“Attention, Bajoran workers”: The Arsenal of Freedom (TNG) vs. Civil Defense (DS9)

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “The Arsenal of Freedom” (season 1, episode 21)

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Teleplay by Richard Manning and Hans Beimler; story by Maurice Hurley and Robert Lewin; directed by Les Landau; first aired in 1988

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

In search of the missing USS Drake, the Enterprise investigates the planet Minos, once home to a lucrative arms dealing empire, but now seemingly devoid of intelligent life. Still, the Enterprise is hailed by a weapons salesman as they approach, in what turns out to be an automated message hawking the Minosians’ deadly wares. Beaming down to the surface with Yar and Data, Commander Riker encounters what appears to be the Drake’s captain, Paul Rice, his old friend from Starfleet Academy. It soon becomes clear, though, that something isn’t right with Rice; he asks Riker odd questions about his ship’s capabilities, and once Riker catches on and begins trolling Rice with nonsense answers about the “good ship USS Lollipop,” Rice vanishes to reveal a small drone which attacks the away team. Before it’s destroyed by Yar, the drone captures Riker in a stasis field, and Captain Picard beams down with Doctor Crusher, leaving La Forge, at this point a junior lieutenant and conn officer, in command of the Enterprise. As the away team tries to help Riker, another drone attacks, knocking Crusher and Picard into an underground cave and proving significantly more difficult for Yar and Data to destroy than the last one. While Picard tends to a badly wounded Crusher and Data manages to free Riker, the Enterprise comes under attack from a cloaked ship, preventing it from beaming up the away team. As LaForge butts heads with the incredibly obnoxious Chief Engineer Logan over what to do next, Data deduces that upgraded drones are appearing at regular intervals, while Picard discovers a computer in the cave which projects a hologram of the same salesman who initially welcomed the Enterprise to Minos. This time, Picard tells the salesman he’ll buy the drone system, stopping their surface assault. Geordi, meanwhile, puts Logan in charge of the separated saucer section and, taking some leadership advice from Counselor Troi, leads his battle bridge crew of junior officers to a clever victory over the giant space-drone. Back aboard the Enterprise at last, Picard orders La Forge to stay in command until he’s put Picard’s ship back together, and Geordi is just fine with that.

VS. 

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Civil Defense” (season 3, episode 7)

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Written by Mike Krohn; directed by Reza Badiyi; first aired in 1994

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Commander Sisko visits his son in Deep Space Nine’s old ore processing unit, left abandoned since the Cardassian military occupation of Bajor, where Jake Sisko is helping Chief O’Brien delete the pre-existing Cardassian software from the computers. In doing so, they accidentally trigger a security failsafe, which locks down DS9, trapping the Siskos and O’Brien in ore processing, Kira, Dax, and Bashir in Ops, and Odo and Quark in the security offices.  A recorded message from the station’s former commander, Gul Dukat, warns the “Bajoran workers” to stop their “revolt” and surrender to their “Cardassian supervisors.” Sisko tells the computer that they surrender, but with no Cardassian military officers on the station to enter the needed security codes, the recording of Dukat continues to threaten first the “workers” in ore processing, then their “families” throughout the rest of the station, with the release of deadly neurocine gas. As the Siskos and O’Brien work on their escape, Garak visits the trapped Ops crew, able to pass through the security forcefields as a Cardassian but unable to keep those forcefields down for anyone else. He and the Ops crew attempt to disable the gas, only to have the security program threaten self-destruct of the station; they attempt to disable scanners that prevent Garak from impersonating Dukat, only to have the Ops food replicator transform itself into a deadly security system that forces them to take cover … which is where the real Gul Dukat finds them when he beams into Ops from his ship. Immune to the security measures, an even-cockier-than-usual Dukat offers to deactivate the self-destruct sequence if Kira allows a renewed Cardassian military presence on the station. She refuses, of course, but Dukat says he will giver her time to consider the lives she’d be throwing away, and attempts to beam back to his ship … only for a recorded message of another, higher-ranking Cardassian officer to chide Dukat for abandoning his post, and revoke his access codes. Now a lot less cocky, Dukat helps the Ops crew find a way to deactivate the force fields, allowing O’Brien and Commander Sisko to access and shut down the station’s reactor, preventing it from self-destructing … as O’Brien, in turn, is rescued from deadly plasma fires by Jake. With the lockdown over, we end on Odo and Quark leaving the security offices at last, bickering like an old married couple.   

