STTNG – Ensign Ro (Review)

If Darmok proved that you can’t save a crap premise by hiring good actors, perhaps what Ensign Ro proves is that you can save a boring one by inserting an interesting character.

Plot-wise, this episode is a snoozefest, for once again Next Generation is showing us how to build elaborate starship sets to tell a pedestrian story about politics. Even worse, we’ve already seen this one on the news: it’s a pretty thinly-disguised plea for sympathy with the Palestinians. (To be fair, the writers claim, rightly, that there’re any number of groups on Earth the Bajorans could stand in for – which is no doubt part of the point – but that throwaway line about the Bajorans being advanced when humans were still fighting in caves that Picard remembers from his 5th grade reader sounds deliberately like the line sanctimonious people repeat about Arab Muslims here in the US.) When we first meet them, the Bajorans are refugees in their own area of space while their homeworld is occupied, a major power chooses to ignore them because it’s all happening within someone else’s recognized borders, the Bajorans have resorted to terrorism to get attention, and they’re highly factionalized – in fact, a good chunk of the story involves hearing the various factions explain their motives and priorities, which differ greatly.

The plot itself goes like this: Picard is contacted by one of those sleazy-seeming admirals StarFleet seems to have so many of about a terrorist attack on a Federation outpost. There is some audio evidence that a Bajoran group is behind it. Picard will take a certain notorious Ensign Ro Laren – herself a Bajoran – on board to help find the terrorist group and start negotiating with them to end the attacks on any Federation territories since, after all, the Federation is not involved in their conflict with the Cardassians. The choice of Ro is more than a little controversial: she’s being released from prison special for this assignment where she’s spent a couple of years for disobeying orders on an away mission resulting in the deaths of 8 comrades. We never get the details of the incident, only that Ro did not defend herself at her court martial, evidently accepting that she was guilty and responsible. Picard is uncomfortable with the way this transfer was forced on him, and Ensign Ro, for her part, is surly and insubordinate. She tells him point blank that she doesn’t want to be here any more than he wants her here. The thinking behind the assignment appears to be that Ro will be uniquely able to help establish contact with a radical Bajoran terrorist cell. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to Picard, since there are other Bajorans serving in StarFleet. As we will find out, there’s anothe reason this particular one was chosen, but even so, it isn’t long before she’s justified StarFleet’s decision to assign her. At the first meeting, she steers the crew away from their first choice of Bajoran contacts to one that’s likely to be more effective.

Ro’s unwilligness to fraternize with the crew is broken through by Guinan, who, like Picard, is always one for the underdog. She sees her drinking alone in Ten Forward and correctly surmizes that Ro actually wants contact (you don’t sit in a bar to be alone). This is an important conversation, because it convinces Ro that Picard is someone she can trust. Likewise, Guinan’s faith in Ro convinces Picard of the same. As a result, Ro comes clean that she’s actually been assigned by the Sleazy Admiral personally, not really by StarFleet, and that her actual mission is to smoke out the terrorist group, not to establish contact with it. Picard finds this hard to believe – and yet he’s not one to doubt Guinan’s intuitions either, so they set up a honey pot. By pretending to escort a Bajoran ship with the terrorists in question back to Bajor (it’s actually empty and remote controlled), they lure the Cardassians into attacking it. Evidence comes in the fact that it’s unlikely the Cardassians would’ve known where the ship was and who was on it if Admiral Sleaze hadn’t tipped them off, and indeed, when Picard contacts StarFleet and gets Admiral Sleaze on the horn, Sleaze not only orders him to abandon the Bajoran ship, he manipulates the conversation to make it look like it was Picard’s idea. This effectively confirms to Picard that the Admiral’s been duped by the Cardassians. The Cardassians attacked the colony and pinned it on terrorists in an attempt to win Federation support, hoping to get someone as gullible as Admiral Sleaze to back them. (Still sure the Bajorans aren’t specifically the Palestinians at this point? Because that bit about Cardassians exploiting gullible Federation leaders to draw them into a conflict that doesn’t directly concern the Federation sounds a lot like a reference to the Israel Lobby to me.) Picard tells Ro that he will likely be court martialed.

