When I watched TNG’s final season as it aired, I lacked a real appreciation for just how much this season sets up much more complex and morally greyer versions of the Federation and Starfleet that will bear fruit in later seasons of DS9. “Preemptive Strike” feels very much like a better version of “Journey’s End,” and it does a better job of presenting a character wrestling with having to choose between Starfleet and his or her own idea of what is right. For Wesley Crusher, he wrestles with choosing between a future he wants and one he feels pushed to accept. Ro Laren contends with questions of belonging, identity, and comparative power. Both episodes feature characters wrestling with these internal struggles against a backdrop of political intrigue replete with hints that neither Starfleet nor the Federation may be entirely living up to their stated ideals, but while Wesley Crusher walks away from that conflict in “Journey’s End,” Ro Laren does not have that choice. The entirety of her lived experience is bound up in this conflict. Ro therefore makes a very different and harder choice than Crusher does, making for a much more interesting and overall better episode.
“Preepmptive Strike” brings back now-lieutenant Ro Laren who has been doing coursework in Advanced Tactics at the Academy. Her friends on the Enterprise welcome her back with enthusiasm, but Ro seems overwhelmed more than overjoyed. Captain Picard comms her to return to the Bridge, mostly to give her an excuse to flee. Once there, the Enterprise received a distress call from an embattled Cardassian ship, so the Enterprise moves to intercept. Shockingly, they find the Cardassian ship under attack by Federation vessels, but Picard has the Enterprise intervene, running off the Maquis and saving Gul Evek’s ship and crew. In Sickbay, Picard and Evek squabble over the escalating tensions in the Neutral Zone and which side of the erstwhile conflict is responsible.
After Evek’s departure, Admiral Nechayev pays the Enterprise a visit and informs Picard that Starfleet has caught the Cardassians arming their citizens within the Neutral Zone. However, both agree that the Maquis poses a serious threat to the stability of the peace, and Nechayev suggests using Ro to infiltrate the Maquis. Picard offers Ro the assignment, and she agrees to take it, only because she wishes to validate his faith in her.
Later, Ro, dressed in civvies, wanders into a bar and hides. Worf and Data follow her in and express their desire to find a Bajoran woman with dark hair who killed a Cardassian. A man in the bar covers for Ro, telling them that she was seen leaving, so Worf and Data depart. Ro engages the man who quizzes her a bit about her life story and whether she murdered the Cardassian in question. She acknowledges that she did and that she’s on the run from Starfleet. The man drugs her and brings her back to the Maquis settlement where she meets Macias and Kalita, who along with her savior Santos, admit both to being Maquis and interested in seeing whether Ro will join their fight. Ro agrees, so Santos goes off to verify her story, leaving Ro with Macias. Macias, as it happens, is very fond of spicy hasperat, which was a particular favorite of Ro’s father. Not only that, but Macias also plays the same instrument her father did.
Despite Kalita’s misgivings about Ro, Ro manages to steal medical supplies from the Enterprise, with the support of Picard’s pointed inaction. Ro therefore earns the trust of the Maquis, so when Macias tells her that the Maquis suspects the Cardassians of planning to use biogenic weapons against the Maquis, she takes that information to Picard. Picard discounts the veracity of the intelligence but crafts a plan that will allow Starfleet to eviscerate the Maquis. Ro expresses discomfort, but she does promise to do her duty.
Ro returns to the colony where she supplies Macias with the false information crafted by Picard, and Macias promises to involve the other cells. Later, Macias invites her to help him plan a celebratory supper, asking her to make the hasperat in return for his blueberry pie. Unfortunately, a group of Cardassian operatives has infiltrated the colony and opens fire, killing Macias in the process. Ro mourns his death, so when she meets with Picard, she tries to convince him that the Maquis wanted no part of his plan. He doesn’t believe her and threatens her with another court-martial. She agrees to see things through, but he assigns Riker to her as a babysitter.
Ro and Riker occupy the same shuttle on the way to the point of engagement, and Ro pulls a phaser on Riker. She warns off the Maquis and gives Riker the shuttle to take back to the Enterprise. Riker never questions her, and he agrees to relay her apology to Picard. She bids Riker a tearful farewell and beams away to join her Maquis brethren. Back aboard the Enterprise, Riker offers Picard his report and explains that Ro’s only real regret was disappointing Picard. Picard never responds.
The parallels between “Preemptive Strike” and “Journey’s End” are immediate and obvious. The episode opens with Ro Laren’s return to the Enterprise after having been away for advanced tactical training. She enters Ten Forward to overly enthusiastic greetings by La Forge and Troi, who point out a specific Bajoran food and their efforts to acquire it. Rather than making her feel appreciated, the interaction just highlights Ro’s status as a fish-out-of-water, and the scene is, beat for beat, very similar to the opening from “Journey’s End.” Macias fits the Lakanta role, only inhabiting it as an actual character rather than a trope, so he doesn’t need a habak to show Ro that she doesn’t exactly belong in Starfleet. “Preemptive Strike” brings back both Admiral Nechayev and Gul Evek. Particularly sharp-eyed viewers will even recognize that there are Indigenous actors used as a extras in the Maquis village, and while their presence was intended to set the scene for Voyager’s Chakotay, they also serve to recall “Journey’s End.” As in “Journey’s End,” the main character sides with the colonists against Starfleet, and both Ro and Crusher make the choices they do based, in part, on support from father figures.
