No one would ever accuse TNG of great subtlety, and “The Drumhead” will not be the exception that proves the rule. Picard and, by extension, the writers bang us over our metaphorical heads with the story’s moral like it’s a baseball bat, and the episode remains unapologetic for its bluntness. While other reviewers whom I respect very much have found that bluntness to be a weakness, but I do not believe that it is. Certainly as de Candido mentions, DS9 treats the issue with a defter touch, but we don’t come to TNG looking for subtlety. As much as I love TNG, the show simply does not do nuance well, and frankly, that’s perfectly okay. Sometimes, we need a percussive reminder, and “The Drumhead” serves more than adequately as one.
Before the episode opens, Starfleet discovers that certain classified information regarding the Enterprise has been acquired by the Romulans just as an explosion rocks the ship’s warp core. Fortunately, the explosion does not destabilize the core, so no one worries about a breach. Worried not only about the presence of a spy but also that the spy may have engaged in sabotage, Starfleet calls Rear Admiral Norah Satie out of retirement to investigate.
Working with her people, Worf quickly identifies not only the means but also the identity of the spy, who happens to be the Klingon J’Dan, but the question of sabotage remains as J’Dan maintains truthfully that he had nothing to do with the explosion. Satie and her people conduct hearings to determine whether J’Dan had an accomplice aboard. La Forge and Data eventually determine that the explosion was due to a flaw on a part they had recently replaced, but Admiral Satie decides to remain on board to continue investigating a conspiracy.
Based on Sabin Genestra’s Betazoid intuition, she recalls crewman Simon Tarses because he apparently has not been entirely truthful. Genestra and Worf, conducting a thorough investigation of the man’s life, determine that Tarses lied on his Starfleet application. His paternal grandfather was not Vulcan as he stated during his enlistment but rather Romulan. Satie and Genestra pounce on this information and proceed to badger Tarses who invokes the Federation’s version of the Fifth Amendment. Picard sides with Tarses, and Satie turns her sights on Picard. In the hotseat, Picard reminds Satie of her father’s words regarding civil liberties, and Satie completely loses her mind and in so doing any credibility she might have had. The episode ends with Worf apologizing to Picard for having been drawn into Satie’s hysteria.
As I mentioned above, the episode does not even pretend to be subtle, and Jean Simmons embraces that bluntness to give us an Admiral Satie who is at once both obviously deranged but also just charismatic enough that coupled with Worf’s desperate need to prove himself, Worf’s embrace of her mission makes sense. Simmons gives us a great veneer of civility, covering the hysteria underneath, but she’s wonderful at hinting at the cracks in Satie’s façade. She plays on that with Stewart’s increasingly uncomfortable Picard, and in all honesty, without that chemistry, the episode would not stand up. I do think that it’s important to note that Satie has the best intentions at heart and goes so far as to deny herself a home in order to protect the Federation. As such, she’s a tragic figure in the truest sense–her paranoia being her downfall.
I could discuss Fifth Amendment jurisprudence, specifically how the Supreme Court has come to limit the right to remain silent (see e.g., Salinas v. Texas), but that’s not as important here. Though, Picard correctly asserts that Tarses’s invocation of the 7th Guarantee should not form the basis of suspicion. What is important is that Satie’s hearings reflect an increasing paranoia with its roots in racism. Satie’s hounding of Tarses for his Romulan ancestry smacks of the same impulses that gave rise to the Japanese-American Internment Camps during WWII. She seizes on Tarses’s heritage as a potential motive for espionage, and the episode bears out that doing so is ridiculous.
However, Satie’s rampage does not begin to break down until she rounds on Picard who has been presented as above reproach for the entirety of the series, indicating to the viewer that she has gone too far. I still find it interesting that Tarses’s obvious innocence is not enough because Satie’s witch hunt is no longer about facts. The episode’s title reflects that this was the direction in which the episode would ultimately go. A drumhead, as Picard explains, was a court-martial that frequently lacked judicial impartiality. These were show trials that resulted in harsh sentences without the benefit of any real legal standards for evidence or protections for the accused. Satie treats Tarses with exactly the same level of impartiality that one would expect in a drumhead; Genestra’s sense that Tarses had something to hide served the entire basis of her investigation into him. The ridiculousness of the hearing is in fact the point. That her accusations are baseless is the point and that she flies off the handle and proceeds to destroy Tarses based only on his heritage highlights how insane this descent into McCarthyism really is.
Picard’s monologue in which he quotes Satie’s father is beautiful, and Stewart commands that you pay attention to it with his natural gravitas. He looks neither Satie in the eye nor addresses the camera directly, but I defy you not to be moved by the point he makes. More significant, though, is the episode’s coda with Worf. Rather than simply resting on the importance of freedom, the episode reminds us that we must be wary of those who spread “fear in the name of righteousness.” We cannot other someone simply because they are different or have different heritage or otherwise share something in common with a current enemy. Perhaps this is an episode we should all rewatch because sometimes, we all just need a smack with the clue bat.
Rating: Three cups of Earl Grey Tea and the resulting caffeine buzz
Stray Thoughts from the Couch:
- While the episode does not address Tarses’s fate definitively, most of the non-canon works treat him with more respect, giving him a career in Starfleet beyond this moment. No one ever argues that his lie is justified or right, but Picard’s point that it shouldn’t destroy his career is valid.
- While J’Dan is ultimately unimportant, the way he smuggled the information out is really kind of cool. The idea of encoding information in amino acids is fascinating and decent sci-fi.
- Worf mentions that he wants an encephalographic polygraph scan done of Tarses. It’s disturbing to know that the polygraph haunts even the 24th century. Hopefully, they’ve found better ways to make the technology reliable as its current incarnation is not. That unreliability would be why the results of said tests should not be presented in court as conclusive. Currently, the United States Supreme Court leaves the question of admissibility of polygraph results up to the states. In UCMJ actions, SCOTUS upheld a per se rule that such results be excluded, assuming Rule 707 hasn’t changed. Still, it’s a fun throwaway line that’s in keeping with the rest of the episode.