Hello and welcome back for another installment of ‘Final Frontier Friday’! I’ve had kind of a lousy week, so I’m going to do something productive and take my frustrations out on an episode of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’! I’ve made a few references to how… let’s say “shaky” the first seasons of ‘TNG’ was in past columns, and now we’re going to take our first proper look at it. And what better place to start that with an episode that more than one former cast member has singled out as being especially awful? That’s right, we’re going all in on this one. This week’s episode is ‘Code of Honor’.
As the third episode aired, ‘Code of Honor’ is a pretty good snapshot of what went wrong in the first season of ‘TNG’. Coming as early as it did, this episode was filmed a full two months before the pilot aired. What that means is that they had no audience feedback yet, no way to know what was or wasn’t working. But every show has that stretch early on. ‘TNG’ also carried with it the legacy of the original ‘Star Trek’. Now, today fans debate the “Kirk or Picard” question, but think about it. In 1987, ‘Star Trek’ had its original seventy-nine episode run, a brief animated series, and four feature films to its credit. Suffice to say, it loomed large in the pop-consciousness. That’s not something you take lightly if you’re working on the upstart spinoff. And you can see the conflict in those early episodes. All at once, they’re trying to recapture the magic of the original series (with established ‘Trek’ writers like D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold joining the new series, and William Ware Theiss designing the costumes) but also taking great pains to avoid leaning on its predecessor (setting the show a century after the original and avoiding any explicit crossovers for several years). Both impulses make perfect sense, but I think it’s telling that ‘Code of Honor’ – once you strip out the more problematic elements – feels a lot like an original series episode. That might sound like a compliment, but it’s not. Because the thing is, it’s not capturing the magic of the original series. That was lightning in a bottle, as the recent movies have made painfully clear. No, when I say ‘Code of Honor’ feels like an original series episode, what I mean is that it feels like a piece of 1960s television. The problem, of course, being that it was produced in the 1980s. That has the odd effect of making it feel dated in a way that other shows of the time don’t. Of course, there was also a lot of bad writing. And speaking of, I have a plot to summarize!
The Enterprise arrives at Ligon II, where they hope to acquire a rare vaccine that is urgently needed on a Federation planet. A delegation from the planet beams into a cargo bay, where Picard, Riker, Troi, and Yar greet them. Lutan, the Ligonian leader, is immediately fascinated by Tasha Yar after she roughs up Hagon, his right-hand man. In a more formal meeting, Lutan says that he will be happy to make the vaccine available, provided the crew shows the proper respect. In that spirit, he asks that Yar demonstrate the holodeck. After the demonstration, Lutan returns to the surface, abducting Yar in the process.
In the wake of this abduction, the Enterprise hails Lutan and even fires a warning shot. When this yields no response, Data notes that Ligonian culture values patience. And so they wait. For a day. After Crusher shows up to remind us of the need for the vaccine, Data arrives, having reviewed The ship’s records on Ligonian society and explains that Lutan is engaging in a practice similar to counting coup – a show of courage against a superior foe. Suddenly, Lutan hails the ship. Picard is forced to ask – politely – for Yar’s return. Lutan agrees, inviting Picard to the surface.
On arrival, they are met by Leutan and his wife, Yareena (Yar, Yareena, he certainly has a type). It is agreed that Picard will formally request Yar’s return that night, but when he does, Lutan goes off book and proposes to her instead of simply releasing her. Yareena wastes no time in challenging Yar to ritual combat (to the death, of course). When Picard attempts to refuse on her behalf, Lutan insists that the fight proceed, or else “you will have no treaty, no vaccine, and no Lieutenant Yar!”
While the Ligonians prepare the ritual arena, the Enterprise works to maintain a sensor lock on the away team, in order to beam Yar out if things go even further sideways. Meanwhile, Picard attempts to reason with Lutan, who lets slip that he has engineered this situation in order to claim Yareena’s wealth and land as his own upon her death. The fight begins. The two combatants dance around each other, both armed with poison-tipped weapons. Despite a few close calls, Yar gains the upper hand and lands a blow. As Yareena succumbs to the poison, the two women are beamed aboard the Enterprise. With their end of the agreement fulfilled, the Enterprise is allowed to beam the vaccine aboard.
