Thursday, February 04, 2016

TNG Flashback: Homeward

Throughout the last season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the writers made a concerted effort at giving each character one last, showcase episode. In "Homeward," they seemingly gave a last showcase for a concept, Star Trek's signature non-interference philosophy, the Prime Directive.

The Enterprise responds to a distress call from Nikolai Rozhenko, Worf's adoptive brother. A brilliant but willful anthropologist, Nikolai hopes the Enterprise will help him save the people he's been observing on a doomed planet, Boraal II. When Picard flatly refuses, citing the Prime Directive, Nikolai takes matters into his own hands and secretly beams a group of villagers into a holodeck. Disguised as Boraalans, Nikolai and Worf must now enter the holodeck and foster the fiction that the villagers are migrating to a new home.

There's a certain "been there, done that" quality to "Homeward." The story of the doomed planet that the Prime Directive says we can't save was done in "Pen Pals." The story of the primitive society corrupted by contact with our heroes was done in "Who Watches the Watchers." Both of those episodes are actually alluded to here, when Crusher explains that she can't erase the memory of a Boraalan (an easy out used in the former episode and attempted in the latter).

"Homeward" also has a lot in common with the formula of many bad first season episodes, in that the conflict is created by (and centers around) a guest star character who is given far more to do in the story than the purely reactive main characters. No doubt aware of the flaws in building an episode this way, here the writers try to rope in one of the regulars by making the guest star a family member. In theory, Worf has some skin in the game because his brother Nikolai is at the heart of this storm. But to me, it comes off as irrelevant window dressing. Nikolai never really seems to be at much risk, so Worf doesn't really need to do much to help him.

In truth, it's quite murky to me whether Nikolai has actually done anything wrong. He's a civilian, remember, not a Starfleet officer. (We're specifically told he dropped out of Starfleet Academy.) The Prime Directive is one of Starfleet's directives, so it seems to me that Nikolai can't be prosecuted for violating it any more than I could be charged by the U.S. Army with insubordination. At worst, they could arrest him for using the Enterprise transporter and holodeck without permission -- but they don't even do that at the end of the episode. No, they actually leave him to continue tampering with Boraalan culture by living (and breeding) with them on a permanent basis!

There is an interesting Prime Directive discussion to be had here, even if I feel like the episode doesn't fully articulate it. On the one hand, you can see why the responsible thing would be an absolutist policy not to interfere with less advanced civilizations. If you're smart enough to recognize that interfering is bad, you also know you're not smart enough to be able to pick and choose rationalizations for sometimes violating that policy. On the other hand, this is a classic example of law without compassion. The result is order, but not justice. If Star Trek really aims to show us our own utopian future, surely we can do better than sit by idly and watch an entire species die when we could stop it.

The episode does sort of flirt with these issues through the character of Vorin. Nikolai tries to do "the right thing" by saving the village, but when one of its people is accidentally exposed to the truth, he's unable to handle it and ultimately commits suicide. This is the most resonant note in the episode, thanks in large part to a solid performance as Vorin from guest actor Brian Markinson. The producers clearly noticed him; he would show up in additional roles on the later Star Trek series. So too would guest star Penny Johnson, who appears here prior to her recurring role of Kasidy Yates on Deep Space Nine. (Though this isn't much of a part for her; she plays a doe-eyed damsel-in-distress type.) Veteran actor Paul Sorvino also does solid work here in the role of Nikolai.

Other observations:
  • Another aspect that really gives this episode a "first season" vibe is that a holodeck malfunction figures prominently in the plot. (Though at least here, it's not done to create jeopardy, but to put a ticking clock on the crisis.)
  • It always helps the sense of reality when the show films in an actual location. Here, they return to the ever-popular Bronson Canyon for a few scenes.
  • On the other hand, the purse strings were drawn tight when it came to casting background actors. The supposed "village" of Boraalans seems to consist of about a dozen people. That doesn't leave me hopeful for the survival of their species, even after their relocation.
  • In an act of mind-boggling weirdness to conclude the episode, Nikolai gives Worf the Boraalans' village chronicle as a souvenir. It's the only tie these people have to their old home, and it's not Nikolai's in the first place, but he just gives it away. And Worf, in what could possibly be construed as a Prime Directive violation, just takes it.
This episode's heart was in the right place, but the results are still rather lackluster. I give "Homeward" a C+.

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