as simple as ‘beating the bad guys’. Or, as Ensign Deseve says to Captain Picard, “Clarity of purpose is a more ambiguous matter than I had thought in my youth.”

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Next time, the crews of the Enterprise D and Deep Space 9 match wits with holographic gangsters, in TNG’s “The Big Goodbye”, and DS9’s “Bada-Bing, Bada-Bang”!

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