“We… are back.”
And so are we! Welcome, as always, to ‘Final Frontier Friday’. For this week’s outing, we’re ping-ponging back to ‘The Next Generation’, and picking up not one but two threads that I’ve been following over the past few months.
This week’s episode is ‘The Neutral Zone’, the first season finale of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. Following on from my recent coverage of ‘Balance of Terror’, I’m once again taking a look at the Romulans, this time covering their re-introduction on ‘The Next Generation’. But that’s not the only reason I settled on this episode. As I said before, this is another first season episode. Given that the last episode we covered from this season could generously be described as a forty-five minute dumpster fire, I thought it worth revisiting the season sooner rather than later to cover a better episode. But how much better? Well, we’ll get to that.
Regardless of quality, though, ‘The Neutral Zone’ is actually a surprisingly important episode. If all it had done was bring the Romulans into the twenty-fourth century, I’d probably still be covering it today, but it would not have had quite the same impact. You see, while they wouldn’t actually appear until the latter half of the second season, ‘The Neutral Zone’ gives us our first hint of the Borg. The direct connection is easy to miss if you don’t know what to look for, as Federation and Romulan outposts fall victim to a type of attack that will only later be identified with the Borg, and even then only in passing (before being forgotten about altogether). In and of itself, that’s really more a piece of trivia, that ‘The Neutral Zone’ offers a tease or stealth introduction for the Borg. More interesting is the way in which the episode serves as an artifact of then-newly hired showrunner Maurice Hurley’s original plans for the Borg, which would have seen the insectoid race (as they were originally conceived) revealed over the course of the show’s second season as part of an arc that would have seen them overwhelm the Romulans, leading the empire into a desperate (and ultimately successful) alliance with the Federation.
While awaiting a rendezvous with Captain Picard (returning aboard a shuttle), the Enterprise discovers an old Earth space capsule adrift. Beaming aboard the ancient craft, Data and Worf discover a number of cryonically preserved humans, people from the late twentieth century who were frozen upon their deaths in the hope of being revived when medical science developed a cure for whatever killed them. Though some of the cryo chambers have malfunctioned over time, there are three “survivors”, who are quickly brought aboard.
Upon returning to the ship, Picard briefs the senior staff on their mission: investigate the destruction of two Federation outposts along the Neutral Zone. The obvious suspects are the Romulans, who have largely removed themselves from the stage of galactic politics for the last fifty years.
Dr. Crusher is able to revive the survivors from the capsule: homemaker Clare Raymond, financier Ralph Offenhouse, and musician Sonny Clemonds. From there, she, Riker, and Data begin the at times the rocky process of integrating them into the twenty-fourth century. Unsurprisingly, this complicates matters as the ship warps toward the Neutral Zone. Even as the threat of a violent confrontation with the Romulans looms, the crew must contend with Offenhouse’s abrasive attitude, Clare’s homesickness for family long dead, and Sonny’s boredom.
When the Enterprise arrives at the Neutral Zone, they find that the outposts were not so much destroyed as (literally) scooped off the face of the planet. As they arrive at the second outpost, a Romulan ship decloaks. Upon opening communications, Picard is informed by the Romulan Commander Tebok that outposts on their side of the Neutral Zone have been destroyed in the exact same manner as the Federation’s. Tebok confirms that the Romulans are similarly clueless as to the perpetrators of these attacks. At Picard’s suggestion, the Commander agrees to a sharing of information related to the Outpost attacks. However, Tebok also makes clear that the Romulans will not remain in isolation before breaking communication and returning to Romulan space.
Though it may be damning with faint praise, I’ve always considered this one of the stronger episodes of the season. Oh, who am I kidding? I am absolutely damning with faint praise. ‘The Neutral Zone’ is an overall solid episode, but when I say that, it has to be with an asterisk. And that asterisk is the staggeringly low bar set by the rest of the season.
Perhaps the most glaring issue with ‘The Neutral Zone’ is the way it blends its two main plots (the mystery at the Romulan border and the story of the Cryonic Crew). Or rather, the way it doesn’t. What we essentially have here is one episode that feels like two half-finished episodes bolted on to each other. And while they might be perfectly serviceable episodes in their own right, they don’t really mix that well. As tense and interesting as the Romulan side of things is, it basically boils down to some discussions of how they might have to shoot some Romulans, the Romulans showing up, and what barely counts as a standoff getting resolved in less than the time it would take to make a bag of popcorn. That’s why the Borg context is so important. The Romulan story is basically there to set up something for next season. And it’s something that ultimately never came to pass in its original form for any number of reasons (not the least of which was the 1988 Writers Guild strike). And then we have the Popsicle Brigade. Their side of the episode is the more complete story, which is odd since they basically exist to give the episode some comic relief. Well, that and to give Picard a chance to deliver a Roddenberry speech or two about what drives an enlightened twenty-fourth century humanity. It’s more or less boilerplate ‘Star Trek’, not bad, but not exactly the most original plot ever. In fact, it’s basically ‘Space Seed’ if they had found anyone other than a genetically-enhanced tyrant.
As I said before, the real issue with the episode is less the A- and B-stories themselves than the way they mesh together. In terms of both tone and plot, it really does feel like they were pulled from two completely different episodes. In fact, as I write this, I’m not even sure which plot even is the A-story. Between the title and the import (if not necessarily the narrative primacy) placed on it, my instinct is to say it’s the Neutral Zone mystery, but until the last fifteen minutes of the episode, that entire story thread is really just a lot of perfunctory build up to… a lot of questions that’ll maybe be answered next year, hopefully. So much of the focus falls on the Frigidaire Friends that it could easily pass for the main thrust of the episode, if not its own episode. Indeed, that half of the plot even gets a more satisfactory resolution within the episode than the Romulan story, as we see the survivors take their first steps toward adjusting to the brave new world in which they find themselves before Picard dumps them on another starship.
What do you think of ‘The Neutral Zone’? Should each story thread have been given its own episode? Would have liked to see Hurley’s original plan for the Borg make it to the screen? Let me know in the comments and be sure to check back in two weeks for the next ‘Final Frontier Friday’!