Episode no. 123
Season 1
Entertainment rating: C-
Tergiversation meter: -5


SYMPBIOSIS



FEATURING: Ensemble crew, with Judson Scott as Sobi, and Merritt Butrick* as T'Jon. DIRECTOR: Win Phelps. WRITERS: Robert Lewin, Richard Manning, Hans Beimler (teleplay), Lewin (story) . STARDATE: unstated. EARTH DATE: 4-18-88.

OVERALL RATING: C-. WRITING: D-. ACTING: B. Guest actors Scott and Butrick do a particularly good job. SPECIAL NOTE: This is Denise Crosby's (Lt. Yar's) real exit from Star Trek,** and get a load of her exit lines.

THE SHOW: Star Trek writers try to be "with it" as to current political and social discourse. Unfortunately, this puts them into some very bad company in 1988. The company of Nancy Reagan. The company of Dan Quayle. They produce several "just say no to drugs" episodes. This is one of them. (The other is called "The Game"--an episode that is so ridiculous one cannot help but think that Star Trek is mocking the anti-drug crusade. Surely they can't be serious in that episode.)

Later, Star Trek writers engage in further efforts to stay on the right side of George Bush. They produce a pro-military and pro-sadism episode ("Chain of Command") after the Persian Gulf war and before they realize that Bush is going to be tossed out by the electorate. They broadcast an episode that glorifies cowboy justice by Captain Picard during the week of the worst riot in U.S. history (the L.A./Rodney King beating trial riot), thus helping to promote rightwing Police Chief Daryl Gates' agenda of nuking east L.A. They also get into "family values" while Quayle is still current. It's rather a disgusting spectacle.

Robert Lewin, Richard Manning, and Hans Beimler seem to lend themselves to this debased sort of writing--simple-minded morality tales or other agendized stories--concerning which they are told to write on a certain subject in a certain way. This episode smells of an "assignment" to cater to the hypocritical Reagan agenda on drugs (while Reagan & Co. utilized drug lords in Central America as U.S. operatives, and while the U.S. suffered a tidal wave of illegal drug imports). Lewin co-wrote the story for the "Arsenal of Freedom," another morality tale, and had a hand in the mind-numbing "Datalore." Manning and Beimler co-wrote "Arsenal of Freedom," co-wrote the story for the glitchy, ill-thought out "Schizoid Man," and for a very silly episode called "Shades of Gray." Their other credits are better ("Emissary," "Allegiance"), although some contain sloppy, unsolved writing problems ("Who Watches the Watchers," and the over-rated "Yesterday's Enterprise"). Sloppy, mentally flatulent writing often goes hand in hand with preachiness and oversimplified ideas.

In "Symbiosis," we have a race of folk who peddle a drug to another race of folk who believe that they need the drug in order to stay alive. They are thus involved in a relationship of mutual need--a symbiosis. The suppliers need the drug addicts. The drug addicts think they need their suppliers. The drug addicts become so desperate for their drug that they are willing to kill for it. Like the "microbrain" in "Home Soil," they are more or less justified in this attitude, because they believe that they will otherwise die--and this is the way that Captain Picard handles the situation, even when they threaten Commander Riker. He can understand their desperation. He tries to reason with them.

"Symbiosis" contains a really awful scene in which Lt. Yar gives Wesley an anti-drug lecture. Poor little Wes--he just can't understand why anybody would take drugs. (This boy genius has his limitations, apparently.) Yar's anti-drug lecture is her real last scene as a regular on Star Trek ("Symbiosis" was filmed after "Skin of Evil," in which Yar is killed, but was broadcast before it).** It is an unhappy departure for Yar, who, in this episode, has to deliver the worst speech ever written for a Star Trek character.

Picard is presented with another Prime Directive problem in "Symbiosis." Dr. Crusher has discovered the addicting properties of the drug (felicium), and wants to warn the Ornaraians that the Brekkans have made them dependent upon a substance that they don't really need for survival. Picard says no. He cannot interfere, by providing such information--although the Enterprise has already interfered with the history of this culture by responding to a distress signal and rescuing the group of Ornaraians and Brekkans from a disabled ship. If these people are aware of, and utilize, space travel, and if they can broadcast a distress signal that can be understood by the Enterprise, presumably they are sophisticated enough to gain access to Federation information. If they are not, why does Picard rescue them--in violation of the Prime Directive--in the first place?

In Manning and Beimler's other script on the Prime Directive, "Who Watches the Watchers?", Captain Picard takes the position that a local citizen in an "undeveloped" culture (approximately Bronze age) ought to have been left to die, when he investigates a disguised Federation look-out post, falls down a cliff and injures himself. To heal him requires beaming him up to the Enterprise, where he will see things he shouldn't see. Picard maintains that the Prime Directive is more important than one individual's death. So, why doesn't Picard ignore the distress signal of the primitive Ornaraian/Bakkan freighters, and leave its passengers to die? Surely the Enterprise can scan the ships and determine their level of technology, to make a judgement as to whether they are sophisticated enough to merit rescue (or are "primitive" enough to merit death?).

The Prime Directive is beginning to look like a mere plot prop--an artificial device for creating conflict--rather than a central principle of Federation law. It most certainly gets mangled here, in the hands of such inferior writers as Lewin, Manning and Beimler. There really is no reason whatsoever that the Ornaraians cannot be told the truth.

In any case, poised on the plot prop of the Prime Directive, the writers come up with a clever if cruel resolution to the problem--a resolution that only succeeds in not coming across as callous and unfeeling because of the way that the script has been manipulated and because of the acting talent of Patrick Stewart. The Captain decides not to repair the Ornaraian-Brekkan interplanetary freighters, which are their only means of exchanging the drug for money. The Ornaraians will suffer extremely painful and prolonged withdrawal, but will not die, according to the script--although the fate of weaker citizens such as old folks, the sick, the newborn, and children is not addressed, and will likely mean casualties, if withdrawal from contemporary earth addictives is any guide.

One other reason that this solution does not come across as callous is that the writers have manipulated the script and our perception of the Ornaraians--through having them resort to threats of violence--so that we have less empathy for them. If the little addicted babies on Ornara had been shown, and if the adult Ornaraian traders had been non-violent, Picard, for all Stewart's acting talents, would have looked like a sadist, if not--in the case of the babies and the frail--a murderer.

Such script and character manipulations are typical of the hack writer. One sees them used on television all the time. Although Star Trek does try to be a little more thoughtful, in this regard, there are serious lapses. In the later "Starship Mine" (Season 6)--the cowboy justice episode just prior to the L.A. riot--not only do the producers choose women and blacks as the villains, the script has them murdering one of their own for no particular reason, so that when Picard blows them up, we're all supposed to cheer--just as we are all supposed to cheer Picard's morally dubious solution in "Symbiosis".

TERGIVERSATION METER READING: -5. Utterly unhelpful on the question of drugs, drug abuse, and the war on drugs. Ass-kissing of the hypocritical Reagans. Cruel and murderous in its attitude toward "primitives." Contributies to the dumbing of our own population on the drug problem.

Tergiversate (tur-ji-ver-sat): 1. To use evasions or ambiguities; equivocate. 2. To change sides; to defect; apostatize. The Tergiversation Meter scale runs from -5 (very defective) through +5 (unambiguous, true blue philosophical humanism with no negative subliminal messages).

*FOOTNOTE: Nemecek notes that Merritt Butrick's name is mispelled in the credits, as Merrit. He also notes that Butrick, who played Captain Kirk's son in Star Trek III, died only a year after this episode was produced.

**FOOTNOTE: Nemeck's info.


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