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Preemptive Strike

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Lynch's Spoiler Review: "Preemptive Strike"

WARNING: Spoilers for TNG's "Preemptive Strike" are about to make just such a strike on this article. Be prepared.

In brief: definitely the best thing in nearly half a season. A few plot points were a bit too convenient, but this one hit hard.

I also smell quite a bit of "Voyager" setup, but that's not a problem. More on both points after the synopsis:

Newly-promoted Lieutenant Ro returns to the Enterprise after a stint in Advanced Tactical Training (a grueling course that she is passing nicely, and for which a recommendation from Picard was instrumental in her even being accepted). At the same time, the Enterprise is en route to a briefing on the situation in the demilitarized zone on the Federation/Cardassian border, but their trip is rudely interrupted by a distress call from a Cardassian ship under attack by the Maquis, a group of renegade Federation citizens on the Cardassian side of the Zone which opposes the Cardassian presence.

The Enterprise arrives in time to thwart the attack, but while the Cardassian wounded are being treated, Gul Evek waxes indignant about the Maquis's continued attacks, and strongly implies that Starfleet is covertly encouraging their work. Picard indignantly denies that such is the case, and says they are trying to stop the Maquis. Evek says that their efforts are apparently meeting with "limited success", but has the same phrase thrown back in his face when the topic turns to Cardassian citizens in the Zone attacking other ships. Both agree that the situation is worsening, and Evek says that the Cardassian military will have to step in before long if things don't improve.

After he leaves, the Enterprise continues to its rendezvous, and Picard has his spirits further dampened by the arrival of Admiral Nechayev. Nechayev is skeptical of Evek's claims of victimhood, but professes to being very concerned about the Maquis's actions. While sympathetic to their desire for self-defense, current intelligence suggests they're planning more aggressive acts, and she says it must be stopped before the entire Zone goes up in smoke. They need an undercover operative to find the Maquis before they can stop them, and she wants Ro.

Ro is surprised, but Picard tells her she shouldn't be: her recent training, her species, and her past history with Starfleet make her an excellent and credible choice. She says that she's familiar with the Maquis's aims, as one of her instructors during training went off to join the group; but despite her loathing for Cardassians, she agrees to go, but tells Picard why: "to validate your faith in me."

Some time later, she enters a bar, and shortly thereafter hides as Data and Worf enter, "searching" for her and saying she's killed a Cardassian soldier. When someone else tells Data that Ro *was* here, but left for parts unknown, the pair leaves, and Ro comes out of hiding. She thanks Santos for his help, but asks him why he covered for her. He tells her "there are worse things in life than killing a Cardassian soldier," and the two talk about how such attitudes are refreshingly rare. She tells him she'd like to meet people who think as he does -- and is promptly taken down by a blast from his phaser.

When she wakes, she sees Santos and two other people, a woman and an elderly man. They ask her if she actually killed the Cardassian (which she says she did), and ask who she is. She tells them her name and some of her history, (including the fact that her father was tortured to death by Cardassians while she watched) but then insists that she's departed Starfleet "unofficially" because she didn't like their appeasing attitudes towards the Cardassians. She asks if they are Maquis. "What if we were?" "If you were, I would ask if I could join you, and help you fight."

Macias (the old man) sends the other two away to check out her story, and takes Ro for a walk, despite her shock at being given such a wide berth. He shows her the village where they are, and says that Starfleet doesn't understand the situation in the Zone. The Cardassians are determined to make the Federation colonists leave, any way they can -- "but no one seems to SEE that, except the Maquis." He goes to a replicator and gets hasparat, a Bajoran dish that he's developed a taste for over the years despite being human. Ro says that her father used to make a very strong hasparat, and he asks her to make one for him. Meanwhile, the others return with news: they've checked Ro's story out, and it's true.

Later, Ro meets with a larger group, apparently the ruling committee of this Maquis cell. There are rumors circulating about the Cardassians; specifically, that they're shipping biogenic weapons into the Zone somehow. This is too big to be ignored, and they all agree that a preemptive strike is necessary. The lack of medical supplies is a major concern, but Ro says that she can get them -- by stealing them from the Enterprise, since she knows their security codes. Everyone is incredulous, but Macias trusts her, and insists that they let her try. Kalita, the woman who interrogated her at the start, remains skeptical and insists on coming along. Ro, however, has no problem with this: "I could use an extra hand at the controls -- and a witness."