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I write a lot, on here, about how meaningful and challenging Star Trek can be, but it can also be a whole lot of fun. If Trek proposes a better future for us, that future is built, in part, on our capacity for collaborative problem-solving … and that can make for some pretty entertaining TV. The Next Generation’s “Disaster” might be the purest, most obvious example of this, bypassing any real sci-fi premise of the week and simply forcing various combinations of crew members and civilians to deal with – you guessed it – a disaster aboard the Enterprise. Two more of my go-to episodes for when I just want to watch some smart people solve some tough problems are the earlier TNG episode “The Arsenal of Freedom” and Deep Space Nine’s “Civil Defense.” These episodes each follow a similar format, pitting small groupings of clever, capable characters against escalating crises, throwing them from one frying pan into the next fire until an ultimate solution is found. And again, the solutions to these crises lie not just in the crew’s intelligence and creativity, but in their ability to collaborate, both within and among the groups into which their dire circumstances have divided them; not only must they cooperate with those they’ve been trapped or stranded with, but they also have to trust that the other separated groups are doing the same, whether they can communicate with them or not. Unlike “Disaster,” though, both “The Arsenal of Freedom” and “Civil Defense” also introduce another classic Star Trek staple into their problem-solving story: a problem from the past, left for our heroes to deal with today (or tomorrow, or, well, you know what I mean). But each of these episodes approaches its problem from the past in distinct and telling ways.

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“The Arsenal of Freedom,” coming near the end of The Next Generation’s famously rocky first season, is an early stand-out episode of the series; it’s also my personal favorite episode from that first season, and one of the earliest episodes of TNG that I can wholeheartedly enjoy on every rewatch, not as “a good episode for TNG’s first season,” but as a good episode of television, period. Still, it is very much a product of that awkward early, transitional period in which The Next Generation was still working to establish itself as a worthy successor to The Original Series, before becoming comfortable in its own skin as not just a continuation of the Star Trek universe, but a distinct new chapter for that universe.

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We can see this in its characters, as the Picard we see here is still that more cantankerous, rougher-around-the-edges version of the character that will persist for some time after this episode (still evident as late as the seminal second-season episode “The Measure of a Man”) before settling into the more interior, more measured (if still somewhat cranky) version of the character who would come later. His decision, as captain, to beam down to a planet he knows to be dangerous, disregarding Counselor Troi’s valid objections and leaving his ship and everyone on board in the hands of a junior lieutenant, is much more reminiscent of The Original Series’ Captain Kirk than of later-season Picard. And the main conflict back aboard the Enterprise, between that junior lieutenant, Geordie La Forge, and the irredeemable asshole whose job he will have by the beginning of the show’s second season, is similarly jarring on a rewatch of TNG. Geordie’s junior position here feels odd in itself, knowing that he will be more or less retconned into being the ship’s chief engineer just a few episodes after this, without showing his full journey to that position of greater responsibility and authority. The officer holding that responsibility and authority in this episode, Logan, reminds me instantly of so many higher authority figures who butted heads with Kirk in TOS; he’s a walking conflict generator, existing purely to take whatever unreasonable, even self-contradictory, stance necessary to put him at odds with La Forge (first insisting that the Enterprise must leave the planet, then immediately criticizing La Forge for abandoning the away team by leaving the planet). TNG would go on to have its fair share of questionable higher authorities, certainly, but this particular conflict has an “office jockey thinks he knows better than those of us who are out here in the field” quality to it which would, for me, feel much more at home in an episode of The Original Series.

