Star Trek TNG (Season 1, Ep 21): Symbiosis

Welcome back to Star Trek: The Next Generation. I am doing an episode-by-episode watch, recap, and reaction and blogging about it here. There will be no spoilers for the series beyond the current episode. You can find my prior recaps HERE.

For those of you that don’t want to read the long recap, I provide a quick episode summary here at the top. You can also just scroll down to the “REACTION” heading below.


While rescuing a freighter, the Enterprise encounters the Ornarans and the Brakkians. The Ornarans are suffering a planet-wide plague and the Brekkians produce the only known cure. The two planets have a seemingly symbiotic relationship wherein the Ornarans provide the Brekkians with all that the need in exchange for the life-saving medicine provided by the Brekkians.

However, we learn that this is all a ruse. The Ornarans are not dying from a plague. They are addicted to a narcotic. We further learn that the Brekkians are fully aware that the medicine they provide is merely a narcotic. Picard is bound by the Prime Directive not to interfere in this relationship. However, he finds a workaround. He does not reveal to the Ornarans that they are not suffering from a plague. He also – per the Prime Directive – refuses to repair the Ornaran freighters which were necessary in the continued distribution of the narcotic. By refusing to repair the freighter, Picard is all but guaranteeing that the Ornarans learn that the truth. The Enterprise leaves the planets without seeing the end result of Picard’s non-interference.


As the episode begins, Picard tells everyone on the ship that the nearby sun is undergoing large scale magnetic field changes complete with violent gigantic flares. He says that they will be studying the star at close range. He says that even though the ship will be running with full deflectors, the closeness of the event and its severity will create problems. He tells the people on the ship to expect communication problems as well as the temporary loss of other systems. As a result of the foregoing, Picard issues a yellow alert.

Data calls to Engineering and direct them to bring all systems online and to bring full power to the shields. Data then informs Picard that all sections are secure. Picard directs La Forge to their destination at one half impulse power. Picard puts the sun on the main viewer and magnifies so that the crew can see the solar flares from close range.

Riker: I’ve never seen anything like this before. The violence from those eruptions is awesome.

Data reports to Picard that he is reading an unusual number of sun spots and erupted providences. He reports that the magnetic field is extremely irregular. Wesley reports to Picard that the deflectors are being hit by huge numbers of x-rays. Just then, Wesley’s station goes dark and we see what looks like electricity passing through the screen on which he is working. Wesley reports that his console is overloading. Worf states that he is adjusting deflectors to compensate. Worf orders Engineering to increase power to forwrd shields but the console work stations in Engineering experience the same outage that Wesley’s console experienced first. Worf reports that all systems are stable. Troi reports, though, that the level of tension on the ship is mounting. Picard says that this is understandable. Data tells Picard that if they are to investigate the sun, they must get closer. Picard instructs Geordi to move the ship in closer.

Picard announces to the ship that they will be pushing the shields to the limit but he also says that they are getting a splendid view of the phenomenon.

Abrupltly, Worf reports that he has intercepted what appears to be a distress signal. Data reports that the transmission is coming from a freighter in orbit around the fourth planet in the system. He says that the receiving station is on the third planet. Picard commands to open hailing frequencies. Picard announces the presence of the Enterprise and asks if they can be of assistance. He gets a reply. The reply says yes and that the freighter captain is having trouble navigating. Picard issues a command to set a court to intercept with the freighter at Warp 2 and to maintain yellow alert. We hear through static the distressed captain saying that they are heading into the atmosphere and that they are going to burn up.

Worf tells Picard that the freighter is very old. Next, Data tells Picard that the ship’s censors are being severely affected by the sun’s flares. Data reports next that there are six life forms inside the freighter. Worf reports that the freighter will lose its integrity in a matter of minutes. Picard tries to speak with the people on the freighter by the communications transmission is breaking up. When Picard is able to establish a slightly improved dialogue, the people aboard the freighter are not able to communicate well. Yar suggests using the tractor beam to pull the freighter out of orbit. However, signal interference makes that effort unsuccessful.

Data conducts a remote analysis of the freighter and determines that one of its coils is misaligned. Picard asks the freighter captain if they can repair it and he says no. Geordi says that the Enterprise has a spare coil they can use and Riker confirms with Yar that they can beam a coil over. Picard informs the captain of the other vessel that the coil fill repair their ship. The other captain asks Picard how to install it. Picard face palms the fact that the other captain does not know how to align a control coil.

The other captain, T’Jon, asks the rest of his crew and none of them know how to align the coil, either. Riker suggests beaming a team to the ship to aid it and Yar strongly recommends against it saying that the solar interference is too great.

Picard tells T’Jon that they are going to attempt to beam the people from his vessel onto the Enterprise.

