It’s often helpful to put TNG episodes in context because the era in which the show was made of course informs the stories the production crew chose to tell. “The Defector” aired in 1990, and the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist in 1991. Anyone even nominally familiar with the history of the Cold War remembers that there were enough defectors that it became something of a story trope. I mention this because the concept of Jarok attempting to defect is perhaps the most dated element of the episode because it brings to mind state to state warfare, which is generally not typical of violence in the 2000s and 2010s. Star Trek as a franchise will not grapple with resistance movements/violence by non-state actors on any sort of scale until the Maquis, which appears four years later on Deep Space Nine.
That said, despite my stray thoughts regarding large-scale conflict, “The Defector” represents an example of what TNG does right. The episode opens with the holodeck, where Picard has been working with Data on Act IV scene I of Henry V. We’re treated to a brief performance of Stewart as Michael Williams, who quarrels with Harry the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, wondering if his king is leading them all to needless death. Harry is walking amongst his men in disguise, and though he quarrels with Williams, there is something to Williams’ critique that will haunt the rest of the episode. The bridge summons Picard because they have discovered a small Romulan shuttle with a single occupant who claims to be a defector aboard. The Enterprise of course rescues the defector, and though he gives his name as Setal, his actual identity is of Admiral Alidar Jarok who has come to offer intelligence regarding a Romulan incursion into the Neutral Zone at Nelvana III. Wrestling with his distrust of Jarok, Picard eventually directs the Enterprise to Nelvana III where they not only discover no secret outpost but are attacked by two Warbirds. Tomalak, smarmily assures Picard that he will use the Enterprise’s hull to inspire future Romulan soldiers, but Picard’s ace in the hole, three Klingon Birds of Prey, and a healthy dose of self interest convinces Tomalak to head back to Romulan space without making much more of the events at Nelvana III. Jarok, having discovered that not only was Nelvana III a trap for the Federation, the gambit was also designed to ensnare him, commits suicide in his quarters, leaving only a note for his family that has little hope of being delivered.
The episode plays with not only the question Williams inadvertently poses in Henry V regarding the leader’s responsibility to his men, who by his actions compels them to die but also with the idea of knowledge. Data and LaForge share a wonderful scene together in which LaForge attempts to explain how instinct and intuition factor into human decision-making. Intuition, according to LaForge, helps humans supplement their decision-making because one rarely always has all the facts. That issue, that lack of knowledge, serves as a significant theme in the episode, from Williams’ ignorance that he will ultimately pick a fight with his sovereign, to Harry’s uncertainty about the Battle, to Picard’s uncertainty about Nelvana III, and finally to Jarok’s ignorance of the full extent of the Romulan High Command’s machinations. Each character tries to make the best decision with the information at hand, but the script is loathe to offer up anything tangible. Is Jarok lying? Is there an offensive against the Federation brewing? There are no certainties until the final moments of the episode.
Interestingly, Picard as Captain is on the opposite side of the scene from Henry V than Stewart-as-Williams. Picard here is Harry, ultimately wondering if his cause is “just and his quarrel honorable.” Data informs us that going into the Neutral Zone will violate the narratively convenient Treaty of Algeron, and as Admiral Haden explains, the weight of the decision falls upon Picard’s shoulders. A war will either begin or be averted based on his decision, and Picard desperately seeks new facts. He remains unmoved in the face of Jarok’s futile attempt to preserve some loyalty to the Romulan Star Empire. He does not accept Jarok’s emotional discussion that he does this for his family. Rather, he secures Jarok’s cooperation, which occurs off-screen, and then, he makes the decision to engage. Stewart’s Picard is implacable, and the scene with Jarok is one of Picard’s best.
James Sloyan makes his first TNG appearance here as Jarok, and he’s wonderful. We watch Jarok struggle with having left his entire life behind, but he still possesses his pride, which is why he destroys the scout ship and stows his suicide pill in his boot. Jarok knows this mission is a one-way trip, and he realizes that the Federation will try to pump him for all the information it can about his homeworld, and despite his dim view of the Federation in general and Starfleet in particular, they constitute his only hope for saving the Empire and his daughter. Sloyan makes it clear that Jarok loves this child enough to sacrifice himself, and when he realizes that his sacrifice is meaningless, that he became a traitor for nothing, Jarok’s pain is palpable. Sloyan will bring this same skill to future episodes. Particularly in Voyager’s “Jetrel” (https://memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Jetrel_(episode)), I see shadows of Jarok.
Both Jetrel and Jarok wrestle with moral quandaries for which there are no truly good answers, and Sloyan excels at portraying the emotional toll the decision takes on the character. Where Jarok is torn between refusing to betray the Empire and wanting to save it from its own violent tendencies, Jetrel struggles with his actions in a past conflict. Jarok desperately wants to avert a war that he believes will destroy his beloved Romulan Star Empire and potentially cause the death of his even more beloved daughter, and in his desperate enthusiasm, he neglects to probe the information being fed to him more deeply. What the Romulan High Command does to him is abominable, but it makes a dark sort of strategic sense. At worst, by providing Jarok the hints of a war as a test of his loyalty, they reveal a traitor. At best, they secure the intervention of the Federation and potentially score a major victory. Romulans are masters at win-win tactics, so one wonders what it says about Jarok that he did not think to investigate further. Sloyan could have played Jarok as if he were an aging Lear as Jarok’s grey hair clearly indicates age, but he doesn’t. He chooses to seize on Jarok’s conflict and present to us a man who is so focused on doing what he believes to be the right thing that he ceases to think critically about the situation. As Data remarked earlier in the episode, Jarok represents the case in which emotions and intuition overwhelm rational thought rather than supplement it.
Rounding out the guest cast is Andreas Katsulas who appears as Tomalak. For me, his most defining role is that of G’Kar in Babylon 5, which has a somewhat tortured history with Trek, but Tomalak makes his mark, too. Katsulas will also appear in the Enterprise episode “Cogenitor,” in which he is far and away the highlight. While Tomalak here does not seem particularly threatening, I think the backdrop of how the Empire used Jarok sets up nicely just how dangerous the Romulans can be.
Rating: Five cups of Earl Grey tea; this really is one of the highlights of Season Three.
Stray Thoughts from the Couch
- Apparently, Stewart actively requested his role as Michael Williams; also, the episode references Branaugh’s Henry V, which had been released earlier.
- Ronald D. Moore wrote this episode; Battlestar Galactica fans may recognize the name, but he has a host of Trek credits, having been involved with the franchise since the third season of TNG through Deep Space Nine and into Voyager, which he left due to conflict with Brannon Braga.
- If you find yourself wondering what happens to Jarok’s letter, it becomes the basis of a short story. I haven’t read it, so I can’t tell you.
- Y’all, there has to be a reason that all Vulcanoid peoples favor terrible haircuts and awful outfits; I just don’t know what it is. I understand that the Romulan uniform is meant to reflect their rigidity and that the point in their hair complements the point in their harness, but nothing about that uniform moves well.