Ro's first "miracle" in the Maquis ship comes at the border into Federation territory, when she crosses at a sensor buoy, using its security information to disable the alarms. She then sends a false distress signal to the Enterprise, claiming to be a disabled science vessel in the Topin system. The Enterprise heads towards that system, but Data cautions that sensors will be useless due to interference from a protostar in the region. They go in, using directional sensors only.

As Ro and Kalita wait, the Enterprise arrives, and begins a painfully slow search of the system. Another distress call suddenly arrives, and they move towards it -- but this time, Ro uses the sensor beam to maneuver towards the Enterprise. Since they can't beam the supplies through the shields, Ro claims to be able to take the ship *itself* through the shields by exploiting a weak point in the system. In reality, she sends a piggybacked message to Picard with the second distress call, and although garbled, enough of it gets through that Picard decides to let the ship in. Ro takes the ship in, beams out the supplies, and gets out in a hurry, with Picard deciding to fire somewhat behind the ship to make it look good.

When they return, Kalita's attitude towards Ro has made a complete turnaround, and Macias is beaming. "We've learned to be cautious of strangers," he confides, "but I've known since I first met you -- that in your heart, you're one of us."

Ro is now trusted enough to get her own ship and free access to it, and sometime later uses it to meet Picard on the Enterprise. Picard dismisses the rumors of the biogenic weaponry, but muses that it could be used to set up a decoy, a "target" so tempting that many Maquis cells would combine forces to defeat it, but instead decimating the Maquis forces at a stroke. He suggests that Ro provide her cell with fake intelligence "confirming" that parts for these weapons are being provided through third parties, thus setting the plan in motion. Ro is not sure, worrying about the idea of leading everyone into a trap; but when Picard presses her, she says that even if she has misgivings, "they will not prevent me from carrying out my mission." Picard is pleased: "I knew that I could count on you."

She brings that "intelligence" back to the Maquis, and they take the bait as planned, with Macias contacting other cell leaders. Later, after he has done so, he talks to Ro and tries to bring up her spirits by planning a celebration. When he mentions playing the bellaclavion, a Bajoran instrument, Ro suddenly gets very pensive. Her father used to play the clavion to keep monsters away, and always made her feel safe with its playing. "When he died ... I realized even he couldn't make all the monsters go away." Macias decides that there's no need to wait for a celebration -- why not get the food for one right now, for no reason at all?

The two head for the market, but suddenly three Cardassians appear and open fire on the colony in an ambush. Ro holds her own, even killing one of them, but Macias is killed in the attack. Ro reaches him too late to save him, but in time to hear his last words: "When an old fighter like me dies, someone always steps forward, to take his place..."

Later, Ro meets with Picard in the same bar where she joined the Maquis, under the cover of Picard trying to buy her "services". She tells him that the mission must be canceled, that the Maquis haven't taken the bait -- but when he presses her, her lies become less convincing, and he wants to know what's going on. Ro says she's no longer sure where she stands; she doesn't want to disappoint Picard, but also doesn't want to betray these people. Picard is adamant, however; at this point, everyone's already committed, and backing out now would ruin everything Ro has worked for. Picard is calm, but unrelenting: "I could put you before a Board of Inquiry for lying to me about this mission; I will certainly have you court-martialed if you sabotage it." With no choice, Ro agrees to do her part, but Picard insists on sending Riker along (posing as a relative) as extra insurance.

Later, the Maquis attack is imminent, and the Enterprise is waiting with a strike force in a nearby nebula for the Maquis to cross the border. Ro and Riker are in one ship of the Maquis force, about to cross the border themselves -- but then suddenly, she stops the ship, holds Riker at bay with a phaser, and fires a particle beam into the nebula, exposing the Federation ships. As the Maquis abort the attack without crossing the border, Ro lets her ship cross over and head for the Enterprise.