Lutan and Hagen accompany Picard to the ship, where they find that Crusher was able to resuscitate Yareena, who promptly dissolves her marriage to Lutan, offering her wealth to Hagon, who cheered for her during the fight. The Ligonians depart, and the ship, at last, leaves orbit.
That was… something, wasn’t it?
Part of me wants to go easy on this one, if only because it’s so early in the run (‘Code of Honor’ was only the third episode aired), and even by the standards of this lackluster season, the show is still finding its feet. And to be fair, the basic concept (the Captain has to carefully navigate the complexities of an alien culture’s social customs to save the day) is interesting, but even the best concepts live and die on their execution. And the execution here is just… not good. In fact, this episode was once described by Jonathan Frakes as ” a racist piece of shit”, and he’s not kidding. Ask any Trekkie about ‘Code of Honor’, they’ll probably remember it as “the awkwardly racist one”. If you’re not familiar with the episode, the racism comes from the Ligonians. Everything about them, from wardrobe to characterization, betrays any number of condescending, colonial attitudes toward Africa. Would this have played better if every single Ligonian role hadn’t been filled with African American actors? It’s hard to say. That casting was not something that was called for in the script, but rather a decision made by the episode’s director, Russ Mayberry. But that doesn’t change the fact that it could have just as easily been a planet of 1940s African stereotypes that just happened to be played by white people. The casting just called attention to it. In other words, it’s the difference between “Oh, now that you mention it…” and “Oh my god, what were they thinking?!” The episode never seems to know how advanced it wants the Ligonians to be. In the first act alone, they’re seen to have transporter technology, but little concept of what a hologram is (though Lutan has clearly heard of the holodeck and even asks to see one, he nonetheless seems to believe that it can “create people… without a soul”).And it didn’t end there for Mayberry, whose treatment of the actors was, as Wil Wheaton recalls, “so offensively racist” that Gene Roddenberry ultimately fired the director (and by some accounts, had him blacklisted from the series) midway through filming.
As I’ve alluded to, all of that was only exacerbated by the script’s treatment of the Ligonians. I’m not sure I can really encapsulate it except to invoke the idea of the noble savage. We’re meant to respect their sense of honor, but we cringe at the conniving, sexist behavior of a society that settles marital disputes with a catfight to the death. On top of this, the episode never seems to know how advanced it wants the Ligonians to be. In the first act alone, they’re seen to have transporter technology, but little concept of what a hologram is (though Lutan has clearly heard of the holodeck and even asks to see one, he nonetheless seems to believe that it can “create people… without a soul”). This is all the more frustrating because casting a “planet of black people” could have been a major coup in terms of representation. Except it ended up being this black planet. Like so many things about this episode, whatever potential there was is damned by terrible execution.
And if that wasn’t enough, the writers for some reason saw fit to have Picard repeatedly muse about how easy it would be to get what he needed (Yar and the vaccine) if it wasn’t for that pesky Prime Directive. I really can’t imagine any reason to do that other than to smirk at how “primitive” the Ligonians are supposed to be. What. On Earth. Where you thinking?
I’ve been focusing a lot of the racist elements (and there are plenty of them), but there are other problems with ‘Code of Honor’. A lot of it can be chalked up to “first season weirdness,” especially in terms of characterization. Like so many things with ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’ this is best exemplified through Picard and Data. This came at a time in the series’ history where the writers had decided that Data should inappropriately fixate on a certain piece of information or needlessly and lengthily info dump. It was intended as comedy but plays as cringey. What about Picard? Well at one point Data describes French as an “obscure language”. The Captain’s indignant response evokes the original ‘Star Trek’ and Chekov’s comedy nationalism (the Russian ensign would routinely and baselessly claim, for example, that scotch whiskey was “invented by a little old lady in Leningrad”). And it doesn’t work even half as well here.
But enough from me. What do you think of ‘Code of Honor’? I’m sure there are a few of you out here who liked it. If you’re reading this, I just have one question: “What were you on and where can I get some?”
We’ll be back in two weeks with another episode. until then, I’ll see you in the comments!