“You’re on the other side now”: The Ensigns of Command (TNG) vs. Progress (DS9)

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “The Ensigns of Command” (season 3, episode 2)

ensigns 7Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass; directed by Cliff Bole; first aired in 1989

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The Enterprise receives a transmission from the Sheliak Corporate, who claim to have an infestation of humans on a planet they’re planning to colonize. By the terms of their treaty with the Federation, they demand that the humans be removed in four days, or they’ll be removed a lot less humanely by the Sheliak themselves. The Enterprise investigates, and finds a thriving colony of 15,000 humans who have, over time, adapted to the planet’s high levels of radiation. But that radiation prevents the Enterprise from using its transporters, and prevents anyone other than Data from visiting the colony by shuttle. So, while Picard and Troi look for a legal loophole in the treaty to stall the Sheliak until more transport ships can arrive for the colonists, Data must find a way to convince the colonists to evacuate. Some are willing to listen, like the tech-savvy Ard’rian, who is interested in Data for, um, a few reasons. But the colony’s leader, Gosheven, won’t abandon their land so easily, and after he escalates things with an attack on Data, Data does a little escalating of his own, and gives the colonists a surprising taste of the violence that awaits them once the Sheliak arrive.

VS.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Progress” (season 1, episode 15)

progress 4.jpgWritten by Peter Allan Fields; directed by Les Landau; first aired in 1993

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Aboard the station, Jake Sisko and Nog try to turn Quark’s useless shipment of Cardassian “yamok sauce” into a profit, by trading it for … “self-sealing stembolts”? Meanwhile, in the more serious A-plot, Major Kira is surveying a moon whose molten core the Bajoran government plans to tap into, which will generate a great deal of power that’s badly needed on Bajor, but will leave the moon uninhabitable. When her latest scans turn up unexpected life signs, she investigates, and finds a tract of land tended by three Bajorans who escaped Cardassian imprisonment during the occupation of Bajor. Two of them were left unable to speak by the Cardassians, but the third, the elderly Mullibok, certainly doesn’t have that problem. He spins tall tales for Kira of how he got to the moon, and how he survived there, and while his stories may not be serious, his refusal to leave his land certainly is: he’d rather stay and die when the core is tapped than be uprooted from his home. After Mullibok is hurt while resisting the evacuation, a guilt-ridden Kira risks her career by remaining on the moon to tend to his injuries personally. But some heartfelt advice from Commander Sisko finally convinces her that this is one situation where she doesn’t get to be the good guy.

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“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one” is a phrase that entered the vocabulary of Star Trek in 1982, spoken by Spock and Kirk in their iconic scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Those words resonate with Trek fans because of the importance and emotional weight of that scene, but also, I think, because they so perfectly sum up an underlying philosophy that had helped define the Trek universe right from its very beginning. Star Trek is, at its core, about coexistence and collaboration, about the ability of a united humanity to solve the problems that individual humans can’t. In that sense, Trek has always been about putting the needs of the many before the needs of the few, and has often shown us that the many are better off when the few, or the one, can let go of something, whether it’s a grudge, or a preconceived notion of how the world – sorry, universe – works … or something more precious.

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In The Next Generation’s “The Ensigns of Command”, and in Deep Space Nine’s “Progress”, Data and Kira are each put in the position of convincing the few, or the one, to give up something precious. Yes, the colonists in “Ensigns”, and Mullibok in “Progress”, must leave their land, but it’s made clear to us that it isn’t just the land itself they’re being asked to give up – it’s their personal connection to that land, the history they’ve built on it (though one of these episodes does a much better job than the other of actually showing that connection and history, as we’ll discuss below). Both episodes conveniently create situations where relocating these characters is the only option, though the way each episode accomplishes this tells us a bit about their respective series. In “Ensigns”, TNG lets Picard and his crew off the ethical hook by taking the situation out of their hands. It’s an alien empire – and a particularly alien one at that, in the form of the non-humanoid Sheliak Corporate – who actually decide to have the colonists relocated, or worse; the Enterprise is simply dealing with the reality of that outside threat. In “Progress”, DS9 doesn’t let Kira off that easily; Mullibok isn’t being moved off his land by an inevitable outside threat, but by a representative of his own government, as the result of a decision made without his input or consent. A decision which might not make much sense to us, if we spend any time thinking about it: despite Mullibok’s stories of struggling to tame its inhospitable land, the moon we see on screen looks pretty darn habitable, and it seems strange that the Bajoran government would choose to make such a place uninhabitable … especially since the episode’s B-plot involves Jake teaching Nog the value of real estate! But at any rate, we’re asked to take it as given that the choice facing Kira and the Bajoran government is whether to heat hundreds of thousands of homes, or let 3 people keep their homes, which shouldn’t be a hard choice to make. Both “Ensigns” and “Progress”, therefore, sidestep the ethics involved in making that decision, and focus instead on the implications of enforcing it.

