“Wolf 359 was an inside job”: Samaritan Snare (TNG) vs. No Small Parts (Lower Decks)

*This post contains full spoilers for the first season finale of Star Trek: Lower Decks.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Samaritan Snare” (season 2, episode 17)

Written by Robert L. McCullough; directed by Les Landau; first aired in 1989

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Wesley Crusher is on his way to Starbase 515 to take a Starfleet exam, and it turns out that Captain Picard will be sharing the shuttle with him as he heads to an appointment of his own: a mysterious medical procedure which Dr. Pulaski insists he needs, but which the captain isn’t comfortable having done onboard the Enterprise. After the captain departs, the Enterprise, under Riker’s command, responds to a distress call which takes it farther away from Picard and Wesley, to the aid of some stranded aliens who call themselves Pakleds. In their simplistic, monosyllabic way of speaking, the Pakleds explain that they are “far from home” to “look for things,” but that their ship is “broken” and they need help to make it “go.” Finding the Pakleds “slow” but “benign,” Commander Riker sends Chief Engineer La Forge over to their ship to help. Meanwhile, the initial awkwardness of Wes and Picard’s shuttle ride gives way to a charmingly heartfelt discussion of Picard’s past, in which his mysterious medical problem is revealed: he needs a replacement for his artificial heart, evidence that this seemingly invincible captain was once a brash young cadet who foolishly picked a fight and got stabbed through the heart for it, learning “a very painful lesson” that he hopes Wesley will avoid. Back on the Pakled ship, Geordi makes his repairs, while Counselor Troi warns Riker that the Pakleds aren’t as innocent as they appear. Sure enough, they phaser La Forge and take him hostage, demanding access to the Enterprise’s computers in exchange for his return – and their ship turns out to be in working order after all, and armed with advanced technology seemingly stolen from other species. Receiving word from the starbase that Picard’s heart replacement surgery isn’t going well, Riker concocts a ruse to get Geordi back from the Pakleds, and the Enterprise rushes to the rescue so that Pulaski can perform Picard’s surgery herself after all; he’s embarrassed to have the crew know his business, but Pulaski assures him he still has their respect.

VS. 

Star Trek: Lower Decks – “No Small Parts” (season 1, episode 10)

Written by Mike McMahan; directed by Barry J. Kelly; first aired in 2020

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

We open on the planet Beta III, where the locals have gone back to worshipping their evil computer-god, Landru, and the Cerritos must make second contact to remind them of the lessons Captain Kirk taught them back in “the TOS era” of “Those Old Scientists,” as Commander Ransom calls them. When Ensigns Mariner and Boimler are caught defying orders by handing out art supplies to discourage the kids of Beta III from following the art-hating Landru, Boimler accidentally outs Mariner as Captain Freeman’s daughter. Neither Freeman nor Mariner is happy about the newfound attention this earns Mariner, and she decides to end her rebellious ways and become the ideal, by-the-book Starfleet officer, all so she can steal the promotion to another ship that Boimler has been chasing. Meanwhile, the Cerritos responds to a distress call from the USS Solvang, only to find the ship completely destroyed … and to come under fire from the massively overpowered Pakled ship that destroyed it, whose captain is eager to power up his ship even further with parts from “another Enterprise.” With the Cerritos at the mercy of the Pakleds, who are no longer the “joke” they were when Picard’s Enterprise encountered them, Freeman orders Mariner to abandon her new by-the-book persona and unleash some of her usual chaos. Mariner and Boimler decide that the Pakleds’ computer system, incorporating technology from dozens of species, must be “wide open” to a virus; Ensign Rutherford creates one with the help of his holographic nemesis Badgey, and delivers it to the Pakleds’ ship with help from Lieutenant Shaxs. But when Badgey betrays them and rigs the Pakled ship to explode with them aboard, Shaxs rips Rutherford free of the cybernetic implant that connected him to Badgey and the computer system, and sends Rutherford to safety on their shuttle before dying heroically on “the best day of [his] life.” More Pakled ships appear, but are chased off when the Cerritos’ reinforcements finally arrive, in the form of the USS Titan with Will Riker and Deanna Troi on the bridge. Wondering how she’ll ever replace Shaxs, Freeman admits to Mariner that Starfleet’s rules against interfering in alien cultures allowed the people of Beta III to backslide and the Pakleds to become an unanticipated threat, and that she needs someone who can disobey the letter of Starfleet’s laws just enough to keep the spirit of those laws intact. Mariner agrees to stay aboard the Cerritos as that person, even as Boimler is promoted to a position on the Titan.

