May 13, 2020
Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Code of Honor”... or Fear of a Black Planet
Like a lot of shows, it took a while for Star Trek: The Next Generation to find its groove. The pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint”, wasn’t terrible. It introduced us to the very entertaining Q and involved a not overly original, but nevertheless classic sci-fi theme: putting humanity on trial for the sins of our history. Had we grown enough as a species to deserve a second chance? Or did it make more sense for a godlike being to destroy us before we could do any more damage? Picard successfully argued for the former, but the Q would be back if we failed to live up Jean-Luc’s idealism.
Good enough premise, but season one involved far too frequent reminders of the awfulness of young Wesley Crusher, including that time he caused an interplanetary incident for stepping on the grass—possibly the worst episode of any of the Star Trek iterations.
[Editor’s note: Marion has apparently never seen Voyager’s “Threshold”.]
Then there were the new uniforms; the 1980s emphasis on shoulders gave them a fascistic look. Thankfully, the mini-skirts were not quite so ubiquitous for the ladies, though Troi showed off her gams early on, as did a couple of men before the era of overexposure ended, never to be acknowledged again (or at least not until many years later when the crew of another iteration went back in time). But mostly what weighed the first episodes down was way too much talk and way too little action.
Episode 3 of TNG, “Code of Honor”, is a microcosm of everything that went wrong and more. Shall we take a look?
There’s a plague breaking out on some Federation planet. Millions will die. The Ligonians, not members of the Federation, have a vaccine. Picard is going to have to negotiate with them for it. There hasn’t been a lot of contact with Ligonians, but there’s a lot of talk about how they’re a highly structured society that’s all about the rituals. We’re also told they’re “humanoid” and “close to” human.
So Picard and company go to the cargo bay to meet up with the Ligonian leader. The Ligonians will be using their own transporter technology to visit the ship. Why? That will be apparent later.
How are the strangers physically different from us Earthlings? Do they have those cute Bajoran nose creases? Pointy Vulcan/Romulan ears? Nope. They look just like us. Well, maybe not like all of us. They’re all black. This being a post-racial future in which no one even sees color, that’s no big. It’s certainly better than the old Star Trek in which the default color for “almost human” aliens was white.
It’s an all-man advance team/posse/entourage that sets things up for their leader. And here is where Edward Said begins to turn in his grave. They all have a ritualistic scar on one cheek that looks like it was made with a sword. They wear turban-like headgear, the traditional loose pants of Alibaba-land, and some kind of sash-y things crossed over their chests instead of shirts, showing off a fair amount of glistening muscular skin.
The gang looks around and rolls out a red carpet for their leader to walk on. Then Lutan, their Chief/Headman/Cacique/Mogul beams up. Picard greets him in the ritualistic manner. If you were hoping for a little knowing irony, a wink at the audience in the form of some kind terrorist fist bump: wrong. The official greeting involves putting your open hands up as though showing the po-po that you aren’t carrying any weapons.
What’s the first thing these manly exotics notice? The female security officer, Tasha Yar, natch. Clearly they’ve never seen a lesbian before. Not that she’s actually supposed to be a lesbian, since homosexuality is still a concept never alluded to by anyone in the Federation ever, and the idea of same sex attraction didn’t exist until a few seasons later when we first meet the Trills, and even then they didn’t actually go there.
Hagon, the leader’s second in command, ignores Tasha’s warning to let her inspect the vaccine sample before he brings it over to Picard. She tackles him. The natives are surprised, never having seen a woman flip a brother before.
Lutan and Hagon get a Tasha-led tour of the fighting programs on the Holodeck, which offers them another glimpse of her combat skills. Apparently, there’s a big storeroom of expensive tsotchkes warehoused on the Enterprise, because Picard presents Lutan with a Ming Dynasty ceramic horse (not one of those cheap replicated models, but how would you tell?).
Is the Holodeck demo and the swag enough to get these ungrateful savages to fork over the vaccine? Apparently, you can’t just buy Manhattan with trinkets in the distant future. When it’s time for the guests to leave, they grab Tasha and beam her down to the planet with them.
That’s right. They’ve stolen a white woman!
Because first season Next Generation was not so big on the action, but very big on the ‘splaining, it’s now time for the captain and bridge staff to spend way too much time talking about the Prime Directive. We’re reminded—in case we forget since the last episode, or never watched old Star Trek, or never saw a Star Trek movie, or didn’t find out because of cultural osmosis—that despite the vast power of the Federation (and the Enterprise), they can’t just take the oil/gold/pineapple/diamonds/dilithium crystals/other important resource (in this case, the lifesaving vaccine, which conveniently is on the very short list of stuff that cannot be replicated). Why can’t “we” just take it? The Prime Directive, of course. Instead, “we” must endeavor to understand these strange indigenous “almost humans” and their exotic primitive customs. Then we must negotiate with them as though with equals.
Troi senses “deception” on the part of Lutan, which she maybe should have mentioned to the Captain before they grabbed Tasha. Plus, she’s also getting “sexual attraction” and “avarice or ambition.” The Federation could probably save some credits or whatever they pay people with by replacing her with deck of Tarot cards or a magic eight ball, either of which would be more be more helpful and accurate than the counselor.
Data suggests, based on actual information and not feelings, that Yar is probably safe, and this might have been the equivalent of the ancient Native American custom of “counting coup”, whereby a warrior would commit some risky act to show how brave he was, which Data further explains is a term from the ancient earth language French. This pisses off Picard, who despite his penchant for tea—Earl Grey, hot—and his rather chilly demeanor, is supposed to be French.