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“The Ensigns of Command” attempts to approach this problem logistically, from the perspective of a leader tasked – and tasking others – with making the impossible possible. This perspective is introduced in the episode’s first scene, in which Data warns Picard and Crusher that his violin performance, which they’ve come to see, will “lack soul”, according to his fellow performers (who are apparently huge jerks). Picard and Crusher both chide Data for “excessive honesty”, which Picard says “can be disastrous, particularly in a commander”. It seems like an odd, overly preachy thing to say in that moment; yes, Data is third-in-command of the Enterprise, but is he the “commander” of the string ensemble? He’s certainly not commander of the audience. And while this conversation foreshadows the episode’s preoccupation with the role of a leader, it also foreshadows its weird thematic inconsistency. We’re all but told outright that this episode will be about Data taking on more of a leadership role, and yet he doesn’t lead the colonists – he overpowers them. We are told outright, by Picard, that a leader shouldn’t be too honest, but honesty is precisely how Data gets the colonists to evacuate; he doesn’t convince them or outsmart them, he just shows them what will happen when the Sheliak arrive – by phaser-blasting them, and blowing up their stuff. These contradictions wouldn’t be a problem, necessarily, if the episode acknowledged them as contradictions … if it seemed like we were supposed to be either uncomfortable with Data’s actions, or critical of Picard’s views on leadership. But instead, the episode ends with Picard congratulating Data on a job well done – a job he got done by ignoring Picard’s own advice – then pointing out that Data’s violin-playing shows creativity in its combination of different techniques … after Data has found that the least creative approach to his mission – using a show of force to silence resistance – was the most effective.

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These thematic contradictions are something of an issue in the episode’s other plotlines, as well. Picard’s and Troi’s attempts to find a legal loophole to use against the fine-print-obsessed Sheliak give us the episode’s most interesting (and most meta) moment: Troi reminding Picard how incredibly difficult it is to achieve communication among different species, and remarking on how amazing it is that any of Star Trek’s species ever understand each other. That idea would later give rise to my personal favorite TNG episode, “Darmok”, but it ultimately seems wasted here. Picard never does achieve some deeper understanding of the Sheliak; he just outsmarts them, by invoking “third-party arbitration” by a species in the midst of a six-month “hibernation cycle”. Yes, Picard’s smug satisfaction at finally beating the Sheliak at their own game is a lot of fun to watch, but it would have worked just as well against any species willing to adhere to a treaty. It also makes the C-story – in which LaForge, O’Brien, and Wesley Crusher attempt to overcome the transporter’s technical difficulties in an impossible timeframe – largely irrelevant (even if that storyline does give us a pretty great line of its own, when Wesley complains that Picard “wants the impossible”, which LaForge cites as “the short definition of captain”). And if Troi’s musings on communication across different perspectives seems like it’s going to be relevant to Data’s situation with the colonists, that falls flat, too, since Data doesn’t reach any kind of deep understanding with the colonists, any more than Picard does with the Sheliak. He just continues to tell them facts, which most of them ignore, until he makes those facts physically impossible to ignore.