As Picard and Worf prepare to take her into custody, Ro tells Kalita on another ship to prepare to beam her aboard. She tells Riker that she's joining the Maquis; "It's been a long time since I really felt like I belonged somewhere." She asks Riker to do her one favor: tell Picard that she's sorry for letting him down. With that, the two bid farewell, as Ro is beamed away.

When Riker returns to the Enterprise, he tells Picard of what happened, and hands him the report -- but Picard won't take it. Riker leaves Picard's ready room, and Picard sits, devastated and shocked by Ro's final betrayal.

That would seem to take care of that. (Scary thought -- *one* more synopsis left to write for TNG, ever. Yow.) Now, on to the usual ranting.

"Preemptive Strike" [originally titled "The Good Fight", which I think would have been a much better choice] took a much darker tone than most TNG has of late, and actually took the risk of turning someone who was once a *major* recurring character into a villain, at least of sorts. In both of those respects, it was a major improvement over most of the last half-season of TNG, and was easily the best thing I've seen from the show in months.

"Preemptive Strike" reminded me of a few stories I've read in the past, most notably John le Carre's _The Little Drummer Girl_. I wouldn't want to give much of the book away, but the basic theme of someone caught up in a mission where her loyalties come into question is the same in both the novel and this episode, and both times the conflicts are explored with a fair amount of both subtlety and depth. (No, I don't think there's an influence here; just figured I'd point it out in case people wanted to give the book a read.  :-) )

Much of the success of the show had to be due to Michelle Forbes making one last trip back to TNG as Lt. Ro. In fact, watching this episode made me regret more and more that Forbes hadn't stuck around for the eighteen months in which she's been missing. Had she done so, there might have been two bonuses. First, she tends to add enjoyment to most of the shows she's been in; and second, the betrayal we felt at Ro's defection here would have been *much* stronger had she been someone we'd been seeing regularly for a while. Using Ro here was good (far more than going the "Valeris" route a la ST6 and making this a completely different person), to be sure; I just wish we'd had the chance to let this evolve a bit more slowly than it did.

As I said at the start, however, the episode had a few plausibility strains. Most or all of them are understandable, but they're ones that nonetheless left me with my disbelief stretched just a little *too* thin. The first of those strains would be the ease with which Ro got herself into the Maquis. Since the Federation has undoubtedly been trying to get operatives in before, and since the Maquis members who used to be Starfleet (particularly Ro's old teacher) would probably be on the lookout for it anyway, I have a lot of difficulty believing that Ro would be taken in (admittedly by phaser) on her very first encounter with Santos. What would have made more sense would be to establish that she'd been coming in that way for a few weeks, and see her perhaps cultivating Santos a bit more gradually. As it is, this felt like a rush to get her where the plot needed her to be; understandable, but regrettable.

The second one is a technical one, in that it seemed like Ro's ship had functioning sensors in the Topin system while the Enterprise's didn't. That's mostly a nitpick, though, since I can think of at least one easy explanation (they had themselves situated so that there was only one real direction the Enterprise could be coming in from, perhaps). The third one, however, is more important: I find the two meetings of Ro and Picard *very* unlikely. Picard's the captain of the flagship, for heaven's sake; isn't he both too recognizable and too valuable to be strolling into bars in the Zone to convey some orders? (Ro being able to head right for the Enterprise was also a little too pat, but not quite as much so.) Picard in the bar led to an excellent, tension-filled scene between the two of them, to be sure; but it's tough to swallow him being there in the first place.

Other than that, though, I thought "Preemptive Strike" worked quite well. Although in retrospect, Ro's betrayal makes a fair amount of sense given her heritage (and given the fact that she is now a perfect character to bring over to "Voyager" if both the producers and Forbes are interested), I have to admit that I didn't expect it, right up to the point where it happened. It's not often that TNG blindsides me like that, and I'm impressed that it did.

I was also *hurt* by the betrayal; not as much as Picard seemed to be, but enough that the show clearly did its job right. When Ro was saying that she knew where she belonged and asking Riker to apologize for her to Picard, I had a lump in my throat -- I knew we'd probably be seeing her again, but I suppose I had enough invested in the character not to want things to end on this note. Both Frakes and Forbes (and everyone else, really) did an excellent job in that scene, and deserve much of the credit for making it work.

