This episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation was first broadcast in 1994. So don’t you be coming at me about spoilers twenty-four years after the fact.
This was an oddly unsatisfactory episode. Considering it was the last regular show before the series’ final two-parter, the time-hopping “All Good Things”, it wasn’t a great way to leave the Enterprise-D’s regular adventures.
In “Preemptive Strike” we see the return of headstrong Bajoran officer Ro Laren (Michelle Forbes), who’s been away from the Enterprise on a training assignment, and along the way gained a promotion to lieutenant. She’s welcomed back by everyone — even the executive officer, Will Riker, with whom she butted heads bad back in her wayward ensign days.
Practically within minutes of her arrival, Ro is picked for a mission to infiltrate the Maquis — a group of Federation citizens aggrieved at the fact that a recently signed treaty with the neighbouring Cardassian Union has ceded territory they had settled, with their colonies now coming under Cardassian control in a new Demilitarised Zone, or DMZ. While many Feds left, some inevitably went the archaic “I built this colony with my own two hands and ain’t no spoon-head makin’ me leave” route.
The most violent of the Angry Feds formed the Maquis, a militant group aiming to carry on the fight with the Cardassians, to force them out of the ceded territory. The Federation’s struggle to bring these people back into line became a running story throughout Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and provided the trigger events for Star Trek: Voyager.
In this case, Ro Laren was placed into a situation that was only going to cause problems for her: her own home planet, Bajor, had itself only recently been freed from Cardassian occupation — and the Cardassians, true to their society’s status as a corrupt and nepotistic military dictatorship (yes, that’s probably several kinds of tautology) had not treated the subjugated Bajorans well.
But her individual and cultural history also made her well-suited for the infiltration: she would be able to convey a convincing dislike of the Cardassians, and few would doubt that a Bajoran would be inclined to want to punish their erstwhile oppressors. So off Ro goes — and for a while, everything goes swimmingly. She quickly embeds herself in a Maquis cell, and begins reporting back.
And this is where the episode goes screwy, to my mind.
Arranging a covert meeting with Captain Picard aboard the Enterprise, Ro explains that the Maquis believe that Cardassians are using third parties to bring materials through the DMZ — materials which, while innocent enough on their own, could be combined to create a devastating biological weapon.
Here, I would have expected Picard, renowned diplomat, statesman and bastion of Federation ideals, to at least consider the opportunity to build a bridge with the Maquis — albeit a flimsy and probably fairly covert one. Make a show of hearing their concerns (somehow protecting Ro in the process, don’t go bothering me for all the details what am I a scriptwriter), investigate the claims as quietly as need be, and if and when evidence is found, be willing to confront the Cardassians with it. Let the disgruntled colonists know the Federation — their own state — takes them seriously enough to listen to them.
Sure, it sounds a lot like placating terrorists, and we don’t do that, and that’s maybe why Picard actually used Ro’s information to formulate a plan to trap the Maquis “fleet”, deceiving them into attacking a worthless convoy, and putting them at the mercy of a hidden Starfleet task force to take them all out at once.
It just didn’t ring right for me. It didn’t seem a Picard-y sort of manoeuvre. It was too ruthless: even knowing that Picard will kill without hesitation if need be, the need really has to be. He always looks for another way first. And it just wasn’t true to his character that he went straight to that option with the Maquis.
Furthermore, he immediately began leaning hard on Lt Ro. This is someone with whom Picard also had a difficult history: Ensign Ro hadn’t been an easy person to get on with. But although he did initially ask if she was likely to have a problem helping him lay his trap, his attitude was very much “I need to know I can rely on you”, rather than “I know what you’ve been through”. Doubtless, the latter sounds more wishy-washy, but would certainly have been the more supportive, and therefore encouraging, way to frame the enquiry.
So off Ro goes again, and when, inevitably, she begins to realise she has more in common with her new Maquis compatriots than she ever did with Starfleet, she does at least approach Picard again. She lets him know she has doubts about her ability to complete the mission after all — and Picard immediately threatens her with a Board of Inquiry and court-martial if she doesn’t come through. She backs off, and as soon as she’s out of reach of him again, immediately abandons Starfleet and throws her lot in with the Maquis for good.
As I said at the beginning, this is a weird episode. The behaviour of Jean-Luc Picard in this show does not seem consistent with the values he’s always demonstrated in previous stories. Yes, he’s strict. Yes, he’s professional. But he’s intellectually compassionate (even if not emotionally so), and he knows what motivates people. He knows how to get the best from his crew, and he would know that an officer working undercover as Ro was would be vulnerable to all sorts of psychological pressures. He might not have approved of Ro’s failure to complete her mission, but he would have recognised the incipient danger of losing a wavering agent to the other side. As it was, Picard effectively chose to push Ro into the arms of the enemy. He must have made the strategic decision that it was better that the Maquis have her than Starfleet do — except that there was no logical reason why that would be so.
I’m not sure what this episode was even trying to do in terms of the Big Picture. The last time we’d seen Ro Laren, she’d been accidentally reverted to childhood by a transporter accident — one which also re-kiddified Captain Picard, Keiko O’Brien and Guinan — and at the end of the episode Ro was the last one to undergo the reversion back to adulthood. In fact the episode ended in a way that made it possible to suppose that she could make the decision not to be reverted — that she might choose to live a second childhood and grow up again, this time without having to live with the trauma of her original, war-torn upbringing.
It could have been quite a hopeful note on which to end her story — but instead we see her, for no real narrative reason I could make out, suddenly return to the Enterprise, once again an adult, and finally ending up thrown back again into war. No hopeful resolution for Ro, then, and only questions raised for me about a starship captain I thought I knew better than I apparently did. And then on to the finale, ta dah.
In the end of course, it doesn’t really matter. As mentioned, ST:TNG is over two decades old. These stories are long told and moved on from. But watching through them again, it’s still possible to get immersed in the stories and the characters — it’s one of the reasons Trek is such good TV. But the flip side to this is that when the immersion is suddenly broken, as by someone acting inexplicably out of character, it can still be quite jarring.