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And that’s the biggest issue I have with “Ensigns”: its failure to give any real depth to the colonists. This certainly isn’t helped by the distractingly bad portrayal of their leader, Gosheven, which, to be fair to the actor, is at least partly due to some very poorly-done overdubbing of his voice. But, acting and sound issues aside, Gosheven is barely written to be a character at all, and neither are the rest of the colonists. Ard’rian is the only colonist with any personality at all, and Eileen Seeley plays her well, but beyond her interest – both technical and, um, personal – in Data, we never really get much of a sense of who she is or how she might actually feel about leaving the place where she’s lived her entire life. We know she agrees to leave, but that’s it, and likewise for the rest of the colonists – we’re only told that they either agree to leave, or don’t, but we get no real sense of any emotions stirred in them, besides acceptance or defiance; we’re given no indication that they have any real, emotional connection to the colony where, again, they’ve presumably lived all their lives. This, too, isn’t helped by production issues; the episode tells us that we’re looking at a colony of 15,000 people, who’ve been there for generations, but – as with the supposedly harsh conditions of the moon in “Progress” – “Ensigns” doesn’t do a very good job of communicating that scale or history on-screen (probably owing to budget constraints). And when Gosheven does talk about the history of the colony, it’s in broad, cliched terms. We know that his grandfather is buried there, and he brags about their water system (though not about how they overcame the planet’s radiation, which seems like a much bigger deal, and is never explained). But his stories of the colony’s past – what little he shares of them – are bland and generic. As a result, the displacement of the colonists from their land loses any emotional impact it might have had, and becomes little more than a logistical problem for Data to solve. This episode goes out of its way to remind us that Data is (supposedly) incapable of connecting with humans on an emotional level, but any impact that might have on us is badly undercut by the fact that he’s surrounded, for most of the episode, by characters who don’t offer him much to connect with in the first place.

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This is where DS9’s “Progress” really stands apart from – and, I think, above – TNG’s “The Ensigns of Command”. As similar as its basic premise is – right down to Kira “convincing” Mullibok to leave by blowing up his carefully handmade kiln and burning down his house – “Progress” approaches that premise not as a logistical problem to be solved, but as a dilemma to be felt. Yes, the plot has some holes in it, as mentioned above. And the B-plot, following Jake and Nog (or “the Noh-Jay Consortium”), is – as much as I enjoy it – an odd fit in this episode; given that it involves a valuable plot of land on Bajor, it seems a bit strange that this story never connects to the A-story. But personally, those plot-holes don’t bother me much, because the plot isn’t really the point. Sisko outright says as much to Kira, when he tells her, about Mullibok, “His fate is already decided. Yours isn’t.” Kira’s role in this story isn’t to determine its outcome; that’s already been decided, since before the episode even began. The challenge for her, here, is to process her feelings about that inevitable outcome, and about her role in it.

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It’s hard to overstate how important this episode is for Kira, relatively early in her development as a character (and coming shortly before the episode “Duet”, one of the character’s – and the show’s – pivotal moments). When we first met her in “Emissary”, the character was rooted a little too deeply in the “tough Bajoran woman” trope TNG had started with its own recurring Bajoran character, Ensign Ro (a comparison “Emissary” deliberately invites when O’Brien asks Sisko the weird, uncomfortable question, “Have you ever served with any Bajoran women?”). “Progress” is an important step for the character, because it moves past that stereotypically ‘fiery’ portrayal to show us how conflicted someone in her position would inevitably be. We’ve seen Kira’s freedom-fighting past come back to haunt her before, but this is the first time, I think, that we get a real taste of how it must feel for her to try and reconcile that past with her present, as a cog in the machine for others to rage against.