Going a bit back chronologically, I thought much of the stage-setting for "Preemptive Strike" worked very well. Enough background was given on the Maquis itself so that those people who don't watch DS9 weren't hopelessly confused; and while it's a little implausible to me that Gul Evek just happened to be on the ship that was attacked, Evek's continued presence in the Zone lent a nice sense of continuity that we haven't seen in a while, as did Nechayev's.

The mentor/protege relationship between Picard and Ro was a trifle new, and slightly surprising here, as that never really seemed to be the case with them before (except perhaps in her debut appearance). However, the behind-the-scenes work Picard clearly did to get her into the training program in the first place must have helped build that bond, and I can easily imagine Ro convincing herself that she couldn't let him down; Picard has often commanded that sort of reaction.

On the Maquis side of things, Ro's proving herself worked quite well. Although, as I said before, her initial contact with them was *far* too easy and too fast, the manner in which she pulled off the medical supplies heist was extremely well done, and one of the things she pulled that I could see the Maquis higher-ups falling for. (I still think it should have been over a far longer time-frame; that's one thing the le Carre' novel I mentioned earlier does much better.) There was also a beautiful shot during that heist that made the relative sizes of the Enterprise vs. the Maquis ships _exceedingly_ clear, and making it obvious how badly the Maquis would be beaten later as a result.

Macias, as the main Maquis character, was rather well played. I think things went a bit overboard with the "trust through Bajoran personal touches" theme, but it worked quite well nonetheless, particularly with the unspoken but very much implied point that Macias's friend (who made strong hasparat) *was* Ro's father. Had that point been actually made, I think it would have stuck out way too much; but it was underplayed enough that it let us infer why Ro felt so strongly drawn to Macias rather than beating us over the head with it. I like that.

The final Ro/Picard confrontation in the bar was well done (aside from implausibilities), and surprisingly forbidding on Picard's side. That, more than anything else, showed me just how strongly the show was shown from Ro's point of view -- this time, Picard seemed almost as forbidding and out-of-touch as Nechayev did in DS9's "The Maquis" a few weeks ago. I almost wonder if his actions there (effectively threatening her with serious punishment if she didn't swallow her conscience) didn't actually push her over the edge into deciding to throw her lot in with the Maquis; it certainly could have. Had Picard's actions there been held up as a good and proper thing, I'd be crying foul just now; but as it is, it gave us a good feel of how disturbed *he* was by the Maquis's actions, how much pressure he was probably under from Nechayev to make the mission succeed, and how badly it came through to the people who actually needed to carry the mission out.

So, all in all, "Preemptive Strike" worked pretty well. It set up some ideas for "Voyager" nicely in the process -- as I said, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Ro there, nor would I mind one bit -- but it also stood up as one of TNG's nastier shows in the past year, and also one of the most successful.

So, some short takes:

  • I *did* have a problem with Nechayev's attitude with Picard, but not my usual one. This time, now that Nechayev is enough of a regular that she's starting to become "sympathetic", how is she made to be more of a regular person? By complaining that such-and-such is extremely fattening. Oh, of course; don't all "real women" do that? Pfah. Not necessary.
  • There was a particularly good establishing shot when Ro woke up in the Maquis colony. Kudos to Stewart. Similarly, that final scene in the ready room literally hurt to watch. Very, *very* effective.

That would seem to cover it. So, summing up:

Plot: A little implausible in places, but a nice story.

Plot Handling: Very strong. Even the implausibilities didn't distract very much.

Characterization: Excellent. Good Ro, and dark, dark Picard.

OVERALL: An 8.5. Nice work.


The end of an era ... and of all humanity?

Tim Lynch (Harvard-Westlake School, Science Dept.)
BITNET:  tlynch@citjulie
UUCP:  ...!ucbvax!
"When he died ... I realized even he couldn't make all the monsters go away."
                        -- Ro
Copyright 1994, Timothy W. Lynch.  All rights reserved, but feel free to ask...

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