T’Jon: Well, if you think that’s best.
Picard: <sarcastically> Unless you have any other options, yes, I think that’s best.

Yar and Riker instruct T’Jon to go to his ship’s transporter room. He seems confused about the basic operation of the transporter room on his vessel, too.

On the bridge, Worf reports to Picard that the hull temperature of the freighter is passing three thousand degrees. Yar establishes a transporter link with the other vessel and is able to complete a transporter. However, the freighter’s cargo, rather than its passengers, arrive on the Enterprise. Before the Enterprise is able to determine why the freighter sent over its cargo instead of its crew, the freighter begins disintegrating.

Yar beams the cargo to a vault and attempts again to beam over the passengers. Riker tells Yar to lock onto any life form she can find and beam them over now. The Enterprise cannot get a solid lock, but they are out of time, so they attempt the transport without a solid lock. The Enterprise is able to beam four of the six passengers onto the ship successfully. The other two people on the freighter do not make it.

Riker apologizes to the four new passengers on the Enterprise for not being able to save two of their comrades. He says that if they had sent themselves, rather than the cargo, they all would have made it. The four new passengers ask anxiously about whether the cargo was saved and Riker tells them that it was.

Riker: You act as if it’s more important than your comrades.
T’Jon: The cargo… may we see it?

Riker takes them to where it is now being stored. The four new passengers being arguing over ownership of the cargo. Sobi and Langor argue that the cargo belongs to them because the other two, Romas and T’Jon, failed to complete their end of an agreement. Romas and Sobi disagree.

T’Jon: You didn’t pay for it. Therefore it’s not yours.

A physical fight ensues, which leads Riker to call for security. Yar uses her phaser to break it up. When security arrives, she tells them to escort the visitors to the observation lounge. The fight involved a natural electrical discharge emitted from the hangs of the combatants. After they are gone, Riker notes that this is formidable and Yar agrees saying that it is a difficult weapon to confiscate. Riker says that he has never seen humanoids with that power and he speculates that the strong magnetic fields of their sun has something to do with it that particular form of evolution.

The two sides of the dispute are a a negotiating table again. T’Jon and Langor asks the other two how they plan to pay and the other two say that everything they possess went down with the freighter. T’Jon notes that it will therefore be difficult to accommodate them. Picard, Riker, and Data join the guests in the observation lounge to speak with them.

Riker introduces Sobi and Langor as being from the planet Brekka and T’Jon and Romas as being from the planet Ornar. Picard apologizes to all of them that they were unable to save their ship. The Ornarans say that they have two other freighters with similar problems. Data says that if the malfunction is the same, the Enterprise can supply them with suitable fabricated parts. The four people begin arguing again over ownership of the cargo. Picard informs them that the legal machinery of their home world must decide their dispute. T’Jon tells Picard that it is a matter of life and death because the cargo is medicine. The two Ornarans inform Picard that their planet is suffering from a plague and say that the medicine is the only hope of life for their people. The two Brekkians acknowledge that Picard must think they heartless but then they explain the expensive and difficult process of cultivating the medicine. They argue that they cannot just give it away. The Ornarans say that they did pay. The Brekkians disagree.

Next, we learn that the Ornarans on the ship are infected with the plague. They inform the Brekkians that they will soon see with their own eyes what the plague will do to them.

Picard asks Riker if there was a medical scan when the Brekkians beamed aboard. Riker says that the solar interference may have prevented a medical scan from working. Picard realizes that the plague may have been brought onto the ship and declares a med alert. He then calls Dr. Crusher to the observation lounge at once.

In sick bay, Dr. Crusher confirms that the Brekkians appear to be in fine health. The Brekkians are not in fine healthy. The two plague sufferers argue that they need their medicine. The Ornarans argue that they did not pay for it. Dr. Crusher tells them to stop arguing. Picard arrives and she asks to speak with him privately. She tells Picard that she cannot find anything wrong, yet, and that she needs more time to study. She also says she is developing a very active dislike of the Brekkians. Picard says that this is understandable. They return to speak with the Ornarans. The two Ornarans plead with Picard to give them the medicine. He replies that he cannot do that. They tell him that if he does not, he will be a party to murder, not just to the two of them but to an entire civilization. The Ornarans calm themselves and apologize but do not stop their pleading.

Dr. Crusher, who has not yet been able to find anything wrong with the Ornarans, tells Picard that the Ornarans believe it will help and that their belief alone might help cure their symptoms. Picard says that he will talk with the Brekkians. Picard speaks with them. Sobi is reticent to give the Brekkians even two small doses for their immediate use but Langor disagrees and says that they can do so. However, she wants to be present when they open the cargo. Picard allows it.

