“A Matter of Honor”
(Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season 2, Episode 8)
For many fans (including myself), the appeal of Star Trek is its utopian setting and theme. Dystopic futures in which the world is on the brink of chaos (or has already descended into it) are a dime a dozen. But Trek presents an idealized future that is comforting and gives hope. One reason why the franchise’s utopia is interesting is because it does the work of showing how difficult peace is, especially in the context of relations with other, alien peoples. Peace is often a tenuous prospect – hard to achieve, and requiring lots of work to maintain. The primary alien races of Trek routinely have political objectives that clash with the Federation’s. Or just very divergent cultures that can be difficult to navigate or even understand.
The idea of Starfleet’s officer exchange program is an inspired one, and I could watch a whole season of officers embedding with alien groups to learn about them. Also inspired is using it to give a window into Star Trek‘s most famous alien race, the Klingons. Though one of the primary antagonists of The Original Series, by the time of The Next Generation, the Klingons had become uneasy friends to the Federation (Worf was originally intended to be a glorified background extra to underline this, but his role obviously grew beyond that).
The operative word is “uneasy.” This episode shows how difficult it is for humans and Klingons to coexist due to their remarkably different cultures. It’s also an excellent showcase for Riker’s character, and Frakes carries the episode quite well. Will Riker embodies a bold adventurous and exudes tremendous manliness, but it’s always been tempered with a sincere desire for exploration and expansion of understanding. In a lot of ways, he’s the ideal Starfleet officer – brave, smart, strong, and sensitive. If you’re going to send any human to serve on a a Klingon ship, it would be this guy.
It’s for these reasons that Captain Picard basically drops the assignment in his lap; he knows how much his first officer enjoys a challenge (especially one that no one has done before). It’s a nice detail about how much on the same wavelength they are.
A key character scene is Riker’s culinary prep work prior to boarding the Klingon ship. Will doesn’t do anything half-assed, and it’s commendable how he dives into the Klingon cuisine without hesitation (as a disgusted Pulaski looks on). If you’re gonna do something, do it 100%. Also nice is Picard’s reaction, and how enervated he is at the prospect of discovery. Jean-Luc is also an ideal Starfleet officer; he considers any type of exploration worthwhile, whether it’s mapping a nebula or learning about the culture of a former enemy. It’s part of the nerdy thrill of the show – not just seeing what’s out there, but who. At this point in the timeline of the show the Klingons have been around for the better part of a couple of centuries, but there’s clearly so much to learn about them on an interpersonal level.
Along that same thematic line but not nearly as captivating is the subplot about the Benzite Mendon serving aboard the Enterprise. It’s an odd choice that the actor previously appeared as an alien of the same species (named Mordock) in the first season, competing with Wesley Crusher for a spot in Starfleet Academy. There’s some lampshady handwaving about them all looking alike or whatever, but I guess from a story standpoint it makes him not a total stranger, while leveraging some of that character development Mordock had with Wesley (even though they’re not the same person). Plus I guess they could use the same makeup prosthetics? *taps nose*
Anyway, Mendon is kind of insufferable in some subtle and egregious ways, and Worf hilariously is not having any of his shit. The Enterprise’s hull (and eventually the Klingon ship’s) is stricken with a metal-eating bacteria, and there’s some cultural/procedural misunderstanding on Mendon’s part about reporting it at the right time. It’s not spellbinding, especially as Wesley gets a chance to show how perfect he is (yay….), but it does demonstrate the inherent difficulties of individuals from different cultures intermingling. And Worf is like this close from breaking the guy in half over his knee, which is awesome.
The real heart of the targ/story is on the Klingon ship. The bird of prey is about as opposite an environment from the Enterprise as you could get, and I love the set and sound design of it. Bathed in hazy red light, with clanking and grinding metallic sounds, it immediately feels like Riker has stepped into a different, harsher, more savage world. Prolific character actor Brian Thompson is a welcome sight as third officer Klag – he’s normally typecast as a murderous psychopath, and it’s nice to see him as an actual good guy for once. He initially mistrusts Riker’s intentions, but after a prompt ass whooping, he’s convinced and they quickly become buds. That’s So Klingon!
