When I did my most recent complete series rewatch of TNG a couple of years ago, I was shocked to realize that I did not remember this episode at all, and it’s a crying shame. TNG comes into its own in Season Three, and while a bit rough around the edges, “Who Watches the Watchers” is a gem of a story. The Enterprise is sent down to Mintaka III on a supply run for a group of anthropologists who have been observing a proto-Vulcan society allegedly in the Bronze Age (they’re more medieval, but that’s neither here nor there). However, as the ominous music in the cold open indicates, things go pear-shaped for the researchers, necessitating swift action by the Enterprise crew. During the attempt to rescue the scientists and clean up the wreckage, an indigenous Mintakan, Liko, stumbles upon the observation blind and is hurt. Like the doctor she is, Crusher beams him aboard the ship, cures him, and tries Dr. Pulaski’s procedure for mindwiping. Meanwhile, back on the planet, they find that scientist is missing and that Oji, Liko’s daughter observed literally everything.
Upon waking, Liko initiates the Cult of The Picard (because Dr. Crusher gets passed over entirely). Loathe to disturb the society any more than they already have, Picard dispatches Troi and Riker to find the missing scientist and spirit him back to the ship. They find him, alright, as the Cult of The Picard is deciding whether to keep him prisoner or sacrifice him as a way to placate their angry, bald god, and as Riker makes off with the scientist for a beam-out, Troi manages to land herself on the proverbial chopping block. Picard then steps in, beaming Nuria, the head of the village, to the ship. He convinces her that he isn’t a deity, but persuading hard core members of the Cult of The Picard is more difficult. Liko, desperate to believe that Picard can bring back his deceased wife, needs physical proof, and rather than placing his hands in wounds, he shoots Picard, injuring the captain quite seriously. Arrows are no joke, folks. Having discovered Picard’s mortality, the Mintakans return to their lives, hopeful that one day, they, too, will achieve the stars, and to commemorate their lessons, they offer Picard a tapestry that will get pride of place in Picard’s office for the rest of the series as well as a few of the movies.
This episode seems fairly easy to understand: Prime Directive, primitive culture, any sufficiently advanced science looks like magic, etc. etc. Certainly, all of those elements have their moment in the plot, but lumping the episode in as just another Prime Directive episode misses what I believe to be the most important issue which is death. Death plays a major role in the story, from Warren’s convenient expiration to Liko’s deceased wife to the six children lost in the flood. Ray Wise’s lackluster performance fails to do justice to Liko’s emotional landscape, so it’s a simple thing to overlook that Liko is a grieving widower whose wife died a violent, inexplicable, and meaningless death due to a natural disaster. Put in that context, his immediate willingness to believe that Picard is an all-powerful being makes a certain amount of sense.
The episode frames the Mintakans’ rationality as a success, so plunging them into the darkness of religion would be an extreme failure. Atheism is a recurring theme in Star Trek, so that the episode characterizes the development of religion as an abject failure to the extent that Picard violently rejects Dr. Barron’s suggestion that he provide the Mintakans with guidelines for their new cult. I do not claim that faith is a simple thing, nor do I think that all the reasons for faith stem from a fear of death. However, Liko’s intense grief highlights part of the appeal. If the Overseer exists, then should Liko find the best way to please Him, He will return Liko’s wife. More to the point, if there is such a being, then perhaps Liko’s wife’s death not only can be undone but perhaps had an inherent meaning. Perhaps Liko had offended the Picard, so pleasing the Picard will secure her return. Even Nuria, after all Picard’s demonstrations of his own mortality, asks Picard to return all of the lost, emphasizing that the flood claimed the lives of children. I don’t claim that faith is such a simple calculus, but in a forty-five minute story, the script does a really good job of giving Liko a reason to cling to old superstitions.
However, what I like most is that the show never criticizes or judges the Mintakans for their choices. Dr. Barron makes clear that what happens makes sense, and the script highlights continuously the orderliness and the rationality of the Mintakan mind. Picard appeals to that rationality with Nuria, and even though we see Liko at his lowest, he redeems himself by not only acknowledging his actions but his error as Picard prepares to take his leave. I do wish the episode had grappled more effectively with Liko’s grief; Ray Wise was perhaps not the best choice for Liko. Moreover, I never quite accepted Dr. Barron’s grief regarding Dr. Warren. In all honesty, but for Kathryn Leigh Scott, the guest cast is incredibly weak. Fortunately, between Stewart and Scott, the heart of the episode remains intact.
A note on Picard himself, the episode gives Stewart plenty of room to flex his range. Stewart takes Picard from the hard-liner we saw in several earlier episodes to a much more paternal and in some ways more familiar Picard. That shift in Picard’s stance toward Nuria and her people allows Stewart to deliver his line about how learning from the Mintakans is to learn about themselves without even a hint of condescension, and how Stewart uses touch as a bridge between Picard and Nuria is beautiful. Truly, their chemistry together steals the entire episode, so we can all be forgiven for overlooking Liko’s internal conflict on the first bounce.
Rating: Four cups of Earl Grey Tea and a Saucer
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- How on earth the Mintakans could believe that Troi was a weaver with that manicure is beyond me. I could see those French tips over the tops of her fingers. No one who works with their hands has such lovely nails
- While the episode itself is eminently rewatchable, the score is painfully dated. I don’t usually notice music, but I confess to cringing a little.
- I may be revealing some of my misspent youth, but it looks like the Mintakan bows are Dynabos, which are neither compound nor pure recurve bows. In any case, the dressing is kind of meh. OOOH! Memory Alpha confirms!
- And yes, the episode did take its name from the line I quote in Latin. It’s a phrase often used to discuss oversight for those in power, and in this case, we as the audience literally watch the watchers. It’s a fun little play on words.