While studying the high flare activity of a star, the Enterprise receives a distress call from a malfunctioning freighter. They rescue two pairs of people from two different planets in the system, and the precious cargo the two are fighting over. One race manufactures a drug which mitigates the symptoms of a global plague suffered by the other race, and both are bickering over whether this shipment of the drug has been paid for. When Dr. Crusher discovers the plague is a sham and the drug a narcotic, Picard faces a Prime Directive conflict prohibiting him from breaking the cycle of addiction and exploitation.
The subject of drug addiction is of course just as relevant today as it was when this episode was produced. Many other television series, before and since, mined the subject for drama. But this episode of The Next Generation screams with the preachy and simplistic "Just Say No" drug message of its time. The Ornarans -- the addicted alien race of this episode -- are portrayed in the most simplistic way. They're stereotypical burnouts, not really comprehending anything going on around them, and not even caring about the things they do comprehend. There's no nuance, nothing more than a 45-minute "I learned it from watching you!" PSA.
In fact, we get an almost literal PSA around two-thirds of the way into the episode. Wesley and Data get into one of the first season's common "20th century humans were stupid" discussions on the subject of drug addiction, and Tasha Yar steps in to deliver a Just Say No sermon from the mountaintop. It's awkward and sanctimonious, the only interesting part being an unintentionally hilarious sound bite: "Drugs... can make you feel good."
Other actors in the main cast get saddled with worse, though. Dr. Crusher's outrage over the situation is written in pompous flourishes, and Gates McFadden unfortunately pitches her performance over the top to match it. But she doesn't come off half as foolish as poor Jonathan Frakes, who as Riker is held hostage briefly by one of the Ornarans. The Ornarans have the capability of shocking people with electrical energy from their hands (an ability loosely explained as being a likely consequence of the high solar activity in their solar system), and when one uses this ability to immobilize and threaten Riker, Frakes just has to slouch there, wide-eyed and frozen, stupidly staring into space and hoping that the visual effects team doesn't leave him hanging. (But they kind of do.)
A rather talented guest cast is wasted here too. This episode marked a reunion of sorts for long-time Star Trek fans, as two actors from The Wrath of Khan play aliens in this episode -- Merritt Butrick (who in Star Trek II played Kirk's son, David Marcus) and Judson Scott (who was Khan's lieutenant Joaquin). Butrick spends most of the episode either burned out in the aftermath of a fix, or bouncing off the walls in need of another; it's a one-note performance (even if it's technically a two-note performance). And Scott doesn't even come across as the more prominent of the two Brekkian aliens providing the drugs; the female character of Langor seems to be more thoughtful and in charge.
There is some strong acting in the episode, though, and unsurprisingly it comes from Patrick Stewart. He conveys Picard's brewing irritation at dealing with these aliens without going over the top with anger. He does a great job of civilly scolding the Brekkians when, after they'd earlier praised the Federation's Prime Directive, they get indignant when it works against them. And he also sells a monologue to Dr. Crusher in support of the morality of the Prime Directive. Just listening to the words, the speech sounds just as preachy as everything else in the episode, but Stewart makes you believe there really is a noble ideal there without seeming to lecture on it.
- This is a first for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and surely a rarity for the series: there's not one Captain's Log voice-over in this episode. But the writers find a similar way of forcing some exposition in at the top of the episode, by having Picard deliver a ship-wide address to the crew.
- The high solar activity of the star being investigated by the Enterprise looks pretty neat in the re-master. (On a side note, the Enterprise never completes their survey of that star. At the close of the episode, Picard orders them to leave the system with something bordering on disgust, leaving their original mission unfinished.)
- There's a nice, slow push-in on Dr. Crusher at the moment she watches the Ornarans take their dose of the medicine, and she realizes the true nature of the drug.
- Although it's the next episode, "Skin of Evil," that features the death of Tasha Yar, this episode was actually filmed after it in the production schedule. And so it's this episode that actually features Denise Crosby's goodbye to Star Trek. Near the end of the hour, when Picard and Crusher leave the cargo bay, you can see Crosby standing in the very distant background. Just as the cargo bay door is closing, she looks straight at the camera and waves.