When the Brekkians remove two doses, we learn more about their situation. They tell Picard, Data, and Dr. Crusher that the one and only industry on Brekka is the production of this medicine. Every other need for Brekka is provided by the Ornarans. In exchange for the Ornarans providing the Brekkians with all that they need to live well, the Brekkians provide the Ornarans with life itself. The Brekkians view this as a fair exchange. We further learn that the medicine has baffled doctors on both planets for two centuries and that the medicine only works for up to seventy-two hours.

Dr. Crusher oversees the Ornarans taking the medication and she looks suspicious as the medicine works almost instantaneously. She goes to Picard’s office and tells him that the medicine, felicium, is a narcotic.

Picard: And T’Jon, Romas, and everyone on their world…
Dr. Crusher: Is a drug addict.

On the bridge, Data gives Picard the history of the two planets. He tells Picard that beginning one thousand years ago, the two planets took two different paths. He says that Ornara became technologically sophisticated and that Brekka did not. He then says that two hundred years ago, Ornara was stricken by a devastating plague. He says that the records indicate, though they are sparse, that a cure for the plague was found in a plant indigenous only on Brekka. He says the plant rejected all attempts at cultivation on Ornara. Riker says that this was the origin of the the traditing situation between the two worlds.

Dr. Crusher tells Riker, Data, Picard, and Wesley – who is listening – that the felicium cured the plague two hundred years ago. She says that the Ornarans will no longer die without the felicium but notes that they are addicted to it. Dr. Crusher asks Picard what he plans to do and he replies that there is nothing he can do at this time. He says that the two societies are intertwined in a symbiotic relationship. Dr. Crusher says that she can synthesize a non-addictive substitute that will ease the Ornarans’ withdrawal symptoms. Picard says that he cannot do that. He says they cannot impose the Federation or earth values on anyone else in the galaxy. Dr. Crusher vigorously disagrees.

Yar breaks into their converastion and says that they are receiving a signal from Ornara. She says that she can put it on the view screen. Picard tells her to do it. The leader of the Ornarans asks Picard if his people are on the ship and Picard says yes. He tells him that he will re-establish contact in a few minutes, in the guest quarters, so that he can speak with his people.

After Picard, Riker, and Dr. Crusher leave the bridge, Wesley tells Data that he cannot understand how the Ornarans voluntarily became dependent on a chemical. Data replies that voluntary dependence on a drug is a recurrent theme in many cultures. Yar tells Wesley that no one wants to become dependent. She tells Wesley that on her home planet, there was so much poverty and violence that for some the only escape was through drugs.

Wesley: How can a chemical substance provide an escape?
Yar: It doesn’t. But it makes you think it does. You have to understand, drugs can make you feel good.

Yar continues on explaining how great drugs make you feel for a while. She tells him that the feeling derived from drugs is good until the drug wears off. She explains that eventually you take the drug to avoid feeling bad rather than to feel good. Wesley says he does not understand and she tells him that she hopes he never understands. Picard calls Yar away to the guest quarters. There, the leader of the planet pleads via the on-viewer call that the planet needs the medicine. He says that he cannot go on. Then the call ends. Picard says that there is nothing he can do.

T’Jon suddenly grabs Riker and begins emitting electricity through his hands into his body. He warns Picard that if he does not send the cargo to the planet, Riker will die. He says that he has no choice. Picard calls T’Jon’s bluff and says that he will not kill Riker. Picard is correct. T’Jon lets him go and then begins begging for help. Picard again says that he is not sure that he can help.

At that moment, the Brekkians ask if they can speak with Picard. Picard agrees and tells Dr. Crusher to join their conversation. He leaves Riker alone with the two Ornarans. The two Brekkians tell Picard and Dr. Crusher that they have decided to give the felicum to the Ornarans and that they will bear the hardship of their inability to pay until such a time as they are able.

Picard tells Dr. Crusher that the Brekkians know. Dr. Crusher asks him what they know.

Picard: They know that the Ornarans no longer have the plague and that felicium is no longer a medicine. Of course they are willing to give this shipment because they do not want to take the chance that the Ornarans will lose their addiction. They don’t want to lose their only customers.

The Brekkians asks Picard what he is going to do. He says he is bound by the rules of the United Federation of Planets which forbid him from interfering with other worlds and other cultures. He says that if he were to tell them any of what they are discussing he would violate that prime directive. The Brekkians smile smugly. Dr. Crusher implores Picard to do something and says that the relationship between the two planets is not symbiotic, it is exploitative. Picard says that from the moment the Brekkians agreed to part with the felicium, his hards were tied.

