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The High Ground
Off you go flying solo, Dr Crusher, in a political romp with terrorists and bombs and everything
We get off to an explosive start with, well, an explosion. Terrorists set off a bomb in a shopping mall and Dr Crusher rushes into action to help the wounded. Suddenly, a mysterious man shwoops in with a teleportation device and kidnaps our Chief Medical Officer! There follows a heavy-handed terrorism story married to a so-so science fiction story about dimensional shifting. The most fun thing that happens is that teleporting terrorists burst onto the Enterprise and try to blow it up, foiled only by the timely intervention of LaForge.
During the attack, Worf is blasted to the floor (Worf 4, Aliens 7) and Picard is kidnapped, which means he can wag his finger at the terrorists even more forcibly than Dr Crusher. It all ends in a big raid on the terrorist headquarters that sees Worf and Riker teaming up with local security forces to kick ass and take names (Worf 5, Aliens 7), before tying it up with some tedious moralising that would have been at home in the first season.
Originally proposed under the title “Strength and Justice”, writer Melinda Snodgrass built her original story around the American Revolution, but Michael Piller had her alter it to become an analogy with Northern Ireland, about which she was extremely annoyed:
I wanted it with Picard as Cornwallis and the Romulans would have been the French, who were in our revolution, trying to break this planet away. Suddenly Picard realized he's one of the oppressors. Instead, we do ‘Breakfast in Belfast’, where our people decide they’re going to go off to Northern Ireland.
Although you may not know it if you don't live in the United Kingdom, this was controversial when it was first run there. Indeed, it wasn't aired at all in 1990 in the original run of TNG. The reason? It suggested that Ireland might become reunified, and therefore that the actions of the terrorist organisation, the IRA, would ultimately prove successful. By the end of the decade there was a power sharing agreement in Stormont that made refusing to air the episode seem faintly ludicrous, although I note that Ireland has not in fact become reunified, and this possibility remains extremely distant.
The most interesting use of words in this story is ‘non-aligned’. Picard's opening monologue states:
Although non-aligned, the planet has enjoyed a long trading relationship with the Federation.
This sets up an unusual situation in Trek whereby the Federation are allied to the Rutians, but the Rutians aren’t very nice people. The Federation, for TNG at least, are always the good guys, so when you want a less than stellar culture they have to be on the ‘outside’. But the politics of this story requires a relationship between Rutia IV and the Federation, hence ‘non-aligned’ but with a ‘long trading relationship’.
The load-bearing concept, however, is ‘terrorist’, and the final screenplay more or less chokes on the word because it isn’t able to chew it down into anything digestible. It is given more honourable service by the concept of ‘dimensional shift’, although it is clunkily backed up by ‘Elway theorem’, which is used as a shortcut to allow the Enterprise crew to get information that the audience already had. There’s a lot of room for improvement in how the words fell out in this one.
In this regard, say hello to the TNG writers worst verbal habit. The planet Rutia IV has political divisions between the ‘Western Continent’ and the ‘Eastern Continent’... The Ansata separatists are trying to break free of the ‘Eastern Continent’. You can see why the writing team would turn to this lazy shorthand, but it’s nonsensical. We can divide our planet into east and west solely because the British Empire set a meridian at Greenwich in 1851 in the Imperial capital of London and called that the centre line. How exactly does the Enterprise perform this operation on an arbitrary planet…? It can’t. And if it was done by the planet itself, we'd expect it to have their own terminology. We’ll encounter this lazy shorthand many times in TNG, and every time it’s utterly absurd, but as fans we’re experts at looking the other way!
To say that the writing team was unhappy about this story is an understatement. Perhaps the strongest condemnation of the story was Ronald D. Moore who called it “an abomination”, complaining that they “didn't have anything interesting to say about terrorism except that it’s bad”. It’s hard to disagree.
Richard Cox does a decent job as Kyril Finn, and it’s easy to believe in his commitment to the cause, and that his ruthlessness has flowed from the abuses he and his people have suffered. In this respect, he nearly redeems the weakness of the script.
Sci-fi fans may recognise him as the sinister researcher Alex Whyte in the 1986 low-budget Canadian film The Vindicator, in which Whyte’s ‘rage program’ creates a killer cyborg. He gets goods chemistry with Gates McFadden too, which is no small feat.
I personally very much enjoy Kerrie Keane’s performance as the head of Rutian security, Alexana Devos.
She brings a ruthless intensity to the role that helps keep the ball rolling throughout, and she pairs well with Jonathan Frakes who - for once - isn’t trying to get chalk up notches on his interstellar bedpost. She had a supporting role in the 1996 television movies Alien Nation: Millennium and Alien Nation: The Enemy Within, not to mention a guest spot in Time Trax and a key role in the 1982 low budget slasher movie Incubus, which was also Canadian. So for the first and only time, the unifying link between this week’s guest stars was that they both starred in terrible Canadian movies in the eighties.
For the second time in two weeks, Worf wins and loses in the same episode. This is a new look for our beloved Klingon security chief - let’s watch that win again as Riker and Worf kick Rutian terrorist butt!
And who is that mysterious transporter chief whose voice we hear in the teaser…? Well it seems that nobody knows, but it sure isn’t Colm Meaney's Miles O’Brien!
Models, Make-up, and Mattes
It’s not a great week for special effects, alas. Of note, the Rutian plaza in the teaser was shot on Sound Stage 9, which was usually used for the shuttlebay. That’s quite an extreme transformation right there!
The planetary matte of Rutia IV is reused from one of the geologically unstable planets in “Pen Pals”, which explains why it looks like there are lava streams on the bottom left corner of the screen in the original cut. However, if you watch the remastered versions, it’s been changed to remove the weirdness.
But my prize for SFX-of-the-week goes to what is in effect an Easter egg - a matte painting of Rutia IV created by Rick Sternbach that appears on one of the security monitors in Devos' office.
It's not high enough quality to use for an establishing shot, but in an episode that doesn't have much going for it beyond firefights and fisticuffs, I’ll take my pleasures where I can!
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