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Who Watches the Watchers?

By Michelle Erica Green
Posted at April 4, 2008 - 10:18 PM GMT

See Also: 'Who Watches the Watchers?' Episode Guide

Plot Summary: The Enterprise receives a distress call from a group of Federation scientists observing the developing Mintakan civilization from an outpost hidden by holograms. An explosion injures everyone on the team and makes the observation window visible to the valley below. While LaForge struggles to repair the power systems and Crusher tends to the injured, a father and daughter spot the window and climb up to observe. Shocked by the sight of one of the injured anthropologists being beamed away, the man, Liko, slips and is gravely injured. Because she blames Starfleet's error for Liko's accident, Crusher has him beamed to the ship and saves his life, but she is unable to modify his memories. After Liko hears Picard telling expedition leader Barron that they will find his missing assistant, Palmer, Liko returns to the Mintakans and tells them about the godlike Caretaker who brought him back from the dead. Riker and Troi beam down in search of Palmer and learn that the Mintakans have begun to worship "the Picard." When the Mintakans find Palmer, Troi diverts them in a search for other Caretakers so that Riker can beam the injured man up to the ship. Once Riker and Palmer have vanished, Liko fears that the Picard will punish his people for allowing them to escape and suggests executing Troi in penance. Hoping to persuade the Mintakans that he is not a god, Picard has the leader Nuria beamed aboard the Enterprise and shows her that he cannot save the most injured member of the scientific team. Nuria returns with Picard to the planet, but they are unable to persuade Liko that Picard is not a god until Picard insists on taking the arrow intended to sacrifice Troi. When Liko sees that Picard bleeds, he apologizes for his error and Troi is freed. After Crusher treats Picard's wound, he returns to the planet to tell the Mintakans that they must progress on their own toward the technological abilities they have witnessed by the Starfleet officers.

Analysis: "Who Watches the Watchers" is one of my favorite Next Generation episodes, in part because of its exploration of the recently late and much lamented Arthur C. Clarke's third law - "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" - and in part because it is such a resounding response to all the times the immortal James T. Kirk violated the Prime Directive and played god to a less developed species. How delightful that "Who Watches the Watchers" was filmed at Vasquez Rocks, site of Kirk's antics from "Arena," "The Alternative Factor" and "Friday's Child"! How nice to see a civilization of proto-Vulcans! And what a wonderful look at the thin line between religious faith and religious fanaticism without ridiculing the aliens for their inability to distinguish between the inexplicable and the supernatural - often Star Trek's resistance to religion has overflowed into contempt for religious people, from Kirk's poking fun at Vaal's followers in "The Apple" to the ridiculous holy war in Enterprise's "Chosen Realm." Plus it's just plain fun to watch Picard cringing with embarrassment at being thought of as a god.

It seems very irresponsible of the Federation to have sent this group of observers to a primitive world with no backup generator in case of just such a disaster as occurs here, given how much more seriously the Prime Directive is taken by Picard and his crew than Kirk, who made a complete mockery of it in "A Piece of the Action" when McCoy left his phaser behind on a world centuries behind such technology. At least this Enterprise's crew seems aware of the gravity of the situation when the camouflage disguising the outpost fails, though one would think they could have posted a couple of guards in native clothing to keep an eye on locals potentially wandering too close during the repairs. Everyone is so busy trying to retrieve the injured scientists that they ignore and then mistreat Liko, allowing him to look directly in a window with electrified shielding that injures him badly. As is typical, Crusher chooses to save him first and worry about the consequences later, leading to a rather incredible exchange with Picard, who believes that her failure to let Liko die represents a violation of the Prime Directive somehow graver than the accident that led to his injury in the first place. Picard seems to know better than to press that point, at least, and insists that their priority must be to erase Liko's memories and guarantee that no further contamination to his culture can occur. They don't even send out scouts to see if anyone else might have seen the outpost, like Liko's daughter who witnesses not only the observation window but Liko caught in the transporter beam.

After that, though, the crew's attempts to contain the situation get much more interesting. Riker and Troi are able to disguise themselves as traders from another - tribe? village? clan? - we never really learn how the Mintakans organize themselves - and are invited to share their opinions on the emerging worship of "the Picard" (oh, how much would Kir(o)k have loved such a designation!). Troi is believed immediately when she leads nearly the entire tribe away on a wild goose chase, and no one objects to the stranger Riker being left alone with the stranger Palmer and the old man left to guard the latter. No one even expresses real anger at the discovery that Riker and Troi have betrayed the Mentakans; their discussion about whether to sacrifice Troi is posed purely as a means to placate the Picard. Which makes it all the more chilling, because it's strictly a religious/theological decision; Troi isn't being threatened as an outsider or criminal but because she may have brought the wrath of the Caretaker down upon a culture still reeling from the deaths of several people during recent floods.

We know from Troi that in Nuria's culture, women occupy the principal positions of power (which Riker delightfully says is sensible), and though this is never explicitly stated, Liko's messianic experience is already altering that balance in his own small group. Nuria understands that her ancestors evolved from living in caves to building huts, that she can weave cloth and prepare food which her ancestors could not; if one of her cave-dwelling ancestors saw her use a bow, Nuria might be deemed just as powerful among them as she deems Picard. "To her it's magic," he says, insisting that he is not more powerful, merely better equipped. It's an effectively thrilling moment, with both the dilemma and the stakes clearly evoked for the audience if not for the captain who may have to wear the credentials of a god in order to be taken seriously when he claims not to be one. After all, couldn't he have beamed down and had the same conversation with Nuria on her territory?

Troi seems surprisingly passive; one would expect her to use her abilities as an empath to lead people with varying levels of belief to question and challenge one another. But the story needs her to be helpless to drive Picard to the extreme action of having Nuria brought aboard the Enterprise, where the most rational of the Mentakans reacts in the most stereotypical manner towards a being of such power that it doesn't matter much to her whether he calls himself god or man. She loses her fear quickly when she realizes that he means her and her people no harm, but his disappointment when she asks him to raise the dead seems a bit unfair. Why should she not believe that someone with the technology to bring her above the clouds and heal a fatal wound might also be able to revive children lost in a flood? Why does Picard believe that proving his own mortality will make the Mentakans any less prone to worshiping him? The Mentakans know that people have come from the stars to observe them, that those people have a hierarchical society and a specific set of values; how can that simple fact not impact their society on a fundamental level?

"Who Watches the Watchers" offers no easy answers, and Picard struggles throughout his command with the questions of responsibility and cultural relativism that result from such situations. Here, he makes a choice similar to the one he made in "Pen Pals," concluding that preserving life is more important than protecting the Federation and its Prime Directive, but a few years ahead in "Homeward" he will argue that it is better to allow a civilization to reach its natural extinction than risk corrupting it with advanced technology. Picard doesn't know whether these Mentakans are representative of the people all over the planet or are more or less advanced, nor how likely Liko is to become a speaker for the gods outside of his own small tribe. He is smart enough not to listen to the condescending anthropologists when, certain that the culture is already reverting to its discarded theology, they suggest that Picard give the Mentakans "a sign from the Overseer." Yet proving that he is not infallible may simply send their beliefs spiraling in a different direction - perhaps they will not wish to build ships to the stars - and pressuring them to accept his own apparent agnosticism might be just as damaging as insisting that they should not revert to a theology of fear. Many of the greatest atrocities on our own planet were committed not in the name of faith, but in the name of pure science.

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Michelle Erica Green is a former news writer for the Trek Nation. An archive of her work can be found at The Little Review.

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