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The Ensigns of Command
Who wants the first solo mission? Off you go, Data!
It's the most incredible opening shot in TNG: yes, O'Brien is playing a cello. Data tells us not to listen to his violin performance because he's not going to be very good, and is chastised by Dr Crusher and Captain Picard for being too honest. That's our Data. Suddenly, we receive a distress call from one of those alien races we've never heard of, the Sheliak. It seems there's a human colony in their space neighbourhood and if they don't move out they're going to get exterminated. However, Tau Cygna V has a colony of thousands of humans, and owing to radioactive plotdevicium, they can't be transported off the planet. Premise established!
LaForge and O'Brien have to solve the transporter problem, while Data has to persuade the colonists to leave their homes. He tries reverse psychology, but ends up just drawing a phaser and blasting the heck out of an aqueduct. Meanwhile, Picard and Troi try to negotiate with the Sheliak Corporate, who look rather like they live under a shiny blanket. Fortunately, Picard goes full Rules Lawyer to manoeuvre the Sheliak into a corner, buying time to evacuate the colonists. It all turned out nice again!
This title caused a great deal of confusion, because let's be frank: we expect 'Ensign' to refer to a rank. But 'ensign' was originally a flag, and only later a badge of rank. The military rank is so named because the person promoted has received such an ensign. But why choose a title that is so evidently confusing? Like the second episode of the second season, it's from a poem, in this case John Quincy Adam's "The Wants of Man". Here's the relevant verse:
I want the seals of power and place,
The ensigns of command;
Charged by the People's unbought grace
To rule my native land.
Nor crown nor sceptre would I ask
But from my country's will,
By day, by night, to ply the task
Her cup of bliss to fill.
Did H.B. Savage, credited for the teleplay, have an interest in poetry...? Actually, the writer of this story was Melinda Snodgrass, who exercised her writer's prerogative not to be associated with the final episode, which differed considerably from her original draft.
The most significant change was that in her story, Data refused to use his phaser on principle (not because it couldn't be fired) and the Sheliak were called the Hrathan. She said of this story:
I wanted to take Data one step further in his development as a Human being. I wanted to stress him and have him face a situation where logic isn't enough, to show that in order to command you have to have charisma. You have to learn how to wave your dick and hope your dick is bigger than the other guy's.
There are two load-bearing words in the script - 'Hyperonic radiation', which is required to get Data on his own (the first of many 'going solo' moments in season three), and of course, 'Sheliak', who are most interesting for being so unwilling to engage with humans, deemed a lesser form of life.
Oh, and speaking of words, while you couldn't read any of it in the originally aired episode, in the HD remaster you can read the nonsense written for the Treaty of Armens, which includes sections like the following:
...in the text of the treaty, or didn't anyone think about that eventually when the bloody document was first drawn up? Never mind, it's a rhetorical question anyway, but we just thought we'd try to demonstrate our legalistic cleverness. Just one more paragraph until the critical one, where we talk about consultations and that sort of thing. The Sheliacs don't sound like a race selling planets to, if we have to write (much less read) one of these contracts each time, although, that's why we have computers, so we can do search-and-replace.
There's also a reference to the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. You can tell the production crew were having fun on this show!
This is Brent Spiner's episode, and it's a solid Data storyline, but it's great that the B-plot with Picard and Troi working out how to conduct diplomacy with a species with no respect for human life dovetails with it. We also get a C-plot with LaForge and O'Brien trying to overcome the hyperonic radiation, also tied in with the main plot. It's all nicely structured to give something for everyone to do... Worf, however, is reduced to being Uhura in this story, which is a great shame.
Lot's of guest stars, let's start with the most bizarre. Grainger Hines was cast as Gosheven, which is the key role as he has to stand up to Data. But his voice, apparently, just didn't work - it seems he sounded just like John Wayne, so they dubbed over him. Nobody seems to know whose voice was actually used in the episode... but I have to say, it's also not very good, probably because it's an overdub, and so the opportunity to be expressive was limited. Hines, understandably, had his name removed from the credits. There was a lot of that going on in this episode apparently.
Eileen Seeley is okay as Ard'rian McKenzie, but something about her performance is off. The character role is interesting, and she makes a good double act with Spiner's Data, but for whatever reason Seeley just doesn't knock this one out of the park.
Then there's the double act of Haritath (left) and Kentor (right), played by Mark L. Taylor and Richard Allen. Taylor has a role in Voyager and Allen will be back in season six's masterpiece "Darmok", and both perform well in this story.
Oh, and did you think you recognised the voice of the Sheliak director? You should, as its Mart McChesney, who gave us the voice of Armus in "Skin of Evil". His performance is the best of the guest stars in this episode, although I doubt it was actually him under the shiny blanket.
All this, and O'Brien playing a cello. Don't say you didn't get your money's worth out of this episode!
Models, Make-up, and Mattes
Want to what Sound Stage 16 looks like in red? Course you do.
They made these new rock walls last season (you may recognise them from "Loud as a Whisper" and elsewhere), but they make a more striking appearance here as there's no other set dressing.
Welcome back to the Merchantman from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which we last saw as the Atlec ship in "The Outrageous Okona". It's heavily modified for this appearance, and shot through a blue filter, with the most notable changes being the addition of two German Type VII U-Boats(!) underneath - I kid you not!
They also add some lit windows, which really gives it a sense of scale. It's a brilliant redress of this studio miniature, which you would think we'd never seen before if you weren't paying close attention.
Last but by no means least, we get an awesome Syd Dutton matte painting of the surface of Tau Cygna V.
It's not only beautifully painted, but it underpins the pivotal moment in the story, when Data destroys the aqueduct.
It's another great episode for the special effects team all around.
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