In the ready room, Data confirms that the log is a forgery. As he does so, Picard enters the room, to the surprise of all present. After dismissing the others, Picard orders Riker to release the tractor beam on the Stargazer. Later, Crusher discusses the captain’s brain scans with Troi. There’s definitely something weird going on, but she can’t pin down a physical cause. For her part, Troi has been getting some weird vibes from Picard (No, not like that!), as though there are two sets of thoughts in his mind.
Just then, Wesley walks in. Wesley – who is all of fifteen years old – tells his mother that he “doesn’t know much about brain scans” but having “glanced at” them, he just happens to have noticed that they display an identical pattern to a low intensity transmission that’s been emanating from the Ferengi ship. Crusher and Troi report this to Riker while Wesley stays behind to marinate in his own smugness. Riker checks on Picard, only to find that the captain has beamed over to the Stargazer. There, he is greeted by Bok, who raises the vessel’s shields and reveals to Picard that the Ferengi vessel at Maxia was under the command of his son. All of this – the return of the Stargazer, the glory red orb of headaches, all of it – has been an elaborate, year’s long ploy to exact revenge upon Picard. Bok leaves his orb on the bridge with Picard, for whom the line between past and present grows blurrier with each passing minute and departs the Stargazer.
The smaller orb from Picard’s Stargazer quarter’s has been found and examined by the Enterprise crew. Riker hails Kazago, who immediately recognizes the device as a thought maker, a “forbidden device.” The transmission is interrupted by a hail from the Stargazer. Picard, however, believes that he is back at Maxia and that the Enterprise is the Ferengi ship. He barks orders to an empty bridge and the Stargazer responds, with Bok having rigged it to respond to voice commands. Kazago informs Riker that he has relieved Bok of his command (for engaging in such an unprofitable venture) and will be withdrawing from the system. With the Ferengi gone, Picard continues to relive the battle. Thankfully, Data is able to devise a counter to the Picard Maneuver. Upon countering the maneuver and seizing the Stargazer in a tractor beam, Riker hails the ship and manages to snap Picard out of it long enough to destroy the thought maker. With the device now dust, Picard is once again himself and thus returns to the Enterprise.
I wondered earlier what it was that happened here that left the Ferengi essentially untouchable until the third season. I wrote that before sitting down to rewatch the episode, and honestly, I’m still not sure. Granted, ‘The Battle’ isn’t a classic by any means, but it’s pretty good by the standards of first season ‘TNG’. Which, I suppose, is a rather generous way of saying “mediocre.” But the thing is, the Ferengi work much better here than they do in ‘The Last Outpost’. Not nearly as well as they had to, if they were ever going to fill that Klingon role, but they were at least trending in the right direction (though to be fair, it would’ve been hard to get worse).
Beyond the more sedate approach to the Ferengi characterization, the main reason they show such improvement this time around is that they (well, Bok) pose an actual threat to the Enterprise, or at least to Picard. And really, I suspect that the episode works as well as it does at least in part because it focuses on Picard. After all, this is Patrick Stewart we’re talking about. As much as the Ferengi were impossible to take seriously in their prior appearance, Stewart shows himself to be the opposite here. Put another way, he should look much more ridiculous while pacing the empty bridge of the Stargazer and barking orders to a non-existent crew than he actually does. So the fact that the Ferengi threat is, in fact, a result of a personal connection to Picard – a personal vendetta, in fact – goes a long way toward producing a good enough hour of television.
And then there’s Wesley. I want to be clear, I’ve never counted myself among the “I hate Wesley Crusher” brigade. It’s always struck me as a bizarre overreaction from the fandom as a whole. But the boy genius archetype that he embodies is an odd one in science fiction, in that it’s nearly as old as the genre itself despite the fact that nobody ever seems to particularly like the characters that represent it. That’s at least in part because those characters tend to come across as obnoxious know-it-alls. And while I don’t know if I’d go quite that far with Wesley (your mileage, of course, may vary), there’s no arguing that the character was handled in a spectacularly poor fashion throughout the first season. He got better, ever by year two, but the damage, it seems, had been done. And this, arguably, is the episode that did it.
In fact, in his reviews of the first season, Wil Wheaton himself recalls ‘The Battle’ as a breaking point for the character. In his review, dated 2007, Wheaton notes that the episode (which he hadn’t seen in over a decade) was “probably one of the most important” for him to see because how perfectly it encapsulated the problems with his character. In summation, he notes that rewatching the episode marked the point at which he finally understood “exactly why so many people hated Wesley so much.”
In that sense, ‘The Battle’ really is a story of first impressions gone horribly awry. It’s not the first time we’ve met the Ferengi, nor was it the first time Season One Wesley was an insufferable snot. But it is instructive in just how hard it can be to overcome the damage of a poor first impression. The Ferengi eventually did, though it took years for them to do so, a process that arguably wasn’t finished until the second season of ‘Deep Space Nine’. On the other hand, Wesley never really had that luxury with a lot of viewers. Fairly or not, a large segment of the fanbase wrote him off after the first season, and even as someone who mostly likes the character (or who, you know, played him, in Wheaton’s case) it’s hard not to see why after watching an episode like this. Remember that scene I described, where after telling Crusher and Troi about the brain scans he “glanced at” and solving the puzzle of the week he was left “marinating in his own smugness”? After the Actual Starfleet Professionals whose job it literally is to figure this sort of thing out leave the room with a fifteen-year-old boy’s insights in hand, he says to himself “You’re welcome ladies… Heh. Adults.” That was an actual line that actual writers actually got paid to put in the mouth of a character who they presumably wanted the audience to, you know, like.
What do you make of ‘The Battle’? Did it prove the Ferengi were worth keeping around or is it for the best that the powers that be essentially gave up on them for the next two years? Which member of the senior staff should be most humiliated by the doctor’s kid doing their job for them? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to check back in the new year for the next ‘Final Frontier Friday’, which I swear will focus on something else!