The differences between the two episodes are far more interesting and, in some ways, more telling. Crusher’s choice to leave Starfleet is relatively consequence-free. Crusher nearly causes a riot, and the only real punishment he receives is a dressing down by Captain Picard. When Ro goes to Picard to tell him that she doesn’t know that she can complete the mission, he threatens her with court martial and assigns Will Riker as her minder. Sure, there’s a world of difference between the comparative roles of a cadet and a lieutenant, but the real issue here is that we get two very different Picards. In “Journey’s End,” Picard recognizes that the mission is distasteful. He struggles to do what Starfleet asks of him and ultimately finds a way around it. In “Preemptive Strike,” Picard wholeheartedly commits to ending the Maquis despite knowing that the Cardassians are not acting in good faith.
“Preemptive Strike” features one of Picard’s most major missteps in all of TNG. At no point is Ro anything other than honest with Picard; she tells him that she’ll embark upon the mission for him, not for Starfleet. She’s upfront with her discomfort regarding the mission, and when she brings him intelligence that the Maquis suspects the Cardassians of arming its colonists with biogenic weapons, Picard completely discounts that information. Doing so makes absolutely no sense considering that Nechayev has already informed him that Starfleet knows the Cardassian government has been arming its citizens. He just dismisses Ro’s information as Maquis paranoia and decides to use it in a plan to cripple the Maquis.
Later, Ro comes to Picard with her misgivings about the mission and her ability to carry it out, which is a real manifestation of her trust. We know from “Ensign Ro” and “Rascals” that Ro finds trust difficult, so her willingness to trust Picard is a huge issue for her. Furthermore, her honesty with him is a sign that she believes that trust to be reciprocal. Rather than acknowledging that but explaining that they’re all committed, Picard comes down hard. He threatens to bring her before a board of inquiry for her attempt to mislead him. He then threatens her with the potential for a second court martial and assigns Will Riker as a babysitter. He departs with a terse, “I don’t have that kind of money.” That’s the moment, both Picard and Starfleet lose Ro. Yes, I understand that Picard is working within a military organization and that therefore the emotional needs of individuals are less important, but Picard has demonstrated a sensitivity to the needs of his crew. Even earlier in the same episode, he summons Ro away from her welcome back party because he knows she’ll be uncomfortable dealing with it. Over and over, TNG makes a point that being a good commander involves knowing your people and how to motivate them. That’s why the show painted Jellico as an antagonist. Here, Picard completely fails to read the proverbial room, and as a result, he loses not only his own officer but a valuable, tactically trained asset. Yes, Ro betrays Starfleet, but Picard betrays her faith first.
Somewhat disturbingly, Picard’s use of Ro here almost parallels how Admiral Kennelly used Ro in her very first appearance in TNG. She’s once again being used as a pawn in this much larger conflict, so her departure from the series neatly bookends her appearance. Yes, she opts to join what is arguably a terrorist organization; the Maquis have a demonstrated willingness to engage in violence both against the Cardassians and against the Federation. We know this because “The Maquis” parts I and II have already aired by the time “Preemptive Strike” does. However, she does so after watching the Cardassians murder yet another father-figure. However, unlike when she watched the Cardassians torture her father to death, she’s older, wiser, and better trained. This time, she can do something about it, so it’s hard to fault Ro for the choice she makes, especially when Picard so clearly rejects everything Ro offers him. I wish Macias as a character warranted Ro’s faith, but he doesn’t. Macias is a one-note side character, no matter that John Franklyn-Robbins gives us a performance that almost compels viewers to look beyond the lackluster characterization in the script.
The decision to put Ro with Riker for her last scene is a solid choice. Admittedly, “Preemptive Strike” focuses mainly on the relationship between Picard and Ro without ever really engaging with Ro’s past with Riker. However, Frakes plays Riker perfectly in that shuttle. Sure, he’s on the business end of Ro’s phaser, but at no point does he or any viewer really believe she’ll shoot him. Rather, he accepts Ro’s decision and offers her a heartfelt goodbye. For her part, Ro seems genuinely to grieve not only disappointing Picard but also having to bid Riker farewell, and I love that he respects her enough to respect her choice. In all honesty, I suspect that he also somewhat agrees with it.
Regardless of its issues, “Preemptive Strike” lays the groundwork for Voyager with its Maquis storyline and brings Ro full-circle, so in that sense, the episode leads into the ultimate goodbye we’ll have in “All Good Things.” I still want to shake Picard, though.
Four cups of Earl Grey Tea, if only for Michelle Forbes
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- In case you missed First Contact Day, we’ve got a release date for Lower Decks season two: August 12.
- Also, we’re getting more Q in Picard, though that looks like we’ll see it in 2022.
- Kalita, ably played by Shannon Cochran, does return in DS9.
- Michelle Forbes turned down DS9, and as a result, we got Kira Nerys. Thus, “Preemptive Strike” is the last on-screen appearance for Ro.
- Patrick Stewart directed the episode, and I wonder if some of the weirdness in the bar scene stems from his directing.
- Sharp-eyed viewers will notice a table featuring a version of Chakotay’s crew. This entire episode is meant to set up for Voyager, so there are a number of neat visual Easter eggs.
- I do wish Ro had been afforded the opportunity to say goodbye to Guinan. I feel a bit cheated by that lack.