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And as good as Nana Visitor is as Kira in “Progress”, this exploration of her character’s emotional state also depends on Mullibok feeling like a real person, with real feelings, in a way that the colonists didn’t in “The Ensigns of Command”. Where I have a hard time caring about Data’s inability to emotionally connect with the colonists, because none of them demonstrate believable emotions either, Kira’s dilemma works because Mullibok works as a stand-in for who Kira was when she was fighting the system, not working for it. Where Gosheven’s stories of the colony’s past feel flat and generic, Mullibok’s stories of his time on the moon are exactly the opposite, full of incredibly specific, colorfully exaggerated details. And Mullibok’s stories, unlike Gosheven’s, are personal, to an intentionally ludicrous extent: “Starvation and I were staring each other in the face”; “I rolled back and forth on the ground until it surrendered”; “if I came across a deposit of mineralised clay, what I’d do was just grind it up in my teeth”. Mullibok’s connection to his land isn’t abstract; when he says that he’ll die if he leaves, that’s one time when he might not be trying to exaggerate, because his stories of his time on that moon are the stories of his survival. Unlike Gosheven, I don’t believe that Mullibok is in denial about his situation; he simply feels that his survival, for better or for worse, is tied up with that of the moon. While I don’t agree with Mullibok, or find his casual sexism endearing (and neither does Kira, to the episode’s credit), I can empathize with him, in a way that I couldn’t with Gosheven. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that veteran actor Brian Keith gives Mullibok a playful, engaging presence that Gosheven is sorely lacking.

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And most importantly, Kira can empathize with Mullibok. As personal as his stubborn connection to the moon is, Kira can relate to it, because it’s the same stubborn connection Kira herself must have felt to her home and her people, as a member of the resistance during the Cardassian occupation. Mullibok himself hangs a lantern on this, of course, by tricking Kira into admitting that her resistance cell only survived the occupation because they “hung on like fanatics”, just as Mullibok is doing now. And this is fully hashed out later in a conversation between Kira and Sisko when he visits her on the moon, in what is not only the best scene of the episode, but a pivotal moment for both characters, and for the series altogether:

Sisko: You and I have a material subsistence report to finish by the end of the week.
Kira: I don’t think I’m going to be able to help you with that.
S: It’s part of the liaison officer’s job.
K: I know.
S: I don’t like the prospect of having to break in a new one. You have a job to do here, Major, and you’re not doing it.
K: It’s not as simple as that.
S: I’m not saying it’s simple, I’m saying it can’t wait. Look, I understand you’re used to sympathizing with the underdog. You’ve spent your life fighting to overcome impossible odds, just like he’s doing. But you have to realize something, Major: you’re on the other side now. Pretty uncomfortable, isn’t it?
K: It’s awful.
S: When I first met you, Major, I thought you were hostile and arrogant. But I was wrong. Bajor needs you, and I need you. I like you, and I don’t want you to be hurt. So, as a friend, I’m here to remind you that his fate is already decided. Yours isn’t.
K: Thank you.
S: There’ll be a runabout standing by.

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Avery Brooks, as Sisko, gives a notably reigned-in performance here, and both his delivery and his lines add another level of empathy to this scene. Just as Kira can see some of herself in Mullibok, Sisko has finally come around to seeing some of himself in Kira. Sisko was first introduced to us, in “Emissary”, as someone who knew what it was to see both sides of things, for better and for worse: he believed in Starfleet’s idealistic obligation to help Bajor, but he’d also been around the block enough to know that idealism alone wouldn’t get done what needed getting done in the messy aftermath of a long, brutal military occupation. That first episode emphasized the friction between him and Kira, but in “Progress”, it becomes apparent to Sisko – and to us – that these two characters actually understand each other’s positions a lot better than they thought they did. Data’s failure to reason with the colonists in “The Ensigns of Command” falls flat for me, partly because I myself can’t connect to the colonists, and partly because the episode never really acknowledges it as a failure; instead he’s congratulated, by a weirdly tone-deaf Picard, for a mission well done. Kira’s failure to reason with Mullibok, on the other hand, allows “Progress” to say some interesting things about Kira, and about her place on Deep Space Nine, both the station and the series.

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Next week, we revisit the introduction of one of Trek’s most important villains, and one of its most intriguing pieces of world-building, as we meet Khan and his genetically augmented 21st century super-people! We’ll look at the Original Series classic, “Space Seed”, as well as its prequel and homage from Enterprise, the three-episode Arik Soong arc: “Borderland”, “Cold Station 12”, and “The Augments”!

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