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The High Ground

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at May 30, 2008 - 9:00 PM GMT

See Also: 'The High Ground' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: When the Enterprise arrives at Rutia IV to bring medical supplies to the government, an explosion injures several Rutians. Dr. Crusher rushes to help the wounded and is taken hostage by the leader of the Ansata separatists, who was responsible for the terrorist attack. Finn treats Crusher well and persuades her to tend to the wounded on his side, many of whom are dying of a mysterious ailment. While the Enterprise tries to track Crusher's whereabouts - a task made difficult by the untraceable rebel transporter - Crusher realizes that the reason so many Ansata are ill is that their interdimensional transporter has damaged their DNA. Picard and Riker ask for help from Alexana Davos, the head of the government's security division, who explains that the Ansata have sought independence for 70 years. Unwilling to become involved in the planet's politics, Riker refuses to let Davos torture one of Finn's men and instead sends a message that Starfleet will negotiate for Crusher's release. Believing that Riker is only try to trap him, Finn launches an attack on the Enterprise, planting a bomb that LaForge detonates and abducting Picard from the bridge. Data and Wesley Crusher have learned to track the Ansata transporter and provide Riker with the coordinates of their underground base, enabling him to take a team including Davos below the surface to try to rescue the Enterprise crewmembers. Finn decides to execute Picard to send a message to the Federation, but Davos shoots and kills him, telling Riker that his death will cause less bloodshed than trying to fight off would-be rescuers if Finn were imprisoned. When one of the Ansata children pulls a weapon on Davos, Crusher is able to convince him to put it down, and Riker tries to persuade Davos to try to make peace now that no weapons are drawn.

Analysis: "The High Ground" is one of the messiest episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which also makes it one of the most powerful, if not necessarily one of the best. There are no simple solutions offered for the specific conflict on Rutia IV - the language veers between identifying the separatists as revolutionaries and as terrorists, while the government is alternately portrayed as a peaceful majority and a police state. Nor are there any simple answers put forth concerning the larger issue of terrorist tactics; the freedom fighters are portrayed as child-killers and mass murderers, but so are the interrogators, and the causes of the conflict are purposefully shrouded in a planetary history that can't be explained during the short time frame of the episode. Finn is adamant that he is a rebel like George Washington, fighting for the good of his people, while Davos insists that she was a moderate until repeated attempts on her own life and butchery of children made her believe that only a crushing blow to the separatists could restore the peace. Crusher, meanwhile, tells Finn that her own idyllic society is proof that people can learn to get along, but she has no blueprints to indicate how to make that possible, either for Finn or for 20th century viewers.

When I first saw the episode, I found it rather cynical, with only the faintest hope at the end that the conflict would be resolved peacefully any time soon; now, after the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks and the escalating conflicts in the Middle East, it seems even more depressing. (Ironically, though the episode was not aired in the 1990s in the UK or Ireland due to a situation specifically cited in the story - Data mentions the successful terrorist campaign that led to the reunification of Ireland in 2024 - it has since been broadcast at an Irish film festival and, just last year, on the BBC.) Perhaps the most optimistic aspect of the story is its refusal to portray either Finn or Davos as a monster, though they both condone monstrous actions in the name of freedom and safety for their people. As Crusher angrily points out, Finn is an artist as well as a cold-blooded killer, a man who plots the deaths of children after having lost his own young son to a state interrogation. As Riker angrily points out, Davos tries to justify the torture of children with the hope that it will protect other children. Ostensibly the Starfleet officers must remain neutral, yet Finn insists that by providing medical care to the ruling government, Starfleet has already taken a side. He feels no guilt about abducting Crusher because he thinks her hands are already dirty, and he is willing to kill her captain or her son if it will draw attention to the plight of his people.

It helps, too, that the guest roles are so well cast and the characters well-rounded. We learn more about Finn's background than we do about Davos's, and each of them must represent an entire side in the conflict; we see few victims of terrorism, no children, and no direct evidence of police brutality, just threats, so it's easier to see the conflicts in each of the leaders, not to hate them for doing what they passionately believe is necessary. That high level of emotionalism makes the episode extremely compelling. Crusher rightly doesn't give a whit if Finn's an artist, she's too horrified by the fact that he's also a killer and that he encourages his people to submit to the transporter that is killing all of them just as surely as any government attack. For his part, Finn insists that without any hope of freedom, it's not worth being alive, anyway. We don't have sufficient context for "freedom" to know what it means to the Ansata separatists - whether they are essentially enslaved to the ruling class, whether their own traditions are being repressed or supplanted, whether this is a struggle over taxation without representation or a resistance to Rutia's version of a new world order - we only know that both sides agree that for every Ansata rebel willing to die for the cause, there are several others willing to provide supplies, weapons, information, a safe haven from the police. Finn feels that his movement is invisible to the people with the power to make changes, so much so that he is willing to kill his own people just to get attention, yet Davos believes his sympathizers have infiltrated every level of society. There's little freedom in this police state, and even Davos wishes she could just go home, far away from the center of the conflict.

Where does that leave the Enterprise? Virtually impotent. The crew is able to deflect violence against its own by using a combination of ingenuity and advanced technology that Davos envies; Wesley figures out the secret of the Ansata transporter, LaForge manages to disarm the Ansata bomb. If it had been characters we know rather than red-shirts who died, this episode's message about terrorism might seem markedly different even if everything else remained the same, for it's personal losses - families and children - that count in this struggle, not just numbers. Finn scores points when he tells Crusher that by supplying the security forces with aid while ignoring the separatists, the Federation has chosen a side, but he loses them just as quickly when he announces his plan to kill Picard - not a man with strengths and knowledge and the ability to help him at the negotiating table, but someone with the appropriate pips and insignia to generate an outcry if murdered. The plan to blow up the Enterprise, an act of war on the Federation that would presumably negate its neutral stance and permit an alliance with the ostensible oppressors, seems quite foolhardy, but maybe Finn never expected it to succeed; maybe the attempt generated the publicity he wanted without the retaliation that would surely have followed. (I wouldn't put it past Beverly to kill him herself with Wesley's life in the balance.)

"The High Ground" toes at pedantry in the scenes where Picard tries to make sense for Wesley of what has happened to his mother, and again when Data tries to comprehend why terrorism (which his programming tells him is both irrational and abhorrent) often works effectively to trigger political change. As confident as Picard tries to sound, it's clear that he's at a loss about what to say to either of them, knowing that displays of strength may be useless and that attempts at negotiation may backfire. Ironically, the moment that makes me cringe the most is the one that will be repeated several times over the course of the series: Beverly's "Jean-Luc, I have something to tell you," in which she prepares to drag into the light the personal feelings she knows enough to repress during day-to-day interaction, and Picard's obvious recognition of what's coming before the rescue interrupts them. Of course Picard would be horrified and outraged over the abduction of any of his crewmembers, but the fact that it's Beverly hits that much more close to home. Things aren't so perfect even in the idyllic world of the Enterprise that either of these people will be willing to risk a relationship during the era of The Next Generation.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Michelle Erica Green is a former news writer for TrekToday. An archive of her reviews can be found at The Little Review.

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