I hope it goes without saying, at this point, that I love Star Trek. Trust me when I say that I wouldn’t write about it as much as I do if I didn’t think it was well worth writing about. But there is a lot of Star Trek on TV alone – 800 episodes or so, and counting – and, well, let’s be honest: among that many episodes of anything, there are bound to be some real stinkers. More than that, though, a fictional universe that’s developed gradually over half a century, like Star Trek’s has, becomes a record not just of the talents of its various creative teams, but of their limitations, their blind spots.

These blind spots can be personal: the priorities, preoccupations, and quirks of individual creatives, as seen in Gene Roddenberry’s controversial decree that The Next Generation must downplay any conflict among the evolved humans of the future (which sounds okay …), shifting the burden of providing necessary, story-driving conflict onto other, seemingly less enlightened species (… uh-oh). Other blind spots are products of the wider culture in which those creators work: the portrayal of so many alien species as a less-complete version of humanity, while rooted in Roddenberry’s well-meaning optimism for the human race, is also informed by systemic habits of viewing our own culture as the “default,” and automatically assuming that any differences from that default are deficits. Yet other blind spots emerge from the mundane mechanics of the entertainment industry itself: the narrative formats, network expectations, and production schedules of a particular era of TV amplified that troubling sense of alien cultures as “less than,” by having Captains Kirk, Picard, or Janeway breeze into their space, solve their centuries-old problems in an hour of television, and rarely if ever speak of them again. To be clear, I use the term “blind spot” because most of what I’m describing here was almost certainly unintentional; just as I believe that few if any writers ever actually set out to write something bad, I’m sure that few if any of the people involved in making Star Trek set out to undermine its progressive messages through condescending portrayals of alien cultures. But intentions don’t dictate results, and it’s worth taking an honest and critical look at those results, however well-meaning the intentions behind them.

And there aren’t too many episodes of Trek where those results are more obvious on the screen than they are in The Next Generation’s “Samaritan Snare.” This is one of those early episodes of TNG where we can clearly feel the awkwardness of the series’ transition from emulating The Original Series to finding a voice of its own. But whereas, say, “The Arsenal of Freedom” or “The Measure of a Man” still managed to build good, even great, episodes around those awkward moments, “Samaritan Snare” ends up as one of TNG’s all-time stinkers. There’s plenty that falls flat, here, from the tacked-on medical melodrama of Captain Picard’s surgery scenes to a classic case of the writers fumbling Counselor Troi’s empathic abilities, making those abilities conspicuously useless in exactly the sort of situation they were built for – having her show up on the bridge to sense deception in the Pakleds only after Riker has sent them the Enterprise’s chief freaking engineer, instead of having him ask her about their intentions, as I would be doing in literally every diplomatic situation if I had her on my crew. Captain Picard’s heart-to-heart conversation with Wesley Crusher during their shuttle ride is, admittedly, very well done – and we’ll come back to it, below – but even that feels a little like an insult to the audience, hiding such a genuinely touching, poignant moment in an episode I might never have rewatched if I wasn’t, say, writing an essay on it. Because beyond its more run-of-the-mill flaws, the portrayal of the Pakleds in “Samaritan Snare” is among the most egregious and troubling examples of “other cultures as lesser beings” in all of Star Trek.