Picard, Crusher, and the two Brekkians meet with the Ornarans and Yar. Picard tells them that the matter is decided and that they are beaming down with the felicium. The Ornarans are overjoyed. Picard says they can thank Sobi and Langor. The Ornarans and the Brekkians plan to beam down to Ornara together with the felicium to discuss eventual payment. The Ornarans also thank Picard for the gift of the coils. Picard tells them that the coils cannot leave the ship. He says that if they want to repair them, they will have to learn to do it themselves.

Suddenly the Brekkians are upset with Picard. They tell him that failing to give over the coils will interfere with a trade situation that has lasted for two generations. Picard replies that the Prime Directive prohibits him from helping. The Brekkians tells Picard that this is absurd and he replies that they did not think so when the Prime Directive worked in their favor.

Picard tells an Ensign to beam everyone down to Ornara. T’Jon tells Picard that he hopes the Captain realizes what he has done to them. Picard says that of that, he can be sure. He then wishes them good luck. They all beam away.

Crusher and Picard get on a turbolift to return to the main bridge. She tells Picard that when the felicium runs out, the Ornarans will suffer horrible withdrawal pains. Picard says of that there is no doubt but the pains will pass.

Dr. Crusher: That seems so cruel. We could have made their burden easier.
Picard: Could we have? Perhaps in the short term. But to what end… Beverly, the Prime Directive is not just a set of rules, but a philosophy and the correct one. History has proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the result is invariably disastrous.

She says that it is hard to be philosophical when people are suffering. He says that there was only one decision and she replies that she hopes it was the right one. Picard answers back that they will never know.

On the bridge, Picard tells Geordi to take them out of orbit. Geordi asks for a destination and Picard says that he does not care. Geordi picks a star system to which they have never been. Picard says engage.


This episode combines a message about the dangers of narcotics with a philosophical discussion about the Prime Directive. The former is a major miss while the latter is the best use of “the Prime Directive” on the series thus far.

Let’s start with point number one. Drugs are bad. I had my suspicions that the “medicine” was narcotics relatively quickly. When the Enterprise first encountered this week’s guest stars, they seemed almost stoned aboard their freight vessel. When we saw them take the drugs, of course, then it was obvious. The nature of the relationship between the two planets was reminiscent of the opium distribution by the British Empire. The distinguishing factor in the Trek episode here is that the less powerful planet used the narcotics to overpower its more powerful neighbor. In our real earth history, the British Empire used opium to overpower the comparatively weaker China (at least for a time.) The parallels run a bit farther. Western nations existed at a large trade imbalance with the Chinese. Europeans and Americans imported a large amount of Chinese tea, silk, etc. In return though, the Chinese imported very little from the west. The “solution” to that problem, apparently, was to get the Chinese addicted to opium.

The episode paints a similar story. One planet produces a lot of products that the other uses. In return, the planet that benefits from all of those products produces an addictive narcotic.

Obviously there are other differentiating factors but I think the writers drew from this real history.

The episode might have been fine as a metaphor for examining this type of political relationship. However, because the show aired in the 1980s, the writers also force-fed a PSA about narcotics into the script where it made little sense. Wesley says he does not understand how people can become knowingly addicted to a chemical substance. The correct reply from Data or Yar would have been that they did NOT knowingly become addicted. They were manipulated into believing that the narcotics were a drug – because at one time the narcotics *were* a drug used to cure a very real plague. Instead of correcting Wesley’s false premise, Yar gives an extended speech on how drugs can make you feel really good (she explains as though she has a lot of personal experience), which leads to her also explaining how that can spiral out of control for the addicted. The end of the conversation is extremely hokey. Wesley says he may never understand and she says that she hopes he never will. I almost expected her to muss up his hair or something.

If the show had steered away from the “just say no” message – which is a good message but not one that fits the plot – this episode would have been relatively good.

The other half of the story, regarding the Prime Directive, was really well done. Picard and Crusher have a good conversation on the philosophy of abstaining from interference and that conversation is powerful considering these circumstances. The audience sides with Dr. Crusher and *wants* Picard to interfere. He refrains. Instead, he achieves the same result by refusing to assist in the repair of the freighter vessels. The writers cleverly invoked that plot point early on, and the narrative stayed away from it for long enough, that when Picard abruptly refuses to provide the coils, it still feels like a satisfying twist.

This is one of the first episodes where I thought that the Picard character really and truly shines. I also appreciated how competent and passionate Dr. Crusher was in this episode.

Random other tidbit: So all the “guests” on the ship had the ability to shoot electricity through their hands. I’m not sure why. It served pretty much no plot purpose except for that unintentionally hilarious scene where T’Jon temporarily holds Riker hostage with said power. The scene is hilarious because of the face Riker makes throughout.

Other than the “just say no PSA” this was a pretty good episode and one of Patrick Stewart’s better performances as Picard thus far.

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