Episode no. 126
Season 1
Entertainment rating: B
Tergiversation meter: +1


THE NEUTRAL ZONE

--Maurice Hurley's "comfort zone"--



FEATURING: Brent Spiner and Patrick Stewart, with Leon Rippy as L.Q. "Sonny" Clemonds, Gracie Harrison as Clare Raymond, Peter Mark Richman as Ralph Offenhouse, and Marc Alaimo and Anthony James as the Romulans . DIRECTOR: James L. Conway. WRITERS: Maurice Hurley (teleplay), Deborah McIntyre, Mona Glee, Hurley (story). STARDATE: 41986.0.* EARTH DATE: 5-16-88.

OVERALL RATING: B. WRITING: B-. ACTING: B+.

THE SHOW: The plot set-up is that Data discovers three 20th Century Americans who had been "frozen" in a long-abandoned cryogenic experiment to preserve the bodies of critically ill people until such time as future medicine could cure them. The bodies are contained in a space capsule that happens to float by the Enterprise. What this capsule is doing in deep space--why it had been rocketed away from earth at all, and why it is so far away from the earth--is not explained.

Another fuzzy point is whether or not these early Americans were dead when they were "frozen." The script seems to say that Data thought they were alive (albeit in stasis)--that's why he rescues them. Dr. Crusher then seems to discover that they were dead before they were "frozen." (This is why Captain Picard wonders why Data didn't leave them as they were.) If they were dead, how is it possible for Dr. Crusher to revive them? 24th Century science has not gotten to the point of reviving the dead. (People often die in the show.) Why is this the exception? The script never says.

Anyhow, with Captain Picard just arriving back on board from somewhere and immediately distracted by a crisis with the Romulans, Data brings the three "frozen" bodies on board, and Dr. Crusher awakens them from their three centuries of sleep and cures them of their ills. Picard is very disapproving. How could they do this? Data defends himself on the ground of scientific curiosity. Picard is completely lacking in such scientific curiosity, it seems--and even in social, historical and personal curiosity. Picard's position seems to be that we've solved all those problems (the revived Americans suffer from various emotional and social ills--alcoholism, greed, sorrow, nostalgia), so, why bother with them?

Later in the series, Picard will be portrayed as a man who had been the star pupil of a famed archeologist, and had almost taken up a career in that field. He is supposedly a very learned man, who, at one point in the series, lectures Wesley Crusher on the importance of understanding history. Here are three living artifacts from earth's past. What an opportunity for study and acquisition of first-hand knowledge--an anthropologist's dream!

Picard's lack of curiosity about the three centuries-old Americans--indeed, his impatience with them--makes little sense. It can only be explained (and this is how the script explains it) by the fact that Picard is preoccupied with another, more immediate problem: the Romulans are back! Both Romulan and Federation outposts have been wiped out along the Neutral Zone (an omen of the coming war with the Borg). They suspect each other. The situation is very tense.

While this premise--that Picard would be disinterested in the living relics--is necessary to the script, and while it provides a certain existential poignance for the viewer (is this how the future is going to view us--as "undeveloped" subhumans, not even worthy of study?), the premise deprives the script and the viewer of an important intersection of contact: Captain Picard. We get some reactions from him--mostly dismay and disapproval. He is particularly sniffy at the businessman among the early Americans--Ralph Offenhouse (played by Peter Mark Richman)--who wants to contact his stock broker back on earth, and is mightily uncomfortable being out of control in any situation. The script somewhat vindicates Mr. Offenhouse when he finds his way onto the bridge during the crisis with the Romulans and correctly psyches them out. (Troi is busy elsewhere.) Offenhouse is experienced with tense negotiations. The Captain gives him grudging acknowledgement, but, still, the Captain generally acts snobbish and superior about humanity having advanced beyond greed and power-mongering.

The Romulans, who are obviously modeled on the ancient Romans, themselves seem like an artifact from the past. Their name "Romulans" resembles the name Romans. Their words resemble Latin (ship names such as "Decius."). Their haircuts (the straight-banged "bowl" cut) make them look like ancient Roman senators. And they act like Romans--imperious, snobbish, superior (not unlike Picard, in fact). Furthermore, what they represent in the script, and in the series, is an ancient problem--territoriality, dominance, war. So, the matter that Captain Picard is preoccupied with (while our stand-ins, the three Americans, face the fascinating problem of having awakened in the 24th Century) seems, well...damn retrograde, in fact. Picard's attitude toward us (that is, toward our stand-ins) thereby seems rather, well...hypocritical?

How dare he look down his nose at us--while he plays war games from 2,000 B.C.! Granted, the scriptwriters give him no choice. Outposts have been destroyed. The Romulans are back. But yet, when you think about this episode even a little, it is ironical that the reason that Picard can't be bothered with these "primitives" from the past is that he is preoccupied with a military stand-off.

Further, this plot set-up violates the character of Captain Picard, as it so far has been presented to us, and violates our rightful expectations of a character whose chief motivation, as a starship captain, is curiosity, and whose chief message to the viewer has been respectful and even reverent regard for all life forms. Are these three relic Americans not worthy of the same curiosity and respect that Picard grants to every other weird phenomenon in the galaxy?

The story focuses on the three unfrozen Americans and their wondrous and difficult task of adjusting to 24th Century life. The scriptwriters use this situation well, both to create believable charcters with whom we closely identify, and to score points as to progressive values. Nevermind the utter hypocrisy of a Hollywood scriptwriter skewering our money system by creating a businessman character, who, having experienced the incredible--re-birth in the 24th Century--can only think of the value of his stock portfolio after four centuries (poor Offenhouse!). It is funny and sad, and it teaches a progressive lesson in the best way possible, by embodying the lesson in a convincing character. The young woman who has been frozen has lost her children, her family. The third, a country singer, more easily adjusts because he has his music (the universal pacifier) to comfort him.

To Captain Picard, these people and their problems are beneath his contempt. He is so callous that he can't even deal with the young woman when she cries. He sloughs the problem off onto Counselor Troi. He grasps nothing of this young woman's incredible, fantastic and tragic situation, and merely wants to get back to his ancient war--his comfort zone.

Picard's attitude resembles nothing so much as "Q"'s attitude toward Picard and other 24th Century humans. "Q" is forever saying that humans and their problems are "insignificant." We know "Q" doesn't really mean it (why would he be bothering with such an "insignificant" race?). In any case, for Picard to turn around and sniff at the unimportance of these three ancient Americans is a bit much.

In the end, these three stranded souls finally begin to face their dilemma--that the world they knew is forever gone and that they must now figure out what to do with themselves in this brave new one. It's a fine concluding scene.

TERGIVERSATION METER READING: +1. A mixed bag, as to the undermining of progressive values through evasion and ambiguity. The script sniffs at the greed, hunger for power, and alcoholism of the ancient American men and at the "housewife" status of the woman, and seems to promote the sharing of wealth, cooperation, clean living and female equality. But Picard's attitude about all this is so snotty that compassion and curiosity are left in the dust. Since he generally represents the central viewpoint of the show, this is a minus. (You don't build yourself up as a "progressive" by tearing someone else down.) Picard is in a real contest with Data, however, as to being the "conscience" of this dramatic series (as we will see in the coming season)--and Data is fascinated with the relic humans. The tension between between humanistic preoccupations and preoccupation with war is laid bare in this episode, and will continue throughout the series. Picard's humanism, in this case, is sacrificed to a war situation.

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: An interesting item from Larry Nemecek--he notes that Data establishes the earth year as 2364 in this episode (Stardate 41986.0), and that Data also mentions that TV had "died out" by the year 2040.


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