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But La Forge’s storyline here, as a junior officer building confidence in himself and learning to evoke the same self-confidence from the people under his command, feels very much at home in The Next Generation, as does the trouble-shooting teamwork of the away team on Minos. While some might say that Star Trek assumes our future will be better than our present, I believe that what Star Trek really assumes is that our chances for a better future hinge on our capacity for collaborative, evidence-based problem-solving. And “The Arsenal of Freedom” serves as a showcase for such collaborative problem-solving, both by Geordie and his bridge crew aboard the Enterprise, and by the more senior officers on the planet’s surface. Denise Crosby would leave the show only two episodes after this, but I really like what she’s given to do here as Tasha Yar, and can’t help but wonder if Crosby might have stayed if she’d been given more material like this to work with, walking us through Yar’s thought process as a very capable security officer. It might make for relatively low-key television by today’s standards, but watching Yar, Data, and Riker reason their way through their encounters with the Minosian security drones is wonderfully rewatchable comfort viewing, for me at least. Yar and Data are particularly well-served here in a way that they sometimes weren’t by TNG’s first season, as their conflict with the self-improving drones – which is framed for us, the audience, almost more as a logistical puzzle than a dramatic firefight – allows their talents and personalities to shine through in a way that feels organic, and not gimmicky. It’s equally satisfying to watch Riker match wits with the hologram of his old friend, Captain Rice (with his reference to his “good ship,” the “Lollipop,” serving as one of the first season’s most quirkily memorable moments), and to watch Dr. Crusher walk Picard through tending to her wounds. Star Trek’s aspirational faith in humanity’s inherently collaborative nature is well-served by these scenes, which are written, directed, and acted in a deliberate, thoughtful way which almost invites us to feel like we’re solving these problems alongside them.

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We see a similar focus on cooperation and critical thinking in Deep Space Nine’s “Civil Defense,” with the added bonus that these characters, partway through the series’ third season, are more established and defined than the characters of TNG were, understandably, in their first. Where the Yar, La Forge, and Picard of “The Arsenal of Freedom,” endearing as they are, feel a bit detached from what TNG would be going forward, the characterization in “Civil Defense” fits nicely, for the most part, with where these characters began and where they will go later in Deep Space Nine. Commander Sisko, Chief O’Brien, Major Kira, and Garak, in particular, all react to their increasingly dire circumstances distinctly and reliably: Sisko and O’Brien are unflappable, but practical; Kira seems to revert immediately to her days in the Bajoran Resistance, decisively doing what seemingly needs to be done (as when she hilariously, and kind of horrifyingly, barely waits for two crew members to scramble out of the way before blasting a piece of machinery just behind them); and Garak is sardonic, pragmatic, and aware as always of his place between worlds while belonging to neither, walking freely through the station’s force fields but unable to bring anyone with him. And after we’ve seen ominous recorded messages of recurring villain Gul Dukat throughout the episode, its most memorable, and arguably smartest, moment comes when the real Dukat beams aboard the station, allowing Marc Alaimo to give a swaggering, scenery-chewing performance that feels both in-character and also like an escalation of that character, foreshadowing the greater threat (and narcissist) he will show himself to be as the series continues. The only serious misstep I see in “Civil Defense” – aside from its jarringly abrupt ending – is its handling of Dukat trying to “impress” Kira, as pointed out by Garak; while this does, indeed, foreshadow future storylines for Dukat, it’s played primarily as a joke here, which is disturbing given that Kira, during the occupation, would have had no more institutional power to refuse Dukat’s wishes than the ore processing workers whose rebellion the out-of-control security measures were meant to quash.

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Part of what makes that misstep so noticeable, though, is the fact that the rest of “Civil Defense” does such a good job of treating the historical spectre of the Occupation as almost a character unto itself. And for as fond as I am of “The Arsenal of Freedom,” this is where “Civil Defense” improves upon that earlier episode’s premise.