Put simply, the Pakleds are introduced to us in “Samaritan Snare” as an entire species of stupid people that somehow made it into space. At best, this feels implausible, to say the least; even once we learn that the Pakleds have cobbled their ship together from other species’ stolen technology, just making all those technologies work together under one ship’s computer system sounds like a pretty sophisticated feat of engineering in and of itself (something we would see addressed, decades later, when the Pakleds were revisited by Lower Decks in the much better episode “No Small Parts,” which we’ll get to below). “Samaritan Snare” gestures at addressing this, with Data first conjecturing that the Pakleds may have “poorly developed language skills,” and Riker later telling them directly, “I think you need to continue to develop.” But this only leads us in an even worse direction, as it’s implied that humanity’s social and technological progress is a linear, universal blueprint against which any species can be measured (a line of thinking Star Trek itself had already argued against, going out of its way to introduce a post-apocalyptic period into humanity’s future history which serves as a reminder that society doesn’t automatically get better over time, and that technological progress can be destructive just as easily as it can be productive, depending on the choices we make as a society). On top of this implication that we can determine the intelligence of a people by comparing their technology to ours, the appearance of the Pakleds, while very well done on the technical level of makeup and prosthetics, leans equally hard into the equally troubling (and very non-Star Trek-like) notion that intelligence might be judged by appearance. Literally every last Pakled we see here is heavyset with a receding hairline and enormous eyebrows, in an insulting caricature of what “stupid” looks like. Homogenous alien species are a long-standing Star Trek trope, but the Pakleds push that tendency to such absurd extremes that “Samaritan Snare” ends up feeling like an accidental parody of Star Trek.

Lower Decks, on the other hand, is an intentional parody … or at least, that’s part of what it is. It’s also a new installment of Star Trek itself, and a unique opportunity for the franchise to re-examine itself – both through the heightened reality of animation, and through the sort of self-aware and self-referential humor that creator Mike McMahan’s previous creation, Rick and Morty, was already well known for. (Yes, a very vocal subset of Rick and Morty’s fan base might be described as anything but self-aware, but I don’t think the same can fairly be said about the show itself, which, for example, clearly understood that Rick’s selfish obsession with a stupid dipping sauce was unhealthy and inhumane, even if those particular fans made a point of missing that point.) Lower Decks’ premier episode, “Second Contact,” set its first season on course for that sort of reflection on the past and present of Star Trek, tasking the crew of the USS Cerritos with revisiting new worlds after first contact, to dot the Federation’s i’s and cross its t’s in a way we rarely, if ever, saw done by Kirk’s or Picard’s Enterprises, or by Janeway’s Voyager, for that matter. It’s a premise with clear comedic potential, obviously, but it also allows Star Trek the chance to semi-seriously revisit the record of blind spots it has accrued over the last half-century. And from literally its opening moments, the first season finale, “No Small Parts,” is very upfront about those blind spots, and about their in-universe implications. We join the crew on Beta III, the setting of the Original Series episode “The Return of the Archons,” one of several episodes in which Captain Kirk famously outsmarts a super-computer, setting the planet’s inhabitants free in the process. But we find ourselves on Beta III for more than just one of Lower Decks’ signature call-backs to earlier Trek; those inhabitants, we learn, have opted to go back to blindly following a super-computer, because it turns out that a single action on Kirk’s part, however well-meaning and/or irresponsibly drastic that action might have been, was not, in itself, enough to right the course of an entire civilization. Similarly, Starfleet is caught off guard by the Pakleds, who have leveled up from snaring good Samaritans to destroying Federation starships, because it seemingly never occurred to them that the Pakleds might “develop,” as Riker put it, beyond the joke they appeared to be in their encounter with the Enterprise D, or that that encounter, itself, might change the course of their “development” in unexpected, unintended ways; after all, the Solvang and the Cerritos, which the Pakleds call “Enterprises,” might never have come under attack if the Pakleds hadn’t been left with something to prove to the actual Enterprise.

