By PATRICK McCRAY
There's a difference between the best episode of a show and the best representation of a show. STAR TREK is not a series about hanging out in a 1930's soup kitchen, but that's much of what happens in one its most beloved episodes. Still, if someone asked me about he essence of STAR TREK, I'd have to turn them to something like "Return of the Archons." Misguided society? Check. Led by a supercomputer? Check. Gets driven crazy by Captain Kirk. Done!
Because that sometimes feels like every other episode.
I'd often wondered and hoped about seeing more DARK SHADOWS alums on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, and I was always disappointed by the lack. One exception is also one of the most quietly challenging (and successful) guest performances. In season three’s “Who Watches the Watchers,” KATHRYN LEIGH SCOTT delivers her finest impression of Vicki "I don't understand" Winters in what may be the quintessential representative episode of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. Unlike Vicki, her character actually figures things out and is the ideological (rather than circumstantial) hero of the story. No — more than ideological. Intellectual. (Only on STAR TREK!)
Dramatically, Ms. Scott provides a mini-seminar of an active, thinking, present performance that has a clarity of watchable, real, and unpredictable choices and transitions. When characters make decisions and discoveries, it is one of the most interesting things to watch. Executing those with commitment has always been Ms. Scott's greatest strength. If the script weren't written for her, she certainly makes it feel as much.
STAR TREK is not about the future, nor has it ever been. It's about now, just translated in a way that's wacky enough to be non-threatening to the public. Sort of. Kinda. By 'Who Watches the Watcher,' clearly Gene (addled though he was) and company had had it and were running out of subtle. If it's a thinly veiled commentary, then the shmata is Saran Wrap. There was probably no other way to tell the story, although setting it on another planet was safer than having them go back in time and whisper in some seminal shaman's ear.
The topic is a favorite of Gene's: religion. Despite slight equivocations here or there, it was well-established that the Federation and our pre-DS9 heroes are, um, post-theological. (Largely.) Gene often spoke of his disdain for religion, and on shows, usually by presenting the deity as — and tell me if this sounds familiar — an ancient computer or power-hungry alien.
In this episode, a group of hidden anthropologists is studying a vaguely iron age tribe of Vulcan-like people. When the holographic 'duck blind' hiding the anthropologists goes down, a panicking passerby ends up knocked out with a near-lethal injury and is sedated and beamed up to the Enterprise for a sickbay visit. Unbeknownst to Crusher and company, he awakens and sees the ship's interior, full of lights, unseen voices, and people speaking reverently of The Picard.
Returning home, he enthuses of his experience, reasoning that the only explanation is that he had died, been to the afterlife, and encountered God. His society had been post-theological for many generations, but his testimony sways them, and they begin forming a religion.
Picard is mortified when he finds out, seeing superstition (a convenient euphemism for religion) as a blight on an otherwise rational culture. Viewing the situation as one in which the Prime Directive had already been broken, the Captain decides to open up a can of Dawkins on them and prevent the religion from growing. Kathryn Leigh Scott plays one of the more, um, "evidence-based" and trusted tribe members, so Picard brings her up to the Enterprise and shows her that it's just a sophisticated machine staffed by fellow mortals. And an android.
Shaken-but-convinced, Ms. Scott's character returns to the village and valiantly reasons with her peers, but when it doesn't work, Picard has to make some dramatic illustrations to prove the point. A happy ending is had by all. Well, all atheists, anyway.
I'm not sure that you could get away with this episode now. Certainly not after 9/11. I was astounded when I first saw it. I'll let you decide where you stand with the politics, but none can deny its charged content. When I interviewed Ms. Scott, I was extremely keen to ask her if there'd been any water cooler talk about the show among the actors... a cast that also included Ray "Leland Palmer" Wise*. When she mentioned events at her church, I demurred.
My intimidation toward that is a testament to the power of the story. It's not something to bring up casually. That is not only high praise for the gutsy writing, but for the — pardon the word — humanity that Ms. Scott brought to the role.