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As mentioned above, a wrong from the past, left for the heroes of Star Trek’s optimistic future to set right, is another classic trope of the franchise, one that each of these episodes takes both metaphorically and quite literally: yesterday’s bloodthirsty hubris embodied in automated security systems, hunting down our heroes today. And “The Arsenal of Freedom” interprets that premise in very much the same way that The Original Series might have. The now-extinct Minosians are, in classic TOS (and sometimes TNG) fashion, described to us as a monolithic culture of arms dealers, the victims of their own short-sighted success (as foreshadowed in the first few minutes of the episode by Data’s observation that the Minosians sold to both sides in “the Ersalrope Wars,” and La Forge’s conjecture that the current state of Minos might be the work of “a dissatisfied customer”). And as if this morality play wasn’t on-the-nose enough, Picard spells it out for us near the end of the episode: “You poor fools, your own creation destroyed you.” This is boilerplate allegorical science fiction, very much in the style of The Original Series, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that; in this episode, as in some of the best of TOS, a simplistic sci-fi premise serves as the backdrop for the sort of humane character moments that keep Trek grounded and relatable. But that simplicity does make any potential message, here, feel too generic to carry much impact. Don’t build unstoppable, uncontrollable killing machines is good advice, no argument there, but unless the CEOs of major weapons manufacturers happen to be huge Trekkies, it’s not exactly actionable; most of Trek’s audience – most people, period – have no control whatsoever over what kinds of advanced engines of death get built by our titans of industry and sold to our authorities, just as many of the people on Minos probably didn’t work for, or benefit financially from, the weapons industry that got them killed.

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In “Civil Defense,” though, the station’s defense systems, left over from the days when the Cardassians called it Terrok Nor, serve not just as a warning against hubris in general, but as an extension of the same, specific history the station has always represented, since Deep Space Nine’s very first episode. Unlike TOS and TNG before it, with their hopeful but vague allusions to a utopian Earth and Federation we rarely saw while the Enterprises visited the allegorical aliens of the week, DS9‘s space station setting has always grounded it in a particular place. And that particular place has a particular (and painful) history which literally, physically, can’t be ignored; the station itself was a tool built by the Cardassian military for their brutal occupation of the Bajoran people, and where Captains Kirk and Picard led their respective crews from the bridges of their respective Enterprises, Commander Sisko does so from the former office of Gul Dukat, the monster who led that occupation, and whose pre-recorded image and voice threaten to destroy the station rather than let the Bajorans of that era reclaim their freedom. As the station turns against its current residents, Dr. Bashir says, “You know, I’ve been here nearly three years, and I was just finally starting to think of this place as home,” to which Major Kira responds, “Your ‘home’ was built by Cardassians, Doctor — don’t ever forget that.” And of course it is hard for our Starfleet characters to forget the origins of the station while it’s actively trying to kill them, but this is just a literalization of something they might forget, at times: they live in the shadows, metaphorical and literal, of a lot of truly terrible stuff that happened before they came along. On DS9, as in the real world, there are people like Bashir for whom that history might seem ancient and abstract … and there are people like Kira (and Odo, whose security office is locked down even tighter than other areas of the station because the Cardassians never truly trusted him), who are very aware that the present is a continuation of that history — a new paragraph, maybe, but not a new chapter. And in “Civil Defense,” that continuing history is manifested not just in the fact that those old Cardassian defenses are still active, but in the fact that each new danger they present is not only a plot complication — like the adaptive drones in “The Arsenal of Freedom” — but also a reminder of how rigged a system the Cardassians built for the Bajorans. One of Sisko’s first moves is to simply “surrender” to the computer, but unlike Picard agreeing to “buy” from the Minosians, the security system won’t even let Sisko do what it claims it was designed to let him do. And while Dukat himself falling victim to another hidden security system, designed by his untrusting superiors, is a deliciously satisfying moment of television, it’s also another reminder that the power dynamics of the past don’t magically disappear. They linger, in the station’s computer systems … and in our systems, our institutions, today.

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