It's Picard versus Riker in a war-game simulation that doesn't go as planned
The Enterprise has agreed to take part in a strategic simulation to hone their skills in preparation for a possible future encounter with the Borg. Riker is given a free hand to choose a crew to take on Picard and Data. He beams LaForge, Worf, and Acting Ensign Crusher over to the USS Hathaway, which is in terrible condition - so much so, that Wesley has to cheat to get them the dilithium they need to muster up just a few seconds of warp power. The war-games are overseen by a smug Zakdorn named Sima Kolrami, who is a Third Level Grandmaster at the finger-wagging game of Strategma. He effortlessly crushes Riker at the game, and then rolls over Data too, which bruises our android’s ego. Neither Troi nor Dr Pulaski, who set up the match, fail to turn him around.
Let the games begin! Riker’s crew trick the Enterprise with a fake Romulan vessel, but oh no, then a real Ferengi ship pops by and Picard mistakes it for another sensor ghost. Suddenly there’s a deadly standoff as the Ferengi mistakenly presume there’s something of value on the Hathaway. Fortunately, thanks to Wesley’s cheating theft earlier in the story, they can fake blowing up the derelict starfleet vessel and then come back to scare off the Ferengi. Finally, Data manages to smackdown the arrogant Zakdorn at Strategema by out-waggling his fingers, and everyone goes into the closing credits with a warm glow.
This is the first of two screenplays David Kemper contributed to TNG, both of which are rather good (the second, “The Enemy”, comes up in the next season). Kemper was a bit of a serial contributor to sci-fi shows, and wrote a couple of episodes for Seaquest DSV, Farscape, and Stargate SG-1, as well as one script for Star Trek: Voyager.
This is one of those stories where an alien species, the ‘Zakdorn’, is a load-bearing concept. The strategic prowess of this species directly structures the flow of the story, and the subplot with the Strategema games directly flows into it. That this is used to craft a character arc for Data within the episode is a sign of a writer who knows how to make good use of the toolbox they’ve built for themselves.
‘Borg’ is referenced here as part of the justification for the war-games simulation, continuing the show’s new ability to build arcs over the long-term that was established near the end of the first season.
And on an ethics front, I love that once again this story takes a stand against the moral distortions of mere calculation, with Picard refusing to make the logical (but inhumane) sacrifice that Kolrami insists is necessary. In balancing duty and virtue, TNG marks not only a moral high point in Trek, it probably represents the apex of television ethics as well, since after the twentieth century came to a close, writers increasingly abandoned high ideals for far less principled conceptions of how we should live together.
Roy Brocksmith is magnificent as the arrogant Sima Kolrami... he takes to the role effortlessly, and delivers such a wondrously irritating performance that it’s impossible not to root for his defeat in the Strategma games against Data.
Brocksmith returns as a Bajoran in DS9, but appeared in a wide range of roles over his career. I always remember him as Dr Edgemar in the 1990 movie Total Recall, who tries to bluff Arnold Schwarzenegger... and thus makes a fatal mistake.
Welcome back to Armin Shimmerman as yet another Ferengi captain! Trek is one of those franchises that you can make a career out of having been fitted for latex make-up!
And a hearty welcome to Glenn Morshower, appearing here as the impatient and overconfident Ensign Burke (“Bye bye Hathaway…”).
He’s back in season six’s “Starship Mine” in a different role, and appears in Voyager and Enterprise as well - not to mention as part of the bridge crew of the Enterprise-B in Star Trek: Generations. His performance here isn’t exactly remarkable, but he does the job well enough.
But over and above the guest stars, this is a great episode for the whole ensemble cast, with something for everyone to do. There’s no O’Brien, alas, but the scenes provide plenty for each and every cast member to sink their teeth into, most especially Brent Spiner’s Data, who is really starting to deliver some excellent performances. He’s now managing to achieve that delicate balance between emotionless android and the inherent ‘humanity’ of any sentient being that really makes this role such a classic.
Models, Make-up, and Mattes
The very opening shot shows a shuttle approaching the Enterprise. This is presumably supposed to indicate that Kolrami is coming aboard, although where the Shuttlecraft is supposed to have come from is left rather undefined.
And welcome back to the studio miniature of the USS Stargazer, which is now the USS Hathaway (named after William Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway - no relation to the actress, of course).
We’ll see this model one more time, at the start of season five. Also returning this week is the Ferengi Marauder studio miniature, in its only appearance in season two.
But the SFX star of the week is the ludicrous and wonderful finger-wagging game of Strategema.
The 1980s were full of silly videogames - remember the over-the-top game of Domination in 1983’s Never Say Never Again...?
But I have a special place in my heart for Stragegema, where apparently you can express your strategic prowess by making enthusiastic jazz hands.
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