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Who Watches the Watchers?

(4th story in Star Trek TNG's 3rd season, production code 152)
  • written by co-producers Richard Manning & Hans Beimler
  • directed by Robert Wiemer
  • music by Ron Jones
  • 45 minutes

"We seek to better ourselves..."

Star Trek and its fans pride themselves on their values and the exploration of values within "the human condition". With that in mind it is well worth taking a look at what they are purported to value most: A law called "The Prime Directive".

At its heart, the Prime Directive is the highest General Order in Starfleet - an instruction to not interfere in the affairs of less developed civilizations. It is quite specific with regard to civilizations that have not yet acquired warp drive (and thus the capability to come out and mingle with the rest of the galaxy) - absolutely no open contact is allowed at all with such societies.

Although conceived with the best of intentions, the Prime Directive is a flawed philosophy, and it is a great pity that this franchise for exploring the human condition seems to have little capacity for successfully challenging its most entrenched policy.

Who Watches the Watchers?

This is actually quite a beautiful Prime Directive story - one of the best for highlighting the major shortcomings of the philosophy and providing great imagery for those shortcomings.

The Prime Directive is noble in its attempt to stop God-like manipulation of susceptible civilizations by Starfleet personnel and/or Federation citizens. Manipulation itself is a less evolved philosophical expression, and Starfleet and the Federation would do well to rise above it.

Starfleet doesn't truly seem to know how to rise above manipulation though, which is the truly great tragedy. To rise above, one must learn to trust the flow of events in the universe, and allow things to happen as they unfold. Starfleet looks at each new underdeveloped civilization it encounters with the assumption that the best development it could have is one in which it encounters no extraterrestrials before it has achieved warp drive, which (it assumes) is how Earth developed. Anything else is blasphemous. And time and again, Starfleet resorts to manipulation in order to achieve what it wants with underdeveloped societies - forcing those societies into a bubble of isolation whatever the cost.

Digging Deeper and Deeper into Trouble

"Who Watches the Watchers" opens with the costs of such manipulation about to rise on the planet Mintaka 3. Great place to set a story by the way. Mintaka is a real star, also known as Delta Orionis, one of the stars on the end of Orion's belt. It's probably too big, bright, and hot to allow its third planet to look quite as picturesque as what appears on screen, but then again, with all the rock and scraggly vegetation, and intense sunlight, this might not be too far off. Vulcans like it hot, and the Mintakans are a related species. Nice.

Anyway, here we have three Starfleet/Federation anthropologists secretly studying the Mintakans from behind a high-tech "duck blind". In other words, the Federation wants to be there to study and learn, but they feel they must manipulate what the Mintakans see when looking in the Federation's direction. A complex holographic screen is in place, hiding the research station, which as Geordi points out, requires a lot of energy to maintain. This is perfect imagery - manipulation and control always require more energy than trust, allowing, and honesty. And when that energy becomes unsustainable, the manipulation and control must give way.

Early sections of this story show Federation manipulation falling further and further apart. First, the lie of their holograms gives out, and one of the anthropologists named Palmer is ejected into Mintakan society.

This untended panic of Federation contact then causes a Mintakan male, Liko, to injure himself - but not to worry too much there, because Dr. Crusher is alert and quick to the rescue. Hats off to her, putting her healer's oath first and helping those in need, whether the law says she needs to remain invisible to them or not. Nice.

Picard orders her to manipulate the Mintakan's memory, yet another grand failure on Starfleet's part, especially when it doesn't work.

Ugliest of all are Riker and Troi, whose manipulations begin with their own features, continue with their attire, and reach a low point as their characters' interactions with the Mintakans boil over with ridiculous lies, ruses, arguments that directly grate against their own values idiotically, and ultimately culminate in assault against an elderly Mintakan. All done to maintain a lie about who they and Palmer are. Noble on a higher level? I don't think so.

Troi is caught, and even if the Mintakans don't use the excuse of their God's unknown wishes to punish her, they would probably be well within their rights wanting to protect their village from lying, unpredictable, violent rogue elements such as herself and Riker. What is good about this episode is the natural way that Starfleet's attempts to clean up their mess with manipulation only serve to make the mess bigger. Sweet.