It leads to the best scene of the episode, and one of my personal favorites of any Star Trek show, which takes place in the Klingon mess hall. I love me a good talky, hangout scene, and this is a great one. It gives us the first truly personal scene with Klingons in the franchise, and it’s low key awesome. Up until this point in Trek, the Klingons had been bad guys on so many occasions, and getting to just hang out with them in such a casual setting goes a long way to humanizing them as a people. There’s an awkward quietness initially, as all eyes are on the odd man out in the room. Though outwardly tough and dickish towards Riker, the Klingons are curious about the first human they’ve been up close and personal with. Bawdy jokes break the ice and give way to more meaningful conversation (Klag’s jab about breastfeeding Riker is a legitimate LOL, delivered in a perfect deadpan by Thompson).
There’s some subtle diversity in the makeup of the Klingons, most notably the two women. They’re all generally bombastic, but the female silently stealing glances at Riker shows they do have distinct personalities. As the room empties, Klag’s bluster drops and he expresses curiosity at Riker (and humanity as a whole). He observes that Riker has a sense of humor, and the great irony is that Riker is equally surprised about the Klingons laughing. It highlights the absurdities of prejudice, that these two peoples have the exact same mistaken impression of one another. To assume that people who are outwardly different from us don’t have the same kinds of feelings is absurd at best, and deadly at worst. It’s sadly much easier to go to war (as the humans and Klingons have) when there isn’t understanding on a fundamental, personal level.
The one flaw of the episode is that it invents an inane conflict between the two ships to create some suspense, and it requires the Klingon captain Kargan to behave incredibly stupidly. The Klingons discover the hull-eating organism that threatens to destroy their ship, and although there’s some understandable confusion as to why the Enterprise was focusing scans on that exact area of their ship (thanks, Mendon), Kargan is instantly and rabidly deadset on destroying the Enterprise. Level-headed Riker suggests just talking to them, but this guy is like “Nah, let’s get everyone killed and start another war between our two peoples.” It’s just thunderingly idiotic of his character and does put a sour spin on the episode. Part of the story’s aim is to show that the Klingons are multi-faceted people that are different but equal to humans, and Kargan’s inexplicable decision to immediately destroy the Enterprise kind of trashes that.
Fortunately for all involved, Riker tricks Kargan into beaming aboard the Enterprise, and he takes command of the Klingon ship without violating his oath of honor to either vessel. The episode does such a good job of building a story with nuance and maturity, so it would have been nice to not have had such a contrived conflict to hang it on. Still, there’s a nice payoff when Kargan returns to the bridge of his ship. He’s surprised and confused when Riker simply gives command back to him, which must be humiliating. Riker challenges him with a growl, and Kargan promptly smacks his ass to the ground and kicks him off the ship. He’s essentially allowing Kargan to save a little face and return him some of his dignity. Klag appreciates it and shares a nice moment with Riker before he hauls his ass off to the transporter room. I could’ve watched a whole episode of just these two dudes dude-ing it up.
Though the Klingons had been around since The Original Series, The Next Generation is where they really came into their own as a legitimate people and culture. Subsequent Trek series would flesh them out further, but TNG was responsible for the targ’s share of their foundation, and this episode is really the first link in that chain. They’ve become the franchise’s most popular alien race not just because of their visibility, but because they embody one of Trek‘s central themes – that of war giving way to peace, prejudice turning to understanding, and of enemies becoming friends.
- Mendon is a Starfleet officer, so his ignorance of normal Starfleet protocols doesn’t make sense. He doesn’t really seem to understand the chain of command, even. Presumably this guy went to Starfleet Academy (on Earth), so humans and their ways should maybe not be so strange to him, either. If they had just made him not in Starfleet, that would have solved the inconsistency.
- Subtitles! This is the only TNG episode to do that. Overall, very rarely seen on any of the other series, as well. I kind of hate the fact that every Klingon seems to be fluent in English, and no human ever knows Klingonese. It’s like they’re American, and Starfleet really needs to be better than America.
- The phaser range is cool. Nicely minimal set design.
- Brian Thompson would show up several more times on Deep Space Nine, Enterprise, and Star Trek Generations. All villainous roles, of course.