The episode ends back on the planet with the refugees and terrorists – apparently the Enterprise has come back to make good on an earlier promise to supply them with basic needs like blankets and food – where Picard tells Ro he sees potential in her and invites her to stay on board. She agrees, provided she can wear the Bajoran ear jewelry that Riker made her take out (it’s incompatible with dress regulations) when she beamed on earlier. All’s well that ends well.

This should be a pretty boring episode, since the politics here are old hat, and the commander who sees something in the scrappy, rough-edged insubordinate officer with the difficult past is possibly the oldest cliche in military fiction. The reason it’s not is that Ro Laren is done convincingly. It’s not just that Michelle Forbes does an excellent job with the part – which she does, and that’s definitely a big part of it – it’s that the character is believably conflicted for once. They don’t just tell us the obligatory story about the attrocities she suffered as a child and expect that to be enough. Ro also confesses that the humiliation made her feel ashamed to be Bajoran, and that those feeligs never went away, even once she realized they were irrational. The story also shows the price she’s paid for trying to run away from that life – in that the rebels don’t entirely trust her or treat her as one of their own. For once in one of these stories they show us, rather than telling us, that Ro’s embrace of Bajoran customs is a recent development for her. If there’s one misstep in the characterization, really, it’s that Ro is too easily won over by Guinan – but with less than one hour in which to tell the story, that’s of dramatic necessity.

Another reason why this one is more interesting than it probably should be is that in their way the writers are apologizing for past failures. They go out of their way to show Crusher and Troi, in particular, as ineffective. It’s Dr. Crusher who, at the initial meeting, elaborates on Data’s suggestion that they contact Jaz Holza by mentioning that he’s charming and a good dancer, and thus Crusher who looks like the fool when Ro points out that they’re taking the easy way out, picking the token Bajoran who’s good a posing for pictures but not for actually helping anything. In that scene in Ten Forward where Ro is pretending to want to be left alone, Troi and Crusher approach her first and are easily rebuffed. Unlike Guinan, they aren’t really interested in getting to know her, they’re just going through the motions because that’s what the StarFleet pious do, you see. When it’s not once but twice that Troi and Crusher are brushed aside in an episode, you have to think something’s behind it – and in this case probably it’s meant to signal a kind of changing of the guard. Next Generation, despite its feminist pretenses, hasn’t had any effective female characters up to now. (Well, OK, there was Dr. Pulaski, but she didn’t last long.) That this episode is brushing aside the two regulars in favor of the more interesting and effective newcomers feels, and probably is, deliberate. Genre fiction is about wish fulfillment, and no one actually wants to be Crusher or Troi. People do want to be Guinan or Ro, though. In Ro’s case, the wish being fulfilled is the authenticity wish. We all admire – because so few of us actually are – a person who lives life on their own terms regardless of the consequences. Ro does what she does for herself, not to please others, and she isn’t intimidated by the chain of command, or social expectations. The scene of her sitting in her quarters after having been confined there, going over events in her mind, right before Guinan comes in to suss the truth out of her is, I’m guessing, the apex of the episode for Ensign Ro fans – because we sense that what she’s worried about isn’t her dressing down by Picard, the fact that she’s confined to quarters, or what the rest of the crew thinks of her. She’s undistracted by these things and focused on the real, underlying issues. We’d all like to be like that. Who, by contrast, wants to be a smug counsellor who cheats at her job and only ever mouths platitudes?

It’s still a boring episode at its core. No one actually cares about Cardassian politics; we tune into this show for a sense of wonder at the universe and optimism about the future, and there’s none of that on display here. This one, let’s say, is aptly titled. It really is down to Ensign Ro. If you like her, you probably enjoyed this. If you don’t, I guess you slept through it. Other than Ensign Ro, this one’s got nothing going for it. For me, she was enough:

Overall Rating B+

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