In a year which held a lot of new Star Trek – and a year in which that new Star Trek was all the sweeter for being one of the relatively few nice, comforting, non-scary things that happened – I’m going to go out on a limb and say that “No Small Parts” was the strongest Star Trek episode of 2020. It successfully pays off the thematic promises made at the beginning of the season by “Second Contact,” proving that Lower Decks can be – that it is – more than a collection of in-jokes for Trek fans, but a series with something serious to say about Star Trek, from a distinct and thoughtful perspective within that franchise. “No Small Parts” demonstrates this not just by turning the Pakleds into a credible threat, though that in itself is impressive; while Lower Decks is undeniably a comedy, “No Small Parts” succeeds in using the powered-up Pakleds to set a dramatic tone, and establish stakes that feel serious and real, in a way that rivals almost anything we’ve seen from Discovery or Picard. But this episode also brings Ensign Mariner’s first-season arc full circle when her mother, Captain Freeman, finally says out loud what the series had been implying since its first episode: while Freeman believes in the ideals of the Federation, she can clearly see its limitations – in-universe limitations which mirror the real-world limitations of Star Trek’s creative teams – and acknowledges the value of someone like Mariner, who is less bound by the letter of the law than by its spirit. This is an interesting and important idea for Star Trek to explore in general, as fictional Federation policies like the Prime Directive of non-interference have long been debated by Trek fans. But it feels especially relevant right now, as real-world events like the COVID-19 pandemic have many of us asking questions about how our society works, or doesn’t, and about the gap that exists between the values we’d like to think we live by, and the values which are actually reflected in the way our society works. (A gap which, I believe, breeds the sort of real-world conspiracy theories that inspired arguably the funniest Trek reference in “No Small Parts”: “Wolf 359 was an inside job.”) I’m not entirely sure, yet, how I feel about this episode’s take on that idea – a take which will, hopefully, be expanded upon in Lower Decks’ second season, at any rate – but I appreciate its willingness to acknowledge and explore this tension that exists between the ideals that inspire the Federation and the way we see it working on screen.

But explorations of that tension are, again, not entirely new to Star Trek, as we can see in the best scene from “Samaritan Snare,” by far the best reason to watch that episode. During their initially uncomfortable shuttle ride to a starbase, Captain Picard tells Wesley Crusher a story which we would later see play out in real time (sort of) in the episode “Tapestry”: the story of how a bar fight left a cocky young Jean-Luc with the artificial heart he now needs replaced. At first, in “Samaritan Snare,” Picard’s impulse to hide his heart surgery from the crew, out of an apparent need to appear invulnerable in the eyes of his crew, feels like an artifact of those first- and second-season growing pains, as The Next Generation struggled to update the decades-old ideas on leadership it had inherited from The Original Series, and to refine its crankier, more stereotypically patriarchal Picard into the character familiar from later seasons as the very definition of humane, thoughtful leadership for a generation (at least) of Trek fans. But when this version of the character lets his guard down with Wesley, he reveals another possible reason for hiding his condition, one more in line with who Picard would come to be in later seasons. He sees the behavior that earned him his artificial heart as setting a poor example for how Starfleet officers should comport themselves, making his sharing of the story with Wesley all the more mechanical-heart-warming, and all the more significant to their developing, semi-parental relationship. And yet, it’s at least implied here (and made explicit in “Tapestry”) that Picard sees this moment from his past, as undignified and unbecoming of a Starfleet officer as it may be, as an important point in his own development as a Starfleet officer – one he seems to believe (and Q later confirms) he couldn’t have reached via by-the-book training alone. And while he hopes Wesley can find a less “painful” way of learning his own lessons, Picard still clearly sees, and assures Wesley of, Starfleet’s need for officers who have learned lessons outside its own institutional framework:

Picard: Did you read that book I gave you?
Wesley: … Some of it.
Picard: That’s reassuring.
Wesley: I just don’t have much time.
Picard: There is no greater challenge than the study of philosophy.
Wesley: But William James won’t be in my Starfleet exams.
Picard: The important things never will be. Anyone can be trained in the mechanics of piloting a starship.
Wesley: But Starfleet Academy –
Picard: It takes more. Open your mind to the past – art, history, philosophy. And all this … may mean something.

This is much more subtle, of course, and shows less willingness to truly rock the Trek boat, than the self-reflection on Star Trek’s portrayal of Starfleet and the Federation that we get from “No Small Parts.” But Picard’s assertion, in “Samaritan Snare,” that the seeming utopia future humanity has built “may mean something” if the people acting on its behalf strive to give it meaning does show, I think, that some on Trek’s creative teams have long been aware of the franchise’s blind spots, of the well-meaning incompleteness and inconsistencies of its utopian vision. Even in an episode as deeply rooted in those blind spots as “Samaritan Snare,” I think we can see that Star Trek is best understood not as a prescription for the perfect future society, but as a call to be thoughtful about how we want society to work, how it actually works, and how that affects actual people … and a call to ask hard questions about what our values are worth, if they’re not represented in the way our society treats those actual people.

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