The Better Choice

The crisis point appears to come in the scene in the Enterprise conference room between Picard, Riker, and the lead anthropologist. What is so very bizarre is the anthropologist's assertion that their next manipulative tactic should play into the God-like image of Picard that the Mintakans have created and set down some grand "Commandments" for them. It's such an over-the-top suggestion, it makes you wonder how this guy ever got the job of lead anthropologist in the first place. His lazy suggestion only serves to trigger Picard into a rant of how precious their Prime Directive is, which isn't a very convincing argument either, quite frankly. Both sides put too much faith into their assumptions of how the Mintakans will respond, and anthropomorphize those Mintakan responses to be more Human than Vulcan, which shouldn't be the case. And neither side of their argument contains the sense of rising above more manipulation.

But just when you think they might all get stuck pushing for more silly methods of extricating themselves, Picard chooses a brilliant solution. He decides to be honest with the Mintakans, allow the consequences of honesty to take shape, and trust that their development can continue to be what it most needs to be. Those of you who are familiar with the assertion that our species is now transforming from third to fourth density may recognize that Picard has here chosen three principles of fourth density over their third density counterparts: secrecy, manipulation, and the need to control.

(4th density)
(3rd density)
Honesty Secrecy
Capacity to Allow Manipulation
Trust Need to control

So, give the thinking-man's Captain a star for excellence. Picard's choice finally allows Starfleet to truly rise above the manipulation that the Prime Directive intended to avoid, but note that he has to go against the letter of the Prime Directive law to achieve it. A clear indication that much is wrong with the Directive itself.

Consequences and Persistence

The second half of this story contains much of its true beauty, and remains dramatic by naturally showing that you can't fix several days of manipulation by a singular hour of honesty. You have to keep working on it, until your communication is complete. This is exemplified in the scene in which Picard thinks he has the Mintakans' leader Nuria convinced of the truth about himself and his people, and she then begs him to bring six dead Mintakans back to life. His disappointment is palpable, and so very real. Yes, this is the very kind of challenge the Prime Directive was designed to dodge. There is never any guarantee that another person will believe what you say, or see a situation or set of possibilities or relationships the same way as you do. Two people or two cultures may never recognize the same set of limits. That's life. Deal with it.

And Picard continues to deal with it, sticks with his honesty, and strives to make his communication more complete. He never had truly discussed the limits of his science with Nuria in previous scenes, which is critical to her understanding. Thankfully, she is someone who can get it quickly and with little difficulty. That wasn't so hard now, was it?

Even had Picard failed to convince her, there is a point where he would have to step back, and not try to manipulate the other party into being convinced. His duty should be merely to present himself honestly and completely. There are thousands of different ways that Nuria and the Mintakans might choose to respond to what he presents, and if he truly values them as equals and not an inferior species, then he must leave the responsibility for their choices and the consequences of their choices in their hands, and allow their development to naturally follow their choices.

It is a refreshing moment to see Picard walk into the village to rescue Troi, sporting his own natural features, wearing his own day-to-day uniform, and presenting himself as his true, honest self. Liko doesn't want to give up his beliefs in his new-found God so easily, and Picard probably has some apologizing to do on Troi and Riker's behalf. It is at this point that Picard demonstrates his trust in the truth. A great gesture, but not with the most pleasant of results this time around.

Last Minute Fumble

This climactic scene is not written with the most effective dialogue possible for Picard, daring Liko to indulge in drama to prove his point so that Picard can get the non-superstitious Mintakan response that he wants, so it isn't too surprising that the result isn't ideal for him personally either. Not quite the selfless act of allowing the Mintakans to be responsible for their own choices, as one might have hoped for. The flavour of trust and allowing consequences that is trying to be achieved here would turn out so much better in a similar scene in the season six episode "Tapestry", when Patrick Stewart literally gets to act his heart out with perfect elegant subtlety.