There’s more talk, including something about Wesley, who owing to some previous misadventure is not allowed on the bridge and instead lurks in the turbolift (from the ancient British word for elevator). Then Picard carefully (mustn’t rile the natives) chats with Lutan on the viewscreen. Lutan invites him down for a visit and says he’ll be happy to return Tasha at that time.
Riker doesn’t want Picard to go. Riker reminds the captain, and the audience, that he can actually stop Picard from going on any away mission, because part of his job as First Officer is to keep the captain safe. This is another idea that we’ll never hear about after season one. Riker finally agrees that Picard can go, and that’s 40 seconds we’ll never get back. Picard decides to take Troi with him because he can’t find his magic eight ball.
They arrive in some place that looks vaguely like Persia or India or China, or one of those places in the old Hope-Crosby “Road to” movies, or an old stage set from Turandot, before the world was politically correct.
Lutan introduces Yarina, his “first one”, by which he seems to mean head wife, and then it’s time for him to offer some entertainment to his guests. This includes a man juggling axes and some form of drumming. Also more costume pastiche, and like most planets on all iterations of Star Trek, this one appears to be very sparsely populated. Also, there are no token white people, yellow people, reds, browns, or greens.
When it’s time to take Tasha home, Lutan announces he “can’t bear to part with her”, and he’s going to make her his new “first one.” Yarina doesn’t take kindly to that and challenges Tasha to a fight to the death, which is a thing that women do here.
Shockingly, Troi, despite her great powers, didn’t see that one coming. Picard, Troi, and Tasha confer, and Troi—using her counselor skills—gets Tasha to admit she does find Lutan attractive in a brute he-man/Anna and the King of Siam kind of way, but she had no idea what he was going to do or what Yarina was going to do. And the point of that exchange was what, exactly? To prove Tasha’s hetero creds? To show that every woman longs to be kidnapped by a strong black man?
We are reminded again, this time by Troi, that if only there were no Prime Directive, this would all be so simple, because sure it’s much easier to get the diamonds/oil/gold/pineapples/land/etc. when one has superior weapons and/or smallpox-infected blankets.
Meanwhile, Picard gets a message from the ship: Hurry up with that vaccine! People are dying! Also, they’re continuing to scan the planet and work on a way to get through the block on their own transporter technology, so that if they need to, they can just beam Tasha out. It’s going to take a little time, however. Like maybe ‘til the end of the episode.
After more talk, they decide that Tasha will go ahead with the fight and just not kill Yarina.
Then there’s another scene with Lutan and Hagon in which Lutan confesses he’s setting up Yarina to be killed by Tasha because on Ligonia, the women own the land, but if she dies, he’ll get control, so this whole thing is a scam because you know how those “not quite human people” are.
Geordi and Data come down to Ligonia to help inspect the weapons Tasha might be using in the fight. They also discuss what a drag it is they have this Prime Directive. We are reminded several times that Data is Data and doesn’t understand “humor” and just wants to be a real boy.
Tasha tries to talk to Yarina and warns her she’s a very well trained fighter, so maybe they don’t have to do the whole “to the death” thing. Yarina tells her, “I will kill you if I can, and believe me I can,” because those black/native/indigenous/exotic women are some tough bitches.
Geordi and Data report on the weapons. There’s a spiky glove thing that has a deadly poison in the spikes. Riker reports from the ship that “our hosts are gathering.” Tasha still wants to go through with it even though they’ve fixed the transporter and could get her out. It’s still not clear that Lutan will give up the vaccine even if she does kill Yarina, which she won’t do. Picard seems to have a plan, but he’s not sharing it with the audience, or even with Riker, who tells us via a “commander’s log” that he has no clue what Picard is doing. Not to worry; Data beams back up to tell him, but we in the audience still don’t know.
Meanwhile, Yarina has changed into a gold lame jumpsuit that would definitely have gotten her into Studio 54. She’s in some kind of fighting ring that has poles and platforms so the ladies can jump around and fight like strippers. She’s ready to rumble.
Tasha gets in with her and mostly tries to avoid getting hit. Yarina’s spiky glove slips off and lands on some poor schmuck, who gets poisoned. Although the wound appears superficial, he immediately keels over and dies from the poison. Hagon cries out, “Careful, Yarina!” showing that even if Lutan is a cold-hearted SOB, Hagon lurves her.
Tasha hits Yarina with her spiky glove. She’s down, and then Tasha gets on top of her and… get your mind out of the gutter… they’re both beamed onto the Enterprise where even though Yarina is clinically dead, Dr. Crusher revives her.
Then they beam up Lutan, Hagon, Picard, Troi, and Geordi. Hagon is pretty happy to see Yarina is still alive. Lutan, not so much. Yarina (and Dr. Crusher) insist that Yarina was really most sincerely dead, so the terms of the challenge were met, but now she’s alive, and so she takes a necklace off of Lutan and puts it on Hagon and declares that he is now her number one, which makes Lutan number two, which seems to mean that Hagon is now also the leader, because sure it makes perfect sense that a society this traditional would actually give women all the power.
So it’s all good and they’re getting the vaccine, and Wesley is actually manning a station on the bridge, and Picard decides to be nice to him, and Edward Said can rest in peace again until the next episode.