The story's coda continues a good vein of interaction between Starfleet and the Mintakans, even though things get a little trite by this stage. Picard attempts to return to the letter of the Prime Directive as much as possible, and the Mintakans are bizarrely understanding and supportive of the idea. You can sense here the Star Trek franchise artificially trying to maintain what it had set-up previously instead of taking a courageous new step to further improve its future society. (In the Star Trek universe, the origins of the Prime Directive are likely highly Vulcan anyway, so it's understandable that it would appeal to the very similar Mintakan mind.) Liko seems to have been miraculously convinced. Then again, perhaps he now secretly views the Prime Directive as the first grand Commandment from his God. Impossible to say. Hopefully there will be fewer and fewer Star Trek fans and writers afraid to think beyond it and make up their own minds as well.

Lasting Imagery

In the end this is a great episode, delivering the healthy food for thought that makes Star Trek shine. There's action, drama, enjoyable special effects, exceptional cinematography and images achieved, and a great musical soundtrack by Ron Jones. The music appears split between two major themes: a haunting one for the dark, opening half of the story where Starfleet's actions are less than brilliant, and a more graceful, wondrous style of music for the shining second half of the story when Picard gets Starfleet's act back together. Sweet.

Best of all, the artificial "duck blind" is a lasting image that seems to exemplify the question one needs to ask oneself to know when being honest has crossed over into manipulating in order to convince someone. It's a question of energy. How much energy and effort do you feel you need to put into your communication? Is it effortless and sustainable, or is it a strain that drains you? The answer is very helpful in guiding one to one's greatest honesty, and in allowing others to be their truest, most honest selves in reply.

The tour-de-force score from "Who Watches the Watchers?" is available on audio CD and .mp3 download here:

The Ron Jones Project
Disc 8 of 14

"Be the change you want to see in the world."
~ Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century Indian spiritual & political leader

"Who Watches the Watchers?" is the fourth episode in the third season of Star Trek: TNG,
now available on DVD and Blu-ray:

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season Three (1989-1990):

Captain Jean-Luc Picard and crew hit their stride in this third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and truly began to shine as only they could. Watch all 26 ground-breaking episodes, culminating in the season cliffhanger that many regard as the first half of the best Next Generation story of all time.

Includes 26 episodes @ 45 minutes each.
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7-disc DVD set

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DVD Extras include 4 featurettes:

  • Season 3 "Mission Overview" (17 min.)
  • Crew Changes (14 min.)
  • Dept. Briefings: Production (20 min.)
  • Dept. Briefings: Memorable Missions (13 min.)
These extras feature interviews by cast and crew discussing favourite memories, cast input and response to character development, and new writer Michael Piller's insights into episodes' story mechanics.
Blu-ray U.S.

NEW for
April 30, 2013.
Blu-ray Canada

NEW for
April 30, 2013.
Blu-ray U.K.

NEW for
April 29, 2013.

6-disc Blu-ray box set

Additional Blu-ray Bonus Features include:

  • 5 Audio commentaries including:
    • "The Bonding" with writer Ronald D. Moore and scenic/graphic artists Mike and Denise Okuda.
    • "Yesterday's Enterprise" with Moore, the Okudas, and co-writer Ira Steven Behr.
    • "Yesterday's Enterprise" with director David Carson.
    • "The Offspring" with writer René Echevarria and the Okudas.
    • "Sins of the Father" with Moore, the Okudas, and visual effects technician Dan Curry.
  • "Assimilating the Next Gen." (HD) 3-part season three making-of documentary (90 min. total), with Moore, Behr, Echevarria, Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard), Jonathan Frakes (Riker), Brent Spiner (Data), Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher), Michael Dorn (Worf).
  • "Inside the Writers' Room" (HD) roundtable interview (71 min.) with Moore, Echevarria, Brannon Braga, and Naren Shankar.
  • A Tribute to head writer Michael Piller (HD, 14 min.)
  • Gag Reel (HD, 9 min.)
  • In Memoriam: David Rappaport (5 min.)
  • Promos for each individual episode
  • plus, all featurettes from the DVD version.

Article & reviews written by Martin Izsak. Comments are welcome. You may contact the author from this page:

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Read the next Star Trek review: The Vengeance Factor

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